Saturday, 29 October 2016

Has God established tyranny? (1)

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed... Romans 13:1-2

I thank God that I have never lived in a place where there was no law and order. I hope that’s true of you as well, though I am aware that there could be someone reading this who is in exactly that position. (Certainly, I know that there are those who live in places where law and order is, if not non-existent, corrupt or weak.)

No stable government... no police force... no legal system... no magistrates’ courts... probably no traffic regulations or tax system or education system or health service... There is only one word for such a situation: chaos. The powerful may get by, but the weak go under.

A nation can no more govern itself without leaders than children can run their school without teachers, wonderfully exciting though that prospect might seem.

Fact, then: human societies need government. And, according to the Bible, that is the way God has decided it should be. Human authorities are, as Paul puts it, “instituted by God” essentially as a bulwark against anarchy and mayhem.

Yes, we may grumble at those who govern us - at least those of us fortunate enough to live in parts of the world where we can do so without fear of ending up in prison. But deep down we know we have much to be thankful for.

It’s with this background in mind that we must read Paul’s words in Romans 13.

Paul, of course, was a Jew, but he lived in the time of the Roman empire, and it was that empire that bossed the known world. At the time he wrote Romans, the Jews, and the new-born Christian church also, had quite a good time of it in comparison with many. (Things would soon change.) They were permitted to worship the one true God, and they enjoyed certain freedoms and protections.

So his instructions to the Roman church are entirely understandable.

On a purely practical basis he knew that any significant opposition to Rome (as practiced, for example, by the dagger-carrying hotheads, the Zealots) would be utterly futile. The Roman army was one of the most ruthless and efficient killing machines the world had ever seen; any rebellion would be totally squelched in five minutes flat.

But more than that, he was determined that Christ’s church would conquer by the power of love, not by the sword - by prayer, by the preaching of the gospel, by Christ-like living. And so he urges his fellow-Christians to be good citizens - obeying the law, paying their taxes, praying, indeed, for those who govern them.

And that is the essence of Romans 13. That is the general, overall principle Paul is setting out.

However ... what Paul doesn’t tackle in this passage is how Christians should respond when the powers that rule them are clearly anti-God and wicked.

This isn’t because he thinks it unimportant, but because it isn’t the topic he happens to be dealing with. We know from elsewhere that he wasn’t afraid to stand up against corrupt powers (for example, Acts 16:35-40), though he was very happy to take advantage of his privileged position as a Roman citizenship to avoid this if possible.

And we can be sure that he would agree with other Christian leaders who were called to put their lives on the line. He would go along whole-heartedly with the brave, ringing words of Peter before the Jewish authorities in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men!”

And he would agree too with the writer of Revelation, writing under much more difficult circumstances than he was, who saw the Roman power as a monstrous anti-God beast (Revelation 13) or a lecherous whore (Revelation 17 and 18) who needed to be thrown down.

This reminds us that when thinking about any topic, we need to take the whole of the Bible into account: no single passage, such as Romans 13, can cover everything we need to know. The vital thing Paul doesn’t include in this passage is: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities unless to do so would lead you to be disloyal to God and to violate your own conscience.” That’s a very different matter!

So...yes, as a general rule Christians are called to be “subject to the governing authorities”. But make no mistake, there may well be times when the church of Christ is called on to stand up and say “No, this is wrong! This must stop!” 

Good citizens, yes. But not doormats!

[This is getting rather long, so I think it will be best to return to it next time for a second instalment. See you again soon!]

Oh God, please help me to be a truly Christian citizen, whether I live in a relatively peaceful democracy or under a corrupt and oppressive government. Amen.
I am very grateful to my friend Karen for suggesting this topic - it’s certainly made me do some thinking! Please do let me know if there is a passage or theme you would like me to tackle. I’m no expert (of course!) but I will certainly do my best.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Strange goings-on!

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. Matthew 27:50-53

The woman I was speaking to laughed with embarrassment. “You know,” she said, “all the years I’ve been reading the Bible, and I have never noticed that!” (She had been a Christian for some thirty years.)

What was she talking about? It was that detail about the tombs breaking open and dead people being raised immediately after Jesus’ death. The curtain of the temple being torn in two - that, of course, was no problem: the vast majority of Christian people are well familiar with that. But this...!

Let’s be absolutely clear what Matthew is telling us. Jesus has just died (verse 50), and right then there was this awesome display of supernatural power: the curtain torn, the rocks split, the tombs opened, the dead raised. Not, notice, after his resurrection (you might expect that - and, indeed, Matthew tells us in 28:2 that there was an earthquake after the resurrection). No, after his death.

All sorts of odd questions arise. If these dead people didn’t “go into the holy city” until Sunday morning, what were they actually doing between Good Friday and then? Just lying awake in their tombs, waiting for the moment to come? In which case, what was the point of them being raised at all on Friday? What did they do when they went into Jerusalem? What sort of effect did they have on the people they appeared to? And what did they do then? Slip back into their tombs?

All very strange! It almost seems, if this doesn’t sound too disrespectful of the Bible, like a zombie film.

Many explanations have been offered. The most common is that this isn’t something to be taken literally: Matthew is speaking in figurative language, perhaps wanting to bring to his Jewish readers’ minds Old Testament passages like Isaiah 26:19 (look it up!) and Daniel 12:2 (that too!). He is presenting in graphic - but not literal - terms the great truth that Jesus conquered even by the cross.

Personally, I would be very happy to go with that. But there is a problem: the plain fact is that it just doesn’t read that way - Matthew seems to be presenting it to us as a straight, factual account.

Perhaps we simply have to make of it what we will - I don’t think God will mind our perplexity, even our scepticism.
But, for me at least, two very precious truths emerge from trying to take this story seriously.

First, a new way of thinking about death.

A more literal translation of verse 52 speaks not about “people who had died” but about “people who had fallen asleep”. 

I think it’s worth noticing this rather beautiful way the New Testament has of referring to death - you can find it also in, for example, Acts 7:62, regarding the death of Stephen, and in 1 Corinthians 15:6, regarding some witnesses of the resurrection who had died.

What it means is this: yes, one day I am going to die; so are you. That’s a fact. But how much better to say “I am going to fall asleep” - and then add, “but one day Jesus is going to put his hand on my shoulder and wake me to the most wonderful, glorious, peaceful, unimaginable new life there could ever be!”

Second, an insight into the scope of the crucifixion.

Let’s not overlook the fact that these “sleeping people” who rose that day were people who never knew Jesus, and who therefore never expressed personal faith in him. These strange events make clear that they didn’t miss out on the great blessings he brought!

And this reminds us that just as the triumph of Christ’s cross and resurrection reaches far into the future - to include people like us and those who will come after us - so also that triumph somehow, in ways we don’t fully understand, reaches back into the past. It gathers up some who never had the opportunity to know and love him.

God has his own - Matthew calls them “holy people” - in every age and generation. May that be a comfort and encouragement to us! 

Thank you, O God, for the victory of the cross and the certain hope of eternal life. As death moves ever closer, help me to see it as a sleep which will herald a wonderful new awakening. Amen.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

All or nothing at all

Jesus said, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength... and your neighbour as yourself. Mark 12:30-31.

Some of you will know that most of my life I have been a keen supporter of Crystal Palace Football Club. (Some of you, I can't think why, even seem to think it’s rather funny.)

I say "keen". But I have to admit that perhaps that word isn't really right. If the mighty Palace win, yes, I am pleased. But if they lose (like today: grrr...) - well, to be honest I tend to shrug my shoulders and get on with life. I'm not, I suppose, a real fan. ("Fan", of course, is short for "fanatic" - and the real fan is the person who is absolutely “over the moon” when their team wins, and “as sick as a parrot” when they lose). I'm a bit lukewarm, really, if the truth is told.

This isn't a lukewarmness I feel particularly guilty about. How a football team gets on isn’t really that important, after all.

But of course when it comes to things that really matter, lukewarmness is a serious fault.

No married person should be lukewarm about their marriage. None of us should be lukewarm about work or family. We shouldn't be lukewarm when it comes to helping those in need, or standing up for those who get a raw deal in life. We shouldn’t be lukewarm about honesty, kindness, integrity, courtesy... I’m sure I needn’t go on. These things matter, and they deserve our wholehearted commitment.

And so it is with Jesus. The verses I have quoted, about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, are what could be called "a big ask". And as for “loving your neighbour as yourself" - that too takes some doing. Have we ever really seriously pondered what Jesus is asking of us?

