Thursday, 5 January 2017
The Manifestation of Christ
or Good news for non-believers
Today is the twelfth and last day of Christmas, and tonight at evening prayer the Church begins the celebration of the Epiphany. The Christmas story in Matthew tells how the Magi, wise men, came from the east to visit the infant Jesus, and this has long been interpreted as showing the Christ-child to the wider world of non-Jews near the start of his human life, as well as a recognition by them of his birth. During the next few weeks of the Church’s year there is a continuing focus on the story of how Jesus first came to public attention and how he began to teach his message or good news.
Many of us, perhaps all of us, can look around at our lives, at our relationships, at the state of the world, and wish it were better — whether for ourselves or for others. We can all dream of living in a place where it is good to live. A place where everyone has security and shelter and enough to eat, where everyone has value and is treated fairly, where no one holds grudges against other individuals or groups. In short, a society that is not “broken” and that lives at peace with itself and its neighbours.
Jesus’s message is that this place can exist, and that we have it within ourselves to choose to live there, at least in part. Each one of us can make the choice to live in that place of reconciliation and trust, peace and social justice. If we choose to live our lives in that way then we will be citizens of that place.
In Jesus’s language this place is the “kingdom of God”, because it is the place where God’s will is done, and that will ultimately is “love”. Jesus’s good news is that this kingdom, this “living in love”, is already at hand, here and now — it has already begun. All that we have to do is open our eyes and see the simplicity of it.
Opting in is entirely voluntary, and even those who have opted in will get it wrong, perhaps more often than not. So it won’t be perfect, because it is a place inhabited by fallible human beings in a world where not everyone has opted in and where mistakes and natural disasters also happen. Living this way is vulnerable. Jesus’s followers have long said that the kingdom will come at the end of time — and this is a recognition of the fact that the whole world isn’t going to accept the message for a very long while, if ever. So though the kingdom in all its fullness is not yet here, that makes it all the more important to choose to live in it now, and to share the good news and to encourage others to join in. We can still live partly in the kingdom, glimpsing the possibilities of its fullness.
What then is the role of religion in this, and what is the role of the Church? These are good questions. They highlight the problem with institutional religion.
Jesus, in the gospel stories, doesn’t have a lot of time for organized religion, and those who considered themselves holy and religious. He criticised the Pharisees and the Sadducees, whom we might see as typical of local religious leaders and the religious establishment, types that existed then and still exist today. Many in both groups understood Jesus’s concept of God’s rule, God’s kingdom, but (like many others down the ages, and still today) they were caught up in their own concepts of spirituality and nationality and their own priorities, and either failed to grasp what Jesus was saying, or failed to act on it.
Where does this leave the Church? As people used to ask, do you have to go to church to be a good Christian? Certainly the Church has a lot to answer for. Over many hundreds of years it has helped to suppress and control individuals and populations, and allowed itself to be used by states to achieve their aims, or indeed has corrupted states to achieve institutional goals. It has allowed itself to be limited to a “spiritual” life, teaching a personal piety and obedience, and the promise that things will get better, sometime. It has sacrificed individuals and groups to its own ends. And it’s easy for its members to get caught up in its institutional life, serving on its boards and commissions and councils, even carving out a career in church politics. It’s easy too to get caught up in its “religiosity”: in personal piety, personal devotion and personal belief as ends in themselves.
The Church, however, has also preserved the teaching of Jesus, and other great figures, and never lost sight of the centrality of his message, even when it has largely failed to understand or implement it. Individual Christians have led some of the great reform movements, such as the abolition of slavery, moves to racial equality and sexual equality, mass education and healthcare, humane working conditions, prison reform and so on.
The Church, for all its many and profound failings, is the group of people who follow Jesus, and stand in line with him: the community of his followers down the ages, even if a divided community.
