40FP(2): Colossians 1.15-20

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Why is this a favourite passage?
This is one of the most dense and theologically intense descriptions of Jesus. It dates from around AD 60, written by Paul, and as such it is a remarkably early statement of the significance that Jesus had for the early church. Often theological complexity is taken as being evidence of a more developed theology – and that more developed theology is taken as evidence of late composition (this often comes in discussions of John’s gospel). Yet here we have a passage that is the equal of the Johannine prologue, and it is written within a generation of the crucifixion. It is worth emphasising that, in a Hebrew context, this is rank idolatry, for it is asserting a union between Jesus and God.

Verse 15a: the word ‘image’ is the greek eikon, from which we get not just the word ‘icon’ but the entire theology of iconography. The claim of Christianity is that in Jesus we see God, he is the window through which we see the divine.
Verse 15b: this verse gave rise to all sorts of controversies in the early church, and was the sort of verse used by the Arians to assert that Jesus was a creature (ie ‘born’). The Nicene council went through all sorts of philosophical hoops to reconcile the verses here, both with each other and with other texts. Jesus is begotten of the Father but not a creature – in other words, this verse is interpreted in the light of the later verses, not vice versa.
Verse 16: I see this as an ‘unpacking’ of logos-theology – that Jesus is the purpose of creation, everything else has a derivative purpose which is only intelligible in the light of who Jesus is. I might write on another occasion about the principalities.
Verse 17: another aspect of logos-theology – it’s not just that all things were created for Jesus (ie leading towards him, what he embodies) but that Jesus is what gives integrity to the whole. In other words, Jesus isn’t just the blueprint, he is also the keystone and cornerstone of the structure itself.
Verse 18: which means the church, which is Christ’s body on earth (as well as his bride and several other metaphors!). He is the beginning in the sense that the new creation (resurrection) in which all will eventually share has begun already through Jesus. This gives Jesus the authority of the first-born, a customary attribute at the time the letter was written.
Verse 19: I have some qualms with this verse as there are interpretations of it that tend towards the docetic, ie that eclipse Jesus’ genuine humanity. It is something of a fine distinction, to distinguish between calling Jesus fully God and calling Jesus God in human form. My qualm is that Jesus becomes a superman figure, with the philosophical descriptions of omniscience and omnipotence and so on, and that this distorts his character, evacuating him of any shared humanity. I would read the ‘fullness of God’ as ascribing to Jesus not the philosophical attributes so much as the spiritual ones, most of all the overflowing sharing of love. In other words, if we see the foremost attribute of God as being one of eternal and creative love, then it makes sense to claim that this love dwelt fully in Jesus and was embodied through his life. I don’t think it makes sense to ascribe omnipotence and omniscience to Jesus as he lived on earth (which leads to a kenotic Christology of course).
Verse 20: the wonderful claim that ‘all things’ are reconciled to God through Jesus, specifically his death on the cross. This is atonement theory, and again the ghost of penal substitution hovers morbidly around the interpretation of the passage. What is important here is the global and cosmic nature of the atonement – it’s not just that specific individuals with their passwords have been ‘washed clean in the blood of the Lamb’ but that the whole of creation has been put right with God. This cosmic healing – and the way in which it is an essential part of Christianity – is a doctrine that needs to be made more prominent today.

So we have a wonderfully expressive claim about the nature of Jesus in this passage, one that is philosophically pregnant, and thus ambrosia for the systematically inclined, like me.

Forty favourite passages (1)

Passage 1: 1 John 4.7-21 (RSV) Click ‘full post’ for text and commentary.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world.
15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.
16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Why is this a favourite passage?
This was the passage that articulated my new understanding of the world after my foundational religious experience (see here), and I still see it as the manifesto for Christian faith. It functions as a description of the grammar of Christian faith, in other words, it describes what it means when Christians talk about God, about love, and how that is shown through life.

