Monday, 17 December 2012

Jesus the Light - A Christmas Poem by Eddie Hughes


Jesus the Light

A Christmas Poem 
by Eddie Hughes


Long before the birth of Mankind,
Outside of endless time and space
Our Creator had a master plan,
A light of saving grace.

In the Beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God
He was with God in the Beginning.
And the Word became flesh
And made His dwelling among us.

And John said: ‘I am the voice
Of the one calling in the wilderness;
‘Make straight the way for the Lord’
And the light would be called Jesus,
The anointed one of God.

He came to lead men out of darkness,
He held salvation in His hand
To those who came to know and love Him,
He’d be The Son Of Man.

With love and knowledge he would teach them
Of the Great Kingdom yet to come,
The promise of Eternal Life
To each and every one.

Across great seas He sailed,
Through miles of countryside he walked
And people came in thousands
To listen when He talked. 

He performed miracles and healing;
His name Jesus was renowned,
The blind would see His wonder,
The deaf would hear His word
The lame would walk beside him,
They all would call Him Lord,

There were those who loved their sinful ways and would not repent
Yes, they would know the wrath of God from whom He had been sent

The Sanhedrin, they felt threatened,
They feared this godly King
They didn’t like his teaching
Or the things that he had said,
How better off we’d be
If this Jesus one was dead

Later that night in the garden
Our lord would be betrayed
A kiss from a deceiver,
30 silver pieces paid.  

They adorned him with a crown of thorns,
Nailed him on a cross to die
He was forsaken by his father
Under sinful blackened sky. 

For that great light that lived amongst us
Has now been glorified
A father’s wrath, bathed in tears
Finally satisfied. 

I am the way, the truth and the life,
No one comes to the father except through me. 

Being reborn of your spirit lord, we know
One day you’ll call us home,
And we will kneel before you,
Before your judgement throne

* * * * * 

Eddie Hughes is a member of my congregation.  He became Christian sometime in 2011.  

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Living for God on Monday


Here's the full text of my sermon from last Sunday.  Feedback, anyone?

Isaiah ch 58: Living for God on Monday  

What the world needs, in these days of declining morals, is for the people of God to be distinctively Christian.  We need to show people what it means to worship God; to honour him, live his way, and give him the respect he deserves.  And we need to show them how living this way is actually the best: best for ourselves, our families, society, and even the whole world.
So how are we going to do that?  How are we going to be distinctively Christian, and show the world how to worship God?
Tell you what.  Let’s go into a building where no-one can see us.  And sing songs that no-one else sings.  And hear some wild-haired Sri Lankan immigrant rant for a few minutes.  Then we’ll go have a cup of tea and chat and feel good about ourselves.  Because we’ve worshiped God.  And the world will see how Christian we are.

Believe it or not, that’s kind of what God’s people were doing.
Isaiah 58:1 says:
1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.  Raise your voice like a trumpet.  Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.  
God was angry with his people.  Through the prophet, God is shouting at them, telling them they’ve turned their back on him.
What were they doing?  Not turning up at church on Sunday?  (Well, it would have been the synagogue on Saturday… but you get the idea)

No – the opposite.  They were really, really religious.
Is 58:2-3a:
2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.  They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.  3a ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’  
Last week, from chapter 55, we saw how God wants people to look for him, to seek him.
Well, the people are doing that: they’re seeking God, looking for him.  And they’re serious about it: they’re fasting and praying, and humbling themselves.  In verse 5 it talks about sackcloth and ashes – that means the people were admitting they were wrong, confessing their sins.
So what’s the problem?  They’re seeking God, and they’re serious about it.  Why is God still angry with them?

Because their Godliness stayed in church.  Ordinary life was very different.
Is 58:3b-5:
3b Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.  4a Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
4b You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.  5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?  Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?  Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  
The problem wasn’t their religiousness.  The problem was the rest of the time.
They were exploiting each other (verse 3b).  And fighting (verse 4a).

And this is what happens when we, the people of God, live in two worlds.
First, there’s the Godly world.  That’s what we do at church on Sunday.  And maybe during the week, when we go to Bible study or something.  That world operates according to God’s rules.  So we’re all friendly and happy and kind.  And serious about our religion.  And listen intently to the guy and the front.  And nod wisely as he talks about living for God.
And then there’s the real world.  Monday to Friday.  Which operates by the ordinary rules of the world.
I mean, come on Kamal, we have to be practical here.  I’m not exploiting my workers.  Times are tough.  There’s a world recession, in case you didn’t notice.
And what do you mean, fighting?  It’s a competitive world out here.  We have to be aggressive to survive.  You don’t realise ‘coz you’re happily closeted away in your religious world, having cups of tea and biscuits with dear old ladies.  But out here, in the real world – we have to work hard.  I’m not exploiting my workers.  They’re a bunch of bludgers!  They have to earn their pay!
See what’s happened?
Because we operate in these two worlds – the Godly world, which operates by God’s rules; and the real world, which operates by worldly rules – we lock God up in church.  God has nothing to say to us on Monday.  He becomes irrelevant to the real world.
And church becomes our fun, relaxing Sunday social.  Where we escape from all the rubbish and hardship of the real world.  And relax and hang out with nice people, that we get on with – people just like us.
This is what people Judah & Jerusalem did.  That’s what the church has battled with for two thousand years.  And it’s what we’ll do.  If we’re not careful.

