Sundays on Mark (4)

Continuing our series of simple reflections on the Gospel of Mark

This week Mark 2:18-28

We begin here to get interesting insight into three separate groups of disciples: John’s and the Pharisees’ both fast, perhaps for different reasons. John’s likely as a sign of repentance, the Pharisees’ regular fasting as part of extra biblical tradition (only on the Day of Atonement was fasting required). Yet Jesus’ followers surprisingly do not follow such practice which again raises the question of his identity – the bridegroom who will be with them for a temporary period. The image here is of celebration, the implication is messianic.

The new wine in new wineskins is both a word of judgement on the Pharisees and an announcement that the new age of the kingdom is dawning, disrupting and superceding the old.

2:23-28 Further challenge and controversy follows in the technical dispute over harvesting on a Sabbath. Jesus’ example of David is again christological – as David the King (and his men) did this, so Jesus (and his followers) can do likewise. The Pharisees’ interpretation overstretches itself since the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The exchange leads to further revelation of Jesus’ identity: the Son of Man (Jesus) is Lord of the Sabbath.

Prayer: We give thanks that in Jesus we see freedom, joy and life. Refresh and restore us O God, through your Spirit, to worship and follow you in liberty and life-affirming service. Amen.

The God I Don’t Understand 13: End Times

The final ‘hard to understand’ issue Chris Wright discusses is what the Bible says about the future – which of course is rather a lot. The New Testament only makes sense within an eschatological framework. Moltmann said that “Christianity is eschatology” and it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment if not the hyperbole. It seems to me that many big themes are clear; it’s the details that are hard to be dogmatic about [although plenty of people don’t seem to let a lack of biblical support get in the way of their insistent interpretation]. I like to think of it as a line drawing sketched on a big canvas on the wall of a large room, but with colour, texture and fine details left to the imagination. It is only as you walk forward in time into other rooms that the picture becomes clear in marvellous technicolour detail.

In chapter 9, ‘Cranks and Controversies’, Wright will lose some friends – maybe especially in some strands of American Christianity where these things seem to matter more than in most other places – and here in Ireland in certain churches. Basically he criticises three hugely popular assumptions:

The MILLENNIUM– Wright sees it in amillennial terms, not a literal thousand years of the reign of Jesus on earth but a metaphor for the time between the first and second comings of Jesus. It just isn’t that central in Scripture (only appears once in the Bible in Rev 20:1-6) and we shouldn’t make it so either.

The ‘RAPTURE’: – his view is straightforward here; there isn’t one. The idea that there is rests on poor exegesis of one or two texts [1 Thess. 4:16-17; Matthew 24:40-41].

The NATION OF ISRAEL: there is no special spiritual significance to the contemporary state or land of Israel. Wright says that ideas concerning the significance of post-1948 Israel ‘skip happily off the pages of Ezekiel and land in the twentieth century, without reference to what the New Testament teaches about the fulfilment of OT hopes in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.’

I find myself in agreement with him on all three points here. But the point I’d like to make is that I find it strangely un-evangelical that numerous churches and mission organisations continue to insist on a particular end times scheme (e.g. premillennial dispensationalism) being written into their statement of faith and having to be assented to by their staff. The biblical support is highly contentious at best. Even places like Dallas Theological Seminary have in practice appeared to have moved a long way – to such a point where ‘progressive dispensationalism’ is almost unrecognisable from its original form. Why? Because, I think, the thinness of its biblical foundation has been unable to support the huge superstructure that has been subsequently constructed. Cracks abound.

I’m not saying this view is definitively ‘unbiblical’. My point is that it is so open to serious question that to make one dubious interpretation of the future a non-negotiable point of confessional faith is to put a theological system and/or denominational loyalty ahead of the Bible. That’s why I use the term ‘unevangelical’. And what I say here would go for insisting on amillennialism or post-millennialism as well.

Kingdom Come Conference

Next week Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland and others are hosting another Kingdom Come Conference with guest speaker Gordon McDonald and  various other speakers (including Trevor Morrow from our ‘mother’ church, Lucan Presbyterian). The theme of the Conference is ‘Refresh, Restore, Revitalise’.

On Tuesday afternoon I’m co-leading a seminar on ‘Culture and Context’ with Mark Russell who is Chief Executive of the Church Army in England. I’m looking forward to it.

The summary we came up with goes like this:

This seminar will look out – outwards at the contemporary culture in which we live. What are the forces and values shaping our context and how can Christians ‘read’ culture with discerning eyes? But this seminar will also look in – Christians can’t pretend they are somehow ‘above’ or unaffected by their culture. What are the key challenges and opportunities facing the church in 21st century Ireland?

