I’ve been very moved in the last few days reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s account of the last few weeks of the life of Thomas Cranmer, in his biography of the great man (Thomas Cranmer, Yale University Press, 1996). It’s a well known story, of course, of Cranmer’s apparent recantation of his Protestant convictions and then his dramatic recantation of the recantation.
What struck me was one of the primary reasons MacCulloch suggests for Cranmer’s apparent capitulation back into the Catholicism out of which he had expended so much energy dragging himself and his country.
The reason was friendship. Towards the end, in his confinement, he was very isolated from his Protestant friends. They had mostly either fled to the Continent or been jailed. Indeed two of the most prominent, Latimer and Ridley, had been burned at the stake and he had been forced watch their sufferings.
At this point, says MacCulloch: ‘In isolation which was spiritual rather than physical, he cast in the role of friend and confidant the attendant who was guarding him, a simple but devout traditionalist Catholic called Nicholas Woodson. Woodson’s friendship came to be his only support, and to please Woodson he began giving way to everything that he had fought for twenty years and more’ (pp.588-89).
Some very sharp Catholic minds had turned up during his imprisonment to try to argue him out of his Protestantism, but he held firm. Yet put him in a position where his only possible friend in all the world was a simple-minded Catholic and he weakened. I think it is only the most foolhardy of us who conclude that Cranmer was just one of life’s pushovers and that we would have been stronger.
What do I conclude?
I conclude that a desire to please my friends may well be deeper in me than I imagine it is.
I conclude that therefore those deep friendships that I do have with brothers in the Lord are likely to be a far more powerful means by which the Lord keeps me true to him than I imagine they are.
I conclude, finally, that choosing to sacrifice some other things in order to invest in those friendships is a very wise thing to do. According to MacCulloch it was spiritual isolation that did for Cranmer – although mercifully not permanently so. We are fools, I think, if we imagine that we are different.
My PT colleague, Adrian Reynolds, might well add at this point: so when, Mr Pastor, did you last go to a conference where you knew you would be spending time with like-minded brothers? He puts on some pretty good ones, you know.
The big idea and aim of the Big Idea and Aim
Anyone who encounters what we do at Cornhill quickly discovers that we’re rigorous in training students to come up with two sentences for any Bible passage that they’re teaching or preaching: a Big Idea (a.k.a. BI, or Theme Sentence) and Aim Sentence.
This practice sometimes raises some good questions, and here are a couple of them.
Isn’t it more formulaic than Scripture itself?
Of course any set of disciplines can be turned into a lifeless formula by the petty-minded, but I’m pretty insistent that our insistence on BI and Aim does not drain the life from Scripture, but actually leads the preacher to be listening out for it.
- The BI boils down to this: what is the passage actually talking about?
- The Aim boils down to this: why are these things written here in this way in Scripture?
‘What?’ and ‘why?’. These are the two key questions that precisely help the preacher not to impose his favourite framework on a text, but to discipline himself to listen for what God is actually saying there.
That’s why, for myself, I fight a little shy of asking early on in my preparation questions which presuppose looking for a certain kind of content. Some books recommend this: e.g. one good contemporary writer suggests looking for what he calls the ‘Fallen Condition Focus’ of each text. It’s far from a terrible question, but I’d always rather start with, and persist with, ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ – questions which steer me, if I follow them faithfully, to listen to this text in its own right.
What’s the basis of ‘BI and Aim’?
Well, you can find theological answers to that question. But here’s a good general answer, from God’s common grace in human life:
Every time a person uses language, that language has two inseparable features: propositional content and inter-personal action. More simply: every time we open our mouths or tap on our keyboards, there’s content (what I’m saying) and intention (why I’m saying it). These two can be analysed separately, but they never actually exist separately; they’re two ways of describing what we’re doing when we communicate. (In a previous life I researched this a bit, and should anyone be interested it’s grounded in a solid philosophy of language.)
That’s why we get Cornhillers going on both BI and Aim from day one of Cornhill. Focus on BI without Aim and you’ll get lectures pretending to be sermons; focus on Aim without BI and you’ll get lots of heat and little light. All language, including the human language that Scripture is written in, always has both. ‘BI and Aim’ is simply our way of expressing a desire to read Scripture in a way that’s faithful to how God has made us and our language.
Exegetical reflections on Luke ch.24, part 3
The final section, vs.36-53:
Three rather odd things happen here, and I think that working away at these, in the way Luke has described them, gets us heading in the right direction:
1) When Jesus appears to the disciples (v.36), they’re all startled and frightened and think he’s a ghost. Yet only moments earlier they had seemed convinced of his resurrection (v.34)! The repeated language of ‘ghost’ (vs.38-39) suggests what’s going on: they are not fully convinced of the complete physical reality of the resurrection. After all, at the meal-table with Emmaus Two it seems that he disappeared before anything was actually eaten (vs.30-31).
