At our weekly Bible study yesterday evening we began what is intended to be a series of meetings looking at the practice and understanding of prayer in the Christian tradition using written prayers from its various periods and strands along with passages reflecting on what prayer is or was thought to be. We began with a selection of Old Testament “prayers” (excluding the Psalms and using a fairly wide definition of prayer).

We read:

  • Abraham’s plea on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 18;
  • David’s response to God’s promise that his descendants would sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever from 2 Samuel 7;
  • Solomon’s appeal for wisdom in 1 Kings 3;
  • Nehemiah’s prayer for success in his meeting with King Artaxerxes of Persia to ask for help in rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh 1)
  • Job’s repentance of his defiance after God appears to him in the whirlwind (Job 42)

What I found fascinating is how much easier we find it to think about God and God’s nature than we do to pray. Our discussion of prayer was overshadowed and crowded out by a set of issues only indirectly related it:

  • Do we believe God to be active in the world or do we believe that the course of events is independent of anything God wills or does not will?
  • Do we believe that God is implicated in the suffering of the world by allowing or even causing it?
  • Who or what do we think is named by the name “God” and in particular is the God we name the same God as the one named by Moslems, Jews or other religious believers?
  • Does the Biblical text have any authority over or even relevance to contemporary people, including those who call themselves Christians and attend churches?

My own answers to these questions are predictable in minister of the Christian church who professes a faith bound by (my understanding of) the normative orthodoxy expressed in the confession of faith of the United Reformed Church (UK). I believe that God is active in the world, that the relationship between God’s will and the world’s ills is inseparable from human sin and God’s mission of salvation, that the one true God is the three-in-one, one-in-three Father, Son and Holy Spirit revealed in Christ and that the Biblical text is the highest authority over our life and faith.

That is, though, only the beginning of the discussion since how we should conceptualise all these matters is both complex and contested. If we had to answer any of these questions definitively before we could pray then there could be no prayer. Indeed I think that they are important only insofar as they act as barriers to prayer. Somebody who can’t answer any of them AT ALL but who can sincerely and prayerfully address themselves to God is in a much better place spiritually (which is to say has a much healthier relationship with God) than somebody who has sophisticated and well worked out answers to them all but is unable to find a way to come into God’s presence.

This is not to suggest that we wasted our time going round these matters again but rather to say that it is only worthwhile if it removes barriers that are preventing prayer. I sometimes worry that theology can be a form of prevarication, a way of delaying the dreaded moment when one comes face to face with God in the privacy of one’s own room (as Jesus recommends in his teaching on prayer during the Sermon on the Mount).

Prayer, it seems to me, is ultimately an admission of dependence and helplessness. We turn and appeal to God when we know ourselves inadequate or overwhelmed. This is not the only kind of prayer, of course, we offer praise and thanks and we offer almost routine pleas for blessing but in all of these we acknowledge a power beyond us towards which we can turn only an appeal, not an offer or a bargain.

Our unwillingness (or inability) to do this is the heart of sin and some of our discussion of theology expresses this as it finds reasons to delay and evade the simple act of saying: “Lord God, help me in my doubt, guide me in my uncertainty, comfort me in my suffering, soothe me in my anxiety. Lord, be gracious to me and bless me, in the name of Christ”.

This week the Revised Common Lectionary has paired an interesting couple of texts. We have Luke 4:14-21 (Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth) and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (“one body  in the Spirit”). At first sight there isn’t an immediate connection between them and I suspect they are joined because the RCL is following two simultaneous tracks, through Luke and through 1 Corinthians, that are not strongly aligned.

At any rate I was at first puzzled and uncertain about what to do with them this Sunday. Should I continue with my exploration of the way the Spirit equips the Church (begun last week with the immediately prior section of Paul’s letter)? Or should I return to my reflections on the Spirit’s empowering of Jesus (begun the week before when thinking about the baptism of Christ)?

Then it came to me that this was in fact two ways of approaching the thing I really wanted to talk about, the Spirit’s empowering of the Church to be Christ’s body (the centre of Paul’s attention in our epistle) in order to continue to proclaim God’s good news (as Jesus does in the Gospel passage).

Here the two key points are 1) the role of the Spirit in the two texts and 2) the relationship between the text Jesus reads, with its explanation of what the Spirit has anointed the prophet Isaiah to do, and he remark when he has finished: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

When we hear read the account of Jesus’ reading and of his claim of fulfillment, what is happening?

When this text is read in a church, in the midst of the body of Christ constituted out of our weakness by the Spirit, the scripture is fulfilled again: the good news is proclaimed.

