A Happy Death

(This post first appeared in LadderLife No. 5 February 2021 – Ladderlife is the magazine of the Heavy Metal Fresh Expression of Church ‘We Are Jacob’s Ladder’, Hugglescote)

In our daily lives we are bombarded with statistics – particularly in these crazy times of pandemic – hospitalisations, case numbers, R rates, excess deaths etc. However there is one statistic that has been called the Ultimate Statistic. It is simply this,

100% of people die.

One of the strangenesses of our contemporary culture is how we try so hard to ignore this statistic.

Earlier cultures – where the prevalence of disease, famine, and violence made death a much more frequent experience. When people had a life expectancy in the mid 30’s, when infant mortality levels were really high, throughout a person’s short life they were going to be confronted with death on a regular basis.

Now, at least in the developed world, the advances in our living conditions, our access to medicine, and the established rule of law drastically reducing violence, we live much longer – now approaching 90 years on average – which means that death comes to us as more of a surprise.

Everyone feels immortal until the moment they die.

A recent post found me musing on the sign of the skull and crossbones, this month I’m thinking about the subject of a happy death, you might be forgiven for thinking I’m in a bit of a gloomy place!

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is important to think about death. Indeed, it has been said that;

You are not really ready to live, until you are ready to die.

Which maybe sounds crazy but expresses a great truth.

Surely all of us want to live well, to live a good life? I mean, we only get one go at this life thing, it would be a shame to waste it by not making the most of it. But how can we know if we are living well? How do we evaluate our life? Paradoxically, it is thinking about how our life will end that we gain insight into how we can live it well.

Helpfully, there is some good guidance from the saints of previous ages. Cardinal John Henry NEWMAN wrote a prayer about dying which included the following;

that … I may die as I desire to live, in Thy Church, in Thy faith, and in Thy love. Amen.

Another old prayer says;

Give us the grace to prepare for our last hour by a devout and holy life

Do you see the theme emerging? The point is being made that a good death is one that concludes a good life. In other words,

Those who live well, die well.

Those, whose life has been always directed towards God and towards good, will find that death comes gently, as a friend, as a completion.

Some Christian traditions has described death as being ‘promoted to glory’. The idea being that for the Christian death is an advancement, a promotion, not a disaster and not a ruination.

Those who have sought to know and love God more and more in their lives will find that death comes as the ultimate fulfilment of that desire – they get to enter into a quality of relationship with God that have always desired, striven for, but which they were unable to fully achieve in life.

In the Church of England Compline is an evening service that seeks to prepare us for the coming night. However, as with most liturgy, it is richer and deeper than that. As it looks to the coming night’s sleep, and seeks God’s blessing and protection in that period of bodily refreshment, there are also resonances of the final ‘sleep of death’. This is expressed in the opening prayer;

The Lord almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.

But what is a ’perfect end’?

Picturing a good death we might imagine ourselves surrounded by a loving family ‘old and full of years’. But what about those who die fighting against forces of oppressions, facing down drug barons, who are murdered by despotic rulers because they cried out for freedom? Aren’t those also ‘perfect ends?’

There is a lot of imagery in the Bible of the Christian life as a battle, a struggle, a conflict.

Those who ‘Fight the good fight of the faith.’ (1 Timothy 6:12, NIV), who battle to their dying breath are the ones who are promised eternal life as their reward;

Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Revelation 2 :10, NIV)

Which is expressed nicely in another prayer about death;

Lord Jesus, pour into us the spirit of Thy love, that in the hour of our death we may be worthy to vanquish the enemy and attain unto the heavenly crown: Who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.

So a happy death is also an accomplishment, a victory, an achievement.
Perhaps the most helpful reminder about dying is that as followers of Jesus we do not die alone.

St Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, seems to have been much older than his wife Mary and he disappears from the scene fairly quickly, certainly before Jesus begins his ministry.
So Joseph must have died while Jesus was a young man. So we can imagine the picture of Joseph on his deathbed with Mary and Jesus at his side.

