Friday, March 30, 2007

It's good to talk

Just returned from recording a programme at Premier Christian Radio with Jeff Lucas and Ruth Dearnley which was fun. I was there to talk about - and frankly, rather mercilessly plug - my new book.

Called Building a Better Body: A Good Church Guide, it's published by Authentic and is in the shops next week. It's the third incarnation of a book that started life as Struggling to Belong in 1998, doubled in size to become Why Bother with Church at the turn of the millennium and has been mildly revised and updated and given a sparkly new cover for this outing.

I'm quite pleased with it and found myself warming to its central theme as I chatted with Jeff and Ruth. That theme is that leaders of churches must take those who struggle with church much more seriously, listen to their concerns, make room for their gifts and interests; and that strugglers must find ways to remain engaged with church.

The reason I'm sticking with this theme - much to my surprise, I have to say - is that Alan Roxburgh's The Sky is Falling: Leaders lost in Transition takes a similar line. Roxburgh has been hugely influential on my thinking over the past decade. His The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality is one of the books that has defined my understanding of my ministry and the call of the church. If you've not read it, I urge you to.

In the The Sky is Falling, Roxburgh talks about liminals and emergents - which he defines really helpfully - needing to work and walk together in order to create churches that work for all concerned. He argues everyone struggles with the world of discontinuous and perpetual change we are living in - but for different reasons. Only through dialogue with each other will we create churches that embody Kingdom values to our neighbours and colleagues at work.

As well as Arcade Fire, I've been listening to Josh Groban this week. He's an American singer that my younger daughter has introduced me to. He's intriguing, half his stuff is in Spanish but there are a couple of English songs that are absolute blinders. He sings big emotional ballads that pack a punch. I've also been reliving my youth - well, childhood actually! - listening to the Doors. What a band! And I've got tickets to see the Who in June - how cool is that?

Monday, March 26, 2007

stopping the traffik

We had an excellent Freedom Day yesterday. A group of us marched from Wilberforce's oak in Keston in chains to the High street in Bromley where another group of us were manning a stall highlighting the issue of children being traffiked into the cocoa harvest.

As well as selling fair trade chocolate, we were giving away free and getting people to sign the Stop the Traffik petition.

All in all, it went really well. But I am absolutely cream-crackered this morning (I also preached yesterday morning and led the worship at church yesterday evening, so it was a pretty full day).
Still finding Tobias Jones' book on Utopia's fascinating and jammed full of insights into community and the shape of contemporary culture. In particular his observations about Christians and Christian teaching are provocative (in a good way). I'll blog properly about it later in the week.

Friday, March 23, 2007

More from Acts

Continuing our journey in Acts, my student is meant to taking us to Thessalonica (17:1-9), but sadly he's taken to his bed with a heavy cold instead. So it falls to me to wrestle with this lovely story.

I have been greatly helped in this by an excellent article by a baptist NT scholar called Justin K Hardin who teaches at Oklahoma Baptist University. His essay 'Decrees and Drachmas at Thessalonica: An illegal assembly in Jason's house' (New Testament Studies 52, 2006 and available on-line at his page on his university's website) makes sense of this story in a way the commentaries up till now haven't.

His argument is that Jason and the other believers are the ones on trial in Acts 17:6-9, not Paul and Silas in absentia - which is kinda obvious if you read it but most of the commentaries suggest it's Paul and Silas who are being tried here. More importantly, Hardin argues that the law Jason has breached has to do with voluntary associations. Because associations were associated with political trouble-making, Julius Caesar and Augustus after him enacted decrees outlawing them unless they had dispensation from the senate in Rome.

Hardin suggests that Jason was prosecuted for holding an illegal voluntary association in his home and was fined and effectively bound over to keep the peace (i.e. don't do it again on pain of losing this sum of money). For this reason Paul and Silas - though notice not Timothy - left pretty sharpish, so as not to put Jason at more risk than he already faced.

It's the first article I've read that tackles this issue of Rome's antipathy to political associations head-on and it's full of good things (if anyone knows of any others, please let me know...).

