Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon: The One Jesus Christ

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

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

“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth.”

Prayers being offered for all is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,” for this love of God for all is revealed to us in the Gospel. We read our Lord’s injunction to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). We read of His enactment of this very hard saying when, being crucified, He prays, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). We find that this prayer is expanded further, to the whole world, by the Apostle Paul, who tells us, “God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...for if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:8, 10). Who are the sinners? Who are the enemies? Paul says that Gentiles walked in the ways of their own hearts, in ignorance (Acts 17:30) and that the Jews had the Law but failed to keep it, so that “both Jews and Greeks...are all under sin...that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become accountable before God” (Rom. 3:9, 19). In other words, all in Adam have become estranged from the Lord and so the Lord has come to save all in Adam. Or, as St Paul puts it later in Romans, “God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (11:32). We might balk at that, wondering how these things can be so, but Paul has a different reaction: “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (v. 33) God’s plan of salvation truly is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Death and sin held the whole of humanity captive, so God became a free human and subjected Himself willingly to death, which could not hold Him and “led captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8) “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 24, 2017

Exegetical Moment: Romans 1-3 and 9-11

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Confessing our Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Postmodern Patristics?

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

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

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A Brief Note on Complementarianism

I wrote this as a comment on a student paper:

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 06, 2017

The Abyss

The Abyss

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

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