Why does Jesus tell us to eat him?

Last week we explored how people reacted to Jesus’ revelation that he himself was and is the bread of life which comes down from heaven. How could this man they knew all about claim to come from heaven? It was a lot to take in.

In this week’s Gospel reading Jesus reveals the shocking point of this whole discourse: since he is the bread of life they need to eat him – eat his flesh. And if they do that they will live forever. Those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, he says, abide in him and he in them.

What does he mean and why does he put it like this?

Most Christian readers will assume that, whatever else Jesus means, he has the Eucharist in mind – the receiving of Holy Communion in bread and wine. Some commentators dispute this but it seems to me hard to avoid the idea that Jesus includes the sacrament in what he is talking about.

However, abiding in Christ involves more than receiving Holy Communion. St Augustine puts it rather brutally:

This is eating that food and drinking that drink: abiding in Christ and having him abide in oneself. And thus if someone does not abide in him, there can be no doubt that he does not eat his flesh or drink his blood, but rather he is eating and drinking the sacrament to his condemnation.

Homily 26 on John’s Gospel

Jesus expounds what he means by abiding in Chapter 15 of the Gospel, and John goes on to explore it further in his first letter. Some of the key ingredients appear to be: prayer, immersion in the word of God, loyalty to the truth revealed in Christ, holiness of life, love for fellow believers… Some modern translations routinely translate the word abide as “live”. This conveys the central idea that abiding is about the whole of life. It is a life of communion with God in its widest sense.  

What can we learn from Jesus’ use of the metaphor of eating as a way of explaining what he says about abiding?

Here are some suggestions.

Eating is essential, not an occasional amusement or a private hobby. We all need to eat to stay alive. Particularly was this true of bread in the culture of Jesus’ time. It is still true in many parts of the world to this day. Life in the old Soviet Union was beset by many and frequent shortages. Unless you had access to the special shops for the elite you could never count on finding even the most basic things to buy. Except for bread. Russian black rye bread was always available. If it stopped being available, then people knew they were in deep trouble. Knowing Jesus is not the icing on the cake of life; it’s not even the cake; it’s much more basic: it’s bread.

Eating is something we ordinarily do every day and several times a day. And the process starts all over again tomorrow. We never get to the end of it. Bishop Westcott comments that the tense of the verb

…marks an action which must be continuous and not completed once for all .

Commentary on the Gospel of St John page 107

Jesus is not an item on a tasting menu – a morsel to be savoured briefly before you move swiftly on to the next thing. He is our daily bread.

Eating is both personal and communal. It involves each of us personally. Nobody can eat for you. But it is natural to want to eat with other people. Eating together celebrates and cements relationship. Knowing Jesus is personal and individual but it crucially involves interaction with others who want to know him too.

Eating is (normally meant to be) enjoyable. It is one of the great pleasures of life.  The word John uses for eating in this chapter occurs only once in any other New Testament writer:

… in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…

Matthew 24.38

Westcott again:

The verb used here expresses not only the simple fact of eating but the process as that which is dwelt upon with pleasure.

Jesus is not imposing on us a dreary, joyless duty. Rather, he invites us to a really good meal: not the feeble imitation of bread which is too often sold in our supermarkets, but a crusty, flavoursome sourdough.

Eating presupposes an act of total self-giving. What we eat was once alive and is now dead. This is true at a trivial level of the carrots which, in the immortal words of a character in the film Notting Hill, “have been murdered”. It is much more significantly true of the leg of lamb or the steak we might enjoy. It is supremely true of Jesus himself, whose talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood implies his own violent death. Eating requires a sacrifice. When we feed on Christ we are reaping the benefits of his sacrificial death. He offers himself to us without reserve or limit.

Finally, eating reminds us that we are what we eat. What we eat shapes what we become. Feeding on Christ we become – little by little – more like him:

… conformed to the image of [God’s] Son.

Romans 8.27

Eating flesh and drinking blood: it’s not a nice idea. But, if we allow the metaphor to speak to us, it reveals  a lot about our communion with God.

