Thursday, 9 March 2017

Passionate Mission

I do weary, at times, when people lament 'the state of the church', as if we were called to a state of fashionability or trendiness: a theatre, supermarket or night club. I am, in fact, hugely encouraged when I see how many churches engage with the needs and sores of society, from a Christ-centred, Biblical perspective. During Lent, what better words of advice for mission than those of Lesslie Newbigin's WCC pamphlet, 'Mission in Christ's Way':

"It was the scars of the passion in his risen body that assured the frightened disciples that it was really Jesus who stood among them. It will be those same scars in the corporate life of the church that will authenticate it as indeed the body of Christ, the bearer of his mission, the presence of the kingdom. It will not be enough for the church to place a cross on the top of its buildings or in the centre of its altars or on the robes of its clergy. The marks of the cross will have to be recognizable also in the lives of its members if the church is to be the authentic presence of the kingdom.   I find it remarkable that this aspect of the biblical teaching has been so much neglected in the missiology of the past two hundred years, and that missions have been seen by contrast in triumphalistic terms. It is remarkable that the consistent teaching of St Paul about the nature of the apostolate has played so little part in missionary thinking. When his claim to be an authentic apostle of Jesus was questioned, as it was especially (it seems) in the congregation at Corinth, Paul's reply is always, in one way or another, to affirm that he has taken his share in the sufferings of Christ."

Sunday, 1 January 2017

We contend

6 considerations: 6. We contend against powers and principalities, not flesh and blood

I am a Christian today because I was confronted with the merciful presence, purity and power of the holy love of God, through his Son, Jesus Christ. Since discovering the present reality of Jesus Christ, it has been my experience that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an invasive and destructive power: Jesus Christ invades Godless philosophies and ways of living, overcoming the power and destroying the works of the devil.

I observe that there is, around us, a spiritual dimension – powers and principalities – in and through which a very real personal, power of evil – the devil – seeks to govern and dominate the lives of men and women. Jesus Christ sets people free from this. Jesus’ ministry, during his time on Earth, was punctuated by casting out demons from people, healing the sick and teaching with authority. His follower, Paul, would declare, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” (Romans‬ ‭15:18-19‬).‬

Working and witnessing in today’s secular environment, it is all too easy to lose sight of this dimension of Gospel reality. When it is lost sight of, however, church becomes sick and ineffective.  It has to be emphasised, therefore, that it is by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, bursting into and working in the lives of Christian, that a bedrock to meaningful Christian witness  is established. Healthy Christian living and effective discipleship formation involves discovering the purifying power of God at work in our lives, challenging, changing and transforming us.

Challenged and changed by God: this is the kind of people that Christians are called to be. We constantly need to develop ethics that demonstrate love, show mercy and do justice, on the basis of lives that are experiencing the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit, enabled for life and ministry in the way of Jesus Christ.

What does it mean, for you, to experience the power of God at work in your life, enabling you to overcome the devil: to contend against powers and principalities, not flesh and blood? What does it mean, for you, to seek purity and holiness manifested in and through your own life and that of the church? We live in a world where people are crying out in need of this help: who will help them and stand with them, that they may know the power of the Gospel released into their lives, to overcome the principalities and powers that would destroy them?

This dimension has to be part of any conversation we have, among Bible believing Christians, when discussing how we live and deal with our sexuality and gender. Unless we can address the Bible’s call to know the transforming power of God’s holy love in these aspects of our life, as well as in others, leading us into the pursuit of purity and consecrated living, we will fail to be either helpful to people or faithful to our Lord, Jesus Christ.

This introductory essay concludes a six part introduction to,‘A Clear Witness’, seeking to highlight critical issues that need to be addressed when engaging with contemporary issues of sex and gender. For now, I pray these introductory essays prove to be helpful in developing your convictions and practices, placing them in a wider context: the call to a clear and effective witness to Jesus Christ.

May you know His presence, purpose and power worked out in and through your life, in this coming year.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Christians are countercultural (resident aliens)

6 considerations: 5. Christians are countercultural (resident aliens)

Or are they?

a. We are shaped by real community and our experiences of it. How we self-identify as well as how we behave will be, in large measure, the product of effective community nurture. The challenge for us is whether, in our local setting, we are pursuing a church culture that recognises the holy love of God. The God whom, according to the Holy Scriptures, is fully revealed, in His glory and goodness, in Jesus Christ?

b. We are all informed and influence by a wider community, as well as any Christian community we are part of. The question is, ‘which influence will be more formative?’ Are we intentionally seeking to build local, relational communities of Christians, offering people a distinctive community, separate from the world around us?

