Monday, March 28, 2022

Putin and yesterday's Gospel reading

Putin is scarcely the "waiting father" in the (most popularly) titled Parable of the Prodigal Son (yesterday's Gospel, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), eager for Ukraine to return to the Russian fold. Nor is he the "dissolute son", despite his appalling profligacy in Ukraine - the dissolute son hurt his father emotionally and wasted his inheritance foolishly, but he never murdered anyone. Yet the parable speaks to Putin, and to you and me.

My cue for saying that is a lovely insight (which contributed to my sermon yesterday) in one of my favourite books of biblical scholarship, by F. Bovon, Luke the Theologian: Fifty-five years of research (1950-2005), 2nd edition, Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2006.

Writing about Luke and salvation, pp. 277-78, Bovon writes,

For Luke, the life of Jesus accomplishes this salvation: "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). His ministry, summarized in this way, is marked by the coordination of action and word. The importance of the proclamation of salvation, and so of the Word (in the form of the predication of the kingdom), permits Luke to remove anything that might be automatic from the notion of salvation. The response humans give to the offer of salvation is necessary. In Luke, it is called pistis and metanoia. Luke cannot conceive of a miracle in which the faith of the human is absent (the "your faith has saved you" is more frequent in Luke than in the other Synoptics, cf. Luke 7:50; 8:48, etc). We also know that Luke emphasizes conversion. The illustration he gives in the parable of the Prodigal Son (luke 15:11-32) is proof. (My bold; I have transliterated the Greek words).

Yesterday I said that the parable's main point is not that God loves the worst of sinners (though God does) but that God yearns for our conversion. Whether that conversion involves a change of life as well as a change of heart (the younger son) or a change of heart (the older son, whose lifestyle, or obedience and service to his father is approved).

I further said that there remain in each of us areas and aspects of life which yet need conversion.

So to Putin: horrible and terrifying though his actions over the years and most awfully in recent weeks have been, we do not need to judge that he is not a Christian, but might we reasonably say that there is a work of conversion yet needed in his life, towards the compassionate heart of the waiting Father God?

Of course we can only have such thoughts, in the light of what Jesus says about splinters and logs, if we ask ourselves what work of conversion is needed in our own lives.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Why is there suffering?

As the Ukrainian tragedy unfolds in its painful and bitter reality, day by day, beyond the deaths, injuries, destruction, separations of families as women and children flee,  this is also, unmistakably, a tragedy for global Christianity. 

One church, the Russian Orthodox church is supporting the Russian invasion and many, many other churches (including the Russian Orthodox aligned Orthodox church in Ukraine!!) are deeply opposed. For all the good the opposing churches are offering in the cause of Christ, it is being undermined by the warmongering of Patriarch Kirill.

It is as bad as it gets. It should not be happening. It is difficult to reconcile any aspect of this multi-level tragedy with the God we who are Christian claim to love and to adore.

Why is there suffering? Why is there such suffering as we see in the world at this time? (Totally acknowledging other terrible and terrifying suffering, still, in (e.g.) Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistant, Xingjiang and Myanmar.)

You'll likely be pleased to know that I am not going to attempt to answer that question here. I have no particular reason to think I could offer some new thinking on the subject.

But I would like to share with you a book notice, about a book I have recently come across.


Why Is There Suffering? Pick Your Own Theological Expedition by Bethany N. Sollereder is very readable, intelligently written and cleverly taking care not to lead the reader to land on one and only one answer to the question. "Pick your own theological expedition" means the reader is invited to read the chapters that relate to the direction their thinking is heading in and skip the chapters (or come to them later on) which don't seem relevant.

For some readers here the book may appear lightweight but that could mean it is perfect to put into the hands of those who won't actually open up a heavyweight book on this subject.

Happy reading!

Monday, March 14, 2022

Re-thinking Scripture (3)

 More brilliant comments on last week's post - thank you!

One way to think about what I am trying to push for is expressed in this (albeit somewhat triumphalist - or "mock ironical" triumphalist) Tweet:

Scripture generates theology (our response to what we read, our understanding of what we read, with "our" invoking the church reading Scripture rather than "my" reading which might lead to "private interpretation.") and theology influences how we read Scripture. Hopefully this is a virtuous rather than vicious circle!

A lovely example in practice occurred this weekend where the readings set down for me to preach on were:

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 9:28-36.

