A Monday Meditation

Welcome to a new week everyone. I hope you have enjoyed a good weekend with some relaxation and worship. Maybe you got some household chores done as well!

This morning I shared this meditation exercise with the staff at Vose Seminary, as we move into our first week of working-from-home because of COVID-19. Perhaps you might like to join us in this exercise.

James 1:17-18          
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created.

Whether you are at home this week, or at work, or perhaps do not have work at present, why not set aside fifteen to twenty minutes either first thing, or at an appropriate time in the day to read and meditate on this text. You may like to use the following guide as a small prayer exercise. Indeed I encourage you to do this every day this week, perhaps focusing in point four on a different category of grace-received each day.

  1. Begin by ‘entering into his presence with thanksgiving’ (Psalm 100:4) – what can you thank God for this morning?
  2. Read the text slowly and prayerfully, letting it seep into your mind. Be still for a minute or two, and then read it again, and perhaps even a third time.
  3. Imagine the gifts of God streaming down like bright rays of the sun enlightening and warming all that is. Imagine them streaming down upon your life.
  4. Ponder all the good gifts you have received – every natural gift, cultural gift, gifts of family and relationships, spiritual gifts, vocational gifts, opportunities . . . Imagine them coming down from above, from the Father of lights, good and generous gifts of the good and generous God.
  5. Give thanks to God, our generous Father, for all these wonderful and uniquely-you gifts!
  6. Consider: how else might I respond to all this grace? What does it mean to be the child of such a generous Father (v. 18)? What might he intend for me?
  7. If you are up for it, keep a journal of your prayer, and maybe share your insights or experience in prayer with a trusted friend or colleague.

If you would like to see my exegetical study of this passage you can see my blog here for part 1 and here for a bit more. And I have written on James 1:18 here.

Every good and perfect blessing be yours this week.

Scripture on Sunday – John 20:19-22

The disciples were behind locked doors, in self-isolation. Things were bad and could get immeasurably worse. They were afraid. Afraid of the Jews. Afraid of the Romans. Afraid they might be accused. Afraid that they might die. Jesus had been executed by the Romans for what we might call treason. They, as his followers, may be next.

Nonetheless, they were not isolated from Jesus. “Jesus came and stood among them . . . ”

He showed them his wounds, he the Crucified One. He the One who had been killed, now the Resurrected One, present with them in person,  risen . . . alive. And into their fear and isolation he speaks a word of peace. In fact, he speaks it twice:

“Peace be with you . . . Peace be with you.”

He is only repeating here something he had said just a few days before:

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me . . . Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid . . . I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 14:1, 27; 16:33).

Even in isolation, even behind locked doors, they were not isolated from Jesus. Jesus came, Jesus stood with and among them, Jesus blessed them with his gifts of peace and of the Spirit.

This peace is one of the most precious gifts we receive in Christ. A true peace. A peace that keeps hearts and minds, a peace that seeps into the depths of our being. A peace by which we enter into rest, even in the midst of hardship and strife.

If you are in isolation, behind locked doors, you are not alone. Take these verses and practise a little lectio divina: read them slowly and prayerfully a few times, using your imagination to enter into the story yourself. What do you see and feel, hear and experience? Meditate and hear Jesus personally speaking to you , “Peace be with you.”

Receive his gift of peace. Share your heart with him. Sit in stillness with him, in adoration of him, and let his peace seep into very being.

Peace be with you, the gift of his peace, now, at this time.

 

A Pascalian Moment? What to Do in a Time of Quarantine

This is good and helpful advice from Bishop Robert Barron, for what to do during a time of isolation. Anyone with a copy of Bob Dylan’s Desire on his bookshelf must be okay…

His advice? Read a gospel using the method of Lectio Divina. Or read a spiritual classic whether ancient or modern. If you must be alone, find a beautiful place to meditate and pray. I don’t think that I will take up his admonition to pray the Rosary, but I might pray the Lord’s Prayer slowly and thoughtfully. Put away your iPhone…

Scripture on Sunday – John 9:39

Recently I read through the Gospel of John, reflecting on it one chapter at a time and making some notes. Of course I have read John previously, some parts of it many times. Nevertheless I found myself arrested when I arrived at John 9, the story of the man born blind.

This magnificent story refuses to draw a connection between sin and disability, as those in the ancient world were, and sometimes today are still, inclined to do. Rather Jesus does the work of God which in this case involves healing and restoration—and so indicates the kind of kingdom for which Christians hope. And John, as he does elsewhere in the Gospel, uses the story to point to Jesus’ identity, and to the necessity of appropriate human response to him and his message.

John makes this plain by his portrayal of the encounter between the religious authorities and the healed man. The Pharisees are disturbed by Jesus’ lack of orthodoxy and his popularity. He does not adhere to the standards that they believe are necessary if one claims to know and represent God. And they are infuriated by the plain though somewhat belligerent speech of this man who reasons that anyone who can miraculously heal a man born blind must have power that comes from God. They throw him out of the synagogue. Evidently Jesus heard about this and went looking for the man, and, when he found him, asked him if he believed in the Son of Man. The man did believe and confessed his faith, worshipping Jesus. On the one hand repudiation of Jesus because he does not adhere to their expectations; on the other, faith, confession, and worship.

But the wonderful drama of the story did not prepare me for what came next, where Jesus turns the tables on those who labelled the blind man a sinner:

John 9:39-41 
And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, “We are not blind too, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (NASB)

For judgement I came into this world.

I found the statement arresting because it is so alien to much contemporary Christian thought, discussion and proclamation which assures us that Jesus has nothing to do with judgement. And indeed John 3:17 seems to affirm this:

John 3:16-17 
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

God’s attitude toward the world is an attitude—and indeed an action—of utter self-giving love. God loves the world, and sent his Son to save rather than to judge, the world. Jesus accomplishes this salvation as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). This gift of love, this life—of the ‘Word who was with God and was God’ (John 1:1) and who became flesh and dwelt among us full of glory, grace and truth (1:14); and this saving death, are the expression of the heart of God which pulses with love for every person no matter who or what they are.

Is it possible, then, to square John 3:17 with John 9:39? Part of the answer is found in the next verses in John 3:

John 3:18-21, 36       
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. . . 

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

Jesus speaks of judgement again in John 5:22-30. Here he declares that the Father has “given all judgment to the Son,” and that those who believe in him have eternal life and “shall not come into judgment,” but have passed from death to life. The judgement of which he speaks is the eschatological judgement awaiting those whose deeds are evil. These are those that God loves and sent Jesus to save. The world loved by God is in danger of perishing and so needs saving.

The climax of the first part of the gospel occurs in John 12:27-50, especially verses 44-50, and here again the theme of judgement is central to Jesus’ teaching.

John 12:46-48           
I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness. If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.

Again Jesus affirms the words of John 3:17 but also insists that there is yet a judgement awaiting those who do not receive him and his words.

My sense of all this is that Jesus has not come to judge the world but his coming results in judgement, and the criterion of the judgement—which will be fully realised at ‘the last day’—is whether or not one has believed in him and kept his words.

For judgement I came into this world.

These sobering words are the words of Jesus, words that remind us of what makes the Good News good, words that warn us against cheap grace in its many manifestations and costumes, words that call us to faith in and obedience to the One who has so loved us and given himself for us.

As A New Semester Begins…

I wonder what the apostle Paul might make of the critical study of the Scriptures?

In my mind there is no doubt that this mode of study is a double-edged sword. Critical studies of Scripture have expanded our knowledge of the Bible, its backgrounds and contexts, its grammatical and rhetorical features, its varied interpretive possibilities, and so on, with the result that our understanding of it can now be better supported than perhaps ever before in history.

Yet critical studies of Scripture can so multiply theories of backgrounds and contexts, and ideas concerning interpretive approaches, that the unsuspecting reader is somehow set adrift, rudderless, in a great ocean of interpretive possibilities. In some cases this leads not to the strengthening of Christian faith and witness but to its diminution.

