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.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Atonement is political - non-violence and leadership

A famous text in Mark's gospel which is taken as a proof text in atonement theology is 10:45

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

Usually, this is wedded to penal substitutionary atonement, and so Jesus' death is seen to be a payment to ransom us from punishment. This view needs a bit of nuancing. Context will help as well will see shortly.

The word ransom is lutron, and is used in the context of slavery and ransoming or freeing a slave from the market. The most obvious source of the slavery here is to sin, but I wonder in a sense (and context might make a case) that the devil is also part of it - given the theme early of binding the strongman and robbing his house. There are echoes of this in John's gospel when Jesus says that the ruler of this world is going to be thrown down when he ascends to the cross.

We need to be careful with demonology, but the idea behind human evil, particularly that of evil structures and systems finds a good deal of resonance in the gospels. There are plenty of models of the atonement; we don't need to flatten them into one.

In the Exodus, chapter 8 and verse 23 we read:

I will put a division between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign will occur.

However, the Hebrew has "set a ransom" instead of "put a division". The Israelites were rescued from Egypt, it's slavery, empire and gods.

Now it makes more sense of Jesus' critique of the disciple's question of who is the greatest, and his critique of the way in which Gentiles (read Rome) rule over people.

Jesus ransoms us from every evil empire, evil structure, with sin and the devil at its heart so that we can live a new life of freedom. That new life includes a new way of being in society at all levels, a new approach to leadership. Atonement is communal and political.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Fighting violence with violence means violence wins - Genesis 4

I don't suppose I am a complete pacifist; if you drew a spectrum I'm not sure where I'd sit. I do however understand that violence is a failure of peacemaking, war a failure of diplomacy. Sometimes that's because someone was not interested in peace, and sometimes that means that second best must be turned to.

But in the lives of most of us, for most of the time, violence of behaviour or rhetoric means that violence grows, violence wins. In argument, in relationships, there can be another way. And in public policy, we can lobby for better ways.

The story of Cain and Abel has a strange end - the warning that Cain would be avenged seven times if he were killed (Genesis 4:15). It is still a limit on revenge, and it is declared by God. It does stress the sanctity of life. And it is from an age of violence.

So when Lamech himself proclaims a much larger vengeance, and an unbalanced one, for it was death for a wounding and not death for death, we see how retribution can go so wrong (verses 23-24). Vengeance, not justice is in view. The image of God in chapter 1 seems not to extend to Lamech's victim. In many Ancient Near Eastern contexts, the image of God was limited to the nobility or king. In Hebrew thought, murder was denied because all are in the image of God.

Comparing Rwanda to South Africa, we see how the pursuit of truth and reconciliation trumps revenge. While due process and punishment are often appropriate, simply locking someone up or taking their life is not enough, when reconciliation and restorative justice can bring more closure, greater peace, and an end to the desire for revenge. This isn't being soft on law and order, but simply seeking a better order.

As long as there is sin there will be prisons, but for the every day of our relationships, we lock ourselves in prisons of anger and unforgiveness if we want to pursue vengeance for ourselves. God promises to repay. There are authorities to trust in. Sometimes we just let go, other times we actively seek reconciliation. But if our words and actions turn violent, it can only spiral in one direction. And Jesus died, not so individuals can wield weapons and words of anger, but so we can be agents of peace.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Keeping our brothers and sisters - Genesis 4

I've been thinking a bit about origins of late, and the whole issue of human goodness and tendency to evil. Students in a course on science and religion I tutor on answered a question about evolution and "Original Sin". The more informed students understood that this phrase is often associated with Augustine. An Irenaean approach is more compatible with evolution, where there is no perfect past, just a humanity that is created in order to grow up and aspire to fully carry out the role of bearing the image of God.

I've also started reading Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall after hearing her speak recently. She's a Christian, though these days it seems of a more universalist persuasion if I've understood her right. She obviously has some insight into human behaviour and its origins by studying chimps.

In the end, regardless of how you view our material origins, Genesis 4 shows us what history has illustrated again and again, we are capable of great violence.

Cain kills Abel out of jealousy when God sees into the heart and prefers Abel's gift. When asked where he was, Cain asks "am I my brother's keeper?" This disavowal of his role to care for another human seems to me a rejection of his brother as also bearing the image of God. It has always been the case that violence against other humans is preceded by dehumanising them. The Holocaust is a shocking example of this, but I suspect much of what is felt towards asylum seekers who come by boat in popular thought, the unemployed in conservative thought, Indigenous Australians by those who'd deny them recognition in the constitution are all symptomatic of the inability to empathise because they have been dehumanised.

In a world where the lines on maps are often drawn by us, but where trade, greenhouse gases and pollution all flow over these lines, everyone is our neighbour. Given our shared genetic origins, everyone is a brother or sister. For Christians, there is a special sense of this "in Christ", this does nothing to diminish our need to regard everyone this way, for we are all in the "image of God". This means rather than being an object of violence, other people should be the subjects of our keeping: keeping safe, keeping well, keeping in filial relationship.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Playing God - Genesis 3

Ok, it's been a while. I've decided to push through Genesis since I've already started, but not promising it will be daily ;)

You may be familiar with the idea of playing God. It's a term reserved usually for medical science like cloning, etc. Of course, it can be seen to be a rather knee jerk reaction, but a challenge to the usual, if we can do it we should thinking is sometimes, if not always useful.

I'd suggest though, this is at the heart of what is going on in Genesis 3. Since this is a devotional blog, I'll be avoiding the various Genesis debates.

It is typical for Christianity to be seen as controlling of how we think in a pejorative sense, and atheists et al to refer to themselves as free thinkers. Of course, no one is entirely free, we are limited by finitude, biology, worldviews, etc. So when in Genesis 2:16-17 it says

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
the idea that God is some kind of spoil sport, is it because we see this in the text, or read into it because of our modern individualism? Is this thought control or something less sinister? Is what in view the wisdom to apply ethical principles, or the elevation of oneself to God to decide morality itself?

A clue is given in Genesis 3:5 "God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." The grasping after absolute self-determination is not simply wanting to be knowledgeable or wise, but to be God.

But to show that God is no killjoy, see what is said of Jesus in Philippians 2:6-8

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

There is a way of being like God. Not a grasping after absolute autonomy, but a freedom found in humility and service.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

In the beginning - community

I've started a new bible reading plan with YouVersion, since it keeps me reading, and hence an excuse to write.

The first reading was Genesis 1-2. There is SO MUCH to say, but I decided to focus on community. There is much to draw from this, but it seems community is an important theme.

In chapter 1, it takes both male and female to bear the image of God (can't get away from God here). So bearing the image of God is communal, and indeed tied to the blessing of reproduction. Now the Earth is indeed full at 7 billion people, so thinking carefully about population is not contrary to the biblical blessing. We are not to be negative about children, just not naive about our impacts.

But back to the main point - even if one rejects this as a literal account, the biblical idea of man and woman together as image bearers is the bedrock of a theology of marriage. It is for kids, but even more so it is for serving God. Now given that singleness is promoted as a Christian lifestyle in the New Testament, we should be clear that not only marriage specifically, but community life in general is what flows from this passage - after all, lots of babies does mean community.

