We begin a new sermon series to cover the next three months this Sunday at Knaphill, and as you’ll see from the introduction, it’s on conflict and is loosely based on some Mennonite values.
One of the things I’m pleased that today’s ministerial students are trained in that I wasn’t is in handling conflict. You would think that a college training ministers would include that one, knowing the level of disagreement and outright argument that happens in churches, but it didn’t happen in my time. It’s all very well coming up with pious desires that there should be no conflict in the church, but the reality is that it does happen and it needs addressing. The New Testament calls Christians to be of one mind and purpose, but we clash because we have different interests, different perspectives, different gifts, different personalities … and because, frankly, we are all sinners.
That’s why we are going to spend quite a while examining the theme of conflict. We might like to pretend it doesn’t happen here, but it does. We might think it shouldn’t occur, but it still does. And having had the privilege last September of going away on a week’s training course with an organisation called Bridge Builders that specialises in ‘conflict transformation’, I am using some material from them as the basis for this series. Explicitly, the material for this series comes from a group of Mennonite Christians – a tradition that specialises in peace and reconciliation. It is centred on a group of twelve commitments they made in their understanding of conflict and faith.
We begin with this week with the need to accept conflict. And we take this chunk from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which describes, in Tom Wright’s words,
‘the mutual welcome which … is the concrete, bodily form which ‘forgiveness’ is supposed to take in the present time.’
In other words, this is what the forgiven life in the family of God looks like. It is very much about what we do to avoid unnecessary conflict. We accept that conflict happens, because we are different and fallible human beings, but it is possible in the church to major on minors, and Paul gives us principles to hold us together in the face of our real differences.
Firstly, Paul calls us to accept one another:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. (14:1)
He gives two examples of conflict, one about food and one about holy days. Carnivores such as me might be amused to read of him saying that those who only eat vegetables have weak faith (14:2), but this is not a dispute about vegetarianism. It is about a debate that ran not just in Rome among the Christians, but also among the disciples at Corinth. It was about a prevalent issue of that time: meat sacrificed to idols. Generally, the meat you bought in the market had already been offered as a sacrifice at a pagan temple. Some Christians felt ‘strong’ about this and said, “It’s all right, the idols are really nothing at all, so although I wouldn’t worship them, there is nothing to worry about here, I’ll eat the meat.” But others said, “There are demons behind the idols at the pagan temples. I want nothing to do with that, so I will not eat meat.” Both in their way are respectable Christian approaches to the problem. Both reflect the desire to serve the Lord, as Paul goes on to observe (14:3-4, 6b-9).
And if that is the case, the different sides had no business in showing contempt for, or looking down upon, those they disagreed with. Whether to eat meat or to abstain, all sides were servants of Christ. Anything that elevates itself over the common commitment to serving Jesus Christ and divides us off from each other in doing that is not the work of God, but of the enemy.
Perhaps it’s easier to understand in our context when we look at Paul’s other example here, where some keep a calendar of holy days, and others treat all days as the same. It’s like those who keep saints’ days, all the Christian festivals, and follow the Lectionary on the one hand, and those who find none of that helpful. At the more extreme ends, it’s like holding Catholics and Baptists together, but you don’t have to go as far apart as that. Methodist to Baptist would do. Indeed, before she met me, Debbie didn’t even know what Lent was, because it was never marked in her home church. But would it be right for us to unchurch them or them to unchurch us? Of course not! It’s therefore wonderful to live in a village where the Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics can run an Alpha Course together.
None of this is to downplay our differences, or our varying convictions. Differences exist, even within our traditions. So we as a church where many people expressed a preference for sermon series as part of Christian teaching find that one or two preachers in the circuit prefer to do all their preaching from the Lectionary. We have good reason for what we do, and they have good reason for their preference. It means it is hard to work in partnership, but we should by no means despise each other.
And just as that is true across churches, it needs to be true within churches. We need to commit to a level of acceptance of each other, whilst respecting our differences.
Secondly, and following on from this as the other side of the coin, Paul calls us not to judge one another. We are well advised not to judge others (14:13), because we shall be judged by God (14:10-12). I take that to mean a couple of things: one is that we should leave all judgement to God. The other is: what will God think of us if we have spent our time ripping other people to shreds?
