Tuesday, 18 September 2018

The Days that Make Us

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth". Genesis 1:1.

This year brought an opportunity to re-visit the opening chapters of the book of Genesis with a study group. Last night, we commenced part 2 of these studies with a re-cap by me reading a piece I wrote which sparked the whole project off, so I thought it might be useful to also post it here for a wider audience. Hope it proves helpful.

I don’t know if I have a particular favourite place, but there are several I enjoy, and there are particular locations I like to stand when in these spots, because of the view they allow me to appreciate.

The same is true when it comes to theology.

There’s a very telling conclusion to the opening account of the origin of the material realms.
In summation of all that had been shown in the preceding verses, the writer concludes “these are the generations of the heavens and the earth, when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” (Genesis 2:4).

We tend to think of the opening chapter of Genesis and its outline of the act of creation a great deal in regards to seven days, but this summation (speaking of all that had occurred as a ‘day’) quickly asks us to argue with an interpretation of this which would seek to be literal in only the most elementary of fashions – seven 24 hour periods.

The reasons for this are many, but the first has to do with the fact that the ‘generations’ of this astonishing work do not begin with the arrival of light or of day, but deep in the folds of those times referred to in the opening two verses of the account. Here we read of a primordial knitting of things, a brooding of God Himself upon the elemental nature and ‘void’ of what would be before the generating Word can be spoken.

This is common to other creation passages in the scriptures.
The closing address of the Lord to Job (Chapters 38-41) grants us a breathtaking look into the magnitude of the endeavour the Lord was engaged upon as He prepared those first works of the created order – the laying of the world’s foundations, the binding of the seas, through knowing the recesses of the deep. All of this was in motion as His Spirit prevailed upon the first, “formless” estate of the heavens and earth.

How long did this elaborate preparation take?
The church fathers are quite helpful here.
Augustine for example notes how what is provided in the main text of Genesis 1 is a record of "heaven & earth when day was made" - clearly something distinct from what is spoken about in Genesis 1:1-3. He also notes, in the six days of creation, how what we understand as the normal measurements of day - morning and evening - are different (they begin the other way around, evening and morning, and that the light of that creation does not clearly become the sun itself – probably because of the initial condition of the earth - until the fourth day).

"The Beginning", notes Basil, is not yet time in the sense defined from verse 4 onwards. Creation, notes Gregory, springs into being from that beginning, hence the transition from void to existence as something given true form, place and purpose. The beginning occurs, notes Augustine, 'in that ever-present eternity', which itself speaks to us of creation's existence outside of the confines of time. In that place (the residence of God Himself), nothing spoken by the Word vanishes or diminishes.

In the light of such considerations, any attempts at a naturalistic cosmology will always be provisional at best. We may be able to place age ‘tags’ on materials used in the process of creation, but the ages involved here, as the church Fathers suggest, are no doubt far more (in depth and scope) than we can fully comprehend. This is clearly the nature of what the Lord is seeking to reveal to us in his words about this to Job.

It is the Lord who profoundly and mysteriously makes such powers and forces, who would stretch out the expanse of the heavens by His great wisdom and understanding, that draws our attention, as we approach the first day, away from the vast stretch of what would become the realm of the stars to the world that would become our home.

We have marvelled at the expanse and the beauty of the cosmos, but that very awareness and realisation points us back, down from the stars, to the fact that in ourselves, we find probably the strangest enigma of all – creatures who inhabit a world perfectly set in place to allow a staggering diversity of life in an ordered environment, who not only comprehend such splendour, but also possess an identity which causes us to enquire and study the nature of what we are and what facilitates all of this.

Science has allowed us to understand that our universe indeed had a beginning and, because of the nature of interplay between entropy and energy, would almost certainly conclude, in respects to natural processes, in a material end, but in spite of numerous unsatisfactory attempts, we are still at a loss to explain by materialistic means the astonishing origin and purpose of life beyond the merely functional, which says essentially nothing regarding the truly mind-boggling nature of realms such as consciousness, the elaborate nature of structure and beauty in nature beyond function, or the virtually miraculous nature of the properties of energy. Scientists who are working in new fields (such as the physics of information) are aware that these intriguing realms have a reality just as vital to the natural as, for example, the physics of energy, but the ramifications, as in the sphere of Quantum Mechanics, are indeed profound, and may ultimately support a growing scientific view that information preceded the material, and that this indeed points to mind and purposeful intent in the formation of the universe.