God demands to be let out of church.  He demands to rule all life.
And today’s passage gives us three areas where he rules Monday to Saturday.

First: we need to care for those who are trapped in trouble.
Is 58:6-7:
6 Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  

God always wanted his people to care for poor & needy among them.
Deuteronomy 15:11:
There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land.
God’s land was fertile.  No-one had to be poor.
So if they were poor, it could be their own fault.  They could have been lazy.  Or stupid: didn’t sow the right seed, or at the right time, or something.
Doesn’t matter, says God.  Help them anyway.
Or it might not be their fault.  They might be widows, with no family.  Back on those days, with no security, they would have been destitute.
The focus is on God’s people, the Jews.  That’s why verse 7 says “your own flesh and blood.”
Nowadays, God’s people are not defined by ethnicity.  The church, the people of God, come from all nations.  So we need to look after our church members.  We talk a lot about following Jesus, being loyal to him; we will judged by how well we look after Joan.  And Ronda.  And other needy people like them.

We shouldn’t be surprised.  Because this is what Jesus came to do.
Jesus came to care for poor sinners.
If we turn away from God, we cut ourselves off from the one who owns everything!  We become poor, destitute!
It doesn’t matter how much worldly wealth we have.  If we don’t have Jesus, then we have nothing.  All our money, our houses, our cars, our iPads, iPods, i-everything-else… they don’t mean a thing.  They’ll all crumble to dust eventually.  And anyway, none of them really belong to us.  They all belong to God.  He loans them to us, to see what we’ll do with them.
Have you come to Jesus?  Have you given up your earthly wealth, to follow him?  Never mind your earthly houses; are you looking forward to mansions in heaven?

If we have, then let’s be like Jesus.  Let’s care for the people around us – especially those who don’t deserve it.
The family members who’ve hurt us.  The people at school or work who are rude to us.  The non-Christians who laugh at us.
It’s easy to cut them off.  Ignore them.  And then, when they get in trouble, to laugh at them.
Is that what Jesus did?  When he saw us in trouble, in danger of God’s punishment – did he laugh and point his finger at us and say: “suffer!”
No, of course not.  That’s when he cared for us – when we were at our worst, at our most needy.  He gave us everything – he gave his life for us, and a promise of eternal life with him forever.
If that’s what Jesus did – for people who didn’t deserve it – then the least we can do is be kind, and bear with, the idiots around us.

And the way we can do that is through our speech.  This is the second way God rules us Monday to Saturday: in the way we use our mouths, in our words, our speech.

Is 58:9b-10:
9b If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  
You know that saying, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?
That’s complete rubbish!
Words matter!  Words are powerful!
Words can build.  “I’m here for you”.  Or those amazingly powerful three syllables: “I love you.”  Those words can make us feel safe and protected.  They can make us feel like the most important person in the world.
Words can heal.  Another three powerful syllables: “I’m sorry”.  That can undo years of hurt – a lifetime of pain.  Bring a whole family back together.
Words can kill.  And silence can kill too.  If we’re angry with someone, it’s easy to cut them off.  Give them the cold shoulder.
That’s why Jesus treats words so seriously.
In Matt 12:37, Jesus says:
… by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. 
In the verse just before, Jesus says God will judge “every careless word”.  Don’t be fooled, friends.  Words matter.  To God, and to each other.

The people were using their words to kill.  That’s what it says at the end of verse 9: “the pointing finger and malicious talk”.
And that’s so normal, isn’t it?  What do we do when someone upsets us?  We shout at them.  Or if we can’t – because they’re our boss, or our dad or something – then we whinge and gossip.
God will understand.  I’m surrounded by idiots.  I need to let off some steam.  Besides, everybody does it.

Jesus is so different.
Jesus is God’s word.  In the flesh.  That’s what we celebrate at Christmas: God’s final communication of himself to us, to humanity.
And Jesus, as God’s word, came to give life.
Think about it.  If anyone could have whinged about being misunderstood, not appreciated, and taken for granted, it’d be Jesus.  If anyone could complain about being surrounded by idiots, it’d be Jesus.  The religious leaders twisted his words and tried to use it against him.  He healed ten lepers; only one came back to say thank you.  One of his own followers handed him over to his enemies.  And the others ran away.
So – does Jesus gossip, whinge & backstab?  Of course not.  “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they do.”

