Coronavirus and mystery

This pandemic has been going on much longer than many of us ever thought possible. I remember reading early on that we need to be thinking along the lines of an ice age rather than a blizzard. At the time people could not get their minds around it, but now we must. We are six months in, and the truth is none of us know when we are going to get through this.

Increasingly I am finding some Christians confidently asserting that they have a hot line to God and that variously, this is all a tactic of the Devil to force us to have the sign of the beast or that this is God calling His people to repentance or …….. The list is exceptionally long and mostly contradictory and frankly unhelpful. This has finally provoked me to speak into the discussion and declare that we need to allow for a level of mystery. A level of humility. We must be incredibly careful when we claim to speak on behalf of God. We also need to be focusing on the right questions, not why but what should I be doing. The coronavirus seems to have provided some people with a megaphone to say, more loudly, what they were wanting to say anyway! I do not think this is at all helpful.

We need to allow for mystery.

I think this is clear in many places in the Bible. E.g. the book of Job. Any sensible reading of the book will result in us being cautious about making grand pronouncements. Job’s friends concluded that he needs to repent, it was obvious that sin was the problem. The point of the book is that may seem obvious, but it was the wrong conclusion to draw. In fact, the book of Job does not have a simple answer, no satisfactory resolution to the issue of suffering. Job gets more sons and daughters to replace the ones he lost, but does that make it all right? Of course not. God has revealed his power and might to Job, and Job realizes he cannot compete; but does even that make it all right? I think the point of the book of Job is that the issue of suffering is not easily and quickly answered. As Paul says, all creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth. It points us to God, leaves us breathless in the face of Him. It leaves us with mystery.

We need to focus not on the why but what.

A similar truth is taught in the gospels, but they go further. Jesus heals a man born blind; this is described in John 9. His disciples ask Jesus whose sin caused this man to be blind, was it his sin or that of his parents? Jesus refuses to speculate, neither he nor his parents sinned, it happened so that you might see the works of God displayed in him. Jesus is saying, stop looking back, looking for someone to blame. Jesus says, do not focus on why but focus on what God is going to do about it. God is going to demonstrate that He is the Light of the world.

We need to look at Jesus before we look at the world.

We must start with Jesus, when we start looking at the world around us and jump to conclusions about God, we will get it wrong. If we do not start with Jesus, we may come up with something that looks attractive, sounds spiritual but is wrong. Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus who is the image of the invisible God. If Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.

Looking at Jesus we find the answer to what.

His death and resurrection are now the single, ultimate ‘sign’. The cross is where all the world’s sufferings and horrors have been heaped up and dealt with. The resurrection is the launch of God’s new creation, of his sovereign saving rule on earth – starting with the physical body of Jesus himself.

Trying to jump from an earthquake, a tsunami, a pandemic or anything else to a conclusion about ‘what God is saying here’ without going through the Gospel story is to make the basic theological mistake of trying to deduce something about God while going behind Jesus’ back. If there is One God, and if he has come in the person of his own son to unveil his rescuing purposes for the world, then there can be no other signs, no other warning events, to compare with this one. The call to repentance, the unveiling of the kingdom comes through Jesus not through wars, earthquakes, or plagues.

Looking at Jesus we see that our understanding of God’s sovereignty, his being in control, must centre around his death on the cross.

We see that God’s purpose is about restoring God’s Kingdom to how it was meant to be before the fall. The fulfilment of this will be at the end of the age when Jesus returns, then he will be seen by as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In the meantime, we work towards bringing the future into the present.

That purpose is worked out by loyal human beings serving God. We can ask why doesn’t God send a thunderbolt and put things right? Why doesn’t God just take control and stop disasters of various forms? The answer is he does get involved. His intervention is through the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the people hungry for justice. They are the way God wants to act in his world. These people, prayerful, humble, faithful, people will be the answer, not to the question Why? But to the question What? What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help? Who shall we send? God works in all things with and through those who love him.

From the time of Jesus onward we see Jesus’ followers telling people about God’s kingdom, and summoning them to repent, not because of any subsequent events such as famines or plagues but because of Jesus himself. When the world is going through great convulsions as at present, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain.

When we read the gospels, we expect God to be, as we might say, ‘in charge’: taking control, sorting things out, getting things done. But the God we see in Jesus is the God who wept at the tomb of his friend. The God we see in Jesus is the God-the-Spirit who groans without words. The God we see in Jesus is the one who, to demonstrate what his kind of ‘being in charge’ would look like, did the job of a slave and washed his disciples’ feet. That is what God sends us to do.

God has in fact delegated the running of many aspects of his world to human beings. In doing so, he has run the risk that they will grieve him to his heart. But when this happens, he will hold people responsible.

In conclusion the signs of God work in the world are not things like earthquakes or famines, plagues, or floods. These things are not sent to frighten people into belief or warn them of the world coming to an end. There are signs of new life, new creation around us though, signs of God at work in the world. They are signs of God coming into the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Coming to bring healing to a world of sickness. Giving bread to the hungry; sight to the blind; life to the dead. They are signs that the world was coming into a new springtime. A new beginning. We are part of that.

I think we need to stop speculating on why and focus much more on what am I called to do at this time. Allow a level of mystery. Embrace the fact that each of us is meant to be a sign of the Kingdom. What better time to do that than now?

This blog has been heavily influenced by God and the pandemic by Tom Wright. I highly recommend it.

The Life of David

Throughout the Autumn we will be looking at the life of David, as described in 1 Samuel 16 to 31. We will be seeing how the life of David is intertwined with the life of Saul, but that the main character is neither of these guys, nor Samuel who the book is named after, but the Lord.

The first sermon on the series can be listened to via the website.

It may be that you want to study the book of 1 Samuel alongside our sermon series. If that is the case, there are two devotional commentaries that I would commend to you.

Both cover both 1 and 2 Samuel. They are available from Amazon, the local Christian bookshop and other online retailers.

Both are books in series of OT commentaries, the first by Phil Moore the second by John Goldingay. Either will make the scriptures come alive for you. Enjoy.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Straight-Heart-Samuel-Bite-sized-Insights/dp/0857212524/ref=sr_1_16?crid=2QE7MINQOZJQE&dchild=1&keywords=1+samuel+commentary&qid=1601375210&sprefix=1+samuel%2Caps%2C253&sr=8-16

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Samuel-Everyone-Old-Testament/dp/0281061297/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=1+samuel+commentary+goldingay&qid=1601375261&sr=8-1

 

Being fruitful.

I am currently reading A Public Faith, How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good by Croatian author Miroslav Volf and finding it stimulating.

At one point he describes why for many their faith does not produce fruit. He describes it as idle faith. It is well worth reflecting on and seeing if it applies to us.

Idleness……… is one major malfunction of faith. Instead of setting goals and propelling a person toward them, idle faith spins in one place, like a tire stuck in an icy hole. I suggested that there are at least three reasons for faith’s idling. The first concerns the character of believers; for some people, the faith they embrace demands too much, so they pick and choose, as in a cafeteria, filling up their tray with sweets but leaving aside the broccoli and fish. Second, believers find themselves constrained by large and small systems in which they live and work; to thrive, or even to survive, they feel that they must obey the logic of those systems, not the demands of faith they embrace. The third reason for faith’s idleness concerns the faith itself; the faith either is not applied to new circumstances or does not seem relevant to contemporary issues—from nuclear power to neuroscientific discoveries. With these three reasons for faith’s idleness combined, no wonder people misconceive faith and treat it as a performance-enhancing drug or a soothing balm rather than as a resource to orient their life in the world.

Actions we can take as individuals to combat racism

I have recently found several blogs from my friend Adrian Warnock very encouraging; he has walked a similar path to myself. I have shared some on my own personal Facebook page. His recent blog on racism, explaining the guilt we share and then outlining some tentative steps towards repentance is especially helpful.

The full article can be accessed below, which also will give access to more of his blogs.

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock/2020/09/our-racism-deadly-as-covid19/?fbclid=IwAR3UnhdMUJKV6gpBY5c1Eoq1qis4eMFXhrx5L0jUF854zinh_g8RG6DsQcE

His headlines on what repentance might look like are worth reflecting on. I have put my own experience below each of them.

Repentance is not mere words but includes action.

  1. Intentionally meet and befriend people different to yourself

Whilst this has been true over the years, from my early days I refused to just have friends within the church, it is in the last few years that I have enjoyed friendship with a wider group of people than ever before. People from different socio-economic backgrounds and racial backgrounds. Whilst initially challenging I have found spending time and building friendships with Muslims especially rewarding.

  1. Try to understand and enter the experience of rejection many feel

This seems to be the experience of so many in our society, however it takes time and trust to fully grasp it. However, hearing of the impact of racism and islamophobia on people I have got to know within and without the church has been so helpful and I would say even lifechanging.

  1. Find a wise tutor from a different racial group to yourself

It is so helpful having a small number of people who can explain things you don’t understand. What is culturally expected in different circumstances.

