Identification

18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19″Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.'”  21″All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.

[Luke 18:18-23 (NIV). Mark’s fuller version here]

Have you ever thought about what bible character you identify with most? It’s a useful exercise, to find a story where you feel the outlook or attitude of the protagonist mirrors yours, and see if you can learn from it… It’s not the most scholarly form of bible study, but it has its benefits. 🙂

When asked this question I have always had a few stock answers (Gideon, Jonah, Jeremiah), designed in some ways to get the questioner to leave me alone. But recently I’ve been dwelling on this question myself. The answer I’ve some up with hasn’t cheered me.

Soren Kierkegaard said many wonderful things, a few of them quite challenging. Here’s one for starters:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obligated to act accordingly.

“Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship.

In recent years, as I’ve read the bible, I’ve been unable to gloss over the words of Jesus in the gospels. I’ve tried really hard, but it just doesn’t work. The enormity of even simple things, like turning the other cheek, going the extra mile hit me between the eyes. Never mind the hard stuff, like taking up your cross… [Matt 16:24-25]

The picture that has begun to open up before me as I’ve read and wondered, is one where faith in God is grounded in action, where it is not enough to profess a belief, if you don’t have the actions that match. Or, in the words of Batman:

Its not who I am inside, it is what I do that defines me.

The Christianity of my upbringing, the tradition that I have swam in and clung to, says that what matters is that most ephemeral of qualities: faith. The declaration of Christ as Saviour is the most important action; the only one that is truly necessary. After all, what is Grace, if not an unmerited favour for which no response could match?

But Faith without works is dead [James 2:17]

Jesus issues challenge after challenge in the gospels that seem to be rooted in action. He talks of judgement based on works, on helping the poor. He talks always in terms of Kingdom; a new way of doing.

And that leaves me battling with the response. Surely, if my faith is true and valid, it should be outwardly expressed, visible in action. It should cost.

I see it; I know it. It tears me up. Because I know what my life should look like, but I struggle to motivate myself to change. I have begun to realise that I identify most clearly with the Rich Young Ruler of Luke 18 and Mark 10.

***

Here is a man who comes to Jesus seeking something more than the everyday Jewish faith he has been living. Reading Marks more in-depth account, we see him run up to Jesus, fall at His feet and implore Him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?

This isn’t an idle question from an interested bystander. It isn’t the trickery of the religious authorities we see elsewhere. It is the heartfelt yearnings of someone who has lived his life by the outward precepts of the Jewish scriptures and yet feels powerfully the need for something more.

The young man obviously feels that Jesus has something he needs. Perhaps he has heard about Him from others and travelled a distance to see Him. Perhaps he as been following, waiting, standing on the edges of the crowd until Jesus comes to leave. But whatever, he finally takes the plunge and runs to Jesus, hoping, begging for an answer to the yearnings that he feels inside.

Jesus challenges him, questions his devotion. Who does he think Jesus is? Has he sought to follow the revelation God has already brought to the Jews? Is he really ready to change…?

And seeing the confusion, the restlessness, the hope in the young mans eyes, Jesus loves him.

***

Jesus’ challenge to the young man is to abandon the ways of the world, and to find God in meeting the needs of others. It is to let go of material trappings, let go of security and embrace the way of Grace (and the life of the itinerant preacher before him).

The young man goes away crestfallen. It seems it is just too much to ask.

***

Most people read this passage as a warning against too great a love of money. Yes, but you miss the point. This passage is a companion to the one in John where Nicodemus asks the same question as the young man here [John 3:1-21].

Jesus’ answer is essentially the same; it is about abandoning what has gone before and starting again. It is about taking on a completely new set of values. It is about being born anew

Yet in this passage, far more than in John, the cost of Jesus’ challenge is apparent. Nicodemus struggles with the existential concept of rebirth; the young man here struggles with the reality of what it would mean for him. Jesus clearly indicates that the price of ‘eternal life’ is high: abandoning your current way of life and starting completely afresh.

This isn’t a theoretical concept. It isn’t a simple matter of praying a prayer. It’s a real, life changing decision. “Decide here and now if you are ready to completely change your life as you know it. Are you ready to abandon your material security; your cosy self-righteousness? Are you prepared to live for the sake of others instead of yourself? Are you prepared to follow me, whatever the cost?

Its no wonder the rich young man finds this too much. It wasn’t really what he was expecting. The cost is so high!

***

I’ve grown up with an understanding of Christianity that really hasn’t been that costly. It’s been about personal morality and outlook, rather than active sacrifice. Being good has always been more important than doing good. Yet that doesn’t seem to cut it for me any more.

The more I have understood of the gospels, the more I’ve realised that my own life fails to meet the challenge that Jesus issues. I look at myself and I see that young man, with his good intentions and earnest seeking, with his desire to change mitigated by the comfort provided by his wealth.

Years ago I would have said “money isn’t that important to me; I don’t care for riches… I’m not that person” and to a degree, I would have been right. I’ve never been motivated by achieving the highest paid job or the nicest clothes or whatever. But what I see looking at these passages now is a young man for whom honest, hungry desire for holiness and God hit hard against the sheer cost of discipleship. And I don’t blame him for walking away…

That’s me. I don’t know what I need to step across that invisible line, but I don’t have it yet. I’ll leave you with more from Kierkegaard:

Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

What is church for?

A very good friend and I were having an in depth discussion last night based around the (somewhat ambiguous) question “what is church for?

The pastor of our church had been asked this question and had answered the following:

It’s easier to love God, love each other and love the world in a group, than on our own.
Our shared life helps us to:
– worship God & pray;
– provoke each other to love & good deeds; 
– serve one another including those of us who are poor or suffering;
– work together on behalf of each other & those outside the church
Our church community should be the most attractive thing of all to non-members.
All of these things are partially true for an individual Christian – but only have the possibility of real fruition if we share our lives together.

So, this got us talking. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the above statements, but then I’m not sure if this is the sort of question where you get a ‘right’ answer that you are fully happy with… What is church for?!? What is church? Where does the Christian stop and the church begin? How does our ideal for church relate to the institutions we see around us? 

For my friend, it was the wrong question. The issues and imperfections of the institutions we see round about us mean that we can’t ask this in terms of ‘church’, because surely that is a loaded term that will always draw out the “what should our institution act like?” mindset. For him the root of what we should be is based on individual transformation. As Bonhoeffer said:

“…the Christian life is the participation in the encounter of Christ with the world

Which is totally right, but for me still falls short.

Yes, we have to base our questioning of “what we should be” on a strong understanding of “who we should be”. We should talk in the terms of discipleship and spiritual formation. But even if our understanding of spiritual formation is a more corporate one, there is still a need to move beyond what are inherently individualistic expressions.

I, as an individual Christian, am called to “participate in the encounter of Christ with the world”. But we, not I, are called to be the body of Christ. This is a corporate undertaking, a calling that cannot be fulfilled by individuals, no matter how godly they may be.

Jesus said to His disciples that they (corporately) would be known by how they loved each other. Paul said that “you (plural) are the body of Christ” and “your body (both plural) is a temple of the Holy Spirit”. These are famous quotes that we all know, but do we really take on board the genuinely corporate and cooperative understanding behind them? Or how incredibly challenging they are?

We are the body of Christ. Not the image of the body of Christ, but Christ’s actual body. When we speak to someone on the street it is not just us, it is Jesus; when we feed the poor it is Jesus reaching out and feeding them, not us. When our words or actions towards the world are hostile then the world receives a hostile Christ, because all they see of Him is us.

This is not something we can embody as individuals, because not one of us could live up to the challenge. Where my non-Christian friends know only me as a Christian… well what distorted image of Jesus they must get. It is very deliberate that we are called to be the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, to be church together. Because together we can reveal the love Jesus talked about, together the collective image should burn brighter than the messes of our individual lives…

What is church for?
Church is called to be the body, the hands and feet and face, of Jesus. Not to participate in the encounter of Christ with the world, but to be the encounter of Christ with the world. It is to enact the Mission of God, bring in the Kingdom of God; to reveal God to the world. How should the world know Jesus? They should see Him in our shared life together.

***

Of course, my friend has a point; you can’t talk about church without getting bogged down in institutions at some point. And one thing that is very clear is quite how much of a mess our institutions can be (and what a bad image of Christ they can project).

