Sunday, June 04, 2017

Holy Spirit: Gifts

The “gifts of the Spirit” are found in three places in Scripture: 1 Cor. 12-14, Eph. 4, and Rom. 12.

[Read 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:4-16; Rom. 12:3-8]

What we should notice, first of all, about these passages is that they all occur in the same context, that is, Paul is always talking about the same subject when it comes to the gifts: the Body of Christ.  Often times, when we hear this spoken about, we reduce it to a mere metaphor.  However, Paul does not work that way.  Reading a bit further in 1 Cor., he says, “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free -- and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (v. 12-13).  Very starkly here Paul says that when we speak of the many members of the Church, us, we are speaking of the one Body of Christ,  as he says, “so also is Christ.”  This should strike us as rather mysterious, because it is.  As John puts it in his first epistle, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (3:2), or, going back to Paul, “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Cor. 15:49), which, in fact, is what we’ve been predestined for: “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29).

There are two things in this last verse that are particularly striking: the word “conformed” is used one other place, in Php. 3:21.  “The Lord Jesus Christ...will transform our lowly body that is may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”  This is riffing off of a similar term used earlier in that Epistle, where Christ, who was in the form of God, takes on the “form of a servant,” that is, our humanity.  When Paul says in Romans that we are to be “conformed to the image of the Son,” it is a reference to Christ’s Resurrection that we share in through faith and baptism now and will have the ultimate fullness of later.

The second part of the passage, “that He might be the firstborn among many brethren,” points to the same fact.  As Paul says in Colossians 1: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation...and He is the head of the body, the Church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things [both in creation and in redemption] He may have the preeminence” (vv. 15, 18).  “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

Why go into all of this?  Well, if the Resurrection of Jesus is the context of speaking about the gifts, we won’t be able to properly understand the gifts without it.  We have in us, as the Church, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.  We are one with Christ in such a way that to be in the Church is to be in Christ, or as Paul puts it elsewhere, “putting on Christ,” which is a visceral metaphor for baptism.  To be the Church, then, is to partake now of the Resurrection; when we are together in the community of the Spirit, we are living what it will be for all things after the Last Day.  To use the technical language of theology, the Church is an eschatological community, bringing that which will be into the present time.  The gifts of the Spirit, then, are manifestations of how God will finally and fully redeem His creation from its bondage to sin and corruption.  The resurrected body of Christ shows God’s triumph over death, over the chaos that engulfs us and threatens to dissolve God’s good work entirely.  The gifts of that body, or the way the Spirit manifests His life through the Body, signal and apply that triumph to the here-and-now, so that the Church herself might “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…[and] may 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 edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:13, 15-16).

Now that we’ve laid the beginning groundwork, let’s go a bit further.  In 1 Cor. 12, starting in v. 7, Paul tells us something very important about this reality of being Christ’s resurrected body: “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.”  The gifts, these expressions of God’s own life among us, are not for us individually, even though they are manifested through individuals.  Rather, they are meant for all in the Church, including our own sanctification.  The body is one, so when any part is given a gift, it has reverberations throughout the whole.  This is why Paul continues in v. 15 that “if the foot should say, ‘because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,’ is it therefore not of the body?”  That is, each part of the body is different and has different honor and receives different gifts, but just because one receives one gift and another a different gift, doesn’t mean they’re not of the same body.  Rather, “God composed the Body, having given greater honor to that which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the Body, but the members should have the same care for one another” (vs. 24-25).  Paul has, helpfully, clarified what he meant by “profit” earlier on: to be profitable in the Spirit is to use the gifts given to care for one another.  In economic terms, this isn’t “enlightened self-interest” that we hope will “trickle down” from our largesse; no, this is work intended for the “common good,” which then redoubles back to ourselves.

