Monday, May 21, 2018

Preaching checklists

The other day I was re-reading Peter Adam's book Hearing God's Words, and came across this which struck me as an insightful critique of much of evangelicalism:
Their question is often 'What is the irreducible minimum of the gospel the unbeliever needs to hear?' rather than 'What is the fullness of the Gospel God has revealed?'
Yes, we do that: we try very hard to boil the good news down into one, easily deliverable slurp of salvation, and in the process we lose so much of the richness.

With that in the back of my mind, I've been thinking about some of the criticism I've heard of the sermon at the Royal Wedding on Saturday.  Quite a lot of it was along the lines of 'he left a load of stuff out!'  Which is true.  The Bishop said very few of the things which might have been said.  He left a lot out.  Specifically, some evangelicals were unhappy that he left out substitutionary atonement, the wrath of God, and the call to repentance and faith.  (Some of those, of course, he would have been unlikely to include, given his doctrinal background.  See below.)

I feel like there is a connection between the two things.  I think many of us evangelicals work so hard at coming up with 'our irreducible minimum of the gospel' that what we end up with is a checklist of things that must be said.  And then sermon critique is easy: he mentioned 6 out of the 10 things on the checklist, so this was 60% of a good sermon.

If the gospel is richer than that - if there's more going on here than our depressingly thin gospel outline - then of course any sermon will leave a whole lot out!  That should be okay.  Our checklist approach to preaching and gospel presentation so easily leaves us just listening out for the shibboleths, just repeating the same words over and over.  We should be able to recognise that the riches of the gospel mean that it is possible to dwell on one particular aspect of divine truth in a sermon or address.  In fact, if we understand even a tiny bit of those riches, we will see that it is inevitable that we should leave stuff out - there is more than we could possibly include!

If you wanted to critique the sermon on Saturday, what you should have spotted was that all of the truth spoken - about the love of God, about our being created in his image for love, about the redemptive quality of a life lived in love - was cast within the framework of an old-school liberal theology, in which the emphasis falls squarely on human ability to build the kingdom of heaven in the here and now through divinely guided and inspired effort.  And I did hear some of that critique too, and it was valid and important.  But that these things were said about the love of God, on live television, to so many people: if you can't find a little bit of joy in that, I would be concerned.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ascended for us

At Christmas, Christ took on our nature.  He stooped from his eternal throne and became one of us.  But not just one amongst others; a second Adam, a whole new humanity.  A new beginning, but all from Adam's seed.  God himself in the womb of Mary.

Throughout his life, Christ lived as the perfect human being.  He did in our nature what we would not do, living in faithfulness to his Father.  He did not do in our nature what we always do; he was without sin.  God the Son walked the real life of a man in a fallen world.

On Good Friday, Christ bore our nature to death.  Not just natural death (does the Bible know anything that could be called natural death?) but judicial death, death under God's wrath.  We could not endure it, but he endured it.  In God the Son, our sinful nature is crucified and ended.

On Easter Sunday, Christ raised up our nature from the grave.  Humanity, on which the death sentence had been pronounced and executed on Friday, is raised on Sunday morning to new life.  Having died to sin once for all, Christ was raised to live henceforth to God.  And in him, our nature was raised from the grave.

On Ascension Day, Christ carried our nature into the very heavens.  The eternal glory which he reclaimed is now the glory of a human being, of humanity.  The fellowship with the Father to which he was restored is now the fellowship of man with God.  There is a man at the centre of God's own throne, and in him we all are exalted to the heavens.

Friday, May 04, 2018

The church's greatest need

I stumbled across a website the other day which proclaimed that the greatest need of the church today is a recovery of the historic creeds and confessions - I imagine meaning here primarily the Westminster Confession (it being a Presbyterian source).

Can I just go on record as saying that this is incorrect?

I am a great fan of creeds and confessions.  I have pushed to see the catholic creeds especially reintroduced into church life.  I think that there is much that the present day church can learn from the sixteenth and seventeenth century confessions of faith.  I am excited by a growing emphasis in certain streams at least of evangelicalism on historical theology.  So this is not the cry of a 'no-creed-but-the-bible' sort of person.

But really, greatest need?

