Sunday, December 11, 2016

Future Perfection

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (NIV)

You therefore must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (ESV)

Ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν. -- Matt. 5:48

Today in church we read selected verses from the Sermon on the Mount.  As we were doing so, I found myself puzzled.  As noted above, the ESV translates Matt. 5:48 as an imperative, as does the NIV.  However, the verb (Ἔσεσθε) is not an imperative, but a future.  So, any translation that makes the verb imperative misses the mark grammatically.  It should be translated as "You will be perfect...," with a textual note that it is future, as the English "will be" can be understood as a command (oh, English...).  Preferably, the translation should read "You shall become..."

Translating as an imperative, though, has greater than grammatical problems.  It changes the tenor of the passage entirely.  In the ESV and NIV, the discussion of loving one's enemies becomes an impossible standard, for who can attain to the measure of the Father?  Since a common Protestant understanding of what "works" do in the human life is to underscore our will's inability, and therefore the impossibility of attaining to the divine standard, it is understandable why the passage would be mistranslated such.  However, if this is the reason behind using an imperatival form, it is the tail (Protestant theology) wagging the dog (the translation of the text).  Since we are to read Scripture through the Apostolic Deposit (regula fidei), this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  However, in this case, it verges on it.

Read with a proper translation, the passage has a beautiful promise contained within it.  If we love our enemies, we may (subjunctive) be sons of our Father in heaven (v. 45).  To be a son is to be like the father.  So, by loving our enemies, we open up the possibility (subjunctive) of being divine sons.  However, our Lord is not content to leave us with the possibility.  Instead, if we love our enemies, we will become (future) complete, mature, perfect, as the Father already is.  Not only is the possibility opened up to us, but, as we practice love of enemies, we are transformed more and more into the Image of the Father.  This promise of God-likeness (1 John 3:2-3, etc.) comes from the Lord Himself, so it is assured.  In other words, love your enemies for in doing so you show that you are sons of the heavenly Father and are participating in His perfection, bit by bit, little by little, as the Spirit empowers us so to do.

If we want to remember the effects of sin on our lives and the difficulty of attaining to God's standards, it is better to use passages such as John 15:5: "without Me [Jesus] you can do nothing."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Tsaarat



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: Luke 12:49-56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Who am I?

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Prayer in a Hurting Time

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


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

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

Forgive me, a sinner.

Sermon: Psalm 15 "Who May Abide?"



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Antiochean Confrontation and the Book of Acts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Sermon: 2 John 4-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Lord is for us

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

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

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

Friday, May 27, 2016

Systems Thinking and Systematics

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rehabilitating Vice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Covenant Curses and the Messiah

While rereading St Athanasius' On the Incarnation to teach from it in class tonight, I came across a very interesting passage that I'd not noticed before (para. 35):
But perhaps, having heard the prophecy of his death, you ask to learn what is indicated regarding the cross.  For not even this is passed over in silence; but is expounded with great clarity by the saints.  For first Moses, in a loud voice, predicts it saying, 'You will see your life hanging before your eyes, and you will not believe' (Deut. 28.66).
This rather caught me off guard: how could I have missed such a stark Christological note in Deuteronomy? Looking it up in the ESV, however, I noticed that it was translated:
Your life shall hang in doubt before you.
While it is feasible to get the same sense from this as the Saint does, it is a bit of a stretch.  However, in the LXX (closer to the version that St Athanasius would have used) we have this:
Your life shall hang before your eyes...and you will not believe in your life.
St Athanasius, reading the Scriptures christologically, sees here a potent prophecy against those of the Jewish Faith as to why they don't believe.  We might fruitfully connect this to Romans 9-11, where St Paul's argument is precisely why this is currently the case and the role of the Gentiles (such as the Alexandrian bishop) to rectify the situation.  It is, rather than being a terror passage of Calvinism, a hopeful statement of our co-labor with God in Christ.

What is particularly of interest to me, though, is the connection this makes between the covenant curses found in Deuteronomy 28 and the Cross.  Just as He had warned Adam, so YHWH warns the ancient Israelites: this is the consequence of rejecting Life in Me.  Being separated from our Life in God leads, naturally, to death: from dust we are and to dust we must return.  Man, whether as an individual or as a people, is not naturally immortal: we become immortal by sharing in the eternal life who is God.  The curses, then, are not threats (just as Adam was not threatened, but warned) -- they are an eschatological declaration of what happens when we break the communion with Life.  Corruption, then, is the tendency of all things when separated from the Communion of Christ.  St Paul, again, will pick this up as a prophecy of how the Gentiles will come to the Faith, followed again by the Jews in Romans.  What is fascinating to me is that the Cross is found smack dab in the midst of the curses: they are not general "this will happen any time someone sins" in Deuteronomy, but they are a specific prophecy, given all the way back on the edge of the Promised Land, for what will happen in Christ for the salvation of the whole world.

This means that the point of the curses, in the end, is not juridicial (curses come to satisfy the wrath of God); rather, they are eschatological -- Israel's calling is to go through, in the Person of her Messiah and King, the death of Adam and so liberate the world from the power of sin and death.  She would not, though, understand this ("you will not believe in your Life") and so will have the hard tasks of bringing Adam's sin to the full.  Instead of merely seeking to be "like God" in a way other than that already ordained by God Himself (Gen. 1:26), they will seek to usurp God by putting Him to death.  In that fulfillment, what St Paul calls the condemnation "of sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3), God Himself will trample down death and call all to Himself to partake of the freedom of the sons of God (8:21, etc.).

Monday, April 18, 2016

Over-determination and Inspiration

Douglas Campbell, author of The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, has a helpful metric for discussing the rhetorical strategies we use to understand texts: over- and under-determination.  Over-determination is where the text under consideration says something unhelpful or even contrary to what the claims based on it needs (think of how St James says "justification is not by faith alone" (2:24) and then look at the collective hand-wringing being done by searching that phrase in Google).  Under-determination is where the text does not provide the necessary backing for the claims based on it.  He makes a compelling argument in the book that the standard Protestant reading of St Paul and 'justification' is riddled with over- and under-determinations.  The book (which is massive) is well worth a read, even if you don't end up agreeing with his conclusions.  I'd like to use that metric to return to the topic of inspiration of the Scriptures, which I've written on before and will repeat some of the things I said there.  (And, as always, I reserve the right to disagree with myself.)

The stereotypical argument concerning inspiration, at least as I learned it, went something like this:

A: The Bible is God's Word
B: God is Truth (or, negatively, God cannot lie)
C: Therefore, God's Word is true ("in all it speaks on" is a possible under-determination)

None of this is, for the most part, controversial (that the Lord Christ, member of the Trinity, is actually God's Word, from whom the Scriptures derive their authority, is an important point, but more is made of the difference between the two than is actually warranted).  Also, none of this speaks a whit about inspiration.  Inspiration is a teaching about the origin of the Scriptures, not their veracity or reliability.  There may be correlations between the two topics, but they cannot, and so should not, be collapsed into one another.  To do so would be to commit the genetic fallacy: the conclusion that the truthfulness of something is inherent in its origins.  This particular fallacy has gotten lots of play in biblical scholarship over the years, especially in Old Testament studies with the Documentary Hypothesis; it also has a long life within the culture wars when we assume that if we have evolved from brute animals, we must be nothing more than animals (and do note that I'm not making any claims about this subject: it is beyond my ken).

It is possible, though, that even saying inspiration is a doctrine of textual origins is an over-determination.  Once we clear out the texts about God's (and, consequently, His Word's and Spirit's) truthfulness, we have precious few didactic texts about inspiration itself.  The main one is found, of course, in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God..."  Unfortunately, there is no parallelism, nor any explanation of the term used for inspiration, which happens to be, alas, a hapax legomenon.  The term itself, θεόπνευστος, is a compound word from "God" and "breathing," so it could mean "God-breathed." Again, though, this may be problematic as compound words in all languages do not necessarily equal the sum of their parts. As this seems to be a word of Pauline origin (it is not extant in any other relevant ancient literature), it would seem best to look at how God's breath/Spirit is understood in the rest of the Scriptures. Here we find, of course, God's breath fluttering over the primordial Creation (Gen. 1:2), or the filling of Bezalel and Aholiab "in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all workmanship" (Ex. 31:3 -- the connections between this passage and that of 2 Tim. 3 should not be overlooked), or His dwelling with -- and leaving -- the judges and the kings, or the famous passage in Isaiah 61 ("The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me...to preach..."). God's Breath, then, is God's coming in power, especially in regards to the granting of words and wisdom. If we take this background back to 2 Tim. 3, we might see that the passage isn't speaking of origins, but rather how the Scriptures, bearing the Spirit of God, have power and authority: it is because they are a conduit of the divine Spirit that they can "make wise unto salvation...[be] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." Read like this, the passage is utterly non-controversial. It does not speak about how the Scriptures came to be (other places speak vociferously about that: "the Word of the Lord came to me..."), but about the power of the Word in the apostolic ministry.