My view of God or His?

In last week’s lectionary Gospel reading we saw Jesus taking people on a journey of discovery. He showed them two things. First, he showed them that the bread they were so interested in (having been miraculously fed by Jesus in the wilderness) was a foretaste of something much more important – a kind of nourishment which would fill them with the life of God’s coming Kingdom. And second, he told them that this gift he was offering was nothing less than the gift of himself. He was and is the bread of God which comes down from heaven.

In this week’s passage we meet their response. They are shocked, incredulous, and frankly cheesed off. He appears to be talking nonsense. They grumble.

You can see their point. We know this man: we know who his parents are, we know where he comes from, we know him. How can he say that he has come down from heaven? In other words, how can God have a name, an address and a human history that we all know? They have their idea of God and Jesus doesn’t fit.

“My idea of God” or “my view of God” or “my kind of God” is an expression I come across quite frequently, not least in church circles. We like to make God comprehensible and acceptable to us. We want him to conform to our way of thinking and our way of doing things. When the scriptures present us with something we don’t understand or don’t like we reckon it our right to reject what they tell us in favour of something more palatable.

It’s understandable but not very logical or sensible. A moment’s thought will tell us that reality is what it is and not what we’d like it to be. Some things that physics tell us about the natural world are very hard to get one’s head round. If that is true of the world we can see, how much more is it likely to be true of God whom we can’t see?

Jesus tells them to stop grumbling. He explains that the only way they can come to him in faith is if God the Father does something in them to enable them to believe:

No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.

John 6.44

A person can only be known if they choose to reveal themselves. Some people don’t give much away – they’re hard to get to know. We sometimes speak of such people as a “closed book”. Others are “open books”; they hold little back, making themselves easy to know. Only God can reveal who God is:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 1.18

We are entirely dependent on God for knowledge of God. He comes to us and makes himself known. The pattern is evident in the New Testament. By the sea of Galilee Jesus comes to some fishermen and calls them to follow him. On the road to Damascus Jesus grabs hold of Saul and changes him from being the fiercest enemy of the gospel to its most devoted servant. At Caesarea Philippi Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, only to be told that this revelation came not from his own good sense or depth of insight but from God the Father himself.

The same pattern still holds. We talk of humanity’s search for God, but the real story is God’s search for us. One of the best-known examples is C. S. Lewis, who – far from searching for God – describes himself as:

… brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting [my] eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Chapter 14

More recently writer Paul Kingsnorth tells a similar story

Perhaps our own experience is less dramatic and feels more like our own self-motivated search. In one sense this is quite natural. What God does to reveal himself he does in us and not merely to us.

One of the tests of the reality of our knowledge of God is that it involves repentance. We find our mind being changed (that’s what the word means) about who God is and what he is like, increasingly conformed to the portrait painted by the scriptures and less dependent on “my view of God”.  Only so can we know Jesus as the bread of life which comes down from heaven.

The Gift or the Giver?

Being retired and therefore no longer required to produce a new sermon every week I thought I would try sharing some thoughts on the Gospel passage set for the coming Sunday, in the hope they might prove useful to hard-pressed preachers, Bible Study leaders or just anybody who wants to reflect on the lectionary readings.

So here is a thought taken from the Gospel for Sunday 1st August (Trinity 9): John 6.24-35.

Jesus has fed the five thousand and then disappeared up a mountain to escape from the crowds who would otherwise have attempted to make him king by force. Eventually the crowds catch up with him. He rebukes them for failing to understand that the miracle of the loaves and fish was meant to be a sign and not just a free lunch. It was supposed to make them ask questions about who this could possibly be who turns one boy’s picnic into a feast for a multitude.

Incredibly, they respond to Jesus’ rebuke by asking for… a sign!  They have comprehensively missed the point. If it weren’t rather sad, this would actually be funny.

They go on to talk about Moses and the gift of manna in the wilderness. Maybe they’re hinting that Jesus’ provision of just one meal is not that impressive compared to Moses providing food every day for forty years.

