Building for the Kingdom

In my last post I talked about the Christian hope of resurrection – of heaven coming to earth at the second coming of Christ so that the whole creation is healed and purged of evil and suffering forever.

That hope raises some questions. If it’s true, then what are we meant to do now? How are we supposed to live? What should we do about suffering and evil? To take the issue which is high on most people’s agenda at the moment: what should we do about the planet? If God is going to put the whole thing right one day, should we just wash our hands of any responsibility for its welfare and continue to exploit and pollute it?

That (or something like it) has been the attitude of some Christians at various times. Not usually in the light of the hope of resurrection but in response to the true but incomplete version of the Christian hope which tells us that Christians who die go to be with Jesus in heaven: full stop, end of story. As I have tried to say (probably too often for some people’s taste), the hope of heaven is true but it is far from the whole story; and it is not what the New Testament puts centre stage. Centre stage is always the return of Christ, the resurrection and the renewal of all things.

If that (larger) version of the Christian hope is true, then we need an answer to the question I posed earlier: how should we live? What about care for the planet?

At various points in the New Testament we are told that what we do today has eternal significance. Whatever we do in this world that is founded on Jesus Christ and springs from faith in, and obedience to, him will last; it will find its place in the renewed creation which God plans for the future. The classic text for this is 1 Corinthians 3.12-15:

If anyone builds on this foundation [that is, Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.

How this works – how our efforts today will be preserved in eternity – is largely beyond our comprehension. But the New Testament is full of examples and exhortations around doing “good work[s]”. Paul’s letter to Titus repeats that theme multiple times as the duty and calling of all Christian people. Jesus himself is of course the supreme example. He went about “doing good” (Acts 10.38).

Professor Tom Wright has an image which I think helps us to get a handle on what Paul is talking about:

The image I have often used, in trying to explain this strange but important idea, is that of the stonemason working on part of a great cathedral. The architect has already got the whole plan in mind, and has passed on instructions to the team of masons as to which stones need carving in what way. The foreman distributes these tasks among the team. One will shape stones for a particular tower or turret; another will carve the delicate pattern that breaks up the otherwise forbidding straight lines; another will work on gargoyles or coats of arms; another will be making statues of saints, martyrs, kings or queens. They will be vaguely aware that the others are getting on with their tasks; and they will know, of course, that many other entire departments are busy about quite different tasks as well. When they’ve finished with their stones and their statues they will hand them over, without necessarily knowing very much about where, in the eventual building, their work will find its home. They may not have seen the complete architect’s drawing of the whole building with ‘their bit’ identified in its proper place. Nor may they live to see the completed building, with their work at last where it belongs. But they will trust the architect that the work they have done in following instructions will not be wasted. They are not, themselves, building the cathedral; but they are building for the cathedral, and when the cathedral is complete their work will be enhanced, ennobled, will mean much more than it could have meant as they were chiselling it and shaping it down in the stonemasons’ yard.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (SPCK, 2007) pp220f

We’re not building the Kingdom; only God can do that. Only he has the overview, the wisdom and the knowledge for that supremely great work. But we can and should build for the Kingdom.

So what difference does that make? It means that whatever your calling, whatever your position in life, whatever the limits there may be to your opportunities, what you do matters: caring for an elderly relative, helping to relieve poverty, shopping with ethical issues in mind, preaching the gospel, planting churches, reaching out to a colleague at work in distress… If done in dependence on God and his Spirit, these things will not be forgotten, they will not disappear into the abyss of time but will have a place in God’s future.

Take the issue of climate change. What difference can my very small effort to care for the planet actually make? If (for example) China is going to continue building coal-fired power stations for decades to come, what possible value can there be in my decision to buy green energy? It would be easy to give up in despair. This is where Paul’s teaching comes to the rescue. My/your contribution, small as it may appear to be, has value. It is noticed by God himself; he will find it a place for it when the Kingdom finally comes in fulness.

To repeat: we are not building the Kingdom, but we can build for it.

Advent Sunday

If you asked most Christians what the Christian hope for the future was they would probably say something about going to heaven when you die. That is the assurance given to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. The man crucified with Jesus who turned to him in faith was promised that he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day. The same promise holds good for us too. Going to heaven after death is good news.

But it’s not the whole good news. It leaves too many questions unanswered. It gives no answer to the question of evil and suffering: when, if ever, is God going to do something about that? Nor does it answer the question of what God is going to do about his spoilt creation: is he just going to chuck it in the bin? Will heaven be all that is left? The full Christian hope answers those questions. Christ will return to complete what he began on earth. His plan is nothing less than “the renewal of all things” (Matthew 19.28 [NIV]).

We affirm it in the liturgy and the Creeds and we read about it in the Scriptures. But do we believe it? In my experience, the answer is mostly: not really! Or at least we don’t think it has much relevance to us…

Why is that?

