Core Convictions of the Anabaptist Network (2016 rewrite and repost)

In my last couple of posts on Anabaptism, I talked a bit about Anabaptist history. History is interesting to me, but I’m sure it doesn’t turn everyone’s crank, and if all I had been doing on my 2007 sabbatical leave was historical study, I’m sure some members of my parish might well have questioned its relevance to our vastly different contemporary situation. So let me bring these discussions to the present day.

One of the main reasons I journeyed to England for my sabbatical in 2007 was because of 51gppjuMNvL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_the existence of the Anabaptist Network. The Anabaptist Network is made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds and denominations who are finding inspiration for their Christian lives in the Anabaptist understanding of discipleship. Under the ‘drawn to Anabaptism’ section on their website you will find articles by a Baptist, a United Reformed Church member, a Pentecostal, a Quaker, a ‘new church’ leader, an Anglican, a Methodist, and a leader in the ‘Jesus Army’, all telling their stories about how, while continuing to be members of their various churches, they have found a spiritual home in Anabaptism. Many more of these stories are told in the book ‘Coming Home’.

The Anabaptist Network has adopted the following seven ‘Core Convictions’, and it was these convictions, more than anything else, that cemented my interest in the Anabaptist way.

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalized Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Obviously, at a couple of points these core convictions stand in tension with historic Anglican church polity (eg. ‘baptism is for believers’ contradicts our traditional practice of infant baptism). But for the most part, these convictions are compatible with my membership in the Anglican Church, and they serve to sum up a way of living the Christian life that I find tremendously attractive.

41AlOH50AlLSince I went to England for my 2007 sabbatical, Stuart Murray has published the book ‘The Naked Anabaptist’, in which he reflects on these principles and their relevance for today’s Christian world. He uses the word ‘naked’ to mean ‘without the usual Mennonite or Amish or Hutterite cultural clothing’. Many aspects of contemporary Mennonite experience are shaped by five hundred years of culture and history (German language hymns, ethnic foods, traditional Mennonite names, unaccompanied singing in four-part harmony, the existence of dozens of squabbling Mennonite denominations etc.). The core convictions try to sidestep all this and address the question ‘What would faithful discipleship in the Anabaptist tradition look like in the twenty-first century?’

Personally, I’m not so sure it’s possible to extract ‘ideal Anabaptism’ from five hundred years of historical embodiment. More than many other Christian traditions, Anabaptism demands embodiment in a real, flawed congregational setting made up of inmperfect human beings. And in the real world, those human beings have to face difficult issues. What do you do when you’re trying to love your enemies and pray for those who hate you, while everywhere you go you find that the rulers are out to kill you? One of the answers given by Mennonite history is, ‘You find a sympathetic ruler who will allow you to live in peace, farm the land and bring up your kids according to your beliefs and traditions, and when that ruler asks you not to try to convert others to your beliefs, you say “Okay”’. The first Anabaptists, who were committed to evangelism, might well have turned over in their graves at such an agreement, but those who made it were concerned for the safety of their children and their own continued existence as a community of disciples committed to pacifism. They were trying to live out their convictions in the context of a real, flawed and dangerous world.

Anabaptist Christianity can’t remain a shining ideal. It has to be a way of life lived out in the real world. I have nothing but respect for the Mennonite, Amish and Hutterite followers of Jesus who have tried to live out that ideal for the past five hundred years. But my situation is not their situation. I am an Anglican follower of Jesus, and the world I live in is not Christendom Europe or early twentieth century Saskatchewan; it’s prosperous, post-Christendom, suburban Edmonton. It’s my job to figure out how the seven core convictions of the Anabaptist Network help me live as an Anabaptist Anglican in the world I live in. Ultimately, that’s what my sabbatical leave was all about, and that’s the question I continue to reflect on today.

Wanted: Enthusiastic Christians

Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good atjesus-is-the-way doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).

I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians  that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!

Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.

The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.

This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?

I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.

That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.

This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.

When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.

The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.

Come, Holy Spirit.

What exactly is ‘Grace’?

If you go to dictionary.com, you will find ‘grace’ defined variously as (among other things) ‘elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action’, ‘a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment’, ‘favor or goodwill’, or ‘mercy; clemency; pardon’.

