Cocktail theology! Something for the summer.

I don’t know how services start in your church, but I wouldn’t change, for the world, the first few lines of our liturgy (Common Worship – Order 1).

After having affirmed that we meet in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we hear, and assent, to the ‘Divine Offering’ as the President / Celebrant greets the congregation with:

‘Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.’

These words set the scene for the unfolding of the salvation story which is then, in word and sacrament, re-enacted week-by-week. 

We need to fully appropriate these words as a community, for what they are actually describing is nothing other than this:

salvation. 

Salvation is the free offering by God (hence ‘from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’).Salvation, it transpires, is offered in the here and now. Yes, the salvation story is perfected in the next life, when we join the ‘Communion of Saints,’ but as we begin to accept grace, mercy and peace in ‘real time’ we gain some understanding of the experience of eternity (equally if we reject grace, mercy and peace we also get a glimpse of eternity!).

Salvation is not a ‘thing’ or an event but a cocktail whose ingredients are grace, mercy and peace. But the ‘Divine Cocktail’ is the one drink that will never leave us thirsty, whilst paradoxically, always leave us thirsting for more.

But what are grace, mercy and peace?

Well, grace is nothing more that unmerited favour of God made known in and through Jesus. It is through Grace that sins are forgiven and, lives redeemed. The problem with Grace is that it demands humility, it focuses on mercy, rather than merit. Grace refuses to be impressed by mere human accomplishment! 

Mercy is the quality of enduring Divine compassion expressed through God’s covenant relationship with undeserving people (you and me!). Mercy is made real when, according to Thomas Merton, all falsehoods and pretences are shed, when we stop all acts of measurement, when human value (both of ourselves and towards others) is seen in absolute, rather than relative terms. Mercy always discounts material differences between human beings. Mercy is the Divine quality that confirms person-hood, merit is the human metric which ranks each and every individual. Christianity is not in the least bit concerned with merit – certainly not in relation to salvation.

Peace is the state of harmony, made freely available to all believers, through coming into right relationship with God and,neighbour. Peace cannot be reduced, in Christian theology, to feelings. How important is peace ? Extremely! Jesus instructed the 72 to say ‘peace be with you,’ as their first utterance. In the post resurrection encounters he always began by greeting the disciples with  ‘peace be with you.’ In the liturgy peace is the ‘repetitive offering’ (in the Greeting, before the Eucharist Prayer and in the words of the Dismissal). There is something about peace! Blessed are the peacemakers……

So salvation is offered each and every Sunday and, is characterised as shared grace, mercy and peace.

The offer we accept (salvation) at the beginning of worship subsequently  becomes the mission imperative, the cocktail to be offered, which we all assent to in the dismissal: ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,’…….’in the name of Christ, Amen.’

How seriously do you and your church take the Divine offering? What cocktail is your church offering?

 

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Romance is mission!

I have a funny relationship with the Loose Canon (Giles Fraser). There is something simultaneously annoying and irresistible about his reflections. I once told a friend they were a little like having a mouth ulcer; irritating yet you still can’t help but rub your tongue up against it. So it is with Giles’ weekly offering. But today, I thought he was spot on.

In making the case against assisted dying (NOT THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG – I HAVEN’T MADE MY MIND UP EITHER WAY) he stressed that Christianity is not so much concerned with individual autonomy as the entering into of a romantic relationship where ‘at their initiative without you having to dance or impress for it, they tell you you are cared for and loved in ways that you do not actually believe  (at a given moment in time – my addition) to be true.’ Furthermore, Fraser suggests, ‘Christianity is about making peace with a fundamental dependency.’ 

This is radical stuff – for one of the great, and untrue myths, of modern culture is that we are all autonomous and, achieve our highest level of being when we achieve independence. This is not only untrue, it’s out and out deception. We find our truest selves only in relationship, with others, and above all with God. This truth is not only temporal, its eternal.

So if we want to be a true missionary church, maybe we need to throw away ideas of independence. Maybe we need to stop being impressed by the veneer of success and autonomy and, perhaps, with Jesus we need to say to a desperately hurting world: ‘Come unto me all you who labour……’ You never know there may be more people suffering under the pretence of autonomy, independence and individualism than we can possibly count. We must reject all forms of muscular Christianity – let’s recapture a sense of ‘meekness.’

Do you and your church welcome all who labour (unconditionally)? What are you, and your church, impressed by? Is the spirit of romance alive and well in your church?

 

Pub theology: through the lens of Tesco, Richard Hooker and St. Benedict

About a year ago, subconsciously, a new form of ritual behaviour began.

After going to the gym, on my way home, I would stop off at Tesco (Buckingham) for a cup of ‘reasonably priced above average’ coffee. It proved to be a wonderful place to meet and greet. Interestingly our M.P. John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons no less!), was also frequently to be found in the cafeteria listening to the needs of his constituents.

Although we were in Tesco, it felt that we were meeting people in the ‘public square.’ The geography of the store helped foster this experience, as the cafeteria was situated directly behind the tills and, could easily be seen, as there was no physical boundary separating store from cafe. 

Sadly, the cafe and its staff have now been replaced.

We now have a coffee lounge, staffed by bright young things (and they are genuinely very pleasant), selling above average quality coffee at a premium price (£2:90 for a flat white compared to £1:20 for a white coffee). The architecture has completed changed; gone are the functional tables and chairs, in have come the leather and pine looking ‘eating and drinking hubs.’

Most depressing of all an attractively designed physical boundary now separates store from lounge. Coffee drinkers no longer need to see shoppers paying for their goods, still less punters walking to the lav!

It is much more civilized! Or is it?

