Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Sermons from the Fathers

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

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

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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Problem of Theological Authority

This is a subject that, I suspect, I will return to again and again.  From whence derives theological authority?

If we say the Scriptures:
--which ones?  Who determines the canon, that is, which books are to be read amongst catechumens (learners not yet baptized), which are to be read in the liturgy/mass/service, which are for the mature, which are not allowed?  Alas, our early copies of the Scriptures come without a table of contents!
--which text families?  Who determines whether we use the Byzantine text type, the Textus Receptus, the modern eclectic critical texts?  Should we privilege earlier manuscript traditions, on the assumption that earlier = less adulterated?  Should we privilege the ones that the Church herself has held close, even if the manuscript evidence is later?  Which textual variants (most insignificant, some of utmost importance) should we go with when translating?  What text critical philosophy and translation philosophy shall we adopt?
--which Old Testament?  Masoretic? Septuagint? Vulgate? Peshitta?  Samaritan?  An eclectic combination of all the above?  I've heard, although I don't recall where, one Orthodox argue that the text used is whatever Chrysostom quotes in his sermons.  I'm unaware if a full text has been compiled from his writings -- that would be quite a helpful project to undertake!
--whose interpretation?  Once the dust of canon and texts has settled, the Book still needs interpretation.  Shall it be the individual conscience?  The schoolmen, whether higher critical or not?  Shall it be the Church's?  If so, which Church: Reformed through the Confessions, Roman Catholic through the Magisterium, Orthodoxy through the Fathers/the Councils/theoria?  Shall the interpretation be according to the "Allegory of the Theologians" outlined by Origen, Cassian, and others?  Shall it be according to a redemptive-historical method? A historical-critical method? A canonical method?  A combination of some/all/none of the above?

It is important to note that I am not making any choices here; rather, I am trying to uncover all the issues involved in theological authority.  As you can see, even when thinking just about the Scriptures, the questions to answer are legion.

If we say the Church:
--which Church?  Each version/branch/division/sect/denomination has a different basis of authority, even though they all claim the same divinely-given status.  God is not the god of confusion, but of logos, of order, rationality, of the peace that arises out such a stable (and therefore freedom giving) cosmos.  So, not all the churches can have the same claim to divine authority: this does not automatically mean that they are deriving authority from a demonic source, but they are deriving from some "lesser good(s)" in creation.  It is imperative that this question be answered honestly and frankly, without regards for the possible consequences: the truth must be followed.  Christ has one Church, made up of many members -- but they are united.  The question that then arises is: what is the basis of that unity?  Is it doctrinal?  Is it hierarchical?  Is it Eucharistic?  Is it a combination of some/all/none of the above?
--which definition of "Apostolic Tradition"?
--what do we do with the checkered history of the Church?  How can an entity that drowns Anabaptists, holds a Thirty Years War, has Crusades and Inquisitions, etc. have any moral and spiritual authority?  How could an entity that doesn't go to war for the truth have any moral or spiritual authority?

If we say the individual conscience:
--what about the role of sin (the so-called noetic effects of sin)?  How much has reason, when searching into the things of the holy God, been hampered/distorted/perverted due to the corruption of human nature?
--whose individual conscience?  The history of American evangelicalism and revivalism is full of folks being "led by the Spirit" to say and do and start problematic, often heretical, things.

It is an adage, given to us by St. Paul, that the Holy Spirit is the One who interprets the deep things of God.  St. John reminds us that "no one has seen God at any time...the only begotten Son/God [one of those few important textual variants] has declared [exegeted/interpreted] Him."  In other words, theological authority must derive from the Triune God: Father, Son, Spirit.  But, the question of how we connect to the Spirit is wide open: is it through careful interpretation of the Scriptures (which sends us back to our list of questions above)?  is it through charismatic experience?  Is it through hesychastic prayer?

And so, I'm at the point that I always return to, and have returned to for many years: who has the Spirit?  Which community is the bearer of God's Life?  How would we know?  St. Paul, to his plenipotentiary St. Timothy, writes: "the Church of God...is the pillar and ground/foundation of the Truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).  The Church is the Body of the Resurrected Messiah: she is possessed by the Spirit, is the Body of the Son, and offers worship, on behalf of all, to the Father.  The most prime task, then, is to determine who the Church is.  This leads, of course, to another whole set of questions -- but what more important subject is there in the entire world?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Holiness of Mary

I've heard plenty of sermons, read plenty of books, and participated in plenty of discussions that include, in one form or another, the statement that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a sinner just like us.  I've even heard the phrase "dirty, rotten sinner" used.  However, there is something amiss here.

If Jesus is God (something that I no longer question; my opinion changed when I met Him), then we must consider the dwelling places of God in the Old Testament as we seek to understand Mary.  This also has ramifications for our own existence, as we are dwellings of the Holy Spirit: the symbols of the Tabernacle and the Temple apply to us -- in other words, Leviticus becomes an eminently practical book in the Christian life.

What was the character of God's dwelling places?  Holiness.  Absolute purity on pain of death or exile, whichever comes first.

So, if Mary's womb is the Holy of Holies, where the Word resides, what does that make the rest of her?  The Temple of the Lord.

Will God change His mind about holiness as He takes up residence here?  As He takes human nature from her?  As His human existence becomes the new Temple that shall be destroyed, yet three days later raised up?

Now, this doesn't mean that the latterly developed "Immaculate Conception of Mary" is necessary, from a Biblical/symbolic standpoint.  One would think that after the promulgation of the Protoevangelium of James around the year AD 145, that doctrine would make an appearance: but no dice.  It is, rather, a logical extension of St. Augustine's (errant?) views on the passing of guilt in the human race.

It does entail, though, a level of participation in God's holiness (as He is the only source and possessor of holiness -- it isn't a created 'moral' quality) that seems somewhat unprecedented Biblically (on the human level: the buildings of Temple and Tabernacle had already partook of the incarnational grace): this really isn't bothersome, though, as Mary is no ordinary human, even though she is just like us ontologically.  She is fully human, not a demi-god(dess).  But, she is the "birth-giver to God" (a more precise translation of Theotokos than "mother of God"), a status, role, and honor that no other human being will ever have.

Two possibilities arise from this: either Mary never sinned and was cleansed from ritual impurity by the direct action of God or she sinned but was forgiven.  I'm not sure it really matters: however, we often like to point out the moral failings of Biblical characters, so that we can relate.  Why, though, should that be our default position?  Holiness, righteousness, etc. are about participation with God through His grace, not about moral strength/willpower.  There certainly is an element of struggle (ascesis), but that should spur us on to imitation, not depress us: Mary is human like us, her faithfulness to God is what we should emulate; not whether or not she sinned.

At any rate, there does seem to be an underlying theological principle that the Mother is the symbol of the Bride: in other words, if we want to know what the Church is to be, we need to look to Mary.  The Church is to be a spotless virgin; Mary was a spotless virgin.  The Church is to obey her Lord, for she is His agent of Life in the world; Mary, in her act of obedience ("let it be according to your word"), brings the Life into the world.  The list could go on.  The most telling moment, though, is what Mary says after asking her Son to help at Cana: she turns to those in charge of the festivities and says, "Do whatever He tells you."  Whatever role Mary has (and, for those who follow the Regulative Principle of Worship, "all generations shall henceforth call me blessed"), she should be listened to here: she always will point us towards obedience, for the Life of the world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The First Rule of the Humanities

It isn't what someone, say, Homer, writes; it is how he is interpreted and applied in later generations.