Science, in spite of recent opinions to the contrary, has indeed already provided us confirmations regarding the nature of our existence that are incontrovertible.
The discoveries made in astronomy from the 1920’s onward by Hubble, Penzias, Wilson, and others, justify the conclusion reached by Astronomer Robert Jastrow - the essential elements in the astronomical and Biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.He also noted that after scaling the heights of research, Science has reached a summit only to discover that the theologians were already at the top, revelation being first to bring us to the same vital conclusion – we are the handiwork of God.

It is within the realm of theological material that we also find what essentially relates to the pattern of the structure of creation. Genesis 1:1 distinguishes this glorious work between three realms – the ‘heavens’ (the cosmos itself, but also the realm of heaven, where God resides) and the earth.

We very rarely make note of the fact that the domain deemed ethereal and therefore unreal by many – the location where all the hosts and creatures spoken of as being around the throne of God – is actually part of the very same work of creation as the stars, the earth and the vast diversity of life upon earth, but this is the case. Once again, this unfolding of the true nature of what was made in the formation of the heavens and earth seeks to point us back to a deeper reference point than what we currently can see and therefore perceive, and with good reason, for as we look deeper, we are invited to discover the true source and intent within the work of creation itself, as provided in the book of Proverbs:

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens; by His knowledge the deeps broke open and the clouds drop down the dew” (3:19,20). An observation of the union between heaven and earth.

Solomon here alludes to something truly profound. Whilst ‘knowledge’ is the means whereby the Lord implements the very cycles which will perpetuate an environment to allow for life to be sustained on earth, the entire creation is underpinned not simply by a working employment of the knowledge of quantum or Newtonian physics via the most elaborate mathematics, but something far greater – a wisdom

This is again expressed in greater detail in Proverbs chapter 8.

“The Lord possessed (raised/owned) me in the beginning of His way,
before His acts of old. I was set up (ordained) from everlasting,
before the earth was.

When there were no depths, I was established, before there were fountains
laden with waters,
Before the mountains and the hills, I was there, before He had made the earth, or fields,
or the first from the earth’s dust.

When He prepared the Heavens, I was there. When He drew a circle upon the face of the deep and stretched out the firmament over it. When He established the skies above and secured the fountains of the deep, giving the sea its limit, appointing the foundation of the earth, then I was beside Him as a master and director of the work, and I was His daily delight, rejoicing, as the earth was inhabited and delighting in the sons of men”.

(Chapter 8:22-31).

It’s common for us to look upon wisdom as merely an attribute (something we have or don’t), but what Solomon seeks to express (for example, by personifying this quality amidst the book of Proverbs – see chapter 1:20-33, 9:1-12) is that at the very core of establishing what has been made, God has employed a foresight and skill (a crucial part of Himself) which brings a security and purpose to creation which will endure and thereby bring into being the true intent in such design.
This is clearly the theme of the Prophet Jeremiah, when he echo’s Solomon’s words of chapter 3 amidst an address to Israel on the folly of following other gods who are entirely inept and impotent in comparison to the great intents and deeds of the one true God  (Jeremiah 10:12).

It is what God intends that is the heart of the issue in all of the creation accounts, for in all of them, we find expressed a seeking to convey an understanding of the magnificence and splendour of what He is about, not only in the vastness of what has been made, but equally in the purposes of this – to allow us to comprehend who is behind the canvas

Psalm 104 also returns to these themes.
The writer seeks to point us to the witness of God’s majesty and splendour by looking at the magnificence of creation. He speaks of it as a garment in which the Lord has wrapped Himself and displayed the true weight and wonder of His character. All we see, he states, is seeking to show us something of the greatness of the mind and hand behind such beauty, power, and sustained, vast diversity. The Psalm underlines that these are His works, not ours and certainly not the consequence of chance or folly. They are created for His good pleasure, and they are intended to turn our eyes and minds to the greatness of their source, that we might indeed, like the Psalmist, be truly astonished by what we find.

All of these creation accounts speak of the almost fundamental nature in what was made of “the waters”. In Genesis 1, they appear to be twinned with the primordial elements of darkness and void, and in the other passages, they are evidenced as a force needing to be bound or tamed.

