Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Bible and Refugees

This is the text of an article I wrote recently for Vox Magazine (Issue 34, April – June 2017)

The Vox team (Ruth Garvey-Williams, Editor;  Jonny Lindsay, Layout, Advertising and Promotion); Tara Byrne, Operations) do a remarkable job of producing a high quality magazine that captures stories, news and opinion from across a broad Christian spectrum of Irish Christianity. There is nothing else that begins to do this job.

THINKING BIBLICALLY AND THEOLOGICALLY ABOUT REFUGEES

We have always lived in a violent and broken world. People have always had to flee war, famine, torture and persecution. But today, the scale of forced population movement is unprecedented since the end of WWII. The implosion of an entire country like Syria, added to desperate crises in places like Myanmar, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, has led to millions of refugees forced to seek safety outside their home nations. The UNHCR says that today there are about 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and a further 21.3 million people are refugees.

A refugee has been defined as a person who has fled their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. A refugee is typically in a highly vulnerable situation: often without official status; lack of access to basic resources; removed from networks of family, language and culture; and often deeply traumatised by violence or fear of violence. Over half of refugees globally are under 18 years old.

Three ‘solutions’ face refugees. One is voluntary repatriation, in which refugees return in safety and with dignity to their own country. Second is local integration, in which the government enables refugees legally to integrate into the host country. The third is resettlement to a third state which has agreed to admit them and in which they have permanent residence status.

Tragically, of course, for most refugees none of these ‘solutions’ is their reality. The vast majority are left in limbo: stateless, homeless, friendless and penniless; living in camps or trying to survive on the margins within neighbouring nations. It’s important to know this: only about 1% of refugees are ever resettled to a third country despite the fact that the UNHCR reckons that about 8% of refugees globally now need resettlement.

So that’s the context. It is, of course, a hugely political issue in Europe and the USA as politicians grapple with their own population’s fears of ‘uncontrolled immigration.’ It is not an issue that is going to go away anytime soon.

How should Christians think about one of the major humanitarian issues of our day?

What follows are some proposals drawn from two key Bible texts that I believe should begin to shape a biblical and theological response. My main concern is to argue that there are absolute non-negotiable attitudes and priorities for Christians when it comes to thinking about refugees because they are based on the good news of the character of the God we worship.

Key Text 1: Deuteronomy 10:17-19

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

  1. God is Impartial

The great news of this text lies in the character of God. God is utterly unimpressed by ‘important’ people with money, power and all the right connections. This magnificent indifference to human status means that he is impartial and incorruptible. He treats people, whoever they are, equally. This goes utterly against the power structures of the world, then and now.

  1. God loves the outsider

But even more counter-culturally, God ‘loves the foreigner’ residing within Israel and takes care of their needs. This is not just something he likes doing, it is something he is. We could quote multiple texts from the OT and NT related to this theme. God is a God ‘for the poor’.

  1. God’s people are to love as God loves

As God loves the foreigner, so are his people to imitate him. They should do this because they themselves had been slaves in Egypt. Another important example is Deuteronomy 23:15, “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.” This is radical stuff. Instead of hard borders and forced repatriation, the refugee fleeing from slavery is to be given shelter. Instead of oppression, they are to be given freedom, safety and a new start in life. This is exactly what refugees today long for (if they can’t go home).

Key Text 2: Luke 10:25-37 – The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Jesus’ famous parable about ‘neighbour-love’ deepens and radicalises the teaching of Leviticus 19:18 to ‘love your neighbour’. Leviticus is aimed within Israel. The uncomfortable point of Jesus’ tale is that the neighbour-love includes those religiously, culturally, politically and socially alien to us. The parable puts flesh on the bones other famous Jesus commands to ‘love your enemies’ (Mt. 5:44) and ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’ (Lk. 6:31). Like Israel’s love in Deuteronomy, Christians will love this way out of their own prior experience of God’s saving love. That experience should transform us to be the neighbours that Jesus calls us to be. In a globalised world, our neighbour surely includes, for example, the Syrian refugee.  Each one of us should ask ourselves ‘How would I like to be treated if I was in his or her shoes?’

