Archive for December, 2013

The heart of whiteness

Posted: December 29, 2013 by J in Bible, Church, Mission, Theology

We’re on holidays. We wanted to visit another church. I checked out a few on the web. Churches not too far from us, here in Sydney’s multicultural Georges River region.

Churches often put up photos of their congregation. You can learn a lot from those photos. D- Baptist church for example. D- is a very multicultural suburb. D-Baptist’s photo – all anglos. White guys. The whole lot.

C- Presbyterian: same story. Very mixed neighbourhood. Church photo: white guys only.

I wasn’t that keen. So we attended P- Anglican Church. It’s in a very Asian area. We went in. The congregation was nearly all Anglo. One Asian lady. One greek-looking bloke. The rest were white. The greek bloke turned out to be about third generation aussie. Culturally he was Anglo.

I’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over again, over the years I’ve been living in this area. It’s the same at church after church. Protestant church, that is.

Does this seem like a problem to anyone? No one much seems to comment on it. Well, I’m commenting today.

There’s the obvious: how long can our churches hope to exist if they remain little islands of whiteness? If they can’t adapt to their localities, what future do they have? In fact, they’re pretty much all smaller now than they were ten years ago.

But to my mind there’s bigger, more important problem than mere survival: what do our congregations say about Jesus? If our neighbourhood is multiethnic, but our church is white/Anglo – what message does that send? What sort of Jesus are we preaching to our communities? Because we are preaching Jesus – every day by existing as the community of Jesus in our suburb we project a message about the Lord who has created us. The hidden wisdom of God is made known to a watching world by who we are (Ephesians 3).

In short, our congregational life is a Christological issue. The ethnic makeup of our congregations is a Christological issue.

Our islands of whiteness – what do they say about Jesus? At worst, they say ‘Jesus is lord of all – all white europeans that is‘. This is a disgraceful heresy.

But lets be optimistic, let’s minimise the problem for a moment. Our Anglo enclaves, what’s the best case scenario for what they tell the world about Jesus?

At best they say, ‘Jesus saves people – but only separately by cultural group. He does not bring people together to make them one.‘ This Jesus is effective at the level of the individual. But at the level of the whole creation – ineffective. The wisdom of God – the secret that the nations are now reunited in Christ (Ephesians 3) – is rendered untrue. White segregation and privilege, and all the violence implied in those things, continue under Jesus’ rule.

I think it’s very likely that people looking at us get that message. I know people from other cultures and religions who think exactly that.

Seems to me that whichever way you look at it, our Anglo-enclaves are a gospel problem.

And I don’t feel that comforted by those who say ‘The unity of God’s people across cultures is a heavenly reality which we will only see in heaven – not on earth.’ It’s not that convincing is it – why would Jesus be able to do something then which he cannot do now? Isn’t it the church on earth which is supposed to make known the hidden wisdom of God regarding fellowship across cultures (Ephesians 2-3)?

No, I fear that our Sydney Protestant churches are in danger of living a heresy and distorting, by their very existence, the message of Christ.

I want to nominate this is the problem facing Sydney’s Protestant churches in the 21st century. Sydney’s future is multi-ethnic. This issue which has so dominated our church life in the Georges River region will come to dominate throughout Sydney before too long.

Possibly the solution is not simple, no doubt there are other problems lying behind this one. But this is the presenting issue, the point at which our troubles are focussed and most apparent.

Unless we can resolve this – I don’t say we will not grow – I say I hope we do not grow. If your churches are islands of whiteness, the last thing you want is for those islands to get bigger.

We evangelicals don’t seem to know what to do with the NT letter of James. Luther famously called it ‘the epistle of straw’. He actually questioned its place in the canon, because he didn’t find any gospel in it.

Some evangelicals get keen on James, but they tend to be the active, ministry minded types who frown on the slackness of the rest of us and like the way James gives us a lashing. The not-very-gracious types, in other words. Other evangelicals just try to avoid the letter.

What is lacking is Christians who are able to integrate James into their gospel faith, rather than doing a Jeckyl and Hyde, grace and law kind of split personality Christian act.

This stalemate situation has persisted for a long time. Here at The Grit we’re suspicious of this sort of thing. (We’re suspicious of many things).

Today I’m ready to question our problem with James. I’m just not convinced about it. The early church clearly felt ok about him – he’s in the canon. So what’s the problem these days?

Here’s what I’ve noticed: when I read James, I keep getting reminded of Luke’s Gospel. It seems to share many of the same preoccupations. After spending the last two years with my head in Luke-Acts, I am finding Luke-style gospel material all through James.

For example:

– the letter is written to the poor, the weak and the oppressed, facing painful trials: exactly the people Jesus includes in his new covenant when he comes down from the mountain (Luke 6). “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom …? “

– these ones are to rejoice in being raised up by God (like in Luke 6:23), and set their hope on the crown of life that follows the painful trial. I.e. In James’s view discipleship takes part in Jesus’ story of death then resurrection. It is gospel shaped.

