Blog Archives

Mark Driscoll: The Christianity Magazine Interview Is Published

I received my subscription copy of Christianity magazine yesterday, complete with the now infamous interview with Mark Driscoll, about which I wrote on Friday. In addition to the well-publicised insults to British Christian ministers, a couple more things took my breath away.

Justin Brierley pushes Driscoll about some of his more controversial statements, including the one where he said he couldn’t worship a Jesus he could beat up. Brierley points out that Jesus was beaten up – namely his suffering and death on the Cross. But that’s actually OK and manly for Driscoll, because that was like the valour of a soldier. (He forgets that a soldier would have been trying to dish out pain and suffering on his enemies, which I guess he might like, but there’s not exactly any evidence for Jesus doing that.)

But more, he then goes on to the Second Coming and says that the purpose of Jesus coming again is precisely so that he can ‘give a beating’. Well – yes, Jesus will judge and condemn sin, there will be eternal punishment for the unrepentant (although I disagree with him that it is an eternal, conscious torment – that doesn’t take apocalyptic language seriously). But to frame it in terms of Jesus coming to give people a beating is not going to put the right kind of fear of God into people, is it?

The second observation I had is where Driscoll refers to those who do not believe in penal substitution. Now let me make it clear that I believe in substitutionary atonement, but I am aware of the dangers in how it is framed and explained. I want nothing to do with those in the ‘Young, Restless and Reformed’ camp who explicitly talk of the Cross as a place where God killed Jesus. That says it all about the worst of this teaching.

However, what made my jaw head for the Southern Hemisphere was Driscoll’s supposed reason for why people reject penal substitution. Is it about concepts of justice or love? No! People reject it because – wait for it – it’s too … masculine.

So now you know.


Jesus Had HIV

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.

Sermon: The Pharisee And The Publican

Just for once, I’m back preaching from the Lectionary this weekend. At present I don’t have a sermon series at my smaller church. Last Sunday I sat in on a Local Preacher taking the service there, because he is candidating for the ministry. He took last Sunday’s Lectionary of Luke 18:1-8, so I am following that up with this week’s passage that comes straight after that. It doesn’t make for a series, but hopefully it creates a little bit of continuity.

Luke 18:9-14

There is a nonsense abroad in Christian circles that says, ‘We all believe the same.’ Because of our unity in Christ, all the Christian denominations believe the same.

We don’t.

The local churches in my home town were mature enough to recognise this. They held public meetings to discuss the differences. One evening, the subject was baptism. An Anglican vicar , a Baptist elder and a Catholic priest each agreed to speak. The Anglican sat behind a table and gave his talk. So did the Baptist.

But when the Catholic priest had his turn, he took his chair from behind the table and set it down right in front of the first row of the audience.

“Good,” he said. “I like to see the whites of the eyes before I attack!”

I am not about to do that this morning, but our reading is a story about drawing near. How can we draw near to God? Should we draw near to God? Does God draw near to us, and if so, how? All these questions are present in the story we traditionally call ‘The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican’.

It’s a deceptive parable. It’s almost too easy. We’ve known it for years, and it’s clear to us who the ‘goodie’ is and who the ‘baddie’ is. Jesus draws his characters as clearly as a cartoon. It’s like workmen have dug a huge hole in the road and put so many warning signs around it, we can’t fail to choose the right path around it and avoid falling in.

Or can we?

Take the Pharisee himself. We are so programmed to hear the word ‘pharisee’ and hear warning sirens in the New Testament that we are in the presence of someone who opposed Jesus. And clearly the Pharisee in this story is not one of the good guys, either.

But look at what he does. He goes to public worship. He prays. He seeks to live a virtuous life. What’s not to like? Aren’t these things we aspire to do, and to do well? After hearing last week about the need to persist in prayer, you can’t accuse this man of failing in that regard.

And he certainly wants to draw near to God. Wouldn’t he have sung ‘Bold I approach the eternal throne’ with the same vigour as a convinced Methodist? Wouldn’t he have affirmed every bit as much as the Protestant Reformers his own access to God? He could stride into the presence of God in his Temple.

