Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gleanings: Forgiveness and Mercy

Forgiveness does not preclude or cancel out justice. St Paul's argument in the book of Romans, in some measure, is the revelation of the "righteousness" or "justice" (same word in Greek) that is revealed in the crucifixion of the Messiah, where our forgiveness is found. To forgive, in the deepest sense of the term, is to release (aphiami): we have been held in bondage by the one the Scriptures call the evil one, the devil, the serpent, the dragon, or the satan (yes, there is always a definite article). The Cross releases us, forgive us, from our sins by which we were held in slavery to death and unrighteousness. Since the serpent had no legitimate claim on us (he gained power by deceit and fraud), God's justice is our forgiveness.

Of course, this goes further and deeper. "Forgive everyone for everything." Let's not hold each other in bondage, but release others as we have been released, just as we pray in the prayer given to us by our Lord: "forgive us our debts/trespasses, as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us." Forgiveness is the Kingdom come into our midst now; it is also the great promise of the Kingdom come in its fullness.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Principles of Christian Pacifism

Being a pacifist, especially in light of the situation in Ferguson, in Syria, in Iraq, and so on, might be seen as a foolish stance.  Of course it is.  But the Cross, the end of all violence, is foolishness.  Our God was executed as a common political dissident.  And we, contrary to billions of documented cases, believe He has risen from the dead, unable to die again.  Utter foolishness.  This is exactly why there is a case, a chance, for Christian pacifism: we are the fools of the world, following in the footsteps of a foolish, prodigal God.

If there is a principle for Christian pacifism, it is this: you are already dead.

Too often we read passages in the Scriptures, or sing songs, or pray prayers that assert we have died with Christ and our life is hid in Him, but we take this as metaphorical, which is to say, as a pious fiction meant to be psychological balm.  So we feel good that after our biological cessation, we will be in heaven.  Maybe.  More often, I've noticed, we fear death in the same measure as pagans, some times we fear it more.  But the Scriptures are clear, the Tradition is clear, the lives of saints from the Apostle Peter to our new Iraqi and Syrian martyrs are clear, this is no mere metaphor: it is the truest possible truth there is.  We have already died.

Why are we so violent?  What do the protestors in Ferguson, or the police, fear so much that they would abjectly deny the humanity of the other?  Death.  I do not mean to be too simplistic, although that is how I will be read by some.  We know, in the core of our being, that death is profoundly unnatural (even though, in one sense, it is the most natural thing): so we do whatever we can to forestall it, even at the expense of another human's life.  The fear of death combines with what the Fathers call philautia, or love of self, to exclude (that is, kill) the whole world for the sake of a few moments more for us, or for our tribe, or for our nation.  But those things, proleptically in Adam and truly in Christ, are dead too.  This is why Christ can call us to "leave house or wife or parents or brothers or children for the sake of the Kingdom of God" (Lk. 18:29): these allegiances, all of which dissolve upon death, are already dead (and reborn, as He goes on to say).  But this leaving isn't some sort of Pilgrim's Progress abandonment, but rather a death of self, a taking up of the Cross, the place where Christ called even for forgiveness towards those who crucified Him (and Christian history with the Jews would well learn to remember that the Father always grants the prayers of the Son), the only safe place in the entire universe, as the greatest power man, whether government official or rioter, possesses has no power there.  Christ has trampled down death, the fell weapon, by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life that they might lay it down for the Kingdom of God.

This leads to the active principle of Christian pacifism: interposition.

The pacifist, who understands and knows himself to be dead in Christ and his life hid thereof, can then act as a witness to Christ's resurrection by placing his body between warring parties.  Just as Christ interposed Himself between us and death, so we can can place ourselves in His stead (as His Body) between those who kill out of the bondage of the fear of death.  While this language might not be used, this is the implicit faith of the martyrs, past and present.  They interposed -- an act of intercession before God -- themselves between the demons who have always sought to influence those in power and the corrupted image bearers wielding power.  St Ignatius of Antioch comes to mind here as a specific example of one whose faith and witness to Christ's resurrection remade the violent and depraved Roman Empire.