But Jesus takes their reference to Moses and turns it inside out:

It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.

John 6.32

In this one sentence he does three things. He shifts their focus from Moses to God, from the past to the present, and from mere bread to “the true bread”:

… the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

They like that idea – maybe it sounds to them as if Jesus is offering to do again what Moses did. So they respond:

Sir, give us this bread always.

Again, they’ve missed the point. He is not talking about mere physical food but something much bigger, more significant, more profoundly satisfying:

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’.

He is talking about himself.

It’s not only his first hearers who misunderstood Jesus. At this point it’s easy for us to misunderstand him too. Here is James Hudson Taylor, the great pioneer missionary to inland China, commenting on this passage:

Do not change the Saviour’s words… It is not “Whosoever has drunk”, but “Whosoever drinketh”. It is not of one isolated draught He speaks, or even of many, but of the continuous habit of the soul. Thus in John 6.35 the full meaning is, “He who is habitually coming to me shall by no means hunger, and he who is believing on me shall by no means thirst”. Where many of us err is in leaving our drinking in the past, while our thirst continues present. What we need is to be drinking – yes, thankful for the occasion which drives us to drink ever more deeply of the Living Water.

Dr & Mrs Howard Taylor, Biography of James Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor is drawing out the meaning of the Greek present continuous tense. This is not a one-off event: pray the sinner’s prayer and all your problems are sorted forever. No, this is an ongoing, growing, ever-deepening relationship and experience.

Our continual temptation is to want the gifts more than the giver. Jesus tells us that what we need is the giver, and the gifts will follow.

(If you think this post is helpful, please share it with anybody you think might be interested.)

Giles Fraser

Giles Fraser is an Anglican priest, a philosopher by training and a journalist who for a time wrote a column for The Guardian and now regularly contributes to Unherd.

Until the autumn of 2011 he was Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. Until, that is, the arrival of Occupy – some 3,000 people camped out on the steps of the Cathedral to protest against the way capitalism had developed, enriching the few and impoverishing many. The background was the financial collapse of 2007-2008 and the way governments responded by bailing out the banks even though the crisis was created by the banks in the first place.

The protest caused problems for the Cathedral – concerns over health and safety, disruption of worship and disruption of tourism leading to loss of income. Eventually the Chapter (the small group of clergy in charge of the Cathedral) voted by a small margin to have the protesters evicted. Fraser voted against, and then wrote to the Dean giving notice of his intention to resign. He had wanted a theological response from the Cathedral – some serious engagement with the issues raised by the protest and some acknowledgement that the Bible (and Jesus in particular) have a lot to say about the right use of money and issues of economic justice. The prospect of an eviction possibly leading to violence in the name of the church was more than he could stomach.

Fraser’s decision to resign from the Cathedral Chapter precipitated his own crisis, a tumultuous upheaval at once personal, relational and theological. He tells his story in Chosen: Lost and Found between Christianity and Judaism.

He needed a job. Various possibilities were suggested to him, including becoming Dean of Liverpool Cathedral. It wasn’t a post he wanted (he didn’t get it) but he went for the interview anyway.

Arriving early in Liverpool he decided on the spur of the moment to visit the synagogue in the city which had been run by his great-grandfather’s brother Samuel for over thirty years. Entering the building he found himself confronted by a portrait of Samuel, which, for reasons he couldn’t explain at the time, reduced him to floods of tears. He was suddenly caught between his identity as a Christian priest and his Jewish heritage, stung by a sense that – having just left a prestigious position in the Church of England – he didn’t quite fit in either camp. And were they – are they – two camps anyway? The heart of the book is a personal and theological exploration of the relations between the two faiths, how they came to diverge and how he has worked out a way of living with a foot in both camps.

Along the way he also gives a fascinating inside story of how he came to resign from the Cathedral, touches on his decision to go into therapy and the eventual collapse of his first marriage, and tells something of the story of his subsequent marriage to an Israeli citizen. The book ends with Fraser baptizing his new son in the river Jordan.