Except … we know from the introduction to the parable that here is a man ‘who trusted in [himself] that [he was] righteous and regarded others with contempt’ (verse 9). When he attends this public act of worship at the Temple, he chooses to ‘[stand] by himself’ (verse 11). This is more than just sitting quietly in a pew on your own. This is someone who didn’t want to associate with the other worshippers. He despised the Jewish emphasis on the importance of community.

What’s he doing? He’s protecting his purity before God. He knows and keeps the Jewish Law – hence the reference to fasting twice a week and tithing his income (verse 12). But if he comes into contact with one of the worshippers who doesn’t do this as faithfully as he does, then he becomes unclean. So he’d better take precautions.

You  might think this is like the spiritual equivalent of when we take sensible medical precautions to prevent ourselves from catching diseases, like cleaning our hands with alcohol gel before going onto a hospital ward or not having close contact with someone having chemotherapy, so they don’t get an infection that prevents their treatment. Those kinds of measures are sensible. The Pharisee wants to prevent what he sees as spiritual infection because he has a superiority complex. He thinks he is spiritually pure, unlike those sharing space with him (and no more) in the Temple.

Does that sound like some of our attitudes? Of course, we hope not. But there may be certain kinds of people – or even specific individuals – whom we avoid for fear of ‘contamination’. I’m not referring to the kind of problem where someone is a bad influence on us, and we know we don’t have the moral strength to stop them dragging us down. The Pharisee is different. He thinks he’s superior. He doesn’t think he’s lacking in moral fibre.

And there are times when we come across like that. When the public pronouncements of the Church are only about the people, lifestyles and behaviours we condemn, then we sound like the Pharisee. When we portray ourselves as people who have got it all together, implying that others haven’t, then we join the Pharisee of this story.

What is the problem here? Luke puts it succinctly when he talks about people ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’ (verse 9). Because that’s the problem. That’s a contradiction of the Gospel. That stands against everything Jesus came to achieve. The whole point of what we believe is that none of us can trust in our own righteousness to stand before God. Every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us needs grace and mercy from the love of God. Forgetting that is the most dangerous thing in the world.

Yet sometimes we do. Look at how people outside the Church perceive us, and you will realise that we do come across as people who think we are morally superior. That’s one reason why some people feel they can’t join us. We’re too good to be true, and we’re too quick to condemn.

Now you know and I know that we don’t intend to communicate that message. But it’s what people hear from us. Many people don’t want to come near to us, or come near to God, because we’ve given the impression that faith is all about being good enough for God – we are, and they aren’t.

Perhaps a test of our hearts on this one is how we react when someone falls from grace. Do we look down our noses at them? Do we gloat? Or do we ask God to be merciful to them, and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’?

The Pharisee in this parable, then, might be a little more uncomfortably close to us than we might like to believe sometimes.

What, then, of the Publican (or the tax collector, as our translation calls him)? Here is the very person whom the Pharisee would have treated as unclean. He didn’t keep the Jewish Law. He associated with the wicked occupying Roman forces. If anyone deserved the label ‘sinner’ it was him. Described as a thief and a rogue by the Pharisee, he too doesn’t stand with the rest of the community at the altar. He stands ‘far off’ (verse 13), because he doesn’t believe he deserves to be there. Deep down he knows exactly who he is. The Pharisee is right. He most certainly is ‘a sinner’ (verse 13).

He makes me think of various people. I think of an English teacher my sister and I had at secondary school. It was a Church of England school, and rather high up the candle. One day, this teacher was talking with my sister about why he went to a high Anglican church, full of ceremony and incense. He told my sister that he envied her ‘low church’ faith, with its easy sense of intimacy with God, but in his case he just needed to go to worship to express the fact that he was a sinner.

Or I think of several church members I have met in Methodism who reject all sense that they may draw near to God. Indeed, some use the language of ‘reverence’ to remain at a distance from him. They hardly dare draw near.

But those people don’t display the anguish of the publican.[1] He beats his chest (verse 13), a common sign even to this day in the Middle East of either intense anger or deep anguish. It is particularly a sign of extreme pain when a man, rather than a woman, does it. And by beating his chest, he is pointing to the darkness in his heart. This is a man full of remorse.

So what does he cry out? ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (verse 13). That’s what our translation says, and many English versions render it similarly.

But there is a more literal translation, and it makes more sense in the context of the story. The man says, ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner’. And since the man is attending either the morning or the evening sacrifice at the Temple, this fits perfectly. The priests are sacrificing an animal as a sin offering for the people. The publican, who feels he cannot stand with those considered righteous, cries out, not just generally for mercy, but that the sacrifice being made at the altar might be for him. ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner.’

At that moment, the priests are making atonement for the people. But it won’t be very long before God himself makes atonement for this sinner and all other sinners. Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, will go to the Cross and bear the sins of the world. In Christ, God will make atonement for the publican. The publican’s prayer will be answered.

No wonder he is the one who goes home ‘justified’ before God, according to Jesus (verse 14). He is made to be in the right with God, because God himself will atone for his sins in Jesus Christ. God will remove the sentence of guilt from him. God will take away the power of guilt from over his life. Through Christ, he will be in the right with God.

You may recall that some years ago, Cliff Richard recorded a song called ‘From a Distance’. Originally written by a songwriter called Julie Gold, the chorus says, ‘God is watching us from a distance’. Yet that is not the case here. God is drawing close to sinners. He atones for our sins at the Cross. He offers us new life at the Empty Tomb.

So if like the publican we cry out for atonement, because we are so aware we are sinners, the good news is that we no longer need stand at a distance like he did. God is not at a distance from us. He is close. He took on human flesh for us. He died for us. He rose for us.

We might be nervous about the way in which the Pharisee attempted to draw near to God, and decide we want none of that arrogant presumption. Quite right, too.

But just because we have seen bad examples of drawing near to God, does not mean we should stay at a distance from him. Even though our sins do put us far from him, God is merciful and does not intend to let that state of affairs remain. We cry out for atonement, and God himself provides it.

And therefore I pray, as we are in the early stages of our relationship as minister and congregation, we will not fall into the trap of staying far off from God. What we need to do is reject the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and embrace the humility of the publican. As we humbly cast ourselves upon the mercy of God, we find he provides all we need in the Atonement of Christ through his death. As Matt Redman has said, ‘The Cross has said it all.’

Friends, let our journey together these next few years be based on that foundation.

[1] What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp 153-5.

Sermon: How Many Times Do I Have To Tell You?

Mark 9:30-37

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

It’s a familiar cry of exasperation from parents to their children. No matter how many times you have asked them to do something – or, more likely, not to do something – it just doesn’t sink in.

It isn’t limited to things not sinking in with children. We might lose our rag and say the same to another adult: “How many times do I have to tell you?” Did the other person not hear? Or did they not listen? Do they not care? Are they dense?

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

Jesus could have said that to his disciples. The fact that he got frustrated and said things like, “Do you still not understand?” gives me hope when I, his very imperfect follower, feel I need to repeat a theme in a sermon.

This passage falls into the “How many times do I have to tell you?” category. It is the second of three ‘passion predictions’ in Mark’s Gospel – passages where Jesus prophesies his forthcoming betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection. Last week’s Lectionary gave us the first prediction.

That first passion prediction last week was followed by the first misunderstanding of the disciples – when Peter told Jesus the Messiah shouldn’t suffer and Jesus retorted, “Get behind me, Satan.” So too this second prediction is followed by a second misunderstanding. So you see there is a similar pattern to this week’s reading, compared with last Sunday’s.

But of course the content isn’t entirely parallel. I thought we’d look at this week’s prediction and this week’s misunderstanding in a way that compares and contrasts with the first prediction and the first misunderstanding from last week. By saying ‘compare and contrast’ I do not mean this to be like an exam essay question! In fact, rather than this being a dry exercise in theoretical Bible study, I believe it will speak to us about discipleship. After all, that’s what Mark does throughout his Gospel.

