Month: November 2011

how should we feel about the Lord’s coming?

In case you don’t keep track of these things, the Christian liturgical calendar recently ticked over into the season of Advent. Leading up to Christmas, Advent’s a season with a dual focus: the first coming of the Lord (ie. the incarnation) and his second coming, parousia or ‘royal appearing’.

People have been posting their Advent reflections, prayers, and protests (with the Occupy movement in full flower, seems ’tis the season).

I want to ask an Advent question:

How should we feel about the Lord’s coming? In particular, what emotions should be stirred in us at the prospect of his return — his second Advent?

The second coming of Jesus is usually associated with the fearful thought of judgement. But in my experience of Advent the primary affections are positive: hope, joy, peace, etc.

So should belief in the final judgement of the world by Jesus make us more serious and weighed down or should it instil in us a sort of joyful lightness?

Lurking behind this question is another:

How does Christ’s first Advent relate to his second?

Is it primarily a matter of contrast — forgiveness and exemption from judgement now, wrath and universally enforced judgement to come? Like what’s maybe envisaged in Hebrews 9.28 when it says that “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him”?

Or is it more a matter of continuity? The identity and significance of Jesus was shrouded in the dubious circumstances of his doubtful origin, only fleetingly glimpsed in his earthly life and ministry, and declared with power by his resurrection from the dead. And yet it still awaits a universal unveiling — a day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess him as Lord.

So which is it? How should we feel about the Lord’s coming?

Gut (or more considered) reactions welcome!

remarks at our infant son’s baptism

You may not have noticed that Natalie — my wife, best friend, and mother to my child — is a contributor to this blog. She hasn’t posted here for a while. So consider this a not-quite-guest post from her:

I grew up in a church where babies were baptised. As a kid I always thought that’s just what you did with children you loved. To the extent that as a small child, when our guinea pigs had babies, I took it upon myself to ensure they were suitably baptised (rest assured, they were just sprinkled — not immersed like Ben!).

So I suppose I have asked myself as we prepared for toady: Am I still that little girl, doing what I’ve seen done before and bringing my own baby to be baptised because that’s just what you do?

For a couple of reasons ‘No’ — and for one reason ‘Yes’.

I’ve had the chance to reflect on baptism a bit more since then. We’re not dunking Ben just doing this because that’s what you do when you have a baby:

I’m convinced, first of all, that bringing infants to be baptised reflects the fact that God works and takes the initiative to save people. So our response isn’t the main game. The main game, as far as I can see in the Bible, is that God makes the first move. God does the saving — and our response is always more or less incomplete and not-fully-formed. Whether we’re an adult confessing our faith or an infant makes no difference to this. In fact, Jesus tells us that it’s adults who need to be more like children when they approach God than the other way around.

Second, I’d like to say something about Jesus. I’m amazed whenever I look at Ben to think of the fact that when God chose to become a human being he didn’t shun or step over being an infant. The Creator of the universe fully exposed himself to and embraced what it is to be human — including being a tiny, vulnerable infant. So I’m not only convinced that God loves infants, but that our trust in God doesn’t have to be rationally articulated to be real and genuine (as important and worthwhile as I feel rational articulation is — as a PhD student!).

But for one reason I think I had it right when I was as a little girl. As a little girl I knew that baptising babies was a sign of love. And so in the midst of what’s going on theologically, this is for us an act of love for Ben. Our intention is to raise him as a little Christian not a little neutral — because we don’t think there really ever is such a thing.

In some ways, what we’re doing today is just an honest announcement of our loving commitment to teach him about Jesus — in the same way as we’re committed to teach him other good and true things: that the world is round, that free markets occasionally need regulating, and that AFL is just a game.

Part of our raising him to be a little Christian will involve teaching him to make his own decisions and weigh arguments and evidence for himself. We trust that he will find the evidence for Jesus persuasive and that one day (in years that already seem like they will pass too quickly) he will choose to confirm the faith we’ve baptised him into today making these same promises for himself.

And so what we believe God is doing in this moment is a rather profound thing — grafting Ben in to Jesus and to God’s family, the church. Which is why we’re so delighted to have you here with us today to witness, support, and celebrate Ben’s baptism with us.

the Sermon on the Mount – Christology on steroids

I couldn’t resist posting this as a sort of coda to all that I’ve been saying about the Sermon on the Mount

It’s definitely worth checking out Scot McKnight’s post on whether the Sermon on the Mount is gospel or not.

