Archive for category Theology
So I’ve been re-reading Matthew’s gospel recently, and was blown away by what I noticed this last time.
You know the story Jesus told about the sower of the seed – how some fell on the path and was chomped by the birds, and some fell on the rocky soil and sprouted quick but then died just as quick when it got too hot, and some fell amongst the thorns and was throttled before it could bear fruit. And some fell on good soil and produced a harvest; 30, 60, 100-fold.
In that story the soil is our hearts, and the seed is the Word of God. Pretty straight-forward.
After explaining the story, though, he goes on to tell another – and this one is about how a farmer sows wheat and his enemy sows weeds amongst the wheat. The farm workers offer to pull out the weeds, and the farmer says, “No, if you do you’ll damage the wheat. Wait till the harvest, and then we’ll burn the weeds and harvest the grain at the same time.” Which is a good word to those of us who want to do God’s work of judgement right now – we usually do more harm than good when we try to separate wheat from weeds.
But what really struck me about this is that in this second story Jesus says that the seed he sows is “the children of the Kingdom.” That’s you and me, sisters and brothers. Jesus sows us into the world to grow and bear fruit.
I’m used to thinking of the seed that is sown as being the Word of God. That picture of Jesus casting grain all over and letting it fall where it will, knowing that though some won’t grow, some will fall on good soil and bear fruit. As a teacher of the word of God, that was an image that resonated well with me. I like to think I’m following in my master’s footsteps and scattering seeds of the kingdom that may or may not grow and bear fruit.
But the image of seed in the second story is so different. In the second story I’m not just scattering words around me carelessly, I am the word that is sown. It’s my job to grow in whatever soil I’m planted and to bear fruit – despite the weeds that might be growing alongside. And that gives me pause for thought. If I’m the word of God to the world, what does that look like? In the first picture, the word is something different to me – it’s something I spread or deliver. It’s the difference between the message and the messenger, the postie and the letter. I don’t usually judge my mail by what my local mail carrier looks like, and yet that’s the situation we have here. The one who carries the message is the message. In some ways I don’t like this. I like to be a bit detached. I like to think I can say one thing and do another. But it looks like God isn’t keen on that. He might even call it something like hypocrisy.
The apostle Paul was onto it; he wrote to the church of Corinth “…you are a letter from Christ…” (2 Cor. 3:3). It’s not just what we say or the message we deliver that matters; it’s us. How we live. How we let the gospel shape our lives into paths of compassion, healing, mercy, and righteousness. How we let the Spirit mold us to be like Jesus. In all our relationships, that should be the most obvious thing about us; that we are being remade in His image. Is that true for me?
It was true for Jesus. While he talked about sowing ‘the word of the Kingdom’ in that first story of the wheat-seed, his dear friend John later wrote, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”
That’s the path we are on. We aren’t allowed to just say words and let them fall where they will. We are to be that Word in the flesh. To fall into soil of all sorts, and to bear whatever fruit we can where we are planted. Not just saying the word but being the Word of God for those who would otherwise know only the rocks and the weeds.
I’ve started writing again. Not just here (after a four-year hiatus!) but also I’ve picked up a little fantasy story I wrote some years ago, reread it, and loved it so much I decided to expand it. I want to know more about these people. More about how their relationships developed and the world in which they live. I want to know what happens next!
This has been a great start to 2019. Last year wasn’t actually that great. It certainly had some highlights (mostly family events) but it also had some of the severest challenges I’ve ever faced. But today… well, my kids noticed the difference. Their grumpy and mostly morose dad was outgoing again. I enjoyed myself at a party with friends. When it was time to sit down and write again, I actually had to stand up first and jump up and down with excitement. Literally. Jump. Up. And. Down. Repeatedly.
I’m teasing myself right now, by writing this before I return to my unfolding cast of characters. Oh, the anticipation! Not only do I get to find out more about them, not only do I get to see them responding to new challenges and situations, not only do I see them grow and change and develop in all sorts of ways, but I get to make it all happen!!!!
Besides being an occasional writer, I’m a bit of a computer game player. I like games with a ‘world creation’ aspect to them, or a strong element of story-telling. I can spend hours playing in Minecraft, or journeying in Skyrim. But you know what? I get all those thrills and more when I tell the story myself. When I build the story out of my very own words.
JRR Tolkien has always fascinated me, because of his talent for world creation, but it wasn’t until a little over a decade ago, when I wrote my masters thesis on his theological thought, that I was able to listen to what he had to say about the business of fantasy writing. He believed firmly that the writing of fantasy stories was a deeply Godly endeavor and that it provided for the human soul in several different ways; read his essay “On Fairy Stories” for all the detail. But one point I want to make here; he believed that we are creators of alternate worlds because we are made in the image of the maker. We can’t help but want to create worlds since the world-creator made us to be like Himself – and in fact calls us to join with him in the business of creating, sustaining, and redeeming the world in every possible way.
And you know what? Picking up a pen (or opening a word-processor document) might just be one way of doing that.
Good news for the creative soul!
