A Tale of Two Cities

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, wrote Dickens. Classic opening lines set the tone of his well-known novel which portrays two distinctively different stories being told and lived in two different cities.  

These lines resounded in my mind in May 2018 over the results of the Irish referendum on abortion. As we watched, global cities join in the jubilation in what seemed to them to be ‘the best of times’, celebration that thronged the streets in Dublin city – we, with friends in Belfast city watched with sadness, concern and incredulity. A moment in history, divided by two very different stories. 

Dublin city, London city, Belfast city. The stories told in and over the abortion issue in these cities have been questionably intertangled in the past few months. This summer we have seen Belfast city, without any executive government, stand in the middle of a story around abortion and the redefinition of marriage.

But, this is not a fictional story. We in Northern Ireland are standing at a precipice moment in history. A juncture in our country’s story. We look to a vacant Stormont and ask…who will write the next chapter of this story? How will it end?

As people of faith, our hope defaults to another city, as we ‘wait for the city that is to come’. We embrace and identify our citizenship as belonging to another Kingdom - but we inhabit a time and place, we walk in the here and now.

We must live and tell our tale of two cities – in this given moment. Because of our dual citizenship, it is we who must write the next chapter, it is we who must influence how our nation’s story is shaped – we, as image bearers, culture makers and good news people – we tell the more beautiful story - in this moment.

The gospel is a public truth.

The gospel is a public announcement, about a person – Jesus Christ and his status. The earliest credal statement of faith known is ‘Jesus is Lord’. To declare that Jesus is Lord, effectively declares that Caesar is not. Jesus is Lord, not only of heaven, but of heaven and earth. He is Lord in this moment.

Luke plants Jesus’ entrance into the public sphere – ‘in the days of Caesar’, asserting that in the days of ‘the lord’ (Caesar) – came The Lord, (Luke 2.1). Jesus’ crucifixion and defeat over the spiritual forces, over sin and death was a public event and a public display of divine force and triumph, (Col2.14-15). Two very different tales were being told in the city of Jerusalem in that moment.

While the gospel affects those who believe at a deeply personal level, we resist the secular story that our faith is private and personal. We believe this truth in our hearts – yes, but we also confess with our mouths (Rom 10.9) and resist the temptation to domesticate the message and impact of our good news story. We are salt to the earth and light to the world – and so the ‘old old story’ must be told publicly and powerfully and let loose in all corners of the public square so that it’s full nature as a public truth, a true story for all parts of society, can be fulfilled.

The church is a public gathering, in the context of the public square.

Just as we resist the privitisation of the gospel, we hold fast to the recognition that the church is a public gathering. Ekklesia means ‘public assembly’, which excludes the notion that the church is a private community focused solely on salvation in another realm.

Our corporate ‘ekklesia’ identity is essentially missional. Under another lord – THE Lord and His Kingdom rule, we model and teach a new way to live as a community, as critical participants in our wider society – for the sake of our wider society. JB Philips wrote, “Paul and the early Christians were on fire with the conviction that they had become in Christ literally sons of god, pioneers of a new humanity, founders of a new kingdom.”

We exist for “the praise of His glory” (Eph1.6,12,15) Glory (kabod) literally means weight. The Church exists to make the sheer weight of His character and His deeds known in the public sphere. Peterson writes, “If we are going to live as intended, which is to the glory of God, we cannot do it abstractly or generally. We have to do it under the particularizing conditions in which God works, namely time and place, here and now.”

At this precipice moment in our country’s history – our here, our now - the Church must proclaim the good news story into these issues with words and voice – but also demonstrate and embody the better story in deed and community. The story will only be understood to be better and more beautiful when our words are congruous to our community life. Can the Church say no to abortion, without facilitating a way of flourishing for the family with disabled child or the mother in pregnancy crisis? Disembodied words are dangerous, as they render us no more than a noisy gong or clanging symbol to a hurting world. (1 Cor13.1)

We live out the cultural mandate

Our story as good news people, good news communities under Christ THE Lord, is shaped by God’s full story – from creation to new creation. The gospel does not exist in a vacuum, but takes root in real place, real lives, real issues in society. Our story began even before God declared His creation was ‘good’, and gave human beings, His image bearers, the responsibility of sustaining, tending, renewing, protecting His creation, here and now.

In our fallen world shaped by fallen stories – now, at this point in our country’s story around abortion and marriage, it is vital that God’s redeemed image bearers seek the welfare of the city, speak and live the good news story in this moment, to protect and sustain the sacred gift of unborn life in the place we inhabit. Our story is not merely opposed to abortion, it is for the protection and flourishing of all human life, and we speak and act in both directions, creating other options.

Pray, Lament and Repent.

We pray for our country for our city. We pray over empty government offices. We identify as exiles and aliens here, and pray for the peace and prosperity of the city (Jer 29.7). We pray His “Kingdom come and His will be done on earth, just as it is in heaven” (Matt 6.10) and we make these prayers specific into the current issues of this time and place, these cities, these towns, streets, homes – here, now, this moment. 

Jesus Himself stood over His city, in His time and place – and wept. (Luke 19.41). Knowing Jerusalem’s past stories under God’s favour and knowing the future story of the new Jerusalem, Jesus looks down on the stories within His city and Jesus wept.

He wept for the people’s resistance to shalom, denial of God’s way of life, for and for the consequences that lay ahead (Luke 13.34). The overwhelming, boundless love of God for His world, for its people, its cities – this city – overflows in the God-man. As we look over and pray for our place, in our time, as we look ahead to our heavenly city, where tears, death, mourning and pain will cease – we pause - groan, with all creation – and let out a cry of lament, in this moment.

As people of faith, our lament leads us to repent – to change our way of thinking and acting. We confess our ambivalence and absence in the shaping of our society, and our complicity and conformity to culture. We choose to respond individually and corporately to the good news story, to be transformed in community and to be catalysts of transformation in the spaces we inhabit.

Evangelical Alliance are here to resource and equip you, the Church to tell this better, more beautiful story. We want to empower a united Church as together we proclaim the story with passion and confidence, together we live out the story in mission and witness – here and now – in this time, this place – in this precipice moment.

We are here for you – please contact us, to explore how we can help you to tell this story in your city, town, community – and let us know how you are telling the good news story on your patch.