Reaching the Unreached II

On Saturday I attended the second Reaching the Unreached conference in Barnsley with a focus on developing mission on council estates [the UK equivalent of social housing] and in deprived areas in the UK. It was a great day and very encouraging. I was particularly struck by the thought that here were many godly people faithfully proclaiming the good news in difficult areas. These were people who had chosen fidelity over fame. Inspiring. I’m going to post my notes from the day over the next few weeks.

Two Conversations: the Unthinkable Reach of the Gospel Part One

These notes are from a talk by Steve Casey. They are my notes from a talk so they may not accurately represent what Steve intended. Steve pastors a church in Speke, Liverpool.

I once had the experience of going to an AA meeting with a friend. I felt tearful because as people spoke I wanted to hug them and tell that Jesus loved them. But my overwhelming experience was not knowing what to say and being unable to identify with their experience. What does the gospel mean for people who are different from me?

I wish I had the confidence in the gospel that I have now.

Acts 10 is about how the gospel speaks to people who are different to us.

1. Cornelius Converted: What the Gospel Is

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8) Jesus says his unstoppable gospel will go to the ends of the world (which is Speke!). But in Acts 10 they have hit a brick wall. They had got to Samaria, a Jewish influenced area. But the next move was going to the Gentiles and this was a massive barrier. If you were a Jew and you met a Gentile then they would want to jump in the shower! Jesus called a Gentile woman a ‘dog’ – a typical Jewish term for Gentiles. So, although Cornelius was a good man, he was still an outsider. He would have been tackled by well-meaning deacons in suits if he came to church. But the angelic representative of God addresses him by name.

The angel says his good works do not cut it. He needs a message from outside. His good works are insufficient. But God has heard his prayers and God will provide an answer: a preacher. Being a nice bloke is not enough; you need to be a new bloke. You need God to do a work for you that you cannot do on your own Continue reading

Thursday review: ReJesus by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch

A review of Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church, Hendrickson/Strand, 2009 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

This review will also be published in a forthcoming issue of Themelios.

The central thesis of ReJesus is that an institutionalized church needs to rediscover the radical example of its Messiah – we need to ‘reJesus’ the church or to return to what the authors call ‘radical traditionalism’. ‘Our point is that to reJesus the church, we need to go back to the daring, radical, strange, wonderful, inexplicable, unstoppable, marvelous, unsettling, disturbing, caring, powerful God-Man.’ (p. 111)

Michael Frost is Professor of Evangelism and Missions at Morling College, Sydney, and Alan Hirsch is founder of Forge Missional Training Network. Their previous collaboration, The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrickson, 2003), has been a significant text in the missional church movement. I’ve benefited greatly from Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways.

The material in ReJesus is not especially original. Frost and Hirsch have themselves covered some of this ground in their previous books. We are presented with Jesus subverting both imperial politics and institutionalized religion. The similarities between the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and conservative Christians in our own day are highlighted. We have a critique of consumer Christianity as well as a critique of the sacred-secular divide. Frost and Hirsch are well aware of the danger of people creating Jesus in their own image, citing many examples along the way. But they offer no rationale of why we should treat their version of ‘a wild messiah’ as any more reliable.

Nevertheless the book has many strengths. The material is presented with verve. The authors are aware of academic work, but this is a popular book with a strong polemic tone. There is plenty of insight and plenty of challenge. It is full of passion. Sometimes over-stated. But I appreciate the need to be poked a bit.

