Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus · Jesus · Theology

New Light On St Paul

OK. It’s been a while. I’ve had so many ideas but never got round to getting it down. Here’s a few thoughts from Tom Wright, otherwise known as N.T. Wright. He was Bishop of Durham for a while, but is best known as an academic whose whole adult life has been spent studying the life and writings of St Paul.

He wrote a book about the life of St Paul that came out three years ago. I haven’t read it, but heard him talk about it on the Nomad Podacst.

To start with, his name is originally Saul. He comes from a conservative tradition in Judaism, and as the book of Acts describes, will do anything to protect Judaism from what he sees as unhealthy, misguided influences. One of those ‘way out’ movements is of course, what he would see as the cult of Jesus. Saul is basically a fundamentalist, and will track down followers of Jesus, and condone killing them for the cause of religious purity. Hence the stoning of Stephen, one of the prominent members of what we would call the early church. Saul is at this point a violent man, determined to put a stop to this abberation of the faith that he treasures.

But to call it the early church is slightly misleading – at this early point in the evolution of the Jesus movement, we’re talking about a community that is mostly made up of Jews before the word Christian has even been uttered. When we read the word ‘church’ in our English translations, the original Greek word is better translated by ‘gathering,’ ‘assembly, ‘ or ‘company.’

Tom Wright reminds us how important it is to understand the first century context of the words that we read. Another example of where we might have been reading this wrongly is to do with what we might have called the ‘conversion’ of Saul. Growing up, I had the impression that on the road to Damascus, when Saul has his experience of Jesus, it is at that point that he ‘becomes a Christian.’
(You can read the account in Acts chapter 9)

But at that point in time, there was no such thing as a Christian. There was no separate religion called Christianity. Saul was a Jew who had such a profound and mystical experience of the risen Christ, that he suddenly sees that he has been mistaken, and that Jesus is in fact, the Messiah of God. He doesn’t stop being a faithful Jew, and would in all likelihood continue in exactly the same way as he had done before regarding his religious observance, but now seeing that the promised Messiah has in fact come – in the person of Jesus Christ.

After this life changing encounter, at some point early on, Saul disappears off to Arabia for three years. It’s not clear exactly where he went or what he did during these three years, but Tom Wright has a theory … first a bit of background:

Back in the First Testament, * the prophet Elijah is at a turning point in his life. He had just defeated the 400 prophets of Baal, and was on the run from king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. At this time of great stress in his life, where does he go ? To mount Horeb. Mount Horeb is essentially the same as Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. So Elijah is going back to the place where it all started. The place where God made it clear that the children of Israel were a ‘set apart people.’ They had a call to be God’s people for the nations. At Mount Horeb, God meets with Elijah and he gets the commissioning and strength that he needs for the next phase in his ministry. God tells Elijah that he is to ‘Go back the way you came, to Damascus.’ Once there, he was to anoint Jehu as the new king of Israel.

Tom Wright’s theory is that Arabia was the region that included Mount Sinai. Where would Saul go to think through the experience that he had on the road to Damascus ? Maybe back to where it all started – to Mount Sinai. Saul’s roots are in the ancient story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery; the journeying through the wilderness; the call to live as the people of God. So Saul goes to Sinai, to learn what this new call to follow Jesus will mean. And at the end of those three years, where does he go ? Back the way he came, to Damascus. And once there he will share the news that a new king has been anointed – Jesus. And that this good news of Jesus is for all people, both Jew and Greek, men and women, slave and free. And that this new community will be different from any community previously known, because it will not be according to your ethnic group, or whether you were a man or a woman, or a slave or a free person. This new community will break all the rules and be for all.

I feel like I should read the book !

And, as I was pondering on this alternative, radical new community that we see in the book of Acts, it made me think about my own experience of the church, and to what extent the churches I have been a part of have been ethnically diverse, with men and women both accepted fully, with class, background, education and social status not being an issue. Sadly, it seems that churches by default become fairly monocultural, not at all the vision that Paul had … 2000 years later it’s still a work in progress. Additionally, there are movements within the church that see the growth of the church being most effective when this mono approach is used – because like attracts like. This is in sharp contrast to the kingdom vision of a diverse community, which although it is often a more challenging environment, has within it the possibility of fully enacting the principles of love. Such a Christian community is truly a thing of great beauty.

