Marva Dawn – a joyful Christian life

Marva Dawn

Back in 2008 it was a pleasure and rare privilege to spend some days with Marva Dawn and her husband Myron Sandberg. With my IBI hat on I had invited her to come over from America and speak at our annual Summer Institute.

It was a delight to get to know her and Myron. I recall reading in The Atlantic some time ago that research showed that marriages that flourish have kindness at their heart. A lack of kindness is the surest indicator that a relationship is in trouble. Theirs was a kind way of being that brought others into its generous orbit. And a michievous wit and sense of humour as well.

She taught on themes related to her books on worship such as Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (1995), A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (1999) and my favourite Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (2002) which won a Christianity Today annual book award.

If you haven’t read any of Marva’s work then you have something to look foward to.

In class yesterday by coincidence I was talking about Marva’s book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting as an example of a rich, thoughtful and life-giving theological response to our restless and frentic culture, driven by an insatiable desire for more.

Today I learnt from a friend that Marva had recently passed away (April 18) aged 72. She had suffered from an array of serious illnesses for many years. I think it was polio that meant that one leg was in a brace, and she had had a kidney transplant, cancer, blindness in one eye and other ailments. She wrote a wonderful book called Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope In Spite of Infirmity that has been a help to many many people. But she was not defined by her infirmities! She was a far from infirm thinker and she displayed fierce courage not only in dealing with her frail body but in her bold and uncompromising call to the church to spiritual faithfulness in an age of compromise and confusion.

It is hard to think of a more joyful Christian. She radiated joy – joy in the Lord, joy in being with fellow brothers and sisters, joy in her marriage with Myron and joy in teaching. She leaves a rich legacy – not only of significant books, but in and through many lives enriched by encountering her along the way.

She was a prophetic voice in calling the church to authenticity, prayer, humility, connection to the Great Tradition of historic church worship and liturgy – and to love. We need voices like Marva’s – and Eugene Peterson with whom she worked closely – more than ever. Gentleness, kindness, joyfulness, love, peacefulness, patience – these are characteristics of the power of God’s Spirit at work. How ironic that so often such characteristics are dismissed or despised as not ‘strong’ enough or not ‘effective’ enough in so much church ‘leadership’ practice.

In several different ways these last couple of weeks I’ve been reminded of how short life is. As the Psalmist says

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.

Ps 103:15-16

Marva lived with a close awareness of her mortality. Even back in 2008 I remember her wondering how long she had left and if that would be one of her last trips abroad – travel was simply becoming too difficult physically. But death was not feared. We are back to joy again – because of Easter she had a joyful hope that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already opened up a new future for all joined to him through faith. Death has lost its sting.

She is now in that future. Her ‘light and momentary’ troubles are over. And I can imagine her now in the presence of Jesus her Lord and his words of welcome,

‘Well done good and faithful servant’.

Love in Paul (13) Conclusions and suggestions for a love-audit of our lives

This is the final post in a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We’ve covered a lot of ground. The evidence is overwhelming that love is central within Paul’s own experience and plays a determining role within his entire theological framework.

That’s a significant claim, but the supporting evidence is strong. Too often love in Paul has been overlooked, downplayed or marginalised as some sort of ‘second order’ doctrine.

There are reasons for this – not least the dominance of soteriology in Pauline theology. Centuries of polemical debates about justification – whether RCC/Reformers, New versus Old Perspectives – have tended, particularly within Protestant/evangelicalism, to make one’s position on justification a touchstone of ‘soundness’ or orthodoxy.

E.G. – if you like N T Wright over John Piper you’re suspect on ‘the gospel’ of justification by faith alone. And therefore suspect (not to be trusted) in general.

But, ironically, this passion for orthodoxy can miss the wider purpose of justification in Paul’s thought. Love is not a nice ‘by-product’ of justification – it is the entire point (Galatians 5:6).

What would it look like I wonder if there was equal passion for ‘soundness’ regarding ‘faith working in love’ as in a correct understanding of righteousness by faith alone?

Paul is first and foremost a missionary-pastor. His priority is the moral formation of believers in the fledgling Christian communities that he planted or helped to grow. And that moral formation is framed within a comprehensive theology of love.

For Paul love does the following:

> His understanding of who God is is revolutionised in light of Jesus Christ. God demonstrates his love in the cross. Out of love the Father, Son and Spirit work together of effect salvation.

> The Spirit works to transform believers into the likeness of Christ – a process that has love at its core

> Believers living in communities of love fulfil the Law

> Christian freedom takes the form of self-sacrifical love

> Christian worship revolves around love for God and love for one another

> Love is God’s ‘spiritual weapon’ in an eschatological conflict between the realm of the flesh and the Spirit

> Love is the ‘oil’ which enables the church to function. The apostle knows that without love communities made up of diverse social, ethnic and religious groupings will fall apart.

