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  • Ross Moughtin

To have your cake - and eat it

Every so often a verse from the Bible jumps at you to challenge us to think afresh about how we are to follow Jesus. Well, for the last week or so I have been carrying around Mark 14:21. It’s one of those verses which I have read many times and simply passed over, not really giving it a second thought. Until now. We are at the last supper and Jesus has just shocked his disciples to the core as he reveals that one of them is about to betray him. They can’t believe it. “It is one of the Twelve,” Jesus insists, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me.” Then he tells them: “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Mark 14:21) I’ve being going through the passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel as part of my daily Bible reading through BRF Guidelines and the contributor quotes an American New Testament scholar, James Edwards, regarding this verse. He argues that “it is one of the most suggestive sentences in scripture on the relationship between divine causality and human responsibility." And he’s right. A key theme for Mark, in fact the whole of the Bible, is that God is in control, both his hands are on the wheel. So Jesus in his ministry, in his sacrificial death, is fulfilling scripture. Fundamentally the cross was not an unforeseen disaster but at the very heart of God’s purpose for his entire creation. And Jesus knew this all along. As Edwards says in his commentary on Mark: “Jesus is not a tragic hero caught in events beyond his control. There is no hint of desperation, fear, anger, or futility on his part.” He continues: “Jesus does not cower or retreat as plots are hatched against him. He displays, as he has throughout the Gospel, a sovereign freedom and authority to follow a course he has freely chosen in accordance with God’s plan.” However, at the same time Judas as he chooses to betray Jesus is morally culpable. It is his free decision and as Jesus explains, he is fully accountable for his actions. Again as Edwards explains: “Judas is thus not a victim of circumstances or a pawn dominated by greater forces. He is a sovereign moral agent who freely chooses evil in ‘handing Jesus over.’” So here we have two irreconcilable principles: God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Clearly scripture teaches both, even though formally they are contradictory. For the simple reason that is how it is. Thinking two opposite thoughts at the same time is not just limited to scripture. We see this in the tension, for example, in physics – not that I understand this (no one can). But for example, it seems that light can be understood as both wave and particle. There are different sets of mathematics to describe each of them but not both at the same time. But that is how it is, whether we like it or not. And so over the centuries theologians, in fact ordinary Christians, have struggled with the tension between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. As it happens I am currently reading Peter Ackroyd’s book on the Civil War and amazed to see how the parliamentarians and the royalist parties clashed over theology. Members of the House of Commons held on to Calvinism which prioritised God’s sovereignty while the royalists believed in Arminianism which emphasised human responsibility. But the point of Mark 14:21 (and this is of huge importance) is that Jesus taught both. So Edwards explains that we see "the two essential truths of Jesus’ passion: the freely chosen evil of humanity, and the overarching providence of God. Divine grace uses even human evil for its saving purposes." We just have to take it as read, in the words of Edwards, that God can ‘superintend’ events so that our actions are both fully our own and ‘meant’ by God as part of a bigger purpose to bring about his goals. So God can use the betrayal of Judas and the desertion of the disciples in his sovereign plan which is fulfilled at the cross of Jesus. For the basic is that God is in control. We do not live in some Manichean universe where God and the devil are battling it out, each fighting to get the upper hand. We can confidently rely on God to keep his promises – that is the essence of Christian discipleship. So God fulfils his promises through Jesus “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:20) Therein lies our security and our hope. But at the same time Jesus challenges us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). That’s a free choice, sometimes very difficult – but a decision which counts. We can’t sidestep or subcontract. We need to decide and our decision is real. Very simply the reality is that we can have it both ways. To quote our prime minister we can have our cake and eat it: security in Christ and being genuinely ourselves. And more, to know like those first disciples, God can even use our weaknesses, even those times when we wilfully disobey him, even for his good purposes. #responsiblity #sovereignty #cross #decision

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