CONFESSION OF SAINT PETER

The Confession of St. Peter
(Acts 4:8-13, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 5:1-11, Matthew 16:13-19)

Collect
Almighty Father, who inspired Simon Peter, first among the apostles, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God: Keep your Church steadfast upon the rock of this faith, that in unity and peace we may proclaim the one truth and follow the one Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 16:15–16 (ESV): 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some of us here are old enough to remember the Senate Watergate Hearings in 1973, hearings which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. A relatively young senator from Tennessee, Howard Baker, Jr., emerged as a key figure in those hearings, not simply by virtue of being the ranking minority member of the Senate Watergate Committee, but by virtue of a crucial question he posed: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” The issue there was a presidential coverup of a crime: Did the President know that a crime had been committed and, if so, when did he know it?

That same question takes a theological turn if asked about Jesus: What did Jesus know, and when did he know it? Was Jesus born knowing his divine identity or did he grow into that knowledge and conviction as Mary and Joseph told him the story of his birth or as he studied the prophetic scriptures that pointed toward him? Did the Father, at some particular point, reveal to Jesus his divine Sonship? If so, was that at age twelve in the Temple or at age thirty at the Jordan when a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17)? Such questions abound: What did Jesus know, and when did he know it?

I don’t think we can answer that question with certainty; we simply don’t know, and can’t know, what it’s like to be the incarnate Son of God, to know as Jesus knew. The best answer I’ve ever heard, and the best that I think we can give, comes from Canon Stephen Gautier who said, in paraphrase, Jesus knew everything he needed to know, at every point in his life, in order to perfectly accomplish his unique vocation. Yes, I think we can state that with certainty. It answers the question without actually answering the question, and it does so very well.

My own opinion — and keep in mind that it is worth precisely and only what you paid for it — is that, in his humanity, Jesus’ knowledge was much like ours. There were some things he knew with certainty and there were other things that he had to discern through prayer, study of Scripture, wise counsel, signs from God and man. For instance, we know with certainty that God is, that God loves us, that God works all things together for our good and for our salvation. In general, we know God’s will: that we love him with all our heart and soul and mind and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. But, what that looks like in any particular moment, what light that knowledge sheds on any particular decision facing us may not be, and often is not, perfectly clear. And so we pray, we search the Scriptures, we seek wise counsel from spiritual fathers and mothers, we look for signs from God and man. Then, we act in faith, with a desire to please God, believing that, as Thomas Merton wrote, our desire to please God really does please him, and that, if we are in error, God will not abandon us there, but will finally lead us along the right way. If Jesus were fully human as Scripture asserts and as we believe, then I see no reason to suppose his experience of humanity was any different than this.

I believe we see evidence of Jesus using all these methods of discernment in the Gospels. He is living in obscurity in Nazareth, plying his trade as a tekton, a craftsman, when reports reach him of a wild-man prophet down at the Jordan, calling people to a baptism for the repentance of sins and proclaiming that one greater than he is to come, one whose sandals he is not worthy to loose, one who will baptize not with water but with fire and the Spirit, one who will be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Apparently, Jesus discerns in this report the sign he has been waiting for. He lays aside his tools, says goodbye to his family, and makes his way to the Jordan. His act of discernment is then ratified by the voice — God’s voice — from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

But now what? Jesus listens to the Spirit, follows the Spirit, as the Spirit throws him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And, in the wilderness Jesus searches Scripture — the Scripture that he has stored in his mind and heart — for the answer to the temptations that Satan hurls at him. He discerns the will of God in the moment.

At the wedding at Cana in Galilee, Jesus first seems reluctant to involve himself with the host’s dilemma, a shortage of wine: “My time has not yet come,” Jesus says to his mother. And yet, when Mary acts very much as if she expects him to do something — “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants — Jesus seems to discern through her actions that it is indeed fitting and right for him to perform the first sign of his ministry.

Before he called the Apostles, Jesus spent the night in discerning prayer as he did also the night before he died.

There is the Syro-Phoenician woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter. There are many ways to read this particular story, but one way is to see her faith as persuasive — a sign from God that Jesus is to extend his ministry to this Gentile woman and her daughter.

We can multiply examples, but these may suffice to support my supposition: Jesus, in his human nature, seems to have used all those means of discernment that we are so often thrown back upon: prayer, Scripture, counsel — human and divine — and signs from God often through people.

This bring us to the text for this feast day, The Confession of St. Peter. Hear it again.

Matthew 16:13–19 (ESV): 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

There is much we need to explore here, and we’ll do a bit of that in a minute. But first, I want you to hear the next two verses, which weren’t included in our reading.

Matthew 16:20–21 (ESV): 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Peter’s confession was an inflection point in Jesus’ ministry. Conflict with the Jewish authorities had been increasing for awhile; the pressure on Jesus was growing. It seems clear that Jesus knew the end of his ministry was drawing nearer and the cross was looming larger. But this — Peter’s Confession — was the moment when everything seems to accelerate, the moment when Jesus begins to make clear to his disciples what he knows to be coming. In short, it seems that Jesus discerns Peter’s Confession as a sign from God — from whom the revelation came to Peter — that this is the moment to draw all things to Jerusalem, to Gethsemane, to Golgotha. This was the sign he may well have been waiting for, and now he accelerates the pace and takes some decisive actions, not least by revealing his glory six days later in the Transfiguration and by calling his disciples to cruciform discipleship: Take up your cross and follow me.

I may be wrong in my understanding of what’s going on here; remember, we do not and cannot know what it’s like to be the incarnate Son of God. But this reads like a moment of discernment in which Jesus, in his humanity, perceives a sign from God through Peter directing him toward the climax of his ministry. I find that encouraging, that the man Jesus discerned the will of God just as we must do. I find it helpful to see how the man Jesus did so: through prayer, in Scripture, through the words and deeds of others, and through signs from God acting through men and women.

This is how I see Peter’s Confession working in the Gospel narrative. But, the content of the confession is central to the Gospel, too, and we need to turn our attention to that, at least briefly.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter says. He probably doesn’t know what he’s saying; it is a revelation from God, remember, and not a rational deduction from Peter. He certainly doesn’t know fully what he is saying. That will take some time to flesh out: time and the Resurrection and the the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But we know now the meaning of what Peter said then, and what he grew to understand.

You are the Christ, the Messiah, the one anointed by God to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, the one appointed to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham to bless Israel and through Israel to bless the world.

You are the Son of the living God. Here we have to be a bit careful not to let our modern ideas interfere with, and even limit, the biblical notion of sonship. We think in terms of biology, DNA. But, I would suggest that the Bible looks at sonship through the lenses of image bearing, authority, and obedience.

The son is the one who bears the image, the imprint of the father. To look at the son — not just at his appearance, but at the totality of his being — is to look at the father. A man may have several biological sons, but of one it might be said, “He is really his father’s son.” In our ordinary speech we mean that this one son, among all the others, best images his father, best shows forth who his father is. Jesus was uniquely the Son of the living God in just that way: the perfect image bearer of the Father. So St. Paul writes:

Colossians 1:15 (ESV): 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

And again:

Colossians 1:19 (ESV): 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

The son bears the image of the father. But, there is more. The son acts with the authority of the father. Jesus combines these characteristics of sonship in his response to Philip in the upper room:

John 14:8–11 (ESV): 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

And again, Jesus emphasizes that he bears the authority of the Father in the Great Commission:

Matthew 28:18 (ESV): 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Though the Father is not mentioned explicitly, Jesus makes clear throughout his whole ministry that he has come to do the will of his Father, that he has come to make the Father known, that he does only what he sees the Father doing, that his entire ministry and the authority for it are under the auspices of the Father. The Son is the one who acts with and under the authority of the Father.

And that means that the Son is the one who perfectly does the will of the Father, is perfectly obedient to the Father in all things. We have it directly from the Lord:

John 6:38–40 (ESV): 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

And again, in the ultimate moment of decision, it is Jesus’ submission to the will of Father that shines through:

Matthew 26:39–42 (ESV): 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

The Son does the Father’s will, even unto death.

I doubt that Peter understood the true depth of what he was saying. I doubt that we do, even now, thought the Church has had two millennia to ponder it. But his confession was an inflection point Jesus’ ministry and, if I am even vaguely correct in my reading of it, an example of the man Jesus discerning the will of God. It was also a further revealing of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and, through that, as Saviour of the world; a further revelation of Jesus as the Son of the living God — the perfect image-bearer, the one who acts with the authority of the Father, and the one who seeks only the will of the Father. It is the perfect model for our own confession.

Matthew 16:15–16 (ESV): 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Amen.

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Feast of the Circumcision and Holy Name

The Circumcision and Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ
(Ex 34:1-9, Ps 8, Rom 1:1-7, Lk 2:15-21)

Luke 2:21 (ESV): 21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A great novelist is writing a sweeping saga, a grand story spanning generations and geography, vast ranges of time and space. He knows the story from beginning to end, from “once upon a time” to “they lived happily ever after.” It is a good and very good story he has in mind. The author has created a cast of vividly written and uniquely realistic characters: so realistic that they seem to leap off the page, almost to have lives and wills of their own. And, in fact, they have come to do. The author has breathed so much of himself into these characters that astonishingly they have come to life. They begin to act independently of him, to say and do things he had never intended, to take the story in directions far from the good plot and climax he had in mind. They begin to do harm to themselves and others. The more the author tries to edit the pages, the more he writes them new and better sets of lines, the more he redirects the plot, the more the characters rebel and plunge headlong down a storyline of destruction. What is the author to do? Perhaps it is time to throw the manuscript into the fireplace, to consign it to dust and ashes and to start anew?

But, no: the author has another plan in mind — a daring, risky venture. The author decides to add another character to the cast. He decides to write himself into the story in a way never known before and never done since: as the perfect union of author and character. The author will live among his characters as one of them and re-write the narrative from inside the story. Of course, there is more than a little jeopardy in that bold move, given the wayward nature of the characters and the plot gone awry.

To become truly one of the characters, the novelist decides not to enter the story with great authorial power and glory, but instead to be born into the story meekly — to be born into obscurity in the story — and to grow up learning, from the inside, what it means to be a character: to live and love as a character, to rejoice and to suffer as a character. So, the author plots his own birth, with some strong hints placed in the story beforehand to point toward his identity. He grows up and lives in a messy family. He learns a trade and plies it for several years to support that messy family. One day, he lays aside the tools of his trade and “takes up his pen” to begin re-writing, redeeming the story. Yes, the author enters the story, but not generally, not generically. He enters the specific story of the specific characters he came to rescue.

The kingdom of God is like this. Oh, this parable falls apart if pushed too far, as all parables do, and it is certainly not right in all its details. But, in essence, it is true. It is the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve. It is the story of man, male and female, the story of all of us, neither you nor I excepted. It is the story of Israel: called and created, delivered, rebellious, exiled, waiting for the fulfillment of promises that seem hopelessly broken. And it is the story of Jesus, the Author-become-character, who enters the story, who places himself at the mercy of the twisted and broken characters who have “untold” their own story, deformed God’s own story — all to save them, to re-write and redeem the story, to bring it to its good and very good end.

Jesus entered the story of man at his incarnation, when, as St. John writes, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a, ESV). We celebrated that wonder a mere week ago, and we are celebrating it still throughout Christmastide; twelve days is not nearly enough, but it is what we are given. Today, eight days from the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate Jesus’ entry into a particular story, not just the story of man, but the story of Israel.

