Reading List—December 2019

Here’s a select sample of books I’m reading at the moment.

  1. James KA Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos, 2019)
  2. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
  3. Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (Bloomsbury, 2019)
  4. Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing the Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)
  5. Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic, 2012)
  6. Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition (All Points, 2018)

No. 6 (Scruton’s Conservatism) appears because Conservatism is the first Western political philosophy I will be reviewing in my Western Political Philosophy 101 series.

On that note, I’m currently looking for recommendations for the other political philosophies I will be reviewing (Socialism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Post-Liberalism). If you have any recommendations, please leave them below in a comment. Thank you.

Welcome to the Saeculum

Welcome to the Saeculum, a new blog that offers a refreshingly realistic take on Christianity and politics. I intend this post as a kind of orientation to the blog and an explanation of why I have decided to start it.

What is this blog about?

In very broad terms, I write about Christianity and politics. I look at how the Christian faith interacts with our common life in the twenty-first century (and more particularly, twenty-first Britain, where I live). I use the term common life since that is what politics (πολιτικά) at its root means—the affairs of a particular place (the πολις or city). I hope to show you that the Christian tradition, when engaged with critically, offers a rich resource for thinking through some of the knotty problems of our day. I also strive to probe the complex relationship between Christian identity and political commitments.

Why another blog about Christianity and politics?

Time is a valuable, finite resource! So why should you spend it reading my thoughts, especially when there are a number of other resources out there on the topic (more on these another time)?

There are four reasons why you should read my blog. Now, on their own, these four reasons might not amount to much. However, when taken cumulatively, I think they amount to a convincing case. So, without further ado, here are four reasons why you should read my blog:

  1. You’ll get an historical perspective on Christianity and politics. My aim is to engage critically with the history of Christian thought and action. Why does this matter? For starters, perspectives from the past (whether from the first century or the last) can break through the argumentative deadlocks we get ourselves into. These deadlocks often result from our preoccupation with the present. An historical perspective can realise that we do not hold all the answers. That the past can offer some way forward. We also find ourselves at an impasse because of the nature of our conversations, frequently held online and on social media. These discussions can often feel like the battle of assertions or preferences (“I believe this…” “well, I believe the opposite”). The undergirding assumptions for those preferences often receive little, if any, discussion. An historical perspective can expose us to some of the different ways that people have approached issues. As a result, we can firm up our own way of thinking about a particular matter without recourse to mere preference.
  2. You’ll get an informed perspective. I completed a doctorate in the history of early Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. I have worked as a researcher in politics and Christianity, both in higher education and at Theos, a Christian think tank. So I hope to let that use that training and thinking in the blog posts I produce. In addition to this background, I am naturally inquisitive. When I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll do my research to arrive at conclusions.
  3. You’ll get an honest perspective. I am not funded by anyone and so have editorial independence both in terms of the questions I ask and the conclusions I reach.
  4. You’ll get an engaged perspective. I will engage with your comments and thoughts with the goal of stirring up debate and mutual learning.

What do you mean by a “refreshingly realistic” take on Christianity and politics?

Thanks for reading the tagline! Let me explain. In this blog, I will try (and the emphasis is on the word try) to look at our political life realistically. When I use the term “realistic”, I mean looking at our common life with appropriate perspective.

Because, you see, we easily lose perspective. And we do so in one of two ways. First, we ride the wave of overweening and utopian optimism, investing all our hopes and expectations in a political leader, placing all our eggs in the basket of a particular manifesto. Til’, that is, the wave crashes down around us as the leader we followed with great expectation fails to bring about the revolution we had hoped for and the manifesto we poured our lives into fails to make the impact it had promised to.

Alternatively, we might look askance at our political world with a mixture of wry cynicism and hopeless despair. On this view, the world is heading to hell in a hand basket. What’s the use in getting involved?

Pessimism and optimism look, at face value, like stark opposites. In fact, they’re a lot closer than they first appear. We all find it quite easy to flit between optimism and pessimism. Consider the familiar scenario. A certain figure comes along. All appears lost. If only the leader of our choice would ascend to power, all would be well. Said leader comes along, fails to make an impact and we’re back at Pessimism Central.

So…if we’ve lost perspective on our political life, how might we go about re-gaining it?

There are, of course, many ways of answering this question. The way I want to approach it, however, involves asking two more. In asking, and hopefully answering these questions, we can begin to chart a yet more excellent way between the extremes of political pessimism and optimism.

