St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain

Alleluia. Let us worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.
O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.

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

Collect
Almighty God, by whose grace and power thy holy martyr Alban triumphed over suffering and was faithful even unto death: Grant to us, who now remember him with thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to thee in this world, that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

TODAY, I WANT TO READ YOU A STORY. It comes from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede. Bede wrote in the eighth century, but the story itself harkens back to third century Britain. It is the story of St. Alban, the first British martyr who was executed for his faith sometime around 250. I’ll pause the story at a few points, to make some connections and comments that I hope will be relevant to us and to our lives.

CHAP. VII. — THE PASSION OF ST. ALBAN AND HIS COMPANIONS,
WHO AT THAT TIME SHED THEIR BLOOD FOR OUR LORD

At that time suffered St. Alban, of whom the priest Fortunatus, in the Praise of Virgins, where he makes mention of the blessed martyrs that came to the Lord from all parts of the world, says—

In Britain’s isle was holy Alban born.

This Alban being yet a pagan, at the time when the cruelties of wicked princes were raging against Christians, gave entertainment in his house to a certain clergyman, flying from the persecutors. This man he observed to be engaged in continual prayer and watching day and night; when on a sudden the Divine grace shining on him, he began to imitate the example of faith and piety which was set before him, and being gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, he cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a Christian in all sincerity of heart.

Some five hundred years after Bede wrote this account, St. Francis is reported to have said, “Preach always. If necessary use words.” The first Gospel that Alban “heard,” the thing that convicted him and convinced him of the faith, was the holy example of the priest: not his preaching, not his words, but his visible life of prayer. The example of your life is often the fundamental first step of evangelism, and it may be the only one you will be able to offer. But, it is a powerful opening for the Spirit to work. The time may come when words are necessary, but they are often a secondary movement of evangelism. Do not neglect to do your good deeds before men that they may glorify your Father in heaven.

The aforesaid clergyman having been some days entertained by him, it came to the ears of the wicked prince, that this holy confessor of Christ, whose time of martyrdom had not yet come, was concealed at Alban’s house. Whereupon he sent some soldiers to make a strict search after him. When they came to the martyr’s house, St. Alban immediately presented himself to the soldiers, instead of his guest and master, in the habit or long coat which he wore, and was led bound before the judge.

We don’t know how long Alban was instructed by the priest nor the depth of his catechism, but he either learned or intuited this great Gospel truth of love: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12-13).

It happened that the judge, at the time when Alban was carried before him, was standing at the altar, and offering sacrifice to devils. When he saw Alban, being much enraged that he should thus, of his own accord, put himself into the hands of the soldiers, and incur such danger in behalf of his guest, he commanded him to be dragged up to the images of the devils, before which he stood, saying, “Because you have chosen to conceal a rebellious and sacrilegious person, rather than to deliver him up to the soldiers, that his contempt of the gods might meet with the penalty due to such blasphemy, you shall undergo all the punishment that was due to him, if you abandon the worship of our religion.” But St. Alban, who had voluntarily declared himself a Christian to the persecutors of the faith, was not at all daunted at the prince’s threats, but putting on the armour of spiritual warfare, publicly declared that he would not obey the commands. Then said the judge, “Of what family or race are you?”—“What does it concern you,” answered Alban, “of what stock I am? If you desire to hear the truth of my religion, be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and bound by Christian duties.”—“I ask your name?” said the judge; “tell me it immediately.”—“I am called Alban by my parents,” replied he; “and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”

When Alban was asked his race, his ethnic identity, he did not answer. Instead, he moved directly to a proclamation of faith. Whatever he was or had been by blood, Alban knew that his Christian identity subsumed race or ethnic identity. The water of baptism is thicker than the blood of tribalism, race, ethnicity, nationality. And isn’t that a lesson we need to learn today — all of us? I am an American, southern white male, Anglican Christian. What is the most fundamental part of that statement, the truest part of my identity? Christian. For Alban, the only thing of note about himself was this: “I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”

Then the judge, inflamed with anger, said, “If you will enjoy the happiness of eternal life, do not delay to offer sacrifice to the great gods.” Alban rejoined, “These sacrifices, which by you are offered to devils, neither can avail the subjects, nor answer the wishes or desires of those that offer up their supplications to them. On the contrary, whosoever shall offer sacrifice to these images, shall receive the everlasting pains of hell for his reward.”

The judge, hearing these words, and being much incensed, ordered this holy confessor of God to be scourged by the executioners, believing he might by stripes shake that constancy of heart, on which he could not prevail by words. He, being most cruelly tortured, bore the same patiently, or rather joyfully, for our Lord’s sake.

In Acts, when the Apostles were beaten by the Jewish authorities for preaching in the name of Jesus, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for his name. When Paul and Silas were beaten in Philippi, they prayed and sang hymns to God in their cell at midnight. And later, writing to the Christians in Philippi, among whom was his former jailer, Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say rejoice.” This stands out in many of the confessors and martyrs: that they endure their suffering with rejoicing, in part because suffering is a testimony to the sincerity, to the genuineness, of their faith. Going forward in our time, I think it will become impossible to be a Christian in the public sphere without a degree of ridicule and loss. How we handle that — with bitterness or else with joy — is important. Joy is the way of the martyrs.

When the judge perceived that he was not to be overcome by tortures, or withdrawn from the exercise of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be put to death. Being led to execution, he came to a river, which, with a most rapid course, ran between the wall of the town and the arena where he was to be executed. He there saw a multitude of persons of both sexes, and of several ages and conditions, which was doubtlessly assembled by Divine instinct, to attend the blessed confessor and martyr, and had so taken up the bridge on the river, that he could scarce pass over that evening. In short, almost all had gone out, so that the judge remained in the city without attendance. St. Alban, therefore, urged by an ardent and devout wish to arrive quickly at martyrdom, drew near to the stream, and on lifting up his eyes to heaven, the channel was immediately dried up, and he perceived that the water had departed and made way for him to pass. Among the rest, the executioner, who was to have put him to death, observed this, and moved by Divine inspiration, hastened to meet him at the place of execution, and casting down the sword which he had carried ready drawn, fell at his feet, praying that he might rather suffer with the martyr, whom he was ordered to execute, or, if possible, instead of him.

This parting, this drying up, of the stream is an allusion to several events in Scripture: Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, Joshua’s parting of the Jordan, and Elijah’s parting of the Jordan. Alban’s life is simply another chapter in the great book of God’s redemptive story, in continuity with all that has gone before. The same God who was at work in the lives of Moses and Joshua and Elijah was at work in Alban’s life. He is at work in our lives, too. The story goes on, and we have our part to play in it now, in continuity with what has gone before. God is always at work among and through his people, acting for the redemption of the world.

Whilst he thus from a persecutor was become a companion in the faith, and the other executioners hesitated to take up the sword which was lying on the ground, the reverend confessor, accompanied by the multitude, ascended a hill, about 500 paces from the place, adorned, or rather clothed with all kinds of flowers, having its sides neither perpendicular, nor even craggy, but sloping down into a most beautiful plain, worthy from its lovely appearance to be the scene of a martyr’s sufferings. On the top of this hill, St. Alban prayed that God would give him water, and immediately a living spring broke out before his feet, the course being confined, so that all men perceived that the river also had been dried up in consequence of the martyr’s presence. Nor was it likely that the martyr, who had left no water remaining in the river, should want some on the top of the hill, unless he thought it suitable to the occasion.

Notice the allusions to Jesus’ death in Alban’s story. Both have themselves in sacrifice for the sake of others. Both won a convert at their executions. Both were executed on a hill, and both were thirsty at the time of execution. This connects Alban’s suffering to Jesus’ suffering. All uniquely Christian suffering — that is, all suffering for the name of Christ — is a share in the suffering of Christ. I’m not speaking of the ordinary trials and tribulation of human existence, but rather the suffering that comes to us precisely for being Christian. That suffering is a participation in the suffering of Christ; it is the cross we bear. And that means that it has meaning. It means that it is, in a way words can’t express, redemptive, offered up and accepted for the salvation of the world in union with Christ’s own suffering.

The river, having performed the holy service, returned to its natural course, leaving a testimony of its obedience. Here, therefore, the head of our most courageous martyr was struck off, and here he received the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. But he who gave the wicked stroke, was not permitted to rejoice over the deceased; for his eyes dropped upon the ground together with the blessed martyr’s head.

At the same time was also beheaded the soldier, who before, through the Divine admonition, refused to give the stroke to the holy confessor. Of whom it is apparent, that though he was not regenerated by baptism, yet he was cleansed by the washing of his own blood, and rendered worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Church has long held that there are three equally valid types of baptism:

1. Water — the normative sacramental means

2. Intent/Desire — St. Dismas, the Good Thief: Remember me.

3. Blood/Martyrdom — Jesus’ pierced side brought forth water (baptism) and blood (baptism of martyrdom)

The executioner-turned-Christian had no opportunity for baptism in water, but submitted to baptism in his own blood, which became for him the cleansing blood of Jesus. The Church is bound to the sacramental means that God has instituted for us. God is not so bound.

Then the judge, astonished at the novelty of so many heavenly miracles, ordered the persecution to cease immediately, beginning to honour the death of the saints, by which he before thought they might have been diverted from the Christian faith. The blessed Alban suffered death on the twenty-second day of June, near the city of Verulam, which is now by the English nation called Verlamacestir, or Varlingacestir, where afterwards, when peaceable Christian times were restored, a church of wonderful workmanship, and suitable to his martyrdom, was erected. In which place, there ceases not to this day the cure of sick persons, and the frequent working of wonders.

The Anglican Church has always disavowed the worshipping and adoration of saints relics (Article XXII) largely because of the Roman Catholic abuses of the practice. Still, the witness of the Church is strong and consistent: the holiness of the saints and martyrs does not die with them, but persists in life-changing and life-giving ways. That is one of the reasons we continue to tell their stories. So know this: the witness you bear, the good you do, will not die with you. It is a seed sown that will bear fruit in due season, and will produce thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold, in this age and in the age to come.

I close with Alban’s own words, words that ring out through the centuries and inspire us today: “If you desire to hear the truth of my religion, be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and bound by Christian duties. …I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”

Amen.

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Theology and Guns

Introduction
With the rest of our country, I grieve the recent spate of mass shootings in our country. Regrettably, it is nothing new; we have a growing, bloody history of such tragic events, not to mention the “routine” killing of individuals by gun violence all across our country, especially in impoverished, inner city neighborhoods. There is a congeries of causes: mental health issues, drugs and crime, poverty, isolation and hopelessness. I do not have a definitive answer to these complex problems. To say that Jesus is the answer, or a change of the human heart, is, of course, true, but it doesn’t move us one inch toward actually minimizing the loss of life.

While I have no answer, that does not mean that I have no theological perspective on the issue. What I have, I offer here in a preliminary fashion: a template for self examination and a clearing away of some of the debris of sub-Christian thinking around the issue. I have brothers and sisters who own guns and value the right to do so. I have other brothers and sisters who eschew guns and wish all followed their lead. I do not entirely fault either position, nor do I uncritically support either position. To choose one side or the other is not my purpose; to help us think Christianly and critically about the issue of gun ownership and its social impact is my sole purpose. I suspect that I will alienate some on both sides of the issue, though that is not my intent. It is important to note — and I do — that there is a difference between guns and weapons. All guns may be weapons, but not all are intended for that purpose. I have friends who enjoy target shooting but who could not even imagine killing a living creature. I have other friends who are hunters. I have still other friends who own guns for protection and who would, with little compunction, kill another human being for self-defense or for the defense of loved ones. All of these are my Christian friends, and I write this for all of them.

I do not plan to respond to comments on this post; I have said my piece. I do ask that comments, if any, deal with the post itself and not with other agendas. And, as a matter of Christian integrity and truthfulness, please read the post thoroughly and respond to what I wrote and not to a caricature of it. Comments that follow these two guidelines will stand; those that do not will be deleted.

Idols

The human heart is a perpetual idol factory (Calvin, Institutes I.11.8).

I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands (National Rifle Association (NRA) slogan).

“Idol” may conjure images of temples and statues of Dagon or Artemis, or perhaps biblical stories of prophetic battles against Baal. But, we must think more broadly than this.

An idol is any material object, relationship, or ideal that is disproportionately constitutive of identity, demanding of loyalty, and deemed worthy of sacrifice.

The NRA slogan, above, is dangerously close to a doctrine of idols. To truly and thoughtfully endorse it is perilously near bowing the knee to guns. The implication of the slogan is simply that guns are so fundamental to the owner’s identity — so constitutive of it — that he/she would kill or be killed (human sacrifice) to retain possession of his/her weapons. That is the loyalty of martyrs, vested not in God, but in the metal and wood creation of human hands, and that would indeed be a form of idolatry.

Perhaps this is the starting point for a theologically sound Christian response to guns: a through and discerning self-examination of the idol factory of the human heart to discern if a devotion to guns has supplanted love for God.

