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.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Lent Day 10 - there goes the bride?

One of the central ideas of Christianity is the idea of resurrection. You don't have Christianity without it. In Romans, it is the sign that all the charges against Jesus are false (tacit) and that he is Son of God (in the first place, a title meaning Messiah or promised Jewish King, and then in the church, God the Son). In 1 Corinthians 15, it is the sign that our sins are forgiven. Finally, in Romans 8, it is the sign that there will be a general resurrection of the deal and a renewal for all creation.

In Luke 20:27-40, Jesus is debating the resurrection with the Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection. Ironically, they accused the Pharisees who did believe in the resurrection of introducing foreign beliefs to Judaism. Ironic because of their own Greco-Romano tendencies.

The trick question was about a woman who was widowed seen times. It was meant to be a reductio ad absurdum argument - indicating that such a situation shows that the idea of the resurrection is absurd.

His reply is surprising on two levels. The second comment is surprising in his use of Scripture - from 'even Moses showed, in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. ' to get 'He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him.' All live to God, but how? Are the dead not really lost because they exist is some state, or in the mind of God, or? Christians debate the so-called intermediate state, but orthodoxy affirms the resurrection. Whatever happens in between, the future involves the body.

If you read 1 Corinthians, you see a church rife with sexual issues, either rampant sexual immorality (a man and his step-mother) or abstinence in marriage. Paul condemns both. Yet here in verses 34-36 states that those of the resurrection won't marry because reproduction will be a thing of the past. So what of marriage now?

Jesus makes it clear both marriage and singleness are respectable options, as does Paul in 1 Corinthians. Certainly from a pragmatic point of view, the single person has more time for 'ministry'. In Jewish society, unmarried males were unusual, marriage was the norm. Today many do not marry, but not for these reasons. While sexual urges are not a primary reason for marriage, Paul is quite clear it is better to marry than burn in lust (remember an age of arranged marriages). Not romantic but very sensible. Either married or single - serve God.There is nothing to suggest that marriage now is unspiritual.

But does this describe a dull future? No new people and no marriage? Isn't this really the kind of dualism the Greeks believed in? Well not really, as the future is firmly bodily, and marriage isn't discouraged for this age. Some things serve their purpose for a time - and this casts no shadow backwards on the present. What then happens to marriages in the resurrection? Presumably those relationships, like all others, are transformed into something yet more beautiful?

And what of children? What of the delight of new people, of their wonder and joy for all who see them as they learn about the world? Perhaps we all become more childlike in our wonder, less cynical and jaded, as we explore an eternity with God to enjoy and things to explore. In these things too, we need humility.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Lent day 9 - following Jesus is taxing

Luke's account of the parable of the vineyard (discussed for Mark in a previous post) in chapter 20 is followed by a passage that has attracted all sorts of readings: what does it mean to render to Caesar the things that are Caesars? For some, this passage is combined with Romans 13 (a particular reading at least) to make it look like Jesus was endorsing paying taxes to Rome and general obedience to the regime. Of course Jesus went to the cross and didn't resist, so naturally we are to see that violence against the machine is out. But it it capitulation? Do we render to God's what is spiritual and to Caesar and his ilk what is material?

I don't believe we can buy into such dualism, and many people recognise the significance of the question in verse 24 of likeness and inscription. The idea of likeness or image goes back to Genesis 1. We are God's image and likeness, and hence are his - but this is in the body, the flesh, as living beings. This should mean nothing is left out, as if the spiritual and the physical (and with it the political, social, economic and so on) could be split apart.

So the likeness of Caesar and the inscription that said he was Son of God is part of the whole picture of empire with its totalising narrative of Pax Romana (Roman Peace) bought by the sword, the cross and taxation. As a pagan symbol, what the heck did the scribes and the chief priests have these coins on them, when they'd struck a deal so that banners with the same sorts of inscriptions couldn't be carried within the city?

To give God what is his is to live for God, period. To give Caesar what is his is to divest ourselves from all pagan structures. We need to give up our idols, especially when empires of politics, economics, social groups and so on, tell us we need these idols to be a part of their game. There is always a price to pay.

Ultimately, Jesus was saying that paying taxes to a corrupt empire was buying into that corrupt empire, and all such empires will fall before the one who was coming to take charge of the vineyard. Untangling ourselves from 'the matrix' will be hard, and I don't think dropping out of society to join a monastery or joining a community like the Amish is the only way to do this, as understandable as either approach is. Perhaps as many are suggesting, a new form of monasticism is what is needed - and I don't pretend at this time to have my head around this idea.

