Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Enjoying Christ with the Church Fathers

Dan Hames is a Masters student in early church fathers ("Patristics") at Oxford University. We've just had seven hours of training with him.

Church history for a team involved in evangelism among students? You bet. Church history, and historical theology, are vital disciplines to stop us swallowing the assumptions of our age, to keep us humble and to help us see Christ more clearly.

We spent time with the mostly heroic
Justin Martyr and Ireneus, with Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria and their opponents Arius, Diodore, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius.

Of huge importance was considering the importance of the incarnation - for "the unassumed is the unhealed" so it is necessary that the Son took on Flesh, and in healing us he brings us to participate in the divine nature! This stands in great contrast to those in the early centuries of the church who bought into a separation between God and man, to ideas of God being unaffected, to non-Christ-centred approaches to the Scripture.

It's been a refreshing couple of days that has whetted my appetite to study this period further.

Taste this, from the Lenten Triodion read in some Eastern churches on Good Friday:
"Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection" 

Or, from the Letter to Diognetus:
"He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was formerly impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food"
Or, from Cyril:
"And he wears our nature, refashioning it to his own Life. And he himself is also in us, for we have all become partakers of him, and have him in ourselves through the Spirit. For this reason we have become 'partakers of the divine nature' (2 Peter 1:4), and are reckoned as sons, and so too we have in ourselves the Father himself through the Son." 
Some recommended further reading (sadly, all a bit expensive!)
Don Fairbairn: Grace and Christology
John McGuckin: Saint Cyril (Free online via Google Books)
Alexander Roberts: The Ante Nicene Fathers
Any one want to bless me with £100 of books??!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lift the veil and see

Happy endings need the right hero, what only the hero can do. But in the end, 'The Hero' is 'The Happy Ending'. The best story. The mega story, isn't about happy benefits. It will be said on that day,

“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:9 ESV)

We're called to look to The LORD of Hosts but some say, what's the fuss about. His death and resurrection answers death, and sorrow and shame and "the veil" or "covering" that covers the world. Human eyes, minds, hearts are veiled. They cannot see.

But, the LORD of Hosts says as we hear of him, as we turn to him, the veil is lifted and the flood light of the Holy Spirit shines into our hearts so that we might see him. As in creation so in recreation, our hearts are remade to see him.

As a bride walking down the aisle is veiled, so we are. But as we come to our divine husband, the LORD of Hosts who we know as Emmanuel, as Jesus, so the veil is removed and we see the glory of the LORD in the face of Jesus Christ. We see the self-giving love of the crucified and resurrected Saviour.

The great romantic comedy ends with a wedding. 

A wedding in which he says - "all that I have a share with you, all that I have I give to you."

Not words about the DVD collection and the kitchen utensils, but the giving of self to another.

Words that tell the story of conversion. Words that tell the story of "union with Christ".

As in the echo that is marriage, so in the voice that is Christ's love for his people, we gain him and he gains us.

He says, "you are my beloved and I am yours" and our hearts reply "you are my beloved, and I am yours."

For he is mine, and I am his.

The happy ending is set in a renewed world - everything matters - but the heart beat is that of two lovers, today waiting to see one another. Facing the day to day of life, not by denial of death and the sorrows and shame of life, but with a gritty optimism. Honest about the pain and tragedy of life, but not defeated and destroyed by it.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On the first day of a renewed creation

The happy endings we seek in life so often go AWOL. The career prospects. The dream of a relationship. Or, as I witnessed a few months ago, my parents plans for retirement thrown up in the air by a health scare for my Dad. He's had surgery and seems well, but in the week between Christmas and New Year everything was unknown. The future looked insecure. What were we to think then?

To get a happy ending, you need the right hero - and you need what only he can do.

Isaiah tells the story (25:7-8).

Death is the greatest enemy. It makes every story tragic in the end. We say someone died before their time, but every death is too soon. We say, they died well, but death always steals people away.

And with and on top of death come sorrow and shame. Ruining our stories.

The LORD of Hosts calls for a wedding feast but we can't get ourselves there.

He has to open the door. And he did. He walked into his world (as a child, born from a virgin's womb). Lived spotlessly. Lived lovingly, excessively. Lived beautifully. Lived life-givingly.

And he looked death in the eye, and beckoned it to come. He gave himself to death. Life to everyone else - death to himself. Death got its grubby hands all over him. It covered his face. It dragged him down to the grave. The LORD of Hosts, commmander of heaven's armies, taken down. He died.

And the first day ended. The story looked more tragic than it'd ever looked before. Death had won?

The second day passed.

And then on the morning of the third day, death lost its grip. Death lost its victory. Death was swallowed up in victory forever. The seed that had fallen to the ground burst into life. The king triumphed and swallowed up death.

