We live in the tension of worshipping a crucified King and welcoming a powerful Holy Spirit. Our world is broken, suffering and lament are a reality in our lives and churches, we also see signs of the Spirit’s transforming power and long for more. How do we handle this?
In November last year Lucy Peppiatt, Principal of Westminster Theological Centre offered asked the leaders of the New Wine leadership network, this question:
“New Wine values articulate the pairings of ‘Cross and Resurrection’ and ‘Word and Spirit’, but do we need to think about ‘Cross and Spirit’?”
I’ve never been good at staying quiet in meetings, my enthusiastic response to Lucy’s question resulted in me giving a seminar on this subject at the NewWine National Leadership conference yesterday. I anticipated a handful of folk on the last day of a busy programme, but the hunger around this question meant the room was full. In order to help you reflect, I offer this blog as a summary of that session.
The Cross and the Spirit are huge topics, which pervade the New Testament. I can only touch on some elements and the relationship between the two.
In preparation, I asked 3 of my sons a question very early one morning on the way to school: “Why did Jesus die on a cross?”
“Because he loves us” (My 12 year old)
“To deal with our sin” (My 14 year old)
“Christus Victor, to deal with the enemy” (my 15 year old)
I admit, that’s a proud Dad story, but it illustrates that there are multiple biblical answers to the question. On Monday in a small group of church leaders someone asked “What do we believe the Spirit does?” – All 9 answers were biblical, true and different.
As re-read a lot of the NT, my initial question is whether they are two themes running on parallel tracks in NT theology and if so, do we prioritise one over the other?
But, all things come together in Jesus. And like most good theology, I believe there’s no intention in the Bible to keep these two apart.
When making an apple crumble if I ask my family “Do you want Custard or ice cream?” Their answer is usually ‘both’. I take the same approach to theology. We can do huge damage when we polarise or prioritise good biblical truth that God has given us.
Both/And thinking, embracing paradox, leads us to the creative and challenging call to live in tension. Let us begin with two verses.
2 Corinthians 13:4 (ESV)
4 For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.
Romans 12:15 (ESV)
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.
To explore this paradox in greater detail, here are 4 sub-paradoxes.
- Life : Death (suffering)
- Hope : Lament
- Fullness : Emptiness
- Powerful : Powerless
And 4 areas where we might apply them
A brief word on Unity.
One of the things God is doing in his church – is bringing all things under one head – Jesus. One way he is doing that – is through shared experience of the Holy Spirit in very different traditions. It might offend the latent Pharisee within me, but the Holy Spirit isn’t only poured out on ‘our type of Christian’ – he spills out and poured out all over.
In 2016 God took me to Kaunus, Lithuania (You can read the story here) and connected me with a wonderful group of young Lithuanian Charismatic Catholics and gave me a deep love for them. We had a shared experience of the Spirit and God’s love, but as our friendships developed I recognised our understanding and worship relating to the Spirit was very similar, but our worship and understanding of the Cross, very different.
Across the world, Christians are uniting through a shared experience of the Spirit’s power, but then discovering we have a very different understanding of the Cross.
As New Wine grows, we welcome many folk from different church traditions with a shared hunger for renewal, to grow in unity we need to learn from one another what God has revealed about Jesus’ death on the Cross.
If I were to reframe the question I asked my sons on the school run ‘Why did Jesus die on a Cross?’, what answer might any of the following groups give:
Lithuanian Catholics, Australian conservative evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, , persecuted church in Indian, Latin American Catholics, Mid-West USA baptists, Nigerian Anglicans, New-apostolic South Africans, underground believers in North Korea….
What can we learn from what God has revealed to others in the Bible, to enrich our understanding of the Cross?
This is a blog, not an essay. Here are brief thoughts on each paradox and then 16 questions, you can pick any that ignite you for reflection or conversation.
1.Life : Death
We celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The early church rejoiced that their saviour had defeated death and they faced death and persecution.
The truth of the Resurrection is that death has lost its sting, I have the privilege of proclaiming that at every funeral I take. But I still have to take funerals.
The experience of the Spirit – is the tangible experience of resurrection power. (Romans 8.11 & Eph 1.19-20) The Spirit is the Giver of Life.
I have found meditating on 1 Peter 2 & 4 very challenging in the call to courageously face persecution and death, as part of worshipping the one who defeated death.
Jesus’ death was once for all, a finished work. Amidst the recognition of our suffering and persecution as followers of the one who suffered.
And then we get this…..
Colossians 1:24 (ESV)
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
What on earth does this verse mean??!!
I asked that question as a student 25 years ago. I’ve been asking it ever since. It came up in conversation last week I had with Mark Tanner, Bishop of Berwick and that conversation helped me realise that maybe deeper understanding of that verse will come from outside my church tradition.
A simplistic theology, that dismisses suffering as past – just won’t be enough.
2. HOPE : LAMENT
The Spirit gives us hope, by pointing us to the love of the Father, which was demonstrated by Jesus on the Cross
Romans 5:5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 15:13 (ESV) May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
The Spirit also gives us hope, as a foretaste of heaven (2 Corinthians 1:22, 2 Corin 5.5 & Eph 1.14).
The Spirit is also the comforter, the Paraclete who comes alongside – on the journey to hope, we need to learn to lament well.
Lament is the open, honest expression rather than burying of emotion (not truth) and disappointment. The content of lament, isn’t the end of the story, it’s how we feel, what we’re experiencing, now. This is about catharsis, not re-defining our beliefs.
