Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Christian Ethics

The point of the Christian life is not to become a better, more moral person.  The end, the telos, is to become Christ: not just to be like Him, but to participate in His Life and His Body.  If we think about this, though, this precludes all moral striving.  No matter how hard we work, we will never be filled with the Holy Spirit and so share in the divine nature.  Hence the necessity of faith, not just as rational (or even moral) assent, but coming under the authority and obedience of the King who offers the grace (Himself) so to do.  To become Christ is the goal: who is Christ?  He is the theandros, the God-Man, one who in His Person as the Word indivisably and unconfusedly unites the divine and the human natures.  How are we in any way to attain to Him?  We are human persons, who through faith in baptism are filled with the Holy Spirit who shares His nature with us.  This is why the Spirit rested on Christ in His baptism; this is why our Lord did nothing without the Spirit in His sojourn; so that we might, as sons of God remade in the pattern of the Son of God, might be joined with the Spirit for our salvation.  To acquire the Spirit, then, is the goal of the Christian life.  To acquire the Spirit is to become Christ; to become Christ is to become divine, glorified, theotic.  Here is where the central importance of the Tabernacle cultus and liturgy, detailed in the middle of the Torah, becomes so key: the Law was never about becoming moral, it was about becoming a Temple: pure, undefiled, holy.  A place for God to dwell.  The whole point of the commandments of God is not to make Him happy, as if our Lord needs that emotion (the One God dwells in blessedness of which happiness is but a pale shadow), no, the point of the commands is to be prepared for God's residence within us.  But, just as the unclean always threatened the sanctity of the holy courts, so sin, death, Satan, and the disordered passions threaten Christ's Holy Temple, His Body, the Church.  This makes the Law not about ascent to God to curry favor, but about guarding sacred ground: ethics, then, is priestly work.

This is why St Silouan the Athonite's dictum that "My brother is my life" is so important: the priests are not doing an individual task, but the collective work of protection and sanctification of the Church.  I cannot do my work as a priestly guardian without reference to my brothers and sisters, nor without their constant aid and intercession so for strength and forgiveness of sins (which, to digress briefly, is why the communion of saints is so vital).  All are saved together, none are saved alone.

It is worth noting that in the cultic regulation there are two categories of defilement: sin and symbols of death.  Sin is, in Levitical terms, the conscious breaking of the Torah, which leads to death (whether as a consequence of the action, i.e. murder or the death penalty, or on the social level, i.e. adultery shredding families apart).  The symbols, though, are those things that are not inherently sinful, but still reference death, especially as inherited through Adam.  An example would be the regulations concerning childbearing (Lev. 12): after a woman gives birth, she must go through a period of ritual purification after the flow of blood dams.  Then she must, if she is to readmitted to the Temple, offer a "sin offering."  Why?  Has she sinned?  No, rather the term is better understood as "purification offering" (cf. Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus): since Eve, childbearing has been a sign of both hope ("your Seed shall crush the serpent's head...") and the consequences of death ("greatly will I increase your pains in childbearing").  A birth symbolizes the curse on Eve, but it is not insurmountable: there will come One who will save all women through being born by a virgin.  This second category, the symbols of death, are fully dealt with by the destruction of death through the Resurrection.  No longer do menstruations or child bearings make women unclean and disallowed from worship of the true God (one has only to reach in faith for the fringes of the Lord's garment to be fully healed!).  Sin, however, remains as a defiling agent; here is why St Paul, for example, speaks of various actions, attitudes, and lifestyles as defiling or polluting the people of God.

To return to the main point, we know that the power of sin is strong enough, compelling enough (why else would our first parents even countenance the serpent?), and pervasive enough that we cannot resist it.  Here is where our brothers and sisters come in, especially those who have had their passions healed and purified ("saints"): they can offer us forgiveness.  Now, some might say, only God can forgive sins!  True!  God is the only One who forgives sins and He deigns to do it through the intercessions, through the rebukes, through the gentle and stern corrections of others.  The root of forgiveness, which is often lost in our overly legal culture, is release: the Church, as the Body of the Christ, undoes the bonds that hold us tight.  And the Lord promises (and warns) that if we forgive the trespasses of our brother and sister, our own trespasses are forgiven as well.  We are set free as we set others free.  This is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of the world.  This is, not morals and ethics, but entering the Cross, actualizing baptism, becoming the body, sharing the One Loaf, salvation.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A True Horror of Death

James Baldwin calls death "our inescapable fact."

