Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Into the great blue yonder....

Well, I nearly made it; I nearly cleared my in-tray. But such things aren't meant to be...!

So, we're off on holiday first thing tomorrow, leaving just my Ministry Today article unfinished - but I have been granted an extension deadline by the lovely editor which is wonderful.

All we have to look forward to for the next fortnight is sun, pool, wine, fine cuisine, sleep and reading - with a little site seeing thrown in to keep the blood circulating. It's a tough Job but someone's got to do it...

No more blogging until early August.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Fresh light on Philippians

I finished re-reading Peter Oakes' Philippians: From Letter to People (Cambridge 2001) last night. And what a wonderful book it is.

It's a revision of his Oxford DPhill completed under Tom Wright in the mid-90s, so in places it's very demanding. yet it has a lightness of touch and sure-footedness that lots of dissertations lack. I learned tons from it the first time I read it and a whole load more the second time.

I've always been drawn to Philippians - its passion, realism, portrait of Jesus and the life of faith have hooked me from early in my Christian life. But Peter's book took me to a whole new appreciation of the letter.

His thesis is centred on a fresh reading of 2:6-11 but before we get there, he treats us to a fascinating recreation of the Philippian churches within the city and environs of the Roman colony. He rejects the notion that Paul's original readers were Roman citizens, preferring to see them as Greeks rather than Romans, subject people from the lower strata of society.

It was reading this book for the first time that rekindled my interest in New testament social history and has led to me signing up to write an MA on an aspect of it - probably something to do with the social status of the early Christians and how that affects the way we read the NT.

One of the things Peter really helpfully all through his dissertation is to keep asking 'how did the first hearers hear this letter? what did it mean to them?'

This is why he sees 2:6-11 as a complex interaction between Isaiah 45 and Roman Imperial ideology and in particular sees the portrait of Jesus in those verses (which Peter thinks were composed by Paul for the occasion) as offering an example of how to view suffering. In short, he argues that Paul is urging his first hearers to embrace the loss of status that accompanies standing alongside brothers and sisters who are suffering in the interests of maintaining the unity of the church. It is as these believers stand together in mutual support of one another that they will stay strong and faithful in the teeth of opposition.

So thanks to Peter for his hard work and elegant prose. He is a model of faithful scholarship.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Clearing the decks for the summer getaway

We're getting into holiday mode as we set off for la belle France on Wednesday. I haven't taken the car for France for over ten years, so yesterday I was reminding myself of the rules - what do I need - and rushing to Halfords to stock up!

As ever, I have far too much to finish before going away and so have been making lists of things I won't finish but will need to pay attention to when I get back so that things will run smoothly in the autumn.

For instance, we're going to be basing a lot of our teaching and learning from October through to Easter next year in Matthew's gospel. I've been having a great time reading Luz, Hauerwas, Stanton, et al trying to get a handle on the structure and themes of the gospel (which I confess I don't know nearly so well as Luke). I was really excited late last week when I discovered that Dick France (my old NT tutor from LBC) has written the commentary on Matthew for the NICNT series and it's coming out this summer (see Amazon for details - it'll be well worth checking out and is a lot cheaper than Nolland or Luz).

However, despite all the background reading, I still haven't come up with a structure for a series that does justice to the gospel and takes in Christmas and Easter which I can share with the rest of my team.

I also have an article to finish for Ministry Today in which I'm reflecting on the influence of Jeremiah 29.7 on my ministry over the past nearly 20 years. I'm wondering about ministry as a particular form of exile; if the church is in some way in exile in our culture, do ministers in some way embody that exile and model how to live in it to their congregations?

More particularly, I am teasing some of my feelings about my current ministry and whether the tension between feeling at home and feeling displaced is helping me to be more creative, sympathetic to strangers, less prepared to put up with the status quo and possibly more dependent on God.

I'm hoping to get this finished by close of play on Tuesday (and still have had time to pack!)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Scripture meme

Andy (http://andygoodliff.typepad.com/) has tagged me to share a passage of scripture that I inhabit, keep returning to, feel haunted by, and this is it: 'Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:7)

This is the verse that God used 30 years ago to call me into ministry at a conference on Christians and political. It is a verse that has shaped the way I view ministry, inspired me always to see that our calling as God's people to bless those around - to seek their shalom (as the Hebrew says), their welfare, well being and wholeness.

More recently, it has helped me explore the notion of exile - is the church in the UK somehow in exile and if so what does that feel like, what shape should such a church be morphing into if it is to be faithful to its call.

And just this year, God asked me to apply the verse to myself in my situation. I had a very strong sense that he was saying that I'd applied this verse to the church in general and churches I'd served in in particular, now I should apply it to myself, along the lines 'you're in exile, get over it, get on with what I've sent you into exile to do.'

Hence the reason I suggest this verse haunts me.

So, if I've got how this works, I tag
Sean Winter
Jonathan Sommerville
Jim Gordon
Marcus Bull

Saturday, July 14, 2007

That blythe spirit strikes again...!

Yes, as ever Stuart puts his finger on precisely what I am arguing for in relation to reading the Bible - that's why he teaches in a theological college and I'm just a minister(!).