> Communities of love are missional in that they form a counter-story to the hierarchies of power that shaped the Greco-Roman world

> Love is inseparable from Paul’s theology of financial giving to help fellow brothers and sisters in need.

> Love for God and being loved by God give a robust framework to withstand suffering, persecution and even death

> Love is the primary motive for Christian mission

> Echoing Jesus, love for enemies is to mark a Christian’s response to injustice

> Without love, all Christian ministry is worthless

> Love describes ultimate eschatological hope for believers – it is love alone which will endure forever

In other words, theology and ethics in Paul must not be divorced. They are inseparable.

A Love Audit of Our Lives

Reflecting on this final list again I’m challenged to think about what a ‘love-audit’ of my – or any Christian’s – life would look like

Perhaps something like this: and feel welcome to add your own comments or suggestions – this is very much a thought experiment.

  1. Consider honestly and self-critically each point above and reflect on your own life in light of them.
  2. Move to prayers of confession and repentance (if you have nothing to do here may I suggest you haven’t done point 1 very well!)
  3. Ask the Spirit’s help to deal with areas of un-love in your life – grudges; unforgiveness; arrogance; lack of action; selfishness; disobedience; lack of generosity; bitterness; despair; greed; where unloving means have justified even good ends.
  4. Be accountable – a life of love is a corporate journey. It is to be shared with others – our failures and weaknesses as as well as successes. Have a friend / mentor who can ask you the hard questions and expect truthful answers.
  5. Write down some concrete actions in light of your reflections and act on them
  6. Repeat 1-5 on a continual basis. In this way make love central to your Christian faith and life since this is God’s agenda for his people.

Romans Disarmed – a review

This is a review I did of Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019 that was recenly published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics.

My description and critical assessment are contained in the review so I won’t repeat here what is said below – save to say that while I was unpersuaded by the authors’ relentless politicisation of Paul, many important and controversial questions about the meaning and contemporary relevance of the apostle’s magnificent letter to the Romans are addressed within its pages.

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This ambitious book stands in continuity with Keesmaat and Walsh’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic, 2004). I use the word ‘ambitious’ in that since probably no other New Testament book has had as much written about it than Romans, it is a daunting task for anyone to write seriously on the letter, let alone do what the authors are attempting to do in this volume. Namely, to use that historical, theological and exegetical work as a basis for articulating a comprehensive anti-imperial interpretation of Romans (ch. 1 ‘Reading Romans and Disarming Empire’) from which to explore how the apostle’s words continue to challenge various expressions of what the authors identify as ‘modern imperialism’ such as: colonialism and the conquest of the Indigenous peoples of Canada (ch. 3 ‘Empire and Broken Worldviews’); home and homelessness (ch. 4. ‘Homeless in Rome’); ecological destruction (ch. 5 ‘Creation and Defilement in Rome’); the economic destructiveness of modern capitalism (ch 6. ‘Economic Justice and the Fabric of Life’); systematic injustice against the poor and marginalised (ch. 7 ‘Welcoming the Powerless’); a culture extolling nationalism, racism, identity politics, power and violence (ch. 8 ‘The Pax Romana and the Gospel of Peace’); and injurious and exploitative sexual behaviour (ch. 9 ’Imperial Sexuality and Covenant Faithfulness’).

But Romans Disarmed is ambitious in other ways as well. The authors note that the ‘disarmed’ in the title is a deliberate double entendre on the way Paul’s epistle ‘disarms’ both the violence of the first-century and modern empires and the way in which Romans itself needs to be disarmed, ‘after centuries of being used theologically as an instrument of oppression and exclusion’ (p. xiii). What they mean by this surfaces regularly throughout the book. The following gives a flavour of the emotive strength of this critique. ‘For this is a text that has been used to justify the tearing of the church asunder … Romans has been wielded as weapon, often in service of theological violence’ (pp. 105-06). Romans has been domesticated by ‘a pietistic interpretation preoccupied with individual salvation or personal righteousness’ (p. 278). As ‘the church has wielded this epistle as a sword within its own theological wars, the letter itself has been strangely (and paradoxically) rendered powerless’ (p. 252). The text has been ‘betrayed’; the church’s preoccupation with the ‘justification’ of the ‘sinner’ has led it to lose sight of Paul’s ‘radical message of how in Jesus Christ those who are unjust are made to be anew, equipped and empowered for lives of justice’ (p. 252). ‘If we are going to disarm Romans, then we will need to disarm the language of salvation and of its exclusionary judgmentalism’ (p. 368).

