Is Pentecost a reversal of Babel?

pentecost I am writing this on Pentecost Sunday, where the church remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church (recorded in the Bible in Acts 2:1-13). One of the significant aspects of this story is that the apostles were enabled to speak in other languages – as verse 4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The commentators on this passage often refer to Genesis 11 – the Tower of Babel incident, where the languages of the people were confused and people spread out over the earth. It is often said that Pentecost is a reversal  of the curse of the Tower of Babel. At Babel the languages of the people were confused, at Pentecost people the Spirit enables people to break the language barrier. Simple.

… or is it?

I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. This interpretation would imply that languages and differences between cultures were sinful and a result of the curse – but I don’t think this is the case. Let’s take a closer look.

Putting the Tower of Babel into context

In Genesis 10, just before the Tower of Babel incident, we have the so-called ‘Table of Nations’ – an account of what happened to the descendants of Noah. The last two verses of that chapter – just before the Babel account – say this:

31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

32 These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.

So, prior to the Babel incident, Genesis is already talking about clans, languages, territories, and nations. This suggests to me that the dividing up of humanity into nations is not a result of the Babel incident, but something which God intended to happen as mankind filled the earth and subdued it (Gen 1:28). The idea is that God didn’t want humanity simply to sit around in one place and stick together, but to fill the whole earth – and cultural expressions were simply a part of that plan, including language. Diversity in this way is something which brings God glory.

So what was going on at Babel?

Good question. I think a close reading of the Babel text actually agrees with this interpretation.

The passage starts: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” It’s interesting that it starts in this way, given that we’ve just had the Table of Nations which talks about different languages! But we’ll shelve that for now. The people moved eastward and then: “they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’”

This is interesting for two reasons: (1) they wanted to make a name for themselves; (2) they wanted to avoid being scattered over the whole earth. Why do you think the people wanted to avoid being scattered? I believe this is because ‘scattering’ is what God wanted them to do, as we’ve just seen. The people’s sin was wanting to stick together rather than carry out God’s plan – to spread out and diversify across the earth.

When the Lord comes down and confuses their language, the end of the incident is described: “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” So God scatters them, despite the intentions of the people. God’s will prevails, even though the people are against it.

This is what I think, then, is going on in this passage:

  • God designed mankind to spread over the whole earth. Cultural differences and diversity are a right and good part of God’s plan in creation.
  • In the Tower of Babel, mankind decided to unite together and make a name for itself out of pride rather than scattering as God intended. The sin of Babel was mankind coming together for the wrong reasons and the wrong ends.
  • God therefore confuses the language (something which would have happened anyway if the people had been obeying God), and the people scatter as he intended.

So – the Babel incident is God’s way of ensuring that mankind did what He originally intended, and spread across the earth. Seen this way, the curse of Babel is not that the languages were confused – rather, God confused in the languages in order to accomplish His purposes.

I think this fits best with our experience – I love seeing Christians from other cultures worshipping God in their own ways. Of course, in every culture there will be elements that deny the gospel – all cultures bear the mark of the Fall – but in many ways each one contributes something unique to displaying the wisdom, power and glory of God.

How does this affect Pentecost?

Under this reading, Pentecost is not so much a simple reversal of the curse of Babel. We’ve seen this from Genesis, but there are a few reasons within the text of Acts 2 which lead us to this conclusion:

  • The passage makes clear that it is “God-fearing Jews” who heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. The curse of Babel (if that is indeed the right phrase) was something which applied to everyone.
  • People heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. It wasn’t the case that they could all understand one language, on the contrary, the Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in different tongues.

If we look further afield throughout the New Testament, we shouldn’t forget the wonderful vision of Revelation 7: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Instead of these ethnic / linguistic differences being obliterated, they are apparently still there at the end. They of course do not cause any division, but God’s glory is shown not in conformity but in the diversity of all the nations worshipping him in the unique ways that they can bring.

When Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”, he doesn’t mean these differences are obliterated – rather that they don’t matter any more, because unity is not in race, language or culture but in Christ Jesus.

How should we understand Pentecost?

This is, of course, the million dollar question. Something that struck me today as we were hearing the readings again is that mankind at the Tower of Babel did two things wrong: (1) they tried to create unity by earthly means; (2) they tried to use that unity to deny God. At Pentecost, however, (1) unity is created by heavenly means – unity-in-diversity; (2) that unity is used for God’s purposes. Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel, of sorts – but not a reversal of the curse.

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Hymnology: Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

Although I don’t normally pay attention to such things, last weekend Pippa Middleton married her fiancé James Matthews. (I was only taking an interest because the wedding was conducted by the former vicar of our parish here in Clacton!) Apparently they had four hymns during the service, one of which was Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.

This hymn is one of my favourites, written by John Newton – he who wrote the much more famous Amazing Grace.

The hymn itself is a little hard to understand if you’re not well-versed in the Old Testament and the wider story of the Bible (it is chock full of references), and this is why I thought it might make a good hymn to consider here. I won’t attempt to go through each reference, but try to show the bigger picture.

The most important thing to deal with first is: what is the city of Zion? Zion in the Bible is another name for Jerusalem – the city of God, the place where God dwelt with His people and where they worshipped Him. The temple was the earthly place to show that He dwelt with them there. Hence the words of the hymn: “He whose word cannot be broken [ref. John 10:35] / formed thee for His own abode.” So God formed Zion as the place where He would dwell with His people.

In the New Testament, we are told that ultimately this finds its fulfilment not in an earthly city but in the new creation (Rev 21:2) – where those who believe will dwell with God forever. All Christians are on their way to this heavenly city, a picture which John Bunyan elucidates in The Pilgrim’s Progress. This is fundamental to understanding the hymn.

The book of Hebrews really develops this theme. This is what it says in Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Abraham lived “by faith” – he lived in a tent because he knew by faith that a greater dwelling was coming – as the author poetically puts it here, “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” What happened to Abraham in some way foreshadows the Christian life. Just as he lived by faith, because he was looking forward to something greater, so too the Christian lives by faith.

And this explains the third verse: “Round each habitation hovering / see the cloud and fire appear”. This is a reference to the exodus, where the people of Israel were led by cloud during the day and fire during the night. What relevance does this have to us? The Bible portrays the Christian life in some ways as a ‘new exodus’ – Christians are on a journey to the Promised Land – not on this earth, but the new creation. God protects and leads His people today just as He did in that first exodus. (The hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ also picks up on this theme).

All of this leads to the conclusion, my favourite lines of the hymn:

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion’s children know.

The book of Hebrews makes clear that this world – what we can currently see and touch – is far from all there is to life. In fact, Christians are members of a far greater kingdom – a kingdom which “cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28). All the pleasures of this life are passing away – they are simply “pomp and show”. The only ones who have “solid joys and lasting treasure” – cf. Jesus’ words in Matt 6:19-21 – are “Zion’s children” – i.e. Christians, those who believe and trust in the Lord Jesus.

When I heard that this was sung at Pippa Middleton’s wedding, I have to be honest – I did feel it was a little ironic. The wedding itself was pretty lavish and cost a lot of money – the cynical part of me wonders if it might even be described as “boasted pomp and show”. However, I don’t want to comment on their faith – who knows, perhaps they knowingly chose it for exactly that reason.

Anyway, I hope that this helps to explain a little of the theology underlying such a wonderful hymn!

This is part of my hymnology blog series.

On not understanding Tim Farron

Tim Farron
Tim Farron (Source)

The latest thing which has prompted me to put pen to paper, so to speak, is Tim Farron. Specifically, his hounding by the media over whether he believes homosexuality is a sin. You can read some of the comments many media types have made in this Telegraph article, including Owen Jones labelling him an “absolute disgrace”.

The most interesting thing to me has been people’s reactions: some people have joined in with the shouting, but many have been more reticent. I think many people have been uncomfortable with the way that the media have gone after him for his personal views – why bring down a good man when his actions speak well of him? I’ve read two articles defending him, one by Jennie Rigg (chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems) and one – not surprisingly – by Brendan O’Neill. (I’m sure there have been others, I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed by various other people online).

The gist of their defense is: whatever Tim Farron’s personal views may be, in parliament he is a champion of LGBT rights – his voting record is excellent. In fact, according to the first article I mentioned: “He has said to me personally that when poly marriage is made legal he wants to be the first on the invite list to our wedding.”

So, Tim Farron is not a homophobic bigot. Right?

Hmmm.

I want to make a couple of points here.

