The Queen

What motivates hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs to travel to London, queue for hours and pass briefly by the coffin of her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second?

Many answers to that question have been suggested over the past few days:

  • grief at the loss of the one who has been uniquely and publicly constant in our lives for longer than most of us can remember
  • gratitude for the Queen’s integrity, selflessness and devotion to duty
  • the desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, a moment in history to be treasured and passed on to subsequent generations; we are not going to see so long a reign, encompassing so much social change, nor a Queen as Head of State, any time soon
  • the unifying effect of a shared emotional experience which enables us to lay aside (at least for a time) the things that divide us
  • perhaps also the transference on to the Queen of some of our personal griefs, which may have lain dormant
  • a wave of emotion fanned by overwhelming media attention and focus: specialists in the psychology of crowds have been observing with interest

There is probably some truth in all these suggestions. But there is something in what we have witnessed this week which is deeper and more significant.

This is the powerful reality of representation. In our individualistic, atomised lives we have lost conscious touch with the way representation works. But it is still there and still powerful. Think of the way people identify with a football team: when “our” team wins or loses, “we” (the fans) win or lose too, despite never having set foot on the pitch. The same holds good for many other spheres of human activity: the few act for a whole community, the one represents the many.

A monarch represents his or her people. That is, he or she in some sense sums up the nation. He or she speaks and acts for them at key moments of national significance at home and abroad. This is specially true of a constitutional monarch. A constitutional monarch is by definition above party politics, which means being above and beyond the success or failure of particular governments and particular policies. They represent the interest of the nation as a whole rather than a faction or interest group within the nation. If you’re Henry the Eighth or Ivan the Terrible, you are very likely part of the problem – perhaps even the problem; if you’re Elizabeth the Second or Charles the Third you’re above the problem.

There is a sacred dimension to monarchy. The Queen was anointed at her coronation, as King Charles will also be, as a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable her to fulfil her calling. The practice goes back to the Bible. David was anointed King of Israel, and in the power of that anointing and on his people’s behalf, he defeated Goliath: the one for the many. His victory was Israel’s victory.

Supremely, representation is the key to understanding the work of Jesus Christ. He takes upon himself the vocation of Israel. Where Israel failed in obedience to the Lord, Jesus lived out a perfect obedience on their behalf, taking that obedience all the way to death, even death on a cross. (Israel was always going to fail, and in her failure the Divine Purpose was mysteriously being worked out, pointing forward to Jesus.) Jesus represents Israel, the one for the many, and because Israel was chosen to represent the whole of humanity, he represents all of us. And he does what we cannot do, going where we cannot go, going to the cross to take our place, so that we, and the whole creation with us, can be reconciled to God and restored to wholeness.

Faced with scenes of vast numbers of people queuing to pay their respects to the Queen, seeing the perfectly-executed and spectacular ceremonial enacted these last few days, some commentators have been saying that monarchy is wonderful but irrational. The secular mind-set has no frame of reference to understand what monarchy is and how it works. But in the light of the Bible and Christian faith monarchy makes perfect sense. We have been blessed to have a Queen these last 70 years whose life and faith have been a signpost to the King of Kings.

A Good Friday Reflection on the power of the cross (based on the account in Mark’s Gospel)

Jesus was being crucified with two “rebels” or “bandits”. Not “thieves” as traditionally rendered. These were not men who had run off with somebody’s handbag. Crucifixion was reserved for runaway slaves and those who had rebelled against Roman rule. Jesus has the charge “King of the Jews” over his head. Only the Emperor is allowed to say who is the King of Jews. Anybody proclaiming himself to be King of the Jews is a rebel.

I want to focus on the centurion, the soldier in charge of the crucifixion. As Jesus dies, the centurion is standing in front of him, looking at him. And he says these words “Certainly this man was the Son of God!”

He has probably killed many people by crucifixion, watched them suffer, sometimes for days, and watched them die. A prolonged agony accompanied by cursing, shouting, screaming. But this King of the Jews says almost nothing, apart from calling out to his God. He doesn’t curse, he doesn’t rail against those who are torturing him. He is different. Completely, radically, entirely different. So different that the centurion is compelled to say: “Certainly this was the Son of God”.

“Son of God” was one of the titles of the Roman Emperor. The centurion was pledged in absolute loyalty to the emperor and to his divine status. Now he is overturning that loyalty and saying: “actually, this crucified rebel is the real Son of God”. This is a momentous change of heart and mind and understanding. His whole worldview, his entire way of thinking about life and his place in it, has been overturned by Jesus. It’s a complete about turn, an earthquake in his understanding of life, the universe and everything. This is what is called in the history of science a “paradigm shift”. It’s like what Copernicus did to our view of the solar system or what Einstein did to our understanding of physics. Only more so.

