Full and Empty!

25 06 2014

On our Minister’s Summer School we were invited to reflect on Acts 17 and our society and asked to respond creatively. This poem came from that reflection:

Full and Empty!
Not so far from Greece:

Athenian life-stylists counselling changes,
Jeremy Kyle policing exchanges,
Somebody Hopkins courting controversies,
Competing claims of identity politics.

Idols cast in pixels,
Singing stars into being.
Bronzed Adonis’s dribble,
To Heroes.

Fascination aghast, with wonder, and worship!

Mind, body, spirit,
Finding hearts empty,
Heaven and earth show,
Offering know how,
Flitting through angels, and crystals, and saviours.

Culture and commerce,
Coerced by unknown “gods”,
Playing with satisfaction and meaning and freedoms ideal.

Till someone stops,
and looking at people,
Sees with Spirit’s eyes,
In broken, in chaos, in tears, in loss, in longing,
Creation’s Man;
Come close.
God’s invitation,
Meet Him.

Philemon 1: the Gospel changing lives and reconciling believers and transforming communities

26 05 2014

This evening we are invited not only to read this letter, but see the way the Gospel was changing lives in the first century. For this personal letter opens up a window on an entire series of relationships. It reveals to us that St Paul led people from all kinds of places to faith in Christ Jesus.

Firstly, it is a letter that is written to a man named Philemon, and Philemon was a significant figure in the Colossian church. In fact we know that the Church met in Philemon’s house. So he is a wealthy man. He’s a man of property. And he’s man known for His faith and love for all the believers.

Secondly, it’s a personal letter of appeal, it’s written on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who had wronged his master, by running away with his possessions. And it’s written to effect reconciliation between the two men.

Thirdly, it is letter that reveals to us how the theology Paul wrote about is worked out through the life of the early church. On a church level Paul has already written to the Colossians and he’s told them that: “God forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness”.

And now he follows this letter up by addressing one particular situation:

Onesimus, left Colossae secretly, he would have taken possessions, to sell on his journey and travelled to Rome, with a dream of freedom. And maybe Onesimus thought he had gotten away with it, maybe he reached Rome under his own steam, or maybe he was arrested and imprisoned.

It doesn’t really matter how he came to be there, but what matters is that he didn’t escape from God’s providential plan. Some 932 miles from home, Onesimus must’ve thought that he was far enough away from Colossae to be safe.

If only he had read Psalm 139: ‘If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. ’

How true those words are, for at the far side of the sea, the Lord bring Onesimus into Paul’s life. One man a slave trying to live as a freeman; the other a freeman living in chains for the sake of the Gospel. And a freeman who has become like a slave for the sake of Jesus Christ, and a man who preaches that the greatest freedom is living under Jesus as Lord and Master.

And though this encounter, the run-away slave chooses to place his faith in Jesus, and enters into fellowship with Paul in Rome. Somewhere, along the way, Onesimus tells Paul his story. You can imagine the conversation.

Oh you’re from Colossae, I know Colossae… You know Philemon, I know Philemon… You what?!?

Let me help you put some of this right. Let’s try to sort this mess out.

So Paul writes this incredibly ingratiating letter, to his friend Philemon, he praises his faith and love for the saints, he tells him of the troubles and the chains he is experiencing, he appeals to his old age, and then he lets Philemon have the truth.

Just as Philemon is bursting with joy and the kind words Paul is sharing. Out comes the truth.

‘Though I could command you’, Paul writes, ‘For loves’ sake I appeal to you. For my child Onesimus.’

Notice that Paul doesn’t side step the issue. He could have kept Onesimus with him. He could of simply paid a slave price to set him free. But Paul doesn’t do that, he knows that this is an opportunity to reveal how the grace of God works in our lives.

It doesn’t bypass the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we have to face up to potentially difficult, even dangerous situations, but in doing so it changes us.

For Onesimus, whose name means useful or beneficial, was actually rather useless, but now by the grace of God he is living up to his name. He has been useful to me. He has ministered to me in your place. And now he is useful, no longer as a slave, but as a brother.

And Paul continues the letter with even more gracious words for Philemon, writing receive him as your would receive me, I know you will do this and even more, and prepare a guest room for me as I trust that by your prayers I will be coming to you.

Then he signs off. Passing on the greetings of all the other believers who will be eagerly watching the example Philemon will set.

