Sin Pardoned, Right Restored

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

In the case of all the militant old crusading hymns, I suppose it’s a good thing on balance. The word “crusade” as anything positive has almost completely died a death, and on that at least I have no regrets. The Crusades and all the bloodshed, death and atrocity committed therein remain one of the most horrible sins of the global Church, and I for one don’t see any advantage to trying to use the Christian equivalent of the word Jihad for what ought to be the spread of the Good News by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Still, for all that there’s a large part of me that regrets the apparent demise of all the martial old hymns: “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “We Rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender”, “Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided”, “Fight the Good Fight”.

For one thing, I happen to groove to the bombastic strains of that sort of music. I find the sheer pompous martiality of it deeply satisfying on a primal level. It should be little surprise, given how my taste in Classical music runs: the Marche Slave, the 1812 Overture, In the Hall of the Mountain King

Yes, of course I’m aware that the words can be easily misconstrued by those who don’t understand. Someone is always going to hear “Marching as to war” as a call to actual physical battle, if only to make an objection to it.

But surely many of our modern worship songs have words that are equally fraught with the potential for misunderstanding? You’re trying to tell me that the sloppy wet lyrics of Oh How He Loves Us aren’t going to be misinterpreted as a perversity by anyone not determined not to? Or that anything recorded by Mandisa isn’t a redirected boyfriend song?

We’re quite willing to re-image the Godhead through the lens of Venus, it seems, but to do the same through the lens of Mars is still apparently anathema.

I mention all of this mostly as an introduction, because I recently rediscovered the wonderful old martial hymn Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, it has one of those wonderfully sprightly, military-march kind of tunes, and though its lyrics are less martial than some, they’re really quite instructive:

Thy hand, O God, hath guided

Thy flock from age to age

The wondrous tale is written

Full clear on every page

Our fathers owned Thy goodness

And we their deeds record

And both of these bear witness:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy heralds told Thy message

To greatest as to least

To all the invitation

To share the great King’s feast

Their Gospel of redemption –

Sin pardoned, right restored –

Was all in this enfolded:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy mercy shall not fail us

Nor leave Thy work undone

With Thy right hand to help us

The vict’ry shall be won

And then, by men and angels,

Thy name shall be adored

And this shall be our anthem:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

It’s actually the second verse that particularly struck me. I think it’s one of the best and most personally helpful depictions of evangelism that I’ve seen in a while. Ok, there’s no particular emphasis that we ought to be numbered among those “heralds”, but in the context of verse 1’s focus on the deeds of those who have gone on before us it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure that actually needs to be in there, because I can’t hear those soaring strains without being filled with a desire to emulate those bygone heroes of the Faith.

The message is told to “all”, to “greatest as to least”. It may be my latent Mediaevalism that seizes on this so strongly, as it’s not a social division that would readily come to the mind of someone raised in the republican democracy of the modern United States, but it’s worth bearing in mind. How many of us, even if we are comfortable telling the Message to “the least of these”, are comfortable telling the Message to the rich and the powerful?

The “invitation” is not to get your needs met. Not to discover how much God loves you, not even to get your sins forgiven. The image is a different one: sharing in the great King’s feast.

I have to say I love this image. I love the overtones of celebration, magnanimity and the raising up of the bowed down, the notes of fellowship that do not drown out the clarion-call of majesty. For me at least, it strikes the right balance between God’s Immanuel nearness and His YHWH Sabaoth power and royalty.

Not that getting your sins forgiven is completely ignored, you understand. The song immediately transitions to “sin pardoned, right restored” as a summary of the “Gospel of Redemption”. I’ll admit that the Gospel being “in this enfolded:/One Church, one Faith, one Lord” wouldn’t be my normal pithy summary of the Good News, but maybe there’s more even to that that it appears at first glance.

Anyway, “sin pardoned, right restored”. I like this as a summary of the Gospel. Not merely getting your sins forgiven, but being transferred to the side of righteousness. The call to bring justice and mercy in the world, restoring Right. There are so many places and spheres in our modern world that need “right restored” that we neglect this aspect of the Good News, and yet this is no mere social Gospel or substitution of activism for right relationship with the Father. It goes hand in hand with “sin pardoned”; the two are part of the same Gospel of redemption.

