Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sermon: 2 Cor. 3:7-18

My sermon for Washington Union Alliance Church in New Castle, Pa. I'm always warmly welcomed and encouraged by their fellowship. I ended up doing quite a bit of extemporaneous exposition that is not recorded here. I was also overwhelmed at my own unworthiness to handle God's Word and to think about teaching it to others. As St Cosmas said, "Not only am I not worthy to teach you, but not even worthy to kiss your feet, for each of you is worth more than the entire world."

The Christian Faith is hard. There seems to be an idea, put forth both by those outside the Faith and those inside, that once you know Jesus, everything is automatically put right, all questions are answered, every struggle finished. We often like to live as if that were true as well; we put on the imagery of the happy Christian couple, the perfect Christian family, the well-adjusted Christian worker. Yet, we know – usually by hard experience – that this isn’t the case. Any respite from the temptations to sin, or freedom from the heartache that seems to define our human experience, is hard won and even harder kept. The Corinthians, our ancient brothers and sisters in Christ, knew this to be the case. We have only to look through the first epistle we have to them from St Paul to see this: factions divided over which Apostolic leader to follow, abuse of one another during Communion, sexual immorality that even the rather loose pagans of their metropolis found abhorrent; how can the Apostle speak here, in today’s passage, about “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”? How can he speak so boldly of glory and us seeing it without needing a veil over our eyes or our hearts?

Paul, as he often does, retells a story from the Old Testament. He doesn’t do this so that he can have a pleasing anecdote on the way to the real point; no, he reads the Old as a way of pointing to Jesus. What God has done in the past is what He has perfected in the incarnate Lord Christ. In his previous letter, Paul draws the symbolism of the Exodus into his congregants’ lives: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:1-5). These things are “examples written down for our instruction, on whom the goal of the ages has come” (v. 11). What instruction, then, can we gain from the narrative Paul brings before the Corinthians here in chapter 3?

Again, we have a story of the Exodus. The people have left Egypt; they have seen God’s mighty wonders and deed: the staff turning into a snake that eats the Pharaoh’s snake-staves; the Plagues; the crossing of the Red Sea; the continuing pillar of cloud and fire. They are now encamped around Mt. Horeb in the Sinai, Moses bringing them the Torah of God that constitutes their national identity and mission in the world, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Yet, when they heard God speak from the fiery cloud, they said, “You, Moses, speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (20:19). When Moses, later, comes back down from the mountain, having renewed the covenant after the golden calf incident, he exhibits a greater miracle: his face shines with the glory of God Himself. “Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him…and when Moses had finished speaking with them [about what God commanded on the mountain], he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (34:30, 33-35).

The people did not want to hear the voice of God, out of fear. Because of sin and the corruption of death, even the Lord said that “you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (33:20). Through Moses, though, the people can see the glory of God, so they again are afraid. After he speaks with the authority of the Lord, he then veils his face. Why? St Paul reveals this to us: “Moses…would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (2 Cor. 3:13). The glory of God, so brightly shining, would fade over time. This was a sign of the covenant Moses mediated. St Paul here calls it “the ministry of death” and “the ministry of condemnation,” both terms hearkening back not only to Mt. Horeb, but also to the Garden of Eden. Adam was given instruction to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest he become separate from the Life of God and die. However, as we know, he did this very thing with his wife and so was condemned: “for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). After that point, any command of God led to some sort of death or another; either the death of one who breaks God’s law, or the death of sin in a person as they strive to keep it. One death led to further condemnation, another led towards life, but could not give it. The law, that ministry of death, could only bring knowledge of the pervasive and powerful nature of sin and death, causing any who tried to keep it, or delight in it as David does in the Psalms, to cry out with the Apostle “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death!” (Rom. 7:24). This covenant, which consigned everything to futility (yet not without hope), was glorious: but a fearsome glory, one that was feared even as refracted through Moses. So Adam and Eve hide, so the Israelites shirk away, so Moses is protected in the cleft of the rock: “no man may see Me and live.”

