The Right Time… as always

I like the rawness and speed of Galatians. There is no real messing about, and some of the arguments seem to be as non-watertight as many of mine! Take this one:

Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

Just a few little leaps there that evade the Western mind as to how on earth Paul got from Hagar → to Sinai → to the Jerusalem of his day. He is certainly moving beyond a careful examination of the original context, author’s intended meaning, blah, blah!!

At the beginning of that chapter he hits something right on the head regarding the coming of Christ. He holds out that the timing was so specific, ‘the fullness of times’:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (Gal. 4: 4-7).

This is much more than it was a time of good communication, such as language, structure, transport etc., even if from a strategic point of view that might be the case. It seems to me that Jesus came when there was no hope. No hope now for the Gentiles because there was no hope for the Jews. So bad that we might as well draw a straight line from Hagar through Sinai to Jerusalem!! Jesus came as a human (born of a woman) to rescue humanity, and this is why a truly humanitarian approach has to also understood as a godly approach. Yet his rescue of humanity is as a Jew (born under the law), not because they were the chosen race, in the sense of chosen and others condemned, but because they were the failed chosen race. They were under bondage, their bondage being under the (good) law, and Paul can compare their bondage to the Gentiles under bondage to the elemental spirits. The coming of Christ then is for the Jew, his death is as a Jew under Roman execution, so that ‘we’ (normally when Paul uses this in these contexts he is indicating ‘we – Jews’) might be adopted as children! Hagar and child had been thrown out, hence his ease at being able to use such an analogy for Israel. Those adopted as children had received the Spirit – those whether Jew or Gentile.

Jesus came at the crux of history. The time of no hope. The chosen people were focused on how they were chosen but not fulfilling their call (their reason for being chosen) to be there for everyone.

This is not God acting in Christ outside of the rules, but entering into the rules of engagement. He is not a God-in-the-flesh untouched but victorious. The miracle of the Incarnation is not simply he becomes one of us, but the depth of the pit he enters. That pit is described as the ‘fullness of times’. The time of no hope. He does not arrive in the flesh to walk with Adam and Eve, nor appear at the time of the prophets, nor at any other hopeful moment. Present, of course, throughout, but only present in that intense way when there was no hope. Jew and Gentile alike under deep bondage. Coming to free those under the curse of the law, and those who were not chosen.

We enter the Easter season. It always speaks of personal hope. Yet for huge numbers Easter and every other day is just another day in the calendar as they struggle under the bondage of oppression through war, displacement, slavery and a host of other evils. There is no easy word to give to those multitudes. I believe God has not, nor never will, forget them. There is some kind of connection to that personal arrival (the parousia) when what is wrong is righted and the contribution to that ‘fullness of times’ that is to be pioneered by those who have received the Spirit. Easter gives personal hope and provokes an understanding of chosenness that we are to make a contribution to filling up the time. Not with universal bondage and no hope as the sign of its arrival, but of the abundance of gold, silver and precious stones, that had been stored up throughout human history, even some stones that came through when there was apparently ‘no hope’.

Jesus came at the right time. Not simply the most strategic time to communicate. In that coming he finished what the Father gave him to do. That work, the work of Christ is the finished work. He will return when we have finished what we were called to do. Easter says he values our (tiny) contribution. Maybe we can even say he needs our contribution. He certainly needs it to complete what he has always desired: to make his dwelling with us.

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1 billion and rising

I wrote these few lines in February, 2013 just after the population count had passed the 1 billion mark. That is a lot of people and the number is rising. Many within the global population are simply a number lost within the crowd. The privileged ones, such as myself, can either live life oblivious, or seek to grapple inadequately with their pain. In doing so we will always hit the self-questioning as to whether we are having an effect or not. We have just had Adrian and Pauline Hawkes with us for 5 days. A truly extraordinary couple who are making a difference to many lives, yet they too at times have their self-doubt. That is the mark of honest and committed people to the task in front of them. (See the amazing work of Phoenix Community, to see the heart of what Adrian and Pauline are involved in.)

But Heaven reaches Lower

So much to say
                but cannot speak
Places to travel
                but cannot move
People to help
                but unable to connect
Heaven to reach
                but head that is down
Setting a goal
                but without a horizon
Trying to breathe
                but losing space to live
Having some doubts
                but ready to fight
Fighting an illusion
                but feeling better
Everything will work out
                but not today
Today is not important
                and losing a gift
In the midst of a storm
                that is not as big
Having fears that are
                as big and
                more real than the fight
Yet not able to name
                the fears lest they too
                silence the traveller
                mock the warrior
                and bind the seer
In a world that is created in days
                a world of chaos
                that owes its existence to
                whatever created it
                the question shapes the Universe
Can this be the way it is?
                It is but it will not be for it cannot
                be all that it claims to be
Not all that glitters is gold
                and not all that casts a shadow
                is bad nor can it hide
                the light that finds cracks
                that creates shapes and reveals textures
So maybe today a word spoken could begin
                with a word heard
                and the gift of life
                could release the breath
                and restore the world to
                its true size and beauty
Could the miracle be already present within the space
                that is so small and there be a voice when
                there is no sound.
So cannot speak
                but a lot to say
Cannot move
                but a lot of travel
Cannot connect but
                people to help
A head that is down
                but heaven reaches lower.

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Wealth or Money?

