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#TheologyinIsolation 21: Is God Still God For Us?

05:29 05/05/2020
#TheologyinIsolation 21: Is God Still God For Us?

If God is for us, asks Richard Magrath, what happens when the churches are locked?

 ***

When you are watching ‘This Morning’, do you imagine Philip and Holly are talking to you?

Or—when you think about it—are they really just broadcasting into the ether, and you just happen to be tuning in, as the radio waves go round the earth, and the earth around the sun, and God sits in his heaven.

But what is God doing? Infusing the world with his Spirit and goodness, as it said in the Church Times?[1] Offering sympathy and peace, and upholding the present social order?[2] Or something more?

Martin Luther once wrote boldly “what help is it to you that God is God, if God is not God for you?”[3] It is Luther’s emphasis on God as God for you that I want to bring to bear on Christian life today.[4] To illustrate the theme, compare two remarks by John Wesley. Asked in 1736 whether he knew Jesus Christ, he vaguely replied “I know he is the Saviour of the world … I hope he has died to save me.” But two years later, after his ‘Aldersgate experience’, he now “felt I did trust in Christ … that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me”. [5]

Nevertheless, God being ‘for us’ isn’t just about personal religious experience. It’s the difference between objective and subjective, spectator and participant; between having a conversation, and watching one on TV.

In the parish, a lot of my work at the moment is divided between pastoral care and running online church services, of which the Sunday morning eucharist is the main one. Luther described the eucharist or mass as “the sum and substance” of the gospel: “For what is the whole gospel but the good tidings of the forgiveness of sins?” [6]

This seems clear enough: for what is the heart of the eucharist but the words of institution: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me,” and the cup “shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” [7]

Sacrifice, forgiveness; given for you to take and eat.

But what about when we can’t?

Luther and the other reformers were strongly against the medieval practice of non-communicating masses.[8] We should not forget their arguments against this, or let their disagreements about the what of Communion overshadow the question why Communion?

In brief, one answer is that God in his great kindness has given us a way to receive of his benefits, beyond hearing them spoken about in words.

I remember myself once going to the altar rail some years ago, full of guilt and unease. But, as I saw the cup turned towards me, I knew ‘why else was this blood poured out, but for forgiveness’? And yet watching the Eucharist on TV at present leaves me cold. As a deacon, I am one of the many Christians who cannot share the bread and wine at this time.

There are the official C of E resources for ‘spiritual communion’. [9] But one can perhaps highlight the issue by comparing a prayer asking Jesus “to come spiritually into my heart” with the words of Jesus himself: “take, eat; this is my body which is given for you…”

There is of course, a different—more medieval?—understanding of the eucharist shared by some Anglicans, in which it is a priestly work and objectively beneficial whether anyone else receives the elements or not. Unlike Luther, I don’t want to quarrel with those who expressly hold that point of view. I just want to others to be careful about the implicit theology of what they are doing. Is the eucharist, in essence, something that priests do? [10]

But that’s enough criticism. The idea—the revelation!—that God is, in fact, God for us should really be the most tremendous comfort.

We pray knowing that God has not only promised to listen to us, but has united our cause to his own.[11]

In dealing with others, we don’t need to rely upon some vague infusion of natural goodness, but on the knowledge that God loved us, and has poured his own love into our hearts. Our relationships with other human beings are really changed by Jesus Christ, by what he has done for us.[12] Indeed, Calvin even suggests that everything Christ went through in his passion he went through for us, providing heavenly balm for our manifold ills: pain, guilt, shame, sinfulness, alienation, fear of death and hell. [13]

In conclusion, I cannot think of a more appropriate message for this time than a reminder of God’s commitment to us and all that means. We should take care not to lose sight of this message, but rather to proclaim aloud: “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? […] It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? […] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom. 8.31ff).

Richard Magrath is Assistant Curate at St Mary-at-Finchley

 

 

[1] ‘Some lessons are not to be learnt’ (3 April 2020): https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/3-april/comment/leader-comment/some-lessons-are-not-to-be-learnt

[2] As perhaps implied by some intercessory prayer? Michael Vasey, Intercessions in Worship, Grove 77, (Nottingham: Grove, 1981): 10,12

[3] Luther, M., ed. D.G. Lange, ‘A Sermon on the Meditation of Christ’s Passion’ (1519), in The Annotated Luther, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015): 171. The context is criticism of a ‘mechanical’ understanding of the benefits of the mass.

[4] As a theological theme, it even has a Latin tag: pro me.

[5] Noll, M.A., The Rise of Evangelicalism, (Nottingham: IVP, 2004): 77-8; 89.

[6] Luther, M., ed. E.H. Herrmann, ‘The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ (1520), in The Annotated Luther, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016): 58

[7] Ibid, 39.

[8] In Luther’s case, from 1521’s ‘The Misuse of the Mass’.

[9] https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/Guidance%20on%20Spiritual%20Communion%20and%20Coronavirus.pdf

[10] So, briefly, I disagree with Professor Davison (‘When priest and people are apart’ (27 March 2020): https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/27-march/comment/opinion/when-priest-and-people-are-apart) and prefer the view of Dr Gittoes (‘Why I am fasting from the feast’ (17 April 2020): https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/17-april/comment/opinion/why-i-am-fasting-from-the-feast). Nevertheless, I also sympathise with Michael Sadgrove on the appreciation non-churchgoers have for local church services: http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com/2020/05/clergy-and-locked-churches-bells-not.html

[11] Barth, K., trans. S.F. Terrien, Prayer [1947], (Kentucky: WJK, 2002): 27-28.

[12] Bonhoeffer strikingly says that all human relationships now take place through Christ: Bonhoeffer, D., trans. M. Kuske and I. Tödt, Discipleship [1937], (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001): 93-5

[13] Paraphrasing Calvin Inst. II.xvi.19.