Friday 30 November 2018

The Christmas Jesus

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

When does Christmas start in your household? At what point is it reasonable to put up your tree and start playing Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ at full pelt?

With the regularity of a liturgical calendar, the Christmas adverts on TV arguably mark the beginning of the festive period for many. Nowadays, the Christmas ad is as much a part of the season as Boxing Day sales, broken toys, and left-over turkey.

Over the years, the John Lewis ad has become something of a sensation. This year’s is called ‘The Boy and the Piano’, and it features Elton John. We’re taken back in time to the moment his excited younger self ran down the stairs one Christmas morning to open his first piano. The moral of the tale, as the tagline tells us, is that ‘some gifts are more than just a gift’.

But, can a gift really make that sort of difference to our lives?

If the commercial hype feels too much, you might like to check out a two-and-a-half-minute Christmas film, made for £50, called ‘Love is a Gift’, which has been viewed millions of times.

It features a young man decorating his tree and counting down the days until Christmas, when he sits alone and listens to a cassette tape his Mum made for him before she died. We’re able to see that she recorded several tapes for him to listen to every year on Christmas day following her death. As a tear falls down the man’s face, it’s revealed that it’s the last tape his mother made. The film ends with the tagline: ‘Love is a gift that lasts forever. Merry Christmas.’

But, is love really a gift that lasts forever?

We need love, and we long for connection; good gifts really can make a difference in all sorts of ways. It’s not that the sentiments are wrong. It’s that the solution to our sense of lack is located in the wrong place. The Christmas ads are laying out a need we have that can be met only in the Christmas Jesus.

Can a gift really make a difference to our lives? Yes, but all the gifts in the world won’t make the difference we really need. Is love really a gift that lasts forever? Yes, when it comes from the one who lives forever. And he offers it to us today.

Thursday 29 November 2018

Lausanne Global Analysis 7, 6 (November 2018)

The latest issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, from The Lausanne Movement, is available online from here, including pdf downloads.

In the issue overview, editor David Taylor writes:

In this issue we examine mental health and trauma issues as an urgent mission priority for the church; we learn lessons from Taiwan on how to mobilise Christians for mission; we consider white culture and how its [sic] shapes the way we do global mission; and we explore social media and their potential in ministry to the unreached.’

Monday 26 November 2018

Romans 12: God’s New People #10 – Overcoming Evil

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:17-21

We don’t have to go too many days without coming across a story of revenge – some variation on the spurned lover who cuts off the sleeves of their ex’s clothes and gives their silver car a coat of red gloss paint. Many books and films are driven by a revenge-type plot, building up the tension until the bad guys get their comeuppance, with the sense of relief that brings. There seems to be endemic in humans a desire for personal justice that is powerful and potentially deadly.

Certainly that was the case in first-century Rome. In Reading Romans in Pompeii, Peter Oakes invites us to imagine how Paul’s letter might have sounded to a mixed group of people meeting in the rented workshop of Holconius the cabinet-maker. If Holconius’s daughter was mugged by a known criminal in the neighbourhood, Holconius could expect to muster up a group from the congregation, go to the man’s house, beat him up, and take back any belongings – in revenge.

But Paul wants Christians to find different ways of dealing with vengeance, different ways of handling people who wrong us.

It feels like it’s a way of passive acquiescence, but it’s not. The negative commands – ‘do not repay anyone evil for evil’, ‘do not take revenge’, ‘do not be overcome by evil’ – are balanced with positive ones – ‘be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone... live at peace with everyone’, ‘leave room for God’s wrath... feed [your enemy]... give him something to drink’, ‘overcome evil with good’. These actions require us to be proactive; they place the initiative with us.

That makes sense. Most of us have to work hard at not coming back with the snide comment, not wanting to get ahead of that car that undercut us, not firing off that passive-aggressive email. Revenge keeps evil in circulation, whether in a family or on a motorway or between nations.

Loving our enemies in tangible ways (‘feed him... give him something to drink’) seems so counter-intuitive. And it is. But no less counter-intuitive than what we see in the cross, the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, even ‘while we were God’s enemies’ (Romans 5:10). It’s there that we see a different way of responding to hostility. In seeking to overcome evil, how could we not expect to be called to do the same?

Friday 23 November 2018

Chris Green on Six Questions to Sharpen Your Next Sermon

I find Chris Green’s blog ( enormously helpful, even if – maybe because – his posts often challenge me to ‘up my game’.