But where are the cross and the resurrection (mentioned so infrequently they merit no inclusion in the index), the ascension and the parousia of Jesus (not mentioned at all)? And for all their emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus, there is little on Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament. It may well be that evangelicals have too often neglected the life of Jesus and I suspect Frost and Hirsch are reacting against this. But the answer cannot be to neglect his cross, resurrection, ascension and parousia. Continue reading

Gospel living: lives patterned on the cross and resurrection (2)

2. Power to be weak

We not only follow the way of the cross, we also experience the power of the resurrection. We have the Spirit, the Spirit of the coming age, the empowering, liberating, life-giving Spirit. But it’s vital to see how the power of the resurrection and the way of the cross fit together.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection … (Philippians 3:10)

[Christ] lives by God’s power … by God’s power we will live with him. (2 Corinthians 13:4)

We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way … being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might … (Colossians 1:10-11)

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline … (2 Timothy 1:7-8)

All these verses contain a wonderful truth. We have Christ’s resurrection power in us through the Holy Spirit. But the verses goes on:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death … (Philippians 3:10)

For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you. (2 Corinthians 13:4)

We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way … being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience … (Colossians 1:10-11)

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God … (2 Timothy 1:7-8)

We have resurrection power so we can be like Christ in his death. Power to be weak. Power to endure. Power to suffer. That is true Christian experience. Power in weakness is our boast (2 Corinthians 12:9).

We are people of power. We have resurrection power coursing through our bodies. God’s mighty power, pulling Christ from the grave, is in your life. But we don’t have this power for victory over suffering, for an easy life, to lord it over others.

We have power to follow the way of the cross. To serve. To suffer. To love. To die.

It is in this way that we reveal Christ to people. ‘We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7)

One day the skies will be filled with the glory of God. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God. One day. But already his resurrection glory is being revealed. It is being revealed in your home. In your street. In your workplace. In your school. It is being revealed as you follow the way of the cross: as you deny yourself, as you serve others, as you love Jesus.
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Gospel living: lives patterned on the cross and resurrection

Christians are united by faith with Christ in his death and resurrection. This is the basis of our salvation: his death is our death that he bears in our place and his new life is our new life. But this union with Christ in his death and resurrection is also the basis for the way we live our lives as Christians.

1. Suffering followed by glory

‘Then [Paul and Barnabas] returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.’ (Acts 14:21-22)

‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ (Romans 8:17-18)

In this present life we follow the way of the cross. Jesus said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ (Luke 9:23) Everywhere you look in the New Testament the cross of Jesus (more than the life of Jesus) defines what it means to live as Christ. It can be summarised with five Ss:

  • sacrifice
  • submission
  • self-denial
  • service
  • suffering

The way of cross impacts both our big life choices and our small daily actions: from martyrdom to washing up. Identify what the way of the cross will mean for you in the next five minutes? Five hours? Five days? Five months? Five years?

We follow the way of the cross because it leads to resurrection glory. We live sacrificially because we are living for a glorious inheritance kept in heaven for us. (See Matthew 6:19-21 and Hebrews 11:24-26 and 12:1-3.)

In the meantime we cannot expect glory without the cross (see Mark 10:35-45).

Peter concludes his first letter by saying that he has written ‘encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God’ (5:12). What is this true grace of God? ‘And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Peter 5:10-11) The true grace of God, the grace that makes him ‘the God of all grace’, consists of this: he has called to eternal glory after we have suffered a little while. Suffering followed by glory. The pattern of suffering and glory in the experience of Christ (1:11) is the experience of all believers (1:6-7; 4:13; 5:1-6, 10).

Peter needs to write to confirm that this is the true grace of God, because there are false versions of grace. There are versions of grace that promise glory without suffering.
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Thursday Review: Hauerwas on Matthew

A review of Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Brazos, 2006. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

First a word about this new commentary series. Or three words: I love it. It is different, refreshingly so. The contributors are not biblical scholars, but theologians from other disciplines – systematic theology, ethics, historical theology. And instead of detailed verse-by-verse comments, we have (roughly) a chapter on a chapter. Broadly speaking we move through the content of the chapters – and occasionally there are exegetical comments – but the main thrust is on the theological significance of the passage as a whole. This is not exegesis; it is theology. The result is that all the disciplines of theology are brought to bear to create a theological meditation on the passage and its contemporary significance. Unlike most commentaries I own, I read this one from cover to cover. Of course, I’m not going to throw out my exegetical commentaries – they’re still important. The point is if you are going to buy yet another commentary on Matthew then why not buy one that offer something slightly different.

