God's Word for today

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Jesus. The Way. The Truth. The Life.

What is the mission of the Christian Church?  In Luke 4: 18-19, Jesus declares his mission from God, using this direct quotation from Isaiah 58: 6 as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour."

The Boshoff Street Methodist Church in downtown Pietermaritzburg has been partaking in this mission since 1882, and the picture shown is of the inside of the church building, with its choir pews upon which wooden carvings of the words "Jesus.  The Way.  The Truth.  The Life" have been mounted.

Sadly, the choir is no more.  In fact, the congregation this morning comprised six attendees.  For reasons that I'm not at liberty to go into here, this once-thriving congregation has declined to its current sad state.  Yes, granted, the demographics have of the inner city have changed, and many people now worship at one the many suburban churches that have sprung up over the years, both Methodist churches and those of other denominations.  But these factors are not the full story.  Suffice to say that there have been issues brewing for a number of years, culminating in a recent upheaval that included the resignation of the former minister and the mass-exodus of a substantial portion of the membership.

With the Circuit looking to consolidate the ministry work in the inner city, and now this latest crisis, one could be forgiven for sensing that the vultures are circling.  And the question on the lips of those faithful few, who remain committed to a Society that may not be dead yet but is showing serious signs of coughing up blood, is this: Where to from here?  Is this it?  Is God finished with ministry at Boshoff Street?

Perhaps the beginnings of a possible answer to this question lies in the sermon that Rev Diane Worringham conducted this morning.  Preaching from John 11: 1-6; 17-37, which is the well-known account of the death of Lazarus, she asked, among other things, the question most of us would have asked if we were Mary or Martha: "Jesus, we sent for you - why on earth did it take you four days to get here?"  One can sense the anguish in Martha's voice when she said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died".

I must confess, with apologies to Diane, that my attention began to wander at this point, for I was beginning to say the same of Boshoff Street Methodist Church: "Lord, if you had been here, this church would not have died".  And in the same way that Jesus wept when he saw that Lazarus had indeed died, I believe that he is also weeping for Boshoff Street.

But when one goes back a few verses, we read that Jesus said to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die".  And it was at this point that my eyes became fixed on the empty choir pews, and the words inscripted thereon.  "Jesus.  The Way.  The Truth.  The Life".

I must confess that I had questioned why the Seminary had chosen to attach me (together with two of my colleagues) to Boshoff Street for the remainder of my stay at SMMS.  After all, I've been happy at Prestbury, getting involved with ministry to the senior citizens (which included monthly services at the Sunnyside retirement village).  What is our brief, anyway?  Are we here to bring about healing?  Or are we here simply to give this nearly 130-year-old Methodist witness a decent and dignified burial?

Yet as I sat there, looking firstly at the choir pews, then secondly into the eyes of the six congregants as we shared the benediction, I had a deep sense that somehow God is not yet finished with Boshoff Street.

Time will tell.  At this stage, our task is to be faithful, diligent, and caring - and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  And to help the Boshoff Street congregation rediscover that Jesus is indeed The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


As I sat down in front of my computer, I smashed my big toe against the desk.  Sometimes I'm convinced that the reason why God gave me toes is so that I can find my furniture in the dark...


Sunday, 3 April 2011

Big words I sometimes don't fully understand

I've been having some interesting online discussions around the "Blogroll" that Mark Penrith has published on his blog, Because He Lives - mainly because, in an attempt to provide himself with a sort of "ready reference" of where various Christian bloggers stand theologically, he has attempted to classify the various bloggers according to their denominational affiliation (or non-affiliation, where applicable), and provide a basic theological framework that each blogger subscribes to.

As is normal with classifications such as this, there is often a degree of subjectivity involved, which Mark readily acknowledges - accompanied by a great deal of good-humoured leg-pulling as we compare our different labels (in pretty much the same way as a Sharks / Bulls debate or one over whether or not Sri Lanka's fast bowler Malinga "chucks" or not).

But then there was an interesting request from "Elmarie" (who is / was? also a regular contributor to website Discerning The World), asking Mark to include Biblical Christianity as a sub-category along with Calvinism and Arminianism.  This led me to question what is understood by the term "Biblical Christianity".  Together with my question, I made the statement that "I don’t consider myself to be a literalist, yet I regard myself as a Biblical Christian".

A response to this statement by "Grant" was somewhat surprising.  Although he stopped short of branding me as a heretic, he was clearly purturbed by my statement, questing whether my position is "even attainable by an individual?  To me [Grant] that is like saying: 'I don’t consider myself to be literate, yet I regard myself as being able to read'."

Well, either Grant has misunderstood my question, or I've misunderstood the term "literalism", which led me to fire up the trusty Free Online Dictionary, which defines literalism as follows: "(1) Adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine; and (2) Literal portrayal; realism."

Very few (if any) people use language that is always meant to be taken in a literal sense.  For instance, in South Africa, when one refers to a usually used and invariably neglected car as a "dog", they don't mean that this four-wheeled vehicle has become a four-legged canine animal.  Rather, the term figuratively means that the car is a "lemon" (to use the equivalent American metaphor) - it is dilapidated, in poor condition, and likely to be extremely unreliable.

Using a simple example from Scripture (appropriate, since I am a simple person), let's have a quick look at the version of Matthew 16: 18 in the Good News Bible: "And so I tell you, Peter: you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it."

Jesus was obviously not literally saying that Peter was a boulder, and He was probably not even referring to the rocky outcrop of the area in which this statement was made to literally denote the physical building of a church, either.  In the original Greek, Peter's name - petros - means "rock", or more specifically, "smaller rock".  Jesus used this metaphor to depict Peter as the kind of person, who has seen Jesus for who He really is, to carry forth the message that Jesus is the Messiah - at the appointed time.  However, the "rock" on which Jesus will build His church - petra - depicts a firm foundation.  This firm foundation on which the church will be built will be Jesus Himself.

Clearly the use of the two Greek words for "rock" are not meant to be taken literally.

The fact that I have explored and (hopefully) understood the metaphors used, and the context in which they are used, means that I would not be a literalist in this sense.  Yet, if I have understood the truth of this passage correctly, and accepted it as being God's Word, then I can at the same time claim to be a Biblical Christian.

Another example would be Deuteronomy 22: 22, in which the penalty for anyone caught in adultery is death by stoning.  If a literalist were to in fact encounter such a person engaging in adultery, he or she would be duty-bound to ensure that the guilty parties receive the mandated punishment.  Failure to do so, according to my understanding of literalism, would be to fail to be a Biblical Christian.

So am I saying, then, that being contextual is Biblical and being literal is not?  Not exactly - besides, there are a number of passages in Scripture that appear to be self-evident on the face of it.  However, if one is to admit - however grudgingly - that all Christians do apply some degree of contextualisation, the challenge, if one wants to honour Scripture, is to discern which passages are contextual, and which ones are of universal application.  (The two terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, either!)

Anyway, over to the theological "brains trust" for comment and discussion.  But please, lay off the "flame wars" (whether contextual in terms of hurling abuse at me on this blog, or literal in terms of trying to set fire to me with a flame-thrower) - I'm not trying to score theological brownie-points, but rather am earnestly seeking to grow closer and closer to Jesus each day.

It's a journey, folks - none of us can claim to have "arrived"...