The church has lost its grip on the hope of the resurrection. In Philippians 1 Paul talks about the real attraction of dying and going to be with Jesus. But having thought it through he decides that there is still work for him to do on earth, so he will stay. In Philippians 3 he talks about resurrection. About this he is unequivocal:

I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3.10-11 (NIV)

There is no question what he wants and longs for. Resurrection is the restoration of the whole created order in such a way as to put it beyond harm of any kind. It is the final overthrow of evil. The hope of going to heaven when we die is wonderfully reassuring. But there is more to look forward to: a hope that is compelling and satisfying – spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.

Then there is the problem of delay. Reading the New Testament you get the clear sense that the hope of resurrection was very much real and alive. Two thousand years later it’s easy to suggest that this might have been a mistake. But the problem of delay was real then too:

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3.9

But there is one other reason, I think, which above all others makes a lively hope for resurrection hard for us. It is the culture we live in. For more than two hundred years, since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, religion has been largely removed from public discourse and relegated to a private sphere. Going to heaven when you die fits nicely into that scenario. It’s a personal thing, which you can believe if you like. It’s not going to make much difference to anybody else. And it’s not testable (you can’t see if somebody has gone to heaven), so it doesn’t much threaten those who choose to think otherwise.

Resurrection is different. Resurrection says that one day, at a time of his choosing, God is going to intervene in his world, bring an end to evil and suffering and restore everything to glorious perfection. Not only that, but this perfection will be forever immune to any further invasion of evil, pain, suffering or death. This will not be a private moment but a very public event. And that challenges our whole culture. There will come a time when people will no longer be able to go their own way, a time when the world will be called to account, a time for judgment. For some people, particularly for those who are doing well with life as it is, this is a very unwelcome idea.

The hope of resurrection is the hope that one day God will heal the rift between heaven and earth, between his world and ours, between the physical and the spiritual. This is not a side issue in the Christian vision of God’s purposes – it is central and foundational. Here, in one of his most magisterial expositions of the purpose of God, is how Paul puts it:

With all wisdom and insight he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Ephesians 1.8-10

Stephen Kuhrt describes how he explains to children God’s plan to restore all things in Christ. He recounts a conversation with a boy who had built a very impressive Lego castle:

‘Did anything go wrong when you were making this?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, quite a few times,’ he replied. ‘Then why didn’t you throw the whole thing away?’ I asked, to which the boy responded by speaking with some indignation about how valuable and important his castle was.

Stephen Kuhrt, Tom Wright for Everyone (SPCK, 2011) pp70f

If we don’t preach and don’t believe the hope of resurrection we sell the gospel short. We run the risk of presenting a God who began something (his creation) but wasn’t able to complete it. Faced with the spoiling of his world by the invasion of evil, he threw in the towel and decided to wind it up and decamp to heaven with his followers. I don’t believe it; or rather, I don’t think it’s what the Scriptures teach us.

The hope of resurrection is the assurance that one day the Kingdom will come on earth as in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. Meanwhile, as we pray and work for that kingdom, we can see glimpses of it here and now. Going to heaven when you die is good; heaven coming to earth is even better.

Daniel 12.1-4: Wisdom or Knowledge?

Do you believe in progress? Whether civilisation in general has progressed is an open question. What is not in question is that we have increased in knowledge. As Daniel says:

Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.

Daniel 12.4 ESV

That’s the best brief history of the world I know: lots of running about and an undeniable increase in knowledge.

We naturally assume knowledge must be a good thing. But in the Bible it’s not that simple. The demand for knowledge goes back to the Garden of Eden and humanity’s desire for a knowledge which would make us like God – equal to him and therefore independent of him.

Knowledge is double-edged. It enables us to tackle cancer but it increases our anxiety about getting cancer. Knowledge enables us to understand the physical processes which operate in our world but it enables us to exploit the planet and kill and maim our fellow humans. Knowledge enables us to communicate face to face with our loved-ones on the other side of the world but it enables government and Big Tech to keep us under permanent surveillance.

Will more knowledge solve our problems? It’s not obvious that this is true. Because we believe in knowledge we tend to think that education is the answer to changing the world. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made “education, education, education” his government’s top priority. But education doesn’t always deliver what we want. Where education fails we resort to legislation: making more and more things illegal, thrusting the long arm of the law ever-deeper into our lives. And those who think that legislation is not enough, or not quick enough, resort to intimidation. Think of the Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University who was hounded out of her job for expressing supposedly “incorrect” views on transgender issues.

There is a Russian proverb: Меньше знаешь крепче спишь. The less you know the better you sleep.

What about wisdom? Daniel commends wisdom as the key to a life well-lived:

Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above

Daniel 12.3

What is wisdom? Here is a good definition:

Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions, good decisions come from experience and experience is the result of making bad decisions!

