Saint Anselm of Canterbury (21 April)

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

Anselm of Canterbury 

Archbishop of Canterbury and Theologian, 1109

(Romans 5:1-11 / Psalm 139:1-9 / Matthew 11:25-30)

Collect

Almighty God, through your servant Anselm you helped your church to understand its faith in your eternal Being, perfect justice, and saving mercy:  Provide your church in all ages with devout and learned scholars and teachers, that we may be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

AGUR, SON OF JAKEH, pondered things deeply and wrote proverbs about those things.  This is my paraphrase of his musings from Proverbs 30:18-19:

Three questions puzzle me; four really.

How does an eagle fly in the sky?  How does a snake slither across a smooth rock?  How does a ship navigate the high seas?  How do a man and a woman fall in love?

Science can now answer the first three of Agur’s questions about eagles and snakes and ships.  The last one — How do a man and a woman fall in love? — is still a mystery, and one that science may never penetrate.

Like Agur, you probably have questions that puzzle you.  I do.  One of the most vexing to me — both pastorally and personally — is this:  why do some people find the Gospel compelling while others don’t?

I recently listened to an episode of The Big Conversation, a podcast that features “world-class thinkers across the religious and non-religious community discussing faith, science and what it means to be human” (www.the big conversation.show).  The topic of this particular episode?  Christianity or atheism:  which makes best sense of who we are?  The conversation partners — the debate opponents — were Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word On Fire Catholic Ministries and atheist Alex O’Connor, each of whom has a significant online presence and following as champion of his worldview:  Bishop Barron, Christianity, and Alex O’Connor, materialism/atheism. 

Both men are brilliant:  highly educated, articulate, exceptionally capable spokesmen for their respective positions.  In the podcast, each marshaled his best arguments and each failed to persuade the other in the least.  So, I’m left with the question:  Why does Robert Barron find the Gospel compelling and Alex O’Connor does not?  That is an irreducible mystery, I think.  (Five-point Calvinists have an answer, but that is a topic for another day.)  But, whatever the reason for the different responses to the Gospel — if there is a primary reason — it is not intellect or reason.  Both men are intellectuals who have looked reasonably at the same “data” and have drawn different conclusions.  Something other than intellect is at play.

Does that mean, then, that reason has no significant role to play in the life of faith, that faith truly is a blind leap into the abyss?  Not at all.  Thomas Cranmer, the first Archbishop of the Church of England and the “father” of the Book of Common Prayer, expressed the matter this way, as summarized by Anglican and Cranmerian scholar Ashley null:  what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.  The heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.  Heart, will, and mind — in that order.  The Gospel is proclaimed and one’s heart is strangely warmed; one falls in love with the beauty and truth of the story.  Then one’s will responds by choosing to live that story, to proclaim with lips and life that Jesus is Lord.  Finally one’s mind begins to justify that decision — a decision already made — by seeking fuller understanding of the faith.  Reason is important; it’s just not first.  

St. Anselm (1033 – 1109) — whose feast we celebrate today (21 April) — dedicated his life and work to providing a rational understanding of the faith, to using philosophy and the other tools of the academy to build a solid intellectual foundation for the faith, to explain the faith to believers and to justify its plausibility to non-believers.  The motto that summarizes his approach is Fides Quaerens Intellectum:  faith seeking understanding.  Notice the order there; as with Cranmer, it’s most important with Anselm, too.  Faith seeking understanding:  one with prior faith seeks a fuller intellectual understanding of that faith.  Elaborating on this further, Anselm wrote:

I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.  For this, too, I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.

In his classic work Cur Deus Homo:  Why God Became Man (CDH), Anselm creates a fictional conversation partner named Boso.  Boso asks questions — Anselm asks questions through Boso — and then Anselm answers them.  Occasionally, Boso waxes eloquent himself, as in this brief excerpt:

As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason; so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe (CDH, II).

There are two profoundly important propositions in this statement.  First, the deep things of the Christian faith — the complex inter-workings of the Gospel — are inaccessible to those who do not believe:  belief first, then understanding.  I have witnessed it time and again myself:  a non-believer wants to debate the sovereignty and providence of God, wants a detailed explanation for theodicy — why a good god allows evil to persist — wants a rational explanation of original sin, as if any of these complex questions could be explained in thirty seconds to someone with a radically non-Christian worldview.  No; the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason:  faith seeking understanding.  Anselm, again in Boso’s words, describes this quality of faith:

I consider myself to hold the faith of our redemption, by the prevenient grace of God, so that, even were I unable in any way to understand what I believe, still nothing could shake my constancy (CDH, II).

Faith before reason, faith even if reason fails, even if understanding is insufficient:  that is Anselm’s conviction:  faith seeking understanding.

The second proposition, and I think just as important as the first, is this:  faith must seek understanding.  Anselm said it this way:  “so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”  It is a preventable tragedy that so many young adults in our time abandon Christianity when their immature, childish caricature of faith confronts a difficult and complex world and can’t cope with it.  It is not a failure of faith, but a lack of understanding of real, mature faith.  A child will receive approximately 13,000 hours of instruction in public schools to prepare that child for high school graduation and what follows — college, vocational training, job — to prepare that child for a difficult, adult world.  In that same period, that same child will receive only something like 1000 hours of Christian formation at church, and that’s being generous and assuming the family attends regularly; most children will receive much less.  So we too often send our young adults into a world that will challenge their faith at every point armed only with a few Bible stories and some coloring sheets of Jesus.  Is it any wonder that their faith crumbles under the world’s assault?  Anselm’s words should challenge us:  “so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”

Pastorally, this is vitally important, as well, not just for young adults, but for us all.  People come for help and comfort in times of great difficulty or tragedy wanting answers:  Where is God in all of this?  Why is God doing this to me?  How could a loving God allow this to happen?  And these suffering, confused people don’t just come to priests.  You know this; they come to you, to their Christian friends and brothers and sisters.  How do we answer them well?  Are we prepared for these difficult discussions?  Have we neglected to seek to understand what we believe?  I can’t count the number of times I have cringed at Christian funerals when hearing such “comforting” nonsense as this from adult Christians:  “Well, God needed him more than we do,” or “Heaven needed another angel.”  Surely that’s not the best a mature faith has to offer.  And today, we are in the midst of a global pandemic and a social revolution that are driving both Christians and non-Christians to confront difficult theological issues.  Are we ready?   I am increasingly convinced that good theology — right understanding of our faith — must come before the dark days, and is not likely to develop while in the dark days.  I believe Anselm was right when he said, “So to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”

It is not only Anselm who wants us to move from faith to understanding; that comes from Paul.  After deriding the world’s wisdom as so much foolishness, Paul insists that we do not despise true wisdom.  We simply have wisdom of a different sort.  Hear this extended passage from 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 2:6–16 (ESV): 6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, 

  “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, 

nor the heart of man imagined, 

  what God has prepared for those who love him”— 

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 

We have the mind of Christ.  We have spiritual wisdom that we might understand the things given us freely by God.  Doesn’t that imply that God wants us to understand, that God has equipped us to understand, that God wants our faith to seek understanding?

And Paul is not alone.  In his first letter, Peter writes:

1 Peter 3:15 (ESV): [but] in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect….

We are not responsible for how the world receives our gentle, reasonable explanation of our faith, but we are responsible for being ready to present such a defense for our hope.  For our own sakes and for the sake of the world, Christians cannot linger in an immature faith with little understanding.  As the writer of Hebrews exhorts us:

Hebrews 6:1-3 (NLT):  So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again.  Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding.  Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God.  You don’t need further instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.

I think that last sentence is an ideal way to summarize Anselm’s life and work:  And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.  Faith seeking understanding.

I close with a prayer of St. Anselm from the Book of Common Prayer 2019.  Though it is written in the first person, I offer on behalf of us all.

The Lord be with you.

Let us pray.

Teach me to seek you, and as I seek you, show yourself to me; for I cannot seek you unless you show me how, and I will never find you unless you show yourself to me.  Let me seek you by desiring you, and desire you by seeking you; let me find you by loving you, and love you in finding you.  Amen.

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Divorcing Church

Divorce is always a tragedy, a result of sin, the working out of the fall in the midst of human relationships.

Matthew 19:3–6 (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.”

