Total Church 08: World Mission

Continuing discussion of Chester and Timmis Total Church: a radical reshaping around gospel and community

Chapter 6 is on World Mission

If church planting is linked with mission at a local level, the gospel also has a much bigger scope. The authors focus on Isaiah’s big vision for the world coming to know Yahweh (66:23) and how this global vision informs Paul’s own understanding of the gospel for all nations (Romans 1:5; 16:26)

And mission revolves around Jesus – Christians are ‘sent’ (missio) in his name, by his command, to tell of his salvation, baptise in his name, all in the power of his Spirit. Mission is not an ‘add on’ to the Christian faith, it is Christianity in action.

This all leads to a ‘community for the nations’ – it has always been God’s intent that his people (Israel) will be a blessing for the nations (Ps 67:7). And it is the church which is central to God’s missionary strategy.

You know a good tree by the apples it produces! So it is with the gospel. We know the arrival of the kingdom is good news because of the kind of rule the King exercised while on earth. We know it continues to be good news by the communities he creates that live life to the full and model his rule.

Karl Barth talked of the missio Dei – and how the church’s role is to fit in with the mission of God. Mission then is not some sort of applied theology, it is rooted in God – his character and his purposes. And it is tightly tied to the local church.

This ties in with a much ’emerging’ / missional  church discussion – how it is a false distinction to say look at Jesus but not the church and so therefore we need authentic communities of faith. [Much of those discussions are not new, they are reforming earlier questions].

So how’s this all work out? If the local church and global mission are intimately connected, this raises questions (the authors argue) over how mission is often ‘contracted out’ to big mission agencies.  They argue, a bit rigidly in my view, that a more authentic and effective model is individual churches partnering in international mission together. I don’t see the ‘either or’ here – seems Chester and Timmis’ strong independency & autonomy of the  local church is shaping the discussion here.  Yes, church to church mission relationships are good, but larger mission agencies can do things that individual churches can’t.

What hope in the lost Republic?

How you interpret the story of Irish nationalism in the 20th century all depends on your point of view – for example, what colour flag tickles your fancy, what foot you kick with and what side your grandparents were on in the Irish civil war.

But whatever your perspective, one thing stands out as a truly remarkable achievement – that a tiny nation, riven by a bitter internal civil war, with few natural resources, economically feeble and dependent on its enemy, England for most of its trade, managed to survive and become a disproportionately significant little nation state within Europe and the world.

It nearly didn’t at times – Ireland just about failed in the 1950s. The 1980s weren’t much better. Decades of emigration, unemployment, poverty and struggle marked the first half of the century. Joining the European project was a turning point the rest is recent history. The boom of the mid 90s to 2007 stands as an untypical period in the history of the Irish Republic. We are back to struggle, high unemployment, emigration and general gloom.

The difference this time however is that the vision that sustained Ireland through the tough times in the past has disappeared.  It was a fusion of ‘faith and fatherland’ – of Catholicism and nationalism – that bonded people together to work for the success of ‘their’ nation. A D Smith, one of the great writers on nationalism puts it this way

‘Greater social cohesion and harmony to counter outside threats .. to infuse in members of their community greater self respect and restore a sense of dignity by a return to an idealised past … to remind members of the fraternal ties in the great family of the community. Cohesion, social harmony, self-respect, dignity and fraternity: these are the ends sought by every nationalist and ideals of every nation.’

My point? Both bonding forces of the past have lost their power.

In light of the abuse scandals Irish Catholicism is increasingly seen as an embarrassing and horrible  ‘mistake’ – something ‘we’ no longer want to be associated with.

And the social cohesion wrought by nationalism has collapsed in the wake of greedy, corrupt elites bankrupting the nation. Haughey and Ahern stand out to me as two leaders who not only betrayed Fianna Fail ideals, but betrayed the Republic. Brian Cowen is at sea – faced with overwhelming problems and with no vision at all of how to inspire people together to tackle them. His days are numbered.

The unifying vision of old Ireland has been replaced by icons like the shell of the Anglo-Irish Bank HQ, the fiasco of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, public vs civil servants standoffs outside the passport office, the Gardai effectively threatening strike action, wild celebrations that both money can be made and lots of drink taken on Good Friday, one banker being interviewed and ‘not remembering’ details about a transaction of 7.4 BILLION, of mis-management, greed and waste on a heroic scale at public bodies like Fas, of a corrupt culture at the heart of the political process as exposed by one Tribunal after another ..