Fraser writes very engagingly, with wit, candour, humility and without rancour towards those he disagrees with. The book is a rich blend of personal testimony with philosophical and theological reflection. (He cites Augustine’s Confessions as his inspiration.) My only criticism is there is too much detail – for my taste – about his family history on his Jewish father’s side.

Although Fraser had given his notice to the Dean he was working out his notice and therefore still a Canon of the Cathedral. And he was listed to preach at evensong the following Sunday. Somebody advised him to preach on the Bible readings set for the day. The assumption apparently was that this would be a harmless thing to do with little likelihood of finding any immediate relevance – let alone anything controversial or upsetting – in the Bible. The assumption was wrong. The Gospel text from Luke 6 included these words from Jesus:

Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation.

Luke 6

Fraser comments:

It was almost absurdly apposite and, given the circumstances, there was absolutely no way such a passage could be ignored.

Giles Fraser, Chosen page 44

He made sure not to preach in a triumphalist, self-righteous See-how-Jesus-agrees-with-me kind of way:

There is sometimes an easy piety in protest that can make people close down to their self-critical vigilance, and I wanted to challenge that, both in myself and in others. ‘We all own shares in the way of the world,’ I said. And we were all up to our necks in this economic system – mostly all beneficiaries, mostly all complicit.

Chosen, page 46

Sometimes, despite any assumptions to the contrary, the Word of God speaks very sharp challenges to our lives. Let the writer to the Hebrews have the last word:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Hebrews 4.12-13

Clockwork Humans?

Most of us get up in the morning believing we have the power to make choices: what shall I wear? what shall I eat for breakfast? shall I decide not to eat breakfast? what’s on my schedule today and what space does my schedule give me for choice? what shall I give my mind to as I walk the dog or travel to work? what plans shall we make for holidays this year… For most of us, this is a no-brainer. We assume without question that we are free agents. Yes, there are constraints on all our lives but there is still plenty of room for decisions unconstrained by anything except personal choice…

Except that apparently an increasing number of philosophers and scientists disagree. They believe that free will is an illusion. For example, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne asserts that:

… free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.

The Guardian article on which this post is based explains the logic of the argument. Whatever happens in the world is caused by things that happened before. And so on backwards in time. It’s cause after cause after cause after cause… This is relatively easy to understand in terms of the world of rocks and rivers and internal combustion engines. But surely the same is true for our decisions and intentions as well:

Our decisions involve neural activity – and why would a neuron be exempt from the laws of physics any more than a rock?

This is not a new idea. In 1814 the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace proposed a thought experiment: suppose some supreme intelligence could know the position of every atom in the universe at a given moment and all the laws that governed their interactions, then he/she/it would be able to predict the future – all of it, forever, every smallest detail, down to “the slightest quiver of a sparrow’s wing” a hundred or a thousand years from now.

C. S. Lewis called this “Naturalism”:

the doctrine that only Nature – the whole interlocked system – exists.

C. S, Lewis, Miracles Chapter 3

Lewis pointed out that:

If Naturalism is true, every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System.

Lewis went on to argue that in order to make sense of our experience we are compelled to posit another realm above and beyond Nature (which he called Supernature) which is not subject to the laws of physics. There must be something in the make-up of humans which rescues their reasoning processes from being entirely determined by the laws of physics – and therefore not rational at all.

If we don’t do that, then we’re stuck with our neurons being subject to the laws of physics just as much as the flow of a river. And then where are we? What happens to our ability to reason, to arrive at truth? It goes out of the window. We are clockwork humans in an enormous clockwork universe, living out our meaningless, predetermined lives, all the while deluded that we are making free choices.

One way of stating the issue is to say that the mind is more than just the brain. The brain works according to the laws of Nature. The mind is dependent on the brain and will be affected by the condition of the brain but is not reducible to the brain. Scientists and philosophers have been working hard to deny this distinction for a long time, but it seems that more and more are now facing up to the logic of their position. If the brain is all we have, then free will is an illusion. Our brains just go with the endless flow of cause and effect.

