Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 20:1-16

At the gracious re-invitation of Washington Union Alliance Church, here is my sermon on Matthew 20:1-16.

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Sermon Text: Matthew 20:1-16

One of the enduring lessons I learned in college at Geneva is that Americans, such as myself, like formulas, especially in our media consumption. We need to know, going into really any movie or TV show, who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, who the damsel in distress is going to be, and so on. The good guy often turns out to have a secret past that he is trying to live down, or that he doesn’t even know about: Luke Skywalker comes to mind. He is, when we meet him in “A New Hope,” just a farm-boy on a wasted planet far from significance. But then we see him in action and wonder: “why is the Force so strong with this one?” It turns out that his past, and the clearly defined bad guy (black armor, raspy voice, gruff demeanor, helmet shaped like a WWI German soldier’s, and so on), are the key to unraveling the mystery and, therefore, his power. Generally speaking, we want the bad guy to meet a ‘just’ end (usually a violent death). Darth Vader, though, throws a wrench in the machine: he is ‘saved’ by his son’s love. The Emperor, though, the true bad guy, meets a particularly gruesome end in some sort of pyrotechnic engine exhaust shaft that happens to run straight through his imperial suite. Our love of the pat formula is therefore resolved: the real bad guy got his comeuppance, the good guy prevailed, and the oppressed (Vader) was freed. When things don’t go according to plan, though, we balk. That’s just not the way it is supposed to be. These sorts of movies – and we are seeing more and more of them yearly – we call “gritty,” “dark,” “realism.” Could it be that our fear of the chaos of life in a sin-marked, death-corrupted world throws us into our neat formulas?

Here is where Jesus comes to us with His parable about hiring and paying workers. But note, at the very beginning, that He says this story is about “the kingdom of heaven” (v. 1). This phrase means the same thing as “kingdom of God” in the other synoptic Gospels (Mark and Luke) and, arguably, as “eternal life” in John’s Gospel. But what is it? When we pray the prayer our Lord taught us, we say “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10): we ask for whatever this kingdom is to be manifest – to be true reality – in our realm of existence (“on earth”) as it already is in God’s reality (“in heaven”). This isn’t a destruction of our reality (although it will involve judgment on sin and death through the Cross of Jesus), but rather an indwelling of our world by God’s world. It is the leaven that makes a whole loaf rise (13:33): you cannot separate the yeast from the loaf once it has been mixed in, but you can notice the change, the difference it makes. For those of you who are bakers, you have first-hand experience of this. This doesn’t quite, though, tell us what the kingdom is, but only a taste of what it does. The closest we get to see the kingdom as it is comes from the account of the Transfiguration (16:28-17:9), but that will have to wait. Knowing what the kingdom does is the point of this passage and our main concern today.
What we need to note is that this kingdom does not follow our formulas or scripts. The landowner certainly seems to follow them, though, for a time. The workers hired at the first hour (6 am, roughly) he agrees to give a denarius, a small coin that they readily agree to accept for a day’s labor. The third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hour laborers he agrees to give them “whatever is right”: a bit vague but they agree nonetheless. We assume, as we are confronted with the parable, that these later workers will get pro-rated wages: a bit less for the third hour guys, a lot less for the eleventh hour guys. This is fair, right? We should be paid according to our work. Job’s friends thought the same way; Deuteronomy seems to give a similar formula.
Here is where we see the twist: the landowner pays the eleventh hour workers (the guys hired at around 5pm) first. He pays them a denarius. This gets the first hour guys thinking: hey, fairness dictates that we should get more, since they worked an hour and we worked six. So, in their hearts, they forget the covenant that their employer had made: a denarius for a day’s work. By the time they come for their wages, then, their greed is in full swing: they want what is coming to them. But the landowner – the kingdom of heaven – gives them what they agreed to work for: a denarius. Unfair! Unjust! Cruel! A breach of good faith and contract! But no, the landowner says, “is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?” (v. 15) He had not cheated them, as they supposed, but rather shown great mercy and grace to all those who were hired later. In the kingdom of heaven, mercy and grace trump fairness, so that all may bask in the beneficence of the King. Jealousy and greed have no place, but rather “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom. 12:15) or “if one member [of Christ’s Body] is glorified, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). The rule of the kingdom is grace and life and joy and peace: the kingdom is the Holy Spirit of God who pours out the love of God the Father in our hearts (Rom. 5:5).

