Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost: Spirit & Culture


‘... and each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.’ (Acts 2: 6)

As I write this, we just celebrated the feast of Pentecost (May 24): the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon the church. We gave some thought at the service to the presence of the Holy Spirit[1] speaking through culture, and, as with those at the first Pentecost, how we hear the gospel in our own language and culture.
Many years ago, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr released a book called ‘Christ & Culture’, which studied the relationship between Christianity and culture. It is a classic, and very few contemporary studies in this area fail to mention this important work. However, it is, I would say, a product of modernity with its desire to categorise things, and through that control the discourse around culture. Life in post-modernity has become more complex than the time Niebuhr’s writing, with the advent of global migration, multi-culturalism, the rise of Asia and the middle-east as major economic and political forces; alongside this, the rise of and influence of feminism, and post-colonialism within the western world, to name just a few major changes. These events Niebuhr could not foresee, and his work is primarily directed to the church in the West. It is a book written in the 1950’s, and, as is to be expected, reflects the thought and concerns of that era. Having said this, some of his thesis still rings true and it isn’t a bad place to start our thinking around the Holy Spirit and Culture.
Niebuhr defines culture as comprising the ‘language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organisation, inherited artefacts, technical processes, and values’ of a group of people. He indentifies two extreme positions the church can take in its relationship to culture:
Christ against Culture – the classic Christian Fundamentalist position: culture is set in opposition to the Christian gospel.
Christ of Culture – the close association between Christ and Culture (NAZI Germany is the classic example of this, alongside many contemporary nationalistic Christian expressions). The Christ of Culture is a very subtle thing. Sometimes it is referred to as cultural Christianity, and can be associated with the ‘classic Liberal’ position: the lines between Christianity and its surrounding culture are blurred.
Niebuhr then defines three typologies that are to be associated with the ‘centre-church’. I would place most mainstream churches, including Anglicanism, in this category:
Christ above Culture – this is a willingness to accept certain cultural elements without necessarily being opposed to, or agreeing, with them: Christ is ultimately eternal and above culture: ‘... your throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away’[2].
Christ and Culture in paradox - is basically pragmatic; it represents the position whereby we are inescapably involved in the world and its political and cultural institutions. We know, however, that they are transient, and can sometimes be quite sinful, but we work for their transformation and redemption – a Christian politician may well hold this position.
Christ the transformer of culture - is the classic conversionist, and culturally positive, model: ‘Christ is at work in the world, converting people from within their cultures, not outside them.’[3]  
As I gave some thought to all this, I realised that I basically align with typologies 1 and 3 of the ‘centre-church’. The Spirit of Christ is above all cultures, but also works within them and through them. Not everything in culture, and even what might be called Christian culture, is necessarily of Christ, but there is much in culture that is good, beautiful and worthy. ‘We hear in our own language’, because we can do no other. The challenge for us is to hear what the Spirit is calling us to do within our own culture and what in our culture might help or hinder the spread of the Christian gospel? We are called to be self-critical (Phil 2: 12) rather than criticise the cultures of others. We are reminded during the season of Pentecost that the Spirit helps us to see what is both helpful, and unhelpful, within our cultural setting to the living out and proclamation of the gospel (1 Cor 2: 10, 13; Rev 2: 11).
With blessings for the Pentecost season.

[1] It is helpful when thinking about the Holy Spirit to see it within a Trinitarian framework. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, as well as being the Spirit of itself. 
[2] Ellerton J, ‘The day you gave us, Lord, is ended’, Hymn # 388 in The Australian Hymn Book, Collins, Sydney.
[3]Buxton, G 2007, Celebrating Life: beyond the Sacred-Secular Divide, Paternoster, London. p. 31; Niebuhr, H.R 1951, Christ and Culture, Harper Torchbooks, New York; Carson, D.A 2008, Christ and Culture Revisted, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Christ the King: I was hungry...