c. To have an effective and fruitful Christian community, our practice of community needs to be intentionally countercultural. Our allegiance is to the invasive, penetrating and transforming God of the Gospel, revealed through Old and New Testaments. There has to be a conscious disavowal of false gods, who are the governing powers and principalities, in the cultures and contexts of our societies where we live. What is to be distinctive, in terms of convictions and practices, of the church we belong to, over against the world we live in?

d. There has to be a rethinking of what it means to be ‘relevant’ to our surrounding society: a relevance that is not syncretistic, adopting and embracing values and practices that are imperatives within the  wider society to which we belong but contrary to the imperatives of holy love. The convictions and practices of Godless, contemporary living need to be strangely foreign to those people who follow and are constrained by the presence, attitude, purpose, actions and powerful intervention of the God of Israel, present among us.

e. Christian witness and evangelism, manifesting both costly grace and cruciform discipleship, will cause a community to shine with light to those who live in darkness. It will always seem alien to those who serve the gods of this age: Christians are called to be resident aliens in a foreign land. Do others around us see that we live and acts as strangers and aliens in a foreign land? For therein lies a large part of our credibility, living with faith in Jesus.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Church need to be real community

6 considerations: 4.  Church needs to be real Community

Perhaps one of the most used and least defined words that occur today is, ‘community’. The  contemporary quest of building, nurturing and rescuing the practice of community in 1st world societies does suggest that not all is well with it. Community, across our wider society, is recognisably under threat. Cultures of individualism and consumerism, together with patterns of social and economic migration and marginalisation, seem allied to the breakdown of the extended family and local interdependence to conspire against community.

This, inevitably, translates into Christian culture. The development of vocabulary used to describe church as community, in itself, tells its own tale in plotting a course: Believers’, Sacramental,  Missional, Seeker Sensitive, Without walls, Fresh Expressions, Inclusive.

In the early years of church, in the Apostolic era, the church was a self-identifying community of Christian disciples. Their together life was catalysed by their shared allegiance to the resurrected Christ as their Lord: they were a community of disciples, of believers and followers of Jesus Christ and His teachings. Church as Believers’ church is an emphasis owned among both anabaptists and baptistic Christians today.

As church became socially acceptable, following the conversion of the Roman emperor, it became functional for wider society: a sacramental presence. An understanding of church as sacramental, mediating grace into the wider world, through the recognised sacraments (and an unofficial one: preaching). This understanding is still central to Christendom model churches, such as Orthodox, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian.

In the 2nd half of the 20th century, where church attendance in the UK has plummeted, we have seen a new vocabulary emerge: Missional, Seeker Sensitive, Without walls, Fresh Expressions, Inclusive. These adjectives, in themselves, show a progression in what has been
 a creative and sometimes desperate attempt to engage and attract people into Christian faith. However, all this leaves us with a fundamental question: ‘what do we mean, when we speak of community’?

Let me suggest a working hypothesis: that Christian community is characterised as a group of people, holding together convictions and practices that demonstrate allegiance to Jesus as Lord, owning an understanding of costly grace and committed to cruciform discipleship. This is the measure of our distinctiveness, of what we have to offer to the world. It particularises all that we mean when we seek to articulate good news of love, righteousness and justice brought to mankind from God, in and through Jesus Christ.

Our affirmation, in the title of this article, goes further. Church needs to be a real community. What do we mean by that? Simply this: developing people of convictions and practices requires more than an occasional meeting once a week, where attendance is predominantly passive and non-participative. Before we begin to reach out to people, we have to look at the quality of what we are reaching out from. Do we intentionally strategise how we might practice what is preached? Do we pursue practices that show the character of God, revealed in Scripture and met with in Jesus Christ? Are these what we are know for? If, we are not part of a real, Christian community, our attempts at witness are problematic, for the proof of the pudding can only be in the eating. It was, after all, Jesus who said, ‘by their fruit you shall know them’.

This is the fourth of six, introductory essays designed for social media. The fifth will follow.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

SO FAR ....

In the three introductory essays, I have sought to lay out some features of a biblical, Christ-centred theology - 'Faith is allegiance', 'Grace is costly' and 'Discipleship is cruciform' - that appear to me to be largely detached from and absent in much present, ethical discussion and debate over critical issues. This is problematic, for where discussion does not start by affirming the passion and preferences of God and the nature of discipleship fashioned by the heart of God, such is likely to lead to  conclusions that predicate neither faithful discipleship nor a just and righteous witness to the Gospel. Discussion needs to be well grounded in a revelation of God in Christ, convictions and practices brought together in justice and righteousness, proving the healing and saving action of God’s holy love.

