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Friday, 22 February 2013

Kingdom, Cross and the Power of Weakness

The Kingdom theology that I grew up with, and the culture it helped to produce, put a great emphasis on faith and power, on 'taking authority' and 'reigning in life', on overcoming, being more than conquerors, on the life of victory and the triumphal advance of the kingdom. I have benefited from this 'faith message' and it was certainly a great antidote to some of the spineless and anemic forms of Christianity that I had come into contact with before then. But I have come to feel that it also sometimes missed something - and it relates to this point about putting the Cross at the centre of our understanding of the Kingdom.

I consider Isaiah 53 to be one of the most beautiful and powerful portrayals of the incarnation and cross in all of Scripture. It speaks of Jesus as the suffering servant, who grew up before God 'like a tender shoot', who had no 'form of majesty or beauty' to attract us, who was 'despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief', and who ultimately was 'led like a Lamb to the slaughter.' Of course this picture of Christ takes its place among the kaleidoscope of prophetic images of him in Scripture, which can only be held together by the Spirit in us, who causes us to see the different aspects of Christ as we need to in the various stages and seasons of our journeys. But in my experience, the bright and colourful lights of Christ as risen Lord, mighty Warrior and conquering King sometimes blinded us to these darker but still beautiful shades of Jesus as suffering servant and crucified King. And to the message it sends us about how God uses the apparently weak, despised and broken to win his greatest victories and achieve his ultimate purpose. 

In such a Christ I so gratefully find a God who does not break the bruised reed, or snuff out the smoldering wick (Is.42:3), who takes the charred and rejected stones and make a glorious temple out of them (Neh.4:2). This is the God of who David said because David knew: 'a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise' (Ps.51:17). It is because of such a God who demonstrated his greatest power in such weakness, that the weak are able to say I am strong (Joel 3:10; 2 Cor.12:10)! This is the glory of a cross-centred kingdom. 

Monday, 18 February 2013

Kingdom, Cross and World Transformation

I will come on to say something about the work of the cross in relation to the personal life, which is where it must begin. But I have been reflecting on it in relation to the hope of world transformation which has been central to the kingdom message I have believed and preached for many years.

In the dissertation that I completed for my MA last month, I examined why the restoration movement did not have a greater impact on society, as its theology - of kingdom here and now (see here) - might have indicated it could have. There were various reasons that I considered but central to my conclusion was that there was a lack of an understanding of the centrality of the Cross in our theology of the Kingdom; I now think that this is central to any engagement with society and attempt at social transformation. I quote the key paragraph below (commenting on what I saw as a tendency to triumphalism and a 'proclaiming the answers' model to social engagement):

It is possible and likely that this model arose as a result of the excitement of moving from an eschatology of defeat and escape to a positive one of victory and world transformation; from one of retreat to one of ruling. It was a positive and welcome kingdom theology but the results of my reading, research and reflection have caused me to conclude that its adherents didn’t always fully grasp or expound the countercultural and crucicentric nature of the kingdom of God. A book that was an early influence on some in this movement was The Community of the King (Snyder, 1977) which argued that the church did not exist for itself but as the means of the transformation of society – a kingdom community. But Snyder specifically warned in this proposition for a theology of social transformation that the cross must be kept at the centre of the kingdom vision:
…the present expression of the Kingdom demands crucifixion ethics not triumphal ethics. The Church today must not live as if the Kingdom were already fully established: it is called to live the paradox of the King who ended up on a cross. (Snyder, 1977, p.30)
My contention would be that a failure to realise this paradox in its call to social engagement ultimately hindered that engagement. The principle of selfless service and sacrifice expressed in the cross is the essence of the unique and countercultural nature of God’s kingdom. It was not that such a truth was never expressed (see Mansell, D, Jan-Feb 1992, pp.24-28; and Wright, 1986), but it was not sufficiently emphasised. A crucicentric perspective on the kingdom enables an engagement which puts the emphasis much more on serving than ruling, on transformation through identification with a fallen and suffering world rather than simply through proclamation to that world. This creates a basis for an approach to public dialogue and the finding of common solutions for the common good that is much more conducive to public theology. 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Cross and Kingdom: A better way and a better world

Some of you may have noticed that a couple of months ago, I added a tagline to the title of this blog: 'looking for a better way and a better world'. It is meant to reflect what I want the main focus of this blog to be, and what I think is absolutely central to the message of the gospel. The gospel is not just about getting our sins forgiven and a reservation for heaven. It is about God restoring this world to how he originally intended it to be by bringing it all under the good rule of his Son, Jesus. In other words, it is the gospel of the kingdom (Matt.24:14). This is the better world that God is re-creating, that will come in its fullness when Jesus returns to make all things new, but that has already broken in on our world through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. As citizens of this heavenly kingdom, born from above, we cannot be satisfied with this present world as it is, with its ways and wisdom, it culture and power structures. We are looking and longing for the continual and ultimate coming of God's better world, his kingdom.

