Friday, October 28, 2011

Jesus Does Not Take Sides

Jesus doesn’t take sides, he takes over.  Contrary to popular belief, Jesus does not take the side of the poor against the rich: he invites both to respond to him, and challenges each that to do so will require a change of perspective and way of living.  In the last week there has been much public discussion in the UK as to what Jesus would say about the Occupy the London Stock Exchange campaign, and the decision of the Chapter at St Paul’s Cathedral to close their doors and then to initiate legal action against the campers, and off the Canon Chancellor to resign his post.

Jesus would not take the side of the protesters.  Not because he would take the side of the Cathedral, or of the Stock Exchange, but because he does not take sides.

In defence of the protesters, it has been noted that Jesus violently overturned the camp of the money-changers and sellers – the ultimate anti-capitalist act.  But that is poor exegesis.  Those who came to the temple had to present a sacrifice.  As it was not practical for pilgrims to bring animals with them, they could buy animals at the temple.  But pilgrims would have Roman coins, and those were considered defiling, and so they must first change them for temple coins.  It is often said that pilgrims were ripped-off, both in the exchange rate and in the price of animals.  But we have no evidence of this taking place.  We do have written and archaeological evidence of the system running, perfectly acceptably, immediately outside of the temple, up to the time of the destruction of the temple in AD70.  So why was Jesus so angry?  According to the Gospel accounts, he found this mechanism operating inside the temple, in the Court of the Gentiles, the provision for those of any and every nation to come into God’s house.  The ‘robbers’ were not financial robbers, but were robbing people of the opportunity to come into God’s house to worship, by occupying the space.  So Jesus evicts them, with violence.

For anyone who asks the question, What Would Jesus Do?, in relation to the protesters surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral in such a way that, while they are not doing anything wrong in-and-of itself, people cannot come in, I think that track-record suggests Jesus would evict them with violence.

That is not to say that Jesus would endorse the Cathedral Chapter, or the Stock Exchange.  Jesus does not take sides.  He would confront them, too, but in different ways.  In the case of the stock exchange he might tell a parable that exposes their greed and folly, and reminds us that God will bring all to account.  In the case of the Cathedral he might point out its grandeur, the very stones that tourists flock to see, observing that one day they will fall, and if they do not receive him that day might come sooner than they think.  Because Jesus does not come to take sides, but to take over.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


I get to listen to a lot of people, and the thing they most often want from me is reassurance of God’s approval.

Regularly, when I meet with a family to plan the funeral of a loved one, they want to know that God approves of the deceased, even though – they are clear – the deceased wasn’t one for church or religion, and neither are they.  Regularly, when I meet with a family requesting the baptism of their baby, the parents and god-parents speak openly in terms of hedging bets, which is another way of saying, if God exists I want his approval for my child.  And regularly, when I listen to regular church goers, they express their disapproval of those who come only on occasions, of long-standing members who don’t measure up to their standards, and even of those who have recently come to faith, on the grounds that their own long-term commitment must count for greater approval on God’s part...

Why would you want the approval of someone you have so little to do with?  Or why would you want approval over and against someone else?

The primary image of God that comes out in what people volunteer to me in conversation is that God is judge.  The particular approval sought is not the approval of a loved one, but an impersonal legal vindication, on the basis of having lived a good life or having secured the right paperwork or having served time.  The primary image of life beyond death is not one of spending eternity with God, but one in which God merely decides the destination: ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are equally devoid of God’s presence, as indeed is this life.  God is Death, not Life.

In the beginning we see God creating humanity, to share in his reign as King of the Universe.  In the beginning, we see God walk in the garden, seeking-out his friends.  We see humanity abdicate rule, and hide from God, and we see God looking for us...In the fullness of time, we see Jesus: God and humanity walking together in harmony; King and king, who restores us as kings and queens and calls us friends once more; who sends his Spirit to walk with us, to counsel us, as we exercise rule within his kingdom.  We see adventure, and battle, and sacrifice, in the service of Christ.  We see present darkness, but know that the dawn is coming, that the rising of the sun and the return of the King are inevitable.  And yes: Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead – but it goes on: and his kingdom shall have no end.

The focus of God as judge is not us, but the person of Jesus; and the role of Christ as judge takes its place within a bigger vision of Jesus, a vision that fills everything with wholeness.

It is not God’s approval of us that is at stake – he has already spoken that out into the world – but our approval of God-with-us in Christ Jesus.

Can I reassure you of God’s approval?  Yes, I can.  But unless you approve of his choice to make Jesus King; unless you are willing to offer everything you are and have to him, in exchange for everything he is and has, shared with you; then what is his approval worth, and why would you want it?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Reading Romans

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome has long been read as a work of abstract theology, which of course skews how we understand it.  In fact, like all Paul’s letters, it is written in and to a particular context, addressing particular issues of concern.  In the case of Romans, the key matter Paul addresses is this:

Given that the Jewish nation has rejected Jesus as their Messiah, or one sent by God to deliver them from their enemies;

and given that God has made Jesus not only the (rejected) Messiah but also the Gentile Christ, or one who delivers them;

and given the imminent destruction facing the Jewish nation (which has rejected Jesus as Messiah) at the hands of the armies of Rome (the city where the Christians to whom Paul is writing happen to live, in case you hadn’t noticed);

has God given up on his ancient people, and replaced them?

Paul’s answer is, no, God has not given up on his ancient people.  God’s intention was always bigger; God has been at work through the history of his ancient people to bless all peoples; the Gentiles are included in God’s plan – but just as the arrogance of the Jews has resulted in judgement, so the Gentile believers ought not to boast and thus incur God’s judgement on themselves; and though for now God’s ancient people are under judgement they will be brought back into the fullness of God’s plans for them.

Why does this matter?  It matters because today the Church is asking the same question:

Given that the Christendom nations have rejected Jesus as Christ;

and given that God has made Jesus not only the (rejected) Christ but also the King of all;

and given the present judgement inflicted on the inherited churches of the Western nations, whereby their ongoing existence is under real threat from a wider society which is indifferent and hostile by turns;

has God given up on the inherited Churches, and replaced them?

This question is asked both by church leaders of inherited church traditions in other parts of the world (for example, some of the Anglican bishops of the Global South), and by pioneer missionaries and church planters in the post-modern West (for example, some exponents of emerging or missional church).

The answer is, read Romans: no, God has not given up on, has not written off, is not seeking to replace, the inherited Church.  Yes, God is doing several new things – that is what God does, in extending and extending the scope of his Kingdom – but he has not given up on the older things.  So beware of gloating over the demise of some part of the Church you don’t like, or boasting of how much better your part in the Story is.  Be who you are called to be, where you are called to be, but have a vision that is bigger, and pray that God will bring all things – the whole Church yes, but that is just the start – together.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Simon : Peter

Names are important.  Our names are a key element in our identity.  We may be called other things – respect titles, or terms of abusive – perhaps even on a regular basis.  But our name is spoken day after day.  Our name, and the other words that get attached to it, shape us.  In the competing claims of the thief who comes to kill and steal and destroy, and the Good Shepherd who comes that we might know life in its fullness, will we grow-into our God-given identity, or have it stunted or stolen from us?  Because our name is such a key part of that identity, its meaning is, I believe, one of the key battle-grounds for our identity.

It struck me afresh today that Jesus chose to ‘build his church’ on a disciple who had two names – Simon Peter – and that this being so, it might have something significant to say about the identity of the Church he planned to build.

‘Simon’ has to do with hearing and listening.  We see this being contested in Simon’s identity: will he be the one who insists on being heard, or the one who will listen – truly listen – to God’s voice, and so have something to say worth hearing, proclaiming Jesus’ story with authority?

‘Peter’ has to do with a rock.  We see this being contested in Peter’s identity: will he stand firm, or crumble under pressure?  Will he try to resist the wind of the Spirit, which smooths a rock over time, or embrace the patterns that wind may carve, turning weaker seams into beautiful features?

These may be valid questions to ask of the Church, too: perhaps too often we insist on being heard, to bolster our own ego, but crumble when it comes to standing-up for justice.  But there is something more.  In redeeming Simon’s name, and in adding to it the name Peter, Jesus extends a share in two particular attributes of God’s identity: the One who is unchanging in his faithfulness (the Rock); and the One who hears the cry of his people, and whose unfolding response changes.

As the Church, we are invited and challenged to be unchanging in faithfulness, and attentive and responsive to the cry of the oppressed.  And, from time to time and on a regular basis, our remaining faithful will depend on our outwardly-changing attitude.  Like Peter – like Jesus – we will need to turn away from things our tribe has held essential to faithfulness, in order to be faithful.  We can only discern what is unchanging and what must unfold as we attend to the difficult, sometimes slow and gradual, sometimes sudden and unexpected - and for both these reasons often painful – process of listening to one another and listening together to the Holy Spirit.  We cannot do that on our own, or within our own particular tribe alone; for ‘Simon’ and ‘Peter’ are massively contested identities.  We cannot rush; we cannot presume an end to this process – for that would be the end of our inhabiting our identity.  We must not hold our own views as non-negotiable – to do so is to close ourselves to God and neighbour, and deeper self-knowledge and acceptance – and we must truly hear and be moved to respond to the cry of those whose views differ from our own.

