We have a choice to make, each of us. It’s not a one-and-done choice; we make it every day — sometimes hour by hour, sometime minute by minute. The choice is this: will we live as materialists, deists, or Christians? The question is not so much about who we are — our identity — but rather about how we live — our existence.
For the materialists, all that exists is the material/physical world. Reality is natural, but not supernatural, immanent, but not transcendent. Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and popularizer of science, spoke for materialists in the opening lines of his book Cosmos:
The Cosmos (by which he meant the material universe) is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us…. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
Sagan spoke macroscopically, on the largest, cosmological scale. Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman spoke for materialists microscopically, on the smallest, quantum scale:
If we were to name the most powerful assumption of all, which leads one on and on in an attempt to understand life, it is that all things are made of atoms, and that everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms (The Feynman Lectures on Physics).
We are in all our hopes and dreams and loves, in all our struggles and victories and sacrifices, in all our greatest art and literature and music, just jiggling and wiggling atoms, because that is all that is or was or ever will be in the cosmos. It seems redundant to say so, but strict materialists live as if no transcendent realm exists; what you see is what there is.
Deists reject strict materialism; they acknowledge a god and a supernatural realm. But, they separate — absolutely — the material and spiritual realms. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes deism:
A deist…believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs…does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles.
The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by deism, and it is that philosophy we find enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
While a Creator endowed men with certain rights, it is our responsibility to secure those rights. We do that through the institution of Governments whose power is granted and justified by those who are governed. How do we know this? It is self-evident, not revealed. The Creator started the process and then absented himself from it, turning it over to us. This is not just separation of Church and State; it is absolute separation of spiritual and material. Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest from Oak Ridge, describes this as the two-storey universe in his book Everywhere Present. We live here on the ground floor of the universe in the physical world. There is a spiritual world — we think — on the second floor, but there are no stairs connecting the two. What God does upstairs is his business; he leaves us alone to tend to our business on the ground floor. In point of fact, there is little behavioral difference between materialists and deists. In both cases, we are on our own to make our way in the world.
But, Christians live in a different cosmos: not strictly material, and not two-storey with material and spiritual strictly segregated. We live in a cosmos in which the material and spiritual overlap or interpenetrate, where there is continual congress between the realms, where we ourselves are both physical and spiritual beings, where this Collect for the Feast of Holy Michael and All Angels makes sense:
Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
So, how do you live — as a materialist, a deist, or a Christian? Here’s a quick test — just a rule of thumb. You fall seriously ill. What do you do?
If you are living fully into the Christian faith, your first and most powerful recourse is to pray, to ask others to pray with and for you, and to seek the healing ministry of the Church with oil and the laying on of hands.
If you are living between worlds — between Christianity and deism — your first recourse is to seek medical attention. You pray also, but secondarily; your primary hope is in the physician.
If you are a true deist or materialist, you do not pray at all. Any help there may be lies solely with medical science and practice.
Well, that is overly simplified — a quick test, remember. But it is helpful, I think, and cautionary. It is all too easy for Christians to be lulled into the diminished world view of contemporary culture, a view that either denies the reality of the spiritual realm or walls it off so that it has no actual effect on our living: acceptable in church, perhaps, but not in our homes, schools, businesses, entertainment, politics, shopping — you know, in all the real, material moment-by-moment affairs of life. The Biblical world view offers a far richer — and truer — cosmological understanding, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven participating with us in our journey.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that, by your grace, we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Preface for All Saints’
For in the multitude of your saints, you have surrounded us with so great a cloud of witnesses that we, rejoicing in their fellowship, may run with patience the race that is set before us, and, together with them, may receive the unfolding crown of glory.
Imagine trying to tell the story of Israel with no mention of women: no strong and influential Matriarchs like Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and Leah; no Miriam to lead Israel out of Egypt alongside Moses and Aaron; no Rahab to shelter and protect the spies at Jericho; no Deborah to judge and deliver Israel from Jabin and no Jael to drive a tent peg through Sisera’s skull; no Naomi and no Ruth to demonstrate familial faithfulness; no Hannah to pray for a son and then to devote that son to God; no Bathsheba to advocate for her son Solomon’s reign; no widow of Zarephath to tend Elijah and no Shunammite woman to show Elisha hospitality; no Esther to risk her own life to protect her people from genocide.
Imagine trying to tell the Gospel with no mention of women: no Elizabeth to birth the forerunner of our Lord and to prophetically greet our Lord’s mother; no Virgin Mary to offer up in her body our human nature for the incarnation of the Logos; no Martha of Bethany to cook for and serve Jesus and his disciples, to offer hospitality and a place for our Lord to lay his head; no Mary of Bethany to choose the better part and sit at our Lord’s feet; no woman with an issue of blood; no woman taken in adultery; no sinful women to anoint Jesus’ head and feet; no widow at Nain to witness resurrection — to receive her only son back from the dead; no woman at the well to introduce Jesus to the Samaritans; no Syro-Phoenician woman and no daughter.
Imagine trying to tell the story of the Church with no mention of women: no Sapphira to serve as cautionary tale along with her lying husband Ananias; no Hellenist widows to complain about an unfair distribution of food in the Jerusalem Church, complaint which led to the formation of the diaconate and to the first Christian martyrdom; no Lydia, the first Christian convert in Europe; no Priscilla to teach Apollos, to serve alongside Paul and to be his representative; no Lois and Eunice to raise a godly Timothy; no Phoebe to serve the Church; no Chloe to host a church and to report to Paul the problems in Corinth.
I’m neither proposing a uniquely feminist reading of Scripture nor promoting a feminist theology by pointing this out. I am merely noting that the story of humanity — God’s story of humanity — and the story of redemption are not exclusively patriarchal; they are the stories of men and women together.
From the very beginning it was so, male and female together:
Genesis 1:26–28 (ESV): 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
In the fall it was so, male and female together:
Genesis 3:6–7 (ESV): 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
In the calling of Israel — the beginning of redemption — it was so, male and female together:
Genesis 12:1–5 (ESV): 12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.
And so it goes throughout redemption history, throughout the Gospel, male and female together. So, it is not surprising that the entourage that surrounded Jesus, that traveled with him, that looked to him as rabbi and perhaps more, included women:
Luke 8:1–3 (ESV): 8 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.
It is here that we encounter one of the most prominent women in the Gospels: Mary Magdalene. Mary, through no fault of her own, is a polarizing figure, alternately idolized by feminists and Gnostics and misunderstood and marginalized by traditionalists. The Gnostics — ancient and modern — portray Mary as the disciple whom Jesus loved, some going so far as to suggest — insist? — that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually married and had a child and that the Church has tried to suppress this history in some grand conspiracy. That notion lies at the heart of one of Dan Brown’s bestsellers, The DaVinci Code; it’s a popular myth and one that seems impossible to finally put to rest. After all, who doesn’t like a good conspiracy theory?