2) The climax of Luke’s account of Jesus providing the disciples with evidence of the reality of his resurrection is… he eats a mouthful of fish while they watch (vs.40-43). Rarely has such a mundane act had such theological clout! But see this as Jesus’ response to their thinking he’s a ghost, and Luke’s point begins to emerge: the climax of the evidence of the resurrection is the demonstration that the risen Christ was as fully human as he was before his death.
That’s not often a key point that folks like us have drawn from the resurrection, but it does seem to be Luke’s. In his resurrection, and then at his ascension, Jesus left no part of his humanity behind. We who are in him can be confident of heaven, because (among other reasons, of course) one human being has blazed the trail and gone there ahead of us.
3) In vs.50-53 it is rather clear that the Father took Jesus up into heaven while he was part-way through blessing them. Why didn’t he wait just a few minutes for Jesus to finish his blessing?! Wouldn’t that have been an encouragement for the disciples?
It’s a strange thing. Is Luke’s point that Jesus is continuing to bless his disciples from heaven, even though he is not with us physically – that his unfinished blessing is unfinishing? That fits, I think, with his promise to clothe them with power from on high (v.49). His physical disappearance does not end the blessing of his presence with them; actually it allows for it to continue in a much more powerful way.
I feel I have only scratched the surface of Luke 24. But again I’ve been reminded that working away hard at what Luke has actually said, and trying to stick with the question ‘why has he chosen to say this?’, yields rather more fruit than I see when I first read through such familiar verses.
Exegetical reflections on Luke ch.24, part 2
Now to the famous Emmaus Road, vs.13-35.
Much more than this could be said, but here are a couple of thoughts:
1) Central to this event as Luke tells it is the contrast between what the Emmaus Two expected of the Messiah (vs.19-24), and what Jesus says the Messiah actually had to do (vs.25-27).A careful contrasting of these two portions gets us to the heart of things, I think. They expected that he would do for their nation the very things that they themselves wanted done for their nation: sort out the Romans, and renew the nation’s life and status. In their expectation, God’s plans just happened to include the things that they themselves wanted.
Jesus, though, uses Scripture to describe God’s plan for the Messiah entirely without reference to the redemption of the nation which so concerns them. For Jesus, it is all about the Messiah’s glory, which had to be preceded by the very suffering which the Emmaus Two thought proved his defeat. If we expect God to work in ways that will also just happen to lead to our glory and comfort here and now, most of us will be disappointed in him. But if we expect that he will work to bring the Messiah glory – and that through suffering, as throughout Scripture – then he will never disappoint us.
2) How is it that they came to recognise him at the breaking of the bread (vs.30-31, 35)? Most evangelicals reject any overt reference to the Lord’s Supper, and have sometimes wondered if the disciples noticed the nail-marks in his hands at that point. Luke, though, makes no reference to that, so that can only be guess-work. What Luke does describe is Jesus acting as host at a meal at which is he technically a guest (v.30). That points us in the right direction, I think. Twice before, Luke has used similar words to describe Jesus hosting a meal: the feeding of the five thousand (9.16) and the last supper (22.19). In the first of these, he is the host who provides for the Lord’s people in the wilderness, and in the second he is the provider of the atoning sacrifice for sin.
This suggests that Luke is showing us that the risen Christ was recognised as risen when he was seen to be the Provider who was still among his people. Faith in the resurrection is therefore not just faith in a miracle, but is trust in Jesus as the provider of all that his people need to cover their sins and to sustain them.
Exegetical thoughts on Luke ch.24, part 1
At the recent PT Summer Wives Conference I gave three talks on Luke’s final chapter, ch.24, and to be honest I found the prep a real wrestle. Preachers know that feeling mid-way through the prep for something like this: “I don’t think I’m going to have anything useful to say. Shall I just pick something that promises to yield easier fruit instead?”.
However some things did come to strike me quite forcefully, and I share them here, over the next three days.
First up is vs.1-12.
Luke seems to have narrated this in a way that stresses two things:
1) The disciples were simply not expecting the resurrection (vs.1-3, 11), even though they had heard Jesus predict it (v.6), and even though some of them had themselves experienced his miraculous healing power personally. The latter point is presumably why Luke goes out of his way to name the women in v.10, since some of the same women are also mentioned as having been healed in 8.1-3.
That gives huge comfort to Christians who find our message of a risen Christ met with incredulity.
