I am always intrigued to know peoples’ thought processes as they hear or read the Gospels. How do we process these stories? How do we seek to apply them, particularly on this, a Baptismal Sunday? I’d love to know what everyone is thinking right now in relation to today’s passage.
Sometimes I feel I am in a parallel universe. Why are many Christians so theologically illiterate?
“When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.”
(Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
Saturday, August 9, 2014
I am always intrigued to know peoples’ thought processes as they hear or read the Gospels. How do we process these stories? How do we seek to apply them, particularly on this, a Baptismal Sunday? I’d love to know what everyone is thinking right now in relation to today’s passage.
As a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I sat here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? What if I didn’t actually trust this man Jesus? What if I was a Pharisee?
I have to do this because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel stories and their lack of background detail: they seem so clinical and succinct. I want to know that there was someone there who kept coughing at inopportune moments, or that there were children playing nearby, or that there were cooking smells or that it had just rained.
But not this time: today’s Gospel taps into a phobia of mine. I am not at all comfortable on a boat – however big. Some years ago, I travelled from Tallinn in Estonia to Helsinki in Finland by ferry and back again – in the depths of winter with a leaden sky and horizontal snow. It was a memorable journey. I wanted to kiss the ground when I disembarked.
As we arrived at the ferry terminal I was immediately horrified by our ferry: it looked like a tug. It fought with the ice for most of the journey so violently and my travel companions and I couldn’t escape to the outer decks to nurse our misery because of the intense cold – colder than I have ever been before or since. We finally found a place in the bar but we didn’t think drinking would be too clever, but we did note upon arrival back in Tallinn that there were many who had decided on that refuge to the extent that they were so drunk the crew couldn’t tell whether they were Estonians or Finns. So we sat there in the most surreal of settings imaginable, pale green with sea-sickness while half a dozen couples - seasoned veterans clearly - spent the evening dancing exhibition Latin American and ballroom to a live five piece band - including (I kid you not) the theme to “Titanic”. So strong is that image at a time when I firmly believed I was going to die that I fully expected my journey into resurrection to be accompanied by a woman wearing red sequins and dancing a rumba!
Fear is the word that comes to mind: fear of circumstances being beyond our control, fear of the ice, of the cold and fear that death could be just a moment away. Such is the fear, I’m sure that the disciples in the boat felt when they were “battered by the waves” on Lake Galilee one evening as they waited for Jesus to finish his private prayers.
I can hardly imagine someone walking on a sea when it is calm, much less when the waves are rolling and the wind is whipping the surface of the sea. Yet Jesus comes along, not reassuring the disciples by his arrival but initially adding to their fear. Their first reaction is that he must be a “Ghost”. Jesus’ unrecognized presence on the sea was a threat to the disciples. So, in order to calm their fears, Jesus identifies himself, but the real test for that early morning, was whether they could trust his four-fold word to them, “Take heart; have no fear; it is I;” and then to Peter, “come”.
These words might just seem like a quick reassurance but they are full of resonance and meaning and we must imagine them being delivered with great authority.
“Take heart,” recalls Moses’ words to the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea with the pursuing Egyptians right behind them. “Take heart; do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” says Moses. And “do not be afraid” runs through the Gospel narratives spoken by God’s messengers to Joseph and Mary, by Jesus to Peter, John, and James on the mount of the Transfiguration, by God’s messenger to the women at the tomb and by Jesus as he sends the disciples into the mission field. Finally, “it is I,” that takes us back to the burning bush and God’s thundering, “I am who I am,” and all the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel.
Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. It has become another phrase along the lines of “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
And here we are as Emma and Paul bring Luke, and Wayne and Kelly bring Kyara to baptism this passage takes on another resonance: Emma and Paul and Wayne and Kelly have decided that they, their friends and family want what Peter experienced for Luke and for Kyara: they want the children to be equipped to respond to Jesus’ call to “Come”. They want Kyara and Luke to be able to cope with the storms and the uncertainties which life will throw at them with the confidence that keeping their eyes on Jesus will bring them through; confident that they can, in Jesus own words, “Take heart” and be reassured; that they can overcome their fear because their lives have been built on the foundation of he who said, “I am who I am”, and “I am the bread of life”, “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
When Jesus says, “Come,” Peter has to respond. In this respect we have to see Peter here as a template for Christians down the ages and therefore for Kyara and Luke - and that for me is the key point: we are faced with how we interpret Jesus’ words in any given Gospel passage whether we read it or hear it. We need to be clear who Jesus is talking to. Well, we see Jesus here talking to Peter and if we, all this time later, consider ourselves also to be disciples then this passage is most certainly for us to hear - and to act upon. The Gospel passages have to have the power to challenge us and to change or they will remain marginally interesting pieces of religious literature, nothing more.
So, in whatever situation we find ourselves, when Jesus says “Come!” we’re faced with the same choice as Peter was and today as Wayne and Kelly and Emma and Paul are for their children.
When Peter steps out of the boat, the reader and Peter are given the startling truth that this indeed is the one who commands the waves. This is the “I AM” who revealed himself to Moses and who has intervened with saving power so many times in the history of Israel that we should pay attention now.
This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. The point of this presence is not to show us that God has supernatural powers so much as to give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might wade out into the storm with God’s help. In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God present in our world, we are commanded to go out into the water, knowing that in the storms of this life Jesus is with us.
