This year's Archbishop of Canterbury of Lent book is Looking Through the Cross by Graham Tomlin.
Using the introduction and chapters one and three, I put together this short summary/reflection on its argument (much of the phrasing is Tomlin's):
We see all the time,
but rarely do we take time to look,
to give someone, or something, our attention;
to gaze more intently,
to take in fully what is before us.
Today, and throughout Lent,
I want to encourage us to look,
to look at the cross;
and to look through the cross.
To look through the cross
is to see it as a window,
a means of framing the world in a new way,
a means of viewing God in a clearer way,
a means of observing ourselves in a different light.
How does life look when seen through the lens of the cross?
What would it mean to see the cross as the interpretative key for looking at the world?
Look at the cross.
Look at the cross
and see it as Rome’s means of public humiliation.
The cross was designed to make an example of those Rome feared
in the most painful way possible.
To wear a cross, to hold a cross
is to wear or hold a means of execution,
a piece of technology designed to kill a human being
slowly and painfully.
The cross of Jesus was not perched on a ‘green hill far away’
but in a desolate place,
visible from the city as a deterrent to others;
a place that reeked of death,
a place of wretchedness, despair and defeat.
Crucifixion was the death reserved for failures,
those who had sought to challenge the power of Rome
Look at the cross.
For the apostle Paul says
His message is about the cross.
He preaches Christ crucified.
The foolishness of the cross
is the place where God’s wisdom is decisively revealed.
The Christian gospel,
it’s ‘good news’,
is centred on the crucifixion and humiliation
Whatever our ideas of what God should be like,
the cross invites us to throw them all away,
and begin again.
If you want to know the wisdom of God:
don’t look at a sunset,
or a mother holding a new-born child;
don’t pay attention to the philosophers,
or the movie-makers,
instead look at Jesus on the cross,
there God and his wisdom is revealed.
If the cross challenges our notions of wisdom
and our ideas of God,
the cross also says something about power.
We are surrounded by images of power:
power in the form
of those who control economies and armies,
or those who can demand high salaries
or those who make laws
or those who run media organisations,
deciding the messages we hear
We know what power looks like.
Look at the cross.
For the apostle Paul says
His message is about the cross.
He preaches Christ crucified.
The foolishness of the cross
is the place where God’s power is decisively revealed.
It’s hard to imagine a less powerful figure than someone nailed to a cross.
Not only does he have no economic, social or political power,
he cannot even move.
He is utterly powerless to do anything – literally nailed down.
God’s power is revealed at the very point where it seems weakest.
For the cross shows God’s commitment to love where it is not deserved.
Whilst before Pilate, Jesus appears powerless,
but the voluntary submission of God in Christ to a gruesome, violent death
on behalf of a human race that had turned away from him in arrogance,
is an astonishing act of self-giving, of love.
Whilst the world is in love with power,
the cross shows the power in love.
This is how we know what love is,
says the First Letter of John,
Jesus Christ laid down his life for us (3.16).
We spent the last three evenings at church talking food and faith over food. We did a three-course meal over three weeks. Our companion was Norman Wirzba's excellent Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. The different evenings explored eating as a spiritual practice, godly gardening and saying grace.
Our conversations covered a range of topics - eating, cooking, growing, buying - and what it might mean for us as Christians.
Below is some sentences from the book (which were tweeted @bvbc_southend) that we chewed over.
"eating reminds us that we are finite and mortal creatures dependent on God's many good gifts" (Wirzba) #foodandfaith
"food is about the relationships that join us to earth, fellow creatures, loved one and guests, and ultimately God" (Wirzba) #foodandfaith
"people should feast so they do no forget the grace and blessing of the world ... 1/2 #foodandfaith
"people should fast so they do not degrade or hoard the good gifts of God" (Wirzba) 2/2 #foodandfaith
"thoughtful eating reminds us no human fellowship without table, kitchen, garden, ecosystem & source in God" (Wirzba) #foodandfaith
"because we eat, we are always firmly WITHIN creation and so must learn to live responsibly there" (Wirzba) #foodandfaith
to talk about spiritual cultivation of people means that we need gardening exercises like weeding & fertilizing to be applied to us #foodandfaith
"The timing of a gardener's life is set by the garden, not the gardener" (Wirzba) #foodandfaith
"humility is the realisation that for our living we depend on many others, even the sacrifices of others" (Wirzba) 1/3 #foodandfaith
"As we begin to take stock of the great number and variety of gifts that feed into our being, we also see ... 2/3 #foodandfaith
... how inappropriate and dishonest it is to think we could live alone on terms set by and for us" (Wirzba) 3/3 #foodandfaith
"to say grace over a meal is among the highest & most honest expressions of our humanity" (Wirzba) #foodandfaith
"too much of the food we eat, when we fully see and understand, lodges in our throats as a cry of offense to its dignity" 1/2 #foodandfaith
"oftentimes we cannot fix damage we have done & so we must weep. We must learn songs of confession & repentance" 2/2 (Wirzba) #foodandfaith
"to eat is to see, smell, touch, and taste God's provisioning care" (Wirzba) #foodandfaith
I believe in Jesus Christ
ascended and is seated.
