Thursday, March 31, 2011

Update on Lent Talks

I am trying to make some of my talks available through audio.  This is all a bit experimental at the moment, but here is the first attempt.  It is the second talk for Lent, 2011.  If it works, and there is any interest, I will add others!

The Eucharist - Study 2: A Violent and Bloody Sacrifice
Wait for One Another

At our Lent Bible Study last night, we were thinking of how the Eucharist in the Early Church was a real meal, so real that at Corinth some ate and drank so well that they became drunk.  The only reason we have Paul's extended piece on the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 is that he found it necessary to write to correct this abuse.

Early in the letter Paul had written to the Corinthians:

'Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.'  (1 Corinthians 1:26)

Not many, notice, but some nevertheless.  Some were well-educated, powerful and of noble birth and this is something that sometimes goes uncommented on.

Firstly, those who were rich must have been truly genuine and committed to the Christian message or else why join a movement that was mainly comprised of the poor, slaves, and those from a much inferior social class?  What was happening in the early Church was truly exciting: the rich were mixing with the poor as equals and as brothers and sisters in Christ and, whatever else we may say, this is much to their credit.

Secondly, their commitment to Christ expressed itself in the willingness of the rich to support the new movement in material terms.  Paul himself refers to the support he had received from Philemon.  We know that the first Christians met in the homes of rich people who were willing to open them up for the purpose.  It was here that the Lord's Supper and the church services took place.  To be able to afford a house big enough to accommodate a sizeable group of people would have meant that you were seriously rich.  That despite being rich, and therefore socially well-connected, you were willing to open your home to slaves and the like to come and eat in is really remarkable.

So before we rush into condemning the behaviour of the rich in Corinth - as we must and as Paul does - it is worth remembering all this.  So what was going wrong at Corinth?  Essentially, it seems that the Church would decide a time to meet.  The meeting itself took the form of a meal celebrating the Lord's Supper.  The rich being rich could get to the meeting on time without any problem.  After all, that's one of the advantages of being rich, you have control over how you live your life and when you can come and go.  The poor, especially slaves, have no such control.  They have to do as they are told and need the permission of others before they can do anything.

The problem at Corinth was that the rich, instead of waiting for the poor to turn up, got on with their gathering, sharing in the meal together, so that by the time some of the Church had managed to get there, there was no food left and so they left the meeting hungry.

At our study last night, I asked the question how would most Vicars, as advised by their Church Councils, deal with such a situation if something like it occurred today.  I suggested that 9 times out of 10 (if not more), the following approach would be adopted:

1.  Obviously, we must be careful not to appear ungrateful to the rich who are so kindly providing places for us to meet, generously giving to support the ministry, and even providing food and wine for us to enjoy at our meetings.  Where would we be without their commitment?

2.  We can perhaps keep back some food and drink for those who can't make it to the meeting on time.  Then there will be something for them to eat and they won't go away hungry.

3.  We should also encourage the slaves to be more responsible in their time-keeping and ask them to try harder to get to the meetings on time.

I can guarantee that at every Church I have known that this would be the basic approach.  So how does Paul deal with the situation?  We need to remember that he is normally very diplomatic when dealing with pastoral issues.  In Romans 14 and 15, for example, his advice is a model of diplomacy, tolerance, and compromise.  Here, however, his reaction is one of absolute outrage:

'What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!'  (1 Corinthians 11:22)

He is not in the least intimidated by the wealth and power of the rich.  He is not prepared to compromise what he believes to be central Christian truths to keep the favour of the rich.  After this expression of outrage, he then goes on to describe the Last Supper Jesus held with his disciples drawing this conclusion:

'Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.'  (1 Corinthians 11:27)

He continues to tell them that it is because of their unacceptable behaviour at the Lord's Supper that some have become sick and died (11:30).  This phrase 'an unworthy manner' has been taken to mean that each of us as individuals should not receive Communion if we have sin in our lives.  It has caused much angst and soul searching.  It is, of course, right that each of us take receiving Communion seriously, but we need to see that what Paul meant in using this phrase was that the rich should show respect to the poor.  Receiving in an unworthy manner in Paul's terms is less about sin in our personal life and more about failing to show respect to a fellow member of the Body of Christ.

