Anthony Smith

This man enjoys math (anag.)

The parable of the sower, dramatised

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. … Then he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed…’ (Mt 13:1, 3, NIV, emphasis added).

Interesting… is Jesus, perhaps, acting out the parable as he tells it?

I think he might be.

The parable of the sower is about some people who hear but don’t understand (like the seed that falls on the path), and other people who hear and do understand (like the seed that falls on the good soil).

Jesus tells the parable twice: first to a crowd of people who won’t understand it (because he doesn’t tell them what it means), and then he re-tells it to his disciples, in such a way that they would understand it (because he tells them what it means). Between these two tellings of the parable, Jesus explains what he is doing:

The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ (v.10)

In other words, why do you speak to them using an obscure story without explaining what it means?

He replied, ‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’ (v.11-12).

By telling the parable twice, first to the crowd without explaining what it means, and then subsequently explaining it to his disciples, Jesus provides a clear demonstration of the truth the parable itself is intended to convey: that some people are given insight so that they understand the message about the kingdom, but other people are not; some people ‘have’, but other people ‘do not have’.

But why do Jesus’ disciples understand the parable, while the crowds do not?

Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you…

Understanding is a gift. Without that gift being given to us, we would not understand the message of the kingdom. Without God revealing the truth to us, we wouldn’t understand it (see Mt 11:25-27).

But why do we need to be given this understanding? Why don’t we understand it without needing it to be revealed to us? Jesus gives the answer, from Isaiah 6:

For this people’s heart has become calloused;
  they hardly hear with their ears,
  and they have closed their eyes (v.15).

It’s not that we don’t have enough evidence, but (whether consciously or unconsciously) we close our eyes to the evidence before us. The Pharisees in the previous chapter are an excellent example of that:

Then [Jesus] said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus (Mt 12:13-14).

Like many Christians, I can remember when I first understood the message of the kingdom. I had heard it week by week through my childhood, but I don’t think I had the faintest idea what it was all about. My eyes were closed, and my heart was hardened. But then, when I was fifteen, the Lord suddenly opened my heart to respond to the message of the kingdom (see Acts 16:14). Suddenly it was clear: Jesus had died for me, God loved me, and wanted me to follow him! How had I not realised it before?!

The parable is a reminder that the kingdom is growing according to God’s plan. He fills us with his Spirit and sends us out with the good news of the kingdom. Some people don’t understand it at all (the path), some people receive it at first but quickly fall away (the rocky ground), and some people’s faith is choked by the cares of this life (the thorns). But, by God’s sovereign grace, some people genuinely understand the good news (the seed sown on good soil) and then go on to bear much fruit. And that’s how the kingdom grows.

What if Jesus' body were still in the tomb?

What if I told you that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but that his body was still in the tomb?

Of course, you would cry out, ‘Heresy!’ And rightly so.

But I think that, for many Christians, it would make no difference. Let me explain.

Last time I invited you to imagine that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, but that he had not yet been raised. This time it’s different. Imagine that Jesus’ old body was still in the tomb, but that he had still been raised on the third day, with a brand new replacement body. Something like this…

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, and when they entered, they found the body of the Lord Jesus. But then they turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though they did not realise that it was Jesus.

He said to them, ‘It’s me, Jesus. That’s my old body there. But now I have a brand new body. Remember that discontinuity between the present creation and the new creation? Well, here it is. In the brand new creation you will have brand new bodies too. And those new bodies will be like your current bodies, but more glorious. Now go and tell my brothers that I have risen!’

What’s wrong with that?

For a start, it’s not what happened. Jesus didn’t receive a brand new body on Easter Day. The tomb was empty. It was his old body that was raised from the dead, was glorified, and was then taken up into heaven on Ascension Day. But what difference does it make?

I think many people would struggle to answer. Won’t this present creation be burned up? Won’t God replace it with a brand new creation? And in that brand new creation, won’t we have brand new bodies? So why should it matter if Jesus received a brand new body on Easter Day, and if his old body were still in the tomb?

I think it matters for two reasons (at least).