Our hope must lie in the knowledge that Jesus, who has given us this foundation, is still at work to redeem our identity.  However much it is contested, however far we are pushed to twist the ear and to turn the stone, Jesus is committed to leading us into the fullness of life he intends for us.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Christ In All

If the Gospel is not Christ-centric – drawing us to participate in the identity and mission of Jesus – then it is not the Gospel at all.

This is true not only for humanity, but for all creation.  When “the heavens declare the glory of God,” it is the glory of the Son they participate in.  Thus the Son is described as the Sun of Righteousness, the Bright Morning Star, the Rose of Sharon, the Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God, the Rock of Ages (and within Anglican tradition relating to the use of the Lord’s Prayer, as our Saviour tortoise...).  The Son can be described in such ways because creation participates in his identity and mission, and thus reveals him, as it finds its reconciliation in and through and for him.

So the wider creation, as well as humanity, reflects Jesus as apostle, as the sun and moon journey across the sky, and in so doing secure days and seasons from one generation to another; as prophet, in global warming; as evangelist, in water in a dry land; as pastor, in food and medicine hidden in plants; and as teacher, in the antelope, the ostrich, the ant, the hyrax, the gecko, the birds of the air and the lilies of the field...

Christ-centric Identity And Mission

Why is it that when Christians read a list uniquely described as the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23) – they tend not to argue that this is a representative sample, or that some of the fruit no longer apply today...but that when they read a list uniquely described as the gifts of Christ – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:7-16) – they so often argue both these things?

A Christ-centric gospel of reconciliation frames us as sharing in Christ’s identity and mission, both personally and corporately.

To each person God has created, a facet of, a share in, Jesus’ identity has been given.  He is the one who is sent, carrying, protecting and extending the kingdom; he is the one who confronts false kings; he is the one who embodies good news of reconciliation; he is the one who stands between his people and their predators, and who, having defeated the predators, binds up the wounded and nurtures them to health; he is the one who seeks out and passes on the wisdom that leads to life.  As communities of faith, as the Body of Christ, we are called to make manifest each dimension.  As the warrior-bride of Christ, we are called to partner with him.  As persons given to one another for the fulfilling of this purpose, we each have a particular part to play, connected to the others.

For a more extended exploration of our Christ-centric identity and mission, see my dissertation.

Gospel Truth

The Gospel:

“If you believe in God (or, specifically, in Jesus), you will go to heaven; if you don’t, you will go to hell: God wants the former for you, but it is your choice.  (If you never heard this message, God’s mercy will accept you / God’s judgement will reject you. [delete as doctrinally appropriate])”


“The Creator of the universe has appointed Jesus as King over all creation; and is reconciling all things in Christ and through Christ and for Christ.  Will you enter-into and continue in that Christ-centric reconciliation, living within his life-affirming kingdom rule, participating in his identity and his mission?”

Different emphases of the same account?  Or incompatible stories – one with ‘me’ at the centre, the other with Jesus at the centre – with divergent out-workings?

Soterian Gospel : Part 2

In the soterian gospel, the role of Jesus’ disciples is to be witnesses to the uniqueness of Jesus.  Their testimony is passed on until recorded in the Gospels – traditionally viewing Matthew and John as eye-witness accounts, Mark as recording Peter’s account, and Luke as recording that of Mary and other witnesses – at which point their function is fulfilled.  They are disconnected from those who came before and after them, who did not see Jesus.  In contrast, the Story gospel views Jesus’ disciples as faithful community, in continuity with those faithful communities which came before and after them.

In the soterian gospel, the role of Scripture is the raw ingredient from which doctrine is to be distilled – a task Paul is viewed as having begun; a task taken-on by later theologians, with the Reformation being a significant return-to-form and systematic theology being the pinnacle.  That is, Scripture is in itself inadequate.  Having distilled doctrine from it, we then interpret Scripture according to doctrine – that is, we read back into the text what we have distilled from it, so reinforcing our doctrinal position (double-distillation).  Soterian preachers regularly find Jesus’ parables difficult to understand, because they ‘know’ the doctrine (of hell, for example) the parable must support (if Jesus did, in fact, preach the gospel) and struggle because parables by their nature subvert distillation into doctrine (Jesus did not preach the gospel, if by gospel we mean soterian gospel).  And ultimately, we discard of Scripture itself, in the same way that, having distilled wiskey, we discard the mash.

