Fear is a four letter word

There is no love in fear, but perfect fear casts out love (1 John 4:18)

Are you sure you read it right? It isn’t saying what we expect it to say… But there is a point. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde has one of his characters (Cicely or Gwendolen, I don’t remember which) ask, ‘Do you mind if I look at you through my lorgnette? Mamma has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted’. Well, my Mamma, as any good Jewish mamma should, brought me up to be extremely anxious. It’s only to be expected: by the time she was in her mid-20s she had lost two whole families (one birth family, one adoptive), her country, and her chance of a career. And later she was to lose her only son, when she was 59 and he was 27. Such a history is bound to breed some anxiety; she used to get in a terrible state when my father was half an hour late home from work.

When I look back at my twenties and thirties, what I remember most is a constant state of low grade anxiety about almost everything. Not enough to stop me having some fun, but enough to make life seem like a series of insurmountable goals. Age and therapy have dissipated this (as have marriage and motherhood) but it’s still easy to slip back into it, and I continue to suffer from what I call ‘pathological punctuality’, arriving at most places, especially places where I haven’t been before, embarrassingly early.

But is anxiety a good driver for discipleship? When I look at ‘conservative’ Christianity at present, especially in the USA, it seems to me to be beset by all-pervading, chronic fears. Fear of having the wrong theology, fear of alienating God, fear of being ‘contaminated’ by associating with the wrong people, fear of sinning without knowing it. And it strikes me that this cannot be right for followers of a redeemer who made friends with all the wrong people and broke all the rules of purity: hanging out with prostitutes and wide boys, touching dead bodies and menstruating women, neglecting to go through ritual washings. Let alone, let me add, for a people who proclaim that their sins are forgiven through the Cross (or does that only apply to sins you committed in the past, before you were ‘born again’?). This matters, not only because it diminishes the lives and fruits of Christians who live in this state of fear, but because it prevents them loving the people who need it most, since those people are labelled as unclean. It seems to me that conservative Christianity has managed to re-erect all the barriers that Jesus spent his life breaking down, and I don’t think that’s the kind of conservation we need. It’s simple: if we fear – fear contamination, fear heresy, fear ‘liberalism’, fear being ‘too compassionate’ (and how can the followers of a God who is love actually be ‘too compassionate’?), we cannot love, as Christ has loved us. Paul tells us he ‘became sin’ for us: are we prepared to risk ‘becoming sin’ for the sake of those we see in need?

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Jesus behaving badly…

One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’ (Mark 2:23-28)

I have a question. It’s a new one, which hadn’t occurred to me in quite this form before, though I suspect I’ve thought it unconsciously for a long time. It’s this: when Jesus said ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’, was he only talking about the Sabbath? Or did it have a wider application, to the whole system of rules of purity, and actions we can perform or refrain from to make ourselves acceptable to God?

Here’s a story Jesus plucks from the Old Testament, of David and his men violating one of the most sacred rules of their religion. It’s the equivalent of a lay person breaking into a Catholic church, opening the cupboard that holds the Reserved Sacrament (I expect there’s some fancy name for the cupboard but I don’t know it) and scarfing the lot. Not only that, but sharing it amongst all their friends. If that seems too extreme, it isn’t – David’s action was scandalous, and if later generations had excused it on the grounds that David was the great anointed king and all that, I think they could do so only because it was in the ‘glorious’ past. Certainly Jesus doing something much less transgressive got their sacrificial goat.

Rather foolishly, I’ve recently let myself get caught in debates on Facebook and Twitter with Christians who oppose same sex marriage. It really is a hiding to nothing. (One of the more mind-boggling statements I read was that ‘sexuality is central to discipleship’. If only I’d known, all those years when I lamented my failure to feed the poor, visit the sick and generally be a better disciple, that I was already home free by virtue of being a virgin till I married.)