2) This is really the same point, but now put positively: belief in Christ resurrected is given through divine revelation that first of all humbles, and then gives insight into and remembrance of Christ’s words (vs.4-8). (This theme will also continue into the next section: vs.16 and 31-32.)
I began to think that this explains why Luke ends the section with Peter as a partial exception to the disciples’ lack of expectation of the resurrection (v.12). The last time Luke showed us Peter, he was in a position rather like that of the women at the tomb: humbled, forced to remember Jesus’ words, and confronted with the truth of those words (22.60-62). If that’s right, then Luke is showing that human reception of the news of the resurrection requires our humbling – and those who have been humbled by God are more likely to be open to believing it. On reflection, I have found that to be largely true of ministry as I have experienced it.
The working wife
I was at the recent PT Summer Wives conference, invited along as a speaker. We had a panel question time on wide-ranging issues of ministry, and the perennial question arose of whether or not a pastor’s wife ought to do paid work out of the home. There are of course strongly argued views both ways on this, so we wanted to pick our way through it carefully.
One helpful way in which the question was framed was this: aren’t we in our constituency in danger of promoting a 1950s cultural model of the housewife (main job: cook and clean, and make sure house and kids are spick and span and dinner is ready for hubbie’s return home), and pretending it’s biblical?
A good question. There is no doubt that danger is real, and we may well at times have fallen into it. As is often pointed out, the wife of noble character in Prov 31 is rather more like a home-based businesswoman than a 1950s housewife, and the ‘busyness at home’ which older women are teach to younger women (Titus 2.5) is very likely to be much more akin to that, than akin to a post-Industrial-Revolution cultural model of house-wifery. That itself doesn’t answer the question about pastors’ wives going out of the home to earn money, but it certainly shows that easy answers won’t do.
I wonder if it is especially in marriage-roles and family relationships that we are likely to slip unawares into largely cultural rather than biblical patterns without noticing, precisely because such things seem so ‘natural’ to us. It is really only those who believe that Scripture is the living voice of God who can gain a true perspective on themselves and their culture from outside, which is a great mercy and a great challenge.
A pastor’s wife’s tale
One book I return to often is Garrison Keillor’s Leaving Home, his whimsical tales of life in a mythical Minnesotan town called Lake Wobegon. One story I’ve just re-read focuses on Judy Ingqvist, wife of Lutheran pastor, Dave. I’m not Lutheran, but this particular excerpt did make me think of the talks I’ll soon be delivering at the PT Summer Wives Conference. And it might give a married pastor pause to think about how things actually are for his wife right now.
The Ingqvists bought their tickets to Florida two months ago, Pastor Dave and Judy; at least that’s what she said. They’ve missed the Annual Ministers’ Retreat three years in a row because the civilian leadership at church can’t see why their minister and his wife should cavort in the tropics in January. She can see about three reasons, but she can’t tell the Board because it’s more than they want to know about a minister: it’s hard work to stand up and say what people don’t really believe but want to think they do; and it’s tough when a man of faith suffers from depression in a town where nice people are expected to be upbeat. For a few days on Captiva Island, at the Chateau Suzanne, around the blue kidney-bean-shaped pool, cool aquamarine in a forest of deep green and fabulous birds of brilliant plumage, some pale plump Lutherans will sit in the sun like lumps of bread dough and say forbidden things. Oh, the luxury of truth when you come from a town of storytellers! The luxury of sitting in sunlight, clasping a gin-and-tonic, wearing two articles of clothing that allow the world to reasonably assume you are a woman, lighting up one of your ten annual cigarettes, and saying openly to other ministers’ wives, “It has been hard this year.”
Of course there’s no pool like that at Hothorpe Hall, and I’m ignoring his comment about sun-bathing American Lutherans! But I’m guessing a number of women at the Conference will gain some relief from simply telling another woman, “It has been hard this year.”
Don’t try to be relevant!
I recently preached at a friend’s church on a text he assigned me: Jude 17-25, at the end of a short series in the church on Jude.
The big thing that struck is how remarkably similar our situation in the UK right now is to the situation Jude was addressing, right down to specific details:
• Some ungodly people have got into the church and are teaching believers that they can go lax on morality, especially sexual immorality (vs.4 & 7).
• Some believers seem to be shaken by this, and are beginning to wonder whether the apostles were really the ones led by the Spirit, or whether this new teaching is actually Spirit-inspired (v.17).
That would not have seemed as obviously relevant to the times in the UK fifty years ago as it does today.
