Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Sermon on the Mount Problem

You may have heard of the Synoptic Problem, you may have read The Problem of Pain, and you may have seen the Problem Child trilogy. I mention these as a lead in to one of the biggest problems I've had in all my years of reading the Bible. I'll simply call it the Sermon on the Mount Problem.

I first encountered it as a young teenage Christian when I read the following words of Jesus found in Matthew 5 verse 20:

Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

I didn't know much about scribes and Pharisees, but I knew they were the stringent law-keepers of their day. As far as righteousness was concerned, they were the trend setters; the ones who set the bar, and who set it almost unattainably high.

But more importantly than that, I knew that I was not up to that level of righteousness, and that bothered me, for unless I exceeded the Pharasaic righteousness I could not enter the kingdom of heaven. These were the plain words of Jesus, to be taken with full seriousness. What to do?

There are numerous ways to interpret and apply the Sermon on the Mount. One approach is to simply do your best to follow its regulations and hope you "pass the exam" so to speak. Jesus says don't be angry, so I'll try not to be angry. Jesus says don't lust, so I'll try my best to avoid women.

A second approach is to merely ignore it, which is perhaps an approach too often utilised by Christians.

Another approach is to read it as Jesus being the bearer of "New Law". This is perhaps the most popular approach in many evangelical circles. We read the Sermon on the Mount through Pauline eyes, where this Law that Jesus brings is a method of highlighting our need for the gospel. To use the language of Galatians, the Sermon on the Mount is our tutor which drives us to Christ.

There are a couple of fundamental problems with this popular approach however. The first is an obvious one: the apostle Paul didn't write the book of Matthew, and so to read this book through Pauline eyes is to do a disservice to the text, something which Richard Hays makes clear in his Moral vision of the New Testament. The second problem with this (dare I say Reformed) approach is the context the Sermon finds itself in. The Sermon on the Mount occupies Matthew 5-7. In chapter 4, right before launching into this extended discourse, Matthew gives us a summary of what Jesus is up to. He is preaching, teaching, and healing. What is He preaching about, what is He teaching about, what is He manifesting through healings? In short, the gospel of the kingdom. He's proclaiming, explaining and manifesting good news. Lets not forget that the Sermon on the Mount is found in the Gospel of Matthew. To slap a "Law" tag on what Jesus is saying and put it at odds with the gospel is a mistake in my opinion.

So where does that leave us? If we don't find here laws that we have to try our best to live up to or laws that are intended to weigh heavy on our conscience, what do we find? In a word, we find fulfillment. Fulfillment in what sense? I think there is dual fulfillment going on here: The primary fulfillment is Jesus as the Law incarnate. He says Himself that He did not come to do away with the Law but to fulfill it. Jesus is the embodiment of the Law. Where Israel failed, He succeeded. This is part of the reason why the crowds marveled once the sermon was finished. Jesus exhibited the authority which the scribes and Pharisees could only dream of: the authority to live out the Law. He spoke as one who knew the beauty of it, who knew the heart of it, and who knew the Law Giver, someone He could call 'Father'. Through word and deed, Jesus demonstrated the goodness of the Law.

The second fulfillment accomplished by Jesus is found (somewhat hidden) in the text following on from the Sermon on the Mount. That word "authority" mentioned at the end of chapter 7 plays a crucial function in the entire Gospel of Matthew, and so it should not surprise us to find it has a large role to play in how we interpret and apply the teachings of Jesus.

In chapters 8 and 9 especially we read of Jesus' authority extending to the lives of those around Him. A leper says to Jesus, "You can make me clean", and Jesus does so. A centurion urges Him to "only speak a word, and my servant will be healed", realising that Jesus is a man with the authority to accomplish what He says. We see this authority in action again when wind and waves are stilled by His voice.

In the light of this authority, the message of the Sermon on the Mount is shockingly good news. Jesus has the power to fulfill the Law in us. Having died and rose again, He says at the end of Matthew's account, "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me". He doesn't say this in a merely commanding way, but in a relational way, promising to be with us always. The wonderful news is that the authority of Jesus is something which is for our benefit. It is an authority which authorises, an authority which empowers.

The Sermon on the Mount is the description of a life lived under the empowering authority of Jesus. In the middle of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says to the Pharisees,"If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God then the kingdom of God has come upon you". He could say something similar with regards the Sermon on the Mount: "If I transform the unrighteous into the righteous by the Spirit of God then the kingdom of God has come upon you".

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The One

- 'How many "ones" can you have?'

- '...Five...'

In Christian jargon there is much talk of "the one". From the age of say 18 onwards we begin the search for "the one". We do not know who he or she is, but we hold on to the seemingly sure hope that the one is out there somewhere, awaiting discovery. Or perhaps we have already met the one, but we just don't know it yet, and like some kind of romantic prank the one will be revealed to us as being a friend we "never looked at that way before" or an acquaintance we never took the time to get to know. The possibilities are, in some ways at least, endless, which is one of the many [?] thrills of singledom.

The math of this is simple. A person is only one person, and so that person can only end up with one person. The renegade Mormon in you might disagree, but the reality is that you will not end up with what Peter LaFleur likes to call "the jackpot". There is only one: "the one". Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find him/her.

To drag this into the realm of full-on Christendom, the popular mantra repeated ad infinitum by Christian singles whose dwindling confidence is balanced out by rapidly increasing desperation is that God knows who "the one" is. The one is roaming around the earth somewhere, and sooner or later paths are going to cross and true romance will be born.

We often hear stories that lend credence to such notions. I know someone who "just knew" who the one was after about two dates. Or even more dramatic, someone who simply saw a woman and said "There is the woman I'm going to marry". Turns out their optimistic instincts were right; they had indeed found the one they were seemingly destined to end up with. How did they know? As Jermaine discloses, "You just know".

Now that's all well and good when you're right, but what about when what you think you "just know" is actually misinformation? How many times have people been sure they have found "the one", only for destiny to slip through their fingers or run away scared? Who really is the one? Is there even a one, or like Jermaine posits, do we get "a few ones"?

