• Service times

    Services times are:

    Saturday night 7:30 pm for our Chinese/English service. (Pastor Daniel Choi.)

    Sunday 10 am for our English language service (Senior Pastor Jeff Whittaker).

    Sunday 11:30 am for our Chinese (Mandarin) language service. (Pastor Daniel Choi.)

  • Contact details…

    Physical and postal address:
    4 Inverary Avenue,
    Epsom,
    Auckland 1023,
    NEW ZEALAND.

    Email:
    epsombaptist@gmail.com

    Telephone:
    (0064 9) 6306010

    Contacts:
    Rev. Jeff Whittaker
    Pastor Daniel Choi

  • Church Officers…

    Church Treasurers: Christina King and Li Ying

    Church Secretary: Margaret Whittaker

    Church Deacons: Anne Bartley, Ian de Stigter, Kristy Choi, Willa Hui, Donglan Zhang and Alfred Zhou.

Looking at prophets (again)…

My blog from a couple of day’s ago – ‘The calling to be a prophet’ – prompted a response in the form of a couple of questions and a comment, viz: First, were the prophets confined to a certain period of Israel’s history? Second (and this is related to the first), what do you think a prophet (satisfying your description) would look like today? [Since most nations weren’t necessarily founded on a covenant with God, I would assume that the message would be for the church rather than for the nation the prophet lived in (otherwise the ‘diagnosis’ stage wouldn’t seem very valid).]

First, Israel’s prophetic ministry runs from Moses through to Jesus and John the Baptist, and beyond. That said, prophetic activity in Israel was concentrated from the time of Amos (around 750BCE) through to the post-exilic period. Interestingly, this corresponds to the so-called axial age, the period in which the universal religions arose independently around the world, and the stress in religion seemed to move from collective ritual to individual responsibility and participation.

To the implied question as to whether there were – are – prophets in the New Testament era, the answer is affirmative. The apostle Paul mentions prophecy in some of his letters. In 1 Thessalonians 5: 20, he instructs that the words of prophets are not to be despised, but instead tested. (It seems New Testament prophets were as unwelcome as Old Testament ones.) The covenant against which the New Testament prophet conducts his/her diagnosis is of course the new covenant enacted in Christ and sealed with his blood at the cross. Here, though, a difference arises. The Old Testament covenants contained curse clauses for disobedience to the agreed conduct expected in the covenant. The New Testament teaches that Christ took upon himself the curse of disobedience, destroyed its power through dying on the cross, and now offers forgiveness through his resurrected life.

I wonder, then, if the role of the New Testament prophets was to remind the churches to which they belonged what living ‘in Christ’ really entailed. This is a far cry from attempts to predict the future that are sometimes presented as prophetic activity, and a far cry from many of the so-called ‘words of knowledge’ that accompany some of today’s prophets. (I do know a man who, when converted to Christ, became aware that the internationally known pastor through whose ministry he had come to faith was interfering with boys. He shared his concerns with another pastor, but was ignored. Decades later, he was vindicated.)

As to the idea of the universality of covenant, the death of Christ at the cross and his subsequent resurrection is considered to usher in a covenant with the nations. We read hints of this sort of universality in the book of Isaiah, where First Isaiah’s prophecies seem to cycle through addressing the people of Judah and Israel, then extend out to the surrounding nations, before encompassing the whole of the created order.

1-19-Martin-Luther-King-ftr
Anyway, after that detour, we arrive at the second question: What would a prophet look like today? In answer, I’ll give two examples. First, Martin Luther King Jnr was a prophet. Interestingly, in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ King mentioned his reluctance to take up the role he had advocating for civil rights in the US, and then listed four steps required by any non-violent campaign. These were: Collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exists; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. I think that these four, together with his acknowledged reluctance to be so involved, correspond pretty well to the five marks of a prophet I wrote about a couple of days ago. King was assassinated. My second example is Bishop Oscar Romero from El Salvador. Romero was apparently chosen to be Arch-bishop of El Salvador because he was considered ‘safe.’ Certainly, his initial ministry emphasis was on piety and moral issues. But all that changed when a close friend was killed by gunmen acting for the rich elite of the country. Romero became a fiery prophetic voice in that land, fearlessly advocating for the poor. He also invited the oppressors to join the poor in the kingdom of God, to find their true place amongst believers. He became a martyr when shot celebrating the mass.

