Thursday, November 15, 2018

FIEC Leaders' Conference 2018: A reflection

The FIEC Leaders' Conference is always good value.  For those of us in small churches, it's great to be part of a fellowship of churches that extends across the country and includes local churches of all sorts of shapes and sizes.  To actually meet with people from some of those churches is an encouragement.  I suspect that larger churches also benefit from being made aware of the need in other places.  Just as an expression of real fellowship in the gospel, and a chance to be with brothers and sisters from different places, the conference is invaluable.  I enjoyed that aspect of it this year.

And that's before you throw in the actual programme.

This year Don Carson preached two extraordinary sermons from Isaiah.  Extraordinary in length and content!  I thought the first one, from Isaiah 6, was never going to end - and I didn't hugely mind.  Having said that, the content was hard, or at least heavy.  It may be that, like Isaiah, we are called to preach in a context where people are blinded and deafened.  It may be that we will have to keep going without seeing much in the way of fruit.  The Holy Seed of Isaiah 6 didn't bear fruit for 700 years...  Am I up for it?  Will the vision of the glory of God in Christ (which Isaiah saw) sustain a lifelong ministry whatever the apparent results?

On the other hand, The Don took us to Isaiah 40 to remind us that it might happen.  We can't assume nothing will happen.  Is God still on the throne?  Yes, yes he is.  And the happenings of the world are insignificant in comparison to his great and good plans.

David Robertson led a couple of great seminars on evangelism in the local church.  The second seminar, thinking about evangelism and engagement in the public sphere, was particularly helpful.  I was reminded of The Pastor as Public Theologian by Vanhoozer and Strachan.  I suspect this is a much neglected aspect of the role of the Pastor, and one which I personally need to think about how to engage with.  David suggested that the devil has over-reached in our culture!  By going after gender, Satan has overplayed his hand, and thrown everything into a confusion which may well be ripe for the gospel.  Looking around at the curious alliances which the whole transgender thing has pulled together, I think there may well be something in that.  I think Bonhoeffer's Ethics speaks into this situation.

Of the other plenary sessions, the standout for me was Johnny Prime on Acts 4 and the importance of "together prayer".  Our churches are, I think, losing sight of the importance of corporate prayer.  Prayer meetings are poorly attended.  We can get more people to a business meeting than a prayer meeting!  CCC people, if you're reading this, expect me to be on your back about this in the next few weeks.  Johnny reminded us of Spurgeon's opinion that "we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general until the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians."  Together prayer matters; it might, in the final analysis, be almost the only thing that matters.

The only thing that niggled for me in the conference was the music - which isn't a reflection on the people leading it, whose voluntary service we have to appreciate.  It's just that there isn't a common evangelical songbook nowadays, or an agreed style.  I didn't know about a third of the songs, and some that I did know had had their lyrics chopped about by someone more interested in accessibility than poetry or theological integrity.  And the theme of some of these new songs just seems to be 'our God is bigger than your god'; triumphalism run riot.  I wonder whether it might be possible in future to have different styles of 'sung worship' in different meetings to better reflect the breadth of the Fellowship?  As it was, I felt alienated at those points which ought to have represented the high point of unity in praising the Lord - and I doubt I am the most conservative leader within the FIEC.

But that's a quibble, really, and a tricky (impossible?) thing to settle to everyone's satisfaction.  On the whole, I return from Torquay encouraged, challenged, ready to go again.  The overall message was that there is a lot to do, an awful lot, and we need to crack on; but we also need to ensure that we are cracking on in deep dependence on the Lord.  If that message gets through to the churches represented at the conference, and if the Lord Jesus applies it powerfully to our hearts, the ripples that go out could be significant for the FIEC, for wider evangelicalism, and for our culture.  We'll see.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Knowing Jesus

I am often troubled by a great many things.  The state of the world worries me.  The rapid return of Western culture to paganism dismays me.  The state of the church makes me want to pull my hair out (except I'm also troubled by my own advancing baldness).  I am troubled by my own short temper.  I am worried about my children's future.  I am vexed by a minor conflict I'm having with Oxford City Council.  I am concerned about getting a sermon ready for Sunday.  I am weary because I've not slept all that well (for various reasons).  I am concerned for the welfare of my family.  I am annoyed that the Wifi in Starbucks took a long time to connect this morning.