Yet, the Face of God, which naturally shines out this glory, is the hope of our salvation: we long to see God and be transformed into His image and likeness once again. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His Face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His Face upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26), or “Hide not Your Face from me. Turn not Your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation” (Ps. 27:9), or “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let Your Face shine, that we may be saved!” (Ps. 80:19). As St Paul puts is, “Through Christ we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). As St John puts it, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). The very thing that we are to participate in – the glory of God shining out from His Face – is the very thing we, under death and condemnation, cannot have: “no man may see Me and live.” But the “ministry of death” which has come through Moses is not the whole story, no, it is temporary and its glory has faded away under the veil. Instead, St Paul proclaims that there is a “ministry of righteousness” and a “ministry of the Spirit,” the Spirit who gives Life (2 Cor. 3:6). This ministry has even more glory than that of Moses. Why? “When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”

St Paul has done something very subtle here in the passage: the whole context of 2 Corinthians is a defense of his apostleship. The third chapter has been a defense of his authority, as it has come under attack. The Corinthians have even requested “letters of recommendation” for proof. Paul’s ministry has not been one of glory, like Moses’, but one characterized by scandal, by beatings, by dishonor, by death. How could he represent the Lord of Glory? Paul counters that the Corinthians themselves are his “letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (3:2). Unlike Moses, with the “ministry of death,” Paul and his companions are “very bold” to proclaim the crucified and risen Lord. Paul, taking the role of Moses, proclaims the glory of the Gospel, looking at the Corinthians so that he can say “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This glory, shared between the Apostle and all who have turned to the Lord, will not fade away, but rather will increase “from one degree of glory to another.”

This shining glory, the hope of mankind, which previously we could not see under pain of death, is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the Image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4-6). If we see Jesus, if we know the incarnate One, we have seen the glory of God and are being transformed into the same image: we are becoming more and more like Christ and less and less like Adam as we behold the glory amongst ourselves, shining out of the hearts of the Apostles and all who turn to the Lord. But how is this possible? How can we see the glory of God and live? St Paul tells us that “the Spirit gives life” (3:6), and whenever anyone turns to the Lord, who “is the Spirit” (17) then the veil is lifted and “there is freedom.” God Himself, through the work of the Son and the sending of the Spirit, makes it possible for us to behold His glory and radiate it to one another in love, so that we might be “conformed to the image of the Son” (Rom. 8:29).

What does this mean on the level of our lives? I must confess that I have never had a vision, whether “in the body or out of the body” of the glory of God. It is hard, often times, to read passages like this, as they seem to promise something that I’ve never seen or experienced. It is easy to lose hope, or worse, to just interpret what Paul is speaking of here as pious metaphors for psychological experiences. This is why I started by saying that the Christian Faith is hard. But, Paul does not leave us without hope; rather, he gives explicit instructions for us in our quest for the glory of God. He says in chapter 6, “we are the temple of the living God.” This is vital for our purposes today, for the Temple was the place in which God’s glory most particularly dwelt. If we are to shine with the glory of God, we must be in the place where God’s glory is. However, there is no building in Jerusalem where this glory dwells; rather, it is those who have taken upon themselves Christ’s death in baptism and have been justified by faith. The Church is God’s Temple, where His glory resides. However, as we also know, no unclean thing was ever allowed in the Temple; if uncleanness was brought it, it had to be cleansed with sacrifice. In fact, the Temple was cleansed of any defilement at least once a year on the Day of Atonement. We know that, regardless of what we were before, we “were washed, were sanctified [that is, made holy to God], were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Yet, we also know that we continue to fight against sin, and, to our shame, actually sin. Here is where Paul brings his argument in 2 Corinthians to a head: “Since we have these promises,” the promises to be the Temple of God, to have the glory shine out from our hearts and through our faces to each other, transforming us into the Image of the Face of God, Jesus Christ, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (7:1).

The Christian life is hard; let us never doubt that. Arrayed against us are “principalities and power, thrones and dominions, visible and invisible,” set opposed to us is the Dragon, the Serpent of old, the first murderer, in our own beings we have the “law of sin and death” at work. But, if we are in Christ, if we have come into His Body, if we have shared in His death and tasted His resurrection, if we have been cleansed by the Lord Jesus and the Spirit of God, we are the Temple of God, constructed by Him for the outflow of His glory. Shall we not wage war against sin, against wickedness in high places, so that we might be further cleansed and become conformed to the Image of God? “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete” (2 Cor. 10:3-6).

What are these weapons, if they are not “of the flesh”? “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put of the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:14-19). Our weapons are the Gospel, prayer, forgiveness, longsuffering, love, joy: all the weapons of the Cross, which is the victory over all the world. In hope of this glory, let us cleanse ourselves from unrighteousness and take up the banner of our God, who goes before us, to convert the whole human creation into His Temple, that His love and mercy and peace might overflow the whole earth.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Thrust of Romans

This seems to be the argument of St Paul in Romans:

Jesus Christ has been "declared with power" to be the Son of God "by the resurrection from the dead" (1:4); in other words, His claim -- strikingly prominent in all the Gospels -- to be God's Son has been vindicated.  He has been justified "according to the Spirit of holiness" (cp. 1 Tim 3:16): this decree means that His human nature has been given life and the condemnation against Him has been annulled.

However, due to the sin of Adam, all the world is in bondage to death, twisting their created natures in accordance with "all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (1:18)  Both Jew and Greek labor under this cosmic Pharoah, so that none can be justified (3:9ff.; that is, share in Jesus' resurrection-eternal life) under their own power, even that given by God and commanded in the Torah (3:21-22; including the cultus).  Abraham was acquitted (ch.4; justified) before the time of Christ by His faith in the faithfulness of God the Father through Christ.  This Christ then takes our condemnation of death on the Cross, reconciling/uniting us to the Father (chs. 5-6), then giving us the Spirit (ch.8; God's Life) in the present time so that we can start living resurrection lives now (6:4), in full hope of the future resurrection (8:29; "conformity to the image of the Son") and liberation of the whole created order (8:21).  "In this hope have we been saved" (8:24).  The life/justification/resurrection of Christ is given to us now in the same way it was given to Abraham, that is, by faith in the Christ: this is objectively actualized in the mystical sharing of Christ's passion and death in baptism into the Church (6:3).  Where Christ was "declared with power" to be God's Son in His resurrection (1:4), we are now "pre-declared/pre-destined/justified" (8:29) as sons before our (eventual and guaranteed) resurrection.

This death/condemnation in water raises us up into membership in the Church, where the Torah can finally be fulfilled in mutual love of one another in all things (chs. 12-14).

However, if the goal is resurrection, especially for those who have been "foreknown/known beforehand" (Israel according to the flesh -- 11:2), why is Israel currently "hardened" (11:7): here is the mystery of God's will -- just as Pharaoh was "hardened of heart" to secure Israel's release from Egypt, so Israel is hardened to secure the Gentiles release from Adam's curse; however, unlike Pharaoh, God will use the Gentiles to cause "His people whom He foreknew" (11:2) to want Jesus Christ and so "all Israel will be saved" (11:25-26).  For, in one of the most important and most neglected verses in the book, "God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all" (11:32).  To accomplish this jealousy, though, Christians must become "living sacrifices" (12:1), those who voluntarily die to self while even possessing the justification of Christ's life, so that the will of God, the salvation of the whole world, may be accomplished.  This means that even though the Christian has freedom, they must not abuse it, but rather further enter Christ's suffering and death (chs. 12-14), His ultimate kenosis, "filling up in the flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" (Col. 1:25, slightly modified).

"And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly" (16:20).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Look at the Tongues of Fire in Acts 2

As I was teaching tonight on Acts 2, I noticed something that had eluded me before.  The connections between the descent of the Spirit and Exodus 40/2 Chron. 5 had been dwelled over in class discussion time.  The connection between the Spirit, the dove in Jesus' baptism, and the "hovering/fluttering" in Gen. 1 were expounded upon.  Standard stuff when I teach that text (moral: we are the new Temple in Christ).  However, the tongues of fire really caught my attention; in the other related texts, no fire is mentioned.  However, there is an instance of the Glory-Cloud filling the Tabernacle associated with fire.  It happens in the Levitical unpacking of Exodus 40.

