The Confession of St. Peter

Collect: Confession of Saint Peter

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

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

I AM GOING TO MENTION a few words, with a pause after each. During that brief pause, I would like you to consider your response to each of the words: emotional, intellectual, spiritual response. I’ve chosen these words with no particular social agenda, but simply as a point of entry to the Scripture appointed for the day. Here are the words.

• Politician

• Immigrant

• Redneck

• Lawyer

• Antivaccer

• Feminist

• Fashion Model

All of these words represent aspects of human identity, ways that we characterize ourselves or others. They can be helpful, or they can be polarizing. They can be neutral, or they can elicit strong responses. When I learn that someone is a Democrat, for example, I might instinctively respond, “Oh, he’s one of us,” or “Oh, he’s one of them,” or “Oh, a pox on both their houses.” When I learn that someone is a CNN viewer or a FOX viewer, I might think, “Oh, here is someone who seeks out the truth,” or “Oh, here is someone who is blinded by fake news,” or “Oh, here is someone with too much time on his hands.” I have been cut off by drivers in traffic and had my anger flare up only then to see a church bumper sticker on the offending car. I suddenly became more charitable, because, in spite of the offender’s poor driving, we share the box “Christian.”

My point is that we tend to put people in boxes and to define their identities by those boxes. Boxes are convenient; they keep us from having to do the hard and time-consuming work of actually getting to know a person. Boxes allow us to immediately embrace some and to immediately reject others — no matter that we may be misguided and wrong on both counts. We even get a bit nervous — we find it socially awkward and disconcerting — when we can’t place people in specific boxes, when they don’t quite fit our understanding of the boxes, when they don’t behave as the box demands.

This putting of people into boxes is nothing new; we see it in Scripture, right at the beginning of the Gospel of John, with John the Baptist:

John 1:19–28 (ESV): 19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

John is something new, something unexpected, something the authorities have not encountered before. And what do they try to do? They try to find out which box he belongs in. The priests and the Levites that come to examine John have a limited number of boxes, it seems: Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet spoken of by Moses. When John refuses to identify with any of those boxes, the authorities finally ask him to identify himself, to climb into a box of his own making, as it were. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” John says, which surely baffles priests and Levites alike; that’s not one of their boxes, and they don’t know what to make of it, don’t know what to make of him. They never did figure it out. This is God breaking into history in a new way, in a way that defies all our man made boxes, all our definitions of identity. This is God working as Isaiah foretold:

Isaiah 43:18–19 (ESV): 18  “Remember not the former things,

nor consider the things of old.

19  Behold, I am doing a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert.

John will not fit in the old boxes; he would rip them apart as surely as new wine would destroy old wine skins.

Today, our Gospel reading takes us forward some three years in the story from John the Baptist. Jesus has taken his disciples very far north, beyond Galilee, into the pagan district of Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Hermon. In the Old Testament, this site was associated with Baal Worship; Baal Hermon, the mountain was sometimes called. In the first century it was associated with the worship of Pan, the Greek god of the underworld. You likely know that there was a cave opening at the base of the mountain called the Gates of Hell (Hades). That was the geographical context for Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church.

While here in Caesarea, Jesus asks his disciples a question of identity: Into which boxes do people put me?

Matthew 16:13 (ESV): 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

We’re right back to the John the Baptist question again, and it seems that, like the priests and the Levites, the people have very limited boxes to work with. Who is Jesus? Perhaps he is John the Baptist risen from the dead. Or, he might be Elijah, just as they had proposed earlier about John. If not Elijah, then perhaps Jeremiah or another of the prophets.

But, all these are old boxes, old wine skins, and Jesus rejects them. It’s there in his language. He listens to what the people are saying and then responds, “But who do you say that I am?” That little conjunction, but, is important. It says that all the other boxes are wrong. It says that something new is required, that God is doing a new thing. And Jesus wants to know if the disciples understand that yet, wants to know if they have been given a better box for him yet.

And that is precisely what Peter’s confession is: a better box, the right box, the God-given box into which Jesus best fits, though no box can fully contain the One who created all things.

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

This is right in some sense that none of the other answers is: Messiah, Son of God. We needn’t think for a moment that Peter is expressing some fully developed Nicene or Chalcedonian understanding of the nature of Christ, or even a notion as clear as that expressed later by John in his Gospel Prologue. All of that has yet to be worked out, thought through, inspired by the Holy Spirit. But Peter does take a step forward here, a step in the right direction. More correctly, God moves Peter a step forward. Jesus is clear that Peter has not constructed this new box all on his own, but rather that God has revealed it to him:

Matthew 16:17 (ESV): 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

Getting Jesus in the right box, is never a matter of human ingenuity; instead, it is always a matter of grace, of God’s revelation to us of Jesus’ identity. Left to our own devices, we always try to put Jesus in the wrong box, in a box that is far too small. You’ve seen it happen; you’ve heard people say, “Well, I believe that Jesus was a good man,” or “I believe Jesus was a great moral teacher,” just not the Christ, the Son of the living God. But those boxes are wrong; they are too small. C. S. Lewis wrote about them in Mere Christianity, in a familiar passage:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis is right; that box — great moral teacher — simply won’t do. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

I am not very concerned about us trying to fit Jesus into those far too constricting boxes like “good man” or “great moral teacher,” as if he were a better Gandhi or more compassionate Buddha. No, those aren’t our temptations. But I do wonder if there are other boxes into which Christians sometimes force Jesus, boxes that are again far too small.

There is the social justice or social reformer box: Jesus as the champion of the downtrodden, the poor, the outcast, the disenfranchised — a grander, more universal Martin Luther King, Jr. or Caesar Chavez with perhaps a little Karl Marx thrown in for good measure; at least they all share a common box. Certainly, Jesus does care for the poor. Certainly Jesus does want a righteous society — the Kingdom of God. But Jesus is not primarily a social reformer except in this expansive sense: Jesus came to make all things new — to redeem humankind, to restore and renew creation, and to unite all things in heaven and on earth to himself. What we call social justice or social reform is far too small a box for Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

There is the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, “can’t we all just get along,” box: Jesus as an easy going, mellow guy who loves to put COEXIST bumper stickers on cars, the one who makes no demands on anyone, and accepts us just as we are. Certainly, Jesus does accept us just as we are in this particular sense:

Romans 5:6–10 (ESV): 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Jesus made no prior demands on us before he loved us and died for us, for all of us sinners and enemies. But this is the same Jesus who says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This is the same Jesus who called and calls for the world to repent and who warned and warns of the judgment to come. Gentle Jesus meek and mild, coexisting Jesus, is far too small a box for Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

We could go listing boxes. There is the patriotic box: Jesus as the champion of liberal or conservative democracy who has a covenant with America to make our country the shining city on the hill. There is the masculine box: Jesus as John Wayne, the tough, silent Jesus who is tolerant for so long and then, when pushed too far, cleans up the town with guns blazing. There is the feminine box: Jesus as the champion of gender equality and women’s rights. There is the box defined by the verses you’ve highlighted and underlined in your Bibles: you know, the verses you like to the neglect of the ones that make you uncomfortable.

There are boxes galore — most containing some element of truth but all of them too small. The box we are looking for — the box we need — is the same box that God revealed to Peter: the box labeled “Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We won’t find it ourselves or make it ourselves. Just as with Peter, it must be revealed to us by God. So, we look to the revelation we have been given. We turn to Scripture. We turn to the Church. We turn to the faith once delivered to the saints, to the faith preserved in liturgy and Sacrament, to the faith made flesh and blood in the lives of the confessors and the martyrs and the faithful for two millennia. We turn to the work of the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

I’ve used the image of a box in which to place Jesus, by which I mean a label or category used to identify him. Of course, it is only an image, one that’s useful, I think, for illustration. But, the Christ, the Son of the living God cannot be circumscribed, cannot be contained by our feeble, human understanding, cannot be placed in any box, any temple, any created thing. And yet, paradoxically, he condescends to dwell in us, to make us the temple of his presence through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Wondrously, that is the box he’s chosen for himself. Amen.

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The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Design for fresco in the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo, Mount Gargano, Italy, by Ioan (John) Popa (Romanian, 1976–) and Camelia Ionesco-Popa (Romanian, 1979–), 2003. http://www.sfnectariecoslada.ro/2016/01/09/duminica-dupa-botezul-domnului-matei-4-12-17/

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

JUST TWO WEEKS AGO we celebrated Christmas, the birth of our Lord Jesus in Bethlehem: stable and manger, shepherds and angels, carols and candles. Yes, just two weeks have passed on our calendar, but in the Story, thirty years have flown by; today, the fully mature Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John. Why have we skipped over those three decades of Jesus’ life? Is there nothing to be said about them, nothing to be learned from them?

We’re relatively silent about those thirty years because Scripture is relatively silent about them. There are just two events mentioned: the flight to Egypt when Jesus was two years old or under and the Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. That latter event offers us some helpful insight into Jesus’ life in those hidden years. I know that you know the story, but let’s hear it again.

Luke 2:41–52 (ESV): 41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

What do we learn about Jesus —and his family — from this account? First, Jesus was raised as a good, faithful, observant Jew. Eight days after his birth Jesus was named and circumcised in accordance with the Law. On the fortieth day of his life he was presented in the Temple for the rite of redemption of the firstborn and his mother Mary was purified according to the Law. Now, in this text we see that the family has a custom of traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover each year as required by the Law. Mary and Joseph are raising a faithful son of Abraham in accordance with the Law of Moses.

But, Jesus is more than this, more than meets the eye. At the age of twelve he can hold his own in religious debate with the Temple scholars. Whether his expertise in the subtleties of the Law comes from homeschooling or synagogue instruction or something more, we don’t know; but, he amazes the scholars — no small feat. Jesus also has some understanding — we don’t know how full yet — of his true identity; he knows that his Father’s house is not the family home in Nazareth but the Temple in Jerusalem.

It is the last statement in this account that interests me most: And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man (Lk 2:52). Jesus learned and grew, and he was well thought of by his community and by God.

So, what we have in that brief statement, is a description of a seemingly ordinary life. Jesus grew up and he learned things. He learned how to navigate the joys and the challenges of a family. He learned how to take his place in the life of the community, some forty to fifty households on roughly four acres of land. He learned how to be faithful to the traditions of his people. He learned how to make a living as a τεκτον, a craftsman, like his father Joseph: building walls and rooms, hanging doors and making furniture, doing odd jobs and handyman specials — anything to put food on the table. On the surface, his was a very ordinary life. Of course, underneath all that were well-springs and deep currents of the Spirit, largely hidden from sight, waiting for the right time to burst forth.

That time came with the appearance of a prophet from the wilderness, John the son of Zechariah, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Lk 3:4b). News of this prophet had spread like wildfire. It had been four hundred years since a true prophet — one like Elijah — had risen in Israel; further, this was the time when one of Israel’s great prophets of the exile had foretold the coming of the Messiah. Expectations — hope — stirred as the news spread as far as Nazareth in Galilee. It seems Jesus heard about John, about his ministry of baptism in the Jordan. We can imagine the scene in Nazareth. Jesus shakes the sawdust out of his hair and brushes off his beard. He cleans his tools, puts them away, and folds up his work apron. He tells his mother that it is now his time to leave, and he turns over care of the family to his brothers. Then he starts walking toward the Jordan and John and his own mission, surely praying the whole way.

When he gets to the Jordan, he probably waits in line with the others in the crowd — ordinary folk, tax collectors, even soldiers — to step down into the water to be baptized by John. And that is strange, Jesus coming to be baptized; it has exercised the minds and faith of the greatest Church theologians for two millennia. Scripture says that John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). But, Jesus comes to him without sin; Jesus comes as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. So, why would, why should, Jesus submit to John’s baptism? If the Eucharistic Prayer is right — and it is — whatever Jesus did he did “for us and for our salvation;” his baptism is no exception. Though it is far more than this, at the very least, Jesus’ baptism serves as the perfect icon, the perfect model, for our own baptism. Jesus’ baptism points to three great movements in every baptism: repentance, vocation, and identity.

First, repentance. When we think of repentance, we likely mean a godly sorrow for sin and a firm commitment to amendment of life. It is that for us, but it is more than that. The true meaning of repentance is to change one’s mind, to move in a new direction. Jesus had no need to repent of sins, to be sorry for wrongdoing, or to amend his life for the better. He did not experience or express repentance in those terms. But, his baptism was the moment when his life moved in a new direction, when he turned his mind toward a new way of being in the world. Up until this moment he had lived in obscurity as a member of a family in a small town working to make a living and support that family like everyone else in that small town. But, no more. Now he will emerge on the national stage as a prophet and more than a prophet, as a rabbi and more than a rabbi, as a rival to the priesthood and the Temple, as a challenge to the illegitimate king of Israel, and as a minor irritant to Rome itself. Jesus’ baptism was very much an act of repentance in this expanded understanding: a change in the direction of one’s life. And that is a model for us, for reflecting on our own baptism. If your life is fundamentally the same after your baptism as it was before — if your relationships with family and community and work, with wealth and power and honor, with politics and justice and mercy are unchallenged and unchanged by your baptism — then it may well be good to reflect on whether your baptism was actually an act of repentance, whether it was a changing of mind and direction.

Second, vocation. I wonder if Jesus was a good carpenter, a skillful stonemason, a master craftsman of fine furniture. I wonder if he was sought out by his neighbors in Nazareth and even called to be part of the great building projects in nearby Sepphoris. For fifteen years or more, that had been his vocation: craftsman, builder, maker, handyman, jack-of-all-trades. Whether he was exceptionally skillful or not, I’m certain he gave a good day’s work for a good day’s pay, and treated his customers as he would be treated. But he left that life behind with his baptism; he changed vocations. His vocation became a mission, not just to care for his family, not just to do good work in his community, but to save the world. Jesus’ baptism marked a change in vocation. Our baptism does, too. For those who are baptized as infants, baptism defines their most fundamental vocation of all, regardless of how they later choose to make a living and do good in the world. For those who are baptized as adults, baptism does not necessarily call them to leave their professions behind, though it may do. Rather, it more typically challenges them to reimagine their profession, their work, as ministry, as a way of proclaiming Christ, as a way of making the Kingdom of God manifest. It poses questions: What does it look like to be a Christian lawyer or doctor or policeman or teacher or businesswoman or secretary or mother or any other mode of living in and contributing to the world? Near the end of the Rite of Christian Baptism, the Church welcomes the newly baptized with these words of new vocation:

We receive you into the fellowship of the Church. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in the royal priesthood of all his people (BCP 2019, p. 190).

However it is we make a living, this is how we are to make a life. This is our new, baptismal vocation.

Third, identity. Here there is a fundamental difference between Jesus’ baptism and our own. In his baptism, Jesus’ identity did not change; it was simply revealed:

Luke 3:21–22 (ESV): 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

“You are my beloved Son.” From all eternity the Son of God had been the beloved of God the Father. There was never a time the Son of God did not exist, never an instant when the Son of God was not the beloved. Now, at his baptism, that Son of God is revealed to be incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man. Jesus’ identity was not given, was not made new, in his baptism, but it was revealed at his baptism. And that is the difference: at our baptism, we are given a new identity, because we are born anew, born from above, born of the Spirit. In our baptism, by grace we are made to be the children of God, partakers in the Divine nature. If we only had the spiritual ears to hear and eyes to see, I am convinced that at our baptism the heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon us and remained with us, and a voice spoke from heaven saying, “You are my beloved child — my son, my daughter; with you I am well pleased.”

So, why was Jesus baptized? The short answer is simply this: Jesus was baptized for us and for our salvation: to lead us to repentance, to a change in mind and direction of life; to give us a godly vocation, to enable us to make not just a living, but a life; and to bestow upon us a new identity as sons and daughters of God.

Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, in times of difficulty, stress, or temptation would say aloud, “I am baptized.” Reportedly, he carved those words into the desk where he worked. He repeated counseled his people, “Remember your baptism.” The grace that is ours through baptism — the repentance, the vocation, the identity — is an unshakeable foundation of Christian life. May we always remember our baptism. And, if you have not yet been baptized, please seek out a priest or other minister; do not delay in laying hold of this great grace. Amen.

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It’s All In The Details: Christmas Eve 2021

Alleluia, to us a child is born:

O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.

A FEW YEARS AGO, I decided to re-read The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, a classic trilogy that I had read several times in my teenage years. I was surprised that on this reading — well, on this attempted reading — I didn’t care for it. I quickly bogged down in the details — Do we really need a hundred or so pages to describe a birthday party? — and I simply wanted Tolkien to get on with the story. It is a grand story, a grand set of intersecting and interlocking and conflicting stories, that he has to tell. Why bury them under a mound of minutiae? Of course, to Tolkien the details were not incidental to the story; they were integral to it. For Tolkien, the story is found in, comprised of, and flows out of all those details.

We come, this holy night, to another story, to the Gospel according to St. Luke, to the narrative of our Lord’s incarnation. It is not trite to say that this truly is one of the greatest chapters in the greatest story ever told. For Tolkien’s readers, the fictional fate of Middle Earth hung in the balance as Frodo faced the fire of Mount Doom. For all of humanity, the very real fate of the Earth — of the cosmos — hung in the balance as Mary and Joseph faced the birth of a child alone in a cave or stable far from home, far from the loving care of family and friends. How does Luke start this grand tale?

Luke 2:1–3 (ESV): 2 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.

The one by whom, through whom, and for whom all creation came into being; the one in whom all creation holds together; the logos, the very Word of God, the only Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father — this one is about to be born in human flesh of a human mother to dwell among us human and to unite us to his divinity. And Luke starts with Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, doing what politicians do — taxing the people? Forget these trivial details, Luke; get on with the story!

But, long before Tolkien, Luke had an eye for details; you see that all throughout his Gospel. For Luke, too, the details aren’t incidental, but are integral to the story. The story emerges from these details.

So, what of Caesar Augustus, whose name would endure beyond this story anyway, and what of Quirinius, some forgettable governor of Syrian whom the world would never have known apart from this story? What do these names, these details of their reign and administration and taxation add to the Gospel?

First, they mark Luke’s Gospel as history and not myth. Luke does not start “once upon a time,” or “long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” or in Middle Earth, but rather in the concrete, factual details of this time and this place and this ruler and this petty bureaucrat and these odious taxes, and this forced travel with this very pregnant wife. This is the real stuff of real first century life — though they didn’t yet mark this time as the first century — the real burdens of real people in a real place in a real time. Luke is an historian, a biographer, a theologian; but, he is not an author of fiction or fantasy. So, these details matter, these factual details matter, because they declare Luke’s intent to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — what really happened that night. While truth can be told in parable, in myth, in poetry — and we see all these in Scripture — these are not Luke’s genres; his form is narrative history. What he says happened, really happened.

Second, these details tell us that the world was going about its own business when God broke into history, so busy with ordinary things that it noticed the great invasion not at all, so intent on the levy and collection of taxes in this little backwater village that it noticed the rending apart of time into before and after this birth not at all. Augustus might have noticed the foundations of the empire shift under him, but he was otherwise occupied. Quirinius — well, he was just too busy following orders to notice anything but the bottom line on the tax ledger.

As in the first century, so in the twenty-first century, I suppose. We are so busy with the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta-verse or the conflicting media-verses of cable new channels or the universes we make of our private lives that we have too little time left to notice the in-breaking of Truth — the coming of the One who is the Truth. And, our politicians are busy with taxing and spending and writing bills that have little chance of becoming laws because other politicians are resolutely and busily opposed to anything at all getting done. So it goes from election to election regardless of which party is temporarily in power. What difference does the birth of a baby in Bethlehem make to our government, to any government, other than perhaps a day off from the hubris of some and the bureaucratic grind of others? No, the powers-that-be largely go about their business of pretending to be powerful: a few Caesars, thousands of Quiriniuses. And we pay our taxes and obey their laws, following the decrees of these days.

The story moves on and leaves these powers behind.