In a book I was recently reading, several Characters are about to embark on a dangerous journey. One of them, fearfully asks, “Is it safe?” The leader replies, simply, “No. Let’s Go!” This is, I suppose, the very situation that we face, really when we wake each day. We rise in the morning and look at the news to discover that our world continues to be rocked by bombs and terror, by kidnapping and murder, by disease and famine. We might not even know that we do it, but each of us prays wordlessly to God, “Is it safe?” And the reply comes back, simply, “No. Lets Go!”
It is hard, isn’t it, to imagine ourselves in such a set of circumstances as Peter however we might seek to put a personal gloss on what “the storm” might be interpreted to mean in our own lives when we are in the midst of our own discomfort and we call on Jesus for help: work; study; relationships; personal crises of faith; frustration with the culture and politics of our time; our own sense of our Christian calling – whatever destabilises us and distresses us. And as we consider ourselves, let’s not forget those whose personal storm is to be driven from their homes with the threat of death hanging over them for being identified as disciples – in Iraq and Syria, in Southern Sudan and Northern Nigeria. What can this passage mean to them? Is there any way that we can respond to Jesus on their behalf when he calls “Come!” rather than concentrating on our own woes, given the contrast in their traumas to those of our own?
We also know that when Peter’s attention returned to the wind and the water, he began to sink and then, as if it had not already been so, his only hope was Jesus. The final good news in this passage comes as Peter falters and starts to sink. We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. That’s life. Only fools pretend otherwise.
This isn’t, as some Christians might imply, a story of Jesus as the magic talisman, protecting us from all dangers. No. This is Jesus who enables us to cope in those dangers.
And see as Peter does - and as Luke and Kyara hopefully will - that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from our Lord, do not, in fact, take us outside of his care and concern.
It is my prayer that we will look not to our own feelings for a way out of the problems that we face as individuals and as a church, but rather look to the one who walks calmly in the midst of our storms, our anxieties and our personal and institutional controversies. When, surrounded by the moving waves, we falter, will we too grasp Jesus steady hand? Or will he huddle in the safe and comfortable boxes and routines we have established for ourselves as our inadequate coping strategies to fend off the outside world? The choice is ever before us! The great “I AM” continues to walk out in the chaotic waters of the world. How will we answer when he bids us, “Come!”?
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
‘And he said to them “Have you understood all this?” and they answered “Yes.”’ Well that’s a first – or at least it seems like it. The poor disciples have got a bit of a bad press, although less so in Matthew’s Gospel, for being a bit dense. More often than not we read that they had to have a special tutorial with Jesus because they hadn’t understood the nature of the parables: just before this section Jesus had told them the Parable of the Sower and had had to explain it to them in detail. In fact every time Jesus tells a parable it seems to me to be The Parable of the Sower all over again with the disciples taking the various roles outlined there:
Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
The disciples came to him and said, “We don’t get it.”
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
I know I will have said this here before but when we hear or read Bible passages we always need to ask ourselves whether or not we are the primary or intended audience for the teaching in any particular passage. There are times when Jesus appears to be speaking to the Disciples, for instance, but is, in fact, talking to the Pharisees. So who is today’s Gospel passage directed at? We are told at the start of this chapter that “great crowds” had turned out to see Jesus: these were a real mixture of people and whatever motive they had for being there we would have to characterise them as “enquirers” and that would include the Disciples. Well, we’ve turned out to hear Jesus this morning: that must make us enquirers and many of us would self-identify as Disciples, so this teaching is directly for us and yes, like some of the them we can also be a bit dense from time to time, so a quick recap on the Sower wouldn’t go amiss for us too.
Some of you know I’ve recently retired from the full-time teaching of Religious Studies and this parable constantly puts me in mind of a group of less able teenagers:
· The seed in the parable is the word of God. Well in my classroom it’s the word of Sir, although that could encompass the word of God.
· Some seed falls on the path and the birds steal it. We are told the evil one snatches it away. Now far be it from me to describe any of my former students as evil but, “Sir, I can’t concentrate. Ryan’s stabbing me with a pen.”
· The seed on rocky ground is the seed that can’t take root because it has no depth of soil and so may sprout quickly and showily but shrivel up quickly. “Sir, I couldn’t do the homework.”
But you were getting it right in the lesson.
“Yeah, but when I got home I didn’t get it.”
· The seed in the weed patch represents those who are easily distracted by what’s going on around them. Where’s Tom? He was supposed to be presenting his topic this morning.
“Sir, he’s got football practice.”
· Which leaves the seed which fell on the good soil and grew and flourished: This year Gemma has worked conscientiously; has taken a pride in her work and has shown evidence of real progress. She takes an active role in class discussions and is always prepared to ask when she doesn’t understand.
To me, the point about parables is that they are supposed to make us think. Too many of my students want to be spoon-fed. “I don’t get it.” Is the perpetual whine of most teenagers in the classroom and it’s shorthand for “I can’t be bothered to think about it.”
Well, we may not be teenagers but don’t we sometimes find ourselves in a similar mindset? “This is too hard. Just tell me!” It doesn’t say much for our discipleship does it?
