Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon: The One Jesus Christ

Preached at Chippewa EPC on 3/26/2017
We live in a time of growing division. When I was a child in school, we learned about being in unity with all, whether they were of a different race, or sex, or creed. But, looking back, I don’t know the official reason why this was promoted. Maybe because peace is, at heart, the hope of all people? Maybe because it was a civic good? Maybe because it felt like the right thing to do? For whatever reason, though, we seem to have lost that message: we live in a time when we are being told, in no uncertain terms, to fear our neighbors, to hate our enemies, and to pray prayers mostly of self-pity. We are beginning to live, in other words, in a state of war. But it is not necessarily the war on foreign soil, although there are those; it is not even necessarily the war of ideology between red state and blue, or liberal and conservative, although that is what looms large in our news cycles; it is the war in our own souls, between our inclination -- born of sin -- to despise those who would challenge our comfort; and our calling -- from the Holy Spirit -- to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, and to pray for those who persecute us. We are divided, first of all, within, which then leads to our divisions from others outside. As St James puts it, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?” (4:1)

My brothers and sisters, these things should not be so. Rather, we need healing of our souls, which will lead to peace. If we have the peace of God, the “peace which surpasses all understanding” (Php. 4:7), we shall be able to stand strong against any winds the buffet against us. This is not the peace of the world, though; that can be enjoyed, for a time at least, without God. St Augustine, in his classic City of God, makes the case that man’s “love of self” directs us to make civic and legal peace with our neighbors, whether or not we are in the Faith. In our passage today, though, St Paul qualifies this peace, saying we should hold it “in all godliness and reverence” (v. 2). This peace can only be won and maintained by the grace of God, as our Savior Himself says, “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid” (Jn. 14:27). Our peace, first with God, then within ourselves, then with others, arises out of this grace. How shall we attain to it? Paul gives us good direction here: it is through prayer centered, not on what we feel we need, but on the Gospel itself.

“Therefore I exhort first of all that 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.”

Prayers being offered for all is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,” for this love of God for all is revealed to us in the Gospel. We read our Lord’s injunction to “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” (Matt. 5:44). We read of His enactment of this very hard saying when, being crucified, He prays, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). We find that this prayer is expanded further, to the whole world, by the Apostle Paul, who tells us, “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). Who are the sinners? Who are the enemies? Paul says that Gentiles walked in the ways of their own hearts, in ignorance (Acts 17:30) and that the Jews had the Law but failed to keep it, so that “both Jews and Greeks...are all under sin...that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become accountable before God” (Rom. 3:9, 19). In other words, all in Adam have become estranged from the Lord and so the Lord has come to save all in Adam. Or, as St Paul puts it later in Romans, “God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (11:32). We might balk at that, wondering how these things can be so, but Paul has a different reaction: “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (v. 33) God’s plan of salvation truly is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Death and sin held the whole of humanity captive, so God became a free human and subjected Himself willingly to death, which could not hold Him and “led captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8) “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).

It should not surprise us, then, that the content of our “supplication, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks” is the fulfillment of God’s desire that “all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” God has come among us, in His Son and in His Spirit, to love His enemies and reconcile them to Himself. We should, in imitation of Him, be about the same work. As John Chrysostom observes, we find this desire directly in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Do we find the unrighteous in heaven? Do we find there enemies of God? No! So, we should pray that earth becomes the same way. Let us not forget the promise of God that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous person avails much” (Jam. 5:16). Here is a great encouragement and admonition to prayerful evangelism! And not just evangelism of our family, our friends, or our neighbors, but also of our enemies.

Paul grounds this prayer, not in a general feeling of human unity, nor in civic good (even though he mentions a quiet and peaceable life), but in the Lord Jesus Christ: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the human Jesus Christ, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (vs. 5-6). It may seem strange to bring this out at this point: what does the oneness of God have to do with His desire for the salvation of all people? It would help us to return to the ancient world for a minute.

