Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Yahweh and David

The Old Testament reading for Holy Communion today, 2 Samuel 24, is a complex one [made more so by the Lectionary leaving several verses out] but this ‘appendix’ to the life of David offers a fascinating insight into the covenant relationship between him and Yahweh.

The account begins with Yahweh’s anger being kindled against Israel. No reason is given, but his anger is generally kindled against ‘the nations’ due to their extreme and sustained injustice; and against his own people, Israel, for the closely-related but more technical sin of unfaithfulness to the covenant that existed between them. Yahweh is slow to anger, but nonetheless settled in his determination to resist wickedness (see Exodus 34:6-7, in the context of Exodus 33:12-34:8). We see this played-out in the book of Judges—the ‘historical backdrop’ to David’s own time—with the repeated cycle of oppression at the hands of neighbouring peoples, dramatic deliverance, a turning away from the God who had rescued them, repeat.

Yahweh then incites David to take a census of the people. His military commander, Joab, questions this action, but on David’s insistence carries the census out. Yahweh’s action here is reminiscent of both the occasion when, having decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in judgement for their wickedness, he brings Abraham into his plan (Genesis 18) and the occasion where he tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22). In the former, Abraham intercedes for others; in the later, he obeys (and Isaac lives).

Despite being given the opportunity by Joab, David does not push-back at Yahweh, does not negotiate. The census takes place. Such a census can only have two purposes: to be the preliminary to a military draft, amassing might; and to facilitate taxation, amassing riches. Such are the temptations common to rulers in the ancient (and not-so-ancient) world. At this point, David comes to the realisation that he has been tested by Yahweh—and has failed the test.

Striken to the heart, David repents—expresses a change of mind—and asks Yahweh to remove his guilt. Yahweh responds by setting him another test, a test of his repentance. David must choose three years of famine, three months of sustained attack and defeat at the hands of surrounding nations, or three days of pestilence. In any scenario, many people will die. This would be entirely disproportionate were it primarily the consequence of David’s census; but it is not. It is primarily the consequence of the unfaithfulness by which the people have angered Yahweh. In a secondary sense, David not choosing—as Abraham had chosen—to intercede on their behalf may have a bearing; but nonetheless we see that Yahweh will not stand by indifferent to wickedness, and (yet) that he sets limits on his judgement (it is not open-ended).

David rules out three months of fleeing from before his foes. A more cynical reading would see this as looking out for his own skin. A more generous reading would recognise that, as king, ‘David’ is intimately entwined with both the people, ‘Israel,’ and their god, ‘Yahweh.’ David does not want judgement to be at the hands of the nations, in order that neither the honour of the people nor the honour or reputation of Yahweh be brought into disgrace. Beyond that, David has nothing to say, returning the final choice to Yahweh.

Yahweh chooses three days of pestilence, a short-sharp-shock in which seventy thousand people die at the hand of an angel of death. But when the angel comes to destroy Jerusalem, Yahweh declares, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” This is not merely a limit to justice—a calling time on punishment—but an extension of mercy.

David can only bear witness to Yahweh’s judgement and mercy. And the two come together on a threshing floor. A threshing floor Jewish tradition identifies as both the site on which Abraham laid Isaac on the altar, and where Yahweh provided a ram to take his place; and the site on which David’s son Solomon would build the temple as a resting-place for Yahweh on earth. And there, on that spot, David declares that if there is more judgement to be done, let Yahweh’s hand be not against the people but against David and his father’s house.

But Yahweh and David are covenant partners. For Yahweh to accept David’s proposal—as opposed to negotiating the terms of [a different] agreement—then, should David be unable to fulfil his promise, Yahweh would have to uphold the obligation. But what would that even look like?

Essentially, that remains a moot point, until the exile to Babylon, or at least the encroaching shadow of its likelihood/inevitability. In that context, some fourteen generations later, the prophet Isaiah would take up the challenge of answering that question in the theological imagination experiment known as the suffering servant songs. Fourteen generations later again, Jesus—but, we jump ahead of ourselves.

For some, a god who is truly free, free to act in judgement, and free to act in mercy; a god who insists on testing the character of people, who tests their motives, even tests their repentance; a god who is inscrutable and dangerous and close and involved—for some, such a god is monstrous. But for some of us, any lesser god is not worthy of the stories by which we come to know ourselves, and to be known.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

My resting place

Morning Prayer.
‘For the LORD has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his habitation:
“This is my resting place forever;
here I will reside, for I have desired it.”’
Psalm 132:13, 14

The prophet Ezekiel is given a vision of God’s glory departing the temple, and, later, returning (Ezekiel chapters 10 and 11, and 43). Zion is God’s resting place forever; but God goes on journeys. God leads his people out into the world, into the unknown. God proves himself to be more than a local deity.

Rest is not immobility, not the closing-down of a small world. A resting-place is not a place where one lies down and refuses to go elsewhere. Resting places are a provision, not a prison. A place we long for, with a longing that renews us; a place to call home. And God, who is deeply invested in the physical world—who will, one day, renew this world—has a physical address, not a metaphysical one.

Where is your resting place? When were you last there? Are you there at present; or on a journey, short or long?

Or have you yet to discover the place that elicits that desire in you?


Monday, January 29, 2018

Streams in a dry land

Morning Prayer. I am struck by this petition from Psalm 126:

“Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.”
(Psalm 126:4)

The watercourses in desert places run with water in their season. This prayer, then, recognises that life is not about an upward line of ever-increasing fortune—however we might define that—or even indefinitely continuous good fortune. It recognises, in the words we use in marriage vows, that there are better times and worse times, times when we are richer and times when we are poorer, times when we experience sickness and times when we experience health. It recognises that we cannot control our lives. It calls on God to restore in due course, perhaps even acknowledging that such recurring change feels overdue at present; but it is very different from a sense of entitlement.

Nonetheless, those who lived in the desert carved out cisterns in which to store water when it did flow. At Masada, for example, they carved out (by hand) cisterns as large as the nave of a cathedral (see photos). Blessings can be taken for granted; or, through the sometimes-hard work of thankfulness, we can create an expansive space in our hearts that enables those blessings to sustain us when we find ourselves in the worse times*.




*I think the key thing about digging cisterns—which is effort in response to grace—is that it takes a community, not just an individual or even a nuclear family.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Anna (and Simeon)

We read about Anna in Luke 2:36-38. We are told that this woman was a prophet. The way we are told this is significant: ‘there was also a prophet’ implies that Simeon, who has just spoken prophetically, was not a prophet. Anyone upon whom the Holy Spirit rests might, from time to time, speak prophetically, speak God-given words for God; and this is what Simeon appears to have done*. But prophets are somewhat different. Being a prophet is not so much about what you say, as about your manner of being in the world. If anyone ever thought to write down Anna’s words, they have long-since been lost. As it is, we know of only one occasion on which she spoke prophetically—about the child Jesus, to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

What is striking about Anna is that her vocation, at least in the season of life of her old age, is primarily expressed by her continual presence in the temple**. By her faithful, unshakeable, visible life of worship, of fasting and prayer, night and day. She had become a fixture in the temple, as much as the stone or gold.

Her presence spoke: specifically, something about her presence spoke to those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem—who were longing and aching for something to be released into blessing—who were drawn to her, and to whom she was, at last, able to speak about Jesus when he appeared in the temple. Something about her presence held out both invitation and challenge to them.

It strikes me that there are more prophets in out midst than we might have realised, masquerading as little old ladies, as octogenarian widows; and, perhaps, the odd man.


*Perhaps he was an evangelist, who recognised good news when he saw it. Perhaps he was an apostle, who saw beyond the boundaries of his own community. Perhaps he was a shepherd, whose heart broke knowing that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. Perhaps he was a teacher, whose bones were marinated in scripture. We don’t have enough information to say, for sure; but the text does seem to suggest that whatever he was, he wasn’t a prophet.

**It is not clear whether she has been there for all the years of her widowhood, or from more recently—though she has certainly been resident in the temple long enough to be noteworthy.


Candlemas

Today we marked Candlemas, or the Presentation of Christ in the temple (Luke 2:22-40) (Alternatively, Candlemas may be marked this coming Thursday or next Sunday).

