but what do you mean by ‘following?’

It was an honest and sincere question at the end of a sermon. ‘but what do you mean when you talk about “following Jesus”, I pray, I fast, I spend time with God…do you mean something different?’

On the one hand, the answer was, ‘you are following’, but to be honest I suspected this answer would not satisfy me even if it did her. But if not, what did I mean…?

I thought later, I should have said…’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbour as yourself’. In so far as ‘following’ means following ‘commands’ that would have been a good answer – actually the ‘greatest’ there is.

The more I thought, though, the more I realised that when I talk about following Jesus I have a further thought in my mind. This thought is that to follow Jesus means matching our own experience to the experience of Jesus and the disciples as recounted in the gospels. It is to have our story mapped to their story, our narratives shaped by theirs.

This is a gospel story following rather than only command following. It means working out in our context what the equivalent is to what Jesus and the disciples did in their context.

So for me – being a follower means being willing to keep ‘bad’ company (tax collectors and sinners) because that is part of the gospel narrative story of Jesus and the disciples. The story and the events and not just the teaching matter as expressions of what the gospel looks like in concrete form.

In the passages I had been preaching from Jesus has taken his disciples to the land of the Gerasenes to confront a chaotic wild unclean man from the tombs of death. Thus to follow Jesus means more than that he might get you out of chaos (the preceding ‘with Christ in the vessel you can smile at the storm’ events) but rather following Jesus can actually lead you into situations of chaos for the sake of God’s commission, compassion, and call (bit of traditional alliteration there!).

I am thankful for her question. It helped me understand again how I view the gospel narratives and the ‘way of Jesus’ as well as the ‘teaching of Jesus’ as important for showing what i means to follow.

Why bother with Preaching?

Doug GayMy friend Doug Gay has recently written a book on preaching entitled: ‘God Be In My Mouth: 40 ways to grow as a preacher’ (due to be released I believe in January 2018). I am sure that some, including some of his friends have wondered, if not said, ‘why bother?’. It seems to me that for many preaching is an anachronistic event that is tolerated rather than welcomed in many a service.

On the other hand there are those, often preachers, who in various way and for various reasons defend the practice as relevant, important, if not indeed central to Christian worship. Here I confess my complicity even as I prepare to take up a post as an Associate Professor in Preaching and Worship (John Gladstone Chair Acadia Divinity College).

The above may represent two conversations passing one another by. Indeed this morning I read a blog post that was all about what preachers need to do if they wish to communicate with ‘millennials’ (a strange universalizing of a group for a supposedly contemporary approach!). To me the post read as: ‘if you have got to preach can you at least do this to make it bearable and as quickly as possible’.

‘To Preach or Not to Preach’ is not a new question (see Norrington for whom it was an ‘urgent question’ several years ago) yet there is a resilience (or perhaps a resistance to going away) in the practice.

Despite all the critique – in a remarkable range of ecclesiological formats (institutional, emerging, missional) ‘preaching’ takes place Sunday by Sunday. As such it is a practice of the Church that requires to be explored in the conversation between these two positions above, not separately, so that if and as it continues it becomes a meaningful space for encounter between people and people, ideas and convictions, and indeed God and us.

But as I said, even as I write I betray my complicity in thinking that there is something significant in the human frailty of this event (speaker, voice, listeners, shared time and space etc) that enables an encounter with the divine (Word and Spirit).

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

Today in the Calendar of the Western Church was ‘Pentecost’ Sunday. In the Netherlands, a highly secular country tomorrow is a public holiday. This has caused me to reflect again on the ‘public’ significance of Christian events.

Interestingly our preacher on this day emphasized the biblical and theological relationship of the Spirit gift of Pentecost with the Spirit of creation. He, therefore, posed the question of what such a linking means for creation care and avoiding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Interesting comment for this week…but whether this will have any ethical traction will depend upon your view of the nature of the Christian faith and the points of interaction between Church and World.

A matter of faith not politics

Put yourself first before other people. Put yourself first before other nations. Put yourself first before the environment. Decry those who oppose with belittling labels ‘weak’, ‘soft’ ‘liberal’.

The above represents a widely held popular political stance. It is also a stance which receives a wide support including from evangelical Christians. The way in which the above, which is so clearly the opposite the teaching of the prophets and the gospels is defended is various. One approach is to argue that faith and politics have nothing to do with one another and so Sunday worship and political affiliations have no connection. So any debate is fought out on the same non religious terms as everyone else: usually nationalism and economics. Another is to argue that rulers have a God given right to rule and that the above demonstrates strong leadership. The rules for this it is said are different from the rules of personal morality which is all that Jesus was interested in. This means that of course you will try and be kind to your neighbour, turning the other cheek, but will expect the law to keep them in place and of course we should spend as much on arms as is necessary to defend ‘our’ country.

