Author: Chris Spark

Too Heavenly Minded… (Chris Spark)

“They are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good!”

You may have heard that line floating around. It captures something we have all come across. The attitude of a person who is so caught up in ‘matters of religion’ that they never seem to pay any attention to what is going on at ground level. This person is so focussed on heaven – and in particular probably on the One who is enthroned in heaven – that they are disconnected from the real world, from the mud and the blood and the sweat and, perhaps especially, the tears here on earth. And disconnection from the reality of earth is never a good thing. Especially seeing as it usually means disconnection from people – from the real world of people, from the messy business of being involved in the real lives of real world people.

A couple of weeks ago I looked closely at the second chapter of the first letter of the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the city of Thessalonica (in other words, 1 Thessalonians chapter 2). That chapter showed me something about this idea of being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. In fact, it did something I particularly love – it blew apart the false dichotomy that is contained in that pithy little saying.

Paul is the middle of describing his relationship with the Christians in Thessalonica – reminiscing with them over the time he had spent with them not too long before. In chapter 2 he describes the way he feels about them. He uses a series of ‘not…but’ statements – the first being that his visit to Thessalonica was not a waste of time (“not without results”, verse 1), but rather they preached the gospel in spite of the rough time they were having (verse 2).

It starts getting to my point in the second ‘not…but’ statement – their appeal did not come from wrong motives (verse 3), but rather they spoke as men trying to please God. In other words (and to cut a long and interesting story rather short), their major concern was not that they win over people (at all costs), but rather they were concerned about what God thought of them. They were interested in God’s opinion of them above all, as the one who had given them this message to preach. They were, in other words, above all heavenly minded.

So you would think they wouldn’t be much earthly good. And given they weren’t out primarily to please people, that they would keep people and all their messiness at an appropriate distance.

Which is where the dichotomy explosion kicks in. Because the third and biggest ‘not…but’ statement in this chapter goes, I am pretty sure, from verse 5 all the way to verse 8, and then the theme of it is expanded on to the end of verse 11. The contrast here is that they came not with deception or self-seeking (verse 5-7a), but rather with genuine, self-giving, life-sharing love. The depth of the language Paul uses here of the love he and his friends had for the Thessalonians is extraordinary. Paul describes himself as being like both a father and a mother in his affections for them, and talks of them in terms of his ‘earnest desire’ for them (verse 8, rather colourlessly translated as ‘care’ in most English translations). And, vitally in terms of exploding this dichotomy, he says this in verse 8:

“…we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of Godbut our lives as well,because you had become so dear to us.”

See Paul’s absolute focus on pleasing God, his thorough ‘heavenly mindedness’, resulted in a passion for people, and deep affectionate care. That passion and care meant he shared his life, his very self with them. He got involved in their lives, he shared in their hurts, he cared for them in every way he could. He was so heavenly minded that he was of immense earthly good.

To be honest that isn’t surprising. He was following and proclaiming a saviour who was the son of heaven himself, the very mind of heaven, who yet came and made his home on earth – precisely in the mud and the blood, the sweat and definitely the tears. Jesus was the heavenly mind doing the ultimate earthly good. Paul was simply learning and showing what it meant to follow Jesus.

So my question to myself, and to us all, is this: do we desire to please God enough that it spills over into passionate affection for people? Are we caught up with the mind of our saviour enough that sharing our lives with others is the natural overflow of our love? Or: are we heavenly minded enough to be of true earthly good?

God Works in Obedient Ways (Chris Spark)

Leading up to Christmas I’ve had cause to dwell on a story in Matthew chapter 1 a little bit, and I have seen something I think is beautiful.

It’s only a short passage, so here it is:

The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.19 So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man,and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.

20 But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus,12 because He will save His people from their sins."

22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated "God is with us."

24 When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her 25 but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son.And he named Him Jesus.