It is true that our salvation is not yet complete. It is true that peace and justice do not yet reign without qualification. It is true that we still await the return of Christ in glory.

BUT …

In the Church Christ remains present. His coming does fulfill the scripture, he does inaugurate the kingdom of God. We are given the opportunity to participate and to inhabit that kingdom, in the power of the Spirit.

The enthusiasm some in the UK feel regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party has filled me with almost as much gloom as my feelings of helplessness in face of the pan-European crisis of refuge and migration. What these phenomena have in common (for me) is that they point so directly to the limits of the possibilities of political action.

To take refuge first it is essential to note that the only European politician who had performed really well in all this is Angela Merkel. The collective memory of her will, I suspect, be dominated by her leadership in this to the same extent as that of Tony Blair is dominated by the disaster of the Iraq war. We all needed a voice that spoke for our moral obligation to those seeking shelter and Merkel stepped up to be that voice. Just as the underlying story of Blair’s premiership as it led him to take the wrong turning when faced with Bush’s determination to overthrow Saddam is more complicated than it is now often allowed to be so is the story of the German response to the present moment and Merkel’s embodiment of it. Nonetheless she has come out on the right side and I admire her for it.

Overall, though, the German response is only part of what is required. It is essential that the rest of the EU come forward to assist those bearing most of the burden (and we should be clear that it is a burden) of offering protection and respite. The Germans, Swedes, Greeks and Italians can’t be left to pick up such a disproportionate share. The UK in particular should be much more cooperative, unlikely though that is, given the complexion of our government and the state of popular opinion (recent poll numbers). At the same time, much as some of us might resist admitting it, David Cameron is right to stress that the best way to help those fleeing Syria is first to provide adequately for them in the neighbouring countries where most of them are likely to remain, above all Turkey and Lebanon, and second to find a way to end the war itself. He is also right that there is something essentially perverse about prioritising helping those with the resources and initiative to get to Europe over helping those stuck in the hopeless camps nearer Syria. In condemning the UK government for remaining outside the effort to cope with those arriving in Europe, and we should condemn it, we must also recognise the value in the UK’s very significant contributions to the effort to assist those in neighbouring countries, to which the UK is far and away the biggest European donor.

The question of how to cope with the current crisis is not a simple one of good vs. evil although we do in the end have to decide what is right. I think the UK should participate in the formulation and implementation of a common policy of resettlement of those arriving. I also think there is something positive to be said in favour of the UK scheme to resettle directly from the camps those most in need and a lot to be said for the emphasis on improving conditions in those camps and seeking a way to bring peace.

In all of these areas, though, I am very aware that the situation is unlikely to improve and that, indeed, the increasing instability in Turkey makes everything more difficult. A lot of the refugees are in areas where an escalating campaign of terrorism against the Turkish state is being waged by the PKK in response to the aggression of an Erdogan regime reacting to its political difficulties with provocation against the Kurds. In reality what I do, say or think as an individual is insignificant in face of all this. I can say to a few people that we are under an obligation to help in every way we can. I can give a little money. My actions, when I look at them objectively, are irrelevant to the outcomes.

In my estimation, as somebody who was once a part of the same marginal far-left world that Corbyn and McDonnell have inhabited for forty years or more, the political outlook of those now in charge of the Labour Party is essentially formed as a howl of protest against this helplessness. Seen in this way it is hard not to feel some sympathy with it. There is a lot of suffering and misery in the world that looked at in a certain way appear completely unnecessary. 500 million rich Europeans should be able to give shelter to a few hundred thousand desperate Syrians without any difficulty. If you look at the food eaten and wasted by the rich world it seems obscene that anyone anywhere is hungry.

Making this sort of straightforward observation can lead quite quickly to the thought that if these things are not addressed it must be because of the indifference or even malevolence of those in charge and that if the mass of people allow it it is because those evil people in charge are manipulating them. That, in essence, is the world-view of the milieu from which Corbyn is now emerging, blinking owlishly, into the light of the real public world. His message to the British people is: “those in charge are evil and they’ve been fooling you for years”. The popularity of films along the general lines of “The Matrix” show that at the level of fantasy it’s a message that at least some people are very ready to hear. In essence it share a good deal with that of UKIP (“liberal elite”, “speak the truth”) and indeed all other populist movements. “They’re lying to you but the truth has always been in plain view, if only someone had the courage to speak it.”