The Transfiguration of Jesus (Luke) is connected to our transfiguration (our lowly bodies becoming bodies of glory, Philippians).

Yet, somewhat trickily, from any kind of "neat" biblical textual connection perspective:

- Luke does not use the lovely Greek word for transfiguration which Mark and Matthew use (in English, metamorphosis);

- in any case, Paul in Philippians uses a different Greek word for the transfiguration he is talking about (metaschematisei).

Some theology (building on themes of glory in both passages, including Matthew and Mark as voices in the reading of Luke) is required to say (as I the preacher said), our transfiguration is connected to Jesus' transfiguration.

Then: relating Philippians to some aspects of current life, I made two further points, from 3:17 and 3:20 - points which involve some theological reflection as well as reading out the words of the text.

On 3:17: there are some Christian examples we should not follow (e.g. very difficult to follow the example of Patriarch Kirill at the moment), so how do we apply this verse to our lives and the question of whose lives we model our lives on. In short, my proposal was that we follow those whose lives demonstrate the influence of the whole of the New Testament on them.

On 3:20: picking up a cue from a great footnote in my New Oxford Annotated Bible, "our citizenship in heaven" means we should not give any ultimate allegiance, in politics or otherwise, to any human figure or hero.

To say the latter in a sermon (which is pretty unremarkable and I imagine most preachers would say something along those lines, though maybe not in Trumpian on Putinian churches) is a theological interpretation of what Paul writes about our heavenly citizenship.

In some ways, the significance of what I am discussing here is about our willingness to acknowledge the role theology plays in all reading (and preaching) of Scripture.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Re-thinking Scripture? (2)

Thank you for brilliant comments to last week's post, in which I raised the (not original question), what is the nature of Holy Scripture, given it is a set of writings with some very difficult-to-explain passages within it. A document which is somewhat human even as it is a document through which God has spoken and continues to speak to humanity.

If Scripture can be wrong in some of its statements (as I argued it is wrong about what it says about Cretans), does that raise the question whether we should be cautious about all its statements? (Answer, No. It's been read with scrutinizing eyes for thousands of years, and many statements stand up well.)

Does it raise the question, Should we its readers use it like a coal or diamond mine? Should we dig out of it a set of (true) propositions, evens a set of rules and laws to govern our lives? (Answer, Possibly. Many Christians in many churches through many centuries have derived from Scripture a large bunch of rules and regulations, as well as theological propositions).

Of course, Scripture as a coal or diamond mine of rules and propositions has been somewhat problematic. Most Christians drink alcohol, but some Christians, a whole denomination such as the Salvation Army beg to differ on what Scripture teaches on what we may drink. Ditto eating meat and the Seventh Day Adventists. Scripture is clear on X (so many think) and Scripture is far from clear on X (so some think).

Many Christians understand that you do not take everything literally in Scripture; but some things could or even should be taken literally. Then Christians differ on what the "some things" are - perhaps most famously, we differ on what Jesus meant when he said, with simple simplicity, "This [bread] is my body." Or, one of my favourite examples: get a group of Christians together for a Bible study, read the Story of the Rich Ruler from the Gospels, and see how many in the group take Jesus literally on what he says about giving away everything you have ...

The point (or one of the points) is that perhaps Scripture is best read as a set of writings which we engage with (as individuals, as study groups, as exegetical classes of students, as congregations attending to the read and proclaimed Word of God) as a message from God that we may discuss, debate even argue over but which we will not expect to overwhelm us with clarity such that we all suddenly agree. (Conversely, nor will we treat Scripture as a document which, when we cannot agree, we use as a reason to divide from one another).

Then, in the spirit of comments to the previous post here, what it means to "engage" with Scripture - as individuals, groups - is to allow God to speak to us in and through Scripture, allowing that word to shape and mould us as Christian disciples. Scripture as formation more than information. Or, perhaps better, Scripture to be read for Holy Spiritual transformation of our lives rather than for rules to behave by or propositions to believe in or facts to fill our minds.

It is not, by the way, that arguments and debates over Scripture signal we are reading Scripture wrongly or engaging with Scripture mistakenly. Scripture which provokes us to argument is also Scripture challenging us as to how we argue and with what attitude we treat our interlocutor.

In 1 Corinthians 11:18-19, Paul writes about divisions and factions in church and says:

"For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine."