Tag Archives: Faith

World of Wonders

Another classic by Bruce Cockburn: “World of Wonders”, and somewhat relevant to my last post, I think.


Stand on a bridge before the cavern of night
Darkness alive with possibility
Nose to this wind full of twinkling lights
Trying to catch the scent of what’s coming to be (in this…)

World of wonders…

Somewhere a saxophone slides through changes
Like a wet pipe dripping down my neck
Gives me a chill — sounds like danger
But I can’t stop moving till I cross this sector (of this…)

World of wonders…

There’s a rainbow shining in a bead of spittle
Falling diamonds in rattling rain
Light flexed on moving muscle
I stand here dazzled with my heart in flames (at this…)

World of wonders…

Moment of peace like brief arctic bloom
Red/gold ripple of the sun going down
Line of black hills makes my bed
Sky full of love pulled over my head

World of wonders…


From Girl Meets God:

I have written [in my prayer book] this, from Diana Eck’s Encountering God:

The Latin credo means literally “I give my heart.”  The word believe is a problematic one today, in part because it has gradually changed its meaning from being the language of certainty so deep that I could give my heart to it, to the language of uncertainty so shallow that only the “credulous” would rely on it.  Faith…is not about propositions, but about commitment. It does not mean that I intellectually subscribe to the following list of statements, but that I give my heart to this reality. Believe, indeed, comes to us from the Old English belove, making clear that this too is meant to be heart language.  To say, “I believe in Jesus Christ” is not to subscribe to an uncertain proposition.  It is a confession of commitment, of love.

And then on the first page of my prayer book, a quotation from the Gospel of Mark: “Lord, I believe; Help thou mine unbelief.”

Once, when we were still dating, Steven read aloud to me from an obscure British novel…he read a scene in which a believer and a cynic are debating God. Of course I know you believe in it, the cynic says, what I want to know is do you believe in it the way you believe in Australia? Some days, I believe the Christian story even more than I believe in Australia…

Living the Christian life, however, is not really about that Australia kind of believing.  It is about a promise to believe even when you don’t. After all, when I stand up in church to say the Creed, it may well be that that very morning I didn’t really know for sure that some fifteen-year-old-virgin got pregnant with a baby who was really God.  Saying the Creed is like vowing to love your bride forever and ever.  That vow is not a promise to feel goopy and smitten every morning for the rest of your life.  It is a promise to live love, even, especially, when you don’t feel anything other than annoyance and disdain. (Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God, p. 268-269)

This reminds me of a couple of things I’ve quoted here before:

The goal of faith is not to create a set of immutable, rationalized, precisely defined and defendable beliefs to preserve forever.  It is to recover a relationship with God.  (Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty)


major theories in the areas of mathematics, physics, and psychology…involve a prior decision as to what is fundamental in the area studied… All of them rest on fundamental assumptions which can be questioned.  But the questioning, if it is to be rational, has to rely on other fundamental questions which can in turn be questioned.  It follows…that there can be no knowing without personal commitment.  We must believe in order to know. (Leslie Newbiggin, Proper Confidence)

Infant baptism

I grew up in Baptist circles, where baptism is only for those who have made a conscious decision to follow Christ–“believer’s baptism” it is called.  Infant baptism is a no-no in that group–it is invalid, non-binding, what have you. I now belong to a denomination in which both infant baptism and believer’s baptism is practiced. If a parent decides they want to baptize their infant, our pastors will do so; if the parents would rather dedicate their infant (“dry baptism”, according to infant baptizers), that’s acceptable, too. I’m okay with this. I’ve never heard a convincing argument against infant-baptism, as the argument from silence (i.e. the Bible never explicitly mentions it) is always unconvincing, and for reasons given below.  I may have heard good arguments in favour of infant baptism, but I don’t remember them. So I choose to remain agnostic and let someone else make those decisions for me.  And I happen to find myself in a denomination which walks the middle ground: they do both.