A Christ centred, community focused reading inspired by the Holy Spirit is how I think our churches should read the Bible. And it is very Baptist - and that feels soooo good!

I guess one thing I'd add is that - as Sean Winter argued in his Whitely lecture (which I think I've just about understood!) - quoting the Bible is the beginning not the end of the process of teasing how God wants us to live.

This is what Paul was doing in Galatians 3-4: all the time he was asking his baffled hearers - torn between Paul and his rivals' view of the faith they shared - to think about their experience as individuals and as a community and to remember the teaching Paul gave them and the Bible stories it was based on and to work out for themselves how they should live in the light of it.

Of course, he hoped they'd see his perspective on things, but they did have to get there on their own. How very Baptist is that?!

Friday, July 13, 2007

How we read the Bible

I've just updated my profile - does this mean I'm a different person now?

I took delivery of Kevin Giles' The Trinity and Subordination: The Doctrine of God and the Current Gender Debate this week. This is a book I've wanted to read for some time and I might take it on holiday with me.

In his introduction he talks about the need to read scripture theologically. Athanasius, he reminds us (though I have to say, I don't know a whole lot about Athanasius to be reminded of), argued that we need to do theology with 'a profound grasp of what he called the "scope" of scripture - the overall drift of the Bible, its primary focus, its theological centre.'

Now I know just how tricky this is to do - I've read Thiselton and Goldingay and wrestled enough with what is the heart of the Old Testament or even the centre of Paul's theology to know that this is not straight-forward.

But I have found the idea really helpful in tackling Galatians 4:21-31 for this Sunday. This is the trickiest part of Galatians in many ways, the end of Paul's Bible study, the clinching demolition of his rivals' argument. And yet, having said 'do you hear what the Law says..,' he then proceeds to make the story of Sarah and Hagar say the opposite of what Genesis 21 appears to be saying and to ignore the fact that Abraham circumcised both is sons. What's going on?

Well, I think it has something to do with seeing the big picture - what Athanasius might call the scope of scripture - and not getting bogged down in the detail of subsets of the narrative. More than that, it's about seeing the big picture through the coming of Christ - seeing it summed up and fulfilled in him.

And crucially, it's about seeing all that in the light of our experience of God interpreted by scripture. as the Westminster Confession (not a document I quote often!) says: 'the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are determined ... can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scriptures.'

So in Gal 4:6-8 Paul speaks of both Jew and Gentile crying 'abba' Father because of the Holy Spirit erupting in their lives as a result of their trust in the faithful work of Jesus. If this has happened, then scripture ought to be able to tell them why. Hence the remainder of Paul's Bible study in 4:21-31 before he outlines how life in the Spirit works - interestingly focused on how we fulfil the law by being in Christ who fulfilled the Law through his life, death and resurrection and now enables us to do the same through the Holy Spirit working through us.

I've also been continuing to enjoy the new Editors album and The Ideal Condition, the first post-Orbital work by Paul Hartnoll - lovely stuff...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Who are you?

Following on from the mighty Who gig, I'm reflecting on questions of identity tonight at our midweek gathering. in particular looking at what Paul says on the subject in Galatians and why.

I'm intrigued by the suggestion Bruce Winter makes that when Paul speaks in 6:12 of his rivals wanting to 'make a good show', he could be using the word in a more technical legal sense of 'secure legal status.'

The argument is that Paul's rivals are pressing the gentile converts to get circumcised so that they will come under the umbrella of Judaism, a religio licita, and so be protected from having to participate in the imperial cult, something 4:8-10 suggests might be happening (or so argues Justin Hardin of Oklahoma Baptist University).

It's also possible that Paul's rivals are looking over their shoulders at increasingly militant Judean nationalists who are stirring up trouble for groups in Jerusalem who appear to be rather tolerant of gentiles.

Both these reasons could lie behind Paul saying his rivals were teaching what they did in order to avoid being persecuted for the cross (6:12b).

It all throws up the fact that identity - who we are, how we define ourselves in the the world - is a key issue for Galatians. In the ancient world identity came via family and place in the household, status (whether slave or free and whether born free or freed during one's lifetime), membership of voluntary associations that gave strong group identity and practice of religion (besides the imperial cult which everyone had to practice at certain times in the year).

For Paul our identity is derived from Christ - our crucifixion with him (2:20, 6:14), demonstrated in baptism where we join a community of equals from which we take on a new identity (3:26-29). we are children of God (4:6-8), defined by our trust in the faithful work of Jesus.

Reading Galatians provokes us to think about where our identity comes from - the world around us or our commitment to Jesus in the new community of equals we join by baptism?

Monday, July 02, 2007


We had a wonderful baptismal service last night. Two young women testified to their faith in front of a packed church - lots of their friends came.

I preached on Galatians 3:26-29 and spoke about baptism being about putting on Christ and being part of a new community where are all equals - not only in terms of status but also contribution. I stressed that baptism was act of social defiance, going counter to the prevailing culture and pointing to a better way of living as individuals and communities.

I have Sean Winter to thank for taking this tack - it was well received over all. Indeed it all went fabulously well and I came home with a warm glow of it having been a good day.

The week got off to reasonable start. I've been preparing for the men's bible this afternoon - 1 Corinthians 13 - which has been hugely enjoyable.