I had this chat with a friend of mine last year and he is of the view that there is one one. There is "God's best" you might put it. Our goal is to find it. If we don't, then we make do with someone else down the pecking order. Think of it (rather crudely) as a few cars being lined up in front of us, and instead of choosing the Porsche we go for the Toyota. This way of thinking allows for human folly. As human beings, we don't always make the wisest choices. We can easily settle for something that's good now instead of something that's great later. In doing so we may miss out on the one and end up with number two or three instead, unbeknownst to us of course.

My questions are, Can we really miss out on the one, even if we never know it? What determines whether someone is the one or not? If you like them and they like you and you promise to like each other forever, does that mean that you have each found the one?

The Bible doesn't (as far as I know) tell us that God has a specific "one" for everybody. Nor are we told that we get five ones each. What we do know is that marriage is a lifelong commitment. So how do we know who the one is? To put it plainly, the one is the one on whose finger we place an overpriced ring. How we get to that place will vary: some may feel a tingling in their heart from first sight, some may gradually realise that this is a person they could really love the rest of their lives, some may have the decision made for them, others may be forced into it by a red-faced father bearing a shot-gun. There are wise paths to the alter and there are foolish paths; there are godly paths and there are ungodly paths. I guess maybe an ideal marriage ceremony is the celebration and consummation of godly wisdom. I had the pleasure of being the best man at one such ceremony this summer, where the guy of second date prescience fame realised his dream, or perhaps destiny.

But what about the slightly less than ideal ceremonies, brought about not so much by true love as by undeniable pregnancy? Is the one you accidentally impregnate the one? Christians, along with all mankind, make unwise decisions with undesired consequences. Where does that leave dreams of "the one"? Is it a case of having to settle for less?

The short answer is I don't know. But what I think might need to happen is that we stop putting all of our energy into finding the one and more time preparing ourselves to be people able to love just one woman or man for the rest of our lives. As my recently married brother will tell you, finding the one is the easy part - loving the one for the rest of your life is where it gets a bit trickier.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


My simple definition of a friend:

Someone you can go to the cinema with.

Reckless Grace - #5

The Parable of the Two Lost Sons is split into two Acts. We saw in Act 1 the shocking display of love from the father, both in giving the rebellious younger son the inheritance due at the father's death and also receiving this son back into the home with open arms. "Grace to spare" is Tim Keller's summation of these events, which is a neat way of putting it.

And so we come to Act 2, where we finally meet the other son mentioned at the beginning of the story. As all of the events at the end of Act 1 unfold -- the stunning welcome home followed by the throwing of a huge party --we read the eldest son was in the field, no doubt working. He heard the rambunctious goings on from afar and so asked one of the servants what was happening. The servant informs him of two things: his brother has returned, and his father has decided to celebrate as a result. Now the elder brother is faced with a decision, and much like his younger brother he decides to disgrace his father.

As I've noted before, this parable is really about the father. The elder brother doesn't refuse to join the party because he has no respect or love for his once stray brother (though that is surely implied). It is the father who has angered him. Why? Because the father has grace to spare.

The climactic moment in this parable is the father running out to his youngest son and lavishing upon him all sorts of unconditional love. Here is the moment when the father's heart is revealed, and it is a heart that bleeds forgiveness and grace. This is the central image of the story, and we have initially seen it through the eyes of an exile who has been reinstated into the family. This is grace, and it looks good from this point of view.

But there is a second lens which we must now look through. In the second Act we are given a new pair of eyes through which we must see things. We see the same image -- that of a father celebrating the return of his rebel son -- but this time anger is the dominant motif. The eldest son is furious with his father's shameless display of grace. Through him we see grace as something which doesn't make any sense. His father tries to usher him into the party, but the son replies,

"Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!"

In other words, "I've earned a celebration, whereas this son of yours hasn't. What you're doing isn't fair!"

Judaism as a religion was not built on what we might describe as "works righteousness". The Pharisees Jesus was addressing would have known this. They would have known that God led the children of Israel out of Egypt before He ever gave them the Ten Commandments. Contrary to the vibe I get from Keller, I can't quite commit to the idea that Jesus is here addressing people who think a relationship with God is earned, though the application can surely be made, especially given the eldest son's words and the fact that the story finishes with him still outside the party.

However, we must not overlook the (once again) shocking statement by the father:

"Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."

His eldest son disgraces him by refusing to join the celebration, yet the father still speaks so tenderly to his beloved son. His hard heart seemingly has not cost him anything. He still has his relationship with the father ("Son, you are always with me", and he still has his inheritance ("all that is mine is yours"). But to go back to that central image again, the father has shown both his sons a fresh portrait of himself. Though they were both with him (one for longer than the other) neither son really knew who their father was. But because of this stunning welcome home the youngest son has now seen his father for who he really is, and can't help but celebrate. The elder brother has also seen, but he now faces a choice: put away the distorted images of his father which he has held for so long and join the party, or turn away from the father's heart and refuse to celebrate the embracing grace.

I have only dipped my feet into Keller's wonderful little book, but I hope you have gained something of a renewed insight into the father heart of the One Christians call "God"; the prodigal God who has grace to spare.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. - Luke 15:20

Saturday, July 25, 2009

So Mocked Yet So Loved

This video clip speaks for itself really. I'll try and comment on it later, but for now just sit back and enjoy the funniest one minute and fifty seven seconds of your day. If nothing else, this clip sums up the reason why we Irish are so mocked yet so loved all around the world...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reckless Grace - #4

We've been looking at the parable of the Two Lost Sons over the past week or so, using Tim Keller's The Prodigal God as a discussionary launchpad. When last we left it, the younger son had come to his senses, realising that even that servants in his father's house were better off than he was. Here, we might be inclined to say, was his moment of repentance. For reasons that may or may not become in the next few paragraphs, I'm inclined to disagree with my own proposition.

I don't think repentance is what was going on here. Listen closely to the inner monologue of the son:

All my father's hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! I will get up and go to my father and say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers."

What does the son want here? Reconciliation with his father? I would say the simple answer is that he wants bread. The son has come to his senses about his miserable state of affairs, but he has yet to become aware of who his father is. His desire is simply to go back home and start earning money like one of the slaves. There is a humility in his words no doubt, and a recognition of past sins. But at this moment he is still an exile in a foreign land. And more to the point, as he makes his way home and is spotted in the distance by his father, he is still an exile. The son has not made the first step in restoring a broken relationship; he has merely decided that his father's house is better for him economically. But then he gets a revelation of who his father really is, and everything changes.

