Posts Tagged ‘Church’

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.

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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

“Religious status”, or, Why I am a “Christian”

February 10, 2010

My Facebook profile has a field titled “religious status”. So do the profiles of a lot of my friends. Many Christian friends I know use the field to explain a little bit of their faith – “saved by grace” or “follower of Jesus Christ” or something similar.

In January’s Christianity Today there was a short feature on how Christians use this field:

Facebook asks users to define their religion with fewer characters than it takes Twitter users (who receive 140 characters) to say what they ate for breakfast. Some Christians identify themselves with their denomination, a Bible verse, or a phrase like “staggered by the grace of Jesus.”

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler identifies himself as “Evangelical Christian/Baptist.” Relevant editor Cameron Strang says he’s “Christian–Amish.” Former coordinator of Emergent Village Tony Jones says he’s “emerging.” Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll? “Religion Sucks,” he writes.

Mine says “Christian”. Quite deliberately. Without wanting to criticise others’ creative use of the “Religious status” box, I’d like to explain why.

By merely putting “Christian”, I am trying to identify with the whole people of Christ; not just my church or denomination. When I first joined Facebook I did put “Christian – Baptist”. I changed it after my first term involved in my university CU because I had come to recognise I shared a meaningful fellowship and unity in Christ with others who belonged to different denominations. I use a label which does not separate what God has brought together in Christ. 

By merely putting “Christian” I make clear my commitment to the Church, and not just to individualistic faith. I have a personal relationship with God; I know that Christ died for me. But I know also that I am part of something bigger than me and God – that I have been brought into the Church, the body of Christ. The Church is important to God (see Eph. 3:10!) and I want to make it clear that it is important to me also. I use a label which identifies me as part of this community.

By merely putting “Christian” I lay aside my right to pick-and-choose the content of my belief for myself. Today it is common, even fashionable, to choose what parts of a religion one will believe in; even to combine beliefs from different religions in a modern syncretism. I no longer want to do this. I want to believe that which God reveals about himself in his Word. Freedom of thought is great, but it is also an opportunity for us to be idolatrous. Instead, may I choose to believe rightly the faith given to us by God in the gospel. I use a label which is not devised by me.

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.

William Penn, Conformity and the State

July 3, 2009

William Penn on why state-enforced Christianity is a bad idea, and the Civil and Ecclesiastical authorities ought to be separate:

There is not so ready a Way to Atheism, as this of extinguishing the Sense of Conscience for Worldly Ends; destroy that Internal Rule of Faith, Worship and Practice towards God, and the Reason of my Religion will be Civil Injunctions, and not Divine Convictions; consequently, I am to be of as many Religions as the Civil Authority shall impose, however untrue or contradictory; this Sacred Tye of Conscience thus broken, farewell to all heavenly Obligations in the Soul, Scripture-Authority and ancient Protestant Principles; Christ may at this Rate become what the Jews would have had him, and his Apostles be reputed Turners of the World upside down, as their Enemies represented them, and the godly Martyrs of all Ages so many Self-Murderers; for they might justly be esteemed Resisters of Worldly Authority, so far as that Authority concerns it self with the Imposition of Religion, because they refused the Conformity commanded, even to Death. And it may not be unworthy of Caesar’s Consideration, if from these Proceedings People are tempted to infer, there is nothing in Religion but Worldly Aims and Ends, because so much Power is abus’d under the Name of Religion, to vex and destroy Men for being of another Religion, that he hazards the best Hold and Obligation he hath to Obedience, which is Conscience; for where they are taught to obey for Interest, Duty and Conviction are out of Doors: By all Means let Conscience be sacred, and Virtue and Integrity (the under dissenting Principles) cherisht; Charity is more powerful then Severity, Perswasion then Penal Laws.

(The Continued Cry of the Oppressed for Justice…, 1675, pp.21-22)

Whether or not the American Revolution, commemorated tomorrow, was justifiable for North American Christians (John MacArthur famously teaches that it was a violation of Paul’s commands in Romans 13; David Barton defends the revolution as justified), I’ve found the discussions from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century nonconformists about the Christian’s relation to Government really interesting. They lived in an age where the State, while looking remarkably modern (in comparison to earlier conceptions of the State in the Christian era) retained the Constantinian role of adjudicating in religious matters by the establishment of a national church and the requirement that subjects attend Sunday services at an “official” church. Penn here objects that this is a path to Atheism, since religious observance will no longer be founded on the work of faith of God’s word in a person’s heart, but on civil injunctions. Legislating that all must have faith leads in fact to the loss of that faith, because it becomes founded on the will of man rather than the will of God. It also can foster a cynical attitude to that religion, since it becomes possible to make the claim that it only exists to legitimate the state and its excesses.

Penn also objects that “Christ may at this rate become what the Jews would have had him” – I think he alludes to the concept of the Messiah as a political liberator and ruler, which many of Jesus’ disciples clearly expected him to fulfil. In a sense, perhaps linking the Church to political power does this – it certainly undermines the claim of Christ that his Kingdom is “not of this world” and obscures the true nature of his Messiahship.

Obedience to Government in Romans 13 cannot be unconditional, nor does a Christian have an obligation to adhere to the official religion of the State, even if it should be compulsory. If such an obligation did exist, then, as Penn writes, persecution of the Apostles by the authorities would be justified, and the martyrs of Christian history would become suicides, since they died as a result of disobeying the State’s commands to conform to an established religion.