Sunday, February 26, 2006

Who we are (revisited)

Had a good ministers' conference - lots of stimulating conversation. I also celebrated my 50th birthday on the second day.

Birthdays are always a time when you think about how life's going. That combined with the conversations at the conference have had me thinking this week further thoughts about our identity as Christians.

If we're right that Paul stresses to the Romans that our identity has to do with our call to be holy people (understood in the Old Testament sense of set apart), our adoption as children of God and our entry into a new family that we label 'the church' - and I think we are - what does this mean 'the church' should look and feel like.

I came away from the conference with the nagging feeling that ministers are still seeing themselves as CEOs of complex religious service organisations, that their role is to get all the pieces in place to ensure that 'church' maximises productivity in the form of making new converts and using everyone's gifts efficiently.

Now don't me wrong, both of those things are vitally important. But it strikes me that Paul would find all our talk of structures and programmes, groups for this, that and the other really rather puzzling.

Reading Romans again, I was forcefully reminded that Paul says almost nothing about how to do 'church', nothing about structure, organisation, leadership or strategy - even though, he does suggest that his ministry over the previous few years has been based on a strategy of reaching the major cities of the Eastern Med (though sometimes I wonder whether we are reading modern business-speak back into Paul's words in Romans 15:15-33 which have a much more confessional, liturgical and theological tone than most corporate annual reports!)

Even more, I was struck again by the fact that Paul doesn't tell those outseide 'the church' how to live their lives. Of course, he talks about the consequences of human sin and fallenness - only so that he can show how God in Christ has dealt with sin as a destroyer of creation as well as a personal character trait of individual people. But there's no pointing the finger at neighbours who are living together or governments who allow anti-Christian propaganda free-reign in the media.

Rather Paul talks about community, family, beloved friends and co-workers and welcoming all in the name of Christ. Paul talks about our identity in Christ as God's redefined people and speaks of us living out of that identity in a competitive empire. Paul talks about our community life being inklings of the new creation God is making through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. This is a challenge to Christians living in the rich west, living at the heart of an empire that seeks to impose its values on the world by economic clout and military might.

What would our 'churches' look and feel like if we focused on being community and left it to God's Spirit to use our life together as the means to infect the culture around us?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Who are we, then?

Next week I'm off to a ministers' conference to do the Bible readings. And I'm really looking forward to it - though I'm not sure I have anything particular to contribute to my brothers' and sisters' understanding of either the text or their jobs.

I've decided to read Romans 1 and 16, the opening and closing of Paul's great letter, and think about the twin issues of identity and inclusion. Who are we in Christ? How do we build genuinely inclusive communities?

These have always been key issues - they clearly were for Paul's first hearers. But I feel them to be particularly important for us today. Our identity as Christians in the West has taken a hammering with the passing of Christendom and the abandonment of the faith by so many of our neighbours. Who are we when so few think the Christian faith worth following?

I guess Paul's first hearers thought something similar for different reasons. There were not many Christians in Rome in the mid-50s when Paul wrote. Romans 16 suggests five house churches, possibly seven. Even if 30 people went to each - which would be pushing it, given the capacity of the homes these groups met in - that would mean a Christian community of no more than a couple of hundred people in a city of one million.

Furthermore, these believers would be people of little status or clout. They wouldn't even have had the presence that the Jewish community had through its purpose-built meeting places. The Christian community would have been all-but invisible.

So, what was their sense of identity? Paul clearly wants them to understand themselves in relation to the coming Kingdom: they are people of the new age rather than the age that is passing away. They are people of the resurrection, people who know the forgiveness of God and the renewal of their lives through his Spirit. In short they are holy people.

And they have this status not because they were born into it - which must have been a relief to those (a majority) who were at the bottom of the social heap and hence born to nothing but penury - but because God chose to give it to them as an act of grace. More than that, by making them holy and filling them with the Holy Spirit, God made them into brothers and sisters of his son, Jesus, he adopted them into his family (adoption into a divine family was the highest a Roman could imagine - it's what Caesar had a habit of doing).

Paganism in ancient Rome - as much as various new age spiritualities these days - offered ways for people - who'd never be adopted into the emperor's family - to discover the god within them, to realise that they were in some way already divine or had the potential to be. The good news of Jesus is that God adopts us into his family, makes us partakers of the divine nature, as Peter puts it, through our faith in Jesus.

That has to be good news in any culture, doesn't it?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Showing people Jesus

I was talking a guy yesterday who confirmed something I've believed for a while. His church is involved with a number of partnerships with outside organisations which enable it to meet a variety of needs in its local community.

So it runs a parenting course, a project to reduce youth offending, an after school club - each with a different partner providing funding or material or a worker.

As a result the church is growing and yet it does no programmed evangelism.

Why? Because the people who are coming to the projcts are being drawn into something that is 'blessing' them and they want to find out why. So all sorts of conversations happen and people who come to the building for one thing end up coming for others - including on Sundays to find out what makes these Christian tick.

That's got to be worth thinking about.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Earthing the vision

Had a meeting with the council yesterday to talk through how churches could be involved with the homeless in our borough. There are worryingly large numbers of them for such an apparently prosperous place - 180 under 18s a year presenting themselves with no roof over their heads; another 200 of all ages per month (though many of these are returners) who'd be described as 'sofa surfers' - people who live on friends' sofas for months even years at a time.

