You know it's Advent when ...

an angel turns up at your door and says you’re going to have a baby.

John Lewis make an advert that makes you shed a tear.

a star in the night sky begins burning brighter, almost as if it wants you to follow it.

a strange bearded guy starts shouting ‘repent’ and ‘get ready for the Lord’.

Cliff Richard releases another single!

you open a door each morning and eat some chocolate for breakfast.

a group knock on your door and start singing an out of tune and mumbled ‘We wish you a merry …’

there’s a different party in every week of December to go to.

the Government want you to go back to your place of birth so they can do a census.

your neighbours or friends invite you to come to church.

you see people spending silly money on presents for their children.

a candle flickering in the darkness is a sign of hope.

an angel says your wife’s pregnant even though you’re both in - you start to question whether it was a good idea to invite all the family round at the end of December … for another year!

you wonder once again at the possibility of God.

there’s a new Harry Potter new Hobbit new Star Wars film out.

your children come home from school singing the same tune over and over again.

- you’re trying to work out whether it should spelled Immanuel or Emmanuel.

- the Baptists go all Church of England and get the candles out!

the Salvation Army Brass Band suddenly seem to be everywhere!

you’re looking for a tea towel, and find that someone is wearing it on their head.

- you arrive at your destination and find there’s no room at the inn.

you get cards through the letter box and its not your birthday.

it becomes ok to put children on a stranger’s knee as long as he’s wearing red and got a white beard.

- you hear the words ‘and lo it came to pass …'


The End of the World: A Sermon for Advent Sunday

 

In 1987 the American band REM released their song

‘It’s the end of the world as we know it.’[i]

I was seven at the time,

but I guess, for those who we then a little older,

it may have felt like the end of the world,

the Cold War was still in full flow

and of course in the UK Margaret Thatcher was still PM!

The belief that the world is going to end is something that has been present throughout much of history.[ii]

In Jesus’ day, the Jews were praying that God would bring the end of the world,

which in other words meant the end of the Romans –

this was the great hope!

Three hundred years later,

many Christians thought the end of the world had come,

when the Roman Empire became Christian,

and what must have felt like the whole world becoming Christian –

this was heaven on earth!

For those in the middle ages,

the end of the world was thought of more in terms of whether you were going to heaven or hell –

this produced more fear than hope!

In the 17th and 18th century and rise of science and the idea of the individual,

the end of the world in terms of something God might do

became less widely believed

as God himself became less central to how people viewed the world –

this generated the myth of the great progress,

the world getting better and better,

no end of the world was expected or much feared.

And in the last century

the end of the world became something humanity could achieve itself with the advent of nuclear weapons or environmental catastrophe –

fear of a different kind, not fear of God, but fear of the bomb.

‘It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’

sang REM.

Christians are an end of the world type of people.

The purpose of Advent,

it’s horizon, is the end of all things.

Don’t get overly fixated on a stable in Bethlehem,

but on the one who came and is coming again,

this time in glory and majesty.

Christians are an end of the world type of people,

because we look to God,

who created the world,

with a purpose, with an end.

Christians are end of the world type of people,

because we believe we have already seen the end of the world

and it is Jesus.

Christians are end of the world type of people,

because the purpose of the world

is found in Jesus,

and so we pray ‘come Lord Jesus come’.

Advent is a reminder that we are always approaching the end.

The end is always in sight,

because we believe Jesus is in sight.

The end of the world is not far away,

because Jesus is not far away.

And at the same time, the Advent prayer is always

‘how long, O Lord, how long?’

For while the end of the world is known in Jesus,

it is not yet fully realised.

The end has not yet fully come,

for we know that today good and evil still flourish together.

We know the presence of

injustice, oppression, violence, hatred, indifference and vengeance.

So we pray

‘How long, o Lord, how long?’

Our reading from the second letter of Peter

speaks to the end of the world.

It answers those who disbelieve,

those who ask, where is this “coming” promised?

those who see only a world that is unchanged from its beginnings.

Peter says,

the end of the world is coming.

Don’t doubt it and don’t doubt God’s intention.

God is the creator God,

creation is not eternal, it will not last for ever,

it had a beginning and it will have an end.

            The question is not will it end, but what kind of end?

God is the God of judgement,

evil will not prevail, remember the flood,

the world was destroyed by water.

The end of the world is coming

and all will be revealed, laid bare,

made known.

The end of the world will draw together all that is good,

and redeem all that is bad.

The world’s end,

            is heaven and earth reconciled,

            is God all in all.

In apocalyptic language Peter speaks of the world ending –

            The day of the Lord will come like a thief.

            the heavens will disappear with a roar;

            the elements will be destroyed by fire;

            and the earth and everything done in it

            will be laid bare (2 Peter 3.10)

This does not the mean the world will be annihilated or obliterated.

