Friday, 23 November 2018

God Alone is Good

Jesus says that no one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18) Well that’s a relief. It’s a burden to think that the task of our lives is to be good. (Which is to say, not being bad.)

Jesus makes the above declaration about God in response to a question from a rich man. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus begins with the affirmation that God alone is good. “But anyway” says Jesus, “how you going with the commandments?” “Great” says the guy, “I seem to have them down pretty well.” This guy thinks he is good. And he thinks Jesus is good, and that Jesus thinks that Jesus is good. And so he tries to identify with Jesus, to build up a mutual back-slapping club with him for all those who are good.

No such luck for the guy. “Give up everything and follow me.” To give up his wealth would be to give up the evidence that he is good. (That is, God blesses the righteous, and the guy’s wealth is therefore evidence that he is righteous. We call this the prosperity gospel these days and it is alive and well not so much in the church but in society around us.) Jesus invites the guy to give up the burden of his (self-) righteousness and to follow him, Jesus. “No way fella”, he says, and off he goes grieving for (we are told) “he had many possessions”.

People can often feel guilty about their wealth when they hear this reading. And that would be to miss the point. Guilt about not being good? ("I feel guilty about my wealth", which is to in some way say that I am bad because of it.) Oh dear. But isn’t Jesus saying that God alone is good? Imagine if, having felt guilty about one’s wealth after reading this passage, one gave it all up. I suppose we could feel very good rather than guilty (bad). But would this be discipleship?

Only God is good.

The call to discipleship that Jesus makes to the man is not a better way to be good, that is, free from possessions.  The passage is consistent: Jesus says it’s not about being good (God alone is good), the man says that he is good, Jesus calls him to give it all up and follow him, surely not just to be good, but to escape being good. Discipleship of Jesus is not about being good.
It’s a call away from being good.

Here’s another way of looking at it. If I said I was showing compassion to someone because I was good, or if showed compassion because I felt guilty, that wouldn’t be compassion. That would make my ‘compassion’ be about me, not the person I am being compassionate toward. Being good to please God is about us, not God. Jesus asks us to love not be good.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Pentecost, Ideologies, and the Reversal of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel occurs in Genesis 11:1-9.  United by one language, a monochromatic humankind builds a monument to its own glory, a great tower. God ‘comes down’ to see this arrogant attempt at greatness, and scatters the people giving them many different languages to disunite them. One could read the story as an act of grace in a way, because God’s intervention prevents humankind uniting under a banner of uniformity. (A parallel to the human arrogance of the story of Babel is the great projects of human arrogance in the twentieth century – Nazis, Bolsheviks, etc. – and the way in which they crushed the diversity of the people under them, literally killing off the diversity that would not yield to their ideology.)

The account of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11) is, among other things, the reversal of the Tower of Babel. Pentecost was a Jewish feast day, and Jews from different lands (and languages) came to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival. The Holy Spirit allows the disciples to speak to the listeners in the tongues of the listeners. The Gospel unites the listeners not by squeezing them into the language of the disciples as though the gospel were an alien ideology, but the gospel comes to the listeners from the inside of their thinking and culture. It is a gospel for all people without uniformity.

This last point is very important in a world of ideology. The Holy Spirit did not work on the listeners to allow them to understand the language of the disciples. That would be squeezing the listeners into the culture of Galilee. And the church from then on would have had the licence to squeeze everybody into an original language and culture. Instead, the natural impulse of the church has been to enculturate the gospel wherever the gospel went by, for example, translating the Scriptures into the common tongue. In fact, if the Holy Spirit had worked on the listeners instead of the speakers, this would have been contrary to the Incarnation of God in Christ. God became human, entering into our very humanity, to be one of us, to speak ‘our language’.  This original mission of God in Jesus continued on the day of Pentecost, continues to be the driving force of Christianity.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

God's Love and the Royal Wedding

The preacher at the recent royal wedding stole the show in a way. True to his roots, he preached a style of sermon that was refreshing and complemented the straight-down-the-line approach of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Touched off with a marvellous rendition of  Stand By Me gospel style. And with perhaps 2 billion people watching Bishop Michael Curry took the opportunity to speak of the transforming power of God’s love and the possibility of our mutual love seen in a couple about to discover this love in a life lived together in holy matrimony. It was a good sermon for a world of limited Christian understanding and showcased the Christian emphasis on love.

The bishop said many things, but here is my very short summary:

If we love each other we will transform the world.

As someone said, it was the classic Progressive Christianity. Of course, if we could love each other the world would be different. A new creation. But the world isn’t different, so presumably (the awkward, unspoken inference of the sermon) we don’t love each other well enough. So try harder. And here we meet the soft underbelly of Progressive Christianity. Generally speaking, while so-called progressives begin with a concern for the excluded and for peace and justice, Progressive Christianity ends wagging the finger as much as its arch-rival, the conservative evangelicalism. “If only we loved each other more …” We don’t, so try harder. I find progressive Christianity as law-driven and critical of those who don’t measure up as anything it allegedly opposes. Progressive Christianity is adept at the backhanded compliment.