But, sin intrudes to destroy marriages in spite of God’s original intent.  And, given human willfulness, given human intransigence, some marriages simply cannot be saved.

The Anglican Church recognizes three just causes for the dissolution of a marriage:  abandonment, abuse, and adultery.  Each is a willful and profound breaking of the marital vows.

N., will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together out of reverence for Christ in the covenant of Holy Matrimony?  Will you love her, honor her, comfort and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live (BCP 2019, p. 202)?

In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death, according to God’s holy Word.  This is my solemn vow (BCP 2019, p. 205).

Abandonment is the refusal to live together — until parted by death — out of reverence for Christ.  Abuse is the antithesis of love, honor, and comfort.  Adultery is the desecration of emotional, physical, and spiritual intimacy through infidelity.  Each is a devastating, and potentially terminal, blow to a marriage.  It is only by the grace of God that any marital relationship can survive such violation of vows.

It is obvious that these three just causes are grievous — not trivial, not superficial.  The notion of a no-fault divorce for unspecified irreconcilable differences is foreign to the Church.

Now, I want to suggest that one’s relationship with a local church is not unlike a marriage in this respect:  vows — implicit or explicit — are made to one another, and the dissolution of that relationship is a most serious affair, tantamount to divorce.  There are trivial reasons for such ecclesial infidelity, such as should not even be named among us as proper:  “poor” preaching, too few activities, [fill in the blank] music, and the like.  Personal preferences are damnable reasons to divorce a church.

But, there are just causes, few and grievous as with marriage, and not dissimilar: abandonment (of the Gospel and the faith once delivered to the saints), abuse, and inadequacy.

Abandonment takes at least two forms:  heresy and distraction.  Heresy is the most serious and obvious; distraction is more subtle and insidious.  If a church teaches as necessary for salvation anything not found in the Old and New Testaments; if a church teaches as true anything contrary to the three Catholic Creeds; if a church rejects the teaching of Scripture, Creeds, or the first four Ecumenical Councils; if a church abrogates the faith, discipline, and worship of the one holy, catholic and Apostolic Church; then that gathering is heretical, no longer the Church at all.  It has abandoned both the faith and its sacred vocation.  If it refuses to repent and return, for the sake of your soul you are justified in leaving.  Distraction is more difficult to recognize because it has a thin Gospel veneer.  It is the problem of “Jesus and:”  Jesus and political action; Jesus and racial reconciliation; Jesus and social justice; Jesus and this and Jesus and that.  The problem is that, sooner or later, “Jesus and” becomes just “and;” the Gospel is lost in a sea of even good works and worthy causes, but the Gospel is lost nonetheless.  Don’t misunderstand.  The Gospel speaks to these and other social issues because the Gospel is forming a people for the Kingdom of God.  But the Gospel does not speak to them primarily.  The Gospel is not primarily about what we do, but rather about what God has done and is doing in and through Jesus Christ.  If the primary focus of the church is upon our work to build the kingdom, then it has lost focus on the Gospel.  If that cannot be recovered, it may well be time to leave.

Abuse covers a range of toxic relationships in the church.  We are all too familiar with the scandal of sexual abuse.  But there are also other abuses of power and position — the charismatic leader who builds a cult following and manipulates or coerces members to submit in unhealthy ways.  Fortunately, in the Anglican Church in North America, there is church order — and church canons — that serve to protect members.  No church leader is unaccountable or unsupervised, and there is always recourse for a member who suspects abuse of any sort.

Inadequacy is failure of a church to preach the Word fully (the whole counsel of God’s Word), administer the Sacraments faithfully, or offer pastoral care wisely.  Worship is the work of the church gathered.  If that is not the priority — Word and Sacrament — something is seriously amiss.  But the church also exists to make saints and to empower the saints for ministry in the world.  If such formation is lacking, if the equipping ministry of the church is not evident, then that local congregation is not adequately fulfilling its responsibility.

As with marriage, so, too, with church:  the reasons for “divorce” are few and extremely serious.

There are other similarities between marriage and one’s relationship with a local church.  The most basic requirement for a good marriage is stability, the knowledge that in difficult times, through disagreements, for better or for worse, the partners will be there one for the other.  It is such stability that provides the context for challenging discussions, for difficult decisions, for transformation of the Christian husband and wife into the image of Christ.  It is not least this which separates marriage from co-habitation:  the vow of stability, the guarantee of presence.  Something very like that obtains — or should obtain — in the church.  Uniting to a congregation or parish carries an implicit vow of stability, a vow that likely should be made explicit.  Neither the parish nor the parishioner can flourish in a context of instability.  How do we challenge one another, how do we have the difficult conversations, how do we wound and forgive and move ahead, if we are not even certain of the stability of the relationship and the commitment of parish and parishioner to be there for one another?

Leaving a congregation is a serious decision, a severing of what God has joined together; it is a spiritual divorce and should be taken at least as seriously as the dissolution of a marriage.  Leaving must be the solution of last resort.  Anyone considering divorce should first seek pastoral counsel and perhaps professional marital counseling.  The same is true for those contemplating leaving a congregation.  Do not simply slip away without seeking resolution of underlying issues.  Seek out a priest, a spiritual director, a trusted elder in the faith.

As with marriage, so too with the church:  Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.  Amen.

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Scars and Spirit

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

The Second Sunday of Easter:  Scars and Spirit

(Isaiah 26:1-9, 19 / Psalm 111 / 1 John 5:1-5 / John 20:19-31)

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation:  Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, 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.

When I was thirteen, I was stabbed.  It was all in good fun, of course, an accident really.  But, I ended up in the emergency room at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta nonetheless, bleeding profusely.  And I did get my first stitches, and my first real scar.  It has faded through the decades, and I can barely find it now myself.  Honestly, I miss it just a little bit.  When I was younger and people saw it and asked about it, I got to tell my story:  when I was thirteen, I was stabbed

I have other scars:  one on my right hand from reconstructive surgery following an accident in a karate demonstration, one on the opposite arm from another minor surgery.  There are other scars that you can’t see, scars left by careless and hurtful words and deeds and slights inflicted unintentionally by those who have otherwise loved me well, and some scars caused just by the rough edges of life.  You know the kind I mean, don’t you?  We all have them.

Our scars are part of our story.  For most us — thanks be to God — they are not the heart of our story; they lie on the periphery of it.  And one day, in the new heavens and the new earth, they will be old tales long forgotten, faded entirely:

1 Corinthians 15:53 (ESV): 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 

I suppose our scars will be erased in the eschaton.  I think there will be only one set of human scars left in the end, only one set of scars retained unto the ages of ages:

John 20:19–21 (ESV): 19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

Jesus showed them his hands and his side; he showed them his scars.  Why in the world — why, from this world to the next — would Jesus retain his scars?  Surely, it was not just for identification.  The disciples had been with him for three years.  They knew his voice as sheep know the shepherd’s voice.  They knew his mannerisms as Cleopas knew him in the breaking of bread.  No, it’s not just a matter of identification.  As for us, so for Jesus:  his scars are his story.  But his scars are not on the periphery of the story; no, his scars are his story, and not his story only, but the story of redemption for us all.  Look deeply enough at those scars and they tell the story of the Lamb of God slain from before the foundations of the world (cf Rev 13:8).  Look deeply enough at those scars and they tell the story of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the one and the only one worthy to open the scroll of God’s will for the unfolding of past, present, and future, the Lion standing as the lamb slain and risen (cf Rev 5:5-6).  Look deeply enough at those scars and they tell the story of the divine love that obtains among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and that overflows to create, redeem, and sanctify a world.  His scars are his story, the full story, the only story worth telling.

John 20:19b–20a (ESV): Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 

What a juxtaposition:  peace and scars.  But it had to be this way.  Our society — some in our society — call out, “No justice, no peace.”   And that is fitting and right as far as it goes.  But the Gospel cries out the fuller truth:  no scars, no peace.  Isaiah glimpsed it from afar:

Isaiah 53:4–5 (ESV): 4  Surely he has borne our griefs 

and carried our sorrows; 

  yet we esteemed him stricken, 

smitten by God, and afflicted. 

 5  But he was pierced for our transgressions; 

he was crushed for our iniquities; 

  upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, 

and with his wounds we are healed. 

