One autumn Sunday in 1983, a Chinese student turned up at my home church in London. He’d come over from Hong Kong to study civil engineering at a nearby institution. Rather than go to the Chinese Church in London, he chose to find a local group of native Christians with whom to worship for the three years of his studies here.
That was how we met William. Or ‘Uncle William’, as he became known to us.
He got that name on one of the many days he came back to our parents’ house for Sunday lunch. My sister and I told him how when we were children, we addressed our parents’ friends as ‘Uncle’ or ‘Auntie’. “Well,” said William, “I am your parents’ friend, too. You should call me Uncle William.” So we did, even though he was younger than me.
Over those three years we had great fun. We tried to convince him of the existence of the Wombles, an endangered species on Wimbledon Common, but he didn’t fall for it. When he travelled with us to attend Spring Harvest in Prestatyn, we told him he would need his passport for the Welsh border. It didn’t work.
But when we told him about the male and female haggis animals on the Scottish mountains, we got away with it. We span the old yarn that the males have shorter legs on one side of their bodies and the females have shorter legs on the other side. Thus they have to go opposite ways around the mountains in order to meet and mate. If they go past each other, it means another circuit.
William thought this was nonsense, and announced that he was going to visit a relative of ours who would confirm his suspicions. The moment he went out of the door, we rang her, knowing she had the gift of the straight face …
I have only seen William once since those days. It was ten years ago, when he paid a visit to London with his bride, Vicky. My sister hasn’t seen him at all since 1986, I think.
Today, we saw him again. He was in London for a short break and came down to see us. He hasn’t changed. He looks just as young, he still has the humour and it truly was one of those occasions where it felt like we were picking up only from last week, not years ago.
It struck me tonight that William’s example of worshipping with the locals rather than simply with his own fellow ex-pats was a model for all who seek to share in the mission of God. Get involved in the local culture. Don’t stay in the compound. Don’t huddle in the comfort zone. William didn’t.
William, the title of this piece of music is for you today:
Here is the sermon for the ‘midnight’ communion service tonight. It concludes the series on the Prologue to John’s Gospel, and given the hour at which it will be delivered, is shorter than my typical Sunday morning sermons.
Grace and truth. As we complete our reflections on the Prologue to John’s Gospel tonight, these two words dominate the final verses. Grace and truth. They are such rich words, and not to be trivialised in the way we often do, where grace is no more than what we say before meals and truth is no more than being right. Here, grace and truth are linked to the rich beauty of the Incarnation, the birth of our Lord in human flesh.
In particular, there are two strands about grace and truth in these final verses of the Prologue.
Firstly, God’s grace and truth in the Incarnation are the glory of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Verse 14)
When the Word is made flesh – when Jesus is born – we see the glory of God, and that glory is ‘full of grace and truth’.
When he says ‘we have seen his glory’, John may want his readers to think about the time in the Book of Exodus when Moses asked to see God’s glory. When indeed God’s glory passed near to him, the Lord proclaimed that he was
the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7)
So back then, seeing God’s glory meant discovering the goodness of God. Now, as we see God’s glory in the birth of his Son, we also find the goodness of God revealed to us: he is ‘full of grace and truth’.
We might think that to see the glory of God is a fearful thing and in one sense it is. We can no more see the glory of God in all its splendour than we can safely look straight at the sun. But at heart, seeing the glory of God is a good and wonderful thing. The glory of God is that he is the saving God.
And we celebrate this supremely at Christmas. Here above all we see God’s glory. He is the saving and redeeming God. His Son takes on human flesh in order to bring his grace and truth to the world. Perhaps here the old saying that GRACE stands for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense comes into its own. The riches of God which we do not deserve come to us courtesy of all that Christ gives up. Eventually that will be the Cross. But it begins with the Incarnation. Tonight we mark when God goes up a gear in the salvation of the world.
And what a privilege it is to mark this. ‘We have seen his glory’ – we have, says John, and the implication is that not everybody has. He has not long said that
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (verse 11).
Let us never treat the glory of God’s goodness, his grace and truth, as a commonplace. It is not that we are some kind of élite because we have seen his glory, but it is the most awe-inspiring privilege. This is the One who outstrips John the Baptist, because although he came after him in terms of birth is actually senior to him because he originates before him (verse 15). This is the One who would later claim, ‘Before Abraham was, I Am’.
So in the morning, even amidst the rushing of preparation and the rustle of paper, might we have a moment to contemplate what a truly wonderful thing it is to know that God has revealed his glory in the coming of his Son? Here is grace and truth: grace in God giving us the blessings we do not deserve as sinners; truth in that he who himself is the truth has come into our midst. What wonder. What glory. What goodness this is.
Secondly, God’s grace and truth in the Incarnation are a greater grace. Here I want to tease out something of the relationship between God’s work as witnessed in what we call the Old Testament and his work in Jesus Christ Incarnate. Sometimes we seem to set them up in opposition to each other. Because we can come to the Scriptures in that frame of mind, we can hear a verse like verse 17,
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ
and think that ‘law’ is being opposed to ‘grace and truth’. Law is bad, grace is good, we think.
But this is to miss the force of verse 16, immediately before it. The NIV translates it,
From the fulness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.
However, I would translate it more literally:
From the fullness of his grace we have all received grace instead of grace.
What preceded the coming of Jesus was grace. The Old Testament Law was not originally given in order to say to God’s people, ‘Follow these rules and you will be saved.’ It had a different purpose. The Law was given at Mount Sinai, after God had saved them from the Egyptians. Salvation had taken place. The Law then showed them how to live as the people of God in grateful response to that salvation.
Why, then, does Paul speak about ‘law’ and ‘grace’ in Romans as if they are opposites? Because people ended up using the Law of Moses in the wrong ways. Either they used it to say, “I’m one of the in-crowd and you’re not” (the elitism I spoke about near the end of the first point) or they said, “My keeping of the Law is what saves me” (salvation by works, not by faith). The Law was unable to save in itself, but it could show where people needed to change and it could show ways of faithful and grateful response to God’s salvation, just as the ethical passages in the New Testament can for Christians. And because it could have a good purpose in the plans of God, it was a gift of grace.
