Friday, May 18, 2012

The First Unlikely Evangelists!

I realised something the other day that I think is rather cool that got me thinking about the first evangelists. The first evangelists were Moses and the prophets, who prophesied the coming of Messiah, the Spirit giving them prophetic insight into a coming Messiah, Son of Man, Servant and Son of God. Then, immediately before Jesus Messiah appeared on the scene, there is John, the locust and honey eating, camel wearing, wilderness wandering preacher and baptiser, sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, fulfilling Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3, 4. Then there is the Great Evangelist, Jesus himself, who came preaching the “gospel of the Kingdom” calling people to repent and believe the good news. Then there were those he selected, a motley crew of fishermen, tax-collectors, zealots and more, and the 72, sent to preach the King and Kingdom. 

We see the first followers at work in John’s Gospel. First, in John 1 John the Baptist who effectively instructed Andrew and another disciple to leave him and follow Jesus, that Jesus would increase and he decrease. Then there is Andrew and Philip telling Peter and Nathanael the good news and inviting them to Jesus—Jesus did the rest (that is evangelism in a nutshell).
Recently it dawned on me that, in John’s account, the first mass evangelist is not one of the “formal” “authorised” followers of Jesus (12 or 72); rather, and remarkably, it is a woman; and not any woman, but a Samaritan adulterous who led most of her town to Jesus (John 4). (Remember that Samaritans were despised). Amazingly, she is the first mass evangelist of the messianic era saved. Not to mention that the first mass conversions is a town of Samaritans!

Reading Luke the other day, I realised something equally fantastic. In the Synoptic Gospels, the first person sent to preach is not one of the 12 or the 72, but the horrendously demonised man of Mark 5 fame—nicknamed Legion because he was infested with demons (a legion was around 6,000 soldiers at the time). He was a fiercely powerful and totally uncontrollable man who wandered naked and ranting and raving in the tombs in the region of the Gerasenes—a seriously messed up human! Scholars aren’t quite sure of the region, but we know it is east of the Jordan and so was a Gentile area. This is confirmed in that they were pig-farmers. So, “Legion” was a violent, uncontrollable Gentile. Jesus delivered him of the legion of demons, puzzling everyone ever since by sending the demons into a herd of pigs so that they plunged into the lake and drowned. The people of the town were decidedly unimpressed, failing to care that “Legion” was delivered, and worried about the economic impact of Jesus’ action.
Then Jesus sent the man to tell what the Lord had done for him in the region of the Decapolis, a set of ten cities in the region including Damascus. In the Synoptics and especially Mark, this is an unusual move in that Jesus usually told recipients of his ministry to keep his Messianic status quiet—likely to make sure that people didn’t get too excited about his being messiah and seek to incite a revolution. Anyway, the thing that is so amazing is the first Synoptic evangelist, sent out before the Twelve, is a once violent demonised Gentile madman! Not only is he sent out, but he is sent to non-Jews to preach, indicating that from the beginning Jesus was going to call Gentiles into mission to preach to their own people. 

What stands out is that the two mass-evangelists in John (the Samaritan woman) and “Legion” is that they are not the sort of people you might expect, nor are their recipients what you would expect. Both have horrendous pasts. Neither is a Jew. One is a woman, and an adulterous to boot. One is a demonised madman. We know now years later, that these are the sort of people God calls! Later, a woman once infested with seven demons will be the first evangelist of the resurrection, the evangelist to the evangelists—Mary Magdalene.
This is typical Jesus. He was not bound by cultural boundaries, by limits on who should or should not be ordained on the basis of gender or their past, by people’s past sinfulness, by social expectations, by their ethnicity, he called whom he chose. Like God the Father who called the murderer Moses, and who saw into the heart of David and called him to be King, Jesus looks for the willing and open heart, sets people free, and sends them to serve him. I am one of those people, once lost in sin. I think Jesus is fantastic!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Reflection on the Perspective of Stephen Sizer

It has been a great week having Stephen Sizer among us at Laidlaw College. We also had the privilege of having him to speak at Glenfield Presbyterian Church on Sunday and Monday night. He is a lovely man with a warm heart. Those who vilify him obviously have not met him. He is wrongly accused of being heretic, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and more. Such accusations are an utter disgrace and a direct violation of the Christian imperative to love one another! Whether we agree or disagree with him, we can walk in fellowship with him. I warmly endorse him and consider it a privilege to have met a brother in Christ who understands the central call of the gospel to justice and mercy. His preaching on the Good Samaritan (I still like the name, my bad?) gloriously reminds us of our need to above all else, show compassion. I loved the debate last night; all credit to Richard Neville and Stephen for doing so well and modelling Christian dialogue, it was a brilliant night!

