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From a Human Point of View

March 5, 2016

2 Corinthians 5:16-21               Luke 15: 1-3, 11-31


From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, look! a new creation! Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him who knew no sin to be sin (from a human point of view), so that in him we might become the justice of God.


From now on, therefore, [because the love of Christ for all urges us on] we regard no one from a human point of view


Let’s talk about this phrase ‘from a human point of view’. Your point of view is not just about what you see because of who you are… but what you see because of how you are… It makes all the difference in the world how we pay attention to things. How we pay attention to things is decisive for what comes come into being for us… If you are my friend I pay attention to you in a very different way from if you were my employer, or my patient, or the suspect in a crime drama. You might be the same person… but the world I see will be very different. Imagine a mountain… to a prospector that mountain can be a source of wealth, to a navigator that same mountain is a landmark, to a painter it is a many textured form, to someone else it may be the dwelling place of the Gods. [examples courtesy of ‘The Master and his Emmisary by Iain McGilchrist] Different ways of paying attention… It all depends on your point of view.


Paul says: we once knew Christ from a human point of view.


Simple question: When did Paul’s friends stop seeing Jesus from a human point of view? Answer: Resurrection. When God raised him from death and he met with them to forgive them for killing him.


Everything changed. Not just their view of Jesus but their view of God. Now Jesus has come to define their whole life. They live their lives ‘in Christ’ says Paul. He has become the air they breathe. And so they have a new point of view, a new way of paying attention to things.


They see Christ from the point of view that God gives them. They see God from the point of view that Christ gives them.


They are still human… but they no longer see things from a human point of view. This is possible… we all know from everyday experience that it is possible to see something from someone else’s point of view. That’s the point of every conversation you ever have. To playfully enter into another person’s world and see things from their point of view for a while. That’s how we learn.


Paul is stretching that whole experience. Not only is it possible to see something from another person’s point of view but it is possible to see something from God’s point of view.

So if anyone is in Christ, look, a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

What is the distinguishing thing about God’s point of view? … not like being up in the sky in a super computer able to see everything that happens in all time and space… No!


In a word, it is HOPE … creation is new, not just because it looks different from a new point of view, but because God, who reconciled us to himself, is reconciling the world to himself.


What is God reconciling to himself? … Not some people who believe and might go to heaven, no God is reconciling THE WORLD, not even just the human world.


The alternative… seeing things from a human point of view is a world which ultimately is without hope. It’s a deep underlying, often inarticulate despair… que sera, sera, whatever will be will be, there is a time for living and a time for dying, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for everything, all is vanity, there may be a time for everything but none of it really makes any difference. The most succinct expression of this is on the wall in our office… Sometimes you’re the pigeon and sometimes you’re the statue. It’s worth thinking about. It’s the vision of a world without redemption… resignation that has lost the energy to ‘rage against the dying of the light’

Paul says, we no longer see from a human point of view. And what comes into view is that “God is reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”


Reconciling the world: The world is being brought back into alignment, into friendship, into sync with God. And for those who see that, those caught up in this man Jesus, suddenly everything looks different. Every person, every tree, every mountain.


The life in which Paul is surrounded, the life that God lived in the world, Christ’s life, is a life already reconciled to God. He is the first non-sinner (‘knew no sin’). And yet Paul says he became sin. What does that mean?


Here’s a suggestion. God became sin, from a human point of view. God, in the life of Jesus deliberately submitted to the human point of view. He became ‘the bad guy’. He became the scapegoat. He became the shamed one. He became the cursed one.


So it all depends on the resurrection of Jesus. If… and only if… God raised Jesus from death, the human point of view is sprung open. It’s more than just an idea, this human point of view, that we can take or leave, it’s a power, it’s like a rabbit trap that has held us captive, it loses it’s domination over our lives. Hope. Springs. Historical.


In him, says Paul, we can become ‘the justice of God’. Think about that for a minute. What is justice?