That last clause merits some unpacking. The biggest under-determination of this text is using it divorced from its canonical context. While one of the beauties of the Reformation was its opening of the Scriptures to any literate person (and the subsequent drive for mass literacy that is only now waning in Western culture), it came at the heavy price of all Scripture being read flatly, as if all Scripture was addressed to everyone in the same way at all times, and, worse, led to Scripture being read outside of its necessary ecclesial context. An argument I heard while listening to a podcast called "Kingdom Roots," made by Scot McKnight, assumed that this text meant anyone picking up the Scriptures could utilize that power and be "trained in righteousness," etc. However, this misses the point that St Paul the Apostle is writing this epistle to St Timothy, the designated guardian of the Apostolic Deposit (2 Tim. 1:14, 3:14, etc.). For him who has "carefully followed my teaching, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, etc." the power, the God-breathedness, of the Scriptures is made available to him for teaching (as a catechist), for reproof (as a pastor), for correction (again), for instruction in righteousness (note the chiasm), "that the man of God [those in St Timothy's care] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (3:16-17), or as St Paul put it elsewhere, "and He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors-teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ..." (Eph. 4:11-12). What tools do these gifted by the Spirit have for this work of equipping and edifying? The God-breathed Scriptures. Along with them, though, and inseparable, is that Apostolic Deposit, that way of life learned from the Apostles, what came by mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). There is no tension here between the Scriptures and the Tradition, for both came from the same Source: the Spirit given to the Apostles by the Lord Christ. The Church, which is the dwelling place of that selfsame Spirit, is the keeper of the Deposit -- which includes the Scriptures -- and the place where they must be properly understood and applied to the life of the believers in communion.


All this to say, and the true impetus behind writing tonight, is that we need to locate the Source of the Scripture's inspiration: the Spirit working through the Church. We over-determine 2 Tim. 3:16 in an attempt to ground sola Scriptura in Scripture, creating a bizarro circular argument in a text that was never meant to bear the weight of the Chicago Declaration. What is missing in the arguments about inspiration, precisely, is the Church herself. Inerrantists will be quick, in the face of all the text critical facts, to say that the Scriptures have been preserved from all error; yet the Church, the dwelling place of the Spirit (according to those Scriptures), is untrustworthy, fallible, corrupt, etc. What the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy should make us do is to probe further our own understandings of what God is doing in history through His people, whom He has promised to indwell by His Spirit. The hard questions raised by post-evangelicals who have modified their views of Scripture based on the dilemmas and problems sola Scriptura and inerrancy (particularly) can be answered, but only as (paradoxically) we return to the Scriptures -- in their proper context, the Church -- and see what God has actually said about those Scriptures and the Church (and not just already assume our post-Reformation traditional answers).

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Difficulties with the RPW

On Facebook, a friend commented on an article shared by someone I don't know (such is social media and digital eavesdropping, I suppose).  The post is from a website that seeks to see "Worship Reformed According to Scripture and the Customs of the Ancient Church," an admirable goal if there ever was one.  The commented upon post was their "What hath Geneva to do with Canterbury?", in which they defend the RPW (Regulative Principle of Worship), a Reformed standard that they lament is slipping in our day.  As a Reformed Presbyterian who works at an Anglican seminary, it was of particular interest to me.  I'll let you read the argument and weigh its merits -- this post isn't a response, per se, but a reflection on some of the issues raised.

1) Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's take that the RPW is "the chief foundation of the error of the Anabaptists, and of diverse other sects” is fascinating.  I hadn't heard that particular quote from him (and, alas, it isn't cited as far as I can tell).  What the RPW does, though, is to take the Church's authority away from worship/liturgy/what-have-you entirely, as it puts the onus of figuring out what the Scriptures proscribe and prescribe squarely on the individual interpreter.  Now, of course, a collection of such interpreters (say, at Westminster Cathedral) could draft a series of statements meant to guide the Church in perpetuity; however, who is to say that their interpretation is, in fact, sufficiently biblical?  The Bible is a liturgical book, born out of and guiding the worshiping community: its interpretive context is the worship of the Church (which, as a side note, is why the Psalms are indispensable during worship and Scriptural interpretation).  If we are using the Bible, not just to critique what the Church has done in worship, but to determine what should be done in worship (sort of "proof-texting" our way into a liturgy), then we are putting the cart before the horse.  There are many oblique references to already established liturgical practices in the Epistles (and, arguably, in the Gospels): the texts would be used to explain what was happening in the liturgy itself.  Baptism?  John 3, Romans 5-8, and wherever St Paul talks about being 'clothed' or 'putting on Christ'.  Eucharist?  The "Last Supper" narratives, John 3, Revelation, etc.

