Sunday, March 25, 2007

Review: Alan Hirsch, THE FORGOTTEN WAYS

Review: Alan Hirsch, 'The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church’. Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006.

Ivan Illich was asked what he thought was the most radical way to change society; was it through violent revolution or gradual reform? He gave a careful answer. Neither. Rather, he suggested that if one wanted to change society, then one must tell an alternative story.

And for Christians the alternative story has to do with the evils of institutionalism and clericalism. A quote from sociologist Robert Merton jumped out of a Masters’ degree I once did at the University of Sydney: ‘The evil in institutions is greater than the sum of the evil of the individuals within them.’

Martin Buber warns that ‘centralization and codification, undertaken in the interests of religion, are a danger to the core of religion.’ This is inevitably the case he says, unless there is a very vigorous life of faith embodied in the whole community, one that exerts an unrelenting pressure for renewal on the institution. C.S. Lewis observed that ‘there exists in every church something that sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. So we must strive very hard, by the grace of God to keep the church focused on the mission that Christ originally gave to it.’

In this exciting, readable and provocative book, ‘emerging church’ missiologist Alan Hirsch tells an alternative story by unlocking the secrets of the primal ‘pre-Christendom’ apostolic church – and the church in modern China. Why were/are they so dynamic, whereas mainline churches over time suffer from what sociologists call ‘the routinisation of charisma’?

Historians have often accepted the claim that the conversion of Emperor Constantine (ca 285-337) resulted in the triumph of Christianity. To the contrary, he destroyed its most attractive and dynamic aspects, turning a high-intensity, grassroots movement into an arrogant institution controlled by an elite who often managed to be brutal and lax.

Hirsch suggests that the prevailing expression of church (Christendom) has become a major stumbling block to the spread of Christianity in the West. The ‘Christendom paradigm’ doesn’t work very well any more.

On the other hand the Chinese churches grew in spite of the following:

1. They were an illegal religion.
2. They didn’t have church buildings.
3. They didn’t have scriptures (the Chinese had underground, partial copies).
4. They didn’t have any central institutions or professional forms of leadership.
5. They didn’t have seeker-sensitive services, youth groups, worship bands, seminaries, or commentaries.
6. They made it hard to join the church.

One commentator has said that in this book Alan has challenged our thinking, our vocabulary, and ‘hopefully our way of doing church in this century’ – particularly with the ‘Jesus yes, Church no’ generations. Thus we have the phenomenon again where more people are coming to faith in small informal groups but don't want the organized part of the religion to be part of the deal.

Alan has several things going for him. He’s read and digested the thinking of great missiologists like David Bosch. He was a missionary pastor – of an ‘alternative’ church: the ‘South Melbourne Resoration Community’. I’ve spoken at this church (‘church?’), and spent a weekend away with them. It was truly one of the rare communities of faith and hope which I could recommend to those on the ‘margins’.

He was also, later, a ‘denominational officer’ who tried to plant these ideas into the thinking and praxis of established churches, with, he says, mixed success. And he is now the founding director of the Forge Mission Training Network.

How do we discover our missional DNA (mDNA)? What caused the early churches to grow from 25,000 to 20 million in 200 years? How did the Chinese underground church grow from 2 million to over 100 million in sixty years despite considerable opposition, and without professional leaders, training facilities, or buildings?

Hirsch identifies six elements of Missional DNA:

· Jesus is Lord

· Disciple Making

· Missional-Incarnational Impulse

· Apostolic Environment

· Organic Systems

. Communitas

Wonderful principles, which are very hard to apply in practice. Why? My contention would be that the radicalization of family-units which imbibe a Western consumer culture with their muesli every day is a very challenging and difficult task. Parents want a ‘safe place’ for their children – in ‘church’, as everywhere else. They want peer-reinforcement of Christian faith and values for their teenagers. They look to the weekly gatherings of the Christian community to provide spiritual food for the journey, which in terms of work-stress or family-stresses may be a real battle. So they bring expectations ‘to church’ as they do to every other facet of their privileged lives.

Christian communities come in four varieties (as do commercial retail enterprises) – megachurches (= shopping malls), boutiques, franchises, and ‘parish churches’ (= corner stores). Many ‘emerging church’ folks I meet despise the megachurch model, but they shop at supermarkets, for convenience and to save time. They’re at home with technology – they have lots of powerpoint presentations, and audio-visual effects – but are (healthily) wary of multiplying committees and programs. Above all, they know that re-jigging the ‘ministry mix’ won’t bring life and health and peace to their community-of-faith. But on the other hand, they too can easily form ‘clubs-for-people-like-us’ and forget their missional mandate.

Alan Hirsch writes: ‘We cannot consume our way to discipleship.’. (On this see also Ron Sider’s ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience’ and Robert Webber ‘Ancient Future Evangelism’). The alternative? A covenantal approach to discipleship.