The Church is also the primary place where those who commit to trying to live in the kingdom can interact with each other. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where social justice and compassion are preached and practised. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where the hungry are fed, both literally and figuratively, and the homeless and destitute cared for. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where people forgive each other for the wrongs they have done to each other, and are reconciled. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where Jesus’s good news is proclaimed and human beings welcomed to participate in it.
Where does that leave the believer and the unbeliever? No mention has yet been made of belief in God, belief in heaven, belief in the infallibility of this or that, or the special nature of someone or something. The story of the arrival of the Magi shows that Jesus is for Jew and Gentile alike: in today’s language, Jesus and his message are for the believer and also for the non-believer. The gospels do not record that Jesus required belief in any dogma or religious doctrine — only trust in what he was teaching, trust to begin to do it. There is no test of belief to be a citizen of this kingdom. There is no religious creed, no statement of religious belief.
Rather, what is required is to start again: to be willing to recognize (without unnecessarily beating ourselves up about it) that we don’t always get things right; to be willing to both give and receive forgiveness; to act to bring about reconciliation and social justice to all our neighbours, where Jesus’s definition of “neighbour” is “someone who needs our help”; to join with those who are trying to do the same; and to share this good news with others. The kingdom of God is built one person at a time — it is here, it is now, it is indeed at hand; and one day it will exist in its fullness.
What about God? Everyone must come to their own conclusions on that, and about the literal existence of God, because God’s kingdom — the place where the rules are love and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation and social justice for all — is a concept that exists whether you believe in God or not. Just as the arrival of the Magi in the Christmas story indicates that this baby is significant to Jews and non-Jews, so too he, and the kingdom he announced, are significant to believers and non-believers.
God’s kingdom is for all. And it’s there, in part, right here and now. Just open the door, and let the kingdom in.
Simon Kershaw is a founder and editor of Thinking Anglicans.
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Posted by Simon Kershaw on
Thursday, 5 January 2017 at 7:30am GMT
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No problem about thinking again, and giving and receiving, but every problem with boxing up the concepts and turning pointers towards thinking again and giving and receiving into a cult of an individual. Don't criticise people with their own concepts, just because they don't accept the wider messages freely adopted (and from other sources too)instead of having this cult of an individual. So good news for non-believers? Not really: the news was always available. It's a sort of thanks but no thanks. But best of wishes with it if this is what you want.
Great piece. This, for me, is the heart of Christianity: not debating the existence of a theistic god; but the radical social and interpersonal transformation of the Kingdom.
Simon Kershaw: in your piece ‘The Manifestation of Christ or Good news for non-believers’ you have the following phrases:
‘....Jesus’s message is that this place can exist...’
‘....In Jesus’s language this place is the “kingdom of God”,...’
‘....Jesus’s good news....’
‘....Jesus, in the gospel stories, doesn’t have a lot of time for organized religion,....’
‘....understood Jesus’s concept of God’s rule...’
‘....The Church, however, has also preserved the teaching of Jesus, and other great figures, and never lost sight of the centrality of his message....’
‘....Jesus and his message....’
When you write ‘message’, ‘language’, ‘good news’, ‘gospel stories’, ‘concept’, ‘teaching’, what have you in mind? If you have in mind the words and statements recorded in the New Testament as words and statements said by Jesus I have two questions:
1 Are you saying that the greek words and statements accurately convey the meaning of what Jesus said in history?
2 Are you saying this for all the words and statements attributed to Jesus in the New Testament or only for some of them. If only for some of them, on what grounds for only some of them rather than for all of them?
I am not an Anglican but I do think about things. I hope you will recognise that these are reasonable questions and that you will put this post up on ‘Thinking Anglicans’.
"The Church is also the primary place where those who commit to trying to live in the kingdom can interact with each other. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where social justice and compassion are preached and practised. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where the hungry are fed, both literally and figuratively, and the homeless and destitute cared for. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where people forgive each other for the wrongs they have done to each other, and are reconciled. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where Jesus’s good news is proclaimed and human beings welcomed to participate in it."
