Jesus is welcome at my party

The wonderful Phil Jackson has written an interesting (if very long) treatise on wine, starting with John 2:1-11 (The wedding in Cana).

Phil’s opening comment has prompted me to re-look at the passage in question:

150 gallons of wine. If your Christian friends are not in the regular habit of hosting parties of the sort that 150 gallons of wine need be called upon, then speak gently to them, but they may have missed a conspicuous and central priority of the faith they profess.

I did the Maths. Those six stone jars held a lot of water. Jesus made the equivalent of 700 bottles of wine. And that for a party that had been going on for a while already. And you wonder why Pharisees accused him of being a drunk and a sinner…

Still, anyone who comes to a party with 700 bottles of free (and good) wine would be very welcome at any party I hosted. I can’t quite imagine it becoming a regular “Christian” thing though – Christians in this country just don’t seem to throw that kind of party…

Advertisements

Coupla tings

Brain gradually readjusting to the idea that of a return to work, so nothing profound for my first post of 2008, sorry. Instead, a couple of things that made me smile today

The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones has ‘predicted’ what next Decembers technology roundups will read like… amusement for all those geeks and tend-watchers out there! (bemusement for everyone else).

TallSkinnyKiwi posted his favourite Christmas card of 2007 for the general wonderment of us all… It was funny, profound and controversial enough to want reprint here:

JesusInBarn

[Originally sent (and presumably designed) by Becky Garrison – credit where credits due! (ie, complain to her or TSK if you don’t like it!)]

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.

Follow

Every now and then the powers that be in Oasis gather staff together for ‘input sessions’, which I guess are meant to be times of motivation and inspiration for us as individuals and as an organisation. This morning we had Steve Chalke speaking to us about Peace.

It was a wide-ranging talk, starting with Jesus, diving into 9-11 and international politics, and finishing with how we as individuals should respond to each other in times of stress. I’m not going to try to summarise it all here, but I do want to post up what is a classic Steve Chalke quote from the talk:

Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus ask people to worship him…
…What He does ask is for people to follow Him – which is much harder. It is much easier for us to worship Jesus than it is for us to follow Him

Now, Steve has a great history with the sweeping statement, so I thought I’d stick up another quote from today before I talk about this one

Communication is not what I think I am conveying to you here; communication is what you hear and take away.

Our founder is no stranger to controversy, especially that of the unintended consequences. There was a lot of mention today of The Lost Message of Jesus, a much maligned and little read book. You may well have heard a lot about the Lost Message; if you haven’t read it, please do. I can’t recommend it enough. It is a challenging book about how we should live out our faith in practice, it is designed to provoke your thought and change your behaviour. Its one of those books which is great to disagree with, as long as you think about why.

Unfortunately the message of the Lost Message got drowned out by the unintended controversy concerning one ill-thought-out line in a chapter three quarters of the way through. I guess Steve has learnt a lot about both peacemaking and communication in the last few years…

***

I’m not sure if it’s true to say that nowhere does Jesus ask people to worship Him… He seems to infer His godliness quite a bit, especially in John’s version of the Gospel story. But I think the drive of Steve’s point is totally true: it is far easier to worship Him than to follow Him.

Steve’s context for this point was peacemaking: turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving our enemies. Those are all pretty hard things to do in practice, and I wonder how many of those of us who say we worship Jesus actually feel we practice them at all?

But in reality most of Jesus’ teachings are pretty hard to follow in practice. How many of us really view our faith in the terms of ‘taking up [our] cross[es]’? Or are really prepared to give up our friends, our homes, our families?

For a couple of years now I’ve been blown away by the enormity of what Jesus actually says in the gospels, and how different that reality seems to be from the faith I’ve grown up in. It’s not that most Christians don’t have sincere faith; they do. It is that, as Steve says, we are much better at worshiping that we are at following.

Lord, teach us to your servants
How to follow in your footsteps
For the Glory of your name
Amen

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

Nephesh

I know I’m in danger of turning this blog into an outpost of the Gordon Atkinson fan club, but I have to link to this:

Gordon’s latest Christian Century article, Another Inconvenient Truth, talks about the value of a human life. He writes, very eloquently, about the human soul, the Breath of God.

“Does anyone want to put a price tag on the nephesh, the human soul? …Here’s another inconvenient truth: if you believe in the nephesh, then one small child killed and registered as collateral damage in a war is worth more than the combined gross national products of both warring nations.”

I’ve long believed that the most significant part of the Gospel is Genesis 1: in a world where everything tells people they are worthless and insignificant, the bible tells us that we are ‘created in [God’s] image’ and ‘very good’. We have a God-given worth that means we are each “worth more than all the riches and all the kingdoms of the world put together.

We need to get our head round this reality. We need to see everyone, no matter how different, how alien to us they are, as loved and valued by God. We need to act towards every stranger, every faceless famine- or war- victim in foreign land as if they have infinite worth. As Gordon says:

“This much we can say with certainty. Christian people ought to be the most insanely radical peacemakers that the world has ever seen. Our view of human life should be so high that the rest of the world would stand in awe of us. Either that or they would point at us and laugh: Look at those crazy Christians. There isn’t anyone those nutcases won’t love. Murderers, terrorists, racists, rich people who steal from the poor—they love everyone!”

This is a hard reality. I’m a strong introvert, and I find it hard to look at anyone I don’t know really well as anything other than a faceless, scary and inconvenient anomaly. But then, this is a very inconvenient truth…