Sunday 31 January 2016

Galatians by Scot McKnight

A curate's egg: something which is mostly bad but partly good.

Galatians is part of the NIV Application Commentary series, which aims to link the original context and meaning of Biblical books to modern contexts and so to the Bible's meaning for today. Last year I bought their commentary on Mark which was useful, so this year I tried Galatians. Like all NIV branded materials this series is generally evangelical in approach, but that wasn't a problem with Mark.

Galatians was written in 1991, which seems to have been just late enough to have picked up on some of the modern insights into its context (like where the Roman province of Galatia actually was, and thus the letter's link to Paul's first missionary journey), but without really working them through.

The main problem is that McKnight sees everything from his own context of late 80's US evangelicalism. This raises a sour smile when he insists that evangelicalism has lost its old legalism, but gets very frustrating indeed when he insists on using his commentary to expound his own preferred traditions and views, almost irrespective of what the text actually says.

You could see this coming from early on when he starts saying Paul doesn't really mean what he writes (about issues like following rules and authority). By the end of the book it is really wearing.

There's a classic section where McKnight bemoans that people just don't feel guilty like they used to, so how can they understand the gospel! If the gospel of Jesus can be reduced to helping people with their guilt trips, there's not much to it.

Less crudely there is his overall view that Galatians is about 'Judaisers' insisting that the Galatians need to follow what McKnight calls 'gospel-plus'. In other words that Paul has been teaching the generally accepted Christian approach but these people have come along trying to change that and add extras from the Jewish Law.

That fails to take into account that the early church was essentially a Jewish group - the vast majority of Jesus' early followers did try to obey the Jewish Law. It's not that the Judaisers were trying to add something to established practice, it's that Paul had taken something away. Paul was making changes, stripping away elements which got in the way of God's work, and his letter to the Galatians explains why.

In today's churches there is a lot of stuff which needs stripping away; a lot of crud accumulated over the centuries. But how do we do this without compromising the core of what the church is about; without throwing Jesus out with the bathwater?

The trouble with this commentary, in a way, is that embedded in this smelly matrix of tradition and opinion there are some real gems: insights which had me looking at parts of the letter in a new way. If it had all been rubbish I could happily have just given up and stopped reading.

One of these gems was a link back to the situation in Paul's home church of Antioch. Paul had been called in precisely because the church there didn't know how to deal with a sudden influx of outsiders who didn't have their background, didn't know or understand their practices, and quite likely didn't behave 'appropriately' in church.

Then there is a marvellous insight into the way the Jewish Law, Torah, had been fulfilled. It's job as the route by which people became God's people, part of his kingdom, had been fulfilled and completed by Jesus, of course, but McKnight's insight is that Torah's role as a guide to moral behaviour, for distinguishing right from wrong, is also fulfilled, this time by the Holy Spirit.

In this he also recognises that the 'fruit of the Spirit', famously described in chapter 5 of Galatians, is mostly about relationships between people, about the way a church community works, rather than the old individualistic piety approach.

Overall, whilst the good bits of McKnight's commentary are few and are embedded in a lot of rot, they are important enough that, overall, I have to consider this book worth reading. I learnt something useful from it, which is all you can ask really.

Friday 29 January 2016

Who Are The People Of God?

Jesus was a Jew: he worshipped at the Jerusalem Temple, followed Torah, the Jewish 'Law', even taught Torah - although with a subversive twist.

Jesus' earliest followers were Jews too, worshipping at the Jerusalem Temple, and so on.

Religious 1st-Century Jews knew who the people of God were: they were.

The people of God, they were sure, were born Jews (technically Israelites, although they denied the Samaritans that status), who remained within the covenant between God and Israel: the Torah. It was possible, although difficult, for a non-Jew to convert to Judaism and so become one of God's people too.

Torah includes provision for people who break its rules in a minor way to make a sacrifice and so return to compliance. By Jesus time this was taken to mean that you stopped doing whatever the infringement was. So if you stole, made the required sacrifice, and stopped stealing you were okay; if you continued stealing the sacrifice was not effective. This also meant that people who worked for non-Jews, who would necessarily break the food rules, were excluded from God's people unless they gave up their jobs.

A lot of the time when the New Testament refers to 'sinners' it means those who are outside God's covenant, maybe because they were born 'Gentile sinners' or because their lives exclude them from Torah. Correspondingly when it refers to those who are 'righteous' it usually means those within God's covenant. Thus you get one of the great letter-writer Paul's themes: those who are within Jesus are no longer 'sinners' but 'righteous' (or 'justified' or various other images of the same thing).

The sign of being one of God's people, from way back in the days of Abraham, had been to be circumcised (which maybe says something about the status of women!).

The very early church was essentially Jewish, although from quite early on they accepted Samaritans and even a eunuch (excluded from the people by Torah, but the prophets spoke of their acceptance when the Messiah came). Eventually even foreigners ('Gentiles') were accepted, although in Jerusalem and Judea they were very much in the minority.

Basically, in the first ten to fifteen years after Jesus' death and resurrection, the congregations of his followers nearly all shared a common religious upbringing and culture. It was very hard to separate that culture from their identity as God's people.

Then came Antioch. The church there started off as Jewish as anywhere else, but then they began attracting non-Jews to their meetings who wanted to join the church. When 'head office' in Jerusalem heard, they sent Barnabas to help - known as a good 'people person'. Barnabas went off to Tarsus to pick up Paul, who had previously persecuted Christians but, having met the risen Jesus for himself, was now spreading the word he had previously tried to suppress.

Barnabas and Paul built up the church in Antioch as a mixed church: Jews and non-Jews alike. But that meant that the congregation no longer shared that common religious upbringing and culture, nor even that 'badge' of God's people: a circumcised penis. Inevitably, perhaps, arguments broke out as religious expectations were not met and assumed standards of behaviour were ignored.

How are the people of God meant to live? Once outsiders have been welcomed in, is it the expectation that they will then change to become just like the insiders?

In the early church one big question was whether those who came into the faith, who had joined God's people later in life, should adopt the badge of God's people and become circumcised. The Old Testament (as we call it today) scriptures were clear: God calls his people to be circumcised. Slightly less clearly, the assumption (of those who grew up religious) was also that God calls his people to follow his law: the Torah.

Paul strongly disagreed: for him the 'badge' of God's people was the Holy Spirit (whatever he meant by that - a subject for a future post) and the 'law' that they had to follow was the law of love, guided by that Holy Spirit.

This row came to a head after Paul and Barnabas returned from travelling through Southern Galatia founding new mixed congregations, where Jews and non-Jews worshipped together.

But the question for churches in Britain today is: how do we deal with an influx of those who do not share our upbringing and religious values? For many, maybe most, of us this influx is something we desperately need, but the experience of Antioch and Galatia long ago warns us that it will not be easy. We insiders will have to change our ways: ditching a lot of cultural baggage, even when that baggage seems justified by tradition and scripture.

Somehow we must rediscover Paul's vision of the diverse people of God, gathered together in local communities, following Jesus under the guidance of his Spirit. After nearly two millenia that is quite a challenge, but it is necessary if we are to be faithful citizens of God's Kingdom.

Grace and peace for your week ahead.

Sunday 24 January 2016

Caversham Chiaroscuro

“chiaroscuro,” by Horatio (2010),
Chiaroscuro: the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, in painting, photography and cinema.

Strictly speaking the title of this post should be "Chiaroscuro at St John's", as it is a post about the results of the first discovery phase of PMC (Partnership for Missional Church, see my earlier post here) for St John's. Well ... St John's is in Caversham and I think the title used sounds better.

This first year of PMC is all about discovery, and phase 1 is discovery about ourselves as a church within a community. What has struck me most about the results so far has been the strong contrasts between darkness and light, hopeful features and unsustainable aspects of life here at St John's.

For example, finance. From the basic numbers it looks as though nearly everyone in the regular congregation at St John's takes part in the planned giving scheme. From the point of view of belonging and responsibility and things like that, this is great. But the bottom line is that we are not covering our costs, never mind putting money away for big bills and big projects in the future. This is simply not sustainable.

Similarly with people and jobs. One part of the PMC process involved identifying people who come to services but don't really take part beyond that. This proved surprisingly difficult: the vast majority of people are involved in something. It might be cleaning, or music, or working with children, or one of the outreach activities, or the church fair, or whatever.

People are involved; again this is great for belonging and taking responsibility. Yet, we cannot fill some of our key roles. We are missing a church warden, we don't have a treasurer, nor a planned giving officer, even the refreshments rota, for after-service tea and coffee, is struggling after the person organising it moved away. Again this is not sustainable.

When it came to getting people's views on what was going on in the church, we again found both light and dark. There is an immense amount of positivity concerning the successful outreach projects of the last five years. Yet there was also significant negativity concerning church 'internals' - the way things were working in terms of the congregation itself. I've deliberately left that last bit vague because it is an area which needs more digging than you can do in the simple interviews we carried out.

Actually, I think exploring this is an important opportunity for us as a church to look at how we grow together and how we continue to support and care for all our members, especially as, we hope, we start getting new people in who need to be included and who have their own, different, needs.

A final bit of chiaroscuro is about the church building. St John's is really lucky in having a building with a large flexible space, with good acoustics, on a main road which is in reasonable walking distance of much of 'our' district. But the building does need serious money spending on it: the roof needs redoing within the next few years, and we desperately need to extend the building to provide meeting rooms and more toilets.