Chapter 1 is key to the authors’ project in that it unpacks and defends their reading of Paul intentionally seeking to confront and undermine the story of the Roman empire. They do this through a fictional dialogue with a sceptical observer who asks a series of questions. The questions are obviously ones that the authors are anticipating from scholars, readers and reviewers (such as this one). How convincing one finds their answers will largely dictate how persuasive one finds the rest of the book and so I will pay particular attention to this chapter.

Debates about ‘empire criticism’ have been swirling around New Testament studies since the 1990s, particularly associated with Richard Horsley and the ‘Paul and Politics’ group at the Society of Biblical Literature and later with N. T. Wright. Via their interlocutor, the authors engage with John Barclay’s critique of Wright’s account of Paul and Empire (pp. 13-14). They reject Barclay’s argument (Pauline Churches and the Diaspora Jews. Mohr Sieback, 2001, ch. 19) that, for Paul, the Roman empire was effectively insignificant in that it was merely an unnamed bit-part player in a much bigger cosmic conflict between God and the powers (death, sin and the defeat of evil through the victory of God in Christ). They side with Wright in seeing this cosmic battle being embodied in the specific form of Roman idolatry and injustice (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, book 2. Fortress, 2013. pp. 1307-19). And so Romans is interpreted as a deliberate counter narrative to that of Empire; ‘the symbols, vocabulary and structure of the empire underlie the world’ that Paul describes in Romans (p. 14). Despite Paul never mentioning Caesar and his empire, the original recipients living under the cruel injustices of Pax Romana would have ‘got’ the message loud and clear. It is modern readers who need the epistle’s clear anti-empire implications spelt out – which is what the authors then proceed to do in great detail in the rest of the book. They do so in a highly political manner, going beyond Wright’s softer view of implicit subversion to seeing Paul engaging in a systematic programme of cultural, social and political negation against Rome. The result is that Rome is everywhere in Romans. To give one example, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom 16:16) is a kiss ‘breaking down the racial, political, gender, and economic boundaries of the empire … the loving and respectful kiss that characteriszes the family of Jesus, in contrast to the imperial family of father Caesar’ (p. 137).

The force of this political hermeneutic is earthed in imaginary stories of Iris (a slave) and Nereus (a Jewish believer named in Romans 16:15). It is also expanded in a number of lengthy ‘Targums’ imagining how Paul would write Romans today in our context of empire, racism, nationalism and economic injustice. It shapes a reading of Romans through the lens of home, homelessness and homecoming where traditional themes such as justification and the status of Israel are set in the context of how a diverse community make home together amid empire. It reads creation groaning as Paul referring to destructive Roman environmental practices. It interprets economic themes as crucial to Paul’s letter that then speaks directly into the injustices of contemporary global capitalism and Pax Americana and related issues such as MAGA. It sees Paul’s ‘creational vision and prioritizing of economic justice in the face of imperial economics’ as underpinning a contemporary ‘economy of care’ that will require ‘full-scale paradigm shift in economic life’ (p. 263). It rearticulates salvation as ‘nothing to do with an eternal home in heaven or the release of a guilty conscience’ but as a matter of justice, especially for the poor (p. 368). It interprets the ‘dominion of death’ of Romans 5:14-17, not as a cosmic power, but as ‘an end to the imperial rule of death’ (p. 369 emphasis original).

On a related, but different tack, the authors contrast the degradations of imperial sexuality against a calling by Paul to sexual relationships of faithfulness, justice and covenant love and conclude that committed, faithful Christian homosexual relationships should be seen, not as a threat to marriage but as a witness to its restoration.

Keesmaat and Walsh write with a passion to see Paul’s ancient words speak with relevance and power into our 21st century world. Whether you agree with their arguments or not, a strength of this book is to ‘defamiliarize’ Paul and make readers think afresh about their prior reading of Romans. Few would disagree that the call of all in Rome loved by God to be saints (Rom 1:7) involves participation in a profoundly subversive way of life within diverse communities bonded together by love. Many readers may find themselves in broad agreement with large swathes of their politics. However, if you sense an impending ‘but’ you would be right. In fact, there are several.

Despite the authors’ anticipation of objections of confirmation bias, it is difficult not to conclude that their methodology is open to such criticism. If you are looking for Rome ‘behind every bush’ then you are going to find it. Repeatedly through the book there are arguments from inference. For example, Paul’s words about creation in Romans 8 ‘could only’ have been understood as a critique of the ‘land-destroying’ practices of empire because he visited Judea and Roman cities and must have been aware of the environmental impact of Roman economic exploitation (pp. 172-3). This is a threadbare basis for such firm conclusions. In this vein, the Targums are in significant danger of literally re-writing Romans along the lines of what the authors judge Paul should be saying. I suspect there is not a lot of daylight between the authors’ politics and those of Paul reimagined for our day.

