Friday, 25 December 2015

The Turning of the Year

For millennia, mankind has observed the decline of the days and the onset of winter.  For those in the temperate northern hemisphere, we are right at that point now.  For those in the temperate southern half of the world, you are at exactly the opposite end of the cycle - your turn will come in 6 months' time!

For those at the poles, it is even more extreme and those in the tropics see very little difference in day length.  'Winter' and 'Summer' are meaningless words in a tropical vocabulary and in the extreme polar regions they are almost synonymous with 'Night' and 'Day'.

Western culture was born in the temperate northern climes and has somehow claimed the right to dictate its norms to other parts of the world.  Back in those early years, the shortening of the days was often attributed to the anger of the gods, as if daylight was gradually being withdrawn as a punishment for the misdeeds of the people.

As humans began to appreciate that the days always started to lengthen again, they calculated the cycle of day length and the annual calendar was born.  The seasons fitted together in exactly the same sequence, year after year.  No-one knew about the inclination of the earth at about 23 degrees, the simple fact that determines seasonal variation as we travel round the sun.

Confusion arose, of course, when it was discovered that the moon's travels around the earth do not fit exactly into one solar year.  The lunar calendar, estimated at 28 days, fits 13 months into one earth year - with one day left over!  The actual orbit of the moon around the earth takes just over 27 days, so the close approximation of 13 lunar months in 364 days is flawed, too.

Even the earth's solar year is not a whole number of earth days, so adding an extra day at the end of February every 4 years doesn't quite get the earth's solar orbit right and sometimes we don't have a leap year when we might expect one.

But the turning of the year remains.  Every year, sometime between 20th and 22nd December in the north and 20th and 22nd June in the south, the days start to lengthen again, as they always have done.  The ancient Sumerian civilisation, more than 4000 years ago, celebrated the 12 days of Zagmuk, when their chief deity Marduk was supposed to have overcome the evil domain of Chaos, whose resurgence had been exemplified by the diminishing daylight hours.

The ancient Egyptian civilisation had similar traditions, as did the Romans, who honoured Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and the birth of Mithras (the Persian god of light) over the period 17th December to 1st January.  By before AD 300, these had been amalgamated into the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the 'Birthday of the Unconquered Sun'.  Connections to the new agricultural year and re-awakened daylight are obvious.

It took a Roman emperor, Constantine, to 'Christianise' these festivals as part of his 'organised religion' approach to Christian faith, in about AD 335.  Just a few years later, the Pope Julius 1 decreed that the birth of Jesus would now be celebrated on December 25th.  The genuineness of Constantine's own faith is open to question, but he made Christianity the official religion of his empire - and institutionalised Christianity was born!

What had previously been a vital faith, spreading vigorously in the face of earlier official persecution, had now 'arrived' as part of the establishment, and the insidious practice of syncretism was given official endorsement.

The approach of syncretism is to try to make a new faith system more acceptable by tagging it on to the traditions of older beliefs.  There are many examples of this in buildings as well as in traditions, especially where Christian church buildings were erected on the site of ancient burial mounds or 'holy places'.  Sadly, the history of some so-called 'missionary work' among animist tribes in South America is a glaring example of such dishonesty, re-labelling people as 'Christian' while leaving them snared in their old animist practices.

Syncretism has no integrity.  Instead of the message of the apostles in the book of Acts, to turn from false gods and old practices and receive the grace of God which is only available through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it somehow tries to merge the two together into a 'comfortable' mixture, which in reality offers no comfort whatsoever.

So what has all this to do with the turning of the year?  Just that this is the time of year when many Christians follow the practices of old non-Christian traditions and claim that they are 'celebrating' the birth of Jesus.  Of course the birth of Jesus is recorded in the New Testament but there is not the slightest hint of any suggestion that it should be celebrated on a special day and, in fact, believers seem to have got on very well without such celebrations for the first few centuries.

Although it seems that the apostle Paul may have celebrated the Passover - hardly surprising with his Jewish roots and the enormous significance of the Lord Jesus representing the Passover sacrifice - he expresses his frustration with the Galatian believers over their 'religious observances' of special days and years: "But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?  You observe days and months and seasons and years.  I fear for you, that perhaps I have laboured over you in vain." (Galatians 4:9-11)

Paul also says that some people will want to observe days and others won't, and that is completely OK.  "One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.  He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God." (Romans 14:5-6)

But with so-called 'Christmas', can you honestly 'observe it for the Lord'?  With all its pagan baggage and religious overtones?  Can you really tell your non-Christian friends about the 'real meaning of Christmas' when you know that is simply an ancient pagan festival that has been hijacked by institutionalised Christianity?  (Did you really want to be part of that?)

