Monthly Archives: August 2006
Novelist Nick Hornby:
I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But
please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and
read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you
weren’t enjoying a television programme.
(Link via kottke.org)
I was reading this thinking it had real parallels for how people experienced church and worship when – blow me down – he links exactly to that experience as a nine-year-old. Do read this – whether your interest is literature and/or religion.
I have a compulsion to read. If something has words I need to pick it up and read it. So it was last week, while we were on holiday, that I sat at the table reading the text on a milk bottle. I nearly splattered the room with my breakfast when I read the words, ‘Allergy advice: contains milk’. Well, I obviously couldn’t have worked out that one for myself, could I? How far do we have to go now to protect the stupid from themselves, I wondered unchristianly?
A day or two later we were visiting an adventure park and got talking to a staff member who was supervising the children’s rides. She recalled buying a bag of peanuts with the allergy warning that it contained nuts.
But she also told the story of someone who threatened to sue the adventure park, because it had wet grass. The words ‘park’ and ‘open-air’ had not been enough of a clue, or maybe the complainant had expected them still to cover their eighty acres with a roof. Put this alongside even the mighty Tesco, probably the most powerful commercial force in the UK, having to put their allergy warning on a milk bottle, and we are most definitely in an ‘If it moves, sue it’ culture.
The Christian praxis of forgiveness seems to have waned with the decline in Christian faith (not that I am suggesting that Christians have a monopoly on forgiving, just that certain Christian values were central to our culture and are markedly less so now). But many of the competitors that have attempted to fill the vacuum do not prize forgiveness.
There is the burgeoning interest in what John Drane calls ‘New Spirituality‘ (although by the middle fo the twenty-first century it might be actively practised by 3% of Brits) but so much of it is about self-fulfilment that however much there is a longing for community, making oneself into a god makes for such self-centredness that it does not really address the need to forgive.
If it’s not about ‘spirituality’ then consumerism militates against forgiveness, because everything is monetised. Everything has a price. Everything is a money-making opportunity.
And if it’s not that then technology has made us an instant society and so we see the ugly sight of families who have been bereaved through a terrible murder dragged blinking before bright media lights like victims before Roman lions and then asked, ‘Can you forgive the murderer?’ Forgiveness, like coffee and microwaves, is meant to be instant. The need to feel the anger as part of the path to forgiveness is obliterated. We leave people with a dangerous choice between a false notion of forgiveness that merely constitutes suppressing the anger (only for it to leap out later like a jack-in-the-box) and a lust for vengeance that is so regularly exploited in the plots of Hollywood blockbusters. And, it might be said, some popular Christian practices of forgiveness have fallen prey to the temptation of the ‘instant’ model and caused deep emotional and spiritual damage.
You can’t help feeling that we could do with someone called Jesus in a society like this. Trouble is, you’d find him hanging on a hill outside the city.
At last Writely, the (admittedly fairly basic) online collaborative word processor that Google bought some months back, is now up and running. (Thanks to ineedhits for the tip-off.) Real possibilities for doing documents together – as with other things like Google Spreadsheets or competitors. (Methodist ministers in a circuit could do a lot of the ‘circuit plan’ together this way and save some time.) Unusually Writely didn’t ask for my Google account sign-in – I had to sign up as if I had no prior contact with Google.
I’ll be having a week’s blogging holiday from Saturday. So I’ve tried to write Sunday week’s sermon ahead of time. I can’t say I’m completely happy with it – while I am content with the direction and content it lacks colour and illustration. It’s a bit too much like a Bible study argument right now. Hopefully leaving it to marinate will produce ways I can amend it. In the meantime here it is so far:
To view the Bible passage in a separate window click here.
If Jesus were alive today, he wouldn’t be allowed to get away with half the miracles he performed. It’s not just that we live in such a sceptical, rationalist age. It’s all the red tape as well. Here are a few examples.
Turning water into wine
This would provoke immediate protests from the drinks industry, who would argue that it was unfair competition, amounting to a monopoly. It would also be denounced by various Christian bodies as irresponsible and likely to lead to drunkenness.
Feeding the multitude
Serving bread and fish to thousands of people at an outdoor event would require the approval of government health inspectors, to ensure that the food had been prepared by qualified food handlers in a hygienic environment. Baskets of leftovers would also need to be disposed of properly.
