Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Apostleship, Communion and Unity: The Bradford Area as a Test Case

I’ve been thinking some very theological thoughts, so thought I’d try and clarify them by putting them into concrete terms. Last week I wrote about Benjamin McNair Scott’s book on apostleship and reflected a bit on Peter Wagner’s views. Today I’m going to write a bit more about apostleship (understood in a way rather different from that of Wagner).

I’m not sure how to say this without getting all my Apostolic and all my Anglican friends shouting at me at once, but, theologically, our apostles basically equate to their bishops. Before anyone gets annoyed with me for saying that, let me just say that, yes, functionally and practically there are significant differences (and even theological differences about the office itself), but theologically they play a very similar role. (And in case anyone’s worried that I’ve lost the plot and just started making things up, let me stress that this point isn’t original to me – I got it from D.P. Williams who saw the ministry of the Apostolic Church in terms of the 3 historic orders of ministry in the Christian church: the apostolic ministry/episcopate, the presbyterial ministry, and the diaconate. If you want to know about that, it’ll hopefully be in the final version of my PhD, as long as I don’t have to cut too many words.)

Anyway, Simon Chan (in his book Pentecostal Ecclesiology) has pointed out that Pentecostals need to build on their episcopal impulse (and, he notes, ‘whether [it] is called episcopal or apostolic ... is a moot point’, so, like D.P. Williams, he sees the connection between the two) by reflecting on what the church has already said about the historic episcopacy. In fact, he sees this as a significant way of guarding against misguided versions of apostleship (like the one advocated by Wagner). One of the things Dr Chan particularly highlights is the connection between the bishop/apostle and communion.

In the tradition of the Christian church, a bishop is a ‘focus and sign of unity.’ Thus the apostolic ministry is closely tied to the communion of the church. After all, the early church continued steadfastly not only in the apostles’ doctrine, but also in the apostles’ fellowship (Acts 2:42).

But what does that look like in practice. I thought I’d take the Bradford Area as a concrete example. Now, I realise things are a bit different up here than in other parts of the country, as we are the only Area with an area apostle who does not have the responsibility of a local assembly. But that’s part of the reason why I’m using our Area as my concrete example, as, in many ways, that helps make this communion aspect of the apostolic ministry more visible here.

So, here in the Bradford Area we (currently) have two apostles: let’s call them the apostle in Leeds (†Leeds) and the apostle in Bradford (†Bradford). †Leeds is the area apostle, †Bradford pastors the mother church of the Area. As he doesn’t have the responsibility of pastoring one local assembly, †Leeds regularly visits each of the assemblies in the Area. That means that each assembly sees him about once every other month – about 6 times a year – and so he’s much more than simply a visiting preacher. Such regular presence allows for a different kind of communion. The people in each church don’t know him simply as the area apostle who signs the odd letter or whom they see at one-off Area services. Instead, he is part of the life of their assembly. In a sense, he belongs to them – he’s not the pastor of a neighbouring church, but rather part of their own church: one with them.

And so when it does come to Area services, when †Leeds preaches or takes the Table, he does so not as ‘the’ apostle (imposing an authority from above), but rather as ‘their’ apostle (representing them and their churches, as well as standing in persona Christi). Thus the authority of the area apostle is an authority-in-communion: not an appropriation to the individual of authority, but the authority of the church expressed through the apostle in loving communion.

This communion of the people of the churches with the area apostle also has an impact on the unity of the area, for while he is ‘their’ apostle, he isn’t uniquely theirs. They share him with each of the other assemblies in the area. And so unity with the apostle brings with it unity between the assemblies.

Now, of course, it’s not the apostle who creates this unity. It is Christ Himself who is the unity of the church and who brings this unity of the church as one in Himself about through His Holy Spirit. The church is one, has always been one, and will always be one. Yet, we do not always live out the unity which is ours in Christ. But again, we need to be careful here, it’s not the apostle who enables us to live out this unity, but Christ the Head of the Church who ministers through the apostle. Christ is the true apostle, and so all true apostolic ministry can only be carried out in union with Christ. It is Christ the Apostle who is at work through his apostle.

