Saturday, December 31, 2016

Post-truth: a post-script to 2016

1.  There are no facts that are not embedded in, and dependent upon, wider stories.  It is not that isolated facts don't communicate the whole truth; it is that they communicate literally nothing.  If they seem to communicate, it is only because they carry with them unnoticed shreds of story, or because they are already a part of a story you know and believe in.

2.  In a culture where each person is encouraged to see their life as their own personal story, to be written as they choose, an overarching narrative that goes beyond 'everyone can be who they want to be' is impossible.

3.  That each person can be whoever and whatever they want to be is the lying story which we incorporate into all our children's films, presumably because we can't think of anything better to say.  But adults who still believe this story are surely to be pitied.

4.  In fact, this story is no story at all.  A story adds meaning, but this story negates meaning.  Within it there are no characters, because there is not even a shared world.  It is in principle impossible for us to interact with each other, because we are not characters but authors, writing private stories.

5.  Two things prevent us from actually living in this absurd state: the physical world, which is a given we can't easily deny (hence natural scientists are anchored, and tend to think post-modernity is nonsense, albeit often collapsing into a naive realism); and our own sense that we are not actually in control (reinforced by things that happen within our lives).

6.  Still, given we've spent the best part of two centuries as a culture arguing that there is no truth beyond my own personal sense of what is coherent with my life story as I like to tell it, it's a little bit rich for us to complain about living in a post-truth world.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Story

We are about to tell the story again.  You know, the story of The Girl Who Met an Angel.  The tale of The Shepherds and the Sky-full of Song.  The Little Donkey Story.  The Princely Presents.

Every year we tell the story.  For most of us, whether consciously or not, this story has been a big part of our story.  For some of us it is at the heart of our story; it would be one of the first stories we told to explain who we are.  For others it is background, barely noticed cultural wallpaper, a childhood memory.  But the story is still there.

Some of us will fret over the story telling.  For some the telling itself is a problem: the spreading of a dangerous myth.  Others will ask the truth question: how much of this story is real?  Could we draw a line on a map from where we are now to the place this story happened?  Can we count the years since the angels sang?  Is it a true story?  For others that question is answered, one way or another.  For some of those the story has become a collection of facts, something to get right at all costs (it doesn't actually say anything about a stable, you know...)  For some, the lack of truth makes the story safe, something that happened in fairyland, a children's tale that doesn't touch us.

One way or another, we all ask how to fit this story into our stories (or how to keep it out).

But what if this story really is The Story?  What if it doesn't want to be fitted into our stories?  What if we are just supporting characters in The Story That Contains All The Stories?

What if the song the angels sang in the sky above Bethlehem was the exact same song they sang when the first stars twinkled into existence - just another verse?  What if they are still singing that song now, and will sing it when the Bethlehem-Baby comes as Judge of All?  What if The Story stretched from the past when there was only the Three, and into the future when the One will be all in all?  What if The Story reaches highest heaven and deepest hell, and the manger is the centre of it all?

We are about to tell The Story again.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Advent IV: The Blessed Virgin

That Christ was born of a virgin means the complete contradiction of all human possibility.

It is not as if God could not have brought his Son into the world in another way.  We need to remember that Jesus was truly and fully human, and there is no obvious reason why he could not have been born in the usual manner, with a human biological father.  But the exclusion of human initiative and activity at precisely this point underlines what is happening here: God himself is taking the initiative, God himself is coming to save.

We need to see clearly that the role of the virgin Mary is not to be the height of humanity, the chosen product of human history, prepared by grace and made ready (or perhaps even worthy!) to be the Mother of God.  Far from it.  That she is the Mother of God is the accomplishment of divine fiat.  Not even her faith and acquiescence represents a cooperation with God.  The angel, after all, doesn't come with an offer which she can accept or refuse, but with an announcement: this is happening!  Mary's own 'fiat' is to her credit, but it is only an echo of the divine.  All is grace.

