The turn of the year isn’t a bad time to step back and look at the landscape in time and space across which we humans swarm. I did a summary of mission theology for our church’s Mission Sunday a few weeks ago. Here it is.
We can get a snapshot of mission theology, and the story since, by looking at three simple parables of the kingdom.
The banquet (Luke 14:15-13). The main ideas here are (1) A great party in heaven. (2) Some people refuse the invitation. (3) The master of the banquet orders more people to be invited- first the poor and disabled, then people everywhere, whether they are on the great thoroughfares or sheltering in the hedgerows.
2. The yeast. (Matthew 13:33). A very simple picture of how God’s rule extends from a tiny start to work through and transform a vast batch of flour in its entirety.
3. The mustard seed. (Matthew 13:30-31). A similar tiny start, but this time something grows so that birds can perch in. If yeast is about the invisible influence of the Kingdom, perhaps the mustard seed is about visible structures.
What do these parables look like after 2000 years (fifty generations) of Christian influence in the world?
We have a better sense just of how big the world is, and its complexity: 200+ countries; 7000 languages (though about 40% of these are small and endangered like Cornish or Manx); more than 10,000 ethnic groups, who typically marry among themselves and often speak their own language. Minority ethnic groups in the UK might include, for example, the Roma, Irish Travellers, Welsh-speaking Welsh, who exist alongside the majority British. All countries are a patchwork of ethnic groups, and most of our ethnic labels are fuzzy and situational (are you Asian, Glaswegian, Scottish, British or European? Or Catalan or Spanish? Or a Batak or an Indonesian?) Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ or ‘make disciples of all ethnic groups’ is thus like working inside a turning kaleidoscope. The overriding idea is not ticking off boxes on a spreadsheet but missing no one out and bringing a unity in Christ to all the diversity.
Refusal and the gospel going elsewhere. This is a clear pattern in history. People get blasé about the benefits of God’s rule among them. Paul writes of Jews (mostly) rejecting the gospel so it was taken to the Gentiles. This pattern repeats again and again – the gospel moves from those who are familiar with it to those who have not heard it. Christianity declines in Europe, stalls in Korea, grows in China.
The ‘yeast’ parable is surely about extending God’s rule into everything we influence, so far as it depends on us. It affects who we are and what we do every day. The ‘yeasty’ effect of 2000 years of God’s people in the world is impossible to untangle from other historical influences but is surely significant and is fascinating to speculate about. Why is forgiveness a virtue? Why do we believe in history at all, in progress, in transformation? Where does the idea of equality come from? Or the dignity of every human, or the value of a child? Some of these things have roots in the yeasty lives and behaviour of Christians.
The ‘mustard seed’ parable, if it is about visible structures, also has a story to tell. If you roughly count ‘census Christians’ (ie people who would notionally tick the Christian box on a census form, and who are, therefore, visible and countable), the numbers have climbed from 12, to 120, to 3000 (all in AD 33) to 522 million in 1900 (34.5% of the world) and to 2.4 billion (32.3%) in mid- 2020.1 Decline in Europe (another example of refusal) has been offset by growth in Africa, Latin America, China, and S E Asia.
Thus our challenge as a Church is to be everything we can be for God within the networks he has put us in; not to forget the poor and disabled; and to be generous-hearted and diligent in begetting good news to forgotten or neglected groups.
In which we explore myths and endless genealogies, but in a good way.
Even if your mum is a virgin
I have been spending more time than is good for me reading atheist websites. They like to throw stones at the Bible. So far it’s been dispiriting stuff, and not because of the quality of the arguments.
I could offer atheists an algorithm before sounding off about ‘Moab being my washpot’, or Cain and Abel, or Noah. Here’s the algorithm:
Consider whether or not people who take the Bible seriously may not also have noticed what you have noticed.
Consider whether they may or may not have explored the problem at a depth you do not seem to have appreciated.
Have you explored the literature?
Do you agree that first figuring out what the authors and compilers were trying to say to their original audiences is fairly important when handling ancient texts? The Bible is not a Penguin Modern Classic, tha’ knows.
Stop sounding like a Flat-Earther or a Biblical Creationist already, plucking random things from flawed popular reading and confecting an argument.
The genealogies in Matthew and Luke are an easy target. Even a rushed reading will conclude:
They contradict each other
They end with Joseph, who wasn’t even Jesus’ biological dad.
While this is an easy Aunt Sally for the atheist projectile, it’s also fruitful to apply our algorithm and think more deeply. Here are two thunks.
