Tag Archives: Ministry

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:1

James 3:1
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

With this verse James begins a new topic—or does he? It is possible to read the verse in connection with what has already been said, as though James is warning the church, and especially his interlocutor of 2:18ff., of the dangers of being a false teacher. But it seems more likely the beginning of a new section, as signalled by the words, “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou; ἀδελφοί μου—cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14), and perhaps one in which he is addressing those who would be or are presently, teachers in the congregation. But this, too, is somewhat problematic, since in verse two James begins a long argument for control of the tongue, with reference to teachers disappearing altogether. In the latter half of the chapter he deepens the discussion by considering the character of true wisdom and suggesting that only those who display the characteristics of the ‘wisdom from above’ may be considered truly wise. Again, there is no explicit reference to those who teach. The first verse, then, appears to be a fragment, the apparent commencement of a new section in the letter yet isolated from what follows. We have at least three options concerning how to interpret the verse:

  • As a single-verse admonition, disconnected both from what precedes and what follows it.
  • As the commencement of a new theme in which verses 2-12 are particularly directed toward would-be and actual teachers.
  • As connected more particularly to Vv. 13-18 which also addresses the leadership of the community, so that vv. 2-12 are viewed as a (not unrelated) digression, but with a more general intent than applying only to teachers.

It seems best to adopt the third option. James addresses the whole community, even in verse one, and not merely teachers alone, though what he says across both major sections of the chapter and especially the second, is relevant also to those who seek this ministry.

“Not many of you” (Mē polloi; Μὴ πολλοὶ), says James, “should become teachers” (didaskaloi ginesthe; διδάσκαλοι γίνεσθε). Of the whole community, only few should ‘become’ teachers. The idea of becoming a teacher in the early Christian communities could well be desirable: in a world with few opportunities for advancement, especially for those of the lower classes, the role of teacher promised increased status and reward (Davids, 136).

Was this a role to which anyone could aspire and so take to oneself? Or was one called to the role by God, with this call being recognised by the community, with the result that one was appointed to the task? The answer is probably bothand. On the one hand, Jesus, Paul, and presumably the other apostles recruited followers to learn the ways of the Christian life and ministry, and who were thereby equipped and appointed for service in the churches. On the other hand, in 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul makes a ‘trustworthy statement’ saying that anyone aspiring to the office of an overseer desires a fine work. It is possible, then, and even legitimate, for a person to seek such roles within the Christian community. It is noteworthy, though, that Paul qualifies this aspiration by noting first that it is the work more than the office itself, which is sought, and second, by listing the characteristics suitable for those who would serve in this way. Perhaps James intends something similar in this chapter; that is, by detailing the character, ethos, and practices of mature spirituality he provides a criterion for the community by which they might recognise those suitable for the role of teacher, and also a standard for the would-be teachers themselves.

The New Testament makes clear that while many people sought to be teachers not all were suitable. Some were accused of being ‘false’ teachers intent on leading others astray, others of having poor motivations, still others of having inadequate knowledge. As we shall see, James 3 suggests that there were those in his communities who were seeking this role within the churches for reasons other than the wellbeing of the people of God.

According to James, those who teach can expect a stricter judgement: “for you know (eidotes; εἰδότες) that we . . . will be judged with greater strictness” (hoti meizon krima lēmpsometha; ὅτι μεῖζον κρίμα λημψόμεθα). This reminder should serve to give pause to those intent on seeking a teaching ministry. Moo (119-120) suggests that the teacher will be subject to a closer scrutiny of both their doctrine and their life, for those who presume to teach are thereby claiming greater knowledge of Christian truth. The teacher has responsibility both for the content of their teaching and for their life which is to illuminate and exemplify what is taught. The content of the teaching is presumably, the word of truth (1:18), the perfect law of liberty (1:25), and the contours of ‘pure and undefiled religion’ (1:27). James does not reference either the gospel per se, or the ‘word of Christ,’ though his own reliance on Jesus’ teaching would suggest this. In broader canonical sense, however, one would have to speak of faithfulness to the apostolic witness, to the gospel, to the message of the New Testament. Not only must the teaching be sound with respect to knowledge and doctrine, but the teacher is to embody the message; their life is to display a congruence between word and work.

Jesus, too, in Mark 12:38-40, warned of a stricter judgement for those who abuse their positions of trust. Those who use their position as a vehicle to honour and personal advancement, or who use it exploit the vulnerable will “receive greater condemnation” (lēmpsontai perissoteron krima; λήμψονται περισσότερον κρίμα; cf. Luke 12:47-48).

Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (3)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:21-25,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

Barth began his discussion with the insistence that God is known in the church because God has given himself to be known in his revelation, supremely in Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. The knowledge of God is necessarily the knowledge of faith because in his revelation God reveals himself indirectly, utilising creaturely media as the vehicle of his revelation. Yet in and through these creaturely media God speaks, acts, and reveals himself, giving true knowledge of the true God. If we would know God we can do so only in faith, and only in those places where God has given himself to be known. Otherwise, we do not have the knowledge of God but of false gods and no-gods, gods of human invention.

Barth continues his discussion by developing a third point: the knowledge of God is always a gift of divine grace in which the human knower can never have precedence: “Only because God posits Himself as the object is man posited as the knower of God” (22). Grace means that God initiates humanity’s knowledge of himself and indicates also the freedom of God with respect to humanity. God and the knowledge of God are never at human disposal but we may and must pray for its fulfilment, that God may give Himself to be known.

Biblical knowledge of God is always based on encounters of man with God; encounters in which God exercises in one way or another His lordship over man, and in which He is acknowledged as sovereign Lord and therefore known as God. They are encounters which are always initiated by God, and which for man always have in them something unforeseen, surprising and new (23).

Nor is this a once-off encounter with a person for in Barth’s description the Christian life involves constant renewal in the knowledge of God, revelation, and faith.

For example, it is not the case that Abraham, Moses and David, once chosen, called, enlightened and commissioned, knew once for all how they stood with God. But what was once for all decided concerning them by God had to be worked out and fulfilled in them in a long history of renewals—for as long, indeed, as they lived . . .

Without new grace and without the effectiveness of God in His works Israel would have departed from God at every turn and then have been inwardly destroyed. Everything depends on the fact that God does not cease to bear witness to Himself as the one eternal God in new manifestations of His presence, in new revelation of His former ways, leading His people continually from old to new faith (23-24).

Barth acknowledges that the portrayal of the New Testament apostles is quite different to that of the Old Testament characters he discusses. It certainly appears that they are in fact possessors of the knowledge of God in a way that does not seem to need constant renewal. But Barth distinguishes between their need as men and the apostolic office in which they stand. As men they do need such renewal though

In their existence as apostles the secondary objectivity of the human appearing of Jesus Christ Himself is repeated. And hidden within this is the primary objectivity of God Himself, call to faith, awakening faith, establishing and renewing faith, and with faith the knowledge of God—not by these men’s own strength but by the power of the Holy Spirit communicated to them, in the freedom of grace (24-25).

In this remarkable statement we see that the apostles are given a share in Jesus’ revelatory ministry, entirely by the Spirit, so that his objectivity is repeated in them, and in and through them, the primary objectivity of God. That is, in and through their ministry, God speaks, calls, addresses, and converts. This, too, is the hope of the church in its ministry. And for this the church must pray, as the apostles did, and as Jesus himself did (25).

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:18

James 3:18
And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (NASB).

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace (NRSV).

There are several connections between this verse and the one that precedes it, most notably the references to peace and to fruit. The wisdom from above is ‘full of mercy and good fruits,’ while this verse speaks of the ‘fruit (harvest) of righteousness.’ More prominent is the reference to peace (eirēnē; εἰρήνῃ) which echoes—and amplifies—the second of wisdom’s characteristics. James commenced his reflections on wisdom with the question posed in verse thirteen, Who is wise and understanding among you? He concludes with a short aphorism that answers the question: those who make peace. This prominent characteristic stands in contrast to the disorder and evil that arises because of selfish ambition and jealousy (v. 16).

The ‘harvest of righteousness’ (karpos de tēs dikaiosunēs; kαρπὸς δὲ τῆς δικαιοσύνης) is an image used in both the Old and the New Testaments to speak of the blessings that attend the life of the righteous. It may be James has Isaiah 32:15-20 in mind. When ‘the Spirit is poured upon us from high,

The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. My people will abide in peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places’ (vv. 17-18).

While James does not mention the Spirit in this section, many commentators suggest that his references to the wisdom from above function in a manner similar to the work of the Spirit. The text in Isaiah brings together references to the Spirit ‘from above,’ fruitfulness, righteousness, peace, and sowing (cf. Isaiah 48:17-18; Proverbs 11:30; Amos 6:12). In Philippians 1 Paul prays that the church’s love might so abound with knowledge and discernment, that they would approve what is excellent, and so be ‘filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God’ (vv. 9-11). Both the Isaianic and the Philippians texts refer to a corporate blessing upon the community of God’s people in which they are both secure and fruitful.

Yet James’ text also differs from that in Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah speaks of peace as the fruit of righteousness, James speaks of the fruits of righteousness as ‘sown in peace’ (en eirēnē speiretai; ἐν εἰρήνῃ σπείρεται). Here the work of peace, itself a fruit of wisdom, is prior to the harvest of righteousness, and a condition for its growth. Further, this harvest is sown by or for those who make peace (tois poiousin eirēnēn; τοῖς ποιοῦσιν εἰρήνην). Almost all English Bible versions translate the preposition by, while many or perhaps even most commentators prefer to translate it for (Vlachos, 126). The former alternative, a rare construction in the Greek New Testament, lays the emphasis on the agency of the those doing the work of making peace. The latter alternative, more common in Greek, emphasises the blessings gained or to be enjoyed by those who make peace. To me, the context seems to favour the first, more difficult alternative. In contrast to the kind of ambitious leadership that fosters division, jealousy, and disorder, those who make peace create the environmental conditions in which righteousness can flourish. Or to state the matter differently: the fruits of righteousness cannot be nurtured except by those who serve in a righteous manner, that is, peaceably, and in accordance with the wisdom which is from above.

It will be noted that James’ words here echo Jesus’ seventh beatitude: Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5: 9). Evidently, they shall be called children of God because their work of peacemaking makes them like God. They are doing the work of God, bearing the likeness and character of God, and exhibiting and carrying forth the priorities of God. The activity of making peace makes them like the Son of God who in and through ‘the blood of his cross’ was reconciling all things to God and ‘making peace’ (Colossians 1:20). The kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace (Romans 14:17). Therefore, all Christians are to ‘pursue what makes for peace’ (Romans 14:19), and indeed, ‘as much as it depends on [them], live peaceably with all’ (Romans 12:18). All this pertains because God himself is not the author of confusion but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). Again, the coming of Christ intended ‘peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased’ (Luke 2:14),

because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79 ESV).

In a world filled with jostling, discord, violence, and war, God desires communities of peace, reconciliation, wholeness, and welfare. The task of the wise and spiritual leader, therefore, includes this task of nurturing communities of peace by working peacefully and unselfishly, seeking concord, practising humility and all the virtues enumerated in verse seventeen.

‘Prophetic’ Proclamation or Didactic Doctrine?

In 1963 Emil Brunner wrote that, ‘A further consequence that necessarily follows from the basic error of orthodoxy is the overvaluation of doctrine in the life of the church and in the faith of the individual’ (Truth as Encounter, 178)—this from a man who spent his life teaching and writing books on Christian doctrine! Brunner has not had a change of heart whereby he now considers doctrine to be deleterious to the life of faith or the life of the church. To the contrary sound doctrine is greatly desired and necessary. Still, he asserts that doctrine can be ‘overvalued.’

First it is necessary briefly to note the ‘basic error of orthodoxy’ to which Brunner refers. The error is what he calls objectivism, the idea that somehow God’s activity stands complete in and of itself whether or not there is any human response or correspondence to that activity. This view pictures God’s work in impersonal terms and as such departs from what Brunner considers a more biblical portrayal of God as relational and personal. Thus, Brunner views with suspicion concepts of grace, the church, or the sacraments in which the divine activity is institutionalised or rendered automatic or mechanical in its operation. Brunner uses the practice of baptism as an example. Baptism is a work of divine grace in which God is active forgiving sin, cleansing, and regenerating. But it is not an act of God solely, for the human agent is also active having been moved by grace in faith and confession. Any practice of the sacrament that either implicitly or explicitly diminishes or removes the human element so that the requirement of faith is removed ‘destroys’ the character of the sacrament (181-184). Brunner’s view is that God’s grace and truth is always an ‘event’ in which the person is encountered by God in such a way that their personal response is called for and called forth.

With this background we can begin to explore Brunner’s point in the citation above. Brunner insists that the primary commission received by the church is not doctrine but proclamation.

Proclamation, I suppose, must always have a doctrinal content, but it is itself something other than doctrine. It is faith awakening, faith-furthering, faith-wooing address. Genuine proclamation always has a prophetic character – even if we preachers are no prophets; pure doctrine, on the other hand, has a didactic character (178).

