to ponder:

To think, reflect, consider, contemplate, mull, weigh, ruminate, deliberate, meditate about something, to weigh in the mind

with thoroughness and care(fully)

for a long time

especially before making or reaching a decision or a conclusion

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Faith of the Bible and our New Zealand Cultural Context: The Dove and the Olive Branch

(This is a talk I gave at a conference last week entitled “Kiwi Christianity: The People, The Land and the Kingdom of God”. The conference was framed as “Let’s together explore our New Zealand heritage, our identity, our future in Christ and our unique call to God’s Kingdom.” It was primarily concerned with recovering the story of the gospel in New Zealand, particularly the story of gospel and missionary witness among Maori, perspectives of local Christian Maori on the church and mission in our city, stories of churches wrestling with the bicultural journey and the unique possibilities and challenges in the New Zealand context. Half of the speakers were Maori. The opening speaker was Keith Newman author and passionate advocate for telling the story of mission in New Zealand particularly Maori mission to Maori. I was asked to provide some theological input).

I have been asked to bring some theological reflection on the issues we are considering today.  There are many theological themes that we could consider – things like land, culture, justice, and peace. However I want to approach this at a different level. As we consider issues of Maori culture, New Zealand history, the Treaty of Waitangi, tino rangatiratanga and biculturalism, this raises the big picture question of what are we doing theologically when we do this, why do we do this and how should we think about the overall relationship between the faith of the Bible “once delivered” and local culture and place?

I want to suggest an image from the Bible that helps portray the theology behind such an engagement with culture, history and land - the image of the Dove and the Olive Branch

This is an almost universally recognised image of reconciliation, restoration, peace, hope and new beginnings. The picture embodies the coming together of two elements: the dove and the olive branch. Now good theology normally involves holding in tension two truths. Error normally comes from taking one part of the truth out of balance. 

This image of the dove and the olive branch is a symbol that can illustrate the coming together of two different elements of a theology of God’s presence in our world and it is precisely at the point of intersection of these two elements that we find real power, truth and life.

The image comes from the story of Noah, shown below:

Back to the central image though – how should we think about these two elements?

Now it is normal to consider the dove as the symbol of the Holy Spirit but I want to suggest both elements are representative of the work of God and thus of the Holy Spirit’s work in our world. They represent different dimensions of the work of God in our world and it is when those two meet that something special occurs.

You see the budding branch is also a symbol of God’s life giving Spirit at work.

In the story behind the image of the dove and the olive branch, this was not a miraculous budding of a cut branch but the budding of new life out of the soil of that place – but still the lifegiving work of God.

I had always assumed that the dove found some fresh new shoots coming out of the ground. However I discovered that older Jewish commentators assumed this was fresh budding from old olive trees that survived the inundation of the flood. Olive trees are renowned for being ancient, hardy and resilient. The sign of life was that the ancient tree was budding again. Below is a picture of a Mediterranean olive tree purported to be 1500 years old.

So I want to suggest these two elements are two poles of a theology of God at work in our world. Yes the dove as from above, from the hand of the father. But also the ancient olive tree, battered and bruised, but earthed in the soil of the land and still standing after all the calamity, now budding again with new life – that is a great picture of spirituality emerging from the people of this land and in particular Christian life among Maori. 

Now I am not claiming that what I am saying is the intended message of this passage. I am saying it is a good picture or metaphor that can communicate simply quite profound theological truths.

I might also dare to hope that the story might be prophetic about where we find ourselves standing. The story actually has three comings of the dove:

If we think of these two elements as two dimensions of God at work in our world, then I  want to suggest the dove has in our recent past found nowhere to land but been left hovering. I hope the dove might be finding in meetings precisely like this one signs of the budding of the ancient olive trees of this land. My hope is that soon the dove might find a resting place in the land as we discover what it means to live at the intersection of these two ways God is at work in our land.

In terms of theology this is the tension of general revelation and special revelation. Special revelation is the story of the nation of Israel, reaching its defining moment in the death and resurrection of Jesus, as recorded in Scripture – the record of a particular story to a particular people in a particular place and time. However Scripture also affirms general revelation: God’s truth revealed to all people at all places in all times. Good theology should hold these two together.

Evangelical and Charismatics have tended to be strong on special revelation and have a weak theology of general revelation.  This is similar to another tension between creation and redemption. Again evangelicals and charismatics tend to have a strong theology of redemption and a weak theology of creation.

It is also the tension between the immanent presence of God in our world and the transcendent presence of God from above.

There is a parallel in our theology of the person of Jesus. An orthodox theology holds together claims that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Orthodox theology is traditionally preoccupied with defending the fully divine side of the tension (against for example the Arian heresy). However it is also possible to be in error on the other side and let go of the full humanity of Jesus. This heresy is Docetism from the Greek word dokeo, “it seems”, meaning Jesus only seemed to be human.

This is the Jesus who floated six inches off the earth. In the language of the dove, and the olive branch, the dove was never allowed to fully land.

I would suggest that in Evangelical/ Charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity in New Zealand we have been enraptured with the hovering dove. And it is beautiful! Who would not desire this? 

But we have not let the dove land on the sprouting life of God within our culture.

I want to give three examples of the dove landing.

The first is Don Richardson. He was a missionary in what is now called Irian Jaya. 

In his early books he records stunning examples of truths he found within these cultures that provided landing points (analogies and points of contact) for the story of God’s special revelation in Christ. You see what may sound radical in a New Zealand context is actually just taken as a given in cross-cultural mission. It is not radical theology but normal cross-cultural mission practice. When we were missionaries there was a saying that the missionary does not take God to the people, but rather God calls the missionary to the people and God was there first. That’s just good theology holding together general and special revelation. 

Later Don Richardson wrote a more historical and biblical reflection on the principles behind such encounters, called “Eternity in Their Hearts”. He gives examples from the history of non-Christian people groups who had a knowledge of God and of times where missionaries either missed their opportunity or accelerated their mission by appropriately connecting with culture e.g. choosing (or not) the right name for God within the culture so that people said “Oh you have come with a message about this God whom we know of, rather than being perceived as bringing a message about a foreign God”. He also illustrates his principles from Scripture. 

Don Richardson discusses what he calls the Melchizedek factor and the Abraham factor.
This comes from the story in Genesis 14 shown below:

Here the person of God Abraham encounters this mysterious figure Melchizedek. Because of how he is dealt with in Hebrews it is often assumed he is some kind of theophany or pre-incarnate Christ. The other option is that he actually is a pagan king and priest. In which case there is a curious encounter where the great father of biblical faith acknowledges this priest and king, receives a blessing from him, gives an offering to him and above all uses the name of God that this pagan uses. I don’t want to explore this today but Richardson contrasts this attitude with Abraham’s response to the other pagan king the king of Sodom – Abraham will have nothing to do with him. These two responses represent two possible stances towards other cultures and actually two streams within Scripture. Evangelicals and Charismatics are so deeply immersed in the second stream, that we are largely blind to this other way of relating to culture, this other stream within Scripture. What is significant is this is more than just adopting cultural forms but actually connecting with the knowledge of God and the work of God found there. The balance is obviously a discerning engagement but unpacking that is probably for another time in New Zealand. The immediate challenge is to acknowledge the alternative Biblical model of a positive engagement with the revelation and presence of God in and through culture– the dove lands on the olive branch of God’s revelation in culture.

