how can we answer to one another legally?

Last week I went to the annual Simone Weil Lecture on Human Value in Melbourne. It’s becoming a bit of a tradition (I’ve been a whole two years in a row!).

This year Professor Anthony Duff tackled the topic of what model of criminal law is the ‘best fit’ for a republic. His proposal was carved out against the traditional model of criminal law, which he ascribed to Bentham. The key features of the Benthamite view are:

  • Laws are essentially commands, delivered in the imperative mood
  • These imperatives are typically backed by threatened sanctions
  • The law addresses us in the voice of a sovereign (to his subjects)

Rather than an alien imposition ‘from above’, a republican law — consisting of citizens who regard each other as equals — should address us in our own voice and speak of our shared values (ie. ‘from below’). Citizens should answer to one another not to some kind of (external) authority, whether legitimately appointed or illegitimately seized.

With this foundation suitably laid, Professor Duff explored questions such as: What kind of law is apt for citizens? What sort of trial would be expressive of such a law? And what form of punishment (if any) would be enable us to answer to one another like this?

I especially appreciated Professor Duff’s broadly phenomenological approach. He often paused to make observations about what seem like familiar features of our moral life. So at one point he discussed the sense we have that prior misconduct towards an offender — whether direct or something we’re systemically implicated in — undermines our right to call him or her to account.

This was underwritten by his not uncontroversial suggestion that a truly just republican criminal law should allow us to treat one another as citizens even when punishing those of us convicted of wrong doing (instead of excluding them from citizenship).

I felt that such a commitment to human dignity and a substantive — rather than merely formal — equality is particularly worthy of affirmation by Christians.

I kept wondering, however, about one particular truck-sized loophole in the ideal Professor Duff was constructing. Early in the lecture, he bracketed the question of what conditions or criteria must be met in order to qualify as a citizen. But surely this bears on the issue of whether — and in what situation — it is ever right to exclude someone from citizenship (e.g., by punishing offenders).

being a learner-teacher

I’m stoked to announce the inaugural edition of The Catechist, a new online magazine produced by students at Moore Theological College. It’s all about some learners trying their hand at teaching. And attempting to make the (occasionally obscure) things they’re learning more widely accessible.

This issue centres on the theme of forgiveness, which is one of those places where the theological rubber hits the unyielding road of lived experience. There’s some terrific stuff in there — like Chew Chern’s feature, Dan’s reflection on being forgiven or Mark’s lively advocacy of the extra Calvinisticum.

On a personal note, some of the most precious times — and best learning experiences — at College happened in my Catechist (or Student Minister) roles:

  • With the young professionals and postgrads in the Graduate Bible Fellowship at Unichurch (UNSW)
  • With dear brothers and sisters at Christ Church Inner West in Ashfield, Haberfield and Five Dock
  • And in my attempts to figure out how to care spiritually for patients at Royal North Shore Hospital

I’m so grateful to God for those times. For the people I got to know and share some very special experiences with. And the different ways in which I kept being called to ground what I was doing at College in lived experience. To connect it with the ‘reality based community’ as a friend calls it.

One of the biggest challenges along these lines was trying to bridge the gap between the learning we’re immersed in at College and the call to teach people from a diverse array of backgrounds. I certainly often felt (and still feel) like I should have been given a giant ‘trainee’ badge or a big pair of ‘L’ plates as I bumbled and bunny-hopped my way through conversations. And I still cherish those moments — few and far between as they sometimes seemed — when I got to watch the light go on for someone as I tried to explain something about Jesus and living for him.

And that’s what The Catechist is all about. Present day learners — who may one day be teachers in our churches — learning (sometimes falteringly) to teach and communicate complex truths simply and accessibly. Check it out and see what you think!

an ode to Diamond Creek

Since we arrived in Melbourne we’ve been very blessed to stay with one of Natalie’s former work colleagues, Kathy, in Diamond Creek. It’s out on the North Eastern fringe of the city. (Although by Sydney standards it’s really not that far out.)

We urbanites were surprised to discover how relaxing it can be out among the trees — there are even paddocks at the end of the street! Natalie’s done some weeding (very therapeutic she assures me). We’ve cooked pizza. From scratch. And every afternoon at about 4pm the peach-coloured light makes the landscape look just like a Heidelberg School painting (I know, what a shock when we’re just outside of Heidelberg!).

All in all it’s made for quite a comfortable and relaxed transition to a new city. We’re so thankful to God.

I need your help

Let me be uncharacteristically direct: I need your help.

I’m one week in to serving the La Trobe University Christian Union with AFES. I need your prayers. And your financial support.

To get even more concrete and specific, I’d like to invite you to:

  1. Subscribe to our prayer partners’ mailing list HERE, and
  2. Contribute financially by filling in the online form HERE (or downloading and posting one to the AFES national office at PO Box 684, Kingsford NSW 2032).

That’s the bottom line. Now for the obvious question: Why?

Well, this year I’m privileged to join a student and staff team that’s fully engaged in proclaiming Jesus on campus — head, heart and hands:

  • They’re deeply committed to people — people for whom Christ died.
  • They’re passionately and boldly trying new ways to connect.
  • And they’re hard at work seeking to win a hearing for the gospel message.

I’m convinced that this is close to the heart of what God is doing in the world. And I’m hoping to contribute by mentoring students, many of them future leaders of God’s church. Laying before them Christ’s challenge to take up their cross and follow him, to lay down their lives and petty ambitions for the sake of those who don’t know him. I’ll also be seeking to help members of the CU develop in theological maturity and humble service of the Lord through their Monday Night Training programme.

To make this happen, I’m seeking to raise $38,500 this year. Obviously, different people will have different abilities to contribute. But one way of breaking it down looks like this (If you’d like more detail, I’d be delighted to send it your way — shoot me an email at cswann01[at]gmail[dot]com):

Our God provides richly for his children — everything we need for life and godliness. And Natalie and I have already tasted his provision through his people. Which is why we’re putting together a team of supporters to enter into partnership with us by praying for us and contributing financially so I can throw myself into this work. We’d love you to be part of it!

‘behold, the Lamb of God!’ (v)

This is a serialised version of a sermon preached as John the Baptist. Perhaps consider it a kind of ‘true confessions’ of that first eye-witness of the Lord.

I’ve been thinking. And I’m wondering if Jesus just might be ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’?

Not that I’m suggesting he’d be the star attraction for the under-6’s at the zoo. Give me a break! Have you ever actually hung around a flock of sheep out in the back-blocks of Palestine? It’s a dirty, smelly, cut-throat world.

No. There’s nothing particularly impressive or significant about a bunch of lambs. They’re stupid, mostly. Apart from roasting them with a little rosemary and garlic, probably the best thing you can do with them is offer them to God as a sacrifice! That is what being a Lamb is all about. That is what it means to be ‘the Lamb of God’, I’m sure. It’s got to be something like that!

Now the details are a bit sketchy, I know. Because if he’s the Lamb of God — and I guess it’s still a big ‘if’ — then, well, I suppose he’s going to die. And sure, I know everyone’s going to die, in a deep, existentialist sort of way. But this is different. This’ll be about sacrifice. About dealing with sin — like the lambs at the Temple. How could it mean anything less? To be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? To be crushed for us like Isaiah talked about?

I’m still chewing it all over, of course. And I can’t see exactly how it’s all going to work. But I’m thinking that maybe his ‘ordinariness’ is an advantage here. Not that he’s supremely average. But that he’s one of us — a human being, an Israelite, our brother. Which I guess he’d have to be if he’s going to represent us, stand in our place, die our death, deal with our sin. Kind of like a substitute.

But the Scripture’s tell us that no one can die in the place of anyone else. We’ve all got our own sin to deal with — one look at the sacrificial system will tell you as much: even the high priest has to go through an elaborate process of dealing with his own sin before he can approaching God on our behalf! But perhaps Jesus is the Lamb of God because he’s spotless. Blameless. Like one of the lambs we slaughter at Passover — without blemish or defect.