And I’m afraid that I could go on and on with not much effort or research needed. All this is the stuff of daily conversation  – there is an endemic and pervasive cynicism in the air.

There ain’t much dignity around in public life in 21st Century Ireland, nor much social harmony. The Republican ideal has been lost in a fog of self-interest and greed.

The HOPE of the past has been replaced by a general sense of hopelessness.

– A lack of hope that justice will be done;  pretty well no-one expects the rich and powerful to face meaningful justice, nor that the vast majority of victims of abuse will see justice.

– A lack of hope in any leaders – whether political, church, unions, financial etc etc .

– A lack of hope for the future – the financial problems are so enormous that we are back in ‘failed state’ territory, like Greece except they have better weather. A whole generation is again facing emigration.

– A lack of hope spiritually – neither religion nor mammon have proved too reliable.

The gospel is a message of hope; Christians are called to be people of hope; churches are to be communities of hope.

A challenge for Christians in such a culture is not join in with cynicism and despair – that is to reveal that our hope was in the wrong things. That the world is broken should not be a surprise.

Rather, Christians are to be salt and light – offering the good news of the gospel by word and being good news in deeds, individually and in community.

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.  [2 Thes 2:16-17]

World Christianity 5: Old and New Testaments

Continuing discussion of Philip Jenkins’ fascinating book, The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South.

Chapter 3 is ‘Old and New’ and explores the special relationship African Christians in particular have with the Old Testament.

The big point here is how in Africa, the OT is accorded a much higher respect and authority than in Western Christianity.

The obvious irony – the very things that make the ‘primitive’ OT so popular in Africa are the very things that make Western Christians uncomfortable.

Starts with a nice quote:

If present day Africans still find it difficult to be at home with the Old Testament, they might need to watch out to see if they have not lost their Africanness in one way or the other [Madipoane Masenya]

Jenkins discusses the many ‘resonances’ the OT world has to the African one.

In Genesis 1-12, African Christians find deep connections in the story of the origin of the tribe, the promise of land, sacrifice at an altar, the ever-present threat of famine, nomadism vs agriculturalism, slavery and so on.

Jenkins notes how these ‘primitive’ themes are found beyond Genesis – in 1 Samuel scholars have found over 30 ‘African resonances’ – including tribal conflict, a visit to a seer, possession by spirits, men aspiring to be buried with their fathers.

One of the strongest ‘African’ themes of the OT is idolatry. Worship of false gods and the allure of pagan religions are all too real. Texts like Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 serves as a model story for rejection and resistence to pagan traditions and witchcraft.

Another is the closeness many African Christians feel for sacred places. The OT has many landmarks – and many African independent churches incorporate sacred places within their faith for pilgrimage and worship – mountains,  beaches, special landmarks.

In terms of mission, many African and Asian Christians readily connect with Paul’s missionary practice in Acts 17 of speaking of an ‘unknown God’. Acts is popular, especially in how it tells the story of how the Gentiles are included within the people of God without losing their identity and culture.

Sacrifice is major resonance. The book of Hebrews is seen by many as a profoundly African book because of how it speaks to a culture familiar with sacrifice – an idea repulsive to most western Christians.

Reminds me of a story a student, Michael Briggs, told me of a mission trip of Urban Junction to Uganda he helped lead last year. The group visited a village and, as guests, were given the honour of killing the goat for dinner. Michael got the job because no-one else could face it!  While not a sacrifice, same idea.

More resonances include the African respect and acceptance of prophetic utterances and visions. Daniel and Revelation are hugely popular books. Pentecostalism of course is huge in Africa.

Yet more resonances include the OT wisdom traditions, especially those found in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Such wisdom is given deep respect as being attached to the wisdom of the elders, yet in Western Christianity wisdom literature seems outdated and is marginalised.

And in keeping with this contrast it is the letter of James, more than any other NT book, that enjoys huge popularity in Africa. Famously an ‘epistle of straw’ for Luther, James’ is wisdom-type literature, practically addressing issues of direct relevance to African Christians – for example, a place for the poor and judgement on the rich.

