Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 2 Corinthians

According to Acts 18 Paul first visited Corinth around 50AD. After writing our 1 Corinthians Paul paid a second visit, around 56AD, which in 2:1 he describes as ‘painful’. So what caused this pain? We get some clues from the second (or rather third) letter. He begins as usual with praise, but in a somewhat backhanded way he thanks God for his compassion and care during painful times.

It appears that people in Corinth are questioning Paul’s authority because they have doubts about his apostleship. Evidently some people had begun teaching that only those who had physically been chosen by Jesus to walk and talk with him for the three years of his earthly ministry were the real deal. Paul was an upstart, and as such who did he think he was to tell them off about the ways they were living their church life? In addition he appears to have changed his plans and not visited them when they were expecting a visit, which served to prove that he was fickle and unreliable. So a great theme in 2 Corinthians has to do with Paul defending his credentials as an apostle. He emphasises his sufferings for the gospel (1:8ff, 6:3-10), his lack of financial gain from his ministry (2:17), and the fruit of his ministry in changed lives and planted churches (3:1-6).

Nicolas Poussin. The Ecstasy of St. Paul.

He then attempts to lift their eyes off such pointless arguments and instead focus on the glorious truth of the gospel and the hope of resurrection life. Of course there will be trivial arguments while we are still here on earth, but we need to focus on a bigger reality. In 6:3-10 Paul recounts the number of ways in which he has suffered for the sake of Christ, but has remained resilient through it all.

In spite of this conflict, though, Paul can rejoice that his words have not fallen on completely deaf ears. The ‘sorrowful’ letter which he had written to them (7:8) did seem to make a difference, even though it upset them at the time. In a church where we don’t really like to do conflict Paul reminds us that hard truths can lead to repentance.

Paul then becomes more practical, and deals with generosity in giving, although he is soon back on his self-defence, recounting again the cost of his ministry and his equal status with ‘proper’ apostles. The book ends with a section warning them that he will continue to be hard on them if they don’t listen to his teaching, but that this harsh discipline is to build them up, not tear them down.

2 Corinthians is not an easy or comfortable book, but it reminds us of what is at stake, and raises questions about the place of godly discipline and hard words in God’s church today. Maybe we’re all just a bit too nice, and the mission of the church is weakened as a result. And maybe the lack of suffering for the gospel, at least in the comfy Western church, shows that we might not be trying hard enough to stand out from the culture around us. Discuss!

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Nahum

It’s an ill wind which blows nobody any good. Imagine, in the middle of world War II, a prophet standing up and announcing God’s judgement on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Bad news for the Nazis, but a great relief for France, Poland, the UK and the rest of Europe. That’s what Nahum is doing as he predicts the destruction of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians. The nations who had suffered at the hands of Assyria’s legendary brutality and cruelty would be cheering this prophet, whose name means ‘Consolation’.

All we know about the guy is that he came from Elkosh (1:1), but since we have no idea where Elkosh is that doesn’t help much. It has been identified with what became Capernaum (literally ‘the village of Nahum’)  but we just don’t know. We can, however, date this book fairly accurately, since we know that Nineveh was in fact destroyed in 612 BC. We also know that the destruction of Thebes, to which he likens Nineveh’s downfall (3:8-11), took place in 633 BC, so we have a fairly narrow window. His message is one of unremitting judgement on the city, for its violence, described graphically in 3:1-4, and in particular for its attacks on Israel.

What is interesting about this book, though, is the comparison with Jonah, which probably dates from 150 or so years earlier. We saw that Jonah was called to preach to a city even then legendary for its evil, and that when he was obedient to this call (eventually), the city repented and turned to God. Yet within a few generations the Assyrians are up to their old tricks again, and this time there is neither repentance nor, according to Nahum, any chance of it. Whilst Jonah preached God’s mercy, Nahum preaches only destruction.

