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Archive for September, 2010

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Swansea are running another theology day – this time on the atonement.

Paul Blackham will speak on The Atonement through the Former Prophets then The Atonement in the Gospels.

Paul Mallard will address ‘The Atonement and the Church.’

Martin Downes is speaking on ‘The Atonement in Church History.’

Looks like a brilliant day!

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When:  23 October 2010; 10am – 3(ish)pm

Where:  Mount Pleasant Baptist Church

Cost: £10

Contact: administrator@mountpleasantchurch.org.uk for more info.

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The Problem of Freedom [repost]

Freedom

An evocative word.

What does it mean to us?

Usually it means a freedom from some kind of power so that we can realize our true potential.  ‘I’m free to do what I want any old time.’  That kind of thing.

The question of ‘Who is this “I” who can do these things?’ is usually considered to be a restatement of the freedom mantra: I am the one who can do what I want.  “I am who I am / I will be who I will be”, as Someone famously once said.

The link between such an account of freedom and the divinisation of the self becomes obvious in a thinker like John Stuart Mill.  He said this in On Liberty:

In the part [of the conduct of an individual] which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of course, of right, absolute.  Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Now notice that Mill is concerned here with conduct that ‘merely concerns ourselves’.  He’s well aware that the independent exercise of our wills can harm others and diminish their freedom.  He’s no dummy.  He has a whole apparatus of ‘rights’ with which to negotiate the competing claims of our own absolute freedoms.

When Christians argue against Mill, the argument should not be: “Hey, if everyone thinks they’re sovereign they’ll ride rough-shod over everyone else.”  That would be a very pragmatic objection and one to which Mill has a whole raft of pragmatic solutions.

No, the problem is not what humanity does with their self-rule (they could be thoroughly virtuous with it).  The problem is self-rule.  Mill effectively poses the question, Who has the absolute claim over my life?  He answers: I do.  Mill’s philosophy here (which is the air we breathe in the West) is nothing less than the enthronement of man upon Christ’s throne.

But in critiquing such ‘freedom’ we can do more than simply denounce it as blasphemous.  We would do well also to expose it as the worst kind of bondage.  Why bondage?

Well let’s ask the question,  Who is this self who is exalted to the throne?  Who is the “I” that can do whatever “I” want?

Tellingly, this ‘freedom’ cannot positively give you an identity.  In fact, to be true to itself, this kind of ‘freedom’ must refuse to tell you who you are.  All that such ‘freedom’ can offer is the protection of a sphere in which you can pursue your desires.  It gives you a kingdom (of one!) and a throne and it operates a strict immigration policy.  Yet this border-patrol must not only exclude impediments to your desires, it must also exclude forces that would seek to direct those desires.  It must repel all foreign claims upon you and leave you with an absolute and unquestioned independence.

You have your kingdom and your throne, but who are you?  Well, You will be who you will be.  And so, left to rule your own kingdom, you are a prisoner of your independence.

Consider this piece of advice being given to millions of men and women around the world right now:

“Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.  You’re your own man / your own woman.”

Now aside from the inherent contradiction on show here, notice how you are to be directed in your sovereign rule.  You must direct yourself.  And the reason?  You belong to yourself.   This is the infuriating circularity

I direct myself.

Who is the I who directs?

The one with power to direct.

or

I belong to me.

Who is the one who belongs to me?

The one belonging to me.

What’s missing in all this is an environment in which to exercise our freedom.  We have been treated as though the choices we make in expression of our self-hood are grounded only in ourselves as individuals.  Yet we are who we are in a network of dependent relationships.  The expression of our identity through responsible living and choosing necessarily occurs within an environment.  Divorced from this environment, any experience of ‘freedom’ will actually take us away from our true selves.

This is the experience of the ant-farm in this famous Simpson’s clip…

The ants may have longed to be free from their glass case, but ‘freedom’ from the ant-farm proves to be “horrible” indeed.  It destroys their very selves to be ‘free’ from the environment supportive of their own life and being.

We are the same. We don’t exist as free floating individuals to whom the greatest gift would be independence.  We are truly free when properly related to the environment in which our personhood flourishes.

And this is why Mill’s definition of freedom does not help the exercise of responsible choice, it radically undermines it.  Because I have been stripped of all claims upon me, all direction from outside, all sense of a context wider than me, I am left with a self that can only be defined in reference to itself and its own decision-making capacity.  I have a naked self exercising a naked power, cut free from all that’s actually constitutive of my identity.

Therefore, necessarily, I’m going to have to go outside myself in order to live out my irreducibly relational existence.  I need, so to speak, to make an alliance with a foreign kingdom.

