Saturday, November 28, 2009

Love and Security

If it is true that perfect love drives out fear (and the Scripture cannot be broken!) then I am sure it is also the case that lingering fear drives out love.

This is a fairly obvious reflection on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. So much unloving behaviour flows from my felt need to protect myself and my own reputation. I need to look out for number one - how can I possibly have time for being loving? Even resentment or irritability can be traced back to fear about my own identity or the way others perceive me. By reckoning up the wrongs others have done me and meditating on them - which is resentment - I am really just reinforcing my sense of having been in the right myself. By reacting instantly with anger to the slightest crossing of my own will - which is irritability - I reinforce my sense of being at the centre of the universe.

I would need to be so secure, so totally certain that I didn't need to look out for myself, to love in the way the Scripture demands. I would need to really believe that my identity is secure in Christ. I would need to be sure that God sees me truly and loves me unconditionally.

It reminds me a bit of Luther. Luther argued that mediaeval Catholicism had got people so busy chasing after their own justification that they were not able to love others. The money that should have gone to the poor went on indulgences; time that should have been devoted to service of others was wasted in pilgrimages. The Church had people so busy chasing righteousness that they didn't have time to be righteous! If justification were given by grace, on the other hand, and received only by faith - why, then people could be free to live a life of love.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How happy should I be?

We've been pondering love at church recently, working through 1 Corinthians 13. I've been challenged, rebuked and a little encouraged. It's been good.

Thinking through love, I think it's significant that the Bible doesn't exactly give us a definition of what love is. I suspect love is just too multifaceted a thing to be neatly defined. Instead, it offers us a model of love: the love of God for humanity, shown in Christ. What God does in Jesus - that's love.

It seems to me that one facet of love that we can see in Christ could be summarised like this: love is opening yourself up to the other, to the extent that your happiness depends on their good. In other words, love means I can't be happy unless the other person is prospering. Love is not the opposite of self-interest, but is extending self-interest to embrace and include other people. I want to be happy - that's natural; I can't be happy unless others are doing well - that's love.

Manifestly, people are not doing well in our world. So, how happy should I be?

Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering. Wasn't that because he loved the world, and pegged his own happiness to the good of the world? Through free love, God freely admitted his creation into his concern, and freely determined not to be happy without his creation.

My question is: was Jesus a man of sorrows so that I don't have to be, or was he a man of sorrows to show me what I ought to be?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sermon on the Mount: Impossible Ethics?

"You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48).

That is what you might call a tall order in the realm of ethics. In fact, the more you look at it the more the whole Sermon on the Mount smacks of (hopeless) idealism. Can anyone really do all this stuff? Is it even reasonable to ask?

The history of the interpretation of the Sermon is intriguing. There is a long tradition of avoiding its demands, toning them down to make them possible, or perhaps less universally binding than they appear to be at first glance. Especially in the established churches - from Constantine onwards - it has been usual to argue that the Sermon provides ethics for Christians in their private lives, but not in the public sphere, for example. Or it has been argued, in Lutheran fashion, that the Sermon represents Law (not Gospel), and is therefore only really designed to show us how far short we fall. It has tended to be radical movements - not all of them at all orthodox - which have taken the demands of the Sermon at face value. Sometimes this has led to thorough-going legalism, of which Tolstoy is a prime example, but not always. Sometimes it has led to radical Christian living.

It is worth observing two things about the structure of the Sermon. Firstly, it has at its centre the Lord's Prayer. Everything else seems to have been deliberately arranged around this prayer. I think Matthew intends us to see the sort of life Jesus describes in the Sermon as achievable, but only as the answer to the prayer: "your will be done on earth". The life of prayer comes before the life of radical obedience, and the latter is impossible without the former. Challenging. Moreover, the prayer assumes a relationship - God is "our Father" - into which we can only enter through Christ. Union with him, and relationship with the Father through him, is the sine qua non of the life of obedience.

Secondly, there are two passages in the Sermon, at roughly equal distance from the centre, which confirm this approach. In 5:13-16, Jesus describes the disciples as the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, a lighted lamp. Because they are all these things, they are to let their light shine before others, so that they may see their good works and glorify God. But it is clear that the good works emanate from a previous change in their existence, just as the light comes from the lamp having been lit by someone. Similarly, but from the opposite perspective, in 7:15-20 false prophets are to be recognised by their works - "a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit". But the fruit does not make the tree healthy or diseased. That comes first.

