Are we really ‘ambassadors of Christ’?

I minister within the Church of England Diocese of London. If you check out their website, or know this network already, you’ll be aware that the current vision here has a focus on “equipping and commissioning 100,000 ambassadors representing Christ in daily life”. As someone who’s been in parish ministry in London for 19 years, it’s refreshing to have a Biblical metaphor (ambassadors) used so overtly in an Anglican mission action plan. And bold to have (for the C of E) a large target for the number of church members we are aiming to train and send.

There’s a lot to like in the “ambassadors” initiative here. A great collaboration with the LICC (London Institute for Contemporary Christianity) has enabled churches to benefit from resources like the “Right Where You Are” workbook, tailored to the C of E in London. The church where I am Vicar just hosted a Diocesan Ambassadors training evening for lay and ordained church leaders, encouraging them to take the vision for “whole-life, 24/7 discipleship” back to their parishes. The paradigm shift away from clergy/Sunday-focussed church to “everyone, everywhere” mission is wholesome and Biblical as a model of Christian discipleship.

The church of which I’m minister has been learning how important it is to orientate what we do on Sunday towards equipping members for the rest of the week. We’ve taken on board the call to make micro-shifts in that direction, such as “this time tomorrow” interviews, and including workplaces, homebuilders and community places in sermons applications and in intercessions. Gone, I hope, are the days of the only mission that is prayed-for being done by clergy, youthworkers and mission partners (though I think I have heard enough jibes at clergy who “never preach sermons on faith at work” to keep me going, thanks).

So here comes the “but”: I am not convinced that much of the use of the language of “ambassadors” here is fully true to the nature of this metaphor as Paul uses it in 2 Corinthians 5:20. Coincidentally I preached on this text recently as part of our church series on personal evangelism, “Six Steps to Talking about Jesus”. The focus of the Diocesan ambassadors material that I’ve heard presented so far has been on enabling church members to see themselves as living for Christ all week,  but not on sharing Christ in words. An emphasis on the “manner” of the representation but really on the “message” from the One we represent.

The word “representing”, arising from the ‘ambassadors’ metaphor, is straight from 2 Corinthians, but only if the primary way we do that is by speaking on behalf of Christ and about Christ. “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God” is Paul’s ambassadorial message. I recall being involved in early drafts of the Diocesan vision document and appealing, with others, that the language of “living and speaking for Christ” be retained, and it does appear in the banner heading of the Diocesan vision literature, but it does not seem to me to have been emphasised in the obvious place with Biblical foundations to do so, the language of “ambassadors”.

Of course that may be for two reasons.

Charitably, many church members are nervous about speaking about God’s mercy in reconciling us to Himself through Christ’s death – who isn’t? I understand that the Diocese does see equipping members with the message as part of sending ambassadors, and sees the “what is the message and how can we speak it more confidently?” piece as a next phase once members have gained confidence in their Christian calling. If so I’ve got a few ideas of how to do that in my next post. I’d still argue that the emphasis needs to shift from manner to message.

Let’s pray that the reticence to put front and centre the message that Paul spoke as an ambassador is not because some in the Church may not be wholly convinced that we have a message that needs to be communicated verbally for others to be saved. If that is the case, the initiative will only really be about 24/7 vocation, and we will end up a long way from the evangelism of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. If that happened we should probably stop using the “ambassadors” image

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Keller on doubting our doubts

I have not yet read his new book Making Sense of God but saw this very helpful excerpt on The Gospel Coalition website in which Mr Keller tim-keller-making-sense-of-godsummarises some neat work by Michael Polanyi on exposing the wrong beliefs that sit underneath our sceptical questions. As I am preparing a sermon at the moment on Doubt, I liked the head-on confrontation of the big triggers which make us sceptical, such as unjust suffering, moral atheists, and religious hypocrisy, and the call Polanyi makes on us to see the “defeaters” or unchallenged beliefs which undermine the doubt each time. I look forward to reading the rest of Keller’s book!

Faith and reason: a long and painful divorce

Aristotle Oxford Mus Nat Sci
Aristotle – Oxford Museum of Natural History

You are probably familiar with the polemical rhetoric of church father Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It set the tone in the early Christian centuries for the rejection of philosophy (his target then being neoplatonism). His reason for doing so was a laudable desire to affirm the simplicity and availability of knowledge of God through faith, in contrast to pagan metaphysics and dialectics in the style of Athens’ Plato, and his successors. Tertullian’s key text in doing so was Paul in Colossians 2:8 saying, “see to it that noone takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”.

He was not however the only voice in the church of the first three centuries, because other Christian theologians like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, schooled in the philosophical air of Alexandria, were much more aware of the vital need to connect faith and reason, Bible and philosophy, in order to convince educated pagans to become Christians. They recognised (as did Calvin later) that Paul’s target in Colossians quoted above was not philosophy per se but only philosophy that is incompatible with Christ as sufficient Saviour and sovereign Lord. Origen for instance quotes Plato and has been accused of adopting the “middle Platonism” of his day; yet he was first of all a Bible commentator, and always saw the Bible’s account of creation and the Fall as deeper and more accurate than that of Plato. There is bad philosophy, but there is also good philosophy.

The debate continued through the later church fathers. Athanasius and Augustine welcomed ideas drawn from prechristian philosophy, whilst recognising how Christ transforms its ideas about God, the soul and immortality. In the middle ages great thinkers like Anselm, and particularly Aquinas, recognised the validity of drawing upon reason, whilst relying upon faith, in the pursuit of knowledge of God and in finding ‘analagous’ language, however imperfect, to describe Him.

The Reformation and subsequent enlightenment periods saw an increasing separation of faith and reason, perhaps not helped by the failure of the Protestant theologians to engage in serious metaphysical analysis, and Luther’s description of the philosophy of men like Aristotle as “the devil’s whore”! The Church became (not entirely justifiably) suspicious of the influence of Aristotle, with his emphasis upon this-worldly knowledge. Then following Descartes, rationalist philosophy through David Hume and others appeared at least to disconnect what can be known by reason from the experience of faith.

The consequence was the separation of science as a discipline of objective “knowledge” from religion as an exercise of subjective “faith”. This has proven inaccurate as an understanding both of science and of religion, but it remains influential in public perception and policy.

This long painful divorce will be destructive for religion and for society. Faith is and needs to be reasonable, and seen as such. In a secular culture which is growing more and more hostile to faith, it is my guess that the separation will be held up as evidence that faith is “unreasonable” and worthy only of marginalisation and muting. A brave new world of human reason and devoid of faith is the future some wish for already, but cries of “freedom and equality” fail to recognise that enforcing one inevitably requires crushing the other.

Faithful Christian philosophers and thoughtful apologists are going to be needed.

How does a pastor keep learning theology throughout their ministry?

ddglogo

I’m taking a sabbatical from ordained ministry at present, which is providing space for study and writing of the kind most of us find tricky in the usual press of weekly pastoral and preaching work.

Over the years I’ve at times taken a study day once a month, and more recently have followed advice of wise people like Bill Hybels, doing at least 30 minutes of (his term) “serious” reading every day (not newspapers, not sermon prep!), and setting myself stretching targets of theological and other reading each year. That has all helped enormously not just to keep my brain ticking, but to deepen faith and love for God, for which I am grateful.

One brilliant new resource for those of us (most?) who struggle to keep up our use of the Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) after college is this one on Vimeo, Daily Dose of Greek, where Rob Plummer of Southern Seminary in Kentucky, USA, reads a short daily verse (in charming southern-accented NT Greek) and then parses and translates, one verse per day. Absolutely brilliant; I have been using it for the last few weeks, and it takes no time at all.

I’m not aware of a Hebrew version yet, but in this article on the TGC site Trevin Wax interviews Plummer giving other advice on keeping your Greek strong, such as using it in daily Bible reading and sermon prep, and taking a Greek study retreat each year. I’m planning to do a Hebrew revision week during my current sabbatical, but you may have other ideas on how to keep and improve our understanding of Biblical languages?

My main sabbatical reading and writing is in the area of apologetics, faith and reason, and it has struck me how few study groups I am aware of among ministers to sharpen our thinking and practice in this key part of theology and evangelism. I like the apologetics315 website for its enormous list of resources (books, blogs, videos) about the theory of giving reasons for our faith, and about the reasons we can give. From that site, there’s clearly more of this already in the US than in the UK, but surely we should work harder at getting together to discuss and learn from each other why and how to defend the faith in our postchristian and pluralist culture? Or is “just preaching the gospel” really all people need to see the light?

OK, there is OCCA and Zacharias Trust, there is the Cambridge Summer Course in Apologetics, and there are great specialists like McGrath and Lennox doing work on science and new atheism. But do let me know any resources, study groups, or courses for pastors and thoughtful church members which you know on apologetics and “reasonable faith” in the UK.

If the apostle Paul, with his pharisaic training and Damascus Road revelation, still called for “the books and parchments” at the end of his ministry, I suggest we all in pastoral ministry need to find ways to feed our hearts and minds with the truth of the gospel, so that we avoid Greek apostasy (and all other kinds) and “finish our race” stronger than when we started it.

What millenials want from the Church

Bath Abbey angel

The west front of Bath Abbey carries an extraordinary sculpture of the angels of god ascending and descending on two ladders, six (like that above) on each. Although the tourist guides tell you this was inspired by a vision given to Bishop Oliver King in the Tudor days, it is of course a reference to the vision given to Jacob in Genesis 28, and later referenced by Jesus in conversation with Nathaniel in John 1. It’s an image of how heaven and earth meet in Jesus the Son of Man.

This is the kind of artistic and visual detail that makes Christian buildings like that so special to all generations. Visit the Abbey inside and you find evidence of a living congregation, gospel ministry, and plenty of children and young people actively involved.

Is Christianity really declining in the West?

There was a lot of social media flutter this week triggered by a Pew Research study on the US, which some interpreted as saying that it is (especially among the “millenials, those born after 1981 who became adults at or after 2000). But others point out that many are rejecting nominal religion, but not faith – that levels of church attendance are steady, and that it is the the mainline (liberal) Protestant traditions that have declined (as in the UK but over a longer period). In contrast, the number of evangelicals has risen, and (as this previous Pew Research article noted), millenials remain as convinced about doctrines such as God’s existence and Jesus’ resurrection, and as faithful in daily prayer, as older adults, and many become more inclined to self-identify as “religious” as they age. Ed Stetzer gave a great summary of the real takeways behind the stats.

Rachel Held Evans therefore to my mind overstates her case for millenial ennui with Christianity in this Washington Post article . She references the first part of the February article above without noting its positive content too. However, she’s worth reading: she is giving a helpful challenge to Church to offer young adults intelligent apologetics and Bible interpretation, genuine community and “classic” worship done in a modern way. Stone angels on ladders – and the Lord Jesus they point to -instead of fake smoke and logos.

 

How will we train clergy to teach and preach?


“It’s the theology, stupid” is the title of Alister McGrath’s very helpful Church Times review of the Church of England’s discussion document on clergy training “Resourcing Ministerial Education” (RME). I believe strongly that we must cultivate a stronger leadership culture in senior clergy, which is the focus of the earlier Green Report, and which should not in my view be confused with this separate one. But I do agree with McGrath that congregations, parishes and people need clergy who know their Bibles and can connect them theologically with their lives. I’m not sure he is right to see RME as promoting a corporate, institutional view of Church, but he is spot on in sounding the alarm at its proposals to delegate how training is financed to local dioceses, and very likely to disconnect training from residential and university-based theological education. It’s the theology, stupid.

Bishop Steven Croft chaired the RME report group and responded to its critics in this blog this week. Reading his response, I am encouraged by the reminder of the goal of an increase in 50% in vocations (just as big a task as financing them). But I am still left asking for the group to assure us that increased quantity will not mean diluted theological quality. As mixed-mode training still appears to be the favoured way to finance an increase in ordinations, this dilution is surely inevitable, if the proportion of ordinands training residentially (and in seminaries linked to university faculties) falls as the number overall rises.

Attending a preaching conference this week I am forcefully struck by the value of rigorous theological education (evident in the humble work of so many attending with me) to give us high expectations of one another as clergy, and to train us not to think “that was it” but to be lifelong theological and homiletical learners. This “never stop learning” attitude is epitomised by the title of the handout given this morning by an eminent but humble Australian preacher and theologian who retired after 40 years of ministry, but continues to preach and train preachers:

“Still learning to preach, and still learning to teach others to preach”.

Resurrection is for life, not just for Easter

Resurrection Piera della Francesca

It’s a fact that without Jesus’ resurrection there would be no Christianity.

There would be no New Testament. No church. There would be no  forgiveness of sins. No St John Passion or Easter Oratorio. No Augustine or Luther. No Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. No Charles Wesley or William Wilberforce. Probably, no abolition of slavery, no gender equality, no education for any but the rich, and no health service.

Yet Easter is unrecognised in post-christian Britain: 3 out of 4 people say that Easter is primarily about a long Bank Holiday weekend and guzzling lots of chocolate, and less than 1 in 4 say it marks the resurrection of Jesus.

Read the eyewitness account of the apostles, and you cannot miss their absolutely clear belief:

The resurrection changed everything. Yes, the cross is the climax of each gospel, but without the resurrection the gospels would not have been written. It’s too important to celebrate for one day and not all year round.

So here are four key facts (following just Matthew’s account in his chapter 28), and what they mean today.

Fact one: The first witnesses

v1 “after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, May Magdalen and the other Mary went to look at the tomb”.

Four women are mentioned – John tells us this “other Mary” is the wife of Clopas, uncle of Jesus – the other gospel writers also mention Salome and Joanna.

You will notice that none of these four are men.

But they are the first witnesses of the empty tomb, the stone rolled to the side, the first to see the angel and be told the message in v5,

you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is risen, come and see where they laid him…go quickly and tell his disciples that they will see him in Galilee”.

they get another surprise, in v9 – Jesus appears to them.

He is there in risen and physical form. They see him first.

Peter is not there. Nor is John. Only the women.

Their gender only matters for one reason: it underlines the historical accuracy of the resurrection gospel story of Matthew.

He writes primarily for Jewish readers, to convince them that Jesus is the promised Messiah.

In Jewish tradition at that time, women did not count as witnesses in court. Josephus writes that the evidence of a woman in court counts about the same as a convicted criminal.

But all Matthew can find as witnesses for the first events of Easter morning is a group of women.

The fact that Matthew has women as his witnesses made the resurrection story less believable to his first readers. Had he been making this up he would have used men. He uses women because that is what actually happened.

Fact two: The empty tomb

But an empty tomb could have several explanations, and Matthew knows this.

It could be that the women were confused in their grief and went to the wrong one, when in fact Jesus’ body was round the corner.

Matthew anticipates this theory by telling us in 27:61 that when Joseph of Arimathea, a believing Jew, buries Jesus in great honour in his own tomb, precisely these two women were there watching opposite the tomb.

Besides which, had Jesus still been in a grave, it would have been easy for the authorities to produce his body when the Church started preaching he had risen, which they never did.

Or the tomb is empty because the disciples stole the body in order to start the false rumour of resurrection. Ancient historians confirm that guards were sometimes placed because grave robbery including body snatching was common.

Matthew has seen this one coming, too. He tells us at the end of chapter 27 that the Jewish council were worried about grave robbery leading to rumours of resurrection, as Jesus was known to have predicted. So they got Pilate the Roman governor to agree to them placing a guard outside the tomb and a seal on it to guarantee no rumours

After the resurrection the guards rush breathlessly back to the Jewish leadership to say the tomb is open and the body gone, and they have seen an angel. Do the chief priests believe their story and ask how they can become Christians too? No, they do what stubborn people trying to hold onto power always do when confronted with evidence they do not like – they dismiss it.

They pay the soldiers what Matthew says is “enough” to keep them quiet.

V13 “you are to say “his disciples came in the night and stole him while we were sleeping”.

Matthew says the story was still circulating among the Jews when he wrote.

Tertullian, in 200, says this theory was as likely as the idea that “the gardener moved the body, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitors to the empty tomb!”

The only explanation that fits the facts is that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ body had been raised.

Fact three: The first appearances

An empty tomb and a shining angel are guaranteed to make the most courageous people more than a little nervous. No wonder the angel’s first words in v5 are “Do not be afraid”.

But remarkably he continues, “He is not here, he has risen, see where he lay, he will see you again”. What a mood-changing sentence! So in v8 Matthew says

the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him” (literally they knelt before him).

One thing is clear from this account: Jesus is dramatically risen in bodily, physical form.

Sceptics have suggested that the vision of Jesus is a dream or hallucination of the women, a spiritually uplifting message that somehow caught on as “resurrection”.

But for Matthew the resurrection of Jesus is a physical reality not a spiritual idea.

Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is a powerful truth that can give joy to sad hearts.

But it was not a happy dream that Jesus was somehow alive in their hearts that changed the women that morning, it was the appearance of Jesus with them in such real form that he could speak to them and they could kneel before him and hold his feet.

Fact four: The changed lives

We are told earlier in the passion story that Peter denied Jesus – three times – Judas betrayed him, and the other 10 including Matthew, scattered and left him as soon as he was arrested. Even the loyal women follow to the side of the cross, but are not saying “he will rise again, so we just have to wait as Sunday’s coming!”. They are grieving and full of regret.

But within minutes their sadness becomes joy and they are running to tell that the tomb is empty, an angel has appeared, and they have met Jesus alive.

Within hours, Peter and John have visited the tomb for themselves, the disciples have met Jesus and heard him breathe peace over them. These events turn fearful men into courageous preachers who live and die to share the news that Jesus died but has risen.

Experts agree1 that the moment which made his followers realise that Jesus IS the Messiah whose resurrection vindicates his death for our sins, and  the Son of God, not just a great human teacher, is Easter morning (see Romans 1:3-4 and 10:9-13). New Testament Christology – and Trinitarian Christian faith – arises from Easter.

The joyful conviction that Jesus is risen would shake the city, conquer the Empire, and change the world with the love and hope of Christ. Resurrection is for life, not just for Easter.
1 See NT Wright “Surprised by Hope” (SPCK, 2007) or his longer “Resurrection of he Son of God” (SPCK, 2003). Also LJ Hurtado “Resurrection-Faith and the ‘Historical’ Jesus” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 11 (2013) 35–52