I know, I know! I hardly know the guy. Not these days. Could he really be spotless? Could he really not have his own sin to deal with? I’m starting to sound pretty crazy — even to myself.

What more, I guess we’re not just talking about Israel here. If he really is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, then it’s got to be bigger than that. The world… The world that God made but which has gone bad? The world that pursues satisfaction and meaning in anything but in him? The world that needs the cleansing fire of judgement to straighten it out?! That the Lamb of God might take away ‘the sins of the world’… OK. That’s just mind boggling!

But let’s just say (for argument’s sake) that Jesus is going to be a sacrifice, that he might not have his own sin to deal with. Well, I still can’t get my head around how he can get to the root of the problem and deal with sin for everyone… Surely, only God could do that?

Like I said, I’m still trying to come to grips with it all. But I’ve got a feeling this is big. Even though it’s not exactly what I expected.

So, yeah. I met Jesus the other day. He wasn’t what I was expecting. But he sure left an impression.

‘behold, the Lamb of God!’ (iv)

This is a serialised version of a sermon preached as John the Baptist. Perhaps consider it a kind of ‘true confessions’ of that first eye-witness of the Lord.

So, I’m expecting big things. Impressive things. God-who-rescued-us-from-Egypt-and-made-us-his-own-people kind of things.

Then Jesus showed up. And, like I said, he wasn’t what I was expecting at all! But the Spirit descended and remained on him. It marked him out — just like God had prepared me for. Like a giant neon sign saying: ‘Here’s the Chosen One’.

I was as surprised as the next person. As I said, Jesus really isn’t that impressive. He doesn’t really have the right ‘look’ … you know? I can hardly picture him as the triumphant Messiah-king. The judge of all the world. The one who’ll lift one hand and they’ll be vindicated and drop the other one and they’ll be condemned.

Let’s be honest, he’s hardly Lion of Judah material. He’s just doesn’t look like the all-conquering, all-judging type. He just seems a bit too meek and mild. Not really a prize fighter. No tattoos or rippling abs.

(Although perhaps he does have the charisma for it. Who knows? Two of my disciples — Andrew and one of the others — did leave me to follow him today.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That was my first encounter with Jesus. The other day. And it sort of rattled my cage. How could someone like that be the Messiah?

It really got me thinking. So … I did what I’d been taught to do when something gets me thinking. I went back to the prophets. And, for some reason, those words of passion and insight that Isaiah spoke about the ‘servant of the Lord’, those words got their hooks into me and they set my heart on fire. To begin with, Isaiah pointed out that we should be expecting the unexpected (and humanly unimpressive). Because God’s servant — a bit like the nation of Israel — ‘grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; / he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’

Then Isaiah went on to speak of how this servant will be despised and rejected, struck down and afflicted. For us. In our place. Taking a bullet for us. Suffering for our iniquity, guilt and sin. Bearing the divine rejection and wrath we deserve. ‘Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent’ he’ll be killed. And, like a sacrificial lamb, his death will be ‘an offering for sin’…

So. Like I said, I read that and it set my heart on fire. You see, I’m not sure I’ve fully understood it or sounded its depths yet, but I think I caught a glimpse — a fleeting, dim glimpse — of what Jesus’ significance might be…

‘behold, the Lamb of God!’ (iii)

This is a serialised version of a sermon preached as John the Baptist. Perhaps consider it a kind of ‘true confessions’ of that first eye-witness of the Lord.

Our prophets weren’t all doom and gloom of course. They also told us that this wasn’t going to be the end of the story. God, they said us, is going to do something about it. Something new. Something Big. With a capital B.

That’s what I’m doing out here at the fringe of the promised land — back where it all began, where God was with us and went before us and gave us victory and brought us into the good land like he promised. I’m here waiting for God to do it all again. Just like the prophets foretold. Gloriously. Mercifully. Returning. And setting things straight. Purging the land of all its moral compromise. Its false religion. Its petty jealousies and power struggles. Cleaning up the mess and establishing his kingdom. In perfect justice and righteousness.

