Monthly Letter – July 2020

Dear Friends,

We’re not Gnostics.

That’s putting the thing negatively. Gnostics believe that matter doesn’t matter – indeed, more than that, the material world, they believe, is positively evil: or negatively evil, I suppose. Anything that you can see or touch … well, you don’t want to touch it with a ‘social-distancing’ barge-pole. From your porridge oats in the morning to your electric toothbrush at night: and every thing in between – including the stomach which digests the oats, and the teeth on which your toothbrush is used. It’s all bad.

Reality, they claimed, is spiritual. Possibly even ‘virtual’, as we’d say today. But definitely not the down-to-earth, material ’physicality’ of human beings. ‘B’ is for body, and ‘B’ is for bad. Do the maths, as they say.

We’re not Gnostics. Emphatically not. We won’t have the wool pulled over our eyes by any foolish, yet fashionable, cultural trends. Let me say it as it is. ‘Virtual reality’ is simply a contradiction in terms. To think and suggest that the ‘not-real’ is real is a mark, not of any educated outlook on the world, but a mark of just how foolish we’ve become.

It’s the folly of the whole post-modern mindset with which our culture’s been beguiled. But say a thing repeatedly, push a line persistently, repeat a mantra often enough … and we start to assume that it has the ring of truth (except, of course, that even the notion of ‘truth’ must be challenged and scorned by a culture intent on doing its own thing).

In our upside-down society, non-sense has become overnight the only thing that is seen to make any sense. Our culture, therefore, has embraced this thing called ‘virtual reality’ with open arms and a mindless gullability. And now, as all the dust of lockdown living starts to settle, and we stick our heads back out of our corona-virus bunkers, the crazy possibility of ‘virtual church’ presents itself as somehow being a safe (and in some ways a quite appealing!) sort of option.

But, yes, the possibility is crazy. As in foolish and non-sensical. Because ‘virtual church’ isn’t church at all.

I repeat, we’re not Gnostics. There is an all-pervasive, basic physicality about the gospel message. From the start of the Bible to its close. From the story of creation to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth still to come. It’s physical. That which you can see and smell and touch and hear and taste.

The sea with all its salty spray, with all its rolling, wind-swept waves and the crashing of the breakers on the shore. The land, with the warmth of the sand and the soil, with the million different fragrances, the subtly different feel there is to different plants, the plethora of fruit there is to taste and to enjoy. It’s all intensely physical; created as such by God.

And it’s from the physical stuff of this world, from the down-to-earth dust of the ground, that our whole humanity comes. That’s part of the Bible’s message. Part of the way God has made us. Not the only part, of course, but an integral part nonetheless.

And the gospel is replete with that self-same physicality throughout. That’s what the incarnation itself is all about. The ‘flesh-and-blood’ humanity which the Son of God assumed – because we have ‘flesh and blood’. The one who in the beginning as the great Creator God first made us in His likeness – to be our Saviour, He ‘had to be made like them, fully human in every way’ (Heb.2.14, 17). Which meant His thorough-going ‘flesh-and-blood-ness’. Which meant He got hungry and thirsty and tired. Which meant He got hurt and felt pain. Which meant that His back could be lashed and reduced to a gory pulp. Which meant that His head could be seared with the thorns of a derisory crown. Which meant that His wrists and His ankles could be pierced with those nails from the factories of hell.

It’s emphatically ‘a body You prepared for Me,’ the Son of God affirms before His Father as He comes to do the business of salvation (Heb.10.5). A body. It’s in His flesh-and-blood humanity that Jesus contends with the devil in the wilderness. It’s in His feet-on-the-ground human body that He treads the highways and byways of Israel. It’s in His ‘from-the-dust-of-the-earth’ human body that He gets down on His knees to wash His disciples’ feet. And it’s in His ‘born-from-the-womb-of-a-woman’ human body that He feels the searing agony of the cruelty of the cross.

It’s His body that is taken down from the cross: it’s His body that is laid in the tomb: it’s His body the women are intent on anointing. And it’s in His body that He rises to life from the grave. ‘Put your finger here,’ He says to Thomas, tossed about as the poor guy is by all manner of questions and doubts: ‘see My hands. Reach out your hand and put it into My side.’ A body. See. Touch. Feel. Hear. My hands. My side. My voice.

It’s a fundamental, ‘fleshy’ physicality which runs right through the message of the gospel. And thus as well, the very hope we have in Jesus Christ is set out in the Scriptures in specifically physical terms. It may indeed be that we’re reduced back by death to the unrecognizable dust of the earth once again: but that dust of the ground, the dust of our ground-down deceased-ness, will be taken again by the Lord and raised again as a body. Read what Paul says in that great resurrection chapter of the Bible in 1 Corinthians 15, especially vv.35-44: it’s body, body, body all the time.

The whole huge panoramic sweep of God’s great saving work is shot right through with that same physicality. From creation through to the coming of Christ and the wonder of incarnation. From Christ’s gracious work of redemption at Calvary’s cross right on through to the promised glory and the final resurrection of our bodies to eternal life. It’s physical all the way through.

There’s more than just the physical, for sure, in God’s created universe. Of course there is. But there certainly isn’t less. And so the single, recurring sacrament of grace is itself intensely physical. Bread and wine. Take and touch. Eat and drink. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

It shouldn’t come as any great surprise, therefore, that the church is described in terms of the body of Christ. ‘A body You prepared for Me,’ remember. For the church (which is the bride of Christ) – the church becomes His very body whom He loves.