One of the most important, but often overlooked, aspects of engaging in theology is to know when to speak and when to be silent.

Most heresies, it seems, stem from a desire to comprehend God, rather than worship Him within our creaturely limitations.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Face of God (Brief Advent Sermon)

This is a bit premature, as I won't be presenting this until tomorrow night, but here it is anyway.  Otherwise, I'm prone to forget to post it.  The inspiration behind it, if I may use that term, is St. Gregory the Theologian's Oration 38, of which and to whom I am not worthy to hold a candle.  May God be gracious to you during this Advent season.
The Face of God

“No one has seen God at any time…” (John 1:18)

“No one may see My face and live…” (Ex. 33:20)

“And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the might men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the Face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:15-16)

“Woe to me, for I am undone!  Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Is. 6:5)

And yet…

“The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His Face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.  The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Num. 6:24-26)

“If My people, who are called by My Name, will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chron. 7:14)

“When you said, ‘Seek My Face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your Face, Lord, I will seek.’ Do not hide Your Face from me…” (Ps. 27:8-9a)

There is a dual movement in Scripture, both wonderful and paradoxical: we are made to be face-to-Face with God, yet it is this very Face that strikes in us terror, that undoes us, and is invisible to us.  It is not without purpose that St. Paul says, “The blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable Light, whom no man has seen nor can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power.  Amen!” (1 Tim. 6:15-16) Here we seem to be without hope: for how can we see, or seek, or have shine upon us that which seems so far away?

Let us return to the first quote of the night, that from St. John’s Gospel, “No one has seen God at any time…” and finish it: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”  Our desire, our true end, as human beings is to be in the Presence of God; yet this is impossible for us.  However, Jesus Christ, in His Incarnation, the Word and Image and Son of God become flesh “for us and for our salvation” as the Creed puts it, declares the Father.  He is the Image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the visible One of the invisible One, taking human existence to its highest level so that He will tell His disciples, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9)

But there is even more.

Why did God forbid the making of images in the Old Testament?  (Ex. 20:4-6) His Image had not yet been revealed (Deut. 4:15).  Certainly, Adam and Eve were made “in the Image and Likeness of God,” (Gen. 1:26) but through sin instead passed on their own image to their children: “And Adam live on hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Gen. 5:3).  The image of man in Adam could never suffice, since it was a tainted image, one that bore the marks of rebellion and sin and corruption.  All such images could be nothing more than idols, leading us to “exchange the truth of God for the lie, and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25). Christ, who as Son of God is the Image of the Invisible Father, has restored in humankind that Image by taking on our flesh, our full human nature, and redeeming it.  Now, as St. Paul says, we can not only look at the glory of God, but be transformed by it: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18)  Christ’s coming in the flesh, as the God-Man, not only reveals God the Father, but also fulfills God’s good purposes to make us look like Him as well: “For who He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the Image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29).  When we, being transformed and conformed, are seen by those outside, they are to see the Image who is Christ, we are little images, no longer of Adam, but of Christ, who is the Image of God the Father.  For “as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Cor. 15:49).

This season of Advent, we who are unworthy are being invited to see the Face of God in Jesus Christ, the Face that was hidden because of sin and corruption and death.  Let us make haste to join ourselves in union to Christ, to share in His sufferings, to partake of His death, and to be raised from the dead with Him, so that His Face might shine upon us, and we might, reflecting the Light of the World, be a city on a hill, letting our light, the Unapproachable Light of God’s Glory in the Face of Jesus Christ, so shine that those outside might see our good works and glorify, not us, but our Father who is in Heaven (Matt. 5:16).  This Christmas, O Lord, may the words of your prophet be fulfilled in us: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your Name give glory, because of Your mercy, because of Your Truth” (Ps. 115:1).  Amen.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Dialogue Concerning the Good

'L' is our learner.  'C' is our catechist.  I'm still seeking the best "names" for these characters.

L: Since God has created all things 'good' and 'very good' (Gen. 1), why does our Lord Christ command us to "renounce all things" (Lk. 14:33) to become His disciple?

C: Ah, a difficult teaching of our Lord, yes?  First, answer me this: who shall inherit the earth?

L: The meek (Mt. 5:5).

C: And who are the meek?

L: Well, the word means the 'humble.'  But, forgive me, I don't know what this has to do with my question.

C: Patience, patience.  To be meek, surely, is to be humble.  But to be humble, in this case, is to be like Christ, as all the beatitudes speak of Him, the Blessed One (Mt. 21:9).  What do we know about the humility of Christ?

L: The Apostle Paul speaks of it in Philippians 2:5-8 -- "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!"

C: And did He inherit the earth?

L: Certainly!  The Apostle continues to speak of His exaltation, which is an echo of our Lord's own words, "All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me" (Matt. 28:18).

C: What is our relationship to His humility?

L: We are to make ourselves humble, as His command states.  So, are you suggesting that by being meek, we are to renounce all good things that we might have access, through our Lord Christ, to the Greatest Good, the Father?

C: You are exactly right.  There is, undoubtedly, a hierarchy of the 'goods' that comprise this world.  Some goods we seek after in certain contexts, some are external, some are internal, etc.  All are good, since they are created as such by God.  However, that means that they retain their goodness only in the proper creational context, which has been distorted by the entrance of sin and death in the world.  'Goods' are still good, but only when they are redeemed through the death of Christ; otherwise they can quickly become 'goods' that lead us away from the Good One.  Here is the paradox at the heart of our faith: if we choose these lesser goods as ultimate or satisfactory, we lose all goods.  Instead, we must forsake all earthly goods for the Eternal Good, through which we inherit all good things.  In uniting to His humility, His death -- which we must die every day -- He unites us to His exaltation, His powerfully proclaimed sonship, and His inheritance.

Friday, October 04, 2013

On the end of American Christendom

It is always interesting to me when big partisan political events happen here in America.  Not because of the political implications (which are, regardless, important), but the reactions of Christians.  The same people (and I'm not excluding myself) who a week before say, "God is love.  No sinner is outside of His grace, etc." will now say, "Obama/Republicans/Democrats/etc. are evil/idiotic/unworthy of political office, etc.".  There is a disconnect between our fake Jesus talk and what we really believe: God loves those who we think He should.  Anyone who battles against our own emotivist sub-worlds is obviously wrong.  We forget the complexities of these interminable debates, opting for simplistic rationales that vaunt our own supposed wisdom; we forget that these men and women (conservative or liberal) are just in as much of grace as we are, rather, according to St. Paul, we need more grace than they: "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost" (1 Tim. 1:15).  Lest we think that Paul is just talking about himself, the whole phrase has been used since the beginning as a liturgical phrase spoken by each individual before they received the Eucharist.

