Month: January 2012

is God calling me into mission? (iii)

I’m in the midst of exploring the language of ‘calling’ and the question of whether God calls people to specific fields of tasks in his mission. The series starts back HERE.

So far I’ve suggested that to be called to belong to the Christian God simply is to be called into his mission.

This raises the question: To obey God’s call, do I have to pack my bags and buy a one-way ticket to somewhere far away where I don’t speak the language and may have trouble digesting the food?

Well, let’s hear what Jesus has to say:

Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28.18-20)

Now, I’ve often heard Christians blunt the radical edge of this by saying something like:

When Jesus says, ‘Go therefore and make disciples’, he’s not actually telling all of his disciples to ‘Go’. Rather, he’s saying ‘As you go…’ — that is, as you go on doing whatever you were doing — ‘…make disciples’.

This reading is typically bolstered by telling us that the only formal imperative (ie. command) in the sentence is the word behind ‘make disciples’, with the word translated as ‘Go’ playing a supporting role — as an adverbial participle, for those who care about such things.

But this is stupid for at least two reasons.

First – the nerdy reason: Greek doesn’t work that way. (In fact, no language I know of works that way.)

In Greek, meaning is made by the way the words are used — and especially by the way they’re used in combination with each other.

Any Greek textbook can tell you that one very common and defensible way to translate the combination of words behind ‘Go … and make disciples’ in verse 19 is … you guessed it, ‘Go … and make disciples’! (For those in the know, it’s a coordinate construction — with a participle of attendant circumstance and an aorist verb. Check out Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics page 645 for a brief but very lucid discussion of Matt 28.19-20.)

Second – the less nerdy reason: Even if Jesus said ‘As you go, make disciples’, that assumes we need to ‘Go’..

Everything Jesus says about following him, and everything we see of the earliest Christians doing this (e.g., taking the gospel from Jersusalem into Judea and Samaria and on to the ends of the earth), indicates that Jesus can hardly be saying, ‘Pretty much continue as you were; just tweak it a little.’ His call is far more revolutionary than that!

Our God calls his people to ‘Go’ in his mission — into every corner of the world and every level of society…

is God calling me into mission? (ii)

I’m in the midst of exploring the language of ‘calling’ and the question of whether God calls people to specific fields of tasks in his mission.

Having established that our God is a calling God, this still leaves open the question:

Does God call people into mission (or any specific vocation for that matter)?

My answer I think is ‘Yes’ … with a twist. You see, I don’t think the call to belong to God can be separated from the call to take part in his global mission. So God doesn’t only call some people into mission; he calls all his people.

Let’s stay with the calling of Jesus’ first disciples for the moment. Their call to leave their work (their fishing nets, tax booths, etc) and follow Jesus was at the same time their commissioning to a new kind of work. “I will make you fishers of people”, Jesus says. If I may speak this way, conversion and commission happen at once.

The pattern is no different with the Apostle Paul. Meeting the risen Lord Jesus led to his conversion and his commission as Apostle to the Gentiles (complementing Peter’s comission as Apostle to the Jews). And although his specific commission is unique, the fact that his conversion and his commissioning went together aren’t.

What implications are there in this for us — especially as we wrestle with whether or not we’re called into mission?

Well, to begin with, we must recognise that our conversion brings with it a commission. God doesn’t simply turn us to himself for our own sake. He plans to use us in his worldwide mission. All of us.

This is inevitable given the message — or perhaps better the person — we’re converted to. Jesus is not just the Saviour who came to die for my sins. He’s the Lord who lays (rightful) claim to God’s world — every single person and power, all are reconciled by his blood shed on the cross.

And the work he’s doing now, by the powerful agency of his Spirit, is implementing this claim and this reconciliation. It’s mission!

So while we may be genuinely converted and yet still take us a while to work this out, this is reality. And if we belong to Jesus, then we’re part of his mission.

Our God calls his people into mission.

when free market capitalism gets it right (theologically speaking)

Easter stuff — chocolate eggs, hot cross buns, and other paraphernalia — seems to creep into supermarkets earlier and earlier every year. Either that or people seem to notice it earlier and earlier (perhaps trained by The Gruen Transfer to be more alert to the operation of market forces).

And while mainstream news media isn’t shy about commenting on this, it’s Christians who often kick up the biggest stink.

But this is ironic. Since the closer the Easter campaign launch gets to Christmas, the closer it gets to all those sermons and conversations we’ve been having about ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ and how you don’t understand the baby Jesus without looking at the whole course of his life — and especially at his cross and resurrection.