These two questions are:

  1. Who are we?
  2. What time is it?

When I say “appropriate perspective”, I am referring to our perspective on these two questions—first, who are we as humans (the anthropological question)? And second, what time is it (the eschatological question)? I think the Christian tradition holds out rich and compelling answers to both of these questions which can offer absolutely vital anchoring points as we approach political life. A bold claim I realise, but hear me out! For more, check out John Dickson’s wonderful explanation of the Creed (between 17:53-25:13 in the link attached).

Who are we?

I am convinced that a robust answer to that first question (who are we?), must include awareness of (1) our createdness by God and (2) our brokenness as human beings.

Createdness. Central to the Christian story is the creation of the universe by a good God. Creation is the great gift of a good Father to his children. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures inherited by Christians, the writers observe that God creates the human person “in his image”. The implications of this statement are massive and too immense for exploration here. But to be created in the image of God means to be endowed with dignity. Each person is of equally immeasurable value because they reflect To be created in the image of God also means that women and men are ambassadors of God in the world, bearing some of the creative power of the Creator. It also means that we are free to offend that Creator…

Brokenness. As the Genesis story continues, we come to the heart wrenching moment where human beings continue to enjoy the gifts of the Creator, while turning away from the giver of those gifts. In the Christian tradition, the word for this brokenness is “sin”. I realise that’s not a terribly fashionable word nowadays. But what the root of this word in the Greek (ἁμαρτία; hamartia) should conjure up in our imaginations is the vivid image of the archer missing the intended mark ahead of him. That there is a mark or target reminds us that we have a purpose as human beings—to be God’s image bearers. What this look at the etymology of the word sin also says is that sin isn’t just the sense that we have committed infractions…although it does include that, of course. More fundamentally, it gets at the uncomfortable fact that the moral arc of our lives is bent out of shape. Or, as the Prayer Book puts it, “there is no health in us”.

So what?

Lest you think I am being a misery guts, let me explain why this is important. A robust understanding of the createdness of each individual entails that we treat others with the dignity and respect God has endowed them with…particularly those we disagree with. A robust understanding of our fallenness entails an appropriate humility towards our own political action and thought.

What time is it?

The Christian tradition also has something to say to the question, What moment are we living in? The Christian story that is enacted throughout the Sundays of the year and told through the Scriptures reminds us that we live between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and his second coming (I write this, appropriately, during the Season of Advent, when Christians recall the first coming of Christ and await his second coming as ruler of the cosmos). The Kingdom of God has emerged in the ministry of Jesus, but it has not reached its fulfilment; it has been inaugurated but not fully consummated. We are, in short, living in an in-between period. What kind of posture should this instil in us as we think and act politically?

So what?

The Canadian philosopher James KA Smith puts this beautifully in his lecture to Christians in Parliament, when he claims that Christian hope, rightly conceived, means “not living ahead of time”. Not living ahead of time. To refuse to live ahead of time means to reject all forms of utopianism and dystopianism. To not live ahead of time is to reject the despair that we can do nothing and the overweening optimism that our efforts will save the world. This doesn’t mean that we fritter away our time in passive quietism. And neither does it mean that we launch ourselves into a frenzy of activity that assumes we are moving towards an ever brighter horizon. Rather, realism—or more accurately, Christian realism—as Smith describes it, is “bold but circumspect, tempered but hopeful”.

So, in sum, to be realistic about what we can achieve in our common life is to be aware of who we are (fallen image-bearers) and what time we are living in (the in-between period).

Why the Saeculum?

This brings us to the title of this blog. The Saeculum. Another word for this “in-between period” which we have just been talking about is…you guessed it, the saeculum. The saeculum is the time we are living in right now. The great Christian theologian St Augustine (354-430 AD/CE) used the term saeculum to refer to the period between the fall and the Second Coming.

In reflecting on Augustine’s notion of the saeculum, the great scholar of Augustine Robert A. Markus puts it this way:

The saeculum for Augustine was the sphere of temporal realities in which the two ‘cities’ share an interest. In Augustine’s language, the saeculum is the whole stretch of time in which the two cities are ‘inextricably intertwined’; it is the sphere of human living, history, society and its institutions…

A quick word on the two cities here. In his magisterial work The City of God, explains that there are two cities—the city of God and the city of Man. The difference between the two isn’t merely drawn along the lines of a spiritual-material division with the city of man referring to an earthly and the city of God to a heavenly plane. Rather, the two cities denote two loves, two libidos: the city of man is driven by the love of self, of power and domination (Libido Dominandi), the city of God, by love for God and love of neighbour (City of God 14.28)

Augustine talks about the saeculum being the temporal reality in which these two cities share an interest. What does he mean? To tease out the implications, here is Markus again:

The citizen of the heavenly city was no more a stranger to the saeculum than was the citizen of the earthly city, for here and now the two cities between them are, quite simply, what the saeculum is. It is neither a third thing somewhere between, nor is it, except eschatologically, resolvable into its two constituents. For the citizen of the heavenly city, concern for the saeculum is the temporal dimension of his concern for the eternal city.