The greatest need of the church today, just like the greatest need of the church yesterday, is to hear the living voice of God.  That is to say, what the church really needs is for Christ to be preached from the Scriptures in the power of the Spirit, such that in God's grace the church finds herself addressed, unmistakably, in the here and now, by the eternal God.  The greatest need of the church is to hear the voice of her Lord.

When we read creeds and confessions, we are encountering the church's record of what she thinks she has heard God saying to her.  That is valuable.  It is valuable because the church is made up of sinners, and one thing that sinners consistently do is exalt other voices - and not least the voice of their own hearts! - into the place of God's voice.  Listening carefully to the report of yesterday's church about she heard from God can help today's church to be discerning about whether the voice she is hearing today is really that of the Lord.  It is valuable also because every age tends to absolutise the questions and the concepts and the forms of thinking of that age - and it is a good reminder that God is beyond these things, for has he not spoken to the church of yesterday, with other questions and concepts and forms?

But listening to the report of yesterday's church is not listening to the living voice of God.  And in fact, where it is substituted for that - where study of the Confession takes the place of study of the Scriptures - there we are in danger of elevating the voice of the church to the place of the divine voice.

What the eternal God says is always the same, because his Word is Christ Jesus.  The creeds and confessions help us to evaluate whether we are truly hearing that same Word.  But they can't take the place of that Word.  Because what the eternal God says is also always absolutely new, the Word we can never take for granted, or imagine we have heard sufficiently, or be content to hear second-hand  We need Christ, Christ preached and Christ present.

That is the greatest need of the church.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Thoughts about life

For reasons which will be obvious to anyone who follows the news, I've been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be 'pro-life' - and also what it doesn't mean.  What is a distinctly Christian approach to the ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of human life?  Here are some thoughts, not all well developed at this stage.

1.  The theological foundations of a Christian pro-life stance are creation and Christology.  The doctrine of creation teaches us that each human being is made by God, in his image, and belongs to him.  Life - including my own life! - does not ultimately 'belong' to any of us, but to God.  That is why a human being cannot arbitrarily take another human being's life - consider Genesis 9:6.  Christology comes in because it is, if you like, the highest compliment that could be paid to human nature that God the Son took it on himself and became incarnate.  If we doubt the value of human life, the doctrine of the incarnation should be a sufficient rebuttal of those doubts.  We could also add that, de jure, each human life belongs once again to God, this time not only by right of creation but by right of redemption.

2.  The ethical implications of these foundations are sometimes very clear, and sometimes not so much.  I think that anyone who celebrates the Annunciation - I don't mean necessarily by keeping the feast, but by being gladdened by the angelic news of the incarnation - ought to recognise that Christ in his incarnation sanctifies human life from conception.  We ought to be pro-life in the narrower sense of 'against the deliberate ending of life in the womb'.  But we need to recognise that issues around end-of-life care just are more difficult.  There can be a moral difference, for example, between deliberately ending a life and withdrawing treatment - although both will end in death, and are undertaken in that knowledge.  We ought not to act or talk as if this stuff were simple and straightforward.

3.  To be pro-life is not the same as being anti-death.  One aspect of recognising the sanctity of life is recognising that the mystery of its end does not lie entirely within our power.  Thanks to medical advances, we can often delay death - but whether we ought to do so in every case is surely very doubtful.  Especially for the Christian, who believes in and looks for the resurrection of the dead, being pro-life ought not to mean 'prolonging life wherever possible regardless of other considerations'.

4.  It seems to me that many people - especially, I have to say, Americans - muddy the waters by confusing more than one issue.  For example, in some of the tragic issues involving children which have come up in the UK, American commentators have been quick to equate being pro-life with believing in absolute parental autonomy.  Some talk as if parents own their children's lives, something which I can't accept on theological principle (see 1, above), and some import the distinctly American (but not Christian) idea that the community and the state ought to have no input into tough decisions involving children.  This is an unhelpful blurring of issues, and particularly when it is being shouted across the Atlantic sounds a lot like real-life tragedies here are being used as ammunition for ongoing culture wars there.  (And as an aside, if the sanctity of life means anything, it means that issues of life must not be used in this way).

5.  A distinctive of Christian engagement with this issue ought to be a certain amount of calm.  Don't get me wrong: there should be anger when the sanctity of life is not respected, and there should be grief over individual tragedies and systemic horrors.  But there needs to be somewhere behind that the faith in God who raises the dead and gives each one his or her due, so that we can engage without bitterness and frenzy.