In this passage, Paul is careful to note that the parts of the body differ, not only in kind, but in glory.  There are “those of the body which we think to be less honorable...and our unpresentable parts” (v. 23).  On these parts we “bestow greater honor and...have greater modesty,” that is, we clothe ourselves with protection and beauty.  There is something particularly pastoral and important to consider here: there is no part of the body that is shameful, but that does not mean the whole body should be exposed.  As Paul says later to the Corinthians, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked.  For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.  Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 5:1-5).  Note, again, that the language of clothing a body is resurrection language, “that mortality may be swallowed up by life”: our arraying the members of this Body is a sign of the resurrection.  What that looks like will have to be negotiated on the level of the individual congregation.

The other piece of the fact that part of the Body differ in glory is that there is a hierarchy of gifts: while all gifts are manifestations of the life of God in and among us, some gifts are more glorious than others: “And God has appointed these in the Church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28-29).  A similar list appears in Eph. 4: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (v. 11).  Paul says that we should “earnestly desire the best gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), or as he says it to his successor Timothy, “This is a faithful saying: if a man desires to be an overseer, he desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3:4), but it must be done for the good of the whole body, not to have power, prestige, or any other reason of the flesh.  These “best gifts” are for the right ordering of the Body, to keep it in line, to keep it healthy, to guarantee an unbroken connection to the Head, Christ, by His Spirit.

For Paul, all of this serves as introduction for the real meat: “And yet, I show you a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).  Gifts are good, of course, and show God’s resurrecting power among us; but there is something better.  In 2 Pt. 1:4, the Apostle says that we are to “partake of the divine nature.”  What is that?  The Beloved Apostle tells us: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8).  To have the fullness of God among us is to love.  The Spirit is given as a downpayment, as a guarantee, for the whole inheritance of God Himself -- Father, Son, Spirit -- among and with and in us.  In other words, love is the more excellent way, for to love is to be in God.  We can fruitfully, then, read 1 Cor. 13 substituting the word God for love:  “God suffers long and is kind; God does not envy, God does not parade Himself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek His 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.  God never fails.  But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (vs. 4-10).

There’s a lot of debate as to what “the perfect” is in this passage.  It seems straightforward to me: it is love, that is, when we have perfect love of one another, when we are so filled with God that we are acting in concert with Him at all times, there will be no need for tongues or prophecies or even “the best gifts,” for God will be all in all.  Each spiritual gift passage gets to this point.  Let’s look at what happens right after Paul enumerates the gifts in Romans:

“Let love be without hypocrisy.  Abhor what is evil.  Cling to what is good.  Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn…” (Rom. 12:9-15)  And he goes on.  What is he describing here but love enacted, incarnated, in our Body, the Church?  This is greater than any gift and what each and every gift is meant to lead to.  We could add what he says in Ephesians 4, as well:

“...speaking the truth in love, [we] may grown 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 edifying of itself in love” (vs. 15-16).

The gifts, whatever they are and whenever they appear, are for the fostering of love, of true growth in Christ.  In some ways, this can feel like a bit of a letdown: we want the gifts to be showy, to proclaim our holiness, to put us above others.  But they aren’t for this and so we should be very wary when they are used in this way.  Rather, all the gifts are meant to bring us more fully into Christ, to “grow us up” as individuals and as the Body, into His full stature, that is, the gifts give us the ability to better love one another.  To do the hard, sometimes sorrowful, practical work of taking care of one another.  The whole body of Christ was raised on the third day; it is part of our responsibility in God, in fact He’s gifted us for this very thing, to make sure that every part of our Body reaches the Resurrection.  This is why John is so keen, in his epistle, to show that we cannot love God if we don’t love one another.  This is why our Lord Jesus is so keen, in the Sermon on the Mount, to show that we must love not only one another, but our enemies as well -- this is what God does (“for while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” -- Rom. 5:8, 10).  God desires to give His own life, His eternal life, to us through His Spirit -- the gifts are the means to do just that.

Holy Spirit: Fruits

Read together: Galatians 5:22-26

The Bible has a lot to say about trees and fruit.  We might remember that mankind’s possibility of blessedness without sin was ruined due to a fruit tree, or at least the fruit was the efficient cause; we might remember Abraham sitting beneath the Oak at Mamre when the three visitors on their way to Sodom stopped by; we might remember the promise of peace to “dwell under one’s own vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:4). Lastly, we should recall that our Lord’s Cross is named a “tree” numerous times by the Apostles (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Galatians 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24).  Yet, when we read the Law of God, precious little is spoken about trees, except...in Leviticus (everything comes back to Leviticus).

