Thursday, June 14, 2018

When I was Younger

When I was younger 
it was always
the sea
that allured me:
   the depth of the cerulean waters,
   the foam of the waves,
   the cry of the gull
   the sting of the salt and the sand on my pale, apocalyptic legs.
The sea, the sea, sung its siren song to me.

But I have put away childish things.

It’s the mountains I long for now. 
Those same sandstone ridges I walked and climbed and scrapped me knees on as a juvenile. 
Once scorned for the sea, 
  whenever I’m by the water I find myself peering for those familiar peaks, 
  the deeply hewn valleys guarded by stones sentinels,
  the smell of new rain among the gums,
  and the blue haze on the horizon.
Beyond the towers of the city
  it’s the plateaus and summits and bluffs that I look for, 
  and the glimmer of gold on stone that keeps at bay 
  the shadow and the gloom.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Irony of Secularism

Last week I was away for work on the fringe of Sydney, without mobile reception or FM radio. That left me, on my occasional drives into town for supplies, with the glories of AM radio. Memories of my childhood come flooding back as I drove through scrubland with the static crackling from the stereo, and re-discovering that the signal noticebaly improved at night.

During one drive into town I was treated with an extended interview on atheism with a minister, a journalist, and a former politician. Whilst the segment was meant to cover the viability of atheism today in Australia, the former politican was pushing for a broader conversation about free thinking and secularism. It turned out that he was a spokeperson for a secular lobby group that seeks to dismantle the co-operative existence of the church and state in Australian society and impliment in its place a strict segregation between the two.

It was ultimatley an unfulfiled interview.  The philosophical and historical illiteracy of one of the participants frustrated things somewhat. In particular, any deed or action by the church in the public sphere was dismissed as the imposition of Christian belief in society. Instead what Australia needs is the negative liberty of freedom from religion.

What was clear from the conversation was the general assumption that secularism is a neutral position. Secularism is an objective position; secularism favours no religion above another, and honours those of no religious affiliation. This is a mistaken position on several fronts; for our purposes we shall limit ourselves to only one: secularism is the creation of Christianity. By and large secularism has existed and flourished in places where the church has, over centuries, significantly shaped the social imaginary. Secularism is part of the Christian understanding of the world.

The concept of secularism emerged in the writings of Augustine of Hippo in the early 400s. As refugees sailed across the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa fleeing barbaric violence in and around Rome, Augustine's musings on the decline of the 'eternal city' and the permanence of the true eternal and celestial city developed into a substantial theory of politics and jurisprudence. Drawing upon the writings of the Apostle Paul and other New Testament authors, Augustine recognized that the authority of the government has been limited to a penultimate role - namely the call to humbly provide justice. Government of any type are charged with responsibility of upholding the common good by commending what is right and condemning what is wrong. It is a penultimate role according to Paul and others, because our governments will one day have to give an account for their use of power, and governments are deprived of the legitimacy to claim our ultimate allegiance and affection.

This is the Christian concept of secular. The word “secular” has come to mean “non-religious”; but it was never meant to mean that. “Secular” comes from the Latin word saeculum, which means “age.” So “secular government” means “government in this age”. [Augustine was well aware that because something belonged to this age did not preclude it from God's care or will. The fact that marriage belongs to this age does not imply that God is either indifferent to marriage or has nothing to say on the subject]. The opposite of “secular” is not “sacred” but “eternal”. The distinction between sacred and secular, between the "heavenly city"and the "earthly city" is one of seemingly of time (thought ultimatley of love). The distinction between the Earthly City and the Heavenly City is the recognition that the secular authority and the church belong to different stages of salvation history. It is a difference primarily of eschatology, and secularism invovles the recognition that authority of government has been relegated.

Good government recognises that is limit, that is, secular. As British ethicist Oliver O'Donovan has describd it:
“The most truly Christian state understands itself most thoroughly as secular. It makes the confession of Christ’s victory and accepts the relegation of its own authority… The essential element in the conversion of the ruling power is the change in its self-understanding and its manner of government to suit the dawning age of Christ’s own rule.”
What we have witnessed in the modern age is a forgetfulness of what it means to be secular. In abandoning the eschatological vision which makes the secular possible, society has walked away from the very thing which made it possible im the first place. Isntead society has become obsesseded with mediation of meaning through advertising, publicity, and advertising rather than the enactment of justice.

Nonetheless, the modern malaise notwithstanding, secularism emerged out of Christian reflection that a. the rulers of this world will need one day to throw their crowns before Jesus in submission, and b. governments cannot regulate the inner workings of our heart and mind. Secularism is part of the Christian deduction of the way the world works.

The irony therefore, of contemorpary secularism is that by imposing secularism on society, you are imposing a Christian vision of society.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Dispatches from Australia 3

The headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (somewhat provactly) read:

Demolish St Matthias church, build massive Oxford Street car park, says property tycoon (21 July 2014). 

Responding to the decline of occupied shops along Sydney's Oxford Street strip, Max Raine of Raine & Horne suggested that an 'underutilised' church in Paddington should be demolished in an effort to revive the historic shopping precinct. According to the SMH article:

St Matthias Anglican Church was “hardly attended” yet occupies a “glorious spot” near the corner of Oxford Street and Moore Park Road, which [Raine] claimed was ripe for conversion into a parking station.

Raine's suggestion came somewhat of a surprise not only to the congregations of St Matthias, but also many Christians in Sydney and further afield - St Matthias being a vibrant inner-city parish.

However, Raine's suggestion fits neatly into a narrative that Australian's are increasingly telling each other: Christianity is on the decline, and church attendance numbers are insignificant. (Despite this narrative, Australians are more likely to attend a church service during the year than a sporting event or the cinema).

I encountered the full force of this narrative in 2013 during a D.A. process with my previous church. We wanted to build a ministry centre adjacent to the Victorian church building to provide much needed space for milling around, disabled access, and toilets accessible during church services. The D.A. proposal sparked opposition from a segment of the community who set themselves up as the Save the Church lobby group. During two council hearings about the DA, the opposition group repeatedly ran the line that the Ministry Centre was unneccesary because less than 20 people attended the church on Sundays (at the time the reality was closer to 200 - there were at least 50 church members in the council chambers audience at the time).

Instead, the D.A. was obviously the work of corporate greed, and these fairminded citizens where the last line of defence for the the sandstone building and four acres of land their suburbs founders had left 'for the people of this suburb'. Never mind the fact that the four acres of land had been purchased by the church for divine worship. Never mind the fact that it was the church community driving the D.A. so that the church could be more hospitable.

Their incongruity at the church's need was fueled by the narrative that Christianity is on the decline, etc. The fact that the church was sizeable, and full of people in their 20s (and not just grannies) didn't fit in their plausability structure, and therefore couldn't be true.

They knew best what the church needed.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Dispatches from Australia 2

In their famous 1989 book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon describe the end of a world - the capitulation of Christendom to secularism - in 1963 when a local cinema opened on a Sunday.

I started school in 1990. It was a state school on the urban fringe of Sydney. About half the buildings at the time were demountables. In between learning to tie my shoes and get through the day without a nap, there was a whole new "liturgy" that I had to learn. In particular, there were two sets of words the student body was expected to know.

  • The first was a song that was sung every few weeks at the school's formal assembly. It turned out this song was God Save the Queen, which had only been relegated from Australia's national anthem to Australia's royal anthem several years earlier when the graduating year of 1990 had started school  (i.e. 1984). Looking back on it now, and the painting of Queen Elizabeth II from the late 1960s which hung in the office, my primary school feels like sometimes it would be at home on The Crown.
  • The second, I would come to learn, was The Lord's Prayer, which was said at least once per week during school assembly. As we stood in straight-ish lines on the asphalt quad, the older years would recite the prayer from memory - Protestant bit and all.

That world has long since past. For me, it disappeared almost in the twinkle of an eye, and had vanished by the time I started my second year at primary school. With the weight of globalization as the cold war ended, along with a rising sense of an Australian identity, republicanism, multiculturalism, and an increased awareness of our indigenous heritage, it's surprising that I even encountered these two sets of words regularly at school in the first place.