But, as noted earlier, idols are not necessarily material objects; causes, too, can function as idols. It is possible for both ends of the ideological spectrum on this issue — those willing to defend to the death the right to own guns (NRA slogan) and those adamantly opposed to all gun ownership — to worship the cause for which they stand and to see any dissenters as enemies, even to see fellow Christians as enemies. The vitriol with which this debate is conducted is clear evidence of the idolatry of being on the right side of a cause. The proper place to begin this debate is with self-examination and repentance of all hints of idolatry.

Rights

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed (United States Constitution, Second Amendment).

1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (ESV): 23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

The proper context for any discussion of gun policy is not the Constitution, but rather Scripture. The proper theological basis is not rights, but responsibilities and care for the other. The proper Gospel proclamation is not freedom “to” but freedom “from:” not freedom to do as one pleases or even to do as the law allows, but freedom from the dark powers so that one may be obedient to Christ. So, the Christian must lay aside those rights that do not build up, that do not promote the good of his/her neighbor.

This principle is obvious, for example, in the case of abortion. Is a Christian “free” — does she have the right — under the Law operative for the past five decades to have an abortion? Yes, certainly. But the Church does not accept the exercise of that right. The consensus faith of the Great Tradition would not accept as valid an appeal to the Constitution as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. Were the Congress to amend the Constitution to guarantee the rights of women to abortion, that would make no difference to churches with any claim to the orthodox faith.

Yet, when the issue is guns, there is a tendency among some Christians and Christian groups to lay Scripture aside and to stand instead on Second Amendment rights. That is a theological dead end. Any argument premised on the preeminent authority of the Constitution is a house constructed on a foundation of sand. The rains will come and the water will rise, and great will be the fall of that house. The proper basis for a Christian understanding and policy of guns in our society is Scripture. Building that foundation will take careful, deep, and lengthy immersion in the whole counsel of God’s word, not just individually, but also corporately in the context of prayer and worship.

Wisdom

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

Proverbs 1:22 (ESV): 22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?

The Christian faith embodies a great wisdom tradition in both the Old and New Testaments, a tradition which reasons from the Book of Nature, from the Book of the Law, from the Book of the Gospels. Such wisdom begins with fear of the Lord, and it depends on the work of the Holy Spirit. But it also requires Christians to exercise their minds: to think clearly, to reason soundly, to leave simple slogans behind. It requires the expertise of those trained in the faith and in secular professions/vocations. The “and” is essential in the previous sentence; “and” not “or.” The issue of the proper place of guns in society is a complex one, not amenable to simplistic ideas. It will require the best thinkers and pray-ers amongst us to resolve rightly. As a priest — as a representative of the Great Tradition — I have a certain theological perspective to bring to the table, but I have no political expertise, no sociological expertise, no psychological expertise, no legal expertise, no financial expertise. That is precisely why we need Christian politicians, Christian sociologists, Christian mental health professionals, Christian lawyers and judges, and Christian business people — and Christians in a host of other specialized disciplines — to engage this issue, not bracketing out their faith but engaging it fully to influence public policy.

Guns don’t kill people. That is true enough. But people with guns kill people. And people with assault style weapons and high capacity magazines kill many people, rapidly and efficiently. The problem is the false “or” in the simplistic argument: either guns “or” people, when “and” or “with” is the proper conjunction. People and/with guns kill people. The point is simply that a complex problem is not amenable to simplistic sloganeering on either side. The wisdom tradition of the Church demands more and better of Christians.

Thought World

America is a country founded on guns. It’s in our DNA. It’s very strange but I feel better having a gun. I really do. I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel the house is completely safe, if I don’t have one hidden somewhere. That’s my thinking, right or wrong (Brad Pitt).

Matthew 19:3–8 (ESV): 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Implicit in Brad Pitt’s statement is this: the United States without guns is simply unimaginable. And yet, it was not so in the beginning and will not be so in the end: not the beginning of our country, but the beginning of all things.

When Jesus was asked about divorce, he did not appeal to the Law, but rather to God’s intent in the beginning, at creation. Is it not sound Christian theology to do the same with guns as weapons? In Eden there were no guns, and I dare say no weapons. From the beginning it was not God’s intent that weapons — whether men’s hands or stones or crafted things — be used by one living creature against another. And that means that guns — which were almost certainly created to be weapons — are products of sin and the fall. Though we cannot conceive it now, there was a world before guns. Though we cannot conceive it now, there will be a world to come — when heaven and earth are joined in New Jerusalem — when guns are no more. The problem is simply that we live in the meantime, between those two thought worlds. And in this meantime, we cannot conceive a world without guns.

But, as Christians, we must begin to construct that thought world and even to make incremental steps toward it. Neither Peter nor Paul condemned the practice of slavery; generally speaking, Christian masters were not commanded to release their slaves, even their Christian slaves. The first century thought world could not have conceived of society without slavery; arguable the full, immediate release of all slaves would have been socially catastrophic, likely both for former slave owners and former slaves. Rather, Peter and Paul did something much more difficult and much more radical. They began to conceive and construct a thought world in which slavery — Christian slavery — was unimaginable. They did it by giving slaves dignity and agency. They did it by reminding Christians slave owners that they were in bondage to Christ and that their Christian slaves were free in Christ. They did it by inviting all — slave owners and their slave — to meet around the same Eucharist Table and to share the same bread and wine, the Body and Blood of the same Christ. And Paul took the further incremental step of appealing to Philemon to release his slave, Onesimus, now his Christian brother. We can only imagine the ripple effect throughout the Christian community of such a request.

The great Christian task vis-á-vis guns is to begin thinking through and moving toward a thought world in which guns as weapons play no part. This will be as complex for us as slavery was for the Apostles, but, like them, we have the Spirit of Wisdom to guide us, and we have various gifts in the Church to move us forward. God only knows if significant progress is possible caught as we are between Eden and New Jerusalem. But it is our Christian calling to pray our way forward, to think our way forward, to worship our way forward.

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Impossible Things: A Homily on the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ

ALICE LAUGHED: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The Queen, in this passage from Alice in Wonderland, might well be speaking of Morning Prayer: it takes half an hour or less each day to read; it is often read before breakfast; and it’s filled with impossible things that we are expected to believe. Why, the Creed alone proclaims more than six impossible things, though these six are particularly noteworthy and impossible:

• that God, whom we call Father, created all things in heaven and on earth;

• that God the Father had a Son, conceived by God the Holy Spirit and born of a human woman — a virgin, of all things;

• that this Son, Jesus the Christ, God the Son, was crucified, died, and was buried;

• that he rose again from the dead three days later;

• that he ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of his Father, at the place of power and glory;

• that he will come again to judge us all — those living at his return and those dead whom he shall raise to life.

And all this before breakfast: for Anglicans, as for the Queen, believing impossible things just takes a little practice.

When confronted with an impossible thing — and you know I say “impossible” with tongue firmly in cheek — when confronted with an impossible thing, I find it helpful to ask three questions:

1. Do I understand it? In other words, do I really know what I am expected to believe?

2. Can I believe it? Is there sufficient evidence for the impossible thing or else insufficient evidence to refute it? There is a corollary to this: do I already believe something that commends this new impossible thing or which compels me to accept it also?

3. What must I do about the impossible thing if I were to believe it?

Take the impossible thing of the Resurrection of Jesus, for example, and apply these questions.

Do I understand it? Do I really know what I am expected to believe? Well, yes, I think I do: that a man, brutally beaten and executed by Roman soldiers — merchants of death who verified that he was truly good and dead — came to life again three days later, body and all. Not a ghost, not a figment of imagination, not a religious longing turned delusion, not the continuation of an ideal by faithful disciples, but a flesh and blood, scar-bearing, fish eating body. Granted, it was a glorified human body capable of appearing behind locked doors and disappearing at will: more than an ordinary human body or perhaps a human body as it was created to be, but, either way, still a human body continuous with the one laid in the tomb. This is what I’m expected to believe.

Can I believe it? Is there sufficient evidence for this impossible thing? Well, frankly, it runs contrary to everything we know, to the whole of human experience. Our dead stay dead. We do not attend funerals with the expectation that the deceased will return home with us or appear just a bit later. Dead is dead. And that understanding, that knowledge, was true for the small band of Jesus’ disciples, as well. He was dead. That ended the story. And now they had to deal with that, to figure out how to re-establish their lives without him. They didn’t expect what happened next. They didn’t expect to encounter a living Jesus in the Garden or on the road to Emmaus or in the Upper Room or on the shore at the Sea of Galilee. And yet, that is precisely what they say happened; we have their startled eyewitness testimonies. And more than just their tales, we have the evidence of the lives they lived after seeing the resurrected Christ — lives sacrificially devoted to telling the world the good news of a risen Savior. They died proclaiming that news; they died precisely for proclaiming that news. Everything about the disciples’ behavior — about their lives and their deaths — suggests to me a people unafraid of death because they had seen death conquered by their friend and Master Jesus, who was crucified, died, buried, and who rose again on the third day. So, yes, as impossible as this thing is, there is credible evidence for it, and I find that I can and do believe it.

What must I do about this impossible thing now that I believe it? Well, that’s another sermon for another time. More than that, it is a life-long engagement with the living Lord through the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit: the renewal of our minds, the purifying of our hearts, the surrender of our wills, the service of our hands, the praise of our lips. I must die with Jesus. I must be buried with him in baptism. I must rise again with him — new creation! — so that he might live in me.

So, you see how these questions work, how they respond to and how they interrogate impossible things.

Today, the Church confronts us with the impossible thing it calls the Ascension. It is a dogma of the Church, believed, as St. Vincent of Lérins would say, “everywhere, always, and by all.” It is enshrined in the Nicene Creed that we will profess in a matter of moments, and is thus a touchstone of orthodoxy:

he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

Deny this, and whatever else you might be, you are not Christian in any meaningful, orthodox sense of the word; you have wandered outside the boundaries of the consensual faith. Still, even as interwoven as this tenet is in the fabric of our faith, I think it is important to address our three questions to this impossible thing:

1. Do I understand it?

2. Can I believe it?

3. What must I do if I believe it?

Do I understand it? I’m convinced that some don’t at all, that many do in part, and that none does fully. The caricature of the Ascension is that Jesus went up from a place called earth into a far distant place called heaven, ankles and feet disappearing up into the clouds. For a time — and God only knows how long that will be — Jesus will do “God stuff” up there and leave us to do “human stuff” down here. When we have gotten it as right as we can or else messed it up as badly as we can, Jesus will come back to earth to judge our work. The good ones among us will go back to heaven to live with him and the bad ones will go to another distant place, hell, where they will be punished forever. Not quite. Not really at all.

First, heaven isn’t a place distant from earth. Heaven is the realm, the dimension of God’s being. N. T. Wright describes heaven this way:

Heaven is God’s space, which intersects with our space but transcends it. It is, if you like, a further dimension of our world, not a place far removed at one extreme of our world. It is all around us, glimpsed in a mystery in every Eucharist and every act of generous human love (N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship).

This is important, because it means that Jesus, in his ascension, is not removed from us, not simply watching us now from a distance. Heaven and earth intersect in myriads of ways and times and places. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is not a passive observer, but an active participant in the affairs of earth, an authoritative participant in the commission he has given his followers:

Matthew 28:18–20 (ESV): And Jesus came and said to them [his disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

“All authority,” and “I am with you always”: these are the truths of the Ascension.

Part of the problem in understanding the Ascension is that we get the earth’s-eye view of it in Luke and Acts, but we often forget the heaven’s-eye view of it in Daniel:

Daniel 7:13–14 (ESV): I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.

This is the Ascension seen from the perspective of heaven, from the throne room of God, not a leaving but an arrival. Jesus has returned to God’s realm. He has been presented victorious before the Father. And the Father has bestowed upon him all authority in heaven and on earth and has made him Lord of all. All kingdoms and peoples and nations and languages are subject to him; all are his servants. The Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords: not his going away to a distant place to disengage with the earth, but the accession of Jesus to Lordship over the earth; not his absence, but his presence to the end of the ages; not his disinterested observation, but his active engagement to implement his rule. When we begin to understand this, we have just begun to understand the Ascension.

Can I believe it? Can I believe that even now, Jesus is enthroned as Lord of all creation, as Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth? Can I believe it when all the “facts on the ground” strongly suggest otherwise? Can I, in all honesty, look around at the state of the world — war and greed and sexual confusion and xenophobia and racism and genocide and religious persecution and political dysfunction and fires and floods and epidemics, and school shootings, and well, all of it — can I look around at the state of the world and honestly believe that this is what it looks like when God is in charge, when Jesus is reigning as King of kings and Lord of lords? Can I believe it?

Well, if I ask the question a different way, I can get there; I can believe. Not, “Is this what it looks like when God is in charge?” but, “Is this what it looks like when Jesus has begun his reign over a fallen creation and a rebellious people and their rebellious rulers?” Is this what it looks like when the Lord reigns in the midst of his enemies? Is this what it looks like given the present reality of Psalm 2?

