Through the Bible in a Year – April 3

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 34-36; Eph 5; Psalm 116-117

It would be very helpful, if you have not done so already, to read the previous post in this series , for Context is everything here.

As so often is the case in reading the Scriptures, chapter and section divisions can obscure significant truth. So Paul concludes his arguments in Chapter 4 with the opening words of Chapter 5, ‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ It takes just a moments reflection to hear once more the words of Christ, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ – that in the mutual love of the Body of Christ we are imitating the very heart of the life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the mutual indwelling in Love.

It is very important that we carry this image with us into what is for many one of the most difficlt passages in scripture. For some Ephesians 5:21 et seq. is a ‘text of terror’, for others a means to cast in stone a way of life, ‘which was from the beginning’. But for St Paul it is neither of these things.

Again the section heading does us a huge disservice – Paul is talking here about the mutual submission of members of the body of Christ. First it needs to be said over and over and oever again that in the body of Christ, the age to come is being manifest, thus the PRIMARY relationship of ANY Christian to ANY other Christian is that of brother and sister – kin, dearly loved children of the Father.

So Paul works out his theology of mutual love in terms of mutual submission, or in the NRSV translation which I am using here, ‘Be subject to one another out of Reverence for Christ’

Firstly, we must consider, what does it mean, ‘out of reverence for Christ’ – at a simple surface level, we might say that simply put, this is what Jesus commands, thus we must so do. But the command of Christ can Never be disassociated from the Life of Christ. In other words in obedience to the command of Christ, we enter into the Life of the one who became subject even to death, death on a cross. The One who is first, who takes the Last place, and who is thus in the Kingdom exalted to the highest place.

So to follow Christ is to humble oneself and become the willing slave of all.

Next we must come back to Paul’s larger argument. This Way of being, that is the very Life of Christ manifest, is the Way of Life of the Church. In other word this is NOT primarily about the specific relationships Paul later speaks of, rather Primarily this is about Every relationship within the Body of Christ.

This said, Paul recognises that there are those within the church who are relate to one another in ways which are not of the eschatological kingdom. Temporal relationships which in the End will be no more.

Thus the words of Paul to husbands and wives, owners and slaves, parents and children are as it were footnotes to the Primary command of All believers as Kindred in Christ to ‘be subject one to another’

What Paul has in view here is the HOW of mutual submission. In these extra-ecclesial and thus secondary relationships, HOW is this worked through.

So wives be subject to your husbands ‘as to the Lord’ – husbands be subject to your wives by loving them as Christ loves the church, giving himself up for her – the husband gives himself up for the sake of his wife. The wife looks in love towards her husband as she does towards Christ himself. Indeed it may well be argued that here what is asked of wives is no more than is asked of Every member of Christ’s body one to the other – be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Treat your husband as you would any of your kindred. The Husband is given the culturally mind boggling command that in Christian households he is to be as Christ to the Church to his wife – he must lay down his life for her. He is not Lord in the heirerarchical sense. Our Language breaks down here as we can only understand Lord in temrs of earthly Lords and masters who Lord is over their subjects . . .

And so we could go on through the other categories of relationships

The point is that these cases are in face Secondary – they are not the primary relationships within the church – husband and wife are brother and sister, Mother and son are sister and brother, ‘owner’ and slave are brother and brother.

Paul in effect, in his call to all to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ recognises the ephemeral nature of these other passing relationships.

Through the Bible in a Year – April 2

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 33; Eph 4; Psalm 114-115

Paul here is leading us in what is for most if not all of us, foreign territory. that is that the Primary arena for the working out of the Christian life is within the community of faith. The Risen Christ says ‘By this shall they know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another’.

I have written and spoken elsewhere on the marginalization of the church in almost all Western traditions – read almost any contemporary book on ‘spirituality’ and abracadabra, the Body of Christ disappears . . . We have by and large reduced the Church at ‘best’ ‘to a man-made society for promoting and developing ideas’  and at worse to a social club for the religiously inclined, or organising place for ‘social justice issues’ We have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten our Calling, to ‘grow [as a body of people] into the full stature of Christ’ that the Wisdom of God may be made known to the rulers of this dark age, as we are built up in love. THIS is what the church must give herself to. Yes we must teach, but the goal of the teaching is te building up of the whole body. Why, Why, Why is much if not all of our teaching directed at our individual lives, when in truth these are something of which the Scriptures know little if anything?

Paul has not lost sight of this vocation – have we?

Through the Bible in a Year – March 12

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 23-24; 1 Cor 8-9; Psalm 89:19-end

“Knowledge puffs up, but Love builds up”

Paul here returns to a theme we encountered in Romans 14 – that of not allowing disputation over those things which are not fundamental to our shared life of discipleship, get in the way of that life. Once more it is over the matter of food sacrificed to idols, something which the Law and the Tradition abhors. Paul ‘knows’ that these restrictions are meaningless, but for some, who do not possess ‘knowledge’, they remain abhorrent and a stumbling block.

They are a stumbling block in that those who practise the behaviour, cause those who are not so ‘well informed’ to shun the fellowship of believers – and thus to withdraw from Life itself, which is only to be found in the community of faith, which is the body of Christ.