It would be tempting though to ascribe their disappearance to the irreversible tide of secularism, which seems to sweep Australia with increasing ferocity every five years as census results are announced. According to popular assumption, religion is occupying a declining space in public ad private life, and eventually will all but vanish from Australian life (except for indigenous religion apparently, because that can explained away as "cultural").

It might just be that Christendom took longer to root out from Australia's Blue Mountains than it did to the American South. Admittedly, Australia has a long and complicated relationship between faith and society. But amidst those complications, Australia has been, by and large, accommodating (e.g. not antagonistic) towards religion. And the truth of the matter is that secularism is not a new phenomenon in Australia; it has been with European Australia since 1786 when Richard Johnson was appointed Chaplain to the First Fleet.

Although it may come to a surprise, secularism is a thoroughly Christian achievement. The word “secular” has come to mean “non-religious”; drop by any P&C meeting these days and when the world "secular" is used, it is understood to be in opposition to faith and organised religion. But it was never meant to mean that. “Secular” comes from the Latin word saeculum, which means “age.” It was  developed by Augustine of Hippo to account for the now and not yet eschatological tension Christians find themselves in. By definition, the opposite of “secular” is not “sacred” but “eternal”.  So “secular ” means “of this age” rather than the eternal.

Secularism actually is a consequence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which announces that all earthly governments have been relegated to penultimate status. The Australian government is not eternal. Each and every government is secular because there will come a time when the governments of the world cast their crowns before the lamb who was slain. As Oliver O’Donovan has helpfully written:
“The most truly Christian state understands itself most thoroughly as “secular”. It makes the confession of Christ’s victory and accepts the relegation of its own authority… The essential element in the conversion of the ruling power is the change in its self-understanding and its manner of government to suit the dawning age of Christ’s own rule.”

With the ascension of Jesus Christ, secularism is the stripping of governments of their pretensions to command our absolute and whole-hearted obeisance.

Rather than the rise of secularism then, I wonder perhaps what we have witnessed in Australia over recent decades is the loosening of our common bonds. The traditions and institutions which have served our society have gradually been weakened and become unintelligible to us. Philosophically, concepts such as secularism and representation have become gibberish to us, unmoored as they are to their original intent and purpose. Whatever the case, we may have reached a point expected by several cultural commentators, who foresaw it with a sense of joy (Nietzsche), sadness (Tolkien), or despair (TS Eliot).

For O'Donovan, it actually is an occasion for chastened optimism for gospel opportunities in a society like ours. He writes that "Western civilization finds itself the heir of political institutions and traditions which it values without any clear idea why, or to what extent, it values them." Christian witness and theology has an opportunity to shed light on institutions and traditions whose intelligibility is seriously threatened. There is an apologetic value for Christians to think theologically about politics during a crisis of confidence in our politics. This is unlikely to result in a return to the situation of my primary school in 1990. That may not even be desirable. However, what is needed from Australian Christians is a commitment to our institutions and society at large for the sake of the common good because we know Jesus' lordship over all things. To do so would be to swim against the current and buck the trend that has dominate western societies at large since the 1960s (at least). But perhaps Christians are at their best in society when their swimming against the general trends.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Dispatches from Australia 1

"Everything in this country is socialist!"
"Everything. Your health care system. The ABC. Your university admissions. The fact that you have a minimum wage. It's all socialist!"
I dined late last year with a visitor to Australia's shores, who, as you might tell from the brief exchange above, had reached (in his mind) a damning conclusion about Australia. Its institutions, its people, its very DNA all smelt of socialism.

Admittedly, compared to the homeland of my fellow dinner, Australia is in a unique position. Many of our institutions are in public hands (and when I was a kid many were publicly owned, such as the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, The State Bank in NSW, etc.), and many aspects of our welfare system, such as Medicare, have taken on the status of an institution, such that it would be close to politically impossible for a government to dismantle them.

However, rather than socialism, I suspect that these aspects of Australian society bear witness to an older political tradition. We are called ‘the Commonwealth of Australia’, which oddly at first only looks as if we share riches, as in ‘common wealth’. This is, of course, partially true: we do share riches in terms of participating in an economy, and using common infrastructures. But that economic truth is only one aspect of a deeper truth that was once being expressed by this term. ‘Wealth’ comes from an older word for what is good, ‘weal’, hence a ‘commonwealth’ was always meant to be about a society of people committed to a ‘common good’.

Just pointing out the name of the country does not nothing on its own. However, Andrew Cameron has argued that 'The fact that we were called a ‘Commonwealth’ indicates that there has been an alternative tradition at work in Australia: the concept of a community who seeks together for a good life, in quality relationships with one another.'

[There is a long Christian history of the common good drawing on the significant New Testament word koinonia, which can traced, among other places, in Oliver O'Donovan's short book Common Objects of Love.]

Arguably, it is this concept of society which drove the introduction of the pension in NSW. One of the significant forces behind the introduction of old-aged and infirm pensions in NSW was the Ven. Francis 'Bertie  Boyce and the now defunct the parish of St Paul's Redfern. Boyce was hardly a socialist; as the founder of the British Empire League, he tirelessly campaigned for the observance of Empire Day in NSW - it helped that the Premier of NSW was a member of St Paul's. Boyce also founded the Anglican Church League, the conservative evangelical lobby group in the Sydney Diocese.

It may come as a surprise to you then that Boyce was the leading social reform advocate in NSW at the turn of the 20th century, covering issues such as woman's suffrage, slum clearance, and temperance. Boyce has advocated for years on the issue of an old aged pension. The introduction of the pension was a significant moment in NSW, as it had by and large been the responsibility of the church to provide relief for the aged.  Yet Boyce did not see this as a straight handing over to the state the relief work which had traditionally been the purview of the churches. Preaching at St Paul’s Redfern just after the introduction of the pensions into NSW, Boyce described the expected £60,000 p.a. cost of the pension as ‘a Christian contribution to suffering humanity.’

Whereas the church had previously been limited by its connections with those in need and its own fundraising, for Boyce the government's new found responsibility to provide the pension would move beyond the limited connections any one church might have and enable as many people to be cared for in their twilight years. Reflecting on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, Boyce argued that this would give the Christian all the more reason to pay their tax, and to see their tax used in the service of those in need by God's own ministers.

At a time when we read about individuals and corporations peddling their money through overseas tax havens, Boyce's approach to tax and welfare seems entirely foreign. And yet, it's beautiful, and  based on a generous ecclessiology - that the church exists as the pillar and bulwark of truth to extend God's blessing to all people in society.

Far from socialist, the bedrock for Australia's great institutions rest upon a Christian concept of of community.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Sermon on Matthew's Genealogy

