Saturday, 30 April 2011

‘Among whom you shine as lights in the darkness’

Paul was gratified by the ultimate outcome of his preaching at Thessalonica. The reports of gentile conversion had travelled far and wide. They had abandoned idolatry in spectacular fashion: ‘The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess. 1:8 – 9)

He had spent the best part of a month explaining that, far from detracting from Jesus’s claims to be the Son of God, His rejection and crucifixion were predicted by reliable prophets many years before, as was His resurrection that the apostles and many others had witnessed (Acts. 17:1 – 4). Paul insisted that, as a prophetic fulfilment, the resurrection was unique to the Messiah. We maintain this distinction from all other religions. Resurrection distinguishes Jesus from all others to be uniquely both God and man, the Son of the only true God (Romans 1:4). The only man who perfectly radiates Almighty God’s perfection and He is uniquely supreme over the death and decomposition that typifies the end of our human condition.

Before the spread of the gospel, non-Jewish ‘god-fearers’ had joined the Jewish faith and way of life in varying degrees. They were not converts since they did not fully adopt the Law of Moses.

Cornelius was such a man (Acts 10). He prayed to the Jewish God and gave generously to those afflicted by hardship. However, for all his efforts, many Jews saw his foreign status as an insurmountable obstacle to full acceptance by God. He might have behaved like a model Jewish citizen, but, as far as Judaism was concerned, he was a spiritual asylum seeker; his passport to God’s complete mercy was clearly stamped ‘non-national’.

He and his household had heard reports of an extraordinarily gifted miracle-worker and spiritual reformer. Peter was sent by a miraculous chain of events to confirm that the reports of the Messiah were true and that non-Jews could also find eternal reconciliation with God, if they relied upon the  Messiah from Nazareth as the eternal Ruler of all things.

The good news was that Gentiles no longer needed the old passport of Judaism to find full acceptance by God. Divine mercy in Jesus bypasses Old Testament exclusions in the same way that the EU citizenship supersedes the old UK nationality exclusions. The gross injustice and humiliation of a nude public state execution by acute penetrating trauma exacted upon the Transcendent One of Israel, was offered to God on behalf of all men, a prisoner exchange, the just for the unjust. Deliberate exsanguination (death from blood emptying) is an abattoir method reserved for animals, yet this is what Jesus, as God’s Passover lamb, endured. If this what it took to expunge, it shows how hideous sin really is. As God said through Jeremiah: ‘Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me," declares the Sovereign LORD.’ (Jer. 2:22)

As declared by the apostles, the Eternal King’s injustice and humiliation was overturned by His resurrection on the third day. His appeal to the Supreme Court of God in Heaven was upheld. We who follow Him are forgiven, by the very same mortal wounds that He bears on our behalf before God. All who remain on the side of His enemies are now living on borrowed time and patience.

Paul’s conversion of these ‘God-fearers’ to the new invincible relationship with God in Christ superseded all of the old rites handed down by Moses, including circumcision.

It’s clear, from the New Testament, that many who were born Jews (including Paul initially) considered the gospel to be an insult to their hereditary (yet oft abused) privileges under God. They were hardly exemplary, yet they envied Paul’s success in convincing those who attended the synagogue that Jews and Gentiles could, in Christ, enjoy a new identity as cherished and forgiven equals: joint owners of God’s greatest gift to mankind, eternity, that is, life as God owns it. Paul assured believers of His gospel that they were, in that sense of direct resemblance, the sons of God, guaranteed a future physical existence radiating with the genetic immortality of their Father who is Jesus’ Father, the Almighty Creator Himself.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The attraction of risk, the challenge of the gospel

As we look back over the last century of Western civilisation, we may indeed toast our staggering industrial achievements. However, history will record our contrasting fascination with more primitive pursuits as a profound irony.

Technological advancement, while useful, can become safe and boring. It is part of our nature to seek those experiences of heightened awareness that are aroused by the inherent risks of fighting for daily survival. When technology removes every sense of our struggle for existence, we tend to seek a measure of risk elsewhere. Life without effort lacks meaning.

