The ideas expressed here may be controversial for some - they're intended to be.
The idea is to get you thinking about why you believe what you believe, and generate a bit of discussion.
Many blogs offer devotional inspiration, I want to offer theological inspiration.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Cross - All for Nothing?


One explanation about how Jesus’ death brings salvation dates from the middle ages. It’s called Satisfaction Theory and is based upon old mediaeval ideas of honour.

It goes like this:  We have offended God’s honour and this demands that recompense (satisfaction) be made. Sadly, we can't meet the demands of God’s infinite honour, so we can never pay the debt of honour. Fortunately, Jesus voluntarily offers his perfect, sinless life to God as restitution. This makes the offer of his life an infinite recompense, and so God’s honour is duly satisfied.

The biggest problem with satisfaction theory is that it makes sin out to be God’s problem, not ours. God is all grumpy because we have upset him and only the death of his son will make him feel better. It God's attitude to us that changes, not the other way around. Looked at this way, it’s actually a compensation theory, and makes you wonder whether God would have been better off going to Injury Lawers 4U instead.

So should we abandon it altogether? Personally, I don’t think so. I think we have been guilty of taking far too literally Jesus’ words, “The Son of Man came... to give his life as a ransom for many” Mk 10:45. We get all knotted up with questions about who paid what to whom and why, and forget that there is another point to be made.

Whatever else happened on the cross, however it ‘worked’ for us, the result from our point of view is that we now owe God an impossibly huge (infinite) debt. It’s a debt for which God expects absolutely nothing in return, because it is a debt to love from which we have received all the wealth of God’s grace.

It’s a very contemporary message. There are thousands of students and others with massive loans and maxed out credit cards who know what indebtedness feels like – especially if they have been bailed out by a benefactor.

Let me put it another way, in the form of a devotional poem:

My soul’s mortgaged,
   Banked by the vaults of divine love.
And yet I’ve found a greater freedom
   Than could ever be bought by all the stores of human wealth.
This bond holds me captive in the treasury of God,
   Obliged to enjoy all the stores of heaven.
There is no exemption,
   No clause through which I may escape the purse of Grace.
I must lay aside all:
   My broken things,
     My poor things,
       My feeble things,
         My useless things,
And be abandoned to the generosity of God.
   In debt, without debt.
Owing all and owning nothing.
   I am the richest person on earth.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Mushrooms, the Church and Communion.

When asked what the largest organism on the planet is, you might suggest the blue whale or Californian redwood tree. In fact, it’s a mushroom – the honey fungus. If there was a mushroom bigger than a whale or redwood you’d think we’d have seen pictures of it. We haven’t, of course, because the mushroom you see above the ground is just the fruit of the fungus. The organism itself is a web of threads hidden underground, which can spread across the entire floor of a forest. In August 2,000 a honey fungus was discovered in Orgeon that covered over 2,200 acres (890 hectares). It was at least 2,400 years old.

So, what’s the connection between the Church and Communion? Actually, the word ‘connection’ is a clue. The fungus is a perfect illustration of the Church. When we wander through a forest, we see a mushroom here and a mushroom there. We forget that they may all share a hidden connection, and may possibly be a part of a greater whole.

It’s the same with the Christian Church. Take a tour through any town and you’ll see any number of individual churches from an equally diverse number of denominations. However, the members of the churches will (hopefully) tell you that, in spite of their differences, they all belong to the one Body of Christ.

One the most fundamental and important principles about understanding the nature of the Church of Christ is that there is a deeper connectivity in the Church than geographical co-incidence. There is a greater unity shared by all Christian believers than is to be found by merely belonging to the same local congregation or fellowship.

It is a concept that the apostle Paul comes back to again and again in his writings, but in 1 Corinthians he links the unity of the Church to sharing communion, indicating that the one is somehow representative of the other.

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” 1 Cor 10:16,17

Paul’s illustration of the Church as a human a body made up of many parts is usually used in sermons encouraging individual church members to take a more active role in their local church, but when he says, “In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” Rom12:5, Paul is actually talking about our place in the whole Body of Christ. As he says later in the same chapter, “you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it”

The principle, applied in these verses to individuals, also applies to whole local churches. Every individual and every church needs to see themselves as sharing that deeper connectivity I mentioned earlier. Why? Because this is the proper context for defining our place in the Kingdom of God.