It is in the midst of this that I think the modern world has failed...and that monumentally.  We seek to push death to the side, as death -- and the human necessities of caring for the dying and honoring the dead -- is not economically efficient (at the same time, however, death is particularly efficient as it clears out those who have become "obsolete," an insight brought to us with particular tragic clarity by Steve Jobs).  Death shows up our industrial and informational economy for what it is: a mask that, as Paschal said, we place before our faces to stop us seeing the Abyss we are running into.

A good friend and teacher died this week.  In the midst of grading and term endings, of preparing for Christmas, it is hard to find time to mourn.  But, at the same time, in the face of one of the most solemn moments in a human's history, how can grading and shopping be important?  No, there is a necessity to attend to the dead one, not as a "memory" but as an Image-Bearer, a proto-Icon, who now awaits resurrection with her Lord.  Her death, actualized in her physical body this week, was accomplished on the Cross and participated in with her baptism.  Her union with Christ, far from making her body a "shell" or some such, makes it a holy object: something that tangibly will rise on the Last Day, fully sharing in the Glory, the Eternal Life, of God Himself.  Her death becomes a testament, not to death's power, but to its futility: Death, thou shalt die.

In the meantime, though, we see the power of death, futile though it ultimately may be, to drive us to despair.  I was playing with my youngest daughter moments before I learned of my friend's death.  As we sat there, building blocks, I saw her as she truly is: an instantiation of love from my wife and I.  She is the outpouring of shared love.  I'm speaking ontologically, she is the natural hypostatization of our marital love.  This goes beyond symbolic gestures to something iconic: to truly see her is to see the Image of God, who with His Father and Spirit, is love.  Here is why death is such a terror.  Love shares His nature with us: eternal and at peace.  Death breaks asunder that bond and consigns love to the void.  It is the most unnatural of things, for it seeks to break apart that which is our very nature.  If Death can do that, what hope have we?

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life."

Hallelujah.  Here is the love as strong as death, as jealous as the grave.  No, in fact we must go beyond the Song and say here is the love stronger than death, more jealous than the grave, the One who will conquer Death and Hades for us and with us.

Hallelujah.

My dear friend, Martha, rest in peace until the Day of Resurrection.

Monday, December 08, 2014

"Is Born This Day"

Below is my homily from Chapel PCA's Advent Service, to which I was graciously invited by Pastor John Gardner.  The Incarnation changes everything.

------------------------------------------

When God the Father fashioned the mud into the likeness of the Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, He honored His creation in its physicality, in its separateness from Himself.  There is a distinction, which can never be confused, between the Uncreated God and created man.  God could, by His grace, unite Himself to that creation and thereby glorify it, which St Paul in the book of Romans says it our ultimate end (5:2, 8:30, etc.).  Man, through Adam and Eve, added a further distinction, though, a tragic one: through sin they broke the communion between God and themselves, introducing death into the world.  They who were to partake of the Glory of God, which is His eternal Life, instead began to sup with death, corrupting not only their minds and souls, but their bodies as well.  The constant refrain of the book of Genesis is “and so he died.”  God is Life, Existence, Being Himself, in whom dwells no death.  He is Holy.  And so God instituted, first through types and symbols, His redemption of His creation by becoming human so that He “might taste death for everyone” and that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:9, 14).  The advent of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, is for us the beginning of holiness, the holiness that is our salvation.

There is a wonderful scene in Luke’s Gospel in which our Lord is traveling to raise a young girl from the dead.  As he passes through the crowds, He feels power go out from Him.  It turns out a woman with an unstoppable blood flow had reached out and touched His garments.  For the crowds, this would have been horrifying: ritual pollution, the effect of both death and sin, would pass from the unclean and make any who were clean desecrated.  Such is what had been revealed in the Law of Moses.  However, in this case, the reverse happened: the blood flow was dammed and Christ remained clean.  The Holy One was cleansing the whole world of sin and death and their corruptive effects by His coming among us.  His taking on of physical human nature, body, mind, will, activity, brought the purgation of our sins and of death itself.  The implications of this were not unknown to the early teachers of the Church:

He therefore passed through every age becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise, He was an elder for elders, that he might be a perfect master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards that age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also and becoming likewise an example to them. Then, at the last, He came unto death itself, that he might be the firstborn of the dead, that in all things he might have the preeminence, “the Prince of Life,” existing before all and going before all (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 22, Section 4).