Romero headshot

So, dear correspondent, I trust that answers your questions. I think it poses a challenge to all who take upon themselves the name of ‘Christian.’

Advertisements

The calling to be a prophet…

I am partway through a sermon series on the book of Amos. It’s not an easy book to preach on. I was interested to find in my background reading that the book of Amos was neglected for centuries because of the absence of positive material. It seems that only a growing interest in social justice issues over the last couple of centuries has resulted in a re-discovery of Amos’ challenging words.

 Prophet Amos

My intention here, however, is not to examine the contents of the book of Amos. Rather, I want to reflect on the role of the prophet as we see it lived out in Amos and other biblical prophets. Now, there is little biographical information about Amos the person in the book. But that’s OK. We don’t need to know about the person of the prophet to be able to look at what the prophet does. From looking at Amos (the book), and other biblical prophets, I believe that there are five key components in the role of prophet, viz:

  • Reluctance: Most of the prophets are described as having been highly ambivalent about the call placed on their lives by God to act as a prophet. (This seems to be in marked contrast to today, when people seem to expect honour upon labelling themselves a prophet, rather than the opprobrium that was the biblical prophet’s typical lot.)
  • Diagnosis: Walter Brueggemann’s writings on the prophets make it clear that they were not people plucking ideas out of the spiritual ether. Rather, the prophets were people immersed in the details of the covenants enacted between God and God’s elected people. The condemnations announced by the prophets are thus found in general form in the covenants, particularly in the so-called curses that became active in event of failure by the elected people to uphold their side of the covenant agreement. The prophet’s unique calling was to see how these curses would work out in the milieu of the day.
  • Proclamation of God’s judgment: This, of course, proceeded from the diagnosis described above. The proclamation was made in words, yes, but often acted out in some symbolic way as well. (Many today seem to aspire to this aspect of prophetic ministry. Somehow they miss the fact that God often warned his prophets that they would be ignored – at best – or killed if things went badly.) The proclamations were often ambiguous, meaning that the prophet’s were able to ‘see’ in a general sense but not in detail. For example, Amos predicts that the king of Israel would fall by the sword. He didn’t. But his end did come.
  • Intercessor: Next, Shalom M Paul in his commentary on Amos from the Hermenaia series points out that many of the prophets were called to intercede for the very people to whom they were sent. That is, the prophet was not given the luxury of remote and uninvolved condemnation. They had to enter into the agony of wrestling in prayer on behalf of those who more often than not hated them violently.
  • Living sacrifice: Lastly, I believe that the prophets had to see themselves as living sacrifices, if they were lucky. We can see this in the book of Jonah, where Jonah tells the sailors to cast him into the sea so that they will be safe. If unlucky, the prophet became of real sacrifice as they were killed by those enraged by their message of condemnation. But whose sacrifice were they? I believe that they are God’s sacrifice of Godself (in the person of the called prophet), showing the lengths to which God goes to keep the covenant relationship alive.

Realistically, who would want to be a prophet without a calling from God? And yet many declare themselves so appointed. Let’s not take such people at their word. Let’s discern according to the criteria listed above whether or not God really has called them, or whether some other more base motive is involved.

Feed my lambs…

In February, I blogged about the structure of John’s gospel. I contended that John’s gospel is written with a chiastic structure. Today I want to explore part of that chiasm. In particular, I want to look at John 1: 19 – 34 and contrast this with John 21: 15 – 19.

In John 1: 19 – 34, John the Baptist is asked: “Who are you?” He answers with three negations. First he confesses that he is not the Messiah. Next he states that he is not Elijah. Then he tells his interlocutors that he is not the prophet. A few verses later, John the Baptist affirms Jesus three times. First, he declares: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Then he describes how Jesus is the One who baptizes people with the Holy Spirit. Finally John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the Son of God. So we have here three clarifications about who he – John the Baptist – is not, followed by three affirmations as to who Jesus is.