So, as the area apostle draws the assemblies together in unity, it is Christ who is at work drawing his people together as one. This isn’t an imposed unity, but a unity in loving communion, which then expresses itself in prayer, and care, and fellowship. As the area apostle moves about among the assemblies, the people of the assemblies hear of what’s going on in each of the other assemblies – not through a formal report, but in the context of fellowship – and that leads to opportunities to pray for one another, to provide help and care for one another, and to join together in worship in united fellowship.

In our Area we don’t have a lot of Area services. Gone are the days of District rallies and Area conventions. Apart from special events (like ordinations, installations and farewells) we only tend to get together (as churches) twice a year: on Good Friday and at Whitsun. Both happen in Leeds, so I’m always one of the last to leave. So I can tell you this, despite the infrequency of our combined services, there is a warm communion between the people of the various assemblies in the Bradford Area. We’re united, not by a vision statement (we, thankfully, don’t have such a thing) or a style (in all our unity, there’s a wide stylistic diversity between the assemblies of the Area). Rather, we’re united by and in Christ through the Spirit, and that unity and warm fellowship has been expressed throughout the year in our communion with our area apostle. As the area apostle shares in the life of each of our churches, then our churches share in each other’s lives through him.

Now, maybe some of that sounds a bit strange. But for those of you who are part of the Bradford Area, although you might not have quite expressed it like that, you can probably recognise our experience in what I’ve written. I’ve simply tried to express a bit theologically the lived reality of the church in our Area.

Our area apostle is about to retire, and things will look different in the future. Not every apostle is the same – as I said at the outset, for these last five years the Bradford Area has been somewhat unique – but this happens to be one of the great strengths of our current apostle. He’s a good and faithful preacher of Jesus Christ, excellent in administration (as the wider Apostolic Church in the UK well knows!), a caring pastor to the pastors and elders of the Area, yet in and through all those things he’s brought a deeper communion between the churches of the Area. (I imagine that at his farewell service, we’ll see quite concretely that he really has been a focus and sign of our unity.)

Now, if people had been expecting a Wagner-esque ‘apostle’, with his extraordinary authority, mega-church building, and ‘catalysing’ of ‘networks’, they might be disappointed. Our apostleship simply doesn’t look like that (and nor, would I argue, should it). Instead we’ve got something much better. For, if people are looking for one sent from Christ the Head of the Church as a representative in the outworking of His purpose in the church, then what could be better than an apostle who builds up the churches in unity together in Jesus! After all, Christ’s prayer for the church is ‘that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me’ (John 17:21).

Most of the assemblies in our area have been growing over the past few years. In several of them the congregation has doubled or more than doubled. But in all of them there’s been a much more significant growth: a spiritual growth, a growth in Christ-likeness. We’ve been growing together as a church in the area in health and maturity in Christ, and our communion together has been a significant factor in that. And so, I rather suspect that that growing in healthiness has a lot to do with the growing congregations.

So, when our area apostle retires next month, we don’t need to panic that things are going to collapse. While a Wagner-esque ‘apostleship’ of extraordinary authority rests very much on the man, an apostle who builds as the focus and sign of unity builds something that will stand strong and stable long after he’s gone. Ephesians 2:20 talks about the foundation laid by apostles and prophets. If an apostle tries to lay a foundation in his own charisma, it won’t last long after him. But a foundation laid in loving communion (which is, after all, the very nature of the Triune God) is a foundation laid deep in Christ, and so in Christ it will stand strong.

Anyway, that’s plenty for now. Next time I’ll write about how that connection of communion and apostleship works beyond our own internal life as an Area.
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Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Songs for the Ascension (Plus one "En Français")

Thursday is the greatest day of the year — Ascension Day! There aren't nearly enough worship songs nowadays about the Ascension of Christ, so — in anticipation of the big day itself — here are a few songs on the theme of the Ascension of our Lord. Click on the title of the first one for a video and the next three for simple audio recordings. (There's also a link to the first one in French — il y a aussi un lien vers le premier chanson en français.)