All stages of life “under the sun” have been remade through Christ’s presence in the flesh.  Through His virginal conception and birth, He has sanctified marriage, motherhood, and virginity.  Through His infancy and childhood, His adolescence and adulthood, He has sanctified those and shown us how to live “soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Tit. 2:11).  He has sanctified water at His baptism, bread and wine in His offering of Himself to us, and all the “trees of the Lord” (Ps. 104:16) have been blessed by His crucifixion.  Most of all, though, He has harrowed and hallowed death by His sinless residence and resurrection from there.  Now He, who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and therefore was not under the dominion of death, has risen with His flesh for our salvation.  We can, St Paul tell us, partake of this holiness, this freedom from death, through faith exercised in baptism: “Or do you not know that as many of us were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).


Christ’s birth, the Uncreated as the created, the divine as the human, is the fulfillment of Zechariah’s great prophecy: “In that day, HOLINESS TO THE LORD shall be engraved on the bells of the horses.  The pots in the Lord’s house shall be like the bowls before the altar.  Yes, every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be HOLINESS TO THE LORD OF HOSTS.  Everyone who sacrifices shall come and take them and cook in them.  In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of Hosts” (14:20-21).  If the Lord makes the pots and pans and horse bells holy, how much more us, who with great expectation celebrate His coming among us to liberate us from death and sin, the cosmic Canaanites?  Praise God for His honoring and blessing of all created reality in the enfleshing nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ!  Amen.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Tale of Arius and St Nick

Here is, as far as I'm able today, the Tale of Arius and St Nick.

I will be reading it for Geneva's "12 Hours of Christmas" today.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

-------------------

Gather 'round children for a tale rarely told
of how Christmas was 'bout lost
save for one saint who was bold.
It all happened at the council called Nice
where they were debating long and hard
about the substance of Christ.
Was he man or God in the flesh
or some other angelic creature
caught up in human mesh?
The bishops and priests down Egypt way
had stirred up this controversy
and the Emperor wanted a say.
"Who cares," ol' Constantine said,
"innit enough that he was born, suffered,
and been raised from the dead?"
But Alexander and Arius had come to blows
for something greater was at stake here
greater than many would suppose.
For if Christ weren't God, how could he save
us sinful, fragile mortals
e'er bound for the grave?

So a council was called and some 300 drew near
to debate and to explicate
what had become so unclear.
Arius, the bad guy in this story,
stood up to recite his poem,
and deprive the Lord of His glory.
But, lo and behold, who should appear,
but Ol St Nick, episcopally vested
(he had no tiny reindeer).
And, oh it makes me want to clap,
he planted on Arius' blasphemous mouth
not a kiss, but a fine, resounding slap.
"No heresy from you today,"
that angelic bishop
only managed to say.
No sooner had he started to speak
but the King jailed him up,
his regal scruples far too weak.
"No symbols of office for that,
no, no staff and no cloak
and no bishop's hat!"
The small beam of light carried by a punch
seemed extinguished so quickly
with Dino's mind out to lunch.
No bells would ever ring, no stockings hung with care,
Christ was no longer a savior,
as Arius triumphed without St Nicholas there.

But, o Virginia, don't you let yourself cry,
for that night in his cell,
did our saint a wonder espie!
"Merry Christmas," Christ and His Mother did shout,
"here's all your episcopal fine
and from that cell come thee out!"
A miracle the wonder cannot be told
as St Nick walked back to the council
to applause a hundred-fold!
Airy did shirk, and Constantine did shudder
as Nicholas came back
to steer that ship's rudder!
"Ho ho homoousias!  One essence with the Father!
Christ is very God and very man,
Otherwise why bother?"
The Emperor, upon seeing, they do say,
changed his mind and his heart
grew two sizes that day.
So now, from atop his golden throne,
he championed that bishop,
and true orthodoxy alone!