(Matthew 1:18-25 HCSB)

There are any number of discussions that we could have about this story, and the way it connects more widely to the birth narrative in Matthew. But the thing I have noticed for the first time is the simple beauty of Joseph’s response here. I’ll try to show you what I mean with a little sequence:

  1. This is a real world story. I know the occurrence is incredibly out of the ordinary (which we might not be completely bewildering if the God of the universe did indeed step into his creation). But what I mean is that Joseph’s reaction shows he did indeed understand the way of the birds and the bees, and felt the incredible weight of the obvious implication of Mary’s pregnancy. That’s why he was looking to divorce her (legal procedures were necessary for breaking an engagement in that time and culture).
  2. Even with feeling the weight of the situation, Joseph was seeking to be merciful and compassionate rather than vengeful. He wanted to divorce her quietly and save her public shame. This was characteristic of him it seems.
  3. When it did become clear that something different and unique was happening in this pregnancy, he had to follow a hard call. He was effectively commanded to welcome the woman he thought had been unfaithful, and the child he had not fathered, into his life. Indeed he is told here to name Jesus – implying Joseph was to take Jesus on as his own son. That is a hard call.
  4. Joseph chose to be obedient to God in the face of the hard call, and to risk the shame of taking on this woman and the child in her womb.
  5. Through that simple (but hard) act of obedience, he became involved in the greatest moment of salvation history up to that point – as God entered into his creation with rescuing, freeing and transforming intent.

Similar things could be said of Mary’s humble and obedient attitude in Luke 1:26-38.

This reminded me of simple acts of obedience and trust in God that I have seen in others, and that God has used to influence me. For instance the person who in a quiet and humble and very simple way owned his Christian faith, and through that opened a way for me to talk to him about Christianity before I was a Christian. And then the same humble quiet guy humbly and quietly invited me to church – which I refused at the time. After a little while he got the guts to humbly offer me a sermon on cassette tape (it was 14 years ago!) which broke down some of the walls I had up when it came to Jesus.

God uses the simple obedience and trust of faithful people to do amazing things in his work of salvation. He did at the first Christmas through Joseph and Mary; he still does. I hope that can inspire us to simple trust and obedience once again, and motivate us to pray for the work of the Spirit in us to empower that simple trust and obedience in us.

Merry Christmas.

Roastbusters and Us (Chris Spark)

The last couple of weeks have been intense on the societal reflection front. The Roastbusters scandal has had so much said about it, so much about what it shows about our society, it is hard to know whether to say anything else.

A few things seem clear about our society from all of it:

We do have a sexual violence issue. That is not new, but I guess at least it is being talked about, and maybe more will be done to help victims of sexual violence and coercion, if some of the petitions and other voices are taken seriously.

We do have an alcohol issue. That is not new.

We do have a culture so over-sexualised that young women (and others) can be thought of as ‘things’ rather than precious people made in the image of God, dehumanised in their perceived status as sexual commodities to be ‘taken’ (even without consent) or ‘won’. That is not new, but it is acute now in a way it may never have been before – this has been painfully brought to the fore by the way these girls were treated, and even the way some young women have themselves spoken about their sexuality in the aftermath. With that, too, perhaps the effects of treating sex the way our culture does will get a little more airtime now. I hope so.

But in reading a few things about this whole horrible incident, in comments made about it and about the messes and scandals surrounding it, it seemed to me one thing was worth saying from a gospel point of view:

We are not that different.

Jesus’ words were rightly enough brought up in one comment I saw about this – where Jesus said in Mark 7:20-23:

"What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come– sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person."

What I don’t think quite came across from the commenter who used this passage though, is the massive implications of this. Namely – these sort of things come out of all of our hearts.

See what I have seen in discussion around this scandal with regards to the perpetrators of this atrocity, the Roastbusters members themselves, has been largely either:

a) defend them or lessen what they have done by shifting the questioning back to the victims. This has received a lot of focus and rightly so – nothing can justify the sort of actions these guys have taken. But that has led most people to…

b) condemn them unequivocally – what they have done is shocking, they should be locked up, society needs people like this taken out of circulation.

But I think in fact a better option, at least for a Christian, is:

c) see myself in them, expressed at my worst.

I have the same stuff in my heart as they do. I am made of the same stuff. The same warping influence of sin exists in my life. I may not have expressed it in this way (I can only thank God for that), but it is all part of the same disease.

That leaves me in no position of distant condemnation. Because as I condemn what they have done (as I must), as I call for justice to be done (as I believe I also must), I am recognising a verdict that has come in on me too. I am guilty – not of this particular crime perhaps, yet I am far from innocent. And that means my call for justice and my condemnation of the actions comes with a recognition that at heart, I am no better.

But, in the beautiful logic of the gospel, it also means I must have hope – hope that these young men may yet turn and see what they have done. Repent. Be forgiven. Be transformed by the only power that can do it – the love and mercy of God through Christ, applied to us by his Spirit.

