Tag Archive: gospel

… in order to see all the outside.

It was a trip to the Liverpool Tate art gallery and one of Picasso’s paintings there that was the starting point for these thoughts.

"Still Life" by Picasso

“Still Life” by Picasso

I reckon that Art divides people into two camps: those who hold strong opinions and those who don’t. I am not sure which one I belong to. Some art is thought-provoking, some is beautiful, some is challenging and some, to be honest, leaves me cold.

But art, such as painting and drawing, is one way that people try to explore themes of truth and beauty. The other week we saw a picture in a gallery by Picasso – a still life – which we were told was of some fruit and a violin. There seemed to be bits and pieces of them in that painting but it was nothing like a photograph, say. The description on the wall helped a bit by explaining that Picasso was experimenting with a style that tried to see all sides of something at the same time. Instead of painting a flat picture using lines of perspective, he tried to show all the sides of the fruit and the musical instrument. I found it helped to think of it like this. If you look at an orange you can see just one side or the top or the bottom at any given angle; and if you take a photograph or make a conventional drawing, the same applies: you only see part of the surface at a time. Now peel the orange and flatten it out. It is no longer round but you can see the whole surface. Now try peeling a violin… you can’t, but that is sort of what Picasso was trying to do in his painting. He was trying to show the whole picture, the whole truth you might say, but the result was pretty weird to look at.

Whenever we see something that is beautiful or read about something that is true, we may be given a glimpse of God’s Beauty and Truth. That is where art and Christian faith overlap, for surely part of God’s mission is for people to catch a vision of his beauty and to be inspired by the truth of the gospel of God’s love for the world.

This is the time of year when the natural world steps up a gear producing blossoms and flowers in a myriad of beautiful colours and shapes. It is as good a reason as any to celebrate God’s goodness with a flower festival, for example. But we can also take a few moments to gaze outside, perhaps looking at a flowery garden or taking a trip into the countryside. There we may enjoy the beauty of Nature’s art and wonder at the true splendour of God’s love.

“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96 verse 6)

Should Christians go to war?

Probably not.

That might seem a bit glib and there are several things to consider in coming to a judgement about these things. For Christians that includes what the Bible has to say on the matter and then doing our best to apply those insights wisely. In my tradition that means taking account of the insights of other Christians and the world we live in.

I had been asked by my church to consider the above question given the current crisis in Syria but this is neither the first nor the last time that such a question has been asked. About eight of us met to think about this and discuss a couple of questions. Firstly, I pointed out that there is a fair bit of warfare in the Old Testament and we should recognise that.

Holy War

We took as our example Joshua and the fall of Jericho, in particular chapter 6 of the book of Joshua. The background is that God has promised his people a new land to settle in but first they have to get there, conquer and then settle in it. As well as defeating the people of Jericho, Joshua and co slaughter every single person there: men, women and children (with the notable exception of Rahab and her kin). This is total war and mandated by divine command. It is in the Old Testament that we have the teaching: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.

I believe that the Old Testament has much to teach us but the New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ is the end or destination of the Law (see Romans chapter 10 verse 4). We also have Jesus’ teaching and example which does not sanction holy war. There is speculation that one of the reasons that Judas fell out with Jesus was his refusal to take the path of armed resistance against the Roman occupiers of the Promised Land. Jesus’ teaching takes us beyond the idea of Holy War. I find it very difficult to see that God would sanction Holy War when his only Son demonstrated another path.

“An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth”

Jesus said “But I say to you… turn the other cheek”. This is recorded in Matthew’s gospel chapter 5 verses 38-39. He has inherited an Old Testament idea but now takes it further. You could say that the original idea was to limit people’s responses so that revenge is mitigated by justice. This is learnt in many a school playground. One child hits another (it does not matter whether this was deliberate or not) and the response of the other is to punch and kick back several times. It may be in order to make sure the first person does not do it again but an immature child may simply be letting their anger get the better of him or her. To “give as good as you get” is fairer advice than “beat them to submission”.