“Whoever has ears, let them hear!” We’re supposed to struggle with it because often Jesus does leave the parable with its hidden moral unexplained and we are expected to be the seed that lands on fertile ground. “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
.” The Theologian N.T. Wright once wrote, "For too long we've read Scripture with 19th century eyes and 16th century questions. It's time we get back to reading with 1st century eyes and 21st century questions.” I identify very strongly with this observation: what are we today to make of the parables?We look at the parables today - and this may just be me, of course, - but they lose something by their familiarity: “Oh yeah, I know that one.” And we pay less attention. They are also stories of their time and reveal the culture and concerns of the people of Jesus’ day. That impact may be to some extent lost on us today but we mustn’t underestimate the impact those stories would have had then: Jesus wrapped up his teaching in examples from everyday life that people could identify with. He talks about family life because everyone was, or had been, in a family; at a time when people built their own homes, he used building as an example; when most people were subsistence farmers, Jesus talked about agriculture; in today’s passage Jesus uses cooking as an example and on other occasions he talked about housekeeping; today he addresses the fishermen in his audience; today he talks about buying and selling. “The Kingdom of God is like this ….” By using simple examples from everyday life Jesus makes his message more understandable.
I think we all have a tendency to do that don’t we? I realised after I’d written it that I had done the same: to help make my point I talked about life in the classroom. We’ve all been teenagers. Many of us are parents. We understand about school. I simply put Jesus’ parable into a more modern context and I understand it better as a consequence.
Take the parable of the Good Samaritan: it’s one that I’ve used in the classroom regularly with 11 and 12 year olds. I read it to them. They look at me as if to say “So what?” Then I explain to them that I’ve been to Israel and I’ve done the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho – albeit by air-conditioned coach – and that it would be a difficult trek to make on foot because of the inhospitable semi-desert landscape and I show them pictures.
At the time of Jesus it was a notorious place for the mugging of the lone or unwary traveller. When Jesus told this story, “There was a man who set off from Jerusalem to Jericho ….” His audience would have identified with the context: many would have done that journey themselves or they’d have known someone else who had. They knew about the trauma of that journey in the heat of the day through an arid landscape and of the importance of travelling in a group for safety. When Jesus talked of a lone traveller he’d got their attention because they were already forming an opinion of someone who was foolish enough to go on his own. Now my kids are listening because it’s become real.
Then their task is to update the story because finding a modern context for the moral makes that moral more compelling. It becomes about them, not some people from ancient history. And they are very creative: they talk about Leeds United fans being beaten up by Manchester United fans and, bleeding in the gutter with no mobile phones, are ignored by passing nuns – you’d be amazed by how many nuns are walking the streets where my pupils live – before being taken care of by a decent upright Manchester United fan. We’ve had soldiers in a war zone, astronauts and aliens. You name it and my kids can use it to retell the Parable of The Good Samaritan.
The point is, if I’d left it at a reading of the original, which seed would they have been in the context of the Parable of the Sower? They don’t forget their own versions, though. Which seed are they now?
We can all do that. We don’t have to be semi-detached when hearing a parable because it is overfamiliar in its original setting, so I think my challenge today – to myself as much as to you – is to go away and think about the stories Jesus told; to struggle to find the meaning or the hidden moral and, while remaining faithful to that moral, to reset it in the present.
Look back at the example that starts today’s Gospel passage. This is a parable about spiritual maturity and the growth of faith that benefits others. I don’t identify with mustard seeds. What could I use from my own culture and historical context that would be as compelling to me as football is to my pupils in the retelling of the Good Samaritan - and which would stick in my mind?
Then we have, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast”. This is a parable about us as the yeast being spread equally in our society and making a radical change and difference to the original. Most of us no longer bake our own bread. How could we rework this parable to make it as fresh today as would have been when Jesus first told it?
As for fine pearls, well perhaps the story would have more resonance if it was about the unexpected discovery of early shares in Facebook.
How do we describe the Kingdom of God to others? At the heart of all that I’ve pondered on here, it seems to me that we are talking about mission. I take this short series of parables as a challenge to me to come to a better understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven breaking in around me and then to be able to explain it to others in simple terms they can identify with.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
(Picture from Simon Smith's wonderful contemporary Easter Story "Raised in Leeds". Click on to enlarge.)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It would have been easy for the disciples to assume that everything was over. The call, the commitment, the commission could have all ended on that fateful Friday, when the one to whom they had committed their lives was executed. Even in the face of the resurrection, there did not have to be an understanding that what began three years earlier would continue. The trauma of the crucifixion had sent them scattering into hiding in fear and grief. And as much as Jesus had tried to prepare them, they really weren't ready for life and work without him. It could have been over.
But something happened after they received the testimony of the women. "He's not dead. He's alive!" they said. "Go and meet him in Galilee." And when the disciples gathered, the resurrected Christ, the living Lord, Jesus, met them there. But as Jesus greets them and they're worshipping him there are still some questions, there is still some uncertainty. We don’t, of course, hear Jesus’ full response – that’s what is often so frustrating about the Gospels, they are not a verbatim record of the conversation, merely, as we might put it, edited highlights, but Matthew tells us that as part of his response Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
That is the gist of today’s Gospel passage and, short as it is, it takes some unpacking.
I think the first thing I’d like to say may well be something that I’ve said before here and it is about the nature of how we interpret Jesus’ words in any given passage. We need to be clear who Jesus is talking to. Well, we see Jesus here talking to his disciples and if we, all this time later, consider ourselves also to be followers or disciples then this passage is most certainly for us to hear - and to act upon.
This passage is often called The Great Commission: it sets out very clearly an instruction, an imperative - and therefore not an option - in terms of making disciples of others. It’s The Great Commission, not the Great Suggestion. However, there are many today who would say that we have failed in our obligation and that we should call it instead The Great Omission.
The church really does seem to have lost sight of its mission to make disciples. This is one of the reasons why the traditional churches in the main with one or two notable exceptions are struggling to grow; Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed and so on. The statistics don't look good. The church is not replenishing itself with a new generation of disciples and we aren’t reaching the younger generation.