We have in Alan Hirsch an idealist, who is also a pragmatist. There are many diagrams, and excellent footnotes for further study.

Alan Hirsch is coauthor, with Michael Frost, of The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church. Another good read.


Another review

Rowland Croucher March 26, 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

Book Review: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Book Review: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Margaret Farley (Continuum International Publishing Group, June 2006)

Dr Margaret Farley, a Sister of Mercy and a professor of Christian ethics – since 1971 - at Yale Divinity School, is one of American Christianity’s foremost ethicists.

In this book she tackles some of the most complex issues relating to Christian Sexual Ethics, and writes thoroughly, thoughtfully, compassionately and convincingly (but also, according to many conservative fellow-Catholics, too progressively). If you want to put her into a theological/philosophical box (which is difficult, given the breadth of her opinions and research) I’d say she’s a liberal, irenic feminist.

These days helps inform us about an author’s biasses/breadth/depth via her/his citations. This book, we are told, cites 287 books (it seemed like more!), principally: Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family by Rosemary Radford Ruether on 8 pages, Moral Theology: Challenges for the Future : Essays in Honor of Richard A. McCormick by Charles E. Curran on 7 pages, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex by Judith P. Butler on 6 pages, Being And Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre on 5 pages and Summa Theologiae by St.Thomas Aquinas on 5 pages. (I seem to recall stumbling over references to Ricoeur and Foucault more than five times).

Her main point? Justice and love should permeate all relationships, including sexual relationships. She ranges throughout history, across cultures, and tackles most of the big questions of embodiment, gender, and sexuality – including thorny issues relating to same-sex relationships, marriage and family, divorce/ remarriage, celibacy, and sexual behavior. (She doesn't touch abortion, interestingly).

She’s frank, but there’s nothing titillating here. On the contrary it’s an academic book replete with hundreds of valuable footnotes (ideal, probably, for Christian Sexual Ethics 101), occasionally dull and heavy-going, but generally jargon-free. There are surprisingly few case-studies. She’s sometimes repetitive (‘I have said several times..’).

The ‘large questions’ about sexuality she says have to do with the status of the human body, increasingly complex questions about gender, and the sources and aims of sexual desire. One online reviewer summarizes the scope of her work well: ‘Throughout history and across cultures, societies have regulated the sexual passions, channeling them mostly into heterosexual marriage involving either monogamy or polygyny; in both patrilineal and matrilineal societies, women were often subordinated to men; and polygyny presents special dangers to women's equality.’

According to Farley, the basic question of sexual ethics is, 'With what kinds of motives, under what kinds of circumstances, in what forms of relationships, do we render our sexual selves to one another in ways that are good, true, right and just? Her framework for "just sex" centres around seven criteria: do no unjust harm, free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, and social justice.

She’s realistic about the fluidity of modern notions of commitment, and indeed is quite relaxed about commitment being conditional and contingent because life is often too hard and full of unexpected surprises to live a permanent and unconditional commitment. What we must do, she says, is teach moderns just principles of relationships and sex.

What do these principles mean in practice? Farley can be quite explicit. Masturbation is OK when it serves relationships rather than burdening them. Use of pornography that weakens our capacity for healthy sexual relations and any kind of sexual abuse or use of power to obtain sex are wrong. Scriptural arguments cited in opposition to homosexuality and homosexual relationships are misinterpreted, ambiguous or part of a worldview in which the central issue was that men are superior to women. In the end there are no good reasons to apply different standards to same-sex and heterosexual relations. Both kinds are good if just, bad if unjust.

Her irenicism is quite marked in two areas where Western feminist liberals and others are mostly polemical: female circumcision and the gender-justice struggles of Islamic women. Farley is amazingly restrained, sensitive and broad-brush in her attempts to understand the background of these issues. She is also sensitive to the complexities faced by intersexed and transgendered persons. In terms of reproductive technologies she believes the key principle is that “no children should be conceived who will be born in a context unconducive to their growth and development in relationships.”

I hope that's whetted your appetite. It's a book filled with commonsense, which will gently dismantle many of your prejudices.

Rowland Croucher

March 2007

Monday, March 05, 2007


Here’s an expanded version of a talk I gave to our small group. It’s a meandering chat, I haven’t put much order into it, and it’s a summary of just one of six pages of notes…

People – including Yours Truly – do not change their minds simply because a Compelling New Idea comes floating by. To summarize four years of a Masters’ degree in social psychology: given that the new idea has to make sense, it also has to win in the ‘reward/punishment’ stakes. Punishment? Yes, if the group to which you belong and/or whose approval you need despises or even expels you for espousing the new idea, you’ll think twice about embracing it.

Also, one asks the ‘source credibility’ question: can I trust the purveyor of the new idea. Are they ‘opinion leaders’ in this field?