If free will is an illusion, then people can’t help what they do, praise and blame are irrelevant, rewards and punishment are no longer justifiable, love, friendship and romance lose most of their appeal, we can forget about morality…

Strawson is one of several scholars now receiving messages of distress, complaint and sometimes violent abuse for destroying people’s belief in freedom of choice. For instance:

I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did… Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.

Strawson responds:

I think for these people it’s just an existential catastrophe… And I think I can see why.

You think?! The armchair academic philosopher coolly preaches catastrophe but fails to consider that some people might actually believe him. Samuel Smilansky, professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel, believes that free will is unreal but this is so frightening that people must go on believing otherwise. In other words, the élite is allowed to know the truth but don’t let it percolate down to the masses.

That free will is an illusion is deeply counter-intuitive. It is almost impossible to believe. If you really believed it you would surely curl up and die, or at least follow the advice of the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul:

Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die

Isaiah 22.13, and 1 Corinthians 15.32

Strawson’s comments quoted above indicate that he doesn’t really believe what he teaches. Smilansky admits as much:

I don’t think I’ve fully internalised the implications myself, even after all these years.

Who would you rather believe? Laplace, Coyne, Smilansky and Strawson, or the author of Genesis, who tells us that:

The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

Genesis 2.7

In other words, we are connected to the physical world which is subject to the laws of physics and chemistry but we also have within us a spark of the divine:

the true light, which enlightens everyone

John 1.9

Logic and intuition, sanity and humanity, combine to make this the only rational conclusion.

Lost and found: a testimony for Trinity Sunday

You can’t understand the Trinity, but you can experience God as Trinity. That is the work of the Spirit, and He is the focus of today’s Gospel: the account of Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in John 3.

The Spirit is the executive arm of God. Where the rubber hits the road. God works in his world and in us by his Spirit. Jesus is present with us by his Spirit. Jesus lives in us by his Spirit. We know God as Father by the Spirit. We know the love of God in our hearts by his Spirit. We are equipped to serve God by his Spirit. The Spirit enables us to pray. Like Winnie the Pooh’s jar of honey, it’s the Spirit all the way, from the top of the jar all the way down to the bottom.

In particular, the Christian life begins with the Spirit. Hence what Jesus says about being born again/from above. We need a new beginning.

He explains it like this: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”.

Flesh does not mean skin and bones. It means what we as humans can do in our own unaided strength. God is Spirit and ever since the Garden of Eden we’ve been estranged from him. We are flesh and not spirit. If our relationship is to be restored, the initiative must come from him: we are powerless to achieve it in our own strength. The Spirit must come to us and do something new and fresh in us which ignites a spark and brings us into a living relationship with God. Until that happens we’re not able even to see, let alone enter, the Kingdom of God. Until the Spirit comes we are wandering in the dark.

To illustrate, here is the story of writer Paul Kingsnorth. As a teenager he became an atheist who loved nature. Nature became his God. In adult life he became an environmental activist…

… Working for NGOs, writing for magazines, chaining myself to things, marching, occupying: Whatever you did, you had to do something, for the state of the Earth was dire.

Activism is a staging post on the road to realization. Dig in for long enough and you see that something like climate change or mass extinction is not a “problem” to be “solved” through politics or technology or science, but the manifestation of a deep spiritual malaise. Even an atheist could see that our attempts to play God would end in disaster. Wasn’t that a warning that echoed through the myths and stories of every culture on Earth?

I went searching for the truth.  And so, I looked east. On my fortieth birthday I treated myself to a weeklong Zen retreat in the Welsh mountains.

As the years went on, Zen was not enough. It was full of compassion, but it lacked love. It lacked something else too: I wanted to worship.

I joined my local Wiccan coven… My coven used to do its rituals in the woods under the full moon. It was fun, and it made things happen. I discovered that magic is real. It works. Who it works for is another question. At last I was home, where I belonged: in the woods, worshipping a nature goddess under the stars. I even got to wear a cloak… Until I started having dreams.

