Thursday, April 25, 2013

You can't microwave maturity

I hear Andy Arscott - with decades behind him say that. And it hurts. It hurts to young activist people. (I might be nearly 34 and old in my student context but really I think I'm fairly young.) Young activists aka evangelicals. Yes us. I want it. I want it now. I want things to be black and white. Clear cut. And happening, now.

And it doesn't always work like that.

Yet as Paul writes to his protege Timothy (I'm riffing here on 2 Timothy 2) he doesn't indulge my urgency. He speaks to his spiritual son and calls for him to reflect on things and trust that the LORD will give him understanding.

You can't rush REFLECTION. Look in the mirror quickly, walk away and you forget what you look like.

As GK Beale observes Paul's letter is wisdom literature. It alludes to Proverbs. Father to son, entrusting yourself to the LORD that he may give the grace of understanding. There are images to chew on - with fairly obvious messages about endurance followed by reigning.... but it'll take divine-understanding not just Tim-understanding to know things.

Reflect on the pattern of life which is endurance followed by reigning, dying followed by living, a dark Friday afternoon followed by the brightness of Sunday morning. The Christian life isn't always suffering but when it is don't forget that there is harvest for the farmer after the early mornings. And when the Christian life feels more of a breeze, don't forget that there's hard training and endurance before the champion crosses the finish line.

Some things aren't absolute.
I mean some things really are, but not every thing.

Gamaliel, Paul's teacher, said that you wont stop Christianity if it's from God.
Does that mean anything that flourishes is from God?
Islam and Mormonism are doing well...
No, what's true will last - but discernment isn't that easy.
Very little is that easy.

It takes wisdom.

The waking hours in the middle of the night going round and round an idea. Brick walls that don't come down with the first, second or third hit. The kind of things that live with you for months not just moments.

Things are chewy to work out not always neat and obvious.

Questions don't make everything fall apart.

Jesus grew in wisdom. Chew on that...

Wisdom is chewy.
Wisdom is slow-cooker.

It'll get there in the end if you stick with it.
It'll flourish like a relationship does given time, like your grandparents marriage...  because wisdom is relational.

Stay faithful to wisdom rather than faithless with folly and the result is beautiful and fruitful. Incomparable.

And Paul says: Timothy don't get into every theological fist fight.

Don't quarrel like the quarrellers. Don't get down on Korah's level. Just be kind and patient and gentle as to correctly people, as you teach the gospel word rightly.

Perhaps, says Paul, the LORD will grant people repentance.


Where's the Pauline confidence? Where's the Paul who proved and persuaded and reasoned people to belief in Jesus with water tight arguments. He's still there! He's still doing it. But not everyone believed him. Not everyone was happy with him. Not every good start ended well. There are fights worth having and fights not worth having. There are moments to draw back and moments to get in there.

How do you know which one you're in? It'll take wisdom.

Example. When people say - they've got it all today, don't forget that they don't. Timothy, respond to over-realised eschatology not by pinning people to the wall but by enduring your path of suffering. You're not there yet. I'm not there yet. Just walking through the wilderness for what feels like forty years. Rest awaits. But, you can't microwave maturity. The energy of youth is great but it needs to be directed by the grey-haired and the balding.... by the scarred and the steady... by the bruised and still believing.

As Paul writes 2 Timothy 2 it feels like sage wisdom, the activist evangelist in reflective mode.

We need that. Life takes time.

Timothy will be somewhere tomorrow and he can be further on and further up in the days after that. "Don't let them look down on you for your youth..." but don't indulge "youthful passions" and don't pick every fight.

The opposite of quarrelling is gentleness. Quiet confidence. Endure suffering and teach the word.  Be inky. Be kind. Be both. And do it again tomorrow. And the day after. Ad infinitum.

Over to you...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (James K.A. Smith)

Jason Clarke has been tweeting from Jamie Smith's book which is now on my wishlist.

James K.A. Smith - Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation from Calvin College on Vimeo.

Photo: Anna Hopkins, used by permission.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"My thoughts are not your thoughts" (Isaiah 55)

And you can't do theology by common sense either. Or at least, perhaps what we think of as obvious "everyday logic" might be a bit glitchy. Ever drawn the wrong conclusion...

While we're working out where we are someone speaks. With words. The LORD addressing his people Isaiah 55. Assume for a moment that's even possible. Unless we presume there's no god then a God who speaks in a world where people speak isn't so strange. Who is listening? People - people who have committed spiritual adultery. Not mere rule breakers but heart-breakers. Grant that that diagnosis might have some traction. Assume for a moment that that makes sense. Because it does, doesn't it? What's broken in this world goes right down into our hearts. Not a quick answer to the world but there's explanatory power, there's emotional sense, there's logic to that. And it's twisted the way we see everything like a teenager in love or a toddler having a tantrum we don't come at things dispassionately.

Suppose God spoke to such a people. What would he say? Try harder? Shape up? Pay up? Dance? No.
“Come, everyone who thirsts,come to the waters;and he who has no money,come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,and your labor for that which does not satisfy?Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; 
Just an invitation. Follow your heart to better things. Sounds like Jesus. Yes. Simply, come. Come to Christ. Come receive. Come be filled. Come, and, as the next two verses say, you'll be loved forever like David. All gods offer, but the speaker here offers freely. Buy without cost to yourself. Free. Yes, really. No such thing as a free lunch? Actually, no. There is. What's the catch? No catch.

It seems counter intuitive but it's what our hearts yearn for. It's against common sense and yet exactly what makes sense. Why would a god worth knowing need payment from us?

In v6, he calls again:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Come home. That everyone doesn't immediately come tells us that we're not neutrals in this world. We're committed to our causes. And we say: But, I can't. But, I'll be destroyed. But, I'll be rejected. But, you don't mean it. But I don't want to be forgiven. We say it - do we catch ourselves mid-thought... really.
He says: I have compassion for you. Abundant pardon. Forgiveness.

For a million reasons, we don't believe. We dismiss good news as bad news because we love other things.
But he says:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
The LORD says: my thoughts aren't like yours, my thoughts are higher. 
Not Higher as in cleverer. Not Higher as in Distant. Quite the opposite.
Higher as in coming to be right here with us. Higher as in actually making sense.

We speak in the language of transaction and payment for divine favour.
We expect gods to need us to service them.
We expect that the only kind of god available is like the idols we easily turn to.

The LORD speaks in terms of gift, of grace, of free compassion.
At cost to himself. On the pages of human history.
Isaiah 53 is only paragraphs before - in which the LORD crushed the LORD to give us life.
And - Isaiah 25 - swallowed up death in victory.

This news is out of this world and yet getting its feet muddy, its hands covered in blood.
It's like nothing you've ever heard before and yet it resonates deeper than anything.

And, famously, his words rain down from heaven to bring life on the earth. A word that wont return empty but does produce life. Words of life coming from the LORD to his dead and rebel and betraying people who are enslaved to idols and sin and anything and everything apart from the love of the LORD. Words that disarm our "sensible" pursuit of lying idols and invite us to somewhere that actually makes more sense.
  • Common Sense Religion thinks up from man to god.
  • God is higher - not distant.
  • God is higher in his thoughts - as a giver.
  • Which isn't senseless but it defies common sense.
  • Which isn't irrational but is super-rational, really rational.
  • Which isn't logical but is super-logical, really logical.
  • Which makes sense emotionally.
  • Which can make grown men weep.
  • Which can finally break hard hearts.
  • Which doesn't make sense yet perfectly makes sense.
  • Which can draw us out of our situation.
The higher thoughts of the LORD are grace, outpouring love, walking out to meet us.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Death of death and life upon life (2 Timothy 1)

Christianity has lasted - first proclaimed millenia ago it's message is still fresh today. One of it's most effective evangelists was Paul - who was martyred for his part in passing on the news of Jesus. His famous last words are a letter to his protege Timothy, in which he said:
But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
This world-changing message has survived not as a dry dogma but as a dynamic reality in the lives of people who "know whom [they] have believed." Paul calls Timothy to hold on to the "pattern of the sound (healthy) words" that he heard from Paul "in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" not by brute force and unthinking determination but "by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us." 

This is relational and definable, documentable and dynamic.

Norman Grubb reflected in line with this that the foundation of the UCCF in 1919 was a strong defence of the gospel and repeated outpourings of the Holy Spirit. The gospel stays central through a dynamic work of the Triune God in his people.

The heart beat of Christian fidelity is holding onto the good news of Jesus, a message that speaks to every part of life, and is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. To stay with the gospel is a matter of dwelling in the life of God.

What do those who hold to the gospel do? 
Evangelicals (evangel people = gospel people) are known for their activism, they form churches and mission agencies that seek to convince people of Christ, they're compelled by love to do this.

In every age, and ours is no different, people aren't afraid to share their angle with other people. Watch the advice that pours out when a friend suffers or something goes wrong on a wider scale. If the world and his wife don't mind giving their perspective, why shouldn't a Christians speak their mind with proof and persuasion?

Some will reject this good news about Jesus, and others will hold on to it. Paul says - he recalls the faith of Timothy's mother and grandmother who knew Jesus at some point before Timothy. Timothy shares in his family's faith - he has a personal relationship with Jesus but he has solidarity with other believers. The same can be said of Onesiphorus, who sought out Paul to refresh him. A priceless man, a gospel man.

What is this good news?
God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,
Good news from before time, from the purpose and grace of God. Good news of Jesus, appearing in this world. Good news of the death of death.

Paul was a pioneering communicator of this message, confident and effective. Why be ashamed of a message that doesn't just offer to improve circumstance but promises the death of death through the death of Jesus, which offers the holy grail of immortality? Such good news is crying out to be told.

Each generation receives this pattern of healthy teaching and has to decide what to do with it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Isn't Christianity about believing without evidence?

It's a common charge from popular atheists like Richard Dawkins. Christianity is just blind faith and a disregard of the facts of history. I can sympathise with that. Christians can be overheard saying thinks like "Faith is spelled Risk" and talk about leaps of faith which can make it sound like an exercise in intellectual suicide. Jumping into the deep end when you don't know if the water is deep enough is foolish, and if you know there is no water then it's insanity.

