Teacher / Redeemer – striking a balance

I have not long finished reading a book called "A spectator's guide to Jesus", by John Dickson. It was an interesting read and got me thinking, so I guess a few posts are in the pipeline. After establishing historical evidence for Jesus' existance, Dickson goes on to explore the concept of Jesus as teacher. As he rightly points out, much of gospels is dedicated to documenting Jesus teaching – in the recording of what he actually said, and in the descriptions of what he did. Interestingly, the Jesus we most often hear about at church is Jesus our redeemer, and for teaching we tend to look to the apostle Paul. Now I am not for one second suggesting that Jesus is not our redeemer, or that his redemptive work on the cross should not be central to our faith as our incredible means of restoration to relationship with God. I am merely agreeing with Dickson in that if we predominantly consider Jesus from this perspective only, we then de-emphasise a great deal of what he did and said during his time amongst us. We therefore need only read the last few chapters of each Gospel. Dickson proposes that "Jesus" as teacher is probably the most "broadly palatable" image of Jesus, as most people can accept this, regardless of their faith persuasion. It is just as easy to over-focus on this and dismiss Jesus' redemptive role. Perhaps the latter is the dominant error for those who do not follow Jesus, and the former the more likely error for those who do. A disciple is literally a learner or pupil, a natural counterpart to Jesus as teacher. As pupils of Jesus we need to look at the whole story. Dickson expresses it nicely: Jesus wants students "who would imbibe his words and seek to relate them to everyday life". I would hope that one leads to another – a hunger to understand Jesus teachings hopefully leads the student to the cross, and therefore to God – the purpose of the cross and Jesus' incarnation. Likewise, a deep appreciation of the price with which we have been redeemed must hopefully lead us to yearning for Christ-likeness in all aspects of our lives. This is a bit hard to do without learning from Jesus himself!

The tale beyond the whale

I am re-reading a great little book by Michael Frost called "Jesus the Fool". It is currently out of print, but is well worth the read if you can get your hands on it. In chapter 3, provocatively titled "Jesus the jester" he examines the story of Jonah. Now this is a book that I had heard of as a child even though I didn't go to Sunday school. The idea of being stuck in the belly of a whale was both novel and disturbing for me as a child, and a favourite story of Religious Education teachers. I guess I have not really given the book much thought beyond still being bemused about the whale (what would it be like to be surrounded by the digestive juices of a host beast?). So thanks Michael for taking me out of the belly of the whale and showing me the point of the story. Jonah was a reluctant prophet. I can imagine that the job description for 'prophet' does not have broad appeal at the best of times. What is worse for Jonah is that God does not ask him to be a 'prophet' amongst his own people. No, Jonah was to go to Ninevah, to the Babylonians. The story occurs at a time when Israel was licking its wounds from the Babylonian exile, and re-establishing its difference to the culture that had dominated it. Israel was actively shunning everything to do with Babylon or anything non-Jewish. It is therefore unsurprising that Jonah is not at all thrilled by the prospect of calling the occupants of Nineveh to repentance. So Jonah follows the only course he can think of – to flee from God and the absurd request. He ends up in Tarshish (Spain, apparently), and then through an amazing series of events, the belly of the whale. Eventually Jonah realises that he can't escape God and the call placed on him. He goes to Nineveh and does what God has told him to do. Amazingly, the Babylonians repent and believe, and are spared the judgment that Jonah had foretold. They seek forgiveness, and receive it. Jonah is actually mightily unpleased by this turn of events.

As I read Michael Frost's comments on this well known story, I was struck by the similarities between Jonah, the Israelites, and churches today. We don't want to go to Nineveh. We are too busy working out what it means to be a Christian, setting standards that are hard for others outside of the church to meet. We develop program after program to refine these processes. We allow people outside the church to come in if they change to look and behave like us. We want to spread God's message – amongst those who are like us already. We prefer to run away than go into the places we deem as being God-forsaken, beyond hope, beyond redemption. We are so busy trying not to be like the world that we don't actually allow ourselves to be part of it enough to permeate the love and good news of Jesus. Let us be in the business of building bridges not walls.