At one level I even think that they’re right. The truth is simple and clear. If people would love one another, put their selfishness aside and act in the interests of others rather than seeking their own security and comfort through conflict and competition we could and would indeed live in peace and plenty. That’s the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus and by the prophets before him. It’s the message of the Mosaic Law and is the essence of the founding of monarchy and temple under David and Solomon in the historic books of the Old Testament.

In all these Biblical cases, though, it comes up against the reality of human sinfulness. Jesus ended up on the cross, the prophets were without honour, the Law was never followed and the monarchy and temple went down before God’s servant Nebuchadnezzar. That is not a cause for despair in the Bible, although there are plenty of desperate reactions in it. In face of every failure to overcome human sin we are encouraged to keep our faith in God, whose love is unfailing. This triumph of love over sin reaches a climax in the resurrection of Jesus and we are able to participate in that resurrection as a foretaste and promise of our own resurrection.

To put our faith anywhere else is to invite and embrace despair. That isn’t altogether a bad thing but it can’t be the last thing. One of the texts most important to my own Christian journey is Soren Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness unto Death’. In it he argues that true faith can only be born of despair, only when one has accepted the futility of all human endeavour can one throw oneself unreservedly into the arms of God, with the loss of hope enabling the leap of faith into the unknown depths of the divine.

As long as one closes one’s eyes to the truth of the pervasiveness and intractability of the problem of human sin, preserving the illusion that all problems are soluble by us, then faith in God is partial and eclipsed by a desperate faith in human possibility. Only when this is surrendered by a faith that gives it all up to God enabled.

All my hope on God is founded … God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his own.

breadcrumbs

This week’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading is Mark 7:24-37, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of a man deaf and mute. The Lectionary very helpfully pairs it with a passage from Isaiah 35 in which the restoration of hearing and speech (along with sight and movement) are connected with the return of the people from exile to Jerusalem and their restoration to Holiness and intimacy with God.

This passage with its report of Jesus making a stark and definitive distinction between the “children” (of Israel) and the (pagan) “dogs” and declaration that it is not good to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs is one many struggle with. They can’t reconcile their idea of Jesus with his calling (by implication) this suffering faithful woman and her afflicted daughter “dogs”. Of course the blow is softened by his response to her appeal to let the dogs eat crumbs by declaring her daughter released from the demon. This does not, though, mean that the designation “dog” is rejected. It is accepted by the woman in her answer and Jesus does not at any point object to it.

This passage falls in the middle of a longer unit formed by the two feeding miracles (of 5,000 and of 4,000) that many scholars believe enact the movement from a mission only to Israel to a mission that invites those outside Israel to participate in God’s kingdom. The 4,000 are the dogs who are fed with the crumbs from the feeding of the 5,000, on this reading.

This would make the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman a key moment in the move from one to the other and thus a crucial staging point in the journey to Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ messianic status after the healing miracle that follows the second feeding as this week’s follows the first.

All of this in turn echoes and draws on the crucial passage from Isaiah 35 that we are offered by the RCL and that many think stands behind this week’s Gospel. Isaiah 35 is a brief outburst of eschatological hope and exaltation in the transition from the first part to the second of that extraordinary book. Here the prophetic word suddenly breaks free from its moorings in the historical reality of Judah’s struggle for survival in the face of Assyrian hegemony to take a view of God’s faithful restoration of Israel after her humiliation and near destruction by Babylon.

By invoking this vision in the context of Jesus’ ministry the text reminds of a series of crucial claims:

  • the appearance of Jesus marks the moment of the final fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, the day of the Lord, when God will reign in Zion and all the peoples will recognise his sovereignty over the world, leading to universal peace and justice
  • the breaking in of God’s rule will be marked by the healing of people and by abundance of food and the flowering of the desert
  • the God that comes will be the God of Israel, finally revealed as the God of of all creation

We are confronted by these passages, with their national-historical and universal-cosmological roots and ambitions, at a time when the world is being tested by a crisis of enormous magnitude and great depth. The collapse of the Syrian state and the disintegration of that country into a dystopic nightmare of civil war and frenzied repression is the main driver of the current movement. Of Syria’s roughly 18 million people it is thought that nearly 10 million have had to leave their homes and that around 4 million have left the country. Most of these are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

In Britain the response to the global flow of refugees is dominated by a general reluctance to admit migrants of any kind. (Ipsos Mori report on attitudes to migration). It is difficult to determine why the population of this country (including former migrants) are so keen to keep newcomers out but it should be remembered that we are not unique in this. Even the United States of America, where the current population is made up almost entirely of the descendants of relatively recent immigrants, has a consistent record of high levels of support for “nativist” politicians who want to close the country to new arrivals going back into the eighteenth century. This suggests that arguments about factors like jobs, housing and other public goods like health and education may be rationalisations of motivations that people are less willing to express (as I believe to be the case).

