Friday, October 04, 2019

Calvin on Caring for the Land

'The earth was given to man with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation...The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things that God has committed to our hands, on the condition that being content with frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care what shall remain. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits to be marred or ruined by neglect. Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; l let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then will he neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved.'  John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Prayer in the time of War

A prayer, most likely written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in 1548 when England was at war with Scotland:

Most merciful God, the Granter of all peace and quietness, the Giver of all good gifts, the Defender of all nations, who hast willed all men to be accounted as our neighbours, and commanded us to love them as ourself, and not to hate our enemies, but rather to wish them, yea and also to do them good if we can: bow down thy holy and merciful eyes upon us, and look upon the small portion of earth which professeth thy holy name, and thy Son Jesu Christ. Give to all us desire of peace, unity, and quietness, and a speedy wearisomeness of all war, hostility, and enmity to all them that be our enemies; that we and they may, in one heart and charitable agreement, praise thy most holy name, and reform our lives to thy godly commandments. And especially have an eye to this small isle of Britain. And that which was begun by thy great and infinite mercy and love, to the unity and concord of both the nations, that the Scottish men and we might for ever live hereafter, in one love and amity, knit into one nation, by the most happy and godly marriage of the King’s Majesty our sovereign Lord, and the young Scottish Queen: whereunto promises and agreements hath been heretofore most firmly made by human order: Grant, O Lord, that the same might go forward, and that our sons’ sons, and all our posterity hereafter, may feel the benefit and commodity of thy great gift of unity, granted in our days. Confound all those that worketh against it: let not their counsel prevail: diminish their strength: lay thy sword of punishment upon them that interrupteth this godly peace; or rather convert their hearts to the better way, and make them embrace that unity and peace which shall be most for thy glory, and the profit of both the realms. Put away from us all war and hostility, and if we be driven thereto, hold thy holy and strong power and defence over us: be our garrison, our shield, and buckler. And seeing we seek but a perpetual amity and concord, and performance of quietness promised in thy name, pursue the same with us, and send thy holy angels to be our aiders, that either none at all, or else so little loss and effusion of Christian blood as can, be made thereby. Look not, O Lord, upon our sins, or the sins of our enemies, what they deserve; but have regard to thy most plenteous and abundant mercy, which passeth all thy works, being so infinite and marvellous. Do this, O Lord, for thy Son’s sake, Jesu Christ.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The War on Waste

This week I started using a bamboo toothbrush. They’ve been in the cupboard for a while, and I’ve had to wait until my I’d finished with my last plastic one. It’s part of a concerted effort on our part to more thoughtful about our environmental impact. 

The reusable coffee cups came at the start of the year. 

Then after the latest season of ABC’s The War on Waste we installed a little worm farm on our balcony.

There have been moments of failure along the way - every time I’ve forgotten to take bags with me on shopping trips. Or the wry judgment I’ve felt from friends when bartenders have placed a straw in my drink. 

There have moments of abject confusion. A few weeks ago I stood at the bin, with a shredded and sticky mandarin peel in my hand, not knowing what to do with it. Should I put in the bin? (And thereby send some more methane into the ground). Or should I throw it on the garden nearby? (And thereby litter in a space where there are no composting worms. The only positive benefit along this route would perhaps be for the rats of Newtown). 34 years of formation kicked into the gear; the mandarin skin went into the bin.

I call it The War on Waste effect, and it says something of the measure that host Craig Reucassel has had on my moral sensibilities. 

Similar to other work originating from The Chaser, it pursues information through entertainment. But more than the usual satire, War on Waste is a call to arms - a show that demands action. And what action has been taken. After only two seasons and a handful of episodes, the major supermarkets have banned single use plastic bags.

But I find it a fascinating show for what it reveals about firstly morality in our society, and secondly how Christians have responded to Reucassel’s call to arms. 

On the first front, it’s undeniable that The War on Waste operates within a moral ecology with clearly defined ideas of what is right and what is wrong. This moralism is evidenced in Reucassel’s use of language such as right, wrong, and shame. There are warriors out there, fighting against the complacency and laziness which has led to some of the ecological challenges we face. 

What the rhetoric of The War on Waste suggests is that the language of moral realism Christians have been ingesting for the last 40 years in their world view studies of “the West” may need to be taken with a pinch of salt. 

