Communion

Few Christian doctrines have caused as much trouble and confusion down the centuries as has the doctrine of communion. On the one side you have those who take a very literal interpretation of the words of Jesus when He said: “This is My body” and on the other you have those that take an allegorical sense of those same words.

As is always the case with any Christian controversy, a true understanding can only come about by combining an understanding given by the Holy Spirit to the words of the inspired Bible. It is that combination of the Spirit and the written word that leads us to the Word of God or Christ Himself in whom dwells all the riches of knowledge and understanding (see Colossians).

If we are ignorant of either one of these – either the Holy Spirit or the Bible – things can get quite confusing. Take as an example Proverbs 9: 1-6 and compare it with the same chapter verses 13-18. In the first section Wisdom calls out to the “Simple” and those “without understanding” and in the second section a foolish woman (Folly) does the same. Both have houses and both offer food and drink. Wisdom offers bread and wine and Folly offers bread and water. Wisdoms food and drink is her own. Folly’s is stolen from somewhere else.

We know from Proverbs 8 that Wisdom is personified by Jesus. It is His own body and blood He offers us – not something stolen from someone else. He paid a high price to give us the spiritual food we so badly desire.

However Folly gives us far more insipid fare. Proverbs 20:17 tells us that her food will turn to gravel in our mouths. Those who try to be satisfied with anything other than the body and blood of Jesus will be disappointed.

But have you seen what I did there? Here is a spiritual truth revealed through physical simple elements. The reality is not in the bread and wine or the water for that matter. The reality is in what they represent.

Psalm 139

O Lord, You have searched me and known.

You know my sitting down and my rising up.

You understand my thoughts afar off.

You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

For there is not a word on my tongue – behold O Lord, You know it altogether.

You have hedged me behind and before and laid Your hand upon me.

Knowledge too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot get it.

The Doctrine of the Crucified

18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside
.”

2Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29 so that no man may boast before God. 30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

(1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

Watch out if you are not foolish, base or despised! God is not likely to use you much or for long.

The following is not a statement from some obscure man from long ago. It is a command from God that we would do well to heed:

“I must decrease, He must increase.” (John 3:30)

When Paul was following Christ around Asia and being used by the Holy Spirit to plant churches he was particularly foolish. If you want to build anything in this world apart from Christ you don’t just go along to a place for a few weeks, appoint some obscure people as elders and then go off and abandon them. But Paul didn’t see things that way. He was just doing what the Spirit of Jesus was telling him to do and leaving the rest of it to Him. Sure, he prayed and wrote letters, all significant. But we don’t know who the elders are that he appointed in most of the churches. The emphasis wasn’t on the pastors or any individuals. The Holy Spirit was in control.

Greater Things

Paul said to some members of the church at Corinth that in effect “some of you are boasting as if you had power when you do not. The Kingdom of God is not in word but in power.” (1 Cor. 4:18-20).

It should be a matter of concern to us that our churches are so lacking in power.

Jesus wants us to be like He was on the earth. The church should collectively be out in the streets and public places speaking like Jesus and doing the things that he did: healing the sick (a lot), raising the dead (on at least a couple of occasions) and addressing the powers and authorities, especially religious ones, and calling out their hypocrisy. This needs to be done fearlessly but also in the Spirit of overwhelming, reckless love that Jesus passionately poured forth as our example.

Paul’s whole work was to establish local churches that could prepare and bring about this. It was his inspired answer to how to “make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt.28:20). It is a study in itself of how Paul understood this but just reading his letter to the Ephesians would give you enough to be excited about. In that letter Paul describes how the whole body is involved in church, each member doing its part in building it up until we all become like a mature Christ. He also describes there the role and authorities of what is commonly known as the five fold ministries, all of which should be operating: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. In 1 Corinthians 14: 26-40 he describes a format for a church meeting which enables these ministries to function in the church.

The goal of local churches should not be to reproduce themselves in some kind of pyramid scheme that in the end actually delivers nothing of any relevance to the nation they are in.

The goal of a church should be to ensure that Christ’s promise that “Greater things than these will you do.” (John 14:12) is fulfilled for all the disciples in their care.

(It is hard to imagine greater things than raising the dead but that only considers the word “greater” in the sense of “mightier”. I believe that at least one way Jesus intended the word “greater” to mean was in quantity and geographical spread. What Jesus did in Galilee and Judea, He wants His disciples to do all over the world.)