There was a really moving moment at the end of our service this morning, as some seventy or so people moved from their pews to gather around the large, marble font, holding lit candles, and singing the Nunc dimittis. Old people—like Simeon and Anna in the temple. Young parents—like Mary and Joseph bringing the six-week old Jesus to the temple—juggling their baby on one arm, a candle in the other hand. A scattering of Malaysians, Nigerians, and a good number of Iranians alongside the British—for the child in our midst is a light to lighten the gentile nations.

It felt like a minority community who finds and strengthens its identity in its ritual. And it seemed to me that this is a very good place for the Church of England to find itself right now. Not taking a defensive, inward-looking stance; but rediscovering itself.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Solomon so what?

John’s Gospel depicts Jesus in the area within the temple complex known as Solomon’s Portico (John 10:22-39). Luke records that in the earliest days of the church, the apostles taught, healed the sick and delivered the oppressed in the same place (Acts 3:11-26; 5:12-16). If Jesus is the Solomonic Son of David, what implications might that have for the local church? What might it mean to be a Solomonic community? Here are some suggestions.

We should seek to be a community of wisdom-learning. Solomon is associated with the Book of Proverbs, a compilation of instruction relating to how to live alongside our neighbours. Written in a vastly different world, among other things the proverbs address civil discourse—something that appears to have been swept-away in a Twitter-storm in our time—and meet romanticism head-on with realism—again, something we have lost in our neo-liberal society. Solomon is also associated with Ecclesiastes, the work par excellence that addresses the fleeting nature of life, how little we can control, ultimately advising balance (or moderation: do not give yourself too much to work, or pleasure; do not be overly devout) and contentment. This, too, has much to offer our own times, our addictions and delusions.

We should seek to be a community of honest-brokering and conflict-resolution. A resource to a wider community that finds itself increasingly polarised along racial, political, and a host of other lines. It strikes me as noteworthy that the local Church of England congregation is perhaps one of the view contexts in England where people who vote Green, Labour, Lib Dem, Conservative, and UKIP might be found seeking to work constructively together. We are also engaged in inter-faith forums. Regarding honest-brokering and conflict-resolution, we have a long way to go; but we should recognise what already is.

We should seek to be a community of celebration. Solomon is the royal bridegroom, and in the new Testament the Church is depicted as the bride of Christ. In both Old and New Testaments, ‘the Age to Come’ begins with a celebration, a wedding banquet. We are a party people, and we should party more. Solomon is identified with the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem. Our celebrating should be more than but not less than a celebration of sexuality. And that celebration should include throwing the best weddings, while not being limited to a vision that only affirms wedding couples.

We should seek to be a community marked by the divine presence found in place. Yes, you don’t have to be in a church building to encounter God, but you should encounter God if you are in a church building. That happens when the church community share an attitude of reverence towards the spaces they steward, and towards all who come in. It happens when we are expectant that we will meet with God, in the music, in the reading of scripture, in the distribution of bread and wine, in the play of light through stained-glass windows, in the collection-bin for the foodbank, in the insight of a small child or the warmth of a sleeping baby or the gnarled fingers of a pensioner, in the sharing of a cup of tea, in wood and tile worn to a polish, in the crocuses pushing through the lawn in the spring…

Of course, while Jesus was the fullness of Solomon, or the best Solomon that Solomon could be, the history of King Solomon records a certain number of pitfalls. How might these, too, be instructive to the Church?

Solomon finds himself drawn away from his distinctive relationship with the God of Israel through the making of political alliances with the surrounding nations, whose values were very different. There is a warning here against the temptation to political power, and the uncritical aligning of the Church to any given political identity. We see this in the overwhelming support of white, evangelical Americans for the Republican party; and the fanatical support of white, evangelical American church leaders for Donald Trump. As already noted, I genuinely don’t think we have such block-voting or soul-selling in the UK; but nonetheless we may see it at the individual level, and the potential is always there.

Solomon finds himself drawn away from his distinctive relationship with the God of Israel through his participation in a cultural milieu where powerful men exercised control over the bodies of women. Even if accounts of the number of his wives and concubines is exaggerated for symbolic effect, this itself speaks of that milieu. Sadly, this feels all too current. The Church has been complicit in just such a wider culture, not held out a clear alternative counter-culture. We are seeking to own and address our sins. Jesus, the fullness of Solomon, the fulfilling of Solomon, both demonstrates and empowers a way of living in community that is marked by purity of motive and self-sacrificial service of others, and by forgiveness and restoration for those who fall short and yet truly repent. All this describes something ongoing, both glorious and imperfect. It calls for honesty and humility; and holds out hope.

