Friday, April 21, 2017

Again with 'the people'

Just a quick grumble about the way the concept of 'the people', which is a pet peeve of mine (cf. this), is already being used in this General Election campaign.  I will try to be kind while I criticise.

The trigger for this particular grumble was Jeremy Corbyn's launch speech for Labour's campaign.  There is lots that concerns me in this speech (when you read things like "the media and the establishment" being grouped together as the powerful enemy who "do not want us to win", you're sailing dangerously close to Trump territory).  But the main complaint from me is the narrative of "the establishment versus the people".  My question, as usual, is 'who are these people?' - and I suppose who are the establishment?

If we have to consider an election as an 'us vs. them' thing, which I don't accept by the way, it would be helpful to be more specific about who 'we' are.  I mean, who are the people?  Am I one of the people, or am I disqualified because of my political preferences?  I sure don't feel like I'm the establishment...  Or are 'the people' in this speech just those with left-leaning politics?  Is it, perhaps, that I do belong to 'the people', but don't understand that my interests are not served by a Conservative government?  Perhaps I don't know what I really 'will', and need to be re-educated.  Perhaps 48% of the general public are not "the people", or perhaps they are the people deluded, who if only they understood would be enthusiastic socialists.  That sort of idea has been advanced before.

Now, lest this be seen as partisan, I am well aware that the other side do the same thing.  I expect a lot of talk about 'hard-working families' in the next few weeks, with its implicit setting up of slackers and others as 'the other'.  I resent the idea that my left-leaning friends are against hard-work and family as much as I resent the idea that my right-leaning friends are part of, or at least supportive of, a secretive powerful cabal, a "cosy club" running the country for their own benefit.

Better rhetoric, please, everybody.  A recognition that we can have different visions for society that aren't necessarily driven by self-interest.  An understanding that we might all want the best for everyone, even though we disagree about what the best is or how to get it.  Less 'us vs. them', more clarity on the concrete differences in policy and objectives, so that we can all choose representatives who reflect our understanding of the best society, in an informed way.

Please?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Christ, the Firstfruits

In 1 Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul engages a fairly fundamental problem in the church in Corinth: some of the Christians are saying that there is no resurrection of the dead.  It appears they are not questioning the resurrection of Christ, because Paul's counter-argument is to point out that if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ himself is not raised.  And if Christ is not raised, the apostolic preaching is a lie, and the faith of the Corinthian Christians is a sham.

For Paul's argument to work, the Corinthian Christians have to accept the resurrection of Jesus.  So what are they denying?  Presumably they are denying what might be called the general resurrection.  Although Christ was raised, they do not expect themselves to be raised, at least not bodily.  Bodily resurrection would have been distasteful to Hellenistic culture anyway.  So Paul's argument is: if no general resurrection - if no last day on which all are raised, to life or judgement - then no particular resurrection of Christ; but Christ is raised, therefore we look to the resurrection of all.

Apologetically, Paul makes it clear that everything hinges on the fact that Christ is raised from the dead, and the evidence for this is the testimony of the many who saw him alive (including 500 at once, most of whom are still alive when Paul is writing, and can therefore be consulted; also, of course, including Paul himself).

What particularly strikes me today about this passage is what Paul assumes the resurrection of Christ to be.  What does he think has happened?

Paul believed in and looked for the resurrection of the dead before he ever met Jesus.  Like Martha, he expected the resurrection of the just at the last day.  This was part of his Jewish heritage, part of the Scriptural testimony which he had absorbed from youth.  Paul didn't need the resurrection of Jesus to persuade him of the general resurrection.

But also like Martha, Paul has been brought face-to-face with the fact that Jesus is the resurrection.  The last day - the resurrection of the just - has in some sense already come.  Christ is the first of all those who will rise.  That is why Paul says that if there is no (general) resurrection then Christ himself has not been raised.  The resurrection of Jesus is the general resurrection.  In him, the future hope of a faithful Jew like Paul has been brought into the present.  The age to come, quite simply, has come.

That is not to say that the age to come is not still in the future.  Christ is the firstfruits, and the guarantee that the rest will follow.  But something truly dramatic has happened in the resurrection of Christ.  In our individualistic way, we tend to think of the resurrection of Jesus as one thing, and my resurrection to come as another.  But for Paul, the future resurrection of all is so closely linked to the resurrection of Christ that one without the other is unthinkable.  They are in principle the same event, the general resurrection so wrapped up in the person of Christ that they can't be separated.

It's a new day.  He is risen, we will rise.

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The unique sorrow

When Israel lamented the destruction of Jerusalem, that terrible event was portrayed as incomparable.  "Look, and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow..."  "What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter of Zion?  What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you..?"

Is this just grief-stricken hyperbole?  From what I know of the ancient world, the fate of Jerusalem was far from unique; from what I read in the news, much the same is happening around the world today.  It could, of course, be hyperbole.  The authors of Holy Scripture were men fully caught up in the national life of Israel and Judah, and felt keenly the national grief at the loss of Zion.  It would be no surprise if they gave vent to that grief in their writings.  But I think there is more behind it.  The suffering of Jerusalem is unique because two unique circumstances stand behind it.

The first is that the sin of Jerusalem is unique.  Jeremiah writes:
For cross to the coasts of Cyprus and see, or send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for that which does not profit.
 No other nation has so rejected its gods - and those gods were just their own inventions, which could easily be changed at will!  But Israel has uniquely turned away from God, the Living God.  The sin is unique.

And the second circumstance stands behind that one.  Israel was a people uniquely privileged with knowledge of God, uniquely party to a gracious covenant with him.  "Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?"  "He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules."  Israel's unique relationship with God means that their rejection of God is a unique sin, and their suffering is the unique punishment of God on that unique sin.  No matter the historical resemblances to other situations, the internal logic is utterly different.

When one man died on a cross, his historical circumstances were far from unique; indeed, two other crucifixions occurred on either side.  But this man was unique, because he uniquely bore the guilt of all human sin.  And he was unique because he only stood in total unity with God, as God the Son incarnate.

Is there any sorrow like his sorrow?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Preaching the Passion

Some pointers on preaching the passion narrative, mainly for my own benefit as I prepare for Friday...

1.  Tell the story.  Ideally read a decent chunk of the Biblical narrative, but then in the sermon make sure that what comes across is that something happened.  We can hardly dwell too long on the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a real thing that took place in real space and time.  All the theological and soteriological significance of this event depends on the fact that it was an event.

2.  Don't forget the resurrection.  None of the really important things about the cross can be seen except from the viewpoint of the resurrection.  Okay, that is an overstatement - some people did see (thief on the cross, centurion by the cross), and other people ought to have seen (because of the Old Testament - cf. Road to Emmaus) - but in general it is a mistake to preach the cross as if we didn't know the rest of the story.  The resurrection reveals that the one hanging on the cross is the King, reigning even in his death; the resurrection reveals that this sacrifice is acceptable to God; the resurrection reveals that God has vindicated himself in his justice and grace at the cross.  Even the identity of the sufferer is not truly revealed without the resurrection.  So, preach Friday with one eye on Sunday; or perhaps better, preach Friday as if it were already Sunday morning.

3.  Avoid painting Jesus as a victim.  The Jesus of the gospels is a sufferer, and indeed an innocent sufferer.  But he isn't a victim.  Reading the gospel narratives, at what point is Jesus not in control?  Even when bound and flogged, isn't he the King?  Doesn't the ironic crown of thorns actually mock the mockers?  There are all sorts of reasons, some of them apparently good, to present Jesus as a victim; there are lots of victims in the world, and we want to bring home that God is with them in their suffering.  But there is no way we can make the gospel narratives portray a victim.  He is a co-sufferer, but he is this as the Lord.

4.  Don't give the impression that God was at the end of his resources.  The cross of Christ was not a fall-back position, or a last ditch attempt to redeem a terrible situation.  God didn't give himself away at the cross; he didn't empty the tank to save us.  The cross was always the plan.  If there are aspects of the gospel story which do seem to point in this direction (e.g. the parable of the tenants, with its sequence of servants ending finally in the sending of the son), read in the context of the whole gospel we have to say that the giving of the Son represents not an exhaustion of God's grace - not the final last effort of God - but the fullness and wealth of God's grace.  It as at the point of his death, when he gives himself for us, that God shows the inexhaustible riches of his love for fallen humanity.  He's rich, not broke.

5.  Don't put the ball in our court.  We can easily give the impression that the cross of Christ only has significance if we respond to it - as if God in Christ has done everything that he can, and now it's up to us to react appropriately.  Of course we should preach with an appeal; of course we want people to respond to the cross of Christ.  But the point is that when we preach Christ crucified we preach the sovereign Lord.  In him, sinful humanity is put to death; in him, God's judgement is taken from us, falling instead on the willing Judge.  This is true in him.  Our appeal is not: please complete in your own heart Christ's unfinished work!  Our appeal is: accept the truth about yourself as it is in Christ Jesus!  The cross of Christ does make an appeal, but it does so in the form of a claim: you are no longer free to wander on your own way; Christ's death is for you, in your place, and therefore it is death pronounced on your sinful existence.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Serpents and Doves

Just poking my head up from the midst of essay writing to offer some thoughts on two recent news stories. The two stories vary wildly in importance and tone, and this will feel like a strange post for that reason. But life is strange, sometimes.

The first story is that some of the money from the so-called 'tampon tax' has gone to a pro-life organisation.  You can see the liberal outrage here, and in various other articles scattered across the upright and progressive press.

I didn't hear nearly as much comment on this story from Christians as I would have liked.  Some, but not enough, and not sufficiently robust given that lives are at stake.

The second story is that apparently Cadbury and the National Trust have left out the word 'Easter' from some of their seasonal events and products.  (Although as this non-story unfolded over the course of the day, it became clear that they really hadn't).

I heard about this story from the Archbishop of York, and it made the national news as 'Church complains about...'

