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.