Jesus’ Shady Past – Third Sunday in Advent
Genesis 12.1–9 | Matthew 1.1–17
Preached by me at St Alban's Five Dock, December 2017
[Our Father in heaven, thank you that our deliverance has dawned in Jesus Christ, and that in him you are making all things new. In this Advent season, we pray that you would refresh us with your grace, and encourage our hearts by your Scriptures, so that we might find lasting, joyful rest in you. Amen.]
It’s said that you should never judge a book by its cover; but I think you can pick an exceptional book by its first sentence. A good first sentence not only captures your imagination, it gives a sense of meaning and direction. So right from the start of Pride and Prejudice you know the story is explore love and money: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Or that Peter Pan will explore themes of youth and maturity: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’
Used well, a first sentence can be a powerful thing.
The Gospels too begin with skilfully written introductions: John, perhaps most famously with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But I’m not sure if any of us would rate Matthew’s opening. His first sentence includes a bold statement of Jesus identity: “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” But I think most for us, that all seems to be undone by his genealogy. It’s a little bit bizarre, given Matthew’s position in the Bible, as the opening of the New Testament. A long list of unfamiliar and unpronounceable names – I think I’m more likely to skip over this passage then draw any inspiration or encouragement from it.
The genealogy appears to be about as unexciting an opening as it could be.
But to those with eyes to see, it tells the story that must be grasped if the plot of the whole Gospel is to be understood. You see, Matthew is telling us as loud as possible that Jesus’ birth signals a new beginning. God’s work with Abraham, with David has been moving towards this moment. As we explore this genealogy today, we’ll see that this new beginning for two groups; firstly those on the inside, and secondly the outsider. Matthew’s genealogy heralds a new start for everyone.
A new beginning
Today, it’s very easy to find out who a person is and what they’re like. With the power of google at hand, and the amount of information that is freely accessible from facebook and LinkedIn, it can take only a matter of minutes to find what out who someone is. Where people have worked, which political party they support, and even what they had for dinner last night.
In ancient Middle Eastern culture, genealogies were used by the rich and the powerful to tell stories. They were narrative devices, used explain a person’s place in history via their connection to their ancestors. Matthew uses a genealogy to us who Jesus is. You’ll notice that this genealogy is highly structured, and Matthew himself tells us in v17 we have three groupings of 14 generations. Israel’s history is broken into thirds: From Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian Captivity, and from the Babylonian Captivity to Jesus. It’s quite stylised – almost poetic – and it seems that Matthew skipped some generations to maintain the 14x14x14 pattern. There are a couple of kings, for example, missing from the list. But that doesn’t mean Matthew is being deceptive; instead we need to realise ancient genealogies served a different purpose to what they do today. Over the past couple of years my mum has been painstakingly research our family tree. [Maybe you have someone in your family who spends all their time on] It’s very labour intensive, as Mum sifts through records to try and record every single person we’re related too. [It turns out I’m related to a Viking prince called Gandalf.]
Matthew isn’t trying to do this. Not just conveying biological facts, but telling a story, so he can skip some ancestors, mention the existence of some brothers in vv.2&11 but not others, record some wives and not others. He’s connecting Jesus’ story into the larger plot, the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Like the opening credits to Star Wars, Matthew uses the genealogy to set the scene for Jesus.
But this isn’t a ‘once upon a time’ story either. Matthew’s purpose is to succinctly retell the whole history of the world, from the very beginning of the world until Jesus.
So Matthew starts with Genesis – both literally and metaphorically. You may have missed, but it’s there under our noses in 1:1, lying under the words “An account of the genealogy”, is literally ‘the book of the genesis of Jesus’. This is, a new Genesis, a new beginning. It’s the same phrase that’s repeated throughout Genesis to single something new is happening.
By echoing Genesis, Matthew raises our hopes that the God who made this world is at work in Jesus. It’s like that moment in Narnia when you hear word ‘Aslan is on the move’. This is a new beginning, and we should expect nothing less than a new creation, as God acts through his Messiah to renew and transform the world.
...for insiders
Which turns out to be really good news for those who are “in”; those whose religious or moral scruples give them a sense that God is on their side. This new beginning, this new Genesis, offers a new beginning to God’s people Israel. After a millenia of being the apple of God’s eye, Israel had had more than their fair share of glory. But there were also skeletons in the closet. Despite the glory, it was a shady past.
And Matthew places Jesus right at the centre of Israel’s history, this shady past. This is not just a resumption of the Old Testament story; it is designed to show Jesus as the one expected throughout history: the Messiah.
Israel’s story had started so well. From the founding promise to Abraham there is an ascending movement to David’s kingship. The names in this section are the ones we are probably most familiar with: Abraham the man of faith who trusted God to provide him with an heir; Isaac who at a young age almost had his throat slit because of his father’s faith; Jacob who lied and cheated his way into blessing, and was later cheated into marrying the wrong woman; Boaz who came to the rescue of Ruth; and King David, God’s chosen Messiah who battled Israel’s enemies.
By the time we reach King David these promises seem fulfilled: the nation is numerous and secure in the Promised Land. But tragically, Israel’s history declines into exile. It seems almost inevitable from v6 when we’re reminded of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah. Matthew can’t even bring himself to name her, describing Bathsheba as simply Uriah’s wife. God’s promise to Abraham was to bring blessing to all families on earth; here we find God’s king tearing a family apart.
And from there Israel’s trajectory is continually downward spiral of sin and decline. It’s a pretty shady history. Some of the names here are still familiar: David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah; some of the names are more infamous than famous: Rehoboam, who lost David & Solomon’s kingdom through his arrogance and greed, Manasseh and Amos, two kings who enjoyed sacrificing children to pagan gods. The achievements of the previous generations appear lost, as Israel’s glory is carried off into captivity.
The third stanza presents Israel’s history as sliding into obscurity. The names of the third section are entirely unfamiliar. Who is Azor? Who is Zadok? Who is Eleazar? We know almost nothing about most of these men. None of these men ruled as kings. None of these men reigned in peace. This period smells of failure.
For many Jews during the time of Jesus, things still smelt like that. We sing about this every year in some of the Advent carols: “O come o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Israel was still in exile. According to verse 17 that’s where Jesus arrives: He comes at the depths of Israel’s shame and disgrace, to rescue Israel from their sin. Born into this family of adulterers and liars and murderers, he will save his people from their sins. He makes Israel’s exile his own, taking the shame of exile and sin, the legacy of injustice, idolatry, and violence; he takes it all to the cross.
This birth, Matthew says, is the birth Israel has been waiting for. In the face of Israel’s abject failures, religious hypocrisy, and moral self-righteousness, we see God’s relentless love shine through. Through Israel’s shady past we can trace God’s grace, time and time again, until the advent of his messiah.  Which is good news if you’re living that kind of upright life. You might have a sponsor kid, or use green sourced electricity, volunteer for the P&C be vegetarian, or support the refugees on Manus Island. They’re all good causes – but we have skeletons in our own closet. You might be genteel and polite. You might vote for the right party. You might go to church every Sunday, or usually never be seen dead in a place like this. Whoever you are, we each have a shady past – not just from our ancestors, but in our lives. Your ethics, your morality, your integrity and sincerity, won’t be enough to deal with whatever it is for you. They might paper over it for a while. But eventually cracks will appear; and whatever it is that haunts you about your life will find a way back. The good news according to Matthew 1 is that whatever it is that weighs you down, God has more than enough love and forgiveness to deal with it – for good – in Jesus. That’s grace. That’s grace that you can trace over you own life, over all the stuff ups, all the failures, all your fears. Let Jesus trace God’s grace over your life.
...for outsiders
It turns out that this is a new beginning for those on the outside. If you feel alone, like you don’t belong, like you could never fit in, Jesus offers you a new beginning too.
You may have heard of the old prayer Jewish men once prayed thanking God that they were neither a gentile – that is a foreigner – nor a woman. Yet Matthew’s genealogy includes four gentile women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. This is highly unusual, firstly because genealogies generally didn’t include women, and secondly there were other women not included, like Abraham’s wife Sarah. The inclusion of these four women breaks the pattern of father and son, calling our attention to them. Why does Matthew include these women in Jesus’ family tree?
·         The twice-widowed Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law into sleeping wih her by dressing as a prostitute.
·         The Canaanite Rahab, an actual prostitute.
·         King David’s great-grandmother Ruth, from Israel’s great enemy Moab.  We’ve seen quite a few of our federal politicians resign because they held foreign citizenship. In ancient Israel you couldn’t hold Israelite citizenship if you were within 10 generations of a Moabite ancestor.
·         And the adulterous wife of Uriah, who slept with David.
Why does Matthew include these women in Jesus’ family tree? It could be that by including these four unexpected women, Matthew is preparing us for v16...God worked in bizarre ways through each of these women, and will do so again through Joseph’s fiancée, the Virgin Mary. But it seems likely that these women hint at something else. Despite their irregularities, these women were examples of tenacious faithfulness.
·         the twice-widowed Tamar, who continued the family line
·         Rahab, who aided the Israelites in their entry into the Promised Land
·         Ruth, who served her mother-in-law and took shelter under the God of Israel.
·         And Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and Solomon’s mother who brought her son to the throne.
Some of them are victims of the schemes and machinations of the men around them. They’d have their own #metoo stories to tell.
Yet each of these foreign women are part of the story of the Jewish messiah: the story of Israel is open to the inclusion of Gentiles. These women demonstrate that God has woven ethnic outsiders into the story from start to finish. The signpost the ending of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus would be preached to all nations. What they show us is that God’s kingdom, God’s family, is not just for people of the right race or gender. His love is not limited by blood or DNA. God’s love is for all people, Jew and non-Jew, men and women, the lonely and the outcast, the unlovely and the excluded. God’s grace is for the outsider. 
For many of us sitting here today, their story is our story. We were strangers to Israel’s promises, but we sit here today by God’s grace as members of Abraham’s family. We read Israel’s scriptures, and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By the same grace that God showed Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, we enjoy the blessing promised through Abraham to all families of the world, now realised in God’s Messiah. These women embody the truth that David's son, the Messiah, is not only the ruler of Israel but also the promised descendent of Abraham in whom all the nations will be blessed.
[1]Male and female, king and prostitute, Jew and Gentile, are all equally part of Jesus’s family. This list of unpronounceable names drips with God’s mercy.

