Undoing the reluctance of Adam

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Jesus' ministry challenges us to reach out and never give up. 

We are to reach out to this Jesus who has revealed himself to us.

We are to start out to meet him only to find him completely turned to us.

It was always about God's grace, remember, God being 'for you' through the cross. God chose you, long before you chose him. God chose you before the foundation of the world. It delights God when we RSVP to invitations he has sent.

In our scriptures (Mark 5:21-43) two more people reach out to Jesus and will never give up. They both have much to lose – and face potential judgement from the crowd. Both would be untouchable - the woman due to her condition and the man because death has visited his abode. They both reach out to Jesus with actions that are humble and full of faith - the woman pushing on in a condemning crowd, the man, a religious leader, with his face in the grit of the ground. 

Grit and sweat and heaving crowds – gospel stuff that overwhelms because God's love is overwhelming - unstoppable as it resounds around.

Grit and sweat and heaving crowds – I took my ten year old to the fair yesterday. I walked with my daughter to Ealing Green and as we walked along we negotiated holding hands. “Sticky hands mum” she said – so hot – and we let go. We negotiate touch all the time depending on such things. And yet Jesus touches the untouchables and makes them clean, reaches out in all the awkwardness with little regard for himself.

As a family we see friends soon I meet annually as we New Wine holiday in Somerset, I will have to remember after a year how I greet each person when we gather again. Will I handshake? Cheek-kiss? Single hug? Double-hug? I need to remember one friend who has said quite jovially she doesn't hug, it's not a problem instead she does this kind of squeezy fore-arm thing. I share this point about touch because in Mark's story today Jesus touches the untouchables and we are challenged by this as we negotiate contact all the time. The Christian story is about a God who reaches down in being born and with arms outstretched upon the cross to give his world a mighty hug restoring us to him.

In the Cisteen chapel, Michael Angelo's famous painting of God and Adam shows God's body twisting as he completely extends his arm to Adam to touch him with a fingertip. Adam only partially raises an arm and doesn't lean on in to God. We need to acknowledge that this is our tendency and reach on out to him.

We have a Jesus of the untouchables, a scandalising Messiah as we watch a woman reaching out to him, pushing her way into the crowd and having faith that knows no bounds. We watch Jairus whose name means enlightened who will learn something new about a God who has the power to bring life again where all was thought past dead.

Jesus ministers to them and not to others in that crowd because these two dared reach out to him, despite what others said.

Winston Churchill famously admonished the boys of Harrow School to: "Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up." Jesus said it first and by outsiders it's still heard. Never give up, he says – keep reaching out to me, I already have you spotted, I am in fact there before you in the crowd, I've come to take you home again, like the Father of the prodigal, Christ hitches up his robes and positively runs to restore the life half lived. Jairus' little girl will go on to live again and a woman returns restored both in her body and to her kind, she'd known her very life blood draining away for twelve years long but would now live a life in Him with a kind of wholeness never known.

We are challenged then today to undo the reluctance of the Adam in us, to twist ourselves perhaps uncomfortably to reaching out again– to a sweaty, sticky, uncomfortable, scandalising gospel. To risk a little reputation for the life that comes from him.

So the next time you mess up a greeting, lunge for a hug to be offered a fore-arm, shake a hand and find it sweaty, mix your lives up in uncomfortable ways think of God who in his Son did sweat and blood and grit and crowds and think upon his promise to never, ever, ever, never, ever, even to the point of his own death, ever give up on you. Amen.


The fear (being in awe of) the Lord or Whose church is it anyway?

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Do you think that the disciples were more frightened before or after the stilling of the storm? 

Which is more challenging – accepting your own demise, that the water might fill the boat or that you'll be saved and plunged into an entirely new way of life?

The Christian faith requires your acknowledging Jesus as God.

The Christian life leads to the slow death of the self for your new life in Christ.

Therefore do you think the disciples were more afraid before or after the stilling of the storm?

After the stilling of the storm, he who had only been teacher is now something else altogether – he is God.

He is God because only God has power over the very things God has made: the elements.

The elements dominate man no matter how hard we exert our mastery over them. In a fight with the ocean, the ocean will always win and it is heart-breaking to hear frequently of the drowning of so many people taking to the oceans in make-shift boats to flee countries where life hangs in the balance, to then lose life completely against an enemy that is ocean; those 'proud waves' as God describes them for Job. There have been many who have lost against the ocean.