The readings for Trinity Sunday (Year B) have as the Gospel reading a great chunk of John 3. It narrates, among other things, God’s action in Jesus to change people and the world.  It is not a call for us to try harder, even to try harder with a good measure of aid from God. The traditional gospel affirms our neediness and inability to save ourselves, to contribute to our salvation at all. Our contribution is elicited, enabled, sustained, and fulfilled by God. We can’t even claim a tiny, little sliver of unaided contribution that was topped up by God.  Of course, we can call each other to greater acts of love. But how to do this without the implied criticism? Better to be honest about the criticism and see where you end up.

The preacher at the royal wedding got away with it because his ancestors were slaves and here he was preaching to the Queen of England. A good dose of irony in that, irony that sits very comfortably with Christianity. But, generally speaking, progressive Christianity has as much trouble with criticism and exclusion of those who don’t measure up as do any of the conservative evangelicals.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Commentary on the Nashville Statement

If you think that evangelical thinking on sexuality is all of a piece and you relegate it to the extreme end of the spectrum and believe that you could never find a conversation partner amongst these  Christians, check out some of the commentary on the recently released Nashville Statement. (Here & here.)

And for the Nashville Statement itself see here.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Christ's Coats of Many Colours

We had fun at Almost Like Church yesterday talking about Joseph's coat of many colours. The essential point behind the kids' talk was that Joseph relished his father's favouritism at the expense of his brothers. And they resented him for it. If it weren't for the great ending of reconciliation Joseph would not be remembered positively. But the essential point was that Jesus, the favoured Son, doesn't hoard God's love but spreads it. In fact, this is the heart of the gospel: God's love for us in Christ through the Spirit brings us to the intimacy shared by (to use traditional language) Father and Son to the extent that there is nothing more to give. Jesus does not evoke envy because he is not our rival for the Father's love. In this sense, we are all given a coat of many colours through Christ and the Spirit.

Come to think of it, there's probably a decent adult sermon in that.

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds

There are times to make judgements, about ourselves and others. Decisions need to be made, actions undertaken, help to be given. However, I’ve learnt that once we make the judgement (this is who they are, this is what they are like, etc.) we stop learning about ourselves/others. The conversation ends. This is who they are … So, although judgements are necessary at times, I find it helpful to make the judgement temporary and to once again open up the conversation of learning about others and myself.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) appears, at first glance, to be a parable of judgement. But it is a parable asking us to delay judgement. It is God who judges and God’s envoy who will sift at the end of the age. We are not asked to judge. (cf. Matt 7:1-5)

The death and resurrection of Jesus bear the mark of this eschatological judgement. (Rom 6:10; 8:1; 2Cor 5:19; Heb 7:27) God, in Christ, is delaying judgement. (2Pet 3:8-10)

The above reading of the parable of the wheat and weeds might provide a way in for some people who struggle with the language of Christ bearing our sin. Without touching on how the death of Jesus delays judgement, the language of the graceful delay of judgement on God’s part in the death and resurrection of Jesus is important to recognise.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Holiness is About Relationship First

It is easy to jump to thinking morality when we think holiness. But first, we should think about a relationship with God. My latest Post can be found on the St Barnabas College Blog here.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Saturday, 13 May 2017

God's Preferential Option for the Poor?

This past week I had an interesting discussion on two separate occasions about God’s (alleged) preferential option for the poor. That God cares for those neglected in human communities seems straightforward. But God’s preferential option for the poor? In defence of the statement that God prefers the poor proponents cite a vast array of biblical material that does indeed support God’s care for the neglected and ostracised, and pronounces a fearsome judgment on those who fail to care or even notice. But preferential option? Sounds resentful. But to say so is often seen as politically incorrect in the church. And if you do question this new orthodoxy of God's preference, someone will answer that it is easy for a rich person to say that. (‘Rich’ can also be substituted with western/male/white/heterosexual/Christian/tenured priest, etc.) If I were to use the language of ‘preferential option’ (which I haven’t for years), I might say something like ‘God’s preferential option for the innocent (of whatever they are accused) victim’ without in any way dismissing the biblical affirmation of God’s care for the neglected and ostracised. But I don’t use ‘preferential option’ in respect of God because God is beyond that kind of resentment. The (innocent of what they are accused of) victim gains an epistemological opportunity to understand what we – human beings and our communities and history – are, and this wisdom is given to us through the revelation of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  The innocent victim has an epistemological advantage that can bring with it transformation, particularly shown in repentance and a drive toward reconciliation. Ministry grounded in repentance and reconciliation brings in the wounded and forgotten, the poor and excluded. Without resentment.