Social changes account for the rise in numbers - the breakdown of relationships leaving people in 30s or 40s homeless but wanting to stay near children; young people seeking independence but not having the wherewithal to fund it in an expensive town; mental health, drug and alcohol problems; the pressure on housing stock because of the numbers choosing to live alone.

As I listened to these numbers being delivered by stretched council officials who clearly cared about the human lives behind these statistics, I recalled Jeremiah 29:7. Yet again this verse is becoming a major feature of my life. It called me into ministry 30 years ago. It haunts my thinking about the shape of Christian community and the nature of our mission.

And it needs to be earthed. Why would we want to help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so? Because we want to seek their welfare. Why spend time helping people to learn the basic life skills needed to run a home, pay their bills and establish themselves as members of our community? Because we want to seek their welfare. Why work with other churches and offer our premises as a base for an advice centre? Why put our own money and resources into this? Because we want to seek the welfare of the city where we've been exiled.

This is all the agenda we need.

PS... Apparently, there's a cricketer with my name who's the 9th sexiest man in the world. Perhaps I should demand a recount....

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Mistaken identity?

According to page 7 of today's Independent newspaper, I am the 9th sexiest man in the world. Either that or I have been the victim of identity theft!

There was a great line on Desperate Housewives last night - my second favourite TV show of the moment (House being my favourite - so pleased it's back). Bree and her mother-in-law, Phyllis, do not get on and Phyllis was beginning to have convenient memory lapses that cast Bree in a bad light and even on occasion threatened her well-being. After a number of illustrations of this, the show's narrator said: 'her mother-in-law's memory is fine; it's her soul that was faulty.' Lovely.

We'll be thinking about human nature, who we are, why we are what we are, on Sunday evening. So I'll be weaving these things in somehow.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Thinking about Christian worship

That's the thing about blogs - don't get one for days, then two come along at once.

If you're looking for stimulating new year reading, then can I recommend Larry Hurtado's At the Origins of Christian Worship?

Hurtado is professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at Edinburgh. Over the past 20 years, he has been exploring the whole issue of how monotheistic Jews came to see Jesus as divine.

At the end of the 1980s he published One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Then a couple of years he produced a massive tome called Lord Jesus Christ. Along with a collection of essays that came out ate last year called How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? this amounts to a formidable body of work.

Hurtado has an easy style for a scholarly writer and an eye for how all this affects Christian belief today. At the Origins of Christian Worship is a set of four lectures he gave exploring the religious environment into which Christianity was born and the nature of early Christian devotion to Jesus. He tackles questions like 'how did the early Christians come to worship Jesus?' 'what evidence do we have for their practices?' and 'what might early Christian devotion have to say to us in the twenty-first century?' It's great stuff.

Early Christian worship fed into early Christian thinking about who exactly Jesus was and the shape of Christian community - hence it's a key element in any social history of the early church. I'm thinking of devoting a couple of sessions to it in my lecture course in Sri Lanka.

Better on foot

I've had car trouble this week. And that combined with other pressures (the sheer volume of work) means I haven't blogged for a while. Apologies.

I was reflecting on my car's inability to go, while reading Mark Goodacre's NT gateway blog (excellent - but he's been blogging less than me recently; get a grip, Mark). He wondered how fast Jesus walked - as you do...

The reason is that James Dunn in his enormous book Jesus Remembered suggests that the young carpenter would have walked regularly to Seppharis - just 5km away from Nazareth - and might therefore have been involved in building the theatre as well as other projects in that highly Gentile-influenced town.

It's fascinating to think of Jesus as an ordinary working man - which he would have been for at least 15 years of his life. What did he make? In Gibson's The Passion, Mel has him rather anachronistically making a table of the kind westerners sit at for meals, with Jesus quipping to his mother that he's sure it'll catch on.

The likelihood is that he would have made furniture and agricultural equipment but would have spent more of his time helping to build buildings of all kinds - mainly houses, maybe, but also larger public buildings. And in doing that he would have been mixing with people of many faiths - Sepphoris was full of Gentiles attracted there by the strong Roman presence; and other parts of Galilee had significant non-Jewish populations.

It makes you think doesn't it? The Son of God sitting down for a midday break with chippies from Roman provinces north of Judea, dealing with site managers employed by Pilate and his predecessors, sharing the time of day with soldiers and officials, traders and imperial hangers-on.

It raises all kinds of questions about what languages Jesus spoke - his gentile colleagues wouldn't have spoken Aramaic, so he must have known enough Greek to get by; about how he lived - was he away from home for extended periods of time (The movie with Jeremy Sisto playing Jesus has a scene with him and his father away from home seeking work in a struggling economy). It might also help us to see where Jesus acquired his understanding of ordinary working life, his stock of images drawn that life that appear in his parables. It also roots the Son of God in a very specific place and time with all the pressures that brings.

I am having to think about these things as I'm teaching a course in Sri Lanka in July on the social history of early Christianity - a slightly more daunting prospect than I was expecting when I agreed to do a few lectures when I visit friends on the island!

It promises to be fascinating preparing for it - if only I can fit in with everything else! Now where's the number of my breakdown service....