Therefore, in the soterian gospel paradigm, Jesus’ commission to make disciples who make disciples who do everything his first disciples did is re-cast as persuading others to give intellectual (or emotional) assent to the benefits Jesus has won for them, through the articulation of technical doctrinal argument (if taking the emotional route, vividly painted).

The fruit of the soterian gospel is Christians who do not know with any confidence the story we have been invited into – having been left with abstract and complex doctrine, they leave to the experts – and have no understanding of the challenge to live out that story in the world.

Indeed, so culture-defining has the soterian ‘gospel’ become, my starting-point position is that those within the church – let alone those without – do not know the gospel.  Not that I do, and am here to impart it; but, that we have lost it, and together must recover it.
We need to rediscover the Story, and enter-into it...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Soterian Gospel

My posts tend to generate discussion in other contexts.  A friend took the time to respond to my previous post by noting that he and his wife each received Christ for different reasons.  I think I want to say that there are many reasons why we receive Christ - in my case, I grew up in a home where Jesus was as real as mummy and daddy, and I know of no time when I did not know him - and that, of course, it makes no point claiming some reasons are more valid than others.  But what does matter, I think, is who we receive Jesus as - again, there is a list, but I’m not sure the soterian gospel Jesus presents him well.  The version I come across most often is holding out to extremely vulnerable people the benefit-focused ‘gospel’ “receive Jesus and he will take all your problems away, and your life will be wonderful”...

But my friend also made another observation: that “the Gospel has many facets, and as culture changes the Gospel can rotate a fresh facet to confound that culture...”  I think this is an important insight.  I think we need what is being called the Story gospel at this time to confound the soterian gospel, because the soterian gospel has shaped church culture in a way that distorts the gospel.  But I have no doubt that the Story gospel, while recovering much, will itself distort the gospel in its own ways; will itself create a new culture; and will itself need to be confounded, as the many-faceted Gospel rotates afresh.


No, not an alien race from a Dr Who script, but – according to a current debate within evangelical circles – arguably an alien race within the Church.  The likes of Scot McKnight and NT Wright are proposing that the tradition commonly referred to as evangelical would currently be better described as soterian; and that the soterian gospel is an aberration.

Scot McKnight writes:

‘Now I want to press this harder: the fundamental orientation of the soterian gospel is about the benefits “I” get if I respond. The fundamental orientation of the Story gospel is not about “my” benefits but about Jesus. Embracing the Story gospel brings benefits, to be sure, but we embrace this Story because we embrace Jesus, not because we get something. The entire soterian approach is shaped by benefits.

‘I press harder: the God of the soterian gospel is formed around two features about God: God is judge, and God is wrathful (and will send folks to hell). Or, in some forms, the soterian gospel is framed about this: God is judge, but God loves us and wants a better life for us but God will judge if we don’t respond aright. The operating idea then is “How can I escape God’s wrath or God’s judgment against me?”

‘The God of the Story gospel is formed around these: God is creator, God is director of history, God is incarnate in Jesus, and God calls humans to live in God’s ordered kingdom world by living under Jesus. The operating idea here is “Who rules the world and do I live under that rule?” The Gods of these two “gospels” are framed differently.’

The soterian gospel is the message of the cross, or, more accurately, the cross viewed through a Calvinist or Reformed lens.  In other words, everything we see in the Gospels prior to the cross is not the gospel, but merely points to the gospel.  And so Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the mission he draws his disciples into, is not the gospel; and as our concern is the gospel, the things that Jesus inaugurates then are not our concern today.

The fruit of the soterian gospel is not disciples but what have been described as ‘Christian atheists’: that is, people who believe in the existence of God, but for whom that belief has little if any consequence for how they live.  Such a term might describe the 65%-70% of the British population who identify themselves as Christian...

I have not yet read McKnight’s latest book (though I am keeping an eye on the unfolding debate), but I think he – and NT Wright and others – are right in their assessment, and that the conversation they are opening is one we need to engage with if we are to make disciplesThe soterian gospel must be rejected as an imposter, whatever it may cost us in personal reputation.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Choosing What To Wear

Lectionary readings Isaiah 25:1-9 and Matthew22:1-14.