His chastisement, our peace:  Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  And how could they be sure that his greeting was not mere words, mere lip service to shalom?  How could they be sure that the peace had finally been won?  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  With his wounds we are healed.  This is the story, the story of their people told by Isaiah, the story that no one really understood until this moment when it was standing right in front of them, the story written not with pen on parchment but with nails and spear on human flesh.  His scars are the story:  the long and winding story of man created in the image of God; of man fallen from glory through his own fault and through the devil’s deception; of sin multiplied and judged in flood waters; of a covenant made and a people formed; of Israel delivered from slavery; of conquest and kingdom and exile; of the Messiah’s incarnation, life, death, burial, and resurrection; of God’s unrelenting and indomitable purpose to redeem and renew his creation and to have a holy people for himself in and through his Son.  It’s all there in the scars.  And his scars drew them — and his scars draw us — into the story.

John 20:21–23 (ESV): 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 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.” 

Jesus breathed on them, a strange thing to do until we remember the intimate connection between breath and Spirit and life:

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 this upper room we are witnessing a new creation story:  God the Son breathing into his new creations the very breath of life — the Holy Spirit — making them for the first time fully living creatures, born again, born from above.  And then, like Adam being told to work and to keep the garden, these brand new men are told to work and to keep the world, to proclaim the peace of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation of man to God through the scars of Jesus.  I do not know if St. Paul had this moment in mind when he penned these words, but well he might have had:

2 Corinthians 5:17–21 (ESV): 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

And we should have this moment in mind when, at the end of the Eucharist, we pray:

And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do,

to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

We should have this moment in mind when we are sent into the world with the deacon’s words ringing in our ears:  Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Go in peace because of his scars.  Proclaim peace — do the work you have been given to do — because he has breathed on you his Holy Spirit.

This is an ordination of sorts, a conferring of priestly grace upon the twelve and their successors, their commissioning for the particular work they have been given to do:  to forgive sins and, in some rare cases, to retain sins — an awe-filled responsibility in either case.  Soon, the Spirit will blow throughout the whole Church, the newly created body of Christ, on Pentecost, empowering all and entrusting to all the ministry of reconciliation.  But, this day it is the twelve, or, more precisely, ten of the twelve.  One is lost, and one is absent.

Thomas wasn’t with the disciples on the evening of that day; he did not see Jesus with them.  But his response to their report is telling:

Unless I see him feed the five thousand; unless I see him heal a blind man; unless I see him walk on water; unless, unless, unless:  no, none of this.

John 20:25 (ESV): But [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 

It’s the scars that Thomas insists on seeing, which means it’s the scars the others have told him about, the scars that made all the difference in the world to them.  And it is the scars that Jesus shows Thomas eight days later:

John 20:26–29 (ESV): 26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 

And there it is again, Jesus’ blessing of peace and his showing of his scars.  In the economy of God, peace and scars belong together.

Why was Thomas absent on the evening of the first day?  Gregory the Great insists it was for us:

It was not an accident that that particular disciple was not present. The divine mercy ordained that a doubting disciple should, by feeling in his Master the wounds of the flesh, heal in us the wounds of unbelief. The unbelief of Thomas is more profitable to our faith than the belief of the other disciples. For the touch by which he is brought to believe confirms our minds in belief, beyond all question (Forty Gospel Homilies, 26).

The scars were not just for the twelve, but for all who have not seen, that they might yet believe — for us, that we might believe.  John says as much in his commentary that immediately follows the upper room narrative:

John 20:29–31 (ESV): Jesus said to [Thomas], “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. 

Many other signs, before and likely after the resurrection:  but these are written, John says — certainly meaning the seven signs that form the heart of his gospel — these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  But John also certainly has his eyes — his mind and heart — on the scars as he writes this, for they were the sign through which he and the twelve believed and understood all other signs.  The scars were the sign of peace.

It is still the scars which define the kerygma, the church’s proclamation of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.  It is still the Spirit who speaks in and through that proclamation, who empowers it, who makes it effective unto faith and repentance and rebirth.  The proclamation of a scarred God may at first seem foolish, but it the very power of God unto salvation.  That’s what Paul believed:

1 Corinthians 2:1–5 (ESV): 1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. 

There is, I suppose, in every age and in every culture the temptation to recast the Gospel in the spirit of the age, to make it palatable to the norms and aspirations of the culture, to make it either prop up the status quo or else to kick out its supports by providing political remedies for the ills of society:  the prosperity gospel, the liberation gospel, the social gospel, the national gospel, the all-inclusive gospel.  But there is a fatal flaw in all these pseudo-gospels; none requires a God with scars, and that is how we can know they are false.  The true Gospel, Paul reminds us, is Jesus Christ and him crucified.  The true Gospel is known by scars and is in-breathed by the Spirit.

And, if the message of the Gospel is a God with scars, then that message is made plausible by messengers with scars.  Paul did not proclaim the Gospel from a position of power.  He did not employ eloquent rhetoric nor appeal to earthly wisdom.  His boast was weakness, fear, and trembling.  His qualification was the Spirit.  His credentials were the marks of Jesus that he bore on his body, the scars of the lash and the rod and the stones.  We serve a scarred Christ who himself told us:

Luke 9:23b–24 (ESV): 23 “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” 

It is difficult to imagine carrying the cross without incurring some scars, scars inflicted by offering forgiveness to those who have hurt us, by loving our enemies and praying for them, by turning the other cheek to those who strike out at us, by giving to those who ask from us, by putting the welfare of others before our own and the needs of others before our rights, by losing job and goods and position and liberty and even life if need be, by proclaiming the foolish Gospel of a scarred God before a scoffing world.  Yes, there may be — there almost certainly will be — scars:  as with Jesus, so with us.  “Peace be with you,” our Lord says.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (cf John 20:21).  Our scars, incurred for God’s sake, make our proclamation of a scarred God plausible.

This seems a strange Eastertide message, doesn’t it?  We want to hear about the empty tomb, about the risen and glorified Christ, and here I am talking of scars.  I have only two justifications.  First, I didn’t pick the lectionary texts, did I?  Nor did I assign myself to preach today.  Blame the ACNA Liturgy Task Force for the lectionary and Fr. Jack for the preaching assignment.  Second, his scars are precisely what the risen and glorified Christ wanted to talk about, wanted to show his disciples on the very day of resurrection and afterward.  And that makes his scars a central part of our proclamation always and everywhere, even in — perhaps especially in — Eastertide.

Theologians ponder the properties of God’s nature:  his omnipotence, his omniscience, his omnipresence, and the like.  And all these are explicitly or implicitly present in Scripture; all are integral to God’s self-revelation.  But, when Jesus — God incarnate — wanted to show us his character, he spread out his hands and showed us his scars.  When Jesus wanted to send us out into the world, knowing that in the world we would incur scars for his name’s sake, he breathed on us his Holy Spirit.  We worship and proclaim a scarred God in the power of the Holy Spirit, and that makes all the difference.  

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified:  Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.  Amen.

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Taking Worship Seriously: Toward an Anglican Social Ethic

Anglicans are fond of the motto Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi:  the law of prayer is the law of faith.  We invoke it most often to mean that we pray as we believe and we believe as we pray.  It summarizes the inherently reciprocal relationship:  belief shapes prayer and prayer shapes belief.  If you want to know the particular shape and contours of Anglican faith, read and actually worship with The Book of Common Prayer and with the community that uses it.  But, be warned.  If you do so for any length of time, it will challenge and shape your narrative:  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

But the motto is, as it stands, incomplete; prayer and faith must inform life also.  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi:  the law of prayer is the law of faith is the law of life.  As we believe and pray, so we live.  Worship that resides only in the nave — that does not go out into the world to do the work it has been given to do — is incomplete worship, if it is worship at all.  Serious worship — worship of the Prayer Book sort — implies and demands a certain social ethic.

What, in particular, informs an Anglican social ethic?  Time and space do not permit a full answer — books would be required — so I will mention three elements of Anglican worship that, if taken seriously, necessarily shape our social ethic:  the Summary of the Law, Confession, and the Eucharist.

Each week the gathered people of God rehearse God’s Law:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (BCP 2019, p. 106 quoting Matthew 22:37-40).

The second commandment — which is the foundation for an Anglican social ethic — is absolutely dependent upon the first.  If we are not committed fully to God, then to hell with our fellow man; let the strong devour the weak and the devil take the hindmost.  But, if we love the Lord our God as revealed perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ who summarized and fulfilled the Law, then love of neighbor is incumbent upon us.

