Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Our unmarked tombs

I went to a funeral today. As always it was a somber experience. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The body of a man was in a box and lowered into the ground. His wife of 60 years watched and wept, along with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. His childhood friend of 75 years delivered the eulogy. He knew the man through and through. From childhood mischief to trade training to personal hobbies to family ancestry.

We all die. At some naturalistic level we will die and we will probably be mourned by those who knew us. They will gather around our resting place and cry and laugh and remember.

As Christians, we've already died. The day of our "yes!" to Jesus was the day that we participated in his crucifixion. We died. We died to escape the law. We died to escape our selfishness. We died so that our flesh could be born from above and live a new life in Christ.

But we don't mourn that death. We don't cry. We don't mark a resting place for it. Instead we live in the here and now, and we look in hope to the future. Like the empty tomb of Jesus that no one goes to visit, each believer has an unmarked tomb that no one goes to visit. We have moved through death, beyond the law, into a life of divine grace and love.

Photo credit: Andrew Smith

Monday, 28 April 2014

Session 10: Louis Giglio

The final session was held by Louis Giglio. He preached about the bigness of God.

God has created a vast universe. If it exists only for humanity then it's much too large for its function. Perhaps it was created to show the glory of God (Isaiah 40). If God could create this universe by divine command, and the universe is as large as it is, surely God is even bigger. How remarkable it is, then, that God would know us personally, become flesh, and be crucified for us.

Space photography is beautiful. Louis showed lots of it during his sermon. Each one was a picture of something vast or of something a great distance away. They all supported the notion that the universe is massive. And for the audience we get a chance to be awed by this. We feel small and fragile.

At this point Louis makes the leap from natural religion to revealed religion. Whether you know it by this name or not you've probably seen it before. The basic structure is to start with an argument from nature (see how beautiful/complex/awesome this thing is) in order to persuade people that there is something more than the physical universe. The next step is to move away from nature and to a revelation (a book, a vision, an experience) to describe characteristics of that "something more."

The problem is that the "something more" could be Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a juvenile deity who created us as a forgotten plaything, or whatever. The movement from "something else" to "the God and father of our lord Jesus Christ" is a movement of faith. It's not a logical consequence. Giglio's last image (after all the astronomy1) was a depiction of the crucified Christ.

Even though it's a logical fallacy, it's actually quite a successful technique for converting people to a particular faith. But as they say, you should aim to win the person and not the argument.

1. The inclusion of an image of the X-structure at the core of the whirlpool galaxy was a crowd-pleaser but it reminded me of people who claim to see the face of Jesus in grilled cheese on toast.

Session 9: Phil Pringle

This was a very different session to the others. It wasn't preaching so much as it was an experience. Pringle called it New Oil on the basis that believers can be baptised in the Holy Spirit more than once. The point is to stay current with the move of God. Most of the session was spent in prayer and the experience of that baptism. 

Writing about this is tricky. It's a religious and mystical experience, one that is intensely personal. For me, I don't feel anything in these kinds of sessions. Other people claim to experience physical or emotional phenomena. 

I don't have these experiences but others do so I'll take Wittgenstein's advice and pass over it in silence.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Session 8: J John

The Canon preached his second sermon around the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:38-45), using an allegorical interpretation. 

1. Remove
Remove the stone from the tomb. The stone represents something in our lives that is a blockage to us leaving the tomb and having a resurrection experience. 
The stone must be removed by someone other than Jesus. Jesus could have removed it with a word. 

2. Respond
Jesus called specifically to Lazarus, not all the dead (c.f. John 5:28). Lazarus had to hear and take action in order to complete Jesus' command. Likewise today the Christian must take action to obey Christ's command. Any specific, personal command may have been given years ago but we may not yet have taken obedient action is response. 

3. Release
Christ sets us free but we can still be wearing grave clothes. In our freedom we must be sure to live in that freedom and not cling to past hurts, disappointments, etc

4. Reveal
Just as the people who saw this went on to testify (and their hearers also believed and went on to testify) so too must we testify to the work that Christ has done in us and in others.

What I like about this is the necessity for action on the part of the believer. Christ does not command us to feel good on the inside, but to take our inner transformation and do something with it. The actually existing individual only rises above the herd by this moment of subjectivity. Subjectivity is truth, as Kierkegaard said. 

The sternness of the delivery, though lost in this blog post, carried the message even better. The audience could not miss the intent that they were to stop living as the crippled beggar in the roadside, and to start living as the healed disciple of Christ. 

Friday, 25 April 2014


"Imitate me as I imitate Christ." 1 Corinthians 11:1
Christ made friends out of enemies. He didn't raise an army to accomplish his goals. 

"Blessed are the peacemakers." Matthew 5:9
Not the politicians who send their youth to war for petty disputes and nationalistic fervour.

"They shall learn war no more." Isaiah 2:4
Our commitment to a divine future begins now. Spend time learning about your neighbour and less time learning how to kill them.

"Love your neighbour as yourself." Matthew 22:39
And who is my neighbour? Can the Samaritan say that the Jew is not his neighbour? Can the free man say that the slave is not his neighbour?

This Anzac Day we need to use the occasion to rethink how we treat our enemies, how quick we are to pull the trigger, how keen we are to let loose the dogs of war. We need to rethink the governments that we put into power and give authority over declarations of war. 

I dream of a future with no war and I choose to be part of making that future part of the present. No war. Never again. Lest we forget the waste of life that is war. 

Session 7: Kong Hee

I missed sessions 5 and 6 but ended up at session 7. Kong Hee was the speaker and he spoke about the Holy Spirit as supported by his own story. 

The Holy Spirit is the paracletos, the one who comes alongside to advocate and help. 
The Holy Spirit speaks to people (Acts 13:22)
The Holy Spirit directs people (Acts 16:6)
The Holy Spirit testifies (Acts 20:22-22)
The Holy Spirit brings hope (Rom 15:13)

The sermon had the fundamentals of the Pentecostal teachings in the Holy Spirit. Nothing new or remarkable there. It made the assumption that the believer would recognise when an inner voice is genuinely divine and when it isn't. 

I'm especially interested in this because it was a central thematic question of my masters thesis. I compared Abraham's call to sacrifice Isaac against the claim by Christopher Lee McCuin who killed and cooked his girlfriend because God told him to. Being able to hear the authentic voice of God is crucial. Paul claimed his teaching was a divine revelation (Gal 1:11-12).

Hearing God is good. Recognising it as authentic is hard.


Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Session 4: J John

An Anglican amongst the C3 Pentecostals? Who would have thought it?

This was a reminder about four things. 
1. The book. 
The bible is a sacred text. We should treat it as such. We should find in it where we are and where we are going. It is a filter for the pollution of the world. 

2. The breath. 
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. It is the power of God to refine us. We must not grieve it, quench it, or resist it. 

3. The blood. 
The blood of Christ cleanses us from sin and heals us. It keeps the church alive and healthy. Christ's blood is precious., perpetual, powerful, and permanent. 

4. The bride. 
The bride is the church. Are we preparing it to meet Jesus the bridegroom? Are we saying nice things about her? Are we supporting her? Or are we putting spots and blemishes on her?
We cannot love Jesus without living the church. 
It is flawed but it is our family. 

Typical evangelical Anglican teaching here. It carried a mix of encouragement and warning. Special note goes to the idea of the church as the family, dysfunctional but ours. This is the community that Christ set up for us. God has always chosen flawed people to do holy work in the works. In the church we flawed people work together and accept each other. I almost get the sense of Rowan Williams in the background here, but then he wasn't the first to say these things about the divine community. 

Session 3a: Brian Houston

It seems that I've lost all my notes from this one. From what I remember...

People have dreams deep in their hearts about what they could do. 
Some dreams are outrageous. 
Some dreams are kept private, perhaps not even shared with spouses. 
The heart is where God starts working in us. 
We must protect our hearts so that our dreams are not crushed. 

So perhaps it's not fair to go too deeply into this, seeing as how I've lost my notes. My rudimentary thoughts are just two. 

I like the notion of having a mental picture of how we'd like things to be. It gives us direction. This is probably conventional wisdom, though.

The idea of dreams or aspirations deep in the heart is like a two-edged sword. It's something that people hold dearly and can be great motivation but it's also subject to the fickleness of human desire. Maybe this sermon has an unspoken label of "some discernment required" on it somewhere. 

Session 3b was a discussion panel with audience questions. I didn't think it was worth a blog post. 

Session 2: Chris Pringle

With a reputation for unstructured preaching, Chris Pringle had the second session. 

The whole sermon was titled, "Winter is gone." And that was the one point of the message. It was a riff on Songs chapter 2 and was an encouragement for people going through a difficult time, a winter. 

This is part of the larger biblical debate on hope and calamity. Some of the poetic and wisdom books suggest that faithfulness is rewarded with blessing. Some others remind us that faithfulness is no guarantee of blessing. Sermons like this one are encouraging for some people in their distress and based on the crowd reaction, some of those people were there. I'm not that kind of person so I'm happy to step aside and let the encouragement reach those who need it. 

Session 1: Phil Pringle

The first session was a welcome and tone-setting by Phil Pringle. He said it was going to be a ramble, not a precise sermon with clear points so that's how I listened to it. I'm going to summarise his points as concisely and accurately as I can. No straw men here.

1. Christians need the Holy Spirit to be able to live the Christian life. You have to live through Acts before you can live through the epistles.

