Saturday, November 12, 2016


Preparing for my Leviticus Sunday School class (audio of previous weeks available here), I came across a passage that grabbed my eye:

“When you have come into the land of Canaan, which I give you as a possession, and I put the leprous plague in a house in the land of your possession...” (14:34)

It seemed strange to me that God, the Holy One in whom there is no uncleanness, should put the tsaarat (translated “leprosy” in the NKJV, rather unhelpfully) in His land. This strangeness propelled me further into the text, giving me a new understanding of what the tsaarat is all about. The word translated “plague” is relatively rare before the tsaarat regulations in Lev. 13-14, occurring only two times in the Torah previously. Most of the time after the Levitical legislation, it has the semantic range of some sort of “strike.” The two places before Leviticus, though, are pregnant with meaning: Gen. 12:17 and Ex. 11:1.

In Gen. 12, Abram has just been told by God that this land of Canaan shall be given to him as a possession, so that he might become a blessing to all the families of the earth. Afterwards, at some point, the land gets hit with a severe famine, forcing Abram to flee to Egypt (the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean world) with Sarai, his wife. While there, Abraham poses as her brother (long story) and Sarai is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. “But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (v. 17).

In Ex. 11:1, YHWH is telling Moses about the final blow against Egypt, the death of the firstborn: “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. Afterwards he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will surely drive you out of here altogether.” Curiously, this is the first time the word “plague” has been used to reference what we normally call the Ten Plagues. Before this they were called “signs,” “wonders,” and “strikes/blows” against Egypt. As mentioned before, the word “plague” most often has an intensified sense of “strike,” so this isn’t necessarily surprising.

By the time we get to Leviticus and the discussion of the tsaarat, the only instances of the plague-terminology have been directed against Egypt, both times concerning -- at some remove in the case of the Genesis story -- the inheritance of Canaan. This helps, I think, to explain what tsaarat is, and why it comes upon the people when it does (which is rare -- only Miriam, Joab’s family by curse, Naaman the Syrian, some random lepers in 2 Kings, and Uzziah the king are recorded to have it in the OT). To have tsaarat is to be under the curse of the Egyptians (Ex. 15:16; Deut. 7:15), which is one of the final stages of covenant disinheritance (Deut. 28:60). Tsaarat is a powerful sign of the corruption of death in the world, a literal rotting, that is a sign of broken communion between God and His creatures. For Israel to be afflicted with tsaarat is a sign of great judgment, as they are to be the beacons of God’s purposes to the world: they are to show the proper divisions of the primordial creation, not the confusions of the world’s corruption under mankind (hence the food laws being divided by land creatures, sea creatures, and air creatures -- each ‘clean’ kind needing locomotion appropriate to where they live). For this reason, all leprous clothes must be burned, all leprous buildings must be torn down, and all leprous persons must be placed outside of the holy camp -- cut off from all society and required to announce the judgment upon them. (While it would take more time than I have to explore it, it is curious that many of the instances of tsaarat in the OT -- Miriam, Joab, Uzziah -- occur because of hubris.) Tsaarat, then, is a sign that should be paid close attention to when it occurs: it is evocative of everything wrong with the creation since the Fall and a means, therefore, of God’s cleansing judgment. It is not the ultimate uncleanness, death, but acts in a similar fashion: anything or anyone who touches a tsaarat-infected thing becomes unclean themselves. There is no cure listed.

When we reach the New Testament, tsaarat seems to be rampant. Yet, there is a difference. Jesus is easily able to clean the lepers He encounters; yet He adjures that they still follow the Levitical protocol: “go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matt. 8:4). What, exactly, is this testimony? It is that the Lord has come among them; they have been afflicted with the Egyptian curse, they have been in exile even in their own land, but now God has come, bringing cleansing and hope to the hopelessness of creation’s corruption by sin and death. The judgment is coming to an end, if they will repent and believe the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 81:1, 1016 -- "Honey from the Rock"

Delivered at First Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls, among whom I always receive a warm welcome.

Thank you for the many opportunities I’ve been given this Summer to worship with you and open up God’s Word in your midst. The last two sermons I’ve given have been hard to preach, and, I’m sure, hard to hear: but anyone called to proclaim must proclaim what the Lord has laid on their hearts through His Word and Spirit, and must then proclaim it with boldness. Today’s sermon will, I think, be no less bold; but this text gives us much reason to rejoice -- even in hard and dark times.