This can be illustrated by Moses and his relationship with his father-in-law, Jethro, a pagan priest. We know the Moses who denounces foreign religion but we do not know the Moses who will worship with this pagan priest, and receive his advice:

The climactic and humorous example is of the conversion of Cornelius. Notice it is the pagan who has the angel appear to him, whose spirituality is affirmed but who then is told he needs to hear the story of special revelation from Peter. It is Peter who needs the radical encounter with God to convert him -  to the fact that God is at work among gentiles. But (and as I have said good theology is about the tension or balance) the Holy Spirit falling still depends on the witness of Peter. It is a curious interplay of general and special revelation!

This positive attitude to culture is not just illustrated by Scripture but deeply engrained in the Judeo-Christian attitude to Scripture as a whole. You see Jews and Christians have always translated Scripture. This contrasts with an Islamic theology of revelation where the Qur’an is deeply honoured as the very words of Allah in Arabic and cannot be translated but only interpreted in another language. In contrast the Jews translated their Scriptures from Hebrew to Greek. As soon as you do that you have to use words of that language and words have a context and a story and a worldview… and according to Jews and Christians that is ok, it is legitimate; in fact it is necessary. So YHWH can be announced as theos (just a note Richardson again here notes the discernment required – Christians felt they could use the concept of theos but not Zeus). Now what this means is that the gospel is announced as “this theos you have known of we now tell you of his revelation in Jesus Christ.” There is contact -  the dove and the olive branch meet, gospel and culture, special revelation and general revelation.

The second brief example is Chuck Smith who died recently but was involved through Calvary Chapel is a move of God in the Jesus Movement of the 60s and 70s. 

The thing that strikes me is that this was not about the church trying to be relevant and trendy. Rather this was about a move where hippies came to Jesus and just as they sat naturally around singing folk songs with guitars now they naturally sang folk music to Jesus … and so was born contemporary Christian music.


A move of God happened where culture met gospel, where the dove was loosed to alight on what sprang up among the people.

The third example is from the life of Jesus. The baptism of Jesus is surely one of the most perplexing stories of the gospels. 

Note the appearance of the dove again, and specifically as the Holy Spirit. However Jesus had been born of the Spirit so like the dove and the olive branch both elements represent the work of God and of the Holy Spirit and it is the intersection that matters.

Matthew in particular brings out the perplexity of the story:

The perplexity is because baptism was about identifying with sin and repentance. Jesus was precisely the one person who did not need to be baptised but he choose to. Why?

Much of the art representing Jesus’ baptism focuses on the private revelation of his identity as below:

I love this contrasting picture that shows Jesus in the midst of crowds of people: 

Because the essence of his baptism was an act of identification with his people.

The point is that it is precisely at the moment of identification with his people, their story, their plight, their brokenness, and their hopes, that the dove comes and Jesus is propelled into a great move of God among his people. I wonder if today what God is looking for is such an identification, the trigger for a move of God as not so much a call for the falling of the dove but a radical act of identification with our people and land.


I presented this talk twice at the recent conference on “Kiwi Christianity: the People, the Land and the Kingdom of God” in Christchurch, hosted by New Wine NZ and North City Church. At the end of my talk I shared how apprehensive I had been about sharing at this conference precisely because I felt I was a living parable of what the church was doing wrong! I had felt deeply connected to land and place in Taranaki where I grew up. I knew the walkways, beaches, parks and monuments. I knew the local history. As adults, my wife and I had been missionaries. We had entered into the culture, language and worldview of Asian urban poor squatters and then of a Muslim people group. We had learned to express our faith from within their world and thinking and language. Fifteen years ago we moved to Christchurch and I have often said to my wife I felt like I hit the ground running and never really connected with this place – I was like the dove that never landed. I shared this at the end of my talk. I also shared that as I sat waiting for the second day to begin I was aware of those around me: Keith Newman, author of “Bible and Treaty” and “Beyond Betrayal”; Ngaire Button former deputy mayor of Christchurch of Maori decent; Donald Scott pastor and champion of the journey towards indigineity of expression; Daryl Gregory our cultural advisor at Laidlaw College. As I sat there I heard a voice whisper in my spirit “You have come home”. It was very emotional sharing this. Our Maori cultural advisor, Daryl Gregory was the next speaker. He spontaneously invited local Maori to gather around me to pray and welcome me home. It was one of those powerful moments where you say I am not sure what just happened there but it was really significant. I know it was significant for me but I think it was also a prophetic act about the dove landing.

Later that day two kaumatua of Southwest Baptist church shared about the journey of their church developing a kowhaiwhai panel for the front of their church that represented the story of their church. They spoke of the powerful service when this was unveiled. The service involved a singing of the Dave Dobbyn’s song, “Welcome Home” – bridging into a welcome call from a Maori woman. When they talked about this service they used similar language - of something powerful happening that was hard to put into words but shown in many tears and in people saying they had never really felt at home until then.

There seems to be something powerful in tangata whenua welcoming others home to this place. There is a restlessness in the souls of tangata whenua and of pakeha that seems to be released when tangata whenua are given the mana of welcoming visitors to their place and pakeha are given the dignity of being received -  the dove lands not on the ancient Mediterranean olive tree but on the totara or the kauri of this land. And maybe it is not the form of a dove that lands but it is a native pigeon or kereru that lands and  - finally - finds a place to rest.  

May God bless you as discover the dove who seeks the budding olive branch.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

An Open Letter to Bishop Victoria

(This was published in the Christchurch Press today - the context is the strong reaction to the announcement that the Anglican Cathedral is to be deconstructed rather than repaired)

What a year we have had! And as you observed it is likely that in many ways this second year is going to be even harder. It has certainly been a rough start to the year for you.

Now I obviously don’t know anything about the process that occurred to bring you to the decision to demolish the Cathedral. I imagine that was a really complex and difficult decision. I assume it was not clear cut but involved a massive judgement call. It has certainly provoked strong reactions. It seems to me that it has also brought to light very different assumptions about the role of the Cathedral in the city. Some see it as a civic icon, treasured by the city, to be preserved at all costs - it is on our logo for goodness sake! - and now really only Anglican in some incidental, kind of custodial way. How dare you not fix OUR Cathedral! Others see it as the functioning seat of the Anglican bishop, owned by the Anglicans and yes we loved it and we are sad it is gone but while acknowledging its civic role in our city, you need to decide what is best for your wider church.