What is our response to the political hubbub of the day to be?  St. Paul also instructs us in this, in a myriad of places:

"Remind them [Christians] to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work [like, I don't know, tending the health of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the leper, the lame, the blind...whatever Obamacare may or may not be, it is surely a sign that the Church has abjected failed in her mission -- I'm not speaking of it merely as an "institution" here either: we have all failed and will have to answer for it, as Matthew 25 so starkly tells us], to speak evil of no one, to be gentle, to show perfect courtesy toward all people..." (Titus 3:1-2)


"First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desire all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth..." (1 Tim. 2:1-4)

And so on.

What to do, then?  First of all, pray.  If you don't pray for your public leaders in your weekly public assembly, ask your pastor/elders/priests to do so.  If you already have these prayers in your liturgy, don't just breeze through them.  I love liturgical worship -- it gives me a grammar that I inherently lack: but I've been to enough of them where the prayers are intoned with no conviction.  When we are praying, we are invoking the name of God, Father, Son, and Spirit.  To pray flippantly is to "bear the Name in vain" as spoken of in the Ten Commandments.

Secondly, if you want change, you must first purify yourself.  What do you receive from the government?  Start providing it for yourself and your neighbors.  Is the health care regulation a concern to you?  Then start living a healthy, ascetic life.  Help your neighbors out of the slavery of too much food, too little food, eating disorders, junk food, loneliness, alienation from family, and so on.  If we were a healthier nation, by which I mean a neighborly nation, we wouldn't need federal health care -- these things would be taken care of at the lower levels of society.  But we don't know our neighbors, we don't pray for them, and so we die, poor, alone, and lost.

Is this a cure all?  No.  But it will go a long way and do a lot more good than complaining about the inherent problems of democracy.  Remember, God called you to love Him and your neighbor; He didn't call you to be a Republican, a Democrat, or an autonomous individualist.  The Enlightenment style of society we've inherited isn't the Gospel.  The love of Jesus Christ that calls us to put ourselves to death for the life of our neighbors, however, is.

To My Wife (poem)

To My Wife

How shall I begin?
It is easy to speak about
    some phantastical delight
    of a nightingale, or the sun
    on dew-drenched grass.
Much harder to call to the pen
    the familiar.  For what is marriage
    but the essence of the mundane?
The work of a myriad myriads of
    generations: the feeding,
    the sheltering, the nurturing
    and the cajoling.
The tender affection and private
    play, mixed but unadulterated
    with the senseless infliction
    of pain, too keenly sensed.

I read the other day, a news report
    of mens' despondency when
    their wives make money.
How easy to forget it is no longer
    my work or your reward
    my pride or your comfort.
On that day, I ceased to be
    and you left all old realities
    becoming, til time's end, we.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Resting Place (poem)

And what does it mean to know
that all our heroes and our gods will fail us?
When sharing bread has become no more than a meal;
and who we are is solisp ideal?

I look at my child newly born
Sleeping in my resting arm.
I have brought her into this terror world
I do not know whether to feel guilt or fear;
but feel I must.

And when she rests me in my tomb
--for dust am I and to dust must I return--
and looks on me no more, it will not be
guilt and fear that stay,
nor will they follow me. But pain.

Here is where I'm tempted to despair:
Pain borne alone is only death.
It is in commune that we not merely live--
This necessity finds its home there.
And in this place can grief and sorrow exhausted lay
while sweet maternal lullabies stir the air.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Untitled (poem)

I found this one scrawled in my HUM 103 teaching notes. I cannot remember when I wrote it, although with this set of notes it would have had to have been within the last three years...I think. There is no title on it.


A poet is to take the unspeakable
and gently place it into
the container of words.
The ocean in a jar
both is and is not.
For that within is an image,
an icon,
with a longing to return.

So the words that circumscribe
Partake and like the salty brine
cause the water and the drinker
to yearn
To long for communion where they
are not lost
But have their fullest place.

Nepsis (poem)


What is love but watchfulness?
An ascesis of patience
A participation in He who is
with another.
Our communion becomes
in His patient passion

The voices of children
proclaim the good news:
the two intertwined
Two persons mirroring
the One
Who in the Love He is
has made us
the one Flesh
Which is the Life of the World.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Triduum (poem)

The Triduum

It was a day of tumult and song
When the Conquerer conquered was
And our masters swooned their devilish delight
To see the one who refused at the pinnacle
Fall from such a great height.

That auspicious day! Day of triumph and victory!
was no day of light
but deepest gloom that could be felt.
For his cross was the bar
that pried the doors from their hinges.

And the gates of hell
shall not prevail
And devil's flee
from sinners set free.

For it was not just a mere incursion
But a full blown invasion
as he fit each captive now free
with weapons sharp and two-edged.
This one has, since that dark day,
ne'er failed to steal more away.

Our songs are new
as we come full force
past the strong man bound and gagged
to do these works of God
for the life of the world.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A New, but Really Old, Vision for the Humanities

Disclaimer: This rethinking is for a Christian college/university setting. I cannot claim to speak for those parts of the Western humanistic tradition that aren't Christian.

Teaching the Humanities in today's academy can be hard. We are, essentially, teaching a history of Western civilization to many who have been so divorced from a pre-Enlightenment past that we seem to be nothing more than bemusing antiquarians. Why does the Theogony matter? Who cares about Homeric understandings of hospitality? Does it really matter that Roman social classes were based on an honor/shame dynamic? Everyone knows there aren't nine levels of Hell and so few of us live in Florence, so why read Dante? etc. Most of all, aren't these things in the past? We live in an ahistorical world, one that believes we have left home, so to speak, and that has made all the difference in our wild, wonderful, and utopian modern world.

And here the most bizarre element in student (and, I would argue, public and political) thinking comes out: we often reject the past because they didn't have it together, like we do. But, we don't have it together. The last century was the most violent in human history, with most of the deaths being administered by governments on their own people. So much for the equity and justice that will come from breaking old kinship ties and establishing the nation-state (this, of course, is not to argue that the nation-state has not brought some good things -- it is, however, to argue against the bizarre myopic utopianism that still accompanies pretty much anything out of the Enlightenment, even if it has been uniformly bad). We refuse, possibly because we are afraid to fall into in anomic Void, to see that the Emperor has no clothes, much less to call him on it (one risks being a "premodern" or a "fundamentalist" if this is attempted). It is precisely the power of the Humanities to bring on a clarity of vision that allows us to call things what they really are. Plato's Allegory of the Cave is apropos here: all that we see is not necessarily the true reality.

One of the greatest problems, though, is our way of teaching the Humanities as history. We bow to modern standards of what history should look like, how it should be told, and we wonder why students have no interest. History, alas, means very little to people, unless if it can be connected to aliens. I don't think we should abandon history, but it cannot be the framework in which we tell the story of Western Civilization. Part of the reason for this is because we lack a cogent Christian philosophy of history. While linear progression theories, popularized I'm told by St. Augustine, seem to make some sense, they fail for two reasons: 1) we disagree about what the ending will look like (pre-, post-, a- mill, for example) and this makes telling the story incoherent (see, for example, what happened to the show Lost, both before they knew what ending they were making and then after they determined a milquetoast finale) and 2) linear progression assumes, implicitly, a "betterification" of the world, that is, we have surpassed our elders and so can learn only from their mistakes (if that). I see this last one a lot in many Protestant views of Church History, calling the Fathers the "Church Babies" for instance, or in generally thinking that the Reformation put the Fathers right where they had erred (especially when they cannot hold a candle to the holiness of the martyrs and confessors). Until we rectify these things, our teaching of Humanities as an essentially historical discipline will fail.