Luke 2:4–7 (ESV): 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Geographic details this time: Galilee; Nazareth; Judea; Bethlehem, the city of David. Why? Why does place matter? Long before this night, God had spoken through the prophet Nathan to David, the great king of Israel, when David had proposed building a house for the Lord in Jerusalem. God speaks:

2 Samuel 7:12–14a (ESV): 12 When your days [David] are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.

The prophecy continues to say that this house, this throne, this kingdom of David’s offspring, will be everlasting. So, the detail of birthplace matters, the detail of Bethlehem matters, because Bethlehem is the ancestral home of David, and being born there identifies this child as the offspring of David, as one of royal lineage, as perhaps the one to fulfill Nathan’s prophecy.

Galilee and Nazareth matter, too, because they speak of obscurity, humility, poverty, weakness. Can anything good come from Nazareth? was a common byword of the day: no need to answer; just smile and shake your head and chuckle. All throughout the Law, God had expressed — and God had impressed upon his people — his concern for and their responsibility toward the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. What better geographical locale to symbolize this very class of the weak and powerless than Nazareth in Galilee: far removed from the locus of power in Judea, far removed in prestige from cosmopolitan Jerusalem. When God becomes man he does so among the very ones he instructed his people to care for, to experience himself in the flesh what it is to be the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the butt of jokes. So, yes, geographic details matter.

As in the first century, so in the twenty-first century, I suppose. Geography matters; birthplace matters. Zip codes matter; they serve as pretty reliable indicators of health, wealth, access to quality education, and more. It is not easy being born in a modern day, United States, Nazareth in Galilee. But, Jesus is there, as he was in the first-century and as he promised to be in every successive generation, there in the distressing guise of the poor:

Matthew 25:35–40 (ESV): 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

The details of geography — and our response to it — matter. But, the story moves on again, this time to a field outside town.

Luke 2:8–14 (ESV): 8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14  “Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Gender reveal parties are a recent trend among expectant parents. You have probably seen some on social media or television— particularly those that go badly and hilariously wrong: fathers-to-be who shoot themselves in the face with a blue power cannon filled with blue confetti or mothers-to-be whose homemade cake, when cut, is some indistinct grey color inside instead of a vibrant pink, leaving everyone puzzled. What we have in Luke’s Gospel is the great, divine reveal — not of gender, though that is implied, but of identity: a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This detail matters! This is not just any baby. This is the offspring of David, the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. This is the one whose birth merits an angelic annunciation and a heavenly host praising God and proclaiming peace throughout the earth to those with whom God is pleased. And this detail also matters: that the angels appear to shepherds watching their flocks all night long while everyone else snuggles up into whatever comfort they can find. These shepherds are among the essential workers of their day: necessary, but accorded little respect, little consideration, little notice. A collect from the Office of Compline — night prayer — in our Book of Common Prayer comes to mind:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while other sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 64).

Why did the angels announce this great news first to shepherds? Well, they were up, working while others slept. The one born this night will have much to say later about watchfulness, about being found at work, about staying awake and being ready when the bridegroom or the master or the king returns. The shepherds were up watching — not for this, of course! — but, they were up watching, doing the work they had been given to do.

But, there is much more in this detail. There is an allusion to, a resonance with David. Psalm 78 tells the story of God and Israel and concludes with these words:

71 He chose David his servant,*

and took him away from the sheepfolds;

72 As he was following the ewes that were great with young, God took him,*

that he might feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.

73 So he fed them with a faithful and true heart,*

and guided them with skillful hands.

David was a shepherd-made-king by God. The one born this night, the one the angels herald, is the offspring of David who will be the Good Shepherd, who will feed Jacob his people and Israel his inheritance with a faithful and true heart, who will guide them with skillful hands: the Good Shepherd made King of kings and Lord of lords. Is it not fitting that his birth is first proclaimed to shepherds like David, to shepherds keeping watch over sheep in the fields outside Bethlehem, the city of David?

Can we see more in this detail? What need does Augustus have for a Savior when, in his own estimation, he is the great Savior of the World? What attention would Caesar pay to the ευαγγελιον, the Gospel, the proclamation of a royal birth coming from the fields of Bethlehem? What time does Quirinius have to spare, busy as he is with taxes, for a Jewish Lord? But the poor, the powerless, the ones of little reputation — the shepherds and those like them — they just might listen to such news; they just might hope for and in such a savior; they just might follow such a good, fellow shepherd. And so the angels come to them with the glad tidings.

As in the first-century, so in the twenty-first century, I suppose. The good news has always been most readily received by the poor, the powerless, the forgotten — by those who know they need a Savior. Yet, like the priests and the Sadducees of the first century, it seems that the church of the twenty-first century often seeks a seat at the table of the rich and powerful, seems to curry favor with the movers-and-shakers of society, and sometimes forgets to go out into the fields at night, to sit with the shepherds and the other essential workers, to watch sheep and listen for the angels.

The details of St. Luke’s Gospel really do matter, because they tell us of a world very like our own: a world busy with its own affairs — too busy, it seems, to attend to the birth of God-With-Us; a world in which the powers-that-be and the structures and policies they create have little room for the true King of kings; a world in which geography still disproportionately shapes the course of one’s life; a world in which we still depend upon each other’s toil but fail too often to properly honor and reward it; a world where, quite measurably, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; a world where too few hear the proclamation of the Gospel because they have stopped their ears and because the church, sometimes, speak with a mumbled voice.

So, we come again tonight to be reminded of and challenged by all this in the details of the story. We come to listen to shepherds tell their tale of angels. We come to follow them even unto Bethlehem to see this thing which has come to pass. We come to kneel in the presence of the Creator of all things, now in human form, now as a helpless baby born in the wrong zip code. We come to wonder. We come to rejoice. We come to worship. We come to treasure up all these details, to ponder them in our hearts. We come so that we may go out again, returning to our world — to a world changed by this birth — as did the shepherds, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen. Amen.

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Feast of St. Lucy

Celebration of the Feast of St. Lucy

Collect

Almighty God, who gave to Lucy the grace of complete devotion in body, mind, and spirit and the courage to proclaim her faith in the day of persecution: Grant to us, your servants, that same resolute holiness and unshakable commitment to the Bridegroom of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

CONSIDER the lively examples set us by the saints, who possessed the light of true perfection and religion, and you will see how little, how nearly nothing, we do. What, alas, is our life, compared with theirs? The saints and friends of Christ served the Lord in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in work and fatigue, in vigils and fasts, in prayers and holy meditations, in persecutions and many afflictions. How many and severe were the trials they suffered—the Apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all the rest who willed to follow in the footsteps of Christ! They hated their lives on earth that they might have life in eternity (A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 1, Chapter 18).

Wednesday is the first of the winter Ember Days. We’ve spoken before, at least in passing, of Ember Days: four sets of three days — always Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday — distributed seasonally among Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall. These days are designated for the church to fast and pray specifically for those called to Holy Orders. Those candidates for Holy Orders observe Ember Days by writing letters to their bishops, letters of reflection upon the candidates’ academic, personal, and spiritual formation and progress toward ordination. I remember writing them myself several years ago now.

So, before we go further, let’s offer the appointed Ember Days collect.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, in your divine providence you have appointed various orders in your Church: Give your grace, we humbly pray, to all who are [now] called to any office and ministry for your people [and especially to Bruce]; and so fill them with the truth of your doctrine and clothe them with holiness of life, that they may faithfully serve before you, to the glory of your great Name and for the benefit of your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ember Days are not fixed dates on the calendar; they are determined relative to other holy days. The Spring Ember Days start on the Wednesday following the first Sunday of Lent, for example. Summer Days follows the Day of Pentecost and the Fall Days start on the Wednesday after Holy Cross Day (14 September). What of the Winter Ember Days: when do they start — why today? The Winter Ember Days begin the Wednesday next after St. Lucy’s Day, a commemoration held on 13 December. St. Lucy’s Day was Monday of this week and this is the Wednesday next, hence the beginning of the Winter Ember Days.

All this is detailed in the calendar instructions in the ACNA Book of Common Prayer, p. 689 if you’re interested in that sort of thing. It is one of only two places — that I’ve been able to find — that St. Lucy is even mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer. There is no collect of St. Lucy, no lectionary readings or Eucharistic preface provided for her feast day. St. Lucy’s Day functions simply as a marker on the church calendar by which we determine the start of Ember Days. St. Lucy herself, for the most part, is a cipher, a blank, in the Anglican spiritual imagination. Certainly, one reason for this is that little is known about St. Lucy. But, I suspect another reason may be more fundamental. St. Lucy is primarily known for her holy virginity and her commitment to it, a commitment even unto death. The Roman Catholic Church has always had a cult of virgin martyrs, has always accorded these women a special place of honor. But not so much the Anglican Church; we have not preserved and emphasized that same place of honor, perhaps, in part because Henry VIII abolished monasteries and convents, perhaps in part due to what the Anglican divines considered an excessive emphasis on the saints. If you look at the collects for commemorations in the Book of Common Prayer, you find prayers for these groups: martyrs, missionaries or evangelists, pastors, teachers of the faith, monastics or religious, ecumenists, reformers of the Church, renewers of society — but no mention of holy virgins. The Book of Common Prayer has a rite for Holy Matrimony, but no corresponding rite for the dedication of oneself to a celibate life of service to the Lord. This is not a critique; it is simply an observation as we reflect on St. Lucy.

So, who was this woman? What little do we know about her?

Lucy was born in Syracusa, a city in Sicily, to affluent, Christian parents, who raised her in the faith from her birth. Her father died when she was young, and her mother Eutychia had a serious health issue also. As with the woman in the Gospel, Eutychia had suffered for four years with a flow of blood the doctors were unable to stanch. It was Lucy who insisted that she and her mother travel to Catana to pray for healing at the tomb of St. Agatha, a holy virgin martyr of Sicily. It was there — or at least as a result of the prayers offered there — that Eutychia was healed. And, perhaps it was that incident that confirmed in Lucy her own desire to offer herself fully to God as a holy virgin and to distribute her portion of the family wealth to the poor. She made this vow secretly; she did not reveal it to her mother.