And apart from the record of this letter that seems to suggest that Philemon did free Onesimus, we have also the tradition of the early church that credits Onesimus as having a role in collecting and preserving and passing on these letters of Paul and therefore being useful not only to Paul and Philemon but also being useful to us.

And we can see how the Gospel that transforms slaves and makes brothers, also transformed society and continues to transform lives today. As people love and forgive and include and welcome sinners back into relationship today.

But I think the real challenge of this book today is what must we do. Are we like Philemon needing to forgive someone today? Do we need to allow them back into our hearts? To extend love to someone who has hurt us, stolen from us, and insulted our generosity? Is this letter calling on us accept someone in particular back into our family?

Or are we like Onesimus, do we need to retrace our steps, to return may be even as far as 932 miles back to Colossae, to ask for forgiveness? Maybe we thought we could run away from something in our lives, but every time we come to worship, every time we pick up the Bible, we’re reminded that we need to be reconciled!

For this is the challenge of the book of Philemon for us today. To live the theology of the Gospel through reconciled and reconciling lives!

The Courageous Faithfulness behind the Covenant Prayer

7 01 2014

I’d like to spend a few moments today looking at the history of the covenant prayer and the faith from which it emerged. In the early 1600s a form of biblical Christianity arose, the Genevan Bible was being smuggled into England and King James Bible was commissioned. For the first time ever people were able to read God’s Word in their own language.

From this new access to spiritual truth came a people who desired to pattern their lives after that of Jesus, a people who prized courage, faithfulness, learning and discipline. These were the Puritans. These were the people to speak to if you wanted something done.

Their religious passion and courage appeared a threat to some both in the established church and in parliament. From 1629 to 1640 over 80,000 fled the state sponsored persecution to the new colonies in search of freedom.

Still more Puritan leaders remained and began a rise to prominence. Following his father King Charles the first opposed this new religious fervour, he appointed Archbishop Laud who set about to stamp out the Puritan movement, and he also wasted money on several failed conquests (in France and Spain). In all these things he clashed with parliament.

So in 1629 he suspended parliament. And so began 11 years of tyranny. In this period the King raised money by imposing fines upon the noble men, imposing ship levies, and forcing people to accept loans at exorbitant rates of interest. King Charles was becoming increasingly unpopular.

Eventually Charles was forced to recall parliament to levy taxes for a war with the Scots. Only now the Puritans were ready. They wanted an Act that ensured parliament would not be disbanded again without consent, an end to the illegal fines, and religious persecution.

Charles conceded. That is until he marched into the House of Commons to arrest five MPs he accused of treason!

Civil war was brewing and Charles fled London with his nobles as the House of Commons raised an army – known as the Puritan Army or the New Model Army.
Much of the rest of the story you know.

Cromwell defeated the cavaliers, the King’s family fled and the King was charged with treason.

So why do I want to share this with you?

This is the political and religious backdrop to Richard Alleine, who wrote the Covenant Prayer. He served as a Pastor in Somerset and wrote a number of religious and devotional classics such as ‘the vindication of godliness’, ‘heaven opened’, ‘heart-work’ and ‘a companion to prayer’.

His focus in the midst of all this political upheaval was on the devotional life of God’s people. Yet, living in this tumultuous time gives his covenant prayer even greater significance. For these are not empty words but words he had to live out.

In 1610 Richard Alleine was born and he lived through much of Laud’s persecution, his own writings were banned, yet many sought to hear him preach the gospel. In 1662 after the restoration of King Charles the II, parliament issued the Clarendon Codes, forcing Puritans to abandon personal and extemporary praying in favour of the prayer book. Clergy unwilling to comply would lose their homes and livings.

2000 clergy refused saying that the only Divine book was the Bible and whilst the prayer book may be helpful aid to devotion it could not be the only form of public prayer.

Richard Alleine was amongst that number. In 1662 he gave up his home and living, the five mile Act forbid him from preaching within five miles of an established church, and so he moved several miles away. It would have been difficult to start ministry afresh with none of the support he would previously have enjoyed.

Furthermore, he faced harsh restrictions and was called before the magistrate several times for ‘conventicling’ that is speaking at private functions. On one occasion he found himself arrested in the home of a prominent MP who cheerfully paid five pounds for his release. In this period of ministry many non-conformist ministers and their families were reduced to begging for a living and survived on little more than brown rye bread and water.

