God’s Richly Varied Wisdom – a sermon at the national launch of ‘Fulcrum’

God's Richly Varied Wisdom: Joshua 1:1-9; Ephesians 3:1-13

'This was the grace God gave to me,' wrote Paul: 'to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ; and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.' (Eph. 3.9-12.) A lofty vocation, expressed in suitably lofty terms. This, according to an earlier verse (7), is what Paul meant by being a 'servant of the gospel', the euangelion. He comes with good news: news of untold riches, news of an unimagined plan, and news of an unexpected announcement. Give up your small definitions of the gospel; get Paul's own definition into your heart and mind and soul and strength. That's what it always should have meant to be an evangelical, a gospel-person. That's what, please God, it will mean again in our own day.

First, the news of untold riches, belonging to King Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, and made freely available through him.These riches include so many things we all too easily forget. Many Christians, including many evangelicals, live in one or two rather scruffy rooms of a house whose other rooms, full of beautiful furniture, art treasures, and libraries remain locked and forgotten. In Christ, writes Paul in the parallel letter, are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And even the treasures we are more obviously aware of - the gift of grace, of the personal knowledge of God himself, of the hope of final resurrection and salvation - these gifts don't look the same when we fail to see them in the setting of all the rest.

My central point tonight, as we launch this strange new project called 'Fulcrum', is that it's time to open the locked doors and explore all the treasures of the gospel, especially those to which scripture itself points but which our traditions, not least our evangelical traditions, have screened out. Evangelicals have always emphasised that the church's traditions need to be subjected to critique from scripture; it is long past time that we did the same with our own traditions, not least those we have got so used to that we mistake them for scripture itself. Some years ago I was asked to speak at Greenbelt on the subject, What is an Evangelical? I refused, because even to ask that question is to be looking in the wrong direction - as though by giving a satisfactory answer one might thereby possess a tool designed to make some people feel safe and superior (as though we were not all called to continual reformation) and other people feel snubbed and excluded. I suggested a rather different topic, which remains the more appropriate way of asking the question. Granted that the euangelion, the evangel or gospel, is precisely not a message about those who believe and proclaim it but a message about God for the world, the appropriate set of questions is this (and I am here to support Fulcrum because I believe this network will be an energizing coalition to help us address them): First, what gospel tasks is God calling us to undertake in the world today and tomorrow? Second, what resources are there in the evangelical tradition to help us in those tasks? Third, what resources will we need which are not in the front rank of evangelical traditions, or not in our particular sub-traditions, and of which we need to be reminded by others? Only when we are prepared to face the question this way round will we paradoxically be true to the heart of our own history.

It was with these questions in mind that I asked for Joshua 1 as our first lesson. The challenge faced by the Israelites about to enter the promised land resonates with the challenges the church faces in each generation, called by God to go into all the world and announce the good news, yet knowing that we must cover much unknown territory and confront much fierce opposition. How much easier to settle east of the Jordan, as two and a half tribes in fact opted to do. How much easier for evangelicalism at the start of the twenty-first century to stay behind its own locked front door, congratulating itself on its safety and soundness! But God's call never takes that form. As one phase of the life of God's people draws to a close and another one opens, the word goes out: get up and cross the Jordan. Take possession of the land I'm giving you. Be strong and full of courage. Keep the book of the law beside you at all time and don't depart from it. Don't be afraid or dismayed, for YHWH your God is with you wherever you go. And when we translate that message into New Testament terms, we find Paul going out, against all the odds as a former Pharisee, not to invade a geographical territory but to claim the world in the power of the gospel which is revealed, paradoxically but crucially, in his weakness and suffering. And his gospel begins with the free offer of the untold riches of King Jesus, the free offer both of ultimate salvation and of a flourishing, transformed human life in the present. Thank God that evangelicalism has never lost this sense that what is on offer in the gospel is so rich, so many-sided, so full that our task is not so much to persuade people that they might want it as to lay it out before them and let it do its own power. That must remain central on Fulcrum's agenda, as I know it will. There is much I could say about this; but as it is perhaps my least contentious point, I merely note it as central and pass on.

