the blue fish project

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

"None of these is without difficulty"


Last Sunday I preached from 1 Peter 3, on 'An Understated Journey'.
(Download the mp3 here: An Understated Journey - 1 Peter 3:13-22)

Most of which is deeply challenging but fairly straight forward to understand, except that it includes this:
“…he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah…”
 I mentioned this to a friend who is doing a PhD on Peter’s letter. The conversation went something like this:
I said: I’m speaking on this passage. 
He said: That’s the most difficult verse in the New Testament of the Bible. I said: agh! help?!
He said: I’ll listen to the podcast… 
I said: Thanks. Gulp. 
There are two kinds of difficult verses in the Bible…
1. Difficult to understand – like this verse. There are a small number of these.
2. Difficult to live – like “love your enemies.” There are more of these and they’re much more weight-bearing. 
Time to think hard!

  • Peter is describing part of a journey made by Jesus 
  •  What’s clear: Peter is describe Jesus’ journey: suffering, death, being ‘made alive’ and then he says v19: he went… and v22: he went to God (to bring us to God - v18). 
  • •The difficult bit is one part of this journey. Scholars agree that on his journey Jesus was communicating. 

The question is WHERE and TO WHOM.

 Three possible ways to read this:
1. Jesus communicated his final victory over his enemies (Origen. 3rd C.)
2. Jesus communicated, figuratively, through Noah (Augustine, 4th C.)
3. Jesus communicated to unseen heavenly realms, including to those who have rejected God there – including figures mentioned in the account of Noah. 
Contemporary scholar Edmund Clowney notes:
 "None of these is without difficulty." 
German church leader Martin Luther wrote in the 16th Century:
 "I do not know for a certainty what Peter means." 
Peter says Jesus communicated to SOME PEOPLE, SOME WHERE.

The debate is over WHO and WHERE.

I’m not sure too much weight hangs on which answer you think fits best. I think the third probably fits best but 'none of these is without difficulty.' But what's the difference? The passage is descriptive of a journey made by Jesus, and broadly speaking we could find verses to back up him doing all of these things. The gospel of Jesus rings out in the seen and unseen, and throughout the ages.

Which answer I pick changes my understanding of a part of what the cross, resurrection and ascension achieve slightly, it doesn't particularly change the application of the section.

Not all puzzling things carry the same weight.

There are seemingly more significant questions here like – did Jesus rise from the dead - is the Christian hope reasonable? Can Jesus bring people to God? And if so, what’s that God like?

I have plenty of questions I want to ask of others, and I’m glad that there are places to do that and people who can and will and do respond respectfully. In a pluralistic society the message and manner of Jesus says – let’s be respectful and reasonable and responsive to one another. Let’s open up constructive conversation.

My hope is that approaching this question in this way provides some help for other difficult verses in the Bible. These questions helped me navigate.
  • Is it difficult to understand or difficult to apply?
  • What is clear here, what isn't so clear?
  • What are the main historical readings of this?
  • How much hangs on how this is understood?
  • How tentative or confident should I be in my handling of this? 

Image: Dan Partridge for Grace Church Exeter

Monday, June 29, 2015

What if Paul wrote Judeans instead of Romans?


I've been reading Paul's letter to the Roman church this year with someone in our church.

We've recently finished and one of our concluding observations was to ask what if the story had been different. It's one way to work out if you've caught the message that is in front of you - what would we lose if we didn't have this letter? What is its contribution? What is conveyed by this being the response given to a particular situation?

The story (as we discern it from the text) tells that Paul sends his epic letter to Rome in the hands of Phoebe whilst he journeys from Corinth to Jerusalem and then eventually to Rome, in hope of going on to Spain. His journey to Jerusalem is to deliver the finances raised from churches across Europe to provide for the Jerusalem church.

