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.)

Saturday, 22 November 2014

What does it actually mean for God to come down or rise up?

Now, perhaps you think I was a bit too harsh on a chorus the other day. After all, it’s tagged onto one of the great hymns of the Incarnation. But, apart from (as I’ve already mentioned) distracting us from the great truth of the Incarnate Christ of which we sing in the verses, what do the words actually mean?

For a start, this is Old Testament language. The New Testament never speaks of God rising up – apart from Christ’s rising up in His resurrection from the dead. The New Testament never speaks of God coming down – apart from Christ’s coming down in the Incarnation (John 6:33, 38, 42, 50). And both of those events have already taken place, so we can’t be calling on God to perform them now. So these expressions can’t be being used in a New Testament way, and that suggests they must be being used in an Old Testament way.

So, how does the Old Testament talk about God coming down and rising up? Once, the Old Testament speaks of the LORD coming down to fight for Zion (Isa. 31:4). In Psalm 144:5, David prays for the LORD to come down to bring salvation through bringing judgement upon His enemies. Jeremiah 21:13 and Micah 1:3 speak of God coming down in wrath to execute His judgment. So, on the whole the Old Testament evidence suggests that to speak of God coming down is to speak of Him coming in His righteous judgement upon sin.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

How Christmas Reveals Our Problem with Worship

One of the wonders of Christmas is the music. Many of us look forward to the songs we don’t get to sing at any other time of the year. Even instruments which are shunned from January to November are not only tolerated but actively welcomed at Christmas time. Christmas has its own songs, its own music, its own style. And we all know where the carols of Christmas belong. They sound fantastic at our Carols by Candlelight services. They sound sublime sung by the boy choristers on Christmas Eve in Carols from Kings.

But then, so many seem to find them so awkward on a Sunday morning in a typical Pentecostal or evangelical service. We quickly get rid of them by the second day of Christmas – if not before! You see, I’ve witnessed a few pastors saying that they don’t want carols – they want worship – on Christmas morning at the Breaking of Bread. So, what’s the difference then between carols and ‘worship’? Is there one at all? And does our problem with carols say anything about today’s evangelical church?

Friday, 14 November 2014

Mother of God – Yes, Mother of God

December is fast approaching, and with it the one time of the year when we evangelicals tend to mention Mary. For how could we speak of the Nativity without speaking of the Blessed Virgin? And yet, so often as I hear Mary mentioned in the run up to Christmas, I sink a little in my seat, for, you see, not only do we evangelicals keep Mary for December, but often we get so nervous when we bring her out for that brief cameo, that we end up jumping straight from Mary to accidental heresies.

Ironically, it’s the fear of heresy that leads into heresy on this particular subject. Now, I come from Northern Ireland, so this is perhaps slightly more pronounced there given the general consciousness of Roman Catholic attitudes to Mary, but I’ve heard it on the mainland and further afield as well. It seems that, when we evangelicals talk about Mary, suddenly a huge desire to distinguish ourselves from Popery kicks in. And so suddenly asides and excurses are fitted panickedly into sermons loudly declaring that Mary is NOT the Mother of God. The only problem with that is that she is!

Yes, Mary is the Mother of God. And no, this is not a declaration of a conversion to Rome. You see, the fact that Mary is the Mother of God has nothing to do with the veneration of Mary, but everything to do with who Jesus is.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Why Pentecostals and Charismatics have all the more reason to rejoice on Reformation Day (A Reformation Day Re-Post)

Today is Reformation Day. Admittedly, it’s not the biggest of non-official holidays (there even happens to be another unofficial holiday taking place today that’s getting all the attention, which explains why there were ghosts in the shop this evening instead of hammer wielding monks), but it is the unofficial holiday of which I am most fond.

You see reformation day isn’t about cards or presents or activities (and hopefully never will be!), but rather it’s simply a reminder in the year of one of the greatest events in the history of Europe, the Protestant Reformation, and what it stood for (helpfully summed up in 5 Solas). It’s an annual reminder of the power of God’s Word and of the glory of the gospel that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

For some reason though, Reformation Day doesn't seem to be all that big a deal in Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Now, I’m sure that part of that is that we just tend not to be very historically rooted; we tend to forget about most of what happened in the life of the church either before the Welsh Revival or before the charismatic renewal. (In fact, sometimes it feels like we easily forget anything that happened in the life of the church before last Sunday!) And this aversion to history is definitely something we need to get over quickly (after all we profess that we believe in “the communion of the saints”, not just the communion of the saints who happen to be on earth at this particular moment).