This is a very real risk faced by all seminarians as they commence their theological studies: will their studies build their faith and contribute to a robust life of faithful Christian discipleship, or will their study have a more corrosive effect, undermining their faith and perhaps lead them away from Christ and his church?

The problem has several aspects, notably the unique dynamics of the knowledge of God who is never an ‘object’ under our control. We know God only as God gives himself to be known by us. This knowledge is on God’s own terms, so to speak, and is a knowledge grounded in humble faith. Because of this we must be careful to distinguish between knowledge of Scripture or about Scripture, and knowledge of God; the one does not equate to the other.

It is not unusual for students to be thrilled in the knowledge of and about Scripture that they gain in their studies—truly a ground for rejoicing. But if this knowledge is merely intellectual development without a corresponding and deepening participation in and with God, its effect may be more to ‘puff up than to build up’ (1 Corinthians 8:1). Jesus’ words in John 5:39 are instructive: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me.” We study, therefore, not merely to establish doctrine, explore history, identify life principles, or find ideological support for a cultural—or even ‘Christian’—programme of action. The ultimate aim of the study of Scripture is to bear witness to, and lead us into a faith-relationship with, Jesus Christ.

Second, critical study introduces a ‘distance’ between the biblical text and the interpreter in which the reader ‘stands over’ the text, examining and questioning it, treating it as an artefact or an object of enquiry, weighing and evaluating its features, and assessing its various interpretive possibilities. In this process, the interpreter becomes the master and primary agent with respect to the Scripture. And it becomes possible that the habit of thought that one learns in critical study—this ‘distance’—may turn out to be also a controlling feature of one’s relationship with God. Indeed, sometimes this is the point, as Richard Bauckham (paraphrasing Søren Kierkegaard) has warned:

Biblical scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close, or to ensure that one can continue not to be a Christian by not letting the New Testament come too close (Bauckham, James, 2; see my post on Kierkegaard and Christian Scholarship).

How might seminary students navigate this inherent danger in theological study? Some quite obvious responses come quickly to mind: by maintaining a consistent devotional life of prayer, praise, corporate worship, and Christian service; by applying different and complementary practices with respect to Scripture such as lectio divina, a slow, prayerful and meditative reading of the Bible in which we sit ‘under’ the Scripture, listening and waiting to see what it might speak to us; by retaining a sense of the Bible as Scripture, as holy, as inspired by God, and not merely as ‘text’; and by becoming at least as self-critical of one’s own presuppositions, purposes, and power, as one is of the tradition and others’ interpretations.

I began this post by asking about what Paul might make of critical study. Although I will not presume to answer that question, it arose for me as I reflected on his writings in 1&2 Timothy—although critical scholarship wonders whether in fact Paul is actually the author of these books! In these letters to his protégé Paul (let’s assume) continually exhorts Timothy to the preaching and teaching of sound doctrine, and to resist

A morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions… (1 Timothy 6:4)

Rather, Timothy is to guard

What has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter (“godless philosophical discussions” Jerusalem Bible) and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’—which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith (6:20-21; cf. 2 Timothy 2:16-18).

He is to remember that

The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion (1 Timothy 1:5-6).

He is also to

Remember Jesus Christ . . . according to my gospel. Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. . . . Refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels (2 Timothy 2:8, 14, 23).

Timothy is reminded that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable . . .” (3:16-17), and he is to “preach the word” for the time will come

When they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (4:2-4).

Even though Paul is writing for a pastoral rather than academic context he has nevertheless quite accurately pinpointed the temptation and danger to which modern theological students are exposed. In formal theological study one will inevitably read and think through many different ‘disputes about words,’ and consider various ‘godless philosophies.’ This is as it should be, though hopefully we will never be enamoured with them. Nevertheless his words help the modern theological student ‘fight the good fight of faith’ (1 Timothy 1:18; 6:12) by reminding us of the goal of theological study, and by positing the gospel of Jesus Christ—as it has been mediated to us in the inspired Scriptures, and by the apostolic witness and tradition—as the canon within which we assess every teaching, and to which we adhere as a treasure that has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:13-14).