That Paul is talking primarily about our relationship with one another rather than our individual relationship with the Lord is confirmed by the conclusion that Paul himself draws at the end of this passage:

'So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.'  (1 Corinthians 11:33)

So simple: wait for one another!  You are in this together regardless of whether you are rich or poor.  In Christ who you are, where you come from, which school you went to, what job you do, how much you earn, how popular you are, all count for nothing.  Wait for one another!  No-one is more important than anyone else.  Wait for one another, make sure you value all equally, for only then will you be eating the Lord's Supper in a worthy manner.  Any celebration of the Lord's Supper then that doesn't include every member of the Body of Christ, whatever their age or background, is not the Lord's Supper and is to put at risk the physical and spiritual health of all who take part.

All that Paul writes, of course, only makes sense if the Lord's Supper was a real meal. It is also worth noting that as Paul founded the Church at Corinth and was its pastor for its first 18 months, it must have been Paul who established the practice of having the Church's meeting over a meal.  Ironically, however, the consequences of what Paul writes here were that the Lord's Supper became less about sharing a real meal and more about what the meal signified.  Probably this was a right and necessary development, but we should not forget that originally the Lord's Supper was a real meal that all could share in as had been the Last Supper itself.

The development of the Lord's Supper from being a real meal to the Eucharist in the liturgical form in which we now celebrate it, will be the subject of our next Lenten Study! 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The past few weeks have been especially challenging for me.  I am hoping that now the waters leading up to Easter will be calm ones!   I am, then, thinking about Easter and preparing for the services over it.  The coincidence of reading Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, and delivering a series of Lent talks on the Eucharist as a preparation for Easter has brought home to me how there exist two very different approaches to the death and resurrection of our Lord at work in the Church.

1. A Vindicated Martyr for Truth and Justice and an Example for All

The first sees Jesus' death as the inevitable outcome of his life and teaching.  How he lived and what he taught inevitably brought him up against those in power who had to silence him.  Jesus, however, refused to be silenced, but proclaimed the Kingdom of God accepting death as the consequence.  God, however, vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, thus demonstrating that Jesus was right all along, defeating death in the process.

Jesus thus sacrificed his life for the Gospel and God brought life out of death by the resurrection.  Jesus died as a martyr, but God did not abandon him.  We now are to follow the example of Christ trusting in the God who raises the dead.

The advantage of this explanation of the death and resurrection is that it is entirely intelligible and makes sense providing, of course, that you are willing to believe in a God who resembles the normal Christian understanding of him.  After all, we know of modern examples of people who have stood for truth and justice, often at great personal cost, even suffering death as a consequence.  True they may not have been resurrected in the way the Bible describes Jesus as having been resurrected, but it is not so great a leap of imagination to believe that God could raise Jesus and anyone else for that matter.

A further advantage is that it is a positive message that resonates with us.  It is victory over death and the triumph of truth: an example of how we too should live trusting that God will look after us as he looked after Christ.  The emphasis on this view is on the resurrection as sign of hope.  It is a call to follow Christ in his life and sacrifice trusting that God will not abandon us either.

On this first view the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is essentially that of someone sacrificing their life for what they believe.  There can be no doubt that there is that to it.  Nor can there be any doubt that in the New Testament Christ's life and death is held up as an example of how we also should live our lives and not be afraid of the consequences of standing for the truth.  But is that all there is to it?

2.  An Offering for Sin and Victory over the Powers of Darkness

Not according to the second type of approach.  On this view, Christ's death was not just the sacrifice of a martyr giving up his life, but was an objective sacrifice that achieved something in and of itself.

The trouble with the first view is that it moves too quickly on to the resurrection.  Those who take the second view argue that Christ wasn't simply dying because of what he believed and how he lived, nor was he dying simply because of the human sin of those who crucified him, he was dying for our sin and behalf of our sin in an objective sacrifice offered to God to obtain the forgiveness of sin and to defeat the forces of evil which controlled the world and held all in their power.

This, in other words, was not an ordinary death.  It was a unique, one off death that forever changed the nature of reality.  God did indeed vindicate that death in the resurrection, but the death itself was where the primary action took place.  This is why we still preach Christ crucified.

The problem with this view as opposed to the first is that it is much harder to explain to people today.  It is certainly not easy for us to understand.  In the ancient world, sacrifices were normal and understood in a way they are not today.  However, I am certain that the second view is the foundational view of the New Testament.

