She is our mother

What is Mother’s Day about?

The celebration of our human mothers only goes back to 1914 in the USA, where it is celebrated on May 9th, the anniversary of the death of the mother of its American promoter, Anna Jarvis.

The custom of celebrating motherhood in Lent started here in 1920 when Constance Smith suggested that the Bible reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent would be a suitable pointer to thanking God for our mothers:

“But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” (Galatians 4:26)

There is huge value in reminding ourselves annually of the care shown by our mothers and honouring them in this way through sending flowers, cards and Simnel cakes. The care shown by mothers also reminds us of the “brooding” of God’s Spirit over chaos before creation began (Genesis 1:2) and of Jesus’ longing to protect his own Jewish people in Jerusalem (Luke 13:34). We celebrate motherhood as an image of God’s love creating life and protecting his children.

Mother’s Day (as it is known outside the Church) has largely ceased to be a religious occasion in the UK, as in the USA. Anna Jarvis regretted the growing commercialisation of the day, even to disapproving of pre-printed Mother’s Day cards. “A printed card means nothing,” she said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

As we nonetheless continue to thank God for his gracious provision of motherhood, we can also reclaim the original meaning of that text for the Fourth Sunday of Lent about the Church. The Church, wonderfully composed of all in Christ from east to west, young to old, on earth and in glory, gathered around His throne, is our mother. For centuries Mothering Sunday has seen people gather at their local “mother” church or cathedral.

In the text from Galatians above Paul is making the point that God’s people are free in Christ. In the context, he draws the contrast between the children of Hagar, Abraham’s slavegirl, and the children of Sarah, his wife. He then makes a radical claim that those who see Jewish law, instead of faith in Christ, as the way to be right with God are not children of Sarah but of Hagar, because only those in Christ are free from sin and law. Those who are children of the promise by faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are free, children of God’s heavenly city Jerusalem. She is our mother.

I think it’s brilliant that in the middle of Lent we have this text. It reminds us that:

  • earthly mothers are remarkable, but belonging to our heavenly mother the Church matters even more
  • membership of God’s family rests not on what we do but on what Christ has done in fulfilling the Law of God, and paying the price on the Cross for us who broke it

Paul goes on in the remainder of Galatians to apply these truths by calling us who are free in Christ not to let ourselves become slaves either to law or to sin again.

Let’s pray that the Freedom message of Mothering Sunday will set many free to know and live for Christ, secure in our heavenly family as we honour our earthly one.

 

 

Bishops, the Bible, and marriage

general-synod2

According to newspaper headlines about General Synod last week, the Church of England is in turmoil. True, in the sedate world of church committees, this amounts to a few teacups rattling. But there was a surprise.

The Bishops’ recent report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships was written after much “listening” to the views of church members and clergy. Going against powerful trends in secular culture which redefine marriage, it basically affirmed with commendable clarity the Biblical teaching that marriage is and remains a lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, and also recognised that gay people have at times been made to feel unwelcome in church, urging the Church to review its tone and pastoral care in this area.

The surprise was that whilst the Bishops and lay members supported the Report, the clergy members of the General Synod voted (by a narrow margin) not to “take note” of it. This refusal to “note” the report is a long way from the Church of England “moving towards gay marriage”, as some headlines had it. Yet some of those who spoke in the debate are apparently so determined to force the Church to change that Scripture can be ignored and the Church  divided towards that end.

Nonetheless it was widely acknowledged that one of the most moving and courageous speeches in the debate came from Sam Alberry, an evangelical minister who described his feeling of being bullied, first at school for being “gay”, and now at Synod for being same-sex attracted but faithful to Christ. His three-minute contribution is worth listening to here and starts at 1:07 into the recording.

Those who hold as I do that the Biblical teaching on marriage is based on Genesis 2:24 , “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NIV), do not do so because we are being difficult or “fundamentalist”. We believe in taking the Bible literally – in the sense of meaning what the “letters” or words in it mean. We believe in interpretation of the Bible using the best tools of  learning – but not to make a text mean what the author could never have meant. We believe in being aware of the culture behind a text – but not in changing the text to fit our culture. We believe in reading the Bible as a whole, taking note of its diversity – but not in using one part to contradict another.