When Christ returns, and rights all wrongs, and ushers in eternal life - well, that too will be a one-sidedly divine accomplishment.  All our working and watching and praying will not bring in the new age.  At best, all of those things are just our own echo of the divine 'fiat', our acknowledgement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all is done.  Like the blessed virgin after the annunciation but before the birth in Bethlehem, we have heard God say that it will be, and we have said in response: so be it.

And after that, the wait.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Comfort ye my people

One of those mornings when the lectionary readings just line up rather nicely.  From Isaiah 51:
“I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass?"
 And from 2 Thessalonians 2:
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
Note that it is God himself, with and through the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives objective comfort - the eternal comfort that comes from having hope.  And it is to God himself, with and through the Lord Jesus Christ, that Paul turns to ask that the Thessalonian Christians might have that comfort as a present, subjective reality.  (And implicitly Isaiah's preaching is doing the same: since it is God who comforts Israel [objectively], let Israel be comforted by God [subjectively]).

Comfort is a very Advent-y word.  It carries with it the sense that there is darkness and grief - it isn't joy or celebration, it's the arm around the shoulders when things are tough.  It's someone walking alongside you through the hard times.  That God does this, both by giving us objective reason to be comforted and by subjectively comforting our hearts - that is glorious.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Who is a God like you?

I preached the last two chapters of Micah at Cowley Church Community yesterday.  A lot of the material was familiar to us from the last couple of weeks - Judah's sin, God's judgement.  But there were two main new things.  One is in Micah 6:6-8:
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
This passage follows on from a plea from God, who recounts his history with Israel, and asks plaintively how he has burdened them that they should turn against him?  Judah's response should not be read as a genuine groping after some way to atone for sin and restore relationship with God.  It is rather an attempt to buy God off.  What can I give you so that you will leave me alone?  But God will not leave Judah alone; not for anything.  There is no offering they could give that would divert his attention from them, precisely because they are loved.  God will have their hearts and lives, entire and complete.  He will have them walk with him.  His determination to bestow his love on his people is what leads to his judgement on their sin!

Question: how do I try to buy God off?  What activities or things do I offer him, whilst still really desiring to maintain some little sphere of my own, independent of his love?

 The second really new thing is in Micah 7:8-9.  The previous chapters have shown that after judgement Judah will be restored.  But here is the dramatic revelation that God himself will turn from being their judge to being their advocate:
Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be my light.
Because I have sinned against him,
I will bear the Lord’s wrath,
until he pleads my case
and upholds my cause.
Micah does not minimise either the horror of the judgement on Judah, or the extent to which it is well deserved.  But he looks beyond it, to the mercy of God which is sure to come.  And that leads to praise!
Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry for ever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
Who is a God like this?  Who turns in mercy to his sinful, rebellious people?  A God who delights, not in judgement, but in mercy?

And then from the perspective of the New Testament: who is a God like this, who not only lifts us when we have fallen, not only gives us light when we sit in darkness, not only pleads for us after we have borne the wrath of the Lord - but actually comes down to us in our fallen state, actually sits in the darkness of the fallen world and finally the darkness of the tomb, actually bears the weight of his own wrath against sin in our place?  Who is a God like this?  Is there any but Jesus?

Question: does the God I worship and live for and preach look like this?  If so, why don't I worship him more joyfully, live for him more wholeheartedly, preach him more passionately?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent III: Prepare the way

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord!'

That there will be a figure coming ahead of the Lord, one to prepare his way, is a theme of Isaiah's prophecy, and also Malachi 3 and 4.  The New Testament sees John the Baptist as fulfilling this role.  He is to prepare the way, to make things ready for the Lord when he comes, to prepare a people who are ready to receive him.

But who was prepared?  Just a few, I suppose - there were those who followed John initially and then became disciples of Jesus.  According to the fourth gospel, some at least of the apostolic band may have been amongst them.  And maybe there was some sort of general preparation going on, some sort of shaking loose of some of the common assumptions of first century Judaism, perhaps a little expectation-raising.  But in the end, even the prepared don't seem very prepared.  The disciples fail to grasp the mission of Jesus until after the resurrection - arguably until after Pentecost.