2. We must pray for God's kingdom to come. We have to pray and then be the fulfilment of that prayer. When the sick are healed, the dead are raised, the prisoners set free, that's when the kingdom has come.

3. We can't turn disasters or sicknesses into objects of theological discussion. We should be weeping about it. Problems exist to be solved. They are opportunities for God to be seen. God's power is breakthrough in your life for you to have massive breakthrough. Power is to open the eyes of the blind, raise the dead, set the prisoner free.

Overall I think there's some good and bad in this one. Top of the pile goes to the comment about being the solution to our prayers. The kingdom comes when people take action to follow Jesus. Following Jesus is not just about bumper stickers or going to church on Sundays, it's about the lives we live. 

Right next to it comes the comment about evil in the world. Jesus told his disciples that evil is not necessarily anyone's fault, it's just there and God wants us to be part of the solution, regardless of whether the evil is man-made or natural. This taps into the larger theological debates on theodicy.

Where we disagree is in definition of power. Pringle interprets power as signs and wonders, and uses biblical texts out of context to support this. His use of 1 Cor 1&2 misses the sense in which Christ is power as social and community power. Christ is power to be indifferent to social hierarchies, to act beyond them with impunity.

I also think there's something deficient in the, almost narcissistic, notion that God's power is for your own personal breakthrough. I think this is half the story. God's power is for the transformation of the individual and the transformation of the world. Framing it as breakthrough or conquest gives it a spirit that doesn't come from the New Testament. Also (and this is anecdotal only) most stories I hear about people praying for breakthrough are first world problems. Most of the audience were first worlders, already with enough provision in our lives, but needing modesty in our consumption.

He made a couple of historical errors along the way but they didn't detract from his message.

That'll do for now. I really hope this is taken in the spirit it was intended: a genuine representation of what was said, an engagement with those ideas, and not a personal attack on anyone.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The next few posts

I said last week that I'd be at a conference this week. My next few posts will probably be in response to it. Rest assured that whatever I write won't be sycophancy or personal attack. I can't stand that sort of thing but I like a good engagement with a topic and critique of what's written or said. 

And if I don't write about what was said then I've totally disengaged with the speakers and read something from my Atheism for Lent studies while they were talking. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Many voices of atonement

Resurrection Sunday is a great trigger to think about the atonement. Although if I'm honest I think about the atonement more often than any other question in theology. I took a quick survey through the New Testament today to see what the various authors had to say about it. I've grouped these loosely.  

Synoptic Gospels and Acts
Salvation comes to those who believe in Jesus, who believe that Jesus is the Christ.

Fourth Gospel
Similar to the Synoptics, salvation is about believing in Jesus. 

Pauline Letters
Salvation is for those who declare Jesus as Lord and comes about by the believer vicariously following Jesus through death, out of the realm of law, into life. The path is crucifixion, not resurrection. Vicarious is not the same as substitution. 

This is the most convoluted. God makes Jesus perfect through suffering. Jesus becomes a priest in heaven. As priest Jesus offers a sacrifice of himself to sanctify believers.

Petrine Letters
Back to the gospels again, salvation comes by believing in Jesus. It is the resurrection that brings about the benefits of salvation and the resurrection is a gift. The believer is elected and needs to support their election with works. 

Being at one with God only happens when actions match faith, particularly with regard to compassion and care for the oppressed. 

Johannine Letters
By loving with divine love a person is united with God. 

People are saved by acknowledging that Jesus is Lord, by repentance, and then by a divine washing in Jesus' blood. 

Seems like there isn't a unified account here. They all look at it differently. One thing is for certain: there isn't any penal substitutionary atonement here. By having different perspectives we have an opportunity to discover it more fully. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

10 Reminders of our Brutal Universe

In the middle of all the busyness of life and the shiny happy messages coming from pulpits and TVs, I'm often shattered out of my reverie by things that remind me of the cold, brutal universe that we live in. Here are my top ten.

10. Clouds
They've been forming, moving, and dropping rain on the planet for billions of years. After I die they will keep doing it as though I never existed. Add to this item: oceans and old trees.

9. Sunrises
They look beautiful some days. But then I remember that one day the sun will go nova and completely obliterate our planet and all evidence that I ever existed. It's like a daily reminder of impending doom.

8. Sunsets
Just when I find my way home after a day at work I see the great fireball in the sky shining warmly back at me, biding its time until it's ready to strike. See #9.

7. Ecclesiastes 9:10
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going." Cheery.

6. Parasitic worms
These lovely creatures are doing the same thing we are. They look for food and shelter. Some of them don't have to look for mates to help the species along so they have one less item on their checklist. Still, their quest for survival in our bodies has no regard for us at all. Kind of like the way we humans have treated the planet.