All analogies, even the parables of Jesus, break down at some point. They are images that point to a deeper reality: remember the first verse in which the Lord Christ said “the kingdom of heaven is like,” any simile or metaphor conceals as much as it reveals. Will we, who strive to find the “narrow gate” (Matt. 7:13), who seek to have our righteousness – which we receive from Christ Himself – “exceed that of the scribes of Pharisees” (5:20), be working for a heavenly pittance, as a denarius in today’s terms is between 15-20 cents? What do we expect to be the reward of our Christian life? Asking that question, of course, raises up a whole host of thoughts and dreams and desires in our minds: I remember going to a church when I was young that interpreted Jesus’ statement that “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children of lands, for My sake and the Gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions – and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30) in a most literal manner. We should expect, the line went, to have all sorts of good things in this life (with persecutions, which meant the Tribulation) and expect to rule the earthly creation in the next. While I don’t think the pastor intended this, it could easily turn into a desire of the flesh: think of a certain religion that promises 72 virgins (as the minimum) to its male adherents. We turn the American Dream into our eschatological hope, even amidst calls from the Lord Christ to “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor…come, take up the Cross, and follow Me” (10:21).

What is our inheritance, then? What does the denarius mean in the kingdom of heaven? The Apostle Paul tells us that “He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:22) and “In [Christ] you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). Our inheritance, our denarius, is the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee” or a “down payment.” This is a curious statement from the Apostle, though, if we stop to ponder it. We have, in Christ, the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, who pours out the love of God into them. The Spirit is God Himself. When we are promised the Spirit, we are promised nothing less than the one true God fulfilling His ancient promise that “I will be their God and they will be My people and I will dwell among them” (Ez. 37:27, among others). The infinite, uncreated, incomprehensible, transcendent-yet-immanent God is our down payment! Now, for those of you who are home owners, you know that a down payment is only the start: you have yet to take possession of the home and make it yours, but the down payment means that the fullness is coming. What could be fuller, though, than God Himself? St Paul does discuss this in Romans 8: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (18-23). We cannot possible receive anything greater than God Himself, but God, in His great mercy and love, gives us not only Himself, but restores, sanctifies, and glorifies our own selves – body, soul, and spirit. Already has He given Himself to us, but more than that He will give us what we truly are in Christ: “your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4) and “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
As we enter this reality, the “in heaven” part of the Lord’s Prayer, it changes all of our lives. When both Sts Paul and John talk about sharing in this divine glory, they finish their thoughts by calling us to greater Christ-likeness: “Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5) and “everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3). This isn’t a call to be more moral, since in our world that often leads to radically immoral attitudes: we reach a level of morality and then judge others who do not conform it that (for whatever reason). Rather, we are talking about having the life of God – the Spirit – be so present in us and among us that we can truly say “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). As St Irenaeus says, “Because of the great love which He has for us, He became what we are so that we might become what He is” (AH V. Prologue). To partake of God’s fullness, to receive the Spirit, requires and produces a different form of existence: a crucified existence, one that is dead to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16), so that it might be alive to God and know Him and His kingdom.