When my second daughter, 18 months old, slipped beneath the water in a play pool we had in the back of our garden and drank the water into her lungs as I distracted fought with a deck chair, I learnt that day that her life was so fragile – that two foot of water could win and as I threw her over my knee and hit her on the back and watched the water gush out and the air rush in, I learnt that life is always 'gift.'

Do you think the disciples were more afraid before or after the stilling of the storm?

More afraid as Jesus slept or more afraid with him fully awake?

It is often in the storms of life that we become more aware of Jesus:

“Bail me out we cry, don't sleep, I need you now, it's convenient for me now to seem to wake you up – only really it never was you that were sleeping - it was me, to your presence that was always there, but I left you at the far end of my boat, made you a little cosy on a cushion and forgot you. I was asleep to you but now I am awake and I am crying “Bail me out Jesus, still the storms, don't have me perish.”

And for many there is that turning point.

Life changes, the life of Christ grows in you after such events.

He is no longer asleep.

The doll I brought back from hospital as a gift from my newborn baby to her older sister (so we could both care for babies together – I had read somewhere it helps the older child adjust and not become jealous) had a button where we could switch her off. She could switch off plastic baby Annabel with all her expensive accessories, I couldn't and wouldn't want to turn off my second daughter and I was constantly present to her presence apart from one moment caught up with a deck chair...

Is there a way in which you could become more attentive to Jesus, present to his presence?

Realise that it isn't him who sleeps at the far end of the boat, he just demonstrates rest, which is, after all the goal of creation: that all should be calm because reconciled to God.

That it might be you who needs waking, perhaps with the splashing of a little water, the slight sting of the salt that is to characterise your life. Your saltiness is a distinctiveness which has other people notice to whom you belong.

You belong to Jesus.

Is this frightening this being distinctive, this admission that Christ is God, that he has power over all the little things and the hugest storms that sweep into your life, that he knows your every thought, all your yesterdays and tomorrows and that all he requires of you is that you stay awake to his glorious and disturbing presence?

Do you then think the disciples were more afraid before or after the stilling of the storm?

"Why are you afraid?" He asks and they were filled with awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

When I take a funeral, as I do from time to time, there is one part of the set liturgy that I am bold enough to change. It comes near the end of the service when I realise, that in a moment, the grieving will really begin, when the activity of planning and orchestrating music and memories will come to an end and people will return to lives and homes that will never be quite the same.

It is these lines:
Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field;
when the wind goes over it, it is gone and its place will know it no more.
But your merciful goodness endures for ever and ever toward those who .. and I say...are awed by your presence

Not those who 'fear you' – but those awed by your presence - because this is really what we mean when we talk about 'fearing God.' When Jesus asks the disciples why they are afraid, he will replace their fear with wonder and with awe and with perhaps just silence – as they become still and encounter the Word gone forth, the Word of God, the Word made flesh, God come down from heaven to earth.

There is a right fear of the Lord which is a being lost in wonder, a being lost in praise. A being lost which is a being found again, a coming round to God, an awakening to his presence so that where ever and when ever storms might blow about, we will know a certain peace that is only found in God.

Our God is not a frightening God. But we must dare stay in the boat and behold this God who loves, who only asks us for our hearts so that he might do the rest.

Do you think the disciples were more afraid before or after the stilling of the storm?

It's because the call of discipleship is costly but the gains outweigh the losses, that we are to push on into his presence as a people characterised by love, that we are not to be afraid but only lost in wonder and journeying to the other side which will likely look quite similar to here.

Praying always for stiller waters,
Trusting the Father and the Son,
That in the presence of the Spirit his plans might be begun,
That we can be so distracted, bailing water from the boat,
Trust that Christ will calm our storming and we will all stay afloat.
We have a God of rainbows,
Of promises he keeps,
He is faithful even when sometimes he only seems to sleep.
Let's awaken to his plans for us,
Row on, reach the other side,
Don't imagine it before you have landed,
Let it take you by surprise,
It will not knock the wind from you
Or have you clinging sickly to the side,
Jesus wants the best for us,
His church: his earthly bride.

Have faith I say with Jesus. It's his church, not yours or mine. And so, in some ways, yes, the disciples were probably more afraid after the stilling of the storm.

After the stilling of the storm, they had to get out of the boat and actually do something.
Whilst they fought the wind and waves their energies were taken up with that.