When we say someone is ‘graceful’, it’s usually ‘elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion or action’ that we have in mind. On the other hand, if we were to say, “It’s only through the dean’s grace that John wasn’t expelled from the program”, it would be ‘mercy, clemency, pardon’ that we were talking about.

I suspect that, although we’re aware of the other meanings and use them from time to time, it’s usually the first that we fall back on: elegance, beauty of form, manner or action. I know this, because when I start talking to people about the Christian idea of ‘grace’, I almost always have to start by saying “I’m not talking about ‘gracefulness’ or ‘elegance’ or anything like that”.

In the Bible, grace is first and foremost the love of God freely poured out on all who need it. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it; it simply comes to us as a free gift from God, because God is love. Jesus told us that God pours out his sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous; that’s the kind of God he is.

This morning when I was reading Joe Walker’s old blog ‘Felix Hominum‘ I came across this  section in one of the very first posts he wrote:

Jesus told a simple story about a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. Ninety-nine of them were safe and one got lost. The shepherd set out to look for the lost sheep. Simple story, simple point. The shepherd started looking for the sheep long before the sheep started looking for the shepherd, perhaps even long before the sheep realized it was lost. God starts looking for us long before we start looking for God – that is the beginning of what we mean by grace.

God loves us long before we ever love God. God comes looking for us long before we ever think of looking for God. God is working in our lives long before we’re aware of it. And it’s all a gift, a gift of love, because God is love. For us Christians, that’s what ‘the grace of God’ is all about.

Is My God Better Than Your God?

Well, my little post ‘My God doesn’t kill kids’ has attracted a little attention, both here and at the Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network site. I’m grateful for the positive comments, and have carefully considered the criticisms (expressed mainly on Facebook). There are two main ones.

First, some have questioned my wisdom in titling the post ‘My God doesn’t kill kids’; it smacks of superiority, the idea that ‘My God is better than your God’. To quote one commenter:

As revolted as I am by the massacres in Peshawar, I don’t think we move forward with headlines that say, “My god is better than your god.”

And another says,

We need to steer clear of anything that even vaguely hints at Christianity putting itself above other world religions. Also, our Conservative government has sent F-18s to drop bombs in Afghanistan. How can we be sure that no children have been killed there as a result?

My response is to say that I am of course a monotheist, so I can’t literally believe that ‘My God is better than your God’; I believe there is only one God. You don’t have a different God than I do; we actually pray to the same God, we just believe different things about him. So when we say (as I did not, actually, but let’s assume I did), ‘My God is better than your God’, what I’m actually saying is ‘I think my ideas about God are more accurate than your ideas’.

Now this may sound arrogant and outrageous, but is it actually? Let me be crude for a moment. Surely we would all agree that it is better to believe that God wants us to live lives of love and compassion, rather than that God wants us to fly aircraft into tall buildings and murder thousands of men, women, and children, or bomb abortion clinics, or drop atomic weapons and wipe out hundreds of thousand of people? Can we really say that it doesn’t matter which of these two pictures of God is the right one? Is it really a level playing field, with those who say ‘God is love’ on the same level as those who murder in his name?

And yes, of course Christians have done this too; I freely admit that. I would submit, though, that when we Christians do this, we are being unfaithful to the vision of Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. I have no idea how that is connected with the idea of the Conservative government of Canada sending F-18s to drop bombs in Afghanistan; as far as I know, the government of Canada does not claim to be a Christian government or to be acting in the name of Jesus (the idea that there is or ever could be such a thing as a ‘Christian country’ is very problematic to me; the New Testament everywhere assumes that Christians will be a persecuted minority!). But crusades? Conquistadores? Abortion clinic bombers? Yes, of course; we have much to repent of.

However, if it’s reprehensible to think that it’s better to follow the way of Jesus (compassion, caring for the poor, loving your enemies, living simply, seeking the kingdom of God) than the way of someone who says God is pleased with the murders of children, then I’m guilty as charged. I do believe it’s better.