Luke 2:21 (ESV): 21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

The incarnation of the Lord marked Jesus out as the flesh-bearing son of Adam, a man subject to temptation, though not guilty of sin, a man in solidarity with all men. But the circumcision of the Lord — on the eighth day according to the Law — marked Jesus out, in the flesh of his incarnation — as the covenant-bearing son of Abraham, subject to the Law, though not guilty of it, a son of Abraham in solidarity with all Israel. These two events, incarnation and circumcision, locate Jesus in a particular story: in the Story of God’s redemptive purpose for all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve through this one, particular son of Abraham, through this one and only-begotten Son of God, through the one particular story of Israel. We cannot remove Jesus from that particular story to create an abstract Christ, some gnostic redemptive power, some generic spiritual principle or some good, moral teacher. No, the incarnation and the circumcision will not allow that. These two gritty, fleshly events root Jesus inextricably in the story of Israel — the story of Israel for the world. It is through Israel, through this one faithful son of Israel — Jesus, the Messiah — that the author will re-write the story of us all.

It is tempting to dismiss the circumcision of Jesus as a quaint Jewish practice and tale with no meaning for us, no application to us. We might even wonder why the Church still observes it as a holy day. But, we would dismiss it and remove it from our liturgical calendar only at great loss. While it is the story pertaining to Israel, a story of Jesus’ identification with Israel, it is also your story and mine, as St. Paul insists.

In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul weaves these two Christological themes — incarnation and circumcision — together with yet a third theme, baptism. It is precisely our baptism that locates us in the same story; it is precisely our baptism that offers us a point of inclusion in the mysteries of incarnation and circumcision:

Colossians 2:8–15 (ESV): 9 For in him [in Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Our baptism — a spiritual circumcision which removes not a small piece of skin but the entire body of flesh and sin — marks us as the Spirit-bearing sons and daughters of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in solidarity with the incarnation, circumcision, life, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord. Jesus joined the story of man and the particular story of Israel in his incarnation and circumcision. We join the story of Jesus in our baptism.

In the Anglican Rite of Holy Baptism, the bishop or priest presiding may place a hand on the head of the newly baptized saint, mark on his or her forehead the sign of the cross with Holy Chrism, call the new child of God by name and say:

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 169).

As Jesus was marked in his flesh as a son of Abraham by circumcision, we are marked on the body and in the spirit as sons and daughters of God in our baptism. We enter and take our part in the ancient story, in solidarity with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus assumed our flesh in the incarnation and became part of Israel’s story and vocation for the redemption of the world through his circumcision, so that in and through baptism we might bear the Spirit and become part of God’s story and vocation for the redemption of the world.

As wondrous as that is, it is only part of the story of this day.

Luke 2:21 (ESV): 21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Jesus was not only circumcised on the eighth day; he was also named as the angel had instructed a very confused and disillusioned Joseph:

Matthew 1:20–25 (ESV): But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Jesus, savior: savior by virtue of being Immanuel, God with us, savior by virtue of being one of us — fully God and fully man. His name was not an arbitrary or meaningless label, not simply something for Mary to yell at the boy when she wanted him to come home for supper. His name was another identification with Israel’s story, a fulfillment of the heroic and faithful figure of Joshua whose name Jesus bore. Joshua led Israel into the land that was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham: a people and a land. Jesus would lead us all to the fulfillment of God’s greater promise to Abraham: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3b, ESV).

Jesus: there is mystery and power and glory and love and mercy in that name. All things in heaven and on earth find their origin and fulfillment in that name.

Luke 1:26–35 (ESV): 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.

“You shall call his name Jesus.” Jesus: Son of the Most High. Jesus: Son of David. Jesus: King of all ages.

Luke 2:8–21 (ESV): 8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Jesus: Glory and good news of angels. Jesus: Joy of all people. Jesus: Wonder of shepherds. Jesus: Mystery and treasure of the human heart.

Luke 2:25–32 (ESV): 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Jesus: Salvation made manifest to all peoples. Jesus: Light of the Gentiles. Jesus: Glory of Israel. Jesus: Fulfillment of God’s word and climax of life.

Bartimaeus will not allow us to forget Jesus, hope and sight of the blind.

And the Geresene demoniac, now freed, clothed, and in his right mind would remind us of Jesus, terror of demons and deliverer of the oppressed.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus proclaim Jesus: Resurrection and Life, Conqueror of death.

Stephen, with his last breath would witness of Jesus, vision of heaven; Jesus, courage and strength of martyrs; Jesus fount of forgiveness to enemies.

Our every prayer proclaims Jesus’ name: Jesus, our only mediator and advocate. Jesus, our great high priest through whom we have access to his Father and our Father.

And so, we hymn the holy name of Jesus:

Jesus, God before the ages.
Jesus, King almighty.
Jesus, Master long-suffering.
Jesus, Saviour most merciful.
Jesus [my] Guardian most kind.
Jesus, invincible Power.
Jesus, unending Mercy.
Jesus, radiant Beauty.
Jesus, unspeakable Love.
Jesus, Creator of those on high.
Jesus, Redeemer of those below.
Jesus, Vanquisher of the nethermost powers.
Jesus, Adorner of every creature.
Jesus, Comforter of my soul.
Jesus, Enlightener of my mind.
Jesus, Gladness of my heart.
Jesus, Health of my body.
Jesus, my Savior, save me (adapted from “The Akathist Hymn To Jesus Christ,” in “A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians” (2009), Holy Transfiguration Monastery).

Luke 2:21 (ESV): 21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Dear brothers and sisters — people of God — you and I bear that holy name of Jesus. It was given to us and we were given to it. It was poured over us in water, and signed on us with oil. It was invoked over us and we were sealed with it forever in our baptism. It is the most glorious privilege and the most awe-filled burden that anyone can bear. You will leave here soon, bearing the name of Jesus, going into the world to do the work you have been given to do. And so, St. Paul enjoins all the name-bearers of Jesus:

Colossians 3:17 (ESV): 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Whatever we do, whatever we say or think, we do in the holy name of Jesus. And so, it is right, our duty and our joy to pray:

Almighty God, your blessed Son fulfilled the covenant of circumcision for our sake, and was given the Name that is above every name: Give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, and to worship him with pure hearts according to the New Covenant; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Us vs Them

“Us versus Them” and O Rex Gentium:
An Advent Reflection on Isaiah 64:1-2
(Isaiah 64, Psalm 118, Luke 20:1-26)

Collect for The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and as we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for Saint Thomas (21 December)
Everliving God, you strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in you Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Isaiah 64:1–2 (ESV): 64 Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Why the prophet Isaiah’s pleading invocation of God spoken on behalf of the people? Rend the heavens! Come down! Why? The answer comes in the verses immediately preceding our appointed text:

Isaiah 63:17–19 (ESV): 17 O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
18 Your holy people held possession for a little while;
our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.
19 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled,
like those who are not called by your name.

There is a strong “Us versus Them” mentality evident in this passage. Notice how Isaiah characterizes Judah, how Judah characterizes herself: the servants of God, the tribes of God’s heritage, God’s holy people, those over whom God rules, those who are called by God’s name. But, as for “Them,” as for the nations, they are the adversaries, the ones who have trampled down God’s own sanctuary.

Rend the heavens! Come down! Deal with Them. Deal with our adversaries; deal with your adversaries. Make the nations tremble at your presence. “Us versus Them,” Israel against the nations and the nations against Israel: thus it had always been.

That story starts in Genesis 11.

Genesis 11:1–9 (ESV): 11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

There is deep, theological resonance between our text in Isaiah and this text from Genesis. It is signaled by the beginning of verse 7, God speaking: “Come, let us go down.” What Isaiah was pleading for — Rend the heavens and come down. — had happened before, on a plain in the land of Shinar when God had rent the heavens and come down in judgment against a stubborn and rebellious people. And God’s judgment wasn’t just the confusion of tongues — the creation of languages — but the creation of nations. This is the beginning of “Us versus Them,” Israel versus the Nations. This is spelled out in Deuteronomy, in the great, final Song of Moses:

Deuteronomy 32:7–12 (ESV): 7 Remember the days of old;
consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
your elders, and they will tell you.
8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
9 But the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
10 “He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11 Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
12 the Lord alone guided him,
no foreign god was with him.

There is much to be said about this passage — much which must remain unsaid due to the limitations of time — but the heart of it is this: when the people rebelled against God at Babel, God created and separated nations one from another and gave those nations into the keeping of other spiritual powers, called the sons of God in the text. God did not take one of those nations for his own portion. Rather, he created an entirely new nation from one man, Abram, through his sons Isaac and Jacob: God’s people, God’s portion. And there began “Us versus Them,” not by God’s intent, but by Israel’s misunderstanding of her own nature and calling and by the nations’ descent into idolatry. It was never intended to be “Israel versus the Nations,” but rather “Israel for the Nations.” Israel was to be the signpost for the nations, a light to manifest the righteous rule of God and to call all nations to it; this is what it looks like to be the holy people of God. This is what God intends for all people and for all nations. But, Israel became proprietary and the nations became idolatrous and the world became “Us versus Them.” Hence the prophet’s cry:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence.

But, this “Us versus Them” conflict between Israel and the nations can’t be the end of the story, because it was not God’s intent from the beginning of the story. And that brings us round to the great hope of Advent. There is a wonderful, holy coincidence at work today, which is to say not a coincidence at all but a subtle manifestation of the great mercy of God. I’ve spoken to you before of the Great O Antiphons of Advent: beautiful, traditional musical introductions to the Magnificat sung at Evening Prayer in the final week of Advent. They are called the “O” Antiphons because each is introduced with the interjection “O” followed by some name or description of the one who is to come, Jesus. We begin with O Sapientia (Wisdom) on 16 December, followed by O Adonai (Lord), O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (Key of David), O Oriens (Dayspring). That bring us to today, 21 December, when the reading from Isaiah calls for the Lord to rend the heavens to come down to make the nations tremble: “Us versus Them.” Today’s O Antiphon is O Rex Gentium — O King of the Nations:

O King of the nations, and their Desire;
the Cornerstone, who makest both one:
Come, and save mankind, whom thou formedst of clay.

Do you see how the “Us versus Them” of Israel and the nations is destroyed in the coming of Christ who is the King of the nations, the Desire of the Nations, the one who comes to make Israel and the Nations one, who comes to save not just Israel, but all mankind, all those formed of clay? The O Antiphon for this day is the answer to Isaiah’s invocation, but an answer that radically overturns and fulfills Israel’s plea. Yes, God will rend the heavens and come down. And yes, God will make the nations tremble, not with fear but with joy and desire. The “Us versus Them” will again become “Us for Them” as God intended and even more: “Us with Them,” or simply “Us” as the arbitrary distinctions vanish in the love and grace of the One who is to come.

Righteous, old Simeon saw this when he took Jesus into his arms and quietly sang:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel (Nunc Dimittis, BCP 1979).

The Savior whom Simeon held in his arms had been prepared from before the foundations of the world not to come down and make the nations tremble, but to come down as a Light to enlighten the nations. And, as beautiful as that is, it is just the firstfruits of what is to come, a glimpse of what we see at the renewal of all things:

Revelation 7:9–12 (ESV): 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

In the end, every vestige of “Us versus Them” is swallowed up in the mercy of God, nailed to the cross and abolished by the victory of the One who came and who is to come, The King of the Nations and the Glory of Israel.

Isn’t God gracious to weave all these themes together for us today in this great tapestry of grace? And how should we respond? Perhaps this prayer is a good place to start.

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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The Four Last Things of Advent

Session 4 — Hell

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

The fourth Sunday of Advent brings us to the last of the four last things: hell. This is a topic I have no desire to speak of. It is, in some sense, unspeakable and unthinkable, because the thought of someone — anyone — being separated eternally from the grace of God is unimaginable. It could easily plunge one into a state of hopelessness. I think it is important to start, then, not with a sense of despair, but with a word of hope from the prophet Jonah.

Jonah 1:1–2 (ESV): 1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

You know how the next part of the story goes, so we don’t need to rehearse it. We’ll pick up just after the great fish has vomited Jonah onto dry land and the Lord speaks again.