The relationship between church doctrine and ethical practices, in countries that hold to a legacy of 'Christendom’ culture, is not necessarily a happy one or helpful one, as we try and rectify this problem. Here, I am thinking primarily of ecclesial traditions shaped out of Western Europe, in both their Roman Catholic and Protestant expressions. Traditionally, Systematic Theology and its three sub-disciplines of Comparative Religion, Philosophy of Religion and Christian dogmatics, have been separated from the sphere of 'Practical Theology', with ethics as a sub-set of this appended, poor cousin. Such a separation of ethics from substantive theology has not encourage the development of a robust ethic, rooted in radical allegiance to the God of costly grace, who calls His children into cruciform discipleship, in the way of Jesus Christ. 

This inherited deficiency has, certainly, been challenged and countered in many theological writings over the last half-century; but it seems to me that there has been far less change and progress at a popular level, worked out in local church. How has this detachment of the declared revelation of God’s character and purposefulness from practiced, ethical and moral behaviour happened? I would suggest at least two reasons that featuring in my own context.  On the one hand, in the constructing of classic, Christian theology within Christendom churches from the time of the Emperor Constantine, we find an collusion and covenant of non-interference between church and State in matters of politics and social practice. Religious affiliation and social practices are, consequently, for many people, held apart. On the other hand, because of a popular form of evangelicalism that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, when dispensationalist theories stressed that we live in a 'dispensation of grace' and not a ‘dispensation of works’, a message was projected that was strong on believing the right things and weak on everything else. Dispensational teaching could justify ignoring or, worse, repudiating both Jesus' and also Pauline ethical injunctions - and thereby ignoring, of course, most Old Testament teaching as well. All of this fosters extremes of either legalism or antinomian cultures in contemporary church.

I am persuaded that the ethical practices of Christians need to be better rooted in Christian doctrine that is both biblical and Christ-centred. Only then will we be properly equipped to face, in Christ's name, the moral and ethical challenges of our time. Faith lived out as allegiance to the Christ met with in the Biblical text; an appreciation that God’s grace at work in our lives will inevitably be costly to us, in personal terms, as people; an understanding that cruciform living is the default state of Christian being. Such a rigorous re-appraisal of what it means to bear the name, ‘Christian’, is a necessary starting point that combats and stands over against a consumerist, costless, romanticised version of Christian living, morality and ethics.

Parts 4 - 6 to follow. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Discipleship is cruciform

6 considerations:   3.  Discipleship is cruciform

“For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”
‭‭I Corinthians‬ ‭2:2‬ (‭NKJV‬‬)

For Christians everywhere, as for the Apostle Paul, the Cross of Christ stands at the centre of understanding God’s call to faith and His gracious invitation to us, that we might know the forgiveness and restoration that God summons us into, out of His holy love. An invitation into knowing, not simply about the Cross, but an intimacy of sharing with Jesus Christ in His crucifixion. Discipleship is cruciform.

The Cross is a place of substitutionary sacrifice, where Jesus willingly bears the consequence of human sin and failing in our place (Romans 3.25): yet the Scriptures do not stop there, in what they want us to celebrate and know of  the Cross, as Jesus entered into and experienced what it brought to Him. In and through what Jesus entered and endured, there is the outflow of God’s healing for the nations – the touch of wholeness ministered into our lives (Matthew 8.16-17). There is a maturing and a perfecting of His humanity – and therefore of ours – in and through his pursuit along the path of obedience (Hebrews 2.10-11; 5.7-9). Such is that desire for a deeper knowing of this, that the Apostle Paul can declare, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians‬ ‭2:20‬ ‭NKJV‬‬). Discipleship is cruciform.
Jesus taught this before Paul longed for it. He taught  his disciples to disown their own lives in order to discover life, through the way of the Cross. This echoes throughout the first three Gospels (Matthew 16.24; Mark 8.34; Luke 9.23), with the 4th Gospel emphasising that this way is the path of true fruitfulness and effectiveness, to be found and expressed, in our lives (John 12.24). Discipleship is cruciform.

But why the Cross? Why such a need for entry into and identification with His death in this way, that we are summoned to through baptism (Romans 6.3)? The answer is found again with Paul, who longs,  “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians‬ ‭3:10-11‬ ‭NKJV‬‬ ). Because discipleship that is cruciform is discipleship that is infused and empowered with the Spirit who demonstrates authenticity, enabling resurrection reality to be expressed now, in and through our lives (Romans 6.4).