So, am I celebrating?  Yes and no.  You will have realised that I am definitely not interested in 'celebrating Christmas', but yes, I can quietly celebrate the turning of the year, as I see the days beginning to lengthen again.  Spring may lie beyond weeks of frosts and apparent barrenness, but it is coming . . . the year has turned!

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Twisted Unity

Apparently, Samuel Johnson made the famous pronouncement that 'patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel' on the evening of April 7, 1775. Reporting this, Boswell doesn't provide any context for how the remark arose, so we don't really know for sure what was on Johnson's mind at the time. However, he assures us that Johnson was not condemning patriotism in general, only false patriotism.
I had no idea that this comment would have any parallel in the life of the Church, but an incident of 'dejà vu' made it suddenly click into place. Let me take you back just over a year . . .
At that time, a decision was due to be made in a certain church fellowship about the appointment of someone to a post of significant responsibility for an initial one-year period. Some were keen on the appointment, others were more doubtful, and a special meeting was to be held to take a vote on the matter.
On the Sunday two days before the meeting, the speaker in the morning made much of the subject of unity, how it was important that Christians were united despite their differences.
On the night of the special meeting, 'Breaking of Bread' was included in the course of the evening, again with a strong emphasis on unity.
After fairly prolonged discussion, the vote was duly taken and the result was close. Some who had said earlier that they were not in favour seemed to have been persuaded and voted for the appointment. It was, after all, only for a year and could be brought to an end after that time – "Let's see how we go."
The temporary appointment was made. It seems that the appeal to 'unity' may have had its effect . . .
Fast forward 14 months.  Sunday, again two days before a special meeting, this time to confirm the continuation of the same appointment. The speaker in the morning meeting again emphasised 'Unity', though of course (as before) no direct link was made to the upcoming meeting!
Dejà Vu? Certainly felt like it to me!
In our present cynical age, patriotism is not held in such automatic high regard as it was in Johnson's day. His comment would have been shocking in the extreme, simply because to question patriotism was unthinkable. To Johnson and his world around him, patriotism was an unquestionably good thing. He was not criticising patriotism, just the misuse of an appeal to it.
In Christian circles, 'Christian Unity' still holds much of the same degree of unquestionable correctness. Despite our often inconsistent actions, we all believe in Christian unity – 'of course we do!' It would be hard to find anyone at all who is active in almost any branch of Christian activity who would not emphatically agree with the need for Christian unity in as many ways as possible . . .
. . . just as it would have been near impossible to find a non-patriot in Johnson's time!
Right here lies the emotional blackmail employed by the scoundrel, whether in Johnson's time or ours.
Because 'Unity' (or 'Patriotism') is such an incontrovertibly good thing, if I present my case and wrap it in the 'flag' of Christian unity, it makes it very hard for anyone to disagree with my viewpoint without laying themselves open to a charge of disunity, especially if I hold a position of responsibility in the Church. Anyone thinking of disagreeing is intimidated by the thought that they might be endangering the unity of the fellowship, and will therefore be manipulated into going along with my view, even if they do not agree with it.
This is not real unity. We know that really, don't we? Even those of us who may have used such trickery in the past have to admit before the Lord that that is what it is – trickery, a very man-made device to get our own ends.
God doesn't work that way and, if we insist on using such methods in 'God's work', we will find sooner or later that he has disowned it and it will amount to nothing or even less than nothing, a negative effect on the Kingdom of God rather than the positive one which had been our original motivation. Gold, silver, precious stones – or wood, hay and stubble? (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
It has been wisely said that 'manipulation is witchcraft'. We would run a mile to avoid any semblance of 'the dark arts' in our Christian life and witness, but how easily do we allow this sort of thing in our dealings with others, exercising subtle but ungodly pressure to promote our own agenda?
Paul wrote: ". . . my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God." (1 Corinthians 2:4,5)

