Palm Sunday 2017 – Luke 19:41

Can Jesus have any more tears left?
He cried over Jerusalem,
Where the prophets were persecuted,
Is he still crying now?
If we get tired of the stories,
And the reports,
And the cold sets in our dry hearts,
Is he still crying?
If we can’t stand to hear any more
About the children and the bombs and the madmen,
And would rather watch the football or a thriller
Or … anything else at all.
Has he got any tears left?
And if, while we’re enjoying the Spring sunshine,
We wish there was someting we could do
To put an end to all this pain,
Apart from crying,
And think that, hell, that must surely be
in God’s power.
Can he have any tears left?

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39544451

(Norwegian Version at https://paulmartinwaters.wordpress.com/2017/04/16/palmesondag-2017-lukas-1941)

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Suddenly There

Matthew 28, 1-10

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him.

I don’t know if you’ve have heard of the Christian song­writer Geoff Shattock. One of his songs is about the resurrection, and it’s called “Suddenly There”: –

“It wasn’t what they expected,
it wasn’t that they suspected he was around.
But he was suddenly there.”

That’s what Easter morning is about, isn’t it? We can philosophize about new life and we can theologize about the resurrection at the end of the world, and we can argue with the sceptics as to what actually happened and where Jesus’ body got to. But in the end, the point is that Jesus was there.

Suddenly, Jesus met them…

I don’t think we can grasp what that must have felt like, even though we’ve heard it so many times, and even though we too have lost some of our dear ones and know all about the grief and pain involved in that. In some ways, perhaps, it’s easier for us to relate to the Saturday, the Sabbath when the disciples were alone with their grief – and I suppose went through the same phases that other bereaved people go through: Denial, anger – and perhaps frustration, for the women, because they hadn’t had a chance to look after Jesus’ body properly. Part of the grief process is to think of all the things we could have done or should have done, and we feel guilty about that on top of all the rest. Or perhaps they really hadn’t taken it all in yet, perhaps they didn’t have time to feel anything but numb emptiness. But Jesus was gone.

And then they had this incredible experience at the grave. Now those who know me know that I’ve got loads of questions about this. Angels in bright white clothes and all the rest – it’s a challenge to our more prosaic way of thinking. But the important thing is that the women were told that Jesus was no longer there – he was risen from the dead. What did it mean?, How did they feel?

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy… (28:8)

Did they believe it? Did they dare to believe it? Would anybody else believe them? Whatever they felt, they had to tell the others, so they rush off – but I suspect that quite a lot of things ran through their heads during verse eight, short as it is. And then we come to verse nine. It’s written so simply. No more angels and bright lights, no fanfares. Just: Jesus came to meet them and said “hi”, as if nothing had happened. They thought they had lost him for ever – but suddenly, he was there.

There must have been a hurricane of feelings when they saw him for the first time: Of course they were happy. Of course they were scared, too. But they did the only natural thing – they threw themselves on their knees and worshipped him.

And so it continued. Two of the disciples were on their way to Emmaus, confused about everything that had happened – and now these new rumours that Jesus was alive after all. They didn’t know what to believe until a man comes and explains it all for them, and he breaks bread, and says a blessing. And he was suddenly there. Jesus.

Thomas didn’t know what to believe either. The others said they had seen Jesus, but he wanted proof, he wanted to see and touch. And suddenly Jesus was there, and Thomas too fell on his knees and worshipped him – and in fact, according to John, became the first to call him God.

I suppose this was the experience of many people during Jesus’ ministry. Zacchaeus was just curious – but suddenly Jesus was there for him, and his life was changed. The blind beggar by the road who heard Jesus’ passing by – suddenly Jesus was asking for him, talking to him, healing his eyes.

The thief hanging on the cross, condemned justly according to the laws of that time, as he himself admitted. The cross was a miserable end to what perhaps had been a miserable life. But he realised there was something different about Jesus – and in those terrible moments before they all died of pain and exhaustion, Jesus was somehow suddenly there: Not just another victim like the thousands of others who died on a cross, but God’s Son, who could say to a man:

“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Suddenly there. I could go on for ever – and Jesus is still doing this. Still meeting people. Not always where they expect to find him. Often quite the opposite, sometimes when they’re not even looking for him at all. He’s suddenly there.

