Those of you whose eyes have been glued to the liturgical calendar since I mentioned Ascension Day (and who wouldn’t?!) will know that today is Pentecost. You know — tongues of fire, the wonders of God declared in different languages, all that?
At its heart Pentecost is about Jesus’ kingship. Bill Dumbrell (The Faith of Israel, p 84) highlights the ‘ideal framework of kingship’ established in 1 and 2 Samuel. It has four criteria:
- divine selection — this is runs against the grain of human expectation (1 Sam 9 works pretty hard to present Saul as an oaf; David’s lack of conventional appeal is well known);
- prophetic anointing — confirming God’s selection;
- endowment by the Spirit — preparing the king for office; and
- public affirmation — Saul is victorious over the Ammorites (1 Sam 11); David triumphantly brings the ark to Jerusalem and distributes gifts — some bread, a date cake and a raisin cake (2 Sam 6).
If we look at the Gospels with an eye to these Old Testament criteria, we see three of them fulfilled within the story of Jesus’ earthly existence (according to the Synoptics) — e.g., his divine selection is ratified as he is ‘anointed’ in baptism and then led out by the Spirit to do battle with the Satan.
But the fourth awaits Pentecost, where the ascended king is publicly affirmed and distributes the benefits of his good rule.
Thus Pentecost is about how Jesus unites us to Himself, sharing His life and blessings with us. As Calvin puts it (Institutes 3.1.1):
[A]s long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us […] Yet since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ, which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.
Let me lay something on you:
We do in fact live in an age of revolution and experiment; unless a thing is new, it has little or no appeal. We must never put our trust in novelty as a substitute for truth: that would be “another Gospel”, but not an authentic Gospel. That caution is necessary; but then it is right to add that Evangelicals have a solemn duty to take their place in the van of all those creative areas of new work and experiment today. They should stand out in the forefront of true theology, both in scholarship and in authorship, with a clear-cut contribution to the fields of education and literature. They should be more active than ever in evangelism and in missionary concern, all unafraid in exploring new ways of true spiritual outreach to the unchurched and the non-Christian. They should honestly recognize the value of common prayer in the forms of public worship and the need for liturgical relatedness to the daily affairs of a modern congregation. They should examine existing structures with a view to replacing what is outmoded and improving what is effective, while never losing sight of the great need for pastoral compassion in the Name of Christ for all who are lost or out of the way. The Church of England has never been a mere spiritual ghetto: its doors should stand open so that all who are in need may come in. They should face the moral questions of a permissive society and the social problems of an affluent country with an intelligent application of the teaching of the Bible. They should clear their minds on the great issues of church affairs such as the ecumenical movement or the organic reunion of now independent Denominations. These are only some of the needs which call for wise judgement or for imaginative response today.
How’s that for a call for a creative evangelical response to contemporary challenges?
It’s delightfully expansive — taking in academic engagement, evangelism, world (and home) mission, liturgical revision, strategy and structural reform, and pastoral care.
It’s from the Presidential Address to Sydney Synod in 1980(!) by Archbishop Marcus Loane — God rest him. But it feels so fresh, doesn’t it?
I give it a hearty ‘Amen’!
Matt just tagged me with a meme (which I thought was something Dawkins invented — you know the ‘selfish gene’?). Apparently I must:
i. List a helpful book I’ve read in each category
ii. Describe why I found it helpful
iii. Tag five more friends and spread the meme love
OK. Here goes:
- Theology — John Webster’s Holiness neatly summed up my second and third year doctrine course in brief compass, with some really nice tie ins to the unfolding narrative of salvation-history through his emphasis on God’s sanctifying holiness…
- Biblical theology — There’s so much to choose from. I’ve been helped tremendously by some of the things Bill Dumbrell’s written. But I’m going to go with Richard Hays’s very stimulating little book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. While not really a laying the foundations kind of book, it really got me excited about doing justice to the significance of the story of Israel for Paul…
- God — Until two weeks ago I would have gone with Byron’s answer and said Church Dogmatics IV/1, but I was blown away by Gregory Nazianzen’s Five Theological Orations — they’re so dynamic and provocatively paradoxical!