This kingdom, which is God Himself in His out pouring for us in Christ and the Spirit, is what we have now and look forward, with the rest of creation, to entering fully. No matter when you come to Christ and are known by Him, you receive this same treasure. For all of us, those who cannot remember coming to faith because it happened when you were two or three and those of us who are now struggling to find Christ, the treasure is the same: it is God Himself. The sense of ‘unfairness’ we get when we see others’ prayers answered, or lives blessed, when we languish in a “dry and thirst land” (Ps. 63:1) shows us that we think of God as a measurable commodity. There is only so much God to go around, so we must conserve and hoard and keep Him to ourselves. But this is the infinite God, the one who created the universe, the one to whom belongs “the earth and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1); instead of needing to keep Him to ourselves, He gives Himself to all of us. We have no need for jealousy, or greed, or miserliness when it comes to Him: He Himself will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15: 28). Rather, we rejoice when others in the Body receive more of Him, knowing the promise that in His time and in His way, He will bring us into His fullness: in fact, He already has, if we had eyes to see it and hearts to believe it. “And [God] put all things under [Jesus’] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things for the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22). If you are in the Church by faith and baptism, you partake of the fullness of Him who fills all in all now.
This brings us back to the parable of the day. Our Lord Christ ends it by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.” The kingdom of heaven breaks all of our formulas down: here the good guy doesn’t triumph through force of arms, but with outstretched arms on the Cross. The kingdom, our inheritance, isn’t a set amount of which we must ration, but the infinite God calling one and all to inhabit and indwell, regardless of past history: while the roles of first and last are reversed, this does not mean that the first are now cast out. Rather, we are made one in Christ, the self-giving God, that the world might find healing. Listen to these words from St John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.
And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

This is the kingdom of heaven, this is the presence of Christ, this is the divine denarius given to us – regardless of our merit – by the divine landowner. What shall we do in the presence of this kingdom by act like the merchant in another parable? “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45-6). Or the famous finder of treasure: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid, and for joy over it goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (44). We have found the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who gives us Himself in the Spirit. What shall we do but forsake all to gain Him who is all in all? Whether you’ve come to Him at the first hour, or tarried till today, come and partake of this One who generously gives us “life and that more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10), not life defined by more stuff or more experiences, as good as these things can be, but a life characterized by being filled with the Spirit, becoming the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

Amen.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Use of the Old Testament

When I was in seminary, I focused for my STM on the study of the Old Testament (OT).  My thesis was on understanding the census numbers in the book of Numbers, so that they could be read as Christian Scripture.  Passages such as those are often ignored in preaching and catechesis, as they seem like good history (maybe), but not much else.  My answer, after surveying all the possible English (and some German and French) arguments, was that scholars didn't have an answer.  No extant theory can be plausibly sustained: some got close, but all left interpretive lacunae.  Nothing answered all the problems.  I knew, at the time, that some sort of hermeneutical 'paradigm shift' was necessary.  But I didn't have one. I still don't, honestly.

This was brought back to my mind by my pastor's sermon today.  In discussing Acts 17, he noted that St Paul ignores the OT in his evangelism.  In front of diaspora Jews, sure, there's lots of OT history and Psalms.  On the Areopagus, none.  He said to them it would have been irrelevant.  Just like the census lists (I added internally).  So, if we don't need an understanding of he OT for salvation (at least St Denys believes at this point), what good is it?  What, for the Christian, is the utility of the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is mystagogy.

The Lord Christ tells us, in Luke 24, that the whole of the OT (summarized as Law, Prophets, and Psalms) is about Him.  How can that be so?  If we read it straightforwardly as history, as I'd be taught in good Calvinist, redemptive-historical fashion, then it is hard to see this, except to say that the OT gives us the necessary historical conditions for the appearance of the Messiah.  The prophecies point forward, some of the more cryptic Psalms do as well, but once the set has been set, it is hard to see how to apply the OT to the Christian life. (As a side-note, I think this is why Theonomy/Christian Reconstruction became so popular amongst many Reformed in the late 80s through the early 2000s: it made the OT real). But this, truly, isn't satisfying: Marcion could probably jive with such a reading of the OT, as it sets the proper evolutionary tone for its own vestigial obsolescence.

So, what? How is the OT mystagogical? This goes back to my pastor's comment. Mid the OT historical background was so necessary, the Apostle would have started with at least a brief introduction.  But he didn't: he started (and finished) with Christ.  The Messiah is the framework and substance of our salvation, not the history of Israel.  However, as we can see from his letters, mostly written to those who were former Gentiles, the OT has a role yet to play, one that goes beyond history, without ever forgetting its historical truth.  It is the witness, on every page, to Christ and His work.  However, until we have been brought to Christ, and died with Him in baptism, we cannot even begin to read it that way.  It will be so much history, some of which is hard for us moderns to swallow (kill every living human in Canaan?!). If it is pointing to Christ, that means it is also pointing to His Body, which means Mary, the Eucharist, and the Church. In other words, what the Fathers call the allegorical or symbolic level of interpretation, leading to the anagogical (in which we, like St Palamas, behold the heavenly glory of the incarnate Christ and are transfigured by Him).