* Christians have generally called the first part of the Bible ‘The Old Testament.’ But there are dangers in that. It might lead us to think that we can leave all of that behind. Now we have the New, we don’t need the Old. The New Testament gives us everything we need. In a sense that is true, but we are greatly impoverished in our undertanding of Jesus if we do not understand his roots, which lie in the work of God through Israel. If we only know the New Testament, we don’t know the New Testament! There is so much richness in the books of Moses, the history books, the wisdom and the prophets that we need to attend to. There has been a move to call these writings ‘The Hebrew Bible,’ but others are more inclined to use the phrase ‘First Testament,’ which gives those writings a more exalted place than ‘Old Testament,’ and unlike the phrase Hebrew Bible gives them their righful place within the whole revelation of God’s love and purposes.

Grace and Peace

Bible · Church · community · faith · Following Jesus

It Never Struck Me Before

So. I’ve been listening to an interview with Alexander John Shaia. Fascinating. I had not heard of him before. He’s interviewed here on the Nomad podcast, and also in Rob Bell’s Robcast.
There are a load of things to talk about, but just an aside to start with – he talks about the Passover meal, and the central theme being slavery and freedom. It never occurred to me before that they wouldn’t all have gone with Moses!! Some would have followed him, for sure, but there would have been those who thought that they were better off staying in Egypt. They made that choice.

Now why didn’t I realise that ? I just assumed they all went. But of course some would have found the idea of such a radical move to be too difficult.

So on to where this is going to lead – to four questions that map the road of transformation.
I’m just going to try and summarise what Alexander was saying, but I hope you might go and listen to the interview, because I found it mind blowing.

We need to begin with a Jewish Passover:
According to the Ashkenazi tradition, the order of the Four Questions at the Passover meal is as followed:
Question 1: Why on all other nights do we eat either leavened bread or matza, but on this night only matza?
Question 2: Why on all other nights do we eat different types of vegetables, but on this night only bitter herbs?
Question 3: Why on all other nights do we not dip our food once, but on this night we dip it twice?
Question 4: Why on all nights do we eat either sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we recline?

These questions traditionally bring to mind:
Question 1: Eating matza commemorates how the Jews were in such a hurry to leave Egypt they could not wait for their bread to rise.
Question 2: Eating bitter herbs represents the bitter difficulties of life as a slave in Egypt.
Queston 3: Dipping food was a luxury reserved only for the aristocracy and upperclass in ancient times, so the practice of dipping is meant to reflect freedom.
Question 4: Reclining while dining was also a luxurious behavior historically, which stresses the privilege of freedom.

But Alexander Shaia refers to an older practice in Judaism at the time of Jesus that has four similar, but different questions, that might be paraphrased as:
Question 1: Thinking about the Exodus, when God’s people were set free from salvery in Egypt … Where in your life are you lost in a place of emotional paralysis, a state of being unfree, enslaved ?
Question 2: Thinking about the forty years when God’s people wandered in the wilderness … Where are you in a death experience ?
Queston 3: Thinking about the time when God’s people crossed over Jordan into the promised land … Where do you hear God’s new promise for you ?
Question 4: Thinking about life in that land of promise … What new action is God asking of you, for your life, the life of your community ?

So … in summary, the four questions relate to
1. The path of transformation includes times to consider making a change. How are are you going to respond ? Choice
2. The path of transformation will involve tension, and trials. Suffering
3. The path of transformation will include the offer of newness in some way. Gift
4. The path of transformation will challenge you to think about acts of service you are being called to give. Service

Interestingly, these four aspects of the life of faith were a central part of the practice of the early church in preparing candidates for baptism. Not surpisingly really, the church drew on the heritage of Jewish practice in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Now here’s the thing … the early church also, according to Alexander Shia and others, linked these four aspects of discipleship to the four Gospels.
Matthew – addressed to the Jewish community – Choice.
Who will you choose ? Will you choose this new way in following Jesus ?
Mark – addressed to the Christian community in Rome, suffering persecution under Nero.
Stay strong as you seek to make Jesus the Lord of your life, even in the midst of persecution. Suffering.
John – addressed to the diverse Christian community in Ephesus, which was beginning to revisit old divisions
Even though you come from different backgrounds. Receive the gift of unity. Gift
Luke – addressed to the Christian community in Antioch.
Remember that you are called to serve. Service

So, when you think of the Gospels, think rather of one Gospel. The Gospel that is shown to us in four different ways, to help us understand the fourfold path of transformation.

I found these insights really helpful, and will be praying that I will be aware when I am being asked to make a choice about something –
The challenge of moving on to something new, and leaving other things behind.
The challenge of hanging in there when it gets tough
The challenge of seeing how I am being called to serve.

Grace and peace.

Bible · faith · Theology

Discovering The God Of Plenty

I’m pleased to have started the C25K – couch to 5k – a programme to take me from having little cardio exercise during the last four months, to being able to run continuously for 30 minutes.

The podcast that I listened to today on my run was an interview with Sam Wells. Sam is vicar of St Martin in the Fields Church in London. There’s so much in what I’ve heard today, I’m not sure where to start. This will be a brief post, just aiming to make one simple, but important assertion. More to follow another day.

I think the best starting point is to note that we often function as though we live in a world of scarcity. Not enough resources. We’re always fighting a losing battle. But if we set against that the world view of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament we find that they affirm the opposite. God has given us all that we need. We do, in fact, live in a world of plenty, a world of abundance.

I’ll come back to the way Sam Wells argues this on a later post, but for now I’ll just offer a thought from my Bible reading today. As so often happens, I find that things come together in ways I could not have planned. After my run I read John chapter 2, and the account of Jesus turning water into wine.

If you don’t know the story, you can read it here

I’ve read this passage often, and preached on it more than a few times, and I always see something fresh. Today, it’s the way this gospel passage seems to be saying exactly what Sam Wells was talking about. In the story, the wine at a wedding has run out, and Jesus turns over 120 gallons of water into wine. That should be enough!

In 11 verses, we get something that should be foundational to faith. God is a God of plenty, not scarcity.

Of course that raises all sorts of questions about what we see around us, with people living in poverty and so on. There is more to say that sheds light on this, but I’ll have to leave it it until next time.

Grace and peace

Bible · Church · faith · LIterature · Me

The Journey Of The Soul

I haven’t been listening to podcasts since the beginning of lockdown (It was something I did at the gym).  But now I’ve started the ‘couch to 5k’ programme, I’m back on the podcasts again.

Nomad Podcast Store image

One of my favourite places for podcasts is Nomad, and this morning I was listening to an interview with Mark Oakley – Poetry And The Journey Of The Soul. My morning run was about 30 minutes, so I haven’t finished the whole interview yet, but so far it’s five star. *****
there’s a bit of intro chat between the presenters, but you can go straight to the interview at 8 min 45 seconds in.

I think what Mark Oakley is saying is that poetry is the language of faith. Or perhaps better put the other way round – The language of faith is poetry.

He talks about going to a church service, what do I think I am entering ? I may have the mindset that it’s to do with facts – getting answers or solving problems. But what I have walked into is a poem. That might (will !) require me to do some shifting around in the way I see/understand things

Jesus taught much of the time using stories that worked a little like poems. Stories that don’t’t so much give you answers, or tell you what to do, but invite you into a world. A world where, for example, a sower goes out and scatters seed on the path next to the field, or on stony ground, or thorny ground – as well as good soil. Or a world where someone gives up everything to have the ‘The Pearl Of Great Price.’

One great way to respond to this kind of story is by asking questions. Why would a sower do that, and not just scatter on the good soil ? What kind of sower is this ? Or … What might the Pearl of Great Price look like ?

By the way, people do sacrifice everything for all sorts of things. I’m reading the autobiography of David Crosby at the moment. For many years, the ‘Pearl Of Great Price’ for him was his addiction to drugs. Thankfully, there came a point where he realised that particular pearl wasn’t what he really wanted.

Anyway, back to Mark Oakley and the poetic. The poetic, like Jesus’ parables, are there to get under your skin, they are subversive. Poems and Parables are not instruction manuals, they are more like love letters. So in connection with reading the Bible, Mark talks about ‘the subtext.’ For him, subtext means subversive text. Many times, when we read the Bible, we might miss the sub/subversive text, and only see what’s on the surface.

I’m looking forward to the next bit of the Mark Oakley interview. That’s incentive enough to keep up with the ‘Couch to 5K’

Grace and Peace