A THEOLOGY OF TWO TREES

[For those put off by the word theology, may we remind ourselves at the outset that the word simply refers to ‘the knowledge of God.’ We are in fact all ‘theologians,’ some good, some mediocre, some bad. What can be more wonderful  than coming to a better mental and relational ‘knowledge of God,’ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? (Rom. 12:1-2). Why did Jesus so regularly answer questions with another question if he didn’t want people to think, and why did he so often resort to puzzling parables? I still regularly bump into Christians who are adamant that to ‘think’ about your faith is ‘unspiritual’ and ‘carnal.’ Small wonder the Church is often so confused and impotent]  

 

It was Frank Viola, author and radical church restorationist, who first pointed me to an insight from one of my favourite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). It’s an insight that has transformed my thinking and living over the past few years, as well as that of many of my friends in the organic church movement. 

Bonhoeffer pointed out in his Ethics that ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ is the root of all religious and ethical systems. Christ, however, came to give us a new life rather than a new ethic or religion (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:4; 1 Jn. 5:11-12).

Viola summarises and applies Bonhoeffer’s principle well. As ‘Church’ we are the recipients of God’s uncreated life. As such we are not called to live by a ‘Christian’ religion or code of ethics, but by God’s life. That life is a divine life, the ‘life to the full’ Christ talked about in Jn. 10:10. By contrast, to eat from ‘the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’ (Gen. 2:8ff) is to govern one’s life by ‘right and wrong,’ to behave by a standard of ‘good and evil.’ ‘Knowing good does not necessarily mean doing good, as we can all testify! Good is a life-form, and only God is good (Mt. 19:16-17) – at the attempt to be good, man invariably fails (Rom. 3:12). 

According to the Scriptures, goodness is not only a life-form but a Person, God himself. Therefore when believers merely seek to ‘be good’ they are eating from the wrong tree, and they succumb to their fallen nature (see in this regard Paul’s struggle as reflected in Rom. 7, where he endeavours to overcome his fallen bias by his own energy). Eating from the wrong tree leads to shame and condemnation (as seen in Adam and Eve, Gen. 3:7-8). 

Such failure was never God’s intention for us – he wanted us to share his life, to live in union with himself and express his goodness in the earth. That is what ‘the Tree of Life’ offered. And God has made this possible for all humankind by giving his Son to die for us on the life-restoring tree of Calvary, where he reconciles sinners to himself and places us ‘in Christ’ by grace through faith. 

You see, when faced with the situations and choices of every-day life, our mind begins to furiously ask ‘Is this right or is it wrong? Is this good or is it evil?’ In doing so we are eating from the wrong tree. When we strive to be ‘good Christians,’ we make the same mistake. This is not NT Christianity but in fact ‘old covenant living’ and it is very human and Israel-like. 

As the Church soon celebrates Easter (Passover) around the world we are reminded of another way, the way of ‘the one new covenant’ introduced by Christ and his indwelling life (Jer. 31, 2 Cor. 2, 3). This is living from ‘the Tree of Life!’ Jesus himself lived on earth by a life not his own (see Jn. 5, etc), and so do we (do read Jn. 15:1-17 in this new light). The divine life that indwells us gives us supernatural instincts, desires and energy to embody the new life of Christ in all we are and do, and in all our relationships (see Col. 3). 

The Church at large needs to awaken to her INDWELLING LORD, and so do you and I. Then only will we be empowered to build God’s house and fulfil his grand purpose for the universe in Christ! Col. 1:27, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory!’

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WHY DON’T WE ‘GET IT’?? (after 2,000 years)

Keith Green’s (1953-1982) worship songs and piano accompaniment always inspired me. I recall one of his best-known songs, ‘O Lord, You’re Beautiful’ – the melody and words still haunt me:  

‘I want to take your Word
And shine it all around
But first help me just to live it Lord
And when I’m doing well
Help me to never seek a crown
For my reward is giving glory to You!’

Yes, we’re talking about living the Life, that Life that is Jesus himself. Theologically speaking, I’m once more pleading for an ‘incarnational ecclesiology.’ 
 
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998), influential British missiologist and veteran missionary with the Church of South India, reiterated that what Christ left behind was a fellowship to which he entrusted the task of being his plenipotentiaries and representatives in the world. In answer to the question ‘How is Jesus present to us today?’ the answer must always be (frighteningly): ‘He is present in his people, his apostolic fellowship.’ If God’s purpose had been to provide all succeeding generations of mankind with a revelation of himself which could be embodied in a series of verbal statements of absolute inerrancy, he could have left us a written deposit such as the Koran. Instead, God in Christ called twelve men that they might be ‘with his Son’ who would send them into the world. Our Lord gave his followers not so much a formal course of instruction in divine truth as an introduction into the intimacy of his Spirit. 
 
Australia has in recent years produced two wonderfully innovative theologian-practitioners, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (the latter South African born!). They have written incisively on the value of Christ’s incarnation to the Church’s salvation and mission. They summons the contemporary Church to exchange her ‘invitational mode’ (i.e. ‘come to us’) for Christ’s ‘incarnational mode’ (i.e. ’embody Me in the world’). Churches are caught up with ‘in-drag’ (our church is so much better than the one down the road!) instead of ‘out-reach.’ Frost and Hirsch cite the use of ‘home’ and ‘pub’ in Hobart, Tasmania: believers rented homes within walking distance of pubs, which became their platform for meeting with and engaging the community. If needs were expressed, interested folk were invited home to continue the conversation. 
 
If we see the church incarnationally, we begin to recognise that we are the message (a la Martin Buber & Soren Kierkegaard). Does this mean that there is no place for propositional truth and the great Church Creeds? Of course not! It’s a matter of getting the balance right. You remember how we were taught to evangelise, ‘Believe in Jesus, believe that he died for you on the Cross’ etc, and, hey presto, ‘You’re a child of God!’ One could profess all that without ever truly encountering the life-changing Christ!
 
Two articles that came across my desk recently illustrate the urgent need for an incarnational Church:
  • In a 2012 survey of about 400 South African Christians in ‘secular work,’ only 18% said they were living out their calling in the workplace. Most said that although their churches taught them to apply biblical principles in the workplace, it was difficult to live out their calling amidst the diverse cultures and viewpoints encountered in the workplace. The survey concluded that the biggest stumbling block was in fact ‘a misunderstanding of their calling.’Unfortunately the survey didn’t elaborate. Could it be that we have bought into the Greek dualism of ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’? Could it be that believers are just not ‘being Jesus’ in a natural and spontaneous way in the workplace? As mentioned before, my wife is one of the best marketplace disciplers I know, influencing all kinds of people nearer Christ – she simply prays each morning, ‘Lord, help me to be Jesus to someone today.’ 
  • A recent missionary report from Algeria reveals that hundreds of Muslims are turning to Christ. How come? The Field Manager writes that, for one thing, there are no denominations in this move of God. The new believers serve Christ in a unity which is attractive to others (cf Acts 2:41-47). A recent convert claimed, ‘As a Muslim I always felt God is so far, but in Jesus Christ God is so near.’                    
 
So why don’t we ‘get it’?? After 2,000 years! I taught the above truths in a very simple way to 20 school kid trainee- leaders on Saturday at a lovely beach-front venue. I saw the ‘lights go on.’ If they could ‘get it,’ why can’t we??

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE (Part 2) [Or, ‘another day in the life of yours truly’]

Sunday 3rd Mar. 2013…

We gather in Marthinus and Heidi’s huge Summerstrand home for our quarterly informal get-together as house groups in our Metro. All the generations are represented, and many cultures – Western, Xhosa, Zulu, Zimbabwean and Malawian. There’s animated conversation and interaction over coffee and sandwiches. The younger children and teens enjoy the large garden and the trampoline outside. Slowly we make our way to the large lounge for a time of spontaneous sharing, children on the floor, close on 50 of us. A local pastor shares his concern for our country and the lack of Christian out-spokeness in terms of Ezek. 33. His teenage son follows up in prophetic vein, quoting the well-know Jn. 3:16 and commenting, ‘Why is that we Christians love heaven but we don’t love the people of the world?’ My wife leads us in intercession for our beautiful but sometimes violent country. We underline the importance of ‘life and deeds,’ ‘community and witness,’ which go together like the proverbial ‘horse and carriage’… (see Jam. 1 & 2)

I introduce a senior couple, Brian and Beryl, to the gathering. In our previous pastorate, Brian had served as an exceptional elder in terms of integrity and loyalty. They had stood with us throughout a major church crisis, which we believe God sovereignly engineered as an exit from the institutional church and introduction to the organic ‘house church movement’ springing up in so many parts of the world. I honour them as ‘spiritual parents,’ to us and to our children (then in their teens). With us also is a young woman in her thirties, Siphokazi – she shared how she had the privilege of mentoring the teen, referred to in the last paragraph, in her children’s group. We go on to illustrate the principle of ‘spiritual fatherhood/motherstood,’ engaging with Paul’s intimate mentoring relationship with Timothy and the Corinthian believers (1 Cor. 4:14-17). Together we recognise the truth that in the contemporary Church we have ten thousands of ‘teachers’ but a handful of spiritual parents who impart the ‘life’ and truth of Jesus. Hence the thousands of ‘orphans’ in traditional church pews across the world Sunday by Sunday.

