Aseity and Adoration

by Andrew Stobart.

Disciples of the Kingdom, says Jesus, are like wise stewards who bring out from their storehouses what is old and what is new.[1] This is a good metaphor for the task of theology: wise stewards of the faith will curate their language carefully, forging new dynamic equivalences on the one hand and rehabilitating old terms on the other.

One such old term worthy of rehabilitation is God’s ‘aseity’, a word which comes from the Latin a (‘from’) and se (‘self’), and which here refers to God’s life in and of himself; the fact that God’s being is underived; that there is no cause or condition that produces God; that God does not depend on anything other than God’s own triune life for existence.

Contemporary theology is nervous about talk of God a se, preferring instead to focus on God pro nobis (Latin, ‘for us’). The intention behind this theological timidity about aseity is commendable, wishing as it does to keep the incarnation central, and to assert the proper contingency of God’s life – God really did become enfleshed in our human tent and expose himself to the risk of love and death. Given what we know of Jesus, it is a bedrock of Christian theology that God is always and ever ‘for us’, pro nobis.

But – and this takes us into the mystery of divinity – God is also utterly always God a se, God from and for himself. Let me venture a couple of observations about what might be jettisoned if we fail to rehabilitate our understanding of God’s aseity:

First, divine self-sufficiency. Aseity asserts that God would have been utterly and eternally God, if we had not existed. This is an astounding thought: while we depend completely on God for our existence, the relationship is not mutual. God is the fount of his own being. The eternal triune relationships – the Father begetting the Son; the Son obeying the Father; the Father and the Son spirating the Spirit; the Spirit showing the Father and approving the Son; these are all the relationships that our triune God needs in order to be God, in order for his life to be full and complete. As Psalm 90 puts it: ‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.[2]

Secondly, without aseity we lose the graciousness of God’s grace. Understanding that God is completely self-sufficient enables us to appreciate the awesome and quite frankly startling assertion of Christian Scripture that God is ‘mindful’ of us.[3] God’s love overflows from his triune life, creating life, allowing freedom, and then shamelessly seeking out the wayward objects of his love, not because God must do these things, but because he does in fact do them. This was one of Barth’s logical motifs: actuality creates possibility. Because God in actual fact loves us, it is now clear to us that God could have chosen a different way to express his life. That God has not done so means that the character of God is always grace. Grace, in other words, is grace because it might not have been. God chooses not to be God without us so that, paradoxically, we experience his self-sufficiency (his ability to exist without us) even as we experience his loving commitment to be God for us and with us! Surely this is a mystery: experiencing God pro nobis pushes us back into the wonder of God a se, who we will never know as such, because God has committed always to be pro nobis. Getting our heads and hearts around this is part of the task of theology.

Finally, without aseity, adoration is weakened. Adoration is an expression of wonderment that erupts from our souls when we realise that for all we have been created like God, God is not like us. Our life is from him; God’s life is from himself. The classic outburst of adoration is surely the words of Isaiah’s vision, repeated in Revelation: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, the whole earth is full of your glory.’[4] Adoration begins not with us but with God. It is an abrasive reminder that we are not the centre of the universe, but God is The universe hangs for its next moment of existence on the very Word and Breath of this eternal Father.

God’s aseity is a worthy object of our reflection in Advent as we approach the season of celebrating God’s gracious contingency, as God becomes ‘incomprehensibly made man’[5] – not because he had to, but simply because he willingly did. We will only truly understand this grace when we understand that it arises from God’s utter plenitude – God a se which grounds God pro nobis. As John puts it: ‘From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.’[6]

[1] Matthew 13:52

[2] Psalm 90:2

[3] Psalm 8:4

[4] Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8

[5] Charles Wesley, ‘Let earth and heaven combine’.

[6] John 1:16

Going Beyond the Bible

by Colin Morris.

Neil Richardson has proposed that instead of getting back to the Bible we should go forward with the Bible.  Neil knows much more about New Testament studies than I do, but I’m not sure how far forward we can go with the New Testament, given that most of its writers believed their world was about to pass away.  Surely, the New Testament authors did not imagine they were writing for the ages, but about something startlingly new?  They thought they were on the verge of an explosive intervention into history that would transform or abolish it.