As Brunner uses the term, prophetic refers not to foretelling future events or preaching about social issues or condemning various evils—two common misconceptions. Rather it is hortatory address, calling people to respond to God and his promises. It is to be a messenger of the covenant as the Old Testament prophets are sometimes characterised, calling people to faith in God. The prophet confronts the hearer with the reality of God and calls for a decision. Teaching, on the other hand, is didactic, instructional, the communication of information that may or may not have any direct existential claim upon the hearer.

Brunner rejects, therefore, a direct identification of doctrine with ‘the Word of God.’ The Word of God is the event whereby a person is addressed by God through the human word of proclamation in such a way that the response of faith and obedience is aroused. In the modern period especially, Brunner contends, proclamation is more necessary than teaching if the church is to fulfil its missionary commission (198). This is even more the case in the postmodern and post-Christian environment in which we now live.

Once let the relation between the Word of God and doctrine be rightly understood, and there will hardly be room any longer for the view that the single thing which the church could do for the awakening of faith is the conceptual clarification of the Holy Scriptures. Has it, then, not yet been noticed that the most perfect knowledge of Biblical concepts and the entire acceptance of Biblical doctrine is wholly compatible with the completest want of actual faith – and indeed that this is anything but a rare phenomenon? (180)

I am sure that Brunner’s reflection provides crucial guidance for the present task of preaching. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus went about teaching (didaskōn), preaching (kērussōn), and healing. Teaching is certainly necessary for those who are already Christians. But even more now than in Brunner’s day the church in the west exists in a missionary context. We would do well to infuse all our sermons with a kerygmatic element—proclamation, and not simply teaching. Such preaching points to the beauty of Jesus Christ, his sovereignty, grace, promise and redemption, and on this basis, calls people to repentance and faith. Such preaching seeks not merely to inform but to call for an informed decision. That such a decision is actually made is not our work, however, but the work of the Holy Spirit. For this we can and should pray.

Scripture on Sunday – 2 Corinthians 5:14

In the opening chapters of 2 Corinthians Paul is defending himself against some at Corinth who are questioning his motives and ministry, and perhaps accusing him to others in the church, evidently seeking to ingratiate themselves to the Corinthians in Paul’s place. Paul’s previous visit to the Corinthians had been a painful affair, and his last letter to them—almost certainly not 1 Corinthians but another letter (2:3, 9)—had been an endeavour to sort through the difficulties experienced in the visit; it does not appear to have worked.

One issue surfacing several times in these chapters is a concern that Paul is “commending himself” to the Corinthians (see 3:1 – Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?; 5:12 – We are not again commending ourselves to you…; cf. 4:5 – For we do not preach ourselves). Paul insists that he needs no “letters of commendation” for the Corinthians themselves are his “letter of commendation,” the work of the Spirit as the fruit of his ministry (3:2-3). Yet Paul does want to commend himself to the Corinthians’ consciences (4:2; 5:11). He wants to give the Corinthians an opportunity to be proud of him and his associates, and to have answers that they can give to those who might question them about Paul, or accuse him to them (5:12).

Part of the issue, clear from 1 Corinthians 1-4, is the manner of Paul’s ministry in the way of the cross. There is nothing “impressive” about Paul in terms of his personal bearing, rhetorical ability, and so on. He doesn’t even have anyone to commend him! His opponents on the other hand, seem to be very impressive in their ministries, to have such commendations, and argue that they are superior to Paul and therefore worthy of the Corinthians’ allegiance. Paul, however, suggests that they take “pride in appearance and not in heart” (5:12).

Paul’s entire argument in these opening chapters of the letter is a sustained response to these kinds of concerns and accusations. Something particularly notable are the theological underpinnings of his argument. Paul lives and ministers as he does as an application of theological convictions concerning the distinctiveness of the new covenant in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit in contrast to the “ministry of condemnation”—his characterisation of Moses’ ministry of the law, and of those in his own day who would seek to follow Moses rather than Christ. The old covenant was a “ministry of death,” a “letter that kills,” whereas Paul’s ministry is a “ministry of righteousness,” “of the Spirit” in place of the letter, a ministry of life, liberation, and transformation in Christ and by the Spirit (ch. 3).