If all local churches produced disciples that were truly like Christ in every way (including with His power) then it is in this sense that “greater things” would be achieved. Being like Christ is to grow up in a local church and under its authority but eventually, at the right time, to be let loose on the world and behave like Christ did in the streets and villages of Galilee. This is not individuals being released one at a time to be devoured by the wolves of the world. This is flocks being released at once. This is sometimes called revival, or a move of God. In practice it should be an ongoing phenomenon.

And it is not as if this has not happened in the past. The Methodist movements of the late 18th century carried many of the signs of the church impacting the communities with Jesus manifest in all sorts of signs and wonders. The legacy was community changing and we feel its effects to this day. The reformation of the early 16th century showed similar Christ like people saying and doing similar things to Jesus in their communities. It arose spontaneously in at least 3 countries, affected thousands and changed the course of nations. The whole world is still benefitting from the reforms that the Spirit of God introduced at that time and under its influence through godly men and women into both churches and civil society. More recently Asian countries like Indonesia and China have seen Jesus move in power through His people. And those are only the ones we know about.

We are thinking in very small terms about our Almighty God if we think what we have seen in Ireland in the Evangelical / Pentecostal churches is all there is to being a disciple or to His Church “Awesome as an army with banners.” (Songs 6:4).

The best is yet to come.

Thoughts on Healing: Elisha

The middle of the night is a good time to hear things it seems. I woke up this morning remembering Elisha’s incident with the women of Shunem:

One day Elisha went to the town of Shunem. A wealthy woman lived there, and she urged him to come to her home for a meal. After that, whenever he passed that way, he would stop there for something to eat.

She said to her husband, “I am sure this man who stops in from time to time is a holy man of God. 10 Let’s build a small room for him on the roof and furnish it with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp. Then he will have a place to stay whenever he comes by.”

11 One day Elisha returned to Shunem, and he went up to this upper room to rest. 12 He said to his servant Gehazi, “Tell the woman from Shunem I want to speak to her.” When she appeared, 13 Elisha said to Gehazi, “Tell her, ‘We appreciate the kind concern you have shown us. What can we do for you? Can we put in a good word for you to the king or to the commander of the army?’”

“No,” she replied, “my family takes good care of me.”

14 Later Elisha asked Gehazi, “What can we do for her?”

Gehazi replied, “She doesn’t have a son, and her husband is an old man.”

15 “Call her back again,” Elisha told him. When the woman returned, Elisha said to her as she stood in the doorway, 16 “Next year at this time you will be holding a son in your arms!”

“No, my lord!” she cried. “O man of God, don’t deceive me and get my hopes up like that.”

17 But sure enough, the woman soon became pregnant. And at that time the following year she had a son, just as Elisha had said.

18 One day when her child was older, he went out to help his father, who was working with the harvesters. 19 Suddenly he cried out, “My head hurts! My head hurts!”

His father said to one of the servants, “Carry him home to his mother.”

20 So the servant took him home, and his mother held him on her lap. But around noontime he died. 21 She carried him up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, then shut the door and left him there. 22 She sent a message to her husband: “Send one of the servants and a donkey so that I can hurry to the man of God and come right back.”

23 “Why go today?” he asked. “It is neither a new moon festival nor a Sabbath.”

But she said, “It will be all right.”

24 So she saddled the donkey and said to the servant, “Hurry! Don’t slow down unless I tell you to.”

25 As she approached the man of God at Mount Carmel, Elisha saw her in the distance. He said to Gehazi, “Look, the woman from Shunem is coming. 26 Run out to meet her and ask her, ‘Is everything all right with you, your husband, and your child?’”

“Yes,” the woman told Gehazi, “everything is fine.”

27 But when she came to the man of God at the mountain, she fell to the ground before him and caught hold of his feet. Gehazi began to push her away, but the man of God said, “Leave her alone. She is deeply troubled, but the Lord has not told me what it is.”

(2 Kings 4:8 – 27)

One of the traps of any ministry is that you think you have to always perform, know all things, always be able to carry out the ministry. But that is not God’s way. Not only did Elisha not know what was wrong with his friend but even when he did, he entrusted the miracle to a corrupt man who couldn’t help her. The woman knew better than Elisha in this case: she didn’t trust Gehazi though Elisha apparently did.

28 Then she said, “Did I ask you for a son, my lord? And didn’t I say, ‘Don’t deceive me and get my hopes up’?”

29 Then Elisha said to Gehazi, “Get ready to travel[a]; take my staff and go! Don’t talk to anyone along the way. Go quickly and lay the staff on the child’s face.”

30 But the boy’s mother said, “As surely as the Lord lives and you yourself live, I won’t go home unless you go with me.” So Elisha returned with her.

