Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Second Sunday of Christmas : Predestination


Ephesians 1:3-14
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; who is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

John 1:10-18
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


All of us, if we are honest, have parts of the Bible that we are uncomfortable with. If we know our scriptures well, there will be sections that we find hard to stomach. A classic example of that may be that famous Psalm 137 which begins, ‘By the rivers of Babylon where we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.’

So far so good. But then it becomes a cry for retribution when the composer writes, ‘Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’

Shocking stuff, and I simply cannot believe that to do so is God’s will. Instead I read it as the heartrending cry of a people who have lost everything, but not that this is God’s will, that anyone who kills the children of an oppressor will be blessed.

OK, now this is a fairly extreme example, but once we are honest enough to admit that there are passages of scripture that cause us difficulties, then I think we can begin to wrestle with God’s word in a way that he fully intends us to do. Our problem is that we tend to decide what the passage means without knowing the background to why it was written.

Then if we don’t agree with what we’ve interpreted the passage to say, then we tie ourselves up in knots of guilt because we don’t like what God’s word appears to say whilst feeling that actually we ought to agree with it because it’s the Bible.

However, what God intends, I believe is that we should wrestle with such texts to see a) whether they actually say what we think they say, and b) even if they do, is that still relevant to our modern culture or has it been superceded by the grace that Christ brought. God does not treat us as children to be mollycoddled but as adults who have to grow up to maturity.

All of this is a way of saying that this text from Ephesians is one that I find hugely difficult. Taken at face value it seems to suggest that before God even began to create, every Christian had already been chosen to be a believer, that we were all predestined to be here and to be adopted as his own children, and the trouble with that it’s not fair and we expect that a God of love ought to be fair.

What about those he didn’t choose? What about all the lousy things that happen in the world? Were they predestined too? Do we really want to worship that kind of God?

For a number of years now I have made quite a point of preaching about collaboration, that God works with us through prayer, and that the future is reached through God initiating plans and redrafting them when we get it wrong. That seems to me to be so much more Godlike, loving and parental, than this vision that St. Paul seems to paint here of our salvation having been decided for us long before even our species existed, let alone we ourselves.

So this is one of those difficult texts for me, and that, I believe, is one of the reasons why it is so important. The Bible has plenty of texts like this and they are intended by the Holy Spirit to kick us, to drive us out of our complacency, and so that is what we’re going to do this morning.

Firstly I need to map out why I think individual predestination is an incorrect interpretation. Secondly we need to look at what this passage therefore really says, which may not be quite what we think it says at face value, and thirdly we need to therefore decide on what we need to address in our own lives as a result of wrestling with this as God the Holy Spirit intends us to do.

So firstly, why do I disagree with predestination, the belief that God has specifically chosen those who will believe in Christ and accept him as saviour? You see I am well aware that there may be plenty of you for whom this is not a difficult doctrine to believe in, and that’s absolutely fine. After all, ever since about the period of Augustine, something like three hundred years after this was written, it has been a part of church history and doctrine based on verses like the ones we have before us today.

I am also aware that the very fact that I am disputing what appears to be clearly and straightforwardly written in the word of God may be quite disturbing, but that is part of my function as a priest, and it is why we sometimes pray, ‘Lord bless us and disturb us’.

So for me the issue with predestination is that it seems to me that it takes away your free-will. If God has foreordained that you be here today, then is there any way that you could have done otherwise? No, of course not. If the future is set in stone then that is what will happen. If it is God’s will, then it must take place, at least according to the doctrine of predestination.

But we don’t treat our children like that do we. We help them to grow to maturity by instructing them into making wise free choices as they reach adulthood, and living with the consequences when they get it wrong. That is the role of a parent. Therefore if God is meant to be our Father, and we are created in his image, then surely he must be doing the same thing with us, enabling us to grow as believers who become mature in Christ. We must be offered genuine choices or we cannot grow into mature believers capable of making wise decisions.