Solomon finds himself drawn away from his distinctive relationship with the God of Israel through pursuing a lasting reputation by other means. Perhaps the greatest irony of Solomon’s reign—the reason why his own son would go on to lose half of his territory—is that in conscripting his own people into slave labour to build great palaces and service lavish lifestyles, and in amassing a great military technology, Solomon duplicates the Pharaoh from under whose oppression God had rescued his people. Arguably, the Church of England finds itself captive to a status, albeit diminished in influence, God might not want it to have. Our fixed assets may serve, or be at the cost of, flourishing community. Solomon’s story invites us to honest assessment.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Solomon

The Lectionary for Holy Communion today brings together 2 Samuel 7:4-17 and Mark 4:1-20, as we continue to build the picture of Jesus as the Davidic king.

David, now king in Jerusalem, plans to build God a temple, a house to dwell in. But through the prophet Nathan, God informs David of his own plans. God has not asked this of David, but instead will raise up David’s offspring and establish his kingdom (2 Samuel 7:12). He will be the one to build a house for God’s name, and God will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever (2 Samuel 7:13). God will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to God—that is, God ratifies that David’s son will enjoy the same relationship with him that David has known (2 Samuel 7:14).

This promise is fulfilled in David’s son Solomon, who sat on the Davidic throne and built the temple.

Our reading from Mark’s Gospel depicts Jesus sat on the prow of a boat, with a crowd gathered to him along the lake shore, teaching them many things in parables (Mark 4:1, 2). We are invited to see Solomon the Wise, sat on his throne, the people gathered to him as he judges between them and instructs the simple in the way of wisdom through the medium of proverbs.

In his Gospel, Matthew shows that Jesus is descended from David. He does this by recording a genealogy, showing David and Jesus to be twenty-eight generations apart; and by recording that Joseph claims Jesus as his son*. But Mark is not concerned to show that Jesus is a descendant of David. He records neither genealogy nor birth account. Rather, Mark is concerned with symbolic meaning, with presenting Jesus as the Solomonic Son of David.

As the Solomonic Son of David, this Jesus is unrivalled teacher of righteousness; and judge seated on the throne; and royal bridegroom; and the one chosen by God to make a temple or permanent dwelling-place for the divine presence among God’s people, in the sight of all the nations of the earth.

And that is quite a claim to make. Yet it serves as backdrop to the story Mark will tell**. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, parables become proverbs. A boat becomes a throne—as does a cross. The linen cloth with which Joseph of Arimathea wraps Jesus’ body becomes the bridegrooms wedding robe. A body raised becomes the newly-built temple.


*In the ancient world, if a man claimed you as his son, you were his son, regardless of paternity. And if a man disowned you as his son, you were no longer his son, again regardless of paternity. In a literal sense, Jesus is a tenuous descendant of David, not because Josephs paternity is called into question, but because Joseph is a quite distant relative of David.

**Matthew and Luke both depict Jesus claiming to be ‘greater than’ Solomon (Matthew 12:42, Luke 11:31). Mark does not. He is making a somewhat different claim: not that Jesus is greater than Solomon, but that Jesus is the fullness of Solomon.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

APEST tv

Those who know me well know that when I am not working, or perhaps out for a run, I watch a lot of tv. I don’t feel any need to apologise for that, and I know that I am not alone. So, I thought that it would be worthwhile to look at APEST through the viewing habits of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds (pastors) and teachers. I don’t presume to suggest what people watch—that is a matter of personal taste, shaped by a whole host of factors and influences—but to offer some reflections on how people watch tv.