But, the traditionalists haven’t dealt much better with Mary, either. Following an exegetical error by Pope Gregory I in 591, many traditionalists identify Mary as the sinful woman in Luke 7 who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with costly ointment. They typically portray her as a prostitute. That, too, has entered popular culture; it showed up in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar when Mary Magdalene sang I Don’t Know How To Love Him, as she had so many men before. This, too, is a popular myth and one that is likely to linger. But there simply is no reason to believe, no scriptural evidence, that this sinful woman was Mary Magdalene.
So, what do we know with confidence about Mary? Her name indicates that she had a connection to the town of Magdala: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Magdala, though we don’t know precisely what that connection was — birthplace or adult residence? — or even exactly where the town was. We know that Mary had been demonized by seven demons and had been exorcised by Jesus. While we tend to associate demonic oppression or possession with personal evil — only evil people are demonized we think — that wasn’t necessarily the popular understanding in Jesus’ time; people — “innocent” people — were possessed through no fault of their own. Demons were seen as malign spirits who abused and tormented people. So, again, there is no reason to take Mary’s possession as evidence of a sinful life; it was simply a spiritual malady from which Jesus delivered her. Apparently, at least episodically, Mary, along with some other women of means whom Jesus had healed, accompanied Jesus and the Twelve and funded his ministry out of their means.
If this were all we knew about Mary Magdalene, she would have passed into history as a mere footnote to the Gospel. It is at the “end” of the story — at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — that Mary comes to the fore.
The Twelve do not shine in the crucifixion account; all deserted Jesus and hid except for John. It is the women who show exceptional faithfulness in this moment:
John 19:25 (ESV): 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
And, after Jesus’ death, two of these women accompanied Joseph of Arimathea for the hasty burial of the body:
Mark 15:46–47 (ESV): 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.
The details of what happened next are a bit muddled, though the general outline is clear. After the Sabbath had ended, the women returned to the tomb to conduct a proper burial. This is where Mary Magdalene comes to the fore.
She arrives before dawn only to discover that the stone is rolled away from the tomb and Jesus’ body is missing. She runs to tell this to Peter and John, apparently returns to the tomb with them, and remains there once they had left. And then it happens:
John 20:11–18 (ESV): 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the resurrection. Was that a reward for past faithfulness and love, or was it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time? I’m not sure the two reasons are entirely different; it was her faithfulness and love that put her in the right place at the right time. No matter that everyone else went his own way, Mary stayed close to Jesus, even in death. And she saw death conquered.
Mary has a unique — and well-deserved title — that comes from this account. The risen Lord tells her to go to his brothers — to the Twelve — and to announce his victory and his coming ascension to the Father. Jesus calls Mary to be the Apostle to the Apostles — that is her title in the Church — to be the very first person to bear the Gospel message.
After this, Mary slips into the shadows of history. Stories and theories abound, but I don’t want to give these any credence, not least because they detract and distract from the truth we are given.
So, what are we to make of Saint Mary Magdalene? As I said earlier, this is no feminist manifesto, but it is a challenge to the exclusively patriarchal telling of the Gospel we too often encounter, and it is a challenge to the Church. The truth is — a truth this story reminds us of — the truth is exactly what St. Paul wrote:
Galatians 3:27–29 (ESV): 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
The Gospel cannot be told without male and female because the Gospel is for both male and female without distinction.
Here’s the simple but profound truth about Mary Magdalene. She was lost and hopeless and helpless before her encounter with Christ. He saved her. In gratitude she became devoted to him, followed him as his disciple, and gave of her resources to his ministry. She stood at the cross. She witnessed the resurrected Lord. And she bore the Gospel message: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In that brief summary of her life, she is revealed as a paradigm, as an icon for all of us. We were lost — hopeless and helpless — before our encounter with Christ. He saved us. Like Mary, in our gratitude we should devote ourselves to him, follow him as his disciples, give our resources — our lives — to him. We must take our place at the cross and even bear the cross of Christ ourselves if we are to witness the resurrection of the Lord. And then, we are to take the good news to the world: Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Sunday School vs Christian Formation
My generation called what we are doing here today Sunday School; we called it that here at Apostles, as well, while Dcn. David Sincerbox and I taught these classes together for several years. And then the name was changed to “Christian Formation.” It sounds a little pretentious, don’t you think? The name has changed but the thing has stayed the same. Not really: the name change implies a shift in how we think about what we’re doing, in what the purpose in our study is. Let me describe this as Fr. Guido Sarducci might. For those of you who don’t remember, Fr. Guido was a recurring character on SNL, a very off-beat priest persona created by comedian Don Novello. In one skit, Fr. Guido proposed a Five Minute University. It goes like this:
This isn’t really too far off. Much of my education — high school and college — was like that (not that it was the teachers’ fault): facts learned, facts repeated on a test, facts forgotten. I took two years of high school French — I was the president of the French Club — and I can’t even remember for sure how to ask you how you are or tell you I am fine.
But some classes were different; they formed me. They — and their teachers — had a lasting effect that helped determine the trajectory of my life. Sometimes it was the content that was most important, and sometimes it was the character and demeanor of the teacher. In the best of classes, it was both.
Formation is the true purpose of education: for us, it is specifically Christian formation that we are after. We don’t want a Guido Sarducci-like Five Minute Sunday School; no, as St. Benedict said in the Prologue to his Rule, we want a school for the Lord’s service, and that means formation — real and substantive change.
Here’s another way to think of this: the purpose of Christian formation is to enable us to anticipate the Kingdom of God. N. T. Wright describes this well in his book on Christian virtue, After You Believe. These two examples — with revision — come from him.
1. Suppose a local meteorologist — or an app on your phone — predicts rain in the next thirty minutes, even though the sky is relatively clear right now. If you trust the forecast, when you leave your house you might wear a raincoat or take an umbrella. It’s not raining yet, but you anticipate it will and you act in the present as if it is already raining.
2. Or, suppose you are planning a trip to Paris. You and your traveling companion begin to brush up on your high school French, and, in fact, you decide to speak only French to each other as you prepare for the trip. You are not yet in Paris, where French will be needed, but you anticipate being there and act as if you already are.
Anticipation is living in the present as if the future is here now — living in the present as you will live in the future.
Christian Formation is the discipline of anticipating the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven: of learning to think and pray and act in the present as if God’s future has already dawned. It is not just learning facts about the Kingdom; it is practice in living into the reality of the Kingdom here and now, even though the Kingdom is not yet fully present. Christian Formation is practice and training for living in anticipation. That’s what we want to do.
One central aspect of Christian Formation — there are many others — is immersion in God’s Word, what we are doing here as we come to “study” St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, to be formed by Scripture. It is that to which we now turn.
Travel agencies put together all sorts of tours of various places: England, Israel, the Caribbean, for example. Suppose a philosophically minded travel agency has put together a tour of human nature: a selection of locales that best illustrate who we are as a species. There are actually two tours; take your choice.