The second criticism is related to the first; it’s the idea that Christianity is ‘putting itself above other world religions’. My response would be to say that that pluralism is not the same as relativism. Pluralism means that we live in a society where everyone has the right to believe and practice their own religion, and I am not going to attempt to use force to compel you to go along with my beliefs. Pluralism is a friend to Christianity; it gives me the right as a Christian to follow the way of Jesus, unlike in some other places in the world, where I would be taking my life in my hands to do so.

But it is possible for me to believe you to be completely mistaken about something – to believe that my ideas about God are more accurate than yours, for instance – and not to resort to force to try to impose my ideas on you. This is what the early Christians did. For the first three centuries Christianity got no help from the empire; the Christians had no political or military power, but were a defenceless band of missionaries taking their message all over the Mediterranean world. Yes, they believed that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God and therefore had the most accurate picture of what God is like. They did not believe that he was just another human prophet; they believed that in him, God had come to live among us in a unique way. And they were glad to argue and debate this in any forum available to them, but not on the battlefield.

This is true pluralism, and I welcome it. Of course I believe that where Christianity and Islam disagree, Jesus is right and Muhammad is wrong; if I didn’t, I’d be a Muslim, not a Christian. Muslims believe the same thing in reverse! To state this idea is not Islamaphobia; it is simply to recognize that when one religion says, ‘Jesus is the incarnate Son of God’, and another says, ‘God has never had a son, nor could he’, you have to pick which one to believe in; they can’t both be right.

But pluralism is not the same as relativism. Pluralism says ‘Everyone has the right to believe and practice their own philosophy of life’. Relativism says, ‘All philosophies of life are equally valid’. With respect, no one believes that, not even the relativists! Get them into a political argument and see how quickly they abandon that idea!

Right – back to Christmas service preparations!

My God doesn’t kill kids

In the light of today’s outrageous attack on a school in Pakistan, I think it’s vital for people of faith all over the world to stand up together and say very clearly, ‘Our God doesn’t kill kids’.

In no way do I judge the whole of Islam by the acts of the Pakistani Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for this act. This year, at the prayer service for peace organized by the Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network, we were joined by several people from the Muslim community in our city. I know that they are people of compassion and love, who pray and work for peace as much as I do.

But we have to stand up – all of us who claim to believe in a loving God – and say to the whole world, ‘We cannot do this kind of thing in the name of God’. I say this as a Christian, one who believes the things that Jesus taught about God and what God asks of us. Jesus taught us that little children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, that the way we treat a little child is the way we treat him, and that the children’s angels in heaven always see the face of his heavenly Father. Furthermore, he called on all his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who hate them, to turn the other cheek, and to imitate God who pours out his love on good and bad alike. To murder a child in the name of God is completely incompatible with these teachings of Jesus.

It is not, however, incompatible with some of the stories in the Old Testament, in which God is purported to have commanded his people to destroy cities and kill all their inhabitants – men, women, and children. I think we Christians have to face those passages honestly and say, “Jesus taught us a better way”. There is a reason why the writer to the Hebrews tells us that the new covenant is better than the old. There is a reason why, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you” (see Matthew 5:21-48). We Christians believe that the Word of God in all its fulness is found in Jesus Christ; everything else in the scriptures is seen in the light of his life and teaching.

I am not familiar with the sacred texts of other religions in the same way that I know the Bible, but I am aware of many Jewish and Muslim people who say that they, too, interpret their holy books in such a way as to emphasize the love of God for all people. I hope that they will stand together and say, as I want to say, ‘Our God doesn’t kill kids!’ Those who are murdering children in God’s name must stop misrepresenting the God of love who hates nothing he has made, but loves everyone and wants everyone to come to him and live by his love.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Pakistan tonight. As my Facebook friend Steve Martens says, ‘I judge a person’s religion by the amount of love they show everyone’. I pray that the people of Jesus will be faithful to the teaching of Jesus, and that the followers of all religions will proclaim the love and compassion of God for all people, and God’s desire that all people learn to live together in peace and justice.

Cross-posted to Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network

Random Discipleship Thoughts: Grace

If discipleship is about following Jesus, and following Jesus includes learning to become like him, then surely grace is at the heart of discipleship. After all, when St. Paul wanted to isolate a single characteristic of Jesus, he chose grace: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all’ (2 Corinthians 13:13, italics mine).