All of this dark and light emphasises the importance of the choices facing St John's as we move into the future, preparing for, then journeying with, the Transition Minister we are hoping to recruit over the next few months.

Many of the challenges directly relate to numbers and to the age profile. Change those for the better and everything looks a whole lot more positive. But we won't do that by carrying on as before: that (in part, at least) is how we got into this position in the first place.

There are over 9,000 people live in 'our patch', most of them of working age. Whilst Lower Caversham is not nearly as wealthy an area as Caversham Heights, it is nevertheless quite well off compared to much of Reading. People, money and energy are out there. Indeed, a lot of them do actually go to church, just not here. People get in their cars and drive past our door (at least metaphorically) to go to church somewhere else!

Ultimately the future for St John's holds a stark choice: are we willing to change the ways we do things, and the expectations we place on those who come to visit us, or will we simply wait to die.

After that we hit questions about how we change, how we catch onto God's vision for Lower Caversham, and how we live out what it means to follow Jesus here and now. But genuine willingness to let go of our habits and step out in trust into an unknown future comes first.

I started off by suggesting that this post is just about PMC at St John's. Actually, that fundamental choice is also the issue at St Margaret's and St Peter's. The different churches have different challenges but we all show significant darkness and light, and face significant change to align ourselves with God's vision for Caversham.

I hope and pray we are in for interesting times here in Caversham.

Saturday 23 January 2016

Why Galatians?

Copyright 2007, Logos Bible Software
Click to enlarge
With a bit of luck, Caversham's Anglican CTM Parish will be doing another sermon series, late spring/early summer this year, looking at a whole book of the Bible over several weeks. This may seem like a no-brainer for other church traditions, but is actually a departure for the good old CofE.

Last year we looked at Mark's Gospel: an easy choice for a starting point. This year I am suggesting that we look at Paul's letter to the Galatians. So, why Galatians?
  1. Firstly, Galatians is about what it means to be people of God, to be followers of Jesus Christ, and to be Church.
  2. Also, Galatians is about change. In particular about the change from being a movement where nearly everybody shares a common religious background and upbringing to one where significant numbers are coming in who do not share that background.
  3. Thirdly, Galatians is a letter where good, clear, coherent preaching can really add value. 
  4. Galatians was almost certainly the first of Paul's letters, and therefore the very first part of the New Testament, to be written.
  5. Last but not least, Galatians is a document of God's Grace.
You might think that last point should come first, but 'grace' as a term has become so hijacked by religious ideology that its meaning is watered down and corrupted, both inside and outside church communities. So I think the starting point needs to be in different, more approachable, terms, with preaching which demonstrates the grace  of God - its power, its opportunity and its love - through these contexts. 

Approached 'cold' Galatians can be a hard document to get a handle on and too many commentaries and commentators seem to start from the assumptions and politics of the 16th Century. This makes preaching it challenging, as many of the usual aids are unhelpful, but it should encourage preachers to really focus on the letter's original themes and their application in and around today's changing church environment.

One example of an area where a more modern understanding of the political geography of the day is helpful is that of the letter's basic context. Nowadays we know that the new churches established during Paul's first missionary journey were along a Roman road, the Via Sebaste, which was in the south of the Roman province of Galatia. So we can easily place the letter as being written between Paul's return to Antioch (in Syria) and the Council of Jerusalem. Basically this background is covered in Acts 13 through to the beginning of 15, with a bit of preamble at the end of Acts 11 concerning Paul's base in Syrian Antioch and the changing nature of the church there.

The speed of the change in the church's place in English life over recent decades has been astonishing. We now live in a post-Christendom (pdf link) era: a time when we cannot assume that everyone goes to church, has been to church regularly as a child, or even is familiar with the old Bible stories which used to be told out in Sunday Schools and primary school assemblies.

Both St John's and St Margaret's recognise, I hope, that his means that they have to bring in significant numbers of people who don't share their religious backgrounds. I'm not sure about St Peter's, where the issues are more hidden.

In a post-Christendom context, what does it mean to become a follower of Jesus? Does it involve going to church, necessarily? Does it require changes in behaviour, or in our hopes and fears for the future, or in the way we treat other people? Does following Jesus make any difference at all?

That is what a sermon series on Galatians could and should address, in my view.

Grace and Peace.

Sunday 17 January 2016

Solving Problems

A customer has come unstuck with Windows 10 recently. The Start button/flag and search stopped working after an update. I went around and did various things to try to get Windows to repair itself; finally I tried the Deployment Imaging and Servicing Management (DISM) tool, rebooted, and Start was back.

A few days later there was another Windows update and the same thing happened, so the customer phoned me up to ask me to give her the dism command and entered it herself. It didn't work so she tried it a few more times, with variations, and got very frustrated when the computer started saying it didn't recognise what she was typing in.

