Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Why “Good” Friday?

April 2, 2010

He enters the capital to applause and singing crowds. Days later, he leaves it, beaten, stumbling, and being led to the place where they put him to death. As he dies, there’s darkness, despair and anguish.

Why, then, do Christians commemorate this as “Good” Friday?

The answer is so well-known that any child in Sunday school can tell you; yet so deep, profound and mind-expanding that the greatest minds in church history have found themselves speaking in hushed, humbled and reverent tones. He died for us. He died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). He died to make peace between us and God (Romans 5:1-11).

Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Why should God die for us, for me? Why would God want to do that? For someone like me, who’s grown up in a country with a heritage still shaped by the gospel, it can seem familiar enough to skip over lightly. Speaking about the gospel with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds has opened my eyes to see how surprising this is, and how offensive it sounds. If God comes to earth, surely he would be welcomed, feted, enthroned? That would be “Good”, right? Palm Sunday should be “Good” Sunday, followed by “Terrible Friday”. Surely? In any case God wouldn’t submit to betrayal, wrongful arrest, abandonment, miscarriage of justice, beating, humiliation, mocking, and a slow, painful death. Right?

But here’s where we’re wrong. Here’s where God’s wisdom shows us to be foolish. Here my idea of what is “good” is shown up for the shadow it is – for God’s good plan subverts human wisdom. This is what God actually does! Glory is achieved through sacrifice. Christ’s crown is one of thorns. His enthronement is his execution. The innocent one is condemned that the guilty may be pardoned.

It’s crazy stuff. We would never, ever, not in a million years, work out that this was what “good” meant. No philosopher could tell us what we can see happening at the cross. When the Church calls this Friday “good”, it is able to do so because of the revelation given it by God. We call today “Good” Friday in opposition to the world and its wisdom. We call it “good” by faith and not by visible appearances.

Sunday is coming, and we know this is not the end. He has died; He has risen again. There will be a visible triumph. But, today and tomorrow are here before the day after tomorrow comes, and I’m going to spend a little time more reflecting on the message of the cross before I sing “Risen, Conquering Son” – for only the former makes the latter possible, and only reflecting on the first day will help me to understand the third correctly.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Barth on why social action is not preaching

February 18, 2010

Why does the Church do social action – that is, helping meet the needs of those around us, through soup runs, community projects, clothing collections, medical missions etc.? Sometimes it is said that this is done as a way to proclaim the gospel, or to “open doors” for the gospel. But is there a problem with this? Karl Barth seems to imply so – it turns it into “propaganda” and ignores the true motivation which is genuine Christian love for our fellow human beings, and above all, for God:

“But there are also other elements in the life of the Church in which what we say about God is addressed to our fellow-men but which cannot seek to be proclamation. To this group belongs a function which from the very first has in some form been recognised to be an integral element in the life of the Church, namely, the expression of helpful solidarity in the face of the external needs of human society. This, too, is a part of man’s response to God. When and because it is he response of real man, necessarily in terms of Mt. 5:14 it is a shining light to people among whom alone man is real man. If God exists for man, as the Church’s prayer, praise and confession declare in answer to the proclamation heard, then this man as the man for whom God exists must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man. Yet the special utterance about God which consists in the action of this man is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter in to quite superfluous competition with society’s necessary efforts at self-help in its straits, not can it seek, as the demonstration of distinctively Christian action, to proclaim how God helps. “That they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God’s help, is, of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention. Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. …

If the social work of the Church as such were to try and be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very worthy propaganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at [turn away from] the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action.”

Church Dogmatics 1/1, p.50

Farewell to the Noughties!

December 31, 2009

I’ve been indulging a bit of nostalgia and reading some of the news coverage of the previous ten years – the “noughties”. Never mind the silly name, nor the collective counting mistake that makes us think a decade ends in a year ending in 9 rather than 0 (there was, after all, no “year zero”…) – I for one enjoyed reading through what various people had put as memorable or significant events, people, ideas, songs, videos etc.

I’m quite historically minded. In fact, I was originally studying for a degree in German & History at Nottingham before switching to do Theology. So my eye’s naturally been drawn to discussions of what the most significant events of the Noughties were.

Few people would dispute the significance of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. I think most of us can still remember first hearing about them – the confusion, rumours, fear, incredulity… And not only were they significant in terms of the horror of the events themselves, but also for the reprecussions that followed in their wake. 

One of those is that Britain has been involved in two major wars this decade – both difficult, and unresolved. We remain at war in Afghanistan, and the United States remains at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s too early to make the call on the outcome of those conflicts, but many people are pessimistic about them.

Terrorism has become a common and pervasive fear – perhaps even out of proportion to its actual danger to us. Yet the danger, even if overstated, is not absent – this Christmas saw an apparently botched attempt to destroy an aeroplane full of civilian passengers near Detroit. The effects of terrorism have reached us all – who knew in 2000 what the words “al-Qaeda”, “dirty bomb” or “liquid explosives” meant? Civil liberties have drastically altered in the UK – a change in fact largely accepted by most people. As an illustration, in 2000 a web page containing these words which claimed it would set off all sorts of secret service red flags would have seemed crazy – tinfoil hat crazy. In 2009, few internet users doubt that various agencies monitor internet communication under anti-terrorism legislation. From a legal perspective, this could turn out to be hugely significant.

The way we use the internet has also changed – blogs, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, mobile broadband, WiFi… Actually, when I say “we”, I don’t think I even knew what the Internet was until 2001/2 ish! At which time I was still in school doing Year 9 SATs… remember those? Some current university students were doing their Year 6 SATs. Wow.

Education has changed – top-up fees, more university places, some entirely new courses. I’ve got no idea about the long-term significance of the new fees settlement in terms of changing the social mix or financial situation of Universities, but I suspect it’s going to be financially significant for students like me who have large student debts. When I (hopefully) graduate in 2010, I’m going to owe the government about £30,000. Wow. Good job I didn’t decide to study Medicine or Architecture!

The trouble though, is that, so soon after all these things, it is really hard to evaluate their significance. In a way, that’s the problem with all historical writing – you cannot know the future, ultimate significance of anything. Something which seems like a big deal today might turn out to be a ripple, whereas a hidden, unnoticed event may alter the current of history in much bigger ways. Unless you’re God, you can only make provisional judgements about the ultimate significance of events.

Though, I’ve been thinking – something that we’ve been told is a big deal is the Church. In the big, cosmic sense. It’s a prime example of one of those unnoticed things – it looks weak, but has the gospel, which is the power of God for saving the world. It looks foolish, but has the mind of Christ. Its normal, unglamorous work of preaching the gospel looks like a very inefficient farmer sowing (Mark 4:1-20). Sometimes the fruit comes very slowly indeed – and we’re tempted to think we’re doing it wrong. But slowly, person by person, God has continued to build his Church – investing his eternal significance into every single one who he welcomes into this community. This decade, through the witness of ordinary Christians, millions and millions of people have become Christians – which is surely worth rejoicing over! And I was one of them.

Mounce on the “Which Bible version?” debate

November 23, 2009

Really found this post from Bill Mounce on the TNIV and the ESV helpful – for the record, I’m one of those people who uses both in various settings (and tries hard to use the Greek!). “Which translation should I use?” is a discussion which I’ve encountered in almost every Christian fellowship I’ve been part of (and one which is in some ways quite important!) but not always one which is carefully handled. I think the warnings against slurring the motives of the translators of versions we don’t like is one we all would do well to heed.

Reason #73 why I love the Anglican Church

September 20, 2009


Not only does it have the subtle commend-the-good dynamics of thanking me for not smoking, but it’s a cross-stitch!

Some church posters

September 1, 2009

Found by a friend of my sister, in Kent somewhere…

Fancy a change? Try Church

Fancy a change? Try Church

Spread God's light all over this land

Spread God's light all over this land

They’re almost, but not quite, in the same league as my all-time favourite: “CH__CH: What’s missing?”

Urban legends: and, can we please stop preaching them?

July 10, 2009

I’ve just been listening to an MP3 of a sermon (I won’t tell you who by!) from an evangelical church which used, by way of illustration, the story about Arthur Conan Doyle sending a letter to certain famous people saying “All is discovered: Flee now!”. Of course, they all fled. Great illustration of the universal guilt of humanity (Romans 3:10 etc.) … only, it’s not true.

This particular example isn’t so bad, because the power of the illustration does not come from its truth or not, but because it makes the point that everyone has things in their life which they would be ashamed of if made public, underscoring that we are all sinners, no matter how respectable we try to appear. But even so, I don’t think it is appropriate for Christians to repeat these kinds of urban legends as if they are factual – and if they do use them, to make it explicit that they are legends and not fact.

Other common urban legends I’ve heard from various pulpits include:

  • Charles Darwin recanted on his deathbed.
  • NASA scientists discovered a “missing day in time” caused by the events recorded in Joshua 10.
  • Spurgeon poured a pitcher of water over someone who claimed to be sinless to see their reaction (this one might actually be true… sounds like the kind of thing he would do)

Why shouldn’t preachers use urban legends and myths?