That’s why older people are supposed to be wiser than young people.

But wisdom is not just for the old. It is available to any who ask, according to James in the New Testament. It was a characteristic of Jesus in his youth. According to Paul, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. He tells the Colossians that all wisdom and knowledge (you can have both) are found in Christ.

Elias Chacour is a Palestinian Christian leader. He tells the story of a conflict between one of his churchwardens and another member of the congregation. The conflict came to a head over a vine which this other person had planted in the pastor’s garden. The churchwarden was so incensed by this that he demanded that Chacour dig it up and get rid of it. This is how Chacour describes his response:

I thrust my chin out stubbornly. Anger and exasperation boiled up inside. My thoughts blistered with accusations of stupidity and small-mindedness. And at the same moment, amazingly, a small, almost unheard voice somewhere inside prayed, “Father, let me speak with your tongue, not my own”.

Almost before I knew what I was saying, I replied evenly, “Bring me a bucket of water”.

Triumphantly, the churchwarden sent one of his men hunting for a bucket supposing I meant to loosen the soil so the vine could be uprooted. When the man returned, lugging water from the outdoor tap, I had only just determined what to do with it.

 He thrust it into my hands, and I stooped, spilling water over the leaves in slow, ritual fashion. Setting the empty bucket aside, I raised my hand over the vine. In as serious intonation as I could manage, I said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”.

 The men stared at me as if I were dangerously insane. “There”, I addressed them warmly, “now this is a Christian vine. You cannot uproot your own brother. So he stays”.

Indignantly, they turned on their heels and stomped away.

Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers

Knowledge tends to create problems. Wisdom solves them. Wisdom often comes from left-field, astounding and sometimes confounding the hearers. Remember how unpredictable and unanswerable was Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar.

Our world desperately needs wisdom. Whether we’re responding to climate change or refugees crossing continents in search of safety or handling the Covid-19 pandemic, we need wisdom as well as knowledge. So does the church. So do all of us. According to James in the New Testament, we only have to ask. The answer doesn’t always drop into our minds just as or when we would like. We have to wait for God’s time, which is often not ours. Chacour didn’t know just what he was going to do with the bucket of water he’d asked for till the last minute. And we may have to put aside our natural inclinations and our pride in order to receive and act on it.

Revelation 21.1-6: A Vision of Hope

Today is All Saints Day so I’m going to talk about hope.

What is hope? In everyday speech hope is by definition something we’re not sure about, something about which we have no great assurance or confidence.

In the Christian faith hope is exactly the opposite. Hope in the New Testament is not wishful thinking: it is a solid, well-defined vision of the future which we are commanded to get our heads round and to hang on to.

What is that vision for the future?

First of all, it’s the promise of a new world: a new heaven and a new earth. In other words, a new everything. A new cosmos. But a particular kind of new. The Greek word means renewal rather than replacement. The new world will be recognisable but also gloriously different. There will be both continuity and discontinuity. Just as was the case with the resurrection body of Jesus. Sometimes he was easily recognized but sometimes not. Always he was able to do both ordinary things like making breakfast on the beach and extraordinary things like walking through locked doors.

God himself speaks:

I am making all things new.

Revelation 21.5

… which is not the same as making all new things. He is going to take what he has created and fill it with new life and possibilities. He is not going to chuck it in the bin.

Apparently there will be no sea. For lovers of the sea that sounds like bad news. But we need to understand the symbolic meaning of the sea. For Israel, the sea meant chaos, nature in rebellion against humanity. So when the Sea of Galilee threatens to drown Jesus and his disciples he “rebukes” it: he tells nature to behave, to get back in its box (Mark 4.39). The absence of sea is a promise that nature will finally be subject to us as God’s co-workers that he always intended us to be. We will be in charge; nature will do our bidding. That should be quite something!

Then there will be a wedding; but not just a wedding but the wedding, the wedding for which all our weddings are merely a foretaste, an amuse-bouche.

Why a wedding? The wedding reminds us, if we needed reminding, that the story of God and humanity is a love story: the passionate love of God reaching out to humanity to draw us into loving union with him. A wedding is also a celebration of a great future which the couple will forge together. This is a story which has only just begun. There is so much more in store. Think of Paul’s image in Romans 8 of our present struggles as the birth pangs of God’s new world. Labour pains are a sign that something new and glorious, a new future, is about to burst on the world – a whole new miraculous life full of promise and possibility.

What can we learn about the bride? Here is what Revelation tells us:

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Revelation 19.7-8

Every bride prepares for her wedding. She may even have a vision for that day in her mind for years. She doesn’t just put on her jeans and trainers to walk down the aisle!