In other words, we all inhabit this time, this age, this saeculum. The saeculum is no “third thing”, separate from the City of God or the City of Man. In the saeculum, we all rub shoulders with one another

The saeculum is also the word from which we get the term “secular”. To be secular in the contemporary Western world is to have no connection to religion or spirituality. But in an interesting twist on things, Markus goes on to argue that Augustine is responsible for secularising the church. By this, Markus emphatically does not mean that Augustine made the church more atheistic. Rather, Augustine “secularises” the church by seeking to engage those aspects of creation that fall appropriately within the remit of both the Heavenly and Earthly cities. Augustine has in mind a church that refuses to retreat into an ecclesial enclave while at the same always remembering its ultimate allegiance to God.

On this reading, Augustine’s concept of the saeculum offers a realistic model for thinking about Christianity and politics.

I’m interested. Can you tell me more?

Sure. You can read more about the purpose of the blog, and more about me, here.

What can I expect?

I hope to publish postings roughly once a week.

Here’s a very brief sneak preview of what’s around the corner:

  1. A World of Nation States or A World of Empires? In this series of blogs, I will explore the return of the nation state in recent political philosophy and pose some questions about the role of empires in contemporary British and international politics. I even hope to sneak in a bit of reflection on the political context of Jesus and the first century church!
  2. Western Political Philosophy 101: Under the book reviews tab, I will review the great Western political philosophies (conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, socialism, post-liberalism) with my own take on each. This is a longer term project which I am excited about developing. I’d like through time to move this series from the written to the spoken word. My hope here is to host at some point a series of conversations with Christians who subscribe to each of these schools of thought. I would love to drill down into why Christians adhere to certain political positions and how they relate this to their Christian faith.
  3. Oikaphilia and Exile (Exploring Identity on Earth and Citizenship in Heaven): I have some ideas brewing on the themes of local identity. In this post, I will investigate the theme of rootedness and love of a particular place and how these relate to (1) a global church and globalised world and (2) the Christian notion of citizenship in heaven.

These are just three ideas in the pipeline, to let you know what’s coming up. No doubt other unplanned reflections will appear.

So, thank you for reading.

Please don’t forget to subscribe for updates.

Join the conversation.

Let me know what you think. I’m open to all feedback.

And, if you like it, please spread the word about this website.

We Do What We Are (Ephesians 5:8-19)

Sermon preached at St Barnabas Church, December 16th 2018

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
    rise from the dead
,
    and Christ will shine on you.”

15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.

Upon the death of his father King George V, Edward VIII gave an interview in which he reminisced about his time as a boy. “Whenever any one of us children had done something wrong”, Edward recalled, “the King would take us aside and tell us—‘my child, you must remember who you are’”. The point being that if Edward only remembered his identity as a child of the King, and an heir to the throne, he would live a good life that brought honour to the king. 

In the passage before us this morning, Paul addresses a set of communities in Ephesus—modern day Western Turkey— that was similarly wrestling with its identity and how it lived out that identity in the world. Now, this passage is filled to the brim with moral instruction. It is rather tempting when reading such a passage to respond with despair at ever being able to fulfil what is laid out for us. The bar often seems just too high. So, before we get to the passage, let me briefly set the scene so that we might read it through the right lens. 

Paul’s message to us this morning is simple but profound—what we do flows out of who we are. This reminder is as timely now, as it was then. And who are we? Paul tells us, “You are light in the Lord”. It is on the basis of that identity that we are to live. In other words, we do what we are. Our identity defines our action, and our action flows out of our identity. If we fail to remind ourselves of who we are, then we might, like Edward VIII, risk losing sight of what we are to do, and why we are to do it. 

The question I wish to raise for us this morning is deceptively simple—who are you? What defines your identity, your sense of worth?

Who are you?