Not only that, but “right restored” in our own lives as well. Not just the requirement to live holy lives pleasing to the Lord, but also the ability to do so. Not in our own strength, but through the power of His indwelling Spirit. This, too, is the Gospel of redemption. Because if we’re only forgiven of our sins and left in our fallen old natures, we only have half a redemption.

So, “enfolded” in “one Church, one Faith, one Lord”?

I’ve always had a strong interest in church unity, but I don’t think even I would go so far as to say it “enfolds” the entirety of the Gospel. Still, Jesus did say that “by this all people shall know that you are My disciples: that you love one another”.

One of the most persistent objections of those who reject Faith concerns the dividedness of the church. In my native Britain, at least, I believe we’re mostly past the hard division of ourselves along denominational lines and its accompanying suspicion and denigration of “those Baptists/Methodists/Anglicans/Pentecostals/whatevers”. America has yet to fully catch up, but I am confident she’ll get there, if only that in the upcoming generations there aren’t enough of us to make Christian domination of the spiritual marketplace an assured thing any more. On a purely human level, we’re no longer competing just with ourselves for market share; there are Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists and Shinto, not to mention atheists, outright pagans and everyone else.

Even maintaining our different denominational names (and there are good reasons to do so), being “One Church” in the important sense of being “one in spirit and purpose” cuts the ground out from under this argument like only the truth can. One Faith, because we do all believe the same core body of doctrine. One Lord, whom we all worship. It’s important.

Then, too, “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” speaks more subtly to the absolute right He has to our service.

This isn’t something we talk much about as Christ’s followers. It’s a truth we find uncomfortable; it strikes directly at the heart of our independent-minded “no-one tells me what to do!” determination to have our own way.

More, it’s something that runs directly counter to this present age’s glorification of rebellion and self-will. There is a truth in this present age: no-one but you are answerable to your own conscience. But the fact that God has a right to expect our worship, loyalty and service – our fealty, to use the old Mediaevalist term? No, we don’t talk much about that.

It’s true, though, and the sooner we accept His right to our obedience the better off we will be for discipleship purposes. As others have said, the Gospel preached by the Apostles wasn’t “Come to Jesus and get your needs met”; it really was “Jesus is Lord; what are you going to do about it?”

The link to this from “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” isn’t all that overt, I’ll admit. But the fact that there really is “one Lord” to whom we owe our highest allegiance as His right, “one Faith” alone, “one Church” composed of all those who call on His Name, that to me communicates Jesus’ absolute right to our allegiance.

Peter’s Pentecost Sermon

This Pentecost I thought I’d take a look at Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon.

Acts Chapter 2 is quite a long chapter, and Peter’s sermon takes up a considerable portion of the number of verses. Indeed, while the actual coming of the Holy Spirit takes place in only four verses, Peter’s speech takes up well over half of the chapter.

Luke obviously thought it was important, though sometimes we’re more apt to focus on the action, the event of the Spirit’s Coming.

Certainly the event itself is vital. It’s been described, with justification, as the birth of the Church, and without it, there probably wouldn’t be a Church as we know it. And yet, over half of the crucial chapter is Peter making a speech.

In some ways I almost wonder why it’s in there. What’s so important about this speech that it’s recorded in at least gist form for posterity?

It’s not like it’s a major section of moral instruction like the Sermon on the Mount, or a major Christological teaching like Colossians 1. Why did Luke consider it so important to record, and why did God consider it so important to preserve?

It’s one of several major speeches or sermons in the Book of Acts: there’s this one, there’s Stephen’s defence speech to the Sanhedrin, there’s Paul’s speech to the Areopagus, and there are several of Paul’s defence speeches before Roman magistrates. And in a sense, my question is the same for all of them: why is this here?

Peter’s “sermon” here is the first time there’s ever been an evangelistic talk given by someone who’s only human. In that sense it has the same overall purpose as Paul’s speech to the Areopagus: evangelism. Perhaps Luke intends these as “sample evangelistic messages” for us to draw on, emulate and learn from.

As such, the two speeches couldn’t be more different. Peter’s speech starts from a remarkable miraculous sign, takes in Biblical testimony, the life of King David, and several prophetic Scriptural statements and comes to Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah from the perspective of the fulfillment of Scripture. Paul’s speech starts from the city of Athens’ rampant idolatry and the altar “to the unknown god”, takes in logic, pagan Greek poetry originally written about Zeus, and cutting-edge contemporary thought about the nature of reality and comes to Jesus’ identity as the Creator’s representative on Earth from the perspective of someone to whom Jewish Scripture was an unknown source.

