Give us a rest

by Peter Hancock.

Over the years I’ve increasingly fought shy of the bland condemnation of the way society celebrates Christmas – materialism etc. This may be because I’m only too aware that I am very much part of that society and I do enjoy many aspects of the Christmas celebrations which could not easily be labelled “spiritual”. It may also be because I have a suspicion that many people in our society aren’t as far away from some “spiritual” desires in their approach to the festive season as we might like lazily to think.

It hit me last December whilst shopping in a crowded city centre – everyone is running around trying to finish the shopping by the deadline, many are affording themselves a little patisserie treat during a brief pit-stop from the merry-go-round, bags and bags are being carried off over rain-bespattered streets to dimly-lit car parks and nerves are often at a stretch. But there’s something else going on, something which we all share whether we profess faith or not, something that is communicated through the not-so-cheery-as- the-adverts-would-wish-us-to-believe looks on people’s faces, something in the almost formulaic, metronomic doing of the shopping, the very joylessness of participants in the supposed season of good cheer……..WE ALL JUST WANT A REST.

And we’re looking to Christmas to provide us with the one big moment of permission to have it.

Of course, this won’t be possible for some in the emergency services, health service, hospitality industry etc. and there will only be a brief respite for those in the retail sector but that doesn’t take away from the fact that all crave it and will look forward to getting it at some time during the season.

The writer to the Hebrews reassures his readers that there still remains “a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4 v 9). They need not think that their faithless forebears had forfeited it for every succeeding generation but, on the other hand, they did need to listen to and obey the voice of the Lord “today” in order to enter in to it. The Sabbath rest is conceived of as a thing of the future. For Israel it may have been thought to be arrival in Canaan, dropping the baggage and dangling the feet in cooling streams. Massively welcome but only earthly and temporary. For the Jesus people of the new age, for whom the promise is blended with faith, it is more appropriately seen as the heavenly home-coming, eternal and final. The writer knows they crave this. He sees the Christian life of committed discipleship as a struggle of a pilgrimage which needs the promise of heaven as a spur to the continued making of the necessary sacrifices to which we are called. Life as a Christian is not easy and we all yearn for rest. But, for one reason or another, so do those with whom we share space in shopping malls at this time of year.

The Sabbath rest is also, of course, a thing of the past, from when the foundations of life were laid. A thing which God did and gave us to do, not on a whim but as a matter of necessity. This is how life is and if Sabbath is not part of it, life will not be life as it can be. When paradise is lost, the humans are sent outside the garden to earn their living by the sweat of their brow and that state of affairs has continued until now. We may have swapped the tilling of the soil for the computer screen, the steering wheel, the incessant telephone or the building site but we still sweat and we want a rest.

That craving for a Sabbath is hard-wired in to every human being despite, or maybe because of, the fact that we over-play our hands in working too many hours and crossing the natural rhythms of life. That’s what we have in our shopping centres at this time of year – people just like us who are wanting just what we want. And whilst some may be steadfastly non-Christ-recognising, the majority do have a bit of room in the inn of their lives. There will be those around us for whom this Christmas will be a “today” and who might respond very well to the invitation to come and have a rest courtesy of the one who invented rest in the first place.

Advertisements

Is it Church? Is it a means of grace?

by George Bailey.

“Is it really Church?” As one of the leaders of a Messy Church, I hear this question now and again. It often leads into important reflection for the enquirer as they describe what it is they find helpful about other particular ways for relating as a community to faith in Jesus.

This question is more though than just casual conversation in car parks by Messy Church banners. It is also ever present in the current ecclesial and theological conversations about “fresh expressions.” I am increasingly concerned that for many Messy Church leaders it is an unhelpful question. Why do we need to decide in a binary way whether an event or group is formally church or not? There are some important positive responses to that question – ensuring responsible pastoral oversight, providing appropriate legal frameworks, taking open decisions about the use of resources – but there is also a strange division being created between groups and events which are given a formal ecclesial badge of “church” and others which are not. Even if something is not considered to be a church in itself, all these responsible positive factors do need to be in place. I am not denying that Messy Church gatherings can develop into churches – they clearly can – but that is not the only healthy way forward for Messy Church. Are confusions at play here between fresh ways that we gather and express Christian faith, and what constitutes church ecclesiologically? “Messy Church” has a particularly unhelpful name. For the purpose of simple communication, I do love it, but it can obscure the fact that whilst the group of people who do “Messy Church” might in time form a church, they could continue being the same church even if they collectively decided to change their meeting style to, say, “cafe church” or to a hymn sandwich.