            It does the world will be judged,

            and the elements will be destroyed,

            but the earth will remain.

What seems to be the meaning here, and its not entirely clear,[iii]

is that judgement will bring about the destruction of all that is evil.

The evil of the world that has acted like a parasite,

will be melted away by fire,

so that the world might be renewed;

            a new heavens and earth might emerge like a phoenix from the ashes.

The end of the world is not ultimately annihilation,

            but redemption.        

The end of the world is a new beginning.               

            It is purification, it is transformation,

                        a transformation in which Peter says ‘where righteousness dwells.’

            This righteousness is Jesus.

            In other words, to borrow words from the Book of Revelation,

                        the new heavens and new earth

                        will be where God dwells his people for ever (Rev. 21.4)

For Peter the end of the world is always almost here.

Time is always pregnant with Jesus.

We are not in some kind of dead time, waiting for everything to happen,

we are in God’s time, in which he is patient.

We are in God’s time in which a day is like a thousand years,

and thousand years is like a day.

We are in the time of God’s patience.

While we pray, ‘how long, o Lord, how long?’

God is slow, not because he won’t keep his promises

to right every wrong,

to heal every wound,

to free every captive.

He is slow, because he is patient,

He is slow in order that the world and the church might wake up:

            He is patient with you,

            not wanting anyone to perish,

            but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3.9).

God’s patience is for the sake of God’s mission.

            ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ as the hymn goes.

A slow and patient God means a slow and patient church.[iv]

A slow church is not the same as a fast-asleep church.

            It’s easy to fall asleep – remember the disciples in Gethsemane.

            It’s easy to fall asleep when we out of touch or not in tune to the time we are in.

            The end of world is near, this is no time to curl up on the sofa.

            Advent is a reminder to wake-up to God and God’s end.

            You can’t pray ‘come Lord Jesus come’ if you’re asleep

            and you can’t pray ‘how long, o Lord, how long?’ if you’re asleep.

The church is called to be slow, but not dead.

            Are we asleep as a church?

            What’s waking us up?

            What’s causing us to long for the coming of Jesus?

            What’s urging in us to long for God to make things right?

            Where is God calling us to rise from our beds to do his bidding?

A slow church is also not the same as a frenetic church.

            It’s easy to full our lives with activity,

            it’s easy to exhaust ourselves with doing,

            it’s easy to get obsessed with success.

The end of the world is near

            and we turn to thinking that we need to be Jesus,

                        that salvation is something we do.

            We never slow down, we never allow ourselves the patience

                        to see that God is patient.

Advent is a reminder that God gives his people all the time they need.

            Therefore if patience marks the character of God,

                        it should mark the character of our lives:

                        a godly life is a patient life.

Advent is a reminder that God slows us down.

The church is called to be slow, not frantic.

            Are we rushing around too much?

            What’s slowing us down?

            What’s causing us to see that Jesus is already near us,

                        that the end of the world in kingdom terms is already among us?

            What’s urging us to pay attention to the mercy of God?

            Where is God calling us from doing to praying?

It’s the end of the world as we know it,

            and we feel fine,

because Jesus is here and on his way.

We can be patient for our God is patient.

We can be confident for God’s promises are sure.

We can be joyful for a new heaven and earth is already and not yet.

Amen.

 

[i] The song can be found on the album Document.

[ii] This journey through history owes much to Sam Wells’ sermon entitled ‘The End of the World’ preached on the 30 Nov 2014, http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/wp-content/uploads/30-Nov-2014.pdf.

[iii] I’ve been helped by J. Richard Middleton’s discussion of these verses in A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker, 2014), pp.189-200.

[iv] This section I owe to Stephen Picard, Seeking the Church (SCM, 2012), pp.216-217.


Why Belle Vue? A Sermon

 A friend who is a minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church recently asked members of the congregation why they come to the church.[*]

I wonder what kind of answers you might say about Belle Vue.

Here’s a few that I thought might resonate.

Perhaps you come to Belle Vue

because it’s a habit, learned from a young age,

suitably drilled in by parents,

that Sunday’s are for going to church.

You can’t imagine life without going to church,

it’s part of who you are,

and as such Belle Vue has become a part of who you are.

On some days you worry you’ve become just part of the furniture,

on others you wonder at all the changes in worship and activities

you’ve witnessed other the years,

either wishing it was like days in the past, or glad for what the newness brings.

You believe the church is an anchor in life, that keeps you rooted,

and while it does change, it is also the one thing that stays the same.

You come to Belle Vue because you believe this church gets that.

 

Perhaps you come to Belle Vue

because you like the fact that the church is living, active and engaged in its local and global community.

This is a church that has, and is still learning, to get involved in making a difference.