For instance, consider how adventure tourism now accounts for over 10% of UK holiday trips. At least, 11 million UK holidays each year include taking part in an adventure activity. Annual spending by UK holiday visitors that engage in adventure activities during their stay is at least as much as £2 million.

Young people are especially attracted to this type of holiday. Instead of desiring a thoroughly predictable set of events, our youth crave the experience of discovery. They want to be stretched by new frontiers, to break new ground and carve out their own niche in life by making their own choices.

This aspiration may also partly explain the massive decline in youth attendance at church. The average age of Anglican membership is 61. By shoring up the Establishment, vast paid hierarchies and the status quo, much of Anglicanism (apart from its superficial concessions towards modern culture) has become cocooned in layers of tradition that lack the vigour that youth loves. It’s now all too safe and structured: a far cry from the ethos of the movement that spread the Christian faith throughout Asia Minor and beyond in the 1st Century AD.

Paul described his experience of real Christianity in its infancy to the church at Corinth: ‘I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.’ (2 Cor. 11:23 – 27)

This is more the life of a combat soldier thinking on his feet in enemy territory, rather than a well-fed minister who enjoys a generous stipend. Paul knew that His ministry was part of the epic struggle against patterns of behaviour instigated by an invisible hierarchy of super-human evil. The ever-increasing hostility towards God meant that he was working on borrowed time. This spurred him on to relay the gospel as far, as wide and as quickly as he could. By contrast, how urgent and opportunistic are our ministers in promoting authentic discipleship against fraudulent religion today?

Mounting opposition towards the early church was characterised by several instances of hostility from influential businesses and citizens, police brutality, periods of prison custody, long and arduous journeys at his own expense, endless travel chaos, muggings, subversive internal dissent and long bouts of financial hardship and physical deprivation. However, Paul embraced personal physical suffering in the furtherance of the gospel: ‘No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.’ (1 Cor. 9:27)

What a contrast with the comfortable lives of our modern full-time ministers! In an effort to be relevant, they have embraced a more ‘inclusive’ gospel, rather than challenging our culture to abandon its idol-worship. They largely preach to the converted and prefer silent displays of public-spiritedness elsewhere. I’ve heard very few sermons that tackle the cult fascination with modern media celebrities, the inordinate waste of time and money on the vanity of short-lived physical charm, techno-leisure, our domestic property shrines and retail idolatry. The ultimatum of ‘Repent, or retribution will destroy you suddenly’ is avoided at all cost. This new gospel is all about making Christianity appear congruent with cultural norms, but nothing about man’s doom without reconciliation to the will of God, that is, the Kingdom of God. The demand is no longer for radical objective change. The sins that the word of God might expose are reduced to sweeping generalisations, thereby avoiding the most unpardonable charge being a self-righteous, hypocritical imposer of morals. In exchange for being liked, we provide safe harbour for the impenitent. When was the last time you needed to recount Christ’s promise of mercy to a fearful conscience pleading with God for restoration:‘Have patience with me and I will pay you back’ (Matt. 18:26) after a stern sermon.

Rather than naming specific offences, listeners are simply asked to engage in a subjective reflection upon anything that they think might stand between themselves and God. Sin is now considered to be an emotion: more guilt, than an act offensive to God. It’s now a matter of personal conscience. It’s almost like saying, With Christ’s blood, you’re not as bad as you think, so, don’t feel guilt, when you can afford to stink.

Where is the unequivocal censure against the reluctance to give up relationships and occupations that indulge sin? Does this new gospel demand, as Paul did, that we separate from those who claim Christ and yet dilute His message by continuing in obvious sin (2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Cor. 5:11)? Do we avoid those who prefer the modern diet of sensationalised media gossip and the culture of amoral and violent entertainment that is glorified in our movies, music and video games? Are our current levels of retail consumption and amusement with the mass media coverage of the bizarre and the shameless use of sex ever opposed? Or are they just passed off as ‘innocent’ discretionary pastimes?

