Latest Pacific Journal of Baptist Research available

The latest Pacific Journal of Baptist Research is available. The journal is a free download. It is the journal of the Baptist colleges in Australia (Maylon, Morling, Vose, Whitley) and New Zealand (Carey). It began in 2005 and has lots of hidden gems within its archives

A previous edition honours Stanley Grenz. More recently an issue was dedicated to responses to Curtis Freeman's Contesting Catholicity.

The latest edition seeks to honour Paul Fiddes and I was generously invited last minute to write a short editorial that gives some context to his work. Inside are three articles engaging with Paul's work on the atonement, the Trinity and covenant.

 


On hearing the news that John Webster (English theologian) has died

On the sad news of the death of John Webster. Here is a small section from Ivor Davidson's chapter entitled 'John' in the very recent festschrift written in Webster's honour. 

Quite a few moons ago, I had occasion to introduce a public lecture by John Webster. In the usual way, I took a quick look at the CV I had been sent to see what he had been up to since the last work of which I had known. As I ended up saying to the folk who gathered that evening, looking at John's resume can, in honest, by bit depressing: you are confronted with all the themes on which you suspect there is little point in trying to say much ever again ... It is not just the range [of John's work], but the sheer quality across that range - the depth of learning, the precision of thought, the distinctiveness of approach, the elegance of style - that makes John's work so exceptional.

For those who knows its author, all of it has been done by probably the most unassuming scholar they have ever met. John is firm in his convictions, no question, and crystal clear in presenting them. He is equally devoid of personal grandeur, and suspicious of quests for scholarly prestige which jeopardise the uniqueness of theology's vocation. His life's work has, in truth, been motivated by different ambitions than those that typically sway in the realms of academic culture. 'The matter to which Christian theology is commanded to attend,m and by which it is directed in all its operations, is the presence of the perfect God as it is announced in the gospel and confessed in the praises and testimonies of the communion of saints' (Confessing God). Most scholarly prose does not sound like that. For John, the idiom is standard issue, and deeply felt. As he sees it all theological work occurs in the history of grace, its mandate and possibilities determined solely by the miracle of divine generosity.

Ivor Davidson, 'John' in Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015)

 


Naming God: A sermon for Trinity Sunday

Today is a day in which we take joy in the life and mystery of God.

Properly speaking every Sunday is a day in which we take joy in the life and mystery of God,

for we do not worship a different God on other Sundays,

but this day

we give ourselves to consider what it means to know God

as God has made himself known.

The church names today Trinity Sunday

and it is the day given to saying why

we say these three – Father, Son and Spirit – are one.

As Christians have read the Bible

            they have found it testifies that

                        God remained all powerful and transcendent, and yet

                        Jesus, who died and was raised by God, was somehow God;

                        moreover the Spirit, poured out on the Church, is also God, and yet

                        there is only one God.[i]

One God, three persons.

I want to ask this morning,

what is God’s name?

How do we address God?

I want to suggest we answer it in three ways: [ii]

theologically – in other words, we listen to what God says;

christologically – in other words, we listen to what Jesus says;

and pnuematologically – in other words, we listen to what the Holy Spirit says.

To begin with God,

we turn to Moses before the burning bush

and his question to God,

when I’m asked what is his name who shall I say sent me?

God answers,

‘I AM WHO I AM’

or

‘I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE’

God gives us his name.

In Hebrew it is Yahweh.

God says this is his name for ever.

It is his proper name.

This name is so holy that Israel would not speak it or write it,

instead they used the word LORD.

Whenever you read in the Old Testament LORD in capital letters,

remember this means the name God gave to Moses, Yahweh.

If this is God’s name,

we find it is the name that he gives to Jesus.

For Jesus is given the name Lord.

The Psalmist says ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’

And the gospel writers say this is Jesus.

Jesus is given the name that is above every name …

and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2.8)

In Jesus we meet God himself.

The God of Israel is the God of Jesus,

who is the only God.

And we find that we can only confess Jesus is Lord

through the work of Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12.3),

who Paul says in 2 Corinthians is also the Lord (2 Cor 3.17).

In the Holy Spirit we meet God himself.

The God who declared his name is Yahweh,

in the New Testament he is known thrice over

as God, as Jesus and as the Holy Spirit.

The song in heaven is ‘holy, holy, holy is the LORD almighty’ (Is 6.3).