Forced from his home and living he eventually settled in Frome where he taught and preached until his death. He died on 22nd December 1681 and was buried in Frome and was buried in the parish church there. The local vicar, Mr Richard Jenkins, gave the eulogy. Testifying to the excellence of his character, his fidelity and truthfulness, that led to his stigmatization and persecution.

So when we consider these words. Let us remember where they came from, the courage it took to take an unpopular stand for the sake of the gospel, to bear reproach for the sake of Jesus Christ, and still to act with dignity.

These words, which so impacted John Wesley, emerge from a quiet life of faithful devotion and willingness to trust God in all the circumstances of life:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Christianity and the Life of the Mind

1 05 2013

In the first century, Christianity blossomed and developed as a direct result of the concept of the codices (the binding of paper to form books as opposed to scrolls) and the invention of the printing press (in 1450 AD) made possible the Reformation that led to the spread of Christian ideals, thought and debate. Far from being an anti-intellectual movement Christianity fostered a culture in which the ideals of previous generations can be brought into conversation with contemporary cultural and intellectual ideas.

Just a cursory glance at the past will reveal the importance of the Christian contribution to education both through the founding of Monastic Schools (the origin of many Universities today) and later through the ‘Ragged Schools’ movement (a forerunner of universal child education). It is important to recognise that the establishment of these learning communities emerged alongside a depth of Christian thought on artistic, literary, historical, scientific, philosophical and theological ideas. Far from fostering a materialistic worldview that reduces existence to the sum of its elements, Christian intellectual inquiry has opened up a breadth of perspectives through which to learn and appreciate the world in which we live.

The English philosopher, statesman and scientist, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626 AD), often credited as the father of empiricism (the scientific method), observed that ‘a little philosophy inclineth a man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion’. This is a truth that is borne out in Prof Terry Eagleton critique of Richard Dawkin’s ‘lunging, failing, mispunching’ book, The God Delusion. There the Marxist literary critic is almost certainly right when he quips, ‘even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason’. In this way Dawkin’s illustrates, Francis Bacon’s claim that ‘the great atheists, indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling’.

For this reason it is better to offer a positive vision of what we understand of reason, faith and the world in which we live rather than to offer criticisms of a faith half understood.

Christians and Marriage

5 02 2013

A friend of mine recently published a short parody of the case against gay marriage and I felt that having remained quiet on this subject it was time for me to try and articulate some of my thoughts on the subject.

Firstly, I think the case against gay marriage isn’t about the people or our emotions, or even about homosexuality. It begins with the question what is marriage and that goes right back to our understanding of Adam and Eve both being made in the image of God and together their complimentary differences revealing God’s image to us. It is about marriage being about more than just two nondescript or even three or four nondescript people being ‘in love’ but about a covenant relationship between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all else. It includes the life giving potential of children and assumes that male and female role models are both important for the development of children (this is not to discriminate against single mothers or fathers or even single people, being a single parent may be the best result in a difficult situation, but it is not the ideal).

It’s not a issue of equality, treating people the same way despite the fact that their situations are different is actually harmful to equality (which we all recognise). And redefining a word like marriage in our litigious culture opens the door to further mistreatment of other people (consider Lillian Ladele or Shirley Chaplin) with sincere religious convictions about the nature of marriage. Legal experts suggest that even hospital and army chaplains could find themselves in trouble for expressing on a week day a belief about marriage that they preach and teach on a Sunday. Christian teachers will be on the front line of this and despite verbal assurances that liberty of conscience will be upheld there is nothing to protect a headteacher from dismissing a Christian teacher who wasn’t happy teaching this. Atheist teachers have for over a century had their freedom of conscience upheld by law (it seems people of sincere religious conviction will soon not have this right).

Even the government could find itself in trouble as the legality of their ‘triple lock’, to avoid religious organisations being forced to conduct gay weddings against their own doctrine and understanding, is already being challenged.

In Canada and the Netherlands moves are already in place to legalize three-way marriages, in Brazil a so-called triple marriage has already been conducted, and we already have guardian columnists writing in support of ‘thruple marriage’. Once marriage is redefined once what is to stop marriage being further redefined? Though this is not a foregone conclusion nor would I oppose one redefinition on the basis of where it might go next.

I think the so called Marriage Bill is wrong in and of itself because it already confuses the meaning of marriage. In this country the Marriage Bill would make marriage legal for gay people but makes no mention of adultery as grounds for divorce as in heterosexual marriage (and some legal experts suggest that adultery as grounds for divorce will soon be removed from law on heterosexual marriage as its unworkable). This seems to me to undermine the conservative assertion that this is about the importance of commitment!

