Urban Theology (11) Jesus, Jerusalem, Christians and the city

Chapter 7 of David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world is called ‘From Jesus to John of Patmos’

This is a key chapter of the book in terms of a NT theology of the city. I’m sketching and highlighting here over a couple of posts because it is another big chapter.

One value of this book is to look at familiar themes through the lens of urban theology. So in this regard, it’s important to look at Jesus’ relationship with the ‘holy city’ of Jerusalem.

Under Herod, it was undergoing an intensive period of Romanization and urbanization – much of it suffused with a paganism abhorrent to Jewish faith: Greek style games with naked wrestlers, gladiatorial contests, amphitheatre, hippodrome, pagan symbolism and so on. Even the impressive extending of the temple complex into a magnificent spectacle was in Graeco-Roman style and the temple complex itself had become ‘a central and powerful economic institution’.

Smith argues for a sort of ‘ideological religion’ that oppresses the poor and generates profits for the insiders – the powerful within the temple cult. And it is this injustice that Jesus sees as the ‘antithesis of the kingdom of God’.

And so Jerusalem, the dwelling place of Yahweh, was fatally compromised ‘by a pagan culture of death’. So Jesus’ lament over the city (Luke 19:37-44). By its rejection of Jesus’ shalom, and opted for compromise, idolatry, and collusion with oppression and injustice. Judgement, conflict and destruction would follow.

Smith proposes, convincingly I think, that Jesus’ institution of a new Passover within the city was a deeply radical move: a new covenant and a new salvation revolving around the death (and resurrection) of the Messiah, meant that even in Jerusalem, Israel was enslaved.

The path to the cross was thus the way to a new and greater liberation, an exodus which in its spiritual depth and geographical reach would fulfil the visionary hopes of the prophets for the arrival of the age of God’s shalom. 190.

And it’s a fascinating point, how ‘the rejection of Christ and his death outside the city walls, together with the subsequent flight to the suburbs by his followers, provides one possible (anti-urban) paradigm for a Christian response to the urban world.’

Christians, the writer of Hebrews says, have ‘no enduring city’ and ‘are looking for the city that is to come’ (Heb 13:12-14). See also James and his warnings against compromise with Roman urban values associated with the making of money. See God’s revelation to John on Patmos, and the command to ‘come out’ of the worldly city and away from her sins (Rev 18:4).

Smith leaves this hanging a bit, but implies that this anti-urban reading is incomplete and ultimately a distortion of the full NT picture. For that bigger picture is of cross as the surprising victory of God. The post-resurrection encounters with the risen Christ lead the scattered disciples, men and women, to re-enter the abandoned city and testify to Jesus within its walls, indeed right back within the temple itself. And it is from their testimony that the gospel goes out into the great urban centres of the Mediterranean world.

Interesting parallels here to contemporary Christians’ attitudes to the city: flight and abandonment of the ‘evil’ city versus a committment to ‘return’ into the city with the good news of the resurrection of the Messiah?

Urban Theology (10) Jesus and the city

Chapter 7 of David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world is called ‘From Jesus to John of Patmos’

This is a key chapter of the book in terms of a NT theology of the city. I’m sketching and highlighting here over a couple of posts because it is another big chapter.

The shadow of empire (Brueggemann), so prevalent in the OT, deepens and darkens in the NT.

Smith has a nice section on ‘Jesus and the city’ arguing how big political and urban themes are everywhere behind the apparent rural simple Galilean setting of Jesus’s ministry. Lots of good stuff here for contextualising Jesus’ ministry:

– political oppression, colonial rule

– Debt

– unemployment

–  ethnic, cultural, political and religious diversity

– clashing worldviews

– city building (Sepphoris, Tiberias, Caesarea, the 2nd Temple etc

– the conflict of the kingdom of God with empire

“In contrast to the dualism of modern, Western culture (a dualism that has profoundly shaped Christianity in Europe and North America and results in serious misreading of the biblical texts), Jesus’ ministry integrated religious, political and economic concerns, placing all of them within the sphere of the reign of God. This was bound to precipitate a clash with an empire which made idolatrous claims for itself and operated on the basis of a  worldview which justified a form of domination based on the use of violence, and then used its power in ways that created widening socio-economic divisions as large numbers of people were driven into poverty and despair.” 184

This is not to read Jesus purely politically as if the kingdom of God is socio-economic freedom and justice alone. But neither is it to spiritualise his teaching. Jesus held these two things together.