But rather than just seeing the call not to judge our brothers and sisters as a mere negative command, what can we positively do instead of being judgemental? Paul has some ideas.
One is this: to encourage those we disagree with, we can choose to forgo our own rights. The meat-eater should not eat meat and upset those who struggle with meat that has been offered to idols, Paul says. That isn’t love (14:13-16). I do not have to spend all my time demanding my rights when the exercise of them will become a stumbling-block to others (14:13). I am persuaded that it is all right for Christians to drink alcohol in moderation, but I will not condemn those who disagree. I will not bring a bottle of wine with me to your house if you invite us for a meal. For the sake of Christian love, I will happily put aside my enjoyment of wine. On a corporate level, that’s one reason why I’m happy with the Methodist position that we use non-alcoholic wine at Holy Communion. Our first positive step in avoiding judgmentalism, then, is to remove stumbling blocks.
Our second strategy to counter judgmentalism is to set out to edify others:
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (14:19)
Edification is the construction of an edifice. It is ‘building up’. Paul calls us to build up, rather than to tear down, which is what judgmentalism does. Perhaps we know that there is someone in the church with whom we have a problem. There is something about them that winds us up. We find ourselves thinking all sorts of unworthy thoughts about them. We may even share some of these with our friends – and may not even realise that we have been overheard. Could you set out to affirm that person, even bless them, instead?
An example of what I mean: when one of my cousins was going out with the young woman whom he eventually was to marry, his future mother-in-law made it plain to him that he wasn’t good enough for her girl. You can imagine what this did to my cousin.
But then he took a transforming decision. He vowed that every time he left his girlfriend’s house, he would say ‘God bless you’ to her mother. At first, he said it through gritted teeth. However, in time, the relationship thawed and became warm. It all happened because he chose to bless.
So I want to challenge everyone here this morning. Is there a person you despise? Is it someone in this church? Will you commit to blessing that person instead? Edification instead of judgmentalism makes all the difference in conflict. You still may not agree with that person. But that does not stop you blessing them.
Thirdly and finally in this approach to conflict, Paul’s word to us is that we should seek to please our neighbours, not ourselves, because this builds them up and follows the example of Christ, who did not set out to please himself (15:2-3).
By ‘neighbours’ Paul still has in mind the people we disagree with – those who eat meat sacrificed to idols versus those who don’t, those who very liturgical versus those who are more extempore in their faith. Our neighbours here are not those who are like us, but those in the family of God who are not like us. If our neighbours were the people who thought like us, then pleasing them would be easy. But instead, Paul lays down a challenge – seek to please those people with whom you are at odds.
Indeed, it is countercultural. We are taught, especially by advertisers, that it is good to please ourselves. ‘Go on, you deserve it,’ they say. ‘Because I’m worth it,’ said the infamous L’Oreal advert. But Christians are to please others, even and especially those they are in conflict with, those where they are risking a major fall-out.
What does this look like? Here’s another story. I once had a barney with a fellow minister. He announced an initiative which involved coming into the area where one of my churches was, and he didn’t consult me or the other church leaders in the area. I sent him a rather angry email, complaining that he hadn’t listened to the existing local Christians in that town. We would have welcomed his church as partners in evangelism, but were upset that they were coming in as if there were no disciples of Jesus already there. It had the potential to be a damaging row.
Yet however much we were upset with each other, we both wanted to put it right. He contacted me and invited me out to lunch at a nice hotel. He insisted on paying the bill. I turned up with a box of chocolates for him and his wife and children. We managed to talk through our conflict, understand each other, and find a peaceable way forward, because we both entered into that lunch meeting with a desire for the other person’s good.
What difference would it make when we disagree at this church if we were to set our arguments within a context of actively wanting the best for our opponent? I think the conflict would be transformed. I think the potential for resolution and reconciliation would increase hugely.
In fact, more than that: Paul says that when we bring this attitude to our differences, we bring praise and glory to God (15:6-7).
So let us accept that conflict exists and happens. Let us not cling onto forlorn hopes that we shall never experience it in the church. But let us approach our so-called opponents in such a spirit of acceptance, a rejection of judgmentalism in favour of edification, and a true desire to please those who antagonise us that a miracle of reconciliation happens, even if neither party manages to convince the other.
