The Corinthian correspondence has become my meditation this year. I am admittedly somewhat fascinated by it. In what appears to be at least his second letter (that is 1 Corinthians, cf 5:9) to the church Paul is concerned to correct the spirit of division found there in the pervasive one-upmanship and elitism that has infiltrated from the surrounding Corinthian culture. However as we move on to the second epistle we have remaining to us we find that this attempt has not been well received. Instead we see clearly that this letter of correction has bitterly hurt the church. In the midst of their hurt certain persons have united the church against him!

As we see in 2 Corinthians as Paul struggles to deal with this betrayal and continued elitism he pours his heart out for the Corinthian church in gospel focused cruciform love. 2 Corinthians is one of the most emotionally stirring missives of the New Testament, here is Paul deeply grieved and grieving for the object of his and Christ’s affection is so close to deserting him, and even deserting Christ. Hard accusations have come against Paul and his ministry through the deception of these so called Super-Apostles (11:5) who are now using the grief surrounding the corrective pain of 1 Corinthians to wield against Paul as a sharp weapon that cuts deeper than any other weapon could.

Yet here in the words that Paul writes to the Corinthian Church are a deep and consciously Christian, crossformed vision of joy through, in and underneath the sacrament of suffering. A vision of suffering and joy that arouses in us a call to embrace both on this side of eternity, not just as a discipline, but as a missional framework to reach out to those like and unlike us.

I want to make a brief sketch of this vision of joy in suffering. In his opening blessing of God Paul wants to frame the rest of his letter, indeed even the previous letter, and his ministry as a whole, he writes, “[God] comforts us in all our affliction,” it’s not a simple thing that God does this, why should he do this? Some theologies would suggest that we are sinners and that any affliction that we face is for discipline, to punish us for our sins. But this is not the purpose that God has in mind here according to Paul, “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” Whatever affliction through which we pass is forming us so that we can bring the Gospel with its healing, grace, love, and life to the burdens, aches, and pains of the Other. This is why elsewhere Paul says that “For your sake,” that is Christ and His Father’s, “we are being killed all the day long, we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. Indeed in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” These things which come against, Paul goes on to say are, no matter the origin nothing compared with the love of Christ which holds us.

If God’s ministry of comfort through our suffering finds its “yes” in the person and work of Jesus Christ as we then move to embody and enflesh this Godly “yes” to the Other then we need to join the Christ-work of the Cross. The wonderful Cross which bids us to come and die, that place where we find ourselves crucified in the Messiah, and walking away as new people bearing forth the Resurrection life that he breathes into these dry bones.

And this exactly is what Paul goes on to say and call out of us. “As we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

I have made too light of this suffering of ours, Paul is stronger again. These sufferings are not merely ours apart from Christ. They are not merely found in Christ. Not merely found to be usable for the alleviation of the Other’s suffering. Paul is adamant, these sufferings are Christ’s sufferings. We are to go through them with the expectation not just that we will find Christ in the midst of them but that just as he promised to be our strong yokefellow Christ is our cosufferer, we through the sufferings we have are crucified with Christ that we might bleed out his love and life for the sake of the Other. The sufferings that we go through are not and cannot be separated from Christ’s.

As we become the possession of the suffering servant we suffer with him, dying daily the death of the Cross that the life of the Resurrection might too be made manifest in our lives and the lives of those to whom we minister. So then there is no vain hope in the ministry that we bear, the trials and suffering we need live out, they form us and call us forward, broken heart in hand that the Gospel of Jesus Christ on full display in the wreckage of our lives in hope, that maybe just one other might taste the resurrection life. That they might taste and see that, yes, God is Good!

Shall we do theology in the safety of our Armchairs, or in the coal mines of Wigan Pier? Last time I read a Theology that purported to be a Theology on Wigan Pier it was merely an Armchair Theology with bones thrown to the Pierites, a neatened, tidied up Wigan Pier with the smells of working class spiritualities swept under the rug, there is a reality a necessity that we don’t often grasp hold of if we’re well to do, and yet because we’ve dotted our t’s and crossed our i’s it seems perfectly natural to us that we will inherit the Kingdom of God. This has been some thoughts of an Armchair Theologian confronted by some of the realities of Pierite Spiritualities.

A stirring fire in my heart burns against the falsities of Dispensationalism which evangelically neuters the church in its witness to natural Israel, and makes her complacent in picking up the promises that her lover made to her. Some of my readers may not know what Dispensationalism is, so for their sake I will give a definition from Charles C. Ryrie’s book “Dispensationalism.” Ryrie defines it as follows; “Dispensationalism claims to be a help in supplying the answer to the need for biblical distinctions, in offering a satisfying philosophy of history, and in employing a consistently normal principle of interpretation.” He follows up this with the marks of a Dispensationalist, these three marks are,

1. A distinction between Israel and the Church.

2. Literal interpretation

3. The glory of God as the underlying purpose of God in the world.

It is true that these are what dispensationalists often claim to themselves as what marks them out over against other Christian world-views, and interpretive grids. However it is my contention that at least in conservative interpretational schools within the church the only distinctive mark that the Dispensationalist can claim to themselves is the first, and this I believe is a distinction which is read into rather than out of Scripture.

So, further why the name Dispensationalism? The name comes from the idea that there are distinct times, ages, or dispensations in which God relates to his people in different ways. The word dispensations is used by 17th Century writers to talk about this phenomenon which is seen somewhat clearly in Scripture. (The distinction between the New and Old Covenants for instance) However given their allegiance to the distinctive of Dispensationalism the Dispensationalist sees in Scripture two distinct people groups, that of the Jews, or Israel to which Christ came to proclaim a new Messianic Kingdom, and the Gentiles, with whom God is currently dealing with in the Church dispensation. The Dispensationalist broadly will see three relevant Dispensations, there is the Dispensation of Israel in which God deals with Israel, culminating in Israel’s rejection of the risen Jesus leading to the Church age in which God deals with the Gentiles, offering them salvation through Christ, which gives way eventually with the Rapture, the Tribulation, and finally the acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and King by Israel and the Millennium. It is this disjunction between Israel and the church that I wish to deal with.

I believe a firm place to start is the polemical thrust of Luke in writing the book of Acts, while the Dispensationalist claims that there should be a firm place where given the rejection by Israel in diaspora of the risen Jesus as Messiah that God then turns to the Gentiles and that this then is the Church. However this is not what we see, though Paul says “It was necessary that we first preach the word of God to you Jews. But since you have rejected it and judged yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we will offer it to the Gentiles.” This is entirely situational, it is to a specific group of Jews, and Paul and Barnabas continue their pattern of going to the Synagogue first to preach the Gospel there before opening it up to the Gentiles. Further before the inclusion of the Samaritan village in Acts 8 the Church was a thoroughly Jewish affair, the dispute that lead to the appointment of Stephen, Philip and others to leadership roles in Acts 6 was one between Hebrew speaking Jews in Jerusalem, and Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem, there is a tentativeness to bring in both the Samaritans of Acts 8, and subsequently the Gentiles in Acts 10. The inclusion of the Gentiles in the church is a debate that lasts from Acts 9 through to at least the end of Acts 15. But they are included in what Paul would later call the grafting in. (Rom 11:17-18) A remnant of Israel has been filled in by God with those from the nations in order that God might receive the Glory. This is what was prophesied in Isaiah 2:2-4

In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s house

will be the highest of all

the most important place on earth.

It will be raised above the other hills,

and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.

People from many nations will come and say,

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,

to the house of Jacob’s God.

There he will teach us his ways,

and we will walk in his paths.

For the LORD’s teaching will go out from Zion;

his word will go out from Jerusalem.

The LORD will mediate between nations

and will settle international disputes.

They will hammer their swords into ploughshares

and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will no longer fight against nation,

nor train for war any more.

The Dispensationalist in seeking to interpret literally appears to gloss over the prophecies that Israel will be filled up with people from every nation, or places them into the Millennial dispensation because it could not possibly refer to the Church dispensation.

But the nail in the distinctive of Dispensationalism is truly Paul’s rant against Judaisation in his letter to the Ephesians, he is passionate and eloquent, but most importantly he sees a dire need that the Church not be split on any identitarian issue, she is Christ’s Israel, that remnant borne in his body on the Cross, such that God might receive Glory in creation for His People going about on His business. Paul writes;

“Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us. So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God¡¦s holy people. You are members of God¡¦s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph 2:11-22)

The solution to the problem that the Judaisers were placing before the Ephesian Church was not to claim that we are of a different dispensation, but to affirm the place of the Ephesian church as included in the citizenship of Israel based on their faith in the Jewish Messiah Jesus of Nazareth. So then from here and other places in Scripture what I propose as an understanding of the place of Israel is not as some secular state over in the middle east in turmoil with Palestine, but rather the Remnant of Israel dwindled down to a sole individual who was bloodied and executed at the hands of the rest of the world. He bore in his body a new people that has become the Church. Jesus is the true Israel, and the only way for anyone to become a part of Israel is through Him.