Sunday, 28 February 2016

Escaping a 'virtual' Easter

"The same flesh that wants to sin is used to living under moral constraints that thwart sinful desires - the mind brings both of these into play. This is why true grace is so scandalous and why we are constantly seeking to undermine our freedom with a little Law... we will seek such 'ethics'  rather than face the liberty to which grace actually calls us".  Jim Mc Neely.

How do we approach a scripture like John 3:16 ?

When we consider the essential message of most teaching that's heard, we may think it should be heard something like this:

God made the world, but because we ate something that was forbidden, we're outcast from paradise forever.
Because we were so terrible at following rules, God clearly needed to punish us.
God wanted to show us, however, just how bad we were, so He gave us lots more rules, which we couldn't keep, and then decided something more must be done, so Jesus, who was God's good boy, had to be killed, because what we did what and do is just bad. God killed the good boy rather than punish you, so you should be so grateful that you behave better. If you do, then you get to go to heaven.

Most of us, or course, would recognize what's outlined here as a parody - Jesus isn't saying that - but why does the essential nature of the Gospel so often come across as though this is the kind of thing we believe - that God is austere and remote from our poverty, even when the very heart of what He's about, evidenced in Christ living and dying for us, is what we're talking about?

David Zahl on the Mockingbird website did a superb revision of the parable of the Prodigal Son recently. Here's what he wrote:

“There was a man who had two sons;and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he got involved with a really large church. The pastors at that church told him that if he gave sacrificially, he would be blessed and so, wanting to experience the fullness of God’s blessing, he gave them his entire inheritance. Unfortunately, he promptly contracted a debilitating case of lupus, which led to him losing his job. He began to wonder if his church was perhaps not preaching the authentic Gospel. So he went and joined himself to another church in that country, one that had splintered off from the bigger one a decade previous. They had rejected the prosperity teaching and claimed to take the Bible more seriously, preaching the benefits of a life of radical obedience and imitation of Christ. Before long they had him on a regimen of thrice daily bible studies, scripture memorization and marathon prayer sessions. Before he knew it, he was spending more time at church than at his apartment, helping in whatever task was asked of him. Nothing was too menial. One day, when he was mopping the floors of the church basement, he realized that he felt no closer to God than before, that the harder he tried to be holy, the further away holiness seemed to recede. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if his salvation, or even God, was real. In the next room he overheard an AA meeting going on. Someone was saying something about an admission of powerlessness. He felt pretty powerless himself and so he sat down, and heard about a God who saved people who could not save themselves. That sounds pretty great, he thought–possibly That night, he got online and looked for more information about this exciting message. He stumbled upon a website called Mockingbird and his mind was blown. The Gospel was good news after all! He decided to go home to his father, and say ‘Father, I have completely misunderstood the gospel; I have squandered my inheritance on oppressive, heretical churches and have been an insufferable legalist. I understand if you never want me at another family gathering.’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have completely misunderstood the Gospel, and am no longer worthy to be called a Christian.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; tell the Senior Warden we have a new vestryman, and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was a synergist, and is now a mongerist, was judgmental and is compassionate again.’ And they began to make merry.
Now the father’s elder son was watching the game in a bar with some friends a few blocks away; and as he drew near to the house on his motorcycle, he heard music and dancing, two things he liked very much. So he called one of the guests and asked what was happening. And the guest said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But the older brother was angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have believed in  grace with all my heart and never swayed in my commitment to the solas; I had your back 100% when you were kicked out of your last church, yet you never threw me a party. But when that shamelessly Pelagian son of yours came back–who threw our money down the drain, you not only didn’t ask him to publicly denounce his Pharisaical ways. But instead you made him a vestryman and killed for him the fatted calf!’ And the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and were welcome to serve on the vestry at any time. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found".

What I particularly like about this re-telling is the way it shows just how easily legalism can take hold of our behavior, of our piety, of our 'godliness', and truly leave us as poisoned as Adam and Eve seeking to cover themselves as God approached them, or as the pharisee so thankful that he was 'better' than others. 