In Galatians Paul and Peter agree that Paul is to go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. But, Paul is to remember the Jerusalem poor. He collects from Philippi (Macedonia) and Corinth (2 Cor 8-9, Phil 4). His logic is that while spiritual blessings have come from the Jews to the Gentiles, material blessings should go the other way.

And so his journey will be slowed. Mere pragmatic advance of the gospel message to as many people as possible as fast as possible is not the gospel shaped approach.

If Paul had merely sent the money back by messenger (Phoebe perhaps) and gone straight to Rome and on to Spain (and perhaps on to Britain?) his message would be of notional care for the Jewish church but a pragmatic stretch onwards. He might've got further - his appeal to Caesar got him to Rome but doesn't appear to have helped him to get beyond there.

The tension between care for the church and extending the church exists.

Phoebe might've carried a letter with the money, and a letter - Judeans perhaps rather than Romans, which would presumably have justified his strategy - here's money for you but the gospel must quickly advance.... With all due respect to Phoebe a different value would be evident in her having made the delivery instead of Paul.

The relationship of Jewish believers and unbelievers to Gentile believers and unbelievers is written into the gospel story as Roman's tells it. God's patience with Jewish unbelief provokes the Gentiles to blaspheme (Romans 1-4), a new Jew and Gentile humanity is formed through the gospel (5-8), Gentile inclusion is for the eventual provocation of the Jews to belief (9-11). Jews and Gentiles must live together with mutual blessings flowing between them (12-16).

Judeans would reflect a different priority, and perhaps a different sort of gospel, a lesser value on the forming of a new community - perhaps more urgent, less patient...

As a corollory to this change in the story of the early church Acts would also tell a different story. Indeed we might not even have Luke-Acts which its suggested may have been researched by Luke while Paul was back in Jerusalem... and in any case Luke writing of Paul wouldn't be telling of one who followed in the footsteps of Jesus, facing trial and death, rather he might've gone on unbound to preach in unreached lands... a story that sounds like saying to Jesus, why not skip out on Jerusalem and crucifixion and go to the nations? Perhaps a more impressive story to tell and yet a story without the cross, which in the end would be no gospel at all.

In writing Romans Paul tells his readers that he's not ashamed of the gospel, he's urgent to come to Rome and to the nations beyond but the unity of the church and the road to Jerusalem, with all its dangers and trials, are unavoidable, necessary. As he walks forward he's always tucking back. As he looks to resurrection life, he's dying daily.

I'm thankful for the opportunity to spend 20 weeks reading this great letter this year, and look forward to doing so again soon.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Of insane fairy tales


The highlight of my weekend was probably sitting in the M&S cafe with my six year old and finishing off reading The Silver Chair with him. And being praised by a primary school teacher at the next table for doing so - and not just giving him a device to play with.

Somewhat painful that it's extraordinary to be reading with your child, though our previous book - Charlie & the Chocolate Factory - anticipated exactly that over 50 years ago.

Our enchanting adventure in Narnia is laced with Christian allegory and reworkings of Lewis' excellent essays in the far richer, more persuasive format of children's novels. Lewis, it seems, isn't just dropping in Christian-isms though, he's going far deeper. 

'Children's books are one of the most important forms of writing we have'

Lewis was in the territory Neil Gaiman later explored in Coraline with his famous saying that 
"Fairy tales are more than true not because they tell us about dragons but because they tell us dragons can be beaten."
Fairy tales tell us about reality, about the true myth. They re-enchant. They re-awaken. They help us to see that this is a "meaning-drenched universe" as Michael Ward puts it. My six year old can tell you that there's meant to be a happy ending to our stories... and that the story isn't over if its still sad.

At the end of The Silver Chair this is shown explicitly as Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum arrive to liberate the Prince from the Witch. 