That’s what I’m waiting for. What I’m hoping for. And that’s why I want people to repent. To get back to their roots. To make a fresh start as God’s people, ready to be swept up in the unstoppable tide of his victory and cleansing judgement — instead of being swept away by it!

It’s like what I told the ‘heavies’ who came out from Jerusalem. I’m just doing what the prophets said, just trying to get things ready — do a little house-cleaning. Before the Messiah shows and God arrives.

It’s not that they don’t expect the Messiah to come, mind you. They’re mad for it. Apparently some of their rabbis are talking about setting up a chair for Elijah out the front of the synagogue and presenting every boy who gets circumcised to it — hoping that Elijah himself will appear out of thin air and point out the kid that’s the Messiah.

I get where they’re coming from (I guess). They’ve heard the prophets talk about Elijah making another appearance before God returns. But really? Elijah himself! Sure he was taken away bodily by God — and so I know some people think he didn’t die… But, it’s prophecy people! They’re talking about the future in terms that make sense in the present. When they speak about a new exodus — no-one thinks we’re actually going to go back into Egypt and be delivered from there again. What God’s got in store is much bigger than that!

No. The reason I’m wearing this camel’s hair shirt and eating this diet of desperation — locusts and wild honey. It’s not because I think of myself as a trend-setter. And it’s not because I think I’m Elijah reincarnate or something. Not at all! I’m not Elijah. And I’m not ‘the Prophet’ that Moses talked about who would go one better than him — him who had seen God face to face! And I’m definitely not the Messiah.

I’m just the sign-post. The usher. They guy with the job of preparing the people, showing them to their seats before the main event so they’re ready for the Messiah when he finally arrives. And, I tell you, it’s going to be glorious! His triumphant arrival. Bringing God’s judgement. Setting things straight. Baptising with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Doing for real what I’m only doing symbolically. Purifying. Burning off all the dross…

‘behold, the Lamb of God!’ (ii)

This is a serialised version of a sermon preached as John the Baptist. Perhaps consider it a kind of ‘true confessions’ of that first eye-witness of the Lord.

Like I said, Jesus wasn’t what I was expecting. Not really.

Now, I may not have been to one of those fancy-pants Pharisee schools, but I’ve read the Torah. Lots. And as I read the sacred writings of my people, where God has spoken to us and made known his mind and plan for the world … well, I get the distinct impression that big things are about to happen. God-arriving-to-set-things-straight sized things.

That’s why I’m out here preaching repentance. We’re in a mess. This once-great nation of ours.

Sure, we’re the Israelites, the people that God rescued from slavery. The people God took to be his own. He made us a nation. Gave us a land. Showered us with good things. And gave us the privilege of serving him, making us part of his plan to save the world!

But we blew it. We forgot God. We got to the land and started acting like we could claim credit for everything he’d given us. Even though he sent us prophets to remind us and nudge us back to our roots, we just kept relying on ourselves and trying to live life our own way.

In fact, there were times when you could look at us and just think that we were no different from any other nation. Just as morally compromised. Just as confused about life and direction. About as inclined to give God the time of day as the Caananites!

Disgusting, isn’t it? It makes my stomach turn. It’s the same old, old tragic story. This is what’s become of the ‘great’ nation of Israel — God’s own bride, chosen and loved by him — paying him lip service. At best! (And you wonder why I’m telling people to repent?)

It’s just like the prophets said. God is profoundly upset with us. That’s why we’ve been judged.

Because we failed to repent, well … we’ve lost it all! And the nation’s come apart at the seams.

First, we had that civil war, leaving us with two kingdoms — a morally bankrupt but materially successful Northern kingdom. And a slightly less compromised and less significant Southern kingdom. But it wasn’t long after that before we weren’t so much sliding down the slippery slope of creeping worldliness and rebellion against God, as plummeting head-long into an abyss of idolatry, self-reliance and social dysfunction.

Then — as if things weren’t black enough — we were invaded, conquered and a deported. First the Assyrians wiped out the Northern kingdom. Then the Babylonians. They captured Jerusalem — God’s own city. They defiled the temple. And they carted most of us off into exile.