Therefore when Jesus comes, he brings a greater grace. It is ‘grace instead of grace’. Jesus is the fulfilment of all the Old Testament hopes – not just the prophets, as we often remember in Advent, but the Law, too. What the Law could not do in transforming us, he can. What the Law pointed to, he brings to fulfilment. The grace of the Incarnation replaces all the promises of the Old Covenant: truly, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’
It’s like going to a concert where there is a support act before the main act you have gone to see. When the main act is about to take to the stage, they may be introduced with words to the effect that this is who you’ve been waiting for. John is telling us that Jesus is who we have been waiting for. In him is the grace of forgiving love, for he will offer a sacrifice that does not need to be repeated like the Old Testament sacrifices – this is ‘grace instead of grace’. In him is not only the example of how to live in gratitude for the love of God, but also the gift of the Spirit in order to live that way, unlike the Law – again, this is ‘grace instead of grace’.
John’s Prologue, then, concludes at a fitting place as we stand on the cusp of Christmas – never has the glory of God’s goodness been better seen than in the grace and truth of Jesus. And the gracious God of the Old Covenant now gives a greater grace as his Son inaugurates the New Covenant. ‘O come, let us adore him – Christ the Lord.’
A Guardian journalist has spent a night in a stable, rented from a non-Christian family who are fed up with the commercialisation of Christmas. All money goes to Leukaemia and Lymphoma research; the wife, a GP, will spend Christmas on duty in a hospital A & E unit.
Something to chew on?
And here beginneth the first blog entry in a few weeks. Not only have I spent the last two Sundays either repeating an old sermon 0r taking part in all-age worship, other matters have drained my time and energies – not least a painful situation that led to us urgently transferring our children to a new school.
But now, we begin a new sermon series for Advent, based on the Prologue to John’s Gospel. I’ve wanted to do this for a few years at Advent, and this is my chance. We kick off tomorrow morning with the first five verses from John 1:1-18.
He is the man for whom the word ‘curmudgeon’ was probably invented. Bitter that he has not become the international superstar he deserves to be, jealous of others and angry at the machinations of the music industry in which he works. He fluctuates between belief in God and a raw atheism.
Yet when he sings of things spiritual, and he combines his Celtic roots with the blues traditions he loves, his music transports me to another place. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Van Morrison.
And he’s here this morning. (If only.)
In one of my favourite songs of his, the chorus says,
Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?
Didn’t I come to lift your fiery vision bright?
Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder in the flame?
A sense of wonder is what this Advent sermon series is all about. For me, there is nothing like reading the Prologue to John’s Gospel for giving me a sense of wonder about Jesus, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate again.
Why not share for a moment with your neighbour what gives you a sense of wonder about the coming of Jesus?
What gives me a sense of wonder about the coming of Jesus is to think about who this Jesus is, who came in flesh. This morning, the first five verses of the Prologue give us three words to meditate on that give me that sense of wonder about the One who came.
And the first word is … Word:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. (Verses 1-2)
The Word. Because Jesus isn’t called Jesus until he is born, fully human, fully divine. Before the Incarnation, Jesus is the Word. Even before his birth, he is God speaking to us. He is God’s self-expression. We talk about the Bible as the Word of God, but because the Bible itself says that Jesus is the Word, we should refer to the Bible as the Word of God written, whereas Jesus is the living Word of God. Jesus is the guarantee that God speaks. God is not silent. In the Second Person of the Trinity, God speaks.
This Word of God is part of the divine fellowship: he is with God, and he is God, and he was with God from the beginning. Here, before all things, is the fellowship of love that is the Trinity. During our sermon series on 1 John, I argued that the statement ‘God is love’ only makes sense if God can express love within creation. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit; the Son loves the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. We get a hint of that here: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Here is that fellowship of love that has existed since before creation. Here, the Word is part of that love which must extend beyond its own boundaries. When we read that the Word was with God, we get hints of the love that led to creation and the love that led to redemption.
Jesus, the Word, expresses this inner love of the Trinity that will lead to creation and redemption. In these coming weeks, as we sing carols such as ‘Love came down at Christmas’, we shall be singing of this truth. It is a truth that has been since before the foundation of the universe. What we celebrate at Advent and Christmas is something that goes back before the Big Bang. Look into the night sky at the stars, whose light we see so many aeons since they emitted the waves that finally reach the Earth, and realise that way before that light ever left those celestial bodies, God was love and God was speaking. In the Incarnation we are about to celebrate, we look with awe at the constellations and galaxies that fill our skies and our telescopes, and however much we marvel at them, we remember that before they were flung on their journeys through space, there was a Word. That Word, part of the eternal Godhead, sharing in love and speech, would one day share that love and speech with the world in human flesh. And so we are filled with a sense of wonder.
The second word is life:
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (Verses 3-4)
So – the inner relationship of love in the Trinity that is hinted at when we say that the Word was with God from the beginning explodes beyond its boundaries into creation. Love cannot be contained within itself: love has to love outside itself. So God creates, and the Word is God’s agent of creation. Here, in the act of creation, is the first bursting out of God’s love. From Big Bang to infant worlds, from early microbes to human beings made in the image of God, here is the hand of God. The Bible never tells us how the world was made, for it is not a scientific text book, but it points us to the Maker.
In fact, God’s creative love involves giving life from within himself – ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of men’. Just as human parents give of their own lives to create life, so the Word does the same. This loving act of creation is an act of self-giving love. The life of God given to the pinnacle of creation, human beings, made in God’s image, is imparted. Remember the emphasis in Genesis upon God breathing life into human beings? Here is another way of saying that.
Moreover, as the Word gives life, ‘that life was the light of men’. Wherever there is light, it originates from the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. Wherever you find truth, beauty and goodness in life, you find it because the Word of God gave life which is light to all.
Am I saying that all religions lead to God? By no means. But I am affirming what Paul said to the people of Lystra in Acts. Paul told them,
We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy. (Acts 14:15b-17)
‘He has not left himself without testimony.’ ‘That life was the light of men.’ It’s what John Calvin called God’s common grace. In creation, God is good to all. And we affirm from the Prologue to John’s Gospel that it is through the Word, whom we came to know as Jesus, that God is good to all in creation.
How wonderful, then, to know that the One who was the agent of this loving creation, and whose gift of life provided for all goodness, would not only create but enter creation. As we enter Advent and prepare to mark the coming of the Christ child, we remember that the One who entered creation, born of a virgin, was God’s agent in making this creation, and his life already bestows beauty and truth throughout it. Look in the manger and see more than a baby boy. See the Life-giver. And then see if you are not filled with a sense of wonder.