In our Western culture, we are so often defined by what we do—our career, intellect, talents, family, socio-economic status, nationality, political leanings and so on. And our present moment deepens this existential angst in some profoundly unsettling ways. The emphasis in our western culture on body weight, for instance, has contributed to the astronomical rise in eating disorders. The thought that we cannot be sure that we exist from moment to moment without proof from one of our social media profiles (be it Instagram, Twitter or Facebook) has created widespread insecurity. At the heart of this anxiety—and this is the crucial point—is the creeping fear that we constantly need to prove ourselves…What we do so often defines who we are. 

Of course, each of the aspects I have just mentioned do play a role in shaping our identity, and there is nothing wrong with that in itself; and yet, each factor—money, facebook profile, job or whatever it might be—fails to really get to the heart of who you are, fails to plumb the depths of your identity. And part of this, I think, is because all of the things I have mentioned are fundamentally centred on ourselves and what we do… 

Now, the passage this morning casts a totally different vision for how we might think about who we are—and the key to that vision is God himself. You see, we cannot understand who we are and what we are to do, without first reflecting on who God is and what he has done. A simple point, I realise, but one we are in desperate need of reminding ourselves of. 

Here’s the simple point that bears repeating: God defines who we are. The beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes this point beautifully, with a stunning cosmic vision of God’s initiative in the world. God lovingly adopts, lavishly loves, powerfully redeems and beautifully equips us. It’s a breath-taking passage (quite literally because it consists of a single 202-word sentence in the original Greek). But it’s also breath-taking in the simple assertion that it makes: God defines who we are. God takes the initiative, relentlessly pursuing us, in spite of ourselves. It is God’s gracious action that defines who we are—children of a loving father before we could even respond. This is who we are. And this is whose we are. 

The same message emerges throughout the letter: we live in light of what God has done for us and in light of what God says about us. The structure of the letter to the Ephesians follows this very move from identity to action. The first part of the letter deals with what we might call the indicative of faith—this is who we are in light of who God is, and what God has done. The imperative of faith—the activity of being disciples of Christ—follows on in the second half of the letter. It is only if we get the indicative of faith straight that the “imperative” of the Christian life makes sense. We live as children of light not to earn our father’s trust or favour—rather, we live as children of light because it is who we are. 

In the passage before us this morning, Paul continues to tie our identity to what God thinks of us. And there are three parts to this. First, Paul describes the congregations as light in the Lord. The words “in the Lord” are not a pious afterthought, or an add on to make the text read a bit more appropriately. No, to be “light in the Lord” gets to the heart of who we are and why we do what we do. You see, the source of light is the Lord himself. The phrase “in Christ” or, as here “in the Lord” permeates Ephesians, appearing no less than 13 times. To be light in the Lord means that the source of all that we are and do is Christ. Let us take hold of that this morning—we will fail and fall as disciples of Christ, but is he that is the light. We cannot go it alone—we rely on him. You are light in the Lord. The same truth is expressed differently when Paul calls the Ephesians “children of light”. Here, he again reminds his audience, and reminds us today, that we are who we are because of who our father is. Third, Paul is emphatic that the identity of the audience is a present reality. He does not say “you are becoming light in the Lord” or “you were light in the Lord”; in the Greek, the phrase is literally, “you were darkness…now light in the Lord”. In other words, this is your identity here and now. Of course, this needs nuancing. Following Christ is an ongoing process; it involves walking and waiting—and Advent reminds us that we await Christ’s return when all will be completed and light overcomes darkness at last. But in terms of what God thinks of us, it is decided now. If we are following Christ, we are light in the Lord. You are light in the Lord.

In light of this identity, there come responsibilities. You will note that Paul uses the metaphor of walking to describe being disciples. “Walk as children of the light”. As a consequence of this new calling, this new identity, the people of God are called to live differently. You are light. Now live it out. Earlier in the letter, Paul calls for the Ephesians “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. The image of walking fundamentally gets at the direction of our lives. Where are we heading? Who are we following? Who’s calling the shots? What’s guiding us? Who or what is defining us?  

To walk as children of the light takes wisdom. Paul lists some broad virtues in v.9—goodness, righteousness and truth. It takes discernment to know how to apply these in the complexities of life, as Paul admits in verse 10—“and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord”. But Paul has already spelled out what it means to live lives of goodness, righteousness and truth in the previous section—and it means telling the truth, not lies; not allowing ourselves to become consumed with anger, bitterness, malice, but rather being kind and forgiving. In fact, the character of this new community is to match the character of the God who had made this family a reality. “Be imitators of God”, Paul says at the outset of the chapter. How we live not only flows from our identity but is thoroughly shaped by that identity. We forgive as those whom God has forgiven in Christ. Because God our Father is light, we are to be children of light exposing the unfruitful works of darkness. And so, we have come full circle—we live out of who we are—children of our mighty and loving Father God, children of light who represent our father in the world. 