In John 21: 15 – 19, Peter is asked three times if he loves Jesus. (This of course follows from Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus in John 18. Chiastically, this part of John 18 pairs with John 3: 22 – 35 where Jesus is again affirmed by John the Baptist, although not with a clear three-fold pattern. Nevertheless, the chiastic pattern does seem to contrast John the Baptist – in the earlier chapters of the gospel – with Peter – in the later chapters.) Each time Peter responds positively, although in the Greek he uses a weaker word for love than that used by Jesus. And each time Peter is given a charge by Jesus: ‘Feed my lambs’, ‘tend my sheep,’ and then ‘feed my sheep.’

Lambs on Iona.

Lambs on Iona.

I wonder if this charge to Peter doesn’t anticipate the pressure that Jesus knew would come upon the Early Church. Who better to prepare young believers experiencing persecution to stand firm in their faith and not deny Jesus than the one – Peter – who knew the agony of denial and yet also the astringent joy of forgiveness and reinstatement. How would we deal with these pressures if they were to come upon us?

‘Signs’ in the gospel of John…

One of the distinctive features of the gospel of John is some series of sevens: for example the seven I AM sayings, and the seven ‘signs’ that Jesus performs. The signs are miracles that Jesus performs, and the surrounding text often includes a statement to the effect that the signs lead to belief in Jesus. So, when Jesus turns water into wine (John 2: 1 – 12), the reaction is (verse 11); his disciples believed in him. When Jesus clears the temple (John 2: 13ff), his right to undertake such an action is challenged by the Jewish leaders who demand: What sign can you show us for doing this? It seems that ‘signs’ were an accepted way of validating one’s right to perform certain (controversial?) actions. In our day, ‘signs’ are expected to persuade people of the truth claims of Christianity, or at least of certain Christian doctrines held by those claiming responsibility for the performance of the signs. I often get the impression that those who expect signs to function in this way think that the whole thing is quite straightforward, but end up puzzled as to why witnesses to amazing events don’t all respond with ignited faith.

traffic1

This is all very well. But we need to take a step back and ask: What is actually signified by various signs? To what do they point? There is considerable ambiguity here, and I want to explore some of that by quoting from Alister McGrath’s book ‘The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis,’ in particular the chapter entitled ‘Lewis’s Argument from Desire’ (p.114).

A core theme of Lewis’s “argument from desire” is that nature cannot, and is not meant to, satisfy our deepest desires. Nature is a sign of something beyond itself, not a self-signifying and self-referential closed system. Things within nature – what we see outside ourselves or experience within ourselves – point beyond themselves to “that indescribable thing of which they become for a moment the messengers.”

            Lewis’s semiology of inexpressibility hints at the liminality of such experiences, while at the same time emphasizes the risk of confusing the sign with the thing signified. Like Augustine before him, Lewis holds that we must know the thing that is signified before we can understand the sign itself. Signs prove nothing. They do not – and cannot – function as the premises of a deductive argument. The realization of the resonance between signum and significatum rests on a prior knowledge of the significatum, and the retrospective realization of the semiotic congruence with the signum.

And so, to what do the seven signs in John’s gospel point? Do they point to the incarnation, to Jesus’ self-description as ‘one sent from the Father’? Or do they point to a political entity that we call the kingdom of God? (Is this why the Jewish leaders are described in John 11: 47f as being concerned with the impact of the signs being performed by Jesus?)  I think the interaction of sign and belief is complex, and by no means obvious. (In much of John’s gospel Jesus argues precisely with those who have put their faith in him, as if they really don’t get what he is about either.) Signs: They point beyond themselves to something else, something other. What ‘signs’ have you experienced lately?

The structure of John’s Gospel…

As this year got under way, I began a sermon series on the gospel of John for our Sunday morning services. I had already been working my way through John’s gospel in my devotional  – Lectio Divina – reading. Aspects of my reading in the first few chapters piqued my curiosity, especially as relates to the figures of John the Baptist and Peter. An intriguing thought then emerged from my times of centering prayer. And so, I decided to explore an hypothesis: That John’s gospel is written as a chiastic structure. 

To check out my hypothesis, I listed all the chapters and against each one wrote out the headings included in my NRSV translation. I then began to see if there were any obvious matches, and I believe there are. For example, one can match the feeding of the 5000 in John chapter 6 with the account of the Last Supper in John 13. Another match is that between the call of the first disciples in John 1 and the resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples in John 21, both stressing the importance of seeing.