1. Before the Throne of God Above  [Words, Chords and Sheet Music]  (Charitie Bancroft)

Surely this must be one of the greatest hymns of all time. It's certainly one of my favourites, and a favourite in my assembly too. There are some songs that people mumble along to for years, but there are others where longstanding members and brand new people alike just suddenly burst into song with joy. In our church, this is one of those. (Also, Charitie Bancroft was from Northern Ireland, like me.) The wonderful new tune we all know it to was written by Vikki Cook. (For another Vikki Cook ascension song, see under Hail the Day below).

(And just for good measure, here it is in French — Voici un vidéo de la traduction française.)


2. See the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph  [Words]  (Christopher Wordsworth)
     (RH 198; NRH 274)
     Tune: Hyfrydol (I will sing the wondrous story)

This hymn is full of fantastic ascension theology. We've been singing every year at Ascensiontide since I came to Leeds 5 years ago. (We didn't know the tune in the book, so we just chose a tune we did know, and it works quite well that way.)


3. Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise   [Words]  (Charles Wesley)
     (RH 188; NRH 266)
     Tune: Llanfair  (it will also work the tune of Christ the Lord is Risen Today)
   
If you want something more contemporary, Steve and Vikki Cook (who wrote the tune we all know for Before the Throne of God) have adapted the words of this one and set it to new music with a chorus and bridge. Have a listen to their version here.


4. Where High the Heavenly Temple Stands   [Words]  (Old Scottish Paraphrase for Heb. 4:14 ff.)
     (RH 201; NRH 281)
      Tune: Boston  (the American tune for When I Survey the Wondrous Cross)

The Old Scottish Paraphrases have never had a great press, but their job was simply to put what the Bible says in ways that could be sung. You could almost think of this as a sermon in song — and what a sermon this one is! Here's one verse as an example:
In every pang that rends the heart
The Man of Sorrows has a part;
He sympathizes with our grief,
And to the sufferer sends relief.

5. He is the King of Kings (Glorified, Risen and Ascended)

Okay, I thought I'd find a video of this on Youtube to link to, but it turns out I couldn't find it anywhere. However it's the sort of old Pentecostal chorus that I'm sure lots of people know.

He is the King of Kings;
He is the Lord of Lords;
He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 
Glorified, Risen and Ascended;
Glorified, Risen Lord.
Glorified, Risen and Ascended;
Glorified, Risen Lord.

P.S. Here's a post from a few years ago on singing Ascension Day Psalms.
P.P.S. For more on the Ascension, click on the Ascension label at the bottom of the blog.
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Friday, 8 May 2015

"Apostle": You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I’m in the middle of reading a fascinating book by Benjamin McNair Scott on apostles (Apostles Today: Making Sense of Contemporary Charismatic Apostolates: A Historical and Theological Appraisal). It’s the book of his PhD dissertation, which is fascinating enough in itself – a PhD on apostles in the church today by a Church of England priest.

It’s already got me thinking a lot. After all, I’m an Apostolic, and if there’s one thing people generally associate with the Apostolic Church it’s our belief in apostles for today. And what’s more, I wrote my MTh dissertation on apostleship, and the subject even makes it into one of my PhD chapters as well.

One of the things it’s got me thinking about is how our theology can easily be changed or even subverted through unnoticed redefinition. I’ve written somewhere before (though possibly not on the blog) about how Wayne Grudem’s view of prophecy totally transforms what prophecy is by classical Apostolic understandings. However, there haven’t been any books in print which present the Apostolic understanding for decades and we no longer have our own theological college or any source of theological training for our pastors in this country, so they have no access to teaching on the classical Apostolic understanding (other than what might or might not have been handed down in church life). Grudem’s books are both readily available and widely recommended (I, too, often encourage people to get hold of some of his books, like Bible Doctrines, Systematic Theology, or Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth) and so people read what he says about prophecy and often accept his definitions. Thus, without really realising it, our understanding of something like prophecy is transformed by redefinition. (Now, I’m not saying this has entirely happened in the UK Apostolic Church, but I do hear more and more people speaking about prophecy in more and more Grudemesque terms. So the influence is there, and I reckon it’s growing.)