However, Jesus’ teaching is to not respond in kind but to “turn the other cheek”. In other words, to be the place, the person where the violence stops. This is not easy and there are some problems with this. For example, a bully might try to take advantage of this by hitting someone and then saying “You can’t hit me because you are supposed to turn the other cheek” and few of us are comfortable with letting a bully get away with it.

But there is more, when Jesus is arrested some of his disciples are ready to resist and use their weapons. However, Jesus tells them to put away their sword (Matthew chapter 26 verses 50 to 54). Jesus has a heavenly army at his disposal and yet he refuses to use it. You could say that he would rather die than use lethal force. Jesus’ example inspired the first Christians to the extent that they often chose martyrdom in preference to violence. After all, Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew chapter 5 verse 9). Pacifism is the norm in the New Testament.

Just War

When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was after he had won a battle. He has seen a shining cross in the sky (I guess some kind of halo or cloudbow, rare but not unheard of) and was told “By this sign you shall conquer”. In the letter to the Romans (chapter 13 verse 1 to 5) it says that Christians are to obey the Emperor. There are implicit conditions: the authorities are expected to punish vice and reward virtue – i.e. not be corrupt. So it would appear that it is OK for Christians to join the armed forces and obey those in lawful authority over them. This put us in direct conflict with Jesus’ own teaching and example. Bit of a headache here.

Meanwhile, we have not even considered the most obvious verse regarding this topic: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus chapter 20 verse 13 and reiterated in Romans chapter 13 verse 9). Our default position must surely be against killing anyone. What is one to do given that the perfect world, the Kingdom of God, has not yet been fully realised? We live in this world even if, in the end, we are not of this world but just passing through.

One solution is the concept of the just war. Given that there is war, what can we do to reduce its bad effects? First, we recognise that when we go to war it is at best the lesser of two evils. It is still wrong but it may seem to us that it is the better alternative. Not everyone would agree with that statement. Perhaps we can help restrain violence, even if we cannot eradicate it – but we risk compromising our principles. I personally would say that I am an almost pacifist – I do not have the courage of my conviction. Pacifism takes great courage and I admire conscientious objectors for that reason.

Over time some rules have emerged. I would not say that they make war right, but they help to reduce its harm and make it manageable. The just war criteria are:

  • the aim must be to restore peace and justice / to stop evil
  • there should be proper legal authority
  • lethal force should be the last resort – all other means must be exhausted
  • it should not be in self-defence
  • it should be proportionate to the evil to be remedied
  • it should discriminate between combatants and non-combatants
  • it should be expected to succeed

Each of the criteria needs unpacking but here I will just make a couple of observations. Legal authority usually means a resolution from the United Nations but if your country has just been invaded you do not have to wait for a vote. If you are invading someone else’s country you do. “All other means” can be problematic because of differing opinions of when the options have truly run out. Not “in self-defence” might seem strange but is in keeping with the “turn the other cheek” ethos. I would suggest that this principle rules out most, if not all, pre-emptive strikes. This principle may have contributed to the nuclear missiles staying in their silos during the Cold War. “Discriminate between combatants and non-combatants” is painfully difficult when dealing with terrorism for instance.

While the Just War approach has its weaknesses, not least its roots in dealing with Mediaeval warfare, it has its merits. Indeed, I was impressed that in the recent parliamentary debates, the concept of a just war was implicit if not explicit in the contributions that many MPs made.

Another consideration not included in the above is the environmental impact of war and the use of lethal force. To put it one way, what is the point of winning a war if you cannot live in the land any more?

What would you do?

To aid our group discussion I posed two questions. The first was based on this scenario: imagine that the Good Samaritan came across the traveller while he was still being robbed. What would the Good Samaritan do?

The second question was: What would Jesus do?

I thought the answer to each question was obvious but our group surprised me by coming up with several different responses.

What do you think?

Archbishop Issues Call for Church Revolution.

A friend of mine alerted me to Archbishop Justin’s presidential address. It is well thought out and challenging not just to synod but to the ordinary person in the pew.