Genesis 2 takes a different look, but the suitable helper for man comes out of himself, not as a literal operation but as a statement of identity. Again, this speaks powerfully of marriage in the first instance, and the basis thereof. But it also tells us that animals are not us - not to denigrate them but to elevate to full humanity all other people. We become one flesh with a spouse, but we are all of one family of humans, and in faith those in Christ are one family.

Salvation and service are never solo but social.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Sunday - resurrection and egalitarianism

Today's reading from John 20 was the passage I preached on this morning. The transcript is going to be published so I won't say too much. Let me select one theme.

Mary Magdalene goes on the first day of the week to the garden where Jesus is laid. Just as John 1 echoes Genesis 1, so we should see Genesis 2 and 3 here; life in the Garden of Eden. Instead of Eve being misled by the serpent and then misleading Adam (who should have known better anyway), we have God (Jesus) addressing Mary (the new Eve) to go and set the disciples straight - telling them Jesus had risen and was ascending to the Father.

Mary was the apostle to the apostles; the first apostle of the new covenant. We should also note that when Mary addresses Jesus as Rabbouni, she is saying "my teacher" and not just "teacher". Jesus had taught her as a disciple in an age where only men were taught this way.

My point is, apart from personal reconciliation with God, the curse on Eve is undone. There is no excuse for anything less than full equality in the church, as it was always intended to be - remember Eve is described as Adam's helper, a word also used of God.

This is behind what Paul says in Galatians 3 when he says there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. All barriers come down, and all are equal in Christ. Once this becomes the narrative in which you work, other texts must be understood in this light.

Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Easter Saturday - Messiah for rich and poor

One of the things that I and many others often focus on is that Jesus was and is a champion of the poor. That poor people exist is a testament in general (factors of sloth, etc notwithstanding) of systems of economic injustice. This was certainly the case in first century Palestine and it is also the case today. It is not as if being poor is more holy in and of itself - but the poor in Jesus day were more aware of their needs. Riches can act as thorns and weeds among the seeds that is the gospel.

But Paul rightly identifies that it is the love of money rather than money itself that is evil. Industry and hard work - though along side with trust, generosity and Sabbath rest, are all emphasised in the bible.

So when Jesus comes to be buried in John 19, it shouldn't be a surprise that men of influence ask for his body and arrange his burial. Joseph of Arimathea is a disciple in secret for fear of the Jews (Judeans), and Nicodemus was the one who came at night, though publicly spoke up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin. It seems to me that these comments, if they are condemnatory, are only vaguely so. There is perhaps a time to be silent, and a time to speak up. In any event, it is these two men who make provision for the body of Jesus to be laid in a tomb.

On Easter Saturday, we should not forget that we know the end of the story - even if we don't fully understand it. These people did not. We are stuck with a pregnant pause - the man who attracted men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile lies dead. For those who followed him, it all seems over.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Good Friday - soldiers cast lots for his clothes

Rome was a cruel, cruel empire. Though they did not invention crucifixion, they perfected it. I don't know if it was sheer indifference born of familiarity with the suffering of others, or the sort of dehumanisation that the Japanese had for prisoners of war, and that many seem to do to asylum seekers today.

Beneath the cross, while a man died slowly and horrifically, soldiers cast lots for his clothing. Mocked as a pretend king, this man Jesus had sought to bring a nation back to its God, to forsake violence, repression and exclusion. Not in favour of lawlessness, or lack of a desire to see people holy, but because of love the gates of heaven were flung wide open. And now, on a Roman cross, was the way through that gate. And soldiers cast lots for his clothes.

The Germans took everything from those they condemned to die in the gas chambers. Their clothes, their money, their gold teeth. From the cold emptiness of the executioners to the banality of those who sorted the money of different currencies and took it back to Berlin, evil took many forms. Just as it does today, in many ways great and small. On that day, soldiers cast lots for his clothes.

We can be banal, complicit, violent. Or we can turn away from these things and embrace a man whose clothes were part of an ancient game of dice.

We cannot be silent anymore, about the evil in our own hearts, about the evil in treating people like things, about the evil of closing boarders to those in need, about the evil of destroying hope for future generation. Lest we cast lots for the clothes of those with little else. Less we be soldiers, casting lots for the king's clothes.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Lent day 43 - non-violent speech

I'm the sort of fellow who can quickly escalate my rhetoric. Fisticuffs is harder and more risky, blunt words? For many that is easier.

In Luke 23, Jesus' last words are "into your hands I commit my spirit". It wasn't unusual for people being crucified to call down curses on the Romans. Going out with a bang rather than a whimper. But when we see Jesus on the cross, he doesn't speak curses but blessings, like "forgive them, for they know not what they do".

For a centurion to attest to Jesus' innocence does reflect on his conduct. I've recently seen a few Christians publicly standing up for refugees and for the environment (creation) because they believe these things are important, and biblical. In all of these cases, both deeds and words have been non-violent, often drawing comment from the police and being cleared by the courts. Think how different that is to kicking and screaming, or verbal abuse.

There is much to stand up for in our age, issues of peace and justice such as characterise the kingdom. Not that all of our actions will change the world into a utopia, but if the cross is our forgiveness, our reconciliation, our restoration and a sign of our future and that of the entire of creation, we need to live as if this were true. It is time to speak and act in cross shaped ways.

Lent day 42 - waging peace

Translations don't always cut it. In Matthew 27, some translations say Jesus was crucified with two robbers, but this falls short. Bandits sounds similar, but banditry wasn't in the Robin Hood sense. It involved plunder of villages. Perhaps terrorist might capture it more in modern parlance. The usual word for robber as we might think of someone who picks pockets or breaks and enters for a few things that are easy to carry away is the word from which we get kleptomaniac.

So the two men Jesus was crucified with were men of violence, but Jesus was a man of peace.

Just as these brigands planned their raids, Jesus planned his death. So, if we want to model peacemaking (such that the cross was) and non-violently, we need to be deliberate. Jesus was crucified with the violent, and hence we can't and shouldn't remove ourselves from people who might share our concerns but not our methods. But more and more, intelligent and thoughtful non-violence needs to be waged in an age where individuals and bureaucracies quickly turn to violence of rhetoric and actions, we need to model something different, just as Jesus did.

Lent day 41 - the crucified king

[ooops well behind and tomorrow is Good Friday]

The trial of Jesus is sometimes challenged historically on the grounds that Romans took their justice system seriously, but John 19 shows a soft man being manipulated, and the idea is simple. Jesus claimed to be a king (but in a very different way to those who came before him), Caesar cannot tolerate competition, therefore Pilate, choose which side you are on. Very chillingly, the religious leaders made their choice, and they sidestepped saying that for them, God was meant to be king.

Jesus' kingship is deeply ironic in John; given a crown and purple cloak in mockery, proclaimed king by an unbelieving Gentile to an unbelieving Jewish crowd.

Jesus is the crucified king, the crucified God. If you want to make sense of the world, you might not get ready answers. At least, it will be clear that God is not above getting his hands dirty and facing all that it means to be human, including facing (a degrading) death. Yet that death was not the final word, and that is what Easter is about

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Lent day 39 - a new kind of power

If there is one thing I hate, it is an excarnate Christianity that speaks of spiritual things as if they had nothing to do with the world, with bodies, with the things of life.