Ethical challenges and moral dilemma will be overwhelming issues whenever wrestled with by a church that has not grasped the significance and necessity of cruciform discipleship. It is simply not enough to debate and to be clear over doctrine: theories change nothing and empower no one.
But for those who set out to know Jesus Christ, and Him crucified? To those who embrace the beatitudes of Matthew 5 as a way of living, not just believing? For those who see Christ’s way of dying not simply something to gawk at but a reality to be entered into? For such people, there will be a discovery of a power that comes through the Holy Spirit that will, indeed, lift them to new levels of intentional, sacrificial and effective holy living, as the Apostle celebrates in prayer and expects of disciples (Ephesians 1.18-21).

Are you possibly wearied with ‘spectator orthodoxy’ and the extremes of harsh or impotent ethics that issue from it? Are you a little disillusioned with ‘Holy Spirit lite’ living? Look in a new way to discipleship as cruciform. Embrace the baby in the manger in this way; and may God renew you in joy, through resurrection living, this Christmas and into the New Year.

This is the third of six, introductory essays, designed for social media. The fourth will follow.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Grace is costly

6 considerations:   2.  Grace is costly

Christmas and Easter, in their different seasons and styles, can seem far apart. Yet, in essence, they celebrate and declare the same reality: the costly grace of God. Both show the depths that true love will plunge, in order to invest in and give to the ‘other’. Where God is the giver, in sending the light of life and key of Creation, His own Son, diving into the morass of mankind’s demonised confusion, darkness and death.

Great passages of Scripture demand mention here: the declaration of our Father’s love for us, in John 3.16-17; and our Saviour’s manifestation of this love, in Philippians 2.6-11. This is how Grace is costly. It is the outpouring of pure love by God, birthed in the heart of God. It comes at such great cost. The self-emptying of the Son of God, entering and taking to Himself our flesh and blood (John 1.14). The offering up of Jesus Christ’s flesh and blood as sacrifice, in our place, at the Cross of Calvary.

The costliness of grace, for the disciple of Jesus Christ, must be more, however, than a cause for composing a doxology. Here is a deep root for resourcing a truly Christian ethic. To show grace and to be a means of manifesting God’s grace to others will be costly to the giver. The Apostle Paul understood this, in speaking of his mission of love, when he embraces the need to, ‘fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church’ (Colossians 1.24).

That grace is costly is a bedrock for Christian ethics and a deep source for acts of holy love. Both constrained commissioned in God’s costly grace, the man or woman who has died with Christ and now lives for Him, in His faith, is caught up in the swell of God’s intentional and irresistible love. Is it possible to live a life that conducts the flow of such love, as a conduit, without knowing great, personal cost? I think not. The sacrifices to be made by the man or woman, who seeks to see life with the mind of Christ, will be many. There may be mistakes, but there will also be a course chartered through the tempestuous seas of life that will demand a putting to death of self – the acts of mortification – in order to allow love and its practical expression to abound.  In this regard, there is no more meaningfully missional passage in Scripture than 2 Corinthians 5.

There is a such a gulf between ethics and morality issuing out of Christian grace, costly grace and the perception of loving grace; and perception of costless grace as free grace, easy grace, surrounding us in much contemporary, church culture. When did it start? I suspect it became endemic after late-nineteenth century revivalism became divorced, in the twentieth century, from a call to holiness and repentance as the essential partner of faith. When faith became commodified and salvation became the biggest free offer of all time! When confession of Jesus as Lord became replaced by a mere acceptance of him as a personal Saviour.

When costly grace is replaced by cheap grace, there is no demand. It is easy surrender and capitulation to the elixir of religion. Cheap grace is an invitation to a life of religious delusion that costs nothing and gives nothing. Church dies as church when this is the message, a man-made fabrication and poor imitation of the real thing.

When facing the deep desires of our own being, including our personal sexuality, we all would do well to remember that God’s grace is costly. Costly grace brings and conveys authentic love. All true expression and pursuit of a Christian ethic, whether by a single person or a congregated community, will have a personal cost to pay if it is to authentically convey and live out an ethic that reflects the glory and goodness of God.

This is the second of six, introductory essays, designed for social media. The third will follow.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Faith as Allegiance

6 considerations:   1.  Faith is Allegiance

Today, we are all deeply implicated in a culture and tradition of intellectual faith. Not just from one or other side of ethical and moral debate. We all are part of it. To read, reflect on, deliberate and come to a deeper appreciation of the Scriptures, let alone other literature, is writ large in our history; and society has benefitted from it, right back to when the ‘three R’s’ were first taught to children in our schools.