The issue of the place of ethnic Israel in the purposes of God has long intrigued me and being well aware of the differing views I have been for some time pondered these issues trying to work out where I stand—it is an on-going process. So, what are my reflections having heard Stephen and the debate last night?
First, I agree that theologically and spiritually, the descendants of Abraham cannot be limited to ethnic Israel, but include all humanity who follow in the footsteps of Abraham’s faith. That is the point of Paul’s teaching in Rom 4; Gal 3 and Rom 9:7 (cf. Matt 3:9; 8:11; Luke 3:8). Clearly what matters to John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul is spiritual descent from Abraham rather than physical. That said, the existence of people who are descended physically from Abraham is found in the NT (e.g. 2 Cor 11:22). They exist as a people, and so are a nation under God. Genesis 10 tells us that nations are important, they are families of people, and so at least to the degree that they like all people exist, are important to God. 

Secondly, the idea election in the NT is focussed on the church i.e. believers in Christ, Jew and Gentile, is in the main, correct. That said, Richard Neville did rightly question Stephen on the basis of Rom 11:26 which speaks of God’s gift and call being irrevocable, clearly in the context of a discussion of Israel by descent. While it is only one verse, it does potentially hint at some on-going sense of God’s call having significance. 
Thirdly, despite Richard Neville’s presentation and arguments, and having worked closely through Romans 11 in preparation for teaching, I find myself more in agreement with Sizer and N.T. Wright’s read on Rom 9-11. I think Israel is defined in Rom 9:6–8 as Israel by faith, something Paul says effectively in Rom 2 (circumcision of the heart) and Romans 4—Israel is Israel by faith. When I come to Rom 11 I don’t see Rom 11:12, 15 as stating that there will be a coming to faith of Israel at some point, but Paul pondering what would happen if the fullness came in (v.11) and they did turn to Messiah, it is the language of hope—it would be resurrection of the dead were they to do so (v.15). Sadly they have not done so and Paul’s hope and prayer (Rom 9:1–3; 10:1) remains unfulfilled. They have not become jealous of Christian growth and turned (vv. 11, 14).
When I come to Rom 11:25-26 it seems Paul has just in the tree illustration defined Israel as Israel by faith in vv.17–24, i.e. all humanity that has believed in the one true God before Christ (or before hearing the gospel), including Gentiles like Abraham (he came to God as a wandering Aramean) and Melchizedek, and believing Israelites; plus, Christian believers who have responded to the gospel from all over the world. I think he then shifts his meaning of Israel in Rom 11:25–26 from its usual sense of ethnic Israel to Israel as he now defines it, by faith, i.e. all humanity of faith including not only the Church, but believers of all history i.e. the full number of God’s people from all time. This is repudiated on the basis that Paul must use the word Israel in the same sense in both verses. However, Paul often shifts his use of language in the same passage, a common rhetorical tool, and, indeed, we often miss his plays on words when we don’t recognise this and slavishly assume a word means the same every time it is used.

So, while I see the validity and possibility of other interpretations of Rom 9–11, I am with Wright on this one. I do think however, that Stephen’s description of the Olive Tree in Rom 11 should be modified away from saying that it is “the church”; rather it is historic Israel and humanity by faith in the one true God before the coming (or preaching of Christ), and authentic believers. It is only “the church” in the Colossians and Ephesians sense of the cosmic heavenly universal church. Believers in Christ are grafted into Israel by faith rooted in God. By calling it “the church,” it can sound like it is writing of Israel by faith in the pre-Christ era. In fact, I suspect there will be a huge number of Israelites in eternity from the pre-Christ era, while sin and failure abounded, many many did genuinely believe in God; Paul included in his pre-Christian state. I suspect there will more than a few Gentiles as well.
Fourthly, I am in full agreement with Sizer that the Temple does not need to be rebuilt. Clearly, the temple is now Christ, and those in him, the temple of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:19-22 etc). There is no need to build a physical temple. That said, I will not be surprised if it is attempted, and God help us when it is done as this will have huge implications for Jewish-Islamic relations. Not to mention that I presume some would attempt to resume the sacrifice system! 

Fifthly, I am also in total agreement with Stephen on the secret rapture, the wrong people are left behind in this popular concept. There is nothing in the NT to support it. His read on Matt 24 and 1 Thess 4 is spot on to me.
Finally, I agree that the land of Israel and earthly Jerusalem is not of consequence in the NT generally speaking. Jerusalem is the locus of God’s salvation with Jesus dying and rising there, the Spirit falling there, the church and its mission starting there, and the church radiating out in mission from there to all nations. The land in the NT as the locus of God, becomes the whole world. This is the inheritance of believers. God cannot be limited or localised to one building or one place.

However, there is a puzzling verse in Luke 21:24, which very surprisingly was not discussed at the debate: “They (the Jews) will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
This is in the context of the Olivet Discourse which is either about the Fall of Jerusalem, the return of Christ, or both, depending who you follow (a small group think it is about the cross, resurrection). To me, Matthew and Luke clearly apply it to more than the Fall of Jerusalem.

