Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Have Yourself a Gnostic Little Christmas

Have yourself a gnostic little Christmas
Let your heart be light
The crying, blood and dirt we will keep out of sight.

Have yourself a gnostic little Christmas
Feel wor-ship-ful today
For when we do our troubles they feel miles away.

Think not of sin as in olden days,
Or the Cross we preached of yore.
Wor-ship-ful feelings so dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Turn your eyes away from bread and water,
From God-in-flesh now;
Raise your hands instead into the Spirit's joy.
And have yourself a gnostic little Christmas now!

(Just in case it isn't as obvious as I think, this is complete satire. For some related thoughts, see here.)

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Incarnation: Double Birth

One of my favourite Christmas hymns is Charles Wesley’s Glory Be to God on High. It’s not the most popular or familiar of songs for Christmastide, but, like Wesley’s other great hymn of the Incarnation – Hark the Herald Angels Sing – it’s full of great theology. One of the reasons I’ve always liked this hymn is that it uses language that’s almost shocking to us and so forces us to really think about the meaning of the Incarnation: ‘Our being’s Source begins to be, and God Himself is born.’

How can being’s Source begin to be? How can the eternal God be born? Yet that is the very truth of what has happened in the Incarnation of Christ. The One who is before all things, and through whom and for whom all things are created, began to be as a tiny baby in Mary’s womb. God Himself, the Eternal Son and Word of God the Father, was born in a stable in Bethlehem. Wesley’s startling language emphasises two glorious truths to us: the humility of God the Son in coming as a tiny baby, and the glory and majesty of the baby in the manger. The humility: God is a baby! The majesty: the Baby is God!

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Bad Theology Damages People (But Jesus Is Good News) Redux

Okay, I've had to start writing this post over again. I was getting too riled up, and really don't want to rant. So, in lieu thereof, here's a post from almost exactly two years ago provoked by the almost exactly the same thing. But first, a quick rebuttle (sans rant) of what's got me so riled up this time

Are God's Favour and Blessing on the Other Side of Our Obedience?

Certainly Not!! God's blessing is found in Jesus: the Father 'has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ' (Eph. 1:3). And in Ephesians 1 that blessing which is ours in Christ (and in Christ alone) is linked to us being chosen 'in Him before the foundation of the world' (Eph. 1:4), so long before we ever did anything to obey! Paul makes it very clear in Ephesians 1 that our blessing in Christ rests solely upon the grace of God which we receive in Christ and Him crucified. God's favour and blessing are ours because of the shed blood of Jesus, not because of any obedience of our own. We rely on Jesus' blood and righteousness, not our own efforts at obedience.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Incarnation: 'He became what we are so that we might become what He is'

Why did the Word become flesh and dwell among us? What was the reason for the Incarnation? Doesn’t the Bible say that it was to destroy all the works of the evil one? (1 John 3:8). Yes. But that’s not all the Bible has to say on the matter. Jesus shared our flesh and blood not only to ‘destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil’, but also ‘release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage’ (Hebrews 2:14-15). As the Nicene Creed puts it, it was ‘for us … and for our salvation’ that He ‘came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.’

But what does this salvation for us, for which Christ became incarnate, look like? Galatians 4:4-5 notes two parts to it: ‘God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.’ Redemption and Adoption. That’s why Jesus came. That’s why the Incarnation happened. For us and for our salvation, through Redemption and Adoption. But notice this: the Redemption leads on to the Adoption. Christ has redeemed us in order that we might receive the adoption as sons. So often our focus is on the great Redemption we have in Jesus, and yet Paul writes that, great as our Redemption is, it leads to something even greater: our Adoption as sons.

Perhaps sometimes our lack of focus on the great truth of Adoption is because we often reduce it to legal terms, as a mere change of status. But in Galatians 4, Paul makes very clear that this is no mere legal procedure. This Adoption leads to us knowing (and loving) God as our Father. This Adoption leads to the gift of the Holy Spirit who pours out the love of the Father in our hearts (cf. Rom. 5:5). Rather than a mere legal status change, this Adoption is all about being received into the loving relationships of our new family – the Triune God.