- Jesus — Richard Bauckham’s slim God Crucified packs a powerful punch as it sets the NT witness to the worship of Jesus within its Second Temple context to highlight both the continuity and the radical newness of Christianity with respect to Judaism…
- Old Testament — Barry Webb’s Five Festal Garments (on Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Lamentations) is pure gold, and such a delightful model of a careful and attentive Christian reading of the Old Testament. But competing with it is Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative has helped my preaching tremendously — from both Testaments!
- New Testament — I haven’t read it all yet but I’m going to nominate David Peterson’s new Pillar Commentary on Acts –for my money David’s lectures on Acts are the high point of the biblical studies programme at College: rigourous without crushing imaginative and capacious engagement with the critical issues…
- Morals — Surely everyone’s going to say Resurrection and Moral Order but I think I actually learnt to care about ethics from Stanley Hauerwas — as well as a desire to pay attention to the place of community and the significance of making the church a place in which a positive alternative is available to immorality (rather than simply condemning it) — so I’m going to cheat a little and say The Hauerwas Reader, which gives you a good survey of his thinking in all its many splendoured twists and turns…
- (Church) History — R. P. C. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God got me excited about Church History and the early church fathers in particular, and helped me actually understand Arianism for the first time (and why the fathers rightly rejected it)…
- Biography — I’m not a big biography reader, but Murray’s Martyn Lloyd Jones: The First Forty Years left a deep impression on me, stirring me up about preaching and pastoral ministry…
- Evangelism — OK, not strictly about evangelism (or at least not evangelism alone), but Total Church in a charmingly unassuming and British way manages to be both deeply rooted theologically and expansively practical — doing some great work healing the breach that’s opened up in too much evangelicalism between gospel proclamation and social engagement.
- Prayer — Hmmmm… Haven’t read a stack of books on prayer (specifically). Carson’s Call to Spiritual Reformation is a book I’ve often picked up, and then had to put down again because I’ve had too many things to get sorted out to persevere with it. It might be weird to say it but I found reading Church Dogmatics IV/1 a remarkably doxological experience — it drove me to my knees in prayerful awe time and time again…
So then, I’m meant to tag five more to churn out their versions. I’d love to hear from Bek, Sam, Andrew, Andrew and Geoff.
The phrase ‘the offence of the cross’ is often invoked to motivate squirmish ministers or theological students not to stop preaching judgement — ‘Don’t remove the offence of the cross!’ The problem is that when Paul actually mentions it (in 1 Corinthians), what causes Jews to stumble and strikes Gentiles as foolish is not the coming judgement — Jews were looking forward to that after all — but the grace made available in the (shocking) news of the crucified Messiah.
Which is it then — judgement or grace?
I want to suggest that … it’s both! Of course, this is the classic preacher’s solution — have my cake and eat it too. But there’s a powerful way to draw together the threads. Taking my cue from Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Section 59), I want to highlight the gospel revelation of Jesus as Judge (who is then judged in our place). The Gospels typically present Jesus not as deliberately and directly exercising a forensic, judicial role — handing down sentences, etc — but as simply being the Light and thus exposing our darkness. The way John formulates it is compelling (John 3.17-18):
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.
God’s grace in Jesus exposes our gracelessness (and thus condemns us). And in showing us we cannot contribute in any way to our salvation, it cuts the ground out from under any pride and self-sufficiency. Such is the offence of the cross.
What’s more, it actually calls for a thorough rework of our view of the coming judgement.
What would it look like, I wonder, to insist that it’s God’s grace (ironically? tragically?) that exposes and condemns our sin not just now but ultimately?
I have to confess that I struggle with preaching from the Gospels. On the one hand they’re so unmistakeably about Jesus — exactly what we want for gospel ministry. On the other hand they’re full of stuff — e.g., ethical teaching for — that seems a little (ahem) difficult to square with the announcement of the achievement of God in Christ.
