Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Gospel partnership

Life as a UCCF staff worker means that you meet a whole lot of different people in a whole lot of different places.

This week has been no exception. Yesterday at Myerscough College, we had the first of the Glad You Asked lunchtime discussions - all but one of the students were FE-based, 16-years old, and doing either horticulture or landscape gardening. At the other end of the spectrum, today I had a very productive meeting in his palace with the Bishop of Carlisle, Graham Dow, regarding the possibility of appointing a Cumbria staff worker from next summer.

Particularly, I've been struck by how wonderful it is to stand with other Christians from many walks of life as we seek to proclaim the gospel on campus. So far this week I've been partnered in my own ministry by Ruth (my team leader), Zac (my team mate), Sarah and Nick (Relay Workers), Marcus and Edd (from a local church in Lancaster), Don and Steve (wonderful chaplaincy volunteers at Myerscough), Bishop Graham ... and a whole bunch of students on several university campuses. I've been struck again by how God calls each Christian to use their gifts to build up the body. It's a privilege to be part of what God is doing in his world as each one uses their gifts.

Monday, 22 October 2007

"Only let us live up to what we have already attained..."

As some of you will know, I've been listening through a sermon series on Philippians. Yesterday I thought a bit further about 3:16: 'only let us live up to what we have already attained.'

I think I'd always thought that this verse was saying something similar to a sentence Paul uses elsewhere: 'live a life worthy of the calling you have recieved'. However, having looked at this passage in a bit more detail, I now wonder if Paul is addressing what's know by theologians as an under-realised eschatology, that is, not appreciating the blessings that a believer has already received.

In 3:10-11, Paul says that he wants to 'know Christ' better - not to know more about him, but to know him better. This comes as we walk the path of Christ, growing in intimacy with him as we take the path of humility and suffering (which Paul has already described in 2:6-9), and trusting in God the Father to glorify us in our resurrection, just as he did Christ. It's when we're confident of our future resurrection that we can give ourselves wholly to serving others in humility, and it's through doing so that we know Christ better.

Paul confesses that he still has a long way to go (3:12) and so he presses on to receive more of that for which Christ took of him: ultimately, to know Christ and live for him. This is what he strains towards, and which he will receive in fulfilment in the new creation.

And so, Paul says, 'let us live up to what we have already attained'. Let us live out the relationship with Jesus that we've already got. Let us continue to experience what it means to live every day with Jesus. He is everything that we need, and knowing him is the goal of our salvation. So let's experience the intimacy of living for him.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Gospel vs. religion

I was rooting through some paperwork from the last couple of months and found some seminar notes from Forum. In the seminar, led by Tim Rudge and Alison Williams, we were helped to contrast 'religion' with living in the light of the gospel of grace. I found it really helpful and so I thought share it here.

I obey therefore I am acceptedI'm accepted therefore I obey
Motivation is based on fear and insecurityMotivation is based on grateful joy
When circumstances in my life go wrong I am angry at God or myself since I believe that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable lifeWhen circumstances in my life go wrong I struggle, but I know my punishment fell on Jesus and while he may allow this for my training, he will exercise his fatherly love in my trial
When I am criticised I am furious or devastated because it is critical that I think of myself as a 'good person'. Threats to that self-image must be destroyed at all costsWhen I am criticised I struggle, but it is not critical for me to think of myself as a good person. My identity is not built on record or performance but on God's love and Christ's performance for me. I can take criticism - that's how I became a Christian
My prayer consists largely of petition; it heats up when I am in time of need. My main purpose in prayer is to control my environmentMy prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. I enjoy fellowship with him
My self-view swings between two poles. If and when I am living up to my standards, I feel confident. Then I am prone to be proud and unsympathetic towards failing people. If and when I am not living up to those standards, I feel like a failure and am full of self pityMy self-view is not based on a view of myself as a moral achiever. In Christ I am 'saved yet sinning still' - simultaneously sinful yet accepted in Christ. I am so bad he had to die for me, but I am so loved he was glad to die for me. This leads me to deeper humility and confidence at the same time. I am neither swaggering nor snivelling
My identity and worth is based on how successful I am, how hard I work, being right etc. This leads me to disdain those who appear weaker than me, or need to be accepted by those who perform better than I doMy identity and worth are based on the one who died for his enemies, who was excluded from the city for me. I am saved by grace alone. So I cannot look down on those who believe or pracrice something different from me. Only by grace I am what I am. I don't have to win any arguments
Since I look to my own pedigree and performance for my acceptibality, my heart manufactures idols. It may be my talents, my moral record, my personal discipline, my social status etc. I absolutely have to have them, so they serve as my main hope, meaning, happiness, security and significance, whatever I might say about what I believe about GodI have many good things in my life - family, work, spiritual disciplines, etc. But none of these things are ultimate things for me. None of them are things I absolutely have to have, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness and despondency they can inflict on me when they are threatened or lost