- Simon Kershaw -
For me, Simon, this is the heart of the Gospel - for believers and non-believers alike. After all, truth is truth and cannot be denied. All Christians have within them, by virtue of Baptism and holy Communion, the Good News of Jesus Christ for ALL people. Thi is not because we are better than anyone else, merely that we have been equipped to BE and TELL FORTH the Gospel. "Christus Natus Est!"
Simon's article reminded me of the words of the centurion in the gospel of Mark: "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." This is authentic language. Sometimes, believing feels like a burden, it involves responsibility and it involves trust. Belief and trust, in my opinion, are so interconnected it is not possible to have one without the other.
It seems odd to describe a Kingdom of God without God. For me, this Humanist description of the Kingdom of God is New Age, not Christian. I understand it as a description very well because I thought about Hell in the same way: I think many people who have severe depression have encountered Hell within themselves, just as you say the Kingdom of God is too.
But I discovered that God was in that self-constrcuted Hell, loving and perceptive and all-powerful - yet still willing to talk to me. . It wasn't Hell I had constructed and equally in my experience what you describe as the Kingdom of God is a delusion too.
To find the Kingdom of God, first find God Himself. Follow Him.
Everything in this life passes away — only God remains, only He is worth struggling towards. We have a choice: to follow the way of this world, of the society that surrounds us, and thereby find ourselves outside of God; or to choose the way of life, to choose God Who calls us and for Whom our heart is searching.”
― Seraphim Rose
The thing is, God isn't left out even if some people don't specifically attribute things to God.
The dogma is not what makes someone enter the 'Kingdom'. What opens the door is the desire of the heart - for love, for justice, for kindness, for forgiveness, for mercy, for wholeness, for loveliness, for beauty - and for community and the tenderness and pain of shared lives.
And the desire of the heart, if it is there, is there because God is there.
So often in life, God is there, right at the heart of our lives, within us, just waiting for us to open up and welcome the holy guest who's already there.
But so often, we live much of our lives outside ourselves, outside our true best selves, outside of all the community and love that is God who resides in our innermost place.
So I believe the 'Kingdom of God' opens up in our hearts and our lives and communities, as we open ourselves to love and outreach and service and the care of others.
Love in action is the coming of the 'Kingdom of God'.
A characteristic of God is community, not just individualism. Individual piety has its place - the personal devotion to God - but expect to see God's 'Kingdom' breaking out in community, because God the Holy Trinity is household, is community. And God longs for us to open up to his holy community as well.
What Jesus points to is the possibility of new beginning, new life, a better, given, love-charged life. And He showed the way by personal example. Death to self. Surrender to the tidal currents of love.
The greatest commandment. To love God, and love your neighbour. What it's all about. The whole point.
Not religiosity, not ecclesiastical standing, not protocol. But love and community. The coming of the household, the community and the sovereign rule of God's love.
In the bible narratives, we also learn that God's sovereign country comes in power. In short, God is portrayed as supernatural, and the love of God is presented as a force of power - to reach, to touch, to heal, to change... to change even communities, person by person.
When the Spirit comes, faith may follow the witnessing of supernatural power and love... and the heart may suddenly leap and recognise... the One who was there all the time.
Advice on liturgical dates, please, in response to your comment that "Today is the twelfth and last day of Christmas, and tonight at evening prayer the Church begins the celebration of the Epiphany."
So I gather you are counting the evening of a day on our secular calendar as the beginning of the next day on the liturgical calendar.
Assuming that evening prayer is on or about 6 pm, my question is, "When is 12th Night?" Is 12th Night the literal night of January 5th, or the night of January 4th, starting with evening prayer on the 4th?
One thing I do know is that 12th night is NOT the night of January 6th, which is the first night of the Epiphany season, not the 12th night of the Christmas season.
I'm really interested in how a day was understood in the middle ages and early modern period, but an account of current practice would help me. Many thanks for all the help you might give.
