The Physical, matters

by Gareth Powell.

In the not unreasonable concern about the consumerism that has so come to define swaths of Christmas celebrations there is the striking truth that ours is an incarnational faith.  This is a festival about flesh and blood.  This is a festival about the divine in human form.  This is a festival that makes clear to any and all that the physical matters.  Take away stable, shepherds, precious gifts and human DNA and there is little, on the surface at least, left.  In the remembrance of God’s loving purposes recorded in any service of Nine Lessons and Carols we recall the form of the world created out of God’s own goodness.  In celebrating these twelve days of Christmas, we celebrate the ‘matter of eternal praise’ as Wesley puts it, in very human, physical form.  This we do with sight, sound, smell, and of course thought.

Some of our discomfort about the nature of popular Christmas celebrations rests in the uncomfortable fact that the community of Christians has, in its daily round, the responsibility of using God’s gifts, such that we may deploy the resources we have to proclaim the gospel of a child in a stable – and amongst other things, respond to the refugee family that flees an intolerant zealot (Matt 2:13).  How we use the material things of life says something profound about God, or rather how we encounter God and then respond to God’s love.  So, we may absolve some moderate gluttony by a larger donation to a charitable cause, because that is looking after our neighbour.  We justify an unnecessarily expensive gift (even to self) by holding a line about wanting to offer the best so that we can express how valuable a person (or self) is.  The dangers here should be all too obvious. Physical, human matter, matters a very great deal, but not simply for the sake of taking care of the physical.  The physical matters because it plays such a significant part in our response to the word made flesh.  That the word is made flesh at all offers us something of the challenge.  Divine beings manifested in clouds and pillars of fire is one thing.  People can be sent up to mountain tops to talk to that sort of God.  Keeping your distance enables you to avoid all manner of truths.  Now things are very different and the whole creation encounters God in a rather unexpected way.

What the donkey saw

No room in the inn, of course,
And not that much in the stable
What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary,
Joseph, the heavenly host –
Not to mention the baby
Using our manger as a cot.
You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in
For love or money.

Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
U A Fanthorpe (1929-2009)

The mixture of those who entered that crowded stable touches upon the bringing together of humanity, each aspect of humanity having some awareness, however vague, of the enormity of the encounter.  While at the other end of the story, it is not the ill-prepared couple who failed to find a room in a crowded city that should tell us something about migration.  More pressing is the flight from a tyrannical leader murdering the innocent.  In that is the stark (or is it disturbing?) message of our God contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man.  And the Christ child is heard; in Aleppo; in the desperate cry of a seemingly comfortable but helpless mother in suburbia; in the whisper of a Coptic Christian; in…

And we celebrate the incarnation by our response – don’t we?

In the tradition of the Roman Church nativity scenes are kept on display until the presentation of Christ in the Temple (2nd February). We might do well to do the same, searching our hearts and, as Herbert McCabe puts it, realising that ‘We matter, not first because of what we have made of ourselves, but because of what God has made of us.  And that includes what we make of ourselves.’[i]

How then do we respond to this Child, who is taking us to places, together?

 

[i] McCabe, Herbert. God, Christ and Us. London: Continuum, 2003:136

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… and Jesus was baptized

by Martin Ramsden.

‘… and Jesus was baptized.  All at once, as he came out of the water, suddenly the heavens were opened, and he saw God’s spirit coming down like a dove and landing on him. Then there came a voice out of the heavens.  ‘This is my own beloved one,’ said the voice.  ‘I am delighted with him’.  (Matthew 3.16-17)[1]

First of all, let me apologize.  On this publication day, the last Theology Everywhere article before Christmas, I really should be writing something more explicitly connected with the incarnation.  However, we are still in the season of Advent and, as Tom Wright’s recent guide to Advent readings makes clear, the baptism of Jesus does have relevance here.  In addition, the liturgical Sunday on which we focus on the  Baptism of Jesus comes very soon in 2017.  Indeed, Matthew 3.13-17 is the Gospel reading which is set for 8th January.

Quite a few years ago now I led worship in a semi-rural church on the outskirts of Doncaster.  My opening hymn was God is here as we his people.  The second verse of this hymn says:

Here are symbols to remind us
of our lifelong need of grace;
Here are table, font and pulpit;
Here the cross has central place.[2]

 Before the service began I had a look to make sure that we did, indeed, have table, font, pulpit and a central cross.  We almost had a full set – all except for the font.  I asked the stewards if it might be possible to display the font.  Panic ensued.  Eventually the font was found at the back of a cupboard.  It was dusted off, placed upon the table for the duration of the service and then was promptly returned to its place in the cupboard.  I was reminded of this experience recently when a Local Preacher came to lead worship at my home church.  She chose the same opening hymn and as I sang verse 2 I looked for the symbols of our lifelong need of grace.  Again, I could see almost a full set.  Table, cross and especially pulpit were clearly visible.  The font, I later discovered, was hidden behind some hymnbooks on the front pew.

Have the Methodists of this land forgotten that our baptism is a sign of our lifelong need of grace and also so much more?

In 2015 27% of the 7,633  baptisms of under twelves in the Methodist Church were conducted in 2.7% of the 4,541 Methodist churches.[3]  This means that a very small number of churches are conducting a very high proportion of Methodist baptisms.  Whilst it may be that those churches which hardly ever have a baptism, like my first example, may have forgotten that baptism is a sign of our lifelong need of grace it also could be true that those churches which have one or more baptisms each week have also lost sight of the connection between baptism and Christian discipleship.

