Paul’s first letter to the Confusions

[This is an extract of a letter that was recently found down the back of a sofa and which I have ‘translated’. Its authenticity has yet to be established.]

To the Christians in Confusia

Gravy and peas to you all. [The exact translation of this sentence is unclear].

I’m writing to you because it has come to my attention that there’s a lot of misunderstanding among you about some things I’ve written to other churches and some of the things Jesus said. So let’s ignore what I said about churches being a temple of the Holy Spirit or the Body of Christ. And ignore what Jesus said about being salt and light. Those have clearly not resonated with you. Here’s a new metaphor for you.

You are the fortress of God. You should pull up the drawbridge and prepare for a siege. Get ready to lob lots of steaming [the precise translation of the next word is uncertain] from behind your high walls at the people who come into range. Expect some retaliation from them but don’t worry: that should just confirm to you that you’re doing church right.

Occasionally you should organise raiding parties to go out into the surrounding area and see who you can capture. Once you’ve dragged them back inside the walls of your castle make sure you indoctrinate them well.

When going on raids put on your armour, sit on high horses and denounce anyone you meet from up on your high horses. Don’t forget to disinfect thoroughly at the end of the raid and measure your success by the amount of negative feedback you generated: the more the better.

It’s a good idea to create your own language so that people outside won’t understand you. If they don’t know what you’re saying you can’t be blamed if they misunderstand you.

Even though some of you may have to live or work outside the walls of the fortress on no account should those people try to engage with the people around them on their own. Safety in numbers! Don’t let anyone know you belong to the fortress.

If some of the more misguided of you feel that you really ought to be engaged with the wider community then focus your efforts on being nice people rather than actually talking to them about how much God loves them and who Jesus is. Polish your Spiritual armour (see the letter I wrote to the Ephesians for more about that) and work on the basis that people will want to join the fortress because of how shiny you are. Keep the sword of the Spirit well-hidden when outside.

In conclusion, my dear Confusions, keep your defences up and your heads down. That way you won’t be bothered too much by the people around you.

Yours entirely ironically

Paul.

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

Farther’s Day

I hope you had a good weekend. Thank you for coming back to my blog / remaining subscribed / visiting for the first time.

father and babyYesterday was Father’s* Day, which I recognise is a day that raises all sorts of emotions. For some it is a day to celebrate and say ‘thank you’, for others it is a day that they would rather didn’t happen. For some it means family time, joy and laughter; for others it is a reminder of grief and loss; and for still others it is a day of regrets.

Unlike Mothering Sunday Fathers’* Day is a recent invention. Some cynically suggest it was created by greetings card manufacturers as a way of increasing sales. Others say that it was introduced in a bid for equality as Mothering Sunday changed.

I think that churches have always struggled with both days, but particularly Fathers’ Day. We have to tread carefully with Father’s Day because there are so many different emotions and memories that can be evoked. We have to qualify what we say so that when we speak of those who are good fathers we include those whose experience of fathers has been negative, or when we speak of spending time with fathers we recognise that it is not possible for everyone. I have tended to say that whatever our experience of fathers is, our experience of God our Father is qualitatively different.

But (get ready to disagree) I am not really comfortable with that approach. This is neither because God is not qualitatively different as our heavenly Father, nor because he has none of the deficiencies of our human fathers. I think I am uncomfortable because to call God ‘Father’ diminishes him. We cannot help but consider an earthly male parent in our minds as we call God ‘Father’. And that is inherently inadequate. We need to go farther.

‘Father’ is a metaphor (albeit a very good one) that helps to explain one way in which God relates to us, but it is a metaphor. And metaphors are not meant to be taken literally. They can explain and reveal truth, they can make the incomprehensible more comprehensible, they can illuminate and illustrate. But they are not the whole story.

To say that God is our heavenly Father speaks of his love, consideration, provision, security, his desire for us to be his ‘children’ (another metaphor), discipline, strength, reliability and so much more. But each of those attributes can be infinitely unpacked when it comes to God. And each of those infinite unpackings can be infinitely unpacked. And so on. We cannot hope to comprehend God fully.

I think what I am trying to say is that the Father-metaphor can be helpful for us, but we should never presume to think that we therefore understand God fully because we call him ‘Father’. We should never believe that our metaphorical understanding of him is adequate. Sadly, because of the finite nature of our brains and the limitations of language, we are often reduced to metaphors when it comes to God because we could not cope with the unadulterated truth – our brains would produce an error message and shut down. So we cope with metaphors, we explore them, we use them to help us encounter the living God and relate to him (‘him’ being another inadequate use of language!). And God graciously allows us to relate to him in that way which is more than we can comprehend but is woefully inadequate (in the same way as a supercomputer being used to play ‘solitaire’ – another weak metaphor).

If we gather together all the metaphors for God and understand and explore them completely we still have a relatively poor image of and comprehension of God. But if we are willing to accept our limitations he graciously takes us into them and our experience and understanding of him is expanded and deepened. That is the journey of a lifetime (and beyond). He graciously gives us eternity to explore the infinite**.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Where should the apostrophe go? Is it a day for fathers or is it a day for a father? I am being interchangeable to be inclusive and so that I am correct at least 50% of the time.

**No way anyone will have ‘time’ to be bored in heaven!