Monday, 2 September 2013

Psalm 1 and two ways to live

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish. (NASB)

I've studied this Psalm both in biblical counseling but also in a course in OT wisdom literature, and it is one I often come back to when pondering my own sinfulness and wanting to reorient myself.

It's split in half, considering the role of the wicked. This might seem rather black and white to some, but to the Psalmist, life is about either following the law of the Lord (Torah) or not. Being bible based has a long history in both Jewish and Christian communities. All complexities of interpretation vanish from view here, it is about fundamental orientation in life.

The three-fold walk, stand, sit in verse one cautions us against pulling it apart too much, all of life is to be about avoiding bad advice and counsel and soaking ourselves in the bible (v2). Avoid wicked advice, sinful habits and scoffing at the righteous. Discernment in what is right and what is self-righteous and legalistic is important, and this will result from a daily, deep reflection on the law, prophets, gospels and epistles as we seek the whole counsel of God.

This Psalm is wisdom literature in that it tells us what should be, but isn't always. Meditating on the bible waters us like a tree in the desert, and we do not wither, but don't always prosper. Indeed to be watered by God is to be withered by the world at times. The perishing of the wicked shifts into the future; no blessing without judgement it seems. Yet grace abounds, be wary to call for someones perishing when God wants them to prosper.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

When is good, good enough to speak

This post has been in my head for ages, in fact this kind of issue is always on my mind given I dare to speak in churches, at conferences and so on.

I posted this on my Facebook a while back. The response of a friend was to tell me (actually I knew by wasn't reflecting on the fact at the time) that MLK Jr had been an adulterer. It made me reflect upon a couple of passages I'd heard in sermons on 1 Peter. In particular chapter 4 (NASB)

15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?

This also brings with it echoes of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians about being saved but through fire, with works not based on the gospel being burnt up.

It raises a few issues I'll briefly summarise.

  1. How sinful is too sinful to be useful? For example, was MLK Jr's entire ministry undone to his adultery? More pointedly, what about you or my own sin? What disqualifies us from being of value, particularly in leadership roles?
  2. Given we all sin and fall short of God's glory, and Paul says elsewhere (2 Cor 4:7) that the gospel is a treasure in a jay of clay, then obviously sinless perfectionism is not the goal before we speak or act (but is the goal)
  3. Don't be paranoid, be assured of salvation and faithful. And be confident in your gifting by the Spirit.
  4. Being tempted is not the same as falling, though thinking and doing are equated, doing is full blown sin
  5. The tongue is particularly damaging (see much of James), so keeping a reign on that will avoid undercutting your ministry.
I think in particular we can't simply retreat into quietism and our own inner spiritual lives. I was once pulled up for having said something stupid (what's new say my friends) and then commenting on something I equated as empire. I was told 'empires come and go but you should ....'. But it can't be an either/or, but a both and. Keep my tongue in check and call out empire, for the gospel confronts all empires, from the ones I build in my own life to those of corporations and companies.

So back to the starting image. Although MLK Jr should have kept his own lusts in check, and adultery destroys lives, his comments on militarism and spiritual death are still true today with interventions, drones and spying on a countries own citizens as it was during the Vietnam warm with agent orange,  napalm and the very war itself.

So to my own thoughts, words and actions I tend. But do they silence my tongue in public? By no means!

Monday, 1 July 2013


After various discussions on 1 Peter 4:1-6 and how sanctification works, a friend shared this quote from Martin Luther which was too good not to pass on:

"This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness,
not health but healing,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise. 
We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. 
The process is not finished, but is going on. 
This is not the end, but it is the road.
 All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified."

in Defense and Explanation of all the Articles, Second Article 

Friday, 28 June 2013

Arming yourself in the Spirit - 1 Peter 4:1-6

1 Peter 4:1-6 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. ESV

Thinking about this passage it looks on the face of it that Christians are an awfully judgmental lot. Peter condemns the life of Gentiles as being debauched (a word not much in use these days). It is a lifestyle of extremes under display. That said, Australia is a culture not ignorant of binge drinking, alcoholism and associated violence. My own city of Melbourne has had big issues with glassings, etc following drinking. Note this isn't a judgment against the consumption of alcohol as such.

But to the point, Peter exhorts us to arm ourselves with the same thinking as Christ; be prepared to suffer for not following the deeds of others. A good look at Jesus shows a man who hung around with prostitutes but did not buy their services (today no doubt he'd surf the net without looking at porn), drunk wine but didn't end up vomiting in the street (I see dried vomit often near my work) or go belt someone up, and eat without pigging out excessively. Purity yes, self-righteousness or hyper spirituality no.

So to suffer for wanting not to do evil and to do good can be to cop flack for being a prude even when you are not, or to suffer your own temptations without giving into them. And how so? We can think strategically about how to avoid all sorts of sins, but if we ignore what Peter says in verse 6 about living in the Spirit, we will fall down. Thinking over the past week, there's much I could be seeking to be armed in the Spirit about instead of trying to muddle on purely by my own will or strategies. A Spirit enlivened will, reason and passions will go a long way to winning the battles we face.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Which empty?