In the times before the rise of the great Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are all staunchly monotheistic, each nation had its own gods, gods that often did not cross into each other’s territories. Marduk was god of the Babylonians, head over one pantheon; Ra that of the Egyptians, head of another pantheon; Zeus, as is well known, ruled the territory surrounding Mount Olympus. Marduk’s influence over other territories could only happen through military conquest: then he would show his power over other gods -- but this wouldn’t deny their existence, just their power. Marduk may be a chief god, but he’s not the only one. And he might lose his lofty seat if Egypt chooses to rebel and wins. But then he’d still be a deity, just not the one in charge. The message that Paul, following Samuel and Isaiah and others, is that -- in the end -- all other so called gods and lords are nothing but idols and demons (1 Cor. 8:5-6), not deities, but creatures who have gone horridly astray. Instead, there is one God over all, both Jew and Gentile, the God of Israel and of Babylon and of Egypt and of the United States. As such, He is not just interested in the salvation of one small group of people, but rather He is concerned to save His whole creation. This is shown to us by the fact that the one God, the Father, has only one Mediator, the human Jesus Christ. He does not have many mediators, one for each tribe, or tongue, or people; but one, who shares fully in what it means for all people to be human, yet is without sin. It is true, and important, that Jesus was born a Jew in a particular place and time, for “salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). Why is this? Because Israel was called to reclaim what Adam had lost. So, among them, rose the new Adam who would faithful undo what Adam had done. In this, He was truly man, showing that all are “from one blood” (Acts 17:26), the bloodline of Adam.

We can see through this both why Paul emphasizes that there is one God and one Mediator, and further, why the one Mediator is called here “human.” We should also pick up on a few other things in this text that are important for us today. Paul mentions, in verse 3, that God is our “Savior,” which means that if God desires the salvation of all, our prayers are essentially calling on God to be what He is -- which are the sort of prayers we see all throughout the Bible, especially the Psalms. But, it should be noted, “Savior” was a title that the Roman Caesars held for themselves: they were the ones who brought peace by subduing the barbarians, they were the ones who brought stability by making the roads and then making them safe, they were the ones that made sure the seaways allowed easy commerce, especially grain during times of famine. If anyone deserved the title of “savior,” it was Caesar. But here, “God our Savior” is the one who saves even “kings and all those in authority”: He is above Caesar, above Congress, above the President, above the UN or any other earthly bodies. That Christ is called “Mediator” has the same feel to it: for Caesar was the chief priest of the Roman religion, placating the gods, and ensuring that peace he was famous for. But here, again, Caesar is not in the picture: Christ is. He is the only Mediator between God and men, no matter what anyone in power promises or threatens.

What, friends, can we take away from this rather full passage from our brother in Christ, St Paul?

First of all, we must commit ourselves to prayer. It is no good to confess the oneness of God, or the Mediation of Jesus Christ, if we do not engage in what that belief sustains and leads to: prayer for the salvation of all. How often shall we pray? Elsewhere, St Paul says, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). This seems like a tall order, especially for those of us -- including myself -- who are used to praying, maybe, at meal times and before bed. But, as Zechariah says, “who has despised the day of small things?” (4:10) Let us learn from the earliest Christians, who prayed -- together if at all possible -- three times a day using the Lord’s Prayer. There is great power in breaking away from our daily routine, whether in work or retirement, to be quiet before God and humbly beseech His mercy for ourselves and for others.

As you pray, you will find that those whom you disagree with, those whom you may even hate, become cherished members of your heart. How can we despise those we are praying to join in God’s love? Your prayer for their salvation will, in other words, lead you deeper into your own: Christ’s love for all will become your love. This is the goal of being a Christian: to become love as Christ is love.

We must also be mindful to pray for our leaders, as Paul specifically points us to prayer for “kings and all those in authority.” Right now it seems that our national stance is to either boast about our leaders or complain about them: neither of these things are prayer. Rather, in the great words of the Book of Common Prayer, we pray that God would “lead this nation in justice and truth.” We must pray for these leaders, for without their salvation we will not be able to live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” It is important, as well, to pray not only for them in our private or home prayers, but here in the gathering of God’s people. Praying for them, remembering that God is our Savior, will also remind us that they are but mere men and women: we should put no trust in them to fix the problems of the world. As the Psalmist says, “some trust in chariots, and some in horses,” weapons of war, “but we will remember the Name of the Lord our God” (20:7). It is the foolishness of the Gospel that is the power of God.

Lastly, we must put our full confidence in God, who will hear our prayers, for these prayers are “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.” He will delight to hear them and to answer them, even if it at first doesn’t seem to be so, for “Christ Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” We must pray, we must trust, and we must wait: He will not delay.