Firstly, at greater length, the Prediction.
(i) The location and the journey are important factors in this prediction of Jesus’ passion:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it (verse 30).

It’s the last reference to Galilee, the former centre of Jesus’ operations, until the Resurrection. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem now. His focus is resolutely on the Father’s will in facing the Cross. The suffering he is about to prophesy again is no accident or coincidence. He is committed to the Father’s will, whatever the cost.

Yes, a terrible struggle over this awaits him in Gethsemane, but the discipleship Jesus models for us is one far removed from that which we often see in churches today. To listen to some churchgoers you might think religion was only about what was in it for them – the blessings and the benefits. It’s like consumerism: what’s in it for me? But Jesus’ attitude is, what’s in it for the Father? He will do the right thing, whether it benefits him or not. He is determined to go the right way, whether that means popularity or pain. Not for him the courting of votes; rather, a fixation on the will of God, whatever it costs.

This is underlined by the fact that the journey is secret: ‘He did not want anyone to know it’ (verse 30b). Why? Secrets usually require good reasons. This last week we booked a secret journey for the children. They won’t know about it until we get underway. If they discover what it is, they’ll go hyper. So we have to keep it a secret.

And I’m not going to tell you either what it is!

But Jesus keeps his journey and his movements secret for a good reason:

for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (Verse 31)

Here’s one time he doesn’t want to do crowds. He is here to spend private time with his disciples, focussing their minds on this central truth of his life and ministry, the one thing they must grasp, which they misunderstood earlier and will do so again now: “How many times must I tell you?”

And here he ups the ante in this second passion prediction. Like the first time, he tells them that he must suffer, be killed and be raised from the dead. However, he changes one important detail. In chapter 8, he concentrates on the murderous role of the Jewish leadership. He shocks the disciples not only with the news of a suffering Messiah, but with the prediction that the religious leaders themselves will be responsible for his death. He leaves a warning for later generations that those of us who count ourselves faithful may well end up as the enemies of God.

But there is a twist in this second prediction. No longer is the blame placed merely on the Jewish authorities, it is placed on the whole human race:

‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (Verse 31b)

You can’t pin later Christian anti-Semitism on Jesus. Everyone – ‘human hands’ – is responsible for his execution. Whatever the savage truth of religious guilt is, the bottom line Jesus gives us is that his death is due to the sins of the whole world.

But more than that, he is ‘betrayed into human hands’. We probably associate that word ‘betrayed’ with Judas Iscariot, but it means ‘handed over’. In a sense, that is what Judas did. But you could also say that God handed Jesus over. Biblical writers sometimes used a form of Greek grammar to allude to God doing something without actually naming him[1]. If so, then although human beings are not absolved from their responsibility for executing Jesus, it stresses the idea that Jesus died not only because of the sins of the world, he died for the sins of the world. It is in God’s plan. It is the fulfilment of Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the Suffering Servant.

And that’s remarkable when you factor in who Mark’s first readers probably were. The likeliest theory is that they were Roman Christians facing persecution under the Emperor Nero. Mark is telling them that their Jesus was not only crucified by sinful human beings – that would make sense to them, given the suffering they were undergoing – but also for those same sinners. Not only does the Gospel bring the good news of sins forgiven for us, it brings the challenge that if Jesus forgives us, he offers the same to our enemies, and that must change the way we regard those who cause trouble for us.

Jesus, then, in this prophecy of his Passion, is showing how committed he is to the painful but necessary plan of the Father that will lead him to the Cross. He is doing so, because that path will take him not only into the firing line of all sinners where he will die as a consequence of their sins, he will also die for their (and our) sins. It is the message at the heart of the Good News. It took some establishing with his disciples. It still does with us, at times. But once we know this is true, then it can come out of its secret lair and be unleashed on the world with a message of forgiveness and forgiving for all.