The allegorical, which we are generally allergic to because of perceived Medieval abuse thereof, is strictly bounded.  The touchstone, as in all things, is Christ.  Hence the early regula fidei, which remind us of the essentials of faith (the purpose of which, may we remind ourselves, goes beyond justification, to Christification or theosis), and therefore call us to greater intimacy and knowledge of our Creator and Redeemer.  St Paul lays is out in 1 Corinthians 10, where the OT stories of the Exodus and Wanderings (including, then, the census lists!) are shown to be typos, examples, for us "upon whom the completion of the ages has come" (v. 11).  This completion, often I helpfully translated 'ends,' is shown to be Christ Himself, gathering up everything in heaven and on earth to Himself (Eph. 1:10, cp. Dt. 30:3-4), so that the Father might be "all in all" (1 Cor 15:28). The OT, more than just mere history, can become what it was always supposed to be: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17), so that we might be "wise unto salvation by faith" as was St Timothy.

(Reflecting on this, here is why Jews have the advantage in Romans: while both Jew and Gentile come to Christ on equal terms -- faith in the faithfulness of Christ -- the Jews had been entrusted with the "oracles of God" (3:1-2) and so could grasp the mystagogical meaning of their Scriptures much more easily, especially if they were faithful in practice of the Torah, which would render them purified and ready for deeper revelation.  Sts Athanasius, Cassian, and Gregory of Nazianzus all speak in this way about the necessity of purification before Scriptural interpretation, so I will refer the curious reader to them.)

What does this look like in practice?

Let's take the theme of the Tabernacle/Temple as our (necessarily cursory) example:  all sorts of legislation and historical narrative surround the planning, building, operation, and maintenance of the Hebrew cultus. Since Christ, of course, it is passing away and has become obsolete (Heb. 8:13).  So what good does it do us, apart from antiquarian interest to study the purity regulations or the forming/filling construction narratives of Leviticus and Exodus (respectively)?  As St Paul might say, much in every way. For, "the Word dwelt (lit. tabernacles) among us and we beheld His glory" (Jn. 1:14, so much could be said here, as this passage is pointing us right back to Ex. 40). The Word of God came among us as in the tabernacle.  What does this tell us?  First, it means that wherever the Word dwelt, there must be holiness, for the true God called for this over and over again,  in fact, once the Temple had been hideously defiled, the glory left it, as shown in Ezekiel 8-10. What does this, then tell us about the Virgin Mary?  First, she truly is Theotokos, for she has given birth to the tabernacling Word.  Second, it is theologically necessary that she be holy, free from sin and defilement, for at least as long as she carried the Word (some might say, how could she do this? "Hail! Mary, full of grace...").  More, of course, could be said.  I refer the curious reader to the Fathers for more (Christian history, and the increasing veneration of Mary -- note: I didn't say worship -- makes a lot more sense once you see these things).  What does our (brief) look into the OT tell us about Jesus? The Temple was the site of cleansing (Lk. 8:43-48), of the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 9:4-6), of the manifestation of God's uncreated glory (Mk. 9:2-7).  Jesus, as the incarnate God-man, is the fullness of what the Temple was.  To understand Him, we must look back through Him to the OT Temple.  At one point, He says that the Jews could destroy this Temple and in three days He would raise it up, referring, as John tells us, "of the Temple of His Body" (2:21).  St Paul remind us that we are His Body, the Church (Eph. 1:22-23, etc.), so all the OT language about the purity of the Tabernacle/Temple (1 Cor. 6) and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2, cp. Ex. 40 and 1 Chron. 5) are for, and about, our ascetic lives "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).