This name – Yahweh, which is substituted by Lord – distinguishes God as unique,

God as present – God is ‘I am’

And as one who delights in blessing,

as the LORD says to Moses:

            ‘where I cause my name to be honoured,

                        I will come to you

                                    and bless you’ (Exod 20.24b).

When we turn to Jesus,

we find that Jesus addresses God as Father.

It is from Jesus we learn to speak of God as the Father, the Son and the Spirit:

‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me …’ (John 14)

and ‘I will send the Holy Spirit from the Father’ (John 15.26)

We know that God is Father, Son and Spirit,

because we are invited into this mystery.

Through the Spirit we are drawn to Jesus,

and we too cry ‘Abba Father’ (Gal 4.6)

and the Father is conforming us by the Spirit into the image of the Son (Rom 8.29)

We live in Christ.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not abstract theology,

but the gift of language to speak to and about God.

The Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes speaks

of our ‘participating in God.’[iii]

We are baptised into the name of God,

what is called elsewhere ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,

the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Cor 13.13).

The gift of the Holy Spirit is to find abundant ways to speak of God.

The breath of languages and tongues,

are enabled by the Spirit to praise God,

to speak of God and to name God.

We consider the ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus which name God as bread, life, shepherd, gate, truth.

Or the different names given to God in the Old Testament.

Jesus is named as Word, Image, Imprint, firstborn of all creation.

And the Holy Spirit is named as a dove, wind, tongues of fire,

the Spirit of holiness, of life, of wisdom, of glory, of grace,

as advocate, pledge and seal.

No one image or name is enough.

Here are some ways Christians through history have spoken of God as Trinity:[iv]

Lover, beloved and love (Augustine)

Source, wellspring, and living water (David Cunningham)

Root, tree, and fruit (Tertullian)

Glory, image and light (Basil of Caesarea)

Sun, ray, radiance (John of Damascus)

Speaker, word, meaning (Karl Barth)

Revealer, Revelation, Revealedness (Karl Barth)

Playwright, actor, and producer (Wesley Vander Lugt)

Womb of life, word in flesh, brooding Spirit (Ruth Duck)

Awesome judge, healer of souls, distributor of gifts (Armenian Orthodox)

Creator, redeemer, sustainer (Iona)

Truth that sends, truth that comes, truth that is conferred (Charles Wesley)

We are always finding new language to address God.

What all these different ways of speaking God’s name

demonstrate is that God is beyond reduction,

our grasp of God is inexhaustible.

To speak of God, inspired by the Spirit,

‘is to gather up the language of the everyday,

often meagre and unpromising in itself,

and transform it into praise of the everlasting Trinity.’[v]

Our songs and prayers are an opportunity to declare

The breath and depth,

The wonder and majesty

The joy and delight

That is God.

In the gift of the Spirit we experience the blessing of God

and as we share in God’s blessing

we return it too him in praise.

The first way of speaking of God in the name revealed to Moses,

is a reminder that God is God and so we are not.

God is unique in that God alone is creator and all else is creation.

God is beyond us.

The second way of speaking of God as seen in how Jesus prays to the Father

is to find ourselves, as those saved,

sharing in this relationship.

We have been adopted as God’s children

through Jesus our brother.

To be is to be in communion.

God is with us.

The third way of speaking of God in the multitude of words and images,

Under the Spirit’s inspiration,

teach us a new language

and to call others to join the song of praise:

Praise and glory,

And wisdom and thanks and honour

And power and strength

Be to our God for ever and ever.

Great and marvellous are your deeds,

Lord God Almighty.

Just and true are your ways,

King of the nations.

Who will not fear you, Lord,

and bring glory to your name?

 

Hallowed by thy name.

For thine is kingdom the power

And the glory for ever and ever. Amen

 

[i] David S. Cunningham, These Three Are One, p.55.

[ii] I borrow this from R. Kendall Soulen, Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity and much of what follows.

[iii] Paul Fiddes, Participating in God (DLT, 2000).

[iv] For a longer list see Soulen, Divine Name(s), pp.249-50

[v] Soulen, Divine Name(s), p.251.


The Difference the Spirit Makes: A Sermon for Pentecost

 You can’t tell the story of Jesus

without the Holy Spirit

This is the point that Luke wants to make clear.

The story of Jesus is

the story of the Holy Spirit resting on the Son.[i]

The Spirit comes upon Mary and in her womb conceives a Son.

The Spirit comes upon Jesus like a dove while he is praying at his baptism.

The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness and out again.

The Spirit fills Jesus for his ministry – ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’

The Spirit, as cloud, covers Jesus at his transfiguration on Mount Tabor.

The Spirit is the agent through which Jesus’ whole life is offered to God.

The Spirit is the one through whom Jesus is raised.

One early church father called Gregory says this:

Christ is born; the Spirit is the forerunner.

He is baptised; the Spirit bears witness.

He is tempted; the Spirit leads him up.

He works miracles; the Spirit accompanies them.

He ascends; the Spirit takes his place.[ii]

The Holy Spirit and Jesus come together.

From conception to ascension

the Holy Spirit rests on the body of Jesus.

 

The truth of Pentecost,

the miracle of Pentecost,

is the Spirit continues to rest on the body of Jesus,

that is the church.

The church is the body of Christ

and says the story of Pentecost,

we are filled with the Holy Spirit like Jesus.

We read that ‘tongues of fire … came to rest on each of them.’

If you can’t tell the story of Jesus

without the Holy Spirit,

you can’t also tell the story of the church,

without the Holy Spirit.

What this means is Pentecost,

The birthday of the church,

does not leave Jesus behind,

for the Spirit is the go-between,

the bridge, the mediator,

the means of our participation

between Christ and the church.

The life of the church

is taken up into the life of Christ.

His life is now our life,

His story our story,

through the same Spirit resting on him and us.

The outpouring of the Spirit

upon the church

is to find our lives forever intertwined

with the risen life of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit comes rushing into lives,

setting us aflame,

with the newness that Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension

have created.

 

We might ask what is different about the work of the Spirit here

to the work of the Spirit that empowered the prophets,

judges and kings in the Old Testament story of Israel.

It is the certainly the same Spirit.

The Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation

is the same Spirit that hovers over Jesus at baptism

and hovers over the church at Pentecost.

The difference about the work of the Spirit is

found in the words of the prophet Joel that Peter to the crowd.

I want to highlight three in particular.

 

First, is the reference to ‘in the last days.’

This is the last days of the old world,

a new world is breaking in.

A new world made through cross and resurrection

and the sign of that new world is the gift of the Holy Spirit

as God promised through the prophet Joel.

The gospel always announces the end of the world

and the beginning of the new world.

And if the new world begun in Jesus,

Its population begins now to grow

as the Spirit descends

with wind and fire.

As the church we live between the worlds,

We are an outpost of the new world,

We are a colony of Christ,

on whom the Spirit comes to rest.

 

The second words are the reference to ‘all people’ or literally ‘all flesh.’

Where the Spirit worked in the past it was on particular individuals,

but Joel prophesied and Peter says today it is fulfilled,

that the Spirit is poured out on all people,

all flesh.

Pentecost is the day the Spirit goes all democratic.

All people, even those who previously voiceless

and hopeless

will be enabled to speak up and speak out God’s name.[iii]

No one will get left out.

The evidence of the Spirit in the church is its diversity.

Where else would you find old and young,

women and men,

black and white, poor and rich,

freely gathering?

And its not just that there is diversity,

there is also communion, community and communicating.

The Spirit makes us a body.

Our differences are not eradicated,

but we are made one people

through baptism.

In the words of one of my theological teachers, Colin Gunton:

‘the Spirit liberates us by bringing us into community:

by enabling us to be with and for the brother and sisters

whom we do not ourselves choose.’ [iv]

In God’s new creation,

where the Spirit rests

is not determined by race, age, gender, class,

but by the grace of God.

To embrace Pentecost,

to receive the Spirit,

is to learn what the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

calls the dignity of difference[v]

or what Stanley Hauerwas calls ‘God’s new language.’[vi]

Back to the story:

when the Spirit falls upon the believers,

they begin to speak in other tongues,

and it is this that draws a crowd.

Those who had come to Jerusalem from across the world

for the Jewish feast of Pentecost,

suddenly hear the believers (mostly from Galilee)

speaking in the dialects of their homelands.

Some suggest that this incident is the reversal of Babel.

The story of Babel in Genesis 11,

sees God scatter the Babel people, with their one language,

and their attempt to be God-like

and so confuse them,

leading not to humility but to division, to separateness.

Rather than a reversal of Babel,

Pentecost is a parody,[vii]

for the Spirit does not make everyone speak one language,

but where following Babel there was confusion,

here at Pentecost there is understanding.

God’s new language of the Spirit

is the gift of being able to listen, hear, understand,

communicate.

The church, where the Spirit rests,

resists all attempts to make us all the same,

instead the church is called to learn

the language of patience, peace and forgiveness

in other words the language of Jesus.