But it’s a problem when ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ come to be treated as synonyms. When a response to the explosive revelation of light, life and love, injected into the heart of the Cosmos in and through Jesus Christ, comes to reside in mind more fully than in heart, body and soul. When the viability of faith is reduced to the stage of sterile apologetics and detached dogma.

An over-emphasis on intellectual reflection and validation crosses into even more dangerous territory when it is married to an autonomous individualism: when the preferences, propensities and passions of self become the centre of an intellectual process which is unaccountable to the scrutiny of society, constituted as people who are interdependent persons. Where the gods of individualism and self-determination takes centre stage.

Take these two together, the tyranny of a sterile intellectualism and a strident individualism, and we concoct a curious cocktail, one that is often sipped prior to engagement in ethical reflection. This is far from the baptist way, where communal discussion and discernment is called for, to combat the madness of the megalomaniac genius or the deranged, false prophet. The baptist way is one where there is real debate and the opportunity to listen and sense the heart, body and soul of Christ’s humanity expressed among us, resonating in and through the collective attention and consciousness of God’s integral mission, expressed through an integrated, Christ centred discourse as church together.

For such a process to work, we have to grasp the nature of faith as allegiance. Belief and faith are not, in the language of expression found the Holy Bible, synonyms. Faith is something that belongs to far more than to a mind separated from heart, soul and body. Faith is the expression of the life of Jesus Christ found within and among us: it is the desire to participate in His presence, purposes and power. It is an integral belonging that leads us into owning ethical imperatives, inseparable from the pleasure and preferences of our God. Faith arises as the character of the community God in Christ calls to be His own, a window into His goodness and glory. Faith is displayed in the humanity of Jesus Christ’s disciples gathered together.

Faith is allegiance to this God. This is no new idea. It is the essence, in the Old Testament, of Israel’s relationship to the Covenant Redeemer who calls Abram and his descendants on a path of obedience, marked by conformity to His ways. It is the relationship, in the New Testament, that Jesus builds with His disciples and that they learn to cultivate among one another. It was such an appreciation of faith, as allegiance to Jesus Christ, that led to the martyrdom of the first Christians who refused to express a higher allegiance to Caesar.

My sexuality and the way I employ it, as a baptist Christian, demands that I seek to express such an integral part of my being as an expression of this allegiance to Jesus Christ, in his aspirations, attitudes and actions. In a way that is consonant with the narrative of God’s commands to His people, patent in both Old and New Testament Scriptures. To act otherwise is to act outwith faith. What does such an understanding of faith require of us?

This perspective is the first that I would ask to be woven into conversation, as people explore ethical and moral issues. What is the pleasure of God, shown to and expected of the community of Israel and the early church? What was the attitude to a person’s sex and sexuality expected among the people of God, in Old and New Testament and in the early history of the church? Such questions are essential ones for those who follow the baptist way.

The second of these six, introductory essays, designed for Social Media, will follow in the New Year. In it, I will offer an introduction to the 2nd of 6 considerations I would invite you to weave into your discourses: the notion of ‘costly grace’. I pray, however, that this first, introductory essay will offer you opportunity to reflect and rejoice in God’s calling to you to live a life of allegiance, following the path of the Son of God who entered into our flesh, living a life of authentic allegiance to our Father and our God.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Forthcoming publication

We are facing, within this present season of our society, huge challenges. These challenges are not simply due to Brexit and geopolitical fractures and fissures across the world, let alone an increasing secularisation of society at large. I refer, rather, to challenges within the church in dealing with issues for which I feel she is poorly prepared, especially in dealing with issues of sexual and gender identity and practice, but also bearing wider implications.

In a paper that I am presently writing, I will seek to highlight considerations which I have looked for yet found to be absent in current debate,  as convictions and practices, integrally part of historic Christianity, confront the fast changing social mores and expectations around us. Convictions and practices which had been held as precious for two millennia are now being challenged and questioned with a rigour that is hard to deal with when Christians are not always clear of the bases on which they might find, form and articulate a response that is both righteous and just.

While I personally come with a perspective that is firmly rooted in these historic, biblical convictions and practices, I would want to disassociate myself from both aggressive and acrimonious polemics. Rather, I seek to make a contribution that invites a conversation among biblical, baptistic disciples that fosters responsible evaluation of and engagement with moral and ethical challenges that are hugely important to people, precious and loved and cared for both by ourselves and, more intensely, by God.

I am concerned with an absence, in both debate and literature, of certain theological and ethical considerations that are deeply embedded in my own understanding of Christian life and discipleship. These, profoundly biblical and integral to an inherited Christian tradition, seem to me as necessary and essential components to any mature and genuine debate. I would like to see these introduced into discussions. I believe this would be helpful to all concerned and therefore I offer them to you now.