And so it goes on and on, big things and little things.  Things that really matter, and things that really, really don't.  Things that seem to have a spiritual aspect, and things that are just utterly material.  Some things, frankly, that I've blown out of all proportion.  Other things that I'm pretty sure are more serious than everyone else seems to think.  On and on and on.

But God has said this to me this morning, through his servant Paul: "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."

Now, in context, that is the Apostle Paul saying that he has happily given up every claim to righteousness which he might have had on any grounds whatsoever, because it is better to know Christ Jesus.  But what particularly struck me this morning is just the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Surpassing worth.

When all the complexity is stripped away - and one day it will be, and today it could be - what will matter is knowing Jesus.  And it's better.  If all my anxieties and concerns could be swept away at once, the relief wouldn't compare to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus.  Better to know Jesus in the middle of the mess than to have "everything sorted" without him.  Better to have Christ my Lord than everything and anything else in the world.

Surpassing worth.

When I'm making everything complicated, or I'm going under the next wave of circumstance, will you please remind me of how joyfully simple it is?  Will you please remind me of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

On favouring the poor

Did you know that the Bible repeatedly forbids favouring the poor?

Well, all right, just twice that I can see.  In Exodus 23 God's people are forbidden to "be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit"; and in Leviticus 19 Israel's judges are warned against being "partial to the poor".  Of course, in the very near context of both these sayings there are prohibitions against favouring the rich, being intimated by the powerful, or taking a bribe.  Perhaps the overall attitude is best summed up in Deuteronomy 1:17:  "You shall not be partial in judgement.  You shall hear the small and the great alike."

The majority concern in Holy Scripture, which recurs in the NT at places like James 2, is the temptation to show partiality towards the rich and powerful.  The reasoning behind this is obvious: these are the people who might be able to reward you for your unwarranted favour, or indeed to harm you if you don't show them favour.  Human nature being what it is, the temptation to pre-judge in favour of the great is always strong.

But the other stream is also there, founded in the reality that our God is a god of truth, judging impartially.  Because this is his character, his people are to show the same equal regard for the privileged and the destitute, the powerful and the weak.

I mention this because I'm a little concerned that some Christians, passionate for justice, are accepting the world's (or at least, the Western-liberal-leftish) definition of what justice is; in particular, the idea that justice means favouring the weak, or pre-judging in favour of the powerless.  That isn't what justice is.  Where there are systemic prejudices preventing particular groups from justice, that is something we have to speak against and strenuously combat.  But the answer isn't to invest those disempowered groups with an automatic (and therefore necessarily imaginary) righteousness.

Now all this is about a judicial context in Israel.  But God is still the same now, and his character is still the same, and he rules his Church.  That means that in local church life and in Christian interaction with society there should be a concern for impartiality, and therefore a rejection of intersectionality, at least as it is applied today as a practical programme (as a framework for analysis, it remains a helpful tool imo).

Or, in other words, when we say 'justice', let's make sure our idea of what that means and our picture of what it looks like derive from Scripture and not any other piece of philosophical or political discourse.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The old and the new and the church

We must first remember the general truth that when the New Testament speaks of Jesus Christ and His community it really speaks of the goal (and therefore of the origin and beginning) of all earthly things.  Jesus Christ and His community is not an additional promise given to men.  The existence and history of Israel with Yahweh was a promise.  The reality of Jesus Christ and His community does not continue this history.  It is not a further stage in actualisation of the divine will and plan and election which are the purpose of creation.  It concludes the process.  It is the complete fulfilment of the promise.  It is the goal and end of all the ways of God.  It is the eschatological reality.
Thus Karl Barth (in CD III/2, 301).  This passage takes place in a section examining the nature of humanity, and particularly the mystery of marriage, the meaning of which is revealed only through Christ.  (As an aside, it's hard, knowing what we know, to read Barth's profound and deeply moving treatment of marriage as a sign of the gospel.)  But I didn't particularly want to write about that; just to draw out one phrase.