Many writers in the early church wanted to emphasise this glorious truth of being brought right into the loving fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Irenaeus of Lyons put it like this:

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Incarnation: ‘The Unassumed is the Unhealed’

‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ (John 1:14)

Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. This is the wondrous truth of the Incarnation. And, seeing as it’s December, I have a very good excuse to write about it a few times. So, what I want to do is this: I want to look at the truth of the Incarnation through some really important sayings from the early church that so well sum up biblical truth that they’re still being handed down today. The technical word for these is theologoumena. A theologoumenon is a short, piffy theological statement that sums up an important point of doctrine in a memorable sentence. They’re sort of like the Tweets that have kept on being retweeted for centuries upon centuries. (Actually, techinically, at least one of the expressions we’ll look at is dogma and not theologoumena, but that’s a technical distinction for another place.)

So today, for our first handed-down saying from the ancient church, let’s meet Gregory Nazianzus, who said:

Monday, 1 December 2014

Singing Scripture for Advent (Plus one for the Epiphany!)

About 4 or 5 months ago we started making a conscious effort to sing Scripture every week in church. It's not that we never sang Scripture; it's just that we treated it like any other song and so we might go weeks (or months) without singing the Bible. So, since the summer, we have a particular moment in the service where we sing a Psalm.

For Advent, however, we're doing things a bit differently. Rather than a Psalm, we're going to sing a Paraphrase from elsewhere in Scripture. (We're singing Paraphrases because they're in Common Metre and so we can sing them all to a tune we know.) So each week we'll be singing a few verses to Winchester (the tune of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night, which is simply the paraphrase of Luke 2:8-15 (which we'll sing the Sunday before Christmas).

On Sunday I was teaching the children about the annunciation and Mary's visit to Elizabeth, so we sang the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56). To be fair, it was a bit of a novelty, but everyone knew the tune and so managed to sing along without any problems.

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Great Thing About Advent — It's All About Jesus!

This Sunday is the beginning of Advent, and Advent is a wonderful time of the year. Alas, it often gets swallowed up by an extended Christmas (and by the way, Christmas doesn't end on 25th December — that's just when it starts), but in reality it has a wonder and significance all of its own. 

Advent is a time of waiting, longing and expecting. Not a time of counting down the days until Christmas, but of waiting for the Lord's promised Deliverer. Not of longing for and expecting the excitement of Christmas morning, but of longing for and expecting the presence of our Saviour. In Advent we look forward to the coming of the One who has come and who is to come.

You see, the reason I love Advent is because Advent is all about Jesus. Advent is a season that points us away from ourselves and to Christ. It's a season when we're reminded that all we can do is wait patiently for the Lord; we're reminded once again that we cannot work for our salvation, but only wait for Him who brings salvation.

And as we wait patiently on the God of our Salvation, Advent is often a time when we turn out attention to the longing and expectation of God's people in the Old Testament. We identify with them in their longing as we sing “Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to thee O Israel”. We may not be Israelites waiting for the coming of the long-promised Messiah, but we identify with them in their longing. For, like them, we are exiles far from home awaiting the appearing of our great Redeemer. 

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Keeping the Scriptures Away from Our Children: Of Censorship in Belfast

There was some worrying news from back home on the BBC today. Now, the reason the story has been picked up and the reason why people will be making a fuss about it is not at all the reason why it’s worrying. The story is of a homework worksheet sent home from a GCSE RE class in an all-girls grammar school in Belfast. The father of a pupil wasn’t happy about the worksheet and so decided to contact the BBC (which I somehow suspect wouldn’t have been the first course of action if this had been a maths homework rather than RE). So what was so disturbing that it had to be brought immediately to the media’s attention? Simply this: a Bible passage was printed on the sheet followed by three questions – simple reading comprehension questions. These were not leading questions; they weren’t trying to put a spin on anything. It was simply a matter of asking what the text said.