This is from my weekly church newsletter, sent yesterday…
Tomorrow is ANZAC day, and we remember those who have served our nation in the armed services. Regardless of what we think about war and peace, and whether it is ever ok for Christians to take up arms, I believe it is right to respect those who, in good conscience, put their lives on the line for the sake of their nation. Having said that, I also know that most young people who enter the armed services have far less altruistic motives in doing so, and the reality of life in the services is usually a long way from saintly. So let’s remember that there have been occasions in which our nations young people have found themselves called upon to make supreme sacrifices – and many of them have responded with what can only be described as heroism. And let’s also reflect upon what we actually mean by heroism…
I wrote here about how our normal human fascination with power for its own sake leads us to cast our heroes in the shape of Superman, who, for all his moral qualities, is ultimately described as ‘super’ simply because of his physical power. In other words, because he’s the biggest boy in the playground. If there is no God, or if the gods are those of the pagans, then that is not only normal, but right. Nietzsche’s logic on this point is fairly compelling – though it drove him to despair. BUT believing in the God of the scriptures is to encounter a God who moderated the law of the jungle – from “If you injure me, I will kill you!” (Lamech – Genesis 4:24) to “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth – and no more than that!” (Exodus 21:24) and then the radical teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-40, directly contradicting this older law with his command to “turn the other cheek.” And then there was Jesus’ own demonstration of this different way of living; living without retaliation. Though, as he said, he could have called down “twelve legions of angels” in his defence, he was more concerned that his followers should do no violence, telling Peter to “put up your sword – those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52-53) Jesus submitted to extraordinary indignities for the sake of God’s mission – our salvation. And his life was consistent with his own teaching; he breathed forgiveness for his enemies in his dying moments.
This is not the heroic superman of our culture. He does not overcome violence with more violence, but with self-sacrifice. He trusts God to hold him, even in death, and to bring goodness out of the cruelty and senselessness of the cross. How often are we willing to trust God for justice? How often are we prepared for him to offer mercy to those who harm us – or even to offer that mercy ourselves, in his name? How often are we willing to let go of revenge – even just the satisfaction of being proved right. Paul teaches us that “we proclaim Christ – and him crucified; a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23). So it is today, too. Jesus, and his apparent ‘failure’ as messiah doesn’t look attractive to a world that worships technology and wealth and health and power. But those who enjoy these things know also that none of these things satisfies. Many are actually willing, in their quiet moments, to consider the claims of the crucified to offer a better way. We can make him available to them, not by trying to be as powerful, and wealthy, and slick as the world around us, but by living fully in the Spirit of the Jesus we follow. We can make Jesus known to our friends and neighbours by following him more nearly, loving him more dearly, and seeing him more clearly, day by day. We can make Jesus known by knowing him better ourselves. That won’t happen if we attach ourselves to the blinding, soul-sapping idols of the world.
Tomorrow we remember those who have fallen for our sake. Many of them would say to us that the hero they most tried to be like was the one who laid down his life for his friends. Not necessarily the fastest marksman or the hardest fighter. Let us remember them with honour, and let us remember – and love – our Risen Lord with great glory.
Ok; this is a story that I wrote when I got bored with the sermon I was writing on 1 John 4:1-6. Behind John’s instructions to his little churches in Asia there was a major problem going on with the (pre-)gnostic teachers; their very ‘spiritual’ approach to knowledge, and the consequent detachment of ethics from Jesus. But just lecturing about all that seemed very dry, so I made the attempt to give those bones a little flesh. Given the conflation of two distinct (but all too often related!) forms of abuse in the story, several in the congregation found it a very uncomfortable reading. The question I asked at the end of the story was, “At what point did the pastor clearly leave the path?” What do you think?
Ali is feeling good, and tomorrow is going to be even better. She’s moved towns, successfully, shifted into the little sleep-out behind her elderly aunt’s house, started her new job, and got through orientation week without any very embarrassing mistakes, and she’s going to a new church tomorrow.
Sarah, the girl at work who’s been training her, had invited her to come and Ali had leapt at the opportunity; so much better than turning up alone!
Ali is feeling good because she hadn’t been sure she could do it; all her life she’s been plagued by uncertainty; unsure about her own abilities and unable to completely trust people around her.
Perhaps it’s because her dad left when she was little, or maybe it’s just her personality, but trusting other people doesn’t come easily. Nor does Ali trust herself so much. Despite what everyone tells her, she still blames herself for everything; for her parents break-up, for her older brother’s bad behaviour, for her mother’s anxiety and stress…
There’s one person, however, she does trust, and that is Jesus.
Since she encountered him a few years ago, since he’d made himself present to her during that amazing midnight conversation with her best friend, she’s known at the very centre of her being that she is loved, and that she can absolutely trust Christ to stay with her always. She has learned to pause, to step back from whatever uncertainty she’s facing, to slip within herself and to reach out to him, and simply discovering, again and again, that he is always there for her, that his love is unchanged, that he is still who he claims to be, has helped her to overcome her fears.
She had found herself more able to concentrate on schoolwork; had done well enough to get good marks, and go on the training course, and now, here she is, a new graduate in a new job, in a new town, making new friends.
And all because Jesus loves her.
Ali is feeling good.
And tomorrow, she will find out about this new church.
Now it’s tomorrow, and Ali is facing an enormous table, loaded with food; on her left, Mrs Rhees, (“Call me Esme, dear, there’s a love.”) is piling potatoes and corned beef onto her plate, and to her right, Mr Rhees, (“We just call him ‘The Major’, mostly”), is telling her about his years in the territorials, and promising that later, she should see his collection of old medals. Opposite her is their middle-age daughter, Rosie, and her husband, Paul, nodding and smiling as they hear again the stories that are part of the family furniture. And at the end of the table, Pastor Austeer is spooning white sauce onto his mounded plate.
Ali thought he looked especially hungry; not surprising after all the energy he had put into his preaching that morning. She’s not used to sermons that go for more than fifteen minutes, and this one had taken almost an hour – but she’d barely noticed the time flying past, he was so animated and engaging, and, although she couldn’t remember much of what he’d said, she remembered that it had been very interesting. Not surprising that he is staring at his pile of pink beef almost as though he’s about to dive into it teeth first.
His gaze suddenly lifts from his plate to her face, and she feels slightly scorched by the intensity of his stare, before he flicks his eyes away, and, taking Esme’s hand from beside him, and her daughter’s with his other hand, leads them in a prayer of thanksgiving – shorter than the sermon, thankfully – and they begin eating.