Enough, peace, be still.

'They took him with them into the boat, just as he was.' Christ the captain of this ship, steers us in his direction to acknowledge him as God and that this Church is His.


Towards a Theology of Church Growth

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A bit of theology.....

There has been a real emphasis of late on The Green Report in the Church of England. The book Towards the Theology of Church Growth was launched this week by David Goodhew and Graham Tomlin at St Mellitus, London and is an answer, in part. 

It questions whether really a perfecting of technique will help to grow church, it wrestles instead to articulate that church growth is necessarily theological and only theology can help. It purports that a church that neglects theology will shrink. It finds that a theological response is the one required, that only by reawakening a right theology of the Spirit will churches buck decline.  

A Passion for God's Reign Jurgen Moltmann

Graham Tomlin shared his overview of his contribution to the book describing how it addresses the ways we speak, live and preach the gospel in a very different world. The Growth of the church can be seen in a growth in holiness, service to the wider community and in numerical growth. This book does focus on the latter. It doesn't doubt that there is church decline but it believes that better theology is the answer. Graham raised Giles Fraser's recent contribution to the debate where Fraser said that a gospel shaped church is likely to be empty not full (sending its people into the world) and that worries about church growth are worldly.

Guardian 3 April 2015 – the worst of them (churches) judge their success in entirely worldly terms, by counting their followers...' (Giles Fraser)

Of course, numerically the church is not declining in particular parts of the world. We are also to consider the exponential rise in church attendance at churches like Hillsong and the Kingsway International Centre where congregations can reach 10,000 and HTB which gathers 5000 people into church on a Sunday.

It is evident that churches that are growing are either pentecostal or charismatic. Peter Brierley has analysed age profiles across denominations finding that the average age in a Pentecostal church is 33, far lower than the 50s, 60s age profile of Anglican and Catholic churches. in fact, Pentecostalism is expanding at a rate of 19 million people a year. There is also the massive growth of Christianity in the Global South, which could be described as a new reformation.

Graham Tomlin wants to understand why it is that Pentecostal and Charismatic churches grow. His conclusion is that such growth can only be explained by the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the expectation within these congregations of the Holy Spirit's power. 

How Christians understand the work of the Spirit varies but without the invocation of the Holy Spirit the church really is an empty shell.

Graham then gave a brief synopsis of the Spirit's presence in Scripture and the world explaining how the word 'Mission' is derived from 'apostelo' which means 'to send.' In John's gospel there are three major movings or sendings:
  • the sending of the Son – 1:33 Jesus is the one whom God has sent. 
  • the sending of the Holy Spirit – the advocate whom the Father will send in my (Christ's) name  
  • the sending of the church
The two primary acts of mission are the sending of the Son and the sending of the Spirit.

Begetting and proceeding and sending are different. The Son and the Spirit do not come into being because the world needs saving, the sending has temporal but moreover eternal dimensions. It is important for us to understand that the sending might be temporal but the begetting is not. The sending is an event of the imminent trinity and not just the economic trinity and this then is why 'sending' is in the very character (ontology), essence of God - God is Mission. The outward centrifugal movement is not the action of an Aristotelian unmoved mover but instead we have a continual sending. The begetting and sending are conceptually different then but are together a part of the centrifugal movement. The procession of the Spirit occurs within the trinitarian life of God even before creation. 

Graham concludes that the logical and theological outcome of this is that we have a doctrine of mission that exists even before the world and human beings are created. In the very heart of God is this eternal movement of God which continues with the sending of the Son and the Spirit into the world. This is not a secondary activity put into place once the world has gone wrong. This is intrinsic to the character of God. Mission is part of God's nature – God is missionary. His activity is his being – there is no split between economy and ontology.

[I think about how if this is so and we are made in the image of God, then surely there is similarly no split between human economy and ontology. This has implications for that more conservative evangelical articulation of the Trinity in which gender relations are thought to find their locus in economic and ontological functioning of the Son to the Father (the female to the male for humans). But after a brief meander back down the avenues of the ESS debate, I am back in the room.]

We move on to what Graham's thesis means for the church. Graham explains the implications: we have to bear witness to such a God. We are to invite the Spirit, to become caught up in this centrifugal movement of God. We are to invoke the Spirit and be caught up in a movement of God into the world. It is in our very nature to come to reflect the missionary God.