And of Jesus’ methodology? Smith proposes Jesus’ kingdom teaching is subversive of empire – challenging its overwhelming power from within – within the city, within existing culture – a theology of infiltration (Sawicki). A theology of salt and light that would allow others to ‘see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’ (Matt 5:13-16). And this is no soft option – but likely a call to suffering, opposition and persecution as it challenges the imagined status quo of the dominant urban theology of the day.

Again, there is much here that reading this chapter you want to say how does this connect to our ‘empire’ of 21st Western capitalism? How is the church to be subversive and challenging the dominant urban theology of the financial markets that increasingly rule governments rather than the other way around? I’m looking forward to what he has to say about these sorts of things in the next chapter.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Solitude, loneliness and terminal distraction

A story with a sting in the tail from the Jan/Feb 2012 edition of Third Way in an article on Solitude, loneliness and terminal distraction by Simon Parke.

The psychologist Carl Jung told a story of a young priest who came to see him. The man of God was restless, feeling the power was going out of his ministry. Jung heard him out and recommended that he spent one evening a week by himself. The priest agreed to this plan and left.

When he returned the following week, Jung asked him how his evening alone had gone. The priest said it went fine. He’d watched TV and enjoyed it. Jung pointed out to the priest that he was supposed to spend the evening alone, without the TV for company. He encouraged him to try the same thing again next week. The priest agreed and left.

When he returned the following week, Jung asked him how it had gone. The priest said it went fine. He’d read a book all evening and enjoyed it. Jung pointed out that he was supposed to spend the evening alone, without the company of a book. The priest became exasperated. How could he possibly spend the evening just with himself?

‘Well if you don’t want to spend the evening with yourself,’ observed Jung, ‘are you surprised that others don’t want to spend time with you?’

Why are we afraid of solitude?

Why does everyone reach for their mobile phone if they have to wait more than 2 minutes for a train? And once on the train, reach for the free newspaper to fill in the time until arrival? From what do we need such constant distraction?

What’s the difference between solitude and loneliness?

Why is so little made in our culture of the joy and creativity and refreshing nature of solitude?

Do you feel like a machine – relentlessly active, ceaselessly ‘productive’ and always on standby, never switched off?

Do you feel overwhelmed by what Parke calls the ‘restless negativity’ of the mass media that invades your inner self?

I’m going to try to have a time of solitude over the Christmas break. Maybe you can ‘join’ me and we can compare notes here afterwards!

Urban Theology 9:

Continuing our progress through David Smith’s Seeking a City with Foundations: theology for an urban world.

We were in the middle of a big chapter, ‘from patriarchs to prophets’, tracing developments in the place of the city in Israel and the wider world up to the end of the OT period.

There is a continuing theme or tension here between the city as the sacred dwelling place of God and a place of corruption – where the city itself becomes oppressive.

There is a degeneration, as Samuel had warned, from initially good beginnings under David (the blessing of God in Zion), to loss of this memory under Solomon (1 Kings 11:11). And increasingly a prophetic confrontation develops against a hard-edged urban religion and its associated activities of building, taxes, exploitation of poor, forced labour, erosion of sexual ethics.

This is well captured in Eccl 5:8-9 and an increasing alienation from anonymous elites profiting at the expense of the poor:

 8 If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. 9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.

Lament psalms pray for reform of the city. And much of the prophetic tradition of Israel focuses its critique on the city and the need for reform. This internal critical tradition is unrivalled in the ANE.

The prophets Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah face stiff resistance from within Israel – see Jeremiah 26:7-11 for the prophet facing a lynch mob, accused of being a traitor for speaking out against the city. Hosea is one of the most dramatic examples of prophetic critique against the erosion of sexual fidelity in an urban world – a city without love. Lamentations is the loving lament of what has happened to the city after the judgement of God has fallen.