Then, one night, I dreamed of ­Jesus. The dream was vivid, and when I woke up I wrote down what I had heard him say, and I drew what he had looked like. The crux of the matter was that he was to be the next step on my spiritual path…

My wife and I were out to dinner, celebrating our wedding anniversary, when suddenly she said to me, “You’re going to become a Christian.” When I asked her what on earth she was talking about, she said she didn’t know; she had just had a feeling and needed to tell me…

Suddenly, I started meeting Christians everywhere: strangers emailing me out of the blue, priests coming to me for help with their writing. I found myself having conversations with friends I’d never known were Christian, who suddenly seemed to want to talk about it.

One evening, I was sitting in the kitchen of the house in which our coven had its temple. We were about to go in and conduct an important ritual. As we got up to leave, I felt violently ill. I was dizzy, I was sick, I was lightheaded. Everyone noticed and fussed over me as I sat down, my face pale. I had an overpowering feeling that I should not go into the temple. I felt I was being physically prevented from doing it.

After that, there was no escape. Like C. S. Lewis, I could not ignore “the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”

I was at a concert at my son’s music school. We were in a hotel function room, full of children ready to play their instruments and proud parents ready to film them doing it. I was just walking to my chair when I was overcome with a huge and inexplicable love, a great wave of empathy, for everyone and everything. It kept coming and coming until I had to stagger out of the room and sit down in the corridor outside. Everything was unchanged, and everything was new, and I knew what had happened and who had done it, and I knew that it was too late. I had just become a Christian.

He was baptized in January this year in the freezing waters of an Irish river.

The flesh gets you nowhere. Only the Spirit of God brings us to God.  

Gender Agenda – a perspective for Pentecost

We live in a time of sometimes bewildering cultural change, old norms being taken apart and discarded before our eyes. The writer Paul Kingsnorth puts it like this:

If you’re broadly socially conservative – which in practice means that you hold views which were entirely mainstream until about about five years ago – the questions are currently coming at you in a rolling barrage. Why should a man not marry a man? Why should a man not become a woman? Why should a child not have three fathers, or be born from a female womb transplanted into a man’s body?

https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/the-dream-of-the-rood?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=cta [emphasis added]

Who will guide us through these times, bringing together sound information, wisdom from above and the compassion of Christ? The best answer I’ve found so far – at least to some of the questions posed by Paul Kingsnorth – comes in a book entitled Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church & What the Bible has to say by American biblical scholar and best-selling author Preston Sprinkle.

Sprinkle writes from an American perspective but he knows the British scene too: he has a PhD in New Testament from Aberdeen University and taught for a time at Nottingham University.

He provides a well-researched and thought-through guide to many of the issues raised by trans people:

He knows – indeed counts as personal friends – many trans people, including trans people who are passionate followers of Jesus of Nazareth. And he tells their stories. One of his favourite sayings is: If you’ve met one trans person… you’ve met one trans person. It is a radical mistake to lump all trans people together as if their experience were in any way uniform.

He knows what gender dysphoria can feel like. (Gender dysphoria is a psychological term for the distress some people feel when their internal sense of self doesn’t match their biological sex.) He explains that for some trans people even being referred to with the “wrong” pronoun can immediately precipitate great psychological distress. I had no idea of this and, in my ignorance, had assumed that insistence by a biological male on being referred to as “she” or “they” was merely being difficult, thumbing your nose at traditional authority. For some, that might be the case. But clearly not all.

He has worked through a large body of medical/scientific literature on trans issues and evaluates it all from a philosophical and theological standpoint. He has two chapters dealing with the issues of “male brain in a female body” and “female soul in a male body”. These alone would make the book worth reading.

He has a whole chapter on “Intersex”. This is a word I hadn’t heard of until a couple of years ago and assumed that it meant people who are neither male nor female. Put that idea alongside the (apparently often-quoted) statistic that 1.7% of people are intersex – roughly the same number of people with red hair – and it would be easy to conclude that the world is full of people who are neither male nor female. In fact, more than sixteen different conditions are classified as “intersex”, and some people go through their entire lives without realising that (technically and medically) they are “intersex”. By some estimates as many as 99% of people with an intersex condition are unambiguously male or female. All this is invaluable information.