Walking on water
This could only be done if it were preceded by a disclaimer that nobody should try this at home, particularly not children or young people.
The miraculous catch of fish
Fish stocks are now rigorously conserved to protect against over-fishing, and such large catches would undoubtedly exceed the fishermen’s quotas, leading to stiff penalties.
Healing a man born blind
This apparent act of kindness would lead to all sorts of problems with the government Benefits Agency. All disability benefit would immediately be stopped, and the man in question would probably face an investigation into whether his previous claims had been genuine.
Raising the dead
Environmental health officers wouldn’t be happy about this one, as there are stringent rules governing the proper disposal of bodies. There would also be major difficulties when the recently deceased tried to use their credit cards.
[Simon Coupland, Spicing Up Your Speaking, #75 p187f.]
Well, hopefully we can smile at these. But it isn’t just the red tape problem, the miracles of Jesus are often more than just the acts themselves, especially in John’s Gospel, where they are called ‘signs’. It is not just that Jesus fed five thousand men, plus women and children, as in the story that the Lectionary Gospel readings have been following for the last few weeks. It’s enough for the crowd to have been physically fed, but it isn’t enough for Jesus. His subsequent conversation (if not argument!) with the crowd centres around his teaching that he is the Bread Of Life.
So it’s not enough to defend or celebrate the miracle: we need to ask, where was Jesus pointing us towards with this sign? In this case, he tells us quite specifically.
‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
What does he mean? His Jewish audience picks up on the word ‘flesh’ and proceeds to have an internal dispute:
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
They misunderstand and think he’s talking about cannibalism. It was something the Early Church was often to be accused of when they spoke of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood.
And we misunderstand it, too. We assume Jesus is speaking here about Holy Communion. But that is not the context. This is not the Last Supper. And Jesus speaks not of his ‘body’ as in the texts about the Lord’s Supper but his ‘flesh’. When he says that ‘the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’ he is specifically referring to his death. He is saying that his death on the Cross will bring life for the world. ‘Eating of his bread’, then, means believing in Jesus and particularly trusting that his Cross brings life.
Life comes through death. It’s the supreme Gospel paradox. The Gospel promise in John is for ‘eternal life’. And this eternal life is not just life for the future but a future life that starts now. In John Jesus speaks about eternal life in the present tense.
What is that eternal life? It is knowing God. Just eternity will consist of knowing God, so we begin that knowledge now.
And that knowledge of God which begins now is made possible by Jesus’ death. His death does that in a number of ways. One is this: our knowledge of God is impeded by sin. In some mysterious way that Christians debate Christ died for our sins on the Cross. Sin, which is the opposite of God’s character, is dealt with in love and grace. Those who believe Christ has done this and trust their lives to him find that God says, ‘Welcome!’
Another way in which the Cross opens us up to the knowledge of God is this: Jesus said (also in John’s Gospel) ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. And we see him supremely on the Cross. To the Greek enquirers who wanted to see him (John 12:21) he said in summary that the best place to see him in glory was on the Cross.
We see the Father in Jesus and we see Jesus best on the Cross. And what do we learn there? We find love, grace, mercy, humility, sacrifice. These become our core knowledge of God. This is what God is like. And we learn it at the Cross. No wonder in his First Epistle John made the most basic statement of all about God when he said, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8).
Feeding on the flesh of Jesus – that is, believing in Jesus and the benefits of his Cross – brings us into the knowledge of God. The barrier of sin is broken down and the Cross shows us what God is most truly like. The Cross helps us to know a God of sacrificial love.
What does this mean for us? First of all it is an encouragement. It brings us comfort and assurance in the certainty of God’s great love for us and the world.
But secondly it brings a challenge to us. If Christ and his Cross bring us into this particular knowledge of God and his love, we who receive that life then begin to live that life. God’s gift of eternal life – knowing the God of sacrificial love – is not meant simply to be a blessing to us. It is meant to be lived out. Those who are blessed this way are called to live this way. We have this life in us (verse 53). If we feed on the bread of life we shall be people who love God and love others. This will be the sign that we have received the life of God.