Some of you will remember Tom Noakes Duncan – he has just passed his PhD with highest honours and has a new job as a lecturer in ‘Restorative Justice’ in Wellington. A paper he has recently published has the title ‘The emergence of restorative justice as an ecclesial practice’. What that means in ordinary language is that God’s justice (not punishment but justice that restores relationships) has emerged as a practice in the church (not just in the courts)


Paul says, we the community of Jesus might become the justice of God… because God has taken the journey into our world… we as a people/community can take the journey into God’s world and God’s justice.


Let’s finish today by jumping into the story of the Prodigal Son (our other reading). And let’s think about the story in terms of this question: When did the prodigal son change from seeing his world from a human point of view, to seeing it from God’s point of view (i.e. from his Father’s point of view)


Imagine the Son on his way home. What are the words which describe his mind-set here? Regret, failure, shame… he is on his way home to reconcile his Father to himself. He has a plan. I will offer my father my labour in exchange for a place to live. I will do a deal.


He may not be entirely hopeless. He has some hope that a deal can be done. But this is not that hopeful either. This is hope from a human point of view, not hope that God is reconciling the world to himself, but hope that God does deals and if he gets his act together, he may be able to appease the wrath of God and so save his skin. In short he hopes the opposite of Paul’s gospel. He hopes that he can reconcile God to the world.


So he is plodding up the road deep in thought. And his Father is looking out from a long way off… like he’s been on the look out ever since the Son gave him the one-finger salute and headed off to the far country. And the father does the unspeakable thing for a first century Jewish father, he lifts his garments and he runs. He runs down the road to his Son. And the Son begins his speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; and I am no longer worthy to be called your son” and before he can make his deal, before he can ask to be treated like a hired hand the Father who has embraced him and kissed him, now interrupts him. There is no deal. The Father never needed to be reconciled to the Son. The Son has been reconciled to the Father.


 “Quick” [he interrupts], ‘bring out a robe, the best one, put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.’


These are God’s words to you…


Can you hear old St Paul dancing in the background here, ‘Look!…, “the justice of God”


Look! a new creation! Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 


Hope springs… into life.

Three Modes of Gathering (sermon for Lent 2)

February 19, 2016

Buff Bantam Hen {Gallus gallus domesticus} with nine of her ten chicks, 2-days-old. The tenth chick is under her

Philippians 3:17- 4:1           

Luke 13: 31-35


I must be on my way… says Jesus. It’s interesting to remind ourselves of the direction Jesus has been taking in Luke so far this year          


He is baptised and immediately goes into the wilderness and for 40 days he deals with three temptations to his career. Will he be sidelined into the provision of material needs (bread alone)? Will he be sidelined into the political arena (kingdoms of the world)? Will he be sidelined into show business (jump off the temple)? Good things, potentially, you might say, but ultimately distractions. Jesus will not be distracted from the main thing. So he goes on and announces the main thing in Nazareth: a vision of God and a calling of God for the most vulnerable and weakest in the world. As a result he is nearly killed by the folk he grew up with. That must have been traumatic! They drag him to a cliff top and are about to throw him off. And suddenly, we read, ‘he passed through the midst of them and went on his way


And so begins his ministry … he goes on his way to heal lives, he goes on his way to liberate people from the demons that hold them captive and take over their lives, he goes on his way with good news for the outcasts and lives in companionship with the outcasts … and his main enemies, it seems are the most religious people.


And then today’s readings catches our attention. Some of these very same religious leaders, some Pharisees seem, surprisingly, to be on Jesus’ side. They come to him and say

“Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus is not impressed by their apparent good intentions:

“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, (that same phrase again) because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 

We don’t know why they are warning Jesus. We don’t know whether they are secretly in cahoots with Herod. But we do know that Jesus is not that worried. He’s going to die anyway in Jerusalem. The episode in Nazareth has made that clear.


But that phrase is important … I must be on my way. His way is not going to be determined by Herod. He will go to Jerusalem but in control of his own timetable. He’s not anxious about Herod the Fox. He has kingdom of God on his mind.


The question for us is Will we follow? He is on his way. His way is unique. He follows his Abba (in the spirit of ‘star trek’) where no one has gone before. He gathers folk in a way that no one has gathered them before. He is unafraid of death in a way that no one has been unafraid before. Will we follow?