Dawkins persistently demands scientific proof for everything proving:
Talk of scientific fact is fine as far as it goes. But not everything can be proved with science. Planetary orbits can be observed but theory of evolution probably depends at least as much on philosophy and history as it does on science. We all believe things for many reasons - sometimes we even believe true things for wrong reasons. We're complicated and messy people, attempting to make intellectual and emotional sense of the world around us. Responding rightly and wrongly to where we find ourselves.

Video: Amy Orr-Ewing - Faith vs. Reason

Often we deal with 'beyond reasonable doubt' - with historical evidence, the testimony of witnesses because most things aren't repeatable scientific experiments. Dawkins approach tends to beg the question, to put the cart before the horse. He's long since decided that Christianity is evil fantasy, and so automatically excludes any evidence that might support it. If you exclude all the evidence in favour of something you're likely to side against it.

We might well think RESURRECTION is an anomaly - Christianity would agree - but it would also say: follow the evidence. Suppose for a moment that there isn't a great conspiracy and the documents we call the New Testament today might just have something to tell us, where will that take us? I'm not immediately asking that you accept them - but just to hear their testimony and then to weigh it.

High profile Christian leader Nicky Gumbel has been on The One Show and in the Independent recently saying that he was a non-Christian law student at Cambridge and then he read the biographical accounts of Jesus and was astounded by what it found when he started to see for himself what they said. Christian after Christian tells the same story... "I didn't believe and then I read the eyewitness testimony about Jesus and everything changed." In my work with students a key practice as has been to distribute this evidence so people can take a look.

These documents, which we can trace to closer to their source than pretty much any other documents in antiquity - and which are well quoted and alluded to in many other early sources, do call for faith but they do it in particular ways. Four of the writers of these documents:
  • Peter writes a letter in which he insists that Christianity only makes sense if it is rooted in historical events, something that can't be said for many other worldviews. Christianity makes itself hostage to history.
  • Paul writes to say that if the resurrection of Jesus didn't happen then Christians are the most pitiful people. He also spent his days arguing and persuading people that Jesus was the expected Christ, arguing from eyewitnessed historical event concerning his life, death and resurrection.
  • Luke says he's carefully researched the witnesses as he prepared Paul's legal defence for the courts of Rome.
  • John says he has selected a small sample of possible evidence that we might be persuaded that Jesus is the Christ the Jews expected.
Sticking with John, the climax of his short account of Jesus' life is the famous story of so called Doubting Thomas. The story is curious because it tells us that one of Jesus' closest followers didn't seem to believe that he had risen from the dead. Actually we see that none of the men were persuaded at first. And indeed neither were the women who had gone to anoint Jesus' dead body. Despite many clear predictions that Jesus would be resurrected John is clear: we didn't believe.

Then, the women and the men (apart from Thomas) met the resurrected Jesus. Face to face with a man who had been professionally and publicly executed three days earlier. Thomas wasn't persuaded by their testimony but insisted on having the same evidence they had had. He wasn't any different to them. None of them were into blind faith but to persuasive evidence. Living 2000 years ago didn't make them stupid or naive.

John, one of those first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus says: "We saw, we touched. And we know that you can't. And because of that we wrote it down and widely distributed this testimony in written and verbal form. We went and told everyone." John reports Jesus saying to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” -- can a case be made that there is a greater benefit to be had by responding to the testimony of the eyewitnesss than by having been in the room that day? Not, blessed at those who believe when there is no evidence, but blessed are those who respond to the evidence.

Everything rests on evidence. This isn't just a vague loyalty to a "god" but belief in the God we know when we know Jesus based on the testimony of those who met him and turned the world upside down with their message. It goes something like these images which I got from Michael Patton:

Those call for "faith" in but Christianity asks whether 'beyond reasonable doubt' you can believe what is claimed to have happened in history...
In addition to which come the world-changing implications. If death is no longer the end then life looks very different. And John says - the big claim is that this Jesus who was publicly executed by Rome's soldiers was raised from death - and so is the long expected Christ who will bring about the re-creation of this world, who invites people from all peoples and cultures to eternal life which isn't some arbitrary paradise but relationship with him and his Father by the Holy Spirit who will live in us.

And that adds to historical evidence personal experience. As John wrote to early churches: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I suppose you could do a scientific experiment on it in the same way that you could carry out an experiment on my marriage - but it'd feel like the wrong kind of way to examine it. There's a knowledge that is more than empirical observation. A knowledge that is experiential. The opportunity to taste and see life in a meaning-drenched universe, an intellectually rigorous, multi-sensory knowing that cuts to the heart.

The early Christians - like those who've come after them - proved, reasoned, argued. And people knew that was what was happening to them. They took the evidence of the Old Testament, the eyewitnesses of Jesus, the experience of day to day life and showed how Jesus can neither be ignored or dismissed. They told a beautiful truth. The Old Testament described such preachers as people with beautiful feet - tellers of good news, the kind of thing that can brighten your eyes, comfort you in your brokenness, meet you with Jesus.

A Christian is someone who has come to know this Jesus - and spends their life deepening that relationship one small step at a time. Would you consider the evidence, read a gospel account?

