01 October 2008

The Creedal Marks of the Church: (4) Apostolicity

In what sense do we understand the church as apostolic? While Christians can no longer speak with the same authority as the apostles, there is justification in speaking of the church’s apostolicity, if by that we mean the faithful preservation and transmission of the apostles’ teaching.

The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received…” He adjures Timothy, “…what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”

This appears to be what Jürgen Moltmann is arguing for when he states, “The apostolic succession is, in fact and in truth, the evangelical succession, the continuing and unadulterated proclamation of the gospel of the risen Christ.” Hans Küng interprets the church’s apostolicity in terms of its ongoing fulfillment of the apostolic commission.

As direct witnesses and messengers of the risen Lord, the apostles can have no successors. No further apostles are called. Apostleship in the original and fundamental ministry of the first witnesses and messengers died out with the death of the last apostle. Apostleship in this sense of witness and mission cannot be repeated or continued. What remains is a task and a commission. … The apostolic task is not completed; it embraces all peoples to the ends of the earth.

The first dimension of this is for the church of today to listen to the apostles and through their witness to the Lord. “There is no route to the Lord which bypasses the apostles.” This means that we have no right to relativize it, to suit it to the prevalent cultural and philosophical norms of society or to our own predilections, so that the gospel no longer presents the offense of the cross and the word of God is stripped of its power. This was one of the dangers against which the apostle Paul warned in his letter to the Galatians.

We must be clear that the apostolic teaching is not the invention of the church. Nor can the church’s acceptance of the authority of Scripture be based on a functional approach, that is, on the Bible’s power to shape and transform both individual communities. Rather, the church must recognize itself as the product of the gospel of Christ and of the word of God. It becomes unmoored from its biblical and true apostolic roots only to its peril.

30 September 2008

The Creedal Marks of the Church: (3) Catholicity

Theologically, the catholicity of the church arises out of the incarnation of Christ. As Christ has identified himself with the whole of humankind through taking on human flesh, so his people are called to make his grace known through a costly identification with the world.

Implicit in the church’s catholicity is the call to embrace the whole world, to bring the gospel to people of all nations, classes and cultures and to incorporate them into its fellowship. To quote Geoffrey Wainwright,

The differences which nature provides in the matters of sex and race have often been hardened and distorted by culture to produce division and conflict. The catholicity of the Church’s calling gives room and encouragement for both sexes and all races to place themselves under the sovereignty of Christ, which means, when expressed on the social plane, the gift of self for the good of others and of all.

The challenge that confronts the church in every generation is to be able to distinguish between what is cultural (and therefore relative) and what is divinely ordained. If they are to survive (much less be true to their identity as “catholic”) in today’s society churches have to be able to communicate in a variety of cultural forms. They will be places where people’s cultural differences are celebrated.

This is far from taking the attitude that “anything goes”. Nor is it a matter of the church adopting an attitude of moral pluralism. It will involve pain for many, as they must let go of deeply cherished cultural forms in favor of making the eternal gospel more widely known. Yet the end result will be something that truly honors the Lord before whom every knee must one day bow—“a Christian fellowship that rejoices in its diversity, and where people of different races together offer themselves to God, to love each other and increasingly share their lives”.

While the church must be prepared to speak in the cultural language of its day, it also stands in critical isolation from that culture. Once a church has to some extent become contextualized, the temptation to an uncritical identification with the culture is always present. As a result its evangelistic witness is blunted and its prophetic message compromised.

While we must be careful not to identify the Christian faith with the cause of revolution, it must be conceded that there is a tendency for established congregations to become chaplaincies to their members, instead of engaging them in challenging the idols and shibboleths of the contemporary world.

29 September 2008

The Creedal Marks of the Church: (2) Holiness

As with the unity of the church, the second creedal mark is a deeply theological statement. The church’s holiness stems not from its members but from its relationship to Christ and from the salvation that it enjoys through faith in him. This is made clear in passages such as Ephesians 1:3-14 and 5:25-27. Hans Küng expresses it thus:

It is God who distinguishes the church, sets it apart, marks it out for his own and makes it holy, by winning power over the hearts of men through his Holy Spirit, by establishing his reign, by justifying and sanctifying the sinner and thereby founding the communion of saints.

Holiness in this sense arises out of an encounter with the living God. While it is not primarily an ethical concept, holiness inevitably involves an ethical element. God not only calls men and women to himself through Christ. He also calls them to be holy and empowers them to live in holiness.

The holiness of the church speaks of the sanctification of each of its members and of the ongoing work of the Spirit of holiness in their lives. William Willimon writes of the church as a counter-cultural phenomenon, a colony of heaven.

In its very existence, the church serves the world not by running errands for the world but by providing a light for the world, that is, by providing an imaginative alternative for society. The chief political task for the church is not to provide suggestions on social policy but to be in our very existence a social policy.

Part of the church’s mandate is to encourage, model and teach a lifestyle among its members that truly lays hold of its identity as salt and light in the world. This mandate will be achieved not through an emphasis on externals, but as Christians are drawn into the costly love of Christ and begin to interpret it in terms of their own lives. Donald Bloesch writes,

What is here proposed is holiness in the world, a piety that is to be lived out in the midst of human suffering and dereliction… Holiness is a gift of God, but it is also a goal that we are called to strive for in this world, in this life. We are summoned neither to separation from nor to solidarity with the world but rather to combat with the evil forces of the world, and this means that the way of holiness is also the way of the cross.

25 September 2008

The Creedal Marks of the Church: (1) Unity

What ought we to be looking for in a church? The Nicene Creed provides us with four characteristics: It should be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What does unity mean for the church? Hans Küng remarks,

The unity of the Church is not simply a natural entity, is not simply moral unanimity and harmony, is not just sociological conformity and uniformity. … The unity of the Church is a spiritual entity. It is not chiefly a unity of the members among themselves, it depends finally not on itself but on the unity of God, which is efficacious through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Genuine unity in the church can be conceived of only as oneness in and through Christ. René Padilla writes that “the unity resulting from Christ’s work is not an abstract unity, but a new community in which life in Christ becomes the decisive factor”. A picture of this unity is given in Luke’s description of the nascent church on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47. The members of the first church were men and women who had been “cut to the heart” by the gospel. They signified their acceptance of that message through their submission to baptism and the single-minded priority that they laid on the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

The unity that Christians share in Christ cannot be reduced to mere uniformity or confused with unanimity. Paul’s image of the body of Christ with each member having its own particular function as a part of the whole, makes this clear. The unity that he envisions is a unity in diversity that depends on a delicate balance between individual freedom and mutual obligation. The unity that the early Christians shared in faith quickly translated into a unity in service and action. Such unity in service can only be on the basis of a deep oneness in faith—a shared experience of spiritual regeneration through Christ.

20 September 2008

Where from here?

Along with the two previous articles (“The Episcopal Church and the Lambeth Quadrilateral” and “A Sinking Ship?”, these are words that I wrote to my parishioners earlier this month, before the deposition of Bob Duncan. That event has put parishes such as ours in an even more critical position, as will the reactions that will follow it both in the US and more widely in the Anglican Communion.

We stand at a crossroads. Decisions being made on a global level will have repercussions that may reach down through generations. Although on a smaller scale, the same holds true on the local level as well. How do we remain part of a church that, though necessarily flawed and incomplete, still manages to exhibit the creedal characteristics of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity?

The final paragraph of the Windsor Report, now four years in the past, is both prophetic and sobering:

There remains a very real danger that we will not choose to walk together. Should the call to halt and find ways of continuing in our present communion not be heeded, then we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart. We would much rather not speculate on actions that might need to be taken if, after acceptance by the primates, our recommendations are not implemented. However, we note that there are, in any human dispute, courses that may be followed: processes of mediation and arbitration; non-invitation to relevant representative bodies and meetings; invitation, but to observer status only; and, as an absolute last resort, withdrawal from membership. We earnestly hope that none of these will prove necessary. Our aim throughout has been to work not for division but for healing and restoration. The real challenge of the gospel is whether we live deeply enough in the love of Christ, and care sufficiently for our joint work to bring that love to the world, that we will “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.3). As the primates stated in 2000, “to turn from one another would be to turn away from the Cross”, and indeed from serving the world which God loves and for which Jesus Christ died.