Secondly, more briefly, the Misunderstanding. And again, we’re back to “How many times must I tell you?” Wouldn’t you think that just after Jesus has been talking about humiliation and suffering the last thing his disciples should be talking about is, ‘Who is the greatest?’? And this will be something the disciples again find incredibly hard to accept. For when it comes to the third passion prediction (10:35-45), the context is James and John eyeing up the best seats at the top table in the kingdom of God! Maybe the call to humility is something we find hard to grasp, too. We might prefer our place in the limelight.

What we can’t doubt is that Mark portrays this as highly important teaching by Jesus. It takes place in ‘the house’ (Peter’s house, possibly) in Capernaum. When Jesus teaches the insiders from among his following in a private location in Mark’s Gospel, it’s usually something significant. The call to humility certainly isn’t a passing minor aspect of Jesus’ doctrines. It’s a central one in response to the way of the Cross.

So no wonder Jesus shames the disciples into a silence of guilt and shame when he asks them what they were talking about on the road, and they keep quiet (verses 33-34). They are in the same boat as the Pharisees when faced with the truth of God. Hard hearts, and the silent shame of guilt.

Yet in terms of their culture, the disciples’ attitude is hardly surprising:

Rabbinic writings frequently comment on the seating order in Paradise, for example, and argue that the just would sit nearer to the throne of God than even the angels. Earthly orders of seating at worship and meals, or authority within the community, or dealings with inferiors or superiors were seen as preparation for the eternal order to come.[2]

It’s not so very far from our obsessions with class and status, is it? But Jesus says, “How many times must I tell you?”

So that’s what he does. He tells them again – and not for the last time. Put yourselves last, not first, he says (verse 35). Be the servant of all, he continues (verse 35). And as someone once said, it’s all right being a servant until you are treated like one. With sentiments some of us might guiltily recognise, the Greek philosopher Plato said,

“How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”[3]

A relative of mine told his children, “Work hard so that you are the one giving the orders, not taking the orders.” In a sense, I know what he meant, because he wanted his children to fulfil their potential and do well in their careers. He didn’t want them to end up failing to meet their potential as a result of laziness. But – Jesus says, put yourself last in the queue (which isn’t a British ‘After you – no, after you, I insist’) and be a servant.

To drive home his point, he enacts his message, drawing a small child to himself (verse 36). He doesn’t call his disciples here to behave in childlike ways, he calls them to welcome one like a child.

The point is that children held a very low status in first century Palestinian society:

We are mistaken if we imagine that Greek and Jewish society extolled the virtues of childhood as do modern societies in general. Societies with high infant mortality rates and great demand for human labour cannot afford to be sentimental about infants and youth. In Judaism, children and women were largely auxiliary members of society whose connection to the social mainstream depended on men (either as fathers or husbands). Children, in particular, were thought of as “not having arrived.” They were good illustrations of “the very last” (v. 35).[4]

So the call is not to be like the child but like Jesus. Be like Jesus, who embraces the last and the least of society. If we walk the way to the Cross with Jesus who dies due to the sin of the world and for the sin of the world, if we have received his forgiveness and are forgiving others, then we shall also reject worldly obsessions with status and position.  Our priority will be to put ourselves with those who matter least in our society. It’s neither attractive nor glamorous to our normal instincts and preferences. But it’s where the Jesus of the Cross calls us.

The question is, how many times will he have to tell us?

[1] The ‘divine passive’ voice.

[2] James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, p286.

[3] Op. cit., p287.

[4] Op. cit., p287f.

Sermon: Offended By Jesus

John 6:56-69

I want to introduce you to a new religion. It will involve cannibalism, vampires and the overthrow of cherished ancient traditions. Are you interested?

Or are you shocked? Because that is what the first followers of Jesus thought he was proposing. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’ he said (verse 56). They were offended, and many on the fringes of belief turned away from him in this reading. They were scandalised by his claims.

He called people to eat his flesh – well, who wants cannibalism? And he said they were to drink his blood. Remember that Jews never drank the blood from a dead animal, because it was thought to contain the life of the creature.

Vampires? OK, actually no. I just wanted to underline the shocking nature of Jesus’ words about drinking his blood. But maybe you get a feeling for how Jesus’ first hearers felt scandalised by his teaching. We may find it hard to appreciate that, because two thousand years of familiarity have changed our perceptions. But in its original context, the person and message of Jesus were offensive.

And today, for all our familiarity with Jesus, it is just as possible to be offended by him, his words and his deeds. If we look at what upset those early disciples, we might get some clues to some issues today. Who knows? We might be the ones who need to change. Let’s see.

Firstly, Jesus himself and his teaching is offensive:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (Verse 60)

You might think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild would respond with a word of gentle explanation, but no:

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ (Verses 61-62)

What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? This is not only about the Ascension itself, but also about what leads up to it, for in John’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to the Cross. This is therefore about the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This is about the deity of Jesus, and what he accomplished in his atoning death and resurrection before he returned to the Father’s right hand.

How is that offensive? Let me recount a story.

In one past church, an elderly couple joined the congregation. They began worshipping with us every week. After a while, I visited them and they raised the question of church membership. In the past, they had been active members of a Baptist church, but must have lapsed for a period of years. Having plied me with tea and cakes, they asked, “Are we good enough to join your church?”

That is a question that can only be asked by people who don’t understand the Cross, or who find the Cross offensive. Like a fool, I paid insufficient attention to it and chose to explain it away. I brought them into church membership, and it was a terrible mistake. The husband in particular spent every week’s home group ripping to shreds the previous Sunday’s preacher. Week after week, until the two leaders of the group could take it no more and resigned. We ended up having to close the group.

All because I didn’t pay attention to a couple who didn’t understand the Cross, and who later showed in their behaviour that they didn’t appreciate grace. I should have let them be offended by the Gospel.

The trouble is, a Jesus ascended on a Cross humbles us. We have to lay aside the pride of our respectable lives, and kneel before him as sinners needing forgiveness.

I’ve seen it not only in the respectable but also in the intellectual. People want to find God by their own cleverness, but God will not have that. I have seen such people harbour all kinds of destructive behaviour, all because they will not kneel at the Cross.

Those who are merely interested in Jesus may well fall away, like the crowds here. Those who are willing to meet him at the Cross are those who will be his true disciples.

Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit is offensive to some. Jesus goes on to say:

‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ (Verses 63-64a)

We may only come to know God through the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes the presence of God real to us and the Word of God alive to us. Normal human abilities – ‘the flesh’ – are ‘useless’, says Jesus.

This too is an affront to many people. We have lived through several centuries of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs and advances. Human society has benefitted hugely from many of these things. The idea has arisen that the human mind will ultimately solve all problems. Thus today, leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others mock the thought of anything that cannot be perceived by human reason. If it does not originate from reason, then it is superstition.

But these ideas are false. Yes, society has seen great wonders, not least in medicine. But the same human reason is fallen through sin, and science has given us nuclear weapons and climate change. Ultimately, the thought that reason can solve everything is pure arrogance and idolatry. God is not against the use of the mind at all – in fact it can be properly used to his glory – but he knows how we idolise our reason and so,  in the words of John Arnott, ‘God offends our minds to reveal our hearts.’

And indeed the Gospel is not merely available to intellectuals – thank God! It is revealed by the Holy Spirit, whose work is available to all.

In our tradition of Christianity, we are so used to emphasising human free will (and I’m not saying we should ditch that!), but sometimes we stress it so much that we forget the life of faith is impossible without the prior work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit draws people to Christ; only then do we make response.

Listen for reference to that work of the Spirit in part of a testimony from a friend of mine:

‘I wasn’t raised in a Christian household, I was saved in a summer camp when I was 14….one night afterwards, I was dialing my radio around and found a Christian radio station. As I listened, I could feel the Spirit inside me awakening, and that station was basically how God “fed me” while I was at home. When I got old enough to drive myself, I was able to go to church myself.’

