28 May 2017 – Doing Theology

The word “theology” has different effects on different people.  Some welcome it and have experienced the excitement and uplift of investigating their faith through the sharing of ideas both from the Bible and from life experiences.  For others, “theology” may have overtones of the “ivory towers” of universities and they may fear being made to feel inadequate or ignorant in theological discussions.    Again, there are others who may actually have been taught to despise “theology” and to see it as opposed to “Biblical Truth”.

But the word “theology” simply means “Thinking about God” and whether you’re listening to a sermon, or engaging in a Bible study, or thinking about how to apply your faith to your daily living – you’re doing theology.  Who  is God and what does God mean to my life and to life in general?  That’s the basic question of theology.  Of course that opens bigger questions like,   Where is God? What is God’s agenda or big desire for things? Who am I in relation to God?  What is God’s relationship to the universe around us?  And so on.  In fact we all do have opinions about these things – and so do many other people outside of church circles.  Open-ness in discussing and debating about God is quite a powerful tool in evangelism as you can see in a number of places in the book of Acts –perhaps most clearly in Acts 17.16ff (Paul in Athens).

For many of us our introduction to theology began in Sunday School when we were taught the stories of Jesus and were told what they “meant”.  Theology is about meaning.  It’s about getting hold of God-concepts which inspire us and motivate our lives.  Jewish rabbis would take passages of scripture and continually debate and discuss their implications and meaning.  From this they formed a large body of tradition – in the same way that court rulings create “precedents” today.

One of the features of Jesus was that he “taught with authority and not like the scribes and teachers of the law”.  This means that Jesus, as the greatest spirit-filled human, had fresh insight into the living heart of God and was able to bring out meaning in a new way.  He often did this by his provocative stories (“parables”) which actually challenged people to  think for themselves.  There are two points here:  one is the need for the Spirit of God to give you insight into reality (truth) and the other is the ability to speak the language and concepts of people around you.

My own experience of theology is of coming from a place of fear of not being able to do it, through a very particular experience of the Holy Spirit, through many years of discussing and contemplating and questioning and reconstructing.

Sometimes we need to allow even the most treasured old ways of thinking to fall away in order to embrace new ones which shed more light.  Sometimes that’s like the various stages of making a jigsaw – you tip the pieces out on the table and you’ve no idea where anything goes.  Then you might try and make the border.  Then you might make little islands of picture as you find pieces that fit.  Then the islands begin to fit – and sometimes you’ve got them in the wrong place and you have to move them!  But as time goes on the picture appears and there’s a great satisfaction. (With God the search always goes on)

Some would say there is more satisfaction in “Living the Questions” than in searching for certainty.  You can become more certain of God while becoming less certain of any particular description of God.  But the process of theology is life-inspiring and motivating.  Engage and Enjoy!  (PS You won’t offend God!)

14 May 2017 – Christian Aid Week – Belief in Action

In our Christian Aid service last week we heard of the plight of refugees who have been helped by Christian Aid.  It’s very hard for us to empathise with their situation as we live in the security of the UK.  We can’t really grasp the horror of fleeing from your home in Bower Way as armed thugs acting in the name of God are systematically blowing up the houses in the street:   and here you are now walking with your children and perhaps an elderly relative in a wheelchair along the A4 hoping to somehow reach a sea port where you will be able to get out of Britain and seek refuge in France or Belgium or some other nearby country.  All you have left is what you could stuff into a few bags before you left.

But such is the plight of many people in today’s world as religious fundamentalists and heedless autocrats wage war on their own population.

Christian Aid has brought life and hope to many such refugees and we heard the testimony of two or three.

We went on to think about the relationship between belief and action.  We read the story from Matthew 25 about the final judgement and noticed that there is no reference at all to what people “believed” in terms of creed or doctrine.  In fact those who are rewarded with eternal life are simply people who showed compassion and kindness – and it turns out they didn’t even realise that God considered that a service to him.  So we thought about the proposition:

It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you act with compassion and kindness.

Would that be entirely true?  Does it really not matter what you believe?  For example, what about the need to “believe in Jesus”?  Or what if people didn’t “believe in Jesus” but acted with sacrificial compassion – could they be “saved”?  We noted that “faith without works is dead and can’t save you”.