This image is indeed fitting. The waters would teem with life, but it is highly significant that the life which would become ‘soulish’ in its purpose was to first appear in a realm not defined ‘watery’, but as dry land – the earth.
Our current turbulent world may reflect best all the fluidity and uncertainty of a liquid environment – particularly in respect to how the very earth itself shakes and cannot hold – but the fact that we are to inhabit something more substantial than the sea resonates also with the other great truth we have touched upon – that beneath the waters, beneath the “storehouses”, beneath all that has been established in the present, is a true foundation which cannot be moved.

What was set-up, ordained, or established before the beginning is the true foundation of what is made – a rock which cannot be shaken or ever removed. This is the truth that the Psalmist considers in Psalm 93:

“The Lord Reigns.
He is robed in majesty. He has garbed Himself with strength.
The world is fully established. It shall not be moved.
Your throne is everlasting from of old.
You are from everlasting”.

Here we see a joining of the idea of the world established to reflect and express something of the permanence of the reign and authority of God.
This is particularly noteworthy in the light of what comes next.

“The floods have lifted up, O Lord.
The waters have lifted their voice.
Mighty is the thunder of their noise”.

The waters, we are told, are roaring in unbounded force, awesome and terrible, but this is not the beginning (what had preceded this fury), and it is not where the writer ends.

Look further, look deeper, and see what is true.

“Mightier than these waves of the sea – The Lord on high, He is mighty!
Holiness befits His house, for evermore”.
As we look at the vast swirl of the cycles of creation, we need to see beyond the merely immediate or even the energetic processes beneath the visual array and perceive what marvel has truly been placed above and beneath its changing face.

“So says the Lord God:
‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion
a stone, tried and tested,
precious, a cornerstone,
and a sure foundation.

The refuge of lies will then be swept away”.

The Prophet continues –
“The waters will overwhelm the shelter…
 an overwhelming scourge will pass through,
 and you will be beaten down before it”.

(Isaiah 28:16, 17, 18).

Whilst judgement changes us and our world, such actions occur in reference and regards to what has been established and cannot be removed – the foundation that Solomon defined as wisdom, the ‘rock’ or stone Isaiah sees which breaks the world that moves away from the truth which it alone provides.

The triumph of God’s underlying wisdom and majesty is also declared by the Prophet Habakkuk. As the great waters have filled and pervaded in the seas, he notes, so shall the day come when the glory of the knowledge of God in like fashion will cover or fill our world (Habakkuk 2:14).

Creation, then, is truly an account of the Lord taking what begins so rough and of itself unable to move beyond its chaos and shaping this into tools which can aid in forging and shaping something meant to last and endure through countless ages. From the impenetrable mire of darkness and empty void, God brings about the jewel of the earth. From the swirling, unceasing turbulence of the waters, He makes land to appear, and fills the entire ordered realm with a opulent almost unfathomable array of life, and from amongst this, He makes a distinct creature who is intended to express and reflect His nature in ruling like the fixed stars that light the earth – by serving and replenishing what is good.

May the declaration of the heavens and the earth – the wisdom they speak continually – encourage us to look deeply into the strength and security of the one who makes and keeps these things, that, like the Psalmist, we might know the encompassing certainty of His love and intention towards us.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Killing us softly

There are times when what's already been said weighs as far more important than what is about to be done.

That's what learning is about - understanding something in a manner that we haven't before, but what do you do when learning itself becomes a means, not for growth and awareness, but of irrevocable change... and demise.

It's a scenario often portrayed well in Science Fiction, especially when the real consequences are faced, but how about in real life?
What do we do when we discover, suddenly, that we're entirely disenfranchised from means that are vital, and that there is no appeal, no voice provided to amend such exclusion?

I had two practical experiences this week that really brought this home. The first was a shopping order that went woefully wrong. I e-mailed the store and explained the trouble, and within an hour, was exchanging messages with someone who totally understood the problem, refunded my money, and provided me with a voucher for the trouble that had been caused. 
During the same week, I sought to apply for a clerical post on a Government department site. I completed the CV, as requested. Then I completed a lengthy statement of why I thought myself suitable for the role, as requested. Then I was asked to complete a personality test. I did so, then I was asked to complete a judgement test. I was provided with a practice version of this, and I didn't score too well, so I thought I'd wait a few days before giving it another go. I went back to my application at the weekend (with several days to spare to finish the test) to see a two word note had been placed there - "application failed". Not exactly a considered way of informing me, but, there we are, or so I thought. This morning, the 'bot' messages from the same site commenced. "You have failed to complete this test, so your application has been withdrawn".
The problem is I'm getting messages from a machine. It won't allow me to hang up, won't allow me to reply, it won't do anything except keep telling me that I'm a failed applicant.
The only choice I have is to, in effect, take myself off it's radar by de-registering from the site, meaning I have to begin all over again if another post comes up that I want to apply for.