The psalm starts on this note of rejoicing: “Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob!” (v. 1), which is very similar to St Paul’s command to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” Why do the Psalmist and the Apostle issue this missive? We don’t have enough time to rehearse all the wonderful works of the Lord! In this Psalm, the focus is on the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, the Law, to His people. We have, in that story, the burning bush and the plagues, the wonders before Pharaoh and the parting of the waters, the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, the horse and its rider cast into the sea. We have the descent of deep gloom on the mountain top and the carving of stone tablets joining God to man and man to God, that He might bless them and, through that, Israel might become a blessing to the entire world. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:4-5). What a privilege! What a calling! By dint of your birth as an Israelite, bearing in your flesh the mark of God’s covenant, and your training in the ways of righteousness, you were a priest bearing forth prayers and sacrifices for the whole world! “Therefore,” says the author to the Hebrews, “through Jesus, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (13:15-16). “Sing for joy to God...shout aloud to God” the Psalmist enjoins us: take up your mantle as priest for the sake of the world. Heed St Paul when he says, “I exhort first of all the supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings, and all who are in authority: that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4). Our singing, our shouting aloud, our priestly sacrifice of praise, brings all -- men and women, adults and children -- to Christ our God.

What if, though, we find ourselves unable to praise God? What is tragedy, or horror, or inadequacy have struck us? What if we find ourselves speechless before the evil, open or hidden, in this world? The Lord responds: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt: open your mouth wide and I will fill it!” (v. 10) Even in the midst of pain, or terror, or dumbfoundedness, we can open our mouths -- silently -- and the Lord will supply our voice. If we find that we cannot even go that far, we can pray in our minds, “Open my lips, o Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim Your praise” (Ps. 51:15). As He said to Moses, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? Now, therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say” (Ex. 4:11-12). If the Lord can heal the man born blind (Jn. 9), He can certainly teach us to sing and give us the words to say!

Let us learn from Israel, though, who witnessed these wonders. St Paul tell us that, “Now all these things [of the Old Testament] happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:10). For our sake God says, “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (v. 11). Listening and obeying are closely connected in the Scriptures, which means they are forms of trust, of faith, in God. Israel would not open their mouths in praise, even though many miracles had been accomplished for them and in front of them. Instead, they went after other gods and other lords, both spiritual and political, for their security and their safety. Time after time, the Lord called them back by His servants the prophets, and time and again they turned them away. So, He gave them over to those they idolized: to the Ba’als, to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to their true enemies and the enemies of us all, the demons, that they might learn repentance so that “the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Or, as St Paul puts it, “God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:24-25). The wrath of God is not anger from on high like Zeus; no, it is the prodigal Father who divides his inheritance to his two sons after the one wishes him dead (Lk. 15:12). The younger son, who realizes his deed, returns and finds his father eagerly awaiting with no residual rage -- he responds with a festival, for that which was dead was brought back to him living. The longsuffering of God, who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9) and who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), trumps the wrath that allows us to send ourselves in exile. He longs for us to turn towards Him, to forsake our sin, and run towards Him as He already runs towards us in Christ: “therefore, we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). Let us consider that image: Jesus Christ is at the finish line of our race, and the joy set before Him, then, is us, the runners, whether we are at the beginning, in the middle, or nearing the end.

In the Psalm, the Lord says it like this: “If my people would only listen to me, if Israel would only follow my ways, how quickly I would subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!” (v. 13-14). The connection between listening and obedience is again here put in parallel, and it is a powerful parallel: trusting God and so acting leads to God subduing our enemies and pitting Himself against them in battle! But who are our enemies? This is a very tricky question: for, I imagine, if you are like me, various images of those we know to be our enemies pop into our minds. It might be an image of a brother or sister, who has taken a toy from us earlier in the day; or it might be the parent that has not given you full freedom to stay out late on Saturday night. It might be a co-worker, or a spouse who has wronged you. It may be a foreign nation, or terrorist cell, or adherents to another religion or another sexuality. And we find ourselves praying, “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like…”, rarely realizing that we have taken the role of the Pharisee, not the truly repentant tax-collector (Lk. 18:9-14). Our enemies are not, in the end, those around us -- they are the demons who ply on our own passions and weaknesses to seduce us to hate, to malign, and to sin. As St James says, “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (1:14). The Garden of Eden imagery here is pronounced: Adam and Eve were so tempted by the Serpent plying on their desires. So we must “walk in the Spirit,” the Spirit of Christ, “and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh,” the flesh inherited from Adam, who was drawn away by our enemy. In what way? St Paul tell us, “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” (Gal. 5:16, 19-21). If, though, we “listen to God and follow His ways,” that is, live and walk according to the Spirit, He would subdue our enemies under us -- “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24), for “he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (1 Pt. 4:1), therefore “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:11). By the Cross, which we share with Christ by faith in baptism (Rom. 6:3), so that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), our enemy has been defeated for “[Christ] Himself likewise shared [in flesh and blood] that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15). God’s Exodus is fulfilled and repeated in the work of Christ on the Cross, which we share: who else shall we listen to, who else shall we obey? He is Lord, the victorious one over sin, death, and the devil -- and He calls out to us to join Him in His victory!