The teaching of Jesus raises two final points.

  1. Refugees our teachers

So much of the refugee crisis is framed around what ‘we’ (in the West) will ‘allow’ refugees to do or not do. It is a fantastically unequal relationship of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. ‘We’ have all the power. ‘They’ have had the most traumatic experiences of their lives, and yet ‘we’ view ‘them’ primarily as a threat to ‘our’ way of life. ‘They’ are ‘lucky’ if we permit them to enter ‘our’ promised land. And, if ‘they’ behave themselves, ‘they’ will be blessed to become like ‘us’. Rarely, if ever, do ‘we’ think that we might have a lot to learn from ‘them’. Yet Abraham and Sarah, Lot, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all of Israel, Ruth and Naomi, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Esther, Daniel and his friends, were all refugees for various reasons, as were many of the first Christians (Acts 8:1, 11:19). God himself enters our world and becomes a refugee (Mt. 2:13-15). What questions, do you think, this raises for those of us living in freedom and security?

  1. Christians are not to be driven by fear but by love

There is a tremendous sense of fear in much of the West today. Fear of terror. Fear of the future. Fear of refugees. Some politicians are ruthless in exploiting this fear to get elected. Many others are, in turn, afraid of those politicians. Christians are not to be people of fear but of faith, hope and love. In Deuteronomy 10:16, Israel is told to “Circumcise your hearts’ and love the foreigner. Similarly, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is aimed at those who felt justified in not helping those in need. We need to hear these texts afresh and have our own hearts softened. We fool ourselves if we think there is some great status gap between ‘us’ and ‘those refugees’. God doesn’t see it that way – remember he is magnificently indifferent to our man-made boundaries of money, identity and power. Rather, he calls us to be people of radical counter-cultural generosity; to be communities of welcome and grace to those in need of help.

For this is what our God is like.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (7) on non-violence and Yoder’s sins

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.

But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.

Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.

Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America.  Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)

And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,

People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)

I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjust practices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.

What Hauerwas wants to see is real alternatives on the table for Christians – a bit like the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge I guess.

Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.

BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?

SH:     No.

BB:     So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?

SH:     They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

BB:   And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?

SH:     Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.

BB:     That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before.  (178)

What do you think of these practical positions?

Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.

Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’

Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.

But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)

Hauerwas also comments that

SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)

I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.

There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’.  Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.

Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.

So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.

Brueggemann on money and possessions

The church has long been haunted by a dualism … But the Bible eschews every dualism and asserts the materiality of creation over which God generously presides. That pernicious dualism has readily produced a religion that is disconnected from public realty and has sanctioned predatory economic practices that go hand in hand with intense and pious religion. Thus the earlier robber barons were card-carrying Christians in good standing; and in our time the church is mostly silent in the face of a predatory economy that reduces many persons to second-class humanity. That deceptive misreading is aided and abetted by a lectionary that mostly disregards the hard texts on money and possessions. xxi

money-and-possessionsSo begins Walter Brueggemann in his new book Money and Possessions.

The quote above reveals a big concern of this book: the church has generally ‘bottled it’ when it comes to speaking of money and possessions within a highly acquisitive culture. To do this requires putting on blinkers in how we read the Bible because from Genesis to Revelation the Bible has an enormous amount to say on the material world.

Do you agree that Christianity tends to be dualistic when it comes to money and possessions? Heard any good sermons on money recently?

He outlines 6 theses concerning money and possessions in the Bible and further proposes that at each point the Bible flatly contradicts the global market economy which now so totally dominates our lives.

I’ve cannibalised what he says along with bits of my own commentary into a wee table:

The greatest achievement of capitalism’s advance is that somehow it is seen as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.

It also has claimed to be the best way for economic and social progress – but endless crises and crashes tell another story – one we know rather a lot about in Ireland. Over 8 years on from the crash of 2008, the EU is still trying (and failing) to fight its way out of insurmountable debt.

