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Christianity: about community?

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Last week, I wrote a post in which I highlighted the shift, in terms of focus, from nations to individuals between Old and New Testaments; in order to stress the importance of individual relationships rather than merely corporate ones. This week, I’m looking at the community aspect of Christianity.


Background: adapted from GreatPaperWolf, reused under CC license.

No better way to start than quoting a comment from last week:

The reformation, while rightly seeking to distance itself from the then overtly controlling religiosity of the Catholic church may have taken a step too far in their emphasis of individual salvation and personal faith.

As it is eloquently put, matters of individual/corporate nature of faith are matters of emphasis. Individual salvation and personal faith are Biblical. In fact, the picture painted in Luke 17 goes a long way to show that simply being with those who are saved is no guarantee of salvation. But this is “only” an eschatological matter.

Practice of faith is an altogether different matter. Have you ever noticed the following verse:

For when two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.

Matthew 18:20 (NIV)

It is usually read as “there is no need for massive congregations to worship”, but it is two or three – not one: there is no talk of individual worship. Of course, there are other moments where, say, individual prayer is commended; but it is clear that community is important.

After all, all-consuming, all-pervasive relationships are at the heart of the Trinity. On top of that, Peter was anointed to build a church – and though the meaning of church may have evolved over the centuries; originally, it seems to me that this all-consuming, all-pervasiveness was present: ἐκκλησία, generally translated as church or assembly, but which etymology could mean “called out of”, is used in the singular. Out of the many who are called, the church of Christ is, in its very substance one. That alone should be enough to ignite our passion for ecumenism (although ecumenism in itself is another subject).

The early church modelled this community way of life by pooling all their resources, and by remaining inextricably linked even when they were not geographically co-present. There is an incredibly powerful sense of acting congregationally whenever Paul exhorts us to pray for all the saints (something that might be missed out because of the power of what comes before it!).

These elements, I feel, are far more powerful than the practical ones. The advantages of communal prayer, or the description of the Church as one body are helpful to convince oneself that it is worth doing; but let us not forget in this description that the Church is not just one body: it is the body of Christ.

From the perspective of the in-up-out triangle (1), then, the sense of community coming before the individual is very strong in the in and the up vertices of the triangle. Very importantly, these all-pervasive links between individuals which form the assembly are involving us: we are part of them. It isn’t like a different organisation we can distance ourselves from: we are intrinsically in the church.

But we haven’t seen that happen in the out vertex. Of course, the vertices of the triangle are not independent; so there will be elements of community shining through in our outreach. And we will do it with the support of our community. But the other whom we are reaching out to is not a community nearly as much as it is individuals; and this should not be forgotten.

(1) Yes, I have used Lifeshapes. I feel dirty now. But for those of you who don’t know it, it is about the direction of growth both for local churches and for individuals: in (fellowship, discipleship, etc.), up (looking towards God, worship, etc.) and out (outreach, evangelism, social justice, etc.)

Christianity: about individuals?


Much of the Old Testament is about the nation of Israel as a whole. Israel is God’s chosen people: it is as a people that it is led to the promised land, is exiled, chooses a king, etc. When individuals start misbehaving, the whole nation gets the stick jointly. It works the other way around, too, although there is far less of an emphasis on the link between joint, congregational behaviour and return to grace (I can think of one explicit, though academic, instance).


Background: GreatPaperWolf, reused under CC license

The Old Testament is, then, mostly the story of the Israelites as a people and of a few heroes whose actions are directly linked with that of the people (the judges and kings, in particular). It is particularly revealing of the mindset of the Israelites to notice that the names listed in the early genealogies include those of nations we still know today, or that they are used as bywords for the whole nation (in particular, Jacob/Israel in the Psalms). Job is, admittedly, an exception (1).

The luxury afforded in the Old Covenant, of being able to say “us and them”, is now gone. The parables and the beatitudes are not generally linked with nations; and when nations get mentioned, it is in a culturally challenging fashion: the Samaritan’s behaviour surprises, and Jesus’ behaviour towards the Samaritan does to. What I consider to be one of the most powerful verses of the Epistles spells it out with no escape left to us: the New Covenant is available not simply to all nations, but to each individual. This is not to say that nations stop being relevant; but that they stop being sufficient.

This shift is twofold: “us” is no longer sufficient. We can no longer leave to the Levites the duty of prayer and worship; we can no longer leave to others the duties of care, even if we support them. And whilst we do not have to go it alone, we should not let the need for congregate action become an excuse for not doing stuff individually. To spell it out, if someone comes knocking asking for help, we should not reject them, merely sending them off to whatever organisation, justifying ourselves by the fact we financially or practically support said organisation sometimes – i.e. by the fact that we are “citizens” of that nation/organisation. We have a duty to love our neighbour, and that goes through listening. I’m not saying we should ignore the work done by organisations, or that we should do all the work they’re doing as individuals – just that we cannot use them as excuses.