‘Money makes the world go round’… and round… and round… or so it seems. Pensioners were out in force this past weekend in most of the cities of Spain protesting. The government has used money from the pension fund on at least 3 occasions to bail out financial institutions, and other businesses the government wished to favour. A while back a woman working in the political scene in Madrid told us that anyone 55 and under should have no expectation of a pension at retirement, the money will be gone. Never enough money in the pot, until it seems it can be found for something more important than those who need it!

A few years back we heard an African preacher (Langton Gatsi) push hard on the difference between creational wealth and money. Money can be here today and gone tomorrow, creational wealth continues. The stock markets can ‘miraculously’ lose money one day and gain it another. This is why in most Western nations the amount of money that is real is about 3%. 97% does not even exist, and by that is not meant that only 3% is in the form of currency, something deeper is implied. 97% are figures on a spreadsheet. A run on the banks would be disastrous, and not surprising when the system survives through debt. Without debt the western economic system collapses.

‘Can’t buy and can’t sell’. So the beast says. Trading with money.

However, there has to be a pragmatism. Jesus even said as much with

I tell you, make friends for yourselves by your use of dishonest wealth, so that, when it fails, they will welcome you to eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).

We live in a fallen (dirty?) world, and only at the extreme end does there come the call to ‘come of her’. So assuming we engage, there is an inevitability of our ‘feet’ becoming dirty and needing to be washed. Dirty feet seems to be unavoidable, but what must be avoided is having a dirty heart on these matters.

Here then are a few bullet point thoughts:

  • wealth cannot be defined by money. Wealth consists in who we are, wisdom, insight, humility.
  • the counterbalance to ‘buy and sell’ has to be ‘give and receive’. Gift is not blind charity but rooted in grace and mercy it will manifest generosity without any guarantee of return, but is given to make possible a person moving toward their destiny. Trade is based on the so-called ‘bottom line’; gift to release destiny.
  • If we can learn the ‘give and receive’ and seek to implement this maybe we can also ‘buy and sell’ without the numerical mark?

A few days ago I re-posted the material on Judas where I consider there is a strong element of Mammon running throughout that narrative. Jesus was not conquered at any level by Mammon, and the strategic victory takes place in the wilderness where he refuses the offer of ‘the kingdoms of this world’. Then on a daily basis the presence of Judas was where that battle continued. Never once did Jesus put money before Judas, always people took precedence over money. I suggest that en route to breaking the hegemony of religion the refusal to submit to Mammon was a necessary step. Money is neutral but the system locks money up under the spirit of Mammon, the result is the reward of some (but not their release) and an increasing captivity of a majority.

I consider that Jesus conquered the spirit of Mammon decisively. This gave him authority to break open the religious spirit that is so often twinned with Mammon. The Temple in Jerusalem, now had fallen to the extent of being a den of robbers. This did not mean that people could not meet God there, for God can show up in the most dark of places. Even Judas seems to unknowingly act out that severing of the tie between Mammon and religion by throwing the money back in the Temple! It is not his act that makes the break, that is done at the cross but his act is a powerful sign of what has been done at the cross. The lie of Empire continues (make Rome great and the world will be blessed) while the real flow is ever to the centre. Religion of all kinds, theist, polytheist or non-theist, can be seconded to the Imperial power to promote the well-being and continual existence of the Imperial powers. Indeed I suggest religion becomes more important to the Imperial powers at two phases: at a time when there is a push for even greater level of greatness or when there is the fear of losing control.

All three have something in common. They draw a line of who is in / who is acceptable. The language is different but the effect is the same.

Jesus, nor Paul in the ‘secular’ outworking of the Gospel allowed faith to become the support for the status quo, but considered that faith was there to challenge the world order as is. Surely that approach continues to be the call to those of faith?

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Where will this path lead?

Stephen Bullivant, St Mary’s University in London has authored a report on the state of Christianity in Europe with a focus on those aged 16-29. It seems hard to argue that the future does not look so good. (Article based on this report can be read at The Guardian.) Here is a sample o the findings.

Those between 16-29 who identify as having no religion:
Czech Republic 90%
UK 70%
Spain 55%
Poland 17%

Those who never attend a religious service:
Czech Republic 70%
Spain 60%
UK 59%
Poland 12%

Those who never pray outside of a service:
Czech Republic 80%
Spain 64%
UK 63%
Poland 19%

In Europe among that age group the Czech Republic was the least religious and Poland the most. The UK and Spain featuring high on the non-religious spectrum. According to Bullivant, many young Europeans

will have been baptised and then never darken the door of a church again. Cultural religious identities just aren’t being passed on from parents to children. It just washes straight off them.

the Muslim birthrate is higher than the general population, and they have much higher [religious] retention rates.

In 20 or 30 years’ time, mainstream churches will be smaller, but the few people left will be highly committed.

Not a rosy picture and one that is sobering. Post-Christendom for sure, but these figures point to something more than simply the demise of the Christendom paradigm. Ancient Rome was of course a challenge to the Gospel’s progress so we should not lose heart, though the level of religious affiliation within that Imperial setting would have been so much higher. (I guess there could also be statistics produced that counter-balance a little the non-religious aspect indicating a percentage involved in spirituality.)

I am not dismayed by the post-Christendom era that has been present for a while and is increasingly the reality. We might not be alarmed if we simply suggest that the Christianity that younger people give no affiliation to is purely institutional and not a reflection of personal faith in Jesus. However, the vacuum that is being let will be filled,and dark controlling powers relish such a situation.

