Whatever You Did for the Least of These

Saint_Martin_Tours On the Wednesday night of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland last week there was a discussion on mercy ministries (or practical care for those in need). During the discussion reference was made to Matthew 25. In that chapter, God’s people are confused when Jesus says to them at the judgement that they saw him hungry and gave him food; saw him thirsty and gave him water. Jesus says to them:

Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me. Matt 25:40

Those words, and those preceding them (‘when I was in prison you visited me’, etc.) often cause consternation because it is the deeds of those who showed kindness that are the basis of the Father’s judgment. The words are not easy to understand. ‘When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink…’ Do these words mean that Jesus is present in everyone? Or do they only refer to good things done to other Christians? Is it all good deeds, or only those things that are done to Christians that matter in the judgement? I think the answer lies somewhere in between.
The New Testament teaches the truth of the identification of Jesus Christ with his people through the concept of union with Christ. The apostle Paul often portrays Christians as being ‘in Christ’. And this ties in with the words of John 15, where Jesus speaks of himself as a vine and of all Christians as being incorporated into him as branches, either fruitful or unfruitful. When we meet one another’s needs as Christians, we are showing kindness to Christ himself.
There’s a great story about Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who was a Christian back in the 4th century, when Christians were in the minority. Walking in Amiens one day, Martin encountered a beggar by the side of the street in the freezing winter conditions. Martin stopped and used his sword to cut his large, thick officer’s cloak in half, giving a now ragged-edged half to the beggar to keep him warm. That night, Martin had a dream. In it, Jesus appeared wearing a ragged-edged military cloak. ‘Who gave you that cloak?’ asked one of the angels. ‘My friend Martin gave it to me,’ replied the Lord. It’s a moving story and a great illustration of Matthew 25.
I don’t know if the beggar in the story of Martin of Tours believed in Jesus when Martin met him, but if he didn’t perhaps it was Martin’s simple kindness as a Christian soldier that showed him the way to faith. Those who we do good to might not yet be identifiable as Christians, but the very act of kindness that we do might be the reason why they come to follow Jesus in faith. It is entirely possible that the one receiving a cup of water, or food, or clothes, or a visit is not a Christian when they receive from us, but at the judgement they will be counted as ‘one of the least of these’ because the kindness they received helped to bring them to faith. In that case our kindnesses were to Christ because they were to one of his own.
Does Matthew 25 give any basis for the church organising mercy ministries? I believe it does. A right understanding of Matthew 25 motivates mercy ministry to all.

The Gospel: In Short-hand and Long-hand

St Paul DamascusIs your gospel big enough? I’ve been told a few times that the whole gospel is seen at the cross. And, I’ve been told that the return of Christ is emphatically not part of the gospel. These views are more common than they ought to be. Just what is the Good News?

Recently I read a paper by Margaret Mitchell (‘Rhetorical Shorthand in Pauline Argumentation: The Functions of “The Gospel” in the Corinthian Correspondence’) in which she argues that when Paul writes about the gospel he uses the term ‘the gospel’ (and synonymous terms and phrases) to represent the whole of what he understands to be the gospel. That might seem a prosaic point, but it’s linked to her second argument: that Paul uses single elements of the gospel narrative to evoke the wider whole; they are a kind of shorthand. So, for example, where Paul uses the phrase ‘the gospel of the cross’, this is not a definition of the gospel, but rather a synecdoche (a smaller part evoking a bigger whole).

The gospel is the gospel of the cross, but also the gospel of the resurrection and the gospel of the parousia. Where Paul singles out individual elements of the gospel as shorthand, he does so for rhetorical purposes. So, the cross might be emphasised where Paul’s readers need most to be reminded of the self-giving humility of Jesus. The resurrection might be emphasised where the new life of the believer or ultimate victory over the battles of this life are in view.