The contributors come from a variety of theological backgrounds, not all evangelical, but (as far as I know) mostly adherents to the ecumenical creeds. Contributors so  far include Jaroslav Pelikan on Acts, Peter Leithart on 1 & 2 Kings and Robert Jenson on Ezekiel. Future contributors include Kevin Vanhoozer (Jeremiah) and Timothy George (James). The breadth of  contributors mean evangelicals may need to read some of the volumes with care, but I suspect they may also find them enriching.

And so to Stanley Hauerwas on Matthew purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. Hauerwas is Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University and author of The Peaceable Kingdom and Resident Aliens.

There are two answers to the question, Why was Jesus killed? Both legitimate answers. There is the answer from the human perspective. Jesus was killed because he and his message threatened the status and power of the religious and political establishment. And there is the answer from the divine perspective. Jesus was killed in fulfilment of the divine plan of salvation to redeem his people from sin and judgment through his atoning sacrifice in their place. I think both of these explanations are true (Acts 4:27-28). The religious and political authorities did not decide to kill Jesus because they wanted to fulfil the divine plan of salvation! And both explanations matter, but the latter matters more – not least because the divine plan rescues us from the sin that warps our societies.

As those who know his other books might expect, the focus on Hauerwas’ commentary is on the former answer. And herein lies both its strength and weakness. Hauerwas is very suggestive on the political and social implications of Jesus. Especially on the birth and death of Jesus, Hauerwas’ comments zip along with sparkle and insight. My version is full of marginal markings. (The central section of the Gospel lacks some of that energy and very occasionally the comments reduce to little more than a retelling of the story.)

The problem is that there is a huge gap. I agree with Hauerwas that Jesus has massive implications for politics, culture, economics. But Jesus said he came to save sinners and a full account of this is missing from Hauerwas’ version of Jesus.

Hauerwas helpfully critiques those who reduce Jesus to an ethic without seeing that ethic embedded in the new kingdom he inaugurates and embodies. Yet in practice this seems to be where Hauerwas ends up. A few examples:

Satisfaction theories of the atonement dominate accounts of Christ’s work, making it possible for the “saved” to avoid the radical character of the discipleship depicted in Jesus’s sermon. What is important, it seems, is that Jesus be accepted as one’s “personal saviour”, which is then though to make the possible the attempt to follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. The problem with this way of construing salvation is that the sermon becomes an ethic that is no longer constitutive of salvation. (60)

Therefore, Jesus commands his disciples to teach those whom they baptize to obey all that he has commanded. Jesus’s death and resurrection cannot be separated from the way he has taught us to live. The Sermon on the Mount, how we are to serve one another as brothers and sisters, the forgiveness required by our willingness to expose the sin of the church, is salvation. The teaching and the teacher are one. The salvation that Jesus entrusts to his disciples is the gospel of Matthew. (249)

Notice that the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is itself constitutive of salvation. ‘The Sermon on the Mount … is salvation.’

Why did Jesus have to die? Christians have developed explanations for why Jesus had to die called atonement theories. For example, some suggest that Jesus had to die as a satisfaction for our sin, to serve as a moral exemplar for us, or to defeat the devil and the powers that have revolted against their creator. There is scriptural warrant for each of these accounts of Jesus’s death, but these theories risk isolating Jesus’s crucifixion from his life … His death cannot be isolated from his life, because his death is the result of his life. He died because he had challenged the elites of Israel who used the law to protect themselves from the demands of God; he died because he challenged the pretentious power of Rome; and he died at the hands of the democratic will of the mob. He died because he at once challenged and offered an alternative to all forms of human polity based on the violence made inevitable by the denial of God. (238)

I nevertheless commend this commentary. But you need to realise what you’re getting – and what you’re not getting!