At this time, as a non-Anglican but fellow Christian minister in the city, there are a few things I would want to say to you:

In my family like so many others the dominant thought after the earthquake was thank God we are all alive and safe. Our home was damaged and no longer feels quite like a secure home, four generations were camped out in our son’s flat but we were alive. It’s only a small thing in the bigger picture but my mother who lives with us lost wedding presents from 50 years ago and my wife lost the present her parents gave to her for her 21st birthday over twenty five years ago. I was upset for them but I was surprised when they said it didn’t really matter because bottom-line our family was together – including our precious little three week old granddaughter who lives with us and who could so easily have been hurt in the earthquake. One of the great lessons of the earthquake was that bottom-line it is people who matter. That wise old Maori saying: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

Now somewhat parallel to that, post-earthquake many of us got to see what the church really is – networks of local communities committed to loving and serving our city. Politicians and emergency services will know the role that the church as community played. Grace Vineyard Church hosting a distribution centre in New Brighton, Parklands Baptist, Hornby Presbyterian, Spreydon Baptist, St Albans Baptist, Arise Church, the list goes on. This was the church not as historic buildings but as living communities of literally thousands of active participants. That church is so often invisible to media and politicians. Along with the student army and the “farmy army”, I would suspect that it was church based organisations and volunteers who provided a significant organised non-government response. The church as ‘people’ had leadership structures and experience, communication networks, systems of care and thousands of volunteers ready to help. This was the church not as relic of a bygone age but communities of average Cantabrians for whom Christian faith and community is important and service to the wider community is a key value. That is the church I believe in, love and serve. Bishop, we need that Anglican church to be strong in the coming days.

I think the other church leaders of the city understand that you are a shepherd for the whole diocese. You are responsible for the health, and strength and comfort and development of the whole diocese. And just in terms of buildings I hear that means you are responsible for something like 24 church communities that have lost their buildings. The cathedral is one building, granted in one sense the chief building of your diocese, but it is actually only one factor in the big picture that you are responsible for. In practical terms how much time, energy and money goes into that one building compared to the other 23 parishes that have lost buildings? You are responsible for developing a strategic plan for the whole.
But it seems that many people don’t seem to understand that even beyond those twenty-four buildings, the Anglican diocese is actually the people that make up your parishes. You are a shepherd of those people and those communities. And you are responsible to love them, care for them and to think strategically about their future well-being as a whole.

It is ironic that those of us who love those buildings the most and use them the most, actually love something more. We know that theologically ‘church’ is not the building but the communities of people who use those buildings. We believe passionately that it is important that those communities survive, and are strengthened and grow. We have given our lives to serve those communities.

I think we do need a great symbol of hope back in the centre of our city, a symbol of the city rising from the rubble again, a symbol I dare to believe that people might come from all around the world to see. And your diocese needs a cathedral. So we look forward to hearing your plans for that site and your cathedral. And in our post-Christendom and post-modern world that is an interesting contested place in the city square. But contrary to those who would celebrate the building as a monument to an ancient faith now a relic or memorial, we would say please ensure that the real Anglican church - your tens of thousands of members who gather in over seventy parishes in your diocese -  that they find life, joy, comfort, challenge and opportunities to serve the rebuilding of our city. Bishop you have not failed the city if one iconic building falls rather you have served the city if the Anglican communion rises strong in hope and confidence to contribute to the future of our city.

What is really important to the Anglican church in Christchurch, to the churches of Christchurch, and to the city of Christchurch? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. Those people do need a beautiful city with beautiful architecture and historical connection but much more than that they need your leadership and care to create a hopeful future.

Kia kaha, Bishop.

All the best. Thinking of you. Praying for you. Grateful, Victoria, that you are in this role at this time

Rev Steve Graham

Thursday, December 1, 2011

God’s Call to the Churches of Christchurch in this Moment

This is the short version slightly revised of a ten minute talk to church leaders. The long version is the previous blog

I.                The Trinity as a way of thinking about the unity of the churches in the city: mutuality in particularity

In visiting different churches this year I had one of those “aha” moments when I walked into a church and suddenly saw that while it had its own particular form actually it had the same underlying reality as the other churches I had visited. I searched for the language to name that and found it in the language of the Trinity. This must have been what happened for the early church. They knew God and then in the particular person of Jesus they realised they were encountering the same underlying reality. It took a few hundred years to pin down how to name that – the language of three particular persons and one shared being. Even there, there is divergence because in the West the emphasis was on the one with different parts, whereas in the East the emphasis was on the three particularities and their relating together in loving mutuality. To summarise, in the particular persons of the Trinity we realise we encounter the same underlying being of God (same shared substance: the Latin terms is con-substantiality) and then the unity is thought of more as particular persons maintaining their particularity but in mutual loving relationship (Eastern social trinity) rather than as a flat unified oneness (Western model) - mutuality in our particularity.

Now apply that to life: When we relate we tend to either go to Fusion/Enmeshment where the two are combined and there is a loss of individual identity or we have Isolation/Detachment where individual identity is preserved but at the loss of community and relationship.  Relationality is the capacity to be distinct or separate in my particularity but connected with the other in their particularity.

Now apply that to the churches of the city: In the New Testament “Church” exists in its concrete particularity and we are called to build particular churches/ congregations/ parishes (1 Cor 3:10-16).  But then we model relations of loving mutuality. And our witness to God is the mutual relating of the particular churches, characterised by: Full equality, Glad submission, Joyful intimacy, Mutual deference. The foundation is loving respect for the ‘other’ as an expression of the same underlying reality as I have.

II.             Relating as family

This model is extended to seeing the churches of the city as an extended family of separate but relating nuclear families. At my stage of life my wife’s and my siblings each have their own families so extended family is about relating to the particularity of individual nuclear families. That is a good model for churches in the city. Each is a relational network in its own right but then we connect together. A practical step for me is that when I relate to another church, I try to not just connect with the pastor but to identify the key leadership team and establish at least a minimal connection with each part of their core relational system.

III.           Synergy and momentum through networks

The early Church was a highly networked movement. We can see this in the little bits of Paul’s letters that we usually don’t notice:
  • ·         Romans 16: Paul knows 28 individuals in the church in Rome, a city he has never visited and is several months travel away. This happens because there was a lot of movement of people back and forth between churches
  • ·         Paul’s cowriters: Paul models relationship in that seven of his letters are written with co-authors (Imagine statements issued by 3 or 4 key Christchurch church leaders).
  • ·         Paul’s co-workers: here we get a picture of a highly networked movement with people regularly being sent back and forth between churches. Five times Paul records sending someone to another church (Eph 6:22). He also notes where churches had sent people to him as he worked in a church(Eph 4:22). Paul is thinking strategically of strengthening the network of churches, not just one church, and allocates resources and builds connections accordingly.
A New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham states: “Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the early Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other”

Imagine if we could say this of the churches of Christchurch: Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the Christchurch Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other”

That last part is challenging: in constant, close communication (while maintaining their particularity and working to build each individual church). A third way between isolation and fusion.

Another New Testament scholar compares the early church to a holy internet eg Romans roads as paths of communication.  He considers the “archives of information”: “The network ‘servers’ of the holy internet were the churches” and he notes the importance of “hubs”: Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome. These functioned as hubs for the surrounding areas. Paul seems to have focused on establishing new hubs of the network which then networked into the surrounding areas. Now there is a thought of strategic importance! How do we foster hubs of ministry and mission within Christchurch? Geographical hubs, denominational hubs, hubs of relational networks, hubs specialist or focused ministries?

Thompson also considers the kind of information travelling on the “internet”: News about churches, mutual encouragement, participation in needs, sharing of resources, offering/delivery of assistance, practices/positions taken/responses to issues, and I would add intercessory prayer; requests and information for prayer.

