theologyontheunderground

Random thoughts and questions


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Attractive and distinctive people seek others for longterm relationship

Attractive.

It’s not a term often used for the people of God as a whole.

Individually – yes – I know many attractive Christians – beautiful, winsome, comely, handsome, noble.

As a whole, though – old-fashioned, bigoted, misogynistic – these perhaps would be the politer words in use.  Gandhi used the term “Jesus’ leprous bride” and one feels that with recent and on-going scandals of child abuse, much angrier and vitriolic depictions are being employed.

All of which is a long way from the intention of God for his people.

Paul in his letter to Titus talks about the people of God ‘adorning’ his message. (ch 2.9)†.  In Jeremiah, the people of God are likened to those who should be like a high-fashion, high-cost, high-staus sash that attracts admiration and renown for its wearer.  (Jer 13.1-11)  The fact that this sash was then left to rot in a hole for several months (to show how the people of God were actually shaping up) means that a low reputation for God’s people is not a new phenomenon.

There is a fascinating moment in the dedication of the temple that shows a fundamental assumption of the Bible.  God will attract the prayers and worship of those who do not yet know him.   This is a part of the prayer that Solomon prays:

1 Kings 8:41-43 New International Version – UK

‘As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name – for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm – when they come and pray towards this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling-place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.

Solomon says ‘These people who are not yours – WHEN they come, for they WILL hear of your name and your strength, answer their prayers, that your fame and renown will increase’ – a great moment of universalism in the Old Testament (some would even say the greatest, though Isaiah might disagree).

In terms of mission, this assumption is both uplifting and energising. There are people praying around us – people who are not yet Christians, yet they are still reaching out to God. There are people saying ‘thank you’  to God – for moments of beauty, peace or joy – who are not part of any faith group.  They are  spiritually seeking and they are being attracted by the God who seeks them.

Its also a challenging assumption.

It means that we need to be an ‘attractive people of an attractive God.’

In other words not an un-appealing people, un-attractive, un-welcoming or un-wholesome.

To be an unlikely people is OK, unfashionable is possible (some would say inevitable!), un-assuming is good, un-prejudiced is better.

This is not about facial regularity, manicures, skin-tone or air-brushed imperfections.  This is about authenticity, spiritual health, good will – and most of – it’s about God’s love and life in us and through us.

There are people already reaching out to our attractive God.

God, help us to be part of your reaching out to them.

For your comments – what would you add to an un-words list – either side of that divide?

† for this insight and for lots more on this thought of the people of God attracting attention to an attractive God, see ch 8, of Christopher Wright’s ‘The Mission of God’s People,’ Zondervan, 2010.


The wearable lightness of being

What does holiness look like?

What makes a person (or a people) holy?  What are the traits that would mark them out?

Some images that may pop up in your thoughts…

  • Holy people make sure they are there ahead of time. (To quote a recently and oft-heard maxim ‘To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, to be late is unacceptable.’)
  • Holy people are always washed and presentable(because Godliness is next to cleanliness)
  • Holy people are very straight-laced and never lose control, emotionally…

Really?  Holiness is not actually about piousness, respectability or being stiff-upper-lip English.

I seem to remember that Jesus was noted as turning up in his own time, rather than on other people’s timetables, that he wept over his friend’s death, and that wearing sack-cloth and ashes was a Biblically acceptable way of showing grief.

Chris Wright points out this list that follows the ‘stark headline of Leviticus 19.2 “You shall be holy…”’:

Holiness in Leviticus 19 involves:

  • Respect within the family and community (vv. 3a, 32)
  • Exclusive loyalty to YHWH as God; proper treatment of sacrifices (vv. 4, 5-8)
  • Economic generosity in agriculture (vv. 9-10)
  • Observing the commandments regarding social relationships (vv. 11-12)
  • Economic justice in employment rights (v. 13)
  • Social compassion to the disabled (v. 14)
  • Judicial integrity in the legal system (vv. 12, 15)
  • Neighbourly attitudes and behaviour; loving one’s neighbour as oneself (vv. 16-18)
  • Preserving the symbolic tokens of religious distinctiveness (v. 19)
  • Sexual integrity (vv. 20-22, 29)
  • Rejection of practices connected with idolatrous or occult religion (vv. 26-31)
  • No ill-treatment of ethnic minorities, but racial equality before the law and practical love for the alien as for oneself (vv. 33-34)
  • Commercial honesty in all trading conditions (vv. 35-36)

As Chris Wright points out – this entire list is ‘thoroughly practical, social and very down to earth.’†

‘Holy’ in its first definition means ‘a characteristic of God’ and then secondarily ‘belonging to God’ (ie the tabernacle and its fittings which were dedicated to Him.)  It’s only at a third level that ‘holy’ becomes a trait of how God’s people are supposed to live.