The OT has everlasting value, then, as it speaks in a fullness about Christ that can only be brought out and experienced by the Church, the "pillar and ground of the Truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sermon: Luke 23:39-43

Here is the text to my sermon at Chippewa United Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls on Memorial Day weekend, 2014. I was greeted with hospitality and hope to come back soon.
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Scripture Text: One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


This weekend is the weekend, in our civil holiday calendar, that we remember and celebrate those who have gone before us in national faithfulness. Regardless of whether or not you have veterans who have fallen in your family, this remembrance is regarded as an important part of our civic consciousness: part of being American is to honor those who have died for the defense and spread of our national ideals – freedom, justice, and democracy. But we know that our memories are short and rather selective; it has become a proverb in my family that if there is something important to remember, I’ve already forgotten it. Last night, around the dinner table with friends, my wife told a variety of stories, some involving me, of which I had no recollection. My age must be finally showing through.

The most famous Biblical incidence of this is found in the book of Genesis, in the Joseph narrative. Joseph properly interprets the dream of the cupbearer, bringing him good tidings of restoration, and asks “Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit” (40:14-15). However, as the story proceeds we learn “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (23). It isn’t for another two whole years (41:1) that Joseph comes up to the remembrance of the cupbearer and eventually joins him as a valued and trusted servant of Pharaoh. The rest of the story, how Joseph saves the kingdom from famine and rises to be chief vizier of the Pharaoh, is well known. How was Joseph able to bear the wait, which must have been excruciating? The text does not tell us, but I think it is safe to speculate that he did not trust in the memory of the cupbearer, but in the memory of God.

It may seem strange to talk about the memory of God. Is it even possible for the God who has made everything, who has declared “the end from the beginning” (Is. 46:10), to forget? Let any such thoughts be far from us! Memory, in the Scriptures, is not mere calling to mind something that has been forgotten. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him long before he was forgotten! Rather, it is a term of grace: the one who remembers will act in favor towards and for the one brought to mind: to remember is to act on behalf of someone. So we see, all over the Scriptures, God remembering. His remembrance, though, leads not just to a position of power, as in the case of the cupbearer. His memory leads to our salvation. Again, in Genesis, we read of how “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided” (8:1): God acted on Noah’s behalf, not leaving him stranded, but guiding that ark of salvation for the world to its resting place. The Psalms, that prayerbook of the Bible, record over and over again cries for God to remember and so to act: “Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of Your goodness, o Lord” (Ps. 25:6-7). To be remembered by God is to be saved.

When we reach the criminal on the cross next to the Lord Christ, then, we see his appeal is more than just a casual “bringing to mind.” Rather, he is asking Jesus to act on his behalf in God’s Kingdom. The context of the passage will help us to understand this request more clearly. During the crucifixion, the criminals and the elders of the people and the Roman soldiers all mocked him: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” and “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” and the mocking title from Pilate “This is the King of the Jews”. Through this Luke is bringing to our attention another incident earlier in his Gospel: Jesus is reliving the first temptation from Satan, who had sought to entice Him away from His saving work by promises of status, sovereignty, and safety. The Devil used the same language of “Son of God” as his ace-in-the-hole. Just like in that first encounter with the enemy, Jesus’ answers overcome: there, He had untwisted the Scriptures that the Serpent perverted; here, He offers forgiveness for their ignorant actions (“Lord, forgive them, they know not what they do”) and does not return taunts for taunts, evil for evil, but rather is “like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not His mouth” (Is. 53:7). In the light of this, as the criminal on the left continues the taunting (“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”), the criminal on the right begins to see that this One truly is the King of Israel. He has done nothing wrong, nor does He seek vengeance against His enemies, nor does He break out in imprecations against His accusers; rather, He offers clemency to the worst offenders, even to those justly condemned who are being crucified next to Him. And so the thief believes.

