Kingdom thinking.

(The following is the slightly modified text of a sermon I gave rather over 10 years ago. )

Seeing all the coverage about Israel and Palestine, and doing some background reading, a thought came to me.

Yasser Arafat was a son of God.


Shocking, isn’t it? Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the current conflict, Arafat was a long time terrorist, and his followers (if not he himself) have been responsible for the deaths of a lot of innocent Israelis.


But bear with me….. in Matthew’s gospel, we read “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mat.5:9). Chairman Arafat was once a joint recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And he’s a male child, so he’s a “son”. Stands to reason……


I think, following that, that we’d all want to take refuge in the passage from Ezekiel (Ezk.18) in the reading “When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity……. none of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered” (Ezk.18:24). To be fair, I’d also suggest that it’s about time that those in Israel read and took to heart the wording of that chapter. There are too many fathers who have eaten sour grapes (Ezk.18:2), and too many children whose teeth are set on edge (Ezk.18:2). That passage marks the point where Judaism abandoned the concept that the sins of the fathers were visited upon the children (Ex.20:5, Ex.34:7, Num.14:18, Deut.5:9, Jer.32:18) and was a precursor to the development of Judaism which became Christianity.


So, perhaps, for  brief period, Chairman Arafat was a son of God and would have been received into the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Kingdom of God – I don’t make a distinction between them, and where Matthew says “Kingdom of Heaven”, Mark says “Kingdom of God” when describing otherwise the same saying). Perhaps, at some time in the future, that will be the case – we can hope and pray so.


Matthew also tells us Jesus said that the poor in spirit qualified. (Mat.5:3) Those persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Mat.5:10). Those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick or prisoners (Mat.25:34-37, Lk.12:32). Luke tells us “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the most high” (Lk.6:35).


So we have a promise. These actions will deliver the Kingdom to us. Jesus reinterpreted for us the standards which Ezekiel talked of, including especially charity (Ezk.18:16), and added the foundation for the commandments – that we should love our neighbour as ourself (Mat.23:39).


So what is the Kingdom? We hear that it’s a pearl of great price Mt.13:35), as well as a grain of mustard seed (13:31), a leaven (13:33), a treasure hidden in a field (13:44), good seed (13:24), choice fish (13:47), the new and the old from a treasure (13:52), a good return on investment (18:23), given in fullness irrespective of our worth (20:1). Confusing…….we should obviously look for it, but what will we get?


Paul writes “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known”. (I Cor.13:12). What we hope for is a glimpse of God as He is, a connection with Deity, a foundation for our existence. And this is indeed a pearl of great price and a treasure. Seeing through a glass darkly is accepting the grain of mustard seed which can grow, accepting the leaven which will raise our spirits. Clearly, this is something which we cannot comprehend without experiencing it, and we will experience it only in part.


Mind you, Matthew also tells us Jesus’ words “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat.5:20)- but that may say more about how he felt about the Scribes and Pharisees than it does about what we need to reach the Kingdom.


More seriously, though, he says also “Except you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven”. (Mat.18:3-4). Has the promise been taken away if we can’t manage to abandon all our adult attitudes?


No, I don’t think it has. I think Jesus speaks here from the absolute knowledge that, before God, we will inevitably react as little children.


Now, when will this happen?


Is it to be when we die? Is it to be when Christ comes again?


I don’t think it has to be. In Matthew’s and Lukes’ gospels, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom being at hand several times, as does John the Baptist before him (Mat.3:2, 4:17, 10:7) – but this is often interpreted as talking of an event which hasn’t happened yet. I think that’s not a correct reading. Luke tells us Jesus promised “There are some standing here who will not taste of death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Lk.9:27) – and this was nearly 2000 years ago!


Was he wrong? Were his audience going to die before a second coming (as they clearly did) without his words being fulfilled?


I think not. I believe he was right; I believe some of them did see the Kingdom of God, and indeed entered into the Kingdom of God, within their natural lifetimes. The Kingdom is a thought away, if, indeed, it isn’t filling some of us as I speak.


I’ll assume that anyone who’s looking into space and seems to me not to be concentrating is experiencing the Kingdom at this moment…….


But I’d like to hear some testimony about it from them later.