One place where this is done based on a poor understanding of Greek (and therefore a sin for theology graduates is the trial of Jesus by Pilate in John 18. Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews, and points out his own people have handed him over. Jesus then says

"My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (NASB)

What is usually read (sometimes translated as)

"My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not of here." 

Of and from imply two different things. Of implies that Jesus' kingdom has nothing to do with the world, politics, economics, ecology and so on. It's all about heaven - meaning heaven as opposed to Earth, the place we go to when we die, not heaven the rule of God.

From implies where the authority comes from, and hence what it looks like. Recall Jesus prays that his disciples will be in but not of the world. The fact that the kingdom is not from this world means its ideas on authority and violence are different to the Roman empire, indeed all empires.

Christianity, or more particularly the church, is the community of God, not an empire. It does not resort to coercion, though it has solid arguments and internal discipline. It does not use violence to advance itself. Well it should not do either, though it has. In doing so, it has not been true to where it is from.

In post Christendom, we are called to continue to be a voice in the world, a presence. We do so without expecting, or more properly, demanding to be heard. But let us be worth listening to; just not in the way of empires, but in the way of an innocent man who was unfairly executed.

Lent day 38 - the way of non-violence

The Lenten readings cover parallel material, and so Day 38 looks at ground we've covered before, in this case Luke 22. For this reading, I want to look at what happens at Jesus' arrest.

Now I consider myself more pragmatist than anything, though confess to be still somewhere in the middle. I cross the street to avoid suspicious people, yet have studied martial arts for years. Think that maybe there can be just wars, although most wars are not, and there is little to no guide for this in the bible (the Ban of Deuteronomy is of a very different nature).

So that all said, I suspect the vast (if not entire) of life of a Christian (issues of soldiers, police, etc aside) should be governed by non-violence. When Jesus was being arrested, one of his disciples cut someone's ear off. Jesus then heals him and his ear is restored. I find this the funniest miracle in the bible.

Jesus' question "Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?" is a telling one. Jesus was no bandit (i.e. revolutionary) who dealt in swords and clubs, so why treat him as such. Whenever the church has resorted to these, it has failed. (It's another issue for me when the state has a job of protection to do, but far more often than not, the state has not been interested in protection.)

The Christian mission is not one of force, neither rhetorically nor physically. This does not mean it has no power, but that power is as a song by Scott Stapp says "he spoke he always drew a crowd, his message was his lifestyle".

Let our words draw hearers and our lifestyles be a message of God's love.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Lent day 37 - Christ the king

There are lots of  overlaps between today's reading, which is most of Mark 14 and the past two passages, so my emphasis is on the trial of Jesus in verses 53-65.

The trial was truly a kangaroo court - with conflicting evidence and false witnesses, and a twisting of the truth. The trial is one of blasphemy, but in an age where politics and religion were not separate, the question "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" is ultimately both. Son of the Blessed One is also a Messianic title, not a statement of ontological identity with God.

Jesus' response was what they wanted - not that it was true - for it got Jesus on a charge of blasphemy. He acknowledges that he is the Messiah, but then adds a reference to Daniel 7 when he said

"‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven. "

In Daniel 7, the Son of Man (a human one) goes to the Ancient of Days (a name for God) on the clouds of heaven, to be given "dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed."

So the blasphemy is that Jesus claimed this authority for himself. Bye bye temple authorities, Rome, all empires and pretensions to power. Dominion is a word we shrink from, it carries with it ideas of domination. Likewise, the idea of serving someone else carries ideas of servitude and slavery.

Yet quite apart from the fact that the church declares Jesus as God - and therefore deserving of all of this - what we learn of the character of Jesus tells us that dominion does not mean being dominated but wooed, loved and cared for. Indeed, Jesus pathway to being seat at the right hand of God is via the cross: the supreme act of love and identification with wandering humanity.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Lent day 36 - no one is invincible

The Matthew passage from day 35 overlaps with John 18:1-18 in that both deal with Jesus' betrayal and arrest. In verses 15-18 of this passage we see Jesus' foretelling of Peter's denial unfold. It is interesting to see how there is another disciple known to the high priest, who was able to get them in. We know nothing of his connection beyond this, but he appears to make no move to deny his association. Peter (presumably with a Galilean accent) was spotted as so, but denied it.

We might claim we won't deny Jesus, but many of us falter when the opportunity to own up to our faith comes up. This short passage reminds us that we need to be slow to speak of the strength of our faith, for when push comes to shove, no one is invincible in their faith. We'd like to think so, but it is more honest to recognise when our faith is weak, and seek for Christ to help make it stronger.

Lent day 35 - sacrifice

I've been studying the martial arts for years, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for 12 years. You sacrifice quite a bit to get good, or at least to improve. Then at some point it dawns on you that you need to sacrifice some of your training for the improvement of others. You teach classes, roll with people who might not help you improve, but you might help improve. You give up of your time.

Many people sacrifice for others, a parent for their child, a spouse for their partner.

The heart of Easter is sacrifice. Not insane, suicidal martyrdom, but a sacrifice that achieved peace and reconciliation. The scene from Gethsemane is a painful one to read (Matthew 26:36-46), but shows that the cross was an act of obedience, not a morbid fascination with death. Jesus needed to pray about it (Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want), and appreciated the prayers of others.

The question that burns in the mind is: why would God demand this? There are many theories on this, for now it is sufficient to know that Jesus' death achieves what it sets out to do, to bring life and peace.

Further, Jesus' sacrifice and approach to it is a model of humility and obedience to God's will. But it also shows us the need to pursue God in prayer over our situations; to discern whether or not some purpose is served by what we go through, or whether there is another way. Seeking suffering for its own sake is not at all Godly, which speaks against aestheticism per se.

Finally, having others pray for us - hopefully with more diligence than the disciples - is important. No person is an island.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Lent day 34 - unity

While it is true that Jesus wasn't thinking primarily of you or I during his earthly ministry, John 17 is an example of an eye on the future. Jesus wanted Israel to repent and take the gospel to the world. In his 12 disciples, he had a new Israel that would be made out of Jews, and later Gentiles (non-Jews). And wanted them all to be united.

John 17 is part of Jesus' final discourse, a section I love. We learn more about the Triune nature of God there than anywhere else, and discover how it includes us.

Verses 6-19 are missional; a prayer for the disciples to be in the world (human society) but not of it (shaped by non-gospel cultural norms). Sanctification, or the process of being set apart for mission, is in the the word of God, which are truth. Jesus himself is truth, so ultimately the word is about Jesus. The mission is the gospel of Jesus, the preparation for mission is the gospel of Jesus.

He then shifts to those who would believe because of the word of his disciples, that we may be one. United. Just as Jesus in the Father and the Father is in Jesus. The Trinity (early, Jesus spoke of the Spirit) is a model for Christian community. Sure we remain physically and metaphysically distinct, but in purpose and community. This is meant to be a witness to the world. In the first century the church's unity was radical, with women treated as equals, slaves and citizens eating together, Jews and Gentiles associating.

