Sunday, May 30, 2021

Trinitarian revelation ... about John's Gospel's brilliant literary skill

So, working on my sermon for Trinity Sunday and having a look at John 3:1-17, with special attention to verses 16 and 17, I noticed in the Greek some interesting parallelism, which I will try to capture in English (adjusted to reflect the underlying Greek so as to highlight preciseness of parallels). 

We start first with a set of parallels which includes v. 15.

1. Parallel concerning the ones believing in Christ.

Verse 15 is: "in order that everyone believing in him might have life eternal."

Verse 16 includes: "in order that everyone believing in him might not perish but might have life eternal."

2. Parallel concerning God's action on or to the Son:

Verse 16:  God ... the son the only gave

Verse 17: Not for sent God the son

In each case the world (see below) is in view as the reason why God "gives" the only Son and why God "sends" the son. 

We deduce that in both verses John is reporting something similar: for the sake of the world God involves the Son (via theologically weighted words, "gave" and "sent") in the salvation of the world.

The theological weight on "gave" includes Abraham being willing to give his only son as a sacrifice (Genesis 22), Mark's report of Jesus talking about giving his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45), and Paul's reference to God not withholding "his own Son, but gave him up for all of us" (Romans 8:32). And for "sent" we can read the whole of John's Gospel as a story of God's agency: Jesus sent to the world, Jesus coming into the world in order to reveal, to bring abundant life via signs and speeches, and, ultimately, to save the world through taking away the sins of the world.

The next observation is less about a parallel and more about 

3. development of God's attitude and action in respect of the world:

Verse 16: ... for loved God the world

Verse 17: not for sent God the son into the world in  order that might be judged the world but in order that might be saved the world through him.

Note there is a parallel between God's actions: loved ... the world, sent ... into the world. God's love acts, and God's acting is loving.

(We might additionally note that in verse 18 the theme of "judge(d)" is developed in relation to "believe" and also "only son":

Verse 18: The one believing in him is not judged but the one not believing has been already judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only son of God.)

As John reports Jesus' (Aramaic) discourse in Greek, John works his literary magic to emphasise and develop themes such as believing, world, and judging, in relation to God's love for the world - a love which both "gave" and "sent" the son.

John uses parallelism, repetition (of individual words, of phrases, of themes expressed previously) to underscore the importance of God's initiative out of love for the world and the appropriate response of believing in the son.

John the theologian is not only transmitting the teaching of Jesus, he is transforming it when translating it in order to convey the key messages he sees at the heart of the gospel, a "seeing" which he credits to the Spirit of Truth working in the disciples of Jesus after the exaltation of Jesus in order to develop the fullness of the meaning of Jesus' teaching (so John 14-16).

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Introduction to Two Studies for Dio Chch Clergy Conference 2021

 This week the annual Clergy Conference of the Diocese of Christchurch is being held. We have a range of speakers and I am honoured to be leading two Bible studies on the Acts of the Apostles. I have asked participants at the Conference to do some "pre-reading" which has been emailed out to them. For convenience of conferees I am also publishing the pre-reading material here so that it can be accessed via the internet by conferees if they wish. Hopefully regular readers of this blog find something of interest here. If not, there will be a post next week!

Clergy Conference 2021: Refresh

Two studies in the Acts of the Apostles Pre reading the Acts of the Apostles would be useful

-          The Holy Spirit leads the church

-          The church adapts and changes

Introduction to the Studies: Luke’s contexts and our contexts Pre-reading for the Conference

Likely we are familiar with the great debate about when Acts was written:

-          early 60s AD, in keeping with the ending in which Paul is alive and well in Rome, but by the end of that decade he is martyred;

-          or 80s AD, because Acts is clearly written after Luke’s Gospel which is after Mark and probably after Matthew, and if Mark is dated to 70AD or later, then …;

-          or even later, say 100 AD++, because it has a kind of maturity about its retrospect on the early church, it has no interest in the early return of Jesus (i.e. eschatology has given way to history) and it is not attested in any way by later writings as known before the second century AD.