What do our Lectionary passages have to say to us Christians as we contemplate the appalling situation of those fleeing war and seeking to break into a Europe they believe offers them the chance to rebuild a life worth living?

First we should remember that as gentile Christians we should see ourselves as displaced persons, as “dogs” without a home. We have, in Christ, subjected ourselves to the God of a nation (Israel) that we have not joined. Stanley Hauerwas has suggested that we should regard ourselves as resident aliens in the nations we inhabit and in the current context there is great value in this argument. We should not see ourselves as native to the United Kingdom or to any other state or nation in this world. We are the dogs of Biblical Israel, those hoping that God will feed us with the crumbs from the children’s table. We have, from this point of view, no more right to be where we are than do those encamped at Calais or in Lebanon. We do not, or we should not, recognise national distinctions that we reject (whether we know it or not) when we try to enter the kingdom of God.

Second we should not expect our states, as states, to agree with us on this radical rejection of national boundaries. The other half of Hauerwas’ argument (with which I would not always agree but which I regard as wonderfully helpful in our present situation) is that we are aliens because our states are not Christian, are in fact anti-Christian. Hauerwas can sometimes seem to come close to advocating a complete withdrawal from political life and at the moment that seems a tempting course of action. At any rate if we engage in the argument about what should be done we must be aware that whatever outcome emerges it will be less than adequate to the horror that is unfolding. We should not be tempted to imagine that there is a “right” answer available in the political sphere, however strong we believe our duty to seek the better rather than the worse.

We have to stand up for the humanity of the displaced. The language of “swarm” and “horde”, the refusal to recognise ourselves in those fleeing war, persecution and poverty, must be resisted. The refugees are people like ourselves. Ultimately I can’t see any kind of closed border as compatible with Christian ethics BUT I am aware that the argument for open borders will not be won this side of the return of Christ and the final establishment of the direct rule of God. In the meantime it is necessary (if we are to engage in politics at all) to be realistic about what is possible and what the results of any particular course of action will be.

In the current European moment it is clear that the UK should, must, do more. It is less clear how much more and for whom. There is, in fact, some merit in the argument of the government that the additional people to whom it offers refuge should be taken from the camps in the countries neighbouring Syria rather than from among those already in Europe. Those left behind will inevitable include the most needy. On the other hand it is also clearly an attempt to avoid being drawn into comparison with Germany (or Sweden or indeed Austria) which are hosting, proportionately to their population, many times more of those who have got to Europe. This is a cynical manoeuvre and should be denounced as such but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t, perhaps, be better to take some tens of thousands from Lebanon or Jordan than it  would be to open the border.

At any rate the practical politics of the situation are much more complex than the very simple tasks that we cannot evade of insisting on the humanity of those in distress and demanding that they be viewed with compassion and care rather than hostility and rejection.

sending In the URC it’s usual to talk about ministers being “called” rather than about them being “sent” since our official position on this is that the local church calls and the ministers accepts or does not accept the call. Formally this is indeed what happens but in fact the denomination has a powerfully centralised apparatus for “deployment” of ministers that means that “sending” is at least as true a description as “calling”. A committee of each Synod receives an allocation of ministerial posts from a General Assembly committee and “scopes” “pastorates” within that allocation which may then call a minister. Without a Synod scoping no call is possible and the churches thus receive their ministers as gifts from the General Assembly via the Synod.

In this post I am considering the ways in which these Synod committees could and should decide where to send (stipendiary) ministers. I have concluded that there are three broad guidelines that could be adopted: “count the sheep“, “follow the money” and “deploy for mission“. In addition to these three guidelines there are two constraints: “practicable pastorates” and “complete coverage“. I will define these five terms before I attempt to argue for what I believe to be the best overall course for the denomination and to justify that argument with reference to a theology of ministry (and the Church).

Count the sheep describes a way of deciding how to allocate or “deploy” stipendiary ministry based on a members-per-minister basis. There seems to be a rough rule of thumb widely recognised across the URC that says a single church pastorate should have at least 150 members with each additional church reducing that number by 30 (so that, for example, a three church pastorate could have only 90 members). On the face of it this might seem a reasonable starting point. On this basis one might hope to end up with a set of pastorates that cover all the churches and provide ministry to their members in a fairly equitable way. I will, however, argue that of the three starting points this is distinctly the worst and that it rests on a fundamentally mistaken view of the ministerial vocation. It is however the current default position for most Synods, as far as I can tell.