Jesus in the Garden

On Friday night we had a reflective gathering at church contemplating the stations of the cross. We did not adhere to the traditional Catholic stations. People contributed art work, reflections, visualisations etc on parts of the story of Jesus' last hours that spoke to them in some way. My contribution was this reflection on Jesus in the garden of Gethsemene before he was arrested:

Sometimes when we reflect on the terrible journey that lead to the crucifixion, resurrection, and our subsequent redemption, we forget the humanity of Jesus. The divine Son of God and creator of the universe was overwhelmed by grief to the point of longing for death, anything to escape the horror of what lay ahead. We may subconsciously think that “surely Jesus knew that he would be all right”, or that “he could take it because he was powerful, the Son of God”. But this is not the picture we are given in the garden. This is an image of a reluctant terrified child, who knows that he must experience what is to come, but whose very being is filled both with dread and the futile hope that another way may be possible. The agony is real. Jesus is unquestionably divine, but in these moments it is his humanity that screams out to us from the pages of Matthew's narrative. For Jesus the forthcoming separation from his father was devastating beyond measure. A terror greater than death.

In Jesus time of need, his friends sleep. One of the darkest moments in the life of the son of God passes them by unobserved. The pain of Jesus is loud and clear as he laments that his closest earthly companions could not stay awake and watch with him for even an hour.

One hour for a friend. It does not seem much. Imagine yourself in the sandals of Jesus in the garden. We will most likely imagine great dispair and isolation. However, like the disciples, we may struggle to grasp the depths of Jesus torment as he waited for his ultimate destiny to unfold on the cross. For some of us not too much imagination is required, for we have also experienced dark places of the soul. But we need not face them alone, or be overwhelmed by them. Jesus shares in our suffering, and like him, we can draw strength and hope from our heavenly Father.

God not always Right

This headline in the Herald Sun caught my eye whilst flicking through on my lunch break at work today. The article is written by Tim Costello and Jim Wallis. The alignment with right wing politics and Christianity in America is blindingly obvious, and it was not so long ago that I breathed a sigh of relief that Australia was not quite so polarised. However, it is also plain to see that religion has become a significant player in Australian politics. It's power was tasted in the last federal election. The icing on the cake was Howard's interest in Hillsong, and the liberal attentiveness to the Families First party. However, as Costello and Wallis write, "God is not a republican or a Democrat, Liberal or Labor". I for one take comfort in that. Does spirituality have a place in politics? Absolutely. Separating them results in a "spirituality without social consequences and a politics with no soul". Well said again, Costello and Wallis. I pray that Christians in this country don't reduce political activism to the polarised voting habits of the US, but embrace both "spiritual integrity on the one hand and social justice on the other". This has to lead to action. Action for the poor, the environment, for those who are politically, economically or socially disadvantaged. Action is required from handing out of a cup of water, treating those who are different to us with dignity and respect rather than suspicion and fear, to shaping policies that promote social justice. I don't vote on issues of morality, but my vote is swayed by justice.

Evangelism – starting with Jesus

This might seem rather obvious, but l can't think of any better place to start. l don't mean some well documented treatise to prove his existence, or an in-depth theological explanation of our sinfulness. We are known as 'Christ-ians'. My own name means follower of Christ. Surely Jesus must be central in how we live our lives and tell our stories. Have you ever done Alpha? l had the opportunity to facilitate a group last year. l found Nicky Gumble engaging, funny, honest. But it seemed more like Theology 101 than a journey to meet Jesus. l think it is a valuable tool, and it has been life changing for many. l have looked at alternatives, and found them lacking in one way or another. l have come across another approach requiring a very basic resource that every Christian should have – a bible. Last Friday l was at a Neil Cole seminar. Amongst many things he spoke about evangelism. Neil uses the Gospel of John. He looks at the recorded miracles of Jesus and asks the following three questions: What does the story say about
1. Human nature
2. Human need
3. Jesus

lt doesn't matter where you stand in relation to Jesus – anyone can draw something from the passages when looked at in this way. The first miracle involves a party, some water, and some excellent wine. What a fun place to start, with Jesus at the centre. l am looking forward to trying this…