A couple of days ago I was having a conversation with someone in which “the sinner’s prayer” came up, and it suddenly dawned on me that the anti-infant-baptism position of the churches of my youth is rather inconsistent. As far as I recall, all the churches attended prior to joining our current denomination were non-sacramental.  That is, to them things like the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, communion) or baptism have no efficacy, they are not “an outward sign of an inward grace”–Jesus is in no way present in the Lord’s Supper, but is simply remembered through it; baptism is not a means of grace, nor is it the path to membership in the body of Christ, but simply a public declaration of one’s faith (it is this declaration, rather than the baptism itself, which marks one’s joining the body of Christ).

Even during the communion service at my mom’s church this morning, while the pastor repeatedly asserted that Jesus is actually always with us, when we consumed the bread and juice, he declared that we remembered Jesus as we did so. That seemed strangely incongruous to me. Perhaps he meant that we remember Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but in using the term “remember” we do mean something that has happened, something in the past, rather than something in the present. Perhaps I digress.

For churches that see things like communion and baptism merely as symbolic acts with no intrinstic effect or deeper meaning, they seem to be remarkably adamant about who can be baptized and how they are  to be baptized. If it’s merely a symbolic act, what difference does the who and how really make?  The problem is probably precisely the fact that baptism is seen as non-sacramental. If it is a declaration and nothing more, how can an infant make such a declaration?

Still, there is the dry baptism–the baby dedication. Is it much different than an infant baptism?  I don’t know; I haven’t witnessed an infant baptism. I suspect, however, that the difference between a baptism and a dedication is mostly in how much water is used (some vs. none), though some of the wording might also be different.

And then there’s the classic Toddler Point of Conversion. If you grew up in a Christian family, you might be familiar with it.  It was quite common among my church-going peers to say something like, “I became a Christian when I was four years old.” (Age four really does seem like the magic year.) This inevitably means that they said “The Sinner’s Prayer” some time that year. The Sinner’s Prayer (for a four-year-old) in summary: you say you’re sorry for your sins and you ask Jesus to come into your heart so that you can go to heaven. I quite clearly remember my Point of Conversion, and from what I can recall and what my mom recounts, I did in  avery simplistic way understand what that prayer was all about. What that meant in my life immediately afterwards, I don’t know, but I suspect very strongly that it had less to do with me and more to do with the Spirit of Christ. But I digress again.

But is a four-year-old asking Jesus into his or her heart and thereby being declared “saved” much different than a baby being baptized and thereby being declared a member of the body of Christ? Ah, you say, but the four-year-old has made his or her own decision to follow Christthere’s the difference. To which I respond, firstly, has he or she really made his or her own decision? How informed can a four-year-old really be? And secondly, isn’t this business of making one’s own decision decidedly modern and individualistic? Sure, we must all choose at some point–but is it the personal decision what gives conversion its efficacy? What makes us think we can do this on our own anyway? What if the decision isn’t exclusively mine? What if I never really make a “decision for Christ” but merely find myself in and with him?

To that end, I like Lauren Winner’s community-oriented perspective on the question of baptism:

Sometimes people wonder how babies can be baptized; indeed, that very wondering is the genesis of the Baptist church. Baptists believe babies shouldn’t be baptized. They say there’s no scriptural precedent for it, that Jesus and John were both baptized as adults. Hannah, who’s a Baptist, often says that a baby can’t promise to do everything one promises in baptism. I have never found this a very persuasive argument. It strikes me as too individualistic. The very point is that no baptismal candidate, even an adult, can promise to do those things all by himself. The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf. It is for that reason that I love to see a baby baptized. When a baby is baptized, we cannot labor under the atomizing illusion that individuals in Christ can or should go this road alone. When a baby is baptized we are struck unavoidably with the fact that this is a community covenant, a community relationship, that these are communal promises. (Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God, 80)

“The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf.” I like that. We do the same thing when we dedicate a baby, of course, but we skip the water. I’m not sure why.