Now I know what it is to fellowship with people with different theological views, and yet try and focus on commonalities and mission. There are times to discuss, times to differ, but many more times to join in mission for Christ's sake. Let our unity, Trinitarian in shape, be what defines us.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Lent day 32 - real spirituality

People prefer to say they are spiritual rather than religious. It's a nice way of emphasizing the rigidity of formalized religion; it's legalism, calcification and hypocrisy.

That said, spirituality can be so free wheeling, so supermarket like in its selection of this and that, that is can be feelgood and faithlite, focused on self and not other.

In John 16:5-33, Jesus talks about his departure, and the advocate, the Holy Spirit (verses 7-11; NASB)

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

So Jesus goes away but sends the Advocate. As an advocate for the believer, there is also an adversarial role against the world - society against God.

  1. Sin is denial of who Jesus is and refusal to believe in him. This isn't very PC or pluralistic. In the first place, Jesus was speaking of 'the Jews', by which John means Jerusalemites as opposed to many of the Galileans who followed Jesus. The people of Christ are the people of the Spirit. Of course, this is open to all.
  2. Jesus goes to the Father, and the Advocate convicts the world about righteousness. I wonder here is justice is a better reading (they have the same Greek root). Jesus is truly the King of Israel. His death at the hands of 'the Jews' was unjust. Jesus is the just ruler - and this incorporates but righteousness in the usual religious sense, but also justice. People of the Spirit are righteous and just.
  3. Judgement here is about the ruler of the world. John is very clear that the cross is a defeat of the powers of darkness. This might be downplayed today, and it is right not to see a demon in every cold or unfortunate incident. It is also unbiblical to downplay the demonic, regardless of how wary we need to be about how we speak of this. The defeat of the ruler of this world should give us comfort - the war is won even if battles rage on.
So Christian Spirituality is sin denying, Jesus affirming, just and righteous, and in some sense triumphant - though not arrogant. This is concrete, not vague; biblically grounded, not new age; humble, not arrogant; thankful, not independent.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Lent day 31 - to be Christian is to be de-vine

Ok, so that is a terrible pun (just ask anyone, it's not unusual for me). I don't have the greenest of thumbs, but I do know that if you cut something off a plant, chance are it will die. Flowers wilt and die, fruit rots. A branch draws sustenance from the plants, down to its roots.

Agricultural illustrations were Jesus' stock in trade; he lived in an agricultural society. None of this is rocket science. It makes sense, but to go beyond the illustration to the heart of the matter takes a lifetime. The goal of a grape vine is for it to produce fruit - from a human point of view to make wine (safer than water in Jesus' day). Fruit is a sign of health in a plant.

Jesus is the vine, providing nourishment, showing that the branches are organically connected (John 15:1-11). Without connection to the vine, nothing can be done (he speaks in spiritual terms, people do all sorts of things, just not fruit borne for God). Anyone hanging around the vine but not connected to it won't bear fruit, and is cast into the fire.

So how does this relate to us? Do we spend all of our time worrying whether or not we are bearing enough fruit, and whether or not we will be cast off? Or do we argue that we are part of the vine and were always meant to be? A classical theological debate!

It seems to me that the parable is simple - those who bear no fruit will be cast into the fire because they have no connection to the vine, those who are connected will invariably bear fruit. If you see any fruit in your life, then be encouraged you are connected to the vine. If you see fruit in others, they too are part of the same vine - even if they hold some very different ideas to you.

Likewise, if there is no fruit in your life at all (and why would you be reading this if there was not), you have to ask yourself some hard questions. I suspect this is more about asking them of yourself than of anyone else.

Finally - what does being in the vine look like, i.e. how does it happen? It is all about being a disciple (verse 8). This implies careful study of Jesus teaching, and even more so careful following of his commandments and his way of life. It is no accident that another day's reading - Jesus teaching on the new commandment to love each other - follows on from this.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Lent day 30 - never alone: the Trinity and the Christian

I love memes and thought this one relevant to John 14. Jesus is speaking cryptically and deeply about a great many things, but it is clearly meant to be understood in what we would now call Trinitarian language, even if we are not to jump straight into the Greek metaphysical categories that were to follow.

Jesus is 'going to the Father', and will prepare a place for his disciples. The word translated as rooms refers to temporary accommodation - this isn't about a disembodied future in heaven. Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus. They work as an intimate team, and Jesus describes himself as the sole way to the Father - hardly pluralistic or PC. The way to see the Father is to see Jesus. What Philip should have understood is now plainly visible to us.

Jesus 'going to the Father' is the beginning rather than the end. It is the true beginning of the church so that we might do even greater things than Jesus. It is of course, impossible to top what Jesus did on the cross, but in living out the reality of the cross; sharing the message and living in loving community, we bring this first century event throughout history.

All of this is enabled by the 'another advocate', another being one of the same type. Here, John is clearly claiming divine inspiration for his recounting of Jesus' life, and centuries of Christians have claimed his presence; bringing us inner confirmation of our standing in Christ, helping shed light on Scripture and so on.

And so the Spirit brings us into the divine communion, into the Trinitarian life of God. God is the God indeed who seeks to sum up all things into himself, not in a totalising way that destroys individuality, but in a way that affirms and transforms who were are.

Profound indeed. Deep. And beyond anything I can easily summarise in a few paragraphs.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Lent day 29 - looking ahead

We are all capable of treachery, of failure. The disciples were all so certain they would not deny Jesus, Peter in particular (Matthew 26:31-35). Jesus was the shepherd, and when he is struck, his sheep scatter. It wasn't unusual for Messiahs to appear, claiming to be king of Israel. It was also usual for the leaders to be executed and the movements to peter out afterward.

Jesus predicts the first part of this - that he would be struck down, and despite their claims, they would fail. And yet the end would be different, for Jesus would 'go ahead of you to Galilee'. This was all pretty real and raw for those who feared death, thought it was all over, and were then in for the biggest surprise in history.

For us today, while our faith is based on something we can look back at in history, and can be confirmed in our lives, there are times when it all falls apart, and it seems like Jesus has disappeared from our lives. Yet, he has promised to go ahead of us. And this we must hold on to.

Lent day 28 - it's a long way to the top, via the bottom

Anyone who has ever tried to work their way up in something knows that hard work is involved. You don't get promoted at work unless you work hard, and often playing the game. You don't improve at a sport without training hard. But no one thinks that the best way to advance is to fail all of the time.

We all like to be great at something, and there isn't anything wrong with wanting to excel. But how do you excel in a community? By pushing to the front? By being impressive or gifted? Certainly gifts are useful if used right, being impressive is a matter of opinion and pushing oneself is a delicate balance between self promotion and simply seeking to have your gifts made useful.

In Luke 22, the disciples argue about who is the greatest. This seems amazingly egotistical to us, but how often do we do this more subtly? Who is more righteous (by talking down others)? How often do we find ourselves saying 'I could do better'? While perhaps the answer might be yes, is that the best way to phrase the question?