Let’s tie the threads together...after Israel’s failures and disappointments, Matthew tells us that God has unfinished business. Which is such good news for us at the end of a long and busy year – our failures, our fears, aren’t the final word. Matthew presents us with the story of God’s steadfast love. That story comes together in Jesus. He offers rest to those who are languishing and weary by saving people from their sins. He brings the lonely exiles home, and welcomes the strangers to these promises. He is the Messiah, who offers a new beginning, a new creation, a new Genesis, to the world.
There’s a second way that Matthew highlights Genesis for us – to get this you need to be good with maths; or at the very least get the significance of the number 7 in the old testament. In the Old Testament the number 7 symbolises completion. It points to rest. God rested on the seventh day. That rest was echoed in the Law God gave Israel, so that every seven years, the land in Israel was supposed to lie fallow, to replenish its nutrients. And after 49 years – seven sevens, Israel celebrated a Jubilee Year, in which all debts were forgiven in and all slaves were freed.
In Matthew 1 we’re presented with a list of names that’s divided into 3 sets of 14. 3 sets of 14 easily becomes six sets of 7, with Jesus beginning the seventh, final stanza. Jesus is the seventh seven. He is the year of jubilee, bringing rest for the weary, forgiveness of every debt, and freedom for those in chains.
He is ultimate rest.
  • You don’t have to earn God’s love: it’s given to you as a gift purchased by him.
  • You don’t have to prove yourself, you’re free from the constant striving.: in Christ you have the absolute approval of the only one whose opinion really matters.
  • You don’t have to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. The pressures from family, from work, from raising kids, getting that exam mark, providing the best Christmas lunch, finding that perfect Christmas present. He is your protector and provider. If God loved and pursued you like this when you were his enemy; don’t you think he’ll take care of you now that he is your friend?
  • You don’t have to grasp so tightly all the goodness of the world because every promise of God is yes to you in Christ Jesus, and he has an eternal inheritance laid up for you that moths cannot destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal.

 He brings real rest to all families. It’s why on Christmas Day you’ll find people from every language and nation celebrating Jesus’ birth. The church is most diverse and inclusive organism that has ever existed in history – because all people are invited to find rest in him.
 At the centre of history then, is this man; this man. The story of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love finds its climax and joy and completion in him. Not the Roman Emperor of Jesus day; not the last US election, or the next one; not the GFC, or how much grant money you got this year...the defining the moment in history is a person, and his name is Jesus the Christ. He came to bring you rest for your soul by becoming a lonely, languishing, exile. [He’s even more fulfilling than an Eels premiership]. God’s own Son left his father’s side and became an outside so that you could take your place in his family. He was left alone and forsaken on the cross, taking all our shady history with him, and leaving it to die there with him.
This is the story of grace that Advent teaches us to learn, and taste, and long for in our lives now. Advent directs our gaze back to Israel’s longing for a Messiah, and forward to the world Christmas promises. Advent teaches us not be set our hopes on the ipod or the bike under the Christmas tree, but to yearn for that world of peace and justice. And if you listen closely, you’ll hear that something new is happening. It might only be a whisper, but can you hear it? God is coming. God is coming.

It’s been a long year, and the end of the year brings with it enough stresses of its own. Jesus offers you something new. Something that will satisfy your heart and exceed your wildest dreams. Jesus says, come unto me, all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you REST.

[1] From Tim Keller: “Women were seldom put in ancient genealogies at all, let alone women who reminded readers of the sordid sins and corruption of ancestors such as Judah and David. All of these figures would have been disowned or expunged from a normal genealogy, but here they are not.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Book Review: Workship

Kara Martin
Workship: How to Use Your Work to Worship God
Graceworks: Singapore, 2017

According to one estimation, if you live the average Australian life, you’re likely to spend 94,000 hours in your workplace. That’s almost 4000 days, or close to 11 years of uninterrupted time spent in one place. Time spent relating to many different people. Time spent to support ourselves and others. A whole lot of time.

It’s little wonder then that we’re witnessing a renaissance of Christian books, conferences, and courses on work. What are we to make of all that time spent at work? And perhaps more importantly, what does God make of it all?

It’s into this space that Kara Martin offers Workship: How To Use Your Work To Worship God. Although work can be hard, tedious, and broken, Martin offers a simple affirmation that God is interested in your everyday work. It’s that affirmation which explains the portmanteau title, Workship:

The Hebrew root for work (avad) is also the root for service, particularly serving God in worship. I believe the two activities are meant to be integrated. Our work should be done in a way that honours God, which serves God and others, that worships God. By combining the two English words: work and worship, I hope to challenge people to integrate their faith and work.
Workship goes about this in three sections. Firstly, in less than 50 pages, it paints a picture of work in the full sweep of redemptive history. Secondly, Martin provides six spiritual disciplines for the integration of faith and work in the workplace; disciplines like prayer, evangelism, and social justice. And thirdly, Workship draws on a wealth of experience to offer practical insights on how to navigate work, such as how to manage relationships, and how to think about yourself and your identity at work.

To be honest, I’m not sure that Workship is written for someone like me, someone prone to biblical and theological pedantry. There are a few times were Martin assumes a position rather than arguing for it, such as the extent of continuity of our work between this creation and the next (she’s quite positive if you’re wondering). So I found myself at points reading Martin’s prose with a wry smile imagining the conversations Workship might spark among st the theological guild.

But that’s because Workship is written for those in the trenches. Whilst Martin does offer advice to churches on how they equip their saints to live out their faith at work, this is a book written for those engaged in paid work, voluntary work, housework, schoolwork, caring for children or parents, or study. Devoid of technical theological jargon, Martin is warm and compassionate in dealing with real workers and real people. Martin often draws upon her own, hard-earned experience and wisdom of the realities of work. In doing so, she is concise and crisp, judiciously drawing upon the other recent Christian reflections on work (though this runs close at times to feeling like a highlight package of the work of others on faith and work).

One particular highlight of Workship is the way Martin strives to include prayer in the book. Each chapter concludes with a prayer written to surmise the chapter. But more than that, Martin offers significant insights on how to integrate spiritual disciplines with your work place. And this points us to another strength of the book. Whereas some books on work would rest content with more or less just giving a biblical account of work, Workship points the way forward into how to work today by providing the habits and disciplines that will shape the Christian worker such as prayer, justice, and evangelism.

If you’re someone who wants to live out Colossians 3.17 in your work (‘whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’), if you want to grow in your worship of God in and through the successes and drudgery of work, Martin’s Workship may well be the book you need.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Protestant Disposition

I don't think I've ever felt more Protestant than when I was in Rome a few years ago. It wasn't the aesthetics of the Vatican, or anything like that. It was the knowledge that the buildings we were standing in had been paid for by the abuse of Christians in Germany and throughout Europe centuries earlier. 

It was confronting to see what the indulgences opposed by Martin Luther had actually paid for. It was confronting having come from Oxford (final photo) and seen the spots where Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer had died in the backlash against the Reformation. 

Being Protestant means many things (i.e. the five solas), but I think it involves a certain disposition: holding together how precious Christian unity truly is, and how nefarious church corruption truly is. 

It involves the recognition that gospel faithfulness can be compromised by religious hypocrisy. 