I wonder if all this “Jesus is your personal saviour” business, even if it is true, is undermining our sense of community, of being part of the body of Christ, of being inextricably linked to each other through Christ, that we are all in this together, not just a bunch of individually saved people who happen to meet together on Sunday mornings and occasionally mid-week.

It’s strange, now that I think about it, how we don’t like this idea of making a promise on somebody’s behalf, which is what both baptism and dedication are. We don’t like it because we think we should make all of our own choices–no one should make them for us, and if they do, they are invalid promises and I don’t have to honour them.

On behalf of someone. On behalf of people. Isn’t that precisely the story of Christ’s death and resurrection? Why are we so afraid, so resistant to this idea of doing things on behalf of others when this is precisely what Christians believe about the cross? Doesn’t this resistance move us away from the cross, even to the point of saying, No thanks, Jesus. You can’t do that on my behalf. You’re infringing on my right to choose for myself. Stay out of my business, thanks.

I don’t know.  There’s much more that could be said.  As I was writing this I began to realize that the theological rabbit hole goes deep and I’ve only skimmed the surface. But there you have it, for now.

The Doors of the Sea

Some of you might have noticed the question I posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday: how do you reconcile the existence of a good God with suffering? Some of you even responded.

I asked this question out of sheer frustration with my multiple failed attempts at expressing my thoughts in response to David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? The assignment was to articulate whether or not I thought that Hart provided a satisfactory answer to the question of how we reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil and suffering.

Much of the first half of the book is spent undermining the various theodocies articulated by both Christians and atheists shortly after the tsunami which occurred on New Year’s Eve 2004. I won’t go into more detail than simply saying that Hart dismisses them (with arguments, mind you).  According to Hart, the only real challenge to the Christian understanding of God is provided by the character Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.

He willingly grants, he says, that all wounds will at the last be healed, all scars will disappear, all discord will vanish like a mirage…and that such will be the splendor of the finale of all things, when that universal harmony is established, that every heart will be satisfied, all anger soothed, the debt for every crime discharged, and everyone made capable of forgiving every offense and even of finding justification for everything that has ever happened to mankind; and still rejects the world that God has made, and that final harmony with it…[because] the terms of the final happiness God intends for his creatures are greater than his conscience can bear” (38-9)

And then Ivan presents his interlocutor (Alyosha) with “a grim, unremitting, remorseless recitation of stories about the torture and murder of (principally) children — true stories, as it happens, that Dostoyevski had collected from the press and from other sources” (39). Ivan’s examples are truly heartbreaking and I could not–indeed still cannot–remove them from my mind as I tried to write my response.

He tells of Turks in Bulgaria tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs with daggers, or flinging infants into the air to catch them on bayonets before their mothers’ eyes, or playing with babies held in their mothers’ arms — making them laugh, enticing them with the bright metal barrels of pistols — only then to fire the pistols into the babies’ faces. He tells the story of two parents regularly savagely flogging their seven-year-old daughter, only to be acquitted in court of any wrongdoing. He tells the story of a…couple who tortured  their five-year-old daughter with constant beatings, and who — to punish her, allegedly, for fouling her bed — filled her mouth with excrement and locker her on freezing nights in an outhouse. (39)

And then, perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all:

…he invites Alyosha to imagine that child, in the bitter chill and darkness and stench of that place, striking her breast with her tiny fist, weeping her supplications to “gentle Jesus,” begging God to release her from her misery, and then to say whether anything…could possibly be worth the brutal absurdity of that little girl’s torments (39-40).

Indeed.  Indeed.

This is the only real challenge to Christian thinking because it is a complaint that is deeply rooted in Christian thought (Dostoyevski was a man of intense faith). Hart’s final answer seems to be no answer–at least, no rational answer.  I’m fine with that.  That’s my response, too.

