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.

 

 

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“Is it true?” is still the question

Questioning the truth

There were over 100 talkative students packed in to the marquee which had been set up in a prominent spot at the centre of the university campus, and the guest speakers for this week of gospel-sharing events were wrapping up the final sessions. What struck me was not only the level of spiritual interest within this supposedly post-Christian generation, but the topic: is the resurrection of Jesus “true”, and what does it mean for us today? The speakers did a great job of outlining in an attractive and compelling way both the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and the implications of it for our life today.

I am used to hearing speakers enthuse about the “difference Jesus makes”, and even also the hope he to argue that the “post-modern” unconverted need to see that faith “works”, and are not asking “is it true?” The seekers that I meet want to know both, and they are smart enough to know that one (pragmatic relevance) rests upon the other (historical truthfulness). So what a joy to find that in 2017 spiritually interested undergraduates are hearing about the truth of the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is true?

One speaker rehearsed the historical probability of the gospel accounts being literally true when they speak of a tomb with no body in it, and of appearances to a number of disciples on different occasions. He had clearly read and spoken on this theme many times before.

He offered Karl Venturini’s  swoon theory, proposed early in the nineteenth century and later adopted in form by Friedrich Schleiermacher (and more recently, Michael Baigent and Barbara Thiering). According to this, Jesus fainted on the cross, and then revived in the tomb and was rescued by his followers. The experienced student evangelist pointed out the historical improbability of this theory, given the professionalism and effectiveness of Roman execution, and the powerful effect of Jesus post-resurrection on all who met him.

The theory that the women who were the first at the tomb on Sunday morning mistook an empty tomb for the grave of Jesus was rightly dismissed as not only sexist (!) but as poorly fitting the gospel accounts. These record that multiple visits were made to the tomb by followers of Jesus, who had noted his burial place carefully. Furthermore, if they got the wrong grave, why did the Jewish authorities not immediately point out the mistake?

The speaker then alluded to the idea that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the authorities, and pointed out that if this was the case, the corpse is very likely to have been revealed since, but it has not. The suggestion that the disciples were creating a hoax about Jesus’ resurrection to achieve public fame for themselves was shown to be equally unfit as historical theory, given the same absence of a body, and also that most of them soon willingly faced prison and execution for this claim.

Finally, the theory that the disciples and women who saw the risen Jesus according the first written sources were hallucinating was recounted, and against it, the evidence of eminent psychiatrists that the appearances in the accounts do not remotely fit the pattern of hallucinations.

The speaker finished by challenging his sceptical listeners to come up with a better theory that has not been thought-of in the last 2000 years, or to accept the truth of the resurrection.

Time and again, historians and lawyers (see further reading, below) have trawled through the historical evidence and concluded that the interpretation of the eyewitness authors of the gospels is the most likely: on Easter morning Jesus had left the tomb and was about to appear to numbers of people over the following days and weeks showing his victory over sin and death to be complete and commissioning his Church to tell the world this news.

Evidence for God?

There are other strong arguments for the existence of God:

The cosmological (the existence of material objects and causes point to the existence of an immaterial Being who was before creation and initiated change and motion)

The teleological (the order, design and purpose in material objects point to the existence of a final cause, or Being, who has sovereignly overseen their creation to his own glory)

The ontological (the fact that we can imagine a Being as perfect as God points to the existence of such a Being)

The existential (the presence throughout history of a sense of the divine in human culture, especially in the witness of Christians to a transcendent and personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ, points to the existence of God as the source of these experiences)

The moral (the universal sense of right and wrong in human culture points to a Creator whose moral goodness has left this spark of conscience in us)

The aesthetic (the presence and awareness of beauty in the cosmos, whether in the form of music, art or nature, points to the perfect beauty of its Creator, of whom these things are each a taste or scent)

The ecclesiological (in the 2000 years since Jesus’ incarnation, the Church has made mistakes, but its influence upon culture, education, art, compassion, community life, and upon our attitudes to the sick, the disabled, slavery, race, women, and children, has been overwhelmingly good)

Even if some of these evidences for God are arguably stronger than others, I personally, like many, find these evidences for God compelling when gathered together.

