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.