Yet there is hope for the city. Is 40-55 in exile in Babylon speaks of the hope of return to a renewed city of God – of a world transformed. (Is 65) and the redemption of the city; a place of peace, plenty and security: God’s great shalom.

And one of the hugely surprising things in this vision (in the context of the warring empires of the ANE) is that this Isaianic vision includes the nations of the world and their cities: Ninevah, Damascus, Tyre and Babylon. These were enemies: representing expanding empires, violence, exploitation, unjust trade, and idolatry. However, also included is hope of God’s grace and mercy for these cities and nations. (Is 19:18-25, :20,23). There is even the vision of blessing the pagan city from within – see Jeremiah’s exhortations to the exiles in Babylon to settle down and seek the peace and prosperity of the city (Jer 29:4-7)

“We may conclude then that cities reflect the true greatness of human beings, but they also display the disastrous consequences of human greed, selfishness and propensity to violence. Which is why, according to the Jonah story, God looks upon the most corrupt of urban societies and asks his worshippers “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jon. 4:10)

Where does this all leave us?

Smith’s recurrent theme is the tension between God’s judgement on the structural evils associated with urbanisation within Israel: a loss of meaning and a loss of relationship; of wealth without a social ethic; a turn away from God and an associated turn away from neighbour. God’s judgement on human hubris.

Yet alongside judgement is his continuing longsuffering and concern for the city; for justice and reform; for the city to be marked by love for God and love of neighbour.

He will get to these sort of questions in chapter 8 – but all this raises the issue of what structural features of our modern globalised world do you think fall under the judgement of God?

And how and where are Christians demonstrating divine compassion, hope and justice in the midst of that corrupted, unequal and increasingly urbanised world?

In the meantime the next chapter continues the story of the city into the NT, ‘From Jesus to John of Patmos’

Comments as ever welcome.

Claiming the G word (3) gospel replacing Jesus

A third reason that makes me question the overuse of the G word as an adjective to describe much of what we do is that it promotes a rationalistic and narrow view of the Christian faith.

For example, in the newsletter I mentioned in the first post, despite all the gospel language, the name of Jesus was hardly mentioned.

It seems to me that something weird is going on when overuse of the G word begins to replace the one about whom the gospel is actually all about.

Without hardly noticing, our assent and fidelity to ‘the gospel’ can become the defining core of our faith and the main measure of our ‘evangelical orthodoxy’. Our ‘soundness’ is measured through the prism of assenting to particular propositions – often entailing ‘the gospel’ being assumed to mean a summary of ‘how to get right with God’.

And if the gospel is understood as little more than evangelistic activity, the shape of the Christian life that is valued tends to be highly ‘activistic’. It is what we are doing to spread and share the gospel that is the ultimate measure of our gospel faithfulness.

There is little space in this gospel for the transforming impact of life within the kingdom of God, of Spirit empowered living marked by his fruit, and for seeing all of the Christian life as a call to live a life shaped by the redemptive mission of God to redeem all creation.

Being a Christian does not equal just rationally believing some propositions: it means repentance and a living faith in God, being united to Christ in baptism through the Spirit, following Jesus as Lord, forgiving others, loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself.

That’s what the gospel leads to. In other words, the gospel is not an end in itself, but a doorway to a transformed life: head, hands and heart.

Yes of course it involves evangelism, mission and believing the apostolic good news. But that good news should lead to the formation of ‘people of good news’ – people who ARE good news in their lives and relationships.

This is the ultimate test of ‘gospel faithfulness’ – and it’s a much more searching and broader one than just claiming that all we do is ‘gospel work’ (evangelistic activity).

See this great Pauline ‘gospel text’ in Colossians 1

3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

Faith in Jesus Christ; love for God’s people; faith and love springing up from hope that itself is based on the gospel. A gospel that is about God’s grace. A gospel message that is shared and communicated (the evangelism of Epaphras) and issues in people marked by ‘love in the Spirit’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Advent people (4) Simeon

On this 4th Sunday of Advent we’ll turn to a fourth advent person in the gospel of Luke,  that of Simeon.

Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, God takes the initiative to bless a righteous and devout believer by granting him his dearest wish. But again, much more is going  on. The Spirit is on him, the Spirit has revealed he would see the Messiah and the Spirit directs him to the Temple to meet the parents and child.