Conversation is general at first – they chat about Rosie and Paul’s children, and about a new business opening up in town, and about Ali’s home and family (“So few couples seem to hold together these days”, sniff Esme. “I’d never know what to do if The Major, here, left me.” “Leave you!” he replies. “And have to eat my own cooking!? Not likely, love!”) and then about her new job.
“How are you finding the work, Ali?” asks the pastor. “Not too strenuous?”
“No, the work isn’t too hard at all – yet, anyway. And Sarah’s a real help while I get used to everything.”
“Yes, lovely girl, isn’t she?” says Esme. “Such a pity she had to rush away afterwards and couldn’t join us. You know her mother once helped me with that Drama we did…” and the conversation moves on to the drama society politics, and then on to local body politics, and then turns to the sermon from that morning.
“I didn’t quite get it,” the Major is saying. “What was that you were saying about the Spirit?”
“What God teaches,” replies the pastor, “Is that we all have the Spirit, and the Spirit gives us all truth, and so we all have all truth.”
“I find that hard to get my head around,” comes the objection. “If we have all truth, why are so many Christians so blinkin’ wrong!”
“Clearly,” comes the cool, quick answer, “not all who claim to be Christian actually are.”
Across the table Ali notices Paul fidget uncomfortably for a second, and then go still again.
The pastor continues, “and though we can quickly see that some are false Christians simply because they embrace error in their doctrine, others among us merely need to learn how to hear the Spirit’s voice.”
“So you say I’ve already got all truth, but maybe I’m not listening to it?”
“We all have all truth, but not all of us are able to hear every word of the Spirit. It takes … practice … to learn to recognise that still, small voice.”
“How?” Ali is surprised to hear her own voice enter the conversation. “I mean… sorry, I’m new. How do you practice?”
Pastor Austeer considers her for a second as he dabs sauce from his lips, and then says, “There are various spiritual exercises that help us to ‘tune in’. Would you be interested in learning?”
“Ooh. Say, ‘yes’, Ali, do!” says Esme. “Rosie and I did this course, and it’s really interesting!”
“What does it involve?”
“Mostly conversation, and some guided meditations,” said the pastor. “Don’t worry, nothing spooky. It’s just a useful way of getting rid of stuff from the past that might be blocking our spiritual ears. I have some space in my schedule at the moment. You’d want after hours time, right?”
“Well, yes, if it wouldn’t be a bother…”
“No bother at all. It’s what I’m here to do and I’m glad to do it. Would you like to meet on a Thursday?”
And just like that, Ali finds her life taking a new direction. Her home life is flat and uneventful, as she cooks and cares for herself in her little room, seeing her aunt only as often as she needs to pay her rent. Work was at first challenging and stimulating then became more predictable and even tedious as she quickly masters her tasks. Most of her workmates are older than her, other than Sarah, but Sarah, while friendly, is deep in preparations for her wedding, and lives for the weekends when her fiancé is in town. With no other friends, and certainly no romantic relationships, Ali finds an unending diet of wedding talk grating, and is glad, on Thursdays, to walk home in a different direction, and knock on the frosted glass door of the pastor’s study behind the church.
At their first meetings he’d greet her with a warm handshake, and then seat her on a couch, provide her with a coffee, and take up station behind his desk. Once there he talked at length about ‘doctrine’. He covered all sorts of topics; the responsibility of Christians to tithe and to give, the importance of strong fellowship and regular attendance at worship, the necessity of showing the world how pure their faith was, and the dangers of the world – how the world could distract and confuse young believers, and how the world must be rejected like a rotten apple; good for nothing but compost.
Ali asked an occasional question, or sometimes he asked her something, but mostly she simply let his words wash over and around her, like she was a rock in a stream of words. It was sort of restful and a little bit flattering that he should give her so much individual attention. He talked a lot about obeying the Spirit; he talked of how Saul had been so drenched in the Spirit that he had lain naked and prophesied before Samuel, but also how Saul had disobeyed Samuel, and been rejected by God. He mentioned others, too: Tamar who was moved by the Spirit to dress like a prostitute and so gave Judah the children from whom Jesus was descended, Ruth, who obeyed Naomi and uncovered Boaz’s ‘feet’ (She blushed when he explained that this was a euphemism) and became the grandmother of King David, and Solomon who sought nothing but God’s wisdom and was rewarded with great wealth, many wives, and long-lasting peace as well as world-renowned wisdom, and how God had entered into the temple Solomon had built. “And now YOU,” he declaimed, staring intently at her, “are the temple of the Spirit into whom God has entered!”
He emphasised how God wanted nothing but the best for his children; that was why he gave the Spirit! He was fond of Jesus’ saying about fathers, who were evil, knowing enough to give their children good things, so surely God would give his children good things, too, or, as Luke put it, surely the Father would give the Holy Spirit.
This led them to a discussion about fathers and the first of those guided meditations he had mentioned. He sat beside her on the couch, asked her to close her eyes and relax, and stepped her back, slowly, through her memories of her father. Eventually, painfully, she opened her eyes to find them swimming with tears that slowly trickled down her cheeks, and she quickly looked down so that her hair fell forward to hide them, but he reached out and, very gently, wiped one tear away, then turned to his desk for a box of tissues, and a small pamphlet with a meditation on God’s divine father hood. Then, when she recovered a little, he simply said, “See you next week” and let her out.
She felt that she floated home in a soft mist; slightly cut off from the world around her by the release of that old sorrow, and also strangely touched, intensely aware of the feeling of his fingertip on her cheek.
Their next meeting, he greeted her as warmly as ever, and moved his chair to sit in front of his desk as he spoke about God’s love, and his command that we should love one another, and how love was the greatest gift of the Spirit, but he didn’t mention her tears, and she was grateful for his sensitivity.