And that, dear children, is the story true
of how one Saint Nicholas of Myra
saved Christmas for me...and for you.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Scriptures and the Traditions of Men

In Mark 7, Jesus is excoriating the Pharisees for their subversion of God's commandments.  He says, "For laying aside the commandments of God, you hold the tradition of men -- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do...All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition...making the Word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down.  And many such things you do" (vv. 8-13).

A couple of days ago, Pete Enns had a nice post about faulty "rhetorical strategies" used in evangelical circles to dismiss or avoid substantive arguments.  If you've read the post, I'm sure you've seen exactly what he is referring to.  I think that the Lord's words here are often mishandled to make them into such a rhetorical strategy: anything that happens in the Church that is not according to *my* reading of Scripture is a "tradition of men" and therefore automatically suspect.  Usually this is followed with an argument meant to show how *my* reading is the "plain sense" or "obvious" reading.  However, here lurk some dragons to which we must attend.

On a superficial level, we have the problems of translation: what is the proper reading of the Scriptures in our language?  Even literal translations can differ significantly from each other: which one represents the true Word of God?  (Is it possible that multiple translations or, even, multiple textual variants could all be inspired, however we understand that word?)

Going one level deeper: which text is the true text, the one that preserves the "original" reading (if, in fact, any such thing ever existed)?  Byzantine, Majority, Textus Receptus, modern eclectic texts?

Going yet further: which canon is the authoritative one?  Protestants suppose it is, basically, the canon as set by Luther and his successors.  But why privilege that one over the ones (yes, plural) that the Church had used since at least the fourth century (as evidenced by St Athanasius' 39th Festal Letter, more on that in a moment): the Catholic or the Orthodox or the Coptic?

Each of these decisions is, properly, a "tradition of men."  Each one comes not from the Scriptures themselves, but the minds and hearts of many people over a long period of time.  Who decided the Christian canon?  While I have read arguments that Sts Paul and Peter determined it in Rome in the first century, no one really gives any historical credence to that theory.  No, the Church, based on her experience of bringing people to Christlikeness (theosis) and her union with Holy Spirit, privileged some books over others.  Athanasius speaks about this (seemingly traditioned) process thusly:

"3. In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance."

He is pastorally listing out those books which are "handed down" (that is, traditioned) and "accredited as Divine" (that is, inspired).  These he will set against the "hidden" or "apocryphal" books.  Care must be taken here, as "apocrypha" means something very different today.

"4. There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament."

Fairly standard definition of the OT canon, at least from our historical vantage point, save for some difference in the order and composition of the Prophets (you thought Malachi was the last book of the OT, didn't you?).  Baruch does make an appearance here, which already raises the question of why he is absent in modern Protestant bibles.  We might argue that St Athanasius isn't the authority on biblical canonicity, but then again, who is?  Who has the authority to set the canonical limits?  If the battle is between the Reformers and Athanasius, I'm going to have to side with the Alexandrian.

"5. Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John."

The NT in all her glory, laid out for us.  But why, if the Scriptures are self-evidently the Scriptures (an assumption behind the problem I'm writing about), do we need to have clarity about which ones are in and which are out?  Because it isn't self-evident.  The Scriptures are the book(s) of the Church, collected, preserved, and handed down from one generation to another.  There is no divine "table of contents" in the front: rather, these books are part of the larger Tradition of the Church.  Hence, the Church (whatever that exactly is), as historical community filled with the Spirit of God, decides which books are truly "theopneustos" or "inspired" (2 Tim. 3:16).  What about all those others books, which we call apocryphal?

"7. But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings."

These books that we now call "apocryphal" Athanasius did not.  They weren't quite Canon -- that is, the were not for the public services of the Liturgy -- but they were to be read, particularly by catechumens.  Preliminary reading, in other words.

The canon of Scripture, which books are in and which are out for the purpose of "doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16 again), was established by the "pillar and ground of the Truth, the Church of the living God" (1 Tim. 3:15) through the wisdom bestowed on Her by the Holy Spirit.

