Sunday, September 30, 2007

Acquiring language

Ah well, it's back to German for the instructions - I'n obviously going to have to enroll in a night school!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Abolishing or eroding social evils?

I've been preparing to preach on Colossians 3:18-4:1 - the dreaded household code - and I've realised why I am less than enamoured of the Walsh and Keesmaat approach to Colossians.

To put it rather crudely, I think they want Paul to be a classic modern - or maybe post-modern - left winger because only those on the political left have any idea about justice, equality and the need to build a better society. And so they quote a whole load of authors from the political left in defence of their position.

Now, I blog as a person with left-ish tendencies but I don't think these categories apply to the Roman empire. I found Walsh and Keesmaat's approach to the household code to be convoluted in the extreme and certainly to require the original Colossian hearers to know far more about a certain way of reading the Old Testament than most of them would.

It seems to me that what Paul is arguing is pretty straight forward and rather more down to earth. And it's the same as he argues in 1 Timothy and Titus. Of course, it means that Paul has to have written all these letters which most of the commentators don't think, but that's for another blog.

I reckon that lots of people in the empire wanted life to be better, fairer, more just; they had a concept of the good life that centred on piety, justice and self control/sobriety - the cardinal virtues. The trouble is that they had no means of realising this because of human nature. The various schools of philosophy laid out their ideas of the ideal society and they called their followers to commit themselves to them.

And along came Paul. The reason why scholars debate whether he was more of a stoic or a cynic or an epicurean or whatever was that he weighed into these debates and expressed robust opinions. But he didn't call for the abolition of slavery or the creation of a property-less state. Rather he argued that the cardinal virtues could only be realised through faith in Jesus because only through faith in the recreating power of God unleashed in the cross could human nature be changed.

And having established that something sly (to borrow Harry O Maier's phrase from his excellent paper on Colossians in JSNT) happens to human communities. That sly thing is that people's commitment to old ways of relating based on money, social status, gender, slavery and slave owning begin to erode as people are left to work out the implications of his message. In Colossians that included the truth that all are one in Christ because we are each being remade in his image (3:10-11). This in turn led to slave owners treating their slaves 'with equality' (4:1 where Paul uses the same word that he uses in 2 Corinthians 8 to speak of economic equality among believers as part of the justification for the offering he was gathering from the Gentile churches for the Judean believers).

We live in a very different social and political dispensation to Paul. We can meet injustices head-on, call and campaign for their abolition, express our opinion freely without fear of reprisal. That doesn't apply everywhere, of course, just ask the people of Burma or Saudi Arabia how easy it is to make statements about freedom...

I think we need to be very cautious when reading the New Testament that we don't apply our standards of political discussion and debate to its world. For doing that risks missing its subtlety and brilliance.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sprechen Sie Deustch?

Good news - I can now read the on-screen commands as they are (as predicted by Hazel) now back in English

Gearing up for getting into Matthew

Had a good time at our local New frontiers church yesterday morning speaking about Paul's arrival in Corinth, according to Acts. Then in the evening they came to us to lead our celebration of the work of street pastors in Bromley. So it was a good day of cementing relationships between churches.

This week, I shall be working on introductory material for our series on Matthew to give to the home group leaders on Wednesday.

We're looking at Matthew through the final section - Jesus' commissioning his followers to pass their faith on - in particular reading the gospel as a story about mission, community and discipleship. It is, of course, a story about Jesus, but as with each of the other gospels it's told for a specific purpose to emphasise key aspects of Jesus and his impact.

It seems to me that Matthew is concerned that his readers grasp the connection between relating to Jesus and doing mission, being in community and living a life of discipleship. This might seem pretty obvious but I wonder if we have really grasped it. After all, many people still think evangelism is about persuading people to make a decision to trust Jesus. Maybe. But that's not what Jesus sends us to do according to Matthew 28:16-20. There the emphasis is on discipleship defined as commitment to Jesus (shown in baptism) and obedience to his teaching as a way of living.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Matthew's gospel will shape our life as a community in the coming months. My hope and prayer is that as we draw closer to Jesus, we'll draw closer to one another and more effective in our modelling of the gospel to our neighbours.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Baffled of Bromley...

For some reason all the instructions on my version of blogger have turned into German - which might be good practice for all those German texts I will have to read in my studies but is a little puzzling and I can't seem to find the button that turns it back into English!

Priorities for embodying the good news

I'm clearing the decks so that Linda and I can get away for 36 hours to France before the winter sets in. We're off tomorrow - going through the tunnel for the first time.

So, I've been working on a church ethos and values statement which I'll share once the elders and leaders have taken a good look at it. It's been interesting thinking about what the church stands for, what values we embody as a community.