Each of the above positions are matters of faith. Even the one that claims that faith and politics do not mix is actually a theological perspective that comes from ones faith and understanding of the bible. A differing position that argues that Christians should seek for a politics and forms of governance that have a more egalitarian and caring approach towards others and other nations with a sense of wider responsibility because this better represents the Christian ethic in the public square is also a matter of faith.

What does this mean. It means that our political choices are matters of faith and the decisions we make are as much about the nature of the faith we are choosing to own as the politics we are choosing to adopt.

Resurrection as history


Tonb and guard

During the night my ‘Kindle’ pinged – a message. I drifted back to sleep. In the morning I saw a message from my daughter saying that she had arrived safely at her destination but had traveled through Manchester earlier and and now heard that there had been a large explosion there. The news today confirmed a suspected terrorist attack at a pop concert. Over 20 people killed, over 50  injured – many reported as children. It would appear the victims of a suicide bomber motivated presumably by a competing ideology.

I have been asked to preach at an event later this year on ‘hope’. At the ground of Christian hope is the resurrection of Jesus. Evangelical Christians, rightly in my opinion, insist that the resurrection narratives do not report a group hallucination nor should they be demythologised to the faith of the early Church based upon some sort of internal existential experience. No rather, we insist, that Christ is Risen indeed, that it was an event in history, if even, something new pointing to the end times. The resurrection is the basis of our ‘hope’, a resurrection in ‘history’.

Yet, often when we then apply the meaning of the resurrection our default position appears to be to make its significance only personal, internal, spiritual. We do not completely capitulate to a position we claim we reject but not far of it in terms of ethics. To be sure we should rejoice in the hope awakened as a person is captured by faith in Jesus. Yet, the resurrection took place in history – not history as a vague idea – but as a specific socio-political reality of ordinary lives, competing ideologies, and expressions of violence.

I think that this is where some of our best theological work and preaching needs to be done – in applying the meaning of the hope of the resurrection beyond the spiritual and the personal and into the real history of a world where I am glad that my daughter is safe – but in which others know nothing other than brokenness and sadness.

First things first

calling first disciplesIt seems that in some current literature and discussions there is something of a competition as to which should be placed first: church, mission, or discipleship. In this competition the order is important because that which is named first is posited as the prism through which the other two are to be understood and configured.

The argument seems to go that one of the problems of the Church is that historically it has also thought about the Church first – what it was and what it should be like and how it should organize itself. This was maybe okay in the ‘old Christendom’ days but will now simply not do. The concerns about this perceived model are genuine and important.

Thus came the challenge of ‘mission’. Mission it is argued predates the Church, at least the mission of God does and as a consequence the Church should be shaped by a prior commitment to participating in the mission of God. Thus the valid concern for Churches to be missional communities.

The priority place of mission, however, has faced its own challenge from ‘discipleship’. In contrast to talking first about the church or indeed even mission we need to focus on discipleship. Basically, the argument goes we are never going to get missional communities unless people are being properly discipled.

I think that each of these emphasis rightly brings a corrective to the other two. Indeed, that is the point, they belong in an integrated relationship where none can really claim the priority. Indeed this might be the problem, that we keep separating that which belongs together prioritizing on over and against another when they all need to be integrated under something greater.

I would argue, therefore, that each of these, Church, mission, discipleship, is an expression of journeying on the way under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When Jesus calls someone he calls them to be with him, into the community of others who also respond to his call, and to be involved in his mission. Athol Gill argued this is the pattern we find in the narrative of Mark’s journey.

First, last and centre is the living Jesus Christ (Alpha and Omega) and the rest, revolve around and live under his Lordship taking specific shape and form as people seek what he is saying to them through Word and Spirit, where he wants them to go , and thus working out and seeking to faithfully practice what it means to be Church, do mission, and look like a disciple in context. The problem with this is that it is a bit unpredictable, uncertain, dynamic, changing…kind of like following the carpenter not sure where it would lead and ever learning on the way.

What colour should we paint the new Church kitchen?

bookWhen I was invited to contribute to this book Gathering it was suggested more or less ‘c’mon this has been a chapter you have been wanting to write’. Indeed! Gathering together ideas and thoughts variously expressed elsewhere but in conversation with the work of Chris J. Ellis I had a chance to say something more about the ‘church meeting’. With reference to my Scottish experience in the Indy Ref as an example of a socio-political issue of popular importance I argue that in the practice of our ‘communal discernment’ our conception of the Jesus Christ who we claim is ‘Lord’ is too narrow and too static if we are gathering as disciples to work out what the Kingdom will of Jesus actually is. To strap line this – I do not think that Jesus cares about the colour of the paint in the new kitchen but might about our politics.

One question which came up for me in the course of writing this was when does the phrase ‘communal discernment’ first appear in Baptist literature to describe what we are trying to do in such gathering? Any Baptist historians or theologians who can help?