Last Saturday I was invited by the Omagh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church in Ireland) to be the keynote speaker at their annual elders’ conference.
My title was ‘Love and the Mission of the Church’ and breakout sessions discussed implications personally, among elder teams, for local churches and loving neighbours. Rev Terry Laverty also spoke on Romans 5:5.
Thanks to Rev David Cupples and First Omagh for their hospitality. It was a really encouraging day with about 100 elders there.
Here are the headings I used as a framework which give a flavour of the day.
THESIS 1: LOVE IS A RELENTLESS COMMITMENT TO OTHERS’ WELL BEING
Covenant love. Friendship love.
THESIS 2: ‘GOD IS LOVE’ HAS BECOME ‘LOVE IS GOD’
Love as the religion of our Western age
THESIS 3: OUR CULTURE INCREASINGLY SEES CHRISTIANITY AS OPPOSED TO LOVE
Both ‘internally’ (divided churches) and ‘externally’ (judgmentalism, exclusion, intolerance) Christianity is seen as antithetical to love
THESIS 4: LOVE IS ESSENTIAL FOR THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE CHURCH IN A POST-CHRISTENDOM CULTURE
No room, or reason, for self-pity, a persecution complex, naively thinking that ‘success’ in mission will come from getting externals right. Not our job to try to ‘win back’ the culture. The calling of the church is first and foremost to authenticity
THESIS 5: WE ARE FIRST AND FOREMOST LOVERS
We worship what we love (J K A Smith following Augustine).
THESIS 6: THE LOVE OF GOD IS THE CORE STRAND OF THE BIBLE (around which the next two strands are entwined)
OT to NT – divine love shown without partiality, without merit, with a relentless commitment to his people. Culminating in Gods’ ‘great love’ in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:4)
THESIS 7: HUMAN LOVE FOR GOD IS COSTLY AND TRANSFORMATIVE
OT to NT, God’s people are love as they have been loved. A community of love and justice; thankfulness, obedience, worship and joy, experiencing the love of God in the Spirit (Rom 5:5). Wholehearted love for God, whatever the cost.
THESIS 8: LOVE IN COMMUNITY IS GOD’S ULTIMATE AGENDA FOR HIS PEOPLE
Love is not a nice by-product of the gospel, love is the whole point.
‘The only thing that counts is faith working through love’
Love for one another. Love for neighbour – who is an enemy. Forgiveness of those who have sinned against us. Love as God’s weapon in his cosmic war with sin, death and evil. Love as a foretaste of the future kingdome come in the present.
Love as imitation of Jesus:
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
A group of Irish Christians are getting together to launch a new publishing imprint, Praxis Press.
They have a kickstarter campaign to raise €5000 which closes on the 03 May. Check out the website which has a series of short videos sharing the vision.
Something like this takes passion, dedication and courage – if you can, do consider how you can help them reach their target.
The plan is to faciliate Irish voices, engaged in the frontline of ministry and mission, getting into print.
This is important because so much of our theology and thinking about mission, while often excellent – and sometimes not – is ‘imported’ from very different cultural contexts, particularly America.
The plan is to launch 3 books. The first one is already written by Pastor Fraser Hosford. I’ve read it and wrote this endorsement.
It is so good to see an Irish pastor writing about theology, culture and mission for our contemporary Irish context! Fraser Hosford asks an important question – how is the gospel good news in Ireland today? What is so fresh about this book is that he answers this question by engaging thoughtfully and graciously with what real people in Ireland today actually think, believe and hope for. It is from this foundation of careful listening that Hosford unpacks how the gospel is good news for all of life. Peppered with stories and illustrations, the result is a very readable account of how the gospel leads to a flourishing life. Anyone writing about such a great theme has my attention, I suggest that he should have yours as well.