 

The third words are the reference to calling on the ‘name of the Lord’ for

salvation.

For Joel the name of the Lord,

was the name of God, Yahweh.

For Peter and the believers,

the name of the Lord is not only God,

but also Jesus.

The meaning of ‘Lord’ is expanded

to include Jesus.

Peter calls the crowd

‘to repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ’ (Act 2.38)

And in a latter sermon,

Filled with the Holy Spirit, he says

‘salvation is found in no one else’ (Acts 4.12).

In 1 Corinthians Paul says that no one can say

‘Jesus is Lord’ with except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12.3).

The pouring out of the Spirit is salvific.

Those on whom the Spirit rests

recognise the Lordship of Jesus.

And to recognise the Lordship of Jesus

is witness to this truth,

to be a ‘living narrative of the gospel.’[viii]

Peter’s sermon proclaims Christ.

The gift of the Spirit is the gift of becoming a witness,

in other words, involved in mission.[ix]

The difference the Spirit makes is that

the Spirit comes to

            enliven

            encourage

     and enflame

the church into active witness.

The gift of the Spirit is not an end in itself,

for the Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit

and turns the church into a missionary people.

The work of the Spirit

is always the means of enabling

the world to believe in Jesus as Lord.

The work of the Spirit

is to fire the church with passion and power,

courage and compassion

and then blow it into the path of the world,

and its winners and losers,

helpless and hopeless, lost and alone,

hurt and ignored, broken and poor.                                  

 

[i] I’m drawing here on Eugene Rogers Jr., After the Spirit.

[ii] Greogry of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration cited in Rogers, After the Spirit, p.56.

[iii] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Holy Spirit, p.37.

[iv] Colin Gunton, Theology Through the Theologians, p.201.

[v] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference.

[vi] Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Existence Today, p.53.

[vii] Joel Green, “In Our Own Languages” : Pentecost, Babel, and the Shaping of Christian Community in Acts 2.1-13’ in The Word Leaps the Gap, p.213.

[viii] John Colwell, The Rhythm of Doctrine, p.98.

[ix] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, p.114.


A Further Reflection on the Baptist Union Statement on Same Sex Marriage

Whatever we make of the Baptist Union's Council statement on same sex relationships last month it will not be the last word. Those Baptists who feel they are unable to affirm any kind of same sex relationship and who see this as a victory for a perceived 'majority', will find that the statement will not be the last word. In fact it may well be that the statement will galvanise those who seek to affirm same sex marriage to be more open in their conviction, and will also lead others, not affirming themselves, to more vocal as well, in arguing that an affirming position be acceptable within the Union. That is, rather than drawing a line in the sand, the statement has ignited a bigger conversation.

Those who affirm same sex marriage amongst BUGB Baptists are more numerous than the conservatives realise; not a majority within the Union, but then I challenge the view that the conservatives hold the majority either. (I'm not convinced that speaking in terms of 'majority' is helpful, because it smacks of democracy rather than communal discernment). I suggest that many sit in the middle between the two extremes, and find themselves pulled by both Bible and culture, but are driven most, by wanting to find pastoral solutions. If I'm right then the view of the Baptist Union, if the Union is to hold together, must be one of reconciled diversity on this issue. The question that must drive the Steering Group and the Council and all those who care about the future of the Union, must be, (as Angus Ritchie's suggests with regard to the Church of England): 

can we find a way of living together in one Body that preserves the integrity of opponents as well as supporters of change?

This is what we have done on the issue of women in ministry, we generally tolerate a diversity. We do not (openly) seek to unChristian those who hold a different view from our own - and this is not always easy.

We need to find ways not to unChristian one another of the issue of gay and lesbian relationships. To quote Ritchie again:

This requires traditionalists to accept they are not the only orthodox Christians, and those of an affirming view to accept that traditionalism is not always based on homophobia.

What is needed are those on both sides to say, in view of the tie that binds us, can we for the sake of unity and mission, seek to listen to one another, hard and painful though that may be, to see if that tie is strong enough to enable us to continue to walk together. My hope is that the Steering Group might, behind the scenes, seek to make that happen. 

The Council's statement attempted to 'humbly urge' those who affirm same sex marriage not to press ahead, in all reality, this will carry little weight. The seeming imbalance of the 'mutual respect' asked of those churches who have registered or are seeking to register, challenges any moral authority they might otherwise see the statement as having. 

