at one ment

About ten years ago some Christians got rather hot under the collar about a book written by Steve Chalke: The Lost Message of Jesus. They particularly got very upset about one small phrase in the book relating to one of the metaphors the Bible has to try to illustrate and explain what Jesus’ death on the cross means for us. I am not going to revisit that controversy save to say that I was disappointed that the focus was on that one issue rather than the significant and that people seemed to have missed the important purpose of the book, which was to expand our understanding of who Jesus is and what following him is like and expand our understanding of what his death on the cross means.

For a long time I was taught that what happened when Jesus died on the cross was like a courtroom, and that is the only story I was told…

Imagine for a moment that you have committed a heinous crime: treason! You have been (rightly) found guilty. And the problem is that the only possible sentence for this crime is death. The judge (God) sternly looks you in the eye and passes sentence. And then he says that instead of you being executed he is going to execute his son in your place. You can go free because the death sentence has been carried out. All you have to do is accept it.

GavelThis forensic metaphor carries with it the seriousness of our rebellion against God / failure to live up to his standards / sin (whichever phrase / word you want to use). It contains the astonishing truth that in Jesus the penalty of that rebellion / failure / sin has been paid. But it is rather a brutal metaphor isn’t it? If it is the only story we have about what happened when Jesus died on the cross then God only looks like a stern judge and carrying out justice is his primary purpose. It’s not the only story to be told.

Don’t get me wrong. It is an amazing story and a profound truth: God’s justice is tempered with astonishing mercy. It is astounding that Jesus would be willing to die in my place. It is absolutely wonderful that I am set free (if I choose to be).

But if that’s our only metaphor / image of what happened on the cross we have a grossly distorted view of what happened (which is what Steve Chalke was trying to say in the phrase that caused all the hot-under-the-collarness). It’s not only distorted it’s unbiblical – the Bible has a lot more to say about it than that. So, for the next few bloggages I am going to tell you some stories that hopefully might illustrate some other images and metaphors about the cross of Christ which, when taken together, give us a much richer understanding of what it means.

Today we learnt about ‘substitutionary atonement’ to give it its correct title. Next time, debt-cancelling.

Be blessed, be a blessing

essentials

So… the Baptist Union of Great Britain has a new logo. That’s bad news for Baptist Churches that have the old one embedded into their architecture! The old logo contained a cross, water and a fish. The new logo is explained in this diagram:

NewLogoElements

(You have to recognise that the fish is swimming downwards).

Oh yes. A cross, water and a fish (plus a ‘b’ for ‘baptists’). In some ways nothing has changed, but in others plenty has changed. On Sunday evening I am preaching on Acts 15, where the early Christians had to work out what was unchangeable about being a Christian, and what God wanted them to hold lightly and be ready to change.

Questions were raised about whether being circumcised was essential for being a Christian – thankfully they discerned that this was not essential.

They discussed what sort of food could be eaten (including that which had been sacrificed to idols and was now being re-sold (probably discounted) – they felt that it was best that they avoided that (along with  a few other items of food and sexual immorality – interesting how it is last in the list!). In essence I think the advice was for them not to get mixed up in the cult worship of the surrounding culture: if it was about worship they should focus only on worshipping God as revealed in Jesus and not be distracted.

It does make me wonder what is still essential to being a Christian and whether there are things God wants to hold more lightly and be ready to change. At the risk of being hauled before a religious court or stoned by a mob I am going to try a few ‘essentials’:

Is it essential to accept that Jesus, God incarnate, died on the cross for you and receive the forgiveness God offers us, following him for the rest of our life?

Yup.

Is anything else essential?

Nope.

[cue sounds of rocks being gathered and ecclesiastical gavels being banged].

Let’s go back to the changing / unchanging logo of the Baptist Union of Great Britain:

The cross is essential and was probably the earliest Christian symbol.

The fish was an early Christian symbol too. In Greek the word for fish is ‘ichthus’ and in Greek this is also an acronym that means ‘Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour’. That is pretty essential.

The water represents believer’s baptism, one of the things that made our foreparents (forefathers and foremothers) distinctive when they started forming Baptist churches just over 400 years ago. Believer’s baptism is an early Christian event too (Jesus told us to get wet) that expresses faith in Jesus and affirms our commitment to him as his followers. (Yes there’s a lot more here, but I will save that for another day).