This is a church that prays and seeks God’s kingdom on earth as it is heaven.

Whether it be through the TWAM tool workshop,

or the Southend Foodbank, and now also the winter night shelter;

or through local links with HARP, with the CAP debt advice centre,

and with 57 West,

or whether it be our global links with BMS, with Anusaran and with Christian Aid.

You believe if the church is about anything

its about serving those in need,

whether they live 5 minutes away or 5 hours away.

The church exists to improve the lives of the poor, the homeless, the hungry.

You come to Belle Vue because you believe this church gets that.

 

Perhaps you come to Belle Vue

because it makes space, and has time, for children.

In the week

it reaches out to welcome babies and toddlers and their families to First Steps,

it reaches out to welcome children and young people to the Boys’ Brigade.

In both cases it provides a safe, nurturing place to grow up.

On a Sunday it is a church that is happy to let children be children,

that offers them age-appropriate groups,

that enjoys their contribution.

You believe if the church is about anything it’s about being inclusive and welcoming of all ages, especially the youngest.

You come to Belle Vue because you believe this church gets that.

 

Perhaps you come to Belle Vue

because you like the worship, and the preaching;

it stretches the mind, it lifts the soul, it challenges the heart, it even makes you laugh.

The worship gives you the weekly dose of God that you know you need.

The church has a good group of musicians,

the church has some pretty good preaching.

You like how each Sunday is familiar,

but is also likely to have something different from the last.

You believe if the church is about anything its about worshipping God,

its about praise and prayer, Bible and bread.

You come to Belle Vue because you believe this church gets that.

 

Perhaps you come to Belle Vue

because of the community, the fellowship, the friendship.

You think of it like a second family, or perhaps even a first family.

It’s a church that cares, that takes a genuine interest in your life,

that has been with you, and stood by you, in the ups and downs of life.

At this church you’ve got to know people who have become friends for life,

and the great thing is you may never have met them if it wasn’t for this church.

You believe if the church is about anything it’s about a group of people who are committed to each other,

through thick and thin,

willing to lend a shoulder to cry on, or a tenner when money’s been tight,

or a willing hand to help with this or that job that was beyond your skill.

You come to Belle Vue because you believe this church gets that.

 

Perhaps you come to Belle Vue

because you have questions and lots of them.

Questions about God, the Bible, right and wrong,

questions about meaning and purpose.

Lots of questions.

And you’ve found this church doesn’t mind,

even welcomes, every question.

This church is not afraid to ask the big questions,

and this church does not presume to have all the answers,

and this church allows people to think differently.

You believe if the church is about anything,

its about asking questions and discovering that every answer just generates another question,

that we can never fully understand, but that with God we are fully understood.[†]

You come to Belle Vue because you believe this church gets that.

 

I wonder why you come to Belle Vue?

Because of habit, its social concern, its inclusiveness, its worship,

its friendship, its curiosity.

Maybe none of these possible reasons, get why you come,

perhaps you don’t why you come, it’s a mystery!

Why ask this question?

Well because whatever answer you might give,

I hope you might have found more than what first drew you,

or what first kept you coming.

You came looking for friendship and you’ve found a longing for worship.

You came with curiosity, and you’ve found that you’re involved in making a difference.

You came because of habit and you’ve found you’re asking new questions.

However God might call us and invite us,

God wants the church to be a place where we grow.

 

In our reading from the letter to the Ephesians,

Paul talks about a mystery that is now revealed,

something that was hidden, that was secret,

but that has know been made known.

This mystery, this divine secret

is Jesus.

The gospel is Jesus.

And where is this mystery uncovered on display?

Where is this good news made available to be heard?

Where is the evidence that Jesus is the meaning of all existence?

You’ve probably guessed it,

the church.

The church is the ‘manifold wisdom of God’ –

it is the witness that the good news is Jesus

and Jesus is good news.

The church is the place in which Jesus stands at the centre

and his life radiates outwards,

creating a people who resemble him.

This is why we come to church: to resemble Jesus –

and we resemble Jesus

by creating good habits,

by loving our neighbour,

by welcoming young and old, and those caught in middle-age,

by giving praise to God,

by asking questions and searching for answers,

by making friends and walking with them.

The church, with all its frailty and fragility,

is where the mystery of the universe

is on display for all to see.

 

We come to church to see Jesus,

            born in a manger,

            rising from the Jordan waters of his baptism

            calming a storm on the Galilee Sea,

            touching the leper,

            eating with prostitutes,

            sharing bread with thousands,

            telling stories without conclusions,

            freeing those bound by evil spirits,

            praying alone in a Garden with sleeping friends nearby,

            on trial before a Roman Governor,

            on a criminal’s cross speaking words of forgiveness,

            outside an empty tomb greeting Mary with joy,

            ascending in glory,

            interceding in heaven.