As leaders or producers, apostles are innovators. As followers or consumers, apostles are often early-adopters of innovation. By ‘innovation’ I mean doing the same thing (continuity) in a new way (change). In relation to viewing habits, I’m thinking of the shift from a tv channel schedule to video on demand (VOD) platforms, or the shift in use of the term ‘box set’ from DVDs collated into a cardboard package (still available on the High Street, but for how much longer?) to the bundling-together of episodes for VOD downloading or streaming. For certain, those who pioneer new ways of watching tv are apostolic. As viewers, the more apostolic someone is, the more likely they are to be ahead-of-the-curve in relation to acclaimed dramas, and to evolving technologies (how new is your television?) and platforms (check out the history of Netflix if you are interested in such things). Obviously, this is only an indicator: there are plenty of apostles who have little interest in watching tv at all.

Prophets are concerned with society and how societies change for better or worse. The more prophetic someone is, the more likely they are to be attuned to the issues addressed in, say, period drama, which intentionally create a dialogue-partner for our own time. For example, a prophet watching Call the Midwife will likely have a heightened awareness of big-picture issues of gender, disability, sexuality, and poverty, and the extent to which we have and have not changed as a society since the 1950s-60s; whereas a more pastoral person watching the same episodes will likely be more invested in the characters themselves. The same principles apply to documentaries, or the news, or sport (inequality writ large), or to comedy (which can carry a prophetic edginess).

Evangelists infectiously share what they love. This may be a life-long passion—as far as tv is concerned, think Whovians at the geeky end, but also those who religiously watch and constantly chat about a favourite soap opera—while others have a shorter attention-span and move from new discovery to new discovery. As their whole world is full of good things to be discovered and shared, an evangelist might enthuse about any kind of programme, that sparks their interest. The more evangelistic [NB ‘evangelistic’ does not mean ‘evangelical’] someone is, the more likely they are to routinely share regarding their favourite shows; or share their latest discoveries. One pertinent diagnostic question would be, how often does what you are watching show up on your social media streams?

Shepherds (pastors) are concerned with nurturing community. And watching tv remains a social-glue activity, even if viewing habits are changing. While we still watch tv with others in the same room, we increasingly watch tv on our own or while simultaneously engaging with a smart phone. But more and more people watch tv in virtual community, interacting during the show on Twitter or afterward on the show’s official Facebook page. And we still discuss our viewing with our work colleagues the next day, done to establish and maintain common ground. The more pastoral someone is, the more likely they are to take an interest in the ‘common ground’ viewing they share with colleagues and neighbours, often with special attention to long-running soap operas and/or the fortunes of football teams—both of which are especially ‘sticky’ socially.

Teachers love learning, extending their knowledge-base. And they appreciate those who can communicate a technical discipline in an engaging way. The more pedagogical someone is, the more likely they are to value the educational or informative potential of television. Natural history, social history, current affairs, quizzes. Anything that leaves them knowing something at the end of the programme that they didn’t know at the start; anything that inspires and refreshes them as a learner and teacher. I do not mean to suggest that teachers never enjoy escapism—of course they do—but that they value knowledge and watching other people apply it, and view through this lens.

We need to bear in mind that these five gifts—apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd (pastor) and teacher—describe preferences, or relative weightings: we each have some degree of potential for all of these, and they are not mutually-exclusive. You might relate to more than one of the above descriptions. That could be indicative of a primary and secondary gifting, or simply of a rounded personality—and if you identify easily with all the above, perhaps just that you are a couch potato! Nonetheless, my hope is to demonstrate that our vocation shapes the whole of life, including our leisure-time. Even including something as mundane as watching tv.


Friday, January 19, 2018

Outlaws

The Lectionary for Holy Communion today continues to juxtapose the lives of David and Jesus, bringing together 1 Samuel 24:3-22 and Mark 3:13-19.

The former is a playful account. King Saul has renewed his intention to kill David. David has escaped, hiding in the wilderness, where a large band have made themselves outlaws by gathering to him. Saul and his men go searching for them, but are frustrated in their manhunt. We pick the story up with Saul caught short, in desperate need of a poo. Mindful of preserving the respect of his men, he removes himself into a cave, oblivious that he has unwittingly stumbled upon the very cave where David and his men are hiding.

Saul takes off his cloak to do his business, and while he is so occupied, David creeps up behind him and cuts off the corner of the cloak. Job done, and Saul headed out and at a safe distance, David emerges from the entrance to the cave to shame the king by his starkly contrasting choice of sparing the life of the man hell-bent on taking his.