The Bible certainly envisages a different way of handling limited resources. Capitalism is simply a man-made construction – it is not natural and it is certainly unsustainable.

God’s will is for justice and for his people to embody a different way of life. As Brueggemann says his will “contradicts much of our preferred, uncritized practice.” 13.

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Chris Wright on the Great Commission

At Belfast Bible College, we had the pleasure and privilege of having Chris Wright speak at our Celebration of Studies last Friday and then at a half day conference on “The GREAT COMMISSION: what does it really include?”

 

Chris Wright @ BBCChris was exploring a biblical theology of mission, engaging along the way with contested ideas of mission, and criticisms of his own approach as outlined most fully of course in his magnum opus The Mission of God.

Some notes and observations of the half-day conference: – and these do not therefore represent exactly what Chris said but one person’s interpretation ..

Both terms ‘holistic mission’ and ‘missional’ are useful but both can easily become too anthropocentric – they revolve around ‘us’ and what we must do. They do not in and of themselves resolve the question of what ‘holistic’ and ‘missional’ actually mean – they mean different things to different people.

Based on the Great Commission of Mt 28, Chris unpacked some key themes. The Great Commission if framed within the lordship and presence of God. It is both cosmic (all of creation – See Eph 1:9-10 etc) and  Christocentric (based on the Messiah’s saving work).

Mission is God’s activity, not primarily ours. It has both a global scope and cosmic scope. The mission of the church needs to reflect the scope and size of God’s mission.

As a foundation for understanding mission, Chris went to the 5 marks of mission first articulated by the Anglican Communion in the 1980s / 90s. In brief they are:

  1. Evangelism (proclaim the good news of the kingdom)
  2. Teaching (teach, baptise and nurture new believers)
  3. Compassion (respond to human need by loving service)
  4. Justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation)
  5. Creation care ( strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth)

All intrinsically flow from the Lordship of Christ

Chris broke these down into 3 themes that he unpacked in turn:

A. BUILDING THE CHURCH

Including 1 and 2: evangelism and teaching

1. Evangelism

Is a call for people to submit to the lordship of jesus. Gospelizing is proclamation of the good news. Mission work is telling the story of Jesus and its call for response of repentance and faith. Christians are to be baptised in the name of Jesus and are to follow him as Lord, not other gods or idols. The gospel of Jesus is at the heart of all Christian mission.

This is in contrast to some understandings of ‘holistic mission’ where it means everything else apart from evangelism. (see photo). Holistic mission should never be shorthand for social justice or other activity divorced from evangelism.

Neither should it be the case where “mission” becomes just one option in the buffet bar of Christian activity: some are into evangelism, others not .. Rather Chris was arguing for the centrality of the gospel as an integrating centre.

2. Teaching

A big obvious reality from Scripture is that teaching is part of the mission of God: Jesus is the Rabbi. Paul the teacher / missionary. The OT is one huge story of theological education (after Andrew Walls). A unravelling teaching programme about God, ethics, identity, holiness, faith, covenant, creation and so on that forms an indispensable platform for understanding the significance of the NT.

[I like to see the whole NT as theological reflection on the OT in light of Jesus]

Chris linked to Paul and Apollos: BOTH were vital in the mission of God. Paul is the evangelist / church planter, Apollos is the teacher. Both are about mission work and extending the lordship of Christ in the world. Therefore both evangelism and teaching are part of the Great Commission

(including theological education – the challenge for theological education is to ask how much is it intrinsically missional?;  how are teaching and modules serving God’s mission in the world?)

For Pastors, weekly preaching is part of the Great Commission. It is not some sort of ‘secondary’ task to mission / evangelism.

This does NOT diminish the necessity of global cross cultural mission .. but traditional ‘mission work’ does not summarise or represent the true scope of the Great Commission.

B. SERVING SOCIETY: COMPASSION AND JUSTICE

Chris put compassion and justice under the heading of ‘Serving Society’.

