It’s Easter! Forget the eggs, as nice as they are. We are remembering rather that Jesus, through his resurrection from the dead, established his new creation and the fullness of his kingdom on earth. The picture above is from the stage installation in the big top at Spring Harvest this week, and is a reminder that despite the cross, with all its necessary sacrifice, there would never be an “omega” in the “Alpha and Omega” metaphor without his powerful and creation-renewing resurrection.
As I had hoped, the week we spent at Spring Harvest in Minehead was refreshing and re-establishing for me. This was mainly due to the work of two people – Malcolm Duncan and (especially) Paula Gooder. The latter is one of Britain’s foremost New Testament theologians, whilst the former is an evangelical thinker and teacher of great authority. Also on the leadership team was Elaine Storkey, whose thinking has been a key factor in my view of the role of Christian approaches to the environment, and who is a leading Christian feminist. There were 4000 other people there, of course, but there are always people you hear with the heart and mind that transform your thinking and living and these three – especially Paula – have done that for me this week.
The theme of this year’s teaching was the Apostle’s Creed, careful study of which has really deepened both my faith but also has made me realise afresh of how the world – and my own destiny and purpose – are different because God raised Jesus from the dead. Having that expounded again has really built up my own expectation of how God through the life of Jesus within and around me can transform the situations I am in and the people I love and care for.
The challenge is, therefore, to keep reading and reminding ourselves of those scriptures that speak to our new nature:
But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but your spirit is alive because of (Jesus’) righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the read is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you! (Romans 8: 10-11).
Letting these words play a part in my life is counter-cultural and sometimes counter-intuitive, as used to hard work and effort as we are. This demands that we make certain assumptions about our resurrected and ascended nature (Paul in Colossians said – since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above) and begin to live as though certain things were true. We count ourselves dead to sin – not that we won’t sin ever, which is impossible, but that we train our minds to remember that our basic nature has been changed to that of a resurrected one, and that we are no longer bound to sin, in both senses of that word.
Paula’s teaching – each day she explored what the creed has to say about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – was concerned to help us understand New Testament context and expectation as much as the theology itself. Thus she demonstrated precisely how surprising the early Hebrews would have found it to encounter the different metaphors of God as rock, as fortress, as warrior, etc., when contemporary near eastern deities had no expectation of relationship with those who worshipped them. In this context, the idea of God as father was especially surprising, and had no precedent. No other God would have said anything like this:
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them. (Hosea 11:3-4)
And then to find that in the New Testament, not only was God revealed as father – the real father of Jesus – but that we were invited into that relationship as adopted sons (the Roman adoption culture in which a person was brought into a family so as to inherit that family’s wealth) and co-heirs with Jesus – all this would have been a huge new revelation that we sometimes forget when we address God as father in our prayers. This is of course only a snippet of the teaching that proved so foundational.
Dealing the following day, she dealt with how the creeds about Jesus filled the pages of the New Testament, except that because the writers hadn’t flagged them up as such, we didn’t always interpret them that way. But she spent a good time exploring how the simplest of the early creeds – simply Jesus, Christ, Lord that appears across the epistles, says it all!
- Jesus: he is Saviour and the actor on God’s behalf and illuminator and representation of his character, showing us not only what God was like, but what he did;
- Christ: he is messiah and the long-awaited anointed king who would restore to the world (and especially to Israel) what it had lost through sin;
- Lord: he is now ruler in the place of Caesar (to use Tom Wright’s formulation – if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar isn’t) making the title LORD highly political, as well as a reflection of Jesus’ deity through his perpetual use of the term for Lord that stood for God (YHWH) in the Old Testament.
And on the final day, she demonstrated the work of the Spirit as inspiration and servant of the whole church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, encouraging us not to think of these “add-ons” as extras to faith, but an exposition of the work of the Holy Spirit, especially the radical new work of forgiveness that was enabled by Christ’s death and resurrection. The material explored on this day was particularly profound for me, and opened all our minds to the breadth of the work of the Holy Spirit in all sorts of ways in our lives, in the church and through history. A couple of quotes stood out for me – “if we are led by the Spirit, then we are fully free as adopted children of God, and need to live as though we are” and “the Holy Spirit allows us to recognise God as Father and Jesus as Lord the way they really are, and by extension, allows us to see ourselves as we really are”.
This seems all like fairly fundamental stuff to us, and of course it is. It has been sitting around in Romans for 1950 years or so, and widely available to the English-speaking world since the invention of the printing press. However, it is surprising how little it is taught in churches. If we as Christian leaders could help ourselves and other Christians to live as though Christ was alive in them, as the epistles make absolutely clear is the current position, then there would be a lot more people wanting to know who Jesus was and how he could help them.
Truth – the truth about Jesus and about us as a result of the resurrection – is vital. After each of the presentations, which took an hour, Paula took questions for another hour, dealing with confusions and difficulties raised by 3-400 of the people who had heard her earlier. We really appreciated this, as it is rare for preachers to “take questions”. However, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, the need for dialogic interaction as result of truth being preached stops a dogmatic approach from winning the day, and keeps the living word alive.
I feel I have not started to do justice to all I learnt from her. I have bought two books – one being her book all about Heaven (discussed here at St Paul’s Cathedral) and the other on the God of the Everyday (being ordinary as discussed here, also at St Paul’s), and will doubtless have something to say about these.
Finally, I had wanted for a while to read at least one book that constituted an effective and erudite riposte to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and have found it in John Lennox’s excellent Gunning for God, which I am halfway through. If you want an effective dismantling of the New Atheist position on faith and Christianity from the position of a logician and mathematician who has a good grounding in biblical understanding, you couldn’t do better. It is highly readable, respectful of the protagonists whilst knocking the intellectual ground from beneath them, and a great reminder of the importance of biblical truth and the completed work of Jesus on the cross.
The picture near the top of the blog is St Beuno’s church in Culbone, a 6th century foundation with a 12th century structure on top. You walk west along the coast path from Porlock for a couple of miles, and there it is, nestling in a valley. Imagining God having been worshipped continuously in this spot for nearly 1500 years is mind-blowing, and shows in the spiritual atmosphere of the church.