And when he comes, everything is somehow different. The criminal’s death becomes a gateway to paradise. The women’s confusion turns into joy. Thomas’ doubt turns into faith.

Where are we today? Are we still living in verse eight, perhaps? We’ve heard that Jesus is alive. We want to tell others that he’s alive. But we haven’t really met him yet. Are we still standing outside the empty tomb waiting to see if he’ll turn up there? Perhaps he will if we wait long enough. But the women didn’t meet Jesus outside the tomb. They met him on the way to the others. Perhaps Jesus is waiting to meet us in some unexpected place? Not here, perhaps, but in our daily lives when we’re not so “religious”. Among the people we meet every day. Are we so awake that we would notice if he was there?

Perhaps there is something in our lives that would be different if we met Jesus again. I don’t think Jesus is a kind of “fixer” who solves all our problems. The thief on the cross still died even though Jesus was there. But when we meet him, the world looks different. We realise that there is more to life than what we can see. There are truths still to be discovered. There is hope, and love, and life even in our distress, even in death. When we meet Jesus, life is different.

In conclusion, let’s take a few moments to reflect. When did you really meet Jesus last? When did you notice he was there – no matter where or how? When did you last throw yourself at his feet to worship him? Is he waiting for you somewhere?

Easter morning: Jesus is here.

[This sermon was originally preached at the Salvation Army, Tunstall Corps, on Easter morning 2007]

Universal Lord 3

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

3: Christ, Universal Lord of the Church

(Back to Introduction and Post 1, Post 2)

 

To call Christ “the Lord of the Church” is in a way a truism. Christ is by definition the author of our faith, the head of the Church. The Church is in turn the body of Christ, the community of those who profess Christ as Lord and Saviour. Yet we know that alongside these truths we must take account of the reality that the Church – whether in its organisation or individual members – has not always demonstrated the spirit of Christ, has often misunderstood his will, and has not always done his will even when we have understood it. In one sense, then, we could say that Christ is Lord of the Church in the same way that he is Lord of the World – whenever and wherever his Lordship is not only acknowledged, but also truly reflected in action. However, this would be to deny an essential aspect of the Church, and indeed of our relationship with Christ as individuals: The Church belongs to Christ, even when it goes astray. The Christian belongs to Christ, even when s/he fails in obedience.

Salvationist doctrine states that “continued obedient faith” is necessary for us to remain in a state of salvation. In the Norwegian translation, this has become “one must continually obey and have faith”. The translation is unfortunate, because it can imply that any act of disobedience will lead to losing our salvation. This is surely not what we believe. A soldier who rejects the call to officership, for example, is not therefore “a backslider”. Nor is obedience to Christ primarily a matter of obeying laws or commandments. Instead, “obedient faith” describes our personal relationship with Christ. Because I have faith in him, I want to be like him, I want to reflect his spirit in the world. I may not, in my human weakness, have the courage to say “yes” to every opportunity for service that he shows me. I may struggle to make a sacrifice that he asks of me. And yet my innermost desire is to be like him – and it is this that constitutes obedient faith. There is obviously a connection to our holiness teaching here. If we reduce holiness to a legalistic avoidance of deliberate sins, it may be easier to be “holy”, but we are more likely to be seen as self-righteous. A holiness that focuses on living in relation with Christ and growing increasingly like him, will certainly be more fruitful, even when we do not succeed in every aspect of our lives.

In the same way that we as individuals live in this tension, so does the Church as a whole. Christ is Lord of the Church, even when it fails in practice. But just as individual Christians need to grow in holiness, so must the Church. We must strive to narrow the gap between what the Church actually is and does, and the ideal of the body of Christ living his life in the world. This is a challenge which calls us not only to seek personal holiness – but also to consider the way we do business, our management structures, our communication, the way we exercise leadership: In other words, every aspect of our organisation. Do we, in fact, seek the Lord’s will in our decision-making, or are we merely guided by the same considerations as any other agency? Do we allow office politics to dictate our actions, or are we aware of Christ in our midst? Does our leadership reflect the spirit of Christ and the values of the Kingdom – or administrative expediency and current management culture?