Now I have believed this for many years (though God is continually filling out my understanding of it). But there was something that I did not really grasp until relatively recently. It is that this kingdom is totally, radically, profoundly different from the kingdoms of this world. It is completely counter-cultural. And this is because at its heart is a totally different way of life. It is a way of life characterised by serving others, by loving enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, laying our lives down for others, giving up the claim for our rights or our comforts, identifying with 'the least of these', winning not through might but through meekness, overcoming through radical love. It is the way of selfless, serving, sacrificial love. It is the way of the cross. So to look for the kingdom of God, the better world, is to look for a way of living that is like this. It is to look for the better way of the Cross.

What I want the next few posts, and really the whole blog, to be about is exploring what this Cross-centred Kingdom means and what it looks like in our everyday life, in the church community and in our engagement with the world.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A great comment on hierarchy:

I know I promised that I would be posting on Kingdom and Cross, and I will. But I first just wanted to post a comment by my friend and fellow-leader, Trevor Shotter. This was a comment he made in a conversation prompted by my last post against hierarchy here. He put is so well, I wanted to make sure that my readers didn't miss it. He puts is so well, I wish I had written it.So here it is:

It strikes me that in a hierarchy someone has leadership as a result of structure; they may have obtained that position by gifting and anointing but the structure then ‘solidifies’ that arrangement. In this model I defer to you because you are positioned higher than me in the structure. It speaks of something rigid, static, set in concrete.

In the dance you have the honour of leading, again, because you are gifted and anointed to do so. But there is movement; we move together. I contribute to the dance but yield to your leadership not because I must but because I know that when you lead the dance is beautiful and purposeful. Nothing is rigid, quite the opposite, it is dynamic.

The dance is not a variation of hierarchy even though someone leads; the nature of the relationship between those who lead and those who are led is fundamentally different.

Isn’t it in our human nature to want to schematise? A hierarchical system is easy to understand, I can see the diagram, I can see where I am and I can see where everyone else is; I know my place. In a dance, however, there is fluidity and changing positions; I don’t necessarily know or understand what everyone else in the dance is doing but as we all move to the same ‘Music’ the overall effect is amazing.

Really well put!

I promise I will post on Kingdom and Cross tomorrow.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Cross and the Kingdom

Just finishing reading one of Tom Wright's latest books, 'How God Became King: Getting to the heart of the gospels' (I recommend it but be warned that even the books he aims at a more popular audience are still heavy-weight; and I was disappointed that he didn't explore more fully the implications of his thesis - which is that the gospels are not just about us getting our sins forgiven, being justified and getting to heaven but are about how the God revealed in the story of Israel, which now culminates in the story of Jesus, is the king of heaven and earth, about the universal significance of that fact, and about the surprising and unexpected nature of this reign or kingdom - if you've got a spare hour, he lectures on the subject of the book at Fuller Theological Seminary here)

It is one of a number of things I've read recently on how the Cross  must be kept at the centre of our understanding of the Kingdom. In fact, as I indicated in an earlier post here, the first one to really get me thinking about this was the first few chapters of Greg Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation, which just blew me away (and it was this which strongly affected my changing views about hierarchy and authority, which I have blogged a lot on). And in fact, I guess this is what I want this whole blog to be about - a different kingdom which is so different from the kingdoms of this world because of the cross; it is the reign of the crucified king, the kingdom of the Lamb who was slain. It is this truth and this reality which just beats at my heart continually now. It is challenging me at the core, and, quite honestly, changing my views on hierarchy is just a little tip of the iceberg in terms of its potential impact. It is challenging me so much on a personal level about how I live and love (or fail to, far too often), about what church is and how we live in community, and how we engage with the world. So my next few posts will aim to explore more of this amazing truth of the Cross-centred Kingdom. Any insights my readers can offer will be greatly appreciated.

Next post: a better way and a better world.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Sharing From Other Blogs

And now for something completely different. I thought I might occasionally share from other blogs to help make this blog more interesting, to stir things up a bit and to engage with people who are making me think and helping me on my journey. It is more overtly theological than my posts so far - some bigger words and challenging ideas. I should explain that what she calls doubt, I'd just call questions. Personally, I have rarely ever doubted God's existence or goodness (I don't claim this as a virtue, just report it as a fact), but I do have questions about the nature and substance of his self-revelation, and serious doubts and concerns on how some traditional conservative evangelicals have understood things, and the way they have interpreted Scripture. This is one such - it's about how a misunderstanding of the Bible can result in a terrible view of God, and in emotional dissonance for many of us. And how it is OK to have questions as part of our journey, that to stifle them can be really unhelpful. Only read it if you're prepared to be challenged in mind and heart.