First, it matters in the same way that it matters that Jesus took upon himself our flesh and blood. Jesus didn’t simply appear to be human (a heresy known as Docetism), but he really did become human. And it is only as someone who is both divine and human that Jesus can enable humanity to share in the divine life. As Ben Quash put it in a recent feature in Church Times,

The key problem with the Arian outlook had been that only God saves; a Christ who is less than God cannot raise us to God. The problem with the Docetic outlook was that, unless God is bound to us (rather than looking at us across the fence), then we cannot be elevated to God either.

So if Jesus had retained our humanity only until his burial, and had been given a ‘replacement’ humanity in his resurrection, then at his ascension, it would only have been the appearance of our humanity that was exalted into heaven. It wouldn’t have been our flesh and blood, but a different flesh and blood that was seated in God’s presence. And that means that Jesus wouldn’t have been the saviour of humanity, but simply the pioneer of ‘humanity 2.0’, the brand new replacement version of this tired old humanity that we all endure.

But that’s not what happened. It is our flesh and blood that now sits in God’s presence. And this means that we can begin to enjoy the fullness of the divine life, even in our current bodies. With our flesh and blood at God’s right hand, our flesh and blood has become a suitable dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, who was poured out on the church on the Day of Pentecost.

Second, it matters that Jesus’ old body was raised, and not replaced, because it transforms our attitude to the present created order.

I once had an old pair of leather shoes with worn out heels. Rather than throw them away, I thought I’d take them to be repaired. So I took them to a cobbler, and asked him what he could do. ‘Don’t bother trying,’ he said. ‘They’re completely worn out. And if someone else says he’ll fix them, don’t believe him. You’ll have to throw them away and get a new pair.’

As you look at the world around you, I wonder what you think of it? It looks a bit worn out, doesn’t it? Not worth bothering with. Throw it away and start again!

In the resurrection of Jesus, God tells us what he thinks of that suggestion. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s decisive ‘Yes!’ to this old, worn out creation, and his decisive ‘No!’ to the idea of simply throwing it away and starting again. Jesus’ body is the first part of this old, worn out creation to be made new. And, as the firstfruits of the harvest, Jesus’ risen body is the guarantee that the whole of this old, worn out creation will be made new.

And just as it was with Jesus’ body, so it will be with our bodies. Those who die as Christians are described in the New Testament not as those who have ‘gone to be with the Lord’, but as those who have ‘fallen asleep’. This is why Christian burial grounds came to be known as ‘cemeteries’, from a word meaning ‘dormitory’. The body that is laid in the grave is the very same body that will be woken up to life again, and glorified, when Jesus once again appears on the earth. Whether that body was laid in the ground five minutes before Jesus returns, or whether the body has returned to dust and ashes, it is the same body that will be raised to life. (God can work out the details!)

So it matters how I treat my body now. The Corinthian Christians had the idea that their bodies didn’t matter, so they could do whatever they liked with them. Some of them were indulging in sexual immorality as a consequence. To them, what mattered was the soul or the spirit; the body was immaterial (so to speak). But this is how Paul responded:

The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also (1 Cor 6:13b-14).

This body that I have now will be raised from the dead, and it will be a part of the renewed creation. So it matters, and I mustn’t mistreat it. God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead, and he will raise us also. It matters what we do with our bodies.

And then, more broadly, Jesus’ old body being raised means that this world matters. Whatever we are doing in life, in this world, it matters to God. Nothing is destined for the scrap heap. If we are working to make the world a better place, on a small scale, or on a large scale, that is worth doing. It’s not going to be a waste of time. This world matters to God.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).

Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes a comparison between Jesus and Adam. Adam was created to exercise dominion over this world, but that all went horribly wrong. So now God has sent his Son as the new Adam, to rule over this world. God is creating a renewed humanity in Christ. Those who are still in Adam belong to the old humanity. But those who are in Christ belong to the renewed humanity. In Adam, all die, but in Christ, all will be made alive. So, in Christ, and filled with his Spirit, we are labouring with him for the renewal of this creation, as we look forward to the day when the dead in Christ will be raised and glorified, when the whole of this creation will be renewed and glorified, and when God will be all in all.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

What if it were still Holy Saturday?

