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.

Apr 232010

I recently read Between Noon and Three by Robert Farrar Capon. It was so gripping I read it in just a few days. It’s a book about the offensiveness of God’s grace and it is excellent. If you’re a Calvinist you’ll maybe want to add to to your list for the next time you’re planning a bonfire. But anyway, I recently came across this from another of Capon’s books and just loved it:

There is no sin you can commit that God in Jesus hasn’t forgiven already. The only way you can get yourself in permanent Dutch is to refuse forgiveness. That’s hell. The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners, not spiritual and moral aces. And hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners. The only difference between the two groups is that those in heaven accept the forgiveness and those in hell reject it. Which is why heaven is a party–the endless wedding reception of the Lamb and his bride–and hell is nothing but the dreariest bar in town.?

Robert Farrar Capon
(The Mystery of Christ: And Why We Don’t Get it, 1993)

Apr 222010

Glancing through my blog feeds this morning, this entry at [hold this space] caught my eye. It’s a timely reminder for those in the Church of Scotland that we should not define people by labels. Only we do. The ‘issue which shall not be named’ so often descends into just that. OK, I’ll name it – the issue of gay ministers. Oops, there we go – a label. An easy shorthand which shifts the focus away from the fact that it is people we are discussing; people who are not defined by their labels, or at least the limited labels we want to apply to them.

Labels can be useful. They are convenient at times and without them our discussions would be laborious and time-consuming. But when the label becomes the person then what we have done is dehumanised them. We have decided that they are just a… As a friend reminded me recently in conversation, the gospel is not about dehumanising, but rehumanising. We find our full self-understanding and self-identity in our relationship with God and the gospel is that God is willing, even dying, to get us to understand that.

My devotional reading this morning was from the flood narrative in Genesis. Regardless of whether you view it as historical or a rewriting of another culture’s mythology, it contains a pretty brutal assessment of humanity and, more importantly, God’s response. “I will never again curse the ground because of the human race, even though everything they think or imagine is bent towards evil from childhood.” (Genesis 8:21, NLT) We have been labelled, yet God looks past the label. We are all, every one, imperfect. No one is more ‘good’ than another in God’s eyes for everything we do is tainted. Yet God’s grace looks beyond the label and says, “I love and choose you anyway.”

Last year, at GA, there was an invitation to join in conversation over coffee; an opportunity to get to understand the person, not the label – gay, straight, fundie, liberal, whatever. I wonder how many coffee conversations have taken place? It’s kind of difficult to have a conversation with a label. It’s kind of difficult to even accept an invitation from a label; we can only accept an invitation from a person.