Want to know what Uplyme Church is about? Want to know what we actually believe? Well, come with me on a journey through history, the Bible and through to present day. I’ll try and keep it short and interesting. Hold onto your hats because we’re about to dive in…
1. In the beginning…
The very first book in the Bible is called Genesis. Genesis means beginning. Not a bad title for the first book in a collection of books methinks.
At the very beginning of the beginning, in the book of Genesis, is an account of God making the world and human beings. Now some people get hung up on how the world was made – whether it was evolution or creation? To get sidetracked into that argument is to royally miss the point. There are two things you need to know about Genesis – well, three actually but the third one I will come onto in Chapter 2 – so for now there are two things:
Thing Number 1
The first point of the story at the beginning of the book of Genesis is that human beings are made in the image of God. God says, “Let’s make human beings in our image”. Hmmm, that’s odd. God says, “our image”. He doesn’t say, “my image”. Right from the beginning we learn that God is somehow one and many at the same time. Okay, too deep too quick. We’ll come to that later.
So, for five days God makes stuff and then on day six God makes human beings in his (or their) image. All we know about God up to day six is that he makes stuff. God has been making stuff for five days. All God has been doing is being creative and then God makes human beings in his image. Click?
Have you ever wondered why human beings are so creative? We cannot stop being creative. We are creative with the way we dress, do our hair (if we have any), speak, think and move. We are created in the image of a creative God, therefore to be human is to be creative.
Now I visit a lot of schools and I often hear young people say, “I’m not creative.” Rubbish. You are creative. Some people are creative in what we call ‘creative arts’ – i.e. music, dance, art, writing, etc. – but the creative arts is a small subset of creativity. Some people are creative with numbers, others with plants and animals. When you get along side someone who is lonely or broken-hearted and you listen to them, you are being creative. When you wipe someone’s bum in an elderly care home you are being creative. Yes, really. And this leads us nicely onto Thing Number 2.
Thing Number 2
The second thing you need to know about the story at the beginning of Genesis is that creativity is bringing order out of chaos. Let me explain…
Right at the beginning, the very first words in Genesis in The Bible it says, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the water.” Now in the Bible water – especially natural water – is very important. Water in ancient times meant one thing and one thing only – chaos. Let me write it again - “Water means chaos”. It’s dead important that you know this and remember it because we will come across water throughout the Bible.
So, from this water or chaos, God starts making stuff. In other words he starts bringing order out of the chaos and that is what he is all about. This is what God does. He plans and wants to bring order out of chaos in the world. Then God makes human beings in his image. God makes us like ‘mini Gods’ to be co-creators with him in the world.
We are called to use our God-given creativity to bring order out of chaos in the world. How cool is that? Probably time to take break and let that sink in.
A guy called Walter Brueggemann (who wrote a whole book about Genesis) calls the creation story in Genesis a ‘theological affirmation’. This means it says something about who God is and what God is like rather than it being a scientific document.
The scientific world-view (or lens through which we see the world) is quite a recent thing and a very nice and useful thing it is too. However, The Ancients didn’t have a scientific worldview and they didn’t look at the world as we do. So you can see why treating the creation account in Genesis like a scientific textbook is a daft idea because it’s from another time and culture. Although it’s worth pointing out that some Christians spend a lot of time, money and energy arguing about such things.
I was once asked by a lady in our church (who was testing my suitability for being a vicar) if I “believed in a literal six-day creation?” I sighed.
2. Me, Myself and I
So far, God has made human beings to be co-creators with him in the world. God and humans are together working to bring order out of chaos and everything is good and right and lovely. Perfect. Then it all goes wrong…
Making the duff choice
For some reason human beings decide that they don’t need God. I know, I know, it doesn’t make sense but there you have it. Human beings decide to put themselves first ahead of God and ahead of other people. In one way this makes no rational sense whatsoever but in another way I understand this problem because it’s me. I do stuff all the time where I put myself first.
This putting ourselves first ahead of God and others is called pride. Do you notice that there is an “I” in the middle of the word pride? Exactly. And when we put ourselves first things start to go wrong in the world – we introduce greed, anger, jealousy, lust, apathy and lack of self-control. You get the picture. The world becomes a mess. And our world is a mess isn’t it?