As I write, we are preparing for the celebration of ‘Christ the King’, a festival that marks the end of the Christian year; Advent 1 being the beginning of the new Christian year. ‘Christ the King’ is relatively new for Anglicans, and it is not one of the festivals of the Book of Common Prayer. Those with long memories, or with a BCP close at hand, will know that the end of the year was ordered by ‘Sundays after Trinity’ until we came to the fourth Sunday before Christmas (Advent 1). ‘Christ the King’ was added to the Western Calender by Pope Pius XI in 1925. The full name of the festival was ‘The Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe’. It was originally celebrated on the Sunday before ‘All Saints Day’.  Pope Paul VI in 1969 transferred it to its current date: the Sunday before Advent.  Anglicans, and others, adopted it when a common Calender was also adopted. The Evangelical–Lutheran Church of Sweden calls this day ‘The Sunday of Doom’. I think it would take some convincing for Anglicans to adopt that name! ‘Christ the King’ enables us to see the Christian year out with joy, and to finish the year with a clear proclamation that Jesus Christ is indeed King.

Proclaiming Christ as King means that we place our allegiance and service to him. We proclaim Christ as Lord and Saviour. The reading that accompanies ‘Christ the King’ this year is the sobering parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25: 31 – 46). The ‘sheep’ care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner. The ‘goats’ are those who ignored all these. Jesus in telling the story presents these altruistic actions as being done, or not being done, to him, as the case may be. Christ the King is mystically present in those who couldn’t appear less regal. A theme, I suggest, that also pervades the Christmas story with Jesus the infant King being born in the humblest of conditions.

Proclaiming Christ as King prompts us to think about how we pay him homage in this world. Worship and celebration are certainly part and parcel of this. Caring for those in need flow naturally from our liturgical actions. At Christmas time it is easy to get caught up in the consumerism that dominates our society. I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that we cease from buying gifts for our loved ones, but we are also reminded this time of year of those in our nation, and in other countries, that are hungry, poor, oppressed, and falsely imprisoned.

This Christmas let us provide for those in need. This year at St Jude’s we are encouraging people to buy a simple gift (a food item, a small gift for a child or adult, for example) and leave it under our Christmas tree for distribution through Anglicare. You could also do that independently by yourself, or find another cause to support, if you wish. The main thing is to incorporate in our worship of Christ the King acts of love and generosity. 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Getting Ready

Thank you blog readers for a very stimulating discussion around last week's post. This week's lectionary readings are in a similar vein: getting ready. Ready for what: might be an interesting question to ask. Tom Wright's interpretation of the Gospel reading (Matthew 25: 14 - 30) understands this to be getting ready for God's activity in the 'here and now' of the time of Jesus 1). The people of Israel of Jesus' time have wasted their talents. God, in the long prophetic tradition in which Jesus stands, waits to perform justice and salvation now. Jesus and Paul understand this to be like a 'thief in the night' (1 Thess 5: 2; Matt 24: 43)). There will be a surprise, but not a big one for those who are ready. Staying awake, I would suggest, is to be alert to God's Kingdom activity in the world.

Consequently, there is no need for Hollywood horror theatrics when interpreting all this. The world around us provides enough horror of the real presence of evil. The Kingdom of God is breaking into this world. It is taking its time, but we are to invest our talents in making the world a fit place for God to reign at the final end.

1) Wright, T 2012, Twelve months of Sundays: years A,B & C, SPCK, London p. 125

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Something in the Air - 1 Thessalonians 4: 9 - 18

On the road to where my father lives someone has posted a sign in their front room window that has been there for at least 10 years: 'Jesus is returning soon'. As I sit in the traffic, I ponder this sign. The original sign started out somewhat amateurish, but in recent years that sign has been replaced with something more polished. Obviously, the sign's owner thought that Jesus' return wouldn't be that soon, because they felt had enough time to make another one. My problem: Jesus' return has been a long time; 2000 years, more or less, and we are still waiting. I know I'm not the only who ponders this question. Some argue that Jesus' return is through his Spirit. I partially buy that one. The Holy Spirit is the first fruits of the coming Kingdom, but the New Testament certainly thinks of Jesus' 'bodily' return (the parousia), and not just his presence through the Spirit. So here we have a dilemma: the imminent return of Jesus that hasn't been so imminent.

What got me thinking about all this is this week's reading from 1 Thessalonians 4: 9 -18; in particular verse 17: '... then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them (those who have died and now have been resurrected) to meet the Lord in the air...'. Some Christian groups describe this as the 'rapture'. It is a most curious text. What do we make of it; what do you make of it?