So the Sermon demands radical obedience on the basis of a radical change that has happened to Christians and a radical prayer which invites God's action in their lives. If it looks impossible to me, am I perhaps thinking only in my own strength? Have I ceased to pray?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Sermon on the Mount: Jesus and Law

Does Jesus abolish the Law? It would seem so: in some of the antitheses, those parts of the Sermon which are structured along the lines of "you have heard... but I say...", Jesus appears to contradict the OT - on oaths (5:33-37), for example, or on retaliation (5:38-42). What is more, the very form of this section seems to set Jesus' authority over against the Law. The Law said that, but now I say this. Even where Jesus is clearly teaching an intensification of the Law, it would be easy to see the way in which he does this - by his own personal authority - as undermining the Law. Is Jesus, perhaps, the New Moses, come to give a New Law in place of the old?

Does Jesus require his followers to keep the Law? It would seem so: 5:19 states that "anyone who relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven". Jesus appears to uphold the authority of the Law, and is clear that nothing can be taken away from it. In many of the antitheses he appears to be arguing against a false or shallow interpretation of the Law rather than the letter of the Law itself. Is Jesus, perhaps, a Jewish Reformer, come to restore the proper reading and practice of the Law by destroying false interpretations?

The answer must be that neither of the above is quite right. We need to read the Sermon as part of the Matthew's gospel, and the big point of Matthew's gospel is that Jesus fulfills the OT. He fulfills it in all sorts of ways: the gospel contains allusions to Moses (40 days and nights of fasting, 4:1), Elijah (multiplying food, 14:13f), the Exodus (2:15 amongst many others), Sinai (17:1-13, which also has echoes of Daniel's Son of Man), David (21:1f) and many others. Not all the allusions are precise, and they are not usually meant to be read in simplistic terms, like "Jesus is the new Moses/David/Israel" etc. Rather, by scattering a wide variety of allusions to Israel's history throughout his gospel Matthew makes the big picture claim that Jesus is the climax of the history of Israel, and the beginning of a new Israel - an Israel which begins with the salvation of the remnant of old Israel - gathered around himself.

And here in the Sermon we find Jesus saying "do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (5:17). The Law is, as far as Matthew is concerned (and Matthew could surely only have got this idea from Jesus), on a par with the Prophets. Both are fulfilled in him. He is the climax of everything they were about, the one who brings them to their intended end - in the teleological sense. Does the law pass away? No more than the prophets pass away! But both have reached that point in their existence where they can be, if you like, tied off. This is the conclusion. Henceforth, it is not the Law that defines our ethics, any more than it is the Prophets who define our expectation. It is Christ, and the Law and the Prophets as they reach their climax in him.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Sermon on the Mount: Who Listens?

Been reading a lot in and about the Sermon on the Mount this week, for essay purposes. Thought I'd share a few thoughts in this direction...

Who is the Sermon on the Mount preached to? What is the intended audience?

Matthew 5:1 indicates that the disciples are the main audience. Jesus takes his seat on the mountain, waits for his disciples to join him, and then opens his mouth to teach them. That means the demands Jesus makes are for his followers. This is kingdom ethics, gospel ethics - not a general ethic for the world at large. That makes sense - as far as Matthew is concerned, the teaching in the Sermon is part and parcel of the preaching of the gospel. (Note the parallelism of teaching and proclaiming in 4:23). So we shouldn't expect this ethical discourse to be immediately applicable to everyone.

On the other hand, 7:28 indicates that the crowds heard Jesus' teaching, and reacted with astonishment. Doubtless this is deliberate on the part of Jesus - he is very capable of taking the disciples aside for private teaching when he wants to. Again, the preaching of this way of life is part of the preaching of the gospel. It is meant to be attractive (or repellent!) to the curious spectator. Like the gospel generally, it either draws people in or drives them away. This also has the effect of making it possible for people to measure the disciples' conduct against Jesus' ideal. No doubt this too is deliberate and planned. My lifestyle is meant to preach.