Instead, let me harken back to a formula that still has some cultural cachet, goodness:beauty:truth. All Western humans, and Christians especially, have some sort of sense of these things. Yes, our understanding of each of them is hindered by emotivism, but often we attempt to reach beyond ourselves in getting a grip on them. The Western tradition could be classified as the search for these things, whether as universals (Plato), as discrete units (Aristotle), or as participation in the logoi of the Logos (Maximos). What that might mean, in practical pedagogical terms, is this:

Goodness is the study of philoethikos, of "love of ethics": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions about what it means to live a good, successful, pleasant life that reaches the human telos of glorification in Christ.

Beauty is the study of philokalia, of "love of beauty": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions of what it means to ascertain and use (in the Augustinian sense) beauty, aesthetics, proportion, and cultural artifacts.

Truth is the study of philosophy, of "love of wisdom": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions of what it means to connect to that which makes the world work on the human level, whether through asking questions about society, about human constitution, or about the "natural sciences."

It is possible to make this a three-course sequence, one leading to the other. They could be treated historically, or they could be treated in a "classics" or "Great Books" way. But they would, in a Christian setting, end in philotheos, or "love of God" in which we see how these things all are gifts from the Divine Benefactor who created all beauty, goodness, and truth so that He might sacramentally unite us to Himself in Jesus Christ. Theology, that is the study of God through prayer and ascesis, would take her rightful place as the apex of the sciences that transcends all science: for we must know God through created means while still knowing that He transcends all created categories.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Failure of American Christian Culture

This week, due to my wife's birth-giving of our third child, I've been around the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. It is a place, in common evangelical terminology, ripe for the harvest of the Gospel: gays, lesbians, drag queens, homeless, "loose" people populate the streets. This, combined with a first reading of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, has led me to reflect on why Christianity is becoming less and less of a viable option in American culture generally, and with the young, urban, educated set particularly.

To do so, though, will require engaging MacIntyre's understanding of what "emotivism" is. "Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments [that is, judgments as to whether something is "right or wrong", "good or bad", "true or false", etc.] and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character" (12, emphasis original). In other words, all value decisions are based on what we take, in our various and self-contained "sub-worlds," to be good, true, and beautiful. There are no rational or universal outside standards on which to adjudicate such evaluative claims. MacIntyre goes on to argue, and I think he is substantially right, that our culture is, by-and-large, emotivist. Mutually exclusive moral claims, such as for or against action in Syria by the US military/government, cannot ever really talk to each other because the claims themselves are not based on any shared rational grounds, nor can they be since there are no shared rational grounds on which to be based.

To return to my initial reflections, I see two dominant Christian cultures in the United States today, both of which are unable to speak in the public square (say, at Pitt) because they cannot overcome the emotivist quandry. The first culture is the culture of moralizing Christianity: the claim is that these folks are "living in sin" and need to change their lifestyles to avoid [judgment, Hell, social breakdown, etc.] However, in the face of emotivism, these claims are nonsensical: how can this group say what is "good" or what human teleology is, since that is reserved for the autonomous individual? The call to a different way of living, whether done in or out of love, ends up being a personal assault on the hearer -- the call to a lifestyle change is a call to living in the confusion of the void, as their identity is, more often than not, tied to the various social and sexual roles that they inhabit. To say that their reasons for doing something or living a certain way is an assault on the autonomy of the individual, which in an emotivist context, becomes an assault on sense of self. This method is, alas, doomed to fail in any long-range way (this is not to say that individuals are not converted through such presentation, but this old revivalist style has had its day -- many historians question whether or not within its day it was actually effective, but that's another matter entirely).

The second culture is that of telic Christian identity. This culture hinges upon language such as "your true identity is in Christ" or "become what God made you to be" or some such. This culture is the one that I am most comfortable with, as I believe (emotivistically, I'm sure) that this is proper linguistic framework, building off, as it does, the Biblical and Patristic "image of God" tradition. However, this too is bound to fail, but for significantly different reasons. If we are to call others to a different moral framework, one which is founded and maintained outside of the human self (outside of individual emotivist restraints), we need living exemplars to refer to. However, as the amount of moral scandal in evangelical Christianity proves, this is no easy task. We are, by-and-large, without consistent standard bearers. Not only with those who fail, but often with those who have some sort of moderate success. Either they become "A-holes for Jesus" (as I've heard them described before) or they are attacked under the rubric of antinomianism: Christianity isn't about how you live, it is about Jesus' grace, blah blah blah. (The historical fact that a strident "Law/Gospel" distinction always ends up in a rejection of Christian virtue or a legalistic Pietism seems to be lost on modern exponents of it). Some might say that we have the exemplary lives of the saints of yore to point to. While this is a good option, it fails to answer the question of our contemporary moment: is this sort of thing possible still? Or has the world changed too much (whether we consider it to have matured or devolved) for that to even be possible? To cut to the point, the phraseology of telic evangelism falls short since no contemporary examples of the category can be produced, whether because of moral failure or actual impossibility. For an emotivist to make the jump from self-sustained identity to Christic identity would require not just rational dialogue, but actually examples of the jump that can be imitated with some measure of success (this is not, however, to be read as an easy task: ascesis is not easy -- we do no one any favors by broadcasting Christianity as 'easy').

What to do, then? Are we stuck, at this historical moment, with an impotent Church?

Option one, moralism, is unsustainable. If we latch onto this particular brand of Christian life and witness, we will continue to fail. As I've heard a couple of preachers put it, "God didn't come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live." Same goes, I imagine, for women. It is futile to call those who have identity formation tied closely into lifestyle choices to a facile, will-driven change of existence.

Option two, telic identity, is still workable; but not in the current instantiation. One of the present ways that we've sought to overcome our inability to produce exemplars is by focusing on shared "brokenness." We are all broken, so we cannot judge those outside, nor those on the inside. While, of course, there is some truth in this (we all inherit something from Adam other than a baseline human nature), it is a celebration not of what Christ came to do or has, on the Cross and through the Resurrection, done, but rather it is a celebration of a failure to have become what His actions have made it possible for us to become. That is, this point of "brokenness" is where the two cultural forms of Christianity seem to meet and fuse: we are supposed to become like Christ, Christ is moral (defined as "He perfectly keeps the Law"), therefore our ultimate end is to be moral; however, we fail to be moral, but since Christ is "our righteousness" this doesn't actually matter, therefore we celebrate our continued lack of morality or failure to be moral as a sign of God's continuing grace towards us. We might (should!) question a few of the premises in this argument (I do not know of anyone who puts it this way, but it seems to be a common enough, yet implicit, argument), most especially that of the "active/passive obedience" paradigm that informs both Reformed and evangelical Christianity (that remains for another day, however). The celebration of "brokenness" is rather a tacit celebration of the ineffectiveness of the Cross and Resurrection in the face of sin, death, and corruption. Any time the Christian Gospel speaks of defeat, whether in the eschaton or in history, it has ceased to be the Christian Gospel.

