Sunday, February 27, 2005

Broadening our horizons

One of the great things about good biblical scholarship is that it creates new possibilities for the ordinary preacher. As I have prepared this week to preach on the all-too familiar parable of the prodigal son, I have had my thinking changed and horizons broadened by reading Kenneth Bailey's Jacob and the Prodigal (yes, I know I'm reading McLaren and Chester, but sometimes the needs of weekly preparation necessitate not just reading commentaries but whole books - it's one of the reasons why I love my job).

Bailey argues - as does Tom Wright - that Jesus' most famous parable is a retelling of Israel's story, especially the story of the nation's exile and return. Bailey makes a case for Jesus basing his story on the story of Jacob's deceit of his father and brother in the later chapters of Genesis. There two sons vie for position within a family, a father is deceived into giving inheritance early, the younger son goes off into a far country and then engineers a return and possible reconciliation.

Bailey shows that this story, formative for the nation of Israel (Jacob's name was changed to Israel by God as he confirmed the continuation of the promise to Abraham through him), was a topic of lively debate in Jesus' day. The book of Jubilees (dated a hundred years or so before Jesus' time) and the Antiquities by Josephus both contain a retelling of the story with application to their contemporaries. Philo retold it for a gentile mind with a philosophical bent.

So when challenged on his policy of including 'sinners' in his group, it is not surprising that Jesus too would use this foundational story to create a narrative that explained what he was doing and what God was doing through him.

Bailey shows that Jesus universalised the story, thereby paving the way for all kinds of people to come into God's family by being found (see previous post on how this works). So, while retelling Israel's story and showing how all its people were welcome in God's Kingdom which was arriving in Jesus' ministry, Jesus was also hinting at what as to come as his followers pushed out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that the world would be blessed through them was coming true.

The thing that really struck me in all this is the seriousness with which Bailey takes Jesus as a theologian. This shouldn't surprise a Christian, really. But in the world of scholarship there seems to be a reluctance to credit Jesus with much original thought. commentaries still talk about the gospel writers being the creative minds, weaving their account according to a particular theological slant. Tom Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God is a notable exception to this.

Bailey makes the case for Jesus the theologian in his book. He argues that Luke found the material that comprises chapter 15 of his gospel as a single unit, passed down from the original disciples, probably when he was in Jerusalem at the time when Paul's group (of which Luke was a part) arrived with the offering from the gentile churches and Paul was arrested. During the two years that Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, Luke researched his gospel, speaking to eye witnesses and those who preserved and told the stories of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4).

If this is the case, then it tells us something vital about Jesus. It tells us that he took his opponents very seriously. Sometimes preachers are wont to make jokes about the pharisees being narrow-minded bigots who were always being made to look foolish by Jesus. If Bailey is right, then Jesus took the time to craft a story that took Pharisaic concerns very seriously and engaged them in debate about the nature of the people of God and proposed an alternative theology of God's action in the world. Indeed the parable in Luke 15 is nothing short of an exposition of the nature of God and a claim by Jesus to be embodiment of that nature as demonstrated through the way he lived and taught.

What this tells me as a minister is that I have to take seriously the questions and stories of those who do not share my view of the world. And I have to find ways of telling the story of what's happening in today's world in a way that reveals God's nature and love. And a way of telling the Christian story that resonates with those who live by different stories today. Jesus, of course, subverted the pharisees' story as he told his and invited his hearers to see the world his way. It is a subtle, compelling form of evangelism that we would do well to recover in the 21st century.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Don't we all want to be found?

'The Father does not interrupt his younger son. Instead the prodigal changes his mind and in a moment of genuine repentance surrenders his plan to save himself and lets his father find him. He comes finally to acceptance of being found.' So writes Kenneth Bailey in his wonderful study of the prodigal son story.

We often see the younger son's repentance happening while he was far away from home. Jesus says 'he came to himself' and we have understood this to mean that he recognized that he'd screwed up and needed help to sort himself out. So, he'd go home, confess his mistakes and seek mercy.

This is not what's happening, However. Rather the son has calculated that he could work his way back into his family's affections and acceptance in the wider community by going home, working for his father, learning a trade and earning the wherewithal to repay his debt. And so off he goes.

But the father's response derails the younger son's plan. His idea of working his passage back to acceptance through hard graft is derailed by his father gracious welcome, his kiss and embrace. So in Luke 15:21 the son changes his speech and drops the idea of working for his dad.

Why? Because he realises that 'repentance' is not a work we do, it is an acceptance that we cannot do anything but accept God's offer of being found.