31 Gehazi hurried on ahead and laid the staff on the child’s face, but nothing happened. There was no sign of life. He returned to meet Elisha and told him, “The child is still dead.”

32 When Elisha arrived, the child was indeed dead, lying there on the prophet’s bed. 33 He went in alone and shut the door behind him and prayed to the Lord. 34 Then he lay down on the child’s body, placing his mouth on the child’s mouth, his eyes on the child’s eyes, and his hands on the child’s hands. And as he stretched out on him, the child’s body began to grow warm again! 35 Elisha got up, walked back and forth across the room once, and then stretched himself out again on the child. This time the boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes!

36 Then Elisha summoned Gehazi. “Call the child’s mother!” he said. And when she came in, Elisha said, “Here, take your son!” 37 She fell at his feet and bowed before him, overwhelmed with gratitude. Then she took her son in her arms and carried him downstairs.

Elisha was used in astonishing ways. This account of him raising someone from the dead is the first of two, the second raising from the dead occurred after Elisha died!

But the lesson from this passage is that Elisha was very fallible and not a good judge of people it would seem. When we start being used by God it would be good to remember what we are.

Foolishness

The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Corinthians 1:25

Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.

A sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who answer discreetly.

Proverbs 26 v. 12, 16

Fools come in for a rough time in the Scripture. In Proverbs in particular they get a very bad press. There is a moral element to the definition of a fool in Proverbs that adds to the negativity of the word. Fools rage against all common sense, speak words of death and cause mayhem to those who employ them.

Yet the Scripture says there is more hope for a fool than for someone who is unteachable (wise in their own eyes). And even worse is someone who is lazy and unteachable. Wise people will answer discreetly in the presence of this kind of person. The wise recognise that there is no point in confronting this person’s laziness nor their unteachability. The result is that this lazy, unteachable person thinks that they are wiser than those who have not confronted them. They continue to make excuses for their laziness and justify their behaviour in their own eyes.

According to the Scripture, a lot of what we go through as Christians is related to character building. This is a huge topic in itself but one place it is summarised is in Romans 5: 3-4:

we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Persevering through suffering is not something that is taught often in our churches nor in our homes. Instead clever doctors and psychologists invent pleasing names for conditions that parents and we can all hide behind. Conditions like under active thyroid, ADHD, ME, autism, asberger’s syndrome are not always representative of a life threatening or life altering condition. People’s reactions to these diagnoses often show whether they are letting them build character or whether they are simply using them as excuses for opting out of things. We all know stories of people who rose above their conditions to bless those around them and the world. These are often people with conditions that are very often much harder to deal with than some of the ones covered by the names we invent these days.

There is no one in this life that is free from tribulation but how you respond to it is crucial. We all have seen people commit suicide from despair. According to the Scripture at least one way of avoiding that despair is to persevere through trouble. As the Word of God says:

The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness,
But who can bear a broken spirit?

(Proverbs 18:14)

The Gospel that I believe, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that our spirits are made whole when we are born again. We can rejoice through trouble as so many disciples have done and continue to do because of what God has done in us through the Holy Spirit.

The trouble may not go away but we can still glorify God by our attitude in it.

Preaching the Gospel to Abraham

Paul makes this interesting observation in Galatians 3:8:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

So what was this gospel? “All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3 NLT).

Paul goes on to explain that this promise (and others made to Abraham) were spoken to Abraham and his main Descendant:

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. Galatians 3:16.

It is hard to overstate the extraordinary impact of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, on our society, morals and culture. Moral norms that we take for granted are enforced using principles of law keeping and justice that are all based on the Word of God, in particular the 10 commandments (Exodus 20). Peace treaties and the principles that save nations from war and bring healing are based on Christian thinking, specifically the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5,6 & 7). Nearly everyone’s sense of fairness in Christian countries is modelled on what Jesus considered fair. His Name, that is, his attitude of compassion, humility and justice to the poor are the ideals we all look up to whether we call ourselves Christian or otherwise. The roots of Western Civilisation are deeply inspired by Jesus Christ and grounded on the Word of God.

As you look around the world, or even out your front door, you realise that most people live in peaceful families, enjoying the common comforts of warm homes, good food and friends. The extreme examples of domestic violence that the news stations and many people’s minds seem to love to focus on are the exceptions rather than the rule. Our nations are generally not at war with each other and most people rest secure in their beds at night. Christian charities are effective the world over in reducing poverty.

I believe all this is the fulfillment of the gospel, good news, preached to Abraham: “All the families on the earth will be blessed through you.”