We are near the end of this summary narrative
It is a story of his descent and ascent.
God in Christ
comes to us in order to bring us to God.
To name the crucified and risen Jesus
as ascended and seated
is to answer the question “where is Jesus now?”
If he’s not dead,
if he’s alive,
where is he?
He is ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father, says the creed.
This line takes us from the past tense into the present:
Jesus is seated,
not was, not will be,
He dwells at God’s right hand.
The words ‘seated at the right hand of the Father’ point to the enthronement of Jesus
He is crowned, he now reigns.
Paul speaks of Christ being exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2.9)
and “all things being are under his feet” … (Eph. 3.22)
and Jesus says “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28.19).
To say Jesus is seated
might speak to us as meaning he is resting,
a sign of inactivity,
but in biblical, and judicial, terms
it speaks of authority
a sign of activity.
To say Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father
is to speak of God’s power
Moses sings of God’s right hand delivering Israel from Egypt (Exod. 15.8)
The Psalmist declares the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things (Ps. 118.15-16)
This line, then, is saying in biblical language
that Jesus – born of Mary
who was crucified
but is risen
is the Lord of History,
the King of kings, the Lord of Lords,
the Ruler of the universe.
That Jesus is ascended
means the resurrection didn’t mean more of the same.
It didn’t mean Jesus’ earthly ministry was going to be an ongoing one.
On the cross Jesus says ‘It is finished’ (Jn. 19.30)
and in the context of the ascension we see that his mission,
his earthly work is complete.*
But that Jesus is ascended
means that humanity has now been united with God.
Jesus returns to the Father, but he doesn’t leave his body behind;
Jesus returns to the Father as the crucified one, in who the scars remain.
And Jesus returns to the Father, not to retire
but to continue his ministry
Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand
as our high priest - to use the description of Hebrews.
He is one who represents us before God,
he is one who intercedes on our behalf (Heb. 7.24-25, cf. Rom. 8.34)
as the one who is truly human:
and so ‘there is a human ear and a human voice ever present in God’
The ascension of Jesus
says Jesus is absent.
We cannot see him,
but at the same time, his absence
is his presence amongst us:
‘I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt. 28.20).
Jesus is present to us through the Spirit
He is everywhere accessible through the Spirit.
Jesus is not stuck in the past,
slipping further and further away from us.
Jesus is not stuck in heaven,
unable to reach us.
Jesus is our contemporary:
he is before us, ahead of us and among us.
Jesus ‘was’ and Jesus ‘will be’ and Jesus also ‘is’:
yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13.8).
A few weeks ago
as we thought about Jesus crucified
I said that the church is now his body,
his hands and feet,
his eyes and ears,
his heart and voice.
Today I need to clarify that.
Some of you may have thought then, and still think today,
“But the church is so poor, so inadequate, so unlike
the body of Christ”
I need to clarify it, precisely because Jesus
whilst absent is still present.
Jesus doesn’t leave the church to its own devices.
Jesus doesn’t say “its your job now, I’m off.”
The ministry of the church,
its calling to witness to the gospel,
its calling to witness to the kingdom of God,
is still the ministry of Jesus.
Jesus still speaks:
the reading and preaching of scripture is not a history lesson,
it is not a talk,
it is not someone on their soap-box,
it is the speaking of the living Jesus through the Spirit into the present.
It is Jesus speaking.
The question for the church is are we listening?
Jesus still acts.