So over the centuries we have used homiletical and exegetical ingenuity to apply words and incidents from a world-view over two millennia old to societies that in succeeding centuries have lived through not one but several volcanic periods, including the Copernican, industrial and scientific revolutions, each with great intellectual and practical consequences.

Many of the great moral and social issues that affect our lives have taken us far beyond the Bible, sometimes in direct opposition to its teaching.  The abolition of slavery, battles for liberty, democracy and human rights, especially those of women, the rise and consequences of systems such as capitalism, globalisation and climatic threats to the earth’s survival have become clamant as a result of rapid cultural, political and scientific changes.

Certainly, radical Christians have been and are on the front line in many of these battles, sometimes against the opposition of Church officialdom claiming the Bible’s authority for its status quo attitudes.

Granted, on the premise that human nature does not change, the conquest of evil and the need for redemption offered through the teaching and sacrifice of Jesus are as relevant as they ever were.  The transformative power of divine love and forgiveness is perennial. The Bible is bang up to the minute about that.

But what if human nature is about to change or at least to be changed?  I barely achieved School Certificate level Science, but from what I understand about what I read, we are in the early days of a cognitive revolution that will challenge key theological assertions implied in the Bible such as the nature of human identity and freedom of the human will.

Scientists are at work re-engineering the human brain by re-writing its genetic codes, re-wiring its circuits and altering its chemical balance.  Projects devoted to the development of artificial intelligence, the dramatic extension of life expectancy and the manipulation of DNA to change human characteristics are under way. Perhaps the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain-computer interface. The aim is to download the entire contents of the brain onto the internet and use it to link several brains to each other, with unpredictable consequences for our understanding of human consciousness and identity.    It is already possible to use brain scans that reveal a person’s choices or decisions before he or she is aware of making them, raising puzzling questions about free will.

We cannot console ourselves that such things are just fantasies or at least vague possibilities which lie far into the future, for scientists measure the future in decades and not in centuries. The internet went from one man’s bright idea to world-wide availability in less than 20 years.

The Biblical world fades further and further into the distance, and we probably know as much about Jesus of Nazareth as we will ever know, as an immensely significant historical personality, whose memory is constantly refreshed liturgically by our prayers, hymns and bible readings.

But Christianity has never depended on knowing Jesus as ‘he was at the time.’  Paul testifies to that.  The Resurrection transformed the historical Jesus into the Christ of confessional testimony who, unlike the Galilean preacher, has never been historically confined, so that two thousands of years on, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could ask, ‘Who is Christ for us today?” with the implication that ‘Christ’ is the changing pattern of our relationship to the living God as the times change.

The American theologian Tom Driver described the Christ of the Church as ‘a composite of the experiences and expectations of all who gather in Christ’s name, and not only those who are priests, preachers, theologians and others gifted with office and fine words.’ (1)

As the Cognitive Revolution gains momentum we can barely imagine what form these  ‘expectations and experiences’ of Christ might take.  I hope that somewhere in academia there are suitably qualified scholars working on a Christology for the future.

(1) Driver, Christ in a Changing World, p 31, SCM, 1981

See what God is doing and join in

by Elaine Lindridge.

It is now fairly common place to refer to mission as ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’. This phrase is largely attributed to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and has often been linked to the work of fresh expressions.

It’s a great phrase, and for those of us encouraging churches to be more missional it can be a helpful discussion starter. But how do we understand it and even more importantly, how do we respond to it? Before we can join in, how do we in reality see what God is doing? Do we look hard around our neighbourhoods, go on prayer walks, engage in listening exercises and conduct community audits? Whilst these are good activities, they must not be allowed to fuel the idea that God is hard to find.    Are we really supposed to search for God as if God’s work is hidden from us and difficult to unearth?

I sometimes wonder if we can be blind to the work of God that surely is happening all around us. Perhaps we’re guilty of thinking God’s work is rare and needs discovering in our communities. As if God requires our help to make God’s-self known and appreciated.

wheres-wally

Are we ever distracted into thinking that to look for the work of God means we need to seek and search and reveal that which is largely hidden? A bit like searching for the elusive Wally in a complex, busy and chaotic picture. Wally is drawn in such a way as to blend in and to be difficult to find. Is that how we picture the work of God? If so, then it is no wonder we have difficulty joining in!