But resisting upsizing (like that wonderful Jeep ad where the son suggests they need a new boat now they have a bigger car to tow it), resisting putting career over family or ministry, resisting the stories we are told and questioning the worldview they promote. And heck, all of this is hard; hard work, hard thinking. It will be taxing, but then with this way of living the returns on investment are good.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Lent day 8

Phew, almost up to date (it's just after midnight on day 9).

When my wife and I got married, we found out on the day that a couple of people invited didn't turn up. The back stories to these snubs aren't worth going into, but were disappointing. We ended up inviting a couple of people who were at the service on the spot, and they were able to celebrate with us at the reception. It seemed perfectly biblical to do so, but not quite as much as we didn't go into the street to invite total strangers.

In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven (a polite way for a Jew to refer to the Kingdom of God, not some idea about life in the clouds playing harps) as a wedding feast. These always involved an entire village (see the wedding at Cana in John's gospel) and were huge affairs - even more so when a king was involved. Christianity can be seen as dour, naysaying, fun stealing and killjoy, but the biblical picture is far more nuanced. There's so much feasting used in parables (and who doesn't like eating?)

The parable has the king inviting people to a celebration, which is met with weak excuses and violence. Instead, those who were invited were unworthy, and the kings slaves hit the streets to invite everyone. This is the message we see again and again, not the religious or the elite but the poor, those who were excluded or who made bad choices - the 'good and the bad' as the NASB says.

This passage seems to me to describe Jesus ministry - although some read this as judgement day with the 'weeping an gnashing of teeth'. While this is in other places applied to an idea of last judgement, here it does seem to refer to the reaction to Jesus ministry. The one not in wedding clothes is not the person who thinks they are ok their whole lives but finds they are not at the resurrection (not initially here, but ultimately true) but the hangers on who don't really buy Jesus' agenda (the likes of Judas?)

So many are called, but few are chosen to me is not part of the Calvinism-Arminian debate, but simply that even the temple authorities, Pharisees and Sadducees are called, but mostly it is the taxcollecter, prostitute and 'sinner' who are chosen.

That all said, this should remind us that simply being at church or being a good person no more makes you part of the kingdom than living in a garage makes you a car! Whatever else you believe about the basis on which people are 'chosen', the key is to accept the invitation, and that comes with idea that you then don't pay for your wedding meal, it is what is given to you. Join in the celebration. As Easter approaches, we need to think of our faith as one long celebration. Even if the Messianic banquet is not yet arrived, we live as if it were coming. Every coming together in community does that, and Communion, the Lord's Supper, Mass, Sacrament or Ordinance is a vivid reminder of this.

Lent day 7

One of the things about being a parent is that you want to shape your children morally to be good people, but unless you are authoritarian you give them warnings before punishing them, or maybe small acts of discipline along the way. One wrong word should never mean instant grounding or being thrown out of home.

In the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12:1-12, we harken back to Isaiah 5. Israel was a vineyard that God had planted, and sent many prophets to, to call them back to their covenant relationship with him. Many people see in the Old Testament a tired and cranky old man in heaven, and yet the prophetic witness tells a more complex story of broken human promises, acts of judgement and mercy and calls back to relationship.

As in Isaiah 5 (where the vineyard is clearly Israel), Jesus talks about the vineyard being destroyed, and indeed by AD70, Israel had been destroyed by Rome. Remember Jesus saw himself as a Jewish prophet and Israel's king. His criticism was from within. This isn't anti-Semitism as the church has so often practiced. We need to leave the door open, just as Paul does in Romans.

But the threat in verse 9 that the vinegrowers are to be destroyed and the vineyard (the Kingdom of God) is to be given to others is only in the 'chief corner stone' (verse 10). Anyone who sees this as a right rather than an act of grace and mercy has lost the plot. Likewise, does this threat continue to hang over the church? 'Once saved always saved' might be a useful idea to remind us that we don't earn our own salvation or status before God, but do institutions get torn down because of their failure to be proper tenders of the vine of the gospel? I do think so.

Firstly, the theologically liberal can end up offering nothing to people they can't get elsewhere. Why come to church if it is just pop psychology and bad political analysis, with no theological teeth? Likewise, hard legalism just drives people away from the truth of the love of Jesus. And rank immorality and protection of the institution over the people....

Jesus, rejected by his own people and continued to be rejected by people today is the centre of what the church is. If we lose sight of that, or make Jesus in our own image (well we all do this, but I mean excessively so; Jesus my girlfriend, Jesus the General, Jesus the hippy etc) then what we do will not be tending the grapes properly. Jesus understood as Lord means that Caesar is not, so neither our empires. Likewise Jesus as God means all of our idols are not, be they sex, power, money, etc. Christianity is truly revolutionary because of its call to inclusion while calling people to holiness. Anything else gets torn down, and what is left of value handed on to others.