  1. Forge deep life-long friendships that allow real honesty and openness

This has been a real joy and so important. The weekend after the death of George Floyd one of my friends told me how shocked they were that I had not alluded to it on the Sunday. They were clearly upset and helped me see how I had missed how important what had happened was. I needed someone to show me my blindness, thank God I have friends who will.

  1. Build multicultural churches lead by multicultural teams

Moving to Luton this was my plan, however it has taken many years to even get close. It has taken many people to make the costly decision to be part of a predominantly white church, pioneers who made great sacrifices which others have benefited from. I would not want to be part of any other sort of church, however we have still so much to learn about building diverse teams. As the culture gap between those in the church and those outside the church grows, unless we can relate and work with people different than ourselves, we will become increasingly irrelevant. We desperately need multicultural churches lead by multicultural teams. It must be a priority.

  1. Learn everything you can from leaders from different church groups to your own. Refuse to remain in your echo chamber

Most books are written by white British or American authors, it makes is exceedingly difficult to get a different perspective. I have started to go out of my way to find and read books by authors from other backgrounds. I have also found it enriching to work with Black Majority Church leaders and those from more traditional backgrounds to my own.

  1. Actively campaign for societal justice and take steps to lead real change

As I have sought to do this, sharing articles and thoughts on social media, being engaged with those in power locally I have received criticism. In doing so I am challenging the concept of privatised religion. That a church leader should just be involved in caring for his flock and reaching the lost. I have concluded that I as a white educated man have power that others do not have due to our system. It is crucial and Biblical that I use the privilege I have to help others, to seek to create a fairer system.

Go to the deepest waters

posted in: Filipe Almeida 0

By Filipe Almeida

 

In July last year I was able to go for a weekend at the beach. It was winter, but the temperatures were like summer in Brazil. I remember spending one morning watching the sea. I love to see the sea, especially when I find sea turtles and a sailboat in the background.

 

There were several attempts to obtain good pictures of the sea turtles that dived several times and then returned to the surface, but I managed to take some in the end.

 

This landscape reminded me of something so special that it spoke to my heart and mind in a very sincere and impactful way in a similar way to when I heard the song of several birds in mid-February last year. I was in another country, different from Brazil and even though it was sunny, it was a cold day.

 

Anyway, the Word was to go to the deepest waters!

I had just finished reading the biblical passage from Luke 5, when Jesus calls the first disciples. In verses 1-11, we find it difficult for the disciples to catch fish all night and find no fish. But in verse 4 we see that Jesus said to Simon: “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon replied that even though he was unable to catch any fish, he would do so because it was Jesus who was asking and for this reason he threw down the nets.

 

After an abundant time fishing, the Lord Jesus called them to be fishers of men and in verse 11 we find: So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

 

That question echoed in my mind as I listened to birdsong in a cold country and then saw sea turtles in a tropical country. And this past week, it has echoed in my mind in the face of all the changes that we have been experiencing due to Covid-19.

 

As a disciple I must go to the deepest waters!

What does this imply? Certainly good things, but great challenges that require detachment.

 

Going to the deepest waters means trusting without knowing very well what will happen, believing that it will happen!

Wonderful fishing can happen! To go to the deepest waters is to throw the nets, after an important call, and leave them madly on the beach. And follow the art of life and the art of celebration to the Father.

 

Going to the deepest waters is to continue learning from successes and mistakes. Keep learning with lessons about my qualities and victories. Keep learning from my problems and defeats. Keep reframing!

 

Going to the deepest waters is also going against xenophobia, structural machismo, racism and not agreeing with other types of social phobias.

 

Going to the deepest waters is learning about love, learning more about signaling hope and peace!

 

To go to the deepest waters is to be transformed day after day with my limitations and to have the privilege and commitment to be used fully as a cooperator in the transformation of lives.

 

Going to the deepest waters is my heart’s desire, transforming me, helping me to reframe and keep the focus on the truth that frees us from all evil!

 

To go to the deepest waters is to find sea turtles, boats at the bottom of a beautiful landscape and continue to listen to the birds that are cared for every day by the Author of all creation.

 

My prayer is that in this time of pandemic and in the very scattered post pandemic, we can go to the deepest waters. In a natural way to find the beauties of everyday life and to get closer to the Father and to go deeper into His ways and His will.

What was the gospel that Jesus preached? Part 5 Our response continued

posted in: Bible 0

By Rob Lampard

General Introduction

This is the fifth and last paper in this series.  In the fourth, we looked at the response to the gospel that Jesus looks for in us.  Earlier, we saw that those who do respond gain entry into the kingdom of God and a present experience of eternal life, which is literally ‘the life of the age to come’.