Mitchell makes a really important point as to what, in Paul’s mind, are the elements of the gospel. They include the key narrative events that he rehearses in 1 Cor 15, for example:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Cor 15:3-8

It’s worth noting that within this narrative gospel sweep, Paul includes his own encounter with the risen Lord. However, after writing the above, Paul quickly moves on to the return of the Christ and to the resurrection of God’s people. Mitchell writes about this:

In 15:23-28 Paul provides a fresh narrative of the events of the endtime, an example of the opposite literary tendency from shorthand: an expansion of the gospel narrative to respond to new questions which the gospel has engendered for those who seek to live it out in the present and look forward to the future. 74

For Paul, the elements of his gospel form a broad narrative sweep. Mitchell also concludes that the elements of the gospel cannot be easily separated, especially the cross and the resurrection. Writing abut 2 Corinthians 4, Mitchell concludes:

The synecdochical logic which lies behind 4:10-11 is that the death and resurrection of Christ are inseparable and constitute the indivisible unity of the kerygma. 78 (emphasis added)

I highlight this point (which can also be sustained by analysing the kerygmatic speeches of the apostles recorded in the New Testament) because evangelical understandings of the gospel have a tendency to neglect exactly this.

In 2 Corinthians 1:19 we find one of the most interesting uses of Pauline gospel shorthand. The gospel is here summarised as Jesus Christ himself as the Son of God.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy. 2 Cor 1:19

And that is why the gospel, in Paul’s mind, is not merely circumscribed by the events of the death, resurrection and parousia of the Messiah. Whilst the death and resurrection of Jesus are the indivisible unity at the heart of the gospel, the gospel itself is the consummation of the story of God’s dealings with Israel within which the promise of a Son of God, a Messiah came. This story is in fact the story of God’s dealings with his world – something that has become clear in the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

…the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord. Rom 1:1-4

The Gospel of Jesus the Messiah sits within, and embraces, an even broader narrative sweep. The gospel is the Good News of how in Jesus Christ, God the Creator is putting his world to rights, reversing the curse, securing redemption for a new humanity through the forgiveness of sins. The incarnation, the life, atoning death, resurrection and return of Jesus are all part of The Gospel. So are the results of God’s decisive intervention in his world: the resurrection of human beings, the redemption of the creation, and in the here and now the presence and action of the Church in the world. The gospel good news is the message that God’s rule is being, and will be, re-established in all the earth. And that is why the gospel is ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Lk 16:16).

Hebrides: Human Neurosis about Wild Places

seaeagleThe new BBC series about the Hebrides shows some incredibly spectacular photography. The first two programmes have captured the dramatic landscapes and the grandeur and beauty of the wildlife. But, the script…! Apparently, the series is ‘story-led’. Moments of drama are singled out in the lives of various animals; the Scotsman’s reviewer described the result as ‘exhausting’. The BBC has previous form in this area.
I can’t help feeling that the extreme anthropomorphising approach to the animals projects onto them human neuroses about wild places. Ewen Macgregor is like a darker version of Johnny Morris when he’s voicing the supposed, usually fearful, emotions of the animals! A seal birth that seems so perilous (to someone who isn’t a seal) is taken in its stride by the seal itself. The fact that owl chicks die is an annual occurrence and part of the round of nature. It doesn’t require faux shock or cloying, emotional sentiments. This is what wild places are like – dead owl chicks provide food for carrion feeders and a multitude of other organisms. And, the owl population remains healthy. The ecosystems of the Hebrides are not fragile, composed of inept animals who are not coping. They are glorious, complex, yet robust in themselves. The common occurrence of a big storm is portrayed as a life-threatening drama. It’s not the weather that poses a threat to the ecosystems here, but humans. Humans are fearful of wild places when they don’t understand them, when they want to dominate wilderness. This neurotic fear is what has led to the destruction of so many wildernesses in the past.
Maybe the person who wrote the script is an urban sophisticate who doesn’t understand wilderness, but that’s unlikely. Most probably, the script writer is someone who feels that the soap-opera approach to the lives of redstarts, eagles or coral (yes, even coral get the melodramatic treatment) is required to add a bit of interest to these incredible ecosystems and to raise the viewing figures. Either way, it’s a mistake. The script shows a misunderstanding of the way of nature in the wild places; it belies an anxiety about wilderness. Nature is beautiful; the interactions of predators and prey glorious; the balance and cycle of life and death finely tuned. These powerful images don’t need a cloying, twee, anthropomorphising script – a little descriptive narrative perhaps – they speak for themselves. A good antidote for modern neuroses is found in ancient Hebrew poetry, which gives us a pretty good perspective:

O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; The earth is full of Your possessions.
There is the sea, great and broad, In which are swarms without number, Animals both small and great.
They all wait for You To give them their food in due season.
You give to them, they gather it up; You open Your hand, they are satisfied with good.
You hide Your face, they are dismayed; You take away their spirit, they expire And return to their dust.
You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the ground.
Let the glory of the LORD endure forever; Let the LORD be glad in His works. Psalm 104

Thoughts on Christian Identity: God’s Presence

davinci2God’s presence with the Christian is a fundamental part of Christian Identity. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, the apostle Paul writes:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?