Yes, let even the way we handle our conflicts be a witness to God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ. And may God receive all the praise and the glory.
On most days of the week, I am the first person up in our household. My alarm clock rudely interrupts my sleep, I switch it off and lie in bed for as long as I think I can get away with, before coming down, unlocking the front door, opening the curtains, feeding the cats and making drinks for everyone. It doesn’t come naturally – I am constitutionally a late night person and am also usually the last to bed as well as the first up.
As Paul gets us to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ in Romans 13, he gives us an image of the early morning. He gives us three images of preparing for the day that help us know how to live in the light of the fact that Christ will appear again one day.
The first question is, what time is it? As you may know, a hobby I enjoy is photography. One of the most important factors to consider as a photographer is the light. Some people think that the bright light of the middle of the day is the best light for taking pictures, but to many of us it isn’t. It is harsh, and it causes dark, unforgiving shadows.
No: light is better at the beginning or the end of the day. The times around sunrise and sunset are the most interesting. And just as we speak about there being twilight around sunset, so there is also twilight around sunrise. In fact, as I learned from reading an article the other day, there are three phases of twilight just before the sun rises. There is astronomical twilight, when the centre of the sun is twelve to eighteen degrees below the horizon, and the light is dark blue – even still seeming like darkness. Then comes nautical twilight, when the sun’s centre is now between six and twelve degrees below the horizon. Orange and yellow hues join the dark blue. Finally, there is civil twilight, when the centre of the sun moves between six degrees below the horizon to sunrise proper itself. Now the light is a mixture of pale yellow, neon red and bright orange. Only after that is sunrise itself, and the first hour afterwards is called the ‘golden hour’, because red light turns gold at this time.
Why am I telling you all this? Because Paul tells us that we are living between twilight and sunrise.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. (Verses 11-12a)
If you remember the stories in the Gospels about the Resurrection of Jesus, you will recall that it happened in the early morning, before the dawn. Paul effectively says that as we now live in between the Resurrection of Jesus and the Second Coming, when all will be raised from the dead and God’s light will shine everywhere without opposition, we live in between first twilight and sunrise. We live now at a time when the light has begun to come but the darkness is still around. However, the longer time goes on, the closer we get to the full sunrise, when darkness will flee away at the full brilliance of the sun.
This image gives us a reference for our lives. Living as we do between the morning twilight of the Resurrection and the full sunrise of the Second Coming, we know that our world consists of both light and darkness. It can be frustrating and demoralising when it seems like we are surrounded more by darkness than light, but the good news for us is that the light has come and that the sunrise is on its way. It is prefigured even in the Christmas message, as when the apostle John says, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never come to terms with it.’
So next time you are discouraged, remember everything to do with Jesus. He came as the light of the world, and the darkness couldn’t cope with him. Darkness thought it had got rid of him on Good Friday, but in the morning twilight of Easter Day we learned that wasn’t true. Now we are waiting for the sunrise. We may be tempted to think it’s pointless doing the right thing, because evil seems to be rampant, but living between the Resurrection and the Second Coming means that it is always worth aligning ourselves with what is good, beautiful and true. Be encouraged by the breaking of the dawn.
The second question is, what shall we wear? The alarm clock has woken you. A good supply of tea or coffee, pumped intravenously into you, has got you going. A shower has brought you closer to full humanity, and now you must decide what clothes to put on. How will you face the world today?
Paul has two images concerning this in the passage: ‘put on the armour of light’ (verse 12b) and ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (verse 14a). So – two sets of clothes! Let’s think about each set.
It’s about dressing for the occasion, or dressing for the conditions. That we are urged to put on the ‘armour of light’ indicates the conflict we are in. Yes, we know that the light will win, but the darkness is not giving up easily. The forces of darkness will seek not only to fight against us, beat us down and demoralise us; they will also try to infiltrate us. That is why Paul says, after telling us to put on the armour of light,
let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. (Verse 13)
We are not living in the light of our coming King when we resort to these sins. Now you may think that several of these are quite irrelevant to us, and that you have not witnessed any debauchery here in Addlestone Methodist Church. Well, neither have I (unless it has been kept well hidden!), but listen to what Tom Wright says about this verse:
We should not forget that “quarrelling and jealousy” are put on exactly the same level as immorality; there are many churches where the first four sins [revelling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness] are unheard of but the last two [quarrelling and jealousy] run riot.