Simeon’s advent has come at last and his song of praise is all about God – who keeps his promises and who has sent his salvation. After a lifetime of waiting he can depart in peace. The Messiah is a light for Gentiles through the glory of fulfilled promises to Israel. The baby in his arms is of and for the Jews but the salvation he brings will be for all.

And Simeon’s prophecy to Mary foreshadows that the salvation will be costly; light has darkness to overcome. The mission of the Messiah will reveal hearts, encounter opposition and bring grief to his mother.

His words carry huge significance; the whole story of Israel, and of the world itself, rests on the little bundle of flesh in the old man’s arms. This is the supreme ‘upside down-ness’ of Christmas.

No wonder his parents marvel. Let’s join them in wonder and thankfulness and praise.

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Claiming the G Word (2) gospel as exclusion

This is a second post on the overuse and misuse of the G Word – the gospel.

In the first post I proposed that claiming authenticity for everything we do by attaching the word ‘gospel’ to it actually devalues a word that has a specific meaning in the NT.

A second, and more important reason, to question overuse of the G word is when it is used as an exclusionary boundary marker. Ah we evangelicals are rather good at this. We’ve had a lot of practice.

It seems to me that there is a defensive subtext to the sort of insistent claiming of the G-word for ourselves and all we do described in the first post. ‘Gospel’ becomes reduced to a shorthand way of claiming spiritual authenticity, doctrinal ‘soundness’ and evangelical orthodoxy – even over against fellow evangelicals.

And so, sometimes quite subtly (and sometimes not) ‘gospel’ becomes an exclusionary word.

Sometimes it is as blunt as ‘We have the gospel and you do not’ – a hard sort of fundamentalist separatism. I’ve written on how Ian Paisley forged a whole career out of a competitive assault on the gospel authenticity of other Christians (especially the Presbyterian Church in Ireland) in order to build up his ‘pure’ and ‘free’ church.

More often it carries the strong implication that ‘we know best what the gospel is’. ‘We know how to preach and teach it and to share it. We know how to do things the right way and since we’re not too convinced that you do, we won’t have any gospel partnership with you but we will with others who think and do things the same way as us.’

And I guess the motive behind this is a sincere desire to ‘protect’ the gospel. We ringfence the gospel by working only with those like us who are safe and sound. So we circle the wagons and won’t risk venturing outside our self-imposed boundary since this in some way may compromise the gospel.

Now I don’t have any problem with churches and networks with particular affinities working together. It often makes perfect sense. What I do object to is to label such relationships as, to take one famous example from the States, a ‘Gospel Coalition’. This co-opting of the G word for ourselves is divisive, even if unintentionally so.

Now I admire and have learnt much from many people who are part of the ‘Gospel Coalition’ – especially Tim Keller who should just straight up be declared a saint 😉 I just wish they had come up with another name.

I’ve re-read their Confessional Statement and Theological Vision for Ministry carefully. And it is striking how in the latter they (a bit begrudgingly to be honest) acknowledge that God is working beyond the boundaries of what they call ‘gospel-centered’ churches. I assume they don’t deny that other churches believe in and are committed to the gospel.

Yes they have concerns about the gospel faithfulness of some strands of contemporary evangelicalism – if there is such a coherent identifyable thing any more. But that is not relevant to my point.

The point is to notice how the G word is being used. It has shifted from being a description of the NT gospel to being equivalent to whole way or style of doing ministry, what the GC call ‘gospel-centered ministry’.  Such ministry, they say, involves empowered corporate worship (including expository preaching); evangelistic effectiveness; counter-cultural community; integration of faith and work; and the doing of justice and mercy. And if you don’t share these emphases, you are not qualified to be part of our gospel coalition.

I’m sorry but that move is failing to be consistent with being gospel people (evangelical).

Why? Because it is the very essence of a generous, or better, grace-filled ‘big tent’ evangelicalism, that the evangel (gospel) is NOT any particular sub-group’s ‘property’. The gospel is by definition what unites evangelicals. So one part of the movement claiming the label for themselves is inherently contradictory to ‘being evangelical’.