However morally acceptable before God it might be to eat food sacrificed to idols (which are nothing), it is unacceptable before God to do anything which would repel a fellow believer that they were caused to fall away, that is break from the Life Giving fellowship.

Paul’s concern is for the salvation of his brethren, which his Wisdom tells him is not primarily a matter of right ‘knowledge’, but sacrificial love. So Paul will lay down his Right to eat food sacrificed to idols, indeed he will not even go near it is it would offend his fellow saint for whom Christ died. Similarly he will not use his perfectly justifiable Rights to wages for his work – he is intent on not allowing his opponents to have a reason to judge him and thus themselves fall under condemnation.

What we see here is a revolutionary love for the brethren, that will go without for their sakes. It is part of the outcome of Paul’s way of life, his self discipline for the sake of the brethren. For he knows that if he puts a stumbling block in front of one of the least of the flock, it would be better for him to have a millstone put around his neck and be thrown into the sea, than face the consequences of his action.

Frankly in the contemporary church with so many issues being screamed about from the highest rooftops, it is sometimes hard to imagine what such a church would look like – but perhaps we ought at least to try and find out?

Through the Bible in a Year – March 8

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 14-15; 1 Cor 2-3; Psalm 84-5

Yesterday, we pondered this gospel which is ‘foolishness to the Greeks’ – and our inability to express it in words.

When Paul comes to Corinth, he does not proclaim ‘the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom’ – rather he decided to know nothing coming among them than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Of course, schooled as we are in being taught truths, it may well seem that Paul is undoing his prior determination – but in truth he is reinforcing it. He does not come amongst them primarily knowing ABOUT Christ crucified, but importantly by knowing Christ crucified. This is just one word, yet it is the most profound difference. Paul’s ministry as he continues to reveal is nothing more nor less than the living out of a profoud identification with Christ crucified. Paul in his ministry cannot stand at some distance, as if he were explaining even the most beautiful of works of art to people. The Gospel can only be proclaimed in and through this radical identification with Christ and him crucified, the embodiment of divine love.

Christ cannot be ‘known about’ as a substitute for the Life of Faith – in the end all attempts at apologetic are doomed to failure and those that apparently bear fruit do not. Thus Lesslie Newbiggin’s assertion that the church when it is being truthful to itself is the only hermeneutic of the gospel available to us. This is precisely the point that Paul is making. He has to reveal the gospel in himself and that is only possible in the radical identification with the crucified and risen one.

At the heart of all the problems in the Corinthian church as we shall see is precisely this shying away from such identification.

‘if you would be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me’

Through the Bible in a Year – March 7

THE TRUTH

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 12-13; 1 Cor 1; Psalm 83

For we Gentiles, the gospel is foolishness. Power revealed in weakness. In a culture where ‘might is right’ is implied at every turn – ‘he prevailed by the force of his argument’ – the gospel with its message of The Truth revealed in a crucifed man is of course utterly ridiculous.

Sadly the church, feeling the utter vulnerability of a naked faith, one which hangs on the one hanging from the cross, seeks to find more secure ground. So we become more or less skilled in apologetics – we fear having no answers to the questions people put to us. We fear being scorned for such a ridiculous message. And we resort to forms of power, denying the cross. (As of course was going on in Corinth with thinly disguised attempts to grasp power being veiled in partisan cries of being ‘bearers of truth’.)

One form that power takes is to try and have better arguments. We begin from the assumption that faith is utterly rational – it must be, surely??? We might understand this as the Conservative or Evangelical approach – the power of persuasion – of course that is fine ’til someone comes along with yet better arguments. It is in itself a form of ‘nuclear proliferation’. And in some respects we see this played out in the current debates with ‘the new atheists’ (although I am not sure that those debates are not actually dying out as the world as a whole has got bored and moved on.)

The other form of power is similar but subtly different – that is also to see human reason as the way to reveal the truth – and to change the message – to try and conform it to the thought and patterns of our the ‘cultured despisers’ of this age – to fashion a reasonable faith. The Liberal approach, for want of a signifier. In this respect also, the world is not interested, after all the person we are most invisible to is our self.

In both regards we play the world at it’s own game, ‘winning the argument’. We face the world with itself – and ignore the path we are called to – to face the World with Christ – that is to live as a community of people shaped by this message of vulnerable love. Not trying to ‘make sense’ of it for others, but rather to live the sense of it amongst ourselves.

Jesus is in Himself the Wisdom of God, the Truth of God. When Pilate demands to know ‘What is Truth?’ – there is no response, Jesus does not answer with finely honed arguments – he does not need to.  Truth is staring Pilate in the face. Christians assert that this dead Jew, broken on an instrument of cruel torture, two thousand years ago, is in fact the central meaning of the entire universe. No wonder we like to come up with something different – to deny the power of the Cross.

In our inability to express this Truth in words, we are facing up to the Truth. We can either live by it, or avoid it. By and large in the West, in churches which at least historically rich and powerful, in which we have thousands of books to back up our arguments, we have done the latter. It is hardly any surprise that the life is flowing out of us, and that the church is vibrant and healthy where our brothers and sisters have no rags to cover up the shameful reality of the poverty of the message of Life revealed to us at the Cross – the poverty which makes many rich.