To the objection that “Is this really part of the Great Commission?” he argued how each is naturally linked to the Lordship of Christ. Jesus commands and actions to show compassion on the poor only echoes texts like Deut.10.12-19 and God’s desire for compassion and justice. When God is “godding’ – he is by default with the weak poor and needy. This is who God is and what he does. Likewise, Jesus’ in Matthew describes what true obedience to God looks like – and it is not to neglect the weighty matters of the Torah – issues like justice (see Micah 6.8). His disciples are to be “the light of the world” – meaning people whose attractive deeds shine with goodness and mercy. Like in Isaiah 58:7-8 where light is good deeds done in the name of the Lord. Just as Israel was to be a nation of light and justice, so Jesus’ new community of the kingdom is to be a renewed community of the King – the light of the world.

Such integration of discipleship and acts of compassion and justice are woven though Acts – there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32-38)

Chris made the often overlooked point here that Paul & Barnabas’s first missionary journey was, contrary to popular assumptions, actually the famine relief visit to Judea as told in Acts 11. Perhaps overlooked because it did not ‘fit’ the popular understanding of ‘mission’ as overseas evangelistic work.

And in a very strong echo of what Bruce Longenecker has exhaustively researched and I posted about here, Chris argued that the ‘remember the poor’ of Galatians 2 is no side issue within Paul’s theology and life. Actually, it is talked about more by Paul than justification by faith. Economic concern for those in need is an integral part of his mission and therefore the Great Commission.

C. CARING FOR CREATION

The third theme of the Great Commission from Mt 28, Chris proposed, is that Jesus is Lord of heaven on earth. This global / cosmic reign of Christ is seen in Colossians 1 where the death of Christ on the cross has a cosmic dimension:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

It’s here, Chris said, that evangelicals above all people should be able to integrate things. They are by definition people passionate about Jesus,  the cross and the atonement – and should be able to affirm how this saving work of God has universal dimensions. Put another way, discipleship talked about in the Great Commission has the context of being worked out within a creation that God is going to redeem. This has implications for how discipleship is understood.

Evangelicals need a better doctrine of creation. And here Chris linked to familiar texts such as Is 65, Revelation 21-22; Romans 8; Colossians 1. God’s agenda is one of redemption, rescue, restoration – not of destruction or obliteration of the earth. The end game is a new heavens and earth; the New Jerusalem and God’s presence coming down to earth. The creation has a future ..

This all means that our best view of creation is as tenants – with temporary stewardship responsibilities. Creation care now is prophetic action foreshadowing God’s restoration of creation to come. Creation care – a career in the sciences, in environmental work etc – is a legitimate and valued calling of the Great Commission.

CONCLUSION

‘Mission’ is not done only by missionaries. All of God’s people are to be involved in the mission of God. There is a profound and damaging dualism in much traditional evangelical theology of mission where there is a dichotomy between those who do mission and those who do not. A better way to see things is the church as a body of people who are all on mission, with some at work overseas.

Just as the mission of God is broad in scope, so not everyone can do everything. Some will be missionaries and evangelists, some in creation care, some teachers and preachers, some working for justice and serving those in need.This is not to revert to the ‘buffet bar’ or ‘bag or marbles’ approach to mission where only some do evangelism and others do justice – the lordship of Jesus must be at the centre of all Christian life and witness.

Chris linked to Lesslie Newbigin here in mission best being understood as dimension of the church not as a specific task of the church. In other words, the church exists in mission; and within that existence are many expressions of mission. Just like within Science there are many expressions of the scientific enterprise; or similarly within the Arts.

So, how does this broad framework for understanding the mission of God help you think about your life and work – whatever it is that you do?

Do you find this liberating from old-style dualisms between the sacred and secular?

What do you see as potential weaknesses or dangers of this broad understanding of the Mission of God?

And, reflecting on this more, I wonder if certain jobs ‘fit’ more easily within the 5 marks of mission than others? Chris argued that those at all sorts of work are routinely engaged in ethics and issues that call for justice, truth and rightness and their calling needs to be seen as vocational within the mission of God, just as much as any missionary or pastor involved in ‘spiritual’ work. I agree with this – but do the 5 marks of mission [summarised under ‘Church work’, ‘serving society’ and ‘caring for creation’] still leave out most types of work that most people do day to day?