The question, of course, is which should be foundational for us today.  I imagine that this Easter most will go with the first.

Whether we are right to do so, however, is another issue altogether.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Violent and Bloody Sacrifice

What perhaps got the 16th century protestant reformers more upset than anything else when it came to the Roman Catholic understanding of the Mass was the suggestion that in the Mass a sacrifice was taking place.  The Sacrifice of the Mass was something that they rejected altogether.

I am aware that protestants often caricature Roman Catholic teaching on this, and I certainly don't want to be guilty of that myself, but it is clear that many did and do believe that in the Mass Christ is being offered again to God and that this sacrifice can bring benefits that can be applied to people or situations.  This is where the idea of masses 'for the dead' came from and why the Mass had value even when people didn't actually partake of the bread and the wine.  The benefit lay in the event itself.

The reformers, however, believed that Christ died 'once for all' and that his was an unrepeatable sacrifice.  The idea that Christ was being offered again by the priest seemed to them completely to undermine the sufficiency of the work of Christ.  They not only then rejected any such thought, they rejected any practice that might even suggest it, and so out when priests and out when any talk of altars in churches.  I have known many Christians today who get very upset when we call the table at the front of the Church, an altar.

It is surely right that we should reject any suggestion that Christ's death is anything other than perfect and sufficient for our salvation.  Maybe, however, we shouldn't be quite so squeemish about talk of altars and maybe we should be careful of rejecting the association of the Eucharist with a sacrifice altogether.

Last night in our second Lent Study, we saw how the Last Supper was a Passover Meal and how the Passover commemorated the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  They were commanded by God to slaughter a lamb and put its blood on the door post so that the Lord would pass over the Israelites homes and spare them the death of their first born in the 10th plague.  In the Last Supper, Jesus institutes a new Passover celebration to remember the sacrifice he is about to offer of himself.  There is to be a new covenant in his blood.  A deliverance this time from slavery to sin.

The Lord's Supper then is about sacrifice and death, about blood and a new covenant to save us from sin.  At the Eucharist, we may not be offering a new sacrifice, but we are remembering a sacrifice without which we would not have any hope of life.  The Eucharist is about a death that brings life to the dead.

Many talk about the Eucharist as celebrating the gifts of God in creation.  They see it as a thanksgiving for all that God has given to us and an offering of ourselves to his service.  It is a celebration of life.  It is right that there is this to it.  It is, however, far more important in the Eucharist that we focus on the death of Christ for us - for that was rather our Lord's point.  We remember what he has done for us by his death in the past, we seek the benefits of his death in the present as we ask forgiveness for our sins, and we proclaim, as Paul puts it, his death until he comes.

Seen like this, the word altar seems to be entirely appropriate!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Love Wins, and Loses

I am preaching at the services tomorrow and my intention had been to focus on the Epistle reading from Romans 4, which fits nicely with what I plan to say on Wednesday at the next Lenten Bible Study.  However, when I sat down to write the sermon (I am still one of those who write his sermons out by long-hand), it became obvious that there was only one reading that I could focus on and one verse in it, that is, the Gospel Reading and John 3:16:

'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.'

I have preached on this verse many times, but what gives preaching on it added significance this week is Rob Bell's book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and the furore surrounding it that some are calling Hellgate!  I have already mentioned it in the blog this week.  As I have said, I am surprised that people are surprised that this is where Rob Bell is coming from.  Perhaps they are just annoyed that he has raised the issue at all.

One of my favourite TV series at the moment is Outnumbered.  There is something of a running joke in it about the 'elephant in the room': something large and significant, but about which we do not speak.  Universalism, and more particularly a rejection of hell or any idea of it, is the 'elephant in the room' of the Church.  We don't talk about it, but it is there, and universalism and a rejection of anything that passes for hell is the default position of most pastors, priests, and preachers regardless of their particular brand label.  Even if we prefer, for whatever reason, not to talk about it.

(A Question for Anglican Vicars: have you ever told anyone who has asked you about what has happened to their loved ones who have died that they haven't just slipped away and that they might not just be waiting for them in the room next door?)

