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.

 

 

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 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.