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.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Sermon: 2 John 4-6

The welcome at Washington Union CMA Church is always gracious and warm.  Here is the text of the sermon I preached there earlier today.
2 John 4-6: The Beautiful Lady

St John the Elder writes to the Elect Lady with one purpose: that she might be transformed by following the commandment from her Lord. So often, we think of commandments as impositions, as things that take away our freedom. We may be compliant with them, but we certainly aren’t going to be happy about it, and we’ll let other people know that, for sure. One only has to look at the newspaper, or the comments sections known as Facebook or Twitter, to see what we think of commandments and those who decree them. Even from leaders we like, or may have voted for, we are critical: think back to your youth, what did you think about your parents when they set down rules for you?

We’ve translated this into a theology that avoids God’s Law: doesn’t St Paul say “you are not under Law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14)? So what is St John saying here? Are we being brought back into bondage by “putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10)?

It may be helpful to first look at how we understand laws. Back in Genesis 1, the Lord God sets laws of division and boundary, to change that which was “formless and void” (1:2) to something that could be called “very good” (1:31). That is, laws were made to properly distinguish things and give them identity: water is different than air, land is different than water, all animals breed “according to their kinds.” Laws make it possible for creation to be fruitful, to be what God created it to be. The problem, then, isn’t laws, but the introduction of corruption, of death and sin, into that good creation: “The stinger of death is sin, and the strength of the sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56). What St Paul is saying here is that the Law was “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12), yet “sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed” (v. 11). Think back to the story of Adam: the commandment was to have freedom to eat of all the trees of the Garden, except one. Yet the Serpent stepped in and used that one small prohibition to bring death into the world.

What we see, then, when St Paul seems to argue against the Law in Romans or Galatians is not that God’s Law is bad or evil, but that the Law as co-opted by sin, death, and the devil has undone us. What we need is liberation from evil so that the “righteous decree” of the Law can be “fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4) and this is exactly what our Lord Christ has done. He has “condemned sin in the flesh” (v. 3), He has destroyed the power of the devil (1 John 3:8), and released us from the bondage of the fear of death (Heb. 2:14). Yet, we also must remember that in the midst of this He “did not come to destroy [the Law] but to fulfill it” (Matt. 5:17). What does this mean? So often, we assume that “to fulfill” something means to do away with it. But when we fill a glass to the brim (to “full fill” it), we have not done away with it, we’ve made it what it is supposed to be. Now it can be properly used. When Christ says He’s come to “fulfill” the Law, it means to bring it to its proper purpose. What is that purpose?

Here is where the 2nd Epistle of John comes in: the purpose of the Law is to train us in love. Consider our Lord’s words in Mark 12: “The first of all the commandments is ‘Hear, o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (29-31). The point of the Law is to love God and love others. Or we might again go to the teaching of St Paul: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the Law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall shall murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if any other commandment, all are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:8-10).

Returning to our Epistle, we can now understand why he says, “And now I plead with you, Lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it” (2 John 5-6). The command is to love, and to love is to obey the commandment. The Law is to train us in love and does so by being love. When we love someone, acting in a loving way does not seem burdensome or hard, it does not seem like our begrudging compliance to traffic laws, but it seems like freedom. It seems natural, for it is. Our loving actions flow out of the love that exists between us and our beloved. Or, as St Augustine famously said, “Love God and do what you will...let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” If we are in the love of God, we can love.

St John, in the quote, refers to “the beginning” a few times. We find this beginning in his account of the Gospel, particularly chapter 15, which we read earlier today: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love...This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (vs.9-10, 12-14). Here we see that we are in God’s love (“As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you”) and through that can love, that is, keep the commandment. This is not burdensome, but freedom. At the same time, it costs us everything (“lay down one’s life for his friends”), yet gives us everything and more (“You are My friends”). Because we have been loved by God in Christ, we can love all others.