The church is to send people into the world – "As the Father has sent me so I am sending you." This sending of the church is not parallel to the other two sendings. The church is sent by Jesus himself. The church does not proceed from the Father. We do not think of the church as part of the trinity. We are sent by Jesus to bring about the healing and transformation of the world and draw the world back to God and his healing and restoring love. We are sent by Jesus but birthed and constituted by the Holy Spirit. 

In Acts the church is born after perhaps its own version of a PCC in which the council (the disciples) were reconstituted by the Holy Spirit. There is then a period of waiting and in Acts 2 the church is born when the Spirit comes upon them. The church announces the 'evangel' as it is sent out. Community forms around those who respond and then they too are sent out in mission.

This centrifugal force of God is communicated by the Spirit. When the Spirit is present he turns people and communities outwards. 

We concentrate for a while on the inward and outward curvings of any community of people, how Martin Luther described sin as that curving in on oneself that can dominate any community, a being overly concerned with 'us' when we are actually sent to serve 'the other.' When the Spirit comes there is a movement outwards. You are turned outwards towards the world with its pain and hunger – you can not help but be engaged with that suffering world. A church turned in upon itself, overly concerns with its own whims and preferences is a church that is lacking in the Spirit and does not grow.

The church is instead to reach out and recruit more and more people to the Kingdom of God. Pentecostal and charismatic churches do this because they invoke the Holy Spirit. They then find themselves becoming caught up in the pain of the world. Sometimes where they are lacking, these churches, is in their having an under-developed theology of the cross. The pain of engaging with the world constitutes the joy and this must be remembered. Also where they can slip into over-emphasising numerical growth which is really only a means to an end. Bishop Paul Bayes says we want a big church so that we can make a big difference; so that we can recruit people to the call of God.

If numerical growth becomes the idol, the manifestations of the Holy Spirit can equally become so. It is not about having a good experience if this does not lead to something concretely Kingdom-building in the world. 

In conclusion we have to ask ourselves that where we have concluded that the procession of the Spirit is for the sending of the church into the world might not then our lack of openness to the Spirit hamper our call into that world. 

For those nervous about the invocation of the Spirit, this movement of the Spirit doesn't have to be expressed in Pentecostal or charismatic form. On the other hand, though, one can not ignore that the Spirit's expression is often characterised by something joyful and expressive and it is such expressions that we often find in more charismatic churches. We are to think through, nevertheless, how Evangelical and Anglo-catholic churches might find their own authentic expressions of the Spirit at work. Jurgen Moltmann is keen to impress upon us that every believer is to continually invoke the Spirit. We have to care about this because as Justin Welby has expressed: Church Growth is as fundamental as worship to every tradition of the church.

A series of questions come from the floor pertaining to the scriptures' emphasis on the departure of the Son and Graham responds with a focus on the universalising of the Son through the Spirit.
Another question seems to pose mission against discipleship but Graham explains how discipleship is often talked about as if it all depends on this – the terms are different in register – mission is the church sent into the world and the church is sent into the world to disciple – part of the mission of the church is to disciple – these are not competing things.

Another participant reminds the room helpfully that our response must therefore be to 'pray more' and Graham responds in agreement that indeed the praying and the doing are not in opposition to one another and how often we are driven back to praying when the failures set in. Renewal of the life of prayer, reconciliation and evangelism are Justin Welby's key foci.

David Goodhew reminds us of this place of the Saints and how Cuthbert is an example of someone profoundly prayerful and profoundly missional. In an ecclesial context that is profoundly unmissional we are to pray. David Goodhew reminds us not to be caught short by concluding that the language of church growth and evangelism is only Evangelical. This is a warped understanding – all flavours are to grapple with this. Evangelism is about Good News – the invitation to 'rest.' It is also about recruiting people for the work of the Mission of God. It is also about our being caught up in areas of the groaning world. A Mission strategy that doesn't ask people in to rest and out in sentness to the world misses something. Theologies of mission must have both these arms.

Steve Clifford from the Evangelical Alliance reminds us that some Pentecostal and charismatic churches can over-enjoy the Spirit. We must always keep the 'evangel' at the very heart of the church to avoid becoming inward looking. The key sign of the Spirit at work is in seeing the world being transformed and joining in with that.

We finish with the helpful reminder that Mission happens through the ordinary local church often in ordinary, local ways and so we earth the theology in praxis in ways that help us leave the room to return to those ordinary and local places energised. All in all a good book launch experience. Do read.