Now our experience of this will feel like it falls into one of two categories:

Either A) I embark on an alliance as a dispensible means towards my self-determined end.  In this case I’ll drop it as soon as it’s inconvenient — I’m in charge using you.

Or B) I genuinely give myself over to the foreign power and am determined by it — You’re in charge using me.

But the bible says, in practice A) is our sinful intention but it always collapses into B).

Let’s think about Ephesians 2:1-3:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.

In our natural state we ‘carry out the desires of the body and mind’.  You might think that sitting on the throne of your little kingdom is the definition of freedom.  But no, precisely as we ‘gratify the cravings’ (NIV) of the body and mind we are following the devil.

Just as we think we are exercising our self-rule, in that act we are being ruled by Satan.  We imagine we’re strong enough to pull off A), in reality we have no bargaining power with the world, the flesh and the devil – they’re in charge using us.

The similarity between Mill’s quotation on freedom and Ephesians 2:3 is chilling.  To exercise ‘sovereignty’ over our ‘body and mind’ is not freedom at all.  According to the bible that is slavery.

If we’re going to find a true freedom it will have to be on an entirely different footing.

More on that later…

Rest of series:

Where to begin?

Freed will

Living free

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End on a song?

A short evangelistic talk given during the interval of a church concert.

This is our final lunchtime concert of the season.  And in the best show biz tradition we’re going to end on a song.

But why?  Why is singing such a fitting ending?  Why do our great stories finish with weddings, feasting and singing?  What is it about a song that sums things up so nicely?

It might feel an obvious thing, but when you face the reality of our lives, you have to ask questions.

You see all our bright, bold love songs end up fading.

Our green salad days don’t last do they?

Kingdoms rise, but then they fall.

And if you believe the scientists, the universe is headed for a deep freeze or a big crunch.  But either way their forecasted ending is not happy.  It’s not weddings, and feasting and joy!  So why sing?

This comes close to home in our own lives.  We may bloom for a season, but it doesn’t last.

As Psalm 103 says:

15 As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.

I said those words at the crematorium on Monday, taking the funeral of a woman who spent the last decade of her life lost in a fog of dementia.  That’s hardly ending on a song is it?

And yet – we did sing.  Many from the church here who knew Betty sang and sang loud, with hope filling our hearts.  Why?  Just to keep our spirits up?  Defiance against the harsh realities of life?

No.  We sang because we knew, and Betty knew, a deeper reality to life.  There’s a deeper story than the blooming-then-dying story.

The bible begins with perfect harmony.  That perfect trio of Father, Son and Spirit – a major chord of life and joy.  And so they wanted their trio to spread – they wanted a quartet – us!

And so creation – the overflow of their exuberant life.

Then the dischordant note of the fall – human beings ripping up the music, singing their own tune, bringing disharmony, chaos, darkness.  That’s what we see when we look out on our world.

What was God to do?  Well Jesus, that Second Note of the Divine Triad, He descended into our mess.  And when the second note of a major chord descends, what do you get?  You get a minor chord.

Our God has entered into our sad songs.  And He’s sung them Himself.  All those Psalms in the Old Testament were the songs of a people – so often suffering in this dischordant world.  And Jesus took all those heart-felt cries on His own lips.  And He carried our sorrows and our sins to the cross where He sang that bleakest of all songs; the one that begins “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1).  He truly entered into the depths of our sorrows – knowing our sufferings from the inside.

But then, on Easter Sunday, He rose.  He went through the tragedy and into a divine comedy.  There is a happy ending.  The minor fall gives way to the major lift.  Jesus ascended back up to God and He invites us up with Him – to sing with Him.  He descended to sing our songs in a minor key.  Then He ascended and invites us to sing His songs in a major key.

There is a way through the sad songs and into triumph and joy.  At the end of all things is not death and decay, but when He returns it will be a feast – a wedding feast – where we are invited to join Jesus in the eternal song: the Hallelujah chorus,

Hallelujah – for the LORD God Omnipotent Reigneth  (Rev 19:6)

That’s the deep story, the original story.  And I submit to you that it’s the only story that makes sense of our desire to end on a song.  Otherwise every song we sing is like whistling in the graveyard to keep up our spirits.

So why do you love singing?  Are you fighting against the inexorable pull of the grave?  When you enjoy music, are you trying to make merry in face of the inevitable?  Or are you tapping into the deepest reality – that Jesus has secured a future of victory, joy, immortality, feasting and singing.

At the crematorium that’s why we sang.  Not a grim determination to make merry in a dying world, but a defiant proclamation that Jesus has won the victory and that when we see Betty again we will sing!

So what about you?  What is reality as far as you’re concerned?  Does death have the final word or will you sing the Hallelujah chorus?

Come to All Souls on a Sunday and find out how you can participate in the real story and end on a song.

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Exodus 7-10 – The Plagues

Recap:

We saw last time that the LORD is a God of Promise.  Read Exodus 6:6-8 to remind yourself of His seven-fold “I will” to the people.

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Harvest Song for Kids

I recorded the song (along with these) a couple of years ago on a handheld voice recorder.  Since then my ancient Yamaha keyboard broke, so there’s no re-recording the music I’m afraid.  Here it is, warts n all!

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What does the phrase “Jesus is Lord” mean?

I’ve heard people go on about the Lordship of Jesus at great length, but in every statement in which the phrase appears I could have easily swapped “Jesus is Lord” for “God is big” and there’d have been no material change in the meaning.

So go and ‘do evangelism’ because God is big.  And He says so.  … And also hell is hot …and time is short.  No back-chat now, off you run.  Remember Who’s Boss!

Sound familiar at all?

Well what does ‘Jesus is Lord’ mean?  And how does His Lordship relate to evangelism.

Well first of all, “Jesus is Lord” literally means “‘Yahweh-to-the-rescue’ is Yahweh”.  Which is a statement worth meditating on!  Yahweh-to-the-rescue is Yahweh!

And now meditate on its implications for evangelism!  To abbreviate the above (at the risk of causing misunderstanding): Our God is Jesus who is Rescuer.  Therefore the Lordship of Jesus and His saving passion are not two different things.  And obedience to this Lordship is not so much to be submissive to an edict as to be swept up into this passion.

Second of all, it means the true God of Israel and the true Lord of the universe is Jesus.

Therefore if you hadn’t already seen it, you need to go back and read the Old Testament properly (ie in the way it was intended).  And also, if you haven’t already, you need to revisit your notion of God.  He is entirely Jesus shaped.  That Nazarene who bled for me is Lord.  Not some ancient explosion or some foreign god.  Not even some familiar theistic god of popular understanding.  And certainly not little old me.  No if we’re going to talk about God, let’s talk about Jesus.  He is Lord.  This will mean very different gospel conversations to the regular “Let’s first agree there’s a Higher-Power” chats.

Thirdly it means that the universe I’m in and the universe my friend is in is Christ’s universe.

Imagine you and your friend have been teleported into the tabernacle (and no-one’s said “Oi, goy, get outta here!”).  But you’re surrounded by goats and bulls being slaughtered and priests with special clothes and holy spaces specially demarcated and furniture arranged just so.  Imagine you lived there.  Imagine you’d never lived anywhere else.

Your friend couldn’t help but be fascinated by some aspect of the tabernacle.  Perhaps she’s besotted by the 12 precious stones in the high priest’s breastpiece.  Or the cherubim woven into the curtain.  Or the fire burning on the altar.  It’ll be something.  And she’ll no doubt have some ridiculous notions about what these things are all about.  But whatever you talk about with your friend you’re actually in a gospel presentation.  And the very terms of your discussion and the raw materials of her values, hopes and fears are derived from that gospel.

If you didn’t know how to “have a gospel conversation” in that environment it could only be because you yourself hadn’t grasped the gospel meaning of the tabernacle.  You’d need to study the Scriptures more, understand the gospel more.  In short you’d need to see how the whole tabernacle proclaims “Jesus is Lord.”

Well you know the application.  We do live in a gospel presentation (Psalm 19; Rom 10:17ff; Col 1:23).  And if we don’t know how to bring a conversation about a bullying boss or a wayward teenager or ongoing depression or state education or economic inequality or marital troubles or politics or mid-life crises around to the gospel then we need to take the Lordship of Jesus more seriously.  We need to go back to the Scriptures and in His Light to see again.

I used to think evangelism was inserting trite presentations into trivial conversations.  But ‘Jesus is Lord’ changes all of that.  Jesus is not a foreign intruder into a conversation that’s about something else.  He is the One who makes sense of it all.

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Just three little tidbits that struck me from this sermon.

1) Romans is a fundraising letter!

If our fundraising letters don’t look like Romans (and they don’t) it’s a sign that we don’t think about money or the gospel the way Paul does.

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2) Galatians 6:6-9 is about giving

Check the context – v5 and v10 are clearly about contributing to the needs of others.  Therefore financial giving is a way of sowing to the Spirit.  It’s investing in Spirit-life (i.e. word-life; gospel-growth) and not flesh-life (i.e. this-world life; gratifying-my-selfish-cravings life).

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3) Philippians 4 – the joy of gospel partnership through giving.

Financial giving is ‘partnering’ (v14 – an important word in Philippians –  1:5; 2:1; 3:10) in gospel ministry.  To partner with Paul in this way is even more for the congregation’s sake than for his. (v17)

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