Rather than acting in force she seeks to enchant them with her magic... seeking to make a mockery of their 'hope' in Narnia, the sun, Aslan... She chides and she mocks: They see a lamp - is the sun just a bigger lamp. They've seen a cat - is Aslan just a bigger cat. But they've been in Narnia, they've seen the sun, they've met Aslan... yet dark underground its all too easy for those things to seem like distant memories, as they had become for the imprisoned Rilian.
"Your sun is a dream; and there is n othing in that dream that was not copied fro the lamp. The lamp is the real thing' the sun is but a tale, a children's story" (the Witch, The Silver Chair)
Such folly to think that a children's story less than real...!

Puddleglum remarks further - that the serpentine Queen's world is just rubbish. He says that even if she was right he would want to believe in the sun and in Aslan, rather than just accept the enchantment of her dark world of lamps and cats. It's a concession I'm sure Puddleglum doesn't mean - but one that says: the human heart shouldn't, can't just settle for so little. In the depths of our being, even ahead of evidence and opportunity to taste what's greater, we know we're made for more.

Miley Cyrus claimed recently that the Biblical narrative, particularly of Noah, is 'an insane fairy tale'. I like insane fairy tales and the things about them is that they cut to the heart of reality as it really is. I think it matters whether Noah is myth or true myth -as Tolkien would put it. I don't want to play down the apparent difficulties and questions about whether a flood was of the land or the whole earth and many other important questions. 

But, the story makes emotional sense. Noah tells of justice being done. That there would be salvation. That the world could be remade. That it takes more than a bath to fix the problems deep in the human heart. That the rainbow in the sky can signify God's bow not pointed at man, but pointed at God's heart. And more. 

Is it an accurate account of a historical event - honestly, I think so. But, without scarying some of my more conservative friends, it's verging on the wrong question. You can ask, is this a historically accurate?  (whatever exactly that means... and I do think it is!)... but more than that...this is the story of the world we experience living in. And, yes this story deeply offends us by its confrontation of so much of who we are and love, but its simultaneously the story we deeply long for.

The world is dripping with meaning and fairy tales open the eyes, and open the heart to see the most insane fairy tale of all, the true myth. And of course, when you're enchanted by one story the alternatives do seem insane... 

Generals can fire weapons and lay siege but stories are far more significant.

And so I will read stories to my son after we go swimming on a Saturday morning, and before bed and any other time we can. Not because I'm against him using devices (he does) or against TV and films... but because I want to stretch his imagination. 

I want him caught up in the great stories so that he might never forget what's above ground, never be enchanted by pale imitations, never prefer the light of a lamp to the shining of the sun, and never to use "fairy tale" and "children's story" as derrogatory terms...

Saturday, June 20, 2015

An understated journey


Talking about talking about Jesus isn't easy to do. It's technical term "evangelism" sounds like something manipulative and creepy you might do to people you hate (though the word just means spreading good news...) or the practice of scary fearless zealous shouty intense types.

I read a slightly odd story recently suggesting that Religious Education was to be banned in schools. Seems unlikely to me, and a bit tragic. Recent months have suggested that British people don't mind talking about politics though we're not quite sure how to handle our differences yet. I can't help but think that more conversation about faith would do us good as well. Whether R.E. Helped much I'm not sure - conversation with Hindu, Atheist and Christian friends did me good at school.

Why would we not want to talk about 'what it means to be human?' and about ethics and beauty and what kind of world this is? Such are the subjects of faith conversations.

As Peter writes to those living in light of the Christian faith in first century Turkey he give some guidance on having faith conversations.

It's not weird to talk about faith in church. Culturally its to be expected. But, that doesn't mean we have to be weird with it. In fact: shouldn't those who set the scene bend over backwards to ensure that the church of all places on earth is where a human being can ask about faith without hype, without being shouted at, labelled, judged, mocked, disdained, disrepected, without having to put up with any number of weirdnesses or to jump through any unnecessary hoops. Peter seems to think so.