Thus, at the beginning of a new semester, Remember Jesus Christ . . . according to my gospel.

4 3 2 1

Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1 (London: Faber & Faber, 2013) 1070pp.          
 ISBN: 978-0-571-32465-1

It seems I can only read a big novel when I am on holiday; life seems too busy otherwise. This is certainly the biggest novel I have read in some years, and although I enjoyed it, it is not as absorbing as I hoped it might be. Having said that, however, I should note that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2017, has received some very positive reviews, and it is possible that I will read it again one day, albeit differently.

Auster has written a long, sprawling account of one young life—Archie Ferguson’s—who was born on March 3, 1947 and continues through to around his twenty-second year of life. Set primarily in New York, the novel provides a kaleidoscope of images from mid-century American history, especially in the 1960s, and especially to do politics, Vietnam, and inevitably, a young man’s sexual awakening and adventures.

The unique aspect of the novel, foreshadowed in the title, is that it is not a single account of young Archie’s life, but four quite distinct though related accounts, four possible lives marked by different fortunes, turns-of-event, and outcomes. Chapter one provides the pre-history leading up to Archie’s birth before subsequent chapters are each structured in four parts providing the distinct accounts of the life, development, and adventures of each persona in each of the periods in view.

Auster’s portrayals of the “different Archies” is the strength of the book, together with the careful inclusion of historical detail which makes the era live with the vividness of a contemporary newspaper. Archie is both very lucky and deeply unlucky, both likable and unlikable, very normal and quite exceptional. I did find the accounts of the very young Archie a little far-fetched, too mature for a young boy, but perhaps that is more a reflection of my own very ordinary and quite mediocre upbringing and experience. I know nothing of Auster himself, but I wonder if there is any sense of the autobiographical in the story.

No doubt the fourfold structure was necessary for Auster to develop the book as he intended, and to build the tensions that wind their ways through the story. While I can see the need for this structure I also found it frustrating for the very mundane reason that I would forget where I was up to with respect to this Archie’s life, or might confuse developments with this Archie with those of a previous or another Archie. Should I read the book again I may read the story of each Archie in full before moving on to the next one. But I wonder if that approach might dilute something of the drama of the story, and especially, the sense that one does not know and cannot tell in advance what directions one’s life might take. While we are certainly not pawns in some cosmic game of chess, our agency is constrained and sometimes overridden by the flow of circumstance and event in which we find ourselves. Auster has reminded me of this, and of the preciousness of the gift and opportunity that is our life, and of the need to thus live consciously, thoughtfully, purposefully, and perhaps most importantly, hopefully.

Journal of Baptist Theology in Context

John Olley, former Principal here at Vose Seminary, has alerted me to the launch of a new Baptist journal: the Journal of Baptist Theology in Context. The ‘in context’ part of the title locates the focus of the journal in the interface between theology and everyday life, and pastoral ministry in that location and context. According to the editors,

This new Journal of Baptist Theology in Context will be for Baptists engaged in theological disciplines — doctrine, ethics, bible, history, practice — to offer their work to the wider Baptist constituency and to a general audience of those who work or study in the world of theology. Most of the articles will be written by those who are pastor-theologians and many of the articles will arise out of their context and so the title of the Journal points to this.

I very much appreciate the focus on the pastor-theologian, and the idea of substantial theological reflection in the context of ministry and for ministry. The journal arises in the context of British Baptists, but perhaps they will be open to publishing the reflections of Australian pastor-theologians, especially where these reflections have a broader application.

A commitment on the part of the editorial team to assist emerging writers to get their articles into publishable form is a real plus, especially for those new to the publishing ‘game.’ Perhaps you have an article you might like to submit?

The first issue of the journal is available now.