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (NASB)

My reflection on this passage may at first seem a little tangential. It goes back to a conversation I had with someone some time ago. I was arguing that there was value in the crucifix, and not just the standard cross. Being of a Calvinist persuasion, this person wanted to avoid all hint of Catholicism and focus on the empty cross. 

There is of course good reason for this. Jesus said 'It is finished' (Jn 19:30). His atoning work, that act of taking the place of Israel and hence all of humanity on the cross, to atone for sin and 'bring us to God' is all achieved. So the symbolism of an empty cross is a body taken down because in the very act of being crucified Jesus bore the curse of sin (Gal 3:13).

But if this were the sole value of the cross - then there would be no rejoinders by Jesus (e.g. Mark 8:34) or Peter (1 Peter 2:24) to follow his example. I also take the encouragement by the writer to the Hebrews that Jesus was tempted in every way, including to revile his persecutors on the cross, but didn't. The crucifix reminds us of the suffering of Christ and his example. Those of us on the other side of the Reformation divide need to get over it.

Indeed, what about the empty tomb? The resurrection points to our future hope (1 Cor 15) and forgiveness of sins, to say nothing of Jesus as the world's true Lord (Rm 1:1-4). This is where all power and authority has been given to Jesus (Mt 28:18). Jesus doesn't simply rule the church, but the world - though this is not yet manifest and is a sacrificial ruling (unlike a good many pastors & priests in my experience).

So if we are to embrace the biblical symbols to identify the Christian community, both occupied and empty symbols are important in our reflection on Jesus, his work, our identity and mission.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Passion and warfare: reflections on 1 Peter 2:11

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. (NRSV)

I find this verse hard to move past. Mainly because it speaks to me quite deeply. We need to think carefully about what it does and doesn't mean, but the personal force of it is impossible to sidestep.

The warning is not to read this verse in a dualistic fashion. Here's how this might look

Beloved, I urge you as those in exile on earth, waiting to go to heaven, to abstain from the desires of the body that wage war against your eternal souls, bound for heaven.

The problem with flesh versus soul is that we immediately jump to physical versus spiritual. It doesn't help if you see exile in purely spiritual terms and not in social terms as Scott McKnight does - though there is no doubt we are exiles in a world where God's kingship is not clear to all. Here's another way of looking at it

Beloved, I urge you as outsiders in an ungodly world to abstain from the desires of the unregenerate part of your humanity that wage war against you.

So apart from the sociopolitical comments (see a couple of posts ago), it isn't about things of the body versus spiritual matters, but that part of us that isn't transformed versus who we are to be. To be sure, the word for flesh is used to describe our material bits at times, but the Greek word soma is used more for that than the word sarx (of form of which is used here). In other words, it isn't the body, the physical stuff which is somehow evil, but the desires unchecked, passions at war with our true identities. Soul is most often used in the Old Testament to mean the whole person. Sometimes in the New Testament, Paul will use soulish as opposite to spiritual, but we can't always use Paul to interpret Peter.

So given that is cleared up, it is clear that our desires can war against us. There is real struggle, real angst, real frustration and often a real sense of defeat. But of course we know in Christ that while the battle rages, the war has been won. 

We are called to abstain. Now abstinence is not a popular idea in today's world - probably a topic for another time. Think about voting. If you abstain, you refuse to vote. You refuse to countenance what is being raised. In abstaining, we refuse to give credence to fleshly desires, refuse to acknowledge their validity. We step outside of that world and not take part. 

This is easier said than done when so much of this is internal, within us and not merely without. This is why it is a spiritual thing - why we need the Holy Spirit to help us discipline ourselves, hence prayer, fasting(?), bible reading, etc. Once that battle has started, we are equipped for the external factors - changing friendships, web filters, whatever can act as an external aid to avoid temptations. I feel some reflections on the full armour of God coming on, but another time.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Subversive honour: reflections on 1 Peter 2:13-17

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (NASB)

Hearing a sermon on this was kind of interesting. On the one hand, there was some excellent historical background on Nero, persecution, etc. And then there is, how the heck do we apply all of this??

The previous passage and my last post made it clear that in being Christian, one could end up doing things that were considered evil yet were really good deeds that could lead to people glorifying God. Included in this was not worshiping Caesar as divine, or any of the other Gods. This meant accusations of atheism and treason. It meant not holding offices, not serving in the army, hard to take part in the local economy, social exclusion, and so on. So clearly to be a Christian in that context was to be deeply subversive and counter cultural. Now that isn't simply a matter of dressing badly and calling each other bro.

Interestingly, Pliny as a governor was not punishing evildoers when trying people for being Christians (see his letter to Trajan and the response), not in the sense in which we'd understand evil. So is there a double play happening? Evil could be slander and not real evil in verse 12, and hence verse 14 could be ironic, whereas Peter says don't commit real evil in verse 16.