What has happened? Why can't the church today be like the early church? The answer comes through something that a number of Christian commentators have noted: "If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the Church today, 95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament Church, 95% of what they did would have stopped, and everybody would have known the difference." To put it another way, we do too much in our own strength and from our own agendas.
Last week in the Town Hall we heard a stirring sermon for Pentecost Sunday. We were told about the transforming nature of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the first disciples and how that power is available to all disciples down the ages since. The following day I came upon a cartoon which showed the inside of seemingly empty church but there were two speech bubbles coming from under the pews. One was asking, “Is he still here?” and the other was replying, “Yes, stay put. He’s looking at the notice board.” It made me smile. Is this how Christians today really approach Pentecost Sunday and the receipt of the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit? Yet here we are and the expectation is, that as the story unfolds, we are in receipt of that awesome power and we’re certainly going to need it for The Great Commission!
Is the Holy Spirit the driving force of the church today? If we are to reclaim the fire of the Spirit the early church had, if we are to share our witness effectively we must be willing to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit! That's what the early followers of Christ did! They were not sophisticated people. They hadn't been to college; they hadn't read books on church growth and marketing the church. They simply made themselves available to the Holy Spirit. And look what happened in Acts chapter 2, "Each one heard them speaking in his own language." It was clear! The Holy Spirit did it through them because they were simply willing to be used! The Holy Spirit broke through communication barriers and the gospel translated.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves again what the text says. What we have is, “All authority is given to me and I am sending you.” The unavoidable truth is that as Christians we are called to bear witness, to tell people about Jesus--to make disciples. Now, this may scare some of you to death: it certainly does me!
Well, let’s also note that the passage talks of making disciples, not converts! If all authority belongs to Jesus, the mission of the church is not to convert people -- only the Holy Spirit who expresses that authority in the world can do that -- but to invite or urge others to join us on the road of following Jesus. Jesus does not command us to maximize conversions but to enable people of all backgrounds to become true and lasting disciples.
Integral to that process of discipleship is learning to walk the road alongside people of different backgrounds.
In words usually attributed to Archbishop William Temple, “The church is the only institution that exists to serve the needs of those who are not its members, so Christian mission is about assisting what God is doing in the world.”
So Christian mission is about assisting what God is doing in the world.
When I was at Vicar School, one of our first modules was that of Mission. It was one of the ones I most enjoyed. We were taught about the Missio Dei - The Mission of God. Mission is not the church going out and saving people. Rather, it is God creating and saving the world. The mission of God came first and the church was created as a response to that. That makes the church a product of mission rather than the other way round. I sat up and began to take serious notice here: The mission of God came first and the church was created as a response to that. That makes the church a product of mission rather than the other way round. Wow! And I think of the hours I have spent in church meetings trying to plan the next parish mission!
Now, all approaches to evangelism are valid but there should be a balance rather than a heavy reliance on one method. I have very strong memories as a teenager of feeling “guilt tripped” over the model of evangelism that was being promoted then. “You have to tell people about Jesus. You must speak up or they will be damned.” I have never felt comfortable with the altar-call approach to mission and it came as a surprise and relief to discover an approach to the Missio Dei which advises being reactive rather than proactive, reactive rather than proactive: discern where God is already at work and join him there, after all, it is God’s mission. I no longer had to be apologetic about mission: I simply had to be as good a role model of discipleship as the Holy Spirit gave me the grace to be and see what happened.
As someone who comes into contact with people from a variety of faith backgrounds, and is trained to teach about them, I have always been interested in the interface between Christianity and other religions and the wisdom I find there. The Magi, the Centurion, the Syrophoenecian Woman and others were not Jews, but their witness was valid and affirmed in the New Testament, so I can talk to my Muslim, Sikh and Hindu colleagues about my faith and I don’t have to smack them around the head with my Bible. I do, however need to listen in return because that is the nature of dialogue and yet we can get so much more over about the nature of our beliefs if what we are doing is chatting, so much more than if we were lecturing or berating. We don’t convert, the Holy Spirit does and we don’t know what seeds we may plant for the Holy Spirit to work on.
People take notice when the church becomes involved in social action: the negativity which often characterises the public’s attitude to the church, and therefore by extension to Christianity, is replaced by a general positivity when the church speaks out with authority on behalf of the poor and marginalised. It is as if the majority of people I meet are somehow subliminally programmed to expect the church to speak out against injustice, a positivity which is not apparent towards the street preacher outside Marks and Spencer. We bring the Kingdom closer when Christians stand alongside others for an end to poverty and oppression even if it risks the wrath of politicians?
I am also struck by the opportunities for discussions about faith which arise naturally. That I am a Christian is widely known by those I regularly meet: as a Religious Studies teacher discussions about matters of faith are everyday – often with colleagues too. It’s best not to second guess the Holy Spirit: all conversations that take place in the street, in the supermarket and at the bus stop are mission conversations because they bring the Kingdom of God closer; every one of those people is potentially a penitent thief on the cross so all conversations are potentially a means of grace - but rarely if that other person feels that there is an agenda for conversion - but rarely if that other person feels that there is an agenda for conversion. I cannot earn God’s favour by speaking about him but His grace won’t be limited when I do. However we approach mission we must show genuineness, empathy and respect and question our motivation. Is what I am doing the Missio Dei - God’s mission - or is there another agenda?