Two of the Malawians sing a song about heaven. Next, 4 of the men baptized on Wednesday sing two beautiful worship songs, again in magnificent harmony. I look around, many eyes are bright with tears. Marthinus leads us in the Lord’s Supper, served informally. He expresses our mutual joy at sharing Jesus and his life with brothers and sisters not met before. 

We break for a final time of getting to know each other over coffee. Two young ladies, recently discharged from a TB hospital where Marthinus leads fellowship groups, come up to me. They thank me for the gathering, the one adding We will feed on this for many weeks!’ We say our goodbye’s and leave by car and Kwela-Kwela (South African slang for a mini-bus taxi) for our homes, scattered around the Metro – I am sure, all looking forward to ‘next time.’ 

Never a dull moment when, however humbly and falteringly, we follow Jesus! 

[This morning, 11 days later, I stumble across a quotation from the great South African missiologist, David Bosch, in which he states “If the Church is ‘in Christ,’ she is involved in mission. Her whole existence then has a missionary character. Her conduct as well as her words will convince unbelievers and put their ignorance and stupidity to silence.” (I am both shocked and puzzled by Bosch’s final clause)]

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE! (Part 1) [Or, ‘a day in the life of yours truly’]

Wednesday 27th Feb. 2013…

I’m up early because Wednesday is usually a full day. I drive to peri-urban Mordecai, a home for abandoned babies we as a group of churches pioneered in the early 2000’s. I meet up with Tey, a thirty-year old ‘leader’ from the nearby ultra-poor shack-community of Ericadene – we attended an organic garden course two years ago and have since grown fresh vegetables (making many mistakes along the way) for the home and a nearby soup kitchen. We discuss plans for the day.

Ma Beauty, the house mother, tells me how the Lord had watched over her teen son the previous day (we had touched on the phenomenology and ministry of angels the previous Sunday morning at our monthly Mordecai house church gathering). Her son Sipho was returning from school and, taking a shortcut through the bush, was attacked by some thugs (life is cheap in the area) and relieved of his cellphone and shoes. Providentially, he had come to no serious physical harm although somewhat shaken up by the event. She shares with us her thanksgiving to God for his protection.  

I return home to finalise a discipling session at 1 pm with Grade 5 to 9 kidz at a local township school, again in a very poor community. We have opportunities each Wednesday and Friday to impact the children with the good news and life-skills. I pick up Rachel who heads up our junior group and then I am enthusiastically greeted by my own group of approx. 70 students packed into our classroom like sardines. Early that morning I had become aware that my ‘ministry fund’ stood at zero and had hurriedly scribbled in my prayer diary ‘Lord, you know about the ministry fund.’ As I am about to commence the class, a member from my previous congregation rushes up and pushes something into my hand. She had meant to pass on the gift last year, but does so now and adds “Better late than never… use it for whatever!” A quick perusal of the gift reveals banknotes amounting to R.1000. Wow, generous! And what timing! Before discussion around the Bible passage for the day, I share the incident with the pupils to illustrate God’s faithfulness in providing for our ministry needs – they stare at the wad of notes, wide-eyed. Together we now inter-act with the Bible story of the young shepherd called by Yahweh to succeed Saul, king of Israel. [I am taking tiny baby-steps in the fine art of cross-cultural Bible ‘storeying’ – thanks for your input, Frits and Nicky, missionary friends serving with the Makua in N. Mozambique] 