But that debate introduces us to thinking about Luke’s contexts: the church and its contemporary theology which he inhabits, the Roman empire and its response to Christians and their disruptive message, the religious world of the Mediterranean and its receptiveness, welcoming here and violently reactive there, and, obviously importantly, the world through human history as the sphere in which the “history of salvation” or God’s purposeful relationship with the world unfolds, made visible through Israel, Israel’s Messiah Redeemer and now the movement of Jesus’ disciples.

In relationship to these contexts, what is Luke saying through Acts, what are his significant themes and idea? Here are five matters which I think are important to Luke:

1.       Soteriology 1: Life involves choices and God will hold us accountable for our decisions. Judgement is coming and it matters how we have lived and whether we are saved or not by Jesus the Messiah Redeemer. Whether we (say) think of Lukan parables which consistently highlight choices humans make, for good or ill, for justice and mercy or injustice and unkindness; or of the crowd on the day of Pentecost or the Philippian jailer, salvation matters and news of salvation spreads through apostolic mission.

2.       Missiology: God’s relationship with the world, the advance of salvation through history is worked out through human agents: Moses, David, the prophets before the coming of Jesus; Jesus; then the apostles, notably Paul, with a cast of other characters: deacons, evangelists, mission partners such as Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila.

3.       Pneumatology: Yet the human agents are empowered through God who is actively present in the world, notably in Acts through the Holy Spirit.

4.       Soteriology 2: Salvation is for the whole world, for Gentiles and for Jews, for Israel and now, as significant developments in the early years of the church demonstrate, for all nations.

5.       Ecclesiology: There is some complexity to the telling of the history of salvation. When Luke writes his Gospel, he declares at its beginning that he is improving on other gospels. When Luke writes Acts (to the same recipient as his Gospel), he does not say anything about his view of Paul, but his view of Paul is (arguably) closer to the Paul of the (generally agreed) later Pauline writings (such as Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles) than the earliest writings (such as Romans and Galatians). It is difficult to find any hint in the sermons of Paul in Acts of the theological agonising over justification in Romans and Galatians. Despite magnificent attempts to harmonise the Paul of Acts with the Paul of Pauline writings, there are differences between Luke’s Paul and Paul’s self-understanding.

Dare we summarise Luke’s main thesis? This is what I see driving Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles:

God’s plan to save the world from sin and its effects will not be thwarted by any opposition, whether an imperial kingdom, a demonic power or a human agency motivated by mistaken theology.

What are our contexts as we read and reflect on the Acts of the Apostles?

In what follows I try to match some of today’s contexts with the five areas Luke addresses:

A.      Soteriology 1: Our Western world is ethically crazy. We can leave a spouse for another person and cry “privacy” to protect ourselves from judgement. But post one “incorrect” sentence on social media twenty years ago and we can be “cancelled” today when the sentence is re-publ;ished to scorn and condemnation. We can freely and loudly accuse Israel of genocide against Palestine but any criticism of China’s treatment of Tibetans or Uighurs is to be muted.  Ethical imperatives in the West today are determined without reference to God and also without awareness of their deeply Christian character. For example, on the matter of racism and sexism, there is little or no awareness that if Christianity had not disrupted and displaced Hellenism and Paganism, we would be a very racist, very sexist society. Yet, this ethically crazy Western world offers little by way of salvation (in a social sense): how does a “cancelled” person, for example, find forgiveness and restoration?

B.      Missiology: As ministers of the Gospel, leaders of the church, we are very conscious of our human agency within God’s purposes, but we struggle with questions of where the next generation of ministers and leaders is coming from, of why our roles are so constrained by compliance matters, and of how we will master multiple forms of communication. Paul just stood up and spoke …!

C.      Pneumatology: There have been seasons in the history of the church when the Holy Spirit has been very visible in working out growth in conversions and in deepening faith: in Acts, for example, and for some of us, in the period known as the “charismatic era” (1970s/80s in particular). Where is the Holy Spirit at work today? What is the Holy Spirit saying to the church?

D.      Soteriology 2: Questions of inclusion for the church have not ended. Today we continue to engage with questions of inclusion of men and women, Maori and Pakeha, of multiple cultures with Tangata Tiriti. We are a Diocese where there is a critique of our leadership as “too male”, our congregations as “absent of many men”. And it is observable that most of our congregations do not reflect the multi-cultural make up of our society. How do we as church enable all the different peoples of our society hear the gospel of salvation?

