Monday, 27 August 2012

Saving Paradise, Greenbelt-style

Maybe there are a lot of tulips in Paradise. Perhaps the relative size of things differs there, like the size of reputations. The first shall be last and the last first. And the Lord said 'Behold, tulips will  be bigger than people. Blessed are the tall red flowers, for they shall bring much joy, taking people's mind off the mud.'

The theme at this year's UK Greenbelt Festival was Saving Paradise. You can tell a lot from a strap line and Greenbelt does some good ones - recently we've had: Dreams of Home (2011); Heaven in Ordinary (2007); Standing in the Long Now  (2009) and perhaps my favourite, from 2010: The Art of Looking Sideways. Are they due merely to clever artistic types being a little bit alternative, in a nice middle class sort of way, or do they actually mean something?

The strap lines from Greenbelt increasingly reflect its vision that the whole earth is the arena for God's activity; that the gospel compels us to engage global inequality, human rights, climate change, culture and the poor. All the strap lines quoted above play with themes of 'the here and now' and 'the then', when God will renew the face of the earth and bring justice and peace. Paradise is clearly lost. Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden. But this is not the end of the story. How we live in the interim and what the death and resurrection of Christ have to do with it all, has been the stuff of debate amongst Christian people for centuries. 

But there's a bit more to this year's strap line, in that Saving Paradise is the title of a recent book (2008) by two American theologians, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebeccca Parker (right)
who made an astonishing discovery when they set out on a five year pilgrimage to document early Christian art in the churches and catacombs of Mediterranean Europe. What surprised them was that until the end of the first Millennium Christ is depicted primarily as the risen One, involved in this life, as baby, infant, man, shepherd, teacher and healer. Paradise is close at homeOnly at the turn of the Millennium does he begin to be depicted as the Crucified One, and themes of torture, death and martyrdom point people beyond this world to the next, and, for the Crusaders, appear to sanction bloodshed in his name. This world may be going to hell in a handcart, but no matter: God will welcome us into the next. We are heaven bound, no matter what happens here. Paradise is not here but in the next world. When you're mainly concerned about the next world, it doesn't take too much imagination to conclude that this world is not so important. What we create here (art, writing, dance, music) is of limited value. In addition, 'You will always have the poor amongst you', said Jesus; so tell them the gospel; at least they'll go to heaven when they die, despite having been starving in this world...

Complex themes. We walk a tightrope in faith. 'Set your minds on things which are above, not on things that are on earth', says Colossians. Yet all the great movements of the Spirit have raised up Christians to make a difference here and now on this earth. How can you make a difference if you eschew this world and think only of a Paradise that is to come?

And so Saving Paradise neatly sums up the ongoing sea change in British and American Evangelicalism. Dallas Willard; Brian McClaren; Rob Bell; Shane Claiborne; and in the UK, Steve Chalke and NT Wright, have all pointed to how we need to live in the here and now; bringing heaven to earth, alight with a vision of a Jesus who is teacher, example and ideal human, not just a crucified Saviour who guarantees us a ticket to Paradise when we die. 

And so the net widens. At Greenbelt you will come across Christians engaged at all levels in 'saving paradise': stewarding the earth; fighting injustice; rediscovering spiritualities for every taste in recognition of the diversity of a questioning 21st Century Christianity.

Where it will lead......? 
Who knows. 
What exactly is our part in 'saving paradise?' What is God's part?

For further thoughts and reflections on tulips in Paradise, over to you.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Unholy Communion

John 6: 51-58

51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ 53So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’

It's dark o'clock in a lesser known satanic backwater, and the ever wiley serpent is cooking up some trouble for those wretched humans who are hurrying and scurrying around on the earth, circa 30 AD.

Satan (to lesser satanic minion): Hey, you, we need to move fast. The Son of Man, that idiot  human who wouldn't follow me even though I promised him all the kingdoms; he's causing more trouble by talking about his body again.

Lesser satanic minion (groaning): Oh no...what now?!

Satan: Well, he's calling himself the bread of life or some such nonsense. It's looking bad.