Now, two questions arise immediately, especially for all of us who are looking for some loophole:  (1) What is love? and (2) Who is my neighbor?

St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other as other.  That is a fine definition, particularly useful as a check and challenge for love as cleverly disguised self-interest.  But, Jesus’ neighbor language challenges the Thomistic definition of love.  The neighbor language puts the lie to the notion of “the other” altogether.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  In a fully Christian social ethic, there is no other; there is only a neighbor whom I am to love as I love myself.  The total identification with neighbor erases his or her otherness.  

This ethic is clearly opposed to our culture that creates and emphasizes otherness.  When immigrants to our southern border are characterized as murderers and rapists, that is a clear attempt to cast them as other — not like us, not our neighbors.  This is not a partisan observation; it is a Christian one.  When black men are portrayed as dangerous thugs after having been deprived of rights and even life, that is a clear attempt to cast them as other.  When Asians are disparaged or beaten as carriers of the “kung-flu”, that is a clear attempt to cast them as other.  When the elderly or infirm are denied adequate care — or worse — because they are no longer productive or no longer, in society’s estimation, have “quality of life,” that is a clear attempt to cast them as other.  The list goes on, all in contravention of Jesus’ own words:  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

And who is my neighbor?  Surely, we don’t need to go there.  Who isn’t your neighbor?  Jesus made it crystal — and painfully — clear in his parable of the Good Samaritan:  the one for whom you have the opportunity to do good is your neighbor.

There are certainly political implications to this:  immigration policy, racial reconciliation, and a host of other third-rail social policies.  As Christians, we can and should argue over the best course of public policy; some will favor Republican policy and some Democratic.  Fair enough.  But what we cannot argue over — if we take Anglican worship seriously — is that any public policy supported and advocated by Christians must reflect Jesus’ summary of the Law, must treat the other as neighbor, and must love our neighbor as we love ourselves because we love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.  Any Anglican social ethic must start here.

After we hear the Summary of the Law — a bit later in the service — we kneel before God to confess that we have failed to keep it, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  How does this confession, and the absolution of all those who sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him, inform an Anglican social ethic?  It demands a two-fold acknowledgment:  (1) we are all sinners in need of mercy, and (2) none of us is beyond God’s mercy and grace.

Here I must go where angels fear to tread.  In whatever ways critical race theory — or critical theory of any kind — might be right, it is fundamentally wrong in this:  it divides people into two groups, victimizers and victims, the guilty and the innocent, with the guilty beyond absolution.  And that is not allowed by Anglican worship; it is specifically disallowed by the confession.  We are all guilty before God and none of us who sincerely repents is beyond mercy or is denied forgiveness.  Now, prepare to hurl your tablet or smash your computer at this next sentence.  The foregoing applies to Derrick Chauvin.  If that doesn’t make you angry, then you have not begun to understand or to appreciate the radical nature of grace.  Any social ethic based upon unremitting condemnation for those who are truly sorry and humbly repent before God is not an Anglican social ethic; more to the point, it is not Christian.

And this leads us to the Eucharist which is the principal service of worship on the Lord’s Day.  Before reading farther, I recommend a brief excursus in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

After chastising the church in Corinth for its factions, after reminding the people of Jesus’ own words of institution at the Last Supper, Paul issues this sobering warning:

1 Corinthians 11:27–30 (ESV): 27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

Much ink has been spilled on “unworthy” reception of the body and blood of the Lord, and much needless worry has resulted.  Paul is clear.  Look around you.  These people gathered at the table with you — people from every family, language, people and nation who are gathered around any such table — these people are the body of Christ.  If you do not discern this to be so, if you cannot see in all this glorious diversity the actual body of Christ, then you are not ready for the body and blood of Christ present in the Sacrament.  Eat and drink at your own peril, to your own condemnation.  Better still, do not eat and drink at all, but leave the gifts at the altar until you are reconciled with your brother or sister.

What does this mean for an Anglican social ethic?  Simply this:  factions must disappear at the table and as we leave the table.  At the table there is neither Republican nor Democrat, socialist nor capitalist, lifetime NRA member nor gun restriction advocate, black nor white, rich nor poor, nor any of the countless other dichotomies by which the world gives us a false sense of identity.  There is only the body of Christ, that sacred mystery for whom he was willing to die. 

Because we are one body in Christ, we must “rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).  We must have the same mind and the same love, doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counting others as more significant than ourselves.  We must have within us the mind of Christ who, for our sake, made himself nothing (cf Phil 2:1ff).

As with our salvation, so with our Anglican social ethic; we must work it out with fear and trembling.  But it starts with taking worship seriously:

With loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with loving our neighbor as ourself;

With confession and absolution;

With discernment of the body of Christ.

Taking worship seriously is the first — and necessary — step toward an Anglican social ethic.

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Theodicy: Other and Radically Dependent

Once again, I embark on a fool’s errand, a vain attempt to justify the ways of God to man.  It is the perennial problem of theodicy, of how and why an all good and all powerful God permits nearly unspeakable evil to persist.  I am prompted (provoked?) this time by watching a recent episode of The Big Conversation, a discussion between Bishop Robert Barron and Alex O’Connor, the former an apologist for the Christian faith, the latter an evangelist for atheism.  My general comments on the episode may be found here:  https://firstblessings.blog/2021/04/06/the-0-1-problem/ , which also contains a link to the episode itself.

Why do I consider the pursuit of an answer to theodicy a fool’s errand?  It all comes down to mathematics.  The German-American mathematician Kurt Godel — a contemporary and colleague of Einstein — demonstrated that a system of thought complex enough to support the most basic arithmetic computations (think 1 + 1 = 2) will generate propositions whose truth value cannot be determined from within that system.  In other words, a complex worldview will raise questions for which it provides no definitive answers.  The Christian metanarrative is surely such a worldview, and theodicy is surely such a question.  When a Christian admits that theodicy is ultimately a mystery, he is not admitting theological defeat, much less admitting that there is no good answer.    He is simply acknowledging that Godel is correct, that there are inherent limits to human knowledge operating within a system of thought.  Read the end of Job for a biblical version of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

So, why bother?  Why write yet another brief reflection on the problem when it, like all the rest, is doomed to failure?  Well, theodicy is the elephant in the room.  If we can’t shoo it out, at least we can acknowledge its presence and perhaps learn to live with it.

One classic Christian approach to theodicy — and the one espoused by Bp. Barron on The Big Conversation — is that God allows evil in order to produce a greater good that could not have obtained without the evil.  There is a divine calculus that takes into account the variables of all space and time and outcomes and determines that, on balance, the sum of the consequences of a particular evil result in net good; thus, the evil is allowed.  While this may indeed be true — better minds than mine think so — I find it problematic.  

First, it is consequential ethics, that is, it uses a balance of outcomes to determine the morality of an action.  An action is neither good nor bad in itself; rather, its morality is determined by the consequences it produces.  If the “greater good” is served, an action is deemed acceptable.  To use an extreme example, if some greater good obtains as the result of the Holocaust, then that almost unimaginable horror is justified.  The problem with this is, as Bp. Barron himself critiques such thought when applied to human ethics, it “brackets out” the intrinsically evil act.  Are there really no actions so intrinsically evil that no consequential good could ever justify them?  I think there are.  I can image an action so inherently evil that I could say to its perpetrator, “I don’t care why you did this.  I don’t care what good might result from it.  It is simply and unacceptably wrong.”  Consequentialism fails in this respect, even, dare I say, when applied to God.

Second, this classic view entangles us in a kind of low level fatalism:  what is, is what God has decreed must be for the greater good.  Why then would I ever work against it or pray for relief from it?  My mother has cancer?  It must be that a greater good will come from this, a good so overwhelming that if only I could see it, I would actually desire it.  So, I should offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the cancer, but not a prayer of healing for my mother.  I do not find this biblically sound.

So, while the classical answer may indeed be correct, I sit with it very uncomfortably.  There are other possible answers, each with their own problems.  I don’t pretend that the one I will sketch out below is better than the ones I reject.  But, it is my flawed approach, and I am more comfortable with its flaws than with those of others.

Let me first briefly state the fundamental proposition of this approach:

Theodicy is the consequence of God’s creation of a world that is both other than God and radically dependent upon God.