I can see at least four main models of combined momentum: 
  • Smaller churches get in the slipstream of larger churches but without losing their identity and particularity; 
  • Smaller churches hold combined events to generate a sense of being part of something bigger – whether geographical or denominational or relational groupings; 
  • Specialist, expert ministries or people (such as Canterbury Youth Services or Society of Salt and Light) create excellent events for other churches but in a way that propels the individual churches forward rather than amalgamating them in a new reality; 
  • Various levels of combined operation: e.g. new shared facilities, actually combining groups but realising a new particularity is created.

IV.                Preoccupation with the Lost

In Revelation Christ sends letters to the churches. If Christ was to address the churches of Christchurch I believe he would say “I love your heart for the lost.”

The language of the “lost” is a term that comes from Jesus and it is important to see how he used it. Bottom-line it refers to the Father’s perspective that some people are lost to relationship with him. It is found in Luke 15, a chapter of three related parables: The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The Father’s heart is for those lost to explicit conscious relationship with him so we reflect his heart when our heart is for the lost

John Nolland (2002)in the Word Biblical Commentary introduces the section on Luke 15 with the following: “The section 15:1–32 defends and commends preoccupation with the lost, and overflowing joy at their restoration. We all respond this way with what is our own, and this attitude corresponds to the concerns of a father’s heart for his own children, each one of whom is singularly precious in his sight.”

What would it mean for our networking in loving mutuality to be preoccupied with the lost and for the cause of mission?

II.             Conclusion

Let’s find unity in our particularity in ways that build momentum for the cause of the gospel and the sake of the lost.

Questions for small group discussion:
1.      The Trinity as a way of thinking about the churches of the city

a.      What would it mean to recognise the “consubstantiality” of other churches in the city – in their particularity they share in the same underlying reality as you! eg. Fervent prayer for their success? Respect, public honour of other churches? Championing the success of multiple churches and networks in the city? Encouragement of other leaders? Receiving input from other churches?

b.      In what ways does relating in our particularity highlight some different ways of expressing unity and mutuality in the city? Eg recognising different strengths of churches, combined events as not lowest common denominator compromise but celebration of diversity? What new ways of expressing unity as mutuality can you see?

2.      Relating as family

How can we increase the sense of an extended family of particular nuclear families relating e.g. get to know leadership teams of other churches, pray for church leaders, give towards other churches?

3.      The church as highly networked

a.      Imagine if we could say this of the churches of Christchurch: Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the Christchurch Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other.” What evidence could we start producing for the city and the churches of the nation to see of this network of communities in constant, close communication with each other in Christchurch?

b.     Paul seems to have focused on establishing new hubs of the network which then networked into the surrounding areas. Now there is a thought of strategic importance!  How do we foster hubs of ministry and mission within Christchurch? Geographical hubs, denominational hubs, hubs of relational networks, hubs specialist or focused ministries? What different networks or hubs could be foster?

c.      What models can you see of networking: larger churches in relationship with smaller churches? Smaller churches creating momentum together?   Specialist ministries/people/events that add momentum? Creating shared life and new particularities?

4.      A focus/preoccupation on the lost

How will our relating be preoccupied with the Father’s preoccupation with the “lost” of the city (those not connected with God/church)? How do we connect together for this? What could we do?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

God’s Call to the Churches of Christchurch in this Moment: From... To...

(Here is the LONG version of a talk I gave to Church leaders back in September)

This is a time of significant shifts for the churches of Christchurch. The old status quo had been ripped apart and there is a sense that we do not just want to rebuild what was. I want to talk about four shifts (well three and a half really) that I see happening.

(These involve some big words – don’t worry about them when you see them - I will explain them in the section following. Also the points move from the most abstract theology to historical descriptions of the New Testament church to tracing a biblical theme throughout Scripture so hopefully it becomes simpler, more concrete and down to earth. If point one is too heavy go to point three)

I.                From Cooperation to Consubstantiality: Unity with Particularity

In the weeks between the February and June shakes I spoke at about 16 different congregations around Christchurch. At about week 10 I had one of those “aha” moments when walking into a church I saw that this was the same spiritual reality I had walked into every other week but that it took on a particular form there in that church – there was community, leadership, gifts but in a particular form there. I struggled for language to express that until I stumbled on the language of the Trinity.  This experience must parallel what the early church experienced with Jesus. They must have said we know God and in this person Jesus we sense that are encountering the reality of God again but in a different particular form. Ultimately that led to the language of Trinity: One God in Three Persons. This was expressed in Greek as one “ousia” (being/essence) in three “hypostases” (independent realities/concrete particularity).  The church father Tertulllian expressed the Greek idea of Homoousis (one being) in Latin as Consubstantiality – shared substance. The Greek possibly has a more dynamic idea – being verbal – I am encountering the same underlying way of being in three particular expressions rather than some generic ‘substance’.

I want to suggest that this is a helpful way to think about the churches in the city. We have such a clear sense of a citywide task. We also have a clear sense that no one church can do it alone – we need each other. How do we understand that one church in the city? The first step is to really see that this “other” church is a particular expression of the same shared substance that I love in my church! Shared underlying reality – both the spirit filled people of God. How do we express this? The older way is to seek organisational unity, often around a lowest common denominator approach, where we sacrifice our distinctives so as not to offend anyone. I want to suggest that an understanding of the Trinity provides another way of thinking about our unity in the city – more in terms of mutuality in our particularity, relating in genuine love of the other, and the fact of particular expressions relating in loving mutuality is what constitutes the whole and bears witness to God. Let me explain.

In brief there have been two traditions of thought about the Trinity. In the West the emphasis was on the One, represented by Augustine. Analogies for the Trinity were then psychological i.e. different elements of one’s person psyche (memory/intellect/will) and the focus was on the underlying essential being. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the emphasis was on the Three, represented by the Cappadocians  fathers. The main analogies were Social or relational i.e. persons in communion. The focus was on personhood (hypostasis) and persons in relation. This is represented in Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity.

This has massive implications for how we think about life, being, relationships and I would say church.

It has been applied in terms of thinking about relationships. When we relate we tend to either go to Fusion/Enmeshment where the two are combined and there is a loss of individual identity or we have Isolation/Detachment where individual identity is preserved but at the loss of community and relationship.  Relationality is the capacity to be distinct or separate in my particularity but connected/ in communion/ intimate/ empathetic with the other in their particularity. Indeed I am only fully a person as I am in relationship. If the trinity is really the ultimate foundation of reality then ultimate being is not some abstract substance but as Persons in communion.

Colin Gunton in the Promise of Trinitarian Theology says:

                "An account of relationality that gives due weight to both one and many, to both particular and universal, to both otherness and relation, is to be derived from the one place where they can satisfactorily be based, a conception of God who is both one and three, whose being consists in a relationality that derives from the otherness-in-relation of the Father, Son and Spirit."

In terms of application to churches relating together Gunton goes on to say:

The being of the church should echo the dynamic of the relations between the three persons who together constitute the deity”(80)

The churches of Christchurch relating together in their particularity is what constitutes the presence of Gods people in the city and our effective witness in and to the city.

Miroslav Volf has explored this in his book After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Gunton says we are called to echo this relationality, Volf that we are called to image it.