It should be noted that I'm not accusing the author of the post of doing this: the strong RPW argument that we must build our worship off of Scripture is Baptist than Presbyterian.  As he states, "Presbyterians are abandoning their liturgical heritage," which implies that there is already a heritage, a tradition, that is being assumed, not constantly in question and therefore constantly being rebuilt.  (That most modern evangelical and Reformed worship would be unrecognizable to the first couple generations of Reformers is beside the point.)

The point, though, is that the RPW falls into the very same trap (and has historically) that sola Scriptura is prone: the community of interpretation (the Church) takes second fiddle to the individual, all in the name of protecting the laity from idolatrous imposition of shoddy practices by fallible men (the leaders of the Church).  The question of authority is not solved by sola Scriptura, it is just shifted so that it is difficult to see where the authority really is coming from.  It is easy, alas, to hide behind "this is the clear teaching of the Bible," when, in fact, there is no such thing: such a statement says much about the authority of the teacher, but precious little about the authority of the text.

2) "The NPW [the so-called "Normative Principle of Worship"], however, says the church has the right to require acts of worship as long as those acts are not forbidden in scripture. On this principle, the church can invent all kinds of ceremonies and rites and impose them on the saints so long as the required actions are not in themselves sinful."

This quote, in my mind, gets to the meat of my own difficulties with the RPW.  Note the language of 'invention' mentioned in it: of course it would be a bad thing, since all humans are totally depraved, for them to 'invent' ways of worshiping God!  However, this assumes that the rites, rituals, liturgies, and customs that have come down to us are, in fact, inventions.  St Paul, in a number of places, mentions the Apostolic Deposit and the things "taught by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15).  St Basil of Caesarea, at least, understands these "word of mouth" things to be the liturgical, mystagogical, and hermeneutical standards of the Church that aren't necessarily found in the Bible (or, at least, in the surface meaning).  Could it be that the Apostles did more than hand down a collection of inspired texts?  Could they have provided the necessary interpretive context in the institution of various rites, rituals, and liturgies (which, we should expect, would have some elasticity over time)?  (This, also, doesn't rule out that some things are, indeed, inventions -- but that is why there was a college of apostles: to check one another and rebuke as needed, such as is seen in the Sts Paul-Peter encounter recorded in Galatians, or, in post-apostolic times, the letter from Rome to Corinth by the hand of St Clement.)

Going deeper, and my argument for this can be found in fuller detail if you follow the link above ("there is no such thing") at the end of point 1, there is good reason to affirm that the canon of Scripture itself, particularly the New Testament, is a "commandment of men."  There is no divinely inspired list of canonical books: there is an ecclesially sanctioned canon of inspired books.  I won't get into the fruitless debate that reduces this to "the Bible created the Church" or "the Church created the Bible": both polemics are sufficiently vacuous for themselves.  What is important is to note that the Church's sanctioning of the books (say, in the fourth century) says that they thought that these specific books sanctioned the way they "did" Church: there is no hint of reforming in Sts Athanasius, Gregory (pl), Basil, Chrysostom, etc. except getting rid of the heresies that had arisen out of changes made to the liturgies traditioned to them.  Why was Arianism such a problem as to need an ecumenical council to defeat it?  It changed the worship of Jesus Christ, which had been passed down from the Apostles, into worship of a mere creature.  What about Pneumatomachianism?  Again, it changed the worship by denying the Spirit personhood and divinity.  This last one is itself fascinating, as St Basil found that the worship of the Church did need reform, but only to clarify what had "everywhere, always, by all" been believed.  How did the men, guided by the Spirit we hope, who determined what books would be preserved, passed on, expounded, and applied to the Church's life, miss the RPW?  How did they miss sola Scriptura?

Alas, I do not have the answers to these quandries.  I wish that I did.  But they are nagging at me, always.  God forgive me where I have erred.