Anyway, one of the chapters in McNair Scott’s book has got me thinking on the same lines about apostleship. In one chapter he presents an overview of the teachings of 5 popular charismatic teachers on apostleship, and it demonstrated to me just how radically different some of the common ideas about apostleship doing the rounds today are from the either the classical Apostolic position or the biblical view (which, after writing an MTh on the subject, I’d argue aren’t that far apart).

Anyway, if you want the 5 overviews, get McNair Scott’s book and read it. But I just want to take one as an example here of the radical difference: C. Peter Wagner.

Wagner defines an apostle as:
a Christian leader gifted, taught, commissioned, and sent by God with the authority to establish the foundational government of the church within an assigned sphere and/or spheres of ministry by hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches and by setting things in order accordingly for the expansion of the kingdom of God.
(The definition is from Wagner’s book Apostles Today, and is cited on p.66 of McNair Scott’s book.)

At a glance, it might not seem that shocking. Wagner talks about church government, he talks about the Holy Spirit’s work, He talks about sending by God. But actually, the way he talks about these things is a bit worrying.

Yes, Wagner talks about church government – but he seems to set the apostle outside of that government. The apostle can establish government in the church, but he doesn’t appear to be subject to it. For Wager, a single apostle has ‘”extraordinary” spiritual authority “to assume and exercise general leadership.”’ Apostles, he insists, have ‘exceptional authority.’ This might be over a network of churches, over individuals, over a specialised ministry, or over a geographic territory!

Essentially, Wagner’s apostles are non-ecclesial. Some of them might take authority over churches, but they don’t seem to come under the authority of the church and seem to be able to exist far outside the structures of the church. What’s more, they seem to be, to a large degree, lone-ranger apostles. Yes, Wagner leads some sort of coalition of apostles, and he talks about horizontal apostles who bring apostles together to cooperate in things, but this is essentially a coming together of individuals. It is not a collegiate apostleship (one of the fundamental marks of Apostolic apostleship – when the 2016 ‘centenary’ comes round next year what it’s actually the centenary of is a stand our apostles took over collegiate apostleship against an attempt by an individual to assert his own apostolic authority).

Apostolic apostles cannot be non-ecclesial, because our whole understanding of apostleship is tied up with Christ’s Headship of the Church. Christ, the Head of the Church, is the true Apostle (Heb. 3:1), and He gives gifts of men to His Church, who, through their ministry in union with Him, express His apostleship. That’s also why we need a collegiate apostleship – no one man by himself can express the fullness of the apostleship which is in Christ Jesus.

(The non-ecclesial nature of Wagner’s apostles comes across too in the way he links them with ‘the expansion of the kingdom,’ rather than the building of the Church. I’ve been hearing this creeping in recently in our circles – the idea that the church exists for the kingdom. But in Apostolic theology it’s the other way round. Christ and His Church are at the centre of Gods’ Eternal Purpose. As D.P. Williams wrote, ‘There is nothing higher nor nearer the heart of our glorified Lord than His Church.’)

Wagner’s talk about ‘hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ troubles me as well. Here we have a man, who is accountable only to God and perhaps any peer-to-peer apostle accountability that he has set up for himself, who comes to the church to tell them what the Holy Spirit is saying. Yet, when the true and living God speaks, He speaks an open Word. He doesn’t give secrets to individuals so that the church must receive their secret knowledge. That sounds much more like Gnosticism than Christianity. When God speaks in prophecy, He encourages – in fact, commands – the church to weigh and judge it to make sure that it is God speaking. We are not to accept that something is of God just because one person says so, even if they claim the sort of divine authority Wagner seems to want to give to his ‘apostles.’

Biblical apostles didn’t give themselves to bringing secret messages from the Holy Spirit to individual churches. No; they gave themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). That’s how apostles tell churches what the Holy Spirit is doing – by preaching the Gospel Word of salvation in Jesus Christ (for that’s what the Holy Spirit is doing – applying the Redemption purchased by Christ). Such independence on the part of apostles together with a view of them as the people who alone hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches opens up a very real danger of abuse.