He contends that the Sermon is neither a souped-up Mosaic Law nor a vision for global justice.

Rather, in McKnight’s memorable phrase, it’s Christology on steroids.

In other words, it’s not a version what McKnight calls the ‘soterian’ gospel. It’s not designed to expose our moral and spiritual poverty so that we throw ourselves on God’s (amoral) mercy.

Nor is it a version of the ‘kingdom’ gospel — providing an outline for moral living independent of the one giving the Sermon.

Although you really should read the post for yourself, this is how he concludes:

The Sermon on the Mount … is pure gospel because it proclaims Jesus (not just morals and Torah). This is why the Sermon ends with an invitation: take up my yoke, it is saying, and follow me. Jesus sketches his vision for his people and invites us to turn from our current way of life and give ourselves to him and to his kingship.

This has been the conclusion I’ve found myself driven to time and again as I’ve read and re-read the Sermon to teach it.

the Sermon on the Mount – resources

I guess it’s more or less obvious after months of posting that I spent a good chunk of last semester giving talks on the Sermon on the Mount.

It was challenging, exciting, confronting, challenging, inspiring, and did I mention challenging?

Here are the resources I leaned on in putting together these talks:

As I reflect on the series, two overriding themes emerge.

The first theme is my attempt to apply the Affirmation And Antithesis model of cultural engagement laid out by James Davison Hunter in his important book, To Change The World.

Each week I set myself the challenging of engaging a group or ‘live issue’ on campus or in the wider society, highlighting the radical and often surprising way Jesus would speak to that issue (as best I could determine from the Sermon on the Mount), and opening up the conversation to see where it took us.

So we explored what Jesus would say to The Socialist Alternative, The Secular Society, The Islamic Society, and even the Christian Union. We tried to tune in to what he’d say about Indigenous Reconciliation, Lady GaGa, and our career plans. And we didn’t shy away from considering what he’d say to us.

It was a hoot!

The second theme is the strengthening of my existing conviction that a Christian ethic proclaims and embodies the gospel.

Spending so much time sitting at Jesus’ feet — and listening to the direct and uncompromising words of his mouth — drove me to appreciate his goodness and his grace all the more (and not in an ‘Oh, my gosh – how can we possibly live up to that? We’ll need to throw ourselves on his mercy’ kind of way).

To the students and staff of the La Trobe Christian Union, thanks for bearing with me and letting me lay some occasionally off-the-wall stuff on you. And thanks for chipping in, sharpening me up, and carrying the conversation forward.

I pray that the Lord will continue to show us how we can find our truest and best humanity by entrusting ourselves to him and walking ever more confidently in his ways.

how can the chronically afflicted flourish?

Throughout this year, I’ve enjoyed grazing on Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita’s classic book A Common Humanity. There’s lots to savour — as well as some chewier, harder-to-digest bits.

I wanted to share this morsel with you. It’s about Gaita’s experience as a ward assistant at a mental health facility during the 60s.

According to Gaita, patients were often treated in quite a dehumanising way by the ward staff — and even some of the doctors. He recounts stories of people who’d soiled themselves being instructed to strip so they could be hosed down from the safe distance of a mop handle. (Thankfully, things are very different these days.)

Gaita was drawn to some of the more noble doctors who talked a lot about the full dignity and humanity of their clients (although there were often mocked behind their backs).

But it wasn’t until a nun showed up on the ward, talking and reaching out to the patients with such a sense of commonality — rather than distance, revulsion or condescension — that Gaita realised even the most progressive doctors had still been talking down to their afflicted clients

This realisation has been formative for Gaita’s thinking about ethics. As he puts it (page 19):

An ethics centred on the concept of human flourishing does not have the conceptual resources to keep fully amongst us … people who are severely and ineradicably afflicted

And it’s so true. It’s so easy in practice to avert our gaze. To avoid the sick, suffering, and grieving (finding all sorts of very valid-sounding reasons not to visit in hospital, call, or attend the funeral).

But in so doing we relegate them to a shadow-land of half-existence. And we gut all our high talk of dignity and equality for all.