Now this verse cannot have been fulfilled in the exile as Jesus said it years later, about 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem. It is likely that this is when they “fell by the sword.” We can limit this to the trampling of Jerusalem by the Romans and Jews taken as prisoners of war only. There is indeed evidence of many Jews scattered and taken to Rome (see the inscriptions on the Arch of Titus). However, I find this unconvincing as Rome is not a scattering “among all nations” and Jerusalem’s trampling went on for centuries after Rome. I think it is more reasonable read to say that Jerusalem from A.D. 70 has been trampled on by Rome, Islamic forces, and ever since. Over the years most Jews scattered, and are today found in communities throughout the world. It seems to me that this fits very neatly indeed with “led captive among all nations.”
Now, while one might argue that Jerusalem continues to be trampled and the verse speaks of the return of Christ not some restoration of the city to the Jewish people, it seems to me that, whether we find it difficult to accommodate in our theology, the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967 ended or interrupted a period of trampling of Jerusalem—whatever the means by which it was accomplished. (We have to remember that God worked his purposes out in the OT through sinful nations, war, despotic rulers etc. This doesn’t legitimize it, but God works in humanities mess).

So the question then becomes what does “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Some see this as the mission to the Gentiles others some judgment idea. Or does it refer to the fulfillment of the time of Gentile trampling mentioned in the first part of the sentence?
Stephen Sizer connects this to Rev 11:2 which speaks of John’s vision of the temple which is “given over to the nations… they will trample the holy city for forty-two months” and so rejects the idea of Jerusalem’s trampling. I have serious problems with this. First, exegetically one cannot assume the Apocalypse is speaking of the same thing. I questioned Stephen about this and he seemed to assume the later writing defined the earlier and John would have known Luke. The dates of Luke and John are open questions and there is no way we can know whether John knew Luke’s writings—this is problematic at many levels. I find the jig-sawing of verses from completely different contexts problematic; indeed, it is the sort of thing classical dispensationalists have done for years to create their elaborate timetables—we should avoid it, it is a dodgy hermeneutic. Secondly, forty-two months is ambiguous and tied up in the mystical symbolism of Revelation, and so I am very wary to define its interpretation. I would rather deal with Luke 21:24 in the context of Luke-Acts.

To me, I can’t shake off that the existence of this Jesus-saying and this historical event seem uncanny in their correlation. While it is very difficult to fit into a theological scheme which endorses the church as the continuation of Israel by faith, it seems the best interpretation is that Jesus predicted a restoration of the city of Jerusalem to the Jews in the distant future when “the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”, whatever that means. I suspect it means the time of trampling. It is not likely to be  the completion of the mission, unless we argue that the mission is complete—I think it has a long way to go, but I might be wrong.
Now, I do not now want to go ahead and give a tight timetable concerning the return of Christ, the millennium (I am an ag-millennialist—agnostic), or speculate on the literal application of what follows in Luke (and Mark 13; Matt 24), but it means I am in a slightly different place to Stephen. He is an agnostic on the modern state of Israel and made some excellent comments on this. Of particular note was his comment that this may not be the final return, and of his fear of another exile. I had not thought of this, and it has got me thinking. He also questioned the idea that the restoration is a fulfillment of Ezekiel 36; asking where is the spiritual renewal spoken of there. Great question! Still, those questions aside, it just seems more than a massive coincidence that after some 1900 years of Israel and Jerusalem being under Gentile dominion (we can even go back to 587 BC), against all odds, after the horror of WW2, it was back in the hands of the Jewish people in 1967. It seems significant to me. So, at this point I part ways with Stephen, and while I agree with his theological construct, I find myself in a different position on modern Israel i.e. I think it means something.  I also wonder whether, despite my reading of Rom 9-11 whether there remains some mystery around God’s final dealings with his people—did he sacrifice his nation as well as his son to save the world? Who knows—such things are beyond me. Perhaps they were beyond Paul?

There are several other things that take me to this position. First, I believe in God’s sovereignty over the nations and so, the establishment of any nation is no mere accident. So, I see Israel’s restoration as providential and so must be significant. Secondly, in that it was returned to a people to whom God said in Gen 17:8, “And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God,” I find it more than a remarkable historical coincidence that this has occurred. I also wonder whether Stephen’s own logic should lead him to the same conclusion in that he rightly noted that while these verses exist, possession of the land is conditional (e.g. the curses of Deut, Lev). If so, and if Israel by descent are in the land, does that not mean something. Thirdly, while the spiritual renewal of Israel has not come yet, I do think Ezek 36 points beyond exile, although I am not going to push this too hard—I am not an OT scholar.
None of this means there are two tracks of salvation as if salvation is found in anything other than Christ, or that Christ is necessarily at the doorstep, or that we should endorse the bad behavior and injustices of Israel, or that we should be radical and militant Zionists, that we should be anti-Palestinian or Arab forgetting the Samaritan parable etc; but, it seems to me, that 1948–67 tells me that there is something going on between God and his historic people.

