Love in Paul (7) Experiencing the love of God

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

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

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

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

We are in strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people (now both Jews and Gentiles) in light of God’s prior redemptive action.

Our focus in this post is how, in Paul, the response of believers to divine love involves more than obedience. It is, at heart, experiential.

I think this is often missed in theological discussions of the Pauline theology, that tend, for example, to be dominated by technical debates about how justification works. All to easily we end up making Paul some sort of Enlightenment rationalist writing abstract theology for academics when he was nothing of the sort.

Repeatedly the apostle affirms that God’s people are loved by God (1 Thes 1:4; 2 Thes 2:13, 16; Rom 1:7; 2 Cor 13:11, 14; Eph 1:4-5, 2:4, 3:17-9, 5:1-2, 6:23; Col 3:12). Faithful obedience flows from personal experience of God’s elective love in Jesus Christ.

Let’s look at some texts:

Romans 5:5: Love and the Spirit

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

All believers experience God’s love being poured into their hearts through the Spirit. [An aside: N T Wright argues divine love in this verse refers to our love for God. But this is unconvincing. It makes much more sense to read it as God’s love for us].

In his commentary on Romans Paul Jewett concludes that believers have nothing to boast about except their shared experience of the love of God conveyed by the gift of the Spirit (Jewett, 2007).

Also notice Paul’s ‘us’ and ‘our’ language. It’s very likely he is talking about his own experience here of God’s extravagant love and grace for a zealous persecutor of the church.

Romans 8:35-39 and Ephesians 3:18-19:

These famous texts speak for themselves. This is no abstract theology but one that speaks of a profound, personal and yet corporate experience of divine love.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 3:18-19

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

It’s crucial to see what is going on here. Divine love is now reframed from the OT; it now has a Christological shape. Experience of the love of Christ leads to being filled with all the fullness of God (3:19).

These sort of Trinitarian connections between Father, Spirit and Messiah represent remarkable theological development in Paul’s understanding of divine love.

For God’s people, being loved by Father, Son and Spirit should lead to responses of gratitude, obedience and worship.

Indeed it’s fair to ask this question:

If someone claims the name ‘Christian’ but shows no signs of an experiential response of gratitude, obedience and worship in light of God’s prior love, have they really encountered the love of God at all?

Thoughts on ‘Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles’

Stories are powerful. They often convey truth far more effectively than a factual presentation or an academic paper.

There is a vast amount of academic research on the Troubles and Northern Ireland. I’ve even contributed to the pile. Many years ago the political scientist John Whyte wrote a book Interpreting Northern Ireland that sought to categorise and assess the tidal wave of research. He commented way back then that NI was probably one of the most heavily researched places on earth. And the volume of publications has only probably increased since his time. What difference all that research has made is another question!

Why mention this? Well, it’s surprising how rarely, in all that output, that stories of people caught up in the violence have been recorded and told and reflected upon. And even more rarely (if at all) a particular community has been invited to tell its stories.

That is what Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles sets out to do.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), and specifically its Council for Public Affairs (CPA), should be congratulated on being the catalyst for the book. Their idea was for a research project into the question ‘How did Presbyterians Respond to the Troubles?’ To ask the question (and act on it) speaks of a willingness for self-critical examination, an openness to learn from past mistakes and consider how to build a better future.

Gladys Ganiel, a sociologist of religion at Queen’s University Belfast, helped to find the funding and carried out the research with the help of Jamie Yohanis. Ganiel wrote the book. Again this was an encouraging decision. As a professional sociologist, Ganiel brings an objectivity to the process. And certainly the book does raise plenty of questions and issues for the PCI to consider.

Some 120 people were interviewed across a range of categories, including at least 50 women, geographically from all over NI and the border counties, and intentionally not restricted to clergy and leaders.

The groups were: ‘Ministers’, ‘Victims’ (the largest group of interviews), ‘Security Forces’, ‘Those Affected by Loyalist Paramilitarism’, ‘Emergency Responders and Health Care Workers’, ‘Quiet Peacemakers’, ‘Politicians’, ‘Those who Left Presbyterianism’, and ‘Critical Friends’.

As such, it is a valuable resource for at least 5 reasons:

1. (some) Victims’ Stories are heard

To an extent that is impossible to imagine if you didn’t live through it, the violence of the Troubles impacted every level of society. During 30 years of conflict, over 3,500 people were killed, 100,000 injured and countless others traumatised – all this in a small geographical area with a population of only 1.5 million.

One harrowing story follows another, especially in the chapters on ministers, victims, security forces and emergency responders.

About a year ago I spoke at a PCI conference in Omagh. A co-speaker was Rev Terry Laverty, whose story opens the book. He was 15 when his 18 yr old brother was shot dead by the IRA. His mother was already a widow, looking after seven children. That was 1972. Nearly 50 years on that pain has not diminished. His experience of God’s grace enabling him to forgive and live free of bitterness frames the book’s invitation to consider grace.