Strange Unity

Our usual approach to 'Christian Unity' would be laughable if it were not so tragic. I was faced with a classic example of it just over a year ago. We had been invited to a Christian function, at which bread and wine were to be shared. In what could only be construed as a genuine and sincere attempt to include all believing Christians, the notes said: "Communicant members of all Christian Churches are welcome to receive Communion."
I was presented with an invitation to take part, provided that I was a 'communicant member' of a 'Christian Church'. So what is a 'communicant member'? Presumably someone who 'takes communion' in whatever Christian fellowship they find themselves. The language was already rather alienating, though the use of the word 'communion' seems to be spreading, even into nonconformist circles where it has been steadfastly resisted for generations.
In this context, my dictionary defines 'Communion' as follows:– "a. The Eucharist. b. The consecrated elements of the Eucharist. [from Latin communio, mutual participation]" So, sadly, we had already slipped away from the simple sharing of bread and wine into something where 'consecration' was thought to be needed.
In the setting in which we were, that 'consecration' could only be performed by specialised people who had been given supposed priestly authority to do something special with the bread and wine – none of which would have been recognised, thought necessary or even relevant by anyone outside that setting. Sadly also, the word 'communion' seems long ago to have slipped its mooring from 'mutual participation' and been set adrift into a dangerous sea of the same false priestliness. Far from being able to participate mutually, those who 'took communion' at this function were limited to receiving the 'elements' of the 'Eucharist' which had been 'consecrated' by the 'priests'. What a mess!
Before leaving this line of thought, it is perhaps worth asking ourselves whether there may be some significance in the increasing adoption of the term 'communion' to mean the sharing of bread and wine in remembrance of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Has the virus of false priestliness spread out, reducing the mutual participation to a routine in which believers have become almost passive recipients, instead of being themselves 'a royal priesthood'?
But that was not my prime concern. For all the messy confusion and wrong messages, it seemed that I was probably being invited to take part if I was someone who shared bread and wine as a member of a Christian church.
I have no problem with sharing bread and wine with fellow believers, as we remember together the death (and burial, resurrection and ascension) of the Lord Jesus. It is something I love to do and it is often very meaningful and precious.
But here's the real question:– Am I a member of a Christian church? Some of the fellowships where we have lived may have membership records, but you will not find my name there. Why? Because it is not necessary or relevant. Even the denomination in which I was brought up, though it keeps records of events such as baptisms and confirmations, apparently has no record of membership as such, so I am not there either!
Ask a slightly different question and I can answer very positively: Am I a member of the Christian Church? Yes, by the grace of God to me in the Lord Jesus Christ, I most certainly am. How did I become a member? By becoming a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, being joined to his life and becoming a sharer in all that he has done. I am a member of his 'body'.
But don't I need to become a member of a local church? I protest! By being part of the body of Christ, I am already a member of that body in the locality where I find myself. What else do I need to join if I am already joined to him, as are all those who are his?
The clamour for 'joining a church' has more sinister roots. Many would agree in theory that all believers are already members of the body of Christ, but would still say that it is necessary (or at the very least, advisable) to become a member of a local church. By 'local church', they actually mean a named local group that calls itself a church or fellowship, which may or may not be linked to a wider grouping or denomination. Almost by definition, such a group is distinct from other groups and would not claim to be the local expression of the body of Christ.
Ask what they mean by becoming a member, and many local 'churches' would agree that all those who are in Christ are free to take part in the bread and wine and in most of their other activities. The one 'privilege' which membership seems to bring is the right to vote in their business meetings, and therefore help to decide the policy and direction of that particular group. But this is not membership of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, but of a local club which calls itself a 'church'!
This, you may say, is mere wordplay. On the contrary, I contend that the careless way in which we have used and (mis)understood the word 'Church' has contributed greatly to our lack of understanding of the reality of the Church itself. I agree that there is a mixture of cause and effect here – our misunderstanding of Church has also greatly affected our misuse of the word.
It is time (and well overdue) for all believers to seek out the reality of fellowship on the basis of belonging to the Body of Christ, not the basis of loyalty to a particular named (or un-named!) group.
Nor on the basis of an amalgamation of such groups! Much so-called 'Christian Unity' is an organisational attempt to remove barriers and work together and, as a first step, it is not too bad for those with loyalties to different groups to bury the differences and seek to follow common aims.
Such initiatives, however, will only progress a little way along the road to real unity.
It will not be long before the separate loyalties will put the brakes on. At that point, some supposedly wise comments will be made about 'how good it is that we can celebrate our differences' and 'we are all different, so we need to worship God in our different ways'. Instead of seeing that diversity enriches most when it is within the single fellowship of the Body, the old barriers stay up and the Body as a whole misses out on the growth that could result from 'the proper working of each individual part' (Ephesians 4:16).
Another missed opportunity. Another generation goes by and the world still can't see the hidden glory of the Church!

