Dancing with the Trinity

dancing together

Trying to think about the Trinity is impossible. It is one of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith – something C.S. lewis termed “The deep magic”.

Howver, in seeking to approach this mystery there is a theological word from the Orthodox branch of Christendom that I have found helpful.

That word is ‘perichoresis’ and it comes from two Greek words, peri, which means “around,” (eg. perimeter) and chorein, which means “to give way” or “to make room” (eg. choreography). So perichoresis  could be translated something like “rotation” or “moving around togther”

In theological terms Orthodox theologians use this word to refer to the mutual intersecting or interpenetration of the three Persons of the Godhead. It is a term that expresses intimacy and reciprocity among Father, Son and Spirit[1].

Perichoresis helps us to remember that at the heart of the Trinity is the Father, Son and Spirit expressing their love for each other in creative acts that together reveal the glory of God.

Perhaps a useful image is to think of God the Father instigating an expression of His love, God the Son sees this and responds to it, adding something of His own to it, God the Spirit then sees what the Father and Son are doing and He also responds in the same direction and also expresses something of His unique nature and love.

Perichoresis describes a relationship that is something like that of a group of people dancing an improvised dance together. One partner creates a new movement, the others see this, reflect it back responding to it and also adding a further element of their own.

I suppose instead of calling the Trinity ‘the Dancing God’ we could equally use the term ‘the Jazz God’, because in jazz improvisation there is also the same idea of players responding to each other melody inventions, reflecting them back and adding their own riff in a joyous, creative exchange.

This perichoretic principle is brilliantly displayed in Scripture as each Person of the Trinity is shown working together to reconcile mankind to the God. The Bible affirms that;

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ[2]

So it was God the Father who was reconciling the world to Himself in the activity of Christ, God the Son. Totally united, moving in one will and action.

In another biblical example of perichoretic action we read;

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us[3].

It is God the Father’s love that is being demonstrated in Christ’s death. Again this shows a total unity and harmony, God the Father and God the Son expressing the same divine love in action.

We see that the Holy Spirit is vitally and centrally involved in this process too, for it is through Him at work in us that our Christian experience begins;

However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, No ear has heard, No human mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him—“

but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit … What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us … The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.[4]

So what the Father has purposed, the Son has accomplished on Calvary, the Spirit makes real in our experience through a salvific encounter in which faith is birthed in our hearts.

Indeed, if any human being comes to saving faith in Christ it happens solely through the cooperation of each of the Persons of the Trinity – Father / Son /Spirit working together, through their ‘dancing’ together.

Their joyous, love fuelled creative dance is what saves us –

the only way that people are saved is by being danced into the Kingdom of God!

Right about now you might be saying to yourself, “Well this is all very interesting and high-falautin’, but what has that got to do with me?”

Well the answer to that question is the wonderful and glorious fact that as part of our life of Christian discipleship, God the Trinity invites us to dance with Him!

In the same way that Son and Spirit respond to the Father’s activity, God invites us to respond to what He is doing in the lives of those around us; to be involved with Him in brining others into the experience of His saving love – to dance with Him.

You might ask “How can we do that?” Well the ability to recognise God at work in people’s lives is;

The outworking of a relationship; not a technique to be learned.

However the following biblical texts give us some useful pointers:

All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away… ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: “They will all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.  (John 6:35-37, 44-45 NIV)

First Principle : Only those that God draws to Himself, come to Him.

Application – Prayer is therefore the most crucial evangelistic activity we can undertake.

As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. (Romans 3:10-11 NIV)

Second Principle: The very act of someone seeking God is, in itself, the evidence of God at work in them.

Application – Any ‘openness’ towards God, any interest in spiritual things, are clear evidence of God at work.

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer;  and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:7-11, NIV)

Third Principle : Only the Holy Spirit’s action in a human heart can convince a person of the reality of the Incarnation, Ascension and Resurrection (and Parousia) of Jesus.

Application – Any person that starts to think in a positive way about Jesus, to glimpse His divinity, to start to realise the significance and meaning of His life, death and resurrection, such a person shows irrefutable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity.

These signs are the out-working of the Holy Spirit at work, but they are the fruit of a process that starts small. It is in normal, everyday conversation that we can explore where people are spiritually by being sensitive to any expression that might indicate some spiritual movement/openness and gently offering responses that permit them to tell us more (should they wish to).

Perhaps a concrete example from my own life will help.

During my 14 years in France I was fr several years a volunteer fireman in my village (a Sapeur-Pompier). The only perk of this activity was a weekend away every two years, where we would go on a coach trip somewhere with or partners. They were typical tourist holidays, which in France meant visiting cathedrals and monasteries along with the other tourist sights. On one of these trips we happened to be visiting a church and I noticed that one of my sapeur-pompier colleagues, was staring intently at a crucifix on the wall. I went over and stood beside him. Without preamble or question on my part he just said to me,

“I’ve just realized that Jesus must have suffered terribly for us.”

Straight away my spiritual radar fired up and I thought to myself this has got to be God at work, for only God can help people understand that Jesus died for them and their salvation. I thought how can I respond to this activity of God revealing to Yann something of the depth of God’s love for him?

So when we got back on the bus I just went and sat beside him. A conversation naturally began and we just talked. Over the next few hours we had the most amazing spiritual conversation in which I was able to present to him the Christian faith and to respond to some of his questions and difficulties. I was also able to offer to pray for him.

Now, I cannot say that he became a Christian that day, or that he is even one now. But I know with an absolute certainty that at the moment I was dancing with the trinity – how cool is that!

[1] http://www.gotquestions.org/perichoresis.html#ixzz3bFvoQjvh

[2] 2 Cor 5:18f, NIV

[3] Romans 5:8, NIV

[4] 1 Corinthians 2 :9-14

The Greedy God

Greedy

I read today a phrase that made me stop short.

“He (God) calls us to Himself – to the complete surrender of all that we are and all that we have and all that we desire to Him.”

All that we ARE and HAVE and DESIRE.

God demands it all.

Wow!

This is a very different presentation of the gospel than that which passes for contemporary Christian gospel proclamation. Such presentations tend to be of the type;

“Jesus came to make you a bigger and better you!”
“Jesus came to help you fulfil your dreams and your destiny!”
Put another way, “The gospel is all about you!”

The traditional, authentic, timeless Christian message is not this at all.

It is not centred on us; it is centred on God.

Placing God at the centre, giving Him the right to control who we are, dispose of what we have and orient what we desire, is only to recognise the reality of things.

We do not belong to ourselves, nothing we are or have is our own, and everything tat we have and are comes to us from God – every breath, every beat of our heart.

Giving it all back to God only expresses the reality of the state of affairs.

Everything is already His.

We belong to God.

Embracing this truth is the first step in Christian discipleship.

The Christian faith is the message that God wants his property back. Not because of any voracious cupidity, but because He loves us. He knows that only He can care for us, love us, nurture and nourish us, guide and direct us so that our lives take their place in His designs and come to count for not only for time but also eternity.

Therefore, any area of our lives where God is not in control is maladjusted, deviant, wrong-headed, dysfunctional, and will be ultimately unfruitful.

God wants our best. Only He knows what that is. Only He knows how best to achieve it.

God also knows, better than we can even imagine, that we are created, not for time, but for eternity.

This brief human existence is merely the rehearsal for a glorious reality; a reality that will far surpass our current capacity to comprehend.

Christian discipleship is therefore about allowing God to make choices for us, to give us direction and to set the priorities that will lead to our transformation.

We know that we will not understand much of this beforehand. We cannot, we are creatures not the Creator. We are fixed in time, uncomprehending of eternity. Thus humility and acceptance are vital attitudes.

We also know that discipleship is bound to be uncomfortable, because transformation does not happen in the comfort zone. It only happens in extremis, when we are pushed to our limits, forced to go farther than we have ever been before.

We therefore understand and accept that discipleship will be costly. God will demand that we make sacrifices, perhaps even some sacrifices He doesn’t ask others to make, because God’s program for each of us is personalised, specific. He knows what we need in order to give up in order to become what He wants us to be.