Jonah 3:1–10 (ESV): 3 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

The story begins with God’s proclamation of judgment against Nineveh and the coming destruction of the city. But, as Jonah knew, and as the text makes clear, destruction was never God’s intent. Instead, the decree of judgment was issued as a warning: if you continue down this path, destruction will come. Jonah’s proclamation of judgment was given to compel the people to repentance. That is exactly what God intended and exactly what happened.

Jonah 4:1–2 (ESV): 4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

So, I begin here: any “threat” of Gehenna, Hades, or Tarturos — the New Testament terms often incorrectly lumped together under the single English word “hell” — any mention of that is meant as the word of judgment to Nineveh was meant: as warning, as call to repentance, as plea to be reconciled to God, and not as inescapable condemnation. Any discussion of Hell must be situated in that context which is expressed so beautifully and memorably in John 3:16-17:

John 3:16–17 (ESV): 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

With that context, we can now turn to the relatively scant New Testament teaching on hell. Note: I will use the term “hell” as an umbrella word, but I’ll disambiguate, I’ll distinguish among Gehenna, Hades, and Tarturos as we discuss individual texts.

GEHENNA

We are the children of the Enlightenment and the Reformation, and that has formed how we read Scripture, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. We bring our questions to the text and demand answers; that means we sometimes filter out the actual questions and issues that the text wants to and does address. Oftentimes we find ourselves as twenty-first century Christians asking sixteenth century questions of a first century text. And that can cause problems of interpretation.

The Reformation reading of Scripture tends toward the individualistic. Those who have inherited it — most modern evangelical Protestants, most modern Western Christians — want the answer to this question: What must I do to be saved? That is an important question, and one that we should ask. It needs to be clarified and worked through carefully and scripturally. What many people mean is, What do I have to do so that when I die my soul will go to eternal reward in heaven and not to eternal punishment in hell? As we saw in our discussion of heaven, that is not exactly the right way to frame the concern and the question, and I’d want to clarify that. It’s not a bad place to start; it is perhaps the beginning of true and life-giving repentance. But I’d like you to notice how inherently individualistic the question is. It is about one’s individual salvation: again, not unimportant, but slightly off kilter with the main thrust of the Gospel.

In light of that, this statement may sound controversial; I think it shouldn’t, but it may: the message of Jesus was not primarily individual but corporate. Let me say it another way: the Gospel is individual only by virtue of first being corporate. What was the essence of Jesus’ proclamation? What did he come preaching?

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17b, ESV).

That is a kingdom message, not primarily an individual message; it was spoken to the whole house of Israel — corporately to all Israel:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24, ESV).

My point here is simple: Jesus came to Israel announcing the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, that is, the fulfillment of Covenants, the Law, and the Prophets. What YHWH had promised to Israel, Jesus was fulfilling in his person and ministry. That is a corporate message to Israel that had little primarily/firstly to do with how individuals might go to heaven and avoid hell. All of that, with appropriate nuance, will come later, and it is vitally important, but it is not the primary thrust of Jesus’ message in the Gospels. So, please hear me clearly when I say that Jesus’ message was primarily to Israel, but that it is also for us. It was primarily corporate, but by being corporate it calls us individually into a corporate body, and that call has vast individual implications.

It may be hard to wrap our heads around that because of the way we’ve been taught to read the story, but it is vital that we do so, or we’ll distort the story. The main idea is that Jesus is first and foremost speaking corporately to Israel, announcing how God is fulfilling his promises, and laying out for all the people what it looks like to live in the inbreaking Kingdom of God. That is, for example, the heart of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes: guidelines for what it looks like to be faithful Israel in the inbreaking Kingdom of God. Live this way, and as a nation you will be blessed; you’ll get in on the Kingdom. And what happens if you don’t get with the Gospel program; what happens if you reject Jesus and his way of being Israel? You will find yourself — your nation — consigned to Gehenna. This word, “Gehenna,” is the term most frequently used by Jesus to express the loss incurred for failing to live in relationship with him and in accordance with his kingdom agenda. It is confusingly translated as “hell” in many English Bibles. You probably know its true origin and meaning. The Valley of Hinnom, or Gehinnom, outside the walls of Jerusalem had a notorious history. In the Old Testament, it was a desecrated place where some of the kings of Judah had sacrificed their children in the fire (Jer 19:2-6). Later, and likely because of this, it became a place associated with divine judgment and punishment. During the Second Temple period and the time of Jesus, Gehenna was used as Jerusalem’s trash heap. The fires were constantly lit there and it smoldered continually. It was a visual image of waste and destruction.

Now, let’s put all this together. Jesus came primarily with a corporate message to Israel. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand in and through the person and teaching of Jesus. Jesus laid out before them two ways: life according to his way, his kingdom agenda, or death according to the way of resistance. If Israel chose to continue down the path they were on, the nation would find itself destroyed and relegated to the trash heap of history — whose visual image was Gehenna — by the Romans. And, of course, that is just what happened some forty years after Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion.

This is, I think, where we must start in understanding Jesus’ words about Gehenna: a corporate warning to Israel about the consequences of rejecting Jesus and their peculiar vocation to live as witnesses to the inbreaking Kingdom of God. That does not mean that we neglect the personal implications of Jesus’ message; we are each to live in faithfulness to him and in accordance with his teaching. Just as there was corporate loss to Israel for failing to do so, there will be individual loss for any of us in failing to do so. But, we must also be cautious in making an equivalence between Gehenna and popular, modern notions of hell.

Gehenna: Mt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9, 23:15, 33; Mk 9:43, 45, 47; Lk 12:5; James 3:6

HADES

Sheol is the general name for the place of the dead in the Old Testament; Hades is sometimes used in a similar way in the New Testament, as in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost:

Acts 2:22–32 (ESV): 22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him,

“ ‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

But, as we noted in our previous session on death, the understanding of Sheol varies from the shadowy, diminished state of all the dead to a state where a distinction was made between the unrighteous and the righteous dead. This distinction is maintained in the New Testament where the place of the dead consists of two regions: Abraham’s bosom (or Paradise), the place of rest and refreshment for the righteous, and Hades, the place of punishment for the wicked. This is perhaps seem most clearly in Jesus’ parable of Dives and Lazarus:

Luke 16:19–31 (ESV): 19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”

The common second temple cultural view of Sheol — Abraham’s bosom and Hades — forms the backdrop of this parable, but it is not the main point of the parable. In other words, Jesus does not tell this parable to teach about the geography of the afterlife. He tells it to warn about the dangers of riches and the moral obligation of the rich to care for the poor. He tells it to emphasize that temporal decisions have eternal consequences. He tells it to caution against greed and to promote generosity. For that reason, I would not want to push the parable too far as a description of the afterlife beyond these basic ideas: what you do now in this life matters eternally, and real loss is as possible as real reward is certain. The parable also contains a note of finality; decisions made in life are confirmed and ratified in death with no apparent chance of change. This is a strike against the resurgence of universalism, the notion that given a post-mortem eternity, all will ultimately be won over by the love of Christ and will enter the kingdom of God. You may have seen bumper stickers and signs — some church signs — that say “Love wins.” That was the title of a popular book by former mega church pastor Rob Bell: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It is a false universalist claim that all people will ultimately be won over by the love of God, either during life our afterward. While that notion may be emotionally satisfying, it is Scripturally unfounded and heterodox. It seriously distorts the Gospel; it creates a false Gospel.

Hades is also used symbolically to denote God’s judgment, not necessarily against individuals, but against cities and peoples:

Matthew 11:20–24 (ESV): 20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Hades is also personified in Scripture as an evil power that rebels against God and stands athwart his redemptive purposes in Christ. We encounter it in Revelation:

Revelation 6:7–8 (ESV): 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

Revelation 20:12–15 (ESV): 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

There are two points that I wish to draw from these passages. First, though Death and Hades are the enemies of God, God uses them for his purposes of judgment. In this sense, they are like Assyria and Babylon in the Old Testament. Second, Death and Hades, which we consider to be the last word in punishment, will themselves be punished in the lake of fire. This seems to be the final destiny of those who resolutely set themselves against God, a terrifying possibility.

Revelation 20:14–15 (ESV): 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 (ESV): 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

We see this lake of fire in Jesus’ parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25, also:

Matthew 25:41–46 (ESV): 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

If there is anything that corresponds to our general notion of hell, it is probably the lake of fire and the second death. As with Hades, these is no implication that this is anything but a final, irrevocable destiny.

TARTAROS

There is one additional word used in the New Testament for a place of confinement and punishment, though what it has to do with humans is not clear: Tartaros.

2 Peter 2:1–10 (ESV): 2 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.

God has consigned certain sinful angels to confinement in gloomy darkness until the final judgment and their ultimate consignment to the lake of fire. This likely refers to those angels in Genesis 6:1-4, about whom much more information is given in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. It may be — I suspect it is — these angels about whom St. Peter also writes:

1 Peter 3:18–20 (ESV): 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

Christ’s proclamation would have been of his victory and of the final judgment coming to these rebellious angels; it was almost certainly a shout of victory and not a call to Gospel repentance. For those in Tartaros, apparently no repentance is possible.

SUMMARY

So that is a relatively brief overview of what Scripture has to say about what we call hell. It leaves us with many unanswered questions about which some people speculate endlessly and other people answer with a sort of false confidence. It is not a theme that we Anglicans are noted for, because it is horrible to contemplate that even one person — the vilest imaginable person — might ultimately be separated eternally from God. But, since that seems to be the case, since that seems to be the clear teaching of Scripture, believed always, everywhere, and by all, we must take the reality of hell seriously — not fearfully, but seriously as this prayer captures:

Most loving Father, you will us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on the One who cares for us. Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested unto us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 670).

The loss of God is a terrible potential reality, the loss above all others which we should dread. That possibility must turn us to prayer and not to despair. I think C. S. Lewis offers some perspective about how to approach this reality; he was speaking of demons in The Screwtape Letters, but the principle holds, I think, with respect to hell, and I will adapt his statement accordingly:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about hell. One is to disbelieve in its existence and to ignore it. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in it.

I would like to close this session on hell with one other quote by Lewis, this one from his imaginative journey to heaven and hell, The Great Divorce:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

THE FOUR LAST THINGS: CONCLUSION

As we Anglicans are wont to say, “Here endeth the lesson,” or rather the series of lessons on The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The Church gives us these Advent themes as God gave the word to Nineveh through Jonah, that we might repent, return, and prepare for the Lord’s coming. Whether at our death or in the far distant future, the Advent Acclamation is nonetheless true:

Surely the Lord is coming soon,
Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

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Advent: The Four Last Things

Session 3 — Heaven

ADVENT: THE FOUR LAST THINGS
Session 3 — Heaven

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

A Collect for Sabbath Rest Saturday
Almighty God, who after the creation of the world didst rest from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p.24).

This collect from Morning Prayer first appeared in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, and it was retained in the ACNA’s BCP 2019. The prayer was written by Edward Benson (1829-1896), archbishop of Canterbury (1883-1896); so, it is a relatively modern prayer, obviously predating the standard Book of Common Prayer, the BCP 1662. It is a lovely prayer; unfortunately, it is a theologically questionable prayer. With respect to my spiritual betters, among whom I count Archbishop Benson and the ACNA Liturgy Taskforce, I would even say that, in some of its major themes, the prayer is simply wrong.

Let me lay out my concerns with it. In doing so, I’ll be expressing similar concerns with much common modern piety. I dare say the majority of Christians today probably embrace the errors contained in the prayer. These errors are so engrained in Christian thought that to challenge them is to upset the theological apple cart. I no longer have the desire to do such things for the sake of sheer contrariness — once I did, but no longer — but, I think we must be faithful to Scripture, and I think Scripture stands counter to this prayer in two regards.

To see what I mean, let me ask two questions. According to the prayer, (1) Where will Christians spend eternity? and (2) What will they be doing there?