Monday, May 5, 2014
As before, I am looking at Stephen Spencer’s studyguide Christian Mission.
Enlightenment Modern Mission
This approach to mission is concerned as much about the physical and mental conditions in which people live as their spiritual lives. It is rooted in what Küng calls the Enlightenment Modern paradigm, itself formed by key ideas of the eighteenth century Enlightenment in European culture. It was a hugely influential approach to mission in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leading to a construction of schools, hospitals and other educational and medical work all around the world and also propelling Christian laity and clergy into the forefront of social reform in the West. With Christian contributions to the founding of the welfare state in Britain, this mission type arguably reached the height of its influence.
In some ways the Protestant Reformation provided a seedbed of the Enlightenment Modern paradigm. This was through its theology of the two kingdoms and the way this brought about an increasing separation of civil and spiritual realms. The Church was to be concerned with the latter, while the state and civil society were concerned with the former. On political, social, economic and even moral questions the Church was gradually sidelined: its concern was to be the things of Heaven rather than of Earth. This resulted in the Church losing control of scientific endeavour and the post-Reformation period in Europe saw the blossoming of scientific exploration across the continent. In this paradigm, the Kingdom lies in the future but is being realized through human progress. Jesus is present among us as the pioneer of of a new humanity which is gradually coming about.
Bosch, writing in Transforming Mission, provides a helpful summary of key features within this new way of thinking:
· It was pre-eminently the Age of Reason, where reason was seen to belong not only to believers but to all people.
· It operated within the subject-object scheme, in which nature ceased to be “creation” and was no longer peoples’ teacher but the object of their analysis.
· It eliminated purpose from science, introducing direct causality as the clue to understanding reality.
· It believed in the notion of progress with exploration of the world as well as science opening up new possibilities for human living, convincing many that humanity had the ability and the will to remake the world in its own image.
· Scientific knowledge was regarded as factual, value-free and neutral, and as really the only kind of knowledge that counts.
· All problems were in principle solvable, though it would take time to solve them.
· Human beings are now emancipated, autonomous individuals.
Taken together, these ideas represent a revolution in European thought: the Age of Reason saw an increasing turn away from supernatural revelation as the source of truth and an increasing suspicion of medieval thought as stifling.
The Enlightenment also saw the rise of historical consciousness developing out of a critical study of history, including the Bible.
There were political consequences too. The rise of individualism implied the rise of democratic ideals and the overthrow of the medieval monarchies. The two most significant examples were the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.
Scientific understanding led to the development of newer technologies and commercial expansion overseas followed in the nineteenth century, which carried European culture, philosophy and education to many points around the globe. The Age of Reason became the Age of Empire, which harnessed technology and industrialisation for the scramble for global domination by the European powers.
The Enlightenment belief in progress, and especially in European culture’s progress within science, technology, philosophy and politics, had a major influence on a new type of mission within churches. Progress suggested the imminent this-worldly global triumph of Christianity. Some believed that the entire world would soon be converted to Christianity or that Christianity was an irresistible power in the process of reforming the world, eradicating poverty, and restoring justice for all. The spread of Christian knowledge would suffice in achieving these aims. The philosopher Leibnitz described the Church’s task in the world as the propagation of Christianity through science or knowledge. The advance of the honour of God was equated with the good of mankind.
The increasing provision of education became one of the most significant by the churches in nineteenth century Britain and God’s Kingdom would become increasingly aligned with the culture and civilization of the West.
The second half of the twentieth century has also seen this type of mission promoted in various parts of the worldwide Church, though in different ways. For instance, in The World Council of Churches report The Church for Others (1967), the particular role in the mission of God was seen as pointing to God at work in history, to discover what he is doing, to catch up with it and to get involved ourselves: for God’s primary relationship is to the World and it is the world that must be allowed to provide the agenda for the churches.
The Roman Catholic world also embraced this kind of socially and historically rooted outlook. The initial impetus came from the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes, which, in rousing language called on the Church to turn outwards to the world in which it lived. This led to the Bishops of Latin America responding to that call with solidarity and applying it to their own context. As the Bishops opened their vision and hearts to the peoples’ struggle for justice they initiated the Liberation Theology movement.
A different and influential example is the 1985 C of E report Faith in the City, a response to inner-city riots which made it clear that both church and nation needed to take anew look at the most deprived areas in the larger cities and the recent growth of poverty. This was fiercely attacked by the Conservative government of Mrs. Thatcher.
Mission within Postmodernity
The roots of this new theological paradigm partly lie in the collapse of Enlightenment aspirations. The Age of Reason became the colonial age of empire in which European powers harnessed technology and industrialisation for the scramble for global domination. The next step along this road was war between the competing European powers which many see as the outcome of the Enlightenment era. These desperate events included the Holocaust and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities and for many these events undermined the belief in the existence of human progress based on reason and technology. While the work of church schools, hospitals and political involvement undoubtedly improved the physical wellbeing of many people, such work had not resolved or begun to resolve the ultimate issues and questions of the reign of God.
A second key development during this period has been mass immigration into western societies from the Indian sub-continent, Africa, the West Indies and central Asia which resulted in the rise of pluralist societies in Europe with different religions, cultures, languages and customs rubbing shoulders with each other in the larger European cities. This has included not just the arrival of other faith groups but also Pentecostalist forms of Christianity.
In the latter part of the twentieth century these two developments gave rise to a new way of relativistic thinking in Western culture - at least in the urban centres. This is often referred to as “postmodernism” and has led some commentators to describe the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first century as the start of a new postmodern era, contributed to by writers such as Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud and many others, who claimed to provide systems of political, religious or cultural ideas.