Note too that everyone is to receive honour in verse 17, but only God is to be feared or reverenced, i.e. worshiped as God. Yet Caesar demanded this too! So our honour is subversive, as I think it is in Romans 13. There is a real contrast between the kind of honour to be given to an oppressive regime and the community life in the body of Christ (Romans 12). Understand too that the language of body was also used by the Romans with Caesar at its head. Our head is Christ. We are a polis (city) on a hill, and therefore a new body politic.

Jesus made it clear that non-violence was deeply subversive of such authority while seeming to honour it. As both Walter Wink and Tom Wright have pointed out - being struck on the right cheek was done with a demeaning backhander. Turning the left said 'hit me again as an equal'. Taking a burden a second mile meant potentially getting the Roman soldier who could command such a task into trouble. You were being too helpful. Getting sued for your outer garment and then handing them your undergarment too and walking out of court naked was an outrageous thing to do. Maybe hyperbola, pointing to a way of thinking. Resist, but do so honourably and non-violently.

So given all of this, how do we honour so much that is ungodly (yet thank God not yet violent as in other parts of the world) while subverting it? How do we honour our politicians if we despise their policies? Be patriotic while not being nationalistic? Love our footy team without being fanatical? Buy and sell goods while not being materialistic or contribute overly to a system destructive of lives and creation? 

One thing I think we should avoid in this country is the kind of anti-government paranoia seen in other places like the US. Governments do good things, even if often badly. Certainly the system is broken and we don't look to better government for salvation; but a working democracy is the best of bad systems. It just seems to me that there isn't a lot of good really in view here in 1 Peter.

So then, I think that our rhetoric and our behaviour must be honouring and affirming yet critical where need be. Pulpits can be respectful while prophetic. Respectful disagreement must mark us out - sometimes vocal and sometimes passively in our workplaces, in the public sphere, in our relationships. Whether we are really free or under some real compulsion (one can have a bad boss but not actually be a slave), we are to honour all, even self-deluded leaders. Love of the agape kind is for our brothers and sisters who are part of the City on a Hill (not just the church of the name but all believers), and fear is only to be of God.

Ok, so the quick tips:

  1. If you end up having to do something above and beyond the call of duty at work, or are being taken advantage of in a relationship, you might want to say so in not so many words, and let them know as a Christian you are doing this.
  2. You have to pay taxes, even if they go to somethings you don't agree with. For example, overseas aid money is being diverted to offshore processing. I find this abhorrent myself, so I pay my taxes but join various forms of protest about this.
  3. When you are being punished as an evildoer simply for being a Christian, you may have opportunity to protest. Take it, but do so honourably. Paul is a good example of this during his persecution which eventually led him to Rome (and probably release the first time). If a colleague has a complaint, you still need to honour them while trying to resolve the issue.
You get the idea. Expect problems. Don't welcome them for themselves, or bring them upon yourself for genuine sins. But when they come for being faithful, in an odd sort of way it's a comforting thing.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Excellence in behaviour - reflections on 1 Peter 2

"The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle." - Brennan Manning

 "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." - Mahatama Gandhi

"Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation." - 1 Peter 2:11-12

After the most recent sermon at City on a Hill, I've been pondering these two verses as I think about leading two different study groups.

Scott McKnight in his commentary points out that they readers of this book may have been people who lacked Roman citizenship, and hence really were aliens and strangers in their context, lacking the rights the citizens did. But what is more, their identification with the Messiah marginalized them even more.

Now there was much in the ancient world that was considered normal that was ungodly. Imagine if you had to offer incense to the emperor as divine before going into the market, or worship him as divine in allegiance to serve in the army or as a public official, or worship some patron deity to be part of some artisan's guild? What if not worshiping these other gods got you labelled as an atheist? Or calling fellow Christians brother and sister made you guilty of incest? If taking part in the Lord's Supper made you a cannibal, eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood? Perhaps being faithful to your wife and not taking a male or female sexual partner outside of marriage made you a prude?

In other words, there were things that Christians did that saw them as being evil in the sight of broader culture, yet were in the end good things. Of course the New Testament is replete with examples where the church was involved in fleshly lusts; 1 Corinthians is full of them.

But I want to focus on modern examples of where we might go against the grain, and how to make sure the accusations we suffer as evildoers are for making well based judgment calls on moral issues without making 'tools' of ourselves in the process.

Take ANZAC Day for example. The day we honour those who died in war. What do we make of it? In one corner we have the popularist, militarist, modern civic religion that it forms part of with the Mecca of ANZAC cove. In the other extreme with have the howls of patriarchy, hierarchy, etc. In the middle we need the recognition of bravery, mourning of loss and attitude of never again. We need to proclaim the Prince of Peace even when pragmatism tells us and on occasion demands the lesser of evils [as a side note I'm not a full-blown pacifist, but killing is killing is not an ultimate good]. Perhaps one of the hardest roles in this context is military chaplain, one who tends the spiritual and emotional needs of those damaged by the horrors of armed conflict, and upholds the ultimate peace through death on a cross.