We have heard the third and final word already, but it carries over from verse 4 to verse 5. The third word is light:
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (Verses 4-5)
I said earlier during the first point about the Word that the love in the Trinity had to go beyond the boundaries of the Godhead, and it did so in creation and redemption. In thinking about our second word, ‘life’, I showed that love in creation. Now in our third word, ‘light’, we see the love of the Trinity extending to redemption.
How? The light is not just the source of truth, beauty and goodness – ‘that life was the light of men’. It is more: there is not only light, there is darkness. Light is needed, because there is darkness. So the truth, beauty and goodness that come from the life-giving Word stand as a testimony in the face of sin. They are a testimony to the ways of God in opposition to the ways of a world that rejects that God.
But there is more. The light was to shine in the darkness in a more profound way. For the love of God sent into creation through the Word, which testified to love in contrast to hate and fear, could not stand still. The light would enter creation. It is what we celebrate as we approach Christmas by the route of Advent. So we marvel as, in the words of John Henry Newman, ‘A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.’ Darkness may abound, but light is coming. And on Christmas Day, we shall say: light has come! The baby of Bethlehem is born as a warrior of light, a sworn enemy of darkness.
And – again – there is more! This is no equal contest between light and darkness. Light and darkness, truth and falsehood, are not equal and opposite enemies. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.’ This is not an intellectual statement. To understand something is not merely to comprehend it, it is for that understanding to mean power over the other. The word ‘understood’ here can also be translated ‘overcome’ or ‘come to terms’. John is telling us that the darkness of the world cannot get to grips with the light of the Word. Once there is even a chink of light, the hold of darkness is broken. Though we still live in an age where light and darkness both exist, the light of the Second Person of the Trinity conquers, and will conquer.
How that light conquers, though, is another matter. Not for nothing did Graham Kendrick imagine Mary looking at Jesus lying in the manger and seeing thorns in the straw. Light would overcome darkness not by violence but by suffering, the suffering of the Cross.
Darkness will not have the final word. Light will. It is already guaranteed, in the coming of the Word who took the name Jesus. His birth, life, death and resurrection make light shine in the midst of a darkness that cannot come to terms with him.
Yes, the Word who experiences love within the Trinity is then the One who makes that love spill out in creation through his Life. And that love will stop at nothing, for it is the Light seen in sacrificial suffering to overcome the darkness.
Now tell me you’re not filled with a sense of wonder.
 Van Morrison, ‘A Sense of Wonder’, © Exile Music, 1984.
I’m not preaching in my own churches or even circuit tomorrow. We have a visiting minister at Knaphill, taking a missions Sunday, and I am filling one of his pulpits. Hence you may recognise the odd little bit of content here that you’ve seen previously from me.
Legend tells of Ian Paisley preaching ferociously about the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that we hear about in this and a couple of other parables in Matthew’s Gospel. As he described the torments awaiting the ungodly in Hell, one elderly woman spoke up:
“What about me? I’ve only got dentures!”
“Teeth,” replied Dr Paisley, “will be provided!”
For those of us who have a cosy image of Jesus and his parables, the ending to this one is a shock. We shall come to think about that shock in the final part of the sermon, but for now let me just say that we have become so used to the parables that we miss their shocking nature. The Good Samaritan is a shocking story. A Samaritan helps a Jew? Whatever next? A terrorist helping a wounded person in New York?
And the Prodigal Son? There’s nothing fluffy in that story. Jesus’ listeners would have been appalled when they heard that the father looked out for his errant son and then ran to meet him. Culturally, the father should have been waiting inside the house for the younger son to return crawling on his hands and knees, grovelling for all he was worth – which wasn’t much.
I would say it is a key to understanding many of the parables: look for the shock. With today’s parable, I venture to suggest that the ending is not the only scandalous part. And I think that in this parable of mission, Jesus needs to shock us into recognising key aspects of God’s mission, in which we share.
Consider, firstly, the initial invitation. This should be routine, shouldn’t it? The servants go out ‘to those who had been invited’ (verse 3). These people are expected to come. We might think with some justification that these are the people who would fall into the natural orbits of the two families about to be joined together. While social conventions are different today, we know that there are certain groups of people from whom we naturally draw the bulk of the numbers when we are issuing wedding invitations. Family – starting with the closest; friends – from school or university, from church or work or social circles related to our hobbies and pastimes. And so on. Most wedding couples don’t spring massive surprises with their guest lists, other than the usual difficulty of deciding where the cut-off point is.
And similarly, perhaps, with our strategies for mission. There are certain people whom it seems right to connect with first, if we hope to touch people with the love of God in Christ with our words and deeds. There are particular groups of people who we shall naturally invite to join us at church. There are those who once used to come, but then dropped out. They may be relatives of existing church members. There will be people associated with groups that hire our premises. Perhaps this list might include uniformed organisations. We might think of people who show a certain affinity with us, even if they do not yet share our commitment to Christ. If you have come across Back To Church Sunday in recent years, that is a strategy directly aimed at those who used to go to church, but who retain more of a sympathy for the church than we might commonly imagine.
Indeed, for a long time now, our mission strategy has been based on an appeal to ‘come’, and in generations when churchgoing was much more natural than it is today, that approach had certain degrees of success.
But there are a couple of dangers.
One is that the religiously sympathetic are not always the most likely to commit themselves to the radical step of following Jesus. Just as the natural invitees to the wedding banquet in the parable ignored, mistreated or killed the second wave of servants that was sent to summon them, so religious people can be those most inoculated against the Gospel. And could it be, given the way the king in the parable sends his army against those people who reject his invitation (verse 7), that God is less impressed with the religious and the respectable than we are?
The other danger is that the natural constituency for this approach is shrinking fast. If we do step out in mission, we want to be as comfortable as possible about it, so we only reach out to people we feel safe with, and furthermore we only do it in locations where we feel at ease – such as our own church buildings.
Secondly, let’s consider the second group that the king invites. The king sends his servants to invite ‘anyone [they can] find’ (verse 9), and this leads them ‘into the streets’ where they [gather] all the people they could find, both good and bad’ (verse 10).
What might this mean for us in terms of the call to Christian mission? Clearly in Jesus’ own day he is indicating a message that will ultimately go beyond the Jewish community to the unconscionable Gentiles. When those we might humanly expect to respond to God’s redeeming love do not do so, God has a way of pushing us out to the least and the last, to those least likely – at least in our eyes.
