Monday, April 28, 2008

Other bloggers

One of my morning rituals - usually done before breakfast but after I've collected the overnight emails - is to trawl through a collection of mainly New Testament blogs (yes, I know I should get out more, but it's early!)

The one that I've found most stimulating over recent weeks is Michael Bird and Joel Willetts' Euanggelion. you can access it here

Today Michael bird is recommending Scott McKnight's book on the atonement but adding his own reflection on why it matters what we think about this central doctrine of the Christian faith.

So, if you want some stimulation, check it out.

And a great time was had by all...

Well, yesterday went rather well, I think...

120+ turned up in the afternoon to hear the African Kidzsing choir (who were wonderful) and then stayed on to eat and find out about Fruto del Espirtu's gorgeous range of fruit juices (and the vision behind the company). A good number stayed on - and more joined them - to hear Gareth Davies-Jones sing songs from his new album, as well s some old favourites.

Everyone went away entertained, provoked and challenged - which is what church should like, isn't it?

It was a great last Sunday before sabbatical for me - seeing the church full and humming with conversation, visitors and regulars mingling and everyone being enabled to support movements that could make the world a bit better. I can't ask for more than that really...

Sunday, April 27, 2008

End of the journey, start of the adventure...

We're looking forward to a busy day at church.

This afternoon and evening we have a festival of the nations, featuring the Kidzsing choir from Johannesburg, an innovative project called Fruto del Espiritu which is seeking to help Colombian farmers grow fruit for fruit juice rather than coca for cocaine (they've got a contract to supply fruit cocktails to the Dorchester Hotel no less) and Gareth Davies-Jones is rounding our evening off with songs from his new album, Water and Light. Oh and there'll be food.

And this morning - my last before going on sabbatical - I am rounding off Matthew by returning to 28:16-20 (where we started) and looking at what we've learned about being and making disciples as we've read the five discourses.

I shall be stressing that disciples are believers with L-plates who pass on to others what they're discovering about the life of faith. There should be something of the wide-eyed, 'wow, look what I've just found out about Jesus' about our evangelism.

Paul captures it in Philippians 3 where he talks about wanting to know Jesus (v10), pressing on to grasp more and more about him and at the same time planting churches and urging others to discover the Christ who'd revolutionised his life and promised to do the same for the world.

So, although we've reached the end of our journey through Matthew, in a very real the adventure with Jesus in the world is just beginning - as it was for the 11 who met him on the mountain. Will we worship or hesitate, offer our lives to his adventure of mission or shrink back into the safety of our church programme?

And then it's getting ready for the Baptist Assembly in Blackpool at the end of the week. After that, we're off to Prague for a month to stay at IBTS. I'm really looking forward to time away, recharging the batteries, reflecting on where I'm at and thinking about what God is saying about the next phase of my ministry. We're certain that it means staying put, that God has fresh challenges for us here. we're looking forward to being re-envisioned for the adventure.

I shall be blogging while away, I think., because there'll be tons of stuff to reflect on and express an opinion about while we're away. So, keep in touch...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Further thoughts on sheep and goats

We had a great conversation over coffee at our local chic cafe this morning about the gospel, assurance of salvation, what we believe and how we live - all issues touching on Matthew 25.

One of the things I came away more certain about is that the issue of faith and lifestyle is a tension that we resolve at our peril - and certainly at some risk to our theology.

We are saved by faith and judged by works - is that the argument of Romans 2? What we do is evidence of the reality of our faith - is that the argument of James 2? As we await the coming king in whom we have put our trust we will live lives built on and reflective of his values - is that what Matthew 25 is about?

[I think the answer to all these questions is 'yes and...']

I guess something else I've thought about since Sunday - and yet another person this morning told me how challenging they found what I'd said on Sunday morning - is that it's no one's job but God's to decide who's a goat and who's a sheep. The trouble is that we are always comparing ourselves with others and, depending on our temperament, reckoning ourselves better or worse than them.