But what if in this ‘finding Wally’ illustration, seeing what God is doing is the complete opposite to that which we have presumed? So instead of searching and searching for Wally, we discovered that Wally was actually everywhere?

wheres-wally-crowd

God’s missional work can be seen in so many ways and places. I guess the harder part for us is trying to discern which things God particularly wants us to engage with. Looking at mission this way means that any difficulty we have in discerning what to do is not because there is nothing we can do…but because there is so much.

Then questions asked in passages like Matthew 25 take on a new resonance; ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

To those who still ask where Christ is, I reply ‘in everyone’. To those who still struggle to see the mission of God, I reply ‘it’s everywhere’. Instead of waiting to see where God might be calling us, why not presume that God is calling us everywhere. Then every encounter, every journey, every day becomes an opportunity to see what God is doing….and join in.

Beauty?

by Brian Beck.

I once met a person who claimed to have read John Wesley’s Journal from start to finish and was surprised to find no evidence of any appreciation of the beauty of the countryside he travelled through. Had he no appreciation of natural beauty? I have not done a systematic check but certainly my friend had missed some references: Mr Brackenbury’s house in St Helier ‘has a large convenient garden with a lovely range of fruitful hills’; ‘the little hills, almost covered with large trees, are inexpressibly beautiful’; [1] Raithby, in Lincolnshire, is ‘an earthly paradise’.[2] These references are late in his life, when he had begun to explore the implications of the doctrine of creation. The sermons on The General Deliverance and God’s Approbation of his Works, published in 1781-2,[3] are evidence of his later interest[4], though the focus is on the perfection of the original creation (idealistically conceived), its loss with the Fall, and its eventual restoration, rather than appreciation of its current beauties. Overall Wesley’s interest is in the story of human redemption. Perhaps we should not too hard on him for living before the Romantic Movement changed our perceptions of the world around us. Nevertheless the legacy he has left us is distinctly short on appreciation of the natural world for its own sake. Others have had to fill the gap for Methodism.

I have for long been intrigued by the human capacity to perceive beauty in form, colour and sound. Where has this capacity come from? It is, so far as we can tell, unique to the human species. Of course we differ in our sensitivity to it – compare neighbouring gardens, one a tip the other a park – and in what we regard as beautiful – bride and groom may see more in each other than onlookers do! We may be too preoccupied to give attention to it, as Wesley apparently was. But it is the experience of beauty as such, in whatever sight or sound we discern it, that interests me. How did we come to acquire it? Some may appeal to Darwinian theories of evolution. Attractiveness to the eye has a function in the propagation of the species – witness the plumage display of birds – so does sound –witness the rutting call of the stag. It may play a part in the preservation of the species – ugliness instigating fear and flight, beauty suggestion safety (think of ugly and beautiful characters in fairy tales). But why should humans find beauty in the shape and colour of a tree or a landscape which can hardly be said to advance the propagation of the species? Why do we find the tiger, or a raging torrent, simultaneously dangerous and beautiful? For the beholder or listener the quality of beauty transcends the form or colour or sequence of sounds. It serves no utilitarian value – it is ‘value added’. I do not believe in a God of the gaps (science has managed to plug so many of them in our account of the natural world) but I find it hard to account for our sense of beauty in purely evolutionary, functional terms.

I am driven to think of this apparently unique endowment as an aspect of the image of God. For what purpose? Is it to make life less mundane, less humdrum? A day in the country, a visit to an art gallery or listening to music can work wonders. Is it an anticipation of heaven, a foretaste of what shall be and thus an aid to devotion and hope, an introduction to wonder? Or is it in reality sacramental, an encounter with God, un-named but present in  creation in multiple ways? Is the appropriate Christian response worship? Perhaps Moses’ burning bush was not unique after all.

[1] Journal and Diaries ed. W R Ward & R Heitzenrater, Works, Bicentennial Edition vol. 24 p.52, entry for August 20 & 21 1787.

[2] Ibid. p. 99, entry for July 3 1788.

[3] Sermons ed. A Outler, nos. 56 & 60, Works vol. 1, pp. 387ff, 436ff.

[4] See R L Maddox in Wesleyan Perspectives on the New Creation ed. M D Meeks, 2004, pp.21ff, T H Runyon The New Creation, 1998, pp.200ff.

Remembrance, Truth and Community

by Jonathan Pye.