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

'De-Baptism' and the 'I Am A Christian' Campaign

In the last few weeks, I have received a couple of emails from Christian friends, asking me to sign up to the 'I Am A Christian' campaign.
It seems that this campaign, sponsored by Premier Christian Radio, is at least partly a response to the 'De-Baptism' campaign started by the National Secular Society. Their 'debaptism certificate' states:
"I ________ having been subjected to the Rite of Christian Baptism in infancy (before reaching an age of consent), hereby publicly revoke any implications of that Rite and renounce the Church that carried it out. In the name of human reason, I reject all its Creeds and all other such superstition in particular, the perfidious belief that any baby needs to be cleansed by Baptism of alleged ORIGINAL SIN, and the evil power of supposed demons. I wish to be excluded henceforth from enhanced claims of church membership numbers based on past baptismal statistics used, for example, for the purpose of securing legislative privilege."
As a Christian believer, I can find very little here to disagree with:-
1) I should also like to disassociate myself from the so-called 'baptism' that was carried out when I was a baby. My only meaningful baptism in water was the occasion some 20+ years later when I, as a believer, expressed my desire to be symbolically identified with the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ by total immersion in water. Some would be offended by this 're-baptism'. I simply assert that the ceremony in my infancy was not baptism at all in any New Testament sense of the word, and that my baptism as a believer was in simple obedience to the teaching of Jesus.
2) The National Secular Society (NSS) certificate speaks of renouncing the Church that carried out the infant 'baptism'. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that I do not want to be a 'member' of any organised 'church', as I am already a member of the only Church that matters - the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I became a member by spiritual new birth when I first put my trust in him. I have not 'joined' the organisational membership of any 'church', though I have been closely involved in Church life in several locations. Organisational membership is certainly not necessary.
I have even enquired about removing my name from any form of membership that might have resulted from my infant 'baptism' and teenage 'confirmation'. The reply from the diocesan office where I enquired stated: "I am not aware of any lists of membership of the sort that you suggest – the only thing I can think of is if your name is on the Electoral Roll of a Parish – these rolls are renewed every six years and you would have had to sign an application form." So it seems that 'infant baptism' and 'confirmation' do not make anyone a member of the C of E, anyway, so I am not a 'member' there, either!
3) The idea that baptism has anything to do with 'cleansing from Original Sin' and removal from the 'the evil power of supposed demons' seems to me to have no basis in Scripture, so I can not support a practice that makes these claims.
4) Some of the historic Christian creeds have been valiant attempts to encapsulate sound teaching in a compact and memorable form, and as such are not bad. But real faith is not a collection of correct beliefs but a relationship of trust based on spiritual revelation of truth. Creeds are OK, but they don't go far enough.
5) Any suggestion that my infant 'baptism' should in any way be added to statistics to be "used, for example, for the purpose of securing legislative privilege" is totally unacceptable.
The NSS objects to religious influence over society. Their stated aim is: "The National Secular Society is the leading campaigning organisation defending our society from the demands of those who seek religious privilege. We campaign for a society in which everyone is free to practise their faith, change it, or not have one at all. Our beliefs or lack of them should neither be an advantage or a disadvantage." I agree. I find it hard to see how any Christian could disagree.
Premier Christian Radio have responded by campaigning to get 100,000 people to affirm their Christian faith:-
"Everyday Christians are finding it increasingly difficult to openly express their faith.
The National Secular Society has encouraged 100,000 people to sign a certificate to “debaptise” themselves as part of their campaign to allow people to revoke their baptisms.
We are asking....are there 100,000 people who are prepared to publicly stand up and declare that they are Christians?
Premier’s “I am a Christian” campaign is asking you to take this opportunity to publicly affirm your faith and declare that Jesus is relevant to your everyday life.
Make your declaration today and join together with thousands of other Christians around the world."