This raises the question: what do you think of big Christian get togethers? What makes a good one?

Missional musings 1

Preparing for The Mission of God conference this Friday and thinking about ‘missional church’ in an Irish context. The word ‘missional’ could end up like the term ’emerging’ as one that gets abandoned due to contradictory and contentious overuse. But more important than the word are the issues and ideas connected with it. The word ‘missional’ raises great questions and practical challenges for churches in contemporary Ireland.

Taking a look back a few decades and it is truly remarkable how quickly and deeply Christendom Ireland has collapsed. There is no going back and, in Irish terms, we are moving through a paradigm shift in the wider culture. Being missional in this context is all about seeking to engage that fast changing culture ‘missiologically’ – thinking through what it looks like to be  ‘missionary communities’ of the gospel of God. This will require being open to a radical rethink and openness to experimentation of how we ‘do church’ so as best embody that gospel and engage with a post-Christendom Ireland.

Here are some closely related definitions:  – what do you think?

“Missional” is a global term for what God is doing in this world and how the follower of Jesus is summoned to participate in that great redemptive work of God.

‘Missional church’ concerns how the the church can be the hermeneutic of the gospel and work out in a local context what it means to engage in the mission of God

‘missional’ means adapting and reformulating absolutely everything the church does in worship, discipleship, community, and service–so as to be engaged with the surrounding non-Christian society of the West.  {this a paraphrase of Tim Keller}

What might it look like to be a ‘missionary church community?’

The God I Don’t Understand 12: The Cross

Chapter 8 of Chris Wright’s excellent book The God I Don’t Understand ties up his discussion of the cross as he answers the question ‘How does the cross work?’ by taking on a further false dichotomy:  Human Sin or God’s Judgement?

Those that reject the idea that the cross involves God’s punishment tend to emphasise instead that it is all about Jesus overcoming sin. At the cross, Jesus deals with human wickedness, violence and evil by taking it upon himself, drawing its sting or ‘absorbing’ it as it were. In other words, Jesus bears mankind’s wrath against God, not God’s wrath against mankind.

Wright argues that we need to hold onto both. The cross is the place where the victory of God is won over evil and sin (Col 2:15). But it is also the place of divine judgement. [This is a bit like Scot McKnight’s nice golfing illustration that when we come to the atonement we need to play with all the clubs in the bag, not just one – in this case both the cross as the supreme act of love by God as well as penal substitution]

Chris Wright has a life-long passion for encouraging Christians to understand their faith in light of the story of the OT and it is there that he roots his argument. There is a double truth about Israel. One the one hand she is the beloved people of God, the nation of promise; the focal point of God’s love for the world. On the other hand, she is a people in rebellion; the focal point of the world’s sin against God. And in 587BC she suffers defeat and exile; an event which is simultaneously a result of divine judgement and an act of cruelty and violence perpetrated by the Babylonians.

Here’s the big point. Jesus’ death is in many ways a ‘re-play’ of 587BC but at a much deeper level. Jesus represents Israel, as her Messiah, he embodies the Israel and fulfils her mission and destiny. [the other Wright, the N.T. one, has argued this point at length]. As he represents her in life, so in death. Jesus suffers human evil and divine judgement. Jesus himself links his coming with the imminent destruction of the temple (Jn 2:19-22). Again divine judgement falls, but the difference is that Jesus’ death is wholly undeserved. As Wright says, “every word in Paul’s definition of the gospel is important: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”


According to the atheist Christopher Hitchens, the idea of divine judgement amounts to a form of totalitarianism; punishing people for ‘thought crime’ that makes Christianity a callous, reprehensible, indefensible and poisonous form of manipulation and control. Well, you can’t say he doesn’t have a point of view.

The Bible has a different perspective. It has no problem saying that sin deserves to be punished. The fate of the wicked is summarised as: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). For God not to judge sin is to abandon justice and any hope of the ultimate victory over evil. For God not to judge sin is to rob ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ of meaning since there are no ultimate moral consequences to our actions.

Wright puts it memorably this way. To see the cross as ‘cosmic child abuse’ is a gross caricature. However, “it is equally a grossly deficient caricature to reduce the cross to nothing more than a cosmic sympathy card, in God’s handwriting, ‘I share your pain.’ The astonishing good news is that God takes the punishment on himself in Jesus Christ. Love and judgement meet at the cross.

Relationalism 2

Continuing some loosely linked posts on the importance of relationships and relational thinking for church and ministry:

Here’s a fascinating story of how ‘knowing’ in biblical terms involves far more than just rational comprehension. ‘Knowing God’  involves head, heart and hands.Too often we have fallen captive to a western individualist and rationalist mindset in terms of how we conceptualise ‘knowing’ God.