Yes, if you are a teacher, nurse, counsellor, carer, religious worker, environmental consultant – your work can fairly easily fit in the 3 themes. But I am not sure they really make space for someone working in IT, or accountancy, or business who are not doing church related stuff, nor caring for others pastorally or focused on looking after creation.  I guess I wonder if ‘serving society’ needs to move beyond a pastoral focus, to include bringing positive benefit to society – like creating jobs, giving the opportunity for the dignity of work, training people to develop in life skills and experience and so on.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A Christian Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in the Mediterranean

From the World Evangelical Alliance – worth reposting in full.
Contrary to protectionist reactions by people like David Cameron under pressure from UKIP, it calls for “humanitarian space in the hearts and minds” of people for refugees. See some resources at the end for fostering such space at a local level.
April 23, 2015

 By Thomas Albinson, WEA Ambassador for Refugees, Displaced and Stateless People

Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in;
hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love…

Psalm 107:4-8

Background

The capsizing of a boat carrying an estimated 850 desperate men, women and children from Libya to the shores of Southern Europe has once again put the dangerous human migration route across the Mediterranean into the public spotlight. Only 28 lives were rescued.[1]

Assuming that this devastating death toll is confirmed, a total of 1,600 lives will have been lost in the waters between 1 January and 20 April, 2015. During this same period, more than 36,000 people reached the shores of Southern Europe. In 2014, 219,000 migrants survived the voyage. 3,500 migrants died at sea.[2]

The United Nations, governments, humanitarian agencies and faith leaders are struggling to come up with a satisfactory response to this unprecedented crisis in the region.

Perspective – The Global Backdrop

The Mediterranean is one of the great crossroads of the Refugee Highway – the well-worn routes forcibly displaced people travel in search of safety, peace and a normal life. The map below documents such routes to and across the Sea.[3]

Some voices frame the Mediterranean crisis as a threat to the security and economy of Europe. Such a perspective identifies the flow of migrants as a problem to be stopped. They fear that rescuing migrants at sea will only serve to embolden others to attempt the crossing and further escalate the crisis. Perhaps they believe that the people boarding the boats in Libya have other options from which to choose. But do they?

Why people board the boats

People board the boats because they do not believe they have any other viable option.

There are presently over 51 million forcibly displaced people on the planet to whom the world offers only three possible “solutions”.

1.       Solution 1: Return to your country of origin. But refugee producing conflicts are increasingly protracted. Many go on for decades. 21 nations are presently engaged in such violence with no end in sight.[4]

2.       Solution 2: Integrate into your country of refuge. The trouble is that 86% of the world’s uprooted people are hosted by developing countries.[5] These countries cannot possibly absorb and integrate all of the people seeking refuge within their borders.

3.       Solution 3: Be resettled to another country. In any given year, less than 1% of the global refugee population is resettled.

It is clear that these “solutions” fall far short of offering any real hope to the majority of uprooted people in the world. The lack of effective solutions has led to the average time of forced displacement to now be 17 years.[6]

That is why hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced people come up with a forth solution – risk everything to try and reach a stable country in which they can find refuge and rebuild their lives. It is this dangerous hope that fills boats headed to Europe with human cargo.

Who is on the boats?

At risk of oversimplification, we can imagine people pay smuggler’s fees and board overcrowded boats headed to Europe’s shores for 1 or more of the following 3 reasons.

1.       Many of those found on the boats are refugees – people forced to flee their countries. The majority of the 850 who were on the capsized boat last weekend were refugees from Eritrea (fleeing persecution), Syria (fleeing war) and Somalia (fleeing a failed state).[7]

2.       Many sub-Saharan Africans migrated to Libya looking for work. But violence between political factions has erupted once again and ISIS is gaining a foothold in the country, where they have begun executing Christians from sub-Saharan Africa. It is no wonder that many of these migrants now feel compelled to flee Libya. They are faced with the option of a dangerous desert crossing back south, or a dangerous sea crossing to Europe. Many choose the sea in hope that Europeans will understand their predicament and give them refuge.