All this to say that the argument that some interpretations are "traditions of men" instead of the "plain reading" of the Scriptures are fraught with complexity, to say the least.  The Scriptures do not exist in a vacuum and should not be treated that way.  There are more part of interpretation, especially the indwelling of the Spirit through holiness of life, that need to be taken into account.  The Lord Jesus Christ can rightly use this argument, as He is the Truth that the Scriptures witness to.

There is no reading, for us, outside of some tradition.  The question for us is, which tradition is the tradition of God?  Certainly, we must be on the lookout for those who would sneak in things that lead us away from Christlikeness (Athanasius makes a point of this in some of the portions I didn't quote; St Paul does as well in Colossians); but, unless we possess the Spirit (or better, the Spirit possesses us) we must be humble as to what the "plain reading" of the Scriptures are and, to take it a step further, what Church practices really are "commandments of God" versus the "tradition of men."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sermon: 2 Cor. 3:7-18

My sermon for Washington Union Alliance Church in New Castle, Pa. I'm always warmly welcomed and encouraged by their fellowship. I ended up doing quite a bit of extemporaneous exposition that is not recorded here. I was also overwhelmed at my own unworthiness to handle God's Word and to think about teaching it to others. As St Cosmas said, "Not only am I not worthy to teach you, but not even worthy to kiss your feet, for each of you is worth more than the entire world."

------------------------------
The Christian Faith is hard. There seems to be an idea, put forth both by those outside the Faith and those inside, that once you know Jesus, everything is automatically put right, all questions are answered, every struggle finished. We often like to live as if that were true as well; we put on the imagery of the happy Christian couple, the perfect Christian family, the well-adjusted Christian worker. Yet, we know – usually by hard experience – that this isn’t the case. Any respite from the temptations to sin, or freedom from the heartache that seems to define our human experience, is hard won and even harder kept. The Corinthians, our ancient brothers and sisters in Christ, knew this to be the case. We have only to look through the first epistle we have to them from St Paul to see this: factions divided over which Apostolic leader to follow, abuse of one another during Communion, sexual immorality that even the rather loose pagans of their metropolis found abhorrent; how can the Apostle speak here, in today’s passage, about “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”? How can he speak so boldly of glory and us seeing it without needing a veil over our eyes or our hearts?

Paul, as he often does, retells a story from the Old Testament. He doesn’t do this so that he can have a pleasing anecdote on the way to the real point; no, he reads the Old as a way of pointing to Jesus. What God has done in the past is what He has perfected in the incarnate Lord Christ. In his previous letter, Paul draws the symbolism of the Exodus into his congregants’ lives: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:1-5). These things are “examples written down for our instruction, on whom the goal of the ages has come” (v. 11). What instruction, then, can we gain from the narrative Paul brings before the Corinthians here in chapter 3?

Again, we have a story of the Exodus. The people have left Egypt; they have seen God’s mighty wonders and deed: the staff turning into a snake that eats the Pharaoh’s snake-staves; the Plagues; the crossing of the Red Sea; the continuing pillar of cloud and fire. They are now encamped around Mt. Horeb in the Sinai, Moses bringing them the Torah of God that constitutes their national identity and mission in the world, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Yet, when they heard God speak from the fiery cloud, they said, “You, Moses, speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (20:19). When Moses, later, comes back down from the mountain, having renewed the covenant after the golden calf incident, he exhibits a greater miracle: his face shines with the glory of God Himself. “Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him…and when Moses had finished speaking with them [about what God commanded on the mountain], he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (34:30, 33-35).

The people did not want to hear the voice of God, out of fear. Because of sin and the corruption of death, even the Lord said that “you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (33:20). Through Moses, though, the people can see the glory of God, so they again are afraid. After he speaks with the authority of the Lord, he then veils his face. Why? St Paul reveals this to us: “Moses…would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (2 Cor. 3:13). The glory of God, so brightly shining, would fade over time. This was a sign of the covenant Moses mediated. St Paul here calls it “the ministry of death” and “the ministry of condemnation,” both terms hearkening back not only to Mt. Horeb, but also to the Garden of Eden. Adam was given instruction to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest he become separate from the Life of God and die. However, as we know, he did this very thing with his wife and so was condemned: “for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). After that point, any command of God led to some sort of death or another; either the death of one who breaks God’s law, or the death of sin in a person as they strive to keep it. One death led to further condemnation, another led towards life, but could not give it. The law, that ministry of death, could only bring knowledge of the pervasive and powerful nature of sin and death, causing any who tried to keep it, or delight in it as David does in the Psalms, to cry out with the Apostle “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death!” (Rom. 7:24). This covenant, which consigned everything to futility (yet not without hope), was glorious: but a fearsome glory, one that was feared even as refracted through Moses. So Adam and Eve hide, so the Israelites shirk away, so Moses is protected in the cleft of the rock: “no man may see Me and live.”