Each week she meets more members of the church, and is always impressed by how they all call each other sister, or brother, how they treat each other with obvious affection, and how they could ask each other the most searching questions; “Are you giving as you should be, brother?” “Sister, how are you getting on with disciplining your Jacob, now?” The Major and Esme, however, always make a special point of catching up with Ali, and Esme always asks how the course is going. “Are you hearing the Spirit, yet, dear?” she asks.
“I’m not sure – I mean, Jesus is always with me, I know, and I love to stop and …I don’t know, just be with him, I guess, but…”
“No, no, dear, not Jesus – we’re talking about the Spirit! Have you heard that still small voice, yet?”
Ali blushes and mutters that she’s not sure.
Esme looks at her steadily, and said, quietly, kindly, but very firmly, “You’ll know when you do.” And then she looks around and asks, “Where’s Sarah, today?”
“Oh! She said she was going to go see her fiancé this weekend, and that they were going to go to his church, this time. She’s never been, and he’s been asking her so she said she would.”
Esme looks startled at this, and turns to the Major, behind her. Ali is surprised to see that he is frowning deeply, but he says nothing to her, simply turning and walking away. Esme hesitates a moment, looking as though she might say something, but then just hurries after him herself.
At her next meeting with the Pastor, he greets her with a stiff hug; he’d started to do this each Sunday, and she’d noticed that many people greeted each other with a hug, so thinks nothing of it, and they continue as previously. This time he starts by asking her if she has anything on her mind?
She hesitates, and he quickly says, “You look troubled…”
“Oh. Well, it’s nothing really. Just, Esme was asking last Sunday, could I hear the Spirit yet, and, well, I’m not really sure…”
“Would you like to be more sure?”
“Then sit down, here,” and he moves to sit beside her, again, on the couch. “What you need to understand,” he says, in a low, earnest voice, “is that the Spirit is not of this world, and so the voice of the Spirit can seem quite strange. Even odd. And that is why our obedience is of the utmost importance. If we waited until we understood everything then we would never do anything. We need to be ready to obey even before we understand, no matter how odd the Spirit’s command might be. Do you understand this?”
“Yes, yes, that makes sense.”
“And so, when you begin to hear the voice of the Spirit, you must obey without hesitation. You must not quench the Spirit!”
“Sometimes, what the Spirit asks might even seem wrong, but that is because we are infested by the lies of the world.”
Ali looks at him. He seems to be waiting for some response from her.
“I’m …I’m sorry. What do you mean?”
“Well, consider. If the Spirit said to you to kiss someone, not a member of your family. To kiss a man. What would your mother say?”
“Well …she’d say it was wrong. It was … dangerous.”
“I think you said your mother …she’s not a Christian, is she?”
“No,” Ali admits, in a small voice.
“Then she’s from the world, and “you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.””
“That was the apostle John said that, wasn’t it?” Ali asks.
“Yes. Well recognized. From his first letter. Do you read the Bible much?”
“Yes. Well, most nights.”
“So you know that Paul said that we are “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”?
“What did he mean?”
“Simply that we shouldn’t let the scriptures bind us, my dear. It is the Spirit that gives life, not dead letters.”
“But, surely the Bible…”
“Oh, yes! The Bible is a voice of the Sprit, too – it is the Bible, after all, that tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss, despite what your worldly mother may think – but it isn’t the only voice of the Spirit, nor even the most important. The most important, is right… here.” and he lays a long finger on her chest, above her suddenly thudding heart. He lets it rest there a moment, as he gazes at her, then returns his hand to his lap, turns slightly away from her, and looks into the distance. “Shall we practice listening to the voice of the spirit, today, then?”
Ali becomes aware that she is barely breathing, and says, in a whisper, “Yes,” without taking her eyes from him.
“And if you hear the Spirit speaking, are you willing to obey him? Are you willing to put aside the distractions of the world, to reject the advice of the world and obey only the Spirit?”
She nods, and he turns back to her, and smiles. “Then relax, and close your eyes, and wait.”
Ali waits, and hears nothing except her heart beating and her breathing slowly returning to normal, and when she opens her eyes again, after perhaps five minutes, it is to see Pastor Austeer smiling at her.
“Don’t be disappointed if you heard nothing. The voice of the Spirit comes as it wills and no-one knows where it comes from. Keep listening throughout the week, and remember, Obey! Even if it seems an odd thing – especially if it seems odd! Even if just a little thing. Don’t ask to understand; just obey.”
He smiles again, and sees her to the door.
Throughout that week, Ali tries her hardest to listen for the voice of the Spirit. She starts to notice lots of little thoughts running through her mind. “Kick the cat,” is one, when a cat crosses the road in front of her. She’s fairly sure that isn’t the voice of the Spirit. When she is brushing her teeth one time, she thinks “Upside down.” as she gazes at her toothpaste. It isn’t upside down, but she practices obedience anyway, and turns it upside down. Going home from work one day, she is waiting at the crossing, and thinks “Go,” though there is a car coming. She closes her eyes, gulps, and doesn’t go. The car roars across in front of her and she walks home in confusion. If she had stepped in its path, would it have stopped? Or is she meant to have been injured and hospitalised, and maybe killed? Is that God’s plan for her life?
What with her wondering, and her listening, and her confusion, she is not as focused on her job as usual, but she’s startled out of a fugue at her workstation on Wednesday, by Sarah saying, “Ali. Ali! ALI!”
“Oh. Sorry, Sarah. I was… daydreaming.”
Sarah grinned. “You’ve got up to the bit about listening for the Spirit, haven’t you?”
“Yes! Is it obvious?”
“A little bit. You should have seen Rosie when she did it. It was a few years ago, now, and I was just a junior in the Youth Group, but I remember her wandering around in a total daze!”
“Have you done the course?”