Terry Laverty and the authors are well aware that there is no one or ‘right’ way to grieve and that forgiveness cannot be forced – and may take decades if it happens at all. The strength of this collection of stories is its non-prescriptive nature. People tell their experiences. Some cannot say the line about forgiving others in the Lord’s Prayer while others can. And these are only a tiny selection of stories – many potential interviewees did not want to participate. Recounting the past was simply too painful or they could not see a benefit in bringing it all back up again.

2. Truth telling is an opportunity for grace

The motive for the book is to let the stories speak their own truth. Ganiel writes in the conclusion that such telling in itself is an invitation to grace. Listening well to others is an act of grace. It opens up possibilities of understanding, empathy and compassion. It fosters lament – a grieving along with those who have suffered so much.

The chapter on emergency responders sheds light on a particularly hidden aspect of the conflict. The relentless horrors that so many faced on a daily basis in hospital ERs, operating theatres and wards are talked of often for the first time by participants. Among all the pain, screaming, tears, and cursing of victims and their families, one line stayed with me from the health-care workers, themselves made up of people from both communities

‘All blood is red. There’s no orange or green blood’

3. To understand Protestant experience of sectarian conflict

At a different level, anyone seriously interested in Protestant experience of the Troubles should read this book. It does not claim to be the only story – there are others. But this is a story that needs to be told.

It should be essential reading for church leaders in training, for academics, for community leaders and for politicians. The PCI is continuing to reflect on the book and is producing resources for churches and groups based on it.

And it should also be a reminder for historians of Northern Ireland to take religious belief seriously as they research and write academic analyses of the Troubles. These are deeply human stories of anger, hurt, pain and suffering and loss – but also frequently of remarkable love, grace and resilience inspired by faith in Jesus Christ. Steve Bruce, a sociologist of religion and author of books on Paisley and Protestant paramilitaries is one voice who has long argued, in the face of much opposition, that religion needs to be front and centre of any analysis of NI.

4. As a Resource for critical self-reflection for the PCI

This was the original intent of the book and there are plenty of uncomfortable questions for the PCI to consider.

What is highlighted for me is the ambiguity of what is meant when we say ‘the Church’. Such a title conjures up images of a clearly defined hierarchy of leaders in control. But the PCI is more an uneasy mixture of a centalised bureaucracy bound by the ‘Code’ (rulebook) of the denomination combined with a decentralised structure and lack of hierarchical leadership. At a local level each minister and church pretty well do their own thing.

This structure has strengths. Geraldine Smyth (Critical Friends) notes how it allows the PCI to embrace a wide diversity of opinion. But is also can lead to what another interviewee called ‘lowest common denominator’ Christianity where the Church stays silent on controversial issues for fear of alienating some of its own members.

I wrote about this in my Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster 1921-1998 (Oxford University Press, 2003). It described the PCI’s slow and uneasy journey of self-critical reassessment regarding its relationship with political Unionism and Orangeism while trying not alienate many within its ranks committed to a ‘For God and Ulster’ theology who were the target for Paisley’s constant attacks on the ‘liberalism’ and ‘weakness’ of the PCI.

These internal tensions, combined with the denomination’s bureaucratic and democratic structures, meant that during the Troubles (and since) the Church tended to be politically tentative, lacking both the will and a common vision required for prophetic action.

You see this in the interviewees criticisms about ‘the Church’. They are often contradictory, but have in common a frustration about inaction on the ground and merely abstract statements of principle.

  • Some want more political involvement, others do not think the Church should be involved in politics;
  • some want the Church to make peace-making a central priority, others want more support for victims and justice for those who took lives with apparent impunity;
  • some want to make the Church more truly Reformed, others are closer to a ‘mere Christianity’ and have little affinity for, or interest in, Reformed theology;
  • some are socially, politically and theologically conservative, others are passionate about the radical social implications of the gospel;
  • some think the Church did as much as it possibly could in an awful situation, others think the Church let the Lord down by its prioritisation of internal unity at the expense of obedience to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and loving enemies.

It’s not easy to see how such internal tensions can be resolved. I guess there are at least two dead ends. One is to pretend they are not there. The other is for one group or other to try to ‘grab power’ and enforce their own vision while marginalising others with whom they disagree. Such methods are likely to either split the church or just increase the flow of those heading for the exits. There is no short cut to transparency, dialogue and listening to each other.

5. The need for hard theological reflection

As a theologian I would say this wouldn’t I? All all of life is theological in the sense that every disciple of Jesus is faced daily with the question Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked, what is the meaning of ‘Jesus Christ for today?’

In the context of sectarian violence all sorts of theological questions emerge from a reading of this book. Questions like:

What is our theology of God and suffering?

