Monday, February 29, 2016

Who do you love? (Seminar for CU Hall Group Leaders)

“Jesus… friend of sinners.” Luke 7:34  - a friend isn't someone who hands out tracts and leaves, its someone who reclines at table all night, who is there for people, who is the person people will go to when everything goes wrong.
 “We are ambassadors for Christ… we put no obstacles in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry…” 2 Corinthians 5:20, 6:3 - what obstacles block the way?
 “To the Jews I became a Jew… I became all things to all people that by all means I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 -- all, all, all... to save some... what preferences do you need to give up? What culture to adopt? Think about Hudson Taylor who immersed himself in the culture he was sent to.
 “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:8  - you, you, you... who do you love so much that you share your life and the gospel with them?
 “Let the nations be glad…” Psalm 67:4 - the Bible is a missionary story for the joy of all peoples.


 This is not just about caring for the few Christians in the Hall. You’ll do Bible study because the gospel is our heart-beat, and you can/should all join a gospel-centred church in this city – plenty to choose from: choose one!
 “I will not believe that you have tasted the honey of the gospel if you are prepared to eat it alone.” Charles Spurgeon, Church planter and preacher, London -- you can say you love Jesus but do you want others to have him too?
“I’ve read almost every missional strategy. In the end, love people and be available.” Jon Tyson, Church planter, New York  -- are you available, where people are?
“Where you are, be all there.” Jim Elliot, Missionary Martyr, Ecuador -- give up other friendships, other interests, to be there.
As a Hall Group Leader, be there for the Hall with your Group, for the next year.

Reflect on these questions with your co-leader.
• Do you love your Hall? If you don’t like it, how can you learn to love it?  
• Who do you love in your Hall? The Hall is a place/culture populated with people.   
• What do the people in your Hall love? What’s their culture?   
• To say ‘yes’ to loving your Hall, what would you need to say ‘no’ to? What things that currently fill your time? What people? What preferences?   
• How can you change to be one of them to win them?   
• When and where do you need to be to be present with them?   
• What would change in your Hall Group’s life, if you were only trying to reach lost people in your Hall so they would become disciple-making disciples?  
• How would the people of your Hall react if the Hall Group disappeared? (a) Throw a party? (b) Not even notice? (c) Mourn and grieve?   
• What can you do to bless your Hall? Is there an easy idea you can try?  
• What help do you think you need? 
 FEEDBACK: Your reflections and questions and action plan.

With significant help from Donnie Griggs at Advance (mp3s).

Image - Creative Commons - photosteve101

Friday, February 26, 2016

Life for the unlikely, riches for the impoverished, welcome to those who wander: Seven words on God's Purpose of Election

I love Paul's teaching on 'God's purpose of election' in Romans 9-10. Among my favourite chapters of the Bible. It's hard teaching for many reasons but when you get past some of the preconceptions it's a heart-felt meditation from someone overwhelmed by God's grace to them while wrestling with the reality of friends who've also heard of Christ but not responded to him.

Seven words to consider.

1. Emotion
Paul has unceasing anguish and sorrow for his friends who don't know Jesus. This is the emotional spectrum for talking about election. This is not one for little boys to argue about, it's for the big hearted who are ok with crying.

2. Change
Paul sets up two categories of people:
(A) Flesh, works, hardened, vessels of wrath, not loved, not God's people...
(B) Promise, calling, compassion-receivers, vessels of mercy, loved, God's people.

And the point is that people move from category A to category B. I'm not persuaded these are intended to be static categories. As Paul writes, similarly in Ephesians, it is children of wrath who get made alive in Christ.

3. Christ
The issue is always what do you do with Christ. He's the rock in the road. Stumble over him or believe in him. People ask, around election, am I going to hell? The answer isn't so much an answer as a question: what do you make of Jesus?

4. Pray
Paul's teaching on election is paired with him saying he prays for his friends. However you understand election it has to get you on your knees rather than making that seem pointless.

5. Proclaim
The issue is what you do with Christ, so you need to be near him. He comes near in his gospel word. People don't call on Christ without hearing. Hearing doesn't guarentee receiving because some disobey the message of mercy... but nonethless: speak.