This love, though, is no soft emotion. It is the “laying down of one’s life.” We see this, for example, in St Paul’s instructions to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). How did Christ love the Church? He “gave Himself for her,” that is, He “laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). No man, then, can say he loves his wife if he an adulterer, whether he has joined himself to a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:15-16) or has committed “adultery in his heart” by looking at another woman “to lust for her” (Matt. 5:28). Rather, forsake such lusts, “pluck out your eye and cut off your right hand,” and then you can say in truth and in deed that you love her. Or, as our Lord Christ puts it elsewhere, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23). This is love, that we become “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) and so are transformed into true lovers, which is what God is, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

St John gives this instruction to the “elect lady”: who is she? She is none other than the Church, the Bride of Christ, who like Eve before her is the Body of her Groom. How will we, who are the Church, be so transformed by the love of God, except by loving even as we are loved? St Paul shows us, again, that even if we had all the spiritual gifts, none of it would matter if we did not love one another. But, what does that love look like? “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy, love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). If we so love, the world will see and will desire that which we have: our love for one another, our self-sacrifice, will transform not only us, but the whole world.

We must remember the context, though: this is not just moral effort being welled up of our own accord. This is living out the love of God, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), enabled by the Incarnation of God’s Son and His work on the Cross. We can be crucified to life in Him, but not without Him. This means that the work of love, our true calling and purpose, starts with prayer and becomes, not gaining favor or merit with God, but an enacted prayer -- a life that is prayer to God for the life of the world. Amen.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Lord is for us

The Lord is for you, dear ones, don't forget that.  He is for us in the integrity of our beings -- our wholeness, our health, our holiness, all of which arise from the same root as a beautiful tree of words.  Our salvation, we might say, being careful to not mean what we've so often taken it as -- escape or flight from His world and our primal constitution.

Be ever aware, though, that the Lord is against us, or rather, not us, but that which negates our being, that darkens our faces with shame and paralyzes us with guilt, that persuades us that we are not worthy of being in His Image, as if worth is something earned instead of being inscribed and maintained in us by Love.  He fights as a warrior against all this, His weapon the Cross, wielded in passionless wrath in His Passion, His Love that tramples down the first death that usurped us all.

The Lord is for you, for us, and has bent His whole will, His whole energy and action, on this very thing.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Systems Thinking and Systematics

I'm currently reading a book about "systems thinking" for a doctoral class.  Having been a manager, and currently being a programs director, this is a helpful book and way of thinking.  As a brief aside, I'd describe it as the combination of Stoic non-reactiveness, Family Systems psychology, and the Christian goal of eusebia from a business and industry standpoint: fascinating.  Being involved in the various disciplines of academic theology, I'm inclined to try and apply some of what I'm learning to those fields as well.

Systematics, almost painfully obvious, is the field most like the thinking engendered by systems theory.  After all, systematics is about finding (or generating) the system that holds all the disparate parts of theology together so that they might find proper pastoral application.  Biblical Studies, of course, is a foundation piece to this, as well as Historical Theology and Dogmatics (yes, Dogmatics, the study of the Church's understanding of theology, is different from Systematics: their confusion in the Protestant world is bizarre); canonical criticism, text criticism, the higher criticisms, biblical theology, narrative theology, and so on are all to be placed together in a workable system for use in "training in righteousness," etc.

However, as is well known, there are deep divides in the theological disciplines: biblical studies folks don't get along well with historians (either church historians or historical theologians); pastoral theology sees little need for the erudition and aridity of systematicians; dogmatists find biblical studies to be too concerned with the ancient Near East to be helpful in the life of the church today.  And so on.  Somewhere there has developed a feedback loop that continues and magnifies these unhelpful practices, assumptions, and habits.  (One of the things the systems thinking textbook says is to avoid placing blame, for that means we are not being rightly critical of our own place inside the larger system; however, in this case, it seems okay to me to blame the Enlightenment).

What if, instead, the work of a systematician was to identify how all the pieces fit together in a whole?  A whole, that is, that works properly: disciples are formed.  A systematician, then, is not the same as a philosophical theologian (although we need those too); they are the ones who study the whole breadth and depth of all the theological fields to pull together and integrate the seemingly disparate parts.  They are the mediators of conversation between those who would say that the "original authorial intent" is the key to biblical hermeneutics and those who argue that it is the use in the Church throughout time that demarcates meaning; between those who see ethics as a philosophical endeavor and those who deal with the practical effects of seeking holiness at the parish level; and so on.

This is only a brief foray into systems thinking in theology.  Currently I still know precious little about it (you can decide what the antecedent to that is).

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rehabilitating Vice

When I used to teach Dante's Inferno for a Humanities class, I always took a good deal of time at the outset to explain the concepts of virtue and vice.  All my students, whether Protestant or Catholic, had difficulty grasping the concepts -- especially when we would reach discussion of the "Seven Deadly Sins" (or, how I re-conceptualized them in line with their origins, the "Seven Capital Vices").  It may be because of the Western penchant for juridical categories that we think only in discrete instances of "sin" (the history of which has its roots in Tertullian and a certain (privileged) reading of St Augustine).  However, it is arguable, on historical, theological, and scriptural grounds, that there is much lost in such a mindset.

What is most particularly striking, to me, is the sense of despair that has become an undercurrent in evangelical praxis over the last twenty years (it may be longer...I am young with a short memory).  The underlying premise is that our salvation is wholly eschatological: we are saved from our sins at the eschaton, while now we have merely the promise given to us by the Cross.  If we were to riff on Luther's famous simul iutus et peccator, we would say "justified, but not changed."  We are "right" with God (whatever that means), but still rank sinners with no hope of being anything but.  Until our dying breath, we will be sinners.  Early on in the process of this belief, there was at least hope of "moral progress": we would be able to look back 5, 10, 15 years and note our journey towards holiness or sanctification.  If we aren't able to discern any growth, though, we have cause to worry: have we "believed in vain" (1 Cor. 15:2)?  (It is worth noting that, depending on one's theological proclivities, this can be understood in two wildly different ways: for an Arminian, one could have backslid and therefore would need to ramp up faith; for a Calvinist, it intimates that one is not of the elect...I've seen folks become convinced of their own reprobate status, it is a spiritual death sentence.)  What has happened as time has proceeded, is the human tendency to reinterpret what is going on, hence the "brokenness" movement in contemporary evangelicalism.  Instead of hoping for long-term change, we have embraced our immersion in sin with a therapeutic solidarity: come into the church, sinners, for here you will find a support group to comfort you in this terminal disease.  This seems, of course, to be a good answer for the hypocrisy of American religion: we truly cannot judge anyone because we know that any real change is just temporary at best, an illusion at worst.  Certainly, this would be comforting to anyone coming in; for those of us who have been following Christ for years, though, it was our brokenness that brought us to Him, for He promised relief, Sabbath, and rebirth.  To find out that, indeed, your sinfulness is inextricably woven into your very being, so much so that even Jesus Himself cannot do anything about it (until the eschaton), is comfort that becomes colder every year.

In some ways, it feels like we need a renewed Epistle to the Romans.  St Paul is concerned to show forth what the justice (the "righteousness") of God is, as it seems that He has failed to keep His promises.  The Apostle's argument is, of course, that God's justice -- His setting right of the cosmos and its liberation from the captivity of death and sin -- is found in the Cross.  The promises have been kept, but not in the way we expected.  What we see in contemporary evangelicalism, though, is that the promises have not been kept; they have been deferred to the eschaton, which looks less and less imminent by the day.  Evangelicalism chastened of its violent chiliasm has nothing left but despair.  The victory on the Cross, at the very least, seems to be pious verbiage: we are still in our sins and, therefore, the most pitiable of men (1 Cor. 15:17-19).

The practical function of this is readily seen: young evangelicals who have adopted the mindset and culture of their surroundings, for one cannot change nature and one cannot do anything but sin.  It should come as no surprise that this up-and-coming generation of evangelicals have forsworn their parents' political affiliations and aspirations, opting instead for a decidedly liberal agenda that promises to effect "real" change through the ballot box and the fiat of executive order.  The old order of things, that Christian "morality" could be assured on a social level through legislation, has been co-opted towards a different sense of morality that many will claim as Christian.  (The truth, yet to be revealed, is that neither is Christian: but that is another story for another day.)

While I've seen this shift in my students, there is something more personal about it to be said.  They know that their sins are forgiven (that is, they won't be liable for them in Hell), but they've no experience of anything further.  They know if they sin that forgiveness is available, but they long for freedom from the oppression.  It is as if God has said that, while they were slaves to the devil, their actions will not be punished, yet they will remain in Satan's employ.  We look around and see people who have grown adept at managing their sin, but none who are holy.