As the shepherd went looking for his lost sheep, as the woman searched for her lost coin, so the father seeks out his lost son while he was still a long way off. It is the father, always the father, who initiates. One of the things we must come to know is that God is the white piece in a game of chess - He always makes the first move. We do not goad Him into forgiving us by reciting a carefully practiced repentance speech. His love is not a responsive love, but an initiating love. We only love because we are first loved.

In this story we are told of a father running to his son with compassion in his heart and welcoming his rebellious stray home with a kiss and unbridled joy. Here we have a beautiful picture of the cross, the place where Jesus draws exiles to Himself. We can in some sense consider the cross of Christ God's first move, and it is one of reckless grace, putting Himself in the position of judgment in our stead so that sinners might be made sons.

A famous hymn says that at the cross God "kissed a guilty world in love". It is this reality which should shape our repentance. Out with the days of an angry old man who'll get you if you hit your baseball into His garden, and so requiring Jesus to go in and get it for you. Some good news for us is that Jesus knows who God is, and He is describing Him in this parable, which as I said before is a parable about the father first and foremost. If we need to repent of anything, we need to repent of our poorly conceived ideas about God in light of His self-revelation in the man Jesus of Nazareth. From two-thousand years ago onwards, repentance is something done in response to the cross, the place where the Son of God of loved us by giving Himself for us; the place where the Father reconciles the world to Himself.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Reckless Grace - #3

If we are aware of nothing else in this parable right now, we should be aware of this: the father had two sons. Keller therefore renames the story The Parable of the Two Lost Sons. Whether this new title is appropriate or not is a discussion for another time, but it helps to hammer home a crucial point.

The story is split into two acts, the first zeroing in on the younger son and his father, the second concentrating on the elder son and his father. The presence of the father throughout the story leads me to believe that first and foremost it is a story about the father. Just as the previous parable wasn't about coins but about a persistent woman's joy in finding one, so this parable too is about a father's joy in finding his lost son. The two sons act as two different lenses through which we as imaginers of this story can see the father. It is of course the same father, but each son interprets his actions quite differently.

Act 1 chronicles the younger son's journey towards really seeing his father. It begins with the son asking the father for his inheritance. He was entitled to one third of what the father had, but this transaction occurred only after the father had passed away. Therefore, in effect the son was wishing his father dead. He wanted out of the father/son relationship now, desiring instead the material gains the death of this relationship promised.

The father would have had every right to give his son nothing more than a sandal up the backside and proceed to disown him. The son's request was one of the utmost disrespect and contempt. But here in the opening verses of the paragraph we encounter the prodigality of the father, whose response is more shocking than the request. The father simply divides his livelihood (in the Greek the word is bios, meaning life) and gives to his younger son what should only be given after the father's death. The son makes a shocking demand, and the father replies, "As you wish". He tears his life apart for the love of his son, unwilling to retaliate in kind to the son's rejection. This is no eye-for-an-eye, but a turning of the other cheek. Jesus applies here to the father what he described in the Sermon on the Mount: costly love.

The next scene sees the son living it up in "a far country". He takes his father's very life and blows it through wasteful living, content to experience the fleeting pleasures bought with money instead of enjoying the love of the father which money cannot buy. His bank balance dries up eventually, and famine strikes the land. The son is an alien in this country, with no family to lean on for support. He turns to a citizen of the country and winds up feeding pigs to make ends meet. He is a long way from his father's house now, where even the servants go to bed with their stomachs full of food.

There in the pigsty we are told that "he came to himself" or "he came to his senses". Some see this is the moment of repentance or the moment when he finally saw the light. Keller doesn't explicitly address this issue, but I think there is slightly more to the son's return than we initially realise.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

So Simple, So Profound

A tradition is not the goal. A tradition is a purely human construct, and therefore flawed and marred by sin. The gospel is the goal. This holds for the Reformed faith. It is not the gospel, but it serves the gospel. It is not the truth, but serves the truth. Reformed Christianity is not Christianity “come into its own,” nor does it exist to “correct” other traditions or “hold the truth in trust” for the less fortunate. It is rather a powerful tool to help us arrive at ever more faithful expressions of the gospel.

Well said, Peter Enns, who was defending his book Inspiration and Incarnation when he penned these words. When Reformed Theology and the gospel become almost synonymous in people's minds, problems ensue. Jesus is stripped of being the whole Truth, with some of the pieces handed over to indefinite hermeneutical issues such as predestination and the scale of the atonement. I could put you onto the website of a church here in Ireland that will basically condemn you as a heretic if you don't sign up to their uber-Reformed doctrines, as if mental assent to a list of hard-to-grasp concepts is what the Christian faith is all about!

Of course such people aren't indicative of all those who hold to Reformed Theology, but the tendency towards this almost esotericism seems to exist in the Reformed tradition more than most, at least in my experience anyway.

The solution? The gospel.

In talking about this issue a friend of mine helped me to see things clearer than I've seen them before. She said that all she really knows is that Jesus died and Jesus rose again. So simple and so profound. Christ crucified and Christ resurrected is the gospel. The rest is basically superfluous.

In Its Light

[Jesus Christ's] resurrection is the supreme act of God's sovereignty; henceforth we are bound to live and think in its light.

- Karl Barth

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Who Do You Say I Am?

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).

"Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."

"'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'"

This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt I called my son."

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'"

...and behold, a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

At the end of a New Testament Survey class I took last year I asked my teacher, "What is the most important thing to take from the New Testament?" His answer (without even taking two seconds to consider the question): Who Jesus is.

In the first three chapters of Matthew we find this most important of things addressed. According to Matthew, Jesus is...

  • The Messiah (or Christ)
  • A son of David
  • A son of Abraham
  • A son of Joseph and Mary
  • God with us
  • King of the Jews
  • A ruler over Israel
  • The Lord
  • YHWH's Beloved Son

All of these identity issues come to a stunning crescendo in the latter half of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus asks His disciples, "Who do you say I am?". Peter answers Him emphatically, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God".