What does it mean to love your enemies in a context of political violence?

What is our theology of forgiveness? (this comes up a lot in the interviews)

What is our theology of justice?

What is our theology of church and state?

What is our theology of faith and national identity? (this is the question my book primarily tackled)

What is our theology of peacemaking? Of violence / non-violence? (Joe Campbell, a friend who is interviewed in the ‘Quiet Peacemakers’ chapter, makes a telling observation that the PCI does not have a coherent peace theology. But things are changing. The Church’s 1990 Coleraine Declaration was a challenge to traditional views of violence and just-war. Again, how much it has stayed a statement of principle is open to question).

This of course is not to say that Presbyterianism, with its rich theological legacy, has not thought about these questions. But it is to say that from reading Considering Grace there seems to be a major disconnect between theory and practice on the ground. Despite much loving pastoral care, you get the sense that many interviewees are left wrestling with such questions on their own.

It is telling that it was a parachurch group like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) that did most during the troubles to think theologically and biblically about these sort of theological issues. Many found their work a breath of fresh air.

So for me this book reinforces that theology is the lifeblood of the Christian faith. A critical task for every generation of Christian leaders is to help believers under their care know the Scriptures and to be resourced to think with a Christian mind about all of life.

Bored with a ‘me gospel’?: what integral mission is and is not

The opening chapter of Relentless Love: Living out Integral Mission to Combat Poverty, Injustice and Conflict is by Graham Joseph Hill, the book’s editor. It gives an overview of the theology and the challenges of integral mission within world Christianity and is our ‘way in’ to the subject. This post will mostly summarise Hill’s chapter and conclude with some observations and questions.

Shifts within World Christianity

Two shifts are happening within Christianity globally

1) By 2025, two-thirds of Christians will live in Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The centre of gravity of world Christianity continues to move South, away from Europe and North America. And it is proportionately less and less White.

2) The second shift, Hill contends, is towards an integral understanding of mission where social justice and gospel proclamation are united within a holistic framework.

It is in the Majority world where missional growth is happening – and, Hill argues, it is also in these contexts where there is a passion to bring healing, justice, freedom and transformation to individuals and communities. Frequently that includes the poor and most vulnerable.

Hill does not quite put it this way, but the implication is that rather than a flow of knowledge, expertise, resources from ‘the West to the Rest’, it is the rich West that has much to learn from the majority world.

It was René Padilla who first coined the term ‘misión integral’ and it carries a sense of reaction against Western theological atomisation that artificially split apart the gospel and its social implications. You can get a sense of his rejection of common Western priorities in this quote from Padilla:

‘Integral mission … understands that its goal is not to become large numerically, nor to be rich materially, nor powerful politically. Its purpose is to incarnate the values of the Kingdom of God and to witness to the love and the justice revealed in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, for the transformation of human life in all its dimensions ..’

What Does Integral Mission Look Like in Practice?

It begins not with what the church is doing, but what the church is.

The church has integrity when it brings together ‘being’ and ‘doing’; the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’; the ‘individual’ and the ‘social’; the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’; ‘justice and ‘mercy’; ‘witness’ and ‘unity’; ‘preaching truth’ and ‘practicing truth’ and so on.

Hill quotes from the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission that local churches as ‘caring and inclusive communities are at the heart of what it means to do integral mission’

Hill argues integral mission reflects the character and action of God:

“Our God is a missionary God who cares deeply about the well-being of whole persons, whole communities, the whole world. Integral mission arises out of this missional nature of the triune God. Since God is missional – his church is also missional, and must care about the same things.’ p.9

Mission that is integral is always transformational. It moves towards God’s vision of restoration being actualised in all relationships – social, political and economic. It is therefore, Hill argues, attractive to people who are marginalised, poor, suffering and oppressed.

Such mission needs resilience and long-term commitment to people and communities. It will involve confronting evil and injustice as it seeks to cultivate hope, justice and dignity for all. It is a vision of mission that involves partnership, humility in sharing in Jesus’ reaching out to the despised, the marginalised, the powerless and the sick.

It leads to engagement ‘outside the gate’ of comfortable and secure Christianity.

What Integral Mission is Not

As noted earlier, such a vision has a polemical or reactive edge against abstract or detached (Western) theologies of the gospel

“When the church ignores issues of justice, peace-making, poverty, and reconciliation, it denies the call of God and refuses to reflect the image of Christ. We can never allow our gospel to become so compromised and disfigured that it becomes ‘a conscience-soothing Jesus, with an unscandalous cross, an other-worldly kingdom, a private, inwardly limited spirit, a pocket God, a spiritualized Bible, and an escapist church [whose] goal is a happy, comfortable, and successful life, obtainable through the forgiveness of an abstract sinfulness by faith in an unhistorical Christ.’” (Hill p.9. Quoting Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom (1982, p. 80).