Through the Bible in a Year – March 5

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 8-9; Romans 14; Psalm 80

Christian faith can only be known in and through the community of faith, Christ’s body, the Church. Jesus tells us ‘when two or more are gathered in my name, there I am, in the midst of them’. This it must be said is at best a minor note in much contemporary Christian faith. Church, although we all know better, is still primarily related to in terms of place and the services – worship and pastoral – which it provides.

This community of faith reveals the Life of Christ in the world, but in order to do so, each of its members relate to one another only in and through Christ. Thus the emphasis on not judging one another – that we must consider that each member lives to the Lord.

Paul warns against our actions causing offence to ‘weaker’ brethren. Here the issue is eating foods which may have been offered in pagan sacrifice. Paul knows that this is not a matter which should concern the believers, but that not everyone is sufficiently grown in faith to have come to this realisation, thus the more mature should refrain from eating such food, for fear effectively that the eyes of the members of the community ‘younger in faith’ fall from looking to Christ and instead fall upon what they might yet consider to be unclean practices.

The clear teaching of Jesus, not to judge one another, is given clear commentary here by Paul. Of course it sounds hoplessly idealistic, unless we take the first commandment with complete seriousness. We are to Love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength. In other words, our eyes are always to be fixed on Christ. This is in as far as it is possible a physical requirement, that we do not as it were stand beside our brethren, looking first at Christ, then at them, then at Christ and telling him what we have seen in our kindred, rather that we Only see our brothers and sisters in and through Christ – remembering ‘that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ That we who were guilty have been pronounced innocent in and through Christ, as have our brethren.

The Church as a body is one that should always be growing more and more into the fullness of Christ, as each individually plays his or her part and grows deeper into the reality of the new life we have been given in Him. This is what we are all called to – and our focus is not the behaviour of our brethren, but the Life revealed to un in Christ.

If our vision is not captivated by Christ – that we fail to see our brothers and sisters in Him, that we fail to see that they too are redeemed and are being sanctified, that we see rather their faults and judge them – then clearly we too have much growing to do.

Faith in the margins

In the Acts of the Apostles (ch6, v3) there are only two qualifications for being a Deacon, not three (or four)

They were to be full of the Spirit, and Wisdom (indeed, that might be one qualification, but that’s another matter. There are no Oxford commas in the Greek)

Missing? The Necessary qualification of enough discretionary time for this work . . .!!! Not reported but quite clearly a textual omission

Unless a) these folk had loads of ‘free’ time on their hands, or b) their understanding of church and faith and ‘The Kingdom of God’ was radically different to ours

So obviously either Luke must have failed to mention it, or they must have had loads of free time on their hands . . . Obviously

(Oh, and of course Dr Luke also failed to mention that they enquired as to the candidates’ own sense of call. . .)

Through the Bible in a Year – February 6th

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Job 30-32; Acts 12:1- 13:12; Psalm 46-47

The church continues to grow despite at times fierce persecution – and in the midst of it there is a powerful sense of the community of the believers, powerfully engaged together in the mission of God.

James, one of the Boanerges is put to the sword. Herod seeing it gains him kudos with some of the people throws Peter into prison for good measure. And we read of how the church prays fervently for him. But their prayers are shown to be rooted not in some deluded sense that they have as it were found the key – as if prayer was magic. When miraculously Peter is released from prison [A contemporary story of God’s acting thus can be found in this book], the church do not believe it can be true – yet all the same they have been praying fervently. So their joy is multiplied.

What is clear is that we do not see the whole picture – that we pray for the Good but it is not always forthcoming. The point is not that we try to figure this out, as if prayer was a formula, but that together we pray.

They are given direction by the Spirit, but still enter fully into the work through fasting and prayer, and the work flourishes. When as the people of God we act as we are, the body of Christ, fasting and praying, worshipping and mourning, Together, we touch the edge of his hem. For most of us however in the modern western church, our questions about unanswered prayers are rarely those of the whole body. Our faith has become radically individualised.

Through the Bible in a Year – January 28

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Job 8-9; Acts 3; Psalm 37:1-19

From the unity of the fellowship of believers flows Life. How many of us in these days either dismiss these stories of healings in the church, or explain them away, as if they were only for the apostolic era. And yet to this day, where the people of God are one such things continue to happen, and Christ is glorified amongst them.

For us to speak as Peter does, ‘in the name of Jesus’, there must be unity, genuine fellowship which goes far far beyond the ‘social club’ mentality which passes for church in the West. Shared lives lead to the sharing of Life. ‘That which I have I give you’, says Peter. Do we have that to give? That Life? Would we see the lame healed, the deaf hear, the blind see and the dead raised? Would we see Life?

Jesus said that only those who lose their lives will find it – he invited the rich young man to leave his possessions and join the band of disciples following him if he was to inherit the Kingdom of God. It is the same invitation he offers to us – to see that truly our greatest possession is our shared life in him, and to sell everything we have to take hold of it.

‘Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing might come from the presence of the Lord and that he might send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus’