Monthly Archives: November 2008

Proud

On Friday night, my wife slept outside in the cold. And I am proud.

Am I proud to be a heartless husband who is happy to allow his belovèd to be subjected to the onset of winter? No. I am proud, because she did it as one of sixty or so people participating in a sponsored sleep out for Chelmsford CHESS, a Christian organisation that supports homeless people in our town. Among them were what we used to call Sixth Formers from two local secondary schools.

I have calculated that after the addition of Gift Aid where claimed, she will have raised £684.53 towards the amazing work that Chelmsford CHESS undertakes. They began when the churches of the town used to open their halls on a rota basis as places where the homeless could sleep. Then they bought a property and made it a night shelter. They now also have a day centre which offers job skills and recreation, and another residential property for people they are helping to move on back into ‘normal’ life.

I am proud, too, that I have two of their trustees in my churches. One is the Managing Trustee. He has had a passion to serve the homeless since he took early retirement from the world of banking. The other has only recently become involved when he retired early from business. He plans to run an Alpha Course among the clients. That, to say the least, will be interesting.

Obviously, a sponsored sleep out is meant to simulate – but only to a limited extent – the plight of the homeless. It took place in a churchyard. The night had begun with musical entertainment. There were security patrols. Participants could go into the church and make a coffee if they wanted one. They had access to toilets. At 6:30 am, the sleep out was formally broken by the arrival of bacon sandwiches. None of which is to pretend it was easy – Debbie only slept for about twenty minutes all night – but it is to remember that those who are on the streets have it even tougher.

I’ve never been very good in dealing with homeless people. I’m not streetwise enough to find wise ways of serving them. I have oscillated between naïveté and insensitivity in my responses. But I am glad we can find simple ways of supporting organisations like Chelmsford CHESS.

It’s rather like the attitude my grandmother took to world mission. Inspired by the example of her friend Gladys Aylward, she longed to serve the church in overseas mission. However, health reasons prevented her. Unlike Aylward, who was also initially turned down, she was unable to find another way of going abroad. So my grandmother became a lifelong fundraiser for world mission causes. When it’s not possible to go in the cause of mission, Christians can pray and give.

The other side is that it’s easy for us to default to giving and prayer as a way of not doing mission, however much finances and intercession are needed as key jigsaw pieces in the picture of mission. Sometimes they are what we do as a cop-out, because we’d rather not find vulnerable ways of sharing the Gospel ourselves in word and deed. I have known too many churches where the understanding of mission is limited to fund-raising. A Home Missions or World Church Sunday has meant a visiting speaker and a collection. The congregation has then thought it has shared in mission. Church authorities have colluded in this deceit: just pay us, we are the experts.

But I do know that in Debbie’s case it was different. She had been so moved by hearing a speaker from Chelmsford CHESS at a church midweek meeting that she had to find something she could do as a Christian about this terrible social need – one that will surely only worsen, the longer current financial strictures continue.

So, yes, I am proud of my wife.

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Remembering

Isaiah 64:1-9

Three times a year, I need to meet some people in London. I have a standing arrangement to travel with someone to that meeting. We catch a train together from Chelmsford station.

One of those meetings was due on Wednesday. I arrived at the station, and bought my ticket. My friend was not in the ticket hall ahead of me. That was unusual, but I was early. I climbed the stairs to Platform One. We nromally catch the 10:40, but I was so early that I got to the platform just before the 10:27 service. In the absence of my friend, I let it go.

But he wasn’t there for the 10:40, nor the 10:46. I kept looking down the stairwell from the platform. No sign of him.

With the 10:58 imminent, I rang Debbie to get my friend’s office number and called him there. While doing so, the 10:58 came and went. That was the last train that would get us to the regular appointment in London on time. Eventually, someone from reception found my friend, who told him that the meeting had been postponed for a fortnight. (I had not received an email telling me of this change.) Despite all my waiting, my friend was not coming. I returned to the ticket hall, explained the situation, received a refund and came home to reshape my day.

Waiting is one of the great Advent themes. We wait, wondering whether the Messiah will come. The Jewish people waited for centuries. They are still waiting.

We who believe the Messiah did come and that his name was Jesus are also still waiting. We await the appearing of the Messiah who promised to return. We have been waiting for two thousand years.

People mock us for it. In 1975, I loved the song ‘I’m not in love’ by 10cc.

I went to buy the album it was on: ‘The Original Soundtrack‘. Some of the content shocked me, not least a song called ‘The second sitting for the Last Supper’.

It contained words that deride the Christian hope: 

Two thousand years and he ain’t come yet
We kept his seat warm and the table set
The second sitting for the last supper 

Isaiah 64 speaks of waiting – waiting for the God who has not shown up. How do we live with the need to wait? Isaiah cries out to God in terms of the need to remember. What do waiting, Advent-hope people ask God to remember, as they struggle with the waiting?

Remember Your Works 
Here’s the problem: the prophet longs for God to come down in mountain-quaking, fire-making, enemy-quaking mode (verses 1-2). After all, he’s done it before (verses 3-4), so why not now? All is quiet on the God front, and that isn’t good. You’ve parted the Red Sea, sent fire from heaven when Elijah asked for it, helped your people in battle and many other things: why do you seem to be so inactive now?

And don’t Christians feel similar at times? We think back to the wonders performed by Jesus and the apostles. We remember an angel rolling away a stone for women to see that God by his Spirit had raised Jesus from the dead. We recount church history, with its highlights of revivals like the Wesleyan one, where preachers could thunder on Sunday and politicians would then resign on Monday. We see church growth in other parts of the world, but decline in the West. And like the prophet, we think, God you have done these things in the past. You are even doing them elsewhere on the planet today. So why not here and now?

This, then, is part of the tension that comes when we are in a ‘waiting’ phase. It is something that turns us to urgent prayer. We know that God has a track record. We know what he is like, because we know what he has done in the past. And we plead with him to renew his mighty works today.

The late Pope John XXIII knew this approach to prayer. He gave this famous prayer to Catholics:

“Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen”

Naturally, I wouldn’t go with the Mary language, nor to a lesser extent with the Peter language. But when he begins that prayer with the words, ‘Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost’, then I hear the kind of Advent waiting that turns into passionate intercession.

And I suggest that is one of the things to which God calls us this Advent: prayer from the heart. Prayer where we don’t just moan all the time about the state of the world – we’re too good at that as Christians – but deep, meaningful prayer, because what really matters is for God to work as he has done in the past. Not necessarily in the same way – it would be presumptuous of us to expect that – but with the same intensity.

A waiting time need not be idle time for Christians, especially not waiting-for-Jesus time. This Advent, let us remember God’s works and turn that remembrance to prayer as we wait.

Remember Your Ways 
Next, the prophet recognises that those who remember God’s ways do what is right, but when there is a sense of God’s absence, it is easier to do wrong (verses 5-7). It’s almost as if we bring the childish attitude of trying to get away something if we think no-one’s looking to the spiritual life. If we think we are waiting around for an absent God, who knows what we might do? It’s as old as Eden, where the serpent speaks when God is not walking in the garden.

Turning waiting time into idleness is a way of fertilising the ground for sin. Maybe the classic biblical example of this is King David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The text of that story tells us that it happened at the time of year when kings normally went to war. While I’m not trying to justify war in noting that detail, the thing to be aware of is that David was at home instead, idling away his time, when he saw Bathsheba bathing naked. From there came adultery, the murder of his lover’s husband and the death of the baby that was conceived.

But what about the positive side, that those who remember the ways of God ‘gladly do what is right’ (verse 5)? The way to cope with the waiting time is to remember God’s ways. What is God like? What do we know of God’s character? What are God’s traits? If we had to give a character description of God, what would we say?

I hope we might come up with a list that recalls how the ways of God are the ways of love, holiness and sovereignty, of grace, mercy and justice. And if we want a clearer picture of these ways in action, we need only reflect on the life of Jesus, who said that if we had seen him we had seen the Father.

So if just thinking about the qualities of God is too abstract, think about the life of Jesus. Then imagine how we would behave if he were physically present. I know many people didn’t behave well in his physical presence on earth, but some of that was to do with not believing his claims to be the Son of God. We might fail like the disciples did, but the gist of the issue is this: what will we do with the waiting time?

