Category Archives: christianity

the truth about us

I know what self-justification and self-protection looks like, because like all of us, I do it far too often.  Into a world of self-justifiers (like me) where we defend ourselves from any responsibility for any specific wrongdoing, the words of Jesus by the hand of John’s gospel cut through to the basic motivations behind such self-protection:

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

My simple observation here (which I don’t want to clutter up the sermon for this Sunday night) is that Jesus is not contrasting ‘evil’ people with ‘good’ people, as if life were so simple.  Instead, the one who “knew what was in humans” (John 2:25) contrasts those who do “evil” and those who live “by the truth”.  The words used to describe their actions are also contrasted.  Those who do evil stay in the darkness not wanting their “deeds” to be exposed, while those who life by the truth can cope with “what they have done” being in the light of day, as well as the sight of God.

So the point of difference Jesus is making between these two kinds of people seems not to be that some have been naughty and others have been nice.  Some seem to see God as a God who is out to condemn the world, while others seem to trust that God, as Jesus says a few verses earlier (3:17), did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Fear drives some to hide their sin, while faith/trust (Greek: pistis) enables others to confess it. Johannine material elsewhere in the New Testament agrees.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

a better word

Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)

Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’.  Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant.  The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.

Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ.  Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:

  • undesirable.  The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”.  God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’.  There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least.  But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
  • unbearable.  The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”.  Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
  • unapproachable.  Animals stoned, sandals removed.  The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are.  It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.

By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.

  • better joy.  The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke.  Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek.  Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
  • better transformation.  The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently.  Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
  • better memory.  The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin.  The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.

In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture.  God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.

It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ.  As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

the church caught conducting a SSM

(a ‘targum’ of John 8:3-11)

3 The representatives of a group of churches brought in one of their churches which was caught in the act of blessing a same sex marriage. They made it stand before Jesus 4 and said to him, “Teacher, this church was caught in the act of blessing a same sex marriage. 5 In our understanding of our denominational processes, we have authority to discipline this church. We have spent two years drafting propositions to this effect, and some dare to want to edit our propositions.  What then, do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to ensure that the gathered assembly kept their original wording exactly intact, not a jot and tittle amended or softened, lest anyone suspect them of being soft on sin.

But Jesus walked past the microphone and sat down next to the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church. 7 When they kept on asking him to speak, he walked to the microphone and said to them, “Let any church which has never blessed any other kinds of sin be the first to kick this church out of your union.” 8 Then again he sat down next to the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church.

9 At this, those who heard began to lay down their voting papers one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church sitting next to him. 10 Jesus motioned to the empty room and asked them, “Church, where are they? Has no one kicked you out of their group of churches?”

11 “No one, sir,” they said.

“Then neither do I shame you, condemn you, or kick you out of my family,” Jesus declared. “But now, go and no longer bless what is sinful.”

worship: all of the above

If the options are:
a) “Worship needs to be more theologically sound!”
b) “Worship needs to be more bodily participative!”
or c) “Worship needs to be more emotionally authentic!”
Then I choose
d) “Yes.”

Kirsten Guidero critiques James K.A. Smith’s push (summarized here) for ’embodied’ forms of worship.  Both her and Smith (count me in too) are in pursuit of ways, patterns, habits and yes ‘forms’ of worship that are ‘formational’.  Smith’s beef (and it’s delicious!) is that we are always being formed by the embodied practices that we are always practicing – even in ‘cultural liturgies’ like the sports stadium, the shopping mall, the university, etc.  Even small or ‘thin’ practices, when habitual, become ‘thick’ shapers of our lives.  Smith’s view is that the gospel offers an alternative story to the many stories of culture, and that this gospel story needs to be bodily embodied (that was deliberate) at worship, which it a central way that we are re-formed week by week.  Guidero is a ‘liturgical Christian’, and endorses Smith’s main points, but wants to push back against what she sees as an over-emphasis in Smith on the body.  She argues that:

if one’s mind is not involved—as far as possible—in one’s liturgical participation, liturgy becomes only an empty shell, similar to the Christian propositions devoid of application that Smith so decries.

It seems clear to me that worship needs to engage the whole person in order for the whole person to be swept up in the gospel’s redemptive subversion of the world and cultures we inhabit.  And if human persons engage in a) thoughtful and rational reasoning and believing, b) visible and embodied postures and gestures, and c) passionate and affective feeling and emoting, then worship needs to explore the space of all three; put roughly – mind, body & emotions.  I’ll describe them briefly, using titles that are normally used pejoratively, to signal that each emphasis really is negative when divorced from the other two.  I also acknowledge stereotypes for each one, which of course always are there for some reason, but also always need to be critiqued.