We know, however, that even though “the prince of this world is cast out” (Jn. 12:31), he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt. 5:8). We need not fear, for even our Lord saw this, as it says in the Psalm: “Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their punishment would last forever” (v. 15). The NKJV has it more strikingly: “The haters of the Lord would pretend submission to Him, but their fate will endure forever.” Our enemy has been defeated, he has been cast out, he has been destroyed; but he is looking to take as many others as he can with him. What can we do? The author to the Hebrews tells us: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’ Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:1-8). This is what it means to “walk in the Spirit”! This is the grace-filled life, the life of Christ Himself, who is the “same yesterday and today and forever”!

And what is the outcome of all of this? As we seek to live “according to the Spirit,” listening to and obeying God’s good commands to become love like He Himself is love, “you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (v. 16). What is this “finest of wheat” but the Lord’s own body that He gives us in the breaking of bread? “Take eat, this is My body broken for you” (1 Cor. 11:24). In the Lord’s self-giving, by which He defeats the enemies, He gives us His Life as our nourishment, as a medicine of immortality: receive it with gratitude in your hearts, singing his praises: “open wide your mouth and I will fill it” as He said before (v. 10). What is this “honey from the rock” with which He will satisfy us? The Rock is Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), who gave the Israelites pure water as they crossed the desert, but gives us now honey, His Word, as the Psalmist says elsewhere: “The law of the Lord is perfect...the testimony of the Lord is sure...the statutes of the Lord are right...the commandment of the Lord is clean...the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold; yes, than much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:7-10). “Taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Ps. 34:8) Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: Luke 12:49-56

Luke 12:49-56 -- Prince of Peace?

Today’s Gospel Lesson is deeply unsettling.  Our understanding of the work of Christ centers on peace.  Isn’t He the prophesied “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6)?  Did He not “break down the middle wall of making peace” (Eph. 2:14-15)?  Did His Apostle not command us “as much as possible, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18)?  What can He mean when He says “I came to send fire on the earth” and “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth?  I tell you not at all, but rather division”?  Doesn’t this go against His first acclamation as King by the heavenly armies of angels, who announced: “Glory to God in the highest/and on earth peace/goodwill toward men” (Lk. 2:14)?

We want our Lord Jesus to be about peace.  In our fractured and fracturing world, we desire peace, but all we see is division: republican and democrat, liberal and conservative, white and black, female and male.  We wonder, sometimes quite vocally, where God is in all of this.  We long for utopia, for a comfortable middle-class existence, a world in which we don’t see all the injustices that our way of life entails.  We forget that Christ has not called us to comfort, or to wealth, or to ease: He has called us to faith.  The passages directly before this one tell us this.  He starts this particular discourse by warning of hypocrisy, of play-acting, of the act that is the essence of unbelief.  Then He counsels us to fear only God, who values us more than “many sparrows.”  He calls on us to honor Him and the Holy Spirit before men.  The parable of the rich fool drives the point of faithfulness to God home.  When the rich man dies, it is said to him, “‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you: then whose will those things be which you have provided?’  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God” (v. 21).  God knows, He continues, that we need the things of the body: we have children to feed and clothe and educate; we have a God-given desire for beauty; we need some measure of security.  “For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows you need these things.  But seek the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.  Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.  Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys” (vv. 30-33).  He then concludes with many parables about being ready, by which He means being active in faith.  Here we see the fire that our Lord is kindling!  Our Faith, which calls us to integrity, to fear only God in trust, to give up our desires for advancement, for wealth, for ease of life, and urges us to be ready in action, is a fire the burns hotly.  It is a fire that brings great division.  It strikes like a sword, “piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

St Paul knew this reality of the Faith well.  He says in Romans 7: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.  If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good.  But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.  For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.  Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.  I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.  For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”  Here is the soul divided by the call of Christ, the soul that can only call out “O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death!”  But St Paul knows, for he has been baptized into Christ and so has died with Him (Rom. 6:3), that “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 the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  The Faith which is a fire is a baptism, just as our Lord said (Lk. 12:50), it is a summons to our death in Adam, that we might live in Christ.  This new Life, this eternal Life of knowing and so participating in God Himself, makes all things new, including our family life.  We do not see this as much in our context, so a little history might be revelatory for us.

In the first-century Jewish world, family mattered a great deal.  From your family came your status, your identity, and your inheritance of the land which God had given to father Abraham.  To be divided against them was a great evil.  In the Roman world, which would have received St Luke’s account of the Gospel, the father was supreme in all things, including life and death, as the pater familias.  To be divided from a father was a great evil.  To lose your family, especially your father, in the ancient world was to lose everything.  For Jesus to suggest that He is bringing division into the tight world of family would have been shocking and distressing to His followers.  Yet, this is exactly what God has always done.  Let us remember the story of Abram’s calling in the early chapters of Genesis: “Get out of your country/from your family/and from your father’s house/to a land that I will show you” (12:1).  Here Abram is being separated from all the social support networks that were established through the ancient world, which is why God promises him land, descendents, and a great name.  

God has set up fatherhood, and families, to be a reflection of the care and generosity and protection that He offers us; we, however, often turn this created reality into something that precludes God.  It does not stop with the family, though; we do the same thing with our work, with our hobbies, our political inclinations, and our country.  Christ brings division, brings the fire of His Faith, into all these human relationships, not because they are bad or unnecessary, but because they need healing.  They have been broken, warped, twisted by sin and by death: they must be set right, but that can only happen as God destroys death by death, rising from the grave.  All our marriages, our parenting, our politics, our work, must go through the crucible -- the purgation -- of the Cross; they must be baptized and, in so doing, be released from bondage to sin, death, and Satan, so that they might be avenues of Christ’s Spirit here and now.  There is no utopia, but there is the Kingdom.  There is the life of repentance in all things, of putting all things to death so that they might be received in new life with thankfulness, that transcends any earthly peace: it is a peace that conquers divisions, in which there is no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).  This peace, though, does not come without divisions: for all that is in Adam must be put to death -- all things must go through the Cross.

Consider our Lord’s words when He speaks about discipleship: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Lk. 9:23-24).  Or consider the words of St Paul, “Now if we died with Christ...reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.  And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness of God” (Rom. 6:8a, 11-13).  Our whole life, with all its attendant bonds, is to be considered crucified with Christ, freed from sin, so that we might live resurrected lives in the here-and-now.

This brings us to Christ’s words to the multitudes, where He chastises them for not knowing what time it is.  While He stood in front of them, about to divide the world “in Adam” or “in Christ” by His Cross and resurrection, He asked them if they knew the time.  We live after this event of salvation, but do we know the time?  St Paul says, “And do this” that is, fulfilling the Law through loving another, “knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.  The night is far spent, the day is at hand.  Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom. 13:11-14).  Now is the day to seek after Christ, now is the day for the fire of His Spirit to descend upon us, now is the day, as the Prophet Elijah said, to cast off trying to serve two masters, “How long will you falter between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Ba’al, follow him” (1 Kgs. 18:21).  For the fire is kindled, the waters of baptism are prepared, and the judgment of God which leads to salvation has appeared to all men.  Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Who am I?

For the Christian, the question "who am I?" is tied up with and inseparable from "who is Christ?"; not only, however, in an abstract way (He has assumed human nature in the philosophical sense), but in the particular: the life of Christ is my life.  To answer the question of identity, then, is to ask: who am I without sin (put negatively) or who am I fully united with Christ (put positively).  This delivers us from mere historical experiences of the self, based on faulty and selective memory as those are.  Now we have a standard by which to judge history, whether accidental (gender, social/economic upbringing, sexuality, race/ethnicity, etc.) or intentional (those willed decisions or actions that form the lead edge of memory).  All these are, in Christ, put to death and, if they are to be helpful in determinations of the self, must be raised purified and glorified with Christ.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Prayer in a Hurting Time

A week and a half ago, or so, I posted this on Facebook:

It was in response, I think, to the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officers.  I was called on it by a friend for putting those who feel powerless in the face of our ghastly existence into an impossible spot: if all we can do is pray, doesn't what I said make it impossible for us to feel anything but guilt?  I responded by saying that such wasn't my intent; it was, rather, that there is a certain segment of the Christian population (my experience is with evangelicals, but I imagine it is an ecumenical expression) that may have the power to do something, anything, but chooses to hide behind hashtags such as #prayforParis and the like.

While it wasn't my intention, I'm finding myself stymied in my own attempts to call others to prayer now that I've said that.  Part of the problem, I think, is that I fall into that category proffered by my friend: I am powerless in the face of systemic, or atomistic, oppression to do anything.  All I can do is pray -- but the problem isn't that, for prayer accomplishes much; the problem is that, in the face of my own impotence, I don't pray at all.  I say I do, and apparently feel comfortable enough to chastise those who use prayer as an excuse for inaction, but the larger hypocrite -- the one with the log in his eye -- is me.