The task is clear. As much as I am an advocate of making the shifts, such as witness rather than evangelise, or seeing fulfilments of the prophetic in liberation, pro-humanity movements, etc., the presence of those with faith, who know the Lord is so necessary. The secular context maybe means we do not need to compete with other religious views and it does present the opportunity for a presentation of Jesus without baggage, but the report clearly says the future will not be an easy one.

If ever there was a time and a context for ‘the multiplicity of the small, and the diversity of expression’ the report indicates this. What an opportunity in Europe! Not the time to import something. The Gospel is in that third phase. From Jerusalem to the Gentile world, embedded in Europe, from there clothed in Imperialism to the ends of the earth. Now there is a return. But the return cannot be back again with the same clothing. Hence something has to be recovered from within, while not ignoring the help coming from the ends of the earth. Back to Jerusalem too, not with a Zionist push (for in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek) but to enable the reconciling Presence of Jesus to show in that very contentious place there is only one humanity.

The statistics are challenging. The focus remains the same. False hope will disappoint. Hope that remains and even grows among a grass roots movement though? That is what makes Europe an exciting place to live.

An end of an era is signalled in those statistics… The beginning of a new era beckons.

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Judas to the rescue

I have been rescuing a few posts from years before, and thought that I had done enough when I remembered that I had blogged on Judas Iscariot, so went looking for those posts. I think they are worth rescuing. They were originally posted in March 2009, here they are in slightly modified form.

Why Judas?

WWJD – what would Jesus do? WDJDWD – not quite as catchy, and not likely to take off as a trend, yet I think an important question: why did Judas do what he did?

The conventional reading is of Judas as thoroughly evil, the betrayer from the beginning. And if one is of a Calvinist bent, one predestined to betray Jesus (and implications in that for choice / accountability?). There are always some tough Scriptures that clash against any and all viewpoints, but I suggest that there is another reading of the Judas narratives that fits better. I have long been provoked by the similarities between Peter and Judas. One denied Jesus – and not once but three times; the other betrayed him. One was heartbroken at his own failure – oh, yes, so was the other one and took his own life as a result. One lived to be restored – the other…

Is there really a great difference between the two?

Could it have been different? I think it could have been very different. It is that that gives me hope. Hope because there is a bit of Judas in us all – and dare I say it a little more than a bit. Perhaps also that same Judas ‘spirit’ has infiltrated so much of what we have done as church and our proclamation of the Gospel.

It was my good friend Johnny Barr who was the first one to speak about the connection of Judas’ weakness and the task Jesus gave him. The task: look after the money. The weakness: love of money, to the extent that he was called a thief!

A love of money and looking after the money bag. Great choice for a church treasurer!

Why the choice of treasurer?

What is taking place? I am sure there is a depth to this choice that we do not fully understand but there are at least three key elements:

  • Jesus is showing that he trusts his Father as his supply and that he was not relying even on ‘good stewardship’ for his provision.
  • Jesus is demonstrating that people are always valued higher than money. He is showing that people cannot be valued in monetary terms.
  • Jesus is discipling Judas. His discipleship is not through confronting his weakness, but enabling Judas to look at his weakness in the eye.

There is enough in those three points to bring about significant correction to my approach to life. Prophetic critiques of Israel were centred around two issues: you are not trusting God a) as your Provider nor b) as your Protector. Nothing has shifted at the level of prophetic critique that comes to God’s people.

The actions of Jesus are challenging for anyone professing to be a Christian and involved in earning money. The bottom line for a ‘kingdom’ business can never be that of money. Indeed maximising profits cannot be justified, not even justified by ‘we will have so much more to give’. The means cannot cleanse the final product. Perhaps a key element in business is a strategic plan where and how to lose money. Seems Jesus had that plan. Money is neutral, but the spirit that operates in that realm is not neutral and a radical response is what Jesus showed to that spirit. Of course he had first dealt with it in the wilderness when offered the ‘kingdoms of this world’.

If money is the bottom line, then people will fall by the way, they will become dispensable. If people are the focus money will find its place.

Jesus’ discipling I think reversed so much of what we do. We tend to confront weakness and cover sin. Jesus covered weakness and exposed sin through the person gaining self-perception.

Self-discovery

I have lived my life many times at a level of hiddenness. By that I don’t mean deep hidden sin, but at the level of not facing up to my reactions, such as fears, anxieties, anger or arrogance. Those reaciton that reveal what resides within. Discipleship, following Jesus, allowing him to shape us seems to begin with a healthy dose of self-discovery.

I suggest that there is never a breakthrough to a new level without self-discovery

So back to Judas and money.

Jesus deliberately gave him the money bag. I am sure that Jesus knew exactly about Judas’ weakness. In giving him the finances to look after he was provoking Judas to come to a place of self-discovery, and to go beyond that self-discovery to the place of honesty. He had the opportunity to come to Jesus privately, and say something along the lines of ‘I would rather not look after the money’ (but in Greek or Aramaic of course!). I am sure that Jesus would have been very happy to work with Judas in his weakness, making arrangements for Andrew (for example) to look after the money. Weaknesses, such as Judas had are not an issue to Jesus. They are simply an issue to us, and if not faced up to, that issue will have serious repercussions.

Here then is a root. The weakness is not the problem. Denying the weakness is the problem. Honesty is where it all begins. In the parable of the seed and the four soils, one Gospel writer describes the soil as good and honest soil.