The system is flawed, and not just for the reason I've touched on here.

What happens, however, when I cannot 'hang up'? What happens when the 'bot' gets so sophisticated that I'm not even communicating with it any longer because I have, in effect, become irrelevant?

That's exactly what happened on both twitter and facebook last year when they tested their own a.i.'s in a direct engagement with people. Within a matter of hours, both systems had changed beyond recognition, and the only way to 'control' what was happening was to close them down.

The ramifications of all of this are terrifying. The fact is that, across a whole array of fields, humans are about to be made redundant, and, even worse, will be viewed as an impediment to future a.i. development.

What happens to us then?

The moment of 'convergence' (when machines truly become self aware) has been vaunted for some time now, and there is much debate about what that really involves, but the fact remains that we are about to experience a shift in the world as profound as if the earth had shifted upon its axis, and we are simply not ready for what we have initiated to take its full effect.

The problem, as I was so sharply reminded by a documentary this week, is that we have profoundly miss-understood ourselves and the nature of what we do. We may make advances in science and culture, but we also are death incarnate. We spoil and ruin so much, and we are so very blind to the darkness that dwells within us that we blithely and arrogantly ignore what it brings and the consequences which follow... until it is too late.

That is why the biblical message concerning us is so true and so drowned out. It speaks volumes about how we cannot become whole outside of acknowledging the one in whom we truly have our being.

My experience spoke volumes this past week. A person brought understanding and compassion at a moment of need. A machine brings nothing but exclusion.

The day of the machine is falling upon us.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Rogues, Rebels and Renegades (aka The Beloved)

"Some say he was an outlaw that he roamed across the land
With a band of unschooled ruffians and few old fishermen
No one knew just where he came from or exactly what he'd done
But they said it must be something bad that kept him on the run".
The Outlaw - Larry Norman

So, there it was - another posted list of things that I should and should not be doing. It may have well been saying "change the colour of your eyes" or "grow wings" or some other foolish thing, because none of it applies, however good the advice sounds. 

Let's get this straight - Christianity isn't for the religious. It isn't for those who have countless regimes that keep them all neat and tidy in body and soul so they can show everyone just how "whole" they are. Those who think they are so well adjusted, so well adorned, so healthy and wealthy, have no need of the radical remedy that Calvary and an empty tomb convey... they deem themselves to be doing just fine through what they think, feel and thereby adjudicate as "holy".

Jesus and His followers are blunt about such refinement.
Foul, stinking tombs of decay, vaunted by vipers and offspring of the devil, whose entire estate is valueless dung is Jesus' estimation of such 'religion'. Haters of God and creation that should wholly follow their asceticism to the point of emasculating themselves, echoes Paul. Anger, expressed through blunt profanity, is the response to religion.

There's a reason the scriptures look about such 'modesty' as something worse than the filth that clings to the bottom of our shoes.
These 'teachers' are seeking to undermine what God has made, provided and redeemed. They want us to believe we can find an equilibrium 'within' that allows us to treat the material as something endured, stoically, whilst the far more important refinement (or indulgence) of ourselves (what we deem as 'pure') goes on in 'progressive' (measurable) terms within (as defined by our standards, of course).

It's nothing more than the cycle of sin. It leaves us willingly  enslaved to the steel trap of our own religious pretenses and preferences, loosing sight of the true righteousness that comes in a God that touches what is unclean, holds to Himself the one who knows He is vile and unworthy, unconditionally loves the one who has nothing to give but the dreadful truth about themselves - that they carry a plague far, far worse than cancer.

Grace comes to the ones who know they are not good, not pure, not safe in their own behaviour, but constantly in need of mercy.
It's these who are truly free. Free to eat and drink, to wear whatever, to enjoy all that is given, because they understand that the only life that can define us well is the one that was given for them, given to them, in Jesus Christ.

This is why Paul tells us to avoid any teaching that seeks to bind us to lists of do's and don'ts about externals (Colossians 2:6-23). This is why the same Paul is so abusive and blunt to the Galatians when they externalize Christianity into becoming just such a religion (Galatians 3). There isn't space for politeness and etiquette when such piety and 'holy' modesty are what overtake us, because they kill the truth.