The church infested with quarrelling and jealousy might just as well be the one that is rife with sexual scandal and drug abuse, in the eyes of the apostle. Think about it. When we let our tongues behave loosely in our conversation before or after the service, we are a deeply immoral church, filled with darkness. We must protect ourselves against this by wearing armour – the armour of light.
What does that mean? I suggest it involves disciplined efforts with the help of the Holy Spirit to concentrate our minds and our affections upon all that is good, worthy and noble. We resist and we cut down the attempts to infiltrate our minds with darkness. This requires filling ourselves with all that is good, starting with the Scriptures. It involves building our lives around the Gospel and all that it implies – the undeserved grace of God, his sacrificial love in Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, the benefits of peace with God and others, and so on.
And having established that, the other clothing – ‘put[ting] on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (verse 14a) – complements that. What is the emphasis here? Tom Wright helps us again:
Frequently when Paul uses more than one name or title for Jesus the one he wishes to emphasize is placed first; here, by saying, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”, he seems to be drawing attention to the sovereignty of Jesus, not simply over the believer (who is bound to obey the one whose servant he or she is), but perhaps more particularly over the forces of evil that are ranged against the gospel and those who embrace it. … The assumption must be that he is urging them, as a regular spiritual discipline, to invoke the presence and power of Jesus as Lord of all things to be their defense against all evil, not least the evil toward which they might be lured by their own “flesh”.
Jesus, then, has power over the evil that threatens us, and when we are tempted to give way to the darkness that denies the coming of the light, we invoke him, we call upon him and are then able to resist and align ourselves with the breaking of the dawn rather than the powers of the night.
The third and final question is, what appointments do we have today? Our reading ends with these words:
and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Verse 14b)
The NIV speaks about us not thinking about how to gratify the flesh. It’s about excluding appointment requests from our diary, not including. I usually look at my diary for the day and consider what is in there. It affects decisions I make during the day about what things can claim my time. I try to check my diary carefully when I receive requests for appointments in the future, too. Do I have too many demands on a particular day? Does this fit with what a minister should be doing? Why does this request appeal to me, and is that for good reasons or selfish ones? Why does this next request not appeal to me? Is that for good reasons or selfish?
Likewise, we have influences who want to take up our time in life, and our decisions on who and what we will give time to may well affect how much we align ourselves with the coming daylight of our King. Paul knows that one way in which we end up making wrong, sinful choices is when we give over our time to things which play on our own self-centred desires. Sometimes it’s the casual way we allow ourselves to idle time away, thinking casually about things that then start to take a hold on our minds, until eventually we end up thinking, doing or perhaps saying things contrary to our faith, and which bring us a deep sense of shame.
You can see this in Bible stories like that of David and Bathsheba. David was supposed to be leading Israel’s army in battle, but he gazed at Bathsheba bathing naked on a nearby roof. Why she used her time to bathe like that where she would be seen from the palace is also questionable. We know the horrifying results. David so wants Bathsheba that he arranges the death of her husband in battle. She becomes pregnant, and they lose the baby.
Now that may be the furthest thing from your mind, but think of how we allow the agenda of advertisers to dominate our thinking until we are dissatisfied with things that previously contented us. We then end up exercising poor stewardship of our money. What about when we give our time over to entertaining gossip? Or how about the occasions when we allow our thoughts to be inflamed by the sly prejudices of certain politicians, journalists or television commentators?
No: if we are dressed in the armour of light and we have put on Jesus Christ as Lord, we cannot imagine that we are going into a bright day where there will be room in our schedules for those things which seem harmless but which grow from tiny specks to great swathes of darkness. Advent Sunday is a time to remember that the light has been breaking through, especially since the Resurrection of Jesus, and today’s twilight will soon become the glorious dawn of his second appearing. May we live, knowing what time it is.
Sorry for blog silence this week: some difficult and painful family news to deal with. However, I’ve managed to ready tomorrow morning’s sermon for publication. It’s based on the Lectionary Gospel reading, and there’s a big Tom Wright influence to my interpretation. For me, he makes huge sense of a difficult passage.