We’re told to lighten up and enjoy life, i.e. accept society’s cultural norms as prescribed by the media and worldly standards of behaviour. Yet, the apostle John insists, ‘Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’ (1 John 2:15)

In Titus 2, Paul emphasizes the ministry of teaching all classes of believers in the church as a bulwark against this apathy towards God. In this chapter, the word, teach is repeated often:

‘Teach what is in accord with sound doctrine’ (vs.1)

‘Teach the older men to be temperate,…’ (vs. 2)

‘Teach the older women to be reverent,…to teach what is good’ (vs. 3) i.e. Paul wants a relay of elders teaching younger members by example.

Again, ‘Teach slaves to be subject to their masters…’ (vs. 9)

Paul’s expected training outcomes for the young women were clear: ‘to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God’ (vs. 4 and 5)

Likewise, for young men, Paul wanted Titus to be a model of unimpeachable Christian conduct that would demolish the arguments of those Jewish opponents who thought that the new message of grace made obedience to God less important by reassuring the impenitent that they had licence to repeat offend, rather than truly repent: ‘Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.’ (vs. 6 – 8)

So, from where does this teaching strategy originate? Paul explains in verses 11 – 14, it begins with God’s initiative of generous forgiving kindness and amnesty: ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.’

GRACE TEACHES! The impetus for change is not law, but grace itself. We are urged to repent and restore God to His rightful place by the prospect of presenting our radically changed lives as a gift to Jesus Christ who, without complaint or hesitation, abandoned every precious thing He owned, including the comfort of His sinless life protected by His all-powerful Father’s approval. He did this in order to quench the just retribution of God against our sin-filled lives. Our amnesty and every emotional assurance and comfort of the daily Christian experience is bought and fully paid for by a gruesome execution that took place 2000 years ago.

Natural earthly events can and do have an underlying divine, eternal significance, especially those affecting the Son of God. Ultimately, Christ, the Author of every living thing allowed His human form to be treated as unfit to live in our sinful world. In crucifixion, He consciously accepted the undeserved banishment from human existence as exacted by those who offend God in order to spare us the hell of eternal banishment from God for our offences.

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. No one should forget the most expensive lesson that God ever paid for us to learn.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Civil partnership ‘carte-blanche’

The government has announced a consultation on its proposal to authorise civil partnership registrations on church premises. It's clear that the religious symbols, decorations and setting will invest the registration with a sense of lawfulness in the sight of God and the church's endorsement and blessing. What is unclear here is whether consent (general, or specific) to use premises is a blanket acceptance of its use for any civil partnership to be registered therein.

Even for those who, unlike me, believe that the church should endorse civil partnerships with a religious setting and ceremony, is that consent also a 'carte-blanche' abdication of any church discretion towards all such unions, even those that show a scant regard for former spouses and the children of past relationships?

Does the faith group representative have the power to refuse the use of its premises for the registration of a specific partnership, when, for instance, a couple of divorcees (with their former partners still alive) asks for it? Could that person enquire further as is the case for re-marriage in church?

Probably not, because it's a secular arrangement. As such, the registration does not need to meet the same criteria as re-marriage in church. It can be conducted on church premises by a secular representative of a council that is (some liberal commentators would say, thankfully) ‘liberated’ from restrictive Christian views on divorce and re-marriage.

A civil partnership is not a marriage. There is a specific form of declaration by which matrimony is solemnized in church as lawful and therefore recognised as valid.

The provisions and entitlement to undertake a civil partnership remain completely under state authority. The registration is currently conducted by a civil partnership registrar, although ministers of religion may apply for this designation.

At first sight, the proposal is for the church to consider granting consent to the use of certified places of worship for civil partnership, for those places to 'retain their religious symbols, decorations and objects in situ' for registration, but to have no say in the eligibility of specific couples that wish to use these premises for civil partnership registration.

Of course, the accompanying, but separate religious service is under church jurisdiction and, even with the proposed consent, its nature would be established by agreement between the religious leader and the couple themselves.