If you think about it, the father didn't 'find' the younger son in the story. Rather the younger son finds his own way home. Yet his father keeps talking about finding him. He was still lost until the second before his father embraced him. At that moment he was found. The issue he had to face was 'am I prepared to be found?' It's a vital issue because his pride was at stake.

Good Christians believe in salvation by grace through faith. But we like to cling on to our repentance story, the story that says we had the good sense to get it together with God, the story that narrates how we worked out that Christian faith was true and worthy of our allegiance. And in that story is the salvaging of our pride. We can't contribute to our salvation, so we talk about how we worked our way to faith. Repentance becomes the work that puts us in a position of being accepted by God.

This was the view of Jesus' audience - especially the pharisees for whom he composed the three linked stories that comprise a single parable in Luke 15 - as Bailey shows. It was not Jesus' view. For him repentance means accepting that we've been found by the God who comes looking for us - symbolised in the story by the shepherd, the woman and the father (all pictures of God drawn from the OT and all pictures of the ministry Jesus is doing - see Luke 19:10).

So everyone in his audience - women, sinners, pharisees, scribes, poor, rich, whatever - can be found because Jesus, who is looking for them, is there with them. The question is, do they want to be found? Will they accept being found?

This is why the story doesn't end as we expect it to. The older son is also found in the parable, but will he accept it? We don't know because the story ends before it reaches its conclusion. And the reason or this is simple: every hearer of the story is like the older brother; every hearer has to decide 'do I want to be found? Am I going to accept being found by Jesus?'

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

I love my job

One of the things I love about being a teaching pastor in a large church is that every week I get to grapple with a fresh text and unpack its meaning to an intelligent and thoughtful audience.

In the evenings we're working our way through Habakkuk, a seventh century prophet whose critique of his culture resonates closely with ours. His taunt song against Babylon (2:6-19), focused around 5 'woes' exposes a culture driven by materialism, militarism, a cult of power and an almost childlike faith in technology. Ring any bells?

In the mornings we're dropping in on encounters that Jesus had as he made his way from Galilee to Jerusalem as recorded by Luke.

This coming Sunday I'm dealing with the encounter he had with the pharisees that resulted in the three great parable of Luke 15 - including the prodigal son.

You'd have thought there was little new to discover and say about this well-known story. But you'd be wrong. Tom Wright and Kenneth Bailey have both published work recently that floods these familiar stories with startling new insights.

Among them was this simple one. The parable of the prodigal son is a retelling a story of Israel. In particular the story of exile and restoration. For Bailey it's rooted in the Jacob story in Genesis. For Wright it's focused on the exodus and exile. Because of this, the story is about how both sons - not just the younger one - are offered the chance to be part of the family of God.

Jesus is at the heart of the story - the one who is the embodiment of Israel (a key resonance with the Jacob story) - welcoming all kinds of people to his table. The story is told because the pharisees criticise his eating with 'sinners'. But his tale makes the point that he invites both sinners - like Levi (Luke 5) - and pharisees - like Simon (Luke 7) - to dine with him, to be part of the new thing God is doing through him. He is the one around whom a new 'Israel' is coalescing in fulfilment of the promises made by the prophets about the return from exile.

I'm really going to enjoy preaching this on Sunday!

Saturday, February 19, 2005

changing direction

As well as sorting out my fitness regime, I've been reading Andrew Chester's Conversion at Corinth (yes, I know I'm reading Brian McLaren's latest - I'm halfway through that - and contrary to what the Daily mail says women aren't the only gender able to do more than one thing at a time!)

Chester's book is his PhD thesis, so it's pretty demanding. But it is also brilliant. He uses Anthony Giddens' structuration theory as a tool to examine what Paul and his converts understood had happened to them. As I am embarking on doctoral studies hoping to apply Giddens' theory to contemporary conversion, I am very interested to see what Chester makes of this.

So far, so riveting. In the course of his adventure, Chester touches on the New Perspective on Paul, particularly as it affects our understanding of Pauline soteriology before looking at the greek words for call/calling - the terms Paul uses of what happened to him when he met Jesus.

He determines to answer 7 key questions - among them, what's revealed about the God who does the calling, what's the human response and is God's calling for individuals or groups? But the most interesting one is 'if through calling people God changes who they are, how is this change expressed?' (he then goes on to ask about call and task).

It's that question that seems to me to get the hub of what conversion is about: when God calls, do we change? At what level do we change? Perhaps all that changes is that we go to church on Sunday mornings rather than the shopping mall. Or maybe our whole approach to life changes and it results in us treating our families and friends better, changing our jobs to work in areas more compatible with having a relationship with God or consciously bringing our lives into line with how the Bible tells us God wants us to live.