And again

“The gospel should never be reduced to a privatized individualistic gospel that is only about God dealing with personal sin and pain. God redeems us from the power of sin and death … But the full gospel of Jesus is much more expansive and cosmic than mere personal and individual forgiveness of sin.” p. 10

Hill quotes Simon Leigh-Jones

‘“I’m bored of a gospel that’s only about me, my soul, and I. I’m bored of a gospel seemingly offering no good news about a dying planet. I’m bored of a gospel almost silent on issues like racism, gender inequality, and global injustice.” The gospel Leigh-Jones describes is common in the West, but it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ (p.11).

TWO Observations

  1. The first is an observation on ‘What Integral Mission is Not’.

I’m still thinking about Ruth Graham’s NYT article on the Hillsong USA and the story of celebrity pastor Carl Lentz. I haven’t been able to get something she said in passing out of mind.

Hillsong’s “great innovation was to offer urban Christians a religious environment that did not clash with the rest of their lives.”

Think about that for a moment. It’s a devastating little sentence. It locates Hillsong squarely in the type of Christianity described above in ‘What Integral Mission is Not’. The contrast between a ‘cool’, wealthy, celebrity enamoured Western megachurch and the ethos and priorities of integral mission could not be sharper.

I am not sure they can even fit together within something called Christianity.

[And I have absolutely no axe to grind with Hillsong or Carl Lentz. I hadn’t heard of him until reading the article and I know very little about Hillsong. I mention the story because it is in the news and it speaks of a much larger problem.]

2. The second observation relates to ‘What Does Integral Mission Look Like in Practice’.

Theologically, the emphasis within Integral Mission on the integrity of the church, and on what the church ‘is’, finds deep parallels in the NTs emphasis on love as the ethos and goal of the Christian life. Love as an end in itself and not as the means to something else.

Thomas Jay Oord has written much on love (not without controversy but that’s another day’s discussion). He defines love like this

‘Acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to others … to promote overall well-being.’

Love, so understood, describes well how the Micah Declaration, René Padilla and Graham Hill talk about integral mission as a concern for the whole person and whole communities.

I’m not a missiologist and don’t claim any expertise when it comes to the extensive literature of integral mission, so I may be missing something here. But I find it intriguing that love is not front and centre when it comes to framing a theology of mission. Kingdom of God, justice, gospel are prominent themes but love seems marginal at best.

Is this, perhaps, another example of the curious marginalisation of love within much Christian theology and praxis? (For more on this see The Message of Love)

In other words, I’d like to see love itself more integrated within theologies of integral mission.

Advent Reflection: Jesus versus Covid-19

Romans 5:15-17

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

‘The gift is not like the trespass’ is a profoundly important phrase within Paul’s comparison of Jesus and Adam in Romans 5.

We see what Adam and Jesus share in common: both are men (vs 15); both are representatives of humanity.

It is from an emphasis on shared humanity that Paul develops an argument ‘from the lesser to the greater’. Both are human, but Jesus is a far superior human figure to that of Adam.

Adam’s trespass results in sin, death, judgment and condemnation.

God’s gift in Jesus Christ brings justification, grace, righteousness and life.

In other words, what Adam did, Jesus un-does to excess. Jesus confronts and overcomes the destructive effects of Adam’s sin due to the surpassing provision of God’s grace.

This is why that little phrase – ‘the gift is not like the trespass’ – is actually a wonderful way of describing the limitless, self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ.

So, as we celebrate Christmas 2020, we are reminded of the astonishing fact of the incarnation. Jesus is a truly human saviour. There is an indissolvable bond between Christ and humanity – he is one of us.

The Nicene Creed (381AD) puts it this way:

“Who for us and our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.’

But these verses remind us that Jesus is in crucial respects, a human unlike any other.

All of humanity is ‘in Adam’ – we are under the reign of death (vs 17). Death is a ‘dark lord’ of destruction from whom we have no ability to escape.

This Christmas 2020 death crowds in on us, compounding memories of absent loved ones. Daily coronavirus fatalities flash across our news screens. Death, usually kept in the background in rich Western nations, has rudely taken centre stage.

BBC News – candles lit in Bern for those who have died of Covid-19

Images of death colonise our imaginations. Who could have imagined at the beginning of this year that the success or failure of governments globally now revolves around the management of death?

We grasp on to hopes of a vaccine, literally as a life-saver. We long for life to go back to the way it was – with death pushed back into the shadows – for as long as possible.

And this is right and good. Life is a gift to be lived well. We are made to live in relationship, not locked up staring at screens.

But vaccine or not, the rule of death unleashed by Adam still reigns.

And so the gospel is powerful good news.

But through the ‘one man, Jesus Christ’ (vs 17), all in him are freed from the reign of death and are ushered into a new realm – the reign of life.