The Iliad

Homer, The Iliad Penguin Classics (London: Penguin, 1987), lv + 460pp. ISBN:978-0-14-044444-5.

Finally I have taken down this epic of Western culture and literature, after its having sat waiting on my shelf for many years, and read it. What a tragic and yet noble story it is, full of human characters (and gods), some appearing fleetingly only to die, others who live on to tell the tale of what must surely be understood—in our day at least—as a tragic tale of wasted years and lives. The opening sentence of the story sets the context of the whole:

Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus, the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians and hurled down to Hades many mighty souls of heroes, making their bodies the prey to dogs and the birds’ feasting: and this was the working of Zeus’ will.

This is a tale of unrelenting human pride and anger which sets in train a great conflict. And yet, as the opening sentence signifies, even the will of mighty Achilleus is not determinative, for over against human will stands the unremitting and all-powerful will of Zeus.

What did I notice as I read this classic story?

First, it is a man’s world. Women feature in the story only as wives and mothers bound to the domestic sphere, although they may also appear as captives and as ‘prizes.’ Men act in public, in war and battle, and for glory. This action is often violent, and in the quest for supremacy, free rein is given for the expression of anger, revenge, etc.

Second, the definitive social ethos within which the narrative moves, is that of honour and shame. Honour is earned, especially in battle, but honour also exists by virtue of rank in a hierarchical society, and for the aged, so long as it is an honour accrued earlier in life.

Third, life ends in Hades or the grave. Thus the pursuit of one’s honour is entirely focussed on this world. All one’s hopes are here—for the accumulation of honour, a life well-lived, home and family, and so on.

Fourth, the gods are many, aloof, and yet also engaged in human affairs. They are somewhat capricious, and at war amongst themselves. They intervene in human affairs though human decision and agency is also significant though circumscribed. Nonetheless, fate rules human life even more than the gods. Each person’s fate is woven at birth, and so a sense of inevitability pervades life and undermines agency.

This is a portrayal of gods and humanity in which the former is made in the image of the latter, and for all its talk of honour, human life is brutal, fated, and tragic. How very different from the biblical-Hebraic vision of humanity made in the image of God and endowed with dignity, stewardship, responsibility, and hope!

The descriptive power of the book with its catalogue of recurring images, vivid metaphors, heroic characters, and endless adjectives remind one that it was likely written in order to be read aloud and performed. Even in the twenty-first century The Iliad remains a powerful story, and worth reading on account of its imagery, the rich characterisation and evocation of both the dignity and the depravity of humankind, the condensing of all of this life into four long days of drama, triumph, and anguish, and for its innate historical interest and civilizational impact. As Martin Hammond (translator) asserts in the introduction: “The Iliad is the first substantial work of European literature, and has fair claim to be the greatest.”

And now, sometime soon hopefully, the Odyssey and the Aeneid.

The Lost Letters of Pergamum

Longenecker, Bruce W., The Lost Letters of Pergamum (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). 192pp. ISBN: 0-8010-2607-5.

For some reason I was drawn again to this little epistolary novel which the subtitle tells us it is a “story from the New Testament world.” It is an imaginary tale based on the tantalizing fragment of Revelation 2:13, “Antipas, my faithful witness . . . was put to death in your city [Pergamum]—where Satan lives.” Longenecker, Professor of Early Christianity at Baylor University, has constructed a plausible account of this Antipas (about whom we really know nothing at all), and along the way provides us with a living window into the life and culture of elite Roman noblemen, Roman slaves, Christians, and others in the late first-century context. It is a work of fiction grounded in many years of scholarly research into the world of the New Testament, and will benefit those who read it with greater insight into this world, and into the life and challenges of the first Christian communities.

I do not want to spoil the plot for those who might read the story, but let me say this: not only is it a good, easy-to-read, and well-written story; not only will you learn things about the New Testament world that perhaps previously were only really known to scholars; but you may find yourself challenged and inspired as well. The little story is also spiritually edifying.