But I don’t see any promise of when this entering into the Kingdom will happen, just that it will.Maybe not within our lifetimes, maybe at our deaths, maybe at some time after that.


Let me move on to John’s gospel. John has a very different approach and talks of a very different vision from Matthew, Mark and Luke. John records that Jesus said “unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn.3:3) and “unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (Jn.3:5).


I often used to attend a charismatic church, where they are very keen on the “born again” concept – and it seems to work. I’m not someone who’s gone through the formula of being born again in that way; neither was my father, and, I suspect, neither are most who will read this (though some may feel “born again” in a different way). Those of us who have arrived at faith by other means (and I’m going to come back to that) are going to find it difficult, at the least, to cast everything away and take a new path.


So do we all need to be “born again”? Born twice, indeed? Well, not as a precondition. Look at Saul, on the Damascus road: you’ll remember that Luke writes in Acts “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the High Priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now, as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said “”Who are you.Lord?” And he said “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” The men travelling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing, so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight and neither ate or drank” (Ac.9:1-9).


Saul’s heart was filled with anything but humbleness and charity, and he was a persecuter rather than the persecuted. He didn’t qualify under any of the headings I’ve mentioned, but God still gave him a vision, a faith and a mission all in one all-encompassing experience. I’m sure that in the process he was born again spiritually, as I’m sure that in entering into the Kingdom of God each of us are born again spiritually – if not yet, then in the future.


I’m sure you’ve realised that I’ve now covered three basic ways of attaining the Kingdom.


We can have faith, do those things Jesus stated would entitle us to enter the Kingdom, and rest assured on his promise that we will do so (though we ought to take to heart the passage from Ezekiel (Ezk.18:24)).


We can go through the ritual conversion which has been made out of the passages in John I mentioned and others. As I’ve said, it seems to me that this is a fairly effective way of opening a line to the Kingdom. I think John knew this route, having travelled it himself – I see his poetic writing in his Gospel as evidence of this – we all know “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1), and we all know “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (Jn 14:6)


Or, a very few of us may be zapped by God like Saul. We won’t deserve it, but it will give instant access to the Kingdom and change our lives forever. We can’t ask for it, we can’t do anything to encourage it; it will just happen.


Unfortunately, after he became Paul, he didn’t write anything about that experience which might give us a glimpse of it from this great writer. The best I can come up with is from Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician, written in his notebook:

“From about half past ten in the evening to about half an hour after midnight.


God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.

Not the God of philosophers and scholrs.

Absolute certainty; beyond reason. Joy. Peace.

Forgetfullness of the world and everything but God.

The World has not known thee, but I have known thee.

Joy! Joy! Tears of joy!”


What Paul does write of at length is his knowledge that, once such an experience has happened, there is no going back, and areas where there is no room for doubt (Rom.12:2 etc.). And that the fruits of the spirit will flow inevitably (I.Cor.12).


Now, I did get zapped like Saul, or at least like Pascal. My father didn’t. He left myself and mum a message which we read after he died, and it was clear that he hadn’t had more than a glimpse of the full possibility of entry into the Kingdom and had many doubts and uncertainties. I wish he had had a fuller experience than that; I know that Jesus’ promise means that he now does. I know that that promise means that all can share in that Kingdom, whether we arrive by a life of faith and works, whether we seek an instant transformation with the Charismatics, or whether God just decides it’s time for us to change and changes us without warning.


But, knowing father’s doubts, I’ll pray that we can all enter the Kingdom sooner rather than later, and go through the rest of our lives with the absolute certainty given to John and to Paul.

Faith, not belief (Alpha week 3)

I’ve been confident for quite a while that where the scriptures says “have faith” it doesn’t just (or even primarily) mean intellectual belief, and that where the original is translated “believe” that actually, “have faith” would be a better translation. I read it as something like “love and trust”. It was a pity, therefore, that much of last night’s talk effectively said to me “believe these things”, principally being that God exists, that Jesus was (and is) God, that scripture is entirely reliable and unambiguous and that the primary purpose of Jesus was to die and so save us from sin.

Aside from possible quibbles that “exists” is not the best terminology, I have no difficulty accepting the first. I only manage not to disagree with the second as a result of being a panentheist, which is not the understanding of “was God” which the speaker and other helpers have. And there we parted company.