Not knowing about her daughter’s vow, Eutychia sought to arrange a marriage for Lucy, as was the norm. An agreement was made with a young nobleman, but he soon began to suspect something was amiss. He noticed that Lucy had begun selling her jewelry and other possessions and was distributing the proceeds to the poor. That practice was highly unusual, except among one group of people: the Christians. Knowing now that he had been misled — inadvertently misled by the mother, but misled nonetheless — he denounced Lucy to the authorities as a Christian. All this was transpiring under the final but brutal persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. Without going into the details, Lucy refused to submit to her betrothed and to renounce her faith; she was tortured and died as a result of her wounds in A.D. 304.

Lucy was venerated as a holy virgin martyr and saint as early as the sixth century, within some three hundred years of her death. By the eighth century, her popular devotion had spread to England, where her feast day was observed until the Reformation. As I understand it, the Church of England now observes St. Lucy’s Day as a lesser feast of the Church, but not so the American Anglican Church.

So, what are we to make of this, of the life of one who was so committed to holy virginity that she was willing to die for it? It is difficult for our culture, which prizes virginity hardly at all, to understand such a committed life. And, even as the Church, we must be very careful to get our theology right on this matter; frankly, it is foreign to most of us, too. In many — perhaps most? — churches, the Singles’ Group, is just the Christian alternative to eharmony or match.com: not as much support for those called to celibacy, but a matchmaking service for those looking for a Christian mate. So, what can we say about this? What should we say?

Holy Matrimony and holy virginity — perpetual virginity consecrated to the Lord — are both honorable — and yes, holy — states of life, neither more blessed than the other. A holy virgin consecrates herself, or himself, to the Lord fully — in body, mind, and spirit — not because there is something inherently impure about human sexuality within marriage, but solely because she or he is called by God to this unique expression of full Gospel self-sacrifice. St. Paul exalted marriage as the earthly, incarnational icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church: pure and holy. But, he also recognized celibacy — holy virginity — as an honorable estate, and, on occasion, a more desirable estate than marriage.

1 Corinthians 7:32–35 (ESV): 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

For Paul, the choice between virginity and marriage is a spiritually practical one: a virgin may devote all her or his undivided time and attention to the Lord and to the Lord’s work, while the married person must attend to the demands of family life.

But, the decision between the two estates is more than just practical; it is also a matter of calling.

1 Corinthians 7:8–9 (ESV): 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Male and female were, in the beginning, made for one another, and human sexuality was and is part of that, part of what was pronounced good by God within the context of marriage. The Church has sometimes gotten that wrong, has sometimes looked upon sex as somehow inherently degraded. It is allowed within marriage as a sort of concession, so that a man and woman can satisfy their physical needs without sin. But, the Church has sometimes gotten the other estate wrong, too, and has looked upon holy virginity as something abnormal, something that a good Christian Singles’ Group can remedy. Contrary to these errors, Paul insists that both estates are holy, that to choose one over the other is a matter of gifting. If God has not given you the gift of sexual self-control, then God has not called you to perpetual holy virginity. Marry, be faithful, raise children as God blesses; that is honorable and holy. But, if self-restraint is God’s gift to you — self-restraint and the ability to live without the emotional and physical intimacy of marriage — and if you wish to make a sacrifice of your sexuality, of that human intimacy, then that, too, is honorable and holy. The Church must make room for both of these holy estates. And more than make room: the Church must honor and support both estates. Jesus blessed the marriage at Cana, even while he himself remained a holy virgin.

In the end, one is not made holy by either state of life, virginity or marriage. One is made holy by one’s faithfulness to God expressed in and through a particular state of life. We do not honor St. Lucy just because she was a virgin, but rather because through her virginity she expressed her complete self-offering to God, a devotion for which she was willing to suffer martyrdom. That is the Christian goal, the Christian purpose, in any state of life to which God has called us — all of us. Amen.

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Holiday or Holy Day?

The Eve of Thanksgiving

(Deut 8 / Ps 65:1-8 / James 1:17-27 / Matt 6:25-33)

Collect for Thanksgiving Day

Most merciful Father, we humbly thank you for all your gifts so freely bestowed upon us: for life and health and safety, for strength to work and leisure to rest, for all that is beautiful in creation and in human life; but above all we thank you for our spiritual mercies in Christ Jesus our Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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

I WANT TO WAX SEMANTIC — and perhaps pedantic — for a moment by making a distinction between a holy day and a holiday. A holy day is a sacred observance; its focus is Godward. It is time spent in worship: fasting or feasting, praying or serving, lamenting or rejoicing, confessing or praising. A holiday is a secular observance; its focus in manward. It is time spent mainly not working: football and parades, fireworks and barbecues, family and friends. A holiday is the best approximation a secular culture has of a holy day: a flattened out holy day, a holy day without anything or anyone holy in it. Now, I have nothing against holidays. Who doesn’t like a day off? And, some holidays at least commemorate culturally significant events and persons, mainly political ones: Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Presidents’ Day and the like. Sometimes a holy day and a holiday coincide, like at Christmas. The culture celebrates Christmas — a holiday of family and feasting and gift-giving and festivity — while the church celebrates the Feast of the Nativity — a holy day that calls us to bow in wonder before God incarnate as a baby in Bethlehem. Most Western Christians, I suspect, celebrate both the holiday and the holy day on 25 December with scarcely a thought of the differences between the two. The same may be true of Thanksgiving. Holy day, holiday, or both?

Though this may surprise you, Thanksgiving is not a holy day on the church calendar; it is a holiday on the national calendar. The Book of Common Prayer recognizes it as a national holiday and even honors its historical religious roots by providing propers for the day: a collect and lectionary readings. Though it had been observed earlier, Thanksgiving formally became a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War, in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln established a day “to commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.” Even here, there is more a sense of penitence than of thanksgiving, more fasting than feasting.

But, the day did start as a time of thanksgiving nearly two and a half centuries before: Plymouth Colony, 1621, with a few surviving colonists and several members of the Wampanoag tribe. Against all odds, and with the help of the Wampanoag, fifty-three colonists had survived the previous winter, had planted crops, and now had reaped a harvest sufficient to last through the coming winter months. Thanksgiving seemed a good and right thing to do, and so this group gathered sometime between September and November — the date is uncertain — for three days of feasting and celebration. It was a harvest festival.

And that brings me back to holy days and holidays. Historically, I understand why Thanksgiving is not a holy day in the English Prayer Book tradition. It does not commemorate a biblical event or honor a saint. Nor is it indigenous to England: to the colonies, yes, but to England proper, no. So, liturgically it is relegated to a national holiday, both for the United States and, separately, for Canada. Historically and liturgically, I understand; that may well be correct. But, I’m not so convinced that it is biblically correct or theologically sound. Maybe, just maybe, Thanksgiving should be a holy day, and not just a holiday. There is ample biblical precedent in Israel.

Deuteronomy finds the Hebrews poised to enter the promised land, listening to Moses’ farewell address and review of the Law. He calls the people to remember.

Deuteronomy 8:7–20 (ESV): 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.

11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 19 And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.

There is, in every culture, a tendency to secularize the culture’s history and accomplishments. You need look no further than our national monuments to see this trend at work in America: political memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln; military monuments to every war we have fought and to the soldiers who fought them; economic monuments to capitalism and commerce, two of which fell on 9/11. Every one of these monuments say, “Look at us. Look at what we have accomplished — often at great cost. Look at what we have achieved with our power and might and intellect and will.” And we have holidays that proclaim in time what the monuments proclaim in stone and steel: holidays, but not holy days. And that is precisely what God warned Israel against as they entered a good land with bountiful food, houses, pasture, produce. How easy it would be to forget that all these blessings are just that — blessings from God and not the accomplishments of the people. How easy it would be to build monuments — and idols.

17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day (Deut 8:17-18).

How is Israel to avoid this tendency to self-congratulation, this temptation to build monuments to human accomplishment? By keeping holy day: not holiday, but holy day. Moses tells them how — instructions from God himself — as he continues his farewell address.

Deuteronomy 26:1–11 (ESV): 26 “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. 3 And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ 4 Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God.

5 “And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. 7 Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. 9 And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. 11 And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.

At the time of harvest — even before he eats of the harvest — every man of Israel is to take a basketful of the firstfruits of his land to the tabernacle and later to the temple. He is to present it to the priest to offer it to the Lord. And in what is one of the most poignant rituals in all Scripture he is to proclaim his story, the story of how God took him from nothing and brought him into this good land which has produced this good crop. And after recounting — in ritualized form — the story of his people; the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the story of Egypt and slavery and deliverance; the story of conquest and now prosperity; the story of the faithfulness of God to the covenant; then he is to say, “And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.” He is to worship. He is to feast, sharing his bounty with his family and friends, with the Levites — the servants of God — and with the sojourners. He is to celebrate the harvest — a day of Thanksgiving — as a holy day.

Can’t you see all of that in our great Thanksgiving hymn, Come Ye Thankful People Come, written by Henry Alford, a good Anglican churchman?

Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come;
Raise the song of harvest home!

For Israel, the harvest was to be a holy day. For Christians, Thanksgiving should be a holy day and not just a holiday.

On 9 May this year, the Sunday before the Ascension, we observed a holy day of the church: Rogation Sunday. It is a day to process through the fields and to ask God’s blessing on the crops. We include these petitions either in the Great Litany or in the Prayers of the People:

That it may please thee to grant favorable weather, temperate rain, and fruitful seasons, that there may be food and drink for all thy creatures,

We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to bless the lands and waters, and all who work upon them to bring forth food and all things needful for thy people,

We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to look with favor upon all who care for the earth, the water, and the air, that the riches of thy creation may abound from age to age,

We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

If planting started with a holy day of prayer to God for his blessing, it seems good and right that the harvest should end with a holy day of thanksgiving to God for his blessings: prayers offered and prayers answered.

So, while our culture celebrates the holiday of Thanksgiving tomorrow — and, of course, we will join with them in that — let’s also keep holy day tomorrow, presenting our feast to God as firstfruits of praise and Thanksgiving, recounting the story of God’s blessing and all his wonderful deeds. Amen.

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Luke-Acts, Daniel and the Ascension

TODAY WE BEGIN reading the Acts of the Apostles in Morning Prayer. I hope these few reflections on today’s reading will provide a context for the readings to follow.