Exactly as should have been expected. His love is strong as death. His jealousy is fierce as the grave. No wonder death could not hold him.

He ate death up for breakfast, and went to eat fish with his friends.

The first day of a new week, the first day of a recreated world.

A personal foretaste of a deathless future. The happy ending that we long for. The mega story.

And as he eats up death he comes to weep with us and wipe away our tears.
And as he eats up death he comes to clothe us as we hide in shame.
The very things that we use to exclude and alienate ourselves, he takes upon himself.

As a writer said, everything sad is coming untrue.

Its not that all tragedies are undone, but that their sting is taken. He died to take the sting we deserved. He died in our place. The man of sorrows was publicly shamed. And those who look to him are joined to him in his death - put to death with him, sorrowful and shamed with him.

His resurrection will then become ours. As sure as he rose, so we will rise.

Though we will die, though we weep, though we struggle and strive, our hope isn't just for this life. Our heaven is not for the hyphen between our birth and death to be a series of comic stories. This world is cursed and we know it. This world is marked by emptiness and frustrations and we know it.

We need the LORD of Hosts who welcomes all nations, all peoples, all faces to his wedding. Not the good and the great but the last, least, lost and little.

Not as the awkward ex-girlfriend, but on the strength of his death and resurrection, to be his bride.
As I waver and stumble, as I wrestle with my CV and my story, with what's behind and ahead, I'm invited to look to him.

When, as is so often the case, my best answer for "what will happen?" is "I don't know", I'm invited to look to him - to build on what I do know. To build on who I know. And the LORD of Hosts welcomes me, and you. If we dare entrust ourselves to the one who cares for us so deeply, what will we find?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

How do you get a happy ending?

Life is story. You might want to say its all meaningless, but even a three year old can see patterns and plots in their day to day life.

Life is small stories and subplots, big stories and big events. Micro-narratives and Meta-narratives.

Karaoke competitions have been turned into stories, twenty-first century soap operas.

Sport is story, with history and rivalry and form between teams, men and women just doing their job become characters in an unfolding story. But will the story have a happy ending or a unhappy ending. Comedy or tragedy? And if the subplots are tragic might the big story be comic? What kind of story is my life or your life?

Isaiah painted a picture of the future to the people of his day and ours, as he searched the Spirit for revelation of Jesus Christ. Death would come to the people and death would come to the nation, but Isaiah believed in resurrection, in another day beyond the last day.

Happy endings need the story to have the right hero.

There would be a feast. Feasts are about food but food isn't just about nutrition and survival. We don't plug into tubes of vitamin enhanced goop. We eat over 75,000 meals if we live 70 years. Some are toast on the run, some are three course meals. Necessity demands the former, but little is better than sitting down to eat. Because sitting to eat with someone is how friendship happens. It's why the LORD came for a sandwich with Abraham and why he invited the elders to a meal after he rescued the people out of Egypt.

Feasts are about friendship.

And this feast will be on a mountain. Mountains are God's register office. They're where relationship is sealed, with Abraham at Moriah, with the nation at Sinai, as Jesus teaches on a Mount, and hangs crucified on another.

This mountain feast is convened by 'The LORD of Hosts' - by Yahweh of Armies. Sounds inviting! But Isaiah goes on to say this LORD of Hosts is our Maker. And our re-Maker, maker of a renewed creation. And the LORD of Hosts is our Husband. Our lover who gives himself up for us.

Isaiah's happy ending is a wedding supper. The wedding supper of the LORD of Hosts, of the Lamb, of the Second Person of the Triune Community. Of Jesus.

This story is an epic with battles and conquests, but in the end it is a romantic comedy. From relationship broken to a wedding. Our today's might be tragic but if the overarching story is comic then there is real hope for a happy ending. Tragic stories are interesting to watch, but no-one wants the final story to be of Romeo and his Juliet. This story of the LORD of Hosts and his beloved is richer and fuller and more mouth-watering, as he who gives himself up for us lays the table with finest food and best wines.

    On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
        a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
        of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
(Isaiah 25:6 ESV)

You're invited to the happy ending, but how can it be possible?

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Video: The Atonement in Hosea: Redemption (Andrew Wilson)

Andrew Wilson kicks of a series at Kings Church Eastbourne on The Atonement in the Minor Prophets, with this from Hosea 3, on Redemption.

I appreciate the way he weaves scenes from Liam Neeson's film Taken into his preaching, noting that human trafficking is probably the closest illustration to slavery today, and that the picture of redemption in the Bible is about liberation from slavery.

