Month: May 2011

Jesus’ heart for mission

What’s Jesus’ heart for mission? What’s his fundamental agenda?

We could derive a sense of his mission priorities from what we see him doing in the Gospels — where everything he does can be construed in terms of mission.

Alternatively, we could sit at his feet while he teaches his disciples the why, what and how of mission (making the necessary allowances, of course, for the fact that we stand on this side of the resurrection).

But I find John 17 — Jesus’ so-called high priestly prayer — to be deeply revealing as far as Jesus’ heart for mission is concerned. We see three things here:

We see, first of all, that for Jesus mission is about God before it’s about us. In fact, mission is the overflow and enactment in history of the relationship between Father and Son that’s the heart of all reality (verses 1-5):

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

Even eternal life — an obvious benefit for us — gets caught up and transfigured into something that’s primarily a Father-Son thing!

In verses 6-19, the next thing Jesus’ prayer gives us a window into is that mission is to be characterised by faithful presence in the world.

Jesus’ prayer for those who belong to him is that God would protect them. Not that they would be taken out of the world (or even insulated from the kind of rejection Jesus received). But that they would be distinctive and holy.

Jesus wants his disciples to be present in and engaged with the world, just as he wants them to be faithful — demonstrating that they don’t belong to the world.

Finally, in verses 20-26, we glimpse the goal of mission. As far as Jesus is concerned, mission is to result in relationships of loving unity that draw others in.

Just as the love that binds Father and Son together reaches out to include others, so the oneness that is to characterise believers has an evangelistic edge (verse 21):

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

how to be an apocalyptic optimist

Apocalyptic optimism? Huh? What the heck am I talking about?

No. I’m not weighing in on the whole ‘rapture ready’ debate that predictions about a May 22 end of the world — or was it the beginning of the end? — sparked last week (I doubt I could top this beauty from Michael Bird anyway).

I’m talking about drinking deeply of what Paul says in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians about the impact of the cross on what we value.

So deeply, in fact, that we can see and acknowledge that the Christians message and life and community is foolish and unimpressive and odd-ball by most people’s standards.

Reflect on the Christian communities you’ve been part of. Isn’t that true?

They’re not usually How To Win Friends And Influence People type material, are they? Even when they’re full of gifted and godly individuals.

What’s your response when you recognise this? When this reality presses itself on you so you can’t deny it?

To be honest, it tends to drop me into a bit of a pessimism spiral (either that or it lets me feel like I’m off the hook for my failures and inadequacies).

But I think I react to our apparent weakness with pessimism because I don’t actually believe what Paul says — that God has chosen the weak and foolish to display his glory and strength.

That’s how it was with Jesus. And that’s how it will be with his disciples.

So, as far as Paul’s concerned, a frank admission of the unimpressive-looking reality of Christian preaching and community shouldn’t lead to pessimism or despair. Nor should it lead to patting ourselves on the back while we scale back our expectations.

Instead, it should lead to a tremendous hope and confidence in God.

We should be expecting big things. Apocalyptically big things. The kind of things the prophets promised would happen when God acted to fulfil his promises, invading his arrant world and wrenching it back into shape.

That’s apocalyptic optimism.

And the secret to it is to believe — to look to Jesus, and to take up your cross and follow him…

…and the God of peace will be with you

I’m starting to work out how to ‘switch gears’ between (say) a deep pastoral conversation and Bible study prep and banter about theology. Some days these — along with other kinds of demands — seem to bombard me thick and fast, leaving me little mental or emotional space in between to ready myself for whatever’s next.

So it’s nice when different things actually come together. Spooky even.

This Monday, I led a workshop on ‘Living in grace … when you feel frustrated’. My aim was to help people grapple with how to deal with conflict Christianly.

I drew, in part, from Ken Sande’s excellent book The Peace Maker. Sande advocates a shift from competition to collaboration. Obviously, there’s a lot of common sense in this — and Sande also highlights some biblical wisdom to back this up.

I then got thinking about some of the theological ‘deep structures’ that make this make so much sense in the world God has made. And I attempted to put this into words in a nerdy theological footnote which read:

Adopting a God-centric approach to conflict resolution (rather than either a me- or you-centric approach) doesn’t mean that we become doormats for God. The assumption made by many that for humans to become great, God must become less (and vice versa) is unhelpful. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself up for us, isn’t a cosmic tyrant who wants to grind us under foot. His intention has always been for us to flourish in relationships of mutual love that echo the inner life of the Trinity. Because love and relationships — not power and possession — are at the heart of reality, we are free to set aside our own selfish interests without thereby missing out on what life is really all about.

Then — and here’s the spooky part (sort of) — I sat down to read Philippians 4.2-9 with a guy yesterday.

