the blue fish project

Thursday, August 27, 2015

God's proposal in his gospel: Love in a Roman Sandwich

Over the past year I've been reading Romans with a few different groups and individuals, and will be doing so again with several more soon. It's been great to dig into this heavyweight letter repeatedly. Working through this passage by passage, seeing it's message unfold, and as with the best stories, things become clearer with repeated viewing.

It's widely agreed that the letter breaks into four coherent sections, which together build Paul's argument as he writes to the church in Rome to catch them up in his attempt to serve the churches of Judea and take the good news of Jesus to Spain.

A few thoughts on part 2: chapters 5-8.

Structure is important in any literature because its one of the tools writers use to convey their message. I think that's particularly true here. Several commentators have identified some kind of chiastic structure, and I've found Peter Leithart's attempt at this particularly helpful (image above). The thought here is that it's like a sandwich with matching layers building to the meat in the middle. In this case five layers.

An argument flows from chapter 5 through to 8, but it also builds through parallels between sections to its centre in chapter 7:1-6.

Layer 1. Love and suffering frame this section. Suffering is described that is relentless, dying daily. This suffering is producing character (chapter 5) and however bad the storm gets will not separate those in Christ from his love. A love anchored in the crucifixion of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A love strong as death, stronger even.

Layer 2. Those in Christ move from Adam to Christ... they come to reign in life but not triumphalisticallyReigning in life is cruciform not triumphalist.  They suffer, weak, groaning, waiting as sons adopted in Jesus. This presents a bigger view of the world that says the world has not always been struggle and will not always be... it was once taken down into death and resurrection awaits.

Layer 3. There's no condemnation for those in Christ... they've been buried in baptism - condemned in Jesus' death and in hope of resurrection. Life is not to be patterned on performance but on the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Are you baptised? Then there can be no condemnation, nothing to add.

Layer 4. A change of rule has occurred in those who follow Jesus - from commitment to "flesh" to commitment to "righteousness". The confident assertion of the back end of chapter 6 is tempered by the experience of chapter 7, and the believers raging against their wretched flesh and its persisting desires... in hope of eventual liberty.

Layer 5. At the centre of these chapters is a marriage illustration - framing the move through death and resurrection, from Adam's helpless race to Christ's fruitful family. The old marriage is ended and a new fruitful marriage begins... on the other side of the darkest night, one can stand in Christ's deathless 'always and forever' love. This is God's proposal in his gospel.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Preaching: Communicating faith in an age of scepticism (Timothy Keller)

I've waited for Tim Keller's book Preaching for a long time. I loved listening to his lectures on preaching with the late Edmund Clowney in 2008. I've found his online sermons from Redeemer church in New York to be very helpful. Keller's style draws on the influence of Dick Lucas at St. Helen's Bishopsgate. Lucas has influenced UCCF so it feels like something I've encounted on many occasions. Not least from another of Lucas' disciples, UCCF Director, Richard Cunningham.

As could be expected from a book on peaching Keller's focus is on Bible-centred ministry. The expectation of preaching, other teaching and conversation centred on the Bible - with the book focussed on the first two areas.

In my work on campus we had to assume a mixed room, different worldviews and at different stages of faith. Many 18 year olds who are happy to call themselves "Christian" haven't figured much of that for themselves, and many who wouldn't take the label are prepared to explore different eyes on the world. No reason to assume differently with a gathering of the church... besides even a long-time believer still has unbelief and definitely still needs to hear the gospel of Christ.

Keller speaks to his New York context but the beauty of his book is that he invites us to consider our own context and then to preach Christ there to all people, helping us not just to imitate his application but rather to ask the questions he asks, pursuing the relevant answers in our own context. He illustrates from his own, and ours may differ, but the importance of listening to where people are stands. The same Christ, the same gospel, from the same Bible, applied to different people...

Preaching is a large hardback in a relatively large print, which makes it feel accessible rather than technical, and that's no bad thing. It's just over 200 pages plus a practical appendix, a small paperback. To read the book and then re-listen to a Keller sermon is a useful approach, and then to ask how do have the same sort of goals, but in my voice to the people I'll be speaking to.

In talking about back stage / front-of-house communication, Keller has it nailed - warmly, winsomely, persuasively and engaging speaking of Christ to people.