Adad gate exterior entrance north3.JPG

So this book raises all kinds of questions about God’s judgement and mercy, the permanence or otherwise of repentance, and ultimately the famous ‘Once saved always saved’ controversy in the Christian church. History shows us that in spite of her earlier repentance after Jonah’s ministry Nineveh had again become renowned for her brutality, and that the averted destruction did happen in the end. What we don’t know is whether the people’s earlier repentance was genuine or not, although God seemed to think so at the time. So Nahum’s message reminds us that each generation has to choose afresh whether or not it is going to serve God, and that repentance on behalf of our children is not possible. It also reflects the reality that sometimes people do lose the plot and slide back from an earlier commitment to God. It may also be that the reference to ‘witchcraft’ in 3:4, which is not developed any further by Nahum, points to some spiritual disease in the land which, without healing, simply causes the behaviour to manifest itself again in future generations. We can see this dynamic at work in all sorts of ways, for example in churches which repeat patterns of sinful behaviour keep occurring, although manifested by a new set of people. Deep repentance and healing, of the kind advocated by people like Russ Parker[1] is necessary to break sinful cycles.

Fortunately we live the other side of the cross from Nahum, so there is never, in this life, a point where judgement completely rules out the offer of mercy. We still have the responsibility of making sure that our repentance sticks, but even when it doesn’t we have a God to whom we can return, again and again.

[1] Notably in his Healing Wounded History (London: SPCK, 2012)

Image: “Adad gate exterior entrance north3” by Fredarch – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Jonah

We’re a bit more on familiar ground with this fishy tale, a book with a great story and loads of difficult issues. Jonah is called by God to preach God’s judgement in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, a cruel and vicious enemy of Israel away to the north east, which is a bit like asking someone to run an Alpha Course at Islamic State headquarters. So quite naturally he runs off in the opposite direction, and gets on a boat in Joppa. However, his disobedience threatens the life of his fellow-passengers, and he is thrown into the sea, only to be rescued by some sort of sea creature. He spends three days inside the creature, singing, no doubt, since we all know that everyone sings in whales, until sadder and wiser he gets vomited out and goes and does what he’s told, only to see the Assyrians repent in great numbers, from the King downwards. However, Jonah is really annoyed that God is letting them off after all they’ve done to harm Israel, and he throws a hissy fit and decides to sulk himself to death. Using a gourd-vine and a worm God teaches him a lesson, but the book is left hanging as to whether or not Jonah is convinced.

The miraculous in this book is clearly a big issue for some, and different people tells tales of having survived inside a large fish or whale, while others tell of the physiological impossibility of this happening. It may be that we have a well-known folk tale here, which is given a more spiritual twist. We saw that when we looked at Job. The book is difficult to date too. It must be fairly late, when the Assyrian empire was at its height and had captured Israel. Some regard it as a treatise against the narrow nationalism of post-exilic Judah. When you’ve been in exile and finally returned to rebuild your own land it’s natural for you to feel a bit xenophobic, to want to batten down the hatches and keep God to yourself. The idea that God might love foreigners appears to be a novel one, and the idea that he might love the very nation responsible for the destruction of your fellow-Israelites up north is unthinkable. So Jonah’s sorry tale might be for the nation a reminder that the God of mercy and compassion is merciful to all. It might also serve another purpose, which we have touched on before, taking them back to the original call of Abraham to be blessed but also to be a blessing for the rest of the world.

So what might this book have to say to us? There is something, I think, about the consequences for others when the church loses its vocation and focuses on being blessed rather than on being a blessing. At the lowest level we leave people not being able to tell their right hands from their left. Of course that doesn’t in any way refer to my wife, but rather speaks of a nation lost and confused in their sin and ignorance. The people lack all moral perception, and are unable to see the consequences of their action. The abolition of ‘Sunday’, for example, had radical effects on Western family and working life. Many believe that the persistent erosion of stable families is going to reap a whirlwind in the future. We can read all the research that children thrive best in families with a man and a woman in lifelong commitment, yet we continue actively to promote alternatives. When the church loses moral battles, the nation as a whole is weakened. Without preachers of truth and repentance, the nation simply will not hear, and may lose out the opportunity to change its ways.

But it gets worse: might those on the boat with Jonah be a picture of the storms which threaten others when Christians are disobedient. The church continues to be rocked, for example, by accusations of abuse, and in a real sense many have simply shoved us over the side to drown. The fish or whale, therefore, becomes not an image of God’s judgement but of his rescue, a sign of hope that we may get a second chance, and that people might even start to listen when we simply do what God tells us.

Reflections on Discipleship – Not Joining In

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

You have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.  They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:3-4)

Really? As we enter the penitential season of Lent this reading invited me to reflect on my own lifestyle, and my blog challenges you to do the same. My first reflection  is to ask myself just what it is that I don’t join in with that my pagan friends abuse me for. Um … not a lot, if I’m honest. It isn’t that I do join in with my chums’ wild drug-fuelled orgies, drive-by shooting sprees or credit card fraud. I just don’t have those sorts of friends. And, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t think I have spent enough time in the past being naughty in the kinds of ways Peter says I have. On a really bad day I think not nearly enough.