Did the early Christians get thrown to the lions for believing more than that? Would you be willing to die for anything more than that? Is anything else essential?

Answers on a postcard (preferably not wrapped around a brick) – or you can give some feedback on the blog page by clicking the link at the top of this bloggage.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

family planning

I wasn’t planning an adoption

I already have enough children

One has just been torn from my grasp and ripped from my heart

Typical of him, though, to be thinking of me

Right at the end

In the midst of it all

I wasn’t planning an adoption

but I have just been adopted.

Jesus on Cross 2

Crucify Hymns

>at the foot of the crossWere you there when they crucified my Lord?

Not really. I mean, I knew it was happening and I did watch from a distance. But it wasn’t like I was wielding a hammer or holding the nails. What’s that? Well, yes I did join in with the crowd but then everybody does don’t they? You can’t blame me for that surely.

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died

If you had seen a crucifixion you would recognise that crosses are not that wondrous. It might be all poetic and worshipful but crosses are cruel. They are designed to kill. And they are designed to kill slowly and painfully.

Man of Sorrows, wondrous name

He looks rather forlorn, alone, wretched. He doesn’t look like the King of the Jews. Was that a cruel joke? The crowd are calling him plenty of names but none of them are wondrous. Even one of the thieves crucified next to him has a mouthful of abuse to hurl. Yet Jesus has words of peace for his partner in crime.

Shine Jesus Shine

Where’s the sun gone? Why is it so dark, it’s the middle of the day? There was no solar eclipse forecast for today and it’s not that cloudy. What is going on at this godforsaken place? What does Jesus think is finished?

costly communion

During a visit to Oxford my wife Sally went to a the Christian bookshop and came out with a book that is full of the theology for me. ‘When Clergymen Ruled the Earth‘ by Simon Jenkins is a book of cartoons based around church life, and particularly ministers/vicars.

I’ve been enjoying some of them this morning and one of them reminded me of an experience I had back in September, here it it is:

scan0001

It depicts a scene that is very different to communion in most Baptist Churches, where traditionally the bread and wine is served to the congregation where they are seated in the pews.

The event that this cartoon reminded me of was my father’s ordination. In September he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and the service concluded with communion where the members of the congregation came forward (without the signs and traffic cones) to receive communion from those who are serving at the front.

I was sitting near the front of the church and it was served relatively early on. Once I had resumed my seat I was able to watch others as they came to receive the bread and wine. One man in particular caught my eye. He had serious mobility problems and was struggling even to walk to the front of the church. But he was determined that he was going to receive bread and wine so he made his way forward with the help of a friend. At the communion rail it was evident that he was going to struggle to kneel down and it seemed that his friend suggested he stand to receive the elements. He was having none of it. With a great deal of courage and obvious pain he knelt at the rail and held out his hands to receive the bread and then was served with the wine. It then took a considerable effort by the man and his friend to getting back onto his feet, and he struggled his way back to his pew.

I was seriously impressed by him. He was someone for whom receiving bread and wine was an important part of his life. He was not going to miss out under any circumstances, no matter what it cost him.

It made me reconsider how casually I sometimes come to receive bread and wine. I find communion one of the most moving parts of a church service, and gladly receive it with a sense of awe and wonder. But it doesn’t cost me anything and I wonder if that man appreciated what the bread and wine represent, the cost of Jesus’ sacrifice, much more because of how much it cost him to be there.

Do we sometimes make Jesus too accessible? I’ll leave that is something for you to consider…

Be blessed, be a blessing

getting fruity

This morning I have been looking at the subjects for the next part of our morning preaching series. We are working our way through Luke’s Gospel – we may be some time!

This passage particularly struck me (it’s Jesus speaking…)

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:43-45)

The phrase that is particularly powerful is “each tree is recognized by its own fruit.”

I don’t wear clerical clothes. I am sometimes tempted because they make the wearer instantly recognisable as a clergyperson, and that may be helpful somewhere like a hospital when visiting patients or the University when I am chaplaining. But my general view is that I am no more special than any other follower of Jesus so don’t need to be marked out as such. So unless we all decided to wear clerical collars I won’t be!

In his Easter sermon (trailed the day before – why????) the Scottish Roman Catholic Cardinal Keith O’Brien encouraged Christians to: “wear proudly a symbol of the cross of Christ on their garments each and every day of their lives.” I have some sympathy with what he was saying, but didn’t Jesus tell us to pick up our cross daily and follow him, not simply to wear one?