Most research into fresh expressions goes through some stage of establishing what counts as a “fresh expression of church,” so leaving in its wake a string of events, groups and leaders who have been told that what they are doing is “not church.” The excellent Church Army research published in 2016 was a study of 1109 fresh expressions of church across 21 Church of England dioceses, but along the way 1678 church groups/events/projects were rejected for a variety of reasons.[1] Whilst the report does state it values the creative contribution represented by these developments, it is still a process whereby they are valued differently from independent ecclesial entities. I have not seen figures specific to Messy Church exclusions for this research project, though Claire Dalpra, one of the research team, has described how over two of the dioceses only 25 out of 51 Messy churches in were adjudged to be fresh expressions of church.[2] My feeling, also based on anecdotal experience of numerous Messy Churches, is that more are not seeing themselves as separate churches than are. I await with interest the results of the similar Methodist research into fresh expressions of church which is currently underway. When asked by a Methodist researcher if the Messy Church I am involved with met the criteria for inclusion in the research, I looked at the list, simply answered “no,” and so excused us from being excluded.

Is there an alternative? How do Messy Churches which are not intending to become churches in their own right see themselves in relation to the church or churches which they are somehow part of? The experience of the eighteenth century Wesleyan revival can help here. This was a situation with new groups, events and gatherings in the life of the Church of England. Those leading these developments did not desire new churches, but instead talked about ways that the new forms could act as “means of grace” alongside other existing expressions of Christian faith.[3] The societies, small groups within them and various new or renewed gatherings, e.g. love feasts, watchnights and covenant services, were described as “prudential means of grace.” They were prudential because temporary, and suited to the age and context for helping people to meet Christ and experience salvation. They were not the whole of Christian worship and discipleship, but pointed people to other “instituted means of grace” (e.g. Eucharist) and those “general means of grace” (e.g. exercising the presence of God) which are to be accessed by all Christians of all times.[4] I am increasingly thinking of Messy Church as a prudential means of grace which is inherently limited, not seeking to be all the means of grace necessary for Christian life – indeed, if it did aspire to that, it would soon cease to be a creative worship event ideal for young families. Either Messy Church which is becoming a separate church develops a number of other means of grace at other times, or Messy Church which sits within another church’s ministry programme encourages people to engage with the whole range of means of grace available.

For Messy Church, the question, “How is it a means of grace?” opens a more useful conversation that the question, “Is it church?” and avoids some of the negative connotations for numerous Messy Church groups who do not aspire to be entirely self contained churches. I think there might be potential for wider use of this question for other kinds of fresh expression, but also for the whole Church to look at our ecclesiology and practice in a different way.

 

 

[1] Lings, George (2016), The Day of Small Things: An analysis of fresh expressions of Church in 21 dioceses of the Church of England, Church Army Research Unit, pp. 72-74 and pp.202-205

[2] Dalpra, Claire, “When is Messy Church ‘church’?” in George Lings (ed.), Messy Church Theology: Exploring the Significance of Messy Church for the Wider Church, (Abingdon: Bible Reading Fellowship; 2013), p.28

[3] For a good summary of John Wesley’s thought on this, see his sermon, “The Means of Grace” (1746), in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, Volume I,( Nashville: Abingdon Press; 1984), pp.376-397.

[4] For the fullest description of this aspect of John Wesley’s theology see Knight, Henry, The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace (Metuchen N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press; 1992)

Introducing the ‘Atonement Project’: A Work in Progress

by Ben Pugh.