There is ample evidence that many in the Anglican Communion, although refusing to acknowledge it, have by their actions chosen to “walk apart”. To date none of the Instruments of Communion, including most recently the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, has been successful in counteracting the trend. It appears that we are witnessing the gradual dissolution of the Anglican Communion, in Bishop Tom Wright’s words, “like a slow-moving train wreck”.

On a pragmatic level, where does that leave us at Messiah? There are a number of options available to us. What follows are five, but no doubt there are others as well.

(1) Do nothing. We could decide simply to hang tight, keep a low profile, and hope and pray for the best, all the time seeking to hold to our distinctives and to remain a place of lively orthodoxy. I would warn that this path is neither as simple nor as straightforward as it might at first appear.

(2) Reaffirm the Windsor Report. The Vestry has already expressed its commitment to the content and recommendations of the Windsor Report. While it seems that forces within the Communion have worked together to subvert the implementation of the report, the time may not quite have come for a final pronouncement of death. The Covenant Design Group continues to meet, and it may be that there is just enough energy left among the orthodox primates and bishops to make it work. In any event, once again endorsing the Windsor Report would be a moderate (some would say minimal) statement to our bishop and diocese that we choose to remain within the mainstream of Anglicanism and oppose the theological and moral innovations of many in the Episcopal Church.

(3) Apply for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight. In March 2004 the Episcopal Church House of Bishops opened up the option of receiving pastoral care from a bishop other than the diocesan. The plan is outlined in a document entitled, “Caring for All the Churches” A number of churches across the country—both conservative parishes in liberal dioceses and liberal parishes in conservative dioceses—have already chosen this option, with varying degrees of success. A proposal to take this step has already been brought before our own Vestry and is under consideration. Presumably the delegated bishop would be available for consultation and godly advice, and for occasional liturgical events, principally confirmation. It should be noted that the stated purpose of the plan is “for reconciliation”.

(4) Seek to negotiate a redirection of diocesan apportionment monies. This is also a step that a number of parishes have taken, again involving negotiation with the bishop and other diocesan authorities. For a number of years the Episcopal Church has given support to a variety of questionable projects and causes. The current multi-million dollar litigations against parishes choosing to leave the denomination is a scandal and as such, insupportable. To allow for some choice as to the designation of apportionment funds, be it on an individual or a parish-wide level, may be seen as an act of responsible stewardship, as well as a grass-roots level opportunity to express opposition to the church’s actions.

(5) Plan to align with the “new province” when it forms. At this stage it appears unlikely that a new province on North American soil will receive broad endorsement from the rest of the Communion. The six GAFCon primates have for the time being held back from recognizing such an entity, perhaps until after the meeting of all the primates early in 2009. In a few days’ time Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will make the unprecedented move of calling upon the Episcopal Church House of Bishops to depose Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, without any previous inhibition, without en ecclesiastical trial, and following canonically questionable procedures. Within a month the convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh will vote on whether to transfer its out of the Episcopal Church and temporarily into the Province of the Southern Cone, joining the Diocese of San Joaquin, and likely to be followed by the Dioceses of Forth Worth and Quincy. This means that within a month or so the whole ball field will have altered, in that, technically at least, there is the possibility of the establishment of such a province. As to what this will lead to in terms of the wider Communion and of the barrage of legal suits that undoubtedly will be launched we can only speculate. Whatever the case, it will be a far cry from Ephraim Radner’s “orderly separation”.

I think we at Messiah need to take a careful look at each of these potential avenues. At this time I cannot tell exactly where that may lead, as I do not know what the future holds. My hope is only that we would do it within the framework of, and out of a deep commitment to, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”.

18 September 2008

A Sinking Ship?

The Episcopal Church has been likened to an ocean-going liner that is headed on a path towards shipwreck. In our case, the captain appears not only prepared to go down with the ship, but intent on herself taking the ship down. Expensive litigation, disregard for the church’s canons, and the rejection of Jesus’ own words in the gospel can only serve to further weaken and divide the church. Meanwhile many of her officers and crew are below decks puncturing the hull.

The turning radius of the Titanic as she approached the fatal iceberg on the Atlantic in 1912 was nearly three quarters of a mile. Many would agree that the good ship Episcopal is already within that radius, headed for unavoidable disaster. “We are in schism,” wrote our own bishop from the Lambeth Conference on July 30. Ephraim Radner, a member of the international Covenant Design Group of the Anglican Communion, has called for “an orderly separation”, echoing the bishop of Winchester’s comments during the Lambeth Conference.

To take the imagery further, many have let down lifeboats. The Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Province of America, the Charismatic Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Episcopal Church and a whole host of forty or more others (most of them small splinter groups), are made up of individuals and congregations that have departed from the Episcopal Church over the past thirty years.

Meanwhile, others have brought their own rescue vessels alongside, with the offer of taking endangered Episcopalian parishioners, congregations, and now even dioceses, into protective custody. The Anglican provinces of Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and the Southern Cone have all taken these measures over the past six years or so.

To join with either of these movements is tempting. Yet there is a difficulty. We know where the Episcopal Church is headed. Yet we cannot be certain that where either the lifeboats or the rescue vessels will take us is any better. Most of the lifeboats are likely to remain just that: small clusters of angry people who find their identity in being in opposition to the teachings of the Episcopal Church, and who will eventually sink into oblivion.

There is considerably more hope in the rescue vessels. Increasingly, they are working in synchrony, under the banner of the Common Cause Partners. In addition, the archbishops of the respective provinces have made it clear that their actions are intended to provide only a temporary sanctuary until a more permanent solution is found—in our case the establishment of a new Anglican province on North American soil.

However, there are factors that make this a very fragile convoy: differences of opinion over the role and ordination of women in the church, the issue of continuing overlapping jurisdictions within the province itself, and the question as to whether the new province will ever gain recognition throughout the Anglican Communion, to name just three. Each of these could seriously compromise the seaworthiness of the new vessel, and potentially cause it to founder.

06 August 2008

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Here are some thoughts on Jesus’ transfiguration by Fred Craddock:

We would very much like to penetrate the mystery of this experience, but we cannot. Matthew calls it a vision. One thing is clear: Jesus and his three disciples have an experience of God. Its meaning for Jesus and for them is different, but the only actor in the event is God. Jesus is not acting but is being acted upon. The God of Moses and Elijah affirms them in their unity with Jesus but asserts the finality of Jesus. The God who could rescue the Son from suffering confirms for Jesus the way of the cross. This God also tells the disciples, who will soon face conditions that seem to derail if not bring to an end their hope in Jesus, that those very painful conditions do not lie across the way but on the way to the completion of God’s purpose. This is a mountaintop experience but not the kind about which people write glowingly of sunrises, soft breezes, warm friends, music, and quiet time. On this mountain the subject is death, and the frightening presence of God reduces those present to silence. In due time, after the resurrection, they will remember, understand, and not feel heavy. In fact, they will tell it broadly as good news.

From Luke (Interpretation Commentary)

05 August 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: ‘Live Not By Lies’

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died yesterday. Below are the opening paragraphs of an essay published in the Wahington Post, written on 12 February 1974, the day he was arrested by the secret police.

At one time we dared not even to whisper. Now we write and read samizdat, and sometimes when we gather in the smoking room at the Science Institute we complain frankly to one another: What kind of tricks are they playing on us, and where are they dragging us? Gratuitous boasting of cosmic achievements while there is poverty and destruction at home. Propping up remote, uncivilized regimes. Fanning up civil war. And we recklessly fostered Mao Tse-tung at our expense—and it will be we who are sent to war against him, and will have to go. Is there any way out? And they put on trial anybody they want, and they put sane people in asylums—always they, and we are powerless.

Things have almost reached rock bottom. A universal spiritual death has already touched us all, and physical death will soon flare up and consume us both and our children—but as before we still smile in a cowardly way and mumble without tongues tied. But what can we do to stop it? We haven't the strength.

We have been so hopelessly dehumanized that for today’s modest ration of food we are willing to abandon all our principles, our souls, and all the efforts of our predecessors and all the opportunities for our descendants—but just don’t disturb our fragile existence. We lack staunchness, pride and enthusiasm. We don’t even fear universal nuclear death, and we don't fear a third world war. We have already taken refuge in the crevices. We just fear acts of civil courage.

We fear only to lag behind the herd and to take a step alone—and suddenly find ourselves without white bread, without heating gas and without a Moscow registration.