Now, that’s what happened. But what’s worrying is what happened next. Rather than pointing out that it was a simple matter of reading comprehension, the Headmaster reacted by saying that the school had ‘got it wrong’ (although, to be fair, he specifically didn’t say that it was wrong to ask the questions, just that it was wrong to send the worksheet home outside of the context of the rest of the lessons). This ‘got it wrong’ statement then left open the way for the media to turn for statements to organisations which were then careful to say that asking a child such a Bible comprehension question is ‘horrible’ and ‘actually could have amounted to an actionable claim of discrimination against the pupil.’ (Although again, to be fair, it was gracious of the organisation not to vilify the school.)

So in the end, everyone involved seems to be happy. The father’s happy with the school’s response. The school has withdrawn the worksheet and made some good media publicity for itself by approaching a gay rights charity to give them advice on how to teach the Christian Scriptures. And the charity is impressed with the way the school has acted so quickly to ‘rectify the situation.’ But, unlike any other quickly resolved homework dispute, there’s a report of all this on the BBC.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

New Name, New Life

In Genesis 17, the Lord Jesus gives new names to Abram and Sarai. From now on they’re to be called Abraham and Sarah. He names them ‘Father of a Multitude’ and ‘Princess’, and yet there’s no evidence at that stage of those things being true. But Abraham is called to remember God’s covenant: ‘I will multiply you exceedingly!’ (Gen. 17:2). You see, Abraham’s new name is a declaration of the truth of God’s promise. Abraham’s new name is an assurance of God’s Gospel Word. Abraham will indeed be the Father of a Multitude and he’ll be the Father of the coming Saviour.

In fact, it’s because the Saviour, Christ the Lord, will be descended from him that he’ll be the Father of Many Nations (Gen.17:4). There are only two major nations descended from Abraham (and a few less significant tribes): the Israelites and the Ishmaelites. Yet God’s promise to Abraham is much greater than that. He’s to be the Father of Many Nations, not just a few. How? Through God’s Covenant. Through the Promised Saviour.

Christ is Abraham’s seed – and all those who are saved are IN Christ. So we’re IN the seed of Abraham. Through Jesus we are the sons and daughters of Abraham. And so Abraham will be a father not only to the Israelites and the Ishmaelites, but also to people from every tribe and tongue – to all those who belong to Jesus through faith.
Galatians 3:29 – And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
So, you see, this new name for Abraham was an assurance of the Good News that Jesus had already proclaimed to Abraham. It was a gracious, loving assurance of the good news of the coming of Jesus in whom Abram already trusted and through faith in whom he was already justified.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Christ’s Seamless Garment, Our Spotless Robe, and the Unity of the Church

Sometimes the Church Fathers remind me very much of the Pentecostalism of my youth. That might sound a bit odd – after all, Pentecostalism and the Church Fathers don’t often go together – but hear me out. You see, in both the Church Fathers and in older (British and European) Pentecostal preaching the great desire is to see Christ in all the Scriptures. Which means that sometimes those who have been taught to follow very strict rules of ‘literal grammatical historical’ interpretation bristle against some of the places Jesus is found by both the Church Fathers and the older Pentecostals. (I’m saying older Pentecostals here, as there is a newer approach which, alas, seems to have gone a long way toward replacing it.) Some people will brush both the Fathers and the Pentecostals aside with accusations of allegory, but the thing is this, despite the way some of their interpretations might appear incredibly novel to certain schools of evangelicalism, a lot of what they said was both (a) deeply rooted in Scripture, and (b) said with the overwhelming desire of proclaiming Christ.

Anyway, I was thinking about this as I was reading Cyprian of Carthage’s De Unitate (On the Unity of the Church) the other week. You see, Cyprian has this glorious insight connected with Christ’s seamless robe and how the soldiers cast lots for it rather than divide it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on Christ’s seamless robe. I can’t even imagine how an evangelical sermon would be preached on it. It might just briefly be mentioned as a fulfilment of prophecy. And yet it’s a detail that’s mentioned in each of the four gospels. (Just think – Jesus’ cry of ‘It is finished’ is only mentioned in one gospel! – John 19:30.)