Verse 7: the passage begins with the call to love, which is, in my view, the primary Christian call. Jesus’ ministry begins with the call to repentance, which I see as closely related, but the word ‘repentance’ carries many moralistic connotations in our present day, as if Christianity was all about becoming morally respectable. We are called to love people, and that is it.
Verses 7&8: it’s not a content-free call, for the passage goes on to spell out what is meant by this call to love. The first and most primary element is the equation of God with love, and the truth that it is in loving that we know who God is, and that in loving we become children of God. The love that is shared on earth is a reflection or participation in the love of God himself, and as we know and experience what it is to truly love one another, we begin to discern what it is to share the love of God and to know Him.
Verse 9: what was the point of Jesus’ life? That we might live through him. Sometimes the emphasis there is on the through him and Jesus becomes this exclusive burden laid upon people’s backs. I read the emphasis differently: Jesus came that we might live; God’s eternal intention is for us to enjoy abundance of life. It’s a finger and moon situation – the Hebrews have got stuck on the finger, and are taking pride in the finger, so God sends his Son to point back at the moon again; but now it seems that “Jesus” has become just another finger. Instead of Jesus being the vehicle (the way, the truth and the life) Jesus has ended up being yet another barrier. The point of Jesus (the logos of Jesus) has been missed. It’s the equivalent of saying that we must all become first-century Jews in order to be saved.
Verse 10a: two very important things in this verse. The first (and most important) is about divine initiative. Love does not begin with us. We are not the source of love, we are called to be channels of the love. More than that, God’s love is being poured out all the time, eternally, and our role is simply to fall in with that constant outpouring of love. Sometimes we get snagged by thinking that there isn’t enough love to go around (there’s a good Duffy song on this theme by the way) – and that is surpassingly foolish. I love Rowan Williams’ image for this – trying to safeguard the love is like standing beneath Niagara Falls with a bucket, we simply cannot contain it. We are called to simply be vessels.
Verse 10b: The second part of this verse is one of the few that raises a concern in me, the grim shade of penal substitution. I read the language of expiation as ‘God reconciling the world to himself’ – not through being appeased but by removing the powers that destroy our capacity to live. So I read this text as: In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to [heal us from all that afflicts us]. In other words I don’t see any desire to punish in God. (I go into more detail in how I understand God’s wrath here.)
Verse 11: I tend to be suspicious of ‘ought’ and ‘should’ language – I see it as worldly, in the sense of ‘of the devil’ but the point here is a straightforward appeal to respond to what God has done.
Verse 12: the first part is explicated further in a few verses, and the second part is a reiteration of the theme of this paragraph: that we know what God is like because of the love that can be shared between human beings. Note especially the point that ‘his love is perfected in us’. I read this as meaning that when we love then God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled, is brought to completion. The Word has not proceeded fruitless but is accomplishing its purpose.
Verse 13: developing the theme by now talking about the Holy Spirit. This is how we are to understand the language of the Holy Spirit – when we love as Christ loved us, then we share in the Spirit – the Spirit is the sharing of love. There might be other things associated with that sharing, other spiritual phenomena, but those are extraneous and non-essential. The essential part of Spirit-filled worship is the love that is shared between human beings.
Verse 14: personal testimony. This is not a theory, a nice sounding speculation that is all heavenly minded but no earthly good. This is a response to a particular human being who was known directly and personally.
Verse 15: a grammatical point, which cannot be understood apart from the context. This is not a magical incantation like saying ‘Abracadabra’ to open a hidden door; it has a specific meaning in terms of what this confession commits the person to in the situation at the time. In particular it entails: i) an acceptance of the resurrection, and therefore ii) an acceptance that Jesus has been vindicated by God, and therefore iii) a commitment to the truth embodied in Jesus which is iv) the love-sharing life being explored by the Christian community. To confess that Jesus is the Son of God IS to be committed to the life of love.
Verse 16: the teaching is grounded in further experience – it is believed because it is known – and it is followed by another reiteration of the main teaching of the whole passage.
Verses 17-19: A very important aspect of the central teaching, which further develops the ‘grammar’ of what it means to love, which is that fear is banished. The context is divine judgment and the assurance given from knowing the character of God as love; in other words (and this is why I interpret verse 10b in the way I do) there is no desire for punishment in God. The primary and basic truth is that God loves us, he desires us to flourish with abundant life, and he sent his Son in order to achieve this. We leave behind the game of spiritual achievement with all the attendant neuroses of heaven and hell and simply allow God’s love to be experienced in the here and now. That gives the blessed assurance which is the spiritual fuel enabling the sharing of love in the present.
Verses 20,21: A renewed emphasis upon the link with love in the present context. Christian love is not abstract and ephemeral, it has real, concrete consequences. It is impossible to say that God is loved when the neighbour is not loved – in this situation, to use Wittgenstein’s terms, the surface grammar is being respected but not the depth grammar; we are back with fingers and not with moons. The passage finishes with a renewed appeal to follow the commandment, for that is the nature of Christian discipleship.

I see this passage as the mission statement of the faith; it captures what I see as the core element of a lived Christianity. There is a lot of doctrine embedded in it, but the emphasis is upon the difference that the doctrine makes in the life of the believer. Where the doctrine does not make a difference, or, worse, where it leads to a less-loving life, then we can be certain that the Spirit is not present. To love God is to love our neighbour, and when we love then God lives in us: we know God, and we have no need to be afraid.