Before I studied Theology and candidated for the Methodist ministry, my prior work was as a civil servant, working in Social Security. As some people said, that was certainly one way of seeing life. During my first year in the civil service, I had my final family holiday with my parents. We went on a Methodist Guild Holiday. One devout Methodist we met on the holiday asked me what my work was. I explained that I worked in Social Security. Back came a response I have never forgotten: “At least you are on the right side of the counter.”
Obviously, I have never forgotten those words for all the wrong reasons. Apart from the fact that in my work I knew full well that the great majority of those claiming benefits were honest people who didn’t want to be in the situations they had found themselves in, there is also the fact that this parable shows us how the Gospel is for those who are ‘on the wrong side’.
Could we not do with a challenge in the church sometimes to this effect? Who are the people whom we would not naturally consider, but who are loved with an everlasting love by God through Jesus Christ? Are there those he is calling us to reach in word and deed with his love?
Might it be that we just have a problem in the church with being that little bit too comfortable that we need reminding God sends to ‘anyone [we can] find’? Might this be to do with the same fear we hinted at in the first point that leads us just to operate our mission in places where we feel at home? We base our concepts of mission on attracting people to where we are already. However, while we want to bring people into the Christian community, could it be that in a day when – as I said – the number of people for whom it is natural to come onto church premises is shrinking so fast – that we might need to change our primary verb from ‘come’ to ‘go’?
Indeed, might Jesus be saying to us, look at how I embraced the Father’s mission? I am the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among you. I did not wait for you to come to me, I took the initiative and brought the Father’s love to you. And since at my Resurrection I said I sent you as the Father sent me, then do you not hear? Your call in mission is not to say, “Come to us”, but to go to the world, to anyone you can find.
Thirdly and finally, let us consider the intruder at the wedding.
Our own royal family knows all about intruders. Whether it’s Michael Fagan getting into the Queen’s bedroom, a comedian dressing up as Osama bin Laden or protestors from Fathers For Justice landing inside Buckingham Palace, they tend to suffer spectacular intrusions every few years.
I’m not sure whether the word ‘intruder’ is the right one here, but it will have to do. What I’m concerned with is the shocking end to the parable where the king finds a man who has managed to get into the wedding banquet without wearing wedding clothes. He suffers a cruel fate as the king orders him to be bound and thrown out. What could explain such an apparently harsh reaction?
When you attend a wedding today you normally dress up. I remember conducting a wedding in my first appointment and wearing my customary suit and clerical shirt only for a guest to complain that the minister ‘had no sense of occasion’. He was expecting a robed Anglican and got me!
They dressed up for weddings in the ancient world, too. Although a wedding feast could begin at almost any time, there was the tacit understanding that you had time in between receiving your invitation and the wedding beginning for you to find appropriate attire and put it on. There was also a tradition where a king would provide guests with festal clothing. Either way there was no excuse: if you come to the wedding, you will be dressed appropriately. To do otherwise was to bestow a grave insult upon your host.
Now we can understand what was so wrong about the man who was not in wedding clothes. He has insulted the king. Either he had the chance to dress properly and he didn’t bother or the king offered him clothes and he had the temerity to turn him down. The man has enjoyed the invitation but he has not accepted the responsibility that came with it.
Hence this is a powerful picture to challenge the way we respond to God. We may not be like the religious people who refuse the need for grace – indeed we may know only too well that we are entirely dependent upon grace in order to enter God’s presence.
But some of us stop there. We know that Jesus accepts us as we are, but we then coast along complacently. We do not accept the obligation to change – to be clothed differently.
The old saying is that Jesus loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. In other words, he provides new spiritual clothes. He expects us to be different. The dirt must go and a clean, holy lifestyle replace it. What else is appropriate as a thankful response to the King for inviting us to his Son’s wedding banquet?
Tragically, some of us are just not serious about living a holy life. God offers us the new clothes – that is, he himself makes it possible for us to be transformed. He does this by the power of his Holy Spirit whose work is to make us more like Jesus. Think of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – is that not a description of Jesus’ character? This is what God offers us.
But some of us are happy just to wear the same old dirty clothes. I have to admit that too often my wife has to remind me when my suits need to be dry cleaned. I don’t notice the marks on them. Part of my function as a minister is to hold before us all the need for a spiritual dry-clean. We need the reminder that we have got dirty again and we need to be cleaned up.
What does this have to do with mission? Quite a lot, to be honest. The Gospel is the Gospel of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is one of free grace that accepts us as we are. However, God is calling us to be community that is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of what is to come, and that means transformed lives. This too is part of our witness. Our call to mission is not only to go into the streets and gather anyone we can find, it is also to be dressed in our wedding clothes.
Are we playing our part in getting ready for the great wedding?
There has been much coverage this week of the South African pastor who began a sermon by saying that ‘Jesus had HIV‘. I know I am not alone in being saddened by those who have opposed Pastor Skosana. Nearby Baptist pastor Mike Bele is offended, because ‘Christ is supreme and Christ is God’, but Skosana is not saying this is literally true, he is saying that Jesus always identified with the broken and the marginalised. Therefore the first thing to say is that this is emphasising a theology of incarnation.
But not only that, this is about an orthodox, dare I say conservative, doctrine of the atonement. By Pastor Bele’s account, 2 Corinthians 5:21 would only say of Christ, ‘him who had no sin’, but the entire verse says:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
We may want to protect the sinlessness of Christ (‘him who had no sin’), but Paul decisively aligns that with Christ’s identification with sinners on the Cross. Verses like these are behind the most substitutionary understandings of the atonement you can find in Christian theology. If you believe that God laid the sins of the world upon Jesus on the Cross, and if you believe that HIV is often contracted through sinful acts (both positions held by many conservative Christians), then it makes sense to talk metaphorically of Jesus having HIV. What’s the big deal unless you want to keep Jesus in heaven, never assuming human flesh to come and die for the salvation of the world? If you hold a conservative theology, I believe you should applaud Pastor Skosana, not demonise him.
Let me link this with some British history. In 1923, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI. The BBC wanted to broadcast the service on radio. Who objected? Not the Royal Family, but the Church. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey protested, saying that ‘men may be listening in public houses with their hats on.’