These things were in my mind -- for they aren't just observations of those around me, but reflections on my own life -- when I started teaching Dante.  What Dante is working with there (for he most certainly did not originate it) is the ancient and catholic teaching on what evil is and does to human beings.  In short, evil has no proper existence, but is the negation of existence: just as darkness is not substantial, but is rather the absence of light (cold and heat, etc.).  Sin, then, is a discrete act of the absence of the good (Israel's Torah does complicate this, as there prohibited acts there that aren't objectively absent of good, i.e. the partaking of porcine delicacies -- it is an early form of askesis).  What sin leads to is the absence of existence for those made in God's image: it leads us to death.  Why, though, would any human choose something that leads to death, rather than the good (and, therefore, life)?

Modern evangelicalism would posit the choice is due to our inherent sinfulness, or "sin nature."  We can't help but choose this.  What Dante (and Aquinas and Sts Augustine and Athanasius, among others) would say is that our choice is still for the good, but it is a good perverted.  Nothing in itself is sinful, for sin is without existence.  It is when we misuse (in the Augustinian sense) things in the world that we are diverted towards death.  The practical consequence of this is that individual sins -- while they still lead us to death -- aren't what we should be guilty over: it is our disordered desires.  We desire the good, but wrongly: we desire it to give us security, safety, pleasure, comfort, power, and identity.  All these things humans were created to acquire from the Good Himself, merely using (in the Augustinian sense) created means to achieve that End.  Modern evangelicalism posits that our "sin nature" makes our discrete acts of sin inevitable: it is the act that must be avoided, as the only power we (maybe, but probably don't) have is to not act on our "sinful" desires.  The desires will always be sinful, making "holiness" about managing activity (a meaning it manifestly does not have in the Scriptures).  Where Dante and the catholic tradition differ is precisely in the question of desire.  For us moderns, we desire that which is inherently sinful; for the ancients, there is nothing inherently sinful, but our desires are oriented towards using the good wrongly.

Vice, then, is the disposition towards using God's creation wrongly.  Separated from communion with Him, and unable to see His Glory which would draw us away from enjoying (in the Augustinian sense) created reality, we seek the good but end up farther and farther away from God.  His Glory, for which we were made, even becomes ultimately dangerous to us, for we are so estranged from Him that what is Good we hate.  (Here, by the way, is the origin of the Lord Jesus' strong words about "hating" things created good: we use created things as substitute goods, as ends, and so end up hating the true Good who rightly orders His creation.)  However, since vice is a misdirection, it can be corrected, unlike a "sin nature" which can only wait until the eschaton: what is required is that we find the desire at the root of the vice (which then leads into discrete acts of sin) and redirect it to its true end.  First, though, we must notice that the Church has always proscribed baptism -- sharing in Christ's death -- as the first step towards the redirection of desire.  The healing of the human person can only come as it finally shares in Adam's death and so is freed from the tyranny of the evil one.  For the Israelites, freedom only came as they passed through the Red Sea; for us, it only comes as we pass through the waters of baptism (1 Pt. 3:21).  The Church has also regarded baptism and the attendant gift of the Holy Spirit as the moment of illumination or enlightenment -- when finally we can see God clearly and so start the restoration of salvation.

What we know from experience, though, is that things seem the same after baptism.  What has changed, though, is that we have passed from death to life (1 John 3:14) and so entered into spiritual war: our former master does not desire our freedom, but rather that we would be re-enslaved and so "crucify again for ourselves the Son of God" (Heb. 6:6).  While we are no longer under the dominion of sin, but rather the freedom of grace (Rom. 6:14), we must still be "trained in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16) to become what we are to become.  This is why, addressing those who have been baptized, both Sts John and Paul use the language of "purification" (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 John 3:3; etc.): our desires must be purified, must continually be put to death and raised anew in repentance and eucharistic celebration, and so attain to the "fullness of the measure of the Son of God" (Eph. 4:13).

There is a hope here that isn't present in modern versions of the Faith.  While there still is a battle (as St Antony of Egypt says, "expect temptations to your dying breath"), it is not a lost cause: we start out, through baptism, on the side of God's power, the Cross.  We have continual access to God's grace, the Holy Spirit.  If we fall, we repent and are so restored.  My brokenness is not a part of my essential identity -- it is the egoic identity of the one who has been crucified with Christ.  While the eschaton will bring the fullness of our freedom (Rom. 8), there is real freedom in the here-and-now through the ascetic life of the Church.  This, more than any other reason, is why we must rehabilitate the ancient and catholic teaching on virtue and vice, on baptism and eucharist.