– James accordingly warns the rich and powerful and those who side with them that they are on the wrong side of the kingdom: the very people warned by Jesus (see Luke’s sermon on the mount, Luke 6).

– participating in Jesus’ kingdom is about siding instead with the poor and despised. This is of the essence of Christian faith: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, keeping oneself from being polluted by the (power-loving) world. ” Jesus’ habit of caring for these ones is emphasised throughout Luke-Acts: he saw this as the heart of his calling, for his gospel was ‘for the poor’ (Luke 4: 18f).

–  James refers to something Christians look at, which he calls ‘the royal law, the law of freedom’. Whose law do you think that might be? The king’s? Freedom is what Jesus announces when he comes as King of Israel, in Luke (Luke 4:18ff). Luke presents Jesus’ kingdom as  kind of new torah or law, a new mode of living (Luke 6). James describes the gospel in these same terms. The royal law of freedom is a brilliant way to describe the gospel of Jesus to a Jewish audience.

-here is James’s take on Christian life, in his opening paragraphs: “By his will he gave us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” In other words, God is restoring and renewing the whole creation by the gospel of Christ, and the church is the beginning of that future, now. Just like in Peter’s sermon, Acts 3:19-21.  NT eschatology is very strong in James.

– the gospel then is seen as God’s powerful word of salvation, unless it is resisted. Resisting it is, of course, what Israel did, rejecting King Jesus when he arrived at his city. In its nationalistic fervour and aggression Israel refused to receive his vision for a kingdom of peace (Luke 19:42). It preferred the path of strife and war, which it took soon afterwards. So James says “Therefore, get rid of all the impurity and abundance of strife by gentleness. Receive the word planted in you, which can save you…do not merely listen to the word…”

– so James’s gospel is a call to Jewish Christians to embrace the peace that Jesus preached. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  20 because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

– for James the gospel word is deeply transformative. It brings change to all who receive it: “he gave us birth through the word of truth”. It effects new creation.

That’s chapter 1. The rest of the letter is pretty much the outworking of those themes.

– You can’t profess faith in Jesus and favour the rich, and neglect the poor. Faith that does that is dead. (ch.2)

– The peacemaking of the kingdom of God involves transforming the tongue, so that it no longer creates strife but friendship. (ch.3-4)

– The poor, oppressed, sick and troubled need perseverance to inherit the kingdom when the Lord returns. The rich will then be overthrown. (ch.5)

I’m not suggesting Lukan authorship of James! I’m suggesting that they are singing from the same song-sheet. Like Luke, James is totally on about understanding what God is doing bringing his kingdom through Jesus. He calls people to participate in that by truly embracing the gospel of Jesus. He’s on about letting that gospel do its transforming work so that we take part in the renewal of the creation. He especially challenges Jews about the ways they tend to resist this gospel. Just like Luke.

So anyone who doesn’t like James had better be prepared to deal with Luke also. And he wrote one quarter of the NT!

In other words, James is stuffed full of gospel like a Santa sack is full of presents.


Why do we stumble at James? Why can’t we find the gospel there? Seems to me we’ve got a straw man, rather than a straw epistle. Anyone who can’t hear the gospel in this epistle, has a problem.

Martin Luther’s disappointment with James casts some serious doubt over the great reformer’s understanding of the gospel. And how about the church movement he sparked off (ours)?

The-return-from-Egypt.-James-Tissot.And there’s one other big surprise here, the way Matthew retells the exodus story. When I was a kid I loved the TV show Battlestar Galactica. Whole family huddle around the tube, our eyes popping out of our heads. Apollo, Boomer, our hero was always Starbuck. A bit of a cowboy. Got into fights, talked too plainly, always offending his superior officers. Starbuck. Recently I watched the new version of Battlestar G. Do you know what they’ve done to Starbuck, the hero? They’ve turned him into a chick. A woman! She still gets into fist fights and all that. But she’s a blond! What a shock to the system. Heaps of the old fans of the original series wrote in complaining about what they did to Starbuck!

Matthew does something similar here. One of the reasons the people of Israel loved the exodus story so much is because they were the main character. But let’s take a look at the main character in Matthew’s new version of the exodus story:

Out of Egypt I called my son: that’s how God described the original exodus. The son, that was Israel, the nation. God’s chosen people.

But look what Matthew does with that. V14.

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 

In the new version Matthew is telling us, God once again calls his son out from Egypt. But when the son comes out of Egypt, it’s just one boy. That little boy does the whole exodus by himself. Do you see what Matthew’s done? He’s changed the main character. That would be a shock to any Jewish person who heard this story.

