How can someone die and never die?

When Martha went to meet Jesus, after her brother, Lazarus, has died, she told Jesus that she believed confidently in the general resurrection of all people. Martha’s faith in resurrection is similar to many people today, who believe confidently in life after death. Jesus’ response is confusing and challenging.  I read his words at the start of every funeral service and the confusion is highlighted for clarity:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:25)

How can someone die and never die? This is confusing.

The confusion exists when we assume that there is only one kind of death. But death is multi-layered in scripture. Death can be mortal, spiritual and judicial. We all die mortally, when our bodies grow frail and die. Death is spiritual, all people are dead in sins and must brought to life in Christ (Ephesians 2). Death is also judicial. God announced a the death sentence to Adam should he disobey the law (Genesis 2:17) and so on the day of judgement, the punishment for sin is “second death.” Paul writes that the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:23) and all who live without acknowledging God deserve to die (Romans 1:32). In both cases, Paul refers to judicial death as the punishment for sin, second death.

The confusion is resolved when the first death which Jesus speaks to Martha about is mortal death, which Lazarus had suffered.  Those who believe in Christ will live after they die mortally. The second reference to death is spiritual and judicial.  Those who believe in Christ are alive, spiritually and eternally, and in him they will not face the judicial second death, so never die, spiritually nor judicially.

The challenge is simple. Believe in Jesus and you will live even though you die and you will never face spiritual or judicial death. Don’t believe and you will be judged, with second death so ask Jesus for spiritual life.



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How should I respond to sub-Christian mottos like “Good Disagreement” and “Radical Inclusion”

What follows is taken from my letter to Holy Trinity Church in our April magazine in response to the mottos “Good disagreement” and “radical inclusion” which are being banded about in Church of England circles at present.

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am worried about two phrases which are being repeated in Church of England circles at this time. The phrases are “Good disagreement” and “Radical inclusion”.

Why am I worried? First, I am worried because I don’t know what these phrases mean. I am really confused. Both phrases are simplistic and blunt, lacking nuance and definition in our complex world. I want to say “Amen” if they mean one thing and “No, never Lord” if they mean another.

Secondly, I am worried because the phrases have the power to manipulate and coerce a whole community, of which we are a part. The phrases are unclear but they have already gained a subconscious meaning and power which psychologists call “groupthink”. Groupthink leads to irrational or dysfunctional decisions and unconscious bias, based on the desire for harmony and conformity in that group.

Good disagreement has quickly come to mean that two Christians can completely disagree on something as long as they are nice to each other. Good disagreement is only a different way of saying we should tolerate and respect one another’s beliefs because there is no such thing as truth, only what we believe to be true. Good disagreement is the only way of creating an uneasy peace in a post-truth culture.

And what does radical inclusion mean? Again, from the context, it is rapidly gaining support to mean that everyone is welcome in church regardless of some kinds of immoral behaviour.

And so there is real danger for bible believing Christians. If I say “I disagree with you and I believe the way you think is wrong” I break the rules of “Good Disagreement”. Who is the bad guy here? Not the person who has faulty beliefs but the person who claims to know what is right and true. Or what if I say, “Jesus said, “repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”” I am then breaking the rules of radical inclusion. Who is the bad guy here? Not the person who behaves in a way which is unacceptable to God, but me, for breaking the rules of “radical inclusion”.

Dear brothers and sisters at Holy Trinity, don’t let yourself be swayed by sub-Christian or unbiblical mottos or phrases, even when you feel their power and “groupthink” is against you.

My memory verse this week has been Psalm 86:11, which has been a great help as I have struggled with the growing feeling of manipulation and coercion in the Church of England.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.
Psalm 86:11

Believing Christians are moved by God to turn to Him to be taught his way and to walk in his truth. This is a dangerous prayer for us all. Praying “teach me your way, O Lord” means studying and knowing his word but it means more. This prayer invites God to teach us in the school of life. There is much truth which God reveals to us but which can only be learned as it is put into practice. I am so reluctant to put what I know is true into practice that God will teach me through times of discipline and hardship. There are some lessons which I need to learn which will only come through suffering and rejection as God does his work in me. And so I need not fear “groupthink” but rather fear the name of the Lord.