A different way of understanding our telic identity in Christ, then, is necessary. I do not think, though, that this needs to a new or novel understanding. In our theological heritage, we have plenty of unmined resources to draw from. Particularly, the inheritance from monasticism would be powerfully useful. However, for it to speak to our current cultural malaise, it would have to be un-cloistered: to separate from the world, while still a powerful witness (I think of St. Antony of the Desert as the prime example) would miss the cultural effectiveness I am aiming for. Rather, the concept of ascesis, which has historically been guarded and maintained in monastic communities, would allow many to become the effective exemplars of Christian identity (that is, of post-Resurrection Christic participation).

But isn't ascesis the same as moral striving? Yes and no. They do share some of the same forms, but for different reasons and ends. Morality hinges, normally, on the anger/judgment/wrath of God. Do this or be damned! Ascesis, though, hinges on the actual becoming because of the love of God: we fast not because we are avoid God's wrath, but because this is the means by which we disconnect from the corruption of the world and connect to God's grace which is remaking our nature. It isn't being moral for morality's sake; it is become like Christ for the sake of the world. More needs to be said on this, of course, but I should go back to attendance on my young family.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Gay Science (with some half-hearted apologies to F. Nietzsche)

The Madman

"Where is Man gone?" he called out. "I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying Man? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? - for even we human divinities putrefy! Man is dead! Man remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife - who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? We mortals aspired to God and earlier killed Him; so we took His place. And now we have become mad and slit our own wrists and throats with democracy! There never was a greater event - and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!" Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. "I come too early," he then said. "I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling - it has not yet reached men's ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star - and yet they have done it themselves!" It is further stated that the madman made his way into different embassies on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam homo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: "What are these governments now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of Man?"

On the brink of war, he who has ears, let him hear.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Ozymandius (poem)

Irony is what I saw near Ozymandius' sandy grave
For this once great king eulogized
By a once great poet
of a once great civilization
Had asserted his power one last time.

And Shelley's point of power fading
Has been lost on all leaders,
great and small;
For the feverish grasp of authority
legitimacy and legality
Has ground us down finer than his powder.

Caius remains a mortal; yet no mortals are we
if care we take to guard our legacy --
we shall be remembered as the freedom fighters
who destroyed the tyrannies
of marriage and bonded sexuality;
of peace and the rule of law;
of religion and the healing of man.

The great statue's somber sneer
has, as of late, taken on a queer
aspect as his frown
has contorted the other way 'round.
A chortle one might hear
escape those sun parched lips
as his message rings out loud and clear.

Monday, September 02, 2013

The West II (poem)

In the twilight of the West
when the sun completes his crest
we prepare for the long dark.

For the world once so sure
does not appear quite secure
and the dawn may never spark.

But the light of the blasts
and the breaking of the castes
assures us of their target mark.

Let us then, night dwellers,
Bomb the world from our cultural cellars
And alight the world in her glorious stark.

For this night, our night,
Has long been our eager delight
And this tomb is our self-made dark.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The West (poem)

It is hard
to teach about the West
to reveal in the simplicity of the docile Gentleman of Judea
to glory in aeternal Roma
to seek the catharsis of the cathedral

It is hard
to call for cultivation of our Heritage
to breathe new life
to seek hope on the road
to unite with the past

As it descends
to an orgy of blood
to an infernal circle
unimaginable by Dante’s vision
to an attack on life itself
to barbarism

The Huns are not at the gate
The Vandals do not threaten from afar
The Goths have not begun to array

The pillage is long over
The desecration far proceeded
So we look for St. Benedict to arise

but the monasteries are empty

and we are alone.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sermon: John 10:7-10

This last Sunday, I was privileged to speak at College Hill Church of the Nazarene once again. Below is the text of the sermon. As always, it lacks the extempore parts.


Sermon text: John 10:7-10

Then Jesus said to them again, "Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.


Ours is a day of prosperity preachers and an upper-middle class Christianity. We hear of mega-churches, packed full every Sunday, hearing about how God wants to make them “healthy, wealthy, and wise” without the requisite sleep schedule adjustment. Today’s passage seems to give that same sort of promise: “life, and that more abundantly.” Jesus wants us to have an abundant life! How could that not mean cars and cash and comfort? However, to go straight to that interpretation is to read the Gospel, not in line with who we know Jesus is and what He has come to do, but rather with late capitalist American eyes. As we shall see, the truth of this Life is much deeper and richer than any money or security or affluence could ever be.

The Scriptures, from start to finish, are concerned with life. The story of life is narrated in Genesis, from the initial creation of the world, where God’s Life-giving Spirit is hovering above the primordial waters, to the blessing of fertility to all creatures, “be fruitful and multiply,” a promise that is repeated after the Great Flood, a return to the lifeless waters of the “formless and void” earth. Adam and Eve, according to the Church Fathers, were to grow in their communion with God and share from the Tree of Life and so have life everlasting in God. The Law given to Moses, which has so many death-dealing penalties, is over and over again given the status of life preserver. Let us listen to Moses: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil…” (Dt. 30:15) – to obey, to follow God with all one’s heart, mind, and strength, meant life: to disobey meant death. This was not, as commonly caricatured, a type of “earn your salvation through good works” scheme, but was rather a definition of relationship: God had rescued them from the death of slavery to Pharaoh, now they were to live in such a way that was the way of wisdom in God’s love. They couldn’t earn God’s love, His love just was, and His love produced life, a life they were to tenaciously cling to by keeping the whole Law. But we know, from the histories that follow and from Jesus and Paul, that they failed. Just as Adam had, they forfeited the life offered to them by God for a pale reflection, for idolatry and injustice.

But what, exactly, is this life? It is not mere physical existence or longevity, nor necessarily quality of living, since these are temporary things in the world: none are necessarily bad in themselves, but they cannot be lived for. As St. Augustine puts it, created things “are not, like their Creator, supremely and unchangeably good, [so] their good may be diminished and increased” (The Enchiridion, XII). These things that we call “life” or “living” are good to the extent that they draw us closer to the One who is eternally Good, the One “who alone was immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16). Life, then, refers to “the Lord, the Giver of Life” which the Creed calls the holy Spirit. When the Lord Christ tells us He has come to give life “and that more abundantly,” He is not speaking of earthly prosperity, but rather of giving us a share in God Himself, the only One who can properly be called “Life.” To have God, and Him more abundantly, is the purpose of Jesus Christ.