As noted above, there are highly polemical statements made about how others have ‘armed’ Romans. However, apart from general assertions there is no critical engagement with specific representations of such voices. This weakness extends to a lack of detailed engagement with exegetical scholarship, a symptom of where the scale of the book’s ambition becomes problematic. If such a radical re-reading of Romans is to stand up it needs critical dialogue with alternative voices. It also, dare I say, could do with a more gracious tone.

It is not clear what place is left for eschatology in Romans Disarmed. When death in Romans 5 means imperial rule, creation groaning is primarily about Roman environmental malpractice and salvation equals justice, this question becomes a very real one. There is little discussion of the ‘first fruits’ of the Spirit, life in the Spirit versus life in the flesh in the overlap of the ages, divine conflict with hostile powers, nor of the eschatological implications of resurrection, baptism, the Adam / Christ contrast, Israel in the plan of God, and God’s wrath and future judgment – all significant themes in Romans. At one point angels, demons and the powers are specifically excluded from Paul’s list of things unable to separate believers from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (pp. 378-79). The book closes with an invitation to imagine the future world in the present, but such is the weight put on economic justice that one cannot but feel that Paul’s pervasive eschatological emphasis has been flattened out into a this-worldly horizon.

Paradoxically, given the authors’ critique of Christendom and the captivation of the church to the imagination of empire, the broad political ambitions of this book raises questions about how consistent it is with Paul’s understanding of the church’s mission. Such is the strength of the apostle’s focus on the inner integrity of the community, it is a moot point how much room there is, if any, for transforming the Roman world. Based largely on Romans some scholars like T. Engberg-Pedersen (‘Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12–13: The Role of 13:1–10 in the Argument’, JSNT 29 (2006): 163–72) and R. Thorsteinsson (‘Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics’, JSNT 29 (2006): 139–61 and Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality.Oxford University Press, 2010) argue that, in contrast to the universal scope of Stoic ethics there is no ‘love for others’ ethic in Paul, the furthest he goes is exhortation to treat outsiders well. Others, like D. Horrell (Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016) see some common universal ethical norms such as a shared recognition of the good. But generally, the vocation to be an alternative peaceable community in a world ruled by empire is much closer to Barclay’s judgment than Keesmaat’s and Walsh’s expansive political programme. Paul’s silence about Rome may be the most counter-imperial stance of all.

This is the Original Submission of the review. The final published edition was first published online April 20, 2021. Issue published 01 May, 2021. Studies in Christian Ethics 34(2), pp 267-270.

Love in Paul (12) was Paul a proto anabaptist?

We’re getting to the end of a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the third and final post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.

In this post we’re focusing on a controversial issue that brings us right into contemporary debates about social justice and cultural transformation. A question raised by study of a Pauline theology of love is this:

Is there a place for loving ‘outsiders’ in a Pauline theology of love?

And linked to this we can add:

How ‘ambitious’ should Christians be about transforming the culture in which according to Christian principles?

Those who believe the church has a God-given mandate to shape society to Christian beliefs belong to a long history that can be traced back to Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 when Christianity, for the first time, was officially treated benevolently by the Empire, paving the way for it later to become the state religion. It runs through Medieval Catholicism (Aquinas) and into the Reformation. The Reformers disagreed with medieval Catholicism about a lot of things, but the God-given centrality of the church in ordering society was not one of them.

We can call this the cultural transformers corner.

Yet there is a strange paradox to the cultural transformers’ position. Christians follow a Messiah crucified by the state. The first centuries of the church were forged in persecution and martyrdom. Deep down in its DNA, Christianity is a faith formed by suffering at the hands of those in power. And when the church has got into positions of power, let’s just say that it has not tended to end well.

There is still much theological reflecting to do on the relationships between Christianity and colonialism and imperialism – and how both were dependent on a theology of justified violence to advance Western ‘Christian’ values and interests.

All this to say that the cultural transformers’ position sits very uneasily beside the teaching of Jesus. But less recognised is that is also sits very uneasily beside the teaching of Paul. (You may like to read this related post on Paul and non-violence).

Paul and love of ‘Outsiders’

A beginning point: as we have seen in this series it is undeniable that Paul has an overwhelming focus on love within Christian communities.

Some scholars therefore argue that Paul effectively has NOTHING to say about love for outsiders. His focus is on the internal authenticity of the first Christian communities.

So when you read a text like Romans 12:9-21 it is speaking of love restricted within the community of believers. Yes non-believers are to be treated well but there is no command to love them. This is love as an ‘in-group’ ethic. It defines the community of faith and marks them out as distinct from the world.

The implication here is that there is no mandate in Paul for a theology of cultural transformation. Such thinking rests on an expansive understanding of the church’s mission to be an agent by which God transforms the world. Yet Paul has no such agenda. His focus is on the internal integrity of Christian communities that speak of a different story to that of the ‘present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4).