You see, Israel thought the great hope for the world was – them. They thought they were the answer to the world’s problems. God’s chosen people! They would show the world the way to freedom. But we’ve seen haven’t we how Israel’s escape to freedom went horribly wrong.

out of Egypt I called my son. 
but the more I called them,
the more they turned from me;

Now God is calling out his son again. A new exodus. And this time, that son comes obediently. Faithfully. The more God calls, the more this son follows. He follows for his whole life, even when God calls him to go to the cross. Finally a true exodus. Someone has left sin behind and walked with God. But the son who followed is not the people of Israel! The story has a new main character: quite a surprise: It’s Jesus.

Friends the message of the gospel is this: there is someone who has achieved freedom and new life. Someone who can give you a fresh start. It’s JESUS. There is finally a way out of our sins and troubles. Jesus is the Saviour who can help us and heal us.

The people of Israel couldn’t do it. The rulers and politicians couldn’t do it: they often end up making things worse, like Herod. Time won’t improve things. We’re no better now than we were 2000 years ago. The bloodshed goes on around the world. Time won’t heal things. Jesus will heal things. He can heal you. Jesus can bring you out from the crushing weight of evil and fear and hatred. He can give you a new relationship with God as your father. He can heal your broken relationships with other people. You can have a fresh start.  It’s all free, you don’t have to earn it. You can’t deserve it. But it’s all been done, God has given us this gift, his son Jesus. And Jesus has done the job. He is our way to freedom.

Matthew retells the exodus story but he switches the locations, and he switches the main character. The message for us is, our lives are not the happy healthy places we pretend they are. We are not in control the way we like to think. We need to get real. But there is hope for the future. The exodus story got rerun, an updated version. Jesus did it. And this time, it worked. There is now freedom and new life available. And you are invited to join in. You just come near and give yourself to Jesus, to share in everything he has won for us.

Christmas Message part 3: Get Real.

Posted: December 25, 2013 by J in General


The exodus went horribly wrong. The promised freedom never arrived. Instead of being the promised land, now it’s become a land of horror and bloodshed. The land that wants to kill the baby.

This is very interesting for us today isn’t it. We live in the lucky country. The land of freedom. We have everything here. On the surface it seems like life is good.

Around our area, there are lots of people who like to buy flash cars: BMWs, Alfa Romeos, Audis, you know. And you look at them driving past, and you think, wow they’re doing well for themselves. But I’ve gradually got to know some of those people, and I’ve discovered that may of them take out loans to buy those cars. They look great, but what the car really says is, this guy is in debt.

I reckon our lives are a bit like that. Most of us like to seem like we’re going ok, don’t we. The people with the problems, they’re the other guys. Not us. You know, the criminals, the bikies, the druggies, the ones who abuse their wives, people over in Syria and Egypt. It’s the others that have messed up lives. Our lives are pretty nice – we enjoy freedom.

But scratch beneath the surface of our lives, and you’ll find some ugly things. Some disturbing things. Our lives are not as beautiful, not as free as we like to think. Many people are being crushed and damaged in our city. So many people are damaged by discrimination and racism. The rich despise those less well off and exploit them. Unskilled workers are ground down by their employers – many suffering under injustice for years, and never finding a voice to speak out.

Our homes are not safe havens either. So many people live in abusive family situations, where their loved ones hurt them. We also carry a heavy burden of addictions and obsessions: most families I know in Canterbury are plagued by addictions. We like to think we’re in control of our lives, but these dark forces push us around and enslave us.

And then there’s hatred and fear. So many people nursing secret bitterness, hidden hatreds, jealousies. Sometimes, under pressure they burst out. Hatred and fear of brothers or sisters. Hatred and fear of foreigners and migrants. Of women. Of the next door neighbours. Of people who are different. People talk to me and tell me their stories and their thoughts, and so often the bitterness they are nursing comes to the surface. Its everywhere. We have police and prisons so things don’t usually go as far as murder and violence. But what would our neighbourhood be like if you took away the laws? Took away the police? Bloodshed. Hatred and fear have us in their grip.

Just like Israelites, we like to think, We’re ok. We’re in the good country. We’re free. We’re nice people. But the horror followed Israel, it came out of Egypt with them, and turned the promised land into a place of fear. It turned out the evil was inside them. And it’s inside us still today. In our familes. And many people in our church family have been touched by these things over and over again: violence and abuse, addictions, family bitterness and fears, workplace hatreds and strife, marriage breakdown. This isn’t about someone else: this is about us.

The gospel of Jesus confronts us with reality. It says to us, ‘Get real.’ Things are not ok for you. You need help. Big time. I think this is why so many people liked the movie The Matrix. Remember it? Life seemed so happy and simple, but underneath that surface veneer was a very different reality. I’ll never forget the moment when Neo wakes up and finds out what’s really going on: it’s scarey. That story resonates with people. We know, in the back of our minds, that things are not right. The gospel comes and says to us ‘wake up! Get real!’