But then we also considered the idea that:

Good works can’t save you:  it’s what you believe that matters

It’s certainly true that Paul emphasises that we are not saved by “works of the Law” but only by God’s grace – through faith.  However, “works of the Law” is a term that would mean trying to approve yourself to God by doing good works – and perhaps especially religious observances and rituals.  It doesn’t mean that sacrificial action towards others is irrelevant.  Also, the English word “believe” comes from a root which means “by the way you live”.  So, again “faith” (or belief) which does not lead to action is meaningless.

In the end belief and action are part of an ongoing cycle where the two continue to inform and challenge one another. What we believe about God will challenge us to act in particular ways and what we find ourselves doing will cause us to reflect on and develop our idea of God.  If I believe God is love then that will challenge me to act with the same depth of love that I have experienced in God. Equally if I have to make choices on (say) how to treat someone with compassion in a given situation, the decisions I make will feed back into what I find believable about God.  This is quite important because we should never make God out to be less compassionate or understanding than we are ourselves.

So Christian Aid can challenge us about the need to respond to needy people in the world: and those who get involved in the life-problems of others may find themselves re-assessing simplistic moral and theological positions in the light of reality.

7 May 2017 – Jesus, Peter and the Church

(Follow the Bible text in Matt 16. 13ff)

Who is Jesus? 1. The then popular opinion has him as the re-incarnation of one of the great prophets of history – or even of the recently executed John the Baptist.  The one before the one who is to come!

Who is Jesus? 2.  Peter can’t keep it in. “You’re the actual one! – the one the nation has been waiting for.  It’s you!  You’re the Christ, the Son of God!”

How does he know?   Jesus says it’s a revelation!  We teach “Jesus is Lord” as a doctrine to be believed – but do we emphasise enough that to truly see this is a work of the Spirit. (See 1Cor 12.3 – no-one can say…).  It’s not a club slogan: it’s a spiritual experience.

The prototype.  Peter’s revelation is what the entire church is founded on:  the spiritual knowledge that Jesus is God’s presence among us!”

Battle Stations!  The church is to plunder what the devil has locked away from people.  The world has its rules and regulations and restrictions but it’s those with the spiritual knowledge of Jesus who have the authority to say what goes – to permit or to allow.

Keep it Secret!  The last thing Jesus wants is for people to start thinking he’s the Christ.  Why? Because then they’ll be looking for him to bring an army against Rome!  His “kingdom” is “not of this world”.

Walking into Death!  The true Christ has to be rejected, vilified and executed by institutional religious authority in Jerusalem – to shame and expose it!  He will make his case and be killed – but he will soon rise again to new and bigger life!

You Satan!  Peter has had a revelation from God about Jesus – the revelation on which the church is founded. But Peter has seen it in terms of worldly power and glory and personal prestige as the Christ’s right-hand man.  You can only truly hear God from a humble and loving spirit.  You can be “biblical” and “visionary” and enthusiastic – but you’re only really wanting to hear God back up your ideas.   Peter was not listening to God or to Jesus!  You can be both a visionary and a Satan at the same time!

Carry Your Cross!  Instead of being puffed up in your own ego and thinking God is on your side: how about getting on God’s side?  God is our humble servant who never pushes us about but makes himself available to us.  Jesus shows us that true life is “resurrection” life – life that follows the experience of dying.  When we die to our selfish ambitions, we may find the true way.   But if you’re looking for glory don’t look to Jesus.  His glory is the cross – the way of complete surrender through which his amazing life is given to his followers; like a seed gives birth to a new plant.

Unworthy Me?  No it’s not about putting yourself down.  After all, Jesus had a lot to say for himself in Jerusalem.  He spoke the truth and exposed the lies, but in the end he allowed  himself to be humiliated and executed.  The resurrection says that that is God’s way.  If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.

If you only know yourself through the things you have gained or achieved; who then are you?  You find your true self in relation to the love of God and his people.

So did the kingdom come?  Jesus appears to say that some of his listeners will still be alive when “The Son of Man comes as King”.  It doesn’t seem to have happened!  Ask yourself what would it look like if Jesus were reigning as King?  Where would he be?  How would he actually rule the world? Would he be acknowledged? Would he force his rule on his enemies? What would his reign mean for world poverty and human rights? His Spirit is certainly here.  Perhaps his reign is down to us?  Perhaps we, his followers, will always be the leaven in the lump – trying to show a better way and getting crucified for our efforts?

23 April 2017 – John’s Take on the Resurrection

Of all the resurrection stories John gives us the clearest insight into its true and enduring meaning.  Having acknowledged the role (and therefore the importance) of himself, Peter and Mary Magdalene in the resurrection account John gets right into the real meat. The risen Jesus appears among his disciples in the locked room, and, after a brief greeting he reveals the purpose of his resurrection as he commissions his disciples.  It comes in three parts:

First Jesus commissions his disciples with the words, “As the Father sent me, so I send you”.  This is a momentous saying!  That little word “as” means with the same motivation, the same authority and the same power.  The disciples are to be to the same all-encompassing blessing to the world that Jesus had been so far, and to carry out their mission in the same relationship to God that Jesus had.  Thus the next part of his commission …..

he breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit!”.  The phrase “Holy Spirit” is so familiar to us now that we hardly notice its meaning.  Like all of our God-language, “spirit” is a word taken from human use and applied to God.  How do we use the term “spirit”?  Surely it’s to indicate our innermost living essence and nature.  The “Holy Spirit” then means the living, inner essence of God.  Just as the Father sent his son in a full sharing of his life, so the son sends his followers.  So he breathes that essence on them.  In Greek, spirit and breath and wind are all the same word – pneuma (“newma”) – so it’s more than just “breathing”: it indicates the  actual imparting of the Spirit.  The life of God is theirs.

Thirdly, Jesus goes on to say, “If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”.  This is a continuation of his breathing the Spirit on them.  In the power of God’s Spirit and life they are to do the most divine thing – to forgive sin.  “Who can forgive sins but God?” said the Pharisees. Forgiveness is a big concept but in essence it means that every barrier to our relationship with God is removed.  We are to make that declaration to people with utmost certainty in God’s name.

So the point of Jesus being “resurrected” is not so much a personal victory for himself, but rather the passing on of his entire mission to his disciples along with the full power to carry it out.  To put that in practical terms, you and I stand in the same relationship to the world that Jesus did and should expect to be God to the world.  Everything you say of Jesus you should say of yourself!

Finally we looked at John’s little closing summary to his Gospel where he says that, “these things have been written so you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that through your faith in him you should have life”.  What does that mean to the 21st century world where neither of these titles has any ”cultural currency”? (That is they are neither known nor used in ordinary life).  Let’s say that people will find the true meaning and experience of life as they recognise Jesus of Nazareth as the true meaning and image of God.  When you look at what Jesus was and did – his poverty, his commitment to justice for and empowerment of the poor, his unendingly sacrificial spirit and his deep compassion: when you see that as a revelation of God’s heart and spirit and seek to align yourself with it – that’s when the Holy Spirit touches your own life and begins to transform and empower you.  That is the life that cannot be held by death but must result in resurrection!

16 April 2017 – Easter Questions: Easter Message

Like the Christmas stories, the Easter accounts have significant variances, not to say contradictions.  Some are small details, like who were the women who went to the tomb?  Was it one, two or three, or a larger group?  Who and what did they find there?  Who spoke to whom etc.

But some are larger questions:

What do we mean by the “Resurrection” of Jesus?  Lazarus (in John’s gospel) died, was buried, was decomposing, and several days later was raised to life by Jesus (and at some point died again – for good!).  That’s an amazing story, but at least he continues as the Lazarus he was – with his family, etc  But Jesus’ resurrection is quite different. The most immediately obvious thing about the risen Jesus is that he lacks physical presence. By default he is absent and he manifests himself only from time to time. While on the one hand he wants to stress that he is still embodied in flesh and blood (touch me, put your hand in my wounds, let me eat some fish, etc), on the other he behaves more like a ghost, appearing in locked rooms, etc. What do we make of that?  What kind of being is he?

Then there’s the question of what happened next? Mark and Matthew say that Jesus told his disciples to go to a hill in Galilee where he will meet them and, in Matthew, Jesus does meet and commission them there to “Go into all the world….”

In Luke, however, Jesus is very insistent that his disciples stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit to be given. In Luke volume 2 (The Acts of the Apostles) Luke says this was more than 40 days later – though in the Gospel he seems to have Jesus ascend into heaven from Bethany (outside Jerusalem) on the very day of the resurrection.

In John, Jesus also meets with his disciples in Jerusalem on the very day of the resurrection and he breathes the Holy Spirit on them that day, commissioning them to forgive (or retain) sins in his name: after which he “departs from them”.

I don’t think we can reconcile these stories.  We just need to accept that in the 40-60 years before they were written down different traditions developed in different strands and locations of the early church.  Try and hear what each writer is saying rather than try and collate them into a big mish-mash story.

However, we should not think that Easter is just a big series of questions.  There are at least three major points in the message that underlies them.

ALIVE The first is that Jesus is Alive.  The form of his being may be problematical (see above) but the real point is that Jesus was experienced by different groupings of his disciples following his death on Good Friday.  They were clear that he was living.  As Christians today, we’d better have more than just a set of stories to prove that Jesus is alive.  We should be able to point to significant ways in which the presence of Jesus is meaningful in our lives.  If we are to “disciple the nations” as Jesus said, then we need to have a deepening, living awareness of God deep within.

CONNECTED  Secondly, in Luke, the stories of the Emmaus Road and the subsequent meeting with the disciples in the (locked) room in Jerusalem reminds us that the early church saw Jesus as deeply connected to the nation’s history in “the scriptures” (what we now call Old Testament).  Thus the early church saw Jesus not just as the leader of some new cult, but as the fulfilment of all that had been and was to come.  Whether you were a Jew or a “gentile”, Jesus is the fullness of God’s presence and God’s purposes for all people everywhere.

SHARED   Thirdly, Jesus’ resurrection is not just a personal victory over those who unjustly killed him, but an unfolding and outpouring of the essence of Jesus-son-of-God into a new dimension. The resurrection moves into the giving of the Spirit.  This is the beginning of the new “Christ-Body” – the church, filled with Christ’s fullness.  So we should not see Jesus as “over there” to be worshipped at a distance, but as “in here” – in our person and among us together, seeking to continue his teaching and mission through us.

If Easter was just about Jesus of Nazareth coming out of a tomb, the question would be, “So what?”  But if it is like the seed that falls into the ground and dies in order to bear more fruit, then we must decide if we are prepared to take on this challenge of being his true Body and Presence to the world today.

9 April 2017 – Jesus, the Temple and Ourselves

The story of Jesus “cleansing” the Temple is familiar to most Christians.  We have this picture of a very angry man with a whip causing a violent scene, overturning tables and casting traders out of the temple forecourt. What’s all the fuss about?

Start with the words of Jesus. “It is written”, he says, that “God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations: but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”  So we see that “temple” is about a place to fellowship with God.  The question is how do you do that?  The old way of thinking was that you fellowshipped with God through the sacrifice of an animal.  Then that gets tied up with ideas of “purity”. God is “holy” and so everything offered to him must be “pure” and without blemish.  So you have to buy temple-approved, unblemished animals for sacrifice. Jesus seems to reject this whole way of thinking – strange as that may seem.
Look at the layout of the Temple and you see another factor: namely the way it puts God as the innermost point of a hierarchy of purity.

 

But the presence of Jesus among us as “Son of God” contradicts these ideas.  Far from being removed and concealed in his “holiness”, God, in Jesus, makes himself present among the lowest, the poorest and the most unworthy of society – and he welcomes them: even prostitutes whom Jesus says are entering the kingdom ahead of the religious hierarchy.

Jesus said, “Tear down this temple and I will build it again in three days” – but, comments John, “He spoke of his own body”.  The early Christians came to see that Jesus himself replaced the temple as the meeting place with God.  It is by sharing in what Jesus is that we experience direct relationship with God: and not by external actions like sacrifices made by priests at an altar. That’s why the “Curtain of the Temple” (the  entrance to the holy of holies”) was ripped in two when Jesus died.