Friday, 19 October 2007

Evangelists' conference audio now online

Last week I attended the Northern Evangelists' Conference in Leyland. The audio of the plenary sessions from the conference, given by Tim Keller, are now online here. It's well worth downloading.

I was particularly struck by one point that Dr. Keller made in his final talk. This was that a necessary thing for real church growth is a radical grasp of grace. It's grace which converts nominal Christians and 'wakes up' sleepy Christians to the fact that we're accepted by God through no merit of our own in any way. When a church starts to realise this, then 'religious' unbelievers are challenged with the truth of the gospel, and then those who falsely think that Christianity is just a series of rules begin to realise nature of the true gospel of grace.

Since the conference took place, I've unexpectedly had the opportunity to meet and study the Scriptures with a couple of lads who are both churched and both 'religious'. Yet it's already become evident that neither of them have grasped the essence of Christianity. They are trying to be Christianity but have no spiritual life (something I wrote about a few weeks ago here). I'm excited and prayerful that these young men might come to know the reality of grace in their lives, and that in turn this might impact the lives of others too as they see the difference it makes.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

"Greater things than these"

I got slightly flummoxed (great word, huh?) following a question at the first Bitesize session at the University of Cumbria Christian Union (Lancaster campus). The question ran something like this, 'Jesus calmed the storm with a word, raised the dead and fed 5000 people with a packed lunch - and yet he said that we'd do greater things than these. How do we make sense of this?'

I've had a thought about this over the past couple of days and this is my thinking so far.

The verse that the questioner was alluding to is John 14:12, where Jesus says: "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."

Some points to make:

1. The context of this verse within John's Gospel. In John 13-17, Jesus is teaching within the light of his immiment death on the cross, resurrection and ascension into heaven (see especially 13:1 and 14:1-4). Although this will be sad for the disciples, Jesus will have achieved the very reason he was sent into the world by the Father. Indeed, Jesus' return to the Father will be good, as the new age of the Spirit surpasses the time of Jesus' own physical time on the earth.

2. The more immediate context of this verse follows Philip's statement in 14:8, where he asks Jesus to show the disciples the Father. Jesus' answer is staggering. He is the revelation of the Father (verses 9-10). Jesus' words and his miracles provide evidence that his claim to have been the revelation of the Father to be true.

From these observations we can make two points:

a. The 'greater things' will happen because Jesus is going to the Father i.e. presumably because, following Jesus' ascension, the Spirit will come to the disciples.

b. Jesus' teaching about the disciples' 'greater things' is in the context of his own teaching about people understanding his identity, as the revelation of God the Father.

Within the overall context of John's Gospel, then, it seems to me that the 'greater works' that Jesus is talking about is linked with teaching and doing things that reveal Jesus to be the revelation of the Father.