As I said at the beginning, we are a divided people: divided from each other and divided within ourselves. But God is one and there is one Mediator between God and men, the human Jesus Christ. As will find ourselves in Him, through faith and deepening our union through prayer, we will find not only peace, but unity. As God has reconciled His enemies to Himself through the death of His Son, so we can be reconciled to each other and even to ourselves by that same power. And if “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10) to the glory of God the Father and for the life of the world. Amen.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Exegetical Moment: Romans 1-3 and 9-11

If we read Romans 9-11 in the traditional Reformed way, which creates an absolute division between the predestined elect and the predestined reprobate, we repeat the error that Paul is at pains to correct between the Jewish interlocuter and himself in chapters 1-3.  There the Jews are shown, in no uncertain terms, to be in no better position that the "sinner" Gentiles, as the historical unfaithfulness to the Law is tantamount to having no Law in the first place.  So, Paul asks, is God the God only of the Jews?  Or of the Gentiles as well?  Is He the Savior of only the chosen people?  Or of the whole world?

Paul's further argument is that all "in Adam" (that is, all humanity, regardless of ethnic descent) "shall be made alive" in Christ.

Why would, then, Paul do an about face in chapters 9-11 and argue that, in fact, God is the God of the elect, the Savior of the elect, and not of the reprobate?  Especially since he frames it in the same terms of ethnic descent as he did in chapters 1-3 (the beginning piece about wanting himself to be damned to save his countrymen, the Jacob-Esau dichotomy, "all Israel shall be saved")?  Could it be that he is looking to the Old Testament Scriptures, not some theoretical eternal predestinating decree, and seeing Israel being called 'elect' and showing that, in fact, they've misunderstood election and, instead, "God has consigned all [Jew and Gentile] to disobedience, so that He might have mercy on all"?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Confessing our Traditions

Recently, I heard a sermon making the boilerplate claim that we Protestants value Scripture over Tradition.  “Sola Scriptura!” and all that.  However, while we negate the authority of overt Tradition, we also neglect the role of covert Tradition, which can blind us to its effects, allowing us to make unintentionally deceptive claims about ourselves.  As I've said before, it isn't a question of Tradition or not, but which Tradition.

What would be nice, although it would be difficult for many of the faithful, is a full confession of our hidden Tradition, comprised of many traditions.  The claim that we have no Tradition, or that we read Scripture without the influence or interference of Tradition, is to fall into an objectivist trap.  Objectivism, here, means an unmediated access to the full and true meaning of the texts of Scripture in the original languages.  No one who has fluency in the scholarship of hermeneutics holds this position, but it isn't quite a strawman, as it is often used in the charged rhetoric of the pulpit.  Regardless of if the theologically savvy in the congregation are able to see through such bluster, there are many who receive statements like these as authoritative truth.  We owe it to them to be honest about these things, plus it will give us more room for ecumenical endeavors across the Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox divides.

With that said, what are our hidden traditions that comprise our covert Tradition?  This list is by no means exhaustive.  I may need to make this an official series.  Comments are welcome for adding to the list.

1) Sola Scriptura: this is, in my mind, the biggest hidden tradition, which forms the substructure for many (if not all) of the others.  Put frankly, the teaching of sola Scriptura is not found in the Scriptures.  Certainly, the inspiration of the Scriptures are attested within (2 Tim. 3:16-17), but, as I've argued before, this isn't a passage that limits inspiration to only those Scriptures.  Such an argument needs to be made on other fronts, from other texts within Scripture.  In fact, in the passage’s context, it is Scripture as used by Timothy, a bishop in apostolic succession from Paul, that has the powers listed therein.  The verses were not meant to be used for the foundation of “soul competency” (a rather curious addition to much of the Reformed world, imported as it is from the Baptists).  While the Scriptures consistency hold a high view of themselves, or rather those who wrote or were quoted in the Scriptures do, there isn't a sustained argument within them for their exclusivity, authority-wise.  To hold sola Scriptura as a foil against Tradition is rather like shooting ourselves in the foot.  It is a tradition, one necessary maybe for the Reformation to arise and continue, and it should be understood as such and scrutinized by its own premises.