He sets out the fact that our culture is now very different to the one many of us grew up with; the task is to sort out how to take account of this seriously without diluting truth or denying the gospel. The good news of God’s love is revealed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How to apply that in practice has produced a range of responses from Christians  – even from within the same church! One of the Archbishop’s points is that we need to be completely honest – if we say there is room for an opposing view point then the people holding it should know that in practice, not just word, they are welcome. If we believe that in fact their point of view has no place in our church then better say so than pretend otherwise. Ouch.

How we treat each other in church is no substitute for going out to share the gospel – yet what we do in church does have an impact on how the good news is (mis-)heard.

2 Corinthians chapter 4 verse 5

25th January is St Paul’s day (or rather the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul) in the Church’s liturgical calendar hence the bit of theology for today’s post.

What’s in a name?

An almost throw-away comment at last year’s clergy conference set me thinking. It was to do with the phrase “we proclaim Jesus Christ Lord” which doesn’t sound  quite right in English. Most translations put in either ‘as’ or ‘is’ before Lord. Put that way, what the apostle Paul is proclaiming (the Christian gospel, if you like) is that Jesus Christ is the Lord.  Therefore, if we know what is meant by ‘lord’ then we know what he is talking about.

Except that that is not what it says. A better translation (and I asked Dr Paula Gooder  about this) might be “we proclaim Jesus the Christ the Lord”. The word “the” is used slightly differently in English and in New Testament Greek but used here helps to get away from the impression that “Christ” is Jesus’ surname.

This translation then tells us that each of the names has something significant to say.

“Jesus”, which can also be translated as Joshua or Jeshua, means “he saves” in the sense of John chapter 3 verses 16 and 17: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.” So “we proclaim” the person who saves the world.

“The Christ”, can also be translated as the Messiah or the Anointed One. Anointing with oil is associated with being marked out for some special Divine purpose and that an “anointed one” has God’s Spirit present in a powerful way.  Mark chapter 1 verses 10 and 11 illustrate this: “he saw the  heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’.” So “we proclaim” the person specially chosen by God who is filled with God’s Spirit.

“The Lord” here is not a title for the nobility in the upper house in Parliament. The Lord is a euphemism, you could say, for God. In order not to accidentally misuse God’s name, “the Lord” is used instead. To call some one “Lord” in this context is to say that they are God as in John chapter 20 verse 28 when Thomas says to Jesus “My Lord and my God”. So “we proclaim” the person who is God.

Saviour, Spirit-filled, God in person: Jesus, the Christ, the Lord.

There are various legends about Saint George so that a quick websearch reveals contradictory information, try the BBC or Wikipedia, for example. St George might have come from what is now Turkey or Libya or even Iran. He probably did not literally slay a dragon but early pictures of him show him as a warrior fighting such a creature. There is a dragon mentioned in the book of Revelation where it is usually understood to stand for the tyranny and chaos of evil. In other words, St George is remembered for standing up against evil, and lost his life for witnessing to the power of the Christian gospel which affirms life and resists violence. He is now commemorated as a Christian martyr on 23rd April as a courageous soldier who was generous to the poor and who did not keep his faith a secret.

I would suggest that he has more in common with the Pakistani Christian government minister, who lost his life earlier this year while promoting religious tolerance, than with international football for instance.

I am happy to be associated with St George and the Christian witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As for another bank holiday, I wouldn’t object and I notice that the Archbishop of York (and others, including clergy) enthusiastically backs the idea. We’ll have our cross of St George in our house on his special day. This year, strictly speaking, it is put back to the 2nd May because of the date of Easter. However, I don’t think a red cross is an inappropriate symbol for the day after Good Friday, so I think we’ll put it up on 23rd April/Easter Eve and keep it there until 2nd.

I have no problem with England having St George as our patron saint along with all the other countries who have him as well (such as Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine and Portugal). However, I think it is important to remember that the gospel he stood up for has no room for either racism, violence or persecution. It is possible to stand up for Jesus without trampling others down.

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