I’ve blogged previously about my attitude to “This is the word of…”. Most of the New Testament I consider the product of a faith community which developed after Jesus’ death. I accept it as acccurate in portraying the understandings of the actual writers at the times when they wrote, granted that much if not all of it has been adjusted at least once by someone with a subsequent understanding, according to significant numbers of experts in textual criticism. I am not at the moment at all confident that Jesus himself would have recognised or approved of all of it. Sadly, of the many possible texts the speaker could have used, he chose Revelation 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”.

Now, I am not a big fan of Revelation. Neither, I understand, was Martin Luther, but like him, I accept that it’s become part of the canon and I need to deal with it. How I deal with it is mostly to quote early Church fathers, who said that it was highly symbolic and that the key to the symbolism had been lost. I think there are huge dangers in trying to interpret it against that background, to say the least.

In this case, however, I think I can deal with it as it stands, but bearing in mind that rather than “the word of God” it is the testimony of the writer to his experience. It may well have been the author’s experience, but it has not been mine. Firstly, I got where I am by a different route, so I can’t speak from personal experience. However, observing others who have been very earnestly seeking a faith, including in a previous Alpha course,  it does not seem to me that all of those who have heard what has been said about Jesus, apparently with open minds, have actually had the experience of an encounter with Jesus, the Holy Spirit or God as a result. Some have been going to various churches for many years (so this is not a complaint about the content of Alpha). It has long been a source of pain to me that this happens.

So the message I got, which was that all one needed to do having got this far was to be open rather than closed minded, seemed to me to be just plain wrong. Various explanations suggest themselves to me, the simplest of which is that the writer did not have the same experience as I do and had never met someone in that position. I doubt it. He could, like many I have heard, have blamed the person who was afflicted for not opening their mind sufficiently. While I cannot be certain what has been in the minds of anyone other than myself, it really has not seemed to me that this has been the case with those who just “don’t get it” after (sometimes) many years of church, and that feels to me like blaming the victim.

An old ex-Jesuit friend of mine would say that if the gospel has not been adequately presented to someone, they cannot be fixed with knowledge, or in other words that the most likely explanation would be that to date, no-one has succeeded in telling them in such a way as to connect with them, and that as a result they have not “heard his voice”. I’m unsure about this. In a few cases, I have tried every permutation of telling and retelling, including stripping down the message well beyond even the point which I was at the time comfortable with, and taking them to hear others with different approaches, and the result has still been no transforming personal experience for them.

I have no other answers at the moment, save perhaps that the response may not be immediate. If so, in at least a couple of cases it would have to have been either deathbed or post-mortem.

I talked a bit about substitutionary atonement last week, so I won’t go into that here.

As it happened, the discussion afterwards didn’t really get into these areas. I was happy to endorse that a personal relationship with God is important and that such a relationship has transforming power. I don’t agree with some atheist friends that this represents a form of brainwashing (which scares them). There was some talk about whether God provokes in us love or fear; the consensus was firmly in favour of love. I mentioned psalm 111:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, but that went nowhere (I am inclined to think that “fear” there would be better translated as “awe”, myself) I do not think that a form of Stockholm Syndrome is an appropriate basis for love of God, or any other relationship!

Just musing a little, I wonder where I’d have gone had I actually had intellectual acceptance of at least some of the basics 0f Christianity at the time of my teenage experience? Would I have found things easier thereafter, and (for instance) not taken some 30 years to feel able to self-identify as Christian? I can’t know, but I’d like to think so – and it’s very much on that basis that I think Alpha can be valuable even just as “here are some reasons for giving intellectual assent”, bad as I think many of those reasons are, and much as I think intellectual assent to things which are other than Jesus would actually have agreed with is being asked for.


Paul, pharisees and following the rabbi

I think this Alpha business is good for me. I may not agree with some of the content (a malicious person might say “any of the content”), but to feel moved to two posts in one day…

While thinking further about what I said about Paul in my previous post, I followed a link from a friend’s blog (Henry’s Participatory Bible Study) and found Scott McKnight talking about Pharisees. Excellent. I add that I accept what a Jewish friend once said, which was that all of modern Judaism is basically “the Pharisees” – as Scott points out, the rabbinic tradition is Pharisaic. If we use it as a derogatory term, we are probably being anti-semitic, not having the excuse of actually being Jewish in the first place.