Paul stood alone for the stand he took.
Jesus was stripped, whipped and crucified because He dared to say life must come from somewhere other than our view of ourselves.

Christianity tells us we're the problem - we're where the poison resides, and only by Christ's bloody ransom is anything going to be whole again. In His death, our sin is vanquished. In His resurrection, all of creation is made whole again. Nowhere else is that so.

Stop reveling in your deeds and doctrines. Stop thinking 'I can' and run... run as the rebel you are to the one who loves you anyway, and there, you can begin to find what truly counts, not just for today, but forever.

There is Grace, thank God, in our time of need.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Strangers no more

"And when you open it's mouth, you will find a Shekel".
Matthew 17:27.

In the cupboard, are various biscuits that are there for particular guests (and the same is true of several beverages). On the DVD shelf is almost a dozen movies, purchased and shown in the last few years for the benefit of others. On the bookcase, the holes speak of loaned out books, and on the desk, the thick folder of papers tells of numerous studies prepared to share on many occasions.

Similar observations could be made concerning the bulk of e-mails or the You Tube videos recommended, or the plethora of links to useful websites, and that's before the wealth of good things touched upon and exchanged in the vast number of conversations enjoyed in relation to the treasures of the truths found in these many locations.

John says it well in his first letter - because He gave Himself for us, we now seek to share something of such love with each other, especially seeking to meet the needs of our new family (1 John 3:16 & 17).
'Keeping the commandments', as he goes on to say, of believing and therefore loving each other is one of the key aspects of our faith, because it isn't just about doing what's required (as in paying the temple tax in Matthew), but discovering how extraordinary and rich life becomes as we seek to live together in the goodness of God's care and mercy. Our giving to each other deepens our life in God's love and allows us the wonder and joy of sharing such love, and that is one of the most glorious things we can do.

Jesus spoke of the coming creation being like a huge festival, where we sit down with each other at table and revel in the sheer delight of such a moment, and when we spend time together, focused around His goodness and care, allowing us a glimpse into the depths of that marvelous love that defines His nature, we find our hearts warmed and our souls hungry for what will define the everlasting ages ahead - deep, rich and unending fellowship.

The scripture encourage us - taste and see, for the Lord is good. Let us come and rejoice in that splendor together.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Doing it right?

"The hour has come when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people".  John 4:23.

How do we create an environment amongst God's people that is causing them to die due to their being wrong with God?
The answer is when we 'do' church and especially worship in a way that is actually contrary to God's will.

Sadly, this happens all too often.

There are numerous examples of this in the scriptures, but let me focus in on one that involved a man who knew what it was to revel in the love of God - king David.

Now David knew what is was like to be lost in the joy of salvation. There's that very famous and public incident where, dressed only in an ephod (a short petticoat), he danced and leapt before the Lord will all his might, and caught the full acidic sting of the rebuke of his wife, Michael as a result (though she was the one who was judged - see 2 Samuel 6:13 onwards).

Now, all of this was perfectly fine because we read how David was very careful - on this occasion - to do all that was required (6:13) to bring the ark of God into Jerusalem, but the whole enterprise had begun very differently.

The first part of this same chapter tells us how the very same David had sought to transport the same ark into the city not as it was instructed it should be moved - by the priests carrying it, but by placing it in a cart, which had resulted in the instant death of one of his servants (see verses 1-7). The ark had then stayed where it was for months, and the incident had brought about a rift between David and God (verse 8).

Did you see the difference? Joy in God's presence was perfectly normal and right when things were done according to what God asks of us, but what happens when we have lots of niceties that we deem to be OK, but in effect are contrary or distracting to what He has asked of us?

"Modern" styles of doing things, especially worship, are not new. As in this story, there are plenty of examples where we devise our own 'free' styles of doing things, and these become what defines us rather than those truths and methods of drawing close to God that have been approved and provided. It isn't that we cannot be joyful before God and with each other (how dreadful would that be!), but we need to understand what happens when the methods (abandoned worship, prosperity teaching, prophecy and miracles) become the core of what we're doing rather than hearing God speak in His Word and Sacraments.