“When you come into the land, and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as uncircumcised.  Three years it shall be as uncircumcised to you.  It shall not be eaten.  But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord.  And in the fifth year you may eat its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase: I am the Lord your God” (19:23-25).

Whenever we encounter a text like this, one which makes us wonder how this could possibly teach us about Christ, His salvation, or His Church, we should remember the words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians and in 1 Timothy.  In talking about how, as an apostle he is entitled to certain things such as material support, he says:

“Whoever goes to war at his own expense?  Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit?  Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock?  Do I say these things are a mere man?  Or does not the law say the same also?  For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.’ Is it oxen God is concerned about?  Or does he say it altogether for our sakes?  For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.  If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?” (1 Cor. 9:7-11)

In 1 Timothy, he says much the same thing to his young protege:

“Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.  For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘the laborer is worthy of his wages’” (5:17-18).

All of this to get to how Paul utilizes the Old Testament to teach about the people of God, as we see in 1 Corinthians 10: [read the relevant verses].

So, when we read about fruit trees in Leviticus, “is it trees God is concerned about?  Or does he say it altogether for our sakes?”  Here, of course, we must be careful, as Paul interpreted by means of the Holy Spirit; I cannot confidently say so for myself.  We can make some observations about the passage, though, that might help us as we think about the “fruits of the Spirit.”

Notice that the fruit is called “uncircumcised,” which should strike us as an odd designation.  Let’s remember, though, the role of circumcision in Israelite religion: it was a sign that you were in covenant with God and so could partake of His saving benefits.  In Exodus 12:48, we are instructed that if a foreigner wants to partake of God’s Passover, he must first be circumcised: no one without the mark of the covenant can come near.  Throughout the “Historical Books” of the Old Testament, “uncircumcised” is an insult meaning “not part of the people of God,” and therefore living in shame.  Lips and hearts that are not tuned into God, or unworthy of His Presence, are called “uncircumcised” (Ex. 6:30, Lev. 26:41, etc.).  “Uncircumcised fruits,” then, are ones that cannot be offered to God during the Festival of Firstfruits (Ex. 34:26, etc.).  In Galatians, where we find the “fruits of the Spirit,” Paul is concerned throughout most of the letter to show that the circumcision laws have, in Christ, been done away with -- their purpose of separating God’s people from those outside of the covenant with a visible mark has been fulfilled.  Now the substance of that shadow, living in the Spirit of holiness as opposed to the flesh, has been revealed.  We no longer have to wait to offer these fruits (love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) to God: the period of being “outside,” of being “uncircumcised,” is past, but rather “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

This “faith working through love,” Paul says, is manifested in how we “serve one another. For all the law [including Lev. 19:23-25!] is fulfilled in one word, in this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” (vv. 13-15).  This metaphor of eating, then, takes us into the section on the fruits.  Paul here lays out a banquet before us, encouraging us to choose our foods wisely.  In this, he’s bringing to our mind the choice of Adam and Eve: eat all the foods God has permitted and so attain to His likeness the proper way, or short-circuit the process and eat from the forbidden tree and so lose everything.  Live in the flesh, that is, cut off from God; or live in the Spirit, and “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).  Flesh or fruit: let’s see what’s on the menu.

“For 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...but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:19-21, 22-23).

I repeat saying the fruits because they are beautiful and worth hearing over and over, until they become our prayer to God.  With this bevy of goods laid out before us, it is worth noting that, when it comes to holiness, God wants us to be spiritual vegetarians, or rather, fruit-i-tarians.  We are not to feast on our brothers and sisters by engaging in the works of the flesh, but rather we are to feast with them in the Spirit: it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that our communion meal with Christ is the fruit of grain and the fruit of the vine.

It is common, when talking about these fruits, to do an examen of conscience and ask, “Do I exhibit these fruits?”  “Are these fruits evident in my life?”  While it is an understandable thing to ask, it misses the point.  These aren’t the fruits of us -- they are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  We don’t produce them as if we were the tree, we feast upon them.  They give us life, so that we might live in a way consonant with them.  “You are what you eat” seems apropos here.  The point is that Paul is talking about what happens to us, especially in our dealings with one another, when we are in communion with God through the Spirit.  The Spirit generously gives us His fruits, and we can enjoy them together.  The more we partake of them, and we see them brought forth in fulness in Christ’s life (which we share in through faith and baptism, as we talked about previously), the more we will be empowered, filled, to have “faith working through love.”

While we are seeking to feast on God, we must also deal with our former meal choices: the “works of the flesh.”  Again, here it should be noted, we do not of our own power cease from these things.  Anyone who has tried has met with failure and, sometimes, despair.  We start to think that Luthers’ famous dictum of simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinner, is off-balance: we’re rotten through and through.  But, notice what Paul says in verse 24: “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  How is this possible?  Is this some sort of radical ascesis that denies the world for the sake of heaven?

“[D]o you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?...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.  For he who has died has been freed from sin...Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more.  Death no longer has dominion over Him...likewise, you also, 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 its in its lusts.  And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being fully alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:3, 6-7, 9, 11-14).
We are free from the “works of the flesh” because we have been, through baptism, crucified with Christ.  Paul says that we are “fully alive from the dead,” which has some striking biblical overtones.  In Ezekiel 37, the Prophet is given a vision of a valley full of dry bones.  The Lord God promises, though, “Surely I will cause spirit to enter into you, and you shall live” (v. 5).  The interpretation of the prophecy is given as well.  The “dry bones” are Israel, cast out from their land and cut off from God’s promises which would lead to salvation for the whole world.  Therefore, God says, “Behold, o My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.  Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, o My people, and brought you up from your graves.  I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.  Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it” (vv. 12-14).  When God raises our Lord Jesus from the dead by the Spirit of holiness (Rom. 1:4), He fulfilled this prophecy, but in a striking way: God was not just concerned with Israel, but with all of humanity.  He has given us His Spirit now, in hope of the further resurrection in which we will bear the Image of the Son (1 Cor. 15:49, cf. Rom. 8:29-30).  In the meantime, He’s given us more than a piece of property on the Mediterranean Sea: “we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12).  What are these things?  Paul enjoins Timothy to “command those who are rich in this present age not to be arrogant, nor to trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17), for “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9), rich, that is, not in material things, but in “good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for ourselves a good foundation for the time to come, that we may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).  That is, partaking of the Spirit, sharing in His fruits, and so becoming like Christ.  Amen.

Holy Spirit: Scripture

Today, we’ll start doing a broad overview of how the Spirit works.  If we started where the Bible itself starts, we would begin with creation.  However, I’m not going to go there just yet: we have some deep theological work to do first.

The foundation of the Church is the Apostles and the Prophets, with our Lord Christ the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20): where do they get their authority from?  We might be tempted to say the Scriptures, and while that is true in a sense (Paul, for example, faithfully guarded and interpreted the Old Testament), it doesn’t go far enough -- the Apostles and Prophets are the writers of the Scriptures and so, in one sense, the authority of the text rests on them.  So, where does their -- and consequently the Scriptures -- authority come from?  The Holy Spirit.  We hear in the Creed “He spake by the prophets” and we read in the Scriptures that “Then the Lord put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me: ‘Behold, I have put My words in your mouth” (Jer. 1:9) and “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and for ever” (Is. 59:21) and “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; His word was on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2).  Or, the classical text of inspiration: “all Scripture is ‘breathed-out by God’” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Note in these texts, which could be multiplied from the OT over and over, the close connection between the Spirit and the Word.  The Spirit of the Lord speaks through His servants the prophets and the content of that speech is always the Word of God; all of this proceeds from the Father, the living God.  This is then shown in the NT to be what the prophets were speaking about: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, for this reason that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35).  Every time we hear the prophets proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord placed the Word of God in their mouths, they are foreshadowing the Incarnation of the Lord Christ.  They received the shadow, Mary received the substance.  All the OT Scriptures, given by the Holy Spirit through the prophets, is then looking forward to and speaking of Christ: “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Lk. 24:27) and “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me” (Lk. 24:44).   The Spirit always testifies of Christ and, through the Scriptures interpreted in the Church, brings Christ to bear in our lives.

