Catching Up

It has been a busy time in our house over the last few days.
My Mum and Dad were visiting with us from England for three weeks, during which time I took a week’s holiday, and spent as much other time with them as work would allow. My Dad’s health is not good; he has Parkinson’s Disease and it is running its course, slowly but steadily. Still, we were able to get out and do a few things while they were here; we went to the Muttart Conservatory and Hawrelak Park, to Whitemud Ravine and the Royal Alberta Museum; we did a trip to Elk Island National Park, and a couple of days before they left we took in the opening weekend of Fort Edmonton Park. It seemed that while they were here our house was full of people; Mum and Dad were staying with us, of course, and then our young adult kids were always dropping in and out, and we were glad to have our son Matt and his wife Cynthia come down from Valleyview for a couple of days as well. Now the house seems empty and quiet!
Mum and Dad left Wednesday; the next day we had an early morning Bible Study, after which I spent the morning at my desk. In the afternoon I had a meeting of the group that advises the bishop at the synod office downtown, and then I drove straight out to one of the rural parishes in our diocese to help a group of parishioners come to grips with the end of Christendom and the issues it raises around mission and evangelism. The presenting problem, of course, was ‘our church is small and we need new members so we can be financially viable’, but as the evening went on it was great to see the feeling changing to ‘We have a wonderful message of the love of Christ to share with the people in our community, if we could only find an effective way of doing it’. That won’t be the end of that conversation.
I spent most of Friday at my desk preparing for Sunday services, and then in the evening shared a gig with my friend Jodi Penner at the Bogani Café, just round the corner from where Marci and I live. A good number of friends came out to hear us which was very encouraging. The next morning we got up to find it raining and later in the morning the rain turned to snow. Nonetheless my administrative assistant and I drove out to Leduc for an information morning we were running (‘we’ being our ‘deanery’, the local grouping of churches to which we belong) regarding the upcoming General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. Marci and I did a bit of running around in the afternoon, and in the evening stayed in, vegged out in front of the TV and watched an episode of ‘Lark Rise to Candleford‘.
Today, of course, we had services at St. Margaret’s in the morning, and we skyped with our daughter Jacqui early in the afternoon, after which we went out for the first coffee date we’ve had with just the two of us since about May 4th! And tonight I got to go up to the YEGlive open stage and hear some good music, especially from my good friends Carrie Hryniw and Rob Heath.
So that’s what I’ve been up to for the last few days!

A couple of tips from Proverbs

Today is the last day of my Mum and Dad’s visit to us. Tomorrow they fly back to England. Nothing in life is certain, so I expect that at the airport we’ll hug them tight and pray that God will give us the blessing of another meeting before too long. Relationships are precious, and every moment with elderly parents is a gift from God. So today we’ve been doing things together, and although I’ve been meaning all day to write a short note about this morning’s reading from the Book of Proverbs, I’m just getting around to it now!
When I was a Church Army student many years ago, a good friend and I each independantly got into the habit of reading through the books of Psalms and Proverbs regularly. We would read the daily psalms set in the old Book of Common Prayer (a system of reading morning and evening that takes you through the entire psalter every month), and we would read one chapter of the book of Proverbs every day of the month (there are 31 chapters). So we got to know Psalms and Proverbs pretty well. I remember one day getting one of those ‘encouragement’ cards from my friend on which he had written the words: ‘Proverbs 15:17: I would eat a dinner of vegetables with you any day’.
Proverbs 15:16-17 reads as follows in the NRSV:
‘Better is a little with the fear of the LORD
than great treasure and trouble with it.
Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is
than a fatted ox and hatred with it’.
This is sanctified common sense and we all know instinctively that it is true: if you have good relationships with the people in your life, then you can get by with the barest necessities of life and still be happy, but if your relationships are not good, no amount of material wealth can make up for it.
But the very next verse hits me between the eyes:
‘Those who are hot tempered stir up strife,
but those who are slow to anger calm contention’ (v.18).
I’ve struggled with a hot temper my whole life long, and I know that it does not help me nurture those good relationships which verses 16-17 say are so important. I would much rather be ‘slow to anger’, so that I can help calm contention rather than stirring it up. I remember the words of James: ‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’ (James 1:19-20). I know this to be true; so often in my life, my anger has hurt people and damaged relationships, especially with those I love the most.
So my prayer tonight is that God would help me to be content with the necessities of life and to focus on building relationships of love, and to that end, that he would teach me to be ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry’. In this, of course, I will try to follow the example of ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34:6).