To be human is to tell stories: stories by which we re-write the past, in order to know ourselves in the present, and so resource ourselves to step into the future.  Not all stories are equal; and every story is contested.  The best reflection on 9/11 I have read is by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.  Sacks grounds that event in the fall of the USSR.  In the West, that moment was re-told as the triumph of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy over communism.  But there was another group of people who re-told that moment as the defeat of one of the two world super-powers by dragging it into asymmetric war in Afghanistan: and if you could bring down one that way, why not the other?  Ten years on, Western leaders and their allies are just admitting failure.  But at the time, President Bush told America to go back to shopping.  The story we tell determines the lives we live.  The West failed to re-evaluate its story in the light of rival claims.

Isaiah presents us with a story, a story that tells us that God will silence ruthless nations.  This story was first told in the time between the fall of Israel to the Assyrians and the fall of Judah to the Babylonians.  Ruthless nations rise, but God will humble them.  Ruthless nations, including God’s own people.  When Solomon succeeded his father David as king, he asked God for wisdom.  God granted him wisdom, and gave with it those gifts that would test and refine wisdom: wealth and power.  Solomon had wisdom, but did not necessarily use it wisely.  He amassed chariots, like Pharaoh had done.  He conscripted God’s people into building projects on a grand scale, like Pharaoh had done.  He became ruthless.  And when his son succeeded him, the people asked that he be less ruthless: but he replied, my little finger is as thick as my father’s thigh: that is, you ain’t seen nothing yet, kid.  So ten of the tribes rebelled, forming the northern kingdom of Israel.  Every one of their kings did evil in the sight of the Lord, until his patience ran out, and Assyria swept in.  Two tribes remained loyal – the king may be a fool, but he is God’s appointed fool – forming the southern kingdom of Judah.  While most of their kings did what was evil in God’s sight, a few led revivals, enough to stave off judgement some generations longer.

Assyria defeats Israel, but falls to Babylon.  Babylon defeats Judah, but falls to Persia.  Persia and Egypt fall to Greece.  Greece falls to Rome.  And Rome will fall to the Germanic tribes, and so on and so on.  Ruthless nations will be silenced.

But there is more to the story that Isaiah tells.  God is preparing a banquet for all peoples.  God is preparing to destroy the shroud of death that covers all nations.  God is at work to humble the ruthless, because only those who have been humbled can see that God is good, that God is working salvation for us all.  Only those whose story has been demonstrated to be wanting will exchange it for a greater one.

Some seven hundred years, and several ruthless empires, later, Jesus picks up Isaiah’s story with one of his own: a story about a king who prepares a banquet – this one is in honour of his son – and who destroys a city of ruthless people, people who are so busy ruthlessly pursuing their own agenda, writing their own stories, that they ignore his invitation; a story in which an open invitation is extended to all – both the good and the bad.  A story in which there is a dress-code; a story which will in turn be taken up by Paul writing to the Galatian church of being clothed with Christ.  A story in which the shroud of death that Isaiah told us would be destroyed is replaced with a robe of celebration and reconciliation; and a story where, because the shroud is not yet destroyed, we are presented with choosing which we shall wear.  Will we exchange one identity for another, or not?

What, then, does this story have to do with us?  What has this story to do with our nation?  It is a story against which to measure our own.  Are you listening to the stories we are being told right now?  The story of how we will emerge, slowly perhaps but surely, from the economic crises threatening to drag us down?  And perhaps we will; but not indefinitely.  Historians, historians who do not necessarily believe in God, tell us that the Wesleyan Revival was a key factor in our not having a bloody revolution like they had in France.  On that platform, we had a different kind of revolution: industrialisation; this time engaged by Christian-led social reform.  On that platform, we built an Empire, the largest the world has ever seen; and in that context, the modern mission movement was birthed.  On the platform of Empire, we won two World Wars; though the winning cost us our empire.  And today, we are a ruthless nation whose day is passing.  It might take a little longer, but – despite the story any of our politicians tells us – that passing is inevitable.  Nations rise, and fall, and having fallen they rarely rise again, and certainly not for hundreds of years.  God’s story tells us this: and history proves God to be true to his word.  As a nation, we will fall, and probably sooner rather than later.

And if the story we tell about being English, or British, in the world is found wanting, what are we to say?  As God’s people, chosen to be part of this nation at this moment in history, to understand the times and know what to do, what is the good news we have to hold out?  It is this: God’s alternative story, a story of celebration, of reconciliation between the peoples; a story in which Jesus, the Son, plays a central part; and a story of the world post the rising-and-falling Eras of the Age of Death.  It is a story of humbling which opens our eyes to a story of hope.  It is a story that counters misplaced patriotism, and frees us to affirm what is good without making an idol of it.  It is a story that counters despair, and xenophobia, and frees us to point beyond the work of death to the work of restoration.  It is a good story.  It is our story.  Learn it.  Live it.  Share it.