Happily for me I happened to read Hauerwas alongside Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears’ great book, Death By Love purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US – not I suspect a common pairing! Death By Love is written in the form of letters in which the implications of the cross are applied to people facing different pastoral situations. It’s a wonderfully fresh and powerful meditation on the soteriological implications of the cross. For me (perhaps somewhat perversely) Hauerwas and Driscoll made happy, if contrasting, companions: one meditating on the social implications of the cross, the other on its soteriological and pastoral implications.

Tomorrow I’ll post some highlights from Hauerwas on Matthew.

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Review: Tomato – Nooma 22

No-one doubts the quality of the Nooma videos with Rob Bell purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. They are ten minute or so presentations involving Bell talking to camera interspersed with a simple enacted scene. Bell’s ability as a communicator and the production values are exemplary.

The messages, however, are of variable quality. Some are excellent (my favourite is Lump). Some reflect too much pop psychology for my liking.

So I’m delighted to be able to recommend two recent Nooma videos – Tomato (Nooma 22) purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US and Corner (Nooma 23) purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I’ll review tomorrow. (I should say I selected these two from among the recent Nooma releases because I thought sounded good.)

Tomato Nooma 22 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

Tomato is an exposition of the principle that life comes through death – starting with tomato seeds, moving on to Jesus and focusing on us. It is a kind of extended meditation on the following verses:

  • ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’  (Matthew 10:39)
  • ‘I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’  (John 12:24)

It also interweaves a discussion of what it means to live in the light of our new status in Christ. Why do we try to make ourselves look good? Or need to be right? Or feel better than others? Or look like we have it together? ‘Jesus invites that part of us to die. That part of us that always has to be right. That part of us that always has to be better. That part of us that always has to look good.’

The visuals are a bit confusing. A man with a pink umbrella appears in a series of scenes. I think he represents a demon delighting in people putting themselves first, but I’m not entirely sure!

One might have wished for a fuller explanation of the cross. One might have wished for something on the eschatological nature of Matthew 10:39. But this is still a great piece of communication. It would be a good discussion starter for a small group or a good bit of visual reinforcement for a sermon.

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Sin and grace and the limits of psychiatry

Here’s a great quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s excellent little book Life Together (purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US):

The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus.

The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is.

Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this.

In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner.

The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness.

The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. (118-119)

HT: David Powlison via JT.

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Suffering followed by glory

Here’s another sample chapter from my latest book The Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and Resurrection – out now  from IVP UK. It’s taken from Part Three: The Pattern of the Cross and Resurrection – Suffering followed by Glory.

Chapter 12. Suffering Followed by Glory

Purchase copies from Amazon here: purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

The Ordinary Hero outline

The Ordinary Hero sample chapter

The Ordinary Hero ‘wordle’

The Ordinary Hero movie

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The way of the cross = the way of joy

theordinaryheroHere’s a sample chapter from my latest book The Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and Resurrection – out 15 May from IVP UK. It’s taken from Part Two: The Practice of the Cross – Sacrificial Service

Chapter 8: The Way of the Cross = the Way of Joy

Purchase copies from Amazon here: purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

The Ordinary Hero outline

The Ordinary Hero ‘wordle’

The Ordinary Hero movie

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Satan does not mind family values and social justice as long as …

Here’s a helpful quote from Russell Moore (via Justin Taylor) reflecting on Satan’s third temptation of Jesus:

Satan ultimately has a power that is not found most importantly in moral decay or in cultural chaos. His power is in the authority to accuse. The power of accusation. The power of holding humanity captive through the fear of death and the certainty of judgment …

Satan is not fearful of external conformity to rule. Not even to the external conformity of the rule of Christ – provided there is no cross. Satan does not mind family values – as long as what you ultimately value is the family. Satan does not mind social justice – as long as you see justice as most importantly social. Satan does not tremble at a Christian worldview. He will let you have a Christian worldview as long as your ultimate goal is viewing the world …

He will let you get what it is that you want, no matter what it is – sanctity of marriage, environmental protection, orphan care, all of these good and wonderful things – he will allow you to gain those things provided you do not preach and proclaim and live through the power of a cross that cancels his power of condemnation.