Wagner also differentiates between the gift of apostleship and the office of apostle. McNair Scott summarises this: ‘the gift is given by grace alone, but the office is attained “as a result of works that have demonstrated faithfulness in stewardship of the gift.”’ Perhaps I’m misreading McNair Scott’s summary at this point, as I realise now that the word ‘attain’ is his word, not part of the quote from Wagner, but this sounds like it makes God’s Gifts (for the office is a gift to the church, even if Wagner wants to separate the two terms) dependent, not on grace alone, but on grace and our cooperation with grace. This, then, leads people’s understanding of grace and gifts away from the Reformation evangelicalism to a much more Roman position (especially given the huge emphasis which Wagner places on apostleship – with such a view it’s only to be expected that people would take it as a model of how God’s giving of gifts works in general).

Ultimately, I fear that Wagner’s view of apostleship leads to a Theology of Glory (as opposed to a Theology of the Cross) – looking for God and His works in the things that seem biggest, brightest and best to us, rather than looking at them through the Cross. For example, Wagner’s idea of an ‘congregational’ apostle is the pastor of a very big church – one that grows beyond 700 or 800 people. Now, maybe this shouldn’t be all that surprising – after all, Wagner was the ‘church growth’ guru – but numbers are all that matters here. In worldly terms, it looks successful. And so apostleship is, for Wagner, associated with (apparent) success. He even advocates something he calls a ‘workplace apostle’ (the whole idea of which seems to have no biblical support) who are business entrepreneurs who can be identified ‘owing to their level of wealth’!

Contrast that with D.P. Williams, who insisted that apostleship entails suffering in fellowship with Christ. The Church and her ministers ‘can hold glory only to the extent that we are crucified.’ Unless there is this sort of cruciform apostleship, they’ll be like ‘children playing on the seashore’ with ‘superficialities’ rather than ‘facing the rough seas’ and so venturing into the deep waters of God’s Eternal Purpose in Christ. When Williams talks about the power of apostles, he writes:
The Apostleship is invested with power and authority to carry forth the Revelation committed unto them: in prayer, intercession, the ministry of the Word; to preach, teach and heal; to toil, labour and suffer; to ordain Elders, impart spiritual Gifts (confirmed of God with signs and wonders); to rule and govern with demonstration of Divine wisdom, knowledge and discernment.
See that – power to suffer. (And, by the way, the power, he says, is invested in the apostleship, not in a lone apostle.)

Ultimately, my fear is that Wagner’s view of apostleship leads to a rather man-centred message. It seems like he places a lot of emphasis on the importance of having (his version of) apostles – so much so that the church must restore them in order to experience a great end-times revival. He sees apostles as being able to ‘take territory from the enemy and convert it to the kingdom.’ In fact, on the website of his coalition, the statement of belief states that the fivefold ministries (including apostles) will ‘establish the Kingdom of God on earth’! Surely only Jesus can give reviving, not mere men, and certainly only Jesus can establish His Kingdom.

Apostles are not the hope of the church, only Jesus is. As D.P. Williams warned, ‘If we put our trust in the gifts, and not in the Giver, we shall soon become prodigals from our Father’s Home.’

So, Wagner might use the same word as us, but he means something very different. He says he believes in apostles today, and we believe in apostles today. But that doesn’t mean we believe the same thing at all.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll have more to say about McNair Scott’s book in the future, as I haven’t finished reading it yet (and also, he’s already promised that he’s going to talk about apostleship in the Apostolic Church in a later chapter).
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Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Even the Italians aren’t Memorialists (Or even more evidence that Apostolics aren’t Zwinglians!)

My Italian isn’t brilliant, but I’ve been managing to work through part of the section on the Lord’s Supper in the Catechismo Apostolico (which is the Catechism of the Italian Apostolic Church). The Catechismo isn’t a small book in question and answer format like our old British Apostolic catechisms used to be (and yes, we had several over the years, some in Welsh and some in English), but a 230 page book which sets out ‘the doctrinal content of the Christian faith’. It isn’t anywhere nearly as detailed and exhaustive as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but it’s quite impressive for Pentecostals. I suspect that it’s no coincidence that it was published the year before the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was promulgated – as one scholar has noted, there tends to be a ‘muted apologetic against ... Italian Catholicism’ in Italian Apostolic doctrinal works.