From the news of untold riches to the news of an unimagined plan. This is altogether more challenging, granted our history and tradition, but it is equally central to scripture and, in my judgment, vitally needed today. Paul's vision of the grand plan of God is not simply to save a certain quantity of individual human beings from sin and death. He is not simply interested in enabling people to enjoy in the present the warm forgiveness and healing welcome of our loving God. Those matter, but Paul lifts his eyes higher, to see, as he says in the first chapter, that God's plan always was to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (1.10). This cosmic scope of the gospel is in fact envisaged from way back in the Old Testament; Paul is simply making explicit the fact that when God called Israel it was to undo the sin of humankind, and that when God created us in his own image it was to bring order and wise stewardship to the whole creation. This plan remained unimagined by many in Israel in the first century, even though it lay deep within the substructure of the scriptures; and it has remained unimagined by many in our own day and our own tradition, even though it bursts gloriously out of the New Testament not only in the present letter but also in (at least) John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Colossians and Revelation. As Paul makes clear, it follows directly from the resurrection of Jesus from the dead: with Easter, the new creation has begun, the new creation in which the whole world is to be put to rights, human beings included. Paul's gospel, the announcement of the crucified and risen Jesus as the world's true Lord, is cosmic in scope and reach. Woe betide us if, perhaps out of a mistaken fear that it will lead us into a shallow universalism, we shrink from grasping and implementing the vision of new creation in all its glory.

This is one of the points where we need the warning to Joshua: don't be afraid, don't be dismayed, since YHWH your God is with you wherever you go. As gospel-people we are called to reject all the easy-going dualisms into which we easily slip and to go into all the world: the world of polluted lakes and forests; the world of landmines and barbed wire; the world of slavery and its virtual equivalents; the messy, dangerous and deeply beloved world where real people are in pain, where God's creation is defaced, where the bullies still win and the widows still weep. Fired by a vision of God's cosmic purposes, we must work to bring them to birth, in whatever measure is possible in the power of the Spirit in the present age. We must not be put off by the whispers which suggest that such concerns are 'unspiritual'; that would only be true if we swapped the Holy Spirit for a Hegelian one. We mustn't be afraid by those who tell us that these things are a distraction from the gospel: according to Paul, they are part of the gospel, and if we don't see that we haven't grasped either the Jewish roots or the cosmic reach of what he's talking about. We mustn't be dismayed by those who say that there's nothing we can do about the social ills of the present world, except limited band-aid activities, until Jesus returns. We must be strong and courageous, for the Lord our God is with us wherever we go.

This is the point where we celebrate, here in Clapham of course, one of the greatest English Evangelicals ever: William Wilberforce, who two hundred years ago was right at the peak of the campaign for the abolition of slavery. We thank God for his courageous and selfless leadership over several decades, and pray for grace and strength to imitate in our own day his tireless campaign for the kingdom of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ as applied, in his phrase, to the society and manners of the time. Precisely because God will one day do for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus at Easter, we must work in the present to bring signs of that future into the present, not as a second-order activity, not as an addendum to, or 'implication of', the gospel, but as part of the gospel itself. Once the unimagined plan is unveiled in the gospel of Jesus' death, resurrection and world lordship we cannot turn back. The land is before us. We must enter and claim it with the message, and by the means, of the cross.