It’s Holy Saturday again, the day before Easter Day! (This time according to the Eastern church calendar.) But what if it were still the original Holy Saturday? What if the original Good Friday had been followed not by a single day, but by an extremely long ‘Holy Saturday’, continuing up to the present and into the future, and lasting until a grand ‘Easter Day’, on which not only Jesus but all the dead will be raised? In other words, what if Jesus’ body were still in the tomb, and will remain there until the day when God ushers in his eternal kingdom? What difference would that make?

One answer would be to say that, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, we would have no way of knowing that the Friday on which Jesus died was in any sense ‘Good Friday’. There were lots of would-be Messiahs around at the time. All of them lived and all of them died without ushering in the Kingdom of God. A dead Messiah is a failed Messiah – especially if he was betrayed by his own people, and especially if he died a shameful death at the hands of the very Romans over whom he was supposed to triumph. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, we would have never even heard of him.

But is that an adequate answer? In order for us to know that Jesus was the Messiah, was it necessary for him to be raised from the dead?

I think not.

For example, it seems that certain things happened on Good Friday itself that did convince some people that Jesus was who he had claimed to be:

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’ (Mt 27:54, all quotes from the NIV)

But, more fundamentally, could God have not vindicated Jesus in some other way? What if the disciples had all seen visions? What if God had spoken to them, and explicitly told them that Jesus’ death had paid for our sins? What if God had sent a mighty angel to announce the good news: that if anyone puts their trust with Jesus, their sins will be forgiven, and that, together with Jesus, they will share in the resurrection when God brings in his kingdom? What if this message had been accompanied by many signs and wonders? Would that not have been enough to convince us? Clearly it would.

So why raise Jesus from the dead? Surely there must have been a reason?

Perhaps the answer comes when we think about what it would be like to have Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem. Can you imagine the conflicts and superstitions that would have resulted from that! Perhaps it was necessary for Jesus to be raised, in order to free us from the burden of keeping his body safe?

But this answer won’t do either. Think of Moses’ body, for example:

[The Lord] buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt 34:6).

If God had wanted to hide Jesus’ body from us, he could have simply done exactly that. The women could have found the empty tomb, and the angel(s) could have told them that Jesus’ body had indeed been taken away, as Mary Magdalene had initially assumed (Jn 20:13).

So where does that leave us? Why did God raise Jesus from the dead? It wasn’t (primarily) to convince us that Jesus death had paid the price for our sins and that he was indeed the Messiah; that could have happened just as easily with angels, visions, messages, signs and wonders. Nor was it (primarily) to prevent Jesus’ body from being subjected to inappropriate devotion or abuse; God could have easily hidden Jesus’ body, as he did with Moses’ body. So why did God raise Jesus from the dead?

The answer comes when we think about the significance of the resurrection of the dead.

Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time were looking ahead to the day when all the dead would be raised. Martha is an example of this:

‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’

Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ (Jn 11:22-24).

They realised that death was an enemy in God’s good creaton, and that one day God would ‘swallow up death for ever’ (Is 25:8), that the dead would be raised, and that God would fill the earth with his glory. So, for these Jews, the resurrection was the sign of the arrival of God’s eternal kingdom.

Jesus himself spoke of ‘this present age’ and of ‘the age to come’ (Mk 10:30, etc). And the resurrection of the dead was the sign that the ‘age to come’ had begun. It’s not insignificant that all four gospels describe Jesus’ resurrection as happening on ‘the first day of the week’. Jesus’ resurrection is the ‘eighth day’: the first day of the new ‘week’, and the first day of the new creation. Even while ‘this present age’ continues, ‘the age to come’ has dawned. We now live in the ‘overlap of the ages’ – in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’.

Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection as the ‘firstfruits’:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:20).

The arrival of the firstfruits means that the time of waiting is over, and the time of harvesting has begun. It signals a new era in how God relates to his creation.

After his resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Mt 28:18). This authority was demonstrated most clearly when Jesus was taken up into heaven, and was given the authority to do what only God could do: to pour out the Spirit of God into the world. As Peter said on the day of Pentecost:

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet”’ (Acts 2:32-35).

So Jesus’ resurrection has inaugurated a period of time in which God is putting everything under Jesus’ feet. As Paul expressed it:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor 15:20-25).