6. Posture.
The God who elects has his arms wide open all day long to disobedient and contrary people. On such people he will bestow his riches - the Father offers his Christ to the worst, the rebels...

7. Humble
Those who have Christ aren't aloof - they know that only God's promise, call and mercy have bought them to God. But for Him they'd have been lost. I'm prone to wander but he finds me.

Are you against Christ?
Are you away from him?
Are you not knowing his love?
Are you not part of his people?
Are you rating yourself by where you're from or what you've done?
Are you not looking for God?

Anything you think could qualify you does you no good. Christ subverts our expectations. And those who seem least qualified are ideally placed to hear of Christ. But, don't hear and stumble - hear his invitation and receive his mercy.

Image - Creative Commons - Alexander Mueller

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Four things to consider about Faith at Work.

If you follow Christ how does that shape your work? Does it make a difference? Can it make a difference? We need to throw away the sacred/secular divide that says faith is for church and work is secular... the church contends with the notion that faith is private saying that faith must express in the public square. That probably looks very ordinary, speaks to motivation, purpose, attitude.

This is incomplete but a beginning...

I'm intended to work and my work is good.
God's design for this world was for humanity to work, to classify, to write poetry, to work the land, to cultivate and civilise... so that a wilderness is transformed into a formed and filled world, a garden city. Work, however grand or mundane can contribute to that. I should ask myself - how my work can do that? And perhaps, whether there's a way I can do more...

The only things out of bounds are those which would go against that mandate - though seeing that is probably not always easy to discern. Paul says to early followers of Christ - stay where you are, do the work you've been doing... and if you don't work then you shouldn't expect to eat. Whether selling products in a shop, practicing law, educating, running a business, cleaning toilets, engineering submarines - do your job!

In a fallen world work is hard and frustrating. This should be no surprise and should be part of my consideration of what it will take to work, and how it's likely to feel.
In Christ, I have the motivation of the creation mandate to spread God's goodness through this world - and a renewed motivation to do my work for a fresh audience.

Working itself is good, and what we work at can be good too.

If I don't want to work - let me repent. If I'm prone to overwork - let me repent.

I need to grow.
Some of my work is with students - and many of those in our church are spending significant time and energy on professional exams. This could be cold careeerism or it can be the pursuit of the first goal- to work. Study is an end in itself as a part of forming and filling me as a person, but also as a contribution to the formation and filling of this world. How can I stretch myself to contribute more?

In a fallen world there are limits on how far I can go, there's weakness... and there's the need for realism about who I am vs. my boundless ego and selfish ambition.

In Christ, I want to be more like Christ, and to participate in life in his world, not just for myself but for others.

If I don't want to grow - let me repent.

I am able to work.
By nature and nurture I have abilities, talents, gifts... things that I can do. Others can do the same thing, though some can't. If I can work at a certain level then I probably need good reason not to. If my circumstances, health etc. limit me I can also rest in a reduced capacity...  or live in the tensions of the various demands that mean I can't do the maximum in every direction. I recall someone I met who embraced celibacy in part so he could pursue academia unwaveringly... not necessarily a bad move to make. I might be able to play the first team but am I better off playing in the third team - a bigger fish in a smaller pond...  to gain more respect, or should I have the humility to be the worst player on the team because someone will be.

In a fallen world - sin and sickness and self-destruction effect what we can do. I may be unable to work.

In Christ, there's a new opportunity to do something - whether mundane or extraordinary. And I can embrace the ethical challenges of working in complex situations, with many questions unanswered and held in tension. Value doesn't come from ability nor from fulfillment which liberates me to accept where I find myself.

If I don't want to do what I can do or can't do what I want to do - let me repent.

I am interested in this.
This is a beautiful, colourful, meaningful world. And what's in front of me has been given to me to work on. Why shouldn't I be interested in that? It's amazing the things that fascinate some people - but what an opportunity to form and fill a small part of this world...

In a fallen world, beauty is broken, desire is damaged, I'm bored by things that are amazing.

In Christ, my heart is renewed, my mind being conformed to Christ. A light shines in the darkness.