I'm reminded of the situation in many parts of the world where the followers of Jesus meet in homes and face the wrath of civil authorities if they are discovered. I'm impressed by Jason's commitment, too. He puts his liberty and resources on the line for the travelling missionaries and his Lord, so that the work of spreading the good news of Jesus can continue.

Of course, what this story emphasises again to me is that the followers of Jesus were not seen as a religious movement by their contemporaries but rather as a political one. Jesus is seen as a rival king to Caesar by those who dragged Jason and his friends in front of the beak, suggesting that this had been part of Paul's preaching in the synagogues and elsewhere.

The other thing Hardin's paper does is help with assessing the length of Paul's stay in Thessalonica. Read quickly, Acts suggests that Paul stays barely a month. But in Philippians 4:16 and in 1 Thessalonians, Paul gives the impression that his stay was longer. It seems clear that there is a big time gap between 17:4 and 17:5. It must have taken some time for the jealousies described to form. So many weeks probably elapsed between the missionaries initial preaching, their growing success at attracting converts (the list hinted at in 17:4 wouldn't necessarily have come at once) and the head of steam that built up behind the opposition.

But even more interesting is that Jason is introduced very abruptly. It is clear that when he enters the story in the second half of v5, he is already hosting a gathering of Jesus followers and his neighbours knew it. indeed, he is seen as a key leader in the new movement - hence the raid on his home. Both Roger Gehring in his book on house church and mission and Rainer Riesner's tome on Pauline Chronology make the same case.

Now what angle do I take on Sunday....? There's a sermon in all that, somewhere.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Christian groups in Acts (part 2)

I'm back from church now....

I think Stuart is right to raise questions about how we should see the house gatherings in acts 2 and 4 - of course, I'd add that the Jerusalem community is odd because it continued meeting at the temple as well as in homes.

we can be very sloppy in our use of labels and i think we need to be really careful if we are going to learn useful lesson from Acts for us in our context as we try to create and maintain communities of people who want to follow Jesus.

This morning we were looking at Acts 16 and the arrival of the gospel in Philippi. The believers met in the home of the richest woman (Lydia) convert. is this a good model? It seemed to work well for Paul. he used it in many of the cities he evangelised. we, of course, wouldn't dream of adopting it as a model for us today - though I'm not really sure it's any worse than any of the models we do use!

There is a fluidity about the movement of Jesus followers at this time, any structure appears to have been contingent on what was needed at the time. so when the leaders of the groups in Jerusalem and Antioch met in 49AD(ish) as recorded in Acts 15, they were trying to thrash out the answer to a key question - did you need to be a Jew to be a fully-fledged Jesus follower? The answer they arrived at was 'no' - Jews and Gentiles were welcome on an equal footing.

I'm not sure what kind of contemporary gathering this meeting is like - a church meeting? an association gathering? BU council? It's often described as the first church council - but was it anything like the gathering at Nicea or Chalcedon? I don't think so.

So, Acts 15 contains useful principles for us in settling differences, in deciding issues that might divide us unnecessarily, in moving forward together, accepting one another as equals whatever our cultural or racial background. In terms of structure and organisation, I'm not sure it's any help to us at all.

Does any of this make sense? I'll return to it in the week - and I haven't forgotten some mature thoughts about Tobias Jones' fascinating book on utopia; they'll come this week, too

Christian groups in Acts

Stuart is right to raise the question of terminology in Acts (see the post 'Shoved into Action' and Stuart's comment). In particular, I am increasingly uncomfortable using the term 'church' to describe any of the groups we encounter there.

The reason for this is simple (though the explanation sometimes gets a bit convoluted). When we use the word 'church' we interpret it with 1500 years of Christian history in these Islands where 'church' has come to mean a pretty fixed community, with a structure of belonging and leadership, a geographical location and boundaries that mean it can be easily identified by friend and stranger alike.

None of these things were true of the groups of Jesus followers that we encounter in Acts. They didn't call themselves Christians (the Romans did that - look at E. A. Judge or Bruce Winter for the evidence there) and the term ekklesia which they settled on as a label for their gatherings was not a religious badge but a political or business one, a label drawn from the world of associations so prevalent in the Roman Empire.