David remains true to himself. But being true to himself does not mean living a self-determined life. Indeed, quite the opposite. David recognises this; and Saul confirms it.

The Gospel reading is the account of Jesus going ‘up the mountain’ (into a wilderness place) and calling a group of men to gather to him: a band of followers who will return with him, ‘Then he went home’. Yes, appointing twelve would appear to be an intentional reference to the twelve tribes of Israel; but this unlikely band of merry men tips it hat to acknowledge David’s outlaws too.

Jesus, and his apostles, root the call of God on their lives in a specific history.

Today’s readings underline the paradox that being true to ourselves requires being what the apostle Paul described as being grafted-into a story that is not our own, but which may become our own, through the action of another. We are not the primary author or actor. Not all stories are equal. Your own simply does not have the necessary thickness to sustain you, let alone allow you to flourish.

There is the distracted escapism of shell-thin stories, in which we cast ourselves as the hero. And then there is the purposeful escape from all that of the outlaw who joins God’s anointed one, eventually returning with him as part of a new society.

The biblical view of history is incredibly cyclical* with God proving himself to be true to his word** through it all. It may be that the Church must find itself once again outlaws, and not, at present, as those who live in palaces. In other words, we don’t get to choose whether we poo in a cave or not: but we do get to choose whether we do so with a clear conscience or a troubled mind; as patient residents or those caught out by circumstance.


*Just read the book of Judges, or the surviving chronicles of the kings of Judah and Israel to get the picture. Even at the end of the biblical record, the book of Revelation, Rome is cast as Babylon-the-Great (the city God raised up to judge his people: Judah was exiled to Babylon in 587BC and destroyed by Rome in 70AD) and Babylon-the-Fallen (having used them as an instrument of judgement, God then judged them for their own sins: Babylon falling to Persia in 539BC and Rome falling to Christianity in the fourth century AD) and as the new Jerusalem, the seat of the triumph of Christ(-ianity; that is, through his followers who remained faithful through persecution) over the pagan nations of the (Greco-Roman) world (the mechanism through which Rome was itself judged: see—circularity).

**Ultimately by raising Jesus from the dead and seating him on the throne of David, established for ever, to rule, contested-but-secure, over the often-rebellious nations. This faithfulness is the grounds for faith, and template for faithful living, in the face of ever-changing fortunes.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Son of David

The Lectionary for Holy Communion today brings together 1 Samuel 18:6-9, 19:1-7 and Mark 3:7-12.

The parallels between David and Jesus, a thousand years apart, are striking.

David is fĂȘted by women who ‘came out of all the towns of Israel’ because he has set the people free from Philistine oppression. Jesus is fĂȘted by crowds who come from Jerusalem (the centre-of-the-world) and the South and the East and the North—from all points of the compass except the West, due to the Mediterranean Sea—because he has set the people free from the oppression of disease and unclean spirits.

David’s popularity results in the jealousy of King Saul. Jesus’ popularity results in the jealousy of the rulers of his day [not present in this short passage, but framing it].

Jonathan’s actions provide David a place of shelter from harm. Jesus’ disciples have a boat ready for him, should he need shelter from crushing.

In Mark’s Gospel, and elsewhere, we see Jesus as the Son of David—the descendant of David, whom God has set on David’s throne*. The ‘force’ of the parallel is not that charismatic figureheads of populist movements always attract hostile attention from those who hold conventional power (true though that may be); but that God has ‘remembered’ his people and is showing himself to be faithful to his covenant promise.

This is a rooted story. It is the story of salvation being rooted not only in God’s universal love but in God’s chosen methodology.


*Jesus explicitly identifies himself with David in Mark 2:23-28 and 12:35-37, and is identified by others as Son of David in Mark 10:46-52 (explicitly) and 11:1-10 (implicitly). Besides this, David and his Mighty Men arguably provide a type for Jesus and his disciples (alongside, of course, Israel and his sons).


The kingdom of heaven

At Morning Prayer, I find myself thinking on the kingdom of heaven.

Kingdom is one of the great themes that runs through the Bible. It does not refer to some future and perfect realm—a utopia—but to the ability to see God at work in the changing fortunes of human history. That is why Jesus’ parables describing what the kingdom of heaven is like are so messy, so full of flawed actors—not simply as a foretaste of a delayed rule but as a rule that is fulfilled imperfectly. It is also why ‘apocalyptic’ is best understood as pointing to imminent events (and, secondarily, cyclic events) rather than end-of-time events.