Psalm 2:1–3 (ESV): Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

Yes, this is exactly what I might expect it to look like when a dark power — the dragon, the beast, the great Prostitute, Babylon — successfully urges the people of the earth to ignore the sovereignty of the Lord, to pursue their own twisted desires, and to rebel against the rightful authority of the ascended and ruling Lord Jesus Christ. This is the mystery of inaugurated eschatology — the beginning of the end. Jesus reigns now; he has been given all rule and authority. But this is just the beginning; though the war has been won and the rightful king enthroned, there are many battles still to be fought: battles with loss, and casualty, and damage. So, then, this is our hope, a hope that makes it possible to believe the Ascension — that this is not the end, but the beginning of the end. In the end, all shall be well; if all is not yet well, it is not yet the end. Saint Paul writes in the middle time between Ascension and Return, looking forward to the end:

1 Corinthians 15:24–26 (ESV): 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Can I believe it? Probably not — not alone, not with my own power. That is precisely why Paul prayed as he did for the Ephesians; and it is a prayer not for them only, but for all who long to believe in the Ascension, a prayer:

Ephesians 1:17–23 (ESV): that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

The Spirit of wisdom and revelation and knowledge, a heart enlightened, a hope renewed, a promise of inheritance, a glimpse of immeasurable greatness, the working of God’s resurrection power in us — the power by which he raised Christ from the dead, seated him at his right hand in glory, elevated him above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and gave him to the church as head over all things: this is what we need if we are to believe the Ascension, this answer to Paul’s prayer. Can I believe it? Yes, God being my helper.

What must I do, if I believe it? Well, that’s another sermon for another time. More than that, it is a life-long engagement with the risen and ascended Lord through the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit: the renewal of our minds, the purifying of our hearts, the surrender of our wills, the service of our hands, the praise of our lips. While I cannot preach that sermon now, I can perhaps point the way forward.

What must we do? We must do justice, tell truth, and make beauty.

First, justice. I know that the minute I even mention justice — wherever and with whomever I happen to be — some hackles will rise, some walls will go up, and conversely some will breathe a sigh of relief, some arms will open to embrace me as an ally. And both of those responses miss the point. I am not talking about justice as our culture defines it. A Christian has not said justice until he/she says God’s justice, kingdom justice. It has nothing — nothing — to do with wokeness or critical theory, nothing to do with Republican or Democrat, nothing to do with liberal or conservative. But it has everything to do with loving your neighbor as yourself, everything to do with seeing Christ in the hungry and thirsty, in the naked and sick and imprisoned, in the stranger and widow and orphan. It has everything to do with taking the Law and the Prophets seriously: the Law that addresses the requirement for systemic justice — God’s mandate for systems and structures to feed the poor and the sojourner, to release brothers and sisters from slavery and to remit debt every seventh year, to return family property sold in times of want every year of Jubilee; and the Prophets that address failure to satisfy systemic justice — God’s mandate for kings to rule justly, for courts to decide impartially, for society to live righteously. Justice is about restoration, about the return to God’s ideal of order and relationship and functionality and holiness, both individually and collectively.

Ascension calls us to do justice, because God’s kingdom is a kingdom of justice, because the one who now exercises all sovereignty and dominion is the Lord of justice.

Second, truth. The one who now rules over all things identified himself as the way, the truth, and the life. And that means that we must be his truth-telling image-bearers in a world that is bound up in delusion and falsehood, enticed and enslaved by the father of lies. Do not be complicit in their lies. Know the truth. Steep yourself in the truth through prayer and worship, in the Scriptures and the great Tradition of the Church until you are saturated in and formed indelibly by that truth. And then live and speak that truth in love: not with vitriol and anger, not with polemic and rancor, not to win an argument but to woo a soul lost in darkness back to the light of Christ.

Ascension calls us to know and tell the truth, because God’s kingdom is a kingdom of truth, and because the one who now exercises all sovereignty and dominion is himself the living Truth.

Last, beauty. Beauty is the Lord’s subtle and creative presence in the human heart and imagination manifesting itself in sight and sound and touch and taste and smell, in words spoken and songs sung, in gardens cultivated and homes built, in the glories of nature and in the works of man, in the joy and longing that fill the human heart. Bring forth beauty into God’s kingdom on earth: order from chaos, reconciliation from brokenness, laughter from tears, hope from fear. Bake a loaf of bread and share it with a neighbor. Dance like you know what you’re doing and revel in the wonder and grace of the human form. Paint a picture — a happy little tree — even if Bob Ross might laugh at the result; laugher is good for the soul, too, and makes a most beautiful sound. Sit in silence in the quiet of a church and watch how the light streaming in the windows plays across the pews. Hug a child — or your wife or husband — and delight in the beauty of love. Fill your mind, heart, and spirit with the fair beauty of the Lord.

Ascension calls us to revel in beauty, to make beauty, because God’s kingdom is a kingdom of beauty, and because the one who now exercises all sovereignty and dominion is himself most beautiful.

What must I do if I believe it? All of this and so much more. Not least, this: I must trust that one day, just as Christ ascended, he will come again in power and glory to put all things to rights, to make all things new, to free his righteous ones from all that weighs them down, to dry every tear, to heal every wound, to unite heaven and earth, and to take the church as his bride forever.

Some may laugh: “There’s no use trying,” they say; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” we reply. “Sometimes we believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Alleluia. Christ the Lord has ascended into heaven.
O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.

Amen.

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Sacramental Confession: An Apologia

THE PRACTICE OF SACRAMENTAL CONFESSION
in the

ANGLICAN DIOCESE OF THE SOUTH

Though the Reconciliation of Penitents (Confession) is not identified as a Dominical Sacrament in the formularies of the Anglican Church, it is nonetheless a recognized ecclesiastical sacrament administered by the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Following is an apology for its practice in the Anglican Church in North America and in the Anglican Diocese of the South and a defense of the sanctity of the confessional seal.

CONTINUITY OF FAITH AND PRACTICE
According to the Fundamental Declarations of the Province of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) the following statement is “characteristic of the Anglican Way, and essential for membership:”

6. We receive The Book of Common Prayer as set forth by the Church of England in 1662, together with the Ordinal attached to the same, as a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline, and, with the Books which preceded it, as the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship (ACNA, 2019, p. 767).

Given the normative status of the Book of Common Prayer 1662 (BCP 1662) and the Ordinal attached to the same, an apology for sacramental confession within the Anglican Church of North America generally and the Anglican Diocese of the South (ADOTS) specifically may well begin there with the episcopal prayer of epiclesis in The Form and Manner of Ordering of PRIESTS:

RECEIVE the Holy Ghost for the Office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen (Cummings, 2011, p. 642).

Two points from this epiclesis are germane to the following discussion. First, the Holy Ghost is committed for the Office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, i.e., in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and not merely in the Anglican Church. This universality of holy orders arguably contextualizes all those in orders within a common understanding and practice of ministry, not least in the administration of the Sacraments. Any departure from the received Tradition of the Church catholic in the administration of the sacraments challenges the claim to valid holy orders. Second, forgiveness or retention of sins is an intrinsic aspect of priestly ministry. While all forgiveness originates with God the Father through the atoning sacrifice of God the Son, forgiveness is mediated instrumentally through the ministry of the priest according to God the Holy Spirit. That a priest may forgive or retain sins is therefore given; it is common to the great Tradition. The question now follows: when and under what conditions is this priestly ministry of forgiveness exercised, specifically in the Anglican Church?

Since the ACNA accepts as “the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship” those books which preceded the BCP 1662, we may rightly appeal to the BCP 1549 which answers the foregoing question most clearly. In the exhortation to Holy Communion the rubrics require the priest to say these or similar words:

First, that you be truly repentaunt of your former evill life, and that you confesse with an unfained hearte to almightie God, youre synnes and unkyndnes towardes his Majestie committed, either by will, worde or dede, infirmitie or ignoraunce, and that with inwarde sorowe and teares you bewaile your offences, and require of almightie god, mercie, and pardon, promising to him (from the botome of your hartes) the amendment of your former lyfe. And emonges all others, I am commaunded of God, especially to move and exhorte you, to reconcile yourselfes to your neighbors, whom you have offended, or who hath offended you, putting out of your heartes al hatred and malice against them, and to be in love and charitie with all the worlde, and to forgeve other, as you woulde that god should forgeve you. And yf any man have doen wrong to any other: let him make satisfaccion, and due restitucion of all landes and goodes, wrongfully taken awaye or withholden, before he come to Goddes borde, or at the least be in ful minde and purpose to do so, assone as he is able, or els let him not come to this holy table, thinking to deceyve God, who seeth all mennes hartes. For neither the absolucion of the priest, can any thing avayle them, nor the receivyng of this holy sacrament doth any thing but increase their damnacion. And yf there bee any of you, whose conscience is troubled and greved in any thing, lackyng comforte or counsaill, let him come to me, or to some other dyscrete and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confesse and open his synne and griefe secretly, that he may receive suche ghostly counsaill, advyse, and comfort, that his conscience maye be releved, and that of us (as of ministers of GOD and of the churche) he may receive comfort and absolucion, to the satisfaccion of his mynde, and avoyding of all scruple and doubtfulnes: requirying suche as shalbe satisfied with a generall confession, not to be offended with them that doe use, to their further satisfiyng, the auriculer and secret confession to the Priest: nor those also whiche thinke nedefull or convenient, for the quietnes of their awne consciences, particuliarly to open their sinnes to the Priest: to bee offended with them that are satisfied, with their humble confession to GOD, and the generall confession to the churche. But in all thinges to folowe and kepe the rule of charitie, and every man to be satisfied with his owne conscience, not judgying other mennes myndes or consciences: where as he hath no warrant of Goddes word to the same (Ibid, pp. 24-25).

Language difficulties notwithstanding, several crucial points emerge clearly from this exhortation. First, self-examination, restitution, reconciliation, and amendment of life are prerequisite to efficacious confession and absolution; without these, priestly absolution does not avail. Second, the normal course of forgiveness consists of private confession to God, general (corporate and public) confession to the church in the context of Morning and Evening Prayer and in Holy Eucharist, and corporate absolution by the priest. Third, if the normal course fails to provide satisfaction of the penitent’s mind and conscience, the penitent may utilize secret auricular confession, i.e., sacramental confession, to the priest. In that context, the priest not only offers absolution, but also spiritual counsel, advice, and comfort, i.e., appropriate pastoral care. Sacramental confession is more than a pro forma rite of absolution; it is a venue for the cure of souls.

While subsequent editions of the Book of Common Prayer moderate the language of the exhortation regarding “auriculer and secret confession to the Priest” and eliminate all mention of charity between those with different confessional practices, they nevertheless retain private confession to the priest as a valid practice and exhort some to avail themselves of it.

Of special importance is this rubric in Visitation of the Sick, BCP 1662.

Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the Priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort (Ibid, p. 445).

Then follows the nearest the BCP 1662 offers to a rite of confession: an absolution offered by the priest to one who has made a personal, specific, and auricular — not public and general — confession:

OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen (Ibid, p. 445).

Thus, it is clear from the earliest edition of the Book of Common Prayer through all those subsequent revisions deemed standard by the ACNA that (1) absolution was considered integral to the office and work of the priest; (2) absolution was normally exercised publicly and corporately during Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion; (3) private, auricular confession and absolution was accepted practice and some — those unsatisfied by public confession and the spiritually troubled sick — were exhorted to avail themselves of it. It is also clear that absolution — in whatever form, public or private — was dependent upon self-examination, restitution, reconciliation, and amendment of life, as far as was possible.

That the ACNA has inherited and accepted this understanding of priestly absolution and private, auricular confession is clear from the Ordinal, The Exhortation, the rite for Reconciliation of Penitents, and the rite of Ministry to the Dying in the BCP 2019.

The epiclesis in The Form and Manner of Ordaining a Priest is a contemporary language version of that in the BCP 1662 and likewise identifies forgiveness and retention of sins as integral to the priestly ministry:

Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the imposition of our hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld. Be a faithful minister of God’s holy Word and Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (ACNA, 2019, p. 493).

The Exhortation identifies the prerequisites for valid absolution and encourages those with a troubled conscience to private confession with a priest:

Therefore, judge yourselves lest you be judged by the Lord. First, examine your life by the rule of God’s commandments. Wherever you have offended, either by thought, word, or deed, confess your sins to Almighty God, with the full intention to amend your life. Be ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs you have done to others; and also be ready to forgive others who have offended you: for otherwise, if you unworthily receive Holy Communion, you will increase your own condemnation. Therefore, repent of your sins, or else do not come to God’s Holy Table.

If you have come here today with a troubled conscience, and you need help and counsel, come to me, or to some other Priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive godly counsel, direction, and absolution. To do so will both satisfy your conscience and remove any scruples or doubt (Ibid, pp. 147-148).