 

Finally, we’re going to look at a couple of further ways in which God blesses those who respond to Jesus’s gospel.

Assurance of Sonship

Jesus’s ministry was immediately preceded and introduced by that of John the Baptist.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all record this.  John the Baptist preached ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4).  He also spoke of a greater baptism to come:

 

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)

 

On a practical level, most religious people in the world, non-Christian as well as Christian, understand Christian baptism to involve the convert being immersed in water as an initiation into their new faith.  This is in line with the original secular meaning of the word.  ‘To baptise, was used among Greeks to signify the dyeing of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another.’[1]  Such a meaning led early Christians to understand baptism as symbolic of a person’s dying to their life of sin and self-centeredness and then being raised to new life in Jesus (Romans 6:1-4, cf 2Corinthians 5:17).

 

However, Vine goes on to list a secondary meaning for the Greek word ‘baptise’: ‘Plato, metaphorically, uses it of being overwhelmed with questions.’[2]  This meaning, we suggest, better helps us to understand what might be meant by being baptised with the Holy Spirit.  We are not so much dipped in him as overwhelmed by him.[3]

 

Just as we saw with the matter of baptism in water, Jesus makes no statements about baptism with the Holy Spirit until immediately before his ascension.  Before that, what he does is to give us a personal demonstration of what it means.

 

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  (Matthew 3:16-17)

 

There are relatively few Christians throughout history who have experienced the Holy Spirit descending on them in visible form, or of hearing as Jesus did an audible voice from heaven at their baptism.  But what all share with Jesus as a result of being baptised with the Holy Spirit is a new and overwhelming assurance of sonship.  It is common in our day for the people of the world to strongly assert their ‘human rights’.  In contrast, Christians, having freely yielded themselves to be slaves of God,[4] have given up their rights to him.  Wonder of wonders, to such people Jesus freely grants a new right:

 

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12)

 

Here indeed is good news.[5]

Baptism with Fire

Meanwhile, we should explore a little the meaning of the second element in John the Baptist’s prophecy about Jesus (see Matthew 3:11-12 above).  What might it mean to be baptised with, immersed in, or overwhelmed with fire?  Again, Jesus’s personal experience guides our understanding.

 

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
(Luke 4:1-2)

 

The context here suggests this meaning: to be baptised with fire means to be refined, to be set apart, to be tested, to be proved true, to be prepared for ministry.  The latter point is proved by the flow of Luke’s presentation:

 

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him (ie Jesus) until an opportune time. Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. (Luke 4:11-12)

 

In our case, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the process might also be one of cleansing and of purifying (see Mark 9:49).  This is certainly a way in which one of Jesus’s companions understood it. (1Peter 1:7).  Our comments here doubtless don’t exhaust the meaning of the phrase in question.

Power for Ministry

Jesus’s brief teaching on the subject of baptism in the Holy Spirit is recorded in Acts chapter 1.

 

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 1:4-5)

 

He goes on to explain that this will result in his followers receiving power to be his witnesses (1:8).  Throughout the remainder of Acts, Luke (who authored this book as well as the one bearing his name) documents repeated examples to demonstrate that those baptised with the Holy Spirit are empowered to make spontaneous, godly, verbal utterances.  Hence its obvious connection with being witnesses.  Examples are: speaking in new languages (2:4, 10:46, 19:6), declaring the wonders of God (2:11, 7:55-56, 10:46), preaching (2:14-36; 4:8-12), prayer (4:24-30), prophecy (13:2, 19:6).  Here is present power: power to do that which the baptised person could not previously do; power to boldly testify to the death and resurrection of Jesus; power to bring blessing and conviction to non-believers (John 16:7-8); power to bring glory to Jesus (John 16:14-15).  Which of us would want power like this?

[1] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1981, pp 97.

[2] Vine, p97.

[3] See for example, Peter’s assertion in Acts 2:33.

[4] See many New Testament verses, e.g. Romans 6:15-22, 1Corinthians 7:22;1Peter 2:16.

[5] Some might find the New Testament teaching in this area contradictory in that in some places it asserts that believers are slaves of God and Christ (see footnote 4 above).  But then it also asserts that we are no longer slaves but sons (Galatians 4:7).  Clearly then there must be points of view from which both sentiments are true and both should have their proper place in the believers mindset.  Further exploration of all this will need to be reserved for a future blog.

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