The gathering around the communion table is not a memorial meal
to a dead Jesus.
It is a meeting with the living Jesus through the Spirit in the present.
It is Jesus feeding us ‘living bread’,
giving us a taste of new creation.
The coming of someone to baptism is not an act of free decision,
it is not how we join the club.
It is a response to the call of Christ,
it is a submission to the command of Christ,
it is a receiving of the grace of Christ,
Christ calls, commands and gives through the Spirit.
And Jesus still sends.
The church is commissioned by Christ:
‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’ says Jesus (John 20.21)
‘Go into all the world’ he says
‘We are Christ’s ambassadors’ says Paul (2 Cor 5.20)
Just as he sent the first disciples
so he still sends us today.
And just as those first disciples
received the power of the Spirit
and proclaimed the gospel,
with boldness and courage,
shared their possessions,
with generosity and grace,
healed the sick,
with faith and compassion,
so Jesus sends us,
in the power of the same Spirit,
to be his body on earth,
with him as the ‘head’ (Col 1.18).
Jesus is the ascended one.
He is Lord.
The end of the story has been announced,
we’ve been given a glimpse at the last page,
the final act has been previewed in Jesus.
And our role is to witness
to live and die
in such a way that Christ is worshipped.
‘He is not here, he has risen’ say Matthew, Mark and Luke,
‘I have seen the Lord’ says Mary in John,
‘God raised him from the dead’ Peter proclaims five times in Acts,
‘Christ was raised from the dead’ says Paul in Romans,
1 and 2 Corinthians,
and 2 Timothy.
The resurrection of Jesus is also witnessed to in Hebrews and 1 Peter and the book of Revelation.
‘If Christ has not been raised from the dead,
our preaching is useless and so is your faith’
says Paul to the church in Corinth.
If there is no Christianity without the cross,
there is equally no Christianity without the empty tomb,
without the risen Jesus.
When we read the book of Acts,
we read that the Apostles’ proclaim
‘But God raised him the dead.’
This is the church’s witness.
The good news is not just Jesus died,
but Jesus was raised.
What is more, the cross is only good news because
Jesus was raised from the dead.
There is no salvation without the resurrection.
There would be no church without the resurrection.
Before saying anything more about the resurrection
let me say something brief about the line
‘he descended into hell’
Its source comes from a few verses:
In Ephesians, Paul speaks of Christ descending to the depths of the earth ‘in order to fill the whole universe’ (Eph 4.9-10)
and 1 Peter speaks of Christ ‘preaching to the spirits in prison’ (1 Pet 3.19)
and ‘preaching the gospel even to those who are now dead’ (4.6).
What these verses mean is difficult to work out and scholars have offered different interpretations.
What we can say is the purpose of the line,
‘he descended into hell’ – sometimes rendered, ‘he descended to the dead’
is to emphasize that Christ was fully dead,
to signal that Christ’s death and resurrection has effect across time and space,
and to affirm the ultimacy of Christ’s victory over evil.
If the end of Jesus,
his death and burial,
mark the end of the world,
his resurrection marks the beginning of a new world
a “new creation”.
While the writer of Ecclesiastes famously says that
‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (1.9)
The church proclaims the resurrection of Jesus as totally, utterly, entirely new!
The four gospels begin their Easter narratives
with the words, ‘on the first day of the week’
and beckon us to hear this as the first day of a new world,
a new creation story:
a world in which death is no longer the last word,
a world in which there is a new Adam,
a world in which everything is, and is still being,
‘reordered in relation’ (Ben Myers) to the resurrected one
We make it familiar.
We make it natural.
So we talk about it being similar to flowers appearing in spring after winter,
or we think of Jesus as one
like Sleeping Beauty woken from sleep,
or like the superhero who seemingly dies
before coming back to life minutes later.
But none of this matches,
or comes anywhere close,
to God raising Jesus from the dead.
One theologian puts it like this:
“[The resurrection] is in no sense an awakening;
it is not a rejuvenation;
it is not a resuscitation,
it is not even a miraculous reversal of death.
Resurrection is not simply the next thing that Jesus does,
or the next thing that happens to him in the natural course of things.
Resurrection is something else altogether,
something wholly other,
something from beyond,
something purely unnatural.