What do we do in church, with thoughts, feelings, interpretations, ideas – that aren’t true, but are felt very strongly in the moment?
Bury them, crush them, ignore them and they will become toxic.
Explore them endlessly, uncritically, or build on them, or work around them – they will become shifting sand.
It’s ok not to be ok. – But don’t build your home there.
We need to create places where we listen, express & journey on beyond our emotions. Always have a vision of the kingdom, that this present reality is not ‘good enough’….
Lament, is the permission, to express pain and to do so WITH God, not against him or hiding from him. But it is very different from our joyful victorious songs of praise, which are the goal and the greater truth.
It is a common critique of charismatics that we don’t lament well.
Our theology of the Cross, will shape how we lament.
Much evangelical emphasis on the cross focusses on victory & triumph, and these are evident in God’s word. But if that is all we have, then we have little place for lament.
Job & the Psalms, model of honesty with God, an honesty made possible by Cross, because God has made a way for us to be accepted, however we feel about him. The Cross shows us that God is with us in suffering, not causing it.
3. EMPTINESS : FULLNESS
Philiipians 2.1-9 introduces kenotic theology, a huge subject, source of much discussion that I am under qualified to comment on in detail. But it is worth remembering that the context of ‘Jesus emptied himself’ (v7) is a passage on unity, through humility and self denial.
In Cruciformity, Michael Gorman writes,
‘God is, in other words, a God of self-sacrificing and self-giving love whose power and wisdom are found in the weakness and folly of the cross.’
Another aspect of emptiness is living ‘poured out’ [2 Tim 4.6] ministering to others when we feel empty, knowing his surpassing gift in our weakness. It takes wisdom, to recognise the difference between poured out and burned out.
Alongside the positives of living empty, ‘being filled’, it is the most commonly used metaphor for receiving the Spirit.
[Luke 1.15, 67; 4.1; John 20.22; Acts 2.4; 4.8, 31; 6.3; 9.17; 13.9; Romans 5.5]
4. POWER : POWERLESS
In 2014, I chose the subject of power, on a residential teaching week, having read Andy Crouch’s superb ‘Playing God’. The folk on that week from a range of workplaces were so grateful, because they are experiencing power dynamics every day in relationships, hierarchies, teams…
But use the word ‘power’ in the church and church leaders get very anxious. If we run away from talking about power, we don’t give space for the Spirit to lead us into truth.
In 2010 an early title of my book ‘Awakening’ was ‘Powerless Religion’, an exploration of how hollow religion make the church powerless. I abandoned that title after a conversation with my friend Stephen Backhouse, a social and political theologian. The conversation went something like this.
Richard: I’m thinking of calling it ‘powerless religion’.
Stephen: I love that, there’s way too much danger when the church gets powerful, a call back to laying down our lives, subverting worldly power, being powerless to stand with the victims of injustice’.
Richard: No, I mean when the church gets religious, then we lose the Spirit’s power.
Both: Looks like ‘powerless religion’ might be too ambiguous as a title.
God is the source of all power and therefore his character is our starting point to understand his approach to power.
Father : the one who empowers us – good parents empower their children.
Jesus: redefines leadership power, he subverts the sinful instinct to have power over others.
Spirit: fills us with supernatural power dunamis.
I was chatting to a friend recently whose child is struggling with mental health, this causes challenges for the whole family. They have prayed and prayed for her, but not yet seen a breakthrough moment of healing. Through the journey though, they have grown, learned and known the Spirit’s strengthening and uniting of them. This captures the paradox of kingdom power. Sometimes God’s power brings immediate change, other times gradual, but he is always at work.
Paul writes the letter we call 2 Corinthians in order to bring reconciliation with the church there. It is a beautiful expression of leadership, not authoritarian, but humble and empowering, after he had experienced powerlessness in Asia (1v8)
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV)
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 13:4
For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.
Taking our 4 paradoxes and 4 areas of application. Here are 16 questions, I hope they’re helpful.
Death : Life
Unity: What can we learn from other traditions about how to pray for the persecuted church?
Pastoral : Do glib soundbites and principals do more harm than good when other are suffering (Check out the book of Job!)
Worship : How do we mark Good Friday well as Charismatics?
Leadership : Do we lead courageously into battle, or lead in retreat from the pressures of the world?
Hope : Lament
Unity: What would a healthy response be to the critique that charismatics don’t know how to lament?
Pastoral : Are you creating safe places where those who need to lament are free to
Worship : Is the worship team in your church having a conversation about the place of lament in your services?
Leadership : Do you lead others to hope, even at times of struggle?
Fullness : Emptiness
Unity: If you were preaching on self emptying leading to unity, where would you start?
Pastoral : Are you encouraging others to be filled with the Spirit anytime anywhere alone, or creating a dependency culture waiting for the next event?
Worship : Does your worship celebrate Jesus emptying himself?
Leadership : Are you more often burned out, or poured out?
Powerful : Powerless
Unity : Is our use of power language misunderstood by your friends from other traditions?
Pastoral : Does your prayer and care for those in pain include both empathy and faith for breakthrough?
Worship : How can our worship refocus us on a kingdom view of power which is different from the world around us?
Leadership : What would the Father, Son and Holy Spirit say to you about your use of power?
[images from @DariaSukhorukova, and Amar Lashlaha Rod Long, Brunel Johnson, Eberhard Grossgasteiger , Ian Stauffer on unsplash.com]