I had pre-arranged a coffee-break in the afternoon with a house church colleague, Marthinus, and looked forward to our bi-weekly chat. I enjoy the trip to the beach-front area where he stays. On arrival he tells me that at 5 pm he would be picking up 5 new converts he was busy discipling, for baptism. I had misunderstood the baptism to be on Thursday, which I would not have been able to attend. After coffee we travel to New Brighton township where 5 young men are waiting for Marthinus. They had been thoroughly ‘catechised’ in baptism and discipleship by Marthinus and Monde, a fellow-believer in New Brighton. These young men had been meeting for weeks of Bible study each day after work at Monde’s humble home. We drive together to nearby Brighton Beach. It’s a magnificent and balmy summer’s evening as Marthinus, his friend Jannie and I join the 5 super-excited young baptismal candidates. They sing happily as they make their way to the water’s edge. Two young Muslim children look on curiously. After brief Bible reading and prayer, Marthinus and Monde immerse the five young men in the waves and pray over them. They’re ecstatic! For a moment Brighton Beach becomes Galilee Beach beach for me. In perfect 3-part harmony the young men sing, to a beautiful melody new to me, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!’ I briefly relate to the gently shivering men the story (urban legend?) of the great Swiss Reformed theologian Prof. Karl Barth, who many years ago, in an academic  setting, was asked by a young student to share the greatest theological truth he had wrestled with. The story goes that Karl Barth uttered the lines the newly baptised men had just sung, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know…’ We head for home shaking off the sand, tired and thankful.

WHERE RELATIONSHIPS COUNT

After years of frustration with completing my annual tax returns, I decided to give all the information to a tax agency to handle it on my behalf. Their letterhead reads, ‘Where Relationships Count.’ I must say, their service has repeatedly borne this out!  

The Church needs to re-assimilate the kingdom-truth of relationship. NT theologian Howard Snyder rightly traces Christian fellowship back to the Trinity: ‘God is in himself a permanent conversation, a communion of love… Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’ The Trinity is not an enigma to be solved but ‘a model on which all human relations, including the church should be structured.’ 

We can learn much from the S. American base communities of the 60′s and 70′s. They were characterised by the absence of alienating structures, by direct relationships, by reciprocity, by a deep communion, by mutual assistance, by equality among members. The specific characteristics of society (and often of the Church) are absent here: rigid rules, hierarchies, prescribed relationships in a framework of distinct functions, qualities and titles.  

Perhaps this is why I love Africa and ministry in it. Of course there is a cognitive, ‘knowledge’ and doctrinal compoment to our faith. However Western-based churches (including many in my own nation) have often missed the relationality of faith. To be totally honest and politically incorrect, I much prefer working with black Africans, who are more relational than white Africans who guard their views and privacy with a terrible tenacity. A visitor to Africa is soon struck by the frequent use of the first person plural ‘we’ and ‘ours’ in everyday speech. Once I have established a mutual relationship with new believers, they are ready to soak up that core biblical teaching so desperately needed in a continent where Christianity is a hundred miles wide and an inch deep. It’s ‘lekker’ (South African slang for ‘nice,’ ‘enjoyable’) to serve God in needy African communities, as I and many others are privileged to do.

Witness the life and church-building of Jesus. Yes, he comes to impart truth which is able to make us godly: Jn. 17: 17, ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.’ Yes, his apostles constantly call believers to doctrinal purity. But Jesus also embodies the truth (Jn. 14:6) and he spends 3 years in deep relationship with a small group of ordinary men and women, who eventually in his risen power turn their world upside down (right way up). ‘Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light’ (1 Jn. 2:9ff). 

Of course almost everything these days militates against relationship. On a lighter note, my wife passed on to me a print-out of photographs, circulated among her colleagues: one captures four teens sprawled all over a bench as they spend ‘a day at the beach,’ the only snag being that each is totally engrossed with his/her cell phone. Then there’s a photo of a couple ‘out on an intimate date’ – yes, you’ve guessed it, busy with their cell phones and bodies slanted away from each other. There are more photos, then a quotation of Albert Einstein, ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots’ (feel a little idiotic myself). 

Now what do we do to correct the situation? Perhaps we can begin by actually getting to know the God we profess, through more reading of and thinking on the Bible itself! Let’s learn to be with God and one another, after all we aren’t ‘human doings’ but ‘human beings.’ Secondly, it’s not about performance (religion) in the Church but about relationship! We should develop our relationships on the basis of grace rather than performance. Finally, let’s become more ‘human’ (don’t ‘super-spiritual’ Christians nauseate you?), for this is why Jesus became incarnate (D. Bonhoeffer).

If you and I take some of these baby steps in the power of Christ, we will begin to make a significant difference in winning an individualistic, lost and lonely world to Christ our Saviour and Friend.