Salvation is about something entirely different. Think for a moment about the life of Jacob (Genesis 25-33).  
Here is a man who's will and desires had him scheming and conniving all over the place, using his mother's love so that he could con both his dying Father and his twin brother, until he finally faced reaping the consequences of what he's been doing all his life (which, by the way, had included getting a taste of his own medicine when it came to marrying the woman he loved - see Genesis 29). There's nothing here that would commend us to Jacob - he's certainly no paragon of virtue, but Jacob had one thing going for him that made all the difference. God loved him, and as Jacob fearfully faces the showdown with Esau that should have ended his life,  grace comes from God (Genesis 32).

The important thing to note here is it's at this point that Jacob is re-named and crippled - not exactly the 'victorious living' he was looking for - so that faith in the one who blessed him in spite of his nature would become what he could rest on in future (Hebrews 11:20).

What counts here is to see that it's the grace and work of God that gives to Jacob and the people that would descend from him - Israel, (which means one who wrestles with God) what counts, and that's all that makes Jacob, and any of us, special.
God's action in this world and in our lives allows us to become those, like Jacob, who are loved in spite of our folly and our mischief. No doubt our lives, like Jacob's, will often be stained by trouble and by sin, which would indeed cause us to perish, but grace has something more in store for us. Grace alone allows us to look outside of the prison of our present exile, and see the one who has come to make us free, not by virtue of our behavior or morality, but purely because of His rescuing us from death and hell by His life alone.

 Godliness is His, and the best we will truly manage in this life is moments when, by the grace poured into our hearts from Him, we can share such beauty and richness with each other. God loved this world with a love that saves, and when we know that love, then we can share something of that splendor with the world, for it truly sets us free.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Creation Re-loaded

The small copse of trees amidst the road was gone - hewn down, leaving a gaping void where, for years, there had been beauty and a feast of life every spring. The ravages of disease, no doubt. No wonder creation aches and groans for release.

A friend recently made a very astute observation. If Science Fiction is the literature of our times, why does so much of it conclude with a dystopian rather than a utopian ending? It's a pretty obvious problem when you think about it - if the 'science' you depend upon has been nourished by naturalism, then there really is nothing but energy and matter, and both are in a state ruthlessly ruled by entropy, so the conclusion is obvious. Why, then, all these grand notions of aspiring to something bigger and better? Is that just an aberrant bane on the household of our race, or does this 'hunger' tell us a truth we need a whole other series of narratives to probe?

Romance gives us a big nudge on this, but not just the 'happily ever after' (me and you) variety. There are a whole range of things around us that we have deep and genuine affection for, because each and every day, it's these evidences of a splendor to creation that truly make our lives worth living, and allow us to consider the wonder, even amidst our deepest pain. That, I suspect, more than anything else, causes us to dream and see beyond the ugliness. We want this all to have a better future than death and decay. 

The good news is that it does.

In the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, we find the prophet encountering a vision of the earth post all the current anguish, and it's not a cinder or a dead end. He begins the revelation by defining who has saved this rare gem with His work and character - a clear description of the one who would be born amongst our very woes (note the reference to Jesse - verse 1) to bring an equity only anticipated in those first short, earliest moments in Eden.

The picture of Lions at ease with Lambs which follows (verses 6 & 7) is often something so coddled in Sunday school-type thoughts that we never truly consider what's being stated here, but one of the next images leaves us in absolutely no doubt.
"The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and put his hand in the adder's den" (verse 8). There will be no hurt. There will be no death. The 'equity' brought by the one sent to our benighted race will be the 'sign' (which, as I touched on last post, clearly means lots more than just a symbol) to the whole earth. The 'weight' or significance of this manifestation of what is truly good will cover the entire realm of His handiwork.

The force of this image would be plain to its original readers. The bite of the most poisonous creature has been muted and the sheer joy of the innocence of the child at play is regained. Even amidst places which would have previously only brought fear and death, peace has been totally restored.

That is the goal of the 'new wine' of the kingdom, which will be evidenced on the day of resurrection.

The one who sprang from Jesse, born of David's line, has appeared and opened the gate wide to that new and living way, where those bitten by sin's awful venom can come and be healed. Jesus Christ the righteous died and rose to set us free, and as we trust in Him, we gain a foretaste of what is to come - creation continuing as it was meant to, filled with a life and a culture that is devoid of evil, eternally growing and deepening in its understanding and appreciation of it's richness and the worth of it's maker and Lord.

That's a story that's not only worth reading, but of being within.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Perishable Goods

"You've sought me not because you saw something remarkable, but because your stomachs were filled with bread".