Resurrection is God.” (Doug Harink)
So we need to think – if that is really possible –
of the resurrection as a ‘Big Bang’ type of event
both frightening and joyous,
both terrifying and wonderful,
both bewildering and breathtaking.
The Easter witnesses – Mary, Peter, and the other disciples
were overwhelmed with fear and joy.
Believing Jesus dead, the disciples we’re afraid and wondering what was to become of them.
Seeing Jesus alive, they’re still afraid and wondering what will become of them.
To erase ‘fear’ from the resurrection of Jesus is to domesticate it, Disney-fy it, romanticize it
But the power of God displayed in the resurrection,
creates joy – for death is overcome,
and fear – for death is overcome.
With fear and joy, with hope and faith,
we proclaim ‘Jesus is alive’;
And we are raised him, death is dead, love has won
Christ has conquered;
And we shall reign with him, for he lives:
Christ risen from the dead! (Keith Getty & Stuart Townend)
In the resurrection
God acts to reverse the ‘history of violence’ that is humanity’s story;
the kingdom of God is a peaceable one.
God acts to overturn the judgment of the powers who condemned Jesus to death;
while their verdict was death, God’s verdict is life.
God acts to render null and void the power of death to be the final word:
God breathes new life, resurrecting life, eternal life.
God acts to reveal the cross as the means of salvation:
Jesus lifted on the cross is now lifted from the grave,
revealing him as the saviour of the world.
God acts to vindicate Jesus as the Christ, his only Son and our Lord:
so Peter tells the crowd: ‘God has made this Jesus,
whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ (Acts 2.36).
It is the resurrection that leads the church to worship Jesus,
to see him given the name above all names,
to see him worthy of ‘honour, and glory and praise’ (Rev. 5.12).
The three words
“Jesus is alive”
open up a new frontier
and summon us into the ‘new world’
in the language of scripture,
the resurrection means we are no longer entirely at home in the world:
we are ‘aliens and strangers in the world’ says 1Peter (2.11),
we are those pressing on towards a different goal (Phil 3.14),
we are those who are hearts and minds are set on things above (Col 3.1-2)
we are those who Paul encourages to
not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world,
but instead to be transformed … (Rom 12.2).
The resurrection ‘is like the sun: we can’t see it directly,
but by its light we see everything else’ (Ben Myers)
As Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness,
so the church spends forty days in Lent,
forty days to live before the Christ who suffers and was crucified.
But the church spends fifty days in Easter,
fifty days to live before the risen Christ, the Lord of life,
who still bears the marks of crucifixion.
To celebrate Easter we do not forget Good Friday.
Resurrection does not replace cross,
does not reverse cross.
Easter is longer than Lent
because we struggle to see and live in a world where Christ has been raised
because it takes us longer to learn and believe
in the words of Desmond Tutu,
goodness is stronger than evil,
love is stronger than hate,
light is stronger than darkness,
truth is stronger than lies,
life is stronger than death,
victory is ours through him who love us.
Imagine reading the creed for the first time …
I believe in God, the Father almighty
the maker of heaven and earth
in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord
conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.
If we paused at this point,
we have the story of a God who creates
and then comes to that which he has created.
A story so far of double grace:
the gift of a world full of life,
the gift of God himself.
Now hear the full force of the next line
he suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, died and was buried.
Imagine reading the creed for the first time,
imagine hearing the beliefs of this group of people who go to “church”.
There is no mention of childhood
no mention of anything Jesus said or did
all we are told is what happened to him.
he was crucified,
he was buried.
Paul says in first Corinthians:
‘we preach Christ crucified:
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks’ (1 Cor 1.23).
We go from birth straight to death.
If, as I’ve suggested Christianity, is Jesus,
it is the crucifixion and death of Jesus
that lie at the heart of Christian memory, Christian faith, and the Christian life.
‘For I resolve to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2.2)
says Paul again to the Corinthians.
Now some have rightly said that we must not ignore or underplay
the whole life of Jesus,
his ministry, his teaching, his parables, his healings.
They cannot be reduced to a comma;
and so we must say that there is more to the person and work of Jesus
than the creed includes.
Actually we must say that Jesus’ death cannot be fully understood
apart from his ministry.
The life and ministry of Jesus is not incidental,
the gospels do not include it as padding,
or because otherwise their stories would all be a bit dark.
There is a lot more that must, and needs to be said, about Jesus
and for many Sundays, we give our attention to the ministry of Jesus
because we know and believe that God sent his Son not only to die, but to live.
Having given that very big caveat
it is clear that for every one of the four gospels
the passion and death of Jesus are the climax to their narratives.
A gospel would not, and could not, be a gospel without the death of Jesus.
In the same way
the letters of Paul and almost the rest of the New Testament
focus in lots of different ways on the crucifixion of Jesus
as the key moment in the story the church is proclaiming.
The key symbol of the Christian faith is of course the cross.
There is no Christianity without the cross,
there is no Jesus without the cross,
there is no God without the cross.
One of the most famous theological books of the last century was called
The Crucified God.
Why then is the cross is so central?
Why did Paul and the early Christians preach Christ crucified?
Why did the Christians associate themselves with this most shameful and humiliating of deaths?
Why did they make the absurd claim that Jesus’ death on the cross was good news?
Because they believed it was the means of God’s dealing with sin.
With a series of images they saw the cross as decisive for salvation:
it was sacrifice to end all sacrifice,
it was a victory,
it was a revelation,
it was a means of reconciliation,
it was a means of deliverance, of liberation, of being freed
it was a means of healing.
Not one of these images is sufficient to explain the cross by itself.
The meaning in Jesus’ death is expansive rather than reductive.
We can never reduce the cross to one meaning,
it is always a matter of saying, ‘it’s like a …’
At its heart Jesus’ death was God’s means
of making peace, where there was hostility
of setting free, where there was captivity
of making clean, where there was pollution
of setting right, where there was brokenness
of overcoming the powers, where there was oppression
To confess this narrative of suffering, crucifixion, death and burial is claim that
the cross of Christ is decisive for
naming God – we cannot know God apart from Christ on the cross.
It is decisive also for
the church – we cannot be the church apart from following the crucified Lord, however foolish, absurd it looks, or costly it is.
It is decisive also for
the world – for the cross (and the resurrection) are not an aberration in the history of the world,
but an interruption of God’s decisive ‘No’ to sin and death
and God’s decisive ‘Yes’ to life and love,
peace and mercy,
justice and joy,
patience and faithfulness
friendship and beauty.
At the cross, the “history of violence” is ended,
the reign of peace has begun.
At the cross everything changes –
‘the old has gone, the new has come’ (2 Cor. 5.17b).
Jesus, the crucified one
is thus the judge judged in our place (Karl Barth),
is the perfect sacrifice that satisfies (Anselm),
is the non-violent victim who is victor (J. Denny Weaver),
is the resolute mediator of peace,
is the wounded healer (Henri Nouwen).
And in accomplishing our salvation
his story becomes our story
through baptism we are baptized into his death
in sharing bread and wine we are made participants –
those who carry the death of Jesus
through scripture we becoming living letters (2 Cor. 3.3)
in common song, spoken prayer and generous embrace
we declare we are his body
his hands and feet,
his eyes and ears
his heart and voice.
The story of the one who suffers and is crucified
becomes the story we follow;
so Jesus says ‘if anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves,
take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8.34);
Paul says, ‘your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus …
[who] humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2.5, 8);
and again, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,
but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2.20);
and again, ‘I want to know Christ …
sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in death’ (Phil. 3.10);
and Peter says, ‘to this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you and example,
that you should follow in his steps’ (1 Pet. 2.21).
And as this cross-shaped, cross-centred, cross-carrying people
we are thus a forgiven and forgiving people,
we are a sacrificial people,
we are a non-violent people,
we are a peace-making people,
we are a vulnerable and generous people.
This story of double grace – of creation and incarnation
now becomes one of triple grace:
abundant, overflowing, incomparable
is how the New Testament describes God’s grace in Christ.
‘From the creation to the cross
there from the cross into eternity’ (Matt Redman);
grace that is free, unconditional and without end
through the death of Jesus.
Our response can only be to sing,
‘Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all’
and then follow.
It is 20 years this year since the first Matt Redman album, Wake Up My Soul, and since then he has released 11 albums and written over 120 songs. Redman was at the forefront of a new generation of UK worship song writers that emerged in the mid-1990s (others included Martin Smith, Paul Oakley, Lou and Nathan Fellingham, Stuart Townend, Tim Hughes, Martyn Layzell and Vicky Beeching). Redman et al, were the generation that followed Graham Kendrick, Noel Richards, Dave Fellingham and Dave Bilbrough, who dominated the 1980s and early 1990s. Redman emerged as the face of Soul Survivor and was its chief song writer from 1994 to the early 2000s, at which point he left and has spent time in the US with Passion (Louie Giglo, Chris Tomlin and others), but is now based back in the UK in Brighton.
Redman songs have found a wide audience and some have become a regular feature of UK churches - 'I will offer up my life', 'Jesus Christ (Once Again)', 'When the music fades', 'Blessed be your name', 'You never let go' and '10, 000 reasons (Bless the Lord)' perhaps the best well known.
Within the limits of the rock-pop worship song genre, Matt Redman is its one of the best proponents. He has the abiltiy to stick a set of interesting lyrics to a memorable melody which is (mostly) singable for a congregation. For the most part, I find, Redman a cut above his peers in terms of the content of his songs. The still fairly small and limited critical engagement with contemporary worship music associated with Soul Survivor, Passion, New Frontiers, Hillsong and others is generally very critical (and for the most part not wrong) of often banal, trivial, repetitive lyrics that get churned out year after year. Redman has demonstrated the gift to write songs that offer some depth of content and that got beyond the same recycled phrases.
Remembrance (Communion Song) - Co-written with the Catholic worship leader Matt Maher, this is a song that offers an excellent theology of the table
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made - Co-written with Matt's wife Beth, this song is based on Psalm 139
Befriended - This simple song speaks of the gospel and how Jesus befriends, invites and surrounds and to which we surrender, delight, find ourselves astounded and determined to live in response to the gospel
Light of the World - This is Redman's most Christologically focused song, based on John 1 and Colossians 1.15-20
Show me the way of the cross - Written in 1996 this song shows Redman explores the demands of Jesus' words in Mark 8.34-36
Your grace finds me - The title track from his most recent album points to God's grace present in the world - in birth, in the everyday, at a wedding day and by the graveside - and that God's grace is no different for the saint or sinner, those who are rich or poor.
- that connect with different parts of a worship service - songs for confession, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination (great to see that Your Grace Finds Me ends with song called 'Bendiction').
- that connect with the different seasons of the church: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost (Redman songs land most often in Epiphany or Lent).
- that connect with doctrine - Trinity, Christology, Pneumatology, Creation, Ecclesiology, Eschatology (Redman spends a lot of time writing songs that are doctrinally focused on atonement or providence). Redman wrote a 'Foreword' to Robin Parry's Worshipping Trinity (2004) and wrote his most trinitarian song around the same time 'Gifted Response' (Facedown album), but the four albums since have not evidenced a trinitarian turn, in fact, disappointingly almost the opposite.
- that connect with the life of Jesus - Redman has written little or nothing of songs that tell us the story of Jesus' life, other than incarnation or the cross.
Songs that connect with the worship service, the church year, with doctrine and with the life of Jesus, have all been part of a project by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, who have written a whole bunch of modern hymns that have resourced the church (although stuck in one narrow understanding of atonement). It is possibly easier for them, because the hymn offers more scope lyrically.
When worship song writers are not deliberately writing in these areas, we end up songs dominated by the songwriter's own faith journey and so leave us short of songs that tell the whole drama of salvation.
For two recent studies that include some engagement with Matt Redman, see my article, '"It's all about Jesus"' in Evangelical Theology 81.3 (July 2009) and Steve Holmes' article, 'Listening for the Lex Orandi' in Scottish Journal of Theology 66.2 (May 2013) and in a broader context Pete Ward's Selling Worship.
This morning I want us to think about the incarnation, which in biblical language is to say that Jesus is
the ‘Word made flesh’ (as John’s gospel puts it),
the ‘Son of God’ (as Luke’s gospel puts it),
‘Immanuel (meaning God with us)’ (as Matthew’s gospel puts it)
in the ‘very nature God’ but who ‘made himself nothing … being made in human likeness’ (as Paul puts it in the Letter to the Philippians)
or to use the language of the longer Nicene creed that Jesus is
‘the only Son of God
eternally begotten of the Father …
who for us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven
and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made man.’
The doctrine, or teaching, of the incarnation claims that in the man Jesus of Nazareth we see God himself.