In tandem with these traumatic social and cultural events there has been an unfolding theological revolution. Karl Barth led a revolt against the way of thinking which had seen religion as concerned with the cultivation of people’s spiritual faculties and which believed that humanity might achieve union with the divine by gradually leading itself to God.
Christ’s revelation is primary for Barth: everything else must be seen in the light of that. The discipline of theology must have Christ’s life, death and resurrection - or “The Christ Event” - as he called it as the beginning, the middle and the end. Theology consists in tracing the significance of this event for every aspect of life. Christ, the Word of God, reveals the truth of all things. Barth’s theology does not begin with general and abstract philosophical arguments about the “ground of being” or “the feeling of absolute dependence” as nineteenth century theologians tended to do. He begins with God as revealed by Christ in his birth, death and resurrection: he addresses the doctrine of God and brings the doctrine of the Trinity to the centre stage because he sees the nature of God as defined by the interrelations of the Son, the Holy Spirit and the Father. Even when Barth explores the doctrine of Creation he relates it to Christ. He describes God’s work in creating the world as being about setting in place the right conditions for the revelation of his Son.
Barth was first misunderstood and rejected, especially in Britain and North America: his theology was labelled a “neo-orthodoxy” and dismissed as reactionary but now he is recognised as a pioneer of an approach to theology which is no longer dependent on philosophy or the study of history and has found its authority in transcendent revelation: the Word of God as found in the Christ Event. The Kingdom of God comes as His gracious gift, as a transcendent reality breaking into the corruption and failures of human life.
Barth was the key figure behind the coining of the phrase missio Dei as a summary of mission’s dependence on the initiative and substance of God himself. Mission was not to be seen as one of humanities building projects, carried forward by its own strength and reason, but as a divine movement in which the church was privileged to participate.
One of Barth’s students, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, who resisted the Nazis and was put to death by them, has been described as the architect of a new way of understanding the mission of the church. He believed that the Christian community was the concrete presence of Christ in the world and needed to be valued and nurtured as such. He also saw that the Christian life, if taken seriously, is no easy matter. He opposed what he called the offering of cheap grace by the established churches to their members. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he described the costly nature of following Christ, a way of service rather than domination. His writings, and particularly his Letters and Papers from Prison, help to articulate a theology of mission implicit in the witness of his life.
Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion and trying to transfigure it….It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world…. The church is only her true self when she exists for humanity. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
Christian mission, then, is about the church laying aside its own power and becoming open and vulnerable to the world, giving itself to serving the needs of others, locating itself where they live and, only then, finally, seeking to communicate the meaning of the gospel: Christian mission is all about witness out of a prior vulnerability.
This open-ended approach to mission has been expressed in an increasing number of places in the latter part of the twentieth century, especially as migration has resulted in people of different faiths increasingly living side by side and churches have had to enter into dialogue with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others. This has taken place at every level, though not usually under the label of “mission”. Dialogue is the norm and necessary manner of every form of Christian mission, as well as every aspect of it, whether one speaks of simple presence and witness or direct proclamation. Any sense of mission not permeated by such a dialogical spirit would go against the demands of true humanity and against the teaching of the gospel. (Bevans and Schroeder: Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today.)
As Bosch affirms, We do not have all the answers and are prepared to live within the framework of penultimate knowledge, that we regard our involvement in dialogue and mission as an adventure, are prepared to take risks and are anticipating surprises as the Spirit guides us into fuller understanding. (Transforming Mission)
Gibbs and Bolger, writing in Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Culture, conducted extensive research into the Emerging Churches movement in Britain and the U.S. They identified patterns most prevalent in churches that take postmodern culture seriously. The three core practices are;
· Identifying with the life of Jesus, including welcoming the outcast, hosting the stranger and challenging the political authorities by creating an alternative community.
· Transforming secular space in the same way that postmodernity calls into question the separation of sacred and secular.
· Living as a community within all realms of the life of their members, not just within a Sunday morning meeting.
This strong sense of the missio Dei has led some leaders to renounce traditional evangelism altogether. We do not do evangelism or have mission. The Holy Spirit is the evangelist, and the mission belongs to God. What we do is simply live our lives publicly as a community in the way of Jesus Christ, and when people enquire as to why we live this way, we share with them an account of the hope within us…. Taking care of the sick and needy creates all the evangelism we need. (Gibbs and Bolger)
Thursday, May 1, 2014
As before, I am looking at Stephen Spencer’s studyguide Christian Mission.
As Constantine took control of the Western Empire he stopped persecution of the church. His family and court began to adopt the faith in increasing numbers and Christianity effectively became the state religion. The church began to become the religious arm of the Roman government. This shows the birth of “Christendom”, with the Christian community firmly embedded within the political structure in a position of power and wealth, but under a Christian monarch who has authority over the church as well as the state.
The Emperor was being given a mandate to use the power of the empire to bring its diverse peoples into the Christian religion and the use of coercion within mission was being sanctioned. While Constantine himself allowed a plurality of religions to be practiced in the empire, later emperors, particularly Theodosius, would proscribe all religions except Christianity.
All this throws light on the statement in the Nicene Creed that the Church was “one” as well as “holy”, “catholic” and “apostolic”. The Church was to be one as the empire was one, exercising authority over everyone within the empire. The Christendom paradigm had made its appearance: there was to be one order with Christ at the head and beneath him, the Emperor or, later, the Pope. Implicit within this was a new understanding of mission: the Church was to come into an increasing unity with the state and together do all they could to incorporate more and more people within its jurisdiction. The Church, in other words, was to work for the establishing of Christendom.
