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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Antiochean Confrontation and the Book of Acts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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