At their consecration bishops affirm their commitment to the Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for salvation, and to teaching the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it. The Bishops should be honoured for doing their job and faithfully teaching what the Bible says about marriage and relationships.

None of this absolves the Church from repenting that at times we have made gay people feel unwelcome – and for that matter, singles, or unmarried parents. All of us equally need the grace of Christ and the love of the Church, and we can start sharing these things today. But if Genesis 2:24 marriage is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32, not just a social convention, or a way to raise a family, but a sign of the union of Christ with His Bride the Church, it is surely right to defend its Biblical definition and value with every ounce of conviction that we have. Let’s pray for the bishops.

Ten tips for being salt and light

Saltshaker.jpg

Daily readings at home this month have included the early chapters of Matthew and majestic mountaintop experience of Jesus’ sermon in 5-7. Here, Jesus challenges his would-be disciples to be “salt and light”, and the sermon given at our church last week reminded me of this, with the invitation of Paul in Colossians 4:6 to “let your conversation be seasoned with salt”.

As commentators 1 note, the “salty” conversation image was common in the ancient world, and reminds us that our witness to Christ is not to be dull or predictable but alert and provocative.

So how do we cultivate a life in which we commend Jesus “in word and deed” (to use good Anglican terminology)?

Last Sunday’s preacher pointed us to the wisdom of “ten tips for evangelism” delivered by Tim Keller and recorded, best we can find, not in print but on Martin Salter’s blog. With the kind permission of that writer to repeat them, here they are:

  1. Let people around you know you are a Christian (in a natural, unforced way)
  2. Ask friends about their faith – and just listen!
  3. Listen to your friend’s problems – maybe offer to pray for them
  4. Share your problems with others – testify to how your faith helps you
  5. Give them a book to read
  6. Share your story
  7. Answer objections and questions
  8. Invite them to a church event
  9. Offer to read the Bible with them
  10. Take them to a discover/explore course

Why not save these tips somewhere useful for you as you pray for those you meet in daily life?

There are two useful additional notes about how to use this list so that God can use us to “pray, walk and speak” in sharing Christ’s message.

Firstly, the points become generally more challenging to us as we work down them. Some of us cannot imagine trying to answer objections to faith, or inviting someone to church, but for most of us making sure everyone we come into contact with in daily life knows we are a Christian is much easier. Try telling them how interesting your church service was, next time they ask how the weekend went – no more than that needs to be said!

Secondly, as we pray for our family, friends and daily contacts, we will find it may take some time to progress further down the points – we may need to repeat points 1-4 (the easier ones) several times before we find ourselves lending them a Christian book, or discussing why we think Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs. It’s about being patient with God’s timing, and recognising that although most  non-churchgoers have no objection to faith, they need a long time to start thinking it important for them.

1 See CFD Moule, “The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon” (Cambridge, 1991) and NT Wright, “Colossians and Philemon” (IVP, 1986), comments on this verse

Faith and reason: a long and painful divorce

Aristotle Oxford Mus Nat Sci
Aristotle – Oxford Museum of Natural History

You are probably familiar with the polemical rhetoric of church father Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It set the tone in the early Christian centuries for the rejection of philosophy (his target then being neoplatonism). His reason for doing so was a laudable desire to affirm the simplicity and availability of knowledge of God through faith, in contrast to pagan metaphysics and dialectics in the style of Athens’ Plato, and his successors. Tertullian’s key text in doing so was Paul in Colossians 2:8 saying, “see to it that noone takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”.

He was not however the only voice in the church of the first three centuries, because other Christian theologians like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, schooled in the philosophical air of Alexandria, were much more aware of the vital need to connect faith and reason, Bible and philosophy, in order to convince educated pagans to become Christians. They recognised (as did Calvin later) that Paul’s target in Colossians quoted above was not philosophy per se but only philosophy that is incompatible with Christ as sufficient Saviour and sovereign Lord. Origen for instance quotes Plato and has been accused of adopting the “middle Platonism” of his day; yet he was first of all a Bible commentator, and always saw the Bible’s account of creation and the Fall as deeper and more accurate than that of Plato. There is bad philosophy, but there is also good philosophy.

The debate continued through the later church fathers. Athanasius and Augustine welcomed ideas drawn from prechristian philosophy, whilst recognising how Christ transforms its ideas about God, the soul and immortality. In the middle ages great thinkers like Anselm, and particularly Aquinas, recognised the validity of drawing upon reason, whilst relying upon faith, in the pursuit of knowledge of God and in finding ‘analagous’ language, however imperfect, to describe Him.