This raises the whole challenge of how we think of church - do we think of it as some abstract ideal or as particular local actual realisations or manifestations.

Biblical scholars who analyse the use of the term church in Paul show that he saw it as actual particular, concrete local expressions.

Peter O’Brien in his article on “Church” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters says:
  The term is employed in the same way as in Greek and Jewish circles, that is, like other assemblies (ekklēsiai) in the city, it is described as “a gathering of the Thessalonians”…
  Other instances of ekklēsia (singular) and ekklēsiai (plural) in Paul’s letters also denote a local assembly or gathering of Christians in a particular place: it is thus not a metaphor, but a term descriptive of an identifiable object. In the two Thessalonian letters reference is made to “the churches of God” (2 Thess 1:4) and “the churches of God in Judea” (2:14). Other letters such as Galatians (Gal 1:2), the two letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:17; 11:16; 14:33, 34; 2 Cor 8:19, 23, 24; 11:8, 28; 12:13) and Romans (Rom 16:4, 16) also employ the plural when more than one church is in view (the only exceptions are the distributive expression “every church,” 1 Cor 4:17, and the phrase “the church of God,” 1 Cor 10:32, in a generic or possibly localized sense). So reference is made to “the churches in Galatia” (Gal 1:2; 1 Cor 16:1), “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), “the churches in Macedonia” (2 Cor 8:1) and “the churches of Judea” (Gal 1:22). This suggests that the term was applied only to an actual gathering of people, or to a group that gathers when viewed as a regularly constituted meeting (Banks). Although we often speak of a group of congregations collectively as “the church” (i.e., of a denomination), it is doubtful whether Paul (or the rest of the NT) uses ekklēsia in this collective way. Also, the notion of a unified provincial or national church appears to have been foreign to Paul’s thinking. An ekklēsia was a meeting or an assembly.

In the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology the article on church (in Greek: “ekklesia” ἐκκλησία) says:
  Hence the ekklēsia can be thought of in purely concrete terms, and any spiritualizing in the dogmatic sense of an invisible church (ecclesia invisibilis) is still unthinkable for Paul.

At this point the editor is a little uncomfortable and inserts the following to allay fears of those who think this is a bit radical:
  ([Ed.] The idea of the invisible church is found in Augustine, City of God; Wycliffe, De ecclesia; Luther, Preface to Revelation; Calvin, Institutes IV 1 7; and many other writers (see edition of Calvin’s Institutes, ed. J. T. NcNeill, 1960, II 1022). The thought that is uppermost is not to minimize the importance of church membership, but to recognize the possibility of hypocrisy and deceit.

However the main article goes on to say :
  The ekklēsia has its location, existence and being within definable geographical limits.
  The fact that the ekklēsia in the full sense exists in several places at once arises out of the concreteness of Paul’s concept.
  It is for this reason that ekklēsia occurs so frequently in the plural. (20 out of 50 instances), whether it refers to the different congregations in an area like Judea (Gal. 1:22), Galatia (Gal. 1:2; 1 Cor. 16:1), Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1) or Asia (1 Cor. 16:19), or to a number of churches, or to all of them (e.g. Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 7:17; 14:33f.; 2 Thess. 1:4). The fact that small groups in individual houses are called ekklēsia (Phm. 2; 1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:5; cf. also Col. 4:15) indicates that neither the significance of the place nor the numerical size of the assembly determines the use of the term. What counts is the presence of Christ among them (cf. Gal. 3:1) and faith nourished by him.
  The ekklēsia is always described and ordered in terms of its particular, local form.
  Although in Col. 4:15f. it is still the local or house church that is called the ekklēsia, the emphasis in Eph. falls on the mystical unity of the body in its cosmic aspect (especially Eph. 4:3ff.).

So Church exists in the particularity of each local church or parish but then they relate together as expressions of the same shared underlying reality – consubstantiality.  

Colin Gunton says in a very wordy but profound sentence (That I will explain):

 “An overweighting of the Christological as against the pneumatological determinants of ecclesiology together with an overemphasis on the divine over against the human Christ has led to a ‘docetic’ doctrine of the church” (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p.70)

He means by overemphasising objective facts about Christ rather than the reality of the Spirit, combined with an evangelical overemphasis on divinity of Christ as opposed to his humanity we fall into the church equivalent of one of the heresies about Christ, docetism, which was that Christ only seemed human the reality was spiritual, he kind of floated six inches above the ground and never quite earthed. i.e. our understanding of church never quite earths in this particular concrete reality of THIS church.

Actually I think this is a hangover of Platonic and Neoplatonic thought – which thinks of ultimate reality as existing in abstract ideals and only falteringly expressed in actual examples.

Let me put this all very simply: Bottom-line many of us love and are committed to the ideal of church but are frustrated with the particular church we work in and long for the chance to try another!

This whole emphasis on the particularity of church leads me to reread some passages about the church. E.g. 1 Corinthians 3 where Paul talks about his ministry of building churches. I need to read this as Paul was not building this universal abstract thing called church but considers himself a master builder of local churches:
                    10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
               16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

So church is particular but then in any context there are a number of churches and the Trinity provides the model of unity as particulars relating in love in mutuality rather than unity as a twentieth century institutional merger – which I am suggesting is the western idea of unity as one essence rather than unity as separate distinct entities in communion, maintaining their particularity
So how are the persons connected? Again there is a Greek term: Perichoresis which refers to the Co-indwelling/ Inter –penetration of the persons while preserving the distinctions of the persons. Many see the related image of a dance – a dynamic picture of movement and connection and life and joy.

 Alister McGrath says it "allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two. An image often used to express this idea is that of a 'community of being,' in which each person, while maintaining its distinctive identity, penetrates the others and is penetrated by them.”

               For churches we need to ask how can we be positively impacted by the richness of distinctives of the others. . The question is how do we open ourselves to receive the positive influence of other churches while maintaining the distinctiveness of our own?  I think of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation – Jesus speaks to each one but they each hear the message to the others and are challenged and enriched not only by their own story with God but with each other’s different stories. I need to hear what about the journey God taking different churches on, I will be enriched by knowing something of the story of what God is doing in Parklands Baptist, Grace Vineyard, St Christopher’s Anglican, Hornby Presbyterian.

Miroslav Volf says “If one starts with the complementary nature of person and relation, then not only do ecclesial persons, but also ecclesial communities appear as independent and yet mutually related entities affirming one another in mutual giving and receiving”

He goes on to say: “...the perichoresis of the divine persons also possesses interecclesial [which means “inter-church”] relevance. ...Like individual persons, so also do entire communities have their specific identifying characteristics, acquired either by way of the cultural context in which they abide or through exceptional personalities active among them; they now transmit these characteristics to other churches. By opening up to one another... local churches should enrich one another, thereby increasingly becoming catholic churches”

In Ministry in the Image of God, Stephen Seamands outlines four characteristics that define these kinds of relationships:
  Full equality
  Glad submission
  Joyful intimacy
  Mutual deference

               Our diversity in unity mirrors the diversity in unity of the Trinity. Equality, intimacy, submission and deference ought to characterize relationships in the Christian community as well.
I want to suggest that unity with particularity is a radically different model to think of the unity of the church in the city. We will explore later why I think this names why some things have worked well and why some things have not – why some forms of unity bring life and some bring death –  if we sacrifice our particularity for unity.

