Monday, March 30, 2009

Monday morning reflections 2

Peter Singer was on Start the Week (on Radio 4) this morning and spoke very persuasively about how we each hold the key to reducing the death toll among the world's children. He reminded us that a football stadium full of kids dies everyday from preventable causes.

His answer was surprisingly simple: we need to give more. His logic was unanswerable. If we see a child drowning in a shallow pool, we would intervene and pull the child out even if as a result, we ruined a pair of good shoes and trousers (cost £100 or so). Why don't we do the same for the child dying for want of a mosquito net, a vaccination, a square meal, access to clean water, a place in school....

I found his argument persuasive. But it saddened me that it sounded so original to those around the table in the studio. Surely this is what Jesus taught and how the early Christians lived. Surely it is what Jesus had in mind when he taught us to pray 'give us this day our daily bread'. How have we lost our way so badly that it takes a champion of secularism to remind us of a core Christian value?

It made me wonder again about sponsoring a child...

Monday morning reflections 1

I my devotional time this morning I read Psalm 7 which contains this verse (14)
Those who are pregnant with evil conceive trouble and give birth to

I found the sequence very interesting in the light of the interview on the Today programme with Jimmy Mizen's parents, not to mention the coverage in the weekend press of the conviction of Jimmy's killer.

Jimmy Mizen was 16 and killed in a fight. His parents have spoken movingly about their loss and their great pride in their son and about how anger solves nothing, just causes pain. They reflected this morning on the fact that we live in a culture that seems both increasingly angry and to think that anger is a good thing, something to be lauded. And yet anger gives rise to misery and loss.

And the Psalmist seems to catch the mood of what happens when evil things are conceived and trouble born. it leads to disillusionment. it leads to people saying that society is going to hell in a handbasket and there's nothing to be done; it leads to despair that leaves individuals and communities trapped in cycles of harm.

Jimmy Mizen's parents are Christians but they have been not been trumpeting that Jesus is the answer (though maybe they believe he is) because I think (and I could be very wrong here) that they see this a deep and difficult problem that can only be addressed if people are honest about their feelings and recognise the part they play in making Britain in 2009 an angrier place than it used to be.

When we've recognised that, then maybe we will be ready to hear what Jesus said about loving enemies, treating people justly and equitably, going the extra mile with those that are pregnant with evil but haven't yet given birth to trouble and caused even more disillusionment.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Life is sweet

The lecture went well on Wednesday. I had far too much material, so had to edit as I talked; the students were well-informed and lively, asking good questions, making even better comments. I enjoyed it; I hope they did.

I'm intending to post it at some stage - but it will need a bit of editing.

We also had the launch session of the juice bar project yesterday. This is a project we're doing with the youth service and Salvation Army that aims to train a group of young people in mixing cocktails and all the skills needed to run a bar (selling non-alcoholic beverages).

Our other partner - the key one - is Fruto del Espirtu, is a company set up to import fruit juices from Colombia that form the basis of excellent exotic cocktails. The juices are grown and bottled in areas where cocaine is produced. The company is attempting to offer farmers a profitable way of not growing coca, the basis of cocaine. And the buyers of the product in the UK are helping to support these farmers and thus, in a tiny way, combat the cocaine trade.

Fruto's chief exec, Rutie, gave a presentation on the company and then got the young people to start mixing up cocktails - which we got to taste. The aim is to get a juice bar up and running for the summer holidays and if it succeeds, maybe beyond.

Today I met the manager of our local Starbucks and it looks like we'll be starting cafe church again in May.

So, it's been a busy week so far but a good one.

Just the sermons for Sunday to sort out now...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The fabulous swap of 2 Corinthians 5

One thought that didn't make the lecture on the atonement (because I ran out of space and didn't have time to work it out fully) is about the righteousness of God in 2 Corinthians 5:21. If this phrase means God's covenant faithfulness/saving action everywhere else it's used in Paul - principally in Romans and Galatians - is that what it means here? If it is, how can we become the covenant faithfulness of God as Paul suggests?

I haven't had a chance to explore this thought fully nor to read the N T Wright paper that I suspect might argue a version of it, but I've been wondering whether since Paul is talking about his ministry in 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2, a ministry of reconciliation in partnership with God who has himself engaged in such a ministry in Christ, does the exchange of our sin for his righteousness mean that we too become messengers of reconciliation at that moment.

Paul starts his discussion proper 5:14 by pointing out that one died for all and those who live as a result no longer live for themselves but for Christ (v15). He then talks about experiencing new creation through being reconciled to God - something that happens as a result of the ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to the likes of Paul and his team - and by implication to anyone who is a new creation (16-18).

He then tells us that it was God working in Christ who brought about the reconciliation that we enjoy - that is that God is working according to his covenant faithfulness, his promise to Abraham that through his family all the nations of the earth would be blessed; in short that he is revealing his righteousness in the gospel exactly as Paul says in Romans 1:16-17 and 3:20f.