Jesus’s first followers were quick to reinforce his words. Paul tells us to "offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God" (Romans 12:1). Peter, quoting Leviticus, tells us to “be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ ”(1 Peter 1:15). Only the very best is good enough.

It sounds a bit forbidding. Who can possibly measure up to this calling? But what we need to get hold of is this: it is this attitude towards life and towards God which brings fulfilment and joy.

Go back to football. As a rather lukewarm fan I know nothing of the despair some people feel when their team loses. Fair enough. But then neither do I know anything of the ecstasy when they win. It's all a bit flat, really.

And so, again, it is with Jesus. True, the half-hearted Christian won't experience much of the struggle, the wrestling, the pain, of following Jesus, because he or she will just breeze along as best they can. Ah, but neither will they know anything of the joy, the pleasure, the delight, of prayer at last answered, of spiritual battles won, of perseverance in faith yielding lasting results. It's all a bit flat, really.

Somebody once put it like this: Many of us have just enough Christianity to make us miserable, but not enough to make us happy. To put it another way (with a nice mix of metaphors), we fall between two stools, and end up with the worst of both worlds.

When I was a teenage Christian I knew someone who had a favourite expression for the kind of disciple the Bible is talking about: such a person, he used to say, is "on fire for God". That expression has stuck with me ever since. It may seem a bit corny, but in fact it is based on a New Testament expression, where we are told not to "put out the Spirit's fire" (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

So what about it? Just enough Christianity to spoil life, but not enough to enrich it?

That’s a sad way to be!

Lord God, you are worth the very best I can give. If over the years I have become careless and lukewarm in my love for you, please forgive me and help me to consecrate myself afresh, holding nothing back. Enable me to lay my life on your altar, truly a living sacrifice. Amen.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Is your church a turn-off?

So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who don’t understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are mad? 1 Corinthians 14:23

When Paul wrote these words, he wasn’t attacking the gift of tongues. Not at all: he states plainly that he himself is a prolific tongues-speaker (verse 18). No: he was drawing attention to the fact that when we as Christians meet for worship, it matters how we come across to the outsider, especially the unbeliever.

“Will they not say that you are mad?” he asks. Putting it bluntly, do we come across as a bunch of weirdos? 

I think I know how Paul felt. When in full-time ministry it was always a highlight of the week for me to stand up on a Sunday morning and see all those lovely familiar faces - dear brothers and sisters in Christ. It was good to sing songs and hymns, some old, some new, and to join together in prayer, to hear the Bible read and opened up. We were doing familiar things in a familiar place in the company of familiar people. We were comfortable. And nothing wrong with that.

But then the door opened and somebody new came in. And straight away my mind was off on a new tangent. Who were they? What had brought them? Were they Christians? Were they someone looking for God for the first time? Were they someone at a crisis point in their life?

And behind all those questions: Was the way we were doing things calculated to draw them in, or to drive them away?

All right, the topic Paul is particularly concerned about is tongues - and especially the way it can be abused. And given that this is a matter which even many Christians feel unsure about, how much more might that apply to the visitor?

But the general principle Paul is raising can apply to other things too. There are various ways our gatherings can be a turn-off...

I went to a meeting once in the company of some non-Christians when, halfway through, the congregation got up and danced a conga round the building. I can still see the look - part complete mystification, part utter contempt - on the face of one of the people I had brought.

Then there was the time I arrived a few minutes before the start to find the place in a lather of activity - musicians running around getting themselves organised, the technology nerds sorting out the PowerPoint. Oh, and someone busy hoovering the carpet. As I stood surveying the scene I couldn’t help thinking, “Suppose I had been a stranger?”

Or the time the person leading the service decided it would be a good idea to ask us all to turn to the person next to us and pray with them. There was in fact a newcomer that day: she was never seen again.

This problem doesn’t exist only for churches with an informal style of worship. What about churches where peculiar clothes are worn, strange processions enacted, archaic language used, and odd rituals carried out? How very peculiar it must all seem to the “unchurched”.

I know I must be careful saying this. For one thing, I am aware that I can be over-sensitive about it. “Relax!” I’ve said to myself - “far from seeming strange, the way we do things might in fact get through to outsiders in a way you would never have expected.” And sure enough, there was a service when the music was more than usually ear-splitting (this, I have to confess, is one of my bug-bears) and I was looking a little uneasily at a lady I didn’t know. Only to be rather taken aback after the service when she told me how much she “loved this loud music”. 