So, there are my thoughts. I am not sure whether this makes me a Zionist. I too want a two-state solution and want the Israeli people to show more compassion and mercy to the Palestinians. That said, I am hesitant to judge from nice cozy NZ. I also understand why Israel is so defensive, one doesn’t forget the Holocaust, the wars of 48, 67, 73 easily, the warnings from Iranian leadership and the threat of nuclear bombs, and terrorism easily. If I am a Zionist, I am a very moderate one and find my point of agreement with Stephen in the primacy of compassion and justice. I think Christ would be found calling for oneness, peace, mercy and justice. He would be where the Samaritan stands. That is always where Christ is. So I stand with both Jew and Palestinian, with our brothers in Christ, and with all humanity hoping that they will come to Christ. I pray for the peace of Israel, and for the Palestinians, for the nations, and for the world.

What are your reflections? 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Unmasking the Quest for the Secular Utopia

Is it just me, or have others noticed that we are now in a driven world dominated by a new legalism based around the moral code which undergirds the utopian vision of secularism? The secular utopia appears to me to be of prolonged life (through medical means and seeking the perfect life [diet, exercise etc] that costs us more and more everyday), in a world without religion  or at least religion in privacy (we are tolerated as long as we stay in our approved spot) and especially fundamentalism (not just Islamic, but anything that is too passionately espoused and propagated, including evangelicals) in which all peoples live together in perfect harmony and tolerance (except where public religion is concerned and that is a no no), without racial slur (even a little joke here or there which is really harmless, and especially never at the expense of women, blacks or gays, but its ok to slag evangelicals—not a Muslim though, you might get a fatwa, not that this stops some), with perfect justice (except for the unborn child and the religious), which should ever operate out of guilt for the oppressions of the past (us white people must pay forever for our oppression of other races), in which there is no threat to life (e.g. a jungle gym), where people can have consensual sex with anything and anyone except a child (around 16 and under), in which divorce, adultery are normalised, without cigarettes (anything but), binge drinking, drunk driving, junk food, where all people are skinny (obesity is the new leprosy), gambling is normalised, and supposedly liberty dominates (except where public displays of religion are concerned—actually it is liberty for a certain few). It is now becoming anti-capitalist, while held together and funded by capitalists. The landscape is a bland without any religious regalia (e.g. cross), without anything religious in a name (e.g. Christmas, Christchurch—evil!). It is a supposedly neutral world, but in fact driven with a real and passionately espoused anti-supernatural, relative, tolerant, humanistic/humanitarian, seemingly sophisticated philosophy which is opposed to all things religious where that religion encroaches beyond the home, church, mosque, or other place of worship.

Now this secular utopia will come to pass in a variety of ways.
First, legislation whereby. The utopia has been and is being fostered through law more and more. By the way, it didn’t work in Israel, and it won’t work in the west—true change comes from heart change!

It works like this. When one thing happens to disturb the aforementioned utopia whether because it is not in place, or needs adjustment, a law is put in place. Or, before the law, comes the swag of reports and commissions in which we interrogate why something happened. For example, one midwife messes up a birth, and there must be a commission and the whole vocation comes under scrutiny (never mind the cost!). Or, one politician messes up their travel allowances, and after extensive reports and commissions costing yet more of a fortune, all politicians must now be subject to a fresh law to ensure it never happens again. Or, a child falls off a trampoline in Invercargill and dies; hence, all tramps must be ring-fenced in the whole nation, and some bureaucrat will need to be employed to ensure it happens and a fine will be dished out if not. This pushes up the rates, and gives the lawyers and bureaucrats more work.
We see this sort of thing everywhere and in fact, every day! One bad thing happens, a report (s) is commissioned, and new law must come in. The secular utopia cannot be threatened. So we have a pampered generation without resilience. This creates a new Halakah, an oral law, to support the religion of secularism, we become litigious and the Scribes and Pharisees rule the world. Jesus came to liberate Israel from its obsession with law, we need setting free from the new secular legalism.

Secondly, the unseen powers of the world. In the main these forces are nameless and faceless collectives in school boards, political bodies local and national, the rulers of Europe, and in its most glorious manifestation the UN and others like UNESCO. These are elected (usually by people whom in reality know nothing of the candidates who are nicely engineered to maintain the status quo) or through unelected forces who still seem to have the power to dictate how life will be to people who never agreed to their existence in the first place, let alone submitting to their power. These international non-elected faceless organisations are the people who decide that this day or that day is the day of the child, or women’s health day, etc etc. They critique the world, but do nothing to really help it. The backdrop is their secular mantra. There is a whole religious calendar set up around the religion of secularism. These are the forces that can tell the British Olympic Committee that they must pick drug cheats for the Olympics who have done their time under WADA sanctions. These are the people who tell people that they can or can’t wear crosses at work. How is it that these organisations are so powerful? They are the parliaments of secularism.
Third the media. The media seems in the hands of left wing ideologues who propagate the religion of secularism. We see it in news bulletins which are not news, but tell the story of the secular utopia. A new medical discovery, legislation against junk food advertising, another fundamentalist idiot, smoking packets without labels, the latest commission into the child who broke her leg on a tramp and the subsequent reports and law changes, the new laws to ensure a house doesn’t collapse, etc etc.