As to what these greater works are, I think both history and theology would show that these things can't be 'greater' than some of the miracles that Jesus performed. They were unsurpassable and part of his Messianic identity. It appears far more likely that Jesus words applied temporally to the context in which he said them. Remember that these words occurred before the passion narrative and before his resurrection. The best 'fit' of what these words mean in the light of the evidence is that the disciples (and believers today) can point to Jesus' death and resurrection as the ultimate sign of his disclosure of the Father (the hour of his 'glory' in John's language) in the power of the Holy Spirit, thus seeing dead people regenerated.

I don't think that this interpretation of John 14:12 excludes the possibility that disciples of Jesus - both apostles then and Christians today - can't perform other miracles in Jesus' name. His name is powerful. I'm personally aware of a few examples of healing within friends, and even know one person who apparently raised another person that was clinically dead. However, the greatest miracle is still when people who are dead to God receive new life. Now we can point to Jesus' greatest work - his resurrection - as the greatest revelation of the person of the Father. And as people recognise Jesus for who he really is, he receives glory and brings glory to the Father above all other things. It's not that performing miracles in Jesus' name is bad - not at all! - but that these should always be with the ultimate aim of demonstrating Jesus' identity anyway.

Or as Colin Kruse puts it, 'The disciples' works were greater ... because they had the privilege of testifying by word and deed to the finished work of Christ, and the fuller coming of the kingdom that it ushered in. Jesus' earthly ministry prior to his death and resurrection foreshadowed these things.'

Friday, 12 October 2007

Not the God of merit

Sometimes you get the impression that God is trying to say something when it feels like every day you are hearing the same thing. That's something I've felt over the last few days.

I've been so fortunate to have spent the last few days thinking about, writing about and speaking about the God of grace, who does not treat us as our sins deserve through the cross of Jesus.

On Monday, I was writing a talk to give on Tuesday at Lancaster CU on the prodigal son and his older brother. The big point: grace cannot be earned, but is freely given.

On Tuesday, the UCCF North West team (of which I am a part) had an incredible overview of the whole of Mark's Gospel by Justin Mote. I was struck again by Mark's point in chapters 8-10: where we cannot help ourselves, the God of grace has intervened.

On Wednesday, I met up with several students who wanted to talk further about God's grace, following the prodigal son and older brother talk from the night before. And I had the joy of studying Colossians 1:15-23 with cell leaders at the University of Cumbria campus in Lancaster. Again, the big point: Christ has done it all, and by trusting in him you have everything.

Then yesterday, I was privileged to have attended the Northern Evangelists' Conference in Leyland, where Tim Keller expertly showed how it is the gospel of grace that changes the hearts of both moralists and relativists. In the evening, it was great to engage with God's word from John 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he can be part of the Kingdom of God only through a miracle of God's grace.

I think this week has shown me how prone I am to what Tim Keller calls 'older-brotherishness', the trap of obeying God for something more than just the relationship this represents. It's been so liberating to have been confronted and buffeted by the message of grace from all sides. It's been so amazing to remember that the God of the Universe is not the God of merit or the God of karma, but the God of grace who is drawing a people together to be his very own. He is the God who does not treat us as our sins deserve.

I was struck by the words of this simple song as I drove back from Preston:

Holy God in love became
Perfect man to bear my blame.
On the cross, he took my sin
By his death, I live again

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Book Review: Secret Believers

Secret Believers is a book that will leave you feeling a whole mixture of emotions.

I finished the book feeling excited about the furtherance of the gospel in the Middle East and the Islamic world, genuinely concerned about the welfare of our Christian brothers and sisters there and, above all, wondering how radical a Christian life I am really living.

Jesus called all Christians to come after him, to deny ourselves, to carry our crosses and follow him. I think it's quite easy to pay lip service to this sentiment. When life and death comes into the equation - as it does for so many of our brothers and sisters in the Islamic world - things become much more stark. I was particularly challenged by one section of the book where Brother Andrew writes this: 'Think about this: unless Christ returns first, we can be certain that we will die physically. If each of us will die, is it too much to ask God that he be glorified in our death? What is holding us back?' I think it is really easy to say that we'd be prepared to die for the gospel, but when the challenge is made directly, I have to ask: do I actually love Muslims enough to die for them and for the gospel?