For some reason, Evangelical Christians can sometimes be the last people to see things this way. I think one reason may be because of the pre-tribulation rapture and the great tribulation yet to come eschatology that so many people have been taught. Unless things are really terrible in the world it is hard to justify God bringing the literal apocalyptic terrors of Revelation upon our neighbours. So people who believe that they will be taken out from the trouble that is coming, and that the Lord is returning soon, must see things as getting a lot worse in the world despite all the statistics that say the opposite. I only wish I didn’t have to link to a humanist book to prove that point. I will address this downside of pre-tribulation rapture thinking in another blog.

Another thing Evangelical Christians can do a lot is downplay the general good to the “unsaved” that the gospel brings. The reasoning goes something like this: Eternity is long and this life is vanishingly short by comparison. Therefore why try and improve people’s lives in this life when we have a so much more important thing to do, that is, preach the gospel to them so they get saved.

It is not an either/ or thing though. Preaching the gospel so that people can believe and appreciate the salvation Jesus has won for them is critical if they are really to know peace, joy and love in this life and to have assurance of eternal life. But there is a danger it will just be words and as James says:
Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. James 3:18

My wife and I go to a church which majors on the evangelical aspect of things and we support it fully as do our children. We are also involved in other types of Christian charity (as are our children and the church itself) which don’t make telling people that they have to be saved a precondition to doing good to them.

In the same letter to the Galatians Paul explains how he first met with the other apostles in Jerusalem and what they thought was important when preaching the gospel:

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along. Galatians 2:9 & 10

Don’t underestimate the preserving power of the Gospel for all of the world’s peoples.

Conceiving the Inconceivable

There is a story of twins talking to each other in the womb which is going about the internet in various forms.  Here is my take on it.

The babies are not far from birth and well developed but still completely ignorant of what is to come.  They cannot conceive of what they are about to experience since they have absolutely nothing in their current existence that they can relate to it.  So that is why I have called this blog “Conceiving the Inconceivable” and also because I love puns and playing with words.

The first problem you experience when you start to try and write this is that the twins don’t have words.  They are immersed in water so they cannot speak.  We know that babies in the womb can hear and respond to sounds and that the normal existence for a baby in the womb is to be on their own.  Even this is analogous to our existence now in comparison to what we will be.  Now we are profoundly disconnected from one another because of time and space.  In the next life I believe there is no time nor space in the way we understand those terms and so perfect intimacy and knowledge of one another and God is the inevitable result.

____________________

“So you still think there is some existence beyond this?”  Thomas was having his daily tete-a-tete with John.

“Undoubtedly” John replied. “Don’t you hear all those sounds and Mom’s singing?”

“Nah, that is just the vibrations of this watery world we live in.  You move around and I move around and we disturb the waters and they make noises.”

“Beautiful, coherent noises which can only point to someone greater than us.” John was in his usual philosophic mode.

“No, they happen by chance.  It is like everything else in here, it all started with us being nothing and then the fluids and all the chemicals interacted together and here we are.  You know that we evolved out of creatures which were smaller and less intelligent than we are.”  Thomas had an answer to everything and usually answers that made as little out of any idea of a Mom and Dad as he could.  “We grow up in here until we can no longer fit and then, Boom!, it all explodes and our pitiful existence comes to an end in a terrible mess.”

“I don’t believe all that dystopian future nonsense you seem to indulge in all the time.” John replied.  “For me it is obvious we are here because our Mom and Dad wanted us to be here.  They have wonderful plans for our lives after we are delivered.  Even in here I can hear their loving words and concern for us.  I have felt them on the walls of our barriers, telling me not to fear.  In Mom, we live and move and have our being.  She is love and tells me about love.”

“You can’t prove any of this,” John retorted.  “It sounds great but you know that we are going to die.  You have said yourself that you believe that after delivery (as you call it) we will no longer have water to breathe in.  So what then?  All your stories are just optimistic fairy tales designed by your clever mind just to make this cramped existence more bearable.”

_________________

You can see where I am going with this.  It seems to me obvious that a thoughtful meditation on our existence before delivery can be very useful.  It is a way of helping to explain the enormous gulf in our understanding between where we are now – in time and space – and where we will be after we die (or after we are raptured) in eternity.

Eternity is not lots more time and infinite space.  Eternity is a different state of things altogether, as expansive and as inconceivable to us now as being able to breathe air, talk and walk is to babies in a womb.

This is just one of many possible conversations that our two hypothetical twins can have.  I hope to create a few more conversations in future blogs.