What we do know, is that every sacrifice, every instance when we put God first, will never go unrewarded, will never be insignificant, will never be worthless.

A failure to embrace this God-first discipleship, any refusal, a saying “No” to God, is the expression of a disbelief that God either knows what’s best for us (a disbelief in His omniscience), or a doubt that He wants what’s best for us (a disbelief in His goodness).

Both of these are blasphemy.

A denial of the God of the Bible.

A refusal to accept that God has definitively and forever proved the reality of His love for us on the cross.

In the excess of the 80s, some people embraced the philosophy that greed is good.

They believed that trickle-down economics would mean that the few getting super-rich would eventually lead all everyone getting just a little richer.

Sadly the ensuing years have fatally disproved that philosophy.

But in the context of God, His “greed”, His refusal to accept any loss of what belongs to Him, is not only good, but our only hope.

Separated from Him we are lost and hopeless, condemned to empty, meaningless lives.

Praise God that He is “greedy”, that He was willing to go to ultimate lengths of unimaginable suffering in order to regain what is His own.

We fall on our faces to worship the “greedy”, Christmas, Easter God.

The Noblesse Oblige of Salvation

noblesseobligetxt

The sermon on the nativity by St Leo the Great on the Nativity brought me up sharp as I read it this morning.

In it he is exhorting Christians to live out their faith in a committed and authentic way. He is encouraging them to go on in their discipleship and in the transformation of their lives in Christlikeness.

What gave me pause for thought was the rationale he employed to inspire and motivate them.

“O Christian, be aware of your nobility – it is God’s own nature that you share; do not them, by an ignoble life, fall back into your former baseness. Think of the Head, think of the Body of which you are a member.”

In the first instance Saint Leo reminds them of their true nature – they are no longer common men, ordinary humans, fleshly creatures, rather they are sons and daughters of God, they partake God’s own nature, they are spiritual beings imbued with eternal, divine life.

They are not individuals, but connected to Christ – the Head. An unworthy life or lifestyle will not only bring shame on themselves but also on their Lord and Saviour.

They are not individuals, but connected to the Universal Church – all those who have, or who will, accept Christ throughout the whole of time. Again, their conduct reflects on all those who surround, or who look on from glory, or who will follow.

Saint Leo then moves onto a different tack. He reminds them not merely of their new nature but the action that effected that transformation.

“Recall that you have been rescued from the power of darkness, and have been transferred to the light of God, the kingdom of God. Through the sacrament of baptism you have been made a temple of the Holy Spirit; do not by evil deeds, drive so great an Indweller away from you, submitting yourself once more to the slavery of the devil. For you were bought at the price of Christ’s blood.”

In the light of this great miracle of grace, effected in their salvation and by their baptism, they now have a choice. The Indwelling Spirit gives them the power to resist or to submit to evil.

Both resisting and submitting will have serious consequences for their spiritual life – one will take them backwards and under the influence of he who is the enemy of their souls; the other will take them ever closer in their relationship to the God who loves them and who has saved them.

Saint Leo closes by reminding them of their worth – God considered them are worth the life of a God.

So live like it!

(Citation from Nativity sermon of Saint Leo the Great, 440-461 A.D.)

Surgery in Scripture

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There are two parallel stories of surgery in the Bible.

In the first surgical procedure, God causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep; He then opens up Adam’s side and, from one of Adam’s ribs, forms Eve.

Eve is a divine gift that completes Adam. Eve enables Adam to achieve his full human potential. In partnership with her, Adam is now capable of fulfilling the rôle God called him to – to care for and develop the Earth.

The second biblical example of surgery is when Jesus hangs dead on the cross. Jesus was understood as fulfilling the original calling of the first Adam. Whereas Adam failed in his calling, he was weak, he sinned, he also brought sin into the lives of all Mankind, and was therefore the cause of a separation between God and Man, Jesus  – the last Adam – comes to reverse all this.

The last Adam comes to succeed, not fail. The last Adam will stay faithful to the end. The last Adam will reverse the consequences of the first Adam’s failure. By His sacrificial death the last Adam will obtain for humankind the forgiveness of sin and therefore make possible a reconciliation between Man and God.