Reinventing leadership

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Revd Andrew Corsie leads us on 'Reinventing Leadership.'

We consider the thesis of Edwin H Friedman (1932-1996).

Friedman supervised professional people and was a family therapist, advisor and Rabbi. He wrote 'Generation to Generation.' His books explore Family Systems Theory.

'What is vital to changing any kind of "family" is not knowledge of technique or even of pathology but, rather, the capacity of the family leader to define his or her own goals and values while trying to maintain a non-anxious presence within the system. Also, when it comes to change in families, clarity may be more important than empathy.' Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (Guilford Family Therapy) Paperback – 12 Apr 2011 by Edwin H. Friedman  (Author)

Friedman embeds this micro theory in the macro - looking at seismic shifts and culture change on a global scale first and applying his findings at the local level.

Contrasting the pre and post "Galileon"  (Copernicon revolution) mindset is fascinating for what it reveals about shifts in patterns of thinking, for example. The world discovered the rest of the universe! Before this there was a certain stasis in thinking manifesting itself.

With stasis the thought that there is certain solution often comes too quickly. However, it becomes evident that you can not just 'think' more - you have to be open to encountering 'serendipity' or in the case of the Christian community: God. You have to become open to 'adventure' and the re-framing of the narratives you tell about yourself. You need to be bold and innovating in coming into solution.

There are barriers to be overcome when systems become stuck. Friedman's thinking is said to be subversive but not because it is confrontational but because it requires the rejection of particular once-framing narratives. It requires too the exposure of common fallacies.

Modern life is filled with tension and quick fixes fail. People overreact and blame cultures develop and communities become risk-averse. The existence of the 'anxious family' is a very real phenomenon in any institution which can consequently become characterised by high levels of reactivity. Reactive responses are those that are automatic and rash. Friedman suggests a person can handle emotion with their thinking prowess. He explores the neo-cortex and the reptilian complex (which is close to Limbic system) and how far regulation can become possible. In a highly anxious system there is the lack of the end of one being and the beginning of another. The anxious system becomes a blaming system. The responsibilities of the self are projected onto the institution so that people become violent and litigious. There is linear thinking - the thought that solutions to problems exist and in simple ways - easy answers are sought but really the problems are the result of many complex circumstances all coming together.

To be effective as a leader in situations like this one must deal with this problem of high anxiety.

There is the need to promote and develop differentiated leadership.

The innovative leader is to be shaped less by the expertise thought to be bound up within the social sciences and is to become more dependent on instincts but instincts that are borne out of a right discernment founded in guiding principles and self-regulation, maturity, persistence, stability and vision.

Forces for self and forces for togetherness need careful navigation. This is because very powerful fallacies exist (Christians would call them idols) about 'togetherness.' We tend to adapt to one another and the comfort that we feel in togetherness is very strong. The host needs to be aware of where they are complicit in these overlapping and sometimes competing systems. Where are you attracted to this togetherness for its 'comfort,' the position it gives you?  Be aware too that as soon as you self-regulate and seem not to need the 'togetherness,' seem not to be vulnerable, there will be the temptation by the group to sabotage you, to undercut you.

The Empathy Fallacy
Bound up too with 'togetherness' is the idea that as long as we are nice and we feel for others we will get through - but this is not the fix. Values are key: values are absolutely important and the acknowledgement too that values can not be put in to others, values need to be worked through - we need to be able to discern good winds from bad winds in a storm. We have to know something about wind! In other words it is not enough just to feel for someone. When does this then also lead to compromise that is unhealthy as the driving vision and values become displaced in order to appease? This is a question that always need to be asked.

The Empathy fallacy is that if we can just get inside people's heads enough and understand the 'other' and feel for them then everything will be all right. In actual fact this is not possible. I am me and you are you and there is a rightness about differentiation. Instead differentiation needs to be actively pursued. By differentiating people come to be responsible for their own emotional life and actions. There is a right defining of what belongs to me and what belongs to you.Those that lack self-regulation need to be helped to define self and so mature. Once we know who we are, really are, we know how to react appropriately to situations in life. Trouble can spread in actual fact when people lack self-regulation and over-empathise with the allegedly troubled.