Other scholars do not want to go so far. Not commanding believers to love outsiders is not the same as telling them only to love fellow believers. There are Pauline texts that suggest loving outside the community of faith, and even love of enemies:

1 Corinthians 16:14 “Let all that you do be done in love.”

1 Thessalonians 3:12 “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”

Philippians 4:5 “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

Galatians 6:10 “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Romans 12:14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Beyond specific texts, there is then Paul’s framing of the Christian life as the imitation of Jesus – which involves self-sacrificial love of the other, including enemies (Romans 5:8).

Other scholars discern in Paul a recognition of the common good. For example live peaceably with others and be known of good reputation (e.g., Phil 4:5 “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”)

However, it has to be said that such arguments are a long way short of any theological platform for ‘cultural transformation’. At best they are shaped by Paul’s primary concern for mission – how best to win outsiders for Christ.

So it can be argued – and I do – that Paul’s attitude to the state / wider society is certainly far more consistent with how anabaptists read the New Testament than how cultural transformers do.

In other words, yes, it is possible to argue that Paul was a proto-anabaptist.

His concern for a peaceable, loving, non-violent community willing to suffer for the cause of the gospel is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and is, I believe, hard to reconcile with a Christendom perspective of religiously sanctioned power and violence.

As I’ve said before, all this makes me a very bad Presbyterian!

Ministry amidst “An Abundance of Caution”

These are remarkable times for sure. Conversation after conversation is dominated by debates over risk of death and illness and how best to mitigate that risk on a national level. Two examples;

1) Irish Quarantine

A furore has broken out here in Ireland about mandatory hotel quarantine – its legality (whether it is in reality a form of detention breaching constitutional rights) and its inflexible application – already more than one court case has been won against detaining already vaccinated people, or where someone returns (vaccinated and Covid free) to see a dying relative only to be quarantined for 2 weeks and possibly being denied the chance to say farewell. The irony is not hard to see – a dying person cannot see their son in order to ‘protect’ them from risk of infection. And this does not touch on its military-style application, even for people with negative tests and who have already been vaccinated. This from the Irish Govt website.

Designated fresh air breaks will be accommodated at the hotel. A designated safe and secure space for fresh air breaks will be available at the hotel. These breaks should be booked in advance. The hotel will endeavour to accommodate guests at their preferred time.

At the requested time, a Security person will knock on the guests door and escort them to the designated area. All outdoor areas are monitored. Security will escort guests back to their bedroom after their break. In order to protect other guests and the hotel team, a fresh air break will only be permitted after you have received a negative PCR test.

Penalties for breaking the rules are €2000 in fines and up to a month in jail.

2) The Astra Zeneca Vaccine

And this evening it has been announced that the AstraZeneca vaccine will not now be given to anyone under 60. This is the advice of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC). This follows a report from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which concluded that a small number of unusual blood clots in the brain are likely linked to the AZ vaccine. These cases are serious and potentially fatal.

From what I’ve read there have been about 222 cases in the UK and EU out of about 34 million cases. That is risk of about 0.00000652941176471. This compared to a many hundreds of times higher risk of being unvaccinated and getting Covid-19, especially the older you are.

As I understand it, the NIAC advice, accepted by the Irish Govt, goes much further than the EMA advice which says that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the minimal risk.

Ministry amidst “An Abundance of Caution”

There are no easy answers here. And this is not an argument for law-breaking, arrogance, lack for respect and care for others, or a selfish insistence on individual rights at the expense of the common good. Neither am I a doctor or politician. These are complex, difficult decisions based on multiple factors. I don’t envy those who have to make tough calls. Everyone has their own opinions and the comments sections on newspapers are rather places of rather vitriolic debate (no change there on most comment sections come to think of it). On those issues my opinions are probably as (mis)informed as anyone else.

But as a Christian and church elder and someone trained to think theologically, the point I want to focus on is a phrase used by one of the NIAC advisors who said that the advice to limit the AZ vaccine to over 60s was made out of “an abundance of caution“.

Safety first. Minimise risk. Lockdown. Protect the vulnerable. Save the health service. This is, rightly or wrongly, the dominant narrative of 2020-21.

But such a narrative raises many questions for Christian life and ministry.

One of the last things believers or churches should be characterised by is “an abundance of caution.”

Thankfully God is not characterised by “an abundance of caution.” He is a God of outrageous grace and extravagant salvation whose saving love finds ultimate expression in the cross of Christ.

Christian mission is not to be marked by “an abundance of caution.” Countless martyrs throughout Christian history testify to that.

Christian love is not be marked by “an abundance of caution.” It is to be poured out generously for others, often at great cost to the self.

Christian worship is not be marked by “an abundance of caution.” It is to be joyful, wholehearted and holistic.