Earlier in his letter (3:16), Paul has written something similar, but he emphasises there the teaching that corporately the Christians can be described as a temple of God. This thought is also found in Ephesians 2:19-22 where the whole Church is being built as a temple on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, but where the readers of the letter are also ‘being built together into a dwelling of God.’

But, getting back to 1 Corinthians 6, it is something more personal here. It is the body (the context shows the physical, human body of the individual is in view) that is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul does not write: your soul is a temple of the Holy Spirit. We might have thought that more likely. But, it is your body that is the temple. What are we to make of this? How does it impact how we think of ourselves as Christians?

Paul is using a metaphor. In the Old Testament, the God of Israel dwelt amongst his people in a tent, and then in a temple. These structures were outposts of a lost Eden in the fallen world (the tabernacle and temple both contained garden & creation imagery). The temple spoke of the re-instatement of that pre-Fall, perfect connection between God and humans. Theologically, humans cannot be human in the truest sense without the restoration of a lost dimension to their lives. That dimension is their living experience of the presence of God in their lives. That is what gives ‘true life’. Saying ‘presence’ might be confusing. Really, the idea is one of God’s influence on us, not coercively, but in partnership with us. A kind of enabling, but with a deeply personal component too – which is why ‘presence’ is ultimately the right word. It’s not merely a ‘spiritual’ thing. Because of the fundamental co-existent connection between the spiritual and the physical, both aspects of our person are involved in God’s presence.

If the presence of God in our body seems an odd concept, think about this: when you have an idea, an insight, or an intuition, where does it come from? From stored experiences in cells of your brain; from firing synapses and intercellular chemistry bringing experiences, memories and knowledge together (of course, I’m no expert on brains, but no-one on the planet really understands how this stuff really works!). Yes, of course that’s true. But, when we accept that the ‘spiritual’ and physical are intimately connected, we realise that through the Holy Spirit, God himself is influential in these processes. So, God can give insight. He can bring motivation to action. He can bring about answers to prayer when someone is praying for help and there’s a knock at their door. When we respond to reading God’s word, what is that? When we worship in Church and feel a deep-seated peace, or a rising up of joy, what is that? I don’t think a purely materialist perspective on these things is adequate. And, of course, when our knowledge, experience, etc. are formed by our interaction with God’s word and our interaction with God himself through prayer and worship, then all of this forms a rich tapestry of God’s presence in our bodies.

Obviously, I’m not saying that Paul thought of it in these terms – two thousand years ago the human body was a bigger mystery than it is today. But I am building this on the fact that Paul saw it as entirely appropriate to describe God the Holy Spirit as being ‘present’ in our bodies.

Through faith in Jesus Christ, God is present in us. What is lost to humanity – due to the entry of sin into the human psyche and the alienation of God from humans – is restored! But not only is God present, but in some sense so is the human Jesus Christ himself, who is the incarnated logos, the second ‘person’ in the divine Trinity (when we think of the connection between God and humans, the fact that God has become a human is extremely important, but no space here for that!). In John’s gospel we find the same idea expressed in a striking manner.

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper…the Spirit of truth…; you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you… In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you…. Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. John 14:17-23

Does the way we imagine Christianity reflect this? Does our relationship with God reflect this? When we are praying, do we imagine we are praying to someone far off? And what about our relationship with Jesus? Are we talking to a Jesus lost in the past, or somewhere off in heaven? Talking to someone who doesn’t understand, or know about your life, your hopes, fears, sins, joy? In Jesus Christ, the Father truly has embraced the prodigal! And Paul’s main purpose in writing what he does in 1 Corinthians 6 is ethical. When we face temptation, shouldn’t the real presence of God in our bodies act as some kind of restraint? And give us real hope for choosing the right path? Our God, our Lord and Master Jesus is present in us through the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts on Christian Identity: You Are Not Your Own

cross3In my previous post I looked at how a true understanding of the human person is important to Christian Identity.

Ethicists of every stripe agree that identity, how a group or individual defines itself, is fundamental to their moral formation. A frequent summary of the logic of Paul’s ethics is the maxim ‘become what you are’. Ciampa & Rosner, 1 Corinthians, p.158

In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Paul teaches Christian Identity.