Firstly, I don’t think Tim Farron should be labelled a ‘homophobic bigot’ or anything like that regardless of his voting on LGBT rights. These days the words are thrown around casually, but because someone disagrees with same-sex marriage does not make them a homophobic bigot. The traditional Christian teaching is that sex outside of marriage (that is, the lifelong union of a man and a woman) is wrong. This has been the understanding of our country for many hundreds of years. This is not homophobic or bigoted, it is simply believing what the majority of the world has always believed about marriage. If Tim Farron believes that, why should it not affect the way he votes?

It makes me uncomfortable that people seem to be saying “It’s OK – he’s one of us really. He may believes things in private, but at least he votes the right way.”

This brings me on to my second point. I simply don’t understand Tim Farron’s position here. If he does indeed believe the traditional Christian teaching about marriage and sex – why is he voting the way that he does? One article about Tim Farron says the following:

For Tim the liberal principles of tolerance and acceptance are essential. He never got in to politics to impose his morality on others but instead to be a witness and to carry out God’s call of loving our neighbour. (Source)

According to this article, Tim thinks that ‘loving our neighbour’ is what it’s about, not about ‘imposing [our] morality on others’. That sounds good, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: It is not kind or loving to our neighbours to allow them to enter into sin.

One of the realisations that I’ve come to about sin over the last few years is that sin is not defined simply arbitrarily (i.e. sin is a set of moral rules which God just made up out of thin air to stop us having fun.) Sin is not loving God and not loving our neighbour. It has a bad effect on us and other people – it’s always the worst path we can take. Think about the ten commandments – adultery, for example. Adultery is not a loving thing to do. It wrecks homes, it destroys marriages, it does untold harm to children. It’s pretty obvious why that’s in the ten commandments, isn’t it?

And so, as a Christian who believes in the ten commandments, I don’t want my neighbour to commit adultery. Not because I think that makes them a Christian, but because I love them and want the best for them.

My understanding is that politics is about the common good – what is best for us as a country, and the citizens of that country. As a Christian, I have a particular idea of what the common good looks like. I believe God made us, and God knows what is best for us. I believe Christians, if they are to be consistent, should seek to be shaping society according to that ideal. Of course that doesn’t bring anyone into the Kingdom of God, only the preaching of the gospel can do that, but it is part of our calling to love our neighbour.

Same-sex marriage is, of course, one of the major areas at the moment where Western society is out of step with the church. I don’t understand how any Christian can be pleased about same-sex marriage. I can understand there may be a case for things like civil partnerships, but marriage – no. (I’ve talked about marriage before several times, see for example What is Marriage part one and part two – for a look at the harm it causes see a book released in 2016, Jephthah’s Children: The innocent casualties of same-sex parenting).

The point is, it seems to me to be double-minded to have a ‘private’ morality and a ‘public’ morality. Either something is sinful / immoral for everyone, or else it is not. I cannot impose my morality on other people, but Christians believe that what is moral is up to God – and He most certainly can and does ‘impose’ morality on everyone. Christians cannot be moral relativists: there is one God, and one morality for everyone. I believe Christians have a duty not to be silent on matters like this – not to hold a view in private but say another thing in public. (How else could we be salt and light in the world?)

So that, in a nutshell, is why I cannot understand Tim Farron.

Mike Pence, the Billy Graham rule and the gospel

Billy Graham

[Jesus said:] ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

If you haven’t seen the news this week, the internet has been astir with the news that Vice President of the US Mike Pence follows the ‘Billy Graham rule’. Basically, to avoid temptation, he takes measures to avoid being alone with another woman, or being at a social function with alcohol involved where his wife is not present. The rule is named after Billy Graham, with which it originated. (See the link above for more information about the history of the rule).

It’s been interesting to look at the responses. Some people have ridiculed Mike Pence on a number of fronts – how, in this day and age, can a man not have a business lunch with a woman (for example)? On the other hand, some Christian folk have stood up to defend him and commended him for taking steps to protect his marriage. Marriage breakdown is a huge issue, and it’s right to be concerned about it.

Personally, I have mixed feelings. As a Christian, I believe we should be concerned with sexual purity – both within and without marriage. Hebrews 13:4 puts it starkly: “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” I’ve argued before that sexual sin is serious business – and I stand by what I said then. However (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I believe the Billy Graham rule is misguided.

Let’s start with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount that I quoted to begin with. “You shall not commit adultery” – one of the Ten Commandments. You’d think that one would be a relatively straightforward one to keep, right? Either you’ve slept with someone you’re not married to, or you haven’t. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Jesus makes the commandment far beyond what we do with our bodies – he extends it to include our minds as well. Any man who has ever looked at another woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (And, of course, this applies for women too – lust is not an exclusively male problem).

Jesus was here was speaking against the Pharisees – those who believed that they were righteous because they were almost fanatical about obeying the law. Jesus said shortly before these verses, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v20). The message is striking: what God demands of us is moral perfection – a perfection that we cannot achieve by following the Law. The Pharisees made a big show of obeying the law, they probably had laws (way beyond the Ten Commandments) about what you were allowed to do and not do with women around. But Jesus says, no – the righteousness God requires is an internal righteousness – one which goes to the heart. The heart is where evil springs from – the heart is what must be changed. We cannot impose righteousness on ourselves by rules – only God can change our hearts.

I’ve recently been reading Colossians, and these verses sprang to mind:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Paul here says that there are rules in the world which people follow, rules that – although they have an appearance of wisdom, actually ‘lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’. I think this is what’s going on with rules like the Billy Graham rule. Those who follow these rules appear to be doing something wise, appear to be taking appropriate precautions – but actually the rules themselves do not have any value in preventing sin. (I wonder how many people who followed the Billy Graham rule have fallen into sexual sin?) It would be perfectly possible, for example, to follow the Billy Graham rule and yet be addicted to pornography. The outward appearance looks very different from the inward reality.

So how should we live in the way that God wants us to? More than that – how can we? This is what Paul addresses in Galatians 5. I won’t quote all of it, but the summary is this: there are two ways of living – either according to ‘the flesh’, or according to the Spirit. The flesh means our natural desires, our sinful state where we desire what is contrary to God’s will. This, of course, includes sensual indulgence. But Paul’s genius is that he extends this to include legalism as well – that is, living by a set of rules. If we live by a set of rules, we may appear to be godly – but we are simply fooling ourselves. The only way to live a godly life is to live by the Spirit of God, to live a life of love as we are transformed by the Spirit, as we walk in step with Him.

The problem with laws – legalism – is that it only focusses on the ‘Thou shalt not’. How can I, as a man, love my female neighbour if I have a law which prevents me from getting to know her?

In fact, as I hinted at above, legalism may in fact exacerbate the problem. If a man believes he’s doing OK because he’s keeping the Billy Graham rule, and yet spends a lot of time fantasising about women he’s not married to, then he’s simply fooling himself.

A personal anecdote…

I’d like to put some flesh on what I’ve written above by sharing a little of my life story. I wanted to share how this has worked out in my own life, and how I believe my experience shows that the Billy Graham rule is not correct.

I spent a lot of my time at theological college was spent worrying about adultery. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t strong enough. We often heard and talked about stories of pastors who had failed in this way, and how it wrecked their ministries and personal lives. I spent quite a bit of time in prayer asking God to help me!

I also tried to steer clear of getting ‘too close’ to a woman – especially any woman I found attractive. Although I didn’t consciously live by the Billy Graham rule, I think subconsciously I followed something like it: it was very rare that I would ever have a one-on-one private conversation with a woman. However, I still didn’t feel ‘safe’ – I still didn’t feel like the laws I lived by would help me.

Fast forward to today: God has indeed answered my prayers and changed my heart. I feel like I have a whole new perspective on the world. It’s too long to go into here (maybe another blog post… or a book…) but I have come to believe that God has designed men and women for each other – not just within marriage – and intends men and women to be friends. This is exactly what Joshua Jones argues in Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical gift of male-female friendship.

As I said above, the problem with the law is that it stops with ‘Thou shalt not’. Christians, on the other hand, are called to do more than that: Christians are called to love one another. Peter says “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22), and I believe that includes love across the gender divide. Sexual sin is a horrible thing – but I have come to believe that one of the best antidotes we have to sexual sin is healthy relationships with those of the opposite sex.

Clearly, more needs to be said on this – and the Forbidden Friendships book is a good start – but this is a blog post and I don’t want to go on forever. The ‘in a nutshell’ of all this is that I am much more open to forming good friendships with women and believe that this actually (1) fulfils better the great commandment (to love God and our neighbour) (2) better equips me to combat sexual sin.