Then this passage came into my mind. In which Jesus does something deeply offensive to the religious, and compounds it by quoting something even more offensive that the great king David did. And I suddenly thought, what if Jesus isn’t just making a statement about the sabbath here, but about all the shibboleths we impose to check if people are in or out of the kingdom? All the statements that begin, ‘Christians don’t…’ or ‘Evangelicals don’t…’, all the safe boxes we put ourselves into to make sure we never make a single mistake or commit a single sin (yes, God forbid that those whose sins have been cancelled by the Cross should ever sin again – forgiveness is clearly a one-off, a loss leader to lure us into doing everything right). What if Jesus is saying that all God’s laws were made for human flourishing, and therefore that if a particular rule we follow doesn’t lead to human flourishing, then we’ve probably got it wrong? And it’s sure as heck obvious to me that forbidding two people to enter into a covenant of love and faithfulness – in effect, forcing them to ‘live in sin’ as we used to say – doesn’t lead to human flourishing. And nor does forcing those into celibacy who have no call to celibacy. Or indeed, preaching sacrifices to others, for instance a life unshared, that you are not prepared to make yourself. Or preaching against temptations you haven’t actually faced yourself. None of these do humans any good, neither the preacher nor the preached-at.

Yes, the Bible says – a very small number of times – that homosexual behaviour is a sin. It also says, many many more times, that breaking the Sabbath is a sin. Yet here is Jesus, breaking the Sabbath, and encouraging others to do so, using the example of his great ancestor, and all in order to feed the hungry. And I’m thinking about not just physical hunger, but emotional hunger and the drive to have someone we belong to. Go figure.

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National righteousness?

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Recently I worshipped in the church where I was baptized, in a city I haven’t lived in for 35 years, on the exact 45th anniversary of my baptism. I hadn’t planned this, and only realized the date in the middle of the service. It was very special to feel that God had arranged this little celebration for me. Forty-five years as a Christian, probably just as long knowing this passage, and mostly finding it the scariest passage in the New Testament. It is scary, isn’t it? At least the second half is scary, when the ‘accursed’ are castigated for having failed to feed Jesus when he was hungry, clothe him when he was naked, visit him when he was sick or in prison.

And yet, it took me almost the whole of that 45 years as a Christian to notice something I’d never noticed before in this parable (for I think it is a parable, rather than a literal description of the Last Judgement). I’d always read it as though this were a judgement on individuals for how they had treated the needy. But then I saw it: ‘All the nations will be gathered before him.’ Yes, nations. Now I know that the next bit says ‘he will separate people’. And I know that ‘nations’ in a biblical context often means the Gentiles, or those who do not belong to the ‘chosen people’. Even so – it’s striking that this does not appear to be a gathering of unrelated people, but a gathering of nations. Is it stretching interpretation too far, to suggest that it is not only good or bad, kind or cruel (or apathetic) individuals who are here being tested by their actions, but whole nations?

With this approach, I find the whole story a lot less scary. On my own, I can only feed a very limited number of the hungry, clothe a few naked, visit one or two sick or in prison. I am bound to fail. But as a member of a nation, I can hold my nation to account, through my voting and/or campaigning, on whether it has fulfilled its duty to the neediest. And I can, through my taxes, and through calling for my taxes to be used for this purpose, contribute to my nation’s feeding of the hungry, clothing of the naked… you know the rest.

In the UK, which is my nation of birth and residence (though not my nation of parentage!) it is glaring clear to me at the moment that my government is not feeding the hungry, but making them hungrier; not clothing the naked, but creating a society where parents have to choose whether to feed their children or themselves, where pensioners have to choose between heating and eating – or perhaps between whether they die of starvation or of hypothermia. I believe this scary story calls me not only to care for the needy individuals I encounter, through friendship or volunteering, but also to fight in every way I can for a government that will recognize its responsibilities outlined in Matthew 25. If it does not, its claim to be a ‘Christian nation’ (and I’m not sure such a thing exists) rings very hollow indeed.

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Whose is this woman?

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”   Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven (Matthew 22:23-30)

In my single days (which lasted a long time) this story used to bug me. What it seemed to say was that not only was I not going to get any sex this side of heaven, but there was going to be nothing to make up for it after I died! (it still bugs me now I’ve been married 25 years, but that’s another story). Perhaps that was why I developed my theory of hypersexual angels, to make up for the usual interpretation that angels were asexual. Jesus never said, after all, that there was no sex in the resurrection, just no marriage. Maybe it’s a free for all?

