Burn Baby Burn…

Posted in Theology, World with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2011 by stephengardner
Sunday 5th June saw some 45,000 Australian’s join GetUp in rallying for a carbon tax. What should the church do with this level of interest in the environment? Get funky I reckon…
Its a bit of a characterisation, I know, but it never ceases to amaze me how many Christians assume that the world will one day be burnt up-destroyed-done away with. What worries me is that many, well meaning Christians use this as a justification to say things like climate change don’t really matter, after all, ‘why polish the brass on a sinking ship?’ Lets just get out there and save souls.
So, here’s why I don’t think the world will end…
Creation
The biblical view of creation is that it is good, very good. It is not opposed to God and his eternal purposes, he loves material things and he sustains material things. Humanity being made in the image of God is given the role of reflecting God’s rule and glory to the world. This includes consuming but also maintaining and sustaining. God, in his freedom entrusts humanity with responsibility and authority to do this. This doesn’t make God any less sovereign – all throughout the Scriptures he works through humanity, chiefly he does this by taking on the fullness of our humanity in Jesus – the true man. God’s sovereignty is not a reason to do nothing about the environment, if that were so we should stop doing evangelism. 

New Creation
We hope for the renewal of this earth, not to escape it and flee to some immaterial ‘heavenly existence.’ The hope of new creation is of an earthy place much like the place we now live- in fact the same place we now live, albeit radically redefined. The picture we have in Revelation 21-22 is of the ‘new Jerusalem’ coming down from heaven to this earth. The new creation is the fulfillment of the creation we currently live in.
Jesus 
Any theological reflection on the environment must be centred on the person and work of Jesus because he is the culmination of God’s self-revelation. The resurrection of Jesus is a reaffirmation of the goodness of the created order and a renewal of it. He is ‘the first fruits’ of the great final Resurrection when everything will be made new. The resurrection of Jesus therefore, is the key to the debate over whether the world will be destroyed or not – his body is transformed, renewed, glorified, but never destroyed. Oliver O’Donovan speaks of the resurrection of Christ as ‘the vindication of the created order.’ It is his body that is the bridge between creation and new creation. 
2 Peter 3
But doesn’t 2 Peter 3 say the opposite, that the world will be destroyed? Good question, but no! 
1) The passage is apocalyptic in style and should be read that way. Peter employs familiar apocalyptic formulas; referring to judgement as a day of fire and destruction, and making parallels with OT e.g’s of judgement.  The final judgement will be like  the judgement in Noah’s day (2 Peter 3.5-7). What happened to Noah’s world? It was profoundly judged but never destroyed.

2) The word for ‘destroy’ (katakaio) in v.10 is unreliable and most probably a latter addition to the text. The earlier, and far more reliable manuscripts use the word ‘to discover/find’ (heurethesetai). This fits the apocalyptic tone of 2 Peter 3, and also a great deal of apocalyptic language in Scripture that uses fire language to refer to God’s judgement. Here, as in 1 Cor 3, I think, the fire of judgement is a revealing or a discovering of the true nature of the earth. 

3) If we take the later manuscripts and go with the destruction language and interpret it literally, then there are further problems. 2 Peter 3.7 uses the same word again to refer to the ‘destruction of ungodly men’ – that sounds a lot like annihilationism  to me. Something most advocates of the ‘destruction of the earth’ view wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole! 
(for a much more sustained and thoughtful reflection on these vv check out Byron Smith’s series from 2006).
So what?
If Scripture speaks more about a renewal of the earth rather than a destruction of it then we have a real responsibility to care for it. We too often diochotomise evangelism and acting on a concern for the world, be that social justice or environmental action. This is dangerous territory, not taking into account the holistic nature of Jesus’ physical resurrection. If Christians don’t fulfill the role of humanity to reflect God’s rule over the earth, as it is reaffirmed in his risen body, who will? 

Inclusive Church Communities

Posted in Church, Life with tags , , , , , , on June 10, 2011 by stephengardner

Christian Blind Mission has launched a fantastic new initiative called Luke 14 (See the video below). The purpose of Luke 14 is to help churches to care for disabled people.

20% of Australian’s live with a disability – is that reflected in your church community? I’m assuming its not and so, Its worth asking why not? Is your building wheelchair accessible? Does the service exclude those who live with a particular disability? They’re the more obvious questions to ask, but what about at the level of personal contact. How are people with disabilities welcomed by others?

I was part of a church community of around 120 people some years back. One of the people from the congregation, lets call him Brad, had a profound disability. Brad was wheelchair bound and had great difficulty speaking. It was hard work to hear and understand Brad. Perhaps thats why out of a church of 120 people only 3 people would speak with him. Perhaps thats why Brad stopped coming to church after persisting at it for a number of years.

Last night I stumbled upon these helpful words from Jurgen Moltmann:

The first thing that people discovered in Jesus, according to the synoptic gospels, was the healing power of the divine Spirit. That is why people who come into contact with him are revealed not as ‘sinners’ (as they are in Paul), but as ‘the sick’. Out of the corners into which they had been forced, out of the wilderness to which they had been banished, out of the shadows into which they had crept, the sick and possessed emerge, and try to be near him. In the neighbourhood of Jesus men and women reveal themselves, not as people who fulfil the Greek ideal of the healthy mind in the healthy body, but as sick, suffering and in need of help. In the vicinity of Jesus, people do not show themselves from their sunny side but from the sides that are dark and shadowed (Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 189).