3.       There are likely others who make their way to the Mediterranean with the aim of reaching Europe in order to improve their lives. They were not uprooted by war or persecution, but rather by economic despair. Unable to imagine a better future in their impoverished homeland, they risk everything to try and reach Europe. Often their families wait back home hoping to receive remittances to improve their lives.

How should Christians see this migration drama in the Mediterranean?

As Christians, we need to avoid falling prey to those trying to manipulate public opinion by inciting fear. When we picture the women, children and men coming across the sea, we must not envision them as potential terrorists and criminals. The truth is that the majority are seeking refuge from terrorists, violence, war and persecution. They are the threatened ones.

Putting a face on the numbers

Alice[8] is originally from Eritrea. Like many others, she fled her homeland because of political and religious persecution. She received asylum (i.e. refugee status) after arriving in Europe by sea. While in Malta, Alice told the story of her Mediterranean crossing to Paul Sydnor, Europe Regional Director of International Association for Refugees (IAFR).

I was on a boat in the Mediterranean with about 30 other people, both Christians and Muslims. After three days at sea, our motor failed. We were adrift. Some of those on the boat knew that I could sing and pray. So whenever the seas grew rough and we grew afraid, they held me up so that I could sing and pray for everyone to hear.

By God’s grace, a rescue boat found us. I was standing at the front of our boat when it began to sink. I got stuck as the boat filled with water. I was pulled under. Everything went black. I knew that I would die. I called out Jesus’ name from under the water. I looked and saw a light. I swam to it as fast as I could. That is how I was saved. I know that it was God’s strong arm that saved me.

Thank God that Alice was rescued at sea and that Europe formally recognized her as a bonafide refugee. Human life was saved. Human dignity was preserved. Human rights were honoured.

Divine Mandate

As Christians, we need to prayerfully seek God’s perspective concerning this crisis. God’s Word is filled with perspective that can help us.

Christians carry a divine mandate to love the alien[9] and to welcome the stranger[10]. Our response to human desperation and migration is not to be fear, but love. The default posture of our hearts is to be open, not closed.

Jesus laid out some of the marks that identify those who are of his kingdom in Matthew 25:35-36.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in,
I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

As uncomfortable as it may make us today, his words make for a good description of the people trying to reach Europe’s shores.

Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has asked church leaders to play an important role in the global refugee crisis – that of “creating humanitarian space in the hearts and minds” of people for refugees.[11] He made this plea after hearing Christian leaders unanimously confirm our divine mandate to love and welcome the stranger.[12] The United Nations is hoping that we will prove ourselves to be true to our calling and play an important part in assisting with the present crisis.

Biblical perspective on forced migration

“From the divine banishment of Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23,24) to the final book of the Bible penned by John while in exile on the island of Patmos, stories of forced displacement run throughout Scripture. Sometimes the causes are simple and other times complex. Some people were forcibly displaced as a result of their own choices and actions (Adam and Eve, Cain, Moses, etc.), while others were driven from their homes in response to climate change/natural disaster (Noah, Lot), conflict (Hagar, Joseph), famine (Jacob, Abraham, Naomi), war/exile (the nation of Israel, Esther, Nehemiah, Daniel) or persecution (David, Jesus, Philip, Aquila and Priscilla, Peter, the early church).”[13]

Because the refugee narrative flows from cover to cover through the Bible, we can see that God is often powerfully at work in and through the lives of forcibly displaced people. It is this truth that can help us not become overwhelmed and paralyzed in the face of this present crisis. We need to assume that God is at work along the Refugee Highway. And we need to make ourselves available to God, should he call us to join him.

For a list of many refugees in the Bible, see the related resource available at www.iafr.org/toolbox/articles-handouts.

What is Europe’s responsibility regarding the death of so many people?