The two speeches reflect their different audiences’ needs, and illustrate the dichotomy Paul mentions in I Corinthians 1: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom”.

If I’m right in my hypothesis that Luke (and the Holy Spirit) intend these sermons as illustrative messages for “how to do evangelism”, then Peter’s speech should be seen as “how to do evangelism with Jews” – people having the Scriptures and recognising their authority, who know that there is one God and know much of what He is like from His Scriptures. Paul’s speech, conversely, is “how to do evangelism with Greeks” – pagans, people not knowing the Scriptures or recognising their authority. It’s an important difference, and one we should bear in mind, because it’s no good quoting Scripture to back up a point if your audience doesn’t recognise Scriptural authority.

Nevertheless, Peter’s sermon is for Jews. Jews from all over the world, but Jews. Many of whom would have been in Jerusalem for Passover and seen the events of Holy Week, heard the reports of the resurrection, even, and not known what to make of it all.

Peter’s speech is occasional, made in response to the crowd’s desire for an explanation of the fact that 120 Galilean hicks were loudly declaring the praises of God in languages from all over the known world.

This is as remarkable as a busload of East Texan rednecks suddenly speaking fluent Khalkh Mongolian, Dari, Quechua and Swahili. For all that America is a “melting-pot” of diverse nations and cultures, Americans are even worse than the English when it comes to learning foreign languages, and Galileans were just as uncosmopolitan. Something, evidently, was going on, and whatever it was was very remarkable.

Into this knowledge vacuum Peter steps, with an explanation of what is going on that ties together the present events, Scriptural prophecy, the Messianic expectations of that Scriptural prophecy and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s very clever, actually.

Peter’s first order of business is to counter the mockery of those who blamed all the noise and commotion on the disciples’ drunkenness. No, it cannot be; it’s too early in the morning for those who start drinking at dawn to be fully gone, and too late for the all-night carousers. No, he explains, this is a fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words, about the coming of the Holy Spirit on all flesh.

This is fairly straightforward, but to our Western, non-Jewish ears, the next part looks like a non-sequitur. “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God…”

What we’re missing is the fact that the implications of Joel’s prophecy were that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a sign of the age of the Messiah’s Kingdom. The natural question for a Jewish person in that day and age would probably have been “well if this is that, where’s the Kingdom of Messiah?”

It’s in answer to that unspoken question that Peter brings in the life and witness of Jesus. He has Messiah’s imprint in terms of being accredited by God in deeds of power and holiness. Though betrayed and handed over to death by fallen, sin-stained human beings, he bears Messiah’s imprint in that God raised Him from the dead – and we’re not making this up; we’re eyewitnesses. We saw it.

I can almost hear the baffled crowd now. “But even if He were raised from the dead, how can He truly be Messiah if He died? He’s the Son of David who will reign on his throne, not die on a cross!”

And so Peter turns once again to Scripture. Beginning at that Messianic title, “Son of David”, he takes David’s own prophetic psalms and brings out of them the full depth of their meaning: that though David died and was buried, he was looking forward when he wrote that to One who would not be abandoned in the grave. This is Jesus, he finishes. You crucified Him – and he makes no bones about laying the blame at the crowd’s feet – but God has made Him both “Lord”, as David said, and Christ, David’s Son and the heir of the Kingdom.

Perhaps one of the important things for us today, especially those of us who are Gentiles, is to recognise that the huge numbers of people added to the Church after this sermon were not added purely by the magical-seeming means of the Holy Spirit overruling their minds by a touch on their hearts. It matters what we say when we speak about who Jesus is. There’s an appeal not just to the emotions but also to reason. Starting from what his Jewish audience already knew about God and Messiah from the Scriptures, Peter reasons with the crowd that Jesus is, in fact, the One that was promised.

