A Threshold

2020… perfect vision… or perhaps to quote a figure from a byegone era:

Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into (Oliver Hardy).

I kind of think there is a bit of both going on as we cross over into the coming year. Vision to be had, and coming to terms with the mess around us and how to navigate our way through it.

In 2010 (repetition coming up here) I had two dreams, one of the facades opening up, so as we could see inside of the institutions that had shaped public live, but being closed again through an alignment to the familiar, casing things to revert back to the status quo. The second dream was of a see-saw and the numbers 20 falling on the left side, then 10 on the right side. The see-saw was weighted and although there were ‘wobbles’ when it might tip the other way it always came back down solidly on the left side. Eventually as the dates came 20 fell on the left and 20 on the right side. The dream ended with the see-saw balanced.

At the time I took it to mean a complete reversal and ‘whoa just wait till 2020’, … BUT… like all prophetic revelation we are not in a place to interpret it when we immediately receive it. Revelation comes from the future, interpretation is sourced in our expectation that is shaped by our experience (past). As the years have gone on I have continually reflected on both dreams and as we are about to cross over into 2020 it has again naturally become a focus.

The dream ended with a level see-saw… not a reversal.

That aspect is key for me. If I change the analogy a little to a sporting one, a level playing field. But the game still has to be played.

And the mess… yes we are in a mess. There are huge danger signs for those of us with faith in Jesus. ‘Our’ faith has been hijacked in many places to serve an agenda that is nationalistic, xenophobic and misogynist. When faith is pulled in to serve a political agenda we really do end up in trouble – it is the sign that there is a fullness of times (the critical moment of Jesus’ birth was into that context, and the outcome was the centralised decision that Jesus had to be sacrificed so that the ‘place’ was preserved). Religion prevailed and Jesus was expendable.

Of course dependent on one’s standpoint will depend on what mess is seen. Climate? OUCH. Economics? Enough said.

The mess is a challenge to interpret. A mess comes before there are breakthroughs. A right old mess also becomes more visible and more vocal at a time when we thought ‘the beast had received a mortal wound’ but lived again.

Some of what follows is personal as I reflect back on 2019. A year of great shifts. Tomorrow marks a one year mark of purchasing this apartment in Madrid – a goal achieved that we first aimed toward in 2011 and continually pushed toward it with many resistances. The year began with a drawn-out major battle to hold our ground with just under 3 months of continual meetings, documents being produced to establish our status in Spain. The year has brought us to a threshold, and I suspect that the end of this year / the beginning of next is indeed a threshold in many situations and for many of us. (And personally Jan 1, 2020 begins our 12th year in Spain.)

At the threshold point there is sight to be had. There is a fresh view to see what level playing field is there for us. There are closures where some fields can be left; there are also new fields that open up. As the threshold is crossed there is no need to hold on to what was. We have to discover what is now for us to hold on to. Battles are strange – we do not always finish all the battles that we believe were ours.

Threshold also marks that we lose grace over certain previous contexts, but there is great grace for what is new. The new though does not come in the same package, nor provision in the same way as before. (As per losing day to day provision of manna, and having to see beyond the giants to experience season to season opportunities.)

I consider that the early months are months in which clarity will come to what is being seen, as opposed to blasting into the year with sight. As the sight is embraced so contexts, and contacts will come into place. There is urgency, hence the need to move at a measured pace.

The level playing field means ‘game on’. Engagement and strategy will have to be hand in hand. Or maybe I should write engagement and new strategies.

In the process there will be an increase in ‘camps’ being formed. A ‘I am of…’ type of response. There is no issue in knowing where we belong, a question that Gayle and I often ask ‘who is our church?’ is appropriate, but this is not a time to narrow down. There are resources and connections from outside our narrow vision. The parting of company has to be with what is shaped religiously, as the pulling of religion into the power structures is the mire that will withstand progress. Religious was is here. The drawing to others is where life is shared.

Truth-telling is a key to open huge doors. Self-disclosure comes from a defenceless position and this will be increasingly necessary. The visible gap between truth and lies will increase. That gap is masked when religion speaks to expose. Religion does not expose reality but covers it, and when religion is brought in to speak it is to pervert what is true.

We anticipate fresh voices, with strange clothing, appearing in unusual places to mark this coming year.

And – again maybe personal – but with the three-fold focus we had this year on ‘students, women and pensioners’ I see all three gaining a clarity in their voices.

Sight to see the mess… but sight to see where we can stand before we lose sight because of the mess. And standing to see the beauty of heaven being expressed in the midst of the mess.

Time – no time

Been a while since I blogged, just been too focused and busy on other things, though I do have a Romans 13 thought, in the light of ‘of course Boris [replace with ‘whoever’] is appointed by God, the Bible says so, so no disorderly conduct here then by you’.

But Time… the magazine. N.T. Wright has an article in there from Dec. 16th. The opening paragraph and opening sentence of paragraph 2 reads:

One of the central stories of the Bible, many people believe, is that there is a heaven and an earth and that human souls have been exiled from heaven and are serving out time here on earth until they can return. Indeed, for most modern Christians, the idea of “going to heaven when you die” is not simply one belief among others, but the one that seems to give a point to it all.

But the people who believed in that kind of “heaven” when the New Testament was written were not the early Christians.

The link is here:

Alignments for the future

Some while back we had a confirming word sent us while we were focusing on the removal of Franco’s body from the valley of the fallen. It was during the time when the process seemed stuck. We had begun to home in on the release of three groups of people: the students (youth), the women and the pensioners as key in that process and the wider picture of Spain. After a number of weeks without knowing about our focus Michael Schiffman called us to say we needed to release 3 distinct groups of people and the shift on Franco would come.