Pascal's wager says that on balance its better to believe in God because if you're right you gain everything and if you're wrong you lose nothing. In a pluralistic society the question would remain "Which god?" but that's not Pascal's point - he's exposing that we're if we were neutral then of course we'd believe, but we're not - our default setting is unbelieving... unlike Doubting Thomas who was prepared to consider the evidence. Start here?

Monday, April 15, 2013

How do we inspire a whole generation of students in mission, not just the faithful few?

TERRY VIRGO (Newfrontiers). BECKY PIPPERT (evangelist/author). RICHARD CUNNINGHAM (UCCF).  JASON CLARKE (UCCF). JOHN CLARKE (Vineyard). ROWAN PATTERSON (Crowded House) and UCCF's Team Leaders.

The UCCF Student Worker Forum will explore ways in which we can engage, energise and release the whole student body for mission.
5-6th September 2013

Where churches are well involved with the student mission that we call Christian Unions that mission thrives and builds the local church... it's thrilling that we're now able to offer the Student Worker Forum as part of the Forum student conference. I'd love to see any church student worker in the South West come and join us as we wrestle with the challenges of reaching students today...

We will be joining with over 1,200 delegates at Forum 2013 – UCCF’s national conference for CU leaders – in order to share ideas, explore best practice and hear from a host of experienced leaders and student workers as we work together to build effective mission to the universities.

Through a mix of bible teaching and interactive seminars, we hope that you will leave feeling refreshed, encouraged and more equipped in your ministry.

The Student Worker Forum programme aims to help us:
Identify why Christian students feel disqualified, impotent or disengaged in mission
• Encourage everyday gospel intentionality across the whole student body
• Equip normal students in personal evangelism
• Equip a wide range of students to use the Uncover Seeker Bible Study resources
We will also join with the students for the main Forum evening session with Terry Virgo. 

Prices, booking and information:
£69. Book at: Student Worker Forum. The 2013 Student Worker Forum is at the Quinta Christian Centre in Weston Rhyn, near Oswestry - near Chirk station. Accommodation for Student Worker Forum delegates will be at the Lion Quays Waterside Resort. All guests have free use of the Country Club facilities, including a 75-station gym, 25-metre swimming pool with steam room, sauna and spa bath. All food is provided including a buffet style cooked breakfast in the morning.
‘UCCF staff have their finger on the pulse in the constantly changing culture of universities, and I’m certain any student worker will benefit from this conference.’ Andrew Evans, Christ Church Liverpool

‘The chance to come together and encourage one another is not to be missed. There was also a very real sense of unity amongst those who gathered [at Forum 2012], something we’ll need more and more of if we’re to truly impact this generation.’ Pat Allerton, Holy Trinity Brompton

‘In recent years, UCCF has served the Church in the UK invaluably by training and resourcing students for mission. Here is an opportunity for those who work with students to benefit from their ministry too - don’t miss out.’ Ben Mandley, All Souls, Langham Place

‘The idea behind the student workers’ forum typifies UCCF’s dynamic commitment to investing in our generation and tackling the issue of mission in the 21st century. If you are serious about connecting with the culture and with the gospel - you need to join me there!’ John Clarke, Hull Vineyard

‘I have been encouraged by the increasing partnership between UCCF and local churches over the past few years, and I am excited by how this conference might continue to develop that.’ Vic Sekasi, Holy Trinity, Leicester

‘I attended the Forum conference last September and was hugely impressed with the level of expertise in equipping students for mission. I am excited by how the student workers’ Forum might help to equip student workers to help their students to share this passion!’ Tom Shaw, The City Church, Canterbury
Download this information: Student Worker Forum Flyer
Book online: Student Worker Forum.

Friday, April 12, 2013

How can God allow suffering?

"God either exists or he doesn't. If God doesn't exist then we should expect the atheistic explanations about our suffering to be more satisfying than the theistic one. It ought to tune in intuitively with our experience of living in a godless universe. If atheism is to be reliable and useful in thinking about suffering, we have the right to demand that it offers more substantial and convincing answers than anything Christianity can offer."

The problem of pain is taken as one of the key stumbling blocks for belief in Christianity. I don't think the debate is quite as simply as atheism or theism -- because Christian Theism is on a completely different planet to any other breed of theism when it comes to suffering.

The problem of pain is such a problem for us in this area because we assume a God worth knowing would stop us from experiencing pain. It's clear what matters most to us - not hurting. We're raised to assume we wont. When business leader Stephen Covey died last year I saw (an internet) newspaper observe that he was only 79 when he died. We assume we'll live forever.

Atheist buses tell us to forget god and just enjoy life. Francis Spufford retorts that "enjoyment" is too small a picture of life and limited to a very privileged few. Where is the good news for the suffering, the poor, the abused etc. in a trite call to enjoy you life?

The desire to escape pain is understandable and instinctive. But can anyone offer it today?

What does a broadly atheist approach say: The universe is pitiless and indifferent (Richard Dawkins) which amounts to solving the problem of pain by denying its existence.
"If we remove God from the equation, we still have to endure suffering, but not the agonising problem of 'why?' Suffering just is. The human story without God is no more than a survival of the fittest. so, far from disproving God, our "Why suffering?" questions assume his existence."
Our gut emotional response to suffering cries for more than a pitiless world. The Karma police suggest that bad happens to bad people and good to good people - and you might have to invoke evidenceless reincarnation to justify that. England manager Glenn Hoddle was sacked for articulating that kind of view in 1999.