The challenge for the Church, then, is the same as it is for any Christian: to be in practice what God has declared we are in principle. Christ is Lord of the Church – but still we must make him Lord in practice. Faced with such a challenge, however, we recognise that Christ is not only Lord, but also Saviour, and it is in his grace that we find the means of fulfilling his calling.

Universal Lord 2

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

Post 2: Christ, Universal Lord of Mankind

(Back to Introduction and Post 1)

There is inevitably an eschatological aspect to the title “Universal Lord of Mankind”. We look forward to the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10-11). The implication of this is naturally that the Lordship of Christ is not universally recognised in the present age. But in what sense can we say that Jesus is Lord, even when he is not recognised as such?

Again we must make a contrast with the Reformed view that God is the ultimate cause of everything that happens – and everything we do. Such a view, although not perhaps consciously thought through, may lie behind phrases such as “God willing” (as in – “I’ll see you tomorrow, God willing!”) or the song text “the days I cannot see have all been planned for me”. It is however one thing for God to have a plan for my life, and another to believe that I have no choice but to follow that plan. Although the Bible does occasionally give the impression that people are not entirely masters of their own actions (e.g. Genesis 45:4-8), there are far more references to people making choices, and specifically choosing either to obey God or reject him. It is quite clear, throughout the Bible, that people are held to account for the choices they make, and that they are responsible for the consequences of their actions (e.g. Joshua 24:15, John 3:18). Wayne Grudem, in his “Systematic Theology” maintains that our choices are real, and that we are therefore responsible for our actions – but that God nevertheless is the ultimate cause of everything that happens and everything we do. This is self-contradictory. If God is the ultimate cause of all of our actions, we cannot be said to have made real choices – and therefore we are not accountable. In the end such a viewpoint must undermine the gospel, for if we are not accountable, our sin is not real, and there is no need for forgiveness or atonement.

The opposite of this is viewpoint is the Pelagian heresy that we are entirely free, and that by consistently choosing the good we may attain salvation. Pelagianism has in a sense resurfaced in Existentialism, so that Sartre, for example, can insist that mankind is bound only by itself. Each individual has the freedom to make choices in life, regardless of other influences, and in this way we can construct our own unique identity. It is not hard to see the extent to which this individualist philosophy has influenced Western society in recent years, but the idea is nevertheless flawed because it fails to take into account that people’s choices are not, in the final analysis, entirely free. We are naturally influenced by our genetic history, our environment, and by our (and our parents’) previous choices, which may develop into habits of thought and action that we no longer question.

The Salvation Army, then, has again maintained a middle position. We insist that people are accountable – and this must mean that our actions are not determined in advance, or entirely directed either by God’s agency or sociological determinism. Despite everything that influences us, we have a genuine choice – or at least an element of choice – in what we do. Habits may be broken, circumstances overcome – at least to some extent. But we also recognise that our choices are not entirely free and unfettered. In many ways we are caught in the patterns of behaviour that our background and circumstances dictate, and, humanly speaking, our freedom of choice will always be limited. Nevertheless, as Salvationists we also believe that mankind is influenced by God’s prevenient grace – the work of the Holy Spirit who calls us to Christ and makes it possible for us to break free from our circumstances.

All this means that the Lordship of Christ in the present age is in a sense a matter of potentiality rather than an actual fact. Although as creator God he could force his will on mankind, he has chosen to limit himself. His power is revealed not in his controlling people or events, but in his spirit of love and self-sacrifice, and it is when this spirit is evident that we can recognise his lordship. Each individual has the opportunity to accept or deny his lordship over their life – and it is ultimately this choice which will be decisive when Christ is finally acknowledged to be Lord indeed. (At this point it would be relevant to explore what form this choice takes for those who have not heard the gospel, or who have only heard a caricatured version of Christianity, but that lies outside the field of this post).