The Expertise Fallacy.
The other fallacy already hinted at in regard to the social sciences, indeed any sciences, or any information transmitting systems, in general, is that if I could only get my hands on more theories, books, leadership journals, experts etc this might be the other way that everything will be all right. This is a fallacy too. It is interesting this one, because Friedman therefore seems to debunk himself, negate, do away with himself - for is not his just another theory?

However, there is something in what he says. A constant seeking after information brings on that feeling of being overwhelmed. It ultimately leads to the very thing that Friedman advocates to be at the centre of most dis-function: anxiety. People can not get hold of enough information to solve their problems. This in itself creates anxiety.

So how can leaders establish identity within the communities they are leading?

As leaders we need to be very conscious and aware of our own capabilities. Primarily, by understanding our own anxiety levels and how to manage them. It is important also to find those non-anxiously present people and share leadership with them. There needs to be a letting go of control and a constant reformulation of where you are at, at any present and particular moment. There needs to be a pursuit of wisdom, a not responding when you are anxious; a holding back and reflecting on what that anxiety is all about, really about?

This can be found in a working smart and working less approach to the problem, a not worrying so much about what you are going to say, a repositioning of yourself within a group and a working out of those double-binds; a paying attention to your own emotional life. It is necessary to give the anxiety back to its rightful owner. Become aware of what is your 'stuff' and what is someone else's. The emotional temperature always needs to be monitored. 'Anxiety' or emotional reactivity always needs wise, careful and prayerful navigation.

Self-differentiated or self-defined leadership is important - that ability to stand separate from the group and yet attend to it. The leader is to self-define. There is not so much the need to be a good role-model, good role models do not produce good followers, this just increases leader stress. What matters is how well the leader is differentiated from the group. The importance of being well differentiated and being a non anxious presence is much more important.

Emotional triangles work against self-differentiation - when people get together the emotional systems that they create become the emotional fields in which they operate - matter gets close to matter and the field comes into existence. It then has more power to influence the matter that came into the field than to actually change the situation. It determines the orbit and everything becomes stuck within it. When people become poorly differentiated from one another there can be stasis. Can people function in well-differentiated ways and not be determined by the field? This does not mean isolating yourself from the field - you just need to be aware of where you end and the field begins - how much should the field determine your functioning, really?

The way to help is to let everyone know that you will get through this period together. There are possibilities for the future. There is not the anxiety in you that will add to the field and its dynamic. The process is an ongoing one, no quick solutions, remember, and it takes rigour in your thinking and courage in your heart.

It is your ideas that have to motivate you to become differentiated, in the case of the Christian leader: the Gospel. You are to know what you are all about to not be overtaken.

You need to be persistent, visionary and to have stamina.
Be self-regulated, self-differentiated and determined.

You can not compromise, you need to be bold and adventuring. This not compromising has not the hard edge that people might assume. There is a rightness actually to 'progress' over peace where progress is a right peace, a God-defined Peace - God's Shalom; God's right rule and reign for each person in that community under God.

'Healing and survival depend on existential categories: on vision, for example, on hope, on the
imaginative capacity, on the ability to transcend the anxiety of those about us, and on a response to 
challenge that treats crisis as opportunity for growth.' 

Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (Guilford Family Therapy) Paperback – 12 Apr 2011 by Edwin H. Friedman  (Author)


Believing Bodily

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I have begun to read a book, prompted by my Fulcrum friend Ephraim Radner's blog review. This book is helping me to explore further my pet worst heresy: Gnostic dualism between body and soul.

I have only read the beginning of this book, I am after 'time,' which is of late hard to find and seems to be hiding from me.

The words of the book have so far struck me with their liveliness.

Much of the book is autobiographical and there are touch points (we are to actually engage with our bodies, prayerfully), there is also a lectio divina approach to the scriptures.

At times there is deep theological reflection to complement what is otherwise a lightness of touch. The gnostic tendencies that we all seem to have are exposed and scrutinised but not without one feeling as though one is always being treated gently for falling into such confusion.

"What we see in the creeds, what we read in these early affirmations of our church ancestors, is an insistence on the particularity of Jesus (he lived at a particular point in history, he was fully God and fully human), the unity of the Trinity and—something that seems to have gotten tucked away in the folds of history—an unflinching belief in the physical resurrection of our bodies when the kingdom of God comes in fullness."

The author explores "Gnosticism [which] purports that matter—the stuff our universe is made of—is inherently flawed and, to more ascetic factions, evil... the heritage of believing our bodies to be painfully incapable of certain types of redemption cripples us to the possibilities God has for the whole of us, bodies included."