If we’re not careful, reading a passage like this can make us complacent. We are so used to reading these accounts of ‘wars and rumours of wars … but the end is still to come’ (verse 7) that we assume this is one of those texts about the end of the world, and so we get smug about those Christians who foolishly predict when the end is coming. We sit back saying, “How silly,” and don’t allow the text to have any force with us.
But what if our interpretation is wrong? What if Mark 13 isn’t fundamentally about the end of the world and the Second Coming? Let me make a case that it’s about something else. And while that ‘something else’ doesn’t at first seem to affect us, actually it does. Allow me to explain.
How does the passage start? It begins with one of Jesus’ disciples admiring the Jerusalem Temple.
‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (Verse 1)
It’s all about the Temple. Jesus answers the comment in those terms. He prophesies the destruction of the Temple (verse 2), and it is about this that Peter, James, John and Andrew ask him for signs that it is about to happen (verses 3-4). I know some will point to later in this chapter (beyond today’s reading) where Jesus quotes Daniel about ‘the son of man coming in glory’ but that is not a prophecy about the Son of Man coming to earth, but coming to God. It prophesies Jesus’ vindication in his resurrection, his ascension and the fulfilment of these prophecies.
Essentially, Jesus tells his closest disciples not to be too impressed by the grandeur of the Temple. It was thought at the time to be the most beautiful of all ancient buildings, and so on a human level you can understand how impressed they are. Further, as good Jews going up for a festival, you can expect them to be favourably disposed towards it. And if they didn’t see it all that often, there here are devoutly religious men who are blown away by an act of sincere religious tourism, just as we might be if we visited a location that had key associations with our faith, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands on the most likely site of Jesus’ tomb.
But then you think a bit more. Did the disciples really expect Jesus to be as awestruck by the Temple as they were, so soon after he had cleared the moneychangers out in a profound act of religious vandalism? Had they not learned a lesson from that? Evidently not.
What are we to take, then, from Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction, a prophecy which would come true just forty years later when Rome crushed a Jewish rebellion?
I think we should clear out one wrong conclusion. This does not give us permission to hate Jewish people, any more than the crucifixion does. If we start to argue that the destruction of the Temple was God’s judgement on the Jews for their part in the death of Jesus, then what are we to make of the many Christian church buildings that have been destroyed over the centuries? Should we automatically assume that all such actions are a sign of God’s displeasure?
And should we assume that Jesus’ prophecy gives us reason to be opposed to all religious buildings? Again, probably not. If a group of people gathers for worship, they will usually need a building. It is a moot point whether they need to own the building or whether they can borrow one, but you cannot avoid the need for buildings.
I think that rather than concentrate on what I might call ‘negative’ interpretations of this story, we need to seek positive interpretations. I don’t say that because I want everything to be nice and happy and to paper over cracks – you will see that positive interpretations carry a considerable challenge.
This story is about true worship. Let me tell you a story. When I arrived in my first appointment as a probationer minister, I was told that my main church had a catchphrase: ‘Flo won’t like it.’ And it was true. Flo never did like it, whatever ‘it’ happened to be. On one occasion when I had announced in advance that the annual Free Churches Good Friday service would include someone hammering nails into a cross – surely unexceptional for such an occasion – I was summoned to the farm where she lived, plied with tea, cake and copies of John Wesley’s Journal, and then asked me to rescind this terrible decision.
It transpired that Flo’s late husband had been the major financial contributor to the purchase of both the manse I lived in and the church building. Her whole life was about preserving his heritage. Flo never did like ‘it’. Her ‘temple’ had to be preserved along its original lines.
And this raises the question about who, what or where we truly worship. Devotion to a building is wrong. A temple is never an end in itself for worship. A temple is where heaven and earth meet. Supremely for Christians, Jesus is where heaven and earth meet, being both divine and human. Indeed, when it comes later to his trial, he will effectively claim to be the true temple when he says, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.’
In other words, the positive challenge from the beginning of this passage is to make sure that Jesus is the focus of our worship. To stress Jesus as the object of our worship probably sounds so obvious, so central and perhaps even so trite that you might wonder why I would even bother to emphasise it.