‘Rationalistic’ worship perhaps finds a stereotype in the ‘new reformed’ movement. Whatever emotions or bodily postures that accompany this stream of worship, the obvious priority is on the rational affirmation of propositions, truths and doctrines.

‘Ritualistic’ worship perhaps finds a stereotype in the ‘liturgical’ tradition.  Whatever theologies or emotional states that accompany this stream of worship, the visible priority is on the formational practice of postures, gestures, and historic rites.

‘Emotionalistic’ worship perhaps finds a stereotype in the ‘pentecostal’ tradition.  Doctrinal allegiances and visible gestures will be present, but front and centre is a palpable, impossible to ignore focus on an authentic passion and heart for God.

You may have already observed that various combinations of these exist.  Some ‘pentecostal’ churches may have a ‘reformed’ vibe for example.  But arguably a nice blend of all three may be quite rare.  It makes me wonder if lurking behind our worship ‘preferences’ may be the reality that there are parts of us that we are more willing to be transformed than others.

Lord, I am passionate for your holy truth, and I will show it by unashamedly sitting and standing for you in church.
Lord, look on my beautiful liturgy and orthodox creedal confession, but please ignore my heart which is a private matter.
Lord, I have award-winning passion and high hand-lifting, but please don’t make me describe what I’m passionate about with any degree of specificity.

What might an integrated vision of worship look like in practice?
Well… I reckon something like:

  • Large amounts of scripture (Bible readings and biblical preaching) and regular usage of affirmations of faith and/or Creeds.
  • Delicious moments (within a clear overarching structure) of emotion and intimacy, through such things as singing and prayer.
  • A rich ‘sacramental’ practice, most of all Baptism and Eucharist, practiced to link with wider church history and tradition.

uncomfortable majority

Democracy’s main weakness is that it makes it possible for popular error to hold sway.  Conservative Christians, like me, would say that about this or that popular cultural value that doesn’t align with theirs, and a minority voice within a Christian denomination often says that about the majority denominational view which which they disagree.

There is a conversation happening in my denomination in which I am part of the majority, and it makes me uncomfortable.  I am uncomfortable primarily because I want the minority voice, the very voice I disagree with, to be heard, and heard in its best form.  And too often it is not heard.  And far too often it is not heard in its best form.  Along with all the multitude of biblical passages that I base my majority view upon, there are other passages that make me uncomfortable in the majority camp.

The Gospels (Matthew 18 and Luke 15) have Jesus giving us a principle of leaving the majority of the sheep (99) to seek out the minority (1).  In context this is a picture of God’s reach to those who are socially and spiritually ‘outside’, ‘lost’ and marginalised; but I can’t help but feel the principle also applies to interpretive disputes as well.

Acts 15 recounts the church dealing with a very difficult issue, and they neither appealed to the anointed authoritative leader (my Catholic brothers and sisters may disagree), nor did they ‘vote’ on it as my Baptist tradition would.  Instead they had ‘no small amount of discussion’ before some leaders drew things together into a consensus.  And what is beautiful is that the view that ended up being wrong (the view that Christians must be circumcised) was included in Luke’s account (though it was arguably not kindly represented in the council’s letter!).

Then there’s Philippians 2:3, within a letter which later instructs Euodia and Syntyche to ‘agree with one another’.  This verse is within a context about imitating the humility of Christ, who was divine but became not just a human, but a slave.  The instruction is to not be conceited, but to humbly ‘consider others better than yourself’.  I know this verse is not about aiming for heresy rather than orthodoxy in the name of humility, but could it maybe help the majority hold their majority with a bit less arrogance, over-certainty and impatience (which admittedly can be needed for the minority at times!)?

And 1 Corinthians 13:9 strikes a death blow to any perfected, complete, omniscient majority view.  In the same letter that uses language about having ‘the mind of Christ’ (in a context still about humility! chapter 2), we have Paul saying that ‘we know in part’.  This epistemological qualifier should give us plenty of hermeneutical humility.

And that is why I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable in the majority.

inclusivism

Attending Catholic Mass, one will hear from time to time a prayer (below) that I think beautifully expresses what is called soteriological inclusivism, a view that I identify broadly within.  Inclusivism lies between exclusivism (which holds that being saved requires (except perhaps in infants or intellectually challenged persons) ‘conscious knowledge’ of Christ as Lord and Saviour) and universalism (which holds that God’s grace is so overwhelmingly powerful that it will win over against the wills and decisions of all people eventually, whether before death, or in some kind of post-mortem scenario).  Inclusivism expresses a hope, or perhaps a conviction, that whilst God will not ‘force’ his grace universally onto all people, it is nonetheless possible for some to, as C.S. Lewis put it somewhere, belong to Christ without themselves knowing it.