Principally, our fellowship with one another is in Christ through the Holy Spirit, not just because we know each other’s names. Whether we are talking about a local congregation which may be hundreds of miles from its neighbour, or a solitary hermit living on a remote, we do not exist in isolation, in Christ we are all one, connected by the threads of love and grace.

Many communion services quote St Paul and talk about being one body and sharing in one loaf. Liturgical scholars stress the importance of four actions represented when we share communion; taking (the elements), thanking, breaking (the bread) and sharing. Sometimes this last one is misquoted as “giving”, implying the bread must be physically handed out by the presiding clergy, when, in point of fact, the concept involved is sharing.

As I hope you are beginning to see, the difference is more than just semantic. They are two entirely different concepts.

Giving involves two parties with different roles. There is a giver and a receiver, and as a receiver, the communicant takesa passive role in communion. If Paul’s teaching about the Church show us anything, it is that there can be no passive members of the body of Christ.
Sharing, on the other hand is a very active concept. Those taking part, president and communicant alike, show they share an equally active role in what is taking place and acknowledge that they both share in gifts of grace.

The word Paul uses in Corinthians is more like “participation”. Through Christ’s body and blood the way has been opened for us to participate in all the gifts of God’s grace. When we share communion together, we don’t take communion; we participate in it, just as we all participate in the greater unity of the Body of Christ which it signifies.

One of the criticisms levelled at my attempt to perform communion on Twitter was that celebrating communion with isolated Christians stuck in front of their computers seemed rather disembodied. After all communion is about celebrating the community of believers, the argument goes, so it can only be performed where there is a gathered, local body of believers, all of whom share a pastoral connection and are known to each other.

Hopefully, you are beginning to see that this simply isn't the case. No-one can be amputated from the body of Christ just because they are on their own. Neither does communion belong to the local church; it belongs to the whole Body of Christ. Yes, we do have significantly views about what’s taking place during communion, but when a body of believers takes bread and wine, they recognise that they do not do it in isolation. They see themselves as belonging to the whole Church of Christ, which is greater than their local, gathered community. Communion points to the fact that there is no such thing as an isolated believer.

If we say it can only be performed in a local, gathered community, not only do we risk isolating those who cannot get to a local church, we risk taking a very parochial view of communion and missing a key point, which is that there is a bigger picture of the Church than our local view.

Communion both celebrates the deep unity all Christian believers share through Christ’s death and resurrection, and at the same time looks forward to the time when all our visible differences will be dissolved in the love of God. By taking a participatory view of communion we adopt an attitude of loving humility which accepts that though we hold our own convictions, for the time being, we are not perfect and there is more to this greatest expression of God’s love than can be encapsulated by one set of beliefs.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Remote Communion - A Storm in the Communion Cup?



A longer post than usual - This is my explanation of why performing communion on the Internet is not only justifiable, but an integral part of the Church's ministry.

I seem to have created a bit of a storm in the Communion cup with my proposal to perform Communion on Twitter. It has certainly created controversy in the Methodist Church in spite of a huge amount of support for the project and only one personal letter of criticism (which was based upon a misunderstood comment by a journalist, as it turned out).

The chief allegation came from one corner of the Methodist Church who claimed it was “not a valid communion”. The main objection relates to what I would call “Remote Communion". This is where those receiving bread and wine do so at the same time as but are not located in the same place as the celebrant - they take their own bread and wine after the (broadcast) communion prayer. This, it was said, made the act of communion disembodied.

As I see it, the issue boils down to two questions:
Is remote communion a valid communion?
Is the Christian community on the internet a valid, gathered Christian community?
If the answer to both these questions is “yes”, then a communion service performed for such a community of believers must be valid and may be performed.

First, we can appeal to the many Biblical texts which make it clear that Christ is everywhere present with all believers and that, in spite of differences in some beliefs and practice, there is only one Body of Christ. This is enshrined in the Nicene Creed and many communion liturgies. When we celebrate communion, we ask that God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, bless all the elements involved to everyone participating.

If Christ is with all believers everywhere, there is no particular reason why all the elements and participants in a communion must be in the same room.To say God’s blessing is restricted to the physical space in which the presiding minister is present places limitations on the working of God’s grace and power. It also suggests the power of God to bless His people in Communion can ONLY work through an intermediary - which I believe is contrary to the teaching of the Bible.