But the reality is, we can easily take our eyes off Jesus. We can worship religion rather than him. Like Flo, we can become obsessed more with the vehicles that help us worship than the One who is the worthy object of our devotion.
I say this, having heard recently that some members of the church at whose building Debbie and I were married fear that they will be closed down. I will feel desperately sad if that happens (which is not to comment on whether it will happen, or whether it is right or wrong). But it will be a reminder to me that my focus must be on Jesus, not a building.
And perhaps this is an important reminder for us all. Just as Jesus was warning his disciples that tumultuous and catastrophic times were coming upon the Jewish people, so we live in a time when it seems like the outlook for the Christian faith in our culture seems bleak. Just as the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, so we too see cherished religious institutions collapse and fail. Churches close and denominations even get close to being unviable. This is a critical time to remember that we are to concentrate on Jesus more than the organisations or traditions we dearly love. Might it even be that just as the Jerusalem Temple, with its elaborate sacrificial system and the opposition of its leaders to Jesus, became redundant, so some of our religious systems and structures are also no longer fit for purpose? Now more than ever is a time to make sure our first loyalty is to Jesus and not to some human construction.
But we find all these social convulsions troubling, distressing even. That leads to the second of two themes I want to share with you this morning. Jesus knew his disciples would be upset by the thought of wars and rumours of wars, and he had a word of hope for them. It wasn’t a sugar-coated word of hope, it was one set in the harsh realities that were coming. But hope it was, nevertheless.
That hope comes right at the end of our reading:
‘This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’ (Verse 8b)
Birth pangs. Last week a friend gave birth to a little girl. After a long labour she lovingly scolded a friend who had told her that giving birth was just like ‘doing a big poo’. Need I tell you the deluded friend was male?
Birth pangs are painful, intensely so. What a mother goes through in order to bring new life into the world is excruciating – and even that word seems too weak to describe the experience. But they bear the pain for the sake of the outcome.
By talking about birth pangs, Jesus tells his disciples that the forthcoming traumas, horrendous as they will be, will be the prelude to new life. To quote Tom Wright
‘The picture of birthpangs had been used for centuries by Jews as they reflected on the way in which, as they believed, their God was intending to bring to birth his new world, his new creation, the age to come in which justice and peace, mercy and truth would at last flourish. Many writers from Jesus’ time whose works have come down to us spoke of the Jewish hope in this fashion. Since … Jesus believed that his kingdom-mission, his message, was the divinely appointed means of bringing this new world to birth, we shouldn’t be surprised that he sometimes spoke of it in this way as well.’1
Despite the pain, God is doing something new. Despite the upheavals, God is at work. When you see the tribulations of the church in decline today, do not simply stop and blame our society for turning its back on Christianity, however much that is true. Go further in your thinking. Ponder the thought of why it is God might want to do away with the forms of religion we have had for many years. Could it be that he is judging us? Could it be that the things we cling onto instead of Jesus are the things God is making redundant?
But more than all that, do you dare think that the pain the church is undergoing is that of birth pangs? Could it be that God is bringing something new to birth? As the old ways of doing things falter and crumble, could God be inviting us to experience a death so that we might embrace a resurrection? Can I dare you to believe in the God of new beginnings? The God who says in Isaiah 43, ‘Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. Behold, I am doing a new thing’? The God who says in Revelation 21, ‘I am making all things new’?
Friends, is it not time to recognise the ways in which we have become too attached to our religious institutions and repudiate that as the false worship – yes, the idolatry that truly is? Is it not time to renew a radical commitment and devotion to Jesus as the true object of our desires?
And is it not time to trust God in the shaking of our times, believing him for another act of new creation?
Direct from the crazy world of Christian television, two networks are jostling to cover the Second Coming. Yes, it’s the ultimate ratings war. No longer is the Parousia the great doctrine of hope, it’s the great deliverer of commercial success. You’ll need all those extra viewers to sell your advertising when the Lord returns, won’t you? And as a guy called Leo, who was the second person to comment on Matthew Paul Turner’s post about this, says, if they believe in the ‘Rapture’, who will be operating the TV equipment? Only those ‘left behind’. Won’t it be a shame if Jesus has signed an exclusive deal with a different channel?