I see the same principle in the thought behind the phrase in the Lord’s prayer: lead us not into temptation. Scripture says God does not tempt, but here we come close to the opposite of that belief. I read the phrase in the prayer as a cry for self-discovery and a level of honesty to what we discover. ‘I am weak, I am liable to go wrong, so I ask that you protect me so that my weaknesses are not exposed so that they are exploited. I humble myself…’

Honesty concerning our weaknesses and the clothing of humility is the path for the disciple. The path way of ‘never would that happen to me’ is not the way for the disciple to travel.

Judas and Peter might be similar in many ways. Maybe they essentially began on the same path but but at the level of honesty there was a divergence right there. We can have a weakness and seek to cover it, or we uncover it / let it be uncovered and find that there is a protection from heaven.

Judas carried with him an unresolved personal weakness. Maybe that weakness was a love of money, but the more serious issue was his inability to be honest about himsel. Self-justification becomes a major hurdle for him and for us.

A vision for the kingdom

Judas (and we, of course) know better. We have a kingdom vision.

Judas has an unresolved inner issue. That is serious but when this unresolved issue connects to a vision of the kingdom, then the problems multiply. Here then is the reading of Judas life that becomes so vital for us. Judas has a vision for the kingdom, for a different world, he connects to Jesus, believes in this Messiah. So far so good, but as time goes on can see things Jesus cannot see. He can clearly see the pathway of peace, of non-violent resistance will never bring in the kingdom, but rather it will crushed. Power, and the exercise of it is important. Getting to the place of influence is obviously the way to go. Judas can see that Jesus’ method and pathway is the pathway to captivity or even to martyrdom (and a futile martyrdom at that). It is not the pathway to confront the evil powers and put the world aright. So…

A plan is hatched. A plan that necessitates Jesus first receiving a gentle but rude awakening. Jesus will have to realise that to succeed he has to step it up a level and exercise his authority where and how it matters. After all, Judas believes in this Messiah. Judas, I suggest, believes he has a strong element of righteous care for the Messiah.

So he arranges for a group of captors to come and he knows how Jesus will respond. He has been with Jesus who has raised the dead, walked unharmed through hostile crowds. This will be the moment, and what a moment it will be. Right there in Jerusalem (God’s centre) with an exposure of God’s enemy (Rome). A climactic moment for the kingdom, for the moving forward of Jesus’ mission. Bring out the soldiers and Jesus will assert himself. Then truly the movement will move into the next phase, the kingdom will advance. Success, rather than failure, will result.

Jesus will take his place, visibly as the promised one. Of course the disciples will also have a place. Maybe even Judas will gain a key place for his catalytic role in bringing about the next phase. Israel will rally round, and on the movement will go from Jerusalem to Samaria, and on to the ends of the earth! Truly Judas to the rescue.

A likely scenario? I think what I present is a lot more plausible and makes more sense of the texts than the simple ‘Judas was evil and wanted to betray Jesus’ interpretation.

Yes, he betrayed Jesus. But maybe so much of what has been done in the name of Jesus, and done to help him, because we know better how the kingdom should come, has also betrayed him. Do we not hear again and again: Jesus, yes; but the church, no.

The kingdom comes, but how it comes is often a mystery. It comes in weakness. It comes when we feel we have been misunderstood, marginalised, and history records, even when we have been martyred. The first resurrection (John in Revelation), the better resurrection (Priscilla in Hebrews) was reserved in Jewish thought for the martyrs. [OK we are not quite sure if Priscilla wrote Hebrews, but then we don’t also know for sure if John, one of the 12, wrote Revelation either!!]

Judas is shocked. He cannot believe that Jesus is captured. Personal weakness and his vision of the kingdom, his ability to know what will help the cause, brings him to the point of despair. However this is not too unlike Peter, who cuts off the ear of the servant, and then goes on to deny Jesus, and to do it three times.

Another opportunity

Peter is given a fresh commission, in spite of his own mistakes and weakness. Three times he is asked if he loves Jesus, three times he is commissioned to look after the sheep. Judas is given no second chance, but had he stayed around? We’ll never know what might have been for him. He simply did not stay around long enough to be freshly commissioned.

His journey began with an unresolved personal weakness.It ended in suicide, but

Before he commits suicide he is delivered of his personal weakness. Money no longer holds him as he throws it back to the religious powers. The death of Jesus is a delivering death, and even Judas is an evidence of this.

He throws it back in the Temple. The place that stood, no longer as a house of prayer for the nations, but as a ‘den of robbers’, a place that stood as a sign of the compromising union of religion and money. What an uneasy truce was there. Religion offered support to the Imperial power, and the Imperial power gave them freedom. The money crashes back in there. A statement of Judas’ new inner freedom, and a prophetic sign that true faith will be freed from the domination of Mammon.

Inner freedom. Don’t be too quick to act Judas, you are free, free, free at last. You were not alone in betraying Jesus. I was there too. But…

He moves quickly, the regret and grief is too strong for him to handle, and takes his own life.

What would have happened if he had hung on another day or two? Maybe he could have been like the husband and wife on the way to Emmaus:

we thought he would restore the kingdom, and he has been crucified, and now it is the third day (my paraphrase).

What would a third day have done for Judas?

Judas never have lived to experience the third day, but he died experiencing the love of Jesus and the delivering power of Jesus. And yes… I do expect to see him in the age to come.