Very insightful comments, the Kingdom of God without God is not actually a concept people believe in. What is described here is the worst excess of Protestantism, profound individualism dressed with (with no doubt the best of intentions) vague humanism. Working in a secular environment I have often observed and wondered if truly embracing a radical liberal take on Christianity would really move people, and can't say I've seen much more response than a bored indifference. The Kingdom of God and its agenda, which is often forcibly described on these pages, must have transformation based on more than individualism otherwise it is of no more value than any other philosophical scheme.
Humanism's rooted in both Christianity and the wider teachings of antiquity. Kingdom teaching, particularly its exacting command to love our neighbors as ourselves, is anything but vague.
For those who're inspired by the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Logos incarnate, I'm glad; but you don't have to buy into a fusion of neoplatonism and Second Temple Judaism to seek to pattern life after his example.
Why is it that "love your neighbour" is so poorly reported? The full exhortation is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself." Loving your neighbour is important but it is entirely secondary to loving the Lord our God.
James, there are many paths that people walk. If they open their hearts and lives to love, then whether they are muslim, christian, atheist or agnostic, they are opening their lives to a deeper level of existence, and expressing some of the best of who they are. Jesus's pattern of life is indeed inspirational and in my view revolutionary. The call to love, as you rightly say, is anything but vague: it is costly and exacting, but can also be lovely, expressing original beauty within a person - whether we call that 'goodness' or call it God.
I believe in deeper levels to existence (and I'm sure some theoretical physicists might be open to that possibility). Personally, because I walk a Christian path (but also attend mosque out of solidarity, and delight in all my agnostic friends and their decency) I do believe in an eternity with God that's outside time. A deeper level to existence, where we have always been (or more precisely, where we always are). To me, 'heaven' is not just a future eternal state, but a retrospective eternal state (or more precisely a constant state) where we have always and do always and will always dwell with God. To me, THAT is the eternal 'Kingdom'... although I prefer to speak of 'sovereign country' because it feels less gendered. A beautiful country, a land of the saints, where we exist in original beauty and in the household and community of God.
"Eyes have not seen..." as the saying goes, and we do not see because in the level of existence we are experiencing here we are time-stretched, like a small corner, a lower-dimensional expression, of the whole of our reality.
In my preceding post I tried to convey the way I see our existence, and of course there are diverse views and beliefs that people hold, and I’d concede there are many paths we can walk, and yet love is an action and an expression of heart that people of so many faiths (and none) can open up to, can champion, can grow through. Love is right because love is right. And it enlarges who a person is. It expands their parameters beyond just themselves. To me, love has its origins in an eternal reality, and rather in the neoplatonic sense, I see this world like the shadows on the back of the cave, which we are faced to, not able to see the deeper dimensions and reality of the realms that cast those shadows. And yet they tremble and resonate.
Those are the contexts within which I frame my life. But even if one concedes no context like that, if one concedes no God, no deeper level than our present, fleeting here and now... yet... we can still love... we can still expand ourselves beyond the confines of our own selfishness... and if I understand the life and example of Jesus, that LOVE is enough, it is an end in itself, beyond need of dogma or religious membership... it is the flaring into life of something greater than entropy, like a golden seam of life and feeling, glimmering in the vast dark reaches of the universe (or universes)... and the vast and desolate darkness of the aeons, in which we're time-trapped for a tiny, momentary blink of the eye, then our atoms all dispersed.
In the vast cold lonelinesses of the universe, love shimmers and flares, and a simple action, a response to a guy on the street, a givenness to another human life, or to a community, love is an end in itself and seeks no reward, no necessity of God, it is an action done from the heart, simply because we know we need to do it. Because it is right and good, and the better part of who we are.
And I see Jesus as an amazing example of that. His presence still shimmers and resonates. An enigma, a man who left us no writings, but left us a life, lived to the point of no turning back.
Many will view the clauses as inseparable, Kate, but I don't. Loving your neighbor as yourself has always struck me as more demanding than loving an abstraction.