For in this life, all life finds it telos – its direction and destination.

The point of coming to church is that in Jesus,

in this particular human life,

we find that God is with us,

now and forever.

And in Jesus that which was not, and is not with God,

all that was and is estranged,

alienated, and disconnected,

is being reconciled,

healed, made whole, re-connected in him.

In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus

all things – everything – is being transformed.

And the church is a sign,

a sign of what reconciled, re-membered, re-connected life looks like.

 

The church offers the world

       A glimpse of life where Jesus is central

Where life is in nurtured in the habit of gathering to Jesus and being sent to find him;

Where life is learning to see Jesus in those beyond our social circle;

Where life is learning to welcome each other – old and young – as a gift;

Where life is learning to let go of our idols to worship the God of life;

Where life is learning to transition from community for myself to myself for community;

Where life does not avoid the hard questions which challenge faith, but goes on asking with the confidence that God is not fazed.

 

We are an example of that church.

Not the only example,

probably not the best example,

but we are an example of the difference Jesus makes.

We are an example of the manifold wisdom of God.

This is the point of our being a church,

this is why we come,

this is what we invite others to see,

this is what we want others to find.

It’s all about Jesus:

God with us now and forever.          

 

[*] Simon Woodman, ‘Why Bloomsbury?’ http://baptistbookworm.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/why-bloomsbury.html

[†] This line is adapted from a line from what I think is Wild Goose Worship Eucharistic prayer


Book Review: Notes From A Wayward Son: A Miscellany by Andrew Walker

Hres.9781625641618 Andrew Walker, Notes From A Wayward Son: A Miscellany, ed. by Andrew D. Kinsey (Cascade, 2015), 322pp.

Last year Andrew Walker was honoured with a long overdue set of essays representing his contribution to theology and congregational studies (my review of that book can be found here). Walker is most famous for his work Restoring the Kingdom (4th ed., Guildford Eagle, 1998), which was a landmark study of the 1970s and 80s house church movement, but he has also been an influential voice amongst those seeking to explore issues of church and culture, writing and editing a number of helpful works, alongside overseeing the influential Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King's College London. This new collection of essays spans his career and gathers together a number of his harder to find pieces of work into one place.  

The title of the book is borrowed from the title of an auto-biographical piece which appeared originally as a chapter in Charismatic Renewal: In Search of a Theology (SPCK, 1995) and is now reprinted in this collection. It tells the wonderful account of Walker's growing up a Pentecostal, his experience of the Holy Spirit, and his eventual journey into the Russian Orthodox Church in his late 20s. He tells of how although he left the Elim church, he never completely left Pentecostalism.

The book is as such a gift because it offers us a way of engaging with one particular thinker and guide over 45 years, as he witnessed the growth of the 'new' churches and the wider charismatic movement, alongside the wider questions in the 1990s of what kind of church would survive and flourish in the twenty-first century - for Walker only a 'deep church', that is attuned to the impact of modernity and able to suitably resist it. Walker is an astute observer and interpreter of both church and culture.

Twenty-six different pieces of writing - journalistic pieces, academic essays, interviews - cover Walker on charismatic Christianity, C. S. Lewis, the Orthodox church and church and culture. This demonstrates that Walker is something of a polymath - growing up a Pentecostal, but becoming part of the Orthodox later in life and a reader and interpreter of Lewis. 

This is a treasure chest, with so much to enjoy. An extra bonus is what appears to be pretty much a complete bibliography of Walker's publications, which the festschrift lacked. The book should mean that the work of Andrew Walker will continue to help the church reflect and seek ways in which it can be faithful to its Lord.


Book Review: The Nazareth Manifesto by Sam Wells

51FJOxDFczL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Samuel Wells, The Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 328pp.

The Nazareth Manifesto took a fairly long time to write. Its first origins are back when Wells was ministering in Norwich in the late 1990s and read a book which introduced the language of working for, working with and being with. However it wasn't until he arrived as Dean of Duke Chapel in 2005 and beginning to understand the mission of the church (in the context where mission was almost entirely as working for) that the book began to be developed. He delivered a lecture in 2008 called 'The Nazareth Manifesto' in which the key argument of the book was outlined and this eventually became the first chapter in Living With Enemies, a small book which was part of the series called Resources for Reconciliation. Alongside this came sermons, two of which bookend The Nazareth Manifesto, which showed the importance of being with in scripture. The Nazareth Manifesto is the expanded argument explored theologically and ethically, written in first few years as vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which itself has its own particular mission.