A key point is the words of Jesus who said, "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I with them." In other words, wherever there is a gathered community of believers, whether in a single geographical location or in the Spirit, they should not be hindered from sharing bread and wine together. If two or three believers are joined in the Spirit through prayer, Christ is with them.

Holy Communion is a corporate celebration for a gathered community, but it's the presence of God in Christ that makes them a gathered community, not a geographical location. Members of Internet communities like Facebook, Twitter and forums have a real sense of community belonging and see themselves as a part of a real, tangible communities. In fact for unknown numbers, the Internet is their only source of fellowship, and the Christian community there is their only Church. Christ is truly present among believers gathered for fellowship on the Internet, as a gathered body of believers surely they deserve every form of ministry the Christian Church offers, including it's most significant feast.

The astounding success of the Internet communion celebrated in the Parish of Luss in Scotland is testimony to the fact that it can be accepted with all the gravity and seriousness communion requires (www.lussonline.net). Here, Communion via the Internet is not a technological novelty – it is essential for believers in the remote islands and highlands who would otherwise be unable to participate. Very shortly after launching it's Internet communion service Luss discovered that they were getting up to 10,000 taking part. Among these were worshippers isolated from any form of fellowship in the Australian outback by a five-hour journey. For them, the little church thousands of miles away in Scotland was their church, and sharing their own bread and wine the only means for communion.

I have accepted a gracious invitation from Rev Sherrard, to go and share in one of his broadcast communion services in the hope of restoring some of the lost faith in Methodism. When the date for this event is fixed, I'll post it here and on the Twitter Communion website (www.twittercommunion.co.uk)

I'm sure that some will think I undertook to perform communion on the Internet naively. To them I would say this: In Christ we are all one. If it takes a little naivety on our part to bear witness to this fact to the world, then may the Lord teach us how to be naive.

PS. There will be a replacement service to Twitter Communion on August 14th at 22.00 BST. Prayers for Unity and Vision. Details on the website. Please join in if you are able.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Prayer is a "Deception"


Brother Lawrence, a French Lay Brother serving in a Carmelite Monastery in the 17th Century discovered the secret of living always in the presence of God. He called it, "The Practice of the Presence.” As a lay brother he worked in the kitchens and as a cobbler doing the kind of day-to-day tasks which may have otherwise kept the monks from their prayers and studies. Though he loved God very deeply this meant that he was not able to spend long periods in prayer as the monks did. Instead he found that, by keeping his love for God awake in his consciousness all the time he was doing his daily duties, he was able to live continually in the presence of God.
"It is only necessary," he says, "To realise that God is intimately present with us, to turn every moment to him and ask for his help.”
Lay brothers like Brother Lawrence were under limited vows and had to take occasional retreats and periods of withdrawal. The reason for this was that their menial tasks were regarded as a distraction from prayerful living, so it was thought that they needed these quiet days to focus their lives on God once more to regain a sense of his presence. Brother Lawrence, however, found these retreats to be an unnecessary burden. For him, even his most demanding task didn't keep him from being close to God
He went further, claiming that the idea that retreats and set prayer times (like daily prayers) are essentially different to the little prayers we say in brief moments, is a deception. Whether we are deep in prayer or totally absorbed in work or leisure, God is no further away, but how often do we rate his closeness by the degree or amount of prayer that we are capable of?

Monday, 12 July 2010

We are not saved by faith


Incredibly, the exact phrase “salvation by faith” occurs nowhere in the Bible.

The words “salvation through faith” do appear (2 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 1:5), but they convey an entirely different meaning. “Through faith” implies that faith is a passive vessel through which we receive the gift of salvation. “By faith”, on the other hand, infers that our faith is the means or method by which we obtain salvation, which sits there like some object waiting for the taking.

But, when it comes to defining exactly what it is that does save us, Paul is absolutely clear:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -
and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast” Ephesians 2:8,9

Faith doesn’t save us, Jesus does; we just have trust that it is so.
Faith is actually about trust. So much of what the Bible says about faith makes a lot more sense when you read the word “trust” for the word “faith”.

