Thursday, 16 March 2017

The excellence of Jesus

Just had to share this superb message from my friend, Paul Blackham:

Saturday, 11 March 2017

gloriam hominis?

(Following on from my last posting...)

"Let your words be anything but empty
Why don't you tell them the truth?"  From Brave by Sara Bareillies

Words and Phrases. We're so used to them that sometimes we can neglect to really unpack what they're actually seeking to say (and what they're really telling us).

Recently, I've been looking at what's put up as the shop window blurb on the websites of the "new" (Principally Charismatic, so circa 1980's on) church growth movement churches, and it certainly says something.

Most of them want to talk about being part of what's deemed "bigger" than us - the revitalization, the transformation - ideas that would fit well into the designer label bag of most post-modernists (here be the dragons that continually feed upon themselves!). Whilst these notions certainly give what's served up a contemporary tag, it's how you access these attractions that's particularly telling. There isn't much by way of structural doctrine to define what's believed at the gateway (that, of course, is left to the initiation courses - usually "Alpha" - which come later) , but when it comes through, it's often phrases about getting to know 'Father' (God) essentially by the work 'of the Spirit', and this was where the real troubles start to appear.

Huh? someone may say - why does it matter?
Surely, these places are clearly attracting people towards 'god', so that has to be a good thing, right?

Well, let's look at a Biblical story for a moment to answer that.

The book of Acts has some pretty miraculous moments, and one of the most startling occurs quite early on, at the cusp of the new church just beginning to dip a toe into taking its message out further than Jerusalem.  A man named Phillip, who'd literally been a waiter before Saul started splintering the church community, had headed down to Samaria and was boldly preaching and casting out devils, when some trouble popped up in the form of a miracle man called Simon, who joined Phillip's entourage and then found himself eager to gain the kind of power these new teachers had, however much silver it cost him. This lead to a show-down with the likes of Peter and John, so things were certainly getting stirred up! Anyway, in the middle of all this, Phillip finds himself being told to chase down a chariot in the desert to speak to a guy on his way back to Africa. He heads off to the desert, does as he's told, and -whoosh!, then gets carried away to another town, a long way away in Caesarea, to carry on his work.

Did you see what I did there?

I told the outline - this happened, then this - of the story given in Acts 8, but I haven't actually said anything at all about what is at the hub of these events.

Before I say anything more, can you think what that might be?

If you can't, take a look at the chapter for a minute and then see if it comes to mind.

What's missing in my initial telling here has everything to do with what is also missing from the message of the websites I mentioned to begin with, and defines the trouble we all face today.

The Samaria story is filled with lots of exciting events - someone turns up and all manner of unexpected things happen as a result, but the entire narrative is given weight by that little 'footnote' of Phillip's side-trip into the desert.

Well, here, he meets someone from elsewhere who is struggling with the scriptures, and not just any 'ol portion of them - he's reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, speaking of one who will suffer for the sins of others.

Phillip's job was essential - to inform this stranger that the Prophet was speaking of the very one who had recently come and given Himself for us - to proclaim the one who had died and risen so that this man could trust in that atoning work and be re-born in baptism.

God took Phillip into the desert because this mattered, eternally.

So, look at that incident again, and tell me what's missing - what is it that needs to be mentioned, talked about, preached and proclaimed?

Here it is - "Then Phillip opened his mouth, and beginning with the scripture the man was reading, he told him the good news"... (wait for it)... "about Jesus" (Acts 8:35).

What mattered in what the church was doing at that very moment was something very clear-cut and essential, not only for those who belonged to it, but for the good of the whole world,
so, what's going on today?

Let me place this question in a somewhat broader context.

I recall some years ago on a radio broadcast how one of the shows team went to a major Christian convention in America and sought to interview people who were both running the event and attending by asking a couple of straightforward questions. These were:

What are the ten commandments?
What is the Gospel?
What does Justification mean?

Most of the responses weren't just bad, they were positively pagan, and whilst there were a couple of exceptions, the simple fact was people really didn't know what Christianity was at all - their churches were clearly failing them entirely.

We are imperiled, spiritually, when we are encouraged to move off from the vital truths of the faith, especially concerning The Preaching of the Cross (the saving work of Jesus Christ) to invest in a spirituality which majors in minors - a principal-based, naval-gazing spirituality that asks us to keep looking at ourselves in the immediate and at 'god' in the abstract (distant or spiritual, rather than present, in His Word and Sacrament). 

The plain and simple truth is we're often communicating a religion that fits right in with our own religiosity, not turning us, as the wretches we actually are, to the judgement and mercy required at the Cross.

Jesus tells us plainly - life isn't possible for you and I unless its via the gateway of His death (for our sins) and ours (by being crucified with Him), so that we can begin to partake of something very different - a life where we're fed by the Spirit speaking to us by God's word (meaning, not our intuitions, but the word that will never fade or fail).

So, as Easter arrives, where will we be?
Will the Jesus message this year be something mystical, or shrouded behind a deluge of 'new' praise sessions, or 'revelations' or will it be as real and as stark as it was on the first easter, requiring from us repentance and faith in the eternal work of the one became the Lamb slain for us?

Church really isn't about us 'doing' business with God. It's where we go to once again learn what God has done for us at one place, forever.

We cannot hope to save the world, or even help ourselves, unless that's where we focus.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Beyond "Spirituality"

"I am the truth" 
Jesus (John 14:6).

Ever tried traveling in a vehicle with a troubling fault?
It doesn't even have to be that serious to be life threatening.

Some years ago, my late wife and I were heading back home in some pretty extreme conditions - thick mist and fog with that thin saturating rain - when the motor on the front windscreen wiper gave out. In a few seconds, it was impossible to see where we were going.

We can, hopefully, see the peril in everyday situations like this before they cause us any serious troubles, but similar perils appear to be something we can often be almost blind to when it comes to the condition and inclination of our own souls.

One of the key and essential truths that the Bible reveals about us all is that we all have a nature that determines that we will always veer towards darkness rather than light (Romans 1:19 onwards), to sin rather than to what is good (Romans 3:9-20), and thereby confirm that we are in a totally ruined condition, so how do you think we'll get on when it comes to loosing or choosing our religion? Interesting that Paul tells us in the first Romans passage I've mentioned here that this is the first place we can see the fault line that then allows us to go on to make all manner of other personally desired 'allowances'. This makes a lot of sense. if we have a 'god' (even if it's just our self-determination) which affirms our own core beliefs, then everything else (ethics, morals, cultural values and the like) will quickly fall-in behind that over-arching 'voice' as well.

All this matters a great deal when we come to consider current approaches and aspirations in what's voiced as 'nice' (having the right vibe) amidst the often zen-like popular harmonic that passes as valuable or acceptable 'spiritual' insight.

Collective 'belief making', principally through what's often posted in venues likes social media, blogs and other such venues has become a popular pastime. What is striking is to unpack what is going on as a result of this and similar modifying today. A US report of a few years ago came up with some interesting results. Here's a snippet:

Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic. Nearly half of the public (49%) says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” This is similar to a survey conducted in 2006 but much higher than in surveys conducted in 1976 and 1994 and more than twice as high as a 1962 Gallup survey (22%). In fact, this year’s survey finds that religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (30%) than they were in the 1960s among the public as whole (22%).

Of course, none of this is really that new - religion of all shapes and stripes (as long as they are 'nice') has always been in vogue (recall for a moment Paul's visit to Mars hill, and the comfortable fit between philosophy and numerous manifestations of worship). What is a little surprising here is how many professing Christians are making a great deal of accommodation for all manner of 'useful' ideas that are, in effect, contrary to the core message of the faith itself. This 'pick and mix' has certainly been evidenced many times before - Saul, for example, in the Old Testament, thought it might be OK to consult a medium when things got tricky for him. Solomon, after marrying countless wives and gaining a harem,  decided it was fine to play around with their beliefs as well, but these, and many other examples show us that the consequences are horrendous because such dabbling drives us right back to the human soul trifling with forces that have already imprisoned us.
With such dire consequences in mind, here are a few things to consider about the value of what's being shared as 'nice' in your neck of the woods...

The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that there is only one person and one place in all of heaven and earth, time and space, where you and I can be made free from our sin and severance from God - that is in the person of Jesus Christ and in His death and resurrection for us (Romans 3:21-26), so ask yourself this - when it comes to what I'm engaging with or promoting here, is it really pointing me and others to the Gospel of 'Jesus Christ and Him Crucified', or is it pointing somewhere else?

If what's going on is really talking about the nature of Christ and His redemption, then it's going to help us needy folk and do some good. If it's inviting us to head off down some other avenue of piety or enlightenment, then it's going to be a cul de sac, bending us back in upon ourselves, and that's going to bring the greatest pain of all.

The remedy to sin and death isn't easy - easter so starkly shows us that. The crucifixion was to deal with our ingrained condition - our sin. It was marked with a bruising of soul for our sorrows and iniquities. The true and lasting solution to our distance from the garden will come in the day of the new creation, when all the benefits of Christ's sacrifice are fully evidenced forever in a redeemed and renewed cosmos (Romans 8: 22 & 23). Until then, we are still bound by pain and corruption, and still know how venomous sin and death can be. The comfort is not in us. It is in Him who tasted death for us all that, finally, by His stripes, and only them, we may be healed (Isaiah 53: 3-12).

It so easy for us to 'channel' and proceed to mine the spirit of the age, but there is a far richer, deeper seam which God, in Christ, is wanting for us to discover and treasure.

As we approach another Easter, let's consider that.