So, this morning, may we know who we are in Christ—children of light, beloved children of God. And in this season of Advent, may we walk as children of light…for it is who we are. 

Amen. 

Patristics and Early Christianity

Two of my favourite early Christian authors: Origen and Tertullian (image from the Window of the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge)

In this page, I hope to post some thoughts and reflections on the work of early Christians.

You can read more about my work in patristics, the study of the work and thought of early Christians (“the church fathers, or patres) at my academia page here.

I have written about contemporary interpretations of the command to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” here.

And here, you can read my brief piece on the dating of the Gospel of Thomas.

Jesus, The Hope of the Disciple-Maker (Matthew 28.16-20)

Sermon preached at St Barnabas Church, Cambridge on September 1st 2019

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Introduction

These are uncertain times in our household. I am about to finish my job and am currently not sure what or where my next job will be. Olga is on the hunt for a curacy which could be anywhere in the country. And on top of that, we are set to move house and so are dealing with all of the upheaval that comes with packing boxes and making our home somewhere else. 

It is with excitement, then, that I heard we were looking at stories of hope—stories both about hope and stories that give us hope—in our summer series here at St Barnabas. To state the obvious, hope is tested in uncertain, seemingly hopeless times. In this last in our series, we come to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, to a passage commonly known as the Great Commission. This is a passage about mission, about disciple-making and discipling with those meaty commands to “move out, make disciples of all nations, baptising and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you”. 

So what has the Great Commission to do with hope? Well, this morning I want to suggest that we might want to consider the central point of this passage not simply to be the Great Commission, but the Great Person of Jesus himself. I don’t want us for a minute to lose sight of the vital imperative to be those who disciple others and make disciples. Yet the centre-point of this passage is Jesus himself—the risen Lord—who empowers all disciple-making and who promises to be with us as we carry out that task. This passage is about those great commands, but it is most centrally about the Great Person of Jesus and it is this that I want to focus on today. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t focus on the content of those great and important commands here in great detail this morning. This isn’t just a pragmatic decision—I believe the essential task of disciple-making (making disciples) and discipleship (deepening the faith of those who call Jesus Lord and Saviour) is about Jesus. After all, it is the hope of Christ we are sharing and it is him we are called to desire, know and serve.  

So today we’ll be looking at the person of Jesus as the hope of the disciple-maker. Verses 17 and v.20 provide the clue here, where Jesus promises his Great Power (“to me has been given all authority in heaven and earth”) and his Great Presence (“and behold, I am with you every day”). 

First of all, though, we have to put this in context. Why was this hope for the disciples in the first century? Well, earlier in his gospel, the evangelist relates that the disciples were filled with great fear. To begin with, he records the gruesome execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans—an event that would have sent shockwaves to the very core of the disciples hopes and sense of identity. “Wasn’t he the one to redeem Israel?” They had heard, many of them had seen, their Lord’s body hanging limp and lifeless, very much dead on the Roman instrument of torture. Then, to make matters worse, the disciples learn from some of Jesus’s female followers that his body was no longer to be found at the tomb. These disciples made the claim that they had seen Jesus. And yet the elders and leaders of the people begin to spread false rumours that the disciples themselves had taken the body—not only would this have crushed the hopes of those one or two disciples who had seen the risen Lord (there’s nothing worse than those in power concocting a narrative that undermines what you’ve seen with your own eyes); the rumour that the disciples had snatched Jesus’s body away also would have also potentially put a price on the heads of the disciples as dishonourable grave-robbers and enemies of the state. This hopeless scene makes verse 16 read even more strikingly—”Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go”. The eleven disciples limp their way to Galilee on the word of Jesus passed onto a few women. Isn’t life so often like this? We follow Jesus to the place where he has told us to go, with nothing else but his word to go on. So now, let’s go with the disciples to that mountain on Galilee to see him and to hear his fresh word to us, taking with us our fear and hopelessness. 

This morning, I want to draw our attention to three things in the passage that should give us hope. 

First, Jesus does not shy away from doubting-worshippers but approaches us and sends us out.