I am too like Judas – maybe this is why he is one of the 12. Maybe too much of Christianity has modelled itself on Judas. Hidden personal weaknesses, after all can we really be expected to be vulnerable? We accumulate knowledge that will help establish the kingdom; and if we do well, if we are those who believe for greatness then we can expect to gain a significant position as we help Jesus out.

But there is always a fresh opportunity.

Good-bye Judas… yet hoping one day I will say ‘Hello, and glad to meet you – I learnt a lot from you.’

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Evangelise or bear witness?

(Modified, originally posted in August, 2016).

A while back I read a blog post from Scot McKight on Rethinking: Evangelism, and alongside reading Brian Zahnd’s book ‘Water to wine’ of his own journey of faith beyond the narrow approach of ‘in / out’.

McKnight asks the question of how we should evangelise:

so now then how do we evangelise… what do we say in that 3-5 minutes when that might be the only conversation we have.

This is a poignant question when we think beyond a person ‘going to heaven and needed the entry ticket’ – what then is evangelism?

Zahnd’s book is deeply moving as it is his personal journey of integrity. I cannot make the journey he has made where he appears to me to be deeply sacramental and (in my perspective) a staunch believer in the institution and liturgy of church, and although he seems to come at it by a different route his journey likewise challenges the traditional understanding of what it means to evangelise.

Both carry the label of ‘evangelical’, and although I sometimes question the validity of that label, in as much as it means having a centre in Jesus, salvation through his atoning death as revealed through the authority of Scripture then I too am probably happy with the label. The label describes some core beliefs for us all, and it is in that context the question of ‘then what about evangelism’ becomes important. The question becomes a relevant question when the Gospel is seen as broader than the four spiritual laws. And it becomes harder and harder to reduce the Gospel to those (or similar) kinds of laws / statements. The 3-5 minutes under the former viewpoint was easy, now what?

For Gayle and I we live deliberately missionally. In our opinion the call to follow Jesus necessitates that. I appreciate that the first call of Jesus to the apostolic band was to be with him (Mk. 3:13), the apostles were those who ate and drank with Jesus (Acts 10:41), so maybe I miss something in all this. Being (with) before doing and acting. However, I confess that we think purpose. We think that way because we think all believers are called to live that way. However, we have stopped using that (missional) language because far from seeming to help others find purpose two things happened. A view that it is different for us – ‘you live in Spain’, as if an address makes a difference? (And it does at times – try living in Saudi Arabia, Syria etc… or in some Western nations that have all-but sold out to materialism.) And secondly, it seemed to carry an expectation that because we are living in Spain there are certain things we are / should be doing. So we use the phrase ‘living life’. This might become a less than useful phrase too. What we mean by the phrase is life centred on the values, teaching and person of Jesus, so the whole of life is shaped by that viewpoint, and I hasten to add ‘imperfectly’. Now we all live life – whatever our address, but a follower of Jesus has to be ‘guilty’ of living life shaped by the One who died for their redemption.

Long paragraph there, but the reason is, McKnight, Zahnd or Scotts, who all see the Gospel as broader than the four spiritual laws have to answer the question of evangelism. I am not a Universalist (too many Scriptures there for me), but neither do I automatically submit to all are off to hell at death except for the born-again ones, and partly as I see the ‘hell’ Scriptures as both having an AD70 application and that where they do not the issue is eternal punishment not eternal punishing. So maybe there is an easier, softer-edged approach to my theology, that avoids me living with the imagery that all are in a burning building and our task is to get as many out as possible by whatever means (evangelism that treats people as objects therefore is not too objectionable under that imagery). I still hold to ‘those who receive Jesus are saved’, so I want the whole world to receive Jesus. What then about evangelism?

McKnight used the word ‘witness‘ in his post. I found a resonance in that. We are called to be witnesses to Jesus – we read this of course regarding the promise upon reception of the Spirit, where Jesus explicitly harnesses the Israel calling to the nations, as in Isaiah, conferring that on the disciples (Acts 1:8). The Acts 10:41 scripture I referred to above says:

but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

We are witnesses and perhaps all the better witnesses if we eat and drink with him. Lifestyle witnesses. That was why when the bank assistant swore at a reasonably high volume asking me to make some kind of monetary response, I had made a witness. She then said to me ‘I know money is not important to you’. Did I evangelise her, rebuke her for her use of the well known ‘-er’ verb? No, but I bore witness. Off the back of that one day, maybe… But I am not about to exploit the situation.

Witnesses to values, based on following Jesus. He is the centre, not some facts about sinfulness and ‘wrath’. We can connect with people, we can confront racism, sexism, abuse, unfettered capitalism (note ‘unfettered’) all on the basis of our Jesus’ discipleship. We can resonate with activist groups that care for the poor, and when there is an opportunity we can explain the reason is that ‘this so closely resonates with what our teacher instructed us‘. The witness is to him.

The language of ‘witness’ gives us some language that we find helpful. Living life is missional, witnessing is evangelism (good news-ing). Living life is eating and drinking with Jesus. If he is important the occasions when we encounter the restricted 3-5 minutes might contain some verbal communication in summarised form about sin and the cross, but more likely the challenge will remain as to how we live life. That is the core element of witnessing, and the only way to effectively plant seeds where people can ‘hear him’ and not simply some approximate truths about him.