Herod the Fox and his friends will catch up with Jesus at Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the centre of the nation. It is also where the nation meets Rome. Jerusalem gathers people for a stoning. Jerusalem is the place to gather around the enemy and get rid of him. It is the centre of power. It is the centre of violence. As a capital city represent the way a nation gathers together. Jesus has a place in mind to meet with Herod and his tribe.


Jesus too, in a completely different way, seeks to gather his people together.


In contrast to Herod the Fox he likens himself to a Hen gathering her chicks under the protection of her wings. It’s a great contrast. The fox and the hen… who has no protection… just open wings for the people of God. Its the most feminine imagery we have of Jesus. Very appropriate for this Women’s Institute day. There he is in Jerusalem with his arms wide open, like a hen with wings ready to enclose the chicks. That’s his deep desire. But the tragedy is that the people are not willing to be gathered.


What does all this mean for us?


Paul writing to the Philippians has slightly different language but I think he is talking about the same thing. Where the gospels talk about disciples (mathetes) who follow thus unique way, Paul talks about imitators (mimetes). Imitators are people of the cross of Jesus – they have the mind of Jesus, they let go of power over others and humble themselves like he did even to death on a cross. In verse 17 Paul invites the Philippians

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me (or better ‘be born anew in imitating with me’), and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  

“Their God is the belly”. That’s a very evocative phrase for those who are enemies of the cross of Christ. Where the imitators of Christ gather with Paul, there are also enemies of the cross gathering differently. It is ultimately a destructive way of gathering. It is not sustainable.

What I see as a thread in our readings today are three ways of gathering people together – three kinds of unity.


1. Jesus gathers people like a mother hen with her chicks. His is a mode and a journey of humility and vulnerability. He lives with the poor for the sake of Abba who has good news for the poor and he gathers them into his vulnerable communion.


2. Herod and Jerusalem gather people around a common enemy. They stone the prophets. They create a community by doing so. We find our unity because we all hate Donald Trump, or because we all hate Sadam Hussein or because we all hate John Key. It doesn’t matter who… it’s a mode of gathering people.


3. The enemies of the cross that Paul talks about find their unity because their god is the belly. Their common commitment to consumption unites them. They form a society based on an ever greater commitment to consuming more and more. There’s a technical term that theoreticians of the new capitalist economies use to describe the ideal citizen of our society. That citizen who keeps the show going is called a ‘self-interest maximiser’. Implicit in this is the idea that the welfare of all depends on it. The essence of capitalism as a religion which gathers people is this ‘our god is our belly’.


Maybe that’s why at Lent it increasingly makes sense to symbolise our friendship with the cross by giving up some kind of addictive form of consumption. It’s not puritanical self-punishment… perhaps… perhaps its a symbolic gesture, a reminder – a reminder of how God gathers us, and how differently he gathers us from the way our society gathers us, week in week out.











Some Glimpses of Australia

January 19, 2016

It’s hard, as a tourist, to do anything other than consume mass-produced bite-sized chunks of a place and move on. You simply don’t have time for anything else. It’s hard to reflect on where you are when you have to book the next bus or negotiate the next map. So it was an enormous privilege to spend a chunk of time with good friends and to see aspects of Melbourne and Victoria at a leisurely pace, made even more leisurely by a well spread bout of shared vomiting. For us the time with friends was at least as important as seeing the place. But in the process we caught a few glimpses.

Glimpse 1

The harshness of Australia is relative. We survived 42 degree days. But in places like The Grampians it simply teems with wildlife. New Zealand is quiet and still in comparison. The dawn-chorus of kookaburra and cockatoo was greater than the sum of its parts and from that dawn moment we never stopped seeing strange birds, wallabees, kangaroos, emus (not to mention the large spider who woke us one morning).



Glimpse 2

The city of Melbourne is a glorious melting pot of multi-ethic eating possibilities, art venues, architecture and great busking. The contrast between the rural and urban worlds couldn’t be greater. The architecture felt like a grand promissory note – an altar to the power of technology and industry to conquer the wilderness. There was something hugely energetic and creative in the interpenetration of cultures. Even at 9.30pm in the evening on the beach at sunset we were surrounded by Indians, West African and Asian bathers and felt like a white minority.