Then there’s the ‘cognitive dissonance’ issue: can the new idea fit into the schema of ideas already registered in my brain? And the ‘personality/ persuasibility’ question: some of us are suckers for any novelty at all, including new ideas.

Many people belong to groups which not only abhor new ideas, they ensure that their members don’t connect with any (‘monopoly propaganda’). And finally, the incorporation of a new idea is reinforced if the welcomer-of-the-idea has to role-play with it in front of others (which is why cults/sects and many other groups get their devotees to give ‘testimonies’).

OK, so much for psychology. As I’m mainly talking about Christian ideas, there’s the question of authority, and Christians have four broad approaches: the Bible, the Church and its tradition/s, reason (together with contemporary secular disciplines), and experience – past and present, one’s own and others’.

People embrace new ideas in different ways. Will Rogers said there are three kinds of men (ie. males): those who learn by reading; the few who learn by observation; and the rest who have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves… Most of my mind-shifts have resulted from reading.

I grew up in the ‘Open [Plymouth] Brethren’, and they would have approved of this quote: ‘[I hope] they would not find me changed from him they knew/ Only more sure of what he thought was true’.

I’m now a bit wary of such a maxim. One of my greatest fears is to come across a new idea and reject it, through stubbornness and/or fear. Or, OTOH, how pathetic to go to your grave believing something that is not true, or resisting a good idea which might be inconvenient. However I am a ‘work in progress’. I’m only 70 years young, and have many ideas to reject/modify/embrace before I die. And I have a way to go yet on the road to wholeness/holiness.

We begin our quest-for-certainty by believing and observing the Big People. Children, says Lyle Schaller, are ‘in church taking notes’. Huston Smith, a theologically liberal retired professor of comparative religion, says (in The Soul of Christianity – brilliant book) that his formative experiences religiously comprised his Methodist missionary-father’s walking 30 miles in the bitter cold of a Chinese winter after helping someone; and also the family prayers they had every morning…

I remember Uncle John Clark, a very godly man who cried when he talked about Jesus dying on the cross to save him. And Mr. Harold Messer, a fairly prominent government official, who walked many miles to church each Sunday, morning and night, in fine weather and in the rain. Or Mr. Alf Clines, who would travel to the other side of Sydney to deliver a ‘message’ (in other churches they ‘preach sermons’) which he’d spent twenty hours preparing. At my mother’s funeral a few years back, I overheard some of those Brethren men discussing alternative interpretations of passages from Ezekiel and Daniel which might influence their view of the ‘End Times’. They were – and are – passionate about ‘Bible study’, and that at least has, in principle, rubbed off on to me.

Until I was an older teenager I sometimes heard the terrible words: ‘Don’t ask questions, just believe!’ Fortunately, I made a serious commitment as a teenager to believing whatever I thought was reasonable irrespective of others’ stupidity or ignorance. IOW, even if these Brethren held some belief or other - and I have since rejected many Brethren doctrines - I would still believe something if there were good reasons to. I am saddened to meet many whose philosophy of life is constructed in reaction to/against authority-figures they’ve despised or rejected or even been abused by. The question for the honest questioner is not ‘Who says what?’ but ‘Is it true, irrespective of who else believes it?’

So I would ask questions of our venerable Brethren teachers, like Mr. Tom Carson: ‘What did the great missionary Hudson Taylor miss because his doctrine was imperfect and he wasn’t one of us?’ Response: ‘Ah, Rowland, just think how much more fruitful he might have been if he did believe the Whole Truth’. And when I eventually gravitated to the Baptists, I was told – quite seriously - that ‘God never leads contrary to His Word.’

The Brethren Jesus was docetic: much more divine than human. Their ‘gospel’ began with ‘the fact of sin’. Their main theological quest was to find certainty and avoid ambiguity: they sought answers for everything. Their Bible was inerrant.

In all these areas I’ve changed my mind. Jesus was divine, yes, but fully human, and, for me, is primarily a prophet. (I never heard any preaching on the pervasive biblical idea of social justice in the first 20 years of my life). The Good News doesn’t begin with bad news (sorry, Augustine), but with Jesus Christ saying first ‘I do not condemn you’; the prodigal’s father exclaiming with joy ‘I welcome you!’ (Reading Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing helped here). I now strongly believe that living with ambiguity is essential for an authentic faith. And I reckon it’s silly to hold a view about the Bible which the Bible doesn’t posit for itself.

However, I’m not anti-fundamentalist as such. Fundamentalists are trying to answer the questions ‘What is truth? Where is certainty?’ Progressives/liberals are primarily addressing other concerns: ‘Where is authentic love?’ ‘What does a contemporary rational belief-system look like?’ Fundamentalists tend to absolutize relatives. Liberals tend to be nice, and better-educated, but don’t know much about the ‘lostness’ of people outside the Kingdom of God, as Jesus taught. And often liberals are just too ‘with it’ in terms of the latest fancy theological theory, forgetting that in the past these were often proved to be nonsense a generation later…

So fundamentalists (like me) believe in ‘hell’. Why? Because the Gospels have Jesus asserting its reality. But liberals (like me) do not believe God will allow precious humans to be tortured forever. I’ve read C S Lewis’s ‘The Problem of Pain’ and its chapters on hell about five times. To his question: ‘What are you asking God to do? Take them into heaven without their will?’ my present response is: ‘Jack, that’s too clever-by-half. You did not parent children when you wrote that. Would I prevent my 3-year-old grand-daughter from running on to the road and getting hurt against her will? You bet!’ But, my conservative friends ask, how do you resolve the ‘cognitive dissonance’ in all that? Look up the keyword ‘universalism’ on our website if you’re serious (but don’t label me a ‘universalist’ - though I wouldn’t be surprised if God is).

Another ‘hero’ for me during my young adult years was John Stott. I still regard him as one of the greatest Christian men I’ve been privileged to know (a little) and read (a lot). But I now think his ‘rational evangelicalism’ is too cut and dried; and his view of the atonement is too forensic (he’s a bachelor too). I’ve recently read the 1,000 page biography of Stott by Timothy Dudley-Smith, and hope to write a review of those two volumes soon.

An author somewhere close to where I am on most things is Brian McLaren (eg. his book A Generous Orthodoxy). (He also, incidentally, was raised in a Plymouth Brethren church, where he was ‘unfathomably bored and turned off by their hypocrisy’). About the Bible he writes wisely: ‘When we let it go as a modern answer book, we get to rediscover it for what it really is: an ancient book of incredible spiritual value for us. …’ And… ‘It’s a book that calls together and helps create a community, a community that is a catalyst for God’s work in the world.’

The most divisive issue on which conservatives and liberals (religious and secular) differ these days is homosexuality. This topic will eventually be added to the list of major paradigm shifts in the history of the Church (like the Protestant Reformation, slavery, and women’s issues). I’m moving towards the left on this broad question, but as the jury is still out on a number of issues, I’m open to more ‘light and truth’.

The jury is also out on ‘the quest for the historical Jesus’. I’m closest to N T Wright at the moment, but am reading and enjoying Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and other liberal scholars. As I said before, I relate best to Jesus-as-prophet.

Regarding corporate worship: I have a greater yearning these days to be ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ - not so much in a charismatic sense, but more in terms of Rudolf Otto’s ‘Idea of the Holy/mysterium tremendum’. A lot of what happens ‘in church’ is fairly wooden/pedestrian really.

Back to those godly Brethren elders. I believe now that there are very holy people in most branches of the Christian church – and indeed in other faiths. And also evil people. I believe each branch of the Church is asking different questions: and we should be patient with each others’ differing stages along the journey. I’m strongly committed to affirming diversity in our Christian churches. At Blackburn Baptist Church we had seven pastors: they ranged theologically right across the Baptist theological spectrum, from liberal to quite conservative. We got along well for eight years, and loved each other. Why not?

On a couple of issues I have a minority opinion amongst my Baptist pastoral colleagues, and as time goes on I’ve been disinclined to change my thinking. I am skeptical about the value of seminaries-as-(primarily) academies, even though I teach in several (until recently, for example, hardly any of them taught future pastoral leaders how to pray); and I believe we clergy are ‘the (clericalist) cork in the bottle’ in terms of the non-empowering of our sisters and brothers for their ministries.

Churches generally? I’m with the ‘emerging church’ people broadly. If we are supposed to be equipping/encouraging people to be ‘passionate about Jesus’ (as Tom Bandy suggests is our primary aim), we in the mainline churches are not doing a brilliant job of it.

At this point I want to mention the greatest regret of my life: during those heady years when ‘BBC’ saw over 1,000 people attending each Sunday – probably the first time for a Baptist church in Australia - our two eldest children felt they did not have their father’s attention sufficiently. After a day’s interactions with people, this introvert came home needing head-space. But our two teenage children needed my presence. In 1978 a cathartic experience in Korea brought it up from the depths to the surface, and I cried penitentially about all this for many hours. In terms of changing my mind about something, I would have done pastoring-and-fathering differently if I had my time over again. Husbanding? Yes, that too, though my beautiful pastor-wife is 100% with me in this great calling.

How will I continue to change? I have pages on this, scribbled at a Men’s Retreat with Richard Rohr in Arizona in 2005. Two primary issues: As I’ve been inoculated with a ‘pedagogical serum’ I have to learn that every opportunity to make others wise doesn’t have to be taken. (I’m listening to Will Rogers: ‘Never miss a good chance to shut up!’). And I want to be a more Jesus-like person, constructively angry about injustice, and also practicing ‘acceptance before repentance’ in terms of relating to others.

To conclude: which of the four ‘authorities’ is valid for me these days? If I have to put one first, it’s the Bible, interpreted through the ‘prism’ of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. However I want to use my reason to understand the Bible, but still be ‘under the Word’ rather than simply its critic (and anyway, the ‘Word’ is not essentially the Bible, it’s the living Christ: the fundamentalists’ tendency towards bibliolatry doesn’t give them a good handle on that). Experience? Yes, I’m interested not simply believing in Christ ‘because he lives within my heart’ (indigestion can create problems there) but I’m impressed when I see Christ’s aliveness in an authentically holy person (like Dom Helder Camara). Church/traditions? Because they often don’t stack up with integrity (or even usefulness) against the other three canons-of-authority, I’d put that one at the bottom of the heap. I have a continuing antipathy towards dogma and legalism; I don’t much like straight-jacketing truth into man-made creeds; and will continue to set cats loose among these pigeons when I encounter them.

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam : ‘For the greater glory of God’.

Rowland Croucher
March 2007


Saturday, March 03, 2007


Best Sermons Ever

Christopher Howe (compiler), Continuum, 2001

Some people - I'm one of them - actually enjoy reading others' sermons.

When John Claypool used to publish his each week, and sent them out once a month, I often found myself dropping everything to read them.

I've done the same with other contemporary homiletical "greats" like Barbara Brown Taylor, Tom Long, Fred Craddock and William Willimon. And, a generation ago, W. E. Sangster and James Stewart. And before that, F. W. Boreham. And if you add the black preachers Martin Luther King and Gardner Taylor, that just about completes the list of English-speaking/writing "greats" in the 20th century, in my view.

So how would you select the Best Sermons Ever? Here's Howe's list: Peter the Apostle, John Chrysostom, St Augustine, Aelfric, St Bernard, The Homilies, Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Lawrence Sterne, Sydney Smith, John Henry Newman, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther King, H.A. Williams, and Pope John Paul II.

Now, class, what does that list suggest to you? We'll come back to that.

In addition, Howe offers excerpts from other sermons and prayers from people ranging from St Francis of Assisi, George Herbert, John Keble ... to moderns like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.

First, a little introduction to the "practical theology" of preaching. What is preaching supposed to "do", if I can put the question into a utilitarian frame of reference? I'd suggest the best preaching is didactic, prophetic, and dramatic (see for more on that).

Christopher Howe would, I think, prefer three other adjectives: erudite, scholarly, and/or "literary". In other words, he comes to this exercise as a litterateur, rather than as a homiletician.

Notice the absence of modern American mainline preachers in his list? Yes, perhaps Jonathan Edwards, M. L. King and Billy Graham deserve a place, but what of the others most theologically-sophisticated Americans are reading, like those mentioned above? (The answer, from my experience of eight to ten trips to the UK for pastors' conferences: on that side of the Atlantic they've never heard of them). And I'm surprised Sangster and Stewart are missing.

So, frankly, most of these sermons are of classical - rather than devotional - interest only. Some of them are heavily impregnated with Latin phrases and other obscurantisms. And some fit into the category of "Why use ten words when 100 will suffice?"

One of the best is a homiletical essay - Jonathan Swift's "Upon Sleeping in Church". The text, of course, is about Eutychus falling out of the window, Acts 20:9: "The accident which happened to this young man hath not been sufficient to discourage his successors." But, frankly, I'd go to sleep in some of these sermons - especially Laurence Sterne's on "Evil Speaking".

And some are both brilliant and scary. How about this, from Jonathan Edwards' 15-page sermon (without a title - but from one version of his famous "Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God" - see
Warnings/sinners.htm ): "If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot. And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment. He will not only hate you, but he will have you, in the utmost contempt: no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet to be trodden down as the mire of the streets."

No wonder "revival" broke out when people heard this sort of diatribe!

Some excerpts and notes (many of these are in the category "they don't produce them like this anymore!"):

• Wesley travelled on foot or horseback 225,000 miles and preached 40,000 sermons!

• Lancelot Andrewes mastered 15 languages!

• "In Lapland witches sell winds" (John Donne).

• "Celibate, like the fly in the heart of an apple, dwells in a perpetual sweetness, but sits alone, and is confined and dies in singularity; but marriage, like the useful bee, builds a house and gathers sweetness from every flower ... and feeds the world with delicacies" (Jeremy Taylor).

• "It is my duty - it is my wish - it is the subject of this day to point out those evils of the Catholic religion from which we have escaped" (from Sydney Smith's 'The Rules of Christian Charity' !). Another profundity from that sermon: "The evil of difference of opinion must exist - it admits of no cure."

• "When people say that I acted charitably towards so and so, what they generally mean is that in fact that I hate his guts but managed to behave as though I didn't" (H. A. Williams).

An inspirational note from Martin Luther King to conclude: "Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love ... Let us have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realise that ... we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves."