Conclusion

I applaud anyone who takes sexual purity seriously. Our culture seems to value fidelity a lot less than in days gone by. Mike Pence is honestly trying to protect his marriage, I believe he is sincere, and should be commended. I also think it’s not right to jump to conclusions about what someone does and does not believe – I don’t want to critique the man, only the rule itself at face value.

However, I believe that the gospel calls us to a more radical heart transformation. The gospel calls us to love, not simply to avoid 50% of the population of the world because we might be tempted to sin. The Pharisees were using their laws to get out of their obligations to love their neighbour. We may laugh at them, but our human hearts are tempted to use the law in the same way.

I’ll leave the last word to the apostle Paul:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

… Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13-14, 24-25)

Philip North and the sham of good disagreement

It seems that there are some within the Church of England who like to make a big noise about ‘good disagreement’ when it suits them, but aren’t really committed to it. The sad case of Philip North over the last few weeks has exposed that. (If you don’t know any of the background, you can read about it on the BBC).

Many articles and analyses have been written about this subject, so I won’t waste my words here but get to the point. Good disagreement means more than simply ‘I will tolerate your presence so long as I never have to put up with you and I get my way all the time’. Most of the concerns around Philip North’s consecration as bishop were to do with ‘equality’ – ‘how, given the church’s march towards equality, can we have a bishop who doesn’t ordain women?’

The problem is, this does not take into account the views of Philip North (and others like him) on equality. Although he is coming from an Anglo-Catholic perspective – and I would differ substantially from him on many points – his objections to women priests and bishops would be based on similar ground to mine (as a complementarian): a Biblical anthropology of male and female, founded on Genesis 1-3 (which I talk a little about here) and explained further in the rest of the Scriptures. The point is not that we do not believe in equality – the point is that fundamentally our views of equality must be in submission to what God thinks equality is.

And herein lies the problem. Martyn Percy, and others, have a particular view of equality. Philip North, and myself, and others from our respective constituencies, have a different view of equality. That’s the thing. We disagree. Good disagreement requires disagreement, right? You can’t then go and say “well, seeing as my view is the correct one, we should ban anybody who has the opposite view…” That’s not what good disagreement is supposed to mean!

When the women bishops legislation was introduced in 2014, it was passed by synod with five guiding principles. All clergy in the CofE should agree with these principles. The basic idea is that the CofE has reached a “clear decision” that women can be ordained priest and bishop, and that all clergy should accept that decision – women ordained as such are lawful office holders – but the last two points say this:

  • Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and
  • Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

The language of ‘mutual flourishing’ is important: as I understand it, this means “we disagree, but we don’t want to stifle the minority and give it every opportunity to flourish.” I don’t see how that fits with the hounding of Philip North. By all accounts he is committed to mutual flourishing and working with people who he had disagreements with – those who have worked with him in Burnley say that he is committed to women’s ministry. Philip North seems to understand good disagreement. I’m not sure his vocal critics do.

It seems to me that ‘good disagreement’ is a phrase which a lot of people like to use, but don’t really want to live with its consequences. Good disagreement means appreciating that other people might disagree with us quite fundamentally on some issues. When the CofE has formally gone down a road of good disagreement on this issue, what hope do we have when many clergy reject it?

Preaching and communication: Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount

Over the last few weeks I’ve been spending a bit of time in Matthew 5 preparing for various sermons. As well as being struck by how rich the Sermon on the Mount is – you could easily do a sermon series on the Beatitudes, for example – I’ve been struck by how profound Jesus is as a communicator. Jesus is a wise, learned and skillful communicator – he communicates deep truths in a way which we can understand.

I think there are lessons to be learned here for preachers – not least myself! Here are a just two of the things I’ve found to learn from with Jesus’ preaching, I’m sure there are many other things you could say.

Use positive and negative examples

Several times Jesus uses this technique. We are to be salt and light – salt, in the sense of being distinctive and preserving and preventing decay, and light, in the sense of doing good deeds. We are to avoid taking revenge but positively love our enemies. The negative – what we are to avoid doing – coupled with the positive – what we should do.

How often in my sermons do I only focus on one or other of those? I think it’s very helpful to have both together. What bearing does this particular passage have on my life? What should I not be doing? And what should I be doing instead? Christians sometimes have a (not totally undeserved) reputation for being ‘Thou Shalt Not’ people. But we need to hear both the negative and positive side: our vision needs to be transformed.

