Pondering on my core beliefs

It is many years ago I wrote a series of blogs on ‘Scotty still believes’ and thought I would have another go at writing about my convictions, that which shapes my perspectives and (I hope) impacts how I act, speak and behave. The practical outworking is the scary part for we all know (of) people who boldly proclaim how orthodox they are (what they believe) but their everyday ethical behaviour is a denial of that. In Jesus there was no separation of the two – he was the truth, the reality.

[Not simply to be provocative, but to keep pushing toward the boundaries let me suggest that this does not mean everything Jesus believed and said was ‘true’. He did not have the education that we have received, maybe he would have thought the earth was the centre of the universe, that there was a literal Adam and Eve, that Jonah was historical etc. Maybe not. I put that in here as ‘getting it right’ does not mean we are communicators of the truth; I am certainly wrong on some of my convictions – the number of historical and current Christians who would disagree with me on many points mean that I am in the minority, hence I would be foolish to think I have the truth! However, the bigger challenge is not what I believe, but who I am. Paul said ‘follow me’ and even he had to qualify it with ‘as I follow Christ’. Jesus as the truth is pointing far beyond his words.]

In lockdown I wrote four small books under the overall title of ‘explorations in theology’ (all four are available at: https://bozpublications.com . I started with ‘Humanising the Divine’ so let me explain why. Theology when written almost always starts with ‘God’. Then very soon comes the Christology part and the wrestling with the two natures of Jesus. I object to that approach for Jesus placed himself as the lens through which God is seen, a non-Jesus like God is not GOD. All centres in on Jesus… and not simply the ‘this is who God is’ but ‘this is humanity as intended / will be’. God and humanity – made by God for one another. God has a HIGH view of humanity not a low view… those passages that come back with ‘all your righteousness is as filthy rags’ and the like are critiques of vain attempts to reach to God. Forget it, God is among us, for in him we live and move and have our being. The passages that are along the lines of ‘I am but a worm… in sin I was born’ we can all identify with, but they are hardly theological statements! And why do we identify with them, because they speak eloquently of our ‘falling short… of the glory of God’. We have such a high calling that we all face moments of ‘and I am called to image God, to be like Jesus’. Sin stares us in the face – our sins that mark us out as not being who we are called to be / become and sin (singular) that power that too often successfully traps us and condemns us to being slaves of sin.

At some stage in theology comes a discussion on eternal destinies – inadequately summarised as ‘heaven and hell’. From the Scriptures it is not possible to determine what Jesus thought about those subjects, those references to ‘gnashing of teeth and outer darkness’ certainly have no immediate reference to things ‘eternal’. I respect those who hold to such beliefs but suggest that they are far from central in Scripture. ‘Salvation’ in its various shapes we find it are far more immediate, salvation from sins rather than from ‘hell’ being central. And I find I need salvation on a daily basis, with the great hope that one day I will truly be saved.

So I will slowly just write up over the coming days – as I ponder as to what Scotty believes and why – in a random way where I think some of my core convictions lie, and I am sure in the process I will receive some sight of where there is a gap between my professed beliefs and my practices. Always the OUCH part.

Another Gospel

I am continuing with some Zooms going through the various volumes of ‘Explorations in Theology’, seeking to emphasise that they are no more than that, and hope that they provoke whoever comes on the Zooms to continue in their journey and convictions. I am convinced that the key for us all is to be connected to Jesus not to a set of beliefs. As I state ‘all theology leaks… I just pretend my leaks less than all others!’ Last night I had (at least for me) a very productive Zoom on chapters 5 and 6 of ‘The Lifeline’. Below I copy Chapter 5 of that book… (All available at https://bozpublications.com in hardback or eBook format).

Chapter 5

Another Gospel

Paul is considerably different to the likes of you and me! (I trust I did not hear any dissent to that statement.) The writer of so much of the biblical material that has shaped Christian faith and practice, a person who encountered the Risen Christ in a most dramatic encounter, who spent years fashioning the Gospel and its implications for his society and beyond. We gladly follow his lead. He carried an authority with regard to the Gospel and that authority meant he could describe certain proclamations as being a ‘different gospel’. We have to tread carefully when seeking to make statements of a similar nature, though it seems clear that not all ‘gospels’ can be harmonised one with another. There are different ‘gospels’ and when the differences are extreme those gospels represent different versions of God, or perhaps they even represent different gods. We are to find unity with all who are of faith, but when a person denies the Gospel by deed or presentation it becomes hard to recognise them as a family member. We should be cautious in coming to a decision, but I have to confess that increasingly with some presentations of ‘truth’ that, by design or by default, dehumanise those being addressed, I find it hard to reconcile the ‘god’ they speak of as being the God that I discern through my understanding of Jesus. If the ‘gods’ are different, are the ‘gospels’ not different? And the inevitable question pops up – are we actually brothers and sisters? Perhaps we are more like estranged family members and in that great age to come when we will see clearly we will see that we were both in part wrong, both advocating a ‘different gospel’. Conviction (my beliefs that I hold to in the light of how I read what I read) and humility (I am more self-critical than critical of others) are needed.

In 2001 I was participating in a conference in Hannover, Germany. At the end of the session in which I had shared, a number of believers from Spain came to me and through an interpreter said that in Spain there was not the history of revival such as could be claimed by the UK, and as I had spoken about the re-digging of the wells of historic revival what should they do. This was not a question I was prepared for and surprised myself when my response to them was:

In Spain you do not need a history of revival. What other nation on the face of the earth can, on the basis of biblical authority, claim to have first century unanswered apostolic prayers sown into the land. Go dig them out.