This is the question that has reverberated throughout the centuries. Who do we say Jesus is? What dictates our answer? Interesting questions to wrestle with me thinks...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Reckless Grace - #2

Luke 15:11-31
Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.

13"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'

22"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

25"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'

28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'

31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

As noted preiously, this parable is generally read with the wayward son as the primary point of contact, hence its popular title "The Prodigal Son". But a brief look at the setting in which Jesus told this story reveals that He had two primary points of contact in mind, with the elder son perhaps even being the more crucial one. Luke 15 begins,

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable:

The parable about the two sons is the third in a series of parables which act as vindication for what Jesus is doing - dining with sinners. Though He is not obliged to justify His actions, He does so anyway through the telling of parables in the hopes of gaining a response not from the sinners (for they have already responded to Him favourably) but from the Pharisees who are incensed at His shenanigans.

And so the parable of the father and his two sons is aimed at the heart of the Pharisee. This is a heart which refuses to share in God's delight over sinners coming to have fellowship with Him. The message of the two preceding parables is that there is joy in heaven when that which is alienated from God is reconciled to Him. This is the same point made by Jesus in the third of these rapid-fire parables. God's heart is full of joy when the lost are found, with the underlying question being what is in your heart when you see sinners enjoying fellowship with God? As Keller says,

The parable of the two sons takes an extended look at the soul of the elder brother, and climaxes with a powerful plea for him to change his heart.

Since there are two sons, it is safe to say that there are two types of people who need to hear and respond to this parable. This first and most obvious type is those who have turned away from God and chosen to live life apart from Him. Those who have acted as if He doesn't exist and as if the world and its contents exist as objects to be used for ones self-gratification. The second type of people targeted are those who appear to have stuck with God their entire lives. Those who live a seemingly devout, religious, moral life. These people attend church, they have an exceedingly high opinion of Scripture, they are fervent in their prayer life, they are quick to sign-up for any church related activities, they are careful to obey God's commandments and feel obligated to aid others in doing likewise. These people may be elders in your church. No doubt they are held in high regard by the surrounding Christian community. The Christian faith is their life. But Jesus tells them that they need a radical change of heart. Though they may not appear so, they are standing outside as the party rages on inside the house. The God they thought they knew has exposed Himself as One full of unconditional love, One who delights in seeing broken people come to Him, and their hard hearts cannot tolerate it. It simply doesn't make any sense.

Most of us have probably fitted into at least one of these types over the course of our life. We try the do-it-yourself approach to life, or we try the devout approach. The problem with the church today is that do-it-yourself people aren't being called to join a feast of celebration. Do-it-yourself people are being told that they need to become devout people. Or more subtly, they are shown that they need to become devout, and so they either run away from the church, or worse, they join in not with a celebration but with a ritual, where the God worshiped is not a loving Father but a legalist.

The simple fact portrayed in the gospels is that Jesus was a foe to most of the religious people of His day while He was a friend to sinners. The "elder brothers" grumbled because of His behaviour, the "younger brothers" gathered around Him with joy, eager to hear Him (Lk. 15:1). Is this reflected in the modern church? What kind of people are attracted to what should be a community of celebration? Keller boldly states that,

If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren't appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we'd like to think.

Do we know the God that Jesus knew so well? No matter which son we feel resonates with us, it is the same father who throws the party. The task of a Christian is not to label people as irreligious or religious, but to be a faithful witness to the God revealed by Jesus; the God of reckless grace.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

First Birthday

It was my blog's first birthday four days ago. On the 12th of July 2008 I decided that I was important enough to write things people would be interested in reading. 145 blog posts leading to 3 reader comments has proved me wrong, but my own self-importance means I just keep cranking them out, one lazily written piece at a time.

145 blog posts in one year. Do the math, and that's 14.5 blog posts every 36.5 days. Not too shabby. Quantity wise I would say I'm doing fine. Quality wise? I think I'm still "finding my niche". If I spent more time in the writing process I could probably churn out better stuff, but my m.o. is to decide that I need to write a blog post, and then basically make one up on the spot with one core idea in my mind. Sometimes what I write drifts way away from that core idea, and sometimes I stick to my guns. It's all a big learning curve, and hopefully I'm improving bit by bit.

Anyway, thanks to all of you who hate yourselves enough to read this. To say that I couldn't do it without you would be a lie, but it is always nice to know that someone somewhere is mildly interested in what is written here. I hope you continue to tune in over the coming while as this thing begins to really take off and become God's main tool for redeeming His creation.

Self-important? Me? Never.

A Police Interrogation Room

A glimpse into the dynamics of a police interrogation room, as seen through the eyes of David Simon:

Homicide detectives in Baltimore like to imagine a small, open window at the top of a long wall in the large interrogation room. More to the point, they like to imagine their suspects imagining a small, open window at the top of the long wall. The open window is the escape hatch, the Out. It is the perfect representation of what every suspect believes when he opens his mouth during an interrogation. Every last one envisions himself parrying questions with the right combination of alibi and excuse; every last one sees himself coming up with the right words, then crawling out the window to go home to sleep in his own bed. More often than not, a guilty man is looking for the Out from his first moments in the interrogation room; in that sense, the window is as much the suspect's fantasy as the detective's mirage. 
The effect of the illusion is profound, distorting as it does the natural hostility between hunter and hunted, transforming it until it resembles a relationship more symbiotic than adversarial. This is the lie, and when the roles are perfectly performed, deceit surpasses itself, becoming manipulation on a grand scale and ultimately an act of betrayal. Because what occurs in an interrogation room is indeed little more than a carefully staged drama, a choreographed performance that allows a detective and his suspect to find common ground where none exists. There, in a carefully controlled purgatory, the guilty proclaim their malefactions, though rarely in any form that allows for contrition or resembles an unequivocal admission.
In truth, catharsis in the interrogation room occurs for only a few rare suspects, usually those in domestic murders or child abuse cases wherein the leaden mass of genuine remorse can crush anyone who is not hardened to his crime. But the greater share of men and women brought downtown take no interest in absolution. Ralph waldo Emerson rightly noted that for those responsible, the act of murder "is no such ruinous thought as poets and romancers will have it; it does not unsettle him, or frighten him from his ordinary notice of trifles." And while West Baltimore is a universe or two from Emerson's nineteenth-century Massachusetts hamlet, the observation is still useful. Murder often doesn't unsettle a man. In Baltimore, it usually doesn't even ruin his day.