Historical evidence that it’s true

But for me the most compelling and reliable place to look for the existence of God, and even more important, for His knowledge, is in His self-revelation in the historical events of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which the historical accounts of the eyewitnesses provide testimony. One of Jesus’ first followers, the apostle Paul, writing within two decades of the events, underlines the centrality of the historical resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. The reliability of the gospel accounts, on which the truth of the resurrection largely rests, has endured more than a century of sceptical attack from those arguing that the stories are embellished or concocted, but most of this attack has been upon the records of Jesus’ words (not the resurrection accounts), most of it has been well refuted by Biblical scholars, and none of it has yet found a convincing means or reason by which the gospel writers could have invented the resurrection as an explanation for Jesus’ extraordinary influence.

Further reading

Frank Morrison, Who moved the stone? (Authentic Media, 2006)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)

John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: are the resurrection accounts in conflict? (Wipf and Stock, 2005)

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Is the Virgin Birth Essential? — Kevin DeYoung

Rogier van der Weyden The accounts of Jesus’s birth in Matthew (chapter 1) and Luke (chapters 1-2) are clear and unequivocal: Jesus’s birth was not ordinary. He was not an ordinary child, and his conception did not come about in the ordinary way. His mother Mary was a virgin, having had no intercourse prior to…

via Is the Virgin Birth Essential? — Kevin DeYoung

A simple guide to the debates about the historicity of the virgin conception, and the dogmatic implications of accepting it (or not). A helpful counterpoint to Pannenberg and Barth, who as I read them, despite celebrating the dogmatic power of the doctrine, see the virgin birth as either unhistorical (the former) or inessential (the latter).

Revolution needed in ‘faith at work’ shibboleths

I’ve just read ‘Revolutionary Work’ by William Taylor available from  10ofThose.com . As you’d expect from William, this is a nourishing read which faithfully affirms the place of work in human life without rose-tinted specs. There is a thorough and clear Biblical overview of how Scripture paints a picture of work that is God-given, fractured by sin, yet to be done with integrity, as serving Christ (Ephesians 6:6-7).

Where this book is unusual is in the way William then boldly challenges some of the shibboleths of recent years which (he argues) go beyond Biblical teaching about vocation, excellence and purpose in this present creation. He points out that “calling” in Scripture is usually that to faith in Christ, and when the word (once) refers to station in life, in 1 Corinthians 7:17, it is to urge believers to faithful living where they are, whatever their current situation. He concludes that gospel-sharing ministry (and not therefore just “doing your job well as a Christian”) is the true “work of God” (John 4), whatever our employment. He challenges the (admittedly, comforting) notion that much (or some?) of our work done in this creation will appear in the next as, at best, unproven from Scripture, and at worst a distraction from telling our colleagues the gospel about Jesus.

As a pastor often told that churches “rarely if ever teach about work” I found this book a helpful pushback. The Bible does say a lot about work, at least in general terms as covered by this book, and there is indeed a need to push the ‘sacred’ across the sacred-secular divide and do all our work as “for the Lord”; but Scripture also claims less for secular work than some would have us believe.

Revolutionary Work would be great to give/recommend to workers, and not just those in 9-5 offices. Inevitably (having been preached first as sermons for St Helen’s in London) the book reads on the whole as especially good for office 9-5 (or is that 8-late?) types.It’s nice therefore that William has included an appendix, by musician Dave Bignell, for artists, whose understanding of the place of work may differ from those in the business or services world, but for whom the Bible teaching holds the same.

If you want to be helped to connect your faith with your work, read this book – but not if you don’t want to be challenged to think through what the work of the Lord really is!

How Holiness Happens

Do you know the story by Revd W Awdry of little Toby the tram engine being asked to help push the train over the mountain when Gordon (a much bigger engine who had earlier scornfully told Toby that he was no use) is unable to do so? He puffs up the steep incline with his friend Thomas the Tank Engine’s words echoing in his ears “You can (puff) do it, you can (puff) do it…”. He slows to a near standstill as the hill becomes harder, sheer grit carrying him forward, until at last they reach the summit. He did it.

youcandoit

Without suggesting the Christian life is always an uphill slope,  that is not a bad picture of the path to holiness for God’s people. We have not yet arrived at the summit (perfect Christlikeness) – at least until we reach glory. And yet it is not beyond us. We can (puff) do it. We can become holy.

In fact we are holy already. We are God’s ‘holy’ (dedicated, or God-orientated) people from the moment we begin to follow Christ and are born anew. The Holy Spirit who unites us cannot make us anything else but holy.

And our lives please God.