The Reformation and subsequent enlightenment periods saw an increasing separation of faith and reason, perhaps not helped by the failure of the Protestant theologians to engage in serious metaphysical analysis, and Luther’s description of the philosophy of men like Aristotle as “the devil’s whore”! The Church became (not entirely justifiably) suspicious of the influence of Aristotle, with his emphasis upon this-worldly knowledge. Then following Descartes, rationalist philosophy through David Hume and others appeared at least to disconnect what can be known by reason from the experience of faith.

The consequence was the separation of science as a discipline of objective “knowledge” from religion as an exercise of subjective “faith”. This has proven inaccurate as an understanding both of science and of religion, but it remains influential in public perception and policy.

This long painful divorce will be destructive for religion and for society. Faith is and needs to be reasonable, and seen as such. In a secular culture which is growing more and more hostile to faith, it is my guess that the separation will be held up as evidence that faith is “unreasonable” and worthy only of marginalisation and muting. A brave new world of human reason and devoid of faith is the future some wish for already, but cries of “freedom and equality” fail to recognise that enforcing one inevitably requires crushing the other.

Faithful Christian philosophers and thoughtful apologists are going to be needed.

What millenials want from the Church

Bath Abbey angel

The west front of Bath Abbey carries an extraordinary sculpture of the angels of god ascending and descending on two ladders, six (like that above) on each. Although the tourist guides tell you this was inspired by a vision given to Bishop Oliver King in the Tudor days, it is of course a reference to the vision given to Jacob in Genesis 28, and later referenced by Jesus in conversation with Nathaniel in John 1. It’s an image of how heaven and earth meet in Jesus the Son of Man.

This is the kind of artistic and visual detail that makes Christian buildings like that so special to all generations. Visit the Abbey inside and you find evidence of a living congregation, gospel ministry, and plenty of children and young people actively involved.

Is Christianity really declining in the West?

There was a lot of social media flutter this week triggered by a Pew Research study on the US, which some interpreted as saying that it is (especially among the “millenials, those born after 1981 who became adults at or after 2000). But others point out that many are rejecting nominal religion, but not faith – that levels of church attendance are steady, and that it is the the mainline (liberal) Protestant traditions that have declined (as in the UK but over a longer period). In contrast, the number of evangelicals has risen, and (as this previous Pew Research article noted), millenials remain as convinced about doctrines such as God’s existence and Jesus’ resurrection, and as faithful in daily prayer, as older adults, and many become more inclined to self-identify as “religious” as they age. Ed Stetzer gave a great summary of the real takeways behind the stats.

Rachel Held Evans therefore to my mind overstates her case for millenial ennui with Christianity in this Washington Post article . She references the first part of the February article above without noting its positive content too. However, she’s worth reading: she is giving a helpful challenge to Church to offer young adults intelligent apologetics and Bible interpretation, genuine community and “classic” worship done in a modern way. Stone angels on ladders – and the Lord Jesus they point to -instead of fake smoke and logos.

 

Gleanings from this week’s news: Westminster prophets, Welby on treasure, faith schools, Anglican voting habits

barley-1

It is one thing to promote enlightenment in and between world faiths, and freedom to follow whichever faith one. It is quite another to pray a prayer at Westminster Abbey describing Mohammad as the last in a line of prophets from Abraham to Jesus. The actual text used in the service and the best summary of Christian response came from the “Archbishop Cranmer” blog. Freedom to follow Islam should go along with freedom to question if he is a true “prophet” in the Biblical sense of the word, as Christians do.

I’ve noticed recently how many evangelicals from Wesley to Bonhoeffer and Welby to Keller recognise and affirm the power of Christ-centred community to be the place in which God’s kingdom comes. I love the way Welby in this talk describes God’s work in any community “rule of life” as revealing buried treasure, and bringing joy. Strategy, he says, tries to predict the future, but it is the entrance of the kingdom (the treasure) which creates it.

Finally, two interesting finds from the Theos Think Tank politics/religion group. It was good to see them recommend this excellent book by Trevor Cooling on “why church schools should do God” in response to one such school abandoning church membership as an admissions criterion simply because some parents appeared to abuse the system.

