Wednesday, 31 December 2014

New Year, Hope and Colossians 1

New Year's resolutions are funny things, with varying motivations. Some say they are pointless, but I'd say the turn of the year is as good an opportunity as any to think about where you've been and where you are going.

Resolutions are usually made with the hope that they'll be carried through, maybe that our luck or circumstances will change. Often they are about us. But how often do you make resolutions about someone else and how you'll treat them?

In Colossians 1, Paul writes:

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel

So he sees in a church he hasn't visited (he has heard about their faith but not seen it himself, verse 4) that they have faith in Christ, and love for all the saints (those set apart, i.e. all believers, not just the ones canonised by the Catholic Church). This love for others is because of "the hope laid up for you in heaven".

The Colossian Christians are other centred because of a heavenly hope. It isn't a hope of going to heaven but a hope laid up there, like the money saved in a bank account for retirement - it will one day be drawn upon. Hope of heaven isn't about a place to go to when we die, but a future reality on Earth, and it motivates Christians to faith in Christ and love to each other (and to those beyond the walls of the church - but that's a topic for another time).

As I think about my New Year resolutions, they do of course concern me and what I can do, but if they aren't ultimately about love I can show others, then they are of little value. That isn't to say self improvement or care aren't valid things to do, but they are all the more valuable when they are outward focused. Of course, to be able to do that, you need hope that it is all of value in the end. A hope stored in heaven.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Colossian 1:1 grace and peace

From the corners of my memory, I recall that Paul's standard greeting in his letters is an transformation of typical Greco-Roman letter greeting, greetings. Paul isn't simply saying, hey there Colossians, how's it goin'?

A blog post I came across discusses Paul's actual greeting with an interesting twist. The phrase is usually translated as "grace and peace to you" but in the Greek it is literally "grace to you and peace." Theologian Gordon Fee thinks this is significant.

Grace is unmerited favour. Paul elsewhere says that salvation is by grace as a gift, and not earned (Eph 2:8-10). Paul constantly reminds his readers (and us) and being saved (in all of its significance) is about free gift. It is as Miroslav Volf says, Free of Charge. Grace is giving freely, being gracious and not just doing gracious things. Christ's grace reminds us of our own need to be gracious, as well as grateful for the grace extended to us.

Bonhoeffer reminds us that grace is not cheap, even though it is free. Grace brings with it the call to sin no more, and the means by which this might happen. Amazing Grace might be a very oversung hymn, but it is an inexhaustible concept.

For Fee, Paul is saying that peace comes after grace, it is a consequence of it. Elsewhere, Paul says that peace is a result of being justified by faith (Rm 5:1). The implication is that without this, there is no peace. Romans 5:10 says that those apart from this faith are enemies. Grace makes enemies into friends of God (Jn 15:9-17). This is why we are to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Mt 5:43-48).

The Greek word picks up on the Hebrew idea of Shalom. Peace is something that encompasses  all of life. For example, in Leviticus 26:6, peace means freedom from enemies and wild beasts - an agricultural paradise in an age well before people were more willing or able to live along side wild animals. That this peace comes from God reminds us that the material and spiritual are not meant to be separated - ultimate peace is all encompassing.

Finally, peace with God is not merely rational, not fully understandable and transcends our understanding. A sense of peace is not merely a "warm fuzzy", but that which keeps our intellect and affections in Christ.

May your day be filled with grace, and peace.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Colossians 1:1 Paul the apostle

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, (NASB)

I wanted to start a series on Colossians. It's a relatively short book, and a valuable one. I'm going to step through it slowly, and as practical and reflectively as possible.

It begins with an indentification of its author, and I'm reminded of NT Wright's comments that the Pauline corpus is small enough not to have to argue that Colossians is Pauline simply because some of the vocab is unique. 

Firstly then, Paul is an apostle or sent one of Christ by God's will. Paul has a divine calling to this role. As a representative of Christ, he carries an authority unlike anyone else. To live in an apostolic tradition is not so much about some sense of apostolic succession, but the carrying forward, teaching and living out of the message given from Christ, by Paul. 

It's worth thinking about the idea of apostolic authority then. Postmoderns rankle at the thought of authority, but when it is from God we must accept it. Note that a particular interpretation of Paul might not have the same authority as Paul himself (his comes from God, ours), but we are not at liberty simply to write Paul off without understanding what, why and to whom first. Hence, the present series of blogs.

Secondly, what stands out to me is the idea of the will of God. Lots is said about God's will and how it is manifest and carried out. It was God's will that Paul should be an apostle. Elsewhere (Rm 1 for example) Paul identifies apostleship as his calling. In a sense it was an imposition; Paul was an enemy of the church. On the other hand, as one schooled in the law of Israel, he was ideal for the task.

Everyone has a calling, and we can identify them as valid (testing the spirits) to the extent that they are under apostolic authority. Everyone's will be unique; they may be at 90 degrees to the direction we thought we were taking, but they may also suit us perfectly.

Finally, Paul very often began letters by acknowledging those with him, in this case Timothy. Even one called to such authority (which was ultimately service not lording it over) worked as part of a team. We've seen time and time again, men in leadership fall because they thought themselves above those around them. Paul didn't do this, so neither should we.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Jesus, love and friendship

1“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (NRSV)

Last post I looked at the idea that we are friends of Jesus, not simply his slaves or servants, and that this should shape how we view everything about our "relationship with God". This is not an overly sentimentalised view, nor entirely egalitarian, yet nonetheless intimate. We are the ones possessing knowledge of the purposes of God.