At the heart of this chiastic structure is John chapter 9. This chapter starts with the healing of the man born blind, and finishes with Jesus teaching on sightedness versus blindness. Within this context other important themes from John’s gospel emerge: Belief in Jesus, Jesus as one sent from the Father, obedience to the Father’s will as more important than ritual observance. (The illustration below shows my take on the chiastic patterns in the middle part of the gospel.)

Chiasm John 2.2.14 copy

Now, a simple investigation via your favourite search engine will show that chiastic structures are found everywhere in the Bible. Arranging text in chiastic patterns seems to be a common technique for writing memorable text. But no-one, from my research of a number of commentaries, has ever claimed that John’s gospel has been arranged chiastically. Am I seeing patterns where in fact none exist? I don’t think so. And the preaching series has certainly made the gospel of John come alive in a new way for myself and my listeners. Maybe you could check out my hypothesis for yourself, and see if the gospel doesn’t open with new horizons of vision.

Prayer, confession, and healing in James…

In my previous blog on the book of James, I noted that I believe James to belong to the genre of wisdom literature. Further, I suggested that the book of James concentrates on one issue: How rich and poor can live together in the body of Christ.

Now, at the end of James chapter 5 is some teaching on healing. Verses 13 – 20  appear to constitute a stand alone section, with straightforward instruction on prayer, confession and anointing for healing. However, I wonder if we too easily miss the wider context, and how it may colour what this section is actually about.

anointing of the sick 1

All through the book, James has been exhorting the poor to have faith and to be patient as God works out responses to their cries for help. Similarly, James is full of warnings to the rich about the transience of their wealth and how they are to be upright and generous with their riches. And at several points James warns about loose speech, including the incongruity of believers cursing others. Could these others be fellow believers? Could the rich be struggling with the temptation to malign their poorer fellow believers whom they regard as grasping and envious? Could the poor be struggling with the temptation to malign their richer fellow believers whom they regard as hard-hearted and stingy? Therefore, could it be that James is instructing rich and poor to get together, and confess their economic struggles to one another?

The healing being talked about involves the whole church. Members are confessing their sins, including issues to do with money, to one another. The elders are involved, praying for the sick and anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. I believe that we can read these verses as teaching that genuine healing may include the church dealing with issues of economic inequality between members. If you’re tempted to dismiss such a reading of this text, then reading either ‘The Spirit Level’ or ‘The Price of Inequality’ may be salutary.

Reading James 5: 13 – 20 in this way is challenging. It’s even more challenging for us in the West, when we consider that some of our brothers and sisters in the majority really do need our economic help.

Wisdom from James…

Recently I preached a short (five) sermon series on the book of James. The peculiarities of this book are well known. Martin Luther wrote it off as a ‘strawy epistle,’ disliking what he perceived as its emphasis on works rather than the marvelous grace that he had encountered in the book of Romans. (In fact, Romans does address right behaviour as well. The differences between the two books are usually overdrawn.) I think a lot of the struggle we have with James is a result of missing its genre. Scattered throughout James are statements that could well have been plucked from Proverbs. For example, James 1: 5 reads: If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God… and James 3: 13: Who is wise and understanding among you? To me, these references to wisdom, along with treatment of themes also familiar from Proverbs (speech, right action) mark out the book of James as belonging to the Wisdom genre. James is, I believe, a New Testament Wisdom book.

wisdom

As interesting as that is, I think that the overarching concern of the book of James is also often misunderstood. This may be due to a cultural blind-spot. I think that the issue that James addresses is this: How do rich and poor get on within the body of Christ, in fact within the same church? James is redolent with references to two groups: the lowly poor, and the rich. Encouragements to the poor to have patience, to be rich in faith, and to watch how they speak of others (their rich brothers and sisters?) abound. Similarly, the rich are advised to reflect on the transience of riches, to use their money for the relief of their poor brothers and sisters, in fact to mourn riches hoarded rather than used wisely.

As the world shrinks with telecommunications, the book of James must surely be becoming ever more relevant to the issue of how can believers in the first world live rightly by poor believers in the developing world. Similarly, for those believers in the developing world, James has wisdom to live by. What does James – this New Testament Wisdom book dealing with the way rich and poor live together in the body of Christ – say to you?