Maybe you're familiar enough with computers to see that this approach to problem solving is unlikely to help. But typing stuff is a very recent approach to dealing with problems; in many older contexts trying variations, with some extra welly generated by frustration, works quite well. Consider nuts - of either variety. If you know how to crack a hazelnut and find yourself faced with a Brazil nut then different angles, hitting it with a bigger rock, and/or hitting it harder can all help; scale that up for walnuts and even coconuts. Likewise trying to get a rusted nut off a bolt.

Which brings me to the Anglican Communion and their recent Primates' Meeting. For at least twenty years left and right have been shouting at each other; when that doesn't work they try shouting louder.

This time around the US Episcopalian Church has been suspended from some theological decision making bodies; not directly because of same-sex marriage - although that's the obvious context - but because of making significant changes to their theology and practice without any sort of consensus or agreement across the wider Communion.

Unity is extremely important for the Anglican Church, so the US breaking unity that way is seen as serious, as is the risk of breaking the Anglican Communion up entirely. This slightly odd suspension should, I think, be seen as a way of maintaining unity and giving people a bit more time and space to find ways to work together, especially at the ground roots level where the Anglican Communion is actually mostly based.

Previously the US church has insisted it is being prophetic and 'showing leadership', but the result has been to split the North American Anglican Church and to threaten to split the Anglican Church worldwide. Leadership is only leadership if you take people with you, which the US Episcopalians have previously been incredibly bad at.

Neo-colonialism doesn't help of course.

However, I do see signs of hope in the latest responses from the US. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of Washington DC was on Radio 4's Sunday programme this morning. Alan Wilson's blog has a transcript.

Two things strike me about this. One is the sheer positivity of the current US leadership over the issue - currently no sign of any tit-for-tat ugliness - whilst holding true to what they believe the Bible to be saying to our 21st-Century societies. The second is the following:
"Our broader concern is for gay and lesbian people and members of churches around the world who are in a much more vulnerable place than any of us can imagine."
Leadership involves bringing people along with you. If the US Episcopalians had shown that sort of leadership twenty years ago maybe things would be less dire for so many people across the central belt of Africa at present.

Anglicanism isn't really about what leaders in big hats do and say; really it is about people worshipping God, in and out of church, all around the world, whilst welcoming, loving and working with one another. Whatever decisions the 'big beasts' come to in their political in-fighting, the scandal of LGBT+ rejection by churchgoers will only come to an end by people getting to know one another and learning to share Christ's welcome in Christ's communion.

Grace and peace for your week ahead.

Saturday 9 January 2016

Same Sex Couples In Church: Repentance Or Deepening?

The year of our Lord 2016: what are your hopes and plans? The comment section is at the bottom (hint).

St John's Church hopes to begin strengthening its core this year: the first half of this decade saw a focus on outreach; now, like a tree, we need to look to building up our internals.

Meanwhile, on this blog I hope to put a lot of focus on Paul's letter to the Galatians; just as last year I focussed on Mark's Gospel.

So consider a hypothetical situation arising in St John's at the end of 2016.

Suppose we find ourselves attracting several same-sex couples. Not by any special outreach from us, but simply by someone coming to Sunday morning worship one week and feeling a warmth and welcome - from the people present, but also from another Presence in the place and in the worship.

So she comes back, then - after a few weeks - she brings her girlfriend. People either don't notice or don't care about their relationship and both feel welcome, along with that sense of Presence. They tell their friends, at least the religiously-inclined among them, and St John's finds itself with unexpected growth.

I suspect some of the rest of the congregation would feel awkward - after all that sort of thing was illegal when they were brought up; a few others would be pleased that we were starting to engage with the 21st Century; but most, I'd guess, would go for the classic laissez-faire position that people's private lives are their own business.

But we're looking to partner with other local groups, including other churches; we're also looking to focus on discipleship and building up the faith of our members. So what if we partner with a local evangelical church - there are plenty in the area - who tell us that, whilst God welcomes all into the Kingdom of His Son as sinners, he doesn't want us to stay that way. Part of following Jesus is to repent of our sins and turn to Jesus' ways, as laid out in the Bible and in the Godly traditions of the Church.

Being keen and articulate our evangelical friends start convincing the wider congregation that it is necessary for those members in same-sex relationships to really start thinking about ending them ... in God's time, of course.

Maybe someone who was particularly instrumental in welcoming these couples in the first place takes exception to this and speaks up to denounce it. They insist that the congregation's place is neither to weaken people's relationships, nor even to just passively accept them, but to work to strengthen the couples, with the eventual aim of committed exclusive covenantal relationship: marriage.

What is the right thing for the congregation to do?

Welcome to the world of the Galatian Church in 48-49 AD (actually the analogy is probably closer to the church at Antioch, but the letter covers both).

May Jesus' grace and peace be yours throughout 2016.