As people who follow Jesus, God calls us to use our words to bring life.
How do we speak?  Are we different to world around us?  Or just like them?  Especially when things go wrong; especially when we’re hurt and disappointed.
Do we swear, gossip, whinge and backstab?
Or do we try and say kind, encouraging things to everyone?
Even when we’ve been genuinely hurt.  We don’t have to ignore it; we can say to someone “look, I don’t know if you realise – but you really hurt me when you said such-and-such”.
But we can say it in a way that puts them at ease.  That assures them that we’re not angry with them – that they’re already forgiven.
And because they’re already forgiven, they can admit they did wrong to us, without fear of getting punished.

Isn’t that what Jesus does for us?

We can only do this if we treat every day as holy.  And this is the third principle: live every day God’s way, not our own.
Is 58:13-14:
13 If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, 14 then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”  The mouth of the LORD has spoken.  

The point of these couple of verses is to be obviously, unapologetically, publicly Godly.
This is the Old Testament.  Isaiah’s talking to the Jews, to God’s people.  So God frames this public Godliness in terms of keeping his law – obeying the Sabbath.
Jesus fulfils the Old Testament law for us.  We don’t have to keep the Sabbath in quite the same way.
For us, in these New Testament times, every day is holy.  God wants us to live his way, every day.  So that people see what it means to honour God.

But to do that, we’re going to have to open our mouths and speak.  We’re going to have to tell people about the Jesus who makes us holy.  In whose name we’re doing all these nice things.
In Matthew 5:16, Jesus says:
…  let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds…  
… and tell everyone what a nice person you are.
That’s not what it says, is it?
…  let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.  
If we don’t tell them why we’re doing all these good deeds, we could accidently send people to hell.
Because they’ll see us being good.  And think: “look at those good little Christians.  To be friends with God, I have to be a good person”.
So they’ll be good.  And ignore Jesus’ death on the cross.
And get judged by God.
Because it doesn’t matter how good we are.  We can never be good enough for God.
That’s why we need Jesus.
And that’s why we need to tell people about him.  About the one, in whose name, we live such good lives Monday to Saturday.

God promised to restore his people to the promised land.  And to his city, Jerusalem.
Is 58:8-9a:
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.  9a Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.  
Is 58:11-12:
11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.  You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.  
Remember who Isaiah’s talking to.  This part of his prophecy is directed to people in exile.  They’re away from Judah, away from Jerusalem.  Babylon’s conquered them.
Basically, God’s promising a new exodus.  A new journey, back through the desert, to the promised land, to rebuild Jerusalem.

In the New Testament, this becomes a promise about a whole new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem.  Christ taking us to the new heaven and earth, the home of righteousness.
This is the only thing that’ll keep us going.
Why bother doing all this?  Being kind to people who don’t deserve it?  Saying nice things to wicked people?  Forgiving our enemies?
Because living with Jesus forever will make it all worthwhile.
We don’t earn heaven by being Godly.  Only Jesus gives us the right to live with God forever.
But, because we’re confident that heaven is our home, we can bear with all the hardship that comes with living for God.  The hope of glory gives us courage and patience, to be kind and generous, to stupid, undeserving people.

God will not be locked in church!  He demands to rule our whole life.
What the world needs, in these days of declining morals, is for the people of God to be distinctively Christian.  To worship God.  In all of life, all of our days, Monday to Sunday, 24-7-365.
And living for God, worshiping him, involves caring for those in trouble.  And speaking words of love and care, even when people don’t deserve it.  And publicly declaring that we’re doing it all in Jesus’ name.  Even when it’s difficult; especially when difficult.
That… is what it means to live for God on Monday.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Patricia Weerakoon: Teen Sex By The Book


I have previously blogged about my mother, Dr. Patricia Weerakoon: Evangelical Christian, and professional researcher and teacher in human sexual health.  

She has written a book on sexuality for teenagers: "Teen Sex By The Book".  It integrates a lifetime of academic research with the Biblical framework for sexuality.  I highly recommend it as a resource for yourselves and your youth leaders.  

Patricia is available to speak at churches & other ministries.  See her website for details.  Some of her talks are on vimeo - here's the one she did at MBM church - search her name for more.  

Let's do everything we can to help people live healthy, God-pleasing, productive lives in the midst of an unhealthy, self-destructive, permissive, sex-crazed society.  

Monday, 16 July 2012

Church growth and decline: a matter of perspective


Ross Douthat has written a fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times on the decline of the American Episcopal Church: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?  He notes, amongst other things, that:
[The American] Episcopal [= Anglican] Church ...has spent the last several decades changing ...into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States... In the last decade [2000-2010], average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase... Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance.  
But, lest conservative churches get a big head, he also notes: 
The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message. 
Douthat makes a serious mistake that skews his whole article.  It comes to surface late in the piece: 
The defining idea of liberal Christianity [is] that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion.  
That is not theological liberalism. It may be political liberalism, but it is not theological liberalism. Theological liberalism is the idea that the value of "religion" (not just Christianity - any "religious faith") is to be evaluated from a human perspective - through universal human rationality (19th century liberalism), or by its visible, palpable, social benefits (early 20th century liberalism).  The health and wealth gospel is thus a grandchild of liberalism.  Liberalism's basic assumption is that God has to serve us - that's his/her/its job. 