Rob Bell's book, even if this was not his intention, is making people come out of their own particular closets.  Me included.  A lot depends, of course, on what you mean by hell.  For some it is a place and for others, a metaphor, but even a metaphor must be a metaphor of something, and, even on the most benign, understanding it cannot be something very nice.  Certainly, it must mean that for some people the future is not one of heavenly bliss, but of hellish consequences.

Now Rob Bell is very clever.  He asks whether we think Gandhi is in hell.  But Gandhi is one of those nice non-Christians that we all like.  What about Hitler and Stalin and Mao?  The fact is we can all play this game and we would be wrong to do so.  The question of who is in hell, wherever or whatever it is, is not for us to judge.  After all, we may be going there ourselves.

But because we shouldn't speculate on its occupants, doesn't mean it doesn't exist (whether literally or metaphorically).

I personally deplore those who have labelled Rob Bell a heretic and a false teacher.  (How many people have you brought to faith in Christ this week?)  But that doesn't mean he is right.  In fact, I believe he is seriously wrong, not in the questions he asks, but in the answers he implies.

It would be lovely to think that, ultimately, we were all going to cuddle one another in heaven rather burn in hell, but if cuddling each other is our destiny, then rather than appealing to those parts of the Bible we like, we should just get rid of it altogether, and admit we are making the Christian faith up as we go along and hoping we get it right.

However, for anyone who wants the Bible to play an authoritative role in what they believe, there is no escaping the consequences of God loving us, consequences which, because the set reading tomorrow stops at John 3:17, we won't be told of in our services, but which can be spoken of in places like this:

'Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.'  (John 3:18)

God's unconditional love for all of us has very serious consequences.  It is that some of us will be won and also that some of us will be lost.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lent 1

We had the first of our Lent Bible Studies last night.  It is always hard to attract people during the week here, for good reason, so it was encouraging to see those who did come!  As I have said previously, this year we are thinking about the Eucharist and its meaning.  Most of our services at Christ Church are Eucharistic and follow a set liturgy.  Given this, it is all too easy to become mechanical in our worship and to fail to pause to meditate on the significance of what we are doing.

One of the questions, I want us to ask during these studies is about what is happening when we receive the consecrated bread and wine.  Is anything happening that can only happen in this way by this means?  Do I receive something tangible from God that I would not otherwise receive?  And if so, what?

I spoke last night of my own developing understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist.  I began my Christian life in a context in which Communion was peripheral and unimportant.  At Bible College, I came to believe, through studying the New Testament, that partaking of the Lord's Supper should be the focus of our gatherings for worship.  As a curate on the Wirral in the UK, I increasingly came to believe that Communion was something that we did together.  This is important because very often people focus on their own private Communion with God to the exclusion of their Communion with each other.  I found the book by Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community, very helpful in thinking this through.

When I left the Wirral, I had, then, a strong view on the central importance of the Eucharist for Christian worship and a belief that it was a communal celebration.  I still, however, saw it fundamentally as something we were doing because our Lord had told us to, something that encouraged us to look back to what he had done for us rather than something that had real benefit in the present.  To put it another way: while there are always blessings that are to be had from obedience to God, in principle there was nothing to be received in Communion that could not be received by other means - through praise, prayer and preaching, for example.

It was only after my return to parish ministry in Scotland that I found myself focusing more intensely on what was happening when receiving Communion.  Was it only because our Lord had commanded it that we did this?  Was its only benefit that it helped us to look back to what Christ had done for us?  It was here that Calvin proved especially helpful in my thinking.  To cut a long story short: I came to see Communion as conveying what could not be received by any other means and that something very real truly is present when we receive Communion.

I thus came to the place from which I approach these Lenten Studies with three basic convictions:

1.  Worship should be Eucharistic, that is, the Eucharist should be at the heart of our life together as the Church.

2.  Communion is both about our Communion with each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ and also about our Communion with Christ himself.  In the Eucharist, there are thus two key moments: at the Peace when the Celebrant says, 'We are the Body of Christ', and at the administration of the sacrament when the minister says to the Communicant, 'This is the Body of Christ'.

3.  When we receive the consecrated bread and wine, we really are feeding on the body and blood of Christ, truly present in the sacrament and this feeding is vital to both our spiritual and physical health as Christians.