Who was prepared, really?

John the Preparer stands in a curiously ambivalent light.  There is the John who cries 'behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!', the first to acknowledge the identity and mission of the Messiah.  This is the same John who is happy for his own reputation to be diminished, so long as the fame of Jesus is increased.  He is the herald, the friend of the bridegroom, and as such the greatest born of woman.

And yet, even in that phrase, something else is said: the least in the kingdom is greater than John.  The imprisoned herald openly questions whether this truly is Messiah.  There is something odd about the fact that John continues to have a band of disciples even after Messiah has come.  Ought not the forerunner to have completely given way?  Biblically this tension isn't resolved until the apostle Paul baptizes some disciples of John in Ephesus, years later.

It strikes me that even the ministry of John, the Preparer, the one who makes ready - even his work by itself is a dead end, a kind of cul-de-sac, a preparation which leaves nobody prepared.  It is only as Jesus himself pushes forward into the situation that the preparation of John has genuine light shone upon it.  The preparation proves to be ineffective except where it is taken up by a new and special work of grace; a work of grace which shows itself to have no need of preparation at all.

I'm struck this morning that this is Christian ministry: preparing, making ready, clearing the way - and knowing all along that nobody will be prepared, and nothing will be made ready, and the way will remain blocked, unless Christ himself comes and makes our work effective.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Person and Work

Who is Jesus and what has he come to do?

A simple but profound point from George Hunsinger (in Disruptive Grace, 131):  "The work presupposes the person just as the person conditions the work."  And then in more detail:
In any Christology, at least when internally consistent (which cannot always be presupposed), the person (p) and the work (w) of Christ mutually imply each other: If w, then p; and if p, then w.  Insofar as modern Christology has typically abandoned a high view of Christ's person, it has also abandoned the correspondingly high view of Christ's saving work...
If what we need is just an example, a very enlightened human will do - a relatively small w requires a relatively small p!  But if we need a saviour, we need God - only the divine p is sufficient for this w!

Or to think it forwards from Christmas, if the Messiah is really God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made - well, if he really is this p, we can assume that he has come to do a very great w...

Monday, December 05, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (13)

And so we arrive at the very last sub-section of this chapter - The determination of the rejected.  Who are these 'rejected' according to Barth?  "A 'rejected' man is one who isolates himself from God by resisting his election as it has taken place in Jesus Christ.  God is for him; but he is against God.  God is gracious to him; but he is ungrateful to God.  God receives him; but he withdraws himself from God.  God forgives him his sins; but he repeats them as though they were not forgiven.  God releases him from the guilt and punishment of his defection; but he goes on living as Satan's prisoner.  God determines for blessedness, and His service; but he chooses the joylessness of an existence that accords with his own pride and aims at his own honour" (449).  Underneath this, of course, is that the 'rejected' is, objectively, elect in Christ according to Barth - and yet, subjectively, does not and will not know that election.  What is the meaning of the life of the rejected?  "What is God's will for them?" (450)

Barth begins by stressing that the determination of the rejected is very different from the determination of the elect.  This is not a balanced equation.  There is only one will of God, which we know in Christ; hence we can only see the rejected as standing under the "non-willing of God" (450).  The rejection of each human being has been transferred to, and borne away by, Christ; "It is, therefore, the rejection which is 'rejected'" (450).  There is no independent sphere of rejection - as if God willed election on the one hand, and rejection on the other.  There is only the holy electing love of God in Christ.  "This love may burn and consume him as a rejected man, as is fitting, but even so it is still to him the almighty, holy and compassionate love of God" (450).  It is therefore impossible to consider the rejected apart from the elect - indeed, only the elect can truly know the rejected, seeing him primarily in Christ as he takes on our rejection and dies, but secondly in himself and his own godlessness, and only then thirdly in others who resist their election in Jesus Christ (451-2).  Rejection is the shadow of election, having no independent existence.