Jude’s pastoral response is just as specific. Although the verses in question aren’t the easiest to interpret, most likely he tells believers how to relate to three kinds of people in this situation:
• v.22: believers who are beginning to wonder if the apostles had it right after all (“My daughter is so happy with her same-sex married partner; can it be so wrong after all?)
• v.23a: church-members who have gone a step further and are taking serious steps into immorality (“I’ve decided that God won’t mind if I have an affair; I’m really lonely, and my marriage is dying anyway”)
• v.23b: the very teachers of the immorality themselves, and their followers.
This reminds us of a crucial truth about the relevance of Scripture, that all of us need to stay convinced of:
Relevance in preaching is like happiness. The people who most keenly seek after it for its own sake never really find it.
The preacher who is desperate to be relevant is usually embarrassingly outmoded before he even stands up to speak.
But the preacher who gives himself to the task set before him – to listen to this text in its own right, to ask first of all what God was doing in it back there and then – will discover extraordinary relevance to the details of our lives. Be brave enough to dig down deep enough into Scripture, and then suddenly a really powerful spark will jump across the gap between then and now.
The virtues of the preacher
Expository preaching is difficult. And I think it is most difficult in one particular way.
It’s not difficult in the way that something like quantum mechanics is difficult – difficult because only a small percentage of people, the most intelligent, can understand it. (You gather that I don’t think I understand quantum mechanics.)
After all, at heart good expository preaching requires of the preacher that he sit in his study asking some pretty straightforward questions: what does this passage actually say? when was it written, in general history and in the history of redemption? how does this passage contribute to Scripture’s overall message? …and especially why does the writer say what he says, in the way he says it?
These are not difficult questions to understand. But they are difficult questions to discipline yourself to stick rigorously to in your preparation…
We read our preaching text through, and often immediately a ready-made preaching point comes to mind – not unlike a point we made in a recent sermon.
We read our preaching text through, and often immediately an application from a particular line jumps to mind – one that we can use to address head-on an issue that’s troubling us.
These things might be what the passage is actually saying… or they might not. We have no idea of that until we’ve disciplined ourselves to do the hard work of asking our simple questions rigorously of the passage.
One of the chief virtues that the expository preacher needs is therefore self-discipline. The same letter which exhorted Timothy to preach the word (2 Tim 4.2) began by urging him to fan into flame the gift that is in him because the Spirit has given us (among other things) self-discipline (1.6-7).
I think I would say that from this perspective the task required of the expository preacher is simply one aspect of the virtue of being quick to listen and slow to speak (Jas 1.19) – and everyone knows how much self-discipline it takes to do that.
Better study equals better application
One practical reason why preachers are tempted to short-circuit working hard on their Bible-text is because they feel the pressure to have compelling applications. And the truth is that it can sometimes feel as if the further we bury ourselves in the text, the further we are getting away from the real lives of the people we’ll be standing in front of come Sunday.
Here’s one simple example from a passage that came up in our Cornhill practice classes this week, which demonstrates that we must hold our nerve and believe that the opposite is the case: namely, the further we bury ourselves in the next, the closer we are getting to the profound and precise message that the Lord has in it for our people.
The passage is Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the unmerciful servant. It’s provoked by Peter asking Jesus how often he must forgive a brother or sister who sins against him. “Up to seven times?”, asks Peter.
Already there in the opening verse of the passage we are given two limitations to our application: this is primarily about sins committed against us…
– by fellow-believers, not the world in general;
– by fellow-believers within the life of the church family, rather than within our own family relationships.
There’s more. The immediate context is the well-known passage on church discipline (18:15-20), which speaks of the two possible outcomes for a sinning Christian: repentance and restoration, or coming to be regarded as an unbeliever. Peter’s question in v.21 can only have in view the repentant believer, since he asks about multiple acts of forgiveness. Here then is a third limitation to our application: the sinning Christian is assumed to be repentant.
I think I detect even a fourth limitation, too: since Peter assumes repeated forgiveness, primarily in view are sins that are committed pretty regularly, rather than enormous, infrequent sins.
If I notice all of this, I won’t start my sermon by talking about a Christian who said she forgave her unconverted father who sexually abused her as a child (not a Christian; possibly not repentant). I won’t start talking about a converted man who stays with his church-going wife through her continual affairs (possibly not a Christian; not repentant). If I start like this, I’ll probably do pastoral damage.
Instead, I’ll start talking about the kinds of sins committed regularly among church family members: gossipping, back-biting, lack of hospitality, etc. I may think that this passage speaks to forgiveness in other areas too. But if I think that, I’ll be guided by the text to work my way there through a series of careful pastoral steps.
As I said, in this case when I finally emerge from the hours spent buried in the text, although there’s still much to do, I know exactly in which direction my applications need to run.