Let me be clear; there never will be a perfect institution. We can’t pack up our churches, move and create some new, perfect church that will truly be the body of Christ. As individuals we are all ‘cracked eikons’, broken vases, dim reflections of the Glory of God. Our institutions are automatically more fractured than the individuals that make them, too often reflecting human greed, pride and avarice as much as the image of God. The institution cannot be the answer; but that doesn’t mean we can reduce our search to the individual out of despair for the future of the corporate.

Tertullian said:

wherever three are gathered, that is church”.

Visible church; invisible church; true church: that’s not where it’s at. Church is the fellowship of believers, the gathering of individuals Christians around a common goal. It may be nothing so organised as three friends praying in a room, seeking to love and inspire each other and to keep each other accountable. As long as it is plugged in to a greater awareness, a sense of ‘church’ as the body of Christ, fulfilling the mission of Christ, then we’re getting there…

***

You may have guessed, from reading the above, that this is still something I’m bashing out. There will be many more conversations like the one last night, with lots of different friends. This is an internal dialogue of mine that I’m now expanding to as many people as possible, because I really want to get to an answer. It may be, as my friend last night suggested, the result of reading too many emerging church blogs, but it’s a path I’ve gone too far down now.

I hope this post has stirred your thoughts, even as it is helping me work through mine.
Thanks for reading!

Mary and Martha

[UPDATE: I’ve just found a wonderful, far more in-depth and scholarly version of my exposition here

The tirelessly enthusiastic Carla Harding posted yesterday on Mary and Martha. It’s a good post, and it paints a great picture of her life at the moment; the busyness and the struggle to hold onto a spiritual life when things get manic. I made the mistake of posting a smart-alecky comment at the end of her post, and I want to publicly apologise.

Carla, your post captures the difficulty of balance in a busy life really well. It reflects the earnestness of your heart to search after God first and foremost. I want to encourage you in that above everything else, and I’m sorry I said what I did in your comment stream.

I’m going to go on and try to offer an explanation, but this is not intended to diminish the apology. I don’t get to rain on peoples parades, regardless of my personal bugbears. Sorry Carla!

***

The story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10 is one of the most popular stories in the bible. It is the source of many a homily, and if you grow up in the church like I have, you have heard something like the following countless times:

Jesus is visiting the house of Martha and her sister Mary. Martha busies herself with preparations for the meal, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him. When Martha complains that she could do with a little help, Jesus tells her that Mary is doing the better thing: it is better to spend time with Jesus than to be busy with too much work.

OK, that is a ridiculous paraphrase, I’m sorry.

And its not that there isn’t value in this message. It’s what Carla describes so well; our busy lives do get in the way of our relationship with God. Faith can so easily get squeezed out due to the pressures of our clock-driven society. We can look at this passage and be reminded of that need for balance. That is an important lesson to learn.

What winds me up though, is that this interpretation of the passage is heard much more often than the main point I believe Luke was trying to convey. It is a valuable homily, but nowhere near as radical or as challenging as the contextual message.

Jesus is visiting the house of two women. There is no mention of husbands here; these are two unmarried women, and he is quite happy to sit in their house, have dinner with them and teach his disciples there. This is something unheard of in righteous Jewish practice of the time.
What’s more, while Martha is clearly doing a woman’s role in the women’s part of the house, Mary is in with the men! And she’s sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him!

That phrase, ‘sat at [Jesus’] feet’ is key. Luke uses it again, as part of a preach of Paul’s in Acts 22. It means to learn from, to be a disciple of, a rabbi. Paul ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’, a leading Pharisee of the time. It is probably Gamaliel that taught Paul to be a Pharisee himself.

Luke deliberately links the two phrases, he deliberately uses Martha’s indignation to emphasise the countercultural context of the situation. Rabbis didn’t go into the houses of single women. They certainly didn’t teach women. Yet here is Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, learning to be a disciple with the men. And when Martha complains that Mary should be in the women’s part of the house with her, helping prepare the meal as a good subservient woman should, Jesus says that Mary has “chosen what is better”. Jesus is not passive in Mary’s learning here; he actively affirms it.

One of the main augments used against women in Christian ministry is that Jesus didn’t explicitly say anything on it. Yes he did; he says it here.