A second example is the rampant sexualisation of culture. From looks that are too long and too searching, to porn, to endorsing sexism - there are plenty of ways in which Christian men can satisfy or deny fleshly lusts, and in the end be seen as an evil doer, a prude. Yet hopefully too seen as upright, embracing the physical and sexual (just our wives) in positive ways, and speaking out more broadly when needed. I once posted against the Lingerie Football League online. Not sure how I was perceived by some, but deep down such a 'sport' deeply objectifies women, and you'd hope such a stance stands out as a good deed.

Finally, there is work. Men are expected to hold down good jobs, be good at them and work hard and long. Yet what of family, wife and kids? What of the fact that money and success are idols? That global capitalism (and yes Marxism too, but we live in Australia so...) is responsible for slavery, environmental degradation and the destruction of community as we work longer, harder, faster, etc. Jobs are good, making things people need is good, being warm and fed is good. But clearly things in the West have moved beyond that. If you have a nanny, a gardener, a cleaner and often eat out - things are broken. Try leaving early or taking time off for sick kids in some work places. Try working part time - it will affect which projects you get given. Maybe what you have your Super invested in or what sort of work your company does needs scrutiny? Or how people get ahead needs comment (nepotism, sleeping to the top, etc)?

So Mars, Aphrodite and Mammon are alive and well in 21st c. Australia. Our 'flesh' craves to worship them, but in resisting so and risking being called evildoers - unAustralian, unblokey, wowsers - so long as we are pursuing them in the right way, the hopefully our good characters (as opposed to self-righteousness) will shine. The goal of course is not merely personal satisfaction but witness in deed so that God might be glorified when Christ returns at his visitation - the resurrection of the dead and the renewing of all things.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Reflections in 1 Peter 1

Ok, so dropping the ball on this blog is bad since it is meant to help me read the bible. I picked John's gospel because a) I love it and b) we did it at church and c) doing it now doesn't look like trying to argue with what was preached. But I've been slack, and so since I am involved in leading two community groups at church, I thought I'd reflect here on a few things we looked at this week. The text was 1 Peter 1:1-12.

One of the major themes of 1 Peter is suffering for the faith (1:6-7), copping flack for being a Christian. In the first century, being an artisan or part of a trade guild, involving a patron god. Becoming a Christian basically meant becoming an atheist in this context, and social isolation. If we give up worshiping mammon (money) in our workplaces, or success, fame, office politics, and so on, we should expect to 'be persecuted' at our work, not to advance as far as others in our careers and so on. But given we have an imperishable inheritance, then this shouldn't be an issue (v7).

Two further things of note. Firstly, our persecutions are nothing compared to countries where unemployment, imprisonment and death are on offer. Secondly, while we can't 'take it with us' and we should be building networks and a legacy of faithful witness and loving relationships, there is nothing wrong with excelling at a job or earning money to support family and church.

One of the other things to stand out to me is when Peter says that the outcome of our faith is the salvation of our souls (v9). Now in the Hebrew mind this is not some ghostly part of us, but the whole of us as humans. My aging body, my inner being, all of it. When Peter speaks of 'revelation of Jesus Christ' (v7), he means the resurrection of the dead, so it isn't some Platonic idea of heaven but the marrying of heaven and earth. Our inheritance is kept in heaven, but just like kids don't go into the cupboard to play with their Christmas present, but have it brought out for them on Christmas day, so our inheritance will be brought to Earth to play with for eternity.

When you look in the mirror, who do you see? Do you see someone who is basically ok or someone whose soul needs saving? It may very well come through a period of suffering - but be careful to distinguish between being persecuted for the faith and suffering because of your sin and that of others. We all make out beds and lie in them, and when we wake up in the morning and see that face in the mirror, see someone who needs saving and who is being saved, and who will be saved.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Sin and washing my gi

Last night someone managed to rub their bike chain against my new white BJJ gi (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu uniform). I was annoyed to say the least. It was on the back of the pants near my backside, where the jacket would probably cover, but I'd always know it was there. Accident, but very annoying.

After spraying it with a stain remover, soaking it and then washing it, I still needed to apply some soap and elbow grease before the stains came out, and then another machine wash to rinse it through. As I was scrubbing, it came to me that just as I would never be satisfied with a gi that had a stain on it, black standing out on white - that sin spoils our character, who we are as people made in God's image. As I scrubbed I realised both the significance of the cross in erasing our sin, and the ongoing nature of scrubbing known as sanctification. It takes real effort to erase our sinful habits and inclinations, and sometimes we ourselves can't remove the consequences - there are marks always to remind us even if the stain is largely gone. We have to await the final washing, the bringing to completion of that which was begun in us; hence these two texts:

Isaiah 1:18

“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool." (NASB)

Achieved on the cross.

Philippians 1:6

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (NASB)

So start scrubbing!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A matter of trust

23 Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. 24 But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, 25 and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man. (NASB)

Billy Joel had a song (showing my age here) called A matter of trust. It's a typical love song of boy meets girl, girl has been hurt and needs boy to show he he isn't a jerk. Girl needs to trust boy. 