The best thing I’ve read on genealogy and ancestry is Adam Rutherford’s book A brief history of everyone who ever lived. (Dr) Adam Rutherford is a smart, fair-minded BBC producer and presenter, whom I have occasionally heard defending his atheism on the radio, though in a kindly, almost Anglican way, not with the stridency or rudeness of some. Dr Rutherford was more concerned with genetics than genealogy in his book but it explained beautifully some of the fun stuff around the topic. Of course we all have grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents in exponentially increasing numbers. But, there were fewer of them back then, not more. Which obviously means that everyone can trace several paths from Ancestor (A) (say, for example Charlemagne or Ghengis Khan) to Descendant (B), yourself. So, interestingly, even if there were nothing else going on in the New Testament genealogies, it would be right if they traced different paths from Abraham to Jesus. And the denizens of the ancient world obviously knew that.
The only two gospels that talk about the Virgin Birth are the same two gospels that give a genealogy of Jesus. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something. An Arab friend of mine who was a convert to Christ from Islam was stopped at the border of her Arab country as she tried to get home. It was a slightly tense moment. The customs person looked at her passport and her name. ‘Very good family’, he said, and welcomed her in. Which perhaps is the point. Of course Joseph was Christ’s stepdad. So, as the genealogies tell us, Christ had been adopted into a very good family. The two gospels that describe Christ’s nature (born of a virgin) also are at pains to point out his nurture (adopted into a regal family). I think.
While we are talking myths and endless genealogies, it might be worth mentioning another book:
I understand this book to be a thought-experiment about how a literal Adam and Eve, born several millienia ago, could have been common ancestors to all living humans. (Adam and Eve would not have been the only humans around at the time, and nor would they have been named ‘Adam’ or ‘Eve’.) This book has been praised by many for its scientific rigour and gentle spirit. It’s a bit of a surprise for those of us who have become comfortable with a non-literal Adam and Eve. I haven’t read this book yet but I have heard a presentation by the author, and it’s a fresh contribution to what arguably is a stale set of arguments.
I really enjoyed writing this article on commission from the Singaporean Christian magazine where I used to work. I had learnt a little about the Singaporean Chinese background to Fate when somone told me what the non-Christian former generations would say about a person who was diagnosed with cancer, had a miraculous remission through Christian prayer, and then died: ‘your temple might provide temporary healing, but it was their fate to die.’ This article has been extruded from my archives, dusted off, tweaked a little, and will be a chapter in in my forthcoming book, ‘The Sandwich.‘ If you’ve been paying attention to previous blogs, you will know ‘The Sandwich‘ is about living life sandwiched between the promises of God and, well, everything else.
You can think of them as people. Luck is female: tall, pale, beautiful, elusive. When you don’t expect it, she flashes you a warm smile. But try to get friendly, and she’s gone. One moment you’re dancing with her; the next, you’re dancing alone.
Fate is male, thuggish and not very subtle. You see him shoving through the crowds. He takes you by the collar. ‘Don’t do that.’ He growls. ‘Do this.’
Does faith make you lucky?
But surely our faith will charm and tame Luck and Fate?
We read in our Bibles that ‘goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life’ (Psalm 23:6).
And common sense makes us think, too, that on the whole, Christians will probably endure less than the average serving of ‘bad luck’. For example, just as I was writing this article, I (luckily) found that two Christian newspapers in the UK had recently been writing about luck. They had commissioned a survey of attitudes and given the results to a psychologist who specialised in understanding psychological factors in creating luck. He found that, compared with the average person, committed Christians will be luckier, because Christians tend to:
Chat to strangers (so they will have more happy coincidences with meeting people)
Expect other people to be helpful and friendly (which is often self-fulfilling)
Expect bad situations to produce good in the end (which has the effect of helping you reap the best from any given situation.)
Then, it seems to me that Christians are less likely to be involved in some risky or unwise behaviour, which also affects your ‘luck’. Here in the UK, many traffic accidents, diseases, and crimes arise out of alcohol abuse, clubbing, smoking, drugs and gambling. It is rotten luck to be hit by a drunken driver. But this rotten luck is more likely to happen at times in the night when the Christians are already self-righteously tucked up in bed with some hot cocoa and the latest copy of the Church Times, safely protected from sinners.
True, you may spill your cocoa and be badly burnt, or you may be angry at some Church Times article and suffer a stroke and die. There is, indeed, a finite probability that you will first burn yourself with cocoa and then suffer a stroke and die because of the Church Times. But still, rest assured, snug in bed, you are safer and luckier than the average.