Melbourne street


Glimpse 3

The Shrine of Remembrance is an extraordinary war memorial. It is built like an ancient Roman temple, complete with statues of the gods of war on the front facade and an ‘eternal flame’ burning. The stone altar in the darkened centre is inscribed ‘greater love has no man’ and lies beneath a ‘pyramidal’ structure ascending like a ladder to the light above. The language of ‘sacrifice’, ‘sacred’ and ‘eternal’ make it clear that this is nothing less that a religious institution. My friend was asked to remove his hat. It looks as if the city knows itself to be founded on war and on this ‘holy’ ground it worships its divine sons.


Glimpse 4

At Gariwerd Cultural Centre we ‘dream-walked’ our way through what may have been 40,000 years of human comings and goings. The main signs remaining were some faint red paint markings in sheltered places in the hills – it was hard to comprehend a place with that much history and so little to show. We saw a map of the 250-800 clans/nations of aboriginal peoples in Australia at the arrival of European colonization in 1788. Exact numbers are hard to substantiate. No one was that interested at the time. The local people were treated like animals and were 97% exterminated in the name of civilisation. I remember a picture of a man who lived outside of town with his dog in a shack after his mother and father had been murdered in front of him as a child. He had become a friendly curiousity. My Australian friend commented that there is a wound in the Australian psyche which shapes everything. And much of what happens now has a lot to do with that wound and its avoidance.




So I left Australia wondering about the relationship between that wound and the bustling multicultural richness and creativity of the promissory note that is Melbourne. What role does the shrine play in the life of the city and how it remembers those who died (and killed) for this project? How would our city look to a curious visitor?

The Son of God Grows Up                         

December 30, 2015

Luke 2: 41-52


If you are a theologian on facebook at the moment you probably know the story of Larycia Hawkins. Larycia was stood down from her position as Professor of Political Science at the large Christian University in the US called Wheaton College. The thing the College was concerned about was her statement that she wanted to stand in solidarity with Muslims throughout the world… and one of her stated reasons was that Christians and Muslims ‘worship the same God’.


And it’s this idea that Wheaton College has a problem with: Christians and Muslims worship the same God.


It has spawned a mass of theological commentary all over the internet, some arguing that we do not worship the same God, others that we do. The problem with this political controversy is that there is actually a very complex philosophical question hidden under a simple claim. But right now, it’s dynamite!


Let’s just pause over this issue for a moment. Professor Michael Rea argues that there is one belief that Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have in common: they all believe that there is exactly one God. In other words if you understand the idea of God at all you understand that there cannot be more than one (by definition we might say). God our creator is the single source of all else that is.


So it really makes no sense to say that someone believes in another God. To a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim… the idea of another God is just nonsense. So what is going on here if someone says that Muslims don’t believe in the same God as us? Perhaps what they mean is that they are using the word God in some different way to refer to some thing like a human being only more powerful (something there could be more than one of) the wind or a rock, or another human being, or something , or an idea like love or truth. To do this is simply to misunderstand the meaning of the word “God”. Now, I think its possible that many Muslims might think this is in fact what Christians do and also many Christians might think this is what Muslims do. But it’s quite an extreme position to reach… and a lot more would need to be said to justify it.


If that’s not what’s going on, if we are, in fact, using this word God in basically the same way… then there is really only one other alternative – that Muslims do believe in the same God, but they understand God differently. Maybe very differently, to the point of producing a very different religion or set of practices. Much like medieval Catholics and modern Pentecostals might be said to believe in the same God, just understanding God differently. And most Christians down the ages would agree that Abraham believed in the same God as they do… we just understand that God differently.


So there are really only two alternatives… misunderstanding of the word ‘God’ or the same God understood differently.


I raise all that because today’s reading highlights an aspect of Christianity which might demonstrate these alternatives. Today’s reading highlights arguably the central aspect of Christianity which for a Muslim must seem crazy…


Today’s lesson is the follow-on to Christmas… it’s really the further implication of the incarnation. God became flesh. The single source of all that is, became flesh and lived among us. And to add insult to injury (from a Muslim and Jewish perspective). God in the flesh began to ‘grow up.’


