Presbyterians, Salvation, and God

We cremated my friend James on the freakishly warm Friday before St Patrick’s Day, between the two bouts of even freakier snow. We did this after a celebration of the Supper of the Lord Jesus Christ who was his Saviour and the anchor of his life. The daffodils bobbed in the sunshine as we took his coffin through the traffic from the church in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral to the crematorium in East Finchley, his terminus ad quem before his voyage to heaven. As an Angus-born and Edinburgh-reared son of the Kirk, he came to mind after this week’s shenanigans at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast.

James lived with MS for thirty years, something unimaginable when he was first diagnosed in the late 1980s. His continued life was a miracle, but it was also a struggle. I never knew the wordsmith, cyclist and cook that his older friends wrote about (movingly here and here). By the time I met him, sixteen years ago, his disease had robbed his legs of the power to walk, left his hands unable to handle a pen or a carving knife, and made his speech slurred and slow.

What he was never robbed of was his indomitable spirit, his twinkly smiling eyes, or his dry humour. Nor did MS prevent him throwing the legendary champagne-soaked parties in his Barbican flat, attended by a mix of characters who had little in common but their friendship with this delightful bon vivant: nonagenarian grand dames from Islington garden square mansions would rub shoulders with middle-aged actors struggling long past any hope of stardom and recently arrived twenty-somethings from Doncaster or Brazil, penniless but sure they’d make their fortune in London.

I never heard him complain about his lot: at most he would sigh wistfully that people should avoid getting MS if they could, not that they can. In that I saw a shadow of the boy, many decades before, whose father died when he was only nine, who then had to grow into a man far too soon and just get on with it.

When his disease had already quite seriously progressed, he met Michael, and they fell in love, and eventually they tied the knot. By that stage he needed a power chair to even get around the flat. Both knew their lives together would be spent in sickness rather than in health, in worse much more than better, and that death would part them sooner rather than later.

Despite all this, and despite the rather low calorie blessing their vicar was able to offer after their civil partnership thanks to the ‘guidelines’ of the Church of England, neither James or Michael ever quavered in their faith in Christ. James’ was a faith practised in worship, every Sunday morning for decades spent in his beloved St Vedast’s, a little jewel of Sir Christopher Wren’s. It was also a Biblical faith – Isaiah’s prophecy that swords would be beaten into ploughshares inspired him to join CND (we didn’t see entirely eye to eye on that), the brutal torture and execution of God-made-man in Christ saw him become a generous supporter of Amnesty.

‘A credible profession of faith’. The alleged inability of people in same-sex couples to provide such a profession is the reason why they have been barred from membership in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and forbidden its sacraments.

Unbelievably, their children will also be barred from baptism: “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”. (Deuteronomy 5:9) But forget the idea that the Presbyterian Assembly’s God is an Old Testament one. This version has not yet reached the moral revolution impelled by the Babylonian exile. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father”: Ezekiel’s prophecy of 2,600 years ago seems to be too inclusive for today’s holy saved Christians.

“Let them dissolve into snail slime, be a miscarried foetus that never sees sunlight.” The 58th Psalm’s angry denunciation of the corrupt powerful, a rare example of modern translations showing more power than the Authorised Version, matched my mood yesterday. And so did Christ: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.”

The damnable path that led to this week’s banishing of children for the sins of their parents is well worn: the brutal hacksawing of a few verses out of their scriptural context to justify the most unChristlike of behaviour.

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear.” “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” “His blood be on us, and on our children.”

Monsters from the conquistadors to the torture chamber operators of apartheid South Africa have assured themselves that they were only obeying The Bible.

God’s revelation in Scripture is a gift and like all gifts it can be abused. It is too easy to see it as a weapon to attack others rather than as a mirror to confront oneself. Those who beat their breasts as ‘saved Christians’ the better to damn others should remember that “not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” and that “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.”

It is tempting to match them verse for verse. Yet my salvation is not dependent on my goodness, still less on the correctness of my interpretation of Scripture, and least of all anyone else’s assessment of my sincerity. Nor is anyone else’s. For me, I trust only in the cross of Christ, and whether or not the General Assembly considers that credible is an irrelevance.

Those who abuse Scripture to set themselves up as God’s personal hitmen will be confronted with the same at their day of judgement: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” They will have to confront their failure to live up to the standards they demanded of others, face to face with the God whose wrath and love, judgement and forgiveness, all far exceed our capacity to understand. What would they do if God just laughed at them?

God always has the last laugh. James, his smile twinkling down from heaven, knows that already.

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