Others suggest that the world is just dualistic - there good and evil powers at war. That's too simplistic and leaves a view where it's uncertain who will win. Another alternative is monism, blurring the categories of good and evil this is pretty close to just denying the existence of suffering, and a Bhuddist like the Dalai Lama isn't able to ignore evil - he denies desire but desires the liberation of his people.

There are many unanswered questions but we need an approach that can take evil seriously, we long for a hope that it can be dealt with - for justice, for liberty.

It can feel painful to consider Jesus in the middle of pain - yet we can do that. We can cry out. It's faith to come with our pain and despair and frustration and fury. Walking away robs me of the ability to ask the questions, and of comfort.
"Although unanswered questions still remain, at a fundamental level the Bible's view of evil and suffering makes more sense of who we are an how we respond to suffering than atheism does. The Bible points us away from glib and simplistic answers... and from the ambiguities of our world to an even more startling paradox. An innocent man hanging on a cross.... Jesus stands in solidarity for us.. but he also uniquely represents God... Jesus achieved all this, not by remaining serene and detached from our pain, but through his own suffering and tears and death. The death of Christ mirrors all those questions we have asked of suffering. Was Jesus' death due to God's lack of power or moral goodness? Why did Jesus experience further suffering imposed by God? Why did the innocent Jesus suffer while evildoers escape punishment?"
In Jesus there is a unique approach to suffering. It's not denied. It's not easily solved. The world is sadder and more frustrating than we want, than it should be. But against the dark skies the suns beams begin to break through. The minor chords are mixed with the major, but one day they will be found only in the memory of the death of Jesus - the bruised and wounded God. The one who uniquely offers comfort, hope, understanding.
How powerful our Redeemer's cries which life in death impart, 
Which open still the sinner's eyes, and pierce his echoing heart!
By faith I hear his speaking blood, his mangled form I see, 
And know, This is the Son of God, whose cries converted me." (Charles Wesley)

Quotes above from How can God allow suffering by Richard Cunningham, available from IVP for £1.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Isn't Christianity arrogant to claim to be the one way?

"Christianity's central assertion is that God has uniquely visited our planet in the form of Jesus of Nazareth and that by Jesus' teaching, character, life, claims, miracles, death and resurrection, he has established himself as the definite revelation of God and the only way for us to be brought into an eternal relationship with God."

"Most sceptics have traditionally argued that these Christian claims are false, but in doing so they assume they know what the truth of these matters is, because just as the phenomenon of blindness assumes the existence of sight, and evil presume a standard of goodness, so the sceptics' cry of 'error' presupposes the existence of truth..."
It's not just Christians claiming to know the way.
  • There is pluralism - we live in a context, like much of history, where different ethnicities and worldviews live side by side.
  • There is tolerance - plurality of beliefs creates the possibility of "intolerance and friction. While some people see tolerance as the only virtue, Christians should acknowledge that all people are made in the image of God and therefore deserve acceptance, respect and courtesy, regardless of their religious beliefs."
  • There is relativism, claiming there is no absolute truth and belief is just a by-product of background.
For all the scepticism - some things are true and many true things can be known. Today is Wednesday and tomorrow is Thursday and I can make plans based on that. Likewise, and more significantly:
We know Jesus was born and died under Pontius Pilate in the first century.
And thousands of Christians claim he rose from the dead and claim to know Jesus today.

An appealing side step is to then say - everyone has a path up the mountain, one for the Christian, one for the Muslim and so on. It claims all paths are the same though the Muslim seeks women and wine in paradise without their god,  the Mormon his own planet, and others seek non-existence, the atheist hates the god of Islam, while the Christian follows Jesus to have Jesus. The Relativist claims humility but is remarkably arrogant... relativising everyone else's claims to just be a path while claiming to be able to see the whole mountain.
  • Is relativism coherent? Trying to protect all views by making them all relatively valid is an incoherent mess. You can want to live in a both/and universe at times, but when you cross the busy road you don't think - both me and the bus, you know it's either you or the bus. 
  • Does relativism correspond to reality? Some relativism is fine but it begins to fall down when it becomes an absolute approach. 
  • Is relativism relevant? Again, there are things to treat less absolutely, and a tolerance isn't so bad. Tolerance seems to now mean we have to say everything is right. It used to mean: I think you're wrong but you're free to be wrong. The older idea is better isn't it? And complete tolerance is really intolerable... no-one wants to say everything is ok...
Relativism can be a bewitching stupor that numbs us to the claims of public truth. It closes down conversation with an apathetic 'whatever' when there are so many fascinating things to talk about. It blurs the differences by assuming that all worldviews mean the same thing and say the same things - when a little engagement reveals that different worldviews are at best superficially similar and substantially different.  Relativism distracts from the questions I want to ask.

And then down the mountain.
Into human history walked a person.
JESUS. Hello world.

