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Monday, 28 February 2011

Our Forever Hero

The death of a hero
Richard Feynman, the celebrated American physicist once described the day he realised he knew more than his dad, his childhood hero. To sail past his hero proved a kind of bereavement.

Moving beyond a hero is more than a bereavement, it can be a scary experience, because now you are 'on your own'. Without signposts you really are exploring terra nova. 

The death of our Christian heroes
Much the same thing can happen in our walk with God. We may discover over time that brothers and sisters in Christ - personally known and those known only through their writings - are left behind. Perhaps some have gone to glory, perhaps others provided us only with valuable rudiments, perhaps some have tragically fallen, while there are others we believe (hopefully after sober assessment) we have moved beyond in some way. 

The Hero who never dies
But in Jesus Christ we have a hero who will always be ahead of us. For in the realms of knowledge, in him dwells all the treasures of divine wisdom and knowledge. In the realm of the Spirit, he possessed  fulness without measure. In suffering, no-one can outdo the One who sweat drops of blood and endured the forsakeness of his Father. In good works, the world wouldn't be big enough to hold a chronicle of them.

It must be scary to realise you've passed all your earthly heroes. But it's a comfort for every beliver to know that Jesus Christ will always be not only the author (start), but the perfector (end) of their faith.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Africans are at it too....

The excitiment of truth from different continents....
I love to hear how conservative evangelicals are thinking and writing around the world. (I have no similar interest in what the liberals are thinking: I could tell you what they were writing before I read them. How? Read contemporary philosophy, ethics and science, add a sprinkling of religion and hey presto, out comes liberal theology. Why waste time reading what you know? So predictable, so here today and gone tomorrow, so passe, so frankly boring. Liberal theology puts a wet finger into the air, detects the direction of the winds of modern thought and like some foolish sheep rushes off to follow).

Evangelical theology on the other hand is exciting because, rooted in the Scriptures, instead of following the world it interprets the world, fearlessly critiquing it and showing up its foolish silly idols.

A 'monumental work'
With this in mind I waited for the Africa Bible Commentary to arrive in the post. Called by Rick Warren - no less - "a monumental work" and by John Stott "a publishing landmark" I waited excitedly  to open the 1600 some pages.

On page ix were are told "All of the ABC editors are seminary professors". Oh dear, dear, dear. From page xiii onwards  the contributors are listed (70 in all - why seventy? LXX echoes? 7 times 10 numerology?). All Africans with wonderful names such as Adei, Bediako, Kosse and Semenye.......

Oh dear, here we go again...
....however, as each name is listed, what matters most in their brief CVs turns out to be their 'professional credentials' whether it be degrees or the names of the former companies for which they worked.

I thought for a moment that the Africans would run an independent course and think differently - as they do on so  many issues - and think more biblically than we Westerners. But no. What matters when writing commentary is not a man's experience in life pastoring and preaching, but his academic qualifications.

The Africans are thinking just like we westerners who think that academic qualifications matter most.

When, O When, will the Church return to Scripture and there discover that what God is looking for - and hence what we should be looking for - are spiritual qualities. What qualifies a man or woman for ministry in the Kingdom is not what letters man bestows, but what unction the Holy Spirit  bestows, not how many hours they have sat in lectures, but how many hours are spent in prayer, not in what institute they were trained, but in Whose Company they have dwelt.

In fact, a really Scriptural approach would require of us to hide our qualifications (lest pride take over) and call them what the apostle Paul called them "I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" ('rubbish', my dear readers may be aware is NIV-polite-speak for 'dung').

On the last day Jesus will not ask anyone how many degrees they earned nor where they were earned. He will ask much more important questions, such as Did you exercise faith? How did you use the gifts I gave you? Were you humble? Did you exhibit a servant spirit? Have you been a good and faithful servant?

We're to blame you know. I notice that so many of these African Friends studied over in the West, where showing off your qualifications is a national pastime, copied by every Christian publisher.

After saying all of this, I am enjoying the new perspective of this Commentary. We haven't managed, it seems, to have completely squeezed the Africans into our mold.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Medicine for the Prayerless

Reasons not to pray
There are a number of reasons Christians may feel unable to pray. Guilt is one, trials another. There is however a universal medicine for the prayerless heart and that is a reminder of the character and glory of our Mediator in heaven, Jesus Christ our Great High Priest.

The medicine in four spoon fulls
The book of Hebrews encourages those who have drifted away to return; and it's chief inducement is to lay before the reader the glory of Jesus Christ, and most especially his ability to act as our sympathetic mediator. Here are four reasons we should pray without ceasing:

(1) Jesus was and is a real man like we are
Jesus was made like his brothers in every way. In his humanity he was, as Paul says "made in the likeness of sinful flesh". That does not mean he was a sinner, but it does mean he was a s close to us as it is possible to imagine - without sin. We are not to imagine that his divinity helped his humanity - so that he wasn't really a human being for he could call on his divinity in a fix. No, he was a real man, who lived a real human life, as we do. And gloriously, he remains a man in heaven now. Able to understand and be moved by our human frail condition. So you can pray knowing God understands what it is like to be a frail human being.