This faith is what prompts him to ask for the Lord’s remembrance, for Messianic action on his behalf. “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” Rather than asking for immediate relief from the tortures of death on a cross, though, he contents himself to share that fate with his new Lord. His request is for some future action, once God has vindicated the King and given Him glory, although it is hard to tell what he would have been imagining. The criminal, who tradition names as Dismas, is like Joseph, seeking remembrance from the cupbearer of God, the human messiah, once he is lifted up into the presence of the Great King. The Lord Christ, who in His human nature is the Davidic king, the right-hand man of God, but who in His divine nature and person is that self-same Great King, offers the penitent much more than human remembrance. He offers Dismas immediate divine action. “Truly, I say to you,” offering him a strong oath, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Is this not the great mercy and grace of our God? We come, as the prodigal son, seeking merely to be servants to the One we have wronged; He offers us the fatted calf and the family robe and the angelic celebration over one wicked person who repents! But what does this mean “today you will be with me in Paradise”? Didn’t our Lord first need to descend into Hades, the abode of the righteous and unrighteous dead, “in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pt. 3:19)? Wasn’t He in the tomb for three days before He was resurrected and 40 more days amongst us before He ascended to the Father’s right hand? What is this “Paradise” and how could our Lord have offered it to the criminal “today”?

It will help us to examine some of the symbolism in this passage. I mentioned earlier that these events play out as a repeat of the temptation by Satan found in Luke 4. That passage, along with this one, shows how Jesus, the Son of Adam, overcame the temptations by which our foreparents fell. In the earlier passage, Jesus overcomes the Serpent by properly using Scripture. In this passage, the symbolism is deeper: Adam died by eating from the forbidden tree, Jesus hangs on a Tree and dies. Where Adam was disobedient, Christ is fully obedient to the Father. Where Adam accuses Eve and even God Himself (“the woman that You gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree…”), Jesus blesses (“Father, forgive them…”). Christ has rejected the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and instead ascended the Tree of Life, by which He conquered the ancient enemy of humankind. Satan is undone: by the cross Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). He ascended this Tree so that “through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14): that which held Adam and all his descendants in bondage to sin has now been undone, unraveled.

The consequence, though, of Adam’s sin was exile and a barred entrance into God’s garden. The Lord “placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Gen. 3:24). The way is shut, for Adam cannot “reach out his hand and take also of the Tree of Life and eat, and live forever” (3:22). If Adam were to do so without repentance, then the corruption of death and sin would always stay in God’s good creation and God, who had warned Adam about death (“on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die”) would be made into a liar. No, for man’s good, so that he might be saved from the slavery to sin and death, Adam must die. He is, as the thief says, “justly condemned.” How, though, shall we reenter that communion with God that Adam and Eve originally enjoyed? Here it is important to note that the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which the New Testament authors knew, read from, and loved, renders the word ‘garden’ as ‘Paradise.’ Jesus, seeing the faith through death of the penitent, opens up the gates of Eden again, banishing the flaming sword, dismissing the cherubim. He has “opened for us a new and living way through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” so that we might “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:20, 19). The criminal, by faith, rejects the Serpent’s way and reaches towards the Tree of Life for this restored communion with God Himself, for “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

The Lord Christ, acting as the Creator God, has planted this Paradise and now is placing this newly-made man in that place with Himself. Instead of understanding “Paradise” as a physical location to which Christ and Dismas go, we should understand it in the same symbolic way the Apostle Paul does: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:14-17). The Lord Jesus, taking upon Himself Adam’s self-imposed curse, has died – the righteous for the unrighteous – that all might die in Him through baptism and repentance, being found as new creations through faith. In this new creation is the true Paradise of God, as St Peter tells us, “according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13).

The penitent criminal, bound for Paradise, functions as a symbol of all of us. We who have, by faith, cried out to Jesus for mercy, for remembrance, are made, by His grace, new creations; no longer should we consider one another after the flesh, but as those who are indwelt by and walking according to the Spirit of God. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Our flesh, though, by which the Apostle means our connection to the corruption and death brought about by Adam, is crucified with Christ, as the penitent was. We shall no longer walk according to that life, so take hope you who, like me, struggle against the flesh: Christ has put it to death, so that we might share in His eternal, resurrected life, which is the Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:16-23): this is Paradise, this is the new creation, this is the remembrance of the Lord our God, crucified for us, in which we are invited now, “today” as He says from the Cross, to partake in. How shall we partake in this, when it seems so hard and so tiring to fight against the flesh? As the author to the Hebrews says, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25), for “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the daytime…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:11-14). “The Day” is at hand: beloved, it is here! For the penitent, “today” was the day of his death with Christ: this same Lord calls us to “take up our cross daily” (Lk. 9:23): let today be the day that we call to remembrance our Lord Christ and lose our life for His sake, that it might be saved (9:24). All over the Scriptures, this day is the day we are to turn to God and remember Him: “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15); “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7-8); “Working together with [Christ], then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now it the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation…Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 6:1-2; 7:1). Above all, let us remember that He first has remembered our lowly state in Adam (1:52) and visited us (1:68). Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, blessed be the Lord Christ, blessed be the Lord and Giver of Life, the Holy Spirit; one God now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Necessity of Method