Jesus and Pacifism

Further to my last post on Jesus and Peace, my friend Rick left the following comment:

Some might argue that Christians might know him better than non-Christians, and that this knowledge is gained via the context of the whole of Scripture and not that plucked out of in a way that paints Christ singularly…


Some might argue that God the Father, and Jesus His Son and the Holy Spirit, though distinct, are all one… and that God the Father was certainly no pacifist… nor would he be supplanted by His Son and His Spirit but complemented in some mysterious way… and so concluding confidently that Christ is a pacifist would require ignoring the complementary relationship of the Trinity or that in fact the Scriptures teach that they are three and yet they are one.
Some might argue that these non-Christians, who by their non-Christian-hood, have embraced not the Truth, the Way, and the Life, are fooled. That they have been pursuaded, either willingly or unwillingly, to believe a lie or in the least, to not embrace The Truth… so why would we give them the benefit of the doubt as to Christ’s pacifism?
There’s more Tim but… I’ll stop…

I would like to address the central issue in Rick’s post – the issue of Jesus’ relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. If I understand Rick correctly, what he is saying is that in the Old Testament, God is frequently seen as a god of battles who fights on the side of the Israelites and commands them to slaughter their enemies. And the Spirit of God frequently ‘comes on’ people in Old Testament times (especially in the days of the judges) and gives them strength to defeat their enemies (Samson is the obvious example ). Therefore, to interpret Jesus as a pacifist would be to either ignore the contradictory witness of the Old Testament teaching about the Father and the Spirit, or to interpret the Son as being in some way in disagreement with the Father. As Rick says, ‘God the Father was certainly no pacifist – nor would he be supplanted by his Son and his Spirit but complemented in some mysterious way’.
Let me respond to Rick’s position as best I can.
To begin with, let me point out that the God of the Old Testament was not simply ‘God the Father’, as if the Son did not come into the picture until New Testament times. Yahweh the God of Israel is identified in Christian theology with God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons in one God. Thus, to say ‘God the Father was certainly no pacifist’, with reference to the God of the Old Testament, is inaccurate. The God of the Old Testament is not just ‘the Father’; he includes our Lord Jesus Christ. What we ought to be saying (if we are making the point Rick wants to make) is that Jesus, in the New Testament, would certainly not contradict what he himself said when he gave commands to his people, and also fought and killed on their behalf, in the Old Testament.
This is an attractive position, but the uncomfortable truth is that Jesus does sometimes contradict the Old Testament. For instance, the Old Testament people were commanded to avoid certain foods as being unclean, but in Mark 7:19 Jesus declared all foods to be clean. The Old Testament permitted people to swear oaths, but Jesus forbad it (Matthew 5:33-37). And the Old Testament permitted people to take revenge on those who injured them up to the level of the injury received, but Jesus forbad this as well (Matthew 5:37-42). And the early Christians added other discontinuities; for instance, in the Old Testament God told the Israelites that anyone who was not circumcised would be cut off from his people, but the New Testament Christians came to believe that circumcision was not necessary for them.
So it is not only with regard to war and peace that the Jesus of the gospels seems to be in contradiction to certain strands of the Old Testament witness about God; on other issues too there is an obvious discontinuity. But the war and peace issue is a particularly clear case in point. Yes, in the Old Testament God not only allows (and even commands) war; he also commands slaughter of innocent women, children, and babies, and even genocide and ethnic cleansing. Over and over again in the book of Judges the Israelites are commanded to offer a city in sacrifice to God by exterminating its entire population, including the youngest babes in arms. And yet in the New Testament we have Jesus telling us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. We’re told that when someone strikes us on one cheek we’re to turn and offer the other as well. We’re told that it’s no credit to us if we only love our friends; even sinners do that! But we’re to follow the example of our heavenly Father, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked; we’re to be merciful as our Father is merciful (see Luke 6:27-37 and parallels).