We really should only compare to Jesus, commit ourselves to following him whatever (much like Paul in Philippians 3) and trusting him to enable us to live up to his call. By his grace we'll not go far wrong if we live this way.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Listen while you work...

As well as Yeasayer - who are fab (see previous post) - I've also been listening to the new REM album (undoubtedly the best work they've done since New Adventures in Hi Fi; lots of angular, industrial guitar sounds and stipe sounds like he's interested in what he's singing again) and the new offering from Delirious?

I'm not sure what I think of delirious? This album grows out of a visit to India and the lyrics seem more grown up than previous work. The packaging, however, suggests that style and art are triumphing over concern for the global poor - tons of plastic and an awkward sized lyric book. They ought to have taken a leaf out of Radiohead's book; the album sleeve for In rainbows is all cardboard.

As to the music, Kingdom of comfort is a good opener and the guitar at the start of God is Smiling is sublime. There are a number of tracks that will end up as firm favourites at churches and conferences up and down the land. But I don't feel I've learned anything about India or what the band made of their experience, except that they felt uncomfortable.

Oh, and the live Cinematic Orchestra album gets better with every listen.

So, listen while you work...

Getting the message out

Well, I duly preached on Matthew 25 and no one threw anything (which I always take as a positive sign).

It did lead to some interesting conversations afterwards. One or two wanted assurance that what they'd been taught in the past is right and they'll be okay on the Day of Judgement. The trouble with this is that I don't know what they've been taught and it's not up to me whether they'll be ok on the day of judgement!

I think people tend to be either hopelessly insecure on this issue and assume they're a goat or arrogantly confident of their status as a sheep. I suspect the last shall be first on this one! The former are probably much more in touch with the values of the Kingdom than the latter who come dangerously close to exhibiting all the hallmarks of a caricature pharisee (don't we all on many occasions?!)

Next week I'll be rounding off our series on the discourses in Matthew by returning to 28:16-20 (where we started last Autumn) and asking what a disciple should know so they can pass it on as they go into the world (that is, each time they leave their home).

It seems to me that it's more about how to live (as Jesus did) than about a set of doctrines to talk about. This means that as we go into the world our lives attract a certain amount of interest because of the values we live by. That interest is our opportunity to talk about the Jesus of those values and all that he means to us as brother, friend, saviour and Lord.

But I'm getting ahead of myself (I haven't started thinking about next week yet!)

This is my last full week before going on sabbatical. I'm ready for it but I realised at the church family meeting and lunch yesterday that I'm really going to miss everyone. I realised even more at the end of our later service when people who won't be around next week, were saying goodbye to me.

I have to say that I am really enjoying the Yeasayer album - All Hour Cymbals - which is a studiedly weird as the title and utterly breathtaking. There's not a duff note on it - though I haven't yet fathomed out what any of it is about.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Struggling with difficult texts

I have been wrestling with Matthew 25:31-46 ahead of preaching on it on Sunday and am wondering whether I might have found a key that helps to unlock it. Of course, I might have stumbled into some ancient heresy - in which case, I repent immediately!

Any of you with any wisdom on this, please comment on what follows.

The story (it's not a parable) is puzzling for a couple of reasons. The first is that Jesus seems to be suggesting that the sole basis for judging everyone from every nation is how they've each treated his followers ('the least of these my brothers and sisters' used elsewhere in Matthew to talk about disciples). There is nothing about faith or living a personally righteous life.

And the second is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the criterion for judgement or at least they are surprised by the fact that Jesus says they haven't recognised him in the people in need around them.

The embarrassment of this story, of course, is that it seems to suggest salvation by works; that we are judged solely according to what we do rather than what we believe.

So, here's a thought. Is Jesus (or Matthew) going full circle and ending the final discourse of the gospel with reference to the first one (namely the sermon on the mount)? Is mention of the least of these an oblique reference to the poor, hungry, shattered of the beatitudes? Possibly.