Yet, the Face of God, which naturally shines out this glory, is the hope of our salvation: we long to see God and be transformed into His image and likeness once again. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His Face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His Face upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26), or “Hide not Your Face from me. Turn not Your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation” (Ps. 27:9), or “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let Your Face shine, that we may be saved!” (Ps. 80:19). As St Paul puts is, “Through Christ we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). As St John puts it, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). The very thing that we are to participate in – the glory of God shining out from His Face – is the very thing we, under death and condemnation, cannot have: “no man may see Me and live.” But the “ministry of death” which has come through Moses is not the whole story, no, it is temporary and its glory has faded away under the veil. Instead, St Paul proclaims that there is a “ministry of righteousness” and a “ministry of the Spirit,” the Spirit who gives Life (2 Cor. 3:6). This ministry has even more glory than that of Moses. Why? “When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”

St Paul has done something very subtle here in the passage: the whole context of 2 Corinthians is a defense of his apostleship. The third chapter has been a defense of his authority, as it has come under attack. The Corinthians have even requested “letters of recommendation” for proof. Paul’s ministry has not been one of glory, like Moses’, but one characterized by scandal, by beatings, by dishonor, by death. How could he represent the Lord of Glory? Paul counters that the Corinthians themselves are his “letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (3:2). Unlike Moses, with the “ministry of death,” Paul and his companions are “very bold” to proclaim the crucified and risen Lord. Paul, taking the role of Moses, proclaims the glory of the Gospel, looking at the Corinthians so that he can say “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This glory, shared between the Apostle and all who have turned to the Lord, will not fade away, but rather will increase “from one degree of glory to another.”

This shining glory, the hope of mankind, which previously we could not see under pain of death, is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the Image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4-6). If we see Jesus, if we know the incarnate One, we have seen the glory of God and are being transformed into the same image: we are becoming more and more like Christ and less and less like Adam as we behold the glory amongst ourselves, shining out of the hearts of the Apostles and all who turn to the Lord. But how is this possible? How can we see the glory of God and live? St Paul tells us that “the Spirit gives life” (3:6), and whenever anyone turns to the Lord, who “is the Spirit” (17) then the veil is lifted and “there is freedom.” God Himself, through the work of the Son and the sending of the Spirit, makes it possible for us to behold His glory and radiate it to one another in love, so that we might be “conformed to the image of the Son” (Rom. 8:29).

What does this mean on the level of our lives? I must confess that I have never had a vision, whether “in the body or out of the body” of the glory of God. It is hard, often times, to read passages like this, as they seem to promise something that I’ve never seen or experienced. It is easy to lose hope, or worse, to just interpret what Paul is speaking of here as pious metaphors for psychological experiences. This is why I started by saying that the Christian Faith is hard. But, Paul does not leave us without hope; rather, he gives explicit instructions for us in our quest for the glory of God. He says in chapter 6, “we are the temple of the living God.” This is vital for our purposes today, for the Temple was the place in which God’s glory most particularly dwelt. If we are to shine with the glory of God, we must be in the place where God’s glory is. However, there is no building in Jerusalem where this glory dwells; rather, it is those who have taken upon themselves Christ’s death in baptism and have been justified by faith. The Church is God’s Temple, where His glory resides. However, as we also know, no unclean thing was ever allowed in the Temple; if uncleanness was brought it, it had to be cleansed with sacrifice. In fact, the Temple was cleansed of any defilement at least once a year on the Day of Atonement. We know that, regardless of what we were before, we “were washed, were sanctified [that is, made holy to God], were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Yet, we also know that we continue to fight against sin, and, to our shame, actually sin. Here is where Paul brings his argument in 2 Corinthians to a head: “Since we have these promises,” the promises to be the Temple of God, to have the glory shine out from our hearts and through our faces to each other, transforming us into the Image of the Face of God, Jesus Christ, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (7:1).