In this passage, Paul deals with helping each other resolve conflict just before he weaves together promises about the presence/nearness of the God of peace and some concrete strategies for joyful Christian living.


two ways to approach systematic theology?

Tell me how you react to this:

One way to approach systematic theology is primarily analytic. It involves tipping all the theological pieces (key biblical texts and themes, the decisive debates in the history of theology, etc) onto your mental table, picking through them, attaching suitable labels, and placing all the similar pieces into relevant boxes.

Another way to approach systematic theology tries to be more synthetic. It involves doing something with each piece you pick up — connecting it to whatever other pieces it might fit with in the interests of assembling a coherent overall picture.

The danger with the first approach is that it lets you think you’ve done the job once every theologically relevant piece has been categorised. Theology done this way won’t live — it’s more of a stamp-collecting enterprise than something intimately bound to Christian living and mission.

The problem with the second is trying to put together the picture using whatever comes to hand and then struggling to know what to do with those extra pieces that haven’t yet been recognised (let alone been found a place within the picture). The temptation will always be to brush those ‘extraneous’ pieces off the table.

In truth, of course, both approaches are needed.

We need to make sure we’ve done the work of ensuring that the pieces are correctly categorised and that each category is represented.

At the same time, we need to ensure we’re doing something with the pieces — connecting them with other pieces. Just as with a puzzle, we need to find ways to join edge pieces to pieces of sky and to those pieces closer to what’s at the centre of the picture: the God revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

divided interests?

Continuing with my recent reflections on the topic of work, I’ve sometimes heard it suggested that ministry work is superior to secular work (although usually not quite so directly and explicitly).

One of the reasons people may cite is that, paralleling it with what they understand Paul to be saying about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.32-35, ministry work supposedly enables more ‘unhindered devotion to the Lord’ while secular work means your ‘interests are divided’.

What can we say about this?

I’m aware that temperatures rise and many people have a hard time distancing themselves in this debate. Most of us belong to either the secular or the ministry work-force. So we’re personally invested.

And I’m no different.

But I do think it’s worth scrutinising this position — especially the parallel with marriage.

To begin with, it’s slightly odd that in the context of 1 Corinthians 7 Paul has already used the (presumably) less controversial issue of work to illuminate the harder issue (marriage and singleness), whereas we want to turn it back the other way.

More significant, though, is the question of what Paul means when he says that married people have ‘divided interests’.

Does it mean they can’t serve the Lord as effectively as those who aren’t married?

Is Paul saying singleness is a superior state as far as ministry is concerned — more full of (this-worldly) concern and anxiety?

And is this the same Paul who suggests elsewhere that those in Christian leadership should have exemplary family lives — faithful in marriage and managing their children and households well (1 Timothy 3.1-13)?

Safe to say I think this isn’t quite right.

Paul frames this whole set of instructions to single and married people with an exhortation to be free from anxiety. And I think this applies to people in both states of life.

Wouldn’t it be strange for Paul to commend singleness as the most reliable path to anxiety-free living — given what he’s already said about marriage as good, marrying as not only not sinful but positively helpful for some in the pursuit of self-control?

So marriage and singleness are simply two different contexts in which to live without anxiety — although doing so will have a distinctive shape in each state.

Likewise, can’t we say that secular work and ministry work are simply two different contexts in which we can serve and please the Lord while admitting that doing so will have a distinctive shape in each?

work, work, and work

“Jobs, jobs, and jobs.”

That was the Government’s mantra when the Federal Budget was released last week.

I’m no economist. So I’ll leave the Budget commentary to someone more qualified. But it does seem like an opportune moment to do some reflecting on the topic of work.

In Christian circles, we sometimes regard work too much through the lens of ‘services’ — especially when we want to relate work to ministry. We understandably want to emphasise the relational dimensions of work.

So what we end up doing is evaluating secular work in terms of the opportunities it provides us to show love, echo God’s graciousness in Jesus, and perhaps point people to him. (This is what I did when I wrote about the secret to making coffee Christianly.)

Then we play it off against full-time, paid gospel ministry. Or at least that’s what I’m tempted to do — keeping a running tally of costs and benefits in terms of my opportunities in ‘secular work’ as opposed to ‘ministry work’.

But what if we changed our way of looking at work? What if instead of adopting a purely ‘services’ view, we went for something that did more justice to ‘goods’ and production?

I’m not sure I know how it would affect the way we think about work and ministry. But I do know that it wouldn’t necessarily undermine the relational focus of our emphasis on services.

The New Testament writers were familiar with a far more goods-y approach to work. And yet without overlooking its relational significance (e.g., in terms of participating in society and making a contribution). 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13 is typical of this.

why Christian ethics should be story-formed

It would be a massive over-simplification to say that there are two ‘default options’ when it comes to Christian ethics (as I said for corporate worship).

