Thursday, 19 June 2008

Tenseness, Tense and Tents.

I was walking in Platt Fields recently, a large park near my Theological College, when I came face to face with this tent. It proclaims itself to the 'Lancashire Gospel Tent' and inside the enclosure was a small caravan, presumably full of evangelists. Inside were row after row of chairs with a small stage at the front on which were a couple more chairs and a surprisingly solid looking pulpit. My first thought was that it seemed a bit hopeful, having so many chairs, but maybe this is organised by a group of Churches who will be attending. Certainly the poster with the names of the guest preachers did not excite me, for I had heard of none of them, but their names were writ large enough to make me assume that they were regular stars of the Gospel preaching parade, and good for them.
I thought of this again today when reflecting that I will neither be at my Church this Sunday nor will I hear the readings that I am accustomed to hear, nor will I be at a style of service that I shall be particularly comfortable with, I should imagine for although we will be using Common Worship Order One, there will be hands in the air and the looming threat of guitars, I should think. So I sat down and read the Gospel for this Sunday, which is Matthew 10, 26-33. Go on, have a look and then come back. OK, fine, you're lazy, I will put it below.
‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
Well, our friends in the tent are doing well, for they are certainly not denying God in front of humanity. But what does this mean to us? It means that those points of doctrine which worry us need not, for they will be made clear to us and, therefore, in fact maybe we are not expected to know all the answers in the first place. This is in fact one of the earliest pieces of Gospel writing there is, as it also echoes in Luke (12, 2-7) so therefore it is from the 'Q' source, which is a no longer extant oral or written source from which these two early Gospels took inspiration. What it teaches us is about appropriate and inappropriate fear, that the ministry of preaching and of witness is intrinsically anxious and frightening but that there is no need to be afraid, for we are all valued more than we know. We are all known, in the depths of our hearts and so even if the world, even if the Church itself seems to be against us, do not be afraid, for you are known to your Father in Heaven, in the midst of your anxiety and worry and fear. But! But stand for He who knows you, or you will deny Him and if you dent Him, then He will judge that you do not want to be with Him, which is a pretty fair guess, really. So there is a call here to be courageous and to stand up for Him, much as our friends in the tent are doing.
But what else? Are we to be cast into Hell otherwise? What about all the people living in the darkness or in the nightmare which is the reality of life in many countries? What of hell? Forgive me being technical, but this is an example of Hellenistic philosophy which presupposes the immortality of the soul and, of course, the philosophy which Matthew or those we call Matthew would have been exposed to and the sense of the verb destroy is uncertain. In my opinion, this early doctrinal sermon, transcribed from the teachings of Christ in parable, that most long lasting of teaching forms, does not assume the existence of Hell at all. The text neither certainly posits that God will annihilate body and soul which then would become the definition of Hell (the annihilation of body and soul) nor does it definitively posit that the soul is 'troubled' or 'tormented'. What it does suggest is that even the cheapest life is beloved of God. So watch how you go and remember the last line there, which is a Rabbinic argument (qal wa-homer, comparing a light matter to a heavy one) is used to overcome fear and to encourage the disciples to trust God.
The doctrine here is just that above, trust God and do not be afraid, even though preaching and witness are intrinsically fearful activities if they are true to His commands. Grammatically as well as doctrinally it would be odd, and there is no evidence here for, a threat of annihilation if these things are not done. What this disowning means, we do not know, either for us or for Christ, for the hidden will be made clear at the last day only. So it is that we are called to witness, compared to the cheapest of all life, which itself is known and valued, so it is that we live, in the marketplace where our faith was born, preaching and living the Kingdom of God, free from fear and saved from the hands of our enemies. This passage teaches us that we have nothing to be afraid of, certainly not God Himself!