Jesus compares such arguments to Roman culture, which was based on ego, social standing, and having power over others by being seen to be a benefactor (verse 25), i.e. no one gave money, time or aid for reasons of altruism but of self-promotion. Instead, Christians are to be like the young (less important compared to elders - shame that kind of respect is absent today) and like servants not leaders. In other words, don't play the game of using your social standing simply to further your social standing, to seek to indebt others to yourself and remind them of it.

We are to (as a friend never tires of saying) 'love and serve', and shouldn't be afraid of doing so in many different ways, although often it will be in accordance with our gifts. The key is less about the gift and more about what needs exist - though the two will often match.

The disciples were offered true greatness - judging the 12 tribes. Is this an end times judgment or more about their ministries of proclaiming the gospel? Either way, for Peter the path to such true greatness had to pass through his rejection of Jesus, and ultimately in rejecting his own self-reliance. May it be so with us.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Lent day 27 - all you need is love

[Day 26 was another choose your own text day, and with other things to do well.... I had a Sabbath rest ;) ]

If you were to ask someone from outside the church what they thought of Christians, I suspect you wouldn't be so thrilled with what they said. Hopefully a friend might have a better opinion since they knew you, but we are typically not known as a harmonious bunch. Do we argue about theology? Are those arguments public? Or what of the recent revelations of how someone seeking to be reconciled to the Catholic Church was treated for daring to raise what has happened to them?

In today's reading of John 13:18-38, I want to focus just on verses 31-35. Jesus knows he is soon about to die, and gives them a new commandment - to love each other. Surely though love does not have to be commanded? Isn't love all about feeling? Well anyone who's been a parent knows that they love their children, but being up all night with a spewing child or putting up with a tantrum shows us that love has to be expressed - it's a verb not just a noun.

Likewise, anyone who goes to church and knows anyone who isn't exactly like them knows that love has to be done, not talked about. It is hard. People are hard to love, and we'd rather be loved than love.

So we are told to love in the same way that Jesus loved us - to be precise Jesus tells his disciples that they should love each other in the same way he did, but it is understood this is to be the pattern for all Christians. Given Jesus did it in very obvious and culturally relevant ways, like foot washing, so we are to put ourselves below others to love them.

Notice that while doctrinal purity is important - we need to try and understand the bible as best we can - it is orthopraxy over orthodoxy here (or there are some important aspects in the background). People know we are Christians if we love each other despite of our differences, practicing a generous orthodoxy, forgiving each other our sins and pursuing the Christian life in community. Nit picky gatekeeping should be anathema. Guarding important truths is very important, but love comes first.

In a digital age, blogs, Facebook groups, online forums, etc are all places where hate and unforgiveness can easily be practiced. This is not to say critical reflection is out of place, but Christian charity is front and centre. So where ever you are - love and serve others

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Lent day 25 - proclaiming without words

Christians should share the gospel, I get that. I've done 'cold turkey' evangelism, I've been a Godbotherer. There's a time and place for being upfront, but more often than not, just bowling up to someone and getting in their face just 'isn't cool'. Having a friendship where opinions are respected on both sides is much preferable.

But actions often speak more powerfully than words (though ultimately should be accompanied by the right ones). Following up from Mark's treatment on the Lord's Supper, the short passage of 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 records Jesus' words from that night. There is one phrase I want to focus on, Paul's summary: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes."

What does it mean to proclaim the Lord's death? One of the problems in Corinth was the unlevel playing field in the community. When they came together to share the Lord's meal, which was a real meal in those days, the rich appeared to have brought their own food and stuffed their faces. Slaves would have arrived later after performing their tasks, and would have had less to eat. How could such a meal contain such inequality? Here at least, all should have the same.

This is why Paul recommended that they eat at home, and then come together for this meal. What is celebrated in church these days is therefore an echo of what the Lord's Supper could be. So how does it proclaim the Lord's death? The unity that the cross is meant to contain, that new covenant of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female has no distinction in the church, in identity, in worth, in value, in share allotted, in roles that they can hold. This is a new people, a new kingdom, something that cuts across all structures that seek to divide.

Jesus died not simply so that individuals could have their own private religious experiences, but that a whole people could live in peace, justice and righteousness. If we do this, and celebrate it in the shared meal, in publicly observable unity is what proclaims Jesus' death. So what does the real, current state of so many churches proclaim?

Lent day 24 - dirty jobs with Jesus of Nazareth

John's take on the Passover meal (13:1-17) is quite different, recording something the Synoptics don't include. Mike Rowe has a show entitled Dirty Jobs which delights in bad smells and awkward moments.

In the ancient world, foot washing was something that slaves would perform. It was degrading. Feet smelled bad when people walked everywhere in sandals. So for Jesus to do this, their teacher, leader, and worker of wonders, this was so demeaning. If Judas wasn't already disgusted by the way Jesus went about being a Messiah, he would have been after this, and Jesus makes it clear he knows not all is well.

Peter shoots his mouth of as usual - not wanting Jesus to just watch his feet if he is going to wash him all. You have to feel for Peter, always the one to speak out, always the one to be put in his place.

Jesus knew what he was doing (verses 12-17). He was totally inverting what it means to be in leadership. To lead is to serve, and service is leadership, even if that service is viewed as degrading.

This contrasts so strongly with much of what we see in leadership: celebrity pastors, covering up for pedophile priests, and general arrogance and self importance. Yet I've often seen the exact opposite in the form of sincere pastoral care, deep and profound preaching and tight communities. Pastors and church leaders are just men and women, saved sinners in the process of sanctification. That said, much is expected of them, and indeed of all of us. Time to roll up our sleeves and do those dirty jobs.

Lent day 23 - 13 for dinner

I believe that 13 is viewed as an unlucky number from a variety of sources, but Mark 14:12-26 tells us that 13 ultimately is very blessed for us.

Poor old Judas has been portrayed as a fall guy (predestined to do it), the good guy (based on later Gnostic teaching) and a bad guy. Whatever his exact motivation (possibly disappointment in the direction Jesus was taking), Judas did hand Jesus over. In other gospels we see has his hand in the till. I wonder what his initial fascination with Jesus was? Was he convicted like Peter was? Amazed like Nathaniel was? Who knows.

The institution of the Lord's Supper has made for centuries of debate! How often? What does 'is' mean? Is it a sacrament or an ordinance? A full meal or a symbolic act? Mark's presentation is shorter than the other Synoptics. What then can we say?

Firstly, the elements of the meal represent Jesus in some meaningful way. The bread is in some sense Jesus' body, broken to be shared. Likewise, the wine represents Jesus' blood, which is shed for many. Again, people argue over the nature of the many, but Jesus' forthcoming death was poured out (in his flagellation quite literally given how much he would have bled) for many. It wasn't an accident or pointless.

The word covenant is important - what Jesus was doing in celebrating a meal that represented the formation of a people for God was a new arrangement, a new deal with God. Hence, even though Judas gave Jesus away, a meal with 12 men representing what 12 tribes had experienced (and surpassing it) was with Jesus, who represented God - indeed who was God in the flesh.

These parallels alone suggest regular eating together with some words of remembrance form a central part of Christian identity, those for whom blood was shed. It's the new deal, and the real deal.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Lent day 22 - the God who saves the world

We probably don't think much about it as Christians, but to the historically aware person, Jesus was a Jew and it should in one sense be surprising that a first century Jewish religious figure should mean anything to 21st century non-Jews. Then there are those who maintain that he shouldn't, and that only Paul makes a thing of Jesus for non-Jews, essentially inventing Christianity. I'm not at all convinced that is true.