Forgive me, a sinner.

Sermon: Psalm 15 "Who May Abide?"

The folks at Chippewa Evangelical Presbyterian Church, as always, warmly received me.


When we would visit my grandpa in rural South-eastern Iowa, we would often go on long walks through the timber. It was the one event I always requested, rain or shine, regardless of the season. It was peaceful, quiet, and full of small beauties and wonders. To get to parts of grandpa’s property, though, we had to walk by -- and bypass -- large black tires that had on them “No Trespassing” written in large white letters. The tires would be strung onto wires that made up fench-like property boundaries. Grandpa would hold the wires up for us to walk under and we’d continue our journey. When I asked him about it, he’d say that he had permission from the neighbor, but I always -- in my very young and skittish mind -- wondered whether we would be arrested when we came out, or maybe even have shots fired at us. But grandpa was in the right: the exclusion given by “No Trespassing” was itself bypassed because of neighborly trust and affection.

Psalm 15 seems to include a rather large “No Trespassing” sign: it is a psalm of exclusion. Who can say that they “walk blamelessly,” or “speak truth in their heart,” or “swear to their own hurt and not change,” or “not put their money out at interest”? What started as a beautiful invitation, asking who might abide or sojourn in the tabernacle of the Lord, has become a boundary that we cannot cross. We are reminded of the warning given to Moses and the people of Israel at another mountain, “Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 19:12). We are reminded that only the Levites could dwell in the Tabernacle, and even they could not go into the Holy of Holies, as that was reserved for the Aaronic priest, whose level of holy separation was the most stringently guarded among all the people of Israel.

Certainly, the people could go to the Temple, bringing their offerings for purification along with repentance. But to sojourn there? To “dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of life” (Ps. 27:4)? In the end, no one -- not even Aaron and his sons -- could stay in God’s presence, for death would take them all. God’s House was a place of Life, for He is Life, and so all the purity and holiness laws of the Torah -- including what we would consider moral things -- were the exclusion of death and the bearers of death from the holy places. Scripture shows us that death is the true problem of humankind, for it is behind sin. “The barb of death is sin, and the strength of sin in the law” (1 Cor. 15:56) and “just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, in which all sinned” (Rom. 5:12) and “when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jam. 1:15). Death, which was not part of God’s good creation, is brought into the world through sin, which now reigns through the fear of death: it is the vicious circle that makes so much of our lives now tragedy.

Why do we slander and revile and listen to rumors and lies about our neighbors? Why do we seek to get out of the commitments we’ve made once they are uncomfortable or put us in a bad light? St James tells us, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (4:1-2). St Peter calls this the “corruption in the world through lust” (2 Pt. 1:4), meaning the desire of Adam and Eve to “partake of the divine nature” on their own terms, a desire that we all share, seeking to become like God in power, or stature, or authority, or immortality. We fear death and so harm our neighbors in an attempt to thwart it, ignorantly giving it more power over us.

In the face of our own overwhelming desires, not to mention our sins, we find ourselves excluded from the presence of God, just as Adam and Eve walked towards the East away from the Garden. As St Augustine says, “I had become to myself a wasteland” and “where should my heart flee from my heart? Where could I flee from myself?” Or as St Paul puts it, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do...O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:15, 24).

Let us listen, though, to what St Paul says immediately after: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In the Gospel according to St John, we learn that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14): the word “dwelt” here could be translated as “tabernacle” -- in the Incarnation, God the Word tabernacles with us in human flesh. The Psalm is a prophecy of the great mystery of our Faith: that Christ our God has become what we are, that we might become what He is. He is the holy Hill that we must ascend, yet we should notice -- in all the ministry of our Lord -- that He does not exclude us, but calls us to repentance and to communion. In this tabernacle, the true and last sacrifice happens, for “He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26). He is the One who has “walked blamelessly” and “does no evil to his neighbor,” who “despises a vile person,” that is, the demons, yet who “honors those who fear the Lord,” the repentant who come to Him in faith.

It is not just that Christ is the tabernacle, nor that He is the one fit to dwell there, but that He goes through death for us, defeating it, and then calls us to abide with Him in His heavenly dwelling, His resurrected Body. Listen again to St Paul, “do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?...For he who died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him.” Because of this, then, that we have shared in the death of Christ through faith and baptism, we can join Christ’s holy life: “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord; therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts...for sin shall not have dominion over you” (Rom. 6:2, 7-9, 12, 14). Since Christ has defeated death, He has defeated the power of sin; as we are joined to Him, we have liberation from both sin and death, and can live in love of God and neighbor, for “through death He [has] destroy[ed] him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release[d] those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15).

