Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Milestone of Sorts

Only time for a short blog today as I need to put the finishing touches to 5 short talks I am recording this afternoon for the radio.

I wanted to blog today because 30 years ago on June 28 I was ordained deacon in the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chester in the UK.  Not having any other opportunity to mark the occasion I thought I could at least remember it here.

I have just been on the Cathedral website and was intrigued to discover, and not a little disappointed, that it makes very little mention of the name preferring just Chester Cathedral.  I wonder why this is!

Monday, June 27, 2011

It's the start of a new week so before I get sucked into all the stuff that awaits, I thought that I would post the
second in this new series on Romans!

Introducing Romans - Part 2: A Letter from Corinth

So what can we be certain of?

Well you would think that the first thing would be that Paul wrote it!  In fact, in Romans 16:22 we read these words: ‘I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.’  Tertius means by this that he wrote it down, that he was the person that Paul dictated it to.  Does this matter?  Well, it is, perhaps, a gentle reminder that Paul wrote the letter according to the writing conventions of the day and that when trying to understand what it means it needs to be read as a first century letter not a modern piece of theological writing.

It seems likely that it was written during the Winter of 57 to 58 from Corinth, a church closely associated with Paul and one which he did establish.  Romans is unique amongst Paul’s letters in that all his other letters were written either to churches he himself had established or to people he knew well.  Although Paul hadn’t established the Church in Rome and hadn’t even been there at the time of writing the letter, this didn’t mean he didn’t know about the Church there.

He writes at the beginning of the letter:  ‘First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.’  (Romans 1:8)  This could be taken as hyperbole or mere flattery were it not for the fact in Romans 16, at the end of the letter, Paul sends greetings to a long list of people at Rome whom he obviously knows well including Priscilla and Aquilla, who were his co-workers in Asia, as well as close friends and relatives.

But why write it?

We need to remind ourselves that Paul was a controversial figure in the early Church as he still is today.  Jewish Christians in particular were deeply suspicious of him and he faced severe opposition from some of them.  The intensity of this opposition can be seen particularly clearly in his letter to the Galatians and his second letter to the Corinthians.  Essentially, the accusation of his opponents was that he had sold out on Judaism.  You can see why they thought this.  Paul did not require his Gentile converts to be circumcised, as God had commanded in the Old Testament, and he didn’t require them to keep the Law of Moses, which all Jews, Christian and non-Christian alike, believed to be the Law of God.

Paul felt that in some cases his teaching was being misrepresented, that it was certainly being misunderstood, and that some of his opponents were simply false teachers responsible for leading people astray and compromising the Gospel.  In Romans, then, Paul doesn’t seek to give a complete statement of Christian theology, rather he seeks to explain those elements of it that were particularly characteristic of his preaching and to answer some of the questions and objections that had been raised because of it.

This explains why the letter deals especially with such themes as justification by faith, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, the Law, God’s relationship with Israel, and what you can and cannot eat as a Christian!  It was Paul’s teaching on these themes that got him into the most trouble with other Christians.  He doesn’t need to talk about the resurrection of Christ, for example, because this was something he and his opponents were all agreed on!

Given, then, that Romans is an explanation and exposition of that which was distinctive in Paul’s teaching: why send it to Rome where, as Paul himself acknowledges in the letter, he had never been before?

The answer to this question lies in three journeys Paul was planning to make at the time he wrote Romans.  

Saturday, June 25, 2011

It is that time of year again.  No, I don't mean the Summer, but the end of term with all its many events!  Tomorrow in Church we start reading through Romans and I have been working on a simple introduction to it.  This is the first part!

Introducing Romans - Part 1: An Independent Church

June 29 is the feast day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles. 

The Feast of St Peter and St Paul is an important reminder that Christianity isn’t simply about Paul.  (In the light of Anonymous' comment below, I think this should read: the spread of Christianity isn't simply about Paul!)  There were other important Christian leaders and teachers, not least Saint Peter.  Paul was, of course, hugely important, but it is possible to overdo it.  In both non-Christian and Christian circles, Paul is often seen as having effectively created what we now know as Christianity. 

For some, this is a negative thing: Jesus preached the pure Gospel and Paul came along and changed it, making it into a religion to rival those of the pagans.  For others, it is a positive thing: Paul is seen as having provided the much needed theological and intellectual basis for the new movement.

The truth is, as Paul himself acknowledges, that Paul received a great deal from those who were Christians before him.  Much early Christian theology was in place before Paul became a Christian.  The reason that the picture of Christian origins is distorted is because much of the New Testament was written by Paul and the only early history of the Church, the Book of Acts, focuses on the mission and ministry of Paul.

It doesn’t do any harm, then, to remind ourselves that there were important centres of Christianity that neither Paul nor for that matter Peter founded.  Egypt, and Alexandria in particular, was an important centre and there is certainly no evidence that either Peter or Paul went there, although our Lord did, of course, albeit as a baby!  Rome itself is another example.