At first sight, it might seem like a reasonable Christian 'knee-jerk' reaction to try to muster a similar number of those who are prepared to publicly identify themselves as Christian believers, but it seems like a mistake to me.
Surely much better to agree with the NSS where we can! After all, those who want to 'de-baptise' themselves will mostly be those who have no faith. Much better that they are encouraged to be truthful about their position.
The NSS takes a position that seeks to remove religious influence from society. I have been convinced for a long time that we would do much better to live in a truly secular society. In my opinion, the religious trappings of our society do more to hinder the growth of true faith than to help it.
Signing up to an online affirmation of faith seems like an attempt to assert Christian influence on society, just exactly what we do NOT need! I believe it to be an empty gesture which will only serve to confuse the picture.
History seems to indicate that the gospel flourishes best when society around it is secular, even anti-Christian. If we attempt to see society 'Christianised', we shall see the impact of the good news of Jesus minimised.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Why I Am Not Praying For Revival

Having heard talk about revival recently, I was reminded of some thoughts that I put on paper years ago. I have not edited them in any way, and simply offer them here for your consideration:–
I believe it was Finney who said that a revival of religion presupposes a declension. In the context of an institutionalised and established state 'church', where a form of religion is perhaps all that can be hoped for, then perhaps it may be appropriate to pray for revival. Bringing back to life can only be relevant when death has occurred, or when a state has been reached which is very close to death. As far as I can see, revival in these terms would mean a return to a life and meaningfulness within the visible observances of religion. God's purposes are much greater than that and a return to more lively and meaningful religious observance, though perhaps superficially attractive, would unfortunately preserve the observances. Irrespective of the background from which these come, they are ready to be thrown away as 'things which can be shaken', in the face of the kingdom we are receiving, 'a kingdom which cannot be shaken' (Hebrews 12:27&28).

There is a mystique about revival. People pray for it as if it is the one thing that we definitely need, and yet at the same time seem to say that it is entirely up to God's whim whether or not he deigns to let us have it in our situation. Faith, revelation and the ability to trust what he says to us seem to play no part at all in this sort of spiritual conjuring. This is not the God I see revealed in the New Testament.

If we should be praying for revival, are we to pray for a situation or for people? Surely it is the people who determine the situation anyway, so for whom should we be praying?

Is it for the people of 'normal' non-Christian society? They do not need revival, they need to hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed with authority and they need to see the reality of that gospel at work in the lives of believers. There are individuals for whom I am praying, but I am not asking Father to send a revival so that they will be saved; I am asking for them to come face to face with their need of the Lord Jesus and then to find those needs met by submitting to his love and lordship. It will probably be at least partly through me (and other Christians) that this process will take place.

Is it for the nominally 'Christian' churchgoer? If it is right that a revival of religion presupposes a declension, perhaps the religious person is the natural target for revival, but in what way? Are we to pray that they will suddenly see the meaning behind the routine they have been following for years? Certainly! ...but this is not revival, it is conversion! Are we to wait for God to send a revival so that many of these unfortunate folk will find release from the bondage of dead religion? Again, what they need is to see and hear the gospel lived and proclaimed in our lives NOW.

Is it for the true believers in Jesus? A frequently voiced 'prayer for revival' is "Lord, send a revival and let it start with me". The feelings are great: effectively it is saying that I am aware of the need around me but I am also very aware of my own need of a closer walk with Jesus. Surely this is a good way to pray, isn't it? Yes, but what does it mean? "I know that I have not been living as close to you as you want me to, and I want to start now." Sounds good to me, but is this praying for revival? I think it is very simply the normal prayer of a Christian who is aware of failure and wants to go on with his Lord. It will lead to repentance from sin and a fresh awareness of the forgiveness of God. There is little doubt in my mind that this is what many people are thinking of when they think of revival - a freshness of repentance and reality with God - but there is no need to wait for 'revival' for this to happen. To pray "Lord, send a revival and let it start with me", whilst aware of unresolved issues in my relationship with God, is to pray and live a lie. How can I honestly ask him to deal with me in the future when I am not prepared to deal straight with him now? Repentance is the issue here, not revival!