How do we turn away from our sins, and what do we turn to instead? I think this is helpful to think about as a general rule in sermon preparation.

Use (several) everyday examples

Jesus used salt and light as an example. Everybody knows what salt and light are – it makes it easy to understand his point. Jesus illustrated complex, abstract points with simple, concrete things. I think this is a big challenge for me: I like to deal in fairly abstract ideas, it’s a lot harder to ground them in reality. This is one of the things Chip and Dan Heath say in Made to Stick. George Orwell wrote about this as far back as 1946 in “Politics and the English Language”. People can latch on to things which are concrete and specific, ideas and concepts can be harder to grasp.

The other thing is, Jesus often illustrates with several practical examples. In the passage I’m preaching on Sunday morning (Matthew 5:38-48), Jesus says: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – before giving no less than four practical examples of what that might look like.

One fairly short principle, followed by lots of very practical application. Quite a difference from my sermons.

Although we often focus on the content of Jesus’ teaching – rightly, of course – I think it’s good sometimes to take a step back and look at how Jesus taught. It’s something I know I need to bear in mind each time I preach. Am I showing people what obedience to God would look like – positively and negatively? And do I help ground what I’m saying in regular, everyday experience?

The CofE: A house divided against itself?

cofeThe Church of England has got itself into a complete muddle. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years. The latest fiasco is ‘GS 2055’, the document which sums up what the Bishops have come up with after 2-3 years of ‘shared conversations’. Unsurprisingly, the document has pleased nobody. Although it does uphold Canon B30 – that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman – it is somewhat ambiguous about pastoral practice. You can read a good analysis of the document from Martin Davie on his blog. He is one of many commentators who have written about the report, so I’m not going to talk about it here.

What I do want to do is take a step back and question whether the whole idea of trying to please everybody is possible. It reminds me of this episode from the gospel of Mark:

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.

Mark 3:22-27

People were accusing Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus answers them by giving them a logical objection: how can Satan drive out Satan? If Satan’s kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand. This is, of course, obvious: any nation, organisation – any group whatsoever – divided against itself is doomed to fail.

Although Jesus’ remarks were in a different context, I think it still applies in the context of the CofE today.

Let’s consider the two ‘sides’. Some believe that opposition to ‘equal marriage’ is wrong, even evil. In fact, you could say that some believe that opposition to ‘equal marriage’ is the work of Satan. The only reason people would oppose it is sheer bigotry and prejudice – evil.

On the other hand, some – including myself – believe that the Bible clearly teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, and anything else is false teaching. False teaching which comes from Satan (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, for example).

So: in the red corner, we have people who believe that marriage should be offered to same-sex couples equally, and withholding it is evil. In the blue corner, we have people who believe that the definition of marriage should not be changed, and that any attempt to change it is evil.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The church has to choose what it regards as evil. Christians should hate what is evil (Romans 12:9). It is simply impossible to have two groups within the church who think the other side are actually evil and agents of Satan. It is not possible to walk together. The GS 2055 document is trying its hardest to maintain a traditional line on marriage while being as accepting as possible of those with the other view. But that’s just not possible. The document hasn’t satisfied anyone, because what it is trying to do is a logical impossibility.

How has the church managed to get itself into this position? The CofE seems to have lost its concept of holiness and righteousness. The attitude seems to be that God doesn’t really care about sin. “God’s all about love, he’s basically a nice sort of chap. He’ll probably let you into heaven.”

This is not the gospel, and this is the crux of the issue. At our chapter meeting the other day we were talking about the Church Growth Research report. One of the interesting things about that report is that there is a deafening silence when it comes to theology. It talks about everything else, but nowhere does it actually say what the gospel we should preach actually is.

Rather than spending time trying to do the impossible and reconcile two logically opposed groups, Synod would do far better to spend some time contemplating what the gospel actually is. It might help to spend some time thinking about some of Jesus’ words from the Mark’s gospel:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell 

Mark 9:44-47

Jesus tells us that sin is such serious business that it is even better to enter life maimed than be thrown into hell. Jesus came to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:21). Perhaps if the CofE really took this teaching to heart, it would be in a better position to evaluate what God considers to be evil.