The simple argument is this is Wells' attempt to argue for the importance of being with over working for for theology and the way the church lives out its mission. Like his earlier work God's Companion's, Wells uses the tactic of overwhelming the reader with his argument, both in theory and practice, so that you are left finding it very hard to disagree with him. The Nazareth Manifesto even has two chapters at the end in which Wells seeks to deal with his critics before they even get a chance to write their reviews. Wells wants to show the impoverishment of a theology and ethics of working for and as such the argument of the book is in some ways an 'exaggeration', but he says (in a footnote), that 'if I thought there was the remotest chance of my proposals being widely adopted I might speak differently' (p.19).

Wells grounds the importance of 'with' in the gospel, in fact, he says 'God with us' is the gospel. The story of scripture is the story of God's desire to be with us, and only within this 'with' can we speak of a 'for.' The book offers a re-reading of the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, incarnation, atonement, pneumatology, ecclesiology and eschatology through the lens of 'with'. The book also seeks to re-read the Bible's narrative - creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and church - with with as the central concept. 

Wells writes in usual style, which is both academic and sermon, theology and example. He uses the story of The English Patient as a means of making an early point that what is wrong with the world is not mortality but isolation, in other words, we are too busy trying to overcome death, that we miss the importance of being present: Laszlo leaves Elizabeth to try and save her, instead of being with her at the moment of her greatest need. Later he uses the stories of God's Hotel, the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George Bell, and story of Stuart and Alexander in Stuart: A Life Backwards. Each of these stories is a means of Wells exploring what being with looks like not as an abstract idea, but as the story of a life.

At the centre of the book is the parable of the Good Samaritan (ch.6) and the doctrine of the Trinity (ch.8). These are the most important chapters. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Wells re-reads the parable not as one about how we help those in need, but as one in which we are the person lying in the ditch needing help, and the unexpected stranger saves us. Everything about Christian mission says we go to help others, Wells suggests that Christian mission is about finding out we need to receive the mercy of others. Later he speaks of the way that those deemed poor are also rich and those deemed rich are also poor, being with another person is about discovering both the poverty and riches that make up our lives. The chapter on the Trinity outline eight aspects that God is with God: presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, partnership, enjoyment and glory. This is fullest description of being with without sin and it is this that Jesus invites us to discover (so ch.9).

The book leaves you examining your own life and the life of the church in which you belong - am I shaped by for or with, is our church shaped by for or with - and the book is a means of offering the means of discovering how we might transition from for to with. It also asks the question of overseas mission agencies/societies, are they too heavily about working for and working with and do they take seriously simply being with? When the church is full of different kinds of community mission through night shelters, food banks, toddler groups, cafes, parish nursing, street pastors, etc, The Nazareth Manifesto offers a means of examining what we are about, both in terms of theology and in practice. Wells believes that at the heart of God and the gospel is with and to be the church we must learn to be with God, with one another and with our neighbours and the stranger - this where the kingdom, this is where the glory of God is found.

Every minister in training should read it. Every church considering a new, or reviewing a current, project should read it. 


The Goal of Punishment: A Sermon for Prison Sunday

I want to start this morning with an account of someone I know who has found himself through his wife involved in a prison ministry. He lives in the United States.

In 2005 at the time of the spring proms a young lad in our son’s year at school – we’ll call him Ben – shot both his parents dead. The school immediately closed ranks. Experts were brought in who advised everyone above all to avoid contact with this deranged and dangerous figure. My wife’s first response though – and I attribute this to the work of the Holy Spirit – was “something terrible happened to Ben to make him do that.” She thought this in part because Ben had been kind to our son when he first arrived at his new school as an awkward foreigner in grade 11. Ben had actually befriended him and gone out of his way to include him in parties and gaming events. Shortly after thinking this she was woken in the night with the conviction that she had to write to Ben in jail. A series of near miraculous events unfolded to open the way for a visit, followed by further weekly visits. (Let’s me just say that it’s not easy to show up unannounced to a high security psychiatric prison and get in to see someone.) And now she has been walking alongside Ben for almost ten years. It has been one of the greatest joys of our life, as well as one of the greatest sadnesses. Ben has never explicitly embraced Christ, although we talk of such things occasionally. But God is clearly at work in his life. What is equally clear is that God did not want Ben to be forgotten even though everyone else did.[*]

There are currently around 86,000 prisoners in the UK.

This is a three-fold rise since the 1950s – so in 1950 just under 50 people were in prisoner per 100,000 in UK population, in 2010 this had risen to nearly 160 people in prison per 100,000.

The church rarely thinks about prison and prisoners.

Even though at the beginning of the gospel

Jesus declares that he has come to proclaim freedom to the captives (Lk 4.18)

and at near the end of the gospel,

Jesus says that to visit a person in prison is to visit him (Matt. 25.36, 40).

The gospel is good news for prisoners.

As my friend says: despite prisoners being shut away from the world,

God does not want those in prison to be forgotten.

The Christian gospel dares to announce that there is not one prisoner

who should not receive mercy and forgiveness.

This is why the work of the Prison Fellowship is so important.

This is why I’m glad that as a church, in Glyn and Liz, we have a link to this work.

This is why it is right the church sets aside a day to remember and pray for those in prison, and those who work in prisons, and those who have been the victim of wrongdoing.

Our society argues that if you commit a crime the ultimate punishment is prison,

other punishments are of course fines, community service or particular court orders,

but in the main, the punishment is prison.

We might say that the church should not get involved in what the state does in terms of criminal justice or prison,

but this whole series of Sundays in the last two months have argued that there is no secular, no area of life in which the gospel does speak into.

The church must reflect on prison and crime and punishment

and it must do so as the church, that is, as disciples of Jesus.

Most of us probably have a view on crime and punishment,

but I wonder if we allow the gospel to shape that view.

This is the question I want to ask how do Christians think about prison as punishment?

Society offers three common views about prison as punishment:

Prison as a means of deterring others from committing crimes.

Prison as a means of protecting society from those deemed to dangerous to be otherwise free.

Prison as a means of ensuring a person pays the price for they have committed.

A fourth view, once more common, is now more muted –

            Prison as a means of seeking to reform or rehabilitate a prisoner in order that they might re-join society on their release and not return to crime.

What is noticeably missing from society’s view of prison as punishment is any notion of forgiveness or reconciliation.

The history of prisons lies in Christian monastery.

Part of a monastery is divided into cells, where the monks sleep,

When a monk committed a crime, they were confined to their cell

In order that they might after a set time of penance be reconciled to the community.

The cell was a place of isolation and silence.

To be confined to one’s cell was a means of being deprived of the company of others, deprived of participation in the community’s life and worship.

The old name for prisons – a penitentiary – indicated its roots as a place where repentance was done.

The goal always for those who confined to their cell was forgiveness and reconciliation.

The punishment was never an end in itself,

The punishment was not a simple means of retribution,

but also had the desire that the one confined would ultimately be restored,

as a full member of the community again,

forgiven and reconciled.

The problem with a modern understanding of prison and punishment

is they lack the intention, the goal, the telos

of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

Prison has become a means of social control,

a means of punishment for punishment’s sake.

In some cases prison is a means of scapegoating.

A group of mostly Christians in Scotland, which included theologians, judges, prison governors, probation officers, chaplains and criminologists and a prisoner,

were brought together to think about the issue of prisons, punishment and justice.[†]

Some of what they found was:

Prisons had become human warehouses,

deprived of any purpose other than the deprivation of liberty.

The model of justice was almost exclusively retributive, with no sense of seeking to be restorative or reformative.

The other thing they found was that prison was not a place to talk about or deal with notions of guilt and forgiveness.

It is here that as Christians we have something to contribute,

because both guilt and forgiveness are part of the Christian vocabulary.

Guilt for Christians is a universal concept.

As the apostle Paul says: ‘all have sinned’

and in this sense all are guilty – it is impossible

to divide people into the guilty few and the innocent many.

We do not stand apart from those in prison,

for each one of us are sinners,

each one of us live in ways that offend our neighbour and God,

each one of us is guilty of some form of wrongdoing.

A Christian response to prison and punishment,

is to confess that there is no perfect innocent guiltless humanity.

In a similar way, if guilt is universal,

so is the need for forgiveness.

As we pray, ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’

Forgiveness is not just offered to the few,

but to the many.

The offering of forgiveness and the reception of forgiveness is costly,

but it is the gift of God proclaims the gospel.

The church offers those in prison and the wider community

a means of seeing life, even life that has caused serious offence and harm to others,

in the context of God, gospel and reconciliation.

The group of Christians concluded that

            ‘forgiveness, reconciliation, reception back into fellowship is the goal of punishment, the telos which alone can justify the punishment of the offender.’

This is why Christians are or should be against capital punishment,

it removes any possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness.

If the church is to argue that the language of guilt and forgiveness are important when we consider prison and punishment,

the church must also show how to punish in such ways.

It might be shocking to hear that the church should be place in which there is punishment,

but this must be the case if we hold to the conviction that we are not just a group of individuals in a building,

that we are instead a community of God, a family in Christ,

where sins against one another and against God are not ignored,

or overlooked with some notion of sentimentality that covers our fear of naming sin.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches the disciples how to deal with sin in church:

what is sometimes called ‘binding and loosing.’

And in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we see him tell the church to excommunicate – to put the sinner outside of the community.

This is how the church punishes,

not as end itself, not out of some enjoyment,

or for some satisfaction that a wrongdoer is getting their dues,

but in order that the offender might be reconciled,

restored, forgiven.

So that that which is broken can be healed.

Amongst the earliest Baptists they understood the importance of discipline.