All told the complex and three dimensional nature and understanding of marriage seems to me to be being flattened out and reduced to a lowest common denominator. So the very thing that currently means so much (particularly to Christians who see in their marriages an image of Christ and His Church) and is so attractive that people want in on it will be undermined by the changes to it.

This is why I just don’t think my friends easy parody does justice to the complexity of the issue here or to the sincerely held beliefs and motives of those opposed to the changes. In fact it impugns their motives, mocks their arguments and worst of all encourages a culture of fear towards those who wish no one ill. Fear is of course the basis and justification of prejudice and the enemy of liberty and freedom.

Straw like thorns!

9 12 2012

“The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day. From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line. Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter. It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.”
– John Donne taken from his Christmas sermon in 1626.

On the significance of the resurrection

9 03 2012

I was asked to write an article for our church newssheet the other day on the significance of the resurrection. And it got me thinking, I guess many of us know the comfort of the cross; we look fondly on it for assurance of forgiveness, freedom from sin, knowledge of God’s love for us. I would imagine that all three of us (Phil, Paul and I) have articulated these truths several times over. I guess we are comfortable and at home with these truths and our congregations are too.

Yet there is Word far more challenging and perhaps comforting in the good news of the resurrection. It is the calling not simply to what Martyn Lloyd Jones described as ‘dead’ orthodoxy but to a living faith. It is the calling to come to God’s house expecting to be thrilled by the nearness, the power and the tenderness of God with us.

So significant is the resurrection that the apostle Paul writes: ‘if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). For it is the resurrection that sets apart Jesus’ death from that of any other martyr. It is the resurrection that explains the growth of the Christian faith from a handful of Galilean peasants to a thriving faith throughout the Mediterranean world. It is the resurrection that makes it possible for us to have, not simply true beliefs but, living faith- a relationship with Jesus.

Jesus said, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ (John 14:23). This encounter with the living Jesus making his home with us, by the Spirit, has been the experience of Christian people right through the ages.

The Welsh Methodist, Howell Harris (1714-1773), described his own experience saying: ‘Suddenly I felt my heart melting within me like wax before fire, and love to God for my Saviour. I felt also not only love and peace, but a longing to die and be with Christ. Then there came a cry into my soul within that I had never known before – Abba, Father!’ It can be intimidating to read of people who have had such intimate and profound encounters with Jesus in the Spirit, but I believe that these accounts are genuine and should give us hope that Jesus has yet more to offer us.

Christian faith shouldn’t be a static thing. It should be a living growing deepening journey as we discover just how faithful and true Jesus is.

Father God, we thank you for the good news of the resurrection and the living relationship we have with Jesus through it. Speak to us by your Spirit help us to know more personally your love for us, so that in our daily lives we would know the joy of true communion with you. Help us to come to your Word and to worship with expectant hearts willing to be thrilled by your limitless grace. In the name of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Hymns and Atonement Theory

26 06 2011

I have recently attended two ordinations where a famous Christian hymn was sung. It’s lyrics were changed at one so as not to offend an intolerant group of liberal agitators in our denomination, at the other I was told that a few of the congregation chose not to sing the line (I did not notice their silence personally). Quite apart from the fact that, out of respect for others, I sing plenty of liberal tripe without grumbling and display none of their angst about this, I wonder how they square their intolerance for the lyric of this hymn with the recognition of the United Reformed Church’s own particular heritage of faith in statements of Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Churches of Christ.

In particular the language of this hymn can be drawn completely from the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration where the ‘wrath of God’ against unredeemed humanity is affirmed (WC: chapter VI paragraph VI, SD: chapter 6 paragraph 6) and where Christ’s work upon the cross is seen as ‘undertaking the punishment due to us’ (SD: chapter 8 paragraph 4) and ‘satisfying the Father’s justice on our behalf’ (WC: chapter XI paragraph III and SD: chapter 11 paragraph 3). Ironically, whilst we state in the ordination service that we acknowledge these declarations in the statement concerning the nature faith and order, it appears that we may not recognise these declarations when they confront us in our hymnary!

A Sermon on Christmas

5 12 2010

“He, through whom time was made, was made in time;
And He, older by eternity that the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world;
He, who made man, was made man;
He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence;
He was carried in hands which He formed;
He nursed at breasts which He filled;
He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy — this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!”
 – St Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.)

Considering ‘Justification’ is Wright right?