The lesson being taught by Simon? If you ever find yourself sitting in an interrogation room for one reason or another, don't say a word. The other lesson? Baltimore is a scary, scary place.

To see the dynamics of an interrogation which Simon outlines in his book in action, click here, though I must warn those of you who believe in the existence of foul language that there are quite a few F-bombs and such being thrashed out. Through years of secondary school and television I have become somewhat numb to such expletives, but I understand that many have not, so let the reader be extremely warned. It's a terrific scene all the same, which highlights the dark humour of Simon's epic creation, and which paints the picture of a criminal trying but failing not to let murder ruin his day. The question of whether or not it is appropriate for me to place such a link on my largely Christian-themed blog is valid, but, you know, where sin abounds grace abounds much more. I can't quite remember what Paul says after that though...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reckless Grace - #1

As promised, we will be taking a whistle-stop tour through Timothy Keller's short book The Prodigal God. The author describes it as a book which thrashes out the essentials of the Christian faith, and can serve as an introduction to Christianity.

Some people who read this blog probably think they have as much of a grasp of the Christian faith as they need, or at least are very in tune with the basics. This includes me (and yes, I read this blog, but unlike you I'm not afraid to say it!). However, as Keller points out, the minute you think you've grasped the good news of the Christian faith is the minute you've misunderstood it or underestimated it.

My rather weak analogy for this is the concept of infinity in mathematics. When you first encounter its curvy shape you are in awe, left scratching your head in puzzlement. But as you begin to draw it yourself and use it in your equations you get a feel for what it represents. Infinity becomes like just another number; you think you've grasped its concept. and the puzzlement and wonder is no longer there. But as soon as you think you "get" infinity, you have lost sight of its essence, its essence being its limitlessness and ungraspableness. You only begin to get infinity when you realise that you'll never completely get it.

So it is with the gospel. As a Christian I think I get it, and now the ball is in my court. But such thinking signifies that I don't really get it at all, for if I truly got it I would realise that I can never fully get my head around this astoundingly good news and am in need of its message being constantly impressed on my mind and heart.

One of the issues highlighted by Michael Horton in his book Christless Christianity is that the modern church tends to "assume the gospel". We call out from the pews, "OK, we get the good news. What next? What can we do?" Keller's book is an attempt to recapture the stunning message of the gospel, so that those of us sitting in church buildings desire to say, "What good news! Tell it to us again".

The parable commonly known as the Prodigal Son is the passage used to unearth the heart of the Christian faith. It's a simple story involving a father and his two sons. That's right - two sons. "There was a man who had two sons" is Jesus' opening line in the short story, and so as Keller opines, it is not right to single out just one of the sons for special focus. This parable is as much about the elder son as it is the younger, and it tells us as much about the father as it does his sons. We therefore reduce the parable's full force if we eliminate any one of the main characters from it.

The word "prodigal" from the popular title for the parable is also misunderstood. Based on the actions of the younger son we tend to think of it as meaning "wayward" or "rebellious", but the true definition of the word is "recklessly spendthrift". It is an adjective to describe someone given to lavish expenditure. This is certainly true of the son in the story who blew his money on exotic prostitutes, but it is also true of the father. See how he welcomes his son home with a huge party, refusing to count his sins against him but instead showering him with fatherly love.

The father represents God, hence the title of the book The Prodigal God. In this story we get a glimpse into the heart of God, a heart prone to -- even characterised by -- unbridled love. Jesus paints a picture of God the Father in which madcap expenditure of unconditional love is the motif. The good news that Jesus is Lord flows out of this heart, this Father-heart of love. We can never plumb its depths, but we must never stop. As Keller puts it,

God's reckless grace it our greatest hope.

This series will attempt to encounter that grace.

The Gospel

Here is the core content of the gospel, according to Bishop N.T. Wright. It is

the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.

I'll try comparing and contrasting this succinct definition of the gospel with the definitions of others over the coming weeks and see what emerges.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Missio Dei - #11: It's Climax Is Christ

The previous post in this series was left unresolved. In fact, each of the posts dealing with the realities we encounter in Scripture were left unresolved. We have looked at the reality of this God, YHWH, the Holy One of Israel. We have looked at the reality of this story, a story of creation, rebellion and restoration. We have looked at the reality of this people, the nation of Israel chosen by God to be blessed and to be a blessing.

All three of these realities are intertwined. God has chosen Israel to bring the story to a climax, and so bring glory to God's name and blessing to creation. As mentioned before, this is what Tom Wright calls God's-single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world. But Israel could not be all that YHWH called them to be. The name of YHWH was being blasphemed on account of them, and the story was looking hopeless. There is where the apostle Paul might say, "But God..."

But God's purposes would not go unfulfilled. The reality of God, story, and people would all come to a climax in Jesus of Nazareth.

"He is the image of the invisible God." What YHWH was and did throughout the Old Testament, Jesus of Nazareth was and did in the New. He was Emmanuel, God with us, putting human flesh on the Divine. We encounter the reality of God only through Jesus.

The reality of this story is also found in Jesus. As my former teacher likes to say, Our story became His story so that His story could become our story. On the cross He took upon Himself the story of the world, and secured for the world a new story - His story of victory over death and perfect fellowship with God and with one another. His resurrection is the first fruits of this new story and the guarantee that God's good purposes will be brought to completion. Through Jesus, restoration is at hand.

In Jesus, God has constituted a people for Himself. Our union with Christ makes us a part of a community of people called and empowered by God to be conformed to the image of His Son. The reality of this people finds its origins in the faith of Abraham, but finds its fulfillment in the seed of Abraham, which is Jesus. This is why Paul can say in Galatians 3 that,

in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

What has all of this got to do with mission?

We began this discussion on reality by examining the nature of biblical authority. Does mission exist because the Bible commands it in passages such as the Great Commission? Perhaps, but there is a deeper authority at work than the simple, "The Bible says it, I do it", a deeper authority which is actually expressed right before the command to go and make disciples. Jesus says to His disciples, "All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me." We must not think of this as Jesus merely saying that all authority to command has been given to Him, therefore do what I say or else. His authority rests in the realities He incarnates - the reality of God, God's story, and God's people. It is an authority which authorises His followers, which frees His followers and which empowers His followers to participate in missio Dei.