The basic problem with praying for revival is exactly this: it takes the responsibility away from the believer and allows us to 'blame' the will of God for the fact that nothing much seems to be happening. The very real blessing that has undoubtedly come from past 'revivals' has been in direct relation to the fact that believers have been brought to the point where they have met with God in reality. As one by one has been brought to that point, the fire of reality has spread and someone who tried to describe what was happening called it 'revival'. I am less worried by this looking back at what has happened and calling it revival than I am by looking forward and praying for revival by that name.

It would be at the very least stupid of me to try to deny the fact that many people have been blessed and many lives and situations changed as men and women have prayed for revival. Starting by asking God to 'send a revival', believers have had some revelation of their own need and have humbled themselves under the hand of God. Whilst 'revival' may not be what our Father has in mind for us, he is certainly not averse to using our genuine desires and (possibly misled) praying in order to bring us to reality with him. Again, you might say that in these cases, 'praying for revival has worked' and I would certainly praise God and thank him for such blessing. But the purposes of God are much greater.

What I am looking for, praying for and (by the grace of God) working towards is a real demonstration of the life of the New Testament Church. Men and women who are learning the reality of living in forgiveness, death to the old life, newness of life in Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A church whose very life exudes love, healing, security, joy, release and acceptance. A continuous community of life shared by those who belong to one Lord, irrespective of any labels which each one may or may not carry. A unique company of people whose doors are always open to anyone who is prepared to admit their need and find the fulfilment of that need in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I believe that this is the heart of God for the present day. There are many facets to the way he is bringing it to reality. One of them is to gradually unveil his purpose to us so that we begin to share his vision and burden. As a result, I am learning to pray, within the limitations of my understanding, for the manifestation of this glorious church here on earth in my lifetime.

You might call it revival.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Perpetual Penitence?

Some time ago, we were in a large meeting with Christians from several different backgrounds in the same city. We were visitors and knew no-one there, but wanted to be part of this united meeting.

The leader stood up and, after some introductory remarks, launched into his understanding of an essential preliminary: making sure (as far as possible) that there was no unconfessed and unforgiven sin in the congregation. He started by reminding us that we were all sinners and that therefore we needed to repent of our various sins. He then asked the whole congregation to say a 'prayer of confession' together and followed that by 'pronouncing forgiveness' on the basis of the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ shed for us.

I admire the desire to try to eliminate unconfessed and unforgiven sins, but it certainly doesn't work like that!

This sort of corporate, ritual confession and forgiveness definitely has its place in the Bible, but it is in the Old Testament, where the covenant of God was administered through the Law and the priesthood, with a system of different sacrifices appropriate to different circumstances and an annual Day of Atonement to make sure that nothing had slipped through the net.

The New Covenant in Jesus is different. Yes, there is the continuing understanding that we owe it to God to live rightly with him and our neighbours, but there are major differences. There is only one sacrifice which has already been made, and it is administered by the Holy Spirit working in each believer. When we first put our trust in the Lord Jesus and the sacrifice he made for us, we find ourselves brought into a relationship with the Creator Father God, where all the wrong things we have done are removed and are no longer a blockage between us and him. We learn that the death of Jesus pays off our 'debt' and so puts us in a right and open relationship with our Father.

All too soon, we discover that clouds have appeared in that relationship because we have failed again. It feels as though the whole thing is a failure but, if we are wisely instructed, we are told that Jesus' sacrifice covers not only the 'debts' we accrued before we turned to him, but also any that we fall into later. All we have to do is agree with Father that we have failed again and take fresh hold of the power of Jesus' death to cover the new debts as well as the old ones. As John writes so graphically, "the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)

This is intensely personal and spiritual; it is usually where our relationship with our Father starts and it is also a very large part of how it continues as the days grow into months, years and decades. However much progress we may have made, from time to time we find ourselves needing to come back and experience afresh the release of his forgiveness. We also need to learn to give and receive forgiveness in our human relationships and one may often trigger the other.

So, when we meet together, it is important that any unforgiven sin is dealt with, but it simply cannot be done on a corporate scale. We do not need to be told that we are 'miserable sinners'. If we are learning to live in relationship with our Father through the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit makes it his business to let us know when we step out of line, and we need to learn to be sensitive to his voice and to respond quickly in repentance and faith. As long as I remain unresponsive to him I may well find that I am miserable, but I don't need to stay there!

If we adopt the attitude that "Well, I have probably done something wrong, so I may as well be penitent about it", we deny the role of the Holy Spirit. He wants to deal with us personally, on a 'case by case' basis, so that we can be gradually changed. If he is not showing you that you have gone wrong, please don't try to confess to anything!

