I have friends who have had times living on the street and are entering ministry with that experience to draw from, so that when we're encouraged in our second year at theological college to go and spend a day on the streets of Nottingham, with no money and stripped of all possessions, bar the clothes we stand up in, it strikes them as somehow too easy an experience because of what we know we go back to.
2009 has been a time of financial strain for many people. As a family, we have lived with hardly any income for six months, but this was our own choice. Encouraged to 'sign on' but never quite getting around to it because 'You never know, an order might come in' ... we didn't.
So we have gone cap in hand to family for some of the bills we were not allowed to stagger and 2010 will see us paying back these sums of money to the people who kindly lent to us.
We're back to having some income again now and we are starting to recover.
We have received a mixture of reactions to the way we have lived over the last 6 months. Some people have been shocked at our faith, suggesting we just sell up and start over, we were determined to stick it out. Some people have expressed shock that we could have lowered our pride to ask companies needing bills paying to give us more time. What we have learned is that if you deal fairly with people, prove that they can trust you by committing to payments that they can see are happening, that there is a way through. People do not actually want to see you in difficulties and usually a plan can be worked out. We have learned to be better at asking for help and we have learned that life has different seasons and your relationships with those closest to you and with God can see you through.
A piece of scripture I found particularly helpful over the second half of 09 was the Ephesians 1 blessing (1:1-14).
Blessings belong to believers 'in Ephesus'(v.1), who are also 'in Christ' and 'in the heavenly places' (v.3). Believers inhabit multiple realms, the physical realm of Ephesus where they are differentiated from Roman, pagan citizens and the heavenly realm where they live consecrated in Christ as citizens of his Kingdom. Paul is determined that believers appropriate their spiritual blessings (and the armour of ch.6) for the sake of security as they battle in the spiritual realm, particularly in their context, where the cult of Artemis1 wielded power. Harrison believes the 'grace' Paul extends in the greeting is deliberate because it is the power of the gospel set consciously in opposition to this 'magic'2.
Harrison's attention to Artemis' pagan influence exposes a subversiveness to Paul's blessing. The Ephesian goddess Artemis would, in return for her people's piety, ensure they were 'blessed for all time.'3 Part of Paul's technique is to present a God whose blessings far exceed those of Artemis, both temporally and spatially. God's blessings are experienced in the physical and 'heavenly' realms and are unconstrained by time, given before 'the foundation of the world' and realised at the eschaton. Pertinent too is that despite the material prosperity that came with being a successful trading centre, God has 'lavished' 'riches' upon the Ephesians. It is in these Spiritual blessings they are to understand their real security. In this way, this long, continuous sentence of 202 (Greek) words speaks into the surrounding pagan-cultural and economic context of the day. It also speaks into our context. If we can live in the knowledge of the security that we have in Christ, I think that we can live bravely. We need to understand the Artemis of our time, whom she might be and what she might be promising us and that what she offers is empty in comparison to the riches of the Spiritual blessings we have in Christ.
The Ephesians 1 blessing talks to us of
the Holy Spirit given as a deposit, guaranteeing that we will receive our full inheritance. We are a “purchased possession” whose adoption has been mediated by Christ. This language of the legal courts and the financial markets would have spoken as powerfully into the context of a very self-assured and financially successful city as it does to the affluent West today.
Paul's berakah forces each church today within the Church Universal to consider whether is is proclaiming as persuasively as Paul the status of its people in a language they understand. These truths need proclaiming constantly in the hope that Christians appropriate their Spiritual blessings and like the Ephesians resist promises made by alternative spiritualities and the illusory security of material prosperity.
To those who believe, perhaps the most difficult lesson for the Church is in Paul's hint in his blessing, fleshed out in the rest of the letter, to the unity that must exist amongst us. In our churches today we must guard against Spiritual superiority and realise that our language, our vestments and our traditions can be a barrier to those who are coming to know Christ for the first time. Whilst we must not abandon our heritage or fail to celebrate our journey, we must also make room for new expressions of worship so that there might be 'a love shown between the unlike who are in Christ'. 4
Churches imitating Paul will praise the Father, the Son and the Spirit and be truly trinitarian. There is no room here for the subordination of Jesus to the Father, for it in Christ that the whole cosmos will be recapitulated, or the dismissal of the Holy Spirit through whom we understand our status: his presence must be welcomed and exalted. Paul is unabashed by the exuberance of his worship in which he piles clause upon clause, aware that words can never enough convey our love for God. Churches might imitate Paul in this too so that they might more obviously testify to the security that is theirs as a consequence of their Spiritual blessings.
1Acts 19:35 ' the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great goddess Artemis...'
2Harrison, Paul's language of grace in its Graeco-Roman context, 243
4 Buchanan 'Open to others', 31