Once again, we see that it is our pride that gets offended – this time by the need to rely on the Holy Spirit for life in Christ. But also, this has implications for our evangelism. The prime need in our outreach is not the latest techniques, but prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of us, working in people’s lives before we get there. Let us be released from having to think up new clever (and possibly manipulative) schemes, and instead remember that the Holy Spirit does the spadework. Let us call on the Spirit in prayer to do that in the lives of those who need Christ.

Well, if we’ve talked about the Cross of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit in the first two points, it won’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the third and final area in which people find the teaching of Jesus offensive is in what he says about God the Father.

And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ (Verse 65)

Now again, that’s the kind of verse to make those of us in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, who believe in the importance of human free will, to get rather nervous. It gladdens the hearts of Calvinists, who believe that some people are predestined by God to salvation, while he predestines the rest to damnation. But all it really stresses is another version of what we’ve just said about the Holy Spirit – namely that the first move in salvation is God’s.

It has always been the case. The first missionary in the Bible was God, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, calling, ‘Adam, where are you?’ God called Abraham and the patriarchs as he formed a people for himself. He called Moses, the Judges and the prophets. Finally, he sent his Son.

And how good it is that God has always made the first move. For as Leon Morris has put it, writing on this verse:

‘Left to himself, the sinner prefers his sin. Conversion is always a work of grace.’[1]

It is God’s work to bring us to the possibility of salvation. It does not mean he is capricious: he wants all to be saved. But remembering what we have already learned about the need for humility, that comes into play here again, for if God makes the first move, we must pay attention. John Wesley thus commented on this verse:

Unless it be given – And it is given to those only who will receive it on God’s own terms.’[2]

The Good News is that God sets out to rescue those who, by their own instincts, would always prefer to remain in sin. The Good Challenge is that we must accept God’s remedy. We must come on God’s own terms. Therefore that means not only welcoming Christ as God’s Saviour, but also bowing before him as Lord. If we can only come to Christ because God the Father makes the first move, then we end up coming to God not only for the blessings, but also for the obligations.

We can ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and the answer will be about salvation from the penalty of sin, the practice of sin and the presence of sin. But to ask that question alone is to indulge in religious consumerism. Because the Father makes the first move there is another question: ‘What’s in it for God?’ And the answer involves him incorporating us into the People of God, because his desire has always been to form a people for himself, a new community that lives under his kingly reign. And therefore we must rise to the challenge and make the Church just such a community, instead of fighting and plotting against one another, and settling for cliques instead of community.

In Conclusion, then, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes the initiative in saving the human race. This brings us to humility at the foot of the Cross and in dependence upon the grace of the Father and the power of the Spirit. We lay aside everything we trumpet about our respectability and intellect. But this news frees us from other tyrannies. No longer need we rack our brains for new methods of evangelism, when instead we begin in prayer for the Holy Spirit to move. And in the converted life, the Father who has graciously reached out to a world of persistent sinners not only saves us but makes us his subjects. Our only proper response is grateful obedience.

May we have the grace not to be offended, but to become God’s loyal servants and friends.

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p387. Exclusive language unchanged from the source.

[2] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, p330.

MPs’ Expenses

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.

It stinks.

Sabbatical Day 69, Good Friday: Jesus Is Crucified

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Here is the Damaris Trust video for Good Friday. Andrew White talks about the importance of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf. He discusses what this means for his ministry of reconciliation in Iraq.

We went into town this morning for the annual open-air united service in Chelmsford High Street. A band from the church where we are worshipping led the music, and the choir from our children’s school dazzlingly performed a selection of songs from a musical entitled Resurrection Rock.

A nun from a local community spoke. Hers was a serious address where she spoke of Bad Friday and Good Friday. Today is only Good Friday because it is about redemptive suffering. Anything else would be Bad Friday. Suffering isn’t good for its own sake. She spoke passionately as one who had spent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, serving women and young girls who had been raped by HIV positive men, young boys who had been brutalised into becoming child soldiers and mothers who had watched children die from diseases we find easily preventable in the West.