A recent one – ‘Six Questions to Sharpen Your Next Sermon’ – is no exception.

Borrowing and adapting from Andy Stanley and John Ortberg, Chris notes: ‘I’ve found that there are six questions for me to ask myself, with a bit more bite to them, which help me to focus as I prepare’:

1. What do I want people to know?
2. Why do I want people to know it?
3. What do I want people to do?
4. Why do I want people to do it?
5. What do I want people to feel?
6. Why do I want people to feel it?

Recognising the significance of preaching to the heart, I particularly value the challenge of the last two.

Calum Samuelson on Artificial Intelligence

The Jubilee Centre has produced a 48-page book on artificial intelligence, written by Calum Samuelson.

Here’s the blurb:

‘This booklet dispels some of the sensationalism around Artificial Intelligence, asking instead how a fresh understanding of humanity can shape the trajectory of AI development. It draws on research interviews from ten leading AI practitioners and thinkers, and provides a distinctly biblical framework for understanding AI. Addressing all levels of expertise, the insights and guidelines provided will enable Christian leaders in church, business and public service to make informed responses to AI that are rooted in their faith.’

A hard copy is available for £4.00, but – thanks to the generosity of the Jubilee Centre – the booklet can be downloaded free of charge as a pdf from here.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Mission Frontiers 40, 6 (November-December 2018)

The November-December 2018 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles devoted to ‘The Frontier Peoples’.

The editor, Rick Wood, Writes:

‘For forty years, now Frontier Ventures and many other mission organizations have had a laser-like focus on taking the gospel to the Unreached Peoples of the world. We have worked tirelessly to mobilize the Church to reach these “hidden peoples” who have been forgotten by our global mission efforts. So how much progress have we made?

‘With a specificity and clarity not seen in decades we lay out the progress we’ve made, where we stand today and the hopeful future that stands before us if we have the courage to embrace what needs changing and renew our commitment to bring the blessings of the gospel to every people...

‘This issue is your invitation to change the status of the Frontier People Groups from neglected and hidden to prayed for and engaged.’

Individual articles can be accessed from here, and the whole issue can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Monday 19 November 2018

Romans 12: God’s New People #9 – Love That Spills Over

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Romans 12:14-16

Is it too much to imagine that loving each other inside the church prepares us for living in harmony with others outside the church? Paul seems to set that possibility before us. ‘Love must be sincere’, he wrote back in verse 9, and he’s still unpacking what that looks like. But his instruction here – ‘bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse’ – sounds like he now has in mind our relationship with non-Christians.

In first-century Rome, cursing was less about being rude and more about getting one over on people, a way of taking revenge. Those who had come to believe that Jesus was Lord of all might be tempted to ask him to use his power against their enemies. But that’s not the way of a crucified messiah. Love blesses even those who despise us.

Hostility or ostracism might cause us to withdraw from society, to be snooty or unfriendly ourselves. But that’s not the way of Jesus either. The love which flows from him doesn’t isolate us but involves us with people, enough to be alongside them in the highs and lows of life – to celebrate when there’s good news in the office, to grieve with the widower two doors down the road from us.

Once again, for new converts in first-century Rome, this would have involved going against the norms of society. A slave would be expected to weep for their master’s misfortune, but it wouldn’t be a two-way street. Even today, laughing and weeping with others may require crossing social boundaries, a willingness to extend love beyond our own comfortable circle.

It makes sense, then, that Paul goes on to write about living in harmony with others, not thinking we’re superior to everyone else. As members of the body of Christ, we learn to honour all people equally. Our ability to do so in our everyday contexts stands out as a powerful testimony to what God has done through his Son.

And there’s a key. We live this way not only because we are empowered by God to do so, but because we are nurtured in a community which practises these virtues. Paul’s vision in Romans 12 is that the gathered life of the congregation shapes us to be a counter-cultural people when scattered across our town and county, extending the love of Christ beyond the body of Christ.

Tuesday 13 November 2018

Theos Report on People, Place, and Purpose: Churches and Neighbourhood Resilience

The latest report from Theos has recently been published:

Here are some paragraphs from the Theos website:

‘We are living through a period of profound political, social and economic disruption.

‘Britain’s intended departure from the European Union creates new risks, uncertainties and – no doubt – opportunities. The ability of the cash-starved public services to help people navigate challenging circumstances is now questioned in a way that it has not been for 30 years. As civil society attempts to ‘plug the gap’, churches and faith-based organisations have achieved a new public legitimacy.