2) The Primacy of the Masoretic Text over the Septuagint: I am a Hebrew teacher.  I love the language and I love the work of the Masoretes (the “tradition bearers”), all except the qamets hatuf.  However, the Protestant insistence on viewing this text tradition as inspired, while negating such a status for the LXX or the Peshitta or the Vulgate, does not actually arise out of the Scriptures themselves, and was almost a theological novum in the Reformation period (the correspondence between Sts Jerome and Augustine being, arguably, the first appearance of such).  I have heard, although I cannot verify, that Luther preferred the MT (with its lack of so-called Apocrypha) because Hebrew was the original language, so it must be the closest to what the authors originally wrote.  If that is the case, then modern textual history criticism complicates this greatly: many scholars believe there were multiple textual Vorlage extant, in use, and authoritative in Jesus’ day and prior.  This is why, for example, we have two texts of Jeremiah with significant differences (one preserved in MT, one in LXX, and both -- if I remember correctly -- preserved in the DSS).  First-century Judaism didn't seem to bother much with the problem, except as a foil pitting Palestinian and diaspora communities against each other, honor-wise.  Why, then, privilege one over the others?  At some point, all the Vorlage were in Hebrew, marking Luther’s (supposed) point moot.  The Scriptures themselves don't express a preference one way or the other, except that many of the OT quotations in the NT are from some form of the LXX (but this, itself, is complicated by many, many factors such as extant hermeneutical strategies at the time of composition/editing).  The quest for the original (text, Church, Jesus, whatever) has usually shown that we can retrieve no such Ur-moment without considerable, and sometimes bizarre, scholarly reconstruction (the Q tradition comes to mind here).  All of this to say that the privileging of one text over another is a matter of tradition: which texts does the community use and recognize as being authoritative, either in a primary or ancillary way?  Most Protestants, at any rate, don't use the original MT, but an eclectic text that sometimes privileges readings from other text families over the Hebrew.  In the end, the Protestant Bible is a scholarly tradition that, like all good traditions, is still in flux and under great debate.

3) Protestants value Scripture in worship more than the liturgical traditions: leaving aside Anglicans, who in the BCP are the most consistent in their expression of the tradition, this one irritates me the most.  Now, in my denomination -- itself a wildly non-, if not un-, Scriptural tradition -- we do get a fair amount of Scripture in the corporate worship service (none dare call it the Liturgy), as we sing the Psalms exclusively.  However, the text read for the sermon is often short, often fails to have an OT or Epistle lesson as well (no lectionaries here!), and is often out of context from surrounding Scripture (think of the visiting preacher who chooses their own text every week).  What we actually value is the “Word preached,” which is to say, the uninspired interpretation of the Scriptures offered as authoritative because it comes from the pulpit.  By what authority does this person exposit the Scriptures and dare to call it the “Word preached”?  By the authority, not of the Scriptures which grant no such authority nor could they, but by the Church who ordained the person to such a role.  What is being preached is tradition based on the Scriptures, or at least based on their interpretation of that tradition and those Scriptures.  Where did they get the interpretation?  Maybe from insight while reading and studying them?  True, but this is a claim to some sort of inspiration from the Spirit; albeit a lesser level than the Apostles and the Prophets (who Scripture explicitly says are the foundation of the Church -- these are not contiguous with the Scruptures themselves).  Maybe they get the interpretation from scholarly or pastoral commentators?  Well, where did that come from?  It's turtles all the way down.  What might be claimed, and this is a dangerous claim for a Protestant to make, is that all interpretation of Scripture comes from, and adds to, the Tradition.  Tradition is inescapable.  This is why, I think, a post like this is so important: we need to be up front about our Tradition, about the traditions it is based on, and why we accept these specific traditions and not others.

More could, and should, be listed.  The point, though, even if I've misunderstood my own traditions, is that Tradition, or better, an authoritative, Holy Tradition is inherent in the very fabric of the Church.  It can, as well, be corrupted if not joined to the salvific presence of the Holy Spirit.  The genius of Protestantism, I think, is its ability to examine its own traditions, even foundational ones like sola Scriptura, and correct its course.  (The secret, of course, is that Catholics and Orthodox have the exact same genius.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Postmodern Patristics?

Prosper of Aquitaine writes, "Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing" (PL 51) or, as usually summarized, "lex orandi, lex credendi."

Or, as Marshall McLuhan might say, "the medium is the message."

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A Brief Note on Complementarianism

I wrote this as a comment on a student paper:

"I come from a complementarian background and have heard many, many arguments about how men and women are equals, but women cannot do X (preach, lead, whatever) because they aren’t 'built for' that activity, or are more prone to sin and weakness in this or that area.  Which is to say, they aren’t equal.  The proper complementarian response is: women can do exactly the same things as men, but are prohibited from doing so by God’s command, not by something intrinsic in them."