At the age of nineteen as a new Christian I joined a lively charismatic church where the worship would lift the roof off and there was a strong sense of the presence of God. The teaching was inspiring but, for the first four years, I don’t recall ever hearing anything at all about the cross. As a student I was away most Easters so I may have missed out on some kind of annual dusting-off of the theme. The core membership was ex-Baptists, Anglicans and others who had come out of their denominations when the Spirit moved in their lives in the seventies, so the assumption seemed to be that everyone already had the basics.

I very much needed grounding in these basics. I was not coping well with the fact that God was holy and I wasn’t. I felt led to read Romans 3-8 as much as possible, never deviating from that letter and those chapters. I also read a lot of the conservative evangelicals such as Stott, Packer and Morris, and some older authors such as James Denney and R.W. Dale. These helped me to understand, albeit from a limited perspective, what Romans 3-8 had to say about the cross. Within a couple of months of continuous attention to this one zone of New Testament a remarkable change came over me. For the first time in my life the enormity of what Christ had done for me hit me in wave upon wave. Just one example of many occasions was while singing Charles Gabriel’s How Marvellous, How Wonderful, which was one of only two old hymns we ever sang at that church. It was the final verse that got to me: ‘When with the ransomed in glory his face I at last shall see…’ Three things struck me all at once: the enormity of the price paid to ransom me, the sheer wonder of the glories that awaited me, and the fact that I was so ridiculously undeserving of any of it. I was bent double with emotion.

Twenty-five years on, a fascination with this central symbol of Christianity has not gone away. I am now most of the way through writing a trilogy of books on the atonement. I have been using the ‘Wesleyan’ quadrilateral, but have ended up using it in this order: tradition and reason first, then experience, then Scripture. The first volume came out in 2014, which was my Atonement Theories: A Way Through the Maze. I concluded this book with what I termed the Incarnation Criterion. By this I meant that the Christ of the cross is the prime criterion for judging all theories of the cross: his person defines his work. I named Irenaeus, Anselm, John McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth as especially noteworthy examples of this incarnation-eye-view of atonement. To let the Father define the work, I pointed out, results in difficult moral problems which too easily impugn the Father as demanding and inflexible. To let our humanity define the work, results in theories, such as the Moral Influence theory, that are inadequate for explaining the extremity of the solution offered. To place the person of Christ himself at the centre compels us to attend to him who is the God-Man of Chalcedon, the bridge and mediator between the divine and the human.

My second volume came out in 2016 and was called: The Old Rugged Cross: A History of the Atonement in Popular Christian Devotion. In it my aim was to analyse what has been happening on the ground. How, if at all, have these atonement theories helped ordinary Christians to live more devoted lives? The key concept I came up with was the Participation Imperative. By this I meant that the one assumption which underlies the Church’s most formative engagements with the cross has been the assumption that Christ is the representative human. He suffers with our sufferings and dies our death yet raises us up to newness of life with him. The Church’s use of Eucharist, metaphor and art has been all about the attempt to re-present, and hence to participate all over again in, the events of Gethsemane, Calvary and the tomb. Even within the evangelicalism of the nineteenth century I discerned a shift away from the strictly forensic theories of atonement to which it remained ostensibly committed and in the direction of the ever-increasing use of the word ‘blood’ instead of ‘cross’ or ‘Calvary.’ The atonement thus became liquefied and applicable. The hymnody and preaching of the nineteenth century was famously filled with the invitation to wash and bathe in this blood – a subjective participation to counterbalance the objective penal substitution.

Work has now begun on my third volume: Pictures of Atonement. This will be a New Testament study. I will be examining the New Testament metaphors: sacrifice, redemption, victory and so on, seeking to recover their original spiritual immediacy. It seems to me that the first converts to the Way had stumbled upon a breath-taking new thing which was that the tragic execution of Jesus turned out to be a death-defeating, epoch-making event. Those who had never even been eye witnesses were certain that Jesus was raised and glorified, and this conviction could have had only one source: the indwelling Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead was living in them (Romans 8:11; Acts 2:33-36). Out of this experience came the thinking that gave us the New Testament metaphors of atonement. The metaphors helped the early Church express the shock of the new, giving new language for it. This third volume therefore will be an invitation to see again, from the Pentecost Standpoint, how the crucified Jesus became the atoning Christ.