Today Greta Thunberg will arrive in Spain and will be present at the climate crisis change conference in Madrid over the coming days. She is a sign in these times. A young woman. And with her are rising an army of youth. It is their future that they are calling for. Recently while presenting a small paper on politics and theology I touched on the ‘touchstone’ issue for many Christians, the issue of abortion, which for sure is a major issue, yet I suggested there is a spectrum that it sits on which has to include that of creation care (also war, nationalism and immigration are on the same spectrum). Both the issue of abortion and climate care are to do with the future and how we relate to those not yet born and those who are yet to live – true life being defined as becoming those who contribute to others, that being the real test of how much glory is present.

Columbus Square

Some years back we made a small visit to Columbus Square where the adventurer(*) is honoured and it has become one of the centres for nationalism (Spain Day), the military and power displays. Since our little venture into that square we have noted some wonderful shifts in the response to such celebrations of power. And just after that time this wonderful focused statue of the woman has been there. And in this photo with the juxtaposition of the woman and the Spanish flag surely speaks loudly! Love for nation and nationalism are not one and the same. It is the same as equating evangelism with seeing people as objects to be evangelised… no good news there!!

The woman, the feminine. There is a future that is held at this time in the hands and hearts of women. In the same way as there were good men at the time of Jesus, so there are ‘bad’ women today, who use power and ungodly position for their own ends. Yet Jesus died as a man – he nailed where the central corruption of humanity lay. So I suggest there is a new centring in of hope to be found in and among women in this time.

In Spain since 2003 there are over 1000 women who have been killed in domestic violence situations. Many more physically and emotionally beaten. Yes there is a violence that at times has gone the other way, but this is not a level field.

In parliament yesterday

Pensioners. Some who have made their contribution, have lived through trauma to help give a future (and some of course who have not been contributors over their years). Care for the elderly. Honour those who have walked before, otherwise there is little genuine hope for a better tomorrow. Many pensioners are going to find a new lease of life. Their time is not over, even if the money (in Spain) set aside for them has been raided by previous governments. (Not a surprise when so much financial basis is founded on debt, the way to ‘create’ wealth!)

Yesterday in parliament – yes still no government here, and a total police barricade so we were not able to get to the building yesterday – Agustin Zamarron (70+ and still seeking to serve as an MP) with great dignity spoke of the responsibility to Spain and the deep embarrassment he felt that to date there has been no success in forming a government.

An army that is different. That has a different spirit. I am looking at this when I think of the 2010 -2020 dream and the final level playing field. I am not a student, nor a woman nor a pensioner… but I am and need to be involved. There is though a centre, and maybe it is just Spain but there is something congregating around youth, women and pensioners.

Madrid, with the work of the last mayoress, despite reversals being activated by the new administration has seen pollution drop by 20%, the most of any major world city. The climate conference is here, and the TV news spoke of this conference and ‘the planet is looking for her salvation’. That is a quote from someone I read… where then are the daughters and sons of God? And maybe we also have to ask who then are the daughters and sons of God? The opening day one of the biggest Spanish polluters of the environment were on the front page of most of the main papers. Money can buy publicity, as always. It buys elections. Power wins. Or it has, but here comes 2020. A level playing field. Could love find a way?

Before 2020, comes tomorrow (literally). The streets will speak once again in Spain, so we need to be there as wisdom cries out in the public square. Walking boots on and with many thousands others we will walk.

*I very generously described Columbus as an adventurer. Read the stories as he left in the service of God and Spanish crown, accompanied by a priest who preached in Spanish, giving all an opportunity to respond to the message of salvation (I know some preaching is hard to understand but this takes the cake!), then those who did not respond were ‘legitimately’ killed or enslaved. I called him an adventurer, and I do that not to excuse him, but to allow the challenge to be ours of clearing up the mess, for those who have conviction that something is wrong surely must be those who seek to shift the effects of what has gone before.

Be engaged

In considering that the apostolic gospel is political I consider that such a long-term vision challenges:

  • Party allegiance. We might be aligned to a particular party, but we cannot be bought. There is no party that is perfect, no party that is Christian. The critique of the Gospel is that we have all fallen short of the glory of God. All parties and all systems certainly have! In a given situation we might always put our vote somewhere specific, the guiding choice has to be how redemptive we consider the vote is, how beneficial to a healthy, relational and equitable society the direction that party would move us in.
  • The apostolic vision is one that looks long term, and resists simple short term action that is justified by the outcome. Although in a time of crisis short term responses are always necessary. If a house is on fire we need to get the people out rather than leave them there while debating the best building materials to employ.
  • It challenges strongly the belief that change can only take place from the top, indeed I suggest that the apostolic Gospel suggests it rarely takes place from the top.
  • Challenging the idea that we have to be in power to be effective, it raises an interesting issue. Maybe (if there was such a thing!!) a Christian party would be best placed not in power. That is a challenge to the voter – vote for us, we do not aim to be in power! However bizarre that might sound the apostolic vision is a challenge to the power dynamic, and to the hope that someone elected will do it for us. Servanthood and a denial of vested interest has to be promoted and the empowerment of the grass roots, rather than power and an unconnected representative body.