The reality of Jesus Christ and His community does not continue this history.

This got me thinking about one of the things I struggle with in some Reformed thinking, which is the massive emphasis on continuity between the OT and the NT.  To me, it misses something which Barth grasps here.  The history of Israel is a prophetic history, a history which is fulfilled in Christ.  (Barth discusses the significance of the ongoing existence of historical Israel outside the church elsewhere).  But the church is not just another form of Israel, looking back just as Israel looked forward.  The church is an eschatological reality - indeed, "it is the eschatological reality".

This matters.  The change wrought by the presence of Christ is nothing short of the fulfilment of all God's purposes for the world.  All that remains is for the world to come to see this, and to enter in to the enjoyment of it (or not).  The discontinuity between Israel and the church is nothing less than the discontinuity between the old creation and the new.  The church is not just a community of people living in faith and hope and expectation, though of course it is that too; the church as its existence is founded in the reality of Jesus Christ is the new world.  Everything is accomplished, because Christ is not a prophet but the fulfilment of all prophecy - "someone in whom everything is not fulfilled would not be Jesus Christ".

I'd want to qualify that the church is only this eschatological reality indirectly, in its grounding in Christ and not in its own internal being.  That means the reality can be seen only by faith.  And yet the life of the church - and the church only has life in so far as its life is given by the Spirit through its union with Christ - is to stand for, to symbolise, to make visible to those given eyes to see, the eschatological reality that the old world has passed and away, and behold, everything is made new.

History doesn't just trot on.  The Incarnation wasn't a blip in an otherwise unaffected history.  The death of Christ was the end of the world.  The resurrection of Christ was the new creation.

Nothing's the same any more.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lost time, lost space

The first creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is obviously structured around the seven-day week, and that gives it the theme of time.  The goal of creation in this account is the seventh day, the day of rest.  God rests from his completed task of creation; humanity, by implication, rests with him.  The seventh day is sanctified: the Sabbath.

The second creation account (Genesis 2:4-25) is geographically structured, and consequently we can reasonably say that the theme of the account is space.  The goal of creation in this account is the garden-sanctuary of Eden, the place where humanity is to dwell in God's presence.  The Lord walks in the garden which Adam keeps and guards.

Time and space - and concretely that means this particular day or hour and this particular location - are seen in these two accounts as gifts of grace.  And by 'grace' here we mean grace in all its fullness: which is to say, time and place are given so that in them relationship with God can be given.

And yet for us time and space are experienced as frustrations and limitations.  Time slips away too quickly, and we feel that something of ourselves slip away with it.  "The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us.  And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast, terrible in-between."  Or then again, time drags, and we wonder how it can be so vast and empty.  Meanwhile, we find ourselves in one place wishing we were in another, staring at our screens as if they could transport us to the places they show.  People we love are scattered around the world.  We all have cars, which means we can go places, but instead of liberation that creates a new network of responsibilities: we really must visit so and so and get to such and such a place this year.  We find ourselves bewildered and rootless.  We want to belong to a place, but we don't want to be tied down.

In Deuteronomy, Moses describes the curses that will come upon the people of Israel if they are faithless and betray God's covenant.  It is striking to me that those curses include these verses:
“And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known.  And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting-place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul.  Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life.  In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see.
Space as a curse - the land of other nations, with not so much as a place to put down your foot.  Time as a curse - longing for night during the day, and for morning in the night.  What Moses is describing here is just life, fallen life.  Life outside Eden.