If we use it for idleness, the end result is most likely sin. If instead we meditate on the character of God, our motivation may well be different. I am not recommending we become frantic with church duties, but I am saying that remembering the ways of God will give us focus and direction for holy living as we wait for the coming of God.

And that makes Advent rather like Lent – which, historically, it has been for the Church. The Advent waiting time is a preparation time that includes penitence for our sins. It is about purification for the coming of the King. Advent preparation is less about tinsel, trees, presents and daily chocolates than about holiness. It’s what we do when we use the waiting to remember the ways of God.

Do Not Remember Our Wickedness 
So far, we’ve thought about two appeals for us to remember God, and their consequences. Remembering God’s works leads us to intercessions; remembering God’s ways motivates us to holiness.

But what if the boot were on the other foot? Do we want God to remember things about us? Isaiah 64 says, no! In fact, we want God to forget rather than remember. It would be so easy for God to remember our sin, and Isaiah is forthright about it. Yet he appeals to God on the grounds that we are his people and so God is the potter and we are the clay: God can mould us. Therefore, he pleads, may the God who can mould and remake us not remember our iniquity forever (verses 8-9).

So if Advent waiting calls forth prayer and holiness from us, it also leads us into God’s mercy. The Advent season leads us up to the extravagant sign of God’s mercy: the gift of his Son. In four weeks, we shall see mercy in a manger. Graham Kendrick imagines Mary looking down at her newborn son in his song ‘Thorns in the straw‘:

And did she see there 
In the straw by his head a thorn 
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing 
Not so far away 
Till at last the sun rose blood-red 
In the morning sky 

A thorn in the straw. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Advent is leading up to these things. We are waiting for the mercy of God in Christ. For in Christ God will choose not to remember the iniquity of his people. 

And we extend that into the present and future. In a day when we wonder about the future of the church, we affirm that we shall wait prayerfully for the God of mercy. When we wonder about the future of our society and of the world, we wait prayerfully for the God of mercy.

Indeed, the two earlier responses come into play here as we long for God’s mercy in Christ for ourselves, the Church and the world. One is that – as I have just said – we wait prayerfully. We bring ourselves, the Church and the world to God in prayer as we seek mercy. We confess our sins. We even identify with the sins of others, as Christ did on the Cross and as biblical saints did to a lesser degree in prayer. Daniel, for example, identified even with the sins of earlier generations as he interceded for the people of God. Waiting for the mercy of God means praying.

But it also means holy living. We can’t wait passively for God to come with mercy. We can’t just pray and put all the responsibility onto God, as if to say, ‘It’s your fault, not ours, if the church or the world goes down the tubes.’ We anticipate the mercy of God for the world by holy living, which is not severe living but a merciful lifestyle itself. 

There are those Christians who pray and do not act. They become hyper-spiritual, substituting vivid imagination for the word of God. They become harsh towards the world.

And there are those Christians who act and do not pray. Cutting themselves off from the source of spiritual fuel, they dry up and become harsh towards the church. 

Neither of these groups reflects the merciful God for whom we wait at this Advent season. Intercession and holy living are the ways in which we wait for the God of mercy.

Links

Here’s another set of links for your improvement and amusement. Enjoy your weekend.

Is Tide washing powder useless?

Turning the air blue: Clive James muses on the ineffectiveness of profanity.

The Word Magazine Album Atlas plots the locations where famous album sleeves were photographed. It’s the magic of Google Maps.

Jeremy Woolf on five social media trends to look out for.

Starbucks are becoming increasingly Fairtrade-friendly in the UK. Now that’s a miracle!

They must have gone on the music, more than anything else, but In the bleak midwinter has been named best carol by choirmasters. I don’t recognise half the titles in the top ten. Also, BBC News published this story under ‘entertainment’.

The Paperless Christmas Advent calendar is back, and goes live on Advent Sunday (this Sunday, that is) at 10:00 am GMT. Similarly, see the Church of England’s Why Are We Waiting, with daily updates.

Ben Witherington on why it’s not biblical to seek an airtight theological system.

Santa Claus does exist. They said so at church.  Via blogs4god

Typealyzer

Typealyzer analyses your blog to deduce your Myers Briggs personality type. This blog came out with exactly my MBTI personality type:

INTP – The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.  

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about. 

Stamps

Last year, I made a series of posts about an alleged controversy regarding whether the Royal Mail was willing to sell religious Christmas stamps:

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps Update

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps Part 3

This Isn’t The Royal Mail Christnas Stamps Blog, Honest

I have now received an email from a friend, telling the same story. The main Christmas stamps this year are on a pantomime theme, but you can get Madonna and Child stamps as an alternative. He says he went to buy Christmas stamps and was only given the ‘secular’ stamps. Checking the Royal Mail site shows the panto stamps are the main ones, but the Madonna and Child ones are available for those who want a more ‘traditional’ image – see here. What is unclear from the Royal Mail is whether it is compulsory for their staff to offer customers a choice. It may be that if they offer a choice, that makes both designs equal in importance. That would contradict their policy of alternating between a religious and a ‘secular’ theme for the stamps. However, the other side is that you have to be ‘in the know’ to ask for the explicitly Christian stamps.

My friend who emailed me today entitled his message ‘Keeping Christ in Christmas’, and that is a wider issue than stamps, although I can see why they are part of the concern. The danger is the continued relegation of Christianity to the private sphere, away from the arena of public truth. That trend has been continuing for centuries: since the Enlightenment, if you believe the late Lesslie Newbigin, and since Thomas Aquinas separated grace and nature, if you believe the late Francis Schaeffer.

Where Christ fits into society’s Christmas (if that is even a valid question) is one symptom of the wider problem: what is the public rôle, if any, of faith? A classic Anglican view, especially in the UK where it would often be linked with established status, would see secular stamps as a threat. It would be about taking the spiritual out of the public sphere. I recall that some years ago George Carey argued against disestablishment on the grounds that it would be a further privatisation of faith. Whether he was right is another matter, but that would be a typical Anglican approach.

A more Radical Reformation (e.g., Mennonite?) view might be rather more ambivalent. Let the state and public sphere do what it will, Christians must get on with being faithful, even if there is opposition, hostility or apathy. We are the ones who keep Christ in Christmas. As we do so, it is part of our witness. Personally, I suspect this approach is more suited to the times we are in, where Christianity is largely out of favour in our society. We are being pushed to the margins. However, that is a potential advantage in the long term should generally postmodern conditions prevail for a long time. Postmodernity often welcomes the idea of truth coming not from powerful places but the margins. This is not the same as the privatisation of faith; it is about recognising that we are exiles in Babylon, a model that is increasingly important to many of us.

A third view might be that of the Revivalist. In a desire to see the Gospel command hearts and minds much more (or ‘as it used to’), there would be fierce protests against the secularisation of Christmas. This is one step on from the establishment view that ‘we are a Christian country': it sees the issue as one of sin. I long to see a ‘revival’, but find this style unhelpful. Militant Christian protests backed by fervent intercession couched in terms of ‘praying against people’ will not help our cause. 

There are other views we could explore, but it’s late in the evening and I need to finish this. I suggest there is no harm in us asking nicely about the stamps, but we must be careful about our tone and we should not make this a crusade or act as if some terrible injustice has been done to us. The majority non-Christian culture just won’t understand.

Those are my initial thoughts. What do you think?

Left-Handed

Dearly belovèd, my text for today is this:

‘Since the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body, only left-handed people are in their right mind.’

Copyright © Anything Left-Handed.

Yes, I am one of those select human beings who is left-handed. Moreover, both our children share this delightful trait. My wife, who writes with her right hand, is ‘mixed handed’ – that is, not ambidextrous, where one can perform the same task with either hand, but she is largely split between those activities she performs right-handed and those for which she uses her left hand. Having said that, she is ambidextrous in the use of a computer mouse, and that is important in what I am about to type.

With three left-handers in the house and one who can use a mouse left or right-handed, we have both our PCs set up left-handed. That is more than putting the mouse to the left of the keyboard. It means (in the case of Microsoft Windows) going into Control Panel, finding the Mouse applet, and reversing the mouse buttons, so that left-handers still use their index finger and ring finger as right-handers would do. Just moving the mouse over would mean excessive use of the ring finger and might risk tendinitis. (Ubuntu Linux is similar; with Apple Macs, I understand it’s irrelevant, with mice that have only one button.)

Thus, our children have learned how to use a computer at home in a left-handed fashion. That means no damage to their natural hand-eye co-ordination. It also means no criticism from ignorant right-handers, telling them they are doing things wrongly, which is a common experience for left-handers, and thus little surprise we are more clumsy than the average, and sometimes suffer lower than average self-esteem due to regularly being told we are wrong when we’re not.

Here comes the problem. Nobody forces left-handers to write right-handed any more, to my knowledge – although I once worked with someone younger than me to whom that had happened. But it is astonishing to find schools not understanding that left-handers should be able to use PCs left-handed. Our children’s school didn’t. Our daughter was coming home from school saying she was struggling with the school computers, and always getting her clicks wrong. She was distressed. 

We had raised the issue at a parents’ evening, only to be told that left-handed children were adaptable. To which my question has always been, ‘Why?’ We have to be! I wrote to the teacher, asking that they change the aforementioned mouse settings in Control Panel. No joy.

So another letter. I had downloaded a piece of software recommended by Anything Left-Handed. Once installed, you only have to click CTRL-F12 to alternate between left and right-handed use. Simple? No, the IT guy wasn’t prepared to go round, installing it on every computer.

Instead, they suggested we bought Rebekah her own wireless mouse that she could use. Then it dawned on me – doh! – that it was no solution. The change had to be in the operating system, not the mouse. So I wrote again, also pointing out this wasn’t a Rebekah issue, this was potentially an issue for the 10% of the school population that was left-handed.

All of which brought us to today, and a meeting with the Head Teacher. Now, we love the Head. I have known her for three years, which is two years before she came to our children’s school, because she twisted my arm into taking assemblies at her previous school. She is a lovely, caring person, and in a recent OFSTED was almost promoted to sainthood for her dynamic leadership. She deserved every word of praise.

Nevertheless, I was nervous about seeing her. But there was good news. She had phoned the county IT department. They had confirmed what I had said about Control Panel, so it’s now all systems go, and our children will be able to use the computers left-handed. The Head and Deputy had never come across the issue before, which surprised me, but maybe I’m just a militant left-hander with minor geek tendencies who will stand up for his children! They needed some reassurance that if children learned PCs left-handed at primary school that they would not then have to switch back to right-handed in secondary schools or in industry, but I couldn’t see that would be a problem. They also have decided to survey who is left and who is right-handed in the school, and have asked me for any research on whether left-handers are better or worse at any particular curriculum subjects. It is an amazing result for something that looked so unpromising when I was running up against a major lack of understanding.

I am also thrilled if this means the school is open to expanding its horizons. It is better than I faced at school, although I had far more problems at secondary school than primary. Of course, computers weren’t in schools back in the Stone Age, and primary school was made quite easy by the fact that we only wrote with a pencil. Yes, I got some discoloration on the small finger of my left hand as I moved across the page from left to right, but that was the worst it got. I’ll grant they didn’t know to teach me to slant my paper at 45°, and nor did they know about left-handed scissors (but my parents did, thanks to Anything Left-Handed’s old shop in Brewer Street, London). But it wasn’t oppressive.

Secondary school was, though. I went to a young school where the Head wanted to infuse it with instant ancient traditions. In fact, my brother-in-law read the Wikipedia entry on it and said to my sister, “Good grief, you went to Hogwarts!” It was compulsory to write with a fountain pen. Fountain pens are torture for left-handers, due to our pushing of a pen across the paper. (Indeed, it remains the one thing I don’t enjoy about conducting weddings as a minister – I must use a fountain pen with registrar’s ink to complete the registers.) Ballpoints are different. One sympathetic Maths teacher told me to disregard the school rules and use a ballpoint. However, I would have risked punishment for doing so. So it was that I began the ‘hook’ style of writing that many left-handers adopt. It isn’t good or healthy, but I didn’t know that then. I was just trying to reduce my frequent use of blotting paper.

Similarly, PE lessons were a problem. The one sport at which I was remotely talented was cricket. I bowled left arm. The Games teacher (sorry, ‘master’) would give me the usual ignorant instruction that many left-handers endure in all sorts of situations: “Just reverse what I tell the right-handers.” It was only when a former Middlesex and England cricketer, Jack Robertson, came in to do some coaching, that this was challenged. He told the Games master that left-handers had a special contribution to cricket and I should be nurtured. I don’t think I ever was, once Jack stopped coming.

Worst of all was probably Sixth Form (that’s Years Twelve and Thirteen in new money). We were provided with seats that had a hinged desktop on them. They were all hinged on the right, on which side the desktop was extended so you could rest your right arm. They were shorter on the left side, making for a very stretched writing style. I believe it was one major factor that contributed to the sudden onset of severe neck pain a month before my A-Levels (which I never took).

Much of the time, we left-handers have to accept we are the minority and that most of life is going to be set up for the majority. It doesn’t make it any easier for us to be at a bank or Post Office counter where the pen is always chained on the right, or to have paying-in books with a counterfoil on the left – although major banks have begun to learn their lesson on that and now offer left-handed paying in books and cheque books.

Not only that, the Anything Left-Handed people offer a wonderful range of resources, including one of my favourites, the left-handed ruler. It’s numbered from right to left, which is instinctively the way my brain works. Come and see how I file my books or CDs and you’ll see my point.

We also have certain advantages in life, and should not just play the victim. It is a blessing to be in a country where we have right-hand drive cars, because it means the gear lever is on the driver’s left, and falls to our stronger hand. In most sports, the different angle used by a left-hander, being less common, is a strategic advantage. Rafael Nadal, the current men’s tennis number one, plays left-handed but in life writes right-handed. The only exception I know is hockey, where it is contrary to the laws to play left-handed.

But overall, we are at a disadvantage. I would hate people to interpret this as my saying we are disabled, because we are not. However, given the barriers I have had to cross for the sake of my children – but also the warm-hearted response of the Head – I do hope others will take the trouble to understand.

And in the meantime, more power to Anything Left-Handed: you do a great job and deserve tons of custom.

Advent

Damaris Trust are producing some Advent videos – one for each day from 1st to 24th December (the ‘secular’ Advent, then!). You can find details here. With the appropriate subscription to their Tools For Talks service, they may be downloaded for use in live events, including worship. However, any blogger or webmaster may reproduce them on their sites, provided they are not published before the stated dates. I hope to show them here. They are each only about one minute long, with a single thought-provoking idea.

Comments

Here’s a great idea from John Smulo: Blog Comment Day. On 3rd December, comment on at least five blogs, of which at least two should be blogs where you have not commented before. If done well, it could promote good conversation.

Judgment

Matthew 25:31-46

There is one line from an early school report of mine that I remember: ‘David takes simple things and makes them complicated.’

You may recognise that trait in me even today! And I have to say there is an element of it sneaking into this sermon. The Vision of the Sheep and Goats, as George Beasley-Murray called it (first complication there – it’s not really a parable!) seems to be a piece of teaching by Jesus that is very simple. Do good to the poor and you’ll receive eternal life; ignore the poor and you’ll burn in Hell.

Simple, isn’t it? No.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to find the get-out clause that means we don’t have to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. But there are questions of detail that readers of this vision have asked. And as we explore them, we fill out more of the meaning.

In particular, we need to think about who ‘the nations’ are that are gathered before Jesus, the Son of Man at the judgment. And we also need to think about who ‘the least of these’ are, who may receive acts of mercy. In considering these two groups in the story, I hope we’ll answer some questions that have troubled sensitive Christians about this passage.

The Nations 
Who are ‘the nations’ in the story? Are they everyone in history? Are they people who have never heard the Gospel, given the surprised ‘Lord, when was it we saw you …?’ responses? Do they represent Christians, or possibly the Jewish people? And why does the question matter?

It matters, because it ties into the question of salvation. Are we saved by good works? What is the relationship between good works and salvation by faith in Christ? Does God have a different way of judging those who have never heard of Jesus – would that explain the surprise?

I’m not going to bore you with academic arguments, except to say that this story comes at the end of the fifth and final block of Jesus’ teaching that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. The first block was the Sermon on the Mount, and that set a theme for teaching about discipleship. All the teaching blocks are about discipleship in one way or another. This final block in chapters 24 and 25 focusses on questions about the end of all things. It fittingly climaxes here with a story about the Last Judgment.

So I do not think we can avoid the idea that Jesus is aiming this passage at those who claim to be his disciples. It fleshes out the statement in the Sermon on the Mount that not everyone who calls him ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of his Father. Obedience to the will of God is central and critical to Christian discipleship.

However, that raises the question I mentioned a moment ago. How does that thought sit with the teaching elsewhere in the New Testament that says we are justified in the sight of God not by our good works but by our faith in Jesus Christ? Doesn’t the sheep and goats story suggest that we are justified by good deeds?

To which I would reply that justification simply isn’t the issue here. The issue is one of identity: what does a disciple look like? And Jesus tells us here that a true disciple looks like someone who has compassion for the poor and needy – not just the deserving poor, but even the undeserving poor, because there is no hint that those in prison are in there for anything other than just reasons.

If we want to know whether we are progressing in discipleship, then the first test is not what dramatic spiritual experiences we have had. Nor is it whether we can muster a high score in a test of biblical and theological knowledge. Disciples are known by their actions for the sake of those in need. In his First Letter, John says that we cannot say the love of God lives in us if we see someone in need and fail to act. Such actions are the signs of true faith.

In that sense, it is connected to the question of justification, even though that is not Jesus’ particular concern here. It is rather like what Paul says in Galatians that faith works by love, and what James says in his Letter, when he maintains that those who are justified by faith show they truly are by their compassionate deeds of mercy.

So whether we care for people such as the hungry, thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners is a test of true faith. Has God broken our hearts with the things that break his heart? And are we heartbroken enough to do something about it? This is a simple test of disciples’ obedience.

Nevertheless, we can probably extend this in a certain way to another question that is not Jesus’ primary concern in this passage. The question I have in mind is also one I mentioned earlier: how does God judge those who have never heard the Gospel? Some would argue that unless one actually hears the Gospel and responds, one is destined to damnation. It is a view that those who recognise other aspects of God’s character such as his mercy (as well as his judgment) find problematical.

And I suspect that the ‘Lord, when did we see you …?’ questions do give us a glimpse of how God would regard such people. Is it not the case that in Scripture God judges people according to how they respond to whatever light from him they receive? In Genesis, the priest Melchizedek appears out of nowhere and Abraham makes an offering to him – and God approves. Joshua is pleased to use the help of the Jericho prostitute Rahab. Isaiah 45 calls the pagan king Cyrus God’s anointed.

So might it just be that here in Matthew 25, we get an indirect view of how God will treat those who know that mercy to the poor and the weak is what matters? I can’t be certain, but I think it’s possible.

The Least Of These 
So the judgment of the nations makes us realise that compassion for the needy, whether they are ‘deserving’ or not, is a valid test of discipleship. It may also show a way in which God judges those who have never heard the Gospel.

But what about those described as ‘the least of these’ in the passage – namely, those who are hungry, thirsty, aliens, naked, sick or prisoners? Who are they? Some would argue they stand for anyone who is poor and in need in the world. Other say this expression ‘the least of these’ is similar to other terms Matthew uses in his Gospel to describe oppressed Christians or Christian missionaries facing hardship. There are some similarities of language, but they are not conclusive. In any case, if God only judges people on how they treat the Church, doesn’t that make God’s people into some narrow-minded sect, where it’s only what we receive (and not others) that counts?

So I suspect that the vulnerable people in need in this story, whom Jesus labels ‘the least of these’, stand for anyone in the world who may be suffering these or similar conditions. God does not simply call us to look after our own. Let’s assume, then, that God gives us a brief that covers the whole world in demonstrating his love to those in need.

But does the passage make an even larger claim than that? Some Christians think so. The first time I ever heard Tony Campolo speak, he told a story about a trip he paid to the Dominican Republic, where he witnessed terrible poverty. As he was about to board his plane back to the USA, a mother tried to give him her child. The child would stand a far better chance in terms of health, education and prospects in the States. Campolo felt he couldn’t. But as his plane accelerated down the runway, he could see the mother and child still there. On the basis of this passage, he had an awful realisation: he hadn’t left a child in the Dominican Republic, he had left Jesus there. ‘Just as you did [not do] to the least of these, you did [not do it] to me.’

Similarly, the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has invoked the old Latin phrase ubi Christi, ibi ecclesia: ‘where Christ is, there is the Church’ from this text. He takes it to mean that if whatever we do to the poor we do to Christ, then Christ is present in the poor.

So does this teach that Christ lives in the poor? Does Christ perhaps even live in everyone, rather like the Quaker belief that there is an inner light within all people?

No, I don’t think the passage means that. It is a very heightened metaphorical way of speaking that Jewish people employed. ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ would be of the same order. ‘Just as you did to the least of these, it is as if you did it to me’ might be a paraphrase that brings this out. 

This, I think, would be more consistent with the rest of Scripture, which sees the Spirit of God as being directly involved in the creation of humankind but who only resides within people when they become disciples of Jesus. The idea that the divine is resident in all people is closer to the mystical beliefs of some New Age philosophies than Christianity. If we all have God within, there’s very little need for salvation.

Nevertheless, we still have incredibly strong reasons for serving all who are in need with the love of Christ.  We do not do it simply as robots obeying a command programmed by our Master. We do so, because when he, as the agent of God’s creation, and in partnership with the Holy Spirit, made the human race, he made them ‘in the image of God’. Our lives and relationships are meant to mirror something about God, and God’s love. 

There is no greater dignity anything in all creation has than to be made in God’s image. When the image-bearers of God are made to suffer, that is an attempt to obscure the image of God, and it is an affront to the God who made people with such a high status. Affording dignity, respect and healing to those who are suffering is about making the image of God more visible in creation. 

Conclusion 
So – it’s a clear test of discipleship whether we meet the practical needs of the poor and struggling. It may even be an indicator of how God judges those who have no genuine opportunity to hear the Gospel.  

Not only that, we have an imperative to do so, because all people are made in the image of God, however much it has been damaged by sin. That means our call to love and serve those in need cannot just be a paternalistic ‘doing good’ to those who passively, but gratefully, receive all the good things we have to give. It must also mean that in affirming their special dignity we give power back to those who have become powerless.

We may have had to take some complex diversions to arrive at these conclusions. You may well think that school teacher was right to say I am the sort of person who makes simple things complicated. At the end, however, we do come back to some simple challenges. We may not be able to meet all the needs that a satellite television and broadband Internet world flashes before our eyes. But we can ask ourselves this: what time, money and possessions have I given up in order to practise God’s love for the poor? 

My status as a disciple requires positive evidence in response to this question. So does my commitment to God’s revelation in Scripture. If I want to be a biblical disciple, then, I will know that I have responded to those who are suffering, and I continue to care for the suffering.

Can I answer yes?

Links

OK, here’s another round-up of links I found during the last week. Have fun.

A Theremin (remember Good Vibrations?) inside a Russian doll. (Via Mojo.)

A friend of mine once rewrote Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch as the Dead Church Sketch. But now we learn that the ancient Greeks pre-empted the dead parrot sketch.

Jesus spoke about lust as ‘adultery of the heart’. Now, a ‘virtual affair’ in Second Life has led to a divorce.

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 ponders great drum solos.

Remember the Johnny Cash song ‘One piece at a time’? Well, a Russian Orthodox church has been stolen, brick by brick.

Once it was pizzas looking like Jesus, now it’s Buddha bee hives.

You want a prayer movement – how about this? Artist creates ‘public prayer booths’ in NYC. They look like phone booths, apparently.

If only this were true: hoax New York Times newspaper proclaims end of Iraq war.

My father has a life-long interest in astronomy. Doubtless he will have been excited to read about the Hubble Telescope spotting a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut and the planetary system discovered by the Gemini Observatory in Chile. (Both links via Personal Computer World‘s weekly email.)

Ruth Haley Barton has written on the loneliness of leadership: loneliness drives us to seek the presence of God rather than any notion of the Promised Land.

Unhappy people watch more TV. ‘TV doesn’t really seem to satisfy people over the long haul the way that social involvement or reading a newspaper does,’ says researcher John P. Robinson.

Go on, you want to make cake in a mug.

MyBloop – unlimited free online storage, max file size 1 GB. Via Chris Pirillo.

Twenty hated clichés. In contrast, here are James Emery White’s top five irritating Christian phrases.

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