God is a God of life, not death. His agenda for humanity is freedom from death. The Spirit is the life-giver. Jesus is the human Lord of life who has been raised from the dead.

This is why Christians celebrate the incarnation at Christmas.

Love in Paul (6) Love and ‘the obedience of faith’ (contra ‘when churches go toxic’)

We are in the second strand of three great themes that weave their way through the biblical narrative, OT to NT. The first is God’s love. The second is human love in response to God’s prior love.

Human Response to God’s Prior Love

In the OT, the appropriate response of Israel to Yahweh’s electing and saving love is humility, reverent obedience and heartfelt worship. Love in this perspective takes the form of faithfulness and practical obedience. It is about whole-hearted allegience.

If asked, what would you say is the opposite of love? Perhaps many of us would say hate, or, following Miroslav Volf’s insights from Exclusion and Embrace, perhaps the worst attitude of all to the ‘Other’ is indifference.

But in the Bible narrative, concerning God’s people, a more accurate answer would be idolatry – allegiance to something or someone other than God.

The fascinating thing is that in Paul these Jewish themes continue but are radically reimagined in light of the arrival of the Messiah.

Paul: An Inseparable Connection between Love and Obedience

Have you ever noticed that the surprising, fact is that Paul rarely, if ever, exhorts believers to love God? He never cites the first great commandment (love the Lord your God). The second great commandment (love your neighbour as yourself) is explicitly mentioned twice (Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14).

There are plenty of texts in Paul that refer to love for God but they tend to assume its existence rather than exhort its practice (Rom 8:28; 1 Cor 2:9; 8:3; 16:22; Eph 6:24; 2 Tim 3:4).

Paul’s real concern seems to be elsewhere. As a pastor he is concerned about the spiritual ‘progress’ of believers in his churches. Maturity has a specific form – Christ-like love. Think of his exasperation at the Galatians, longing that Christ would be formed in them but concerned he has been wasting his time.

In other words, Paul’s priority is that a deep experience of divine love will lead to a life of obedience to Christ characterised by love for others within the covenant community. An example is Romans: the apostle frames his mission as bringing about the ‘obedience of faith’ among the gentiles (Rom 1:5; 6:16; 15:18; 16:19, 26). Being loved by God, and love for God is to ‘result’ in transformed lives of obedience.

This helps us to understand Paul’s complex relationship with the Torah. The Law is rejected as a means of salvation – for Jews or for Gentiles. It does not have the power to save or transform lives. But the Law is affirmed in multiple ways as a basis for what a moral and ethical life in Christ looks like in practice.

This is where the apostle’s theology of the Spirit is critical. It is the Spirit, whose fruit is primarily love, through which the law is fulfilled. In Galatians 5:6, ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love’. Freedom in Christ leads, paradoxically, to becoming slaves of one another (Gal 5:13b). Leviticus 19:18 is reapplied in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14: love of neighbour, not Torah obedience, fulfils the law. Bearing one another’s burdens fulfils the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).

All of this is to say that the Torah finds its true purpose in relationships of self-giving love within a community of believers who are being transformed by the Spirit according to the character of their Lord.

That is an astonishing reimagination of the Torah, of the people of God, of the work of the Spirit, and of love. There is continuity with the OT, but OT themes are reshaped and reworked in light of Jesus and the Spirit.

God loves in order to create people who love.

Toxic Church: When Love Goes Missing

Imagine if that sentence was front and centre in all that Christians think and do. Imagine if that priority were to shape the culture of churches and/or denominations? In how individuals were treated within those organisations and institutions? In what ‘goals’ the church sets as a measure of ‘progress’ and ‘success’?

I’m writing this shortly after reading this long-read article in the New York Times. “The Rise and Fall of Carl Lentz, the Celebrity Pastor of Hillsong Church” . It really is a ‘read it and weep’ story. Power, money, celebrity, sex, success, branding, elitism, greed, selfishness, narcissism – the list could go on.

Yes, this is an extreme example of a powerful pastor, and a church culture, that has lost touch with the heart of God – who loves in order to create people who love. But it is not an isolated one in the USA – and it is not confined to the USA. Church leaders and church cultures can become toxic.

And by toxic I mean when love is sidelined. When the good of the institution is put before people. When the purpose and mission of the church becomes about something else than forming communities of self-giving love.

It bears repeating: ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love‘.

Do we really believe this?

Some critical reflections on preaching online

This is an Advent sermon I preached last Sunday in Maynooth Community Church. If you wish you should be able to view the video by clicking on the link.

The text was Luke 1:1-25 and the theme was ‘An Unexpected Fulfilment’ based on the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah

Some Critical Reflections

A while back I did a post linking to some very helpful short videos about preaching / communicating to a screen. It’s a very different ‘genre’ to preaching in person. I’ve tried to keep those tips in mind, and here are some take-aways from this latest outing. It was encouraging to get some very positive feedback, but there were also things I didn’t do so well. All of life is a learning experience, so these are some learning points I took away.