We are meant to be prepare for the wedding. Losing weight to get into the dress: not literally – but cutting out of our lives things that aren’t good. Sins, whether great or small. Waste, excessive consumption…  plastic! And putting into our lives love for God and other people. Note that the clothing the bride is given is the righteous acts of God’s holy people. She has had a part in it. She has sent her clothing on ahead of her, the fruit of a life lived in love and holiness before God.

What we do now will last. We can contribute now to God’s future. We are daily investing in that future – for good or ill. David Attenborough says that if COP 26 doesn’t get it right it will be too late. He may be right. I have no way of knowing.

But one day God will put it right. This is the Christian hope. So do we just sit back and not bother? No, we put effort into contributing whatever we can to that future. Which in the meantime will make a contribution to making the present better too.

Finally, we are promised the presence of God among his people. His presence will no longer be hidden but immediately accessible. The rift between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, which started in Genesis 3 in the Garden is now definitively healed, repaired. The easy intimacy and friendship with God which was always his purpose is there for all to enjoy.

So there will be an end to tears, pain, suffering and death.  God himself will come personally to each individual to heal their pain, wiping away their tears. You can’t wipe away tears en masse – it has to be done one person at a time.

The old order has passed away. At least that’s how the NIV translates it. In fact the verse says: “The first things have passed away”. What happens after the first things? Presumably the second things and then the third things and then… Paul hints at something like this in his letter to the Ephesians:

God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2.6-7

There are many ages – many planned phases – in God’s future. This life is only the first part of the story – perhaps the first chapter. But there are many more chapters to come. The real adventure is yet to be revealed.

So what is hope? It is both the concrete vision of the future God has planned and our hold on that future in our hearts. It is not a feeling. It is not a matter of temperament, like being an optimist: glass half full rather than half empty. It is a virtue. A muscle we have to develop until it becomes second nature. We have to practise hope, like practising the piano or golf. We practise the virtue of hope through worship and prayer, through reading the scriptures, through consciously holding on to the promises of God for the future.

And, most importantly, we practise hope by preparing for God’s future in tangible and practical ways: purifying our lives as a bride prepares for her wedding day. Getting rid of whatever doesn’t fit in God’s new future. Investing in things, particularly love for God and other people, which will last forever.

Acts 2.14-41: How not to bore people with sermons

I was recently asked to preach a sermon about preaching sermons.

Sermons do not have a good reputation. The novelist Anthony Trollope wrote in Barchester Towers:

There is no greater hardship inflicted upon mankind in civilised countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.

Must it be so? Do sermons have to be boring?

I don’t think so. But, in order to avoid being boring, preachers need some guidance. The following thoughts come from Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. They’re meant to help those who preach to know how to preach and those who listen to know what to listen for (and how to pray for their preachers).

The first requirement of a sermon is relevance – that is, it must reach people where they are, it must scratch a real itch. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost did just that. He gave a commentary on the outpouring of the Spirit which had drawn a large crowd wanting to know what was going on. The crowd was already engaged, seeking an explanation. Above and beyond that, as the sermon would in due course make clear, this was the crowd which had played a shameful part in sending Jesus to the cross at the hands of the Roman authorities. Peter had little trouble in making his words relevant to his audience.

Relevance comes in various forms. A preacher is relevant when addressing someone’s already-aroused curiosity about God. I started listening to sermons because I made a friend at university who had something I didn’t have but wanted to have and which clearly had a lot to do with his Christian faith. I was primed and prepared to listen to a preacher with due attention. His testimony created openness in me; testimony in the context of worship can make the difference between relevance and irrelevance for the preacher who follows it.

A preacher is relevant when addressing an issue of current concern: where is God in the pandemic? what about assisted dying or climate change? Some of these are complex problems without easy answers. But scripture and Christian theology still have something important to say.

A preacher is relevant when addressing the perennial concerns of human beings: relationships, sex, gender, marriage, family, work, money, what the future holds…

The second requirement of preaching is revelation. A sermon is not an opportunity for the preacher to air their own opinions and prejudices. A sermon should reveal what scripture has to say on the topic being addressed. On the day of Pentecost Peter tells the crowd: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel”. Here, before your very eyes, scripture is being fulfilled. Not many of us get to speak so directly into the fulfilment of scripture but we can still relate present experience to the story of God’s purposes in the Bible, where he is taking us and how he works in our lives.