A few days ago, I stood on the banks of the Imjin River where, in 1951, 750 men of the Glosters faced 10,000 Chinese Communist Soldiers at the height of the Korean War. Of the regulars, reservists and National Servicemen who held the hill to allow others safe withdrawal, only 63 escaped Hill 235 after the battle. The bones of those who died now lie entombed in a natural cave beside the river, standing as silent witness to the deaths of so many young men from the peaceful, wooded hills and valleys of Gloucestershire amidst the Autumnal colours of the thickly wooded hillsides close to Pajun city, their own ‘corner of a foreign field…’. Then, in a moment of great solemnity, South Korean politicians and British Methodist Ministers laid a wreath and stood in remembrance and prayer.

This week, November 11th marks our own day of national Remembrance and on Sunday, churches and communities across the country will hold services to remember those who died in the conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The persistence of such services argues powerfully for the importance of acts of community remembrance even, perhaps particularly, at a time when the numbers of those who served in many of the great conflicts of the twentieth century are dwindling.

In his reflection on the nature of community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, ‘God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.’ [i] Acts of remembrance, though often emotionally charged, are not simply emotional events but are moments of confronting truth in which the reality of the ‘other’ as person truly lays claim on us in our commitment to them – a claim which, for Bonhoeffer, mirrors God’s decisive act of commitment to humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Writing in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, Mario Aguilar, Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of St. Andrews, reflects on what he calls the ‘hermeneutic of bones’ and on the experience of relatives sitting with the bones of victims and he concludes that, ‘…bones have a materiality that makes them texts of social reality but also theological texts in which the (same) image of the crucified can be found.[ii]

From this belief, Aguilar argues in words redolent of Bonhoeffer that,

‘The centrality of God’s love denied by human beings… becomes the only possible theology and the texts of this theology are not pages of a book but the history of humanity and of God written in each one of those precious bones. Bones are not only texts to be interpreted, but represent the presence of God among his people. In the context of genocide, that presence is silent and in the context of a post-genocidal society spaces of genocidal memories remain places of silence and encounter with God. They become places where not unlike cemeteries a physical mediation between the physical and the meta-physical world can be observed and indeed experienced.[iii]

Standing that day on the bank of the Imjin River keeping silence before the tomb containing the bones of the men of the Glosters, such a physical mediation was indeed experienced, even as it will be experienced this week by so many others in silence and in memory, and it was a moment suffused with the power of the holy.

Bonhoeffer believed that blessing means laying one’s hand on something and saying: ‘despite everything, you belong to God’ and he concludes, ‘This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer’.[iv]

For the men of the Glosters, whose remains lie in their far-off tomb, and for all those who, then and now, are the victims of war and violence, as for those who this week will mourn them, such acts of truth in remembrance, enfolds them in community, holds them in peace, helps make sense of sacrifice and offers hope for the future.

[i] Bonhoeffer, D. (1954) Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Translated and with an Introduction by John W. Doberstein. Harper & Row Publishers, p.86.

[ii] Aguilar, M. (2009) Theology, Liberation and Genocide. London: SCM, p. 12

[iii] Ibid. p. 35.

[iv] Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Fortress Press 2006, p.674.

Editorial apologies!

Dear All,

Sorry to those on the email list for the mix up with today’s posts! You will have to wait until next week to read Brain Beck on ‘beauty’ – this week’s post by Jonathan Pye is specially designed for the week of remembrance.

Thank you for your interest in the blog – please let me know any feedback. I intend to make some improvements soon to allow better navigation around previous posts – other suggestions are welcome.

Kind regards, George Bailey (blog moderator)

Remembrance, Truth and Community

by Jonathan Pye.

A few days ago, I stood on the banks of the Imjin River where, in 1951, 750 men of the Glosters faced 10,000 Chinese Communist Soldiers at the height of the Korean War. Of the regulars, reservists and National Servicemen who held the hill to allow others safe withdrawal, only 63 escaped Hill 235 after the battle. The bones of those who died now lie entombed in a natural cave beside the river, standing as silent witness to the deaths of so many young men from the peaceful, wooded hills and valleys of Gloucestershire amidst the Autumnal colours of the thickly wooded hillsides close to Pajun city, their own ‘corner of a foreign field…’. Then, in a moment of great solemnity, South Korean politicians and British Methodist Ministers laid a wreath and stood in remembrance and prayer.