II.             From Colleagues to Consanguine (Family)

This is kind of a half point, a sub-point of the first one.

Consanguine means we share the same blood – we are family.

(Now I could preach a great pietist sermon here about how we all stand under the blood of Jesus!)

This is really only a sub point of the first. This consubstantiality means fellow leaders are more than colleagues, we are brothers and sisters. That kind of language can sound corny but seems to have been very important in the early church. Ultimately it comes from Jesus that fellow disciples are family. The early church radically referred to each other as family. Four times Paul insists that the church greet each other with a holy kiss. He is saying do not assemble as strangers, gather as equals as family as people in relationship. I wonder what symbolic actions symbolise for us we associate as family?

This represents a model of the church in the city as nuclear families within an extended family .
At our stage of life each of my and my wife’s siblings have their own nuclear family. In terms of the social trinity each nuclear family has its own relational dynamic and then the extended family is a connection of each of those relational networks. That is a good way to think about the church in the city.

A practical step for me is that when I relate to another church, I try to not just connect with the pastor but to identify the key leadership team and establish at least a minimal connection with each part of their key relational system .

III.           From Cooperation to Connection/Confluence: (Networks, synergy & combined momentum)

I don’t have a good “con-“ word to express this. The idea is of not just insular connection (warm fuzzies) but connecting in a way that adds momentum to the individual churches. Confluence is the term for the place where two rivers meet and combine – the only problem with the image is that they lose their individual identity. We need an image of the energy generated when two things meet but in a way that energises and enriches the particularity of each – and sends them back into their particularity with increased energy.

Here let me turn from systematic theology to New Testament studies. I would argue that we can see this sense of connection and momentum and synergy in the early church. It is particularly found in the little bits of Paul’s letters that we often ignore, the beginnings and ends and a few asides in the middle. The key point is this: the early Church was a highly networked movement.

For instance Romans 16. Paul is writing to a church he has never visited. He greets 28 individuals, 26 by name (and a mother and a sister of someone named) e.g.
                    6 Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
               7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
                8 Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord.
                9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.
                10 Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ.
                Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus.
                1 1 Greet Herodion, my relative.
                Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.
                12 Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.
Now I know churches in my denomination but I would say there is no church that I could greet 28 individuals there – and here Romans is a church Paul had never been to and in the days before cheap air travel was a two to three months travel away!.

1.              Paul and his Co-Writers.

Look at the start of Paul's letters.
We often talk about Paul and his letters. We see Paul as a great apostle and know he wrote thirteen letters. However consider the following.
  1 Corinthians 1:1              Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 
  2 Corinthians 1:1              Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother
  Philippians 1:1                   Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus
  Colossians 1:1                   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
  1 Thessalonians 1:1          Paul, Silas and Timothy
  2 Thessalonians 1:1          Paul, Silas and Timothy
  Philemon 1:1                     Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother

Seven of the thirteen letters ascribed to Paul are actually from multiple authors. I want to suggest 

Paul is modelling something here –from his Trinitarian theology he is modelling relationality, community.

Then when we look at the six where he is the sole author I think we can see reasons why he departed from his normal practice
  • Pastorals: 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus: letters from him as an individual spiritual father to an individual spiritual son.
  • Romans: introducing specifically his ministry to the church he is going to visit.
  • Galatians: a specific defence of his apostleship.
  • Ephesians: a generic letter of instruction.
In our context imagine initiatives or statements that come not just from one church but that come from a number of key recognised church leaders e.g. “Murray Robertson, Bishop Victoria,  Murray Talbot, Paul Bennetts write to you, suggesting….”. The impact is multiplied, the weight is multiplied and something significant is modeled.

2.              Paul and his Co-workers

               Estimates vary but scholars identify between 81 and 95 co-workers of Paul in the New Testament depending on how “co-worker” is defined. If we just stick to individuals who Paul names in his letters there are 36 (see the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters).

A quick scan through these letters reveals a networks of churches constantly sending people back and forth between churches,  and a network of workers and leaders fostering a network of churches not just one church.

  • 6:21 Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. 22 I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you.
This is the first of five references to Paul intentionally and strategically sending one person from one church to visit another church.
  2:19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you.
  2:25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29  So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
  • 4:7 Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. 9 He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.
  • 4:12  Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. 13 I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis.
1 Thessalonians
·     3:2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith,
2 Timothy
·     4:19-21 Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus. 20 Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus. 21 Do your best to get here before winter. Eubulus greets you, and so do Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers.
·                3:12-13  As soon as I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, because I have decided to winter there. 13 Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need.

3.              The Early church as highly networked

In 1998 Richard Bauckham edited a book called The Gospel for All Christians. Its main thesis deals with an academic issue of New Testament studies but in the process of addressing this he and the other writers make it clear that the early church was a highly networked community.
In the introduction Richard Bauckham states: “Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the early Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other” (2).

Imagine if we could say this of the churches of Christchurch: Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the Christchurch Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other”

That last part is challenging: in constant, close communication (while maintaining their particularity and working to build each individual church). That is the paradox! A third way between isolation and fusion.

Bauckham then goes on to say “ all the evidence we have for early Christian leaders... shows them to have been typically people who travelled widely and worked in more than one community at different times” (3). Leaders served a network of churches, not just developed their own ministry in one church. Summarising the communities and the leaders he says “both had a strong, lively and informed sense of participation in a worldwide movement” (3)           “But in addition to Christian participation in the ordinary mobility of society, much communication was deliberately fostered between the churches” (32)

               Michael Thompson has a chapter in the book called “The Holy Internet: Communication between Churches in the First Christian Generation.” He uses the picture of the internet to describe how the early church functioned.

               He first considers the paths of communication: “In the ancient world the closest thing to an information superhighway was the grid of Roman roads and clear shipping lanes that made travel far safer and easier than it had ever been before“(50). He points out that though there was no public postal service the Empire depended on a regular secure system of communication that included staging posts and rest stops when towns were separated by more than one day’s journey.

               Secondly he then considers the “archives of information”: “The network ‘servers’ of the holy internet were the churches” (53) and he notes the importance of “hubs”: Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome. These functioned as hubs for the surrounding areas. Paul seems to have focused on establishing new hubs of the network which then networked into the surrounding areas. Now there is a thought of strategic importance! How do we foster hubs of ministry and mission within Christchurch? Geographical hubs, denominational hubs, hubs of relational networks, specialist ministries?

               Thirdly he considers the access to the internet. Staying with the internet metaphor, he says communication depended on the “protocol software of hospitality” (55).

               Finally Thompson has some interesting analysis of the speed of this “internet”. Remember travel was generally by walking or ship: Jerusalem to Antioch took 8-10 days; on to Ephesus another 14-30 days by sea or 35 days over land. Ephesus to Corinth 6-10 days; Corinth to Rome 10-25 days. From Rome directly back to Jerusalem by sea 16-28 days. In our days of email, cell phones and cheap flights it is mindboggling and an enormous challenge to us that they managed to be so highly networked with these kinds of obstacles and challenges. How can we be less highly networked than they were? They obviously put a high value on being part of a network of churches. They understood it was about a dynamic network of churches.