At times in the Bible, the kingdom of God—the exercising of God’s sovereign rule through human rulers—is manifested in events his people find incomprehensible, such as the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon or to Rome. Or an innocent man hanging on a cross.

So, if we are brave enough to pray with Jesus, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ we must recognise that the answer to that prayer may look far from our ideas of justice. Or, we might find ourselves learning to see God at work in human history, even through the politicians and societies we don’t like.

That is not to preach resignation, or fatalism, nor to affirm political leaders—past or present—without question or challenge. Rather, it is to understand how God rules.

The conversion of Constantine was not a disaster that derailed the Church from her mission for a millennium-and-a-half. Christendom was the kingdom of heaven on earth. But now Christendom is passed; and that is not a disaster, either. Christendom gives way to new expressions of the kingdom of heaven.

To see the kingdom of heaven around us, as the parables do, is to have hope instead of despair. To rest, instead of striving. And to remind those who exercise power now that God, who raised them up, will also bring them down.

In other words, it is deeply subversive.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

How (not) to be destroyed

The Lectionary for Holy Communion today brings together 1 Samuel 17:32-33, 37, 40-51 and Mark 3:1-6.

The reading from 1 Samuel is the story of David and Goliath, arguably one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. As Malcolm Gladwell points out, Goliath may well have suffered from acromegaly, where a benign tumour of the pituitary gland causes an overproduction of growth hormone*; and compresses the nerves to the eyes, resulting in restriction sight and double vision**. David would not have known about acromegaly, of course; but he knew that he could not compete with Goliath on Goliath’s terms. And he knew that he didn’t have to.

David had at his disposal the well-honed ballistic skills of a sling-shot. And ballistics beats spears and swords every time.

The funny [ironic, tragic] thing is that king Saul came from a tribe that was famous among the tribes of Israel for their skill with a sling-shot. But Saul, along with his whole army, had been persuaded to see themselves as a lesser version of Goliath***.

Only David refused to be a tribute act to someone else****.

At the end of the Gospel reading we hear that the Pharisees and Herodians conspired against Jesus, ‘how to destroy him’.

The best, the most effective, way to destroy someone is to convince them to not be true to themselves, to persuade them to settle for being someone else.

When this fails, as it did with Jesus, you are forced to resort to murder; but that is far riskier, in the sense that it is nowhere near as effective.

Be the person God made you to be—and gave you to be. That is the one thing no-one else can do.


*He was a giant, and a fearsome specialist close-combat warrior.

**Is his shield-bearer in fact his guide? And why does he think David is carrying sticks, when in fact David—who becomes a moving remote target—is carrying a stick and a sling?

***The comparison game is helped by the fact that Saul was also tall, head-and-shoulders taller than many of his men, though not as tall as Goliath…

****Twice: first, refusing to take on Saul’s armour.


Monday, January 15, 2018

to equip the saints for the work of service

The local churches we read about in the New Testament were economic households. In Philippi, one household dealt in fine cloth—literally, a fashion house—and another was responsible for law and order. In Ephesus, the church was rooted in a philosophy debating hall, broadly-speaking the social equivalent of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London coffee houses, where people gathered in their leisure time (the long break in the middle of the day) to put the world to rights.

Distanced from the Jewish diaspora community, and cut-off from the pagan religious practices on which the conducting of business depended, these churches needed to be economically viable, not so that the building didn’t close but so that the believers didn’t starve. The account of the church in Ephesus recorded in Acts tells us that the Christians became so effective in operating an alternative economy that they had an impact on the old, temple-based, economy so significant that it resulted in social uproar.

This is the context in which we ought to understand Paul’s insight into apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, who are given ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry [service], for building up the body of Christ…’ (Ephesians 4:12; see also the teaching on economic households that takes up much of the second half of Paul’s letter, as well as featuring in other letters, and which include the likelihood of being married to or employed by someone who is not a believer).