(2) Jesus suffered as we suffer
There is hardly a suffering - and certainly no category of suffering - that Jesus did not face. He experienced family pressures, work pressures, financial pressures, desertion, torture, pain, abandonment. In fact it was God's will to allow him to suffer so that he could walk in our shoes and become a sympathetic high priest. He knows what we are passing through - if not the exact experience, then the category. So you can pray knowing God in heaven understands.

(3) Jesus was tempted as we are tempted
At the end of his forty days in the wilderness Jesus experienced the savage onslaught of Satanic temptation, wave after wave, wicked suggestion after wicked suggestion. He was, says Hebrews, tempted in every way that we are tempted - yet without sin. He may not have experienced every particular temptation, but surely experienced every category of temptation. And so he is able to sympathise with us when we are sore tempted by the evil one. The fact that he could not sin did not lesson the power of temptation, but rather heightened it. The sea wall that never gives in experiences a more savage beating from the rising tide than the sea wall that breaks at the fourth wave. We know when we pray to God that someone in heaven understands the savage power of our temptations.

(4) Jesus wrestled with God's will
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus faced an ugly future - death in all its manifest forms - and recoiled from it. He wrestled with the Father's will, but in the end submitted to it. When God asks us to do things that are difficult, we can know that he understands what it is like to wrestle with God's will.

The medicine for prayerlessness is to realise that we have in heaven someone who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, and so to pray knowing we will be heard - no matter what we are passing through.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Churches need more than pastors and teachers to grow the Kingdom of God

The era of the "sola pastora"
The european reformation of the sixteenth century attempted to restore the church to five New Testament principles: 

·  1 Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone")
·  2 Sola fide ("by faith alone")
·  3 Sola gratia ("by grace alone")
·  4 Solus Christus or Solo Christo ("Christ alone" or "through Christ alone")
·  5 Soli Deo gloria ("glory to God alone")

Fine principles. But in reality, you could have added a sixth "sola pastora". This is the view that the most important gift in the church - in some cases the only gift in the church - is that of pastor or teacher. Of course this was not articulated, just assumed. And we who have inherited the theology of the Reformation have swallowed a camel and still think it to be a gnat.

But where in the New Testament does it teach that the Kingdom grows by the addition or multiplication of pastors alone? And from experience - with some notable exceptions - when the only gift or the main gift in the church is presented as the preaching/pastoring gift, that church is either filled with sermon-tasters (there is no necessary connection between a sermon-taster and a disciple of Jesus), or perhaps even worse, the pastor attempts to undertake all kinds of roles, of which he is gifted for only one or two: and in this scenario, there is no necessary growth of the Kingdom, either in depth or breadth.  

Five gifts - at least - not one
A far better approach is to be found in Scripture (remember sola scriptura?), in Ephesians 4. Here five (sometimes thought to be four) gifts are seen to be absolutely essential for the growth of the church: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor & teacher (or pastor/teacher). Together these five gifts and gifted persons are assigned the task of preparing God's people for works of service so that the body of Christ can be built up.

Conservative Christians have traditionally excluded the first two gifts either (a) by association with excess, listing every abuse of the title 'apostle' and 'prophet' - and there have been some Big Time excesses, or (b) by capitalization:  there can be no Apostles as in Paul, John et al, there can be no Prophets as in Moses, David, et al. The result is that the other three roles, evangelist and pastor and teacher are held up to be the only important church-building roles around today: and often evangelists are excluded, leaving just pastors and teachers. 

The tragedy of this approach - not surprisingly because it is a distortion of Scripture - is that the dynamic ministries are denied: and so it should not surprise us that churches who are led by those with pastor/teacher gifts alone do not grow the Kingdom.

Another way
But another approach to Ephesians chapter four is possible. Let's think of apostle with a small "a" and prophet with a small "p". At root an apostle is a sent one - someone who spearheads a new ministry somewhere. A "prophet" is someone who can see what no-one else is seeing, who can see where God's people ought to be, but aren't. Both of these are dynamic ministries (and so too is the role of the evangelist). 

Pastors and teachers care for the static requirements of the sheep, whereas evangelists, apostles and prophets are looking to lands beyond the flock.

What we can say, at very least, is that somewhere within the life of the local church, there ought to be space made for prophets or  prophetic voices who are dissatisfied with the status quo when they compare it to Scripture and are keen for the church to reform. (Perhaps we now ought to call Martin Luther a prophet; certainly in the 20th Century we can recognise AW Tozer as a prophet.) And we ought to make space for apostles (we sometimes call them the lame "missionary") - or at least the apostolic voice -  people who are zealous to expand the kingdom to new places.

What is for sure is that churches who only emphasise the pastor/teacher and totally ignore the prophetic, the apostolic and the evangelistic gifts will one day die.

All this, we predict, is new wine for many; and for old wineskins perhaps the wine will prove too heady and rich.