by Neil Richardson.
Is the Church weighing us down? A conscientious Methodist told me once that she needed a Sunday off! When our churches are numerically declining, we easily forget that supporting the Church and keeping it going isn’t our job; it’s the Holy Spirit’s.
But that decline continues, and it’s tempting to go for growth (to coin a phrase currently fashionable). Yet evangelism with church growth as its aim isn’t really evangelism; it’s proselytizing.
Many people in our churches seem reluctant to talk about God. Money-raising events often attract greater numbers than services of worship. Church-centred Christianity struggles on when something deeper is needed.
I once asked a group of students which words are indispensable if we’re explaining the Christian faith to someone who doesn’t share it. ‘Jesus’, ‘love’ and ‘life’ certainly, but also, I think, ‘God’. That word is so misunderstood we can’t avoid it. But there is another reason. Our President and Vice-President are reminding us that the first commandment is to love God with all our hearts. How can a person who has fallen in love not talk about the love of their life?
But what or who are we talking about? Certainly, a Mystery. The name of God in the Bible is a verb rather than a noun:
‘I will be what I will be.’
The future tense is appropriate to the story the Bible tells. God’s covenant with all creation (Noah), and with Israel (God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) , and then, through Jesus, with all humankind, runs through the whole of Scripture. This future perspective, the divine promise, is especially important as we face the existential threat of climate change.
The Christian faith in our day is changing. Many factors have contributed: two world wars, twentieth century genocides, the accelerating pace of history and much more. We should not be alarmed by this change. Both change and continuity are built into our faith because of God’s coming amongst us in Jesus.
The Incarnation wasn’t a mere episode in the life of God. God ‘took up residence’ amongst us (John 1.14). In this incarnation the cross and resurrection of Jesus reveal the eternal suffering and triumph of the Creator God, who dared to bring homo sapiens into being, with all the grief that would entail. (Genesis 6-8 tell the story).
We need to re-discover this story for a world threatened with self-destruction. Two themes, especially, need to be recovered and shared. First, God’s providence at work in our human history which the prophets perceived. But, second, the refreshing of our belief in what we used to call ‘the Second Coming’ of Christ. ‘The day of Christ’ is more biblical. It means the coming together of heaven and earth, as the final chapters of Revelation show. The Apocalypse, like the New Testament as a whole, is about the climax of God’s creative purposes which began with the incarnation.
We easily miss how Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Son of Man develops in Paul’s writings: first, we have Jesus coming ‘with all his saints’ (1 Thessalonians 3.13), and, later, ‘the revelation of the sons and daughters of God’, (Romans 8.19), which ushers in the healing of all creation (v.21).
We can’t imagine the final coming together of heaven and earth, this merging of time and eternity. But the New Testament teaches that this ‘day of Christ’ is the climax of what the Church came to call the incarnation. Whenever, in the providence of God, that comes about, there will be ‘life in all its fulness’, as God promised through his prophets. And, as St Paul explained to the church at Thessalonika, no previous generation will be left out.
For now ‘Babylon’, the kingdom of Mammon, is still with us, hell-bent on destroying God’s creation. But already, as the early Church’s addition to the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, ‘Yours is the Kingdom, the power and the glory’ (compare Revelation 11.15).
Disciples of Jesus can join others who are resisting Mammon’s malign influence. In these crisis-ridden days, we are called to be as ‘wise as serpents’, and never ‘lose heart’, (Luke 18.1). Re-discovering, waking up to God is vital.
 The future tense probably reflects the Hebrew better than the more familiar ‘I am what I am’.
 See my Waking Up to God. Re-discovering faith in post-pandemic times, (Sacristy Press, September 2022).
12 thoughts on “Towards a Re-Discovery of God in Critical Times”
Thank you for this, I have been pondering this theme too, and definitely the Day of Christ, we need to be a people of hope, in and through whom God is alive and active, and to be open to that activity and enlivening in all that we do. I know that for myself I need to be reminded to fall in love gain, and again with the God who holds the beginning and the culmination of all creation together, and whose face towards us is love and blessings.