Interestingly enough for our own evangelistic efforts, there’s absolutely no appeal here to Jesus meeting felt needs. Peter’s message is uncompromising; it’s “Jesus is the promised Messiah and you crucified Him”. There’s no evidence here of the Jesus who can help us deal with our anger issues or set us free from our poor self-image. He can, but that’s not where Peter focuses his message. This crowd know what Messiah’s supposed to be: He’s the One who will establish God’s Kingdom on earth and really make us into a holy nation and a people of God’s own possession. Peter’s insistence that “you crucified him” isn’t very PC. It’s not even tactful. But it comes to the heart of the issue.

The Jewish nation of the time thought they were pretty special. They had the patriarchs, the Law, the Commandments, the Scriptures. They were God’s own people, whom He loved more than anyone else on the face of the earth.

The fact that God’s own people could so devastatingly miss it as to crucify His Own Son wasn’t in their thinking.

No wonder, when it registered, that they were “cut to the heart”. God must be so angry with us! We’re no better – and quite a bit worse, because we had no excuse – than pagans! What can we possibly do to make it right?

So at the end, it comes down to the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of the sins of a crowd that counted themselves “righteous” and “Godly”, and didn’t even know that they had them.

“Repent (turn around, change your mind and your ways) and be baptised (just like a pagan who wanted to join themselves to the Jewish nation and become a worshipper of the true God) for the forgiveness of sins…”

Fighting the Good Fight: Maz Kanata and Yoda

Being somewhat slow on the uptake where new films are concerned, I’ve only just seen The Force Awakens.

Today’s blog post (and the first in a while; I’ve been low on inspiration for blogging) concerns this excellent film, and some of the theological implications of it as compared with some of the other films.

In particular, I want to compare and contrast the character of Maz with that of Yoda.

Maz Kanata is a new character introduced in this film, and she’s fairly obviously intended to fill much of Yoda’s role – the wise counsel and mentor figure. Obviously, Yoda died in Return of the Jedi and they can’t bring him back, and someone needs to step into the shoes of such a powerful and iconic character.

Maz Kanata: a sort of bald wrinkly owl

She’s even somewhat physically similar – short of stature and wrinkly with age. There are some differences, though; she’s not a member of Yoda’s species (unless they have some very severe sexual dimorphism, which isn’t totally out of the question). Whereas Yoda looks rather goblinesque, Maz gives the impression of a bald, wrinkly owl.

It seems appropriate. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and her symbol was the owl.

Yoda: a bit goblinesque?

It’s the character differences between Maz and Yoda that I want to focus on, though, because they’re really interesting and instructive.

We meet Maz operating a bar on Takodana. It’s an interesting place to meet a wise counsel and presumably instructress in the Force, but then, so’s Dagobah. This, in itself, is a really interesting difference. Master Yoda has always had a secretive hermitish streak in him, even in the prequel trilogy. Remember his switch from limping around with a cane to somersaulting in the air with a lightsaber? He interacts with the other members of the Jedi Council, but you’re always left with the impression that he’s fundamentally alone, that he holds them at arm’s length and keeps himself apart.

Maz, by contrast, is social. She runs a bar, which is about as far from hermitage as it’s possible to get. What we’re almost seeing, in fact, is TNG’s Guinan for the Star Wars universe. There’s a tradition of the wise old barkeep with his fount of common-sense wisdom, and Maz is firmly in that tradition.

For humans at least, social interaction is a vital part of what makes us human. Solitude is important (as a true introvert I should know), but interaction is equally vital. “It is not good for man to be alone”; the first thing recorded in Scripture as being “not good”. Maz’ social nature seems, in some ways, more fundamentally healthy than Yoda’s hermitism.

Like Yoda, Maz is obviously sensitive to the Force, and though we haven’t seen any direct evidence of it, every other time someone is revealed as being Force-sensitive in the Star Wars universe, it carries with it at least the potential for Force usage.

Leia has obviously not chosen to pursue study of the Force under her brother’s tutelage, but the implications of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are clear: she’s at least a potential Force user, able to reach Luke’s mind and direct the Falcon to him in ESB and revealed as his sister in RotJ and blessed with as strong a measure of “the Force is with you” luck as he was in A New Hope. So, by the measure of everything we have been shown, Maz ought to be able to use the Force as well, at least in potential. She certainly seems to be foreseeing when she tells Rey that “the belonging you seek is ahead, not behind”. She may be, by her own testimony, “no Jedi”, but that in itself is an interesting statement with several possible meanings.