I believe we must reject the mottos “good disagreement” and “radical inclusion”. We need more sophisticated ways of setting expectations for the times we disagree and how to welcome folk to church. We need to echo the theology of Paul’s letter to the divided church at Ephesus. “We have received every spiritual blessing in Christ and are united as one people under Christ as our head who has broken down the dividing walls of hostility; we must walk in a manner of our calling and so maintain the bond of peace and the spirit of unity whilst we attain to to the full knowledge of Christ through the apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists as we put on the full armour of God.”

Will you pray with me for protection against manipulation in the church and for the rejection of any phrase which can be used against one another? Will you pray for true unity and acceptance in Christ as we grow up into him who is head?

With love, Neil

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From the vicarage March 2017 – post synod reaction

“You never listen to me.” “He never listens.” Have you ever used one of these phrases? Has someone ever spoken to you that way? These words slip out when I am angry or frustrated, but do I really mean what I say?

I feel the need to write to you about the recent reports in the news about the Church of England’s debates on “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations.” Media reports have been unclear and biased, which leaves us all feeling confused. I hope to make things clearer in this letter.

Before we think about what happened, we need to know how the Church of England is governed. The Church of England is governed by synod. Laws and policies are debated and voted on at synod. There are four levels of synod: General Synod, Diocesan Synod, Deanery Synod and Parochial Church Councils (PCC). The debate which was reported in the news took place at General Synod, our highest level of church government.

Over the past 20 years there have been lots of arguments in General Synod about the law of God on marriage between two people of the same sex. Three years ago, the Bishops tried to stop the arguments by starting a process called “shared conversations”. Every Diocesan Bishop selected a group clergy and members of congregations to speak to each other about their feelings, beliefs and experiences of same-sex attraction and practice. The House of Bishops then wrote a report on the outcome of the process and it was this report which was debated in synod.

The report states that the Church of England will not change its beliefs about marriage, which come from the bible, where God reveals to us his model for marriage; which is the faithful, lifelong, loving, sexual union between a man and a woman. The report also states that all people are affected by the Fall and so our sexual relationships and attraction are faulty, resulting in all sorts of behaviour which falls short of God’s purpose for marriage.

The bishops have accepted that we have failed as a church to offer proper pastoral and relational care in areas of sexual brokenness and sin. There has been too much argument about what is right and wrong, and not enough compassion and grace. As a result, we have been too embarrassed or ashamed to open up and take off our masks, not just about same-sex relationships, but lots of other areas too: the pain which marriage can cause; the difficulties of singleness; the emotional problems which arise later in life from sex before marriage; different kinds of sexual addiction; the aftermath of sexual abuse. In effect, we have failed to heal the wounds of sin because we argue too much about the law of God and this needs to change.

The report is good, but not perfect and so people voted for or against the report for a variety of reasons. Some members of General Synod were encouraged but thought the report was unclear whilst others, who want the church to bless gay or lesbian relationships and revise the bible’s teaching on marriage, don’t believe that the bishops listened.

Bishop Julian Henderson spoke about the difference between being heard and agreeing with each other. When I say “You never listen” what I can mean is “why don’t you agree with me?” The report disagrees with the proposal to allow same-sex marriage but this does not mean that the bishops have not listened.

Second, there is more than one voice to listen to. The voice which calls for same-sex marriage is different to God’s voice in his word. There are also the very different voices of same-sex attracted but celibate Christians and the voice of Christians from other cultures around the world. The bishops have listened to many different voices and reported on their conclusions.

Synod then voted according to house. The House of Bishops almost unanimously supported the measure. The House of laity voted to accept it, but the House of Clergy voted against the Bishops’ report. The debate and the vote revealed a deep divide in the Church of England.

Where does this leave us and what is God doing?

First, we need healing and unity. Jesus said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Second, nothing will change. Marriage in the Church of England is going to remain between a man and a woman and we can give thanks for this result. As Christians we are all called to humble and joyful submission to the will of God revealed in his word. We must stop arguing about the law of God on marriage (Titus 3:9).

Third, everything should change. When we stop arguing and stand beneath the healing streams which flow from the cross of Christ, everything will change. As we open ourselves to the grace and forgiveness of Christ, He will create for us a culture of openness, honesty and vulnerability. We will then be truly free to seek healing and cleansing from the sins of our past and the sexual brokenness which affects us all each day.