Pastors and their wives

The term ''pastor's wife'' came up frequently at the recent National Vineyard conference. All the women l spoke to about it struggled with the term. l expected women who function as pastors to be uncomfortable, but interestingly, women who did not want to be considered as pastors felt the same. For one woman in particular, the title both diminished her own identity, and placed unwanted expectations on her. She was viewed as someone who should know what was going on, and felt pressured to carry out certain duties – eg children's ministry. The theme for the conference was "stand and deliver". One speaker talked about the high rate of ministry marriage breakdown in USA. Perhaps this issue contributes to the problem. I can't think of any other field of employment in our society where one spouse is defined by the occupation of the other. We don't talk about the plumber's wife, the nurse's husband, or the policeman's wife. We certainly don't expect one spouse to perform duties prescribed by the other spouse's occupation. I view minstry as different – it is a calling that touches every part of life. But surely it is time for new language that doesn't box in or define women in uneccessary ways. We need terminology that values women regardless of where they sit on the continuum, and where appropriate, reflects their own callings. What about unmarried women who are pastors? Or married female pastors whose spouses are not involved? l would be interested to know how women in the Uniting and Anglican Churches experience this. To my knowledge it is not possible to look at all these scenarios within my own denomination.

Musings from the pub

You don't need to go to conferences for mind expansion. We have a group that meets at a local pub. It is unstructured, with no clear leadership. Someone asks a question and we all engage in the answers that are not assessed as either right or wrong. Some of tonight's questions included the following:

When we get to heaven, will it be a finite number – as in not increasing beyond the point of judgment (this is not related to the Mormon or Jehovah's Witness views). If we are genderless, not marrying etc, then there either needs to be a new mechanism for progeny, or the number is fixed once the redemption of creation is complete. This came out of a discussion about evolution and the new or renewed heaven and earth…

Someone else went on from this seemingly unanswerable (and probably useless) question (I can say that because I was the one who asked it) to wonder if God created a parallel universe (or any possible number of them) where Adam and Eve got it right. Is there a planet somewhere that is already living as God intended? As can be imagined, this spawned further questions, and as far as I am concerned, a fascinating plot for a sci-fi novel. The questions included:

– are we then the control group or the experimental group?

– would the alternate planet have the bible? The general view here was that they would not need one as they would still be having unimpeded communion with God.

– Would they have had different trees? – not a botanical question but a moral one – eg something different to the knowledge of good and evil…

– How would the Trinity have been revealed?

The conversation was stimulating, but the answers were not readily forthcoming. Now I know these questions are not life changing, faith growing etc, but they just may claim a bit of my sleep time tonight, particularly pondering the parallel planet possibility. Any ideas?

Living on the edge

I am finally back home after a weekend at Bendigo and the National Vineyard Conference. I have a bit to think about from the conference, mainly from Alan Hirsh's two sessions. I expect to have my mindsets challenged whenever I hear him speak, and this week I had my vocabulary expanded too. Alan spoke about 'liminality' – defined on www.dictionary.reference.com as "the condition of being on a threshold or at the beginning of a process". Alan used the word in an anthropological context to refer firstly to the state of young African adolescents abandoned to their month long initiation process in the forest – a time of uncertainty and danger. In the state of liminality, the African boys band together, forming "communitas" (my second new word for the week) to increase their odds of survival. Alan distinguished "communitas" from "community" – the former formed in the face of threat and crisis, the latter referring to safe and nurturing social setting. I had a bit of trouble locating "communitas" in the dictionaries. I was eventually referred to www.anthrobase.com , an anthropological website. "Communitas" as people standing outside society, characterised by "intense feelings of social togetherness and belonging, often in connection with rituals". Hmmm, this does sound familiar. However, unlike our "huddle and cuddle" Christian communities, (thanks Alan for this charming expression too), Alan suggested that Christians together should look more like "communitas", formed out of a state of liminality. In plainer English, our Christian journey should be close knit, uncertain, dangerous. This is what the disciples together with Jesus looked like. The metanarrative of the bible is a constant state of liminality, punctuated by God's people banding together against the odds. What would it mean for our churches to look like this now? I am not much of a huddler and cuddler, so the whole idea of church living on the edge feels fraught with danger and utterly exciting to me. This is our mission, should we choose to accept it. But how?