Month: February 2008

Doubts #2: The Old Testament

So I was telling you about how doubt came in after my church broke up and I wasn’t feeling God’s presence. Another thing is always in the back of my mind, and sometimes the front: lingering doubts about the Old Testament.

I’ve read some authors who have highlighted the great things about the Old Testament. I can find in there a God of justice and mercy and love. I’ve also found it really helpful to think about the whole Bible as the unfolding narrative of God’s people, ala N.T. Wright, and that the OT represents the early acts of a story; we’re in the next-to-last act.

The Creation accounts no longer cause me problems either; I don’t feel I have to either be a creationist OR a liberal. Indeed, the Creation accounts really feel like God’s Word to me since I threw out Ken Ham at age 17.  

But the fact remains that the Old Testament causes me a lot of discomfort. There’s a lot of it which seems wrong to me – wrong compared to what I know about God through Jesus.

So I had a strange reaction when Mennonite scholar Ray Gingerich came last year offering a radical reading of the Old Testament… I understood it like this: If Christ is our ultimate revelation of God, then those parts of the OT which are inconsistent with Christ can be understood as less binding, or as a less true revelation of God. (We wouldn’t dare use the word ‘wrong’, but that’s what we’re skirting around, I think.) The OT is a diverse canon of writings… they can’t all be true, argues Ray (I think).

It’s a tempting road to go down. For someone brought up in a conservative Baptist church like me, it seemed to be letting go of a very important doctrine of scripture. (Ie the authority of scripture, I guess.)

So Ray’s solution didn’t solve anything for me. I just felt torn. And I remain so.

I certainly don’t think the Old Testament is the same sort of collection of writings as the New Testament. And it’s so important to avoid the flat-book of much fundamentalism, where every piece of scripture is claimed to be as important as every other bit. But it’s another leap to go from these things that many evangelicals can affirm to what Ray is saying.

 Jesus accepted the Old Testament as scripture, and that’s probably the strongest argument for me to hold a high view of the OT.

So here I am right now reading Chronicles and hoping to hear God speak there. I’m sure he will, but I don’t know just what the OT is at the moment. And some of the things in it bother me.  When I read about God’s chosen people slaughtering other people, it makes me question Christianity.

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Body Life # 2: The Lord’s Supper – Putting the eating back into meeting

This is the second in a series of six articles first published in Oikos. They are a simplification of John Yoder’s Body Politics Simplified – this time with a specifically house church audience in mind.

 

Our life together as a church is an important part of the good news we announce to people. This good news is easier to practice in a house-church structure than an institutional church. In each issue of Oikos, I will be discussing one of six important practices we find in the New Testament which mark the church as God’s people, living in the kingdom now. Last issue, we started with baptism as the practice which brings different types of people into the same body. This article is on the Lord’s Supper – in which we remember Jesus by eating together. To follow are the giftedness of every believer, the open meeting, discipling and discerning.

 

The Messiah’s Banquet

 

When the Old Testament looks forward to the coming of the Messiah and the new age it will bring, it sometimes pictures it as a banquet (Isaiah 25:6-8; Ezekiel 39:17-20). When Jesus came, he fulfilled this in many ways.

  • He ate in the homes of sinners and outcasts, showing his love and acceptance of these people. This was radically new
  • He fed the five thousand and the four thousand – a ‘messianic banquet’.
  • He began the Lord’s Supper – a shared meal to be eaten in memory of him and his new way of life.

We read in Luke 22:19:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’

What were the disciples meant to do in his memory? It can’t mean ‘Whenever you celebrate Holy Communion’; there was no such thing as ‘Holy Communion’.

Jesus’ first followers took him to mean ‘whenever you eat together, do it in remembrance of me.’ The meal Jesus wanted them to remember him with was their ordinary eating together.

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Doubts #1: Where’s God?

This year I’ve been coming out of a period of doubt about my faith. It’s been amazing to feel hungry for God again and to feel like I can believe, that the good news sounds good.

But I’m realising I haven’t even articulated my doubts. I should have done that at the start, so I could understand better what I was up against. Writing them here might help some other people going through similar things.

My journey of doubt started as the house church I’d been a part of started to fall apart in 2006, and finally disbanded last April. I launched straight off again, trying to plant a new house church with my wife, but it felt so hard, like there was strong resistance to what we were doing. Not much interest in others, not much enthusiasm in us. I discovered what it was to be trying to something ‘in the flesh’.

Everything went colder and colder, till I realised I was no longer sure of anything.

I wasn’t feeling God’s presence. Where was He? I would try half-heartedly to pray, but all my words seemed to fall flat to the ground.

I knew all along I couldn’t expect it, but I felt like I needed it. God’s not tame, and he doesn’t come at our beck and call. I think I was probably making too many demands of God – that He would be a certain way and I would experience him in a certain way. And of course, if God did things my way He wouldn’t be God at all.

There’s no guarantee we’re going to feel God’s presence. Mother Teresa seemed to feel God’s absence for most of her life. This is a disappointing truth. I wonder if the charismatic movement has a false expectation that God will turn up all the time? I’m not sure; probably some charismatics do and some don’t. I only know that lately it sometimes feels like God is here with me, and for a while it didn’t.