The Apostle Peter writes, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”

Brothers and sisters, will you pray with me for the unity, purity and sincere brotherly love which flow from the living word and from the cross of Christ, so that we might be an attractive church in a sexually broken world?

With love, Neil

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How banns can be banned and we can still be missional

Marriage in the Church of England is a complex legal thing. The CofE acts on behalf of the state for the legal aspect of marriage.  For British ad EU nationals resident in the UK it is legally required, or at least normal, to marry by banns.  Banns were introduced in the marriage act of 1753 and were designed to prevent polygamy and incest, by giving the community three opportunities before he wedding day, and a fourth on the day itself, to expose anyone who was/is already married or couples who were/are unwittingly closely related. Banns no longer serve this legal function because urban communities are too transient and far too big for banns to effective. Many banns which are read in church are for complete strangers to the congregation.

For non-EU nationals the couple can’t legally marry by banns and need to complete the legal prelims at the registry office. This inequality is what Stephen Trott’s private motion at synod last week tried to redress. Unfortunately, all three houses voted down his motion, preferring to put up with the legal and administrative inconvenience and the inequality of treatment for non-EU nationals for the missional opportunities banns provide.

It is too late for synod, but I suggest that we might share best practice so that, if the motion returns to synod, someday, we will already have a functioning alternative which shows that simplifying the legal does not mean doing away with the missional.

For anyone marrying by banns, there are three Sundays, when the couple don’t need to attend church, but it’s nice if they do, when the vicar reads the banns. The idea that banns are missional is something I find it slightly disingenuous, as I say to a couple “we must read your banns, so why don’t you come to church?” when what I really want is for the couple to join the church.

I publish the banns of marriage between NN of … parish and NN of … parish
This is the first / second / third time of asking. If any of you know any reason in law why they may not marry each other you are to declare it.
We pray for these couples (or N and N) as they prepare for their wedding(s)

When a couple can’t marry by banns I propose to say the following, based on the declarations in the marriage service. This gives me the opportunity to say, “you don’t have to come but we’d love to announce your wedding in church and pray for you.”

I give notice of the marriage of NN of … parish and NN of … parish
The marriage vow and covenant which they are to make will be made in the presence of God, who is judge of all.
We therefore pray with them, that as they are united in love, they may fulfill Christ’s will for them throughout their earthly lives.

Does anyone else have a practice which replaces banns when necessary? If so, what do you say?

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Reaching the Unreached – session 3

Simon Smallwood spoke last at this year’s RTU conference, on the subject of the third section of the RTU vision statement:

To see a movement of Christ centred churches, reaching socially deprived people in a grass roots way.

My notes on Simon’s talk are not as complete as they could be. I failed to notice that his handout was double sided! So I didn’t take notes from his introduction nor the three surprises he spotted in the book of Acts (chapters 13:48, 2:42-47 and 4:13). The main point Simon made from these three texts, I believe, is that anyone can be made godly and suitably gifted through Christ’s ministry of the word and the Holy Spirit. Middle-class Christians have failed to see the difference between culture or class and godliness. Godliness does not equal being middle-class and giftedness does not need a university degree to be effective in the kingdom of Christ.

Simon shared openly about how good intentions at St George’s Dagenham had led to a number of outcomes which worked against the principle of church in “a grass roots way”. My notes pick up on similar lessons we are learning, about two or three years behind Simon, perhaps. He said much more than what is noted here. My notes consist of he lessons I was taking away, so some of these notes might be my application rather than reality in Dagenham.

Examples of things not going as expected:

  1. Simon brought good teaching about Christ to Dagenham and his hope was for local people to take that teaching into the community.  The problem was people bought into Simon’s alien (middle-class) culture and so stopped speaking like locals.
  2. Simon did what many other similar churches did, which was to offer ministry trainee-ships to young folk. These schemes often imported apprentices from big teaching churches in university towns. The MTs were mobile and middle-class who ended up being masters not servants in the local church. Rather than developing the gifts of church members, they took over. The church ended up serving the MTs as a training ground.
  3. This led to the MT scheme becoming a destructive influence rather than building the church. Locals felt they could never be like the MTs and all the resources and training available at the time was tailored to tertiary educated middle-class folk. All this destroyed the confidence of local people.
  4. A focus on small group ministry meant there was a need for confident, gifted “pastors” who could run small groups which were culturally alien. But small groups which work in one culture might not work in another and so small groups, meeting in the homes of local folk, are not essential if the local culture finds this form of meeting and hospitality alien.

Things we are doing and learning.

  1. Don’t do more than can be sustained. Do what we can within the body of the local church. Keep Christ-centred teaching and discipleship at the heart of all you do.
  2. Don’t worry about what other churches are doing. One of MTs at Dagenham was university educated and had a huge capacity for work. He has been replaced by five local men who take it turn about to lead bible studies and talks for the youth group.
  3. An inexperienced local speaker is heard better by the youth than an experienced outsider.
  4. Shifting responsibility in church life to local men. PCC was led in the past by people who lived outside the area and this is shifting to locals along with youth work and discipleship. Anyone brought into serve the church from outside must seek to work their way out of  a job by training local church members.
  5. Seeking ways to train local church members in an accessible, suitable and affordable way. The urban catechism; one to one discipleship and the urban ministry programme all recent and very useful for affirming local leaders, pastors and teachers.


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Reaching the Unreached – session 2

Graham Miller from London City Mission led the second at Reaching the Unreached. He addressed the questions, “who are the unreached?” and “how can they be reached?”

Focusing on his knowledge of the population of London, Graham explained that 15% of university graduates living in London are professing Christians. However, only 3% of working class London is Christian and more than 1.5% of these are immigrant, so the largest unreached people group is not Asian or Muslim but the white working class. Church plants, however, have gravitated toward the middle class areas of London. Churches are effectively competing for loyalty according to their brand of worship or theology in areas which will sustain them. Few, if any, churches are crossing racial or class boundaries.

The question then is, how will the success of the university mission movement and professional class churches over-spill into other demographics and cultures in London or other UK cities and towns?

Graham suggested the need for British churches to learn from the cross cultural mission practices of those missionaries who, like him (and me) have served overseas.  Missionaries have sought to teach Christ and then stand back to allow indigenous believers to make new disciples and to grow and plant churches.

I would have liked Graham to speak about direction of flow of people between areas within cities. I wrote about this in a post in 2008, having observed it in Wolverhampton.  I noticed that church planters need to prioritise areas of urban deprivation because the flow of people between middle class areas and socially deprived areas is only ever one way. If the church is going to reach the unreached, missionary church planters must go and live in the poorer, diverse and socially deprived places. Churches should seek to serve the local area, as Christ-centred fellowships. They may attract or invite mature believers from outside the local community, who have extra resources to support and serve the church, but only to share in the ministry with local folk. Simon Smallwood has begun to put this model into practice and it is something which we are beginning to wake up to in West Bromwich. I’ll post my notes from Simon’s talk at RTU tomorrow.


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Reaching the Unreached 2016 – session 1

It was brilliant to be reunited at the Reaching the Unreached conference on Saturday with faithful ministers who share the same passion for Christ-centred ministry in areas of high social deprivation. Two of us from Holy Trinity West Bromwich took a red-eye train to London and came back massively encouraged by the day.  Here’s my notes from session one; Duncan Forbes from New Life Church, Roehampton, on Christ-centred ministry.

RTU – ‘a movement of Christ-centred Churches reaching the socially deprived in grass roots ways.’

We can lose focus on Christ and focus on other things, even good things. Churches are to be focused on Jesus (Ephesians 1:19-23 and 2:19-22). The church is all about Christ. The cornerstone and centre of it all. (Ephesians 3:14-19) how wide, high, long, deep love of Christ. United in him and in the knowledge of him (Ephesians 4:13).

Parents begin parenting by focusing on Jesus but can go out of focus and make it about behaviour, which makes life easier, or on character or on looking good in public, rather than on Christ.

In the 1990s church was all about worship. There was something good about this, but it was more about what we do, rather than focusing on Christ. Nowadays, the buzz word might be missional. Again, it is about what we are doing rather than being about Jesus.