God alone may know the faith of some who don’t let others know it, or perhaps cannot even let themselves admit it.  A friend of mine once called this being “a believer who couldn’t believe”.  Here’s how it is expressed in the Catholic liturgy (as found in my copy of the 1982 version of The Sunday Missal; Eucharistic Prayer IV), when the priest offers prayers for the dead:

Remember those who have died in the peace of Christ
and all the dead whose faith is known to you alone.

epiclesis at a free church communion table

After taking bread, and before breaking and giving it to the disciples, Jesus blessed it.  We are given no text for his prayer of blessing, but this simple act is the genesis of what is called ‘epiclesis’; where a priest, minister, pastor (or in some traditions anyone) ‘calls down’ the Holy Spirit on the bread (and also the cup) in preparation for receiving Holy Communion (or ‘Eucharist’ or the ‘Lord’s Supper’).

The Roman Catholic liturgy goes (roughly) like this:

PriestBlessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
fruit of the earth and work of human hands.
It will become for us the bread of life.
All
:  Blessed be God for ever.

Priest Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink.
All
Blessed be God for ever.

As a pastor in a Baptist (‘free church’) congregation, there are (at least!) two things that will make a ‘free church epiclesis’ look different.  First, we do not follow a ‘set’ liturgy out of a prayer book (Anglican) or ‘missal’ (Catholic), so Baptist prayer at the table will be less uniform and more extempore, even if (as I strongly prefer) it follows a tradition or pattern.  Second, we do not affirm transubstantiation, so the word ‘become’ will seem inappropriate, even if many Baptists have and do affirm a spiritual presence of Christ the Host, amongst the ‘body’ of people gathered, at the table, and even somehow ‘with’ or ‘through’ the elements.

So here’s how I think a ‘baptist epiclesis’ might look like.

Minister (raising the bread or portion of it):
Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to share,
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
Through this sign, we eat your flesh.

(raising the cup, or a representative cup)
And through your goodness we have the Cup to share,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
Through this sign, we drink your blood.

mary – channel of salvation?

My recent time at Kopua Monastery and my reading this morning of ‘The Church of Mercy‘ (a lovely collection of addresses and ecclesiastical excerpts from Pope Francis) have me pondering the role and place of Mary in Christian faith.  Given that modern protestants say more about the role Mary does not have, than the role she does have, the question arises: What is the most largest role a Protestant could attribute to Mary?

Theologically, there is a bewildering and striking contrast concerning the role of Mary and God the Father in the Incarnation of God the Son.  It goes like this.  In that the Christ the Son was eternally begotten of the Father, he is fully divine; and in that Jesus of Nazareth was temporally begotten of Mary, he is fully human.  What a contrast this is!  The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is one person with two natures, fundamentally depends on both the willful fathering of his divine Father, and the willful mothering of his human mother.  Here we see up close and in focus the gentle omnipotence of God, who would not force Mary to comply; instead she cooperated with the announcement, saying “Let it be unto me according to Your word.”

So we have Mary’s human willingness as a necessary condition for the Incarnation.  That gives her a historical, past-tense, role in the faith.  Way back when, she was willing.  And so, indeed, she said, “Henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.”  But what of an ongoing role in the faith?  And not just in the sense of ongoing acknowledgement of her “blessed” state (though could that acknowledgement be more – pardon the pun – pregnant than we Protestants have admitted?), but is there more to Mary?

Two Johannine scenes from Scripture, one from John’s gospel and the other from John’s apocalypse (or the ‘Revelation’), rise to the fore.  John’s gospel (19:26-27) has Jesus declaring a new state of relationship between his mother and the disciple he loved.  The disciple is the ‘son’ of Mary, and Mary is the ‘mother’ of the disciple.  There is an either-or concerning the interpretation of this declaration.  One sees this new state of relationship as restricted to these two humans; Jesus wants them to have support after he departs.  The other extends this to all disciples being ‘son’ (and daughters) of Mary, and Mary being the ‘mother’ of all disciples.  John’s apocalypse (12:17) speaks of her according to the latter interpretation, identifying “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony of Jesus” as “the rest of her offspring”.  Are we therefore intended, biblically, from the lips of Jesus, to view Mary, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Revelation 12:1), as our mother?

Consideration of Mary’s role as “co-redeemer”, “mediator” or “advocate” will have to wait, and I admit here my skeptical outlook to those considerations.  But for now, it seems, tentatively, that Protestants, theologically and biblically, can see Mary as not only the God-bearer (Theotokos), but also as ‘our mother’.  Thoughts from other Protestants (or Catholics/Orthodox)?

evangelical blessings and curses

David Bebbington described Evangelicalism (as opposed to Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy) as characterised by these four qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.  In this post, I want to reflect on what may be some strengths and weaknesses in these distinctives, as expressed variously throughout Evangelicalism.