Then one day I realized I was reading it all wrong. Jesus isn’t making any sort of statement about the presence or absence of sex in heaven (and anyway, I don’t believe in heaven in that sense any more, nor that the Bible teaches it – but I’ll deal with that in another post). He’s responding to the Sadducees at their own level. They, after all, are not asking ‘Which of her seven husbands will have a totally committed and equal relationship with this woman in heaven?’. They are asking ‘Whose property will this woman be in heaven?’. And Jesus, taking them on their own terms, is saying quite clearly, ‘In the kingdom of heaven’ (which is Matthewspeak for ‘the kingdom of God’), women are not property. Among the angels, he implies, marriage is not a deal between two men in which ownership of a woman is transferred from one man to another. Under ‘the scriptures and the power of God’, both sexes are made in God’s image, and both have equal status before God. And if ‘eternal life’ of ‘the Resurrection’ begins now, shouldn’t we be practising?

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On being useful

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16).

Never mind who wrote the Pastoral Epistles, whether it was Paul or someone writing in his name. Either way, they probably weren’t aware that they were writing Holy Scripture, just that they were writing a letter. What strikes me most here is the modesty of the claim the Bible makes for itself. No mention of infallibility, inerrancy or even authority. ‘Inspired by God’, yes – but not written or dictated by God. Yes, I know some translations say ‘God-breathed’, but that doesn’t rule out human agency or intelligence. ‘Useful’ – what a lowest common denominator. Surely we could all agree on that: the Bible is useful.

But what use is it? Not for settling arguments or working out whom to exclude from your fellowship, or indeed whether Jesus had one nature or two, or whether God is a Trinity. We will debate these issues till – I almost wrote ’till the cows come home’, but what I really mean is ’till Jesus comes home’ – for the Gospels and Revelation make it quite clear that God’s intention in Christ was and is to make this incredible creation God’s home. Whoever was writing to Timothy, however, has his (and it is probably ‘his’) eyes fixed firmly on praxis. Teaching, reproof, correction, yes – all these things may concern what we think and believe. But the bottom line is ‘training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient’. Proficient in what? Goodness, which is not a matter of what we believe, how we formulate our faith, but of how we behave and live out our faith. Without this, Scripture is, if I may borrow from it, ‘a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal’ (or even a clanging symbol – I’ve met a few of those…).

As an Anabaptist I believe orthopraxis is central, perhaps even more important than orthodoxy. Not that false beliefs don’t have consequences, or that right action can’t spring from right understanding. Of course it is important to know what the central thrust of the Bible is. But if you believe that the central thrust of the Bible is to make us believe right, you have already misunderstood it. The central trajectory (to use a less penetrative word!) of the Bible is for us, in the words of the words on the noticeboard of an evangelical Anglican church local to me, ‘to live as Jesus lived, to love as Jesus loved’. And for that, Scripture does not need to be inerrant or infallible, for it still to be the most useful tool we’ve got.

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The bigger picture

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of some people;  for in him some people in heaven and on earth were created… some people have been created through him and for him. He himself is before some people, and in him some people hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in some people. For in him most of the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself some people, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

No, I know, it doesn’t actually say that. It doesn’t even read very well when you do the substitutions I’ve done. Yet this is how most Christians, at least evangelical Christians, seem to read it. ‘The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to save the souls of a minority’ (1 John 3:8b). Our emphasis on orthodoxy above orthopraxis, on believing the right things in order to get a ticket to heaven; our urge, even when we are tending to sick or deprived bodies, to use this work as a gateway to the ‘more important’ work of saving souls; our ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs which repeat endlessly sickly sweet sentiments about ‘Jesus and me, me and Jesus’ and which never refer to either the broken world or the Kingdom of God entering and transforming it – all these demonstrate that we have fundamentally misunderstood the mission of God.