Am I being sarcastic? Probably. Should I be? I guess not. But I’m annoyed at another religious stunt which brings our faith into disrepute. It is not that I believe the doctrine of the Parousia should be spiritualised or demythologised. I don’t believe that the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfils the prophecies of this event. Rather, I believe that Christ will appear again (note that word ‘appear’ – it translates the Greek parousia). He is invisibly present in creation but will appear again ‘to judge the living and the dead’. This carrying-on has all the likelihood of becoming the religious equivalent of that early Internet phenomenon, the webcam that was trained on some coffee in a Cambridge University lab. The sceptics will mock ever more loudly. Looks like a case for Tom Wright, in my opinion.
Like every English football fan, I turn into an amateur pundit when an England squad is announced for a major tournament. It was thus with interest and trepidation that I followed Wednesday’s announcement of Roy Hodgson’s squad for the Euro 2012 tournament. Were I a Frenchman, I would be quite pleased with the England squad. I wondered how certain players could be forgotten – notably Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon. The fact that Lennon plays for Spurs, Crouch used to and that Spurs are my time, did not cloud my judgement at all.
And if we think about forgotten men, we come in the Ascension to the forgotten festival. For many Christians, it’s Christmas, Easter and hopefully Pentecost. Ascension gets overlooked. Whether it’s because it always happens on a Thursday, because biblically the event it marks happened ten days before Pentecost, I don’t know, but it is certainly our forgotten festival.
But perhaps there is one reason that leads to our embarrassed silence about the Ascension, and that’s all this talk about Jesus rising up out of sight in a cloud. It all sounds so primitive, so unsophisticated to our scientifically tuned ears. We make our assumptions that the ancients believed that earth was ‘down here’ and heaven was ‘up there’, whereas our knowledge of astronomy and related disciplines seems to make that unlikely.
Yet how else were ancient people going to understand that Jesus had returned to his Father’s presence? Some riding off into the sunset, like the hero of a Western movie, wouldn’t have worked. Could it be that the strange account in Acts of Jesus being taken up from the disciples and obscured by a cloud (verse 9) is the only way God could have communicated this to them? I like to think this is an example of what John Calvin called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’, that many things are just so beyond the human mind that God can only show them in any way to us by simplifying them to our terms. Some of the creation stories may do the same, taking Babylonian myths of the day but importing very different meanings into them.
So the first theme of the Ascension for me, then, is this one of divine mystery accommodated to puny human minds. Let us not think with all our additional knowledge today that we are in any less need of God accommodating himself to our own failures to understand him. As Charles Wesley put it about the Incarnation in one of his hymns,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
‘Incomprehensibly.’ The saving works of God are so beyond and above our thinking and our imagination that the Lord has to find ways of communicating them to us that can make some kind of sense to us.
Hence I would say that a major challenge of the Ascension for us as Christians is to embrace the mystery of God and to stop thinking that we can put him into little boxes of our own making. If God chooses to put small boundaries around his revelation so that we have some chance of comprehension, that is up to him. But it is not for us to say what the limits are. It is not up to us to say, ‘But of course God could not do such-and-such’ – unless it contradicted his character.
Therefore, at Ascension-tide, let us face the challenge that God wants us to think bigger about him than we ever have done before. We may find it hard, but it may be essential. Indeed, unless we do, how ever will we truly worship him? If we are the ones who set limits on who he can be and what he can do, then is he any longer truly God? If God contracts things to help us understand, then that is his business. But we have no business in contracting God for ourselves with the tool of unbelief.
The second theme the Ascension has for me is the joining of earth and heaven. That Wesley hymn I just quoted starts with the lines,
Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree
And the Ascension is about the uniting of earth and heaven. Jesus’ journey from earth to heaven is not a vacating of earth – after all, ten days later he will send his own Spirit. It is about the joining of earth and heaven.
Remember that this is central to Jesus himself. In Jewish thought, the Temple was the place where earth and heaven met. But Jesus presented himself as the true Temple when he said, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it,’ referring to his death and resurrection. Earth and heaven meet, and worship is the fitting response. The Ascension shows us, as does the Incarnation and other aspects of Jesus’ ministry, that he is the one where earth and heaven meet. He is the true Temple. He, therefore, is to be worshipped and adored. Ascension is a reason for worship.
