Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Incarnational Christianity

Jesus, in order to save us, became one of us. That is the essential truth of the Incarnation and at the heart of the Gospel. Of course Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead and sent His Holy Spirit but all of this started when God took on flesh and walked among us. Everything else flows from this. This is why, I believe, John in His Gospel starts with this and underlines its powerful truth in those wonderful words of his in John 1:14

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth."

If Jesus had not become one of us, identifying with us in every way - except without sin - then he would not have been able to save us. "For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved." (St. Gregory Nazianzus Epistle 101).

The image I get when reading the gospels is of a man (mankind) in a dark, dirty hole in the ground. He is too weak to climb up and out of the hole and so he cries out for help. Someone hears his call and climbs down into the hole, binds up his wounds and lifts him out into the sunshine. That is a picture of the incarnation. The rescuer coming alongside - rather than reaching down - to save the man and help him up.

Jesus' incarnation is, I believe, a model for us to follow when we think of rescue or evangelism. It is coming alongside people, identifying with them, joining them, and then helping them to God. But how many of our evangelistic models seem to keep a distance between us and those we are trying to reach. It is evangelism at arms length, the complete opposite to the Jesus model. It is only as we come alongside people, "walk a mile in their moccasins" - as the saying goes - that we can effectively reach them for Christ. The incarnation is our model and the Anglican Church which I belong to is pretty good at going some way along the road to working that out. All it needs to remember is that the Good News isn't just about good works and acts of kindness - although they are important - but sharing the message of God's love through Jesus. Put those two together and you have evangelism as Jesus intended.

The story which kind of sums this up is the story of the Good Samaritan in which the Samaritan in the Christ-like figure who does not pass by on the other side but crosses, binds up the wounds of the man left at the side of the road, and then carries him to the Inn.



Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Shape of Faith - the Sign of the Cross

As someone brought up on the evangelical - Low Church - wing of the Anglican Church the sign of the cross was a non-starter when it came to worship. Not understanding it and associating it with all that was wrong with ritualistic worship I pushed it out of my mind and got on with worshipping the way I was taught. Over the years however I have come to realise how terribly prejudiced, ignorant and narrow minded I have been and having read back into Church history I realise that my ancestors in the faith had no such foibles but saw the sign of the cross as a fundamental part of who they were. After all hadn't they taken up their crosses in order to follow Jesus? And so wasn't the sign of the cross a daily reminder of that? Here is an interesting article I came across, written by an evangelical who like me discovered that there is more to the sign of the cross than what he had previously thought:

The Shape of Faith. The sign of the cross is a reminder of whose we are. By Nathan Bierma

Pray continually, Paul urged the Thessalonians. The early church fathers took this one step further: continually make the sign of the cross.

 "In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross," wrote Tertullian at the turn of the third century, A.D. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom (apparently anticipating an American Express slogan) wrote, "never leave home without making the sign of the cross."

How the sign of the cross — the motion of the hand over the torso, up, down, then side-to-side — made its way from the early church to us today is a lesson in church history, as you can see in two new books: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History, by Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete Press, 2006) and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2006). (The sign of the cross as a benediction, made outwardly rather than towards the self, also has a varied and murky history, but both books focus primarily mostly on making the cross over one's self.)

More importantly, the sign of the cross is a lesson in discipleship. As Andreopoulos, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, and Ghezzi, from a Roman Catholic perspective, both show, making sign of the cross is a powerful act of daily prayer, dedication, and remembrance. Ghezzi writes that at its heart, the sign of the cross is "a simple gesture and … a simple prayer."

Over time, Christians have imbued this small, simple gesture with volumes of theological meaning. Holding three fingers together — thumb, forefinger, and middle finger — as you make the sign symbolizes the Trinity. Holding the other two fingers against your palm represents the two natures of Christ, human and divine. Dropping the hand from forehead to waist to begin the gesture represents Christ's descent to earth. The upward movement that follows represents his resurrection. And so on.
Andreopoulos and Ghezzi find in the sign of the cross a symbol of baptism, protection, profession of faith, defiance of the Devil, invocation of God's power, solidarity with the church, and a rebuke of self-indulgence—to name a few.

The origins of the sign are unknown; as Andreopoulos points out: "our information is sparse because this ancient practice emerged naturally, as something that made sense to most Christians." The earliest descriptions, such as Tertullian's, indicate that the cross was made with one finger—probably the thumb—on the forehead in the shape of a Hebrew T or a Greek X, letters that stood for names of God and Christ. Presumably, early Christians were taking their cues from passages in Genesis 4:15, Ezekiel 9:4, and Revelation 14:1 and 22:4 that describe a mark on the forehead as a sign of God's claim on a person.

The similarities among the shapes of T, X, and the cross were noted by early writers, but it wasn't until the fourth century that the cross became a symbol of pride, of worship, and of Christian identity. By then, Augustine declared, "What else is the sign of Christ but the cross of Christ?" and advised that "the sign be applied … to the foreheads of believers."

