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.

Relationalism 1

I hope to post now and then on the importance of relationships for any and all Christian ministry, and also offer some potted theological thoughts. The more I’ve thought about this after meeting Michael Schluter who was speaking about ‘Relationalism’,  the more convinced I’ve become on the need to keep relational thinking upfront in how we engage in church and in Christian training.

Relationships form the bedrock of a life lived well. If they disintegrate, chaos often ensues. But more than this, from a Christian perspective the whole of faith can be interpreted as being relationally focused. The greatest commandment exhorts believers to love God to the uttermost. The next greatest exhorts them to neighbour love. God is in himself a relational being, a triune community of Father, Son and Spirit.

Here is a quote I came across from the Miroslav Volf talking about a book by Nichalos Wolsterstorff called Justice, Rights and Wrongs. Volf is not only a great writer, but, from the [admittedly only one] time I met him, a theologian who really seems to enjoy people – and the two do not always seem to go together!

A flourishing life is neither merely an “experientially satisfying life,” as many contemporary Westerners think, nor is it simply a life “well-lived,” as a majority of ancient Western philosophers have claimed. Instead, argues Wolterstorff, explicating the moral vision of the Christian Scriptures, human flourishing consists in “the life that is both lived well and goes well …a well-lived life is one that a person leads well … the life that goes well is one in which a person enjoys good things and right kinds of relationships.

In other words, in contrast to our culture’s exaltation of individualism or of created consumer ‘things’, real life is found in the sort of life we lead. And a quality life is found in quality relationships – with God and with others.

If this is true, what are some implications?

The God I Don’t Understand 10: the Cross

The third ‘hard to understand’ issue Chris Wright discusses is the cross. ‘Sure what’s so hard to understand about the cross?’ Well, the more we get into it, the more we realise that there is much mystery behind the familiar. And as Chris Wright points out, the issue is not so much one that disturbs or baffles, but one that is beyond full comprehension and leads to gratitude, joy and peace.

Chapter 6 takes up the ‘WHY’ and the ‘WHAT’ of the cross. Why did God do it this way? Why was the cross necessary? What did it achieve?

The WHY question is summed up well here:

“Why Bethlehem? Why Calvary? Because God loves us. This of course is the right answer. Right, biblical, true, terrific. And utterly inexplicable.”

But why does God love us? Why did he love Israel? Not because of who they were or what they had done. Often the exact opposite. God loves Israel, Wright argues, because his love for them is a mirror image of how he loves the whole fallen world. Why he loves in this way or why he demonstrates that love most supremely in the cross, is a mystery.

The cross also poses a ‘WHAT’ question to which Scripture has multiple answers that Wright summarises:

–          It brings the Christian ‘home’, into God’s household. Eph 2:11-13, 19

–          It enables the Christian to experience the grace and mercy of God Eph 2:3-7

–          It delivers and redeems the Christian, setting him/her free from sin Eph 1:7

–          It brings forgiveness and healing of relationship Acts 2:23-4; 38 3:15-19

–          It effects reconciliation and peace with God and with each other. Rom 5:10-11; 2 Cor 5:8-11. Eph 2:13-18

–          It justifies the Christian, or puts him/her in a right relationship with God  2 Cor 5;21

–          It cleanses the Christian, enabling fellowship with God, 1 Jn 7-2:2

–          It brings spiritual life from spiritual death. Eph 2:4-5

And this is all possible because the cross is directed ‘at us’ and is ‘for us. It effects what we could not possibly do for ourselves and does this because, in a crucial sense, Jesus is our substitute. He bears “in himself what we would otherwise suffer because of our sin”, and gains for us “what we would otherwise eternally lose.”

Lots of reasons indeed for gratitude, joy, peace and worship.

The ‘HOW does this work?’ question is harder to grasp and has been the source of a fair bit of controversy over the last few years. We’ll look at this next.

Church, Mission and Leadership 1

I’ve just re-read a fascinating little book by Alan Roxburgh called The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality. Not new (1997), not long (66 pages) but it packs quite a punch and speaks prophetically into the challenges facing the 21st western church. It’s well worth discussing as an introduction to missional church and Roxburgh’s work and I want to use this post to tee things up.

His book is relevant because Christianity as we’ve known it in Ireland is at a turning point. To put it mildly, it’s impossible to imagine the Catholic Church ever having the same relationship with Irish identity and culture that gave it unchallenged power and prestige. Protestant churches seem to be in decline. While evangelicals in Ireland have seen growth, they remain a tiny minority. In the UK there are denominational death dates – at current rates of change it can be predicted when many older established denominations will cease to exist. The wider culture has shifted, the future is uncertain. We are transitioning from a deeply Christendom culture [where the church was central and powerful and respected] to one where those holding a Christian faith are increasingly marginal, less influential and have far fewer resources than in the past.

As Roxburgh says, pastors feel vulnerable, confused and defensive. Denominational executives are like firemen, running from one crisis to another. Ministry roles are changing so quickly that many are just trying to survive. There is little space for deeper reflection about the massive changes sweeping through the culture. There is a recognition of the desperate need to move from ‘maintenance to mission’. Yet there appears little real sense of how this shift is going to happen. Structures seem wedded to the past. Within denominations, after half a century of discussion about moving beyond ‘one man ministry’, clericalism remains entrenched. The model of professional clergy ‘owing the experience necessary to dispense religious care and functions’ to a guaranteed membership belongs to a bygone era.

Visionaries and radicals tend to end up beating their heads against brick walls of inertia or old centralised bureaucratic systems. Where decline has rung alarm bells, responses tend to be ones that hope somehow to return to the past or cling on to a privileged place at the centre of culture. Neither option seems viable.

Missional church is all about the churches understanding this changed context. Especially in understanding themselves as missionary communities in a post-Christendom culture. These are the sorts of issues Roxburgh takes up and has developed at much more length in writings and ministry.

How do you see the challenges facing the church in post-Christendom Ireland ?

The God I Don’t Understand 9: Canaan

Chris Wright ends the discussion of the Canaanite conquest with a personal comment that’s worth listening to:

“For this history is part of the story of my salvation … I may not understand why it had to be this way. I certainly do not like it. I may deplore the suffering and violence involved, even when I accept the Bible’s verdict that it was an act of warranted judgement. I may wish there had been some other way …  But … what the Bible tells me is that this was an act of God that took place within the overarching narrative through which the only hope of the world’s salvation was constituted …

I have to read the conquest in the light of the cross. And when I do … I see one more perspective. For the cross too involved the most horrific and evil human violence … The crucial difference, of course, is that, whereas at the conquest God poured out his judgement on a wicked society who deserved it, as the cross, God bore on himself the judgement of God on human wickedness, through the person of his own Son – who deserved it not one bit.”

I like his honesty, his unflinching willingness to ask ask hard questions and his commitment to hold the big story of Scripture together. What do you think?

And from here we turn in the next few posts to some hard things to understand about that cross.