Follow the money is how all the other free churches operate, more or less. It describes a situation in which a church (or for Methodists a circuit) gets the ministry it can pay for. Given the very centralised nature of URC ministerial finances (where all ministers are paid out of a single Ministry and Mission Fund (M&M) which is raised from the churches through a kind of tax collection operation run by the Synods) this could imply some quite complex calculations, although it could be simplified by working out a cost-per-minister-to-the-Synod by dividing the Synod M&M number by the Synod deployment number. In the case of my Synod, Thames North, this comes out at something between £55,000 and £60,000. Each church could then be allocated the proportion of a minister’s time that they are paying for. A TN church contributing £60,000 would thus get a full time minister, one paying £30,000 half a minister (perhaps with the rest of her time allocated to other churches who between them paid the other £30,000).

Deploy for mission describes a situation in which the deployment of ministers is, in all cases, on the basis of some specific and identifiable tasks or opportunities to serve the Kingdom of God. Each minister would be sent to a specific situation with a set of identified goals or needs which might or might not have anything to do with how many members a church had or how much money it contributed. The Synod of Wales has adopted a fairly radical version of this principle and West Midlands have gone some way down this path.

Practicable pastorates constrain the extent to which either of the first two guidelines can be followed. The average size of a URC congregation is significantly under 50 members. This makes the “count the sheep” principle hard to put into operation. Three average congregations will be 150 members, far too many for a three church pastorate, while two average congregations will be significantly too small. This relies, too, on there being appropriately sized congregations reasonably close to one another and similar enough to want the same (sort of) minister. It isn’t often that all the conditions are in place to enable definition of a pastorate that fits the criteria and so what happens is either an approximation is arrived at or, increasingly, part time pastorates are declared.

Complete coverage would involve defining exactly the number of pastorates we can afford (given the size of M&M currently a little over 400) which include all the churches (currently around 1500). In theory this is the ambition, to have ministry at or in every church, in practice the constraint of practicable pastorates means that we always have a significant numbers of churches which neither have nor have permission to call a minister.

What we shouldn’t do is count sheep. The pastoral task is not “looking after” people, it’s leading them: it isn’t making them feel better or enabling the churches to continue to function, it’s discerning how they should serve the kingdom of God alongside them. This is not significantly easier in a small church or significantly harder in a big one. The great mistake expressed in the sheep counting principle is the idea that ministry is a service to the members of the Church, a mistake in turn expressing the idea that the point of the Church is the salvation of those who are in or who can be brought into it. The Church exists to serve the mission of God to redeem the world and its ministry exists to help it in this.

What we should do is prioritise mission. It is unreasonable, though, to ask churches to define their mission before they are allocated ministry, since, in my experience, discernment of mission is exactly what they need a minister for. My inclination, then, is to say that we should follow the rest of the free churches in “following the money” for, perhaps, 75% of our ministerial deployment with the remaining 25% being sent where mission is best understood. This is not ideal but it is comprehensible and quantifiable.

Through June and July I, and the others who lead worship at Potters Bar when I’m not there, are going to be reflecting on the life and career of King David. We will read the texts given by the Revised Common Lectionary for this period from the First and Second Books of Samuel and the First Book of Kings, which trace David’s story, and will look for what these tell us about our Christian faith and about how to live as disciples of Jesus. Anne, Roger, Tony, Richard and I will all be grappling with these ancient texts about a war-lord and ruler who lived some 3,000 years ago. On Monday evenings our Bible Study group will follow the same course, allowing those who participate to bring their own perspectives, ask their own questions and pose their own problems in relation to this old, old tale.

I’ve struggled to understand why this seemed like such a good idea to me and what this strange and bloody saga of intrigue, warfare, sexual misconduct and family feuding has to say to contemporary Christians in the home counties of England. This has been difficult but, in the end, very rewarding.

It can sometimes seem like the Church has little connection with “real life”. The great issues of politics are usually conducted without reference to Christianity, with religion featuring only as a problem to be dealt with. Islamic terrorism is a persistent threat and the churches can be seen as old-fashioned and backward looking institutions, behind the times on a range of ethical issues where their objections are politely noted and then ignored. Where people of faith are visible it is as odd and marginal characters to be carefully put to one side.