We have been indoctrinated in political courses, and in just the same way was fostered the idea to live comfortably, and all will be well for the rest of our lives: You can't escape your environment and social conditions. Everyday life defines consciousness. What does it have to do with us? We can't do anything about it.

But we can—everything. But we lie to ourselves for assurance. And it is not they who are to blame for everything—we ourselves, only we. One can object: But actually you can think anything you like. Gags have been stuffed into our mouths. Nobody wants to listen to us, and nobody asks us. How can we force them to listen? It is impossible to change their minds.

It would be natural to vote them out of office—but there are not elections in our country. In the West people know about strikes and protest demonstrations—but we are too oppressed, and it is a horrible prospect for us: How can one suddenly renounce a job and take to the streets? Yet the other fatal paths probed during the past century by our bitter Russian history are, nevertheless, not for us, and truly we don't need them.

Now that the axes have done their work, when everything which was sown has sprouted anew, we can see that the young and presumptuous people who thought they would make out country just and happy through terror, bloody rebellion and civil war were themselves misled. No thanks, fathers of education! Now we know that infamous methods breed infamous results. Let our hands be clean!

The circle—is it closed? And is there really no way out? And is there only one thing left for us to do, to wait without taking action? Maybe something will happen by itself? It will never happen as long as we daily acknowledge, extol, and strengthen—and do not sever ourselves from—the most perceptible of its aspects: Lies.

When violence intrudes into peaceful life, its face glows with self-confidence, as if it were carrying a banner and shouting: “I am violence. Run away, make way for me—I will crush you.” But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally—since violence can conceal itself with nothing except lies, and the lies can be maintained only by violence. And violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies—all loyalty lies in that.

And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, we will be obstinate in this smallest of matters: Let them embrace everything, but not with any help from me…

You can read the rest of this powerful essay here.

15 July 2008

Sermon – “No Condemnation” (Romans 8:1)

You probably didn’t notice his obituary. I’m not even sure that it appeared in the local newspapers. But in April of this year the world said goodbye to Edward Norton Lorenz. And who, you may ask, was Edward Norton Lorenz? Lorenz was a meteorologist who developed a mathematical model for the way air moves in the atmosphere. One day, while using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, he took a shortcut and entered the decimal .506 rather than the full .506127. To his surprise, he came up with a completely different weather scenario. Several years later he published his findings using the now famous query, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

The lesson he learned was that all actions—even the most seemingly insignificant ones—have their consequences. And sometimes those consequences can be altogether out of proportion to the original action. Most of us are probably familiar with the six-hundred-year-old rhyme that tells how “the kingdom was lost for want of a nail”:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

I often think that we have a version of that same principle expressed in Scripture, in the warning that accompanies the second of the Ten Commandments. Do you remember how it goes—about the children being punished for the iniquity of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject the Lord, but of his showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love him and keep his commandments?

It seems a dire admonition, almost like karma—that somehow through the actions of the past we can be made victims of a cruel and unbending fate, as though strapped to an enormous flywheel spinning out of control.

In a sense, when we look at this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, what we have before us is the gentlest flapping of the butterfly’s wing. After twenty years of childlessness, Isaac and Rebekah become the proud parents of twins. Even during the pregnancy we hear adumbrations of future tragedy. The twins wrestle within Rebekah’s womb, and the Lord tells of an enduring rivalry that will follow. At the time of birth, the younger twin is born grasping at the older one’s heel. Perhaps no one thought very much of it at the time, but the name that was given to him, “Jacob”, from the word haqeb, “heel”, would be a lifelong reminder of the peculiar circumstances of his birth.

The scene swiftly moves to their youth. Esau was a strapping, outdoors kind of guy, “a skillful hunter, a man of the field”, as the Bible describes him. Jacob, on the other hand, was more of a mama’s boy, who preferred to spend his time indoors—in the kitchen of all places.

That was how Jacob developed the reputation of being something of an amateur chef. Esau could smell the delicious blend of aromas that Jacob was cooking up one day as he made his way, sweaty and dirty, in from his work in the fields. “I’m famished,” he bellowed. “Give me some of that red stuff.”

Now whether this was the moment that Jacob had been waiting for, or whether it was just an idea that popped into his mind, we don’t know. But something made Jacob hesitate before he dipped his ladle into the stew. “How about a trade,” he said to Esau, as he leaned over the steaming cauldron, “your birthright for a helping of my stew?” “I’m so hungry right now I would be willing to give just about anything,” replied the older brother. “Then give me your word of honor—now,” said Jacob, as he tasted a sample of the stew for himself. “OK, OK, it’s a deal,” gasped Esau. You could practically see the saliva running down from the corners of his mouth. And in a moment he was sitting in front of a heaping bowl of Jacob’s tasty concoction, scarfing it down as though there were no tomorrow.

As the Bible writer lets down the curtain on this little vignette from the life of Jacob and Esau, he comments, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Three little words in Hebrew, yet they fall with devastating power. “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” The butterfly had flapped its wing.

Little did either of the two brothers have any idea of the consequence of what they had done. Esau had a full stomach. Jacob had become the heir to the family fortune. But that scene would come back to haunt them again and again, as the animosity between them grew into full-fledged vengeance and the threat of murder; and one dark night Jacob would find himself alone and unable to sleep, cowering in fear of what his powerful brother was going do to him.

In subsequent generations the hostility between Israel (the descendants of Jacob) and Edom (the descendants of Esau) would only grow worse. In Moses’ time, as the people of Israel made their way back towards the Promised Land, the Edomites refused to allow them to cross their territory. This led to continued wars and retribution for centuries—right to the time of Nebuchadnezzar, when the kingdom of Edom took advantage of the Babylonian sweep of the region to slaughter and plunder their distant cousins, the Jews.

In a later generation still, it is a descendant of the Edomites, Herod the Great, who orders the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem. And in turn it is his son, another Herod, who has John the Baptist beheaded, and who, though not directly responsible for the death of Jesus, joins in mocking and humiliating him on his way to the cross.

“Thus Esau despised his birthright.” The author of Genesis matter-of-factly tells us. And there follow nearly two thousand years of consequences. Who ever would have thought…? Yet on a smaller scale I see this same principle being worked out again and again in people’s lives. Well do I remember a woman who lived what was probably the most secretive life I have ever seen. Only years later did I discover that her secrecy was really a cloak to hide an intolerable burden of guilt that she had carried around with her for more than a generation. Another woman continued to be haunted by the way she treated her mother at the time of her high school graduation, forty years after the event.

In his book Guilt and Grace Swiss physician Paul Tournier relates case after case of men and women who lived their whole lives unable to escape the consequences of something they may have done at an earlier time in their lives. Reflecting on the unending parade of such people who have come through his office, he writes,

Complexes, secret imaginations, temptations, vain and unconfessable dreams, a whole world of impulses more or less conscious, often of no clear form develop within us. They defy the censorship of our will, as we realize with confusion. It is another self which lives within us, which we cannot stifle…

What Tournier describes does not sound altogether different from what we read in last week’s epistle, from the seventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

I do not understand my own actions [he confesses]. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Who among us has not shared this anguish? Of course there are all kind of things people do in their attempts to escape it. They receive psychiatry; they engage in philanthropy and acts of selflessness; they delve into asceticism; they numb themselves with alcohol and drugs; they immerse themselves in hedonism; they may go as far as suicide. Some even try religion. Yet there seems to be nothing that can enable them to escape. They have been tried, sentenced, condemned and punished by a jury of one—their own heart within them. With Paul they cry aloud, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

In the midst of this bleak picture there is good news. It comes to us again from St Paul, not in last Sunday’s reading but today’s. I cannot say the words without chills running down my spine: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

What Paul is telling us is that Jesus Christ has done for us what we (or anyone else in all the world) could never do for ourselves. At the time it must have seemed that he too was a victim of unalterable consequences. That must have been the way it appeared to Esau’s descendant Herod as he watched the bruised and humiliated Galilean walk from his court on the way to his death. In spite of all the miracles, all the idealism of his teaching, all the cheering of the crowds, the wheel of karma had taken him too.

Yet it was on the cross, as he hung utterly powerless even to swat a fly that might have landed on his face, that Jesus brought that seemingly all-powerful, unstoppable wheel to a grinding halt. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” declares St Paul.