The practical outworking of this is that friendship of Jesus means that friendship with others is our goal. Not just the casual, entertainment or shared interest types of friendships (not that they are bad things in of themselves), but deep friendships. Here, Jesus weaves friendship (philous), i.e. those with whom we share brotherly love (philia) and agape, that love God shows and we are to share.

We are to have agape for each other just as Jesus had agape for them, in his time with them and in dying for them on the cross - and hence by extention to those whom Jesus has also died for (theology warning: issues about election here!). 

And how do people identify those who belong to Jesus (as opposed to how one becomes one who belongs to Jesus); you love each other as friends. Agape is expressed in the context of philia (so probably making too big a distinction between these words isn't helpful).

At the very least, Christians should have some deep friendships with other Christians. Love is shown to all to be sure, but just as the 12 had each other, it is helpful to have close Christian friendships, not just as a means to greater holiness of character, but as an end in itself, a reflection of Christ's love, and indeed the inner life of the trinity.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

God is friendship

I've recently been reading a book by a friend, Dr Brian Edgar entitled God is Friendship. I want to start a series of reflections on this idea.

In John 15, Jesus says:

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (NRSV)

Jesus does not call his disciples servants (or slaves, doulous) any longer, instead he makes everything that God is telling Jesus known to them. There are no secrets - even if they didn't understand all of it at the time. Remember, as a farewell discourse, he is preparing them for life without him face to face.

The idea of being friends with Jesus can be hard to swallow. For some, it is "Jesus my girlfriend" as captured by too many over sentimental choruses, yet the disciples were Jesus friends because of his revelation, and the believer by extension as well (since we have the same revelation only written down).

Some argue that friendship is too egalitarian and that it brings Jesus too far down to our level. I'd have thought that was the whole point of the incarnation. But that aside, Jesus chose the disciples and not vice versa (all arguments about predestination aside, it is a historical fact here of his choosing them).

So at the very least, let's understand our standing of Jesus not merely as one of obligation or obedience (though the latter is true, the former probably not the best way of putting it) but of brotherly love (philia). This is, as Edgar says, a powerful corrective to the tendency of some of us to fall into a sense of duty, when there is so much more to express and experience as friends of Jesus.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The revolutionary Lord's prayer

Christianity is often seen as or hoped to be about prayers and ceremony. So when we see that Christians being arrested is the new black, what do we make of it?

One of my friends was arrested for praying in Scott Morrison's office, praying for him to change his mind on his heartless and ungodly policy of locking up children in gulag like conditions with scant regard for their dignity, let alone international law, and prayer for those children.

Another friend of mine was arrested at Maules Creek, opposing a mine that has little popular support among locals, farmers, indigenous Australians, doctors, nurses and religious leaders. It is destructive of the local environment, and via climate change of the entire globe.

I want to suggest that these and many other actions, not just private prayers and confessions but public acts of protest against issues of ethical, political and economic concern are all mandated (after careful thought about the issues themselves) by the Lord's Prayer.

I want to go through it slowly in a series of posts - but we need to think before praying this for ourselves that it is in part answered already.

The Father of the only son has shared this prayer to those who believed in his name and were made children of God (John 1:12). The kingdom has come as Jesus was crucified: dressed as a king and mocked by Roman soldiers, interrogated as king by Pilate and crucified with the title of 'king of the Jews' above him. In Romans 1 Paul makes it clear that what was said in mockery was ironically true, proved by the resurrection.

Jesus is our daily bread, the bread of life (not ignoring the fact that we need physical sustenance). Ironically too - his did the Father's will so that he was not immediately delivered from evil but handed over to be crucified so that evil may be defeated.

And yet the evil we see and the times of trial we face tell us this prayer is still to be prayed. And that will be the subject of another post.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Things, can only get better ... Genesis 5

For some reason, when reading this passage I had the song "Things can only get better" in my head. Genesis 5 is an odd passage. I once knew someone I was working with comment on the ages in Genesis 5 as "missing the decimal point". I find the ages hard to square with what we know about human history, and it is not unusual for other Ancient Near Eastern texts to speak of such long lives. But all arguments aside (this is a devotional blog), what are we supposed to learn from this?

Firstly, the author re-iterates in verses 1-2 that humans are not merely an evolutionary accident, but created in the image of God - all human beings. In a manner typical of the era, the names of the fathers are mentioned. Seth is the image and likeness of his father just as Adam (and Eve) are the image and likeness of God. The message is, it still passes down, even if marred by Adam and Eve's actions. All people bear this stamp, and it runs down Adam's line.

It is also obvious that the greater the distance from the garden in time, the more the loss of access to the tree of life is manifest. Regardless of what you think about the factual nature of the ages, it shows the growth of corruption and decay that is discussed elsewhere in this passage, be it Lamech's attitude to violence, Babel or the comments made before the flood. Things don't look like they are getting better.

Today we seem to do violence more efficiently, it is still pervasive in society (Hollywood bears some of the blame) and we've seen enough shocking events - from the Holocaust to firebombing Dresden and Tokyo, Agent Orange, death camps, gulags and drones (to name but a few) to show that progress isn't always (often) moral. This might overlook many positive benefits which I don't want to downplay, but we need to recognise genuine evil when we see it.

So where is the progress in this passage? Like all of the biblical genealogies, it's at the end with Noah. He would bring rest from toiling with the cursed ground (for those in an agricultural society, this would have spoken very loud, for us in cities it is much more muted - but wait for climate change to ramp up further). Noah's story follows soon.

But this makes me think about other genealogies, like that in Luke 3 that follows Jesus back to Adam. Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians) who fulfills all that image is meant to be. In doing so, in him, things can only get better.