God co-opts us as ambassadors so he can make his appeal to the world through us (v20). And that appeal is that through faith in Christ we swap our sin - our state of being unreconciled and of being an ambassador or spokesman for non-reconciliation (as the Corinthians were turning out to be!) - for his righteousness, his saving activity in the world.

In 6:1 (remember there were no chapter divisions in the original letter!) he reiterates that he's working in partnership in urging the Corinthians to accept the grace of God for there's no time like the present (to paraphrase 6:2)..

Of course this in no way suggests that the cross is not an exchange of sin for right standing before God (though that is not the way Paul uses the term righteousness). He doesn't need to say it in v21 since he's already made it abundantly clear in v14-17 that it is by Christ's death for all that we are made new creations; the cross has brought about the turning of the ages. and if we are new creations, our sin (all that made up the old of v17) must have been dealt with by the action that turned the ages, the cross.

And the language of v21 is itself deeply substitutionary. The exchange of sin for righteousness happens because of a prior exchange. But note the exchange that Christ made on the cross was not his righteousness for sin. That's not what Paul says. He says that Christ exchanged his sinlessness for sin. Righteousness in paul is a term reserved for God's action in making good his promise to Abraham that he'd bless the nations through his seed (Galatians 3). the amazing thing is that as we put of faith in Christ and become new creatures in him so we swap our sin for a partnership with God in helping to put things right; we cease to be part of the problem and become part of the solution, in that we become messengers of God reconciling good news.

Does that make sense? Or have I missed something vital?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Grappling with the atonement

I've been getting to grips with the atonement this afternoon as I'm doing a lecture to a third year NT group at spurgeon's on it next week.

I shall be outlining and reflecting on Howard Marshall's paper The Theology of the Atonement which he produced for the recent LST/EA conference on the subject in the wake of controversy over Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus. I have to say, it's not Marshall's finest work but it is the text that the students have been given to read.

Then I'll be suggesting other approaches before doing a little exegetical work on Galatians 3 and Romans 3 in the light of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and seeing where we end up.

It's been interesting to see where the debate among evangelicals is. It isn't between those who hold to a penal substitutionary view and those who don't. there are so few evangelicals for whom that view is not at least part of their understanding of the atonement.

The key issue is where it fits in scripture - where Tom Wright takes issue with those reformed evangelicals who dismiss the NPP as hopelessly flawed - and what its consequences are in the world.

I've read some good stuff by Wright today and one or two other essays exploring other approaches that have not been quite so convincing. In particular Christopher Marshall's attempt to find a via media between more traditional models and the Narrative Christus victor model advocated by the Mennonite scholar J Denny Weaver is interesting but unconvincing - though not as unconvincing as Weaver's approach!

I found myself agreeing with Wright that while the Christus Victor model is the key one, penal substitution is an essential facet of it and to strip any idea of substitutionary atonement from one's overall approach suggests that we take neither sin nor God's love very seriously. I think this is a shift of position on my part - so preparing lectures is good for one's thinking!

In passing in a very good paper he wrote last year in response to Jeffrey John's Lent talk and the Oak Hill book Pierced for our Transgressions (neither of which he rated very highly), he made this nice observation: 'when I sing that interesting recent song In Christ Alone my hope is found, and we come to the line "And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied", I believe it's more deeply true to sing "the love of God was satisfied". I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.' (I love that last sentence for it doesn't say!).

The reason for his emendation is that the cross satisfies God's love rather than his wrath. John tells us not that God was so angry with the world that he sent Jesus, but that he so loved it. God's wrath is provoked by human sin that requires judgment. His love is displayed, however, in him absorbing that judgment in himself in the person of his Son - the atonement is deeply, sublimely, mysteriously, wonderfully Trinitarian.

So, I'm enjoying myself and will be for a couple of days - it'll be interesting to see how it comes out. I wonder if the students will enjoy it as much!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Of the making of books...

I received confirmation at the end of last week that the publisher I've been talking to since last summer is going ahead with my New Testament social history book project. They are proposing a 192 page, full colour, hard back, small coffee table type book that will hit the shops sometime late next year. This is really very exciting - if a little scary!

This is what the pitch said:

The World of the Early Church: a social history is a book exploring the world in which the earliest Christian communities lived; that period from the mid-30s AD to the opening decades of the Second Century. This is the story of a world dominated by a single empire that was reaching the heights of its power and influence. The Roman world forms the essential social and cultural backdrop to the emergence of the Christian movement.

We will explore ordinary life in the empire – where people lived, how they made ends meet, what they ate, where they went for leisure and entertainment. We’ll ask what ordinary people did for a living and where they did it and we’ll look at social relationships, how people understood their place in the world in relation to others and, very importantly, the gods

This will enable us to focus on those communities (churches) that we know about from the letters of Paul and other missionary authors – what strata of society did they come from, where did they meet, how did they support one another, why did they attract sometimes adverse reactions from their neighbours.

But the book will also look at the social context of Jesus and his ministry and ask how a rural Jewish renewal group became one of the fastest-growing urban movements through the first century.