Today's passage is in a way something that blows apart the whole WWJD (what would Jesus do?) thing. I don't think we are called to follow Jesus precisely in this. Let's have a look why.

Jesus was doing signs - things that pointed beyond themselves to the fact he was Israel's Messiah/Christ/King and God pitching his tent with his people Israel. Of course we can do things that point towards this too - mostly our love for one another, perhaps some times signs in the form of miracles, and the way in which we love other people.

On the basis of what Jesus was doing, people believed in his name - but everything we see from the gospels shows us that this belief was very limited to Jesus as the King they wanted, rather than the king they were getting. They saw the signs but didn't see past them. It is hoped that when people look at Christians they can see beyond them to Jesus. Very often we get in the way - either because we do not reflect Jesus very much or if we do, we try and take the credit, hence people believe in our name. Neither are we to do, and in the context of this passage not really being WWJD, we should definitely not have people believe in our name.

So why did Jesus not entrust himself to people? Because he knew them. They would not understand his mission until it was done, were not prepared for a suffering Messiah, a crucified God. They were not ready. Do we entrust ourselves to people? Most certainly. Share you plans and dreams in God. Christ has come and the time for hiding is over (except perhaps in countries where persecution is rife). Yes many might think us mad (in and outside of the church) for our dreams - be they building new orphanages in Japan, publishing books on science and faith, representing Jesus in the grappling world - whatever your dream. Yes we know what is in people, but because Christ new that and let them lead him to a cross, we can and at times should entrust ourselves to others, all the more with those who might share our dreams.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Cleaning house

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; 16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. (NASB)

I've taken a while to get to this passage as I've struggled to try and keep away with overly technical issues. This blog is about trying to be devotional, or at least exegetical to think about Scripture and life, and not just the academy. This account of Jesus clearing the temple is in Mark 11, Luke 19, Matthew 21 and is clearly set in Jesus' final week, following his acclamation is Messiah (king) by the pilgrim crowds. John clearly wants us to think about this at the start of Jesus' ministry and I think it unlikely that there were two clearings. John is doing what Tarantino does in some of his movies, not always presenting things in chronological order even though he is still doing history.

Like the turning water into wine, this is all about a changing of the guard - from practices actually commanded or based upon those to practices that won't divide Jew and the rest of the world, and will do the job properly as it were. So ceremonial washing as alluded to in the wedding sign don't make ceremonially clean for all time. Likewise, sacrifices in the temple don't deal with human sin and evil for all time. Hence, the stopping of trading in sacrifices is a statement about the greater sacrifice for sin present in Jesus. And the comments about the money changers seems to relate to an abuse of the whole system - perhaps in the way in which pilgrims were ripped off for profit where they should have been allowed to do their religious duty by making sacrifices to God free from extortion.

The other aspect of course is that as in the opening passage, Jesus is God who pitches his tent amongst his people, and hence as the presence of God among his people he is the true temple. His authority is of one who is God, not merely one who speaks for God. This is what makes Christianity unique.

What this passage makes clear is that if Jesus' claims are meant to be taken seriously, he needs to have risen from the dead. Otherwise, he's another (if not strange and non-violent) first century Jewish revolutionary proclaiming a renewed Israel. The fact that he is crucified as a false pretender marks his rejection by the politico-religious elite and typically harsh treatment by the dominant empire of the day. The resurrection shows they were both wrong, and that we too if we put our religious, political or personal agendas above those of God, are also wrong. Having said that, if we read this whole thing purely in 'religious' terms, and don't see that the resurrection is world transforming, including empire challenging - our gospel is too small.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Love is like a butterfly

2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it." Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water." So they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, "Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter." So they took it to him. When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now." This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him. (NASB)

There is an 80s comedy (sometimes not so funny - more poignant, but I'm digressing already) called Butterflies. It is about a woman in a staid marriage who can never quite bring herself to become adulterously involved with another man. The title of this post is taken from the title song, but the post has nothing else to do with the show.

But I often think of this song when I think of butterflies (the woman's husband collected them as I do). Butterflies are very attractive invertebrates who start life upon hatching as caterpillars, which some people don't find at all attractive (they are after all, a mouth, an anus, a gut and legs for carrying about said eating/defecating apparatus). Now the normal cycle of butterflies and a good many other insects is to go through a total metamorphosis into something new, from caterpillar to butterfly. Now imagine if this doesn't happen? Some larvae get parasitised by wasps and never hatch. But no caterpillar decides to stay that way.

Israel were called to be God's people and a light to the other nations. There were things that marked them apart, like ritual washing. There were a lot of rules for washing, especially for priests. Purity was very important, and there was less of a distinction between sin and ritual purity that we might think of these days. This was God ordained, and people were to take this seriously, for it said much about the holy nature of God, and the less than holy nature of people. Of course these days what might have made us unclean back then now is simply a matter of hygiene. What was done then certainly marked Jews apart from others.