And I can have hope for these victims, hurt by this acute expression of the sinfulness of the human heart – hope that they too may be restored and strengthened. I have the enormous and harrowing privilege of knowing some victims of sexual violence who have found, and continue to find, just that sort of restoration and healing in Christ. So I have hope.

Hope is one thing that is needed in the light of this sort of disturbing picture of where the sinfulness of the human heart can go. And despite the darkness of this whole thing, because of Christ I think there is good reason to have hope. For all of us.

The Ugly Beauty (Chris Spark)

Beauty is important. In evangelical circles, we often underplay it a bit, because we have a tendency to a more stripped back form of church, and we can be very wary of too much embellishment. That’s something we have inherited from the Reformers, and it has its place too – it is a reaction, but it can be a necessary one, as sometimes the trappings that come with church can obscure the simplicity of the gospel of Christ.

But theology by reaction is dangerous too. It often causes overcorrections that mean we throw babies out with bathwater. Sometimes I think that is the case with evangelicals and beauty.

After all, in many parts of Scripture there is immense beauty. I don’t just mean it describes beautiful things (which it does at many points), no I mean the aesthetics of Scripture itself. The incredible beauty of many of the Psalms as literature, the wonderful aching beauty of the carefully crafted story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, the penetrating beauty of the poetic style in Philippians 2:5-11.

And God is obviously into beauty to a fair degree – living in New Zealand and experiencing this part of creation reinforces that (just take a drive on a summer day from Christchurch to Hanmer Springs sometime and take in the landscape). Plus we seemed to be wired to take in beautiful ideas, to recognise elegant and symmetrical equations that explain the workings of our universe in physics, for example.

But the real issue I think, with the way churches sometimes do beauty, is that beauty becomes tame. For instance, in Anglican churches communion tables are often beautifully dressed with linen and different colours, everything is neat and well placed.

But beautifully decorated, tidy communion tables are, in their own way, beautiful. Many of the more evangelically-minded of us miss I, but that is the intention – to make beautiful the place of our remembrance of God’s great act of salvation. This is right enough.

But it’s deeply wrong too. Because what it symbolises, what it calls us to remember, and be nourished by is – the cross. And the cross is not beautiful – it is profoundly ugly. A brief watch of even a portion of Mel Gibson’s Passion helps bring that home. And while people have often pointed out that the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion don’t focus on the gore of it anywhere near as much as that movie does (true enough), the reality is that these same Gospel accounts are the most extended narratives of crucifixion we have from the ancient world, and they weren’t trying to hide its ugliness. To the first readers of Scripture, the cross was by its very nature absolutely ugly and shameful, or as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians chapter 1: it was foolishness (literally, moron-ness). On the whole, ugly.

Yet – it is an ugly beauty. It is beautiful in its ugliness, somehow. As Paul puts it elsewhere, all the world is now crucified to him (Gal 6:14), and that is because this incredible Lord, in all his beauty, is the one who was crucified for us. The cross of the Lord Jesus Christ has become Paul’s boast – the most beautiful thing in the world, as the ultimate act of love by a God who is love. The cross is, at once, profoundly ugly and heartbreakingly beautiful.

This ugly beauty, this sort of upside down beauty, perhaps has a few partial parallels in our experience. Like the beauty of childbirth – if you’ve ever been at a birth, it is in many ways very ugly, and yet one of the most beautiful things we experience. Or like the beauty of a hard rock song – ugly in a way (especially in some people’s ears), but incredibly beautiful in other ways, carrying tension and resolution, passion and power. Or like the beauty of creation – nature truly is red in tooth and claw, filled with sin and brokenness, brutality and death – and yet it is incredibly breathtakingly beautiful, and God finds it worth preserving through transformation at the second coming of Christ.

Perhaps more closely, like the beauty of the coming of the son of God to this sin-infested world, being born in the usual way – ugly yet beautiful.

And like – well, also, like nothing else in all existence. Because it is the unique cross of the son of God. It is ugly. And it is more beautiful than anything in the world.