It is not just the news and docos it is found in the dramas, soaps and comedies which are as much vehicles for the religion of secularism as they are dramas and soaps. So for example, Coronation Street is now replete with gays, lesbians, and transgender characters. They are the good guys e.g. Roy Cropper. The others in the show are either bland support characters. When a religious person comes up (like Sophie), it is only a matter of time before she converts—in Sophie’s case to lesbianism. Shortland Street in NZ is a sexually liberal program based in a hospital without religion at all, and essentially a meat market as people move freely in and out of sexual relationships and marriages, hetero or homo. It is completely normalised; a wonderful portrayal of the secular world. Friends is the story of six who live the secular utopian life in harmony, despite their differences (of course not a religious one among them even though the majority of Americans are religious). Then there are programs preaching the new family, anything but the Waltons. Program after program preach anti-smoking, anti-junk food and obesity; give us the latest medical means of prolonging life; expose the stupidity of religious people; renarrate family; reject Christianity; they narrate the secular utopia in various forms. As we sit mindlessly watching TV, movies and the net, like frogs in warming water, we are being slowly morphed into dumb believers in this utopia. Or, if we don’t believe, we are lulled into silent acquiescence. The media are the reachers of this utopia, and they do it brilliantly and creatively, wrapped up in entertainment. Anyone who is right wing, overtly religious etc, is held with suspicion across the whole gambit. They hold NZ and other nations to account for the expectations of the secular utopia.
Thirdly, the school and university. The home has been abandoned in the narrative of secularism, families come in all sorts of forms, the old mum-dad-kids model is par se and not necessary. There is an avoidance of facing the reality that most of our social problems would be reduced greatly with the marriage and family returned to centre stage. Never mind the stream of research that endorses that children raised in such families, in the main, do better. The school is now the go-to place for education for all of life—that is of course because the family is failing, but nothing is done to help it, except from a few fringe groups who are usually marginalised as Christian and so not worth listening to. Forget the 3 R’s, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic, and reading. Now the school trains kids in the fourth R, ‘rything; from sexual education, to values to beyond. Bible in Schools is placed outside, or barred or course—it is a threat to the secular utopia.

Sure, the failure of the family has led to this in many cases, but the school now is expected to be the centre of the world. Not just the school, the childcare centre is needed as minds are formed in those formative years—so every kid needs to go to a childcare centre. The idea of a mum (or a dad) staying at home and providing that education is hardly noticed; even though, research supports this as a means of producing great kids—assuming a stable family base of course. Then there is the university where the narrative of secularism is told, history is read with an implicit anti-religion bias—religion is naïve, science has the answers; religion has done ill, forget that to a large degree the greatness of the western world is due to the influence of Christianity and its ethic. Christians actually had something to do with the western dream! Never mind too that studies show that religious belief is good for the soul and life. The story is rammed home so we become unthinking believers in the secular dream.
And whereas once, even secularists sent their kids to Sunday School because they believed that getting the values was worth it, despite the nonsense story that went with it which could easily be refuted by “science”, now that is not considered. Sunday Schools are a dying breed in fact. The church is marginalised, empty buildings aside from a few hot shows in each corner of the big cities. The Church schools are doing better, perhaps that is not so much in their face. On the matter of science, faith and science are not in conflict, as Newton knew well—but everyone believes they are, because the prophets of secularism have told us so.

Now I have a lot of sympathy for the secular utopia. I too believe that we should want a better world, in which many of the ideals of secularism are seen. Indeed, I suspect that the utopian dream is flogged off Christianity (or Judaism) in the first place; just with notions of the supernatural, an exclusive God/gods and belief systems that make exclusive claims taken out. I even have sympathy for the criticism of secular utopians toward Christianity which has sadly been tied up in a whole lot of things like colonialism and ecological destruction. We have allowed ourselves to form political and economic alliances that are anti-gospel. Religion has in many cases been destructive. Yet, Western civilisation at its peril fails to see that the ethical and moral undergirding of its glory is in large part due to the Judeo-Christian ethic. Even some atheists realise this! We need to keep narrating the “other side of the story”—yeah, while we have sucked in many cases, much that is glorious has been done in the name of God and that should be recognised. Would we want to go back to the world of colliding empires and political and military machinations which dominated before Christ?
I believe the secular utopian dream will fail. It will fail because like all human attempts to engineer society by our own power and thought, humans can’t pull it off. It will fail because you can’t legislate a utopia, it must come from within in relationship from hearts transformed and working together so that volitional good overcomes volitional corruption. Not to mention that its proponents simply don’t produce enough kids to keep the ball rolling! The western dream cannot be sustained on 1.8 kids per family.