1. Faith conversations should be understated. (1 Peter 3:13-17)
Responsive
Peter envisages 'giving an answer to those who ask'. That's not to say the follower of Jesus shouldn't start a faith conversation, though it might indicate I'm better off asking someone a question than giving my answer to a question someone isn't asking. Jesus after all was quite the question asker.

Responding takes some listening rather than delivering a parrot answer, an answer needs to correspond with the question and give some attention to the questioner. See Peter's pentecost message as a response to questions asked.

Reasonable
Peter says be prepared to give the reason for your hope. While the Bible says the Holy Spirit will give believers words to say, and has some distain for rhetorical bluster, Peter and his friends persuaded and proved their case to people.

Preparation isn't unspiritual any more than spontenaity is more spiritual. Elite athletes shine because they've build muscle memory through hours of training...  actors play their part compellingly because they've rehearsed... prior planning prevents poor performance. A genius is someone who can explain their field so others can understand.

Respectful
Message matters but says Peter, manner is at least as significant - if not more.

I can think of too many situations where I've been brash, not listened, been offensive in my manner while attempting - with good motives and urgency - to speak of Jesus. Rushing in 'all guns blazing' is counter productive, it's anti-Christian to be like that. It's one thing for someone to dismiss Jesus because they don't like Jesus, but rejection of Jesus because his followers are loopy (this comes in several varieties) is something to deal with.

There are no perfect people but it doesn't take much emotional intelligence to treat someone humanely in a conversation - arrogance when speaking of the humblest man in all history is horribly dischordant.

My new favourite word for faith conversations is: understated. If Jesus is worth speaking about he doesn't need to be hyped up. It's easy to be overstated and shouty, but the more I consider Jesus I see his story is strangely understated.

French political and religious leader John Calvin noted that faith conversations should have "meekness... not pride or vain ostentation, or excessive zeal. Speak calmly of God's mysteries."

Such an approach can be marked with sincerity, with 'good conscience'. No manipulation. No tricks. And note the connection between "gentleness and respect, having a good conscience..." - my conscience has issues if my manner is off... seared perhaps by my own self-indulgence, lack of self-awareness, lack of awareness of others...

Resurrection
The early church was a movement of hope, people people who spoke of the resurrection of Jesus as a world changing moment calling for serious consideration.

2. Faith's journey to God. (1 Peter 3:18-22)
Peter's case for responsive, reasonable, respectful conversation about faith, and particularly the resurrection of Jesus is based on the journey of Jesus.

Jesus sets the message and the manner for faith conversations. If people want to shout, rant and fight they can do that - but not in the name of Jesus. Jesus' journey has this shape - says Peter: Life, death, resurrection, then he went to preach to the spirits in prison and then he went to God in heaven.

A good man sufffered and if someone who follows Jesus is rejected for being good then they're like Jesus. That's not persecution complex stuff, but the sense of rejection, being sidelined, for following Jesus... even though you are the most diligent person in your office, evidently love your family well, and are an upstanding member of society (as Peter has addressed previously).

Jesus' journey took him through death to resurrection life... though the slightly peculiar verse on preaching to spirits in prison, and then back to his Father in heaven. Those who follow Jesus, follow Jesus - in message and manner. They join an understated journey to God.

The section on preaching to spirits in prison needs some additional study. Scholars have worked hard on this.  [insert detail later]

It's hard to be 100%. But, the clear thing: Peter says Jesus defeated sin, death, evil and satan... by - as the best of people - dying, rising and returning to God... for us. And, one way or another, that news spread... not in brash arrogance but as a respectable and reasonable response, not just from Jesus' followers but from him. And, when you're alive forever there's no need to hype it or overstate it... you can be pretty secure in that.

So, ponder this most difficult of verses, but don't miss the wood for the trees, the important question to get hung up on: the hope that believers in Jesus have, the claim of his resurrection. Is that reasonable? Is that what happened?