On this issue the apostles clearly follow Jesus very closely. In Romans 13 Paul certainly sees the state as having a legitimate policing role (but note that what he says in this chapter applies to the state policing its own citizens, not waging war on other countries); however, he assumes that Christians will not be a part of that police force (‘the authority’ is referred to throughout in the second person, not the third). Paul’s instructions to Christians are found in Romans 12:14-21, and they are in obvious continuity with what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. Peter makes the same point in 1 Peter 2:21-25.
In his comment above Rick asserts that the reason that non-Christians so often see Jesus as a pacifist is that they do not know him as well as Christians; they have not embraced him as the way, the truth, and the life, and so they have been fooled. How, then, is he going to explain the fact that for the first three hundred years of Christian history, the early church was almost universal in its pacifist interpretation of the teaching of Jesus? I have given a representative selection of the relevant texts from the Church Fathers here. It was not until Christianity began to be co-opted by the Empire that Christian theologians began to develop a rationale for a just war position.
So yes, there is a definite discontinuity between certain strands of the Old Testament witness to God on the one hand, and the teaching of Jesus, his apostles, and the first three Christian centuries on the other. What are we to do with this discontinuity? To me, it seems dishonest to pretend that it isn’t there and to argue that the Bible speaks with one voice on the subject of war and peace; it manifestly does not. It seems then that the only course to follow is to decide which parts of the Bible are more authoritative for Christians.
To me, the authority of Jesus is obviously paramount; he is the best representation we have of what God is like. Paul says that Christ is ‘the image of the invisible God’ and that ‘in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Colossians 1:15, 19). Hebrews says that in many and various ways God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son ‘whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a). And in John’s gospel Jesus specifically disavows any idea that he speaks in opposition to his Father: ‘Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10). We Christians read the Old Testament as a witness to God, yes, but when there is a contradiction between the Old Testament and Jesus (as, from time to time, there definitely is), then we are followers of Jesus, not Moses, because we believe that Jesus is a more accurate representation of God to us than we find in the teachings of Moses.
Furthermore, if we take the opposite view (i.e. instead of bending the words of the Old Testament to fit the teaching of Jesus, we bend the teaching of Jesus to fit the Old Testament) then what have we authorised? The just war, yes, but on the authority of the Old Testament texts why should we stop there? As we have seen, the God of the Old Testament not only authorises what today would be called ‘just wars’; he also commands his followers to engage in wholesale slaughter of innocent women, children, and babies, and even ethnic cleansing and genocide. I am absolutely sure that my friend Rick (who I know to be a good and honourable man and a thoughtful Christian) would not be prepared to go so far as that. And yet, given his view of the relation between the two Testaments, there is no reason why he should not. In fact, I challenge anyone who takes the Old Testament view on war as authoritative for Christians to explain how that view is different from the perspective of those today who think that God is calling them to act out his judgement against the wicked by flying aircraft full of innocent people into tall buildings full of more innocent people. Undeniably, God is seen in the Old Testament as authorising acts every bit as heinous as these. Is this really the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one in whose presence the angels of the innocent little children stand continually (Matthew 18:10)?
Is Jesus in conflict with his Father and with the Holy Spirit on the issue of war and peace? Unquestionably, he is not. When Jesus spoke on the subject, he spoke as one who always said the things his Father told him to say. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit led the authors of the rest of the New Testament to underline Jesus’ teaching on the subject, and the writings of the first three Christian centuries continue to bear witness to this truth: Jesus chose to love his enemies, not to destroy them, and he has called on his followers to do the same.