Philip (Almond), I'm not qualified to answer your questions in any depth but know enough to assure you that the points you made are perfectly reasonable. I'm sorry that no one has acknowledged your post.
What a start to 2017, Susannah!
I also view Jesus' life and its aftermath, the Christ-event, as the highest ideal -- selfless, boundless love -- entering into this world, and being lived out in the pattern of his ministry. That, to me, is the incarnation. I separate this from the mythic cloak in the Gospels; and, indeed, Jesus' own belief in an imminent end of history. We can work towards the Kingdom regardless.
You say it as well as it can be said.
Thanks for your post. As you probably realise my post is a challenge to the ‘liberal christianity’ which most posts to Thinking Anglicans set out. Those posts (e.g. the one by Simon Kershaw) tend to pick and choose among what the New Testament asserts Jesus said and did. My challenge is: on what grounds do “liberals” say or imply that Jesus said and did some of those things but not others. I have to candidly say that I think they are imposing a view of God and Christ and Man and salvation on the Bible rather than facing up to what the whole Bible says – including all the hard things.
Who are the Christians? What does each Christian believe? What are the truths of Christianity? These 3 questions are closely linked but distinct.
On the assumption (amply supported by the New Testament) that God’s action on a person is necessary to make that person into a Christian, then whether a person is a Christian or not (question 1) is an objective fact, known to God.
Such a Christian who possesses the necessary and developed faculties will have beliefs and experiences. These, in each individual case, give the answers to question 2.
The answers to question 3 are the essential objective revealed truths, true for God and true for us, which together make up the truth of Christianity as a whole. It is possible, because we may fall into sin in what we hold to be true or false as well as in moral matters, for an ‘objective fact’ Christian to believe things which are ruled out by the truths of Christianity and/or to reject some or all of the essential truths of Christianity. Conversely it is possible for someone to give merely intellectual assent to all the essential objective revealed truths of Christianity and not be an ‘objective fact’ Christian.
So it is possible (not certain but possible) for someone to (erroneously) reject the idea of the wrath and condemnation of God and deliverance from that wrath by the ‘satisfaction’ of Christ and yet to have been delivered from and by those very things which are intellectually rejected.
Conversely it is possible (not certain but possible) for someone to believe the truths of the wrath and condemnation of God and the propitiation of Christ and yet not to have been delivered from and by those very things which are intellectually accepted.
As far as I am concerned, the disagreements we have on this site are about the right answers to question 3. I would never say to anyone, ‘You are not a Christian’. But I would say and do say, ‘What you believe is inconsistent with the truths of Christianity’ – hoping and praying that that person would seriously reflect on whether the God and Christ they believe in is the real God and Christ. Conversely I have to examine myself to make sure that the doctrinal convictions I have are not just intellectual assent but are married to a vital experience of the realities of which they speak.
I haven't had a chance (yet) to properly engage with lots of these comments, though I still hope to do so.
But to respond brieflt to Ian's most recent comment ... I suggest that the kingdom of God is about a number of things, but that primarily it is about doing God's will.
As very succinctly summarized in the prayer that Jesus taught his followers ("your kingdom come", meaning "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven", and expanded to include "give us this day our daily bread" and "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who wrong us" and "let us not be tempted away").
The question is about whether Jesus asked his followers to believe theological propositions; and whether doing God's will is contingent on believing in God.
We might well want citizens of the kingdom to acknowledge its king -- but to what extent is that a necessary part of citizenship?
Thanks Simon. Everyday 'common sense' reflection on the language of citizenship answers your last question 'It is essential'. You cannot be a citizen of the Uk without recognising the monarch and her Parliament, and the rule of law that they enact.
John, as often elsewhere, makes explicit what is everywhere implicit in the synoptics. 'This is the work of God: to believe in the One He has sent' (John 6.29). This is not about believe theological propositions (see A Thiselton's The Hermeneutics of Doctrine for the better idea of 'disposition'); it is about confessing Jesus is Lord as a central aspect of kingdom life.
Social engagement is a key part of Christian living—but 'the kingdom of God' is not the term to use for it...unless you feel the need to bend over backwards to avoid the idea that the Church is there to make disciples.
"You cannot be a citizen of the UK without recognising the monarch and her Parliament, and the rule of law that they enact."
Unless England starts enforcing her gorier Medieval treason laws, you can certainly be a British citizen while advocating a republic and an end to the Westminster parliament in its current form: just as you can be a U.S. citizen while believing that the Constitution should be junked and William and Kate appointed dictators for life (a position that'd be heartily endorsed by the tabloids). Recognition of the status quo doesn't bind you to conserve it.
Likewise, it's possible to recognize the power of the Christ-event, while simultaneously believing that it must transcend the cosmology, culture and theology of 1st century Palestine. Indeed, for anyone who wants to reconcile it with 2,000 years of discovery and advancement, doing so is essential. We simply disagree on method.
James, you can disagree with the current set up, but if you don't submit to it you will end up in jail.
we don't disagree on method; we disagree on whether Jesus 'like us, was often wrong'. That's pretty fundamental!
Of course we'd end up in jail, 'cause the state's ruthless about protecting its monopoly on force. The Kingdom, at its best, rejects such legalism, and lets change flow from personal transformation brought about by the love of God, not coercion.
And yes, we do disagree about Jesus' capacity for human error, but that's a separate issue from the fact that we must both reconcile teaching forged in the crucible of 1st century cosmology with later discoveries. However much we want to, since we've benefited from the fruits of 2,000 years of learning, we can't think as the authors of the Bible did. Modernity's inescapable.
" Loving your neighbour is important but it is entirely secondary to loving the Lord our God. "
IMO, it is impossible to truly love God unless you love your neighbor--who, like you, is made in God's image. This, of course, does not mean you must necessarily LIKE your neighbor; the two are not identical. To love your neighbor means to accept him as fully human, as subject to all the same credits and faults as you. To like him means to find the way in which all those human qualities are expressed in him to be appealing.
Pat O'Neill has expressed the truth about 'loving our neighbour', even while not necessarily liking our neighbour, a much more difficult concept. Unfortunately, we are all prone to judging our neighbour and none of us can deny that power imbalances exist, both in church and state. There is no power imbalance in our relationship with God. We are totally dependent and totally loved. Which doesn't mean there isn't judgment.
I would respond to Mr. Almond's statements and challenges to simply say, we do deal with the "hard things" in the Gospel. We have to use the Spirit given to us and the experiences that our lives have given us in the Spirit to try to find our way in the thorny path of Scripture, which, remember, was written by humans no less fallible and no more open to the Holy Spirit's guiding than we.
Now, it is unlikely that you will accept that, and I will not accept the worldview in which we are so divorced from our Creator that we must accept that things that are clearly harmful to us are really good, because we don't know what good is. This is the key point at which the Great Schism of the 21st Century is and must be between liberal Christianity and conservative Christianity, which have two completely irreconcilable worldviews. I believe God has room for us both, but recognize human fallibility in that *we* cannot make that room and must establish separate churches, even separate faiths. To try otherwise is spinning wheels and abdicating our respective callings to do God's will as revealed to us, in favor of a false, completely human and self-serving political "unity."
As to your questions being ignored, this is an old dance here - the clever "trap" by the conservative, the scriptural gotcha-game - and we know that the questions are meaningless, as would be the answers, because the problem is one of faith and worldview.
Thanks for engaging. Examples of the 'hard things' (in the whole Bible) I mentioned (sorry - I should have given examples in my post)are:
Does your 'dealing' with these statements include a conviction that Jesus did say these things and that they are true and that the final judgment stated in Revelation will happen.
Would you like to give examples of 'that we must accept that things that are clearly harmful to us are really good'?
I agree that our worldviews are irreconcilable but I stand by my assertion that your worldview picks and chooses the parts of the Bible which fit a preconceived view of what the right worldview is.