This book reminds me of the November 9, 1895 Punch cartoon, which showed a timid curate having breakfast in his bishop's home. The bishop is saying, "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones," to which the curate replies, in a desperate attempt not to give offence, "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

If you are a theological or literary sophisticate who reads sermons without wanting to be "spiritually challenged" by them, this book is widely available.

Rowland Croucher

John Mark Ministries




Reading: Matthew 12: 1-21

Being an itinerant ('hit-run') preacher has some advantages. I remember a Sunday evening service in a conservative church in rural Victoria, Australia. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions... And they knew their Bibles, and were proud of that. It was a smallish group, so I decided to engage them in dialogue:

'Who knows who the Pharisees were?' They did. 'The Pharisees got a pretty nasty press in the New Testament - particularly Matthew.'

'Now tell me all the *good* things you can think of about the Pharisees.' I wrote them up on a blackboard:

The Pharisees knew their Bibles; were disciplined in prayer; fasted twice a week; gave about a third of their income to their church; were moral (very moral); many had been martyred for their faith; they attended 'church' regularly; they were evangelical/orthodox; and evangelistic (Jesus said they'd even cross the ocean - a fearful thing for Jews - to win a convert).

There was a deep silence. I asked 'Peter' sitting at the front: 'What's wrong?' He pointed to the list and said 'That's us!' 'Is it?" I responded. 'Then you've got a problem: Jesus said these sorts of people are children of the devil!'

Then we did an inductive exercise on the question: 'What's so wrong with this list of admirable qualities?' Short answer: it omits what was most important for Jesus. Whenever in the Gospels he used a prefatory statement like 'This is the greatest/most important thing of all...' none of the above were emphasized by him.

What were they? Yes, loving God, loving others, seeking first the kingdom = obeying God the King ... And, from two Gospel verses the evangelicals/orthodox have rarely noticed - Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42 - justice/love, mercy, faith.

None of these were on the Pharisees' list. But they're the most important of all, according to Jesus. Have you noticed items like justice/love don't get into our creeds or confessions of faith or 'doctrinal statements' either :-) ? (I've written a book about that: Recent Trends Among Evangelicals, if you want to chase that line).

Back to the Pharisees. Our text (Matthew 12:1-21) is about the problem of religious 'scrupulosity'... Jesus and his disciples were walking on the Sabbath through the fields on their way to the synagogue, to church, and they were hungry. So as the law (Deuteronomy 23:25) allowed, they plucked some ears of corn to eat. The Pharisees had problems with their 'reaping' on the sabbath. In fact, the disciples were breaking four of the Pharisees' 39 rules about work on the sabbath: technically they were reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal!

Now the modern picture of the Pharisees almost certainly trivializes - or demonizes - their piety These were good people with good motives. But they were 'good people in the worst sense of the word'. More of that later...

Jesus' response is to argue from two precedents (lawyers/legalists are at home there) - precedents about necessity and service. David and his friends were hungry, so ate the forbidden bread (though note that when King Uzziah invaded the sacred area from another motive - pride - he was struck with leprosy, 2 Chronicles 26:16). Then the priests did a lot of 'work' on the sabbath - killing and sacrificing animals: so Jesus is saying that if sabbath-work has to do with the necessities of life and duties of sacred service, it's O.K. and the *spirit* of the fourth commandment is not violated. Then Jesus reinforces all this with thr ee arguments: someone greater than the temple is here; God wants mercy to have priority over sacrifice; and 'the Son of man is lord of the sabbath'. Or, as the New Interpreters' Bible Commentary puts it (in a way that would appeal to a rabbinical way of arguing): 'Since the priests sacrifice according to the law on the sabbath, sacrifice is greater than the sabbath. But mercy is greater than sacrifice... so mercy is greater than the sabbath' (Abingdon, 1995, p.278). I like Eugene Peterson's translation of this section in The Message: 'There is far more at stake than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant - "I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual" - you wouldn't be nitpicking like this.'

Then we have the story of the man with the withered hand. Jerome, the fourth century bishop-scholar, says some ancient Gospels tell us his name was Caementarius - a bricklayer - and he said to Jesus: 'Please heal my hand so that I can earn a living by bricklaying rather than begging'. The Pharisees challenge him: 'Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?' Now there's a technicality behind that question, and Jewish scribes used to debate it: is it lawful for a physician to heal on the sabbath? If the answer's 'yes' how about someone else, like a prophet? The Shammaite Pharisees did not allow praying for the sick on the sabbath, but the followers of Hillel allowed it. Arguments, arguments: 'arguments by extension' to which Jesus answers with an 'argument by analogy'. If the sabbath laws allow you to help a sheep, why not a person? (But then, the Essenes wouldn't have rescued a sheep either: gets complicated!).

So Jesus healed the man. Two notes at this point: # Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, to do as much as he could. Jesus often did that in his healings. It's the same today: we get help any way we can, and do what we can. Jesus still heals: sometimes slowly (always slowly in cases of sexual/emotional abuse), sometimes instantly; sometimes with, sometimes without, the help of medicine... # I was a co-speaker at a conference with the Dr Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the largest church in the world. He said: 'Every miracle recorded in the New Testament, including the raising of the dead, has also happened in Korea: we are praying for some miracles not mentioned in the Bible, nor recorded in Christian history. Like the replacement of a limb - an arm or a leg - that's not there . We're believing God for that...!' Do what you like with that one!

We ought to make a little excursus at this point. What's the Sabbath all about? Two things, basically: faith and rest. Faith that God will supply our needs if we don't have to work all the time; and rest so that our lives will be in balance. As you know, I counsel clergy: that's what John Mark Ministries is about. They're often burned out. But when they are, it's almost always associated with a failure to take the idea and practice of sabbath seriously. They don't take a day off: a day off is any day (for pastors it's often Thursday) when from getting up to going to bed at night you are not preoccupied with your vocation. Isn't it interesting that in our leisure-oriented culture, there's also more fatigue? A lot of people are just plain tired. The five-day work week is a recent innovation, but 'leisure' and 'sabbath-rest' are not the same. Gordon McDonald, in his excellent book Ordering Your Private World has a chapter 'Rest Beyond Leisure' which I urge you to read. He writes: 'God was the first "rester"...Does God need to rest? Of course not. But did God choose to rest? Yes. Why? Because God subjected creation to a rhythm of rest and work that he revealed by observing the rhythm himself, as a precedent for everyone else... [For us] this rest is a time of looking backward. We gaze upon our work and ask questions like: "What does my work mean? For whom did I do all this work? How well was my work done? Why did I do all this? What results did I expect, and what did I receive?" To put it another way, the rest God instituted was meant first and foremost to cause us to interpret our work, to press meaning into it, to make sure we know to whom it is properly dedicated' (Highland, 1985, pp.176-7).

The Pharisees had lost sight of the essence of the sabbath. Alister McGrath says in his NIV Bible Commentary: 'The Sabbath was instituted to give people refreshment, rather than to add to their burdens' (H&S, 1995, p.242). Precisely how you keep the Sabbath today will be governed by love for God and neighbour, and the kind of work you do. If you're a manual worker, rest. If you're sedentary, do something physical. Make sure it's 'recreational' for you - re-creating your body, mind, emotions and spirit.

Jesus healed... and 'the Pharisees conspired... how to destroy him' - destroy the One through whom we have life. (When you're beaten by goodness, reason and miracle, you have no other option but rage). And 'great crowds followed Jesus'. They knew he loved them. He taught them and healed them. While the Pharisees were into destroying, Jesus was healing. The Scottish Baptist preacher Matthew Henry makes a good point here: though some are unkind to us, we must not on that account be unkind to others.

Sometimes I talk to a pastor who is being 'destroyed' by Pharisees. They are still with us. Why? It's all about what American social scientists call 'mindsets': the mindset of the Pharisee and that of the prophet are antithetical: they can't get along. Let me explain.

The Pharisee is concerned about law: how to do right. Now there's nothing wrong with that as it stands. Except for one thing: you can keep the law and in the process destroy persons. I have a friend who lectured in law in one of our universities, before he got out of it all in disgust. He said with some conviction: 'The whole of our Western legal system is sick, unjust. For one thing: if you're rich, and can afford the cleverest advocacy, you have a pretty good chance of not going to gaol; but not if you're poor.' There's something wrong with a system supposed to preserve 'fairness' when double-standards operate...

There's a tension between law and love. Law is to love as the railway tracks are to the train: the tracks give direction, but all the propulsive power is in the train. Tracks on their own may point somewhere, but they're cold, lifeless things. But love without law is like a train without tracks: plenty of noise and even movement but lacking direction. Both law and love ultimately come from God. We need God's laws to know how to set proper boundaries and behave appropriately: without good laws we humans will destroy one another. Prophets, in the biblical sense, try to tie law and love into each other. The O.T. prophets were always encouraging the people of God to keep the law of God. But the greatest commandment is love: love of God and of others.

The recent Australian Uniting Church Interim Report on Sexuality looks at these two issues. It answers one of them very well and the other poorly. The question: 'How can homosexuals (etc.) know they're loved by us?' is addressed with deep compassion. Marginalized people ought to feel they're accepted in our churches. But they don't, generally, so we're more like the Pharisees than Jesus in that respect. (I once discussed the issue of the legalization of brothels with a couple of women from the Prostitutes' Collective on ABC TV. In the middle of it, one of them turned to me and said, 'You Christians hate us, don't you?' How would you have responded?)

But the other question: 'What is God's will in God's word-in- Scripture about all this?' is answered poorly in the UC report. Not just poorly, but heretically, I believe. It gives us permission to be revisionist when it comes to the clear mandates of Scripture, and that's not on, for a follower of Jesus. He came not to set aside God's law, but to fulfil it, by embodying the great law of love in himself.