As we open our eyes to the vision of God's world-affirming, world-embracing, world-transforming plan, we evangelicals need particularly to rethink our uneasy and sometimes unholy alliance with low-church rationalism. We should expect that the signs of new creation will break into our present world not merely in the invisible places of human hearts, central and vital though that remains, but into the light and colour and drama of our lives and our worship. As evangelicalism progressed through the last 200 years, it was often assumed that the less structured worship was the more genuine it was; that real evangelicals would prefer not to wear robes of any kind; that the sacraments were strange and sombre things, commanded in scripture no doubt but best left to consenting adults in private. Half-remembered reformation controversies filtered through half-understood enlightenment philosophy coupled with a half-embraced Victorian romanticism led a great part of our tradition into a dualistic rejection of sacramental and liturgical life under the mistaken impression that a great blow was thereby being struck for the gospel. That only goes to show how truncated and twisted 'the gospel' had become. Paul's gospel claims the whole world for Jesus. The roots of his sacramental theology, in the Jewish passover tradition and the actions of Jesus himself, indicate that baptism and eucharist are to be seen as central gospel actions in which God's future - God's redeemed and restored creation - breaks through mysteriously into the present. Again, fear has often been at the root of the problem: understandable fear of crypto-paganism, of sympathetic magic, of a religion that was all outward show and no inner life. Much of the tradition has been so anxious to avoid idolatry that it has collapsed into dualism; it was so anxious about greenfly on the roses that it decided to pave the garden over with concrete. Isn't it interesting that when the Lord repeats to Joshua, 'Don't be afraid,' the promise that accompanies the command is of the Lord's own presence: 'YHWH your God is with you wherever you go.' I hope and pray that Fulcrum will encourage and facilitate a refreshment of the evangelical tradition with a genuine, biblical sacramental theology and practice, as part of our gospel commitment to the unimagined plan of God the creator of all.

The untold riches; the unimagined plan; and, thirdly, the unexpected announcement. Here we come to the heart of it. 'That through the church,' writes Paul, 'the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.' Paul lived in a world that was divided by race, class, wealth, gender, geography, citizenship and a host of other factors. A world, in fact, very like our own - not least, alas, in the UK. In Paul's world, the rulers and authorities, both what we would call the 'spiritual' rulers and what we would call the 'political' rulers - they were not so easily separable in Paul's mind - carved up the world between them, claiming allegiance from people and then locking them up in little boxes.

What is Paul's solution? That the church should become yet another exclusive group, perhaps a sub-group of one or two of the above? Of course not. He sees the fact that he has been called as the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles - he sees the fact that his gospel message is about the creator God summing up all things in Christ, things both in heaven and earth - he sees the fact the gospel is about the untold riches and the unimagined plan of God - he sees all these things as creating a new entity, a new identity, a new humanity in which it is of the very essence that people of every race and class and gender and geography and all the rest come together as one body in Christ. This is to be the sign to the watching world, to Caesar's world, to Plato's world, to our modern world, and particularly our postmodern world, that Jesus is Lord; that his death and resurrection have defeated the powers of evil, the anti-creation powers, the powers that hold human beings apart in their separate boxes, and that God in Christ and by the Spirit has now created a single, new humanity, Jew and Gentile, black and white, female and male, slave and free, rich and poor, east and west and north and south. The very existence of a community like this is to be the sign to the powers that their time is up. This is the unexpected announcement: the good news that Jesus is Lord and the powers of the world are not. And the announcement is made, not simply or even principally in words, but in the existence of a newly-human, and cheerfully united, community. This is at the heart of Paul's gospel; and it should be central for today's gospel-people, today's evangelicals.

It won't come cheap. It has been all too easy - not least for the churches of the reformation with their proper insistence on worshipping in their own languages - to slide into thinking that our sort of people are the real Christians, or even the real evangelicals, to confuse ethnic or geographical or cultural or personality distinctives with theological ones. This doesn't mean that there aren't important theological questions, some of which might necessarily divide the church. There are. It doesn't mean that Paul would have supported a free-for-all 'inclusivity' which ignores the imperatives of holy living in the unspoken name of contemporary culture; read the rest of Ephesians and see. Gospel inclusivity is always a transforming inclusivity. But if there is a danger in a cheapened unity which glosses over real differences, there is just as great a danger in retreating into pre-packaged and culturally conditioned little boxes. Through the church God's wisdom in all its rich variety - the word in Greek is polypoikilos, a word you'd use to describe a flower-bed alive with every colour in the rainbow - God's many-splendoured wisdom is to be made known to the powers of the world.