But before he gets there he argues for the distinction between what God wills and what God permits and how that relates to created human freedom.  God is not culpable, ultimately, in Hart’s view, and he then points us to God’s final victory–the thing Ivan believes in but ultimately rejects.

I don’t believe God is culpable either, and I, too, believe in the victory of God.

And yet, and yet, and yet…there is still that girl beating her tiny fists against her breast.  How can any response be made in the face of that image?  How can we do anything but be silent in the face of such suffering, as Hart, ironically, suggests would have been the most appropriate response to the 2004 tsunami?  My beef with Hart’s response–so far as it is one–is that no matter how you cut it, there is still that suffering little girl.

I struggled intensely with articulating my thoughts in this paper, and I think now it was because the theological and philosophical and ontological tension inherent in the question of evil had made its way into not only my head but also my heart.  While his belief that death and suffering and evil have no meaning or function in God’s economy (i.e. they are an anomaly), I was not ultimately not satisfied with Hart’s attempt at theodicy (reconciling a loving God with the existence of evil) because ever and again the image of that little girl crying and pounding her fists come to mind.  And yet I still share the same belief and hope as Hart: that God will one day make all things new.  But how to I reconcile that?

If there’s one thing I don’t have a solid grasp on in terms of faith, it’s the Christian notion of the victory of God now, rather than just at some point in the future. When Christ said on the cross, “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about his life, but about the victory of God.  And yet evil appears to carry on apace. Again, how do we reconcile the two?  I asked this question in class today and my prof quoted Karl Barth (I think–it may have been Martin Luther), who said, “The old Adam is drowned, but the bastard keeps swimming” (that was what he said to me in private–in class he said, “the bugger”, which, depending on where you come from, is no less vulgar).  I approached him after class and asked if Barth’s statement (“the one about the swimming bugger”) wasn’t a contradiction–if he’s drowned, the bastard most certainly shouldn’t be swimming.  In response, my prof made another comparison: a chicken with its head cut off will still run around for a couple of minutes–it’s dead, but in a way it doesn’t realize it yet (or it’s in denial), so it tries to keep on with what ever it has been doing.

This made sense to me, but still isn’t satisfying. I guess I just want all suffering to stop–what sane person doesn’t?–and the fact that it hasn’t yet drives me nuts.  I don’t like that tension. But I realized that I’m a typical modern(ist?) evangelical, and my prof concurred, who likes to have everything neatly packaged and arranged and explained and spelled out.  We want answers and explanations. We want an apology (in the sense of apologetics).  There is not much place for mystery in the evangelical mind.

I was going to link to a .pdf of my paper, but it occurred to me that it won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book and there’s no need to trouble people with out-of-context ideas.  I can’t say I haven’t marvelled at not falling into total despair, perhaps even rejecting God the way Ivan does.  But I don’t think this is the obvious or natural answer to the question.  Somehow–by the grace of God, I guess–I still believe that all shall be well, while at the same time recognizing that suffering is real and that there is no appropriate response to suffering in the moment of suffering other than silence or weeping.

I guess I’ll have to learn to live with that tension for now.

Defending Genre in the Bible

Does [the Bible] match up with scientific evidence? Who cares? … I do not believe science, history or archaeology of any kind establishes the truthfulness of the scripture in any way. Scripture is true by virtue of God speaking it. If God spoke poetry, or parable, or fiction or a prescientific description of creation, it is true without any verification by any human measurement whatsoever. The freedom of God in inspiration is not restricted to texts that can be interpreted “literally” by historical or scientific judges of other ages and cultures beyond the time the scriptures were written.

In my view, both the scientific establishment’s claims to debunk Genesis and the creationists claims to have established Genesis by way of relating the text to science are worthless.

…Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself? – iMonk

iMonk’s idea might make some of us uncomfortable.  And, to be sure, archeological and historical research at the very least provides some affirmation of the Bible.