The final four chapters of the book shift from theory to practice. He explores:

  1. Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria: the term coined by an American academic for the sudden rise of dysphoria (some call it an “outbreak”) among teenagers. He is very concerned by the “medicalisation” of young people wrestling with gender identity.
  2. Transitioning and Christian Discipleship
  3. Pronouns, Bathrooms (“toilets” to British readers) and Sleeping Places
  4. Outrageous Love:

Our cultural moment is one of outrage and uncertainty… But outrage doesn’t change the world. Love changes the world.

Embodied page 221

Sprinkle believes – and explains in detail why he believes – that:

… one long-term goal of discipleship is for all believers to identify with their biological sex.

Embodied page 195

I agree. The task of the church is to pursue that goal with grace and truth. I think he does an exceptionally good job of doing just that. For all who share those foundational gospel values, the book is a great worked example of how grace and truth might be embodied by the church as it encounters trans people and seeks to love them.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, celebrating what is sometimes called the birthday of the church. What kind of church do we want? Better, what kind of church does God want?

Sprinkle tells the story of Lesli, to whom the book is dedicated. As a child and adolescent Lesli wrestled with their (note the pronoun) gender identity. Desperate, they went to their pastor for help. He responded by sending them out of the back door of his office and telling them never to come back. Lesli found love and acceptance among LGBTQ people. In due course they fell in love with a woman named Sue and got married. And then Sue died from burns sustained in a fire where they lived. Desperate again, Lesli looked for a church which would take Sue’s funeral. They phoned the only church they knew, which happened to be one of the most conservative in the area. The pastor picked up the phone and heard this:

Hi, my name is Lesli, and my wife just died. We’re lesbians, but, um… I want to know if you would do my wife’s funeral…

Embodied page 26

If you’re a pastor/priest/church leader, how would you respond to that question?

This pastor said: “We would be honoured to”. He went on to express compassion for Lesli’s loss and offered to take care of the whole thing – the arrangements, the cost: anything they needed. This kindness brought Lesli back to faith in Christ.

I think that pastor represents the kind of church God wants.

Genesis revisited

In the long-running debate between science and (Christian) faith, the standard view of those who want to preserve the truth of faith is that science answers the “how” questions and faith answers the “why” questions. According to that way of thinking, it’s no good expecting science to answer questions about meaning and purpose, nor is it right to expect the Bible to answer scientific questions about the way the world works or how it came to be. In his book Through a Glass Darkly Alister McGrath uses the metaphor of maps: just as maps come in many varieties (political, historical, meteorological, geological etc) to answer different kinds of questions, so religion and science offer different but complementary maps of reality. You can keep science and faith in separate sealed compartments. Case closed, problem solved.

But maybe not so fast. In his book Seven Days That Divide The World, John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, argues that Genesis does in fact “address questions that have cosmological content”. Most obviously, Genesis tells us that the universe had a beginning, an idea which science only caught up with as recently as the 1960s. Before that the ruling scientific paradigm had been that the universe was eternal.

Lennox goes further. He argues from both Genesis 1 and biology that the universe came to its present state by means of “discrete acts of creation”, which equate to the six days of creation in Genesis. In support of this he refers to a book by Andrew Parker, Research Director at the Natural History Museum in London and an evolutionary biologist who does not profess to believe in God. Challenged to consider the Genesis account of creation, he was surprised by what he discovered:

Without expecting to find anything, I discovered a whole series of parallels between the creation story on the Bible’s first page and the modern, scientific account of life’s history. This at least made me think. The congruence was almost exact… I must admit, rather nervously as a scientist averse to entertaining such an idea, that the evidence that the writer of the opening page of the Bible was divinely inspired is strong. I have never before encountered such powerful impartial evidence that the Bible is the product of divine inspiration.

quoted in Seven days that divide the world pp143f

Lennox quotes a number of world-class physicists who have come to the conclusion that the only way to make sense of the scientific evidence is to postulate – in the words of Yale physicist Henry Margenau:

… creation by an omnipotent, omniscient God.