This passage highlights the difference between becoming a Christian out of a godless and pagan culture in the first century and being brought up as one in a nice twentieth century middle-class stable family. Of course our culture is every bit as godless and sensual as the first century Greek one is portrayed as being in the pages of Scripture, but much of the time we do tend to be godless and sensual nicely. Many in the church today simply have not had much spectacular sin in our backgrounds, so coming to Christ and following him as a disciple didn’t, if we’re honest, make that much of the radical difference it might make to an ex-addict or a serial killer who has seen the light.

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That’s all good, of course. I’m not suggesting that a bit of serious debauchery lurking somewhere in our backgrounds makes us better Christians. But I think it does mean that we have to work a bit harder at seeing just what following Jesus as his disciples means, or what a radical difference it should be making. I’m aware that only around 35% of us have ‘Damascus Road’ conversion experiences nowadays, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the church has stopped expecting people to make a radical decision and change of lifestyle and so has stopped preaching it. The message of Jesus and of Lent that we begin this journey with repentance has got a bit lost over the years: instead we expect people to slip gently and painlessly into the kingdom. So it is not surprising that it isn’t always easy to see how we’re that different as a result.

So I wonder whether a good Lenten meditation for us might be to look harder and discover some of those things with which we don’t join  in, because there will be some. Call me a dinosaur, but my family still refuses flatly to go shopping on a Sunday. My kids never did their homework either: Sunday was a day where we were set free from the concerns of the rest of the week to enjoy ourselves. I try not to do office gossip or politics – not always an easy job. I try to praise people behind their backs instead of slagging them off. Little things, but as I think about them I’m encouraged to realise that I might just, after all, be a little bit different.

OT Lectionary September 7th Trinity 12 Ezekiel 33:7-11

There is an interesting dynamic of ‘tipping points’ in today’s passage from the prophet Ezekiel. Firstly, chapter 33 forms a kind of pivot point between 1 – 32, which are predominantly about judgement, and 34-48, which have much more to say about restoration. As though to emphasise this great pivot the news comes to Ezekiel in v 21 that ‘The City has fallen!’ We can’t really imagine the significance of this for the exiles, but the destruction of 9/11 doesn’t come close. It is as though we heard that Westminster, Canary Wharf and Canterbury Cathedral had all been blown to bits in a single act of warfare.

So this passage sets before the people the need for repentance, and the role that the prophet has in calling them to it. The image of the ‘watchman’, one which Ezekiel commonly uses, relates to those placed on city walls to give early warning of imminent attack. But the danger here is less about the physical destruction of their home capital, and more about the internal eating away of their society by the cancer of immorality and godlessness.

But there is a smaller, more subtle pivot in the centre of the passage for today. By the time we get to v 10 the people apparently need no further calls to repentance: they are only too well aware of their offences and sins, and the results of them. Ezekiel’s word to them must now be different. No longer is he to give a warning of judgement: now his message is one of hope and restoration, and repentance as the way to it.

This corrects two common caricatures we may have unconsciously slipped into regarding prophets and their God. So often we think of those with prophetic giftings as miserable people who can only speak of gloom and destruction: indeed many modern-day prophets only serve to reinforce this caricature. This in turn can lead us to the belief that God himself is a miserable punisher. One of my bosses used to say that the job of the Holy Spirit is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’, and we have something of that here. To presumptuous and self-satisfied sinners God’s word is a harsh one, but to those who realise their own need of repentance he speaks mercy and restoration. This of course can’t help but raise the question ‘Where am I?’ and ‘What would God want to say to me?’ Clearly to speak words of peace to sinners who are completely unrepentant is as useless and counter-productive as calling to repentance those who are already broken-hearted. But so often all we want is to hear God saying to us that everything is just dandy.

There is also an interesting question here about how this passage might relate to evangelism. In the past it was thought to be all about calling sinners to repentance: indeed that is the thrust of most of the preaching recorded in Acts. But now the fashion has changed, and in a society which doesn’t really ‘do’ sin our call is more likely to be about comfort than confrontation. Maybe we need to rethink what the call of God on our generation really is.