Yet, fear of history isn’t the only thing that keeps us at a distance from reminders of the Reformation. Some Pentecostals and charismatics seem to be purposefully moving away from identifying with the heirs of the Reformers, whether with ecumenical goals or with a desire to be seen as distinct from Protestantism. Others are slipping away, by preaching more about what we’re doing than what Christ has done. Still others want to build identity on experience rather than belief (which I’ve seen worked out in practice as giving experience of speaking in tongues priority over clarity on the gospel!).

But, My intention isn’t to go about diagnosing our problems. Rather I simply want to point out today, on Reformation Day, that Pentecostals and charismatics have all the more reason to be properly Protestant than anyone else! (Yes, that is a bit of hyperbole, but indulge me.)

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Help, the Arians are Coming!: Now Even Statistics Show Our Desperate Need of Catechesis

Fulgentius might not be the most famous of figures in the history of the church, but he was a very interesting chap. Not only was he a significant theologian, but he was also remembered as a great preacher. (Apparently his Archbishop was moved to tears every time he heard Fulgentius preach and publicly gave thanks to God for the gift of such a preacher to His Church.) But one of the most interesting things about Fulgentius is really more a feature of the times in which he lived. For, you see, Fulgentius spent much of his ministry in exile from his church. Why? Because Fulgentius believed that Jesus is God, but the church had been overrun by the Arian heresy.

Fulgentius was on my mind after reading an article in Christianity Today this week which showed that Arianism lives today – and I don’t mean in the extremes of liberal theology or among well-known cults. No – Arianism lives today among evangelical Christians. Apparently 31% of Evangelicals either think the Father is more divine than Jesus or aren’t sure, and 27% either think that Jesus is the first creature created by God or aren’t sure. That suggests that over a quarter of American evangelicals are Arians, not believing in the true deity of Jesus.

And it’s not only Arianism. More than half of evangelicals (51%) believe that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being, with another 7% who aren’t sure. That means that only 42% of evangelicals actually believe in the personhood of the third person of the Trinity – which really means that less than half of evangelicals actually believe in the Trinity!

When it comes to salvation, 68% believe that ‘a person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace.’ But that’s Semi-Pelagianism, which, once again, is a formal heresy. (Ironically, evangelicals are even more likely to strongly agree to this heretical statement than those they often like to accuse of Semi-Pelagianism.)

Now those three questions highlighted by Christianity Today are only a few of the many issues covered by the survey. (You can see the whole thing, as well as highlights at www.thestateoftheology.com). Yet even these three survey findings are reason for pause. The deity of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation by God’s grace are surely of the essence of evangelical theology, and yet significant numbers of evangelicals reject those basic doctrines of the Christian faith. In two of those cases, it’s the majority who reject those basic doctrines. How have we got to this state? And what is to be done about it?

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Love Stronger than Death: A Law-Gospel Wedding Sermon on a special anniversary

Scripture Readings: Ps. 121; Cant. 8:6; Col. 3:12-17

Everybody loves a wedding. All the best stories end with weddings: ‘And they got married and lived happily ever after.’ But why do we love weddings so much? Well that’s easy, because they’re all about love. We’ve read about love from the Song of Solomon this morning: ‘Place me like a seal over your heart ... for love is as strong as death ... love flashes like fire, the brightest kind of flame’ (Cant. 8:6).

Song of Solomon is a love song right in the middle of the Bible. The very first verse of the Song tells us that it’s the Song of Songs which is Solomon’s (Cant. 1:1). Song of Songs – that means the greatest song of all. So the greatest song is a love song!

And this verse that we’ve read, Cant. 8:6, is a conversation between a bride and a bridegroom. The Bride needs to know that she’s loved. She needs to know that it’s not just that she’s quite useful to have around – it’s not a marriage for a political alliance, it’s not a marriage for the financial benefit of the families (like something from Downton Abbey), it’s not because she’s a good cook and he’s hopeless in the kitchen. And it’s certainly not, (as might be most relevant today) because having her around might mean he’ll occasionally manage to turn up somewhere on time. She needs to know that it’s not any of those things, but her bridegroom has to really love her. ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.’

And this isn’t just some romantic notion, but God’s design for marriage. Eph. 5:25 – ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.’ What sort of love is that? That’s not just a case of ‘I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes.’ It’s Sacrificial Love! Real love isn’t about getting, but about giving.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Proclaiming Jesus from the Very Beginning: 11 Sermons on Genesis 1-11

Today (23rd October) is the anniversary of the creation of the world (well, at least according to Archbishop Ussher's early 17th Century calculations). So in celebration, I thought it would be good to go back to the very beginning. So here are 11 sermons from the first 11 chapters of the Bible: from Creation to the Tower of Babel.

Of course, Archbishop Ussher and 23rd October don't actually feature in these sermons. Instead Jesus does, because the whole Bible, right from the very beginning is a book about Jesus. And Jesus is present and active right from the outset.

Friday, 10 October 2014

On my youthful eschatological fear of Crocodiles: Some thoughts on the Resurrection of the Dead

When I was very young I was fascinated by crocodiles. Yet I was also terrified of them. Now, I lived in Northern Ireland, so there wasn’t all that much risk of encountering a crocodile in the village and thus meeting a grizzly end. But that didn’t matter, because, you see, my fear was not of the grizzly end – for, as rather a young child I had little concept of how horrid such a grizzly end would really be - but rather, my fear was of what would come next, after said grizzly end. So, it wasn’t so much a risk assessment terror I had of crocodiles, as an eschatological terror.

And then one day the unthinkable happened. Our pastor was called as a missionary to South Africa, which meant that his two children – my friends – would be moving to a land where there actually were crocodiles. This led to two things: 1) excitement that they would be able to send me a postcard of a crocodile from South Africa (which they duly did), and 2) the great fear that my friends could possibly be eaten by a crocodile (a fear which, however, was not great enough to cancel out the importance of the postcard request).

At that age I had no real concept of violence and suffering. Yet, I did have a real concept of something else, something which made my being-eaten-by-a-crocodile fear very important for me. And what was this? It was the resurrection of the dead. For you see this was my crocodile fear: if you got eaten by a crocodile, how would you get out of the crocodile at the resurrection. (As I’ve said, I was very young, so the intervening death of the crocodile, never mind any other unpleasant consequences of being eaten, didn’t feature at all in my thinking: for me it was all a question of how you would get out of the crocodile’s tummy.) So perturbed was I about the possible fate of my friends – missing out on the resurrection because of getting eaten by a crocodile – that I had no other choice but to ask my father about this dilemma.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

On the Church and On Sin: With a (former) Tory MP and a Catholic Priest

What with the Extraordinary Synod going on in Rome this week, the Roman Catholic Church has been in the news a bit of late. And as a result of all this pre-synod hype in the media, two Roman Catholics wrote two of the best articles I read last week. One was an article in the Catholic Herald by a priest. The other was an article in the Spectator by a former MP. You should read both of them. (But if you're not going to read both, then please at least read the second one!)

Now, maybe that seems a bit odd. I am, after all, both a Pentecostal pastor and an Ulster Protestant. And as such, I'm convinced that very significant aspects of Roman Catholic theology are seriously wrong. I still believe that justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't read, and even learn from, Roman Catholics. Although we are justified by faith alone, it is by faith in Christ alone, not faith in the right formulation of the doctrine of justification!

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith's article expresses something to which we so often officially believe, but practically forget: the ontological reality of the Body of Christ:
One needs to distinguish here between a group of people who are united sociologically (for want of a better word) and a group of people who are united in Christ, which is a theological reality. Unity in Christ is something we are always on the way to achieving, if we were not constantly impeded by our sins. Thus we should be in a constant state of repentance for our sins, in that they frustrate the unity that Christ prayed for and which He bequeathed us on Calvary... This is the true fault line: those who believe in the Body of Christ and our vocation to belong to it through baptism, and those who believe the Church needs to catch up with the world, and other such dreary clichés. St Paul had to put up with a lot of them, because he writes: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).That was sound advice in the first century, and it remains sound advice today.
Lucie-Smith's mention in there of sin as not only a personal problem, but also an ecclesiological problem (i.e. our sins impede our unity in the one Body of Christ), resonates too with the second article.

Louise Mensch has written in the Spectator an article which is, at the same time surprising, powerful, profoundly sad, and beautiful. And this is not an article by a priest or theologian, but rather by the ordinary (albeit prominent) Catholic in the pew. This is an ordinary believer dealing with sin and church and salvation and Jesus and grace. It's not someone rolling out the official line before the Synod, but rather someone who, in the eyes of the world, should be advocating change, doing the very opposite of all worldly expectations. And why? For the simple reason that she believes.