In addition, Christ asserts his lordship over mankind in a number of ways. The first of these is his universal standard of behaviour: The dual command to love God and our neighbour. This command is not just a matter of discipleship, but sets the bar for all mankind. This is what God expects of us, and but for redemption through Christ, it is the standard we will be judged by. In a sense, then, we can say that Christ’s lordship is visible whenever anyone acts in a way that reflects his spirit – whether or not they are conscious of following Christ. An example might the act of mercy in which an Iranian couple forgave the man who killed their son, saving him from the death penalty, or a simple act of kindness for a colleague at work.  Secondly, then, Christ’s lordship is apparent in universal judgement. Although the Bible speaks of a final judgement at the end of the world, Jesus also made it clear that the most important judgement is the one that happens in this present age. By choosing to follow him or to reject him, to acknowledge his lordship or to cling to our supposed freedom, we in fact judge ourselves. The eschatological lordship of Christ is in this sense a present reality. Thirdly, however, we assert that Christ’s redemption is also universal. Not universal in the sense that “everyone will be saved in the end”, but universal in its potential application. Whoever responds to Christ’s invitation, will be saved, and Christ’s desire is that everyone will respond to him. It is the tragedy of our world that some, at all times, reject him, but the atonement is nevertheless universal in its scope and intention.

Again we see that the dual roles of Lord and Saviour come together in the person of Christ, and are ultimately inseparable. He is our Saviour because he is also our Lord, and in his lordship we find salvation.

Universal Lord

Last weekend The Salvation Army hosted an International Theology and Ethics Symposium, considering the statement

Jesus Christ, Universal Lord and Saviour.

In the run-up to the Symposium, they invited Salvationists to comment on what this phrase might mean to them, and this and the next two posts were my contribution. Obviously, these posts only scratch the surface of some of the issues that the subject raises – but for what they are, here they are…

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

On reading the title of this symposium, I was first drawn to the phrase “Universal Lord”. Thinking about what that means raises all kinds of questions, and I have tried to categorise some of them below:

  1. Christ, Universal Lord of Creation
  2. Christ, Universal Lord of Mankind
  3. Christ, Universal Lord of the Church

I will attempt to say something about all of these aspects in separate posts: In this post I begin with the first:

 

  1. Christ, Lord of Creation:

Col 1:15-17  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In the New Testament, Christ is several times linked directly to God’s acts of creation, and so when considering his Lordship, it is appropriate to consider also what we mean by his sovereignty over the created universe as Triune God.

At one end of the spectrum, we have the theistic view of the “watchmaker God”, who creates the universe with its regularities and laws and then lets it live its life without further intervention. This is a view which is very convenient in the context of the natural sciences, as it allows room for theories about the development of the Universe and the evolution of life on Earth which are independent of theology. It also to some extent lets God “off the hook” in relation to the human pain and suffering that natural events can cause. This view of God as inactive and distant is however very problematic in relation to Christ, who in the incarnation represents God as active and involved in the World.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Reformed/Calvinist view that God’s sovereignty is absolute and specific, so that every event in the natural world, whether harmful or beneficial from a human point of view, is seen as a reflection of God’s will and purpose. This is a view which fits well with the general view of the Old Testament, but which may be offensive to modern ears, both because we can demonstrate the natural causes of most events, and because we are reluctant to admit that God would wish to cause the pain and suffering that follows from natural catastrophes or epidemics.

As I understand it, the Salvationist understanding has been a middle way between these extremes. We believe that God has created the Universe, and sustains it – which is to say that its continued existence is dependent on his continuing creative will. But for the most part the Universe has developed according to laws and regularities that are part of God’s original creation, so that any particular event may be seen as the outworking of the mechanics of the Universe, rather than a direct “act of God”. Nevertheless, we also believe that God can and does from time to time intervene directly in his creation, so that an unexplainable healing or other “unnatural” event may be seen as a sign of his active presence in the World. The laws of nature belong to God and may be bent to his will.

The question that then arises is whether this middle way is genuinely the consensus view in the Army, as I have supposed, and whether we have a biblical foundation for it?

Finally, of course, the Bible promises that there will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). Exactly what this phrase means is impossible for us to know, but it emphasises that creation belongs to the Lord, and that (regardless of “natural laws”), it is in his power to renew it when his purposes are fulfilled. From this point of view, the dual roles of Lord and Saviour eventually come together in Christ’s ultimate victory.