In this, Liberalism starts off in the wrong direction. The Christian faith is understood not from a human perspective but from God's perspective - with reference to God, in Christ, understood through his word the Bible.  The Biblical Christ did not say indulge yourself, he said deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.  The Bible's basic assumption is that we serve God - and that it's actually good and healthy for us to do so.  That's because God's mastery over us, and our service of him, are appropriate to our respective natures.  God's nature is to rule; human nature is to be ruled by God.

The amazing message of the New Testament is: this mighty, ruler God offers to rule us – in forgiveness.  That’s why Jesus came as a humble man, and died and rose for us: so we can be ruled, not by God’s anger, but by his forgiveness.

But we can only understand this properly through the Bible.

If we see Jesus from a human perspective, we will inevitably expect him to make our lives happier.  So, when bad things happen to us – as they do – we will inevitably think Jesus has failed us, and get angry with him.

But, when we see Jesus, not from a human perspective but from God's perspective - through the Bible – then we understand that real value of what Jesus has done for us is invisible, effected by the Holy Spirit, with reference to God: turning away God’s wrath, changing us from God’s enemies to his sons and daughters.

Once we understand this, anything that happens to us from a human perspective is actually irrelevant.  We are forgiven and accepted by God in Christ – we have been reconciled to our creator – so we can be happy and fulfilled.  Our health, wealth, size of our churches & denominations – none of it matters. We can be sick, unemployed, impoverished, spurned by our family and society - all at the same time - and still rejoicing. More than rejoicing - we can love and forgive our family and society, and care for others, even though we're sick and weak and don't have any money. So, having been reconciled to God through Christ, we become healthy, normal humans. Why? Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Simple, really.

So can liberal Christianity be saved? No, because it's not Christianity. Douthat is basically as liberal as the health and wealth false-gospellers, because they both evaluate the usefulness of so-called Christianity according to visible, palpable, worldly standards. It also renders his thesis vulnerable to responses like that by Diana Butler Bass in the Huffington Post.

That said, we do want our churches and denominations to grow – because it’s good for people to treat Jesus as their king, and one sign of treating Jesus as your king is faithfully attending and serving at a Bible-based church.  And we do care for people, especially the poor and vulnerable – that’s another sign of treating Jesus as our king.  Growing churches, and social concern, are outworkings of being healthy humans – of being reconciled to God through Christ.

What I have outlined above is classical evangelicalism.  It’s often called “fundamentalism” because it’s easier to name-call like a playground bully than actually read the Bible and find out what it says.  One of the enduring ironies of this world is how evangelicals grow churches and care for people – then the liberals come along, take all the credit for all the good work the evangelicals have done, wreck it all, then blame the evangelicals (“fundamentalists”) for the mess.

It all comes down to this: how do we evaluate the value of “religion”: from the worldly perspective of human usefulness?  Or from God’s perspective through the Bible?  In the long run, the stakes are higher than church attendance; it’s the difference between hell and heaven.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Why bother to defend lifelong heterosexual monogamous marriage?


Here in Australia we're in the throes of debate about same-gender marriage.  One of the issues in the debate is: from the secular side: "what right do Christians have to dictate how other people live?"; and from the Christian side, the exact same question in reverse: "why bother trying to impose Christian values on non-Christians?  They're unforgiven sinners anyway; just let them do what they want."

Here's some thoughts on why Christians care about other people's marriages.  Not specific to the same-gender marriage debate, though of course it has implications for it.

1. Biblically speaking, God instituted marriage in Genesis ch 1 & 2.  It's an aspect of being created male & female, for procreation - babies - and ruling the earth.  Jesus validates heterosexual lifelong monogamous marriage in Matthew ch 19 (and parallels).  There is a consistent Biblical metaphor of God and his people being compared to a groom and his bride, eg: Ezekiel 16; Hosea ch 1-3; Ephesians 5.  So marriage is a “creation ordinance”, not a “gospel ordinance”.  It’s good for everyone, not just Christians.

2. The Biblical picture of marriage is NOT about self-satisfaction, but about responsible service.  God doesn't (metaphorically) "marry" his people because they make him feel good; but because he cares about them, takes pity on them, and wants to bless them.  Similarly, human marriages are NOT about "baby, you make me feel good", but "for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health" etc.

3. That means Biblical love is the opposite to modern secular love.
(a)  Modern secular love is an expression of freedom: we MUST be free to "love" whoever or whatever we want, just because we feel like it.
(b) Biblical love is the opposite: it's about UNfreedom, commitment, binding ourselves to care for someone else whether we like it or not- ESPECIALLY when we don't feel like it.