An apostolic vision also recognises that:

  • Almost certainly with any party that we vote for, there will be policies that they endorse that we do not agree with. There is necessary compromise along the way. If God ‘allows’ we most certainly cannot legislate. The compromises that God is pleased with are the redemptive ones, the ones that might not be perfect but move it to a better place.
  • We also have to consider what are personal values and what are public ones. I might have a personal value that comes from following Jesus, but do not believe such a value should be imposed on society.
  • That our hands are not clean. We are all implicated in the system of destruction. The issue is that we are not clean, but in not being clean we do not have to be dirty. Our choices, our life-style has to be set through redemptive, though compromised, decisions.
  • That God works not to give people a guilt complex so that they might find him, but gives them a shape, a set of boundaries, within which they can find him. We likewise should not look to off-load righteous legislation but create a shape where people can prosper. All legislation should be redemptively creating shapes where people can best develop who they are. Sin is to not be the person I can be: a person in my skin representing the character, persistence and love of God. Sin is not avoiding through legislation a set of predetermined evils.

There are troubled areas for believers that often swing their vote. But as we cannot legislate in an absolute fashion we come back to the dirty world and the compromises that are required.

Abortion is often the single issue politics that determines the ‘Christian’ vote. Yet the issue is multi-faceted and the factors that surround it are complex, certainly including education and economics. It also sits on a spectrum of pro-life issues. What our response is to the current and pressing crisis related to climate change and global warming. Every response to this issue is a pro-life choice, ultimately determining who will live or not. Abortion and abuse of the climate are connected to the future of the unborn, and to those already born.

We could add xenophobia (and nationalism) likewise as they sit on that same spectrum. They are all positions that reflect on who we wish to prosper / live. The death of Jesus as a privileged male and a compromised Jew was for all, regardless of faith, gender and national identity.

The vote for a believer is indeed a challenge. We cannot simply vote along party lines. Also we do not carry a vision of getting our person to the top (the word of God came to John in the wilderness). We can though be governmental and help create a shape that pushes back the powers that control so that those who are equipped can come through to occupy in a humble spirit positions that are there. I consider that we are here to create and hold a shape.

In creating a shape – lifestyle, relationships, prayer, action… there are also those who we will partner with. Theologically we cannot simply partner with those who profess faith. Paul had friends who had a lot to lose, as far as wealth and status was concerned, on the basis of his vision, but were committed to be with him and support him. They had not recognised Jesus in the sense of at the level of personal allegiance to him, but they were simply convinced that Paul carried a vision for the future of this world. That vision was not one that was compatible with the structures as they were currently defended in his imperial world.

Who do we partner with? On a spectrum we are at times tempted to place, for example, atheists at the opposite end to that of Christians. I suggest we need to think again. There are atheists who are anti-God and there are atheists who do not believe in god. I too do not believe in god. I share my non-belief with a number of ‘good’ atheists. We have that in common, even if they do not share my belief in God.

More often than not there are those who are believing in a false god who are at the other end of the spectrum of those we can work with. Some of those might use our language, but fill it with other meaning. ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, ‘the cross’ are words – the meaning we fill them with is what is important. There might be those who are ‘Christians’ that we cannot partner with, how they understand the cross (by this sign we conquer) might be in such a strong contrast to how we understand it (the instrument that we carry daily for our own death) that we cannot partner with them. Our connections might be those who do not believe in god.

Theologically we have hope and vision for this life… and beyond. And as eschatologically the age to come is shaped from this one we cannot not work in this age. Our political involvement at whatever level, whether fruit is seen now or not, is vital. It can produce fruit now, and even if it fail will become seed for the age to come. (Again I applaud where an atheist who has no belief in an age to come in which they will participate is committed to work for a better future. If they can how much more should I be willing to do so.)

Disruptiveness has to be part of the political involvement. Particularly given how privileged we are. Most of us do not have the context of the threat against our lives, and in that context Paul even gave a voice of caution. That is not our context so we have responsibility for those who are threatened. The current Extinction Rebellion is making a very real impact. People are willing to be arrested for their beliefs. Yet the resistance is overwhelmingly white. In our cultures a non-white person is rightly cautious about being arrested. This does not negate the movement, but we must be slow to pat ourselves on the back when our protest is a privileged one.

Practically drawing on the work of Roger Mitchell he suggests that from the life, teachings and example of Jesus there are 9 areas that should prioritise our energies and commitments. The notes below are mine, so I hope I do not misrepresent.

The making space for the feminine. Given that cultures, structures and societies have been formed by men and the masculine, holding space for a feminine voice and creative response is vital. The lock up in Cataluña is an example of this. The age old conflict is in lock up because of power. No one can back down. A person such as Ada Colau, the mayoress, is not weak, indeed has to have more strength than those who resort to power and endorse violence. She is also a good example of who we have to take care of by taking responsibility to hold back the powers that seek to ‘steal, kill and destroy’. There are those who can speak to this much more than I can. There are some males who probably can, but the best we (males) can normally do is to be silent but hold space so that the voice of the feminine woman is heard.

The prioritizing of children, to whom the kingdom belongs. To reduce the future for the unborn to the issue of abortion is simplistic and wrong. Jesus prioritised children. Health care and education are two aspects, for sure that come to the top of the list when making space for the future, as are the issues mentioned above when touching on abortion.

Advocating for the poor. This moves beyond the patronising of doing things for those less privileged, to doing it with them. We cannot be those who do things to the poor, sometimes we might only be able to do things for them as it can be hypocritical to assume we are ‘with’ those who find themselves economically marginalised. These issues hit home. We can demonise the top 1% and immediately baptise the next 4% as being OK simply because that is where we find ourselves.

Care for the creation. This is God’s world and it is our habitat, and the habitat of those who are yet to live. The original habitat was in order to create an environment where God could be at home. Planting trees could be our greatest contribution to the future. The tree biblically is what bridges the arts and practical sustenance – maybe this could be a factor in why humans are described as trees?

Freeing prisoners. Of course we spiritualise the words of Jesus who came to set the prisoner free. Yet there are prisoners at all levels in society, as all systems will imprison. There are no simple answers, but the level of imprisonment in certain Western world countries indicates something is desperately wrong. Restorative justice aligns to Scripture in a way that punitive justice does not.

Promoting health. Jesus healed and did good. Healing is multi-faceted, and each political response is a sign of who God is. I find it hard to see how health is a privilege that can only be offered to the wealthy, and not at some very real level a responsibility to provide for as many as possible. We live as aliens in Spain but have stood against private health insurance. Maybe in some situations that might be necessary, but our approach to health care is shaped by our beliefs in the Gospel.

Confronting the powers. This is one I like a lot! Confrontation is not simply to put something in its place but to give an opportunity for the person representing that power to act humanly.

Making peace. Blessed are… We live in a fractured society that has its divisions. Divides so often because a voice that comes from a different experience and perspective is so often not heard, other than in that particular circle. We can allow voices to be heard, that is the only way that we will hep people move forward without the felt need to shout, or the reaction through intimidation or inferiority to be silent. At a very small level Gayle and I had a good experience in having someone stay with us who took a different stance on the Brexit issue and a different take on money. We were enriched.

Publicizing the good news of peace. Politics and faith do mix! We can at al times be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us. How and what we share has to be shaped by the love of Jesus. This too cannot be ‘top-down’.

Until he come (parousia) we work, relate, disrupt and proclaim (ekklesia). What we do now will, if done in line with the patient apostolic vision of lives laid down in love for the world, will come through the fire. Are we politically involved. For sure, with a small ‘p’ or a large one. Everything we do is about shaping the future, the future here and now and the future then. The small responses we make are so vital. They too are political.

Terminology speaks

The Imperial world of the NT gave the Gospel an inevitable conflict politically. There was a vision of transformation within it. The terminologies were so in your face:

  • Son of god
    The common and official title of Augustus Caesar in Greek documents was ‘Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god’. An inscription from Pergamum refers to Augustus as ‘The Emperor Caesar, son of god, Augustus, ruler of all land and sea’.
    Caesar’s did not claim to be god but were seen as invested with the divine and to such an extent that each subsequent ruler was termed ‘the son of the divine (previous) Caesar’.
  • Peace through his blood who did not resist, or through the blood of those who resisted.
  • Who is ‘lord and saviour’ and ‘king of kings? And this came with the further question of how is that lordship and kingship defined, and outworked. Jesus is not simply the alternative Caesar, one who also acts in the same way! Power, top down; or love with empowerment beyond.
  • The word euangelion (Good news) was used in ancient Greece of the public announcement of good news. It was used of a public declaration of a military victory or public policy. In the Roman world it was used whenever there was a royal ascension to the throne. The good news of Caesar Augustus the son of the divine Caesar. (Augustus, being the successor to Julius Caesar.)
    When the apostolic band came to a Roman city and came with a gospel message the expectation was of a proclamation concerning the activity of an emperor. The person in the street was not pinning their ears back with an expectation of a three point sermon but of representatives of the government to proclaim good news. Government representatives they most certainly were!
  • Paul taught about the ‘kingdom (basileia) of God’, the very term used by Rome of their basileia (empire) of Rome, basileia being the Greek term and the vast majority of the world where Paul travelled was Greek speaking.
  • Then the term ekklesia (church) was loaded with political implications. We have a very challenging question to answer when we ask what was in Paul’s mind when he was planting and encouraging ekklesias in city after city? Each Roman city already had an ekklesia – the political assembly that was the means to shape the future of the city. Each significant city had a Roman assembly… and here comes Paul planting a heavenly assembly, an assembly of Jesus Christ. I have no doubt that the very name ‘ekklesia‘ suggested that this assembly was the representative of Jesus called to shape the future of the city.
    We have to ask what was Paul, for example, teaching on a daily basis in the hall of Tyranus in Ephesus. I consider it had a strong political message, so strong that the rulers of Asia (Asiarchs) became friends with Paul without ever responding to the ‘pray the sinners prayer now’ part that we assume was his message. They could not, or would not, get that part but so got the other part that they wanted to preserve his life. So different to the Jewish leaders who wanted to extinguish the life of Jesus to preserve the nation and Temple!
  • We pray till he come, we anticipate his parousia. Cities longed for the parousia of the emperor, the royal visit. Great blessing would come to the city, areas where they were struggling to see Roman culture expressed would receive such a boost. With the simplicity of the common meal those early disciples proclaimed his death until his parousia.

The political apostolic Gospel

The marks of an apostle were with Paul. He mentions signs and wonders and miracles, yet Jesus had said that there would be those with signs, wonders and miracles that he would distance himself from. Paul says that the miracles were accompanied with ‘great patience‘. An apostolic vision works today for the long term. At the heart of it is a conviction that a death by one is a death for all; a death in one place is for all geographies; a death at one time for all time. The apostolic carries a long-term vision of transformation of God’s world. A political vision that is not looking simply for short term fixes but long term healing. In that there will be great gains, and if the ground is not held great losses.

Jerusalem to Rome

Jesus and Jerusalem

The Jewish Court had decided that Jesus would have to be dispensed with in order to preserve the nation and Temple. However, by the time of Jesus both Temple and nation (as a whole) were not fulfilling the purposes of heaven. Even the Temple was no longer a house of prayer for the nations, hence its future could only be where ‘not one stone would remain upon another’. If the Temple no longer served a redemptive purpose there was no hope for the city nor for the nation. Nation and Temple could not be saved, yet a living ‘temple’ and a ‘holy nation’ for the nations could find salvation. Salvation from the coming destruction and salvation for the nations. Jesus came at the fullness of times, born human and specifically as a Jew. His focus took the message of John the Baptist to a new level. Religion, and in particular compromised religion would never fulfil the political task of being a light to the nations.