Paul Tournier reflects,

So from one end of the Bible to the other, we constantly witness the same paradoxical happening. The guilt that men are never able to efface, in spite of sacrifices, penance, remorse and vain regrets, God himself wipes away… But the wonderful announcement of God’s free grace, which effaces guilt, runs up against the intuition which every man has, that a price must be paid. The reply which comes is the supreme message of the Bible; it is God himself who pays, God himself has paid the price once for all, and the most costly that could be paid—his own death, in Jesus Christ, on the cross.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Because of what Jesus has done for you and for me on the cross, and through faith in him, we need no longer be victims of the events of the past. He has set us free from the law of sin and death. That doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to do things that we regret. But it does mean that they no longer have the final say in our lives.

At morning and evening prayer in the old Book of Common Prayer we used to confess that “we have left undone those things that we ought to have done, and we have done those things that we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us…” As we look at our own lives and our own past, may we recognize that we bow before a God of infinite mercy and grace, who has done what we could never do for ourselves. And may you know within your heart, in spite of all that might want to tell you otherwise, that truly “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

Heavenly Father,
we cannot praise you enough,
that in the mystery of your love,
you have reached down to us in your Son
and given him to die for our sins on the cross:
help us to know in the depths of our hearts
that there is therefore now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus,
and so to live as those who have been set free,
for the glory of your name.

10 July 2008

Women, Men, and the Church

This is what I have written for the next edition of our church newsletter:

As I write, a debate is raging in England over the role of women in the church. After more than a decade of discussion and debate, the General Synod has agreed that women are eligible to be ordained as bishops.

This has been a reality on this continent for many years. But in England the press are reporting that as many as 1300 clergy are threatening to leave the Anglican Church over the issue. Of course there is nothing the media like better than a good fight, and the numbers may prove to be much smaller than that. Nevertheless the issue has resulted in serious acrimony, and we need to pray for healing and a softening of positions on both sides.

Earlier this year Messiah’s vestry also spent a good deal of time discussing this same issue. Not that anyone was about to consecrate a bishop! The issue for us was whether to list ourselves as an “egalitarian church”: that is, a church where “spiritual gifts of women and men are to be recognized, developed and used in serving and teaching ministries at all levels of involvement”, where “public recognition is to be given to both women and men who exercise ministries of service and leadership” and which “will dissociate itself from worldly or pagan devices designed to make women feel inferior for being female”.

Our concern was to reflect, in a formal manner as a parish, a truly biblical and God-honoring approach to this important subject. Certainly a single newsletter article cannot give anything like adequate coverage to the vestry discussions—and even less so to what the Bible has to say on the matter.

While much attention is given to the passages of Scripture that appear to give women an inferior role, we do well to begin by looking at its central themes and overall direction, and only after that to examine specific cases.

Reading the Old Testament more than three hundred years ago, for example, Matthew Henry saw in the story of the creation of Eve, “that the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal to him…” And of course from there follow the accounts of remarkable women such as Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Hannah, and Esther, to name but a few, whose pivotal place in the unfolding of salvation history is undisputed.

When we come to the gospels, we see Jesus treating women with a respect that was uncommon, if not altogether non-existent, in the ancient world. Just think of his conversations with woman at the well, the Canaanite woman who pleaded on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter, Mary and Martha, and even the woman caught in adultery. Think of his parables, where women are invariably depicted as positive examples (not so with men!). And think of the fact that the first people to bear the good news of Jesus’ resurrection were women.

In the epistles, we are introduced to a community where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. And, while there are verses that adjure women to be silent and not to teach, I would argue that these are not programmatic, but are intended to address specific situations that had arisen in Ephesus and Corinth. Overall, in the nascent church we find women taking their place next to men as equal partners, possibly even to the rank of apostle (see Romans 16:7).

I recognize that Christians have legitimate differences over this matter, and that my interpretation of Scripture is not the only one. Yet I do believe that our identifying ourselves as a church where women and men are equal partners in the gospel of transformation through Christ can only strengthen our witness to it.

11 May 2008

Suddenly … the blowing of a violent wind

These words were written almost exactly a century ago by G.K. Chesterton, yet they still have an uncanny contemporaneity.

I remember a little boy of my acquaintance who was once walking in Battersea Park under … torn skies and tossing trees. He did not like the wind at all; it blew in his face too much; it made him shut his eyes; and it blew off his hat, of which he was very proud. He was, as far as I remember, about four. After complaining repeatedly of the atmospheric unrest, he said at last to his mother, “Well, why don’t you take away the trees, and then it wouldn’t wind.”

Nothing could be more intelligent or natural than this mistake. Any one looking for the first time at the trees might fancy that they were indeed vast and titanic fans, which by their mere waving agitated the air around them for miles. Nothing, I say, could be more human and excusable than the belief that it is the trees which make the wind. Indeed, the belief is so human and excusable that it is, as a matter of fact, the belief of about ninety-nine out of a hundred of the philosophers, reformers, sociologists, and politicians of the great age in which we live. My small friend was, in fact, very like the principal modern thinkers; only much nicer.

In the little apologue or parable which he has thus the honour of inventing, the trees stand for all visible things and the wind for the invisible. The wind is the spirit which bloweth where it listeth; the trees are the material things of the world which are blown where the spirit lists…

The great human dogma, then, is that the wind moves the trees. The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind. When people begin to say that the material circumstances have alone created the moral circumstances, then they have prevented all possibility of serious change.

From Tremendous Trifles, chapter 12

03 May 2008

A Deeper Relevance

This article appeared in the May issue of Christianity Today. It is the second article on liturgical churches and their worship this year. What is happening in the evangelical world?

… Many evangelicals are attracted to liturgical worship, and as one of those evangelicals, I’d like to explain what the attraction is for me, and perhaps for many others. A closer look suggests that something more profound and paradoxical is going on in liturgy than the search for contemporary relevance. “The liturgy begins … as a real separation from the world,” writes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He continues by saying that in the attempt to “make Christianity understandable to this mythical ‘modern’ man on the street”, we have forgotten this necessary separation.

It is precisely the point of the liturgy to take people out of their worlds and usher them into a strange, new world—to show them that, despite appearances, the last thing in the world they need is more of the world out of which they’ve come. The world the liturgy reveals does not seem relevant at first glance, but it turns out that the world it reveals is more real than the one we inhabit day by day…

Worshiping in the liturgical tradition is no panacea. When not approached wisely, it can be misused and abused; it can tempt participants to substitute mere religious ritual for a vital, personal faith in Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, this tradition does have much to offer contemporary evangelicalism. Take our fascination with relevance: the first thing this liturgy asks us to rethink is what we mean by “relevant” worship…

This is one reason I thank God for the liturgy. The liturgy does not target any age or cultural subgroup. It does not even target this century. (It does not imagine, as we moderns and postmoderns are tempted to do, that this is the best of all possible ages, the most significant era of history.) Instead, the liturgy draws us into worship that transcends our time and place. Its earliest forms took shape in ancient Israel, and its subsequent development occurred in a variety of cultures and subcultures—Greco-Roman, North African, German, Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, and so on. It has been prayed meaningfully by bakers, housewives, tailors, teachers, philosophers, priests, monks, kings, and slaves. As such, it has not been shaped to meet a particular group’s needs. It seeks only to enable people—people in general—to see God…

The liturgy, from beginning to end, is not about meeting our needs. The liturgy is about God. It’s not even about God-as-the-fulfiller-of-our-need-for-spiritual-meaning. It’s about God as he is himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not about our blessedness but his. The liturgy immediately signals that our needs are not nearly as relevant as we imagine. There is something infinitely more worthy of our attention—something, someone, who lies outside the self.

With talk of “God” and “kingdom”, it announces another order of reality we are being called into. We are in the habit of thinking that our culture—the reality we strive to be relevant to—is the measure of meaning. That’s why we’re tempted to shape our churches to look like that culture, because that is what people in this culture will find meaningful. It is logical on one level, and there is no question that we have to be culturally sensitive in our outreach. But the liturgy wants to show us a deeper logic and relevance.

The liturgy begins by saying that our culture needs not so much to have its “presenting needs” met as to be gently and calmly invited into a wiser culture—the culture of a Trinitarian God and his kingdom. This is what is blessed, now and forever. Our culture is the transitory thing, an apparition that will someday have to pass away, just as childhood has to pass away. The liturgy says to us as we enter, “You’re in the culture of God and his kingdom now. Things will be different from now on.” …

In what’s now an old essay, F. H. Brabant put it this way: “All liturgical acts … have a double function: one directed Godwards, expressing in outward form the thoughts and feelings of the worshippers, the other directed manwards, teaching worshippers how they ought to think and feel by setting before them the Church’s standard of worship.”