Like the parable, although the beloved son has been sent to the vineyard, been killed (and been raised) and the vineyard handed over to those in the Messiah, we need to heed voices today that call the church back to right tending of the vineyard. Prophets are a pain, but a little pain is better than total loss.

Lent day 6

Authority is something that Australians love to challenge, or at least say that we do. We are larrikins, happy go lucky, and mistrusting of authority. I suppose everyone does that when it is a policeman giving us a fine, etc.

In Matthew 21:23-32, the whole issue of authority comes up. After cleaning up the temple, disrupting its business, he is asked on what authority he does what he does. He answer is a question that turns things on its head, and links his ministry to that of John the Baptist. Where did HIS authority come from? The people all got who John was, but the temple authorities saw their authority at stake, and so couldn't answer.

Those who feel they have something to protect lose even that, whereas those who know they have nothing stand to gain much. In Jesus parable about the two sons, he suggests that his authority is to offer forgiveness, reconciliation and community to tax collectors and prostitutes.

Apart from the dubious position one might ascribe due to the role of prostitute (a non-PC term I know, sex worker is preferred today, but from a biblical perspective, buying and selling sex as a commodity is not what it is meant to be about), both prostitutes and tax collectors dealt with the Romans, an oppressive military authority.

So Jesus' authority in the Kingdom of God cuts through protective authority of temple rulers, as Jesus is the new temple. It also cuts through the authority of Rome, stealing back Israelites from its oppression and way of being (think of the change in Zacchaeus, or Matthew). All of this to form a new community of peace, love, forgiveness and justice.

Today, we need to continue to recognise that the Kingdom of God in Christ runs against counter to the world (in biblical terms society without God) and yet those within it are to love those in the world and seek to them to be reconciled with God in Christ. The message that forms a new people from all walks of life means we can't force them to fit into preconceived molds, but only what they are to be in Christ. Mission is radically incarnational, becoming Christ to those we want to reach where they are at. It also means exercising Christ-like authority, which is servanthood, not authoritarian.

This means challenging the world order, calling all coercive and self-serving authority to account - whether it is political, economic, social or ecclesiastical. None of this means violent disruption, or even easy schism. We subvert things that need subverting from within at times, and act separately when we need to. I don't think that abandoning denominations is always our first port of call, or especially Christ-like, but sometimes necessary.

In building a community of 'tax collectors and prostitutes' we recognise that we are all on the same level, and that church is a 'hospital for sinners' and not a college of the righteous. The later view has been tried many times and failed.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Lent days 4-5

Well I'm still catching up... There was no day 5 reading (reader's choice) so I'm making this one count for two.

Mark 11:12-26 is so full of ideas it is hard to know where to start. The major theme is one of judgment. The fact that it is about Jerusalem makes it much less PC these days. Jesus saw himself as a prophet (at the very least!) and it was typical of prophets in Israel to call the nation to account and to proclaim judgment and yet also a message of hope. In Jesus these two things come together.

I once heard Peter Singer deny that Jesus was someone to learn ethics from because he cursed a fig tree. While I love trees and want to see them planted more often to absorb carbon, etc, I think Singer heavily missed the point. Here's the deal

Verses 12-14: Jesus finds a fig tree not in season and therefore without fruit, and he curses it for not bearing fruit. A little unrealistic you might think - doesn't he know better.

Verses 15-19: Jesus goes into the temple and finds the money changers, people making a profit over those needing to change their coins to buy animals to sacrifice. Jesus' disruption makes it clear the whole system is corrupt and that indirectly (not so clear hear) that Jesus is the new temple, and hence the old one is soon to be obsolete. Jesus' minor disruption of its workings would become permanent in AD 70.

Verses 20-26: The disciples note that the fig tree is withered, and Jesus speaks about having faith to move mountains - well actually the temple mount. Faith in God was the appropriate response to all of this. This quickly moves to a discussion of faith, doubt and prayer - too big an issue to deal with in this post [as a broader issue but it is linked to what follows], and then onto forgiveness. Jesus tells the disciples to forgive so that they may be forgiven!

Very clearly, this links to the withering of the fig tree. He found no faith in the temple and so it will wither. Forgiveness is for those who are truly shaped by forgiveness in that they freely grant it, and forgiveness is through the new temple, Jesus.

It seems to me then that faith in Jesus and not in calcified or corrupt institutions in how we receive and live forgiven lives. When the institutional church seeks to protect itself rather than seeking forgiveness for evils it has done and makes restitution [let the reader understand], then God's grace might bypass it.