(Brief excursus here: the entire book of Leviticus "happens" in the space of a couple of verses in Exodus 40.  Otherwise, the chronology of the books, read straightforwardly, looks off.  This helps explain why Nadab and Abihu meet the end they meet in Lev. 10, but that is another story for another day.)

In Lev. 9, the priesthood's consecration and orientation is completed: Aaroan and Moses prepare sacrifices and burn them on the altar.  At this point,  Moses and Aaron retreat: "And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of meeting, and came out and blessed the people [the text of this blessing isn't revealed until Num. 6: time in the Torah is wibbly-wobbly]. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people [situating us firmly in Exodus 40, chronologically] and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:23-24).  When the Glory-Cloud/Spirit descends, the heavenly fire comes with it, enflaming the altar with the proper, uncreated fire from God.

While I'll need to do more work to investigate, the connection between what is happening here and the Day of Pentecost seems solid.  The people of God, led by the Apostles, are the new Temple and the new altar upon which "living sacrifices" (Rom. 12) are made, which is our Word-infused (logikos) act of worship.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Small Note on Biblical Interpretation

I recently heard a sermon in which the following argument was made:

1. The Scriptures clearly teach that God "desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:10) and God wills the salvation of only some of humankind, actively damning the rest (all, of course, to the praise of His glory -- no texts were used to argue this position, but I'm sure Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 were in the background).

2. These seem contradictory, for how can God will two incompatible things?

3. The reason they seem in contradiction is because of the fallen nature of human rationality, the "noetic effects of sin."

Here's the problem (or at least one of them) in this syllogism: if the noetic effects of sin are so profound, as the Reformed often argue, then the doctrine of perspicuity, that Scripture is clear and understandable in regards to salvation, is moot.  Under the corruptive effects of sin and death, there is no accessible reality that we can call the "clear teaching of the Bible."  We are fallen and so must necessarily always read the Bible through those lenses.  No amount of historical-critical or redemptive-historical or grammatical-historical interpretation can reveal the "clear" meaning of the Scriptures, as these are rational, and therefore necessarily fallen, methods of inquiry.  Since we are always interpreting texts (we never can access them in any so-called objective manner, as argued so cogently by Reformed philosopher James K. A. Smith in his The Fall of Interpretation), we can never come to the "clear" or "pure" meaning of the texts. (Add to this the problem of the non-existent inspired autographa and you've got a massive interpretive dilemma.)

Maybe, though, I'm overstating things.  It certainly sounds like I'm saying that there is no hope for us to understand (and therefore live by) the Scriptures (I'm not, but explanation will have to wait awhile).  Shouldn't we consider the clarifying work of generations of scholars to function sort of like Zeno's Paradox?  That is, while we will never overcome the noetic effects of sin, our rationality still does function somewhat according to its creational design, so we can get approximately close to the intended meaning?  Maybe, but the history of interpretation will destroy any lasting confidence in such a move: Unitarians, cultists, heretics, and so on cleave to a very similar principle.  It depends on an untenable belief in progress: the more we study the text, the closer we must come.  If that is the case, then there is no need to go back to the exegesis, say, of Calvin, as we have progressed from him.  In order to save ourselves, we cut off the branch on which we reside.

All of this to say that the proposed syllogism collapses. The Bible may have a teaching on the relationship between God's desire for the salvation of all and predestination (I think it does, but it is radically different than the Reformed tradition has led us to believe, about which I hope to write more soon -- it has become a summer book project for me), but it is anything but "clear." The final premise neutralizes the first.

Is there no hope? Indeed, there is, but it requires a radically different approach to the Scriptures.

The author of the Scriptures is, at the ultimate level, the Holy Spirit. "Who spake by the prophets" as the Creed puts it. Or as St Peter describes, "For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pt. 1:21). Modern interpretive methods rely on the human element of the text: the historical context, the literary genre, the cultural background, etc. These are good things, but they partake in the fallenness of the world (an important point brought up by Pete Enns, although I think he goes too far). These methods are essentially apophatic: they tell us what the Scriptures cannot mean, but not what they do mean. It is only as the fallen creational condition of the Scriptures is purified by the Holy Spirit (only thinks here of the role of the Spirit in the conception of the human nature of Jesus) that progress to the meaning and application of the Scriptures can be made. There is no correct interpretation of the Bible apart from the Holy Spirit.