I find it strange that complementarian arguments so often devolve into saying that women weren't made to do X or Y, or that for them to do so would alter the "unchanging order of creation" (as if the curses in Genesis 3 were original to God's design!).  Both of these things mean that complementarians speak out of both sides of their mouths, an unintentional gaslighting.  "Yes, you're equal...except in X, Y, and Z..."

If the argument is to be made, it isn't because of the creation of women, for Eve was a "power comparable to" Adam (the Hebrew for "help meet"); rather, it is because of the Fall, which is St Paul's argumentative base over and over again.  But, in Christ, the Fall is reversed -- this is the elephant in the room that is never fully addressed...and the reason why the "creation order" must be invoked in these debates.

Instead, the command of God that some do this and some do that seems much stronger than any supposed "creational order" of gender role inequality.  Why do we shirk from that?

Monday, March 06, 2017

The Abyss

The Abyss

I stand on the edge once again
pondering what the demons fear
-- torment before their time, being sent here --
they'd rather dwell, unclean spirits in impure swine,
on the edge.  They know that they are nothing,
from nothing, bound to Nothing.  They have faith
yet are not justified, and they shudder.
But all else they shove this way, breaking
a man, or men, and returning each time
with those more wicked than themselves
until they are Legion, able to fight off their greatest foe.
When He appears, He brings the Abyss with Him
-- it is His Love --
and they fear it.  God, I fear it, too. Every picture
of myself, every bit of discrete knowledge built
up over these many years forms a wall, nay,
a cell that protects me from that well.
I've stared in it, vast and deep, more immense
than any primordial sea, and it has returned my gaze.
A crucified man, a man of sorrows, unable to comfort
his Mother who stands besides, except with adoption
communion with a friend, who now becomes 'son.'
Will she receive Him back again? Will I receive any
of that which I've known as me?

I learn from the pigs, who would rather be swallowed up
in the waters of Love, then dwell with the demons here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 5:38-48, Psalms 140, 142

Preached at TSM Chapel 2/24/2017

Our readings from the Gospel and from the Psalms strike quite a contrast today: in one, we hear that we are to “love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us and pray for those who spitefully use us” (5:44), in the other we cry out, “let the evil of their lips cover them; let burning coals fall upon them; let them be cast into the fire, into deep pits, that they rise not up again” (140:9-10). It would be easy, I think, to brush off the Psalm reading as “oh, that’s the Old Testament” so we don’t have to hear its witness or instruction. Or we could go the opposite direction and say, “Jesus didn’t really mean that -- it's just Semitic hyperbole.” Both options, I think, are precipices off the same ridge, one on either side. We must, instead, seek the narrow gate and the difficult way.

It would be helpful, at this point, to enlist St Paul as our interpretive guide. When speaking to the Corinthians believers, he interprets the wandering in the wilderness as both a lesson about Christ and, therefore, a lesson of how they should live. “Now all these things happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). While he here confines his examples to the Pentateuch, elsewhere he draws the Psalms and the Prophets in that orbit, as does our Lord Himself when He says, “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Lk. 24:44). Can we hear the voice of our Lord praying these Psalms? Is there an Enemy He came to overthrow? One perhaps for whom “an everlasting fire” has been prepared? It certainly was not the Romans, nor even His countrymen who would rise up and crucify Him. No, even these He prays for, saying, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Instead, He tells us, the “fire, the deep pit” from which none can arise is“prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41).

No man, no matter what they may do to our bodies or even our minds, is the object of the Psalmists’ approbation as we pray the Psalm with and in Christ. Instead, “God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-3) and so we lift up “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks for all men” (2:1), or as our Lord put it, “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” (Matt. 5:44). The imprecations, though, are reserved for those angels who have not “kept their proper domain, but left their own abode” (Jude 6), who even Michael the archangel does not “bring against a reviling accusation, but says, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” (V. 9). These Psalms give us the words to follow Michael in asking for God’s judgment, which has already been prepared for them, to come against the demons who inspire and instigate the Great War against Christ and His saints (Rev. 12:13-17), the War that has made injustice our world’s default and has made our souls languish in shame and guilt. And what, in the end, shall we cry? “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living...deliver me from my persecutors, for they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your Name” (Ps. 142:5-7).