And they’ve produced some graphic evidence that among Christians, Anglican voting at elections changes with regularity of church attendance but, apparently, Catholic does not.

2010-Angs-and-Caths-by-attendance---5_620

How would Jesus vote?

general election 2015

Christians have more reason than most not to vote: we know that politicians are not all-powerful, but that Jesus is – there is a higher throne before which we bow; that politics as part of a fallen world is not perfect, and no party however good can create paradise on earth – only Christ will do that in his new creation.

Yet we are called to be citizens of earth as well as heaven, to give to “Caesar” what is his (Mark 12:17), to be subject to those whom God has placed in authority over us and pray for them (Romans 13:1; 1 Timothy 2:2; 1 Peter 2:13).

And we are called to bring the resurrection of Christ into our present lives, including our politics. The gospel and kingdom of God inevitably impact (and sometimes contradict) the fallen order and kingdoms of the world.

As British theologian Oliver O’Donovan boldly claims in his Desire of the Nations: “God has no spies. He has prophets, and he commissions them to speak about society in words which rebuke the inauthentic speech of false prophets.”

So how should we decide which party or person to support? The excellent little book “Votewise 2015“, from our friends at The Jubilee Centre, is the best place for further guidance on this, and on engaging with politics at any time.

Briefly, I’d suggest that we ask those who seek our vote if they will do the following five things:

Create a compelling vision of the future

A compelling picture of the kind of society we should create is lacking from any of the party leaders at present. We are hearing a lot about taxes, employment and healthcare – important issues, to be sure – but little about the common good, a world where people are united across dividing lines and brought together in cooperation for all. There is no sense of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”, and we ought to ask our leaders what (if any) their dream is.

Build an “others first” culture

Back in February the House of Bishops wrote an open letter “Who is my neighbour?” which encourages politicians to put the common good, the building of a healthy “community of communities”, at the top of the agenda. “The different parties have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see, or distinctive goals they might pursue. Instead, we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best.”

The sales pitch from politicians seems aimed only at persuading us what is in it for us if we vote for them. There is little talk of imagining or building a more caring society in which we serve others first. Yet as Christians we should vote for those who will nurture community cooperation, and support relational, local work by charities, churches and credit unions, which have the capacity to create a culture of love and compassion.

Welcome faith in public life

You have probably noticed the way that many in the media think we can and should separate “private” belief from “public” policy. Of course this is impossible, because the nature of true faith is that it is not private: it involves action, it implies that we take a position on what it best for all in society. Faith is so much more than kneeling by my bed in private prayer. Can we pray for leaders to be elected who will recognise and welcome the place of religion in forming the values and policies of society, and not be apologetic or silent about it? We are not asking for the Christian and religious voice to have its way on every issue, but we are asking for it to be heard and welcomed.

Protect religious freedom

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Pope Francis, have both spoken out over Easter, urging the world not to maintain an awkward silence over the killing of Christians. The religious water is muddy because of extremism, and none of us want to see more being duped into leaving the UK for ISIS. But the response to a minority of terrorists should be to promote more public religious debate, not silence it. Truth and love will overcome falsehood and evil.

Furthermore, unless the right of ordinary individuals to practice and share their faith is protected, atheistic secularism will end up silencing and criminalising all those with sincere religious beliefs, not just terrorists – in the name of “equality”. The hasty redefinition of “marriage” in recent years was mistaken in my view, and placed churches in a difficult position. Without protection for sincere religious believers, aggressive and unexamined secularism will make “rights” the enemy of religious freedom. Tolerance will trump conscience.

Encourage personal virtue

“Who is My Neighbour?” identified a strength of Margaret Thatcher’s “Victorian values” government (whatever one thought of it in other ways): its focus on personal virtues. She underpinned the value of self-help and hard work. Too often today politicians try to dazzle us with economic figures for which they take credit: the effect is to make us feel like pawns in the government machine, as if we have no contribution to building the future ourselves. Let’s pray for leaders who will help us see ourselves as personally involved through “good living” in improving not only our lives, but those of others. Society is built one godly life at a time.

We may not want politicians to preach at us. But we do want people who will inspire us with the difference we can make if we live by compassion, self-sacrifice, faith, humility, goodness and love.