Oh no, it doesn’t
So – to repeat the question — does the Christian faith charm and tame Luck and Fate?
Not so fast. Christianity has side-effects that might look ‘lucky’. But waving prayers and Bible promises at those evil characters Fate and Luck is about as much use as waving a child’s plastic sword or cardboard shield at Death itself.
Let’s not be shallow. Look around in your church. You will see people suffering from the most outrageous, improbable acts of bad luck or malicious fate. If you personally have escaped so far, stick around. Never think, just because your life is going well, that the Christian faith has finally persuaded Luck to fall in love with you or Fate to tone down the bad stuff. Remember the same book of Psalms that contains the promise
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life (Psalm 23:6)
also contains Psalm 13, which is rarely quoted on Christian-themed cards:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me?How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? (vv1-2)
Quit the game
I’m not sure that Christianity is really much use for manipulating Luck or Fate. Why? Because that’s not what the Christian faith is for.
Take the apostle Paul. Before his conversion to Christ, he was a clever, well-educated, hard-working, zealous, and highly respectable young man, from a good family, the sort every Jewish mother might want for her daughter.
Conversion ruined this promising, respectable life. Paul abandoned a good career as a Pharisee and rising politician and instead travelled the world preaching the gospel. From then on, his was almost a cursed life. Wherever he went, trouble followed. He kept being flogged. Mobs attacked him. City authorities despaired of him. He was in and out of jail. At times, people prophesied that he was fated for trouble if he visited Jerusalem. He went anyway. Sometimes, riots happened despite his best efforts, just through ‘bad luck’. He was kept in jail in Caesarea for two years as an innocent man on the careless whim of a corrupt governor: what a rotten stroke of luck. He didn’t care.
He had turned to Christ. Life then seemed to turn on him. And yet he never turned back. Why? Because when he turned to Christ, Paul had found Life Himself. He found the Priceless Pearl, and he gave up everything else to get it.
Before his conversion, Paul’s religion could have been described as ‘principles for a successful life.’ But they didn’t work for him: they were fine principles, but there was no power. After he met Christ, life became about being joined to The Life, loving Him, serving Him, bearing His fruit. He gave up, in a sense, on wisdom for living and preferred to die every day.
And Fate and Luck no longer had any power over him. Bring ’em on. Let them do their worst: they only became something like allies in his pursuit of God.
In one of the most famous chapters of his most famous book, Paul wrote,
… we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but wealso rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5, 3-4).
It’s as if he said, ‘Good luck? Well, if heaven drops a date, I’ll open my mouth. Bad luck? That will just drive me deeper into the resources of Jesus.‘
Paul’s co-authors on the Christian textbook agree. Here’s James: Trials? The testing of my faith develops perseverance. Peter: Trials? They just prove my faith genuine, like a storm proves the seaworthiness of great ship. Even the writer of Psalm 13, I found, eventually takes his eye off himself and his rotten luck and focuses on the eternal. Never mind all this, he says to God. ‘I trust in your unfailing love.’ In my trials, he says, I find all this goodness and love, eternally strong and sure.
So the next time Luck surprises you with bad news or Fate overwhelms you with it, fear not. Your universe may be collapsing but the universe is only temporary. Fate and Luck belong to this provisional universe, and they will pass. Christ’s salvation is primarily designed for universes and worlds that will never wear out. We will still be feasting there when those doomed wretches Luck and Fate are distant memories from another age.
It’s a competitive field, but in the end I picked King Saul as the biggest failure in the Bible. This is my final extract from my forthcoming book ‘The Sandwich‘, about living sandwiched between God’s promises and the ambiguities, conflicts and disappointments of Planet Earth. Like the other chapters, as you may know by now, it started life as an article for a Singaporean magazine, and was written for the many new Christians in that growing Christian community.
To be the biggest failure in the Bible you have to have a shot at being one of its greatest successes. This rules out a lot of people, such as Trophimus the Ephesian. In just three verses, this unheralded character manages to (a) be the reason for the major riot in Jerusalem that put the apostle Paul in prison and (b) to fall sick in Miletus and not to be healed by that same great Apostle.
Trophimus, in other words, is forever getting in the way. But despite his high failure coefﬁcient he is only a minor player in the grand story of redemption, so we strike him off our list. We might rule out Judas Iscariot for similar reasons. No-one in the whole Bible got it more wrong. The frightful verdict on his life, courtesy of Jesus himself, is ‘it would be better for him if he had not been born’ (Mark 14:21). That’s certainly failure enough. May it never be said of us.