Consider a story:

At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11 NIV 2011)

Here is grace in action: Jesus does not join in the chorus of condemnation, but instead makes it possible for this woman to have a future different from her past.

Consider another story:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10, NIV 2011)

Zacchaeus was a notorious sinner in Jericho. As a tax collector he was a collaborator with the hated Romans; tax collectors were not allowed in synagogues, and religious Jews were supposed to avoid any social contact with them. No doubt the righteous folk of Jericho had scolded Zacchaeus for his sins many times over, but with no results whatsoever. But Jesus tries a different strategy, and it has a transformational effect on Zacchaeus’ life. He is transformed by the experience of grace.

What is grace? Grace is love that you don’t have to earn. You don’t get it because you’re good enough or beautiful enough, or successful enough, or any other ‘enough’. It comes to you as a free gift, because God is love.

Jesus lived his whole life on the principle of grace. Someone has described it as ‘loving the unlovely into lovableness’. Another person says it involves remembering that ‘the ground is level at the foot of the cross’ – in other words, Jesus died for sinners, and we’re all included. Philip Yancey says that grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less; God already loves me infinitely, and nothing is going to change that.

At the heart of the gospel is a story of a God who loves his enemies. Jesus says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. (Matthew 5:43-48 NIV 2011)

God continues to pour out his love on those who love him and those who hate him, and Jesus calls the children of God to imitate their heavenly Father. I thought about this today, as we continue to read stories about endless killings and reprisals in Gaza, and in the Ukraine the horrific story of an airliner shot down out of the sky in cold blood. When have reprisals ever worked in these situations? Surely the only hope is for people to learn Jesus’ way of forgiveness and grace. Continuing to be bound by the chains of the past will only lead to duplication of the events of the past. Only forgiveness and reconciliation offer hope for a different future, and they are predicated on an attitude of grace.

Jesus continued to practice the way of grace himself, even in the hardest moment of his life:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:32-34 NIV 2011).

So the one who taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who hated them also practiced what he preached.

This is where discipleship starts. ‘This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). Discipleship doesn’t start with my efforts to be like Jesus; it starts with the joyful realization that God’s love for me doesn’t depend on the success of those efforts. That’s what grace tells me: God doesn’t give me what I deserve, he gives me what I need. And when I am transformed by God’s grace, this will be my attitude as well. ‘Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:11 NIV 2011).

You Will Be My Witnesses (a sermon for the Ascension of Jesus)

Many years ago when you were travelling to a foreign country and going through customs, it was common to hear a uniformed officer ask you “Do you have anything to declare?” If you said, “Yes”, you knew you were in for some questioning! Many people who had some illegal product to declare actually said, ‘No’, to save themselves the trouble; some got away with it, and some didn’t.

Today I often wonder if the world is unconsciously asking this question of the Christian Church: ‘Do you have anything to declare?’ In other words, in the face of all the pain in the world, do we have a message from God to declare, a message that will make a difference, and bring hope to people’s lives? Because a church with ‘nothing to declare’ has no reason to exist, except to be a kind of spiritual country club for its members. A strong church needs a strong message to declare to the world.

What is our strong message? As I listen to people in the Anglican Church talking, I sometimes get a sinking feeling about this. I sometimes get the sense that our message is ‘We have beautiful worship that dates back to Henry VIII, and a nice loving community where you can get a sense of acceptance and belonging’. Well, I’m sorry, but have you noticed that not too many people are interested in Henry VIII these days? And if all you have to offer is a sense of community, there are lots of offers on the market that don’t require you to volunteer and tithe! So we’re going to have to do better than that.

The story of the Ascension can help us with this. What is the message of the Ascension? It’s simple and provocative: Jesus Christ is Lord of all. That’s what Ascension Day means.

This was the beginning of my sermon for today. You can read the rest here.

Acts 3 & 4: Israel and Jesus (‘Starting at the Beginning’ Part 4)

Link back to Part 3

We’ve been looking at the  story of God’s involvement with us as being like a play in six acts. We looked at the first ‘Act’, the creation of all that exists, and the second ‘Act’, in which the human characters rebel against the Author of the Story. Today we go on to Acts 3 and 4.