And so we might be puzzled by the Ascension, but we need to get beyond the default modern reaction in order to worship the one who has brought earth and heaven together. Ascension tells us that Jesus is worthy of all our praise and honour, not only as we sing and pray but as we live for his glory each day.
That call to worship leads us neatly into a third theme, which is that Ascension shows Jesus as both Lord and king. Tom Wright tells how one of the ways in which the myth of Roman emperors becoming gods at the time of their death is that a slave was – shall we say – ‘encouraged’ to report that they saw the soul of the dying emperor flying to heaven at the moment of death.
When Luke tells us the story of the Ascension, witnessed not by conscripted slaves but willing disciples, and not just a soul but the whole raised body of Jesus, his initial audience is surely meant to understand that this is a claim that here is the true emperor of the world. Caesar may call himself Lord, but the true Lord is Jesus.
The Cross, of course, has already declared that Jesus is King. ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me,’ he had said. Pilate had put up the notice, ‘King of the Jews’, and the Gospel writers mean us to understand that this is ultimately not a criminal charge, nor a statement of irony, but the truth. Jesus is enthroned as king on the Cross. The Resurrection then sees that king’s kingdom coming in power. Now this is capped by the Ascension as a visual sign of his reign. Jesus is Lord and King of the universe.
But it all means that he reigns in a different manner. He had reminded his disciples that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over people, but they were not to be that way. They were to serve. His own enthronement, as I said, was to be on the Cross – in suffering. And as we bow before our ascended Lord and King, we commit ourselves to work for his kingdom in sacrificial ways. If we worship Jesus, the true Temple who brought earth and heaven together, and we should because he is both Lord and King, then that worship cashes out in costly service. Ascension, then, asks us the question: what has my devotion to Jesus Christ cost me? Because if it has cost us nothing then we may never have understood Jesus in the first place.
There is a fourth and final Ascension theme I want to share, and it’s reflected in Hebrews 10:11-18. What does Jesus do when he gets back to the right hand of the Father? He sits down. That could mean a number of things. It could be another statement about his authority – after all, a Jewish rabbi sat down, rather than stood up, to teach. Remember that is what Jesus himself did when he preached at Nazareth. He has not stopped speaking, and as we are reminded elsewhere in the Scriptures he has not stopped praying, either.
But I prefer to see the sitting down in the terms of a rest. When Methodist ministers apply to retire, we have a quaint practice of going before our Synod and ‘asking permission to sit down’. Before we retire, we are deemed to be in what is called ‘the active work’. When we retire, we ‘sit down’. It is about a sense of completion (although the church may still call on us to do certain things).
And the ascended Jesus sits down, because the main burden of his work is done:
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
As Jesus said on the Cross, ‘It is finished’, so the Ascension confirms that fact. Everything has been done to ensure salvation. We are forgiven through his death. We have new life through his Resurrection. From the right hand of the Father he pours out the Spirit so that we can live sacrificially for his kingdom. As the ascended Jesus waits for the final destruction of death, he has given us all we need to lives as little Jesuses, to be the faithful people and new community he wants us to be.
Ascension, finally, then, says, let us rise to the task. Jesus is waiting.
Last week, I was asked to give an extended talk to a midweek group on this theme. This is the text I had before me when I gave the talk.
No one really talks about Holy Saturday, yet if we stop and think about it, it’s where most of us live our lives. Holy Saturday is the no-man’s land between questions and answers, prayers uttered and miracles to come. It’s where we wait – with a peculiar mixture of faith and despair – whenever God is silent or life doesn’t make sense.As we turn to explore the silence of God, we are compelled to address the problem of unanswered prayer more literally than we have done so far, examining the times when God simply doesn’t reply to us when we pray. It’s not that He’s saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to our prayers; it’s that He’s not saying anything at all. We pray and pray but God remains silent.
For many years, I’ve been suspicious of the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul‘. It’s only in recent years, as I’ve read the works of people like Tom Wright, that I’ve come to see it as far more biblically respectable than I previously thought.
Recently, Frank Viola has interviewed two scholars who propound this view. The conversations are about far more than this issue, of course. I commend them to you. He has interviewed N T Wright himself and he has interviewed Scot McKnight. They are well worth a read.