Revelation 2:1-7. The focus begins on Jesus, but it shifts to deeds and hard work for Jesus. The Ephesians are persevering and are doing lots of hard things. Are they the missional church, with suffering and good doctrine. Yet I hold this against you…you have shifted your focus from your first love, your love for Jesus. Your focus is on the deeds, not the Lord Jesus.

Mission is the growth of the church as it focuses on Christ…check out Duncan’s summary of what mission is.

God being glorified through
the believing community expanding,
as the church displays God’s glory
in word and deed
whilst it serves and protects
and spreads God’s rule broadly and deeply,
making disciples of all types of people.

Take note of what you say when you speak to people. Do you speak about what you do or who you are in Christ?

Luke 10:38-42 – anti- task focus. There is only one thing which is important, which cannot be taken away from Mary (she sat at Jesus’ feet and focused on him and his teaching).

We can focus on our sin, confession and sanctification. The focus is on how we are doing are Christians, how we are growing. We can focus on a system which changes us, the gospel focus on transformation,

Beyond Duck-tape workbook – get it, but remember that it is focused on change in us, get more holy, get more godly or grow the church. We focus on propositional truths about Jesus rather than on the person of Jesus, and all the truth about him. We need to speak to him, ask him to come to us and fill us with his Spirit, as well as knowing the truth.

Consumerist culture trains us to think “what do I want.” Someone says “I want longer worship” or “I want shorter worship.” or “I want hymns” or “I want songs.” etc etc. We end up not doing conflict resolution and so everyone individually demanding their own ends but no speaking about it. We should be asking “how do we work out what Jesus wants?” We are to make it about him, so we mature, and ask “in what ways can we know him better?” Rather than being blown about, here and there, we speak the truth (the bible) in love.

We get different people from different cultures to speak that word, so that we avoid cultural blind spots. We need all kinds of people have good access to the scriptures and good access to exegetical training so that we can speak the truth in love.

Say an Anglo-European sense of time (starts punctually) and a south-American sense of time (we start once everyone turns up). Then we do a biblical theology of time and share our perspectives and then ask “when do we meet and how do we do what Jesus is calling us to do?” Think about Jesus and Jarius’ daughter and Jesus delaying his arrival when Lazarus died. How do we work out time?

If we are going to be Christ-centred churches, then church should reflect the gospel and the truth.

Church reflects Christ’s death – 2 Cor 4:10 – we carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies.

We speak about how being beaten up, imprisoned, suffering for the gospel hurts us. Be open about our gospel related pains.

Church reflects Christ’s resurrection – 2 Cor 2:

If you have Jesus then you have all the resources you need. We might think things could be better with more material resources, funding or buildings. All we really need is to know his resurrection power.

Christ-centred churches will be seriously repentant. If you are a parent, you are the chief repenter in your family. If you are the church leader, then you are the chief repenter. Set the example.

We are sinners and the world knows it. We are also called to close fellowship. Recipe for disaster, unless we are seriously repentant.

The comfort of the gospel – Jesus’ blood covers it all. It’s a place where it is okay to have sinned as Jesus has it covered.

We are clothed with Christ’s righteousness. That makes a huge difference to the way we do church. A Christ-centred church focuses on Christ and his righteousness.

Best holiday ever. But living on top of each other means we were sinning against each other all the time. Told each other how we were sinning against each other and affirmed each other in the righteousness of Christ.

When we focus on Jesus we are freed up from looking good. Comparison between us and better looking churches or better looking people.

John 15. I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide in me and I will abide in you.

No storehouse of grace. We need to sit at his feet, feed on him, abide in him.

What are some of the practical changes we could make?

  1. Spend more time with Jesus as we become more Christ-centred.

  2. We’ll spend more time in confession and repentance.

  3. We’ll ask Jesus to help us to do the good works he has called us to do. Let’s not assume this is too much or too difficult for you, but rather, how about asking Jesus to strengthen you with his power.

We don’t need to tell people what to do when their behaviour is out of order. Teach Jesus and let his holiness work in them. Then repentance will be genuine from the inside.

Revelation 1. Jesus is a man but he is so different, other, higher, than us. His eyes penetrate our souls, his mouth with words like a double edge sword. John who had been Jesus’ closest friend, was terrified, and Jesus puts his hands on John and assured him that he was loved.

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