Rather more likely and interesting (I think) is the following thought. Could this whole judgement scene be an outworking of 7:21-23 where Jesus distinguishes between those who claim to be disciples - some he knows and some he doesn't. There he only says that not everyone who calls me Lord, but only those who do the will of my Father will enter the Kingdom. Is he here spelling out what that's all about?

After all, he has echoed those words in 25:12 where half the young women seeking entry to the wedding banquet are sent away with the words 'I don't know you' ringing int their ears.

From 24:36 Jesus has been telling his followers that his parousia will arrive suddenly and unexpectedly and so they should they should always be ready. This readiness is not a hanging about in the hallway with our bags packed, but an active waiting on the king and working for his kingdom as spelled out the three parables from 24:45-25:30.

Is this judgement scene the final teaching on what it means to be ready, a final spelling out that judgement is based on how we live as well as what we believe? Is Jesus reminding us that not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom, but only those who who do the will of my father spelled out in the terms of this story. Is Jesus here stressing to his followers that the quality of their lives in the world, where they support and look out for one another and the poor of their communities (Galatians 6:10 in action) is the single sign that he is the one to whom the world will give account and that he is returning at a time no one knows, so everyone had better ask themselves whether they are ready?

The criterion for judgement seems to be a conscious echo of the description of Jesus' ministry in 9:35-38 and 11:4-6 and thus a call for us as followers of the coming king to be living as the king lived, caring for those in need and thus demonstrating the grace of God to all.

And all this might help us to integrate the picture of the relationship between faith and works in Matthew 25 with the ones we find in Romans 2:6-11 and James 2:14-24 where there is a similar emphasis on what we do as well as what we believe, with the former having a judgement setting.

Am I mad or does this make some sense?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Taking a city break in Ancient Rome

Yesterday I was put through my paces by my supervisor. He seemed pretty pleased with the direction of my paper, though suggested that I might like to pay closer attention to the primary sources rather than the secondary ones.

Now I am going to do some detailed investigation of life in the cities of the ancient world, in particular Rome, Philippi, Corinth, Antioch and Ephesus (those places that the Jesus movement took root in and which became significant centres of mission and and developing organisation and ministry).

My focus is on the question of where the earliest communities gathered. The prevailing view is that congregations of 30-ish met in homes that were inhabited by and thus organised as a household. This explains the presence of household codes in the NT and Apostolic Fathers and could account for the forms of leadership that emerged over the first three generations. But this consensus is being challenged by some.

What if the earliest communities met somewhere else because the bulk of members lived in insulae, above workshops, in temporary accommodation near where they picked up seasonal employment? Where would such groups meet and what kind of leadership might emerge in them?

Anyone with any suggestions of where I might look, please let me know. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into this especially when I'm away in May at IBTS (good library and convivial surroundings) with a view to getting something on paper for a meeting at the end of July.

The soundtrack for today's reading and preparation will be the new Cinematic Orchestra live at the Albert Hall album (truly gorgeous) and the remarkable album by Yeasayer. Called All Hour Cymbals, it's a wonderful mix of quirky rhythms, great tunes and opaque lyrics - somewhat resonant of early Talking Heads.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Tidying up

I finished my paper at the weekend - The Matrix of Leadership: location, social order and authority in early Christianity. (slight title change!)

It's a bit long (7,200 words) but I'm quite pleased with it. In the end, the ideas flowed and I think I made a reasonable case that leadership in the Jesus movement in the second century was just as fluid as leadership in the first; and that just because certain letter writers expressed views about how it should be, that isn't necessarily how it was.

In particular, I explored the issue of social location (what kind of people joined the church) and asked how that might have affected the ways the movement was led in the first three generations.

I really enjoyed interacting with Polycarp - what a lovely gentle letter!

A footnote to my last post: Yes, Tom Wright did talk about jubilee. He argued strongly that Jesus was declaring jubilee when he preached in Nazareth and that is why he is good news for the poor. The jubilee is physical and economic and the proclamation of the Kingdom includes our mentioning and modelling it to the world.