But not only that.  When the light comes on and we see this very different picture of God – as a Father who is among us, close to us – we are transformed inwardly and we too become the dwelling place of the Spirit. Peter, in his writings (1Peter 1) speaks of us – those who have been brought from darkness into light – as stones being built into a spiritual temple which is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.  So for the world today, the church (as the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit) becomes the place to find the reality of God’s presence.  We are like priests offering the presence of God to the world.

The human psyche finds reassurance in cathedrals, ceremonies, priestly hierarchies, liturgies, history, etc  That’s what the Temple as a building is about – a representation of a grand and removed God.  But God will not allow himself to be separated from his creation and insists on being found in the fellowship of the humble and lowly – for that is his own true nature!

26 March 2017 – On Being Blind….

The story of the blind man in John 9 works at both the level of event and of metaphor. As an event it is one of the healing miracles of Jesus. But even there it is surrounded by controversy.

Firstly, the disciples ask whose fault it is that the man is blind – his own or his parents.  This opens a can of worms because their question presupposes a particular view of God’s dealings with us.  It goes: God blesses the righteous and curses the unrighteous: blindness is obviously a curse rather than a blessing: therefore if you are blind you are under God’s curse – and that must be the result of sin.  So whose fault is it – the man or his parents?

Jesus’ reply to the disciples is almost universally misunderstood. Nearly every modern translation of the Bible renders it:

“Neither his sin nor his parents’: but (he is blind) so that God might be glorified in him”.

This seems to suggest that God had made him blind for all his formative years so he could work a miracle on him in his mid-life.  But that’s a pretty sick idea of God as well – is it not?

When you translate ancient Greek into English there is no punctuation in the Greek text.  So you can (and probably should) translate the passage:

“Neither him nor his parents. [Full stop].  But, so that God might be glorified in him we must do the works of him who sent me while it is still daylight…..”

In other words Jesus simply dismisses out of hand the idea that the man is blind because of sin. But he then goes on to say that, given that he is blind, we should glorify God in his healing.  In other words, God is not “glorified” (which means revealed) through blinding the man as a punishment for sin (as people of his day might have thought); but rather the nature of God is revealed by showing compassion to the man and healing him.

The human mind jumps to judgement and condemnation, but the mind of God jumps to turn misfortune into opportunity – both for the man’s health and for God’s glory (revelation).

When reading John’s writings we should always assume that there’s a deeper meaning, because that’s his style.  Blindness is not just a physical condition but (perhaps more importantly) a spiritual one.  The judgemental attitude is darkness, but the desire to heal and restore is light.

The mission of Jesus is to be light to the world.  This primarily means turning people’s eyes to recognise that God is a loving Father (the Father of Light) and not a hovering judge who is “justly displeased” with his errant children.  That is a very dark view of God, even though lots of people see God that way.

This is also the mission of the church:  to be light to the world; a city on a hill that can’t be hidden; unconcealed light.  We are to live as those who are loved and empowered, not as those cowering from judgement!

The metaphorical blindness goes further.  The Pharisees seem determined to class Jesus as a “sinner”:  an anti-God person.  As they see it, they themselves are the light, the appointed and anointed ones, the powerful ones.  Who is this peasant from Galilee to contradict their (judgemental) teachings?  They try to bully the man and his parents into saying that Jesus is a sinner.

But the man’s healing has empowered him.  Wow! God cares about me and has restored me!  So he’s not going to buy into this nonsense.  He’s surprisingly bold and quite cheeky to the Pharisees (who have the power to ban him from synagogue-fellowship altogether).

But the story ends on an ironic note.  Jesus says to the Pharisees – if only you were blind you might be excused.  But since you claim to see, you are judged guilty.

How important it is to be open to hear the Holy Spirit and not just to regurgitate teachings we’ve received without considering the meaning and implications of them.  We can use “truth” like a tribal banner flagging up the rightness of our version of God – and trying to show that others are wrong!