Postcards from Austria

theological scribbles from David Bunce, Baptist pastor and theologian

Author: David Bunce (page 2 of 7)

Postcards from elsewhere – 19 January 2016

This is the first instalment in a new series on this blog. Entitled Postcards from Elsewhere, it is a round-up of some of the links and articles I’ve been reading over the last week or so.

Primates gather

Last week saw the gathering of the Primates of the Anglican Church (an amusingly named body on some levels), during which there was a rebuke for The Episcopal Church due in part to their stance on same-sex marriage. The gathering generated a lot of chatter in the media – some article well informed, others much less so.

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Jude: building yourself up and standing in glory

The letter of Jude is a fascinating document. At only 25 verses long and nestled just between the letters of John and Revelation, it’s very easy to overlook. Even when it does get read, the myriad of illusions to other texts make it hard going for modern readers to access Jude’s argument. Yet there is some interesting stuff going on here, especially with regards to Christian living, both in its individual and corporate forms.

The letter is written to various churches, probably to encourage the early believers to ‘contend for the faith’ (v. 3) in the face of ‘certain intruders’ who had come into their congregations and had started teaching ‘licentiousness’ (v. 4). The issue seems to be one of antinomianism – because we are saved by grace alone, goes the argument, then the moral demands of the gospel and invitation into holiness are unimportant. Jude sees this as an teaching that ‘denies our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (v. 4).

I don’t want to dwell too much on this particular controversy, or its relationship to other questions in the church. That’s a question for another day. Instead, I find Jude’s advice (v. 20-23) to the believers in the churches fascinating and helpful to us in the 21st Century.

The call

First, he advises them, as those who are ‘beloved’ by the Father, to build themselves up in your most holy faith. I think this is a useful reminder. All too often in controversy, our first instinct is fight or flight – either to become big to intimidate our opponents, or to run away from someone else who is making themselves big. Jude reminds us to look first to ourselves and our standing before the Lord – neither rushing into a fight, nor rushing away in despair.

This is an act of the Spirit – pray in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God – not something that comes from ourselves or our own super spiritual muscles, but through the gracious work of the Spirit, taking our own prayers and making them complete and perfect.

This is a work of hope. We are to always look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. In the midst of difficult situations, especially in the church, hopelessness can seem to be the operating outlook on life. Emotions are running high, angry emails and texts sometimes get exchanged, people are stressed and tend to react. Jude encourages us all to look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus, to keep our eyes fixed on the King and his promise.

One of the things that I find really encouraging about the book of Acts is the way in which it shows the early church being built out of normal people, with normal problems and conflicts. It reminds us that the church has always been imperfect – we’re not to look with hope to our own perfection, nor with hopelessness at the all to obvious signs of our imperfection, but we are to look with hope at Jesus, who loves the church and makes it holy and perfect.

Finally, verse 22-23 has a helpful warning to those in the church (often elders and pastors) who have the challenge of responding to conflict. It reminds us that different people come from different places and need to be treated as individuals. The disturbed need to be comforted, the weak need to be shown grace and love and friendship – and the comforted need sometimes to be disturbed. Pastoral care is a work of wisdom that needs to see individuals and react to them as people – woe betide the church that tries to extract this into a one-size fits all model. That way very quickly ends up in the realm of spiritual abuse.

The hope

Finally, having presented the call to gracious but determined obedience, Jude presents the hope. Verses 24-5 are a prayer and a blessing. It is ultimately God who is ‘able to keep you from falling’ – another reason why in v. 21 we are called to look to the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our security isn’t found in our obedience, in our faith, in our prayers or even in our hope. It is found in our Lord, in his obedience and in his ability to keep us from falling.

Not just that, but it is he who will make us stand without blemish in the presence of his glory, who will make us rejoice. Spotless, perfect, pure and forgiven – and rejoicing. The image here is one of a wedding feast, coming into the presence of God’s very being – Bauckham notes the Old Testament background of ‘the jubilation of God’s people in the attainment of his purpose’. 1Richard Bauckham, Jude-2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1983), 122-3

Troubles and conflicts come and go. Sometimes they belong to deliberate mischief making, sometimes they belong to the nature of being a community of human beings trying together to be faithful. Jude tells us to keep the main thing the main thing, to keep focussed on Jesus, to react with kindness and grace to the individuals before us, and to look forward to the hope of all things made new. In the midst of our problems, we remember that it is not our job to fix everything – there is one who has already done that, and one day we will celebrate that!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Richard Bauckham, Jude-2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1983), 122-3

Divine and human freedom

Even here, we must affirm that those who draw near to this utterly Unique One are not enslaved but are rather freed. Even here, where we must speak only of Mystery, we must not overlook the fact that God’s radical Oneness is declared to liberated slaves. The ineffable Freedom of God does not erupt into the midst of a people chained, diminished, and enthralled by a despot god. We do not speak here – cannot speak here – of a human analogy to the divine liberty. That will have its own proper place. But even here we must affirm that those who draw near to this One can only lose the slavery that is the lot of human beings within nation and clan and empire. God’s radical Freedom is never without its effect in the world.

Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume 1: Doctrine of God, (Fortress Press, 2015), p. 29.

Christmas: what has Asgard to do with Bethlehem?

The gods of Asgard have played a larger role in my Christmas than normal, this year. The normal Christmas figures of Scrooge, the Muppets, Gavin and Stacey, and Dr Who have been joined by a cast of older, more powerful personalities: Thor, God of Thunder; Loki, the shape shifter, bent on discovery and mischief; the Great Wolf and the mighty sea snake that wraps her way around the globe.

The reason for this invasion of Nordic deities is two-fold. Partly, it comes from the fact that we watched Avengers: Assemble on Christmas Eve; partly, it is because I was reading A S Byatt’s wonderfully written Ragnarok on the plane back to the UK. The latter is a beautifully crafted retelling of the Norse myths, where Byatt takes us back into her first encounter with the stories as a thin child evacuated from London. Rich, evocative descriptions of Asgard, of the twin life-giving trees of the world Yggdrasil and Randrasill, of the death of Baldur – all these interplay with the young Byatt’s reaction to these legends.

The presence of so many norse Gods on Christmas Eve got me thinking again about the story of Christmas.

In Avengers, the gods are characterised by their strength and will to power, driven to succeed by the strength of their will and able to succeed by their superior strength. Loki, in league with the Frost Giants, is bent on domination of the world, convinced that the natural position of human beings is to kneel deferentially before an authority figure. Even when he is defeated and smashed into the floor by the Hulk, it is because of lacking strength on his part: Loki, says the Hulk, is a ‘puny god’.

Likewise Byatt tells us of her appropriation of the nordic legends as opposed to the mythical language of Christianity which she heard in Scripture class as a young girl. She describes how she rejected the ‘gentle Jesus’ of Christianity, which she saw as a far less compelling myth, in favour of the richer, much more mysterious, world of Asgard and the great deeds of the shadowy nordic gods. It’s true that the language and especially the liturgy of Christianity had an aesthetic impact on the young Byatt; the superior norse legends, however, had a raw power that drove her to imagine, to dream and to write. The Asgard of Byatt’s world is ultimately less characterised by a will to power as it is to a nihilism in the face of the inevitability of a Ragnarök (as an aside, she rejects what she sees the later christianized ending of a post-Ragnarök scene in some manuscript traditions as being less satisfying).

The two different retellings of the norse myths set me thinking again about the kind of story that we tell at Christmas. Rather than a Nietzschean will-to-power, at the centre of the Christian story (and here we want to gently push back at Byatt’s characterisation of the Christian faith as primary legend or myth, and instead use language of proclamation or event) is the coming of the eternal God as a helpless baby.

What does God look like? Well, according to the Christmas story, God looks like a baby who needs to be burped, have his nappy changed, to be taught to walk and talk, to be comforted when crying. This smallness and vulnerability isn’t imposed on him – as when Loki is temporarily captured by superior human force – rather it is at the centre of God’s movement towards human beings. God becomes human and limited, and it is all free grace and choice. The small baby grew up to suffer and die at the hands of the human beings he made, and defeated death by dying.

In Avengers, Loki comes to enslave and dominate human beings, to exploit their natural orientation as creatures who kneel in subservience. In Byatt’s retelling, the gods lack anthropomorphised psychologies, far too caught up in their own insecurities and worries to be concerned with the world of human beings. In the Christian story, God came in the form of a servant so that in the life of this human being all humanity may enter into its God-given status of being ‘crowned with glory and honour’ (Psalm 8).

This is how we approach Christmas: not with our ideas about how God should be like when he turns up, powerful and demanding passive obedience. Instead, we approach in wonder and awe at the miracle of a small baby, the ultimate gift of God to humanity.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Christmas carols and Syrian bombs

I am spending this morning preparing for an advent sermon, listening to a variety of Christmas carols on Spotify. At the same time, David Cameron is trying to build a coalition within the Houses of Parliament in favour of joining in the bombing of Syria, and Jeremy Corbyn is trying to persuade the Shadow Cabinet to vote against such a decision.