Jesus, the 12 year old, gets left behind. Did he lose track of the time? Did his parents neglect him? They were travelling in convoy with a whole wider whanau and so it wasn’t till after a day’s travel that they realise that there’s no Jesus in the group. So they go back and look for him. Wracking their brains… What would Jesus do? Where would he be likely to go? It’s bad enough losing your wallet or your keys… but your child! Finally they find him… after three days!… In the temple, asking questions of the teachers of the law. He is curious. He wants to learn. He is totally absorbed in this desire. He says to his parents: “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?”


I suspect for some of you here, that sounds a bit rude coming from a child… In the old days it might have been called ‘talking back’. Parents declared what was authoritatively the case and children simply listened and obeyed. Pretty much a one-way stream of authority. This is how many have understood what it means to honour your parents. And many of you will be saying… ‘And it’s gone too much the other way now’. Jesus is clearly challenging his parents. Does he get away with this ‘bad behaviour’ because he is the Son of God? I am reminded of this well known cartoon. [show ‘Jesus at bath time’]image


Perhaps, to truly honour your parents means to honour them with a very good question. Perhaps the one-way-traffic of authority is not the best model of what ‘good behaviour’ is. What kind of culture treats a question as an insult or a threat? Jesus question is: Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? Did you not know that the knowledge of God my Father and the will of God is the most important thing for my life?


For our purposes today I don’t think it matters whether this is good behaviour… we are past the Christmas season. We can forget all the stupid cliches about who is naughty and who is nice. What is important here is the humanity (human nature) of the Son of God. That the Son of God is human, that God, the source of all, becomes flesh. And here we have stories of him needing to learn, submitting to the knowledge of his elders, growing in the knowledge of God, the one whom he would come to call Abba in a way that no one before him ever had. And in doing so he broke the rules about God and perhaps he broke the rules about childhood behaviour too… in order to follow this call upon his life.


To be the Son of God doesn’t mean you know everything … like you are sitting above the earth looking down … no it means you have a brain like everyone else, but one which is formed in a way that no brain before has ever been formed. In one sense completely like you and I. In another sense completely different. Jesus is, according to Christianity, a revolution in the making.


Already there is a form of civil disobedience going on in his young life (challenging his parents). He goes home to Nazareth and Luke tells us he was obedient to his parents. But here we have a glimpse of the fact that his obedience to his parents is limited by his obedience to the way of his Father. His ‘father’s house’ will be his home, even when he is living with Joseph and Mary. Render unto God what is God’s, and to Joseph and Mary what is theirs.


Everything changes with Jesus… politically and theologically Jesus is a threat. For Islam (and Judaism) he represents a threat to how the whole relationship between God and the world is to be understood. As the incarnate Son of God he embodies the dance of divine love in the world. It is not separate. The love of God moves in and grows up. It heals the world from within. Grace and Truth are not just ideas… they become flesh as God (the one creator of all) becomes flesh.


For us… to worship the same God as Muslims and Jews… is to pay close attention to this life and its growing up in history.


To worship the same God is also to worship very differently.













Alone at Christmas

December 8, 2015

Alone_in_a_Crowd(a sermon for those who have lost a loved one this year)


His Name Shall be Called Emmanuel, which means God with Us.


In a sense the meaning of Christmas is very simple. You are not alone! A group of people… Christians… have come to believe that God is with us.


Some will tell you that ultimately you die alone. You must abandon your community with others and go on alone. Is this true?


For all of us someone has died this year. And not only is there this haunting thought that they are cut off … but also the deep sense of being alone ourselves, left behind.


Sure there are people around. But without that one … often we feel totally alone, even in a crowd.


We are faced with a dilemma… Is the vast emptiness of space between planets and galaxies a good metaphor for our personal situation?


Or is the love we have known with the one who died this year, in fact a sign of the truth about the created world? Is the universe itself moved by love? Will we trust the love that we have experienced in our relationships with those we have lost? Will we trust it as a sign of a deeper truth?