Martyrdom, in other words, is the base of Christian pacifism.  This is no wishy-washy, bleeding heart liberalism; this is the faith of Christ and His Church, shown to us by the martyrs for the sake of the world.

Monday, August 11, 2014

This Violent World

We live in a violent world, whether directed against others or against the self.  A world that is so hell-bent on destroying itself for the tragic irony of maintaining life.  With all that is happening in Ferguson, St. Louis right now (about which I know precious little, especially since journalists have been banned from the area by the police), I'm reminded of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.  In the first essay, he tells his nephew that part of the reason blacks had been treated unjustly and inhumanely by whites (his setting was Harlem post-WWII, but I'm finding it hard to believe it is any better today anywhere in the States) was because the symbolic universe (the sub-world or mythos) of white culture demanded the subjugation of non-whites.  The argument he makes, knowing the pressure cooker situation at hand, is that blacks must patiently show whites that their sub-world is a lie.  In fact, any mythos that does not allow for love, for forgiveness, for humility was straight out of the abyss.

We need to hear Baldwin today just as much as in the 60s.

Baldwin, famously in the second essay, rejects Christianity as a solution to what he calls the "racial nightmare."  Whereas it had promised faith, hope, and love, it offered only "blindness, loneliness, and terror, the first one actively cultivated to deny the other two."  How could such an institution change the world?  Christians are still guilty of this, I am guilty of this.

When the Church forgets herself, falls asleep, or neglects her mission, the world enters a nightmare.

When the defining characteristic of our religion is not the living saints we are to be producing, but our racism, our classism, our tribalism, our stingy affluence (Lord God, send us another St Francis!), then the world -- those desperately needing the healing love of Christ, those trapped most keenly and often most ignorantly in demonic snares -- suffer.  And the name of Christ, the only name by which healing can come, is blasphemed.

Here's the rub: all violence leads to the Cross.  All the hatred, and injustice, and malice, and cruelty -- Ferguson, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Gaza, the Holocausts of the last centuries (Jewish, Ukrainian, Armenian, aborted children), the wars, the terrorism, the everyday contempt and hatred -- are focused on the true human and true God.  Why?  Because we've turned our hearts towards self-destruction.  We abhor idols, especially those that oppress us, and who is more oppressive than ourselves?  As St Augustine said, "what am I but a guide to my own self-destruction?"  Having made ourselves gods, and then having failed at the task, we loathe ourselves and desires to smash the idols we have made.  Depression runs rampant, suicide becomes an everyday occurrence, war becomes absolute and everlasting.

What is needed is not killing ourselves, nor others, but sharing in the death of Christ. Yes, we need to die, but not in the bio-physical way (that will happen, alas, all on its own); rather, our selves -- now embroiled in pride and vanity and lust and malice and covetousness -- must die in Christ, to be able to speak the words He spoke to those who spat on Him, mocked Him, tortured Him, and crucified Him: "forgive them, Father, they know not what they do."  No one ever does: no matter how good we get at economic prognostication or psychic Tarot reading, we never know the future, especially the future created by our own actions.  We know not what we do.  So we not only need forgiveness, but have the essential need to forgive all others.  We need healing, but it can only come from joining Christ's crucifixion and allowing Him, the all-merciful One, to dispense justice.

It is long past time for a thorough examen: where have we contributed to the oppression, to the violence, to the terror of our world?  Are we willing to join in the Cross, sharing the sufferings, forgiving everyone for everything, so that the world might find peace, find true justice that heals rather than destroys further?

God, help us and give us Your divine strength.