Last Thursday we celebrated Ascension. I had cause to think again on flesh and this time, Christ's and how his was a bodily ascension into heaven. I am interested in the ramifications that this has for us as Christians and as I preached, suggested members of the congregation might continue such a theological exploration with me regarding how the ascension impacts discipleship and our feelings about ourselves and one another. Here are my first thoughts: 

The Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. There is a sense of finality lent to his time amongst us in a particular way – God is doing another new thing, it would seem. We actually know very little of what heaven, the place to which Jesus ascended, is like, the book of Revelation gives us some idea. That he returns there to dwell with the Father is however, very important because in doing so it is not as if his being human ends, it is instead that he is glorified. 

Wrapped up with this, there is a being glorified that is ours: one of the consequences of the Incarnation is that this Jesus having become human, has now taken our humanity with him into heaven.

This is attested in Article IV of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Of the Resurrection of Christ this article is called and states—

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.

That he ascended with bones, flesh and all things surely has astounding ramifications for us as Christians. He is 'able to sympathise with us in our weaknesses ... has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. (Heb. 4).' The humanity of Christ that identifies with our humanity never ends, Jesus continues to be the human Jesus as well as the divine Christ.

Paul Fiddes – a contemporary theologian, writes about our participation in God – if you think on Reblev's icon, there really is an empty space at the table for you and I. It does us good spiritually to really understand that in Christ's ascension in his full humanity, there is a taking of each of us, in all our humanity, with him: you dwell also in the heavenly places by virtue of your identity as those who are 'in Christ'. You are in him and he is in you in that mutual indwelling that is described so perfectly by John's verb dwell or abide, those verbs that dominate his gospel. Therefore in Holy Communion (the Eucharist) might be less about Christ's coming down to dwell in bread and wine and more about our being raised up to dwell with him in the heavenly places. Of course the Eucharist is a great mystery but note echoes of the ascension heard in such words as 'Lift up your hearts' and 'we lift them to the Lord.'

Will all of this not also impact how we bear ourselves as his disciples in the world? 'Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:1-3).'

This is a profound statement of our Christian identity. A little like the Ludo boardgame, one counter is already home with Christ (your identity already subsumed in his in the heavenly realms where he has taken you, remember our God is outside time and space). The other counter, the earthly you, is trying to catch up with your heavenly perfected self, made perfect already by the work of Christ on the cross – yours is a slate that has been wiped clean, remember.

This is attested to over and over again by the scriptures – this truth – that our minds can conceive through the simple analogy of the Ludo game: ‘God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,’ we hear in Paul's letter to the Ephesians (2:6).

And so if Christ is in Heaven – what hope for the earthly us here, even if there is a dimension to us that is already secure because 'In Christ' in heaven.

Well, if Christ is only in heaven and has left us here on earth alone then there is a great deal to be concerned about – we are helped hugely by understanding that in Heaven his job is to intercede for us who dwell here still on earth and as the prayer book of 1662 repeats every Sunday – 'If any man sin, we have an advocate in heaven, Jesus Christ the Righteous '– thank God for that... but even so the thought of being alone is not easy. Thank God again then that the particularised Christ who once dwelt in physical time and space, Palestine 2000 years ago, and could not be everywhere then, who is now, it would seem in Heaven, can, thank God, - be present everywhere, by his Spirit. 

We move now to Pentecost – ten days lie before us for us to work all this out and if this stuff might still need a good deal of working out come and have tea with me at the vicarage where we can finish the conversation – but we have ten days now to prepare ourselves for that great celebration that is both the birthday of the church and the coming of the Spirit – it is him for whom we now wait. Of course, by virtue of the first Pentecost he is already present with us but there is always upon us a hope to recognise this and appropriate this afresh. 

May we re-appropriate the Spirit, come to know that it is by Him that Christ is now present on earth. This should have profound consequences for his church – let the journey to Pentecost advance. 

I guess in saying what I said above, I then return to Spirit, Holy Spirit, but made manifest in flesh again, our flesh as we become the body and breath of Christ here on earth and so the body/spirit dualisms and convergencies continue to play themselves out. I am not done thinking through all the ramifications of this - only that I am keen to practise and preach a 'believing bodily' for my own sake and the sake of others. 

To be continued....


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A little background reading on the two theological integrities in the Church of England regarding women in ministry.