What does this look like in practice?

First, it means that many people who were God’s enemies will be brought to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. That day of Pentecost alone saw about three thousand converts (Acts 2:41), ‘And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved’ (v.47). Paul himself was eventually added to their number, and his account of his conversion in 1 Corinthians 15 seems to be an excellent example of one of Jesus’ enemies being put under his feet:

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Cor 15:9-10).

Second, the resurrection of Jesus, along with his exaltation and the outpouring of the Spirit, means that these former enemies of Jesus will bear fruit. In other words, the inaugurated ‘age to come’ is not characterised simply by Jesus being the ‘firstfruits’, but we share in that:

He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created (James 1:18).

Filled with the ‘firstfruits of the Spirit’ (Rom 8:23), we are then ‘rescue[d] from the present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) and enabled to bear fruit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

We then become living signs of the presence of God’s new creation:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5:17)

God’s purpose is for the present age to be ‘invaded’ by Spirit-filled agents of his new creation, eager to do what is good:

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:11-14).

So Christ’s resurrection is a call to confident and hope-filled action:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Gal 6:9-10).

Too often we live as though it was still Holy Saturday. Too often we live as though Pentecost hadn’t happened and as though God didn’t care about our good works. Too often we think of Jesus’ resurrection as nothing more than the proof that he is the Messiah and that his death paid for our sins. It is that. But it is so much more than that. It means that it is no longer Holy Saturday. The new creation has begun, all authority has been given to Jesus, God’s enemies are being transformed into his children, and Jesus is pouring out the Spirit of God into the world to bring healing and renewal to all nations.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Ten years of (non-)blogging

There have been lots of tenth anniversaries so far this year. 21 March was the tenth anniversary of Twitter. 21 March was also the tenth anniversary of the Archbishop Cranmer blog. 13 April marked ten years of the website. But the biggest celebration comes today, 24 April, which marks exactly ten years of blogging on this site. (Except that this isn’t a blog, of course, as I explained in my first three posts.)

Here’s how it all started:

Ceci n'est pas un blog

But this site has actually been going for much longer than that. It started its life as a few tasteless HTML pages, some time around the turn of the millennium, kindly hosted by Jesus College Cambridge when I was an undergraduate there. Then I bought the domain back in 2002, and kept things ticking over. It was ten years ago today that I switched over to WordPress (and then to Jekyll), and thus my blogging career began. Since then, I’ve written a massive 335 posts, which is, on average, just over one post every 11 days. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have read my posts over the last decade. I’ve also received an untold number of comments. In fact, it would be difficult to deny that this site fills a much-needed gap in the internet!

So here’s to the next ten years!

Watching the English

Watching the English, by Kate FoxA revised (2014) edition of this book had been released before I started reading the first (2004) edition. But I bought my copy years ago, and I’m sufficiently northern for it to be unthinkable to buy a second copy of the same book. Besides, the new edition added ‘about 150 new pages’ to the already lengthy first edition (424 pages in small print), and that’s quite long enough already.

Kate Fox considers herself a ‘maverick-outsider’ to academic anthropology, but seems to be fairly well regarded nonetheless. As co-director of the Social Institutes Research Centre (SIRC) in Oxford, she is ‘a social anthropologist and bestselling author of popular social science books’. ‘Watching the English’ has sold more than half a million copies, and it’s a fascinating and enjoyable read. It’s definitely opened my eyes to many aspects of what it means to be English.

The ‘core’ of Englishness, says Fox, is our acute social dis-ease (p. 401).

We suffer from a congenital sociability-disorder, a set of deeply ingrained inhibitions that make it difficult for us to express emotion and engage in the kind of casual, friendly social interaction that seems to come naturally to most other nations (p. 263).

As such, we are most comfortable in our own private worlds. So ‘home is what the English have instead of social skills’ (p. 134, 172), and interactions in public, such as on public transport, are governed by the ‘denial rule’, which ‘requires us to avoid talking to strangers, or even making eye contact with them, or indeed acknowledging their presence in any way unless absolutely necessary’ (p. 139).