In many ways it's exciting to be thinking through these kinds of policies for how we run ourselves as a church. We've also been agreeing a covenant - a process that's not yet halfway through but is progressing slowly - thinking about new ways of doing leadership and firming up job descriptions for the ministry team.

All this is vital at some level, but I have to say, I'm not sure it's why I went into the ministry!

I've been reflecting a little on where my priorities lie (you have to when you're writing a job description for yourself!) or what my calling is. I've always seen my primary gifting as teaching and missional leadership (by which I mean looking for opportunities beyond the confines of the church community to earth and embody the gospel so that large numbers benefit and some find faith in Jesus).

I guess I'm hoping that the stuff we're doing at the moment will free me to do that in the coming months.

I'm also increasingly convinced that my studies in the social history of the New Testament (a suitably vague term for my area of interest) is actually a vital part of my missional leadership. I am finding all kind of resources in my studies that fuel questions about what we're doing today and why. If we are going to break out of the way we've been and done church as baptists for the last 200 years (and I believe we must if we are going to have any future), then the way the early Christians embodied the good news of Jesus in their culture holds vital lessons for us. And merely picking our favourite NT text and turning it into a system will not do!

I'm convinced that structure and organisation matter far less than ethos and values, that operational systems cannot be put above relationships and that being busy in church is no substitute for living a Christian life in communion with others.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

embarking on further study

I had a really good meeting a couple of weeks ago with the guy who'll be supervising my Lambeth Palace MA. He's called Anders Bergquist and is a patristics scholar really but I found we had a lot in common as we talked about the development of the Christian movement in the second half of the first century and into the second.

My first assignment is to produce 5000 words on the language of leadership in the NT and Apostolic Fathers. I think we both believe that the idea of the later NT being dominated by nascent catholicism is overdone. I wonder just how much Clement and Ignatius actually believed in monarchical episcopacy and to what extent - however much they might have believed in it - it actually existed in the communities they were involved with.

It promises to to be fun. All suggestions of what I should be reading are very welcome...

Invitations to talk history - as well as gospel

I'm preaching away from home this Sunday - always an opportunity to dust off the best recent sermon and give it a second outing, I find. Except that my host - a local New Frontiers church pastor - has asked me to speak about some of the social and historical background to Paul that I've been alluding to on the website and have talked about with him over numerous cups of coffee in recent months.

It's unusual to be asked to focus in this area by a church. And yet I find myself quite a lot these days talking with Christians - both in my church and others - about what many people would call 'history' rather than 'theology'. There seems to be an interest in knowing where the early believers met, what they did, what kind of jobs they had, how the Roman empire worked and what influence it might have had on the shape Christianity took on, what kind of leadership churches had, etc...

I find this hugely encouraging. I'm just wondering whether my New Frontiers hosts will take kindly to a sermon on how women were essential to the successful founding and nurturing of the church in philippi, according to Acts!

Gathered round the table

Autumn has hit with a vengeance - not only are the morning's colder but life's busier with programmes kicking in after the summer lay off.

Yesterday evening our men's Bible study started up again and I had an enjoyable afternoon wrestling with 1 Corinthians 14. in particular, I was thinking about the context those words were originally heard in.

We tend to think of church in ordered rows, everyone looking at the back of the heads of those in front of them. Paul's original hearers would either have been reclining in the dining room of a domus-style house belonging to one of the better off members of the congregation or sitting in a workshop on benches and raw materials, squeezing in as best they could.

We tend to think of the church gathered for a meeting. But almost certainly the Corinthians gathered for a meal. Having eaten together, they then shared in a semi-formal conversation known as 'a symposium', a structured conversation kicked off by someone appointed to the task which all the diners were expected to contribute to. This was the pattern of meals across the Roman empire - admittedly more common (indeed ubiquitous) among the more prosperous but also practiced by ordinary working people when they got together.

1 Corinthians 14 was heard in such a context and was intended to give shape to the Christian symposium that occurred after the hearers had shared dinner together.

Having begun to read the chapter with this in mind, I was somewhat sidetracked by how positive Paul is about tongues. I guess I've been schooled in the view that Paul damns tongues with faint praise in these verses. Yet it seems to me that he is saying tongues is good, indeed very good, so good he's happy for everyone to speak in tongues. It's just that prophecy is even better. interestingly he doesn't define what prophecy is except by its effects - that of building up the church, strengthening, encouraging and comforting brothers and sisters in Christ.

And its for that reason that he says people should prophesy rather than speak in tongues in the post-dinner symposium at Corinth.