If I'm not interested in what I'm doing - let me repent. If my interests are self-serving - let me repent.

Not the only considerations for faith at work, but at least some.

See also

Image - Chris Brown - Creative Commons

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Some Trinitarian Moves

If Trinity then...

The Father and Son enjoy an eternal conversation by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit conveying the Father's love for the Son, and the Son's delight in his Father.The gospel says the Spirit unites us to the Son and brings us inside this relational dance. I pray in the name of Jesus to the Father who is now also my Father. I join with the Son's Spirit-filled 'Abba'. Instead of dutiful submission to sovereignty, we're invited to ask from our generous father who is Lord of Heaven and Earth. As the great Triune/Tabernacle hymn puts it "Before the throne of God above I have a strong and perfect plea, a great high priest whose name is Love..."

If only the Son makes the Father known then the content of preaching must be the Son. The tone of preaching is invitational. The posture of preaching is not over-bearing and superior but alongside others. "I've heard of Jesus, I need to repent to him, come to him with me..."

Trinity implies evangelistic content and evangelistic tone and posture... the love of God reaches out, overflows, gives-and-gives. The stumbling stone is the place of offense but nothing else. Trinity implies mission because there's no limiting the love of God. The Christ doesn't do dead-ends and puddles, but roads that advance and extend, rivers that flow on and on...

When you find your life in the three you're into a family bursting with life, overflowing with love, of movement and music... a life that created all things, not just functionally but with truth and goodness, sounds and colour. Trinitarian life doesn't stand aloof from this world but participates in it for good, aware of it's brokenness as well as it's beauty, to appreciated and enjoy in the context of relationship.

And all creation speaks of this Triune God and his gospel-story - seeds that die to bear much fruit... blazing stars that burn themselves out to give light and life to others... the stars and seasons and countless other images of divine things...

Image - Creative Commons - Mari Paz Molina

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Basic Christianity is Trinity

I was once advised that if talking about my Christian faith with a Muslim I should avoid John's biography of Jesus. All that Trinity in page 1 of his gospel will just cause trouble. Don't go getting into a God who has a Word and all that! Well meant advice, but I'm not sure it works or is necessary...

So we turn to Mark's gospel. Mark 1:1 "The begining of the gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God."

In our attempt to avoid the Trinity we find that God's Saviour (Jesus) is the Christ (the one anointed by the Father with the Spirit), and is the Son of God (the Father). He's also swiftly announced to be the Lord coming to live among us, the Spirit-baptiser and the beloved Son...

Matthew fares little better - Jesus is God with us, and by the time his book is done this Jesus is sending people to immerse people into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And as for Luke, Jesus is the Son of the Most High, the beloved Son at his baptism, son in his genealogy, temptation and his prayer life... to give just a few examples.

And books like Genesis tell the same story - In the beginning, the God with a Word who goes out by the Spirit...

Trinity isn't the obscure bit of Christian theology once you've got your head round all the big Omni-words about God. Trinity is the whole thing. Less, the One Big God who somehow is three... but rather Three who are United in love, observable as they relate to another.

Omni-God's fall over against the big questions of our culture. How can a God of omnipotence not stop suffering... Trinity says - God comes near, to heal and teach suffering men, and to suffer for with and for us (see Athanasius, On the Incarnation). That may only be the beginning of an answer but it gets things beyond whether God can make a rock too heavy to lift and on to his personal introduction to us.

In Luke's account Jesus prays to his Father, full of joy and thanksgiving in the Holy Spirit. He tells us that only he knows his Father, and only his Father knows him. But, his Father has entrusted all knowledge of himself to his Son, and so the Son is at liberty to make his Father known. Which he delights to do... like when Mary sits at his feet to be taught.

The heart of Christianity is the Son's relationship with the Father, as Donald Fairbairn puts it. And by the Son's incarnation, death and resurrection we enter into this relationship. We come 'in the name of Jesus', our names written in heaven - where the Son stands with his Father.

The early church were clear, if you are to say anything about the Christian faith, it's Trinity that you must talk about. Other religions go for Omni-gods - like Islam. Or against Omni-gods - like new atheism,.. But I can't get past the Father's Spirit-filled Son, Jesus.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Love that says 'No' to my gods

A rich young man came to Jesus and asked him 'how can I win?' (how can I inherit eternal life?). What would you say? I was raised with a worldview for winners... triumph for the strong and the able. But Jesus' offers a worldview for losers, life for those who can't, don't, won't.

The man who met Jesus was moral but Jesus said to him, in love: Morality doesn't cut it, money is your god, turn from it. 'Repent of your god and receive Jesus.' The man left disheartened. Our gods go deep, our hearts love them. What's ringfenced from Jesus in my life? What can't Jesus say no to? What would be hell for me? For you? Will we let Jesus challenge our autonomy... our freedom... sexuality... sources of significance... cultural norms... rights...

Jesus said - how difficult, how difficult, more: how impossible for people to enter the kingdom, to be like children who just receive the gift that Jesus offers. Man cannot do it. Man does not need to do it. You can't get camel's through the eye of needles, and you can't get people free from their gods.

The only way is for Jesus to die, and put me to death, to end me so I can be raised to a new life. To have him offer me the gift of himself so I can live. All is gift with Jesus. Jesus is the gift. The renewal of all things through his death and resurrection...

Here is radical inclusivity - anyone can receive Jesus if they'll have him.
Here is radical exclusivity - you can only have Jesus if you'll have him.

I love reward. I love earning it. I love accomplishing. I love attaining. But Jesus says no to me and my self-righteousness. He loves me enough. He loves me to death. He loves me and says: you can't save you, your gods can't save you, but ask of me, receive.

Image: Creative Commons - Kate Ter Haar

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

How to win? The good news that of a worldview that isn't just for winners.

"And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing..." Mark 10:21
In your worldview, how is the win gained?

 - Money for performance?
 - Fame for performance?
 - Plaudits for performance?
 - Autonomy for performance?
A heaven for good people, for the deserving?

Worldviews that depend on these sort of pathways to winning force us to strive... lead elite athletes to cheat.. and to believe that the end justifies the means.

The question was asked of Jesus (Mark 10v17) – how do I inherit eternal life? Or, How do I win? 

(A question for a different post is: what is the win?)

Jesus looks at him, loves him, and speaks. There's one thing that's necessary. He should sell all his stuff. Not because you can sell your stuff to gain this, but because it exposes the one thing he can’t let go of. What’s the one thing Jesus wouldn’t be able to put his finger on in your life? To have your heart he’d want your heart – would you trust him with your life? Could you? It could be money, it could be power, for the vast majority in our culture it’s sexuality --- we’ve come to hold sexual freedom as the great untouchable ‘god’ of our age…

As Jesus looks at us in love from the pages of Mark's gospel we probably know what he'd bring up. We know the one thing we don't think he should mention. We know the areas where we'd be sensitive. The subjects where we've prepared our answers to justify continuing on. Sure others should change but not I?

 Jesus reflects V23 – how difficult it is for winners… how difficult for the rich… how difficult for the … V23, v24 – impossible, even.

Some have looked at the camel through the eye of the needle reference here and thought it means there was a gate – the Needle Gate in Jerusalem that you had to bow very low to get through… i.e. really difficult but possible. But the reaction of Jesus’ friends says he’s talking about something impossible… the only way to get a camel through the eye of a needle, if you’ll forgive the vulgarity of this, is via a blender… it just can’t be done… 

It is impossible for people…. But possible for God. For students in our city - at the 93rd best Uni in the world… Top 10 in the UK. The soundtrack of life is possibility. You can do everything! Yes we can! The world is your oyster and so on. The Disney dream – to search for the hero inside yourself. The American Dream. The Story of Progress.

And in challenging that I want to tread really carefully because that story is so deep rooted in the hearts of people in our culture. We gain so much of our sense of safety, of meaning, of identity, of purpose, from being better than those before us and from what we can, will or might achieve in life. The Christian faith dares to say: You can’t and You don’t have to. Not to go against making a difference in this world --- do all you can for the good of this world, but Jesus warns against this being where we find sustenance.