Our churches today are not primarily understood as economic households (though they have budgets to balance) and this may skew our view of ‘ministry’. Nonetheless, our congregations are made up of households (whether one or more members of the household identify with the church) who work (paid or voluntary, or in need of work). In some contexts that might be in the same business, where the local economy is dependent on one or two employers; in other contexts, this is increasingly not the case. Still, the life of faith remains intimately connected with the work we do.

Let us then (re)imagine what APEST might look like in the context of a (fictional, but plausible) local Church of England congregation, seeking to be a faithful presence:

Alison’s primary vocation is to be an apostle, with a well-developed secondary gifting as a teacher. This is expressed in her working role as the executive headteacher of two schools. She no longer spends much time in the classroom, but oversees the whole environment, attending to the many and potentially-conflicting demands, and to embedding a culture that will best enable the two communities to flourish. Alison has been on the PCC of her church, but her term on the PCC is coming to an end and she does not intend to re-stand in April. The church appreciates that her focus is in the workplace, and prays for her regularly. With Alison’s support, members of the congregation go into one of the schools with ‘Open the Book’. Even though she does not have capacity, at present, to be part of a church-based working-group, the vicar knows that he can run certain things by her (within reason) and values her insight.

Peter’s primary vocation is to be a prophet. Peter is a local artist, who took early retirement and who volunteers two days a week at the food bank that runs out of the local Baptist church. Keenly aware of the problem of social isolation, and the attending de-skilling, in the community, Peter started running art classes in the (parish) church hall, advertised through the voluntary network. Recently the group put on an exhibition of work recording the (post)industrial identity of the community where they live. The PCC sees Peter’s art classes as a ministry of the church (covering room hire, heating & lighting), and two other members of the congregation have joined, to support that work.

Emma’s primary vocation is to be an evangelist. Her infectious personality makes her a natural recruiter to whatever she is involved in. She does the local parkrun, and has persuaded several of the other school-gate mums to take up running too. She’s also roped half-a-dozen of them into coming along to the monthly Messy Church. The PCC is planning a series of events in the church diary over the coming 12 months. Everybody knows that Emma is great at bringing other people along, but also at enthusing everyone else about what is going on—so important when some get discouraged by the scale of need or seemingly endless stream of bad news.

Sarah’s primary vocation is to be a shepherd, or pastor. She works in the local pharmacy, where she knows many of her customers. Even at busy times, she makes them feel that they matter. About four years ago, Sarah was invited by the vicar to join the pastoral care team, who visit people in their homes. Then, about a year ago, Sarah found she needed to step back from her involvement while she cared for a family member; but they have made a good recovery and Sarah is really enjoying being involved in the team again. Knowing that at times Sarah feels taken for granted by her employer, and that at times she takes on too much, the vicar and church wardens felt it important to release her, and, also, to regularly ask after her over those months (they didn’t always remember!) but they are happy that she is back.

Tim’s primary vocation is to be a teacher. He is a secondary school science teacher. To be honest, it can be hard motivating the kids to learn; and then there is the endless interference by the government. Sometimes, Tim feels like quitting, and retraining for something else. But Tim is married to Emma (you remember Emma?) who is taking time out from being a dental hygienist while their own children are young, and so when Tim feels like quitting, he also feels trapped. Emma is wonderfully supportive, but sometimes even that makes him feel worse. The monthly men’s curry night with church friends has been a place where Tim has found real support; a conversation with Alison, also a teacher though not at his school, was helpful too. Wanting to encourage Tim to remain in teaching, but also to make good use of his gift within the life of the gathered church, the vicar supported Tim through Reader training (a licensed—that is, recognised by the wider Church—lay ministry). The congregation follows the lectionary readings at their main Sunday service, but Tim is part of a group that helps put together study series at certain times throughout the year. This Lent, they are running weekly afternoon and evening groups in parallel, and Tim will lead the evening group.

Alison, Peter, Emma, Sarah and Tim are fictional; but each is an amalgamation of several real people I know, some of whom would describe themselves as Christian and others, not. Likewise, the church they are part of is fictional; but the range of activities described does not seem to me to be unrealistic for many, though not all, churches. Though not an actual place, the wider community should also be recognisable. Lastly, while the vicar is also fictional, he may be recognised in any number of vicars, male and female, seeking to invest in the people-gifts God has sent to them.