5 04 2010

I thought that I would revisit the topic of atonement or more particularly faith and justification. I have for a little while been just that tiny bit edgy about justification as I have noted the war of words between pastor-theologians like John Piper and the scholar-bishop N.T. Wright. Coming from a Reformed position I have always understood ‘justification’ as that declaration of righteousness made on the basis of our faith in Christ’s righteousness. Upon the cross a great exchange takes place as He for us is made to be sin who knew no sin (1 Cor. 5:21) and His sinless record is imputed to us.

Quite frankly the New Perspective on Paul had just passed me by; during my undergraduate studies I knew well enough that I should avoid the quagmire of current evangelical debate and confusion on the subject. However, this didn’t stop me from taking an interest in such an important aspect of biblical theology, nor in the growing debates surrounding it. In recent years I’ve spent more time thinking of practical theology (which in my view is too estranged from biblical and doctrinal theology to truly sustain itself), missiology and ecclesiology than biblical studies.   

I have of course noted the recent spat between a number of mainly American evangelicals and N.T. Wright on the subject. John Piper a man I greatly admire wrote a very influential book the Future of Justification and Tom Wright responded with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. I have also read the thoughts of other influential commentators on this debate (such as Ben Witherington III)

In terms of what has already been argued I am not sure that I will add anything fresh, but as an observer I will say that the debate needs to be put into context. I have to say I sympathise with the intentions of both Wright and Piper but disagree with much secondary scholarship. I find that Wright calling people like the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions and D.A. Carson somehow ‘sub-biblical’, simply because they don’t agree with him, unwarranted. I also find the kind of Reformed evangelical tribalism that wants to denounce and reject Wright as ‘on his way to Rome’ ridiculous.

I have just read a paper by N.T. Wright entitled ‘Justification: the Biblical Basis and its relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism’ and given the range of views on justification quite frankly I’m surprised by how tame he appears – no faith + works stuff, no eschatological delay regarding justification, quite the opposite. He states clearly:

‘The positive result of justification is that we live for God because Christ has died for us. Good works, as the Reformers never tired of saying, are done not to earn salvation but out of gratitude for it: not out of fear lest we should be lost after all but out of joy that we are saved after all.’

‘Justification’, Wright says, ‘is God’s righteous declaration in the present that the person who believes in the risen Lord Jesus Christ is a member of the covenant family, whose sins have been dealt with on the cross and who is therefore assured of eternal life’.

The real conflict in this debate seems much smaller than many commentators like to make it. I suspect the differences between N.T. Wright and the Reformers to be slight indeed. N.T. Wright seems to be stressing that justification is not a means of applying salvation but is God’s declaration that on the basis of the gift evident in faith both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ have already become Christians (and in becoming Christians have appropriated all the benefits of salvation past, present and future). Seen in this context faith does not enable us to receive an imputed righteousness that was Christ’s, but rather this faith unites us to the Covenant people (the Old Testament and New Testament Church) and in making us a part of this we are saved.

Wright believes that ‘justification’ in his scheme does not require drastic changes to our soteriology but raises our ecclesiology (the importance of outward practice of faith) and provides a solution to many pastoral crises which revolve around the existential doubt. It also undermines the growing cult of personal religion (which we fancy to be justifying faith). Wright makes it clear that the cutting point for this doctrine is not the outward practices of the faith that characterise say the Anglo-Catholics, but rather the knife is placed at the heart of those who believe that there can be many ways of salvation apart from the incarnation, cross and resurrection of the Lord of all.

I don’t know how this squares with all that Wright has said elsewhere but as someone from a Reformed Church (albeit one beset by liberalism) and as someone who respects both John Piper and N.T. Wright, I found this very helpful. It can be found at the http://www.ntwrightpage.com. I hope you enjoy it too.

For Piper Wright’s rejection of the personal imputation of righteousness by faith is a serious error that he fears creates a vacuum that may be filled with a return to an imparted righteousness and a process understanding of salvation. Wright, however, does not seem to have fallen into these errors (despite the fact that some of his “supporters” present him as defending this position). What I have to say in Piper’s favour is that Christ’s righteousness does appear to be imputed to us. We are told in 1 Cor. 1:30, for example, that being in Christ Jesus, ‘he has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.’ And to Wright’s credit he acknowledges that this appears to be what is taught in this passage. His main argument is that it is not explicitly taught in Romans… but I will leave you to make your own mind up about that!