So. Yeah. So much for God’s blessed and privileged nation! Sure, by God’s mercy we’ve been restored. We’re back in the land. We’ve cut a few deals, scraped together the funds and kitted out a new temple that isn’t a total embarrassment. But we’re under the thumb of the Romans. We’ve got no sovereignty of our own. No independence. No say in world affairs. And (predictably enough) everyone’s pointing the finger at everyone else. No-one willing to call us to take responsibility. Before something worse happens.

Like I said, we’re hardly a beacon of God’s light in a dark world. Which is bad news if God’s about to arrive.

‘behold, the Lamb of God!’ (i)

This is a serialised version of a sermon preached as John the Baptist. Perhaps consider it a kind of ‘true confessions’ of that first eye-witness of the Lord.

I met Jesus the other day.

I guess one day that might be a claim to fame. But I have to say, it was kind of odd. I mean … it’s Jesus — Jesus bar Joseph. Little cousin Jesus.

He’s my cousin, did you know? Twice removed. My mum and his mum were close before I was born, but his family moved away to Egypt for a couple of years and now they live back over in Nazareth in Galilee and. You know how it goes!

In fact, I reckon one of the last times we were together was that Passover, back when we were boys. I suppose pretty much every family has one of those Passovers! But this was something different! I’ve got to tell you…

The whole family had come up to Jerusalem for Passover. It had been a really special time. Everyone had partied hard, celebrating God’s deliverance of us in the exodus. And before you knew it we were waving good-bye to Mary and Joseph and a whole crowd of pilgrims. We’d headed back home, dad disappeared out the back to have a snooze while mum and I started doing some tidying up…

But the next day, just when we thought things would get back to normal, Mary and Joseph appeared. Banging on the front door. They looked frantic. They’d left the group to travel back. And they wanted to know if we’d seen Jesus?

Apparently Mary thought he was with Joseph and Joseph thought he was with the other kids. So they only started to get worried when he didn’t show up for breakfast.

(He turned up eventually, of course. He was actually in the temple talking with the rabbis — would you believe it!? But the panic and worry on Mary and Joseph’s faces. Now that was something. I know he’s their firstborn son and all. But they obviously thought he was quite something — they were killing themselves with worry.)

It was a Passover to remember alright. That last time I saw him.

So, anyway… There I am, waist deep in the Jordan. I’ve got my soggy camel-hair shirt tucked into my belt. And it’s itchy at the best of times! The crowds up on the river bank are as thick as the flies swarming around my head.

And in amongst the crowd, there’s Jesus! I hardly even recognised him at first. He’s so unremarkable: Late twenties. Medium build. Not short (but not tall either). Broad shoulders. Of middle Eastern appearance. He had the look of a tradie. Rough hands. Sunburn. Not a plumber. A mechanic maybe? A cabinet-maker? Pretty ordinary all up. I even reckon I spotted some prominent nasal hair!

Worse, he arrived with that mob of Galilean hicks! Imagine a bus-load of Westies rolling up at the one of the Eastern beaches in the middle of summer. Over-dressed. All bling-ed up like you wouldn’t believe. Whooping and carrying on like they hadn’t seen water for a decade…

I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that much. He does live in Nazareth after all. But that grating Galilean drawl. It’s too much!

It really was a bit of a bolt out of the blue when God’s Spirit swooped down and settled on him. He wasn’t what I was expecting at all…

Why we haven’t posted much this week

I was meant to post this week because Chris is in Melbourne talking with various people from AFES (it’s been very worthwhile – your prayers have been and continue to be appreciated). But I’ve fallen short of Chris’ blogging standards… Here’s what’s been keeping me so busy in the real world:

  1. I cleaned the oven. It was not very pleasant.
  2. I catalogued our CDs before packing them in boxes. It was fun for the first box, less so as I finished the last one.
  3. I’ve been to my first evening meeting about Mission Areas. It was slightly scary, but really quite positive.
  4. I’ve been preparing for a meeting this morning on the theology of disability, for which I had prepared a discussion paper. It was actually quite a lovely meeting. I hope to share some of my reflections over the next couple of weeks.