At some point, Christians began to make the sign with two fingers rather than one, probably to indicate the two natures of Christ, and later, with three fingers to symbolize the Trinity. This change in fingering may have led to the "large cross"—the sign made over the entire upper body, rather than just the forehead. One explanation is that amid ninth-century debates over the nature of the Trinity, Christians may have wanted to emphasize that they were now using three fingers rather than two, and so they used the larger sign to make it more obvious.

If you think that's getting theologically meticulous, you haven't heard the debates over whether to finish the motion with a left-to-right movement (left cross) or right-to-left (right cross). The right cross, still practiced by Eastern Orthodox believers, symbolizes how "Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left)," according to Pope Innocent III. In Roman Catholic practice, the left cross has become standard, showing, (in one of many interpretations) that the believer hopes to be not on Christ's left—with the goats, as in Jesus' parable—at the day of judgment, but on Christ's right.

If these layers of theological density seem out of place with the simple beauty of the two-part motion of the sign of the cross, Andreopoulos explains that all symbols keep within them a multitude of meanings that they were given intentionally and also unconsciously. Upon reflecting on these signs, the faithful find that these meanings are made available. The sign, as an act, however small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life.

And so, both Andreopoulos and Ghezzi urge all Christians to rediscover—or discover for the first time—the ancient, simple, and profound act of making the sign of the cross.
"The spiritual weight of the sign has always been the same," Andreopoulos writes. "In texts from Tertullian and Origen to Kosmas and Aitolos, it is a blessing, a prayer, a proclamation of the Christian identity, a living mystery, and an acceptance of the role that God has given us."
"Whether I sign myself silently or with the invocation [of 'in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit']," writes Ghezzi, "it helps me to look beyond the mundane things I have to do every day … and focus on God and on the greater part of reality, the part that is spiritual and invisible."

Christians of a variety of traditions have begun to discover the beauty and meaning of this ancient act. Protestant objections to the sign of the cross are seldom articulated beyond the vague dismissal, "It's a Catholic thing," but Martin Luther prescribed the sign of the cross in his Small Catechism, and the sign has long been part of Episcopal and Lutheran practice. As both Andreopoulos and Ghezzi show, the sign of the cross is hardly a uniquely Catholic practice; it has deep roots in the early and Eastern churches and clear ties to Scripture.

After reading these two books, this previously ignorant Protestant, for one, has decided to introduce the sign of the cross into his daily prayer, as a link with the early church, a sign of God's claim on me, and a reminder of the mystery of the Trinity.
oss is one manifestation of how physical—how embodied—worship really is. It can be as simple as raising our hands during a praise song, sitting up straight when the first few chords of a hymn are struck, or closing our eyes and folding our hands to pray. All of these motions have become ingrained in our body language of worship. Like the sign of the cross, they contain great potential for physical demonstration and remembrance of a deeper meaning—and also great potential for becoming so routine that eventually we do them out of mere habit—or worse, for show.

From centuries ago, Chrysostom admonishes us to mean what we do. "You should not just trace the cross with your finger," he wrote, "but you should do it in faith."

Nathan Bierma is communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and author of Bringing Heaven Down To Earth: Connecting This Life To The Next (P&R Publishing).

The God who surprises

I came across the following article on my computer. I have no idea who wrote it. It may have been me. But whoever wrote it, here it is:

In 1879, a child was born to a poor Jewish merchant. In early life the boy suffered a haunting sense of inferiority because of the anti-Semitic feeling he encountered. Shy and introspective, the boy was so slow in learning that his parents had him examined by specialists to see if he was normal. In 1895, he failed his entrance examination to the Polytechnic in Zurich, Switzerland, though a year later he tried again and succeeded. Later, he received a doctorate from the University of Zurich, yet obtained only an obscure job as a patent examiner in the Berne patent office. Who was he? The man who formulated the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein, one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived!

Often, those whom we underestimate and consider average end up doing surprising things. The same thing is true in the kingdom of Christ. The Lord frequently uses people who wouldn't appear to be an obvious first choice. We see that people rejected Jesus, and yet he became the Saviour of the world. In reference to Jesus, Luke 20:17 says, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.’ 

Martin Luther King, Jr wrote: ‘You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know Plato and Aristotle. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.’

Think about how many leaders in the Bible would have been disqualified from leading if they had been judged through the eyes of people. Moses murdered a man (Exodus 2:12) and he complained to God that he wasn't a public speaker (Exodus 4:10), yet the Lord used him to deliver 600,000 men, plus an untold number of women and children, from Egypt. David was a teenager when he was chosen as king, and he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered (2 Samuel 11:15), yet he was considered a man after God’s own heart. When he was just a teenager, Jeremiah was called by God to preach to the kings of many nations (Jeremiah 1:5), and the apostle Paul persecuted the church (Philippians 3:6) and admitted that he was not a public speaker (1 Corinthians 2:1-5), yet he ended up a zealous witness for Jesus Christ and wrote two thirds of the New Testament.

God is a God of surprises and we shouldn't be surprised that there are endless possibilities for our lives! He knows each one of us, and he also knows about what we may consider to be our limitations, but he can use us despite them if we respond in trust to His call.

When the man comes around

Johnny Cash lyrics to one of his famous songs: When the man (Jesus) comes around. "And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder O...