It is Rachel Held Evans on The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

'When you ask the wrong question... get the wrong answer.' Put it another way, bad questions lead to bad answers. I think this has happened in relation to hierarchy in the church. I want to suggest that one bad question, when it comes to the church, is: 'who has the final say?' It reflects that we are thinking in the ways of this world's structure and culture rather than in the ways of God's different kingdom - and it contributes to a culture of hierarchy and rank. It is really just saying 'who's the boss here?' That might be appropriate in many organisations in the world but I would be sad if either question was ever asked of my family. And church is a family - a community modelled on the community of the Godhead, the Trinity, a community of equals where leadership is expressed within that equality.

Even though there is a leadership in the church and I believe that leaders should lead, this has to be based on a common recognition of the grace gifting within that leader (even when he or she may have to make unpopular decisions) - not because s/he is in some unassailable 'position'or he outranks anyone. Also, the leader should not think of himself as the ultimate decision maker, but as one who develops and uses the skills to lead a team of leaders and powerful, spiritual  people to the point where they are able to say 'it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us' (Acts 15:28). This is not consensus leadership (which I do not agree with) but it is inclusive leadership (which I do agree with). Consensus leadership is just about collecting people's opinions and coming up with a democratically agreed direction or decision (democracy is as much of this world as hierarchy is). Inclusive leadership is leadership which listens, values people's voices, draws upon their contributions and seeks to create an environment where we hear God together. There may still be times when the leader has to take a strong lead in a direction that people are unsure about, but he or she will have   established a trust that enables people to follow, based on both clear gift and anointing, and through the general practice of the kind of inclusive leadership described above. To reduce this relational and charismatic dynamic to the simplistic question, 'who has the final say?' is to contribute to a distortion of church leadership.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A final thought on freedom and honour

Just a final thought on the subject of freedom an honour, or humility and honour, based on some other reflections on Romans 12. For this 'dance' to work well there are a couple of other principles we need to pick up from the passage. For instance, it assumes that we are genuinely laying our lives down as our continual expression of worship (v.1) - this isn't going to work if it's all about our self-promotion! And it requires a willingness to have our thinking continually challenged and changed (v.2) - we can't afford to get stuck into old ruts of thinking, never allowing our familiar paradigms to be shifted. But most of all, we have to learn to live in the way described in the second half of the chapter - in a community of radical, selfless love (see vv.9-21).

When all is said and done, far more important than my gifting being exercised is that we are building together the kind of community of love described here, and thereby being a stunning witness to a world that is desperate for this kind of community. As we are learning the dance of freedom and honour, we will undoubtedly step on each others' toes from time to time, and bruise each others shins! There will be misunderstanding and mis-communication, mistaken assumptions and insensitive remarks etc. at times. We may be tempted to leave the dance floor, to walk off in a huff or resent each other. That's why we need to really take to heart the exhortations of the second half of the chapter - and especially 'be devoted to one another in love'.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Dance of Freedom and Honour

Over the last few months I have used the image of dance as a picture of how leadership and church community can work, based on the dance (perichoresis) of the Trinity - see here for examples. Like all illustrations, it breaks down at places; you can't use it as a prescriptive model, just as an evocative image.

In the stuff I've been writing on recently about releasing gifting within the body while still honouring leadership and the rest of the church community, the picture of the dance can help us. In dancing, balance is really important, especially when two or more are dancing with each other, as they have to get the right equipoise as they move together. In a church community a person desiring the freedom to exercise their gift, may over-reach, fail to respond to a leader who is trying to choreograph the dance of the whole group, think they can do more than they can at a particular point in the dance, and the equilibrium is lost. Equally if the leader is overpowering and dominating, and fails to liberate and empower, then the balance is also wrong. Either way, the dancers can end up in a messy pile on the floor, or with someone walking off the dance floor, nursing their bruises and injuries. Leaders must give people the freedom to discover and express their gift, but we must also honour the gift of leadership as it seeks to choreograph the dance.

This balance between freedom and honour is not just about leadership, but also about honouring each other in the community. We exercise freedom to express our gift but also honour the grace of God in others. And freedom is primarily given for us to serve one another (Gal.5:13). So to achieve the spiritual equipoise as we dance together, we don't focus on just our gift, or try to hog the limelight; we work with and value others, contributing our unique part but drawing out the best from others. And the aim is not just for individuals to look good, but for the whole dance to look amazing. The balance of freedom and honour is essential for this.