Luke 1:1–4 (ESV): 1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

So begins the Gospel according to St. Luke. John’s Gospel comes next in order in our New Testaments since it is the magisterial summary and interpretation of the synoptic Gospels gone before. Then we come to the Acts of the Apostles, which begins with these words:

Acts 1:1–5 (ESV): 1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Far be it from me to question the hallowed arrangement of the books of the Bible, but clearly, the Gospel of John notwithstanding, Luke and Acts belong together; they comprise a two-volume set by the same author, to the same patron, with the same theme: the Kingdom of God — inaugurated by Jesus and proclaimed and enacted by his followers empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The central act in this story is the passion and victory of Christ — the crucifixion and resurrection — in which Jesus defeated all the powers and rival kingdoms that opposed the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That is the central act in the story. But, in literary, historical, and theological senses, there is a pivotal act in the two-volume Luke-Acts narrative also. It appears twice; it closes the Gospel of Luke, and it opens the Acts of the Apostles. It is pivotal because it marks not only a point of continuity between the accounts, but also because it marks a point of transition. It is the ascension of our Lord Jesus.

The account in Luke is quite simple:

Luke 24:50–53 (ESV): 50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.

The narrative in Acts adds some important details.

Acts 1:6–11 (ESV): 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

There are many details here worth exploring: the promise of the Holy Spirit, the commissioning of the Apostles for their evangelistic mission, the presence of two men/angels linking this account to the resurrection narrative. But this ascension narrative begins with perhaps the most interesting and important detail of all as matter of context; the disciples were asking about the Kingdom of God. They wrongly assumed, as they most surely always had, that God’s Kingdom would be made manifest in and through Israel. Though wrong about this important detail, they were still right to be looking toward the Kingdom.

Acts 1:6 (ESV): 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus reorients their thinking, though it still will be a few days before they work it all out. He says: (1) God’s timing is his own and it is not given you to know it; (2) you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Gospel witnesses not just to the Jews, but to the ends of the earth. What he means becomes clearer later: Jesus has already inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and the Spirit filled and empowered disciples will begin to realize and enact the Kingdom by their witness to the Gospel. This is the way the kingdom will be restored, starting just a few days hence and progressing along God’s timeframe.

It is in the context of this Kingdom discourse that Luke places the ascension here in Acts. Why is that important? Because you can’t very well have a Kingdom without a King. And the ascension is precisely the enthronement of Jesus as King of all things in heaven and on earth. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the Great Commission. It begins with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been give to me” (Mt 28:18b). The ascension is the visible realization of that claim of authority. The problem is that we see it only from the earthly perspective, from the vantage point of Jesus’ departure. What we need is a view from the heavenly perspective, from the vantage point of Jesus’ arrival. And that is exactly what Daniel provides us.

The first of Daniel’s great visions is recorded in Daniel 7. It is a strange affair with a wind disturbing the sea, with four beasts rising from the waves, with successive beastly dominions over the earth, with a beastly horn with eyes and a mouth speaking boastful things. And then:

Daniel 7:9–12 (ESV): 9 “As I looked,

thrones were placed,

and the Ancient of Days took his seat;

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames;

its wheels were burning fire.

10  A stream of fire issued

and came out from before him;

a thousand thousands served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;

the court sat in judgment,

and the books were opened.

11 “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

Yes, the beasts — earthly powers and kingdoms backed by dark, spiritual powers — get to strut their few moments on the earthly stage pretending/presuming to be something, until God, the Ancient of Days, sits upon his throne and convenes his court for judgment. And in that judgment, the beasts are defeated — not totally destroyed, but defeated and shown to be impotent usurpers, trampled underfoot. May I suggest that we celebrate that reality at each Eucharist when the priest prays: By his resurrection he broke the bonds of death, trampling Hell and Satan under his feet. The resurrection is the great judgment of the beasts, of all the spiritual powers of Sin, Death, and Hell and of all their earthly representatives.

And after the resurrection? The ascension, which is why Daniel’s vision immediately continues:

Daniel 7:13–14 (ESV): 13 “I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven

there came one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days

and was presented before him.

14  And to him was given dominion

and glory and a kingdom,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away,

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed.

This is the ascension from the heavenly perspective. It is the return of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days, to the courts of heaven. It is the enthronement of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is given an everlasting dominion — and glory and a kingdom — so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.

Though they don’t know it, this is the larger and true context for the disciples’ questions about the coming of the Kingdom. Yes, it is coming. But first, the King must be crowned. And then the Kingdom will come to all peoples, nations, and languages as you, the Spirit filled and empowered heralds of the king, take your witness to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. It is not through force that the Kingdom will come, but through proclamation, and through weakness and suffering and love.

This is a pivotal moment in the Luke-Acts saga, not just from a literary standpoint, but from a theological standpoint. In Jesus death and through his blood, he purified a people for himself. Through his resurrection he defeated all the spiritual power who stood athwart God’s good purposes for creation. Through his ascension he received all authority and dominion over all creation. But the world is still a wasteland, still fouled by beasts and powers and by human co-conspirators. It is, in a sense, as it was in the beginning, formless and void, as it was when God gave Adam and Eve their marching orders:

Genesis 1:28 (ESV): 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

God had created Eden a paradise. But the world outside was still a work in progress, a work for Adam and Eve. They were to take God’s divine presence into that world — they were his image bearers, remember — to fill that world with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, to bring God’s righteous rule to bear over all the earth. And the wheels of this vocation came off and the whole project was derailed. Until now. Until the ascension. The rightful King has assumed the throne in the ascension. In just ten days, he will fully restore his image bearer by filling them with divine life, with the Holy Spirit. And then he will send them out as his image bearers to take God’s presence and God’s rule into a world that had been devastated by the enemy, to a world that was spiritually formless and voice. God’s creation project and his image bearers’ role in it has been put back on track at last.

So, when the disciples ask — right before the ascension — if it is time for the kingdom to be restored to Israel, the answer is yes and no, now and later. Yes, the king has been enthroned — is about to be enthroned from their standpoint, but no his rule will not be immediately recognized. It will spread bit by bit as the disciples themselves do the kingdom work of proclamation. And the kingdom won’t be restricted to or manifest solely through Israel. That’s too small a thing. It will be good news for all the people.

This is the way we should read the Acts of the Apostles over the next few days of Morning Prayer: the renewal of the human vocation to take the righteous rule of God — the Kingdom of God — to the whole earth under the authority of our King, crowned at his ascension. Amen.

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Holy Michael and All Angels

Holy Michael and All Angels

(Rev 12:7-12 / Pss 75, 76 / Matt 20:17-end)

Collect

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

IN HIS PREFACE to The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

Our culture falls into both errors related not just to demons but to all things spiritual. On the one hand, our culture is functionally materialistic, having reduced all reality to physical reality, all knowledge to scientific knowledge. Religion — the spiritual — is privatized, turned into a hobby like quilting or fly-fishing, harmless if kept in check, harmless if kept out of the public arena — schools, politics, business — where real education happens, where real decisions are made, where real stuff gets done. On the other hand, our culture is obsessed with spiritual and pseudo-spiritual matters. Folk religion — the people’s spirituality — is alive and well. Just visit any book store or peruse any podcast platform and you’ll find a smorgasbord of spiritual choices. Our culture is schizophrenic about things spiritual.

What C. S. Lewis wrote about demons applies just as well to angels:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the [angels]. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

Materialists disbelieve in the existence of angels. Some who identify as spiritual or spiritual-but-not-religious believe in angels and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. And what about Christians? What about the Church? This is my observation, and it’s just my observation: in the Church, the spectrum runs not as much from disbelief to excessive interest as it does from disinterest to adoration, from rarely a thought of angels to daily engagement and dependence on them. I don’t intend to adjudicate that difference or to advocate for a particular point of view or a precise placement on the spectrum; that is largely a matter of personal piety. I would suggest, though, that avoiding either extreme is probably good practice.

Angels have a place in Anglican faith and practice. We do not disregard them. Nor do we obsess over them or speculate over much about them. Angels have a single annual feast day on the liturgical calendar: Holy Michael and All Angels — today, 29 September. The collect of the day is instructive:

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

What does this say? God has created two orders of beings to worship him and to serve as his ministers: angels and humans. It is the vocation of the angels to serve God and to worship in heaven and also to have some charge over the affairs of men — at God’s direction, to help and defend humans. Both aspects of the angelic vocation — worship and ministry to humans — appear in Anglican prayer and worship. In the Daily Office — typically Morning Prayer — we say or sing the canticle Benedicite, Omnia Opera Domini in which we call all creation, including the angels, to worship the Lord with us: “Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord.” We start the day with angels. In Evening Prayer we ask our dear Lord to give his “angels charge over those who sleep.” And at Compline, we end the day with angels as we pray for their presence with us and their protection over us:

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

In the Eucharist, we praise God, “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing” the Sanctus — Holy, Holy, Holy — to proclaim the glory of God’s Name.

So, daily (throughout the Prayer Book Offices), weekly (at the Eucharist), and annually (on this feast day) we acknowledge the angels in their vocations of worship and service.

What of Scripture? Do we find this dual vocation of angels — worship and ministry to humans — in Scripture?

Let’s start with an unlikely place, in the book of Job, specifically at the beginning of the Lord’s answer to Job:

Job 38:1–7 (ESV): 38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

2  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

3  Dress for action like a man;

I will question you, and you make it known to me.

4  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

5  Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

6  On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone,

7  when the morning stars sang together

and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

This is God’s own description of creation: details not found in Genesis. Witnessing the creation of the earth, “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Stars don’t sing — do they? — except perhaps figuratively and poetically. But, if we keep in mind the structure of Hebrew poetic expression — particularly parallelism — we can make sense of this. The morning stars singing parallel and correspond to the sons of God shouting for joy. These stars are spiritual beings — called sons of God — spiritual beings including angels, who are present at the moment of creation, worshipping God, singing and shouting his glory and their joy. The very first Scriptural account of angels is of them fulfilling their vocation to worship. And, in the last Scriptural account in Revelation, the angels are still worshiping — singing this time:

Revelation 15:3–4 (ESV): 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds,

O Lord God the Almighty!

Just and true are your ways,

O King of the nations!

4  Who will not fear, O Lord,

and glorify your name?

For you alone are holy.

All nations will come

and worship you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

It is no wonder that in the Eucharistic Prayer we claim to join our voices with Angels and Archangels as we sing the Sanctus — Holy, Holy, Holy; they have been singing the praises of God eternally and will continue to worship him throughout the ages of ages.

Angels appear not infrequently in the Old Testament: two angels destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain, but rescue Lot and his daughters; angels appear to Jacob in his dream at Beth El, coming and going from heaven to earth doing God’s bidding; Michael contends with the devil over the body of Moses (cf Jude 9); the Commander of the Lord’s army appears to Joshua just before the fall of Jericho.

And there is the puzzling account of angels — the Archangels Gabriel and Michael — in the book of Daniel. While in exile in Babylon, Daniel offers a magnificent prayer of repentance on behalf of his people — a plea for God to forgive and deliver. Daniel interrupts the written record of his prayer to say:

Daniel 9:20–23 (ESV): 20 While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the Lord my God for the holy hill of my God, 21 while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. 22 He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. 23 At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.

The “man” Gabriel — the Archangel Gabriel who stands in the presence of God — comes to give Daniel insight and understanding. He comes in response to Daniel’s prayer. And, this happens on another occasion in response to Daniel’s prayer and fasting. Gabriel speaks to Daniel:

Daniel 10:12–14 (ESV): “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. 13 The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, 14 and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”

And just a bit later, Gabriel continues:

Daniel 10:20–21 (ESV): But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come. 21 But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince.

There is far more going on here than we can explore in these few minutes, and perhaps more than we could understand if we did take the time. But, this much seems clear: (1) God used an angel to respond to human prayer, and (2) angels are engaged in spiritual conflict on behalf of God’s people, a conflict that plays out in the material world and on the global stage.

Angels also appear on the pages of the New Testament, and we are perhaps more familiar with those accounts. Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce the birth of John, the Forerunner of our Lord. Six months later, Gabriel appears to Mary:

Luke 1:30–33 (ESV): 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.”

An angel appears to Joseph in a dream to verify all that Mary has told him and to commission him in his role as husband and protector. Angels appear to the shepherds and sing the Gloria:

Luke 2:14 (ESV): 14  “Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

An angel comes to tell Joseph to take his family to Egypt and then again to say it’s safe to return home.

Angels minister to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry — immediately following the temptation — and again near the end of his ministry during his agony in Gethsemane. Angels roll away the stone from his tomb and proclaim his victory to the women.

Angels release the apostles from prison on at least two occasions so they can continue to proclaim the Gospel with boldness.

And angels feature prominently in the Revelation: each of the seven churches has an angel; hosts of angels sing praises to God and to the Lamb; the angels enact God’s judgment upon the world, largely through disruption of the created order; the faithful angels battle against the dragon and his angels; and the armies of heaven — surely angelic armies — under the command of the rider on the white horse, the one called Faithful and True, defeat the beast and all the kings of this world.

So, I end where we started. We should not obsess over the angels, and —God forbid! — we must not worship them. But it is wrong to doubt them or dismiss them. They play a significant role in the great, sweeping narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. They are our fellow worshippers and our fellow servants, and they are God’s ministers on our behalf. As is so often the case, the collect for the day gets it quite right:

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

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Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and Martyr

THE EPISTLE AND GOSPEL TEXTS appointed for this day are both quite challenging.

Hebrews 6:4–6 (ESV): 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Matthew 12:31–32 (ESV): 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

These verses seem to push the limits of human sin and God’s grace. What are we to make of them?

Instead of addressing these verses and the questions they raise head-on, I’m going to approach them obliquely through the life of the saint whose martyrdom we commemorate this day: St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. His life, his thought, his writings, his pastoral guidance dealt with just such issues and provided good direction for the church in the third century. It is still good direction in the twenty-first century.

Cyprian was born of wealthy pagan parents in 200 A.D. in North Africa, in the region of modern day Tunisia. He received a good education in rhetoric and law, and practiced law in Carthage before his conversion to Christianity in 246. Just two years after his conversion, Cyprian was consecrated Bishop of Carthage, a prominent city of the Roman Empire. The beginning of Cyprian’s episcopacy corresponded to the beginning of the reign of a new Roman emperor, Trajan Decius (reign 249-251). Decius intended to strengthen the Roman state by revitalizing the Roman cult, the practice of the religion of Rome including sacrifices to the gods. Part of this revitalization effort was persecution of Christians who refused to offer the required sacrifices. This persecution was particularly severe in Carthage where Cyprian served as bishop.

In such times of persecution, the bishop of a city was often a target since he was the spiritual leader of the church. The idea was simple: cut off the head (the bishop) and the body (the church) dies. That put Cyprian in the crosshairs. What do you suppose he did? In 250, he fled Carthage and went into hiding — a place of relative safety from which he provided continued guidance and support for the church through a series of letters. But, his absence meant that the persecution fell upon a church without the physical presence and support of its shepherd. In his absence, thousands of Christians apostasized. These fell roughly into two categories: the sacrificati, those who offered the required sacrifices to the Roman gods and the libellatici, those who purchased falsified certificates of sacrifice, who didn’t sacrifice but who presented documents saying they had done so.

Though the persecution was severe, it was short lived. Decius died in battle in 251, and the persecution diminished. Cyprian returned to Carthage and was readmitted to his bishopric by a council of bishops. He faced a major problem: what to do with the lapsii, those Christians who had lapsed/apostasized during the persecution. There were many difficult questions: Could they be forgiven for that sin? Could they be readmitted to the Church? Who spoke for the church in this matter?

The issue was hotly contested by two groups. The first group was led by Confessors, by Christians who had remained faithful during the persecution and had suffered for their faithfulness. Surprisingly — at least to me — they advocated leniency for the lapsii: forgiveness and readmission to the church with no serious repercussions for their apostasy. Further, due to their faithfulness through persecution, the Confessors claimed a special status for themselves as “friends of God” and claimed that they had the authority, by virtue of that status, to speak for the church in this matter. They pitted themselves against the bishops. A second group was led by Anti-Pope Novatian, a bishop of Rome consecrated in opposition to the rightful pope. He and his followers took a hard line: no forgiveness was possible for the lapsii.

And what of Cyprian? He charted a middle way through these two extremes. Forgiveness is possible through repentance and penance.

This was Cyprian’s via media, his middle way:

The sacrificati, those who had truly offered sacrifice to the Roman gods, might be forgiven and readmitted to the church, but only on their deathbeds. They could not live in the church, but they could die in it.

The libellatici, those who had presented falsified documents of sacrifice, might be readmitted to the church after a period of public penance: confession, repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The length of this period was determined individually by the presiding bishop.

Cyprian reached these positions in a council of bishops who then gave this guidance to the church. This established some principles of fundamental importance:

1. We may not excuse serious and notorious sin as if it doesn’t matter.

2. We may not exaggerate serious sins as if they are beyond the reach and power of God’s grace. Do you see how that relates to our texts today? The only sin that may not be forgiven is the sin of which one refuses to repent.

3. The bishops speak for the church. That is the ancient polity of the church and is normative for the ACNA; the bishops speak for the church.

In one sense, it is tempting to consider Cyprian’s flight from persecution as a failure, as an act of cowardice that spared him from hard decisions during persecution. But, in another sense, it is easy to see how God used that experience for the good of the church. Surely, his own experience led Cyprian to a deep sense of compassion for those who lapsed and a deeper understanding of God’s grace.

So, in Cyprian’s story it is now 251 A.D. Decius is dead. Cyprian is once again bishop of Carthage. The persecution has diminished and the issue of the lapsii is being addressed. You might think things have settled down, but no. A plague began in Ethiopia, encompassed Egypt, and spread to the rest of the Roman Empire, at its height killing some five thousand people per day in Rome alone. It is known as the Cyprian Plague because Cyprian witnessed it and wrote about it. It lasted nearly twenty years. This is the second reason I wanted to speak of Cyprian today. I’ve heard so many times in the past year and a half that we are in unprecedented times, uncharted waters, due to Covid. That is simply not true of the church; we, the church, have just forgotten our history. The church has navigated pandemics before, and has done so faithfully and well. That we have seemed so confused, so caught off guard, by Covid is to our shame.

The church historian Eusebius wrote about the Christian response to the Plague of Cyprian:

Most of our brethren showed love and loyalty in not sparing themselves while helping one another, tending to the sick with no thought of danger and gladly departing this life with them after becoming infected with their disease. Many who nursed others to health died themselves, thus transferring their death to themselves. The best of our own brothers lost their lives in this way — some presbyters, deacons, and laymen — a form of death based on strong faith and piety that seems in every way equal to martyrdom. They would also take up the bodies of the saints, close their eyes, shut their mouths, and carry them on their shoulders. They would embrace them, wash and dress them in burial clothes, and soon receive the same services themselves.

The heathen were the exact opposite. They pushed away those with the first signs of the disease and fled from their dearest. They even threw them half dead into the roads and treated unburied corpses like refuse in hope of avoiding the plague of death, which, for all their efforts, was difficult to escape.

And Cyprian himself wrote of the spiritual benefit of the plague, of the opportunity it offered Christians to reflect on and prepare for death. These excerpts are from his treatise “On Mortality”.

What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment! Assuredly he may fear to die, who, not being regenerated of water and the Spirit, is delivered over to the fires of Gehenna; he may fear to die who is not enrolled in the cross and passion of Christ; he may fear to die, who from this death shall pass over to a second death; he may fear to die, whom on his departure from this world eternal flame shall torment with never-ending punishments; he may fear to die who has this advantage in a lengthened delay, that in the meanwhile his groanings and his anguish are being postponed (14).

And further, beloved brethren, what is it, what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence; whether the rapacious can quench the ever insatiable ardour of their raging avarice even by the fear of death; whether the haughty bend their neck; whether the wicked soften their boldness; whether, when their dear ones perish, the rich, even then bestow anything, and give, when they are to die without heirs. Even although this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants, that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown (16).

This is the way the Church faced plague, and it is the way the Church should face pandemic.

With the plague still raging, at the accession of Valerian as Roman Emperor (reign 253-260), the persecution of Christians also resumed. Cyprian was arrested in 257 and was placed under what we might call house arrest until his final hearing before proconsul Galerius Maximus in 258.

The circumstances of Cyprian’s trial and subsequent martyrdom are recorded in the Proconsular Acts of the Martydom of St. Cyprian, as follows:

Galerius Maximus, proconsul: “You, Thascius Cyprian, have you regarded yourself as the father to these irreligious men?”

Cyprian, bishop: “I have.”

“The venerable emperors bid you sacrifice.”

“I shall not do it.”

“Reflect on your decision.”

“Do what you must. In so just a cause, no reflection is needed.”

Galerius consulted briefly with his council and then said reluctantly: “You have lived a long time as an impious man and have drawn many into your wicked conspiracy. You have been the enemy of the Roman gods and their sacred rites. The venerable Augusti, Valerian and Gallienus, and the noble Caesar, Valerian, have been unable to bring you back to the practice of their ceremonies. You have now been arrested as a chief criminal and leader, and shall be made an example of to your followers. Your teaching shall be sealed with your blood.” Then he read the decree: “Thascius Cyprian is to be executed by beheading.”

Cyprian’s answer was: “Thanks be to God.”

When they heard the sentence, the brothers and sisters standing by nearby cried out: “Behead us along with him!” and many of them followed him out.

Cyprian was led away in the company of his brother, and was executed.

Cyprian is a saint for our times, a saint for these days: a saint who recognized the seriousness of sin and the abundance of grace; a saint who insisted on the unity and order of the church under the authority of bishops; a saint who knew how to live Christianly without fear of death; a saint who knew that God could and would work all things together for the good of those love him, for those who are called according to his purpose. Amen.

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James 2: Love, Grace, Faith, Works

Let us pray.

O Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow after us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

IN JUST A FEW MINUTES — right at twenty if you’re looking at your watch — we will stand together and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. “We believe,” we’ll say, or perhaps “I believe,” and then we will enumerate the non-negotiable essentials of our faith as we have received it from the Fathers of the Church: not everything that can be said, but certainly that which must be said to avoid ancient heresies and their modern incarnations.

Πιστεύομεν — we believe — the Greek Fathers said; Credo — I believe — the Latin Fathers said. “Believe,” we all say in whatever languages we speak. But, what did that mean in the fourth century when the Creed was formulated, and what does that mean in the twenty-first century as we stand and proclaim it: what does it mean to believe? Do we mean that corporately, “we,” and individually, “I,” have examined the evidence for each of the tenets in the Creed and are convinced that each is logically rigorous, historically accurate, verifiably factual? Probably not, though that would be a very good thing to do. Do we mean that we find the ancient witnesses credible and compelling and that we are certain — based not least on the quality of their lives and the example of their deaths — that their deposit of faith in the Creed is trustworthy? Probably so. Do we mean — as some accuse us — that in spite of a total lack of evidence we cling tenaciously to this story not based on knowledge but upon a blind leap of faith? Certainly not. Our belief is not less than rational, but more than rational, not irrational, but supra-rational; it incorporates the highest reason of which humans are capable and then transcends it in a relationship with the Divine.

So, when we say “we believe,” we are giving more than an affirmation of our mental assent to a set of ancient theological doctrines. Yes, we believe — I would go so far as to say we know — that the Creed is objectively true, but “we believe” means far more than that. “We believe” means not just that we have a capacity for faith, but that we have faith in, that we are pledging our allegiance to, God — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — who is the subject of the Creed; it means that we will be faithful to him. “We believe” means that we accept this story as the story, as the only story that tells the truth about, and that makes sense of, creation, and that we willingly take our place in that story. “We believe” means that we look to this God and this story as the only source of our salvation. Belief, faith/faithfulness, and salvation: these go together: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8a).

We must be clear about this relationship among belief, faith, and salvation, clear about the meaning of each. When Scripture speaks of salvation, it means far more — not less, but far more — than merely eternal destiny and spiritual geography — everlasting heaven or hell — as important as that is. Salvation also means freedom in this moment from all the ways hell manifests here and now in human life: freedom from captivity to demonic spiritual powers; freedom from slavery to sin; freedom from fear of death and from death itself; freedom from bondage to the passions; freedom from alienation from oneself, from one’s neighbors, from God; freedom from nihilism and despair; freedom from a meaningless, non-storied existence; freedom from a flattened out, materialistic world. Salvation means freedom from. But, salvation also means freedom to engage in this moment with all the opportunities and blessings heaven offers in human life: to live fully and confidently; to develop and exercise the virtues of righteousness; to reconcile with God and man and to turn outward away from the prison of the self; to find and embrace the deep meaning of existence told in the great story of Scripture; to live in the realm of things seen and unseen, to be surrounded by and in communion with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to take our place in the communion of saints. In the fullest sense, salvation means both freedom from and freedom to; salvation is both a present reality and an eternal destiny.

When I was younger, it wasn’t unusual to be asked this question by street evangelists or by those who knocked on your door on Sunday afternoon, tracts in hand: Brother, are you saved? If you pressed them a bit on what they meant, they might come back with another question: Well, if you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity? These were good, sincere folk, and I don’t mean to disparage them. But, their notion of salvation was too small. Repent of your sin, accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior — whatever that means — say some form of The Sinner’s Prayer, and you are saved; your place in heaven when you die is guaranteed. Really? That’s all there is to it? I understand why James presents a challenge to that way of understanding faith and salvation.

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

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith — dare I say, what good is it if someone says he believes and has said The Sinner’s Prayer — but does not have works? Can that faith save him? For James, the question he poses is a rhetorical nonsense question on the order of How many corners does a circle have? or What color is yesterday? For James, salvation is both freedom from and freedom to, both an eternal destiny and life in the kingdom here and now. To reduce it to less than that is to miss the point. For James, true faith, saving faith, living faith always manifests in the present, in the works that salvation frees us to do. There is no space between James and Paul on this, though some, including Martin Luther, have supposed so. Listen to Paul to the Ephesians:

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

Yes, yes, yes: let me say loudly and clearly with Paul; we are saved by grace through faith and human works play no part in obligating God to save us. But, we are saved for good works which God has prepared for us to do. That is salvation as freedom from and freedom to, just as James presents it. And if those good works for which we were saved are missing, there is something seriously amiss. James says that such faith is dead.

I know that in our Protestant milieu we are nervous speaking of works. But, Jesus wasn’t a Protestant, and he was not hesitant to speak of works. Hear him from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 7:15–21 (ESV): 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

And in a parallel account from Luke:

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”

Last week, Fr. Jack beautifully presented James as New Testament wisdom literature. So is the Sermon on the Mount. In both James’ epistle and Jesus’ sermon, the way of wisdom, the way of true faith and salvation, lies not just in hearing the word, nor even in just believing what is heard, but in hearing and doing. James asks the rhetorical questions: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Jesus asks: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” They are the same questions.

What is the most fundamental work through which faith expresses itself? Simply this, according to James:

James 2:8–9 (ESV): 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

There it is; that is the work that proclaims our living faith and our salvation: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As we will proclaim our faith in just a few minutes, we also proclaimed our work — our vocation — just a few minutes past:

Jesus said:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first 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 (Mt 22:37-40T).

What does love for neighbor look like? James doesn’t tell us directly; he tells us instead by the way of negation. Here’s what love of neighbor doesn’t look like.

James 2:2–4 (ESV): 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

What a vivid picture James paints with just a few words: so many problems in such a short description. First, there is the man with the gold ring and the fine clothes who walks into — swaggers into? — the assembly. The word James uses for “assembly” is συναγωγὴν, synagogue, and it is a wonderfully ambiguous word. It might mean a place of study, prayer, and worship — a Christian assembly. It might mean the community center. It might mean a place of judgment, a people’s court; James hints at this a bit. And in walks the man with the gold ring and the fine clothes. The man himself is not criticized by James, but I wonder about his motivation. I can’t help thinking of the singer Jim Croce and his hit — yes, this will date me — Bad, Bad Leroy Brown:

Now Leroy he’s a gambler

And he likes his fancy clothes

And he likes to wave his diamond rings

In front of everybody’s nose

Maybe the man is not like that at all; maybe he is just oblivious to his fashion choices, which is another problem in itself.

Another man walks into the assembly, poor and in shabby clothes. Just as James didn’t critique the rich man, he doesn’t praise the poor man either. In a literary sense, both these men are just props, just a backdrop for the real drama. The presence of each, and the difference between them, provoke a response. The assembly pays deferential attention to the rich man — “You sit here in a good place.” — and shames the poor man: “You stand over there,” or “Sit down at my feet.” And there is the problem: not necessarily the presence of rich and poor together, not even the fact that there are poor in the assembly, but partiality. Instead of loving the poor neighbor, the assembly dishonors the poor neighbor. That is the opposite of the royal law.

Now, hear James again:

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

Showing partiality to the rich, ignoring the needs of the poor, standing in judgment as if the royal law does not apply to you: these things put to lie one’s claim of faith in the Lord Jesus. While claiming faith, such a one has become again a transgressors of the law — of the full law. There is no fullness of salvation in that kind of faith, because the one who holds it has not yet been set free to do the works of faith that God has prepared beforehand that he should walk in them.

Do you know who holds that kind of faith, the kind of faith that believes the truth of every doctrine about Jesus Christ — the kind of faith that knows the Creed to be absolutely true — but who translates none of that belief into saving faith? The demons. Read the Gospels. The demons were the only ones who consistently recognized Jesus as the Christ and who fell down before him. James says as much:

James 2:18–20 (ESV): 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

James contrasts that foolishness with the wisdom of Abraham who, in faith, offered up his son Isaac on the altar. James contrasts that foolishness with the wisdom of Rahab the prostitute who, in faith, hid the spies in Jericho and led them out to safety. In this righteous old man and in this less than righteous young woman, faith was active along with their works, and faith was completed by their works. That’s the heart of James’ understanding of faith and works: the conviction that faith and works, works and faith, go together and cannot be separated in our salvation. Saving faith produces works which complete the faith that saves us. God’s grace — God’s prevenient grace — goes before all, giving birth to faith within us. And that faith, if it is living and active, flows outward into good works to the glory of God and the welfare of his people — good works that flow back to further strengthen and enliven the faith that produced them — a synergy of salvation.

If you want to see all this, follow the order of the liturgy; it gives us a wonderful theological roadmap through this mystery of faith and works and salvation. We hear the Great Commandment and the Royal Law, and we ask God to write them on our hearts. We proclaim our faith — our faithfulness — in the words of the Nicene Creed. We feast on the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ only by the grace of God. And then, having done all of this — having committed to love, having proclaimed faith, having experienced grace — then 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.

Love, faith, grace, work: this is our salvation, in this age and in the age to come. Amen.

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Rules

Apostles Anglican Church

Wednesday, 18 Aug, Week of the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

(2 Samuel 6, Psalm 119:1-24, Philippians 1:1-11)

Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy; and because without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall, keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In 1962, President John Kennedy spoke at Rice University. He described his vision of America and the goals of his administration. It was a momentous speech, largely remembered for this excerpt:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because hard things organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. I thought of these words and this principle as I began to prepare for today’s homily. There is no saint appointed in the Anglican calendar for this day, but we are between two great saints this week: The Blessed Virgin Mary on Sunday last and Bernard of Clairvaux on Friday, two days hence. To reflect on either would be of great benefit, and, dare I say, comparatively easy. And then there is the Daily Office readings for this day, particularly the Old Testament lesson from Morning Prayer: 1 Samuel 6, the unsuccessful attempt to return the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and the death of Uzzah.

I choose Uzzah. I choose Uzzah not because that text is easy, but because it is hard, because that text will serve to measure and challenge our best understandings of God, because to ignore such texts is to refuse an aspect of God’s self-revelation, a refusal which is the beginning of heresy and which ends in idolatry. So, I choose Uzzah.

It will do us no good to begin with Uzzah though; there are too many preliminary questions to be addressed. No, we have to begin in the beginning, in the Garden with our first parents.

Genesis 2:8–9 (ESV): 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

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

We learn a bit more about this tree of the knowledge of good and evil when the serpent confronts Eve.

Genesis 3:1–3 (ESV): 3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”

Don’t touch and don’t eat, lest you die. Do these prohibitions raise questions in your minds? Why these restrictions? Why place such a dangerous and tempting tree in the Garden in the first place? Why not “human proof” the Garden as parents child-proof a house? Why the need for rules?

I don’t know: not really, not with certainty. I told you this was hard. But I do have some ideas about how rules — including those established by God — function.

First, rules define the limits of human flourishing and make human flourishing possible. God filled the Garden with everything Adam and Eve needed to flourish: companionship, good and fulfilling work to do, a congenial environment, abundant food. You may eat of all the trees in the garden…except this one. Within this boundary you will flourish; beyond it you will die. This is less a restriction than an assurance of safety. Here you will flourish; here you are safe. But not there; don’t go there. We are free — and feel free — to roam and explore and experiment and risk only in a context of safety. And for that, we need to know where the boundaries are. Rules define the limits of human flourishing and make human flourishing possible.

Second, rules reinforce the distinction between Creator and creature. If you want to see a dysfunctional home, look for one in which the children are treated as equals by their parents, where the children are given as much autonomy as the adults, where the tables are turned and the children — for all intents and purposes — make the rules. I encountered that again and again when teaching, and it was always disastrous. Children are not adults. And creatures are not the Creator. It is necessary to be reminded of that, to humble ourselves before our Creator, to acquiesce to his wisdom. Rules remind us of that. Rules reinforce the distinction between Creator and creature.

Third, rules give us a way to demonstrate to God our love and faithfulness. Unlike the pagan gods and idols, our God needs nothing from us. And, since he created all things, we have nothing of our own to offer him anyway, except for our love and faithfulness which we show, in part, through our willing obedience. How could Adam and Eve demonstrate their love for God, their faithfulness to him? By tending the Garden. By having children who would fill the earth and extend the garden. By enjoying the abundance God had provided, and by staying away from that one tree in the midst of the Garden. In short, Adam and Eve could demonstrate their love for God, their faithfulness to him, by their willing obedience to their vocation and to the limit God had placed on them. Rules give us a way to demonstrate to God our love and faithfulness.

Fourth, rules keep us from presuming upon a relationship with God; they keep us from transgressing the holy. Here’s an idea: just try to walk up and fist bump the President of the United States; he is, after all, your elected representative. I’ve been close to a president. I’ve looked into the eyes — or the sunglasses — of Secret Service agents and I’ve felt the cold chill emanating from them. And I had no doubt that had I taken one step too near the President, I would have found myself handcuffed and on the ground — once I had regained consciousness. I knew better than to presume upon that electoral relationship. How much more with God who is the Holy One, the one before whom angels veil their eyes, the one in whose presence the seraphim — the burning ones — burst into flame. Yes, God loves us. Yes, God welcomes us into his presence. But we do not presume to come trusting in our own righteousness; we do not come presumptuously. We come into the presence of the Holy One with holy humility. Rules keep us from presuming upon a relationship with God; they keep us from transgressing the holy.

So, we have to dispense with any idea that rules are somehow arbitrary restrictions meant somehow to diminish us. No: rules are intended to promote our flourishing, to remind us of our nature as creatures who are dependent upon our Creator, to give us a way to show our love and faithfulness to God, and to keep us from transgressing the holiness of God. Of course, these reasons aren’t exhaustive, but they will do for our purposes today.

Still, we are not quite ready for Uzzah. We must first speak of the ark of the covenant.

Details for the construction and transportation of the ark are given in Exodus 25:

Exodus 25:10–15 (ESV): 10 “They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.

Notice how the ark is to be carried: on poles, lest anyone touch it. We get more detail in Numbers 4:

Numbers 4:1–6 (ESV): 4 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “Take a census of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their clans and their fathers’ houses, 3 from thirty years old up to fifty years old, all who can come on duty, to do the work in the tent of meeting. 4 This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting: the most holy things. 5 When the camp is to set out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it. 6 Then they shall put on it a covering of goatskin and spread on top of that a cloth all of blue, and shall put in its poles.

This passage goes on to describe the covering of all the holy place furnishing in preparation for transport. Then we read:

Numbers 4:15 (ESV): 15 And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the sons of Kohath are to carry.

Numbers 4:17–20 (ESV): 17 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 18 “Let not the tribe of the clans of the Kohathites be destroyed from among the Levites, 19 but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden, 20 but they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die.”

Think of these Kohathite Levites not as sacrificing priests of the altar — they did not descend from Aaron — but rather as Israel’s altar guild, the only ones appointed to attend to the holy things of the sanctuary. Particularly, they were the only ones allowed to carry the ark — carry, but not touch. Kohathites assigned by the high priest were to carry the ark covered, on poles resting on their shoulders. Again, the rules for this were not arbitrary. They were intended to promote Israel’s flourishing, to remind Israel of their election by God and of the dependence upon him, to give Israel a way to show their love and faithfulness to God, and to keep Israel from transgressing the holiness of God.

Now, we are ready to speak of Uzzah. Some twenty years before the events of 2 Samuel 6, the ark had been captured by the Philistines. You can read the story in 1 Samuel 4 – 6. When the ark was returned to Israel, it was not taken to the tabernacle at Shiloh, but was housed with Abinadab in the region of Kiriath-Jearim. There it remained for some twenty years. During that time, David became king of all Israel and captured Jerusalem as his capital city. It is natural that he would want to consolidate both political power and ritual worship in the capital, and the latter required bringing the ark to rest in Jerusalem. That is the context for 2 Samuel 6.

2 Samuel 6:1–7 (ESV): David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. 3 And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, 4 with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.

5 And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 6 And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.

So, what is wrong with this picture? Well, let’s ask some questions.

1. Had God commanded that the ark be moved to Jerusalem? Or was that at David’s instigation?

2. Where was the high priest to cover the ark, prepare it for transport, and select those who would carry it?

3. Where were the Kohathites whose responsibility it was to transport the ark?

4. Why was the ark on a cart instead of being carried on poles as God had commanded?

Let’s get this straight. Uzzah was no innocent victim. He was complicit in disobeying God’s explicit rules on when, by whom, and how the ark was to be transported. As was David. As were all the cohort who participated in this fiasco. Whether this was all through ignorance or knowing disregard is impossible to say; but it resulted in Uzzah’s death. And, through Uzzah’s death, God said this, at least:

This is not the way for Israel to flourish.

This is not the way for creatures to acknowledge their Creator.

This is not the way to demonstrate love and faithfulness to God.

This is not the way to deal with holy things and with the Holy One of Israel.

Was this a costly lesson? Yes. But was it a necessary lesson if Israel were to flourish in covenant with the Holy God? Yes.

I wanted to talk about Uzzah today, in part, because our culture looks increasingly like this fiasco in 2 Samuel 6. We do not like God’s rules, so we are writing our own: on gender; marriage; sanctity of life; treatment of the least and most vulnerable among us; exploitation — sexualization and commercialization — of children; worship; and the like. We treat God’s rules as arbitrary, unduly restrictive. And yet, those very rules are there for our flourishing, for allowing us to relate as creatures to our Creator, for demonstrating love and faithfulness to our God, for approaching holy things and the Holy One with humility. To obey these rules is to prosper. To disregard them is to court disaster.

The first stanza of the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 119:1-8, is a nearly perfect summary of all this, and I close with it:

PSALM 119

Beati immaculati

1 Blessed are those who are undefiled in their ways,*

and walk in the law of the Lord.

2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies*

and seek him with their whole heart,

3 Even those who do no wickedness*

and perfectly walk in his ways.

4 You have ordered your precepts*

that we should diligently keep them.

5 O that my ways were made so direct*

that I might keep your statutes!

6 Then would I not be put to shame*

while I give heed unto all your commandments.

7 I will thank you with an upright heart,*

when I have learned your righteous judgments.

8 I will keep your statutes;*

O do not forsake me utterly.

Amen.

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