With that in mind, let us look at the larger context of this passage, Jesus has just healed a man born blind on the Sabbath. In response, Jesus is labeled a sinner (for He broke the Sabbath) and the newly sighted was cast out of the synagogue. This is tantamount to separating him from the presence of God, since the religious leaders were the gate-keepers of God’s worship. To be excommunicated is, in the most real sense, to be dead. It is the punishment against Adam and Eve in the Garden, the punishment against the Israelites in the Exile, the punishment reserved for rank sinners in the Law. God’s earthly representatives have the mission to make sure the Body is healthy, free from blemish or impurity. However, as we read the passage, we can note that these leaders seem to be dysfunctional: they are exercising their authority, but serving the wrong master. They do not recognize the true Master’s voice. While they cast the man out, Jesus receives him in, saying, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that who see may be made blind” (9:39): the religious leaders cast the seeing man out because they were blind, Jesus removed the blindness both of his eyes and of his heart, revealing Himself as the Son of God, the One who does the works of the invisible Father (10:38).

John’s Gospel, here and elsewhere, is making an argument about the relationship of Jesus, the Life that is God, and the Father. Only Jesus is able to restore sight, something “unheard of…since the world began” (9:32). Only Jesus is able, only by a word, to raise from the dead a man expired by four days (ch. 11). He is “the resurrection and the life” (11:25). “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” as the Prologue tells us (1:4). Jesus, though He is truly human in every way (except sin), is Life Himself. The Father, who is Life, is One with the Son, who is Life, is One with the Spirit, who is Life; yet these are three. A profound and enduring mystery of our faith, yet the basis of our salvation, of our receiving Life from this God.

So, Jesus’ purpose is to give this Life. Jesus is the Life. How do we, who live so long after His death and resurrection, come into this Life? How do we enter the infinite abundance that is God? The word, used over and over again in this Gospel, is “abide.” “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” (15:4). But what does it mean to “abide”? “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” (15:10). Does this mean, then, that we have some sort of legalism? Jesus commands and if we don’t obey, we aren’t “in His love”? No, but we must understand what sin, or disobedience, is before that will become clear.

St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law” (15:56). I had thought that the word “sting” there referred to a wound of some sort, similar to my daughter recently showing me her very first bee sting. This would mean that sin is the scar or cut left by death in our life: an inescapable fact of existence. However, the word is better translated by “stinger”: it is not the wound, but the weapon. Death infects us by its barb, sin, whose poison gets power by the very thing meant to condemn it: the Law of God (Rom. 8:3). However, as Paul points out, the Law is made weak by the flesh, by our mortal existence inherited from Adam, and so is unable to deliver us: rather, it brings God’s wrath (4:15), so that God might condemn it through the death of Jesus Christ. The point being that death uses sin to produce death: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because of which all sinned…” (5:12). A vicious circle: to disobey God is to “give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death” (James 1:15). This is why the Lord Jesus says: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in My love…”, not as a courting of favor, but because our turning away in sin is to forsake life for the shadowlands of death! “O who shall deliver us from this body of death?” as Paul says in Romans 7, “I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” To abide in Christ, to be inseparable from His love, calls us to live in that Light. As John says in his first epistle, “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments…whoever keeps His Word, truly the love of God is perfected in him…He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (2:3-6, roughly). But what are these commandments? “This is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment” (3:23).

This is life! To believe on His Name and to love our brothers and sisters! This is the casting down of death and sin in our lives, to believe on His Name and to love one another! In other words, to have abundant life is to not live for ourselves, to not live for the goods of this world, but to love God and love our neighbors. This is the meaning behind Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25: (read 31-40). To love our neighbors as Christ has loved us, to lay down our lives for them, is to already have eternal life – not because we earn it, but because we are already in Him – it is a revelation of a state already existing. We abide in Him, live in Him, and share Him. To reject our brothers and sisters, whether in thought, word, or deed is already separation from God, for, as John puts it, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hate his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (4:20).

This brings us full circle to our passage for today. Jesus tells us that “he who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9), the man born blind did not see physically, but did see Him truly: “‘Lord, I believe!’ and he worshipped Him” (9:38). The Pharisees, though, could not see Him for who He was because they hated their brother. Jesus tells them that He is the door, the way in, or as He will put it later, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me” (14:6). But instead of believing on His Name and loving their brother, they sought to maintain their spiritual authority by force: they became thieves and robbers, whom the Good Shepherd came to cast out. We, brothers and sisters, are now confronted with this Great Shepherd: shall we abide in His love? Or shall we seek to go another way? Shall we love one another with the love of Christ and so spread His Life to all we see? To have the only life that lasts, we must seek out the Lord Christ: for He alone has immortality and can deliver us, body and soul, from the sinful ravages of death.

And who is it that we see having this life, connected to the blessing that is Jesus Christ? Let us turn briefly to Matthew’s Gospel (5:4-10):
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Amen.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Problem of Truth and Idolatry

I've been following Dr. Pete Enns's blog as of late. There are many things that we agree on and, significantly, many things that we disagree on. On the agreement side, we both see the need to break out of a fundamentalistic understanding of Sola Scriptura (for the simple fact that it plain doesn't exist in any meaningful fashion); on the disagreement side, I'll never be an evolution subscriber as I don't see conclusive scientific evidence that makes evolutionary theory the best (or only) theory of biological/physical origins. I also am not a scientist, so I don't feel qualified to speak too much about the issue anyway.

As I was reading through a couple of his posts concerning the Conquest of Canaan and the various historical, archaeological, moral, and theological quandaries that stem from that event, I had a bit of an epiphany concerning both that debate and the evolution/creation debate. Both sides (to reduce it that way) rely, at least stereotypically, on a privileging of truth-method. (Note: I'm not saying Dr. Enns holds either of the views I'm going to superficially illustrate -- his blog posts served as a board from which to dive into these waters.) Those who argue for evolutionary origins or a non-occurrence of the Conquest (or the Exodus or David, etc.) often rely too heavily on scientific methodology to base their truth claims. If Kathleen Kenyon says Jericho wasn't destroyed by the Israelites, then it must not have happened (per example). The "facts of scientific investigation" don't back up the Biblical narrative. Or, given the various evidences about the age of the earth, we could say that the Biblical chronologies cannot be accurate. Either way, the main interpreter of the text is scientific findings. This, of course, has been rehearsed by many polemicists much brighter than myself.

The point I'm trying to make, though, is that often those on the other side privilege a literal-historical reading of the text over any other interpretive method. If the Bible "says" it happened this way, then it must have, regardless of any errant scientific findings. If the Bible "says" Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, then somewhere in the past a man named Jonah must have been swallowed by a fish. And so on. So, the Conquest must have happened in such-and-such a way, otherwise all of Biblical truth is at stake. If Adam was not a real historical person, then (the argument goes) Christ's resurrection loses its historical moorings. Whether or not these are valid conclusions, of course, remains to be argued. I've no interest in doing that now.

Both groups privilege one method of interpretation that is, regardless of method, detached from a basis in the living Tradition of the Church, that is, the holy Spirit "leading into all truth" (Jn. 16:13). Both seek an objectivity that is unmoored from the catechetical and theotic purposes of the Church reading, interpreting, and applying the Scriptures. Both are valid ways of addressing the text, but only if they come under the rubric of Christ's Spirit in Christ's Body, otherwise they are idolatry, seeking to make God over in our interpretive image. Any and all interpretive methods of the Scriptures must be connected to the living Spirit: now this does open the questions of who has the Spirit and who has authority (both questions, really, are the same question)? These are questions that I am not, as of now, qualified to answer. However, they do need to be brought up and prayerfully reckoned with in the Body. Too much is at stake, but possibly not what we normally think is at stake. Our readings of Scriptures will come and go, but a union with the Spirit is the definition of eternal salvation.