 

Death, thou shalt die!

quote-one-short-sleep-past-we-wake-eternally-and-death-shall-be-no-more-death-thou-shalt-die-john-donne-224906

So Jesus was dead.

Nobody at that time doubted that he really was dead. But just a few days later people were saying they’d seen him alive. Yet another paradox.

The resurrection never meant much to me until death became real to me. But now I realise that it’s at the very heart of the Gospel. Christianity is about new beginnings, new life. About the permanence of God in a world of constant change. About God’s ability to create life.

In practical terms, I have no real idea about how it happened. Did Jesus “come back to life”, like a coma patient suddenly waking up? Was his dead body suddenly transformed into something less physical, more spiritual? I haven’t got a clue – and I don’t really care. Once again, the thing that matters is that those who knew Jesus, those who were eye-witnesses, said that he was risen from the dead. Whatever it was that happened, that was the only explanation that fitted in with what they had experienced. Jesus was dead: But now he’s alive!

If Jesus’ death was the triumph of God’s love over human sin – then the resurrection was the triumph of God’s power over death. God doesn’t only love us in some abstract way. He also has the power to give us life. Physical life – and spiritual life. The Bible tells us that even while we are alive, we can be spiritually dead. If we cut ourselves off from God, the giver of life, then our “life” becomes mere existence. It may be very pleasant – you may even find it meaningful. But in the final analysis, you’re dead. And one day, when your physical life ends, you will realise just how dead you are.

But that isn’t what God wants! He wants to give us “life abundant”. He wants us to live to the very limits of our potential, to exploit all of the gifts that he has given us, to explore his universe, his love, himself. And by making us spiritually alive, he promises us a new kind of life that will continue into eternity. I’ve no idea what that means. Streets of gold and pearly gates leave me cold. But if God is the source of all life, the source of all that is truly good – then I want to be with him. And Jesus’ death and resurrection is my guarantee that that is not only possible – but it’s what God wants.

Tell me true, tell me why …

Where_is_God_thumb

“Tell me true, tell me why was Jesus crucified…
is that a hint of accusation in your eyes?”
Roger Waters, “The Post War Dream”

1

2

God is in pain.

It’s been going on for thousands of years, perhaps millions. And I’m afraid it’s going to continue for a long time yet.

And what’s causing the pain, is us. The human race. Because we don’t care. We would rather fight and torture and kill each other than admit that we needed God. And even when we have admitted it, we have often carried on fighting and killing. Not you personally, of course. You’re not like that – and neither am I. Except sometimes. Ever told a half-truth to get out of trouble? Ever thrown the charity appeal envelope straight in the waste paper without reading it? Ever got bored by all the tragic stories on the nine o’ clock news?

Every time we do something unloving, every time we do something dishonest – and every time we don’t do the loving or honest thing that we could have done – then God is in pain. And since people have behaved more or less like you and me (or worse) since time immemorial, and since they show few signs of behaving differently – then God must be in eternal anguish.

So what do you do if someone hurts you? Hurt them back? Not directly, maybe. But isn’t that what we call justice? If you hit me, I hit you back. If you steal from me, you go to jail. If you reject my love – then I hate you! What if God treated us like that?

On the other hand, you can always hurt somebody else. It’s not fair, but we all do it. If we can’t get back at the person who’s hurt us, we pass it on to someone else. Had a bad day at work? Yell at the kids. Boss put you down? Make your underlings feel small. Girlfriend ditched you? …

Or you can forgive. What does forgiveness mean? It means accepting the hurt that has been done to you, refusing the “justice” of hurting them back, or the injustice of hurting someone else. Keeping the hurt to yourself, and saying to whoever has hurt you that you want to reestablish good relations. And that’s what God does. Throughout his eternity of pain, he refuses to hurt us back. He accepts the pain, bears it, and tries to tell us how much he wants us to love him and each other.

What Jesus did when he died on the cross was to show us God’s eternal pain. In fact, in some way beyond our comprehension, he actually bore God’s pain, then and there. All the centuries of hate and spitefulness and petty selfishness that is human history. All that, concentrated into a few hours of human time. All that, to cry out to his tormentors – all of us – “I forgive you. I love you. What are you going to do with my love?”