This means, at the very least, when the outside world looked at the gatherings of the followers of Jesus, they weren't sure whether they were seeing something political, something like a network of like-minded business people or something religious. Of course, the likelihood is that they didn't make such neat separations in their thinking as we do.

So when we get to Acts 15 and the meeting that took place in Jerusalem, what are we seeing? And how would other folk in Jerusalem have seen it? I think what we're looking at is two very loose groups of Jesus followers - one more settled and more structured and resident in Jerusalem; the other more fluid but increasingly taking shape and resident in Antioch. I'm not sure anyone else is there; I'm not sure anyone else is invited.

It's not that others weren't interested. If I am right about Galatians (see the introduction and a couple of Digging Deeper sections of my Crossway Bible Guide for my view), then Paul wrote it ahead of the meeting in Jerusalem because the issue of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be followers of Jesus was affecting the believers in Lystra, Derbe, Pisidian Antioch and the other places in Galatia where Paul and Barnabas had planted groups on their first missionary adventure (Acts 13:1-14:28). And Paul returns to those places - interestingly with Silas as part of his team; Silas, one of the prophets from Jerusalem sent to Antioch to explain the outcome of the conference - to report that what he'd said in his letter to them was what was agreed at the conference in Jerusalem.

So, I'm not sure that we can take our baptist local congregation and association language and place neatly over the Acts story and expect to see a fit that makes any sense.

I've got to go to church now, so I'll finish this later....

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What's belief like?

Last night I started reading Tobias Jones' Utopian Dreams (the night before I'd finished Bruce Longenecker's excellent the Lost Letters of Pergamum)

Jones' book is a travelogue of his journey to a number of intentional communities in the UK and Italy - the two places he knows best - in a bid to see whether such alternative communities offer a way of living in today's world.

I've only read the introduction so far but it contained a sentence which I thought cast interesting light on our mission as intentional disciples in today's world.

Having said that he grew up at a time when there were micro-beliefs but no macroscopic, cosmic creed, he said: 'I was fascinated simply to find out what it feels like to believe in something, actually to believe that the world could get better rather than worse.'

That set me thinking. And will set me blogging once I've had time to see where my thinking leads. I share it as a thought for Sunday. have a good one.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Shoved into action

Have you noticed the frequency in Acts of God taking the initiative? This shouldn't surprise me really, but I confess it still does. It's why our current morning series is called shoved by the Spirit because I like those early followers of Jesus needed a good push from time to time to get on with the task at hand.

In the story of the conversion of Cornelius, Peter's still speaking when the Holy Spirit falls on the assembled company. In fact when Peter is reporting this to the leaders in Jerusalem, he says, 'as I began to speak, the Holy spirit came on them.' As a result of the Spirit's action, peter had no choice but to accept these Gentiles into the church.

It's the same at Antioch - people (probably Hellenistic Jews converted on the day of Pentecost, part of the group influenced by Stephen) shared the gospel with Gentiles and they believed. When Barnabas arrived possibly with instructions to calm the excesses, he sees the grace of God at work and gets stuck in (11:23).

So when we get to Acts 15 and the gathering in Jerusalem, experience tells them that the Gentiles are coming into God's people because they are responding to the Gospel and the Holy Spirit is bringing them alive entirely separately from the cultural boundary markers that have distinguished God's people from everyone else for a thousand years.

It was a momentous change

I can't help thinking that we facing a pretty momentous change at the moment - certainly in the relationship of the church to western culture. Christendom is decaying rapidly. The church is an increasingly marginal presence in our culture, jockeying for a place with a load of other beliefs and philosophies all clamouring for the attention of an increasingly apathetic populace.

Where's God? What's the Spirit up to? Which conversation is he going to rudely interrupt by falling on everyone in the room/pub/cafe/cinema/street corner/shop/whatever?

The other awkward issue for a baptist about Acts 15 is that it's the leaders of the church who gather to thrash out the response to this new situation they find themselves in. 15:2, 4, 6, 13, 22, 23 indicate that it's apostles and elders discerning God's leading and communicating that to the church. I guess it would be unrealistic to gather everyone together - you'd never find a time they could all make, not everyone would feel able to speak, not everyone who wanted to speak would get a hearing.