It’s when we are most actively doing that that people will see what sort of tree we are. They will see the fruit of the Spirit as we love unconditionally (even our enemies); are joyful in difficult circumstances; react peacefully to turmoil; are patient with irritating people; are kind to those who are rude; are good words come out of our mouth in response to unpleasantness; if we are faithful to others as well as Jesus, even if others let us down and break their word; if we are gentle in response to those who would enforce their opinions on us; when we are self-controlled in the face of temper.

It involves God-given self-sacrifice and humility to take up a cross that has those culturally unusual and uncomfortable edges and carry it daily.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Whenever your children are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even God’s omnipotence did not extend to God’s children. After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve. And the first thing He said to them was: “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” Adam asked.

“Don’t eat the Forbidden Fruit.” God replied.

“Forbidden fruit? We got Forbidden Fruit? Hey, Eve..we got Forbidden Fruit!”

“No way!”

“Where?”

“Don’t eat that fruit!” said God.

“Why?”

“Because I am your Creator and I said so!” said God, wondering why he hadn’t stopped after making the elephants.

A few minutes later God saw the kids having an apple break and was angry.

“Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?” the ‘First Parent’ asked.

“Uh huh,” Adam replied.

“Then why did you?”

“I dunno,” Eve answered.

“She started it!” Adam said.

“Did not!”

“DID so!”

“DID NOT!”

Having had it with the two of them, God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own…

the mother of all oxymorons

I’m back. I have been away at our church holiday at Sizewell Hall on the Suffolk coast, just next door to Sizewell Nuclear Power Station. I felt quite at home!

We were all quite tired when we got home so decided to order takeaway pizza for tea. I think everyone else in the church must have had the same thought because the delivery took a long time to arrive. While we were waiting I realised what a multilayered oxymoron ‘takeaway delivery’ is.

We did not take anything away from the place where the food was created. That must surely be the definition of ‘takeaway’ food. And the direction is all wrong. It was movement towards not away from that defined yesterday’s food. So in reality I think what we had was ‘requested delivery towards’ pizza.

That’s not the only oxymoron that is bothering me at the moment. Tomorrow is ‘Good Friday’. I have always struggled with that name for as long as I have been aware of what the day commemorates. I understand that ‘good’ in this sense refers to ‘holy’ but why couldn’t they have called it ‘Holy Friday’ if that’s the case? I can remember being told that it is ‘good’ because it is the day when because of Jesus’ death on the cross.

Both, or either, maybe true. There may be another explanation that one of you can offer. But regardless of the history I cannot easily reconcile ‘good’ with what happened. Here are some alternative names that occur to me:

travesty of justice Friday

cruel Friday

the darkest day in history Friday

how could they Friday

how could I Friday

how could he Friday

There are various hymns, poems and reflections that speak of it being love that held Jesus on the cross, not nails. That may be so but it was an unspeakably cruel way to kill somebody, particularly for political expediency and power, and especially someone who was completely innocent.

It reminds me of just how seriously God takes human sin. I think he takes it a lot more seriously than we do most of the time. Until we look at the cross on Good Friday we don’t understand the depths to which we have sunk. Nor do we fully understand the depths of God’s love for us.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

getting in a stew about the cross (or getting cross about a stew)

Stew the Rabbit and I are about to visit another school this morning. It will be his first visit there and I hope he is well-behaved. He is going to try a magic trick which may or may not come off…

The theme will be exploring crosses. an ‘x’ can be a sign that you got something wrong as well as a sign that someone loves you. Which seems like a helpful way to explain the Easter cross to Key Stage 1 and 2 children.

Last night at Alpha we looked at ‘Why did Jesus die’, and I was pleased that the Alpha material offers four different models of the atonement. I think we seriously underplay the significance of the cross of Jesus if we only concentrate on penal substitution – even in a less aggressive form. It means so much more than that, and if we only focus on that we may also exclude people for whom that model of the atonement does not resonate. Why do we think God inspired people to come up with other models?

I think I may be turning into Steve Chalke! (Except he has hair, runs marathons and Oasis, is much cooler than me and… [insert lots of other differences here]). If in doubt, read ‘The Lost Message of Jesus‘.