In the Eastern empire, this marriage of church and state remained as the norm for the next thousand years. In the Western empire the situation was more confused with the invasion of Goth hoards and the sack of Rome but St. Augustine established a theological framework that would give the church a renewed sense of its own inherent authority in the medieval world. Based on his reading of St. Paul in Galatians and Romans he became increasingly convinced of the deep corruption and sinfulness of humankind and of its inability to raise itself up. He developed the doctrine of original sin to account for this weakness and he saw that salvation must be entirely the gift of God, learning from St. Paul’s teaching on justification. This theology brought the cross to the centre of the faith: it was Christ’s death on the cross that achieved salvation for the believer, not their own efforts. It also shows that God must be the one who decides who shall be saved and who will not. The seeds of the doctrine of predestination are sown here. It is God who moves towards us, having predestined some to be saved and others not to be saved.
All of this is significant to mission because it places the individual soul at the centre of mission: to belong to a corporate community that has access to the gate of heaven, as in the Hellenistic paradigm, is not enough. The issue is whether the individual has appropriated that fact for themselves. The community as a whole, through its teaching and liturgy can aid that process but it cannot do this on their behalf: justification through the cross of Christ can only be appropriated by the individual believer. Bosch describes this as the individualisation of salvation and it would have dramatic effects on the practice of Christian mission, especially during the reformation era.
For Augustine, the Church was an indispensable because God’s gift was given through the Church: only membership of the church could allow salvation to be imparted to a believer, for salvation depended on unity with the church of the apostles. This meant that an awareness of boundaries between people came back into mission theology: Augustine’s theology created a sharp and decisive boundary between those who were part of the sacramental life of the Church and those who were not, and mission became all about moving them across this boundary. It is God who moves towards us, having predestined some to be saved and others not to be saved. Those to be saved belong to the city of God: the rest belong to the earthly city; in this life both cities are intermingled but in the next life they will be separated.
This association of a church-centred mission with coercion was to gain strength over the course of the Middle Ages. Pope Gregory advocated that those who would not listen to “reason” be “chastised by beating and torture, whereby they might be brought to amendment” and free men were to be jailed. All of this was for the non-believers’ own good.
Spencer goes on to discuss the relationship between Pope Leo III and the Emperor Charlemagne to explain how the relationship between church and state was strengthened. The Poe’s responsibility was to intercede for the Emperor and his military campaigns. Each needed the other.
In the Church of England today we see vestiges of this paradigm in the Monarch’s role of Supreme Governor of the Church.
Protestant Reformation Mission
Augustine bequeathed a deep theological contradiction to the medieval world, one which helps to explain the eruption of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. He stressed the city of God and the earthly city, arguing that the church contained both good and bad and it would not be until the final consummation that the two groups would be separated and this led him to adopt the idea that God must have predestined those who are saved. He espoused the Cyprian principle that there is no salvation outside the church. However, he also argued the Pauline doctrine of Justification by God’s grace: salvation is given freely to the sinner by God and this could only be received by an inner conversion of the soul, a reception that only God can see.
Martin Luther is the pioneer of the Reformation paradigm of Christianity and, within that, the Protestant Reformation type of mission. This took place at a time of the rise of humanist learning with its undermining of much medieval theological thinking and at a time when ordinary people began, firstly to tire of the Pope’s attempts to commercialise the business of religion and then to be opposed to it.
Luther was an Augustinian monk and the turning point for him was a theological one: he experienced an increasing sense of anguish and despair as he failed repeatedly to live up to the holy and righteous life. He came to believe that the Epistle to the Romans was the most important document of the New Testament: the Gospel in its purest expression. While he accepted the Augustinian doctrine of original sin and the dependency of humanity on God, he concluded that a believer could only be declared righteous through faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In this sense he agreed with Augustine but he rejected Augustine’s contradictory idea of predestination as found in his doctrine of two cities. The crucial arena for the receiving of salvation was within the soul of the believer and what took place was known only to God. The corporate life of the Church ceases to have any direct role in the securing of salvation and Luther was particularly critical of the corruption of the church of his day, particularly through the selling of indulgences. The doctrine of justification by grace through faith gave a theological rationale for sidelining the institutional church in the salvation of the believer. The key relationship was between the believer and God and was a direct one-to-one engagement. Everything else was secondary to this and therefore there could be no coercion to outward shows of faith.
A second important strand in Luther’s thinking was the elevation of scripture over the church as the authoritative guide in the life of the Christian. It was Luther’s own reading of Romans which had opened his eyes to the true nature of salvation whereas the teaching of the church had clouded these truths. If scripture taught all things necessary for salvation then it was scripture that should be recognised as the primary authority in the life of the Christian. This, of course, meant that it needed to be accessible to the individual and therefore needed to be translated into the languages of ordinary people rather than in Latin which, as most people did not understand it, could only be interpreted to them by the church. In addition Luther ejected the idea of a “spiritual” and a “secular” estate: All Christians truly belong to the spiritual estate and there is no difference between them apart from their office … We all have one baptism, gospel and faith which alone make us spiritual and a Christian people. This has become known as the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and it became a central feature of the new Reformation paradigm. Inevitably these ideas began to spread and take root elsewhere in Europe where they were championed by native theologians.