I was also struck by the radical love that Brother Andrew calls Christians too, following very much in the footsteps of Christ. Radical Christianity is radical love. Oh for more - for the church in the West, and more for me. Again, I was struck by a sentence of the book where Brother Andrew relates a conversation he had with the leaders of Hamas. He said, 'You Muslims will never understand the message of the cross until we put into practice the challenge of Jesus to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow him.' Often I love myself much more than others. Please, God, change my heart and help me to love others more.

Secret Believers has a website - I'd recommend the book to any Christian - as I say, it's uncomfortable but the gospel is - and check out the website too. We are in a spiritual battle and, above all, the book has reminded me of the importance to pray.

Encouragements in unexpected places

It's been a great start to the year across Lancashire and Cumbria. It's been wonderful to see how much outreach to non-Christians has been going on across the campuses.

The highlight of last week was quite unexpected. My Relay Workers (Nick and Sarah) and I had been invited to do a stand outside the restaurant at Myerscough College, a former agricultural college about 15 miles south of Lancaster. We've done some CU work there in the past, but nothing much over the past academic year through lack of numbers.

We were quite amazed at the openness to the gospel we experienced at Myerscough. We asked each person that walked past to contribute to our 'question of the day', and this led into several deep and wide-ranging conversations. Many students took gospels away with them. Several students came back later in the week to chat further. Pray especially for two horticulture students who we chatted to for several hours across the time that we were there.

It was also encouraging to meet a student that I last saw a couple of years ago. He finished his course and left Myerscough but is now back there and studying again. He was considering the cost of following Jesus two years ago and it's been great to continue those conversations.

The next event at Myerscough is a 'Grill-a-Christian' panel on 16th October.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Who are you to do this?

I'm in the process of studying through John's Gospel with the Impact Group leaders at the University of Central Lancashire CU. Last time, we looked at Jesus' cleansing of the temple from John 2:13-25 - and it felt like Jesus walked right off of the page as we did so.

I guess the thing that really struck me was the Jewish leaders' reaction to what Jesus had just done. Old Testament Scripture evidently condemns the sort of actions that the priests were taking - 1 Samuel opens with God's judgement on Eli, whose crime was very similar to that off the priests that Jesus judged - and there's a whole series of prophecies from God throughout the OT the need for a cleansed temple.

Yet when Jesus comes and does something that is obviously so correct - restoring the temple to the purpose for which it is designed, the Jewish leaders' reaction is one of anger, not repentance. They demand to know on whose authority Jesus acts. Effectively they are saying, 'Who are you to do this?' Of course, in doing so, Jesus showed what was at the heart of their religion: not a humble walk with God, but an outward show of 'holiness'.

As we discussed this passage in Preston, we realised that man-made religion says the very same thing to Jesus. Legalistic Christianity and man-made religions alike deny the claim made by Jesus that we need a completely new heart, a complete change - and that outward actions alone are not enough. When we fall into thinking that our outward actions are enough for God, we too say to Jesus' death on the cross, 'Who are you to do this?'

Monday, 1 October 2007

Life in the battle

I'm sorry that I've been a little less regular in updates over the previous few weeks. I've been very busy with Freshers' activities across the campuses, which has been great - although something of a shock to the system after a fairly quiet summer.

There have been plenty of encouragements - particularly amongst individuals in Preston - and also a fair number of challenges. Of course, this is the nature of gospel-focused work: the gospel often produces a reaction - both amongst non-Christians, and also amongst Christians as the gospel continues to convict and change. It's a truism that gospel work produces more gospel work.

I've found it tempting to crave comfort and a quiet life over the past few days. I've had to remind myself that the gospel is true - in fact, it's public truth. I've also had to remind myself that the gospel of God is effective, and that his grace is sufficient in all situations. It's these things that keep us going in the spiritual battle, and ensure that we don't lose heart.