This ‘social dis-ease’ is brought into tragically sharp relief by the realisation that the average Englishman

will have no difficulty at all, however, in engaging in lively, amicable conversation with a dog. Even a strange dog, to whom he has not been introduced. Bypassing the usual stilted embarrassments, his greeting will be effusive: ‘Hello there!’ he will exclaim, ‘What’s your name? And where have you come from, then? D’you want some of my sandwich, mate? Mmm, yes, it’s not bad, is it? Here, come up and share my seat! Plenty of room!’ (p. 235)

What possible hope do we have, particularly those of us who do not have a dog? The solution is our ‘ingenious use of props and facilitators’ (p. 239).

The English are capable of engaging socially with each other, but we need clear and precise guidelines on what to do, what to say, and exactly when and how to do and say it. Games [as well as social pursuits, pastimes, etc.] ritualize our social interactions, giving them a reassuring structure and sense of order. By focusing on the detail of the game’s rules and rituals, we can pretend that the game itself is really the point, and the social contact a mere incidental side-effect (p. 241).

This one of many examples of English self-delusion.

One of our main ‘reflexes’ to our sense of social dis-ease is our famous English humour.

Humour is our most effective built-in antidote to our social dis-ease. … Virtually all English conversations and social interactions involve at least some degree of banter, teasing, irony, wit, mockery, wordplay, satire, understatement, humorous self-deprecation, sarcasm, pomposity-pricking or just silliness (p. 402).

This is closely linked to our knee-jerk reaction to any hint of earnestness.

The taboo on earnestness is deeply embedded in the English psyche. … Key phrases include: ‘Oh, come off it!’ (Our national catchphrase, along with ‘Typical!’) (p. 402-3)

This is particularly apparent when it comes to our ‘woolly beliefs and noncommittal attitudes’ to religion.

We are not only indifferent but, worse (from the Church’s point of view), we are politely indifferent, tolerantly indifferent, benignly indifferent. … Other people are very welcome to worship Him if they choose – it’s a free country – but this is a private matter, and they should keep it to themselves and not bore or embarrass the rest of us by making an unnecessary fuss about it. (There is nothing the English hate more than a fuss.) (p. 355-6)

(I wonder whether there is a deep-seated aversion to genuine Christianity at the heart of our English values…?)

Many more topics are covered: the weather (of course), rules of conversation, work, play, dress, food, sex, and rites of passage, all tinged with our acute class consciousness. Well worth reading.

Whatever happened to congregational singing?

What follows is the text of a short talk I gave as part of my interviews for the Church of England (BAP). I’ve given it a title, but I haven’t otherwise altered it. So if it doesn’t quite read like a blog post, you know why…

Now I’m sure you’re all obsessed with rugby … perhaps! But even if you’re not, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that there’s nothing quite like a stadium full of rugby fans singing at the top of their voices, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’. There’s something about singing together that forms and binds a community.

Priests in the Church of England are called to lead God’s people in worship. And they can have an enormous influence over the way in which congregations sing. As they encourage the gifts of others, they can help congregations to sing in a way that binds the church community together and strengthens our faith in God. But the irony is that music is so often a cause of division.

Congregational hymn-singing in England, by W. T. WhitleyYears ago my grandfather gave me a pile of books about music. And one of them was this book from 1933: ‘Congregational hymn-singing in England’, by W. T. Whitley, who was the joint editor of the Baptist Church Hymnal.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with contemporary discussions about music and worship. But it’s really fascinating to step back into the past and to listen in on their conversations. I don’t think I’d appreciated that prior to the nineteenth century, congregations in the Church of England basically didn’t sing hymns.1 They sang metrical psalms. And I don’t think I’d appreciated how strong the tradition of metrical psalm singing was in the Church of England. Very few of these have survived; one example would be ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, which is a metrical version of Psalm 100.

And if you thought that it was only today’s congregations that are resistant to change, there was enormous opposition in many churches in the nineteenth century to the introduction of that new-fangled instrument, the organ!2

There’s a chapter at the end of the book by a different author3 talking about recent tendencies in congregational singing. It’s interesting to read what he says about the effect the surrounding culture was having on congregational singing. He picks up on two things. One is that children were having singing lessons in school. And this meant that church congregations were singing better. The other thing is that people were hearing more music, because of new technology, such as the radio and gramophone records. And this meant their musical tastes were becoming more refined.