It's the abhorrence of the scriptures being held captive, and the delight in seeing them set free to in the lives of ordinary women and men. 

To be Protestant means exposing sin to the light – beginning with our own – so that it can't fester in the darkness. 


Sunday, May 28, 2017

On Christian Identity

Those familiar with Christian theology or early church history will have encountered doceticsm. The docetics believed that Jesus only seemed to be human (from the Greek δοκεϊν - to appear). The physical body and bones of Jesus life were a mere phantasm, an illusion; in fact Jesus was existed in another, higher, plane of existence.

Docetism has been rightly condemned as heresy by the church. But I believe that Christians, and especially Christian pastors, have fallen prey to a newer variation of the docetic false teaching in their day to day pastoral care.

One of the buzzwords of early third millennium pastoria is 'identity'. We talk about identity a lot. And that is probably appropriate for our day and age. Never before has a generation been so conscious of its image. Social media, videos, and google searches ensured that. The politicising of identity, the pace and ease with which communication travels, and proliferation of choices have all made the changing of identity seem plausible. And never before has it been so possible to modify your identity: your job, your preferences, your gender, your body, your location - it's all up for grabs. Which one is the true me? Whilst there are many other factors which have contributed to this, it does expose something about modern society. That identity is so contested, variegated, and fluid suggests there is confusion about what it means to be human in the world. And whilst we may find broad consensus about what entails human flourishing and the good life – justice and equality, freedom and the minimisation of harm – the underlying foundations for such assumptions are themselves contested. 

In response to this confusion of identity, Christians will now commonly counsel people to find their true identity in Jesus Christ. Your work, your family, your sexual preferences, your education, your ethnicity, your quest for fame and success – in none of these does your identity lie. Instead, your identity is found in Christ; he alone determines who you are. And so identity has become the primary concept of describing the Christian life.

There are, however, a few problems with this approach. To start with, sociologically identity is the thing that distinguishes one person from another. Yet by reducing "identity in Christ" to a cliche of negative theology, we end up stripping away all those things which make us different to each other. In addition, the via identitas conflates several concepts with identity such as worth and self. (These aspects of our personhood are arguably given to us from outside ourselves. Our self is given to us in the gospel; it's a gift according to Ephesians 2, rather than a construction. Meanwhile our worth is found not in ourselves, but comes from outside ourselves in our justification). Furthermore, identity language is often used as a short-hand for union with Christ. Yet as a short-hand it significantly short-changes the doctrine of participation in Christ. This doctrine explains the glorious truth of how we partake in Christ; that we partake in his trajectory. To reduce union to the cliche that our identity is conformed to him does not do the doctrine justice.

This becomes particularly apparent when 'identity in Christ' is used – explicitly or implicitly – to negate the aspects of our lives. And herein lies the connection with docetism. For the contemporary use of 'identity in Christ' suggests that those areas outside of our identity in Christ, our family or our work for instance, are not really part of our identity. They only seem to be part of who we are. As a consequence of this, we are homiletically left without anything to say about family, work, and so on. The irony is that through attempting to address the confusion of personhood, we mute ourselves at the very moment when we need to make sense of who we are in light of Jesus. The truth is that rather than supplanting who we are, our spheres of relationships, our gifts, abilities, and so on, Jesus reframes them around himself. 

Take family for instance. There are a few times where Jesus relativises family: "Who are my brothers and sisters?" he asks in Matthew 12; those who do my fathers will. In a society where family was everything, Jesus switches the focus of familial allegiance to himself. But instead of abolishing or erasing our family responsibilities all together, Jesus sends us back to love and serve our families with renewed intent and purpose. 1 Timothy 5:8 is a clear cut example of where Jesus' followers are sent back to serve their biological family. In reframing familiar allegiance and priorities, our families remain a necessary part of who we are; they continue to form our identity.

Perhaps not as famous for his hymn writing as other reformers, John Calvin penned a beautiful reflection on the Christian life:

Thou art the life by which alone we live
And all our substance and our strength receive;
Sustain us by Thy faith and by Thy pow’r,
And give us strength in ev’ry trying hour.

Jesus does not nullify the various parts of our lives-instead he brings them to completion. In an age driven by a desire to be our 'authentic selves' but are unsure about what (or who) that is, Christian pastors need to find a way to affirm that Jesus is the life by which alone we live so that our being in Christ touches every aspect of our lives. 

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

If I Was Running A Conference On The Reformation...

A thought experiment. In Christian circles, 2017 will be remembered as the year of The Reformation. October 31 marks the quincentenary of Martin Luther's 95 thesis' being nailed to the chapel door in Wittenberg. In celebration, this year will see a sequence of rallies, conferences, books, papers, sermons, etc.

One of the interesting questions that will be posed this year now doubt will be 'how do we apply the reformation truths/achievement to today?' What is 'the reformation we need to have'?

So here is a little thought experiment we might try on. If you were running a conference on that question, how would you go about it? You might use the five solas as a way of examining the nature of the reformation. Or you might use Barth's phrase Ecclesia semper reformanda est to consider the need for reform in today's church. One might even use the ordo salutis.

The difficulty is that what was kindled in 1517 (or 1510 if you date the reformation from the commencement of Luther's Psalm lectures) spanned several decades (until at least 1689 when the spirit of reform settled into apathy and latitudinarianism, only to be rekindled in the 1730's), across nations, languages, and social strata. At various stages it sought modify and confirm to Biblical truth the nation, the church, and the personal life. It was a movement which spawned various branches, each of which were diverse and complex.

However, despite the variegated nature of the Reformation, what Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, Bucer, Cranmer, and others achieved was a return to a biblical economy of grace. Following Augustine, the medieval and early modern church had developed a concept of grace, (i.e. prevenient grace, cooperating grace, sufficient grace, and efficient grace) which were obtained through various ecclesiastical structures and systems, and mediated through the priestly caste.

The reformers rediscovered the radical, irresistible nature of saving grace. They reveled in it. It shaped their ministry. It shaped their lives. It shaped the way the sought to return to evangel. They rediscovered that God's move towards us in Christ is an act of sheer, unmerited, unadulterated, grace. A gift, by which the trajectory of their lives was irrevocably tied to Christ's. And it thrilled their hearts.

If it was up to me, the concept of grace would be the controlling concept for such a conference. It also has the advantage of placing the Reformation in context and continuity with Augustine – the Doctor of Grace – on the one hand, and who we know of in the English speaking world as the evangelicals on the other (John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards).

So here is what I would include in such a conference:

i. The Reformation and the Economy of Grace
ii. The Allurement of Grace
iii. The Exposition of Grace
iv. The Life of Grace
v. The Unity of Grace
vi. Grace Works
vii. Common Grace and the Common Good
viii. Dis-Grace in the Reformation
ix. Witnessing to the Word of His Grace

Let's take a brief moment to examine what each of these may consider:

The Reformation and The Economy of Grace
There are lots of competing theological ideas which might compete for the central focus of reformed thought: justification by faith, the cross, God's sovereignty and election, the sufficient of scripture. And fair enough; at different points each of these where flash points of contention during the reformation. But what ties each of these together is the reformed understanding of grace. It was the rediscovery that not only could a righteous God justify sinners, but that in Christ he would justify the ungodly which mobilized the reformers. It was the rediscovery that God condescend himself to speak (with perspicacity) to people like you and me. It was the rediscovery that God had condescend himself to take on flesh and walk among us, and that the sacraments where a means of remembering and participating in that act of grace. And it brought down the whole stinking mess of indulgences and purgatory, sacerdotal mediation and magisterial authority. This session would be placing the Reformation in this historical, philosophical, and theological context, laying the groundwork for the rest of the conference.

The Allurement of Grace
According to Ashley Null, this was central image for Thomas Cranmer and other Reformers. God makes the dead come alive by captivating their hearts, and enthralling their imagination. So this really about the significance of the heart in Protestant thinking and the dynamics of grace renewal.