However, I think iMonk’s point is very important: we tend to argue for the authority of the Bible based on imported categories–categories set in a field which fundamentally has no place for such a thing as “inspired” scripture or anything supernatural in the first place–or by meeting some kind of external standard of acceptance.  But when we do that we are essentially handing the Church’s text to those who already reject it as anything but an ordinary book and saying, “Here: you decide.” This is a mistake.  The Bible is the Church’s text and need not be handed to those outside the church to be vetted by their external categories.

And this is true of other issues as well.  From what I’ve read of Stanley Hauerwas, for example, his MO is to refuse to debate ethical issues based on non-theological categories.  So in Abortion Theologically Understood, he suggests that for Christians the question of the rights of the mother or the rights of the fetus are the wrong basis on which to look at this subject.

It’s an interesting and refreshing way of looking at things: we are not required to think about ethics or theology or the Bible on someone else’s terms.  For most things these days those terms are what you might call “Enlightenment terms”, in which reason is, essentially, God. While I would never suggest that we should not use our reasonable faculties, I am beginning to wonder if sometimes the term “irrational”, a term with negative connotations, should be embraced a little more.

“Faith seeking understanding” (was that Augustine or Aquinas?) or “I believe so that I may understand” seem like irrational statements in our society.  But somehow those phrases carry a lot of weight and power.


…faith was for Paul [the apostle] not a particular spiritual exercise of moving through self-trust to despair to confidence in the paradoxical goodness of the judgment of God; faith is at its core the affirmation which separated Jewish Christians from other Jews, that in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah had come. A Jew did not become a Christian by coming to see God as a righteous judge and a gracious, forgiving protector. The Jew believed that already, being a Jew. What it took for him or her, to become a Christian was not some new idea about his or her sinfulness or God’s righteousness, but one about Jesus. The subjective meanings of faith for the self-aware person, and its doctrinal meanings for the believing intellect, build upon this prior messianist affirmation.  They cannot precede or replace it.

– John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (p. 215-6, emphasis mine)

I read this to mean that, in Yoder’s view (of Paul), the primary element of faith, or perhaps the beginning of faith, is not a recognition of God’s holiness or my own sinfulness (as we tend to focus on), but first and foremost a recognition and confession that Jesus is Lord.  Everything else naturally follows.

Sublime moment of the week

While I’m on the cool-down walk after my morning run, a flock of Canada geese passes overhead, flying south.  Light from the rising sun hits my face as I emerge from the shadow of a line of trees.  I watch the geese in wonder as they pass and Dale Nikkel sings quietly in my ear,

Take the time
You need this time
And I will wait for you.

Do not worry

Last night I had a sudden, but brief period of mild panic at how quickly September was passing by.  A look at the calendar reminded me not only that have 5 books to read (and comprehend) between now and October 5, along with papers, reports and day-to-day reading to prepare for class, but also that October 5 is in the VERY near future.  I weighed my options for a few minutes–could I drop a class?–but it seems that my only option at this point is to persevere.  A night of sleep settled me down, as sleep tends to do.

This morning in Seminary chapel the sermonette, if you will, was from Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus’ “do not worry” advice.  I’ll lift a couple of verses from J.B. Phillips’ translation (paraphrase?), whose turn of phrase the speaker liked, and I do too:

“So don’t worry and don’t keep saying, ‘What shall we eat, what shall we drink or what shall we wear?…your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Set your heart on the kingdom and his goodness, and all these things will come to you as a matter of course.

“Don’t worry at all then about tomorrow. Tomorrow can take care of itself! One day’s trouble is enough for one day.” (Link)

It wasn’t until I was walking home from an early afternoon class today that I made the connection between last night’s crisis and this passage from Matthew.  I’m generally reluctant to make that sort of providential connection, not wanting to appear superstitious or hyperindividualistic (God tailored that sermon just for me!)–in fact, I’m not even making any absolute claims in that regard here–but I do believe that sometimes coincidence is, paradoxically, God-guided.  Or, at the very least, coincidence often points us to God.