6.  Life is a gift.  It is all too easy to present life as a burden - and then say that you have to carry it anyway, because hey, we're pro-life.  Life is a gift.  There should be joy in being pro-life, joy in honouring the greatest thing the Creator has made, joy in the fact that Christ came that we might have life, and life to the full.  The Christian pro-life position is full of gratitude, seeing goodness where nobody else can see it, the joy of glimpsing the imago dei even in the briefest flickers of human existence and the hardest moments of human being.  Tone matters, because it betrays what is really going on in our hearts.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Behind this heavy stone

What have we buried here, behind this heavy stone?
Why the effort, why the seal?
What is it that we've buried here?

We buried sin,
and death and curse and hell.
We buried wrath.
The end of everything is buried here,
behind this heavy stone.

Is that all that we buried, behind this heavy stone?
Is that all?  Nothing more?

We buried all mankind, each one,
still and dead.
We buried you and me.
All folk are buried here,
behind this heavy stone.

Just us?  But why the guards?
The stone is heavy.  What need for them?

We buried God.
The Creator lies entombed.
We buried Sinai, we buried Zion,
the glory and the cloud.
We buried God,
wrapped sheets around his face;
we looked on it and did not die.
But he died.
We buried him behind this heavy stone,
and placed the seal,
and set the guard.
We buried God.

Well that makes sense.
We wouldn't want him getting out again.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The church in Holy Week

Not to keep harping on about the same things, but Holy Week surely has something to tell us about the being of the church in the world.

Look, Jesus gets some cheers and some crowds as he enters Jerusalem, presumably mostly from the people who have followed him along the way, but the people of Jerusalem on the whole don't know him and won't have him.  The influential, in particular, are against him.  The cleansing of the temple (which in the Synoptic gospels takes place in Holy Week; not in John, but that's another story) is an action which must surely be deliberately divisive.  The Supper is taken with a small band of disciples, but even here there is a traitor and the group is divided.  Even on the cross, a division is made between a thief who sees and a thief who doesn't, and therefore between life and death.

This, I think is what the author of Hebrews meant: the Word of God is sharply divisive, cutting through all the appearances and shams that we can put up.

There are lots of words in the world, lots of messages, lots of causes.  Some unite people and some divide people.  Most do both in different ways.  But nothing cuts through like Christ crucified.  Here is the divine scalpel, which penetrates our individual existences, right to the heart, slicing away me from me.  All the other divisive-uniting words exist within the system and complex of human words.  They are relatively divisive, but they work because they recognise that underneath there is a commonality; the divisions are not essential, the wound is not mortal, the crisis is not existential.  Not so the Word of God.  Here is the Man from Without, the God who has stepped Within.  Here is division that goes all the way down.

What about the church, though?  Many churches delight to be, or aspire to be, at the centre of their communities.  But can the church speak the Word which divides from that place?  We want to serve our communities, but if our service means giving people what they already recognise as good, how are we serving the Word?

Friday, March 23, 2018

Going outside

Reading Hebrews 13 at Morning Prayer, I'm struck by how much I naturally want to be On The Inside.  My guess is that this isn't just me.  My guess is that even people who glory in being On The Outside, out of step with society, secretly or not so secretly cultivate a sense that they are On The Inside of something.  Hence all the close-knit little sub-cultures.

But if Hebrews is to be believed, that desire to be On The Inside could keep me from Christ, who was crucified outside the gate.  I think we read this wrong if we imagine that here in the church is the community where we can be On The Inside.  The church is always going to be wandering back into the camp; institutions and communities as well as individuals feel the strong draw of The Inside.  So we are always called to "go to him outside the camp", a constant movement into The Outside that reflects the fact that our citizenship is not here, but is in another city.

Perhaps not coincidentally I read this editorial this morning on my way into town.  Religion is on the retreat.  But what should be our response?
In the past few decades, some parts of the church that tend to reject the trappings of religion have tried desperately to appear “normal”. But for a generation that prizes authenticity, maybe that’s just a turn-off. Rather than being just a slightly rubbish version of the rest of the world, with slightly rubbish coffee and slightly rubbish music, maybe it needs to embrace its difference, its strangeness, its weirdness, its mystery.
Be more weird.  Go outside the camp.  That's where we meet Jesus.