Which has been seen as symbolic of the death of all those who follow Jesus. Mary, often called the Mother of the Church and Jesus our Saviour, Lord and friend will be at our side at the moment of our dying and bring us safely into the presence of God.

This association with St Joseph has led to him being the patron saint of a happy death.
A prayer that is probably 1,900 years old ends like this;

St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us. Amen.

So, a happy death? Yes, it is possible.

It is possible; if you live your life in the light of your death; if you set your aim towards good and towards God; if you fight and persevere in the good fight of the faith.

I wish you all ‘A Happy Death’.

Kingdom Ophthalmology

“If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”

Matthew 6:22

It’s a strange verse this, on first reading it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

In order to understand it we have to dive into the culture of the ancient world.

Many people will have heard of the ‘Evil Eye’. It’s the idea that people can bring harm to others by looking at them with hatred – an optical curse.

In the ancient world this was very much seen as a reality. People wore protective amulets, or had tattoos to ward off the Evil Eye.

There are many passages in the bible and the apocrypha which refer to this belief.[1]

In Middle East understanding the heart is the source of light which shines out of the eye and rest on those we see around us.

This light can be malevolent (the Evil Eye) or benevolent, as our gaze rests on others it is either a cause of curse or a cause of blessing.

“The eye thus reveals the character of a person.

Good-hearted people possess good eyes and throw off good light;

evil -hearted persons possess evil eyes and throw off evil light.

Moreover, since this light actually falls on whatever a person looks at, it also brings into being what the heart producing it intends.

In this way generous persons can look on others and do actual good, while envious persons can look on others and do real damage.

A culturally sensitive translation would therefore read differently:

The eye is the lamp of the body.

So, if your heart is generous (ἁπλοῡς, haplous), your whole body will be full of light.

But if your eye is evil (πονηρός, ponērós), your whole body will be full of darkness.”[2]

So Jesus’ statement is referring to how we look upon, and by direct inference, how we treat those around us.

Do we see people as deserving of our care and concern? Do we look benevolently upon them and seek out opportunities to do them good?

Or do we look at others with disinterest or contempt, do we ignore their plight, do we fail to help when we can?

How we look is revelatory of who we really are. Our heart is seen through our eyes, through their way of seeing the world and the conduct it leads us to.

How do you see?

How is your ophthalmic health?

Do you see well?

[1] Prov 23:6; 28:22; Deut 15:7-9; 28:54-57; Sir 14:3-10; 18:18; 31:12-13; 37:7-12; Tob 4:15-17; 4 Macc 1:16; 2:15; Matt 6:22-23; 20:1-15; Mark 7:22; Luke 11:33-36; Gal 3:1

[2] Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh, The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, p3

Symbol of Death?

The skull and crossbones is a very familiar symbol. We see it on poisons labels.

We see it in films about pirates, where the ‘Jolly Roger’ flag is hoisted by the approaching pirates attack. A symbol designed to strike terror into the hearts of those being attacked and to encourage them to surrender without a fight.

The earliest use of the skull and crossbones in a pirate flag. First used by the French pirate Emmanuel WYNN in 1700.

The first use of this symbol as a warning about poison seems to date from 1820 when it appeared on the cover of a book called ‘A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons’ by Frederick ACCUM.

(The biblical reference is to where, in a time of famine, someone accidentally makes a stew out of poisonous plants – the prophet recognises what has happened and cures everyone who has eaten.)

The skull and crossbones is also often seen in old churches and on gravestones.

These gravestones are in Peebles, Scotland

But we might wonder where does this skull and crossbones symbol come from?

Well, interestingly, it seems to originate from the early centuries of the Christian era.

As a persecuted minority, the earliest Christians in Rome were an underground church – literally. They met in the catacombs – the underground tunnels that functioned as a funeral complex for ancient Rome.

Meeting in this place, from time to time, it became necessary to move the remains of Christian burials, to make space.

But this very practical necessity created a theological problem.

The hope of the resurrection of the body is a central aspect of Christian belief. We have it from Jesus himself;

‘…for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.’