Act 3: Israel
I began to learn to play the guitar by myself with the help of an instructional book. This book taught me some basic chords and techniques, but my progress was slow and difficult. This changed, however, after I met some more experienced guitarists and was able to watch and listen to them. They were my models, and by imitating them I was able to make much better progress.

God wants a group of people who will learn a different way of living and will model it for the world around them, so that everyone can see that God’s will is good. God wants a countercultural community. And so, as Act 3 begins, God chooses one elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, calling them to leave their family and go to a new land. They are told that God is going to bless them and make their name great, and that through them God is going to bless all the families on the face of the earth (see Genesis 12:1-3). Although they are too old to have children, God gives them a miracle child, Isaac. Isaac becomes the father of Jacob, and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the ancestors of the famous ‘twelve tribes of Israel’.

The story goes on to tell us how, many years later, God led those tribes out of slavery in Egypt back into their own land of Israel. Through all the hundreds of years that followed, God was patiently teaching them. Here are some of the lessons they learned:

  1. Their God was the one and only God, and the idols of the nations around them were false gods.
  2. Their God was the Creator of everything; therefore all of creation belonged to God.
  3. Their God was holy and good. Consequently God wanted them to live lives of goodness and holiness as well, and gave them commandments to show them the kind of life they needed to live in order to be a blessing to the world.

Over the hundreds of years of their story, these people were often unfaithful and disobedient to God. God was patient with them, welcoming them back whenever they turned from their disobedience.

Act 4: Jesus
In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken mentions how, although every author starts writing a book with some kind of plan in mind for the plot, it often happens that the characters run away with the plot and start behaving in ways the author did not intend at the beginning. This, says Vanauken, is what happened to God’s world. He goes on to say that perhaps there was only one way for the Divine author to bring the story back to its original purpose. That way was for God to enter the story as a character and actually meet the other characters on their own level, talk with them, and invite them back to the original plan.

Incredible though it may sound, that is exactly what God did. In Act 4 God stepped onto the stage, as one of the characters in the story of Earth, Jesus of Nazareth. You can be sure that if the Creator of the universe has actually visited this planet in Jesus, then the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has to be the most important story ever told in human history.

That story was recorded for us in the biblical documents we call the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They tell of how Jesus was born in unusual circumstances in Bethlehem, and grew up in Nazareth near the Lake of Galilee. At the age of thirty he left his home and began a travelling ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. The basic them of his teaching was “The kingdom of God is at hand!” which meant that the time had come when God’s kingly rule was going to be extended over this broken and spoiled world. God was going to defeat evil and restore creation to its original purpose. Jesus believed that this was happening through his ministry.

Early in his ministry Jesus began to gather apprentices who could carry on his work; traditionally, we have called them ‘disciples’ or ‘apostles’. A lot of the material in the gospel accounts comes from them. In those days Jewish rabbis taught their disciples by making them memorize their teaching, and we have no reason to believe that Jesus was any different. Gradually as these apprentices progressed in their training, Jesus sent them out on teaching and healing missions of their own.

But Jesus also aroused considerable opposition from the religious establishment, and this led to the strangest part of the whole story. It sounds like a defeat, but the New Testament tells us that it is in fact a victory. We are told that toward the end of his ministry (we don’t know exactly how long this lasted, but it seems likely that it was about three years) Jesus was arrested by the authorities in Jerusalem, given a mock trial before the ruling council of Israel, and then handed over to the Romans, who executed him by crucifixion. This presented a problem for his followers. They had believed him to be the ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’ in Greek), ‘the anointed One’, the King sent by God to bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace. But would God have allowed the Messiah to be arrested and executed? That was not in the script they had read in the old prophecies!

However, on the third day strange things began to happen. Some of the women went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Followers of Jesus began to see him alive again. He met with them over the next six weeks and taught them the true significance of what had happened. Gradually, as they looked back and reflected on all of this, they came to understand that, through his death and resurrection, Jesus had somehow healed the great breach between God and humanity, which was opened up when the first human beings rebelled against God. The story goes on to tell us how, before he ascended into heaven, Jesus sent out his first apprentices to tell the story to others and invite them to be a part of it as well. And so the church was born.