The task in Jerusalem indeed brought to a finish the work that the Father gave Jesus to do; yet it also marked an important pause in what he came to do. It was both the finish and also simply the beginning of what he did and taught. Given that framework to the book of Acts that Luke says right at the outset, the work of Jesus is not finished, but continues through the book of Acts with the apostolic work and context. No longer a focus on Jerusalem but on the Imperial world of Rome. If we thought that Jesus’ message was religious with no political implication we soon have to reframe his message. It was deeply spiritual, deeply concerned about our response to who God is as that core shapes and directs the whole political approach to the nations.

The end of Luke and beginning of Acts gives us the biblical focus that Jesus gave to the Jewish disciples. That focus was through Scriptural understanding concerning himself, the suffering he was to endure and the nature of the kingdom of God.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Lk. 24: 27).
This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Lk. 24: 47).
After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3).

All of that had a focus on Jerusalem. From the wilderness with John came a movement that arrowed in on Jerusalem. But by the end of Acts the focus is not Jerusalem but Rome. Paul has completed his task but the apostolic task remains unfinished. We have no idea if he left the prison situation in Rome and continued on his way. We don’t even know (from Acts) if he died in Rome. Seems to me significant. It is unimportant if he got beyond Rome, and his death is not vital for us. It is important that in understanding the message deposited in Rome that we get to all places beyond ‘Rome’ and that we find where we are to live out the Gospel.

By the end of Acts Rome is the focus

Luke states that Acts is a record of what Jesus is continuing to do and to teach. His work from birth to ascension was the beginning of his work. That took him to Jerusalem. Paul takes it to Rome. If Jesus’ work was unfinished, so then is Paul’s and what he represented – the work of the apostolic Gospel to the nations.

There is such a significant turning point in Paul’s journey and such a focus on where the message of the Gospel is to travel to in Acts 25:

Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!” (Acts 25:10-12).

It was the Jewish court for Jesus, but not for Paul. Jesus was focused to get to Jerusalem but Paul wanted to get to Rome, the political centre, so that he could get to Spain – the ends of the earth (Rom. 15: 28). His journey to the ends of the earth would take place through the centre of earthly power. His desire to come to Rome was to proclaim to them (the believers) the Gospel. He is not looking to hold an evangelistic crusade, but to align the believers there with the Gospel. At the end of Acts we read:

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus (Acts 28: 23).

The same work as Jesus did in Jerusalem so Paul did in Rome. Scriptures, and kingdom of God. The Gospel that had implications for Jerusalem now had implications for Rome.

The world of the New Testament

The one time we have had an-all but one world government was the world of the New Testament. Rome’s rule extended beyond anything that had gone before. It is for this reason that I see no reason to posit a future one-world government, nor a global antiChrist. We have had that, and in true Babylonian fashion it was never absolute for Babel will be forever unfinished. I do not look for that future reality, but through the book of Revelation consider we can have our eyes open to the reality of it around us now. There is a one-world government, there are antiChrists, the call of Jesus has implications economically for there will always be restrictions on the extent to which we can buy and sell.

The Roman world was the empire of its day. For the Jews the big ‘monster’ was Babylon and Babylon continued to represent the enemy of Israel symbolically. Likewise Rome. The empire of the day and the ongoing symbol for that one-world opposition to the kingdom of God.

The Pax Romana

In true Imperial fashion Rome conquered and offered a way of life beyond anything that had gone before. The Pax Romana was across the world – a peace that came through the power of the sword. Comply and be blessed; resist and be eliminated! (And Paul’s words about the powers being appointed by God and can wield the sword is so tongue in cheek given Nero’s claim that he did not need to raise the sword. What a man of peace Nero was… NOT!)

Peace in the imperial world was considered such an achievement that the one who brought that was seen to be operating with divine power. It further pointed toward the divine nature of the emperor.

Peace was not the absence of war but was the result of war. Peace meant being in submission to Rome. Peace was imposed on the subjugated by means of force. Peace was brought about by taking lives and creating inequality. The Pax Romana!

As is often the case the reality is there to be seen if we are willing to look. The altar of peace stood on Mars Hill, the hill dedicated to the the god of war! Peace was brought about by war to the Romans.

The contrast to the message of Jesus where he established peace through sacrifice, not through killing his enemies. It was love for the enemy that was exhibited at the cross, thus all powers were stripped bear and exposed. The lie exposed.

Caesar was indeed ‘lord and saviour’ and ‘king of kings’

In secular Greek, the word ‘saviour’ was attributed to someone who had done something significant that safeguarded the people or preserved what was precious. That person ‘saved’ the city and as a result could earn a person the title of saviour. Not surprisingly the title of saviour was in common use for the Roman emperor, especially denoting his ability to maintain or restore peace in the empire.

Of Julius Caesar it was written:

In addition to these remarkable privileges they named him father of his country, stamped this title on the coinage, voted to celebrate his birthday by public sacrifice, ordered that he should have a statue in the cities and in all the temples of Rome, and they set up two also on the rostra, one representing him as the saviour of the citizens and the other as the deliverer of the city from siege, and wearing the crowns customary for such achievements (Dio 44.4.5).

Likewise in connection to Augustus:

Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a saviour, has put an end to war and has set all things in order. (Priene calendar inscription; 9 B.C.).

The emperor was often called ‘the saviour of the world’ or ‘the saviour of the inhabited earth’.

It is not surprising that on hearing the apostolic message it was heard politically and understood to be a rebellious one at that. These apostles were proclaiming a rival to Caesar.

The message was political. It might have been possible to miss the deeply spiritual element within it! Yet there is a deep spirituality, a radical relationship to heaven that was contained within it. From that commitment to the God of heaven (the ‘foreign’ God of the Jews) this message called for a political way of life and carried a political message for the nations.

If Caesar is not lord, but Jesus; if he is not the saviour of the world, but Jesus; if he is not king of kings, but Jesus. We have a clash. The Christian message could be ignored, sidelined, or controlled. But what Jesus began till the days of his Ascension, and Paul’s ministry symbolised by centring in on the centre, has and will continue ‘until he comes’. That being another imperial term…

Begins with the wilderness

From the wilderness there is a journey to Jerusalem

The word of God that came to John in the wilderness does not remain there. It does not begin as a ‘top down’ movement and does not proceed in that way, but for sure there is a challenge to the top. Jesus spent most of his time away from the centre. Although it was hard to stay hidden he did not pursue a journey that promoted his own visibility, but when the time comes he sets out with purpose to Jerusalem:

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Lk. 9:51).

In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! (Lk. 13: 33).

Jerusalem is the centre for faith, but it is compromised. Compromised with political power. The High priestly family is one of the richest in Jerusalem. Religion and politics not mixing? So often they mix when there is a symbiotic relationship. Religion getting privileges from the political arena and politics getting the support of religion so as the status quo is maintained. In the midst of this compromised relationship the Jewish hierarchy are not only willing, but keen, to sacrifice Jesus so that the nation has a future and the Romans do not take away their Temple. The Jewish court was the place where it was declared:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 13: 48-50).

Jesus was ultimately judged by the Jewish court and handed over to the Romans, so that the Jewish system could continue! Together, religious and political power bonded together in economic transaction, crucified Jesus. Ironically it was the Romans a generation later that took away the Temple and nation. His death did indeed save them and the Temple, but not as they thought. He gave them a path of salvation so that they might not be as one of the nations, and the ‘true temple’, one not built by hands might emerge. In this context we can read

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to humanity by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

Peter and John are addressing the Jewish ‘rulers and elders’, quoting Scripture about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone (of the Temple), this is not a universal Scripture concerning salvation, but in its context a Scripture about the path of ‘salvation’ that comes through Jesus for the nation of Israel – and salvation from the coming troubles that Jesus prophesied would come within a generation. Salvation, amidst the destruction of Temple and dispersion of the nation, was promised through their Messiah, and the focus is not on salvation in the ‘beyond this life’ setting but salvation to be who they were meant to be in a ‘this life’ setting, the setting of the imperial and political world. All who are in Jesus will be saved. Saved from the Roman onslaught, saved from being focused on a building in Jerusalem, and saved from being a member of a nation that had so become one of the nations. Saved to be a living stone in temple not built with hands and saved to be part of a holy nation, a royal priesthood, aliens throughout the nations.

In hoping to find continued safety the religious powers to preserve their status were willing to sacrifice Jesus; conversely Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself to save the nation, but not as a compromised through wrong-political-alliance-nation. The Jewish elders were able to justify the ultimate exercise of power and control (taking life) to preserve themselves and who they were – the chosen people. Change if need be, for them, will come via that level of ultimate control. Jesus though takes the path of laying down his life to effect change. Change will come through death, not change through killing.

His travel to Jerusalem was to break the hold of compromised religion, for then there is real hope for transformation beyond. There is a process. The faith community must be set free from wrong political alliance and dependency. Religion is a parody of real faith so that has to be broken, and as Jerusalem was the centre for that, to Jerusalem Jesus travels. The first step is that the Prophet has to die in Jerusalem. In the same way as religion is a parody of true faith so the wider world of the Roman empire (as per all empires) was a parody of the rule of God among people. Not surprisingly the focus shifts from Jerusalem to Rome. The era of the prophets dying in Jerusalem is over. Rome is where they will live… and die.

Loss of privileges

Most of us at a personal level have been frustrated that we have not had a voice. Sometimes we have a voice but the negative feeling is as simple as others have not agreed with us! On the wider front this has been the feeling about the lack of voice (being listened to / agreed with) from within the church as far as the political world is concerned. My strong guess is that the church is not alone in this feeling and there are many marginalised groups that must feel similar. I think though it is compounded by a sense of privilege, for after all ‘we are a Christian country’.

The cry of ‘we are losing our influence’ was (my perspective) one of the main reasons in the USA for the rise of the ‘moral majority’ and to provoke a heavy investment into the sphere of politics, with the majority of the moral majority coming to endorse the Republican party, the party of (supposed) small government and pro-life (or supposed pro-life). It probably awakened a realisation that following Christ and politics are not in two separated realms. Following Christ has a personal element to it, but faith does not mean that the public arena is irrelevant, indeed personal faith becomes another factor that provokes an even greater focus on the public arena at a different level.

In many circles where there has been an emphasis on transformation a theology has developed such as the seven mountains of influence, where society is seen as consisting of mountains such as politics, media, the arts, etc., and to influence those areas for Christ there is the realisation that the top 3% within those realms are the shapers, therefore it is essential to either become those top 3% or to influence them for Christ. This is both a theological and pragmatic approach, and owes much to the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, prime minister of Holland from 1901-05. There is a theology behind it that the Lordship of Christ and claims of Christ extend to every area of society, and there is a pragmatism that looks at how to bring about change in line with the claims of Jesus. The final outcome might not look too different to that of Sharia law! In this approach something that needs to be critiqued is that of power, of how the influence of Jesus is expressed and how much a shaping from the top-down is in line with the cross of Jesus.

Christendom where the privileges offered to the church (bishops in the house of lords, royalty crowned and anointed by the church), and the idea of living in a Christian country is coming to an end. The demise of the so-called Christian west is not necessarily the demise of Christian faith, indeed it should prove to be the fertile ground for faith that resembles more closely the faith witnessed to by the New Testament, a faith that was political.

A note on the word ‘political’. It comes from the Greek polis (city) so carried the sense of being involved to shape the future of the city. It developed semi-democratically where the ekklesia (church) was formed of the mature and free males who could vote on issues.

The Bible, Israel and politics

Israel was called to be a light to the nations. Called for the nations, not to convert them, but so they might find their way. Israel, shaped by law, and that law was predominantly social hence it shaped their community life. (Convenient as it might be to distinguish the ceremonial and judicial aspects from the moral law, this was not in line with how it was given nor received. The law was law as a whole. To be disobedient in one aspect was to be disobedient.) The law placed limits on behaviour and curbed excesses, particularly in the economic realm. The 8th Century prophetic movements were huge critiquing voices against economic exploitation. The maximisation of profits was illegal, care for the ‘widow, orphan and alien’ was a regular reminder brought to Israel. The law was unique to Israel, they alone were to be not as the other nations, with Jewishness less defined by race than by faith. Unique in the world, but in existence for the world. They were elect not in the sense of ‘saved’ but in the sense of uniquely set apart for the sake of others. Their politics was clear, Torah defining that, and as a guide they were to provoke and facilitate the nations finding their own way, their own politics. (By this I am not suggesting that they were not going to be evangelising, proclaiming the news that there is one true God who sets the prisoners free; simply I am focusing here on Israel was a unique theocracy.)

It should be no great surprise that the NT flows from that understanding of what it meant to be unique and therefore it is no surprise that the early impact of their faith in the liberating God was visibly seen relationally in the economics of the community. The early response in Acts, post-Pentecost can be understood as a Holy Spirit response to the requirement of jubilee, something that it seems Israel were never able to fulfil. Living as aliens in an imperial world the the self-identity as royal priests within their geographical setting was deeply appropriate. Living, as Israel had done before them, as a light to the nations, it is not surprising that there is a huge political element to the NT, and that the final book is still, after 2000 years, the highest critique of power, institutionalism, economic policy and international trade relationships.

Church (ekklesia) as community and as movement

I have written before about there being two sociological ends of a spectrum when looking at healthy groups. At one end of that spectrum the existence of the group is focused in on being there for one another, so that in the interaction each person is encouraged and healing brought to them to be a continually improving version of themselves. That ‘community-focused’ perspective is present in the NT – encourage one another, admonish one another, love one another etc. The other end of the spectrum is around what is understood as a movement. A movement is part of a wider community but the movement is formed around a world view that the wider world does not share. A good example would be that of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech epitomising the world view that was their vision – a world of equality. That was why they were together, not primarily to see healing come to one another, but to see a transformation of the world around them. They are ‘mission-focused’. My bias is mission-focused – and I believe the raison d’etre for the church in the NT is that of mission-focused, for the nations.

Post Christendom – a challenge to transformation by power

One of the biblical issues we face is that God works in and through all forms of less-than-good structures. A pertinent example is that of the king in Israel. The request for a king was a rejection of God, yet God anointed the one who symbolised the rejection of God.

We cannot justify something because God has used it. In the days of the British Empire there was the twinning of expansion, colonialism and missionary enterprise.

The church has been complicit in believing change comes through enforcing it, indeed the church has strengthened that way of acting, thus empowering the government to act in such a way, particularly when it enabled Christian privileges to be maintained. In a post-Christendom space there is opportunity to see powers disempowered, but this will only come about by an embracing of true servanthood.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Lk. 3: 1,2). 

Change did not take place by replacing the rulers with Christian rulers, nor by converting those rulers. Rather the word of the Lord was embraced in the wilderness, those who came were submitting themselves to be part of a movement. There is a repeat of Israel’s history, formed in the wilderness, receiving the law in the wilderness, crossing the waters of the Jordan. A movement for the world. This is a new beginning, children of Abraham who God could raise up from stones… race will prove not to be the issue, but faith.

And the process of change did not begin from a ‘top-down’ position. And from that beginning the process did not become a top-down movement.

Loss of privileges, for sure. But what possibilities!

Not many smart

Gayle and I are in London for a couple of days, hosted by Adrian & Pauline Hawkes. They, their colleagues and friends are great to hang out with. Always challenging, inspiring and refreshing. I am not quite as young as I was, and they are not quite as young as I am, but when they talk about what they are going to give themselves to for the next 30 years it does kind of encourage one not to complain but to make a half-decent attempt at aligning with God’s direction.

Very graciously Adrian asked me if I would seek to address the subject of ‘theology and politics’. Graciously as I know almost nothing about politics, and on theology rumour has it the proverbial significantly sight-challenged bus driver was very confident of driving the double-decker through my various arguments without hitting anything in the process. As I explained last night my politics were shaped when I saw, in the 1960’s, a prime minister of the UK from Yorkshire smoking a pipe. I thought somehow that looked cool, so basically that party had my vote from then on. There are, dare I suggest it, deeper approaches to political issues, hence the graciousness of Adrian.

I will post here over the next few days the gist of what I shared. A perspective, a biased one, but nevertheless a perspective.

Of course a certain amount of what I adhere to is shaped by our social and geographic context, and springs from a clear sense some 5 years ago this month that the Lord was asking us to ‘take responsibility for the politics of Spain’. So often (did I hear ‘always’?) we do not understand what it means when the Lord speaks, as our great resource of knowledge does seem to get in the way, and we certainly do not know the journey that will entail. Five years later we are still pretty clueless and certainly do not believe we are qualified.