Gleanings: Justification

Every once in awhile (as in the first time in 8 years) I organize my office. As I'm shuffling through papers to be (a) filed, (b) shredded, (c) recycled, I often come across hand-scrawled notes on the back of memos, printed emails, class handouts, etc. Often time they are poems, sometimes theological musings. While they are important only to me, I need a place to preserve them. Here's the first one to share:

"Justification is the vindication of honor in the face of sharp criticism. So, Jesus is 'justified' (shown to be honorable) after His shameful death via the resurrection. For the believer to be 'justified by faith,' then, shows that he/she has the highest possible honor from God, through participating in Christ's death and resurrection. The title of 'righteous' means, then, that one is shown to share the honor of the justified/vindicated One, i.e. that we do truly participate in Christ's resurrection/vindication through faith (Christ's and ours) even if the outside world does not see it that way."

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Theosis in John 1

Theosis or "Christification" is what I've come to believe is the end-game of salvation: to be united with God and so be restored in His image and likeness. St Athanasius summed it up by saying, "God became man so that man might become divine." He didn't mean that we cease being creatures, but that we take on God's "communicable attributes": we partake of and participate in God's righteousness, holiness, immortality, wisdom, etc. The only way to do this, though, is through Christ -- the ever-incarnate Lord. In other words, this isn't an escape from our mode of existence into some Platonic Form, but rather it is becoming what humans were always meant to be: "Because of the great love which He has for us, Christ became what we are so that we might become what He is", as St Irenaeus put it. Our union with God is only possible insofar as He becomes (and we remain) human. I've done a paltry explanation of what theosis is here, but I hope the main gist has come across. Just as God became human, so we, as humans, are given God the Holy Spirit to restore and, to use St Paul's language, glorify us (alongside all the Creation).

In John 1, we have this spelled out, but often gloss over it in favor of more standard readings of the text. (Brief caveat: I'm not denying the standard readings, nor trying to modify or change them. I'm noticing that the Scriptures are deep, as deep as the infinite Christ they speak of, and so can bear multiple, non-contradictory readings.) Looking at the first verse will suffice:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

The term used for "Word," famously, is Logos, a Greek term that has a rich history in the Septuagint and in Greek philosophy (especially that of the Stoics). It has a wide range of meaning, from a word to the logic of a thing to the reason or telos of something's existence. St Maximos the Confessor uses this last meaning to talk about how the Son, the eternal Logos of the Father, frames all things and draws all things to Himself: the many creational logoi are the one Logos. In other words, the reason/goal/end/telos of all created things is Christ Himself. It is this last meaning that I wish to explore today.

"In the beginning was the Purpose, and the Purpose was with God, and the Purpose was God."

It reads strange, but there is something excitingly biblical about it. Let's unpack it, starting from the final clause.

"the Purpose was God"

The Son will, even as His Kingdom has no end, hand over the Kingdom to the Father, so that "God might be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). Indeed, as St Paul says in Ephesians 1:23, Christ already is "all in all" and the Church is the fullness of Him (a verse worth chewing on and chewing on). All of this "all in all" language is the summary of what God is accomplishing in His world, "And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ" (Eph. 1:9-10). The whole of creation is to be brought into Christ, the one who in His union of natures brings heaven and earth together: His divine nature "divinizes" the Creation. It brings it into participation with God's uncreated Glory, just as the earthly body of Christ shared on Mt Tabor.

Note that this, again, is not an eradication of the created, but rather a participation in which there is no "confusion, change, division, separation" (The Definition of Chalcedon): God remains essentially God, the creation remains essentially created, but now the creation shares in God's "energy" (to use the term of the Cappodocian Fathers and the Palamite). To share in God's glory is what we were created for (Rom. 8:30), what we've fallen short of (Rom. 3:23), and therefore what God won't share with our idols (Is. 42:8).

It is worth noting, as well, that this Glory is the Glory of the Crucified One. To become like God (to share in His image and likeness) is not "knowing good and evil" in the intellectual sense, but in the sense of being crucified to evil with the Good One. There is no "health and wealth" in theosis.

"the Purpose was with God"

The standard reading, of the Son being the Word, comes out most clearly here. The Purpose -- that of uniting all things to Himself -- was "with" God the Father. It was, to be a bit more literal with the Greek, "before" Him or "in His Face." Ephesians 1, which I've already quoted, looked at this. Here also is where predestination properly comes in: "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29). Whatever else predestination might mean, it means that the Purpose -- God indwelling His world and transfiguring it -- was with God in the beginning. Even the presence of sin and death and corruption works, somehow and paradoxically, into God's Purpose being fulfilled. All the Apostles, in all the Epistles, speak of similar things like this: the Christ was with God, as His Purpose, since He is "the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last" (Rev. 1:11).

"In the beginning was the Purpose"

Working backwards, this one almost needs no argument: we were created, as seen in Romans 8:30, for glorification (and woe to those who don't attain to it by faith!). There is no thought here that God meant for something different, but got sidetracked by Adam's rebellion. Rather, Christ "slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8) meant to bring all things to Himself, things in heaven or on earth (Eph. 1:9-10).

God's purpose is to fill all the world with knowledge of Himself "as the waters cover the sea" (Is. 11:9), knowledge not being an intellectual exercise, but rather a share in His unending Life (Jn. 1:4): "for this is eternal Life, to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent" (Jn. 17:3).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Still Wanted: An Authentic Spirituality

A long time ago, I wrote about this topic of spirituality.  I wouldn't agree with some of what I wrote, especially my castigation of the monastic tradition.  Years later, though, I'm still seeking that spirituality.

Recently, in popular evangelicalism, the concept of brokenness has taken on extreme importance.  You can go to churches that openly proclaim their brokenness, their corruption, their sin, as a badge of honor.  The intent, I think, is to make all feel welcome: you won't find any false, holier-than-thou piety here, just real people struggling with the same stuff you are, maybe even worse.  This is undoubtably comforting for many, especially those who have been hurt by ecclesial structures and authority figures. But it says something deeply disturbing: real, authentic, lasting holiness is a myth.  Once a sinner, always a sinner.  Jesus can change you in the eschaton, but here you are hopeless.  I'm not sure if this is what Luther meant by "simul iustus et peccator," but I know many have understood him that way.

What good is religion if any actual benefit is always out of our reach, especially if that religion commands us to be that way in the here-and-now?  By benefit, of course, I'm talking about the spiritual healing of the human person, not some psychological salve or material gain.

Over and over again in the Scriptures, especially the letters of St Paul, there is talk of the power of the Spirit to enable spiritual transformation.  Talk of sin being divested of its claim and righteousness talking its place.  Talk of a real, somehow tangible indwelling of God's Spirit, given us life and a peace "that surpasses all understanding."  Either this is true, and therefore somehow accessible on a continuous basis for the Christian, or the whole thing is a wash.

In other words, we need saints.  I don't mean the common "in Christ all believers are already saints" idea, which I've been unable to find in the Scriptures, save by exegetical equivocation.  We need folks, men and women, who have attained to the state of constant and abiding communion with God, who have been healed of their passions and errant desires, who dwell in that peace of the Kingdom.  It strikes me, as a Reformed Protestant, that the whole history of the Church is awash, from the earliest days, with the nomenclature of sainthood: martyrs, ascetics, virgins, monks, common men and women who practiced the disciplines quietly and faithfully.  This has been largely lost since the Reformation.  I remember a conversation a couple of years ago with an OPC pastor friend in which we lamented how we couldn't encourage our church youth to become like the often caustic Reformers.  How could we, we discussed, valorize the Reformation when we couldn't morally honor the leaders?  We ended up going separate ways in our conclusions.

Where the saints are, there is the Spirit, where the Spirit is, there is the Church, where the Church is, there is Christ and the Father.

I need healing and I'm still seeking it, wherever it may be found.

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).