In a sense, the two world feel very far away from each other. I am only ever half in-touch with political developments back at home, and life in Austria has enough intrigue and problems to be getting on with. However, I was struck this morning by the juxtaposition between the two activities.

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Matthew Henry on David’s appearance

I am currently preparing for an advent sermon on the coming of King Jesus, and am using 1 Samuel 16 as a starter text, looking at the hopes and expectations for the king in Israel’s history.

Whilst reading around on this text, I chanced across Matthew Henry’s commentary on David’s appearance, which I thought I’d share here. Henry has some truly wonderful prose at times in his commentary and this (whilst quite quaint by modern standards) is a good example of it.

What appearance he made when he did come. No notice is taken of his clothing. No doubt that was according to his employment, mean and coarse, as shepherds’ coats commonly are, and he did not change his clothes as Joseph did (Gen. 41:14 ), but he had a very honest look, not stately, as Saul’s, but sweet and lovely: He was ruddy, of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to (v. 12), that is, he had a clear complexion, a good eye, and a lovely face; the features were extraordinary, and there was something in his looks that was very charming. Though he was so far from using any art to help his beauty that his employment exposed it to the sun and wind, yet nature kept its own, and, by the sweetness of his aspect, gave manifest indications of an amiable temper and disposition of mind. Perhaps his modest blush, when he was brought before Samuel, and received by him with surprising respect, made him look much the handsomer.

I think passages such as this underline the importance of consulting older commentaries.

Critical commentaries that work in depth with the text, historical background and exegetical history are essential. But so are older commentaries – when we read Calvin, Spurgeon, Augustine or Henry (or hundreds of others), we are hearing how God addressed earlier generations of the Church through his divine Word.

We shouldn’t take this uncritically (in the same was as we should weigh the words of a sermon), but neither should we presume to read scripture in a vacuum devoid of the witness of the tradition. Older commentaries often have a more helpful view of scripture as divine communication rather than mere text, and an aesthetic engagement with scripture which isn’t often possible in commentaries written for the modern academy.

The glory of God in Isaiah 40

At a recent Austrian Baptist pastors’ retreat, we did a Bible study on Isaiah 40. It was good to spend a couple of hours looking at the text together and waiting on God to speak. One of the verses that jumped out at me was verse 4: “then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together”.

Two thoughts came to mind immediately with this verse. The first was the inevitable strains of a choir chanting these words in the opening section of Handel’s Messiah (it’s very nearly December, which means it’s very nearly time for the Messiah to be played constantly in the background whilst I work).

The second thing that came to mind was a generic concept of what it might mean for the glory of God to be revealed. I think we live in a culture where we expect this to be some major ‘wow-moment’ of power and awe. Perhaps it would be an act of great power where we see visions. Or perhaps it would be a vision of God surrounded by ranks and ranks of angels. At any rate, I think we expect the revealing of the glory of God to rival anything that we see on TV.

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Schreiner on the Temple: not merely individuals

Still on the subject of temple imagery in preparation for 1 Corinthians 3, I like this big-picture quote from Thomas Schreiner.

The temple theme confirms that the Lord did not merely come to save individuals. He desired to reflect his glory through a corporate people, through the church of Jesus Christ, as the church enjoys the beauty and joy of God’s presence, as they see and know the King in his beauty

Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2013), 574.

The temple and the church’s mission in 1 Corinthians 3

I am preparing for preaching on 1 Corinthians 3 and the imagery of the garden temple as part of our sermon series entitled “God Makes Room”. I have been fascinated with the way that the image of the temple is used in this passage (and more consistently throughout 1 Corinthians) as a description of the church.

Paul seeks to use this imagery to remind the Corinthians who they are – don’t you know that, as the church, you are the place where the Holy God dwells on earth. You are a foretaste of the New Jerusalem, the time when the glory of God will cover the whole earth and there will no longer be a Temple! Therefore, don’t you think that this should affect the way you behave?

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I’m now ordained!

On 1 November 2015 I was ordained as a pastor in the Austrian Baptist Union and part of the fantastic pastoral team in Project:Church. My main focus in this pastoral role will be on church development, church planting and helping get projects off the ground. Obviously, this will also include the normal pastoral care, preaching, service leading and leadership roles that come along with any pastoral position.

Andrea Klimt preached stunningly on 2 Corinthians 4 (“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord…”) on death in the midst of life, life in the midst of death, the pastoral call and gospel treasures in jars of clay. Dina Horne and Carina Lisa led us in a beautiful communion and Silvia with the music.

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