Jesus' loving look resulted in a man being disheartened. It's so hard to let his love win our hearts, for his greater affection to displace what we've previously given our lives to, to say no to everything we've ever believed we're entitled to, for the sake He who gives up all he has to give himself for and to us as a ransom (10v45).

How is the win gained? Jesus says – we can’t win. The only way is for him to win for us. A substitute in our place. A saviour in our inability, apathy and disinterest. Can you entrust yourselves to him? Ahead of the gods you treasure in the deepest darkest depths of your hearts? To become trophies of his grace. It comes down to a question of love: would I have Jesus ahead of anythig else? There's an exclusivity to the way of Jesus - you only get Jesus if you want Jesus... but also a radical inclusivity - anyone can have Jesus, not just winners, anyone who wants him.

Image: Creative Commons - Brad K.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

"This is my daily bread, your very word spoken to me"

BB Warfield wrote:
"...what Scripture says, God says... whatever it may be found to say, that is the Word of God."
This is derided as Bibliolatry. Book-worship.

Others say - we don't need more Bible, we know the facts - we needs skills and practical help.
Others say - God speaking! Exciting... spurious... weird...

But, if Warfield is right we're rejecting God if reject God's word... and we're distancing ourselves from God when we go Scripture-lite.

For me, lack of Bible in my life leads to lack of faith - since the voice of God brings faith. I drift from Christ. I drift from believing what the gospel reveals of Christ.

I'm studying 1 Samuel 15 this week ahead of preaching on it soon.

In this story King Saul is confronted for disobeying the voice of God (which came to him via judge-prophet Samuel and the Pentateuch). He denies it, protesting than not only is he obeying but he's also worshipping. Samuel replies - do you think God wants your worship if you're disobeying him? You're a presumptuous rebel, an idolator. And then, twice:
"You rejected God's word... so God has rejected you as King." (v23,v26)
Some of this is about Saul's throne, but the issue goes wider and deeper.

God rejects those who reject his voice.

The Father's Spirit-filled Word - his Son.
The Father's Spirit-breathed written word about his Son - that is: The Bible.
The Father's Spirit-empowered word in preaching, and it's cousin prophecy (as it has been said, The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God).

My standing with the Father is as my standing with the Son, the Scriptures, and the present word of God through his people. There is no other foundation on which to build the church. Faith comes by hearing, faith won't come when his voice is on mute.

Saul finally appears to repent but it's too late for his throne. Perhaps not too late for his soul, though what follows isn't promising. Word-rejectors are judged, as those who stumble and take offence at the Christ.

What hope? Only the other king, the other rejected King. The king rejected by the people for obeying the voice of God. The king who takes our place in judgement, becoming sin for us - dying in the place of word-rejectors, that by the better word of his blood he might bring us through death to life.

All of which leads me to read the Bible. Not because I worship a book but because I know that, like Saul, I am a word-rejector. And either I can cover my ears and continue to go my own way and love the things made in the idol factory* that is my heart, or I can put myself in the sound of his voice.

I want Christ but I'm fickle - but my trust isn't in the strength of my faith and devotion- not in my word but his. Mine is a hope outside of me.

I need the Bible as (and even more than) I need daily bread. I don't read it every day. I don't always do what it says. I'm not always excited to read it. I'm not always blown away by what I read. I don't read it because I don't know the story - I do - I read it because I know it.

I read it with others to temper my biases, confront the planks in my eyes, to serve one another. I hear it in the company of the church to reveal my sin and my Saviour that we might be built up together. I read it to remember my baptism and remember him at his Table. I read it with those who don't know Jesus so they might come to know him. I read it to discover more of God and his fascinating world that my dull heart just takes for granted. I read page by page, being swept up in it's grand story, stopping to examine it's finer details, appreciating it's melodies and symphonies. I read it to learn to pray and love and learn what my salvation is for. I read it to fight my sin and to enflame my affections.

I read it know that this word can harden my sinful heart, and knowing that nothing else in all the world can melt my sinful heart. I read it when I don't want Christ and because I want Christ.

Image: David Wright (Creative Commons)
* John Calvin's phrase.