Man is creature, not Creator; human, not Divine — other than God.  God endowed man with life, with reason, with will, with causality, all of which obtain and function properly only when man is in right relationship with God.  That is, man is both other than God and radically dependent upon God.  But man chose — and man still chooses — to exercise his will to declare independence from God.  Consequently, those characteristics that are radically dependent upon right relationship with God are impaired.  Since man has no life inherent to himself, sickness and death result.  Since reason depends on thinking God’s thoughts after him, man’s mind is darkened.  Since the will is rightly directed only toward God, the will is weakened; it can no longer consistently choose the good nor refuse the evil.  Man retains a certain causality, but it is no longer unerringly directed toward human flourishing.

What is true primarily of man is true secondarily of the world.  God created the world to function properly when superintended by humans in right relation with God.  The world is both other than God and radically dependent upon God (secondarily) acting through God’s righteous stewards.  When those stewards declared independence from God, the world was thereby subjected to futility and no longer functions as God intended, as the ground of human flourishing.  Man was intended to cultivate a garden but has instead created a bombed out war zone.

Is it any wonder that evil obtains under these conditions:  a world that is both other than God and radically dependent upon God, but which has declared its independence from God?  Moral evil persists because men with terminal sickness and disordered minds and wills still exercise causality.  Natural evil — fire, storm, flood, pandemic —  persists because the world has lost its righteous stewards and is thereby subjected to futility.  These evils, both moral and natural, may not — and I suspect often do not — redound to any greater good.  They flow from a greater good — the creation of a world that is both other than God and radically dependent upon God — but do not necessarily flow toward greater good.  Thus, we are free — and commanded — to work against the evil, to pray for God’s good will to be done in contravention to what may be unfolding before us.  There is no reason to believe that what is, is what should be and every reason to believe the contrary.

Why does an all good and all powerful God allow evil to persist?  Because God is still committed to a creation that is both other than God and radically dependent upon God.

I have long considered the language of God allowing or permitting evil to be far too passive.  Rather, God is always actively opposed to evil, calling its perpetrators to repentance and amendment of life and drawing good from the evil (not consequentially, but providentially).  God could immediately eliminate evil by eliminating his creation or by eliminating its “otherness”, i.e., by domineering over creation and reducing man to automaton.  But God has chosen another way:  to call man back to God through the incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of his Son; to renew a right relationship with man — to reconcile man to Himself — through the cross; to renew man himself and to make him a partaker of the divine nature through the Holy Spirit; to restore creation under the rule of its righteous stewards.  This is a long and complex process, but it is the way God has chosen to conquer evil.

What does this view offer pastorally?  A God who is fully committed to his creation.  A God who is always opposed to that which is intrinsically evil and who never passively allows evil to persist.  A God who entered history to deal with the problem of evil — to reconcile man to himself and to heal creation.  A God who has himself experienced moral and natural evil and has indeed taken all evil upon himself, suffering as we suffer.  A God who has conquered evil and is even now working through his Spirit and his Spirit-filled people to put the world to rights again.  A God who promises a new heaven and a new earth in which all evil will be an old tale, forgotten at last.

Alex O’Connor could surely poke this notion as full of holes as he did the classical approach to theodicy.  And yet, I find it helpful.  If you do as well, hold it lightly.  If you do not, cast it away.  Ultimately, the answer to the problem of theodicy lies not in our good notions about God, but about God who is good beyond all our feeble notions.

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The 0 – 1 Problem

This morning I listened to the opening episode of season three of The Big Conversation, an online discussion program bringing together leading voices, both religious and non-religious, to discuss foundational questions.  The topic of this episode is:  “Christianity or Atheism:  Which makes best sense of who we are?”

I was alerted to this segment because I follow the work of Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word On Fire Catholic Ministries, and he is one of the guests on this episode of The Big Conversation.  His conversation “partner/opponent” is atheist Alex O’Connor, who himself has a significant online presence with nearly half a million followers.  Both men are erudite and eloquent; each is an able champion for his position.  Each is my intellectual superior.  And, in my assessment, each failed to present a compelling argument for his position.  Had I started as an atheist, Bp. Barron would have failed entirely in persuading me that Christianity has clear, rational answers to the questions posed.  Starting as a Christian myself, Alex O’Connor persuaded me that atheism has absolutely no answers to the questions posed, even admitting himself that atheism has no explanatory power and bears no burden of proof.

Bp. Barron seemed to me like a man who had glimpsed the Mona Lisa and longed to paint it.  But, try as he might he could only manage some poor, paint by number, imitation.  Alex O’Connor, not even able to manage that, refused to take up the paint brush at all, but instead resorted to merely criticizing the poor work of the good bishop.  One was inadequate for the task; the other was disengaged in his response.

Again, I say — and believe — that both men are learned, articulate, and sincere.  It is simply that the task is beyond them or any of us.

It is the damnable 0 – 1 (zero – one) problem.

The creative genius takes us from something that is not, to something that is:  from zero to one.  The world is content with candles and gas lighting and conceives of nothing better.  Then Edison creates something that was not before:  the electric light bulb.  He takes the world from zero to one.  No matter that the first electric light bulb is really no good, certainly inferior in many was to gas lights as the first automobiles were inferior to horses and buggies.  It now exists where it did not before.  Engineers will follow to take us from one to many, from the feeble prototype to the mass produced superior product.  Frankly, that is the easy part.  But 0 – 1?  That’s the mystery.  No one knows how or why it happens when and as it does.

The 0 – 1 problem lies at the heart of faith and it vexes me.  How does one make the transition from no faith (0) to the feeble beginnings of faith (1)?  How does the evangelist or apologist prompt his hearers to move from zero to one?  If you are waiting for me to answer, you will be disappointed.  I do not know how I made that transition, and, if fact, it is doubtful that I did.  I was raised a Christian and, though there have been moments of doubt about some of the details of the faith, there has never been a time when I found an alternative to it compelling.  Much less do I know how to prompt others to make the transition.

Here is the truth:  I hear the Gospel and I find it compelling.  I don’t know why I do and others do not.  It is not a matter of intellect or culture or moral excellence or any of a thousand other factors.  It is a mystery.  Perhaps Dr. Ashley Null’s summary of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s thought is germane:  “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”  I simply know that I could no more relinquish the faith than I could relinquish breathing.  And, from my perspective within the faith, it has an internal logic that makes sense of the world as I see it — both the world within and the world without.  Unlike atheism, it has explanatory power, even if many of those explanations are partial, shadowy, and mysterious, falling back on the love and wisdom of God who lies beyond my understanding.  As Bishop Barron insists — and here I think he is correct — faith is not infra-rational, but supra-rational.

Programs like The Big Conversation are interesting.  They are even helpful for confirmation, I suppose.  The atheists who listened to this episode were probably confirmed in their atheism, with the same being true of Christians.  But I doubt that many listeners changed their minds — made the transition from 0 – 1.

From what I gather from St. Paul, his evangelistic strategy was not one of rational argument; it was not explanation, but rather proclamation.

1 Corinthians 2:1–5 (ESV): And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. 

Paul proclaimed Christ and him crucified.  Some heard the message and were compelled by its truth and beauty to embrace it.  For other, it fell flat.  Why the difference?  Why is 0 – 1 so difficult?

Jesus pointed toward some answers in the Parable of the Sower (Mk 4:1-20):  the opposition of Satan, the presence of hardship or persecution, the cares and lures of the world.  I don’t think Jesus meant this to be an exhaustive list and it does not eliminate the underlying mystery.

So, I admit my bafflement and my inadequacy.  I do not know how to effect the change from 0 – 1.  It is, I believe, primarily a matter of faith and not of reason, though reason may play a subsidiary role.  I doubt that faith can take root if the proposition before it is clearly unreasonable.  Faith may seize on that which transcends reason, but not on that which is inherently opposed to reason.