Church meetings were not about finance or evangelism,

But about discipleship, about membership.

Church meetings would often discern together what kind of discipline

a wayward member might need to undergo,

because they believed that following Jesus together mattered.

How offensive is that to our ears today?

The discipline sometimes meant being excluded from the Lord’s supper.

They took bread and wine seriously; to miss out was to miss out a communing with God and his people – food for thought perhaps when we next come to the table.

If the church is to proclaim forgiveness, and I think we must,

we must also proclaim repentance and penance

and that is to be able to say something about punishment.

Alongside seeking to be this kind of community,

We must pray for those are prisoners,

and those we work in prisons,

and those who oversee prisons – worryingly increasingly this is becoming privatised –

that they might prisons as a place for coming to terms with wronging,

finding forgiveness and where possible being reconciled with victim.

This is to be for them, even when we cannot always be with them.

[I recognise I’ve not said much about victims today

and this not to because I want to cheapen or pretend some crimes are not horrendous and evil acts,

in which the lives of victims or their families are not devastated – exploring that is a sermon for another day;

at the same time, I think the gospel always holds out the possibility of redemption,

and this must always be the goal of punishment.]

We must be the kind of church that is involved with prison ministry –

Could we imagine what would happen if every church had a relationship with every prison?

At least some, if not many in prison are Christians,

Christ is already there as he says – when you visited someone in prison, you visited me’

and so its about the church reaching out to those who belong to Christ

and together seeking to live as those guilty and yet forgiven.

As my friend says ‘God forgets no one, and so we are to forget no one.’

 

[*] Douglas Campbell in a sermon preached at Goodson Chapel, Duke University, 6th Feb, 2014.

[†] Duncan Forrester, ‘Punishment and Prisons in a Morally Fragmented Society’, Studies in Christian Ethics 6.2 (1993), pp.15-30.


Remembering Baptists: James McClendon

9781481304313 51UXOCEkbkL._AC_UL320_SR214,320_ 51qHgObT8uL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in 2000 James McClendon died. He authored Ethics, Doctrine & Witness & provided baptistic vision of theology

McClendon's baptistic theology was centred around a conviction that 'this is that.' His work sits alongside that of Hauerwas & Yoder.

Alongside his 3-volume systematic theology, McClendon did important work on biography as theology & the importance of convictions

IBTS in Prague & now Amsterdam through Parush Parushev, Keith Jones & now @StuartMBlythe has been a centre for theology Jim McClendon style.

The 3rd volume of The Collected Works of Jim McClendon @Baylor_Press is due out early 2016.

Hauerwas on MClendon: 'I always suspect that God gave Jim a Catholic body but forced him to live a baptist life - a small 'b' Baptist life'

The importance of Jim McClendon's theology is he starts with Ethics & then Doctrine reversing the practice of the way much theology is done.


Barth's Church Dogmatics the Very Very Short Version

Ben Myers tweeted today an excellent guide/summary to each of Barth's volumes of the Church Dogmatics, this will surely encourage those non-readers to give Barth a go, or those still too daunted to grasp something of great man's theological mind.

Barth 1/1: Before I ever thought of God, before I opened my mouth to speak, God is, God speaks, and what God says is "God!"

Barth 1/2: God's mighty Word is humbly hidden in the human flesh of Jesus, the human words of scripture, & the boredom of the Sunday sermon

Barth 2/1: God's happy Word is unconditioned by anything in us. That's why God is better than anyone, because God is free to love everyone

Barth 2/2: Why is God so good at freely loving us? Because God had so much practice before we ever existed

Barth 3/1: We were summoned into being by God's freely loving Word. From that day on, God has spared no expense in trying to befriend us

Barth 3/2: Our nature fits God like a glove: God wore it first then let us try it on, and Jesus shows us how to wear it right

Barth 3/3: God's freely loving Word holds the world in being and keeps at bay the dreadful power of nonbeing. (P.S. There are angels.)

Barth 3/4: How good it is to be a creature! To be ourselves, never more or less, within the constraints that God has lovingly set for us

Barth 4/1: When I saw the way Jesus used his deity to become small and humble for my sake, it took my breath away (and then my pride)

Barth 4/2: When I saw Jesus triumphant in his humanity, it roused me from a deadly boredom: I became freely and fully human, almost a god

Barth 4/3: The human messenger is the divine Message: Jesus, the living truth that unmasks my self-deception & makes me a disciple of truth

Barth 4/4: So cheer up! God's faithfulness frees us for faith. God's loving address frees us to answer. God's gift frees us for gratitude.