And that made me think of today and our culture. We’re so used to listening to music. And this is really different to a hundred or two hundred years ago. Back then, if people wanted there to be music, most of the time they had to make it themselves. So people would be singing at home or in the factory or in the field. Singing was something people did together. But now, if we sing at all, we tend to sing along to things. We sing along to music in the kitchen or in the car, where no one can hear us, or we go to a concert and we either listen to the music, or we sing along but the music is so loud that we can’t hear our own voices.

So it seems that in our culture, except for rugby matches or community choirs, we’ve lost the joy of singing together.

And that’s affected our churches too. In all different traditions, people aspire towards the situation where they’re basically singing along to what’s going on up there. You either have a traditional choir, where anyone who has half a voice is way up there, and those who are left just mumble along. Or you have a worship band, where all the sound is coming through the PA system, and the congregation is just singing along inaudibly.

We’re so used to listening to exceptionally good music, that we don’t really like the idea of just a few ordinary people singing together.

But what I’d love to see in our churches is a sense that we’re not only interested in having fantastic music up there with us just singing along. But I’d love to see a greater value placed on the congregation’s singing. And I think that if we’re able to do that, we’ll see church communities bound together more strongly, and we’ll see people growing in their love for one another and for God.

We read in Colossians 3:16, ‘Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts’ (NIV).

  1. ‘The Church of England for many years did not use hymns for the congregation: anthems for choirs and psalms for the people provided the staple’ (p. 183).

  2. p. 201.

  3. Eric H. Thiman.

Dating Easter: a brief (and inadequate) guide

One of the outcomes of the meeting of Anglican primates in January was an agreement to work towards a fixed date for Easter. What’s that all about then? That’s what I’ve been wondering, and I thought I’d try to find out.

Disclaimer: I really don’t know what I’m talking about in what follows, as it’s all very complicated, so please take it with a large pinch of salt!

The day on which Jesus rose from the dead was, plausibly, Sunday 5 April, 33 AD. This was, simultaneously:

  1. the first day of the week,
  2. the day after Passover,
  3. the 16th day of the first (lunar) month of spring,
  4. the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox,
  5. the first Sunday after the first full moon after 21 March,
  6. the 5th day of April, according to the Julian calendar,
  7. the 3rd day of April, according to the Gregorian calendar, and
  8. the first Sunday of April.

So when should we celebrate Christ’s resurrection? Of course, the answer is ‘every day’! But, in terms of specific days, perhaps we should celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on…

  1. The first day of the week? The day of resurrection is the first day of the new creation. This is significant, and it makes Sunday into a weekly celebration of the resurrection. (Please don’t sing resurrection hymns on only one Sunday of the year!)
  2. The day after Passover? There are two problems here. First, Passover can fall on any day of the week, so we would lose the connection with the first day of the week. Second, the Jewish festival of Passover has become disconnected from spring, because the Hebrew calendar has, since the fourth century, followed a 19-year cycle of leap months, which doesn’t quite keep the lunar year in step with the solar year. As a result, Passover falls (I think) on average around a fortnight later than it did in Jesus’ time (compare this with this).
  3. The 16th day of the first (lunar) month of spring? In ancient times, they waited until the barley was ripe before they allowed the first month to begin (adding a leap month if necessary). So if we really want to maintain the link between Easter and Passover, then we ought to do it properly, and restore the link between Passover and spring at the same time!
  4. The first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox? 14 Nisan falls on a full moon, and around Jesus’ time this would have (usually) been the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This is almost the traditional date for Easter, except that the vernal equinox has been fixed at 21 March.
  5. The first Sunday after the first full moon after 21 March? This is the current definition of Easter. But according to which calendar? The Julian calendar was in use when the catholic (universal) church agreed on this date for Easter. But the Julian calendar was wrong! So when the Roman church (and eventually the world) switched to the Gregorian calendar, the Eastern churches were a bit miffed, because the Western church was acting unilaterally (again). So the Eastern churches still observe Easter according to the Julian calendar (1 May this year).
  6. The 5th day of April, according to the Julian calendar? I don’t think anyone is suggesting this (though if you were born on 5th April under the Julian calendar, and then the switch to the Gregorian calendar took place during your life, you would have continued to celebrate your birthday on 5th April under the Gregorian calendar).
  7. The 3rd day of April, according to the Gregorian calendar? This would strike us intuitively as being the ‘actual’ date on which Jesus rose. But it’s only the ‘actual’ date in relation to the earth’s motion relative to the sun. And that’s just as arbitrary as anything else.
  8. The first Sunday of April? There seems to be some momentum globally towards fixing Easter on a particular Sunday in April. (Interestingly, Archbishop Welby mentioned the second or third Sunday in April as the probable date at the meeting of primates mentioned above.) I can see the benefits of having a fixed date, though it does feel as though we’re forcing Jesus to fit into our ‘liturgical’ calendar of consumerist festivals and holidays. But I don’t think it’s too big a deal. Either we maintain the link with Passover, which means we don’t always celebrate Easter on a Sunday (and also that we either accept the ‘wrong’ date of Passover, or restore the link between Passover and the onset of Spring in Jerusalem), or we make some kind of arbitrary decision about when to celebrate Easter. And a fixed date to keep it close to the ‘actual’ date of the resurrection (according to the solar calendar) strikes me as not entirely unreasonable.