It is 0 – 1 that poses the great problem.  From within a system of thought/belief — and both atheism and Christianity are systems of thought/belief — either system exhibits an internal logic and cohesion that its adherents find compelling.  While Christianity may make little or no sense to atheists, it makes perfect sense to the faithful.  And I do not say that in a trivial way.  Again, as Bp. Barron points out, he is the imperfect modern representative of the greatest Western intellectual tradition known:  a two thousand year old tradition incorporating many of the greatest human minds ever to consider the fundamental questions of existence and meaning.  By that, he means the Catholic intellectual tradition.  He is right.  Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm — great intellects all.  And the church boasts a body of well considered, logically coherent doctrines and dogmas that have great explanatory power, provided you have made the 0 – 1 transition.  That is what Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 2:6–10 (ESV): 6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, 

  “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, 

nor the heart of man imagined, 

  what God has prepared for those who love him”— 

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 

The issue is simply that the wisdom of the faith must be discerned spiritually:  not irrationally, but supra-rationally through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  And for that, the 0 – 1 transition is a prerequisite.  What the faithful have to say — what we can say — to those who do not (yet) believe will appear to be so much foolishness, even though it also happens to be the wisdom of God.

From my limited vantage point, there seems little separating Robert Barron and Alex O’Connor:  both intelligent, both learned, both articulate, both serious, both dedicated to truth, both probably upright human beings.  And as much at they try to be good conversation partners in an ongoing debate, they nevertheless talk past each other.  It is the damnable 0 – 1 problem, and it remains a mystery.

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The Cross In No Man’s Land

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

Good Friday, 2 April 2021

A Good Friday Meditation:  The Cross in No Man’s Land

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you;

Because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.

There is an image that has haunted me for seven years now:  a series of images, really, from Kiev, Ukraine, images from January 2014.  These images come from the middle of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution — the Revolution of Dignity — waged between protesters intent upon ousting then President Victor Yanukovych and overthrowing the government on one side and the loyalist riot police on the other.

The images show the two hostile groups arrayed in ranks ready to engage.  The protesters are armed with rocks and bricks and Molotov cocktails.  The police are in riot gear with heavy armor and heavy weapons.  Between the groups is a no man’s land littered with the debris of earlier clashes.  In that danger zone, the place where conflict will occur if it does occur, stands a group of Orthodox monks.  One lifts high the cross of Christ.  One holds an icon.  One censes the holy ground on which they stand.  The monks had been invited to join the “people’s side,” but they had refused to take sides at all.  They just stood there in the midst of the battlefield with the cross.  They prayed.  They chanted:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,

and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

The image is a window into recent history, but it is also icon, a window through which to view spiritual reality, which is, of course, simply reality.  Between the warring sides stands the cross — and those who bear it, those who are willing to die for it and die upon it.  The monks have planted the cross on desecrated ground, ground littered with the detritus of war.  The cross has sanctified that ground.  They are standing there with the cross not so much to keep the combatants apart, but rather to call them together at the foot of the cross, to show them that the only way forward to peace lies through the cross of Christ.

That day — 22 January 2014 — was Good Friday:  not on the calendar, but in a reality beyond time; not in Jerusalem, but in Kiev, not two millennia ago, but here and now.  The icon is not exact, but all the essentials are there, all the broad outlines of the figures and the themes and the truth.

In the middle of a world at war with God, in the middle of a world at war with itself, in the middle of a world in cosmic conflict between its Creator and its usurper, God stepped into the no man’s land, a land littered with the perpetrators and casualties and relics of war:  Judas, Peter, the Scribes and Pharisees, the priests and Sadducees, Herod and the Jews, Pilate and the Romans, you and me and all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  God stepped into the middle of this world at war and there he planted the cross on the no man’s land of Calvary.  He did more than just plant the cross; he bore it.  He did more than just bear the cross; he hung on it.  He did more than just hang on the cross; he died on it.  He planted the cross there not to keep the combatants apart — God forbid! — but to call them together at the foot of the cross, to make the peace himself, to show that the only way forward to peace lies through the cross of Christ.

The cross was folly, a fool’s errand.  The battles continued to rage around it.  Judas hanged himself.  The Scribes and Pharisee, the priests and Sadducees retreated to synagogues and Temple and were destroyed along with their synagogues and Temple some forty years later.  Herod went back to his petulance and hedonism and died an ignominious death within the decade while pretending to be god.  It took awhile, but Rome crumbled from within and was destroyed from without.  A folly.  A fool’s errand.

1 Corinthians 1:18–25 (ESV): 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, 

  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, 

and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

The cross a folly?  The cross a fool’s errand?  Oh yes.  And the cross is also the power of God and the wisdom of God and the justice of God and the mercy of God and the victory of God and the Glory of God; for the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Brothers and sisters, the battle still rages.  The world is at war over politics and ideologies and race and gender and money and power.  What it desperately needs is fools who will take the cross of Christ and stand in the no man’s land between these warring factions and proclaim the folly of Christ and him crucified.  Every person on the face of this earth who does not know Christ is at war, is both a combatant in and a casualty of that war.  What they need is fools who will take the cross of Christ to them and who will stand there with them in the no man’s land and proclaim to them the folly of Christ and him crucified.

I am haunted by the image of the monks of Kiev standing there amidst the debris of war holding the cross.  I am haunted in no small part because I know that’s where I should be, another fool embracing the folly of the Christ, proclaiming only Christ and him crucified.  Amen.

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A New Commandment

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet 1852-6 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 Presented by subscribers 1893 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01394

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

Maundy Thursday, 1 April 2021

A Reflection on John 13:12-17

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

I come here tonight — on this solemn and holy night — with great good news, news of great joy.  It comes in two parts.  Here’s the first:  God doesn’t need us — not in the least.  That’s it; that’s the great good news:  God doesn’t need us.  I know, at first, that may not sound like good news, but I hope to show you it is.  To say otherwise, to say that God does need us, is to imply that there is some imperfection in God, some deficit in the Divine nature, some hole in the Trinity that only we can fill.  And that is just bad theology.  That is the theology of paganism.  The pagan gods, as their stories go, created man precisely to serve the gods, to meet the needs of the gods.  It is the theology that Paul refuted when he stood among the pagan philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens:

Acts 17:22–25 (ESV, emphasis added): 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” 

Did you hear what Paul said?  God — the true God, the Lord of heaven and earth — doesn’t need us.  God doesn’t need anything, since he is the ground and source of being who gives existence to all things, since God is full, complete, entire in Himself.  That is good theology.  But, it’s more than that; it is what makes relationship with God possible.

Let’s suppose for just a moment, to the contrary, that God does need us.  I want you to see how that would distort or skew the Divine-human relationship.  If God needs us, then God must become either subservient to us or domineering over us.

If God truly needs us, then he is dependent on us, and he will do everything in his power to make us happy so that we will not withhold from him what he needs.  He will grant our every wish, cater to our every whim.  God will satisfy his needs by satisfying our every desire.  In other words, God will step off his throne and seat us on it.  And that is not good news.  Satan longed to seat himself on the throne of God, and rebellion followed.  Our first parents sought the prerogatives of God, and death followed.  We know those stories, and they won’t do.

Or else, if God doesn’t become subservient to us, then God must exercise his power to coerce us to satisfy his needs.  If that fails — when that fails — then God must force us to meet his needs.  God must become domineering.  And now we are back to the pagan gods.

The moment we admit that God needs us, all possibility of a real relationship with God is compromised.  So, I say again:  the great good news is that God doesn’t need us.

And this leads to the second part of the great good news:  because God doesn’t need us, God can — and God does — love us perfectly.  It is only God’s absolute self-sufficiency — his need for nothing outside himself — that makes divine love possible, that makes possible the kind of love God has for us.  

St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other as other.  That is, love is acting for the good of the other regardless of the benefit or harm to oneself:  acting for the good of the other even if there is no benefit to oneself, acting for the good of the other in spite of harm to oneself.  That is perfect love:  not the hormone driven infatuation of teenagers, not the sentiment filled romance of the wedding day, not even the seasoned affection and devotion of the old married couple — not that, but willing the good of the other as other, not looking inward but outward.  That is perfect love, and only God can love perfectly.

So this is the two-part, great good news, news of great joy:  God doesn’t need us, and because God doesn’t need us, he can — and does — love us perfectly, willing only our good as other.

On the night that he was betrayed — on this very night — our Lord Jesus gave his followers two signs of God’s perfect love for us:  the Sacrament of Holy Communion and the washing of feet.  Taken together, these signs are the antithesis of need; there is no hint in them of subservience or dominance.  And, they are the definition of love, done solely for the good of the other as other.