Further, his ministry takes place in the way of the cross—a way of ministry conformed to the way of Jesus Christ in the world, a cruciform life in which his “weakness” and suffering, his afflictions and brokenness are the means by which the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” shines in his “earthen vessel.” In spite of all these afflictions, however, he is sustained in his ministry so that although the “death of Jesus” is evident in his life, the life of Jesus is manifested in and for the Corinthians (ch. 4).

Paul is sustained in the cruciform life by the eschatological hope with which he is possessed. His sufferings now are “working” an eternal weight of glory for him. He is convinced that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so believers have awaiting them, a new body in the heavens. Paul is no Platonist; he is not seeking to be “unburdened” of the body (although he does “groan” due to its present affliction), but to be “clothed” anew with the new body of the resurrection. Given this living hope he endures all things for the Corinthians, and for their faith (4:15).

Is Paul mad? If they think so, then he is mad due to his faith in and obedience to God. Is he of “sound mind”? Then the Corinthians should know and recognise that all that he does and suffers is for them (5:13). Note that one can only think of Paul as being of “sound mind” if one accepts the theological presuppositions that he sets forth: the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God by which salvation for all has become a reality.

This is a gospel-shaped vision, a gospel-shaped life, and a gospel-shaped way of ministry.

“For the love of Christ controls us…” Here we hit the bedrock of Paul’s ministry ethos, and that which distinguishes him from those that question or accuse him. Ministry, for Paul, is a participation in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, a cruciform life in his steps, one taken captive by him and following in his train (2:14-18). Just as Jesus Christ gave himself for us and for all, just as Jesus Christ offered himself to God for us and for all, and just as Jesus Christ went to his death so that others might live, so Paul would give himself even unto death so that others might hear and know the message of Christ. His life and ministry would become an echo of the love of the Christ who gave himself for us. Paul would do this—could do this—because of the living hope of the resurrection from the dead. As he shares the sufferings of Christ, so he will share in the glory of his resurrection.

Paul’s ministry motive is the love of Christ. Therefore he will not “peddle” the word of God, nor use manipulation or deception, nor harbour hidden agendas or impure motives, nor seek his own advantage, prominence, or fame. He ministers not for his own benefit but for the glory of God and for the sake of those who would hear. He will proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and himself as their servant. He will aim to make the truth of God plain, and commend himself to their consciences.

Paul’s own life has become part of the message: the way of Christ and the love of Christ are embodied in him, visible in him, and so congruent with the message that he proclaims.

“The love of Christ controls us . . . And we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God, and not of ourselves.”

“Slow Conversion”

A brief article I wrote has been published in the Western Australian Churches of Christ journal On Mission Journal. My article is on the idea of Slow Conversion, based on the Patristic practice of the catechumenate, and is a ‘practical’ adaption of my longer recent article on baptism in the Pacific Journal of Theological Research.

I am also happy to report that at least three other articles in the issue are written by Vose Seminary graduates or students, Amit Khaira, Molly Lewin and Terry Nightingale.

An Ethos of Pastoral Care – Gerard Manley Hopkins

In a class on pastoral care yesterday, we read and discussed Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “In the Valley of the Elwy.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest in nineteenth-century England seized with a deep sense of missionary vocation, and, after his early death, regarded as an outstanding poet. Porter and Porter note that Hopkins later confessed that this poem was “not about the Elwy at all, but about the Watsons of Shooter’s Hill.”

The linking of two separate things—a place he loved and a home that had been hospitable—gives the poem a universality that is intentional, rather than it being a record of a single unique time and place (Porter & Porter, ‘Over the Bent World’: Poems and Images from Gerard Manley Hopkins, 78).

I used the poem not so much to highlight Hopkins’ missionary concern, but to help us reflect on the ethos of pastoral care. The poem has the form of a classical sonnet, and so we used the first stanza to explore Hopkins’ experience as a way into thinking about what pastoral care might look like, and the second stanza to reflect on the fundamental impulse or ethos of pastoral care.

I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.

“I remember a house…” Here Hopkins experienced a welcoming hospitality, filled with warmth and nurturing shelter, a safe and comforting place where fragile new shoots might take root and grow, or new life burst forth under the ‘mothering wing.’ The good air of the place made as it were a ‘hood’ for the people under which he too could find a place, though in fact he recognised that he deserved none of their kindness.