Looking at the list above, how would it be if God’s people were known for the whole collection of standards rather than mainly the ones which focus on the ‘religious’ aspects of life?  In other words, the Church stood for social and trade justice, strong families, ethical dealings with one and all as much as matters of faith?

At this juncture, Christian friends of mine from all directions who are involved in international development, who are campaigning against both international and domestic poverty and debt, who are running parenting classes and  refugee projects (amongst many other things) are jumping up and down and shouting at me ‘What do you think we are doing?’

My point is that these are things are seen as secondary characteristics of a religious institution, rather than the distinctives of a justice-loving, practical, socially-concerned, holy people. They’re spin-offs, not foundations.

Lunch time conversation involved discussion of a charity telethon that took place at Westminster Central Halls and the comics who were presenting the event being very aware that they were in a church.  If the ‘integrity, compassion and justice’ Leviticus 19 holiness were the prevalent characteristic of God’s people, I doubt that this would have been such a big deal.

Holiness is actually a missional issue.  To quote Jesus on the subject, after calling his followers ‘salt and light’, in other words be distinctive change-makers where you are, he gives us this purpose:  ‘Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.’  (Matt 5.16, CEV).

Bless others – live holy lives – make a difference – so that God will be made known.

† pp. 125-126, Chapter 7, People who represent God to the world, ‘The Mission of God’s People’, Zondervan , 2010


Do not pass ‘GO’…

The first command is ‘Go’.

In the stripped down version of Abraham’s blessing from God in Genesis 12, the first element is ‘Go.’

This is the directional word that sets the trend for the people of God.  From now on, they have an assigned task, they are’ sent out’-  a ‘missio’ in Latin.

The people of God have a mission.

It’s outward looking, forward –facing

Actually, Abraham’s mission was not precisely any of these things.

His mission was first to actually ’go’ – to move.  Not metaphorically, in a ‘It’s been a real journey.’ X-factor kind of way – Abraham was told to pack his belongings and move house.  Or re-pitch his tents, leaving the city of Haran (in what was then Upper Mesopotamia and is now in the south east of Turkey) and travel through the Fertile Crescent to what we now call Israel.

It was forward facing if he didn’t want to trip up as he walked.  It was outward looking – because he was outdoors looking around.

But the place he was called to was definitely not the place he started.

Many (most?) church programmes are based on an ‘attractional’ model.  Come into church and see what we’ve provided for you – the most obvious definition of the word ‘church’ being the building that the people of God meet in – rather than church being ‘the people who gather’ (the original definition).  Most Christians’ understanding of the aim of ‘outreach’ is to pull people into the church building for one purpose or another. Few would say their mission was to go out into the community and do whatever programme they have in mind there, where the people are.

‘Come in’ is diametrically opposite to ‘Go out to.’  How did that happen? 

Most people blame the Emperor Constantine. He inaugurated the era of ‘Christendom’ where Christianity was the officially sanctioned religious option.  The Church legitimised the authority of the ruler as being part of God’s providence and the ruler recognised the church’s structure as having authority within the land.  This synergy (be that good or bad) existed across Europe for more than a thousand years, in various forms.  During this time, the church was the place where people gathered for many reasons, not just worship, but as a place where rents were received, tithes paid, manorial courts were held, where social business was carried out.  This church did not have to go out to the people – by necessity, they came in.

Then the industrial revolution changed the pattern of living, as people transferred from a rural life to the cities; the church (in its many forms, by now) was no longer the legal, financial and social hub – it was one factor that was a part of the life of the city, along with law courts, public houses, civic societies and the mills and factories of the Industrial era.  In 1851 in the UK, the census recorded that there were more people living in cities and towns than working on the land.  (Thank you, QI, for that fact!)   The central role of the church had been taken away from it – but the idea that people came to the church had been firmly entrenched.  Hey, this was an idea that had worked for nearly 1500 years!

It is notable that as Christian reform movements happened, one quite common element was that the reformers went out to the people – Wesley with the Methodists and William Booth with The Christian Mission being two obvious examples.  The early day Christian Mission continued this ‘going out’ theme with the use of various premises for their meetings – an ice-house, a jam factory, a boat-house and a dance hall, amongst others.

It is also a fundamental characteristic of the current ‘missional’ church movement that its direction is relentlessly outward – Christians going to the places where people meet, being salt and light in locations where they can meet a need, start a conversation, be a blessing and start a community there.

Going back to Abraham – he obeyed and he went.  Not perfectly – but he went.  He left behind people that were dear to him, practices that had nurtured him, the familiar, the comfortable – and he struck out into the unknown, trusting that he was called.

It may be time for us to think about going, too.

And when we’ve thought and prayed about it – to go.


Looking wider (or – does my blog look big in this?)

There aren’t many books that are improved by starting to read twelves chapters in.  (Please feel free to suggest some that might do, if any occur to you.)

I mention this, because in the last blog, amongst other questions that arose, ‘Why start referring to the Bible at Genesis chapter 12?’ was one that was still lurking, waiting to be asked.

Actually, Chris Wright might be quite irked that I picked up his narrative at this point – because he very carefully starts at the beginning (ie Genesis chap. 1) and works forward from there. When he says ‘Whole Bible theology’ – he means it!

(Although it also has to be said, in considering the whole story*, he first references Jesus words of instruction to his followers to go and make disciples, which is set at the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – 28 chapters into the New Testament)

So what have I missed out?  The first 11 chapters of Genesis are big-screen stuff (quite literally in the case of Noah – although many would want to dispute large chunks of Darren Aronofsky’s recent epic film!); The universe comes into being, humanity springs up and falls over, there’s fratricidal murder, ecological catastrophe, animal rescue, drunkenness, sky-scrapers and city-building, the division of the nations…

These stories are the back-drop to Abraham’s story, describing a multi-ethnic region where cities abound, where trade goes alongside war and where immigrants were regarded with suspicion; an area where people thought ‘You know, once, it was all much nicer…’ Sound familiar?  The technology may be very different, but the people sound very much the same.

Within this back-drop is the thread of God’s reaching into the picture, indeed the making of the frame – his involvement in the whole business of the material world, his blessings, his judgments and indeed his first covenant promise.  (This covenant is notable because it is not made to an individual or a family or even just humans, but with every living creature on the planet.  Even cockroaches are recipients of God’s grace and promises!)  Many important themes that run through the whole of the Bible have their origin in these chapters (some would argue that all major threads start here).

SO – why start at chapter 12?  Mainly because the focus changes from ‘The way things are’ to ‘the story of a people charged with a mission.’  There is a movement from ‘pre-history’ to ‘the story of a tribe.’  The focus closes in on a single place and a single man; Abraham and his encounter with God that starts a whole new ball rolling and the beginning of a new episode in the story of God and humanity.

That story is something that the group of Jesus’ disciples understood as being their story; they were taking it on, making it real in their generation – obeying God to ‘Go – bless – and bless all nations.’  They weren’t starting something new; they were living out, sharing in a new way, the foundational and transformational message of God’s interest in and care for all people and nations.

So the question comes back to us again – is this our story? And how do we share it?

*Chapter 2 ‘People who know the story they are part of’, p 35, Christopher JH Wright, ‘The Mission of God’s People’, Zondervan.


Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

There is theology.  Then there is theology that is a pleasure to read.  This book is definitely in the latter category.  Chris Wright apologises in his introduction for any elements in the books that echo its origin in sermons that he has given – but this to my mind is a strength; he’s worked hard to make the ideas he’s sharing simple enough to speak, be heard and understood.  Having said that – those sermons will not have been short ones; there’s tons of good stuff here.

Not that this affects the depth of what Wright has to say; he has a profound thesis that he presents with clarity all the way through the book.  It is this: The mission of God’s people must reflect the mission of God.  Having written a whole book* on the latter (which he then unsurprisingly quotes widely), he now looks at the former and traces the echoes of the calling given to Abraham through the prophets which is expressed by Jesus and then in the thoughts of St Paul and St Peter, the early church leaders.

Some notes that Chris Wright makes right at the beginning should be echoed here.  This is theology that directly connects to mission: ‘No theology without missional impact: No mission without theological foundations.’  Additionally – this is theology that addresses the whole Bible – it starts in Genesis and ends up in Revelations. The fact that Abraham has already been mentioned is not by chance; the covenant made with him is a key point in Wright’s understanding of what God’s people are supposed to be about.

This is the question then: what is God up to – and how are we to echo it in the 21st Century?  The answers that Wright gives include ones that address life inside the church and out, at work, in the spheres of ecological response and public domain as well as the witness to and procamation of the Gospel message.

What’s your mission?

* The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bble’s Grand Narrative, Christopher J.H. Wright, pub. Downers Grove, Il: IVP, and Nottingham: IVP, 2007