So the very thing we want to insist on theologically — that Christmas and Easter belong together — is the thing that free market forces are making happen. Concretely. On a supermarket shelf near you.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what Adam Smith meant by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. But it’s a great opportunity in my book!

is God calling me into mission? (i)

As I begin exploring the language of ‘calling’ — and calling into mission in particular — I want to start by embracing my inner Captain Obvious and declaring that God is a calling God.

When we talk about calling, we’re talking about something God does.

That God does it becomes obvious almost as soon as you flip open a Bible. Without saying anything about the (long) biblical backstory, consider the four New Testament Gospels.

All of them commence with stories of Jesus calling people. Calling them out of their prior occupations and allegiances. And calling them to himself. To belong to him. To be his followers. To learn from him. To imitate him.

But the significance of my initial observation that God calls runs much deeper than this. You see, when the Gospel writers zoom in on the calling of Jesus’ disciples, they disclose that God calls.

That’s why they’re at pains to stress Jesus’ winsome and apparently effortless authority. In response to his call, Jesus’ disciples do make a genuine — and at times costly — break with their former life. And yet they seem to do so with joy.

So even though there are occasional hints the first disciples may have had prior knowledge of Jesus, the emphasis always falls on the radical, disruptive and yet profoundly right character of his call — perfectly blending the authority of command and the goodness of invitation.

Jesus’ call isn’t issued with naked, coercive force. Rather, it comes clothed in the omnipotence of love.

Which is nothing less than you’d expect of the God who meets us in the Bible. Indeed, the God who reveals himself in the biblical story that reaches its climax with the Lord Jesus, is love — eternally and in the perfect, dynamic overflow of life shared by Father and Son in the unity of the Spirit.

Hence, I’m inclined to say that ‘calling’ is nothing short of the fundamental way the Christian God expresses his moral authority in relation to human persons.

In fact, I think I even want to push towards saying all other more or less appropriate ways of speaking of this authority — command, decree, warning, threat, etc — will bring us back to ‘call’ when they’re understood against the backdrop of who God has shown himself to be, and so placed in the context of his divine and holy love.

Our God is a calling God.

is God calling me into mission? (series intro)

I’ve spent the bulk of the past week at a conference considering global mission. So the language of ‘call’ has been sounding in my ears.

And I’m trying to make sense of it.

Personal disclosure moment:

People in the circles I come out of tend to be suspicious of such language. And I’m more or less convinced that when the New Testament speaks of our ‘calling’ it’s usually referring to our calling to belong to Jesus (ie. our conversion).

But I’m also aware that talk of God ‘calling’ people is prominent in other Christian circles. Whether it’s about mission in general, a particular mission field (e.g., a people-group or type of mission), or even a secular vocation. It also tends to have more currency among Christians of a certain generation.

And I know that many people who reach for the language of ‘call’ do so because they’re genuinely interested in obeying God. They clearly want to honour him with their lives, plans and decisions. Often far more than I do.

So I’m setting myself the task of poking and prodding this language to see not only whether it’s biblical but what functions it serves — and, in turn, what I can learn from it.

I’d appreciate your help and interaction along the way. In particular, I’d love to hear first of all the ways in which you may have found it helpful to speak of your ‘calling’…

for the kingdom belongs to such as these

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18.15-17)

I’m aware this may cut across what I said earlier this week. But I’ve been struck by the way my infant son engages with his environment. I think I have a lot to learn from him about Christian living — and theological inquiry in particular.

When he’s at his best, my son displays a kind of relaxed relentlessness.

He’s relentless in his curiosity. About everything. (This is typically expressed, at this stage, by him putting everything into his mouth. I’m told he’ll grow out of this.)

Yet there’s also a gentleness to his curiosity. He’s relaxed in his explorations. Not an obsessive Captain Ahab.

Perhaps the difference is that in pressing to understand and discover, my son doesn’t seem all that interested in gaining mastery or control. Rather, the goal of his explorations is either wide-eyed wonder or a delighted chuckle.

And whatever else Jesus means us to understand in saying that the kingdom belongs the like of infants, surely it means that we should take our cue from my son’s relaxed relentlessness. Pressing to know God and his world — in the quest not for mastery but for wonder and delight…

why I’m not all that interested in making godly decisions

OK. Controversial headline. Copywriting tick.

But what the heck am I talking about? How can I not be all that interested in making godly decisions?

I mean, I’m a Christian, right? And a Christian, moreover, who serves as a leader among Christians — encouraging people to take Jesus seriously.

In part, it has to do with the fact that most of the ‘big’ decisions in my life have already been made. Or at least the decisions we’re all told are the big ones: I’ve got a job (or three). I’m married — and now have a child. And I’ve decided where to live — at least for the moment.

More significantly, though, I’ve started to notice that most of the important decisions I make — the ones which show how serious I really am about Jesus — tend to happen in a split-second, without giving me any time for conscious reflection or deliberation.