“No. I don’t know that it’s for me, you know? I’ve talked to a few people who’ve done it, and they say that he just talks to them a lot. Well we get that on Sunday! I’d rather do something in a group. Like a Bible study. Hey! Why don’t we start one? You and me?”
“Ah, maybe. I don’t think, right now, though – I mean, I’d like to finish this course, first…”
Sarah rolls her eyes. “Alright, whatever.”
Ali feels herself flush. It sounds like Sarah doesn’t like hearing Pastor Austeer talking! “I just want to see if I can hear the voice of the Spirit.”
“Well, I guess if you hear the Spirit all the time, like the pastor seems to, then you wouldn’t really need to study anything, would you? The Spirit gives life and the letter killeth, right?”
Ali’s jaw drops open. “How did you know that he…”
“Did he say that to you? Well, he does say it a bit. Usually when someone else is quoting the Bible.” Sarah grins. “Anyway. I still think a group is a cool idea. I think I’ll talk about it to Esme and the Major. They’ve invited me around this evening.” And off Sarah goes, leaving Ali more confused than ever.
As she walks home that evening, she strains her ears for the voice of the Spirit and eventually, throwing open the door to her little room she slumps onto her bed in disappointment, and flops backwards onto the pillows. “Oh, Jesus, help me.” She says to the presence in the quiet behind her eyes, and suddenly, she feels completely at peace. Without knowing how she knows, she knows that it is ok. Jesus is still there for her, despite her inability to hear this voice that the pastor talks about, and Jesus will never leave her. She turns her face to the pillow and sobs, and the next day feels much better.
That afternoon, as she sits on the pastor’s couch once more, she tells him about the cat and she tells him about the car, and she tells him about the toothpaste, and she tells him about her prayer and the immediate relief she had felt in Jesus’ presence. She doesn’t tell him about Sarah, however; she just doesn’t know how to say what she feels.
He is interested in everything she does say, and most of all in the tooth-paste! “That was excellent, Ali, excellent! That was wonderful obedience! Well done!”
“But the car…”
“Maybe that, too, was the voice of the Spirit. Who knows what may have happened! Certainly it was a test of your faith, Ali, wasn’t it?”
He looks at her so intently, she feels her breathing hitch again, and whispers a “yes”.
Without taking his eyes from hers, he pulls his seat up and sits directly in front of her as she perches on the edge of the couch. “Let’s try to hear the Spirit again, now, together. No – keep your eyes open this time. Listen – and obey.”
Ali listens, and finds her mind beginning to fill with the many words spoken here, washing around her; “Love one another…” “What they say is from the world…” “A holy kiss..” “The letter kills…”
And then, blazing to the forefront of her mind, the words, “Kiss Him!”
Her eyes drop from his to the thin lips beneath, and then up again as she replays those words in her mind and hears again their insistence, and so she obeys, leaning into his kiss as he reaches out for her and takes her into his arms.
That evening, as she prepares for bed, and all the next day, she feels like she is in a Rosie-like daze, as she replays in her mind those few, fervent moments. The pastor had confirmed that he, too had heard that command, and that though it didn’t matter what the world thought – they were free in their obedience to the Spirit – it was best to avoid all appearance of evil, and not put any stumbling blocks in the way of weaker brethren, so not to mention it to anyone else just now. Rather, wait, and see what the Spirit might command next time they met.
They see each other at church on Sunday, of course, and Ali blushes slightly as he gives her a warm embrace, and places a chaste peck upon her cheek. He says nothing, but she sees anticipation in his eyes and spends most of the sermon wondering what, exactly the Spirit might say when next they meet.
Afterwards, however, as she talks with the Rheeses, her thoughts are turned in quite a different direction. After asking about Rose, who is pregnant again, Ali remembers that Sarah had been going to see them last week; “How did your evening with Sarah go? Did she tell you her idea about a Bible study?”
The major’s pleasant face turns thunderous again, and he turns away, leaving Esme to answer; “Well, yes, dear, she did, but we don’t think it’s right. You see, she doesn’t hear the Spirit. Her Bible study would be quite wrong. And besides; we can’t meet with someone who’s been dis-fellowshipped.”
“Dis… what? Sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. I’m sure she’ll come around. Pastor will explain it to you later this week.” And that was all she would say on the subject.
Sarah wasn’t at church that day, and throughout the following week, Ali gets the impression that she is avoiding her at work. Finally she finds her seated at her workstation, doing data entry. “ ‘Scuse me, Sarah. Where does this account belong?”
Sarah takes a quick look at the file in Ali’s hand, mutters “Give it to Fiona,” and turns back to her work.
“Sarah,” Ali tries again, “Is there something wrong?”
The previously bouncy bride-to-be glances up at Ali, opens her mouth as though to say something, then snaps it shut again. With her lips pressed together in a thin line, she turns back to her screen once more, and shakes her head mutely.
Ali stands for a second, then, with a shrug, returns to her own work. There is a message waiting for her, there. “Pastor Austeer says half an hour later this Thursday”. She reads it, wonders, and then crumples it up. No doubt he will explain when they meet. But that meeting is starting to look very unlike the one she had anticipated.
As she walks up to the frosted glass door on Thursday, it bursts open and an obviously unhappy Sarah steps out, sees her, and swings around to walk back to the road across the neighbours’ lawn rather than come past her. As Ali stands gaping, she sees tears on her friend’s cheeks, her complexion burning brightly beneath them, as though she is deeply embarrassed – or overwhelmingly angry.
As she turns back to the door, she sees the pastor there, spots of colour on his cheeks, too. He reaches out to embrace her, but then drops his arms as she stiffens, and simply stands aside and says, “Come in.” Ali means to ask him about Sarah, and what ‘dis-fellowshipped’ means, but he raises the subject himself; “Ali, does your work require you to talk much with Miss Massingham?”