The Exposition of Grace
Whilst preaching had been a feature of the medieval Christian world, particularly through the influence of the friars, the Reformation inspired the regular teaching of the whole counsel of God through the literal sense of Scripture. This did not dull the Reformers to the allegorical or tropological senses. But it did highlight the significance of regular exposition of God's word for spiritual health and growth. In the Anglican context, whilst the focus of the service lay by and large in the public reading of Scripture, Cranmer determined that there was always to be an exposition whenever the Lord's Supper was celebrated, and prepared homilies accordingly for priests who required such assistance. Meanwhile Calvin and Luther were appreciated for their sermons, commentaries, and lectures on Scripture as much as they were their doctrinal work. This session would consider the significance of the reformed commitment to preaching for today's church practices.

The Life of Grace
The Reformers offered a vision of life lived under grace. From Tyndale's hope for the ploughboy to read and understand scripture, Calvin's doctrines of union with Christ and the work of the Spirit in shaping the moral imagination of the believer, Luther's depiction and embodiment of marriage, to the rending of the sacred-secular divide, the Reformers depicted the ordinary life of the believer as an avenue to honour God. Christ sanctified the ordinary. This session would need to examine the place of the sacraments as means of grace in the life of the believer, given how significant they were for the Reformers, and how fallen by the way side they have become in some churches today.

The Unity of Grace
Breaking with Rome as no easy task; the Reformers cared deeply about church unity and catholicity, and established international networks of Christian partnerships. Indeed the stressed that they, and not Rome, where fulfilling the vision of catholicity even when they allowed for diversity of practice. The Reformers cared about church unity, undoubtedly more so than we do that. What might they teach an age marked by denominations, tribalism, and insipid ecumenism?

Grace Works
An expansion of the 'Life of Grace' session, the Reformers cared deeply about the integration of faith and work. From the prince to the milkmaid, the soldier to the cobbler, they understood that our work matters. Thomas Cranmer in particular, following the advice of St Basil the Great, developed the Book of Common Prayer as a means to encourage the 'commons' in the work of their hands. Where might this commitment lead us today?

Common Grace and the Common Good
So if the most significant reflection ever given to the place of non-Christian wisdom is to be found in the opening chapters of Calvin's Institutes. In preaching saving grace, the Reformers also believed in God's common grace shown to all people. This in turn spurned them on to the love and welfare of society in general. Whilst our situations are different, this session will consider the implications of those convictions for our context today.

Dis-Grace in the Reformation
Among the many achievements of the reformation were moments of petty squabbling, ugly division, and brutal coercion. As the heirs of the Protestants, what might we lead from their mistakes?

Witnessing to the Word of His Grace
The Reformers were concerned that true religion would awaken the dullest hearts. They wrote Latin essays for the learned, tracts in the vulgar tongue for the gentry, and drama for the unlearned men and women of the land. Even Cranmer, preparing liturgy at a time when church attendance was mandatory, was actively aware of the need to reach the unchurched and the ungodly. The zeal of the Reformers inspired those who came after them in the Great Awakening of the 1730s. Where nigh that same concern and zeal take us today?

That is nine session. Are there things that you would skip? Or things that I've missed?

Monday, January 30, 2017

On Losing Part of Me

January is full of anniversaries for the Moffitt household. There's our wedding anniversary of course- nine years in 2017. This is quickly followed by the anniversary of our engagement – an anniversary that often passes with little to no notice. It was in January that I moved back to Sydney after a twenty year sojourn in Katoomba. And ten years ago today I managed to sever part of my body. It is a yearly observance which I share with Britain's last 'royal martyr' – thankfully for my sake it was only my left index finger and not my head that underwent cleaving from my body. Though to be true, it was only the tip of my finger that was detached. I didn't even lose any part of my bone structure (I did however briefly lose my fingernail).

On 30 January 2007 I managed to sunder part of my finger from the rest of me. A brief, freakish, unfortunate interaction with a folding bed resulted in several courses of antibiotics, finger exercises, physical therapy, and one finger that is slightly shorter than it should be. If you look carefully, the scaring is still visible. It is sometimes hard to point with that finger. Sometimes, inexplicably, it just feels weird. (Even now as I sit here typing I can't really use that finger to type because of the entanglement of nerve endings in my index finger).

It wasn't as though I had lost a leg or an arm. I hadn't lost the sight in my eyes or had my spleen removed. It was only the very tip of my finger - probably the best part of your body to lost if you had to lose one part. But losing the end of my finger provoked much melancholy for me. That something so small could be the source of so much pain was beyond belief. Without the medical marvel of antibiotics, I would have lost more of my finger. It took weeks of rehabilitation to be able to regain functionality in my finger. Frankly it was embarrassing to explain over and over again at wedding receptions and job interviews exactly how I had ended up with my arm in a sling and my finger all bandaged. But I also had a lot to be thankful for from that time: a new fiance whose care and attention epitomised her love; her family who took me in and cared for me in their own home; a soon to be father-in-law who drove me around Sydney to find a hospital that could save part of my finger; friends who would sit with me in hospital waiting rooms whilst I waited for my rehab sessions, or freely volunteered to clean up the leftover blood.

Most of all I came to appreciate anew the power and the hope of the resurrection. That Jesus had been raised from the dead had often been taught to be as the cherry on top of Christ's atoning working; the denouement to crucifixion. It was treated as nothing more than God's grand apologetic sign 'He really did die for your sins'. In such a moment of agony and desolation, it was an incredible consolation to know that my sins had been cleansed and that one day I too would be raised with an incorruptible body, over which death would hold no dominion. I too would be raised like him.

The Christian gospel has always proclaimed the distinctly Christian hope of bodily resurrection. As one of our theologians has said: "The bodies of the saints, then, shall rise again free from blemish and deformity, just as they will be also free from corruption, encumbrance, or handicap. Their facility will be as complete as their felicity".

The resurrection is God's 'No!' to a world polluted by selfishness and pride, malice and murder, envy, slander, alternative truth, and falsehood. The resurrection is God's 'No!' to a world marred by cancer and tooth decay, marred by famine, greed, and sexual exploitation. It is God's 'No!' to a world shrouded by death; a world which would dare condemn God's own Son – the source of all life.

Whilst the resurrection condemns our own efforts to decide what is right and wrong, and to love everything except the person we should love the most, the resurrection is simultaneously God''s 'YES!' to his created order. It is his 'YES!' to the way things are meant to be. Creation matters. Our bodies matter. Matter matters. The risen Christ is God's affirmation that his world will not forever remain enthralled in the darkness of decay and oblivion. Magnificently, God doesn't consign creation to the scrap bin of history and start again. The new creation is creatio ex vetere, creation made new. It is a place liberated from sin, suffering, and all that makes life unlivable; or in the words of one of the Apostles, it is a world made fit for righteousness to inhabit.

The Christian confession is in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. In former days we constructed our churches in a cruciform shape to remember the centrality of Jesus' death to our faith and worship. We would surround our churches with cemeteries - an ever present reminder that Jesus is Lord over the quick and the dead; that one day he was raise our bodies to be like his body.

I fear however that we have become far less diligent in remembering that we are made of the dust of the earth. As liberalism has gained ground politically, economically, ethically, we have become less confident to speak of the resurrection of the body and the renewal of creation. We speak instead in terms of identity and character - malleable categories we can confirm to our own will and desire. 'Our bodies, indeed this world will be abolished, but our identity will continue.' To suggest this is to drink from the same well which sprouted identity politics. Those who propose such views have wandered from exegesis and theological reasoning into the realm of conjecture and speculation. Can you really have virtue or identity or even a soul apart from the body? If the body is entirely new, is it really the same identity? What walked out of the tomb on the first Easter Day was not a litany of characteristics, nor an excarnated identity, but a body. It had been altered, yes. It had been changed. But it was the same body which had been carried into the tomb three days prior. The resurrected Jesus was the crucified Jesus.

So let us not mock God with metaphor or analogy:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

So what of my finger? Ten years ago I lost not just a fraction of my body. I lost a part of me. Yet even as the flesh and tissue disappeared inside a bio-hazard bin, God's healing work in my body had begun. I lacked, and I have not lacked. And as I look for the resurrection of dead, I look forward to the day when not only my finger, but my whole body and the world it inhabits will be restored and renewed; when God makes all things new.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Book Review: Revolutionary Work by William Taylor

William Taylor. Revolutionary Work – What’s the Point of the 9 to 5?
Leyland: 10Publishing, 2016.