Today, my pastor gave an excellent sermon on Titus 2.  He spoke of the need to avoid both moralism (what many refer to, erroneously, as 'legalism') and antinomianism.  The message was much appreciated, as it was grounded in the Gospel of the Cross and Resurrection and maintained a necessary synergistic sanctification understanding (that is, our experience of God's holiness, while a pure gift, does require our continual striving to realize).  However, while the necessity of 'watch, pray, and strive' was emphasized, notably missing was a discussion of method.  He did talk about spiritual mentorship, which I'll come back to in a bit.

Thinking about the background to the Pastoral Epistles (I was reminded of this as I revisited lecture notes on these books right before Pascha), it is vital to remember that there is a high level of elision present.  St Paul is not laying everything out for either Sts Timothy or Titus: they already possess the 'deposit' of the Christian Faith (1 Tim. 6:20, 2 Tim. 1:14; cf. Jude 3).  Much important discussion is, therefore, assumed.  To really get at what Paul is exhorting these young Apostle-Bishop-Missionaries to accomplish, we need to know what the 'deposit' contained.  Was it just the kernel of what would (much later) become the corpus of the New Testament?  Was it "the apostles' teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers" (Acts 2:42; 'the' before prayers is in the Greek and is necessary to grasp the formal liturgical experience of the apostolic Church)?  The Scriptures were always handed down with their proper interpretive context: the formal worship (testified to in Acts 2 and 1 Cor. 11-14, amongst other places) and a particular method of discipleship.  

What I'm getting at is simple, but profoundly existential for me: without the method -- how the commands of sanctification properly become efficacious in the believer's life -- the Scriptures and worship are nothing more than pious talk, misleading talk at that.  Unless, of course, your soteriology is nothing more than belief and worship as form of post-Cross propitiation.  In that case, where we are seeking to keep God 'happy' with us until we die, why would we need actual holiness? The motions become the point.  I don't bring this up as a strawman either; I think much popular Reformed Christianity functions in this way, even if it would never (thank God!) be encouraged from the pulpit.

True, Biblical soteriology, however, has much more to do with Christic union (what the Fathers call 'theosis') than propitiation, either on the Cross or afterwards.  Our goal, our end, our telos, is conformity to Christ's Image (Rom. 8:29), which is to say that we will be united to the Father by grace in the way Christ, His Word-Image, is by nature.  How are they united?  To use an expression from the Cappadocian Fathers: they share an essence, which is imparticipable (incommunicable), and an energy, in which all Creation can share.  What is this energy (or activity, if you will)? "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9): the activity of the Incarnate Word during His sojourn amongst us is the activity of the Father.  Christ is humble, compassionate, free from sin, and so on.  What He is is what we are supposed to become.  But, returning to the question at hand, how?

Here is where the difficulty of the Pastorals, and all Scripture really, becomes apparent: they already assume a method that is rarely spoken of explicitly.  This isn't to say that the Scriptures are insufficient, nor that they aren't the 'infallible rule for faith and life'.  Rather, it is to say that the Scriptures have always had a context for their proper interpretation and application: the apostolic worship and the method of discipleship, that is, the 'deposit'.  Without the Deposit, or as the Church (following St Paul) would call it, the Tradition, the Scriptures fall into the hands of the heretics that St Peter warned us about (2 Pt. 2:1; this being exactly what Sts Athanasius and Vincent of Lerins spoke of).  The method, to speak historically, is the ascetic form of life passed on from the earliest days of ecclesial life: fasting, feasting, meditation on Scripture, silence (hesychia), alms giving, liturgical prayer -- especially Psalmody, etc.  Without the build up of instruction we have in the Philokalia (for instance) and from seasoned spiritual fathers and mothers, we cannot attain to the commands of Scripture.  In my experience, at the least, they remain in the realm of desire, just out of reach.  However, if we build up the spiritual muscle to "rejoice always and pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:16-17), by the methods passed down from the apostles till today, we will find walking in the Spirit to be neither a thing of moralism nor antinomianism, as we will have transcended that false dichotomy.

However, as all of the saints I've read have carefully and repeatedly asserted, this struggle of discipline -- the actualization of what is already true in the Cross of Christ -- cannot be accomplished alone.  This is where my pastor's sermon really hit the mark. He spoke, eloquently, about the need for spiritual mentorship, of the old by the older, and the young by the older, whether male or female.  However, mentors need more than age: they need proven success in the method traditioned to us.  Are they able to guide us in askesis?  Have they followed the Lord in "denying themselves and daily taking up the Cross"?

While the method does not promise earthly success (it is no snake oil treatment), it is the only way that success -- the healing of the human person which leads to the healing of the cosmos in Christ -- can even be imagined. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Adulthood (poem)

Adulthood

When I was young, it was easy to grow up;
There was a day, I knew not when,
When it was, simply, true.
No ceremony or rite,
no journey into the wilderness;
Maybe a nod of the head
signaled the journey’s end.

And so, now, I see that adulthood
must be realizing youth’s foolishness.
But this cannot be enough, for,
God, I’m still a fool.
I know more than I did then,
but I’m no better at keeping true.
Could maturity be the piquancy of guilt?

I used to think I could do it on my own,
but the older I become, and I feel it,
the more I need companions, hell,
the more I need my parents;
but that ship has sailed, I fear,
years and years and years of neglect
and strain and secret resentment:
how can I come home now?

Could this be why I’ve resisted this so long?
Three kids in and I still want to be
that geeky college kid, universally adored
in his own mind.
But fear, more often than not, is irrational:
who is there to catch me if I fail?
No one. And everyone.
Adulthood is the realization of love
and the loving of all;
forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation –
these, these!, are our prime meals.

Children cannot handle bitterness
and so gravitate to the sweet;
it is the special province of the aged
that these bitters are desired.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Judgment of Christ

“For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgement to the Son” (Jn. 5:22).

Does this saying of the Lord Jesus apply only to the Incarnation (and afterwards), or to the whole of the economy of salvation?  Before, I was inclined to see it as the first; however, I'm leaning towards the second. Part of this is seeing Jesus as always and eternally the Son, not just as being Son via the Incarnation (Lk. 1:35).

If the second option is true, then something wonderful happens in Genesis. God (the Son) gives Adam judgment: "on the day you eat of [the tree], you shall surely/be liable to die" (there is an important ambiguity in the Hebrew here; not sure offhand how it looks in the LXX). When Adam does rebel, the judgment starts to bear fruit: mankind really is liable to death, even violent death as Cain discovers, or innocent death as Abel experiences. However, if the Incarnation was to always happen, and Revelation, at least, seems to imply this (13:8, cf. 1 Pt. 1:20), then this means that the Son, when warning Adam of the consequences of sin and then applying them in assize, is signing His own death warrant. The Cross is found in Genesis 2 and 3, as the judgment of God is revealed to be an outpouring of His grace, freely chosen from before the first sin ("the foundation of the world"?). 

This is truly beautiful.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Sermons from the Fathers

For those who have the traditions of singing carols, reading the birth narratives of Christ, and generally celebrate when the Light came into he world, enlightening all men, might I suggest reading a Christmas sermon or two?  Maybe one that has stood the test of time?

Here is a list of Christmas sermons I enjoy, from the Fathers.  It is only a beginning.  If you have other recommendations, please leave a comment!




That's all for now!  I'll keep adding as I find and enjoy more!