These considerations are sixfold:

Faith is allegiance
Grace is costly
Discipleship is cruciform
Church needs to be real community
Christians are countercultural (resident aliens)
We contend agains powers and principalities, not flesh and blood

Notice of the completed publication will follow in due course.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

6 perspectives to hold onto

There are some important tensions that will affect the formation of convictions, not least ethical ones, in an understanding informed by Biblical perspectives. I would suggest 6 tensions that are, at times, in danger of being lost in some strains of current debate:

1. faith as a subscription to an invitation vs faith as a transfer of allegiance

We live in a consumer society, where an invitation to invest is dominated with the notion of the right or opportunity to consume. At the same time, the legacy of 19th century revivalism, stretching through to the present, highlights an 'invitation to receive'. Together, these convictional perspectives can conspire to frame the call to faith as an opportunity to subscribe or accept an offer: usually, in terms of the Gospel, an offer to receive the unmerited love of God, free and unconditional forgiveness.

There is a tension between this and an understanding of faith built on a transfer of allegiance that implies or requires a renunciation of old allegiance. This perspective emphasises the pivotal place of baptism as an enactment of 'death to self' and a conscious consecration to the new life that is in Christ: arguably the raison d'etre of the the call to an expression of repentance, as well as faith.

2. cheap grace vs costly grace

It is normal, across a constituency that describes itself as baptist and evangelical, to accept that our salvation is the consequence of God's costly grace, in that our salvation is the result of Christ's costly self-giving of himself. It is less common to emphasise that this leads the Christian into making costly commitments: that becoming a Christian will not be easy or without painful consequences for each or any of us, in terms of our acceptability or popularity within the dominant culture in which we find ourselves living.

3. Christ's humanity as incidental vs emphasising hIs participation in it

Incarnation describes the human 'enfleshment' of the Word of God, in the becomingness of the Son of God to participate in our condition and predicament. This implies that we are called to enter into a way of being human that represents and replicates the character and intentionality of Jesus Christ in our lives. An emphasis on the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on behalf of humanity, that does not present and preserve this insistence of a shared humanity, is in danger of presenting a skewed and inadequate perspective on the Christian life and the requirements and perspectives of God towards us.

4. Living lives as isolated individuals vs persons in committed community.

The prominent value placed on the the individual in western, Enlightenment thinking is not necessarily compatible with a perspective emphasising persons existing within and as part of community. Commandments from God, framed in both Old and New Testament settings, assume and stress the importance of community for the existence and development of a humanity that reflects the glory and goodness of God. Community is meant to shape us as people, as much as we are to play our part in shaping community.

5. assimilation into dominant culture vs establishing a counter-cultural

A desire to attract people to Jesus can be counter productive, where we fail to be true to Jesus. Salt and light; yeast in the dough: these are metaphors for a way of living that represents our bringing a different ingredient into the wider society we are part of, rather than assimilating and seeking approval by that society.

6. Gospel as a philosophy and worldview vs transformational power

Words without power come easily. Purposeful power that demands explanation, as manifested by Jesus and the apostolic church, requires the presence and the power of a holy God in our midst.

Think about these things. Hold on to them.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Please, be careful

“‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭15:55-57‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Thanks to everyone who passed on their condolences, following my mother’s death. Two weeks later, I heard news of the death of Yura Apostolova, wife of my dear friend Stoicho Apostolov, pastor in Lom and President of the Baptist Union of Bulgaria. My wife and I knew them both in different capacities. We loved, laughed and shared lives with them in differing but equally precious ways.

Both expired quite differently. Mona had a period of steady and marked decline over five weeks and was a very elderly lady. Yura, a sudden and unexpected death. She was six years my junior.

So you will understand, I think, why I might want to share a personal reflection on God’s will. I get tired, at times, at how people talk about God’s will: as if the things we happen to like or specially appreciate were instanced by God and to be causes of thanksgiving; and everything else remains unmentioned. Or worse, where we attribute every act and accident of life to God’s sovereign pleasure, as if God were some sort of sovereign despot.

When I read across the books of the Bible, I’m glad I meet neither of these perspectives on our Maker. I’m glad of the positive tension which some medieval theologians noted and called (in Latin), ‘the double knowing of God’: the knowledge of God, one the one hand, as Creator; and the knowledge of God, on the other hand, as Redeemer. I’m glad that when I look at the rhythms of birth (I’m six months a grandfather), life and death, of what I see – but also, that what I see there is not the only thing that reveals God to me. I’m so thankful that the final Word on what God is really like is pronounced in the birth, life, death, resurrection and present reign and expected return of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1.1-3). Redemption making sense of Creation.