Anyway, I should keep that passage in mind for the next couple of years.  Don’t worry about tomorrow.  Sort out today today and tomorrow tomorrow.

Goodbye, TNIV.

Well, how’s this for a kick in the pants: Zondervan will “discontinue putting out new products with the TNIV” (Today’s New International Version.  via Brad Boydston).  It’s kind of a vague phrase: does it mean simply that they’ll continue to publish what they’re already publishing, but nothing new?  Or do they mean that they are ceasing publication altogether?  Either way, it’s bad news for the TNIV.

It’s a kick in the pants for a number of reasons: 1) it’s a fine translation embraced by a number of scholars and denominations (including my own–the Evangelical Covenant Church), 2) our church just purchased a good number of TNIV pew bibles, 3) it is my current translation of choice.

I guess it’s not that big a deal for those of us who already have a copy of the translation and are happy with it.  But if we ever need to repace it…I guess by that time the new revision of the NIV will be out.

Since its release, the TNIV has received a great deal of flack.  Inexplicably, the concern was mostly with with its gender-accurate language ethos, which the older NLT has gotten away with (and which all translations, to some degree, employ).  It was in a battle with the ESV (English Standard Version) as the new translation of choice and it appears that from a marketing standpoint (which is likely what this is all about), the TNIV lost that battle.  I find it odd that the translating committee would publish and promote a translation and then, four or five years down the road, decide that it was a mistake.  The mistake appears to be the way they handled marketing, not the translation itself.  Strange.  Why not just rename the translation?  The Good News people did it, why can’t these folks?

What bugs me is that I get the sense that this is a point for James Dobson, who led the campaign against the TNIV.  The NIV, it seems, has been enshrined by his ilk, much like the KJV was and is, as a “if it was good enough for Paul…” translation.  It appears as if the TNIV has been bullied out of the market.


I’ll continue to use my TNIV, with reference to the NRSV and any number of other translations I have at hand.  I suspect, as do the chairman of the translation committee and other commenters on the Christianity Today article, that the 2011 revision of the NIV won’t look much different than the TNIV (which, ultimately, wasn’t all that different from the NIV).

UPDATE: It looks like the initial Christianity Today piece was a bit sensationalist.  As Scot McKnight reads it, the 2011 NIV will be a revision of the TNIV.  I don’t get that from the CT article, but this interview with Douglas Moo, chairman of the translating committee, the 2011 NIV is next in a series of revisions 1970s NIV -> 1984 NIV -> early 2000’s NIVi (UK only–this was apparently the “mistake”) -> TNIV -> NIV (2011).  So that cools things a bit.  It looks like what they’re trying to do is set things up with a bit more transparency to try and avoid the backlash the TNIV experienced.  That’s still, as far as I can tell, a marketing thing, rather than a translation issue.

I do find it a bit odd that they appear to be soliciting opinions from not only scholars but also the public.  I’m not an elitist, but it seems to me that lay-suggestions (as they would be from me) would only be aesthetic suggestions.  But I guess that’s fair enough: as one commenter on Jesus Creed suggested, how about issuing the new revision in normal binding.  It was impossible to find the TNIV that wasn’t duo-tone or textured or be-flowered.  Another suggestion: make a non-red-letter edition available.  I think I’ll backtrack on my opinion of public opinion and email them right now.

As far as the bullying goes, here’s Brad Boydston’s take:

…I’m afraid that such a move is going to be perceived as a recognition of the primacy of the neo-reformed tribe, which is vying for dominance of the evangelical movement. In a nutshell, they oppose the TNIV because it uses gender inclusive language. Gender inclusive language tends to undermine the theological system they’ve established — a system which sees gender roles as a reflection of Trinitarian complementarianism.