So there we have it. Tradition and Reason have yielded the Incarnation Criterion, Experience has pointed me to the Participation Imperative and Scripture has brought me to the Pentecost Standpoint. Watch this space!

What is God like?

by Sheryl Anderson.

Whilst commemorating 500 years since the Reformation, I have been exercised by Luther’s understanding of God and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ. Luther came to his understanding of justification by grace through faith after much struggle.

‘Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.’[1]

Personally, I do not recognise ‘the righteous God who punishes sinners,’ or God, ‘also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!’ Initially I attributed this to historical and cultural difference. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) lived in a very different time and circumstance from me. Even so, Luther seems to have been a deeply troubled man.

Then I discovered St Pierre Favre (Peter Faber) 1506 – 1546[2], a contemporary of Luther and a close companion of Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. Favre is arguably the 16th Century’s least known saint. He came from Savoy; his parents were working farmers and he grew up herding sheep in the high pastures of the alps. As a young man, he studied at the university in Paris and was a gifted scholar. However, like Luther, he was a deeply troubled man. He struggled with his sense of his own sinfulness, with indecision, and with a permanent deep-seated fear of offending God.

It is worth noting that, when Favre was engaged in his theological studies, the teachings of Luther and his contemporaries would have been hot topics for debate in the lecture halls and rooms of the universities. However, this would not have been an abstract discussion. As a university student, Favre would have been obliged to attend the public execution of heretics. Given his personal insecurities, such brutality could have had a deep and potentially traumatic impact on him.

It was through his relationship with Loyola, that Favre slowly came to terms with his fears and anxieties. Years later he wrote:

‘… he gave me an understanding of my conscience and of the temptations and scruples I had had for so long without either understanding them or seeing the way by which I would be able to get peace’[3]

Favre kept a journal for the last four years of his life. The reason we have any insight into his understanding of God and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ is largely because of this. His Memoriale is one of the main texts that documents the spirituality of the early Jesuits. In it he imagines his life as a journey, following the example of Christ: traveling for obedience, always alert to seek God’s will and not his own. Unlike Luther, Favre’s attitude is founded on his belief that people are changed more by those who love them in God’s grace than by those who seek to coerce, outsmart or overwhelm them.

Simplicity and goodness should eventually get the upper hand over our natural way of thinking. That is to say, though on a natural level we might think it right to be angry or depressed over something, nevertheless goodness and simplicity ought to put up with it. Sometimes we are interiorly anguished; and though this spirit may speak what is true, reproving us for our many failures, nevertheless if it robs us of our tranquillity it is not the good spirit. The spirit of God is peaceful and gentle, even in reproof.[4]

These profoundly contradictory notions of what God is like have led me to wonder: to what extent is our understanding of God, and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ, determined not so much by our world, but by our world view?

 

[1] Luther’s Works, Volume 34, P336-337.

[2] I am grateful to Edel McClean who introduced me to Pierre Favre. More about him can be found here http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130802_1.htm

[3] Memoriale: The Spiritual Writings of Pierre Favre (Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996) §9, p. 65.

[4] ‘Instructions for Those Going on Pilgrimage’ in Spiritual Writings, p. 342, my emphasis.

 

‘Reformation!’

by Andrew Stobart.

One of the ironies of our use of the word ‘Reformation’ is that its strong association to the tangle of sixteenth-century movements that began with the monk from Wittenberg is in fact at odds both with the main burden of those movements and the etymology of the word itself. Reformare, its Latin root, literally means ‘to shape again’, much as a piece of clay, having held one shape for a short while, might be taken by the potter and fashioned into something more becoming, or more needful. To speak, as we have done this week (31st October), of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is thus something of a misnomer, since it suggests that there was something ultimate about the defiant propositions of the likes of Luther that cannot now be refashioned. Rubbing shoulders with some from the ‘Reformed’ tradition today justifies this perception: Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms are sometimes treated as a clarion call for ‘soundness’: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’

While appreciating the sincerity of this regard for sixteenth century ecclesial activists, it is, respectfully, simply not true that the Reformation is the one and only reformation. The literal or metaphorical nailing of Luther’s 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg[1] was certainly a reformation, but we would be foolish to stand on its stated tenets today and repeat Luther’s words verbatim, thinking thereby that we have secured the ‘soundness’ or ‘faithfulness’ of our present church’s life and doctrine.