Maz’ main Force speech also contrasts favourably with Yoda’s. I’ve examined Yoda’s speech in detail on this blog before (in The Dark Side of the Force), and concluded that, much as I love Yoda as a character, he’s not really very Christian in either his philosophy or his approach.

Yoda’s speech is all about avoiding the Dark Side as manifested in “anger, fear, aggression”. By Yoda’s lights, it’s wrong to feel angry about injustice, wrong to be proactive in opposing evil. Remember, “a true Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack”.

Maz’ great Force speech, on the other hand, is practically bombastic. It’s all about resisting the Dark Side, actually fighting evil, standing up for what is right. The fact that she looks so much like a wrinkly owl is again appropriate, because Athena was also the goddess of battle strategy.

Maz gently takes Finn to task for his incipient cowardice: “I see in your eyes someone who wants to run away”, but she leaves the choice of what to do entirely up to him.

Finn himself is really interesting, too, from a theological standpoint, but maybe I’ll talk about him in another post.

Maz seems to have far more compassion on display than Yoda, too. Compare Yoda’s harsh insistence that Luke stay and complete his training even though he knows that his friends are suffering with Maz’ gentle treatment of both Finn and Rey. Maybe I’m being too hard on Yoda, but he does strike me as being more concerned with “completing Luke’s training” than with any suffering his friends might be undergoing. And yet when Luke returns to Dagobah, all he’s told is that he needs no more training.

Be that as it may, “compassionate” isn’t a normal descriptor of Master Yoda.

Maz is far more Christian in outlook than Yoda will ever be, and perhaps this is what’s behind her statement that she is “no Jedi”.

The Jedi philosophy is one of balance between Light and Dark. According to their religion, they are as uninterested in the triumph of Light as they are in the triumph of Dark. It’s seldom stated that openly, but this is the philosophy underlying the whole Jedi Order.

In Maz, the filmmakers seem to have woken up and remembered what the prequel trilogy completely glossed over: that the Jedi are Jedi Knights. Knighthood implies a fiercely protective, proactive warrior nature that was abundantly contradicted by the prequel movies. In Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan says that the Jedi are “keepers of the peace, not soldiers”, and the entire portrayal of the Jedi Order in the Old Republic is more in the nature of the Shaolin Monks than the Knights Hospitaller. Their headquarters is a “temple”, and they avoid the word “knight” as assiduously as if it were carrying Bubonic Plague.

We have no way of knowing how quickly Maz’ species ages, but she certainly looks old enough to remember the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire, and she could easily be old enough to have been around and active at the time of the Old Republic. ¬†(Wookiepedia in fact says she’s over a thousand years old). ¬†Maybe she’s “no Jedi” for philosophical reasons, not those of ability. Her presentation of the stark reality of choice to Finn suggest that she’d be uncomfortable with the coercive influence of the Force on “the weak-minded”, and her proactive stance is a very uncomfortable fit with the Zen-like Jedi philosophy.

I know The Phantom Menace implied that there was some sort of Force-potential testing on at least the Core Worlds, and implied further that any child showing such potential was virtually conscripted nto the Jedi Order, but this is one of many problems with that film. There must be those who slip through the cracks, else why Anakin? At any rate, though the implication is that the Jedi Order represent all of the Galaxy’s Light Side users of the Force, there are practical reasons why this cannot possibly be the case. Maz seems like an example.

We haven’t seen her use any of the overt aspects of the Force, like lifting heavy objects, but she seems to be able to foresee, which is itself a Force ability, as Yoda demonstrates in The Empire Strikes Back. She has, however, evidently recovered Luke’s lightsaber either from the bowels of Cloud City or the surface of Bespin, and I’m unsure as to which possibility is more impressive. Clearly, the Force is with her.

Oh, I’m not saying Maz is definitively a Christian character. Her speech to Rey about “following the light within” sounds a lot like the sort of “follow your heart” crap that the Disney corporation usually peddles. But equally, you can choose to selectively interpret, and see it as a reference to the Holy Spirit, or a particular instruction to Rey, who already knows deep down what she must do.

At any rate, Maz certainly seems a far more Christian character than Yoda is: compassionate as well as wise, social and relational rather than secretive and a hermit, proactive in resisiting evil rather than aloof and desirous of a mere “balance” of Light and Dark.

I like her, and I hope she’s in the next film!