Slums of Mumbai and Kolkata
Auschwitz and Birkenau
Rwanda Genocide Museum
Major City: NYC, London, Paris
Chartres Cathedral and the Louvre
Pyramids of Giza
Symphony and Ballet
Gardens of Versailles and Central Park
Question: Which tour gives a more accurate representation of human nature? (Discuss)
I might argue — depending on the day and my mood — that Tour 2 is actually more representative of human nature since humanity starts and ends on a positive/glorious note: original innocence in the Garden before original sin, and renewed innocence in the new heavens and new earth after original sin. It is only the middle, where we now live, that has gone wrong.
Versailles, Central Park
Slums, Slave Market, Auschwitz
Chartres, London, Paris
Starting in the middle, with the Fall, is not untrue, and it makes some sense given that is where/when we live. But it is, perhaps, unbalanced.
Now, suppose a Sunday School teacher — a Christian Formation teacher — is putting together a tour of Christian doctrine. Again, there are two packages available.
Romans; 1, 2 Corinthians; Galatians
Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians
Question: Which tour leads to a more accurate representation of Christian doctrine? (Discuss)
The Reformers took Tour 1 and developed a doctrine heavy on the Fall, original sin, and total depravity: not wrong, but sometimes lacking balance. What if they had taken Tour 2 instead, which focuses more on the glories of renewed human nature? I wonder how the historic presentation of Christian doctrine might have been different.
Both tours are needed; but, for those of us who have for years walked the “Roman Road,” Tour 2 — The Ephesians Way — is useful in providing doctrinal balance. While we still live in the ruins of the Fall — the slums of Mumbai or Kolkata — we still remember the Garden from which we came — Versailles — and we are walking toward and building for New Jerusalem. We need the vision of Ephesians to guide us and sustain us in this between time.
EPHESIANS 1:1-14 — IN CHRIST
Greeting (Eph 1:1-2)
Ephesians 1:1–2 (ESV): Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Many Bibles — including the English Standard Version (ESV) that I am using for this class —have section headings. In the ESV, these two verses are identified as “Greeting.” And that is true to the format of a typical first century letter; that is how, on the surface, these two verses function. But, there is far more here than stylistic conformity; there is the story of a people, of one particular person, and of the mystery of God, in just a few words.
First, we start with the author, with Paul.
Question: What do we know about St. Paul? (Discuss)
Paul (formerly known as Saul) gives us a brief bio and curriculum vitae in Acts 22:1-16.
There is a key term Paul uses in verse 3 that provides us insight into his self-understanding and purpose: ζηλωτης, zealous. This is not just a description of “being all in” for a cause; it is a code word for a particular way of life, and one that Paul’s Jewish readers would have understood. It takes us back to the Hebrew Scriptures, to the aftermath of Balaam’s unsuccessful attempt to curse Israel on the borders of Moab (Num 25).
Numbers 25:1–13 (NRSVCE): 25 While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel. 4 The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the Lord, in order that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
6 Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, 8 he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. 9 Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
10 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. 12 Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. 13 It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.’ ”
Did you catch the important word that links Paul and Phinehas? Phinehas was zealous for the Lord. By his zeal — a zeal exemplified in an act of religious execution — he turned back God’s wrath from the people — a wrath engendered not just by sexual immorality, but primarily by worship of false gods — and he was given a covenant of peace by and with God. This was Paul’s definition of zeal; this is how he viewed himself as zealous in relation to the Jesus cult. This new sect within Judaism was, to Saul, equivalent to Baal worship, and it threatened to kindle God’s anger against Israel. In persecuting Christians, Paul saw himself as a first century Phinehas averting national disaster by eliminating idolatrous sinners. That was Saul’s understanding of Israel’s story and of his place in it prior to his vision of Jesus. This is crucial for understanding Saul and later Paul. The vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus forced Saul to reinterpret the story of Israel and to place Jesus right in the center of it. It is an astounding reevaluation of all Saul has ever known, of his own life. It is hard to explain, unless the vision really happened. Afterwards, Paul was just as zealous as Saul had been — without the violence, of course — but zealous for the Gospel of Christ, and all by the will of God.
Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road gives a narrative definition of conversion. Conversion doesn’t always include a bright light, a voice from heaven, a vision of Jesus, and a blinding of physical sight. In all of that, Paul’s experience was unique. But, conversion does include a reorientation of life like Paul’s. We could describe conversion as a re-centering of one’s life around Jesus or a re-telling of one’s story with Jesus with at the center. Consider our own Anglican baptismal vows which are an expression of this total reorientation of life (cf BCP 2019, pp 164-165). That is the essence of the total reorientation that Paul experienced. That is a challenge to each of us. If you were to tell your life story — if I were to tell mine — could you tell it with Jesus on the margins, or would Jesus be in the center, the axis around which everything else revolves? Would others, observing our lives, see Jesus at the center?
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
TODAY, THE DAILY OFFICE lectionary directs us to Galatians 1. It is a short letter: we’ll complete it in only six mornings. It is short but it is also central to understanding Paul’s theology. Today, I would like to give you just a brief introduction to the major theme of the letter: why it was important to Paul and why it should still be important to the church today.
Let’s begin not with Paul but with Jesus; that’s always a good place to start.
Mark 2:1–12 (ESV): 2 And when [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
Jesus here makes what the scribes consider to be an unverifiable — and blasphemous — claim: to forgive sins. What visible, tangible proof can he offer to substantiate his claim to such authority? He heals the paralytic before their eyes. Is this firm proof of his authority to forgive sins? Not really, but the implication hangs in the air: if he can do something physical, something extraordinary — healing the paralytic — then perhaps he can do something spiritual, something extraordinary — forgiving the man’s sins. Jesus uses something seen, something physical, as evidence for something unseen, something spiritual.
This relationship between seen and unseen, between physical and spiritual shouldn’t catch us off guard; it’s the foundation of the Sacraments. Our catechism asks the question, What is a sacrament?, and answers:
A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. God gives us the sign as a means by which we receive that grace and as a tangible assurance that we do in fact receive it (To Be A Christian, Q121, pp. 55-56).
But how do I know I’ve been born again? Because you’ve been baptized. How do I know that Christ’s death and resurrection apply to me? Because you’ve fed on his body and blood in the Eucharist. How do I know that I’ve been forgiven? Because the priest has pronounced the words of absolution upon hearing your confession. In all these Sacraments, something seen, something physical is used as evidence for something unseen, something spiritual.
Now, let’s bring Paul into this discussion. Paul comes — wherever he comes — proclaiming good news, the ευαγγελιον — the Gospel — he calls it. And what is the Gospel? That the human story which went wrong in the Garden has been at last put to rights on Calvary, that the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth — the Son of God — has undone the sin of Adam, broken the chains of death and hell, and reconciled man to God. Paul insists that Jesus is the climax of the long and winding story of Israel, the people that God chose to be his instruments of salvation for the whole world. This is crucial. God made very specific promises to the Patriarchs — to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — to bless Israel. But, God also made promises to bless the whole world through Israel, so that ultimately the Gospel of Jesus Christ, given first to Israel, would be for all peoples. Further — and this is absolutely central to a right understanding of Paul — the Gospel must be for all people on equal terms; as it applies to Jews as Jews, so too must it apply to Gentiles as Gentiles. And if there is one and the same Gospel for both groups, that can only mean one thing for Paul: the Law upon which the Jews have always based their righteousness, can no longer be that basis. He says it this way:
Galatians 3:10–14 (ESV): 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
This is Paul’s conviction: it is not by law, but by faith that we are justified before God the Father through Jesus Christ — all of us, Jews and Gentiles alike.
That is a radical claim. It is not the way that Jews had envisioned the climax of their story. So, what is the evidence that Paul’s Gospel is true — that this telling of the story is true? That question brings us back to Jesus and the paralytic, back to the Church and the Sacraments, back to the notion of a visible, physical sign of an invisible, spiritual reality. How can we know that Paul’s presentation of the Gospel is true? By the incorporation of Jews and Gentiles into a single worshipping body. By circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles sitting down together around a table for a meal. By Jews who keep fasts and feasts and holy days and Gentiles who do not do such things gathering together on the Lord’s Day for Scripture and prayer and the breaking of bread. This is the visible sign of the spiritual effects of the Gospel. Paul writes about this essential unity in Ephesians:
Ephesians 2:11–16 (ESV): 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Once there were two groups — the Jews (the circumcised) and the Gentiles (the uncircumcised). These groups were separated by the Law that served not only as a badge of identity for the Jews but as a wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. But — good news, Gospel — Jesus has broken down that wall by his death and resurrection and has brought the two groups together into a single body and reconciled them both together — in the same way, faith — to God.
For Paul, any division in the church along ethnic lines, any division based on the Law, any hint that the Gentiles are second class Christians or must convert to Judaism to become Christians is to strike at very heart of the visible symbol of the spiritual truth of the Gospel. Division is a denial of the Gospel. That is why a matter that seems so trivial to us — circumcision — is so essential to Paul. Any Gospel that requires a Gentile to be circumcised is a false Gospel. And that is exactly what’s happening in these churches in Galatia. In Paul’s absence, some rival group has infiltrated the churches and is insisting that Gentiles must obey the Law — symbolized by circumcision — to be truly Christian. And the churches have been led astray.
You can hear the exasperation in Paul’s voice when he writes:
Galatians 1:6–9 (ESV): 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
See how seriously Paul takes this matter. If you preach another Gospel — if you insist upon circumcision, upon faith and keeping the law — then you are anathema: accursed, an evil thing appointed for destruction, just as Jericho was appointed for destruction during the conquest. There really is no harsher judgement than this.
Paul spends the rest of his letter expounding this basic theme: there is only one Gospel, for all people, through faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ.
So, how does this ancient argument over circumcision relate to the church today? First, it’s important to see that circumcision was not really the issue; it was merely the presenting problem that revealed the fundament, underlying issues: the tip of the iceberg we see that warns us of the hidden danger out of sight. If I might couch the real problems in more modern language I would identify these two:
1. Jesus and
First, Jesus and. For the Jews to claim that circumcision was required in addition to faith was to imply the insufficiency of the Gospel. It’s to say that Jesus alone is inadequate. Jesus and … is required, in their case, Jesus and circumcision — Jesus and the Law. And Paul would have none of that. The Gospel is about what God has accomplished on our behalf in and through Jesus Christ. No other sacrifice is required — or possible. No human work is required — or possible. Jesus and Jesus alone is both necessary and sufficient.
Our issues are not the same today as were the issues in the first century; we don’t debate circumcision and the Law. But we are no less tempted to say Jesus and than were the Galatian Christians. It’s just that our ands are different than theirs. Jesus and the right political party. Jesus and the right social justice movement. Jesus and the right position on immigration, gun control, the environment, fiscal policy and so on ad nauseum. Now, we don’t usually make these ands matters of salvation, though my wife was once told by a colleague that you could not be a Christian and a member of a certain political party; I’ll not mention which party. While we don’t usually make these issues matters of salvation, we do let them divide us, which was the second of Paul’s fundamental concerns.
We live in what is called — and increasingly is — a cancel culture. Don’t agree with someone? First, have nothing more to do with them and second, use every means at your disposal to discredit and destroy them — even if they are brothers or sisters in Christ. For goodness’ sake, don’t sit around the table and share a meal with them or confess your sins together or share in the Eucharist with them! I’m not talking about people who deny the faith or distort the Gospel — about people who are real dangers to the church. I’m talking about people we disagree with over secondary, non-essential matters. I’m talking about the easy path of division instead of the difficult way of reconciliation. But I’m also talking about divisions in the church along racial, economic, or political lines. As with marriage, so with the body of Christ: what God has joined, let no man put asunder.
These are two of the major themes to keep in mind when reading the rest of Galatians: the dangers of Jesus and and the threat of divisions in the church. There is one more dominant idea: the validity of Paul’s own apostolate — certainly as important now as then. But that’s another homily.
For now, I close with Pauls’ opening benediction:
Galatians 1:3–5 (ESV): 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Following is a homily for 13 June 2021 (3 Pentecost) for the residents of Manor House Assisted Living Facility.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SAINT PAUL WROTE the words of Scripture we just heard (2 Cor 5:1-10) as he was beginning to come out of the darkest period of his life and ministry. It was likely a time of physical exhaustion, psychological depression, mental confusion, and perhaps even spiritual desolation. All the details need not concern us, but these few will paint the picture. Paul had been rejected and dismissed by a church he had founded in Corinth, one he had served for a year and a half — an enormous investment of time and energy on his part. He was experiencing serious opposition in his current work in Ephesus; economic, religious, political, and spiritual powers were aligned against him and were on the attack. It is thought by many scholars that he had just been released from a Roman prison in Ephesus, having been deserted by many of his trusted companions. Those were dark days for the Apostle, and you can hear it in his own words:
2 Corinthians 1:8–11 (ESV): 8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
2 Corinthians 4:8–10 (ESV): 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
Afflicted, utterly burdened beyond his strength, despairing of life itself, at least metaphorically under a death sentence, crushed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down: that is how St. Paul describes those dark days. He’s feeling a bit better — believe it or not! — as he writes this, and he’s able now to see God’s providence at work: everything that happened had forced him to rely on God who raises the dead. Paul has, in some sense, experienced his own resurrection now.
So, what got St. Paul through those dark days? Well, he mentions prayer — the prayer of others on his behalf. It’s possible sometimes to be so burdened that we can’t even pray for ourselves; then the prayers of others are essential. He also mentions hope, specifically the hope of being delivered by God in the present as he had been in the past and expects to be in the future, if necessary.
In our reading today though, Paul points toward another source of hope that had been crucial to him in surviving and coming out of the darkness. Listen again to a portion of that reading:
2 Corinthians 5:1–5 (ESV): 5 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
This was Paul’s ultimate hope. But what does he mean with all this talk of tents and houses, of being naked or clothed? It’s metaphorical language for a simple notion: if Paul doesn’t survive, if he’s killed here, then something better is awaiting him in heaven. His death would not be a loss for him, but a gain.
Paul speaks of his earthly body as a tent. A tent, even if it’s a fine one, is a temporary shelter, a place of sojourn, but not a permanent home. But, in heaven, there is a body waiting for him that is not another tent, but a house. This heavenly house, this heavenly body, is not made by human craftsmen, but by God himself. This heavenly house, this heavenly body, is not temporary, but permanent. Here we live in a one-man pup tent; in heaven we move into a mansion. Which is better? For Paul, the answer is obvious: a home in heaven.
Now, Paul changes metaphors from tents to clothes; he speaks of our bodies as clothes. I’ll offer a paraphrase. Have you ever had the very common dream that you are either naked or walking around in your underwear? You’re looking everywhere for clothes — real clothes — but you can’t find any. This is something like what Paul has in mind. Living in our present bodies is like walking around in our underwear. We’re not really happy about it; we groan and grumble. Dying doesn’t make matters worse; we don’t go from underwear to our birthday suit. No: we go from underwear to tuxedos or ball gowns. The difference between our earthly bodies and our heavenly bodies is the difference between boxer shorts and bespoke suits or designer gowns — better in every way.
It is this truth — this exchange of earthly tent for heavenly house, of underwear for formal wear — that gave Paul the hope he needed to hang on through the dark days and finally to come out of them. He says it this way:
2 Corinthians 5:6–9 (ESV): 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.
“We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord,” Paul says. That is a powerful and profound statement. Paul’s dark days had nothing to do with the fear of dying, but with the pressure and anxiety of living: with fear of failure, feelings of betrayal, worries over the faithfulness of the churches. Paul knows that something better awaits him. But he also knows that living and dying are both in God’s hands. The choice wasn’t his and it isn’t ours. The timing wasn’t his and it isn’t ours. Paul wasn’t suicidal; he had not given up on life. It is simply that death held no fear for him. He knew something better was waiting. And he held on to that hope to make it through the dark days.
Why do I mention all this? The choice of Scripture for today wasn’t entirely mine. It is one of three appointed for this day in the Book of Common Prayer: an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, and a Gospel lesson. But I did choose this one out of the three because I think it speaks to our recent and current conditions. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has been in dark days, and it has impacted every facet of our lives. I watched as our world shut down; you did, too. I watched as our churches shut down and tried desperately to find ways to do and to be church safely. I watched a world in the grips of fear trying to figure out where to place its hope. And where did the world place its hope? In isolation, in social distancing, in masks, in vaccines, in scientists, and in politicians. I don’t want to disparage any of those things: I stayed at home more than ever before myself; I maintained social distance in public if not in private; I wore a mask; I drove many miles to receive the vaccine as soon as it was available; I am thankful for God’s gift of medical research and pharmaceutical production; I’m thankful — and amazed — that the politicians mostly put partisan bickering aside long enough to mount a successful vaccination program.
But, in the midst of our global and personal fear, in the midst of struggling to find hope, what the world most needed, and what I fear it failed to hear loudly and consistently enough, was the church proclaiming the same hope that Paul proclaimed: hope in the God who delivers, hope in the future and eternal reward awaiting the faithful in heaven. Frankly, the church — and by that I mean not just the organization, not just its leaders, but many of us who claim the name of Christ — seemed just as scared as the rest of the world: afraid of getting sick, afraid of dying — as if we didn’t trust the God who has already defeated death for us, as if we thought this life is better than the life to come. Let me be clear. I’m not talking about the demonstrably false notion that if we just have faith enough God will keep us from getting sick and dying. No. I’m talking about the biblical proclamation that if we do get sick and die, something better than this life, some glorious awaits us in heaven.
I don’t want this to be heard as a critical message of judgment on anyone or anything, but rather as a hopeful message of encouragement to everyone who bears the name of Christ. We have a hope that the world doesn’t have. We have a God who rescues his people in life and in death. We have a body awaiting us in heaven that is beyond our imaginations: immortal, incorruptible — a mansion, not a tent, royal apparel and not underwear. We have a reward kept in store for us there, because we are sons and daughters of God and fellow heirs with Christ Jesus. What, then, are we afraid of? To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and to quote songwriter Sara Groves: from what I know of Him, that must be very good.
Paul doesn’t call us to be foolish or irresponsible. It is not Christian to court danger or hasten death. But it is also not Christian to live in fear of death, as if we have no great hope. Dark days come and dark days go. But our hope remains eternal: hope in the God who raises the dead, hope of a new and perfected body awaiting us in heaven. Hope and not fear is our way. Amen.
O holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, one God, have mercy upon us.
No beating around the bush this morning: let’s jump right in with a deeply complex philosophical question. How do you eat an elephant? Leave aside, for the moment, the question of why you’d want to; it’s the how and not the why that concerns us. How do you eat an elephant? There is only one way: one bite at a time.
That’s some good folk wisdom, a proverb you won’t find in the Bible, but a good one nonetheless. When presented with an enormous task, it is easy to be overwhelmed, to be immobilized. The key is simply to break it down into simple steps: to do the first little thing you can do, and then next little thing, and so on. And after awhile, you find that the elephant is gone.
The elephant in the room of liturgical churches throughout the world today is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. How do we speak of it? How do we think about it? How do we make sense of it? The whole concept, the whole doctrine, is so enormous, so complex, that it is easy to be overwhelmed, to be immobilized. So, back to our proverb. How do you speak of the Holy Trinity? How do you think about it? There is only one way: one word at a time, one idea at a time.
And that means there is only so much we can do this morning, perhaps only one small task — small, but important. And that means there are many questions we cannot and will not ask.
The question before us this morning is not whether the doctrine of the Trinity is true; of course it is true. It is expounded in Scripture from the beginning, from the creation of all things as God the Father spoke all things into being, spoke his logos — his Word — by whom, through whom and for whom all things were made, spoke as the Spirit hovered over the face of the water, spoke the words in the Garden, “Let us make man in our image.” You see it there, don’t you? The Father who speaks, the Son who is the Word spoken, and the Spirit who is the breath, the wind on which the spoken Word is sent forth to create. The Trinity is implicit in God’s covenant with Israel — implicit as an oak is implicit in an acorn — implicit in the covenant proclaimed in the Shema Yisrael: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the Lord is one. It is implicit in the Archangel Gabriel’s revelation to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she, consenting, will bear a son, the Son of God by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the incarnation. It is shouted in the Gospels as God the Father tears the heavens asunder at the baptism of Jesus to announce to the world, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” even as the Holy Spirit descends upon the Son in bodily form as a dove to remain with him and in him. It blows through the Acts of the Apostles. It breathes in Paul’s letters and in Hebrews. It flickers and flames and blazes to light up the pages of the Revelation. Of course the doctrine of the Trinity is true.
The question before us this morning is not whether the doctrine of the Trinity is orthodox and catholic; of course it is orthodox and catholic. It is the consensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful, hard fought and hard won in councils and unchangingly preserved in the creeds: the Apostles Creed by which the Church proclaims its baptismal faith, the Nicene Creed by which the Church proclaims its Eucharistic faith, and the Athanasian Creed by which the Church proclaims its non-negotiable catholic/universal faith:
Whosoever will be saved,
before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled,
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholic Faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and trinity in unity,
Neither confounding the Persons,
nor dividing the Substance.
Of course the doctrine of the Trinity is orthodox and catholic.
The question before us this morning is not whether the doctrine of the Trinity is doxological, whether it is filled with the right glory of worship; of course it is doxological. It fills our Book of Common Prayer and orders our life of worship: from baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, to the final words of the Daily Office — The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love and God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. — to the Eucharist when the body and blood of our Lord Jesus is lifted to God and the priest says, “By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and for ever,” and the people respond with the great AMEN. It is there as we and the Church worship at the moment of death:
Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
Of course the doctrine of the Trinity is doxological, filled with the right glory of worship.
No. The questions before us today are not whether the doctrine of the Trinity is true, or orthodox and catholic, or properly doxological. The question before us today is whether — and how — the doctrine of the Trinity matters: not to academic theologians who love this sort of thing, but to you and to me. Does it make a difference? Is it important? Does the Trinity matter?
God is love, St. John tells us (1 John 4:8). Is that important? Does that matter? Is it important to you that love is not some changeable emotion — one of many — that God feels now and again, but rather that love is the immutable essence of God, integral to his eternal character? Does it matter that God’s unfailing disposition toward you is love — again, not love as a fluctuating emotion but as a resolute commitment to will and to act for your good? If that matters — And who would dare say it doesn’t? — then the doctrine of the Trinity matters.
If God were one from all eternity, one not just in essence but also in personhood — God alone as both Jews and Muslims understand God — then how could God also be love? I suppose we could speak of God’s love for himself, but that begins to sound less like love in any meaningful sense of the word and more like narcissism, even when referred to God. No, love requires at least two: Lover and Beloved. And what if the relationship between Lover and Beloved is so intimate, so essential that it is not abstract, but concretely Personal — love not as idea, or emotion, or any such thing, but love as a Person? Lover, Beloved, and Love co-existing from all eternity, of one being realized in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is something like what St. Augustine had in mind in his description of the Trinity. And it is why marriage and parenthood are so highly revered in our faith as an icon of the Trinity, why we guard marriage and parenthood so jealously: husband and wife — lover and beloved — whose love is so intimate, so essential that it becomes concretely personal in the birth of a child. This is not the only human relationship that is iconic of the Trinity, of course; but it is the most fundamental, the one woven into creation from the moment God breathed life into Adam, created Eve from Adam’s rib, and commanded the pair to be fruitful and multiply. If marriage matters, if parenthood matters — And who would dare deny it? — then the Trinity matters. If God’s self-identification as love matters, then the Trinity matters.
We are partakers of the divine nature, St. Peter tells us (cf 2 Pe 1:3-4). Is that important? Does that matter? Is it important to you that God has elevated the dust and ashes of our fallen humanity, redeemed it, and drawn it into the very life of the Trinity — into the very heart of the relationship that obtains among Lover, Beloved, and Love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If that matters to you — And who would dare say it doesn’t? — then the incarnation matters to you, and the incarnation is the grand work of the Trinity.
There are many disputed questions among theologians, not least this one: If man had not fallen, not sinned, would the incarnation have happened? Don’t be too hasty to decide. One camp — admittedly the majority position — views the incarnation as the remedy for human sin, totally unnecessary if man had not sinned: no fall, no incarnation. But, the other camp — championed by the 13th-14th century Franciscan philosopher/theologian John Duns Scotus — thinks otherwise. For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Duns Scotus. He argued that the Father always intended to draw human beings into the life of the Trinity through the incarnation, through the Son assuming human nature to himself. In this view, the incarnation is not the remedy for anything, but rather is an expression of the eternal purpose of the Father to have a holy people for himself in and through Jesus Christ. Now listen to St. Paul in Ephesians:
Ephesians 1:3–6 (ESV): 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
From before the foundations of the world — before man had fallen — God chose us, predestined us to become his adopted sons, to share in the life of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. You see, maybe Duns Scotus was right. Maybe the incarnation was God’s plan all along, not as a remedy for sin, but as the means of making sons and daughters, of drawing us into the life of the Trinity. St. Athanasius said it this way — and now you’ll understand just what he meant: God became man so that man might become God. God became man to draw men into the life of the Trinity. If Duns Scotus is right, the crucifixion was the necessary remedy for sin, but the incarnation was the means of making sons and daughters.
Is that important to you, to be sons and daughters of God, to be partakers of the divine nature, to be drawn upward into the life of the Trinity? Yes? Then the incarnation is important, and the incarnation is the grand work of the Trinity.
Luke 1:26–35 (ESV): 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.
And there is the Trinity in the incarnation. God the Most High — God the Father — will overshadow Mary, God the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and she will give birth to God the Son. And in the Son our humanity will be lifted upward into the very life of the Trinity. Does that matter to you? Then the Trinity matters.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul wrote: So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Gal 4:7). Is that important? Does that matter? We have a terrible legacy of slavery in our country, a deep wound that divides us to this day. It is not difficult to read ourselves in God’s word to Judah through Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 30:12–13 (ESV): 12 “For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
and your wound is grievous.
13 There is none to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
But, what if the wound of slavery could be healed? What if that story could be untold? What if slaves could become sons and daughters? What if the descendants of former slaves and the descendants of former slave owners could become brothers and sisters? Would that be important? Would that matter? If so, then the Trinity matters.
Human slavery and its terrible aftermath are simply the outward manifestations of spiritual slavery to the powers of darkness. The wounds of slavery will never be healed until we — former slaves and former slave owners, those who have suffered under slavery and those who have benefitted from it — are set free together from the enslaving power of sin and death. And now, hear the Great Emancipation Proclamation:
Galatians 4:4–7 (ESV): 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
If this matters, then the Trinity matters. God the Father has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts to free us from the law, through which came sin and death, so that the ancient tale of slavery which began in the Garden might be untold by the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ; so that there might be a new story, a story not of slaves but of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who through the Spirit cry out as one, “Abba! Father!” Paul here speaks of the reconciliation of man to God, but he speaks also of the reconciliation of ancient enemies — Jews and Gentiles — to one another. Does that matter? You know it does, because reconciliation matters here and now as it mattered there and then. And that means the Trinity matters. It is only by the Spirit that we are drawn into the life of the Son and can call his Father our Father.
Is the doctrine of the Trinity true? Of course it is.
Is the doctrine of the Trinity orthodox and catholic? Of course it is.
Is the doctrine of the Trinity doxological, filled with the right glory of worship? Of course it is.
But does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? Does it make a difference? Is it important?
If the love of God is important, then the Trinity matters.
If being caught up into the divine life is important, if partaking of the divine nature is important, then the Trinity matters.
If being set free from slavery and death is important, if being reconciled to God is important, if healing of ancient enmity is important, then the Trinity matters.
If being able to cry out, “Abba! Father!” is important, then the Trinity matters.
The Trinity is not some arcane, abstract dogma that interests only dry and dusty theologians and aging priests. It is our very life, the great and exciting mystery in which we live and move and have our being. And so we say now and unto the ages of ages — and join with me, please:
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
Following is a rumination on sin. To be clear, I am against it.
The catechism of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), To Be a Christian (TBaC), defines a sin as “a thought, word, or deed which offends God’s holy character and violates his Law, missing the mark of his will and expectation” (TBaC 194, p. 75). The Book of Common Prayer 2019 (BCP) concurs and expands the definition a bit in the prayer of confession from the Renewed Ancient Text of Holy Eucharist:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone (BCP, p. 130).
This prayer allows for both sins of commission (what we have done) and sins of omission (what we have left undone). If we think, say, or do what we know we should not do, we sin. Likewise, if we fail to think, say, or do what we know we should do, we sin.
Only moral agents — rational beings with a knowledge of God’s will and with the capacity for choice — can sin. It would take time and effort to develop that position fully and to defend it adequately, but I’ll proceed as if it is axiomatic. Angels can sin, as we believe Satan and his minions did and do. Man can sin, as we know ourselves to do. But, rocks cannot sin; they cannot think, say, or do. Moving higher up the chain of being, dogs cannot sin though they exercise a certain degree of (conditioned) thought, communication, and action (at least instinctually). To the best of our knowledge, dogs lack moral understanding — a conscience, if you will. A dog may be bad, meaning it doesn’t do what we’d like or does what we don’t like, but, Stephen King notwithstanding, a dog may not be evil or sinful. To attribute sin to a rock or a dog is simply a category mistake; neither falls into the category of beings that can sin.
It’s this notion of category mistakes vis-a-vis sin that I want to develop a bit. In our cultural climate we hear much about structural, systemic, and institutional sin — sin instantiated in the power structures (attitudes, networks, institutions, laws) of a society. Is this a theologically sound and useful way of thinking about sin?
In thinking this through, let me grasp the nettle of racism. I will offer what I consider to be a biblically-based definition of the sin of racism — certainly incomplete, perhaps lacking nuance, but functional:
Racism is the differential love of one’s neighbor as oneself based upon that neighbor’s race.
Notice that this definition cuts both ways: failing to love one’s neighbor due to race or preferentially loving one’s neighbor due to race. The Mosaic Law was clear on this: justice could not favor the rich, but neither could it favor the poor. Note also that I am using the word “love” not as emotional preference — we all prefer people who are in some sense “like” us — but in the Thomistic sense: willing the good of the other as other. If I do not will and act for your good — as opportunity allows — because of racial difference, then I have committed the sin of racism. If I will and act for your good preferentially because we share the same race — to the detriment of someone of another race — then I have committed the sin of racism.
Are you guilty of the sin of racism? I leave that between you and God, just as that question hangs between me and God.
But, more to the point, or to the question: Are the power structures and institutions in our society guilty of the sin of racism? To ask that question is, I think, to make a category mistake. Let’s think by analogy. Suppose it were possible — and it may be for all I know — to train a dog to differentiate between white people and black people. (I know those designations are not the preferred ones, but I need a clear dichotomy to succinctly explain this point.) Suppose further that, because I have a strong antipathy for black people, I train the dog to attack any black person who steps on my property but to wag its tail at all white people. Is the dog guilty of racism? Well, we have taken as axiomatic that a dog is not in the category of beings that can sin; thus, it is not guilty of the sin of racism. But, as its trainer, I clearly am guilty. Recalling the horrific scenes of dogs used as weapons against peaceful black protesters in the 1960s, we know this to be true.
And that leads to this question: is a power structure or institution more akin to a dog or to its trainer? Laws do only what humans have written into them. Red lines drawn around neighborhoods are merely that, red lines; but, they are drawn by people with an agenda. College admission policies — official or unofficial — do not accept or reject applicants; admission officers do. We could go on, but these example should suffice. Power structures and institutions are more like dogs than trainers. They do not fall into the category of beings — they are not beings at all — that can sin. To say the United States or the educational system or Anglicanism is guilty of racism — or not guilty, for that matter — is simply to make a category mistake. But, those who write laws and pass them, those who administer policies? Yes, these people can be guilty of sin.
Why are these distinctions important? Until we think clearly about sin, self-examination is barely possible; nor is confession and absolution. Unless we think clearly about sin, we may either ignore real guilt or be paralyzed by false guilt. Neither a power structure nor an institution can recognize sin, repent, amend its behavior, or be absolved. But the people who created and live within them can and must do.
But, this is not the whole story; clearly, I can’t tell the whole story. But this much also must be said. Though a structure or institution is not in the category of beings that can sin, a structure or institution may take on the character of sin (a phrase I first heard from Fr. Stephen Gautier, Canon Theologian of the Anglican (ACNA) Diocese of the Upper Midwest); that is, it may make sin possible, promote it, and even reward it. Jim Crow, as a power structure, made racism possible and certainly promoted it — even wrote it into law. Red lining made racism possible. Again, the list goes on. Let’s suppose that X is a sinful action. A law or institution that makes X possible is not itself sinful — that is a category mistake — but, it exhibits the character of sin. And because of this, such structures and institutions are subject to the judgment of God. Following the division of the Kingdom, Israelites in the northern kingdom engaged widely in the sin of idolatry. Since the monarchy, as an institution, permitted and promoted idolatry, the institution of the monarchy, and indeed the kingdom itself, became subject to God’s judgment. Individuals sinned, but the institution took on the character of sin. Closer to our own day, Nazis sinned, but many — perhaps most — German institutions took on the character of sin.
And we must acknowledge that there is a spiritual darkness lurking behind and within such structures, as St. Paul writes in Ephesians:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:10-12, ESV).
The power structures and institutions that take on the character of sin certainly fall within the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this present darkness that St. Paul addresses; they instantiate on earth the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. We are called to stand against them.
But this, too, must be noted. Individuals are not sinful simply by virtue of being enmeshed in a structure or institution that has assumed the character of sin. I live in a country that has made abortion on demand legal and accessible. I am not thereby guilty of sin. But, this is equally important; an individual is not absolved of personal guilt by blaming a structure or institution for his sin. A Nazi guard who was following orders when he herded Jewish citizens onto boxcars bound for Auschwitz was no less guilty of sin simply because he was following orders. An insistence on institutional sin can wrongly make everyone, or every member of a particular group, guilty. It can also wrongly make no one guilty.
This is a complex topic and I have merely scratched about a bit on its surface. Mainly, I hope this will spark your own theological reflections on sin and aid you in sound self-examination. And, of your mercy, pray for me, a sinner.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
WHEN A NOMINEE to the United States Supreme Court comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings he/she knows that there will be certain “litmus test” questions asked, questions about landmark Supreme Court decisions:
Where do you stand on Obergefell v. Hodges, the ruling that the 14th Amendment guarantees same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry?
What about the Roe v. Wade decision that declares constitutional protection for a woman’s right to have an abortion: do you support the majority opinion?
The Brown v. Board of Education ruling determined that in public education “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and thus violate the 14th amendment. Racial segregation was disallowed and the states were ordered to desegregate public schools “with all deliberate speed.” Do you consider this super-precedent, law settled beyond any future challenge, or would you be willing to revisit it?
Is the 2nd Amendment right to keep and to bear arms absolute, or may states impose reasonable restrictions? And what would constitute reasonable?
These questions will certainly be asked and, just as certainly, the carefully vetted and coached nominee will deftly refuse to answer.
Are such questions reasonable? Is it impertinent or proper for a committee member to probe the nominee for his/her judicial doctrine before voting to confirm or reject the nominee? What do you think?
Well, closer to home, suppose someone tells Fr. Jack that he feels a calling to the priesthood and would like to be ordained. Would it be impertinent or proper for Fr. Jack to ask this person probing questions — questions about his background, preparation, nature of the call, understanding of the priesthood, etc. — before moving him forward in the ordination process? Would it be impertinent or proper for a parish discernment committee and the Canon to the Ordinary to examine this person thoroughly to ascertain his psychological, theological, and pastoral suitability for the priesthood? What do you think?
In both these cases — Supreme Court nomination and priestly aspirancy — a certain caution and thorough examination are warranted.
Now, let’s cast ourselves back to the first century. A new rabbi has emerged, one who is teaching authoritatively in his own name, one who is putting a new spin on Moses, one who heals people and exorcises demons, one who sits rather loosely in his observance of the Law — one who seems to disregard the Sabbath routinely, for example. Suppose, further, that you have some official or accepted quasi-official position in the religious hierarchy. Would it be impertinent or proper for you to examine this rabbi, to ask some probing questions to test his orthodoxy? Very proper, it seems to me, and that was, in fact, the custom. One rabbi, or his disciples, would come to another rabbi and ask very challenging questions. A typical one was this: What is the greatest commandment? This probes a rabbi’s understanding of the Law, the heart of the Law that encompasses all the “minor” details. A related question might be, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This is exactly the question a lawyer — not a civil lawyer but a Mosaic scholar (not that there was much difference) — poses to Jesus, specifically in order to test Jesus. Now, the point that I’ve been making all along is that there is nothing impertinent or improper about such a test. It is what the lawyer should have done. It is what we should do when we are presented with a novel understanding/presentation of the Gospel or with a radical approach to social justice or with a different definition of spiritual anthropology or human flourishing. St. John commands a certain holy skepticism and examination:
1 John 4:1 (ESV): Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Jesus gives a very conventional answer to the lawyer’s question, couched in the form of another question, but conventional nonetheless. He points the lawyer back to the Law. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” When the lawyer quotes the two great commandments — love God completely and love your neighbor as yourself — Jesus agrees: “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
So far, so good: but, now comes the twist in the story, a twist that bring us right back to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Have you ever noticed — if you bother to watch such hearings — that the senators ask questions mainly to justify their own positions or to show their political or moral superiority over the nominee, the other party, Mr. Rogers and Mother Teresa? Their questions are almost always directed toward self-justification and not honest inquiry. And that is just what we see with the lawyer standing before Jesus. “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” It is a small but dangerous step from proper questioning to impertinent self-justification, and the slope is steep and slippery from there on. That path does not lead to eternal life.
Now, I interrupt the story here. You know it well and you’ve heard many lessons and sermons on the parable Jesus tells in reply — the Good Samaritan. I probably have nothing to add to what you already know. What I want to do instead is to compare and contrast this lawyer’s encounter with Jesus to a very similar incident, one we call the Rich Young Man or the Rich Young Ruler. Here is the text from St. Mark:
Mark 10:17–22 (ESV): 17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
St. Mark simply notes that a man ran up to Jesus. St. Luke adds a detail; the man was a ruler, likely the ruler of a synagogue. You might think of him as the senior warden of a parish, someone with an official position of spiritual and administrative authority in the synagogue, a person of some importance. He asks Jesus the same question that the lawyer had posed, but with a very different spirit. The lawyer stood before Jesus, treating Jesus as equal. The ruler knelt before Jesus, treating Jesus as superior. The layer called Jesus “teacher.” The ruler called Jesus “good teacher.” The lawyer came testing. The ruler came seeking. The lawyer came with a quiz: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The ruler came with cri de coeur, a cry of the heart: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Same question, very different spirit.
As with the lawyer, Jesus refers the ruler to the Law:
“You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”
It is interesting — and I think it is significant — that Jesus lists those commandments that relate specifically to interpersonal relationships. He doesn’t summarize the commandments — love God supremely and love your neighbor — as did the lawyer. There is nothing abstract here; there is a specific, detailed checklist for self-examination. The ruler responds — apparently with integrity, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” The next statement is one of the most touching in Scripture: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
So far, so good: but now comes the twist in this story. The ruler has been scrupulous about keeping the law — the externals of the law. Now he is ready for the heart of the law. He is ready to love the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul and with all mind, and to love his neighbor as himself. What must he do to inherit eternal life?
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Now, I interrupt the story here. You know it well — how the ruler goes away sorrowful because he had great possessions or because his great possessions had him — and you’ve heard lessons and sermons about the dangers of wealth. I probably have nothing to add to what you already know.
But these two men intrigue and challenge me. Neither — apparently — was able to follow Jesus: the lawyer because he was unwilling to recognize and love his neighbor, and the ruler because he was unwilling to love God completely by disposing of his idol — his great possessions. Each ran afoul of one of the two great commandments. There are two great sins in these stories, sins presented in all their sorrow and destructiveness: justification, which is self-righteousness, and greed, which is idolatry. And here is the caution, the warning in these stories. It is possible, like the lawyer, to be an “expert” in all matters religious and yet to miss the very heart of the law. It is possible, like the ruler, to keep the details of the law perfectly and yet to miss the very heart of the law. Eternal life is not merely a matter of knowing the right things. Eternal life is not merely a matter of doing the right things. Eternal life is first and foremost a matter of faithfulness to Jesus. Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. This is not some fuzzy, abstract, me-and-Jesus feel good relationship. This is the very demanding path of discipleship, discipleship that costs everything. It is taking up the cross daily and following Jesus. What that looks like in your life is between you and Jesus: not an answer for me to give you, but a question for you to ask Jesus, to ask on your knees: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
My suggestion is that we hold a comprehensive view of this notion of eternal life: not just as heaven when we die, but rather as the life of the ages — life in the kingdom of God — begun and lived here and now and then even more fully in the resurrection. Good teacher — Lord Jesus Christ — what must I do here and now to begin living the eternal life that you have promised to all who love you and keep your commandments? That’s a question worth asking. Amen.
(Romans 5:1-11 / Psalm 139:1-9 / Matthew 11:25-30)
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.
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.