Adapted from The Arrogance of Christianity by Richard Cunningham. Available for £1 from Think IVP.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Uncover Luke: A fresh way to see for yourself who Jesus is

Former lawyer, now a London church leader, Nicky Gumbel has said on The One Show and in the Independent recently, it was by reading the accounts of Jesus' life that he surprisingly became a Christian at University in the 1970s.

Thousands more tell a similar story - they didn't see why Christianity would have anything to say to them... then they opened the pages of the biographies of Jesus and he walked off the page into their lives.

For the past six months the University Christian Unions (with whom I work) have had access to 100,000 copies of Luke's gospel to read with friends, using a study guide by Becky Pippert (Out of the Saltshaker).

We've been thrilled with the impact this has had for students and it's great that they're now more widely available. The launch party was at the New Word Alive conference. At £2.99 each (when you a buy a box)  they're not cheap but they're not meant for mass distribution - but are a high quality investment to so friends can be introduced to Jesus. (Buy here: Uncover Luke)

These gospels include scribbled notes to explain key moments, plus links to short videos that unpack the key passages to fit with Becky's study guide and also short videos to respond to key objections to the Christian faith by people such as Krish Kandiah, A&E doctor Giles Cattermole on suffering, Cambridge scholar Peter Williams on the resurrection and from Oxford University's Centre for Christian Apologetics Amy Orr-Ewing on faith and reason.

Start here. See for yourself.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Preacher, how's your ferve?

Acts 18:25, of Apollos says:
And being fervent in [the] Spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, 
Fervency in the Spirit linked to being able to speak accurately about Jesus. At this point Apollos has a serious gap in his understanding, but God gives Teachers to the church and Priscilla and Aquila complete what faithful Apollos is lacking. He didn't know a lot, but he did know enough and with enough life. The Spirit was at work in him. He had ferve! Subsequently:
...he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
The work of gospel ministry is teaching that the Christ is Jesus from the Scriptures. That takes some ability, but before that it takes faith in Jesus. The Pharisees Jesus spoke with knew the texts of the Scriptures but couldn't see that Jesus is the Christ. They lacked the illuminating animating filling of the Holy Spirit.

I've wondered in the past about whether the call to rightly handle the text might not just be about technical grammatical accuracy and expertise.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness,  and their talk will spread like gangrene. 
Right handling seems to be on contrast to irreverent babble. Is it more character than skill? Both/And...

Recently Mark Bailey spent a day with my team and noted in a passing comment that you can't teach people where you haven't been. That's not the same as saying we should live what we teach. We can only really teach what we're living. Sometimes we have knowledge beyond our experience, but that's untested knowledge. And sometimes what we've lived is quite small and so our teaching will have a smaller or shallower range. Grey-haired preachers may have some advantage there, though age and experience sadly aren't always related to depth and maturity in the Christian life.

That surely has implications for developing and training Christian leaders - classrooms have a place but so does shared life. Probably a both/and approach is needed. Teachability more than academic ability. Someone who is growing is better than someone who has amassed information. Spiritual vitality ahead of doctrinal accuracy (I know that can be a false dichotomy but they don't automatically come together either...). Paul asked the Galatian church: How's your joy? In other words: how's your ferve?

Sunday, April 07, 2013

MP3: How to look good naked (Genesis 3)

Last month I had the honour of serving my friend Howard Kellett by preaching at the church he leads, Godfirst Cheltenham.  Here's the mp3 of my sermon: How to look good naked from Genesis 3.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Did Constantine and the council of Nicea invent the idea that Jesus is God in 325AD?

The Da Vinci Code (2003) is relatively harmless nonsense that I stayed up late into the night reading several years ago. The film is oddly less fun.
Dan Brown explicitly writes fiction but he builds his plot on re-writing actual history and that leads to some confusion (and opportunity for fresh clarity).
He has Leigh Teabing say:
“The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”
The caper rests upon casting Christianity as Gnosticism. Gnostics, broadly, hated women and hated physicality... Great Christian leader Augustine was a Gnostic for a while until he found their worldview offered no answers or comfort for suffering - one of the vital questions for any worldview to answer.
By contrast to the Gnostics, the persecuted Christians honoured women and loved the beauty and physicality of this world. Followers of The Resurrected Man are hardly going to be against bodies or to think history doesn't matter. A God interested in physical things wasn't a New Testament thing either. Richard Dawkins mocks but we take it as a badge of honour: the God of the Bible cares about what you do with your genitals.

As Luther later put it:
"A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs."
"There is no colour in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice"
Meanwhile, Brown's initially intruiging story is finally stranegly uncompelling - leaving Sophie with an apathetic ambivalence... if the Brown story were the true story then the world just carries on regardless.
  • We love conspiratorial codes. Why? Jesus tells there is a mystery that he reveals. Good news for all people, classes and cultures.
  • We love the idea of schemes and stories. Why? Jesus tells us history is a great story, with a happy ending.
  • We love the idea of secret societies and inner rings. Why? - Jesus invites us to come and live in the Trinity.
  • We like the idea of a meaningful world. Why? Jesus opens our eyes to a meaning-drenched universe.
Dan Brown has Teabing voice the idea that the council of Nicea invented the idea of Jesus being God.
What's true? Jesus' divinity was the subject at that council of church leaders in Turkey. Incidentally that was a gathering of church leaders from the Middle East and north Africa, with some Europeans - forget Christianity being a Western power-play.
What's not true? They weren't meeting at Constantine's bidding to invent Jesus being God... they were responding to a virulent false teaching coming from a church leader in Egypt called Arius who was peddling a new idea by saying Jesus wasn't God. The council rejected Arius and affirmed 300 years of church history.