And from that, she made a connection between Good Friday and Easter Day. For whenever we, who believe in Christ’s redemptive suffering and conquest of death, minister to those in need or work for justice, we are doing Resurrection work. In that sense, she asked, is the Resurrection happening today?

Later, Rebekah – who had understandably described that part of the service as ‘longer than church’ – posed again the question, “Why do we call it ‘Good Friday’ and not ‘Bad Friday’?” I tried to explain how God took the Bad that was done to Jesus and turned it for Good. She found that hard to grasp.

In the back of my mind I was thinking of Tim Keller‘s The Reason For God, and his chapter on the Cross. He explains how forgiveness and love inevitably involve both substitution and exchange. When we forgive someone, it always comes at a cost. If I forgive you a debt, I take on that debt. He doesn’t get into the question of Pauline language and whether to speak of penal substitution, just that forgiveness must in some sense involve the substituting of the debt, and that this consitutes and exchange. The notion of exchange, he says, is fundamental to love. If I love my children, I will exchange my freedom for their well-being. I will not only give them attention when it is convenient to me, for if I do that they will only grow up physically. Love means I will attend to them when it is inconvenient. I give up my freedom to serve them in love. This, says Keller, is like what Christ does for the world on the Cross.

I shall be interested to plug those thoughts into those from a book that is on its way from Amazon: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright. I’d like to see how this compares and contrasts with Wright’s more cosmic vision of salvation. The Reformation tradition has tended to take Luther’s question of “How can I find a gracious God?” and insert the word ‘personally’ after ‘I’. That is critical, but I know that in this book, Wright is saying that such a question makes the sun orbit around us rather than vice-versa. We’ll see …

Sabbatical, Day 65: Jesus Clears The Temple, We Visit London And The Lolly Stick Cross

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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.

Children And Atonement

On Thursday, I took two assemblies at our children’s school for the first time – one with Key Stage 1 (a.k.a. ‘infants) and one with Key Stage 2 (‘juniors’ to oldies like me). I am doing this as part of a team from two or three local churches. We are taking incidents from the life of Jesus this term. Last week’s speaker, Helen, used the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I couldn’t get anything together on the visit to Jerusalem when he was twelve. So, with the aid of Scripture Union‘s rather decent Big Bible Storybook, I looked at his baptism. I also purloined a doll of Rebekah’s, which Debbie dressed in the very christening robe she and her sister had worn as babies.

Further, I borrowed a portable font from church. It was interesting to hear the children’s answers when I asked them what I thought it was. Some thought it was an urn (wrong end of life, I guess). My favourite wrong guess was from the child who thought it contained tombola tickets.

Without going into the whole of my talk, I got to the point where Jesus asks John to baptise him and John protests, only for Jesus to say it’s what God wants. I took that as an early sign of Jesus identifying with sinful humanity (it’s OK, I didn’t use that level of language). Therefore, I said, it was a sign of what Jesus would do in his death on the Cross.

Thus I asked the children how they would feel if they had done something naughty and a friend offered to take the blame for them. In both assemblies, the answer was the same: ‘Kind.’ No worrying about whether it was just or ethical for an innocent person to be condemned in place of the guilty, they saw the heart of such an approach was love.

I couldn’t help thinking they might be further on than many of us who discuss the atonement as adults. There are crude statements of substitution that sound like Jesus was placating an angry God, that overlook the rôle of the Trinity or that forget the Resurrection. Some fail to see that the word ‘sacrifice’ is about more than a sin offering in the Old Testament. There are other images of the  atonement in Scripture. (I owe use of the word ‘image’ to George Carey, who prefers it to ‘theory’.) Yet you cannot completely expunge some form of substitution.

And these primary school kids got the fact that it’s about love. Great.

For a more nuanced discussion, Tom Wright’s article for Fulcrum two years ago is always a good starting point. He is glad the church has not defined the theories of the atonement too tightly, yet he rejects both those who caricature and dismiss substitution and also those who hold onto it in a severe way.