Yes, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.  You know that this menial service was the task of the lowliest servant in the household, the most unseemly service to be performed.  So, how is this not subservience?  Note well what Jesus says when the task is over and he has resumed his place at the feast:

John 13:12–17 (ESV): 12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. 

“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right,” Jesus says.  He never for one moment denies his exalted position.  He never for one moment abdicates the throne and places his disciples on it.  He serves, yes, but he serves without becoming subservient; he serves as Lord.  More importantly, and more to the point, Jesus, by his very actions, redefines Lordship in terms of love:  willing and acting for the good of the other as other.  It was through the washing of feet that the disciples gained a share with Jesus and a share in his ministry.  It is through the washing of feet that Jesus defined, by example, the disciples’ ministry — and ours.

The alternate Gospel reading for Maundy Thursday from Luke recounts the institution of the Lord’s Supper:

Luke 22:19–20 (ESV): 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

If love truly is defined as willing the good of the other as other, can there be any greater example of love than this:  the giving up of one’s very flesh and blood not just for disciples, not just for friends, but for enemies, for all others?

So, when all of this is over, when the feet are washed and the meal is finished, Jesus can say to his disciples, not just to those around the table but to those throughout all time and in all places, even to us:

John 15:12–17 (ESV): 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”

Maundy Thursday, Commandment Thursday:  love one another as the Lord has loved you.  As the Lord has loved you, as we’ve seen the Lord right here loving his disciples, as we will soon see the Lord on the cross loving friends and enemies alike, neither subservient nor domineering, but willing the good of the other as other.  That is what the Lord has commanded us to do, all of us, not just some “spiritual elite.”  Love one another as the Lord has loved you.

How do we do that?  What does that look like?  It is tempting to say that all we need to do is look around at our culture and do the opposite, and there is some great degree of truth in that.  There is the famous and familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 13 — Paul’s description of love — that is the scriptural staple of weddings.  You know the one I mean.  I’m sure you also know that it has nothing inherently to do with weddings.  Paul didn’t write it for an espoused couple in love;  he wrote it to a bitterly divided church:  a church with factions formed around charismatic leaders, a church with factions formed around ethnic identity, a church with factions formed around socio-economic differences, a church rife with sexual immorality, idolatry, and doctrinal confusion.  The only way out of that mess — Paul saw — was the spiritual virtue of love.  The only way out of that mess was actually following Jesus’ Maundy Thursday commandment to love one another as he loves us.

Beloved, we desperately need this word today.  Our culture — our world — is coming apart at the seems.  But, even more troublesome than that, the Western church — certainly the American church — is showing the same tension and stress.  The church is divided over politics and political leaders.  May it never be!  The church is divided over ethnic and racial identity.  May it never be!  The church is divided over competing ideologies.  May it never be!  The church is divided over sexual morality.  May it never be!  The church is divided over what constitutes a responsible and faithful response to the pandemic.  May it never be! 

We know the answer to these challenges.  It is not a mystery.  To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the answer has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.  We have the answer, the only answer, from the Lord himself.  He gave it to us this very night:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  And now we can hear Paul speak as he intended to speak:

1 Corinthians 13:4–8 (ESV): 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

8 Love never ends.

This is the perfect description of the kind of love we’ve been talking about all along — perfect love:  love as willing the good of the other as other.  This is the kind of love that never asks the question, What about me?  This is the kind of love that is antithetical to our culture and to those cultural tendencies that threaten to infiltrate the church:  a culture that is impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, self-serving, angry, vengeful; a culture that celebrates the wrong things and cancels the truth.  Only love has the power to resist this, only the love commanded and exemplified by Christ Jesus, only the love that is infused in us by the Holy Spirit.

1 John 4:7–12 (ESV): 7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. 

So, where do we start?  How do we wash one another’s feet?  Again, Jesus told us.  Feed the hungry.  Give drink to the thirsty.  Welcome the stranger — the other.  Clothe the naked.  Visit the sick and the prisoners.  

Don’t let politics get in the way of these things.  Don’t let ideologies get in the way of these things.  Don’t let fear or self-interest or any of a countless number of excuses get in the way of these things.  With God’s help, discern how you can do these things and then do them.

There is an underlying principle to all these specific ways of showing love.  I’m afraid it has fallen out of fashion, if it were ever in fashion.  I’m afraid it’s considered childish ethics, a trite remnant of the past.  I’m afraid a generation has never even heard of it.  How do we love one another?  Where do we start?  Start with the Golden Rule:  “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31).  Let’s start there, and once we’ve mastered that, then we can move on to the next, more challenging level.  Don’t ask me what that next level is; I’m still working on the Golden Rule. 

Brothers and sisters, love isn’t an option for those of us who follow Christ; it is a commandment:  not love as emotion or sentiment or as carefully disguised self-interest, but love as willing the good of the other as other, love as exemplified by Christ in the washing of feet, in the bread and wine — his body and blood — in the agony in the Garden, in the passion of the cross, in the still of the tomb.  Seek this love.  Pray that God the Holy Spirit will love in and through you.  

Jesus’ words echo down to us and challenge us still on this solemn and holy night:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Amen.

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Holy Wednesday

Holy Wednesday

(Is 50:4-9 / Ps 69:6-14, 21-22 / Heb 9:11-28 / Matt 26:1-5, 14-25)

Collect

Assist us mercifully with your grace, Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the meditation of those mighty acts by which you have promised us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord, 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.

Holy Week begins and ends with the most stark contrasts imaginable.  Palm Sunday is a day of raucous celebration with people shouting Hosanna! and waving palm branches in a grand coronation parade that gets the attention of both church (Temple) and state (Rome).  A week later — Holy Saturday — is a day of somber confusion, bewildered mourning, and silent waiting for God knows what as the King of the Jews lies crucified, dead, and buried in a borrowed tomb while his followers are hiding in fear behind locked doors.  

Today we find ourselves in the middle of Holy Week, in the middle of these extremes, on Holy Wednesday.  The Book of Common Prayer has no special service, no unique liturgy appointed for the day, though it is not uncommon for Anglican churches to observe Tenebrae, as indeed we do at Apostles.  No, the Book of Common Prayer skips from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday with no mention of Holy Wednesday.  But, this is a pivotal day in the story.  If Palm Sunday is one end of the Holy Week seesaw and Holy Saturday is the other, then Holy Wednesday is the fulcrum right in the middle, the fulcrum on which the story pivots from joy to mourning.  As with other important moments in Jesus’ life, it all centers around a table.

Mark 14:1–11 (ESV): 14 It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2 for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” 

3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” 

10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11 And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him. 

That was Holy Wednesday.  It has already been a busy week for Jesus:  Sunday, the Triumphal Entry; Monday, the cleansing of the Temple; Tuesday, an intense day of teaching his disciples on Mt. Olivet.  He alone knows what Thursday and Friday hold in store, so he takes this moment on Wednesday to rest at Bethany.  He may well be staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus off and on during the week, but tonight he is dining out in the house of Simon.  A woman — the Synoptic Gospels do not identify her — a woman in an extravagant gesture of devotion anoints Jesus with precious ointment worth a year’s  wages.  You know the story, both from the Synoptic Gospels and from John; the details differ somewhat but the point is the same.  Judas is incensed over this waste, at least he feigns outrage at the loss of potential communal revenue from which he could have pilfered a share.  Somehow this is the last straw for Judas, the tipping point for him and for Holy Week.  He agrees to deliver Jesus to the authorities, to spy out the perfect opportunity to betray Jesus into their hands.  That’s why Holy Wednesday is also called Spy Wednesday; Judas pivots from disciple to spy and the week pivots from Triumphal Entry toward Holy Saturday.

Why did Judas do it?  Forgot psychology; there’s no real help there, no definitive answer.  Luke has the only answer that does justice to Judas’s perfidy.

Luke 22:3–6 (ESV): 3 Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. 4 He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. 5 And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. 6 So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd. 

This is one of the most terrifying verses in all Scripture:  Satan entered into one of the twelve.  If this is not a cautionary tale, then I don’t know of one.  It had all started so differently, so hopefully, some three years before.

Mark 3:13–19 (ESV): 13 And [Jesus] went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. 

These twelve are the men Jesus desired to be with him, to preach in his name, to cast out demons and so to proclaim with power the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.  Judas was there; he was one of them.  Remember that the phrase “who betrayed him” was written only in hindsight.  On that day, he was simply one of the twelve who Jesus chose.

Later,

Mark 6:7–13 (ESV): [Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— 9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. 

Judas was there; he was one of them preaching and casting out demons and healing.  God was at work in and through Judas just as he was at work in and through Simon Peter.  But, over the ensuing years something changed for Judas; something changed in Judas.  We don’t know what and why and when and where and how.  We only know that on this Holy Wednesday “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve.”

It is a good thing, a sobering thing, for us to pause mid-Holy Week to ponder this mystery of iniquity:  how one so close to Christ can fall so far from him, how an erstwhile disciple can become a traitor.  It is a good thing, a sobering thing, for us to pause mid-Holy Week to examine ourselves, lest being unaware of the wiles of our foe and the weakness of our human nature we drift away from the one who called us, from the one who desires us to be with him, to proclaim — not only with our lips but in our lives — the glory of his name.  This need for self-examination, for intentional awareness is a theme in Scripture.  Listen to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians:

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

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

These things took place as examples for us.  Remember this and ponder it:  with the exception of two faithful men, the entire adult generation of the Exodus forfeited the privilege of entering the promised land due to their unfaithfulness.  The generation that crossed the Red Sea was not allowed to pass through the Jordan.  The generation that feasted on manna and quail did not taste the milk and honey promised to their fathers.  God forbid that this be said of any of us, that having been baptized into Christ, having been fed on his Body and Blood, having been filled with his Spirit, anyone of us should turn back or walk away.

Paul himself carefully guarded his own faith:

1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (ESV): 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 

On this Holy Wednesday, the tragic example of Judas calls us to be aware but not fearful, sober but not anxious, diligent but not despairing.  It calls us to do this one thing:  forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, holding true to what we have attained (ref Phil 3:14, 16).

On this Holy Wednesday and on every day after, may the God of peace himself sanctify us completely, and may our whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He who calls us is faithful; he will surely do it (ref 1 Thess 5:24).  Amen.

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I Will Not Go Up Among You

ADOTS Morning Prayer

Fr. John A. Roop

Friday, 26 March 2021

A Reflection on Exodus 33:  I Will Not Go Up Among You

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

The story of Israel sometimes reads like a lurching from one crisis to another, with only brief periods of stability between.  But this crisis — this incident with the golden calf at Sinai — seems different somehow; this feels like an existential crisis, like the relationship between God and Israel is frayed and near to breaking.

Exodus 32:9–10 (ESV): 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” 

Moses intercedes for Israel, implores God on their behalf, appealing to God’s reputation — What will the Egyptians say? — and to God’s covenant faithfulness:  “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self” (cf Ex 32:13 ff).  Who knows what might have happened had Moses not stood in the breach?

But, there are consequences to Israel’s idolatry.  In anger, Moses shatters the tablets of the Law at the foot of the mountain just as Israel had shattered them at the foot of the golden calf.  At Moses’ command the sons of Levi purify the people with blood — killing some three thousand of their kinsmen — and, in the process, they are ordained as priests on behalf of the people, priests who will atone for their kinsmen with the blood of bulls and goats.  And then the Lord himself sends a plague on the people.

As bad as this is, it is not yet the real crisis.  This is:

Exodus 33:1–3 (ESV): 33 The Lord said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” 

God will be faithful to the covenant, even though Israel has broken it.  He will give the land he promised the Fathers to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey.  God had promised the Patriarchs a people and a land, and he will make good on that promise.  But, that’s all.  God himself will not go up among them.  God’s presence will not be with them any longer.  And that is the existential crisis:  how is it possible to be the people of God if God is no longer present with the people?  God couches this as an act of mercy:

“…I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Ex 33:3b).

But, it is a severe mercy (a phrase perhaps attributable to Sheldon Vanauken), a cure as deadly as the disease.  Moses knows it, and it will not do.

Now, for a brief aside, a jumping ahead in the story.  The final words of the Torah in Deuteronomy 34 are a eulogy for Moses written some years after his death, by an unknown scribe:

Deuteronomy 34:10–12 (ESV): 10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. 

While I agree with this assessment, there is something essential missing in the description:  Moses’ faithful audacity, his boldness in reasoning and arguing with the LORD.  Abraham had a bit of it, Jacob, too, perhaps, but Moses surpassed them all.  

Now, back to the story.  Moses is unwilling for there to be a parting of ways between the LORD and his people.  Watch how cleverly and boldly he reasons with — argues with — God:  not that God is manipulated or backed into a corner by Moses’ debating prowess — not at all; rather I think the LORD is delighted to “give way” before Moses’ faithful audacity. 

Exodus 33:12–13 (ESV): 12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”

So, if I may paraphrase, Moses’ argument goes something like this.

“‘Bring the people up,’” you say, LORD.  “But you’ve said you’re not going with us.”

“‘I know you by name and you’ve found favor in my sight,’” you say, LORD.  “But it’s not just about me; this nation is yours, too.  What about them?”

And the LORD gives an opening, just a small one that Moses leaps on.  Notice in what follows that the LORD speaks about Moses, and Moses immediately extends the LORD’s promises to himself and to the people.  For Moses, it is never about himself, but about himself and the people.  Notice how Moses continually uses “us” and “we” instead of “I” and “me.”

Exodus 33:14–16 (ESV): 14 And [the LORD] said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And [Moses] said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” 

This is masterful.  Moses insistently moves the LORD from individual blessing to national blessing, from personal favor to corporate favor.  And Moses dots the last “i” and crosses the final “t” in his argument, with a series of two questions that bank on the LORD’s commitment to the glory of his own name:

For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people?

Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth (emphasis added)?

May I paraphrase again?

“For better or worse, these people are the representatives of your name and your glory among the nations, LORD.  How are the nations to know that this people has indeed found favor in your sight?”

And then Moses answers his own question:

“There are only two ways that I can think of:  your presence with us and our differences from them.”

As far as I am concerned this morning, this is where the story has been leading us.  At least, it’s right here that I feel most challenged, because of this simple but central truth:

For better or worse, the Church is the representative of the name and glory of the Lord among the nations of the world.  More personally, for better or worse, all of us who bear the name of Christ are his representatives in our families, communities, towns, places of business or education, on social media, in the voting booth — indeed wherever we are.  And Moses’ question comes directly to us:  How are the nations to know that we have found favor in God’s sight, that we represent him faithfully and truly?

I think the twofold answer for us is the same as it was for Israel:  God’s presence with us and our differences from the world.

Brothers and sisters, this is what St. Peter wrote in his first letter to the elect exiles of the Dispersion, what he wrote for our benefit, as well:

1 Peter 2:9–12 (ESV): 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 

The world will know that we truly represent God only if they see God’s presence with us and only if we live differently than them.

So, how will the world recognize God’s presence with us?  I’ll briefly mention three ways and leave you to flesh them out.  God’s presence is known among us in Word, Sacrament, and mutual love.  If we forsake the Word of God — Scripture — by favoring instead cultural ideologies, political platforms, self-help pop psychology, or a watered-down and non-offensive Gospel, we jeopardize the visible presence of God among us.  If we minimize the centrality of the Sacraments as channels of God’s grace and the visible image of his presence among us, if we willingly absent ourselves from the Sacraments, if we reduce them to mere symbols and memorials, we jeopardize the visible presence of God among us.  If we fail to love one another as Christ has loved us, if we fail to devote ourselves to the common good, if we fail to will and to act for the good of our neighbors and even our enemies, we jeopardize the visible presence of God among us.

Secondly, how will the world recognize us as different?  Peter mentions our avoidance of the passions of the flesh.  Our minds immediately go to sex — at least mine does — but Peter probably has more in mind:  the world, the flesh, and the devil as we say in our baptismal vows.  Passions — disordered affections — lead to pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust:  the deadly or capital sins.  These should have no place among us.  The world worships its own idols:  pleasure, power, wealth, honor.  We must not bow down to those gods.  The world tempts us to settle down and make our home here.  We must always remain the elect exiles of the dispersion, resident aliens, ambassadors of the far country.

Once again, Israel’s story is our story.  We dare not go among the nations if the LORD is not with us:  if his presence is not among us, if we are not different than the nations.

Let us pray.

O LORD, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name;

do not forsake us, O LORD our God.  Amen. Jeremiah 14:9

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