Rewind a little.
  • 303-305 it's really dangerous to be a Christian as Diocletian is persecuting the church viciously. 
  • 312 Constantine is converted to Christ - you could debate how real his conversion was and we probably can't know. But far from the idea that he backed a winner he was backing a persecuted group...  
  • 318 Arius begins to teach that Jesus isn't God. 
  • 325 the council is gathered at Nicea affirming what had already been believed that Jesus is "begotten not made of one being with the Father."
Nicea fits with the teaching of the documents we now call the New Testament - which had long since been widely distributed in the middle east, north Africa and Europe - which tells us that Jesus makes the Father known, that "in the beginning was The Word" and that Jesus was loved and glorified by his Father before the creation of the world. A view you can discern from the start of Genesis through to the last page of the book of Revelation. Eternal relational Trinity is the faith of the Bible.
  • Justin Martyr (100-165AD): Jesus is God and to be worshippped.
  • Ignatius- (35-1908AD): Jesus is God. God in flesh. Son of God.
  • Irenaeus (130-202AD): the Son is God.
Each quote and allude to the New Testament Documents... these Ante-Nicene Fathers sound very much like the later Reformers and contemporary Christians. They tell one story: God as Father is who you know when you know Jesus the Son.

Egyptian Christian leader Athanasius (298-373) later observed that Arius looked at creation and concluded that god is the unoriginate one. We however look at Jesus the Son and conclude God is Father. Fundamentally the church has always said God is relational in contrast to the unrelational definition that Arius and others since have peddled. Brown's view of a god who is disinterested in us and disgusted with our bodies sounds more like Arius than the Embodied God of Athanasius. Arius' god and his followers are into power more than service, a lonely community rather than an inviting community, a god to treat with fear or ambivalence...

Questions about Constantine and Nicea are a great opportunity to see for ourselves the remarkable teaching that the church has gathered around - a message quite unlike anything that anyone else has ever taught, a God like no god you've ever heard of. The God of loving community who invites us to enjoy his world with him. Which, as it happens, takes to the other great revelation of The Da Vinci Code... Jesus does have a wife, and he gave his life for her. Her name is the church.

Introducing Athanasius - MP3s from Mike Reeves

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

When I feel like I can't pray

Paul Miller, author of A Praying Life:
What a help to me in my weakness and tiredness.
What a help when I can't see light for the darkness.
When I feel like I'm on the floor and can barely put a few words together.

I can come.

Jesus said "Come, all who are weary..." not "Come, when you're up to it."

Naomi returned from Moab empty and bitter.
The LORD has ruined me, she said.
In his hearing.
In his land.
With his people.

Where they long for the king to come.
Jesus on the tip of their tongue.
Come visit us.

"Jesus, I've got nothing" is faith.

Ole Hallesby: My best prayer is my helplessness.

For me, and for rest of God's people. My people who are with me even when geography divides us.

And empty is when I know this is happening.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Open arms, pierced hands: How and why can you believe in Penal Substitution?

On Saturday I was part of Justin Brierley's Unbelievable show on Premier radio.  Listen here the discussion of What Happened on the Cross?

Essentially Steve Jeffery argued for a multifaceted view of the cross including Penal Substitution while Alan Molineaux wanted to omit Penal Substitution and keep Christus Victor at the centre. Greg Boyd and I offered pre-recorded additional perspectives.

I found Steve helpful and while I disagree with Alan I appreciated and learned from his wresting with the issues. We're unfinished people and I have plenty of questions that I wrestle with too.

Controversy can open up divisions and I'm nervous of that. Controversy is also a great opportunity to gain clarity. At risk of being a Church Gossip Column, observing spurious trends I think it's fair to say that penal substitution has been a matter of some controversy in the last decade for some in the UK church. What isn't! For me, further reflection is an opportunity to hear God and to let big words describe beautiful reality and lead me to worship.

I'm thankful for the bigger picture - for the global church and the wider church in my own nation... I'm thankful for men and women more godly, wise, experienced and thoughtful than me - in my generation and those long past. I'm concerned for knowing God for myself, my family and my neighbours - I want to be a bringer of good news. That has to mean being a messenger of the cross in my life and my words. But what can and should we say? Jesus died but what did and does and will that mean?

The cross is the heart of the gospel message and penal substitution among other facets catches the warm sunlight of the glory of God. From it we can draw lines to reconciliation, expiation, victory and many things too wonderful for words.

Justin asked me why I find Penal Substitution compelling? I find the cross compelling and confounding in every way - this particular facet... essentially my answer is, as the Evangelical Alliance statement of faith puts it...
The atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross: dying in our place, paying the price of sin and defeating evil, so reconciling us with God.
Penal Substitution says that Jesus paid the price of sin (penal) and died in our place (substitute). I find this persuasive not because I want to impose a system on the Bible but because I read it from the narrative of the Bible. Inevitably I'm blinded by my biases but I hope I'm seeking to draw Christ from the text. I believed the doctrine before I knew the terminology saints long before me used.