Nor is this just a figure of speech. It’s the three-dimensional body of Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of God – it’s that which the church now is. The three-dimensional body of Christ, whereby alone our risen, ascended and sovereign Saviour is presently seen and known. The three-dimensional body of Christ through whom He lays His hand upon a person’s life in healing grace; through whom He wraps His arms around a person’s frame in reassuring love; through whom He walks the second mile to meet a person’s need; through whom He speaks His living word to calm a person’s deepest fears and comfort all their grief; through whom He turns His face towards a tired and troubled person in their hour of need and shines the face of God into their darkness and despair.

Remember how Jacob, anxious and fearful and maybe a little remorseful as well after all those years – remember how Jacob was met by Esau: how Esau ran out to meet him, how Esau embraced him: how Esau threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. All very physical stuff! And remember how Jacob responded – “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen.33.10).

It’s in the physicality of all such social interaction, that the church is body of Christ, whereby ‘the face of God’ is seen. The bodies of believers are now the temple of the Holy Spirit; and as such, a people indwelt in that way by the Spirit of Jesus, they are the very body of Jesus.

If I labour the point it is only to highlight the ‘non-sense’ of ‘virtual church’. We are a people who congregate, a people who deliberately gather together in a person-to-person and three-dimensional way.

For our gathering thus is a credal affirmation. It’s the Apostles’ Creed in a three-dimensional form. It’s our gladly declaring just what we believe.

We rejoice in the truth of incarnation – glad beyond words that the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from the womb of a virgin called Mary, assumed our flesh and blood humanity in the body prepared for Him.

We rejoice in the grace of salvation – His taking our place as a Man, in the life of perfect obedience which, in a fragile human body, He lived on our behalf; His taking our place in the death that He died in our stead, as His flesh-and-blood body was nailed to the cross.

We rejoice in the hope of adoption – “we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom.8.23): not a disembodied, ‘virtual’ resurrection, but bodies at last made perfect.

Jesus wasn’t virtually born. He didn’t virtually live. He didn’t virtually die. He wasn’t virtually raised.

We don’t do ‘virtual church’.

We bring our bodies together as a sacred act of worship. In faith, and hope, and love.

In that manner we affirm our faith in God as our Creator, who made us with a body that we might thereby be His image-bearers in the world: and we affirm our faith in Jesus as our Saviour, for whom, as such a body was prepared.

In that manner we afford to others our love, greeting them in a tangible, visible, three-dimensional way, and expressing thereby the love of the prodigal’s Father and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And in that manner, too, we affirm the hope in which we were saved – the redemption of our bodies: bodies that are presently both weary and worn, stiff and sore, flawed and frail, diseased, disabled and done for: we affirm the hope that our bodies shall be raised, perfected, glorified.

And at last on that day with bodies renewed – free from the sin which has left us all stunted and scarred – we shall join the great crowd of all the redeemed; standing strong on our glorified legs; with our glorified arms lifted high in the air in a tireless display of exuberant praise; holding Palm Sunday branches in our glorified hands as a vibrant and visual salute to the King of all kings; and sounding out from our glorified lungs, with a ceaseless crescendo of choral song, our delight in our sovereign, saving God. Check out Rev.7.9f, and see if it will not be so!

Legs, arms, hands, lungs. The redemption of our bodies.

What bearing, you ask, has all of that on the easing of lockdown restrictions? Well, in two vital ways, which we seek to hold in balance.

First, it is the very physicality of our human frame which leaves us all susceptible to virus and disease –some more than others, of course. We recognize the paramount importance, therefore, of both caution and precaution. We seek to be careful and cautious in how we go about a phased return to any sort of gathering in a face-to-face and three-dimensional way.

We’re not Gnostics. We care about, and are careful for, the physical health of each and every person. We’re concerned not only to nourish the spiritual life of our people, but to protect their physical frames. We’re very aware that for all sorts of reasons bound up with our flawed physicality, many are markedly vulnerable. We’re therefore very quick, I hope, not simply to respect the rightful caution many feel, but more than that to urge (perhaps, indeed, insist upon) such necessary caution on their part. That gospel ‘physicality’ imposes such restraint upon us all.

And yet, secondly, there is a balance. That self-same gospel physicality impresses on us too the primary call to congregate again, to join with one another as the blood-bought people of God and together to bring our worship to God.

It is a ‘primary’ call. Not a peripheral, inconsequential expression of our faith and our worship of God. And thus, as the guidelines permit, we will meet for real again. Physical, not virtual. In person, not in spirit. Bodies being gathered in the sanctuary, not buttons being pressed on a laptop.

It will, necessarily, be a phased return to that ‘congregational’ worship: and such a phased return will necessarily have its limits, as we seek to get the balance right between these two complementary requirements of that gospel physicality.

The numbers will be limited. Procedures will be altered to ensure that everything is sanitized, people are well stewarded, and seating is in line with ‘social distancing’. The form in which our worship finds expression will undoubtedly be different from the patterns we’re accustomed to.

But, within all those necessary limitations, we will start to congregate again. We may not get it right first time! This is altogether new terrain – please bear with us! But we will start to congregate again. As a statement of faith. As an expression of our faith, our hope, our love. Bodies gathered together. Bodies which have been created by God; bodies which are now indwelt by the Spirit; bodies which will one day be finally redeemed by our Lord and made perfect.

And in our gathering thus – however frail and flawed those bodies may presently be, however small and constricted our numbers may meanwhile be, however restricted and ragged our worship may for the moment remain – in our gathering thus we herald again God’s great gospel truth and point to the day when ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, (will be) standing before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands and crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”’ How we long for that day!

Yours in the service of Christ and in that blessed hope,

Jeremy Middleton