And it was a dangerous thing to say. Lining himself up with a rebel against Rome and against the Emperor himself. A sign of how deeply this man had been touched.

Jesus said that when he was lifted up on the cross he would draw all people to himself, including all kinds of people. Even those like this man who on the face of it could hardly be further from coming to faith in a crucified Jew.

Nobody is beyond the reach of God’s love shown in the cross.

The power of the cross is the power of weakness.

Paul talks about “the weakness of God” [1 Cor 1.25] in relation to the cross. He says that Jesus was “crucified in weakness” [2 Cor 12.4].

Crucifixion is a profound and terrible experience of weakness. You can do virtually nothing, and certainly nothing to ease your pain. The most you can do is draw breath, and even that is unimaginably painful. In Mark’s account Jesus barely speaks. His only utterance is to cry out in desperation to God, not as “Father” but as “My God…”.

What does he do on the cross? Very little, except suffer. Hours and hours just enduring the horror.

But look at the fruit of this weakness. The conversion, literally the turning, of this hard-bitten Roman soldier. Converted not by Jesus’ words, or his miracles, but by his suffering and the way he bears it.

The power of the cross works in our lives too. God can sometimes work through our weakness more than through our strength, through who we just are rather than what we do or say. I was first drawn to Christianity by seeing something in a university friend which I didn’t have. This had nothing to do with what he said or what he did. It was something about the way he simply was.

That’s why Paul boasts of his weakness [2 Cor 11]. He is reluctant to boast of anything else.

Nobody enjoys their weakness. But sometimes when it feels as if everything has gone wrong, nothing is working, God is distant and we don’t know what to do or where to turn, that may be the time when God is most profoundly at work. That is part of the comfort of the cross – the cross as the way of life and peace.

A Reflection for Palm Sunday

We’ve just had a long weekend in Jordan. Driving around I’ve enjoyed looking out for flocks of sheep and goats (sometimes with a shepherd), camels, and the occasional donkey. I’d like today to focus on the donkey ridden by Jesus into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday.

What is Jesus doing commandeering somebody else’s donkey? Is it something he has secretly pre-arranged? Or is he just laying claim to the donkey, knowing that the owners will be OK with that? Luke doesn’t say.

But the real question is: who does the donkey actually belong to? Who is the real owner? Jesus tells the disciples to tell anybody who asks why they are taking the donkey that “the Lord needs it”. But the word could equally well be translated “the owner needs it”. That is exactly the phrase Luke uses of the human owners.

So who owns the donkey? Jesus or the people it lives with and who look after it? I think the way Jesus behaves and the way Luke writes the story we’re meant to realise that Jesus is the real and ultimate owner. The donkey is lent to the human owners. They get to take care of it and use it for their own benefit and the benefit of the community. But they are not its ultimate owners. They are stewards, managers, entrusted with somebody else’s property to use with all the wisdom, skill, knowledge and generosity that they can muster.

Jesus is King. That’s one of the meanings of the word “Christ”. That’s the point of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is the anointed King sent by God to put the world back to rights. If we acknowledge Jesus as King then we acknowledge that our possessions, our property, everything we have, ultimately belongs to him. It’s on long loan to us so that we can make the very best use of it. We don’t really own anything in any final sense. We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out.

The point is reinforced when the crowds begin to throw their cloaks on the road underneath the donkey so that Jesus can ride over them. In the Old Testament that’s what people did to proclaim a new King. See the story of Jehu: 2 Kings 9.13. They are surrendering even their clothes to him.

Jesus has something of a habit of commandeering other people’s stuff. Think of the boy whose picnic lunch was used to feed the 5,000.

This is a good way to live. In the first place, whatever we have that we allow to be used for the Kingdom of God will in some way be blessed, given far greater significance, even multiplied. We become part of God’s story which is the best story there is.

And it’s liberating.

I once did a training placement with a vicar who had a bookselling business on the side. He said that if he lent a book to somebody and it wasn’t returned he concluded that his stewardship of that item had come to an end. He would refuse to fret over it.