Matthew 18 is a significant piece of such interpretive gristle.
On the face of it, it’s loaded with practical advice for the church — specifically, how to deal with sin in the community of believers. (Our pastor Andrew Katay preaches a blinder on this and is well worth listening to). Yet the difficulty lurking below the surface is, How does it point us towards the narrative’s climax — Jesus’ atoning death?
I want to suggest that read carefully, Matthew 18 is neither a matter of ethics displacing the gospel message of Christ’s substitution for us, nor does its place in the Gospel’s unfolding narrative demands that we hold the ethical teaching at arm’s length — as some weird set of interim provisions, the contemporary relevance of which we struggle to see.
Church discipline? (Rubens's classic image, Saint Ambrose Forbids Emperor Theodosius I to Enter the Church)
Rather, the irreducible ethical nature of this chapter — it is about church discipline, providing principles to govern our handling of sin in the life of the community — is the key to its gospel function.
- You see this in the call in this passage for church members to reflect the heart of God in their dealings with each other, like the shepherd who drops everything to pursue his lost sheep.
- But you also see it in the sweep of chapters 18-20 which prepare for Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and installation as the Messiah — first in his public recognition then as he steps into the shoes of Isaiah’s suffering servant in his passion.
All told, the way church discipline heralds the gospel in Matthew 18 helps us see something that Oliver O’Donovan jumps up and down about: ethics is evangelical. This (I hope) is the key to preaching from the Gospels!
I want to wrap up this series by posing an important self-critical question:
Is all this talk about becoming churches of irresistible influence a recipe for the inevitable dulling of the church’s witness?
In other words, am I setting us on the road to Christendom? To trading our integrity for worldly influence and political power? And, what place (if any) have I allowed for the expectation of suffering and persecution … even martyrdom from the world that hated Jesus?
Christendom's Defining Moment (Raphael's Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge)
Of course, I’m convinced that the task empowering and harnessing the church’s significant human resources to do good — so that we are actually salt and light in our communities — does not conflict with the church’s witness. But why not?
Well, even though we must surely expect hostility, our witness is not a matter of standing apart from sinners and condemning them. Instead, it’s about meeting them with the love and grace of God, calling them to repent and believe.
As I’ve said before, we’re seeking to tread in the footsteps of Jesus here. And as His life was not at odds with — but rather fulfilled and crowned by — what He achieved in His death and resurrection, so our works of charity are not at odds with the task of announcing His atoning achievement. Christ-like works don’t compete with Christ-promoting words; they go hand-in-hand with them. How else can we adorn the gospel of God our Saviour?
Now I’m not up for romanticism. We’ve got to be realistic about this. If we do actually manage to become churches of irresistible influence, we will still (tragically) be the stench of death to some. As long as we haven’t smoothed over the offence of the cross…
But just like our Lord — and as Him witnesses — we’ll be impossible to ignore:
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matt 5.16).
As I laboured over my essay on the trinitarian theology of Gregory of Nazianzus this past week, I was struck by the way the early fathers tend to speak of the incarnation in terms of God clothing himself in human flesh.
Of course there’s real truth here. When John 1 tells us that the Word became flesh this is a dramatic and decisive new thing. But the danger is that it suggests that God and humanity are intrinsically opposed — not just as a result of sin.
I’m much happier with this snippet from Soren Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments (at the climax of a parable he’s spun about a king who goes ‘undercover’ to win the love of a peasant woman):
[T]his servant-form is no mere outer garment, like the king’s beggar-cloak, which therefore flutters loosely about him and betrays the king; it is not like the filmy summer-cloak of Socrates, which though woven of nothing yet both conceals and reveals. It is his true form and figure. For this is the unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved, not in jest merely, but in earnest and truth. And it is the omnipotence of the love which is so resolved that it is able to accomplish its purpose…
Dare we even say there’s nothing more like God than to become human — that it’s thoroughly right for God the Son to enter into our situation fully, taking our plight upon Himself and triumphantly exhausting it in His substitutionary death?