(John 5:25, 28-29)

But it was wondered, how much of a person’s physical remains does God actually need in order to be able to bring them back to life?

After much theological debate it was agreed that, God being God, He probably didn’t need any physical remains – given that He made us out of dust originally!

But, just to be on the safe side, whenever a Christian grave was disturbed, the two long thigh-bones and the skull would be kept – the skull and crossbones.

So the skull and crossbones symbol is not a symbol of death, but rather it is a symbol of the Christian hope of resurrection.

Resurrection is central to the Christian story – a story which is founded, even centred on, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This event is considered so crucial that St Paul wrote;

‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’

(1 Corinthians 15:14)

In Christian theology Christ the resurrection demonstrates Christ’s victory over sin and death and Satan.

‘But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’

(Acts 2:24)

The late, great Larry NORMAN summed it up well in his song ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?’,

‘Jesus told the truth, Jesus showed the way

There’s one more thing I’d like to say

They nailed him to the cross, they laid him in the ground

But they shoulda known you can’t keep a good man down’

So I think it would be a good thing if the grave of every Christian was marked with the skull and crossbones, it is a sign of our hope of the resurrection.

When my time comes, you can place on my tombstone the skull and crossbones and carve these words:

‘By the unstoppable power of the Risen Christ,

By the impossibility that God should lie,

I’m coming back baby!’

Hellish Bookends

The Holy Innocents

As I write this 28/12/2020 it is the feast of the Holy Innocents – the church’s annual reminder of the horror perpetrated by King Herod.

Having failed to trick the Magi (Wise Men) into revealing Jesus’ location, Herod tries the catch-all strategy of killing all the young boys born in the area around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth.

‘When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’

Matthew 2:16, NIV

It was a plan doomed to failure as Joseph had already been warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family.

But, following Herod’s orders, all the boys in the Bethlehem area who were under 2 years of age were brutally snatched from their mother’s arms and killed by soldiers.

Maybe it was only a few children, a few dozen at most, but that does nothing to diminish the horror of the act and of the trauma that would reverberate down the decades in those families and communities.

Just imagine…

Jesus’ birth is therefore accompanied by an act of unthinkable brutality.

As we move towards Easter we are reminded that Jesus’ death is likewise an act of horrific barbarity.

An innocent man. Falsely condemned. Brutally tortured and mocked. Nailed to a wooden cross. Dying in intense agony through slow suffocation.

Just imagine…

It seems significant to me that at both Jesus’ birth and his death we see the very worst of humanity on graphic display.

Which, if ever you needed an illustration of why the world needs Jesus, I can’t think of a more powerful one.

Films, Beer and Jesus

Whilst the title of this blog might sound like an interesting night out, it is actually an attempt to think through some of the major cultural changes we are currently living through.

We live in a time of rapid cultural transition. This is brought about in part by the possibilities of new technologies, but is also driven by changes in behaviour that are chosen for a variety of different reasons.

Industries are being forced to adapt to this new and quickly evolving reality. This has led to some major changes.

For much of the history of the UK the local pub has been an important place for social meeting. People went to their local, had a pint or two of beer and spent a pleasant hour with their neighbours.

‘Since 2000, a quarter of pubs have closed in the UK, totalling more than 13,000 locations. Four out of five people have seen a pub close down within five miles of their home.’[1]

The recent COVID-19 pandemic looks likely to accelerate this process. There may be around 25% of pubs who will not survive.

This would have been very bad news for brewers, who traditionally sold most of their product through the pubs. However, the brewers have changed their business model. So much so that in 2015 beer sales in supermarkets overtook pub sales for the first time[2].

They have responded to the new social reality – people prefer to drink at home – and adapted their business model to work in this new situation.

The film business has also been in a period of rapid change. It used to be the case that cinemas were the only place you could watch films. But, first VHS and then DVD technologies, enabled people to buy films to watch at home, then the internet enabled the creation of streaming services that allowed you to download a film direct to your tv.

The film industry has had to adapt.

