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.