I believe that the bulk of the story-arc of the Bible is of God growing a nation for himself of people who would choose to follow him. Yet that seems to be in complete contradiction to what the Ephesians passage says, but is it really?

Actually, no I think the problem is with how we read the passage, not with what St. Paul wrote. You see we are doing what we so often do which is to read the passage having already made up our mind what it says from a modern perspective without realising the cultural nuances that were present in the original.

You see although St. Paul was writing to a group who were not Jewish in background or heritage, this section has a very Jewish feel to it. It is one long hymn of praise in a Jewish style, and so we need to read it in that context. The reason that is so important is because the Jews did not believe in the predestination of individuals by God, and this is the key point:

They believed that God chose Israel to be a nation of servants. Individuals like the prophets were of course important but they fulfilled the roles of calling all God’s people back to repentance. What I therefore mean is that this passage does not refer to you each as individuals. When St. Paul writes about us he does not mean us as a collection of individuals but us as a group.
That comes over loud and clear at the end of the passage when he uses the plural word for ‘you’, as in ‘you also, (you - all of you collectively)... were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.’

Let me put it another way. I completed this sermon on Wednesday with the intention of preaching it on Sunday. Now you could, at this point, say that I predestined you to hear these words today. However that wouldn’t be fully true. By planning this sermon I predestined that I would preach it, but you came here of your own free-will. You might have stayed in bed.

I was always going to be here to preach it - my choice, but you’re here because you made your own choice. The sermon was predestined, but not those who heard it, nor how they choose to respond to it.

And that, I believe is what the passage is really saying. It’s like this. Before God began this creation he always knew that the likelihood was that sentient creatures in this universe, if given real choices, would probably rebel and choose their own will. That’s God in God’s wisdom knowing in advance what was likely to happen rather than foreordaining it to happen.

Therefore God has always known that he would have to come to save us in order to have a people who chose to love him rather than people who had to love him because that’s what they were predestined to do. God planned to do this from the outset so that there would be a people in Christ who he would regard as being holy and blameless, but that is not the same as our westernised individualistic view that God chose me specifically, or you specifically.

I don’t think the passage is saying that, and I think that kind of interpretation flows out of an inflated sense of our own personal importance which is derived from the secular western individualistic mindset that the individual, or rather ‘I’ am the vital component to God’s plan, rather than the biblical standpoint that the community is what is of greater importance.

So when we’re reading difficult texts like this we must try, in so far as we are able, to read them from the cultural perspective of the writer rather than from our own cultural perspective. If we do that in this case what we find is one great long hymn of praise for the way in which God’s plan has come to fruition in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.

It is this movement from heaven to earth, from earth through mortal life to death, from death to life and from life back to heaven which has gathered up together the things of heaven and the things of earth. All this has been accomplished by the Word of God, our Lord Jesus.

How then are we to respond to this? Surely it must be exactly as St. Paul did, by being caught up in wonder and praise that God should have planned, long before the human race, or even this planet, was in existence, that he would come to offer salvation and achieve the mechanism by which that could be accomplished.

If we think on it from that perspective then the focus is on God’s initiative rather than our inflated sense of self-importance. That’s vital and I think it’s one of the key reasons for why the Church of England is in a perpetual battle within itself. We are caught up in trying to get our own way in how we should worship, who should lead that worship, who is acceptable as a priest or bishop and who isn’t.

If we could only put aside these petty, stupid and insignificant quarrels and start instead to see that we are only here because God himself came to earth to open the way back into heaven, then just maybe we would be lost in praise and respond to him in worship. Then we might have a church he could be proud of. Amen.

(And basically anything written by Greg Boyd, John Sanders and Clark Pinnock on the Openness of God, and of God as one who takes risks with us.)
Also see writings by John Polkinghorne on this subject who approaches it from a scientific standpoint to reach the same conclusions.

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