But the GC are going even further than this. The word ‘gospel’ has now been tightened and redefined to describe particular emphases of how to do church ministry. The inevitable implication is that if you don’t do it this way, you are not doing gospel-centered ministry. That move is fatal to evangelical unity.

The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the joyful announcement of what God has done in and through his son. It is a story of celebrating that the kingdom of God has come with the arrival of the Messiah of Israel; that a new age of the Spirit has dawned in light of the atoning death and victorious resurrection of Jesus who has been exalted to the right hand of God. It is the good news that God is reconciling sinners, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, to himself within his bigger purposes of redeeming all of creation.

It is a crying shame when this wonderful G word becomes a basis for excluding other Christians who believe in the same gospel. It like charismatics and Pentecostals claiming that they are the only ones with the Spirit, or the Reformed the only ones with the Word.

Now I imagine someone may say; ‘You are being naive. We need boundaries. Paul contended for the gospel against false teaching in Galatians for example.’ Yes indeed – I’m not suggesting that the G word be emptied of its content – exactly the opposite in fact. I’m not suggesting that just because someone wishes to claim the title ‘evangelical’ that we ignore their doctrine. Yes, evangelicals need to stand firm in the gospel.

I am arguing for evangelicals to live up to their name and live in the unity of the gospel (Phil 1:27); unity in the essentials of the faith. And in this, no-one says it better or with more integrity and graciousness than the late John Stott who, after over 60 years in ministry, wrote in Evangelical Truth of his grief that

many of us evangelical Christians acquiesce too readily in our pathological tendency to fragment. We take refuge in our conviction about the invisible unity of the church, as if its visible manifestation did not matter. In consequence, the devil has been hugely successful in his old strategy of ‘divide and conquer’. Our disunity remains a major hindrance to our evangelism.

The gospel is the ‘gospel of God’ (Roms 1:1). Let’s stop trying to claim it for ourselves to the exclusion of other brothers and sisters.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Claiming the G word

This is a 3 part post on Christian overuse and misuse of the word gospel that I’ve been mulling over for a while.

It is offered not in a snide critical way, but out of an increasing sense of sadness at the divisions within evangelicalism (‘gospel people’ to quote John Stott) over the very word that gives them their name.

Reading some literature from a Christian organisation a while ago I couldn’t help noticing the frequency of the word ‘gospel’. It was everywhere.  I counted over 50 appearances used in about 20 different ways. For example:

‘gospel message’, ‘gospel-centred churches’, ‘full-time ministry of the gospel’, ‘the work of the gospel’/’gospel work’/’gospel workers’, ‘gospel partnership’, ‘growth of the gospel’, ‘the gospel speaks to the heart’, ‘the blessings of the gospel’, ‘gospel commitment’, ‘bringing the gospel to x’, ‘y being passionate about the gospel’, ‘proclaiming the gospel’ , ‘everything we do has the gospel at the centre’ – and so on.

Now I’m all for the gospel. It’s the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). It bears fruit and grows as it is taught and learnt (Col 1:5-6).  It is a message that, by the grace of God, has changed my life.

But I have a few problems with this sort of claiming of the ‘G word’ for just about every aspect of Christian activity. Here’s the first reason why:

  1. Indiscriminate use of the G-word devalues its meaning

As has been blogged about plenty of times here, the gospel has a specific meaning.  John Dickson has a wonderful chapter on ‘What is the Gospel’ in his equally wonderful book The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission. In it he offers this summary of the gospel.

“for Paul is the news of Jesus’ royal birth, authoritative teaching and miracles, sacrificial death and burial, glorious resurrection and appearances to witnesses. It is the whole story of the Messiah, establishing him as Lord, Judge and Saviour in God’s kingdom.”

Or you don’t have to take his word for it; try D A Carson,

” … from a comprehensive theological perspective the gospel is the good news of the coming of Jesus – who he is, his mission, above all his death and resurrection, the inauguration of the final eschatological kingdom even now, and all that this means for how we live as individuals and as the church, the eschatological people of God, in fulfilment of all the promises God made in the scriptures that led up to Jesus.”