It even happens in churches.

Aren’t churches supposed to be the refuges for the broken — full of people who know that they aren’t right? Aren’t churches supposed to be places where human flourishing isn’t simply about avoiding or minimising suffering. And aren’t churches supposed to be gatherings of people who are walking in the way of the one who reached out to the afflicted and marginalised, who met them, healing and restoring them to their full humanity?

O for his healing, humanising touch!

infant baptism (without the backache)

I’m always a little puzzled when I hear the opponents of infant baptism crowing about how unconvincing they find the analogy with Old Testament circumcision.

They see it as bending over backwards to make such a strong connection with circumcision — not least because of the view of how the Old Testament relates to the New that this connection presupposes.

I tend to agree. It is bending over backwards.

And I could do without the backache!

The thing is, I’m not sure the analogy with circumcision — or its covenant framework — is required to support the conclusion that ‘The Baptism of young children is … to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ’ (as it’s put in the Anglican The Thirty-Nine Articles).

My friend, Andrew, the soon-to-be godfather to my infant son, has written both more comprehensively and more winsomely in defence of infant baptism than I’m able.

For me, two considerations carry the day in favour of baptising infants:

First, the issue can’t be settled by simple appeal to the relevant texts. The decision about whether or not to baptise the children of believers is a second generation Christian problem. No New Testament author speaks directly to the issue.

That means we’ve got no choice but to do some careful thinking and feeling with the grain of the texts to figure out how to faithfully appropriate their teaching today.

And for my money, the infant baptism question comes down to whether or not you agree with the claim The Thirty-Nine Articles make that the sacraments in general and baptism in particular aren’t only about our ‘profession’ but more fundamentally about God’s action.

I do. So I’m in favour of baptising infants.

Second, I worry about the strong connection between baptism and (a particular articulate expression of) our subjective response to Christ’s work that most opponents of infant baptism want to insist on.

I’m aware, of course, that the relevant New Testament texts bring repentance, faith and even some degree of articulate and content-ful confession into close connection with baptism.

Mind you, so does the Book of Common Prayer service of ‘Publick Baptism of Infants’ upon which modern Anglican practice is based. There, parents and godparents make a declaration of Christian commitment on the child’s behalf. And they do so in the prayerful confidence that through God’s work the child will in due time lay hold of the faith for her- or himself (which is what Confirmation is all about).

But I hesitate to go where many opponents of infant baptism do in prescribing quite definitely the response called for — usually an adult profession of faith and repentance.

Our infant son responds to our love and care … in his childlike way. Who’s to say he can’t respond to Jesus — knowing and loving and serving him — until he’s an adult? In fact, didn’t Jesus say something about adults becoming more like children to enter the kingdom?

Bottom line: we intend to raise our son as a Christian (fully expecting that he’ll need to mature and grow into it — in all sorts of ways, articulate understanding among them).

That’s why we’re going to baptise him.

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but just another life option

According to Don Carson: “Nothing could be more calamitous than to meditate long and hard on Matthew 5:1-7:12 and then resolve to improve a little.”

And he’s dead right.

Jesus’ teaching is far too radical for that. It’s nothing short of revolutionary. For it is good news (not good advice) — the good news of the human renovation project God is performing through Jesus.

This becomes impossible to miss in the closing moments of the Sermon on the Mount.

At this stage, we can’t help but contend with the fact that we’re not listening to someone dispensing wise advice that we can take or leave — picking and choosing whatever seems most likely to amp up our current lifestyle.

Just as the five books of the Old Testament Law concluded with blessings for obedience and curses, Jesus concludes his landmark teaching by presenting a stark Either/Or:

‘Listen to me (and do what I’m saying), and you’ll live. Don’t listen to me, and it’s game over.’

Life — a full and flourishing, truly human life — is what Jesus is offering here — just as he has been all through the Sermon.

And here Jesus fulfils one of the deepest longings of our modern liberal culture, while tearing to shreds the way it suggests we satisfy that longing — namely, by multiplying our life options until we arrive at “infinite possibilities” (to borrow the current marketing slogan of La Trobe University).

I can understand why we believe in choice. And why we chafe against constraints. It can seem self-evidently better to have more options than less.