Minion: That is bad...they like their bread down there. Kind of staple diet, isn't it? The Israelites went crazy for that manna stuff too. 

Satan: I know. Only good thing about that was they forgot God gave it to them and died in the wilderness anyway.

Minion: Yeh, what losers. But if this Son of Man guy is coming up with new bread jargon, what are we going to do? They all love him anyway - this'll just make it worse.

Satan: Yes, it may do...on the other hand, if I'm not mistaken, people are a bit hacked off about the extremes he's taking it too. I mean he appears to be saying he's going to give his body and blood for everyone. That's cannibalism isn't it?

Minion: Yes, frankly, even though I am a huge fan of all things evil, I'm appalled at this Son of Man bloke. I mean, common decency an' all's disgusting.

Satan: He is dangerous, there's no doubt. This sort of thing can spark revolutions. If it goes on much more we're going to have to see he is.... extinguished.

Minion: Yes Sir...would you like to me to incite the crowd? They're a pretty fickle lot you know.

Satan: That should do it. Then all this pious talk of self sacrifice will cease, and we'll be free of him for ever.

Minion: We need to make sure no one remembers the living bread talk - they might try and perpetuate it or something.

Satan: I've thought of that. How about we sew some demonic seeds amongst his followers?

Minion: How do you mean, Guv?

Satan: Well, if this body and blood business is important to him, perhaps we should make sure they can never agree on what he meant by it.

Minion: Oh, you mean like with those dimwits in the Garden of Eden - fell out over whose fault it was about the apple? That was amusing...

Satan: Precisely, but this time we'll come on stronger...I'm thinking of multiple factions down the centuries - people who claim they're following him but who are willing to denounce each other, maybe put each other to death, over how best to remember him...

Minion: Yes, maybe we could do it via the twisting of words again...Did he really mean his flesh, or was it just symbolic...that kind of thing...

Satan: Good one...surely he didn't mean we are really eating his flesh; it's just really is flesh underneath but it looks like bread...or don't need the bread, only faith...

Minion: I'm getting the picture...and they could claim that those who didn't agree with them were going to hell. I'm even picturing some bonfires for 'heretics'...of course each side would accuse the other of being that's quite a lot of bonfires...

Satan: Yes, and when they've had that 'Enlightenment' thingy and they've gone all tolerant and post-modern we can still keep them in different camps, distrusting one another and calling each other names, never able to agree in principle over who's saved and who's not.

Minion: That's absolutely brilliant. When do we start?

Saturday, 11 August 2012

I had a dream.

I had a dream. 

In my dream Britain was a place where the Union flag was displayed unashamedly and not commandeered for a racist cause.

In my dream ordinary people became famous for actually being good at something. 

We won things left, right and centre.

Sports commentators abandoned impartiality and jumped up and down gleefully and got emotional talking to brave losers.

In my dream the front pages of national newspapers were filled with inspiring photos of people achieving  greatness: jumping off boats in pure joy, sitting astride dancing horses, weeping during the National Anthem.

In my dream un-named  volunteers were valued for getting up at 3am to travel to the
capital and smile and say 'Have a nice day'.

In my dream people chatted to each other on the Tube. Unusually helpful signage told you how to get to your destination.

Flower meadows flourished alongside state of the art venues that regenerated the inner city.

In my dream 'multiculturalism' was not a political war of words but real faces and stories - people from many ethnicities who were proud to make their Britain 'Great'.

In my dream women achieved as much success as men with a remarkable lack of glass ceilings.

In my dream C list celebrities, reality TV and talent shows were absent. Instead Champions were those who overcame childhood asthma and difficult beginnings as refugees.

In an incredible twist to my dream, the Queen made a spectacular film début; a handful of non embarrassing younger royals cheered other people on and Andy Murray won at Wimbledon. 

It was a wonderful dream. 

I did not want to wake up from it.

Saturday, 4 August 2012


'Jesus said to them: 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'

What are you hungry for?

Olympic gold medals is the answer uppermost in Team GB's mind at the moment. (And we netted two in a short space of time this morning at the Dorney Lake rowing finals...SMILE).