‘We do not need to be enslaved by our work or totally depressed by it. As we put our work in its rightful, God-given place, we will find real joy and lasting purpose as we work for God.’[1]

So writes British clergyman William Taylor in his recent book Revolutionary Work – What’s the Point of the 9 to 5? Developed from four sermons preached at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, London in January 2016, Taylor promises that a biblical account of work is liberating, exhilarating, and refreshingly realistic. At 119 pages, including three appendices and a FAQ section, Revolutionary Work is a relatively brisk overview of the Bible’s teaching regarding work. This may be the books greatest strength and weakness; amidst the sudden growth in books produced on faith and work, Revolutionary Work is accessible and quick to read. Anyone who has the time and compulsion would able to read this book in an afternoon (and also download the original talks). However, in not being an exhaustive piece of writing, there are many theological and biblical concepts and ideas which are neither explored nor considered, or either assumed or dismissed out of hand. For instance, the lack of a definition of work is a striking omission from the book. Whilst Revolutionary Work helpfully interrogates several trends at play in work today, and offers sage advice for church ministers on how to care for their parishioners who work far outside their parish bounds, the problem with Revolutionary Work lies in what it doesn’t say.

Taylor begins by asking ‘What is the Point of Work?’ Chapter one offers three answers to this question. Firstly, as originally given in creation, work was good and dignified, for God himself is a worker. There is thus no place for a type of snobbery which regards some types of work as more dignified than others. Secondly, this original goodness of work is matched by a responsibility to work in the world in a manner which is accountable, caring for what God has entrusted to us. This responsibility is both a vertical responsibility between us and God, and a horizontal responsibility between us and others. This latter point remains largely undeveloped in Revolutionary Work beyond an encouragement towards generosity. Taylor also flags that this responsibility has been fundamentally altered by sins entry into the world. Thirdly, work is necessary to provide for ourselves and others – to ‘feed our faces’. In making these three points, Taylor also pushes back:

  1. on the view that there is a specific, personal, vocation for each person to find; and
  2. on the view that work exists to help us find personal fulfillment in life. Such a view is, in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, ‘completely garbage advice’.
Chapter two sets the scene for why we will never fulfil our potential in work by asking ‘What is the matter with work?’ Following Genesis 3–4, although given to us a good, work is now grim, and will always be grim. Work is ‘frustrating, painful, and ultimately futile’[2]; our place of work has been cursed by God, and the work of our hands will not last. Alongside the goodness of work is much damage wrecked through our cultural and technological advancements. Accordingly, Taylor rejects the existence of a cultural mandate; sin has radically altered our place in the world. Taylor points to God’s commissioning of Noah in Genesis 9 and the conclusion reached by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert to argue that the commission of Genesis 1.27–30 is now beyond us, and humans exercise a frightful dominion over the creatures of the world. Therefore, we must be prepared to work, but approach work without any sentimental notion of finding satisfaction or fulfilment in what we do.

Given that the picture painted by Taylor is quite grim, chapter three asks ‘Is there any hope for work?’ Taylor’s answer is that whilst work may look very much the same, the Christian will be governed by the gospel in their work. The gospel offers us a new boss, a new goal, and a new reward. We ultimately work for Jesus in our work, which enables us to work hard, and adorn the gospel in the way that we work (being kind, considerate, etc.), because we are seeking to serve Jesus. When we grasp this, Taylor argues that this will enable us to fix our eyes on Jesus, even when we are manipulated or bullied in the workplace, and therefore seek to please God in our work.

Taylor then asks ‘What now matters at work?’, and answers by pointing to our identity and attitude we hold as we go about our work. Taylor follows this up with a second question ‘What will last at work?’, and warns against firstly throwing ourselves into careerism, and secondly investing too much into the creation and the works of our hands in the hope that our work will last into eternity. Taylor argues that a tangible and specific connection between creation and new creation cannot be drawn; all that will last into the new creation are redeemed people and their godly characters. This section contains a brief interaction with Tim Keller’s use of Tolkien’s story Leaf by Niggle in Every Good Endeavour, including the reproduction of email correspondence with Keller on this issue. The reproduced section of Keller’s answer indicates that Keller does not draw the specific and tangible connection between creation and new creation that Taylor warns against. Taylor concludes this section with some brief reference to passages such as Revelation 21, 2 Peter 3, and Matthew 24 to warn against investing in work which is ultimately futile and frustrated.[3]

The fourth and final chapter looks at John 4 to ask ‘What is the work of God’. In the original sermons from January 2016, Taylor considered this section as a continuation to ‘What now matters at work?’ question, a 3.b if you will. Taylor’s intention is ‘I do not want any of us to spend our whole lives labouring at something that ultimately is pure vanity.’[4] God’s work is to gather his harvest, and his will is that we are involved in the harvesting, using Jesus’ words to advance the gospel and establish new believers. For Taylor pursing this line of work is evidently possible in the banks and law firms of the City of London. This is what we are to do in our workplaces – to advance the work of God through reaping the harvest whilst also living godly lives in our occupations. Yet for some of us, our specific gifting in Bible teaching will lead us to leave aside the work of ‘selling sugared water’, and engage in God’s life transforming work. God’s harvesting is the priority of our lives in work, for this is the only type of work which will last.

The reader of Revolutionary Work will find a call to action for Christians to grow up in their work; to neither underestimate the impact of sin on their work nor to lose sight of the opportunity work provides to live for and speak of Christ. Taylor helpfully seeks to uphold the original dignity and goodness of work, and resist the sentimentality ascribed to work’s potential to fulfil our dreams and desires. There is no room for Christians to hold bourgeois attitudes which elevate more creative or conceptual types of work above manual labour or service orientated work. Nor can Christians fool themselves with the message that their work will change the world. As James Hunter Davidson has argued elsewhere, whilst possible, cultural change is exceedingly hard, and exquisitely rare. The persuasiveness of that message is evident to me every day on campus where I walk past large posters proclaiming to university students their potential to shape and change the world. Taylor’s call for an attitude to work orientated by the gospel provides a realism to our work and the world which may well guard our hearts and minds from this pervasive cultural stream.

Perhaps the thing I appreciated most about Revolutionary Work was the third appendix: ‘How Can Churches be Revolutionary About Work?’I have no doubt that this appendix flows from the distilled wisdom of Taylor's many years at St Helen’s and the unique opportunity that church finds itself in by being located in the centre of the City of London. This appendix is a must read for people in ministry to consider how they can support and minister to their congregants who work in a place different to where they live. The possibility that churches would seek to encourage and effectively send people to work and minister in their own workplaces might be truly revolutionary, and potentially reap a great dividend for the cause of Christ.

There are a few small things throughout the book that grated against me. In a few places in the book and the original talks Taylor compares working in a law firm or a bank to slavery. Undoubtedly working in a City of London bank or law firm is rigorous and entails great expectations. However, such comments seem to be unduly naive; not only are there an increasing number of people enthralled around the world, but making such statement is either exceedingly foolish or grossly unaware of history. The prosperity of the London’s financial centre can be traced to Britain’s colonialism and involvement in the slave trade.

In addition, Revolutionary Work can’t help but come across as being written for urban professionals. Taylor admirably tries to resist this at several points, not least of all through his rejection of vocational snobbery. But the focus is largely on paid work, and a definition of work within the book would have increased its usefulness for people whose work is unpaid.

