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


Get on with it, then… and what’s with the penguins?

So what is this mission? I will not prevaricate about the bush any longer.

Chris Wright boils the mission down to this skeleton that comes from God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12.1-3:

Go…

and be a blessing…

and all nations will be blessed through you.’*

Now you (like me!) may have various reactions to that.

  • Is that all?  Isn’t that just a bit simplistic? (To quote the penguins from the film Madagascar: ‘Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave…)
  • I can do that! Or I think I can – if blessings means smile & be pleasant to…
  • That doesn’t sound like what the Church has done to the world, to me.  ‘Nuff said.
  • Through me? How? All nations?

And the list might go on.  (Please feel free to add other reactions.)

My predominant reaction, though, is the glorious lightness of this task (even if it also promises to take me to dark places in order to fulfil it): I am (we are) supposed to be in the business of being a blessing to others.

And not just when they sneeze.

There are a number of questions that come out of this summary, of course (which is why Chris Wright’s book runs to nearly three hundred pages).  Stuff such as – ‘Why Go?,’ ‘Bless how?,’ ‘Which nations?’ and ‘What happened to Genesis chapters 1-11?’  More on these later.

(Bonus marks for those who can spot a hidden penguin in the above.)

* p. 73, The Mission of God’s People, Christopher JH Wright, Zondervan


So what’s the book…

…I hear you cry?
Actually – I have read two in recent weeks that have challenged me in my thinking.
Both are still sat on my bookshelf and will be re-read and then quoted, commented on and chewed over in this blog in days and weeks to come.
The first is ‘The Mission of God’s People’ by Christopher JH Wright (published by Zondervan). Subtitled ‘A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission’, the book is a part of Zondervan’s ‘Biblical Theology for Life’ series.
The second is technically not theology (sorry about that). It is, instead, ecclesiology ( thinking about the church); as  I have a slightly longer and probably more unfamiliar description, I hope you you’ll forgive this loose terminology. (It’ll probably get a lot looser than that, as we go on.) The book is ‘The Forgotten Ways’, by Alan Hirsch, published by Strand/BrazosPress.

If you’ve read these already – let me know your thoughts.