If you have your own to add from your own experiences teaching or preaching online, you are welcome to add them here ….

1. When preaching online, try preaching to a specific person.

It’s so easy to become ‘flat’ and rather robotic when talking to a screen. It’s harder than teaching online with a group of students on Zoom. At least there, there is conversation, Q&A and breakout rooms etc. A screen doesn’t talk back or smile – or even show it’s losing concentration 🙂 I have a soft voice that doesn’t carry that well, so have to work at keeping sound and energy on the screen. Plenty of room for improvement in this sermon on that front.

One thing I tried this time was to imagine myself talking / preaching to a specific person (won’t name names here!). Keep their face in mind. Imagine responses and reactions – engage in a real dialogue. Keep it as warm and relational as possible. Vary voice pitch and speed. Ask questions. I might even put a photograph of a person up next time.

2. Keep it clear and simple

I kept this sermon to two points. All preaching should be clear and easy to follow, but I think this is especially necessary via a screen. This isn’t the same as being simplistic, but it is working hard to distill the key messages of the text into an accessible structure.

In this sermon the two points were

1. The Loving Kindness of God to individuals

There is a touching and beautiful moment in this story of how God (unecessarily) blesses Zechariah and especially Elizabeth with a child, and takes away her shame in the process.

‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’ 1:25

2. Christians are called into a much bigger story

On ‘either side’ of those two points, was an introduction about ‘Christmas Kitsch’ and how Luke (and the other Gospel writers) are anything but kitsch. And a conclusion in how all believers are called into the same story as Z & E – the story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Like Z & E waiting faithfully in darkness for the first Advent, believers are also called to faithful waiting in darkness for the second Advent.

3. Consider using visuals alongside video

I also decided to combine the video with a powerpoint. I used to use powerpoint a lot in preaching but these days rarely use it in person-to-person settings. It’s so often a distraction. Especially if visiting somewhere, the technology can fail to work. It is often used so much that people end up just watching a screen and not concentrating on the human communication between preacher and congregation. And you can also end up spending far too much time on a snazzy powerpoint and not enough on the harder work of exegesis of the text.

But with video preaching being a visual experience, I think it was helpful to have pictures and headings. (Images that help to illustrate, rather than lots of hard to read text.)

Rather than have to do lots of video editing afterwards to put in pictures and slides and Bible texts (which would be beyond me to be honest), I use Loom, a video programme. It allows you to record video and screen together. So you can have yourself on one side of the screen and a pre-prepared powerpoint on the other side. And then I just advance the powerpoint in ‘real time’ as the sermon progresses. The advantage is once finished, that’s it done.

4. Keep it concise

The sermon ended up at 23 minutes. While this is about average (for our church) when meeting together physically, I think it was too long for watching online. It needed to be shorter and snappier in places, and needed to get to the text a bit quicker. I think the conclusion could have made the link to Advent and our waiting today a bit more clearly. I didn’t have time to edit and re-record – the video had to go off asap. I also needed to check on my knowledge of the Matrix – Neo IS Mr Anderson – duh!

But then again maybe that’s not a bad thing. That’s what usually happens after all! You don’t get to have a second or third take in front of a live congregation ! (Many’s a time when I wish I did).

It would also have ended before a certain two daughters came in the front door laughing and cackling about something amusing @ c. 22 minutes. Not having great video editing skills meant I had to keep going without stopping!

The remaining three points are about preaching in general.

5. Pray the Spirit speaks

This applies to all preaching and Christian teaching, but any preacher needs constantly to bear in mind. Good communication skills matter – and that includes appropriate use of video technology as well as verbal communication. But such things are merely the scaffolding, not the building itself. If all the focus and energy goes constructing the scaffolding, we end up forgetting its purpose is to serve the good of the building.

In other words, preaching isn’t about the preacher or the tools he/she uses – they are not ends in themselves. They need to serve the purpose of communicating the meaning of the biblical text to the world of the listeners.

The process of preaching needs prayer – a sermon ‘evolves’ through study of the text, reflection, time and prayer. And once preached to the best of his/her ability, all the preacher can do is pray the Spirit takes his/her imperfect efforts and uses them to speak into peoples lives.

6. Be open to (constructive) critical feedback

It’s easy to be hyper-spiritual here. On the one hand, there is a tremendous freedom in knowing preaching is not just a human enterprise, the ‘success’ of which is how much it is enjoyed by the listeners. Only the Spirit can transform people. But, on the other hand, all preachers are limited. However experienced, there is always much to learn. So feedback from people IS important – both negative and positive.

But structured feedback does not happen by accident, it needs to be fostered.