Hunger comes in many guises.
It may be that addiction (to alcohol, drugs or approval) is a result of unmet hungers.

There's plenty about hunger in the gospels. Hunger for signs, hunger for proof that Jesus was Messiah, hunger for acceptance, for love and forgiveness, for healing, for blood.
Some hunger is legitimate (we all hunger for wholeness) but some is identified by Jesus as misdirected.

In John 6 we follow on from the feeding of the 5000 and the miracle of the walking on the water. And everyone has heard about the amazing miracles. They're hunting for Jesus. Jesus rightly says that they are searching for him because they ate their fill of the miraculous loaves and fishes and they're thinking along the lines of his first temptation: 'If this man can feed the world, all our problems are over...' 

However, 'man does not live by bread alone...' This he points out to them in his allusion to the manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness. It was not that Moses was a super hero; the manna pointed to the faithful provision of God for his people. Messiah is the ultimate fulfilment of this.

The misdirected hunger of the people highlights the age old debate between evangelism and social action. What is the gospel? How wide is its remit? Is it about feeding the hungry with bread or pointing them to heavenly sustenance? We would surely be hailed as saviours if we could multiply bread the world over and solve for ever the problem of hunger. But even if it were possible, would it be responsible?

In the heavenly/earthly feeding debate Jesus appears to come down on the side of heavenly feeding at first: 'do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you' (John 6: 27a).

But we set this alongside Christian activists like Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day who devoted their lives to direct action for the poor. To them being totally alongside the poor was not just a prerequisite to preaching the gospel but was the absolute heart of it.

As John 6 progresses miraculous 'works' are still on the mind of the crowd. 'What must we do to perform the works of God?' (verse 28). Jesus' answer seems so simple: the main 'work' is belief: 'Jesus answered them, 'this is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent.'

So is Jesus finally coming down on the side of belief over action?

Yes, but belief is the same word in Greek as faith. To believe in the Son of Man is to have faith in him, to trust him, to build your life upon him. If we truly believed in Jesus we would very soon be the church he wants us to be. Belief leads to action. If the people of God are not totally tied up with Jesus, building their whole lives upon him, the outside world will never recognise him. All hungers we encounter - for authenticity, for meaning, for love, for acceptance, for status, are an expression of the human hunger for the eternal and incorruptible. 

As it says in the liturgy, Jesus is the 'living bread, in whom all our hungers are satisfied' (Prayer G.) Jesus, always a master at the symbolic, tells would be followers that the bread of God is 'that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.' Teetering on the brink of a final answer to their questions, Jesus' hearers have been led expertly through the dialogue to a similar point as the Samaritan woman by the well...'Sir give me this water...'

'Sir, give us this bread always...' (verse 34).

And so...'I am the bread of life...' ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς

Another 'ego eimi' (I Am) saying, pointing to his oneness with the Father, the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Messiah.

What are the hungers in our lives?

What do we hunger for in the church?

More people, yes. More money, yes. More events perhaps, so people can say 'That's a lively church.'

It's good to want these things, but let's refocus by hungering for Jesus.

If we're hungry for Jesus we will put everything aside to spend time with him, to try and listen to his voice and read his word. We will love those whom he loves and we will be drawn to others who are not like us, for his sake. Imagine the kind of person who is least like you in the church family...that is the person Christ is calling you to love. And that's just in the church...

This will involve some sacrifice. Generally our lives are filled with such good things, none of them wrong in themselves, that we only really want Jesus as the icing on the cake.

But he's not the icing. Icing is sweet at first, but then sickly and unsatisfying. Bread on the other hand is wholesome, filling, necessary every day, and smells wonderful

It's only when we recognise that we do tend to use other things to satisfy our hunger, that we realise he is not at the centre. The centre of the Christian church is not the perfect Chrsitian family, or perfect liturgy, or rousing music, or social programmes or even mission. It's Jesus Christ, broken for us and raised to life again.

In Jesus all our hungers are satisfied. We feed on him today and together we encourage each other to put him back at the centre of everything.