So, I guess this is a good model for us. Have the leaders thrash things out and then communicate it to the rest of the congregation. there's a hint in 15:22 that the decision was owned by the whole church in Jerusalem as they seem to endorse the sending of the letter and then the church at Antioch were over the moon at the outcome (15:31). It's interesting that we think of this as a council of the whole church but in fact it was a dispute between Jerusalem and Antioch - though as Paul's letter to the Galatians (written, I think, just before Paul sets off to the meeting - see my Crossway Bible Guide for justification of this) it affected every church that Paul planted.

Catching up

I'm becoming a once a week blogger - bad boy!

Listening to Arcade Fire's new album, Neon Bible. Can't decide whether I like it as much as Funeral, but it's got some storming tracks on it.

I've also been thinking about our church conference in April when our discussions about membership and belonging will reach some sort of conclusion. At the moment I can't really get my head round how this is going to work but I'm sure inspiration will strike.

I've been reading Bruce Longenecker's The Lost Letters of Pergamum which is surprisingly convincing and very informative and some stuff on the social position of early Christians, particularly poverty levels in Pauline communities. An article by Steve Friesen in JSNT is worth checking out if you're interested in these things - though I think he's a little too prone to reduce everything to economics and dismiss discussions of social status. He'd align himself more with Justin Meggitt than Wayne Meeks, I suspect. It's a fascinating area of NT study.

This Sunday we'll be looking at the Jerusalem Conference as told to us by Luke in Acts 15. I'll be suggesting to our people that we need to face the changing circumstances of our ministry and mission with the same boldness as everyone in Luke's story did. In particular, just as it was the Jewish Christians, the in-group, who had to change to accommodate the late-coming Gentiles, so too we have to change to welcome those outside the church into our communities. Often we expect new Christians to take on our culture - derived more from the 1950s than the bible - along with our version of the gospel.

I've also been putting together the Spring edition of Talk, the Mainstream magazine. This one is devoted to missional church - what is it? And it features an interview with Jonathan Edwards, an excellent piece of Baptist church planting by Stuart Murray Williams and great reflections on Christian youth work by Clare Hooper. A rich and heady mix!

Actually, I quite enjoy editing it - but the week when I put it together (three a year) get to be a bit fraught and hectic.

I'm also loving the new Kaiser Chief's album.

So, it's been a good, though somewhat busy week

Friday, March 02, 2007

Relations with the powers that be

As our group of churches staggers into a partnership with our local authority, I've been reflecting on Paul's relationship with power.

We're used to thinking of him being arrested for causing a breach of the peace - in Thessalonica, for example (Acts 17:1-9) - but what about him using a relationship with the powers-that-be to further his mission.

This Sunday I'm preaching on the first missionary journey in particular homing in on Paul and the proconsul Sergius Paullinus (Acts 13:4-12). It seems that there's good evidence that this Roman official had strong links not only on Cyprus where Paul meets him but more particularly in Pisidian Antioch and its environs. Certain inscriptions have been found that suggest a pretty firm and significant link over a number of generations (look at Rainer Riesner's thorough examination of the evidence in Paul's early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology [Eerdmanns 1998] - I really hope he's working on a follow up on Paul's later period!)

So when we ask the question why did Paul go to Pisidian Antioch and the not the towns and cities nearer to Cyprus on his first missionary journey, one answer that many scholars suggest is that Sergius Paullus sent him on his way with letters of introduction from him to family members and others (including officials) in that city. It's possible that this accounts for the favourable reception from the Gentiles after Paul and Barnabas are rejected by the synagogue community.

It could account for why, when the Jewish community rejected them, Paul and Barnabas were not immediately arrested by the secular authorities for causing trouble, introducing foreign gods, disturbing the peace, etc. Does this and other experiences along the way also account for Paul's relatively sanguine attitude to the Empire in Romans 13? Though he believes unequivocally that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, that the only empire that will last is Christ's not Nero's, he does seem to think that the secular authorities can hold the ring in a sinful world in a way that can be advantageous for the gospel.

So, can we find a model for our seeking partnership with local and national government in Paul? It's a nice thought. Perhaps all you biblical scholars can put me right!