In our lives everyday, given that forgiveness is freely [but not cheaply] given, it also needs to be freely given. It takes a lot of faith to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. The church has a ministry of reconciliation to carry out, so let's reconcile within and without.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Lent day 3

The third reading follows on from the second, and tells of the spreading of palm branches as Jesus entered (John 12:12-19). It is the parallel account to the Matthew passage for day 1.

It is easy to focus on verse 16 and think his disciples were pretty dumb 'These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him'. They seemed not to put the prophesies and the crowd's reactions together.

Hindsight is always 20-20 vision, and although maybe they should have got it, they didn't, and we need to be careful to judge too quickly. That said, even among a people we moderns might sometimes patronise as being unsophisticated, people didn't rise from the dead everyday, and Lazarus was proof before their eyes Jesus was doing something radical. But while the disciples didn't understand it fully, the Pharisees were challenged by it, and sought to put both Jesus and Lazarus to death.

So let's not think that we have Jesus fully worked out, and going back to Scripture again and again to make sense of his life and mission is an imperative to all who would call themselves followers, and the place to start for those who want to make sense of him, coming as it were from the outside of this understanding.

And in all of this, if it took Jesus' glorification for the disciples to finally piece it together, it might take Jesus' return for us to make full sense of everything. For now, we are to step forward in faith without arrogance, hope without thinking we can be so certain that we have nothing to learn or can never be surprised.

Lent day 2

John would have to be my favourite gospel. More of the private discourses than the synoptics, John has an almost mystical bent, while still being thoroughly Jewish in character.

In John 12:1-11 we read about Mary's anointing Jesus' feet with expensive perfume, even wiping his feet with her hair. Given people wore sandals and walked in the dust, washing of feet was lowly work for the lowest of slaves, yet Mary's hair was not too lovely to express her love for Jesus.

Now we've all met that religious person whose fervor seems unplugged from reality just a little, yet you'd have to say this act that some might find degrading is received so graciously and seen for what it was, an act of pure love.

On the opposite hand, we have the cynical and soon to become betrayer Judas, who was a thief to boot. His claim to care for the poor was empty, but many have misunderstood Jesus' words 'For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.' in verse 8. Jesus is not saying that poverty and injustice will always exist, so just accept it. He was showing Judas up for who he really was, and the full significance of Mary's actions, as pointing towards Jesus' death and burial.

This verse points to Deuteronomy 15, which deals with remitting debt and the Sabbath economics which meant that everyone would be provided for and no one could accumulate too much. Speaking to the people of Israel, it says in verse 4 that 'However, there will be no poor among you, since the Lord will surely bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess'. Israel was meant to be an inheritance for all, yet in Jesus time, Roman taxation and exploitation meant that many were poor.

So in an age where for Christians there is no one country that is 'the promised land', how do we address what Jesus says here? Well for one thing, we don't have him with us. He has died, risen and ascended.

It seems to me we love him now in acts of praise, worship, and piety. But as we love God we also love neighbour, and as Paul says, do good to all, especially those in the household of faith. We recognise that the fact that there are poor still among us is not how it is meant to be. We will do all kinds of acts of love, from pure charity, to aid and development, to challenging the systems that oppress people politically, economically and spiritually.

Lent day 1

Ok, so Lent was meant to be when I kick started this up again and became a little less slipshod in my bible reading. All those dips into the text that never made posts. And now I'm behind. So, there will be a few posts in quick succession to catch up. I'm following a set of readings by YouVersion.

Today's reading is Matthew 21:1-11, the so-called triumphant entry. Jesus sends his disciple forward to get a donkey and her foal or colt. Likely it belongs to people he knows who would understand who 'the Lord' was - not God as we might jump to, but the teacher they knew.

You see, Jesus was a very deliberate person with a clear purpose. His actions were symbolic, but not merely so. He came to fulfill what prophets had said, and not just simply the actions but all that they meant.

Jesus understood what he was doing, proclaiming himself King of Israel, and the response of his disciples and the Passover pilgrims show that everyone else did as well. The pilgrims knew who he was, no doubt many of them had seen and heard him throughout Galilee, but those from the city appeared not to. Perhaps the poor and oppressed from the country saw the need more for a king than those who worked in and around the temple?

So Jesus was deliberate in pursuing kingdom goals as the king. Are we as deliberate in doing so? Now I can understand those who wonder what God's will is in this or that situation, don't want to presume, etc. We also know God can do surprising things. But forearmed is forewarned. How deliberate is your bible reading and prayer, your intentionality in being missional? Something tells me if Jesus was deliberate in what he did, and yet could react in the moment, we should aim at doing the same?