But Judas was only one of twelve apostles, and he was quickly replaced. The story went on without him. Let’s also give the Old Testament ﬁgure Samson the push. Samson was the prototype charismatic-leader-trafﬁc-accident-waiting-to-happen, impressive gifts, unimpressive integrity. His life came literally crashing down but, still, Samson was a single judge, one of many in Israel, in a time when many were mucking things up. A sad example of a malfunctioning leader, yet not the Bible’s greatest failure.
Instead let’s try someone who could have been one of the leading ﬁgures in the whole history of redemption, a major player, who yet fell almost as far as it is possible to go. Our vote goes to Saul, ﬁrst king of Israel.
The word ‘hapless’ could have been invented for Saul. The Oxford English Dictionary deﬁnes Hapless thus: ‘destitute of or lacking good fortune; unfortunate, unlucky. Hence also in later use: incompetent, clumsy.’ There is just something doomed about Saul. It’s made all the worse by his undoubted courage, good looks, and earnest efforts. Saul was a trier and had enough talent and potential to crash and burn while others had barely enough qualities to get off the runway.
Part of his haplessness was his capacity for public relations disasters. Saul strides onto the pages of the Bible not like David, ﬁghting Goliath, nor like the Apostle Paul, helping kill the ﬁrst Christian martyr (which at least demonstrated potential and commitment, albeit needing a little re-direction). No, Saul makes his entrance searching for donkeys, at which it is hard to look good. People who are looking for things are very irritating to people who are not looking for things, especially perhaps when those things are really big and furry and obviously not there.
Does Saul then redeem himself by demonstrating astonishing skills in tracking? He does not. Instead, it’s recorded that his dad started to worry about him, which since Saul was a tall and scary grown man, and only perhaps 20 miles from home, is again not a massive vote of conﬁdence.
It’s left to Saul’s servant to suggest they visit the prophet Samuel whose prophetic gifts may stretch to donkey-location services. Saul agrees, but, predictably, doesn’t have any money. Perhaps he left his credit cards at home, another winning trait in a would-be leader of men. The servant stumps up the cash, and, so far, looks a far better man for a crisis than Saul himself.
Saul the hero
Yet despite the inauspicious start, Saul becomes king and does well for a time, against very difﬁcult odds. Israel was overrun with the Philistines, who had a properly organized standing army, unlike Israel. The Philistines had the technological mastery, controlling all the iron manufacture. Coming from the smallest tribe, Saul lacked a power base. Worse, he also had to combat the prophet Samuel who was grumpy about the whole idea of Israel having a king. They had not had one before. Samuel, it seemed, was only allowing it because God had told him to, not because he personally thought it was a good idea.
You didn’t mess with Samuel, he could summon earthquakes with prayer, but like many leaders he had a bit of a blind spot when it came to his own family. At the time of Saul’s election, Samuel’s sons were running the country — badly. So there was a ticklish issue for a new king’s in-tray. The old leader’s sons aren’t up to the job, political reform is needed, but the decrepit old boy in charge can’t face the facts.
Yet Saul made a good ﬁst of being king. He rescued the threatened city of Jabesh Gilead by personally calling and leading an army. Aided by his son Jonathan, he inﬂicted spectacular damage on the Philistines against ﬁerce odds. He fought off other raiders, surrounded himself with good people, declined to be vindictive against his political enemies, and was personally modest in his kingly lifestyle.
Samuel went into retirement and no more was heard of his sons. Saul knew, if he obeyed God, his kingdom could last forever. We have to believe that it was at least conceivable that Saul could have been what David later became– the ﬁrst king in a glorious, eternal line.
Yet it all fell apart. The honest, modest king morphed into a depressed, paranoid monster. He resorted to using a medium — I think the only godly leader in the whole Bible who has sunk to consulting the spirits of the dead. And then he, his sons and his armourbearer all died in a decisive battle against the resurgent Philistines that set Israel’s cause back for a long time.
Saul got little credit for the good stuff but instead faced the full wrath of Samuel when he made two judgement calls in extremely pressed circumstances. It is, perhaps, another sign of the hapless: you get your appraisal done when you are having an extremely bad day. First, Samuel had told Saul to go to a mustering ground called Gilgal before a battle with the Philistines and wait seven days until Samuel arrived. Saul had done as asked, watching while the Philistine forces multiplied around them. Saul’s own army, just six hundred strong, was starting to desert. The seven days passed. The forthcoming battle looked terrible. Rather than wait any longer for Samuel, Saul himself made sacriﬁces to God — and then Samuel turned up and condemned him. Samuel didn’t apologize. Paraphrasing Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey, Samuel might have said, ‘Late? A prophet is never late!’