The key to understanding the taking of stone pots used for ritual washing and making wine in them is that in Jesus, purity is now a matter just of the heart and his atoning for sin. The outward signs were useful and God appointed in their time (and yes some by the tradition of the elders), but if something is a stage through which one passes, one doesn't linger any longer than necessary. You don't get to your holiday destination and then spend your holiday on the plane; the caterpillar is meant to become the butterfly.

So Jesus makes a great feasting, echoing parables of the great end times feast because in him, the husband of Israel spoken of in Hosea 2 is the bridegroom in Mark 2; Jesus. He celebrates with the whole village a wedding, but knows a greater wedding feast is now shown preemptively in his sign of turning water into wine (I now have Salisbury Hill by Peter Gabriel running through my head - listen to the lyrics and you'll know why).

We then want to avoid the creeping scepticism that says water can't be turned into wine - that's giving up on the idea of a God who can act before we start. And when we realize the Father of the Bride (another cultural reference, get it?) was providing for extended families and the whole village, would have started saving wine when his daughter was born and would have been publicly embarrassed by the wine running out, we can avoid the other end of things that insists Jesus didn't create alcoholic wine. He wasn't encouraging drunkenness but celebration. It matters this miracle (sorry sign) happened and it matters it was real wine.

So what for us? It would be too quick to jump to me and Jesus with something pithy about inner transformation, but it's very true that sinners are turned into saints by Jesus (while still being sinners, with thanks to Martin Luther). Jesus came so that we could be pure, from the inside out. Ritual can always illustrate, enlighten or help to deepen this, but without the transforming work of Jesus through the Spirit, purity is an illusion - the days of the division between Jew and Gentile is gone. Our purity can't be based upon our own efforts or association with religious traditions - else it becomes something designed to divide. Yet we become part of a community of those being made pure. And I'm thankful especially with the brothers I meet with weekly who help with and remind me of that.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Being worthily unworthy

19  This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20  And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." 21  They asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." 22  Then they said to him, "Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?" 23  He said, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,' as Isaiah the prophet said." 24  Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25  They asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" 26  John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. 27  "It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." 28  These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 

I feel sorry in some ways for preachers who have large churches. I like to listen to podcasts of some preachers with multi-campus churches. I'm often reminded of the following joke:

'A surgeon rocks up to the pearly gates of heaven and demands to be let in instantly, because there's a long queue of people waiting to get into heaven. He proceeds to tell St Peter that he is a world famous surgeon and about all the famous people he's cared for. Then, as he is arguing, he sees another surgeon walk past and through the gates. Before he can protest, Peter says to him "Oh that's God, he just thinks he's a surgeon"'.

The point is, that people in large ministries (and indeed large in their own mind) can fall prey to thinking they are God. And how can you blame them when lots of people can treat them that way? Praise and adulation can trick us into thinking all sorts of things - none of us is exempt.

John the Baptiser had a very successful ministry down by the Jordan, with many coming to him for baptism. Yet when questioned he was very clear that he was but a signpost, someone preparing the way for God himself (that Jesus followed shows us who he was). What is more, John knew compared to Jesus he was nothing - not even the lowest of slaves to untie the sandals off his dirty feet. He knew he was a slave, a servant of God. He knew his place and was happy about it.

Now if we took this attitude of comparison to another person, this would be an issue. While the bible isn't a book on self esteem, it does have a realistic view of humans and it is often positive - after all if Jesus became one to reconcile us to God, what more recommendation do you need. But John isn't comparing himself to a mere human, but to God.

So as we seek to be involved in mission, be it as preachers to hundreds and thousands, confidants to a few, scholars to academic communities or parents to our kids, remember: we are not God. Thank God! Confess that freely to all and point all to the God man Jesus.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Devoted to the truth or ours?

Following on from my last post on John's prologue, I read this from the Emergent Village Minemergent daily communique. What do people think of this?

The Danger of Devotion to Truth 

Any truth elevated to a status above its purpose is, by definition, self-destructive and divisive. Truths will always serve us, but they can only take us so far and they are never arbitrary. Those truths we accept are those we accept precisely because they are most efficient at expressing the love that brings the Divine into presence with us. Otherwise, we are left with simple ideas which lack any power to move us. Our beliefs are permitted to change. It is the purpose and standard of our beliefs that must remain constant and to which we owe allegiance. It is not devotion to evil, but devotion to truth that has been present at every slipping of the Church. 

Irv Kaage

No glass half full, no empty quiver

14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” 16 For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

You may have encountered opening a chip (crisps, whatever) packet and found it was half full, and felt somewhat ripped off. Or maybe if you are a beer drinker, you've taken a sip only to find there is more froth than beer. Now who would want to go to a self-serviced petrol (gas for my US friends) station and asked 'filler up', only to stop half way down the road with an empty tank?

John writes that Jesus was full of grace and truth. Some may have some of the truth, some may reflect some of the divine grace, but only Jesus is full of it (so to speak). Paul in Colossians also says that in Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. We might say that Jesus is not half-assed about grace and truth, he goes the whole hog with it. In dying on a cross he embodies (and in a sense is disembodied by the Romans) the grace of God in dealing with human sin and evil - grace upon grace indeed. And because the Law through Moses divided Jew from non-Jew, this grace is freely available to all people.

