Honey or vinegar?

I am a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council, and yesterday we had a meeting at Lambeth Palace. We were there to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to ask him questions, in the end both about what he had said and about wider concerns for evangelicals in the Church.

Rowan’s address, starting with a careful exploration of the what the NT says about the Spirit and power (the role of the Spirit does not seem to be merely to give us power, but the Spirit and power enable us to be formed in the self-giving image of God, and we make space for it when we recognise our own human weakness) and ended on a quite inspirational note. In relation to the goal of mission and evangelism, he commented:

We are not inviting people to join an institution, nor to educate people in a process on interior transformation. We are inviting people into a renewed creation, made possible by Christ through the Spirit.

In other words, we need to understand what we are doing in the light of the (eschatological) in-breaking of the kingdom of God as the new creation making itself felt in our midst. And we cannot be satisfied with simply explaining it; it needs to be visible in our lives. This needs to shape our thinking about the most practical matters:

Does attending church on a Sunday morning make you think of the New Creation bursting into life?

It was interesting to watch the response to this. More than one person asked the question: this new life and bursting forth is all very well, but what about sin and repentance? Rowan paused:

I am very happy to talk about sin and repentance, but I am also drawn to the story of the miraculous catch of fish [in Luke 5]. It was when the boat was overflowing with this catch of fish that Simon fell on his knees: ‘Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man!’ It is when people see the abundant grace of God in the lives of others that they are made aware of their own sin. When people see ‘Repent’ on a Church noticeboard, I wonder what it makes them think?

I was chatting to one of my tennis partners last night, and she asked what Rowan said. After I explained (avoiding using the word ‘eschatology’!) she said sadly, ‘That sounds much better than my local [evangelical] church . The vicar [whom I know] won’t let you in there unless you tick all the boxes.’ It reminded me a bit of a Christmas sermon I heard some years ago at my original sending church. To a packed congregation, many of whom were visitors, the earnest curate preached on a verse that talked about how wonderful it was that God has liberated us from the power of sin (I forget now which verse). Guess what he preached on? Sin! Did he mention liberation? No! I was cross that he was being so inappropriate—but more cross that he was misreading the text!

I wonder whether all of this stems from evangelicals’ frustration with some forms of liberalism, which have ignored the importance of sin and so emptied the cross of meaning. Sin is important—after all, the word occurs 1,364 times in one English translation! But in reaction to this, I think some evangelicals have made sin more important than Jesus did.

(It is of course possible to focus too much on making church ‘attractive.’ Someone else yesterday complained to me that members of their church couldn’t tell the difference between evangelism and marketing.)

I remember a small but important book I read 35 years ago, Paul Little’s How to Give Away your Faith. In it there was a picture of a sad chap with a puzzled look on his face holding an empty jar, and the caption was ‘You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.’ The first Christians at Antioch didn’t need to read books like this—but it looks like we still do.

[NB quotations from RW are from my memory…]

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8 thoughts on “Honey or vinegar?”

  1. Excellent,I think you are right about why so many of us evangelicals are frightened of emphasising the positives about our faith. And I am sure the use of the word ‘in-breading’ where perhaps ‘in-breaking’ would be more conventional was simply a subtle reference to yeast in the dough. Rather than a mis-spelling of ‘in-breeding’, which is not a very evangelical thing at all.

  2. Makes a lot of sense – and the constant ‘repent or doom is nigh’ drumbeat (sandwich board caricature though it often is) is absolutely unhelpful…
    we’ve just got to make sure that emphasizing the positives (which we are often indeed bad at doing) never becomes an excuse for never being frank, realistic and straight about sin and divine justice. In fact, when we worked in Uganda, where the realities of suffering and injustice were everywhere, for some friends, it was precisely the gospel’s realism that sustained them in their faith…
    but how wonderful it would be if our services did indeed exude the joys of anticipating the new creation, as well as the amazement at being forgiven at the cross!

  3. Thanks, Mark. I think your reflection from another culture is interesting, because it highlights the fact that this is never only about ‘being biblical’, but about what it sounds like and how it will be received in the culture we are in.

    I think this is why I find Ben Witherington’s language of ‘socio-rhetorical’ so helpful: will what we do and say have an equivalent impact in our culture compared with the impact of biblical rhetoric in its culture. It’s a complex question, but unavoidable.

  4. Interestingly (Mark) I do think judgement is something our culture understands–and even welcomes. At a trivial level this relates to things like X-Factor, but there is a deeper engagement in debates about law and order too. But that is probably for another post…

  5. yes, now that would be an interesting post.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this general issue – and it occurred to me that on occasion, both Jesus and Paul are nothing if not direct about the realities – eg Jesus after the tragedies of the Galilean killings and Siloam tower (Luke 13:1-6f – although to be fair, this was in response to a pretty direct question); and Paul in Athens (Acts 17:22-31)

  6. Yes, he is direct, but there are some really interesting features of these passages. First, Jesus deflects attention from the idea that disaster has come on particular people because of their sin (think Haiti). Instead, he points to the *universal* nature of death and judgement. Second, he then goes on to tell a parable where someone wants to see judgement come—but where the owner instead enacts mercy and the deferral of judgement.

    Acts 17 is fascinating (not least because of Paul’s listeners thinking Jesus and Anastasis are a male and female god!). Paul is direct, in saying that all will be judged—but interestingly works to this as a logical consequence of their own initial beliefs. It sounds a bit like the story Michael Green tells about himself as a young evangelist, going to a meeting of students at LSE in the 1960s and asking ‘Why are you lot so revolting?’ that is, if you are atheists, why do you have such a clear sense of justice? ‘Because God has left his footprints in your soul!’

    But again, Paul’s language is universal—’we all’. In practice this is very different from people seeing Christians saying: ‘We are holy—but you are sinful and need to repent’. We also need to look very carefully at the meaning of ‘repent’; metanoeo has a wider sense than ‘say sorry for your sins.’


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