In each nation or area of civil government the unity of church was to be secured by an established religion: Now anywhere you hear or see the word of God preached, believed, confessed, acted upon, do not doubt that the true Holy Christian Church must be there. This clearly shows the centrality of preaching to the life and mission of the church. It is through preaching – both its delivery and its reception - that the visible church (the outward organisation) most closely resembles the invisible church (the true church, whose membership is known only to God) but this happens only through the God’s action by the Holy Spirit and not through the will of preacher or congregation.
The starting point for the Reformers’ theology was not what people could do for their salvation, but what God had already done in Christ. Christians were therefore under an obligation to preach and teach the gospel to the erring pagans and non-Christians because of the duty of brotherly love.
However, there are weaknesses here. The emphasis on the pointlessness of “good works” as a means to please God, when salvation comes through faith alone, has given some the excuse to be inactive about struggling for justice and social change.
Additionally the emphasis on the role of scripture has restricted some of the disciplines of Biblical criticism as a conservative understanding of scripture has held sway.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
This post is based on Stephen Spencer's studyguide Christian Mission. It might make more sense if you have already read the previous introductory post.
The Apostolic Mission
In the earliest days of Christianity converts were primarily Jewish and had a worldview dominated by eschatology, particularly the book of Daniel: they believed the end of the age was near and would bring a time of catastrophe but there would be deliverance for God’s people at this time. Many early Christians related these ideas to the Roman occupation: the end was indeed nigh.
The Christians came to associate Jesus as the figure described in Daniel, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of Heaven.” (Daniel 7.13) The death and resurrection of Jesus became, for them, the inauguration of the end-times and they believed he would return in their lifetimes. Some of the earliest New Testament writings (I Thes and 1 Cor) show this view clearly. The Parousia was imminent.
This meant that it was desperately important that as many people as possible were told about the offer of salvation. It was imperative that people turn to the Lord, put their lives in order, and be made ready for his coming: the church was the ark of salvation. “Repent and be baptised” was the motif of the period.
Christian mission was all about appealing to the hearts and minds of Jews and then of Gentiles to bring about belief in Jesus and repentance before it was too late. It was not about changing cultures or religious structures: time was too short. It was a search and rescue operation.
We can see how this approach is still the basis for mission and evangelism in many conservative and evangelical churches today.
Hellenistic Orthodox Mission
The non-return of Jesus in the expected time-frame precipitated a minor crisis for the early church and some were questioning the church’s claims: First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? (2 Peter 3.3) So the church had to rethink its eschatology at the same time as it was spreading into a predominantly Greek speaking and thinking culture in Asia Minor and Greece. Christians were influenced by that milieu which was a long way in so many senses from the Palestinian Jewish culture with its emphasis on righteousness.
Christianity became influenced by Neoplatonism: immortality is no longer seen as linked to some future day of judgement but in the here and now, through learning and the acquisition of knowledge. With its emphasis on the Eternal Being as an ever present reality in the world, Neoplatonism can be detected in some later passages of the New Testament. There is a shift away from future eschatology to realized eschatology. John’s Gospel best illustrates this with its emphasis on what Christ has already accomplished and what he offers here and now, Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3.18-19) Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. (John 5.24-25) Furthermore in one of the best known passages of the New Testament it is the interior value of belief rather than the practice of righteousness that is presented as the heart of Christian living and the gateway to eternal life: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)
Some of the church Fathers from this period (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo and Origen) interwove Neoplatonism with Christianity. Justin Martyr develops the idea of the logos, who had sown the seed of truth in all people and becomes incarnate in Christ in order to teach all people the whole truth.
In this period the Biblical stories began to be read allegorically, carrying a meaning which needed to be unlocked from the text of scripture. Philosophical thinking is the means by which the Greeks are to be led to Christ.
No longer is the church living between past and future events which would culminate in the imminent second coming and requiring righteousness on the part of Christ’s followers. In this second paradigm Christianity is about holding correct beliefs which can be definitively stated as doctrine which articulate eternal truths, hence the development of the creeds.
Salvation is all about the progress of the soul as it learns these doctrines and becomes united with the immortal wisdom of God. It is the church which is the vehicle for this progress: the conviction gradually grew that the church was the Kingdom of God on earth and to be in the church was to be in the Kingdom.
In the first paradigm the key boundary was between those who were within the saved community and those who were not. Here the key boundary was between earth and Heaven. The church was no longer the ark for the saved but the door for the whole community. It is not enough merely to attend the liturgy: participation must include an interior Theosis as the human and divine meet in communion. The liturgy becomes central. In the liturgy, eternal truth radiates into the world and Orthodox theologians refer to the “second liturgy” which takes place after the service in the world, in the lives of those who have participated in it.
Mission is part of the nature of the church. Outside the context of the church, evangelism remains a humanism or a temporary psychological enthusiasm. (David Bosch, Transforming Mission.)
This paradigm significantly influenced the theology of Anglican Archbishop Michael Ramsay in the 1960s and, with its emphasis on contemplation, stillness and openness to the divine, can be found at the heart of the modern Taizé movement. It is still the basic paradigm of the Orthodox Church today.
However it does not see this realm as lying in the future and coming through change and struggle. It therefore entails a certain acceptance of the social and political status quo and a loss of the radical and transformative dimension of Jesus’ mission. The Orthodox Church has been attacked for this by some in the West. The Anglican Church has often been described as the Conservative Party at prayer. In their own political and social contexts, similar can be said of the Orthodox Churches.