In theological education there are all sorts of systems of student and peer review for teachers. I’m not saying they are perfect by any means – often they can be paper exercises. But good feedback from students and peer review from a trusted teacher who sits in on your class is invaluable (as well as a bit scary).

My sense is that most preachers / churches don’t have this sort of robust system of constructive critical review in place. It takes trust and transparency, but it speaks of a culture that is open to critique, a humility to say ‘We are all learners’, and a desire to keep growing each other’s gifts for the good of Christ’s church.

7. Deal seriously with the text and bring it to bear on the lives and hearts of listeners

I’ll nail my colours to the mast here and say that preaching that isn’t dealing seriously with the text isn’t really preaching. The text is all we have and it is the task of the preacher to do the exegesis that underpins contemporary application – to allow the text to speak.

That’s why I love expository preaching. Sure topical or thematic preaching can (and should) deal seriously with the text. But expository preaching builds on exegesis (historical background, language, grammar etc in order to understand its meaning), in order to ‘expose’ its meaning for contemporary listeners (exposition).

Doing exegesis isn’t preaching. I like the image of a chef preparing a meal. Just putting all the ingredients on the table wouldn’t make him/her very popular with the guests. The chef has to put those ingredients together in a creative way to produce a tasty meal. So expository preaching is a creative process that distils exegesis into a message that applies the living text into people’s lives.

Expository preaching is usually structured around preaching through the whole Bible in a planned way. In this way it takes the text seriously, and the whole of the Bible seriously. The danger of topical or thematic preaching dominating is that we get to choose in advance what we’re going to talk about so we avoid grappling with difficult texts or issues. We can also all too easily just reinforce our own preferences or end up using the text as a convenient ‘hanger’ for our topic in hand.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Love in Paul (5) divine love reimagined in light of the cross

In the previous post in this series we looked at how Paul stands in continuity with three main strands of OT love:

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

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

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

But that each of these strands is comprehensively reworked in light of the Christ-event. We looked at how election is reworked to include Jews and Gentiles.

In this post we are still in strand 1) – the electing and saving love of God but turn to look at how God’s salvific love for his people takes a remarkable turn – the cross of Christ.

Divine Love Reimagined in Light of the Cross

For Paul, divine love is the motive for the cross. Numerous texts illustrates this perspective, but before mentioning a few, we should not skip over how astounding a reimagination of divine love it is. No-one in the Roman world familiar with the brutal reality of crucifixion and its attendant political message intimidating opponents, could ever have interpreted the cross in any positive way.

How on earth could a sadistic method of public execution be connected to love? It would be like saying today that God shows his love through the noose or the guillotine.

Some texts

Galatians 2:20: The self-giving death of Christ is an act of salvific love.

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

Romans 5:1-11 is probably the most significant example. Humanity needs redemption and are even described as ‘enemies’ of God and facing his wrath. But due to God’s grace (5:2) believers now have ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (5:1). The result is reconciliation through the death of Christ (5:10-11). The cross for Paul therefore ‘proves’ the love of God (Rom 5:8).

For at just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8).

Ephesians 2:1-3: Similarly in Ephesians, humanity is powerless under the power of the flesh (sarx), the world (kosmos) and the ‘ruler of the power of the air’. Again, divine love reaches its climatic expression at the cross – it is out of his ‘great love’ (2:4), ‘mercy’ (2:4) and ‘grace’ (2:5) that believers are made alive and are raised up with him to a new eschatological existence ‘in Christ Jesus’ (Eph 2:6-7).

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-7.

All this constitutes an astonishing development in the understanding of divine love. Revolution is not too strong a word. It is truly ‘apocalyptic’ – an unveiling of a new theology of God himself. The cross shows us the depth and cost of God’s love for humanity. Paul and John are on the same page – God is love.

Relentless Love: Living Out Integral Mission to Combat Poverty, Injustice and Conflict

This book arrived in the post the other day

Relentless Love: Living Out Integral Mission to Combat Poverty, Injustice and Conflict, ed by Graham Joseph Hill (Langham Global Library / Micah Global, 2020).

The book comes out of the 7th world assembly of Micah Global held in the Philippines.

The development of Micah Global reflects a movement within world evangelicalism towards ‘integral mission’ or a more holistic understanding of the Gospel. One that takes seriously the mission of God’s people to be engaged at the coal face of work against poverty, injustice and conflict.

Where proclaiming the gospel goes alongside demonstrating the gospel.

Much of this book is a combination of research, reports and theological reflection on the praxis of integral mission globally.

Such work is difficult, slow, often dangerous and confronts the powers that profit from poverty, injustice and conflict. Hence the theme of resilience.

No-one said following Jesus was easy.

One of the (many) endorsers of the book is my old friend Darrell Jackson, who is Associate Professor and Director of Research in Whitley College, Melbourne. Here’s what he says:

In these chapters you will find the biblical, theological, and spiritual reimagining that defines personal and collective resilience in the face of these contemporary realities. With heavy hearts, yet renewed energy and continued resolve, this book encourages us to say ‘No!’ to injustice and ‘Yes!’ to God’s shalom!