It will be another Babel, another Communism. It will fall. Why? Because humanity needs the power of the divine to enable it to rise above self-interest to be altruistic, selfless and others-centred and it is these values that will enable a society to reach greatness, not laws, schools or the UN etc. Jesus came to show us this. He demonstrated it, he called us to emulate it. He carries this on by his Spirit in the willing heart who submits to him and finds within themselves the power to live out of true humility and agapē love.
The west while it rejects the story that made it great will continue to recede in power and be superseded by other forces. The thing is that this utopian dream will not come through the means above, it will come through transformed hearts, who meld into transformed families, communities, cities, nations and the world. That is the vision of the Kingdom of God. We won’t see it in its fullness but will see it more realised if we get it. And of course, in the world to come, when the King has returned as he will, he will establish the fullness of new creation he spoke of, in which the vision of utopia will be realised, eternal life, an end to injustice, and all will be whole.

The Christian gospel is the story not of a “man-made” utopia, but a Spirit-empowered world full of liberty, love, peace, joy, hope, not coerced from above through unseen political forces, but generated from below. One cannot legislate this utopia, or produce it in schools, or engineer it through the media, or guide it through unseen arrogant political forces. It can only be done as the real story spreads from person to person, freely received and given, permeating and transforming as it flows through the crevasses of society and creation. The church needs to realise this too. In this way the mustard seed that was first and foremost only Jesus, will become a tree; the pinch of salt will season the world; the message will spread.  
What do you think?

Love, truth, and heresy.

The visit of Stephen Sizer has got me thinking about heresy. Evangelicals in particular are very concerned about correct dogma. It seems that there are evangelicals in nooks and crevices all over the world usually tagged with some name like “Reformed”, “Calvinist”, “Dispensationalist”, “Arminian,” etc, poised ready to pounce on someone who strays what they perceive to be correct doctrine. Now that we have the net and blogs, we can jump quick and all have a say!

So, for example, when someone speaks out against Dispensationalism and Zionism and offers an alternative, they are attacked through emails and internet, often anonymously. Or, when someone suggests theistic evolution, they are slated as a liberal, and of no value to the church anymore. The other sides of these throw the term around too, Zionists are heretics, as are six-day creationists—at least to some.
I received an email recently about a whole movement in evangelicalism that another group of well-intentioned pastors have now declared a heresy. It is intriguing because, this is an amorphous group, without leadership and a clear structure, who are orthodox in every way but hold one or two views that vary from traditional Christianity, and which I would call innocuous. They are imbalanced at best.

Then there was Rob Bell who pretty much appears to hold an orthodox theology from a reformed amillenial point of view, but raised the possibility that one can get out of hell if one freely submits to Jesus as Lord. As far as I see, although some would question his theological construct, that is the only point at which he would be outside of the pale for many evangelicals. Does this mean he is to be written off now as a heretic, a liberal, and cast aside? Is his ministry now invaid? It is not even clear that this is his firm belief, I wonder if he might say in defence, “just asking.”
I had a discussion with someone recently who was adamant that a prominent NZ pastor was a heretic because he was adoptionist. I challenged him asking how he knew for sure (had he read and heard this from the guy?), who he was to make that call? and if indeed the pastor is adoptionist, does that mean we right him off eternally and irrevocably? Is this the end of the road for the pastor? The guy was not particularly open to the conversation standing his ground, fiercely contending for the faith.

Now, as I read the New Testament there are two primary marks of a Christian. First, there is faith—we believe in Jesus Christ Lord. Belief of course is more than cognitive belief in the story and person of Jesus, it involves trust, it is relational, it is volitional, it is lived out. Of course the content of faith is not particularly clear. It seems to at least include that Jesus is God’s Son, saviour and Lord, that he rose from the dead, and that we submit to his Lordship in our lives. While we have tried to define this further through creeds and councils, there remains a degree of uncertainty over exactly what we must believe to be “saved” and “orthodox.”
Secondly, there is love. Love is an underlying attitude (see 1 Cor 13:1-3) of unlimited and unconditional self-giving to others, Christian or otherwise. Even enemies are to be loved. It is in 1 Cor 13:4-7 a series of verbs, it is what we do. So love should envelope us as our primary attitude toward God and others, it should be seen in our attitudes, it should be seen in our actions, in our relationships, in every situation. All ethics is governed by this one overriding glorious attitude.