Here is the vision behind Praxis Press in their own words:
There are unique challenges facing the people of God in Ireland. Challenges which resemble challenges faced in other places but are still unique to our island. And so it is that theologies and practices from England, Europe, America and beyond, while meaningful, will never be exactly right for Ireland. This place, this island of poets and dreamers, with its legacy of writers and revolutionaries, of deep spirituality and profound faith needs to elevate its own voices and examine its own mind. In a post Christendom reality, the church must rise again to the challenge of mission, to see itself as sent, in love, to the world. This is not a dire change but a liberating one. As one form of church begins to wane, a freedom actually emerges and it is here that the Irish voice will rise. We seek to elevate the naturally modest Irish missional practitioner. We seek to examine the context of Ireland as a place of mission, engagement and love. We seek to share the ideas, explore the theological reflections and tell the stories of ordinary yet brave Irish Christians who are searching and finding God on the frontier of mission. We want to elevate Jesus in His people, free and at work in this complex and wonderful place.
Over the last three weekends I have attended three very different Christian services. The first was my mum’s funeral, the second our IBI Graduation Service and the third a baptism.
Their sequence is ‘life in reverse’ – from death, to celebrating a significant milestone in life together, to a sacrament welcoming a precious new life into the community of the Church.
I hadn’t planned to write about this. I’m beginning without knowing where this is going. It may make it on the blog or into ‘Trash’ on windows explorer. If you are reading this, then you know what happened!
In IBI we are always encouraging (and requiring) students to do ‘Reflective Practice’ which is a structured process critically examining events, attitudes, and feelings with the aim of developing and improving future practice. This blog post is getting close to this – not so much reflecting on my practice but on my feelings and attitudes as a Christian who believes the creeds of the Church catholic.
First, my mum’s funeral conducted by Rev Noble McNeely in 1st Holywood Presbyterian Church, a friend and caring pastor.
I have had very little experience of death. In our technological, medicalised and commodified Western culture death is pushed to the margins of everyday life. Unless your line of work brings you into contact with death and the grieving, it likely rarely intrudes. We are busily taken-up with the frenetic business of living. Our consumer culture promises us every possible joy and pleasure that life can offer with no ‘sell-by’ date attached.
As Dylan says, we can be taken up with the conceit that we are too good to die. Or, as Hauerwas likes to say, we can fool ourselves that our technology will enable us to get out of life alive. (Always wanted to get those two together theologically!)
Yet, as OT wisdom tells us, our lives are indeed like vapour, we are here one day and gone the next. Even though I was with her when she died, I’m only beginning to get used to the reality that my mum, such a strong, supportive and reliable presence for all of my life, is gone.
In the blink of an eye, you and I will follow.
I can only speak personally here and you may disagree, but it is only a Christian funeral service that can look death in the face and yet speak with hope. It would be easy to lapse into vague sentimentalism about our loved one living on with us through love or memories, but Christian hope is much more earthy and robust.
It tells us the specifics of a historical story. That Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, has looked death in the face for us. He has experienced death itself and descended to the realm of the dead. Yet, death could not hold him. As Peter proclaims in the first ever gospel sermon, the Messiah
… was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:31-33)
Is such belief just a crutch for those who can’t bear to accept that this life is ‘all there is’? Is it ironically a similar form of conceit to that of which Dylan and Hauerwas criticise? That we are ‘too good to die’ and can ‘beat death’ after all through resurrection life? Is it a refusal to face the fact of our own mortality that we dream of immortality?
I can’t prove this of course, but I think not. Such hope depends completely on the historic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, evidenced by the outpouring of the Spirit.
As a consequence, it seems to me that Christian hope, through being united to the resurrected Son in faith, has given, and continues to give, believers courage to face death, persecution and suffering.
But not only this, it calls Christians to make this life count, to live a life worthy of this gospel, not getting distracted by temporary distractions but focus on loving and serving others in whatever short time given to us.
And perhaps it is those who have faced death and been given a reprieve, who can see these priorities most clearly (thinking of someone in particular here, I am sure you can too). Life is an infinitely wondrous gift. Let’s not waste it.
CELEBRATING A MILESTONE
The second service was a joyous occasion. Many friends and family came. Current students baked a fantastic graduation cake and made delicious desserts.
Students spoke of a life-transforming experience of theological study and said nice things about staff and teachers. We sang songs. We laughed. We took many photos. We dressed up in gowns and suits and dresses and formally marked significant achievements of learning together. We acknowledged the sacrifices students and their families had made. We listened to Prof Craig Blomberg preach about ‘the real world’ being God’s inaugurated kingdom that one day will be really real and the present ‘unreal’ world will be remade anew. We congratulated students on their hard work, their teachability, their desire to learn and their passion to serve – head, heart and hands.