Now we can turn to John’s Gospel and find even deeper meaning behind our Lord’s words when He says: “You abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine and you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit: for without Me you can do nothing...If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (15:4-5, 7-8). It is only as we abide in Christ, through joining in His death and living His resurrected life through the gift of the Spirit, that we will bear fruit. It is only as we dwell in the tabernacle of His Body, the Church, in love and forgiveness and repentance, which He gives us the power to do, that we will see the world transformed and radiating out the glory of God. It is here, then, that even our desires, which led Adam and Eve astray, which cause wars and fighting and sin and death, are changed, are put to death and resurrected, that they even might be glorifying to God.

As we return to the Psalm, we see the “No Trespassing” sign in a new light. Instead of being excluded, as we were, Christ has welcomed us through His work on our behalf. Who may abide in the House of God? Through Christ, we may. We may, with the Psalmist, say: “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His Temple” (27:4). But the sign remains; now, though, it does not exclude us, but excludes sin and death, casting them from our presence, that the City of God might truly be “the joy of the whole earth” (Ps. 48:2). “It’s gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there), and they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev. 21:25-27). So, “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean and I will receive you” (Is. 52:11), “therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Draw near, then, having your hearts cleansed by the washing of the Word (Eph. 5:26), for “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24). In other words, come, abide in Christ, and He in you, for this is why He has come among us. Amen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Antiochean Confrontation and the Book of Acts

The account St Paul gives of his confrontation with St Peter in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-21) is well-known, especially in Protestant circles; it seems to show the superiority of Paul's understanding of the Gospel, over against that of Peter and of James.  That is, the "Pillars" of the Church (2:9) were wrong in their way of practice, effectively separating Jews and Gentiles in the table fellowship (which includes the possibility of Eucharistic division), where no such separation was warranted.  Fascinating, though, is that this story is not recorded in the narrative of Acts (even though Sts Luke and Paul were traveling companions) nor does Paul himself give the conclusion of the event in Galatians.  This creates two problems worth investigating: when did the confrontation happen within the timeline set by Acts and how was it resolved (if indeed, it was)?

The Apostle sets a rough timeline in the Galatian epistle itself, based on the events in Acts 9: after he received his call in Damascus (9:15 cf. Gal. 1:16) and began to proclaim the Gospel there ("immediately he preached..., 9:20), he went to Arabia for an undetermined amount of time because of persecution (9:23-25).  Later, he returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:17): it is difficult to say whether his stay in Arabia and his return to Damascus and subsequent tenure there, or just the latter, is what he means by the "three years" he waited to go to Jerusalem (1:18).

At this point, the narratives get a little confused with the terminology: I'll risk a little anachronism and take Paul's account as a clarification/correction to Luke's account.  In Acts, Paul unsuccessfully tries to present himself to the disciples in Jerusalem (9:26); it is only through the mediation of St Barnabus that he gains an audience with "the apostles" (9:27) and begins to dispute, curiously enough, with the Greek-speaking (Diasporan) Jews (9:29), which causes "the brethren" to send him out through Caesarea towards Tarsus.  In his epistle, Paul elides over any trouble getting an audience and any help from Barnabus, insisting that he only saw Sts Peter and James and "was unknown by face to the churches of Judaea" (Gal 1:18-23).  He does, after that, go to "Syria and Cilicia," in which he would have found the city of Tarsus.  Of note is that, in the midst of this narrative, St Paul affirms his truth-telling: "Now, about the things I write to you...indeed, before God, I do not lie."  Why would he have included this statement, unless the narrative itself was publicly being doubted?

How do these narratives fit together?  In chapter 2 of the epistle, St Paul says that he "again went up to Jerusalem," this time with Barnabus, this time to meet "those of reputation" whom he later calls "Pillars," and has a rough time with those "who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus" (vv. 1-10).  It seems, then, that a plausible timeline looks like this:

Saul's conversion/call and initial preaching: Acts 9:1-25
Arabia and then back to Damascus: Gal. 1:17
~3 years elapse
First trip to Jerusalem: unrecorded in Acts, Gal. 1:18-24
First trip to Syria and Cilicia: Gal. 1:21
14 years elapse
Second trip to Jerusalem: Acts 9:26-30 and Gal. 2:1-10
(This means that those who had come into to "spy out our liberty" are the "Hellenists" with whom he disputed in Jerusalem.  It is curious, then, that the Gentiles converts (Acts 6:1, yet cf. 11:20) -- were more stringent about Torah-observance than the Jewish Christians were.  As Paul notes in Galatians, the "Pillars" were fine not circumcising Titus.)
Second trip to Syria and Cilicia: Acts 9:30
Peter's vision and the conversion of Cornelius: Acts 10
Paul's arrival in Antioch: Acts 11:19