It is my own view that neither those who are against or those who affirm hold the monopoly on truth on this question. In fact much of the arguments for or against I find wanting. As on many other issues, it remains contested, and it remains contested, also amongst those who identify as gay or lesbian. 

This will continue to not be an easy time for the Union, especially those who hold office at a national level. For them we must pray especially. Whilst I don't think they can or will (at least not quickly) retract the statement, I hope that the Steering Group and the Council (when it next meets), will recognise they will have to come back to this issue, that we have not reached a settled place. A more theological conversation is now all the more pressing and the willingness of all sides to participate is essential if we are to avoid the fragmentation of our Union. This is the story of all other church traditions, Baptists are no different. 


He is Risen: An Easter Sermon

The entire Christian faith hinges on the words ‘He is risen.’[i]

We talk about the centrality of the cross,

in fact for some Christians the cross is all that matters,

everything else is like window-dressing.

But without the resurrection the cross is just a death;

We might sing of the power of the cross,

            but the power of the cross is powerless without the resurrection.

Without the resurrection the gospel is no news;

without the resurrection the words of Jesus are an impossible dream;

without the resurrection the church is a bunch of delusional do-gooders who’ve wasted too many opportunities for a Sunday lie-in;

without the resurrection Jesus himself is just a tiny footnote in history;

without the resurrection death is still the last word on life;

without the resurrection the only way to overcome evil is to fight fire with fire;

without the resurrection our past is a prison and our future is fate;

without the resurrection your bank balance and your BMI is all that matters;

without the resurrection the possible election of President Trump would mean

the end of the world.

I say again the entire Christian faith hinges on the words ‘He is risen.’

As the apostle Paul says:

            ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile’ (1 Cor. 15.17)

The resurrection means Jesus is alive,

            Jesus lives.

It means the narrative of his life has not ended.

The gospels are not biographies of a dead man,

but they are the account of one who lived and died and was raised to life.

The gospels are not simply a record of the past,

            they are the revelation of the Living One

                        who invites us to follow him,

                        who beckons us to listen,

                        who forgives us of our sin,

                       who loves us without restraint.

To read the gospels

            is encounter the one who is the same

                        yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13.8)

The whole Bible becomes his living words,

            because Jesus, the Word become flesh,

                        Is the Living Word of Life.

This is the good news:

            Jesus is alive today

And so we know we can live his way,

            loving enemies, forgiving wrongs,

            letting go of control.

And this is why the church is not deluded.

They are a community of persons

            who lives have been, and are being, transformed

            by their worship and witness,

            of the Risen and Reigning One who breathes

                        His gift of mercy and peace upon them.

            The church does not worship a dead hero,

                        But a risen King.

            The church is a community of living memory,

                        Because it remembers one who lives,                    

                                    who is the head of the Church

                                    and Lord of creation.

That Jesus is alive,

            is why he is not a footnote in history,

            but its meaning and key and its goal.

The life of Jesus has created the greatest music and poetry,

            has founded centres of healing and learning,

            lies beneath the basis for justice and dignity.

            This is to practice resurrection,[ii]

            this is to anticipate the coming kingdom of God.

The church are an Easter people or they are no people at all.

The resurrection of Jesus is the defeat of death,

            the end of endings.

It is the assurance that he alone is the first and last word,

the resurrection of Jesus is the promise that we’d not fear our final breath.

The resurrection of Jesus means that the reality and power of evil is not

overcome through violence

            but instead through the cross –

the resurrection is God’s vindication of non-violence

‘The cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determine the meaning of history.’[iii]

The resurrection says the way of the cross is not accidental,

            but the grain of the universe.[iv]

Rather than fight fire with fire,

the church fights fire with water and bread and wine

                        with baptism and holy communion

            believing that the cross and resurrection of Jesus are more powerful than guns or bombs, tanks or Trident.

The resurrection of Jesus means our past can be forgiven and our future is now our destiny in Christ.[v]

            Where our past can be a prison, holding us in its grip, the resurrection announces that Jesus comes to free us, meaning our past is no longer able to assert its power over us: what has been is forgiven.

            Where our future can be fearful, uncertain, the resurrection announces that our future is now knowable – it is life with Jesus, we are no longer subject to the whims of fate, but can live with confidence that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus.

The resurrection of Jesus means that money and health no longer determine what a good life looks like.

Without the resurrection, we live fearful of not having enough, we live fearful of being destitute; we live with the lie that money makes happiness.

The resurrection declares that we live in the abundance of God, whose gifts never run out, who calls us into fellowship and friendship, who gives us good work to do, who offers us the joy and peace and hope of Holy Spirit.