Today's text (John 12:20-50) makes it clear that Jesus saw his role as saviour of the world (verse 47) and not primarily its judge. So many Christians see Jesus merely as judging, and it shapes their judgmental nature of others. His attitude should steer us in another direction.

In verses 20-26 we see the turning point is Greeks wanting to see Jesus (perhaps proselytes to Judaism). Now that non-Jews were interested, it was time for Jesus' message to go wider, yet fruit would only be born by his death on the cross.

World is rather ambiguous a term in John. Jesus comes to save it not judge it (verse 47) but we are to hate our life in it. Jesus is not being dualistic about physical reality but saying that human society in general, and specifically Israel (verses 36-43) was corrupt and in need of saving rather than following in its belief.

More than that - the cross is in fact a judgement of the world (by God himself, not Jesus) and the throwing down of its ruler (Satan), make the cross both a sacrifice for sin and a defeat of Satan - and I don't think you need to subsume one theory of atonement into another but see them working side by side. Behind the whole of human evil stands a suprapersonal being, not a man in red tights but an evil 'person'.

Theology has traditionally spoken then of sin, the world and the devil - and the cross deals with all three. We are personally responsible and need to repent of the things that we do. Only Christ makes our reconciliation and cleansing from sin possible.

Likewise, society and its structures need renewal. Just as personal holiness and loving others is important, so writ large this means peace, justice and care for the physical world, which itself will be renewed.

Finally, those larger darker forces have been defeated. We can't say 'the devil made me do it' or 'society made me do it', but recognise influences subtle and overt, and learn to resist. All of this, so we might bear fruit for life of the new age (eternal life).

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Lent day 21 - sheep care and goats beware

No one likes the idea that some people will miss out; surely God is love? Continuing from the last post, we follow Matthew's gospel from verses 31-46 and the parable of sheep and goats. The sheep are those who cared for Jesus when he was in need by caring for 'the least of these'. They receive eternal life. Those who didn't care for the least of these didn't care for the least of these didn't care for Jesus, and face punishment.

If, as I am in correct on following Tom Wright and others, the phrase "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory." refers to Daniel 7 and Jesus' resurrection and ascension to heaven (and not his return), what sense do we make of this? Again, the 'least of these' would either be the first followers of Jesus or the people of Israel in general (probably the former who were part of the later) and hence the sheep are those who cared for them (the earliest followers) and the goats the religious hierarchy. I think it is historically consistent again to see what was happening in the first place - a judgement on Israel by one of her prophets, her king and her God

Of course one could say, and I suspect this is correct too, that there is a degree of telescoping into the end times judgement. But given this, I can't help but think this is still an internal critique. In other words, hell is more often a warning to those inside the church than those outside. Just as sitting in a garage doesn't make you a car, going to church doesn't make you a Christian. If you don't exhibit real and practical love for those in the body of Christ, are you really 'saved', a 'Christian', following Jesus?

This isn't a call to fear or doubt, but a call to action. Get real on love inside the church (and outside too). Be a sheep who cares and not a goat who needs to beware. Get your heart right, which will mean repenting, maybe even for the first time.

Lent day 20 - it takes more than talent

Ok - so I'm only a day behind since there was no day 19 and I was busy finishing a talk on climate change and Christianity I gave at Australian Catholic University in Ballarat, so here is yesterday's entry.

There are times when someone comes along and shakes up your understanding of a part of the bible. This has happened for me for Matthew 25:14-30, the so called parable of the talents (or pounds in older translations). It's so shaken my thinking up, I am not sure what to do with it.

The traditional reading says that God is like a slave owner who goes away and gives various amounts of talents (money) that they are to invest. When the master comes back, he rewards those who have invested well and made him more money, and punishes the one who recognises that the master is wicked and was afraid of him. The usual story is that we are given gifts and told to use them, it isn't enough just to sit on what you have.

Part of the problem is that the character ascribed to God is not a positive one, consistent with what we know. You might argue though that a) not every aspect of a parable need apply, i.e. there can be just one point to a parable and b) this parable is not to be applied straight to us without remembering that this is aimed at the Jewish leadership.

That said, when we move to think about ourselves - it takes more than talent, use what you have. Of course, applied quite literally this might be understood as a way of 'losing your salvation', and while as an Arminian I believe that is possible, I really don't think that is what this parable is on about. It's a judgement on the Jewish leadership.

The critique I've heard is that this sort of story would have been so familiar and subversive in an absentee landlord culture, and we are meant to read it in much more economic terms and side with the slave who hid his money. I'm still not sure how to apply that thinking - another blog post perhaps.

So my final thoughts: this can apply to individuals, but also who organisations and structures who really in the end just don't get God in the first place. There will be rejection because there was nothing in the first place. This happened to the Jewish leadership back then, it can still happen now.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Lent day 18 - there's nothing like a good virgin

In Matthew, Jesus speaks a lot about the kingdom of heaven, and we must remember as a Jew that Matthew meant kingdom of God, i.e. where God rules. We need to divest ourselves of any sense of our permanent home being in the skies; heaven is where God is and comes to Earth with Jesus.

The parable of the virgins or bridesmaids is all about watchfulness for the bridegroom, i.e. Jesus, to arrive. Initially, this was about Jesus being revealed in his death and resurrection, for the parables were told to Jews after a discussion about the temple, yet of course it applies to our own situation as we wait for Jesus to return.

The paradigm of foolish versus wise harks back to the wisdom literature. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. This parable doesn't speak of pragmatics in the first sense, having enough oil, but about being wise toward God rather than foolish. This is all about moral categories. Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah and expect him to come into his reign? For the disciples, they should watch and wait for the time when Jesus would be crucified, the temple destroyed, and us for Christ's return.

Of course, being in a state of preparedness means a good deal of things, but it doesn't amount to anxiety over whether or not we've done enough, but just having faith. The rest should follow (as faith without works is dead), but it doesn't mean going to bed at night anxious or showering in your underwear in case you are suddenly raptured. Just be a faithful bridesmaid as we weight for the groom.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Lent day 17 - keeping our eyes peeled

Following on from day 16, day 17 continues in Matthew with verses 36-51. Again the verses look very much end times, and of course have an obvious application to those days. But if the coming of the Son of Man is to God in the previous passage, then the coming here must also be that - though coming to God in heaven is followed by a return to Earth (note there's some assumptions here in terms of the nature of the resurrection - Christ comes back to Earth to stay with us, not to take us back to heaven with him).

In essence then, Jesus is saying that while he is taking on the establishment, only the Father knows the exact nature of the events (verse 36). All talk of one being taken and another left is not some rapture to a Platonic realm of clouds and harps, but when the angels come to gather the elect, i.e. when they accept the gospel.

Much of this hinges on thinking what the household is. House can also refer to temple, and given this whole passage begins with the disciples musing about the Jerusalem temple, it makes sense that the wicked slave is the temple leadership, and that Jesus resurrection is a judgement on them because they are rejected and end up weeping and gnashing their teeth.