In case it has been lost on anyone, the cultural moment we inhabit seems to believe in a moral universe, of some description. We are longer living in the days when the modernist pale misreading of postmodernism as relativism seems plausible. Instead we live in a society that can discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong. The rise of sectarian partisanship, the fragmenting if common objects of love within culture, the failure of cherished institutions to protect children or act with financial prudence, these have all contributed to a rise of anxiety in our society. It’s in this climate that we’ve seen the re-emergence of a secular Puritanism; a morality self-consciously convinced by its own obvious right-ness. 

Christians in Australia have been increasing facing this trend for sometime now in several social ethic issues. From euthanasia to same-sex marriage, the arguments made by those outside the church have lacked the hallmarks of relativism. I’m the part of Sydney where I live, people are generally fairly happy to sign up to the golden rules, not harming others and loving their neighbours. And amongst the members of the boomer generation I know, they’re convinced that they have fulfilled all righteousness on this front.

You see, it’s not that people aren’t into objective truth any more. It’s just that increasingly, people reject the evangelical of objective truth. 

On the Christian response to The War on Waste, the show once again reveals that in some of my Christian circles, there is an unwillingness or inability to connect ecological care with the Christian walk 

On the one hand that isn’t surprising, given that responding to climate change has in some measure been the undoing of every Australian government since 2007.

On the other hand, among my individual Christian friends - the ones truth be told whom mostly are not Anglican ministers - there has been a willingness to try something - anything - to make a difference.  

I read one response to The War on Waste a little while ago that thoughtfully sought to engage with the program. At the end, it draw the conclusion that recycling etc is ok, but don’t get the wrong idea about saving the world because only God does that. And the only reason therefore to think about cycling and caring for the planet is because of the second of the two great commandments: “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

I found that an interesting conclusion to draw for two reasons. Firstly, whilst we inevitability watch The War on Waste in the context of grappling with climate change in a post Inconvenient Truth world, The War on Waste isn’t really about climate change. Grappling with e-Waste, preventing the degradation of marine life, or learning to recycle would all be good things to do anyway. Climate change or no climate change. Current ecological challenges gives recycling etc a greater clarity perhaps. But exercising responsible dominion over the earth would require to think through these issues even if we’re weren't facing global warming. For me personally, The War on Waste has exposed settled habits and patterns of behaviour that would otherwise lead to complacency and an abdication of our responsibility to the rest of creation. So seeking to reduce waste is not driven by a misguided eschatology, it’s about wise responsibility.

Secondly, it is becoming increasingly common in Evangelical circles to say that protecting our planet only makes sense in light of the second of the two great commandments. That is, environmental responsibility only makes sense Christianly out of love for our neighbours. Which is partially true; sustainable care of the earth is an act of love for our neighbours. Ecological degradation through CO2 emissions, global warming, nuclear and industrial waste, etc harms and kills our neighbours. But it’s only partially true.

Take this recent example from Moore College’s Lionel Windsor: “We have a responsibility to do what is right out of love of our neighbour, not out of saving the world.”

I find this to be a curious move to make. It’s not too dissimilar to the view of the Inner West baby boomers I met who are convinced of their own goodness because of their ability to meet this requirement. 

I think it’s a sub-Christian argument. Not because love of neighbour is irrelevant for environmental action. But because the first of the two great commands is also relevant. That is,   Windsor’s argument is anthropological rather than theological, and fails to recognise that one might seek to limit your wastage and your overall ecological footprint out of your love for God. 

After all, don’t we read time and time again in the Scriptures that the non-human creatures don’t exist for us, even though they live in closely bound relationships with us. They exist for God:

The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. – Psalm 104:21

There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play with. – Psalm 104:26

Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! 
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! 
Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!  – Psalm 148:7-10

All things exist for the praise and delight of God their creator. If we needed any convincing of this, the stirring account of the magnificent Jesus in Colossians 1 underscores this point with triple underlines:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things were created through him and for him.  – Colossians 1:16

Preserving biodiversity, exercising wisdom in dealing with our waste, resisting the impulse to consume – each of these can be pursued out of a love for neighbour AND a love for the God who delights in his creation and made a world that is beautifully diverse. Moreover, the gospel of the kingdom calls us to repent our selfish desires and forsake the innate need we have to consume at the expense of other creatures. The world doesn’t exist for us. David writes that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ This is true, regardless of any environmental emergency. It is time to attend once more to this doctrine, and allow it to shape our love and obedience of God as we live in the world he has made.

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.