If we are to interpret the Scriptures aright, therefore, we need to acquire (or better, be acquired by) the Spirit of God and Christ. Where does the Spirit reside? The Church. The problems with Sola Scriptura, many of which are already under debate in Reformed circles, always point us back to the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15), of which Christ promised the Spirit would lead us (John 16:13). Of course, this thrusts us into more complicated (and more important) debates as to how we know the true Church. The Fathers, for their part, always argue for the necessity of holiness, that is, living in the Spirit, for proper interpretation and application of the Scriptures: one must engage in the life of the Church, the eternal Life of Jesus Christ, to be a theological authority.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

In the Style of Miyazaki

To be filled with love! ah, that is the dream;
to live without eyes clouded by hate
to see, no, to know friends and enemies
neighbors and strangers as one
knit together in the flesh of the Divine.
There are days, too many, too many,
where this seems an impossible dream
but moments, brief glimpse of resurrection,
when the heart overflows and all are encompassed
in the sweet arms on the Cross.

Apophasis, Energeia, and Agape

When we try to define love we will always fail. It cannot be defined in its essence; rather it can only be known, just as anything worth knowing in this world, by its activities. Love is what love does. This is why St John tells us “God is Love” – not so that we would comprehend the infinite, ineffable essence of the Divine, but so that we would participate, in mundane ways, in the activities of God: love for neighbors, love for enemies, love for the true, the good, and the beautiful. To read the Law as a set of rules meant to bring guilt is to read it “according to the flesh.” The Law is the ground rules of Love: what does it mean to love your neighbor? At the base, it means to not cheat, or defraud, or betray him, to do no meanness to him, to respect his property and his family. But, you might say, this is all negative. Indeed, for the Law is the apophasis of Love: it tells us what Love is not, what activities are the opposite of Love, what activities preclude the germination and harvest of Love. Again here we are in the realm of the Divine: we cannot know what God is in His essence, but we can know what He is not. The real difficulty is not the Law, but Death: we cannot participate in Love while clinging to the corruption of Adam. We must die to that mode of existence, which leads to Death, especially as it has us turned in on ourselves as being the highest good. It is only when we see the highest good in God, and therefore the higher good in His Image, that we can die to self and rise to Love. The Law does put us to death, and hallelujah!, for in this death Death dies: we can now exist as the bearers of Love, finding true self in Him.

The God of Optimism

After Chesterton

Christianity is not optimism. That is the last thing it is, dear friend. If we believe it, then we’ll end up in cynicism, a lack of belief in anything, because the God of the Optimists cannot deliver. He’s vague, even though he is upbeat. His upbeatness requires that he be vague. Better not make specific promises. Real Christianity takes life with a deadly seriousness, knowing that all things in Adam must die. It never shirks from that; it offers a way to prepare and, paradoxically, a way to bring that death from the end of life into the middle and sometimes the beginning of it. When you are baptized, you die. Not as an unpleasant metaphor, but truly. Baptism is more real of a death than your eventual biological cessation. If it only looks like a pious bath, it is because our eyes are not open and we don’t see the world as it is. Christ sees it as it is. He sees the conflict between “all was created good” and sin, death, demons, corruption, and Satan. He does not fall away in horror, either. Any conception of God where He shrinks away from sin, either passively in horror or actively in rage, is not the God of Jesus Christ. It is an idol meant to bolster up our passions and deliver us straight into Hell, for it breaks all communion with God and with man, both neighbor and enemy. Jesus Christ does not falter or lose his temper with sin, he confronts it with unyielding love, a love that voluntarily accepts death to then defeat death. Jesus Christ doesn’t reform death, or make it palatable, he destroys it. There is no optimism in this, for optimism says “she’s in a better place now.” Maybe, maybe not. Jesus says, instead, that she has passed through the crucible, and woe to her if she was not carrying his cross!