Tuesday, 12 November 2013

For God and... the people made in God's image

I grew up in Belfast, where the phrase "For God and Ulster" was present on walls and banners in a way I didn't think about. I guess I didn't feel it represented my faith... As an undergraduate I was given a copy of "For God and His Glory Alone" in 1988 by our Christian Union staff worker. (I won't name him here, though I'm sure he'd be happy to be outed on this. Funny how that old NI fear of irrational reprisals lingers...) The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students has great potential for challenging culturally acceptable idols such as the uniting of faith and political ideology, and also to nurture broader Biblical thinking about how Jesus-followers engage in the world as a whole. Poverty, oppression, structures that damage human beings and inhibit human flourishing. The Prophets are full of that stuff. I remember studying Amos... What a hero. (Let justice flow like rivers and right relationships like a never failing stream...)

ECONI produced the For God and... document as Bible study material to challenge evangelicals about how we relate to our neighbours - in a way that challenged the Paisleyite public rejection of the Roman Catholic Church and implicitly - to loyalists, at least - seemed to sanction attacks on Catholics. It comes down to simple biblical teachings around justice, forgiveness, loving neighbours and enemies - all basic Jesus teachings.

The book has been relaunched. Here's Steve Stockman's review http://stocki.typepad.com/soulsurmise/2013/10/for-god-and-his-glory-alone.html

I think, all these years on, I would like to have renamed the book. But how?
For God.
For God and God's Glory alone (I don't like reinforcing the masculine pronoun for God in a culture where masculinity is often defined as against femininity. A recent article I read pleaded for men to man up against the feminisation of the Church - as if the full participation of any of God's children in Church was a loss to their brothers and sisters!)
Or how about this: For God and the human beings made in God's image...?

What should we be willing to live and die for? (and for what should we be willing to kill?)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Remembering - What we're here for

This morning's Remembrance day sermon was a real challenge... There is so much emotion about. So many sensitivities. And so much opportunity for Remembrance to be co-opted for jingoistic, unthinking and implicit justification of the unjust use of security forces. Stuff that I think stands in the way of faithful allegiance to Jesus Christ, and prevents Protestants in NIreland being effective witnesses to the love of God for their neighbours.  Where to *begin* to unpack all that in 20 minutes?  I began by reading from Ephesians 2.

Ephesians 2. 
14For Jesus Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Remembering is a kind of faithfulness. We remember with respect those whose suffering was the price paid for freedom. 

But certain kinds of remembering can be faithless. Selective remembering, remembering that asks no hard questions of those who sent them to their deaths, remembering that makes saints of one side and demons of the other – these kinds of remembering dishonour the true memory of those real human beings whose lives are destroyed through war. If we remember we must remember the whole truth. Our great respect for those who suffer and die must not stifle the very freedom for which they suffered.

Proper remembrance, to honour those who died for democracy, must make full use of democratic rights and freedoms, never take them for granted, always defend human dignity and encourage the thinking and challenging education of all our people towards full human flourishing. A truly free nation should always ask hard questions of anyone sending others out to kill. If remembrance or wearing a poppy or flying a particular flag becomes an excuse to glorify war-making or killing or wanton destruction, the poppy, the flag and those remembered are dishonoured by that kind of remembering.

So here, in a Christian Church, living under a flag, but subject only to the King above all kings, what Good News shall we preach, on this day when we remember war? What good news, when the First World War, called the war to end all wars, has been followed by war after war after war, slaughter upon slaughter upon slaughter. Genocides, war crimes, crimes against humanity, atrocities… Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya… Those are only the ones that came to mind. Even in our own land, Human lives are sacrificed for causes sold as the greater good, sold as justice. 

Tyrants may, perhaps, occasionally, be stopped, dethroned, even brought to trial, or killed; Great evils may be challenged, but war never achieves real justice: How can there be justice for the child whose mother was raped and killed by occupying soldiers; or for the child whose father comes home from long periods of absence physically unharmed, but violent, angry, emotionally distant, or dependent on alcohol to forget the brutality in which he has participated?

In human terms, there is no justice, no adequate mechanism for taking an eye for every eye taken: If one old man gives an order to invade or bomb or massacre, how can those deaths be avenged? If one woman soldier kills a thousand villagers, how can she ever repay even one of those lives? If one child soldier is forced to torture and kill his own parents, who is the victim? And who is the perpetrator? Who is righteous? 

And if all have sinned, and if all of us fall short of the glory of God, for which we were made, is there no righteousness? No true justice in the world? What good news is there, when there is no justice? If young men or women from East Belfast or Seymour Hill, with limited education and few options, are being brought up on the heroism of the Somme, in such a way that they are led to believe without question that it is noble to fight and kill and die for a flag, are they being trained to serve a false god? Where is the Good News of Jesus Christ?

The Good News begins, not at the Cross, but in the nature of God, who is love. The Good News begins for us in this: that we were created within the good Creation of a Loving God; and so all people are made in the image of God. No matter what they have done, every person is a precious fragment of the human race; every person should be respected as an important part of our picture of God, a sculpture or a holy temple dedicated to God. Not every person believes that they are a temple dedicated to God, but it’s what every one of us was made for. 

Ephesians takes a more corporate view: We are being built together to be a living temple, held together by Jesus Christ. It is in relationship with each other, as Christ reconciles us to God and empowers us to make peace with each other, with neighbours and with enemies, we are being built into a place where God’s presence is made manifest. Those of us who believe in the God of the Bible must honour God’s image in every person we meet, and encourage them to grow in body, soul and mind, to think and thrive as fully as they can, using every gift God has given them...

I spoke of how Jesus saw beyond the labels and empowered the real human being to step up... and how his torture and abuse, nakedness and grotesque (though for the Romans, banal) death united God with our misery. His resurrection proclaims that even if we lose our lives, we have not lost our humanity - the image of God...the temple of God's Spirit, being raised up and built into a home for God's living, loving presence on earth.

and I concluded with this: 
Remembering that God's very nature and Creation are Good;
Remembering that God’s image is in every human being; 
Remembering the human being behind the label; 
Remembering the human capacity for great evil; 
Remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus;
Remembering to follow Jesus to the cross rather than collude in oppression;
Remembering to love our neighbours as ourselves; 
Remembering to love our enemy and seek the good of those who may seek to do us harm:

This is the Good News:  that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself;
This is the 
Good News: that while we were still sinners, Christ saw us as God’s beloved children, and died for us;
This is the 
Good News: that Christ died and rose again, so no powers of death or hell can destroy the temples of God;
This is the 
Good News:  that there is now no condemnation for all whose lives are hidden in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free.
This is the Good News: that the deepest human divisions are bridged by the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Christ himself is our peace.

Let us Remember what we were made for: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 1) Go then, to build peace in this world of conflict, to bring wholeness to the temples of God, to build God’s temple, God’s church and God’s kingdom in, through and over every nation on earth. Start here, where God has placed you. Be leaven in the dough. And may the peace of the Prince of Peace empower you to live and die and bring resurrection life into every dark place.

And this prayer: Ephesians 1.15-21

And this: Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us
And lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil
For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
For ever and ever

Well, it was a start...
The question now is, what will we do differently tomorrow?