So, there is a close connection between the Spirit, the Word, and the Scriptures. The Scriptures find their origin in the relationship between the Spirit, the Word, and the Apostles/Prophets, which is to say, the Church of God.  Not everyone in the Church, of course, is an apostle or a prophet -- it is a notoriously exclusive group; but everyone in the Church, if they are indeed part of the House of God, is built upon the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets, which is what constitutes the Church as the “pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).  As the pillar and ground, the Church guards and preserves the Scriptures in their apostolic setting, which is what Paul called “the Deposit” (2 Tim. 1:14).  The Scriptures, through the means of the Apostles and Prophets, is God-breathed; the Church is God-indwelt (1 Cor. 6:19) and the focus of the teaching ministry of the Spirit, as our Lord says, “when He, the Spirit of Truth, has come, He will guide you into all Truth” (Jn. 16:13) and “you have an anointing from the Holy One and you know all things...but the anointing which you have received from HIm abides in you and you do not need anyone to teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him” (1 Jn. 2:20, 27).

Looking just as briefly as we did at these connections, what conclusions can we draw?  First, the Scriptures are true, for they have come from the Spirit of Truth acting through the Apostles and the Prophets.  Second, the Church, as she is indwelt and empowered by the Spirit, is to keep the Scriptures and their proper interpretation, as Jude says, we have “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3).  Third, the Spirit Himself is the best exegete of the Scriptures, for He is their origin.  What He tells us, through our Lord and through the “Deposit of the Apostles,” is that the Scriptures reveal Christ, who Himself reveals the Father (Jn. 1:18, 14:7-10).  We return, again, to the primacy of the Trinity as the guide and guard to all understanding of Scripture and living out of the Christian Faith.  Connecting back to last week, we might say that the most proper place to interpret the Scriptures, then, is within the worship of the Church, where we are drawn by the Spirit to participate in the life and work of Jesus Christ, so that we might be reconciled to the Father and “partake of the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4).  Here, I think, is probably the strongest argument for the use of the Psalms in Christian worship: the words of the Spirit elucidating the work of Christ that we are hearing about through the readings and the songs and participating in through the means of grace, the sacraments.

You might wonder, at this point, why we started with thinking through the relationship of the Spirit, the Scripture, and the Church.  Why not start with creation?  Well, how do we know about creation?  Certainly the scientific field of study does not show us “creation out of nothing and it was all very good,” nor does a more naive look around us: how could our eyes and minds, stained by sin, understand properly where a creation that is held in “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21) has its origins?  We can’t see creation rightly when it is in front of our senses, much less “in the beginning.”  So, how do we know about creation?  From the Scriptures, given to us by the Apostles and the Prophets, as they were “led along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21).  In these Scriptures, we see very clearly and very early the role of the Spirit in creation: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  Then God said…” (Gen. 1:1-3).  The original “stuff” of creation, matter, was originally all mixed in together.  But the work of the hovering Spirit, who was over the watery mass, organizes the creation so that it might be declared “good” by God.  Again, in the first three verses, we see the Holy Trinity: the Spirit, the Word, and the One who speaks and breathes, the Father.  It should not surprise us, then, that when God speaks later on, He says, “Let us make humankind in our image…” (1:26).  The Psalms also speak to the Spirit’s activity in the creation: “When You [God] send Your Spirit, they are created” (Ps. 104:30).  We might say that the Spirit is animating the creation, providing the necessary conditions for life to flourish.  As we go further, we see that Adam is filled with “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7), again giving him the ability to flourish, for he becomes “a living being.”  The Spirit is, in both instances, associated with life: the original creation was lifeless due to its confused and mixed nature, Adam was originally just mud -- once the Spirit comes, though, there is life.