Like Carla, I find the classic homily taken from this passage helpful at times. But I do wish we heard the real, radical contextual meaning of the passage more often than we do. Still, that’s no reason for me to down the words of others.
Apologies again Carla.

Unity

20″My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24″Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 25″Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

[John 17: 20-26]

“…that all of them may be one”.
I’ve been thinking about church unity quite a bit recently. Michael Spencer has posted on this in the last few days (here and here), but thoughts on this have been running through my head for months now…

Have you even wondered at why so many of the prayers and prophecies in the bible seem so resolutely unfulfilled? Like Psalm 103:3 or the above prayer from John 17. Jesus himself prays for us, those who would believe through the message of the apostles, that we would be unified in Him and each other.

…well, that one’s not true, is it?

Which gets me thinking. Is it that we are deluding ourselves, far from the truth? That God doesn’t exist, or at least that what we see revealed in the bible is untrue? Or perhaps is it that we are not co-operating with Him, in seeing His prayer fulfilled?

I am a great fan of the diversity of the church. I really wouldn’t want every London congregation to look like mine, especially not with our severely limited ecclesiology… I think it is great that there are groups of believers gathering together who express different elements of God’s character, or His passion for the world, or our response to the Gospel.

But what frustrates me is that we don’t see this diversity as strength, we often are unable even to recognise other streams of our faith as valid. Churches meeting within half a mile of each other, each desperately passionate about their community never meet together, never pray together. They put out a hideously fractured view of the bride of Christ to the community they care so much about.

“I pray …that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

So I ask myself, is it possible that we live as enemies of Christ’s purpose, because we are so stubbornly uncooperative to His prayer? Are the church leaders and watch-bloggers and prayer ministries and aid charities and all the other diverse expressions of this Christian family failing because we don’t actively seek to engage and fulfil this prayer?!?

We’ve talked on this blog about the criticisms of the emerging church laid out by characters such as Mark Driscoll and Tim Challies. I’ve highlighted them not because I take any joy in being critical back, but because the fact that we are not striving for unity rends my heart. We are meant to be one! Not identical, not united in perfect theological and ecclesial conformity, but recognising each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, as colourful and valuable facets in that beautiful bride.

This is not a vision or a prayer that will miraculously be fulfilled; we will not wake up one day and suddenly find that all those divisions have melted away over night. Our human nature means that we have an inbuilt drive to tribalise, to define the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’. We will always see differences in belief, and even expression of that belief, as controversial and divisive. We have to fight those impulses, and deliberately, consciously move towards loving expressions of mutual worth.

“In essentials, unity;
in non-essentials, liberty;
and in all things, love”

***

I had a conversation with someone about church unity at a party during August (which says something about the kind of party I go to). I was asked how we get towards church unity, because it seems such a hard road to walk down. Now, I don’t pretend to have all the answers: I hope that is not the impression I give on this blog. This is the gist of what I said.

I think unity has to grow as a grass-roots thing. Its not that ecumenical councils don’t have their value, or that church leaders are inherently prejudiced; but our leaders have a high level of buy-in to their particular church ‘flavour’, and it is very hard for them to look beyond that to see the value of different expressions… Let me paint you a picture.

There’s a murder, or a violent attack in your neighbourhood. It shocks, appals and probably frightens both you, your Christian friends and your non-Christian neighbours. In conversation with some friends you ask “what on earth can we do?” and you decide you should pray. It starts with you and a couple of friends from your church who live nearby. Then one of you mentions it to a friend in the area from another church, who asks if they can join you… Slowly more people join to pray with you, now from several different churches, some in that neighbourhood, some from across the city. There are no leaders; just ordinary Christians appalled by a horrific incidence on their doorstep.

There is no limit to how far this can go. When we pray with people we realise that there is actually very little that separates us. We all believe in Jesus, in His love and compassion, and in the power of prayer. As we pray we might notice differences in style, in wording; people who pray at once, who pray in turns, who use strange phrases and other languages. But we choose to be enriched by this diversity rather than offended by it, because we recognise the earnest desire in our fellow pray-ers to see change in our community.

Over time, who knows? Maybe joint meetings and celebrations, maybe parties and new friendships… but there is a level of unity at that most base level: here is someone who cares for this community as I do, who calls to the same Lord in hope and desperation… Here is my brother.

Peace
andy