Maybe we laugh at that story now, but it betrays a religious attitude that majors only on people who are ‘not good enough’ and denies them the welcome (and challenge) of grace. For me, those who reject Pastor Skosana’s approach are people who will only preach ‘you are not good enough’ and not offer grace. Or they are, if they logically follow through with their objections. I know they will deny that, but to me that seems to be the logic.
But I can’t end this short piece without also pointing out another obvious matter, namely that HIV is not always contracted through sinful actions. Many who contract it do so as innocent victims. Some catch it in the womb. Some wives catch it from infected husbands who think they will be cured by sexual intercourse with a virgin.
And therefore the ‘Jesus had HIV’ metaphor has further power: it is not only about Jesus’ identification with sinners, it is about his identification with the sinned-against. Salvation from sin is about freedom from the penalty, practice and presence of sin. Salvation from the presence of sin is not only about anticipating God’s coming new creation, it is about the healing ministry with victims today.
May Xola Skosana challenge us all into a lifestyle that identifies with both sinners and the sinned-against.
Tomorrow (Saturday) I begin a week’s leave to spend half term with Debbie and the children. I have just finished writing my sermon for Sunday week, when I return to duty. Here it is.
All around me I find people struggling for hope. For some, it is the economic uncertainties of the recession. Will they have a job? Can they pay their mortgage? For others, it is the onset of serious or potentially terminal illness. I think of two families I know where a child has cancer. Or people wonder what legacy we are leaving to our children and grandchildren from the environmental devastation our greed has caused.
And of course, I find it in the church. I think of one church facing an imminent decision about possible closure, and another where the signs are not promising for ten years’ time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that our problem is that we conceive of hope wrongly. This is all hope based on circumstances, or on what people do. It’s an uncertain hope: “I hope that such-and-such will happen.” Such-and-such may or may not happen.
Christian hope is different. Let me introduce it this way. A couple of weeks ago, Debbie and I went to a concert by the worship leader and hymn writer Stuart Townend. We sang his hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, and it’s easy to slip past the profundity of that first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ The Christian hope is in God. Our hope is in God in Christ.
So to our passage from Revelation. We’re familiar with it at funerals, where its words bring comfort, and that’s good. But there is so much more it can offer us. Why? Well, if you want a bunch of people who needed Christ-shaped hope, the first readers of Revelation would be good candidates. Facing persecution in the AD 90s under the Roman emperor Domitian, they saw loved ones arrested, tortured and killed. Our troubles look small fry in comparison. The vivid pictures that John gave them form a Christ-shaped hope. I believe we need a Christ-shaped hope to fit a Christ-shaped hole in our lives. Come with me as we explore this. Let it strengthen us for whatever we are facing.
Firstly, there is hope for creation. Whenever we go on holiday, an important item on my check list for packing is books. This year, I packed three but only got through one. Last year, I took a couple and only managed one. You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson this year, wouldn’t you? But you’ll perhaps remember I never want to be caught short of reading material!
And the book I read on holiday last year was one that has helped a lot of people rethink their understanding of Christian hope. It is called ‘Surprised By Hope’ and was written by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. One of the most important slogans in the book is this: ‘Heaven is not the end of the world.’
Got that? Heaven is not the end of the world. We frequently speak about the Christian hope after death as being the hope of going to heaven to be with the Lord. That is true as far as it goes. But the Bible talks about so much more. The biblical story doesn’t end with heaven: it ends here with ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. In some way that Revelation doesn’t explain, heaven and earth will be renewed. 2 Peter speaks about the destruction of the earth, but again followed by a new earth where righteousness will reign.
Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating somewhere in space, it is physical. God is interested in the physical and the material. He made it and he will redeem it. Just as God will not simply leave the dead in Christ in heaven but will raise them to life with new bodies, as he did with his Son, so he will also bring in a new creation.
What does that mean for us? It gives us hope for creation. Since God cares about his physical creation, so do we. Christians should be at the forefront of concern for the environment. We shouldn’t be like some Christians who say that the human race was put in charge of the earth and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s wrong. It’s God’s world, and we look after it as his stewards. One day he will renew it.
Debbie and I are no experts on green issues, but we see it as our duty to encourage Rebekah and Mark in a responsible attitude to the creation – not in a negative, hectoring way, but by filling them with a sense of wonder. Every now and again, we visit a country park near Basildon and Pitsea called the Wat Tyler Country Park. There are plenty of the usual attractions for children there, but there is one place we always visit when we go there. The RSPB has a place there, and we take the children to that so they may gain more of a sense of wonder about wildlife. It does help that Rebekah fancies herself as a young Doctor Doolittle anyway, but Mark enjoys the activities, too – I recall him coming out once, very proud of the wormery he had made!
As adults, we know this is serious stuff. You may well be aware of the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit. At the time I prepared this sermon, European Union leaders were in deadlock about how to take further steps in reducing climate damage. So I’ve done my little bit of lobbying. Various organisations make it easy to do this, especially if you are online. I use something called Superbadger from TEAR Fund on Facebook. Recently, I have sent a couple of emails to Gordon Brown, asking him to continue his efforts in this area. So have thousands of others.
But let’s remember, this is about hope. The fact that God will replace the current heavens and earth with a new one means that whether we succeed or fail in our efforts, the purposes of God will not be thwarted. We put ourselves in harmony with his purposes when we care for creation. Done with the right spirit, creation care is for Christians an act of worship, and a sign of God’s hope.
Secondly, there is hope for humanity. The holy city, the new (there’s that word again) Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband (verse 2). Mention of the bride makes me think about the Church, the Bride of Christ, rather than a literal city. This speaks of the redeemed community.
The hope for humanity is a simple one: God dwelling in the midst of the redeemed community, for the voice from the throne says,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them …’ (verse 3)
You may think me odd, but this puts me in mind of Magnus Magnusson on old editions of Mastermind. This is one of those “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” moments. Why? Let me render part of verse 3 more literally: ‘See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them …’
Perhaps you remember the tabernacle, the ‘portable sign of God’s presence’ in the Old Testament. Holding that in your mind, go back with me to John chapter 1, where we read of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among them’ – or, more literally, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them.’
So here in Revelation 21, God’s purposes in John 1 are fulfilled. What God started in Jesus, he will finish. The mission of Jesus will be fulfilled. God will dwell with ‘his peoples’ – and note it’s ‘peoples’ not ‘people’. The Bride of Christ will be composed from every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven, a vision that must be anathema to Nick Griffin and the British National Party. How distorted is their attempted takeover of Christian language. In Christ, people are reconciled to God and to one another. It’s a sign of hope for a divided and troubled world. Be clear about one thing: the extinction of the Church is not on God’s agenda. Rather, it has a vivid, glorious, multi-coloured future in God’s new creation.