The BCP 2019 goes beyond the standard books to provide a rite of Reconciliation Of Penitents, but it maintains theological continuity with those prior books by utilizing, as the first of two options, a contemporary language version of the declaration of absolution from the BCP 1662:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen (Ibid, p. 224).

The Additional Directions for Ministry to the Dying align with the rubrics in Visitation of the Sick in the BCP 1662:

The minister may inquire of the dying person as to his or her desire to be reconciled to both God and neighbor. If the dying person feels troubled in conscience with any matter, the minister should offer the rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent. On evidence of repentance, the minister shall give assurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness (Ibid, pp. 241-242).

The BCP 2019 continues the faith and practice of the standard books which preceded it vis-à-vis the priestly ministry of confession and absolution, both public/corporate and private/personal. This places Anglican faith and practice firmly in the mainstream of the received Tradition of the Church catholic.

THE SEAL OF CONFESSION
Recently, in reaction against sexual abuse both inside and outside the church, several states have designated priests as mandatory reporters of suspected or confirmed abuse of minors. That is, priests are legally required to report alleged or actual cases of abuse to the civil authorities for investigation and potential prosecution. This requirement admits no exceptions; even such incriminating information revealed during sacramental confession must be reported to the appropriate civil authorities. This is a direct challenge to the absolute sanctity of the seal of confession as historically understood and practiced. Such laws pose challenges and questions to the ANCA and to those in holy orders who hear confessions. What is the official position of the ACNA vis-à-vis the sanctity of the seal of confession? A brief historical and theological excursus is perhaps necessary to address the issue.

On Sundays, other Major Feast Days, and other times as appointed, faithful Anglicans stand during the Liturgy and confess their faith in the words of the Nicene Creed — words including these:

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

This statement is more than a notional recognition of the existence of “a church.” It is an expression of faith in “one Church” that shares a common faith including common holy orders and sacraments. Further, it is a proclamation that the ACNA considers itself part of that Church along with all other churches which maintain holy orders in valid Apostolic succession and which faithfully administer the sacraments, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Anything done unilaterally by the ACNA or its clergy in contravention of shared faith and practice strikes a hammer blow against the ACNA’s claim to be part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church and against the hope for visible, ecumenical unity. Arguably those who refuse to acknowledge and fail to practice that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all (Vincentian Canon) are thereby placing themselves outside the Tradition of the Church catholic.

The inviolability of the seal of confession is the long established and universally recognized understanding and practice of the Church catholic. The Decretum of Gratian (12th century), which purports to compile earlier Church decrees, notes:

Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) Canon 21 states:

Let the confessor take absolute care not to betray the sinner through word or sign, or in any other way whatsoever. In case he needs expert advice he may seek it without, however, in any way indicating the person. For we decree that he who presumes to reveal a sin which has been manifested to him in the tribunal of penance is not only to be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance.

Closer to Anglicanism, the BCP 1979, one precursor of the ACNA BCP 2019, contains this instruction regarding the seal of the confessional:

The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken (TEC, 1979, p. 446).

The ACNA BCP 2019 lacks this or similar rubric and makes no statement regarding the sanctity of the seal. This ambiguity accounts for the diversity of theological understanding and practice regarding the seal within the ACNA. It also challenges ecumenical relations and puts those in holy orders in legal limbo. Since this issue pertains to holy orders and sacramental understanding and practice, no appeal to dual integrities or subsidiarity is appropriate; this is not a matter adiaphora. Until the entire Church — the entire Church, East and West — is led to contrary consensus by the Holy Spirit, no member communion of that Church has the right to contravene traditional sacramental practice and, at the same time, proclaim itself part of the church Catholic. Even less may any individual priest do so.

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s
By designating priests as mandatory reporters of suspected or actual sexual abuse of minors, state governments and civil authorities have claimed jurisdiction and authority over the sacraments of the Church. And that, the Church cannot allow if it is to render unto Caesar only that which is Caesar’s and unto God everything that is God’s. To capitulate to the mandatory reporters statute simply because it is the “law of the land” is to bow to Caesar as Lord. What sacraments are to “fall” next?

Will the civil authorities one day claim sole jurisdiction over marriage and decree by law that if a church marries anyone it must marry everyone, i.e., that a church may not determine for itself, based on its understanding of the ancient consensus fidelium, who meets the criteria for Holy Matrimony?

Will the civil authorities one day ban baptism because it imparts (imposes?) a unique identity upon the baptizand that conflicts with society’s notion of identity, as fluid as that now seems?

Will the civil authorities one day define all talk of sin, repentance, and judgment as “hate speech” and impose civil or criminal penalties for the proclamation of the Gospel?

Perhaps this sounds alarmist, but it is currently being realized — at least in part — in some Western countries. The Church cannot capitulate even to something that sounds inherently good and reasonable, like mandatory reporting of sexual abuse revealed in the context of sacramental confession lest it relinquish authority over its sacraments.

Sin and forgiveness versus crime and punishment
Sacramental confession exists to address sin and forgiveness, not crime and punishment. A priest is an advocate for the sinner, not an accuser of the criminal. While a priest’s heart can and does ache for the victim of any evil, his focus must be on the penitent in front of him, a penitent who may well be the perpetrator. Multiple souls may hang in the balance, but the one soul who has come to confess is the one who must take priority in that moment. The priest’s role is to lead that soul to true repentance and amendment of life so that absolution may be pronounced. This is not a matter of crime and punishment.

This also is not callous disregard for the victim of evil: far from it. But where does the government stop when asking the priest to report criminal behavior? Reporting sexual abuse seems so reasonable. But what about embezzlement? That is not a victimless crime and may cause serious and permanent damage to the victims. Should a priest report that to the authorities or to the victim? If not, why not? The selling of illegal drugs: does a priest report it or not? What crimes might governments require a priest to report in the future, and how will they determine that? To which civil statutes will the church capitulate? Such capitulation in even one instance is the nullification of the sacrament of confession.

Nothing new under the sun
Ironically and paradoxically, each generation considers itself intellectually and morally superior to all preceding generations (false progressivism) and also fallen from former greatness (false “golden age”). The truth is much simpler, as Ecclesiastes writes:

Ecclesiastes 1:9–11 (ESV): 9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

Nothing heard in twenty-first century confessionals would have shocked our priestly forefathers; sin is boringly banal in its consistency. Sexual abuse — Lord, have mercy! — is nothing new under the sun, though society’s attitude toward it evolves. Our forefathers in holy orders were presented with the same dilemma we face today: the confession of heinous sin and the sanctity of the confessional seal. They were wise and faithful enough to address the former without forsaking the latter. Wisdom lies in preserving the received Tradition, in keeping with G. K. Chesterton:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around (Chesterton, 2001, p. 45).

Binding and loosing
On the day of resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciple in the Upper Room and commissioned them to carry on his work in the world:

John 20:22–23 (ESV): 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

This, and parallel passages, form the basis for sacramental confession and absolution. It is the apostolic authority of binding and loosing conferred upon the eleven by Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and bequeathed to their successors — bishops and priests — through the laying on of hands. Both forgiveness and retention of sins is authorized. The granting of absolution is neither automatic nor is it a right that the penitent may demand. It is a prayerful and prudential decision made by the priest. A confession is valid, i.e., genuine and “meriting” absolution only when certain elements are present. The penitent must exhibit contrition: the recognition and acknowledgment of sin and godly sorrow for it. Further, as applicable, the penitent must bear evidence of — or resolve to accomplish at the earliest opportunity — reconciliation, restitution, and restoration. In short, the penitent must submit to justice — the putting to rights, as far as is possible, what he or she violated — and must exhibit or commit to amendment of life.

A few examples might clarify this. Suppose a man confesses that he recently had spoken angry words to his wife. He now recognizes his wrong and is truly sorry for it. Before pronouncing absolution, the priest might reasonably ask if the penitent had reconciled to his wife by confessing his wrong to her and by seeking her forgiveness. If he had not, the priest could rightly ask him to do so and then return for absolution. Or, if a woman confesses that she had stolen some petty cash from her office, the priest should ask if she had returned it. If she had not, the priest should not pronounce absolution until she does so. Absolution does not bypass godly justice, but rather promotes it and is dependent upon it.

Now a more difficult situation, but no less clear. Suppose a man confesses to sexually abusing a minor. He is contrite. But that is not enough for the granting of absolution. Has he begun the process of restitution and restoration? Has he concrete plans for amendment of life? Has he met the demands of godly justice which would require, in part, his self-reporting to the civil authorities? Until these have been done, the priest could not, in good faith, pronounce absolution, nor would the absolution be valid should the priest pronounce it. The priest should offer to go with him to the authorities; he should in no way spiritually abandon the penitent. Rather, the priest should attempt most earnestly to lead the penitent to the point where absolution is appropriate, and then journey with him beyond that to amendment of life. What the priest must not do is to violate the morally absolute seal of confession if the penitent decides to leave the confessional with his sins unforgiven and bound to him. If, to the contrary, the priest does choose to report the confession to the civil authorities the priest should also report himself to his bishop and ask to be relieved of his priesthood.

All may, none must, some should
So goes the Anglican invitation to the sacrament of confession. This must now extend to priests and the hearing of confessions. By virtue of their order, all priests may receive confessions and pronounce absolution. Some are gifted confessors and should exercise that ministry to the glory of God and the welfare of his people. But, none must. Further, those who cannot in good faith and conscience maintain the sanctity of the seal of confession must not hear confessions. Rather, they should provide for alternate sacramental care for those parishioners who desire sacramental confession.

Most generally, Anglicans do not beat down the doors of the confessional or queue up for hours waiting their turn. The opposite seems to be true. Most take advantage of the Anglican loophole, “None must.” The likelihood of an Anglican priest hearing the confession of a sexual abuser of minors is relatively small. To overturn the consensus fidelium of the Church catholic, to bow the knee to Caesar and relinquish authority over the sacraments to the civil authorities, to turn from sin and forgiveness to crime and punishment for the sake of this unlikely event, to jettison the Tradition is inexcusable, particularly when the priest already has the apostolic authority of binding and loosing. The principle is sound and must be zealously guarded: the secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for a confessor.

REFERENCE LIST

Anglican Church in North America (2019). The book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments with other rites and ceremonies of the church according to the use of the Anglican Church in North America (BCP 2019). Anglican Liturgy Press.

Chesterton, G. K. (2001). Orthodoxy. Image Books.

Cummings, B. (2011). The book of common prayer: The texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662. Oxford University Press.

ESV Bible (2016). Crossways.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) (1979). The book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the church according to the use of the Episcopal Church (BCP 1979). Church Publishing Incorporated.

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The Strange Ending of Mark’s Gospel

(Is 52:7-10 / Ps 2 / Eph 4:7-8, 11-16 / Mk 16:15-20)

Collect of Saint Mark
Almighty God, by the hand of Mark the evangelist you have given to your Church the Gospel of Jesus Christ: We thank you for his witness, and pray that you will give us the grace to know the truth and not be carried about by every wind of false doctrine; so that we may truly and firmly accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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

DURING THIS EASTERTIDE I’ve been particularly aware of the strangeness of the event we celebrate, of how foreign this proclamation of resurrection is to our lived experience. I’ve never seen anyone rise from the dead. I don’t expect to see anyone rise from the dead. And yet I’m willing to stake my life upon the ancient claim that someone — a very specific someone — actually did, and that even more, this one resurrection has inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven and has changed the course of human history — has put human history back on course, again. We believe that, but we do so in spite of the observable evidence, and not because of it.

I was thinking about all this in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Recently, Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the Ukrainian seaport of Mariupol. Pictures of the city show a totally destroyed, bombed out wasteland; and that is Putin’s definition of victory. It reminded me of a famous quote by the Roman historian Tacitus, who was actually paraphrasing the Calcedonian chieftain Calgacus in his condemnation of Rome:

Robbers of the world, now that the earth is insufficient for their all-devastating hands they probe even the sea; if their enemy is rich, they are greedy; if he is poor, they thirst for dominion; neither east nor west has satisfied them; alone of mankind they are equally covetous of poverty and wealth. Robbery, slaughter and plunder they freely name empire; they make a desert and they call it peace.

Rome made a desert and called it peace; Putin makes a wasteland and calls it victory. And we, the followers of Jesus, look at the devastation of the cross and call it both peace and victory, because of the claim that this one man, executed by Rome, rose again after three days. The story we tell is strange; there is no escaping that. But, if it’s true, as we believe it is, then everything has changed, even thought the world and the world’s empires seem to be going about business as usual.

The story has always been strange, even from its first telling. Perhaps no biblical text makes that clearer than the Gospel of St. Mark, with its strange ending. I’d like you to hear, again, the final chapter of the Gospel as it appears in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts we have.

Mark 16:1–8 (ESV): When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

That’s it; that’s the end of Mark’s Gospel: no post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, no spreading of the good news among his followers, no bold proclamations — just three women confused and astonished and afraid and silent at the vision of an angel. What an interesting choice of ending for a Gospel. What a strange choice of ending for a Gospel.

Now, if you look at the text in the English Standard Version of the Bible — and in most other translations, as well — you will see that there are twelve more verses following this abrupt ending. These additional verses — called the Longer Ending of Mark — recount an appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, to two disciples walking (likely Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus), to the eleven (probably in the Upper Room). The verses also give a version of the Great Commission and the Ascension. All in all, they seem to provide a much more satisfactory ending. But, they were likely added decades later, not by Mark, but by a scribe(s) who was dissatisfied with Mark’s original ending. The earliest manuscripts of Mark do not have this Longer Ending, and later manuscripts actually have a variety of endings. None of this presents a theological problem, and it doesn’t cast any doubt upon the inspiration of Scripture. We accept the Gospel of Mark — in its present form — as part of the inspired Word of God, because at least since the close of the second century the Church has done, and because the Longer Ending is fully in keeping with what we find in the other canonical Gospels. We believe that the Holy Spirit has superintended the work of writing, editing, and collecting the Scriptures so that the end product is precisely what God intended his people to have.

Still, it is interesting to reflect on the shorter, abrupt, strange ending. What if the church had received that as the canonical version of Mark’s Gospel, with none of the additional twelve verses? What would we have made of that?

First, it would emphasize just how disruptive to the disciples’ worldview the Resurrection really was. It is not as if they said, “Oh, yeah, great! We should have expected that all along.” The Resurrection of Jesus, in the middle of history to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, was contrary to their traditional understanding of God’s purpose and plan for Israel and the nations. It turned everything upside down and brought everything into question. No wonder the women trembled with astonishment at the news of resurrection. No wonder they were afraid. No wonder they kept silent. This was the end of the world as they had known it and the beginning of a new world that they could not yet conceive. It required a reevaluation of everything they had previously taken as true. People don’t rise from the dead, but this man did. The cross is utter defeat, but this one was victory. At the end, God will restore the kingdom to Israel, but right here in the middle of history God has inaugurated his Kingdom that will be for all the peoples. Strange.

We have grown familiar — perhaps too familiar — with the notion of Resurrection; most of us have heard it from the cradle onward, and it is no longer strange or disruptive to us. We have incorporated it into our lives as one more standard feature, like a five-day workweek or paying taxes — just something we take for granted. Our world has domesticated Easter; we celebrate it with new clothes, chocolate bunnies, and Easter egg hunts. Christ is risen from the dead we say, then we go out to lunch as if nothing has happened. This shorter ending of Mark’s Gospel challenges us to once again see the Resurrection as astonishing, to tremble before it, to understand that our lives cannot be the same as before we received the news. It challenges us not to speak too glibly, too matter-of-factly, about this great and aweful event — this in-breaking of God into his creation to declare his victory and his dominion. It took these women, and the rest of the disciples, time to work through the implications of this strange thing that had come to pass. And they probably never would have gotten there if not for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the in-dwelling Advocate who was to lead them into the truth. This shorter ending confronts us with the strange, disruptive power of the Resurrection and demands that we see it anew.

Second, this abrupt ending reminds us that no book of Scripture stands alone, that, instead, we need the full counsel of God’s complete Word. Through early church historians we learn that the Gospel of Mark is a written summary of the Apostle Peter’s memoir and preaching; it is not a stretch to say that it is Peter’s Gospel. This close association with an Apostle is one reason that the church accepted the Mark’s Gospel as canonical. From about the mid first century onward, the Church had both the Gospel of Mark and the Epistles of Peter (I, II Peter), as well as the knowledge of what had transpired between the Resurrection and the death of Peter in Rome. And, they would have held these works and this history together — each one interpreting the others. So, the Gospel ends with the women amazed, fearful, and silent — telling no one what they had seen. But Peter’s epistles and his history tell the rest of the story: how the disciples were not silent; how, after encountering the risen Lord, Peter resumed his leadership role in the Church; how he preached the good news of Jesus — crucified, risen, and ascended — at the center of the world, at the heart of the Empire, Rome; how he faithfully followed his Lord unto death — death by crucifixion. Those reading the abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel knew the rest of the story.

So, this abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel actually draws us further into the full story. We know that we can’t stop there, so we read the other Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, the Revelation. And, we see that the story continues, that it doesn’t stop even with the close of the Canon. The story continues and we write our chapter of it, leaving that for the generations to come.

Third, the shorter ending of Mark — without post-resurrection appearances of Jesus — calls us to re-think how Jesus actually appears, even long after the original event. It challenges us to think what a post-resurrection appearance might look like now. Remembering the connection between Mark and Peter, let’s hear the opening of Peter’s first epistle.

1 Peter 1:1–5 (ESV): Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Peter writes to followers of Christ spread throughout the Empire, to those who haven’t been silent and who won’t be silenced. These are the very ones who have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” I want to get the theology of this right. Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of what is coming to us all: the general resurrection of the dead on the last great day, when the dead in Christ shall rise, when the corruptible will put on the incorruptible and when the mortal will be clothed in immortality. That is yet to come. Jesus’ resurrection was and is a foretaste of that, a signpost pointing toward it. But so is our new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. New birth implies — really requires — death and resurrection. We were dead in our sins and trespasses. We were buried with Christ in our baptism, united to his death. And we rise again into new life — resurrection — from that watery grave. All of this is in Christ. As Paul says, we no longer live, but Christ lives within us. That means that each faithful Christian is, in the truest theological sense, a post-resurrection appearance of Christ: partial, yes, still awaiting the fullness of the final Resurrection to come, yes, but a present moment signpost of the Resurrection of Christ nonetheless. So, the abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel — an ending without an explicit post-resurrection appearance of Jesus — mirrors our world in which people can’t see Jesus, in which we are historically removed from the event. And it challenges us to be examples of the resurrection ourselves, so that, when people look at us, they see the risen Lord — a living, longer ending of Mark’s Gospel. That’s what we are and what we’re called to be: a continuing post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

So, while I’m grateful that we have the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, I also see great worth in the shorter ending. It does challenge us:

To appreciate once again how startling, disruptive, and world-changing the Resurrection of Christ actually is;

To delve deeper into the full story and to see how the story continues, how we are writing another chapter in it;

To understand ourselves — and all faithful followers of Christ — as resurrection people, as signposts pointing backward toward the Resurrection of Christ and forward toward the final resurrection on the last great day.

That is not a bad ending. Amen.

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Rise Up

Easter Wednesday, 20 April 2022
(Acts 3:1-10, Psalm 118:19-24, Luke 24:13-35

Collect for Wednesday of Easter Week

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in the fullness of his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

I’M SLOWLY WORKING MY WAY through the book Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. That day is the largely neglected and forgotten day of the triduum, the great three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, ending with the Great Vigil of Easter. Holy Saturday is a day when, in our minds, nothing much happened, a day to hurry through on the way to Easter. And that is precisely because we know Easter is coming; we know the next and great chapter in the story. But those who lived the story didn’t know that. For them, there was no next chapter to that story, to the story of Jesus. That story — if they were lucky and the Jewish and Roman authorities didn’t also pursue them — that story was over: dead, buried, and sealed up.

A poem by Emily Dickinson, though not written specifically about Holy Saturday, captures a bit of the sense of it, the feel of it, at least as I imagine it.

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth —

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity —

Of course, the death — the execution — of Jesus is even more gut-wrenching than the loss of a friend. It is also the death of a future: the fulfillment of God’s covenant, the liberation of God’s people, the righteous rule of God’s Kingdom in which Jesus’ disciples would have had key roles. His death is the end of all that. There is really no aspect of the disciples’ lives left intact, untouched by Jesus’ death. So, while for us Holy Saturday is an in-between time, for them it was the end.

Though it is Sunday morning, Cleopas and his companion are still living in Holy Saturday as they travel back home to Emmaus. When a stranger joins their company and asks what they have been talking about, Cleopas says:

Luke 24:19b–24 (ESV): “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

There is no sense of hope, no sense of expectation, no thought of a next chapter in this story that Cleopas tells. Notice that it is all in past tense: Jesus was a prophet, the authorities crucified him, we had hoped — though clearly not any longer — that he was the redeemer of Israel. Yes, there is some foolish talk by foolish women about strange visions of angels and an empty tomb, but how can you place any stock in that? No, this story is over. The cross is the end and the enduring legacy of Jesus’ story if there is any enduring legacy.

Here’s an interesting question to ponder: could the Jesus movement have continued and prospered as a Holy Saturday movement? Might there still be Christians and Christianity had Easter not happened? Now, I know we are tempted to dismiss this out of hand, to reject it as absurd, but we shouldn’t do that too quickly. Social revolutions can outlive their founders, even if — and perhaps especially if — those founders were martyrs. Perhaps the best example in our recent history is the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. His name is still invoked, his memory still in some sense guiding a movement that is still pressing forward over fifty years after his assassination. Could Jesus’ disciples have taken up their crosses as Jesus had told them to do and lived as Holy Saturday people in his name? Almost surely so, but it is difficult to image the faith growing and spreading as it did, persisting as it does even unto this day. Would the Jews have embraced a crucified Messiah, when not so many of them did even when the resurrection was proclaimed? Would an executed Jewish prophet have had any appeal to Gentiles around the Mediterranean? It seems doubtful. I think if Holy Saturday had really been the end of the story, it would have really been the end of the story.

We must linger in Holy Saturday, but we must not live there. We are not called to be Holy Saturday people. No. As St. Augustine preached:

We are Easter people and ‘Alleluia’ is our song. Let us sing here and now in this life, even though we are oppressed by various worries, so that we may sing it one day in the world to come, when we are set free from all anxiety.

That brings us to the story of Peter and John going up to the temple at the hour of prayer: weeks, months after Holy Saturday, after the forty days spent with the resurrected Jesus, after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, after the explosive growth of the Church. This is a rousing good story, and it even makes for a catchy Vacation Bible School song. But, it is so much more than that. It is a resurrection story, an enacted parable. This lame man was living in Holy Saturday, and, as far as he could tell, there simply was no other chapter in his life. But, Peter and John come proclaiming and enacting resurrection. Listen to the story again, with your ears open for sounds of resurrection.

Acts 3:1–10 (ESV): 3 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. 3 Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. 4 And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 And leaping up, he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 And all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Resurrection runs throughout the story. This man, who was socially as good as dead, is now given a new life, and new place in his community. Resurrection is clear in the language used. “Rise up and walk.” Peter “raised him up.” Luke doesn’t want his readers to miss it; this is Jesus’ resurrection continuing in the ministry of his disciples, manifest in the life of this lame man.

There is also a confrontational aspect in this story; the early readers would have seen it immediately, but we’re not quite so attuned to those things. Consider the location. Where was the lame man at the beginning of the story? He was lying on the ground at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. This is the Holy Saturday of the story: a man figuratively dead and buried right at the entrance to the temple, the temple which had no power of life in it. Then, Peter and John come along and speak — and enact — resurrection in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. What all the glory of the temple, all the authority of the priests, all the blood of sacrifices, all the proximity to the Holy of Holies cannot do, the simple invocation of the name of Jesus of Nazareth does. “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” Let’s not miss this next statement:

8 And leaping up, he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.

This man was healed — raised up — in the name of Jesus, the one who was himself raised up by God. Jesus and resurrection are inseparable. Then this walking and leaping and praising man dances his way into the temple, the temple that had been impotent to help him; and, having been raised up in the name of Jesus, he praises God. Who raised this man up, Jesus or God? And the answer can only be yes. This is a resurrection story that amazes the people and confronts the powers.

When a crowd gathers around them in the temple, Peter pulls all the threads of the resurrection story together:

Acts 3:11–16 (ESV): 11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s. 12 And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. 14 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.

Now, let me begin to draw the threads of this homily together. The world lives in Holy Saturday where death has the final word and there is no next chapter. All loves lead to loss. All the best laid plans come to nothing in the end. Live and learn, die and forget it all. The Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem described Holy Saturday perfectly in Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes 1:2–11 (ESV): 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

We can eat and drink and try to be merry; that’s about all that Holy Saturday has to offer.

Into this culture come the Easter people. The disciples of the risen Jesus of Nazareth, are to stop, to look intently at those mired in Holy Saturday, to take them by the hand and to proclaim, “In the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise and walk!” We are to sing the Easter ‘Alleluia!” in the midst of a Holy Saturday world. We are to go walking and leaping and praising God into the false and impotent temples of this Holy Saturday world. We are to challenge those with ears to hear: “Why do you wonder at this? Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” We are to live as Easter people in the midst of a Holy Saturday world.

What does that look like for you? Well, I don’t know, do I? That is for you to work out: to work out your salvation, to work out the resurrection, with fear and trembling in your life. I have to do that for myself, too. But, there are some good questions to ask ourselves.

How should this moment, this situation, this human interaction be different because Jesus is risen, because this is Easter and not Holy Saturday?

How can I proclaim the resurrection — by word and deed — here and now so that the people are amazed and the powers are confounded, because this is Easter and not Holy Saturday?