And a final resonance is faith and politics. Jenkins says that in Asia and Africa, a common assumption is that states, no less than individuals, are to be open to receive and live by the word of God. The OT lends credence to the notion of a godly nation. Such themes lend themselves to ideas of communal and national righteousness, and associated national judgement if the nation turns its back on God.

A couple of questions come to mind:

Why is the OT largely not read and not valued in the western Church?

How has the comparison of how many Africans read the OT, shown how each of us reads the Bible with ‘glasses’ on that help us to ‘see’ some things very clearly yet makes us ‘blind’ to things that are crystal clear to others?

Sunday Reflection: Who is This?

Today being Palm Sunday, I’m taking a break from Mark to offer a simple Sunday reflection on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Some points for reflection:

1. Jesus’ entry into the holy city was planned and meaningful.

His actions are like an ‘acted parable’ drawing upon Zechariah’s hopes of Israel’s liberator come at last:

9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation

2. Jesus’ entry symbolises the return of the king to Zion – yet a king come in humility and peace

gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
But he will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth

This acted parable foreshadows Easter – that the Messiah would surprise everyone in fulfilling his mission not by a victory of power and might, but by suffering and death … and the whole city is shaken (Greek ‘seismic’) asking Who is this Jesus?

The events immediately following reveal this dual identity – glory, authority and power, yet embodied in servanthood, humility and self-giving.

Authority and power in cleansing the temple the very dwelling place of God. Glory in accepting worship only due to Yahweh himself.

Humility and self-giving – because this authority and power are not used for his own purposes or advantage but freely and voluntarily given to set his people free.

‘Who is This’? the crowds ask. This is the Lord, the servant-king, Jesus Christ from Nazareth, who is worthy of our praise and worship.

The Triumphal Entry

1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ”

6The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”

10When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

A story that won’t go away


There was a lively discussion over at Jesus Creed during the week when Scot McKnight re-posted my last Saturday’s ‘Story of the Week’ on the need for reform within Irish Catholicism. It felt a bit surreal to be put in a fundamentalist camp – with all the associations of that term with Ian Paisley, someone I’ve studied and written about and whose theology I do not share.

So with hesitation I return to the subject again this Saturday. It is a story that just won’t go away.

Father Brian Darcy was on The Late Late with Ryan Tubridy last night telling his own tragic story of being abused by a priest every day for a year when he was 8 years old. He was also calling for an end of hierarchical clericalism and reform of the church to become more Jesus like.

But how?

The intensity of revulsion sparked by Ferns, Ryan and Murphy, coupled with the Church’s instinctive posture of self-protection and concealment, I think is going to permanently reconfigure the already weakened relationship of Catholicism and Irish national identity. But it will also shape a very different looking Irish Catholic Church. What form that takes, remains to be seen but it ain’t looking good.

The word ‘crisis’ no longer captures what is going on. You get the sense of a paradigm shift in the wider culture. Bishops are departing by the week. The Cardinal is thinking about his position. And you don’t need me to tell you of increasing – and serious in every sense of the word – pressure on Pope Benedict’s record of handling sex abuse cases as recently as 1998. The Vatican’s response is predictably defensive.

There is precious little sign of grace and good news. Even yesterday, Cardinal Brady has been asked to withdraw the Church’s legal defence against one of Father Brendan Smyth’s alleged victims – a case that was first brought in 1997.

The Pope’s Pastoral Letter to the Irish Church spoke of how these awful events have ‘obscured the light of the gospel.’ No doubt about that.

What remains unclear is a path forward for the light of the gospel shine clearly. That is really the question I was asking last Saturday. And I don’t know the answer for (and this is a reason I’m not tempted to become a Catholic) it seems to me that there are deep seated structural and theological obstacles to reform.

Scot McKnight says it better than I ever will in a comment on his blog from some time back …

What do you think of what he says here?

I think the RCC and [Eastern Orthodox] EO render authority in the ecclesia instead of in Scripture and in Spirit to make Scripture clear. So far as the church partakes in that Spirit, it has an authoritative message; so far as it doesn’t, it loses its authority … both the RCC and the EO have captured the Spirit in the Church so that Church too often has become Authority. One example, hardly foolproof, illustrates my point: RCCs and EOs talk about Church; Protestants talk about Scripture. It is their emphasis that I like — and I wish each talked more of Spirit.