So how are we doing? Is this how we are known? Does the life of God become known through us? How do people regard us as individuals/ And what about ‘our’ church? The litmus test for any church, surely, is, would the community notice if it were closed down? How are we perceived in Hatfield Peverel or Broomfield? The answers to these questions will give a good idea as to whether we truly feed on the bread of life.
What we’ve talked about is a lasting thing, for Jesus goes on to say:
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’
It’s that word ‘abide’ (or ‘remain’ in other translations). It’s not a flitting in and a flitting out. Jesus does not want us to be like the little girl sitting in the field pulling petals off a flower, alternately saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.”
Further, we abide in Jesus and he abides in us. It’s mutual. It means a relationship of loyalty and fellowship [Colin Kruse, John, p 175.] Jesus is loyal to us, and we are loyal to him. Jesus seeks fellowship with us, and we seek it with him.
And I don’t know about you, but for me that truth casts a helpful light on all the exhortations we hear to be better Christians. Do you ever feel battered about the head by all the calls to live better, pray more, give more, be a more courageous witness, and so on? Do you ever leave Sunday worship feeling hopeless and just wanting to give up?
It seems to me that we talk a lot about the need for greater commitment, and it’s right that we do in some form or another, because sometimes we seem to have accepted very low standards of discipleship in the community of Jesus. But if all we ever do is put the emphasis upon us and what we must do, then we merely ladle more guilt on people’s heads.
So when I read of this mutual relationship of loyalty and fellowship between Jesus and us, I start to find hope. It isn’t just that I am called to be loyal. Nor is it simply that I need to be berated over how much or little fellowship I have with Jesus. I need to hear the fact that Jesus is already loyal to me. I need the proclamation that he is already seeking out fellowship with me. He is committed to me. He wants my friendship.
Remember, God takes the initiative. We respond. To go back to John’s First Epistle, ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). The loyalty and the fellowship are mutual, but God in Christ makes the first move towards us.
So yes, it can be tough to hear the call to be loyal to Christ. That can mean all sorts of things, some of them very challenging. We may find aspects of that call quite daunting. But he doesn’t just think, “What difficult and terrible things can I call those Christians to do? Ah, I know – they’ll hate that!” and then sit in heaven watching almost gleefully as we fail. That isn’t Christ. He is committed to us first.
Jesus has already shown his loyalty and commitment to us by being born of the Virgin Mary: ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ (John 1:14) He took that commitment as far as the Cross. When he calls us to a similar loyalty it is on the basis of what he has done for us: after the Resurrection he said, ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ (John 20:21) That’s why we respond positively, even to challenging calls to loyal commitment – because Jesus has stood by us and continues to stand by us.
It’s similar with the call to fellowship. Preachers can remind us time and again how important it is to build a good devotional life of Bible reading, prayer and other spiritual disciplines. It just seems such a slog sometimes. Maybe we’ve been falsely led to believe that every time of personal devotion is meant to be like being with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. But perhaps it is all reduced to a grey sense of obligation. And there isn’t much oomph in obligation.
But the initiative in establishing fellowship again comes from the divine side of the relationship. Later Jesus would say in another context, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’ (John 14:23) We’ve already said that we can only love after God first loves us. Now that we love, we learn that the Father and Jesus come to us. We don’t come to them for fellowship. They come to us. So when we hear the call to approach the Throne in prayer and worship it comes because God has already moved towards us.
Even if not every experience of prayer is exciting or dramatic, what remains true is that the summons comes because the Father and the Son have already come close to us. No, more than near to us – they have made their home in our lives. The call to fellowship is simply a call to have conversation with those who are already in the house.
The relationship, then, is one of loyalty and fellowship, or what Steve Chalke has called ‘Intimacy And Involvement’. Radical commitment in the world and (‘loyalty’, ‘involvement’) and deep personal spiritual devotion (‘fellowship’, intimacy’). Some Christians prefer one over the other. Some like to get their hands dirty. Others enjoy prayer and worship. We aren’t given an either/or choice, however. And the reason is because both are but reflections of God’s nature as revealed in Christ. These are how Jesus has revealed God to us. The Incarnation and the Cross show the level of his loyalty to us. The Resurrection shows that he has an ongoing commitment to fellowship with us.
How, then, can we not want to respond? For indeed the loyalty we show Christ and the fellowship we share with him will be outworkings of the life he gives us. That life will be seen in the world and joyfully shared with him.