The doctrine of the incarnation seeks to name something of the mystery that in Jesus, we see one who is
truly God and truly man.
At the heart of, and unique to, the Christian faith is the incarnation …
The doctrine of the incarnation says
that in Jesus we see a real human being, this is not God wearing the mask of a human being … like something from Scooby-Doo!
that in Jesus we see a real person, who is not a little bit God and a little bit human and is not some kind of hybrid creature … like Superman …
that Jesus is by nature God, he is not adopted by God at birth or at baptism …
Jesus is truly God and truly man …
What this means is that just as I suggested creation was an act of God’s grace, so is the incarnation –
the incarnation is God’s initiative and God’s gift …
it means that as human beings we are, and were, and always will be, unable to produce a saviour ourselves independent of God …
the existence of evil, of sin and death is too big for humanity to overcome, even with all our technological advances, even with several thousands years of human civilisation …
only God can save us and the incarnation of God in Jesus says he has ...
At the same time, the incarnation wants to stress that Jesus
is not a kind of superhero, that makes him different from you or I
as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus was ‘fully human in every way / every respect’ (Hebrews 2.17)
So the creed says Jesus was both ‘conceived by the holy Spirit’ (divine initiative and action) and ‘born of the virgin Mary’ (human birth like you or I)
I said two weeks ago that Christianity is Jesus …
it is that in Jesus,
there is uniquely,
the incarnation of God in human flesh.
Christianity makes no sense if this is not true …
if God is not present in Jesus, there is no salvation, there is only a man dying on a cross …
if the fullness of humanity is not present in Jesus, there is no salvation … as one early church theologian puts it ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’ …
What’s the point of the incarnation?
The incarnation demonstrates God’s full commitment to all that he has created …
God continues to be bothered with creation,
God doesn’t get bored,
God doesn’t let anger get the better of him,
instead God carries on loving creation to the point of entering creation himself … as the most famous of all famous Bible verses puts it
‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son … not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ …
this of course must make us ask ourselves if God is so committed to creation, to humanity, surely we must be too
The incarnation shows us what it is to be human and what it is to be God. Sam Wells puts it this way:
‘in Jesus the wall between humanity and God is replaced by a window. God sees us, and we see God, like never before’ …
in Jesus, we see that being human is to be in relationship with God, and to be God is to be utterly committed to us …
this is why in Matthew’s gospel he quotes from Isaiah …
he’s not primarily interested in the virgin bit,
he’s primarily interested in saying in unequivocal terms that Jesus is God’s commitment to be with us …
Jesus is Immanuel …
we might say that even if humanity had never sinned, the incarnation would still have happened because God has determined never to be without us …
the incarnation comes out God’s abundant love, not out of our sinfulness …
that’s what it is to be God …
To be truly human is to be like Jesus …
the incarnation says that in Jesus we see authentic and true humanity … humanity as God intended …
to be human, to fully bear the image of God, is to be like Jesus … Jesus enters our real humanity, a humanity marked by sin, and yet lives it truly in obedience to the Father and dependent upon the Holy Spirit …
Jesus was as the letter to the Hebrews put it
‘like us in every respect’ (Heb 2.17) …
it was real humanity:
Jesus was genuinely tempted,
he was openly vulnerable,
he was full of real emotions …
see Jesus in the wilderness,
see the conversation on the road to Caesarea Philippi,
see Jesus at Lazarus tomb,
see Jesus in Gethsemane …
and yet though he was like us in every respect, he was, says Hebrews, ‘without sin’ …
because in the life of Jesus we see a perfect performance of God’s intention for humanity,
because the life of Jesus is one of free obedience to God the Father and one that is entirely open and responsive to the Holy Spirit …
in Jesus the Spirit is fully focused and active at every moment of his life …
meaning that whilst Jesus was really tempted, he was enabled not to sin …
the negative way of putting it is: he did not sin,
the positive way to make the same statement, is to say
Jesus was wholeheartedly obedient:
Jesus “endures our finiteness and mortality,
he endures our vulnerability and temptation,
he endures our suffering, death and judgment.
And he does not flinch …
He is tempted but he does not sin.
And so the point of the incarnation,
is that this true humanity that we see in Jesus,
becomes a possibility for us,
we too can live truly …
we too can live as God intended us too …
the incarnation makes the beginning of God’s new humanity:
Jesus is the template for humanity …
he is the image of God …
and through him and in him and in power of the Spirit
we are called, transformed, and are made participants
in this new humanity
that’s what baptism is …
we are baptized into the humanity of Jesus
if the incarnation teaches us that ‘God became what we are, so that might we might become what he is’ (as the church fathers expressed it) …
then baptism is our birth …
conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born into the church
and coming to worship week by week is our
learning to live out the humanity of Christ …
learning what it means to be God’s image-bearers in the world
and coming to this table, as in a moment we will do
is to confess our belief in the incarnation
for to take bread and wine makes no sense if Jesus is not fully God and fully man**
for if God has joined his life to the life of Jesus
in our taking bread and wine,
we discover we too are joined to Jesus and so to God
and so the life of God in Jesus
is the life we feed on, we are nourished by and thankful for.
* John Colwell, The Rhythm of Doctrine
** Stanley Hauerwas, 'Incarnation', Without Apology
This year will see two major works of Baptist theology published by Baylor University Press
Contesting Catholicity by Curtis Freeman
Baptists and the Communion of Saints by Paul Fiddes, Brian Haymes and Richard Kidd
Also in the pipe line is a book of essays on the theology of Stanley Grenz edited by Jason Sexton, Derek Tidball and Brain Harris.
Doug Gay, Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism (SCM, 2013)
With the deafening silence amongst Baptists on the question of Scottish independence, save the one lone voice of Stuart Blythe, crying out like a voice in the desert, that the church engage, Doug Gay's book is a welcome and timely contribution. Baptists please read!
Honey from the Lion is a work of political and practical theology. We need more of this type of work - that is theologically rigorous, but wanting to shape practice within church, academy and other political institutions. We need more of this type of work when big political questions are before us. Doug Gay's book is not an academic exercise, he genuinely cares about the decision before the Scottish peoples and wants especially Christians to think theologically about the choices before them.
The book is written for a wide audience, but this is not a work in the 'popular' sense. Some effort will be needed as Gay engages with the multiple disciplines of history, bible, theology, contemporary politics and even some economics!
The book argues for the possibility of a good nationalism against those who only have bad things to say about it (often amongst Christians). Before Scotland is the opportunity to shape a good nationalism, a nationalism that offers a society shaped by love and joy, freedom, justice and equality, and addresses issues of land and law and is both complex and peaceful (chapter 3). This kind of nationalism must renounce imperialism (a nationalism of domination), essentialism (a nationalism of biology) and absolutism (a nationalism that recognises it is under God). In a footnote, Gay says that his aim is 'not to suggest "baptizing" nationalism, but to ask what kind of nationalism, baptized people could support' (p.81n).
If the first half of the book sets out a theological account of 'better' nationalism, supported by an ecumenical political theology and the Christian idea of a society, the second half finds it focus in the Scottish question. Gay traces the history of Scotland from the beginnings of the United Kingdom to its present experience of devolution and then notes, as Scotland as held more power over its governing, what has worked well and not so well. The next chapter argues that now is the moment to 'call time' on the United Kingdom for four reasons: one, the persistent problem of England-dominating discourse; two, a political problem that English MPs dominate the UK parliament, and whilst devolution has reduced this democratic deficit, it still remains in particular areas and matters; three, a cultural problem that Scottish culture has been marginalised; and four, the problem of economics, in this most hotly contest of areas, Gay suggests that an economically independent Scotland, may not be a richer one, but could well be a more equal one. The final two chapters before the conclusion, see Gay's argument for what an independent Scotland might look like and the place of the monarchy and perhaps more importantly that of the church within a new Scottish constitution.
Gay makes a persuasive argument that independence may be the best thing for both Scotland and for what will be the rest of the United Kingdom. Scottish independence could pave the way for a renewal of politics. However we may feel or vote (if we're Scottish) on the question of independence, Doug Gay has provided a helpful book for the Christian to reflect theologically on how the church might engage with these issues and play a part what the decision may be. At the very least, Gay's book argues that the church cannot remain silent and must be involved, offering a distinctive Christian idea of society, albeit one with a post-Christendom voice.
I hope Gay's book is widely read by many, not least, Scottish (and may be even some English [and Welsh and Northern Irish]) Baptists.