That's what this story teaches us.
Uzzah, David's friend died because of being involved in the wrong techniques to approach God. Over the last five decades, I've experienced and witnessed all manner of forms of 'worship' that have lead to the spiritual death (being burnt out to Christianity) of hundreds - the churches that they said were 'so alive' a few decades ago are gone.

David recognizes his folly. He returns to God, does what should be done, and once more encounters the sheer marvel of God's goodness as a result.

Pastor and Theologian Mike Horton notes:

"When the style of our music is upbeat and loud and ascending in enthusiasm, we miss the range of biblical teaching about God, ourselves, and the Christian life.
An over-realized eschatology (we can have it all now) has caused much of contemporary worship to get stuck in 'victory' and 'blessing' mode and this downplays the reality of ongoing sin, trails and dissapointment, as well as the attributes of God which are more disturbing to us. This cannot help but produce, at best, weak and immature Christians who will not stand in times of trial or testing".

This is so very true. Much of the church in the West has suffered in our times because it has focused on secondary things (blessings) rather than the character and work of the one who bestows such things.

Genuine worship is always marked by truth - about God, ourselves, and how Christ alone deals with our sin so we can, by His life and righteousness, draw near. That's why means like confession, baptism, the Lord's Supper, and expository preaching, always have to be at the heart of our worship if it is to be true and meaningful, not merely a play on our emotions.

We have been called to something profound as those brought near by the blood of Jesus. Let us not, in folly, squander what has cost so much.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Too earthy to be of heavenly worth?

"For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through Him to reconcile himself to all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His Cross".

Colossians 1:19,20.

I was reading a piece today about the need for us to 'do' and to 'be' church well. When we make it too casual or too regimented, we miss the point, which apparently is to transport us via word and sacrament into the heavens.

Worship, ministry, service, fellowship - apparently, it's meant to be where we're taken to somewhere far, far, away, so unsearchable, unspeakable things become a vehicle that heralds us to the transcendent.

Now, I have no objections whatsoever to hymns and texts or entire sermons that remind us of the majesty and unreachable heights of the holiness and glory of the God who reigns above all, but I also have an observation.

When we read passages like the one I've quoted above, then we're reminded of something equally as shocking but so wonderfully true.

When Adam was cowering in the fig leaves, it wasn't just the thought of God's majesty that terrified him - it was the thought of trying to simply be, devoid of any of the care, splendor, freedom and goodness that had been bestowed so richly but lost so totally when he'd been poisoned by a lie. The problem wasn't that he had never trod some etherial realm (actually, Eden was the only 'paradise' that was required) - it was that he and Eve had lost sight of the radiance of what was all around them. Slighting the goodness of what was, they had sold out for the crass cackle of an empty allure.

If we think church is about escaping the body for some spiritual 'experience', however devotional we deem this, we're in danger of missing a far greater truth - the one Paul and others express so well.

What brought the first steps of recovery for Adam was God walking in the garden, looking for him. It's when the Lord steps into our stone - cold dead state that heaven is revealed.

It's not a mistake that redemption comes through Christ being 'God with us' - touching our deadness through the common - Word, Water, Bread and Wine. Allowing us to fellowship with Him through these, because He was here.

God is in Christ - the Christ who has come amongst (to, for) us - as reconciler, redeemer, saviour.

There's a danger when God 'escapes' us by being somewhere else. Church, spirituality, godliness, and everything that entails, becomes something uncoupled from what and where we are most of the time... In truth, that easily leaves us like Adam, back amongst the fig leaves. That leaves us wondering why try and be 'church' at all. If all we are is a company of wretched beggars, naked save for another's love, what makes us think for a moment that we can presume we can calmly reside before the throne of blinding holiness? 
Is there an account of anyone (of us) in scripture who did?

The truth, of course, is that Heaven surrounds us, but most of the time, we fail to see just how close it really is. What we do glimpse, mercifully, on occasion, is the tender mercies given to us in Jesus Christ - and that is exactly as it should be.

There's a reason that Christianity is so good, so truly merciful, and, when realized, so shocking. It's because God is in the material - flesh and blood, time and space, and it's there that He's deeply at work.

The author of the article does get one thing absolutely right. It's when, as he notes, the magnificent happens in the mundane that God is truly with us and glorified. When the treasure is evident amidst the earthen vessels (us), we worship and feed upon the love of God in Christ, present among us, in a manner that truly is good.

