Tuesday, 19 July 2011

How's our faith?

I've been preparing for a sermon on Mark 5:21-43 this coming weekend and it sparked off quite a few thoughts.

Jairus, the synagogue ruler, was willing to look ridiculous by falling at Jesus' feet and pleading with him because he had the faith that Jesus could help. He exercised his faith on behalf of someone else. Jesus agreed to go with him, despite the fact that the religious authorities were already beginning to oppose him and so it could have been awkward to say the least.

The unnamed woman - perhaps not named to illustrate that in everyone else's eyes she was a nobody - was a social and religious outcast. Her bleeding meant that she was unclean and would make other things and people unclean if she touched them. She had tried all she could to solve the problem but with no success. Yet, she hears about Jesus and believes not only that he can do something but that something will happen if she can only touch him. It would seem from Jesus' reaction as Mark records it (if we can put aside all theological "Jesus surely would have known...." ideas for a moment) that this power went out from Jesus without him deliberately doing anything - it was seemingly automatic depending solely on her faith. Jesus' subsequent praising of her for her faith shows that she is indeed a model of faith to all those who were religiously "ok" despite being an outsider. Yes, the outsider shows the "insiders" how it is done...

But there are also other characters - what about the crowd? Are there people there who just watch and don't approach Jesus? What about the members of Jairus' household who arrive and tell them not to bother coming as the girl is dead? It would seem that their faith has given up - there is nothing that Jesus can do now. There is even a contrast in this passage between these two (Jairus a member of the religious authorities and the unclean woman) and the disciples. In chapter 4 they are berated for their fear and lack of faith. Here, faith is shown in abundance, by the woman especially.

I wonder which character in the story we feel like today? Maybe you wish you could have the faith of the woman. Can you? What stops us - is it fear? Perhaps such faith is in some respects a choice?

Jesus responds to and welcomes all kinds of people - once again the misfits seem to see that most clearly. Those of us who feel a bit on the edge can get real hope from this that we too can have confidence to approach Jesus. Perhaps a greater level of expectation is good for us. There can be an easy tendency to believe that Jesus can do things, but less readiness to believe that he actually will. Maybe this story challenges us to have higher hopes and expectations. No, God doesn't heal everyone or answer all prayers as we would like, but perhaps we should ask at least be expecting some kind of response and have an assurance that he loves us, rather than risk going through the motions of prayer with a mindset that says, "I'll ask... but of course he won't..."

Friday, 15 July 2011

Eternal punishment?

Yes, it is cat amongst the pigeons time...

How are we to understand biblical imagery? What about if that imagery does not always appear consistent? Do we pick one and use it to flatten out the other? Should we be less ready to claim dogmatic certainty?

These questions are particularly relevant to the ongoing rekindled (pun intended) debate about "hell". It might seem easy to affirm the traditional view of eternal punishment of those who reject God when confronted with verses such as:

Matthew 25:46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”

Revelation 14:9-12 – “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark... he will drink of the wine of God’s fury... He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast... This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints”

Yet already we are on metaphorical ground with Revelation, a book replete with vivid imagery. Indeed, is the smoke evidence of ongoing torment or of an ongoing reminder pointing back to a torment/destruction now completed? What does being tormented with sulphur look like? Certainly wouldn't smell nice...

Mark 9:42-49 – “where the fire never goes out... thrown into hell... where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” 

This quotation uses Is 66:24. There we see a picture of judgment and the death of Israel's (and God's) enemies. Clearly, bodies do not last for ever and it is in relation to dead bodies that Isaiah says "their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched". So, is this speaking of eternal torment or of something else? The picture becomes muddied all the more when we take into consideration verses that speak of destruction:

2 Peter 3:7 – “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men”

2 Thessalonians 1:9 – “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power”

Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”

Hmmm, now what? Which is it to be - destruction, whose effect lasts forever or an ongoing conscious punishment? In the past I have written against annihilation in favour of eternal punishment, yet I find myself becoming less sure of what I had thought was solid ground. It might seem like a cop out, but at present I find myself wanting to leave the whole matter up to God and not presume to pronounce judgement myself as to people's destinies. The language of judgement in Scripture is often tied to particular historical circumstances and particular enemies of Israel using vivid imagery that sometimes appears to have a reference beyond those historical circumstances. Yet, in those historical settings, the acts of judgement by God on behalf of his people and his own glory resulted in the eradication of the enemies, physically speaking at least. Is all the mention of fire supposed to enhance this idea of destruction? After all it was a powerful destructive force and still is. We don't tend to think of things being exposed to fire for a long time as anything other than destroyed. But, is all this said because in the historical circumstances what seemed to matter was a physical judgement that would destroy the physical enemies and thus free Israel? So, is there a spiritual aspect that remains behind this?

As I continue to ponder such things, perhaps you'd like to ponder them too. Maybe we'll all end up reaffirming the traditional view of eternal punishment. Maybe it will be a more nuanced version of it, or maybe something different. It certainly seems worth some careful thought before we think we have the right to go round telling people they will "burn in hell forever". After all, who is the judge, God or us?

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Going Deeper With God

A new venture! I've just set up the basic outline of a new website designed to provide useful Christian resources. You can find it at www.goingdeeperwithgod.com
More will gradually be appearing there so do check back later. Let me know if there is anything you'd like to see there, suggest new study/seminar topics that could be offered, etc.
Do let your pastors and others know of its existence (especially once there is actually a bit more content there...) so that they might be able to benefit from it too.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Strange Transition

Today I finished and sent my MA dissertation - a very odd feeling of mixed emotions. For one thing, I wonder just how many people will end up actually reading it and of those how many will read the whole thing. It has been a fascinating topic ("The Spirit in the Reader - beyond authorial intent?") and one that I continue to ponder. Thinking about how we read scripture is a topic that should never really be allowed to come to a close with an assumption that we've got our method sorted now. It is always worth re-investing time in considering how we relate to the Bible as this has far-reaching implications. I encourage you to think for a moment about what you consider the Spirit's role to be in your Bible-reading. Do we just pray and ask him to bless what we've already decided it means? Does your experience of God make a difference to how you read? Is what the author intended really the only meaning and the end of meaning? Why/why not? No need to write 20,000 words on that as I just have (well, 19, 978 to be precise) but do at least have a ponder.

I think that this subject of the Spirit's involvement in our reading is only really beginning to be explored properly, largely thanks to the Pentecostal wing of the church. Perhaps others will take things further. Maybe some of the additional material I never used for the dissertation will appear somewhere in some form at some point. But at least I feel that I've opened up the questions on an area that to my mind had been pretty much overlooked. I encourage you to explore too.