I agree with Lynn, though, it would be a good investment to buy the CD of the talk. It's also available as a DVD but probably isn't that riveting as Tom didn't dance while he spoke!

Friday, April 11, 2008

The (W)right stuff at Spring Harvest

Back from Spring Harvest - so cream crackered that I can barely focus!

We had an excellent, very busy week. The highlight was hearing Tom Wright (yes, that's right, the Bishop of Durham, no less) expounding the Nazareth sermon of Luke 4 in the light of its Isaianic background and fulfilment in the Acts of the Apostles ('a very buzzy book'), all focused on the Kingdom of God. It was utterly blistering!

The amazing thing was that as he came into land - and I was wondering for at least two thirds of it, how he was going to apply all this to his audience - you could sense a sudden in-take of breath all over the big top as people realised that this was about them. We all have Nazareth's in which we're called to proclaim the Kingdom of God; in some of them we'll be thrown off the cliffs by the antagonistic; are we up for it? More important, do we know the message and are we filled with the Spirit of the messenger? Amazing!

The response was big. I prayed with three or four people, two of whom were ministers going back to really difficult situations who had found Tom's message nurturing and nourishing and wanted strength for the fray.

That's why I love being on the pastoral team at Spring Harvest.

Elsewhere, I did a seminar on self-esteem that seemed to go really well - 200+ turned up for it and lots stayed around to chat afterwards. And on the final evening Jeff Lucas was the best I've ever heard him - funny, theologically deep and sharp in terms of application.

It was great to work with a group of people that Linda and I have worked with for the past six or seven years. We laugh and cry together in roughly equal measure - though a good deal of the crying is tears of laughter! We'll do it all again next year, I hope.

Now it's back to papers and emails and catching up with what's been happening here.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Emerging churches - second century-style

Today I am trying to get a structure for a paper for my supervisor on leadership in the New Testament and immediate post-apostolic period. I've narrowed it down to looking at Rome and Philippi and trying to trace the trajectories of leadership development as those communities matured.

I think I'll call my paper The matrix of leadership: location, social order and authority in Rome and Philippi because that sounds suitably impressive (even if it masks the fact that I might not have anything intelligent to say!) and does touch on all the issues I think I want to address (albeit at a fairly superficial level).

I'm particularly interested in teasing out the evidence for the so-called three-fold ministry - bishops, deacons and presbyters - and reasons why it appeared/is appearing. And I am especially keen to see if there's any evidence for the assertion that the church was already moving out of homes into larger buildings and that many communities in a city were becoming one led by a singly bishop, assisted by presbyters and deacons.

We have good evidence for Rome because of literature having been left to us that was written from the city - namely 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas. It seems that these two documents reflect different Roman Christian communities, thus suggesting that multiple churches were not at this time (the turn of the second century) becoming a single church with a unitary leadership.

Sadly we don't have similar evidence for Philippi - that I can find anyway - but we do have two letters: Paul's from the mid-50s and Polycarp's from the first third of the second century. A lot of good research has been done on what the Christian communities were like in Philippi when Paul wrote but sadly nothing like that wealth of information exists for the church/churches that Polycarp wrote to 80-ish years later.

What we do find across the second century literature, however, is considerable difference of opinion over how churches should be organised and what authority church leaders had. Teasing out the reasons why this was the case looks as though it's going to be quite interesting.

I'm hoping to get the structure done and map out the argument for each section ahead of going away. Because we're off to Spring Harvest in the morning. Five days in Skegness just as the winter returns - great!

But we're looking forward to meeting up with old mates and working with a whole range of people on the pastoral team. I'm also doing a seminar on self-esteem (though I'm not sure I'm good enough to be doing that, really...)

And inbetween all that, I'll be doing bits and pieces of writing with a view to editing it when I'm back and getting it off to my supervisor before we meet in a couple of week's time.