A little theology

I do not believe the Bible teaches the eternal punishing of ‘sinners’. In summary: the soul is not immortal; God alone has immortality; the tree of life was barred to humanity so that ‘they might not live forever’; the imagery drawn is from Sodom and Gomorrah, they being destroyed by eternal fire and all that remained was the smoke of their torment, and from the closing verses of Isaiah where ‘their worm did not die’, the fire was not quenched but the result was non-existence. This is the difference between eternal punishing and eternal punishment. One is unending and ongoing, the other (at some stage) final and irreversible. I also consider that many of the warnings in the Gospel are concerning the ‘hell’ of AD70, so not relevant to the issue of eternal destiny.

I also lean to the blurred line position of ‘all who receive Christ’ are saved (we then have to wait to see what it means to receive Christ – what about those who received an image of Christ, and how perverted is an image until it is no longer a Christ but an anti-(replacing the authentic) Christ?), and all who ‘reject Jesus are lost’ (again what does it mean to ‘reject’ Christ). This is not a Universalist position but holds solidly to the universal inclusion through the Cross. This gives room for those to be included in the age to come who have not come through the narrow door that those from an evangelical / fundamentalist background have been (implicitly) taught to work with. Though it needs to be noted that the above is well within the boundaries of evangelical faith.

[Side note: the narrow path, flee the wrath to come type of Scriptures fit totally the coming judgement of AD70… We have to read the Scriptures narratively first, not as a set of doctrines.]

I consider that such theology takes some of the angst out of the ‘one opportunity so quickly discharge your responsibility’. Other issues I have with the hard line ‘one opportunity’ scenario is that we can treat people as objects to be saved, preached to, or whatever. Something I think is far from the scenarios we find in the Gospels with Jesus or in the Acts with the Gospel mission. There was a ‘I-Thou’ relationship (to take out of context a quote) that seems to me to be about the encounters we read there. In many of the scenarios a giving in relationship was the context, and that takes time.

The Pauline Gospel has at the centre a belief concerning the death and resurrection that proclaimed a new foundation for the world. A new creation is on its way because he is the ‘firstborn of all creation’, and (I think) by implication there was a new way to be society in the light of that. Paul could proclaim this in the market place alongside the other philosophers. The huge added dimension was a transcendent one, witnessed to by the inbreaking of heaven’s realities with miracles and the expulsion of demons. Immediate signs of another dimension, and subsequent signs of a different dimension evidenced socially if someone took a focus on the transformation among the marginalised.

For me then the proclamation of the ‘kingdom of God’ is not a three step:

  • all sinned
  • Jesus died for all
  • receive him and you are saved.

Hence I think our call and Paul’s preaching was ‘to bear witness’. This seems to accord with his desire to come to the Roman church to proclaim the Gospel, not to reduce this to work with them to ‘evangelise’. His desire was to preach the Gospel to ‘them’ (the church).

Now the flip side. There is wonderfully more than enough evidence throughout the letters that personal salvation is a reality. Paul spoke of wanting all to be in his situation (minus the chains) when addressing the royal court. He wished for them to be as he was personally bonded to Christ.

This is why we need to be very sensitive to the ‘in the next five minutes I need to get across the deeply core aspect of the cross that Jesus was present to reconcile all to God’. If we call that evangelism, then let’s be very sensitive to evangelise. I simply think that is one aspect of bearing witness, and an aspect that if forced in another situation might not be a bearing of witness.

Praying for a sick person without explaining the four spiritual laws, digging someone’s garden or whatever might be the most powerful witness we can bring at a given time. Our witness is not to how good we are, nor to how bad someone is who is not a ‘believer’ but our witness is to Jesus, that there is a new creation here and coming.

So my tentative position is that we are to bear witness. We must resist the temptation to evangelise at all costs. We have to be passionate about Jesus so that we see people as he saw them. Perhaps to the religious person we might have to insist that without them being born again they will not even perceive the kingdom; maybe to the rich person we might need to exhort them to sell everything for without it they can never be free to enter bondship to Jesus; perhaps to the financial cheat we should go eat with them and only when they look to put right what they have done do we take the liberty to proclaim that salvation has come to their household; maybe… Yes all gospel stories and ones centred in on Jesus’ ministry to Israel so they have their limitation, but maybe they also have enough provocation to bring me to repentance over the situations where I have opted to evangelise when I should have born witness, or have missed on out on that specific opportunity to ‘evangelise’ when I opted to avoid it.

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St Patrick’s Prayer

Has to be posted… one more time!!

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

Christ shield me today
Against wounding
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.

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Conflict in Lavapiés, Madrid

We have prayer walked this area consistently for the past years, and have been drawn to it over and over again. We have AirBnB rented on some of the very streets where the troubles have been. Right now huge conflicts are breaking out there. No-one should have to live their lives in the midst of that, but just think of Syria day to day, year after year. This pushes us all the more to get in to this zone with a small apartment. Maybe not too rentable(!!), but if we can get our feet on the ground.

These troubles followed the death of a mid-30 year old street vendor, with his basic goods spread out on a rug, who ran from the police and died of a heart attack, and as far as we can make out, right outside the door of the last place where we shared an apartment with Simon and Amy Bell last December.

Politicians have made their initial response. One (not surprisingly) came out in total support of the police – and they have a difficult job to say the least, but some of the videos do not show (some of) them in a good light. Another boldly has said that (I paraphrase) he cannot but

stand in solidarity with the person who was selling everything he has in order to survive, while living in a country where impunity for the corrupt is massive.

Prayer, walking, loving. Our part. Intervention from heaven? Well a sound on earth is what attracts heaven. The sound on the streets right now is not one that attracts heaven’s grace but dark powers from the heavenlies. This can be reversed.

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In the Middle (muddle?) of 2016-2020

Sue and Roger Mitchell have been very supportive of our travels in Spain. In a few weeks’ time we will have them with us for a few days. Always there is more in it those days than we initially realise. The interaction deepens our perceptions. Sue has recently written about the ‘mid-point’ of our time through the four years from 2016-2020. Her insights and prophetic vision have always stood the test of time. Not only is the content that is reproduced here worth digging in to and meditating on, but she also sends out such a clear signal in her communication of where we have to travel: a communication that both those standing in a historic Christian position and seeking to face outward, and those who do not share a ‘Jesus-faith’ but are equally focused on transformation can find clarity for hope, faith and love.

Roger writes regularly. Follow him on twitter or at his blog

Here then is her post, first with the introduction by Roger on his blog site:

We all have a context and a background, a worldview, social construct, call it what you will. The important thing is to recognise it but not be bound by it, let alone be dogmatic about it. I rather like theologian Graham Ward’s standpoint theology approach where we recognise where we started and where we are now but keep open to the impact of others and their standpoints. Exercising prophetic sight from the context of this kind of open standpoint is costly but crucial. So I am everlastingly grateful to my partner Sue Mitchell for continuing to pursue such sight. I for one need it, and in its light will be ready to start once again blogging more resources for kenarchy practitioners and love-activists generally. Thanks to those who continue to visit this site and peruse the material whether I’m blogging regularly or not. It’s certainly encouraging to me. So here’s the first installment of Sue’s latest sight. It’s quite long for a blog piece, but needs exposure. In a week or so I’ll move it to her page so that we can continue to draw on it while I continue to blog forward.

IN THE MIDDLE (MUDDLE?) OF 2016-2020: MOONS, MEANINGS, TIMES AND SEASONS

TIMES AND SEASONS AGAIN …

It’s been a long while again since I have written about our times and seasons as there are so many perspectives to take into consideration. Desiring, like so many, to be inclusive and learning, I find it increasingly challenging to express a worldview which, while based, hopefully not dogmatically, in the Jesus narrative is meaningful for all, draws nonetheless on a transcendent, spiritual and moral dynamic that not all will recognise. Nevertheless I offer this in the development of an interpretation of the last three decades which, though somewhat ‘sub-cultural’ in its earlier expression, is now fairly well attested by significant events. My hope then is that it help ‘church-background people’ to re-imagine ourselves as active participants in the social justice challenges of today’s world, and ‘non-religious/non-christian people’ to re-consider the possibility of a powerfully loving, non-controlling, Jesus-defined God, involved in helping us all towards a radically new ‘humanifesto’.

POST-VIRAL PARALYSIS, LOVE-BASED COMMUNITY AND LABOUR PAINS …

On a journey to find a radical form of organisation which could express love-based relational community as an alternative and antidote to a mechanistic social determinism, many of us were engaged in a ‘new church movement’. It was a modern-day attempt at reformation of an ageing institution which nevertheless had transcendent love in its deepest history. From both within and outside that lived experience, much has been written about the human and supernatural dynamics, the development and settling back of that movement. My own interpretation, alongside Roger’s much deeper and academically rigorous research, views that 20th century experience as a concentrated exposure in a single generation of the history, the ‘rise and fall’, of an alternative society, or ‘church’, originally inspired by the exemplary man Jesus. Focusing on his inspiration, teaching and hermeneutic, we offer this fall as sign and significance of similar, earlier falls in the history of family, tribe and society, and of the virus that transfers in the DNA from generation to generation.

The inspiration and desire to love, belong, care and be loved is challenged, infected and often overwhelmed by power and institutionalisation. This often defaults to the seemingly necessary hierarchical, ‘representative’ management of social organising, rather than the relational wellbeing of all people and creation. Nevertheless, alongside the pressure of the virus in this 20th century church experiment, we did experience some truly remarkable transcendent interventions when the love of God impacted and strengthened the originary, creational impetus to love, and significantly challenged some of the post-viral structural paralysis in both church and social bodies. For example in the Pentecostal outpouring in Los Angeles, the love of God radically affirmed black, white, male and female as fully and equally valued. Martin Luther King then carried this revolutionary message to American society.

2016-2020: A PULSE OF ‘DESPERATION’ …

Jesus is well-known for his teaching of the ‘Beatitudes’, calling blessed those who mourn, who are hungry and thirsty, poor and despised. Clearly he is pointing to those not in positions of power and nothing to lose in the present system or social order, because another social order, or era, is about to dawn. His hearers can receive this new ‘kingdom’ with joy because they are not invested in the present, unjust and oppressive one. This hungering and thirsting is for righteousness, this poverty is of value and respect, this mourning is for the loss of the God-given image of humanity and creation where all live in peace and each has her own, rightly shared provision. But those ‘who are full now’, the rich and the satisfied, already have what matters to them so have no sight or longing for anything different, or of greater value. The labour pains of longing or a desperation for justice are a pulse we, particularly in the well-off northern hemisphere, must discipline ourselves to seek, challenging strongly our own self-interest in the present system. The traumas of the ups and downs of the market, whether we will be economically better or worse off after Brexit, and other such media narratives are the immediate concerns of this present age. Yet the increasing numbers of the homeless poor in our cities, the incarcerations of refugees and the unreported genocide (again) in the Congo are clear evidence of an ‘un-rightness’, which those, such as followers of Jesus, who aspire to a new social order, to a new humanity, must address.

MOONS, TIMES AND SEASONS …

I have to admit that foreseeing (as long ago as 1996; written up fully by 2007) that this four-year period would be one of ‘desperation’ (with hindsight better termed ‘disruption’) was not a great help when it did dawn! More recent statements I made such as “the shattering of Western imperialism is irrevocable and … a United Kingdom will … face considerable internal challenges and disunity (and) the shuddering will continue” can themselves cause desperation and not the blessed kind unless we keep the bigger picture in focus. As a seasoned melancholic, that is as great a challenge to me as to anyone. So the vivid and somewhat unusual lunar event in late January this year was a great, and literal, wake-up call.

In September 2015, the ‘early’ beginning (‘head’ of the Jewish new year, or in the West as the ‘academic’ year begins) of the 2016-2020 period, the fourth of an unusual 4 lunar eclipses in one year was a super, red, harvest moon. Termed ‘super’ because it appeared larger than usual at the nearest point to the earth in its ellipse, ‘red’ or ‘blood’ because of the effect of an eclipse, it was called ‘harvest’ for the season. Now at the head of 2018, two years into the period, two super moons occurred in the same calendar month. The second, also a blood moon, was termed a ‘blue’ moon because of its rarity, but also from an ancient linguistic root to betrayal, where 13 moons occur in a 12-month year. It references 13 apostles (Matthias was elected, or Paul emerged) in the framework of the original 12 after Judas’ betrayal. Moons turning to blood is a biblical reminder to take notice of times (chronos) and seasons (kairos) changing. And here was a super, blood, ‘betrayer’ moon!

In short then, my enquiries into what this might signal suggest that two eras or epochs (as in kairos in NT Greek) are contending for our one chronological or earthly present time period (chronos in NT Greek). The fullness of one era is being challenged by another, and they are beginning, unusually, to appear together. The ‘betrayer’ moon speaks firstly of Judas who betrayed Jesus, accepting money to do so in the ‘era’ or culture of the Pharisees’ collaboration with the Roman system, and indeed in the marriage of church with the imperial system since. Secondly and redemptively it references the apostle Paul who chose captivity as a prisoner in order to go to Rome to incarnate love in the very heart of the Imperial era. It appears then, that the love impulse which prioritises care for the poor, the gentle, the outsider and the oppressed, is again growing to a fuller strength than we knew and is shining alongside this ageing world system. It was incarnated by Jesus, released ‘on all peoples’ in the spiritual outpouring of resurrected humanity, imitated by Paul and subsequent generations, and in this time of our lives is growing again like the day. Now that is worth waking up for!

Will we then, ‘at this time’ see the era of wealth and power again restored to the church and/or the good people of the Western world? This ironic question is the excitable disciples’ question to Jesus (in Acts 1) reworked for our ‘time’. The answer is the same now as then. If that is our expectation or our desire, we cannot know or discern rightly the times and eras that are ours to live in. To look back, hoping to restore what was comfortable for us reveals a ‘fixed’ or closed, culturally dominant worldview. But Paul reminds us that if we are alert and sober, not easily distracted in a season of confusion and good desperation, we do know “full well” about times and seasons (1 Thess 5:1). Stealthily and carefully a new day (era) is beginning to dawn, but it comes about through labour pains! The metaphor is of the night, and a darkened mind, being about false “peace and safety”, so don’t sleep, but labour for a new birth, for a new era.

SO, BREATHE …

If then we are encouraged to hope for and believe in a growing social movement towards justice and compassion, it might look something like the Victorian pattern. The socio-political interventions for prison reform, the better working conditions for the poor, the end of child labour, new education provision and so on of the Victorian era was itself a dawning of a new day for many. It too succeeded a ‘reformation’ or awakening of the church to its original calling. But we are moving forward, not harking back to an earlier ‘Christendom’. What are the challenges of today’s social and moral injustices in a globalised and multi-cultural world? How do we now engage effectively, soberly but energetically? In my view the challenge of two moons in one space is huge. The parable of two harvests sown in the same field is apt (Matt.13:24ff) Tearing one up will damage both, but doing nothing is not an option. There is a transcendent element with angels becoming involved, responding to the ‘time’ and to ‘those who will inherit salvation’. So those seeking to share in the inheritance of the new humanity, first embodied by Jesus who persevered to fulfil all the hope and promise of a person committed to pour out life in love and the pursuit of justice, must work likewise with our time and with transcendence. And on one specifically challenging note, we must work this year with a sensitivity to betrayal. This is not to increase suspicion and neuroticism in our relationships, but to check our own choices and behaviour, like the disciples at the Passover. Not, “Is it he or she who will betray me?” but rather, “Is it I, Lord?” who might become a betrayer. If betrayed, to meet it with the forgiveness, love and freedom with which Jesus included Judas. To be true to our values, our covenants, our God, and our spiritual, moral and emotional responsibilities is our challenge.

BREATHING EXERCISES …

Some will know of the five ‘graces’ or pulses I have written of before as an interpretative gloss of our learning experience of the last 30 years. I suggest now again, that just like breathing exercises in childbirth, they are to help us manage these labour pains. We can and must be deliberate and thoughtful to help a reconfigured society, an ironic ‘kingdom’ or a new ‘era’ come to birth as fully and safely as possible, in our times. But they develop with each new phase, so I will write further in the days to come in fresh detail. It’s probably not just moonshine!

Sue Mitchell, March 2018.

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