However, we know that this state of “very good” does not last long enough: sin enters the world and through sin, death (Rom. 5:12).  If the Spirit is life, we may surmise that death is the absence of the Spirit in His vivifying role; that is, death is not just the cessation of biological life, but is broken communion with God.  This is why Paul can say “you were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).  However, Paul precedes this statement with “you He made alive together with Christ” (he actually says it in v.5, but the sentence is so long that many translations put a shortened version of it at the beginning).  When was Christ “made alive”?  The Resurrection!  The Resurrection that we share in by the Spirit (Rom. 8:11) is the ultimate act of recreation, both now (“reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” -- Rom. 6:11) and at the last Day (“we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan inwardly, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body”-- Rom. 8:23).  This recreation, though, had been foreshadowed itself in the Scriptures.  When God gathered a people to Himself, He led them through the wilderness where He gave His Law to organize their communal life so that it was “good”.  The way that this is poetically described in Deuteronomy 32 is instructive: “He found him [Israel] in a desert land and in the wasteland, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye.  As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up, carrying them on its wings, so the Lord alone led him, and there was no foreign god with him” (32:10-11).  The words for wasteland and hovering are only used together here and in Genesis 1:2, when the Spirit “hovered” over the “formless” creation.  What God is doing, Moses is alluding to, is recreating the broken world through His people Israel.  The Prophet Isaiah also speaks in similar terms in chapter 63 [start at v. 7].

We could go much further, of course, speaking about the Spirit’s role in God’s providential ordering of creation and history.  God’s active presence is at all times operative, not just at special historical junctures.  But I think it is worth thinking again about how the Spirit’s work leads us into biblical interpretation.  If Israel’s history, especially the Exodus, the wanderings, and the entrance into Canaan, is a foreshadowing of Christ’s exodus, His temptations, and His Resurrection, doesn’t that also mean -- since the Spirit is bringing us into a participation in Christ’s life and activity -- that these Scripture passages have something to tell us that is deeper than history?  Paul gives us the answer when he says all these things are “examples” or “types” for us (1 Cor. 10:11).  Let us turn there to see how this Spirit-inspired Apostle leads us through the text, for the sake of Church, that the redemption and recreation that has been accomplished through Christ’s death and resurrection, might be brought into our lives today.

The Holy Spirit: Worship

The next four posts were teachings delivered at Covenant Fellowship RP Church in Wilkinsburg, PA.  I received a generous and warm welcome from an utterly hospitable congregation.

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Read: Romans 8:1-30

Veni, Creator Spiritus, Rabanus Maurus, 9th Century

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator come,
From your bright heavenly throne!
Come, take possession of our souls,
And make them all your own.
You who are called the Paraclete,
Best gift of God above,
The living spring, the living fire,
Sweet unction, and true love!
You who are sevenfold in your grace,
Finger of God’s right hand,
His promise, teaching little ones
To speak and understand!
O guide our minds with your blessed light,
With love our hearts inflame,
And with your strength which never decays
Confirm our mortal frame.
Far from us drive our hellish foe
True peace unto us bring,
And through all perils guide us safe
Beneath your sacred wing.
Through you may we the Father know,
Through you the eternal Son
And you the Spirit of them both
Thrice-blessed three in one.
All glory to the Father be,
And to the risen Son;

The same to you, O Paraclete,
While endless ages run.
Amen.