Two closing remarks from Peter:

Firstly, he speaks of baptism. To get immersed in water and pulled back into the air is the pledge of a good conscience (the second mention of good conscience in this section... note that for future pondering!) in commitment to hope based on Jesus' resurrection. Immerse me under water because I trust I will be pulled back into life.

Secondly, Peter says: Jesus death was a substitution. The rigteouhs for the unrighteous. That's good news for everyone. When I'm asked about my faith, my hope, in the end I want to speak of the inclusive message of Jesus, an invitation that can be made to any one, his substitution does that. You don't have to be good enough, of the right social standing, gender or ethnicity.

And that's also good news for the brash idiot I can be in representing Jesus. Jesus does enough to deal with even his blundering representatives... and knowing that goes a long way towards setting my tone and posture in life. He stands for me. Where I've been unrighteous, where I'm unlike him: there is Jesus. Beauty for ashes, ashes for beauty.

When someone asks me about my hope, I want to check my heart, listen, seek clarity about their questions, and offer a tentative, understated answer that isn't about my own rightness but directs towards considersation of Jesus, inviting further exploration and questions.

Image: creative commons.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Suffering: Karma vs. Resurrection

Job is a typical man - a blessed man in a fruitful eastern landscape.

Behind the scenes - Satan and the Triune God. Satan is a shady figure, confined to wander the earth, living on a short leash, and with a simple satanic premise: people love God because God is good to them, but when life isn't working out they'll curse God. Clearly this is true in some cases but is it universal?

The LORD permits the test - not so much of himself, or of Job, but of Satan himself. Satan reckons Karma makes the world go round, so upset the apple cart and belief in God will fall. Job loses his family and his health but remains alive.

Job's friend gather and in a rare moment of sanity sit in silence for a week, sorrowing with him.

The Job speaks and says - it would've been better not to have lived. This is the premise of Ashton Kutcher's disturbing film The Butterfly Effect. It's an honest cry from man in the centre of a broken world. It's not a sin to think it, to say it, to face this.

Then Job's friends awake and throw everything they have at Job.

Satan: Job only loves God because his life is comfortable.
The Friends: Job is suffering because Job is bad.

The story however says:

Firstly, Job - though a member of Adam's helpless race - is innocent. Blameless. He's not suffering as payback for bad things he has done. He and his friend may not know why, but it simply isn't raining on him "because he lied when he was seventeen."

Secondly, Job loses all the blessings he enjoyed but doesn't curse God. He is pained, and bewildered, and finds his friends to be miserable comforters.

Nobody needs someone who believes in Karma at their hospital bedside. I loved it as an ambitious achieving teenager but there's no good in having a worldview that only works when life works...

Karma-shaped approaches to life feel neat, and even amusing in the little things of life, because sometimes we get ourselves in trouble... but our broader experience of life refutes this as an absolute principle: there are too many cases when bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. It's miserable comfort and a poor observation of life.

In the story Job, when all is said and done: God speaks. He asks questions that put Job, his friends and Satan in their places. There are things we don't know. There is perspective we don't have. There are limitations we'd do well to accept.

And, Job confesses to having spoken beyond himself. If we hadn't realised already: there's no place for swagger in this suffering world. Meanwhile, God counsels Job's friends - "My servant Job will pray for you."

In the middle of the account Job testifies that he needed one who would be his advocate, and looked for the day when he would see his Redeemer on this earth with his own eyes. Karma isn't the biblical answer to suffering, resurrection is, renewed creation is. Job receives fresh gifts in place of those taken from him - new prosperity on the other side of his suffering and looks to a greater day here with his God.

Jesus is not like Job, Job is like Jesus. The true and greatest man, the suffering servant, is Jesus. It was thought that his suffering would defeat him - how could such horrors occur to one so good? But through the cross Satan was put to shame, exposed, defeated forever.

Jesus prays for those who entrust themselves to him, and by whose resurrection men and women are offered the hope of a physical future, where suffering is over and we will walk the fruitful hills of his world in the company of God.

Image: Unknown