Christian faith is not a “safe investment’ with a guaranteed return. It is a call to an adventure of following the Risen Lord wherever he leads and who calls his followers to an un-cautious life:

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:27-31

All this raises questions for individual believers and church leadership teams. And pershaps answering these sorts of questions will be one of the main challenges for churches as the rest of 2021 unfolds.

What does it look like to live an ‘un-cautious’ life in times characterised by ‘an abundance of caution’?

What does it mean to be communities of faith, hope, joy and courage in a culture shaped by fear of making a mistake?

What does the gospel have to say about life and death in times confronted with, and traumatised by, the reality of death?

On ‘Doomism’, Sentimentality and the Cross

The April – June 2021 50th Edition of VOX magazine is out in a nifty new smaller printed format designed to make it easier to read on tablet, phone or computer.

You can read it online or download a PDF for free – can’t getter a better deal than that for what is an excellent magazine.

This edition has a particular focus on Ireland’s past, specifically the legacy of abuse formally made public via recent reports in the Mother and Baby homes. I’ll come back to articles on this in later blog posts. It also continues a series on racism in Ireland as well as an excellent article by Karen Huber on the Ravi Zacharias scandal and how it should

“light a fire under all Christians to hold our teachers, our church, and even our doctrines accountable. We should test the actions of those in authority against the standards set in Scripture, and we must pay heed to the spirit of discernment.”

My musings column had an Easter theme and is below. It raises questions, especially in light of the injustices and evil just mentioned above. Questions like:

  • What does it look like to be people of hope in a broken world?
  • What is our response to injustice and suffering?
  • How is the church to embody a different way – a way of justice and mercy for the oppressed and marginalised?

Doomism, Sentimentality and the Cross

Information Overload

The age of Information Technology has certainly lived up to its name; we have instantaneous access to information about pretty well anything we care to think of. Despite lockdown the world remains at our fingertips – there’s no 5km limit if you have a broadband connection. One thing I’ve discovered over the last few months is joining live safaris in the African bush. It’s been a wonderful way to ‘travel’, immerse yourself in another world and learn lots all at the same time. (I’m watching a leopard hunt impalas as I write this!)

But the net is also the gateway to all sorts of other information. There is little that we can’t read or see for ourselves about what’s going on in the world. Because billions of people now carry smartphones, photographs and videos are being taken daily on a vast scale. Even events that authoritarian governments try to hide tend to hit the news. Two examples as I’m writing are the abduction, imprisonment and now disappearance of Princess Latifa in Dubai (only made known through secret videos she took) and ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Chinese government against the Uighur population in Xinjiang (despite denials satellite pictures and videos are damning). But to these we could add countless others.

And then there’s information hidden away for so long, but now exposed to the light of day. In this edition of VOX are stories about injustices experienced by children in an Irish mother and baby home and revelations about Ravi Zacharias exploiting and using women for his own sexual gratification. And this is even before mentioning social media and billions of individuals sharing their lives and opinions on everything from funny cat videos to #FreeBritney to saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Such a vast amount of information has never been available to any human beings before. I wonder sometimes do we know too much? We’ve always known that the world was broken, but now we can watch it unfold livestreamed.

I’ve been musing about this new world – what it does to us and how are disciples of Jesus best to navigate its unfamiliar terrain. It seems to me that there are at least two dead-ends we can go down.

Two Dead Ends

One is ‘doomism’. All too easily, we can become news junkies, overwhelmed with bad news and in a constant state of fear or depression about our world and where it’s going.

Another is ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ – we literally switch off, close our eyes and ears and pretend the world isn’t like it is. We just retreat into a safe bubble of sentimental optimism. A Christian form of this sort of denial is to celebrate the love, forgiveness and presence of God while rarely, if ever, talking about the reality and power of sin and evil (including our own).

Hopeful Realism

But Easter speaks of a third, deeper, and more mysterious way of understanding our world. The way of the cross is neither ‘doomism’ nor optimistic sentimentality, it is, rather, the way of ‘hopeful realism’.

By ‘realism’ I mean that Christians should be the last people to be surprised by bad news, even the bad news of a Christian leader being unmasked. This is because the Bible has a stark diagnosis of what’s wrong with this world. It is Sin with a capital ‘S’. This is not just your wrong actions and mine (personal sins), though it includes them for sure. But Sin as a malign, destructive power that leads to death. A power that we have no way of overcoming on our own: not through better education, or self-esteem, or economics, or human ingenuity, or scientific progress or more information, or good life choices. Humanly speaking, we have absolutely no grounds for optimism about ourselves or our world.

By ‘hopeful’ I mean that our hope is God alone – and that is a great, big, wondrous sort of hope. This is the mystery of Easter. The stronger our understanding of Sin, the deeper is the good news of the cross. The cross

“is the scene of God’s climatic battle against the power of a malignant and implacable Enemy” (Fleming Rutledge).