  • Because it makes it easier for non-Christians to charge Christians with deceit, or with not caring about the truth, so long as a story fits their cause. And if Christians are willing to repeat an urban legend they heard without checking up on the veracity of it, why should we not then assume the worst about their repetition of the gospel?
  • Because repeating a false story from the pulpit keeps the story in circulation, because more people hear about it, and they hear it from someone who they (should) consider reasonably authoritative.
  • Because a good sermon should derive its authority from the Word of God, and any other story can only ever be illustrative anyway – so if a particular urban legend is integral to the point the preacher wants to make, the point is probably not worth making in the first place.
  • Because it is very, very easy for people to check out the truth or falsity of urban legends – and undermines the truth of the rest of what the preacher has said when someone finds out that the illustration was not true.
  • Because truth matters, and what we say matters. James had a lot to say about the power of what we say; Jesus once said that human beings would one day be called to account for every careless word they have spoken (Mt. 12:36). God does not lie – and neither should his ministers.

Given the ease of checking urban legends out on the internet, and of recognising the “urban legend” genre by its literary form (cues such as vague references, having heard it before in a slightly different setting, being a little too pat to be true etc.) I don’t think Christian preachers have any excuse for using them. At the very least they should come with a huge health warning: “This story is apocryphal/probably isn’t true, but illustrates the point I’m making…”

What do you think? Are there circumstances where it is OK to use urban legends or stories we suspect to be apocryphal in preaching? Have you heard any others used recently?

Should swine flu close churches?

June 27, 2009

A large church here in Nottingham has taken the decision to suspend their Sunday meetings this week after a member of their office staff caught swine flu. There have been an increasing number of cases in the East Midlands over the past two weeks, though as far as I can gather there are still fewer than a hundred people in the region (population 4.2 million) affected. I have to say my initial reaction was disappointment – I don’t think that an outbreak of swine flu should close a church; though I can see why the church in question might have taken the decision they did.

At a stage where the health authorities are trying to quarantine cases of swine flu, as in the East Midlands (unlike in the West Midlands where containment is now impractical) it could be seen as selfish for Christians to put the community at risk by holding large public meetings when there is a known case of swine flu in the congregation. But I think it’s only really possible to see it as selfish if a church service is viewed as being a social gathering, like a social club meeting – but this is not what a church service is. A church service is somewhere where the word of God should be being preached and where people can worship him together in a visible expression of the Church’s unity in Christ. As such, the church service also serves the community by providing an opportunity for people to hear the gospel proclaimed. I don’t think this should be cancelled because of a comparatively mild virus. In fact, I don’t think it should be cancelled even in the case of an epidemic with a high mortality rate, because dying prematurely through disease is not the worst thing that can happen to people. Dying not right with God is the worst thing that can happen to people, and cancelling the most obvious public proclamation of Christ, who makes us right with God, would be perverse in a situation where mortality was increasing due to disease.

Perhaps suspending church services (even if done with the motive of appearing unselfish) gives the wrong impression to the community of what Christian priorities and attitudes to death are. Does it not say that spiritual health is less important than physical health; when this is not so? Does it not say that sin is a less serious illness than swine flu? And perhaps worst of all, does it not undermine the Christian claim that Jesus has defeated death and that those who trust in him have nothing to fear from it?

The sociologist of religion, Rodney Clark, put forward the view in his book The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: 1996) that Christianity flourished in the second and third centuriesAD partly because of the difference in the Christians’ response to the plagues of their day, as witnessed to in a letter of Dionysius, quoted by Eusebius here:

The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action, taking their departure as the others’ ‘offscouring’.

This response was due to the difference in the Christians’ theology, not any socio-economic factors. Stark writes (pp.79-81):

… let us imagine ourselves in their places, faced with one of these terrible epidemics. Here we are in a city stinking of death. All around us, our family and friends are dropping. We can never be sure if and when we will fall sick too. In the midst of such appalling circumstances, human beings are driven to ask Why? Why is this happening? Why them and not me? Will we all die? Why does the world exist anyway? What is going to happen next? What can we do?
If we are pagans, we probably already know that our priests profess ignorance. They do not know why the gods have sent such misery – or if, in fact, the gods are involved or even care. Worse yet, many of our priests have fled the city, as have the highest civil authorities and the wealthiest families, which adds to the disorder and suffering.
Suppose that instead of being pagans we are philosophers. Even if we reject the gods and profess one or another school of Greek philosophy, we still have no answers. Natural law is no help in saying why suffering abounds, at least not if we try to find
meaning in the reasons. […]
But if we are Christians, our faith does claim to have answers. McNeill summed them up this way:

Another advantage Christians enjoyed over pagans was that the teaching of their faith made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death … [E]ven a shattered remnant of survivors who had somehow made it through war or pestilence or both could find warm, immediate and healing consolation in the vision of a heavenly existence for those missing relatives and friends … Christianity was, therefore, a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed.

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, seems almost to have welcomed the great epidemic of his time. Writing in 251 he claimed that only non-Christians had anything to fear from the plague. Moreover, he noted that although

the just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good. The just are called to refreshment, the unjust are carried off to torture … How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted … Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.