We do not often pray to the Holy Spirit.  In some ways, this seems normal, as we pray “to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit,” in other words, pray is an act of joining, and being joined to, the Trinity.  Whenever we pray, we pray in the Spirit.  In fact, we might go so far to say that there is no prayer without the Spirit!  As Paul says in Romans 8, “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (v. 25).  Part of the unutterable groanings Paul reveals: “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’” (v. 15).  How do we name God the Father in our prayers, even in the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who is in heaven”)?  By the Spirit of God working in us.  How do we name Jesus Christ as Lord?  Hear Paul again: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).  It makes sense, then, that we would invoke, that is, call upon, the Spirit to be present when we pray, whether that is at home by ourselves or with family, or here (especially here!) in the formal and formative worship of the Church.  But to do so is a bit misleading.  As an ancient prayer puts it, the Holy Spirit is “everywhere present,” echoing the Psalmist’s experience: “Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Where can I flee from Your Presence?  If I ascend into Heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in the grave, behold, You are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).  We are not asking the Spirit to come be somewhere He is not; rather we are requesting that the Spirit bring us more fully, more presently, more tangibly into God’s throne room, where all creation -- from the highest angels to the lowliest animals -- praise Him (Psalm 148).  We are asking, in other words, that we be constituted as God’s Temple, where He meets His people, dispenses judgment, and metes out blessing (1 Cor. 6:19).
    So far, I’ve concentrated on the Spirit’s indispensable role in our worship.  I do that because here, in worship, is where we encounter the Spirit in the most intense way.  It isn’t for no reason that Paul commands us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)!  I also have done this because the Spirit cannot be deduced by academic means, or by mere emotion.  It is when we concentrate on the Cross of Christ and His Resurrection that we see clearly the Father and the Spirit.  In worship, we are “being conformed to the Image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8:29), which then takes us into the Gospels where we clearly see Jesus’ image.  What are we being conformed to?  First we note that the Spirit overshadows a Virgin, who brings forth Christ into the world.  The same Spirit creates the Church, who is called both a Virgin (2 Cor. 11:2) and a Mother (Gal. 4:26), who brings forth the Word of Christ into the world (Matt. 28:20).  The Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove; He descends on the Church as tongues of fire.  The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, just as God’s Spirit went with the Israelites into the wilderness.  Where they failed and “grieved the Holy Spirit” (Is. 63:10), Jesus succeeded; now we are called to that same success, for “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Tit. 2:11-12 NIV).  As Paul says elsewhere, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the Day of Redemption” (Eph. 4:30): we are, while we wait for Christ’s glorious appearing, in the wilderness; but we need not fail, for the grace of God has come to us in the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, by the Spirit of God, casts out demons; we by the Spirit “now might make known the manifold wisdom of God the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10, slightly modified).  Through the Spirit the Father raises Christ from the dead; “[b]ut if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).
    What is the takeaway of this?  What God has done in Christ Jesus He intends to do, through the Spirit, in His human creation, especially the Church.  Our being conformed into the Image of the Son in worship can be seen by what the Spirit does with Christ in the Gospels.  But this is not a mere set of moral examples, but rather that we are being made “partakers of the divine nature” as Peter says (2 Pt. 1:4), that is, we are being made “the Body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27).  When we are baptized, we are joined -- mystically and mysteriously -- to Christ’s baptism, which is itself joined to His death.  A look through the Scriptures will help us here:

“It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:9-11).

“And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last. Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this Man was the Son of God!’” (Mk. 15:37-39)

At first, it may not seem that these passages are connected, but let’s take a deeper look.  Both involve the Spirit: the Greek word for “Spirit” means breath and wind also.  In chapter 1, the Spirit descends, in chapter 15, Jesus breathes, “spirits,” His last.  In chapter 1 the heavens “part” and in chapter 15 the veil of the temple, which symbolizes heaven, is torn in two.  Once we learn, though, that Mark uses the same verb for both scenes, we see that at His baptism, the heavens were torn, just as at His Crucifixion.  Last, we see the proclamation that Jesus is the “Son of God.”  Jesus’ baptism is a foreshadowing, as it were, of His death.  Paul goes further and connects all of this to our baptism: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:3)  But he goes further: “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (v. 4), or as he says it later, “if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).  We are being made into Christ’s Body by the Spirit’s work of uniting us with His death and His resurrection.

We have four weeks together to delve into the mystery of the Spirit.  And, truly, He is mysterious.  Often times, the Scriptures seem to portray Him more as a power, a force, than a Person.  Yet He speaks through the prophets, He can be grieved, He interprets, He snatches away, He gives life, He utters prayers.  What we are hoping for, though, is not an exhaustive understanding of the Spirit: such a thing is impossible.  Instead, we are hoping through our time together to connect to the Spirit, which as we’ve seen is to be united with the Son, and presented to God the Father.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon: The One Jesus Christ

Preached at Chippewa EPC on 3/26/2017
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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

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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.