Ok, so here is my question. What is the bigger heresy, to get a detail or two or three of Christian faith wrong, or to fail to show love? I suppose it depends on a few things. What is a heresy? It is something that strays from established Christian teaching I suppose. The problem is, what is the established Christian teaching? Who defines it, unless you are a Catholic and have a Pope? If you stray at one point or other, at what point are you the “excluded”? Who decides which are the “fundamentals” which, if we get wrong, see us written off? The problem is that as we Christians sit around and get involved in all this discussion and debate about such things, we fail in mission because we are inward looking. I am a Presbyterian, I know how this happens!
Yet, in the middle of the Scriptures, screaming loud and clear, is the golden rule, the royal law, the sum of all law, “love your neighbour as yourself.” Many zealous Christians seem to think they can violate this particular doctrine, in their zeal to protect the faith. Can we? We do have to talk doctrine and resolve questions and challenge and question, but only within the rubric of this overriding ethical imperative—love. So, what is the greatest heresy, to get it wrong say on Zionism, or universalism, or creation? Or to fail to love? I suspect I know the answer.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Gospel Call to Integrity and Honesty

The John Banks—Kim Dotcom affair has got me thinking. The question is, has John Banks been truthful over receipt of donations in the 2010 Auckland mayoral campaign? Actually, it is not just this issue, but a whole range of situations which have featured in the news later whether it is John Key, Sky City and the Pokies; Peter Slipper in Australia; the funding of the US election; and so on. The question all these situations raise is, what is the place of honesty and integrity in public life? Now, I am not going to judge John Banks or the others, there’s enough of that going on. The question that does interest me is the issue of integrity and honesty from a Christian point of view.

As I read the Scriptures, it is immediately apparent that the ideal of honesty and integrity should characterise Christian believers 24/7. Lying is not endorsed in the NT. Paul in Eph 4:25 writes, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” The “therefore” refers back to his appeal to take off sin and “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” i.e. we are to take off dishonesty and deceit and put on truth. Essential to Christian living is honesty. Although the emphasis here is relationships among Christians, as we know from Jesus’ teaching, our neighbor cannot be limited to other believers, friends and family (Luke 10:25–37). At a general degree, honesty should mark Christians in all situations, whether church, work, home, or play.
I remember facing this as a batsman in Auckland club cricket, and when I became a Christian resolving always to walk whenever I nicked one to the wicket keeper—as one quite often did when one opened the batting. It got to the point where umpires trusted me enough not to bother giving me out or not, they left me to make the decision. I kind of had to cause my nickname was “the Rev!” I once walked accidentally when I didn’t nick one in a final—I kept walking, but was heavily fined later!

John describes the Devil as “a liar, and the father of all lies” (John 8:44). This sources dishonesty at the heart of evil and reinforces that we should seek honesty (cf. 2 Thess 2:9). Paul is at pains to stress his honesty at a number of points (Rom 9:1; 2 Cor 11:31; Gal 1:20; 1 Tim 2:7). On the hand, “truth” is one of the key themes of the bible and NT. Jesus is described as “the truth” (John 14:6). Paul dared to challenge Peter in public when he was not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:14).
Believers are to be consistent in terms of their claims to honesty and their actions, e.g., 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother or sister, that person is a liar; for they who does not love their brother and sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.” There is nothing worse in Scripture than a hypocrite whose words and actions do not add up. Of course, we are all guilty of wrong-doing, so we shouldn’t make too many claims in this regard, and simply seek to live consistent authentic lives and admit our weaknesses. As Jesus said, we should let our yes be a yes, and our no be a no. Christians are guilty of preaching and claiming honesty, and falling short of it. Honesty begins with real self-assessment and holding oneself accountable.

Of course, there is a time to lie, to withhold the truth or some part of it, and be wise about dispensing it. The call to honesty stands under the “greater law” of love and requires wisdom. In the Weekend Herald May 5, 2012 is the story of Peter Goering, the brother of one of Hitler’s key henchman Hermann (Goering’s Brother Saved Dozens). Peter Goering, unlike his notorious brother, despised Nazi’s and helped Jews, prepared to lie to save them. He was a Schindler-like figure but received little recognition, sadly dying in obscurity and poverty because of his despised name. Such a situation tells us that there is a time to lie to thwart evil and save lives. We also know that there is a time to withhold truth or “massage” it for a greater good. For example, does a politician tell people of a coming tsunami when it will set off a riot and congested roads and potentially increasing the number dead? Does a parent tell their child the full truth when it will cause them great anxiety, say when diagnosed with a terminal disease? These situations are governed by a utilitarianism and the greater law of love, a situational ethic.
Yet, even though there are exceptions, the ideal of integrity and honesty is clear in Scripture and believers should be consistently seeking to live lives of transparent honesty and integrity.  There is no space for a double-ethic, where we live authentically among friends, family and fellow-believers but do not do so in business, sport or life. We are to be 24/7 Christians. In this way we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