Apart from the need to swing the pendulum back a little, there are two reasons for this shift in our understanding of faith:
First, the gifts of God’s grace and all that Jesus has done for us can only be received by trust.
Second, only through trust can you live by grace.

Just pause for a moment and let that sink in. Let it be one thought you carry with you for a day or two:
It is only through trust can you live by grace.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Live World-Wide Communion on Twitter

I'm really excited about this project. Taking the Twitter Lord's Prayer idea to it's extreme, I realised that Twitter offers the possibility of sharing communion live around the world with thousands of Christians.

It's an opportunity to show the world that Christians really do belong to just one Church, and that, in spite of doctrinal differences, we can be united in celebrating our love of God in Jesus.

For more details go to http://www.twittercommunion.co.uk.

Please spread the word. Send the link to everyone on your email address list who may be interested, pass it on to Facebook friends.

We need as many people as possible to sign up.

This may possibly be the first live, global Lord's Supper ever.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Lord's Prayer For Today

This is the full version of the Lord's Prayer I wrote for Twitter. It had to be slightly abridged before it was ready for sending out.

Bringer and Nurturer of life, whose sacred name we hold precious.
May your supremacy, your desires, your plans and purposes burst from heaven into every corner of creation.
Feed our hearts, minds and bodies as we entrust ourselves into your care.
Forgive us when our self-centredness brings hurt to others and to you.
Help us to be just as gracious and just as loving with those you hurt us.
Guide us from following the seductive allure of all that draws us away from you,
And let evil’s influence over us be rendered impotent.
For yours is the sovereign rule;
Yours is the majestic, glorious power,
Throughout all time and into eternity.
Amen.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Lord's Prayer on Twitter

If you are on Twitter, you can join with me and fellow tweeters in saying a specially written contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer I've written for Twitter. Starting at 2pm on Monday 5th July, I'll be tweeting the prayer in 5 parts at hourly intervals (part 1 at 2pm, part 2 at 3pm etc).

The idea is that your day will interspersed with brief pauses for prayer.
To join in, login or sign-up to Twitter (not too tricky) and then search for TimRossMinister.
I'll send out a warning tweet a few minutes before sending each part of the prayer on the hour.
You can tweet and Amen after each one, or at the end of the prayer if you want.

I'd be grateful if you would pass this on to anyone you think might be interested (copy and paste into an email), or if you are on Twitter, please would you let your followers know and get them to follow my Twitter.

If you don't live the UK, we are on British Summer Time. You can see what time that is wherever you are by going to http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html

When the prayer is finished, I'll post the full, slightly extended version of the prayer here on the blog.

Peace with you,
Tim

Friday, 2 July 2010

Prayer is a Broadband Router

If you connect to the internet through broadband, the chances are you will have a router or similar box which feeds stuff from the web onto your computer. There are two types of routers; wireless and wired. The wireless router ‘beams’ information from the internet onto your computer giving you the ability to wander out into the garden with your laptop and surf the web from there. The problem with wireless routers is that the further you wander from the router, the weaker the signal gets, until eventually it is lost altogether.

Exchange the words “internet” for “God” and “router” for “prayer”, and you get a common teaching about how prayer works. You keep connected to God, it is sometimes said, by staying close to him in prayer, let your focus on your prayer life wander and you ‘lose the signal’. Wander too far and you may lose your connection altogether.
I'm not convinced by this argument.

The other kind of router, the wired one, is exactly what it says. Your computer is permanently connected to the router with a wire. The disadvantage is obvious; you can never be further than a cable’s length from your router. The advantage, though, is that you are permanently connected to the internet and your signal is always full strength.

It’s actually the wired router which more closely represents the nature of your relationship to God and prayer. You can’t lose your connection. Whether you surf once a day for twenty minutes or whether you connect only briefly at odd moments throughout the day makes no difference to the quality of your connection to the Web. It’s always full strength.

Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers.” John 15:5-6

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Age of the Universe – God is a liar

A 17th Century Irish bishop called James Ussher made detailed calculations taking into account recorded history along with all the events of the Bible. When he finished, he discovered that the universe actually began on October 3rd, BC 4004... which we can now know was a Thursday.