If my house belongs to me then I must protect it. I have nobody to make sure it’s OK but myself. If, on the other hand, my house belongs to Jesus, then he will look after it for as long as he wants me to have it. Of course I will do my best as a good manager and steward to look after it, maintain it and insure it. But the ultimate responsibility is not mine. I can rest more easily because of that. I know that God will provide whatever I need. And he will do it with great generosity. There may well be times of deprivation and difficulty. But these will be in the providence of God and will in the long run serve his purposes.

Think of the people in Ukraine who are seeing their their property utterly destroyed. This was posted on Facebook today:

As the Ukraine war began a few weeks ago a great grandmother and her daughter packed a bag and started the long journey as refugees. Just before leaving, the older lady, who is a follower of Jesus, felt prompted to pack a small bag of seeds in faith. They were leaving their home of 60 years, their acres of land and their homeland as rockets were being launched by the Russians overhead.

She hastily packed the seeds believing she would one day plant them in safety and they set off.

Here in the U.K. [my husband] and I were getting ready to receive Ukrainian refugees. We had a home ready for a Ukrainian family who had served as pastors and were known to friends of ours. At the last minute they decided to stay in Germany.

A home on the farm was ready.

Then [my husband] heard of the plight of a Ukrainian mother and grandmother known to friends in a church in London nearby – who were praying for a place for these precious ladies to stay. The Lord had gone ahead of us all.

Two days later they arrived on a Red Cross flight.

With no idea of where the Lord might lead them they arrived to find a home prepared for them and specifically a place where those precious seeds could be planted.

We live in uncertain times. Knowing that we are in the end only stewards and not owners is a good thing. It is the best insurance policy you can have.

Father & Son: further reflections

Having written on Sunday about the importance of the Father:Son relationship in Christianity, I realised that this raises a number of issues which might be bugging some readers.

In the first place, is this just a projection of our own needs? In a hostile world do we make up a Sky Father who we hope will look after us? Something like this was the objection raised by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach nearly two hundred years ago. It is true that for some of us some of the time (and for some people most of the time) faith can be a bit like this. We complain that God has let us down when things don’t work out the way we want. But for the writers of the New Testament, and for millions of Christian believers around the world today, this is far from the truth. For them Christian faith was and is a call to follow Jesus in suffering. Surely anyone inventing a Sky Father to look after them wouldn’t include taking up the cross every day as part of the deal!

I don’t think Christian faith in God as Father is a projection. The Fatherhood of God is not a metaphorical transference from human experience onto the divine. It’s the other way round. Human fatherhood and human families are a portrayal – an image – fitted to our lives and our reality of the primary reality, which is the Fatherhood of God. Fathers and families are given to help us understand the Fatherhood of God. I think this is what Paul means when tells the Ephesians:

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.

Ephesians 3.14-16

God comes first; we come after. We are made in his image, not he in ours.

So maybe not a question of projection. But in an age when fathers have so widely failed their families by being absent or abusive is it unfair and unreasonable to expect people to relate to God as Father? This is a real question. There are Christians who relate well to Jesus but not so much to the Father. For some this comes from problems in their own experience of being fathered – either not being fathered at all because their father wasn’t there, or being “fathered” in such an abusive way as to leave a permanent mark on their psyche. “Father” then becomes either just a blank space in their imagination or something to be avoided at all costs. I suspect that my slowness in grasping the Fatherhood of God was at least in part due to my father’s early death. “Father” was a bit of a blank for me.

So should we ditch the Fatherhood of God? Some people really want to do this – re-writing all the key texts to bring us in line. But there is a cost to this. Presumably we would have to re-write the Lord’s Prayer. Do we really know more about prayer than Jesus did? More about God himself? Surely the answer to hurt is healing. Prayer (supported as necessary by counselling and psychotherapy) can help hurting people into a joyful discovery of God as Father. Our culture has a tendency to exalt victimhood. But we don’t have to be victims of our history. Jesus came to set the captives free, not to make them contented in captivity.

One more thing: is it sexist to call God Father? Shouldn’t we call him Mother too? Is the New Testament guilty of patriarchy?

There are images of motherhood applied to God in the Bible. Here, for instance, is Jesus lamenting Jerusalem’s rejection of his motherly love:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Luke 13.34

If the Bible is sexist in its language about God the sexism works both ways. Consider the fact that the church is described as the bride of Christ and the consummation of God’s purposes as a wedding. Where does that leave men? We have to adjust our minds to the fact that, as C. S. Lewis somewhere says, “we all are eternally feminine to Him”.