Keller argues for Christocentric approach, as he shows in his own preaching, that our goal is not "live like this" but rather, you can't but Jesus has. "The change in the room will be palpable as the sermon moves from being about them to being about Jesus." (p179)

Reading Preaching as I prepared a sermon a couple of months ago led me to rework a couple of sections of my script... or rather to finish writing them where I might otherwise have stopped short of the mark. The difference was significant and I'm thankful for the intervention.

Preaching sits alongside a number of very helpful books on the subject, along with James Stewart, John Piper, David Jackman, Charles Spurgeon, John Stott, Andy Stanley, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others - not to mention the many preachers whose preaching and counsel have helped and continue to help me. This is too important not to keep learning.

Preaching: Communicating faith in an age of scepticism has sharpened me, refreshed me and equipped me to think more clearly, to communicate better. It's also helped me to understand Christian faith and to know Jesus better.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Evangelism, evangelistic and being evangelical.

People who follow Jesus talk about Jesus.

Much of the time we feel very awkward about it and sometimes we don't really want to do it. And truth be told, a lot of the time we don't actually do much talking about Jesus, and sometimes we feel bad about that. And then we do it and we do it badly, and we feel bad about that. God's happy people gone glum.

Sometimes church's talk about talking about Jesus. This can happen on a Sunday morning and can be very painful. I've done it. I've tried to do it. It's painful because people don't really want you to do it, and because in such moments you're left desperately hoping no one who isn't a Christian is in the room (scratch that: it makes me wish I wasn't in the room), because the weirdness is through the roof, and talk of manipulating or conquering people makes me want the roof to fall on me now...

At times the church can seem desperate to share the good news of Jesus, and yet its possible to walk out of a church meeting says "I'm so thankful I didn't invite a friend today...".

I do think it is possible to talk about talking about Jesus, and in a sense this post is an attempt to do just that...

A big danger is the development of a back-stage / front-of-house mentality, like Sainsbury's 50p challenge. The posture can be ugly. Which is odd because Jesus' posture never looked ugly.
(Yes there were moment where Jesus spoke to insiders and outsiders... but I'm not sure that's quite the same thing)

Beautiful feet - the characteristic of those who bring good news -  by definition aren't ugly. Weak, vulnerable, careful, but not ugly. There's nothing wrong, intimidating or weird about talking about what you love, what (and who) you believe. In fact, life is more interesting when people do this.

Evangelical doesn't have to mean weird.

And, if church spent its time engagingly talking about what it most loves (that is, if she talked about who she loves) in a way that makes sense to people, whatever their beliefs, then it wouldn't seem strange at all. This doesn't have to be overly intense, or in-your-face - better not to be. Rather, understated, reasonable, patient, gentle, kind and so on (like Jesus).

Evangelical doesn't have to mean rude.

The technical term here is "evangelism". Which just means telling good news. It's related terms - evangelistic (being about telling good news), and evanglical (people of good news). Neither trite, nor glum but filled up with goodness with gravitas.

Evangelical isn't a choice between being trite or glum.

The Christian faith says that the most experienced believer needs the good news of Jesus. Eighteeen years after I was first met by Jesus I still need to be evangelised. He's good news for me from beginning to end. And so too the person who has never considered anything of it. One message for all human beings: Jesus. All of us in need of being evangelised by Jesus. Not played, not manipulated, just invited to meet a person called Jesus.


1. Sunday morning church becomes a good place for anyone to meet with Jesus, where ever they are on their "journey of faith". More evangelism might happen by being evangelistic than by talking about evangelism. Why talk about evangelism when you can talk about The Evangel himself?

2. Preachers would need to learn to communicate the good news of Jesus is a way that is exemplary of how to actually talk about Jesus with other human beings. That surely entails a lot of listening, a lot less assumed agreement - most human beings don't know the Bible, don't agree with most of what it says, think that 'the Bible says' is a reason not to believe something rather than to believe it (and so on).

This, as it turns out, might help all listeners, whoever they are and whatever they believe, to speak more sensibly with others. Churchgoers might become more evangelistic, because we'd know better how to talk with our fellow human beings about all sorts of things.

3. The church could stop being bi-lingual, stop having back-stage/front-stage language, and just be about Jesus from A-Z for all people.  Which might make church more evangelical... astounded, aggravated, interested, intruiged - week by week - by the unimaginable goodness of Jesus.

Evangelical means about Jesus, like Jesus, for Jesus, and for people.