OK, Paul was self-admittedly a Pharisee (which of itself should give us pause when using “Pharisee” in a derogatory way, perhaps). Alan Segal gives an excellent account in “Paul, the Convert”, accepting Paul’s self-description, and on the back of that I see no need for any other hypothesis. Paul’s theologising in Romans (and I referenced chapters 2 to 4 in my previous post) is fundamentally Pharisaic; it is an attempt to use reason and scripture (in this case a lot of Psalms, a little Torah and a snippet of Ezekiel) to justify following Paul’s concept of Jesus without the need to follow the whole Levitical/Deuteronomical Law.

I always had problems with this. I have to remember that Jesus was a Jew, and by all accounts a learned Jew, concerned about the way to follow God’s Law, which puts him squarely in the Pharisaic tradition himself. It seems to me that it has always been true that, in religion, there is a tendency for those who are extremely similar in most things to anathematise their only slightly divergent brethren more than they might people of a completely different faith structure – Emo Phillips wonderfully satirised this in what was voted the best religious joke ever. Were the Pharisees harder on Jesus than he was on them, and was either really justified? I can’t tell, though I do notice that arguments between Jews of different persuasions these days tend to be “vigorous” by my standards, and reading stories of, for instance, the followers of Hillel and Shammai (during one such, the followers of Shammai won, because more of them survived…), I can read the accounts in the synoptics as merely evidencing vigorous debate. Not so much those in the Fourth Gospel, where “the Jews” tends to substitute for “scribes and Pharisees”.  Years ago, I spent some time wondering if, in order more fully to follow Jesus, I should adopt Mosaic Law in it’s 613 commandment entirety.

I still do not discount this completely, but where would I then be? The only group which, as far as I can see, attempts this are the “Messianic Jews”, who are anathematised by most of Judaism (Mr. Phillips must love this…). Most, it seems to me, are not “Jews who have come to follow Jesus”, but gentiles; basically Christians who have gone down this way of thinking. The way Judaism has developed since the time of Jesus means that there can be no sensible crossover. “Not as the gentiles” seems to have been a major principle of the development of Judaism as it now is, and in order to become in any way a part of Judaism, I would need to abandon any adherence to Jesus (or, as you wish, Yeshua ben Yosef, or Yoshke).

There is no community of Messianic Jews anywhere near me, in any event. I don’t think you can sensibly follow this praxis (practice) alone. It demands community; by and large, the Hebrew scriptures speak to the collective rather than the individual, in any event.

The same Jewish friend I mentioned earlier did try to give me something of a “get out” in introducing me to the concept of the Noachide Law. This, I can do, and was already doing. It makes me, he reckoned, a “righteous Gentile”. So, not really in a position fully to understand Jesus, who was not a Gentile at all.

Then again, would I be better placed to understand him if I had been born and brought up Jewish? I have doubts – Jesus was a first century Jew, working within second temple Judaism. Judaism developed very substantially after the first century, not least in reaction to the destruction of the Temple in 70CE and the virtual elimination of Palestine as a centre of Judaism, at least for a time. Jesus may himself have been very like the Pharisees, but I’ve seen argument that he was Essene, a sect which didn’t survive the first century, and even if he was himself uninfluenced by esoteric Judaism (as seen in some of the intertestamental apocrypha) or the Hellenised Alexandrian Judaism of Philo, some of his followers who actually did the writing were definitely not uninfluenced. Paul in particular has to have been familiar with Hellenised Judaism, and even more so the author of the Fourth Gospel.

I think I need to follow Hillel here, and go and study.

Justifying God (Alpha week 2)

“Why did Jesus die” was the title for this week’s talk and discussion. I knew I was going to have problems!

Arriving only marginally less horribly early than last time, I tried to make myself useful, and after setting out the library again (seems to be my main job) ended up on the door. Well, it is better to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to dwell in the tents of iniquity, or so says psalm 84. As I now know that Ben is reading this blog, I suspect he may have kept me away from the sacred song and extempore prayer out of charity!

I was pleased to find that the speaker didn’t follow the outline in the course manual at all closely. As a result, the result was significantly less unadulterated PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) than I’d feared, but at the end of the day, that was still the main content. I always like the suggestion that, had the event been more modern, we might be going around with small silver electric chairs on a chain round our necks now, which caused some merriment.