All I've got to do now is write it!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Learning our ABCs

We had a good evening yesterday. We were completing Mark 6 - one of the key chapters in the first half of Mark's story. It marks the end of Jesus' public ministry in Galilee. From chapter 7 he'll be travelling in the further reaches of Israel, the mixed territories to the north and east of Herod's territory.

Full notes on the passage can be found here (click the downloads section and follow the link). I just want to comment on a couple of aspects of discipleship that I highlighted last night because I think they're interesting and often not prominent in our conversations about following Jesus.

Jesus uses the politically charged episode of the feeding to teach some intensely personal lessons about discipleship, one of which is that disciples need to learn to accept responsibility for what's going on around them.

Five thousand blokes had turned up spoiling for an uprising because the Twelve had been out preaching up a storm in the towns and villages of Galilee. But as soon as a need arises - these people need feeding - the disciples tell Jesus to send them away to find food somewhere else.

Jesus says to the twelve 'you give them something to eat'. This is, of course, not his last word on the issue. But it is important that it's his first word.

It highlights the fact that discipleship is as much about a new relationship with the world as it is about a new relationship with God. In Hebrews 2 the author reflects on Psalm 2, a picture of how people were created to steward, manage the creation but have clearly failed. The world is in a mess and human stewardship of it is largely to blame.

The author points to Jesus, however, who is a trail-blazer in the restoration of the human stewarding of creation. He doesn't do this alone, he brings others with him to share his rule(Hebrews 2:5-18). And that is what Jesus is doing in Mark 6:37. He is pointing out that part of being a disciple is to accept responsibility for what is happening in the world, responsibility for being part of the solution, having been rescued from being part of the problem.

We don't emphasise this aspect of discipleship often enough, preferring instead to play up those aspects of relating to God that result in good things coming into our lives - forgiveness, new life, hope, the holy Spirit, etc. And these are indeed good. But they are not the whole story.

The idea that we are called to accept responsibility for what is happening around us because we are called to share in Christ's reign, can be seen in Paul's emphasis on Christians being people who do good works (Eph 2:10; titus 2:11-14, etc), Peter's teaching on the soft difference being about doing work in the world that demonstrates the effectiveness of the gospel in creating a people who embody the good values that everyone aspires to but can't live out.

The rest of the ABC of discipleship flows those this acceptance of our responsibility, namely, that we bring to Jesus what we have (not what we don't have - so we're realistic about what we can do) and we co-operate with him in making a difference. All this grows from a deepening awareness of who Jesus is, something the 12 got a glimpse of in the next story, namely Jesus walking on the lake and revealing himself to be not just the one who distributes miraculously multiplied loaves, but the one who does the maths.

This why there's a twin references to loaves in 38 and 52. The depth of the disciples' incomprehension about Jesus is focused on what the loaves should have told them about him.

it seems to me that these are lessons about discipleship we need to learn for the times in which we live.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Getting personal with U2

Relax, the new U2 album is sensational!

I reckon it's the best thing they've done since Achtung Baby (one of the ten best albums of all time).

I've been listening to No Line on the Hor i zon - that's how they spell it on the album - first on Sportify (all last week) and since yesterday on CD. It's deep and rich, adventurous without being needlessly experimental and lyrically playful.

The one unsettling thing about the album is the closing track. It is a moody, downbeat, opaque reflection on war in the Middle East that asks where God is among the cedars of Lebanon (the track's title) and ends almost in mid-sentence. It leaves you wanting to hear it all again.

Lyrically, it's very personal - perhaps that's why the 'i' in horizon is left exposed - but as with Cedars of Lebanon, there are hints and nods to wider concerns and the struggle we each have to make sense of and make our mark in the world.

This is a work of a band with nothing left to prove, a band comfortable in its own skin. But it's also the work of four restless middle-aged men, keen to push themselves into new areas, explore fresh sounds and hold on to the energy that brought them to rock n' roll in the first place. They pull it off wonderfully.

So, go on, treat yourself...

Sunday, March 01, 2009

competing for car insurance

I was told off by an insurance company yesterday for taking my business elsewhere. I'd decided to insure my car through a different broker and the person from the people I used last year said I was making a mistake and I ought to rethink.

Apart from the sheer cheek of it (though I know everyone's desperate for business), the deal I've got this year is better than last year's - and with the same insurance company. It's interesting that two brokers can offer such different prices for what is effectively the same product.

I trumped the man's objections on the phone by pointing out that his firm had not sent renewal information 21 days before the expiry of my current insurance which is a breach of the regulations for the sale of insurance and this suggests the admin might not be all they claim it is. He fairly quickly did the necessary and wished a good day after that.

What struck me after I'd done the deal was that the price I'm paying for 2009/10 is half what I paid the year I insured my first car in 1982. Who said the financial services revolution has brought us no benefits?

More pictures of Lily

Here are a couple more pictures of Lily - which i've finally got off my camera (sorry for the delay).

As you can see, she's totally gorgeous!