However, Revolutionary Work is far too brief a treatment of work, which lacks theological rigour. Because of these weaknesses, Revolutionary Work is regrettably a flawed book. This comes through typically not so much in what it says, but in what it fails to say. Often this comes from a surprising lack of theological reflection, coupled with an exegesis of passages that is sometimes sloppy, and other times inattention to where they fit into overall scheme of Scripture. The brief mention of 2 Peter 3.10 in chapter 3 is a case in point of the former, where Taylor follows the relatively novel but ultimately exegetically unsatisfactory interpretation that Peter has in view the dissolution of the cosmos. Taylor’s handling of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1 and 9 is a case in point of the latter. Yes, the Noahic mandate appears to be different to the Adamic mandate. Yes, for all of our cultural and technological sophistication, humanity has a great propensity to find more sophisticated ways to harm and kill each other. But just as Taylor complains that we need to read beyond Genesis 1–2 to understand work, so do we need to read beyond Genesis 9 to understand the place of the cultural mandate in Scripture. Whereas Revolutionary Work argues that the cultural mandate was so fundamentally altered by sin to essentially no longer exist, one cannot help but be struck by the echoes of Genesis 1.28 in God’s commission to Israel, such as in Numbers 32.22 and Joshua 18.1. Likewise the technological development pioneered by the line of Cain is taken up by God in the Spirit-endowed craftsmanship of the Tabernacle by Bezalel in Exodus 31–38.

Ultimately this is an under-developed conception of the nature of redemption.  Taylor is undoubtedly right to highlight the ongoing affect of sin on our work and agency. The mandate given to Adam is no longer achievable by him. However, the depiction of redemption in the New and Old Testaments (i.e. Isaiah 65–66, Colossians 1, etc.), and reflected upon by the Fathers and Reformers, considers redemption to be not only the undoing of the curse, but the enabling of God’s creation projection to be put back on track and ultimately reach the purpose for which it had been originally made. In Adam, this is no longer possible. But now in Christ, and through the power of the Spirit, God will perfect his creation. Unsurprisingly, this was prefigured in the early depictions of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings 4, who appears as a second Adam enjoying the garden and naming the animals. The cultural mandate will be achieved in and through great King David’s greater Son.

Noticeable absent from Revolutionary Work is a definition of work. Whilst such a definition is notoriously difficult, the absence of such a definition skewers the trajectory of the book. This again reflects a lack of theological development. Firstly, Revolutionary Work exposes itself to the charge of reducing the doctrine of creation to merely Genesis 1–2. However, marriage, society, and government are all parts of the created order which gain further elucidation throughout the Scriptures. As to does the doctrine of providence, God’s sustaining of the world, which is rightly belongs to a consideration of creation. That God not only made but continues to sustain his creation, and in fact holds it together in Christ, is an indication that participating in the creation order is not antithetical to God’s will. Moreover, it suggests that there is such a thing as common grace, and that therefore there are good reasons to work in God’s world besides evangelistic opportunities. The Christian who works for the government may do so both for the opportunities it provides to reach out to people, but also with an awareness of passages such as 1 Timothy 2 and Romans 13 that God uses governments to order his world and provide for peaceful society’s to exist. In fact, the functioning of good government which maintains justice seems, at least in Paul’s mind, to facilitate the flourishing of Christian ministry and mission.

Secondly, there is a coherence between creation and new creation which Revolutionary Work pays scant attention to. Whereas Taylor resists drawing a connection between this creation and the world to come, classical theologians have held to a nexus between protology and eschatology. Where this would have aided Revolutionary Work would have been in the articulation not only of the generic usefulness of work such as ‘feeding your face’, but the telic purposes of work. I take it (following Andrew Cameron) that there are three purposes to work: to exercise dominion over the natural work, to contribute to the flourishing and good ordering of society, and to participate in the ‘work of God’. These three ends are present, sometimes in embryonic form, in the creation account. Throughout Israel’s history, and within the New Testament, the three purposes of work are evident and good. Reformed theology resisted a sacred/secular divide of vocations by insisting that all people are called to participate in all three ends of work. By holding the three ends together, the reformers were able to resist a facile prioritization of work based upon what will last or not. I take it that marriage, which is under the Genesis 3 curse much like work, and won’t last beyond death, is still a good thing to engage in. I doubt that we would characterize marriage (or, for that matter, child-rearing) in itself as futile and grim.

The inclusion of the teleology of work would have significantly altered the tone of Revolutionary Work. Taylor argues in the opening chapter that work, as originally given, was good and dignified, entailing responsibilities towards our fellow image bearers. However, one is left with the overwhelming sense that work is more futile than good, and will only ever be grim. Our work in a world groaning for its redemption will always be frustrated by the ravages of time, sin, and death. However, there are good reasons to do work in and of itself, not least of all for the opportunities it provides to love others. The teacher is able to invest in her work, seeking professional development and a high level of care for her students because she serves Jesus and out of a love for her students to grow in their knowledge of the world. The sewage worker or garbage collector’s work is an act of love for the society who is only able to flourish and stay healthy because of their work. Work is a means for loving a lot of people in a few specific ways. Work as an opportunity to love offers an approach to work which goes beyond ‘work is grim, so just grin and bear it’.

Taylor’s discussion of the Christological impact on our work in chapter 3 might therefore be considerably expanded. Beyond a brief discussion at the beginning of the third chapter concerning the nature of the gospel via Ephesians 1.9–10, Revolutionary Work largely assumes the gospel. The inclusion of the gospel in Revolutionary Work would have provided a context for the consideration of how Jesus changes our work. Whereas in Isaiah 2 the work of our hands is directed towards idolatry, in 1 Thessalonians 4.9–11 the work of our hands are directed towards love of our neighbour. Indeed, according to Ephesians 2 and Titus 3, we have been saved by Jesus in order to do good work. Not only do we have a new master in our work, and a new opportunity to display the virtues of the age to come, but a new reason to work well in our work, contributing to a world which is lost and without hope. This was Augustine of Hippo’s conclusion in City of God, that the citizens of the heavenly city are able in Christ to appropriate and superimpose a new meaning on their work, participating in God’s providential sustaining of the world. Such participation is only ever partial – there is no sense in which we send the rain and the sun on the world. But in God’s kindness, participate we do, embodying in our speech, behaviour, and very lives the virtues and characteristics of the life of the world to come when God makes all things new.

Finally, Revolutionary Work’s refusal to endorse the ‘reach your full potential in your work’ narrative is a much welcomed corrective to a prevailing cultural norm. The responsibility of those who would enter into the realm of faith and work is not only resist this narrative, but supply our churches with an alternative narrative. The fact remains that the work place is a significant area of people’s discipleship and formation. We need to expect and encourage people that their work is a place for bearing fruit for Jesus. That will absolutely include our gracious witness. But bearing fruit in the New Testament is so much more for that, as the gospel of faith leads to love as we submit every aspect of our lives under the all encompassing Lordship of Jesus Christ.[5]

I appreciate much of what Taylor has attempted to do in Revolutionary Work. This is a book which argues that being a Christian makes a difference to how you work. But it doesn't quite manage to fully spell out what that means. It turns out that 119 pages (81 not counting the appendices, FAQ, and references) is far too brief to fulfil the job required. Instead of revolutionary, the result is the same old quietist approach to work which leaves the nine-to-five largely disengaged from the scope of the Christian life. 

[1] p.3.
[2] p.39.
[3] This section will pay careful for those interested in wider faith and work conversations taking place in the evangelical world at the moment. Two words of warning though from myself. Firstly, it would be a mistake to think that Keller makes a point solely based upon Tolkien’s work. In Every Good Endeavour, as Taylor acknowledges, Keller exegetes passages such as 1 Corinthians 15.58. While this is not uncontroversial, Keller’s use of that passage is one supported by the work of New Testament scholars such as Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa in their 1 Corinthians commentary. Secondly, Taylor makes reference to Tolkien’s original intention to explain purgatory through Leaf by Niggle. This may well be the case, but, that is contested somewhat in Tolkien scholarship. 
[4] p.63.
[5] The inclusion of fruitfulness in the conversation opens up the consideration of whether or not our work is actually ood. Taylor briefly acknowledges that not all work is permissible on pp.52–53. The frustration of work means  work can go bad. This extends to beyond particular types of work such as being a pimp, but also how we do our work, such as the farmer who over uses their water resources and thereby damages their neighbours and the land; the university administrators who take advantage of international students and extort money from them, the church minister who abuses their position of power to intimidate and bully people. Adolf Eichmann was a diligent worker in his office day after day, but through his diligence millions met their deaths. We need to think about the essence of work to be able to assess the goodness of work.