Or Michael Bird

“God promised in the Scriptures that he would renew creation and restore Israel. The gospel is the good news that God has made these promises good in Jesus, the Messiah and Lord. Jesus died and rose for the purpose of atoning for sins and through faith in him and his work believers are reconciled to God. The new age has been launched and God has revealed his saving righteousness in the gospel so that he justifies and delivers from the penalty and power of sin and death.”

Or Scot McKnight in his recent book The King Jesus Gospel (not a quote)

1 Corinthians 15 is the early and prime example of ‘gospel’ in the NT. And this gospel is best summarised by Jesus the Messiah bringing completion to the story of Israel. The gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ; his life, death, resurrection, ascension and the consummation of the kingdom to come. This is, Scot argues, the message the 4 gospels tell; it is the gospel of Paul; it is the gospel Peter preaches in Acts, and it is what Jesus himself preaches – he repeatedly puts himself at the centre of God’s purposes for Israel.

Now you can come back at me and say I’m just plain wrong, but I suggest that this NT understanding of gospel above is not what is in mind behind the indiscriminate use of the G-word in the sort of literature I was reading.

It’s my strong suspicion that those who most vehemently claim the G word tend to have a pretty specific summary understanding of what gospel equals. And that is something close to an evangelistic summary presentation of how to be saved like this (actual example):

  1. [Bad News] We have a serious sin problem
  2. [Bad News] We cannot solve our sin problem by our own good works
  3. [Good News] God has a solution to our sin problem
  4. [Good News] We must accept God’s solution by faith

I’m not saying this isn’t true as far as it goes. But you don’t need to have Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation to notice that ‘how to get saved’ formula [what Scot McKnight calls a ‘soterian gospel’] is rather a long way from the New Testament’s rich understanding of the Good News. It tends to reduce the gospel down to little more than shorthand for anything to do with evangelistic activity. It’s detached almost completely from the story of the Bible – a story which has the coming of Jesus the Messiah of Israel as its climax.

To equate this with ‘the gospel’ is like comparing a kids colour by numbers picture of the Mona Lisa with the finished masterpiece.

In other words, indiscriminate use of the word ‘gospel’, rather than demonstrating fidelity the good news, actually starts to devalue the G-word. Ironically, it does the opposite of what is intended.

Next post is on how the use of the G-word can become an exclusionary weapon.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Women in the Bible

There has been a flurry of posts on women in the Bible in the wee bit of the evangelical blogosphere that I visit.

Scot McKnight’s ebook on Junia and the scandal of the attempted gender switch of this female apostle.

The Baptist theologian Steve Holmes’ 3 posts in positive response to McKnight – can’t say he’s sitting on the fence on this one.

(‘Balance? If we want real historical balance … we would be telling nothing but women’s stories for the next two millennia.’)

The always excellent Michael Bird stirring up the imagination about Phoebe’s ministry and responsibilities.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Rom 16:1-2 TNIV).

I love messing with my students. Yes, I know it catches them off guard, but exposing their assumptions and ignorance is both enjoyable and actually educational too. When I get to my Romans class, I ask the students four questions:

So who actually wrote Romans?

“Paul,” they immediately reply in chorus.

“No,” I retort, “Who physically sat down and penned the letter to Paul’s dictation?”

Blank faces, deep thoughts, then some bright spark will blurt out, “Oh, oh, that guy, what’s his name, um, Tertius.”

“Correct-a-mundo” comes the teacher’s approving reply who points students to Romans 16:22 which says, “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22 TNIV).

Moving on…

So who delivered the letter to the Romans then? Who was Paul’s envoy?

Confused faces, odd looks: how can they be expected to know that?

“Turn with me to Romans 16 then” and together we read the text.

Then we have a cool discussion about the meaning of “deacon,” “benefactor,” and the role of letter carriers in antiquity. It gives a good starting point to talk about Christian ministry and patron-client relationships in the context of the Greco-Roman world.

“So then, if Phoebe is a deacon, Paul’s benefactor, and he trusted her to take this very important letter to the Romans, then Phoebe must have been a woman of great abilities and good character in Paul’s mind. Do you agree?”

Heads nod in agreement.