That's why the media, representing those powers and eager to tell their stories, are quite often eager to portray the church as divided. That's why it's important that whatever Fulcrum is, and becomes, it mustn't be just another party or sect or group, multiplying division yet further, but must celebrate and hold together the rich diversity of our varied evangelical traditions. That's why, indeed, the aim of Fulcrum is not only to renew the centre of evangelicalism, a noble and necessary task in itself, but thereby to renew the centre of the Anglican church as a whole. We aren't interested just in being out on a wing somewhere. A bird needs two wings, but its fulcrum, its point of balance, is its body. Fulcrum's task is not to shape or reform the Church of England or the Anglican Communion according to some party blueprint representing one narrow strand of semi-sectarian spirituality or theology. I wouldn't be here tonight if I thought that. I believe that a genuine evangelicalism, rooted in and continually reformed according to scripture, enjoying the full riches of Christ and understanding the full cosmic plan of salvation, is a fruitful, creative and life-giving power for the good of the whole church - not because evangelicals possess all God's wisdom, but because our tradition, even while itself needing reforming, directs us back to scripture and above all to Jesus Christ himself, in whom all the treasures of God's wisdom and knowledge are hidden.

Let me speak personally for a moment. I have spent most of my life working as a biblical scholar, rather than trying to position myself with reference to particular labels, because I believe that our primary task is to expound and celebrate scripture in all its richness, within the fellowship of the worldwide sacramental church and for the benefit of the whole world. I have found that when I do this all kinds of people who wouldn't know an evangelical from an elephant welcome the biblical message in all its fullness, are fascinated by it, and find their lives being changed and shaped by it. I wouldn't cross the street to make someone join a party. But I have worked and will work night and day to bring the whole biblical message to the whole church, so that the whole gospel may reach out to the whole world. That is my vision for Fulcrum.

Within that vision, I glimpse plenty of room, in mutual charity and accountability, for the different strands of theology and spirituality which have burgeoned within evangelicalism in my lifetime, and which have tragically moved away from one another instead of trusting and being enriched by one another. I also glimpse plenty of room, again in mutual charity and accountability, for a renewed evangelicalism to take a cheerful and creative part in wider Anglicanism, discovering as it does so many of the treasures of Christ which we have allowed to remain locked away even though the scriptures we claim to follow could have alerted us to them. I see the launch of Fulcrum as a call to evangelical Anglicans of whatever background to grow up, to work together, to play a full part in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, to make the running with instead of always reacting, to be in the front row of innovative gospel-work, to hold together what Wilberforce and others held together, to oppose (to be sure) the many things which must be resisted, but to do so in the right spirit, and always with Ephesians 3.10 as our motto and rubric. The two great cultural movements of our time, modernity and postmodernity, try to squeeze us into their moulds. Modernity insists on a flat uniformity. Postmodernity insists on many different stories being told in isolation from one another. We believe in neither unison nor cacophony, but harmony: that through the church the many-coloured wisdom of God is to be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places - through our prayer and our preaching, through our sacramental life and our work for justice and peace, and above all through the fact that we are united across the barriers of culture and personality, which in my judgment form 90% of the reason for divisions within evangelicalism, and probably at least 70% of the reason for divisions within Anglicanism.

Come back to Joshua one more time as we locate all this on the map of where we are today, in All Saints' Tide 2003. The Anglican Communion is in pain and confusion right now. No point denying it. We as evangelicals may have a particular idea as to where some of that confusion at least comes from and what should be done to address the pain. But the answer is not to stay nervously on the wrong side of the Jordan. Yes, the Anakim live over there in the country we are promised. Yes, Jericho appears impregnable. But we are called to go forwards, to cross the Jordan, to be strong and courageous, to keep a firm hold on the scriptures, and not to be frightened or dismayed, because the Lord our God, who will never fail us or forsake us, is with us wherever we go.

And now to him who, by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Leave a comment