Sainsbury's looks creepy when it wants to manipulate customers to spend an extra 50p, instead of focussing on helping us to "live well for less" and "taste the difference" - which would probably mean we'd spend more...  Church looks creepy when it makes a big deal of talking about talking about Jesus, instead of just talking about Jesus. Which, as it turns out is fairly in keeping with the New Testament documents.

Very little is said about "evangelism" in the Bible. (Not nothing, but not much). What there is is a lot about Jesus. And the persistent expectation is that the God of the Bible is characterised by 'a spreading goodness'. A shining light of self-giving love.

The evangelistic, evangelical, evangelist isn't a Harry Wormwood (in Roald Dahl's Matilda), selling dodgy second-hand cars to unwitting customers. Rather, evangelistic, evangelical, evangelists are people on their own journey of getting to know Jesus better in the middle of life in this world, listening, loving, and inviting others to get to join them along the way.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Big eyes, full of wonder

"Everyone understand the complaint that our disenchanted world lacks meaning, that i this world, particularly youth suffer from a lack of strong purposes in their lives, and so on. This is, after all a remarkable fact. You couldn't even have explained this problem to people in Luther's age. What worried them was, if anything, an excess of 'meaning', the sense of one over-bearing issues - am I saved or damned? - which wouldn't leave them alone. One can hear all sorts of complaints about 'the present age' throughout history: blasphemy and viciousness. But what you won't hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong, that is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning. This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won't 'get to' it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it." (Charles Taylor, p303, A Secular Age)
[A Secular Age is on Tim Keller's master reading list for understanding culture]

Martin Luther is particularly illustrative of his age, a young man overwhelmed by the meaning of life - in stark contrast to our age.

Charles Taylor's diagnosis of this shift - the disenchanting of this world. The move from the heavens declaring the glory of God to the vast empty silence of space, from cosmos to universe. And from a porous self to a buffered self. From meaningful-time to just another day.

As Michael Ward notes, commenting on The Discarded Image, CS Lewis...
"...repeatedly encourages his readers to take a stroll under the sky at night. Looking up at the heavens now, Lewis argues, is a very different experience from what it was in the Middle Ages. Now we sense that we are looking out into a trackless vacuity, pitch-black and dead-cold. Then we would have felt as if we were looking into a vast, lighted concavity.
And, "In space, no one can hear you scream." 

We are left to search within ourselves - for a Disney-shaped hero or a business-book personality description, or whatever else we can find to give us some sense of life. But, as Luther notes "man curved in on himself" is our worst nightmare.

We've allowed the world to be put on mute, and the silence scares the wits out of us perhaps more than the noise did in Luther's day... though the replacement noise of social and other media is perhaps just as terrifying.

Schaeffer noted: "He is there, and he is not silent."

Lewis painted the world of Narnia to help us believe. Not by allegory, for you need biblical literacy to notice that. Rather, by re-enchanting us, by sparking our imagination, by what Charles Taylor calls "cross-purposes" that might awaken our ears to hear again.

Then, like Luther, in the sound of the gospel word, we might look out from ourselves, have our eyes opened - "big eyes, full of wonder" - to be apprehended by the one who has stepped into the room for those of Luther's age, of ours, and of every age.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Harry Potter, Narnia, Boxsets and Biblical Theology

Helpful insight from Andy Naselli:


I have a similar reflection having just finished reading the seven Chronicles of Narnia with my eldest son this month.

The story builds together and the threads make sense. Taking the books in the order they were published rather than chronologically served us well.

We began with The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, a magical story in itself, continued the adventure with Caspian and Dawn Treader - familiar characters in an expanded world... then on to Silver Chair and the Horse and his Boy before the beginning with The Magicians Nephew and the end in The Last Battle which draw together the mythology of Lewis' world.

It's wonderful to run into Reepicheep again at the end of the story... to see the old professor we met in the background of The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe identified as one who had witnessed the beginnings of Narnia, and participates in its conclusion.

To trace the themes that recur through the books, whilst also noting the differences - as Michael Ward's work on planets notes the differing influences of each book.

Such is the quality of epic stories.

Similarly to read The Gospels first in the Bible - and then on into the New Testament narrative, to pick up the background in the Old Testament storyline - a story in the same world of Israel, Temple and Kings... before topping and tailing with The Pentateuch and Revelation, the story fits together and makes sense. And re-readings yield increasing fruit and insight that weren't noticed the first time around.

My favourite TV boxsets sadly don't always reflect such a coherent world or overarching story.