When people die, I never say it’s God’s will. Through Jesus, God defeated death. Death is horrible. An enemy. Death is a poison that leaves people bereaved and grieving. It is a terrible thing to say that God wills that which Jesus has already defeated and overcome.

But when I look at the Cross of Christ, I see how God uses what is utterly repugnant so wonderfully  redemptively. What is so terrible is turned into a triumph through the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. For this is God’s will for us: life, in all its fullness (John 10.10).

So please, when you speak about God’s will, be careful of what you attribute to Him. Remember ‘the double knowing of God’. And speak well of what Jesus has done and continues to do, through those who receive Him in faith, for us all.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

a message for Christmas

Why is Christmas important? Because we celebrate a unique birth, God's gift to us all. Because of what began when Jesus was born, your birthright is a vital, personal relationship with God: caught up in the purpose of your heavenly Father, discovering more deeply the pattern of Jesus Christ In your life, enabled and empowered by infilling presence of the Holy Spirit. May a renewal of this or an entry into such a way of living, the greatest gift anyone can receive, be yours this Christmas and into the coming New Year.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Advent Approaching

There is a pitfall that can arise in proclaiming the Christian gospel. It is the danger of speaking half the truth. What do I mean? For the chemistry of the Gospel to ignite the soul of a man or woman into effective discipleship, two vital compounds are required.

Firstly, there is the declaration of the unmerited, gratuitous love of God directed towards our lives. It is the heralding of the sheer loveliness of the love of God, come to us in the embrace of the Word of God of our humanity, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Utter mercy and forgiveness wrapped round us, marinating us in the faithful, transforming love and presence of God. Carrying us through His atoning death, bearing the consequence of our sins, imputing and infusing God's righteousness into our lives. A personal realisation and experience of the love of God, made alive in us through the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, a call to respond through repentance and faith: not simply an anodyne believism, but an entering into participation in the life of Christ. Voluntarily identifying with His death and resurrection, through baptism. Embracing His practices of self-emptying, hospitality and service: a life consecrated to expressing holy love, seeking enabling and empowering by the Holy Spirit. Disciplined living, constrained by the commands of God. Lives regulated by righteousness and pursuing justice, separated from godless social and sexual practices.

Two sides of a coin. Priceless grace and costly discipleship.
Enjoy the journey through Advent.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Mission & Ministry Report, 2015

I want to begin by thanking you, Baptist Union of Scotland, for the privilege of serving you in this ministry. I spend much time travelling the length and breadth of our country, meeting with ministers and leadership teams. Often, I am asked, 'What is our BUofS line on ....'  I would like to punctuate my written report by touching base on some of these convictions. Convictions that mark and shape our behaviour, that stand out for us. They are in our Declaration of Principle. And they are convictions that punctuate our life and witness.

Personal encounter with the Risen Jesus Christ

We believe in the unassailable authority of the Bible, guiding us in all matters of faith and behaviour: we are confronted with God's truth in the Scriptures. We meet with the full expression of that truth in Jesus Christ. A personal meeting with Jesus Christ is the birthright of every Christian. And more than that. An encounter with Jesus that leads us to long for the Holy Spirit:

“When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.”
John 16:8-11

We are people who believe in conversion marked by repentance, entering into a life joined to God in obedience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, our risen and living Commander & King.

Christians are to live their lives as part of Christ's community

Our society cries out for community that brings healing and hope. Where Scotland can meet with Holy people. Humble people.
People of purity. People who have purpose, because they have God's presence and power in their lives.

Scotland is tired of church that is like fallen autumn leaves, full of faded glory and the rotting compost of compromise.
Scotland needs to find a people who are genuinely consecrated to Christ. Lighting steps that lead into life. A bridge built that nurtures our nation, helping her people to move from failing futility into a future full of life and living faith.

Caring. compassionate. Cross shaped, consecrated lives. Can people in Scotland find this among us?

We need to hold to holiness and humility. Learn to to listen and be slow to speak. To invite the Peaceful Transformation team and others to help us and remind us what it is to be a healthy family: for it is no accident that the Bible teaches that Christian leadership be entrusted to those who have proven themselves faithful in caring for their own families.

Focus on mission

That it is the duty of every disciple to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelisation of the world.

Discipleship is the key that brings all this together. Learning to live in and lead others into 'Jesus space', where folk can 'mind the gap' because they see the gap: and want to move over from misery into meaningful lives.