Take one of the keys that Luther used to unlock the good news of Jesus for his contemporaries: ‘justification by faith’. In the past two decades, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification has been affirmed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1999, the World Methodist Council in 2006, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches this year. It would be easy, then, to consider ‘justification by faith’ as one of the Reformation’s greatest doctrinal triumphs. And yet, has the sharing of ‘justification by faith’ in actual fact brought today’s church – across all denominations – closer to the church God intends, or not?

The late Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, puts the issue starkly:

‘Precisely to be itself, the gospel is never told the same way twice. The formulas which yesterday opened Jesus’ future will tomorrow bind to the past. “We are justified by faith alone,” said Luther, and liberated four generations. When preachers say these words today, supposing themselves to be following Luther, they bind us to the terrible law of having to save ourselves by the quality of our sincerity, for that is what “faith” has come to mean since the eighteenth century. And who knows what “justified” might mean, without lengthy explanations?‘[2]

It is not good enough, for those who wish to faithfully preach the good news of Jesus, simply to restate the faithful formulations of the past. Words morph in meaning; cultures lose shared plausibility structures; the practical realities of everyday life become framed by new technologies, new possibilities, and new fears; and, most important of all, the lively God of Jesus Christ adamantly refuses to be the God of the long dead, but rather of the living present.[3]

‘Justification by faith’, for the most part, is no longer the fear-shattering good news it was for the conscience-stricken monk Martin Luther, or for his contemporaries who lived under the threat of a fiery future for themselves and their loved ones unless they reached deep into their pockets.[4] This is not to say that justification by faith is now redundant; far from it. Justification by faith remains critical to salvation’s sole origin in the kindness of God, irrespective of the moral success or otherwise of those who are candidates for such salvation (which, by the way, is everyone).

However, just as Jesus didn’t preach ‘justification by faith’ but rather the present availability of God’s Kingdom; so too must Jesus’ disciples today bear witness to whichever leading edge of grace that shatters today’s tomb of human self-sufficiency and renders us defenceless before the beauty of divine generosity⎯or, to put it another way, which announces God’s reformation of us.

 Bearing witness to this power of God to refashion us[5] demands our alert attention. It is all too easy to mimic the formulas of the past, in the hope that the immediacy with which they brought the challenge of God’s active presence to their hearers will somehow, by sheer sincerity on our part, rub off on ours. Doing so, though, shows how little we truly understand the habitat of our faith, and how little we trust God’s creativity, new every moment. How is the risen Christ poised to speak into our lives today, to unlock God’s Kingdom to us in all its transformative power? If ‘justification by faith’ will do, then so be it. But a brief survey of the ecclesial landscape would suggest that our gospel-telling needs another reformation.[6]

The prophet Ezekiel had stern words for those who cried “Peace!” when there was none. It was as if they were whitewashing a flimsy wall to give it the appearance of permanence. When we cry ‘Reformation!’, may we not do the same, seeking to hide the fragility of our contemporary church life with the whitewash of the sixteenth-century reformation. When we cry ‘Reformation!’, may there actually be reformation, fit for now, and for here. Triune God, refashion every aspect of our lives this day, so that, in you alone, our lives might be overwhelmed with the hope and purpose of your Kingdom.

 

[1] It hardly matters if, as scholars now think, Luther didn’t actually don his tool belt that legendary morning in 1517 in preparation for an act of theological fly-posting aiming to bring down the established order; his Theses were a Rubicon of sixteenth-century European history.

[2] Robert Jenson, Story and Promise (Ramsey: Sigler Press, 1989), 11.

[3] See, for instance, Matthew 22:32.

[4] The sale of indulgences, which was the presenting issue for Luther’s reformation, had been advertised by Johann Tetzel, the highly successful mogul of the indulgence-trade, in a crudely simplistic way: ‘As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.’ (So wie das Geld im Kasten klingt, die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt.)

[5] See Acts 1:8.

[6] For further reflection on ‘justification by faith’ and its potential rehabilitation today, see Andrew Stobart, ‘Justification by faith’, Holiness Volume 3 (2017) Issue 2 (Holiness & Reformation), pp. 301–316, available online at www.wesley.cam.ac.uk/holiness.

Apocalyptic Skies

by Stephen Lindridge.

It was very hard to avoid noticing the bizarre atmosphere created by the colours of the skies, as the remnants of hurricane Ophelia blew over the UK on 16th October, full of fine particles refracting the light. Some had fantastic orange and reddish views of the sun, while other parts of Britain saw the skies turn yellowy green. Social media, especially twitter, went mad with sentiments about the apocalyptic mood created; sending significant messages to loved ones who were not near just in case it was the end of the world as we knew it!

It did feel eerily weird. In what was the middle of day, it was so dark and oppressive; so much so the street-lights came on and the luminescence radiated like a snow-storm in ambient light – yet it was 18 degrees centigrade outside. It was easy to sympathise with the many on twitter wanting to draw close to those they loved, in the face of what felt very unnatural and disconcerting times.

I found it both re-assuring and unappreciated just how significant our instinct is, to notice when we think something is wrong or not normal. However, do we only need a bit of blue sky, a warm breeze and white fluffy clouds to think it’s all back to normal and go on our way content? Perhaps it’s only me who is easily distracted from on-suing calamity!

So, there are for me two things going on here. The first is the transient nature of my instinct: to react to the immediate, the obvious, the very concerning but then in the days and weeks to follow, how quickly do I forget and move onto the next thing?

The second is; what do I really notice and work to change? I wonder how we might react if some of the current pervading issues in our time could be presented as a sky colour or mood, to be seen or felt as easily as sandstorm or dust-cloud? What if injustice caused by inequality, whether in tax avoidance at one end of the spectrum or Universal Credit at the other could colour the hues of the skies? How apocalyptic would that seem? Or the misery of anyone who has suffered any form of sexism or racial discrimination in recent times, would those skies make us think the world was coming to an end?

The eyes to see or the ears to hear are prominent motifs both in the Old and New Testaments[1], to notice what God is doing, with the challenge to respond. Do we, God’s people, notice? Do we respond? Perhaps the metrological knowledge of what was happening as storm Ophelia passed by helped affirm the notion that all would be right soon and helped us fight off a natural instinct to find somewhere to hide and hope for the best! Logic and understanding may do that but it did not take away the very real sense that something was wrong and we were helpless in avoiding it.

Does that inescapable sense leave us feeling like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, seeming as though we are stuck, unable to move, unable to change the circumstances and escape the catastrophe that is upon us? It may well be our only option is to face it and journey through until clear skies and calm weather return or the knowledge of whatever trouble it is moderates our natural instinct and lessens our action.

So I found myself asking a few ‘what if’ questions.

What if our instincts could detect the ‘atmosphere’ of the pervading nature of economic injustice, sexism or misery caused by racial hatred?  Would that atmosphere bring a swifter more radical wind of change, rather than the catastrophic impact that doing nothing would bring? Would we, could we, be moved to action, if we could see more clearly how unnatural such things were?

My hope is; if we seek after loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will undoubtedly discover the things God wishes us to see in the world. Are then the unsung spiritual charisms of patience and persistence that which are most required from our generation and of God’s people today?

As so many faithful worshipers and witnesses have done before we look at our time and the issues facing us and believe they cannot be ignored. We draw on the encouragement that others before us have faced such immutable challenges and pressed on. Many have just celebrated the 500th year of the Reformation. Did those reformers begin by knowing the outcome of their work? No, but they did hold within themselves a knowledge and instinct that something was fundamentally wrong in their world and worked to bring all that God had placed on their hearts for Christ’s Kingdom to be more realised in their time and day.

Sometimes the best way of going forward is instinctively knowing what it is that is holding you back…and facing it.

 

[1] Deut. 29:4, Jer. 25:4, Ezek. 12:2, Matt. 13:15-16, Mark 4:9,23, Luke 14:35

The Blood of Christ

by Colin Morris.

This is a subject I had always found personally difficult.  Of all the themes in traditional theology, emphasis on the blood of Christ seemed to be a throw-back to an eerie past when devotees in the most sacred moments of life felt constrained to kill something in order to get right with God.  So I’ve always let my eyes slide over the phrase ‘blood of Christ’ and treated it as evidence of his fallible humanity and inevitable mortality.

But I was conscious that to exsanguinate the imagery of the New Testament and hymnody is to be left with a very pallid theological landscape. Christ’s blood is splattered across our bibles and hymnbooks and Offices. There are the words John Wesley whispered shortly before his death, ‘There is no way into the holiest except by the blood of Christ’.  And Pope John 23rd made the significant comment, ‘Protestants have something to teach Catholics who tend to be devoted to the sacred heart of Jesus and the blessed sacrament but not to the precious blood by which Christ paid for our redemption.’

Unless one holds the most mechanistic view of God’s providence, it was a coincidence that the religious rituals and the punitive procedures of Jesus’ time both involved the spilling of blood. It would not have mattered how much blood Jesus spilt in dying, for the virtue is not in the substance.  Indeed, as has been said, Jesus could have been killed in some other way – flogged to death or hanged or poisoned like Socrates; the symbolism would have changed, that’s all.

But it would have mattered had Jesus died in his bed full of years and honour or dropped dead of a heart attack.  Everything turns not on his life having been taken from him but on his laying it down – and not simply as a martyr lays it down – there can be an element of wilfulness or even subtle egotism in that; it was not sacrifice by the self but of the self which was the key to Christ’s death. The early Christians were inspired innovators who used the best of Old Testament teaching, religious ritual and judicial procedure to reinforce one another powerfully. Certainly, Athanasius declared the appropriateness of the manner of Christ’s death because, he said, it is only on the cross that a man dies with his arms outspread.  But that is a homiletical rather than a dogmatic truth.

Then I discovered the writings of P. T. Forsyth.  I cannot quote particular references because I found them scattered throughout some volumes of his I came across in the thatched hut which housed the library of the only theological school in Northern Rhodesia sixty five years ago – a legacy from a long-dead missionary.  Forsyth deepened my thinking to see the cosmic significance of Christ’s death, whilst insisting that true sacrifice is an ethical rather than a sacerdotal or mystical transaction. The appeal of Christ’s blood is to the will in obedience or rejection, not to the feelings in sympathy or revulsion.

Because the original sacrifice was made by God rather than to him, the energy behind atonement is God’s grace rather his anger – a truth that undermines all theories based on severity of punishment or degrees of suffering. Forsyth declared that because God was fully present in Christ’s death, he experienced the cost of sin as only God could do, but he experienced the effects of sin as only someone fully human could do for unlike God he could bleed and die.

Hence, when we say that we are cleansed from all sin by the blood of Christ we are stating a truth not just about our personal redemption but about the transformation of the human condition.  Sin may still be a lapse or an episode but it need no longer be the principle of our life. The Kingdom of sin may be a region we visit but it need not become our home.

With one exception, Jesus speaks only about his blood at the end of his life; for the rest he spoke of forgiving grace, but that was not possible for the world without judgment and sacrifice.  His plea, ‘Come unto me,’ was not enough – only ‘I if I be lifted up will draw all men unto me’; that was enough.  He was a failed prophet but an effectual saviour.

Theories of atonement that emphasise the revelation of God’s love or the call to repentance have their truth, but Forsyth declared them to be inadequate unless there is struck the note of judgment to do with sin, righteousness and a new creation.  This is not the natural idiom of a liberal such as myself but the blood of Christ is such a primal metaphor that the traditional language is most appropriate.

To sing, preach or pray about the blood of Christ is not to wallow in sentimentality or morbidity but to celebrate a wonder – Christ entering wounded into eternal life in order that our eternity might be whole (Forsyth again).