“No. In fact, she won’t talk to me at all, now, if she can avoid me.”
“Ah. It would be best if you left her alone as much as you could, now. Can you do that?”
“Well… yes, but why? What’s she done? Is this what ‘disfellowshipped’ means? Is this because of her Bible study idea?”
“No, Not because of the Bible study idea – though that was obviously inappropriate – but because she has chosen to walk, once again, in the ways of the world.”
“What’s she done?”
“She is pledged to keep fellowship with us, here, but she has been attending meetings of false Christians where they teach error and confusion. She must not be double-minded, and she will not commit to stay away from them in the future. She is antichrist: “19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.” If I can quote John, again. She has been avoiding you because she was hoping to weasel her way back into our fellowship by not breaking the rules of disfellowshipping. And I suppose she may have been trying to protect you from any taint. Has she succeeded, I wonder? Are you ready and willing to obey the Spirit in this, Ali?”
Ali sags onto the couch, and squeezes her eyes shut, feeling tears pricking behind her eyelids. What is the Spirit saying?
As though reading her mind, the Pastor immediately quotes from Revelation; “15 ‘ “I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. … You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.’ 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying …” Ali, you can conquer this, you don’t have to be poor and blind, you can sit on the throne with God! With me! Let me lead you. Are you willing to obey, Ali? Are you?”
She feels him, kneeling in front of her, just inches away; his hands upon her shoulders tremble slightly. She’s terrified that if she opens her eyes, she will see again the mouth that she kissed just a week ago. In the dark privacy of her mind, she calls out as she had before, “Oh, Jesus help me.” And immediately opens her eyes to look directly into the face before her.
“I… I’m not sure what the Spirit is saying to me, but… but I wonder – I don’t know – where is Jesus in this?”
“Well, yes. He was always so kind when people came to him. I… this… it just doesn’t feel like something he would do.”
“ Jesus! Jesus was just a man. He died, abandoned by God. It is the Spirit of Christ which matters.”
“Jesus doesn’t matter?”
“No. The Nazareth carpenter was just a disguise God used; a suit of clothing that he no longer has any use for. It is the Spirit not the flesh, that we must obey. Will you listen to the Spirit, Ali?”
“But the Bible says…”
“Don’t get hung up on the dead letter! It is the Spirit that counts.”
Ali reaches into her purse and draws out her little Bible, opening it at the marked page with trembling fingers. “I was reading what we were talking about a couple of weeks ago. Just before he says that we are from God and they are from the world, he says this: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.””
“But the deadly letter…”
Ali stands up. “I don’t know what Paul meant by the letter, but I do know that the Spirit he’s talking about is totally different to the one you’re serving! I’ll stick with the spirit of Jesus if that’s ok.”
She turns in the doorway; “Please say goodbye to Esme and the Major for me. They were kind.” and then she leaves.
Ali is feeling good, and tomorrow is going to be even better. She’s moved towns, successfully, she’s doing well in her new job, and she’s going to a new church tomorrow. Sarah, the girl at work who trained her, has asked her to be her bridesmaid at the wedding, and Ali is glad for the opportunity.
1 John 4, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.
2 Cor. 3:6
Ok, so last night I watched this year’s Superman movie by Zack Snyder. I recognised the high-contrast desaturated look of the movie from 300, and it was mostly a big techno-romp, with a little bit of classy acting. Henry Cavill did ok in a title role that required some angst as well as a lot of heavy hitting. I liked him better when he was wearing the beard. Russell Crowe was pretty impassive as superman’s father, Jor-el; I felt he could have been played by a computer simulacrum – which is what he was supposed to be playing a lot of the time, so was that good acting or not? Michael Shannon as the supervillain was sufficiently nasty, while actually managing to look like a man with integrity according to his own lights. It was great to see Laurence Fishburn doing a sterling job – even in such a cramped role. Amy Adams as Lois Lane was competent in a forgettable role. For my money the big awards should go to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive parents. Decent script-writing and understated acting made for some touching scenes as they worked out their relationships with a distressed child. And it was those relationships that gave the action movie a beating heart.
*Spoiler Alert* Don’t read the following if you don’t want to find out what happens in the movie:
Driving the big fisti-cuff/ let’s knock each other through buildings/ throw bombs at one another/ rip planets apart conflict is the decision facing superman as he has to choose between two futures; that offered by his fellow Kryptonians (the exiled leaders of a failed military coup on their now-destroyed home planet) to use the earth (and Superman’s own genetic material) as the foundation for renewing the Kryptonian race – at the expense of our entire planetary ecology. Or to fight against his own kind in defence of the technologically and physically overmatched humans. The flash-backs through his childhood and emergence into adulthood through his adoptive father’s death provide a coherent and believable set of motivations for Superman to reject the cruelty of the Kryptonians in favour of those who have given him shelter, understanding, wisdom, and love. Cool. There is very little drama in this decision-making. We know from the outset that he’s on our side; that one of his major motivations is to protect others. That character development almost manages to make up for the absurdities of superman’s powers (it looks like they tried to give his flying some basis in physics – but utterly failed, sorry) and the continued referencing of 9/11, a bit of LotR (Gandalf leaping from Saruman’s tower onto an eagle), a MASSIVE borrowing from the matrix as machines pluck pods of babies grown in an artificial environment, and even some Harry Potter (a blogger as the combination of Rita Skeeter and the Quibbler). As my eldest son said, “Don’t pick at it, it makes it worse!” Let it pass – those are minor issues.