This is particularly important in a world in which the media (including social media) is ever-present to expose hypocrisy and integrity-failure. Christians who have a role of significance in church or public are especially accountable to maintain their honesty and integrity. When a person is shepherding others, the expectation is that the leader will set the tone, and it is rare that a leader survives acts of dishonesty and integrity—that is because trust is violated, and trust is essential for the pastoral relationship. It is essential to the church’s witness that its people are consistent, authentic, honest and show integrity. The same applies to those serving in the political sphere where they come under continuous scrutiny. Those of us in these sort of positions, in church or wider society, need to be honest first of all with ourselves, and keep short accounts, and deal with things before they escalate. Lying tends to beget lying and before you know it, you are in a pickle and the stakes get greater and greater (e.g. a sexual issue that becomes critical; a gambling problem etc). And it needs to begin at home with our spouse and family!
That said, it can’t be easy when one is in the public eye all the time and I feel for those who find themselves in the public spotlight, the public and church are harsh task-masters! Still, the challenge won’t go away and we must face it. So, let’s be 24/7 Christians of integrity and honesty. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sir Fred Allen and Leadership

Last week we saw the death of a NZ icon, Sir Fred Allen. Being a lover of rugby, Fred Allen is a hero of mine. Fred Allen was a lieutenant in the 27th and 30th Battalions. He played rugby for the post-war “Kiwis” army team which toured Britain after WW II. He was an All Black 1946-1949 playing 21 games and 6 tests, leading the All Blacks in the infamous 4-0 loss to the Springboks in 1949. He retired after the tour, throwing his boots into the sea in disgust. He became involved in coaching and coached Auckland in the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s through the golden Ranfurly Shield era when they defended the Shield 24 times. He coached the All Blacks from 1966-68 in a period in which they were unbeaten in 14 tests—he remains the only unbeaten All Black coach. “His” team went on to remain unbeaten in 1969. In 1970 he was asked to come back and take the team to South Africa, but declined and they lost 3-1. Many of the players of that 1970 team believe that if Sir Fred had led the tour, things would have been different. I am not so sure, back in those days the home-refs made touring teams winning more than difficult. Anyway, his legend lives on. He was knighted and ultimately inducted into the rugby Hall of Fame.

As I listened to radio tributes on the weekend from the likes of Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, Waka Nathan, Graham and Thorne, Ian Kirkpatrick and others, I gained an insight into the man. He was nicknamed “Needle” and for good reason, he really got under the skins of the players. He was a brilliant motivator, although fear was one of his best weapons. He trained them remorselessly and demanded the best. His team talks were legendary, firing up the team for the games. Yet the respect his players hold for him is incredible. They literally loved him. He clearly respected the men who played for him and they were prepared to die for him.
Fred Allen, like Arthur Lydiard and others,  is one of those older NZ types of leaders who were uncompromising men, statesmen of integrity, who demanded the best, who both encouraged and instilled fear and knew what the purpose of the team was—to win. He was a visionary changing NZ rugby from starch forward-orientated play to open 15 man rugby. He took the game to a new level.

NZ Christianity and society is short of great leaders. We need men and women who embody something of the Fred Allen mode of leadership.
First, we need leaders of character who are consistent, who blend compassion with demand, who embody what they expect from their people. Fred Allen was respected because he had done it on the war field and playing field, and his men believed in him. He embodied his expectations—hence the men followed him unquestioningly. He led out of example, and he set high standards. Because of his character, the men responded. Character ultimately decides a leaders legacy, we all need to grasp that.

Secondly, we need visionaries who can look at the state of play and see new ways of doing things that will be effective. The gospel is unchanging, but it must be told differently in each situation. Fred Allen saw that the game needed to shift and his team dominated the world. We are in a liquid world, where the rate of change is ridiculous, leaders have to move with the times, see the opportunities, and lead their people into it.
Thirdly, he knew the meaning of preparation. He prepared his team off the field better than anyone else, so when they played, winning was almost certain before kick-off. We need leaders who know how to train and prepare people for the “game” so that they can effectively lead others.

Fourthly, he knew what made his men tick. In that day, the principles of machoism were strong, he knew what it took to get his men to die for team and goal. Things have changed, and his approach would likely not go so well with many in the Millenial Generation. But great leaders learn how to relate to “their people”, what makes them tick. I am sure Sir Fred would have worked that out. Graham Henry has shown how to do it in recent times, showing great skill in motivating each individual at a personal level. Great leaders work out how to connect and motivate.
Finally, he knew the goal. The goal was winning. His team was prepared for that purpose. Yet, he was also a man who demanded his team play with integrity within the rules as refereed, so to speak. We need to know the goal—the restoration of the cosmos, the salvation of all humanity, the building of churches that reflect the kingdom in its lifestyle and mission, to work with God for the extension of his Kingdom.

RIP Fred Allen.