Flee immorality. Every other sin that a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against their own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

Fundamental to Christian Identity is the idea that we belong to God. Modern thought emphasises the complete freedom of the human person. Freedom is important, but a true understanding of human freedom must recognise that it is often illusory and has limits. Western capitalism and democracy are built on freedom of choice. But are humans truly masters of their own destiny? Are we free to do as we please?  The scriptures tell us that human beings are ‘slaves to sin’. We cannot free ourselves from our condition of moral compromise and inability to act consistently in righteous ways that benefit ourselves and others. We are destructive and self-destructive. The reason for our lack of freedom is that we are fundamentally alienated from God our Creator.

The Christian finds freedom in being reconciled to the Creator. Christians are redeemed, bought back by God. Therefore, we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. This is the same idea as is found in 1 Peter 1:18-19:

…you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your ancestors, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.

This fact of Christian Identity ought to give us pause for thought. It’s not just a truth to be confined to the ‘theological’ category to be dug up and reflected on every once in a blue moon. You are not your own when your married work colleague is flirting with you. You are not your own when you’re choosing your holiday. You are not your own when you’re caught up in that dispute that flairs up at work.  You are not your own when you’re choosing coffee in the supermarket.

I preached on Christian Identity the Sunday after the factory collapse in Bangladesh that highlighted again the oppression that enables rich Westerners to buy cheap clothes, rich Westerners who have ‘freedom of choice’. You are not your own, when you’re in the queue for the till in Primark. We are not our own. Jesus Christ did not give his life for us so that we could partition off a part of our lives as beyond his jurisdiction, using a body-soul, sacred-secular dualism to justify it.

Thoughts on Christian Identity: The Lord is For the Body

davinciA couple of Sundays ago I preached on Christian Identity from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, in their commentary (p.158), write:

Ethicists of every stripe agree that identity, how a group or individual defines itself, is fundamental to their moral formation. A frequent summary of the logic of Paul’s ethics is the maxim ‘become what you are’.

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul teaches Christian Identity in the harsh reality of a fledgling church where pagan converts to Christianity are struggling to cast off the habits of their pagan world. It is part of Paul’s attempt at, in the words of Richard Hays, a conversion of the Corinthians’ imagination. The same appeals to a right conception of Christian Identity are applicable to all Christians today.
Paul’s insistence that the Corinthian Christians live holy lives flies in the face of the views of some in the church who are clinging to pagan views of the human person. These people say that what’s done in the body ultimately doesn’t matter, since the body is a transient feature; the body is incidental, and not essential, to being human. Paul summarises their view – and counters it:

You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.

As an aside, the NIV has the best translation here. Although there are no quote marks in the Greek, the section only makes sense if Paul is here quoting the Corinthians as marked above. Quote marks can be the only way to ensure a good translation – especially in 1 Corinthians, where Paul quotes the views of the Corinthians a number of times. The NASBs omission of quote-marks isn’t helpful. The ESV, earlier NIVs and NLTs have the quotes in the wrong place.
Pagan views that the body is dispensable to human identity are definitely not shared by Paul. The body is part of the human person. The Lord is for the body, pro-body. If we want to talk about soul and body, then these are equally as much a part of who we are. They are best thought of, not as two parts, but as two aspects of the same person. We are not spiritual beings temporarily inhabiting physical bodies. We are spiritual-physical beings. My body is no less the real me than my soul is. My body is no less important to me being me than my soul is. There is a fundamental link between the spiritual and the physical. Modern science emphasises the psycho-somatic unity of the human person. That would be closer to Paul’s view than the extreme dualistic view that is common in modern Christianity and which finds its roots in the philosophy of Plato. The Church has often given the misleading impression that God is about saving souls, but that our bodies are dispensable. That’s wrong. Salvation is as much about bodies as it is about souls.
Where do we see the fact that ‘the Lord is for the body’ demonstrated? The answer lies in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God raised Jesus from the dead – and he will raise us also. Salvation embraces our whole human ‘self’, body and soul. And, for Paul, because salvation embraces the whole person, the body as well as soul are also both involved in God’s work of sanctification, the outworking of our salvation. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul concludes his argument showing his hope of human resurrection in Christ, with these words:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.
Our work for God in this world is not in vain because of the future hope of the resurrection. Paul believes that because our bodies will be raised in the resurrection, what we do with our bodies now is fundamentally important to our salvation. This is the background to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, and it’s why Paul finishes this whole section with the words:
Therefore, glorify God in your body.
One broader implication of the above is that the Christian life is not just about ‘spiritual disciplines’: going to church, reading the Bible, praying every night. It’s about our whole lives. It’s as much about the physical side of marriage as it is about the spiritual. It’s as much about what we do with our hands when they’re not together in prayer. It’s about what we do with the money that’s not in the plate on a Sunday.

How’s Your Cosmology?

nebulaI’m not sure why so many Christians still seem to operate with a pre-modern view of the universe. They still talk of going ‘up to heaven’ or ‘down to hell’. We know that ‘up’ eventually leads you out of earth’s gravitational field, and that then ‘up’ and ‘down’ are meaningless. If we keep on travelling outwards, away from the earth, we know we could keep going for 14 billion light years without reaching ‘heaven’. If we dig down into the earth, we know we won’t find ‘hell’. Yet, our language and conception remains stubbornly ancient.

People in biblical times did believe (more or less) that ‘heaven’ was just above the earth and possibly that ‘hell’ was beneath the earth. These are both ideas linked to Greek philosophy and were an accepted part of the world view. However, 21st century Christians ought to adapt their conception to fit with what we now know of the universe. ‘Heaven’ (if by that term we mean the domain ‘inhabited’ by God) is not ‘up there’. It’s probably co-existent with our own reality as well as perhaps outside of it, but in a dimension which we have no access to. Modern physics speculates about the existence of other dimensions, and the fact that science only understands the composition of roughly 4.5% of the universe as known matter indicates that there’s more going on than we understand. ‘Heaven’ as the location of Jesus is, I’m pretty sure, within our universe, closer to us than we think, again in another dimension of physical reality.

That heaven might be in some way intimately linked with the cosmos ought not to surprise us or concern us. For Christians, speculation about a ‘heaven’ that’s ‘up there’ somewhere, and what it’s like, is obscuring the true biblical perspective on salvation. Whatever our personal existence between death and resurrection (and Christian theology has expressed different views on this), the fact remains that we are not created for existence in the realm of ‘heaven’. To be ‘unclothed’ says Paul, that is to be without our bodies, is not something any of us desire (2 Cor 5:4).  Our present and future hope is almost entirely intertwined with the reality we understand and now inhabit. We live our current, mortal lives here, and the great hope of the Christian faith is that the renewal of this creation to eliminate human death and evil will provide the setting for our own resurrected, immortal lives, reconciled to our creator, and in the presence of our redeemer Jesus Christ.

Jesus the Messiah and Creation

landscapeThere’s a lot that could be written about Jesus and Creation. What is the relationship of Jesus to the creation? It is complex. As the pre-incarnate logos, all things were created through him. As the incarnate logos, he has become part of the creation, taking matter as part of his being. The entry of the creator into his creation is critical to any biblical theology of creation. When the logos became flesh, he was born as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the promised figure who would bring salvation.

In Ephesians, Paul tell us that God’s purpose is:

to bring together all things in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth. Ephesians 1:10

The root of the Greek word (ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι) I’ve translated as ‘bring together’ (as does the NIV) really brings the idea of integration, but the prefix ανα- focusses that in on restoration. That restoration is not only a ‘spiritual’ restoration, but one which embraces the created world, the earth. Andrew Lincoln points out in his Ephesians Commentary (Word) that interpreters who believe that Paul is here teaching a view similar to the Gnostics, that there will be a dissolution of the cosmos and an end to time, misunderstand Paul fundamentally:

Such an interpretation does not take seriously the letter’s close associations with Colossians…and posits a total break with Paul’s gospel with its hope of the redemption, not the dissolution, of the created order. 33

The associations with Colossians that Lincoln mentions is a reference to the ‘hymn’ of Colossians 1, which links Jesus as the Son to creation and restoration, with the cross being the ground of that hope. The same phrase is repeated there: God is reconciling all things to himself through Jesus’ death on the cross, ‘whether things on earth or things in heaven’. The way the world is today is a result of the entry of sin into the created order; it’s a result of the fallen-ness of human beings. Jesus the Messiah has come into the world, has died and has been raised to life to bring the restoration, not only of human beings, but of the whole of the creation.

Only when our proclamation of the gospel makes that clear are we proclaiming the gospel that Paul believed and taught.