“Them” is no longer sufficient either. We are no longer allowed to lump all homeless people together into a nation of homeless. We are no longer allowed to lump all drug addicts into their own nation. We are no longer allowed to lump all Catholics together. We are no longer allowed to lump all middle-class people together. Even so for coffee drinkers: they may be in the wrong, but that should not stop us from connecting with them as individuals; rather than as people who merely need to discover tea.

This is a difficult task to which we all fail. I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I don’t quite live by these values. I sometimes walk past homeless people and fail to care for the individual; and I sometimes justify it in my head thinking either about how busy I am (commitments to my nation) or that there are plenty of ways for these people to find help (dumping responsibility onto my nation). While I don’t tend to assume they will use whatever I would give for alcohol or drugs (which would be lumping them together into one nation), I sometimes still think that they might (I just say, well, if they do, there’s nothing I can do about it) and fail to engage with the individual. Which, again, is treating them as a nation.

But the command is clear: love your neighbour as yourself. Not the nation of your neighbours: your neighbour. And that is a great challenge.

(1) Isn’t it interesting that it also happens to be, as far as I can recall, the only place in the Old Testament where the Devil is seen undeniably as an external entity rather than as a mere tempter?

10 ways the Bible is like Sellotape


For the benefit of my American readers (I love you, really. No, really.), what we call Sellotape, you call scotch tape (seriously, what sort of impression does it leave, naming office supplies after whisky?). Now that’s out of the way, here comes, in what is now a tradition for this blog, a list of more or less tenuous links between sellotape and the Bible.


Photo: woodleywonderworks (cropped), reused under CC license

1. Sellotape holds everything together. Just like it, the Bible helps bring a sense of unity, of direction,  and of purpose to lives: the Bible, in leading to God, helps holding everything together too.

2. Sellotape is clear, transparent, see-through. The Bible itself is transparent in two ways: through the Bible, we see Jesus. The written Word leads to the living Word. Secondly, it is a mirror to your own life. It is relevant, and we can see real things through it: it is not some arcane treatise that can be boxed in and where the thoughts triggered in it are sterile.

3. There’s many kinds of adhesive tape: duct tape, gaffer tape, etc. None is intrinsically better than the other, but some are better suited to different purposes. You won’t use masking tape to seal a box; you won’t use gaffer tape to put up a poster. Various versions are also suited to different purposes: you won’t use an interlinear Bible for your everyday readings; and you won’t use The Message to try and work out whether it was tourist high season in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’ birth.

4. There’s some surfaces, it just won’t stick on. Some people who won’t receive the message of the Bible; and that shouldn’t be a discouragement to us; but also, some times in our lives, some mindsets where what we read just doesn’t stick. Identifying those moments is helpful.

5. Have you ever tried wrapping a present without using Sellotape? You can. A piece of string can do the trick if you’re gifted (and if you’re trying to wrap a book). I tried using candlewax once, when I was out of sellotape (it did not work. I think you need a special kind of wax for that. I ended up using electrical tape ‘cos I had some spare. It was ugly but it did the trick). So it is possible to live a good enough life without the Bible; indeed, some people do. But it is a lot easier to do with the Bible as both a moral guide and a motivator.

6. Sellotape leaves a mark, even when it is removed. Unless you buy some special sellotape, and even then, you gotta be careful when you peel it off. In the same way, after reading the Bible, you are (or should be!) a changed person. Regardless of whether you then reject what you have read or not, there will be something changed in you.

7. If there weren’t something to fix (or, in the case of sellotape, technically, to affix), we wouldn’t need it. The Bible points to Jesus; to God who came for sinners, people who are broken. The Bible itself brings healing, because it directs the heart to something better, and

8. Originally, it came in rolls. Now there’s some fancy dispensers which don’t use rolls; just like the Bible went from (sc)rolls to printed books to phone apps.

9. Unless you use it a lot, it’s hard to find where to start. Seriously, finding the end of sellotape and then getting hold of it in such a way that it can be used is a pain. That’s why dispensers are useful: they keep on feeding you, and cutting the sellotape into bits of usable, appropriate length. Dispensers come in many shapes – and there’s many things that can help you start picking up your Bible: sermons and preachers, but also Bible plans and commentaries (for instance, you could do the Uncover series with a friend)

10. When you’ve gone through your roll of sellotape, it doesn’t mean you’re done using sellotape forever. You can always pick up a new roll. And if you’re out, you can always ask your friend. And if you’ve finished reading the Bible (kudos to you), that doesn’t mean you can’t read it ever again. On the contrary, you will find you keep on using it. And if you don’t have a Bible, borrow one from a friend.

Add your own!

There was no space at the inn… a tale about predestination


As Christmas is coming very, very soon, we all tend to look back to stories of Nativity. Jesus was born in a manger, in a stable because there was no space at the inn.


Photo – Evelyn Simak, reused under CC license

Surprising? Let’s ignore the historical elements for a bit, and go with the culturally overwhelming view: many people had gone back to Bethlehem for the census, and poor Mary and Joseph did not book ahead because, obviously, they had no smartphone to do so (seriously, how did they cope?). Still surprising – and of all the places that God could choose to be born in, why choose that specific time and place?