As I alluded to before, the disciples are down to 11. Not only have they lost Judas, but there’s a sense of failure and regret in the air as this ragtag bunch remember how they denied Jesus, how they left him in his hour of need and fled. As Dale Bruner beautifully comments—“the church that Jesus sends into the world is ‘elevenish’, imperfect, fallible. And yet, Jesus uses this imperfect church to do his perfect work”. It’s sometimes easy to talk about the church as imperfect, infallible and sometimes far more difficult to admit, deep down, that that includes us. We are no less part of that 11, each one of us that calls Jesus Lord.

In this short, earthy scene, the evangelist records that while the disciples worshipped, some doubted. In other words, doubt and worship live side by side in the hearts of each of these disciples. If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s true of all of us. There is an earthy, practical realism in this remark here that I love. The author acknowledges that we will have doubts. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, unbelief is. And doubt often sits alongside worship. We are doubting-worshippers, we often doubt and struggle but we worship God nonetheless. What comfort that scripture acknowledges this reality! 

And then, remarkably, the author tells us how Jesus responds to these doubting-worshippers. What does he do in v. 18? Jesus does not shy away from his disciples, he does not cringe or angrily berate them. Instead, we are told, he approaches them. Jesus comes to us in our doubts, he steps forward and wants to know us. In the Great Commission, we move out as disciple makers, often faltering, often feeling hopeless but we must never forget that as we move out, Jesus moves towards us. Jesus doesn’t walk out on us, he walks towards us. What hope that should give us! God’s patience with us is also a challenge for us to worship. If we worship as best we can, despite our doubts, those doubts can be handled. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

So, the hope and comfort here is that just as Jesus uses this faltering group of 11, this motley crew of doubting-worshippers, he will use us in sharing the hope of Christ with others.

Second, we have the hope that comes from the promise of Jesus’s power

The commands that we associate with the Great Commission are preceded by a great promise in verse 18: “to me has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go…”. Whenever we see a therefore, we should ask what is the therefore there for! Here, the therefore provides the hopeful basis for all of our discipling and disciple-making. It grounds all of our action in the authority of Christ himself who empowers all of our going, all of our disciple-making, all of our baptising and all of our teaching. The means of disciple-making is Jesus’s power. The all-surpassing authority and power of Jesus is absolutely central to our faith. As we have proclaimed together, Jesus is the one who was vindicated by God, the one whom God brought back from the dead in power. For some of us, this is like a burden lifted off our backs—God is in charge and he has given all authority to Christ. When we are struggling just to make ends meet—and the task of sharing Christ with others seems beyond our means and energies—we are reminded that Jesus has all authority. His resources are sufficient, indeed are infinite, and he is willing to pour them out to us. This is also an encouragement as we pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in places like Sri Lanka, North Korea and China—that they would know his power in times when their hope is severely tested…even to the point of death. 

For others, this is a reminder of the times we attempt to go it alone, preferring to rely on our own efforts both in getting us by in hopeless times and in sharing the hope that we have in Christ. We confessed earlier, “forgive us for trusting our own strength, rather than yours”. Let us hold to that confession and trust in the one who holds all things in his hands. 

Third, we have the hope that comes from the assurance of Jesus’s presence

Following the commands to make disciples, Jesus rounds off his speech with the following great promise: “And behold, I am with you always”. This is the assurance of Christ’s presence with us, a guarantee which Matthew opens his gospel with the promise that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. This is the good news that Jesus is quite literally in the original, with us all days. He is NOT just with us on our good days or even in the good bits of each day. No, he is with us every day and the whole of each day.

Unlike Luke-Acts, Matthew doesn’t have an Ascension narrative. And yet we can imagine that Jesus’s departure is imminent. This makes the whole scene even more poignant. How can the disciples have hope at a moment of parting? Their master and lord is leaving them, and yet they are to hope and carry that hope to others? Surely not! But that is precisely why the assurance of Christ’s presence with us—and more than that, the hope of his return at the completion of the mission—is the bedrock of our hope. He leaves to return—and in the meantime, while he is not here physically, he guarantees his presence with us by his Spirit. The hope of Christ’s presence with us therefore becomes a choice, an act of will. It is not something simply given to us, but something that we must desire and grasp hold of as best we can, even as we hold it out to others. 

One final word of hope—we will shortly gather and share communion together, an embodied way of reminding us that Christ approaches us, takes away our sins and cleanses us. He then sends us out together to invite others to hear his word and approach the table of life and hope. So, let us approach that table of hope, doubting-worshippers though we are, and be in the presence once more of our loving Saviour who died for us and was raised to be our living hope. Amen.