If I am reading the prayer correctly, it says that Christians will spend eternity in heaven in a state of eternal rest. To begin to see what’s wrong with that, let me ask another question: What is missing from that picture? The resurrection! And yet, each morning and evening in the Daily Office we proclaim the resurrection in the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” In the Nicene Creed at each Eucharist we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” But, in the prayer’s version of the life everlasting or the life of the world to come, there is no explicit mention of and no real need or place for the resurrection of the body. Would I really need a body in heaven? Would I really need a body in order to rest? The problem with the prayer is that it envisions, or at least supports, an erroneous view of the afterlife which is more Platonic than Christian, a view that goes something like this: when a Christian dies, his/her soul goes to heaven to be with the Lord forever. And, those who do not die, those who are still alive when the Lord comes again, will slough off the body and leave the earth behind, to ascend into heaven where they will be forever with the Lord.

These ideas were common fare in the hymns of my youth, and they formed the worshipping imagination of generations of Christians, mine included. Here are just a few examples.

Sweet Hour of Prayer
Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”

Abide With Me
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Away In A Manger
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there

How Great Thou Art
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration
And then proclaim, my God, how great Thou art

When We All Get To Heaven
Sing the wondrous love of Jesus,
Sing His mercy and His grace;
In the mansions bright and blessed
He’ll prepare for us a place.
When we all get to heaven,
What a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
We’ll sing and shout the victory!

Nary a word or thought of resurrection in any of these hymns, just of leaving the body and the world behind in favor of the soul’s eternal rest in heaven: as with the prayer, so with the hymns. But, not so with Scripture. Scripture insists that the telos/goal of human life is not the disembodied soul, but the resurrection body, not eternal rest in heaven, but life in the new heavens and the new earth — life, in fact, at the intersection of the new heaven and the new earth.

So, how have we gotten here to this misunderstanding of the ultimate destiny of human life? The Christian embrace of the philosophy of Platonism is part of the problem. The great literary imagination of Dante and its undue influence on theology is part of the problem. Linguistic and cultural barriers in reading Scripture rightly are part of the problem. Our inability to understand and express concepts beyond our common experience is part of the problem. It is hard work to sort this all out, but we can try to make a beginning — and only a beginning — in the next few minutes.

Let’s start with one of the most basic — and surprisingly difficult — questions: What is heaven? I’m very tempted to say that heaven is the place where God is, and while that is not entirely untrue it does pose a problem. Is heaven really a place like Bowater or Paris, a geographical location in our universe somewhere up there or out there? Yuri Gagarin was the first human to enter outer space. He said many things about that experience, among them this: “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” For a Christian, that is a naive and almost laughable sentiment, as if God were a “thing” in the universe like the moon or the person sitting next to you that could be readily perceived with the human senses. God can make himself known in that way, and he did so supremely in Jesus Christ; but the initiative to do so is always God’s. We don’t go looking for him in that “sensible” way and expect to find him. And, also implicit is Gagarin’s quote is the idea that heaven is a place in space, a physical location beyond earth but one that we should be able to reach through human initiative and technology. There is something in that notion that smacks vaguely of the Tower of Babel. So, when push comes to shove we really don’t think about heaven as a geographical place, though it is common language and probably does no harm as long as we do not take it too seriously.

So, what then is heaven? I really don’t have much better language; everything other than “place” sounds too abstract: the spiritual dimension of God as contrasted with the physical dimension of creation; the spiritual realm of God in which his will is perfectly done and for whose presence we pray in the Lord’s Prayer; the state of perfect communion with God. None of these descriptions gets it right, but, taken together, perhaps they help a bit.

But, whatever — or wherever — heaven is exactly, it does from time to time intersect with the created material order, so that it becomes perceptible to us; it was the Celtic Christians, I believe, who called these points of intersection “thin places.” Eden seems to have been the first “thin place” where heaven and earth intersected, which shows us something of God’s original intent to dwell with man. Jacob experienced an intersection of heaven and earth at Bethel in his vision of the ladder reaching to heaven. For the nation of Israel, the temple was the prime point of intersection; the Holy of Holies was the place where heaven touched earth most directly and concretely. There was the Mount of Transfiguration in the New Testament. And, of course, Jesus is the perfect union of heaven and earth: fully God and fully man. We believe that heaven and earth intersect at the altar, in each celebration of Holy Communion where we join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. This should give us some sense that heaven and earth were never intended to be permanently separated from one another — held far apart — but rather were intended to intersect or overlap or in some other way connect so that God and man might dwell together. Notice what this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that man was intended to abandon the earth or the body to ascend into heaven and dwell there with God in a state of eternal rest. That’s where the prayer and the hymns get it wrong. The Scriptural image is of God and man — fully embodied man — dwelling together at the intersection of heaven and earth. That’s where the story is headed as we see in Revelation 21-22.

So, how do we get there? It is a two step process as we see from Scripture. It begins with the resurrection of the body, as in the Creeds.

1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (ESV): 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Resurrection begins with those who have died prior to the parousia, the return of Jesus on the last great day. Notice verse 14. What does it imply? Those who have died in the faith are with Jesus now and will return with him then. This is what St. Paul speaks of in 2 Cor 5:

2 Corinthians 5:6–9 (ESV): 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.

Right now, while still in the body, we are in some sense away from the Lord. But, when we temporarily lay aside the fleshly body we — the “we” that St. Paul refers to as our spirit — we will be at home with the Lord. And, for St. Paul, being at home with the Lord is more to be desired than continued life in the body:

Philippians 1:21–26 (ESV): 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Interestingly, St. Paul doesn’t use the word heaven to describe where/how he will be present with the Lord after his death. Nor does he give us any details about what the spirits with Christ there will experience or do. But, whatever it is or will be, it is to be preferred to our present existence.

Even though St. Paul doesn’t use the word heaven to refer to our temporary state after death, I think we can legitimately do so. He does say that we will be with Jesus. And, where is Jesus currently?

1 Peter 3:21–22 (ESV): Jesus Christ, 22 [has] has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

There is where we get the notion of the souls of human beings going into heaven to be with God. That is good and sound theology, provided we understand that heaven is a temporary state and not the ultimate destiny of man. When the faithful die, they go — their souls or spirits (the New Testament is not univocal in its language) — go to be with the Lord in a state of rest and refreshment and eager anticipation for the redemption and renewal of all things. Jesus described this state as παράδειςω, paradise, when he promised the brigand on the cross that they would be together that day in Paradise. And, just before that, during or following the Passover meal, Jesus told the apostles not to be troubled. He said:

John 14:2–3 (ESV): 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

These verses have inspired a great many hymns and hopes that, unfortunately, sometimes muddle good theology. The word Jesus uses for the rooms he goes to prepare for us is μοναι. That does not usually signify a permanent residence, but rather a guest room in a house or a temporary place of lodging at an inn, in other words, a place of temporary rest and refreshment.

So, we have the sense that those faithful dead are currently with Christ in a temporary place/state of rest and refreshment and longing/expectation. They are resting, but they are eager for the culmination of all things. Think of a dedicated football player who has exhausted himself on the field. The coach calls him out of the game to rest a moment, to cool off, to hydrate. And while the player enjoys that moment of respite, he is anxious to get back on the field where the action is, where he can participate in the contest and enjoy the victory. That is the picture I think we should have of the state after death which we wrap up in that little word heaven. We get a hint of this eager expectation in Revelation 6:

Revelation 6:9–11 (ESV): 9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

While this speaks specifically of the souls of the martyrs, I see no reason to think that the souls of all the faithful are not also in a similar state of rest and eagerness for the justice of God to prevail on earth. Now, just as an aside, notice that the souls under the altar are conscious and aware of what is transpiring on earth, at least to some extent. They are also in some sense praying because they are calling out to God. This is perhaps the clearest hint of what we might be doing in that temporary state between death and resurrection.

These faithful dead long for the last day, for the return of Christ. For, when it comes — when Christ comes — they will return with him. At that return, the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16); that is, they will participate in the bodily resurrection of which Christ was the firstfruits.

1 Corinthians 15:20–24 (ESV): 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.

St. Paul speaks of an order to the final resurrection: Christ as the firstfruits, the dead in Christ as the first to experience resurrection with him, and finally the changing of those saints who are alive at Christ’s return:

1 Corinthians 15:50–55 (ESV): 50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

It is, in this moment, that we become fully human, that we receive the spiritual body that allows us to dwell in the presence of God. Humans — those who are fully human — are not disembodied spirits, but human spirits united with human spiritual bodies prepared for us by the Holy Spirit.

This is the first stage of the end — resurrection. These second stage is the renewal of all things and the joining of heaven and earth. We get a sense of this in Romans 8, particularly a sense of creation’s longing for and straining toward its renewal:

Romans 8:19–24 (ESV): 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.

At the redemption of our bodies, i.e., when the dead have been raised and the living have been changed and both have been clothed in spiritual bodies, then creation itself will be renewed. Then comes the judgment: the vindication of the righteous and the rejection of all that resolutely stands athwart Gods’ good purposes for new creation. Finally, comes the union of the new heavens and the new earth envisioned in Revelation 21-22:

Revelation 21:1–8 (ESV): 21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

This is the true destiny of man: not disembodied spirits ascending into heaven to dwell there eternally, but embodied spirits dwelling with God in New Jerusalem at the intersection of the new heaven and the new earth. And what will we do there? Throughout the book of Revelation we see praise proceeding eternally around the throne of God. I feel certain that we will be engaged with that, not by compulsion but from a spontaneous sense of joy and glory and thanksgiving. You’ve probably been to a concert. When it ends the crowd stands, erupts into cheering and applause, and continues until the performer returns to the stage for an encore. No one compels the audience to act this way; the audience simply is enthralled and not yet satisfied. It wants more. I imagine that is what praise will be like in the new creation.

But there are tantalizing hints that more is involved, that we might just have productive and even healing work to do. Some will reign and judge (Matt 19:28) — certainly the apostles. But there is also an implication that nations will continue to exist and to produce glorious things (Rev 21:22-26). And it seems that there will still be healing work to be done (Rev 22:1-3). In the beginning, in Eden, man — male and female — were to be priests, prophets, and kings: to mediate God to creation and creation to God, to gather up all the praises of creation and offer them to God, and to implement God’s righteous rule over creation. I might suggest that in the new heavens and the new earth we will again be given this vocation.

So, what can we say about heaven on this third Sunday of Advent? I quote N. T. Wright who was himself quoting someone else: “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” Heaven is for man only a spa weekend in a resort hotel, a place of rest and refreshment as he awaits the renewal of all things. Heaven is not our ultimate goal; resurrection and life at the intersection of the new heavens and the new earth is the Christian telos, the ultimate Christian goal.

We started with a prayer that I contend gets it wrong about heaven. Let’s conclude with one that sounds all the right notes, a prayer for all the faithful departed:

Almighty God, with whom the souls of the faithful who have departed this life are in joy and felicity: We praise and magnify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear; and we most humbly pray that, at the day of resurrection, we and all who are members of the mystical body of your Son may be set on his right hand, and hear his most joyful voice: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Grant this, O merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 679).

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Advent: The Four Last Things

Session 2 — Judgment

ADVENT: THE FOUR LAST THINGS
Session 2 — Judgment

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God,
Have mercy upon us.

In all time of tribulation; in all time of prosperity; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment,
Good Lord, deliver us. Amen
(BCP 2019, The Great Litany (excerpts), pp. 91-92).

INTRODUCTION

Hebrews 9:27–28 (ESV): 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

I do not like stringing a guitar. I dislike it so much that I generally pay other people to do it. Unfortunately, my trusted local guitar shop closed, and recently I had to replace a broken string on my daughter’s guitar myself. The string is fixed at two opposite points on the instrument, one at the tuning peg and other at the bridge. The tuning peg presents no real problem. But, on a classical guitar, the bridge is another matter. The string goes through a small hole in the bridge, is then looped back on itself, and a twisted “knot” of sorts is formed. Then with one hand holding that knot in position and a second hand guiding the placement of the string on the tuning peg, you use your third hand to tighten the string. Don’t have a third hand? Now you see why I hate stringing a guitar.