The easiest interpretation is to go for the poverty argument: Jesus, siding with the poor and coming to dwell with us, should also dwell with the poor. Simples, makes sense. Except he then goes on to receive Kingly gifts… Ah, the contrasts of Christianity! But that is for another post altogether.

So there is still some surprise. Let us, still imagining the inn as an ancient day Travelodge, suppose there was room at the inn. Joseph (or Mary!) would have given some money and stayed at the inn. He would have been entitled to stay. It would have been a contractual relationship: one where he receives shelter in exchange for money.

That they were allowed to stay in the stable is extra-contractual. It comes as a freewill offering of whomever the stable belongs to: in short, Joseph and Mary weren’t entitled to stay the night there, yet they did. Welcoming the Incarnate God was not forced upon anyone; rather, it was the outcome of a free decision.

The situation may be worse, however. See, as I found out while researching for this post, there was (probably) no inn; rather, Luke was talking about a guest room.

The word κατάλυμα, seemingly, refers to a guest room; whereas inns involving payment are referred to with a different word (πανδοχεῖον). A common interpretation is that Joseph, returning to his hometown, had relatives there who could (and should!) lodge them all. So what happened? We’re just told there was no room in the guest room. Admittedly, the possibility remains that Joseph had siblings (we don’t know about them!), and that they also came back, thereby filling up the guest room. But it seems unlikely that it was so full there was no space at all for Joseph and Mary; especially considering the greater need of a pregnant woman (although that may be a modern Western view).

What this means is that Joseph’s relatives (let us assume) came up with an excuse not to welcome them in, and allowed them, possibly grudgingly, to stay downstairs with the animals. After all, Mary had conceived outside of wedlock, and well-to-do villagers could not possibly allow an unmarried pregger in. So they did the very minimum they could do and allowed them to stay at arm’s length, with the animals.

Rejected, scorned by the ones who should have welcomed him. It’s not a matter of making the positive choice to accept Jesus into the kataluma; it’s a matter of actually refusing to do what we were elected to do, refusing to welcome him into our hearts, minds and souls. That grace may not be irresistible, does not allow us to boast in receiving it, because it is still undeserved and our response is what we ought to do anyway.

Just like Joseph’s relatives, we’d need  an excuse. We find that easily. We say, sometimes, that there is no room for religion, no room for prayer, no room for a relationship in our lives – or that we’re not ready; but that sometime, maybe, we might take the time to look into that. I wonder, what our excuses are sometimes, and whether we make sure there is room nor just in our mind, but also in our heart and soul.

Do we allow Jesus into our stable or do we let him in to our innermost?

Drawing near the throne


Today, I gave my first sermon ever, in the university Chaplaincy at Warwick. A fairly daunting experience, but I’ll get back to that later (probably next week), but ultimately an amazing one. So this week, I thought I’d share the sermon here.

The readings it is based on are Mark 13:1-8 and Hebrews 10:1-14 and 19-25. Here, you can find a downloadable version of my notes, and you can also listen to the recorded sermon here:

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At 1,200 words, it is a relatively short sermon (by evangelical standards if not necessarily by Anglican standards), but it would be an exceptionally long blog post, so here is a quick run-down of what I said.

It is easy to focus on what we do: on the fact that we go to church, that we pray, that we hang out with friends, etc. Regardless of the type of action that we focus on (even if it’s the action of others whom we  identify with), that becomes what we boast in, but also what we rely on: it becomes the temple that the disciple is telling Jesus about in Mark 13:1.

In doing that, we are, in some way, choosing what God should be well-pleased with. We are coming to God, yes – but on our own terms, isolating certain areas of our lives that we wish to show off to Jesus. And, as he retorts, this is all vanity.

Thankfully, our actions are not what give us salvation, or what makes the Father well-pleased. That means that, equally, they do not condemn us. Thinking that we are doing things in order to please God in our own strength; or that if we sin or, worse (!), do not show up at Bible study, we will be bringing shame to the name of Jesus – thinking that is futile. And it flies in the face of Jesus’s continuing work of intercession.

See, in the same way that, because we are in Jesus, we can ourselves call God “Abba”, “Father” – in that very same way, because we are in Jesus, when God looks upon us, it is his Son he sees. Therefore, in him, God is well-pleased with us. And we can therefore draw near the throne, not trusting in our own righteousness or in our own strength, but knowing that God sees Jesus in us.

When we come to Jesus, we can stop looking at the past to justify us, we can stop trying to show ourselves up to God. We can do like Zacchaeus, and allow Jesus’s transformative power show in exclaiming all that he will do. That’s how the “Therefore” in Hebrews 10:19 works: because of the sacrifice made once and for all, we can draw near the throne.

But drawing near the throne without listening would be pointless. We need to consider, as Paul says, how the work of Jesus transforms us. We need to reflect on how our lives have been changed; to feel part of God’s family; and finally, to look to Jesus as our perfect reflection, which keeps on spurring us on to good.

And we need to remember that it is not only ourselves who are allowed to draw near the throne in Jesus, but also anyone who believes in him. We must see Jesus in others, and see that they have just as much justification to draw near the throne as we do. Then, let us reflect that unity in keeping on meeting together, and loving one another.