I’m talking about the way I react when someone cuts in front of me in traffic. Or when my ideas are derided or sidelined.

In these moments, it’s hardly even useful to talk about ‘making decisions’. They’ve got more to do with habit and instinct.

Samuel Wells draws the same conclusion in his fascinating book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. In his opinion (page 75), “Learning to live well is about gaining the right habits and instincts, rather than making the right choices.”

Backing this, Wells appeals to common observation and experience: “If one has the right assumptions and instincts and habits, many of the things others might experience as crises of choice will pass without one being aware of them.”

I’ve started to think of this in terms of moral and spiritual muscle memory.

Which is why I’ve become less interested in making godly decisions. By the time I hit the moment of agony and crisis, the decision has almost always been well and truly made.

I’m realising I need to pay more attention to how I’m training my desires and instincts. Forming my character. Giving myself the kind of regular moral and spiritual workout that will give me this ‘muscle memory’.

why having a child hasn’t taught me anything about God

A little while back, a friend asked me what having a child had taught me about God.

It’s a common question — and, given how frequently preachers refer to their children and experience of parenthood, seemingly quite legitimate.

Now, I’m sure my friend didn’t mean it this way but I object to the idea that my experience of having and beginning to raise a child should somehow give me special insight into God. As though I can now ‘get’ his being a father now that I’m a father or something.

I’ll be the first to admit that having a child has taught me — and will no doubt continue to teach me — all sorts of things.

On the one hand, our son’s desperate crying whenever he’s hungry is a pretty good picture of what we’re so often like with God. Even though he’s proven it again and again, we’re still infants who can’t seem to see past our immediate need or pain to trust God’s provision for us.

On the other hand, the fact that our son often “acts up” when he’s tired, hungry, or in pain, has reminded me that there’s a pretty big element of this to our sinning. We hurt others (more often than not) because we’re hurting ourselves.

So why do I object to the idea that having a child would teach me about God?

For one thing, this way of thinking would seem to exclude any non-parents from a true and deep understanding of God.

For another, the kind of father God the Father is, he is eternally. Unlike me, he never became a father. The difference between God’s fatherhood and mine can’t be erased.

And, ultimately, isn’t the only way to gain an ‘inside’ knowledge of God as father the way the Lord Jesus provides? As he invites us by his grace and achievement for us — in the power of the Spirit — to join him in calling God “Father”.

Perhaps I’m overreacting?

the true God is humble (unlike the idols)

This week I’ve had the pleasure of re-reading one of my favourite bits of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics — Section 59.1 in IV/1: ‘The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country’.

Barth’s at his best here as he thinks Christmas and Easter — incarnation and atonement — into each other, teasing out the implications for how we view God. It’s dense, demanding, invigorating, and uplifting … often all at once!

Take this, for example, where Barth pivots to the question of how you distinguish the true God from the idols we manufacture mirroring our pride (pages 158-159):

In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, God acknowledges man; He accepts responsibility for his being and nature. He remains Himself. He does not cease to be God. But he does not hold aloof. In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, He also goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and against God. He does not shrink from him. He does not pass him by as did the priest and Levite the man who had fallen among thieves. He does not leave him to his own devices. He makes his situation His own. He does not forfeit anything by doing this. In being neighbour to man, in order to deal with him and act towards him as such, He does not need to fear for His Godhead. On the contrary … God shows Himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this. In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to Himself.


12 things good preachers do well

Over at Euangelion, Joel Willits summarises a new book profiling 12 gifted contemporary preachersExcellence in Preaching.

Some may have a bone to pick with one or two of the preachers singled out as excellent (and I haven’t even heard of a few of them — although maybe that says more about me than it does about the list). But there’s plenty to learn from 12 the things they do well:

  1. Show an awareness of cultural and philosophical challenges to the gospel.
  2. Inspire a passion for the glory of God.
  3. Allow the Bible to speak with simplicity and freshness.
  4. Be a Word-and-Spirit preacher.
  5. Use humour and stories to connect, engage and dismantle barriers.
  6. Create interest and apply well.
  7. Preach with spiritual formation in mind.
  8. Make much of Jesus Christ.
  9. Preach with urgency and evangelistic zeal.
  10. Persuade people with passionate argument from the Bible.
  11. Teach with directness, challenge and relevance.
  12. Expose all of God’s word to all of God’s people.

I can hardly claim to even begin to come at one or two of these.

But it is interesting to note how few of these are just about our style or effectiveness as communicators. Most are far more substantive matters relating to the message we proclaim and our awareness of the real life situation, struggles and questions of the real people we’re speaking to.

Says something perhaps about the kind of ‘training’ that will best equip people to be excellent preachers.