(A Lenten resolution, inspired by my therapy.)

100 books

You copy the list and put an x for the ones that you have read.
Average is 6 out of this 100, according to the BBC…

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (x)
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien (x)
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (x)
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (x)
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee ()
6 The Bible – (x)
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (x )
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell (x)
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman (x)
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens (x)
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott ()
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy (X)
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller ( x)
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (x)
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier ()
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien (x)
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk ()
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger (x )
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger ()
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot (x)
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell ()
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald ()
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens (x)
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy ( )
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (x)
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh (x)
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (x)
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck ()
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll (x)
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame (x)
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (x)
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens (x)
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis (x)
34 Emma – Jane Austen (x)
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen (x)
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis (x)
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini ( )
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres (x)
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden ()
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne (x)
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell (X)
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (x)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez ()
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving (x)
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins ()
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery ()
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (x)
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood ()
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding (x)
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan (x)
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel (x)
52 Dune – Frank Herbert (x)
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons ()
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (x )
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth ( )
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon ( )
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens (x)
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (x )
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon (x)
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez ()
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck ()
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov ()
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt (x)
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold ( )
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas ( )
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac ( x)
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy (x)
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding ( x)
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (x )
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville ( )
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens (x)
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker (X)
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett (x)
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson ( )
75 Ulysses – James Joyce ()
76 The Inferno – Dante ( )
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (x)
78 Germinal – Emile Zola ( )
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray ( )
80 Possession – AS Byatt (x)
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (s)
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell ()
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker ()
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro ( )
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert ( )
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry ( )
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White ()
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom ()
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (x)
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton ( )
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (x)
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery (x)
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks (x)
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams (x)
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole ()
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute ( )
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas ( )
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare (X)
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl (x)
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo ()

59/100 (but includes a couple that I’m reading at the moment like Life of Pi)

Spiritual Gifts (/Supernatural)

Something I’ve just written for the parish magazine.

‘Earnestly desire the higher gifts’ (1 Cor 12.31)

I have been asked by several people recently about the nature of spiritual or supernatural gifts: what are they and how should we understand them? Well, St Paul devotes a very long sequence in his first letter to the Corinthians to this topic (chapters 12-14) and I would heartily recommend studying those chapters to get some good sense about what these gifts are and how important – or unimportant – they are. What I would like to do briefly here is say something about the ‘supernatural’, which might help to clear things up.

When we talk about the ‘supernatural’ today, we tend to think either of poltergeists and vampires, or else of some sort of special power like Superman’s X-ray vision. We think that there is a natural world which we are familiar with, and then there is a supernatural world which goes beyond this. Supernatural gifts in particular are seen as forms of power, especially the ability to do or achieve something physical like lifting an amazingly heavy weight. This is not the way that the early church understood ‘the supernatural’.

In the early church, the division wasn’t between the natural and the supernatural, but between the natural and the graced – that is, between what was human and humanly comprehensible, and what was the subject of divine activity. This was not a matter of power so much as it was about morality. The early church took it for granted that we were sinful, we were corrupted by original sin, and so we are incapable of being virtuous or good by our own activity. However, the action of divine grace can work within us and enable us to become better people and thereby do good work. This is the understanding that lies behind much of the language of the Book of Common Prayer, especially in the 39 Articles.

The difference might be envisaged by comparing Superman – a character who can achieve all sorts of physically impossible feats, like flying and lifting trains with one hand – and St Francis of Assisi, who overcame the patterns of his upbringing in order to serve the poor. Superman is ‘supernatural’ in a modern sense, but it is St Francis who is supernatural in the earlier and more Scriptural sense. His ‘nature’ was surpassed, and his life of virtue was therefore supernatural.

This is what St Paul emphasises through the famous chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, which we will be studying in the house groups throughout Lent. The most important gift is love, and this is a spiritual gift, this is a supernatural gift. Consider how hard it is to forgive someone who has deeply hurt us – it is not something that we can achieve through our own power. Yet it is possible – it is a gift from God when it can happen, and all the thanks belong to him when it does.

So when St Paul writes, introducing that chapter 13, ‘earnestly desire the higher gifts’ this is what he is talking about. There are all sorts of strange and exotic phenomena in our lives, some are spiritually important, some are not, but the most important gifts are those of love, most especially what he elsewhere calls the ‘fruits of the Spirit’: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the most important, the most worthy, and the most supernatural of the gifts that God can bestow on us. Let us pursue these gifts, and pray for these gifts, and share these gifts in our community.