No human has the ability to break the power of Sin and death – only God can. And, out of love, he has done just that.

Christus ist auferstanden!

This is an Easter reflection I did for our church a year ago. Re-posting it this Easter day. A ‘Coronavirus year’ has passed. The resurrection of Jesus continues to proclaim the victory of God over the powers of Sin and Death.

Christus ist auferstanden!

If we were physically in church this morning, retired German teacher Ian Stanton, with a mischievous smile on his face, would likely come my way and say “Christus ist auferstanden!” (Christ is risen!). I say ‘mischievous’ because he knows I will be panicking trying to remember the few words of German that he expects me to know one day a year. For the record they are “Er ist wahrhaftig auferstanden!” (He is risen indeed!).

These are days of deep uncertainty and loss. Walking around Maynooth it’s heart-breaking to read sign after sign of businesses closed. Behind those notices are stories of lost jobs, debt and fear for the future. One talks honestly about the owner’s ‘trepidation’ over the ‘big and scary’ decision to shut. I find myself praying for her and make a promise that, hopefully, when that café reopens, I’ll go and give her some business.

Walking along the canal parallel to the railway, empty trains go past. I wonder how long this is going to go on, aware there is no easy fix and multiple lockdowns could come and go for over a year or more. I think of health-care workers in MCC like Andy and Susanne on the front-line. I think of friends who have suddenly no work and no income. I wonder how many in MCC are in a similar situation. I think of other friends at high risk and pray they can stay free of infection. I think of my dad in his 90s and living at home alone and find myself strangely grateful that my mother died over a year ago and is not now stuck in a nursing home, confused, with no-one able to visit her. And if I’m honest, I also wonder about my own job.

And yet, as I enjoy the Spring air and blue sky, I know I’m deeply privileged. I have health, family, a home to live in, access to technology and food to eat. I wonder if this pandemic has caused such angst because it has hit the rich West. It has shown us to be far less safe and in control than we thought. It has made us face the possibility of sudden death. Yet millions of people in the world are only all too familiar with disease, famine and war. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are over 400,000 deaths annually of malaria and over 2 million new infections.

And so I think of countless Christians in the past and today who have never known the safety nets of stable employment, fair pay, a home, access to health care, physical security, food and clean water or the expectation of a long life.

And I start to wonder if this pandemic, awful as it is, is bringing more sharply into focus just how relevant and important it is that Christus ist auferstanden.

For if Christ is raised, then we can trust that our futures are in the hands of the risen Lord.

If Christ is raised, then, those in Christ through faith already have resurrection life.

If Christ is raised, then God has already won the victory over death and evil powers and that therefore Christians can rest assured that

“… neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

And if Christ is raised, we can have a sure and certain hope that, regardless of when we die, we will share one day in Christ’s resurrection to a new life within a renewed world – one that will be gloriously free of viruses, disease and death itself.

Tenebrae 2021

Tenebrae is Latin for ‘darkness’. Each year our church holds a Tenebrae service. It is simple in form – a mixture of Bible readings, songs, and poetry. There is no sermon.

The songs, readings and music are all performed by members of the church.

After each reading a candle is extingushed and the service ends in total darkness. People leave in silence. It is a service of lament and reflection on the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This year’s service was ‘held’ on You Tube. Thanks to the readers, singers and tech-person who worked out the candles. It lasts about 40 minutes and I found it profoundly moving.

LENT 2021. The Crucifixion. Fleming Rutledge. Justice and Judgement (4)

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we finish chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

Rutledge moves on in the final section of this chapter to discuss justice / righteousness.

You may be aware that these two very different English words come from the same Greek word group. Justify, justification, righteousness, just, justice, righteous are all derived from the same root in Greek

So justice and righteousness are effectively, in the NT, the same thing. But we do not read them that way in English. We tend to think of the ‘righteousness of God’ as his holiness often in contrast to our unrighteousness / unholiness (pre-conversion Luther)

But the crucial thing to grasp here is that God’s righteousness is best understood as a VERB not a noun. It refers to the power of God to make things right. He acts ‘rightly’ to ‘rightify’ we may say.

This is why Rutledge prefers ‘rectification’ instead of ‘justification’ – it better captures this sense of God putting things right.

So, what difference does this make? Well, two aspects of God’s righteousness are brought out

  1. God’s Righteousness as loving pursuit

Rutledge gives the example of Hosea 11 – Yahweh pursuing his Bride in order to restore their relationship. So we can think of God’s righteousness in more relational and restorative terms than that of the law court.