The Greek word translated 'confess' really means 'agree', 'say the same thing'. We can only truly confess to sin when we have become aware of it. This may be by the direct prompting of the Holy Spirit, or through the words of another believer who has had the insight, grace and courage to point it out to us. Either way, it is our Father who is speaking to us, and our response can only be either to reject the prompting or 'say the same thing' and agree with what is being said to us. As we do that, we truly 'confess' and forgiveness is instantaneous – no penance, no pleading, no delay!

Going the other way, rejecting the prompting, is futile if we want to go on in our relationship with our Father, as there will always be a blockage while we refuse to agree with him. However, most (probably all) of us have tried it and experienced the resulting spiritual desert.
There is very much to be said for 'keeping short accounts'. Quite apart from the joy of unclouded relationship, we also go on learning the precious lesson of hearing and recognising the voice of the Holy Spirit when he speaks to us. This is no ritualised religion, administered by man; it is part of the path of progress as we are gradually being transformed.

Monday, 9 June 2008

The Right To Change Society?

A sinister development which seems to spring at least partly from the charismatic movement has been the apparent conviction that we Christians should be active in changing the society in which we live, that we have a responsibility and even a right to do so.
Some of this has probably washed over from an earlier age when some Western societies were seen as being 'Christian countries'. Many Christians in these countries, perhaps the majority, still long for a 'return to Christian values in society' and see this as one of the primary roles of the Church.
Believers in 'non-Christian' countries usually have no such illusions. They know that, as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are in a minority and are likely to remain so. They have no reason, from Scripture or elsewhere, to expect to live in a 'Christian' society. From a distance, some of them may envy their brothers and sisters in so-called Christian countries but, if they once make a visit, they soon see the hollowness of the label and are often shocked at the lack of faith that they find.
I believe that the various attempts to 'restore' society are not only doomed to failure but are profoundly misguided and stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature and role of the Church.
In the New Testament, we do not see Paul advocating any kind of tinkering with the setup of the pervading pagan Roman society. It would have been unrealistic, to say the least! Christians continued to find themselves relentlessly persecuted. This was the time in the Church's history when the most phenomenal growth was seen – should we be surprised?
Even the Lord Jesus himself, working largely within the Jewish community, taught right attitudes and behaviour and did not shrink from blunt criticism of those in authority, but he did not attempt to bring about changes in society. His whole teaching on the kingdom of heaven makes it very clear that he was aiming for internal spiritual change, not some sort of organisational rearrangement. The temptation to 'take the kingdom' and rule over the world system was not his idea, but Satan's. Simon Peter was still thinking in these 'world takeover' terms when he rejected Jesus' statement that he would suffer and die – no wonder the Lord spoke so strongly to him!
Internal change is the key. Of course there will be some change in society as individuals within it are themselves transformed by the new life of the Holy Spirit within. But that change will be at first infinitesimal, growing only as the number of changed lives grows, always organic and never organisational.

Maybe we doubt this and seek to hold on to the many Christian institutions that have been founded with clear intent to change society. Whilst I would not question the sincerity of those who founded them and those who work in them now, the least association with any of them will show us that they are prone to fall into the trap of becoming mere man-made organisations, incapable of fulfilling the vision which which they were founded.
The disciples asked their risen Lord whether he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel at that time (Acts 1:6). Even after all the years of listening to his teaching and their very recent intense experience of the enormous price of the grace of God, they still thought that maybe he was just about to take over as the conquering, ruling Messiah.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how they had missed the point. We know that those same confused disciples were soon to know the enabling of the Holy Spirit, and how they would take the message of internal spiritual transformation to 'Jerusalem, Judea and the uttermost parts of the earth'.
In closing, let me pass on something I was told some time ago. Apparently there are some Jewish scholars who now say that it was a mistake for the Jews to be given the modern land of Israel in 1948. Their study of the scriptures leads them to believe that the only way they were supposed to re-occupy Israel would be under the command of the Messiah when he had returned in glory. In other words, they could not see the kingdom restored unless the king had returned.

The Lord Jesus does not look to us to get the world sorted out before he returns. He looks for the Church to have made herself ready, like a bride for her bridegroom. Only when he returns will the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of God and of his Christ.