Crazy – not qualified, and as immigrants not even able to vote in the national elections. Just hope there is something in Scripture about not many smart people being called.

If I point to our geographic context there are some BIG negatives and a few positives in terms of what we see. Maybe the negatives are not so negative, maybe there are more positives than seem to be visible… and maybe the negatives are even BIGG… No don’t go there. My point is that it so difficult to assess. And sometimes there is little point in seeking to assess. If ever we gain a victory it is always time to push again, and if there is a real ‘failure’ time to push again. I like that as for someone fairly simple to condense things down to a simple activity is very helpful. And hopefully that is our approach.

My final disclaimers are that in what I will post I will use the term ‘church’ for shorthand for those who self-consciously follow Jesus – by using the term I am not limiting it to any specific expression nor am I denying it to other sets of relationships.

In approaching theology we can quickly make one aspect the whole and when we (as I will) suggest that the call of the church is sharply focused on shaping politics it can be easy to ignore other aspects of the call of the church. However, I make no apology in focusing on the issue of church, theology and politics as, for too long, the church has either:

  • been silent on major political issues, or
  • or complicit with the powers, or
  • only interested in a narrow set of issues.

The church has also often chosen to support the party that has a proposed bias toward ‘family values’, or is pro-life, turning a blind eye to any criticism that could be brought against that party. No political party can be baptised as ‘Christian’, nor can we remain uncritical of those who exercise authority. The critique of power is essential to the Gospel and with the demise of Christendom (the supposed domain over which Christ reigns) we have a fresh opportunity to find new ways of engagement.

OK enough for now.

But finally… We do not have a vote in Spain. Elections took place on Sunday, and a dear friend sent us a note saying ‘you have voted’. I thought surely he understands that we do not have a vote. In various text exchanges he repeated this the following day. So eventually I wrote back with

we do have a biased vote in the court of heaven but not a biased vote on paper in the land.

Then he clarified – he did not vote based on his choice, but knowing we could not vote he put the cross where we would have put it. We voted!

Any silver lining?

Four elections in four years… Spain, but typical of so many places where there is political turmoil or lock up. A coalition did not come together as a result of the elections in April, and given the results this time round a coalition will be even more challenging. The big news is the phenomenal growth of the extreme right. In 8 months a growth from 0 to 24 and now to 52 seats. Around 7% of the new parliament will be from that party – the largest percentage from that wing in any European country… and from 0% a few months ago. Absolutely gutting… as it has taken place on our watch.

We physically went to the geographical setting in Madrid months ago where there would be a threat of entrance. We declared ‘no pasarán’ (they will not pass), and some of the first words proclaimed by the far right in parliament in April were ‘we have passed’. We, this past week, went to a street, prayed and went round the whole block scattering salt on the road. The evening of the election, and we did not know this would happen, the very corner where we began the prayer was where the extreme right met to celebrate. Hard not to see it as personal!! And struggling with the results and our focused activity and prayers. Where did we miss it?

Our perspective is that coalition was not possible last time round because the financial institutions, the day after the April election, declared that there was one coalition that would be acceptable. The very coalition that the supporters of PSOE (the party who won in April but without an overall majority) shouted on the street was not acceptable to them. They shouted that specifically the night before the institutions declared what was acceptable.

Money, so controls. (Why was it again that Jesus appointed a thief? Why are so many of the OT laws about economics? Who is that says you will not buy and sell? Note to self – must go and read that book that seems intent on giving us answers to those kind of questions.)

Meanwhile there never was a desire for a coalition. The intent was always to go for a re-run of the election. This has backfired on the acting president (PSOE). It has not strengthened his hand but weakened it.

In the campaign a strong anti-Catalan independence was used by all the main parties (except one) as that gets a vote. Now any coalition will only be possible with some measure of support from the pro-independence parties from Cataluña.

Are there any silver linings? Of course there is always the possibility of positive spins. What was there is revealed – yes for sure. BUT, BUT when results come through as we have seen what was already there is strengthened, permissioned and multiplied. Our responsibility is to see that does not happen, and here we are!

Maybe the most positive is that for any move forward it will mean some humility, embracing of others (Cataluña for example, where dialogue is so needed).

Silver linings… Always but the clouds were dark.

Here though are a few great aspects in the latter stage of the campaign (with a biased viewpoint, but maybe one with some accuracy?).

The mayoress of Barcelona, Ada Colau, came to Madrid, on the final evening of the campaign. She addressed the crowd in Catalan, saying the place where she wanted to be was Madrid, there being no better place to be, as an act, of reconciliation at this critical time. She came bringing a hug from Cataluña.

Between the two elections there was a significant split in the Podemos party with a new party being formed. This, of course, split their vote and if the voting numbers were added together (of Podemos and Mas Pais) they would have been the third voted for party by percentage of votes, not the extreme far right party as ensued. Sure it was damaging. Mas Pais did not do well. Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, sent a note to the leader of the party that split away, saying – I know this will have been a tough day for you with the disappointing results so I send you a big hug.

There is a politics at grass roots, a politics that might not be to everyone’s liking, but one that shouts that ‘love’ is the only way forward. I don’t know if that is a silver lining or not. Maybe… but even if there is no silver lining, when there are people (and ones who don’t profess a faith in Jesus) talking ‘love’ and willing to reach out hands across divides, there remains hope in a divided land.

PS… As I write some breaking news with a change of tone from Pedro Sanchez. First step… maybe silver linings!