The big issue for me is the central conflict for Superman; which isn’t actually a choice between Kryptonian planetary destruction over defending the helpless little humans, but rather the question does he positively accept his super-powers and use them to make a difference, or does he stay in hiding and lay low, so that humans won’t reject him out of fear of his differences? Essentially, it’s the reluctant messiah complex. And it’s framed as such. In the early moments of the movie, Jor-el predicts that humans would see his infant son ‘as a god’. At the turning point of the movie, immediately before he offers himself to the invaders as a ransom for the people of earth, Clark Kent seeks counsel from a young priest in a church. As they talk, you can see over his shoulder a stained glass image of Christ kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane, praying “If it is possible let this cup pass me by – but not my will, yours be done.” The obvious happens; Clark Kent puts on the cape, becomes Superman, and gives himself up to the evil General Zod. He even submits to a sort of death; losing his superpowers on their spacecraft, and then hallucinating sinking into a landscape of skulls. But he inevitably recovers, and (with some help from his ghostly Father) knocks the baddies out of existence (eventually).
So what we have here is a clearly contrived Superman-as-Jesus parallel. I guess it helped the movie to sell well in an America where Jesus is supposed to be something of a military crusader and his anti-violence message is derided and underplayed. This is the key discontinuity at the heart of this movie – and perhaps at the heart of modern culture. We want a messiah; someone to protect us from the evils that we have brought upon ourselves (no matter how much we protest that they are ‘aliens’ from ‘out there’ – we created our own enemies!) But we want that messiah to be just like us. Mark Driscoll, in the article linked above, has a point; the Bible is not a comfortable document for modern peace-makers. But nor is it a comfortable document for modern war-mongers. And at the heart of the Christian scriptures is a Jesus who most emphatically did not use violence or force against his enemies; instead he prayed for their forgiveness. He sought their reconciliation. He gave himself up to death (real death, not just some hallucination of it) on their behalf. Driscoll reads the pages of Revelation as if he were one of the oppressed minority churches of Asia to whom that book was written, and who were being assured – through powerful visual metaphors – that they are on the winning side, that they will overcome evil “by the word of their testimony and by the blood of the lamb“!!! Not by boxing their enemies through buildings and then breaking their necks. For someone living comfortably within the most militaristic society in history, that’s just got to be a bad idea. Driscoll is acting as an apologist for the modern incarnation of Revelation’s Beast.
Superman is the messiah as we want him; a messiah who conforms to our violence-fetish culture. He overcomes evil through bravery, yes. But mostly, just because he’s stronger and smarter than the other guy. And actually, that’s just a little bit unbelievable. What Christmas was all about was God becoming flesh, not steel. God joining us in our suffering, so that we can join him in his perfection. If I had to choose between messiahs, I know I’d be tempted to pick superman, oh yes! But I hope I would choose Jesus, instead. Because beating ourselves up all the time doesn’t actually work. We need grace and forgiveness, not pyrotechnics. Jesus Christ, not Clark Kent.
I wanna be Super-Christian!
I want to get up before dawn every morning without fail
and spend three hours in prayer and meditation!
I want to fast twice a week
without thinking once about my waist-line.
I want to be able to perform miracles of healing
and cast out demons,
and diagnose short legs and roots of bitterness
with a single glance of my compassionate eyes,
and then, with a mere gesture or a whispered word,
set people free from whatever it is that binds them.
I want to be so filled with faith that I never have a single doubt
and I never have to work again,
because all my needs are meet by God.
I want to be so free from materialism that I own nothing,
but can still give away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
I want people to immediately think of me
when they’re asked what a great Christian looks like.
And I want to be so immensely humble
that I’m never aware of this mass adulation.
I want to be so good at evangelism
that I just have to walk into a room for everyone to be instantly converted.
I want to be able to read and remember a book of the Bible a day
and actually understand everything I read.
And everything I write
(or at least, everything my researchers write in my name)
becomes an instant best-seller.
And not just in Christian bookshops either.
I want this direct line to God,
so that I always know exactly what He wants me to do
and he always knows exactly what I want Him to do.
And he does it.
Because I’m such a fantastic Christian.
I wanna be Super Christian.
What a pity I’m just me.
And the Bible says this:
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.
3 If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5 or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love. 
According to the Bible, nothing else really matters apart from love.
Only love is eternal.
Hope and faith are right up there,
but hope is all about the future
and one day that future will arrive and we will need hope no more.
And faith is our trust in the one who we do not now see,
but one day we will see him face to face
and our faith will be taken up into adoration.
Faith and hope will one day be redundant,
love is eternal.
When Paul wrote those words to the Corinthians,
he was writing to a church where people saw themselves as super-Christians.
Earlier in this letter he said he was writing to them,
“so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.
7 For who sees anything different in you?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?
8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!
Quite apart from us you have become kings!
Indeed, I wish that you had become kings,
so that we might be kings with you!
Paul can be really sarcastic when he wants to be.
To this church full of puffed-up people
who thought that the goal of Christianity is to become super-spiritual
he prescribes a radical change of direction.
It’s not about you, he writes, it’s about other people.
It doesn’t matter if you can speak in tongues or prophecy or move mountains;
what matters is how much you love.
It’s important to anchor Sunday morning sermon thoughts in reality,
so having your own personal examples of what Godly love looks like
is far better than having a few vague words from the pulpit.
So can we just pause for a few minutes
and talk amongst yourselves at your tables.
Ask each other this question:
“Who do I know
or what have I seen
that has shown me what real love is?
1 Corinthians 13 type love?”
Anybody want to share the example of Love they thought of?
Of course, Jesus is the greatest single example of love that we know of.
Paul points us towards him when he wrote to the Philippians:
2 If then there is any encouragement in Christ,
any consolation from love,
any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
2 make my joy complete:
be of the same mind, having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
(and here’s where he really begins to warm up…)
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
4 Let each of you look not to your own interests,
but to the interests of others.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
This passage is one of the most important Christmas passages in the Bible,
because it talks about Jesus’ birth in the same breath as Jesus’ death,
and it shows us that the birth, no less than the death,
was an act of humility and obedience and love on Jesus’ part.