Standing in that shadow, the rejected man has three basic determinations according to Barth.  Firstly, "it is the determination of the rejected to manifest the recipients of the Gospel" (455).  He reveals in his shadowy existence the need of divine election.  He represents the lie, that man is still a sinner outside of Christ.  This "is only a representation, [and] as such it is a lie, because this man - the truly rejected - cannot be any other than Jesus Christ" (455).  In showing the nature of elect man who does not know and resists his election, the rejected reminds the elect both of who he or she is but for the mercy of God, and also continually calls the elect to witness to the gospel, and therefore to the election of this other, who does not know himself as elect.

Secondly, "the rejected has the determination constantly to manifest that which is denied and overcome by the Gospel" (456).  The gospel is made clear by the witness which this rejected man continues to bear to "himself and his false choice as the man isolated over against God" (456).  And thirdly, "the rejected has the determination, in the distinctive limitation of his existence, to manifest the purpose of the Gospel" (457).  "The rejected has no future...  But the purpose of the divine election of grace is to grant to the man who in and of himself has no future, a future in covenant with God" (457).

I wonder if we might summarise by saying that for Barth the rejected is determined as the frontier of God's election.  Without this line, this border, it would be impossible to make out the shape of God's election.  However, for Barth this is a frontier to be crossed - the elect recognise that beyond this frontier lie those who are objectively determined by their election in Christ, just as they themselves are, but are not yet living as those determined by this election; therefore they must bear witness on this frontier to the great love of God in Christ.

The long exegetical part of this sub-section (which will get only the barest summary here) has mostly to do with Judas Iscariot - "the character in which the problem of the rejected is concentrated and developed in the New Testament" (458).  Judas is an apostle and disciple, no less than the others, and indeed his solidarity with the others is stressed in the gospels.  He is one of the twelve.  The NT does not indicate that he was a false apostle; "what it does say is that it was one of the genuine apostles, one of the genuinely elect, who was at the same time rejected as the betrayer of Jesus" (459).  Judas is included in everything which benefits the other apostles - his feet are washed, he takes the Lord's Supper - but this does not prevent his sin, which "makes it clear that as far as he was concerned Jesus was present with the disciples in vain.  He protected and watched over them in vain" (465).  Still, in all this, Judas only exposes the sin of all the apostles.  They were all potentially Judas.  Apart from Jesus' special cleansing "even Peter would be in the fellowship of Judas, the fellowship of the devil" (473).

The particular form of Judas' sin was that he handed over Jesus to the priests (who handed him over to the Gentiles).  Barth notes that this language of 'handing over' is later applied to the apostolic preaching, and indeed that it finally has its root in God's handing over of his Son to death.  A positive light is thereby cast on the act of Judas, without in any way diminishing his guilt.  He in his guilt can only serve the election of God, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly.  In the end, God's election encompasses even Judas' sin.

"Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves.  From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God.  We certainly cannot deny its reality.  But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ..." (496).  Even for Judas, in his unrepentant suicide?  "Scripture speaks of countless men, as it does of Judas, in such a way that we must assume that they have lived and died without even the possibility, let alone the fulfilment, of any saving repentance.  if there is also light for them, and hope, it can only because and if there is an eschaton, a limit, by which even their inescapable bondage is hemmed in from outside" (496).  Barth refuses to see Judas as necessarily saved - no apokatastasis - but he also refuses to pronounce him definitively damned.  His guilt, which is great, nevertheless reaches its limit in that Jesus Christ has borne the rejection which it merits.  With regard to Judas and all those who present themselves to us as 'rejected', "it cannot be our concern to know and decide what has or will perhaps become of them, for they also stand in the light of what God has done for the world" (497).