And that’s what makes the Catechismo so interesting when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. You see, if any national Apostolic Church was to state a Zwinglian Memorialist view, you’d expect it to be the Italians by way of reaction to Roman Catholic teaching (remember the ‘muted apologetic against ... Catholicism’). Yet even they don’t.

According to the Catechismo, ‘the Lord's Supper is much more important and complex than imagined by those who simply see it as a simple commemoration of past events.’ See that! It’s not just a commemoration. Instead the Supper ‘expresses in the present the communion of believers with their Saviour and therefore among themselves.’

The Catechismo explicitly excludes the sacramentalism of the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to the Supper (along with the sacrifice of the Mass), arguing that ‘it is absurd to think that participation in the Lord's Supper produces the communion with the Lord and among the participants.’ Instead, participation in the sacrament ‘expresses and reinforces’ the already existing communion ‘if the participants know how to discern the Lord's body.’

‘The Lord is truly present among believers who celebrate the Supper.’ This is not a physical presence in the sense of transubstantiation, but yet it is a real spiritual presence. There should be a great respect for the sacrament, and so ‘the remains of the bread and wine used for the Supper are destroyed, and so not put to a profane use.’ (By the way, that’s also supposed to be the case in the UK.)

The Catechismo does play the Italian Apostolic understanding of the sacrament off against the Roman Catholic teaching. But that doesn’t cause the Italian Apostolics to run for cover to the opposite extreme of Zwinglian Memorialism. Ultimately they appear to take a Calvinist spiritual presence view (in common with most early British Apostolics – those who weren’t Calvinists at the Table had an even higher view), and emphasise the Supper as a meal of loving communion, a covenant renewal, and a foretaste of the New Jerusalem and the perfect eternal communion of theosis. (NB The undestanding of salvation as theosis in the Catechismo – ‘ultimately, to be a Christian means to participate in the Trinitarian life of God.’)
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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

D.P. Williams on the true test of what’s from the Holy Spirit


Watch lest the under-currents will capture you. There is an under-current at work; and in its outward manifestation, it is imitating the Spirit of God. And it is trying, and often succeeding , to carry with it many of God’s children because it is such a close copy, such a good imitation of the real thing. But try the spirits, says the Word. Test them, examine them so as to see whether they agree with the Blood, with Calvary and the Atonement. That is the supreme test. I tell you, the Apostolic Church believes in the Blood, believes that the only condition and basis of the world’s restoration is Calvary’s Cross. Let us watch the under-currents.


(D.P. Willliams, Penygroes Convention, 1933 – Riches of Grace,  ix.5, May 1934, p.179)
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Sunday, 5 April 2015

Christ is Risen! (Happy Easter)

Alleluia. Christ is Risen.
He is Risen indeed. Alleluia.


Here are the full words of Luther's Easter hymn:
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands,
For our offenses given;
But now at God’s right hand He stands,
And brings us life from Heaven.
Wherefore let us joyful be,
And sing to God right thankfully
Loud songs of Alleluia! Alleluia! 
No son of man could conquer death,
Such mischief sin had wrought us,
For innocence dwelt not on earth,
And therefore death had brought us
Into thralldom from of old
And ever grew more strong and bold
And kept us in his bondage. Alleluia! 
Christ Jesus, God's own Son, came down,
His people to deliver;
Destroying sin He took the crown
From death's pale brow forever:
Stripped of power, no more it reigns;
An empty form alone remains;
Its sting is lost forever. Alleluia! 
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life;
The reign of death was ended.
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death
Its sting is lost forever! Alleluia! 
Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
So strong His love!—to save us.
See, His blood doth mark our door;
Faith points to it, death passes over,
And Satan cannot harm us. Alleluia! 
So let us keep the festival
Where to the Lord invites us;
Christ is Himself the joy of all,
The sun that warms and lights us.
By His grace He doth impart
Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended! Alleluia! 
Then let us feast this Easter day
On the true bread of Heaven;
The Word of grace hath purged away
The old and wicked leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed;
He is our meat and drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other! Alleluia!
                  (Martin Luther)

(By the way, the song starts about 1 minute 55 into the video.)
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Friday, 3 April 2015

Good Friday's Already Good: Don't Be Scared!