Thompson also considers the kind of information travelling on the “internet”:
  1. News about churches
  2. Mutual encouragement
  3. Participation in needs
  4. Sharing of resources
  5. Offering/delivery of assistance
  6. Practices/positions taken/responses to issues
  7. (I would add intercessory prayer; requests and information for prayer)

I see some strong examples of this coming together to generate momentum but without sacrificing particularity. One example is the Society of Salt and Light, an Anglican initiative. A very good events person, Spanky Moore was charged with facilitating seven small groups for young adults, Rather than the seemingly obvious approach of combining them (the western approach to unity) he organises a monthly event. The groups attend and there is something high energy and cool about this combined event. But then he produces a resource kit that they take back to their groups and use for the following three weeks. He has used his abilities to bring a confluence, connection but in a way that does not merge but rather resources and energises each group. Easter Camp has the same dynamic. Experts construct a high quality event but youth groups stay in village type camps so the end product is strengthened and energised youth groups not merged youth groups.

I can see at least four main models of combined momentum:
  1. Smaller churches get in the slipstream of larger churches but without losing their identity and particularity
  2. Smaller churches hold combined events to generate a sense of being part of something bigger – whether geographical or denominational groupings.
  3. Specialist, expert ministries or people (such as Canterbury Youth Services or Society of Salt and Light) create excellent events for other churches but in a way that propels the individual churches forward rather than amalgamating them in a new reality.
  4. Various levels of combined operation: e.g. new shared facilities
Too many of our attempts at unity are not about momentum. Which leads to the final point, the focus and goal of our mutuality and momentum..

IV.           From Collecting (Christians) To Conversion (Preoccupation with the Lost)

The above are trends I see happening in the church post-quake and I think God is in them. But I wonder if there is something more explicit God would want to say to us. In the Book of Revelation God addresses the angels of the seven churches. It is an interesting exercise in discernment to ask I wonder what God is saying to the churches in Christchurch.  I believe that if we asked God what we wanted to say to the churches in Christchurch he would say:
“I love your heart for the lost”

1.              Preoccupation with the lost

Now some may react to the language of the lost. But it is a term that comes from Jesus and it is important to see how he used it. Bottomline it refers to the Father’s perspective that some people are lost to relationship with him. It is found in Luke 15, a chapter of three related parables: The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son(s):

Luke 15: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it...
    8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?
24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’    
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Let me repeat, to be lost is from the Father’s perspective, that they are lost to conscious, explicit relationship with him. The consequences of being lost are secondary – the kind of effects the prodigal suffers when he is away from the father.

John Nolland (2002)in the Word Biblical Commentary introduces the section on Luke 15 with the following:
               “The section 15:1–32 defends and commends preoccupation with the lost, and overflowing joy at their restoration. We all respond this way with what is our own, and this attitude corresponds to the concerns of a father’s heart for his own children, each one of whom is singularly precious in his sight.”

That is a staggering statement: defends and commends preoccupation. I imagine something like the following conversation between a pastor and a parishioner: “Pastor aren’t you listening?!” “Sorry what were you saying?” “I was telling you that people are not happy with the music at church!” “I’m sorry I was just preoccupied with the 300,000 people in Christchurch who don’t know Jesus”. Or “Pastor did you hear what I said?”” Sorry what were you saying?””I was saying people are talking” “I’m sorry I was preoccupied with the 30,000 high schoolers in Christchurch who don’t know Jesus”

In the chapter Jesus is accused of celebrating with sinners. The three parables are a response to the charge. Each of the parables centres on the theme of the joy of restored relationship. However there is a building sense of the true source of the joy. After the first parable Jesus says:

Vs 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
This is the essence of the idea of preoccupation – a focus on the one lost rather than the 99 safe.
 So there is rejoicing in heaven but who is rejoicing?
After the second parable Jesus says:
Vs 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Now here is one of the great misreadings of Scripture. How many of us have heard that the angels rejoice when someone is saved? Read it again – there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels. Who is in the presence of the angels? The third parable answers this – it is the Father who is rejoicing! 
And that is why Jesus rejoices! God loves our heart for the lost because that is His heart!
The ultimate foundation of mission is the character of God. If you get that wrong you misread God’s action and agenda in our world.

This raises the whole idea of sin, judgement and wrath, So many people post earthquake seem preoccupied with the idea of the quakes as God’s judgement. So let me go on a bit of a diversion about his to discuss wrath and judgement.

2.              Judgement and wrath

N.T. Wright in Evil and the Justice of God argues that post twentieth century with all its atrocities we should have recovered a sense that we actually hope for the judgement of God – when God will step in and stop evil.

In another of his books Surprised by Hope he says:
  But judgment is necessary – unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong, or blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much.
  God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator on the one side and the belief in his goodness on the other. And that setting-right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God’s good and lovely creation, and in particular of all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures…

A number of years ago I preached through the book of Revelation. I thought at the time it was going to be challenging because it meant I was going to have to get my head around the concept of the wrath of God. What was interesting was the extent to which difficult experiences of parents with children provided a hermeneutical grid to help make sense of this.

I saw that like any parent God’s basic strategy is kindness and love:
Acts 14:17
Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”
 Romans 2:4
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
One advantage of the psychological and therapeutic emphasis these days is we understand the concept of boundaries and anger as the legitimate response of defence when a boundary is crossed or violated. It is interesting to look at God’s wrath in scripture. Parents experiencing problems with children eventually realise that kindness as a strategy is not working but just creating a co-dependent relationship that perpetuates the problem and the only hope is to allow the children to feel the consequences of their choices, Violated boundaries lead to allowing the natural consequences to follow rather than rescuing the children. This is God’s first approach to wrath.

a)              Wrath in Romans 1

In Romans 1 God’s wrath is seen first is a pulling back to let people suffer the consequences of their actions. Paul three times using the phrase “handed over” or “gave over”:
               18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,...
                    24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another....
                26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts....
                28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.

What is also interesting here is that the kinds of things people normally argue would be the causes of God’s wrath are actually the result of it. Sexual issues violence etc are the result of God taking his hand of providence off for the fundamental sin of idolatry.

Now with parenting this strategy of escalating consequences may work. But for some children the behaviour becomes so destructive that at some point you actually have to actively intervene to stop behaviours that are hurting others. This is the picture of wrath in the book of Revelation. At this point God steps in, in increasing force to say this needs to stop. And unfortunately each step merely strengthens the resolve to fight back.

b)              Wrath in Revelation 16 and following

                    1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”  2 The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
                3 The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead person, and every living thing in the sea died.
                4 The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood
The account is at pains to show this is not wild random wrath but just and true stopping of wrong:
                    5 Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say:
                  “You are just in these judgments, O Holy One,
   you who are and who were;
6 for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets,
   and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”
                7 And I heard the altar respond:
                  “Yes, Lord God Almighty,
   true and just are your judgments.”
The cycle of seven builds. What is striking is that at each step people just fight back and their resistance intensifies.     
                    8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.
                10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.
                12 The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. 13 Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. 14 They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.
                  15 “Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.”
                16 Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
                    17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” 18 Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. 19 The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.
                    20 Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. 21 From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.

This is a great tragedy that the resistance just escalates. The horrifying thing reading the account is the determination of people to rebel.