Happily, in the discussion, I was able to stress the “sin is separation from God” argument, and move things slightly away from the “list of transgressions to be answered” model; self-centredness is clearly inimical to union with God. Have we “sinned”? Yes, if we have not loved God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and our neighbour as ourself. Much as one attender might have wanted to talk about drink, drugs and promiscuous sex, which I’d have wanted to avoid anyhow as one of our number was actually fairly drunk, it felt like safer ground.

The group didn’t want to explore further my reference to Ezekiel 18, in which firstly the sins of the fathers (presumably including Adam and Eve) are not visited on the children, and secondly it is made very clear that you’re exactly as good as your last action (and probably thought, as well); repent, turn to God, and you are OK. It is, of course, thus clearly established some hundreds of years earlier that there is a serious flaw in the development of the argument from Paul’s ad hoc theologising in Romans 3:23-25 to PSA.

With this group, I’m trying to avoid any suggestion that anything in the New Testament should not be read as if it’s an instruction manual, but rather as the product of members of a faith group trying to make sense of  their experience as it was at the time. I did make an attempt to introduce this way of thinking by raising the issue of the massive disappointment which must have afflicted Jesus’ followers, who expected their Messiah to usher in the supremacy of Israel and world peace, living for a positively patriarchal span and acknowledged as leader, whereas in fact he’d been executed particularly nastily as a common criminal by the hated Romans. Sadly, the author of the Fourth Gospel has already sold his message of a Jesus who really didn’t need to do this and could have extricated himself at any time far too well to this group.

No-one bit at my mention that there were at least four atonement concepts I was aware of either. Penal substitutionary is, to my mind, inferior to Exemplary and Christus Victor, though not a lot worse than Ransom, which I have to remember was the dominant concept for nearly two thirds of the history of the Western Church. Ah well.

I’m still at a loss to understand how PSA has twisted what Paul actually wrote in Romans backwards. Verses 24-26 read “whom God put forwards as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus”. It is not to make mankind righteous, but to prove a point about God, i.e. that God’s mercy does not represent a lapse of standards; the expiation is of God, not of us.

I recall also that this comes after Paul has spent a chapter and a half finding reasons why the law of Moses is not applicable to followers of Jesus. It’s clear that his main target is circumcision, which he doesn’t want to be thought necessary for Christians. Reading between the lines of Acts, it seems fairly clear that the then dominant Jerusalem Church considered that Jesus was a Jew and that his followers should therefore be Jews too, in the sense of following Mosaic Law, the sticking points being circumcision and dietary issues. (As an aside, I’m pretty confident that the passage Mark 7:20-23 referred to in the Alpha manual  is a part of this conflict, and that Jesus probably didn’t intend it to be a suspension of dietary constraints, assuming he actually said it as quoted). He therefore finds an outside reason, within what is by now central to the movement, namely that Jesus died but is in some way still active – and in the next chapter also refers it to Abraham, “justified” by faith, although clearly there not in Jesus.

The speaker had said that the most important thing about Jesus was his death. I disagree. We started in week 1 with Lewis’ ” if he were just a great moral teacher” argument. What seems all to likely to be forgotten is that in the complex thing which is what we have since made of Jesus, the thing about him which can be most widely agreed is that he was just that, a great teacher. Less people agree that he was also a variety of other things, such as Jewish Messiah, son of God, God incarnate, a person of the Trinity who can in some fashion communicate with us directly today – or a substitute for a burned offering which was no longer necessary after Hosea 6:6, or a quite ridiculous putting right of a theological problem in the mind of Paul, or later  a different one in that of (perhaps) Anselm or (definitely) John Calvin, neither of which would have been a problem if they’d believed Ezekiel 18. Frankly, I think that to say this demeans Jesus. They also, to my mind, demean God. How His mercy could possibly be regarded as a fault, I fail to understand; how it could be regarded as good, let alone as a principle ruling God that he should exact maximal punishment even from someone who has repented and turned to Him, and that for any slightest transgression including thinking of transgressing, beats me. Let alone (as a friend puts it) the divine child abuse of torturing and killing His son to correct something he could readily just have announced – but hey, didn’t he already do that in Ezekiel 18?

Words occasionally fail me…