The last section of our Gospel reading takes all this further: Jesus the prophet was fulfilling the Scriptures. As God's chosen servant whom God loves and in whom God delights, Jesus was a meek Messiah, not a warlike one. And he 'proclaims justice' (v.18), indeed 'brings justice to victory' (v.19). Now why is justice so big for prophets - and for Jesus (but not for Pharisees)? Hang in there. Fasten your seat-belts. There's some turbulence coming as we close.

First a word to the prophets in this congregation. 'Prophets'? 'Here?' Sure. Well, who are they, and why don't they - or the church - know who they are? Why don't we recognize and commission them? Why don't we hear them speak a special revelation of God to us? Ah, there are several answers to that. Mainly, of course, prophets are somewhat unpredictable. I'm studying the second half of Jeremiah at the moment to write some Scripture Union notes: here's a guy who tells the king and the army to surrender to the enemy, otherwise they'll be wiped out and/or carted off into captivity. Not the sort of message to stiffen the resistance of your armed forces! So they tossed him into a septic tank. Prophets disturb the comfortable; pastors comfort the disturbed. But we don't want to be disturbed. And so the church organizes its life - its doctrines (like 'prophecy isn't needed anymore, we've got the Bible, and preachers') and its structures (by-laws and committees to cover everything) to exclude this more spontaneous 'word from the Lord.' And prophets tend to major on social justice which isn't nice for middle-class people - more about that in a moment.

But you can't get away from the high priority the early church and the Hebrew people put on prophecy.

What is this gift? 'The gift of prophecy is the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to receive and communicate an immediate message from God to his people through a divinely-anointed utterance' (Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow, Regal, 1979, p.228). Prophecy isn't just predicting the future, though it can include prediction. Prophets aren't always right: so they ought to be in submission to the leadership of the church (I ran these ideas by our senior pastor during the week). Prophets aren't adding a 67th book to the Bible. The canon of Scripture is closed: the prophet is simply bringing a biblically-relevant message from God to us today, for our situation. Are prophets sort of carried along by the Spirit? In a sense, yes. Michael Green writes: 'The Spirit takes over and addresses the hearers directly through [the prophet]. That is the essence of prophecy' (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Eerdmans, 1975, p.172). Do prophets tend to be political activists? Often yes - as in the Bible. And today, therefore, such people are unlikely to be pastors of churches - if a pastor has a prophetic gift they'd better have also an independent income! 'Since their message is frequently unpopular, they would feel restrained if they were too closely tied to an institution. And many church institutions feel uncomfortable with such prophets around too much... they tend to shun church bureaucracies and prefer to be outside critics' (Wagner, p.230). Now there are varying points of view - between and among Pentecostals and Evangelicals about the ministry of prophets, and this is as much as I want to say about it all here. Except for this: if God gives you a special message for your church, write it down, and give it to the leadership: and hold the leadership accountable about praying over it, and then leave the decision about whatever happens with it to them.

Let us go back to those two Gospel texts evangelicals (like me) have ignored for 500 years: Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42. Jesus is inveighing against the Pharisees, and saying that despite their religiosity they've missed the point - which is justice/love, mercy and faith. Justice comes first (as with the prophet's message Jesus is quoting: Micah 6:8). Why? Simple: justice is all about the right use of power; it's about fairness; it's about doing right - particularly for the poor and oppressed. Social justice is all about (it's *only* about) treating others as being made in God's image; human beings with respect and dignity and infinite worth. Justice is about the most important characteristic of human beings - their Godlikeness. Homosexuals, for example, aren't just individuals who parade their gayness in Mardi Gras festivals. They're made in the image of God. Hitler was made in the image of God; so was Stalin; so is Pol Pot and Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein... And so are the people in church next to you this morning. CSLewis says somewhere (The Weight of Glory?) that if we realized who the others really were with whom we were worshipping, we'd be tempted to fall down and worship *them*!

There's probably something of the Pharisee in all of us. We take two good gifts from God - law and truth - and create all sorts of legalisms and dogmatisms to save us the trouble of loving people we don't like. What is your spiritual 'achilles' heel'? How does the devil get to you? One of our '19 questions' (see our home page) for retreatants asks: 'for what non-altruistic motives are you in ministry?'

Have you noticed that in the ministry of Jesus, the message of repentance was mainly aimed at religious people, church-folk, like us? When we elevate law over love; rules and precedents and structures above persons; when social justice is not at the top of our agenda; then we've got some repenting to do. Pharisees are people who know the Bible and miss the point. Lord help us!

(P.S. The statement about 'trivializing the Pharisees' refers to several problems biblical scholars have about the Pharisees in the NT in general and Matthew in particular. See, eg. the excellent article on the subject in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992)

Rowland Croucher

John Mark Ministries


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