It is important to understand that judgement is a means to an end of effecting peace and shalom – it is penultimate not ultimate. If you turn to the end of the book it leads to judgement to clear the way for peace.

Again there is explicit reminder that this has all been just:

Revelation 20
                1 After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:    “Hallelujah!
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,  2 for true and just are his judgments.

And of course the Bible then finishes with a wonderful picture of the redemption of creation and the restoration of God’s original purposes.

Revelation 21
                    1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

It is really important to get the big picture of salvation history and live in the moment we find ourselves in. So what about wrath now:

c)               Luke 4

Jesus announced his commission and anointing in Luke 4 quoting Isaiah 61. Compare the two passages:

Isaiah 61
Luke 4
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
   because the LORD has anointed me
   to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim freedom for the captives
   and release from darkness for the prisoners,

2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
   and the day of vengeance of our God,
 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
   to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
   and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
   19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

If you compare the version Jesus stopped half way through a verse and explicitly left out the declaration of the vengeance of God. Between the cross and final judgment, God is in the business of gospel mission. The Spirit anoints us to preach good news, open eyes of blind, release to oppressed, and in summary announce God’s favour!

d)              Ephesians 2

This turning point of the cross is reinforced in many places but one striking example is Ephesians 2:1-10. The first three verses paint a grave and disturbing picture of human life climaxing in the phrase that we are by nature children of wrath

Ephesians 2:1-10:
                    1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
 Verse 4 is a great turn around verse: We deserve wrath but we get love.
                    4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Verse 4 would make a great three point sermon:

Ephesians 2:4
                    ...But God,
               being rich in mercy,
               because of the great love with which he loved us ...

I would love to be a black American preacher : “You might be a sinner .... BUT God...; you might have stolen and hurt people.... BUT God....; you might have let down your momma BUT God...”

e)              Jonah, Exodus 34 and the Character of God

In the Old Testament this understanding of the character of God is found in a number of places but one good example is Jonah.

Jonah is commissioned to announce judgement on Nineveh but he runs away. We don’t really know why. Of course he is swallowed by a great fish and eventually goes to Nineveh. The city repents and his angry and at least we discover why he ran away”

Jonah 4:
 1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.

Jonah because he was a prophet knew the heart of God so he knew that God did not actually want to bring judgement. He is quoting from a key passage in Exo 34 where Moses asks to see God’s glory:

Exodus 34:6-7
6The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation."

I don’t have the time to do a detailed study of this – we will note below the imbalance e.g. love to 100s versus punishment to 3 or 4.

We will look at this in a minute but first let’s finish the Jonah story:  the common theme is anger versus compassion. Jonah had compassion fondness for his vine so was angry when it got destroyed. God says he feels the same way about the city. The book finishes with a great question: should I not be concerned for (have compassion/ be fond of) great city?.
                9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
                  “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”
                10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Back to Exo 34 and the Old Testament understanding of the wrath of God. The Old Testament scholar John Goldingay, (2006). Old Testament Theology, Volume 2: Israel‘s Faith. Has an interesting section entitled  Wrathful, But Not from the Heart
He says:
“Christians have sometimes spoken of God as combining love and justice in such a way that these have equal place in God’s nature. God thus “has” to punish our sin, but punishes it by punishing his Son instead of punishing us. The First Testament does not thus see love and justice as equally balanced in God (nor, I think, does the New Testament). After line upon line of lament at Yhwh’s (deserved) wrath and affliction, Lamentations 3 extraordinarily declares,
               This I call to mind;
               therefore I have hope
               In Yhwh’s commitments, because they have not ended,
               because his compassion has not finished.
               They are new each morning;
               great is your truthfulness.…
               Yhwh is good to people who wait for him,
               to the person who has recourse to him.…
               Because the Lord
               does not reject forever
               But causes suffering and has compassion,
               according to the abundance of his commitments.
               Because it is not from the heart that he afflicts
               or makes human beings suffer. (Lam 3:21–33)
“The [English version] render that last line “he does not willingly afflict,” which is itself a very striking statement. When God afflicts people, this is an unwilling action on God’s part. So whose will is being put into effect? Who is causing God to act unwillingly? This compulsion can only be coming from within God’s own person. The Hebrew expression coheres with that, though it nuances the point in indicating that affliction comes from God, but not come from God’s heart, not from God’s inner being.
The model this suggests is that, as is the case with a human being, there are dominant or central or governing aspects to God’s character, and also secondary, more marginal aspects. With regard to human beings, this can be referred to as their shadow side, though when applied to God, that can seem to suggest negative aspects. But a human being’s shadow side is simply their less prominent side. Some professors, for instance, have a dominant side that is happiest when they are sitting alone at their desks researching, but their shadow side is capable of being relational and of projecting themselves to people, and they call on this shadow side when they are in the classroom.

He then has a section called : Yhwh’s Asymmetry
“So toughness and softness or justice and mercy do not have an equal place in Yhwh’s moral character. Yhwh can summon up the capacity to act tough from time to time, but this does not issue from Yhwh’s heart. Yhwh’s dominant side is to be loving and merciful; Lamentations’ point is that afflicting people involves the realizing of God’s secondary side. ... It is the case that wrath has a secondary status within God, compared with love and faithfulness

3.              Unity for mission

Back to the start of this section: God’s heart is for the lost

And we can go full circle and return to where we started with the Trinity:

David Bosch in his book Transforming Mission talks about Missio Dei (the mission of God): 

Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement”: The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. As far as missionary thinking was concerned, this linking with the doctrine of the Trinity constituted an important innovation

If we go back to the picture of relational communion – this community wants to reach out and draw others into relationship – that is why God freely created. And when his creatures rebel his heart is to reach out and to restore. Unity has a missional dynamic for as long as there are those outside relationship:

John 17:20-23
                “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

A commentator Borchert, G. L. (2003). Says about this passage:
               John 17:20-23
               In the twentieth century these verses became the basis for biblical support to the modern ecumenical movement. Many scholars, including J. Cadier, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, P. Minear, T. E. Pollard, J. F. Randall, W. Thüsing, and others, have attempted to expound these verses in terms of the need for unity among Christian churches. I personally have been involved in many discussions with other church bodies when serving as the chair of both Study and Research and the Commission on Doctrine and Interchurch Relations for the Baptist World Alliance, but it has always been with the understanding that my efforts have been focused where the text is focused, which is on the mission of Jesus and not on discussions of unity or cooperation for their own sakes. Mission must be central to all discussions of oneness.

V.              Conclusion

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury in May 2011, addressed the first ever international consultation for Anglican Communion Theological College Principals and Deans.  He said the basic question of theological education is “Where are you”? Where are we in terms of where we fit in the big picture of what God is doing, where are we in terms of understanding the issues of our context, and where are we in terms of our own formation and growth in this.

I want to suggest that where we are as churches in Christchurch is facing God’s call to the Church in this moment to move to...
               Unity with particularity
               Networking for synergy & momentum
               Focus on the lost

This has been a long article covering systematic theology, New Testament history and a biblical theme. It can be summed up in one sentence:

Let’s find unity in our particularity in ways that build momentum for the cause of the gospel and the sake of the lost.