Kenneth Bailey was a distinguished theologian and missionary to the Arab world. He issues this warning about abandoning the Fatherhood of God:

Christians have often used the word father and given that word meanings based on experiences with human fathers. This is a form of idolatry. However, God is personal, and there are two kinds of persons, male and female. To address God with both male and female titles opens a path back to the ancient Middle East with its male and female gods and goddesses. The way forward is to ask, Did Jesus define the term father in any of his teachings?

In the famous parable of the prodigal son, Jesus is best understood to be defining the word father for the use he intends to make of it. In that story Jesus breaks all bounds of human patriarchy and presents an image of a father that goes beyond anything his culture expected from any human father.

Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, p99

The Fatherhood of God is something to rejoice in. Abandoning it would be a terrible mistake.

Father & Son: Luke 3.15-22

It’s the season of Epiphany, which means “Manifestation” or “Revelation”. And this Sunday we get to the baptism of Jesus, where the crowds – themselves waiting to be baptised – hear the voice from heaven proclaim “You are my Son, whom I love”.

This Father:Son relationship is at the heart of Christian faith:

  • the Creeds are structured round it;
  • it is the key to the universe – it is through the Son that the Father created the cosmos;
  • it is the bedrock of Jesus’ identity. Every one of his recorded prayers addresses God as “Father…” (“Abba” in the original language). There is only one exception: the cry of dereliction from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me..?”

The revelation of his Sonship was not a new idea for Jesus. His first recorded words are his gentle rebuke to his parents over the incident when he gets left behind in the Temple at Passover:

Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?

Luke 2.49

To be the Father’s Son was and is the central thing in Jesus’ life. Throughout the Gospel of John he refers to himself as “the Son”. His sonship and the Father’s fatherhood were the deepest reality of his life, the core of his identity and his sense of purpose.

He comes to share that reality with us. His mission is to bring us into the same relationship with the Father that he enjoys. Risen from the dead, he tells Mary Magdalene:

‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

John 20.17

He gives us a special prayer which encourages us to live in that father-child relationship.

Paul writes that God’s purpose was that:

… he [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

Romans 8.29

How does this work? How do we enter into that relationship? It’s significant that Jesus’ Sonship is revealed at the moment of baptism. And it is closely associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit. One of the key ministries of the Holy Spirit is to impart to us a personal knowledge of God as Father. Paul writes in Romans 8:

… you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Romans 8.15-16

Paul seems to be suggesting that there are two options: you either live in fear or you know God as Father. Knowing God as Father gives us the assurance that we have a place and a purpose in a universe that could otherwise seem cold, frightening and indifferent.

My father died when I was four years old. My mother did a great job of looking after my brother and myself. But I still remember an undercurrent of anxiety throughout my childhood, a sense of being unprotected, of being vulnerable to whatever a hostile world might throw at us. Undoubtedly my mother protected us in many ways. But she herself (I now realise) felt unprotected and vulnerable, so she could not provide the sense of secure protection which I think comes most fully from the presence of a loving father.

I only discovered the felt reality of God as Father when I asked a Christian leader to pray for a deeper work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I wasn’t asking to know God as Father, but that’s what I got. It wasn’t a flash of lightning, just a gradual realisation over a period of weeks that I had discovered a fresh dimension to faith in Jesus Christ.

I think that fatherlessness is one of the deepest wounds in Western society today. In the news recently there has been talk of the increasing incidence of teenagers and young men being stabbed to death in London. I suspect this is mostly gang-related. Why do young males join gangs? Because gangs provide a sense of identity and protection. My guess would be that most gang members and many young males who resort to violence lack the presence of a loving father in their lives. Certainly there is good evidence for that in America.

Knowing God as Father is the great privilege of those who follow Jesus Christ. We only have to ask (“how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” – Luke 11.13). It is also one of the most healing and life-changing gifts which the gospel offers to our world.

Advent 2: Repentance in Malachi & Luke

John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord. To make straight paths for him – straight to the hearts, minds and lives of the people of God.

How should we respond today? In this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the first coming of the Lord and we anticipate his second coming, what are we supposed to be doing?

John focuses on repentance. What does that look like?

When John challenged the crowds to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, they asked what they should be doing. His response was in terms of economic justice: share with those in need; if you’re a tax collector don’t cheat people by taking more than you should; if you’re a soldier be content with your pay. He exhorts them to concern for those less fortunate, to fair dealing and to contentment.

That’s a pretty good check-list to apply to our lives. Do we relate our expenditure to the needs of others who may have much less than we do, locally and globally? Are we careful not to exploit those who are economically dependent on us? Are we cultivating contentment, acknowledging that enough is enough?