P.S. We will be doing some thinking around this @ connecT on Sunday night @ 5.30pm.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

All Saints

When we use the term saints we often picture the great saints of the Christian faith: St Francis of Assisi or one of the apostles, or a great bishop or evangelist, for example. We rarely think of ourselves in that category: I certainly don't. However, when we pay a little more attention to the New Testament we realise that the saints that are mentioned there are just simple followers of Jesus. The New Testament understands the 'holy ones' to be people just like you and me who are doing their best to be true to their Christian callings.

When I reflect on this week's Gospel reading, Matthew 5: 1 - 12, I realize that most of the things mentioned in the list of beatitudes are things we rarely choose in lives: poverty, death, starvation, mercy, purity, peacemaking, persecution, and being bullied. These things can come to us, but they are rarely sought. I think that is right, too. Who would really like to be poor and hungry, or mourning and bullied? None of us, and we wouldn't want that for others, either. Being blessed, being holy, being a saint, means being supported by God's grace. It is by God's graciousness that there is special place in the kingdom for those whose lives seem to be without blessing.

Looking at the world around us with kingdom eyes we see then that those who appear to be the least are in fact those who will be 'great in heaven', and those who think themselves to be great will be the 'least'. The challenge before you and me is to just simply follow Jesus, and to follow Jesus simply.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Give to Caesar

This Sunday at connecT we are spending some time talking around Matthew 22: 21: 'Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's'. Some argue that this text is about separating church and state, or excluding faith perspectives in political discussion. It has been used to try and exclude Christians from sharing a Christian perspective on issues such as asylum seekers, poverty and greed, war, and other moral and ethical issues. Some argue that people of faith should leave their faith behind, and speak solely from a secular perspective on political issues. There is in the modern mindset the myth that we can separate things, such as faith and politics, in a bi-polar fashion. It is called dualism, and Jesus is not advocating dualism here, I believe.

The foundational issue for the Pharisees and Herodians was about paying taxes. Paying taxes to Caesar was seen as an insult to them; especially so, when it included the image of an alternative deity to God: Caesar 1). Jesus' simple question/answer: whose head is on it? Caesar's: well give it back to him, then. My take on this: put God first, and then everything else falls into place. Money has its place, paying taxes has its place, being engaged in politics, certainly, has its place. In fact, putting God first enables us to make sure all the other things are put in their rightful place. It isn't about separation, but inclusion. Including what we call the 'secular' into the broader vision of God's Kingdom, which is inclusive of all things. It is also about not be distracted away from the bigger task of proclaiming by word and action God's reign on earth.

Now: your thoughts?


Tom Wright, 2012, Twelve Months of Sundays: Biblical meditations on the Christian yearYear A Proper 24, (SPCK, London) p. 115

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Recently, I received an email addressed ‘Dear Christ’. It was obvious that the writer had meant to have put ‘Dear Chris’: thanks, nonetheless, for the compliment! However, it made me give some thought to the issue of Christ likeness. During this part of the year we are being treated to St Paul’s wonderful letter to the Philippians. It is often regarded as Paul’s most positive letter, and is filled with ‘joy, friendship and thanksgiving’[1]. It is an encouraging letter, but only if we grasp Paul’s central point that we endeavour to have ‘the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2: 5). Philippians chapter 2, and the hymn that is contained within it (Vv 6 – 11), is regarding as being at the very centre of Paul’s theology; certainly at the heart of the letter to the Philippians.  The hymn speaks of Jesus’ humility and his reversion of status: ‘who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...’ (Philippians 2: 6 -7).

Humility is something that if you say you have it, you obviously don’t. In Jesus we find the true model of humility. Biblical scholar, Michael Gorman, calls this Cruciformity: a wonderful word whereby Christians are shaped by the cross of Jesus into Christ like humility. Humility is something that shapes us, rather than something we shape. Paul begins chapter 2 by encouraging the Philippians ‘in humility to regard others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2: 3 – 4). This perception of others we might call a circle of deference: humility encircles and permeates the Christian community creating a people shaped by cruciform love. So often we all look to increase our status or try to have ‘one up’ on someone else, but Paul reminds us that this is not the way of Christ, and it is not the way of Christ likeness.

[1] Gorman, M 2004, Apostle of the crucified Lord: a theological introduction to Paul and his letters, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids/Cambridge) P. 412.