Some of us resist such thinking on two levels. First, the system they’ve constructed involves a lot of unnatural gymnasitcs — and is internally inconsistent. Second, given the changes in American English over the past 25 years it is imperative that scripture be allowed to speak with a voice that resonates with contemporary readers. So, in areas where it is consistent with the clear intent of the biblical authors gender inclusive language is preferable.

That said, I will say that it’s quite something to stand up and say that a decade’s worth of work which you have recently completed wasn’t quite up to snuff.

Heaven in the Acts of the Apostles

A bit long, but well worth the read:

I have just finished writing a small popular-level commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. And I was struck right from the start by the fact that Acts, which of course begins with the story of the Ascension, never once speaks in the way those Collects – and the whole tradition which they embody – so easily does. At no point in the whole book does anyone ever speak, or even sound as though they’re going to speak, of those who follow Jesus following him to heaven. Nobody says, ‘well, he’s gone on before and we’ll go and join him’. And for a very good reason. When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple. It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, as Jesus himself taught us to pray. We have slipped into the easygoing language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in the sense of God’s kingdom being ‘heaven’, but the early church never spoke like that. The point about heaven is that heaven is the control room for earth. Heaven is the CEO’s office from which earth is run – or it’s supposed to be, which is why we’re told to pray for that to become a reality. And the point of the Ascension, paradoxically in terms of the ways in which generations of western Christians have seen it, is that this is the moment when that prayer is gloriously answered.

Paradoxically, of course, because we have been used to seeing ‘heaven’ as a place separated from earth, somewhere far away, way beyond the blue. But that’s not how the Bible sees it, not at all. Heaven is God’s space, and earth is our space. ‘The heavens belong to YHWH,’ declares the Psalmist, ‘and the earth he has given to the human race.’ But the point of God’s split-level good creation, heaven and earth, is not that earth is a kind of training ground for heaven, but that heaven and earth are designed to overlap and interlock (which is, by the way, the foundation of all sacramental theology, with the sacraments as one of the places where this overlap actually happens), and that one day – as the book of Revelation makes very clear – one day they will do so fully and for ever, as the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth.

And that is why, in the Acts of the Apostles, the point of the coming of the Spirit, which we shall celebrate next week, isn’t that the Spirit will comfort us in our loss of Jesus and take us to be with him. The point is that the Spirit is given so that through the work of the church the kingdom may indeed come on earth as in heaven. That is why Acts is what it is. And in case you think that might lead us into some kind of triumphalism, with the church striding through the world imposing a theocracy on it – lots of people today do indeed think that’s what it would look like to have the Christian faith impinge at all on public life, and tell scare stories about the wickedness of theocracies in order to bolster their own secular vision – in case you imagine that God’s kingdom will be forced on an unwilling world by an all-powerful church, Acts makes it quite clear that the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always – as Paul puts it in one of his letters – bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest.

…I hope it is fairly obvious that we need to learn this lesson today, and need to learn it as a matter of urgency. We live at something of a crisis point in contemporary politics, with a new Prime Minister waiting in the wings but with a country, and a parliament, that has almost forgotten what public debate, not to mention parliamentary debate, actually is, and is drifting this way and that on currents of politically correct opinion, manipulated all too easily by the media and those who control it. And of course, as with the crowds in Philippi, there is a constant desire to accuse the church of being out of step, whether it’s on assisted suicide or marriage and family or campaigning to end global debt or working for proper treatment of prisoners in our jails. And the church has for so long forgotten that it’s normal to be out of step, has for so long supposed that as long as it was getting people ready for a distant destination called ‘heaven’ it really shouldn’t be worrying about what went on on earth, that we have forgotten the real message of Acts, the real message of the Ascension, which is that of course the church, in the power of the Spirit, will be called to bear witness to Jesus Christ precisely at the pressure points, the places where society and governments are drifting away from the good order which God wills for his world and for all his human creatures.  (NT Wright – read the whole thing)