… I think this way is seen in how Tradition plays itself out in each Church: for each of these communions the Tradition becomes massively authoritative and, in my view, each of these communions has become un-reformable. They read the Bible through Tradition and I believe in reading the Bible with Tradition.

… God spoke in the Bible in ongoingly fresh ways; that reveals the importance of returning to the roots in order to gain fire for the present …  I believe both the RCC and the EO, even with routine observations to the contrary by its adherents, are un-reformable. (I believe the infallibility of the Pope or the magisterium means those statements can never be wrong or changed; time proves that some of what we all know today to be interpretive truth can be wrong in a century. Look at the Church’s backpedaling today on Galileo.)

… I believe in the guidance of the Spirit in the Church, both in theological articulation (Nicea, for example) and in revival (the Reformation, for example). The minute, however, one begins to think that a given moment in the Church or its articulation was timeless truth rather than truthful timeliness one falls prey to elevating Tradition too high.

Atheism and the goodness of God 7

This is a post going off on a tangent …  part B of the last post on the teleological argument (or argument from design).

There I mentioned Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and his discussion of the sheer remarkable unliklihood (to put it mildly) of life existing on earth. Here’s his take on it – written from a determindly non-theist position – indeed the more the discussion goes on the more surprising it is he makes no reference of any sort to God – even to dismiss him as a fanciful creation of our imagnination.

He distils the ‘two dozen’ or so ‘fortunate breaks’ that allow life to exist on earth down to four. I’m no expert, but I suspect he limits these factors too much in relation to local conditions on earth – see the previous post for factors like the gravitational constant, right balance of matter / anti-matter etc

1. Excellent Location:- We are ‘almost to an uncanny degree’ the right distance from the sun. 1% further or 5% closer and earth would have been uninhabitable for complex life (the range is a bit higher for microrganisms).

2. Right kind of planet:- the ‘lively interior’ of our planet played a crucial role in forming an atmosphere and formed the magnetic field that shields us from cosmic radiation. Our molten core also creates plate tectonics without which our globe would be totally smooth and everything would be underwater. The earth has carbon, without which no life would probably be possible. Byrson says that the earth seems ‘miraculously accommodationg’ that it is not surprising that we marvel that it is so perfecty suited to our existence.

He does suggest that this amazing ‘fit’ might be because ‘we evolved to suit its conditions.’  And he further suggests these astonishing factors enabling our life may seem splendid to us ‘because they are what we were born to count on. No-one can altogether say’. Frankly I have no idea what that means.

3. The moon:– our moon is just the right size to exert a steady gravitational pull on the earth to help it spin at the right speed, angle and stability for life to exist.

4. Timing:- Bryson says our existence in the universe is ‘a wonder’. For us to exist, he says, we need to be ‘at the right end of a very long chain of outcomes’ and ‘we are very lucky’ to find ourselves here.

Such facts point to an ‘anthropic principle’ – whether you want to accept it or not. They also add weight to the coherence of the idea that a creator God designed the universe this way so life could exist.

Blogging ethics?

OK – I’ve been at this blogging lark for nearly 3 months. I’ve a question to you, the huge rapidly growing multitude of readers out there.

Blogging ethics – what are the basics?

And if there are no answers I’ll assume either none exist or none of you have any ethics.

So any DOs and DON’Ts?

OK I get that it is probably not best to start confessing deepest darkest sins – even if they are someone else’s.

I see some sites reference where they steal source pictures from. Just good manners ?

What about plagiarism? Are links like the blogging version of a footnote or just handy to do for readers?

What about boundaries – what sorts of stuff is it best not to talk about ..?

I guess it is sort of sensible not to talk personally about people without their permission if you want to keep your rapidly diminishing number of friends (no time for people any more, too busy blogging).

I guess its not the smartest thing to start telling stories of confidential meetings where the church elders had a fantastic stand up row  even if you were on the winning side of the argument

I suppose it’s best not to say anything online you are going to regret for years

And I guess its best not to libel someone who combines a lack of humour with enough money and time to be bothered to sue.

And I suppose ethically you are supposed to declare the vast sums of money that will flow in once you move to blog heaven aka beliefnet ….

And a ‘don’t’ that I fear is ‘Don’t be boring’ ….

Any nuggets of wisdom ?