5. Cancer
Even when human medical science has found solutions and preventions for so many ailments that took billions of us to the grave, the very reward of survival - to get old peacefully - comes with the ever-increasing risk of cancer. And if we ever cure cancer? What the hell is the killer after that?

4. Deep time
The universe is old. Very old. Older than the second-oldest thing ever. On the other hand, human civilisation is but a few thousand years old. We are teeny and tiny by comparison.

3. Chess
I like playing chess. I like the idea of playing chess. I am, however, terrible at chess. Why on earth do I enjoy something I'm so clearly bad at? How did the human psyche develop this feature?

2. Children
We allocate years of emotional effort into them. We love them and nurture them. And then they watch us die. Don't get me wrong; I love my kids even though they remind me of my own mortality.

1. Faith
Somehow we have the tendency to believe things to be true, even though we have no evidence to prove or disprove them. They are convictions deep in our minds of something beyond this world, but it's always something that stubbornly resists the very logic of proof. Faith itself is not always a comfort, but a reminder that there are some things that I will never know for sure.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

I am Judas

A meditation on Maundy Thursday.

I am a disciple of Jesus. I walk behind him in the parade as people shout praises and wave palm branches. I help organise the passover meal. I sit and remember the traditions of my people, and the way that Jesus has transformed them.

I am Peter. I refuse Jesus' offer to serve me by washing my feet, and then demand that he demean himself more by washing me all over. I don't understand what Jesus is doing. I've never really understood, but I still follow him

I am Judas. I share the cup with Jesus. I dip the bread with him. When he tells me to go quickly and do what must be done, I go. I take the thirty pieces of silver. I wait for the Pharisees to gather enough armed men to arrest Jesus.

I am a disciple of Jesus. When the meal is finished, I sing with Jesus. We go out into the night. Jesus tells us that we will desert him, that we will flee for our lives. But still, he takes us to a garden to pray. I cannot stay awake with him. He prays so earnestly. He prays more than I do.

I awaken to hear Jesus talking about men with clubs. There is a fight. Swords clash. I see Jesus heal his attacker.

I am Judas. I kiss my teacher on the cheek. He calls me his friend. We both know where he is going. I am the one who handed him over. I led his enemies to him in the darkness. He calls me his friend.

I am a disciple. I flee naked from the soldiers. I cannot even stand with my master when our enemies come with swords.

I watch them take Jesus away, hoping that they will only flog him, hoping that he will be spared the cross he always spoke about.

I am Peter. I deny Jesus once. I deny Jesus twice. I deny Jesus thrice. I am embarrassed of Jesus, and then embarrassed of myself.

I am a disciple, even today. I am all these disciples. I sing and pray and eat with Jesus. I demand from Jesus. I don't understand Jesus. I hand Jesus over to his enemies. I run away when trouble comes. In the darkest night, I abandon Jesus and pray that one day he will take me back as his disciple.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The presence of a witness

Just as a note to my earlier post (Can I get a witness?), I'll be going to the C3 Presence Conference next week.

This may come as a surprise to some of my regular readers.

(I'll wait a moment while you pick yourselves up from the floor.)

I'll probably tweet a bit through it, or blog a bit in the evenings. Maybe I'll meet a pentecostal theologian there. Let's hope so.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Can I get a witness?

I'm told that there are some actual, living, breathing, pentecostal theologians. I don't know any and by looking around my circles I don't know where to start.

I know several pentecostals who have "been to bible college" and after talking with them for a few minutes I get the sense that their bible college has a stunted academic rigour.

I know this sounds horribly condescending of me, but hear me out. I've met three kinds of people in bible colleges and seminaries.
1. People who are there to be told all the reasons why what their church believes is right. They only read Zondervan books and have a tendency to use the word "revelation" a lot. They come out of the student experience having learnt the apologetics of what they already knew.
2. Same as #1 but they give up in the first semester because of all the liberal garbage, and the amount of non-literal interpretations. They fail to get past the first time they hear, "Let's look at this text another way."
3. Similar to #1 or #2 but when they encounter a different point of view they take it seriously, engage with it, and whether they agree or not they have solid reasons for doing so; reasons other than upbringing or extant doctrine.

Who I'd like to meet is a #3. A real, genuine theologian who has engaged with biblical studies, theological studies, and philosophical studies. Someone who knows about Barth, Hegel, Aquinas, Origen (even if they haven't read them deeply) and who holds confessional belief in the Spirit as depicted in Acts.

I want to meet them because I don't understand them. I want to sit and listen, and argue, and debate.

So if that's you, let me know. I have ears ready to listen.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

amgsmith.net has been revitalised

If you're the curious sort of person who has clicked around this blog after reading a post then you may have found my personal page at amgsmith.net

After a lot of mucking about, I've redesigned it to trim the fat and just because I like the kind of mucking about that goes into making something new.

We now return you to your normal programming.