Thank you Neil. The need for a deep-rooted theological hope (as opposed to relying on short-term historical hopes) is a theme I’ve found myself returning to often recently. I also agree that keeping the day of Christ on our horizon (even if we have no idea when that day may come) is a wise thing to do, so long as no-one takes it as excuse to sit back and wait for it to happen, as some of the Thessalonians did. I think this might be a particular risk in relation to messaging around the need for sacrificial actions to prevent the worst outcomes of the Climate Emergency
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Rightly or wrongly your piece raises more questions than answers and is out of line with the more progressive theology of out times
It is progressive theology that has got the Methodist Church into a state of terminal decline. People have voted with their feet, and the best it can hope for now is palliative care.
Progressive theology has hit the buffers. If it progresses any further, God will be redundant.
‘I will be what I will be’ is not just a verb! There is also a personal subject pronoun.
‘I’ is the first person singular, and this was God speaking, long before anyone ever heard about Jesus. The original first person singular is the Creator, Provider and Sustainer of all life, and the Father of Jesus of Nazareth, his only begotten Son, our Lord.
Jesus called God ‘Abba’ (Father) and taught us to pray ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven ….’
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and is no less revered and glorified.
God in three persons, Blessed Trinity.
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Jesus comes asking disciples to follow him — not merely “accept him,” not only “believe in him,” not just “worship him,” but follow him. And you can’t follow him by staying just where you are. Christianity is about changed lives. It’s about being ready to walk with God in the direction he’s showing us – even if that means moving outside our comfort zone. It’s about joining in where God is already active in our community. It’s about being a catalyst for change as we help to further the kingdom of God.
In my childhood, a big mac was what you put on in heavy rain; a mobile was something you hung over a baby’s cot; most people did not yet own one of the small black and white televisions; and the few computers were substantial machines in experimental development. The world has changed around us. If we try to stay just as we are, the world will just carry on moving forward around us and we’ll be left behind.
“I will be whatever I will be” implies a God of development, adaptability, vision and progress. If we can have a living relationship with God, it must mean that God responds to us and to the situations we encounter.
How much time do we spend talking, reading and thinking about what God is doing now compared to the amount of time we spend focusing on what God did thousands of years ago?
The world changes. God doesn’t.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
The unchanging nature of God is, I am sure, an important consolation to millions of people and nothing I say below should detract from that. It may also be part of the definition of being divine.
So when I suggest that to say ‘God does not change’ fundamentally has little meaning, I in no way mean in relation to people’s faith, where it clearly has great meaning. However, as a theological statement what can it mean?
At a District event for Preachers’ where we we studying Hebrews 13. 8 (Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. NRSV) I vividly remember the speaker (I do not recall who it was, and it may have been a quote from someone else) quipping, “I’m not even sure he was the same yesterday”. The point is even our individual appreciation of the divine changes continually let alone our understanding of what that might have been for others in the past or will be for others in the future.
The Bible (not to mention Jewish and Christian traditions) presents some very different views about the nature of God and how people respond to God. Sometimes there is a plea to return to former ways, sometimes there is condemnation of the former and even current supposed orthodoxies; not to mention predictions of heresy. Presumably some or all views were in some way wrong (or at the very least extremely limited). If we cannot know what is the full nature of God, in the context of this discussion (as opposed to individuals faith in an unchanging God), what value is there in saying, ‘God does not change’?
A relatively simple example. I really did not want to type “he”, referring to Jesus Christ not being the same yesterday. For me, although Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish, first century man (i.e. male), Christ is none of those things (or rather not any of those things to the exclusion of other traits, human or divine). However, Christ is, and certainly has been, referred to as male almost exclusively. Does that mean that Christ (be that ‘the Word in the beginning’, the resurrected person experienced by the disciples, or the person experienced today or will be experienced tomorrow or the second person of the Trinity) is male, has always and will always be?