God is not a killjoy and Jesus was known to enjoy parties. Life is meant to be enjoyed. But it will in fact be more enjoyable as we cultivate concern for the challenges presented by John. In so doing, we make a path for the presence of God with us.  

In Malachi’s time the people were asking questions of God: “Where is the God of justice?” they asked (Malachi 2.17).

They were putting God on trial. Why are the promises of God so long delayed? What does he think he’s doing? God responds by saying that he will send his messenger to prepare the way for his own coming, and he will indeed come to fulfil his covenant promises and bring his Kingdom to reign.

But there is more to justice than they realize. Malachi has God saying:

‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me.’

Malachi 3.5

God seems to care a lot about economic justice.

Our faith doesn’t exist in a sealed-off compartment which doesn’t touch the real world of money, business, politics and so on. Luke locates the coming of the word of God to John in the wilderness to the world of power and politics in Rome and Judea, the places where people think the big decisions and the key events take place. But Luke is telling us that what really matters is what you and I do and think today and tomorrow.  

Jesus wants a straight path into the whole of our lives, including the quite large part of our lives which involves our money and how we spend it, our readiness to care for the poor, our willingness to enjoy what we have without always restlessly wanting more.  

Repentance is not just about things we do or don’t do. It also encompasses how we think: it involves a change of mind, a mental shift, a reassessment of  our thoughts about God and ourselves.

Ever since the Garden of Eden humanity has had a distorted idea of itself and of God. We don’t think properly.

This is an extract from the diary of a junior doctor:

Tuesday, 5 July 2005: Trying to work out a seventy-year-old lady’s alcohol consumption to record in the notes. I’ve established that wine is her poison. Me: ‘And how much wine do you drink per day, would you say?’ Patient: ‘About three bottles on a good day.’ Me: ‘OK . . . And on a bad day?’ Patient: ‘On a bad day I only manage one.’

Adam Kay, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor (Picador, 2017) p26

This person is radically confused. She needs a total rethink of her life.

The problem isn’t confined to alcoholics or addicts. Despite a good education I didn’t really learn to think till I came to faith in Jesus Christ. Why is it that so often Jesus didn’t give a straight answer to a straight question? Because he wanted people to learn to think.

In Malachi chapter 3 God confronts people’s questioning of him with a question he addresses to them:

‘ … the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.

Malachi 3.1-2

When the time came, Israel didn’t do very well in responding to the Messiah. How is that? How did Israel manage to miss their Messiah? How did they get to crucify him when they had the scriptures to guide them, John the Baptist to prepare them and Jesus himself to heal them, feed them, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, deliver those oppressed by demons and teach them the truth? How is that so many took offence at him? At one point even John himself, languishing in Herod’s dungeon, wasn’t sure that Jesus was the real thing. Jesus sends a message back to John citing the amazing things he was doing and challenging John not to take offence at him (Matthew 11.1-6).

John was puzzled because things weren’t working out well for him, or so it seemed. We can take offence at God when things don’t work out well in our lives or the lives of our loved ones. This can be immensely painful. And God doesn’t expect us to enjoy the pain and he wants us to articulate that pain in prayer. He also wants us to trust him. To trust him that, somehow, in the long run, he will work all things for good. Not immediately, not necessarily so that we can see that in this life, but in his time and in his way.

The other way people take offence, then and now, is because they don’t like the picture of God we find in Jesus and his followers. The Pharisees didn’t like him eating with the riff raff of Jewish society. They thought he was far too lax about the law. Some people took offence because he didn’t seem to be interested in booting out the Romans (that may have been the problem Judas had). Some people took offence because he treated women and children as just as important as men. Some people took offence because he ministered to Gentiles as well as to native Israelites.

Probably none of those are our issues. But we can still have issues. We can take offence when we come across things in the Bible which we don’t like or don’t understand. Some people just give up on the Bible at that point. But that is a mistake. Don’t take offence. Be open to the possibility that you might come to understand something which seems difficult. There is a repeated prayer in Psalm 119 for understanding. Ask the questions, do the research. Be prepared to wait for understanding. But don’t take offence. Repentance involves a renewal of the mind, a willingness to let our minds be shaped and changed to conform to the mind of Christ.

Graham Kendrick’s song “Make way, make way for Christ the King” includes the line:

Fling wide the gates and welcome him into your lives.

We are invited to open up the gates of our hearts and minds to him, allowing him to shape both our actions and our thoughts. That is the heart of repentance.