The Christian life is hard; let us never doubt that. Arrayed against us are “principalities and power, thrones and dominions, visible and invisible,” set opposed to us is the Dragon, the Serpent of old, the first murderer, in our own beings we have the “law of sin and death” at work. But, if we are in Christ, if we have come into His Body, if we have shared in His death and tasted His resurrection, if we have been cleansed by the Lord Jesus and the Spirit of God, we are the Temple of God, constructed by Him for the outflow of His glory. Shall we not wage war against sin, against wickedness in high places, so that we might be further cleansed and become conformed to the Image of God? “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete” (2 Cor. 10:3-6).

What are these weapons, if they are not “of the flesh”? “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put of the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:14-19). Our weapons are the Gospel, prayer, forgiveness, longsuffering, love, joy: all the weapons of the Cross, which is the victory over all the world. In hope of this glory, let us cleanse ourselves from unrighteousness and take up the banner of our God, who goes before us, to convert the whole human creation into His Temple, that His love and mercy and peace might overflow the whole earth.

Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Thrust of Romans

This seems to be the argument of St Paul in Romans:

Jesus Christ has been "declared with power" to be the Son of God "by the resurrection from the dead" (1:4); in other words, His claim -- strikingly prominent in all the Gospels -- to be God's Son has been vindicated.  He has been justified "according to the Spirit of holiness" (cp. 1 Tim 3:16): this decree means that His human nature has been given life and the condemnation against Him has been annulled.

However, due to the sin of Adam, all the world is in bondage to death, twisting their created natures in accordance with "all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (1:18)  Both Jew and Greek labor under this cosmic Pharoah, so that none can be justified (3:9ff.; that is, share in Jesus' resurrection-eternal life) under their own power, even that given by God and commanded in the Torah (3:21-22; including the cultus).  Abraham was acquitted (ch.4; justified) before the time of Christ by His faith in the faithfulness of God the Father through Christ.  This Christ then takes our condemnation of death on the Cross, reconciling/uniting us to the Father (chs. 5-6), then giving us the Spirit (ch.8; God's Life) in the present time so that we can start living resurrection lives now (6:4), in full hope of the future resurrection (8:29; "conformity to the image of the Son") and liberation of the whole created order (8:21).  "In this hope have we been saved" (8:24).  The life/justification/resurrection of Christ is given to us now in the same way it was given to Abraham, that is, by faith in the Christ: this is objectively actualized in the mystical sharing of Christ's passion and death in baptism into the Church (6:3).  Where Christ was "declared with power" to be God's Son in His resurrection (1:4), we are now "pre-declared/pre-destined/justified" (8:29) as sons before our (eventual and guaranteed) resurrection.

This death/condemnation in water raises us up into membership in the Church, where the Torah can finally be fulfilled in mutual love of one another in all things (chs. 12-14).

However, if the goal is resurrection, especially for those who have been "foreknown/known beforehand" (Israel according to the flesh -- 11:2), why is Israel currently "hardened" (11:7): here is the mystery of God's will -- just as Pharaoh was "hardened of heart" to secure Israel's release from Egypt, so Israel is hardened to secure the Gentiles release from Adam's curse; however, unlike Pharaoh, God will use the Gentiles to cause "His people whom He foreknew" (11:2) to want Jesus Christ and so "all Israel will be saved" (11:25-26).  For, in one of the most important and most neglected verses in the book, "God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all" (11:32).  To accomplish this jealousy, though, Christians must become "living sacrifices" (12:1), those who voluntarily die to self while even possessing the justification of Christ's life, so that the will of God, the salvation of the whole world, may be accomplished.  This means that even though the Christian has freedom, they must not abuse it, but rather further enter Christ's suffering and death (chs. 12-14), His ultimate kenosis, "filling up in the flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" (Col. 1:25, slightly modified).

"And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly" (16:20).