Let’s take a look at our world
We live in a world where one group of people thinks they are better than another and wipes them out with machetes. We live in a world where thousands of children die every day because they don’t have enough water, food, shelter or basic medical attention. And at the same time we live in a world where people spend billions on weaponry that they will probably never use. If you don’t believe me go and check out a news website. How many stories are good stories or how many are because of humans putting themselves first? Sure, there are some massive natural disasters and we do live in a world where there is still untamed chaos but perhaps if we worked together on earthquake prediction or made sure buildings were stable or sea defences were impenetrable we would see less harm? Right now we do little or nothing in global terms. I know that it’s not all doom and gloom but we have to face the reality that there is something wrong with humanity. We have to own up and take responsibility for our part in the mess.
What’s the consequence of our pride? Well, there is something about God that we need to bear in mind. God is perfect – perfectly good, righteous and just. One of the writers in the Bible describes God as ‘love’ itself. To sum it up in one word, God is holy. And we are unholy. It is not that God has withdrawn from us but that we have withdrawn from God. Oops.
So what does God do about all this? Well, to cut a long story short, he doesn’t give up on human beings (which is quite a relief). You see, when God made the world and human beings he didn’t just say, “Oooh, that’s nice.” No, he said it was “Good, very good.” (by the way, that’s the third thing you need to know about the book of Genesis). God loves the world he made and he loves us – despite the fact that we’ve put ourselves ahead of him and ahead of others. God longs to be joined with us again, for us to be holy so we can get on with the task of bringing order out of chaos together. And because God made us in his image he gave us the capacity to use our creativity for good. God believes in us.
A theologian called Jürgen Moltmann defines sin as “that which separates us from God.” Sin doesn’t just mean the things we do but also can mean the things we don’t do. Sin can be apathy or indifference. For example, if we stand by and don’t act when we see an injustice in the world then that is also sin. So, some theologians assert that we are all sinning all the time! That’s a scary thought!
God chooses to involve humanity in his plan to redeem, restore and renew the world. We got us into this mess and God wants to work with us to get us out of it. Like I said in the last chapter, he believes in us.
God has a plan
So, God comes up with a strategy and he chooses a bunch of people to form and build a community that will bless and influence the world. This people will be his agents or ambassadors in the world. They will represent him and show the world that God is God. This people, was founded on Jacob (who became known a Israel) and Jacob was the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham. Today we know of Israel as a place but Israel started as a community.
But why Israel?
But why start with a people in that part of the world? Why not Wales or New Zealand? Well, the answer is strategic. You see, this community called Israel was on what was called the crossroads of the world. Of the influencing world powers at the time, Israel sat between the empires of the east and west. Whoever influenced that region could influence the known world.
The first deal is done
So God chooses this people and he does a deal with them. He says to them, “If you will be my people then I will be your God” In other words, “I promise to protect and guide you but you must promise to follow only me.” This promise made to Abraham and his descendents was a covenant or a testament. This chosen people were to be God’s priests to the world – to be a living example of a blessing for the nations.
Big signs as reminders
Now remember the whole water and chaos thing? Well, think on this. The people of Israel were enslaved to the Egyptians for a bit and they were rescued by God (led by Moses) by crossing the Red Sea – it parted miraculously. And then, when they were led into a land that would be their own, they crossed the river Jordan that parted miraculously. Do you see? These were symbols that God had not given up his plan to bring order out of chaos in the world and these symbols became reminders to the people of Israel about their God and their mission to the world.
Building a house for God
Although God couldn’t be physically united with them because of the whole sin thing he could guide them and speak to them from a distance. At first the people built tents but later they built a great temple in Jerusalem. This temple had outer bits and inner bits and right in the middle was this place called the Holy of Holies. It was where God’s presence would be, and once a year a priest would go through a whole heap of cleansing rituals to go into the Holy of Holies and be in the presence of God.
It takes time for this community to form and the story we read in the Old Testament is of a people who keep making mistakes, doing their own thing and going their own way. But God, keeping his side of the bargain, keeps bringing them back in line.
Even though they kept abandoning God, getting beaten up and handed over to their enemies – one enemy after another – something went on for centuries and centuries, there was a pervading hope. Amidst all the problems this idea or theme kept cropping up that God would establish his Kingdom through this community. That someone would be raised up from within the community – God’s chosen one, God’s anointed one – who would lead the people into freedom from their enemies and establish God’s rule once and for all. This person was called Messiah (in Hebrew) or Christ (in Greek). And so the people of God waited.
The Bible is split into two sections. The first section called the Old Testament (covenant or deal) are the writings from this community of people called by God. It contains their history, poetry, songs, teaching and prophecy (God’s word to them).
