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Saturday, 4 February 2012

Seized by an Imperative


Isaiah 40.21-31 Psalm 147.1-11
1 Corinthians 9.16-23
Mark 1.29-39

I have been in my reading of books and web-conversations in recent weeks increasingly reminded of the difference between faith and intellectual exploration. I mentioned last week my experience at a high-browed biblical studies conference, the difference Luke Timothy Johnson described as that between dissecting a cadaver and dancing with one’s beloved. Perhaps it is easier for me than it is for many: as a convert Christian I am always able to remember the contrast between an empty universe and the universe that I now inhabit, and have inhabited for thirty years or more, flung across the sky by a creating, redeeming, life-giving God. I was never able to rationalise my way into faith – a handful of people have, but only a handful. There have been many times (as I will also often mention) that I have had to keep my belief in the category of five impossible things before breakfast. Still: the God of my conversion encounter has never let me go.

It is not therefore coincidental that I find in the Apostle Paul something of a hero of faith. Spiritually seized and held captive by the risen Lord Jesus, he knew that living and proclaiming the gospel was not a choice, but an imperative. Again and again he reminds us that, like every good Jew, he has not grounds for boasting. Somewhat facetiously he paints his fellow Jews in a torrid light as a self-satisfied and over-confident mob, but in reality (and this statement throws my friends in the Diocese of Sydney into apoplectic seizures) no Jew thought he or she could observe the law in totality, gaining by that observance an earned entry to the favour of God. But leaving aside Moore College and its hang-ups about what is called the ‘new perspective’ on Paul and the Law, the simple fact is there can never be an entry point into the love and the eternities of God without God’s prior, gracious action. There can be no grounds for boasting, because God, not me, is the initiator of faith.

Having been seized by that grace an imperative is placed upon us. ‘Go … proclaim’, says Jesus, to himself and to his disciples. Of course this does not mean that tomorrow we will rush to the selection channels of the Australian Board of Mission or Church Missionary Society – after coming to faith I worshipped for many years in a parish where to do less than to be serving overseas with CMS was to be by far a lesser Christian (that included the mere second best of ordained ministry, unless it was overseas. Perhaps – though hardly CMS – I did learn something, for I have spent most of the 30 years since then overseas, even if overseas is no further than Australia!). I digress! ‘Go, proclaim’. The verbs used are called imperatives. These are not options, but orders. This life invaded by God is no longer mine, but Christ’s. Paul, in fact, has a theology of salvation not unlike the invasion of the body snatchers: he means it absolutely when he says, and constantly alludes to the idea, that ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’.

Wordsworth’s phrase ‘surprised by joy’ was borrowed by C.S. Lewis to speak of his own conversion – his in fact was one of the rare more intellectual journeys, though that too had to end in a leap of faith into the arms of the risen Christ, and the Triune God who cannot be ascertained by nous alone. Lesslie Newbigin, who I refer to in the pew sheet, is alluding to this pre-rationality of the encounter with Christ when he emphasizes over again that the encounter with Jesus begins not in the intellectual machinations of either fundamentalism or post-modern liberalism, but in obedience to the command of Jesus ‘follow’. Jesus of course intertwines the command ‘follow’ with the command ‘go, proclaim’, because the doctrine of the Spirit is one that says wherever we go proclaiming, the footsteps of the fast God are there already: I am going before you into Galilee.

The bonus, the fringe benefits of the journey are those hinted at by Isaiah and the psalmist. perhaps you recall the opening scenes of the early 1980s movie Chariots of Fire. As the one time missionary Eric Liddell was laid to rest the famous words of Isaiah were recited – in glorious King James solemnity:  
He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.  

There is both a this worldly and an other-worldly dimension to Isaiah’s famous words of hope. There is a sense in which service of the gospel provides if not constant then occasional or perhaps frequent renewal and rejuvenation – some health studies have confirmed that there are health benefits to faith, and throughout my ministry I have been over and again gobsmacked by the energy and enthusiasm of many octogenarian and nonagenarian servants of Christ – not least some here. On the other hand I was ordained by, and as some of you will know, related by marriage to, a bishop who died at fifty-three, prematurely dead not least because of his fanatical workaholism. We need to be realistic in our service of the gospel, for even Jesus at least tried to withdraw from the crowds that longed for light.

In the end we return to the pie in the sky that will so often be at the heart of – though pray God not the motivation for – our gospel service. We do have a vision, however absurd, that reaches beyond death, through judgement, and into the blessedness of eternity, for us, for those we love and pray for. Anything less than that, however noble and even gospel-inspired, is less than gospel. We go, proclaim, and finally in God’s time, enter a dimension we cannot begin to comprehend. ‘They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint’.

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