It is summarised from a book called Christianity Rediscovered by the Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan who ministered among the Masai in Kenya & Tanzania from 1955-1973 and is about a discussion he has with a Masai elder on the meaning of ‘faith’.

In their conversation, the Masai elder pointed out that the word Donovan had been using in Swahili to convey the word “faith” was not a very good word in their language since it meant literally “to agree to.” The Masai elder said that to believe like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal from a great distance. Only his eyes and his finger were involved. The Masai elder then said that for one to really believe is more like a lion going after its prey. The lion’s nose and ears sense the prey. He sniffs the air and locates it. Then he crouches, and slithers along the ground virtually invisible. The lion gets into position, and when everything is optimum, the lion pounces. All the power of his body is involved and as the animal goes down, the lion envelopes it in his arms, pulls it to himself, and makes it a part of himself. This, said the elder, is the way one believes, making faith a part of oneself! Donovan nodded in complete agreement, almost overcome with the elder’s wisdom. But the elder was not done yet. The old Masai became thoughtful. Then he said to Donovan: “We did not search you out, Padri. We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You told us of the High God. You told us we must search for the High God. But we have not done this. Instead, the High God has searched us out and found us! All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

Church, Leadership and Liminality 2

We are continuing discussion of Alan Roxburgh’s fascinating and important little book  The Missionary, Congregation, Leadership and Liminality

Here’s Roxburgh’s take on what’s going on behind the massive cultural changes that are radically impacting the church in the West – and I’d argues Ireland is particularly deeply affected because Christendom was so deeply entrenched here.

Ever since the rise of the Enlightenment, Christendom there has been a gradual process of the disestablishment of the church by the secular world. The church moved from the centre to the periphery of public culture. But here’s an important point with which I agree – until recently this gradual marginalisation has not felt too threatening or alarming. Christianity, Roxburgh argues, renegotiated its place in modern society, retreating to the privatised world of individual faith and flourished there.

I agree with him because this was my experience as I reflect back on growing up within the evangelical sub-culture of Northern Ireland. Don’t get me wrong – I have a huge sense of gratitude for much of that experience. But in the midst of a bitter sectarian conflict that engulfed the state for decades hardly ever did you hear a sermon about faith and politics or what it meant to follow Jesus in a context of violent ethnic strife. The evangelical sub-culture was vibrant but seemed to have little to say to the world ‘out there’. That is why when ECONI started so many welcomed it with enthusiasm.

But what has been unfolding in the last few decades is what feels so disorientating and threatening to many Christians. ‘Marginalisation’ assumes the existence of a centre and a periphery but in post-modernity there is no margin, no centre, just a swirling mulitiplicity of views overlapping and competing with one another.  Now churches find themselves in the new and unsettling territory of often bewildering pluralism (what Roxburgh calls ‘the vast freemarket of spirituality’) as just ‘one more interest group seeking a market niche in the culture.’

Roxburgh argues that churches have tended to respond to this uncertainty in different ways, but each one is profoundly shaped by modernity and therefore inadequate to engage with the new missionary challenges of our postmodern world:

  1. PASTORS AS THERAPISTS:- adapting to the individualism at the heart of modernism
  2. RELIANCE ON TECHNICAL RATIONALITY: – adapting to modernism’s emphasis on technique, business strategy, marketing, growth, and success
  3. RETREAT into the comfort of community: – where the fragmented world outside is kept at bay.

These are inadequate because they are either ‘opting out’ of engaging in mission (1 and 3) or they are desperately attempting to ‘regain’ power and prestige that comes from success and being at the centre of culture (2).

What’s needed, he suggests, is for western churches first to understand their current context, and then to re-imagine their life and witness for a missionary encounter with a post-Christendom culture. This is his focus in chapters two and three which I will post on next.

How do you feel about the church’s increasingly marginal or peripheral role in Irish culture? Is this a good or a bad thing?

Sundays on Mark 3

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on Mark’s Gospel

This week 2:1-17

Mark gives a rough chronology of Jesus’ Galilee preaching tour. It is a ‘few days later’ when he comes ‘home’. Capernaum is a base for this wider ministry of preaching the word – specifically the message of the kingdom of God.

The famous story of the healing of the paralytic remains remarkable – for its dramatic sense, visual imagery and emotional impact. The story is told from an eyewitness perspective. The teachers of the Law with front row ‘seats’ sitting before Jesus who knows their thoughts. Jesus speaks, for the first time referring to himself with the exclusive self-designation – the Son of Man. This Son of Man has authority to heal AND forgive.

The healing again focuses attention of the identity of the healer who so deliberately and provocatively does only what YHWH should do AND on the liberating nature of the kingdom of God which brings physical and spiritual healing. Here is the holistic gospel of no merely human Messiah. His listeners know only too well the outrageous claim to divine identity that Jesus has just made. Mark, as other NT writers do, includes Jesus in this divine identity without compromising his monotheism.

This radically inclusive good news of the kingdom speaks right into the divided world of 1st cent Palestine under Roman rule – and into the equally divided world of the 21st Century. Jesus seeks out Levi the local tax collector sitting in his toll booth, a man hated by his own and an expendable pawn to his masters.The gospel of the kingdom is for the helpless and the quisling. Grace leads to fellowship and feasting. Such acceptance is deeply, profoundly and emotionally offensive to the ‘healthy’. It is also deeply, profoundly and emotionally wonderful good news to ‘sick’.

PRAYER: We praise you O Lord as one who demonstrates your love for the outcast and the needy; who brings liberation to the whole person and calls your people to do the same. Help us, through your Spirit, to not only speak good news but be good news. Amen.

The God I Don’t Understand 11: the Cross

Continuing his discussion of the cross as a tough issue Chris Wright turns to the HOW question – how does the cross work? And specifically to where this ‘how’ question that has caused all sorts of fall out over the last few years, especially in England.

These ‘Atonement Debates’ were sparked by Steve Chalke’s (in)famous reference to the doctrine of penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse’ in his book The Lost Message of Jesus, co-written with Alan Mann. It’s the penal bit they (and others) don’t like. Penal refers to the cross as the place where the Son bears the punishment for our sins instead of us. Critics like Chalke see this as:

–          a vengeful father taking out his anger on an innocent son

–          immoral in that our punishment is transferred to an innocent party

–          an impersonal legal transaction

–          fixated on sin and guilt

–          sucked into the pagan idea of appeasing angry gods

–          glorifying the myth of redemptive violence (violence can solve our problems)

Wright responds by arguing these sorts of views fail to hold several things together:

Love and Anger – if God doesn’t love the world he would not be angry at evil. If he is not angry at evil he cannot not claim to love the world. The cross is the supreme place where love and anger meet. In light of this, Wright suggests a rewriting of the end In Christ Alone by Stuart Townend adding ‘and love’ in the final line:

‘Til on that cross as Jesus died

God’s wrath and love were satisfied’

I see what he means but the idea of God’s love being somehow ‘satisfied’ seems to me to be an unfortunate one. Wrath is particular response to evil and sin – and this will be overcome in the new creation. Love is eternal and defines God. It’s wrath that can be satisfied, love has no limits.

Father and Son –  the cross is a work of the Triune God in salvation. It is failure to understand the unity of purpose within the Trinity that could begin to see the cross as some form of child abuse.

Guilt and shame – Alan Mann in his Atonement for a ‘Sinless Society’: engaging with an emerging culture argues that a sense of objective guilt before God has virtually disappeared from today’s world. It has, he suggests, been replaced by a pervasive internal subjective sense of shame at our personal failings and broken relationships. Therefore we need to talk and think about the cross as overcoming shame, not in terms of dealing with sin and guilt. Wright finds this another false dichotomy. Shame and guilt need to he held together as both being answered at the cross.

He finishes with a moving personal story of how the cross liberated him from both guilt and shame. I love his candour here. It is a reminder of how the cross is not just a theological puzzle but impacts the heart, emotions and self-esteem. The gospel is good news after all! One of my favourite biblical verses is Galatians 5:1:

“It is for freedom that Christ has set you free”.

The Mission of God Conference

Next Friday 29 February, Irish Bible Institute, IMap and TEAR Fund Ireland are co-hosting The Mission of God conference with guest speaker Chris Wright. Now this blog has only been going a few weeks and you might be getting the impression that I’m some sort of Chris Wright groupie. Scary thought. But I am really looking forward to hearing him on The Mission of God and as speaker at our IBI student weekend retreat the next day.

There are 4 seminars in the afternoon. Reuben Coulter, chief executive of Tearfund Ireland on reaching the marginalised. Pastor Tunde Adebayo-Oke, national pastor of the Redeemed Church of God on Welcoming the Migrants. Derek Switzer of Youth Alive and Greg Fromholtz of 3Rock Youth on Connecting with Youth. And I’m doing one on ‘Mission from the Margins’ which will be exploring what it means for churches to be missional in post-Christendom Ireland. Bookings are apparently going well and I hope to post some reflections on the event afterwards.