So, this week, come, without your pretenses and gnostic notions - come and taste the sweetness and satisfying grace of God with us in His beloved Son, who truly, by His giving of Himself, sets us free.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Saying (and living) it

"I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision (justification by the law) that he is obligated to the whole law. You who are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by such law, you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly await for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus there is neither circumcised not uncircumcised, but only faith working through love".

Galatians 5:3-6.

Don't you hear that, it's often asked - Paul is telling us that 'externals' really truly don't matter now - all that is gone. It's what we do 'inwardly' by loving that really counts - so, if we're loving people, however we behave (live) outwardly, that's fine. Christianity, then, boils down to 'all you need is love'.

Is that what Paul is saying?
What about when our 'external' behavior causes us to align ourselves with one group at the expense of being discriminatory against another? Wouldn't Paul be the first to say that has to stop? Certainly - that's one of the reasons he wrote this particular letter. A band of people had arisen teaching that if you weren't Jewish, you had to ceremonially become Jewish and then live by Jewish customs to really be a Christian.
Paul says that's bad theology, but his reason for doing so is because of the nature of Christianity itself.

Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and not out of our own deeds, we have been made truly free to live in a manner that is as different to trying to keep the law as night is to day. 

For Paul, genuinely loving someone means directing them to the true parameters and ramifications of the saving work of God in His Son, and that entails boldly affirming the faith which justifies us by grace, without the seeking to live by the burden of self-imposing the law.

By such grace, Paul himself had come to understand that though previously obsessed with the Jewish law, it was only by trusting in Christ and His giving of Himself for us that he could become justified before God (Galatians 2).  He therefore admonishes us to trust and live purely on that basis (Galatians 3), that we might truly be those adopted into God's saving work (Galatians 4).

So, if we are a community living by that faith, then that is what we will convey in our life together. Formerly, we were enslaved to 'externals' of our own devising or by those imposed by others (religion), but that has ended, and we need to be people who see further than what was. The problem for us is when teachings encroach which seek to re-direct us from the validity of the Gospel to give credence to practices via notions which effectively sever us from truth working by love. The Galatians were duped by a message that sounded right, making them 'more' than they assumed they had been, but that was the lie, leading them into error. Thankfully, Paul was there to say refrain from such folly.

So, what about us?
How do we weigh up and determine what is being advocated regarding what we need to say and do today?

We certainly should seek to engage with all with honesty and love with respect to the truth in the good news, but we always need to do so in the clarity of what that message is and why certain 'externals' (teachings and practices) are contrary to that, making clear that life in God is weening us away from the merely living to or by the things of the flesh (Galatians 5). It is that which allows us to walk with our burdens and share these with each other (Galatians 6) and know the true uncoupling from what's bad by God making us anew.

So, there are things which should distinguish us as the community of God's children.

First is our understanding of the nature of the gospel (the indicatives) - the life given to us by God in Christ.

We come to see that because of who and what we are, both in ourselves and in the race we belong to, we are sinners because, by nature, we are sinful (Paul's getting us to face up to this in Romans 5-7, after spelling out what's true of us all in Romans 1-3, is crucial).  Salvation comes to us by what God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Christ being made ours (Romans 6), changing us into becoming Gods people (Romans 8). This is because God's wrath against our unrighteousness and ungodliness (Romans 1:18) has been replaced by the righteousness evidenced in the propitiation of the blood of Jesus Christ, which allows Him to justify those who were under such wrath (3:21-26). Christ's death and resurrection brought a complete victory over sin and the death it brought upon us (2 Corinthians 5:21). This allows us to share in God's astonishing mercy and the sure and certain hope of eternal life in a redeemed and renewed creation (Romans 8).

Second is our recognizing the ramifications of this gospel (the imperatives) - that we seek to live in accordance with the freedom (righteousness) that is ours.

This is where Paul seeks to point the Galatians once he has clarified the Gospel itself.
He urges them to avoid the manner of life they had lived prior to being freed - the various impurities that we naturally are inclined to follow - in favor of being those things which God is seeking to encourage amongst us (Galatians 5:13-24). This clearly isn't easy (6:1-5), but life together makes it possible if the 'law' (truth) of Christ (see verse 14) is what reigns over us.

As for the Galatians, there are 'externals' aplenty which buffer us today to 'love' without the manner of understanding (and therefore, freedom) Paul lays out, but we need, if we're going to live and serve well, to listen carefully to what's said here. 

The cost if we don't could be everything of eternal value.