Dealing with the story of the Kingdoms of Israel in the Bible reminds us that from the point of view of those who are part of the people of God things look very different. The God we worship, Sunday by Sunday, is a God who created all things and who is present in history, struggling to make real his rule of peace and justice. The events of history, as they are reported in the Bible, as to be interpreted as revealing God working with and through people to realise God’s good purposes.

This can be very difficult when we look around the world we inhabit. A world in which many millions of people, from Afghanistan, from Syria, from Somalia or from Sudan, are forced from their homes by conflict and have nowhere safe to go; where children are mistreated and abused by those in positions of trust; where hate-filled terrorists murder people quite unknown to them. How can such a world be one created and overseen by a good and loving God?

These are the very questions that were at the forefront of the minds of those who edited and completed the texts we know as the Old Testament. They were exiles, refugees, in Babylon, at the centre of the empire that had destroyed their homes and desecrated their holy places. They and their families had witnessed and undergone the horrors of war and conquest at the hands of a foreign army that rejected their religion. This had happened despite their profound conviction that they had been chosen by God to be his holy people.

They were determined to remain faithful and needed to understand how they had come to be where they were. They were also determined to continue to look for signs of who God was and what he wanted them to do in the chaos and despair of their situation. They believed that if one looked at history, in all its darkness, in the right way then God would be found there and that he will make good on his promises of salvation. They remained hopeful and steadfast, in their search for insight, in their living according to God’s way and in their confidence that they would be restored to a full national life in accordance with the Law.

In reading the written record they left of their endeavour to remain true we can learn a great deal about how to the People of God, which is what the Church is called to be. No matter how dark times are, for the Church or for the world, we are bearers of the promise of salvation.

mark 8.35
I’m preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary again after a break when I used passages selected following other disciplines. This means that as I approach the second Sunday in Lent I’m looking at the first passion prediction in Mark (chapter 8:31-38), although having reflected on that Gospel reading I decided that I didn’t want to use the other RCL readings and took my own from Job and Galatians instead. As sometimes happens, when I looked at the Greek and studied the commentaries I became dissatisfied with the translations available to me, In particular the rendering of three words came to seem to me to radically dilute and even to distort the sense of what the author of Mark wrote.

The Greek words in question are:

first, “psychen” (usually translated either as “life” – as in the RSV – or as “soul” or worst of all – as in the NIV, ESV and NAS – first as one then as the other);

second, “apolesei” (almost always translated as “lose”);

third, “zemiothenai” (sometimes “forfeit” – as in the NIV, ESV and NAS, sometimes “lose” as in the KJV and RSV).

My problems with the  existing translations are:

1) the translation of psychen as soul encourages us to remain with a picture of the human being as composed of a mixture of separable body and soul that is quite alien, in my view, to the Biblical image. In particular it allows the pagan or gnostic idea of an eternal soul that is the real self and can subsist apart from the body (perhaps in a non-material “heaven”);

2) the translation of psychen sometimes as “life” (in verse 35) and sometimes as “soul” (in verse 36) accentuates this by hiding that the same word is being used in both cases, that the paradoxical claim is being made that the attempt to preserve the “psychen” is what dooms it and its destruction is what saves it, in any case it is the same “thing” that is at stake – the soul cannot be counter-posed to life;

3) the translation of apolesei as “lose” fails to do justice to the sense of destruction that word denotes – that which has been subject to apolosei hasn’t just been misplaced or hidden, it has been made ruin, furthermore this isn’t something that happens by accident, it is something that is done;

4) translating both apolosei and zemiothenai by the same word (“lose”) seriously distorts the relationship between the two verses, already disrupted if psychen is translated differently in the two cases – in verse 35 we have the counter-position of “save” and “destroy”, in verse 36 that of “gain” and “forfeit” – this matters because in verse 35 the focus is on the relationship between a person and his or her “self”, in 36 the shift to the language of exchange indicates the correct focus as on the relationship between a person and God with the self at stake.

This discussion of questions of translation is a preamble. The main point is that this critical passage on discipleship has a very serious and disturbing message for us, as sinners in need of salvation. The message is that our efforts at saving ourselves will always be not just useless but actually destructive, like the person in quicksand trying to find a way to stand we will simply intensify and accelerate our doom. Only by actively working against our established self-hood, our asserted independence of God, only by following and obeying rather than leading and deciding will we be saved.

This strikes to the heart of our sinfulness, which is basically our desire to be sovereigns of ourselves not subjects of the divine sovereign. Entering into the kingdom of God means we have to surrender our independence, destroy our selves.

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