The Welsh countryside, lovely in every respect, is the recipient of this same ‘air’ which, in fact, builds the world of Wales. Yet…

And here Hopkins slips in a different note: “Only the inmate does not correspond.” The class discussed whether the term ‘inmate’ should be read generally as inhabitant, or whether it might carry the sense it does today of one confined, perhaps imprisoned. We did not really reach a conclusion. Perhaps Hopkins was using it in a similar way as we do today with a hint that humanity generally is confined with sickness, imprisoned in all kinds of fears and vice. The class also discussed whether Hopkins was here referring to himself or to the people of Wales more generally. He lived in Wales for three years and was gripped with a concern for the spiritual well-being of the country he loved. Perhaps the more general sense is best.

The people of this ‘cordial air’ are somehow out of step with the beauty and goodness of the natural order, and of the One who is over all. And so in the final three verses Hopkins prays, to a God with ‘considerate scales,’ and pleads with this ‘lover of souls’ to “Complete thy creature dear – O where it fails.” It is a prayer for restoration, for rebuilding from this God who is not merely a mighty master, but a ‘father and fond.’ He prays that the father might with a mothering wing shelter and nurture these wayward souls, perhaps in hope that they too might be a world built in the beauty and goodness intended for them.

There is much to consider here with respect to pastoral care: the welcome and warmth, the nurturing shelter, the primacy of divine love with scales tipped toward considerateness, the place of prayer, the ideals of beauty and goodness, of corresponding to the creational order, and probably more besides. It is a beautiful poem celebrating the beauty of God and the beauty of his creation, and not least, the beauty of all the ‘souls’ – the real people needy and broken – that he loves.

Luther@500: The Pastoral Luther

Almost ten years ago, internationally regarded Luther scholar Timothy Wengert said,

As Luther fans the world over are already gearing up for the celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of their posting [i.e. the Ninety-Five Theses] on 31 October 1517, too often the celebrations will focus on Luther’s break with Rome or his Reformation breakthrough rather than on Luther’s own stated reason for the dispute: pastoral care for his flock in Wittenberg (“Introducing the Pastoral Luther” in Wengert (ed.), The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology (Lutheran Quarterly Books; Eerdmans, p. 5).

Vose Seminary will commemorate this anniversary with a mini-Conference on The Pastoral Luther. Conducted on October 30, four papers will be presented as follows:

  1. Dr Peter Elliott (Perth Bible College): The Pastoral Roots of Luther’s Reformation
  2. Dr Michael O’Neil (Vose Seminary): Freeing Salvation: Luther’s Pastoral Theology
  3. Ps Matthew Bishop (Bethlehem Lutheran Church Morley): Of Good Comfort: Luther’s Pastoral Letters to the Depressed
  4. Dr Brian Harris (Vose Seminary): Luther as Leader

I am very much looking forward to this event. If you are in Perth, perhaps you can make it along.

For details and registration, go to:
https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=321641  

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

On Retreat

17-SEP-Open_Leeroy-Todd-Sleepy-Eyes-740x500For a couple of days I am on retreat with the West Australian Baptist pastors. These retreats are always a quite restful and fun few days, as we catch up with old friends, enjoy some meals together and receive some input from the Conference speaker. This year’s speaker is Allan Demond, an inspirational Baptist pastor from Melbourne.

Allan is like a breath of fresh air, bringing a simple message on the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the busy life of a pastor. He began his sessions by telling of coming to Australia from Canada in 1995 to take up pastoral leadership of the church where he continues to serve. Early in his ministry he was asked by another pastor whether he served in the ‘charismatic’ or ‘anti-charismatic’ church in his suburb. He bristled at the characterisation. He rejected the fundamental premise that his ministry and the church should be captured in so limiting a label. Yet, upon researching the history of his new congregation, he found that the church had earned a reputation for opposing certain works and activity of the Holy Spirit, and so determined to explore this issue and ‘hold open a space’ in which the church could enter into dialogue around what it means to be the people of God. “Who can be anti-charismatic,” he asks, “Anti-gift?”

And so began a decades long endeavour to ‘live out of a quiet and surrendered centre,’ to nurture a ‘deep and rich spirituality’ in his own life and in the congregation, and to learn the ways of the Paraclete, as he leads the church into the ways and ministry of Jesus. He discovered to his deep surprise and amazement, that the Spirit continues to author the ministry of God’s people in unique and powerful ways, speaking to and leading his people. His advice to the pastors: become aware of and recognise how the Spirit continues to be present and speak in your own life and context, and own it, and grow it. That is, thank God for his presence and gift and ask him for more.

Refreshing stuff from a humble guide.