And if the Romans had any questions about the letter like ‘what is the righteousness of God?’ or ‘who is this wretched man about half-way through?’ who do you think would be the first person that they would ask?

Eyes wide opened, some mouths gaping, others looking a bit irritated.

Then I provocatively add: “Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about or from Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?”

The end result is an “Aha” moment for some students, confusion and frustration for others.

Then comes the big question…

Think about it people. This is Romans—Paul’s letter to unify the Roman churches and to prevent a potentially fractious cluster of ethnically mixed house churches from ending up like Galatia where there were painful divisions over Law and Halakhah—the oral interpretation on how exactlyto obey the Law. This is Paul’s effort to return to Jerusalem with all of the Gentile churches behind him. This is Paul’s one chance to raise support from the Roman churches for a mission to Spain. This is Paul’s gambit to answer rumors about his ministry that he’s either anti-Law or anti-Israel. This is Romans, his greatest letter-essay, the most influential letter in the history of Western thought, and the singularly greatest piece of Christian theology. Now if Paul was so opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere, why on earth would he send a woman like Phoebe to deliver this vitally important letter and to be his personal representative in Rome? Why not Timothy, Titus, or any other dude? Why Phoebe?

Some students nod in agreement, others flick through to 1 Timothy 2:12, others sit back and just think.

I’m careful to make the point that this is not the be all and end all of debates about women in ministry. There are other texts, contexts, and interpretations that we have to deal with. This text won’t answer questions for us about who to ordain either, they have to be answered elsewhere. But I point out that taken at face value, Paul evidently had no problem with women having some kind of speaking and teaching role in the churches. I think Paul’s commendation of Phoebe and her role as letter-carrier to the Romans shows that much. What is more, we should also commend women like Phoebe today!



Advent People (3) Mary

On this third Sunday of Advent we turn to an obscure Jewish palestinian teenage girl called Mary.

It’s probably safe to say no-one has been more buried under later theological developments and controversies than this young girl.

So let’s put aside an image of Mary as meek and characterless, detached almost completely from her first century context.

Too many statues of Mary lead us to think of her like that – lifeless and bland.

Too many crèches have her as a sweet smiling passive figure.

Too much theology has her as so perfect so as not to be fully human at all – a sinless, pious, perfect “supermum”.

Yet her Magnificat has nothing much meek and passive about it. It’s a revolutionary proclamation against Herod and the might of the Roman Empire. It’s a celebration of the liberating action of God in keeping his covenant with his people. It’s a song of joy at being chosen. It’s an outburst of praise and worship to Yahweh.

And do you see how Mary mentions humility twice? God has been mindful of his ‘humble servant’ whom he has lifted up …

At the heart of Christian humility is a recognition of our true place and standing before God.

It is those who are NOT humble who he judges and casts down – the rulers like Herod and Caesar …  the powerful and so often the rich … those who are proud, self-sufficient, who protect their own status and power, who are happy to use others for their own ends, who have no interest in justice for the poor. Who think that they are in control of their own lives …..

There is no way on earth that they will acknowledge Jesus as LORD – no, Herod’s first reaction is to try to kill his rival …..

Some speculation here: I wonder if the current debt crisis is one huge lesson in humility. Out of control lending by banks to private investors – driven by status and greed. Building huge buildings like Anglo HQ on the Quays – now standing half built – a monument to vanity.

Of so many taking on unmanageable debt – vast portfolios of property developers, – of helicopters, of mansions, of billion euro bets on banks, of apparent wealth and success ….  of political patronage and massive over-confidence

Of a huge consumerist binge …. of a myth of endless growth and profit and the story that we are the masters of our own fate, without limits – dreams of endless progress ?

And suddenly all this house of cards has come crashing down ….

Has God scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
Has he brought down rulers from their thrones. Has he sent away the rich empty?


But before we say ‘well that wasn’t me’ – we all need to acknowledge that deep down, we are proud. Each one of us wants to be right, and in control of our own lives.

Christian humility like that of Mary is not low self-esteem. Christian humility is simply this – acknowledging that Jesus is LORD and I am not.

It leads to repentance; to give our lives over to God in faith just as Mary did. Wholeheartedly, without reserve and in joy.

Mary’s Song

46And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”