Friday, 28 August 2015

Accentuate the Positive

She was tall and elegant, the vicar's wife. While he wore a black cassock (? Full length

dressing gown thing with countless buttons down the front) she was in something Laura Ashleyish as I recall. We were in the same discussion group after I had spoken on "the person of Jesus" as part of the Alpha course taking place at their Sussex church. 

The conversation turned to John 14:6 - Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. The lady was forthright: "I love the first half of the verse. It's wonderful. But I can never accept the second half. I just don't believe it. So negative!"

I have never forgotten that moment. Her openness and honesty were refreshing, perhaps, but what she said appalled me and, given her prominent role in the parish church, went a long way to explain why so few of the ninety or more regular church goers present seemed to have much living understanding of Jesus, at least so far as I could see from their words that night. 

What she said has struck me many times since as symptomatic of a widespread discomfort in the church regarding negatives. "I am the way..." is lovely; "no one can..." is uncomfortable.  We feel we want to be affirming and positive, we want to reach out in love, not erect barriers. We want to say Yes. 

But actually, Jesus himself, and the NT in general, use negatives very liberally. Even a passage so famously positive as the Beatitudes is followed immediately by:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 

In both of those paragraphs, the negative is used precisely to accentuate the positive. The importance of the positive teaching is brought out, but more, the words highlight the urgency of obedience given that an alternative, dreadful, negative possibility is brought into view. This pattern continues. Sometimes the pattern starts with the negative, at others the logic is more complex, but time and time again Yes and No interweave to create a tight and inescapable argument or exhortation. Try these:

Matt 6:13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
Matt 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Luke 18:16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these

Ephesians 2:8-9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast

John 3:16-18 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son

Romans 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind

Sometimes in the letters exhortations seem to almost alternate in their positive and negative

Romans 12:9-12, 16-19 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. ...

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 

Many more examples could be given. The point is that the negative not only accentuates the positive; very often the positive could not be clearly expressed without the negative. Unless the negative is said, the truth is not actually being communicated at all. 

And that is where our desire to be positive is getting us into deep problems. The vicar's wife who denied John 14:6b but wanted to keep saying 14:6a actually didn't get 14:6a at all. Light pierces the darkness, but darkness in a sense underlines the light. The negative accentuates the positive. It is Jesus' gentle "No" to Martha that helps us to see the beauty of Mary's priorities; to understand what Mary got right we should be so glad of the rebuke to Martha who got it not-quite-right.
And more: in a fallen world, we need God's gracious No, and not merely to highlight the good, but to assault the bad. When we read the papers, we want to say "No." When we watch the TV news, we should want to scream "No!" at the screen. And when we look at our own lives, there is something wrong with us if we don't want to say, "No!" to much of what we see.

The perpetual diet of sweet "inspirational" images and text-bites on social media reveals a less than healthy church. A church which wants to say "Yes" all the time isn't actually saying "Yes" to Jesus, because he requires us to say "No" rather frequently. Grace-talk, love-talk, joy-talk, Spirit-talk, forgiveness-talk - "Christian" talk that is never negative is not really fully Christian at all. We are slipping away from the gospel, and all our fluffy kittens and sunlit scenes seem only to show how determined we are not to go back to it. We badly need to re-embrace the negative, to re-learn to say No, and so to enjoy God's real, realistic, refreshing grace in all its genuine fullness.

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