Jesus (John 6:26).

It's the turning-point in what was to come.
From here on in, rather than days which struck people because of the miraculous, there would be a new emphasis - a turning to Jerusalem, and the conflict with death that awaited there.

The Gospel of John, however, tells this moment differently, taking in another aspect of the story, than the other Gospels.

The people had been truly fed by the 'miracle worker' (verse 2) on the cusp of passover (verse 4) - the time when the people recalled the feeding of their forefathers by Moses in the wilderness - and had deemed that such a man was indeed worthy of their devotion and elevation (verse 15), but Jesus had walked across the lake to distance Himself from such ends. The throng, however, knew when they were on to a good thing, and they raced after Him, wanting more of the free lunches their prescribed 'king' could provide.

It's here that things get really interesting (verse 28 onwards).
Jesus said that they didn't understand what really mattered - that they really needed to believe in Him if they were to gain something more than just a meal. The response of the crowd, of course, was 'well, you give us another sign, and then we may consider you worth following'. Their only real interest was in the immediate, not what Jesus was really all about.

When you read through the concluding sections of most of the Epistles of the New Testament, you see how this is spelt-out, over and over again, and if we're honest, the reason it's there is because, like the hungry crowd awaiting breakfast, we're not really taking on board what it means or seeking to understand what's really going on. If we can have our plates filled for another day, oh, and our desires met in full along with that, then everything will be pretty peachy and, well, we can worry about anything else, maybe, after that. I must admit that my own thoughts and related deeds, when soberly examined, can often be just that shallow.

Jesus doesn't let us off the hook.
He refers them to the feeding by Moses in the desert, but corrects their understanding - it isn't Moses that gives bread that satisfies, but God, and when people eat of that bread, they will not only be satisfied, but they will gain a life that never ceases (and, in truth, never sits easy with being satisfied for less).

The crowd isn't there for a lecture on something that is so clearly removed from their own  wants and needs, so they start to complain (verse 41 - so often our own de-fault setting!) - who does this man think He is? I'm the one, Jesus replies, who gives a 'bread' that will sustain you forever, because the true life that will sustain creation is my flesh (verse 51).

It's not the answer they (or we) were looking for. Sure, give us what we need and, hey, you can stick around (handy for the next meal) and be a 'king', of sorts, but what is all this ghastly talk about us needing to eat you!

They'd been so busy thinking about daily bread, of course, that they'd forgotten what passover itself really entailed - the eating of the Lamb and the shedding of its blood (Exodus 22).

The spotlight then turns away from the masses (probably because they realized that another free meal wasn't going to be forthcoming) to the disciples who were with Him  (verse 60), who were clearly struggling in the same way that the crowd had done. Jesus doesn't dilute what's required one jot, but just says, 'do you wish to go as well?' Peter states something, which, thankfully, keeps me (and, I suspect, so may of us) in the pull of the Gospel - where could we go? Only you have come from God, and you feed us with the words of life (Verse 68).

When we sit in church on Sunday's, it's hopefully because we expect to hear God speak to us through His living word. When we take of the bread and the wine, it is because as Matthew, Mark and Luke* tells us (and as John is unpacking here) - that we are eating and drinking of Christ, because without that life to feed us and sustain us, we're merely scraping around in the dirt for the next scrap, whoever and whatever we are - it's not going to last.

If I'm honest, then I know that often, I'm just one of the crowd, or, at best, a disciple scratching his head and saying, boy, is this hard to get - principally because I have a propensity to go back to what I want or think I need, but Jesus wants to raise our eyes to eternity.

C S Lewis often nails the issue, and he notes: 
"It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea. We are far too easily pleased".
(The Weight of Glory).

Too easily pleased so often sums it up. May God grant us the hunger for that stronger meat and undiluted wine, that our appetites may increase for richer things.

* The Gospels of Matthew (26:27,28) and Mark (14:22-24) both simply say that the bread & wine are the body & blood of Christ, mentioning nothing about 'remembrance' Luke's gospel (22:17-20) speaks of 'remembrance', but some ancient manuscripts do not contain that phrase here (only in Paul's instruction to the Corinthians), and it should be noted that what is meant in the Greek with regards to the word used - anamnesis - is not simply a bringing to remembrance, like one would on a memorial day, but a quickening of our faculties, especially our affections, to engage with the person Himself.