I think modern life has too few such occasions in which to mark significant achievement. The mixture of joy and formality at graduation is appropriate. It is a public recognition of individual success but this is not to say graduation is the end of the process. Rather it is simply a milestone to celebrate on the way.
The purpose of the learning (ideally) has multiple effects: to learn about God, his Word, what previous and contemporary Christians have thought, and to know ourselves. It means learning to think critically, to write, to articulate ideas, to lead, to communicate, to work with others, and to use God-given gifts in service of his people and the wider world.
In other words, this was a service about adult Christian faith engaging the world. It was full of life, enthusiasm, progress and a vibrant sense of how the gospel (good news) is good news for all of life.
Christian faith is not just a theory to believe in that might get you to ‘heaven’ when you die. It is, rather, an experience of living in God’s story in the here and now and participating as disciples in his mission to redeem the world which he loves.
The third service was back to the beginning of life. It was another joyous occasion.
It was the baptism of the long-awaited and cherished infant son of good friends. There was prayer, singing, music, Christocentric worship and afterwards much good food and much conversation.
The church leader was welcoming, relaxed, hospitable and articulated winsomely the case for infant baptism. It not does magically make the child a Christian, but welcomes him into the church community. His parents promised to raise him in the ways of Jesus, but not on their own. In Christianity it takes a community to raise a child.
The church leader likened it to teaching him to be a Man City supporter. He may be dressed in the kit, learn the songs, go to matches, learn about the team and its history … but at some point he has to decide for himself whether to be a Man City supporter or whether to support another team, or not follow football at all …
The parents’ job – and that of the church – is to embody authentic Christian faith for him to see, touch and experience for himself. I pray he does so and in doing so finds much joy in loving God and loving others.
As I reflect on these three services, from death – to adults celebrating a milestone in their lives – to welcoming new life into the world, I have been challenged and refreshed. From a Christian perspective, all three services reinforce one another.
Perhaps these are simple conclusions, but things seem simpler after the last few weeks.
Life is a beautiful gift, to be celebrated with thanksgiving, beginning, middle and end.
It is also short and not to be wasted. A gift is to be used well.
It is to be lived in community with others. That is where true life lies. We celebrate new life together. We rejoice at milestones reached along the journey. And we comfort each other in hope at the end of life.
True purpose is found in living life for others – for God, his people and the good of the world.
Such a calling is anything but a life spent selfishly pursuing temporary wealth, security, pleasure and comfort. It is a call to costly self-sacrifice in whatever context we find ourselves in.
Christian faith has a telos – an end – that reaches beyond death. Christian hope is founded on the eschatological future promised by God in the resurrection of the crucified Christ. Such future hope should profoundly shape our present
Such hope also proclaims that death will not have the last word. That word has already been spoken by God: loving Father, incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son and the life-giving Holy Spirit.
And so it is in him alone that we are called to trust, worship and follow in this unpredictable pilgrimage called life.
James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
Remembering the poor was a key strand of agreement between Paul and the other apostles. It was a defining mark of early Christianity. In an important book on Paul, New Testament scholar Bruce Longenecker has argued that that
“economic assistance of the poor was not sufficient in and of itself, nor was it exhaustive of the good news of Jesus; but neither was it supplemental or peripheral to that good news. Instead, falling within the essentials of the good news, care for the poor was thought by Paul to be a necessary hallmark of the corporate life of Jesus-followers …” (Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World. My emphasis).
Gal. 2:10 fits alongside Gal, 5:13-14 “serve one another in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
Paul ‘put his money where his mouth was’ by committing several years to organising the collection from among the Gentile churches for the poor in Jerusalem. We could even say that this task eventually cost him his life for it was in Jerusalem that he was arrested and sent to Rome.
Read Romans 15:23-33 about Paul’s desire to go to Rome with the contribution to the poor and his prayer request that he might be kept safe from unbelievers there. What does this tell you about his commitment to the poor within his ministry?
Read 2 Corinthians 8:1-15. Paul’s appeal for the giving to the poor is patterned on Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” How does this challenge you to ‘do justice’ with what God has blessed you with?