Probably the last group I'd want to mention weren't part of Jesus' audience originally, but they could be part of Matthew's (and therefore of Jesus' secondarily). I mean the hypocrites the Sermon makes regular mention of. They probably weren't on the mountain to hear their condemnation. But now as we read the Sermon we are invited to ensure that we are not in this latter group.

Where am I today? Following, spectating, play-acting?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The gospel: a good idea?

Really interesting discussion going on over at Glen's blog. You should go read the original post, and the comments thread. Raises hard questions, like:

1. Is the gospel a worldview? I would argue that the gospel is the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection - in other words, that the reason we call first four books of the NT 'gospels' is that this is what they are! In that sense, the gospel is not a worldview. I think that's important - a worldview is made up of lots of other things beside story (see The New Testament and the People of God, at length!), but it is the story of Jesus that constitutes the proclamation of good news. Only in a story - rather than a general discussion of what the world is like - can we hear about something that has been accomplished for us, by someone else.

2. Is the gospel logical? Can it be presented logically? I suppose I'd want to recast this question. A worldview can be logical or not, can be presented logically or not - a story is judged on different criteria, primarily (if it purports to be a story about history) the criterion of reference: did this actually happen? Still, the gospel story presupposes and entails a worldview, so can we talk about that being logical? I think the gospel-worldview is logical if and only if the gospel story is true. Therefore, I think we must take people to the story of Jesus rather than to the worldview if we are to make a convincing argument.

3. Can we do natural theology? Is there such a thing as general revelation? Nein. 'Nuff said.

4. Does this entail a 'super-spiritual' way of looking at the gospel? Does it mean the gospel is something totally different from every other message in the world? No, and yes. Not 'super-spiritual', but certainly God entering his creation is a unique event which cannot be compared to or ranked alongside anything else! So can we compare the gospel-worldview to another worldview? In one sense, yes: we can see what each has to say on different topics. But in another sense, no: we cannot, by comparison, work out which is more likely to be true. The truth of the gospel-worldview is dependent on the truth of the gospel story. And that cannot be received or believed without God opening blind eyes by the Spirit.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Materialism and Education

Lord Mandelson annoyed me this morning. I know, I know, if he bugs me that much I should just stop returning his calls, but what can I say? He is a Peer of the Realm at the end of the day, and the attention is flattering.

Or it's possible I just read this story on the BBC. I forget.

Anyway, the gist of it is that HM Government believe that University education should be tailored more towards the needs of the economy. "University research", says the BBC article, "needed to be concentrated on providing economic benefits". Not only so, but Universities themselves should run in a more business-like fashion. Thus Mandy on students: "They are paying customers, they need to be given much fuller information about what they can expect to get back from their courses". Of course, this is quite consistent with other gov't policies, like the EMA, on which you should not get me started or I will not stop until I am literally foaming at the mouth and casting around for the nearest MP of ministerial rank into whom I can sink my rabies-infected fangs. Ahem. The point is, as far as our gov't is concerned, education is all about the bottom line. Because they expect everyone else to think so too, they have to pay people to go to school.

It is all very depressing if, like me, you are someone who believes that education is not ultimately about fuelling the capitalist machine. I really do think learning is its own benefit, and that the main role of education is as a vehicle of culture. But I guess culture doesn't pay.

I suspect this highlights a particular weakness of the Left. Although Marx is now very firmly in the background for most European socialist types, and certainly way way back for "New" Labour, his philosophy still stands at the foundation of all their thought. That means materialism. It means a commitment to reading everything in terms of material wealth. It's a very monotone way of viewing the world.

And it means, ironically, that the Left is more committed to preparing young people to be a cog in the machine than the Right ever has been.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Protecting Ourselves

Just off the back of yesterday's thought...

Churches put together creeds and confessions of faith to protect themselves. It's right that they should do that, absolutely right. These summaries of the truth, often forged in the struggle against serious error, can help to keep us thinking and believing right.

But I wonder if they don't sometimes end up protecting us against... God?

When my favourite confession, or favourite formulation of a particular doctrine, is questioned on Biblical grounds, how do I react? Am I open to hearing God's voice in Scripture, or has my doctrinal construct shut up my ears?

I guess sometimes we need to take some risks - let our guard down and try to hear afresh what God is saying, rather than the (important!) second-hand version that we have in our confessions. If God really speaks, is this a risk at all?