The End of the Old

The cross stands as a beacon in the New Testament as an all-encompassing event, yet it is difficult to define. One of the earliest attempts was made by Irenaeus in the second century. He describes it as a ‘recapitulation’ of all things, echoing Paul’s earlier letter to the Ephesians. Jesus had gathered up everything into himself on the cross. It is not a tight definition as it allows room for interpretation and imagination, which is, perhaps, why I have grown to appreciate it, allowing room for modern perspectives to add their colour and shape.

First, a brief digression on science: Ever since Einstein, we have come to realise that space and time are not quite as they seem. Previous generations worked from an external framework of length, breadth and height, alongside the steady beat of a clock. This view of an absolute reference operating throughout the Universe has been found to be an illusion. Space and time, it would seem, are part of the same fabric that is itself relative and curved. There is much that can be said about this, but the important point is the interconnectedness of space and time: They are one fabric. The significance of which will shortly become apparent.

When God, in the form of Jesus, entered his creation, he did so, not as its ruler, but as part of it, fully identifying with it in the form of man, not just with one man in Galilee, not even with one nation in the Middle East, but with the very fabric of his space-time creation – including the part I inhabit, over 2000 miles away and over 2000 years later, which is just a much a part of the fabric of space and time. In doing so, he summed everything up in himself, as its representative, that it might die with him on that cross. Time and space collapsing around him and brought to an end, along with all that was not right in it, like sin and death.

Does this explain things? Hardly. At best it is a feint light onto one facet. All I know is that one day all of creation looked one way and a few days later, everything was different – even if that difference is not always obvious. It is inexplicable. It is even more puzzling that so many things seem to carry on as before. Yet, I know that it is true. Not because of what has been written in books, but because of what I have experienced. I, along with countless others, live in the old order, while belonging to the new: we are it’s ambassadors.

Behold the Man

‘Behold the man!’, was Pilate’s opening remark as he presented the sorry figure of Jesus whipped to within an inch of his life. It was good theology, even if Pilate did not appreciate it, but it caused many to struggle, trying to equate this image with God. Some even argued that was only an illusion. Jesus just appeared like a man. It was, of course, a heretical idea. Yet, I wonder how many of us still carry distant echoes of that view? Jesus was, after all, quite exceptional. He drew people towards him, healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed storms as well as many other things. In short, not much like me. If this isn’t evidence for him being God, then what is? Yet, the Bible seems to want to paint a different picture.

Philippians 2, often regarded as the centrepiece of Paul’s theology, does not say that God almost emptied himself, holding something back so that he could perform miracles. In fact, it says he became lower yet. Elsewhere, Isaiah 53 says, ‘he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.’ That does not seem to tie up with a highly charismatic miracle worker. He even came from Nazareth. (Think Slough: Can anything good come from Slough?) The Bible seems to be at pains to point out that God chose not only to become human, but a very unexceptional one at that. Just a manual worker born in a stable. We loose site of this at our peril, as I’ll explain later.

Changing tack for a moment. The four minute mile was for a long time thought to be unachievable, yet in 1954 Roger Banister removed that barrier and changed the way people imagined what was possible. Today the record stands at three minutes forty-three seconds.

So, here is my point. Jesus does not present us an unattainable standard, but, like Roger Bannister, he enables us to imagine a new reality. He has broken a barrier as to what we can imagine as possible. Once we grasp the fact that Jesus came as an ordinary man, we realise that we can, not only do what Jesus did, but do even greater things, just as runners have done with the four minute mile. For sure, Jesus had the Holy Spirit to help him, but then, isn’t that the same Spirit that the New Testament promises us? The more we imagine Jesus as extraordinary, the more it lets us off the hook. If the miracles demonstrate that Jesus was God, then what hope is there for me?.But, if Jesus were very ordinary, then I no longer have any excuses, for I am ordinary too.

The more I imagine Jesus as ordinary, the more it is causing a shift in my thinking. What once seemed only remotely possible, now seems imaginable. There is no constraint on me that Jesus did not also impose on himself. Jesus is no longer just someone to aspire towards, but shows me – and all of us – what can be achieved, even surpassed. After all, Jesus never moved a mountain. Perhaps that is one he has left for us.

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God With Us

Faith arises from what we find imaginable. What sociologist call our social imaginary. If I am to ground myself in the Kingdom of God, then I need to ground myself in the imaginary of the first Christians. Something that is proving harder than I expected.

As a Christian, my central story is that of the Gospels, as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Yet, this story is itself grounded in another, that of the Jews: The story of Exodus and redemption from slavery. It was a story of hope. What God had done before, their prophets had declared, he would do again. A great and terrible day was coming when God would dwell amongst his people, setting all things right. That day was to be soon. It is from within this that the Gospel’s story is heard: God had come, but it was not quite as they thought it would be.

Now, it had always struck me as odd that the Virgin Birth, such a small part of the New Testament, became such an integral part of the early Church. As I pondered this, I realised its importance lay in what it had become shorthand for. God was not only dwelling amongst us, but had become one of us. The Apostles Paul and John do not mention the Virgin Birth, but they make much the same point. Paul expresses it powerfully when he says that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The Gospels not only tell of how God dwelt amongst us in the flesh, but how the Spirit would follow. Unfortunately, at this point my deliberations became unstuck. The problem that confronted me was that the disciples were already healing before the Spirit was given, so, why am I doing so little, now that the Spirit has come? Attempting to imagine myself into the first world setting exposed a gap with my world that was so vast that it caused a disconnect that I found quite depressing.

This exercise was supposed to draw me into the imaginary of the Kingdom, if anything, it has done the opposite. I cannot help but compare my life with what it should be and I found almost no common point. I am living in a very different imaginable world. I need a better approach. I took what I thought was the quickest route, but the ascent has proved too steep. I need to find a gentler slope, one more suited to beginners.

The Divine Imperative

Imagine: The light is dazzling, slowly your eyes adjust to the brightness and we see a man whose head and hair are white as snow and whose eyes blaze like fire. We hear his voice, and it is like the roar of the ocean and in his right hand he holds the seven stars of the churches. He is Lord of all, yet, when we look towards the earth, we realise that our enemy has not been sitting back, but is sowing lies and discord within the church.

In heaven we see God firmly on the throne, surrounded by heavenly beings pouring forth praise – they have no doubt who reigns. Yet, some things must be allowed to take place; seals that need to be broken which will release long held back disasters: there will be wars, famines and disease. We have sown its seeds and we must reap its harvest. Yet, God has set limits to the sufferings we have sown. Yes there will be times of woe, but we don’t always know when.

Today, we are beguiled by comfort and all appears well. We are warm, well fed and secure. We fail to see those who suffer. Yet, the rules haven’t changed: some do well at the expense of others. All that changes are those who benefit. We enjoy the candy, but fail to see its price. We live in a world where God is dead or no longer relevant, we flounder for meaning and value, where all that remains is the will to power. We build on poor foundations and will find no Utopia at the end of this road. Indeed, all empires come to and end eventually: they carry their own seeds of destruction. But, we are not without hope.

God has not abandoned the world that he loves. He has left his church as witnesses of him. Just as Jesus was sent into the world, so now the church is called to follow. We manifest God to the world and show it God’s love. Or at least, that is the plan. Over the years, we have lost our way and become confused, but God is calling us back to fulfil our destiny: To leave the proud city and come out from Babylon. We leave its perspectives, but we remain at its heart. We know it’s fate is sealed, and yet we stay, showing a God who loves the world more than anyone can imagine and who is the answer to their hearts deepest longing. The world needs our story. We are God’s gift to the world for its redemption. Yet darkness opposes the light and we should not expect to be unopposed. Being a witness could cost us our lives.

As times get darker, it is as though we watch the vast forces of our enemy assemble, like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. We sense a pending battle, whose outcome is uncertain. We await the conflict… only, there isn’t one. The enemy is simply tossed into a lake of fire. For all the hubris, the outcome is not in doubt and we have nothing to fear.

As a church we have our failings, but we are making ourselves ready and will one day fulfil our mission to be witnesses of God and his love. The call goes out to us now, to leave the city and follow the one who is worth following. Fulfilling the divine imperative, we will find our destiny and hearts deepest longing. We will, at last, be a people who begin and end with Jesus.

Good News

Nietzsche said God is dead, which is bad news, because madness follows when we find ourselves an insignificant part of a meaningless universe, mere grains of sand. We cling to the reality of a material world that even science considers illusory and uncertain. It is not what we think. All is vanity, utterly insane – if it were true.

But, what if the world is different from what we imagine and not meaningless at all? What if the claims of a man born 2,000 years ago are the truth? Claims that led his followers to willingly die for what they believed. The truth that God is alive and loves us. Even when we had our backs turned to him, he did not turn his back to us, but reached into our world by becoming a man and living amongst us – not as a king, but a servant, a servant who humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. Such was God’s love.

Now, Jesus did not come as a messenger only, but to show us. To demonstrate a God coming not in power, but in weakness. A weakness that could not be overcome, even by death. Yet, he did it for us, not as part of a job lot, thrown in with the rest of humanity in some package deal. No, we are each uniquely important and individually loved. His death was personal. He suffered and died for us personally, though we had rejected him.

Too good to be true? His followers did not think so. They had seen Jesus raised from the dead and it shook them. Death was no longer the same and they could face it. For it was not a message that changed them, not an idea, but a man whose life could not be extinguished and who showed them God.

There is more good news. A lot happened at the cross, a deep mystery that only the foolhardy claim to understand. It was a turning point in history, a doorway that opens the way back to God and beyond that door lies a kingdom. A kingdom that creation itself is longing for – but that is another story. Yet, there truth Jesus showed enabled his disciples to face persecution, even to being burnt alive, even to being fed to lions, in peace. God was worth following. The victory was already his.

We were like prodigals with our backs turned on God, yet he awaited our return with open arms. A return through following Jesus and the life that he showed, turning away from our past and back to God. We may not have pasts to be proud of, I certainly am not about mine, but our greatest crime, our greatest folly, was when we turned our backs on God, yet he forgave us. Our lives become caught up in Jesus and he delivers us from our folly, reconciled back to God, through the mystery of the cross. I find it unbelievable that he considered me worth dying for, his life too precious to waste on me. Yet it is true and I can attest to it. At the time I heard, I was undone and all that was left for me was to repent.

This was not the God anyone was expecting. A God of love. A God of life. A life that cannot be stopped and that we begin to experience now. Citizens of another kingdom, being established on earth as in heaven. No wonder the disciples were no longer afraid.