Monday, August 05, 2013

On Death

It has been a summer of death. A friend committed suicide. An acquaintance died of cancer. A newborn child of friends succumbed to an infection. The deaths of those of Christ's faith in Egypt and Sudan and Nigeria and Syria.

It is at these times that I'm sorely tempted to question, to doubt, and to get angry with God: why are You so far off? Why should this continue to happen? How long, o Lord? I don't want to naturalize or domesticate death, either, even though those are the reactions I tend towards: "it happens" or "we all have to go," etc. There is not something wrong with death, there is everything wrong with death. It is, as the Apostle Paul puts it, the "last enemy" (1 Cor. 15: 26), but its end is not yet.

Ever since Adam, all things must die. I don't take that passage as a divine threat ("if you eat the tree, I will kill you..."), but as a divine warning ("if you freely choose to eat the fruit, these are the consequences...avoid them!"). As far as I can tell from my reading of St. Athanasius, this is the patristic way of reading the text. We were created ex nihilo, from nothing, and so there is always the danger that to nothing (or in Adam's case, "to dust") we will return. To have life is not something biologically or physically or even spiritually inherent in us, rather it is the gift of God, of Himself, to us. To have life is to share, somehow ontologically, in the Life who is God. Due to Adam's rebellion we have been cut off from that Life. Yet, even though our first parents necessarily were exiled from the Garden (to have access to the Tree of Life while under the dominion of sin and death would have been a worse existence than non-existence), God was not and is not content to leave us there. This seems to be the import of Jesus' words in John's Gospel: "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (10:10). Christ undoes what the thief did in the Garden. This doesn't mean, though, that we are promised a middle class existence. Such a life, as many have found, is paltry and ultimately vacuous. The world, when disconnected from her source of Life, is empty pleasure and pain. The created realm only becomes what it was created to be when it becomes entwined with the Life of God, when it becomes a sacrament. The Life He is promising is the Life that He Himself is. The Life that is not confused or divided, but is union and distinction of the divine and the created.

I am powerless before Death. I've suckled too much at the teet of sin, the "stinger" of death, as St. Paul calls it (1 Cor. 15:56). But He is not. He has risen from the grave, trampling down death by death itself, and bestows His Life on us now, allowing and enabling us to live outside of the tyranny of sin, and bestows Life on us in the future, when all things shall finally be made right. But what about now? What about those who have died too soon? Or innocently? Christ wept at the physical death of His friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35); we mourn with those who mourn, but not without hope -- Christ is risen from the dead. It is not the end, nor the answer, nor the paradox. It is defeated and we shall see that with true and clear eyes someday.

In the meantime, let us pray and mourn. Let us ask God "how long?" as the Psalmist instructs us. Let us fight against death by turning from sin. Let us all cling to the One who is Life, in whom no death can finally exist.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sermon: "Binding and Loosing" Matthew 18:21-35

I had the opportunity to preach on the text of Matthew 18 today at Washington Union Alliance Church in New Castle, Pa. As before, I was given a warm reception. This time, though, the message I brought from the Scriptures was a hard message. God help us all to be more like our Lord Christ.

I'll post the audio as soon as I get a chance.


Matthew 18:21-35

Before us is one of the most potent parables of our Lord. It is, in many ways, a hard parable, because we are not used to the language used about God in it. Yet, contained in it is the essence of what Christ had come to do, to bring the forgiveness of God to a death-bound creation. It is a challenging parable, though, because it does not just focus on the work of Christ, but calls us into that work. When we enter into forgiveness, we must also forgive, otherwise we forfeit the great and free gift that is given to us at such a great price to the giver.

Note that the passage starts with the word “then.” There is a larger context that we must take into account. As with most of the parables of our Lord, there is a specific situation that brings the story about. The context of the story goes back to the start of chapter 18, delineated by “’At that time,” which itself connects back further. But for now, let us focus our attention on this chapter. It starts out as a debate over who will be the “greatest” in God’s rule. The disciples are at this point still concerned with earthly visions of power and honor, even though they have seen the Lord enrobed in His full glory on the mountain of Transfiguration (ch. 16). Christ points out to them that they are asking amiss. It is not the great and powerful, the high and the mighty, who are joined to God, but the “little children,” the “humble.” So, his disciples must take care that they do not cause any of these that have become like little children to sin: better to lose parts of one’s body than to lose one’s soul! But not only must we seek the good of the humble (for, as He has told them before, these shall inherit the earth (5:5)), such seeking must be done with joy, not grudgingly. In fact, this is the reason the Lord Jesus has come, “to save that which was lost” (18:11) for “it is not the will of your Father who is in Heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (v. 14). Here Christ shifts, ever so slightly, to what happens if your brother – by which He means those who are Christians – sins against you. Already our Lord had said about these that “it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (v. 6). So, he is doomed, yes? Nothing to be done but resign him (or her) to the fearful judgment of God? Yet “it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” or “God our Savior…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4) or “the Lord…is longsuffering towards us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). It may be true that the sinner deserves the full wrath of hellfire, but instead of condemning, Christ calls us to swallow our own pride, our own sense of hurt and injustice, and go to them privately. “If he hears you, you have gained a brother” (18:15). If he or she turns in repentance, heeding your careful and pastoral warnings, he will be saved from such a terrible fate. James speaks similarly when he says, “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth [and let us remember that ‘truth’ here is not just facts, but the communion of life given to us by the ‘Way, the Truth, the Life’ Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ], and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20).

So, the procedure that our Lord outlines – the private meeting, the meeting with two or three witnesses, the meeting before the Church – is not one of cold and hard justice, but rather a sort of spiritual medical consultation with a patient who doesn’t know he is sick. We are to act as careful surgeons of the Spirit, seeking their healing. If they refuse the treatment, if they refuse to repent, then they are to be treated as “tax-collectors and sinners” (v.17), that is, no longer as brothers or sisters in the faith, but those who need to be introduced to the Great Physician and called to repentance and faith, to healing. Here the Lord gives us great power by saying that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (18:18). Shall we bind them to their sins? Shall we loose them? This depends, as we can see, on their own response. If they continue without repentance, they have done the binding, choosing to remain in their sins and separate from the life of Christ in His Body. The judgment of the Church, that the unrepentant are “tax-collectors and sinners,” is not a fiat declaration, creating the reality it proclaims, but rather a recognition of the self-condemnation the sinner has brought on themselves.