This week, November 11th marks our own day of national Remembrance and on Sunday, churches and communities across the country will hold services to remember those who died in the conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The persistence of such services argues powerfully for the importance of acts of community remembrance even, perhaps particularly, at a time when the numbers of those who served in many of the great conflicts of the twentieth century are dwindling.

In his reflection on the nature of community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, ‘God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.’ [i] Acts of remembrance, though often emotionally charged, are not simply emotional events but are moments of confronting truth in which the reality of the ‘other’ as person truly lays claim on us in our commitment to them – a claim which, for Bonhoeffer, mirrors God’s decisive act of commitment to humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Writing in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, Mario Aguilar, Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of St. Andrews, reflects on what he calls the ‘hermeneutic of bones’ and on the experience of relatives sitting with the bones of victims and he concludes that, ‘…bones have a materiality that makes them texts of social reality but also theological texts in which the (same) image of the crucified can be found.[ii]

From this belief, Aguilar argues in words redolent of Bonhoeffer that,

‘The centrality of God’s love denied by human beings… becomes the only possible theology and the texts of this theology are not pages of a book but the history of humanity and of God written in each one of those precious bones. Bones are not only texts to be interpreted, but represent the presence of God among his people. In the context of genocide, that presence is silent and in the context of a post-genocidal society spaces of genocidal memories remain places of silence and encounter with God. They become places where not unlike cemeteries a physical mediation between the physical and the meta-physical world can be observed and indeed experienced.[iii]

Standing that day on the bank of the Imjin River keeping silence before the tomb containing the bones of the men of the Glosters, such a physical mediation was indeed experienced, even as it will be experienced this week by so many others in silence and in memory, and it was a moment suffused with the power of the holy.

Bonhoeffer believed that blessing means laying one’s hand on something and saying: ‘despite everything, you belong to God’ and he concludes, ‘This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer’.[iv]

For the men of the Glosters, whose remains lie in their far-off tomb, and for all those who, then and now, are the victims of war and violence, as for those who this week will mourn them, such acts of truth in remembrance, enfolds them in community, holds them in peace, helps make sense of sacrifice and offers hope for the future.

[i] Bonhoeffer, D. (1954) Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Translated and with an Introduction by John W. Doberstein. Harper & Row Publishers, p.86.

[ii] Aguilar, M. (2009) Theology, Liberation and Genocide. London: SCM, p. 12

[iii] Ibid. p. 35.

[iv] Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Fortress Press 2006, p.674.

Lighten our darkness

by Tom Greggs

As the seasons turn and the clocks go back, I want to meditate for a moment on a theme which has occupied my prayers spiritually: ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord’, as the Book of Common Prayer aides us to pray each evening.

Martin Luther famously decried theologies of glory, reminding us at the Reformation (something we celebrate today, 31st October) of the centrality of the cross. But do we necessarily need to contrast theologies of glory and theologies of the cross so sharply (indeed, Luther himself did not do so in an un-nuanced way)? After all, Paul teaches us: ‘For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

In times of darkness, we do well to remember that, come what may, the God who calls us His children is perfectly glorious. God is the glorious God whose radiance cannot but reach out towards creation. When creatures give glory to God, we do not add anything to the divine life which God lacked before: we do not make God more glorious. How could we? God is the King of Glory (Ps. 24:7-8). He is the source of all light in whom there is no darkness (1 Jn. 1:5). God’s glory does not enhance itself through the glorification offered by the creature: God’s is a glory already perfect in itself in the eternal Trinitarian relations of the divine life in which glory is given and received (Jn. 17). The plenitude of God’s glorious life is infinite, and its constancy can be a source of comfort even when the world seems dark: whatever the world presents us with, God remains glorious – sovereign over all creation. And, what is more, this glory shines.

Glory shines because the God who is complete in God’s own glory is glorious with an end point in that which is not God. God’s glory has, for the creature, the logic of grace (cf. Eph. 1:6). Glory is the perfection of the divine life in which the outwards movement of the perfectly complete eternal triune life is known. That life which is complete and perfect shines forth: it has no need of another to shine forth, but simply does shine because that is its nature. Complete in itself, divine glory is known because it is glorious – because it radiates the plenitude pf its infinite excess beyond itself, and thereby glory’s radiance is known in creation.[1]

Glory at once implies the free sovereign and perfect completeness of the divine life in which we have a firm foundation, and the loving and gracious movement of the divine life to that which is not Godself – the rays of the glory of God known in the terminus of the theatre of creation as the radiance of divine glory’s efflugence;[2] the light which shines from the Light of God and enlightens our darkness; the movement of the divine life towards all that is not God in the economy of creation, reconciliation and redemption.