What in the world is wrong with us?  It's so awful at two levels.  The one level is the principle.  We seem to care more about the loss of our brand, about an affront to our symbols, than we do about the lives of the unborn.  We want to protect our privileged status more than we want to protect innocent life.  Is that really who we are?  But the second level is strategy.  Maybe there were plenty of Christians talking about Life, but they didn't make the news.  But the egg thing made the news.  The PM had to comment.  Because of course the media will seek out religious opinion on what they deem to be religious issues, and of course they will spin anything we say as 'Christians outraged by fact that society no longer accords them special privileges'.  That really shouldn't be a surprise.

Come on people.  Wise as serpents, innocent as doves.  Not the other way around.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Be holy

At CCC we reached the end of a little series in Leviticus yesterday with a preach through chapter 19 - one of those chapters which is usefully titled in the NIV "various laws".  To be fair to the editors of the NIV, various laws is what it is: no particular unifying theme, no obvious structure, except that the whole of the chapter stands under the heading in verse 2: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy."

This is, if you like, the second movement in Leviticus.  The first movement is all to do with priests and sacrifices.  God is holy - implacably opposed to sin and corruption, irreversibly committed to himself and his goodness.  The people of Israel are unholy.  So that the holy God and the unholy people can live together, particular individuals are claimed by God and made holy, and the tabernacle with its sacrificial apparatus is made holy, so that holy offerings can be made and sin atoned for.  Day after day, and especially year after year on the annual Day of Atonement, the unholiness of the people is dealt with, so that they can keep company with the holy God.

The second movement picks up the holiness language and runs in a seemingly completely different direction with it.  The question is no longer 'how can the unholy people live with a holy God?' - and it's hugely important to notice that shift.  We're now talking about a different question, something along the lines of 'what will this people be like if they are living with a holy God?'  The direction of travel changes.  Before, we were standing with the unholy people, looking in to the centre of the camp where the tabernacle stands, and asking how we could get there; how can the unholy approach the holy?  Now we stand in the tabernacle, and look out at the unholy people, and ask how they (we!) will have to change, since we are keeping company with this holy God.  Before the issue was the corruption of the people, which constantly threatened their relationship with God, and which was dealt with by sacrifice.  Now, the issue is the holiness of God, which not only threatens but overcomes the sinfulness of the people, claiming them in their whole lives for God.  The 'various laws' of Leviticus 19 represent the holiness of the LORD flowing out of the tabernacle and into the worship, relationships, society, work, and world of Israel.

Like Israel, we Christians are constant sinners; unholy to the core.  Whenever we remember that, we are driven back to the heart of our faith: God the Son, Jesus Christ, offering himself as the one sacrifice, made once and for all, to take away our sin.  But also like Israel, we are claimed by God, claimed for holiness - claimed with greater effect, if you like, than Israel ever was, through the out-poured Holy Spirit.  In all of life, we belong to him, stand on his side.  These two things are always true of us: totally sinful (but forgiven!), totally holy (but failing!).

When we gather around word and sacrament, like Israel camped around the tabernacle, we look to the God who, in the gospel, has answered the problem of our sin by atonement, and has given his Holy Spirit so that we might ourselves be holy.  We enjoy holy time, reminded of forgiveness and sanctification, living those things in our worship.  And then the gathering disperses, and we go out to live out the 'various laws', the concrete requirements of God (no doubt somewhat different for us than they were for Levitical Israel) which shape our daily lives in accordance with the gospel we heard on Sunday.  This is a requirement: be holy!  It is also a gift.  This is what it looks like to be privileged to keep company with the holy God.  He works holiness in us.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Where is God?

When terrible things happen, people ask 'where is God?' - and I find it helpful to take the question extremely literally.  What does the witness of Holy Scripture tell us about the whereabouts of God during a tragedy?

1.  God is in heaven.

When we say that God is in heaven, we affirm that he is absolute king of his creation.  Heaven is the place of sovereignty.  "Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him."  That can be hard to hear in the midst of tragedy, but the alternative is worse: our god is powerless, there was nothing he could do.  When we say God is in heaven, we say that nothing - not even this terrible thing - happened outside of his control.  Nothing shakes his rule.  Now, we can and should qualify this by saying that God rules in various ways, and his will is not fate: he does not bring evil in the same way that he brings good, or will tragedy in the same way that he wills salvation.  But he is in control.  He is in heaven.

2.  God is right here.

God is never a victim, but neither is he a stranger to suffering.  The Son of God became incarnate in order to suffer, and specifically in order to suffer with us and for us.  When events are more than we can understand or bear, we can be sure that the God who in Christ suffered for us on the cross is with us in our sufferings here and now - and not only ours, but the sufferings of the world.  He doesn't miss a single tear or a single injustice.  He is right here.

3.  God is coming.

Crucially, God is on his way.  The witness of Scripture is not to a static God, who remains in heaven, but to a God who comes, who approaches, who draws near to save.  When tragedy comes, we can remember that God is coming to judge the world.  As far as the biblical authors are concerned, that is very good news.  Judgement means the rectifying of everything that is wrong, the final end of suffering and injustice, the wiping away of every tear.  It means salvation, for all those who will lift their heads and look for salvation.  When terrible things happen, we can be sure that it will not always be this way.  He is coming.