Chrissie Chapman spent twenty-five years working as a nurse and midwife in Burundi. For thirteen of those years she lived through the country’s long-running and brutal civil war. Here she tells of one night during that time:

One evening, David [her co-worker] and I were sitting on the front doorstep of my small mud house, gazing at the moon and the stars and wondering what the future held. Gunfire sounded all around us and we could hear crying and terrified screaming coming from the hills. You could feel and almost touch the terror in those screams. As we sat praying and crying out to God for His help, peace, and protection, David suddenly stood up and began to praise God. He was saying over and over, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus.” He cried out to me, “Chrissie, just look on the walls.” I couldn’t see anything and didn’t know what he was talking about. David put his hands on my eyes and prayed that God would open my eyes to see what he was seeing. As I opened my eyes, I saw dozens of huge angels standing shoulder to shoulder on top of the six-foot high wall that surrounded the perimeter of our healing centre. These strong, shining heavenly beings clothed in full armour with gleaming breastplates were standing on top of the wall in a complete circle with their backs to us, looking outward. They looked so huge and strong. I was filled with so much awe that every bit of fear drained out of my body and could no longer touch me.

What do you make of that? Is it credible or just too fantastic to take seriously? How are such things to be tested and evaluated?

What makes the story credible to me is the close parallel (to which the author makes no reference) between this account and the account in 2 Kings 6 of the time when Elisha, surrounded by the horses and chariots of the hostile king of Aram, prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes to the hills full of horses and chariots of fire – the Lord’s army come to protect them. Preachers need to look for those times when scripture and contemporary experience match and mutually corroborate each other. The scriptural text and the missionary’s testimony reinforce each other and confirm to us what God can do.

A sermon should reveal good news to the hearers. The punchline of Peter’s quotation from Joel is:

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Acts 2.21

God has a good purpose for the hearers in the extraordinary events they have witnessed. He is calling them to receive God’s forgiveness and the gift of the same Spirit that they have seen poured out on the disciples.

A sermon should reveal the presence and power of Jesus Christ. Peter moves on from his quotation from Joel to talking about Jesus, about the crowd’s complicity in the travesty of his crucifixion and then on to his resurrection and current reign as Lord of all. Wherever we are in the Bible, whatever topic we may be addressing, Jesus is already there and we need to make clear his presence. That’s what he himself did as he talked to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. If, for instance, we are talking about the pandemic we need to be remind people that – despite all that has gone wrong and may yet go wrong in our world – Jesus is Lord. That doesn’t solve all our problems or produce easy answers, but it does give us a hope that is sure and certain. Preaching is primarily good news not good advice. If preaching doesn’t turn us to Jesus then it is little more than human wisdom.

Finally, preaching is meant to generate a response. Having listened to Peter’s sermon, the crowd ask:

Brothers, what shall we do?

Acts 2.37

Peter then tells them what they must do. A sermon is an event. It makes things happen; or rather, God speaks through his word and he makes things happen.

Ideally, the response should be immediate. Telling people to go away and think about what they’ve heard may sometimes work, but too often I suspect the moment is lost and the impact is wasted. The response can take different forms. It may be to get up and do something – a symbolic action perhaps – which has been carefully prepared by the preacher. It may be to invite the Holy Spirit to come and do what he wants to do in the congregation, creating a safe space for him to work in people’s lives as they open themselves to receive.

Some ingredients of a good sermon:

  1. Relevance
  2. Revelation:
    • scripture
    • good news
    • Jesus Christ
  3. Response

There may be other important ingredients. But these seem like a good place to start.

Malachi 3.10-12: The Promise of Tithing

It has been said that there are five Love Languages – ways we express our love: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts.

One of the ways we express love for God is by what we give to him. Ourselves, our faith, our time, our obedience and, somewhere in there: our money.

Giving is not meant to be a chore or a burden but a joy and a privilege. Of course we don’t always instinctively feel like that. We are often scared of missing out in some way if we become generous givers.

Two brothers, Kevin and Ryan, aged seven and five, were fighting over the last two pancakes, one being much bigger than the other. Mother decided this was time for a good moral lesson.

So she said: ‘Boys, don’t you think Jesus would let his brother have the first choice?’

Kevin responded quick as a flash: ‘Ryan, you can be Jesus’.

I remember one Sunday morning in Oxford around 50 years ago. I was regularly worshipping at St Aldate’s church. During the service the Rector, Keith de Berry, said he wanted to see all the undergraduates present in the vestry after the service. So we all obediently trooped into the vestry. There he talked to us about giving a tithe, a tenth, of our income to the church. We were fortunate enough in those days to have student grants so we weren’t poor but we weren’t enormously rich either. What I realise now is that Keith wasn’t after our money. This was a large church with a prosperous congregation. Keith explained that because many people tithed their income the church didn’t have any money problems. A tenth of our student grant wasn’t going to revolutionise the church’s finances. But he knew that if we did what he was asking it would revolutionise our lives. I don’t remember now what a tenth of my grant came to, but I did what he asked.

It was one of the most significant steps in my discipleship.

Tithing was an obligation under the law in Old Testament times. It’s not a law for us. And it’s not a tax. It’s a promise. Paul tells the Corinthians:

No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.

2 Corinthians 1.20

It’s a promise of God’s blessing on our finances and our material well-being:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3.10-12).

Test God?! This is meant to shock. The Old Testament law said “you shall not put the Lord God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6.16) and Jesus endorsed this when tempted by Satan at the beginning of his public ministry. So the promise of Malachi is the exception which proves the rule and suggests that somehow this exception is important.

Why does it matter? What is the real significance of tithing? Is it just a way of financing the work of the church? I don’t think so.

Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

Tithing is a way of putting yourself and your finances into the hands and under the protection of God. His economy is not the same as ours. He does things differently. So it always is in his Kingdom. The world says “Get and you will get more”. Jesus says “Give and it will be given to you”.

A friend of mine spent a year in France as part of his Modern Languages degree. While there he got involved with a small Protestant congregation. He got to know a single parent family who clearly didn’t have much money. Somehow he discovered that the mother was in the habit of tithing her income to the church. So he asked her how she could possibly afford to do this. Her response was swift, brief and emphatic: “I can’t afford not to tithe”.

God doesn’t need our money – what he wants is for us to learn to trust him. To grow in faith. Tithing our income is a wonderful way to experience the faithfulness of God in the nitty-gritty of life.

At its deepest level tithing acknowledges that we are stewards or managers not owners. All that we have is on trust from God. He wants us to learn to handle money well. Jesus makes it clear that there is a larger long-term purpose in God’s trusting us with money:

If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

Luke 16.11-12
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

He is telling us that God’s purpose is one day – in the new creation – to put real resources into our hands to do with as we please. Stuff that we will actually own, resources which will truly be ours. If we have learnt to handle well what is only lent to us, we will be ready to receive what truly belongs to us. We will be totally trustworthy: we will do with those resources all and only what would please God and bless other people.

The journey to that goal starts now.

Mark 8.27-end: The quest for identity

The New Testament and Jesus in particular have a remarkable way of addressing contemporary issues.

Take the quest for identity. The question “Who am I?” seems to occupy more of our time and energy than ever before. And the question itself is much more complex than it used to be. Is your identity something you’re given, something you have to discover or something you’re free to construct? Or a mixture of all three?

We define ourselves in so many different ways. You can look inside and seeing what’s there. How do I feel? What do I want? What do I want to achieve? What are my gifts or talents? What is my sexuality? You can look to the personality tests such as Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram. You can look to the stars and the planets for light on who you are. You can look at where you belong – your tribe, your town or village, your sports club, your old school, your profession. You can look at the key relationships in your life and define yourself by how you fit into a family or a community. You can look at what you do, your job, your calling, your career. The range of choice is bewildering.

Jesus asks his disciples to reflect on his identity. What is the word on the street about who he is? And who do they think he is? The question is addressed to us too. Who do we think Jesus is? Once we’ve got that straight then the way is open for us to be told who we are. This is explicit in Matthew’s version of this episode, where Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is immediately followed by Jesus telling him:

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…

Matthew 16.18)

We are who we are in relation to our Creator and Redeemer. When you think about it, this makes good sense and cuts through a lot of potential confusion and frustration. How else should we be defined but by the One who made us in the first place? Not only that, but the One who loved us enough to give his life for our life.

Knowing the identity of Jesus is the first step. But there is more to come. This is the half-way point in Jesus’ ministry. From now on the journey to the cross begins. Now that they know who Jesus is, the disciples can begin to get their heads round his call to die for the sins of the world and what that will mean for them. Jesus is very clear about that:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it.

Mark 8.34-35

The word “life” here is the Greek word psychē, meaning “soul” or “life”. I reckon it could equally be translated “self” or “identity”. Jesus is telling us that we can only find who we really are when we commit ourselves to following him and are prepared to deny ourselves. The only way to life is through death, through letting go of whatever distorted sense of self we have acquired and allowing God to shape us into the person he always intended we should be. We only have one life/soul and left to ourselves we will make a mess of it (even if we become rich, famous and powerful along the way).

What does it mean to deny yourself? Here is one example: Paul urged the Christians in Rome to learn

 …not to please [themselves]. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself…

Romans 15.2f

In denying ourselves we follow in the footsteps of Jesus himself. And in so doing we begin to find ourselves in a new way.

Oliver O’Donovan, formerly Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, wrote:

If Christianity has a saving message to speak to human beings, it must surely be, ‘You may be free from the constraints of your identities.’

quoted in David Bennett, A War of Loves

Mark 7.24-end: Two Healings

The Gospel passage for this coming Sunday tells the story of two people healed by Jesus: the demon-afflicted daughter of a woman from Tyre and a deaf mute person from the region of the Decapolis.

Putting the two accounts side by side tells us quite a lot about Jesus’ healing ministry and, by extension, about how healing ministry might look today.

The first thing I notice is that in both cases Jesus is outside or on the boundary of the chosen people. Tyre is pagan country and the New Testament strongly suggests that the Decapolis had a mainly Gentile population. Healing often works most easily on the frontline, where the gospel is breaking new ground. Among the people of God it can be much more difficult: in Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, he could do “no mighty work” (Mark 6.5). Christians often get disillusioned about the possibilities of healing ministry because they see such meagre results within the church community. Sometimes the answer is to get out and about and see what might happen with unbelievers.

Then I notice how different the two healings are. The demonised daughter is healed at a distance – with no more than a word spoken by Jesus. With the deaf mute Jesus goes through an elaborate process of putting his fingers in the man’s ears, then spitting and touching his tongue and finally speaking a word:  “Be opened!” The two accounts could hardly be more different.

Jesus had no formula for healing, no method; he discerned what was required in the moment and with regard to each individual, their situation and their needs. We tend to like a formula, to feel that we know what we’re doing and have some control of the outcome. That may be a mistake. Better to learn to hear what the Spirit is saying to us. If that sounds daunting, think of it as an adventure.

The two accounts both suggest we shouldn’t be surprised or put off if we meet some obstacles in healing ministry. The Syrophoenician woman has to argue Jesus into healing her daughter. At first he seems to be saying No. She could have backed off at this point and given up. But she perseveres and is rewarded. Something similar could be said about Jesus’ way of handling the deaf mute man. Perhaps he adopted this unusually complex approach because he knew that, in this situation, with this person, more than a word would be required. Maybe there was an issue with the man’s openness to being healed: he had, after all, been brought by other people. Faith sometimes means that we have to work through the difficulties and overcome the obstacles.

I’ve already mentioned that both these healings take place on the borders of Israel. This fits the context in Mark 7 perfectly. Jesus has just “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7.19). Now Mark shows the implications of that radical step being worked out in practice. Significantly, the demonised daughter in Tyre has an “unclean” spirit. Just as from this point on no food is unclean, so likewise no person is excluded by their uncleanness from the grace of God. If the Old Testament dietary laws are being set aside, that is because God is bringing his loving purpose to bear on the whole world, not just Israel.

Finally, I have been assuming that Jesus wants us to imitate him. Isn’t that what following him means? If we were willing to take some risks in healing ministry, might that not liven up our church life and put new vigour into our relationship with those outside?

When people are “overwhelmed with amazement” (Mark 7.37) by what they see God doing it’s not hard for them to turn to Christ in repentance and faith.

When Mark urges his readers to follow Jesus, he envisages, not a boring life of conventional religion, but things happening that would make people astonished.

Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, p99

Mark 7: Looking good or being good?

Why are the Pharisees in this Sunday’s passage from Mark’s Gospel so bothered about washing hands before eating? What exactly did they expect? Was it (as the NRSV translates) that people should “thoroughly wash their hands”? In other words, were they genuinely bothered about cleanliness? Or were they (as the NIV translates) looking for a “ceremonial washing”?

It’s quite a big difference. My guess is that the NIV is right and the Pharisees’ concern was sticking to the tradition of the oral law which had been built up over generations[1], greatly extending and intensifying the demands of the Law of God, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). In that case the Pharisees were not really bothered about actual cleanliness but they really did care about sticking to the oral tradition and in particular whether Jesus would uphold that tradition. The fact that Jesus goes on to castigate the Pharisees for nullifying the word of God by their adherence to the oral tradition suggests that this is how he interpreted what they were up to.

Jesus cites in detail an example of the way the oral tradition was used to nullify the command of God about duties to parents. “You do many things like that”, he says. Religious people easily get set in their ways and become ferociously attached to what they’re used to: their particular place to sit in church, the time of the service, the style of music… Even such trivialities as these can get in the way of God’s purpose for the church. But church tradition can become much more destructive and self-serving than that: the Reformation of the sixteenth century was in part a protest against traditions which contradicted the free grace of the gospel itself.

All communities develop traditions, even the most self-consciously radical and innovative ones. It’s a natural human process by which communities create their own identities. But when church tradition overrides the purpose of God it’s time to call a halt.

The real problem, as Jesus saw it, with the Pharisees’ insistence on ceremonial washing was that it not only missed the point but tried to cover it up. The Old Testament purity laws were intended to point people to the real issue, which is purity of heart. Obsessive hand-washing doesn’t deal with the heart, as Lady Macbeth discovered. However often she cries “Out, damned spot” she is still left asking “Will these hands ne’er be clean?”.

She at least was conscious of guilt. The Pharisees may have gone so far down the road of hypocrisy that they cared only for the outward show of cleanliness rather than the state of their heart before God and neighbour. Looking good without being good.

Jesus goes on to explore the issue in detail. What defiles a person is not what goes into their mouths but what comes out of their hearts. This was radical stuff for a Jew. Mark notes just how radical:

In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.