“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (Romans 5:17 NIV)

 

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NIV)

 

“So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” (1 Corinthians 15:45-48 NIV)

So while Jesus – the last Adam – is “asleep” on the cross, His side is also pierced. Not by God but by a Roman spear. This time what is taken from Him is not a rib, but instead water and blood are seen to flow out of the wound.

The early Christians saw here a striking reference to the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist.

All of which is highly significant. For it is through baptism we are brought into the Church; and it is through the blood of the Eucharist we partake of the life of Christ – a blood that cleanses us from sin, and gives new life.

So the water and the blood which flow from the side of Christ symbolize the Church – the Bride of Christ.

“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:23, 26-27 NIV)

 

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2 NIV)

 

“I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” (2 Corinthians 11:2 NIV)

Like Eve, taken from the side of the first Adam, the Church the Bride of Christ, flows out of the side of the Last Adam. Like Eve, the Bride is to be a partner for the Last Adam. Someone who will work with Him in the mission of establishing the Kingdom of God in the world.

Two Adams. Two surgeries. Two new, cherished partners who result. All doing well.

The Surgeon seems to be on top of His game.

 

Blood Which Speaks a Different Language

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Paradise to fratricide. In just four short chapters the book of Genesis presents to us the heart-wrenching story of human decline.

From an idyllic environment, life in paradise in communion with God, to the murder of one brother by another.

The first son of man, Cain, kills his brother Abel.

Abel, whose name means ‘Morning Mist’ disappears in like manner. Burned away by his brother’s anger at God’s acceptance of Abel’s worship and rejection of his own.

However, although Abel is dead, his blood still speaks.

God says to Cain,

Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ (Genesis 4:10b-12 NIV)

Abel’s blood cries out to God for vengeance and for the punishment of Cain’s sin.

Reflective Christians will see here a stark contrast with another ‘Son of Man’ who, instead of taking the life of another in a fit of religious anger, will offer his own life, in love, to save others.

Like Abel’s, Christ’s spilt blood also cries out to God.

However, it speaks a very different language.

The blood of Christ cries out to God to forgive, to pardon, to cleanse, to accept, to restore, to heal.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 1:5b-6 NIV)

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith. (Romans 3:25 NIV)

Jesus’ blood speaks an altogether different language to that of Abel, a much better word.

Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:24 NIV)

 

“Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel : it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all” (Joseph Ratzinger “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week”, p187)

 

This Snake Will Heal You

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Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible (and there are a few !) is the event recounted in Numbers 21.

The people of Israel, newly freed from slavery in Egypt, are on a desert pilgrimage towards the Promised Land.

However, their new-found joy in freedom quickly wanes in the harsh reality of desert travel.

They start to complain against God, accuse Him of bringing them into the desert to die.

In response God sends amongst them venomous snakes and people start to die.

Realizing their sin and stupidity and sin, the people cry out to Moses to pray to God for them.

Which Moses does, and God responds in a surprising way.

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” (Numbers 21:4-9 NIV)

Think for a minute about this.

God has given the Israelites strict commandments about not worshipping idols (a big temptation in this culture), so much so that all images are strictly banned in worship.

Yet here God is, telling Moses to make an image and promising that anyone who looks towards it will not die of a snake-bite.

How odd! If anything is likely to lead these people to idolatry one would have thought that a miraculous snake idol would be it!

However, if we look a little deeper we realize just what is going on here.

Most people are well aware of the first appearance of the snake in the Bible – he is used as a personification of Satan, who comes to tempt Eve in the garden.

An symbolic identification that is continued as God pronounces a curse upon the serpent and makes a prophecy that the serpent will live in enmity to mankind – striking at his heel. However this is followed up by a further prophecy that one day someone will crush the serpent’s head – that is to say destroy him utterly.

This messianic prophecy refers to Jesus who will destroy Satan through the cross.

Given this backdrop the message of this story starts to become clear. In forcing the Israelites to look to the serpent – that image of harm;

God is forcing them to recognize that the snake is the source of their trouble.

They have looked to the snake rather than to God and this has only led them into disaster and death.

The people of Israel admit that their behaviour deserves the snakes, that this punishment is just. The visible presence of the snake statue keeps this failure in view.

In God’s grace this image if harm can become a source of healing.

All of which is wonderfully resonant for Christians.

Jesus states that as the snake was lifted up in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, and for the same reason – to bring the possibility of healing and life.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (John 3:14-15 NIV)

The cross – that image of harm – is used by God to bring life!

In looking to the cross we are required like the Israelites to admit that this is what we deserve – our sins have earned us death. Yet God in His grace makes us the offer of life.

Look to the cross – the poison of sin will be drawn from your system – and you can begin to live.

Look and live!

 

Hoi Zontes – The Living

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There is a famous quote from Buddhist writings about an encounter with the Buddha.

 

On seeing him, [Dona] went to him and said, “Master, are you a deva [a god]?”

“No, brahman, I am not a deva.”

“Are you a gandhabba [a kind of low-grade god; a celestial musician]?”

“No…”

“… a yakkha [a kind of protector god, or sometimes a trickster spirit]?”

“No…”

“… a human being?”

“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”

“Then what sort of being are you?”

“Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.’” (AN 4.36 PTS: A ii 37)

 

Jesus responded very differently to the same sort of questions. In Jesus’ teaching the goal of human existence is not merely to be awakened, but to be alive.

 

From a Christian understanding, in their natural state human beings are only biologically alive, they are not spiritually alive.

 

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away.

Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. (Colossians 2:13 NLT)

 

Indeed, several statements of Jesus show that his whole mission was to create this possibility of life for the spiritually dead;

 

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10 NIV)

 

Furthermore, Jesus claimed to be the only possibility of life for humankind;

 

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.

No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NIV)

 

The early Christians understood this point clearly. The Johannine gospel and epistles hammer this point constantly – to come to Christ is to have life.

 

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9 NIV)

 

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:12 NIV)

 

For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. (John 5:21 NIV)

 

For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”(John 6:40 NIV)

 

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NIV)

 

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:2 NIV)

 

So much was this point central to Christian self-understanding that the first disciples of Jesus even called themselves “hoi zontes” or “The Living”.

 

And yet the early believers also experienced a mysterious paradox;

 

For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,

so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Corinthians 4:11 NIV)

 

This verse speaks of the early Christians who were persecuted, martyred for their faith, dispossessed and, generally held in contempt by society at large. And yet they perceived that it was in this context of ‘death’ that the life of Jesus in them shone out more strongly.

 

In my devotions this morning I was blown away by something Pope Benedict wrote about the eternal life which God offers us through faith in Jesus;

 

“Eternal life is not – as the modern reader might immediately assume – life after death, in contrast to this present life which is transient and not eternal. Eternal life is life itself, real life, which can also be lived in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death.

This is the point: to seize life here and now, real life that can no longer be destroyed by anything or anyone…

 

a distinguishing feature of the disciple of Jesus is the fact that he “lives”: beyond the mere fact of existing, he has found and embraced the real life that everyone is seeking. On the basis of such texts, the early Christians called themselves simply “the living” (hoi zontes). They had found what all are seeking – life itself, full and, hence, indestructible life.

 

Yet how does one obtain it?

 

Eternal life is gained through recognition … recognizing creates communion; it is union of being with the one recognized. But of course the key to life is not any kind of recognition, but to “know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3)…”

(Joseph Ratzinger “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week”, p83)

 

Choose life.

Exchanging Glory for Disgrace or How to Become a Pagan

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« They exchanged their glory for something disgraceful » (Hosea 4 :7b, NIV)

The book of Hosea is a very interesting description of the mechanism of apostasy –  how the people of Israel slid from the worship of the true God into paganism – and the results of that apostasy.

The first thing to note was that it was a very subtle process.

Bit by bit elements from paganism slid into the theology and religious practice of Israel.

Worship began to be seen less as “the chief end of man”, the achievement of his ultimate purpose and potential, the expression of a relationship in which a person rightly relates to the God who made them, sustains them and loves them; and became merely a form of human-divine commerce – mankind worships and in return the gods make the crops grow.

This change in perspective moves people from purity to pragmatism. It becomes less a concern “Are we worshipping God in the way we should?” and more about “Are we getting what we want?”

If it works, do it.

The other mechanism in the move to apostasy is the move from theocentric worship to anthropocentric worship. It is less about pleasing God and more about enjoying the experience.

If it feels good, do it.

Following these two changes spirituality gradually mutates.

The people of Israel start to include bull statues (the symbol of Baal) in their worship spaces. At the start this is justified by their designation merely as “pedestals” – the invisible Yahweh is stated to be “standing” on top of these statues, therefore the religious innovators can still claim that worship is being directed towards Yahweh.

Of course the reality is that people end up worshipping the statues.

One innovation leads to another. What other elements – which are either fun to do, or seem to be efficacious in getting the results we want – can we borrow from the surrounding nations?

Soon we find the worship of Yahweh has mutated from holy worship undertaken by a purified people into a form of religious feasting with cultic sex thrown in.

We see that change has a dramatic effect on the moral life of the nation – cursing, lying, bloodshed and adultery become part of everyday life (Hosea 4:2).

Worship makes the world.

 

However, we might think that whilst this may be an interesting historical study it has little to say to us today. However, we would be wrong in thinking that.

Spiritual realities don’t change.

The same forces that operated then still operate now. Christian churches face the same temptations as the ancient Israelites.

 

The temptation to move from a motivation in worship that is drawn from the understanding that it is our highest calling and fulfils our greatest human potential;  to a motivation which is expressed by the question “What do I get out of it?” or “What’s in it for me?”

The temptation to move from God-centred worship to man-centred worship. Where the key concern is no longer “Are we pleasing God?” but rather “Is everyone having fun?”

These two movements will be sufficient to gradually paganise our worship.

One day we will finally move to the point where we are no longer worshipping God at all.

Our worship will be so sin-ridden that God will not accept it. Our image of god so twisted and corrupt that it is no longer God at all.

 

This is a real and ever-present danger and the Old Testament gives many examples of it at work amongst the people of God, Hosea is just one instance.

The New Testament sadly shows the same problem affecting the Church. Saint Paul warns that there are always those who will proclaim “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11) the adoption of which leads not to the establishment of Christian churches, but rather to “synagogues of Satan” (Rev 2:9, 3:9).

The most frightening aspect of this is that those within these movements do not understand their deception.

The Israelites with all their perversion of theology and cult still thought they were worshipping Yahweh; the churches spoken of in the book of Revelation still considered themselves to be Christian.

 

The film “Dogma” gave a fantastic illustration of this process at work. The scenario was that the Catholic church, seeking to speak more relevantly to contemporary society, decided to update its image. The crucifix, with its imagery of Christ suffering and giving his life-blood to save us from our sins, was considered “too depressing”. Therefore a new icon had been developed – the Buddy Christ.

Now the key image to represent the Christian faith was not one showing both the fatal problem of sin and how God has provided a means whereby that problem can be addressed, but rather one that says, “Jesus thinks you’re cool!”

Now on one level this is true. God does love us. But the Bible holds this truth in tension with another – that our sin is killing us. It is separating us from the very love God that wants to lavish on us. We need to be forgiven for it and freed from it (shriven from it, as in Shrove Tuesday) in order to move into the experience of God’s radical love.

Thus by the simply neglect of “half the story” the Christian faith has been twisted, transformed into something quite different, it is no longer about how we can be saved but rather about being affirmed.

Notice that the same two elements are at work –

It is no longer about God – giving Him the worship that is His due and our glory and purpose – but about us and our therapeutic need to feel good about ourselves. We have moved from a theocentric perspective to an anthropocentric one.

Secondly, spirituality is no longer concerned with holy worship and the tools for the rigorous process of transformation into Christ-like holiness. It is no longer focussed on remedying what is wrong with us (our inherent sinfulness) but merely affirming us as we are. We have moved from a concern to worship God rightly, to a concern for the “feel-good” factor.

It is in this context of this very real and ever-present danger of apostasy that we can see the vital necessity of holding fast to the Bible and to its traditional interpretation and to be very careful about testing any new “insights” that would radically alter Christian belief and behaviour.

 

Come as you are, but don’t stay as you are.

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“Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears…

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:4b, 6 NIV)

 

In amazing brevity and precision, these two verses from Hosea presents the whole comprehensive reality of mankind’s deepest spiritual problem.

First a little context.

The people of Israel had entered into a covenant relationship with God following his bringing them out of slavery in Egypt and God has established them in the promised land.

Unfortunately they backslide.

They start to mix worship of the pagan deities of the surrounding nations in with their worship of Yahweh.

Yahweh does not accept this and so decides he will show them the powerlessness of these other gods and allows the nation to experience one disaster after another.

Finally the penny drops and the priests call the people to offer sacrifices to Yahweh.

But this merely exposes the root of their misunderstanding.

Yahweh doesn’t want their sacrifices. He wants their obedience.

This is the core of not only Israel’s but mankind’s deepest spiritual problem. All pagan religion, indeed all magic, has a mercantile basis.

People try to manipulate the gods into doing what they want by giving them stuff.

But the Bible tells us that,

Yahweh doesn’t want our stuff.

Indeed as C.S. Lewis powerfully made the point in his “Sixpence none the richer story”[1] – we have nothing to give God apart from that which he has first given us. God is never any better off for having been given back his own stuff!

The root spiritual problem we, as human beings, have is this,

We want to be saved without being changed.

But this is not how Yahweh works.

 

 ‘An acknowledgement of God’ means an acknowledge with heart and life of the lordship of the God of the Exodus and covenant[2].

Indeed, the whole history of Israel is the sphere of the struggle and dialogue between man and God. This is expressed in some of the possible meanings of the name Israel e.g. “God strives” or “Struggles with God”.

As Mays reminds us,

“Yahweh is the exclusive Lord of Israel and alone has the right to fix the conditions of their existence. One does not turn to a suzerain for help while ignoring his desire.”[3]

Israel’s problem (and ours) is the struggle to accept this in the reality of our daily lives. To give God his rightful place.

I was brought up in the Evangelical tradition and we liked to express spiritual truth in memorable aphorisms. One we used to quote regularly was,

“If Jesus isn’t Lord of all, he isn’t Lord at all”

There is a key moment of revelation in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” when the character of Aslan, the Jesus figure, is described,

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?

Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” …

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

In fact the human error is this folly of this search for a tame god.

We want a small, trivial god, that we can easily manipulate and turn to our ends. We are prepared to give God our stuff, but not ourselves. We can do once a week worship, or daily prayer, or even 10% of our income, but to give ourselves wholly to God, for him to control and  guide and use as he will. No way.

All of which is understandable. It’s just not possible. Well not if we want to be saved.

The God who is revealed in the Bible works differently.

The God who called out and set apart Israel to live in relationship with him did not intend to relate to his people in the same meaningless, mercantile, worship exchange of paganism.

“In his election of Israel Yahweh had not meant to found one more religion of ritual by which men might manage the divine; he intended to become absolute Lord of all life”[4]

When God called Israel it was to something far bigger than being their genie in a bottle; their “Get out of jail free” card in case of problems.

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.

Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a NIV)

 

It is in this context that we must understand Hosea’s critique of the people of Israel’s “love”. Their supposed “love” or “devotion” to God was wavering, changeable, inconstant. Whereas,

‘Devotion’ means the attitude and acts which loyally maintain and implement a given relationship[5]

 

The “acknowledgement of God” implies,

“A knowing which becomes a state of being.”[6]

Israel’s failure was in approaching Yahweh,

“… as though he was some Canaanite deity to whom the quality if their lives is irrelevant, as though there were no covenant and no revelation in the past of what it means ‘to be my people’”[7]

In fact this is the key failure which will be resumed a few verses further on,

“but they do not realise that I remember all their evil deeds.

Their sins engulf them; they are always before me.” (Hosea 7:2 NIV)

The real issue, the crucial issue, never enters their minds – that it is the evil in their lives that God hates.