Henry Margenau & Roy Abraham Varghese [ed.], Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo Sapiens

In other words, they’re saying there is a close match between the picture of the universe’s beginnings painted by Genesis and the one currently favoured by scientists. For example, Arno Penzias won the Nobel Prize for Physics for discovering the cosmic microwave background which confirmed that the universe had a beginning. He wrote:

The best data we have … are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms and the Bible as a whole.

Quoted in Seven Days That Divide The World p154

This is familiar ground. Physicists becoming convinced of the truth of Christianity is not new. Already in the 1940s C. S. Lewis had senior tempter Screwtape lamenting to apprentice tempter Wormwood that:

There have been sad cases among the modern physicists.

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 1

What really surprised me about Lennox’s book is the number of biologists who are raising questions about the explanatory power of natural selection. They may not yet be turning to Christianity quite as readily as the physicists, but, according to cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor:

… an appreciable number of perfectly reasonable biologists are coming to think that the theory of natural selection can no longer be taken for granted.

Seven Days That Divide The World p180

Another biologist argues that:

… the selectionist paradigm is a conceptual dead end for understanding innovation since it mistakenly views natural selection as a creative force in evolution.

Seven Days That Divide The World p181

Lennox packs a lot – very readably – into this small book. Prominent Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga says the book:

… is as good as it gets in the religion and science area.

There is much to learn from this wide-ranging discussion of the issues, including his deconstruction of the cosy idea that religion and science can safely be kept apart on the grounds that they deal with different ways of exploring reality. That is no longer as clear as it once appeared. Genesis may be making a comeback.

Grace and Truth #2

In a previous post I wrote about the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ – summed up in two words from John’s Gospel: grace and truth. I concluded by saying:

The God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t stand at a distance and condemn; he comes close and restores – if we let him.

Grace and truth tell us not just about the character of God, but also about the nature of discipleship.

In the Western church we have latched on to grace with enthusiasm but have not always taken truth with equal seriousness. We like to say that “God accepts us as we are” but often fail to go on to what follows, which is that he has no intention of leaving us the way he found us. He seeks change – transformation, in fact, into the likeness of Christ himself. Love seeks the good of the beloved, and God knows what is good for us much better than we do.

Luke’s Gospel tells the story of a rich man named Zacchaeus who was the chief tax-collector of Jericho. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as he passed through the town, but – being short – he could only do that by climbing up a tree to see over the heads of the crowd. No doubt he expected to be invisible. He would not have been popular: an extortionist and a collaborator with the hated Romans. Not a good combination.

Jesus doesn’t allow Zacchaeus to remain invisible. He looks up at him in his tree, calls him by name (we’re not told how Jesus knows his name) and invites himself to stay at Zacchaeus’ house – now. Jesus singles out the least popular member of the community for special attention and publicly signals his worth by accepting his hospitality. This is a shocking way to behave – shocking for Zacchaeus and scandalous for the community:

All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’

Luke 19.7

This is grace: radical, nearly always surprising and sometimes deeply shocking.

We’re not told what Jesus said to Zacchaeus in private, but the result is a revolution – a revolution in the tax-collector’s life and (as one commentator points out) something of an economic revolution for the town:

‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’

Luke 19.8

Somehow in his conversation with Jesus, Zacchaeus has encountered truth, the truth of what he has done wrong in his life, the truth of what needs to be done to put things right, the truth of what repentance means. Earlier in this Gospel, John the Baptist was asked the meaning of repentance. He replied:

‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

Luke 3.11

… In other words, give half of what you own to the poor, which is exactly what Zacchaeus says he will do. But he goes further and promises to make restitution for his past wrongs. Zacchaeus’ repentance goes deep. 

In this Gospel story we see that grace prepares the way for truth and truth builds on the foundation of grace.

The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer castigated what he called “cheap grace“:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ…

dietrich bonhoeffer, discipleship

I wonder if he might also have added that cheap grace is grace without truth.