Likewise, Jesus is embodied truth, the glory or image of God in all its fullness. In Exodus we often read of God's glory, and in 33:18 Moses asks to see it, but God responds that no one can see his face. Jesus, the only Son has seen God's face and makes God known. You can't know someone unless they choose to show you, else get to know someone who knows them better than anyone else. Ever had a friend tell you about someone important in their life so much that one you finally meet this person, you feel like you know them? Only Jesus can do this for us with regards to God.

Another aspect of glory is written about in Romans 3 - sin means falling short of God's glory, being less than what we were made for, less than human! In Christ, that image can be restored. We can shoot for glory, and even though our arrows may fall short, yet our aim is made more true by the one who shows us what the target is.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Receive, believe, born

1:10  He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 1:11  He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 1:12  But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 1:13  who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (NASB)

I have one child, a son recently turned 10. He is a child who was and is always very loved and wanted. His coming into the world was very deliberate. Indeed, I am almost certain I know the night he was conceived, but I certainly won't be going into those details here ;).

For many having a child is a definite choice, especially those where some degree of medical intervention whether it be IVF or fertility drugs are involved. Of course all conceptions are subject to the vagaries of the human body, and nine months is a long time in which many things can happen. Yet many choose to have a child and end up with one.

Today's passage (sorry for the hiatus of just over a week) is about birth of sorts. There are times when in song, poetry or popular thought, we like to talk about the 'brotherhood of man', or that all people are God's children - however the later is thought about. It is true in a sense - I think Paul's speech in the Aeropagus in Acts 17 captures this. However, it also seems true biblically that being in God's family, is like human birth, and act of the will. One doesn't choose to be born, it's an accident of birth for us. Instead, the parents choose to have a child. Becoming God's children is an act of the divine will (verse 13).

And yet we see too the need to receive Jesus and believe in his name. Jesus is the Greek for of the Hebrew Joshua (Jeshua) which means 'God saves'. Indeed in Jesus God comes to save - so to believe in his name means to believe that God saves, that we need saving, and that in Jesus God himself is saving us. We are called to receive and believe. At this point we needed go into Calvinism or Arminianism - all that needs to be asserted is that we make a decision and we are born into God's family.

Note too that the world that Jesus made and his particular people (Israel) did not receive him. This is no cause for the sad antiSemitism that has marked a good part of church history. It simply highlights the fact that human hearts are inclined against God, sometimes even in the very act of seeking him. There are always those who do not believe and always those that do.

That there be a people who believe is God's will - in a sense this takes the pressure off us in sharing our faith and in feeling like we have to earn our own way. That receiving and believing is required means we have a responsibility to pray, read, understand, struggle and share. Without resolving the tensions we can both relax and work hard.

On a final note, if we are God's children by his will - sibling rivalry is ugly and more often than not avoidable. Charity between followers of Jesus is required - later Jesus will say that to love one another is a command - therefore and act of the will and not just a compulsion of the emotions. We are to show love to all, how much more those that God has born by his will?

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Make a little birdhouse in your soul

1:4  In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. 5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. 6  There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7  He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. 8  He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light. 9  There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.

One of my favourite places to stay in Far North Queensland is Chamber's Wildlife Lodge. It's near Lake Eacham, an old volcano now full of water, and is a clearing in the rainforest on the Atherton Tablelands. They advise that if you are not used to the dark of the country, then you should leave the bathroom night on at night, like a night light (hence the title of this post as a reference to a They Might be Giants song). It is the theme of light in darkness that John is concerned with here.

Both light and life seem again to be references to Genesis 1, where God creates light and brings life to the earth. As mentioned in previous posts, this all points towards a new creation through Jesus, his life, death and resurrection.

Light is a theme in many religious traditions. Yet Christianity shows its colours here in claiming that Jesus is the true light. One might wonder if this is a sustainable claim in our modern, multifaith world (or indeed no faith world). Yet the first century was also a world of many faiths, so the claim is no less or more (despite what some atheistic scientists might claim) incredulous now then it was then. Does the claim then that Jesus as the true light mean that all other lights are false? Perhaps, or at least than many are incomplete. The unknown author of Hebrews recognizes that Jesus completes all that came before it in the Jewish faith, and Paul in Athens can recognize that 'pagan' poets capture some truth and that Athenian idolatry (although offensive to Paul's monotheism) was a reaching after the truth.

So what do we do about this claim to exclusivity, to Jesus being true light? It isn't something we can avoid. It isn't something to be ashamed about. But it is something to be humble about. Let me make a couple of quick points.