Here is the most curious part.  The conflict between Peter and Paul in Antioch cannot occur until after Paul arrives there, and is at least somewhat settled, which happens in Acts 11:26.  Yet, in earlier in that same chapter (11:2-3), Peter defends eating with the "uncircumcised," causing the "those of the circumcision" (the Jewish Christians) to say "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life" (11:18).  Why, then, does Peter fall into such great error in Antioch?  It is worth noting, I think, that Peter is ok eating with the Gentiles until "men came from James" (Gal. 2:12), that is, folks from the predominantly Jewish Jerusalem church, who would be more likely to be Torah-observant, and who had folks "among them" that Paul had already contended with about circumcision.

It seems likely -- and the number of years is indeterminable -- that the conflict with Peter happened right before the Jerusalem Council.  In the beginning of Acts 15, Luke says: "And certain men came down from Judaea and taught the brethren [in Antioch, cf. 14:26-28], 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' Therefore, when Paul and Barnabus had no small dissension and dispute, they determined that Paul and Barnabus and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and the elders, about this question" (vv. 1-2).  After Acts 12 we are not told the whereabouts or travels of St Peter; it is quite possible he traveled to Antioch during that time, when Sts Paul and Barnabus were evangelizing the Galatians (in Antioch of Pisidia: Acts 13).  When they returned and had "stayed there a long time with the disciples," eating and drinking in the Lord, then came the rabble-rousers.  Since they came "down from Judaea," they are equated with "men from James."  "From James" here functions as a circumlocution for "out of Jerusalem" -- it does not necessarily mean that they were on official business from the bishop; rather, it seeks to set them apart from non-believing Jews of Judaea -- they were members of good-standing in the Jerusalem church, yet what they preached ended up being "another Gospel" (Gal. 1:6).  Not only did they cause Peter to withdraw from (possibly) Eucharistic fellowship with the Gentile believers, but they began to preach the necessity of circumcision.  This is why Paul is so strident about the topic in the epistle: what he had successfully combated at Antioch in Syria, even straightening out an Apostle of the Lord, was now being preached and believed in Antioch of Pisidia.

If this reconstruction is right, the resolution of the confrontation is the repentance of Peter.  When he speaks up in the Council, his words not only recall his experience with Cornelius but also are reminiscent of what Paul records himself as saying in the Antiochean confrontation: "we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they" (Acts 15:11) that is, "we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" (Gal. 2:16).

This also means that the epistle is most likely written after the Jerusalem Council (it could, conceivably, be written on the way to the Council).  Paul's reaction to the Council's decrees, as recorded in Acts, become an important interpretive grid for the epistle itself:

"Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of the own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabus...when they were sent off, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter.  When they had read it, they [the multitude] rejoiced over its encouragement" (15:22, 30-31).

"And as they [Paul and Silas, cf. 15:40] went through the cities [in the region of Galatia!], they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.  So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily" (16:4-5).

This means that Galatians, even though it is the paragon of seeming "anti-Torah" sentiment, cannot be properly read that way, as Acts sets the proper historical and ecclesial context.  Rather, Paul's strong words about the Law are against those Hellenists and Judaizers that would go beyond the Apostolic Decree of the Jerusalem Council and add more than the four ritual requirements found therein.  Paul himself had delivered those decrees to the Galatians, making them part of the Gospel which he had preached there.  All of this allows us to read Galatians (dare I say it?) afresh, not producing a hard-and-fast dichotomy between faith and works, but a necessary one against Judaizers and the Gospel.

"Who are We?" A Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

First Presbyterian in Beaver Falls extended warm hospitality as I preached this sermon today.