Because that sentence may sound heretical, I will repeat it: our lives are pleasing to God. Surely, you say, we are all sinners equally in need of God’s forgiveness of our sins, undeserving of grace,  and everything we do is polluted by sin, every good deed is tainted by wickedness, our righteous acts are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6)? I’m as Protestant and Reformed as Luther, Calvin and Cranmer, and I sign up to all these statements of human fallenness and incapacity to save ourselves or please God fully.

Holiness: we can please God

Yet there is a strong and unmistakable theme in Scripture that God’s people are capable of being righteous and pleasing Him. We are not only expected to be holy , we are empowered to be holy! We can do it. There are plenty of examples of believers in the Bible who pleased God: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David (in his better moments), Job, Elizabeth, Mary. But also all Christian believers who serve, love and pray (see Romans 12:1; Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:3; Hebrews 13:21, etc). Supremely, Jesus at his baptism stands before God as the new Adam/king/Messiah, and the words “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased” come from heaven. In Jesus we are made anew to please God. “He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17). Holiness is possible, and (without overlooking our many sins) God is pleased with his people.

This makes so much more sense of the imperative (“so do this…”) sections of the epistles, where we are told to keep in step with the Spirit, flee sexual immorality and greed, pursue kindness and patience, be reconciled to our enemies, and forgive each other. These commands only make sense if we have with the help of the Spirit (that’s the grace of the New Covenant) and the hope that obedience is possible (that’s the purpose of the New Covenant). Kevin DeYoung in his book “The Hole in our Holiness” puts it like this:

God does not expect our good deeds to be flawless in order for them to be good…There will always be elements of corruption in us. But by the power of the sanctifying Spirit in us, true believers will genuinely grow in grace. (p.67)

How does this happen?

As we’ve already hinted, holiness comes by the Holy Spirit in us. The Spirit empowers us to love God and neighbour, to fulfil the Law of Christ (Galatians 5:13-16) . The Spirit reveals our sins, and grieving Him prompts us to renounce them (Ephesians 4:30). The Spirit points us to Christ and transforms us as we gaze on his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). That is not to say that we sit back and do nothing: holiness requires effort on our part – hard work, in fact – to collaborate with the Holy Spirit. We press forward (Philippians 3:12-14). We are not lazy but endure and persevere (Hebrews 6:12). We “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5). But we can do it, because the Spirit in us does it with us.

There is a second way to look at how holiness happens. Theologians call it “union with Christ” and the New Testament calls it being “in Christ”. Jesus calls those connected to Him to “remain in me” (John 15:4). Ephesians 1:3 describes the spiritual blessings of election, redemption, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification, which all flow from our spiritual location “in Christ”. These two little words occur over 200 times in the New Testament. Although many occurrences do not carry a deep “incorporative” sense, but mean simply “in Christian matters” (eg 1 Corinthians 3:1), many clearly do imply that a profound change of metaphorical position has taken place through our relationship to Jesus (eg Romans 8:1) (see Moule Chapter 2, in ‘Further Reading’, on this). This makes me think this is not a marginal idea but a key way to understand where we sit as believers! We are spiritually no longer in the world, or in sin, but “in Christ”.

How does holiness work in practice?

By letting where we are in Christ change how we think in everyday life. We live in Christ’s kingdom, so sin has no power over us now. So Paul says “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). In sports imagery, we changed team, and now wear the bright colours of Jesus instead of the murky kit of sin. In baptism imagery, we died to the old life and rose to the new.  Holiness happens by acting in the light of the truth that I am “in Christ”. It starts in my mind. Become what you are.

How do we grow holy and close to God in mind and life?

Through the five key disciplines (yes, effort!) of prayer, Bible reading, Christian community, good use of the Sabbath rest principle, and holy communion. As we draw near to the throne of grace in prayer, meet Jesus in Scripture, experience the Spirit uniting us as “church”, set aside a day to remember God’s gifts of life and freedom, and encounter Christ through the symbols of bread and wine, we find sin ever more bitter, and Jesus ever more delightful.

Further reading

“The Hole in our Holiness”, Kevin DeYoung (Crossway, 2012)

“The Origin of Christology”, C.F.D. Moule (Cambridge University Press, 1977)

“Communion with God”, John Owen (abridged R.J.K. Law) (Banner of Truth, 1991)

“A Passion for Holiness”, J.I. Packer (Crossway, 1992)

“Christ our Life”, Michael Reeves (Paternoster, 2014)