Until the redemption of creation, this is going to be our experience.  But I have been thinking about what we might do, as Christian communities, to find time and space as a source of blessing again.  Sabbath, of course, whatever that might look like for us.  (Can I suggest that it needs to be communal if it's to be anything - which is naturally difficult in a world which never stops.  We will need strong church cultures of rest here).  And perhaps a commitment to be present, to be here.  Did it ever occur to you that the biggest encouragement you can be to Christian brothers and sisters on a Sunday is just turning up to church?  Being there matters.

One day our time will be caught up into God's time, and our space will be sanctified again by God's direct presence.  Until then, we can enjoy God's good provision best by living as witnesses to the fact that in Christ this is already so.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Thoughts on Holy Communion for evangelicals

1.  There is a real danger that in our strong desire to put some distance between us and Rome we devalue the sacraments in general and the Eucharist in particular.  In particular, to avoid a mechanical approach to grace we can end up denying that the Supper is a means of grace at all.  This is not the position of our Protestant forebears, nor is it sustainable from Scripture.

2.  Whilst we're pretty hot on the Supper as a memorial ("Do this in remembrance of me"), I think we are less good on the Supper as a participation together in Christ.  Maybe it's because at this point we hit something we can't quite explain: how is this bread and wine a sharing in Christ's body and blood?  My guess is a) we probably don't need to explain it so much as experience it and b) there are some useful parallels in 1 Corinthians 10 that will help us to think it through, especially the parallel with "Israel according to the flesh" which participates in the altar by eating the sacrifices.  I've written about this before.  I take it that this means primarily that by eating from the sacrifice together the Israelites were enjoying the benefit of the sacrifice - namely, fellowship with God.  As we together feed on Christ by faith as he is represented in the bread and wine, we enjoy together the fruit of his sacrifice: relationship with God and with each other.

3.  The words "each other" are pretty important.  Paul's warning that a person ought to examine themselves before taking the Supper have often been, for me, the occasion for uncomfortable introspection.  Is my heart right?  Am I eating and drinking worthily?  But now it seems to me that the context is against this interpretation.  The problem in Corinth is that the rich are eating a leisurely and satisfying meal while the poor arrive late and go without.  For Paul, this is a blaspheming of the Supper; in fact, it is not the Lord's Supper at all.  It can't be, because it doesn't fit.  How can we selfishly celebrate a meal which commemorates the Lord's great self-sacrifice?  It empties the meal of its meaning by contradicting it.  But note that the point is not: examine yourself to see whether you are internally ready to partake.  The point is: check yourself to see whether you are recognising the body, the community for which Christ died, and celebrating appropriately.

4.  In terms of practice, I suspect the standard evangelical approach to Communion is a bit too 'head down, keep quiet, me and Jesus'.  How do we reflect the communal nature of this meal?  How does our practice reflect the fact that because we partake of one loaf we are one body?  Last week at CCC we took Communion together seated around a table, facing each other, with a time of open prayer for people in the church, our mission partners, and the church universal.  It was good.

5.  I have questions about the intersection of objective and subjective in Holy Communion.  I wonder whether we often lay a great deal too much stress on how Communion makes us feel.  It seems to me that Paul sees the sacrament as something much more objective - a proclamation of Christ's death.  There is, of course, subjectivity; each individual eats!  But I don't see too much emphasis on how the Supper makes us feel in the NT.

6.  On the subject of proclamation, Paul does seem to think that the Supper is a sermon in itself.  I don't think it needs to be surrounded by lots of words, just enough to make it clear what we're remembering and celebrating.

7.  I wonder if our emphasis on memorial sometimes misses out the formative aspect of Communion.  Back to ancient Israel: the remembering and the celebrating together was what continually re-formed the people as the people of Yahweh, the people of the Exodus and the Covenant.  I think as we gather around the Communion table we are re-formed as the people of the cross and the resurrection.