Both Peter and Paul are linked with Rome.  Peter is believed by Roman Catholic Christians to have been the first Bishop of Rome and by some to have founded the Church there.  While it is probable that both Peter and Paul died in Rome, they didn’t found the Church there.  The Church was already in existence in Rome before either of them went there.  So how did it come to be in existence?

We are told that on the Day of Pentecost that there were in Jerusalem ‘visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes’ (Acts 2:10).  They were amongst those who heard the disciples speaking in ‘other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance’.  It is likely that some of these became believers and took the Christian Gospel back to Rome where it seems to have thrived.

Despite its independent origins as a Church, Rome was to become closely associated with both apostles.  Apart from Rome being the place where the two apostles were martyred under Nero’s persecution of the Church, St Peter was claimed as its first Bishop, and it was to give its name to the greatest piece of Christian writing in the history of the Church: Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In this letter, Paul, undoubtedly, does show his theological genius and the letter has been of phenomenal influence on people who were themselves great theologians of the Church: Augustine in the fifth century; Luther, in the sixteenth; and Barth in the twentieth.  These and many more like them were all indebted to it.  There have been many, many books and commentaries written on it.  It is certainly the one I personally have the most books and commentaries on.

Even though it has been so closely studied, Paul’s letter to the Romans still manages to challenge and perplex. Scholars argue over the meaning of almost every verse, often reaching dramatically different conclusions. In the next post, we will begin by asking whether there is anything we can be certain of.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Returning to Romans

I recently ordered a copy of a book just published on Romans.  It is Richard Longenecker, Introducing Romans.  Like many, the more I read Romans and the more I read books and commentaries on Romans, the less I seem to understand it.  This book is in anticipation of a commentary on Romans that Longenecker is in the process of writing.

It deals with all the issues surrounding Romans such as when was it written, to whom, and why.  It gives a very good overview of where scholars are at when it comes to understanding and interpreting Romans.  If you would like to read a short review I have written on it, this is the link: Longenecker, Introducing Romans

Scroll down for the review.

Preparing the hymns for Sunday worship for the next few weeks (see the last post) has alerted me to the fact that we will be reading through Romans over the Summer starting at chapter 6.  Longenecker's book arrived at the right time!  Coincidentally, I have 5 short talks for the radio to prepare to be broadcast in August.  Added to the fact that June 29 celebrates Peter and Paul, Apostles, it looks like this is a good time to return to Romans.  The last time I preached and wrote on Romans was back in 2008 (see the label: Romans).  I don't want simply to repeat what I wrote then, but it will be quite fun to be able to pick up where I left off, and I am grateful that this new book has helped me to do that.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Communication

I realize that it has been a little while since I last blogged.  My blogging does tend to go in spurts.  On the one hand, I don't want to get into the habit of just saying something for the sake of it; on the other, I realize it gets a bit pointless if I don't post anything for too long.  So my apologies for the erratic character of my blogging!

Here in Hong Kong, the Summer season is now well and truly upon us.  Temperatures are well into the 30 degrees centigrade.  Strangely, there hasn't been too much rain.  No doubt it will come!  We have had some heavy rainfall, though, and as usual we have new leaks in the Church.  They are not too serious at the moment, but it can get depressing, nevertheless.  Those reading this outside of Hong Kong may be interested in the following which has just been published on news website:

'Shelters have been opened across the territory for people to seek refuge from the heat after the Observatory issued the very hot weather warning. It is forecasting more sweltering weather over the next couple of days and is urging people to take precautions and avoid prolonged exposure to the sun.'

June is always busy both with the Schools and with events and meetings before people go away over the Summer.  Yesterday, however, was a public holiday in Hong Kong so I took advantage of the phone not ringing and fewer emails coming in to choose the hymns for the Sunday services until mid-September.  Apart from feeling very pleased with myself, it is good to know that there is now one less thing to worry about!

Being able to work in relative peace made me realize how much of a distraction email can be.  It is now a fact of life, of course, and it can be very useful, but it does mean that people expect instant responses.  I am reading Tim Challies book, The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, and he makes the point that any new technology brings advantages and disadvantages.  I remember embracing the email when it was still a relatively new method of communication.  It seemed to offer nothing but advantages over the old postal system.

Even in Banchory a significant part of my day would be spent writing or answering letters, and then walking to the Post Office to catch the last post so that they would arrive - hopefully - in a couple of days so that with any luck I would get a reply if required within a week or so.

The change that email has made not just in speed, but in expectation, was brought home to me last week.

I received an email with a question in it at about 10.00am.  As there was information I needed to gather to answer it, I thought I would leave it until lunch-time to reply.  Meanwhile, the sender grew so anxious that I had not replied immediately, and not being able to get me by phone, phoned a third party to contact someone who would be seeing me later that day to ask me to reply!

Now the business people out there would probably tell me that if I think this is bad, I should try having a Blackberry and see the expectation that this raises.  Which is I suppose my point: do we really need this speed of communication?  Aren't we in danger of sacrificing thoughtful communication for instant communication?  And what is this doing when it comes to prayer and meditating on God's word?

I wouldn't want to be without email.  Forgive me, however, for not rushing out to buy an iphone or Blackberry!