With the string secured at opposite ends of the guitar you can begin to increase the tension in the string to bring it up to proper pitch, all the while praying that the knot at the bridge doesn’t slip forcing you to start all over again. Three elements are required to make good music on a guitar string: two opposite fixed points and proper tension in the string between them.

It is often the same with theology. There are two fixed points apparently on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, and we are required to live in tension between the two. Is God immanent (God with us) or is God transcendent (God utterly beyond us)? Yes, to both: those are the two opposite fixed points and we must live in tension between them. Lose either one of them and you can’t make good theological “music.” Has God elected a people for himself, or do we have free will? Yes, to both: those are the two opposite fixed points and we must live in tension between them. Is death an enemy or an ally? Is God impartially just or is God graciously merciful? And so on. We are often called to hold apparently opposite and contradictory notions in tension with one another, knowing that the truth, as best human minds can fathom it, is found in the tension and not at either fixed end alone.

I mention this because such tension may well emerge in today’s lesson, for some of you more than others based on your theological and denominational backgrounds. Today, we speak of judgment, of God’s final judgment, and of the basis for that judgement.

JUDGMENT

Introductory Questions
Before we engage the various biblical texts related to judgment, let’s start with a few introductory questions:

What is judgment? Many definitions are possible. Perhaps this one will do: judgment is a discerning assessment of merit, quality, or worth. The image of a plumb line is used in the Old Testament as an image of judgment, and that gets at it pretty well. Is this wall vertical or not? If not, it is judged unworthy of the craftsman and considered a defective product.

What are the purposes or functions of judgment?

Judgment has several related purposes or functions:

• To say yes to some some things and to say no to others, i.e., to draw necessary distinctions

• To vindicate and reward some and to repudiate and punish others

• To encourage good behavior and to discourage bad behavior

• To promote goodness, truth, and beauty and to eliminate evil, lies, and ugliness

• To execute justice and put all things to rights

Is judgment something to be desired? Judgment — both human and divine — seems necessary and, in that sense, desirable. We make judgments — which is to say decisions — all the time and they make life function. As for divine judgment, would we really want a God who makes no distinctions between good and evil, between justice and injustice, who does not say yes to some things and no to others? Hardly: though we may not want to be the recipient of divine judgment, the idea of existence without divine judgment seems worse still. This may be one of the most important points in this lesson; a God who does not judge between good and evil is not good and loving, but rather irresponsible and derelict in his moral duties. While we may not want to be judged, we certainly want some others judged. A God who does not judge is no god at all.

The Two Fixed Points
It is time now to turn to Scripture and to locate the two fixed points on the spectrum of judgment.

The first of the fixed points is a declaration of salvation by faith:

Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV): 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

We can call this fixed point Judgment by Faith, and I want to affirm it absolutely; we are saved — judged righteous before God — by grace through faith and not as a result of works.

The second of the fixed points, though, is a declaration of works:

Romans 2:2–11 (ESV): 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.

We can call this fixed point Judgment by Works, and I want to affirm it absolutely; God will render to each one according to his works, eternal life for those who do well and wrath and fury for those who obey unrighteousness.

For various theological, political, and sociological reasons, the churches of the Reformation and their descendants have privileged the first fixed point — judgment by faith — and have almost untethered the “theological string” from the other fixed point. It is an exaggeration — but not by much — to say that the Reformers did not live in the tension but rather eliminated it by having only one fixed point: faith. That is true to some extent of the Anglican Church as its doctrine is expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:

XI. OF THE JUSTIFICATION OF MAN
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

While this is true, it is not the whole truth.

We will return to the Articles in a bit to see how this position is properly nuanced. But first, let’s examine a good sampling of Scripture that insists on the other fixed point, that all men — Christians not excepted — will be judged by their works.

We start, as we should, with Jesus. He speaks of the importance of works/fruit and the reality of judgment based upon works/fruit most often in analogies and parables.

Matthew 7:15–23 (ESV): 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

And, notably, there is the parable of the talents in which the servants are judged and rewarded/punished based upon their fruitfulness.

Matthew 25:14–30 (ESV): 14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

It is interesting that in these parables, there is no mention of faith, but only of works/fruitfulness.

But, it is not Jesus alone who speaks of works and judgment. Paul, the Apostle of grace, insists on it as does the author of Hebrews and St. John the Evangelist.

In addition to the passage from Romans 2 we read earlier, there are these passages from 1, 2 Corinthians, Hebrews, and Revelation.

1 Corinthians 10:1–12 (ESV): 10 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV): 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Hebrews 10:23–31 (ESV): 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Revelation 20:11–15 (ESV): 11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

So, the fixed point of judgment based upon works/fruit is abundantly attested to in Scripture, and we find ourselves living in the tension between faith and works if we want to be faithful to Scripture.

Living in the Tension
So, how do we make sense of this? Better minds and hearts than mine have tried with greater or lesser measures of success. I can make a few tentative suggestions based upon their work, suggestions which I think are faithful to Scripture and to our own Anglican tradition based upon Scripture.

First, let’s begin with the notion of faith itself. There is a tendency in the modern church to reduce faith to belief, but that distorts the fullness of faith in Scripture. A better understanding of faith— better in the sense of being more faithful to Scripture — involves a classical three-fold paradigm: notitia, assensus, fiducia — notion (understanding), assent, and fidelity. To see how this works, let’s consider the earliest Christian creed: Jesus is Lord.

The first essential element of faith is simply to understand the notion being expressed. The earliest Christians, who were all too familiar with the declaration “Caesar is Lord,” knew full well what was being stated. It was not a nice invitation to believe in Jesus or not; it was a proclamation that there was a new ruler before whom every knee must bow, Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and ruling at God’s right hand. They understood.

The second essential element of faith is to assent to the notion. Do you accept it as true or not? Your assent does not change the truth of the assertion, but it does determine whether you will progress to the next step of faith.

The final essential element of faith is fidelity. You understand, and you believe (assent). Now, you must exercise fidelity; that is, you must live in accordance with what you understand and believe. I might say it this way: the last essential element of faith is faithfulness. And fidelity/faithfulness is demonstrated by what you do, i.e., by works/fruit. Josephus was once sent on behalf of Rome to confront a Jewish rebel. He did so with these words, “Repent and believe in me.” What did he mean? He meant for the rebel leader to turn away from his rebellion and to act faithfully toward Josephus as a representative toward Rome. The rebel’s belief would be demonstrated by his faithfulness and the fruit it bore. To understand and believe is to stop short of full faith. Understanding and belief do not save; they will not withstand God’s judgment. The classic presentation of this is by James, the brother of our Lord.

James 2:14–26 (ESV): 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

It is not mere belief but full blown faith — understanding, assent, fidelity/faithfulness — that counts. And that kind of faith necessarily produces the kind of work/fruit that will be seen and judged as saving faith in the final judgment. Notice the subtlety here. You are indeed saved by faith only (sola fide), but saving faith necessarily produces the evidence of good works. This accords well both with Scripture and with the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:

XII. OF GOOD WORKS
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

Let me suggest another way to live in this tension. To be “in Christ” means to be in dwelt by the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit bears fruit in the life of the believer:

Galatians 5:16–26 (ESV): 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Far be it from me to judge another! But, I think it appropriate to discern the presence or absence of the fruit of the Spirit in my own life. If I am unconcerned about bearing fruit, if no fruit is present, and even worse, if the works of the flesh are evident in abundance instead of the fruit of the Spirit, this is evidence weighing against my claim of saving faith. Ultimately, Christ judges, but I must take stock since not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 7:21).

Judgment and Reward
It is not just the mere presence of works or even the abundance of works that will be judged, but also their quality. While St. Paul is writing specifically about the work of building the church and maintaining unity, I think his thinking can be extended more generally:

1 Corinthians 3:10–15 (ESV): 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Some works are of high quality and will survive the judgment/testing by fire. These will result in reward. Those of low quality may not survive the judgment and reward may be lost. Paul doesn’t detail the nature of the reward and the loss, and I will not speculate. But, perhaps, Jesus’ parable of the talents provides a hint. In that parable, the reward for a job well done was greater authority and greater opportunities for service. I do not expect to sit on a throne judging the nations, but I hope, perhaps, to be a doorkeeper in the kingdom.

Summary
So, how can we summarize the theological tension of judgment?

We start with the saving work of Jesus Christ. It is this, and this alone, that frees man from the dominion of the demonic, cleanses man from sin, and releases man from bondage to death — the three-fold problem for which the Gospel is the solution, as we discussed in our first session. We cannot accomplish this victory on our own; our very best works are woefully insufficient.

And that realization brings us to the first fixed point: judgment based on faith alone, where faith is understood fully as understanding, assent (belief), and fidelity (faithfulness). That type of faith will necessarily produce good works/fruit as evidence of faith.

The second fixed point follows from that: we will be judged based upon the evidence of faithfulness that we present, i.e., we will be judged based on our work/deeds/fruit and rendered a reward accordingly.

There may be a tension between these two, but there is no contradiction. In typical Anglican fashion, the answer is not either/or, but both/and. One of our treasured Anglican mottos is lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of faith. It means that we pray what we believe and believe what we pray. So, if I have rightly “tightened the string” it ought to play the music of a good Anglican prayer. Listen to see if it does. See if you hear notes of faithfulness, works, and reward.

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that bringing forth in abundance the fruit of good works, they may be abundantly rewarded when our Savior Jesus Christ comes to restore all things; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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The Four Last Things: Advent 1 — Death

ADVENT: THE FOUR LAST THINGS
Session 1 — Death

NOTE: These are the notes to the first of four session of the class Advent: The Four Last Things offered at Apostles Anglican Church. TO participate fully with the latter part of the lesson, you will need access to the Book of Common Prayer 2019 which you can find online at The Anglican Church In North America under the MORE and RESOURCES tabs.

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

O God, who for our redemption gave your only begotten Son to die upon the Cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the devil and the power of death: Grant us grace to die daily to sin, that we may live with him in the joy of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

Begin With the End In Mind
Nearly thirty-five years ago, Steven Covey authored one of the most widely read and influential self-help and business books ever published: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It presents seven fundamental principles/practices that, generally speaking, “make life work better,” in the sense of making one functional and productive. I’ve read it, and, for what it purports to be, it is quite good.

The second habit — ironically second because you’d think it would be first — is: Begin with the end in mind. This habit reminds you to ask some basic questions before starting a task, questions like:

What am I trying to accomplish?

What is my true purpose, the desired outcome?

What would mark a successful end of this endeavor?

Much wasted effort, squandered resources, and even human tragedy could be avoided if politicians, business professionals, churches, and “regular folk” like us, paused to practice this one habit: Begin with the end in mind. If your purpose is to have a pleasant Sunday afternoon drive — like we used to do when I was a child — then it doesn’t much matter which direction you take or which road you choose. But, if you are trying to arrive at a particular destination, you may need a map or a GPS. In such a case, beginning with the end in mind is essential.

I mention this simply because Advent marks not only the beginning of a new liturgical season, but also the beginning of a new Christian year. What if we followed Covey’s advice here at the beginning of the year: Begin with the end in mind? We might ask such questions as:

What is the church trying to accomplish with the Advent season?

What is the true purpose of Advent, the desired outcome of this four-Sunday observance?

What would mark a successful end of this observance?

Toward what end does Advent point?

Perhaps, the last question is the one we should consider: Toward what end does Advent point? Now, the obvious answer is to say Christmas, since Advent ends with Christmas. Most commonly, Advent is considered the four Sunday, three to four week, season of preparation for Christmas. If the end is Christmas, then that will shape how you think about and observe Advent from the beginning. Themes of faith, hope, love, joy, and peace will dominate your — and your church’s — reflections. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with that, and much right about it. But, that is not always how Advent was observed; it was not always the end toward which Advent pointed. For the greatest part of the history of the season, Advent pointed not toward Jesus’ first coming in the nativity, but toward his second and final coming in the parousia. The end toward which Advent pointed was the end of this world. Recall our Sunday afternoon drive: a different destination requires a different set of roads and directions. If we are headed toward the end of all things, it might not be the thoroughfares of faith, hope, love, joy and peace that we travel. No, the church traditionally gave us a different set of directions called the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Back to Covey’s second habit: the purpose of Advent was to prepare us to meet the Lord, either at our death or at his second coming. So, the church invited us to think on the four last things. Traditionally, Advent truly began with the end in mind.

So, that’s what I propose to do for these four Sundays — to observe a traditional Advent by thinking about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Even as we do this, the other Advent themes of faith, hope, love, joy, and peace will never be far from us. The end of all things should not frighten us, but rather should fill us with expectation — another Advent theme — and hope. With that, we turn our attention today to death, the first of the four last things.

DEATH: A THEOLOGY

The Origin and Nature of Death
The great theologians — St. Thomas Aquinas, for example — tell us that evil is nothing at all. By that they mean that evil is not a created thing, that it has no substance or existence of its own; rather, evil is simply a privation or lack of the good just as darkness is a privation of light, or cold a privation of heat. Evil is an existential vacuum, the lack of anything substantive. Theologically, that is a crucial distinction. If we say evil is a thing with its own existence, then we must also say that God created evil, since, in the words of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, visible and invisible (BCP 2019, p. 109).

So, to avoid casting God as the creator and author of evil, we must say that good “is” and evil “is not,” that good exists in a way that evil does not.

I introduce that theological distinction because it applies not only to evil, but also very directly to the first of the four last things: death. Death is not a created thing; it has no substance or existence of its own. Rather, death is a privation, an absence, of life. Life is; death is not. Death was not created by God; it is the unavoidable consequence of the human rejection of life. Death is the deprivation of the good of life.

The Wisdom of Solomon makes this clear:

Wisdom of Solomon 1:12–16 (RSVCE): 12 Do not invite death by the error of your life,
nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
13 because God did not make death,
and he does not delight in the death of the living.
14 For he created all things that they might exist,
and the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them;
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
15 For righteousness is immortal.
16 But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away,
and they made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his party.

The Wisdom of Solomon, pictures death as a false friend whom godless men summoned and with whom they made covenant. This is literary technique; it isn’t intended to imply that death is really a being or even that death exists. No, the text’s primary insistence is that God is not the originator of death; man invited death by the work of his own hands. God did not make death, nor does he delight in it. Rather, God created all things that they might exist. That means that we cannot truly understand death as a thing with its own existence; we cannot understand death on its own. Instead, to understand the nature of death, which is not, we must begin with life, which is. Specifically, we must consider human life as God created it if we are to understand human death. And that takes us to Genesis 2, to the creation of man.

Genesis 2:5–9 (ESV): 5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

As the Nicene Creed tells us, God is the creator of two realms: things in heaven and things on earth, things visible and things invisible, things material and things spiritual.

In the creation account in Genesis, man is formed to be a macrocosm, a bringing together of all of God’s creative action, of all things in the two realms, in one new being. Man is physical, formed from the dust of the ground; we have this materiality in common with the animals. Man is spiritual, enlivened by the breath/spirit of God; we have this spirituality in common with the angels. Man is an essential unity of body and soul, of inanimate matter with anima/soul, and because of this man is the pinnacle of creation, higher than both animals and angels, because man has something that both of them lack: physicality/materiality which the angels do not have and spirituality which the animals and inanimate objects do not have. This unity is essential for a right understanding of Christian anthropology and death; what God has joined together was never meant to be put asunder. Apart from the soul, we do not have man in the fullest sense, but only the body of a man. Apart from the body, we do not have man in the fullest sense, but only the soul of a man.

This is the icon of human life given in Scripture: man as the joining together of heaven and earth — material and spiritual — essentially united. This is life, and anything less is “not life.” But, note this: life is not inherent in man; it does not properly “belong” to man. Instead, it is the gift of God and is maintained only by constant communion with God (presence) and obedience to God. This lies at the heart of God’s instruction/warning to Adam in Genesis 2:

Genesis 2:15–17 (ESV): 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Man was placed in the Garden — signifying communion with God in God’s presence — and given a single rule to obey, really more a warning than a rule. But you know how the story goes downhill in Genesis 3: disobedience and exile. And, in the very day that Adam and Eve disobeyed and were exiled from God’s presence, they died because they were cut off from the source of life, cut off from a life-giving relationship with God. We might call this a spiritual death. The sign of that was their exile outside of Eden. Later, Adam and Eve experienced a second death, a physical death, the separation of the body and soul with the subsequent decay of the body. What God had joined together, man, in his sin, put asunder.

Now, with all this background, we can finally begin to define death, or at least to describe it better. Death was first of all the severing of the intimate relationship with God, the loss of a relationship of perfect innocence, perfect communion, and perfect obedience. It was the darkening of the spirit, that part of the soul that knows God directly and that rightly governs the soul and body. That was the death about which God warned Adam: for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die. In that sense, all of us after Adam are born dead, which is precisely why Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, born of water and Spirit if he is to enter the Kingdom of God. But there is a second type of death derivative of the first: the rending apart of body and soul, the violent separation of that which defines man and constitutes man as a living being. At this death, the body, lacking the animating energy of the soul, loses its own material integrity, experiences corruption, and returns to the dust from whence it came. And what of the soul? The Old Testament is ambiguous and not univocal about the “fate” of the soul. Some writers seemed to think that the soul vanishes just as the body, that the human is truly and finally gone. Some seemed to think that the soul languishes in a dim, half-life in Sheol, the place of the dead. Some seem to think that Sheol is divided into two distinct regions — one in which the righteous are rewarded and the other in which the wicked are punished. This latter scheme was common among Second Temple Jews and is evident in Jesus’ parable of Dives, the rich man, and Lazarus. Even in this way of thinking, though, man was not fully man after death because the soul and body were separated. It also seems that even righteous men, in this understanding, are still not in full communion with God; they are, after all, in the land of the dead, and not of the living.

If this is your understanding of death — either non-existence or a dim, shadowy half-life — then death is the dread that awaits us all, a thing to run from as long as you can, a thing to be avoided at all costs.

Summary

Let’s pause here for a summary with just a few additional points thrown in for good measure.

Death is nothing. Instead, it is the absence of life.

Death was not the intent or desire of God from the beginning. To that extent, death stands athwart the will of God and is therefore an enemy of God and man. And yet, God did weave death into the fabric of creation, not as a punishment for disobedience, but as a consequence of it. Let me give an example. Consider the statement, You must eat and drink; if you do not, you will die. You must eat and drink is not a rule that must be obeyed, but rather a statement of the truth of created reality. Likewise, you will die is not a punishment or a curse, but simply the natural consequence of failing to do what is required to maintain life.

So, the narrative of creation, fall, and death has this pattern:

WARNING
Statement of God’s will and warning of the consequences of disobedience (Gen 2:16-17)

DISOBEDIENCE (Gen 3:6)

CONSEQUENCES
Spiritual Death: loss of intimate communion with God (exile); man incurvatus in se rather than man turned outward toward God

Physical Death: separation of body and soul and the corruption of the body

One final point in this summary: because death stands athwart God’s original intent, death stands in relation to God and man as an enemy. And yet, as he does so often throughout salvation history, God uses the enemy to accomplish his purpose for the good of man; he turns the enemy into the unwilling ally. How is death in any way used for the good of man?

1. Death keeps man from living eternally in a state of sin and exile. In this sense, death keeps man in-check by limiting the chronological scope of his fallen power. Imagine an immortal Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. Death protects the world from limitless evil.

2. Death is an impetus to repentance. Why repent if all will continue as it is? But, if there is an end to this existence and if there is a judgment following it, then I just might become serious about repentance. This is made clearer in earlier editions of the Book of Common Prayer, e.g. the BCP 1662, than in more modern revisions. For example, there is this prayer for the sick in the BCP 1662:

Hear us, Almighty and most merciful God and Saviour; extend thy accustomed goodness to this thy servant who is grieved with sickness. Sanctify, we beseech thee, this thy fatherly correction to him; that the sense of his weakness may add strength to his faith, and seriousness to his repentance: that, if it shall be thy good pleasure to restore him to his former health, he may lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory: or else give him grace so to take thy visitation, that, after this painful life ended, he may dwell with thee in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our modern prayers for the sick are typically more “upbeat” than this, and that is not necessarily a good thing. God uses the certainty of death — and the uncertainty of its timing — to add strength to our faith and seriousness to our repentance. That is the way that God turns the enemy of death into an ally for our spiritual welfare.

But, we can’t stop here with death. As Christians, we must move from death to life.

LIFE: THE GOSPEL

The Gospel
I start with this central notion: Death is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. While that is true, it is only part of the truth. More completely we should say that the Gospel is the solution to three existential crises facing man: (1) the rule of the demonic powers — Satan and his fallen angels — over man, (2) death, both spiritual and physical, and (3) sin. The Gospel is the proclamation that, in and through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and parousia of Jesus, God has begun to deal with and finally will deal with these three crises. All three are related and really need to be discussed together, but that must be a story/lesson for another time. Our focus in this lesson is on death. So, I say again: Death is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution.

You see this proclamation all throughout the written Gospels. Just a few examples from the Gospel according to St. John will suffice to make that point.

John 1:1–4 (ESV): 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

John 10:27–28 (ESV): 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.

John 11:21–27 (ESV): 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

The theme of the Gospel is life, and that changes forever the way we approach death. The proclamation of the Gospel as the solution to the problem of death begins — as everything in the Christian life does — with baptism:

Dearly beloved, Scripture teaches that we were all dead in our sins and trespasses, but by grace we may be saved through faith. Our Savior Jesus Christ said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’: and he commissioned the Church to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Here we ask our Heavenly Father that these Candidates, being baptized with water, may be filled with the Holy Spirit, born again, and received into the Church as living members of Christ’s body. Therefore, I urge you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his abundant mercy he will grant to these Candidates that which by nature they cannot have (Holy Baptism, The Exhortation, BCP 2019, p. 162).

In the Profession of Faith required at baptism, there is a series of renunciations. These, too, are a Gospel proclamation because they show how baptism implements in the life of the baptizand the victory of Christ over the three problems we mentioned earlier: the rule of the demonic powers, physical and spiritual death, and sin:

Question: Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God (the rule of the demonic powers)?

Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of the world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God (physical and spiritual death)?

Answer: I renounce them.

Question: Do you renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw you from the love of God (sin)?

Answer: I renounce them (BCP 2019, p. 164).

And, of course, baptism brings one back into union with God who is the source of our life. As we lost that communion in the Garden, we regain it in baptism. This is the beautiful spiritual paradox of this: death is used to overcome death and to bring forth life:

Romans 6:3–11 (ESV): 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

This is the real reason that no Christian need ever fear death: we have already died and been born again.

If we fear death, perhaps we have not yet already died sufficiently to the world, the flesh, and the devil.

That obviously doesn’t mean that we can avoid physical death, the separation of body and soul. But is does mean that the true death, the separation of the soul from God, has been overcome on our behalf by Christ and that we are united to that victory over death in our baptism.

DEATH AND LIFE: A LITURGY

But, what of physical death? How is a Christian to understand and deal with physical death? Here, it is helpful to turn to our Anglican rites and prayers in the BCP: lex orandi, lex credendi.

REGARDING CHRISTIAN DEATH AND BURIAL
Let’s begin with the introductory material to the burial rites, Regarding Christian Death And Burial, BCP 2019, p. 246. [Distribute the Apostles Funeral Planning Customary.]

RECEPTION OF THE BODY
Next, note the first prayer on p. 247. What three things are we praying for? Notice that we are offering this prayer for someone who is dead. What sense does that make? Return to the first paragraph on p. 246. There is no past tense for the departed faithful; their life is changed (improved!) but not ended. Nor is our love for them ended. That is why we continue to pray for them. This practice also implies that the life after death and before resurrection is not static; our departed may move from one degree of glory to another and may grow in grace, knowledge, and service of the Lord.

THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD
Notice the first and last anthems said during procession of the body (pp. 249-250). How do they set the theme for Christian burial?

Consider the prayer At The Burial Of An Adult (p. 250). What do you note of significance?

The Prayers of the People (pp. 253-254)
Notice the emphasis on the unity of the Church in the first petition; the Church consists of those faithful still in this mortal life and those faithful departed who are now with the Lord. We are separated from one another only materially, but never spiritually. The material separation is the source of our sorrow, but the spiritual unity is the source of our joy.

N. T. Wright says, rather tongue-in-cheek, that heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world, that life-after-death is important, but that life after life-after-death is the point. He means simply that we are not destined to live in heaven as disembodied souls throughout eternity. The resurrection is the point, in which we will be given resurrection/spiritual bodies (more real and substantial than our current bodies!), in which we will dwell at the intersection of the new heavens and the new earth. This is hinted at in the second petition (p. 253) and the sixth petition (p. 254).

Note again the emphasis on the dynamic nature of the life of the departed in the final petition (p. 254).

AT THE EUCHARIST
What is the special significance of the Eucharist in The Burial of the Dead?

THE COMMENDATION
As far as I’m concerned, this part of the rites of burial alone is adequate justification to be an Anglican. [Discuss the various prayers noting especially the description of the state of the departed in the prayer beginning “Into you hands…” (BCP 2019, p. 256).]

THE CANTICLES
Discuss the Nunc Dimittis and the Pascha Nostrum. [End the class by saying the Pascha Nostrum together.]

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Ordination To the Sacred Order of Priests

St. Thomas Anglican Church
Fr. John A. Roop

A Homily at the Ordination of Joe Gunby to the Sacred Order of Priests
(Is 6:1-8, Eph 4:7-16, Phil 4:4-9)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Isaiah 6:1(ESV): 6 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

Your Grace, Fr. Daniel and fellow clergy, brothers and sisters in Christ at St. Thomas: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I trust you won’t object if I turn my attention to Deacon Joe — soon to be Father Joe, God willing and the people consenting — for just a few moments, will you?

Joe, you have successfully completed your Presbyter Exam, or we wouldn’t be here this evening. We know that you know matters essential and matters important: the grand sweep of the Biblical narrative, the essence of our catholic faith as summarized in the Nicene Creed, the core doctrines of that faith — Christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, Trinitarian theology — and the particular ways those are expressed in our Anglican formularies, The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer. You have on paper and in your service as deacon demonstrated your understanding of liturgy and your ability to conduct the services of this church; your proficiency to exegete a text and outline a sermon, and to faithfully preach God’s word to God’s people. You have successfully completed your Presbyter Exam, so we know that you know matters essential and matters important. Frankly, all of that is assumed by now, or we wouldn’t be here this evening.

But, in just a few moments the real Examination will begin. You will stand before a successor of the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ in the person of Archbishop Foley; you will stand before the people of God for whom our Lord Jesus shed his blood, those whom he will soon commit to your charge and care; you will stand before angels and archangels and all the company of heaven; you will stand before the throne of God and before the One who sits upon it, and you will be examined.

This examination, this real examination, is not firstly about what you know, but about what you believe — not firstly about your mind, but about your heart. Before all else, the bishop will ask you this:

Do you believe in your heart that you are truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and according to the Canons of this Church, to the Order and ministry of the Priesthood (BCP, p. 490)?

If we are to go forward, you are required to answer, “I do so believe” (ibid, p. 490). It is an awe-filled and audacious answer the Prayer Book demands of you — of any ordinand: I do so believe! Understand this: we believe it of you. Your brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ believe it of you; your discernment committee, your Rector, the Canon to the Ordinary, and Archbishop Foley all believe it of you. For what it’s worth, I believe it of you. Otherwise, we would not be here this evening. But all of that pales before the question addressed solely to you: do you believe in your heart that you are truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ…to the ministry of the Priesthood? From where does such bold belief arise?

Isaiah 6:1–7 (ESV): 6 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

Do you believe in your heart that you are truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and according to the Canons of this Church, to the Order and ministry of the Priesthood (BCP, p. 490)?

The boldness needed to say, “I do so believe,” starts for all of those called where it started for Isaiah: with a clear vision of God enthroned, high and lifted up; with the thundering sound of seraphim proclaiming the utter holiness of the Lord of hosts throughout all the heavens and the earth; with the disorienting shaking of all earthly foundations; with the great clouds of incense that are the prayers of the saints; with the ego-shattering grasp of one’s own unworthiness — one’s own uncleanness — to stand in the presence of the thrice-holy God. “Holy, holy, holy,” and “Woe is me,” are the twin pillars upon which the priestly vocation are founded, the twin revelations that allow you or any ordinand to say, “I do so believe.”

Isaiah’s vision, in all its particulars, is unique to the prophet; it is not a template for all servants of God, not necessarily a paradigm for you. I do not know exactly what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard, Joe, but somewhere and somewhen you found yourself caught up in this great mystery and in this blinding vision: that God, in his holiness, has chosen you, in your unworthiness, to be his fellow worker in the redemption of the world by, in, and through our Lord Jesus Christ. Your vision may have been as seemingly “ordinary” as a growing conviction in prayer or a movement of the Spirit while reading the Scriptures. It may have come through the words of others. The details are between you and God, but you have seen holy things and you have heard holy things and your life can never be the same as before. Cherish that vision; hold fast to it as Isaiah surely did. Keep it ever before your eyes and ever filling your ears. Treasure it and ponder it in your heart just as the Blessed Virgin Mary did with the vision and prophecy that moved her to say: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:30). “I do so believe,” is your fiat, your “let it be done to me according to your word.”

But the vision of God’s holiness given so graciously also imposes upon us the dreadful and unwelcome vision of our own uncleanness: “Woe is me! I am lost! I am a man of unclean lips!” That is you, Joe, and you know it. No one who has seen a vision of God high and lifted up and holy can ever again believe the “I’m OK, You’re OK” drivel that our culture peddles. What self-deluded, devilish nonsense! “You’re Pathetic, I’m Worse” is nearer the truth; it is the truth. Would Isaiah even have survived the vision if not for the grace of God in sending one of the seraphim, one of the “burning ones”, the throne guardian angels singed and flaming from being in the very presence of the thrice-holy God, to touch the prophet’s lips with a live coal from the altar? The boldness for you to say, “I do so believe,” begins with a vision of God high and lifted up and holy, yes, but it continues with the “woe is me” conviction of your own sinfulness. Oh, but — thanks be to God! — that is followed with your cleansing, not by a living coal, but with “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pe 1:19). The boldness to say “I do so believe,” begins with the water of baptism, with your death and burial and with your resurrection to new and abundant life in Christ. There is a straight line from the dripping wet, newborn child of God to the ordinand who declares, “I do so believe.” There is a straight line from the oil of chrism used to anoint the newly baptized to the oil of chrism used to anoint the new priest. There is a straight line from the living coal taken from the altar passing through the manger, cross, and empty tomb, plunging through the baptismal font, piercing your heart in a vision of God, and sending you to your knees before the altar and the throne of God this very night as you prepare to say with everything that is in you, “I do so believe.”

Only after — only because of — the two-fold vision of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness, only after — only because of — the purging of the future prophet’s lips, comes the voice of the Lord saying: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us” (Is 6:8)? “I do so believe,” answers Isaiah, “that I am that one.” Those are not the words he said, but that is nonetheless precisely what he said. And you will be asked that same question in a matter of moments, not in those words, but the same question nonetheless.

Do you believe in your heart that you are truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and according to the Canons of this Church, to the Order and ministry of the Priesthood (BCP, p. 490)?

Whom shall I send and who will go for us?

I do so believe. Here am I. Send me.

Vision. Conviction. Purification. Calling. Commission. Isaiah likely had no more notion of what the prophetic vocation would entail than you have understanding of what the priestly vocation will entail. And thanks be to God that is true; you could bear neither the full weight of its burden nor the full weight of its glory if either were revealed all at once. Joe, let the vision of God’s glory sustain you and strengthen you to bear to the burden of the cross that you take upon yourself when you answer, “I do so believe,” and when the priest’s stole is draped around your neck.

This same pattern — vision, conviction, purification, calling, commission — resurfaces in the New Testament: as with prophet, so with apostle. It is Chapter One of St. Paul’s story, in which a persecutor of the Church is knocked off his donkey by the blinding vision of the risen Lord Jesus; in which a voice like thunder addresses Saul, calls him by name, and convicts him of standing in opposition to God; in which that same thunderous voice instructs the now blinded and humbled future apostle to go into Damascus and await further instructions. In that city, at the hands of Ananias, who had had his own vision of the Lord, Saul was purified by baptism, called and commissioned, and shown just how much he must suffer for saying, “I do so believe. Here am I. Send me.” Paul never recovered from that vision. It was the bedrock of his apostolate, the unshakeable foundation of his calling and vocation. We know this, because he recounts it twice more in the book of Acts at crucial moments, recounts it as his apology for a life spent tramping around the Roman world preaching the resurrection of a crucified messiah now become Lord of all. Vision, conviction, purification, calling, commission: as with prophet, so with apostle, and so with priest.

Even as I speak these words to you, I speak them to myself and to all others here who have dared answer a bishop with the words, “I do so believe.” And, I feel the weight — the gravitas — of them pressing down upon me; I hope you do, as well, for that is good and right and proper. It is not insignificant that the Hebrew phrase kabod YHWH translated as the “glory of God” also means the weight or burden of God. C. S. Lewis got it just right — as he so often did — when he wrote and spoke of the “weight of glory.” That describes the blessed burden of the priesthood: the weight of glory.

How are you to stand under that weight? St. Paul, who bore the weight of glory more than most and as well as any, has this word to say to you and to all of us:

Philippians 4:4–5 (ESV): 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.

You are in for unexpected challenges, unanticipated difficulties, surprising conflicts, sleepless nights, and wearisome days. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Did you get that, really get that? Rejoice. Not that Bob thinks your sermons are too long or that Norma is angry that you didn’t return her call within fifteen minutes or that Thomas plays a continual game of one-upsmanship every time you lead a Bible study; not that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and you can’t seem to slow it down; not that the church — at every level — often seems messier than you would like. You are in for unexpected blessings, unanticipated graces, surprising acts of mercy, prayerful nights and holy days. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice. Not just that Thomas hints that he thinks you’re a better preacher than Fr. Daniel; not that Mary is so grateful for your responsiveness to her concerns; not that Bill is amazed by the depth of your knowledge and your gift of teaching; not that, while Athens is a typical secular university town, you are actually making some evangelistic inroads; not that this church, St. Thomas Anglican Church, seems to be prospering under the pastoral leadership of which you will be an integral part. No. Not in any or all of this. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (in the Lord). You have been called into the mess and muddle, into the grace and glory of the priesthood because God wants you there. And you can rejoice in the Lord because he is with you there in the mess and muddle, with you there in the grace and glory; the Lord is at hand.

So, you need not be anxious about anything. You will be, but you need not be; the Lord is at hand. You are His, and the Church is his, and the kingdom and the power and the glory are all His, and he is with you now and unto the ages of ages. Then, what is there to be anxious about, really? Instead, pray; in everything pray. Prayer is the lifeblood of the priesthood. St. James, the brother of our Lord, reminds us that we do not have because we do not ask (see James 4:2); so, ask. Let your requests be made known to God. And whether you receive what you ask for or not, you will receive “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” and it will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

And remember this:

Philippians 4:8 (ESV): whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Fill your heart, fill your mind, fill your life, fill your vocation with the good, the true, and the beautiful: supremely with our Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in Word and Sacrament and Worship and in his Body, the Church; but also in the love of family and good friends, in good books and good music and good food, in all the legitimate pleasures this God-created world affords; in the temple of Creation: be a fisher of fish as well as a fisher of men; just don’t stretch the length of that trout beyond credibility in your stories and sermons! “The glory of God is a man fully alive,” wrote St. Irenaeus, and a man fully alive is a man fully in Christ, doing the work God has given him to do, rejoicing always, and feasting on the good, the true, and the beautiful. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice.

Do you believe in your heart that you are truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and according to the Canons of this Church, to the Order and ministry of the Priesthood (BCP, p. 490)?

All of us gathered here, long with eager expectation, to hear you say, “I do so believe.”

And now, to the good and faithful people gathered here, to the saints of St. Thomas Anglican Church, though I do not know you, I am emboldened by the Word of God to speak his word to you.

You are being given a gift this evening through the power, mercy, and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who ascended on high, led a host of captives, and gave gifts to men (cf Eph 4:8):

Ephesians 4:11–14 (ESV): And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

Joe is Christ’s gift to you, the saints in Athens, GA — the saints at St. Thomas Anglican Church. This gift is not a nickknack, not a decorative trinket to sit around collecting dust on some shelf somewhere. This gift is more like a power tool, a gift with a function and purpose. And that purpose is not to do the ministry of the church in your stead, but rather to equip you for the ministry to which you were called in baptism and to which you committed yourself in confirmation. Joe is Christ’s gift to this, His church — His body — to equip you for the work you’ve been given to do, to challenge you and to help you mature in Christ, to reach the full measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, to attain the unity of the faith. So, you, too, were examined tonight with two questions:

Is it your will that Joe be ordained a Priest?

Will you uphold him in this ministry?

You answered, “It is,” and “We will.” Know full well the weight of each answer; know full well what each answer means and what each answer requires of you. God is giving Joe to you and giving you to Joe, because he is the giver of every good gift.

Dare we believe all of this? Yes, we do so believe. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Blessing of a Grave

The Committal was a family affair, held in a small, but very lovely, family cemetery. There were, perhaps, twenty people there including the three priests who were honored to commit our brother’s body to the earth and to the Lord’s keeping. Having completed the opening anthems, I stepped to the grave to bless the ground in which the body of this saint of God would be laid to rest. And, I prayed:

O God, whose blessed Son was laid in a tomb in the garden: Bless, we pray, this grave, set apart for the repose of your servant, that he whose body is buried here may rest from his labors in peace and quietness, until the resurrection on the last day, when the New Jerusalem comes down, the dead are raised, and the righteous are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 261).

I have prayed this prayer before, blessed graves before; but for some reason, this prayer on this day demanded my attention and has garnered my thought since. What, exactly, is a priest doing when he blesses a grave? What did I think then, and what do I think now, that I was doing?

Based on the prayer itself, we are setting apart the grave as a place of repose for a servant of God. We are announcing to both worlds — seen and unseen — that this is hallowed ground and should be respected as such; the ground should be undisturbed so that the one who reposes there may do so in peace and quietness until the resurrection. If the ground has not been previously blessed, this prayer is, in effect, a minor exorcism of place, a specific instance of St. Anthony’s lesser exorcism:

Alleluia! Behold the cross of the Lord.
Begone, all evil powers.
The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has conquered.
Alleluia!

The blessing of a grave is not different in kind from the blessing of a house or the blessing of place in the service of Compline:

Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 63).

In fact, with minor changes, the two prayers are essentially interchangeable. At a grave side, a priest might just as well pray:

Visit this ground, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell here to preserve this holy ground and the one who reposes in it in peace; and let your blessing be upon him/her always; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Of all this, I am fairly certain, because it follows directly from the Book of Common Prayer, our Anglican tradition, and Scripture. About what follows, I am less certain. I would not teach it as public faith, but I gladly hold it as private piety.

The Great Tradition of the Church and the experience of the saints bears witness to guardian angels: that each of us — either at birth or at baptism — is graced with an angel to minister to us, to direct us toward salvation, to protect and defend us along the way. I have no reason to doubt that and every reason to believe it.

Collect of Holy Michael and All Angels (BCP 2019, p. 632)
Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth (emphasis added); through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The spirit of my brother who recently fell asleep in the Lord no longer needs the help and defense of his guardian angel; his spirit is with the Lord, beyond all snares of the enemy or troubles of this mortal life. But his body? That reposes in the earth which is still the domain of spiritual warfare. Might it be — and this is speculative theology, at best! — that at the blessing of the grave, the saint’s guardian angel takes his stand there, defending the saint’s body from all spiritual desecration by the evil one, in whatever form that might take? There is this cryptic passage in Jude, after all:

Jude 9 (ESV): 9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.”

I would not want to make too much of this; nor would I wish to neglect it.

Simply as a matter of personal piety, it comforts me to think that when the family departs the cemetery the saint’s body is not left alone, but rather remains in the care of the angel who watched over him throughout his life and ushered his spirit safely home. It is an image I can’t quite shake and don’t want to do: an angel standing by the grave — vigilant and awe-full — watching over the saint and worshiping God until the last great day, until the final trumpet, until the dead in Christ arise, until this body of this saint rises.

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The Syrophoenician Woman

Apostles Anglican Church
Fr. John A. Roop

A Matter of Purity: A Reflection on the Syrophoenician Woman
(Mark 7:1-30 and Matthew 15:1-28)

Collect of Purity
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

St. Peter was speaking specifically of St. Paul’s letters, when he wrote this in his Second Epistle:

There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Pe 3:16b, ESV).

Amen: some parts of St. Paul’s writing and thinking are complex and challenging and even confusing. It takes careful and prolonged study of the whole of his corpus to begin to understand his vision of the victory of God in the person and work of Jesus, of how that victory is implemented in the life and work of the Church, of how Israel and the nations — the Gentiles — are made one new people in the Kingdom of God, and how their unity is a signpost pointing to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

And, it’s not just St. Paul; the whole of Scripture is challenging, as anyone who has really read it knows. The idea that a person who has no prior knowledge of the Christian faith could take up a Bible, read it front to back, and make good sense of it does not make good sense itself. Some parts will be crystal clear, of course. But some other parts, many of them, will be as opaque as coal. This is one reason the Church insists on the importance of the public reading of Scripture. It is the communal reading and proclamation and preaching and study that provide a context in which the accumulated wisdom of the Church can unveil the true sense of the Scripture.

I mention this because we encounter a difficult and challenging passage in our Gospel reading this afternoon, one which is easily misconstrued, and one which is often twisted by those outside the church and even used by those inside the church to support their own agendas. This passage requires careful reading and a thorough understanding of Jesus’ mission. I am speaking of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who sought healing for her demon possessed daughter. Let’s hear the text again.

Mark 7:24–30 (ESV): 24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

How does this story strike you? A desperate woman comes to Jesus, falls at his feet, and begs him to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon. And how does Jesus respond? It seems that he rebuffs her, rudely dismisses her as a dog amidst Jewish children, as one who has no claim on him and no reason to expect a favorable answer. On the surface, that seems cold, heartless, a bit xenophobic — some might say racist: not the image of Jesus that rings most true to most of us. So, what’s going on in this confusing and challenging passage?

Context matters. Both Mark and Matthew place this encounter immediately following a dispute with the Pharisees and scribes over the nature of purity

Mark 7:1-8, 14-22 (ESV): 7 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“ ‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Purity is not determined externally: unwashed hands and cutlery, what type of food is consumed, that sort of thing. No, purity is internal, a matter of the heart. How do you recognize whether one is pure or impure? Look at what proceeds from his heart; evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander are signs of impurity. If this is the measure, then on several counts the Pharisees and scribes do not fare very well. On the purity scale, they may not be grubby, but they are at best unkempt and a bit smelly.

We know now the measure of impurity, but what of purity? What are the marks of a pure heart? Jesus doesn’t answer that implied question in so many words. Instead, he travels immediately to Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile region, an unclean place full of unclean people. And it is there that he encounters — it is there he is accosted by — a Canaanite woman, a Syrophoenician. Remember that Israel has a long history with the Canaanites, and that that history was not good. There was plenty of ancient enmity and distrust to go around, not to mention — but we must mention — that the Canaanites were almost the definition of impurity to the Jews. We see that in the disciples response to the crying of this woman for mercy: “Send her away, for she is crying out after us” (Mt 15:23b). It is not that her request is outrageous. It is simply that it is outrageous for such an impure Gentile woman to make any request at all from a Jewish rabbi.

Jesus answers her as the Pharisees and scribes, as his own disciples might have done, had they bothered to answer at all: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” (Mk 7:27). In one sense, Jesus is merely — and rightly — pointing out that his mission was not to everyone, but only to the Jews. He had come to fulfill the Covenant, the Law, and the Prophets, to bring the story of Israel to its proper conclusion, to initiate a new covenant for all people, and to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ mission was to the Jews so that through the Jews the Gospel might come to all families, languages, peoples and nations. “Let the children be fed first.”

But, in another sense, Jesus is upholding the standard Jewish notions of purity — children versus dogs — just long enough to let it crumble under the weight of the Gospel: “…it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The disciples must have been pleased with this answer; they likely expected the woman to slink away, properly chastised. Oh, but she was a good and fierce mother, determined to do all in her power to provide healing for her daughter. And probably still on her knees, probably through tears, she responds: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” (Mt 15:27). What a dense statement this is — full of meaning. First, she calls Jesus “Lord,” acknowledging his superiority and her inferiority. She embraces this demeaning slur of “dog” and acknowledges that the Jews are children and masters. And she asks not for a choice portion of food from the table; she will be satisfied with scraps and with crumbs that fall forgotten to the floor.

And now Jesus responds, not as the Pharisees and scribes would have done, not as his own disciples urged him to do, but as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire,” (Mt 15:28a).

And this is the answer — this woman, this impure, Gentile woman is the answer — to the questions left hanging in the previous encounter with the Pharisees and scribes: What of purity? What of the marks of a pure heart? Love, in this case the reckless, indefatigable love of a mother for her daughter. Humility, in this case the willingness to embrace the status of inferiority. Faith, in this case the willingness to place all her trust, all her hope, in Jesus. That is what comes from her heart. And that is what marks her out as pure before God.

So, taken together, these two stories define the notion of purity in radical contrast to the understanding of Jesus’ culture. The Pharisees, the separate one, who kept most scrupulously the Law of Moses according to the traditions of the elders were revealed as impure before God because of the filth kept housed in the recesses of their hearts. The Syrophoenician woman, the Gentile woman, who was disdained and dismissed by Jesus’ own disciples, was revealed as pure before God because of the love, humility, and faith that flowed outward from her heart.

It took generations for the Church to come to grips with this radical notion, and perhaps we’ve not done so fully even now. “Oh, yes,” the Church said, “we suppose the Gospel can be extended to the Gentiles — if we must do — but only if they first become Jews.” St. Paul begged to differ. The Gospel is for the Gentiles as Gentiles, he insisted, and for all people — all people — who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and live according to his commandments:

Romans 10:12–13 (ESV): 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Whatever else the story of the Syrophoenician woman means — and it is a rich, multivalent story — it means at least this: purity before God is a matter of the heart, a matter of love, humility, and faith. This story and this meaning form the heart of one of the most dearly loved and well-known Anglican prayers, The Prayer of Humble Access, which we say immediately before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ:

We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your abundant and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up
the crumbs under your table;
but you are the same Lord
whose character is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to earth the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Those words turn Scripture into prayer; they capture the encounter between the Syrophoenician Woman and Jesus perfectly and then offer the woman to us as a model for our Eucharistic life: humility and trust on her part, righteousness and mercy on God’s part.

Yes purity before God is a matter of the heart, a matter of love, humility, and faith. So sure, wash your hands and clean your knives and forks. But, more importantly, purify your heart. Amen.

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