Glory is that perfection of God which speaks of God’s self-determining love to be the God who is eternally for the other as much as it bespeaks the God who is perfectly complete in Godself – to be for that which is not God, for the creation. That is why the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ: that we know who God is because God’s glory comes, shines forth, and because in this coming, this shining forth, God has made Godself known. God’s glory is known in the locus in which the foundation for the eternal covenant of God with creation is to be seen – in Jesus Christ and in Him crucified. The glory of God is a cruciform glory – a glory which enlightens even the darkest human moments.

This glory enlightens our darkness because God is the illuminating light which enables us to see the glory which exists in creation – the creation God has made, is reconciling, and will redeem. God’s glory is one which shines in the darkness and enlightens the world, and as people of the light we are called to see the world anew as the theatre of God’s illuminating glory. Habakkuk puts it thus: ‘[God’s] radiance is like the sunlight’ (Hab. 3:4a). In the light of God’s glory, we do not simply see a kind of glory comparable to anything in creation; but we see the glory of the Creator which illuminates the creation with its radiance.

[1] The relation of glory to light in Scripture can be found in Ex. 34 (in the Septuagint’s rendering doxa); Jer. 13:16 in the contrast of light to darkness; Lk. 2:9 (in the shining of glory); and 2 Cor. 4:6; as well as the relation of glory and fire in the Old Testament.

[2] Speaking of the radiance of the effulgence of glory is an attempt at preserving the perfection of glory as that which belongs perfectly to God apart from the economy. It is a way of attempting to preserve something of the distance of the glory of God from the creaturely sphere, as is seen in Ez. 1 (especially v. 28). The term is borrowed from Origen, De Princ. 1.1.1-3 & 1.2.9; and Comm.Jn. 32.353.

Uncomfortable Grace

by Michaela Youngson

A few days ago I was privileged to interview some Methodist presbyters for a role within the life of the Church. They were asked to describe some of the things that were distinctive about Methodism and, without exception, each had something to say about the all-inclusive nature of God’s love. I was reminded again of the breadth, depth and height of embracing grace that is at the heart of God’s relationship with human beings and indeed all of creation.

This concept of grace runs like blood in the veins of Methodists – the idea that God loves all, however wretched we might be; that God longs for our flourishing, however unwilling we might be; that God is at work within us and is transforming us, however unworthy we might understand ourselves to be. If, however, we only understand grace in this way, we can become comfortable, grateful and self-referencing – relieved that we can be saved and, indeed, saved to the uttermost. Our attention can remain focussed on a false duality of how very ‘bad’ we were and how very ‘good’ we are now that God’s work has been fulfilled in us. Left in this mind-set we might build the walls of the Church a little higher, make the doors a little stronger and remain content; demonstrating an unattractively sanctimonious attitude that turns God’s true economy of grace upside down.

If we were to consider the less comfortable and comforting aspects to grace, we might be prompted to a more outward looking and inclusive understanding of our relationship with God and with the world. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16) might help to illustrate the uncomfortable nature of God’s grace.

When I read this parable the first question I ask myself is, ‘who were the workers chosen first?’ In the context of the business world that we see around us it is not difficult to imagine the landowner choosing the fittest, the most attractive, the one’s who come with good references and the right experience. As the day of this bumper harvest continues at it becomes clear that the work cannot be finished without more help, the landowner returns again and again for more labour. Now the question becomes, ‘who were the workers chosen last?’ Again, in our world of payment by results, of the survival of the fittest, we can imagine that those in the market place close to the end of the day would be the weakest, the widow, the orphan, the alien – in today’s terms, the asylum seeker, the disabled person, the ‘strange’ person who, for whatever reason, does not fit in.

When it comes time for payment each is given a day’s wage, however many or few hours they have laboured. Those who worked for longer are furious – crying out ‘it’s not fair!’ and, to be honest, if you measure things by our contemporary, capitalist way of understanding business – it is not. ‘Fairness’ is not the point of this parable. To have paid anyone less than a day’s wage was to condemn them to death! The day’s wage would just about stretch to cover the basic needs of a labourer and their family. In God’s upside-down economy of grace, a ‘living wage’ is the least anyone might expect – God longs for us to have life and life in all its fullness.

So what of grace? The parable of the generous landowner points us to just how uncomfortable grace really is. We are delighted and relieved that God loves us just as much as God loves those we hold in high regard – just as much as Martin Luther King, Mary Seacole, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Boenhoeffer and anyone else we honour as examples of astonishing saints. What we find much more difficult to accept or celebrate is that God loves those we despise just as much as God loves us. God’s longing for all creation to be one does not exclude those who voted differently to us in the EU referendum, it does not exclude those who flew planes into the twin towers in New York, it does not even exclude those standing for President in the USA! That is the deep challenge of accepting God’s grace and in recognising that, we move beyond a safe, comfortable, self-righteous piety to a risky place where mission is prompted by the question, ‘If God’s longs for all to have life and life in all its fullness, what part do we have to play in making that a reality?”

Roy of the Rovers vs. Mammon United

by Peter Hancock

Some years ago I had occasion to meet a top professional footballer. I was fascinated to hear his story including the account of when he was to be transferred to one of the most prestigious clubs in the country. I thought: this is real “Roy of the Rovers” stuff, a personal living-out of the sort of storyline featured in the comic strip of that name, the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

I had managed to live until then with the innocent assumption that what motivated all footballers was the joy of playing but my childhood reveries were suddenly jolted as it became apparent that what most pleased this real footballer about this real transfer was that he was about to become the highest-paid player among his peers. The goal was money.

Since then we have seen how the market has changed the face of football in this country. Clubs are owned by billionaires from various parts of the globe, television deals produce eye-wateringly high pay-outs for the top clubs and the price of one visit to a match for a family could equal their monthly shopping bill. In to the bargain, an event such as the FA Cup Final, formerly the pinnacle of the season and a prominent feature in many a Roy of the Rovers storyline, has been reduced to a side-show, dwarfed by the marketing power of the Premiership and European Champions’ League.

When Jesus uses the name Mammon to refer to money he gives to it a personal and spiritual character, that of a rival god.  Richard Foster in his book  “Money Sex and Power” [1] which gives an alternative take on the three monastic disciplines of Poverty Chastity and Obedience, offers a cautionary analysis – “Money is not something that is morally neutral, a resource to be used in good or bad ways depending solely upon our attitude toward it. Mammon is a power that seeks to dominate us”.

We have seen recently that it is possible for a person in one of the most elevated positions in English football to lose that position as a result of the desire to add yet more money to an already sizeable pot of it. Such is the power, the attraction and the ultimately ruinous potential of Mammon. Doping scandals, bribery and cheating for financial gain in a variety of sports add further illustration to the truth spoken by St. Paul that “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6v9). And, of course, such considerations are not limited to the arena of sport.

John Wesley was not as extreme in his view of the inherent power of money as Foster but he did feel it necessary to offer guidance on its use. In his sermon no. 44 “On the use of money”, [2] he emphasised that we should see ourselves as stewards rather than proprietors, thereby debunking the illusion of ownership which motivates much of our economy. The sermon contains the threefold exhortation to “Gain all you can, Save all you can and Give all you can”. It is the third of these which points to the distinctiveness of a Christian attitude to money. There is nothing that puts money in its proper place like giving it away and thereby demonstrating that we are not possessed by it.

Foster speaks of the need to dethrone Mammon, to desecrate its altar and to engage in acts of disrespect towards it to demonstrate that it does not have ultimate power : “engage in the most profane act of all – give it away. The powers that energize money cannot bear that most unnatural of acts, giving.” [3] This is a healthy exercise not only for individuals but also for the Church. There can be a concerning level of veneration for money among us, a disturbing application of the values of the world in our decisions on how to use (or, more often, to hoard and not to use) our assets. We can be a little too grateful to benefactors and, overall, leave Mammon undisturbed on his throne.

Giving not only benefits the needy recipient, it also frees the giver from an unhealthy attachment to money and dethrones the god Mammon – real “Roy of the Rovers” stuff.

[1]  Money, Sex and Power,  Richard Foster 1985, Hodder and Stoughton, p 26

[2] John Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons, Epworth Press, 1980.

[3] Money, Sex and Power p. 61