Whilst such a precise date is a little hard to accept, millions of Christians and Jews continue to believe that creation began, at most, 10,000 years ago. According to Wikipedia, “As of 2008 a Gallup poll indicated that 36% of US adults agreed with the statement ‘human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.’, 14% believed that ‘Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.’ and 44% of US adults agreed with the statement ‘God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.’” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Earth_Creationism

If they are right, then, according the Bible, God must be a liar.
Why? Take a look at Romans 1:20 which says, “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

In essence, this is says that God made creation as the ultimate visual aid – to help us understand what He is like. In other words, true science isn’t an evil atheist conspiracy. We are supposed to probe and investigate creation, that’s what it’s there for. With the proper frame of mind, exploring and considering the universe will help us discover God's invisible qualities.

So how does this make God a liar?
According to science, light has speed. It travels at 700 million miles an hour (and you thought Usain Bolt was fast!). So if I strike a match whilst standing on the surface of the sun, assuming you could see me, I’d be so far away that you wouldn’t notice for 8½ minutes... by which time it would be too late to tell me what an idiot I was. The key thing is, you’re looking back in time. If I were to do the same thing on our nearest star, it would be 4 years before the light of the match reached you.

Go out a little further and light from the nearest galaxy to ours takes 2 ½ million years to reach us. The furthest object astronomers have seen is a galaxy which is so far away that its light takes 12.3 billion to get here.

There are only two possible conclusions you can come to these facts:
1.    The universe really is billions of years old, as science says.
OR
2.    God created the universe with all the light rays from distant stars already in place.

If the latter is true, then our God-given ability to explore and question would lead us to the wrong answer to the question of the age of the universe. God would have made creation in such a way as to mislead us, making him a deceiver – a liar, in other words.

Though the history of science shows it doesn’t always get things right, God simply cannot have made creation to deceive us in any way. If there were anything misleading about the universe, we would not be able to trust any scientific experiment or its conclusions. Nothing we see and experience in the universe would be certain, because any one part of could potentially be ‘faked’ by God.

The mistake some scientists (and atheists) make is thinking that science is the only way to understand the universe.
The mistake some Christians make is thinking that a literal understanding of the Bible is the only way to understand the universe.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The Parable of the Vegetable Soup Coach


A popular idea amongst Christians is that the only way to be a church is to band together with like minded people who believe similar things and like the same kind of worship. It seems like the obvious thing to do, doesn’t it? But what about Jesus’ teaching that our unity and love will be a witness to him? I’d like to offer the following parable as food for thought (excuse the pun):

There was a woman who liked to go on coach tours.
It so happened that all the coach tours in her country had vegetable soup for lunch.  The very first coach company only ever had mixed vegetable soup, but there were some who didn’t like some of the vegetables so they left and formed new coaches of their own. There was the mushroom soup coach, the sweetcorn coach, the carrot coach, the potato coach and so on. This woman liked the leek coach. Year after year she went with the leek coach and was very happy.


Now some travellers came from the potato coach and joined the leek coach, and, in time, a little bit of potato was added to the leek soup. The woman was unhappy about this, but she put up with the change. Then other travellers from the sweetcorn coach appeared, and so sweetcorn came to be added to the soup.

For the woman, this was a step too far. Her coach was no longer a pure leek soup coach. She wanted less of the new vegetables, and more leek in her soup. Other travellers on the coach felt there wasn’t enough potato, whilst others felt that more sweetcorn was needed. Fierce arguments broke out among the travellers about what kind of soup they should have, and it seemed impossible that they could continue to share the same coach.

Then the coach company’s director came.
He said that from now on, the coach would be a mixed vegetable soup coach. Their soup would be made up of all the vegetables.

The woman thought this would be a disaster, “Vegetable soup is a compromise,” she thought, “It will be bland, boring, and have little flavour.” But this proved not to be the case. With so many different vegetables, the soup had a new and unexpected richness. What is more, because the recipe varied from one tour to the next, the soup was different every time. It was always a surprise to see the how the soup would taste, and this made the coach tour more exciting. So, although the woman occasionally missed her leek soup, she preferred the variety that mixed vegetable soup brought to the tour, and she was happy.

A church that is all one flavour will end up being a church full of Christians of only one flavour. Throwing all the vegetables into the same pot won't make a church (and its worship) bland. But we do have to make a choice. We have to choose to discern the richness and depth of flavour that variety brings, because I firmly believe that God is a mixed vegetable soup person.