A 'Christ Pantocrator' Fresco
I don’t know how large the liturgical calendar typically looms on the horizons of your mind, but yesterday was Ascension.
Ascension’s celebrated 40 days after Easter (on the Western calendar, at least). And it’s about pausing to remember that the key to Jesus’ real and ongoing presence with His disciples (Matt. 28.20) is only possible because of His real absence, because He has gone, ascended to His Father’s right hand.
From another perspective this ‘going’ is a ‘coming’. The coming of the Son of Man in Daniel’s apocalyptic terms. God’s anointed one ascending the throne of the Ancient of days. His royal installation.
As Rowan Williams puts it in his ‘Ascension Day’ sermon (Open to Judgement, p 82):
This is the transition that Ascension Day marks … it’s the moment when Jesus ‘goes away’, stops being an object we concentrate on in itself, and yet becomes more deeply and permanently present: ‘I am with you always, to the end of time.’ He is with us as the light we see by; we see the world in a new way because we see it through him, see it with his eyes.
The risen Lord Jesus has been installed on His throne. And He guides and governs His people as we wait for His parousia, His royal appearing — and the universal recognition of His rule.
Thus, all Christians are ‘apocalyptic’ in the sense that we’ve all been shown reality as it truly is, ahead of schedule. And, seeing clearly, we can get on with the business of reflecting Christ’s good rule — and pointing others to it — in the power of the Spirit and to the glory of God the Father…
Some people I’ve been chatting with about this issue of proactively bridging the gulf between the church and the community have been struck by the way it seems to reverse a something we’ve all had drummed into us. We’ve been told to try and trim non-missional programmes and minstries from our church ‘portfolios’. Like old, crusty donated furniture ministries have a way of hanging around well after their Used By date is past. (Think of the proverbial ‘mothers group’ consisting of septuagenerians.)
But it sounds like I’m talking about starting new programmes. Is this going to leave the church of the future with unwanted and irrelevant ministry ‘black-holes’?
I reckon we should learn to treat any ‘community connecting’ programmes we launch as experiments (Ah! I always knew that science degree would come in handy). Because like in good lab work we need to be both creative and critical.
In the lab, a good hypothesis explains the available evidence and makes predictions. Yet it’s a risky business. You do have to give a new hypothesis a good run — e.g., allowing that what looks like counter-evidence early on might have a good explanation once the hypothesis is more firmly established. But you also have to be honest (and robust) enough to concede that your hypothesis may have been falsified when the evidence stacks up against it. You have to be prepared for the experiment to fail.
In the same way I think we need to learn how to promote a culture of risk-taking as well as encouraging honest feedback. We’ll need to try new things if we’re to becoming a church of irresistible influence. But if something you try doesn’t work (or if what you’re already doing stops working), then admit it, celebrate your successes and wrap it up.
Of course, we’re not good at this in the church or the wider culture. We’re unaccustomed to being both creative and critical. What’s more it’s really hard to treat a ministry or programme you’ve started like a science experiment! Rightly, it means more to us than a mere hypothesis.
So, can you help? How do we do both?
Let’s pool our imaginative resources, and generate a list of a possible ways to foster both creativity and constructive criticism.
OK. So the previous post wasn’t my best work. It’s lack of clarity no doubt reflecting the sludge-like state of my brain yesterday.
This is what I meant by the two axes — they form a grid:
If you can forgive my messy writing, one of the interesting things is the way the Reformed emphasis — God definitively sanctifies us through Jesus by the Spirit — seems to cross some of the categories.
On the one hand, it’s clearly a Box 4 thing — a decisive, all or nothing thing that is primarily about our position before God (we are made holy and blameless in his sight). On the other, it also fits Box 2 — we really are changed, launched on a new course of life in which we’re being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.
That is all.