Watch the video here:

Redemption from Kings Church Eastbourne on Vimeo. Song: Redemption (Matt Giles)

Friday, April 06, 2012

Video: The Story of Jesus is the Story of the Whole Bible

Andrew Wilson offers a short summary of the Old Testament scriptures, the books that tell the story that leads up to the coming of The Messiah, who it was written would live, suffer and rise from the dead.

The message of the New Testament is that Jesus is who everyone was meant to be expecting - because he is the Christ of the Old Testament. Jesus is the expected Eucatastrophe not some Deus Ex Machina moment

Andrew's 10 minute summary video is a great way to catch the big picture:

Old Testament Summary from Juicy Digital (Josh) on Vimeo.
More from Andrew Wilson here: Atonement: Redemption and here Kings Church Eastbourne

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Video: 5 reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead

Richard Cunningham (UCCF Director) lays out five good reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Christianity stands and falls on this claim. And its a claim that can be tested in the court of history. It makes sense to test the claim and you can.

Watch and think:
5 Reasons Why You Can Believe Jesus Rose From The Dead from Highfields Church on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Sharing the love: UCCF & Student Alpha

The Alpha course needs very little introduction having become something of a global phenomenon, and a tool used to bring many to know Jesus.

The student version 'Student Alpha' takes the same basic, relational introduction to Jesus into a student kitchen, balancing a laptop on an ironing board, and gathering a small group of friends together. It'sone of many excellent tools to equip students to introduce their mates to Jesus and I'm glad to see students using it.

Our friends at Student Alpha are a great partners in our mission to see every student in Great Britain have an opportunity to respond to the good news of Jesus. In addition to my role as a UCCF Team Leader I have a volunteer role as Student Alpha's Advisor in the South West and I've done a brief interview for the Student Alpha blog.

Monday, April 02, 2012

To keep growing I need to keep listening

The Holy Spirit gives the church teachers.

One of the ways to access teachers is through books.

You can learn from books. And you can learn from life. Usually more from the latter, but "both-and" is better than "either-or".


1. The Good God (Michael Reeves)
Long awaited, this book gets the reader right on the most important of questions - the God question. 
You've almost certainly never read such an accesible book on God. 
Mike looks at the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and shows how good they are. 
The Good God contrasts the Triune God with classic approaches to a solitary god, providing clear answers to interact with Islamic and Atheist approaches, and also to root out the incredibly unhelpful thinking about "god" that slips into our doctrine of God, usually depersonalising and debeautifing him.
I'm reading the book with a group of students, gathering for breakfast, discussion and prayer. The Good God manages to be simultaneously light and weighty, introducing us to the God we know when we know Jesus.

2. Good to Grow (Steve Tibbert & Val Taylor)
Tibbert tells the story of how his church in London has grown from 150 to 1250 people...  a story of progress that draws attention to the Jesus who builds his church relentlessly.
I recently had the privilege of two days of training from him on the Leadership course I'm doing - here is a well developed leadership gift that I have a lot to learn from.  
As the story unfolds you can pick up the lessons he's learned along the way and the clarity he's found to help church grow. 
I'm thankful for the way he's able to look at things with clarity and let vision and true priorities govern rather than countless unspoken commitments. 
We have a nation to reach and Good to Grow might help us to get out of the way and start making some better decisions about how we do church.

3. How to win friends and influence people (Dale Carnegie)
I'm an introvert and I'm ok with that. It comes with at least two problems.  Firstly, sin seizes on this I become uninterested in people and curved in on myself. I need the gospel to draw me out of myself - Reeves book is very helpful for that as are Carnegie's examples in this classic book.
Secondly, introversion simply wont do in all the situations I find myself in. 
I need to develop my skills with people - I love spending my days with people - I've deliberately pursued work that puts me with people all day long. 
That doesn't mean I don't need some time to recharge down the line, but I want to maximise the opportunities I have, to value and love people. Carnegie's book is really practical and helpful for how to be refreshing company better. Some of it is incredibly obvious - like smiling and asking questions, but help with even the obvious things is helpful. You might have mastered life but I'm still learning.  
My pastor asked me to read this, and its done me good.

4. Communicating for a change.
Communicating is at the heart of my life and ministry. 
I preach. I sit with people and coach them. I cast vision. Or at least I try. Half the time I realise I've said a lot and not communicated very much.
Andy Stanley stands in the Tim Keller - Dick Lucas tradition of "one thing" preaching, with a freshness that I've found incredibly clear and useful. 
A little like Carnegie much of it obvious - but rarely done well. 
Stanley observes that we try to convey a lot of information that is immediately lost - but if we tried to say less and say it better we might actually say more.
The first half of the book is a story, and the second outlines the principles contained in the story. I think reading Andy Stanley has improved my preaching in the last two months, and if you communicate - in any context - he'll be helpful to you too.