8.  If the Supper is (one of) the means by which God communicates his grace, the way in which we enjoy fellowship in the fruits of Christ's sacrifice, and the way in which we are re-formed as the people of God, I can't see why we wouldn't celebrate it as often as possible.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

10 thoughts on baptism for baptists

1.  In the NT, baptism is not (part of) the answer to the question 'what should I do now that I have become a Christian?'  Rather, it is (part of) the answer to the question 'how do I become a Christian?'  See, for a paradigm, Acts 2 and the response to Peter's Pentecost sermon.  That means, amongst other things, that if we deny or delay baptism in a particular case because we are waiting to see more evidence of Christian living, we are very much expecting the cart to move without the horse.  It ain't right.

2.  When we use language like 'just symbolic', as if that could be opposed to something more 'real' and 'substantial', we fail to understand that all of human life is lived by means of symbols.  This is especially true of the Christian life, the substance and reality of which are not to be found in the individual believer, in the church, or indeed anywhere in all this earthly world, but are rather seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places - which is to say, the reality and substance is Christ himself.

3.  We can't rebaptise people.  It's not on.  If you are really convinced that the baptism of an infant is not valid (on which, see below), we need to say that the person has not been baptised, and therefore this is their first, one and only, baptism.  "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."

4.  When we frame baptism as the first step of obedience after conversion, rather than as a part of conversion, we are in danger of tying ourselves in knots over the validity of baptism in any particular case.  Suppose someone is baptised at 14 on profession of faith.  At 17, they have what they interpret as a conversion experience and request baptism, because their first baptism did not follow faith and was therefore not valid.  Should we baptise them (again)?  At 20, at University, they realise that they've only now really owned the faith for themselves rather than living in the shadow of their parents' faith.  Should their University church now baptise them (again)?  What if they backslide in the years following Uni, and return to the church sensing that this is their real conversion - another baptism?  I hope the answer in every case would be no!  But can our theology of baptism support this answer?

5.  If we distinguish between the validity of a sacrament and its ideal form, we can make some sense of this.  Ideally, baptism takes place at the point of repentance and faith; this is the pattern of Acts, and makes most sense of the incorporation-into-Christ-in-his-death imagery of baptism.  But where it happens years before or years after repentance/faith, it can still be a valid ordinance.  I'm not sure there is much more required for the validity of the sacrament than baptism into the Triune name, with the intention of teaching the baptised person to obey all that Christ commanded (Matt 28).  For this reason, I think we ought to accept infant baptism as valid albeit irregular baptism.

6.  A less individualistic view of baptism would help us.  Too often we make baptism a Pelagian ordinance: the reason we don't baptise babies is because everything is suspended on the choice of the individual!  There is some truth to this - we, I think rightly, ordinarily expect the baptised to understand what they are doing to some extent, and to desire baptism.  But this doesn't mean it is just down to the individual to decide whether they should be baptised, or down to the individual to decide whether their baptism was valid.  The church has a commission to baptise, and it is down to the church to decide if someone is ready for baptism, and to acknowledge the baptism of individuals.

7.  I think one of the reasons the apostle Paul regularly points people back to their baptism as constituting their identity is because baptism is an objective, tangible thing.  We are in danger of undermining this when we make baptism all about the individual's state of heart and mind.  Baptism is about Christ.  Therefore, the person baptised can look back at their baptism and see Christ at work.  Of course their faith is necessary, but this is exactly how they exercise faith in the present: to remember that they are baptised.  I think people baptised as infants can still be encouraged to exercise this sort of faith.

8.  Because baptism isn't primarily about the individual but about Christ, we shouldn't require people to deliver a testimony at their baptism.  Their entry to the water is testimony enough.

9.  Because baptism is into Christ, and therefore into his body, everyone who is baptised should be enrolled as a church member as a direct result.

10.  Nobody should be taking Holy Communion if they haven't been baptised.  Get born, then eat food.  This is the consensus of the Church from earliest times: "But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptised into the name of the Lord."  If you think someone is ready to take Communion, they are ready to be baptised.  Do that first.