And at the heart of this is the idea of God's power affecting our lives in tangible even measurable ways - all that stuf the New Testament attributes to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. Indeed the very thing Paul talks about in galatians 5 and 6 where he tries to answer the question that if the Christian faith is not about doing the works of Law, how can we live lives that are pleasing to God? The answer Paul gives is by keeping in step with the Holy Spirit - but is this an individual or a corporate thing, or both?

I'm really hoping that Chester throws light on these areas in the course of his discussion. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, February 18, 2005

a bit of hush at the back

Well I did my weght lifting course. you certainly do use muscles you don't when using a computer all day...

since then, I've been wrestling with Habakkuk - the prophet as opposed to the guy next door.

Habakkuk is about prayer - talking to God. As I've been reading it today I've been thinking how little I know about prayer and how scant is my knowledge of the God we're praying to.

In true nationalist style, Habakkuk can't bear the thought that God might use Babylon to judge Judah. He's complained that his peole are sinful and that the society he lives in is going to the dogs. But he cannot stomach the fact that God might use a nation far more sinful than little Judah to teach God's people a lesson in holiness.

All of this is very difficult for a white, western liberal at the start of the 21 century. Even harder when you start to make connections between Habakkuk's world and ours.

Does God still work in judgement in the world? If so, who's dishing it out and who's getting it in the neck?

I guess the neo-cons in the States will be arguing that Saddam got what was coming to him and that the USA was the hand of God. But would they be comfortable with 9/11 as a message from theb almighty, a wake-up call to an arrogant and proud nation?

And how about us - Christians I mean? Is collapsing church attendances in the UK a message from God about how we've lived? Is the darkness closing because the light is refusing to shine?

At the start of chapter 2 Habakkuk is silent. He's waiting to see how God will answer. That's a good lesson for all of us...

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

fit to...

I've just come back from the gym (stop laughing at the back....). I've been promising myself that I'll sign up for months and finally I have.

And it was quite good fun. I ache a bit but feel good. I've started a prgramme that will reduce my waist size by 2-4 inches (which can't be bad). And I've found that all those strange-looking machines that we see being put through their paces by the lithe and the beautiful are pretty easy to use.

I'm going back on Friday to learn how to lift weights.

I didn't think wearing a track suit could be such fun....

Monday, February 14, 2005

More on Christians in rock

Tim is right - comments Music on the move - to point out that the Christian tag is seriously off-putting for a rock band. His example of delirious? proves it. I have alays argued that they would be taken more seriously if they weren't so willfully obscure and churchy in their subject matter.

Delirious write great tunes. But their lyrics betray the fact that all they can write only worship songs - good ones (though lots of churches find them hard to use) - and no one outside the church has any interest in them.

Rock and roll is at heart about boys and girls and teenage angst, about forging an identity against the world - it's why Nirvana were so huge. Bands must demonstrate they can sing about that, before any protest music about the state of the world they write is taken seriously.

The trouble is that the first rock and roll generation is now retiring and it's receptive to music about all kinds of things - witness the critical aclaim to Dylan's Time out of mind which Emmylou Harris says contains the best songs about growing old she's ever heard!

But you can only do that when you've got a reputation, struck a chord (so to speak), shown you speak people's language.

U2 have done this, so they can sing about anything they like and get a hearing. Maybe Athlete are following suit.

In this these kinds of Christian bands might be pathfinders for the rest of us in the church. How are we going to get a hearing for the Gospel unless people are convinced we live in the world they live in, face their struggles, deal with the issues they have to of love and loss, forging an identity, making sense of things? Maybe if they see we share their struggles, they'll give our thoughts a better reception.

Friday, February 04, 2005

music on the move

Check out the new Athlete album - Tourist - it's a real step up from Vehicles and Animals. They're shaping up to be a tidy outfit, full of good tunes and intriguing lyrics.

They were given a bit of hard time in the Guardian last week. The journalist was wondering why they are not more overtly Christian. he asked the same about the Beddingfields. You could ask about U2 (though their recent album is pretty overt if you're paying attention).

The trouble is that if bands are overtly Christian, they get panned for being holier than thou. Religion isn't very rock and roll.

Still I'm enjoying it. Wires is the best song I've heard so far this year. Chances and Modern Mafia come close.

While you're in the record shop, pay attention to Mercury rev's The Secret Migration. It's lovely...