By entering into creation with us;
by becoming one with the world he made
Jesus healed the division between creator and creation.
In his body He is the bridge between heaven and earth.
And in his embrace of creation,
his holding and enfolding of sinful humanity into the inner life of the Trinity,
he didn’t stop at the manger
but continued to the cross and the grave.
Manger scenes tend to be prettily painted and very sweet.
I’ve done that myself.
The danger is that we miss the amazing indecency of what actually happened!
There was the out-of-wedlock conception,
There was the long journey in the final days of pregnancy,
There was the inability to find a decent room,
and the agony of birth – amongst animals!
There was the use of a feed-trough as a cradle.
There was a frightened and jealous king
who slaughtered an entire village of baby boys,
and there was a frantic flight by night from the danger zone
and being a refugee in a foreign land.
Jesus birth wasn’t especially pretty or lovely.
It wasn’t even a standard first century birth;
It was awful.
It was a pointer to the death that was to follow.
When God chose to close the gap between us,
he didn’t just come to the good things and the good people;
he came to the lowest of the low – shepherds and tax-gatherers.
Foreign astrologers and village no-bodies.
And in becoming human, Jesus embraced sin, and pain, and sickness
– and death.
Even death on a cross.
It is because God has entered into the very worst of human evil
and has destroyed it from the inside
that we have hope today.
Jesus has kicked down the doors of death
and thrown open the gates of the grave.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Christmas is the beginning of Easter
and Easter is the completion of Christmas.
The two holidays cannot be understood apart from one another.
This has obvious implications for us:
This means that Christmas is not all about getting stuff
but is all about giving to people.
Giving hope and forgiveness.
Giving respect, and care and attention and compassion;
those things that mean so much more than stocking-fillers
and make such an amazing difference in the lives of lost individuals.
Please turn again to those around you, or simply sit and ponder,
and ask yourselves:
“what can I do this Christmas that will make a difference for someone else?”
(Close in prayer)
There’s a problem with that title – right there, in the verb. Being. There’s a problem that we can all too easily slip into an either-or mode of thinking about reality, and make our faith all about ‘being’ and nothing at all about ‘doing’. In this version of reality, my ‘being’ Christian is something static. It is the way I am, like the colour of my skin or the length of my nose or my place of birth. There might be some slow, minor developments over the years, but it is essentially always the same.
Yet Jesus taught us that those who love him (and that’s a good definition of Christian, right there) would DO what he commanded. He taught that the highest expression of godliness is love. And love is active. The writings of the earliest Christians and our records of Jesus’ teaching (the New Testament) abound with instructions for how to act. It’s all too easy for us to slip into a somnambulant state of ‘being’ in which all is well with my soul – and the rest of the world can go to hell. And that’s why Christianity is an ‘activist’ religion. Because the world – the lives of individuals and families all around us – are full of pain and suffering. God rejects the idea that human pain and suffering are normal and we just have to ‘toughen up’ and ‘get over it’, and comes to us to bring liberation and celebration. That’s the whole story of the scriptures, climaxing in Christ’s Cross and resurrection, and looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth.
So because we have an activist God – a God on a mission – we get to go along for the ride, and we even get to play our part in God’s mission of bringing Shalom – peace with Justice – to the earth he created and loves. And so we are busy with the business of God’s kingdom. Doing works of righteousness and love. Bringing peace and truth to the earth.
So if ‘doing’ is so central to Christianity, how come I’m writing about ‘being’ Christian?
Because even though you can’t really keep being and doing separate (unless you’re involved in Greek philosophy) there is this essential point to be made – that who we are in Christ is in fact more important that what we do. The doing comes out of the being. Because I’m Christian, I do stuff, but I’m not Christian because I do stuff. I’m Christian because of what God has done – and is doing – in and for me. We talk of God saving us, reconciling us, adopting us, healing us, redeeming us, purchasing our lives from the slavery of sin and setting us free. In many different ways we describe what God has done for us, and the upshot of it all is that I have a different life now, and a different status. I am different. If before I was a slave, now I am free. If before I was an orphan, now I belong in a Holy family. If before I was sick unto death, now I am healed and whole and well. These are differences in my basic being. Before I was mortal and my life was no more than a brief flicker of existence across the inky darkness of infinity. Now I am eternal, sharing by the Spirit in the resurrection of Christ, and through him, the immortality of God.
Because who I am is different, what I do is different, too. My human doing is meant to reflect my human being. But being comes first.
Putting ‘being’ first has certain consequences. It means that we don’t fall into the trap of legalism; making our status dependant upon a certain set of actions; “You’re only Christian / saved / one of the elect if you do things our way.” Putting ‘being’ first undercuts all the human power plays by which we seek to control one another. No-one else can give or take from me the status that God has given.
Putting ‘being’ first leaves me without protection from God; I can’t hide my sin behind a cloak of religious respectability – ticking all the boxes on the outside, but continuing to be filled with envy, lust, fear, greed, sloth, pride, and anger on the inside. My ‘good works’ aren’t good enough. Only God’s work is good enough to save me from these things, and so I need him to have and to hold the real me. I need to lay down my religious defenses long enough to let God make me his own, and bring me healing and hope.
Putting ‘being’ first means that what I end up doing is done with integrity. I do it, not because it’s what others have told me is right, or it’s what others want me to do, so much as because it is consistent with my true nature as God’s beloved child in Christ. Because it’s consistent with what God himself is doing.
I’m an activist. I want to do so much and I want to make a difference, and I want to see God’s kingdom unfolding in the lives of those around me, and I believe that I might have a role to play in that – by God’s grace. I am an activist, but only because I am in the hands of an active God. It is who I am in Christ that makes me what I am. Being Christian leads inevitably to Christian action, but it is ‘being’ that comes first.