This brings us to our passage today. Peter, as is his habit in the Gospels, brings the question we all want to ask but are too afraid to. The gist of it is: “ok, Lord, my brother has sinned and repented, and sinned and repented, and sinned and repented, and sinned and repented, again and again and again and again. At what point do we say ‘enough is enough!’ we’ve given you all the chances you deserve. It doesn’t matter if you repent anymore, you’re through! We bind you out of the Kingdom! And there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth!” Peter puts it in rather magnanimous terms, asking if forgiveness should be offered “up to seven times.” Here the Lord answers with the abounding and overwhelming grace of God, “I do not say to you ‘up to seven times,’ but up to seventy times seven!” (v. 22) This doesn’t mean that at the 491st time Peter had every right to cast the sinner straight to the ninth circle of Hell, but rather it implies an infinite amount. To make sure we understand this, he tells the parable of the wicked penitent.

He starts by saying “the kingdom of heaven is like” tying this story back to the start of our passage: the disciples wanted to know who would be greatest in the Kingdom, now they will see what this Kingdom is like. It will redefine what power is and what living in this reality will consist of. As with all the stories of our Lord, it is meant to call the original audience and ourselves to a response. Are we willing to follow our Lord? To truly “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (5:48), to be “a wise man who build his house on the rock” (7:24), to “deny [yourself] and take up [your] cross and follow [Him]” (16:24)? What does that actually look like on a mundane level? It all sounds good, but what practices and habits does it consist of?

The king in the parable begins to settle accounts, that is, he is calling in all the debts owed to him. One man owed him “ten thousand talents.” A talent, either of gold or silver, weighed 75 pounds on the scales and was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, a denarius being the rough amount of a day’s wage for manual labor at the time. So, doing some calculation, we see that this man owed an egregious amount of money (my degrees are in education and theology, not mathematics). It borders on the practically infinite. To pay it off, he would have to garnish each day’s total wages for 60,000,000 days or approximately 164,204 years. And yet he says, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all!” The threat that prompts this is that he and his whole family would be sold into debt-slavery to fulfill the obligation. Note, though, that this king, like our Heavenly King, does not desire this, but rather is quickly and easily “moved with compassion” (v. 27) towards a total remission of the debt. He is rather like the wise Solomon, who ordered a baby cut into two, not so that a child’s life might end, but rather that the true mother could be revealed (1 Kings 3:16-28). Here the king is seeking a repentant heart, to teach this debtor about mercy and grace. It is the same with us: Christ has just told us about the millstone and about cutting off limbs so as to avoid “the everlasting fire” (18:8). Our God does not desire this, as we saw above, but rather desires our becoming like Him, the ever-merciful One. What accounts will we have to settle with our God? We have become, through sin, unprofitable servants, indeed oftentimes outright rebels against His good grace. By doing so, as Paul tells us, we switch allegiances: we become slaves to sin (Rom.6). And what a cruel master that is! There is no Egyptian Pharaoh worthy to be compared with the tyrant of our souls, the one who illegitimately claimed us as his own in Adam’s Paradise. We are brought to death, helpless to resist, constantly giving into our corrupted flesh, which leads to death, which leads to sin, which leads to death, which leads to sin. There is no Sabbath, there is no relief, there is only making of bricks without straw, there is only a playing on our individual weaknesses to further our plight. And here, while we were “still without strength…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. 5:6 & 10). Our debt, our ransom, is paid in full; this weight of sin and death that we could never pay off, God graciously takes upon Himself on the Cross “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 bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). We have, through the infinite grace of our God, been released from the bondage of sin and death. Just as the Israelites, freed from Pharaoh’s grip, were to live “holy, for…the Lord your God [is] holy” (Lev. 19:2), so our release from cruel bondage sets us into true freedom, the freedom of righteousness, of holiness, of justice and mercy and love.

This freedom takes the form of offering the same freedom we have received to others. Remember that the point of this parable is to answer Peter’s question: how often shall we forgive our erring brother? Christ has put the answer into a powerful context: how much have you been forgiven? If we have been released from our rigorous labor of sin leading to death, what shall we do to our brothers and sisters who are likewise slaves of the evil one? Shall we bind them into that condition? Or shall we loose them? Shall we be like God or like the cosmic Pharaoh, the devil? What shall happen to our own free gift of forgiveness if we turn into mini-tyrants? Here is where the rest of the parable comes in, and it is a hard saying.

The forgiven servant meets on the way some other servant who owes, comparatively speaking, a pittance: 100 denarii, a 100 days wages, one day less than it was required in 2011 for us to meet our tax obligation to our government (interesting to note that the debt ratio of our nation is similar to the first servant, our debt ratio to the second…he who has ears, let him hear!). This second servant responds in the exact same words as had the first, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all!” (v. 29). A decently reasonable request, yet the first servant responds with violence and threats, grabbing him by the throat and throwing him in debtors’ prison. He was not, like his king, immediately “moved to compassion,” but rather moved by a different spirit altogether. It is at this point that, when the king learns of this action, he condemns the first servant. Note that when he first appeared before his king, he was not judged, but rather brought to repentance and forgiven. Here, though, the king sees him for what he is, “You wicked servant!” (v. 32). The multitude of our sins, which bound us to the “father of lies” and the “murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44), is easily (although with great cost) forgiven and annulled by our Great King. But the act of non-forgiveness, the act of treachery and tyranny to our fellows, brings about the king’s anger, so that the wicked servant “was delivered to the torturers until he should pay all that was due him” (v. 34), that is, forever, since the original debt was so overwhelmingly great. The forgiveness procured is revoked because the servant used his freedom as a license for sin. The servant had abandoned, implicitly, the gracious Master he had for a fraud, cutting himself off from that grace he originally received. One cannot serve two masters, one cannot claim God’s forgiveness, yet bind his brothers and sisters in the slavery of sin and death.

When we do not forgive the repentant brother, and let us remember that we are called to seek them out privately, not wait for them to come to us, we do not only hurt them, but ourselves as well. By holding grudges or vendetta, we bind ourselves as slaves back to the tyrant. We become like the Israelites who, after being freed from Egypt, complained over and over about wanting to return to the glories of Egypt. Since it was death they wanted, it was death they were given. They wanted to become like Pharaoh, the bringer of death, and so went to the tomb themselves. As Psalm 95 continually warns us, “Today, if you will hear His voice: ‘do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways, so I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’’’” (7-11). God is love, self-giving life, and He calls us and empowers us to be like Him. Let us see how our Lord Himself lives out this parable, so that we might have strength in the Spirit to follow Him.

“Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The only One innocent, the only One free from the stain of sin, the only One whom death should not have had a claim, the only One who could truly bring judgment as He is righteous, gives forgiveness to those who murder Him. Let us look to this crucified One and marvel. How often have I held something petty in comparison, even if it seems important at the time, against my wife or my employees or my children or my family and friends? How often have I wallowed in my own bruised sense of prideful justice, wondering “How long, Lord, until You rise up against my enemies?” I am a great debtor holding out against those who owe me a pittance. How shall we respond to this? Let us now, this very minute, forgive one another “from the heart” (v. 35), that we might be forgiven. One pastor I’ve heard has the saying, “Forgive everyone for everything.” Let us consider the great weight of sin and death that our Lord has taken upon Himself on our behalf, and let us “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Let us not put it off till tomorrow, but, as the Psalm says, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” “As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things, put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one Body; and be thankful” (Col. 3:12-15). “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (I John 4:7-11).

Friends, forgive me, a sinner. Amen.