Although if David Bentley Hart and Stanley Hauerwas are both right (as I suspect they are), our deification of choice tends to blind us to how little of this kind of libertarian freedom we actually enjoy — and how bad it’d be for us if we did.

But Jesus offers anything but just another life option.

According to Jesus, listening to him and putting his words into practice is our only option.

It is life — as well as wisdom and genuine, fruitful spirituality.

There’s only one gate and one path that leads to life. There’s only one fruitful and genuine approach to spirituality. And there’s only one wise way to build your life.

Anything else is death.

It’s that simple.

contextualisation FAIL

Contextualisation is one of the hottest topics in contemporary thinking about mission.

It’s roots lie in wrestling with how to connect with people in cross-cultural situations — that and Paul’s words about becoming all things to all people. But it’s come to be applied much more widely. And sometimes far more controversially.

So I cackled when I read this in Moby-Dick (Ishmael, the narrator, has been invited to join in worshipping the portable idol his new friend Queequeg carries around):

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included — can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God — that is worship. And what is the will of God? — to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me — that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our consciences and all the world…


God wants to plant what where?!

I heard a terrific sermon at church yesterday on James 1.19-27 — a passage famous for commending activism, and activism of a potentially noxious kind.

With all its talk of not simply hearing the word but doing it, this is exactly the sort of thing that led Martin Luther to regard the letter of James as ‘a right strawy epistle’.

But what hit me like a sledgehammer was the way this section begins. There, James calls not so much for activism as for a certain kind of inaction — namely, listening:

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

Learning to listen each other prepares us to listen to God.

And we need this preparation because listening to God is something that requires a heck of a lot of effort — if my experience and the images James uses in verse 21 are anything to go by: weeding (not my favourite leisure activity) and displaying hospitality.

Even more mind-bending, though, is the way James describes God’s word. He calls it “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”.

This word isn’t already there inside us — like a hidden and unrealised capacity or tendency.

Nor is it simply something external — a barked order or categorical imperative demanding our obedience even (or especially) when it cuts across our desires.

No. God puts his word inside us. He implants it.

According to James, God’s word is like a donated organ. Or a pace-maker. It does for us something our own bodies cannot do. And, in doing so, it enables our bodies to function as they’re supposed to.

So this ‘implanted word’ is alien. That’s why we need to work with it, by uprooting anything that threatens to choke it out — “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness”.

At the same time, this gracious invader liberates us, allowing us to become more fully ourselves. This ‘implanted word’ gives us a whole new lease on life. Indeed, it has the power to save us.

the church does NOT have a body

I’ve been reflecting further on what I said about Christianity’s opposition to tribalism last week. And I want to offer a corrective for my provocative suggestion that genuine Christian community is incoherent (because it finds its origin and continuity outside itself).

So let me try to recast it. Now I’m thinking that it’s better to say:

The church does NOT have a body.

There. That clears any confusion right up. Doesn’t it?

Well … probably not. At this point something along the following lines may be running through your head: “Dude! What are you smoking? Of course the church has a body — it’s the body of Christ!”

But that’s exactly my point.

The church does not have a body. It is a body. The body of Christ. He’s it’s head. That’s the way the New Testament presents it.

Considered apart from Jesus, we’re a headless cadaver.

Gruesome, right?

Well, the prospect of losing touch with Christ our head is gruesome.

Christ is our life. He gives the church not only its existence but its integrity and direction. We owe him any distinctiveness and power we have.

Surely that’s why we don’t proclaim ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord!

Lest you think I’m getting all hot and bothered over a technicality, let me point out at least one implication of taking this seriously.

The worship debate has flared up again recently (as you can see HERE and HERE). A number of influential Christian leaders are suggesting we shouldn’t refer to the church gathering — or any aspects of what goes on when we’re gathered (e.g., singing) — with ‘worship’ language.

I’ve followed the argument closely (I used to be a strong proponent of it). And I can hardly fault the claim that misapplying worship language and terminology can erode the gospel — leaving us with an impoverished message of connecting with God through particularly intense experiences facilitated by the ‘worship team’.

But I wonder if one of the ways worship language could function when we get together is to focus us on Jesus, the one we adore and from whom our life and fellowship derives.

If ‘worship’ isn’t the right language for this (and it may not be), we badly need to find something that is…