May 192010

I recently heard a sermon that got me thinking, “So what?”

Well, it actually got me thinking a lot more than that, although it was primarily because I didn’t agree with a lot of it – or, at least, felt it was ‘lacking’ in certain areas. But it was the ‘So what?” question that got me going and I was wondering how often we don’t adequately deal with the ‘So what?’ of our faith and what we say about it.

Let me explain what my particular ‘So what?’ issue was in this instance.

The preacher took an opportunity to have a bit of a dig at the ‘God is love’ approach to Christian faith. This, they felt, was a limited understanding of God and threw away a significant part of the Bible which speaks of God’s justice, wrath and judgement. We got the ‘God loves us’ bit, but in the usual illustration of a loving parent who chastises (punishes) their child ‘for their own good’. I got the distinct impression that God didn’t do nearly enough of that these days and we would be well warned that he might just decide to smite us all for being miserable sinners one day.

Now, I don’t deny that the Bible speaks of a God of judgement, but surely that is the point of the cross. Jesus was judged in our place. All our iniquities were laid on him. He became sin for us. And whatever other verses you want to throw into the mix. Christ’s death on the cross brought about forgiveness for our sinfulness, did it not? God looks on Jesus and pardons us, does he not? Yes, God judges, but God has judged Jesus so that we won’t be.

Or am I missing something? Was Christ’s death on the cross not quite enough? Did Christ only die for some of our sins?

And if that’s not the case then, other than to illustrate (one of) the purposes of the cross, why keep banging on about God’s judgement and wrath? Is it because it simply goes against the grain to think that people are getting away with things we don’t like? But is this not the very point of God’s grace – we have ‘got away with it’, even the worst of ‘it’? It’s not grace otherwise! It’s our own efforts to self-improve to be ‘good enough’ to be accepted.

But what of texts which speak of a final judgement? We still have to go back to those questions about Christ’s atoning death. It either did it all or it didn’t. If it didn’t, we’re all stuffed. If it did then beating me down with how awful I am and God will judge me is a pointless exercise. What is more likely to get a response – a threat or a gift? If the ‘judgement’ of God only falls on those who reject his gift, then why offer only a threat and ignore the gift? And if it is the gift that matters, why dwell on the threat?

I get the need for a balanced picture of God. I’m just not sure that the correct balance is 50:50 and that whenever ‘God is love’ is preached it needs to be balanced with judgement. Otherwise, we risk, I think, diminishing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with a whole series of ‘So what?’ questions.

Jun 162009

Yesterday I moved from the apartment I was sharing in Zaventem to one in Brussels city centre. In this one, I have the place to myself so I’m not imposing on others (although I couldn’t have been made more welcome in my first digs) and it gives more space when the family come over on holiday. I should have been really pleased getting ‘my own place’ (and I am), but it was tinged with some sadness when I closed the door on the place as the person who had given me a lift left to head home. In fact, truth be told, I felt lonely. Yes, I’ve been keeping in touch by phone and skype and that helps, but it’s just not the same.

Just last week, Andrew (my supervisor) and I were reflecting on ministry being a ‘lonely’ job. We are entrusted with many life stories, cares and concerns, not all of which can be readily shared with a trusted friend. And the problem is, many of them are heavy burdens to bear. Many of them are personally challenging. And many of them strike to the root of our understanding of our faith. Having someone else to share our thoughts and concerns with, even if only at a relatively superficial level, is an enormous benefit. Now, it would be easy to say that God is there to share our burdens with, and I’d never deny that. But we’re made to share with one another as well. Our relationship with God is imperfect and never will be perfect this side of resurrection (word chosen carefully). But then, our relatinships with one another are far from perfect and face the same limitations. But they are what we have and when we don’t have them, we miss them and are so much the poorer for that.

I was able to sit in, recently, on a confirmants ‘class’. As it was the last one it was a summary of all that had been done previously and a reminder of the vows that were going to be taken. One of those vows is tha promise to join regularly in corporate worship and Christian fellowship. I was asked for a contribution at this point and spoke about our need for relationship with others. This, surely, is the root of our claim to be made in God’s image. We are made to be in relationship, with God and with each other. The Trinity is the very model of that. On a recent visit, I heard about past broken relationships and others that had had to be reconsidered. So much of how we relate to others affects so much of our life and the lives of others and we can never know the full consequences of what we do. Mind you, if we did, we’d probably want to live in isolation for fear of what might happen.

This all sounds a bit gloomy and ‘heavy’ but maybe that’s just the mood I’m in at the moment. But of course there is a positive. Perhaps the single most awesome consequence of Christ’s death and resurrection is that of restoration of relationships. Forget ‘going to heaven’, forget ‘sin being forgiven’. forget ‘the price being paid’ (well, don’t but you get the point). All of these are about removing the obstacles in our relationship with God. Not perfected yet, but certainly the signed, sealed and delivered guarantee for the future. But, even better (in a sense), is the beginning of restoration now – with God and with one another (let’s hear it for inaugurated eschatology). No ‘guilt-trips’ about doing our best for God – after all, look what He’s done for you. Just the ultimate example of love healing the most fractured of relationships and through that, a sense of worth and value and inclusion which can only (surely) result in a response of love, to God and to each and every part of God’s creation which He loves enough to save.

So, a glorious promise, intended for the now as much as anything, but, at the moment, highlighting that being alone is not a comfortable place.

Nov 252007

I had 2 very interesting conversations after church this morning. Each quite different, but each challenging in their own way.

The first was as I was heading through for a coffee. I was ‘collared’ and asked if I could explain something. “Why, ” I was asked, “did Jesus cry out on the cross that His Father had forsaken Him?” I was asked, apparently, because this had been bothering the person for quite some time and, since I was currently studying such things, then I might be ‘up on such stuff’. Thus ensued a conversation about Jesus being fully divine and fully human and the implications thereof. I’m sure I could have offered different/better explanations had I not been put on the spot, but what I said seemed to make some sense to the person. It does make me wonder though how many people wonder/worry about such questions and never pluck up the courage to ask, thinking that perhaps it’s a dumb question and something they ought to just know. As I have told people in the past, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.

The other conversation was, in some ways,  more challenging. The person I was chatting to had tried a number of different churches and didn’t feel entirely settled in any of them. The only one that they had sort of liked was a local charismatic evangelical church but they had now moved away from that area and it was no longer local or so convenient for them. They liked it because that particular church ‘accepted anyone, regardless of who they were’. Further chat revealed that the person felt other churches were full of ‘good people, who were more sorted’. Judging others based on appearance, speech, behaviour, whatever, was this person’s biggest hate and they felt that too many churches they had tried did just that – immediately judged and ‘categorised’ visitors. We spoke about how churches, despite appearances, were ‘full of sinners’ and all too often those who were ‘inside’ lost sight of that. And, for that matter, so do those who are ‘outside’. How often do you hear comments like, “The church is full of hypocrites”? Anyway, we chatted about how those in church were no different from those outside, but many recognised that, in the light of the Gospel, they were very far from perfect. The big thing is acceptance. Most (not all) churchgoers realise that they are accepted by God, despite the sort of person they are. What they often forget is that the others they meet and see and ‘judge’ are every bit as accepted and that we are called to accept and love those others in the same way. The person said I’d given them a lot to think about. If only we’d all think a bit more about what being a Christian really means.