Although, at a popular level in some of the circles I’ve moved in, people do tend to be drawn in one of two directions.

Either we don’t want to focus too much on ethical issues — particularly those ‘moral issues’ stereotypically associated with the Christian right: abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, etc.

Sometimes this marches under the banner of ‘gospel ethics for gospel believers’. No one wants to impose their views on anyone else in the post-Christendom West, after all.

But mostly it has to do with an evangelistic urgency. We don’t want to spend our time arguing about the rights and wrongs of a particular brand of behaviour, especially if this is going to stop someone hearing the urgent call to trust in the risen Lord.

The alternative is to make every ethical issue a ‘gospel issue’, treat every hill as a hill to die on. For Jesus calls us to be salt and light in the world, doesn’t he?

There’s a moral seriousness to this view that mustn’t be scoffed at. As well as a recognition that if the Creator and Judge of all says something’s right, then it’s right — not only for those who worship him but for all.

Yet, again, I want to suggest a slightly different approach — a story-formed approach.

What would happen if we started thinking and talking about Christian ethics — and particularly about how Christian ‘moral issues’ related to the Christian good news about what God’s done in Jesus — in terms of story?

I wonder what it would do (a) to our ethics and (b) to the way people feel about the ethical stands we make if we started telling a story — rather than setting out abstract principles or artificially attempting to change the topic so that we can talk about Jesus.

The cross and resurrection is obviously the climax of the story. But, like all good climaxes, it draws together the different threads running through it. And it has a variety of implications and effects that mean that things are decisively different on this side of it.

How would this work? Imagine you’re asked about whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice.

How do you think the conversation would go if you wove into your answer a story about a God who gave life originally, who continues to care for and take an interest in it, and who has acted — dramatically and in person — to taste death for all and defeat it in his resurrection?

why corporate worship should be story-formed

In my experience, there are two ‘default options’ when it comes to doing corporate worship.

Either it’s all about one key element of the service — the sermon perhaps or the Lord’s Supper in another tradition.

In this case, anything else you might do when you gather is done apologetically. At best these other things are preparatory. At worst, they’re unnecessary distractions, things to get out of the way before you can get on with the important stuff.

Alternatively, each element of the gathering can be treated with equal importance.

So the announcements and offering (those two non-apostolic, non-negotiables) enjoy the same prominence as the prayers, the Bible readings, the sermon or the sacraments. But often no real attempt is made to relate the components of the service to each other.

The strength of the first approach is that it can reflect the priority the gospel, which we hear proclaimed and applied in the sermon or which we remember and enact together in the Supper.

The second approach rightly refuses to treat any aspect of what we do when gathered as less significant than any other (even at the cost of fragmentation).

But I wonder whether another approach might be more helpful. And that is a story-formed approach.

A story-formed approach involves treating the service like a story.

Like a story, it will have chapters — each of which is integral (you could conceivably leave out a chapter, although that would leave people guessing).

But the climax and denouement still happens in one a particular chapter, with the others feeding into it or unfolding its implications.

I feel this reflects the way God has acted and revealed himself in history (neither dropping out the sky at without prior warning or preparation nor presenting us with a parcel of discrete truths to be picked up and surveyed one after the other).

It’s also truer to the way we’ve been made as time-bound and story-formed creatures. But that’s for another post…

What do you think?

heaven has teeth

Say what you want about Rob Bell and his controversial new book Love Wins (and I hope to say quite a lot before long — I’m collaborating on a review due out soon), there are at least two things you’ve got to admit.

The first thing you’ve got to admit is that Bell has a remarkable way of putting things.

There’s a compelling poetry and earthiness to his manner. And he has this fabulous ability to put into words the half-formed questions that niggle and gnaw away at the back of your mind.

The other thing to you’ve got to admit is that Bell is far from squeemish about God’s judgement.

For all the buzz on the internet — and for all that Bell may tilt ultimately in the direction of universalism — it’s not a discomfort with a God of judgement that seems to motivate him here.

In fact, at one point in his chapter on heaven — a classic Bell blend of contemporary New Testament scholarship, provocative questioning, and apparent lack of ability to distinguish the baby from the bathwater — Bell rhetorically ‘takes on’ those who say they can’t believe in a judging God (pages 37-38):

Yes they can.
Often we can think of little else.
Every oil spill,
every report of another woman sexually assaulted,
every news report that another political leader has silenced the opposition through torture, imprisonment, and execution,
every time we see someone stepped on by an institution or corporation more interested in profit than people,
every time we stumble on one more instance of the human heart gone wrong,
we shake our fist and cry out,
“Will somebody please do something about this?”

And so in Bell’s account of the New Testament vision of the new creation and renewal of all things, ‘heaven … has teeth, flames, edges and sharp points’ (page 49).

Don’t you wish you could preach like that? I know I do!