Good Friday, as the name might possibly give away, is a very good day indeed. And that means we don't have to be embarrassed, scared, or uncomfortable about this, one of the preeminent days of the Christian calendar.

Embarrassed, scared, or uncomfortable? How could that be when we celebrate Good Friday with our Facebook statuses and even the possible thought of going to church?, you ask. And I reply that, yes, even amidst the Facebook status updates and thoughts of maybe going to church, even while (to an extent) embracing Good Friday, sometimes we still show ourselves to be embarrassed, scared and uncomfortable.

After all, we wouldn't dream of just possibly thinking about maybe going to church to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Sunday (even those who only show up twice a year know how important the Resurrection is).

But even more than that, what about when we actually make it to a Good Friday service, update our Facebook status in a seasonably appropriate way, or pay any much attention to the day (other than as a bank holiday of course) at all? Then our embarrassments, fears and discomfort can really have the opportunity to shine through. How? By trying to make Good Friday Good and forgetting that it's Good already!

We so easily turn ourselves into apologists for Good Friday, but when we do, the day loses its true meaning. We decide we want to brighten up the decor ("after all, black's a bit gloomy"), cheer up the songs ("death's a bit depressing"), chase out the quietness, and generally make Friday Good by skipping over Friday. "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming", people enthusiastically proclaim, as if Friday has no goodness of its own.

Now, don't get me wrong - the Cross and the Resurrection, Good Friday and Easter - belong inseparably together. But that doesn't require an "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming" attitude. For Friday itself is Good! Perhaps not good in the way the world thinks of goodness, but Good in the only way that truly matters - God's way; for on Good Friday God displayed His goodness by demonstrating His love for us on the Cross where Jesus bore the wrath for us, in our place.

We don't need to be embarrassed, scared or uncomfortable on Good Friday, trying to skip over it to Easter Sunday with an "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming" attitude, because on Good Friday Jesus declared "It is finished!" - on Good Friday Jesus bore our sins in His body on the Tree; on Good Friday Jesus defeated death, hell and the devil; on Good Friday Jesus made an end to our sin forever through His once and for all sacrifice for us on the Cross. Isn't that sufficient reason to celebrate Good Friday for Good Friday (rather than merely a case of "Sunday's coming")!

You see, Good Friday is Good, we don't need to make it Good. And perhaps our attitudes to Good Friday tell us something about our ideas of goodness. We so often associate "good" with power and strength, yet on Good Friday we see God's goodness displayed in weakness, suffering and death. Yet, it's only through this weakness, suffering and death that we find true life, true power, and true strength.

So don't be embarrassed, scared or uncomfortable by the difference between our (sin tainted) notions of goodness, and God's true goodness. Don't be embarrassed by the weakness and foolishness of the Cross, for it's God's wisdom and His salvation.
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Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Almighty Power of the Crucified

The worship of demons then has ceased: creation has been sanctified by the divine blood: altars and temples of idols have been overthrown, the knowledge of God has been implanted in men’s minds, the co-essential Trinity, the uncreate divinity, one true God, Creator and Lord of all receives men’s service: virtues are cultivated, the hope of resurrection has been granted through the resurrection of Christ, the demons shudder at those men who of old were under their subjection. And the marvel, indeed, is that all this has been successfully brought about through a cross and suffering and death. Throughout all the earth the Gospel of the knowledge of God has been preached; no wars or weapons or armies being used to rout the enemy, but only a few, naked, poor, illiterate, persecuted and tormented men, who with their lives in their hands, preached Him Who was crucified in the flesh and died, and who became victors over the wise and powerful. For the almighty power of the Crucified was with them. Death itself, which once was man’s chiefest terror, has been overthrown, and now that which was once the object of hate and loathing is preferred to life. These are the achievements of Christ’s presence: these are the tokens of His power. For it was not one people that He saved, as when through Moses He divided the sea and delivered Israel out of Egypt and the bondage of Pharaoh; nay, rather He rescued all mankind from the corruption of death and the bitter tyranny of sin: not leading them by force to virtue, not overwhelming them with earth or burning them with fire, or ordering the sinners to be stoned, but persuading men by gentleness and long-suffering to choose virtue and vie with one another, and find pleasure in the struggle to attain it. For, formerly, it was sinners who were persecuted, and yet they clung all the closer to sin, and sin was looked upon by them as their God: but now for the sake of piety and virtue men choose persecutions and crucifixions and death. 
Hail! O Christ, the Word and Wisdom and Power of God, and God omnipotent! What can we helpless ones give Thee in return for all these good gifts? For all are Thine, and Thou askest naught from us save our salvation, Thou Who Thyself art the Giver of this, and yet art grateful to those who receive it, through Thy unspeakable goodness. Thanks be to Thee Who gave us life, and granted us the grace of a happy life, and restored us to that, when we had gone astray, through Thy unspeakable condescension.
(John of Damascus, De Fide Orthodoxa, iv.4)
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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Not in Word but in Power = Not in Power but in Word

Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 4:20 that ‘the kingdom of God is not in word but in power.’ Its the sort of verse that some types of Pentecostals and charismatics love – the sort of verse that gets pulled out to downplay the importance of theology or even of good preaching. And when it gets pulled out in that way, its assumed that it means – that Paul means – that, at the end of the day, knowledge, teaching and preaching of the Word are less important than signs and wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Spirit, for that’s the real stuff of the Kingdom of God. But is that really what Paul’s saying? Of course not!

First of all, this is Paul who’s writing. You know, the Paul who identifies himself as a preacher and teacher (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). This is the Paul who says that ‘Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 1:17). This is the Paul, who when the Jews seek for a powerful sign and the Greeks seek for powerful wisdom, declares ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1:23). Paul is not really the sort of chap who downplays the Word in favour of something else. In fact, even when dealing with the gifts of the Spirit (which the people who use 1 Cor. 4:20 to downplay the Word would put in the category of powr), Paul is insistent that hearing the Word is of the utmost importance: ‘in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue’ (1 Cor. 14:19). So reading 1 Cor. 4:20 in a way that downplays the Word doesn’t sit comfortably at all in the wider context of Paul’s writing.

Secondly, look at the close context. What does he mean here by word and what does he mean by power. When Paul writes that ‘the kingdom of God is not in word but in power,’ the word that he’s talking about isn’t the word of God, but the word of puffed-up human wisdom. How do we know? Because he tells us in the previous verse: ‘But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power’ (1 Cor. 4:19). Paul isn’t contrasting the Word of God with power at all; he’s contrasting human words with God’s power! That’s a very big difference.

Thirdly, where does Paul tell us the power of God is to be found? We don’t have to look far for the answer. By the time they’d read this far it would have been clear to the Corinthians. It is ‘the Word of the Cross’ which is ‘the power of God’ (1 Cor. 1:18). It is the preaching of Christ crucified which is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:23-24; 2:1-5). He writes the same thing in Romans as well (Rom. 1:16). Paul is adamant that true power is not found in human strength, but in the weakness of Christ. True power lies not in impressive rhetorical skill, persuasive arguments, or powerful signs, but in the weakness and death of the all-powerful God and our weak words about it, which he takes up as His powerful, life-giving words. True power is in the gospel. True power is in the preaching of the Word.

So really, 1 Cor. 4:20 means the opposite of what many people try to use it to mean. Paul isn’t downplaying the Word. No! He’s already established that the Word is the true power. And so when Paul writes – when the Holy Spirit through Paul writes – that ‘the kingdom of God is not in word but in power,’ he’s making it clear to us that God’s Kingdom doesn’t consist of and isn’t brought about by puffed-up human words, by human strength and wisdom, but rather it consists in, and is brought about by God’s power, which is the gospel Word of Christ and Him crucified. So ‘the kingdom of God is not in word but in power’ means that the kingdom of God is not in [human] power but in [God’s] Word.
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Monday, 9 March 2015

4 Sermons on the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit

When Pentecostals talk about the baptism in the Holy Spirit, we often focus on the book of Acts. But it's not just something from one book of the Bible. So we've recently spent a month in church looking at the outpouring of the Spirit from other parts of Scripture. Here are the recordings of the four sermons:
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