E.       Ecclesiology: Differences in understanding of our faith have been with us forever (so Luke’s writings attest to; as also, other writings within Scripture). Sometimes differences spill over into division (note, e.g. Barnabas and Paul’s sharp difference of opinion over John Mark and the subsequent schism in their mission, Acts 15:36-41). Always our context two millennia later is that of a divided church: many denominations, new churches (if not new denominations) continue to emerge to reinforce the confusing nature of Christianity to those who are not Christians. If I had a dollar for everyone who asks why we cannot have just one Cathedral in the centre of Christchurch … Some of our divisions kind of work out fine – most ecumenical relationships involve lots of good will and good humour (in my experience); but others are painful (as this Diocese has experienced recently).

Finally for our pre-reading:

In terms of our Diocesan context for the Conference as a whole, and for the Bible Studies in particular, we should also note the following matters (in no particular order of importance):

F.       - Attention to our relationship as Maori and Pakeha in one society/nation (a special feature of our conference in 2021): we have several motivations at work within our collegiality as we participate in the Conference (e.g. to better understand Te Ao Maori, to improve our use of Te Reo in our liturgies) but the larger questions at stake are questions of healing (of bruised and broken relationships), of restoration (so that Maori have similar health to Pakeha, ditto educational outcomes, employment opportunities, and so forth) and of justice (especially concerning land). Ultimately these become one spiritual question for our nation to engage with.

G.     -  Diocesan Mission Action Plan (DMAP): the group working on the plan to be put to Synod in September 2021 have made excellent progress. This plan will – if agreed – provide important guidance to bodies such as Standing Committee and the Church Property Trustees in the remainder of this decade. What is the Spirit saying to the church through this process and our deliberations about it?

H.      - Change is happening, even without a DMAP: the recent decision by the St Luke’s Parish to be dissolved is both sad and an opportunity to revise our mission to central Christchurch.

I.         - The Cathedral in the Square: this is a huge project, absorbing time of Bishop, Dean and others such as CPT trustees and staff, and it requires a heap of funding. But it is critical to our mission for decades if not centuries ahead, both in terms of our relationship with the city and province, and in terms of what we can do from our historic privilege of being in the centre of the centre of our Diocese’s major city.

J.       -  Within the church of God in NZ, and within the religious landscape of NZ, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia remains both a bridge and a model. Bridge: we are a church which assists the ecumenical connection between Protestant/Pentecostal and Catholic/Orthodox churches, as well as playing a significant role in connection between different world religions present in our islands. Model: our ability to hold differing convictions together, as well as differing styles of being church, means we remain an example to other churches in respect of being better together than apart.

K.       - Royal Commission: much to say here, but we must not underestimate the negativity to our gospel message within society engendered by the effects of abuse on individuals and their families, and by the reputational damage caused by that abuse. Our mission is to bring salvation (healing) to people. Abuse is anti-salvation. We have work to do to undo the damage done when ministry has damaged people.

Regeneration of the Diocese of Christchurch: What does Acts have potential to teach us?

The answer to the question is “many things” but we only have two studies. So in the first study we are going to look at the Holy Spirit Leads the Church and in the second study we are going to look at the Church Adapts And Changes.

In another words, Acts teaches the church today the importance of the Holy Spirit leading the church, and teaches the church today that there is need to adapt and change in response to new challenges and to changing contexts.

Let’s hear what the Spirit is saying to the church as we study God’s written Word together.

Bishop Peter.

Monday, May 17, 2021

There is a lot to ponder before I write my book on the Secret to Success: 21st Century Church Growth

Thank you heaps to the commenters to last Monday's post. With vim and vigour, intellect and insight, experience and exegesis, you have exemplified what Anglican blogging ought to be ... every post!

The reality in my experience has been that some posts occasion very few or even no comments, and others generate lots of comments because they are about That Topic.

So, it has been very pleasing to have lots of thought provoking discussion generated by simply raising the question, Why people are not coming to faith today in a Western country such as New Zealand.

But do these erudite and energetic comments help me if (say) I were to write a book called The Secret to Success: 21st Century Church Growth?

Yes and no.

Yes, there are explanations for growing churches within the comments made during the past week.