We cannot encounter God in any meaningful way, in his majesty, his glory and his power and merely ‘bumble on’ as before.  Any time that something of God’s true wonder and holiness and glory begin to dawn on our consciousness, change will inevitably happen. Something that is made clear in the New Testament,

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV)

Indeed, to stay unchanged is to deny the reality of our encounter with God. To have met with God in a saving encounter always leads to transformation.

If we are in relationship with God it is always on HIS terms. God doesn’t invite us “to try our best”, or “to have a go” at living in a way that pleases him. He COMMANDS us to live holy lives.

Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.(Leviticus 19:2 NIV)

Much of the debate about Christian sexual ethics in the light of changing contemporary mores seems to me to be rooted in such a desire to avoid this radical call to holiness and the complete re-orientation of our lives. We want to be saved, but not to be changed. God please save me but leave me as I am.

However transformation into holiness, a re-orientation of our life in line with God’s standards, values, desires are the essential elements of a saving encounter with the awesome God of the Bible,

“Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” …

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Lewis C.S. Mere Christianity – Book III-Christian Behaviour – Chapter 11-Faith, Glasgow: Fount, 1952, p124

[2] Mays, James Luther The Old Testament Library – Hosea, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969, p95

[3] ibid., p98

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p103

The three divine revelations everyone needs

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“When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:

about sin, because people do not believe in me;

about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer;

and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” (John 16:8-11 NIV)

 

Jesus is here telling his disciples what the Holy Spirit is going to do in the hearts of human beings to enable them to be saved. This is presented as a re-playing of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilot, to whom the Jewish leaders had presented Jesus demanding his death. However, in a surprising twist it is revealed that it was not Jesus who was on trial – but the world itself.

 

Three things are presented – three divine insights – which are essential if anyone is going to come to salvation.

All three of them concern Jesus and the understanding we have of him.

 

“about sin, because people do not believe in me”

The first divine revelation is concerning the identity of Jesus. The world refused to believe in Jesus. His own people the Jews rejected him. The Roman empire – the great pagan world power of the time – crucified him. This is the world’s basic sin – it has refused to recognize that Jesus was God. No salvation is even possible until people realize that Jesus is God, that Jesus is their only hope.

 

“about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer”

The second divine revelation concerns the character of Jesus – was he a criminal, an imposter, a fraud? Is he now in hell being punished for his sins, or is he in heaven at the right hand of God the Father?

The Jews portrayed Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard. They condemned him for being willing to eat in the company of the insalubrious. They pointed to the fact that his disciples were not drawn from the great and the good, but from the common stock of fisherman, tax collectors, even terrorists. The Romans suspected him of being an insurrectionist, a threat to the Roman military conquest of the Jews. Thus the world in its entirety – Jew and Gentile – judged Jesus guilty. But in actuality he was the only really innocent and just man that ever lived.

 

“about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned”

The third revelation concerns the outcome of Jesus’ trial. Jesus was pronounced guilty, but in actual fact in doing this the world pronounced judgement on itself; in its rejection of Jesus.

Pontius Pilot famously washed his hands before the Jews in order to express his innocence of the blood of Jesus – he claimed he was merely doing what the Jewish leaders wanted. The Jewish crowd were whipped up by their leaders to cry out that they accepted that Jesus’ blood be on their heads.

In this false and erroneous judgement of Jesus the World system condemns itself not only as blind but as guilty, they knew Jesus was innocent, still they condemned him. In condemning an innocent man they condemn themselves.

 

The only salvation that the Christian faith knows to be possible is based on an understanding of the reality about Jesus, a reality that we can only grasp by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is only he who can help us understand that Jesus was God himself, incarnate amongst us, the innocent who chose to die to save the guilty.

 

These revelations also apply to ourselves.

We have to see that we have also refused to believe in Jesus, that he is God himself, and so we stand guilty before God.

We too have refused to accept his innocence and that he told us the truth about ourselves and about God.

We too have rejected him and by so doing pronounce our own guilt.

 

It is only when that miraculous insight is graced to us by the Holy Spirit that salvation becomes possible.