And that’s all for today. I’m sure there are many errors in what I’ve just written: please leave a comment if you spot one!

And remember: Easter lasts for 50 days, so may I wish you all a very happy Easter!

Christ is risen!

Revving up

The Church of England

Just a quick announcement to say that I’ve been given the green light to train for ordained ministry in the Church of England! The interviews (the ‘BAP’) took place three weeks ago, but I thought I’d wait until after this morning’s meeting with the bishop before saying anything here.

It’s been quite a lengthy process to get to this point: I first had a meeting with the Diocesan Director of Ordinands in February 2014. On the whole it’s been a very beneficial experience, though not without one or two bumps in the road. But in the end I seem to have emerged with a very strong recommendation from the BAP, which is quite a relief!

The next step towards becoming a vicar is to find a college to train in, starting in September…

Twenty years of following Jesus

“Weren’t you going to go to that thing at Christchurch?”

It was twenty years ago today, but I remember it vividly. I’d just ensconced myself in front of the television for some prime-time Saturday viewing, when my mother gave me that reminder. I’d recently started going to a vibrant Christian youth group called Youth Challenge, run by the Hitchin Church of God (now Hitchin Christian Centre: HCC), and they were holding a special youth service at a local Methodist church. So I left Noel’s House Party behind (or whatever I was watching), and tootled down the hill.

I was 15 at the time, and something of a superficial Christian. I had been in church services most weeks for all of my life, but by the time I was ten years old I was a firm atheist and boldly maintained that this religious stuff was a load of nonsense. But I kept going to church, mainly because I really enjoyed singing in the choir. As time went on, part of me wanted to believe: I thought it would be nice to have some sense of purpose in my life, and I wanted to carry on in church music, which is (perhaps) easier if you have some sympathy for Christianity… So I tried to believe, and even got confirmed when I was 13. But, on the inside, I don’t think I was any different.

A friend took me along to a lunchtime club that a minister from HCC ran in my school. That friend soon abandoned me, but I kept attending. After a while I realised that lots of my friends went to HCC’s midweek youth group — friends both from my own church, and from my school. So I asked that minister if I could come along, and he seemed open to the idea!

So, a month or so later, I found myself at that youth service on 2 March 1996. There seemed to be lots of people there, and the singing was more exuberant than I had experienced before. (I recall the songs including ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord’, ‘We want to see Jesus lifted high’, and other old classics that weren’t so old back then!) The preacher was one of the Youth Challenge leaders, Matt Summerfield, and his text was Luke 9:23: ‘Then he [Jesus] said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”’ He encouraged us to commit our lives to God, and I did so, out of a real sense of God drawing me to himself.

And so it began! When I was a baby, my parents and godparents declared, on my behalf, that I wanted to follow Jesus. Then, when I was confirmed, I declared that with my own lips. But it had to wait a couple more years for my heart to catch up.

So now, two decades later, by the grace of God, I’m still excited to be following Jesus. Lots of things have changed (though I still feel that I haven’t mastered the basics), and it’s been a deeply rewarding journey so far. As I leave my spiritual ‘teens’ behind, I want to look back on that day, to give thanks to God for what he did then, and what he has done since, and to look forward to the next decade, and all that may lie ahead… but that’s the subject of a future post!

Calvin on providence

Calvin is perhaps best known for his teaching about predestination, free will and providence. We’ve reached the final chapters (16-18) of Book I of his Institutes, which provide us with his treatment of providence. (Free will is bound near the start of Book II, while predestination, at the end of Book III, brings us into the church, which is the theme of Book IV.)

Last time I described Calvin’s approach to the subject of angels and devils as scriptural and pastoral. I think the same headings will be appropriate here.

First, Calvin’s doctrine of providence is scriptural. It is difficult to deny that the Scriptures plainly teach concerning God that ‘nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination’ (I.xvi.6). That’s not to say it’s impossible to deny: many people have tried! But it’s certainly not easy to dismiss Calvin when he backs up his claims with verses such as these (quotes from the NIV):

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
    their starry host by the breath of his mouth (Ps 33:6, see I.xvi.1).

For in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28, see I.xvi.1, 4).

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Mt 10:29-30, see I.xvi.1, 2, 5).

All creatures look to you
    to give them their food at the proper time (Ps 104:27, see I.xvi.1).

Our God is in heaven;
    he does whatever pleases him (Ps 115:3, see I.xvi.3).

I will send you rain in its season (Lev 26:4, see I.xvi.5)

The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish (Dt 28:22, see I.xvi.5).

Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own;
    it is not for them to direct their steps (Jer 10:23, see I.xvi.6).

To humans belong the plans of the heart,
    but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue. …
In their hearts humans plan their course,
    but the Lord establishes their steps (Pr 16:1, 9, see I.xvi.6, xvii.4).

Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, … (Ex 21:12-13, see I.xvi.6).

The lot is cast into the lap,
    but its every decision is from the Lord (Pr 16:33, see I.xvi.6).

No one from the east or the west
    or from the desert can exalt themselves.
It is God who judges:
    he brings one down, he exalts another (Ps 75:6-7, see I.xvi.6).

Now a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea (Num 11:31, see I.xvi.7).

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up (Jon 1:4, see I.xvi.7).

Children are a heritage from the Lord,
    offspring a reward from him (Ps 127:3, see I.xvi.7).

Give us today our daily bread (Mt 6:11, see I.xvi.7).

He gives food to every creature (Ps 136:25, see I.xvi.7).

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away (Job 1:21, see I.xviii.1).

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen (Acts 4:27-28, see I.xviii.1).

Given those verses, and many more like them, it is difficult to think of anything over which God is not sovereign.

Second, Calvin’s doctrine of providence is pastoral. In Calvin’s eyes, there is nothing remotely cold, harsh or unattractive about providence. Instead he derives great comfort from it. Providence leaves us not as slaves to Fate’s blind, pitiless indifference (to borrow a phrase), but places us firmly under the care of our loving heavenly Father:

What else can we wish for ourselves, if not even one hair can fall from our head without his will? (I.xvii.6)

Being aware of this gives us great assurance in all circumstances:

Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow from this knowledge (I.xvii.7).

Of course, this doesn’t mean we always understand why God has brought about any particular set of circumstances, which may appear random and meaningless to us. Quoting Augustine,

[P]erhaps … we call a ‘chance occurrence’ only that of which the reason and cause are secret (I.xvi.8).

I’ve certainly found this doctrine to be immensely comforting for me personally, and I commend Calvin’s words to you:

In short, not to tarry any longer over this, if you pay attention, you will easily perceive that ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it (I.xvii.11).

Much more could be said. Calvin addresses various difficult questions (such as how God can decree that Judas will act sinfully by betraying Jesus, and still hold him accountable for his actions), but, both in the interest of space, and also because I don’t feel I’ve sufficiently ‘tuned in’ to Calvin’s wavelength to be able to summarise what he says, I will, providentially, detain you no longer.