This is how that passage from Colossians 1 really reads:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

What part of ‘all things’ or ‘everything’ don’t you understand, folks? When and how did this get translated into ‘God’s plan is to save a small minority of people to live in a disembodied state of bliss for eternity (except that for some unfathomable reason we get our bodies, or a new version of them, back some time later), while the rest, God is going to keep in disembodied torment for eternity’? (how does that work exactly? Disembodied torment?). In what sense does that represent the triumph of God’s will, the victory of good and the destruction of evil? (The verse from 1 John, by the way, really reads: The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. ).

Rob Bell asks an interesting question: ‘Does God get what God wants?’ Because if people in whom evil is predominant (and I don’t believe there are many, if any, people in whom there is nothing left but evil), are kept for eternity in suspended animation to be tormented, then clearly God doesn’t get what God wants, which is to ‘reconcile to (God)self all things’. If this is the case, the prophecy of 1 Corinthians 15:24ff can never be fulfilled:

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

Tell me, how can God be ‘all in all’ if there is forever a corner of reality where evil people remain in some sense alive and where the force of evil forever holds sway? How can Jesus’ task of ‘destroying the works of the evil one’ ever be completed?

In this I think my Christadelphian inlaws, though there are many things on which I disagree with them, have got it right. God’s plan is not to save a few souls, destroy creation, and keep the unsaved souls in perpetual misery. (What artist would destroy her best works but keep an archive of photographs of her failures?). It is to transform all of creation and its inhabitants into the best they can be. If there is a remnant who are essentially unredeemable, God’s plan is to destroy them and all their works (that, by the way, is my own version of Christadelphian teaching – they would expect only a remnant to be transformed and the rest to be destroyed, but I believe God’s vision is bigger than that). You may be surprised to learn that as great an evangelical luminary as the late John Stott, along with many other evangelical scholars, believed in the doctrine of annihilation of the unsaved, rather than eternal torment. He just didn’t, and they still don’t, talk about it, because of the trouble they’d get into. I can’t help feeling that’s a bit cowardly.

If the full meaning of the Kingdom of God is the redemption of all God has made, then surely this should inspire us, not to be mere ambulance-chasers, mopping up the needs the state is no longer meeting, but to be transformers of the world we live in. Or to put it another way, ‘If it is for the next life only we have hope, then we are of all people most useless’ (check the correct version at 1 Corinthians 15:19).

Try doing a New Testament word search on ‘all things’, ‘everything’, and ‘all’. And then ask this: why is this rarely taught in our churches?

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The Bible backwards

Many years ago, the US radical Christian magazine, The Other Side (which published from 1965 to late 2004), ran a regular feature called The Reversed Standard Version. In these articles, a familiar Bible passage was re-analysed to see whether it really meant what people appear to think it means. Often the Bible passage was printed with certain words changed to their opposite, to demonstrate how the text was often interpreted to mean exactly the opposite of what it may really mean. Along the way, the series succeeded in questioning the ‘establishment’ (read white, male, afffluent, heterosexual) reading of the Bible, and doing interpretation ‘from below’.

This blog is an attempt to do something similar, from a personal viewpoint. I don’t have formal theological qualifications, but I’ve written daily Bible reading notes for over 30 years, and along the way I’ve had some thoughts about the ‘standard’ approach to many parts of the Bible. As an English literature graduate, I tend to approach the Bible in a narrative way. As one of the tiny band of UK Mennonites, I will attempt to use an Anabaptist hermeneutic of seeing Jesus as the primary key for interpretation. I also want to be sensitive to context and not extract ‘blessed thoughts’ which have nothing to do with the original purpose of the text. (Although I may occasionally extract jokes which have little to do with the original purpose. Hey, I’m Jewish by birth, why wouldn’t I make jokes about the Bible?)

I’m aiming to write something in this blog at least once a week. Sometimes it may be a dumping ground for thoughts I can’t use in my Bible notes or preaching, sometimes a proving ground for thoughts I intend to use in them, sometimes just an idle wondering. I hope you will accompany me on my exploratory journey, get some new insights, and enjoy the ride.

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