We could look at Genesis - that begins with the prophecy of a bruised victor, through whom flesh it put to death and resurrected. We could look at the gospel narratives of Jesus' life, and of the gospel accounts of the cross. Or to the story of Exodus - perhaps, The Greatest Prophecy of the Cross. 

Exodus tells of the Father demanding the release of his enslaved son Israel (a relational story) whom he is calling to himself. If the Serpent of Egypt will not let Israel go there will be a penalty of death on Pharaoh and his people. IThe story is penal. What follows is a dramatic de-creation of Egypt culminating in the Passover. That night, as The Jesus Storybook Bible says, the people would remember: The Lamb died instead of us. The death penalty falls upon Egypt's firstborn sons but there is a provision for God's people. A lamb dies in their place. The story is substitutionary.

Paul commentates: Jesus our passover lamb. And Jude adds: Jesus who led his people out of Egypt. The Lamb dies to bring people to the Triune God - so that their High Priest (also Jesus) can carry them into the presence of the Father on his heart (as the ascended Jesus now does!). Free from accusation and filled with the Holy Spirit.

As we read on - into the divine speech of Leviticus - we find every sacrifice pointing towards Jesus. They remain enslaved even in their freedom - free from Serpent Pharaoh but enslaved to the sin in their own hearts - needing a penal substitute who can liberate them once and for all. Every burnt offering, taken apart and consumed, pleasing to the LORD, is a beautiful picture that interprets the darkness of Jesus' crucifixion and tells the story of God's love written in blood.
11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. (Leviticus 17:11) 
Penal Substitution takes my sin seriously and it takes God's love seriously. Both/and. It says love burns against sin - the LORD is jealous for his people, for his son, for his image in this world. And the opposite of love isn't wrath but indifference. It's good that love burns against sin. But it's good too that this love, strong as death, doesn't just burn against sin but wins against it through the grace-filled purpose of the God who puts himself in our place and pays for us. Love burns. Love wins.

Aside: If you teach that the father in the parable of the sons in Luke 15 is God the Father you get atonement-less reconciliation taught by Jesus on the road to the cross... But, the woman, the shepherd and the father are all pictures of Jesus. His searching and the going out to find are the picture of the out-going Saviour who came to save us even to the shame and cost of his own death for us. His open arms are the cross and are where repentance happens. Just sayin...

Putting all the pieces together it is Christus Victor by self-giving love. It's victory through the weakness of the penalty-bearing death of a substitute in our place. Weak and beautiful. As my former colleague Dan Peterson quotes from FF Bruce:
Calvin (not to be automatically confused with later Calvinism and its implications) kept it clear 500 years ago saying
“We do not admit that God was ever hostile to his son, or angry with him. For how could he be angry with his beloved son in whom his soul delighted. Or how could Christ by his intercession appease the Father for others if the Father were incensed against him? But we affirm that he sustained the weight of divine severity; since being 'smitten and afflicted of God' he experienced from God all the tokens of wrath and vengeance."
John Stott re-iterated this persuasively in his The Cross of Christ in the mid-80s. The Trinity conspires together in salvation and the Son experiences divine severity that we should face for our betrayal. The Father forsakes his Son yet loves him. The Son is no uninvolved bystander, he's fully God and fully man. He's Trinity and he's us. His life, death, resurrection and ascension matter. He brings us into his life - what he assumed he redeemed, he became man to make us God, and other allusions to the early church fathers. This is a doctrine rooted in Trinity, in union with Christ, in the incarnation. More precious beautiful things.

Justin also asked me what difference penal substitution makes to my life...

The Christian life is faith in Christ's cross from beginning to end so what we believe about the cross shapes the Christian life entirely. Assurance, pastoral care, care for the poor, evangelism and everything else flow from our understanding of the cross.

For me, it makes a difference that Christ bore the penalty in my place. I don't meditate on the term "penal substitution" so much, but I know what it means for me.

There is no penalty for me. No accusation against me. When I suffer it's not God against me because God is for me. Propitiation - the other word used around penal substitution tells us of wrath averted - it tells us of propitiousness secured. It's the reality of God's love for sinners. He is for us. He loved so he sent. He loves and will always love me.

And substitution means that Jesus has been where I am. He put himself in my place. He became an Israelite. He became a Human Being. He became one of us. He's able to sympathise. He's been is worse places than I find myself. And if he'd do that for me, let me go for others. Penal Substitution offers me a life I could not win for myself. God helps those who help themselves? No - God helps those who can't help themselves. His heart is for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant...

Not so much, My God is so big so strong and so mighty there's nothing that he cannot do... What place does such a theology of power and glory have for any interpretation of The Cross. No, sing more My God is so small, so weak and so loving, he died on the cross for me. There is tender mercy in the love of the Triune God - bruised and broken and yet triumphant.

I'm a son in my father's arms because of what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have done for me. And I live in hope of a renewed world where all sin and evil and pain are gone and where I dwell with my God forever. "...I am his and he is mine, bought with the precious blood of Christ."