‘How can churches act in a ways that don’t just meet people’s immediate needs, but also build their capacity to negotiate uncertain times? Can they help neighbourhoods become more resilient?

‘Based on intensive research in three vulnerable communities in the North East of England, this report highlights the importance of engaging people in common action, curating places of public gathering, and refusing stories of decline and degeneration. In other words, churches can help build resilience neighbourhoods by focusing on people, place and purpose.’

A pdf of the full report is available here.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

The Bible in Transmission (Autumn 2018) on Reconciliation

The latest issue of The Bible in Transmission, from Bible Society, is available online here, offering a collection of articles on the theme of ‘Reconciliation’.

I have taken the ‘tasters’ of articles below from Tony Graham’s editorial.

Two of our contributors, Sarah Hills and Gordon Kennedy, remind us that this ministry of reconciliation begins with the transforming grace of God, the wounded healer.

Our second article comes out of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. Established in 1965, Corrymeela’s mission is to ‘transform division through human encounter’. Here Glenn Jordan and Pádraig Ó Tuama discuss, with a focus on the book of Ruth, the importance of creating space to share stories and the power narratives have to confront and transform. As we approach the centenary of the partition of Ireland and face the uncertainty of the UK leaving the European Union, Glenn and Pádraig challenge us to examine ‘the stories that will affect our civic, bordered, political, religious and relational realities. These realities invite deep and complicated reflection on the past, and the ways in which the stories told (or not told) of the past can affect the practice of the present.’ What sort of society do we want to become?

Two of our contributors, Sarah Hills and Gordon Kennedy, remind us that this ministry of reconciliation begins with the transforming grace of God, the wounded healer. As Gordon states, ‘if we long to see reconciliation in our relationships with one another we must begin with our reconciliation to God our Father.’

Our need for God’s grace is highlighted in Fleur Dorrell’s reflections on Caravaggio’s two paintings of the Supper at Emmaus based on the story in Luke’s Gospel. Here Fleur explores ‘how Caravaggio uses symbol and revelation to reconcile art with reality and faith with salvation to open the disciples’ eyes to Christ’.

As technology drives changes in society, significant interpersonal challenges emerge. As David Goodhart argues, social media has amplified our differences and the tone has changed. We are living in an age of increasing incivility. So how do we deal with difference and what practical steps can we take to help restore broken relationships? Drawing on her own experience of social media, Elizabeth Oldfield reflects on what it means to love your neighbour in a digital age.

In our penultimate article, we return to the subject of war – our war on nature. Ian Christie argues that in the face of a worsening ecological crisis we need to urgently rethink our ethics and values. The potential for ecological reconciliation is real and Christian communities can take a lead and be ‘exemplars of new ways of living and cooperating that demonstrate reconciliation’ with God’s creation.

Social divisions are not new, as David Muir outlines in his account of the Windrush generation, who experienced significant racism and discrimination. ‘The Church can, and should be, the place where all people feel welcome and accepted.’ However, more needs to be done to make our churches more inclusive and our society more cohesive.

Monday 5 November 2018

Romans 12: God’s New People #8 – What Love Looks Like

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.
Romans 12:9-13

Paul will come on to how we live with outsiders to the Christian faith – and those of us who are mission-minded might be eager for him to do so – but he doesn’t rush there. He insists we hear first that central to our life in Christ is how we love one another in the body of Christ.

That’s where he begins this section – ‘love must be sincere’. What that love looks like is then unpacked in one long sentence.

Grammar aficionados might be interested to know that Paul uses participles where most English versions translate with commands. Here’s an approximation of how it might have sounded to the first hearers: ‘Love is genuine, hating the evil, clinging to the good, devoted to one another in love, outdoing one another in showing honour, not lacking in zeal, being fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, being patient in affliction, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practising hospitality.’ To be sure, Paul wants Christians to do those things, but they’re expressed in a way which describes a character to be cultivated not merely commands to be carried out.

As elsewhere in Romans 12, hearing what Paul says through the ears of those in first-century Rome brings home the radical implications of belonging to the new humanity God has brought together in Christ. To take just one example, in a culture where giving and receiving honour was a central driver, a master honouring a slave above himself would be a strong signal that a completely different set of values was at work in this community. The principle remains just as powerful today. In a world where race, gender, age, wealth, and status often either bring privilege or deny access, Christians model a different way of living.

Not that it’s easy to do so! But Paul is realistic in his assumptions about what the Christian community will look like. Yes, we will find it difficult to outdo one another in showing honour; yes, suffering will come; yes, there will be needs to be met. But it will still be possible to serve the Lord, to rejoice, to be patient, and to persevere in prayer.

In doing so, we will display to each other – and perhaps to a watching world – that what God has begun to do in the church stands at the heart of his reconciling work which will one day be extended to all things.

Friday 2 November 2018

Myths of Vocation #3

The De Pree Center at Fuller Seminary has made available the third volume in their resource on calling – ‘Myths of Vocation’ – this one devoted to the myth that ‘I’m called to one special thing’.

As they write:

Buying into this myth might lead us to center our hopes on the idea that God has a specifically special path and future for us, and, that along our special path, there is one ideal career that will feel like a perfect fit for the person God has made us to be. We’ll guide you through a process of how we got here, how we can reframe our understanding of this myth, and then how to engage in practices that might reshape your imagination of God’s calling in your life.’

The Center is creating a four-volume study guide series that includes pdfs with journal prompts, videos, and suggested practices. The resources are available via a pain-free sign-up process here.

Thursday 1 November 2018

Currents in Biblical Research 17, 1 (October 2018)

The latest Currents in Biblical Research recently arrived, with titles and abstracts of the main articles as below.

Laura Quick
Dream Accounts in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Jewish Literature
The study of dreams and their interpretation in the literary remains from antiquity have become increasingly popular access points to the phenomenological study of religious experience in the ancient world, as well as of the literary forms in which this experience was couched. This article considers the phenomenon of dreaming in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Jewish literature. I consider treatments of these dream accounts, noting the development in the methodological means by which this material has been approached, moving from source criticism, to tradition history, and finally to form-critical methods. Ultimately, I will argue that form criticism in particular enables scholars to discern shifts and developments across diachronic perspectives. Study of dream accounts is thus illuminating not only for the understanding of dream phenomena, but also for the development of apocalyptic and the method and means of early Jewish biblical interpretation.

Andrew Tobolowsky
Israelite and Judahite History in Contemporary Theoretical Approaches
This article surveys developments in the study of the histories of ancient Israel and Judah with a focus on the last ten years. Over that period there has been an increased focus on extrabiblical evidence, over biblical text, as the primary means of constructing comprehensive histories, and a revival of interest in post-modern and linguistic-turn theories with respect to establishing what kinds of histories should be written. This study offers a general discussion of the last decade’s trends; an inquiry into the possibility that Judahite authors only assumed an Israelite identity after the fall of Israel; and an era-by-era investigation of particular developments in how scholars think about the various traditional periods of Israelite and Judahite history. The latter inquiry spans the pre-monarchical period to the Persian period.

Hans Moscicke
Jesus as Goat of the Day of Atonement in Recent Synoptic Gospels Research
Do the Synoptic passion narratives portray Jesus (and Barabbas) as one (or both) of the goats of the Day of Atonement? This question currently has no consensus in biblical scholarship but four contrasting positions: The evangelists portray (1) Jesus as the abused scapegoat in his maltreatment by the Roman soldiers (Mk 15.16-20 parr.); (2) Jesus as a pharmakos-like scapegoat patterned after Hellenistic motifs of redemptive suffering; (3) Barabbas as the scapegoat and Jesus as the immolated goat (Mt. 27.15-26 parr.); and (4) Jesus as neither goat, but the typological fulfillment of alternative (suffering) figures: Isaiah’s Servant, the Psalms’ Righteous Sufferer, the Son of Man, and the divine warrior. This article reviews and evaluates these four positions, suggesting avenues for future research.

Christopher B. Zeichmann
Military Forces in Judaea 6–130 ce: The status quaestionis and Relevance for New Testament Studies
The study of the military in the Roman provinces of Judaea is not the most accessible topic. Though the data upon which scholars rely is familiar (e.g., epigraphs, papyri, ancient historians), its study requires significant methodological deviations from biblical studies. This article summarizes key points relevant for scholars of both Jewish antiquity and early Christianity. First, it provides a summary of recent developments in the social history of the Roman army in the Near East, attending especially to the question of the role and function of soldiers in that region. Second, this article provides a brief social history for all military units in Judaea before it was renamed Syria Palaestina in 130 ce (four legions, 14 infantry cohortes, and five cavalry alae), based on the latest discoveries. Finally, the article concludes with a section discussing two issues specific to New Testament studies: the presence of an Italian cohort in Judaea (Acts 10) and the issue of the Augustan cohort in Judaea and Batanaea (Acts 27).