The Lord Christ, by His Cross, has conquered death and so shattered the power of the devil and his angels, as the author of Hebrews has said, “through death Christ might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). Who is it that has been subject? “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (Jn. 8:34) and “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23): all were subject to the cruel bondage of sin and the fear of death, for “the stinger of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56), but, thanks be to God, Christ has destroyed the power of the devil and assured his ultimate destruction -- now we can let go of our hatred, and jealousy, and fear of others, for these are whom Christ has come to save. Let us, with the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us, pour that love out on our neighbors and enemies alike by seeking their salvation from sin, death, and the devil. “Therefore, you shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Given at First Presbyterian in Beaver Falls


Deut 30:15-20: Love Fulfills the Law

Brothers and sisters, I beg your indulgence. Today’s sermon will be treating on many of the same themes and ideas I brought to you two weeks ago. It seems that we need to hear these things from the Lord; I know I certainly do.

Both our readings from Deuteronomy and Psalm 119 today are tough for us. We know that more often than not, we choose death: we sin, intentionally or not, and so fall again and again from the promised blessedness of these scriptures. For many of us, then, the upcoming season of Lent is met with at least some trepidation. 40 days of guilt! 40 days of being reminded, evenly more keenly than usual, of our failures to do and to be what God has called us to. We live out St Paul’s lament in Romans 7:
“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...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...O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (vs. 15, 18, 24)
It is what St Paul calls “sin producing death” (v. 13) and “sin dwelling in me” (17) and “evil present in me” (21) that causes us to hear the words of the Law and shudder. But just before our passage today in Deuteronomy we read this:
“For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it” (vs. 11-14).
We have sin dwelling in us, but we also have the Word in our mouths and in our hearts, where the Holy Spirit Himself is “pouring out the love of God” (Rom. 5:5). This is why there is the war in our members, this is why the Lord calls us to choose “life and good, or death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). Still, we find no power in ourselves to do what the Lord commands. But read verse 14 of this chapter again: “the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” We have no power arising out of ourselves, true, but there is a Power in us greater than any other power: the Word of God, who is Jesus the Christ.

As our Lord says, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer! I have overcome the world!” (Jn. 16:33) The Lord Christ, by His incarnation, His death, and His resurrection has defeated sin, death, and the devil. Even more, though, He has taken His seat on the throne of God’s right hand (Acts 1) and, paradoxically, rules from within our hearts. As St Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; 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). Christ is in you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do and be what God has called us to. We can say with Paul, “I thank God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25) for there is “now therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). Sin has, in God’s strange providence, been put to death in the death of Christ (8:3). We can “walk in newness of life” (6:4), “knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (6:6). Brothers and sisters, in Christ we are free!

With this in our minds, let us return to Deuteronomy 30.

God has set before the Israelites a sign of what is accomplished in Christ: there is life and good or there is death and evil. This is the point of the whole Law, in one sense: so that sin “might appear to be sin,” that is, so we could see what it is and how it breaks communion with God and with neighbor. The Law is a reminder that the world, including we ourselves, is not right -- there is a parasite on it. Seeing our state, where we were slaves to death and evil, and our inability to do the good even when we choose it, God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to condemn sin in that flesh and raise us up free to do what God has commanded. And what has He commanded?

“To love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments” (v. 16).

It is important here to see that the first thing God has commanded is love. He has not first given us a list of dos and don’ts. Rather, He has called us into relationship. He freed the Israelites from their captivity to Pharaoh, showing forth His love of their fathers and His justice in keeping the promises He had made to them. Now He invites the reciprocation: love Me as I have loved you. It is the same for us, only we have been freed from a more dreadful power than any earthly ruler could ever be. Love God as He has loved us: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us...In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 3:16; 4:9-10). St John ends this passage saying, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Loving God leads to the keeping of His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, which can all be summed up as “love your neighbor as yourself” for “love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:10). Loving God, then, which leads to the love of neighbor and enemy alike, is walking in His ways and fulfilling our Lord’s prophecy when He said, “You shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