  1. The true light came into the world. He was not brought down, worked out, though out, discovered, sought, recognized then nor now without divine help. What we know we did not come to know on our own, from our own efforts or by our own cleverness.
  2. Every one who responds to him is enlightened by him. Note man here is the general world anthropos, meaning human being. If we are enlightened by him, again it is like light shining in the darkness, not darkness shining in the lightness. After all, no light, no eyes. Light does not need darkness, darkness needs light!
  3. Jesus is public knowledge. He shined and shines in the public squares of Jerusalem, Rome and Melbourne. This knowledge or enlightenment is not some secret cult but public knowledge. Enlightenment is for the many and not for the few. We are not the elite but the common, not the experts but the blessed.
  4. Like John, we ourselves are not so much the light and light bearers. We carry the torch of the gospel of Jesus - the message and its effects in our lives. We preach Jesus and what he has done for and in us, not ourselves. Christians should be the humblest of all, and not self righteous.
So, to borrow from the song, make a little birdhouse in your soul, the nightlight of Jesus in you.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

All things

1:3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (NASB)

This verse deserves a second look to tease out something very important. John writes that all things came into being through the Word (Jesus), and uses a negative to emphasize this - there isn't anything that is that didn't come into being through him. Paul makes a similar point in Colossians 1:16. We might be used to thinking about this with regards God the Father - but here we see the redeemer as the creator of all things as well.

Genesis 1 (which these verses echo) makes the point of how good things are in God's sight - with humans in their place it is very good. It seems, according to OT theologian John Walton in The Lost World of Genesis 1 that this is a functional rather than simply moral statement (although I suspect the two are closely related), that is everything was working as it should until human sin disrupted relations with God, between ourselves and with the rest of creation.

So this fact that Jesus made all things should hint that he might redeem all things (Paul makes this point in Romans 8) but also that nothing is in itself not worthy of our attention or preservation. For example, many of the Early Church Fathers had a negative attitude towards sex, yet sex in itself is good. The context of its use is what makes it bad. Paul can state that sex is for marriage and marriage for sex (1 Corinthians 6) while reminding the Corinthians of the wrongs of adultery and other sexual misdemeanors. This is while Jesus can elevate singleness to a blessed state in a culture where marriage was the norm.

Jesus himself was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton, showing he liked to enjoy a meal with all comers, including a drink (in proper moderation). In setting aside the food laws he can say all foods are clean in Mark 7.

I guess the point I want to remind readers is that because Jesus made all things, then nothing in theory is beyond our concern, consideration or enjoyment. Paul puts it well in two places:

In Colossians (2:21-23) in dealing with asceticism in the church he writes "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (NASB)

And in Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

Let's be Christian hedonists, not pursuing pleasure for its own sake, but enjoying all that Christ has made and is of value with thankfulness.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Beginnings

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 
1:2 He was in the beginning with God. 
1:3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (NASB)

There are some Christians I know who don't make much of Christmas or Easter. So the logic goes, we can celebrate the resurrection every day. Of course one can and should adopt this attitude, but it seems to me humans like marking events, indeed seem bound to do so. We celebrate birthdays (unless we fear death I think), anniversaries, make New Year resolutions, and so on. We like to celebrate beginnings, remember them and make new starts.

New Year resolutions are often poo-pooed as facile and not enduring, but it is a fair time to reflect, even if the choice of day seems somewhat arbitrary on the construction of a calender. And so it seems timely to reflect on new beginnings here.

The opening verses of John's Gospel act as an introduction to the whole book (unsurprisingly you might say), but does so in a very tight way; starting many of the major themes of the book. The language is a deliberate echo of Genesis 1. Jesus is the Word who becomes flesh (covered in later verses) and was with God and was God. In one sentence we have a theology that divides orthodox Christianity from other believes, that Jesus was God (and indeed is God). The Greek lacks an article before God, but translations of a God miss the point (anarthrous predicates for the technically minded). Jesus is God but not to be identified with YHWH without remainder - ah the mysteries of the Trinity.

But the point of my reflection is that Jesus is identified as creator because the gospel represents a new creation, a new start. Not an abandonment of the old, but its renewal. This begins (as we will see later) with the hoped for rebirth of Israel (the original meaning of being born again).

Now often this new creation is limited to the heart, or even the church. But really it is as all encompassing as the first creation was. Christianity is never a private affair, never simply a matter of private faith, but of public profession. This isn't the imposition of views, morals or conduct but the proclamation and living out of a new reality and the ongoing invitation to believe and receive (another topic for later). What this new creation implies we'll look at later. For now it's enough to ponder this first day of a new year that we live now in a new creation, a creation being renewed. This new creation is evidenced every time someone comes to faith, in every act of faith, love and justice, every time light is shone into darkness in the name of the light.

So, let your new year's resolution be to look for signs of the new creation, live out acts of new creation, because the creator has come to his creation.


Although I already have a couple of other blogs, I wanted to do something a little different here. Ethos Environment is about environmental care and environmental theology (or more properly creation). Natural Philosopher is my all purpose blog that looks at theology, science, education, etc.

This blog, Biblia Cogitandi means Bible Thinking, and will be more of a devotional blog, digging deep at theology and thinking about its implications. Since we've just finished John's Gospel at church, I thought I work through it. It's been my favourite bible book for a long time. First proper post to follow soon.