Thursday, 9 October 2014

Blogging Below the Line Day 4

"Homesickness" by Kristina Alexanderson Source: Photopin

Breakfast: N/A[1]
Lunch: Omelette (1 egg) and 30g of rice. One glass of budget cola (200ml).[2]
Dinner: Pizza dough with quarter of a can of spaghetti. One glass of budget cola (200ml).
Total Kj consumed: 2905j
Total burnt off through exercise: 532kj
Recommended minimum Kj intake: 4187kj
If every day was like today: I’d lose 9kg over 5 weeks. 

They say that the second and third days of Live Below the Line are the hardest. I disagree. Today is the hardest. I’m just so sick of tasteless food and all I can think about is chocolate, bacon, and chicken, and how this will all be over soon.

Also, I’ve started having nightmares about Live Below the Line. Well not full on nightmares but I keep dreaming that I’m halfway through a really nice meal and then I remember I’m actually supposed to be doing the challenge, and that I’ve cheated everyone who sponsored me.
On the bright side, I’m going out for breakfast on Saturday morning. Baaaacon…

I recently came across the Parable of the Rapture by theologian/philosopher Peter Rollins. I think it provides a very interesting spin on the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats found in Matthew 25:31-46.

I really like this spin on the parable because it confronts the idea that the Gospel is all about shooting off to Heaven after you die to go and live in the clouds to escape the fate of earth. Although this is a very popular view in the Church today, I think more and more people are coming around to realise that this simply isn’t all that Biblical and that the Gospel is as much about life BEFORE death as it is about life AFTER death.[3]  

Blogging Below the Line Day 3

Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, Source: Photopin

Breakfast: Porridge (100g)
Lunch: N/A (I didn’t have time for lunch today).
Dinner: Pizza dough with quarter of a can of spaghetti.. One glass of budget cola (250ml).
Total Kj consumed: 2416kj
Total burnt off through exercise: 1202kj
Recommended minimum Kj intake: 4187kj
If every day was like today: I’d lose 10kg over 5 weeks. 

I think my body is starting to adapt to not having much to eat. I have to say though that I was really tempted by the free jelly beans I was given at the video store. I have found though that is a lot harder to concentrate for long periods of time.

Reflection – I Shall Not Hate
Matthew 5:43-48 Love Your Enemies
 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

These words are no less challenging today than they were two thousand years ago when Jesus preached them. But back then the Jews were residing under Roman occupation and they hated the Romans. As far as they were concerned the land belonged to them and the Romans had to leave – and some (the Zealots) weren’t opposed to using violence to achieve this goal. But Jesus turns this around and tells them that they are actually to love the Romans. But I think that Jesus understood that violence and hatred just perpetuate more violence and hatred.

Now I have a hard enough time consistently loving those who annoy me, let alone those who are trying to kill me.[1] And that’s why when I read Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish’s simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring autobiography I Shall Not Hate I found myself extremely challenged. The book takes you from his childhood growing up in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, through his struggle to get an education in refugee schools, through to the climax of the book: his experience during the 2008-2009 Gaza War. Abuelaish recounts in horrific detail what it was like to live under siege trapped in his house, including the experience of his whole family sleeping in one room with the kids spread out across different walls so that if a shell hit their wall not all of them would be killed.[2] But nothing prepares you for the horrific description he gives of the fateful day on 12th December when his house was targeted by tanks (a warning that his description is pretty graphic):  

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Blogging Below the Line Day 2

Source: Photopin/Renaud Camus

Breakfast: Porridge (100g)
Lunch: Pizza dough with quarter of a can of spaghetti.
Dinner: Spiral pasta (50g) with frozen vegetables (50g). One glass of budget cola (250ml).
Total Kj consumed: 3286
Total burnt off through exercise: N/A (I stayed inside and watched Lord of the Rings)
Recommended minimum Kj intake: 4187kj
If every day was like today: I’d lose 8kg over 5 weeks.  

Today was a bit harder. I really started to feel the hunger about 2pm. I also started to really feel the effects of not eating as much as I usually would in regards to energy levels. I just felt completely flat today. Also I’m really starting to crave sushi. And yoghurt. The problem is that I gave all the packets of chips and chocolate biscuits to my sister to store at her place so they wouldn’t tempt me, but I didn’t thing to give her the pottles of yoghurt in my fridge as well.

Reflection – Won’t you be my neighbour?
Luke 10 25-37: The Good Samaritan
This episode starts when “an expert of the Law [of Moses]” (i.e. a religious expert) asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  So Jesus turns the question back on him and asks him what is written in the Law. The expert replies correctly by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 – Love God with all your being and love your neighbour.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Blogging Below the Line: Day 1

Source: Photopin.

Don’t know what Live Below the Line is? Read today’s reflection at the bottom of this post first.

This section will contain my meals for the day plus information on the kjs I consume through eating, those I burn off through exercise, and a projected weight loss amount that I would experience if I lived in extreme poverty for five weeks.

Breakfast: Porridge (100g)
Lunch: Rice (20g) and frozen vegetables (30g)[1]
Dinner: Pizza dough with quarter of a can of spaghetti. One glass of budget cola (250ml).[2]
Total Kj consumed: 2760
Total burnt off through exercise: 1096
Recommended Kj intake: 4187kj
If every day was like today: I’d lose 10kg over 5 weeks.  

This section will include my random observations throughout the day on what it feels like –both mentally and physically - to live under the extreme poverty line in regards to diet.

I’m feeling a bit optimistic but also pretty tired at the same time. I really didn’t expect to feel the effects of not eating my normal amount so quickly. The hardest part of the day was surprisingly not catching up with a friend at McDonald’s while he ate lunch but walking back past Pizza Hut and having the smell waft down the road at me.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Walking With Those Who Doubt

Source: Photopin

I have a problem.

I’m a guy.

This means when someone comes to me with a problem my first instinct is to fly into problem-solving mode. I want to give people five easy steps to fix their problem so they can stop worrying about the problem rather than being particularly sympathetic.[1]

Case in point: The reason I’m very open about my struggles with doubt is so that I can be more approachable for those dealing with doubt. I want to help them through what I went through. So when a fellow student mentioned some doubts he was having I sprang into action. You see he had asked a theology lecturer what he thought of Adam and Eve in context of the creation/evolution debate. The lecturer, being a former biologist, gave him a very different answer to the one he was used to. This, understandably, lead the student to become very confused as to what to believe. This is where I sprang into action with my vast library of books on the subject. I immediately went through a list of books he could read on the subject. I told him to read chapters nine and ten of Denis Alexander’s Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?, Francis Collins’ The Language of God, and John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One.[2]

But I’ve recently come to wonder if that was really the right way to handle the situation. The student’s problem wasn’t that he hadn’t been given answers, it was that he had experienced a whole paradigm shift where what he thought was true wasn’t lining up with new information. He had to rethink his metanarrative.

Perhaps my latest episode with doubt illustrates this better.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Muslims

Source: Photopin/Ted Swedenburg

There’s something I’ve noticed about the way we evangelicals talk about Muslims.

We’re terrible at it.

Okay this is the point where I state the obvious and point out that we’re not a monolithic entity of talking-terribly-about-Muslims-ness. Often it’s the most extreme voices shouting the loudest. But it’s enough to make me cringe when the topic is brought up in Christian circles.

And this bothers me. It bothers me that when we talk about the subject of Muslims there will usually be that one person who characterises them all as jihadists. It bothers me that a viral video posing as a VW ad defines suicide bombing as “Muslim culture” despite the fact that suicide bombing is an incredibly controversial topic amongst Muslims with the majority condemning it. It bothers me that the keffiyeh, a traditional Arab/Turkish headscarf, is often branded by those in the Western world as “a terrorist scarf”. I’m tired of hearing that we can’t allow more Muslims into Western countries because they’ll go all Sharia law on us and slit our throats as soon as we let them in.[1] 

Now I know what some people will already be thinking. I’m some namby-pamby political correctness police. I’m not.[2] Instead I want to put forth a case arguing from a logical, biblical, and practical viewpoint as to why we need to learn to talk better about Muslims.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Gungor, Doubt, and the Church (Part 2)

Photo by Luca Ventor

Part 1 can be found here.

The second aspect that I think makes the story so significant is that Gungor represents a person of influence expressing their doubt very publicly.  Philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins makes the point that the church is designed to insulate us from doubt. Churches often preach sermons of certainty and sing songs of triumphalism. In short the Church believes for us when we doubt.[1] He says “this only becomes apparent when a minister gets up and says I’m full of doubt and not knowing. I don’t know if God’s there half the time. Or a musician gets up and sings a song of darkness, a song of despair. Or someone prays a prayer which says God I don’t think you’re there. Where are you? At this point the people aren’t faced with something they don’t know; they have those doubts as well. Rather they are faced with the reality of the thing they would rather ignore.”[2]  

And I think this is the reason why Gungor has caused such a stir. Because while we know that there are many Christians with significant questions, as a celebrity Christian, is a person of influence who reminds us that sometimes believers don’t find their answers in the status quo. Now I don’t think Gungor is trying to lead people astray. I don’t think he’s sitting in his evil lair plotting how to unravel Christianity while flaring his cape for effect. I think he’s someone genuinely doubting what he grew up with.[3]

And I think how we deal with Gungor is going to send a huge message to the doubters in our mist. I can guarantee you that when you go to church on Sunday there will be people sitting in the pews who struggle with doubt immensely. Of course we can choose to “farewell” or excommunitweet Gungor. But what message does that send those who struggle with the loneliness of doubt?[4] Are we going to kick them out of the church if they dare to speak up about their doubts? Are we going to revoke their Christian card?

Friday, 8 August 2014

Gungor, Doubt, and the Church (Part 1)

Photo by Luca Ventor

It seems that Michael Gungor of the Dove-award winning band Gungor has been creating a bit of a stir in the Evangelical world lately. Now I have to admit that I’m not terribly familiar with Gungor’s music (I honestly assumed that they were a Norwegian Black Metal band when I first heard their name) and I usually would let this go without comment. But I think Gungor’s latest controversy brings up a rather important issue.

In a recent blog post titled What Do We Believe? Michael Gungor described his journey with doubt. Gungor recalled a conversation he had with a friend who said he no longer considered Gungor a Christian. And many Evangelicals have joined in with accusations that Gungor has departed from biblical orthodoxy. So what fundamental belief has Gungor denied? Has he denied the existence of God? The resurrection of Jesus? It’s actually neither of these.[1]

Gungor has stated that he can no longer hold to a literal interpretation of Genesis.[2]

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Medieval Misconceptions: Did Pope John XXI Really Ban Gravity?

Plato debates Aristotle (right) in Raphael's
The School of Athens (1509-1510) Source: Photopin

When people learn that the Medieval period is my favourite period in history I can usually tell what they’re thinking without them even saying it. Why would anybody want to study a period that was so intellectually and culturally stagnant? Unfortunately the popular image of the Middle Ages is often filled with misconceptions (which is actually what makes it so interesting to study). This post is the first in an irregular series in which I will examine popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages and try to shed light on reality. 
The Myth: Pope John XXI (1215-1277) condemned the laws of physics as heresy.

Popularised by: Stephen Hawking in his documentary, Curiosity: Did God Create the Universe?
The Story Goes: “Back in 1277, Pope John XXI felt so threatened by the idea of [unbreakable] laws of nature that he decreed them a heresy. Unfortunately that did nothing to change the law governing gravity. A few months later the palace roof collapsed and fell on the Pope’s head.”[1]

The Reality
Much of the documentary’s first half goes to great pains to emphasise the superiority of science over religion and superstition. This story serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when you allow “superstition” to govern your life instead of embracing science. That silly pope!

It’s also largely a distortion of the actual story.  

Monday, 21 July 2014

God's Forgotten Ones

Source: Photopin

I recently finished reading Blood Brothers, the biography of Elias Chacour, a Palestinian priest. It’s a roller-coaster ride that takes you from his childhood as a refugee, to his time studying abroad, to his challenges in parish ministry and political activism. When I finished it I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness as he pleaded with Western Christians not to judge his people. After all, it’s what we do right? I’ve seen many churches that have Israel’s flag next to a cross or their national flag, but I’ve never seen a church with a Palestinian flag in it. I’ve heard many Christians proclaim a deep love for the people of Israel, but I can’t remember the last time I heard Christians proclaim a deep love for the Palestinian people. Are not Palestinians made in the Image of God too? Did Jesus not die for them just as he died for “Jew and Gentile”? Does God not love them? I doubt any reasonable Christian would deny that God loves the Palestinians so why do we not show it? Why do we let them become God’s forgotten ones?

In my last post I urged people to not get fooled by simplistic narratives of the conflict. One of the most famous of these is that the conflict is an unavoidable conflict when Jews and Arabs/Muslims, East and West. But this narrative is challenged by the fact that in the early 1900s, Jews and Arabs had a fairly peaceful coexistence in Palestine. The narrative also ignores the 200,000 strong Christian community in the Holy Land.[1]

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Why Discussions Over the Israel-Palestine Conflict Go Wrong

"From the Pulpit" by Danny Hammontree

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” – Joshua 5:13-14[1]

The world has looked on over the past week as Israeli military forces and Gazan militants have exchanged fire across the border. At the time of writing, at least 133 Palestinians have been killed and 950 injured, many of them civilians. It seems like another episode in the ongoing conflict in which neither side are willing to make concessions to ensure peace.

But there’s another battle going on a different front: social media. My newsfeed has been ablaze with impassioned posts of people who have chosen their side and are willing to fight to the virtual death to defend it.

The problem is that the cyberwar produces what I call the “highlights reel” of the conflict. Instead of getting a nuanced understanding of the conflict we end with a virtual one-upping of each other as both sides try to show that other side is worse. Pro-Palestine posters post pictures of children who have been injured by bombs, pro-Israel posters claim that the pictures are from other conflicts and that these posts are the work of “Pallywood” (all the while ignoring that whether these are photos are of actual Gazan children is irrelevant when children are actually dying in the conflict). It ends up being a case of whoever can argue the loudest “wins”.

Of course the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the only episode in history to fall victim to oversimplification. The ethno-nationalist conflict in Ireland is due to “Protestants and Catholics naturally hating each other”. Science and religion “have always been opposed”.[2] The Japanese tokkōtai (kamikaze) pilots in World War 2 were “fanatical suicide bombers”. The problem with these oversimplifications is that they do a great disservice to the parties involved by ignoring the complex geopolitical and socioeconomic factors that lead to conflict and in doing so leave us with a wholly inaccurate picture of the nature of the conflict.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Loneliness of Doubting

© 2012, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” I’ve always liked this quote by Dostoevsky. Rather than painting doubt as a negative thing, it is painted as a means to a deeper faith (even if it is a painful experience for some). In recent years we have seen an explosion in books dedicated to helping those who doubt find answers. But I’ve always found it curious that there is little ink spilled on the loneliness of doubt. From my own struggles with intellectual doubts I know that it can be a terribly lonely experience to stumble out into the great unknown areas of faith. I think there are two basic reasons why intellectual doubts can make people feel lonely (and I have experienced both). The first is that one can feel a reluctance talk about their doubts for fear that they will drag others down with them. But it’s the second reason that I want to spend this blog post addressing.  

Monday, 23 June 2014

No, Faith is not the Crux of the Evolution Debate

Source: Photopin

In the wake of the evangelical films God’s Not Dead and God vs Evolution comes another film about Christians vs “secular academia”A Matter of Faith. The film’s premise is essentially about a Christian girl who goes off to university and starts to drift away from her faith after she is taught evolution in her Biology class. As a result, her father decides to challenge her Biology professor to a public debate to prove Creationism (and therefore the Bible) over the theory of evolution. Now I don’t want to focus too much on this film, partly because I haven’t seen it. Instead I want to focus on a quote by the film’s director Rich Christiano. In an interview with Christian News Network the following was stated:

The crux of the evolution/creation debate, Christiano said, ultimately comes down to a simple question: “Who are you putting your faith in? Darwin? Or God?”

I disagree with this sentiment quite strongly for three reasons.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Biblical Drama: Creation and Fall

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The opening chapters of Genesis are easily some of the most hotly debated chapters in the Bible. But in our efforts to mine these passages for ammunition in the origins debate we can miss the main thrust of what is happening in the story. Chapters 1-9 of Genesis form the first two acts of the powerful story of the Bible of creation and redemption.

Act 1 – Creation
Act 1 begins with the declaration that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth is formless and barren, covered by deep waters of chaos. What follows next is the dramatic account of Yahweh overcoming chaos to create the world. But to flatten this down to whether this was done in seven days or in seven million years ignores what the narrative is trying to see. It is a story of God creating the world and the dwelling in it with His creation. The Bible’s story of creation is about God creating the world as a temple for Himself and establishing His kingdom in it. One of the last things that God does in His creative act is to put an image of Himself into the world – humans (Genesis 1:26-28). The ancient audience would have readily recognised this as kingdom language; when God placed humans in the world as His image-bearers it was a symbol of His rule over the kingdom. What this image entails is quite explicit in the text – to rule over creation.[1] But this is command to rule is not justification for being environmentally abusive as some have tried to argue. Rather it is a command to be stewards who reflect God’s love and care into His created world. God invites humans into His creative work.

And God declares it very good.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Biblical Drama: Moving Away From a Chapter a Day

Someone once summed up the Bible as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. I want to slap that person. I really do. There are a few reasons why I dislike this approach to reading scripture.

Source: Garry Wilmore
  • It takes the focus of scripture off God and places it onto the individual.
  • It represents an escape pod view of redemption where the Christian hope is in flying off to a Heavenly existence rather than the recreation and restoration of all creation.
  • It tends to lead to a self-help view of Christianity - an individualistic reading of scripture which becomes primarily about what the individual can get out of the Bible.  
  • It’s an overly simplistic treatment of the Bible which ignores that there is a great wealth of literary genres in the Bible from poetry to history to instruction.

But most of all, viewing the Bible as an instruction manual is quite possibly the most boring way to look at the Bible in existence. I’m a male; I don’t like instruction manuals. I can’t remember the last time I actually read a computer game manual before sitting down to play the game (in my rush to play the game I often find myself barely able to sit through the opening cinematic sequence). To me, the manual is just the designer’s opinion on how the game should be played. So you’ll have to excuse me if I have a problem with the Bible being placed in the same category as IKEA manuals. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Jesus Wasn't a Conservative (but He Wasn't a Liberal Either) - Part 2.

Yesterday we looked at attempts by the German Christian movement to reinvent Jesus in order to support Nazi ideals, mainly by recasting him as a Gentile or a destroyer of Judaism. Today we will look at an influential theologian who fought against this movement.

Karl Barth  Wikimedia Commons

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), in response to these attempts to redefine Jesus, emphasised Jesus’ Jewishness, writing:

“A Jew, an Israelite, a Hebrew, Jesus is the Christ – that is the bit of earthly history, which takes place on the way from Israel to the Greeks, that is, to the whole world. We cannot split Jesus Christ and seek to retain only one of the two components. Jesus Christ would not be what He is, were He not the Christ, the Commissioner who come out of Israel, who is the Jew Jesus.”[1]

For Barth, it was essential that Christ was Jewish because of his place in the Salvation history. God had made a covenant with the people of Israel that He would save them. In antiquity names and titles carried a significant weight and meaning; they expressed an idea, revelation. The name Jesus and Christos carry significant weight. Jesus, or Joshua, means “Jehovah helps” and Christos is the Greek translation of the Jewish messiah, the one who would save Israel. The fact that the Jewish people had survived into modern day times when so many others crumbled was the greatest testament to Barth of God’s faithfulness in His covenant. Israel was by no means faithful to God. The Old Testament constantly portrays them as screwing up and running away from the God who calls them. But by sending Jesus, Israel becomes an example of God’s grace. Barth writes:

Monday, 2 June 2014

Jesus Wasn't a Conservative (but He Wasn't a Liberal Either) - Part 1.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
It seems like there’s a bit of a battle over Jesus these days with each side wanting to claim him for themselves. The conservative Christians loudly proclaim that Jesus is a conservative; the liberals argue that Jesus is a liberal, and the Marxists argue that Jesus was a Marxist. In fact I hear these claims all the time. But I don’t think that we can rightly make those claims. Why? The obvious reason is that apply these modern political systems on a first century preacher from Palestine is quite anachronistic. Saying that Jesus was a Greenie makes about as much sense as saying that Alexander the Great was one too.

But with that out of the way, what’s to stop us from saying that Jesus represented a proto-political party? Could he have been a proto-21st century conservative or liberal? However, I would caution against identifying Jesus as belonging to a particular political ideology. Why? Well we’re going to look at a rather extreme example from history.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Citizens of Heaven?

For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Philippians 3:18-21

What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven? Does it mean we get a nice passport with the pearly gates on the front? Does it mean our national citizenship is revoked? It can be a confusing phrase but it’s an important one to understand what it means. 

First a quick history lesson on Philippi. Philippi was a town built on the site of the Thracian city of Krinides in 356BC by Philip ll of Macedon.[1] In 168-167 BC the Romans defeated the Macedonians and took control of Philippi. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, his heirs Mark Antony and Octavian defeated his assassins Brutus and Longinus at the Battle of Philippi in 42BC. In the aftermath of the battle the victors colonised the city with military veterans and renamed it Colonia Victrix Philippensium. In 30BC Octavian defeated Antony in a civil war, became emperor, bolstered the colony of Philippi with more settlers, and bestowed the honour of ius italicum upon the colony. The ius italicum, the highest honour a Roman colony could receive, meant that Philippi was subject to Roman law, was exempt from certain taxes, and its citizens gained Roman citizenship. Roman citizens were granted many additional rights such as property ownership, voting powers, the right to a trial, and immunity to torture, whipping, and the death penalty.[2]  

By all accounts the citizens of Philippi were immensely proud of their Roman citizenship and the Roman laws and customs they had inherited. Paul plays off of this pride in Philippians 3:20 (and in some versions 1:27) by telling his readers that they are citizens of heaven. But Paul is not saying this world is not my home, I’m just passing through as the hymn states. Nor is it meant to be a comfort for the afterlife. No it is a challenge to the church in Philippi, and in order to understand this we need to understand how citizenship worked in ancient Rome.

What we don’t often pick up in our English Bibles is that although citizen is a noun in English, the word Paul uses in the 1:27 occurrence is a verb πολιτεύεσθε (politeuomai). This word literally means “to live as a citizen” or in the context of the passage “to conduct oneself”. We have to remember that Philippi was a Roman colony and the purpose of Roman colonies was to Romanize the Greek areas they were in. These citizens may never set foot in Rome but they understood that they were to bring Rome and its culture to their setting. And in the same way Paul is telling the church in Philippi that they are colonists for the Kingdom of God and are called to spread the culture of this kingdom in the area by living a life worthy of the Gospel they have received (1:27). This is why Paul compares them to those who have their minds set on earthly things. In a culture they celebrated sexual depravity, gluttony, and emperor worship, the believers were called to be a witness for the Gospel and live by different values. Paul is by no means commanding them to renounce their Roman citizenship but to be prepared to be different and to suffer from it.

In the same way Christians are called to spread the Gospel in their own cultures to transform the world. We are called to be radically different in the way we conduct ourselves. We are called to live in an upside-down kingdom where the king sacrificed Himself for his subjects and people strive to put others ahead of them. This is what it means to be a citizen of heaven, not an escapist fantasy, but a challenge to live differently.     

[1] Some scholars put the date at 358BC, but this is inconsequential.
[2] Some may recall that Paul exercises his Roman citizenship to avoid being whipped in Acts 22:25.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Forgetting the Gospel

I remember quite vividly when I was a teenager I was sitting on my friend’s bed when I looked across at his desk and saw: a stark black tract with the words in white point 16 Arial Bold font “If you died tonight would you go to Heaven?”

Many of us who have been in the evangelical church have probably grown up with this phrase. For many it was the defining question of the Gospel; where am I going to go when I die?

I really don’t like this approach to the Gospel. Not because it can lead to “turn or burn” pitches where the goal is to scare people into Christianity, but because I feel it only emphasises one half of the Gospel. 

Within the Church we have two major religious holidays – Christmas and Easter. The former is important because it represents the incarnation - God becoming human; the latter is important because it represents the atonement – God suffering to free us from our sins. The second is arguably more emphasised in the Church, and rightly so because so much New Testament theology is built around the atonement. But sometimes I wonder if we emphasise the beginning and the end of the Gospel at the expense of what’s in between. Sometimes I wonder if in the process of focusing on the 
 atonement we’ve forgotten the Kingdom of God.[1]

The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”  

These are literally the first words that come out of the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four gospels. In Luke 4 Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads the following prophecy from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he ends by telling them that on that day the scripture is fulfilled in their hearing it. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God he is not talking about some pie-in-the-sky idea. Nor are the miracles and healings he performs just a chance to show off or to be a nice guy. No, these are signs that something radical is happening in first century Palestine. The kingdom of God has come near. This is the most explosive event in recorded history: the first seeds of the Kingdom of God are here. A kingdom where justice, love, and mercy reign. A kingdom where the poor are rich. A kingdom that is so radically counter-cultural and unlike anything anyone has seen before. A kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

When we talk about the Christian hope we are not talking about some ethereal pie-in-the-sky harp playing for all eternity; we are talking about the moment when the Kingdom of God is fully here and permeates all Creation.

The beauty of the word gospel is that it comes from the Greek word euangelion (lit. “good news”). But this word was a special word. It wasn’t used to refer to winning the lottery, or getting a promotion. It was a special term that was used to refer to the good news of the birth of a royal heir, the expected arrival of a king, or a great victory. In the Gospel we see all three of these things. First we see the good news of birth of the saviour Christ, heir to the Kingdom of God. Second we see the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Thirdly we see this in the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus as he wins obtains victory over the power of sin and death.

This is the three-layered Gospel we need to preach, not one that simply speaks of life after death, but one that also speaks of life before death and what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.     

[1] In all fairness there are others who have gone to the other extreme and have made the Gospel all about the Kingdom of God and have removed the atonement all together and I would argue that this is much worse.