It may strike us as strange, though, that to not reciprocate God’s love is to court judgment and death. “If your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut. 30:17-18). If such a thing was said in a human relationship, we would immediately recognize it as unhealthy and unloving, if not outright abusive. And there are plenty of conceptions of God that will understand the passage in this way, and we must call them what they are: idols. What these interpretations miss, though, is the proclamation in verse 20: “He is your life.” God is life -- nothing in creation has life in itself -- so to have communion with Him is to have life; to be broken off from Him is to be in death. In the Garden, the Lord says this very thing to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat,” including, we must understand, the Tree of Life, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). The tree itself was not poison, for all that God had made was very good (1:31), but to break the communion of trust and love with God would lead to man’s separation from God, which is the definition of death: this is not a threat, but a warning plea to the beloved. It is the same in Deuteronomy: God has brought the Israelites into His life, but they must know they have the freedom of Adam, the freedom to turn away and fall into the same misery as he did. The difference is that Adam had never seen death and so fell ignorantly; Israel knew death and had seen that their deliverance was only accomplished by death, the death of the firstborn. We know that our salvation, our participation in God, was as well only accomplished by the firstborn dying so that death itself might be defeated. God desires to share His Life with all (1 Tim. 2:4) and desires not the death of a sinner (Ezek. 33:11), but issues stern warnings about the abuse of our freedom: do not fall again under the spell and control of sin! Choose life and good!

God is not a pagan deity, looking for us to slip up, to mess up, so that He might condemn us and “satisfy His wrath” [a phrase, curiously, that doesn't appear in the Scriptures].  Rather, He is the God who is love, warning us of all that might “so easily ensnare us” (Heb. 12:1), so that we might partake of that love and so love all that He has made. Then, as that love is “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5), we can say with the Psalmist, “Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart!...I will praise You with uprightness of heart, when I learn your righteous judgments” (119:2, 7). It is this Love, which has brought us to Life, that compels us -- not with guilt or shame, but with joy and gratitude -- “to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1), as St Paul says. Why would we want the old ways, the ways that lead to death and misery and pain? Instead, knowing “that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is,” we, in hope, purify ourselves, “just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3).

This brings us back to the upcoming season of Lent. This is not a time of self-loathing and crippling guilt; it is a time to bask in the love of God, the love that has freed us from sin through death, and so become new. It is time, as St Paul says in Colossians 3, to “set your mind on things above,” where Christ is, “not things on the earth,” by which he means whatever turns us away from God. “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth,” and here he does not mean your God-given bodies, but rather, “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry...anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” Instead, he continues, “put on,” as if a garment, a beautiful adornment, a priestly robe, “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another...but above all things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” Lent is a time of remembering and living out our crucifixion with Christ, where all our sin, our unruly passions, and “members which are on the earth” were put to death. Christ, our life, has come, so choose life and good and loudly proclaim the praises of the One who has called us from darkness into His marvellous light (1 Pt. 2:9), for “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13). Amen.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Sermon: Micah 6:1-8

Preached at First Presbyterian in Beaver Falls on 1/29/2017

Micah 6:1-8: What is Good

In the passage from Micah today, the Lord brings a lawsuit against His people. They have questioned His justice, especially as He has prophesied through Micah judgment against their abandonment of His Law. The Lord calls the mountains and the hills to witness to His defense: “I have delivered you from the power of Egyptian slavery, I have sent you prophets to guide you, and I have turned those who sought to curse you into a blessing.” How can they question the Lord’s righteousness? Has He not been for His people, tenderly caring for them, healing them, disciplining them in love? Yet they turn away from Him. We wonder, looking at systemic injustice, looking at current events both at home and abroad, looking at the tragic moments of our own lives: where is God? Where is He amidst the pain that we see and feel everyday? Where is the fulfillment of His promises? Where is His justice that we “hunger and thirst” for (Matt. 5:6)?

And He responds with the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Look upon it and marvel at the strange righteousness of God: “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’s justice is not strict judgment according to merit, to what is deserved: His justice is in saving, in freeing, in justifying those who were enemies. Out of love for the fathers, not for anything they had done, did God free the Israelites from Pharaoh; out of love for us, not for anything we have done, did God free us from sin, death, and the devil. What both Paul and Micah are saying is, God’s righteousness is His love “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (5:5).

And how do we respond? Don’t we, caught up in the emotion of His salvation, try to offer the extravagant, try to outdo God? In Micah’s day, it was no different: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (vv. 6-7) How does the Lord respond? “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that Day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your Name, cast out demons in Your Name, and done many wonders in Your Name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21-23) The Lord, in response to His salvation and justice, does not want our sacrifices, does not want our firstborn, does not even want us to do mighty works: He wants us to know Him, to do the will of His Father in Heaven. What is that will?

“He has shown you, o mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

This is the essence of all our Lord’s commands, which can be summed up, “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength...and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30-31). In the end, there is then only one command through which all other commands are brought to completion: love. “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all 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). The will of the Father in Heaven is to love.