The advantage of all of this is that it places Jesus firmly in the first century as a Jewish prophet, who understood himself as Israel's king. Again, his claim 'to be God' is tied up in his understanding as the replacement of the temple.

So do we loose anything in seeing all of this as attached to the ascension? Surely not, for it fills the everyday sharing of the gospel with its proper cosmic and end times significance. Paul picks up on this theology of return in 1 Thessalonians 4, so none of this is dead history. It is just that Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews, and was concerned firstly with them. They were God's people, and he was both their king and their God. To read the text that way does not mean we miss out, but simply that we are reading Jesus as he is meant to be understood. We can then move on with Paul into Jesus' return to earth.

We too then are to keep awake, not so we can spend all of our time wondering when Jesus will return, but to live faithfully until he does. We certainly don't want to be like the political collaborators of the temple, making life hard for all under crippling debt or a corrupt religious institution or dead religion. Our faith is to be living and active less we are found to be hypocrites.

Lent day 16 - when Jesus becomes king

The Lent readings from YouVersion seem to delight in looking at parallel passages, gradually extending the ideas. Repetition can be a good thing if it enhances understanding.

The passage Matthew 24:15-35 is covers material we've seen in Mark about the desolation in the temple, the cursing of the fig tree and so on. Verses 29-31 at first glance seem unavoidably end times in nature, the sort of thing to send the mind racing about when Jesus returns, who the elect are and so on. But a more careful reading brings things back to Earth by taking them to heaven. What do I mean?

The phrase " they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory" references Daniel 7. There, the Son of Man (which is a Messianic title) comes on the clouds of heaven to God, and not to Earth. In God's presence, the Son of Man is "given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed."

So, when Matthew says that his angels would gather the elect, perhaps we are meant to understand angelos (angel) not as spiritual messengers, but human ones, bearing the gospel. Whatever else is meant by the word elect, they are the ones who messengers share the gospel with and accept it.

The other implication is that in Jesus' ascension, he is made king, ruler over the world. Given he is the crucified king (think the sign above his head on the cross), that kingdom is not one of domination (dominion does not necessarily imply that), or of coercion, but one of sacrifice and of service. Jesus is the one who served before being served - and this shapes the character of what service of Jesus looks like: it is not coerced but freely given (once enabled - a large topic for another time), one that is sacrificial service for others. Again as a good friend says, we are to 'love and serve'.

If we think Jesus rules now, then we are to live like that, serving as the king served. This doesn't look like a church militant or church triumphant, but a church serving. How would that affect our posturing and finger pointing, our political lobbying, our protesting, our activism. I can think of some ways it might look like and some ways it should not. Can you?

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Lent day 15 - it's the end of the world as we know it

Mark 13 (verses 1-13) is a pain in the .... So many people love end times passages, and skew it so bad. There's been no shortage in the past of people giving dates for the end of the world. But is that what this passage is about?

The discussion starts with the disciple's marveling at Herod's Temple. It was pretty impressive, his attempt to legitimate his kingship (he wasn't a Jew). Surely this is part of the background to Jesus saying it would be torn down - Jesus is really Israel's king, and as God's presence among his people, the new temple.

Jews didn't expect the end of the world in Hollywood movie style, but in terms of a new world order with Israel in her rightful place. When Jesus says many will come saying they are he, well they did before Jesus and they did afterward - many men claimed to be Israel's true king. I'm not sure any other Jew claimed in deed and somewhat cryptically in word to be God come in the flesh though.

The language is of the scary apocalyptic kind - dramatic imagery to describe historical event. I wonder if the earthquakes Jesus speaks of are those that are said to have occurred when he was crucified?

Certainly the promise of persecution is fulfilled very early on, being handed over to governors and kings. We see this for Paul particularly. This doesn't mean this doesn't hold for believers today, and I think the church in the West needs to be far more mindful of and vocal about persecution in other parts of the world, and probably whine less about supposed persecution here!

But, by the time we get to verse 14, we are still firmly in the first century with the destruction of the temple. The 'let the reader understand' may be a note by Mark that the temple's end was close (and hence the book written not long before AD 70?). Certainly John Robinson in Redating the New Testament sees no evidence of anything that smacks of post-temple destruction in the entire New Testament, suggesting it was all written before AD 70.

So why did Jesus see the temple as inevitably going to be destroyed? Firstly, because now he was here and soon to die for sins, the temple was redundant. But secondly, violent resistance to Rome would inevitably lead to a military campaign. Jesus' way is that of peace and non-violent resistance.

So what do we take from this? Well firstly if you want to obsess about the 'end of the world', do it from another passage. Secondly, all of this is taken up elsewhere in the NT to talk about Jesus return, and in the context of not knowing when the end will come. Our business is to be faithful and patient, not to forecast and be impatient. In the mean time, we may be persecuted. But currently, our hearts go out to those who really suffer for their faith. We should pray that even the way that suffer will be a witness to Christ, as well as praying that they won't suffer.

Lent day 14 - it's not how much money but how much heart

[Note: I should have done this last night, but getting home at 11:50, I had to spend 1 hr playing with my 1 year old Lab!!!]

This is a very famous story (Mark 12:41-44) no doubt trotted out during that season of church where the need to give to the church is stressed. Some pastors have their own homes, others have their own jets. Scripture is clear it is ok to seek a living out of ministry, just that the sole point of ministry is not profit. Back to this shortly.

This poor widow has been famous for centuries. Anonymous and yet held up for all to read about, this woman paid the temple tax with the smallest of coins, and yet she did so out of devotion to God. She gave all she had. This really makes me think of the paying taxes to Caesar debate. She was giving to God what was his, and it was money. Because it was all she had, because her giving was costly, it was of more value than the much larger sums others were giving.

We of course need to think of the totality of our giving, our money to church, our time to 'ministry' - be that with a church, parachurch or our own opportunities to serve by sharing our faith, doing good to all (I think as much through non-Christian as Christian organisation). And we do need to think carefully and give joyously.

Joy is needed because faith is Jesus is about joy and not sorrow - not that sorrow has no place with regards our ongoing sin, or the suffering in the world - because joy characterises the new life, joy that is realistic but still joyous. And thoughtful giving because many will tell us 'you can't take it with you' or 'he who dies with the most toys wins'. Yeah we need some stuff, but we need to decouple from making things into God (this goes back to the discussion on rendering to Caesar and God, so I won't repeat myself).

So make sure you help feed the pastors who feed you (and pastors make sure you are earning your keep by feeding the flock).

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Lent day 13 - hypocrisy of the third kind

Today I'm remembering the title of an 80s sci fi movie that refers to the ways in which people are said to have encounters with aliens. Encounters of the third kind refer it seems to abduction and direct contact. So what is hypocrisy of the third kind?

Well I'm forcing things into this model for the sake of an illustration, but it kind of fits. Maybe you've heard people say that all religious people are hypocrites. This is hypocrisy of the first kind - we all profess a faith in God, and yet we continue to sin, to fall short and so on. All this really is, is a statement that people are saved by faith and not works, and that being remade in the image of Jesus is a journey of a lifetime. We all need to grow.

