Monday, July 30, 2007

Communion of the saints?

Last week, the guy who was leading communion in church said something and I've been mulling it over all week without really getting anywhere.

He said that once he was praying for something personal and he had a strong sense that God said to him something along the lines of "you're not the only person praying for this, others are praying for you about this matter, and you do realise that not all of those praying for you are on earth..."

I'm really not sure what to make of this.

I know that Catholic doctrine asserts that the departed saints watch over us and may intercede on our behalf, but I also thought that this was one of the things that got thrown out by protestants in the reformation.

This thought ties in with my earlier thought on what happens when you die. Are dead people really in a position to view what is going on on earth?

Where does this belief come from anyway? Well, the Catholic encyclopedia is quite handy at this point, it says:
"The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices. The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption. The damned are thus excluded from the communion of saints. The living, even if they do not belong to the body of the true Church, share in it according to the measure of their union with Christ and with the soul of the Church..."
But I am slightly concerned that the first passage cited to support this statement comes from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.

But biblical origins of this doctrine seem to be based largely in Hebrews 12v1, where it talks about us being surrounded by a 'cloud of witnesses'. tells me that the word translated as 'witness' here is the Greek word 'martus' which is frequently translated as 'witness' in the NT but is also occasionally translated as 'martyr' (Acts 22v20 when referring to Stephen) or 'record' (Philippians 1v8 - 'For God is my record...'). So it is possible that the Hebrews passage speaks of a cloud of departed souls who are watching us, but it is equally possible that it is saying that we are not alone in our struggle - that we follow in the footsteps of those who were witnesses (and, indeed, martyrs); not that they're witnesses of us now, but they were witnesses for God and Christ.

Surely that is the point of the passage in Hebrews? Not that Abraham and the other heroes of faith are sitting up there watching us now, but rather that when they were alive they lived the life of a witness - they did something. I have always interpreted this passage to imply that given that there were witnesses in the past, there are others like them today - we are still surrounded by living witnesses, even if we don't realise it.

But are the dead witnesses of us now? If so, how can we know that?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Rob Bell: Sex God

You've got to wonder about the ego of a man who can write a book called 'Sex God' - knowing full well it will be listed as "Sex God: Rob Bell" or "Rob Bell: Sex God" in most book listings. But, thankfully, the book is not about the sexual prowess of the author - you buy the thing in Wesley Owen or (or your favourite local Christian bookshop) after all...

Just in case you don't know, Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, USA. He is also the man behind the NOOMA videos (someone in your church has watched these already, I bet). This is his second book (I haven't read the first, 'Velvet Elvis', yet).

It says on the cover that it is "exploring the endless connections between sexuality and spirituality". Huh? What endless connections?

As everyone who has ever attended a Christian youth fellowship or youth camp will tell you, the 'sex talk' is always the most eagerly awaited part of the programme or the talk series. Yet it always turns out to be about 'relationships' and not actually about sex; teenagers are always disappointed (primarily because the youth pastor (or whoever) generally doesn't tell folk that it is OK to do what their hormones are telling them too...). For the most part, this is true here too. This is a book about relationships which occasionally strays into 'sex' territory.

But I can't knock it too much. It is well written and exhibits a fair amount of wisdom on the part of Rob Bell. Although, I got the feeling that much of the first half of the book was 'Christianised' common sense rather than original biblical teaching in many ways.

Theologically, Rob Bell seems to hold a few views that are closer to some of my doubts on this web page than to the orthodox 'the bible says it, I believe it' view. Yet (unlike this blog) he doesn't openly question these things, he subtly and carefully avoids the issues. For example rather than addressing the creation story and asking 'did it happen like this?' he frequently refers to it as a 'poem' and leaves it at that. Likewise, he refers to 'the author of the epistle to the [whoevers]' rather than claiming it was Paul who wrote it, and so on. Indeed, have a look at the 'directions' section on the Mars Hill website and you will see that their basis of faith contains very few statements about who God is, how accurate the bible is, etc. It is a pretty woolly basis of faith (but I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing).

I get the impression that 'Velvet Elvis' may challenge some beliefs of orthodox Christians (how're you getting on with it San?). 'Sex God' doesn't. Its more of an 'oh, I'd never thought of it that way before' kind of book. Some bits are interesting, some you've heard before, but it is always well thought through. I guess that this is kind of the sermon notes for a series of talks that Rob Bell delivered some time. It feels like that.

The bit that struck me the most when reading it was the bit talking about Jesus saying "in my father's house there are many rooms..." (John 14v2) - here it is claimed that Jesus is actually quoting from the traditional Hebrew wedding ceremony and this is one of the things that the groom says to the bride - basically, "everything is now ready for you to leave your home and come and live with me..." - I found that very interesting.

Another interesting thought (although RB doesn't claim this as biblical or necessarily true, he just speculates) is what does 'married in the sight of God' mean? As far as God is concerned, when are people married? RB suggests that maybe the act of sexual union is that moment, not saying 'I do' in front of a preist, but the physical union of two people. Maybe we place too much empahsis on the ceremony and miss the point entirely? Or maybe not.

Anyway, its a good read (if a bit 'lite'), and I recommend it.