            Without the resurrection, we live fearful of suffering and illness.

The resurrection of Jesus says that even in the midst of suffering, God is with us and God is for us.

The resurrection causes us to see life as a gift rather than a right, it draws us to see that suffering can sometimes be a vocation, for it is not finally ultimate.

The resurrection of Jesus means that we need not finally fear Trump or Putin or Isis.

The promise of God revealed in the raising of Jesus is that a new world is coming

The witness of the church is not dependent in living in a benign democracy,

            but on the power of the Holy Spirit

The early church did not fear Caesar,

for the resurrection of Jesus turned the church outward in mission

            with boldness, courage, faith, love, hope.

With the St. Paul let our prayer be to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3.9).

The early church witnessed to a new age, a new time, a new creation.

Two thousand years on it can feel like we are stuck in the old age, the old time, the old creation.

The claim is that the church in the west is dying,

            it is certainly losing numbers,

but the resurrection of Jesus says God will never give up on the church,

            not because of its own righteousness,

            but because of the mercy and grace of God,

            that is raising daughters and sons,

                        like you and me,

who have experienced the power of resurrection

                                    to transform, forgive and be sent

                        to proclaim the good news that Jesus lives.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through

the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.

This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,

who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—

of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—

may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Though you have not seen him, you love him;

and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him

and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,

for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1.3-9)

Amen.

 

[i] This sermon found some inspiration from ‘If Christ is Risen’ a sermon preached by Sam Wells on Easter Sunday 2015. http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/wp-content/uploads/April-5-SW.pdf

[ii] Wendell Berry, ‘Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front’

[iii] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

[iv] Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe (SCM, 2001) borrowed from Yoder.

[v] Sam Wells, The Nazareth Manifesto (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)


Cross Art

I am part of a small team that has sought to find ways of telling the Christian story in Southend Town Centre. A few years back we took over an empty shop for Holy Week and installed a form of the Stations of the Cross. Last year we sought again to tell the Easter story through a series of framed bits of art that we placed in different locations across the Town Centre. This year we commissioned 5 local artists to design a cross. We then produced 500 small crosses and we dropped them all over the town centre for anyway to find a take away.

The five cross designs was a fascinating way to how others see the cross. I'm not sure what each of the artists was intending, but these are my reflections.

12439168_1743223125922555_3087816158612026394_n This first cross is imprinted with a compass. I see this in two ways. First, the cross is that which stands radiating out across the world - north, south, east, west. Second, the cross is the compass of the Christian life, it is how the church seeks to orientate its life.

 

 

 

 

 

This second cross is imprinted with flowers. I see these flowers either as about to flower or in the process of withering away. The cross is both death and life. It perhaps captures something of St. Paul's words to the church in Corinth that 'we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus … death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.' 942868_1743222782589256_3778254669096056587_n  12063849_10154033414788430_7454691459228584178_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This cross reminds me of a rainbow and so the promise God makes Noah to never flood the earth again. It is a promise of commitment to all creation. The cross also contains across it a line of thorns, and so saying that God is making a new promise now in the death of Jesus, a new covenant. A new promise, a new covenant that confirms the promise to Noah and at the same time dealing with the human propensity to sin. 12705331_10156637445845363_1851606440469577233_n 

Chocolate now lies at the centre of the Easter season. It has replaced the cross. And so here in this fourth cross we see the two juxtaposed together. Do they any connection? Chocolate can taste bitter or sweet, which perhaps also reflects the meaning of the cross, it is bitter and sweet, sorrow and joy.  12919070_10154058660980148_1913538865_n
 
 
This final cross is one that suggests that though  it happened long ago, the cross remains alive as something with power. The images look like fossilised fish and the words are 'life', 'long before', 'on belonging to', 'hand in hand', 'remains.' It is perhaps the most enigmatic of the five designs. The Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes wrote a book called Past Event and Present Salvation and I see this cross as grappling with that sense of past and present.

40 Days of Baptism: 40

Today is the last day of Lent, tomorrow is Easter. The 40 days is up and this is the last in my series of posts that have offered an account of baptism. For this last day, I turn to the 'baptist' theologian James McClendon. Probably the most important Baptist voice of the 20th century. Author of a 3-volume Systematic Theology and now (posthumously) The Collected Works of James McClendon (also 3-volumes). The third volume was published during this 40-days and I offer an extract from it, in a sermon where McClendon speaks of baptism.