The righteousness of God is not a static, remorseless attribute against which human beings fling themselves in vain. Nor is it like that of a judge who dispenses impersonal justice according to some legal norm. (136)

  1. God’s righteousness as ‘aggressive action’

But the other side of God’s loving pursuit is what Rutledge calls his ‘aggressive action’ to restore righteousness. The example of Isaiah 1:24-27 is given, but Rutledge could have stayed in Hosea. It perfectly captures the double-sided nature of God’s righteousness. It tells the story of God’s astonishing love for his unfaithful people, but also contains more warnings of awful judgement than practically any other prophetic book.

Rutledge contends that even God’s judgement is restorative – the overriding goal is renewal and justice – and that means ‘smelting away impurities and the removal of alloy’ (137)

God’s Righteousness as apocalyptic intervention

Rutledge goes to lengths to make the point that by the end of the OT, this longing for justice – of restoration and renewal – had effectively come to a dead end. Post-exile Israel could only hope for divine intervention. Righteousness could only come from God, not from within

Justice and righteousness are not human possibilities. And this brings us to Jesus, the arrival of the Kingdom of God and his death on the cross.

In the final analysis, the crucifixion of Christ for the sin of the world reveals that it is not only the victims of oppression of injustice who are in need of God’s deliverance, but also the victimizers. (141)

… all are under the Power of Sin. In the sight of God, everyone is need of deliverance .. (142)

This means that God’s action at the cross is the unique and shocking place where loving pursuit and aggressive action against Sin come together.

Nothing else, no other method of execution, no other death, could achieve such justice.

The wrath of God, which plays such a large role in both Old and New Testaments, can be embraced because it comes wrapped in God’s mercy.

The wrath of God falls upon God himself, by God’s own choice, out of God’s own love.

God, in Christ on the cross has become one with those who are despised and outcast in the world. No other method of execution that the world has ever known could have established this so conclusively. (143)

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Lent 2021. Fleming Rutledge. Justice and Judgement (3)

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we continue in chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’. The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

A couple of discussion questions:  If you have suffered a grave injustice, what reactions and emotions went with it? What place did anger and a desire for justice have? 

Christians are called to forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? How does it work? And how is it connected to justice?

How much should we expect or seek justice in this world? Or is justice to be left to the next?

We’re going to focus on where Rutledge returns to the connection between forgiveness and justice. In the light of the horrors that stalk our world,

Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too …. ‘The cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception’ [quoting Volf]. This setting right is called rectification. [also called justification]  (126)

When we speak of setting right, we are not talking of a little rearrangement here and a little improvement there … From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the fallen predicament of humanity is so serious, so grave, so irredeemable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it. (126)

When it comes to injustice, Rutledge argues that we humans have a deep sense that

  1. there should be some accountability
  2. a just resolution of the offence should have some sense of proportionality.

However, most of the time our outrage is directed at others who infringe our rights. We pursue justice for ourselves –  ‘The public is outraged all over cyberspace about the things that annoy us personally’ (129) but much less often about injustices that affect others.

Rutledge moves here to the ‘outrage of God’ or the wrath of God.  If ever there is a theological idea that is ‘out of step’ with the culture of the Western church it is this one (my comment).

Quick aside – in writing about love, I found myself talking much of the wrath of God. The two cannot be detached. The same is true with justice and forgiveness.

To try to have love without wrath, or forgiveness without justice, is to deny the cross.

If we think of Christian theology and ethics purely in terms of forgiveness, we will have neglected a central aspect of God’s own character and will be in no position to understand the cross in its fullest dimension. (131)

Rutledge tells several stories of terrible injustice and the victims’ desire for justice. See this link for the story of Sister Dianna Ortiz and the American Govt involvement in supporting Guatemalan security forces that kidnapped, raped and tortured her, their crimes aided by American stonewalling of the truth.

Outrage is sparked when perpetrators like this act with a sense of impunity – few things are worse that having no hope of justice and that the guilty, the powerful, the exploiters and oppressors will ‘get away with it’.

The consistent message of Scripture, OT and NT, is that those who act unjustly do not do so with impunity. Rutledge quotes Volf again,

A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception and violence. (131)

So if our blood does not boil at injustice, can we said to be serving the God of the Bible?

But here is where God’s wrath at justice takes a revolutionary turn. What Rutledge calls ‘a shockingly immoral and unreligious idea’ (132)

No one could have imagined, however, that he would ultimately intervene by interposing himself. By becoming one of the poor who was deprived of his rights, by dying as one of those robbed of justice, God’s Son submitted to the utmost extremity of humiliation, entering into total solidarity with those who are without help …

Even more astonishingly, however, he underwent helplessness and humiliation not only for the victimized but also for the perpetrators … Who would have thought the same God who passed judgement … would come under his own judgement and woe? … the crucifixion reveals God placing himself under his own sentence. The wrath of God has lodged in God’s own self.

In the next post, we will finish chapter 3 with further discussion of the justice and righteousness of God.

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].