Love is a light that exposes darkness in our hearts, calling us out of the condemnation of our deeds: “this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20). We long for the Day of Lord, when all things will be set right, but we fear it too: for our own lovelessness will be revealed. We find it hard, near impossible, to love: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. Who will be able to stand in that Day? Who may abide in the tabernacle? Who may dwell in the Holy Hill? (Ps. 15:1) We cannot obey the commands out of our own power and so we are tempted to despair, tempted to hope for some other way of life: maybe prophecy, maybe casting out demons, maybe offering our firstborns for our sins.

But God has already offered another way: the Lord Jesus Christ.

“In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 9-10). And this love, this love that is Christ, “has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Once that love has been poured out (and it will never cease), we will be filled past the brim, filled to overflowing, so that as we turn to God in love, we will be able to fulfill His commands to love, for love will cover all our actions, become all our thoughts, guide our whole lives, for “without [Christ], you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5), but we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us (Phil. 4:13). As we are filled with the love of God, we will find no room for hate, no room for pride, no room for anxiety, or shame, or control of others: the love of God is freedom, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). And this freedom will be to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God”; this liberty will be to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the refugee, clothe the naked, visit and comfort the prisoner and the sick (Matt. 25:37-39); this love will be doing the will of the Father in Heaven, who “sends rain upon the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). God is love (1 Jn. 4:8) and wants us to be “perfect as [He] is perfect” (Matt. 5:48): God wants us to become love.

“By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16) -- let us not think, even for a moment, that the love of God is like the love of the world; this is no emotion, focused on getting something for one’s own self. Divine love is self-emptying (Php. 2:7), it pours itself out (Is. 53:12), even unto death, for the sake of the other. To love as God loves is to “deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Christ” (Lk. 9:23). For us who still fear death, this is a terrifying thought. But, be of good comfort, Christ has trod this road before us, He calls us to do nothing that He Himself has not already done. And notice, when He is carrying His Cross to Golgotha, that God doesn’t do it alone: Simon of Cyrene carries it for Him. God knows our weakness, and knows that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) and so He gives to us His Bride, the Church -- all of us who are in Christ -- to bear us up as we seek to “grow up in all things into Him who is the Head -- Christ -- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:15-16). We pour out God’s love in our hearts to one another and so build up each other to love God and love our neighbors: we deeply need each other, as each part of the body depends on the other. We will not be able to sustain love by ourselves in isolation: a hand cannot survive long if it is no longer attached to its arm. Look around, this is your body, the parts you depend on, now look to Christ, the Head, who has joined this Body together. He did not do it haphazardly, but called each of you for a purpose: to love, according to how He has gifted you in the Spirit.

The end of this is life, for that is what the outpouring of love in the Cross, and in our hearts, always leads to: resurrection. Every act of love, from prayer to tangible intercession for the weak and marginalized, is an act of being crucified with Christ, but it is also an act of being raised with Him, where we see in a glimpse what God has planned for us: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now life in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who love me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), so “beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).

Now, what shall we do? We know that all our lives are to be love, are to be the Way of the Cross: what steps shall we take to grow in love? First, friends, we must pray, we must pray as St Paul commends us: “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Our communion with God in prayer, not just in private, but as families, as neighborhoods, and especially as the Church, is our conduit of His grace. Second, we must take a hard look at our lives: what does the Way of the Cross look like as citizens? Christ tells us that, while going to the nations, we are to teach them all He has commanded: He has commanded healing of the sick, care of the poor, the refugee, the widowed, the orphaned; He has commanded forgiveness of the enemies and doing good to those who have done you wrong. The Church, sojourning here in the United States, has this prophetic role. It will not be easy, it will be the Cross.

We must also ask, what does love look like in our “private” lives? When we get our paycheck, we must bathe it in prayer, asking, “Lord, show us how we might become like Christ in this gift You have given us.” We must trust him, not our economic productivity, for all things: the paycheck is a means for us to further become like Him. It will not be easy, it will be the Cross.

And we will find, as we take on this larger understanding of repentance, that we will be freed from the weeds, the cares of the world, that daily choke us and cause us to think only of ourselves, our ease, our comfort, our tribes. The weeds will, by Christ’s hand, be pulled and we will find ourselves in that liberty of the Spirit where to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” is our true delight and will be the life of the world. Amen.