I wonder if this is part of what Paul meant when he wrote that he became all things to all people in order to win some for the kingdom of God. To the Jews he used a temple metaphor, to the Greeks he used philosophy… So how are we packaging the gospel today? Which model of the atonement will bless the people you meet today?

I think in some ways it requires us to see things differently – to look at the same gospel through lenses tinted by our culture.

An elderly lady was well-known for her faith and for her boldness in talking about it. She would stand on her front porch and shout “PRAISE THE LORD!” 

Next door to her lived an atheist who would get so angry at her proclamations he would shout, “There ain’t no Lord!!” 

Hard times set in on the elderly lady, and she prayed for GOD to send her some assistance. She stood on her porch and shouted “PRAISE THE LORD. GOD I NEED FOOD!! I AM HAVING A HARD TIME. PLEASE LORD, SEND ME SOME GROCERIES!!” 

The next morning the lady went out on her porch and noted a large bag of groceries and shouted, “PRAISE THE LORD.” 

The neighbour jumped from behind a bush and said, “Aha! I told you there was no Lord. I bought those groceries, God didn’t.” 

The lady started jumping up and down and clapping her hands and said, “PRAISE THE LORD. He not only sent me groceries, but He made a non-believer pay for them. Praise the Lord!”

at the foot of the cross

Who is there at the foot of the cross?

Simon of Cyrene? A visitor to Jerusalem. He was not a follower of Jesus but somehow got caught up in the events and carried the cross for Jesus.

Women who were distraught about the execution of the one who had shown them dignity and honour. Who had spoken of a new kingdom based on love.

People who only a few days before had been singing and shouting, “Hosanna!” which had turned into screams of “Crucify him!”

Those who had schemed and engineered his death. Feeling vindicated. Mocking. Drunk on the surge of power that bullies feel over their victims.

A convicted criminal was there, next to him. He acted true to form and joined in the mockery of the hapless victim beside him. Why did he have no fight in him?

Another criminal, on the other side, who realised he was witnessing an injustice and sought reconciliation with Jesus… “remember me”

Soldiers who had crucified him, watching the effects of their morning’s work, and their commanding officer who, too late, realised they had killed an innocent man.

Those who had been secret followers of Jesus. Wondering whether they should have tried to stand up for him. Is it too late to do something for him now?

Perhaps, at a distance, not wanting to risk catching his eye, some of his closest friends who had abandoned him. Not able to look, unable to tear their eyes away.

You and I are there. Part of the crowd. Represented. How do you feel as you hear the cry, “It is finished!”

cross purposes

(as opposed to angry dolphins which would be cross porpoises!)

I had a wonderful experience on Monday evening this week. We had an open invitation to men in the church to join together at a local hostelry for an evening – food and friendship are a great combination. Good food, good conversation, good evening. A great time.

But that was not the wonderful bit. That came when one of the blokes who came, Dave, put some crosses in my hand. I need to give a context…

For a while now I have wondered about what we can do as Christians when we see the impromptu memorials that spring up along our roads at the site where someone has tragically been killed. It seems to me that we have something to say and do. I have decided that whenever I see one (and if it is safe to do so) I will pull over and pray for that family. But I have wanted to do more.

So I thought about getting some simple wooden crosses and leaving them there with the flowers and other tributes with a simple message saying that I prayed for them and with the church’s contact details so that they can make contact if they wish. I am concerned that it does not look opportunistic or tacky, but want to be able to seek God’s blessing on people in those circumstances.

I mentioned this to my friend, Dave, who is a carpenter. (His firm is Nelson Woodcraft – not to be confused with woodcraft firms of a similar name. Other carpenters are available.) I was hoping that I may be able to go to his workshop some time and spend some time sticking bits of scrap wood together to make some crosses.

So I was blessed and touched when Dave presented me with two crosses and labels at the meal on Monday, when I had only mentioned the idea to him the day before! And he has thought about this. The crosses are in oak, a hardwood, because it will look better for longer when exposed to the elements and the labels, being hardwood, can be written on without the ink being absorbed by the wood and spreading. I would not have thought of these things. So thanks, Dave, that is brilliant. I hope it is a long time before I need to use one of them but will carry them in my car from now on. If you want to do the same, fantastic, just follow Dave’s advice and use hardwood. I intend to use a Sharpie permanent marker to write on the label (other pens are available!).