The Controversy of Christian Love (Chris Spark)

Love underlies so many arguments in the Christian world, and this has been very clear amongst evangelicals recently. Rob Bell’s book about hell and the judgement of God a few years ago was very cleverly titled ‘Love Wins’ – because everyone thinks love should! And, to be fair, God’s love is a key thing we do wrestle with when it comes to understanding judgement. In another controversial area, a lot of debates about sexuality are framed in terms of love – whether we are ‘for love’ in all its forms, whether this or that behaviour is really loving, whether acceptance or challenge is the most loving thing to do.

And all of this, in many ways, is fair enough. After all, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’ (John 3:16), and ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8).

I am clearly no great expert on love. A short period of time spent with me, or a frank discussion with my wife or children, would make that very clear. But I do think I may have seen three mistakes fairly commonly made in these discussions – three things I think end up steering us off course in our Christian discussions of love. Here they are:

1.

Love is often kept separate from gospel proclamation – as if we love people by our actions towards them but not by telling them about Jesus. As if loving actions (and even loving words) are one important part of the Christian life, and speaking about Jesus and sharing his message of forgiveness and release of sin through his death and resurrection, of transformation and hope in union to him – as if speaking of that is another different part of the Christian life. Obviously this is not said straight out, but it seems to me there is often the (perhaps unconscious?) assumption that love is on one hand and gospel proclamation is on the other.

This is obviously a big mistake. .’This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.’ (1 John 3:16) If that’s true then clearly we need to be talking endlessly about God’s demonstration of love to us in Christ (see Romans 5:8) as an act of love – as part of our loving action towards others. It’s crazy to think we would be really showing love for someone if we didn’t share the message of the one whom we all thoroughly need, and in whom life at its fullest is found.

2.

Another related false assumption I think I see quite often is this: love = making people happy. This can play out in the idea that if we ever offend anyone, we are being unloving. And if anyone hates us, we must have been unloving. Now there is, as always, a grain of truth in this – sometimes it seems like all some Christians ever do is take any chance to offend people, and then say ‘I was just being loving’. I remember seeing an interview with a young woman from Westboro Baptist church who said something like that.

But then again, often we flip the other way it seems to me. We judge our level of lovingness by whether people are ever offended by us. This is clearly a mistake – above all because of the amount of offence Jesus caused, indeed by saying quite direct and unpleasant things to people very often, because of his love for them and others. Jesus was actually hated for things like telling people they were really sinners, that they were nowhere near as good as they thought they were (for example, Luke 18:9-14).

Now of course I’m not suggesting we go around yelling that people are sinners all the time (for a start, let’s read Luke 18:9-14 again and see what attitude Jesus is actually encouraging us to have regarding ourselves). But what I am saying is this: if we think bringing in the Kingdom of God is making the world better (which I think is in part true) and we also think that we can judge our success in bringing in the Kingdom of God by whether we make people happy (and whether people are happy with us), then we have missed what it means to really love people in the way Jesus did.

Love humbly seeks what is truly best for people in the light of Christ, and that doesn’t always have the result of making them happy.

3.

A little different is the third. It is this question: ‘Who should I love?’ Again this is often not expressed this way, but I think often underlies the way many of us think about love.

For example, consider the discussions many of us have had about the parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). We might hear someone say ‘this parable shows that we need to love everyone, and care for everyone practically’. And a more conservative evangelical might reply: ‘but when you read it carefully in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, “brothers” here (verse 40) seems to clearly Christians primarily – so the parable is really talking about caring for Christians’. Now after a careful reading of the text, I think that is technically correct. But the major problem is that to say ‘I don’t need to go beyond this’ or to kind of imply ‘therefore we don’t have to care for anyone else’ – well, that’s craziness. It is the same attitude as the person who came to Jesus and asked ‘who is my neighbour?’ to try to limit who they had to love (Luke 10:29). To put it another way, it is like asking ‘how far can I go’ in discussions about sexual purity – it misses the point entirely that we are trying to move towards purity, not move as close as we can to immorality!

Christian love is like that – it is supposed to come from the overflowing response we have to the extraordinary, costly, painful love Jesus has shown towards us. Our question should be ‘how can I love more?’ and ‘who else can I love, and how can I show them love as Christ has loved me?’ If we find ourselves asking ‘who should I love?’ in the sense of ‘who do I have to love and who can I get away with ignoring’, we are missing the whole point.

The trouble with writing something like this is where it leaves me. I better go confess and pray for help now, because I have a long way to go when it comes to love. Thank God for Jesus.