There is a terrible aloneness that we enact each year at Christmas time. It’s the aloneness of the shopping season, the aloneness of the commercialism, the mass produced jingoism of jingle bells. It’s the season where those who measure the world in dollars and cents come out to play. The corporations and franchises (and individual consumers seeking a bargain) do battle. There are moments of humanness in the midst of it all. But ultimately it is a noisy aloneness in a world based on competition for scarce resources between individuals whom the economists call ‘self-interest maximisers’ (a certain kind of model citizen). It is a celebration of an economic system in which God is basically absent. In place of redemption, economic growth is our best shot, even if the physical parameters of our planet start to suffer and collapse under our weight.


Christmas is full of irony. Hidden away in this aloneness of the shopping season… is the story of God with us. The love that moves the universe, has determined to intertwine God’s self with our fragile human condition and build a new creation. A child is born, to a refugee family in the middle of nowhere. Violence and aloneness will not have the final say. Thanks be to God.

Climate Change as a Crisis of Faith

November 26, 2015

The ODT published the following piece from me today. I was a bit disappointed with the title they substituted, as I thought it would put people off by being over the top and potentially a caricature. They entitled it: “Ascendancy of Market Capitalism a Recipe for Doom” with the subtitle “Climate change represents a crisis of faith, writes Bruce Hamill”

The People’s Climate March (29th November) is not just about whether ‘the people’ or our corporate overlords will get to determine our future (or lack thereof). It is also a matter of faith.

With unprecedented clarity Naomi Klein in her 2014 book This Changes Everything, articulates a moment of truth: ‘…our economic and planetary systems are now at war. Or more accurately, our economy is at war with the many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.’ The principle reason we have completely failed to address this crisis is a matter of bad timing. At precisely the time when scientists diagnosed our climate crisis politicians and economists and other such ‘high priests’ of deregulated capitalism reached a position of global ascendancy and have maintained this ever since.

As I read her, Klein is diagnosing a crisis of faith. A particular faith tradition and way of life has dominated our world in the twentieth century and has gone global during the last quarter of that century. Klein calls it ‘market fundamentalism’. This faith tradition puts its trust in the saving power of deregulated markets. Such markets will produce economic growth and this in turn, its propagandists tell us, brings ‘prosperity’ for all. The moment of truth which ‘changes everything’ is the realisation that this faith doesn’t merely destroy human community; it also destroys the future of life on this planet. Practical solutions are possible but they are hopeless without a change of faith and thus of culture.

My own faith tradition arose out of a ‘this changes everything’ moment. It occurred some time in the first century when a group of Palestinian peasants were living within an empire dominated by the faith of Rome – essentially a ‘global’ faith in the saving power of the threat and use of violence. For these peasants the moment of truth came with the realisation that the real power undergirding the universe was not violence (dominating through the fear of death) but love and its corresponding willingness to suffer for the welfare of the other. In the choice by Jesus of Nazareth to undergo crucifixion they experienced the clash between the ‘kingdom of God’ and the dominant socio-political and spiritual forces of their time. In his resurrection they saw the vindication of his way and hope for the material world. God is love, they said, and so, in the end by the Spirit’s grace, we will be also. So they lived in small communities and began to subvert the empire. Initially they quietly persevered with some success and then the empire began to subvert them, but that’s a long story.

Two faiths. Two stories. Two possible lifestyles. The choice to live in the life of God is a choice made by those who experience the love of God binding them both to one another and to the planet our ecosystem. The universe is held together by love, as is this planet and its human community. As Pope Francis has been reminding us, the call to love our weakest neighbour is also the call to love our latest victim – the magnificent creation we so egocentrically call our ‘environment’. This changes everything.


Book Review

November 24, 2015

Paul and the Gift Paulandthegift

by John M. G. Barclay

If you think you know what ‘grace’ means you probably need to read this book. Top New Testament scholars are raving about it. It opens up a whole new approach to the language of gift in Paul and in the literature of First Temple Judaism. It also provides a powerful tool to analyse the tradition of theological interpretation of Paul down the ages.

My own summary of John Barclay’s conclusions will probably fall far short of the beautiful precision and clarity with which Barclay himself summarises his arguments as he goes along. This clarity means that, although the book draws on an immense depth of scholarship, it will also be very accessible to a lay audience.