My heart is heavy, brothers and sisters. My heart is heavy. All around us are those who have fell among thieves, who have been stripped of their clothing, who have been wounded, and who have been left half dead. We could speak of those whose tragedies have been in the news and social media, of Alton Sterling, of the Dallas Police officers, of Philando Castile, of the officer in Georgia ambushed via a fake distress call; we could speak of our own city, still hurting after all these years from predatory business practices, absentee and criminally negligent landlords, and racial tensions; we could speak of ourselves, beset constantly by despair, by anger, by greed, by lust, by hubris and pride. “In Adam all die” says St Paul (1 Cor 15:22); in every senseless death, the whole of Adam dies, and we die as well. “My brother is my life” says the monk of Mt Athos, St Silouan. It is right, then, to mourn: the image of God, in which we all share (Gen. 1:26-27), has been damaged, distorted, and broken. We mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15), yet we do not mourn as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13), for as our Lord says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

What is our comfort, though? It cannot be found in the powerful and connected of this world; not in the Sadducean priests who had access to Rome. Nor can it be found in the respectable, upright civil and religious leaders; the Levites will fail as we do. It is well to remind ourselves that the broader audience of this parable would have been shocked by the actions of these two. Yes, the priests were not allowed to defile themselves by touching a dead body -- but this traveler was not dead. While they would help a brother whose donkey had fallen off the road (Deut. 22:4), they would not help a brother who had been forced off.

The lawyer who asked the question, however, would not have been surprised: he was a Pharisee and the others were Sadducees by birth or association, long-standing rivals. He had asked the question to “justify himself” (v. 29) and his vindication seemed near. When we begin, instead of mourning, instead of repenting as the Prophet Daniel did for his errant and sinful nation (Dan. 9), or as Nehemiah did (Neh. 9), when we begin by trotting out statistics about misdemeanors or even felonies that apparently demand execution without trial, or about how overall highway robberies are down, or we say that by traveling down that road the beaten man was “asking for it”, or some other nonsense that abstracts the situation, we are seeking our own justification, seeking to be “right,” becoming the blustering and hateful friends of holy Job. What good is it in being right when our brother lays half dead, beaten, shamed, in the street? This justification leads only to damnation: not only of ourselves individually, but in the further breakdown of our neighborhoods, of our city, of our church, and of our nation. “What does it profit, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jam. 2:14-16).

Our Lord Christ does not give the lawyer the justification he wants. Instead, knowing his heart, the Lord skips over a hypothetical Pharisee in his story and goes straight towards an enemy: the Samaritan. There was long standing, bitter rivalry between Samaritans and Judaeans: the separation of David’s Kingdom, the two Kingdoms squabbling, the Assyrian repopulation and inter-marriage, the fight for control after the Judaeans came back from Babylon, and so on. St John reports to us that it was strange for Jesus to be talking to a Samaritan woman even (John 4). One chapter previous in Luke’s account of the Gospel, a Samaritan village had rebuffed Jesus and His Apostles and denied them hospitality, due to the fact that He was headed to Jerusalem (9:51-56). By bringing a Samaritan into the story, though, our Lord Christ is taking the lawyer back into the heart of the Law. The lawyer had quoted the commandment as “you shall love...your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27), which is only half of the original. In Leviticus 19:18 it says, “you shall not take vengeance, nor bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Samaritan, even though history had altered things, was part of the children of Israel, and so was a neighbor to the lawyer -- the lawyer who would have seen only bitter rivalry. Jesus is digging deep to bring the man to repentance.

Being a neighbor, though, goes further than being part of the “children of your people.” Our Lord is not only calling the lawyer to attend to his own sins, but also is revealing the true heart of God: a neighbor is revealed not by bloodline, or ethnicity, or even church membership; it is revealed by love. “‘So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him’” (v. 36-37). The one who kept the commandment, the one who be doing so “will live” or “will inherit eternal life” (vs. 28, 25), is the one who loves. As St John puts it in his first epistle, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (I John 3:14-17)

But, who is the Samaritan? Who is the one who shall inherit eternal life? Can any of us claim to be the despised one who pours out of his generosity for the care of another? Especially of an enemy? Hear these words of comfort:

“...the True Light, which coming into the world enlightens every person, He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:9-11): Christ came as one rejected by His own, as a cast-out Samaritan.

“God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His Life” (Rom. 5:8, 10): God in Christ loves even His enemies, laying down His life to death for them.

“I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven...therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48): God loves His enemies and seeks their good, by doing so we become like Him -- that last phrase is a future-tense promise, not a command.

Christ Himself is our Samaritan, who has found us, in our sorry condition since Adam, and has bandaged our wounds, poured on wine and oil, carried us on His animal, brought us to an inn, and has taken care of us. Notice here that Christ does not celebrate our brokenness, or say that there is no victory in this life over sin; no, he cleanses and carries and restores. He leaves us in the care of the inn, the Church, that we might be healed by sharing in His life: bread, wine, oil. Here it is that we learn of the Samaritan’s kindness and are called, now that we share in His eternal life, to “go and do likewise.” Where are we hurting? Come to Christ in His Church and be healed. Where do we see others hurting? Bring Christ’s love to them, with the true healing tools of the Great Physician; bring them to His Church, that they might be healed. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Go and do likewise.