We have to pay attention to cultural context, no question. The history of liturgy has been in part about finding words and ritual that help people in a given culture express their thoughts and feelings to God in ways that make cultural sense. The liturgy has always had freedom and variety within its basic structure.

But it has steadfastly refused to let the culture determine its shape or meaning. Liturgical churches know that as profound a reality as is the surrounding culture, there is an even more profound reality waiting to be discovered. The liturgy gently and calmly gets us to open our eyes to the new reality, showing us the “necessary separation” from the old. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we find our gaze directed away from ourselves and toward God and his kingdom. When we return to our homes, we are never the same.

You can read it all here.

01 May 2008

Ascension Day

Here is an excerpt from a sermon on Christ’s ascension, by Leo the Great (c.395-461):

Accordingly, dearly-beloved, throughout this time which elapsed between the Lord’s resurrection and ascension, God’s providence had this in view, to teach and impress upon both the eyes and hearts of his own people that the Lord Jesus Christ might be acknowledged to have as truly risen, as he was truly born, suffered, and died. And hence the most blessed apostles and all the disciples, who had been both bewildered at his death on the cross and backward in believing his resurrection, were so strengthened by the clearness of the truth that when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy.

And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the nature of humankind went up, to pass above the angels’ ranks and to rise beyond the archangels’ heights, and to have its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the eternal Father, it should be associated on the throne with his glory, to whose nature it was united in the Son.

Since then Christ’s ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ’s unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil’s malice. For us, whom our virulent enemy had driven out from the bliss of our first abode, the Son of God has made members of himself and placed at the right hand of the Father, with whom he lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

You can find the whole sermon here.

30 April 2008

Rogation Days

The Rogation Days are the three days preceding Ascension Day. They seem to have fallen off the church’s calendar a generation or so ago. The word “rogation” is from the Latin verb, rogo, “I ask.” They come at this point in the year because they are a time of special prayer that God may bless us in this season of planting. I suspect they were dropped from the calendar because they have an antiquated air to them, hearkening back to the days when society was more agrarian. Yet in these days of mass starvation in many parts of the world I believe they have a peculiarly contemporary ring. Here is an excerpt from the Exhortation following the Homily for the Rogation Days, written more than four hundred years ago. For ease of reading I have taken the liberty of modernizing some spellings and updating a few words.

If now therefore you will have your prayers heard before Almighty God, for the increase of your corn and cattle, and for the defense thereof from unseasonable mists and blasts, from hail and other such tempests, [pursue] love, equity, and righteousness, mercy and charity, which God most requires at our hands. Which Almighty God respecting chiefly, in making his civil laws for his people the Israelites, in charging the owners not to gather up their corn too nigh at harvest season, nor the grapes and olives in gathering time, but to leave behind some ears of corn for the poor gleaners (Leviticus 19.9-10, Deuteronomy 24.19-21). By this he meant to induce them to pity the poor, to relieve the needy, to show mercy and kindness. It cannot be lost, which for his sake is distributed to the poor (1 Corinthians 9.9-10). For he who ministers seed to the sower, and bread to the hungry, who sends downs the early and latter rain upon your fields, so to fill up the barns with corn, and the wine presses with wine and oil (Joel 2.23-24), he, I say, who recompenses all kinds of benefits in the resurrection of the just, he will assuredly recompense all merciful deeds shown to the needy, however unable the poor is, upon whom it is bestowed. “O,” says Solomon, “let not mercy and truth forsake you. Bind them about your neck,” says he, “and write them on the tablet of your heart, so shall you find favor at God’s hand” (Proverbs 3.3-4).

Thus honor thou the Lord with your riches, and with the first fruits of your increase: So shall your barns be filled with abundance, and your presses in all burst with new wine. Nay, God has promised to open the windows of heaven, upon the generous righteous man, that he shall want nothing. He will repress the devouring caterpillar, which should devour your fruits. He will give you peace and quiet to gather in your provision, that you may sit every man under his own vine quietly, without fear of foreign enemies to invade you. He will give you not only food to feed on, but stomachs and good appetites to take comfort of your fruits, whereby in all things you may have sufficiency. Finally, he will bless you with all manner [of] abundance in this transitory life,and endue you with all manner of benediction in the next world, in the kingdom of heaven, through the merits of our Lord and Savior, to whom with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, be all honor everlasting. Amen.

The full text of the homily may be found here.

10 April 2008

The Case for Civility

Christian author and social critic Os Guinness spoke earlier today at the Town Hall Forum at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. You can hear his 25-minute lecture, and the half-hour question period that followed it, by clicking here.

01 April 2008


I am looking down from the airplane window on a beautiful (but still snowy) day in Minnesota. Karen and I are on our way to Vancouver, still exulting in yesterday morning’s glorious Easter celebration. We were still humming choruses of “I will ra-aise them up, I will ra-aise them up, I will ra-aise them up, on the la-ast day,” as we slowly advanced towards the security check in the airport.

The words, of course, are those of Jesus, spoken after he had fed a large crowd of more than five thousand people with a young lad’s lunch of a few fish and some small loaves of bread. “Do not toil for food that decays,” he said to them, “but for food that lasts to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Then he pointed to himself as that food, the one who gives eternal life.

What Jesus was talking about was not some form of ongoing existence as a disembodied spirit. He promised to those who relied on him for life that he would raise them up at the last day. This may not have been as difficult a concept to grasp for his first hearers as it is for us today. They would have been exposed to the teachings of the Pharisees, who, consistent with broad sweep of biblical teaching, held to a firm faith in the resurrection of the dead.

It is a term we repeat week by week in our affirmation of the creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” What do we mean by this? Certainly not some crude reconstruction of our current bodies (for which many of us may be relieved!). It is something considerably more complex than that. The apostle Paul spoke of it as a “mystery”, by which “… we will all be changed …”

He used the metaphor of a seed being sown into the ground. As the plant that arises from it differs in so many ways from the seed, so the resurrection life will be distinct from all that we experience in the here and now. In many ways it is difficult even to compare the two. Yet at the same time there are correspondences. We can recognize, for example, the plant that comes from a kernel of corn, or an acorn, or a nasturtium seed.

We see this in the resurrection of Jesus in the gospels. At times the disciples found it difficult to recognize him. He was able to walk through a locked door as it were only a shadow. He could apparently be in Jerusalem at one moment and in Galilee the next. The limitations of time and space seemed to mean nothing to him. Yet he was the same Jesus they had known before the crucifixion, right down to the nail marks in his hands.

Much to our frustration, the Bible does not offer a detailed description of what the resurrection of the dead will be like. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that it will be glorious. Glorious enough that all the sorrows, all the pain, all the tragedies and injustices of this life, will pale by comparison. Yet somehow I cannot but believe that even they will have significance—though, like everything else, unimaginably transformed.

As I complete these remarks, we are now in Vancouver, with our daughter and son-in-law and our new granddaughter, Maddie. Although there are still remnants of snow on mountain peaks, the forsythia and the cherry trees are in full blossom—all a marvelous annual foretaste of the true and final resurrection that is yet to come.

23 March 2008

“He is not here…”

What you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning.
[T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding] …

Easter occurs … when we find in Jesus not a dead friend but a living stranger. … Some writers have—carelessly?—spoken of Jesus being raised ‘as’ the believing community, or alleged that the risen-ness of Jesus consists essentially in the persistence of Jesus’ own faith and trust in God within the Church. Yet this sidesteps the whole issue of the strangeness of the risen Jesus. … We have already noted that Jesus as risen is a Jesus who cannot be contained in the limits of a past human life; the corollary of this is that Jesus as risen legitimating and supporting memory of a community. The church is not ‘founded’ by Jesus of Nazareth as an institution to preserve the recollection of his deeds and words; it is the community of those who meet him as risen and the place where all the world may meet him as risen.