The Mediterranean has become a giant reflecting pool, exposing the unrelenting evil and despair that is loose in our world. Trace the steps of those on the boats and you will find your way back to wars, failed states, persecution, oppression and hopelessness.

Europe has no choice but to respond to this crisis. There are no easy choices to be made. Nevertheless, we will be responsible for the choices we make.

Perhaps the following European and International voices offer a helpful way forward that is both necessary and realistic.

Value human life above other agendas

During a recent radio interview, Hernan del Valle (Doctors Without Borders), pointed out that “there is only hope if what we’re calling for is first and foremost politicians in Europe need to put the lives of human beings above other considerations at the moment.

Embrace solutions that include integration

During the same interview, Mark Micallef (Times of Malta), warned that we need to avoid believing that there is a quick fix to a crisis like this – “…there isn’t one. This is a very, very, complex problem that we are going to be facing for the next couple of decades, possibly. The first thing we need to be doing is to stop knee-jerk reactions… This is a very complex problem that needs multidimensional solutions managing the integration of these people in our economies and in our societies.”[14]

Create real alternatives for refugees – and increase burden sharing

The United Nations has welcomed the initial EU response, but challenges the EU to expand measures to include “…developing a robust search-and-rescue operation which places an emphasis on saving thousands of lives; making a firm commitment to receive a significant number of refugees for resettlement in the EU; providing legal alternatives, such as enhanced family reunification, private sponsorship schemes, and work and study visas, so that people in need of international protection do not need to resort to such dangerous voyages; providing support for those countries receiving the most arrivals (Italy and Greece), and; greater intra-EU responsibility sharing to avoid the current situation where a few countries are receiving most asylum-seekers, mainly Germany and Sweden.”[15]

What can local churches do?

Pray

The issues raised in this article offer many points for prayer concerning this crisis. We must pray concerning the root causes of forced migration. We must pray for those who have been forcibly displaced. We must pray for the governments and societies on the front line that have no choice but to respond to the boats in their waters and the people arriving on their shores. We must pray for the church in Europe – that our divine mandate to love the alien and welcome the stranger would demonstrate the love of God in the midst of this humanitarian crisis.

Perhaps God will use Scriptures like the following to help us as we pray.

o   Psalm 107:1-8
o   Psalm 142
o   Psalm 146
o   Psalm 5:11
o   Matthew 25:34-40
o   Exodus 2:15-22
o   Acts 8:1-8
o   Acts 18:1-4
o   1 Samuel 23:9-16
o   Ruth 1:22 and 2:11-13

Get Informed

Many Christians are poorly informed concerning the refugee crisis. Local churches can play an important role in helping their faith communities better understand the realities and challenges related to the crisis. World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) has created a series of user-friendly resources and links to help.

See: www.worldevangelicals.org/refugees for more information.

Network together – The Refugee Highway Partnership

No single government or institution has all that is needed to respond to this crisis. As Christians, we need to work together and encourage one another. The Europe Region of the Refugee Highway Partnership is a network that brings together a wide variety of Christians with a burden to serve refugees. The annual European Roundtable of the RHP is an important opportunity to network together.

Learn more at www.refugeehighway.net/regions/europe.

Raise awareness – Demonstrate solidarity

World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) established World Refugee Sunday as a way for Christians worldwide to demonstrate our common concern for the welfare and protection of forcibly displaced people. The Refugee Highway Partnership (WEA Global Partner) offers many church-friendly resources to help observe this important day of the year.

You can find the resources at: www.refugeehighway.net/resources/world-refugee-sunday.

Hospitality and Integration

As has been mentioned already, the solution to this long-term crisis is going to include creating place within our societies for the wave of people arriving on our shores. Such place is created by welcoming the stranger and helping them integrate into our cities and neighborhoods. What community is better situated for this purpose than a local church?

Governments and social agencies have much needed expertise to provide helpful services to these new arrivals. But they do not offer community or relationship. That is to be a hallmark and strength of a local church.

More church-friendly resources at www.iafr.org/toolbox/articles-handouts.