No, the subject of Christian faith, why people are drawn to it, and how we might maximise the drawing in factors turns out - according to some comments - to be a complex matter, admitting to no simple, adoptable formula.

For instance, while I read some comments as helping us to identify that churches X, Y and Z are likely to grow and churches A, B and C are not, I do not see that any comments conveyed a confidence that such growth would grow the Christian faith as a whole in a country such as NZ.

Put another way, it is observable here in NZ that despite the success (compared to other churches) of the Catholic, Pentecostal and (to use a controverted word) conservative mainline churches, the percentage of Kiwis believing in God continues to decline (according to successive censuses) and (as best I can tell via some anecdotes and some data) the numbers of Kiwis regularly in church on Sundays is static (if not declining).

That we might agree on how to grow churches would not be the same as finding the secret to restoring Christianity to its majoritorian glory days in Christendom.

In sum there is a lot to ponder in the discussion to last week's post. Here are a few ponderings from me:

1. The role of God in the world and in the church is a mystery 

Why is there suffering? Why is Christianity divided when Jesus prayed for its unity? Shouldn't God be doing something about it?  (This week as I write, questions involving both God and suffering are highlighted by the renewed war between Israel and Palestine, fuelled in part by religious motivations and motifs)

Answer to all such questions: we do not know.

But here are a set of questions to which we do know the answer, and the answer is Yes.

Should we do what we can to alleviate suffering?

Should we work for Christian unity rather than disunity?

Should we be praying to God, Your kingdom come?

For all the diversity within Scripture, the differences of views on what Scripture means and so forth (as highlighted in the discussion thread below), actually, a number of things are perspicacious!

But, agreed, exactly what God is up to in the fraught situations of the world and in the fragmentation of the church, it is a mystery.

2. There is more to the church than meets some eyes

An immeasurable number of people have been disappointed by innumerable ways in which the church has failed them. And that there are so many church denominations is a travesty and a tragedy (because almost certainly our fragmentation is a stumbling block to belief). 

Nevertheless the church is good for something - I reckon - and it is this: people gather together and tell the story of God's work among humanity, especially the story of God becoming human in Jesus and sharing our flawed and frail life, and the telling of the story includes the insights of past tellings, and thus the church today is blessed by the church of yesterday, most especially when we open the Bible and pray the liturgy.

The church holds the treasure of the Good News, the Good Story of God in Christ. It is a mighty treasure and it is a privilege to gather week by week if not day by day with fellow sinners to talk about God's kindness and generosity towards us.

Doesn't the treasure, the pearl of great price the church holds, outweigh the shortcomings?

3. Abundant life in Christ requires a rich theological imagination

A number of comments in the discussion below lament the thinness of our understanding of God, of what God has done for us and what God has in store for us.

Having created us, God invites us on a journey full of feasting and fascination. We've rejected the invitation and spurned God and God has not given up on us. Through Christ God dies for us that we might live - live that life full of feasting and fascination. Justification by faith is, we could say, the entry door to this life, but not the whole of it. The fascination lies in the inexhaustible depth of being Father, Son and Holy Spirit have, as Persons and in their Union-of-Being. The feasting is the communion we participate in with them.

Isn't a significant point to Scripture that it offers a thousand insights into this fullness of life in God?

Who cares if we debate Scripture and cannot agree. Scripture is more than an argument over which we argue. Scripture is invitation and inspiration, fuelling our desire for God and leading us ever deeper into the still water of God's oasis of life.

Will we see this? Do we have the theological imagination to envision how deep and wide and long and high is God's love for us and the logical consequence of God's inexhaustible love? That there is an abundant life to be lived in the spacious security of that love.

Whether or not the world beats a path to the door of the church, isn't it worth living the abundant life God wants us to lead?

Monday, May 10, 2021

Revelation 3:14-20: an insight into why Kiwis are not turning to Christ in a time of crisis?

Last week I was at a very worthwhile event - a Tikanga Pakeha forum on Rural Ministry. But in the course of this event, as with many conferences in these islands about ministry and mission, there was no escaping the fact that fewer Kiwis gather for worship on Sundays, with this forum highlighting diminishing numbers in rural churches.

Despite the world crisis of the Pandemic (albeit with NZ doing very well relative to other countries), and other crises (such as the housing crisis in our country), the dial does not seem to be shifting upwards on worshipping numbers (across the nation as a whole - clearly some churches in some places are growing, and some of that growth is conversion growth).

Indeed, nothing has shifted the dial upwards for some decades.

And, as best I understand the wider world, what is true of NZ is true of the Western world as a whole.

Whether we talk about the secular society, the post-Christian nation, the shift from religion to spirituality, we are talking about resistance to the Good News of Jesus Christ.


One theory I think has a lot to commend itself is that in a nation such as ours, notwithstanding crises re housing and threats such as Covid-19, most of us most of the time are incredibly blessed - good health, good times, good prospects.

There is so much goodness to explore and experience that there is little or no time to stop and ask about the truth of the universe, the meaning of life, let alone look within ourselves to see the state of our souls. 

It struck me - yesterday, because it was a passage I was preaching on - that when we read Revelation 3:14-20, the famous letter to the somewhat complacent and self-satisfied Christians in Laodicea, we could apply what Jesus says to the spiritual situation of (much of) NZ, as explanation for resistance to the gospel:

"For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing'." (17a)

Jesus speaking to the Laodiceans does not stop there:

"You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." (18)

Nothing ever changes about our spiritual state before the God of Jesus Christ.

Could spiritual revival ever come to NZ without our realising that before God we are not rich but in great need?

Monday, May 3, 2021

What did John know about Matthew, Mark and Luke?

 Let's keep going in John's Gospel, but this week at the beginning and not at the end.

One of the great scholarly questions about John's Gospel is, 

What did John know about the other gospels?

Answers stretch from "maybe nothing at all" to "something, but not a lot, it would seem." That something, some think, could particularly come from knowledge of Mark's Gospel.

The reason for these answers is that 

1. there is s o much difference between John and Matthew/Mark/Luke (e.g. the teaching of Jesus in John is almost wholly different from teaching recorded by the other three); 

2. even where there is similarity between John and Matthew/Mark/Luke (some events, miracles, Passion and Resurrection Narratives), only a comparatively few words suggest knowledge by John of text of other gospels. 

Might he only have known of one or more of the other gospels through hearsay?

Yet John is, if nothing else, a very clever man. (For one example, relating to yesterday's Gospel, John 15;1-8, see Ian Paul's exegesis here.)

Could he have cleverly "covered his tracks", that is, known the other gospels well, yet taken another compositional path than one which betrays that knowledge?

Here is a hypothesis, based on John 1.

Knowing the other Gospels:

A. John takes Mark's "beginning of the gospel" (1:1), Matthew's genealogy (going back to Abraham, 1:1-16); and in John's Gospel, Abraham is important), and Luke's genealogy (going back to "Adam, son of God", 3:23-38) and pushes the concept of the beginning of Jesus Christ to pre-existence.

B. Matthew makes a particular point of Jesus being the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. In various ways, Mark and Luke do this also. In John 1:45 we read that Philip finds Nathanael and says to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." In that report there is a nod to the human patrilineage of Jesus through Joseph, something Matthew majors on (chapters 1-2).

C. The high point of Mark's Gospel, or, if you like, the central fulcrum on which the story Mark tells in his gospel is Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ (8:29-30). In Matthew's Gospel this confession of faith leads to Simon son of Jonah being nicknamed Peter/the rock (16:15-19). In John 1:41-42 this confession and naming sequence is set down by John. In verse 41 Simon's brother Andrew says to Simon, ' "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated the Anointed/Christ.' In verse 42 Andrew brings Simon to Jesus who promptly says, ' "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter/Rock)'.

D. The great theme of John's Gospel, the relationship between God the Father and the Son of God Jesus Christ is introduced in John 1:14-18. But this is a theme found in Matthew 11:25-27/Luke 10:21-22 - verses which could summarise John's Gospel, or be the catalyst for the composition of John's Gospel.

In other words, according to this hypothesis: John does know the other three gospels (but conceals this knowledge in terms of, say, direct citation) and makes those three gospels the starting point for his gospel. Within his first chapter John demonstrates that he starts from those three gospels but is going to move on from the stories they tell and the theological reflections they have offered their readers to dig deeper into the meaning of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.