The table of contents are below. The voices mostly reflect a majority world perspective which matches Christianity’s move ‘southwards’. White European and North American evangelicals often still give the impression that the gravity of global evangelicalism revolves around them and their concerns. While they are are an important voice, they no longer are representative of the global church. The voices in these pages are.

That said there are some European voices and chapters – and two related to Ireland. One by yours truly and one by Father Peter McVerry. It’s an honour to have a chapter in a book like this, alongside many remarkable and brave people passionate about God’s world and God’s justice.

Since this blog is called ‘FaithinIreland’ I’ll look at both the Irish chapters in a couple of subsequent posts. The danger of this is of course that it skews the focus on a rich European nation. So there will be another post giving a sense of the global flavour of the book as well.


Foreword: Melba Padilla Maggay

Preface: Micah Global 7th Triennial Consultation. Integral Mission and Resilient Communities Address in Poverty, Injustice, and Conflict: Sheryl Haw

  1. Misión Integral: The Challenge of World Christianity: Graham Joseph Hill

Part 1: Resilience, the Church, and Integral Mission

2. Resilience and Integral Mission: David Boan

3. Righteousness, Suffering and Participation in Philippians 3:7–11: Integral Mission and Paul’s Gospel: Andrew Steere

4. Dangerous Resilience? The Institutional Church and Its Systemic Resistance to Change: Thandi Gamedze

5. Poorology:Getting the Seminary into the Slum. Viv Grigg

6. How Do Missionaries Become Resilient?Preliminary Findings from the Resilient Missionary Study: Geoff Whiteman, Emily Edwards, Anna Savelle, and Kristina Whiteman

7. The Gospel and the Future of Cities. A Call to Action. Participants of the Gospel and Future of Cities Summit

Part 2: Resilience, Peace, and Justice

8. Biblical Teachings on Social Justice: Manavala Reuben

9. Addressing Gender and Leadership Gaps in Development-Oriented Organizations: Amy Reynolds and Nikki Toyama-Szeto

10. Deeper Understanding for More Resilience in the Work for Peace and Justice: Vilma “Nina” Balmaceda

11. God’s Preference for the Poor: The Bible and Social Justice in Ireland. Patrick Mitchel

12. Worship and Justice: Spirituality that Embodies and Mobilizes for Justice. Sandra Maria Van Opstal

13. Proclamation and Demonstration: CB Samuel

14. What Is Required?: Florence Muindi

15. Beyond Compassion to Solidarity: Peter McVerry

Part 3: Resilience, Spirituality, and Compassion

16. My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” The Necessity of Lament for Spiritual Resilience in Contexts of Poverty and Injustice. Clinton Bergsma

17. Building Resilient Communities: The Importance of Integrating Mental Health and Well-Being in Effective Development Thinking and Practice. Becca Allchin, Stephanie Cantrill, and Helen Fernandes

18. Indigenous Voices: The Spiritual Strength of the Peoples of Abya Yala. Jocabed Reina Solano Miselis

19. The Gospel and Resilience in the Pursuit of the Common Good. D. Zac Niringiye

20. Against All Odds – and Ends. Ruth Padilla DeBorst

21. Resilience and Disaster and the Church’s Response. Johannes Reimer

Part 4: Resilience, Mobilization, and Partnerships

22. Building Resilience with Local Churches and Communities. Jané Mackenzie, Chris McDonald, Stanley Enock, and Mari Williams

23. Church and Community Mobilization in Cooperation to Build Resilient Communities in South East Asia. Fennelien Stal, Debora Suparni, Arshinta Soemarsono, and Norman Franklin C. Agustin

24. Lessons from the Frontline of Global Movement-Building. Reflections from Three Years of Tearfund’s Restorative Economy Approach. Naomi Foxwood, Richard Gower, Helen Heather, and Sue Willsher

25. North and South: Boureima Diallo

Part 5: Summaries from the Six Consultation Tracks

26. “Church and Community Resilience” Consultation Track: The Church at the Heart of the Resilient Community. David Boan

27. “Church and Corruption” Consultation Track: Martin Allaby

28. “Formation for Integral Mission (Discipleship)” Consultation Track: Tori Greaves and Ruth Padilla DeBorst, INFEMIT

29. “Urban Shalom” Consultation Track: Joel Kelling and Fiona Kelling

30. “Reconciliation as the Mission of the Church” Consultation Track: Johannes Reimer

31. “Integral Mission and Community Health” Consultation Track: James Pender, Jim Oehrig, and Sara Kandiah

32. Final Remarks: Integral Mission and Community Resilience. Sheryl Haw


About Micah Global

List of Contributors