Bless you as you bless others

The following are all allegedly statements from insurance claim forms. We know what they were trying to say (I think)…

“The car in front hit the pedestrian but he got up so I hit him again.”
“I started to slow down but the traffic was more stationary than I thought.”

“I started to turn and it was at this point I noticed a camel and an elephant tethered at the verge. This distraction caused me to lose concentration and hit a bollard.”

“I saw a slow moving, sad faced old gentleman as he bounced off the roof of my car.”

“Coming home I drove into the wrong house and collided with a tree I don’t have.”

“A car drove away at speed catching our client who went up in the air and his head went through the windscreen and then rolled off at the traffic lights a good few feet away. The car then sped off and miraculously our client remained conscious and managed to cross the road.”

“I am responsible for the accident as I was miles away at the time.”

“I pulled into a lay-by with smoke coming from under the bonnet. I realised the car was on fire so took my dog and smothered it with a blanket.”

“I had one eye on a parked car, another on approaching lorries, and another on the woman behind”.

“On the M6 I moved from the centre lane to the fast lane but the other car didn’t give way.”

“On approach to the traffic lights the car in front suddenly broke.”

“I didn’t think the speed limit applied after midnight”

“I was on my way to see an unconscious patient who had convulsions and was blocked by a tanker.”

“Mr. X is in hospital and says I can use his car and take his wife while he is there. What shall I do about it?”

“No witnesses would admit having seen the mishap until after it happened.”

“I knew the dog was possessive about the car but I would not have asked her to drive it if I had thought there was any risk.”

“While proceeding through ‘Monkey Jungle’, the vehicle was enveloped by small fat brown grinning monkeys. Number three fat brown monkey (with buck teeth) proceeded to swing in an anticlockwise direction on the radio aerial. Repeated requests to desist were ignored. Approximately 2 minutes and 43 seconds later, small fat brown monkey disappeared in ‘Monkey Jungle’ clutching radio aerial.”

“First car stopped suddenly, second car hit first car and a haggis ran into the rear of second car.”

“Windscreen broken. Cause unknown. Probably voodoo.”

“I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in- law and headed over the embankment.”

“The other car collided with mine without giving warning of its intention.”

“I was on my way to the doctor with rear end trouble when my universal joint gave way causing me to have an accident.”

“To avoid hitting the bumper of the car in front I struck the pedestrian.”

“My car was legally parked as it backed into the other vehicle.”

“I was thrown from the car as it left the road. I was later found in a ditch by some stray cows.”

A customer collided with a cow. The questions and answers on the claim form were:
Q – What warning was given by you?
A – Horn
Q – What warning was given by the other party?
A – Moo

Q: Could either driver have done anything to avoid the accident?
A: Travelled by bus?

“I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way”

“A pedestrian hit me and went under my car”

“In an attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole.”

“I had been shopping for plants all day and was on my way home. As I reached an intersection a hedge sprang up obscuring my vision and I did not see the other car.”

“An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car and vanished.”

“I thought my window was down, but I found it was up when I put my head through it.”

“The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.”

“I had been driving for forty years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident.”

“As I approached an intersection a sign suddenly appeared in a place where no stop sign had ever appeared before.”

“I told the police that I was not injured, but on removing my hat found that I had a fractured skull.”

“I was sure the old fellow would never make it to the other side of the road when I struck him.”

“The indirect cause of the accident was a little guy in a small car with a big mouth.”

“The telephone pole was approaching. I was attempting to swerve out of the way when I struck the front end.”

“The gentleman behind me struck me on the backside. He then went to rest in a bush with just his rear end showing. ”

“I had been learning to drive with power steering. I turned the wheel to what I thought was enough and found myself in a different direction going the opposite way.”

“When I saw I could not avoid a collision I stepped on the gas and crashed into the other car.”

“The accident happened when the right front door of a car came round the corner without giving a signal.”

“No one was to blame for the accident but it would never have happened if the other driver had been alert.”

“I was unable to stop in time and my car crashed into the other vehicle. The driver and passengers then left immediately for a vacation with injuries.”

“The pedestrian ran for the pavement, but I got him.”

“I saw her look at me twice. She appeared to be making slow progress when we met on impact.”

“The accident occurred when I was attempting to bring my car out of a skid by steering it into the other vehicle.”