O that our churches were free of superficiality. O that the divine Spirit would change God’s people that we would look at the world with the same paradigm shifting eyes of Jesus. O that God would forgive us of excluding other image bearers of communion with their Maker.

Augustine on Mary, Martha, work and joy

Posted in Theology with tags , , , , on May 24, 2011 by stephengardner

Our Lord Jesus Christ, then, will hand over the kingdom to God and the Father (1 Cor 15:24)–and that phrase excludes neither the Holy Spirit nor himself–insofar as he will bring believers to the direct contemplation of God, in which all good actions have their end, and there is everlasting rest and joy that shall not be taken away from us. He points this out himself when he says, I shall see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take away from you (Jn 16:22). A sort of picture of what this joy will be like was sketched by Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet, intent upon his words; at rest from all activity and intent upon the truth, in such measure as this life allows of, but thereby nonetheless foreshadowing that joy which is going to last forever. There was Martha her sister, busy doing what had to be done–activity which though good and useful is going to end one day and give place to rest. She, meanwhile, was already taking her rest in the word of the Lord. So when Martha complained that her sister was not helping her, the lord replied Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her (Lk 10:38). He did not call what Martha was doing a bad part, but this which shall not be taken away he called the best part. For the part which is played in ministering to need will be taken away when need comes to an end, and in fact the reward of good works that are going to come to an end is a rest that will endure. In that contemplation, then, God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28), because nothing further will be desired of him; to be illumined and rejoiced by him will be enough. (Saint Augustine, De Trinitate, I.20)

I love Augustine’s perspective on this story. A life of inactivity and rest is not what Jesus advocates, rather, a life spent longing for and anticipating the fullness of our joy and desire in the Lord, when he will be all in all. As long as we wait for that day there will be needs to meet and work to be done and keeping busy with those things is a good thing, but let it never be that we forget the fullness of joy we anticipate when Jesus returns to be with us.

One size doesn’t fit all

Posted in Church with tags , , , , on May 16, 2011 by stephengardner

A few years ago, when I began to get involved in pastoral ministry I very quickly began to feel a kind of frustration. I had taken on an assumption that progress in the Christian life looked the same for everyone. Effectively I believed that because each believer has God’s Spirit dwelling in them, that progress for each believer should look the same. I say ‘effectively’ because if you had asked me ‘is this what you believe?’ of course I would have said, ‘no!’ But my expectations of the Spirit’s work in my own life and particularly the lives of those I ministered to, revealed that there was an enormous gulf between what I thought I believed and how I acted.

It didn’t take very long for very real furstrations to appear – I found that people’s messiness didn’t disappear. People, myself included, continued to struggle with the same behaviours; lack of generosity to those in need, pride that manifests itself in a lack of compassion toward others, lustful eyes; And people continued to struggle with the same emotions; doubt, guilt, depression, anger. I think what I believed was that progress looked like ‘tidiness.’ I had taken on two assumptions that turned out to be massive ministry mistakes.

1. An over-realised eschatology

I didn’t take into account that during this life sin and brokenness will always be. Rather, what I was looking for in people, and in my own life, was something that only Jesus will bring, removal of sin and brokenness.

2. The Spirit manifests himself differently to each believer

I didn’t take into account the reality of the ‘body language’ the New Testament uses to describe the nature of the Church. There is on the one hand a real ‘oneness’ to the Church that Paul speaks of unashamedly in Ephesians 4:

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope at your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith,  one baptism, 6 one God  and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But at the same time, this same Spirit brings a diversity to the Christian community, expressed by Paul in the outpouring of gifts:

7 Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift. 8 For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people. 9 But what does “He ascended” mean except that He  descended to the lower parts of the earth? 10 The One who descended is the same as the One who ascended far above all the heavens,  that He might fill  all things.  11 And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ,  13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, [growing] into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

Growth and progress in the Christian life is not a ‘one size fits all.’ We are each thoroughly sinful and broken people who will continue to struggle with these things in our own particular way. Of course, being complacent with this state of brokenness is a horrible mistake, but so too is having a universal approach to what growth and progress will look like in each person.

Just a thought.

Revenge and Justice

Posted in Reconciliation, World with tags , , , on May 5, 2011 by stephengardner

At first we were told that bin Laden – true to his tyrannical character – went down fighting; firing from an automatic weapon and hiding behind his youngest wife. The outrageous manner in which he left the world was met with euphoria in the streets across the United States. People were celebrating that justice had been done; a man of unmatched evil was met with an appropriate form of justice.

But now it has come to light that things didn’t play out that way. bin Laden didn’t go out firing at the US SEALS, in fact he was unarmed; bin Laden wasn’t using one of his wives as a shield, in fact, she had left him to make a charge at the SEALS. This begs the question, has justice actually been done? No, revenge has been done. And revenge must never be confused with justice.

Revenge doesn’t say, “An eye for an eye.” It says, “You take my eye, and I’ll blow out your brains.” It doesn’t say, “An insult for an insult.” It says, “You cross me once, you cross me twice, and I’ll destroy your character and your career.” It doesn’t say, “You organize an act of terror, and we’ll punish you.” It says, “You organize an act of terror, and we’ll use the overwhelming military force of a superpower to recast the political landscape of the entire region from which you came.” Revenge abandons the principle of “measure for measure” and, acting out of injured pride and untamed fear, gives itself to punitive excess. That’s why revenge is morally wrong. In its zeal to punish, it overindulgently takes from the offender more than is due (Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 159).

Some are saying, “Who cares?! The man was evil and the manner in which he died is insignificant.” Well, it does matter. Revenge is not justice. In seeking to bring evil to justice the good guys have effectively become the bad guys, they’ve become the very thing they were fighting. Revenge is not justice, it is itself an act of injustice and only serves to promote further acts of injustice. What will bin Laden’s death achieve? Had he died meeting justice and not revenge I would’ve said, ‘its made the world a slightly safer place.’ But because he died in an act of revenge the only answer can be; ‘evil.’ The ‘good guys’ have now become part of a vicious circle of revenge.

A reflection on punishment and justice

Posted in Reconciliation with tags , , , , , on May 2, 2011 by stephengardner

‘Justice has been done!’

With the death of Osama Bin Laden has come a whole lot of language which requires honest Christian reflection. His death is being heralded as ‘a great success’, and  as a ‘deeply satisfying’ moment for his surviving victims. I understand the just anger that many people feel toward Bin Laden, even though I cannot imagine the pain many of his surviving victims live with. But I do want to suggest that serious Christian reflection on punishment and justice must be done before we join in the chorus of those celebrating and rejoicing.

The punishment of one evil doer will never bring satisfaction for those who desire justice. I heard a victim of the 2002 Bali Bombings, today, speak with genuine relief, of the satisfaction he now experienced. His enemy, a man whose organisation had inspired the attacks that had killed the family and friends of so many, was now declared dead by the US president, ‘justice has been done.’ And this has brought satisfaction. But, it wont last. And the reason why this act of ‘justice’ won’t provide lasting satisfaction for those who have so longed for this moment is because of memory. Memory, the recalling to their minds of the pain they have experienced and will continue to experience. The punishment of this one man cannot take away the memory of thousands of lost loved ones.

Miroslav Volf writes:

What would be an adequate punishment for Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s evil and dictatorial successor in the old soviet Union between the two World Wars? He not only ruined his own country and invaded many neighbouring ones, but in the process exterminated some 20,000,000 people. If we are after justice, his crime will have outstripped by far any punishment we could devise for him. How many deaths would he have to die to compensate for all the lives he took? How many lives would he need to have to suffer all the pain he inflicted? Punishment alone falters before the enormity of such crime. (Free of Charge, 135)

If the punishment of the evil doer is the answer to a longing for justice and satisfaction, it will only ever leave people unsatisfied. What we need is an alternative story, we need a story that empowers us to be truly satisfied by getting to the heart of the issue, our memories. We need to learn to forget.

How can God forget the wrongdoings of human beings? Because at the centre of God’s all-embracing memory there is a paradoxical monument to forgetting. It is the cross of Christ. God forgets humanity’s sins in the same way God forgives humanity’s sins: by taking sins away from humanity and placing them upon God-self (sic). How will human beings be able to forget the horrors of history? Because at the centre of the new world that will emerge after “the first things have passed away” there will stand a throne, and on the throne there will sit the Lamb who has “taken away the sin of the world” and erased their memory (Revelation 22:1-4; John 1:29) Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 139-140.

Atonement I: The person and work of Christ shows us who God is

Posted in Reconciliation with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2011 by stephengardner

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Phil 2.5-8 NRSV)

Way back in November I introduced an introduction to some thoughts on the atonement. This is the first post, in what I hope will be a series of ‘around seven’, exploring the atonement, what it is and what it achieves. The next couple of posts will focus more on what the atonement actually is, but for now let me describe it as this: the saving significance of the person and work of the Incarnate Son of God.

Initially I was going to use this post as a way of finishing off my reflections on the atonement, but I’ve become convinced that this should be the first port-of-call for any consideration of what God has done in Christ. In a nutshell the point of this post is this: the atonement is not contrary to who God is, in fact it is God in his most Godness.

This seems to be what Paul was getting at when he penned his exhortation to the Philippians that they be a community of humility precisely because God has shown himself to be humble in the death of Christ. The NRSV unhelpfully adds the word ‘though’ in v.6 implying that the work of Christ is contrary to who Christ is – God in his fulness.

Speaking of the limitations and weaknesses Christ takes on and what they mean for him ‘being in the form of God’, Barth writes this:

We will mention at once the thought which will be decisive and basic in the section, that God shows Himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this. In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to Himself. It is under this aspect first that we must consider the history of the atonement. (Barth, CD IV.1 s59, 159)