Cinemas have adapted –

  1. they have either become more broad in their offering – more screens, more variety – quality and comfort of seats, food options, loyalty schemes, 3D showings, event packages etc.
  2. or they have become more niche – tailoring their offering to a specific customer group.

The film business has also embraced the new options of digital delivery of content.

‘This year, OTT[3] revenues will overtake theatrical revenues for the first time, according to Ampere Analysis. SVoD[4] has already surpassed cinema in the US, and the trend is widening to include European and Chinese markets. All in, OTT is predicted to reach US$46 billion in 2019, beating worldwide box office receipts of US$40 billion[5].

So the beer industry and the film industry have adapted to the changing realities of modern life and their businesses have survived.

If we turn now to the church we see a similar effect at play. Between 1980 and 2015 church attendance halved in the Church of England in the UK[6]. I attended a Christian Vision for Men event a few years ago, where it was stated that if the current rates continue, the last man will leave the Church of England in 2030.

So, if we find, as brewers and film producers have, that our offering is no longer something that people find attractive, what should we do?

One answer might be ‘Nothing’. Maybe we just hold out, dig in, maintain our existing practices. Maybe the world just needs to come around to our way of doing things?

We could circle the wagons and create an exclusive club for the cognoscenti.

Whilst this might have the quality of ‘faithfulness to Tradition’, (or at least our most recent ‘tradition’), it does not sit easily with the history of the Christian movement from its earliest days.

The Christian faith has always considered itself as being for the masses. The foundation charter of the Church is the command given by Jesus to his discipes;

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[7]

In other words the Church is fundamentally about world-wide expansion; about creating communities of faith centred upon Jesus and living in the experience of his presence.

The early Church quickly learned to adapt itself as it expanded into different contexts. We see the first example of this in the way that it quickly adapted itself from a Jewish movement to one that was more open to Gentiles.

We see this adaptability at play in the ministry of St Paul. He wrote about becoming ‘all things to all men, that I might save some’[8]. We see this played out concretely in the way that he quoted Greek poetry when speaking to the Athenians[9], in how he used a lecture hall in order to share his ideas with the philosophers[10]. Yet he also made his Gentile assistant get circumcised, so that no offence might be given to Jewish Christians.

The content of Paul’s message never changed, but the manner of its presentation and the way in which he led people into an exploration of it, was always contextually shaped.

Those who study how we can take the Christian message to different cultures (missiologists) are ahead of the game in this. Contextualisation – the process of expressing the unchanging message of Christ in a particular context – is vital if the Christian message is to really live within that culture. Often this process enables those taking the gospel to see it with new eyes, appreciate aspects that were underdeveloped within their own culture[11].

So, as our culture is changing and we see industries and businesses adapting in order to maintain themselves, in what ways might the church change?

More Variety –

Our culture is less monolithic than it once was. Relationship and family patterns have changed. Working patterns have changed. Leisure patterns have changed. The idea of holding one particular event, once a week, in one place for the whole local community to come to, is unlikely to survive.

People will need to have options, both in terms of the day and the time but also in terms of content and form. It is rather hopeful to think that one event can help –

– all ages – seniors, the middle-aged, young adults, teenagers, small children,

– all personality types,

– all stages in spiritual development, etc. etc.

to help them explore and/or express faith.

I think that the future is more likely to be multiple – multiple activities at multiple times in multiple locations.

More Innovation –

In order to develop these new ways of exploring faith and being Church we will need more innovators, explorers, pioneers. More people with the capacity and skill to see possibilities and explore them.

In technical Christian language these people are apostles – they take the gospel in to new contexts and see it established there.

More Failure –

The one certainty about innovation is that it involves risky experiments that often don’t work. Also I think the future is inherently unstable – things will be successful for a while, but not necessarily endure long-term.

This will require a process for continual evaluation and of implementing a good death for things that have served their purpose but then looking to see how resurrection might come in a new form.

More Prayer –

It is a truism to say that mostly we pray only when we have to. When our circumstances are stable, when life is plodding on predictably and comfortably, we have little felt sense of the need of prayer.

When we are in the maelstrom of constant change and things around us and being birthed, flourishing, dying and resurrected, I think we will feel a much greater need for prayer. The fact of mission being God’s work (missio dei) will become more obvious and our reliance on God’s activity more urgent.

Less Professional –

Whilst the complexity of church looks likely to increase, with this new landscape of rapid change and multiple forms, I think that this will not lead to more highly trained, full-time, tertiary educated, professional ministers but it will actually be more about unpaid, part-time activists.

I think the church will be more artisanal than professional. It will be more about having a passion, an idea, a vision and chasing it, than about people being formed within an institution in order to maintain that institution.

There may certainly be a mix but I think that the kind of smaller groupings we can envisage as the new ways in which Church will express itself will be capable of being led by people with less training but with on-going oversight and support, and achievable as a spare time, or part-time engagement.

More Fun –

I think that the Church will be more interesting, more varied, more playful in this new future. In a word more fun.

I wonder what your ideas are? What have I missed? Where am I wrong? It would be good to hear your ideas.

[1] https://www.companydebt.com/articles/pub-closures-in-the-uk/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/sep/26/supermarket-beer-sales-overtook-pub-sales-first-time-last-year

[3] OTT = Over the Top – streamed film content over the internet (the content provider is going ‘over the top’ of existing internet services).

[4] SVOD is a video sales strategy based on recurring revenue, usually monthly or annual subscriptions and stands for Subscription Video on Demand.

[5] https://www.ibc.org/trends/streaming-vs-cinema-what-does-the-future-hold-for-film/3517.article

[6] https://faithsurvey.co.uk/uk-christianity.html

[7] Matthew 28:28-30, NIV

[8] 1 Corinthians 9:22

[9] Acts 17:28

[10] Acts 19:9

[11] The classic example of this is Vincent DONOVAN’s book ‘Christianity Rediscovered – An epistle form the Masai.

Pray Short, Pray Often

I’ve been reading about the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) recently.

Their lives are challenging.

They chose to lives lives of intense deprivation and hardship in order to grow closer to God.

Their lives are a strange mixture of the banal and mundane and the esoteric.

They express some piercing spiritual insights, and also some uncomfortably odd words and actions.

There are also, many, many stories of failure, of them getting it wrong, of their spiritual ‘blow-outs’ and temptation ‘cave-ins’.

Ans the stories sound all the more real because of that.

As I approach the final third of my life I have reflecting on the spiritual progress that I have made – or lack thereof.

One quote that I came across recently reminded me of something I learned that I think has been the basis of any progress I have made.

Spurgeon was said never to have prayed more than five minutes at a time,

but he seldom went more than five minutes without praying.

Spurgeon, the great Victorian Baptist preacher had learned something that Brother Lawrence had promoted a few hundred years earlier – the practice of the presence of God.

Seeking to live each moment with God,

in God

and for God.

Which was itself an expression of St Paul’s teaching;

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed,

do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus,

giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Collossians 3:17, NIV

In our distracted age, the model of the great saints of prayer who could pray for hours at a time, seems, frankly, unattainable.

However Spurgeon’s approach – pray short, pray often – seems much more achievable.

And anything that helps us to live in moment by moment communion with God is a great help and to be embraced.

A wise Roman Catholic priest once told me that in building Christian community WHAT you did was not that important, rather it was the fact of doing it TOGETHER that created community.

I think spiritual progress – deepening our relationship with God – operates on the same basis.

The WHAT of our activity counts for little, it is the fact of our doing it WITH God that makes spiritual growth possible.

Go and await the day of your death

In the 15th chapter of the Voyage of St Brendan, the saint meets a monk who lives alone on a deserted island.

The monk tells the tale of how he came to be there.

The dead St Patrick had appeared to him and instructed him to go down to the sea shore, where he would find a boat. He was to set sail in it and it would bring him,

‘to the spot where you will await the day of your death’.

He had followed the instructions, found the boat, climbed in and set sail, and it had brought him to this island where for 90 years he had lived as a solitary monk.

So the injunction ‘to await the day of your death’ was not a statement about an impending doom, but rather a call to live his whole life oriented towards the certainty of his own death, and hence focused resolutely and singularly, upon God.

I recently watched a brilliant film by the independent film-maker Nick HAMER. It was called ‘Outside the City’ and was based on the life of the monastery of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey, Leicestershire.

During the course of the 18 months the film-maker spent with the monks several of them died.

It was very moving to hear the monks talk of their approaching death with calm and a sense of completion.

What was more striking was that even the young monks spoke often of their own death and of their desire to live and die well.

This monastic outlook that stares death squarely in the face in peaceful acceptance, is in stark contrast to our contemporary culture.

In our culture death is denied, pushed out of sight, it is seen in entirely negative terms.

It is interesting to look at St Francis of Assisi’s view of death. As he lay on his own death-bed he wrote a final verse to his great Canticle of the Sun.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom she will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.

St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, composed 1224-1226

We see here death personified as a ‘sister’, a friend whose ministry completes our human life.

For St Francis it was not Sister Death that we need to fear, but rather meeting her unprepared.

For the faithful follower of Jesus, Sister Death is harmless, merely the mechanism by whose ministry we are released into the full presence of God.

It strikes me that the monks of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey can fully embrace life precisely because they fully embrace death.

Holding their own death before them does not lead to depression or morbidity, but rather to the ability to focus on the important, that which brings life, to enjoy the joy of each moment of life, which is a gift. A gift that we take, give thanks for and offer back to God.

So I invite you to ‘go, and await the hour of your death.’

Being Jupital

Jupiter (‘Jove’ or ‘Iove’ in Latin ) was the chief Roman god. Therefore it was logical that the largest planet in the solar system would be named after him.

In astrology those born under the influence of Jupiter were believed to be blessed with a cheerful and good-natured disposition.

It is from this that we have the word ‘jovial’ (lit. ‘of Jupiter’) which designates someone with a cheery, pleasant nature.

As a Christian I find it interesting that someone under the influence of the great god was believed to be of such a positive disposition.

This corresponds with the expectation that followers of Jesus should also demonstrate positive personable characteristics.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

(Romans 15:13, NIV)

This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

(Psalm 118:24)

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

(Proverbs 17:22 ESV)

I found a prayer from Richard ROLLE, the 14th century English mystic, that expresses this well;

‘… lead your life in lightheartedness;

keep hopelessness far away;

do not let gloom remain with you;

but in God’s cheerfulness forever sing out merrily. Amen.’[1]

In a similar vein, Eugene PETERSON described priestly ministry as,

‘…helping people to see grace operating in their lives, as speaking ‘God’ in a situation where God has not been named before so that joy – the ‘capacity to hear the name and recognise that God is here’ – can break out.’[2]

So in a deep sense the Christian life is about the cultivation of joy.

  1. Joy that comes from knowing ourselves to be loved by God.
  2. Joy that comes from recognising God’s activity in and around us, giving our lives significance and meaning.
  3. Joy that arises from knowing that our eternal home is to be with God in fullness of joy, forever.

Ironically this perspective on life means that even difficulties can be lived as joys;

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, a whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’

(James 1 :3-4, NIV)

We can be joyful facing difficulties for we know that they can bring about deep transformation of character, they can therefore help us to grow in likeness to Jesus. This in turn gives glory to God and enables us to show others Jesus more clearly.

So I commend Richard ROLLE’s 700 year old prayer to you,

‘… lead your life in lightheartedness;

keep hopelessness far away;

do not let gloom remain with you;

but in God’s cheerfulness forever sing out merrily. Amen.’

[1] ‘Ghostly Gladness’ by Richard ROLLE

[2] quoted in COCKSWORTH and BROWN, Being a Priest Today, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2002 (2nd ed. 2006), p193f

Salvation is of the Jews but for the World

In conversation with a non-Jew, Jesus made the statement that ‘Salvation is of the Jews’[1].

By this Jesus meant that is was through the creation of the Jewish people and through His interaction with them, that God has revealed Himself to humankind.

This revelation reached its zenith when God Himself was born in human flesh as a Jewish man and lived, taught, died, rose again to life, and ascended into heaven as a Jew.

Anyone wanting to understand who Jesus was, what He taught , what He achieved, and what that means has to become at least a little Jewish in order to do so.

Many white Westerners have spent their lives studying Semitic languages, culture and history in order to be able to understand Jesus the Jew and His message and then to translate that message into their own cultures.

Specific theologies have emerged from this process. What we are becoming more aware of over the past 30 or 40 years is that the others cultures of the world are also undertaking the same process.

Kosuke KOYAMA the Japanese theologian was one of the biggest names in this new movement to widen the cultural palate of the gospel.

Perhaps one of the biggest shock-waves across the bows of Western theology has been the Liberation theology of South America. Where a particular people have sought to examine the message of the gospel in the light of their own cultural context and found an expression that has challenged that of Western theology.

As hundreds and thousands of African, Asian, Austral-Asian, and ethnic theologies from around the world come to find wider recognition, we can only expect that there will be an increased richness and diversity in how the gospel of Jesus is understood and lived out.

In theological terms, this is merely a recognition that God’s revelation to humankind was an enculturated revelation.

Was Abram the Midianite, or the Jews that descended from him better than all the other peoples of the world?

No. Deuteronomy 7:7 states that there was nothing significant about the people God chose,

‘The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.’

And, significantly, God’s initial call to Abram was not a call to be an isolated elite, benefiting from the blessing of God from a place of lofty superiority. Rather the calling was to be a blessing to all the people of the earth.

“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”[2]

So God’s desire for the cultures of the world is that they are to be blessed by their interaction with the People of God, those who have received God’s clearest revelation of Himself and who are charged to bear that revelation to the peoples of the world.

However this interaction is not meant to lead to homogeneity amongst the Christian peoples of the earth. We are not all meant to become culturally Jewish.

Rather each culture is to find its own unique response to the gospel of Christ – we are called to live together in diversity.

This is clearly shown in the book of Revelation when representatives of all the cultures of the world are received into the presence of God.

And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”[3]

What we see in heaven is not an Esperanto people, homogenised, identikit Christians, but rather a glorious diversity of every tribe, tongue and nation gathered to Christ and expressing the gospel in their own unique culturally-shaped way.

So the goal of the Church is not to become a homogenous, one-size-fits-all lowest-common-denominator grouping, but rather a diverse alliance of people following Christ in culturally defined and shaped ways.

What does this mean for the Church?

The missiologist Donald GAVRAN identified something he called the homogenous unit principle –

‘…people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.’

Explaining this principle the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization stated;

‘That is, the barriers to the acceptance of the gospel are often more sociological than theological; people reject the gospel not because they think it is false but because it strikes them as alien. They imagine that in order to become Christians they must renounce their own culture, lose their own identity, and betray their own people.

Therefore, in order to reach them, not only should the evangelist be able to identify with them, and they with the evangelist; not only must the gospel be contextualized in such a way that it communicates with them; but the church into which they are invited must itself belong to their culture sufficiently for them to feel at home in it. It is when these conditions are fulfilled that men and women are won to Jesus Christ, and subsequently that churches grow.’[4]

The Fresh Expression movement is founded in the same realism – people need to see the gospel of Jesus expressed in a way that makes sense to them before they can respond. And when they respond the gospel needs to take on new clothes, the cultural clothing of that particular people at that particular moment.

So how do we live with this tension – on the one hand the reality of cultural diversity that will exist even in heaven – and on the other the imperative to express a oneness in Christ that transcends all human barriers of gender, class, and race[5]?

The Early Church lived with the same tensions, from the start their were culturally Jewish churches and culturally Gentile ones.

The pragmatic response was to recognise their unity in diversity and for each community to make some movement in practice in order to enable their mutual fellowship.