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
REFLECT What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
This is one of the most dramatic texts in the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of healing and authoritative teaching was fermenting ‘messianic mania’ – could this Galilean Rabbi actually be God’s promised Messiah, come at last to liberate Israel after hundreds of years of waiting? Standing in his home synagogue, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 and unambiguously claims to be the one they were waiting for. Like King David, the Messiah would be anointed and empowered by God for his task. What’s fascinating in this text is what form that task takes. It is the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed that he comes to liberate and restore. The king is inaugurating a kingdom of justice, open to all. Missional justice is central to the mission of the Messiah.
Yet, today it often seems that those who do pour out their lives in service to the poor are seen as admirable but exceptional. It is a fact that that within most churches in the West direct engagement with the poor and marginalised is itself a marginal activity. Why is this? Is it because we tend to individualise the gospel in terms of personal salvation and see missional justice as an ‘add on’ to the ‘core business’ of the Christian life?
The gospel (good news) in Luke 4 revolves around two things: (1) the identity of Jesus as God’s Spirit-anointed Messiah; (2) who will ‘proclaim good news to the poor.’
What God has joined together, let us not separate. We need to proclaim and demonstrate a holistic gospel, one which tells the good news of the Messiah and pursues justice in his name.
WEDNESDAY: The means of missional justice – generous sharing
READ – Isaiah 58:6-7 Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
This hard-hitting text is emphasising, in Old Testament imagery, that ‘faith without works is dead’. A religious practice like fasting is a waste of time if not accompanied by a life of justice. Doing justice in the Bible is treating people fairly; injustice is treating people unfairly, either exploiting them in some way or neglecting to help those powerless to help themselves. Here in Isaiah, injustice takes two forms: that which oppresses and imprisons people (probably something like unpayable debt that enslaves the debtor); or failing to meet basic physical needs of food, shelter and clothing. The comment about ‘your own flesh and blood’ refers to how, within a land gifted by God, Israel was to have ‘no poor among you’ (Deut 15:4). This radical commitment to each other within the people of God is reiterated again and again in the Old Testament (e.g. Micah 6:8 ‘And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’) and the New Testament (e.g. Matt 6:1-2; Acts 4:32-35; Gal 2:10; James 1:27 ff).
This means that a Christian’s identity is not to be that of capitalism’s self-made individual consumer who has no responsibility to anyone but himself, but that of a brother and a sister with practical obligations to those less well-off than ourselves since all we own is a gift from God.
How is God calling you to loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free? Can you think of specific people and situations where you can make a difference through generous giving of your time and money?
Have you heard a sermon in the last 5 years about how the beliefs and values of capitalism collide head-on with a biblical vision of justice? If not, why might this be?
How can the church be an alternative community of justice in a capitalist culture that idolises power, money and success?
For further study see Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010). Excellent.
READ – DEUTERONOMY 10:17-19 17 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. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
We return today to Deuteronomy 10 and zone in on verse 17-19 in a bit more detail. They are truly revolutionary. The ‘way of the (ancient) world’ was power and violence – and it is not much different today. The gods fought amongst themselves. Human rulers used the gods to legitimise their own authority. Those in power prospered at the expense of the powerless. From this perspective, these verses are like a shaft of pure light penetrating a pitch-black room. The God of Israel shows no partiality. It is his very nature to love all humans equally and this means that he even defends the fatherless, widow and alien – categories of the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. There is no other god like this! As John would much later put it, God is love.
Seeking to ‘do good’ to others can be done out of a mixture of motives. They can include guilt – making us feel better about ourselves by helping others less fortunate. Or it can be unconsciously patronizing – a handout to the ‘deserving poor’. Or it can even be a form of ‘empire building’ – gaining reputation and funding for ‘our’ ministries. But authentic missional justice begins not with us but with the love of God himself.
Here in Deuteronomy caring for the powerless is modelled on God himself who cannot be bought. Such impartiality subverts the power structures of the world.
How can the church challenge the power structures of our world through generous ‘no strings attached’ love of the most vulnerable people in our society?
Read James 2:1-12 for a New Testament perspective on God’s impartiality.