I remind myself too that it is not for us as Christians to allow the outside world to set our agenda for us. Do what you feel is right, and let God look after the consequences! Yes, by all means.

And yet... 

The fact is that as the years go by people are becoming more and more detached from church life: they aren’t necessarily against us and what we do; they just haven’t got a clue what it’s all about. And this means it’s vital that we shouldn’t do anything that might make things even harder for them.

Would it be a good idea to have an occasional discussion along the lines: How does the average man/woman in the street see us? Are we guilty of erecting unnecessary, unhelpful barriers? 

Tongues may not be the issue for us. But perhaps Paul’s troubled voice still speaks to us down the centuries.

Lord, my great desire is to be fully in tune with you. But help me too to be in tune with my non-Christian neighbours and friends - and never to put a stumbling-block in their way. Amen.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The fear of God

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. Psalm 130:3-4

Do you find that word “feared” a little strange?

The psalmist has just been rejoicing that “with God there is forgiveness” - which, surely, is very good news. So you would think the next words might be “therefore you are loved - or trusted - or worshipped - or enjoyed...” Take your pick. But “feared”? Why would we fear a God who forgives us?

To be fair, most modern Bible translations don’t have “feared”; they substitute “worshipped” or “revered”. And I’m sure that’s right. The psalmist isn’t talking about a cringing, servile attitude towards God.

But he is talking about a very serious attitude, whereby God takes absolute first place in our lives, and whereby his lordship as well as his love shape and control our attitudes and our behaviour.

Perhaps you can sum it up like this: Forgiveness is certainly a free gift, and something to rejoice in - but it isn’t a freebie.

By “freebie” I mean something we probably accept with a casual wave of the hand - “Great, thanks for that”. And then get on with our lives with barely a further thought. We live in a world awash with freebies - the advertising industry uses them all the time, and the idea of something for nothing is very appealing.

But if ever we Christians start treating God’s forgiveness that way, we have lost all sense of divine authority and of “the beauty of holiness”.

I don’t know, of course, what led the psalmist to write these words. But I’ll make a pretty confident guess: he had woken up to the fact that, having basked in the sunshine of God’s forgiveness, from now on his life could never be the same. Look back for a moment at his story...

He has been in trouble, deep trouble: “Out of the depths I cry to you” (verse 1). The depths! Is he talking about sickness, or family worries, or money troubles? Possibly any of those. But there are some clues pointing us in a different direction.

First, his cry to God is for “mercy” (verse 2), suggesting a sense of guilt and shame. It seems he has something on his conscience, and it won’t let him rest. And then this impression is reinforced by his picture of God up in heaven holding a long, grim list of all his sins and wrong-doings: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” (verse 3). Who indeed!

He’s feeling pretty small. 

And it’s then that those beautiful, simple, gospel words come: “But with you there is forgiveness.” From the depths to the heights!

In my years as a hospital chaplain I sometimes met people who had been through grave illness, perhaps even close to death itself. But they had come through, and their sense of relief and gratitude was overwhelming. They used to tell me that, following this experience, their whole attitude towards life was going to be completely different: “I’ll never take a day of life for granted again!... My eyes have been opened to what life is really all about!”

How truly they stuck to these resolutions, of course, I couldn’t stay. But it was moving to sense the deep sincerity with which they spoke. Some experiences in life really do warrant that hackneyed expression “life-changing”.

Well, I reckon that’s how the psalmist felt as he wrote this psalm. How, after all, can anybody receive something as massive and momentous as God’s free, gracious forgiveness - and carry on just as before?

The New Testament is full of the joy of the Lord - people coming face to face with Jesus and being transformed as a result. But this serious side is there too. Writing to the church in Philippi, Paul encourages them to “work out their salvation with...” - with what? Joy? Happiness? Freedom? Excitement? 

I’m sure he would gladly say all those things. But the phrase he actually uses is - wait for it - “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). A challenge, surely, about how seriously we take our walk with God. Are we shallow, casual Christians, with trivial habits, aims, tastes and ambitions? Or do we give to God the devotion which is his due?

Here’s a question all of us might put to ourselves: What do I know about the fear of the Lord?

O God, thank you for being a forgiving God. Thank you that in Christ’s cross all my sins are dealt with once for all. May this great knowledge lead me to live my daily life in true fear of you. Amen.