The second time, Samuel ordered Saul to kill and destroy every living thing among the Amalekites, men, women, children, cattle — a brutal, rare and difﬁcult ask for the king. Saul’s army did not seem overly troubled by hacking the heads off babies or slicing open pregnant women (this was a ruthless era, rather like our own), but they did object to seeing all that juicy beef going up in smoke uneaten. Steak won out over submission, and Saul didn’t stop his army’s ox-roast, and Samuel condemned him again, and removed his blessing.
You can say this is all a bit unfair. Saul was attempting to show leadership in terrible times. Things were going wrong all around him. Bloodshed was not far off. Who, in a war, gets all the decisions right? Desperate days require brave decisions. What would you do if your army was falling apart while you waited for a prophet to show up? How well would you fare when your hungry men wanted a well-earned barbecue and you were the only one blocking the way?
Anyway, didn’t other leaders in the Bible commit worse sins than Saul and not get deblessed, as Saul was? Abraham took things into his own hands when he fathered Ishmael rather than wait for Isaac. King David committed both murder and adultery. When in danger of their lives, the apostle Peter denied Jesus three times. Other apostles found they had urgent appointments elsewhere. Saul, by way of refreshing change, hardly ducked a ﬁght in his life.
So how did he end up as the Bible’s biggest failure? First we note that it’s in the times of deepest stress that we reveal who we really are. It honestly isn’t all that hard to seem to be living a godly life when the seas are calm and the skies are blue. Only stress shows our true colours. So we shouldn’t be surprised that it took difﬁcult days to expose Saul’s heart.
Second, God is God and he has the right to deal with disobedience in his servants differently. Abraham took matters into his own hands. So did Saul. Different circumstances and capacities were on show, but it was the same sin at its root. So perhaps in a sense the Bible is harsh on Saul, or at least gentle on Abraham. May God be gentle on us too!
Yet, third, Saul’s fatal error really was a fatal error, and it set him apart in my view from Abraham and David and the apostles. Running through his life was a tendency, which wasn’t a technical mishap, or a minor misjudgement; it was, ﬁnally, a misunderstanding of everything important about how God and people relate. Saul’s regular mistake was to think God wants us to sort things out for ourselves, cope as best we can. Saul was talented enough to make this work for a time. But that isn’t what God wants. God wants us to trust him with our lives.
At Gilgal, the sacriﬁces honestly didn’t matter; trusting God did. So your army’s deserting while Samuel shows every sign of being caught in the trafﬁc around Jericho? Trust God anyway. So your hungry army is mutinously eyeing up some fatted calves? Stand in their way. Trust and obey God. See if they’ll really kill a king, or, muttering darkly, obey God after all.
Flawed like Saul
Haplessness haunted Saul. Worse, he then let jealousy gnaw at him unchecked and as an older man became paranoid and vindictive. But the truth is we are all like that. That isn’t Saul’s unique problem. We are all ﬂawed like Saul, fatally ﬂawed, each in our own way. Saul’s real problem was not that he was fatally ﬂawed, but that he didn’t throw his fatally ﬂawed self on the mercies and adequacies of God.
His real failure was a failure simply to trust and obey: ‘Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.”‘ (1 Sam 13:13) and ‘Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not enquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.’ (1 Chron 10:13-14)
I feel for Saul. I think he was a put in a job too difﬁcult for him, and certainly at ﬁrst he tried his very best to make it work, earnest, brave, modest, sincere. The problem was, that isn’t how it works between people and God. We are all in roles too difﬁcult for us. We all have impossible jobs. ‘Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did’ says the ﬁrst letter of John (1 John 2:6) How possible is that? It isn’t.
The people who please God fall into the arms of the One who justiﬁes the ungodly and the hapless and the useless. Through faith people conquer kingdoms. Through faith they live and die bravely. Through nakedly trusting God they take on armies. Through simple, trusting obedience they cheerfully face down the impossible. Better to die trusting God, they argue, rightly, than live relying on ourselves.
What can we learn from the Bible’s biggest failure? Don’t have fatal character weaknesses? No–we all do. Trust God with all your heart. Follow his commands rather than your own wisdom. Trust him unto death. Quite a lesson.