Personal, moral integrity in asking the question, 'how am I, as a Christian disciple, required under God to act?'.
Against a corrupted culture of self-fulfilment and self-realisation, we need to work at being a people whose mission is a path of humility, obedience and courage under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Assembly, this is who we are as the Baptist Union of Scotland, in our mission and ministry. We must look to live out these convictions, that Scotland be won for Christ.
God grant us the grace to do so.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Jesus came to serve

My colleague, Bob baxter, has a real ministry in helping churches that have reached 'rock bottom' engage again in a new way, with the power of the good news that Jesus brings. Simple and effective. As it should be.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Pursuing the Presence

I have been hugely challenged by reading the Bible. Again. God has been shouting at me regarding the importance of Pentecostal power.

I love preaching. I reckon I have preached around two and a half thousand different sermons over the last forty years. I still love it. But I get troubled when all there is are words. And audiences. Sometimes, it doesn't surprise me that people give up on church, if that's all that they meet with and nothing else. Words, words and more words.

Because there has to be presence. The tangible presence of God. Miraculous presence that impacts people in a way that brings sometimes conviction, sometimes healing, sometimes deliverance; but always an acute awareness of church being a place where people gather in the Presence, to praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Easter comes close again. A path into God's presence is opened for us. Pentecostal power where what God wants now to give us, enabled by Easter, comes crashing into our lives.

Find a way to be there.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

So, here's what I see ......

One of the goals I set myself in beginning my present ministry was to visit all of the churches of our Union. I am nearly there! It is a real privilege to do this. One of the consequences is that it places me in a unique position to offer an accurate report and authentic assessment of what I witness. So here it is:

As I see it:

Our Baptist Union of Scotland, committed to being Intentionally Relational, Creatively Rooted and Unashamedly Missional, evidences a confident rejoicing in the Good News of the Kingdom of God come among us in and through the life, ministry, atoning death and resurrection victory of Jesus Christ.

Churches are seen to embrace the righteousness imputed and imparted to men and women of faith in Jesus Christ, looking to develop this both in personal pilgrimage and corporately, joined together in congregations consecrated and committed to pursuing justice and loving mercy.

Churches can be seen as looking to develop and multiply communities of disciples that demonstrate and proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ saves; expressing the Holy Spirit's power to deliver and heal, reconcile and restore; heralding hope and inviting repentance and faith towards God our loving Father.

To this end, churches look to promote and foster teams of committed disciples, who are committed to embodying local expression of these convictions, reaching into Scotland and beyond with the love of God and an invitation to others to embark on the journey of Christian discipleship.

And two questions I would ask of every congregation:

What  do you have dreams and aspirations to see happen, in and through this church?
What should we reappraise and possibly need to change, here among us, in order to help this happen?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Christmas Reflection on preaching and preachers

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NIV)

Truth, tempered with humility and openness to others, is so potent and powerful.

Truth, mixed in a man with arrogance and ignorance, is a tragic and terrible thing.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Celebrate with joy

Many years ago, in a land far, far away, I was sitting round a table with some Christian leaders. We were discussing church life around the world. I reflected on some of the complex, pastoral issues that faced me in my context. One brother remarked, 'Wow, what sort of church have you got?!'

I smiled; and afterwards, pondered on two realities. Firstly, I though, 'it's a normal church'. Secondly, my mind drifted to the nature of what we are called to be like : 'gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, showing love to others consistently and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin'. And, yes, remembering the power of what transpired on the Cross. And I thought of how wonderful it is that God's Word became flesh and resolutely dwells among us as Emmanuel: 'God with us'.

Yes, it's good and important to celebrate Christmas. Have a good one, filled with worship and thanksgiving in celebration of Emmanuel. May that truth increase in your experience in the coming year.

Monday, 22 September 2014

When is Matters

A humbling yet rewarding day yesterday, preaching in Montana baptist churches in the morning and evening. When sharing with people who have nothing, it is a very sobering challenge. No place for anything but the essential hope and expectation of what we have in Christ now. Hope. The active presence of the Holy Spirit present and active in our lives. Affective reality in meaningful ways. Receiving Christ’s gift of righteousness and peace right now.

And then an amazing realisation, when reading the news. Up to the Referendum, only 25,000 members in the Scottish Nationalist Party. And then on the three days since the referendum, 10,000 new members. That’s what I call revival! And a testimony to the effect that a small group of people, highly motivated and dedicated activists with committed leadership, can have upon a whole nation.

Now, remind me, how many people did we say attend Scottish baptist churches. Did I hear someone say 25,000? There’s a challenge!!!