29 of the 123 churches that reported 10 or more baptisms in 2015 are in the North East.  Needless to say this is a big issue for a significant number of presbyters and deacons in the North East of England.  At a recent reflective practice session for baptismal practitioners in the North East of England that I facilitated I was asked a question, ‘to what extent does the number of baptisms for those outside of the regularly gathering church prevent the regularly gathering church from seeing the treasure of their own baptism?’  A good question!

In the early church, baptism, if not regarded as a treasure or a sign of our lifelong need of grace, was regarded as significant for the life of discipleship.  Indeed, in the early centuries in Syria and Alexandria, baptism was deeply significant for the Christian disciple’s understanding of Christian identity, vocation and ministry.  This is because Christian baptism was very much interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own baptism. ‘“This is my own beloved one” said the voice. “I am delighted”’.[4]  The resonances with Is.42.1 and Ps.2.7 notwithstanding, I wonder what it would mean for us to grow into the Lord’s delight?  I wonder if a helpful understanding of holiness might be growing into the Lord’s delight or, put another way, growing into our baptism.  For, to be sure, the Lord sees much more in us than we are able to see in ourselves.  As Ephesians 3. 20-1 puts it, ‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen’.

This Christmas, throughout 2017 and through all of the years to come, may we grow more fully into God’s vision for us, into the Lord’s delight.  To put it another way, may we grow more fully into the grace of our baptism.

 

[1] As translated by Tom Wright in Advent for Everyone: A Journey Through Advent: A Journey Through Matthew (London: SPCK, 2016) p.36

[2] Back then I chose this Fred Pratt Green hymn from Hymns and Psalms no. 653 (London: Methodist Publishing House, 1983) now I would find it in Singing the Faith no. 25 (London: Hymns Ancient and Modern, 2011)

[3] I am very grateful to Alan Piggot from the Methodist Church Statistics for Mission Team for providing this data for me

[4] See Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999) pp.47-50 and 56-7.

 

 

 

 

The Truth Looks Different From Here

by Sheryl Anderson.

FIFA (the international governing body of football) have decided to open disciplinary proceedings against Wales and Northern Ireland after fans wore poppies during the World Cup qualifiers against Serbia and Azerbaijan respectively. This comes a short time after the English and Scottish Football Associations were similarly charged over breaching Law 4 of FIFA’s ‘Laws of the Game’. Law 4, for those who do not know, governs ‘the players’ equipment’ and is fundamentally concerned with what players can wear. Part of the Law states that ‘The basic compulsory equipment must not contain any political, religious or personal statements.’ The dispute with FIFA has been about whether or not the wearing of the poppy, constitutes a ‘political, religious or personal statement.’ FIFA thinks it does and so issued a prohibition for those British teams playing on or around November 11th. All four nations now face the possibility of a fine and even a points deduction, thus affecting their chances of qualifying for the World Cup

There seems to be range of opinion about the rights and wrongs of the issue. At one end there are those who say that the poppy is a legitimate memorial symbol honouring the fallen, and FIFA is simply wrong in applying Law 4 in this way. At the other end are those who say football must never be appropriated by any nation, group, or individual to champion a particular cause, regardless of how worthy or noble that cause might be; so FIFA is absolutely right. Somewhere in the mix there are also those saying, it is just a poppy and football is just a game, so who cares, get a life.

It is the strength of the feelings, on all sides, that is so interesting. Earlier in November, Theresa May criticised FIFA for rejecting the request from the England and Scotland players to wear armbands featuring poppies. The Welsh first minister has called the charges ludicrous and the Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley, is arguing that FIFA should ‘see sense’ and drop the disciplinary action, as though FIFA is being melodramatic. Yet signs and symbols are of huge significance in human life and culture. The fact that politicians have joined in the controversy demonstrates the perceived national attachment to certain symbols. After all, this row has happened specifically in relation to British national football teams.

However, FIFA has an international responsibility. The swastika, for example, is a sacred symbol of good fortune on the Indian sub-continent. Should the Indian football team ever qualify for the World Cup, would it be acceptable for them to wear swastika armbands? In a global context and a diverse society agreeing on precisely the meaning and value of any representational artefact is a serious challenge. Better to have a rule that is applied wholesale.

This time of year is saturated with particular symbols, images and activities. Families and communities have there own Christmas customs and practices – and they really matter. In some households there are heated debates annually about when to put up the decorations, when and how to open the presents, what to eat, when to eat it, what to wear and what to do.  Christian communities similarly have their own events and rituals: the Carol Service, the Nativity, the Advent candles. We know it is Christmas because, to a greater or lesser extent, we do Christmas things in a Christmassy way; we invest certain items, activities and behaviours with the meaning of Christmas – whatever we understand that to be.

It does seem that there is a fundamental human need to mark special occasions with ceremony and ritual. Traditions, (as at Christmas, or Remembrance), and symbols, (like Advent candles and poppies), are behaviours and objects that help us order and make sense of our common life, and manage our fear of change. We gain a sense of security from the fact that, whatever else, this experience will be sufficiently familiar that we will know how to locate ourselves, what to do and how to feel. This understanding might help those who resist change, and those who feel threatened by the symbols and rituals of others.

The theologian and professor of history at Yale University, Jaroslav Pelikan, once said, ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” [1]. In a time of global uncertainty and doubt, as Christians prepare to celebrate the revelation of an unchanging God who is abiding truth, in the form of the person of Jesus Christ, we might find it helpful to remember the distinction.

 

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities; Yale University Press

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.