One was baptised in the River Jordan, another in the River Tiber. One was baptised at the seashore, another in a mountain stream, another in a city fountain - Rome was full of fountains. Yet there was something alike in all cases. "When we were baptised," Paul writes, "it was a burial ceremony" (see Rom 6.3-4). "we were buried with him by baptism into death." Not, of course, literal death, but a ceremonial death, a ritual death - to sin. Yet a death so effective that the baptised are now identified with Jesus who died and rose again.

In other words, baptism is a sign, an acted show, reclaiming for the believer the great central event of human history, the death and rising of Christ. Christ died; was buried; that death and burial were the proleptic funeral for sin in the human race. Christ rose, and it was resurrection day for authentic humanity. The question is how to identify with that authentic life, that secret of Christian living - Christ in you, Christ alive. When the trusting candidate goes under water, he or she reclaims Christ dead and buried. Never again can sin say of this buried one, "I am in charge here," for the death of Christ has intervened. What comes up out of the water is a new identity with the risen Christ. The church is the fellowship of the once buried; the church is the fellowship of the resurrection. Here your old life is buried the watery waste that preceded creation, tohu wabohu; here your life in faith rises up to last forever; here in dramatic sign is the secret of the Christian life. So far, the teaching of Paul the apostle.

For long ages these great truths were lost to sight, and the churches suffered the loss. Partly, churches neglected baptism itself. Baptism was shrivelled, diminished, cut loose from faith and from the great story of God's action in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, cut loose from the repetition of that story in redeemed lives. Baptism then became only a birthday shower, a kind of cradle party or a high school graduation affair - pleasant, sentimental, but remote from the risky business of following Jesus in the present age. Yet what God had done remained true, and from time to time Christian churches recovered these facts, written in Scripture, ringing true to the reality of Christian life. A lost secret can be reclaimed. Maybe we have lost the secret here? Maybe we need to reclaim it? Baptism - New Testament baptism - is God's signpost, announcing what life is all about.

James Wm. McClendon, Jr., 'The Inner Secret of Membership' in Ryan Andrew Newson and Andrew C. Wright (eds.), The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Volume Three (Baylor, 2016), p.243-244. (Also printed in James McClendon, Making Gospel Sense: To a Troubled Church (Wipf & Stock, 2004 [1995]), pp.56-58.

 


40 Days of Baptism: 39

Earlier in Lent I shared a prayer by Stanley Hauerwas. Today, on Good Friday, I share an extract from a sermon he preached on the occasion of a baptism in 2007.

What do we today to Sierra and Jonas cannot help but put them in danger. For today they will be given life not only through death but through a particular death. The life they are given through this death is one that threatens those who are hard at work creating a world without death. Baptism is deadly business. To be baptized is to die in Christ and to be raised with him. Through baptism into the life and resurrection of Jesus, Sierra and Jonas are made participants in a living body that defies the culture of death.

Through baptism the baptized have inscribed on their hearts the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. Their bodies will be storied by the story begun with Abraham, who did not ask God for a life without death. He wanted to know what God would give him, and God gave him an heir and land. We believe that God kept his promise to Abraham; Jesus is the heir and his body is our land.

The question of whether Sierra and Jonas understand what is being done to them in the baptism is beside the point. How could any of us know what we are doing when we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus? What we do, what the Holy Spirit does through us, in baptism is to make these children a part of a people who have been given the gift of life in Christ. Accordingly they will discover they can risk praying for their enemies, they can risk living lives of peace, and they can love one another because death no longer has dominion over them. What we today will not make Sierra’s and Jonas’s lives safe, but it will, with God’s help, give them lives worth living.

Stanley Hauerwas, 'A Deadly Business' in A Cross-Shattered Church (Brazos, 2009), pp.113-117.


Gethsemane: A Sermon

Baptists tend to name their churches geographically.

So we are Belle Vue Baptist Church because we happen to be located on Belle Vue Avenue. There are a few Baptist churches named after people. I know of a Thomas Helwys Baptist Church in Nottingham, named after one of the co-founders of the Baptist movement and there is a Carey Baptist Church, named after William Carey, the first BMS missionary, who went to India.

I know of a church in Cardiff called ‘Calvary Baptist Church,’ named after the placed where Jesus was crucified. There are others apparently named Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and more. I wonder why they chose that name? I wonder how that name shapes the church?

I share all this, because earlier this week I came across, as you do when you use google, various churches in America called Gethsemane Episcopal Church.’ Anglicans usually tend to go for names of Saints – St. Mary, St. Martin, St. John’s.