I'm still wrestling with what he means in 1 Corinthians 14:20-25 where he turns his attention to the effects of these gifts on outsiders. I'll blog further if I think I understand it!

in the mean time, I am composing an ethos and values statement for our church to go alongside the covenant we're discussing.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Getting away to the seaside

Our leaders had an excellent awayday yesterday.

We decamped to sunny Whitstable for conversations about leadership and covenant and walks along the seafront (as well as a trip to the ever wonderful Harbour Bookshop where I picked up Hauerwas' Performing the Faith and Charlie Moule's NT essays for a song).

We finished the day with fish and chips on the beach as well as an agreed way forward on how we do leadership and a draft covenant for the home groups to discuss ahead of our church family meeting at the beginning of October.

This week I will pen a values and ethos statement for us to discuss.

So, it looks like after a year of conversations, lots of things are coming together nicely.

New music from Athlete

I've been listening to the Athlete album - Beyond the Neighbourhood. It's a more substantial and darker work than the previous two records, with songs about people jumping from the twin towers before they collapsed and discos at disused airports and seemingly lots of reflection on the pace of change and what we're doing to the planet.

Although the vocals are recognisably Joel Pott's, the album sounds so much more substantial than its predecessors, most tracks driven by chunky guitars.

I've booked tickets to see Editors at Brixton Academy - I am really enjoying An End has a Start

I'm also beginning to enjoy Atonement which I finally got round to reading a week or so ago - I'm a third of the way in so I'm trying to avoid detailed reviews of the film - although the arc of the story is becoming pretty clear to me. McEwan does write beautiful, subtle prose which is a joy to read - if only theologians were so gifted!

Monday, September 03, 2007

More on the plain meaning of the text

The other issue about the plain meaning of the text (see previous post) is the extent to which the New Testament authors presupposed familiarity with the Old Testament, familiarity such that the first hearers of the New testament 'heard' all the allusions there are in it to the Hebrew scriptures and its story.

It is certainly the case today that most of those sitting in the audiences for our sermons are not familiar with the Old Testament. they maybe know a few famous stories, have a favourite Psalm, know that Abraham came before Moses who came before David. But do they know enough top catch Paul's allusions to the sweep of the Old Testament story in Galatians? I doubt it.

When I spoke yesterday of Paul's ideas of fruitfulness coming from the key Old testament image of Israel being the vine not many heads nodded - and a couple of people said to me afterwards that would be going to read Isaiah 5 and 58 with a new interest. I suggested that they also read Jesus' parables of the sower and vineyard as well.

Perhaps this is an argument for doing sermons on recurring themes and images in the Bible. More fundamentally, it raises questions about how we disciple people - whether we're talking about what children in Sunday School are learning or what kind of catechism we offer to new believers. This latter takes into the territory of Alan Kreider's suggestion that baptismal preparation should take a lot longer than we currently allow.

What do people need to know in order to be Christians? Paul stresses that believers need to be growing in knowledge. Is he talking about what we'd call Bible knowledge (however that's acquired in a pre-book culture) or something else?

The plain meaning of scripture

We kicked off our series on Colossians yesterday and I think it went pretty well.

One of the things I was struck by was the number of positive comments I had from people of all ages - though mostly older - about the amount of background material I included with both sermons helping to earth Colossians in its first century context.

I didn't go overboard but I was keen to set the Imperial context in which Paul was writing and so I used some pictures of the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias and reflected on the story it told about how Caesar created the known world through 'reconciling' peoples of different cultures into a single empire, making peace through conquest, providing security via the legions.

This I then compared and contrasted with Paul's portrait of the Lordship of Jesus in Colossians 1:15-20.

It raised a question for me about teaching any biblical text in our churches. We baptist evangelicals have tended to speak about the plain meaning of scripture and the fact that anyone can pick up the Bible and understand it. But I wonder whether that's true - especially when people who've been Christians for longer than I've been alive come to me at the end of a sermon and say that they now see why Paul wrote what he did.

And if it isn't true, how much background or context do people need to be able to see the plain meaning of the text (whatever that is)?

One of the points I was keen to press home yesterday was that Paul is challenging - albeit it in a sly way - the imperial ideology of his day, offering his first hearers (and us) an alternative story about how reconciliation happens and Lordship is exercised. But do you see that unless you know something of the imperial ideology of first century Rome? And if you don't, does it mean you don't understand the text, misunderstand the text or appropriate the text without unnecessary clutter? Does the text lead any less to salvation if it's read without reference to its cultural context?

I am fairly sure that the plain meaning of the text of the New Testament was obvious to its first hearers but is increasingly obscure to us. I want to know what this does to our theology of teaching and learning in our churches.