Biblicism is a posture that gives priority to Scripture as a guide for Christian faith and practice.  The other sources for theology (from the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’) tend to be Reason, Tradition and Experience.  The central strength of this priority is that without the scriptural story forming our thinking and acting, we can create versions of faith that look suspiciously like us.  The content and themes of the Bible, climaxing in the person of Jesus and his Gospel of the Kingdom of God, keep us from being blown around by current fashions, interests and trends.  The weakness comes when the priority of the Bible is seen to be not only over but against things like Reason, Tradition and Experience.  Systematic theology, for example, uses reason to formulate statements of doctrine that are as logically coherent as possible.  Church tradition keeps us accountable to the insights, interpretations and experience of the past, not so we cannot change, but so that when we do, we are aware of how and how much and in what way we are doing so.  Experience likewise comes to the table, both to call our thinking and acting to be practical and practice-able, but also generates new questions for us to consider.  So the best kind of biblicism is a humble biblicism that is integrated with and draws from Tradition, Reason and Experience.  Evangelicalism can benefit from other traditions here.

Crucicentrism focuces on the Atoning work of Christ on the cross, dying in our place for our sins.  The strength of this is that it prevents Christ from being reduced to a mere moral example.  Luther also saw the cross as normative for all Christian thinking about God, seeing the suffering, forgiving Christ as the perfect revelation of God, as opposed to the high and lofty ‘theologies of glory’ that may be intuitive to reason and imagination, but nonetheless utterly reframed by the Cross.  The weakness comes when the Cross is not only central, but overshadows the birth (Incarnation), ministry, temptation, resurrection, ascension, Spirit and return of Christ.  Overly focusing on the Cross can reduce the gospel to being mainly or only about sin being forgiven, which leaves other themes panned out of frame, such as the cosmic redemption of all creation, Jesus’ identification with our trials and temptations, his wisdom, his victory over death, empowering presence and coming judgment.  So the best kind of crucicentrism will have a Cross that is integrated with the rest of the Gospel story.  Again, other traditions than Evangelicalism have strengths to offer.

Conversionism is characterised by a passion to see as many individuals as possible hear, respond to, and be transformed by the ‘good news’ of Christ.  The strength here is that conversionism guards against Christianity being reduced to effectively a social programme or soup kitchen.  Christians believe that the real way to change society is (as Miroslav Volf has said in sociological language) to create transformed social agents, or (as traditional Christian language would put it) to call people to repent of their sins and join Jesus’ kingdom project to transform the whole world.  The weakness here comes when efforts to convert individuals leads to the neglect of meeting other human needs.  If indeed the kingdom of God is about the healing of the whole creation, then this needs to be an essential part of Christian ‘evangelism’ or ‘mission’.  Once again, evangelicalism will do well to take cues from other traditions here.

Activism is characterised by a passion to bring Christian values and ethics to bear upon actual life.  The strength here is that it guards against Christianity being effectively a set of ideas and beliefs.  Christianity is an active, prophetic faith, that must be courageously acted out in all of life.  The weakness comes when our activism is either impatient or lazy.  Impatiently, we can ‘force’ our views and values upon people, rather than doing the hard intellectual and relational work for our words and actions to be heard or accepted.  Lazily, we can narrowly focus in on or take action about the same issues that we feel most confident or comfortable with.  Evangelicalism has in recent times known for damning, voting, rallying and otherwise acting ‘against’ a few (predictable?) things, and we need the wisdom, passion, breadth, and resources of other traditions to make our activism better.

hegemony, homosexuality & homophobia

(Leftovers from a great and long chat with a good man today.)

Almost 100 years ago, Antonio Gramsci proposed the idea of “cultural hegemony” where a powerful idea or culture carries immense and controlling force.  One key indicator that a hegemony is at work is when dissenting voices are kept silent out of fear.

A conservative ethic regarding homosexuality – and the homophobia (any level of social discomfort relating to homosexual people) that too often rides on its coattails – has been and can be often so strong in church (sub)cultures, that gay people feel suppressed and silenced out of fear of judgment.  A homophobic hegemony pushing gays into closets.

The irony is this: a liberal/accepting ethic regarding homosexuality – and the angry angst that too often rides on its coattails – has been and can be often so strong in many post-Christian ‘developed’ contexts and culture, that conservatives also feel suppressed and silenced out of fear of judgment.  A liberal hegemony pushing conservatives into cloisters.

Or in other words, for every action there is (often?) an equal-opposite reaction.

  • Action – some conservative Christians heaped shame on people attracted to the same sex.
  • Reaction – some liberal Westerners heaped shame on people who heaped shame on people attracted to the same sex.

As a Christian with a conservative ethic on homosexuality, rather than defensively fight for my ‘right to be conservative’, I’d rather go to the source, and oppose the homophobia which feeds the shaming and intimidation of people attracted to the same sex.