What does it look like to walk along the Holy Saturday Emmaus Road with the resurrected “stranger” when that road leads us to the hospice room, the divorce court, the unemployment line, the war zone, the refugee camp, the school, the office, the home?

What does it sound like to sing the Easter Alleluia to a tone-deaf, Holy Saturday world?

Well, questions abound, and we are called to think through them clearly and carefully. We are called to know the resurrected Jesus in the Word and in the breaking of bread first in our own lives. Then we are called to reach out to a world lying in the dust of its failed temples, take it by the hand, and say, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up!” Amen.

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The Seal of the Confessional

The Seal of the Confessional: A Priest’s Perspective

Given the appropriate and necessary commitment to protect the vulnerable in our churches and in society at large from sexual abuse, some in the church think it equally necessary to dispense with the sanctity of the seal of confession and to opt instead for mandatory reporting — by priests — to civil authorities. While I honor and share their concern for the vulnerable, I cannot agree with this proposed change to the Church’s sacramental understanding and practice, and I would like to present a case for inviolability of the seal of confession in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

One holy catholic and apostolic Church
On Sundays, other Major Feast Days, and other times as appointed, the faithful stand during the Liturgy and confess their faith in the words of the Nicene Creed — words including these:

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

This statement is more than a notional recognition of the existence of “a church.” It is an expression of faith in “one Church” that shares a common faith including common holy orders and sacraments. Further, it is a proclamation that we, in the ACNA, consider ourselves part of that Church along with all those who maintain holy orders and faithfully administer the sacraments, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Anything done unilaterally by the ACNA or its clergy in contravention of shared faith and practice strikes a hammer blow against the ACNA’s claim to be part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church and against the hope for visible, communal unity. It is arguable that those who refuse to acknowledge and fail to practice that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all (Vincentian Canon) are thereby placing themselves outside the Church catholic.

This has significant ramifications for the ACNA, GAFCON, and the Anglican Communion, and certainly pertains to the abandonment of the seal of confession. The inviolability of the seal is the long established and universally recognized understanding and practice of the Church catholic. The Decretum of Gratian (1215), which purports to compile earlier Church decrees, notes:

Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) Canon 21 states:

Let the confessor take absolute care not to betray the sinner through word or sign, or in any other way whatsoever. In case he needs expert advice he may seek it without, however, in any way indicating the person. For we decree that he who presumes to reveal a sin which has been manifested to him in the tribunal of penance is not only to be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance.

Closer to home, The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) 1979, one precursor of the ACNA Book of Common Prayer 2019, contains this instruction regarding the seal of the confessional:

The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken (BCP 1979, p. 446).

The ACNA BCP 2019, while otherwise excellent, occasionally lacks some helpful rubrics and explanatory notes, including this essential one regarding the seal. It should be noted, however, that absence is not repudiation.

Canons, decrees, and rubrics could be multiplied, but it is the case that the one holy catholic and apostolic Church — East and West together — insists on the absolute sanctity of the confessional seal. Until the entire Church — the entire Church — is led to contrary consensus by the Holy Spirit, no member communion of that Church has the right to contravene that sacramental practice and, at the same time, proclaim itself part of the church Catholic. Even less may any individual bishop or priest do so. If a priest feels he cannot maintain the seal, he should not receive confessions.

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s
Many states, including my own, have designated priests and ministers as mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse. That means nothing short of this: those civil authorities have claimed jurisdiction and authority over the sacraments of the Church. And that, the Church cannot allow if it is to render unto Caesar only that which is Caesar’s and unto God everything that is God’s. To capitulate to the mandatory reporters statute simply because it is the “law of the land” is to bow to Caesar as Lord. What sacraments are to “fall” next?

Will the civil authorities one day claim sole jurisdiction over marriage and decree by law that if a church marries anyone it must marry everyone, i.e., that a church may not determine for itself, based on its understanding of the faith, who meets the criteria for Holy Matrimony?

Will the civil authorities one day ban baptism because it imparts a unique identity upon the baptizand that conflicts with society’s notion of identity, as fluid as that now seems?

Will the civil authorities one day define all talk of sin, repentance, and judgment as “hate speech” and impose civil or criminal penalties for the proclamation of the Gospel?

Perhaps this sounds alarmist, but it is currently being realized — at least in part — in Western countries. The Church cannot capitulate even to something that sounds inherently good and reasonable, like mandatory reporting of sexual abuse revealed in the context of sacramental confession lest it relinquish authority over its sacraments.

Sin and forgiveness versus crime and punishment
Sacramental confession exists to address sin and forgiveness, not crime and punishment. A priest is an advocate for the sinner, not an accuser of the criminal. While a priest’s heart can and does ache for the victim of any evil, his focus must be on the penitent in front of him, a penitent who may well be the victimizer. Multiple souls may be in the balance, but this one soul who has come to confess is the one who must take priority in that moment. The priest’s role is to lead this soul to true repentance and amendment of life so that absolution may be pronounced. This is not a matter of crime and punishment.

This also is not callous disregard for the victim of evil: far from it. But where do we stop when we ask the priest to report criminal behavior? Reporting sexual abuse seems so reasonable. But what about embezzlement? That is not a victimless crime and may cause serious and permanent damage. Should a priest report that to the authorities or to the victim? Why not? The selling of illegal drugs: does a priest report it or not? Think through this carefully. What crimes will we mandate a priest to report, and how do we determine that? This is the nullification of the sacrament of confession.

Nothing new under the sun
Ironically and paradoxically, each generation considers itself intellectually and morally superior to all preceding generations (false progressivism) and also fallen from former greatness (false “golden age”). The truth is much simpler, as Ecclesiastes writes:

Ecclesiastes 1:9–11 (ESV): 9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

I quote this with no sense of futility, but rather to note that nothing heard in twenty-first century confessionals would have shocked our priestly forefathers; sin is boringly banal in its consistency. Sexual abuse — Lord, have mercy! — is nothing new under the sun, though society’s attitude toward it evolves. Our forefathers in holy orders were presented with the same dilemma we face today: the confession of heinous sin and the sanctity of the confessional seal. They were wise and faithful enough to address the former without forsaking the latter. I submit that wisdom lies in preserving the received wisdom of the Tradition, in keeping with G. K. Chesterton:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around (“The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (1908)).

Now, this next, similar point is entirely personal and subjective and does not constitute a reasoned argument; I insist on it nonetheless. Those who are not in the Tradition, i.e. those who are not in holy orders and actively receiving confessions, should exercise a great degree of humility in advocating abandonment of the seal. The sacraments mean quite different things to practitioners than to theoreticians or critics. Even further — Lord, forgive my arrogance! — those who do not regularly avail themselves of confession should most certainly adopt the humility of the “mature” Job:

Job 42:3b (ESV): Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

Binding and loosing
I write this during the Triduum, the three days of Holy Week culminating with the Great Vigil of Easter. On that first Easter Day, Jesus appeared to his disciple in the Upper Room and commissioned them to carry on his work in the world:

John 20:22–23 (ESV): 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

This, and parallel passages, form the basis for sacramental confession and absolution. It is the apostolic authority of binding and loosing conferred upon the twelve by Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and bequeathed to their successors — bishops and priests — through the laying on of hands. I speak as one who shoulders this responsibility; it is great grace and heavy burden: forgiveness is grace; withholding forgiveness is heavy burden.

The point is simply that the granting of absolution is not automatic nor is it a right that the penitent may demand. It is a prayerful and prudential decision made by the priest. A confession is valid, i.e., genuine and “meriting” absolution only when certain elements are present. The penitent must exhibit contrition: the recognition and acknowledgment of sin and godly sorrow for it. Further, as applicable, the penitent must bear evidence of — or resolve to accomplish at the earliest opportunity — reconciliation, restitution, and restoration. In short, the penitent must submit to justice — the putting to rights, as far as is possible, what he or she violated — and must exhibit or commit to amendment of life.

A few examples might clarify this. Suppose a man confesses that he had spoken angry words to his wife. He now recognizes his wrong and is truly sorry for it. Before pronouncing absolution, I would ask if he had reconciled to his wife by confessing his wrong to her and by seeking her forgiveness. If he had not, I would ask him to do so and then return for absolution. Or, if a woman confesses that she had stolen some petty cash from her office, I would ask if she had returned it. If she had not, I would not pronounce absolution until she does so. Absolution does not bypass godly justice, but rather promotes it and is dependent upon it.

Now a more difficult situation, but no less clear. Suppose a man confesses to sexually abusing a minor. He is contrite. But that is not enough for the granting of absolution. Has he begun the process of restitution and restoration? Has he concrete plans for amendment of life? Has he met the demands of godly justice which would require, in part, his self-reporting to the civil authorities? Until these have been done, I could not, in good faith, pronounce absolution. I would offer to go with him to the authorities; I would not spiritually abandon him. I would, with all that is in me, attempt to lead him to the point where absolution is appropriate, and then journey with him beyond that to amendment of life. What I would not do — what I cannot do — is to violate the morally absolute seal of confession if he decides to leave the confessional with his sins unforgiven and bound to him. Or, if I did violate the seal, I would report myself to my bishop and ask to be relieved of my priesthood.

Summary
On a personal note, I have been a priest for only seven years. But my experience is that Anglicans do not beat down the doors of the confessional or queue up for hours waiting their turn. The opposite seems to be true. Most take advantage of that unfortunate Anglican loophole, “None must.” So, the likelihood of an Anglican priest hearing the confession of a sexual abuser is relatively small. To overturn the consensus fidelium of the Church catholic, to bow the knee to Caesar and relinquish authority of the sacraments to the civil authorities, to turn from sin and forgiveness to crime and punishment for the sake of this unlikely event, to jettison the Tradition is inexcusable, particularly when the priest already has the apostolic authority of binding and loosing. The principle is sound and must be zealously guarded: the secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for a confessor.

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Transgenderism

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

Lia Thomas recently became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I title: first place in the women’s 500-yard freestyle. Public response is sharply divided; issues of fairness, equity, personal freedom and self-expression are hotly debated on social media platforms. Many of the positions are expressed with great vitriol: attacks and not arguments at all. Such is unbecoming of a Christian. Jesus commanded us — not suggested to us — to love; I do not recall that he had much, if anything at all, to say about fairness or equity or self-expression.

I think about the issue of transgenderism not as a sociologist and certainly not as a psychologist. I am a Christian — an Anglican priest — and a rather ordinary one at that. I do not think that transgenderism is as much a problem as it is a symptom of a much more deadly disease that has infected our culture: delusion. For those who want a description of that disease, you can find no better than St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom 1:16-32). Our cultural “mind” has become darkened regarding some fundamental truths, not least regarding human anthropology and personhood. I labor under no false illusion that I will dispel any of that cultural darkness. Instead, I write for Christians who are struggling to understand and articulate the Christian perspective on this issue. I write to promulgate both Christian truth — which is simply truth itself — with compassion.

It is important to be right about these matters, but it is equally important to be right in the right way — the way of loving our neighbors as ourselves, a way which requires speaking the truth in love. This is an argument not merely about orthodoxy, but about human flourishing under God. It is neither solely academic nor irrelevant to “real people.” The issue is not simply right doctrine and instruction, but also right pastoral care for confused and hurting people and for those who know and love them. These are difficult and costly truths that partake fully of Jesus’ commandment to take up the cross daily. But they also share in his promise that his yoke is easy and his burden is light — at least easier and lighter than the yoke of falsehood and the burden of sin. We are — all of us — called to follow in the way of the cross, and we are — all of us — promised that we will find it none other than the way of life and peace.

Engaging this issue requires much prayer and prudential discernment in conversation with the Church. It requires much listening to people’s stories and to the Holy Spirit. It requires much humility.

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices; that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path we may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

CHRISTIAN ANTHROPOLOGY

Personhood

Genesis 2:7 (ESV): 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.

In speaking of those who experience gender dysphoria or who are transgendered, we are speaking of persons. I say this not primarily to evoke empathy or compassion — though both are expected of Christians — but rather to express a theological conviction about personhood. A person is a unique, particularized expression of our common human nature. So, because we are always necessarily dealing with persons, Christian anthropology is the essential context for any meaningful discussion of these issues.

To understand the importance of an anthropological context, one need only consider a recent commercial by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly (https://youtu.be/DZjcLJWg5zo, accessed 6/9/2021). Midway in the commercial the narrator says, “the body you are randomly assigned at birth shouldn’t determine how you are cared for.” In the midst of this hopelessly muddled statement, one notion is particularly germane: that there exists a “you” somehow independent of the physical body, a “you” which is randomly, and thus arbitrarily, assigned to a body. This expresses a heretical, Gnostic notion: that the real “you” is merely housed — or imprisoned — in a physical body, i.e., that there exists a distinction or dichotomy between being and body. The Gnostics hoped to escape the bodily prison; some today hope to renovate the prison to make it more homely. Either approach represents a fundamental misunderstanding of personhood.

This misunderstanding of personhood serves implicitly as the foundation for cultural acceptance of transgenderism. If being is independent of embodiment — as is wrongly asserted — and if the body is merely the randomly assigned container for the self — the real you — then assignment error is possible, and it becomes quite reasonable to conform one’s body to one’s true being to alleviate gender dysphoria. It is only such being-body distinction/dichotomy that gives any meaning or imperative to such a confused statement as, “I feel that I am a man trapped in a woman’s body.” It assumes there is a noncorporeal, gendered I — Eli Lilly’s “you” — who finds itself assigned to a body of opposite gender, so that one’s true gender is determined by the “I” and not by the body. Of course, for a naturalist “I” need have no spiritual connotation; it may refer only to self-awareness. No matter: in this erroneous anthropology the “I” is still in some real sense distinguished from the body, and it — not the body — determines gender.

But, Christian anthropology offers a different understanding of personhood. A person is the unique instantiation of human nature in a body; a person is the essential unity of rational soul and physical body. This precludes any notion of the random assignment — and thus any erroneous assignment — of the real you to a body. The real you — the person — is precisely the unity of soul and body, neither independent of the other. There is no true, full human being apart from the body. I am not assigned to or contained in this body; I am this body in its union with this soul.

So, personhood assumes the givenness of the body, i.e., the body as a defining characteristic of the person. Thus, a person with a male body, for example, is a male person. There is no female being — nor female self-awareness — erroneously residing in that male body. The union of soul and body that defines the person as person also defines the person as male through the biology of the body. Any attempt to fundamentally alter that body — chemically or surgically — or to conclude and act as if that body is in error is an assault upon the person. Such attempts do not make the person more female, but rather less authentically male; they do not enhance, but rather damage the person.

The body is never denigrated in Christian anthropology; rather, it is elevated, as St. Paul writes:

1 Corinthians 6:19–20 (ESV): 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

This truth refutes another foundational assumption of transgenderism, and indeed of postmodern philosophy: the autonomous self and the absolute freedom to create — or re-create — that self. To the contrary, one’s person is not one’s own but instead belongs to God. The proper response is not to disfigure the body, but to glorify God in and through the body.

Mind and Body

A person is the essential union of soul and body. It is to the soul — and the mind — that we now turn.

The soul is that noncorporeal aspect of a person responsible for biological life itself, e.g., metabolism, growth, reproduction; for affective response, e.g., perceptions of pain or pleasure, imagination, desire, emotion, will; and for the exercise of reason, e.g., rational thought, language, choice/decision. The highest capacity of the soul, νους (nous), denotes the human capacity to know God directly — not mediated by other capacities of the soul — as person-to-person. The nous is also the aspect of the soul that, when healthy and acting under the power of grace, rightly orders all other powers of the soul. A renewed nous rightly governs the soul; an ordered soul rightly governs the body. Nous is often rendered as “mind” in English translations of Scripture, as in this text from Romans 12:

Romans 12:1–2 (ESV): 1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind [nous], that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul instructs us — by the mercies of God — to present our bodies to God and to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. This applies always and to all, but it perhaps has special significance in the present context. Those experiencing gender dysphoria are to present their bodies — their bodies as they are — to God as living sacrifices. That is the holy response, the action well-pleasing to God. But it is also a very real sacrifice, an offering up of all lesser functions of the soul: desire, emotion, will, pleasure and pain. It is a sacrifice that is made possible by the renewal of the mind (nous) which then orders the soul toward discernment and obedience. In the Christian Tradition, our minds are changed, and our bodies are presented. To the contrary, in transgenderism, the mind is confirmed in its (erroneous) self-assessment, and the body is changed to conform to the mind. That, too, is a sacrifice — a costly sacrifice of true personhood — but not one that promotes human flourishing and not one that is well-pleasing to God.

If presenting our bodies to God — as they are — is a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, then what of refusing to do so? What of altering and defacing those bodies? Such action refuses an acceptable sacrifice and offers a blemished sacrifice instead. Such action misses the mark of that which is well-pleasing to God and so constitutes sin. To radically alter the given sex of one’s body either chemically or surgically or to deny one’s biological gender in word or action is a sin against one’s person and thus against God who created the person.

In our naming of transgenderism as sin, St. Paul’s commentary on the archetypal first sin of Eve offers helpful insight:

2 Corinthians 11:3 (ESV): 3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

Eve sinned under the deception of the serpent. And the deception was, in part, an issue of identity.

Genesis 3:4–5 (ESV): 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

The serpent stirred up in Eve an identity dysphoria: a creature longing to be Creator, a human longing to be like God. Eve was deceived and enticed into sin.

In a similar way, our culture acts as an agent of deception by stirring up and exacerbating gender dysphoria. And, it falsely offers the opportunity for a creature to become Creator through an act of self-creation, the determination of one’s own identity/gender. Just as Eve was a victim of the serpent’s deception and sinned, so too the transgendered person is a victim of cultural deception and sins. It seems important to recognize that, in dealing with transgendered persons, we are dealing with those under delusion. Mercy, pastoral care, and godly counsel — and not judgment — are the proper responses to such persons.

HELP AND HOPE

The Church must not add to the burden of the particular cross of gender dysphoria or transgenderism, but rather must offer Christian help and hope in the carrying of that cross: help in the form of Christian community and koinonia, and hope in the final restoration of all things. Here the whole of Romans 8 is instructive, but this portion speaks powerfully to the real burden that fallen and redeemed persons bear and to the hope that enables us to do so:

Romans 8:18–25 (ESV): 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 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. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We, all of us, share in the groaning of creation under the burden of sin, in the recognition that all is not as it should be. But we, all of us, also share in the hope that all is not as it yet will be when there is a new heaven and a new earth, when the holy city, new Jerusalem, descends from heaven, when the dwelling place of God is with man, when all sorrow and pain — all the former things — shall be no more (cf Rev 21:1 ff). Such hope is essential to the proclamation of good news and to the pastoral care of those struggling in the present with issues of identity.

SUMMARY

Transgenderism presents a real and growing challenge to the Church, not just in its potential to lead people astray, but also in its difficult call to balance compassion and truth, i.e., in its challenge to speak the truth in love. Truth, rightly understood and rightly spoken, always promotes human flourishing even in its call to bear the cross. What is the truth that we must speak?

God loves those who are confused about gender, no less than he loves those who do not struggle in this way.

Contrary to prevailing cultural norms, transgenderism does not promote freedom, but bondage. It does not lead to human flourishing, but to human diminishment.

While unrepentant transgenderism is sin, it is most often a sin of delusion. It is not unforgivable. While it is different in kind, there is no reason to believe it is different in degree from such sins as pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Perhaps the greatest difference in these sins is that noted by St. Paul:

1 Timothy 5:24 (ESV): 24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.

Transgenderism is perhaps conspicuous in a way that pride is not. That does not make it more serious.

The Church welcomes into its fellowship those bearing the cross of gender dysphoria and those transgendered persons engaged in repentance and amendment of life.

There is hope, and hope does not fail.

God’s grace is sufficient — and abundant — for us all.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;

as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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Have You Heard?

3 Lent: Luke 13:1-17

HAVE YOU HEARD? Has anyone told you yet? Did you catch the news this morning?

If you have ever had someone start a conversation with a question like that, you know you’re in for something: good news, bad news, shocking news — some kind of news. There is something very human about wanting to announce news to someone else, to share news with another: joy shared is joy multiplied; misery shared is misery reduced; shock shared is…well, it’s just shock shared, but at least we’re in it together.

Have you heard? Has anyone told you yet? Did you catch the news this morning?

The one announcing the news has certain expectations for your response, too; he expects you to feel about the news as he does. Imagine to the contrary: a friend comes up to you all excited and says, “Hey, have you heard? Joe’s wife just had the baby.” And you respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Well, that’s a non sequitur if ever ever there were one. Your friend is likely to be very confused, if not angry, at that response.

Have you heard? Has anyone told you yet? Did you catch the news this morning?

“Hey, Jesus, have you heard about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?” Someone, some group comes announcing news. Let’s pause the story here for a moment, between the announcement of the news and Jesus’ response to it, for a little background. We don’t know the details of the events surrounding the slaughter of these Galileans, but, historically speaking, it’s not too difficult to reconstruct a plausible scenario. Galileans were troublemakers, at least as far as Rome was concerned: rabble rousing, rebellious insurrectionists always fomenting discontent, likely ready to slit Roman throats at the drop of a hat. Some group of them apparently came to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple and in a moment of paranoia or pique — or just because he had the power and could do — Pilate had them slaughtered in the Temple precincts, metaphorically and probably literally mingling their blood with the blood of their sacrificial animals.

“Hey, Jesus, have you heard about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?” Why think Jesus would be particularly interested in this news? Well, he was a Galilean, and, in that sense, these were his people. How do you think those who announced this news expected Jesus to respond? Sadness — certainly. Anger — probably. Resolve to restore the Kingdom of God, by which they meant the ousting of Rome? Just possibly.

And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

That’s confounding; that’s not at all the response they expected. What did Jesus mean by that? To Pilate, these Galileans were no worse “sinners” than any other Galileans; he feared and hated them all. Perhaps he had heard lately some new stirring of discontent in Galilee, some hint of trouble coming. Perhaps he was on heightened alert when he learned of this group’s arrival in Jerusalem. Perhaps he had just had a fight with his wife or a lousy breakfast that morning; some kitchen slave burned the toast. The trigger could have been anything or nothing at all. But these Galileans gave Pilate the chance to send an overdue message that day, a not-so-subtle warning to all Galileans; this is what Rome does to your kind, to those who cause trouble, to those who even think about rebellion. These Galileans were just in the wrong place at the wrong time: no worse than any other Galileans either in reality or in Pilate’s paranoid imagination. Any Galileans would have done as well to send the warning.

And [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Now, we begin to see what Jesus is saying. Pilate didn’t single these Galileans out because they were exceptionally bad, but because they were exceptionally ordinary, because they were a symbol of all Galileans, of all those people up north who opposed Rome in heart and mind and deed. “This is what Pilate thinks of all of us Galileans,” Jesus is saying. “And Rome will do to all us Galileans what Pilate did to these few, unless….”

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

And this is the great non sequitur in the story. Those who carried the news to Jesus expected sadness, anger, resolve. What they got was a call to repentance: not a sorrow-filled confession of sin, but an amendment of life and a change of mind about what it meant to live as God’s covenant people — as Israel — in the midst of internal exile and domination by a foreign power. Jesus had told them before in the Sermon on the Mount or in the Sermon on the Plain just what the Kingdom of God looks like and just what it means to live in that Kingdom:

Matthew 5:3–12 (ESV): 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

To repent meant to embrace this vision of the Kingdom of God, to accept that this is what it means to live as God’s people in exile under the powers of this world. That is still what it means to repent.

Jesus pushes the point home to those who brought him the news and to any who were listening. He reminds them of another disaster, what insurance companies rather foolishly refer to as an “act of God:”

Luke 13:4–5 (ESV): 4 “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

A tower falls and kills eighteen people. No, it’s not fate. It’s not a judgment of God on these particularly miserable offenders. It’s faulty construction techniques or poor materials or age and weathering or a shifting foundation or…. It’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Jesus’ conclusion is exactly the same. If you don’t repent, if you don’t change your mind about what it means to be God’s people, if you don’t amend your lives, then you too will be crushed under the falling towers — the city walls and the Temple walls — of Jerusalem when Rome has finally had enough and comes in judgment to destroy the city, pulling the walls and the towers down on top of you. You can live in the Kingdom of God as the people of God — you can repent — or you can die clinging fast to your own rebellious agenda. The choice is yours. And that leads us to the parable.

Luke 13:6–9 (ESV): 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”

No good Jew could miss the symbolism here, grape vines and fig trees: the symbols of Israel as spoken of by Hosea, among others.

Hosea 9:10a (ESV): 10  Like grapes in the wilderness,

I found Israel.

Like the first fruit on the fig tree

in its first season,

I saw your fathers.

A man planted a fig tree; God planted Israel. What did the man require of the tree and what does God require of Israel? Fruit: righteousness, covenant faithfulness. But he found none. Read Hosea 9 – 10; it’s all right there. The man showed great restraint; he waited three years for fruit and still nothing. Three years: is there anything coincidental about that period, the length of Jesus’ ministry? And now, judgment comes: cut the tree down. And can’t you just hear John the Baptist’s voice ringing out three years earlier?

Luke 3:7–9 (ESV): 7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The time has come. Swing the axe. Throw the tree into the fire. And yet…and yet the gardener asks for a reprieve, just a year in which to dig around the tree, to put manure on it, to see if there is any way at all to bring it to fruitfulness and to avoid its destruction. And then these final, open-ended words:

Luke 13:9 (ESV): 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

So, the challenge is put to the people. Jesus has issued the call to repent, to live as the people of God in the Kingdom of God in the midst of exile. He has reminded them that the axe is poised to fall on the nation if they refuse to repent. And now, to mix metaphors, the ball is in their court. What will they do? Will they repent? Will they bear fruit? The symbolic and prophetic answer comes only a bit later as recorded by both Matthew and Mark and hinted at by Luke. It comes during what we call Holy Week:

Matthew 21:18–19 (ESV): 18 In the morning, as [Jesus] was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

And so Israel’s judgment is pronounced. Within forty years destruction will come when Rome finally tires of the Galileans and all the rest of those Jews who will just not get with the Roman program: blood will be shed — human blood mixed with the blood of sacrifices — and walls and towers will fall crushing people underneath. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” Jesus said.

“Ancient news,” you may say. True and fair enough. “What does this have to do with us?” you may ask. Good question.

Have you heard? Another unarmed, young black man shot and killed by a member of a citizen’s watch group just “standing his ground.” Has anyone told you yet? Two police officers responding to a domestic call set up, ambushed, and murdered. Do you think that these were worse sinners than the rest because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Did you catch the news this morning? Another school shooting, another church shooting, another synagogue shooting, another mosque shooting…another shooting. Do you think that these were worse sinners than the rest because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Have you read the papers lately? Another famine, another drought, another flood, another hurricane, another genocide. Do you think that these were worse sinners than the rest because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Have you checked your Facebook feed today? Another church scandal: another case of sexual misconduct, another embezzlement of funds, another abuse of power.

Have you heard? Another dirty politician, another greedy corporation, another brutal dictator.

Has anyone told you yet? The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, homelessness on the rise, refugees living in squalid camps with little shelter and no food, would-be immigrants trapped between two countries neither of which wants them or is prepared to take them.

Have you looked around? A culture deluded and deceived in such fundamental areas as identity, gender, race, justice, truth: what it means to be genuinely and rightly human, what it means to flourish under God.

I am no prophet, but I don’t have to be to know that the axe is already laid at the root of the trees and that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am no prophet, but I don’t have to be to know that we are living in a moment — perhaps a fleeting moment — of grace in which the vinedresser is still digging at the roots of the barren tree, supplying nutrients, waiting to see how the tree will respond.

Jesus’ words to those who brought him news of the Galileans’ slaughter were also his words to all Israel. And they are his words to us here in America, here in Tennessee, here in Knoxville, here at Apostles. They are his words to you and to me. Repent. Change your mind and amend your ways. Consider again what it means to be the people of God, living in the Kingdom of God, in the midst of a fallen world. Consider your loyalties and your allegiances. Discern the truth and eschew falsehood. Renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, and embrace the Kingdom, the Spirit, and the Lord. Repent, always. The Christian life is the way of continual repentance.

There is one story left in our Gospel text today, a beautiful story of hope and grace. We need that now, don’t we. While there is no explicit mention of repentance in this story — no call to it — the image that lies at its heart is a holy icon of sin, repentance, grace, and freedom.

St. Augustine was perhaps the first to describe sin in this way, and later Martin Luther elaborated on it: incurvatus in se — man curved inward upon himself. Faith turns outward. Repentance turns outward. Worship turns outward. Sin curves a man inward upon himself.

Luke 13:10–13 (ESV): 10 Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” 13 And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.

This woman had been bound by Satan for eighteen years, physically curved inward on herself. Do you think she was a worse sinner than others because she suffered in this way? No; but unless we repent, we, too, are bound by Satan, curved inward on ourselves. Jesus called her and she came. And that is the essence of repentance: coming to Jesus to be freed from bondage, to be freed from whatever curves you inward on yourself.

Jesus laid his hands on this woman and spoke a word of liberation: “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And immediately she was made straight and glorified God: the formerly barren tree now bearing the fruit of repentance — freedom, grace, worship.

Always, always, there is the temptation to curve inward on ourselves. Always, always there is the tendency to point to those others who are worse sinners than the rest, who are getting just what they deserve. But, thanks be to God, there is now a moment of grace, a moment of reprieve, in which to repent, a moment in which Christ will once again touch us and liberate us from all that curves us inward on ourselves if we will but come to him.

Amen.

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Saint Joseph

Joseph, Husband of the Virgin Mary and Guardian of Jesus

(2 Sam 7:4, 8-16 / Ps 89:1-4, 19-29 / Rom 4:13-18, Lk 2:41-52)

Collect

O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the husband of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I’M A BABY BOOMER, though I resist — and sometimes resent — the caricature of Boomers that is often presented in the media. The main use I see for such a generational designation is the historical context it provides; it reminds me what I have in common with that group of people culturally. I knew it was time to retire from teaching high school when all the formative events of my life began appearing in my students’ history books. With a group of Boomers, at least I know they know — and have experienced — what I’m talking about.

What we Boomers share is pretty remarkable. Some early Boomers remember duck-and-cover drills in elementary school and all Boomers remember the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall. Boomers lived through the tumult of the 60s: civil rights protests, assassinations, the Viet Nam War, the peace movement, Woodstock, and yes, disco. We went from the Mercury Program with Alan Shepherd and John Glenn, the first American in space and the first American to orbit the earth respectively, to Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, to the Challenger disaster and the de facto end of American dominance in space. We went from slide rules to calculators, to room-sized computers, to PCs and Macs, to the internet, to TiKTok, arguably a downward trajectory. We lived through the hyper-inflation of the 70s and the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. Boomers made fortunes in the tech industry in the early 90s and lost fortunes when the tech bubble burst in the late 90s. We survived Y2K — do you still remember that? — with essentially no consequences, only to have our lives radically changed just a year later on 11 September 2001. We lived through the longest war in United States history in the aftermath of 9-11. We went from the Voting Rights Act to the first African-American President to the new attempted suppression of voting rights. We have lived through, and, please God, we’re coming out the other side of what may be the world’s first global pandemic. And now some think we are facing World War III. All of this in the span of seventy years.

The Millennials have their own stories to tell, though there is some overlap surely: the Gen-Xers, too. Even with all the generational differences in these groups, I suspect there is at least one thing we all have in common: from time to time — probably much of the time — we have all felt at the mercy of powers and events and forces beyond our control. With the 24/7 news cycle and the constant access to global news, we just know too much. And given that the media only reports catastrophic news, we are constantly bombarded with gloom, despair, and agony: on our televisions, radios, streaming services, cell phones, and now even on our watches. It’s hard for even a Luddite like me to tune it all out.

And here’s the problem with that. We feel like we are somehow responsible for the world, that there is something we should be doing. Combine that with the fact that we are just ordinary people — not the elite, not the powerful, not the Uber-wealthy — just ordinary people, and we experience this great cognitive and even moral dissonance. What can an ordinary person like me — and, dare I say, like you? — do in the face of the enormity of the world’s problems?

All of this was rumbling around in my head as I began to reflect on the life of the saint whose life we commemorate today: St. Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary and guardian of Jesus. Is our world really more complex, more dangerous, more disorienting than his was? He was an ordinary man caught up in a world that must have seemed chaotic and beyond his control: Roman occupation with their brutal dominance, poverty, early and often violent death. He faced family scandal and persecution by political powers. He he was forced to take his family into exile, to live with a wife and young child as refugees. Joseph was just an ordinary man. What was he supposed to do? I suspect that was his question, just as it is so often our question.

This is precisely where the witness of Joseph’s life offers us a way forward in the mess that is our world. Let me suggest this lesson from his life:

God does not need extraordinary people. Rather, God chooses and uses ordinary people who are faithful, and by choosing them and by using them, God makes them extraordinary.

This is not a tenet of our faith that we’ll find in any creed or catechism; I can’t prove it by quoting a specific Scripture. But I can, from Scripture, heap up example after example in which God has worked in that way. It is the witness of the entire story that leads me to that conclusion.

God does not need extraordinary people. Rather, God chooses and uses ordinary people who are faithful, and by choosing them and by using them, God makes them extraordinary.

Joseph was an ordinary man. Those in his village of Nazareth — itself a very ordinary town — knew him as a tekton (cf Matt 13:55), a word and occupation we often translate as carpenter. But a tekton was more like a general construction handyman, a jack-of-all-trades among builders. Do you need a stone wall built? Call Joseph. A door framed in and hung? Joseph can do it. A wooden chest made or stones cleared from a field? Joseph is good at that. Joseph was a tradesman, what we would call a blue collar worker, willing to do any fitting work with his hands to provide for himself, and later for his family. Ordinary work from an ordinary man. My dad was a tekton: anything needed doing, he could do, provided it was with his hands. Those aren’t my skills. I work with ideas and words, water and oil, bread and wine. But, I’m no less a tekton; I’m building things and making both a life and living. That’s true of many of you. And, like Joseph, in the best sense, we are — most of us — just ordinary working people.

Joseph was poor, like most of the people in his village. I heard recently that the majority of families in the United States have less than one thousand dollars in the bank. Joseph would have thought them fabulously wealthy. He almost surely lived hand-to-mouth or job-to-job. Today, we call people like that the working poor: honest, hardworking folk, who often hold down multiple jobs and still barely make ends meet. We know about Joseph’s poverty obliquely through Luke’s Gospel. Forty days after the birth of Jesus:

when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:22-24, ESV throughout).

But, the Law actually requires the presentation of a lamb a year old for a burnt offering. Only if the family cannot afford a lamb, may it offer instead two turtledoves or two pigeons (cf Lev 12). In the offering for Jesus, the Son of God, Joseph must appeal to God’s concession for the poor. He was an ordinary man.

Joseph was a Jew in a land occupied by Rome. Think of an Indian under British rule in the last century, or a Georgian under Russia. Joseph was a son of David. He had royal blood running through his veins. But to the Romans he was just another Jew, just another subject, just an ordinary peasant, just another source of taxes. And like so many other ordinary Jewish men of his generation, he was forced by Rome to return to his ancestral village to enroll himself and his family and to pay taxes that he couldn’t afford. Worse still, he was required by Rome to take his pregnant wife with him — a woman about to give birth any day — on this difficult and perilous journey. There was no appeal, no exemption for Joseph, because he was nobody, just an ordinary man. And to top off this humiliation, when he arrived in Bethlehem at Rome’s command, when his wife went into labor with her first child, Joseph could not even provide a proper place for the birth. He had no money. He had no power. He had no prestige. He was an ordinary man.

I suspect that Joseph had the ordinary dreams of an ordinary man: a small but well-built home in his village, a good wife, steady work with sons to help him, a good name among his neighbors, a place in the synagogue — just a good, ordinary life. But even these ordinary hopes were dashed when Mary, his betrothed whom he had kept in purity and chastity, told him she was was pregnant, told him some bizarre story of an angel and the Holy Spirit and the Son of God: something far out of the ordinary. Joseph responded as an ordinary man would, though perhaps with an unusual amount of grace:

Matthew 1:19–23 (ESV): And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 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).

This is it. This is when God chooses an ordinary man, chooses to use him in the great plan of the salvation of the world. What will it be, Joseph: an ordinary life with ordinary dreams, or an extraordinary life with angels and visions and much more besides?

God does not need extraordinary people. Rather, God chooses and uses ordinary people who are faithful, and by choosing them and by using them, God makes them extraordinary.

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 (Matt 1:24-25).

This ordinary man chooses to be made extraordinary in the will of God, having no idea what that meant beyond love and trust and obedience. And those are the very things that transform an ordinary life into the most extraordinary life: love, trust, obedience. The faithfulness of ordinary men and women is the stuff of salvation, tools in God’s hands for the redemption of the world.

And so Joseph’s journey begins. This ordinary man will dream more dreams, will encounter magi from foreign lands and be given valuable gifts probably beyond anything he would ever earn in his lifetime, will be forced to flee — along with his wife and child — flee the rage of a paranoid king, will become a refugee in the ancient land of Jewish slavery, will return home to resume his ordinary life, which he now knows is anything but ordinary.

Is our world, are our lives, really more turbulent, more chaotic, more confusing than his? What can we do in the midst of climate change and political discord and #blacklivesmatter and #MeToo and pandemic and Russian military aggression and just possibly World War III? We can live our ordinary lives, go about our ordinary work, live in our ordinary communities with love, trust, obedience. We can be faithful to the calling God has given each of us knowing that such faithfulness makes ordinary lives extraordinary.

Go to church. Say your prayers. Remember God. Repent. Rejoice. Hope. Have faith. Love — extravagantly. Those are extraordinary things that ordinary people can do. And I am foolish enough to to believe that God can use them, and ordinary people, for the salvation of the world. That’s what the life of St. Joseph tells us.

Joseph, an ordinary man: chosen by God the Almighty as bridegroom for the holy Virgin, father of the Word, guardian of our salvation, protector of him whom the heavens serve and in whose presence hell does tremble.

I am an ordinary man. Perhaps you are ordinary, too? When the world seems too big, too complex, too disheartening, too confusing for ordinary men and women, think of St. Jospeh and the lesson of his life:

God does not need extraordinary people. Rather, God chooses and uses ordinary people who are faithful, and by choosing them and by using them, God makes them extraordinary.

Amen.

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