I wonder what it means to be named Gethsemane? I wonder what it might mean we renamed ourselves ‘Gethsemane Baptist Church’?

Often our focus on Maundy Thursday is on the Last Supper, but tonight I want to look at what happened later that night, when Jesus and his disciples go the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem, to pray. This was normal. The gospel of Luke says that while Jesus was in Jerusalem, at the end of every day, he would leave the city and go to the Mount of Olives.

Jesus comes to pray. There is perhaps an extra heaviness about tonight. The meal they have just shared will have heightened the mood. Most of the disciples sit down, and Jesus goes further into Gethsemane with his three closest disciples – Peter, James and John. He asks them to stay awake and pray. He himself goes even deeper into the garden and there he prays. As he prays, we get to eavesdrop onto his conversation with the one he calls ‘Father.’

At no point until now has Jesus shrunk from his mission.

In the wilderness, tempted by Satan, he prevails.

On the road to Caesarea Philippi challenged by Peter to avoid death, he says, ‘Get behind me Satan!’

He resolutely journeys towards Jerusalem.

He says three times on the way that he will suffer and die at the hands of the chief priests and elders.

On arrival he enters the city with a declaration of his messiahship. In the temple, he makes no attempt to temper his words or message.

At the Passover meal, he predicts he will be betrayed,

he predicts he will be abandoned.

He understands that his mission will end in death, and makes no bid to avoid it.

But here in Gethsemane, as the darkness creeps in and the shadows lengthens, Jesus is overwhelmed with grief, with sorrow, with distress, with anguish.

Jesus does not go skipping to the cross. There is no joy or serenity in this moment. Jesus doesn’t go all zen, into a state of contemplative detachment. He appears to succumbs to human terror.

There are two ways we might read what is happening here.

We perhaps read his praying in Gethsemane as Jesus’ most human moment in all the gospels. Like any person, Jesus finally appears to fear death, at least, the kind of death he knows he will probably face. He is overwhelmed by what is to come. We think to ourselves, Jesus is just like us.

The second way to read Jesus’ praying in Gethsemane, is not as the fear of his death, but as Jesus at war with the forces of evil.* Here is the beginning of his passion. These are the first rounds of the key battle for the salvation of the world. What we will read as Jesus’ trial before the Jewish and Roman authorities, seen in the high priest Caiaphas and the governor Pontius Pilate, is also Jesus’ trial before the Powers of darkness. Here in the garden they seek to tempt him once again to choose a different path. Jesus battles to accept the will of God. His words ‘not my will, but yours be done’ are joined by his rising from the ground like a boxer rising from the mat.

Gethsemane mirrors in some ways the temptations in the wilderness that followed Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his mission. In the wilderness Satan tempted Jesus with the option of leading a crusade – the messianic king at the front of an army overcoming all opponents. Here in Gethsemane, the temptation perhaps again is the same.

What does it mean to be present at Gethsemane? What might it mean to be a community that joins Jesus in Gethsemane? It is not be like the disciples, those who should be in Jesus’ corner, are founding wanting, they are found asleep, inert to the struggle of Jesus, inert to deepening darkness. To be a Gethsemane church is to stay awake in the darkness of history, and to refuse to compromise the way of the cross. It is to pray with Jesus, ‘not what I want, but what you want,’ ready to accept what ever that means. Ched Myers writes that the ‘world is Gethsemane’** and so perhaps to take Gethsemane as our name is to acknowledge – to be alert to, to be awake to – the horror and the hope.

To be a Gethsemane people is to resist the temptation that we can sleep through life.

To be a Gethsemane people is to be awake to the horrors of the world, and to join Jesus in contending for the world’s salvation.

To be a Gethsemane people is to be awake with hope that the darkness can and is and will be overcome, to join Jesus in taking up our cross, because the cross is the hope of the world.

To be a Gethsemane people is face that there is a battle going on out there in the world, and in here, in the heart of every person.

It is a battle for the will of God – every time we pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ we are praying with Jesus in Gethsemane.

To be a Gethsemane people is to follow Jesus through the shadows of betrayal, denial, separation, anguish, treachery, hypocrisy, humiliation to the cross.

We know the phrase ‘a matter of life and death’, a Gethsemane people, a Good Friday people, an Easter people, come to see that the gospel is always a ‘matter of death and then life.’

Let us keep awake with Jesus. Amen.

 

* Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (Eerdmans, 2015)

** Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis, 1988)