4. Unsurprisingly, that means the Biblical view of what is "good" for us is exactly opposed to the secular view.
(a) The Bible thinks it's good for our sexual desires to be managed - controlled, directed - and marriage is one way to control our sexual desires.  In marriage, we deliberately limit our freedom by subjugating our personal freedom to our words of promise, our commitment to our marriage partner.  This is another reason why Christians affirm lifelong heterosexual monogamous marriage for anyone, Christian or not.  It's a good external discipline, which channels our desires away from potentially unhealthy, destructive ways of expression, and towards healthy, constructive means of expression.
(b) The secular view of human "goodness" is unlimited freedom, ESPECIALLY sexual freedom.  We must be free to do whatever we want, whatever we "feel" like.  And anyone who tries to stop us is "oppressing" us.  People rightly see marriage as limiting that freedom - so why get married?  Just live with the person / people / animal / thing you like to have sex with.  And when you stop liking to have sex with he / she / it, move on.

5. Unlimited freedom doesn't work.  ESPECIALLY unlimited sexual freedom.  Even atheist social commentators recognise that.  See my review of Clive Hamilton's book "The Freedom Paradox".

6. This is why Christians stand for lifelong heterosexual monogamous marriage.  It's actually good for individuals, families, society, and the world.  We make a stand for lifelong heterosexual monogamous marriage because we love everyone, Christian or not.

7. This is also why no-one understands us and will call us hate-mongers.  Sin is not rational - by it's nature, it's irrational and unhealthy.  It is irrational and unhealthy to reject the creator God, who gave us all things - including our bodies, with their sexual possibilities - and loves us so much that he gave us principles and guidelines for the good use of those good bodies.  So we shouldn't be surprised when people irrationally reject God's good purposes for ourselves, including our sexuality, and oppose those who try to make a stand for health and rationality.

8. And this is also why we have to patiently turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute us.  When we irrationally rejected God, he did not reject us, but sent his Son to die and rise for sinners.  Similarly, when people irrationally reject and persecute us for caring for them, we don't reject them, but continue to love them anyway.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Two articles on community, secular and sacred

ABC has two interesting articles on community, the first on secular society, the second on the international Anglican church.

There's a good article on the ABC's Drum on the Q&A failure-of-a-debate between Richard Dawkins and George Pell. Try not to let Scott Stephens' pontificative pollysyllability put you off, it's quite a good social comment. Basic point: we're so used to doing whatever we want, just coz we want to, we no longer have any basis for shared community. Questions without answers in a Kingdom of Whatever.

Then John Millbank has an excellent article on the future of the international Anglican communion. Note his presuppositions about the nature of the church:
  • "... the Anglican Communion [is] part of the Universal Catholic Church (it has never been officially identified as "Protestant")..."
  • The Anglican denomination has been "struggling against" Puritanism and Calvinism.
And this only goes to show there really are only two views of church unity: either confessional (Protestant) or personal (Catholic). Both sides throw around the words "gospel", "spirit", "mission" etc, because they have different definitions of each - a different gospel, a different spirit, a different mission, a different everything. As a Protestant, I of course believe that the Catholic denomination is not part of the church catholic - it is apostate, because it does not hold to the Biblical teaching about Jesus, his atonement, salvation, the church... anything, really. Sydney Anglicanism, with African and Asian Anglicanism, has always been unashamedly Protestant; British and American Anglicanism has trended towards Catholicism. Rowan William's departure may cause the faithful Anglican remnant to finally embrace the Reformation. Better five hundred years late than never.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Theological Commons & Christian Classics

Princeton Theological Seminary has partnered with the Internet Archive to create the Theological Commons digital library. It provides free, online access to over 50,000 theology and religion books from the PTS Library.

And don't forget the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, with thousands of documents from church history available on-line and downloadable in various formats for free.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Christian ethics are theological, evangelical, and scriptural

Every ethic is connected with an assumed anthropology and worldview. We instinctively act out of a sense of who we are, and our place in the world.
Our answers to the questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” are intimately connected to the question of “How ought I to be in the world?” In other words, theological anthropology can never be entirely descriptive. A description of human nature always both presumes and entails a prescription for human living. [Marc Cortez, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed: 2-3, emphasis in original]
Christian ethics are theological, evangelical and scriptural. As Christians, we conduct all of life coram Deo: God is the ultimate reality, the foundation and framework of the world we operate in, in whom all things hold together. We think of ourselves as beings created by God, beloved by him, and responsible to him. This God we worship is not distant and unknowable, but is God in Christ. The cosmos is Christ-powered; it does not operate purely through natural processes or human agency [Andrew Cameron, Joined-Up Life: 84-86].

Christian ethics are theological through being Christological. We can know God because he has revealed himself in his Son. And our knowledge of God’s Son, the man Jesus Christ, is shaped by our knowledge of his historical work for us: his incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, heavenly session, and expected return – we know Christ through the gospel. And we know the gospel through the scriptures – the Old Testament which prophecies him, and the New which demonstrates the fulfilment of the prophecies, and explains his significance for his new people – the international church.
The Bible makes a very radical idea inescapable: not only in the gospel the interpretative norm for the whole Bible, but there is an important sense in which Jesus Christ is the mediator of the meaning of everything that exists. In other words, the gospel is the hermeneutical norm for the whole of reality. [Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: 63, emphasis in original.]
Thus are Christian ethics theological, evangelical and scriptural. Through the bible, we know Christ, who brings us to God. And, through this knowledge of God, we know our world and ourselves.
Nearly all the [true and sound] wisdom we possess… consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. [John Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.1]

Friday, 9 March 2012

Against polygamy

A couple of days ago I got asked whether polygamy is immoral. Here's some biblical ruminations on the topic.
  • God created Adam and Even (Gen. 2), not Adam and Eve and Rachel and Charlotte and...
  • In the OT, polygamy always caused problems. Abraham's son through Hagar was not the child of the promise; Isaac, his son through Sarah his wife, was (Gen 17:15-22). Jacob wound up marrying Leah and Rachel because of Laban's deceit, but he loved Rachel more than Leah, and that caused tension and competition between the women (Gen ch 29-30).
  • Song of Songs portrays exclusive love. "My lover is mine and I am his" (SoS 2:16; 6:3).
  • Jesus validates one-man one-woman in Matt 19:5-6 & Mark 10:7-8, where he quotes the "one flesh" reference in Genesis 2:24.
  • Paul requires monogamy from church leaders: 1 Tim 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6. This cannot be reserved for church leaders alone because they are supposed to be examples to the rest of the people: 1 Tim 3:15.
One way to dismiss all this is to say that polygamy was taken for granted in the Ancient Near East, so that's why the OT accepts polygamy. My response is: then why is
  1. Genesis 2 monogamous?
  2. the OT so negative in its portrayal of polygamy?
More foundationally: to read the bible this way - that because everyone else was into polygamy, the Israelites had to as well - is to not make a key false assumption: that the bible has to validate what was socially accepted. Or, to put it another way: it is to ignore the idea that the OT portrays polygamy in order to criticise it, and call God's people to live differently. Of course, if we're willing to consider that:
  • God doesn't want his people to live like everyone else;
  • But instead wants their lives to be distinctively shaped by his word;
  • And God's word reflects his character, which is uniquely committed and loyal;
... then a critique of polygamy, and assertion of monogamy, makes a whole lot more sense.

Thoughts, anyone...?

Thursday, 1 March 2012

St Mary's Presbyterian Church new website

My church - the Presbyterian church in the suburb of St Mary's, near Penrith, in Sydney's outer west (I always have to give that long explanation because if I say "St Mary's Presbyterian Church" people think St Mary is the church's patron saint... which isn't very Protestant...) - has a new website, including my Sunday bible talks.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Position Vacant: Lecturer in Biblical Studies (Old Testament), Presbyterian Theological Centre, Sydney

John Davies, old testament scholar and founding principal of the Sydney Presbyterian Theological Centre, is retiring at the end of this year. PTC is looking for an OT lecturer. For more info, see the PTC news or download the job description. Applications close 13 April 2012. Applications to the PTC Principal, Rev. Dr. Ian Smith, ismith@ptcsydney.org.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Speech act theory in a nutshell

A Facebook friend just asked me: "Just quickly, what is speech act theory in a nutshell?"

My response:

Words do things. To speak is to act. We don't want people to simply listen to us, but to be impacted by what we say and respond in some way. Eg: you asked me a question - you want your words to act upon me in such a way that I respond by providing you with information concerning speech-act theory. Which I have now done. I take it you don't want me to respond to your question by writing a thesis on speech-act theory, rolling it into a scroll, squeezing it into a nutshell, and handing it to you...

The intended impact of a particular unit of discourse depends on its context.
Eg: Fred says to George: "the door is open."
Does Fred mean:
  • It's cold - could you shut the door, please;
  • Take the opportunity while you have the chance;
  • Get out!
  • Something else...?
It depends on context - what Fred & George's relationship is like; where they are; what they've been saying to each other... etc. When communicating in person, we discern nuances of meaning from body language. When dealing with a written text, we need to pay attention to genre ("writing style"), literary and historical context, and author's particular writing style... etc.

Eg: your request for info "in a nutshell" depends on a shared assumption between you & I that by "nutshell" you don't literally mean you want information stored inside the empty shell of a nut, but you want a brief answer. This rambling discourse proves my complete inability to answer anything briefly, nutshell notwithstanding.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Evangelical use of Speech-Act theory

Recently, Evangelical theologians have been applying Speech-Act theory to various elements of theology. They include:
Anyone know any other significant ones that I've missed...?