The people of God were waiting or holding onto the promise that this chosen one would come and lead them and establish once-and-for-all the Kingdom of God. But for 400 years there was radio silence. It was as if God had abandoned them. There had been no new prophecies about this person and no new revelations from God. Would it ever happen? The world was still a mess and the people of God in Israel were in a mess themselves. Israel was occupied by perhaps the most brutal empire the world had ever known – The Roman Empire – and it was into this mess that a Jesus was born.
A hotbed of political factions
Jesus began his public ministry at the age of 30 and Israel was still an occupied territory; God seemed to be absent and the people of God had split into multiple factions. Four of these factions were The Herodians, The Pharisees, The Essenes and The Zealots.
1. The Herodians
The Herodians, led by King Herod, thought like this. “It doesn’t look like this Messiah fella’ is going to turn up. I’m the king and I reckon we might as well get on with The Romans. So what if Caesar says he is God? We should collaborate with The Romans – bow down to Caesar if necessary – and have a peaceful life. It’s got to be better than resistance?”
2. The Pharisees
Then there were the Pharisees. They went around telling everybody this. “So you want the Messiah to turn up? Well, he would turn up but you lot are not holy enough. It’s your fault. If only you miserable sinners obeyed every one of his commands to the letter, then he would turn up. It is your lack of obedience that we are in this mess. So get holy.”
3. The Essenes
Then there were the Essenes. They thought, “We need to separate ourselves from the rest of society. Let’s go and form a community out in the desert, away from the rest of the world and its bad influences. Then, perhaps the Messiah will come.”
4. The Zealots
Then there were the Zealots. “You want to know why the Messiah hasn’t come? Well, it’s because we need to fight. Draw your swords! We must resist the Romans and if we fight them then surely God will be on our side and raise up for us a saviour – The Messiah – who will come and kick Roman butt and establish his Kingdom.”
So it was into this mess that Jesus came. He modelled what it meant to put God and others above self. He also demonstrated that God’s plan had never changed. There is a famous story of Jesus walking on water (hopefully this is starting to ring bells for you). Jesus gets out on the water and it’s not just a demonstration of power but it is symbolic of what he came to do. Then he does an extraordinary thing. He invites Peter to get out onto the water with him. Jesus is inviting Peter – the person on whom Jesus would later build the church – to join in with him in bringing order out of chaos. Peter starts to sink and Jesus grabs his arm and pulls him up. Now some Christians say that this is a story about faith – if only Peter had had enough faith then he wouldn’t have sunk. Yes, it took faith for Peter to get out of the boat but the point was that Peter sank and Jesus was saying, “You can’t do this on your own, you need me.” Then the waves were calmed. This is a hugely symbolic image of what Jesus came to do and what he called his followers to do too.
The divine trouble-maker?
While Jesus was going around teaching and doing good stuff he began to tick people off.
- Jesus said to the Herodians, “You don’t redeem and restore and renew the world by collaborating with a brutal empire – and you certainly don’t bow down to Caesar. What’s all that about?
- Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You don’t redeem and restore and renew the world by telling people that they are unholy. In fact you are the ones who are unholy! You tell people that they’re going to hell but I tell you that you are twice the sons of hell than they are!” Strong language eh?
- Jesus said to the Essenes, “You don’t redeem and renew and restore the world by being separate from it. What are you doing out there in the desert? You’re the people of God and you’re called to be in the world – like salt or light.”
- Jesus said to the Zealots, “Put your swords away. Do you think I came to start a revolution with swords? Is that God’s way? Is that the way of love and peace and grace and mercy?”
So within three years of ministry Jesus had managed to offend just about every political faction and so the ‘chosen people’ plotted to have Jesus killed. In fact they tried a few times to either stone him or throw him off a cliff.
5. The end is just the beginning…
Eventually they get Jesus arrested and to a trial – first with the Jewish authorities and then with the Roman overlords. At Jesus’ trial a strange thing happens. They can’t seem to pin a single thing on him – nothing.
Guilty or not guilty?
Think for a moment. If you stood trial – do you think anyone anywhere from any time in your life could come up with a single thing that you did wrong? If it was me I’m sure they’d be queuing up and the line would be longer than I’d care to admit. But with Jesus, no-one could think of anything – nothing. Someone was like, “Oh yes, I remember when Jesus did that terrible thing, you know the one where… oh, no, that wasn’t Jesus, it was Bernard,” or “I remember! Yes, that time when Jesus said that shocking thing to… oh, no, wrong again, that was Barbara.” They couldn’t come up with a single charge apart from one…
They did manage to come up with one accusation that stuck – that Jesus claimed to be God. In first century Palestine that was blasphemy, a no-no, and a crime punishable by death. And so Jesus was tortured and then crucified.