Barth volume 5: And the rest, my friends, is Mozart


British Baptist Biblical Scholars (7) Rex Mason

1926-

PhD (London, 1976); supervised by Peter Ackroyd; DD (Oxford)

Tutor in Old Testament, Spurgeon's College (1965-1975)
Senior Tutor, Regent's Park College, Oxford (1975-1991)
Lecturer in Old Testament, University of Oxford (1981-1993)

Major Publications

'The Relation of Zech 9—14 to Proto-Zechariah', Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 88.2 (1976)

'The Purpose of the "Editorial Framework" of the Book of Haggai', Vests Testamentum 27.4 (October 1977)

The Books of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi (Cambridge, 1977)

'The Prophets of the Restoration' in Richard Coggins et al (eds.), Israel's Prophetic Tradition: Essays in Honor of Peter R. Ackroyd (Cambridge, 1982)

'Some Echoes of the Preaching in the Second Temple? Tradition Elements in Zechariah 1—8', Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 96.2 (1984)

'The Treatment of Earlier Biblical Themes in the Book of Daniel' in James L. Crenshaw (ed.), Perspectives on the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honor Walter J. Harrelson (Mercer, 1988)

Preaching the Tradition: Homily and Hermeneutics After the Exile (Cambridge, 1990)

Micah, Nahum and Obadiah (Sheffield, 1991)

Old Testament Pictures of God (Smyth & Helwys, 1993)

Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Joel (JSOT, 1994)

Propaganda and Subversion in the Old Testament (SPCK, 1997)

'The Messiah in the Postexilic Old Testament Literature' in John Day (ed.), King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Sheffield, 1998)

'H. Wheeler Robinson Revisited', Baptist Quarterly 37.5 (1998)

'Ronald Ernest Clements: An Appreciation' in Edward Ball (ed.), In Search of True Wisdom: Essays in Old Testament Interpretation in Honour of Ronald E. Clements (Sheffield, 1999)

Jeremiah: A Bible Commentary for Every Day (Bible Reading Fellowship, 2002)

'The Use of Earlier Biblical Material in Zechariah 9-14: A Study in Inner Biblical Exegesis' in Mark Boda et al (eds.), Bringing Out the Treasure: Inner Biblical Illusion in Zechariah 9-14 (Sheffield, 2003)

'Hermeneutics: The Interface between Critical Scholarship and the Faith of the Community' in Helen Dare and Simon Woodman (eds.), The "Plainly Revealed" Word of God? Baptist Hermeneutics in Theory and Practice (Mercer, 2011)


Jesus & Peter talk Animals

(Written for a service where we welcomed animals on Sunday 4th October2015 and inspired by the conversations written by John Bell and Graham Maule).

Peter: Jesus?

Jesus: Yes Peter?

Peter: I was wondering …

Jesus: what were you wondering about …

Peter: Well, it’s just … I wanted to know … whether … well … is there room for Rocky in the kingdom of God?

Jesus: You mean Rocky the hamster.

Peter: Yes. I love Rocky. We’ve been friends for years. And you keep talking about

the kingdom of God, and I was wondering is there a place for Rocky? Or is it just for humans.

Jesus: What does the Bible tell us?

Peter: Don’t ask me Jesus, you’re the expert.

Jesus: Well, what does it say in Genesis 1?

Peter: It says God created all the birds of the air and the fish in the sea and all the animals on the ground.

Jesus: And what does God say?

Peter: God said it was good.

Jesus: Yes God says all the creatures of the world are good. And what does it say in the story of Noah?

Peter: That God destroyed the world because of human wickedness.

Jesus: But he saves two of every kind of animal. God is interested not just in

saving Noah and his family, but all creatures. And after the flood when God makes a covenant to never destroy the world again, he says it is a covenant not just with Noah, not just with humans, but all creatures.

Peter: So what are you saying?

Jesus: I’m saying Peter that all creatures matter to God not just humans.

Peter: But what about Rocky? Is there room for Rocky in the kingdom?

Jesus: What does the prophet Isaiah say?

Peter: That God loves hamsters???

Jesus: Well not exactly … Isaiah says that ‘The wolf will lie with the lamb … and the lion will eat straw like the ox … and they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD’

Peter: What does that mean?

Jesus: This is Isaiah’s picture of God’s intention for creation, for the new heavens and the new earth … it’s a picture where all creation, humans and animals are at peace.

Peter: Wow!

Jesus: Wow indeed!

Peter: So if all creatures matter to God, Rocky matters to God.

Jesus: I’m saying that God declares all that he creates as good –
whether it be trees, animals, or humans;
and everything God creates, God cares for, provides for;
and everything God creates is created to praise God.
As the Psalmist says:
‘let everything that has breath praise the Lord.’

Peter: Oh, Rocky loves to praise God … he’s always squeaking!

Jesus: I’m sure he has a fine voice.

Peter: Thanks Jesus.

Jesus: What for?

Peter: These little chats, always helpful.

Jesus: My pleasure, Peter.