I think in the church we’ve let people down at this point. We’ve always taught people about the guilt of sin. You’re guilty before God and you need forgiveness. Well that’s true, but what we’ve failed to teach is the evil of sin. The misery of it. The damage, the destruction it brings into our lives. The way it enslaves us. That’s what these Gospels are always emphasising. We should have emphasised this too, over the past 1000 years or so!

Here we are, Jesus has only just been born and already he is surrounded by murder. He’s in the promised land but He needs to escape! And we need to escape from sin too. We need rescue.

So it’s the old exodus story, but the locations have been reversed. the promised land has become an Egypt. That would be a big shock to a Jewish person hearing this story.

Christmas Message part 2: the first surprise

Posted: December 24, 2013 by J in Bible


There are some surprises here.

First, Matthew changes the locations, the setting. Remember how the exodus revolved around two countries: Egypt the land of slavery and Israel, the promised land of freedom. Look what happens in the new version of the story.

After they were gone, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up! Take the child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him.”  14 So he got up, took the child and His mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. 

Flee to Egypt! Really?  The place this boy runs from is not Egypt but Judea, in the land of Israel. But Israel now takes the place Egypt used to have in the story – the dark, dangerous, bloody prison land. Israel is now where the baddies are.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

The massacre of the children, that was supposed to happen in Egypt. That’s part of the exodus story. But here it is happening right at home, in Judea, right in the heart of the promised land. Meanwhile Egypt – it becomes the place of safety, the refuge Jesus runs to. See, everything has been reversed. turned back to front. It’s a bit confusing!

What Matthew is saying is, Israel has gone wrong. He quotes these words from the prophets: V.15 out of Egypt I called my son. That’s Israel God’s talking about. Israel his son, God called them to come out of slavery and into freedom. Come out, my son. The whole prophecy goes like this:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more I called them,
the more they turned from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.           Hosea 11 

The exodus went horribly wrong. The promised freedom never arrived. Instead of being the promised land, now it’s become a land of horror and bloodshed. ‘Kill all the boys!’

This challenges us too. We live in the lucky country. The land of freedom. We have everything here. On the surface it seems like life is good…

Our Christmas Message

Posted: December 23, 2013 by J in Bible

We’ve chosen to go through Matthew chapters 1-2 this year for Christmas. The final talk, this Sunday is on Matthew 2: 13-23. “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

I’ll post it over the next few days.


Matthew 2:13-23                Jesus and the new exodus

Do you have a favourite book that’s been turned into a movie? Or a favourite movie that’s been remade, an updated version?

An old story told new. It might be The Hobbit. Or maybe Titanic. Or Batman. And you watch it anxiously: will it be as good as the original?. Will they change things? Baz Luhrmann redid Romeo Juliet in the 90s, in his version they drove fast cars and carried guns. When you retell a story, it gives you the chance to play around with it, to say new things. Throw in a few surprises.

In this passage in Matthew ch. 2, the writer Matthew takes the Jewish people’s favourite story, and gives it an update. And the new version is full of surprises.

It helps if you know the old version! Every Jewish family knew it. It’s the beginning of people of God. Birth of nation Israel. It goes like this: the Hebrew people are trapped in Egypt. Pharaoh has made them slaves. He is crushing them with hard labour, he is killing all their boys. ‘Throw them into the Nile River!’ The baby Moses is hidden from Pharaoh’s men in the reeds at the river’s edge, floating in a basket.

Moses survives, grows up. Later Pharaoh gets so angry with Moses he tried again to kill him, and Moses has to flee for his life. Leaves Egypt. Eventually the whole people Israel do the same. The have to get out. They run for their lives, heading for the promised land. It’s Israel’s favourite story: it’s the story of the exodus. And it revolves around two lands: the land of Egypt (=death) and the land of Israel (=life).

Every year as the passover festival, Jewish families would gather and retell the story, and roast their lamb and sing their songs and remember. Remember the day of their freedom. The day God rescued them out of slavery, into his land.

Now Matthew tells us a new story: the story of Jesus. But he does a slightly naughty thing. He confuses the readers a bit by throwing in lots of bits of the old exodus story. He’s making this a kind of updated version. Playing the role of the baby Moses, there’s this new baby called Jesus. And in the role of Pharaoh, there’s a local ruler: Herod. A murderer.

All the elements of the old story are here: the evil ruler crushes God’s people, kills their boys – that’s Herod. One special family hides their son, saves him from the slaughter. That’s Mary and Joseph. The hero must escape, run away to safety before he is killed: that’s Jesus. It’s the old story of the exodus, only it’s been updated.

If we listen to Matthew’s new version of the old story, it contains an unexpected message, a message to challenge us. Let’s take a few minutes to see what Matthew does with this favourite old story.

There are some shocking surprises here…