Perhaps the use of the future tense in ‘I will be what I will be’ is being a little over played here, since presumably the divine is beyond time, but isn’t the basic thrust of an evolving experience of God a helpful one?
Thank you, Neil, for a typically thoughtful piece. Last week I was giving a paper on Geoffrey Wainwright and in preparing it I was struck by how prominent the theme of eschatology was throughout all his theological career. He linked it most of all with worship, and especially with the Eucharist as a feast of the kingdom and a foretaste of heaven.
Tim, I am not disputing that our experience of and our relationship with God is continually evolving. My faith now bears no relation to how I started out as a Christian almost 13 years ago (I was a very woolly liberal and have evolved into a die-hard traditionalist because of my experience.) But I’m the one who changed, not God.
God is unchangeable because He is the epitome of goodness, truth, love, compassion, mercy and grace. Anything less would not be God. He is unsurpassable, and cannot be equalled, because we all fall short of the glory of God.
I will always give Christ the male pronoun, because Jesus called God ‘Father’ and he called himself ‘Son’. I may be old-fashioned, but in my book that makes him male. The Samaritan woman at the well said that when the Messiah (the Christ) came he would explain everything , to which Jesus responded ‘I am he.’ (John 4:26) Only the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is of no specific gender, though often depicted as female.
In years gone by the translation of God’s words to Moses was ‘I am who I am’ but in more recent times progressive theologians have changed it to ‘I will be who I will be’ because it fit their agenda. It meant they could re-invent God to appease the increasingly secular society we find ourselves living in.
‘For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.’
God may indeed be the epitome of all the qualities you suggest. This is one reason that traditionalists insist that God is unchanging. The argument runs: “If God is perfect, then any change would be a move away from perfection which would be impossible for God.” This is, however, limited logic. It doesn’t have the imagination to see that there can be development within a state of perfection. It also disregards the fact that perfection in one situation can be different from the perfection needed in a different situation. Key characteristics and qualities may stay unaltered but faithfulness, for example, may need to be demonstrated in new ways.
One of the criteria for deciding whether something qualifies as living is whether or not it develops. So development is necessarily a quality of a living God. Creation involves change, as does prophecy and issuing laws. Incarnation, teaching and healing, death, resurrection, ascension, sending the Spirit into the world, forgiving sins and responding to people and to situations are all examples of interactions between God and humanity, examples of progression. What would be the point of singing praises to God, if God didn’t react to them? Why pray, if we don’t believe that the prayers will have any impact on God? Why answer an altar call, if it will make no difference to a God who can’t change?
It is we who change when we worship, when we pray, and when we make an altar call. That is our ‘yes’ to God, giving thanks and praise for HIS goodness, aligning ourselves with HIS spirit, submitting ourselves to HIS will.
I see it this way. It’s like a spectrum, with pure goodness and perfect love at one end (God) and pure evil and total depravity at the other (Satan.) Whether we think of God and Satan literally or figuratively will depend on our beliefs. Every human being is somewhere on the spectrum; not on opposing sides, but all on the same spectrum. No-one is perfectly good (except God) and no-one is totally evil (except Satan) though some might be close to one extreme or the other. We all have the freedom to move in whichever direction we choose. We are all sinners, because we all fall short of God’s glory, but we have the potential to move closer to God or closer to Satan.
When we worship, pray, or answer an altar call, we turn our faces towards God. We are heading in the right direction. And when we choose, by our thoughts, words and actions, to add to the goodwill in the world, we move closer to God. When we reject God and go our own selfish way, we turn our faces towards the other end of the spectrum, and when we add to the ill will in the world, we move closer to Satan.
Repenting is simply seeing we have been moving in the wrong direction and turning our faces back to God. Forgiveness is the knowledge that our past mistakes are not held against us; we have a fresh start and can move in the right direction from this moment on.
And what about people of goodwill who don’t believe in God, you might ask? Well, they are still moving in the right direction but cannot see their destination, so they are missing out on the peace, joy and assurance of eternal life that comes to those who enjoy a loving relationship with God.