We see in Acts 13 that the Christian Church expressed this unity in diversity,

“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.”[6]

  1. Barnabas was a Jewish man of Levitical descent (the priestly caste).
  2. Simeon was a black man.
  3. Lucius was  North African.
  4. Manaen was from the household of Herod, collaborating, Roman royalty.
  5. Saul was a Jew and a Pharisee.

Yet they find themselves together in one church in the cosmopolitan trading city of Antioch. They had each encountered the message of Jesus and been transformed by it. They worshipped together and shared their lives together.

Yet they lived together with their differences, finding a way to prioritise what united them in Christ over what divided them in culture – but without abandoning that culture.

The theological principle is that Christ must be over culture. Christ will affirm those elements in a culture that are in harmony with the gospel and Christ will speak prophetically against those elements that are against the gospel.

This is an on-going process, as cultures are dynamic and not static.

At every moment Christians need to be asking,

‘Which aspects of my culture are affirmed by the gospel and which are challenged by the gospel?’

At present the world is rocked by the systemic racism expressed in the killing of a black man by a police officer in the USA. We rightly cry out for an end to systems that treat certain people as of less value than others.

But the answer is not to establish a new cultural homogeneity shared by all. The Christian response is to find a way of bringing all cultures under Christ – affirming and challenging the elements of each – in order that each culture can preserve its unique value and richness, but find its ultimate vocation as a means of expressing the gospel of Christ in its own voice.

There is a verse in the book of Revelations which, speaking of heaven, says;

‘On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’[7]

Perhaps this ‘healing of the nations’ speaks of the removal of the attitude that sees difference as a reason for division.

The French have a saying, ‘Vive la difference’ and, for a nation with a strong atheistic bent, this is a surprisingly Christian attitude.

[1] John 4:22

[2] Gen 12:3

[3] Rev 5:9

[4] https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-1

[5] Galatians 3:28

[6] Acts 13:1

[7] Rev 22:2

Homesick for an Unknown Land

But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

2 Peter 3:11 NRSVACE

In the New Testament reading for today I was struck by the above verse.

It is a reminder that the world, as we experience it now, it not easily compatible with righteousness (uprightness, morally right action).

We only have to look at the day’s headlines to see how everyone – from powerful leaders to everyday folk – all struggle equally to live in a righteous way.

If we are honest, we see this unequal struggle deep within ourselves too.

St Paul summed this up powerfully, in his starkest of summations,

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand … Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Romans 7:21,24, NRSVACE

Contemporary self-improvement programmes would talk of ‘being the best version of ourselves’.

But St Paul recognises that this is beyond him. He needs rescuing, this is not a problem that can be resolved by will-power, or mental processes, or visualising a better way of being.

I think one of the key elements of authentic Christian faith is the development of what has been termed ‘a longing for home’.

The old gospel hymn summed it up with,

‘This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.’

Larry Norman updated it in the 70’s with ‘Only Visiting This Planet’.

Both of these express what Abraham and the other heroes of the faith are stated as doing,

‘They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.’

Hebrews 11:13b-14, NRSV

I believe that this is what St Paul is expressing, when he talks so honestly about his own struggle to be the person he wants to be but can’t ever seem to become. He is longing for a homeland he has never seen but where righteousness will not be unnatural but normal.

He is homesick for a place he has never known.

When we are horrified by how unrighteousness prevails in our world – both deep within ourselves and in our leaders, family, neighbours, work-colleagues etc. – when we are shocked by the malice, contempt, injustice, cruelty, selfishness and greed that we see, perhaps that painful experience is a good thing.

For it is a reminder that righteousness is not at home here.

Whilst we work for it, promote it, seek to embrace it and express it personally and communally – we know that we will only ever achieve partial and temporary success.

In this world righteousness is an unnatural state and only established and maintained with great effort.

But our longing for things to be better is a sign of God at work in us.

God is birthing in us a longing for our real homeland – a place where righteousness is at home.

We are becoming homesick for an unknown land.