Here's my summary of the theological use of speech-act theory:
  1. The Bible, as God's word, is not "dead" - it's not passive, just sitting there waiting for us to breathe life into it through our hermeneutical manoeuvres;
  2. On the contrary, it is "alive", because it is God's active speech to us.
  3. In the Bible, God proposes the means of relating to him - viz, Christ, the Gospel. The Bible is God's word and Jesus is God's word. The Bible is living and active because the risen Jesus is living and active as the divine communication of the living, active God.
  4. That divine proposal, by it's very nature as God's word to his people, achieves its desired result of causing those people - "the elect" - to take hold of those proposed means of relating to God.
  5. Putting it Trinitarianly: the Father speaks - the Son is the content of that speech - the Spirit applies the Word to our "souls" - our hearts & minds, the internal aspect of human being - such that we willingly & wholeheartedly turn to God in Christ in repentance and faith.
My questions to you are:
  1. Have I got it right? Is this a good summary of the Evangelical use of Speech-Act theory?
  2. Have they got it right? Does this faithfully represent God, and his means of relating to the world and the church?
Thoughts, please.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Marriage & radical individualistic voluntarism

Over at Big Think, Peter Lawler has an interesting secular article on the recent trend to re-define marriage in terms of radically individual voluntarism - that is, defining marriage as a "contract" by an individual, to whom "society" must grant the freedom to marry whoever they want (= voluntarism), and if they don't get that freedom, they're being "oppressed".



Tuesday, 14 February 2012

God's love and human romantic love

Seeing as it's Valentine's day, I got to thinking - is there any connection between God’s love and human romantic love?

Some Old Testament passages describe The LORD’s attitude to his people in emotional terms. He delights in his people and considers Israel, even in exile, precious and honoured, the very apple of his eye (Deut. 30:9; 32:10; Is. 43:4; 62:5; Zech. 2:8). Yahweh ‘desired’ [hashaph] Israel (Deut. 7:7; 10:15), akin to how Shechem desired [hashaph] Dinah (Gen. 34:8), or an Israelite may desire [hashaph] a war-captive woman (Deut. 21:11).

The New Testament also portrays God as desiring his people, and this desire motivating him to redemptive action. Christ felt compassion [splagzomai] for needy people, and this compassion motivated him to acts which eradicated the effects of sin – healing the sick (Matt. 14:14; Mk. 1:41), feeding the hungry (Matt. 15:32 = Mark 6:34; Mark 8:2), giving sight to the blind (Matt. 20:34), raising the dead (Lk. 7:13). The virtuous characters in his parables demonstrated similar compassion attitudes and merciful actions: the ruler in the parable of the unmerciful servant forgave the servant’s debt (Matt. 18:27); the Samaritan cared for the Jewish man (Luke 10:33); the father of the prodigal son did not hold his sins against him but rejoiced at his return (Luke 15:20). Saul discovered that to persecute Christians was to persecute Christ (Acts 9:4-5). This all demonstrates that God, in Christ, ‘desires’ his people: he sets his affections upon them, identifies with them, and therefore acts to redeem them.

The analogy must be handled cautiously. First of all, the the doctrine of God’s asceity indicates that, in his eternal, Triune self-giving and mutual constitution, God is replete – he is fully satisfied with himself.

[I]n their interpersonal reciprocal relations the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the Communion of Love which the One God eternally is in himself… It is as this ever living and acting Communion of loving and being loved that God is who he is… (T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, London: T. & T. Clark, 1996: 5-6.)

Shechem and the Israelite men were attracted to the women for their beauty; Yahweh did not redeem Israel for any attractive feature they possessed, but because his consistent character moved him to fulfil his promises to their fathers (Deut. 7:7-8). God’s affection for Israel is unilateral and often unrequited; Song of Songs and 1 Cor. 7 show us that healthy marriages are characterised by mutual affection. Jealousy drives humans to excessive anger (Prov. 6:34, 27:4; Eccl. 4:4; Acts 5:17, 13:45, 17:5; etc), while Yahweh is slow to anger (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Nah. 1:3).

Nevertheless, the analogy is there. The God of the Old Testament acted to redeem his people because he ‘desired’ them – he ‘wanted’ to dwell with them. So he acted powerfully to rescue them from oppression and take them to himself in the promised land. To say ‘God loves’ is to say he, of his own gracious will, binds his well-being with the well-being of his people, and this alignment motivates him to redemptive action, supremely in the cross of Christ.

God's redemptive love is unique. We cannot "save" anyone by our love. Only God can do that through Christ. Missionary dating is a disaster. Do not marry an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14). The first point of contact for this analogy is that we who trust Christ should feel absolutely comfortable in his love, expressed and enacted in Christ.

But, I think we can say that God's love in Christ reflexively validates human romantic love, in the sense of the goodness of a desire to be with someone, and share life in mutual blessing. This isn't "redemptive" in the proper sense - doesn't save us from sin - but it does fulfil our genuine created relational needs. We were not made to be alone, we were made to be in relationship with each other, especially the relationship of marriage. Human romance is, at its best, an expression of this appropriate need. And this need is connected to the gospel of the God who does not need us, but voluntarily chooses to be with us.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

First vs Second generation ethnic ministry

Here's some thoughts on Subcontinental ministry I put together for a ministry working group. Feedback appreciated.

***

All humans are created by God, responsible to God, sinful before God, redeemable in Christ, and, depending on their status in Christ, heading for ultimate glory or judgement. The gospel is the same for all people everywhere.

Subcontinental churches potentially become expressions of Subcontinental Christian culture rather than the gospel. I see no difference between this and Australian, Western ecclesial traditionalism – “we like it this way ‘coz it’s always been this way and it makes us feel comfortable.” The difference is that ethnic churches are tolerated, even celebrated, by both the broader church and the world, when they say this. The broader church encourages ethnically enculturated churches because of the HUP and a (rightful) interest in communicating the gospel clearly. The world tolerates ethnic churches because of multiculturalism. In contrast, Western churches where culture > the gospel become historic relics, opposed by Evangelical churches and ignored by the world.

Because these highly enculturated ethnic churches are tolerated or celebrated, they could be blind to the highly enculturated nature of their teaching, worship and formation. Even if they don’t intend to – even if the leaders are converted & mean well – they could end up with culture > the gospel. They too will be in danger of becoming historical relics, irrelevant to both God and the world. This tendency will be accelerated if the church has successfully contextualised the gospel in the home, Subcontinental context – that is, if local believers in the Subcontinent thoughtfully worked out how to express their devotion to Christ in their particular situation. The problem is: there’s no point simply transplanting something that’s culturally appropriate for the Subcontinent to Australia!

This will happen, in part, because second-generation Christian Subcontinentals do not share their parent’s Subcontinental Christian enculturation. In all other aspects of life they mix freely with Aussies, and their parents will encourage this, because that’s what they came here to Aust for – to give their children a chance at a “better life”, where “better life” = Western materialism. Second-generation immigrants are hybrids – they behave in certain ways very “traditionally” – more like their parent’s Subcontinental ways of behaving than their Aussie friends – but are in other areas of life very Western.

This hybrid-ness may occasionally cause conflict in the home. But it will certainly cause conflict with their Christian identity. If, for the ethnic church they attend, Christian culture > the gospel, their church experience will be culturally oppressive rather than evangelically challenging. These young people will eventually reject both the gospel and their inherited Christian culture, because they are not intellectually sophisticated or personally mature enough to distinguish them, nor should we expect them to be.

As these young people reject the gospel, they will instinctively trend towards Western materialism instead, because the whole purpose of immigration is a “better life”, where “better life” = Western materialism. But because of their Christian Subcontinental traditional values, they will probably not adopt a self-evidently destructive hedonistic lifestyle. Ex-Christian Subcontinentals become nice, clean, moral, healthy, wealthy, dignified materialists – the type you’d really love to have as your neighbour.

This is not inevitable for every single ethnic church; it is inevitable for an ethnic church that has not learned to distinguish between the gospel and their inherited Christianised culture. Fixing this is not as simple as creating an English-language service. Such a service could still be highly ethnically enculturated and oppressive. It requires deep self-insight and a critical view of both church and ‘liturgy’. It requires a deep enough grasp of what the gospel actually is, so that we can communicate it to the next generation, and then, having entrusted it to them, liberating them to enact it in a manner appropriate to their social situation – which we cannot assume is the same as ours. It is up to church leaders, not the children, to engage in such thoughtful, honest reflection. I suspect that most churches (not just ethnic?) tacitly expect the opposite: “we’re going to do things our own way, coz that’s how we like it; the kids can take it or leave it”.

Such thoughtful self-criticism is possible. The gospel will enable it, indeed demand it. A truly Christian church is a church founded on the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church is always being reformed. Second, such thoughtful self-criticism is a return to the individual church’s origins – to its history as a community of people working out what it means to live for Christ in a particular historical culture that ignores or denies him. Ad fontes – back to the source. Also, ethnic churches need the church ‘Catholic’ – they need to be examined and held accountable by other churches. If the church leaders are converted, then when other churches challenge them that it looks like culture > gospel, the leaders will listen.

Second-generation English-language churches are not necessarily the solution; the gospel is. It is tempting to contrast cultural oppression with evangelical liberation – but I think that’s the wrong dichotomy. The real contrast, I think, is between cultural comfort and gospel challenge. Sinful human beings seek comfortable self-affirmation rather than God’s approval – that is, we seek our own righteousness instead of God’s. Such comfortable self-affirmation could come through a familiar social context – a group and place where we do and say familiar things that make us feel welcome and valued – a ‘culture’. First-generation immigrants seek to replicate their comfortable culture; the second generation resist this and seek their own comfortable culture. The gospel cuts across both. It calls the parents to seek the children’s well-being over their own comfort; to desire that the children be converted and following Christ more than happily married and wealthy with a nice career; and to entrust the gospel to those converted children and trust them to grow in it and take it to future generations. It calls the children to submit to the parents, value their insights, and be patient with their foibles. “Honour your father and mother…” “Do not rebuke an older man harshly”. (Note: the verse does not say “do not rebuke an older man”, but “do not rebuke an older man harshly”. Also, the logic of the comparison with exhorting one’s father assumes that it is possible to gently upbraid one’s elders without disrespecting them).

Second-generation Subcontinental immigrants need the same that first-generation Subcontinental immigrants need, which is what the whole world needs – to be challenged, through the gospel, to worship God in Christ.