There’s not much I want to say about crucifixion other than it was a death so horrible and so cruel that even the Romans eventually banned it.
What on earth happened?
Now this is where things get exciting. There is so much symbolism, so many links, and so many threads that can be drawn together that I find it difficult to restrain myself and stick to the main plot.
The empty tomb
Jesus’ friends and his followers completely deserted him. Even Peter who said he’d follow Jesus anywhere eventually fled when he was recognised as a mate of Jesus. Then three days later the tomb in which Jesus body had been laid was empty.
God had been putting a plan into action that was bigger and better and more exciting that anyone imagined. Even his closest disciples hadn’t fully understood what was going on. At his trial some of them, especially the Zealots, still thought that Jesus was going to lead a physical revolution – that the Romans would be overthrown and that God’s Kingdom or rule would be established by force. But their hopes were crushed when Jesus was executed.
However, when the tomb was found empty they started to put things together – especially things Jesus had said. Jesus had mentioned that The Temple would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days. They hadn’t clicked that he was talking about himself. And of course, The Temple was where God presided. Click?
We cannot do this on our own
You see God’s plan had never changed. His plan was and has always been about restoring, renewing and redeeming this world – and his plan has always involved humanity. He promised that this chosen people of God would bring about change in the world, that they would be his agents or ambassadors and that through them God’s Kingdom would be established.
To truly fulfil this calling God needs to be connected with humans in such a away that we would see the world through God’s eyes. In the same way that Jesus lifted Peter out of the water, we humans needed to be connected to God. Try as we might, we won’t be able to do the job on our own.
Our need to be holy
And so, God’s plan was to set the people free – not as they expected, from the bondage of the Romans – but set free from sin. In other words God’s plan was to make everyone holy so that God could literally hang out with them or in them. This is what Jesus came to do and he achieved it. This is why it mattered that he had done nothing wrong. Do you see that? If Jesus had been guilty of a single sin then he couldn’t have saved anyone. Click???
Jesus lived and died so that God could come and live in human beings – make his home in us, commune with us, help us, guide us – for the very purpose of bringing order out of chaos in the world – the chaos in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. How cool is that?
And of course, the tomb was empty because death could not hold a person who had done nothing wrong. Jesus’ resurrection was a sign that things had changed – forever.
Sometimes I hear Christians explaining the gospel as this, “Jesus Christ died for our sins (full stop).” But to my mind and from my reading of the Bible this is just part of a much bigger story – the overarching story (posh title – The Grand Meta-narrative). And if we ignore the bigger story then we are missing out. Some might add an extra line such as this, “Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we could live forever and not go to hell.” Again, this seems to tap into a wider story but it’s not quite the whole picture. I would say, “Jesus Christ died for our sins that we might be made holy so that God could come and live in us to help and guide us as we work together to redeem, restore and renew the world.” Okay, so that was a bit of a mouthful but you get my point?
Jesus had died and risen with a new metaphysical body – a body that still wanted to eat barbecued fish on a beach but a body that could also materialise and dematerialise and walk through walls! Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday – the first day of the week! Jesus was the first of a new kind of creation.
And very soon afterwards the Holy Spirit (Spirit of God) turned up and began to fill the disciples. Because they had been made clean by Jesus God was making his home in them – something radical, different and new. But get this, the Holy Spirit started filling people who weren’t part of the Jewish community. This thing had spread and the world-wide church was born.
It’s worth pointing out that right at the beginning in Genesis God said, “Let us make humans in our image” – as if God was more than one? Remember that? Well, now we can see that God is a community – Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit. Cool eh?
So the church is not a bunch of people sitting in pews singing Victorian hymns on a Sunday morning. No, the church is a community of people filled with the Spirit of God who are called to redeem, restore and renew the world. We are called to use their God given creativity – under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit – to bring order out of chaos.
And that is what the church in Uplyme is about. We are about bringing order out of chaos – in our own lives and in the lives of those around us – in relationships, in the environment, and across the world.
We are a church that seeks to care for the elderly, bereaved, lonely, marginalised, sick and needy in our community. We are a church that seeks to support families – parents whether they are double or single, single children, engaged or married couples, and young people. We are a church that seeks to support our local school – the staff, teachers, governors and pupils. We are a church that seeks to bless and support the other churches in our area though resources – training, people and technology. And we are a church that seeks to support a community in Zambia with fresh running water and sanitation so that 11-year old girls don’t have to walk through three miles of dangerous wilderness to fetch water.
That’s what it means to be church. Our calling? “To join in with the ongoing mission of God in the world” Our invitation is for you to join in with us.