[1] “UNHCR welcomes EU Mediterranean plans, but says more needs to be done”, 22 April 2015. Source: http://www.unhcr.org/553623109.html

[2] “UNHCR calls for urgent action as hundreds feared lost in Mediterranean boat sinking”, 20 April 2015. Source: http://www.unhcr.org/5534dd539.html

[3] Map from BBC, “Mapping Mediterranean Migration”, 15 September 2014. Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24521614

[5] UNHCR Global Report, 2013, page 6

[6] CBC News, “Three Reasons the Number of Refugees is as High as it is Today”, 23 May 2014. Source: CBC News: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/three-reasons-the-number-of-refugees-is-as-high-as-it-is-today-1.2651327

[7] “UNHCR welcomes EU Mediterranean plans, but says more needs to be done”, 22 April 2015. Source: http://www.unhcr.org/553623109.html

[8] Her name is changed to protect her identity. Alice was ultimately resettled from Malta to Australia.

[9] Leviticus 19:34

[10] Matthew 25:35-36

[11] “Closing remarks as delivered”, High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, Theme: Faith and Protection (12-13 December 2012), Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[12] At the request of UNHCR, faith leaders (including representatives from WEA) later drafted “Welcoming the Stranger: Affirmations for Faith Leaders”. Download the document at: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendocPDFViewer.html?docid=51b6de419&query=welcome%20the%20stranger.

[13] “5 Reasons Followers of Christ Seek the Protection and Welfare of Refugees”, by Thomas Albinson. Complete article available at http://www.iafr.org/toolbox/articles-handouts.

[14] The Takeaway with John Hackenberry, 20 April 2015, “Mediterranean Becomes Mass Grave For Hundreds of Refugees”. Source: http://www.thetakeaway.org/story/hundreds-feared-dead-in-mediterranean-shipwreck/

[15] “UNHCR welcomes EU Mediterranean plans, but says more needs to be done”, 22 April 2015. Source: http://www.unhcr.org/553623109.html

In honour of Greece

David McWilliams is by far the most entertaining and creative economist in Ireland today. “Not much competition” I hear you mutter. Perhaps. It’s true that those adjectives are not normally associated with the ‘dismal science’. But McWilliams has a wonderful gift for making economics both understandable and, more importantly, human.

That’s because he’s a great story teller and his post of a couple of days ago is one of his best. Germans, Greeks, Bob Marley, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Jubilee, Capitalism, Communism, Catholicism, morality and the future of Europe all appear.

He is, in my amateur opinion, absolutely right about Europe now being a Bankocracy. And a bankocracy, I suspect, will collapse sooner or later as the elite whom it best serves become more and more isolated from an alienated majority.

I wish the Greeks well in their bid to re-negotiate down their absurd, immoral and unpayable level of debt. I admire the people’s courage to call the bluff of European elite who are protecting reckless lenders from taking responsibility for the risks they took while ruthlessly punishing the entire Greek nation for the mistakes their own leaders, bankers and some of the people made in getting into such debt.

We visited Greece for the first time last summer. On an island, after a tough enough hike in the hot sun down to a secluded and beautiful beach, we gratefully found a little family-run tavern nearby. The owners treated us like family, bringing out a delicious supply of mama’s home-made creations to sample. Afterwards, the son offered to drive us back up the long and uphill road. We were so glad of the lift!

In the car he told he was a qualified architect, but like everyone his age group, he had absolutely no hope of any work. He had had to return to his parents little home to have a roof over his head and food to eat. It’s his ‘lost generation’ that I wish well. I hope that some sort of reason prevails that can give people like him some sort of hope about the future instead of endless economic contraction and imposed austerity.

Here are some photos in honour of a beautiful country with generous and welcoming people.

IMG_2909
Corinthian Canal
Corinth
Delphi
Delphi
Tholos in Delphi
Tholos in Delphi
Naxos
Naxos
Parthenon
Parthenon
Young Athlete 340-330BC
Young Athlete 340-330BC
Epidaurus
Epidaurus
IMG_3121
Nafplion
Entrance to Mycenae
Entrance to Mycenae