If my image above is a correct interpretation of Barth - if rejection is the frontier of election and a border which cries out to be crossed with the gospel - it is perhaps even more true, or more deeply true, to see election as the border of rejection.  What presents to us as a duality of the elect and the rejected is itself encompassed and surrounded by the election of Jesus Christ, and of all men in him.  And if we have to leave their final fate to God, we know that in Christ he is their loving God - even if that love is a fire which burns.  Yes, in Christ he is the electing God.  Even to Judas.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Advent II: Might not die

The syllogism: All men must die, Caius is a man, therefore Caius must die, is no doubt an illuminating statement of pagan wisdom.  But it is not a statement of Christian wisdom...  It cannot be, because it overlooks the parousia of Jesus Christ...  (IV/3.2, 924).

People often think that the most characteristic claim of Christianity is that there is life after death.  The Christian gospel, based on the resurrection of Christ, does indeed make that claim.  But if it has become characteristic, that is because we Christians have lost sight of the bigger, and more outrageous, claim that the gospel makes about the end of human life.

We believe that we might not die.

Indeed, every Christian must believe, on the grounds that the resurrected Christ has promised to return, and that this return will be the final, consummating event of human history as we know it, that there is a possibility that nobody else will die.

From the perspective of the NT, the whole of history is now hastening towards the final revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ in his coming.  In that perspective, there is a sense in which the 'normal' way for an individual human history to come an end now - in conformity with the end which we expect for general human history - is with the return of the Lord.  Death is a hanger-on, a left-over from an earlier age, an age which still looked forward to the cross and did not yet look out with triumph from the empty tomb.

You might not die.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Anything but the blood?

At the moment I'm reading through Deuteronomy with our ministry trainee, and yesterday we hit chapter 12.  Two things are striking about this chapter.  On the one hand, there is the mandatory rejoicing!  When the people of Israel have entered the land, God will choose a place, and at that place the people are to make their offerings and sacrifices "and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God".  The sacrifices, it is true, are offered to God, but the meat of the sacrifices is then eaten in a communal meal of joy in the presence of the Lord.

The second thing is more unique to this chapter.  Provision is made for eating meat away from the sanctuary, slaughtered without the sacrificial system.  This is just a practicality - it may be a long way to the place where YHWH has put his name, and the people will want meat.  That's fine - Moses is keen that they be able to enjoy God's blessings in the land.  They can eat meat apart from sacrifice.  But they still can't eat the blood.  That is a long-standing prohibition, the rationale for which seems to be most fully unpacked in Leviticus 17.  The blood represents the life of the creature, and that has been give to Israel to make atonement - it is for the covering of sin, not for consumption.  Blood has a sacred function, symbolising the life of the animal which has been given in exchange for the life of the sinner.  Even so-called 'profane slaughter' is linked to the sacrificial system, and the pouring out of the blood on the ground is a reminder that the animal's life stands between the Israelite and death.

Against this background, Jesus says (of the wine which the disciples have just drunk!), "this is my blood of the new covenant".  In Holy Communion, we are commanded to not only eat the flesh, but also to drink the blood.  Surely significant!

I've long thought that the part of the sacrificial system we ought to look to for parallels with the Eucharist is the meal in the sanctuary.  The sacrifice made, the worshippers celebrate their fellowship with God by eating in his presence of precisely the meat of the sacrifice.  We Christians eat together in God's presence, feeding on the body of Christ.  It is not a sacrifice - the one and only sacrifice has been made - but is a fellowship meal, enjoying together the fruit of the sacrifice.

But if that's right, what does it mean that in contrast with the OT sacrifices we are particularly commanded to take the blood?  Somebody has surely done some proper work on this, but a possibility that occurred to me was that the OT sacrifices never could 'transmit' life.  The animal life given up made atonement, but did not 'go into' the worshipper and bring new life.  There was transfer of guilt to the animal, and vicarious death (all symbolic, of course, of the great sacrifice), but there was no transfer the other way - no life flowing from the animal to the redeemed worshipper.  It strikes me that it is this transfer which characterises the various descriptions of the new covenant in the prophets - not just sin washed away, but sinners changed.  Is that why we drink of the blood of the new covenant?