Mark 7.19

At a stroke Jesus sets aside the Old Testament dietary laws. Now you can eat pork, hedgehog, crocodile…

So is Jesus saying that the dietary laws of the Torah were a bad thing, a mistake? What did he mean when he said that he had come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them (Matthew 5.17)?

I think the answer is in what Jesus means by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. I think he means that they’ve done their job, which is to point to Jesus as the full and final answer to the problem of human sin. We don’t need to bother about not eating pork because through Jesus our hearts are being cleansed. The real meaning of the Law has been revealed and fulfilled. Tom Wright puts it like this:

Learning to read the Old Testament this way wasn’t easy in the early church, and it isn’t easy today. The starting-point is to realize that the Jewish scriptures aren’t to be seen as a timeless code of behaviour, but as the story which leads to Jesus. This doesn’t mean we can casually set aside bits we don’t like or understand. When things are set aside, as the purity laws are here, it’s not because they’re irrelevant but because the deeper truth to which they pointed has now arrived .

Mark for Everyone, page 94

In this controversy with the Pharisees Jesus does two things, each of which is vitally important for understanding the gospel and for the future direction of the church. He forces people to confront the real problem of life, which is inward rather than outward, what’s in your heart rather than what’s on your plate. And he paves the way for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church without their having to become Jews by adhering to the Jewish Law.

That issue would take up a lot of St Paul’s time and energy, but that’s for another day…


[1] See for instance the detailed discussion in William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark pp246f

Faith seeking understanding

This week’s Gospel reading takes us to the end of John Chapter 6 and the final outcome of Jesus’ long discourse on the bread of life. Up to this point the crowd have grumbled about Jesus’ teaching, but now the grumbling begins to infect the circle of his disciples as well:

Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

John 6.66

Because they don’t understand what Jesus is saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and it doesn’t fit with their ideas about being his disciple, they take offence. They are in effect sitting in judgment on Jesus’ teaching – making themselves the arbiters of truth rather than letting him shape their thinking. It was a common response to Jesus. When John the Baptist was having a hard time working out whether Jesus really was who he’d thought he was, Jesus sent a message listing the mighty works which authenticated his Messiahship. He then issued a gentle warning:

… blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.

Matthew 11.6

Taking offence has become a favourite pastime in our culture. It’s one of the chief drivers of social media. The problem with taking offence is that it stops you from learning. Somebody else’s offensive point of view may contain truth. If you refuse to entertain what the other person says you shut yourself up in your own limited understanding of the world.

What are we supposed to do when Jesus’ teaching, or the words of Scripture, or something in a sermon or a discussion, rub us up the wrong way? Here is some advice from Calvin:

… if we judge of Christ’s teaching from our feelings, His words will be just so many paradoxes. Therefore nothing remains but for everyone to commit himself to the guidance of the Spirit, that He may inscribe on our hearts what otherwise would never even have entered into our ears.

People taking offence and leaving the church is the inevitable experience of most pastors. The fact that Jesus had the same experience should give us some comfort. It reminds us that church growth is not a simple upward trajectory of ever-increasing numbers. It involves pruning, and without pruning, growth is unlikely to be healthy.

The departure of a large number of disciples touches Jesus personally. He wants to know whether his inner circle are also thinking of leaving. He turns to the twelve and asks:

Do you also wish to go away?

John 6.67

Peter’s reply is important:

Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.

John 6.68

“We have come to believe and know…” In Peter’s experience faith/belief has resulted in knowledge. Taking a step of faith in following Jesus has brought him to a place where he can say that he not only believes but knows that Jesus is who he says he is. This is the wrong way round according to the usual human way of thinking. We tend to assume that knowledge comes first and then faith. Show me and I’ll believe.

This reversal of human expectations is a key ingredient in Christian growth. Augustine and Anselm encapsulated the proper Christian stance as fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding. In other words, trust what Jesus tells you and over time you will come to understand. Don’t reject what you don’t understand but let the Holy Spirit be your teacher. Here is Calvin again:

… the obedience of faith is the beginning of true understanding; or rather, faith itself is truly the eye of the mind.

In all relationships this is the way things work. You only get to know somebody if you first trust yourself to them. This is true in marriage. Committing yourself to one person for life is a step of faith which leads to much deeper knowledge. Supremely it is true in our relationship with God.

Does this mean that Christian faith requires us to shut off our minds and deny our thirst for understanding? Not at all. Robin Williams famously listed “You don’t have to check your brains at the door” as one of the top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian (along with such delights as free wine on Sundays and no snake handling) but no Christian of any tradition is required to stop thinking. Quite the reverse. We are told to expect “the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12.2). That renewal requires that we open our minds to some new thoughts.