Next week, I want to look at the Eucharist as a violent and bloody sacrifice.  This week, I looked at my own developing understanding over my ministry of the Eucharist as something that conveys real benefits to the believer in the present.  I want now to begin to look at the nature of these benefits by looking back to the context of our Lord's institution of the Eucharist.  It is for very good reason that we call the place where the bread and wine are laid an altar.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Can't buy me love

Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan has been creating a stir in the United States with a book, Love Wins, that reportedly supports belief in universalism: the doctrine that God's love will save all.  I first heard of it when a friend in the UK phoned and asked whether I had heard that Pastor Mark Driscoll had become a universalist.  My friend had, of course, confused the Mars Hill Churches.  Mark Driscoll of Seattle coming out in favour of universalism really would have been a story!

(A good account of the controversy is in fact available via a link on the Seattle Mars Hill web-site:
A Chronology of Rob Bell )

My own confusion, however, is different to that of my friend.  I can't understand why anyone remotely familiar with Rob Bell would be surprised that he lent towards universalism.  If you build your ministry on the idea that God welcomes everyone always, you are hardly likely to believe that he will change his attitude when you die.

My confusion extends to the reaction in the media, on blog sites, and facebook.  Most Christians I know gave up believing in God punishing people after they die a long time ago.  I don't simply mean us Anglicans whose God is just such a cuddly teddy bear he couldn't possibly hurt anyone - or do anything else for that matter - but even most evangelicals who lay claim to the Bible.  I don't mean they have stopped believing in a God who judges in a theoretical sense, it's just that the belief has no practical implications for how they preach or minister.  It's a belief that like Mrs Rochester is embarrassingly kept hidden away in the theological attic and is not allowed out or admitted to.

My suspicion, and it's just a suspicion, is that part of the commotion surrounding Pastor Bell's book is that he has stated in plain terms what most preachers and ministers pretend and imply to their congregations and the outside world that they believe.  There is, in fact, a very simple test to find out whether we are universalists to all intents and purposes.  It is to ask ourselves when was the last time we told someone that the consequence of not turning to Christ is that they will not be saved.

Whatever we think of Rob Bell's book, Rob Bell challenges us to be honest and to sign up openly to the universalism we imply by our lives and teaching to be true or to start telling it as it is.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


It's the first Sunday of Lent and I have just returned from our early morning Eucharist and am enjoying a coffee before our main morning service.  I quite like the liturgical change that Lent brings. For us at Christ Church no flowers in Church, more reflective hymns, and an emphasis on self-examination and abstinence.

I notice, however, that some churches rather than encouraging people to 'give up' things for Lent are encouraging people to 'take up' things for Lent.  This fits well with an age that doesn't think it should ever have to do without anything.  Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course.  Our Lord did without food and took up prayer, but I don't think that's quite what those talking about by taking up something up for Lent mean.

Although the liturgical emphasis maybe on quiet and reflection, Lent here at Christ Church is actually quite a busy time of year.  For me lectures at Ming Hua, our theological college, a series of Lenten Bible Studies, the Church AGM and a raft of important meetings beginning tomorrow with our Church Council meeting: the last before our AGM.

The Lenten Bible Studies this year are going to be on the Eucharist. This is at the suggestion of a member of the congregation after the Lenten Bible Studies last year.  Our worship here is Eucharistic, but it is easy to assume that people understand why and what it is we are doing when we come to Communion.  It is also the first time for a while that I have led a series of talks on the subject and I am quite looking forward to it.

I have written about my own experience and how I approach the Eucharist on this blog (see under Eucharist) and this will be the approach I will be following in the talks.

On Wednesday, I intend to begin by talking about my own experience first as a non-Eucharistic evangelical, and then the discovery of its importance while studying the Bible at Bible College, through to celebrating regularly as a priest.  I then want to look at its background in the Passover Feast, particularly its violent and bloody background.  We often forget the significance of the language of the Eucharist as a sacrifice followed by drinking blood.  This is perhaps why some prefer to focus on the Eucharist as a celebration of the gifts of creation - so much nicer than thinking about sharing in a death!

Calvin believed that Christians should receive Communion regularly and that the Lord's Supper should be at the heart of the Church.  Many Calvinists subsequently ignored this aspect of his teaching.  I hope over Lent that we can think at Christ Church about why it really is so important that we keep the Eucharist at the centre of our worship.  I will keep you informed.

Have a good Lent!