Hypocrisy of the second kind then is that willful blindspots that we have, those things that we don't want to see. I think of St Augustine who prayed for chastity, only not yet. Whereas the first is a bit of mix of things, the second focuses on something very obvious and very tightly held.

Whereas the first two can be mostly applied to your 'average Christian' (a phrase that kind of doesn't work and I don't like, but you get what I mean), whereas hypocrisy of the third kind is especially for public figures, or leaders, or role models. This is the scribes and Pharisees of Matthew 23 - whom Jesus lines up for some heavy hitting.

Once one is in leadership or some sort of ministry, the temptation to be seen to be impressive can be strong. This is Jesus first charge in verses 1-12. Don't play fancy dress, don't try and collect fancy titles, and don't try and position yourself in fancy places. Always be a servant and be humble. Love and serve as a friend of mine is always saying.

The woes call upon scribes and Pharisees is both impressive and depressing. A few key areas that stand out to me are:

  1. The role of a leader is not to add to what God wants to those who are seeking him. There is a time and place for the finer details of doctrine - it isn't all up front. People are saved by faith in Jesus, 'become Christians' first and then a Calvinist or Arminian or whatever later. There is also no time or place for extra rules on smoking or alcohol or whatever you like to add according to your social conventions elevated to the level of Scripture. Christianity is about freedom that we don't abuse, not bondage that abuses us.
  2. Justice and mercy and faithfulness matter to Jesus. I'm so completely sick of the rhetoric of 'social gospel' so that dualists and quasi-doceitists can say that we need to focus on 'evangelism' by which they mean the spreading of doctrinal memes, rather than living lives transformed and telling others why. There is so much more than could be said, but being merciful and seeing justice done for all is part of loving in public. Tell people Jesus loves them and love them while you are doing it. If that love means battling slavery, poor working conditions, inequality, racism, climate change, whatever - I find none of these to be contrary to the gospel and clear expressions of the future world to come.
  3. There seems to be a need for humility when judging the past. Jesus says (v29-31) 'you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.' We might claim we wouldn't have turned our backs on Jesus, but we would have. And we'd claim we'd have sided with orthodoxy and got it right in the formation of doctrine in the early church, or claim we have the correct set of beliefs, but do we really? Humility in our doctrine is orthopraxy, which is meant to be informed by but ultimately trumps orthodoxy.
So, you might be struggling with the day to day hypocrisy of the first kind, have a coveted hypocrisy of the second kind, but avoid, avoid hypocrisy of the third kind. Look at what Jesus has to say about that!

Monday, 17 March 2014

What are YOU here for?

The Lenten readings take a break, and since I'm up to date, I wanted to reflect on the book of Esther. This amazing book doesn't mention God by name, but speaks powerful of God's sovereignty. This last word is a loaded one, and means different things to different people, but whatever you understand it to mean, Esther is very clear that God is never very far from the action.

In Esther 4, Mordecai, Esther's guardian learns of Haman's genocidal plot. One wonders how many people groups no longer exist because of genocidal maniacs down through the ages. No one has managed to destroy the Jews, though many have tried. Mordecai's expression of grief is a whole post in itself. I wonder whether or not we grieve well, and whether or not we grieve well about the right things.

What is key to this passage are Mordecai's words to Esther when she tells him how difficult approaching the king was, potentially life ending. He says:

 'Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?'

Her meteoric rise to fame could have been exactly so she could save the Jews, and indeed so she did. Deliverance could arise from elsewhere - but Esther could choose to play her part.

The risk with trying to apply a passage like this to ourselves immediately is that maybe most of us won't ever do anything so dramatic. Don't buy the TV evangelist hype of the perfect life or perfect ministry. Maybe the things you get to choose, the life you have attained might appear very ordinary. Yet what you can choose to do might have much eternal significance.

I'm happy being a lay preacher in a small church - I doubt I'll ever grace the stage of a mega-church. But that hardly matters. I keep finding myself in places where the things I can do and the things I know find an opportunity to be used - I can hardly say no to them.

Is God making you an offer you shouldn't refuse? What is there right here and right now you could be doing? Big or small, who knows, maybe you have attained your position 'for such a time as this?'

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Lent day 11 - all you need is love

Today's passage (well yesterday's as I write) discusses who the Christ is, but I want to leave this aside and focus on verses 34-40 of Matthew 22. All you need is love.

We all talk about love, the things and people we love. We all have ideas of what love is (oh dear, I now have the Foreigner song in my head), and at various times it confuses us. Often we don't really understand love, confuse it with lust (although to be sure they can go together), and sometimes forget that love is not just a noun to describe our feelings, but a verb describing what we should be doing.

Apparently the Rabbis loved (possibly do still) to debate about the Law (Torah, collection of Old Testament writings) and which was the most important commandment. The Torah are principles for life in covenant Israel. They didn't cover every single situation that might arise, and hence there was a large oral tradition that arose. Despite what some might say, there is a good deal of thinking involved with reading the bible and working out what it means for us and how to live.

Asked for one commandment, Jesus gives two. The first comes from the Shema, the call for Israel to recognise God and love him with their whole being (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This connects well with the discussion earlier about Caesar and his coin vs God and his image. To love God with our heart, soul and mind is to love God with all that we are, and is how we render to God what is God's. The implications for worship (traditional Christian piety - prayer, bible reading, etc) and holiness (typically the usual emphasis on sexual ethics or what I call pubic Christianity) are obvious. Knowing the bible and some apologetics are also part of loving God with our mind, but only insofar as these things translate into actions.

The call to love neighbour is elsewhere expanded in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Luke does not include here. The point however, is that love of neighbour cannot be purely spiritual, as indeed neither can love of God - this is an empty idea given we are embodied. Love is therefore embodied. Surely Christ becoming human tells us that.

My neighbour of course is the person I am nearest to. I leave it to you to know how to love that person, since they are your neighbour - but it must be practical. Of course, prayer is practical, but James tells us that when there is a need to be filled we can fill, be the answer to the prayer for the need to be filled. Simples!

It is worth noting that there appears to be no restriction here that neighbour means fellow believer in Jesus as Messiah (in our parlance, Christian). Neighbour means neighbour. Paul said do good to all, especially those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10) but not only to them.

Good can be done, i.e. I can love directly or indirectly. Sometimes we love our neighbours by supporting a social support network in the form of taxes - and yes there are unemployed with iPhones, fancy shoes etc. Jesus died for sins knowing not all would believe, so I can pay taxes towards unemployment benefits in the knowledge that some will abuse that. That's life.

Indirect good is how I will help my neighbour in a globalised economy and ecosphere who suffers my lifestyle in the form of climate change. My neighbour whose home is sinking beneath the waves may be loved by my taxes going to foreign aid, or campaigning for an immigration deal for environmental refugees (however they arrive), or by lobbying for renewable energy to avoid the harm climate change might do.

So love can be personal or corporate, direct or indirect, local or global. This is the way the world is and we need to embrace the fact that love of neighbour means justice. Indeed, the fact that all people are made in God's image means I love them links these two greatest commandments.

Loving God of course also involves loving all he has made, i.e. caring for creation - but that's a whole other post.