Mission begins not with an imperative but with grace. The mission of God does not flow from the power of His command, but from the power of His love. It is to this, and not to a lifeless text, that we respond.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Take Up the Baton

Tim Keller on the parable commonly known as The Prodigal Son:

The original listeners were not melted into tears by this story, but rather they were thunderstruck, offended, and infuriated.

My critically acclaimed Missio Dei series is coming to an end shortly and so I intend for The Prodigal God by Tim Keller to take up the baton. It will be a similar format, with the book acting as a framework for a series of posts, and my thoughts intertwining with Keller's to form one incredibly powerful super-thought. Not sure what I'll call the series, but look out for it on a google reader page near you anytime soon.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Missio Dei - #10: It's Israel

We've been delving into the nature of biblical authority in the last few posts, discovering along the way that the Bible is our authority for mission not only in the sense that it contains commands along those lines, but because reading it is an encounter with reality - the reality of a personal, purposeful God, and the reality of a story which we are all caught up in, from the least of us to the greatest.

I noted before that there are three specific realities dealt with in Wright's book, with the third of those being:

The Reality of This People

I think this reality is the one we most struggle with. We can accept that the Old Testament is about God, we can accept that there is a grand narrative casting its shadow over the pages, but what we perhaps don't often think of is that it is a collection of texts almost exclusively dealing with a quite specific group of people - Hebrews. We perhaps have a tendency to strip the characters we read about of their national identity, so that Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses, Elijah et al. become generic Bible figures as opposed to historical persons from Israel. And we do this to our detriment.

Wright says that,

Ancient Israel, with their distinctive view of their own election, history and relationship to their God, YHWH, is a historical reality of enormous significance to the history of the rest of humanity.

"Christianity appeals to history; to history it must go" said George Caird, and like it or not, the history of Christianity is wrapped up in ancient Israel and their role in the story. Israelites were a people of the story, careful to remember its past events, and anticipating its future. They were a community of memory and of hope.

Their memory was of YHWH and what He had done for His chosen people. They spoke of His glory and salvation, and remembered His deliverance of them out of Egypt in the yearly Passover celebrations. Well says Wright that YHWH was known through what He had done. Abtract theology and philosophy was not how Israel came to know the one true God. They came to know Him because He reached down into history and secured for them a miraculous salvation, as promised by Moses in one of my favourite Bible verses:

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still.

Their hope is something less talked about, but something which rears its head in Israel's origins and explains why God chose them in the first place. YHWH's promise to Abraham was not simply that He would bless the children of Israel, but that through Abraham's seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. As Wright succinctly puts it, Israel existed for the sake of the nations. And so while they were specially chosen by God and were uniquely privileged in their experience of God's covenantal love, this was not so that they could boast in their favoured status with God to the surrounding countries, but so that they could act as a light to their neighbours and "declare His [YHWH's] glory to the nations". (As in aside, how might this effect the way we read the word "elect" and its cognates in the New Testament? Perhaps with more of a missional thrust?).

Through this people missio Dei was to be accomplished. Abraham's seed would be the one to bring God's blessing to all the nations of the world. The history of Israel as a nation is both a foretaste and a guarantee of the glorious future, and yet this people's story is one of seemingly constant rebellion and covenant breaking. What N.T. Wright calls "God's-single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world" was seemingly being hampered by a stiff-necked people. What to do?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Right Through My Soul

You've got to love the brutal matter-of-factness that children possess. A cousin of mine from Dublin just came over to our house, and with barely an introduction out of the way he asks me, "Are you still in college?" "No" I reply, to which he then asks, "So why are you still living at home then, and why are you dressed like that?"

He could see right through my soul, and I had no answers. All I could do was laugh at was probably the funniest thing I've heard all summer, and the cry alone in my room as I pondered his cutting words.

Sometimes kids are just brilliant.

Transforming Power

Behold the transforming power of Pat Kenny, as he turns one of the world's most famous comedians into perhaps the most boring man alive. And it only takes him three minutes. And he calls him "Jerry Sein-field".

My favourite part is when Pat knowingly quips, "And we know what happens when bees don't do what they're supposed to do...". Well, yes, we do. Honey stops getting made. But that isn't exactly funny, is it? Oh dear, Pat.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Missio Dei - #9: It's A Story

Last time out I meant to talk about the three realities to which the Bible bears witness, those three being the reality of this God, this story, and this people. I only touched on the first of the three, so to the next one I shall now turn.

The Reality of This Story

The Bible tells a story. How often to we think of that? Moreover, it tells the story, in which all other mini-stories find themselves. The Bible isn't exhaustive in its telling of the story, but it places all of creation into a grand narrative. And so when we read Scripture, we are tapping into a story which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A story with heroes and villains, climaxes and low-points, joy and suffering, all of which form a part of human history.

But more than the Bible being a record of human history, it is a glimpse into the mind of the storyteller, who alone can tell us what it is all about. The story is based on a worldview -- Jehovah's worldview -- and explains the way things are, why they are so, and what they ultimately will be. Therefore in the Bible we find answers to our deepest questions: Where are we? Who are we? What's gone wrong? What is the solution?

Where are we? We are on planet earth, which is part of the good creation of the living, personal God known as YHWH.

Who are we? We are unique creatures - unique because we are made in the image of God, and thus have spiritual and moral capacities, and consequently, responsibilities.

What's gone wrong? In wanting to be gods, we have broken our communion with the one true God. We have distanced ourselves from Him, and we now portray distorted images of our Creator, choosing to live life with a "clear conscience" by exchanging reality for unreality, thus suppressing the truth.

What is the solution? The problem is distance from God, so the solution must be nearness. We cannot and do not want to get near to God ourselves, and so God has promised to get near to us. He chose Israel to be His instrument for righting the wrongs of creation, and He has acted throughout history to bring this promise to fulfillment and consummation.