Book review: Feast of the world’s redemption by John Koenig

Sadly, this book has been sitting on the shelves of the theological library where I work since 2001 without being borrowed. But in preparing a sermon on the agape feast, I got it out this weekend and fixed that up.

Koenig looks at the table fellowship of Jesus and the agape feasts (he prefers the term eucharistic meals) of the early church. I like that he explores this undernoticed connection between the continuity of the table fellowship of Jesus’ ministry, the Last Supper, and the breaking of bread we see in Acts.

He connects the meals with mission, but the connection seems less successful to me. Perhaps here is where Roger Gehring’s House Church and Mission supplies the missing part of the picture – mission strategy was tied not just to the common meal, but to the centrality of household structures in the life of the church. Churches were extended families which shared all of life.

Strangely, too, he doesn’t engage with Yoder at all, who in Body Politics outlines the economic and social significance of the Lord’s Supper as a shared meal in a way which would enhance Koenig’s argument.

Koenig ends with a hope that his book will help provoke a larger conversation about eucharist, shared meals and mission. He also challenges the established church to consider recovering the common meal. Unfortunately, he’s likely to hear a lot of deafening silence from the established church, which has gone way too far in a different direction. But fortunately, there are people who are having this conversation in the emerging church, the house church and Anabaptism, and these people would do well to read his book.

The agape feast

The text of the sermon I preached today at Agape Chinese Baptist Church 

I think ‘Agape’ is a wonderful name for a church. In using it, you are using a word which sums up what church should be all about. Agape is the sort of love God has for us and the sort of love we should to have for each other and for Him.

One of the important things that showed agape in the early church was the agape feast, and it’s this that I want to talk about this morning. The agape feast was a shared meal that the church celebrated when it came together to worship. The wonderful thing about your church is that, unlike most churches, you are already practising the agape feast. I only want to fill in some of the background and its spiritual significance.

It’s weird to think that food and eating are spiritually important, but they are very much so. Indeed, the agape feast is one of the things which shows the world that Jesus is our Lord and that we’re different from the world. The agape feast is about both fellowship and mission. It remembers Jesus and makes us closer together – that is, fellowship. In the New Testament it was also a chance to include non-Christians in the kingdom – that is, mission.

1. The example of Jesus

Jesus set the example for the agape feasts of the early church in two different ways.

I. Table fellowship

First of all with his example of ‘table fellowship’. When you get to eat with someone, you feel included and accepted by them. This is true today in our culture; it was even more true in the time of Jesus. Jesus set an example of including all the sinful, left-out people who were some of his first followers.

In his ministry, we read about him going from town to town and house to house, eating with people. He deliberately ate with the people that no other good Jews would eat with. Who you ate with was really important to the good Jews like the Pharisees. It was a matter of being clean. They read their Bible very carefully and worked out that if they ate with sinful people, they would be unclean. They’d been concentrating on the details of the Bible so closely that they forgot the whole point of loving people. We should remember this when we read our Bibles too.  (more…)

Emerging church V house church

An important difference between the emerging church and the older house church movement is in mission. The emerging church seems a very missional church, at least in the Australian incarnation. It attracts not just Christians who are disaffected with institutional church, but Christians who are both disaffected AND want to reach their local communities. I commend that, while still thinking that missiology shouldn’t determine our ecclesiology.

The house church movement of the eighties – best represented by Robert Banks – was not so missional in its intention. I don’t think that’s a fundamental flaw, because I think Robert Banks’ ecclesiology is excellent.  He wasn’t so worried about what would fit prevailing culture, but in continuing the mandate of the first century churches in today’s culture. I would like to think that this will lead into mission. But my experience is that the reality of people – especially disaffected churchgoers – means that this is difficult.

The new generation of house church leaders – Tony and Felicity Dale and Wolfgang Simson – are much more missional in outlook and for that reason fit in more easily with the emerging church movement. The Dales explicitly say that you shouldn’t be starting house churches with Christians, but with unbelievers. You use Luke 10 as a formula for mission – you go and find a person of peace and stay with them, building up a simple church amongst their sphere of influence. It’s simplistic and relies on a formula, but it has worked for a lot of people and is an attempt to be biblical about both church and mission.

Am I being too greedy or idealistic in wanting a church with a strong ecclesiology while also being missional? Surely we shouldn’t have to choose! Half the problem’s moving from paper to reality. I can make a case on paper that a church with an Anabaptist ecclesiology will be missional, but I haven’t yet managed to live it out for you.

Judging God?

While I’m being challenged by Reformed writers, I read this in the Trinity Theological College newsletter, from an article by Damien Young, and it resonated with me:

Not so long ago people assumed that we were accountable to God, but now it seems that God is accountable to us! Remember Job? He learnt that it is not our place to question God. We are not to put God in the dock. We are not his judges: he is ours… Sadly not only is there little fear of God in the world, there is not much fear of him in the church.

I don’t know the answers at the moment. Amongst Christians with a strong social justice bent, there seems to be more questioning of God (or it happens out loud more). I wonder if my attitude should be more of shutting up and accepting that God is holy and right.

But I think a refusal to judge God shouldn’t become a refusal to engage with the Scriptures as a human expression of divine revelation. And a refusal to judge God shouldn’t become a hard-heartedness or callous disregard for suffering in the world. A reduction of the Kingdom of God to personal evangelism.

We mustn’t ever confuse the way things are for how God wants them to be!