In the next instalment, we are going to skip Act 5 for a moment, look at Act 6, and then reflect on what we have learned so far about God and his story.

Act 2: Rebellion (Starting at the Beginning 3)

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In the previous section we introduced the idea of the story of God’s involvement with us as like a play in six acts. We also looked at the first ‘Act’, the creation of all that exists. Now we go on to Act 2: ‘Rebellion’.

God decided to give human beings the terrifying gift of free will. We can understand why God would do that. If we created an android and programmed it with a microchip requiring it to love us, that might be an enjoyable experience for us for a while, but eventually it would come to seem hollow, because we would know that our android had no choice in the matter. In the same way, if God had simply created human beings with no choice about whether or not they would love God, their love would not be real, because real love requires freedom of choice.

In Genesis chapter 3 we read about how the first human beings we tempted by a snake – an obvious symbol for the forces of evil – to step outside God’s will for them and choose their own road instead. They were told that if they did this, “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, all quotes from NIV 2011). They gave way to this temptation, and as a result, sin and brokenness entered their lives.

Not only was their relationship of trust and love with God broken, but also their relationships with each other and with the world around them were disrupted. They were evicted from their beautiful garden home, a symbolic way of saying that paradise was lost to them as a result of their choice to rebel against God. Their sin had an effect on the natural world around them as well; God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Genesis 3:17-18).

This story teaches that the world as we see it now is not the world as God intended it to be. It has been infected with evil. This evil is not just a force external to us as human beings. Jesus told us that it is in us as well, in our ‘hearts’. He said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, from a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).

A good way of summing up what we have learned from Acts 1 and 2 is a scene from the old Robin Williams movie Good Morning Vietnam. In this scene Louis Armstrong is singing his song ‘What a Wonderful World’. It paints a lovely picture of green trees and red roses, blue skies with white clouds, and friends shaking hands. But as Rico Tice points out in Christianity Explored, the song says one thing but the pictures in the movie say another. They are pictures of war in Vietnam. As we are told that the roses ‘bloom for me and you’, we see a child in the foreground and a bomb going off in the background. As we hear the words, ‘the colours of the rainbow so pretty in the sky’, we see protesters being beaten up and a young man being shot. And, most poignant of all, the chorus, “‘I say to myself, what a wonderful world’ is accompanied by images of the bloodied sandal of a little child.

This is the world as we see it today. It is a place that was made by a good and loving God, and it still contains many signs of God’s goodness and love. Yet we know that it is also infested with evil and sin. Evil has infected God’s good creation and spoiled God’s beautiful plan for the world. Instead of binding the world together, the loudest voices are often those of self-centredness and anger.

But God has not given up on creation. God intends to delve fit from its captivity to evil. And so, stay tuned for Act 3…

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Act 1: Creation (Starting at the Beginning 2)

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In the last section I talked about how we all need a story to live by, and how the story of God and God’s dealings with creation turns out to be something like a play with six acts. In this section I’ll think about the first act: Creation.

In this act, God creates the universe and everything in it, including this planet on which we live. Of course, we now have a much bigger view of what this act of creation entailed than did the author of Genesis when he wrote, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1, NIV 2011). We know about the untold millions of years during which God was slowly shaping the evolution of life on this planet, preparing it for the arrival of humankind.

But the author of Genesis knew a thing or two as well. He knew that God had created human beings ‘in his own image’, as he says in Genesis 1:27. Obviously this was not meant to suggest that we look like God physically. But in a number of important ways we do resemble God. We are creators. We have a sense of right and wrong. We can make free choices rather than being slaves of our instincts. And we have been placed on this planet as God’s representatives, to care for God’s creation and protect it from harm. This is the meaning behind the symbolic language in Genesis 2:15 where we read, ‘The Lord GOD took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’ (NIV 2011).

In the beginning, the original human beings fulfilled their role as God intended. The story tells us that they lived in perfect harmony with each other with the universe, and with the God who had made them: ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31 NIV 2011).

Next up: Act 2: Rebellion.