Our lives are caught up in this story. How do we know? Because we are caught up in this reality which the Bible confronts us with. The reality of broken creatures living lives as if YHWH doesn't exist. Christians and non-Christians alike are capable of this, but in our clearer moments we know that something is awry. The deepest parts of our being point to the reality of Scripture's story and Scripture's God, but at the point we are faced with a decision, not unlike this one: the blue pill or the red pill, the truth of the lie.

People say that Christianity is a crutch, or it is the opiate for the masses. I say they are mistaken (then again, I would). Christianity deals with (or at least should deal with) reality as it truly is, with all of its brokenness and sin. It is not the escape to a happier world, but the participation in the renewal of the one we have, the participation in missio Dei. This is the metanarrative disclosed in God's Word to us; this is the driving force behind mission; this is reality.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Art Is Unique

A portion of G.K. Chesterton's reflections on cave paintings, and what they tell us about man:

It is useless to begin by saying that everything was
slow and smooth and a mere matter of development and degree. For in the
plain matter like the pictures there is in fact not a trace of any such
development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them;
Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well.
The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not
paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild
horse was not an Impressionist and the race-horse a Post-Impressionist. All we
can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape
is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk
about it without treating man as something separate from nature. In other
words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing
absolute and alone. How he came there, or indeed how anything else came
there, is a thing for theologians and philosophers and scientists and not for

Monday, July 6, 2009

Missio Dei - #8: It's YHWH

The last post from the hit series Missio Dei dealt with biblical authority, concluding that the Bible's authority lies in its presentation of reality. What realities are rendered to us in the Bible? Wright lists three:

- The reality of this God
- The reality of this story
- The reality this people

Elaboration required.

The Reality of This God

I wrote previously about the word "God". It's a word that can mean anything, depending on who you are. Even when two people talk about the God of the Bible, they can be talking about a seemingly completely different person, or at least talking about Him in one or two contradictory ways.

We must be clear that when we talk about the God of the Bible, and when we say that Scripture renders to us the reality of God, the God in question is a person, with a name. That may sound simple, but its reality is the most profound thing imaginable. I think too often we lose sight of the personhood of God, and everything which that entails. God revealed Himself to Moses as a person, calling Himself "I AM". Jesus called Him "Abba", an Aramaic term for which the English equivalent would be "Dad" or "Pa", depending on where you are from. Scripture speaks of a Person; one, whole Person - the Hebrews knew Him as YHWH, the Holy One of Israel, and the early Jewish Christians knew Him as God our Father.

One important thing to remember is that it is this God's reality which gives Scripture its authority, simply because it is this God's reality which gives Scripture its existence. God exists apart from the Bible, but He has chosen to make Himself known to different people at different times in different ways, the details of which are recorded for us in the Old and New Testaments. The charge of circular reasoning can surely be made here: The Bible renders to us the reality of God, and the reality of God renders to us the Bible. I make no objection to this charge. The only thing I can say is that if YHWH is God (or if anyone is God for that matter), then "circular reasoning" must be employed, otherwise the claim to deity is false.

The problem people have with the relationship between God and the Bible is that is is treated as equivalent to my relationship with my passport. I am Declan Kelly. How do I prove to someone that I'm Declan Kelly? Well, I show them my passport which I received from an authority greater than myself - the government. I do not show them a document written by my own hand to verify that I am who I say I am. I don't have the authority to get away with that. But God does. In fact He must, or He is no God at all. For who else has the authority to speak about God other than God Himself? Unlike you or me, God, by definition, cannot be authorised by a higher power. Therefore to expect anything but circular reasoning when it comes to God and the Bible is unreasonable. The Bible is an authority on God because God is the authority behind the Bible.

With that tangent out of the way, so what if we encounter the reality of God in Scripture? Well,

If the God YHWH, who is rendered to us in these texts, is really God, then that reality (or rather His reality) authorises a range of responses as appropriate, legitimate and indeed imperative. These include not only the response of worship, but also of ethical living in accordance with this God's own character and will, and a missional orientation that commits my own life story into the grand story of God's purpose for the nations and for creation. Mission flows from the reality of this God - the biblical God. Or to put it another way: mission is authorised by the reality of this God.

The question is, have Christians substituted the reality of this God who speaks to us through His Word and is present among us by His Spirit for the reality of a set of doctrines about God, or a set of rules to live by? When we take the former approach to Scripture, our mission flows from missio Dei as we participate in what this God -- whose purposeful reality springs from the pages of Scripture -- is up to. When we take the latter approach, mission is something we do because the Bible tells us so; it's our response to a text.

We must learn to see the realities to which the Bible bears witness, and none is more important than the reality that YHWH is God.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Art Is Limitation

Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the THING he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless. - G.K. Chesterton

To relate this to a previous post, perhaps we would do well to approach Scripture seeing ourselves as works of art listening to and being shaped by the Artist.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Recession

The reality of the recession really hit me today. I was leaving town with what I thought was just enough change to get myself on a bus back home. I counted it up, and to my dismay it only came to E1.58 of the required E1.60. I knew the bus was coming soon since there was a lot of old people hanging around the bus stop (they have a sort of sixth sense for these things), so time was not on my side. I rooted through every pocket on me, eventually resorting to evacuating each of them in the hopes of stumbling across a couple of cents. I couldn't believe it - nothing. Not a cent.

Then along came the bus. Now time was really running out. I caught a break however, with the usually annoying bus driver swap working to my advantage for once, thus buying me a couple of precious minutes. I ran through my options - chance getting on the bus for two cents cheaper, ask someone for a few cents. Neither seemed desirable. The former because of what I know about bus drivers, and the latter because I just couldn't bring myself to ask a stranger for money, even a considerably small amount of money. Perhaps I'm too proud, but is asking a stranger for some spare change something you would be prepared to do in a similar scenario?

It was now too late to go to the ATM and get a quick tenner, so I left myself no alternative but to...[hangs head in shame]...root around the various bus stops for any money lying on the ground. I scavenged up and down the pavement, looking desperately for anything shiny but trying also to look as nonchalant and inconspicuous as possible. The bus was being boarded at this stage so my attempts to remain covert quickly waned, until eventually I was on my hands and knees scooping through dirt just in time to see the bus pull off. A low moment if ever there was one.

I say the reality of the recession hit me partly because of my desperate attempt to find some change, but mainly because of the fact that I couldn't find any. You know times are hard when people are picking up their one and two cent coins after them, leaving me short on both a bus fare and dignity.

Bad day.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Missio Dei - #7: It's Reality

The majority of this series thus far has been focused on setting up a missional hermeneutic of the Bible (i.e. a way of reading and interpreting the Bible with the mission of God as a framework), as opposed to finding a biblical basis for mission. One of the distinctions between the two can be summed up by the word "authority". A biblical basis for mission hones in on texts that state a missionary imperative -- the Great Commission for example -- and with the Bible as our authority we must conclude that mission is expected of us. However, a missional reading of the Bible "explores the nature of biblical authority itself in relation to mission". It goes deeper than the "The Bible says it, I gotta believe it/do it" approach to authority. Much deeper.

When we think of the word "authority", what is the first image or thought that pops into our heads? Most likely it is some kind of military image, where the commands of a general are obeyed. We equate authority with the right to command, the right to give specific orders and expect them to be done. When we bring this idea of authority to Scripture, we make it a book of commands that we are expected to follow. The problem with this, as Wright points out, is that the bulk of the Bible is not command.

The Bible is much more laden with narrative, poetry, song, prophecy, letters, apocalyptic literature etc. This being so, what then is the nature of biblical authority? The relative lack of imperatives means it cannot simply be the authority to command, and so our understanding of authority must go beyond the usual military model and into something much more fundamental; the most fundamental thing of all in fact - reality.

The created order provides a useful analogy for this kind of authority. Think of gravity as an authority. It is something immensely freeing, allowing us to travel the globe by foot or by car or by boat. Gravity authorizes us to walk to the shop, to sleep in our beds. However, it also sets limits to that freedom. Jump off of a skyscraper and you will feel the deadly effects of the authority of gravity. Its reality dictates that you will not survive. To expect to fly through the air is to be ignorant of reality, and so while there is great liberty because of gravity, there is also a line that can be crossed.

Our reading of the Scriptures is an engagement with reality. Wright says that,

The authority of the Bible is that it brings us into contact with reality - primarily the reality of God Himself whose authority stands behind even that of creation.

This is how the poetry and song of the Bible are authoritative; not in the sense of giving us commands to obey, but in the sense of opening our eyes to what is real. When you read the Bible, you are not escaping into the realm of fantasy. Reading about a man coming back from the dead might suggest as much, but it shouldn't. If you believe in one creation, then a new creation in which the dead rise cannot be beyond the realms of possibility. In fact I would say it is as probable as the existence of planet earth. Not something that happens every day of course, but...

We must avoid reading the Bible with a sort of dualism that says in effect, "Here I am in reality. I need a bit of outside information from the Bible to help me cope or to tell me what to do". We must read Scripture as a text which tells it as it really is. It is a text not detached from our reality, but revealing of our reality. Its authority lies in the fact that the God who defines reality has spoken an acted in human history, and the Bible tells of His words and deeds. This also ties in with the essence of salvation. God's plan is not to remove us from this reality and place us in heaven. God's plan is to restore reality, which is where we are at right now. He has begun to do this, He has acted definitively to do this, and He will bring His plan to completion.

I asked before if there would be Christianity without the New Testament. The short answer is an emphatic yes. Why? Because of the reality of the resurrection. Peter didn't have a New Testament when he became a Christian. That which He acknowledged as supremely authoritative was not a text; it was a person - Jesus the Messiah, who redefined reality and to whom all authority was given.

And so, to repeat, our reading of the Bible is an engagement with reality. This relates to missio Dei in the sense that "our authority for mission flows from the Bible because the Bible reveals the reality on which our mission is based". Wright has three realities in mind here, which will be discussed next time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Missio Dei - #6: It's the Source

Much of what has been written thus far in this ground-breaking series has to do with the nature of the Bible and how we read it. In our shaping a missional hermeneutic, the argument is not that the certain biblical texts provide a basis for mission, but rather that the Bible in itself is a product of mission. Well says Wright that,

...the whole canon of Scripture is a missional phenomenon in that sense that it witnesses to the self-giving movement of this God toward His creation and us, human beings in God's own image, but wayward and wanton.

In short, the Bible finds its origins in God and His mission to redeem creation. With no missio Dei there would be no Bible. Is the reverse true? With no Bible there would be no missio Dei? Or with no Bible there would be no Christianity? Something to think about...

And so a missional reading of the Bible is not forcing something foreign into the equation. Rather such a reading of the Bible is reading it for the same purpose as it was written. Why is it you and I can have Bibles in our possession? What is the source of these sacred texts? The source is a God on a mission. Abandon this perspective and you rip the heart out of Scripture. Keep it and the Bible is a book with divine origins telling of divine purpose. As Charles R. Taber writes,

The very existence of the Bible is incontrovertible evidence of the God who refused to forsake His rebellious creation, who refused to give up, who was and is determined to redeem and restore fallen creation to His original design for it...The very existence of such a collection of writings testifies to a God who breaks through to human beings, who disclosed Himself to them, who will not leave them unilluminated in their darkness...who takes the initiative in re-establishing broken relationships with us.

To sum up, the Bible is evidence that God won't leave us alone.

The upshot of this is that our theologies must have the reality of God doing things at the centre. I think too often we settle for a God who just sits on a cosmic throne doing, well, nothing. This is not the God presented in the Bible; the God who feeds the ravens, causes rain to fall and the sun to rise. And if He is so involved in the lives of birds, how much more is He involved in our own lives? I'm sure some of us can say with Jacob, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it".

We must remember that what we call the New Testament was born out of God doing something, namely coming into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead for our justification. The NT isn't merely the result of a few Jews theologizing for the sake of it. At the heart of their theology -- which was written to churches -- was the mission of God as witnessed in Jesus. This is why I. Howard Marshall can say that New Testament theology is missionary theology. It is a collection of writings by people who took Luke 24 to heart - Jesus is the fulfilment of the mission of God, and so we must proclaim Him as such to as many people as possible.

It is these truths that shape a missional hermeneutic. As Wright so wonderfully puts it, such a reading of Scripture "proceeds from the assumption that the whole Bible renders to us the story of God's mission through God's people in their engagement with God's world for the sake of the whole of God's creation".