Human beings long to be assured that they are innocent. … The gospel will not ever tell us that we are innocent, but it will tell us that we are loved; and in asking us to receive and consent to that love, it asks us to identify with, and make our own, love’s comprehensive vision of all we are and have been. That is the transformation of desire as it affects our attitude to our own selves—to accept what we have been, so that all of it can be transformed. It is a more authentic desire because more comprehensive, turning away from the illusory attraction of an innocence that cannot be recovered unless the world is unmade. Grace will remake but not undo. There is all the difference in the world between Christ uncrucified and Christ risen…

Archbishop Rowan Williams, Resurrection

13 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 4)

It seemed to be no time at all before we were on our way down the slope of Mount of Olives, with the massive sun-bleached walls of the holy city facing us just across the valley. To our surprise there were people there to meet us. Some of them spread their cloaks out on the road for the donkey to walk on. Others had palm branches in their hands and were waving them wildly. There were exuberant shouts of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Now it was all coming clear. The colt, the cloaks, the palm branches, the shouts of “Hosanna!” It was finally happening. The Lord was going to set himself up as ruler of Israel. There had been attempts before to proclaim Jesus as king—I remember it had happened by the Sea of Galilee just after he had fed that hungry crowd of more than five thousand people. But he had always resisted them in the past. He had often talked about waiting for the right time. Perhaps now this was it. One of us (I don’t remember now who it was) reached up into one of the palm trees by the side of the road and tore off some branches. In a moment we too were waving palms and shouting along with the crowd, “Hosanna to the king!” It was a glorious moment.

In the midst of the crowd we could make out some whose somber expressions indicated that they were not prepared to take part in the celebration. Leaning forward from the crowd they tugged at Jesus’ cloak to divert his attention. “Teacher,” they protested. “Make this nonsense stop! If this continues into the city and the authorities see us, it will be the death of us. They won’t tolerate anything that bears even a hint of rebellion.”

But the Lord was not to be put off course. “I tell you,” he said—I haven’t forgotten the words—“I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will take up the chorus.” So it was that, laughing and cheering we continued our way down the steep slope of the Kidron Valley.

It was the happiest, most exultant of occasions, and we were foolish enough to think that it would never end. Of course it did. Within days those glad shouts of “Hosanna!” had turned to angry screams of “Crucify!” The bright sun of that Sunday morning gave way to the darkened skies which clung to Golgotha like a pall as the Lord hung dying on a cross. What shall I say about that day? How weak and short-lived is the voice of human praise! How shallow and fickle is our faith in the one we once hailed as our King!

We thought we had him figured out. Again and again we imagined that we knew his mind. Yet right to the last it was only he who really was aware of what was taking place, only he who knew that what he was riding to was not a throne of gold but a cross of wood. How far beyond our human reason is that love which led him to ride triumphantly to his own death! How inscrutable his compassion to offer up his life for one such as me! The praises we shouted on that day are but a faint echo of the joy which now rings in heaven and through eternity:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
to receive power and wealth
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power
for ever and ever!”

12 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 3)

All of the day’s events were racing through our minds as we pushed on towards Bethany. There we stayed with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Lazarus is a whole other story, and I don’t have time even to begin to get into that now. Martha could not be outdone as a cook and after the long walk from Jericho we were ready for a hearty meal.

As we sat down for supper, though, a strange series of events began to unfold. Mary brought out an enormous jar of expensive perfume and poured it out on the Lord’s feet till it dripped onto the floor. Then she began to wipe it with her hair.

We all thought this more than a little odd. But it was Judas who objected most strenuously. The fragrance had filled the room when he stood up in angry criticism. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”

“Leave her alone,” came the reply. Then the Lord said something very peculiar that sent shivers down our spines—something about the perfume being for his burial. Over the past few weeks we had heard him express these morbid thoughts about suffering and death. We always tried to put them out of our minds but I’ll tell you, it made us worry, and it was a long time before any of us got to sleep that night thinking about it.

The next morning the sun streamed into our room bright and clear. We were ready for a good breakfast, but the Lord had an errand for a couple of us to do. “I’d like you to go over to Bethphage,” he told us. “Just as you enter, you will find a colt which had never been ridden. Untie it and bring it to me. And by the way,” he added, “if anyone asks you why you are untying it, tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

By now we were accustomed to the Lord asking us to do unconventional things, so we didn’t ask any questions. Bethphage was only a few minutes’ walk away and sure enough, there we found the young donkey, just as he had said, right next to its mother.

As we were untying it, someone came out and asked us what we were doing. “Uh, the Lord needs it,” we replied hesitantly and no more questions were asked.

Moments later we were back in Bethany where we found the rest of them waiting for us. They were ready to leave. There was no time for us to have our breakfast. We quickly threw some of our cloaks over the donkey’s back, helped Jesus on top and began the last leg of our journey, the two or three miles to Jerusalem.

11 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 2)

Just down the road, not far inside the gates of Jericho itself, another surprise awaited us. Suddenly, for no reason that any of us could think of, the Lord stopped again. We were under a huge sycomore-fig tree which had obviously stood in its place for many long years. He just stood there, staring up into its vast, spreading branches. It was far too early in the season for there to be any fruit on it, so what was the point of looking for any? Then we began to see what he saw. There was one branch of the tree where all the leaves were shaking. When we peered in a little harder, we could just make out someone sitting in the crook, just where the branch joined the trunk. It was a grown man!

“Zacchæus,” the Lord said to him. (To this day I can’t figure out how he ever knew his name.) “Zacchæus, come down from there right now. I’m planning to spend the afternoon at your house.”

You should have seen the way the little man managed to make his way down the thick trunk and onto the ground. “It would be an honour, sir,” he said, bowing low before the Lord and dusting the bits of leaf and bark off his clothes. “Let me lead the way.”

Around me I could hear mutterings of discontent. This Zacchæus, it seemed, was the local tax collector. He had made most of his wealth by soaking the local people for all they were worth in the name of Rome and then keeping most for himself. If it were not for his squad of Roman guards (or should I say goons?) his life would not have been worth a denarius. What, they asked, was Jesus doing with this turncoat, with this oppressor of the Jewish people? They had heard that he always stood up for common folk. I must admit I shared in their puzzlement and was kind of disappointed that Jesus did not at least take time to explain his interest in this tax collector.

It did not take us long to reach Zacchæus’ house. There we were all treated to a feast fit for a king. From the other end of the table I could see that the Lord had engaged our host in an animated exchange. Over the happy roar of all the other conversations in the room I was unable to catch more than the occasional word or two. Yet I could see on Zacchæus’ face alternating expressions of annoyance, surprise and finally what could not be mistaken for anything but pure, inexpressible joy.

In a moment he was clapping his pudgy little hands. “Quiet, everybody. Quiet, please! I have an announcement to make…” He said some words about what a deeply lonely unhappy a man he had been and about how he had learned what little satisfaction was to be found in money. Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

You could literally feel the hush that followed. It filled the room. No one knew what to say. People just stared at one another in amazement. It was the Lord himself who broke the silence. “Today,” he said, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a child of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to sake and to save what was lost.”

To seek and to save what was lost. That was why he had come. And what we learned that afternoon was that it was just as possible to be rich and lost as it was to be poor and lost. Whether you were a blind beggar sitting by the roadside or the owner of a mountain of cash or somewhere in between, we all need what Jesus came to bring. We had seen it with our own eyes, seen people totally changed, and nothing gives me more joy than to talk about it.

10 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 1)

It will forever be etched in my memory, that day when we entered Jerusalem for the last time. The heat of the spring sun beat down upon us as we made our way up and down the slopes along the steep, winding road to Jerusalem. As we approached the great city a sense of anticipation, of exhilaration, surged through our veins.

Looking back on it all, I cannot put my finger now on what we were really expecting. The days past had certainly had their excitements. There had been the blind man just outside Jericho. How will I ever forget his pathetic cry, just barely audible over the stir of the crowd? “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Some folk tried to shut him up, but he refused to pay any attention to their threats. He just cried all the louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

I knew what the Lord would do all along. He never was one to pass by a person in need. When he heard the man’s voice he stopped dead in his tracks, and all the crowd with him. “Bring him over here,” he said to us. And so we went over and helped the man to his feet. We could hear his knees crack as they straightened out. With his bony hand he grasped onto my arm and haltingly we half-walked, half-stumbled our way over to where the Lord was. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked, as he looked deep into the man’s lifeless and impenetrable eyes.

“Lord, that I may receive my sight…”

“Receive your sight,” he said to him in a manner that seemed so matter-of-fact, as though it were nothing unusual. “Your faith has healed you.” Even as the words were still on his lips I could see the opaque dullness of the man’s eyes melt into a sparkle. The look of absolute wonderment spreading across his face was enough to tell us all that a miracle had happened.