For when we go large on demarcation (no doubt endorsed, and validated, by customer surveys) we somehow lose the sense of all being in it together. From a theological perspective the ‘chance’ for a real pastoral, or incarnational. encounter evaporates, perhaps? 

So my ritual has ended. I enjoyed a nice (ish) cup of coffee, today, and the opportunity for ten or fifteen minutes with the newspaper, but I missed the opportunity to smile at, and talk with, ordinary folk. I feel somehow ‘less priestly.’

Richard Hooker, 1554-1600, (the Scripture, tradition, reason man) is reputed to have written the following prayer:

‘I pray that none will be offended if I seek to make the Christian religion an inn (I love this metaphor and, the thought that custodians of Christianity might like to regard themselves as innkeepers) where all are received joyously, rather than a cottage where some few friends of the family are to be received.’ 

I agree with the ‘sainted Richard.’ I also think that the church faces two enormous contemporary challenges, the first of which is to become that inn (hospitality as mission). If other institutions insist on ‘customer segmentation,’ (a posh term for getting rid of people you don’t care about), the church must resist, This is the one area in which the church must be totally, unequivocally, counter cultural. 

Sadly, if we persist in our mission to become publicans, we will be rejected by certain ‘premium shoppers.’ Some of our current ‘members’ will prefer to eat and drink in the coffee lounges, bistros and plush wine bars. Cafeterias and pubic houses are not some peoples venues of choice.

Perhaps Saint Benedict (who the Church remembers this week – the 11th July) can offerrealism and comfort to all who aspire to become innkeepers: 

‘The greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and pilgrims, because it is them ABOVE ALL OTHERS that Christ is welcomed. As for the rich they have a way of exacting respect through the very fear inspired by the power they yield,’ (Chapter 53, Rule of Benedict).

Now, I am not suggesting that ‘the rich’ are all bad folk (clearly they / we aren’t), but I am suggesting that the church shouldn’t be impressed by wealth per se and, that the financially well off need to make sure that they remain poor in spirit, otherwise it is almost impossible to stand in solidarity with all people and that one way of expressing solidarity and love is by going down the metaphorical pub! 

So here are the challenges:

How comfortable are you with the metaphors of the inn and the innkeeper?

How do you feel about, potentially, losing some of your existing church members as the church becomes increasingly pub-like?

 

Pondering the Ministry of Healing (and curing)

Inspired by an excellent sermon on healing by my colleague Rev’d Jim Gorringe, a Methodist ‘by ordination’ but, an ecumenist ‘by inclination’, I thought I would offer a few brief thoughts on the Ministry of Healing.

It seems to me that the Church and its ministers are mandated to provide such a ministry. Why wouldn’t we want to in any case for surely healing testifies to love?

But, perhaps here is the nub of the issue: is there a difference between healing and curing and, do we frequently get the two mixed up?

Let’s start with some ‘definitions.’

Maybe the ‘molecular structure’ of healing is made up of reconciliation, to a particular circumstance or relationship plus, the potential for personal, spiritual and relational growth, irrespective of whether the symptoms of the ‘illness’ or ‘disability,’ persist.

Cure, by contrast, might be considered to be the removal, or reduction of, symptoms associated with the dis-ease. (Deliberate spelling mistake, as I am trying to stress a lack of ease / reconciliation). Using these two definitions we can see that:

It is perfectly possible to be healed without being cured

It is also perfectly possible to be cured without being healed!

However I suspect that the Bible allows us to identify two other theological truths:

Healing and cure are related but not necessarily synonymous

Healing may lead to cure and, vice-versa

Looking at the gospel stories it is easy to identify cases where people were cured by Jesus, without being healed. Think of the examples of individuals who experienced the complete removal of physical symptoms and were then instructed by Jesus to remain exactly where they were and reflect (do a Theore0) on the magnitude of their encounter with Christ. Sadly, despite being cured, their very next act was one of disobedience; cured yes, but, healed, definitely not!

Perhaps the best example is that of the ten lepers, all of who were cured, but only one of them was healed (Luke 11, 17-19). Listen to the words of Jesus to the one who returned to thank Jesus (go on try and imagine you really are listening to the words of Jesus!):

17 Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Jesus clearly makes the distinction between cure and wellness!

Why are we tempted to prize cure over healing? Three reasons I suspect:

First, cure seems somehow more dramatic, powerful, dare I say it, charismatic. We need to beware of reducing God to the ‘game show Lord,’ idolised because of what he does rather than worshipped for who he is.

Secondly, cure lets us off the hook. God has taken the initiative, we no longer need to! The requirement to love neighbour as we would like to be loved in a similar set of circumstances has been removed! We no longer need to offer practical love, walk the extra mile, visit the prisoner, give them our tunic etc! Bliss! 

Thirdly, because we find it difficult to recognise the image of God in the ill and disabled. If this is our perspective it becomes virtually impossible to see how an individual can grow and flourish through their illness or disability. Under this scheme we start over time to create an idealised picture (surprisingly, one that looks just like our selfie!) of what it means to be made in the image of God, leading to all manner of consequences for those on the receiving end of our ‘theological’ misjudgements. 

So as Christians lets focus on healing and not simply on cure, and where cure takes place lets try to make sure we act like with the one leper who was made well!

 

Finally a plug: for the last three years in collaboration with eleven friends I have been working on a project called Theonomics – its been hard work – our book, which seeks to examine how economic life, can be guided by faith / theology, is at the printers! The book contains some interesting reflections from Christians involved in a wide range of economic ventures. If you would be interested in purchasing a copy of the book please go to:

http://www.sacristy.co.uk/books/theology/theonomics

God bless, Andrew