No Other Gospel: A Reflection on Galatians 1

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

2. Divisions

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.

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Hope In Dark Days

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.

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Feast of the Holy Trinity

Rublev: The Old Testament Trinity

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

O God the Father, have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, have mercy upon us.

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,

world without end.  Amen.

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Sin

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.

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What Must I Do?

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

19 May 2021

(Deuteronomy 20 / Ps 45 / Luke 10:25-42)

Collect

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.

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Saint Anselm of Canterbury (21 April)

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

Anselm of Canterbury 

Archbishop of Canterbury and Theologian, 1109

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

Collect

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

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

Three questions puzzle me; four really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, 

nor the heart of man imagined, 

  what God has prepared for those who love him”— 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord be with you.

Let us pray.

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

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Divorcing Church

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

Matthew 19:3–6 (ESV): 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scars and Spirit

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

The Second Sunday of Easter:  Scars and Spirit

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

Collect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and carried our sorrows; 

  yet we esteemed him stricken, 

smitten by God, and afflicted. 

 5  But he was pierced for our transgressions; 

he was crushed for our iniquities; 

  upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, 

and with his wounds we are healed. 

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

John 20:21–23 (ESV): 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” 

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

Genesis 2:7 (ESV): 7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray.

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

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Taking Worship Seriously: Toward an Anglican Social Ethic

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

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

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

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

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With confession and absolution;

With discernment of the body of Christ.

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

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Theodicy: Other and Radically Dependent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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