The next moment we were all praising God for what had happened to the blind man (or I should say, the man who had up till that time been blind). He himself couldn’t stop jumping up and down and coming up to each of us and staring for a moment or two into our faces as though he had lost hold of his senses.

05 March 2008

Bible portraits: Lazarus (Part 3)

It was four days after the funeral that we noticed an unfamiliar figure walking towards us along the path. I watched as Martha caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye. Without a moment’s delay she rose and ran out towards him.

They were just out of earshot, so I can’t tell you anything about the conversation that transpired between them. Yet I could see Martha gesticulating with her hands and I could tell that she was angry. Then I saw him put his hand gently on her shoulder and speak to her, and immediately she became calm. When the conversation had ended, she came back and spoke to Mary: “The rabbi is here…”

So, I thought to myself, this must be the one I have heard so much about, this Jesus fellow from Nazareth. I watched with increased interest as Mary got up to go to him, and a few of us followed her along the path towards the tomb. Poor Mary crumbled down onto her knees before him. Through her sobs she managed to blubber, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It was evident from the drawn expression on his face that this Jesus was deeply moved by what was happening. He must have held Lazarus in great esteem, yet we couldn’t help wondering, if that was the case, why he had not come earlier.

He said to Mary, “Take me to the tomb.” As he stood in front of it, I could see the tears running down his cheeks, glistening in the afternoon sun. His whole body was trembling with emotion. I have never seen anything quite like it. If I had had any doubts about the reality of his grief, they vanished in those brief moments. Then he said, “Take away the stone.” “But Lord,” Mary protested, “what good will that do? His body will already have begun to decompose.” “Move it,” he repeated with a firmness and an authority in his voice that I have never heard in anyone before or since. The words were barely out of his mouth before several of us were heaving the rock away from the entry to the tomb. Jesus stood directly in front of it and lifted up his hands in prayer. Then he spoke into the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!”

I could hear in his voice the same authority that had been there before. Somehow all of us knew almost beyond doubt that something (we had no idea what, but something) was going to happen. In dumb silence we all gazed into the dark entry of the tomb. Peering into the shadows we saw the impossible happen. Still tightly wrapped in his shroud the dead man came forth. All of us were paralyzed with a combination of terror and amazement. Through our numbness we could hear Jesus say to us, “Unbind him and let him free.”

Chills still run down my spine as I think back on that day. It may seem strange to you, but the image that remains with me most is not the figure of Lazarus emerging from his tomb. It is the tears on Jesus’ face and his sobs of grief. Somehow I knew that those tears were not like mine. Jesus was not weeping for himself. He was weeping for me and for each of us who stood outside Lazarus’ tomb that day. He wept for our sorrow, our helplessness, our desperation, our death.

Little more than a week elapsed before Jesus met with his own death. He was dragged before a mockery of a court and hanged from a cross, the death of a common criminal. Since then I have come to be one of those who believe that in his death Jesus did what I began to see him do at Lazarus’ tomb. There he took upon himself not merely our sorrows but all that keeps us from knowing the life that God intends for us—our sins and even our death. As Jesus wept for me in Bethany, so I believe died for me at Calvary. In the words of one of our prophets, “He was … a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…”

Gracious God,
how can we thank you for sending Jesus into our world
and into our lives?
How can we thank you for his tears shed for our sorrows
and for his death for our sins?
Help us to know him truly as the resurrection and the life,
and that whoever believes in him will not die
but have life eternal.

04 March 2008

Bible portraits: Lazarus (Part 2)

Days passed and Lazarus’ condition grew only worse. When we had begun to lose any hope of his recovery, someone—I think it was Mary—came up with the idea of trying to contact a traveling preacher who had become known for his ability to heal. His name was Jesus, and he came from (of all places!) Nazareth, up north in Galilee. “Who ever heard of a prophet coming from Galilee?” I had to ask myself. Yet in recent months we had begun to hear all kinds of stories about him enabling lame people to walk, the blind to see and the deaf to hear, even of his turning water into wine at a wedding reception and feeding five thousand people with just a handful of loaves and fish. Passover was not far away, so perhaps he would be coming through these parts anyway.

The two sisters sent off a message as quickly as they could. A day passed, and another, and another. With each of them Lazarus’ condition only worsened until finally the inevitable happened. Lazarus was dead. Martha and Mary were beside themselves. They had done everything they could to help their brother and more. And it had all proved to be of no avail. Somehow it all seemed so wrong that such a good man, who had done so much to enrich the life of our little village, should be taken away from us. Yet what do the Scriptures say?

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.

I knew all that in my head. Yet in my heart it seemed wrong. The week of mourning that would now begin, wearing harsh, coarse sackcloth next to the skin, our heads covered, and no shoes to protect our feet from the harshness of the rocky ground, would help to express our sorrow, our feelings of deprivation, and the wrongness that death is. However it would not console us; it would not subtract from our sense of injustice; and it certainly could not bring our beloved Lazarus back.

Like many of the men of Bethany, I shaved off my beard as a visible reminder of the loss that Lazarus was for all of us. For seven days none of us would wash or anoint our bodies or even eat. As Lazarus had been a man of considerable means, professional mourners were hired to chant the traditional dirges. However, their wails were not the only ones heard in Bethany that week. All of us joined in their lament with its shrill, rhythmic choruses of “Alas! Alas!”

If there is one thing we Jews know how to do, it is to mourn. The centuries of pain that are our history have ingrained that into us. I think of the weeping of our ancestors as they labored hard during their cruel years in Egypt—of men who endured the lash as they slaved under the hot sun, of women who lived in constant fear that their infant sons would be put to the sword before their very eyes.

We can still hear the echoes of the cries of those who watched on as our sacred city of Jerusalem and its Temple were torn down stone from stone and burned to the ground by the Babylonians, with thousands being dragged into captivity hundreds of miles away. To this very day we sing the words our poets wrote as they languished there: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion…”

Now we in Bethany found ourselves weeping once again, for dead Lazarus and for his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Or was it for ourselves, and for the deep loss we all felt in the knowledge that Lazarus would be a part of our lives no longer, but only a memory? Never again would we join with him in his laughter, or sit around his table, or hear his words of wisdom, or be the beneficiaries of his innumerable kindnesses. The thought passed through my mind more than once as I helped to carry Lazarus’ body, tightly wrapped in yards of linen and fragrant with pounds of exotic spices, to its resting place just outside the village, as I grunted to help move the heavy stone across the entry to his tomb, and during the days of deep mourning that followed.

03 March 2008

Bible portraits: Lazarus (Part 1)

Bethany is not a large community by any standards. Sometimes I think the only way people know we exist is that we are the first stop on the winding road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho. I suppose you could hardly say we are a stop, located as we are a mere two miles from Jerusalem, just the other side of the Mount of Olives. Although, when Jerusalem is especially crowded as it very well can be at times such as Passover, Bethany can be a handy spot to hang your hat.

Many people consider that the best feature of Bethany—its closeness to Jerusalem. I suppose it is convenient to know that just half an hour away you have all the amenities of a large city. Yet for me and for most of us who live here, what we like most about Bethany is its smallness. None of the anonymity or the dirt or the crime of the city here! Bethany is small enough that we can all know one another, and as a result there is a great deal of caring that goes on. In many ways we are more like a large household than a village. Besides that, nearly all our families have lived here for generations, so that most of us are related in one way or another.

Nothing can happen here without someone finding out about it pretty quickly. So it was, when one of our most prominent townsfolk, Lazarus, was confined to bed, everybody knew about it. For many of us it did not come as a surprise. We had noticed for a while that Lazarus was not looking himself. Normally he was robust and cheerful, full of energy, the life of the party. He always had time to listen and he would never withhold his help when someone was in trouble or in need. Yet recently he had become withdrawn. He seemed tired, and the color had gradually drained from his face. No one knew what the matter was. And you don’t like to ask in those situations for fear of appearing nosy or intrusive. So we watched as Lazarus gradually went downhill, not knowing what to think or say or do.

Of course his two sisters cared for him wonderfully. Martha has to be the finest cook in town. There is nothing that can equal her fatted fowl or broiled fish with vegetable and herb broth. One of the greatest pleasures was to be invited to Martha’s home for a meal. You knew you would leave more than satisfied. And when Martha cooked for a festival or a social occasion the whole village would be permeated with the delicious aromas that emanated from her kitchen.

Lazarus’ other sister Mary was a total contrast. She was hopeless around the house. Yet she was universally respected as a woman of prayer. Long before anyone else had arisen and long after most of us had retired for the night, you could see the glow of the little oil lamp in Mary’s room as she stood before the Lord in prayer. Mary’s prayer life was such that there were many who, if we had a particular need, would come to her and ask her to pray for us. And we knew that she would pray tirelessly, unceasingly, and bring our needs before the throne of the Lord. If anyone’s prayers in our village were heard, they had to be Mary’s.

So Lazarus could not have been in better hands with his two sisters, the one making sure that he was properly fed and cared for, the other praying for him night and day. Nevertheless, when we heard that he had become too weak to rise from his bed, we began to realize that what was wrong with Lazarus was something that even the best care in the world could not alleviate.

29 February 2008

Reflection – Reconciliation – Renewal

Each year in our parish towards the middle of Lent, we hold a service of Reflection, Reconciliation and Renewal. It is a time for quiet self-examination and worship, penance and prayer. A short liturgy includes readings from Ezekiel 18:21-32, Psalm 103, and Luke 15:11-32. The following is a resource we offer to those who gather, which I have found helpful.

The questions below are offered for you to reflect upon your life by the light of the Gospel. Knowing and trusting that you are God’s beloved child, allow the Holy Spirit to surface where you have behaved contrary to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in thoughts, words and deeds. When you have finished your reflection those who feel called may go to one of the available priests at the front of the sanctuary, or to a member of Messiah’s healing team at the back.

In relation to God:
• Is my heart set on God, so that I really love God above all things?
• Are private prayer, reading and meditation on Scripture, and Sunday worship with the community a priority?
• Have I love and reverence for the name of God?
• Am I hesitant or ashamed to witness to my faith in Christ in my daily life?
• Am I making an effort to grow spiritually? How? When?
• Am I living as a person of faith, hope and love?
• Do I turn to God only when I am in need?

In relation to my neighbors:
• Am I quick to forgive and slow to judge?
• Do I use others as a means to an end?
• Do I take care of the poor, sick, and defenseless?
• Am I sincere and honest in my dealings with others?
• Have I been the cause of another’s committing sin?
• Are there any relationships that are causing me concern at this time?
• Do I care for and respect the environment in which I live?

In relation to myself:
• Do I truly live as a follower of Christ and give a good example to others?
• Do I really believe that I am made in the image and likeness of God and therefore am one of God’s wondrous creations?
• Am I too concerned about myself, my health and my success?
• What do I spend most of my time thinking about?
• Have I kept my senses and my whole body pure and chaste as a temple of the Holy Spirit?
• Do I bear grudges; do I contemplate revenge?
• Do I seek to be humble and be an instrument of peace?

28 February 2008

Spending an hour in prayer

Have you ever tried devoting an hour to prayer? Many people I know would blanch at the thought. For that reason if for no other, it makes an excellent Lenten discipline—and the hour goes by more quickly than you might ever imagine. Here are some tips I have found helpful:

Be yourself. Don’t think you have to pray with the eloquence of the Book of Common Prayer. Talk with God like you’d talk with your best friend.

Get comfortable. The stiffer you feel, the more formal your relationship will be. Sitting is fine. If kneeling helps, do it. You might want to take an hour’s walk as you talk with your Friend.

Try praying out loud, though not loud enough to disturb others. Being able to hear yourself pray really helps. You’ll find that your mind doesn’t wander as easily and that you can pray more fervently.

Don’t feel you have to do all the talking. Discuss something with the Lord, then be silent for a time. Sometimes God uses these times of listening to implant his answers in our minds. Gradually you’ll find that prayer can be a conversation.

Don’t worry about sticking to a schedule, or even keeping to the times suggested here. It’s only to get you started, to help you believe you actually can spend sixty minutes in prayer. You’ll find God will guide you in your prayer time. Its not a program, it’s a growing relationship.

Now, go for it. Before you put this down, set a time when you will spend an hour with him. You can’t learn to pray from reading any more than you can learn to swim from a textbook. It’s time to get into the water.

This is an adaptation of a document you can find here. You can find another helpful resource here.

14 February 2008

Bible portraits: Nicodemus (Part 3)

Months passed. We heard from our informants that, not long after we had been there, John had identified the one to whom he had pointed. It was a cousin of his, a young carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus. It was not long before we heard stories about him as well.

His message, apparently, was not very different from John’s. But there were other stories as well: of his healing people, some of whom had incurable diseases or who had been disabled for years; of changing water into wine at a wedding reception—and more disturbingly of his offering divine forgiveness to people; and most recently of his striding into the Temple and causing quite a ruckus, turning over the moneychangers’ tables and setting free the sacrificial animals and birds.

Some of my fellow members on the council were scandalized by this and wanted to have him arrested immediately. I must admit that I was more fascinated than upset. To tell you the truth, I really admired someone who had the courage to challenge the corruption of the Temple authorities in the way he did. So through one of my connections I arranged to meet with him personally—privately, of course, as I did not want to do anything to jeopardize my standing on the council.

So it was that we met at night. In the moonlight I could distinguish the outline of his face and see the glisten in his eyes. Aside from all that I had heard already there was something in him that commanded my respect. I could not help but address him with deference. “Rabbi,” I said to him, “everybody is saying that you are a teacher sent by the Almighty himself. No one could do the amazing things I have heard about you without his divine power and blessing.”

It was almost as if he had not heard me. He looked at me and said, “Now listen to me and listen carefully, you will never see the reign of God unless you have been born from above.”

What did he mean by this strange language? What was he getting at? “Pardon me if I am missing what you are saying,” I replied to him. “But how can anyone be born when they are fully grown? Do you expect people to crawl back into their mother’s womb and go through the birth process all over again?”

“Listen again,” he said to me, “and listen carefully, for what I am saying is of eternal significance. No one can enter God’s reign unless they have been born of water and the Spirit. Don’t let my words about being born from above leave you in confusion. Think of the wind. You can hear it whistling in the trees, but you have no control over where it comes from or where it goes. So it is when it comes to receiving new life from the Spirit.”

I will not repeat to you the rest of our conversation. But I can tell you that when I came away my head was spinning. What did he mean by all this born again talk?

Slowly, as I thought about that night and as I thought about the time with John on the Jordan, things began to come together for me. As a Pharisee I had thought that we could make God’s reign a reality by our strict obedience to the Torah. John’s ministry had begun to make me wonder if there were not a better way, through repentance, through allowing God to wash away your defilements in the waters of baptism. But this Jesus was saying something more, that God’s reign is not a matter of trying to be good. It is not even a matter of being baptized. It is allowing God himself to breathe his Spirit into me and bring me life.

Since then this man Jesus has come twice through my life. It was not very long afterwards that his name came up at a meeting of the Sanhedrin. It seems that there were some who were hailing him as a Messiah, which put him on our list of dangerous characters. Some of them wanted to bring him to trial immediately, but I sought to persuade them to meet with him and hear from him in the same way as I had.

My attempt at reasonableness did not prevail. Soon he was being dragged into a mockery of a trial, where he was sentenced to the most humiliating death, the death of the most common criminal, death by crucifixion. One of my fellow council members, Joseph of Arimathea, persuaded me to assist him in providing the hundred-or-so pounds of spices that would be needed if he was at least to receive a decent burial. Since then we have heard reports that his body was not to be found, and, more amazingly still, that he has appeared to a number of his followers.

As I turned that conversation, and all the events since, over and over in my mind I began to recognize what my problem was. What was keeping me from the kingdom of God was the very thing I relied on—my vain attempts to get there through my own effort. What I needed was not more rules and ceremonies, but God’s Holy Spirit to give me life within. It is certainly not my intention to be intrusive. So pardon me if I ask whether this might not be an issue for you too. And if anything that I have said this morning has touched your heart, perhaps you would be willing to take a moment to pray with me now…

Gracious God,
we thank you that you have not made it difficult
to enter your kingdom:
that you do not require of us
works of righteousness or ritual acts,
but only that we open ourselves
to the fresh breath of your Holy Spirit;
breathe your new life into us, we pray,
that, filled with your presence,
we may know the reality of your reign.