This kind of attitude is the one that the gospel fosters in Christians. Disease and death are not to be feared, but constitute an opportunity to prove both the genuineness of our faith and that the Christian way works. In response to the swine flu pandemic, we modern Christians have a choice of whether to “flee the city” and cancel church meetings as Roman pagans would have done, or to be as transformed by the gospel as these early Christians were, and to remain fearless of disease, knowing that our inheritance in heaven is secure and that God is in control – and to continue to proclaim the gospel to the community around us, and minister in Christ to the sick, even if it means we ourselves suffer as a result. May God grant us all the strength to witness faithfully to the gospel if swine flu does get severe, and may his perfect love cast out all fear.

How does God feel about you?

June 13, 2009

Today Rico Tice came to Beeston Free Church to talk to us (and other East Mids church people!) about the “Passion For Life” mission initiative and posed a great question to us to illustrate the gospel:

“Write down one word which sums up how God feels about you this week”

What do you think people might have written? Rico didn’t get us to read them out, but instead told us what we should have written in response to it. If we really believe the gospel, we would know that the word that sums up how God feels about us is delighted – because he delights in his Son, Jesus Christ, and because we are united to him we relate to God on the basis of Jesus’ merits and righteousness, not on the basis of our good works.

This is great news – in the gospel we have the promise of Christ’s own righteousness given to us, so that God genuinely delights in us. If you know Christ as your saviour, God is not disappointed or angry with the idolatrous and  half-hearted life you’ve lived this week: he looks at you and sees Christ’s merits. This is bold stuff to say; and easily forgotten, but it is what it means to be saved by grace alone.

Really great stuff to be reminded of as we try and get the church behind the mission, and share this amazing, life-giving message with those around us.


As an update to this, I found myself at the NUCU Grill-a-Christian event last night after the Ropewalk quiz was “rained off” (not sure how that works, either!) and somebody (I think a non-Christian student) asked the question: “If God can forgive all our sins, why don’t you just do whatever you want and enjoy yourself, then ask for forgiveness?”. I have to say that I think this is exactly the question you ask when you have begun to understand the gospel – forgiveness really is free and salvation really is by grace alone, through faith alone. This kind of question should be met, at least initially, with commendation for having understood what the gospel’s offer of grace really means.

Of course, it is more than that – and I’m glad that the Christians who were being “grilled” pointed out both the moral perversity of such an approach, and that, in the words of one of them, “I can’t think of a single sin from which I would gain a lasting benefit.” Obedience and Christlikeness are essential to the Christian life, and so there is more to Christianity than what I’ve posted above. But there is more than, not less than that. I think if we preach the biblical gospel, the “but that means you can do anything you want and then be forgiven” objection is one we will hear a lot.

Nailing it to the cross

April 12, 2009

At church this morning, as part of the Easter Sunday service, we had one of the best visual illustrations I’ve seen for a while. The minister had placed paper and pens on all the seats beforehand and encouraged us to write, draw or scribble on the paper something we have valued more than God, or, if you like, that we have done against God. Then we were to fold or scrunch them up – representing the mess sin makes in our lives. At the front he had some bags, chains and scrunched-up paper of his own to represent this – and covered it with a sheet and a (photocopy!) of a sacrificed lamb. Yet underneath the sheet the mess was still there. No – what we needed was something else entirely. He then got a laundry bag, and got the children to collect in all the papers on which we’d written/drawn our sin, put it in the bag, along with all the mess at the front, and threw in a blank piece of paper to represent our future sins. Then he actually physically nailed the bag to a huge wooden cross at the front of the church, explaining how Christ’s death takes away our sin.

I thought this was great – not only is it a hugely visual and memorable act, but it really hammered home to me (excuse the pun!) that my guilt as a sinner has been dealt with – it is nailed to the cross and dealt with there. It’s a tremendously liberating truth! It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in the Bible – Colossians 2, which just cannot be read in a passionless voice. You want to shout it:

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:12-14)

Paul here is rejoicing in the truth that Christ has, by the cross, dealt completely and forever with the “debt” of our sin. I think he has in mind here the accusatory role of the Law (Rom. 4:15; 5:20) which shows us that we are sinners and guilty before God. This guilt is taken away at the cross forever – it is left there; it is dealt with in Christ, the one who was nailed to the cross. Paul then goes on to proclaim Christ’s victory over the demonic powers and to point out the foolishness of abandoning these truths for merely human religion, which is all show and completely powerless to deal with our sinfulness (Col. 2:23).

It’s this truth which inspires words like these, by Horatio G. Spafford. They’re part of one of the best hymns of all time, and have quite a moving story behind their composition.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!