New Testament scholars will no doubt argue over particular points, but I suspect that the framework Barclay offers will provide the terminology for debate for some time to come.

Some of the key conclusions are as follows.

The idea of grace finds expression in Paul and in First Temple Judaism in range of terms associated with gift giving. One key aspect of this language is that it arises within a culture in which gift giving is normally and normatively reciprocal. A return is expected and this does not undermine the fact that it is a gift. Hence the cultural world of gift giving is very different from the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ untainted with expectations of reciprocity.

There is no uniform notion of ‘grace’. Barclay’s close analysis of the literature shows a family resemblance between the various ways the terms are used but also clear differences. He distinguishes six ‘perfections’ of grace. By this he means six ways in which the notion of grace is stretched towards an idealised notion of perfect grace. Many writers use several of these ‘perfections’ in their understanding of grace, but there is interesting diversity which means that debates between different writers which do not pay attention to these differences end up falling into considerable confusion.

Barclay’s six perfections are: maximizing the abundance of grace; absolutizing the priority of grace; emphasising the efficacy of grace; stressing the incongruity of grace with the worth or character of the recipient; emphasising the singularity of grace as the unique characteristic of the giver, and finally defining grace as unconditional or non-reciprocal with ‘no strings attached. This last perfection, Barclay argues, is a peculiarly modern perfection.

It strikes me that singularity is a little of an oddball in the list as it is a descriptor of the giver rather than the mode of giving. Moreover Barclay spends little time discussing this perfection with its suggestion that God only gives and does not take.

The perfection of priority provides a backdrop to Barclay’s devastating engagement with E P Sanders ‘new perspective’. For Sanders grace, understood almost exclusively in terms of the notion of priority, does not distinguish Paul from his Jewish counterparts. Barclay shows that Paul’s account of the gift is highly distinctive once you pay attention to the many different ways First Temple writers perfect the understanding of grace.

To show this Barclay offers comparative readings of The Wisdom of Solomon, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, The Hoyadot (Thanksgiving Hymns) from the sectarian Qumran community, Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Bibicarum and 4 Ezra. As a newcomer to these writings I found this section particularly fascinating.

From here Barclay offers his own readings of Galatian and Romans (in turn) as representative of Paul’s distinctive use of the language of gift. Although there are interesting differences between Galatians and Romans – the latter offering a fuller account and developed account of the relationship between this history of Israel and the gift that is the event of Jesus Christ – both letters demonstrate how Paul emphasised the perfection of the incongruity of grace (to the undeserving) because of his focus on the Christ-event as divine gift and because of his concern for and experience of Gentile mission. It is not that Paul does not perfect the idea of grace in other ways (he does) but it is the radical incongruity of the gift of grace in the Christ event which reshapes the life of the communities Paul writes to, most importantly in relativizing the authority of the Torah in  a novel and revolutionary manner. Significantly, Paul does not perfect the non-reciprocity of God. Grace to the undeserving does indeed have strings attached. For Paul incongruous grace is unconditioned (by the recipient) but not unconditional. This incongruous Grace is, however, also efficacious and in Paul eschatological framework is effective to render some kind of final congruity.

Another interesting aspect of this book is Barclay’s comparative readings of significant interpreters of Paul. He uses his ‘six perfections’ as a grid to look at the assumptions about grace present a long line of thinkers. The following summary hardly does justice to the distinctive takes that each of the thinkers has on the various ways of perfecting grace, however, this chapter is well worth the price of the book. Barclay discusses, in order: Marcion (emphasising singularity and incongruity), Augustine (priority, incongruity, efficacy), Luther (superabundance, tendency to singularity, priority, permanent incongruity, non-reciprocity), Calvin (priority, incongruity, efficacy), Barth (strong emphasis on incongruity, grappling with efficacy), Bultmann (incongruity, priority, reticent about efficacy), Kasemann (incongruity, not inclined to perfect efficacy, opposed to non-reciprocal ‘cheap’ grace), Martyn (incongruity, priority, efficacy) and more (including a range of ‘new perspective’ and ‘post new perspective scholars’)

I struggle to recommend this book highly enough. It is must read, especially for students of the New Testament and for preachers and teachers in the church.




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