After the session I had to think about the response I had given and quickly came to understand that Paul’s desire to get to Spain was to proclaim in the Western end of the empire (the ends of the earth?) the Gospel. He was not looking for a holiday on the beach but somehow to make a proclamation in the land. Opinion is divided as to whether he made a trip to Spain. I like to think not, but irrespective, the prayers of Paul are in the land. This does not mean that his prayers are only present in Spain, nor that only in Spain can the Pauline Gospel be recovered, but that something can be done in this peninsula in order to help facilitate the recovery of that Gospel. At one level all other gospels are at best a variation of the one he proclaimed, or at worst they are indeed ‘another gospel’.

In Acts we read Scriptures concerning the early apsotolic proclamation and there are often summary statements of what they proclaimed. We read (emphases added):

Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:35).

Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:20).

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18).

When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:5). 

For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28).

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” (Acts 19:13).

You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jewsh and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus (Acts 20:20, 21).

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus (Acts 28:23).

He proclaimed the kingdom of Gods and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (Acts 28: 31).

In these summary statements of the early Christian proclamation we do not find some of the big salvation words: justification, reconciliation, redemption, substitutionary atonement. What we do find is that the proclamation was about Jesus. When the content is expanded it might include the resurrection (the whole basis on which there is a new world order) or a proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah (when addressing Jews). The summaries are not the totality of what was proclaimed but are a description of what (or who) was at the core of what was being proclaimed. In the context this proclamation of Jesus is best understood as an announcement that the possibility of a different world had opened up through the vindication of Jesus by the resurrection. As outlined in previous volumes this was the true Gospel of which all others, and in particular the Caesar version, were sad parodies.

The Pauline Gospel

In later volumes I plan to look at the biblical perspective on eschatology (or maybe better put ‘my take on it’!) and I have always found it strange the theology that insists on God as creator and also as the one who will destroy it all. As creator he could of course do just that, but the Incarnation (taking on flesh) and the resurrection (of flesh), and the value God places on ‘dust of the earth’ surely indicates that there is a wonderful future for creation. Humanity’s commission for the creation and Israel’s (failed) commission for the world are the reasons for the Incarnation, an intervention in order to get everything back on track.

Everything centred in on Jesus; Paul says ‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ’ (2 Cor. 2:20). Little wonder Acts presents the summary as ‘they proclaimed Jesus’. In Jesus a new world becomes possible; this new world being the current world brought to maturity, not simply through growth toward, but by a final transformation ‘at his coming’. At the resurrection of Jesus a radical ‘time-warp’ occurred. This is not a great surprise as the Jewish hope for the resurrection of the body was that it would take place at the ‘end’. Jesus was raised before the end, and so we might say, in the middle of time. Matthew’s Gospel records that the event was so eschatologically significant that other saints also obtained resurrection ahead of time.

The time-warp means that this new world, though still future, is now also present. It seems to be this that is behind Paul’s language of ‘new creation’. For those who are in Jesus, there is a change of perspective. The old has gone, the new is here. It appears that Paul is suggesting this is more than a way of thinking but that it points to a reality. Experiencing and believing that reality is to be seen in the lives of those who are in Christ and reflected in how they see others. Paul was not simply looking for decisions based on a gospel message that ended with the appeal verbalised as ‘hands up all those who want their sins forgiven and be born again’. The proclamation of Jesus carried much more weight than that, and a response meant a submission to being discipled in the values and ways of heaven. Thankfully this was more than a call to adhere to the teachings of Jesus as opposed to the ideologies of Rome, for those who committed to the Lordship of Jesus received the Spirit of God that connected them not to a set of values but to the very life-source of the universe.

In the Imperial context of the first century those early disciples were challenged ever so deeply concerning their morals and ethics, and they were often opposed and marginalised. They knew, all too well, that, although there was a ‘new creation’, the old was not simply disappearing. Knowing that the final transformation would take place when the same Jesus who ascended to heaven would descend again, they understood that their (at times) small contributions were in fact like seed in the ground that would bring that final irruption of heaven ever closer.

This expectation of this world being transformed, and the language consistently used in the New Testament within the Imperial context of Rome, inevitably meant there was a political element within the message. Not a message that called for allegiance to a party, but a message that shaped how those who believed the proclamation lived and what they wanted to work toward. If, in our setting, the proclamation of the Gospel becomes nothing but politics we can say that is not the Pauline Gospel; but when the message we adhere to speaks out against all kinds of injustices and carries the creative hope for the flourishing of all we are indeed being faithful to Paul’s Gospel.

On the road to Damascus Paul had had his encounter with the One he was previously opposed to. His previous framework of reference was totally blown away. Prior to this he could genuinely categorise himself as ‘righteous’.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Phil. 3: 4-6).

From his post-Damascus perspective he gave no value to what was previously thought as credit-worthy. For Paul, Jesus was not an add on to his previous faith, but the means by which his faith was transformed. That being his experience it is understandable why he was unwilling to shackle any Old Testament stipulation on Gentile converts. Everything was centred on Jesus, and he was the lens through which everything pre-Jesus now had to pass. Righteousness now came through being in him, not through being in ‘Israel’.

Paul, faultless according to the law, but once he was in Christ, ‘the worst of sinners’.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1 Tim. 1: 12-17).

Zealousness and righteousness previously were interpreted as requiring a persecuting of those (Jews) who adhered to faith in Jesus. Post-the-Damascus-encounter he no longer understood that his faith demanded he did God’s work by making sure everything was clean and therefore pleasing to God. He now understood to do so was wrong and if he was a sinner then so were his fellow Jews and, of course, the Gentiles. But as chief of sinners he knew that God could save anyone. As a sinner he was a blasphemer, one who took the name of God in vain, claiming to act for God. He now understood he was opposing God as he had misrepresented the God he believed he was serving; speaking and acting for him, he now understood, was acting on behalf of another ‘god’. The ‘conversion’ at the gates of Damascus did not bring about a minor tweak to his beliefs and practice!

He explains that he now understood that formerly he was a blasphemer because in the name of God he was a persecutor and a violent person. Previously he had no need to ask God (as Joshua did), ‘are you for us or for our enemies?’ The answer was clear! However, what wisdom and insight there is in Joshua’s question. Is God for us or for our enemy? If we align with Jesus, understanding the requirement to love our enemy and even death on their behalf will be sufficient to bring us to a place of humble silence. God is for our enemy!

The Pauline Gospel opens the door to all. Without doubt the whole world is locked in the prison of sin, but God is rich in mercy. Failing to be human might bring about condemnation, but God saw Paul’s activity as due to ignorance and unbelief. Understandably Paul had a desire to proclaim Jesus and present the call to believe in him.

Belief in Jesus is not an automatic response to hearing about him. There is a huge resistance to this taking place.

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4).

Ignorance about God, for the work of the god of this age is to keep God as the ‘unknown god’, and the one who cannot be known, is something that the Gospel addresses. The God that Paul proclaimed was the God who saves sinners. No one beyond the scope of salvation (not Judas who betrayed Christ, nor Peter who denied him, nor Paul who blasphemed him). God, though not human, has a human face, for it was Jesus who met Paul and addressed him personally. God, though in heaven, comes close, so close that the Spirit enters a person. Signs, wonders, miracles all being evidence of the relative ease and frequency of heaven spilling out into this world, of the future invading the present. Exorcisms breaking bondages to the god of this age, for there is only one God present in the ‘new creation’ age.

The Gospel Paul was gripped by started with an explanation of who this God was. Not a God that could be invented, not even one who could be found through the pages of a book, but had to be ultimately discovered through an encounter with the Person who was the ‘image of God’ who truly carried glory. The response to this Gospel was one of faith. The good news had to be believed for transformation to take place.

‘Ignorance and unbelief’ was the soil from which all manner of anti-God behaviour sprang forth. True enlightened knowledge and faith became the soil that would produce fruit that resonated with heaven’s values.

The Gospel was a leveller. What Paul counted as something that he could chalk up on the credit side of his life was eventually valueless. The Gospel did not come with a respect of status and once responded to any such status did not position someone hierarchically in the community of faith, hence the total resistance to Peter, and the freedom with which Paul felt to label him a hypocrite.

The mountains were levelled, the valleys raised. All (Jew and Gentile) sinners alike; all called to repentance, to believe the Gospel that was the power of God to salvation (to the Jew first, and to the Gentile). All of humanity having failed to attain and reveal the glory of God; and all of humanity invited to come through the door to a new creation reality, and to be engaged in a co-operative work with God within the new creation developing. To reduce the Gospel to a set of laws; to fail to understand how it carried a vision for transformation through challenging the status quo; to use the Bible as a set of timeless truth texts; to fail to err on the side of including the formerly defined as ‘unclean’; to consider that we are doing God’s work for him; the list can probably go on. We might never be able to stand alongside Paul and say, ‘we too understand the Gospel as you did’, but the more we align to one or more of the above phrases the more likely it is that we have deviated from the Pauline Gospel, the more likely we have embraced ‘another gospel’, and the more open we will be to be defined (as Paul self-defined his previous righteous life) as a blasphemer.

Video interview with Matheus Lapa (#1)

Over the past short while I have been touching base with Matheus – from Brazil but living in Canada. We first met when he was (and continues) to translate for when he was translating for me on Zoom earlier this year. I suggested I made a few videos with him… for a number of reasons. He is younger than me by a few years (BTW my calculator seems to be back functioning and shows a difference of 42 years between us!!!… Age 23, things 23 years ago etc. have become very significant for Gayle and I, so that caught my interest); he is living cross-culturally and has / continues to think through the implications of his faith.

I made 3 interviews on Monday – this being the first, just pressing in to issues of what difference(s) are there in living cross-culturally.

Going beyond the [B]ook

For the past few weeks I have been lamenting, well occasionally reflecting. I am not very good at reflecting, and as for lamenting – not even too sure I know what the word means.

My reflectful lament has been over the four books written so far – the two you all rushed to buy and the two in the pipeline for publication. I have realised that the readership will be predominantly people like me (not the majority world). People who have a strong background in the evangelical (and likely charismatic) world but are willing to consider concepts that some think are outside the box. I am not going to get an atheist to read them and desire to join a zoom group, but I sure would love honest dialogue in that direction. Not to ‘convert’ them (when was that part of the job description of the Great Commission?) but to present Jesus as the ‘face’ of God and as the ‘face’ of ‘actualised’ humanity – OK theologically ‘true humanity’.

So I have made a start at writing for that audience, and also for those who do not position themselves completely at that end of the spectrum of faith / non-faith. (The other audience I would love to dialogue with are those born after 1980, so help me God!) I am not writing an apologetic, there are others much better equipped at that, but trying to write something that is open and transparent. It is interesting in trying to do that cos one’s own presuppositions have to be challenged in the process. A few days ago I said to a friend / neighbour who expressed (past tense) he was an atheist, and then (present tense) ‘I would like to believe, but…’, that perhaps faith wise I need him as much as he needs me. I need him to challenge my faith, cos although faith cannot explain everything it must have substance.

I am planning an opening chapter on Jesus and a second one on our holy book, the Bible. In doing so I wrote the obvious concerning Jesus that he grew up in a prejudiced world, that was also fed by an interpretation of the holy scrolls that he looked to. It is hard to believe Jesus also did not have biased perspectives, particularly with respect to Gentiles and women. Scripture clearly says he ‘became mature’ through what he learned, and as I have written in an earlier post he is the great teacher because he was the GREAT LEARNER. It is amazing that he broke through beyond the culture and his own preconceived perceptions. To be fully mature by 33, and in that culture… Here I am all-but double that age and… (Any way to follow this through the interaction with Gentiles and women is very informative to observe the learning process in Jesus.)

The guidance that the holy scrolls gave Jesus is instructive for us and the guidance we receive from the Bible. Today I wrote:

Jesus was so far ahead of his culture and setting, and that his holy book (set of scrolls) both helped to shape his life and thoughts and at the same time restricted his progress. And of course this is something we have to consider also when we as Christians read our holy book, the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments.

Never articulated it like this before, but seemed obvious as the words appeared on my screen. We are very grateful for Scripture. Jesus must have been so grateful as he meditated on texts and saw in them his true identity and destiny. I am not sure if the right word is ‘balance’, but let me use that. We have to balance that invaluable guide that the Scriptures are with the realisation that we can also be restricted by the pages we read. Of course there are good restrictions, but there are also restrictions that prevent us moving beyond the pages. Yes beyond. For the Scriptures are to speak of Jesus, not of themselves, and Acts 28 is an unfinished record of the continuation of what Jesus is doing and teaching. A progression beyond has to faithfully follow the trajectory set out but if the whole journey is not described in the pages we have to go beyond.

Be engaged

In considering that the apostolic gospel is political I consider that such a long-term vision challenges:

  • Party allegiance. We might be aligned to a particular party, but we cannot be bought. There is no party that is perfect, no party that is Christian. The critique of the Gospel is that we have all fallen short of the glory of God. All parties and all systems certainly have! In a given situation we might always put our vote somewhere specific, the guiding choice has to be how redemptive we consider the vote is, how beneficial to a healthy, relational and equitable society the direction that party would move us in.
  • The apostolic vision is one that looks long term, and resists simple short term action that is justified by the outcome. Although in a time of crisis short term responses are always necessary. If a house is on fire we need to get the people out rather than leave them there while debating the best building materials to employ.
  • It challenges strongly the belief that change can only take place from the top, indeed I suggest that the apostolic Gospel suggests it rarely takes place from the top.
  • Challenging the idea that we have to be in power to be effective, it raises an interesting issue. Maybe (if there was such a thing!!) a Christian party would be best placed not in power. That is a challenge to the voter – vote for us, we do not aim to be in power! However bizarre that might sound the apostolic vision is a challenge to the power dynamic, and to the hope that someone elected will do it for us. Servanthood and a denial of vested interest has to be promoted and the empowerment of the grass roots, rather than power and an unconnected representative body.

An apostolic vision also recognises that:

  • Almost certainly with any party that we vote for, there will be policies that they endorse that we do not agree with. There is necessary compromise along the way. If God ‘allows’ we most certainly cannot legislate. The compromises that God is pleased with are the redemptive ones, the ones that might not be perfect but move it to a better place.
  • We also have to consider what are personal values and what are public ones. I might have a personal value that comes from following Jesus, but do not believe such a value should be imposed on society.
  • That our hands are not clean. We are all implicated in the system of destruction. The issue is that we are not clean, but in not being clean we do not have to be dirty. Our choices, our life-style has to be set through redemptive, though compromised, decisions.
  • That God works not to give people a guilt complex so that they might find him, but gives them a shape, a set of boundaries, within which they can find him. We likewise should not look to off-load righteous legislation but create a shape where people can prosper. All legislation should be redemptively creating shapes where people can best develop who they are. Sin is to not be the person I can be: a person in my skin representing the character, persistence and love of God. Sin is not avoiding through legislation a set of predetermined evils.

There are troubled areas for believers that often swing their vote. But as we cannot legislate in an absolute fashion we come back to the dirty world and the compromises that are required.

Abortion is often the single issue politics that determines the ‘Christian’ vote. Yet the issue is multi-faceted and the factors that surround it are complex, certainly including education and economics. It also sits on a spectrum of pro-life issues. What our response is to the current and pressing crisis related to climate change and global warming. Every response to this issue is a pro-life choice, ultimately determining who will live or not. Abortion and abuse of the climate are connected to the future of the unborn, and to those already born.

We could add xenophobia (and nationalism) likewise as they sit on that same spectrum. They are all positions that reflect on who we wish to prosper / live. The death of Jesus as a privileged male and a compromised Jew was for all, regardless of faith, gender and national identity.

The vote for a believer is indeed a challenge. We cannot simply vote along party lines. Also we do not carry a vision of getting our person to the top (the word of God came to John in the wilderness). We can though be governmental and help create a shape that pushes back the powers that control so that those who are equipped can come through to occupy in a humble spirit positions that are there. I consider that we are here to create and hold a shape.

In creating a shape – lifestyle, relationships, prayer, action… there are also those who we will partner with. Theologically we cannot simply partner with those who profess faith. Paul had friends who had a lot to lose, as far as wealth and status was concerned, on the basis of his vision, but were committed to be with him and support him. They had not recognised Jesus in the sense of at the level of personal allegiance to him, but they were simply convinced that Paul carried a vision for the future of this world. That vision was not one that was compatible with the structures as they were currently defended in his imperial world.

Who do we partner with? On a spectrum we are at times tempted to place, for example, atheists at the opposite end to that of Christians. I suggest we need to think again. There are atheists who are anti-God and there are atheists who do not believe in god. I too do not believe in god. I share my non-belief with a number of ‘good’ atheists. We have that in common, even if they do not share my belief in God.

More often than not there are those who are believing in a false god who are at the other end of the spectrum of those we can work with. Some of those might use our language, but fill it with other meaning. ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, ‘the cross’ are words – the meaning we fill them with is what is important. There might be those who are ‘Christians’ that we cannot partner with, how they understand the cross (by this sign we conquer) might be in such a strong contrast to how we understand it (the instrument that we carry daily for our own death) that we cannot partner with them. Our connections might be those who do not believe in god.

Theologically we have hope and vision for this life… and beyond. And as eschatologically the age to come is shaped from this one we cannot not work in this age. Our political involvement at whatever level, whether fruit is seen now or not, is vital. It can produce fruit now, and even if it fail will become seed for the age to come. (Again I applaud where an atheist who has no belief in an age to come in which they will participate is committed to work for a better future. If they can how much more should I be willing to do so.)

Disruptiveness has to be part of the political involvement. Particularly given how privileged we are. Most of us do not have the context of the threat against our lives, and in that context Paul even gave a voice of caution. That is not our context so we have responsibility for those who are threatened. The current Extinction Rebellion is making a very real impact. People are willing to be arrested for their beliefs. Yet the resistance is overwhelmingly white. In our cultures a non-white person is rightly cautious about being arrested. This does not negate the movement, but we must be slow to pat ourselves on the back when our protest is a privileged one.

Practically drawing on the work of Roger Mitchell he suggests that from the life, teachings and example of Jesus there are 9 areas that should prioritise our energies and commitments. The notes below are mine, so I hope I do not misrepresent.

The making space for the feminine. Given that cultures, structures and societies have been formed by men and the masculine, holding space for a feminine voice and creative response is vital. The lock up in Cataluña is an example of this. The age old conflict is in lock up because of power. No one can back down. A person such as Ada Colau, the mayoress, is not weak, indeed has to have more strength than those who resort to power and endorse violence. She is also a good example of who we have to take care of by taking responsibility to hold back the powers that seek to ‘steal, kill and destroy’. There are those who can speak to this much more than I can. There are some males who probably can, but the best we (males) can normally do is to be silent but hold space so that the voice of the feminine woman is heard.

The prioritizing of children, to whom the kingdom belongs. To reduce the future for the unborn to the issue of abortion is simplistic and wrong. Jesus prioritised children. Health care and education are two aspects, for sure that come to the top of the list when making space for the future, as are the issues mentioned above when touching on abortion.

Advocating for the poor. This moves beyond the patronising of doing things for those less privileged, to doing it with them. We cannot be those who do things to the poor, sometimes we might only be able to do things for them as it can be hypocritical to assume we are ‘with’ those who find themselves economically marginalised. These issues hit home. We can demonise the top 1% and immediately baptise the next 4% as being OK simply because that is where we find ourselves.

Care for the creation. This is God’s world and it is our habitat, and the habitat of those who are yet to live. The original habitat was in order to create an environment where God could be at home. Planting trees could be our greatest contribution to the future. The tree biblically is what bridges the arts and practical sustenance – maybe this could be a factor in why humans are described as trees?

Freeing prisoners. Of course we spiritualise the words of Jesus who came to set the prisoner free. Yet there are prisoners at all levels in society, as all systems will imprison. There are no simple answers, but the level of imprisonment in certain Western world countries indicates something is desperately wrong. Restorative justice aligns to Scripture in a way that punitive justice does not.

Promoting health. Jesus healed and did good. Healing is multi-faceted, and each political response is a sign of who God is. I find it hard to see how health is a privilege that can only be offered to the wealthy, and not at some very real level a responsibility to provide for as many as possible. We live as aliens in Spain but have stood against private health insurance. Maybe in some situations that might be necessary, but our approach to health care is shaped by our beliefs in the Gospel.

Confronting the powers. This is one I like a lot! Confrontation is not simply to put something in its place but to give an opportunity for the person representing that power to act humanly.

Making peace. Blessed are… We live in a fractured society that has its divisions. Divides so often because a voice that comes from a different experience and perspective is so often not heard, other than in that particular circle. We can allow voices to be heard, that is the only way that we will hep people move forward without the felt need to shout, or the reaction through intimidation or inferiority to be silent. At a very small level Gayle and I had a good experience in having someone stay with us who took a different stance on the Brexit issue and a different take on money. We were enriched.

Publicizing the good news of peace. Politics and faith do mix! We can at al times be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us. How and what we share has to be shaped by the love of Jesus. This too cannot be ‘top-down’.

Until he come (parousia) we work, relate, disrupt and proclaim (ekklesia). What we do now will, if done in line with the patient apostolic vision of lives laid down in love for the world, will come through the fire. Are we politically involved. For sure, with a small ‘p’ or a large one. Everything we do is about shaping the future, the future here and now and the future then. The small responses we make are so vital. They too are political.

Terminology speaks

The Imperial world of the NT gave the Gospel an inevitable conflict politically. There was a vision of transformation within it. The terminologies were so in your face:

  • Son of god
    The common and official title of Augustus Caesar in Greek documents was ‘Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god’. An inscription from Pergamum refers to Augustus as ‘The Emperor Caesar, son of god, Augustus, ruler of all land and sea’.
    Caesar’s did not claim to be god but were seen as invested with the divine and to such an extent that each subsequent ruler was termed ‘the son of the divine (previous) Caesar’.
  • Peace through his blood who did not resist, or through the blood of those who resisted.
  • Who is ‘lord and saviour’ and ‘king of kings? And this came with the further question of how is that lordship and kingship defined, and outworked. Jesus is not simply the alternative Caesar, one who also acts in the same way! Power, top down; or love with empowerment beyond.
  • The word euangelion (Good news) was used in ancient Greece of the public announcement of good news. It was used of a public declaration of a military victory or public policy. In the Roman world it was used whenever there was a royal ascension to the throne. The good news of Caesar Augustus the son of the divine Caesar. (Augustus, being the successor to Julius Caesar.)
    When the apostolic band came to a Roman city and came with a gospel message the expectation was of a proclamation concerning the activity of an emperor. The person in the street was not pinning their ears back with an expectation of a three point sermon but of representatives of the government to proclaim good news. Government representatives they most certainly were!
  • Paul taught about the ‘kingdom (basileia) of God’, the very term used by Rome of their basileia (empire) of Rome, basileia being the Greek term and the vast majority of the world where Paul travelled was Greek speaking.
  • Then the term ekklesia (church) was loaded with political implications. We have a very challenging question to answer when we ask what was in Paul’s mind when he was planting and encouraging ekklesias in city after city? Each Roman city already had an ekklesia – the political assembly that was the means to shape the future of the city. Each significant city had a Roman assembly… and here comes Paul planting a heavenly assembly, an assembly of Jesus Christ. I have no doubt that the very name ‘ekklesia‘ suggested that this assembly was the representative of Jesus called to shape the future of the city.
    We have to ask what was Paul, for example, teaching on a daily basis in the hall of Tyranus in Ephesus. I consider it had a strong political message, so strong that the rulers of Asia (Asiarchs) became friends with Paul without ever responding to the ‘pray the sinners prayer now’ part that we assume was his message. They could not, or would not, get that part but so got the other part that they wanted to preserve his life. So different to the Jewish leaders who wanted to extinguish the life of Jesus to preserve the nation and Temple!
  • We pray till he come, we anticipate his parousia. Cities longed for the parousia of the emperor, the royal visit. Great blessing would come to the city, areas where they were struggling to see Roman culture expressed would receive such a boost. With the simplicity of the common meal those early disciples proclaimed his death until his parousia.

The political apostolic Gospel

The marks of an apostle were with Paul. He mentions signs and wonders and miracles, yet Jesus had said that there would be those with signs, wonders and miracles that he would distance himself from. Paul says that the miracles were accompanied with ‘great patience‘. An apostolic vision works today for the long term. At the heart of it is a conviction that a death by one is a death for all; a death in one place is for all geographies; a death at one time for all time. The apostolic carries a long-term vision of transformation of God’s world. A political vision that is not looking simply for short term fixes but long term healing. In that there will be great gains, and if the ground is not held great losses.

Jerusalem to Rome

Jesus and Jerusalem

The Jewish Court had decided that Jesus would have to be dispensed with in order to preserve the nation and Temple. However, by the time of Jesus both Temple and nation (as a whole) were not fulfilling the purposes of heaven. Even the Temple was no longer a house of prayer for the nations, hence its future could only be where ‘not one stone would remain upon another’. If the Temple no longer served a redemptive purpose there was no hope for the city nor for the nation. Nation and Temple could not be saved, yet a living ‘temple’ and a ‘holy nation’ for the nations could find salvation. Salvation from the coming destruction and salvation for the nations. Jesus came at the fullness of times, born human and specifically as a Jew. His focus took the message of John the Baptist to a new level. Religion, and in particular compromised religion would never fulfil the political task of being a light to the nations.

The task in Jerusalem indeed brought to a finish the work that the Father gave Jesus to do; yet it also marked an important pause in what he came to do. It was both the finish and also simply the beginning of what he did and taught. Given that framework to the book of Acts that Luke says right at the outset, the work of Jesus is not finished, but continues through the book of Acts with the apostolic work and context. No longer a focus on Jerusalem but on the Imperial world of Rome. If we thought that Jesus’ message was religious with no political implication we soon have to reframe his message. It was deeply spiritual, deeply concerned about our response to who God is as that core shapes and directs the whole political approach to the nations.

The end of Luke and beginning of Acts gives us the biblical focus that Jesus gave to the Jewish disciples. That focus was through Scriptural understanding concerning himself, the suffering he was to endure and the nature of the kingdom of God.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Lk. 24: 27).
This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Lk. 24: 47).
After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3).

All of that had a focus on Jerusalem. From the wilderness with John came a movement that arrowed in on Jerusalem. But by the end of Acts the focus is not Jerusalem but Rome. Paul has completed his task but the apostolic task remains unfinished. We have no idea if he left the prison situation in Rome and continued on his way. We don’t even know (from Acts) if he died in Rome. Seems to me significant. It is unimportant if he got beyond Rome, and his death is not vital for us. It is important that in understanding the message deposited in Rome that we get to all places beyond ‘Rome’ and that we find where we are to live out the Gospel.

By the end of Acts Rome is the focus

Luke states that Acts is a record of what Jesus is continuing to do and to teach. His work from birth to ascension was the beginning of his work. That took him to Jerusalem. Paul takes it to Rome. If Jesus’ work was unfinished, so then is Paul’s and what he represented – the work of the apostolic Gospel to the nations.

There is such a significant turning point in Paul’s journey and such a focus on where the message of the Gospel is to travel to in Acts 25:

Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!” (Acts 25:10-12).

It was the Jewish court for Jesus, but not for Paul. Jesus was focused to get to Jerusalem but Paul wanted to get to Rome, the political centre, so that he could get to Spain – the ends of the earth (Rom. 15: 28). His journey to the ends of the earth would take place through the centre of earthly power. His desire to come to Rome was to proclaim to them (the believers) the Gospel. He is not looking to hold an evangelistic crusade, but to align the believers there with the Gospel. At the end of Acts we read:

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus (Acts 28: 23).

The same work as Jesus did in Jerusalem so Paul did in Rome. Scriptures, and kingdom of God. The Gospel that had implications for Jerusalem now had implications for Rome.

The world of the New Testament

The one time we have had an-all but one world government was the world of the New Testament. Rome’s rule extended beyond anything that had gone before. It is for this reason that I see no reason to posit a future one-world government, nor a global antiChrist. We have had that, and in true Babylonian fashion it was never absolute for Babel will be forever unfinished. I do not look for that future reality, but through the book of Revelation consider we can have our eyes open to the reality of it around us now. There is a one-world government, there are antiChrists, the call of Jesus has implications economically for there will always be restrictions on the extent to which we can buy and sell.

The Roman world was the empire of its day. For the Jews the big ‘monster’ was Babylon and Babylon continued to represent the enemy of Israel symbolically. Likewise Rome. The empire of the day and the ongoing symbol for that one-world opposition to the kingdom of God.

The Pax Romana

In true Imperial fashion Rome conquered and offered a way of life beyond anything that had gone before. The Pax Romana was across the world – a peace that came through the power of the sword. Comply and be blessed; resist and be eliminated! (And Paul’s words about the powers being appointed by God and can wield the sword is so tongue in cheek given Nero’s claim that he did not need to raise the sword. What a man of peace Nero was… NOT!)

Peace in the imperial world was considered such an achievement that the one who brought that was seen to be operating with divine power. It further pointed toward the divine nature of the emperor.

Peace was not the absence of war but was the result of war. Peace meant being in submission to Rome. Peace was imposed on the subjugated by means of force. Peace was brought about by taking lives and creating inequality. The Pax Romana!

As is often the case the reality is there to be seen if we are willing to look. The altar of peace stood on Mars Hill, the hill dedicated to the the god of war! Peace was brought about by war to the Romans.

The contrast to the message of Jesus where he established peace through sacrifice, not through killing his enemies. It was love for the enemy that was exhibited at the cross, thus all powers were stripped bear and exposed. The lie exposed.

Caesar was indeed ‘lord and saviour’ and ‘king of kings’

In secular Greek, the word ‘saviour’ was attributed to someone who had done something significant that safeguarded the people or preserved what was precious. That person ‘saved’ the city and as a result could earn a person the title of saviour. Not surprisingly the title of saviour was in common use for the Roman emperor, especially denoting his ability to maintain or restore peace in the empire.

Of Julius Caesar it was written:

In addition to these remarkable privileges they named him father of his country, stamped this title on the coinage, voted to celebrate his birthday by public sacrifice, ordered that he should have a statue in the cities and in all the temples of Rome, and they set up two also on the rostra, one representing him as the saviour of the citizens and the other as the deliverer of the city from siege, and wearing the crowns customary for such achievements (Dio 44.4.5).

Likewise in connection to Augustus:

Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a saviour, has put an end to war and has set all things in order. (Priene calendar inscription; 9 B.C.).

The emperor was often called ‘the saviour of the world’ or ‘the saviour of the inhabited earth’.

It is not surprising that on hearing the apostolic message it was heard politically and understood to be a rebellious one at that. These apostles were proclaiming a rival to Caesar.

The message was political. It might have been possible to miss the deeply spiritual element within it! Yet there is a deep spirituality, a radical relationship to heaven that was contained within it. From that commitment to the God of heaven (the ‘foreign’ God of the Jews) this message called for a political way of life and carried a political message for the nations.

If Caesar is not lord, but Jesus; if he is not the saviour of the world, but Jesus; if he is not king of kings, but Jesus. We have a clash. The Christian message could be ignored, sidelined, or controlled. But what Jesus began till the days of his Ascension, and Paul’s ministry symbolised by centring in on the centre, has and will continue ‘until he comes’. That being another imperial term…

Loss of privileges

Most of us at a personal level have been frustrated that we have not had a voice. Sometimes we have a voice but the negative feeling is as simple as others have not agreed with us! On the wider front this has been the feeling about the lack of voice (being listened to / agreed with) from within the church as far as the political world is concerned. My strong guess is that the church is not alone in this feeling and there are many marginalised groups that must feel similar. I think though it is compounded by a sense of privilege, for after all ‘we are a Christian country’.

The cry of ‘we are losing our influence’ was (my perspective) one of the main reasons in the USA for the rise of the ‘moral majority’ and to provoke a heavy investment into the sphere of politics, with the majority of the moral majority coming to endorse the Republican party, the party of (supposed) small government and pro-life (or supposed pro-life). It probably awakened a realisation that following Christ and politics are not in two separated realms. Following Christ has a personal element to it, but faith does not mean that the public arena is irrelevant, indeed personal faith becomes another factor that provokes an even greater focus on the public arena at a different level.

In many circles where there has been an emphasis on transformation a theology has developed such as the seven mountains of influence, where society is seen as consisting of mountains such as politics, media, the arts, etc., and to influence those areas for Christ there is the realisation that the top 3% within those realms are the shapers, therefore it is essential to either become those top 3% or to influence them for Christ. This is both a theological and pragmatic approach, and owes much to the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, prime minister of Holland from 1901-05. There is a theology behind it that the Lordship of Christ and claims of Christ extend to every area of society, and there is a pragmatism that looks at how to bring about change in line with the claims of Jesus. The final outcome might not look too different to that of Sharia law! In this approach something that needs to be critiqued is that of power, of how the influence of Jesus is expressed and how much a shaping from the top-down is in line with the cross of Jesus.

Christendom where the privileges offered to the church (bishops in the house of lords, royalty crowned and anointed by the church), and the idea of living in a Christian country is coming to an end. The demise of the so-called Christian west is not necessarily the demise of Christian faith, indeed it should prove to be the fertile ground for faith that resembles more closely the faith witnessed to by the New Testament, a faith that was political.

A note on the word ‘political’. It comes from the Greek polis (city) so carried the sense of being involved to shape the future of the city. It developed semi-democratically where the ekklesia (church) was formed of the mature and free males who could vote on issues.

The Bible, Israel and politics

Israel was called to be a light to the nations. Called for the nations, not to convert them, but so they might find their way. Israel, shaped by law, and that law was predominantly social hence it shaped their community life. (Convenient as it might be to distinguish the ceremonial and judicial aspects from the moral law, this was not in line with how it was given nor received. The law was law as a whole. To be disobedient in one aspect was to be disobedient.) The law placed limits on behaviour and curbed excesses, particularly in the economic realm. The 8th Century prophetic movements were huge critiquing voices against economic exploitation. The maximisation of profits was illegal, care for the ‘widow, orphan and alien’ was a regular reminder brought to Israel. The law was unique to Israel, they alone were to be not as the other nations, with Jewishness less defined by race than by faith. Unique in the world, but in existence for the world. They were elect not in the sense of ‘saved’ but in the sense of uniquely set apart for the sake of others. Their politics was clear, Torah defining that, and as a guide they were to provoke and facilitate the nations finding their own way, their own politics. (By this I am not suggesting that they were not going to be evangelising, proclaiming the news that there is one true God who sets the prisoners free; simply I am focusing here on Israel was a unique theocracy.)

It should be no great surprise that the NT flows from that understanding of what it meant to be unique and therefore it is no surprise that the early impact of their faith in the liberating God was visibly seen relationally in the economics of the community. The early response in Acts, post-Pentecost can be understood as a Holy Spirit response to the requirement of jubilee, something that it seems Israel were never able to fulfil. Living as aliens in an imperial world the the self-identity as royal priests within their geographical setting was deeply appropriate. Living, as Israel had done before them, as a light to the nations, it is not surprising that there is a huge political element to the NT, and that the final book is still, after 2000 years, the highest critique of power, institutionalism, economic policy and international trade relationships.

Church (ekklesia) as community and as movement

I have written before about there being two sociological ends of a spectrum when looking at healthy groups. At one end of that spectrum the existence of the group is focused in on being there for one another, so that in the interaction each person is encouraged and healing brought to them to be a continually improving version of themselves. That ‘community-focused’ perspective is present in the NT – encourage one another, admonish one another, love one another etc. The other end of the spectrum is around what is understood as a movement. A movement is part of a wider community but the movement is formed around a world view that the wider world does not share. A good example would be that of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech epitomising the world view that was their vision – a world of equality. That was why they were together, not primarily to see healing come to one another, but to see a transformation of the world around them. They are ‘mission-focused’. My bias is mission-focused – and I believe the raison d’etre for the church in the NT is that of mission-focused, for the nations.

Post Christendom – a challenge to transformation by power

One of the biblical issues we face is that God works in and through all forms of less-than-good structures. A pertinent example is that of the king in Israel. The request for a king was a rejection of God, yet God anointed the one who symbolised the rejection of God.

We cannot justify something because God has used it. In the days of the British Empire there was the twinning of expansion, colonialism and missionary enterprise.

The church has been complicit in believing change comes through enforcing it, indeed the church has strengthened that way of acting, thus empowering the government to act in such a way, particularly when it enabled Christian privileges to be maintained. In a post-Christendom space there is opportunity to see powers disempowered, but this will only come about by an embracing of true servanthood.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Lk. 3: 1,2). 

Change did not take place by replacing the rulers with Christian rulers, nor by converting those rulers. Rather the word of the Lord was embraced in the wilderness, those who came were submitting themselves to be part of a movement. There is a repeat of Israel’s history, formed in the wilderness, receiving the law in the wilderness, crossing the waters of the Jordan. A movement for the world. This is a new beginning, children of Abraham who God could raise up from stones… race will prove not to be the issue, but faith.

And the process of change did not begin from a ‘top-down’ position. And from that beginning the process did not become a top-down movement.

Loss of privileges, for sure. But what possibilities!