What is our part in this now? If God’s mission to dwell in the midst of reconciled peoples was expressed in Christ dwelling in the midst of the human race, then we are called to something similar. For Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. Therefore, just as Jesus dwelt in the midst of those he came to reconcile to the Father and each other, so must we. No religious ghettos. No spiritual escapism, where we run inside our castle, pull up the drawbridge and be relieved that we can worship without the distractions of the world. No more the increasingly futile approaches to mission that wait for ‘them’ to come and meet ‘us’ in our comfort zone. Instead, as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us. Our sharing in God’s hope for humanity means we choose not to engross ourselves in church-filled lives but live out God’s love in the midst of the world, where we are needed. For now, I’ll limit myself to these words from Henri Nouwen:
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
Thirdly and finally, our passage has hope for the individual. I want to consider those famous words from verse 4 that make this reading so apposite at a funeral:
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
To those who first read Revelation or had it read to them, these words had immense impact. Remember ,they were facing hideous persecution. Tears, death, mourning, crying and pain frequently soundtracked their lives. How they longed for it to pass. How they, the suffering ones, longed for justice – which is surely why Revelation takes delight in the downfall of the wicked.
So this constitutes the good news of God’s hope for individuals. Whatever we struggle with in this life will be abolished in the new creation. Be it sickness or injustice, its days are numbered. One day, God will call time on all that corrupts the beauty of his creation and will restore all things. Indeed, this is so important that when the voice from the throne says in verse 5, ‘See, I am making all things new’, this is at most only the third or fourth time God himself is reported as speaking directly in Revelation. Not only that, God has given an advance sign of his promise to do all this in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection constituted amongst other things – the healing and transformation of a body traumatised to the point of death, and God’s vindication of his Son in the face of those who condemned and executed him. The Resurrection is healing and justice. We look forward to both of those in full measure when God’s new creation comes. The Resurrection guarantees our hope in God’s healing and justice.
But meanwhile – what do we do? Shall we lie down and allow pain and wickedness to walk all over us and others? By no means! We pray for healing, we campaign for the oppressed and we accompany the suffering – for that is what we must do if, like Jesus, we are to dwell in the midst of the world, with all its pain. Sometimes, we shall see victories and rejoice. At other times, it will seem like evil has won the day. But when it does, with Christian hope we can laugh at the darkness, for whatever battles it wins, God’s hope means the war is lost. Whatever discouragements we have, our certain hope in God means we need never completely lose heart. We have a vision of hope to fortify us, and the Resurrection to guarantee it.
In conclusion, let me take you back to that Stuart Townend concert I mentioned near the beginning. He introduced another of his famous hymns, his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. He talked about how loved that psalm is by millions, both inside and outside the Church for its sense of comfort.
However, he said we needed to do something with that comfort, and that was why he wrote the chorus with its words,
And I will trust in You alone.
And I will trust in You alone,
For Your endless mercy follows me,
Your goodness will lead me home.
If we are comforted, then we need to trust, he said. And I think it’s the same with the Christian hope, which we find ‘In Christ alone’. We may be encouraged by the prospect of God’s hope for creation with its new heaven and new earth. We may find succour in the hope for humanity found in the God who dwells in the midst of peoples reconciled to him and to one another. We may be comforted by the thought that one day, sickness and injustice will finally be completely conquered when all – like Christ – are raised from the dead.
But we need to trust. And that means action. Action in creation that is consistent with God’s purposes of renewal. Action in the church, as we dwell in the midst of the world to offer reconciliation in Christ. And action for the sick and oppressed, as we anticipate the fulfilment of their hope in Christ.
Let us be strengthened in God’s hope. And let that hope propel us to trusting action.
 Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.
I’ve shied away from this topic so far. So many of the obvious things have already been said. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon. It’s easy to be carried along with a public tide of anger and bloodlust.
But today, I’ve caved in. The relentless daily reporting of the affair by the Telegraph has today hit on something that makes me hopping mad. It’s not another claim for cleaning a moat or a duck home, or another of life’s little essentials. No. The Chancellor of the Exchequer can’t do his own tax return. In fact, he is one of nine Cabinet members who have claimed accountancy fees back from the (now infamous) Fees Office.
Why does this touch a raw nerve with me? Because once again, they are doing something I can’t. My wife and I both have to endure the nasty process that is self-assessment of income tax. In my case, although the majority of my income is my stipend, paid through PAYE, I get the occasional (very occasional, here!) additional fees, and I can set a number of things against that as legitimate and honest business expenses. My wife is not in paid employment, but we have held onto her house, ready for retirement. In the meantime, we rent it out through a letting agent. That income has to be declared for tax purposes, and again certain things such as repairs, can be set against that income as a business expense. While she was still paying a mortgage on the property, that mortgage was not an allowable expense, even though a major reason for letting was to cover that cost.
Oh – and guess what – neither of us is allowed to claim our accountant’s fees as a business expense. Do you see why I’m angry? MPs have agreed to a system on the timeless principles of ‘One rule for you, one rule for me'; ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.
It’s not as if this is the only example. This Parliament passed legislation that made it more difficult for religious organisations to employ exclusively people of their faith. Jobs within a religious company now have to pass a ‘Genuine Occupational Requirement’ test if the organisation is to insist on employing someone who shares their faith. Guess which category of organisation was exempted from this legislation? Political parties.
So the first reason to be mad at the politicians is the old favourite of double standards. Politicians have faced a standard charge of hypocrisy for years; the expenses scandal is hard evidence. The politicians we will trust will be those who display transparency.
We also need representatives who will to some extent identify with their constituents. I do not mean that they should not receive a good income for doing a demanding and responsible job, nor that they should not be properly reimbursed for all genuine expenses, but the problem shows that several have lost touch with reality. We saw this last August when Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg announced that he and his wife were switching their shopping from Ocado to Sainsbury’s. Poor dears: they have to survive on his parliamentary salary and her pay as a lawyer. It must be tough keeping that £1.3 million house in Putney going. If this is how detached from ordinary life a party leader has become, then we’re all in trouble, and the expenses row only underlines that.
For as a Christian, I find myself using the words ‘representation’ and ‘identification’ closely. Not in a political sense, but in talking about the life of Jesus. The incarnation and Cross both show his identification with humankind. Without them, he could not represent us and in any sense be a substitute in his atoning death. From a faith point of view, then, identification and representation have to be brought together. They have been forced wide apart in some Parliamentary circles, and the expenses stories only bring into focus an existing dangerous situation. MPs cannot truly represent us if they do not identify with us. For some, that ought to mean actually living (well, their main residences) in their constituencies. I notice in this scandal that a few don’t even do that.
But in the midst of this, something encourages me. It has been a common refrain among some of those exposed by the reporting to claim that everything they did was ‘within the rules’. I find it heartening that the public generally has not swallowed this as a reasonable defence. If the rules allowed such extravagant claims, then the rules are wrong. As I read what is going on here, the promising sign is that our society will not accept a defence on the grounds that MPs fulfilled the letter of the law. People are looking for an attitude that keeps the spirit of the law. Often I think our society is pretty sick: that strikes me as a healthy sign. If we follow this through, we shall seek not only reform of MPs but of the Fees Office, given that some have reported how it encouraged MPs to see the Additional Costs Allowance as an allowance to bolster their paltry £64,000 salary, rather than a limit of allowable expenses.
If we are to react healthily, though, we must ensure that not all MPs are tarred with same brush. Church leaders know all about that problem. To many in the outside world, I am either fleecing the flock (have they seen my tattered ten-year-old car?) or interfering with children. We have to keep level heads and not assume that ‘they are all at it’. My own MP, Simon Burns, has made large claims but nowhere has it been suggested that he has lacked integrity. (Contrast that with neighbouring MP Sir Alan Haselhurst, a deputy Speaker and possible replacement for Michael Martin as Speaker. His garden upkeep has cost £11,000.)
And integrity is a watchword for both public and Parliament at this time. Every case must be judged according to the evidence, not according to a desire for revenge or to meet a political agenda. It’s not about either party meeting a minimum standard, but longing to be the best people we can possibly be, as Rowan Williams said in a commentary in The Times.
Yet if that is to be the case, one big unanswered question for me is to wonder about the motives of the Daily Telegraph in reporting this day by day. They are known as a Conservative newspaper, yet having started by picking out Labour politicians, they have exposed Tories as well. Is that evidence of neutrality in the pursuit of truth? It would be good if it were. Is it just a professional desire to sell papers? Or is it something else? I don’t know.
However, I do notice that one MP who has been aggrieved by their coverage, the Conservative Nadine Dorries, has raised particular suspicions against the Barclay brothers who own the Telegraph. No sooner has she made allegations about them and the UK Independence Party than her blog disappears, with fingers pointed at the Telegraph. Tim Montgomerie reproduced the offending paragraph at Conservative Home on Friday. A Plaid Cymru blogger has suggested that timing is everything in this row. These expenses would have been reported publicly in July. Why report now? There are elections (including European ones) in June. If the Barclay brothers are as fiercely Eurosceptic as some have claimed, and if it’s also true they don’t consider the mainline parties Eurosceptic enough, you can see why Dorries would make her point about securing support for UKIP or the evil BNP. Certainly there has been widespread opinion expressed that disgust at the expenses scandal will lead to protest votes in favour of the smaller parties.
(In this respect, mainstream politicians should take comfort both from Rowan Williams’ Times article linked to above, where he calls us to move on, and his joint statement with John Sentamu, where he urges people not to vote for the BNP. And – in case you hadn’t gathered by now – I refuse to link to the BNP.)
Whether Dorries is right, I do not know. It is all based on circumstantial evidence, and I don’t really buy the shtick that used to appear on her blog along the lines of “I’m just a Scouser” or “I’m just a former nurse”. If that were all she were, she wouldn’t have made it to Parliament. Will she end up on Celebrity Big Brother? But for so long as the Telegraph and the Barclay brothers stay mum, suspicions will remain. The Telegraph is right to call for transparency from MPs, but that means it should itself be transparent.
Which means there is a right and proper place in this debate to consider not only the integrity of MPs and – as I have argued – the public, but also of the press. A fortnight ago, Bishop Nick Baines called for journalists to reveal their expenses, receipts and diary records. He said:
They might not be ‘public servants’, paid from the public purse, but they wield enormous power and don’t usually disclose their influences.
Don’t hold your breath.
And he has a point. It’s the integrity question again. If you accuse somebody of a misdemeanour, you’d better be sure you’re not guilty of it yourself. It has been only too easy, as I’ve shown above, to establish a case that some MPs have behaved hypocritically. Unpopular as it may seem, then, a Christian message at this time is not only to denounce injustice, but for all parties (not just political ones) to examine themselves. Logs and specks in the eye, that sort of thing. ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ should be central in all our thinking at all times, but especially now.
UPDATE, Tuesday 26th May: I now gather that Nadine Dorries’ blog is back, minus the controversial post. Thanks to David Keen. She remains deeply critical of the Telegraph, and not just from her own personal experience. However, the more this particular individual incident goes on, the more you wonder whether the Barclay brothers are aping Mark Brewer and Nadine Dorries gets the Dave Walker rôle.
UPDATE #2, Wednesday 27th May: The BBC reports this morning that HM Revenue and Customs are to investigate those ministers who claimed personal accounting costs against tax, to see whether the law has been broken.
A Revenue and Customs spokesman told the BBC: “It’s a general principle of tax law that accountancy fees incurred in connection with the completion of a personal tax return are not deductible.
“This is because the costs of complying with the law are not an allowable expense against tax. This rule applies across the board.”
Exactly what I was saying above.
Furthermore, David Grossman of the BBC television programme Newsnight undertook some investigations. One quote from the piece regarding his work:
Mr Grossman said representatives of Foreign Secretary David Miliband had given a “confused” reply to the claims.
It suggested that because he had paid accountancy fees out of his taxed income, before receiving the money back from the Commons authorities, “there was no liablility”.
“We put that point of view to a tax economist who, quite frankly, just laughed,” Mr Grossman added.
more about “Damaris Trust Holy Week 2009, Monday:…“, posted with vodpod
Here is the second Damaris Trust video for Holy Week. Tony Watkins talks about the surprising display of anger shown by Jesus as he cleared the temple courtyards of merchants. He discusses why Jesus took such offence to what he saw, and what that might mean for us.
A belated birthday treat for Rebekah today. For months, she has wanted to visit London, and today was the day. Leaving the car at the main Methodist church in town, we walked to Chelmsford train station, caught a connection to Liverpool Street and a tube to Victoria.
Once we arrived at street level, we asked around to find the bus stop for The Original London Sightseeing Tour. This company is one that offers open-top double-decker bus tours of London’s sights. You buy tickets that are valid all day. You can hop on and off. You receive earphones for a detailed commentary. Children also get a special fun pack.
Knowing that Mark would be young enough to go free, we calculated that two adults and one child would cost us £56 for the day. We used some Tesco Clubcard vouchers towards the tickets. For every £2.50 in Clubcard, you receive £10 in vouchers. Therefore we exchanged £12.50 to get £50, and expected to pay the balance of £6 in cash. But I was charged £60: I didn’t realise the prices had increased on 1st April. We could have exchanged a further £2.50 in vouchers and not have had to pay a single penny. Dang, to quote my American friends.
It was an ideal day to sit on top of an open bus. 15° Celsius (59° Fahrenheit), and sunny, so great weather but not hot. The tour would take us all across central London. We saw Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Park Lane, Oxford Street, Marylebone Road and ground to a halt on Regent Street. With Mark getting extremely bored and both children struggling to keep the adult-sized earphones in their ears, we elected to jump off. Using McDonald’s for the only thing it’s worth (their toilets), we dived into Oxford Circus tube station and headed for St James’s Park station, from where we headed for the park itself and enjoyed a picnic. The park squirrels were tame, and the ice cream from a kiosk was good. (There is no connection between the squirrels and the ice cream.)
From there, we walked down to see Buckingham Palace, which was the place Rebekah most wanted to see. Despite being a Londoner, I’ve never seen it in the flesh before, either. Neither Debbie nor I are avid Republicans (the thought of a President Blair or – worse – President Mandelson is scary enough), but we are both instinctively ambivalent about royalty, so it is never a place I have been worried about seeing. However, Becky was delighted, and from there was content to head home.
While in St James’s Park, she repeated a question we’d had to defer the other day: why was Jesus crucified? I tried to give her a simple answer on two levels. One was about how good people can upset bad people. The other was about the kindness of a friend who takes the blame for us. (Yes, I know that latter one can be pushed too far in some models of the atonement, but it was a place to start that she could understand, but I’m following people like Tom Wright here who accepts a form of substitutionary atonement while rejecting the ‘Pierced for our Transgressions‘ school. I also know there are problems with that particular article of Wright’s, but I’m interested here more in what he affirms than his attitude to certain partners in the debate.)
Once home, Rebekah wanted to show me something she has been making since yesterday. She has wanted to make a model of the Cross on which Jesus died. I have to tell you it is made out of pink and purple lolly sticks from a craft set, but don’t be put off. At one stage yesterday, she wanted to make a Jesus to go on it, using furry balls, but that part of the project had evidently foundered. Nevertheless, the cross was decorated with the words ‘Jesus was crucified’ and a series of hearts.
But while there was no body of Jesus on the lolly stick cross, there was something else: a montage of triangles, soaked in glitter.
“That’s the star,” she told me, “the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem.”
She gets it. At the age of six, she knows in a simple way that the incarnation and the atonement cannot be divided. Oh that more of us would.
If there’s one thing I struggle with Missional Jesus over, it’s parties. He loved them. I hate them.
OK, ‘hate’ is the wrong word, but they have too many connotations of embarrassment from the past. And tonight, Debbie and I were at a party for missional reasons.
M has become a friend of ours through pre-school and school. She has children of a similar age to ours. Major aspects of her life have been horrendous in recent times – I’m not going to detail them in a public medium here – and we have stood with her through some difficult and painful decisions. Most of the time, it has simply meant inviting her for coffee or lunch. We gave her a few spare possessions when she needed to move her accommodation. Occasionally, there have been overtly spiritual conversations.
But today was her thirtieth birthday. She could not afford a party, but good friends hired a hall and a DJ. They decorated it and provided food. We were among eighty or so guests who were invited, and we felt it right to accept the invitation, even though we knew it would be the kind of event where I in particular would feel uncomfortable.
It’s that raging introvert issue again. Discos are not my thing. The style of music isn’t my taste, and you’re not likely to see me dance any time before the Second Coming. King David may have danced before the Lord, but this David doesn’t. Thankfully, nobody tonight applied any of the heavy social pressure to which I have been subjected on other occasions: this bunch of largely non-Christians was a lot more relaxed about people making their own decisions than many Christian-dominated parties I’ve attended in the past.
But I can’t escape the fact that in the Gospels, Jesus seemed so comfortable at parties. I know there is no verse which says, “And it came to pass that Jesus got up and danced to ‘You’re The One That I Want’,” but to my mind he seems chilled and at home at parties. If we’re going to share in people’s lives on their territory, not ours, it is going to involve actions that are uncomfortable for us. Not in the sense of ethics and moral decisions, but in terms of personal preferences and tastes. It may not be party-going for you, but if it isn’t that, it will be something else.
So yes, the incarnational theology stuff is important. We need to be ‘in the world’ and also ‘not of the world’ without giving the appearance that we have landed from another planet. But the practice of such theological theory requires a dose of chilled-out Jesus.
Yet what exactly was that? Was he happy at parties because he was an extravert? If I take the Myers Briggs definition of extraversion as someone who derives energy from being with other people, then he certainly did enjoy the company of gatherings large and small. Yet at the same time he displayed introvert tendencies in his ability to go off on his own for extended times of prayer. So I don’t think this is a matter of personality type, however much I am thinking about that subject at present.
I think it’s a matter of security in his own identity. He knew he was the Father’s belovèd Son, and that the Father was well pleased with him. God reminded him of that twice in his life. The first time was at his baptism, just before his public ministry started. The second time was at the Transfiguration, just before he made his deliberate journey towards his Passion at Jerusalem.
And isn’t it that same knowledge in us – in our case a blessing of grace – of knowing that we are loved beyond measure by the Father – that is our security and foundation? Is this not the rock where our feet stand firm, and where it doesn’t matter how other people treat us or what social pressures they exert? Isn’t this vital for the whole spiritual life, mission and worship? May this knowledge, and an the experience of it, grow in each of us, not simply that we are blessed out of our socks, but that we are chilled-out little Jesuses who bless others.