Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Dealing with repeated failure

Consider Peter’s failure in Galatians 2.

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

We know the apostle Peter’s reputation as the biggest and best disciple, for he shows moments of true greatness. He is the first disciple named in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels. He is the first disciple to clearly understand that he is not worthy of Jesus: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8)

His absolute moment of greatness comes when he confesses ”You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. He is the first to recognise who Jesus really is.

Following the crucifixion he is first, after the women, to rush into the cave tomb after the resurrection and realise that Jesus’ body isn’t there.

But just as much as the spectacular successes are the equally spectacular failures.

Peter has a habit of telling Jesus off, beginning with his implied complaint about Jesus telling him where to cast his net (Luke 5:5). Or the time early in Jesus’ ministry where he tells Jesus off for disappearing from public ministry to pray. “Everyone is looking for you”, chides Peter.

Later he tells Jesus he’s not going to die, provoking from Jesus the response “Get behind me Satan”.

And just before Jesus’ crucifixion, he denies Jesus 3 times in the High Priest’s courtyard. “I never knew him”, says Peter.

But then we have this story in Galatians 2. It’s something else again. Peter has been completely rehabilitated, Jesus has restored to him the job of making disciples. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he’s done a heroic and consistent job in the face of fierce opposition. He’s even gone out on a limb and preached to the Gentiles, and seen them become Christians before his own eyes, a fact he will testify to before the Jerusalem council.

Now though, his fellow Jews have put him under pressure, and he has slowly withdrawn himself from table fellowship with the Gentiles, his brothers and sisters in Christ. So much so that Paul, a junior apostle, publicly tears strips off him. It is all the worse because he’s been forgiven and restored from failure so many times  previously. He even possesses God’s Holy Spirit.

Yet even now, the unstoppable love of God continues to be poured out. Later in life, the chastened Peter will joyfully suffer for his Saviour. Tradition says he was crucified upside down for his faith. Likewise, according to tradition, it is Peter who dictates Mark’s gospel; he writes two letters for the encouragement of suffering Jewish Christians. This repeatedly failing shepherd of the sheep is used to feed God’s sheep yet once more.

We too will fail, and fail often, sometimes disastrously. In the mercy of Christ, and by continued trust in him, God restores. God's name can and will be glorified in our darkest moments.

Can we have a personal relationship with God? The Psalmist speaks.

Just for the fun of it I made a list of Psalms which seem to clearly express a close personal relationship with Jesus (setting to one side but not forgetting that they are frequently addressed by the Son to the Father, for example 2:7 "The LORD said to me, 'You are my Son, today I have begotten you'" or 3:3 "But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head"). I deliberately excluded any Psalms that didn't explicitly use "I-you" language eg Psalm 1, Psalm 11, or any that seemed borderline eg Psalm 12; arguably this was a mistake.

I found these fit the pattern:

2 3 4 5 6 7 9 10 13 16 17 18 ("I love you, O LORD, my strength") 22 23 25 26 27 28 30 31 32 34 35 38 39 40 41 [42 is excluded only if you do not link it to 43] 44 51 52 56 ("You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle.") 57 61 62 63 65 66 69 70 71 73 77 84 86 88 (by speaking of its opposite) 91 (twisted by Satan because he implied that the relationship might *not* be that close) 92 94 101 102 103 ("who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagles." Not 'I-you' but surely deserves inclusion) 109 116 118 119 121 123 130 138 139 ("O LORD, you have searched me and known me!...Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.") 140 141 142 143 145.

It could reasonably be argued that this exercise is of limited value on these grounds:

(1) Every Psalm, even where a personal relationship with God is not spoken of explicitly, assumes the reality or the potential for such relationship. Therefore, the list should include all 150 Psalms.

(2) Every Psalm is intra-Trinitarian in nature, expressing the relationship of the Son to the Father through the Spirit. Therefore, it is not possible for them not to be deeply personal in character, and when we use them for our own, we are expressing this personal relationship 'en Christo', in Christ. Therefore, the list should include all 150 Psalms.

(3) If we note that many of the Psalms are 'of David', then our relationship with God is closer than his, because we are of the New Covenant, and it is impossible to imagine a negative answer to the prayer "take not your Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 51:12), for this would involve our Lord in teaching his children to pray a prayer that he then refused to honour, which would contradict his promise to us in Luke 11:10-13.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Engaging with Islam in Australia today.

A week ago I attended a talk by Dr John Azumah, lecturer in World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary.

You can find my notes at the CMS Checkpoint Online website, here: