Wednesday, January 21, 2015

New Bible Study: The Gospel of John

After another long hiatus, I'm going to try to get back to regularly blogging again. No resolution this year, just going to give it my best. Once again I'll be giving weekly updates on our Bible Study at the church for those who aren't able to attend in person, and for anyone else out there who is interested.

This week we begin with a quick overview of the Gospel, before diving into the Prologue (John 1:1-18) that opens John.

Overview of the Gospel of John
  • Completed somewhere between 75 and 100AD, John was written in several stages, with one final revision after the death of the witness whose testimony is the basis of the Gospel (John 20:30-31 & 21:20-25 notice how John has two endings).
  • John is quite different from the other three Gospels in style and in content. While much of Matthew, Mark and Luke, occurs in and around Galilee (in the north of Israel) where Jesus lived and spent most of his ministry, most of John takes place in Judea (in the south) in and around the city of Jerusalem as Jesus comes and goes to the major Jewish religious festivals.
  • The eye witness is named only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel itself (I’ll normally refer to him as the Beloved Disciple). Traditionally this person was identified as the Apostle, John son of Zebedee. Yet there are a number of reasons to question this identification, and John (Hebrew: Yohanan) was a very common Jewish name in the 1st Century AD (there are at least four significant Johns in the New Testament).
  • The thing to take away from this, is that the Gospel of John is based on eyewitness testimony, even though it is often quite different from the other three Gospels. There is a lot in common between them (including events and sayings of Jesus), yet each sees some things the others do not see. We can see it as Matthew, Mark and Luke being on one side of the street, with John standing by himself on the other. 
  • The Gospel writer and his church were deeply Jewish, yet were profoundly alienated from the mainstream Jewish community at the time the Gospel was written. Passages like John 12:42 & 16:2 suggest that they had been forced out because of their beliefs about Jesus. Therefore we must be careful in how we interpret the term ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John. Most often this term refers to the Jewish leaders who were opposed to Jesus and then later to the early Jewish Christian movement, rather than the Jewish people as a whole.
John 1:1-18
  • The Gospel of John is far from the only part of the New Testament to express the belief that Jesus existed with God prior to his human life. Read Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-5 and compare them to John. 
  • The Gospel of John draws on a number of different sources for his reflection on Jesus as the Word of God. Read Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 33:6 and Isaiah 55:10-11 which speak of God’s Word in Creation. What John has to say about the Word also applies to another key Old Testament concept – Wisdom. Read Proverbs 8:22-36 and if you have a Bible with the Apocrypha look up the Wisdom of Solomon 9:1-4 and Sirach 24:1-7 (you can also find these books online at What do all these things suggest about who Jesus is? 
  • If all of that reading seems overwhelming, just read John by itself and take some time to reflect on how John invites us into the mystery of who Jesus is, and what God has done in him. Look especially at John 1:14. Consider how radical an idea this is and what it says about the kind of relationship God has with Creation, and with you and me.
  • Finally, take note of the words and phrases John uses here (ie. light & darkness, truth, grace, glory, Son, Father, among others). The Prologue includes all of the major ideas that John will explore later in the Gospel. Watch for these words and phrases as we go on our way.

Finally, there is a new visual production of Gospels out called the Lumo Project. The full version of the Gospel of John in the both the King James and 2011 New International Version is available on Netflix. But has a number of clips, including John 1:1-18. See it here:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Of Trumpets and Ice Buckets...

“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4 NET)

Now there’s a bucket of ice water. Like a lot of people I have mixed feelings about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. For me what Jesus says about our giving to charity is a big part of it. Yet that is balanced by the fact that like a lot of Canadian Presbyterians I am quite familiar with this terrible condition that’s also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Back in 1997 a dynamic young Presbyterian minister named Chris Vais was diagnosed with ALS. Chris was the minister of Knox Church in Waterdown, Ontario, from a family of Presbyterian ministers (I’ve written about Chris before). In a little over a year Chris had to retire from congregational ministry, but instead of being defeated by the illness that was slowly paralyzing him, he decided to continue his calling through a self-published journal called For Words.

My parents knew Chris and his family through the church, and subscribed to the journal. There Chris shared his reflections on his illness and his Christian faith. That journal touched a lot of lives and in 2001 Chris received an honorary doctorate from Knox College. My mum was also graduating that night, so I had the chance to meet Chris briefly. He died a little over a year later in 2002, a few months short of his 40th birthday.

On top of this there’s the fact that in just my little congregation there are two families who have been touched by ALS since I started in ministry four years ago. So as much as I have some significant reservations about the showiness and debatable value of this ice bucket challenge, I can’t just write it off either. It is raising additional money for ALS research and raising some greater awareness of the disease (though how much more than just the three letters of its name is debatable).

What this does do is provide an opportunity to think about charity and how and why we give. According to a 2013 article in the Globe and Mail, Canadians give a little less than 1 per cent (0.8) of their annual income to charity. StatisticsCanada produced a detailed study of charitable giving in Canada in 2010 when the average annual amount per donor was $446 and the median amount was $123 (a median means that half of donors gave less than this amount and the other half gave more).

So, as William MacAskill from the University of Cambridge observed on CBC’s The Current this morning, there are a limited amount of charitable dollars to go around. MacAskill referred to a phenomenon known as ‘charity cannibalism,’ which means that when people give to a high profile charity they usually don’t give on top of what they normally would in a year – instead they just give less to their other charities. In short most people set aside a more or less fixed amount for charity in a year and whichever charity gets their attention gets the money – whether it’s a good charity or not.

And the truth is that not all charities are created equal. Many are very effective and make good use of our charitable givings, others do little that’s effective and spend most of our money on administration, advertising and fundraising. So how do you know? A great resource is which provides an annual ranking of most Canadian charities. They give ALS Canada a B+ ranking. You can take a look at the full report here:

So is it worth taking the ice bucket challenge or supporting someone else who is? I can’t answer that for you. ALS is a terrible disease and Tammy Moore the head of ALS Canada argues that it’s an underfunded illness in comparison to the number of Canadians affected by it.

What I can suggest is a few questions before you have someone dump a bucket of ice water over your head. Why am I doing this? Is it to look good before others, or am I really doing this for those paralyzed and slowly dying from ALS? If I give money to this cause, what other causes will I not be giving to? Or will I do something different and give to ALS on top of what I give to other charities and spend a bit less on myself? And will I do this quietly or will I blow a trumpet and post a video?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Who we are called to be

For the time being I think I'm going to continue posting some of the standout items the prayer book I'm using (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals). Today's prayers included a selection from a 2nd Century Christian writing known as the Letter to Diognetus.

I've been familiar with this remarkable text for a while, but it was good to be reminded of it today. It presents and image of what Christians can be, and are called to be, and a reminder of why the early Church spread the faith of Jesus so widely in spite of persecution and disdain. Here's a selection from the section known as 'the Church in the world.'

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive people, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each one's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their homeland, and yet for them every homeland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are "in the flesh," but they do not live "according to the flesh." They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all people, and by all people are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonoured, and in their very dishonour are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.

To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.