Questions and Challenges: Part 3

“And why does it [the Bible] have so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies?

I am not a rector, the priest-in-charge of a parish. But, throughout my life and in a few churches I have been in positions of spiritual leadership with a certain limited authority. It is not uncommon for such a figure to receive a complaint from a parishioner/congregant followed by this or similar statement of emphasis, “And you know, I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are several others, and I speak for them, too.” As far as I am concerned — God help me — there is only one proper response to such a thing: “Well, trot them out so I can deal with their specific complaints one-by-one and face to face.” There is no real place in the church for nameless others and generic complaints. It is impossible to effectively address either.

I feel that same way with the challenge before me in this post: “And why does it [the Bible] have so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies?” To this I want to respond, “Well, trot them out so I can deal with them one-by-one, specifically and not generically.” This complaint, as it stands, lacks the courage of its convictions. It is not possible to refute such a general and baseless charge. And yet, I must say something about it, I think.

I remember the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton and his infamous statement, “Well, it depends on what the meaning of “is” is.” Oh, Bill: if you have to parse the language that precisely, you might just as well admit that the charge against you is true. What I am about to do might seem similar, but I think it is not at all the same. The charge stands that the Bible contains “many inaccuracies and inconsistencies,” to which I’m afraid I must respond, “ Well, it depends on what you mean by inaccuracies and inconsistencies.”

Let me explain by way of example. The opening line of Charles Dickens’ great novel A Tale of Two Cities reads:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Life, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Well, Charles, which it it? Pick a side. Can you image a single sentence more crammed full of inaccuracies and inconsistencies? And yet, we do not count this as such because we recognize the form as a beautiful literary device used to great effect by the author to tell a single truth; it was an age of hyperbole, the best and worst of everything co-mingled and co-existing. Only an illiterate would accuse Dickens of authoring inaccuracies and inconsistencies. But, many Biblical critics fall into just this unfortunate habit. By failing to appreciate and understand the Biblical text for what it is — its various literary, theological, and historical forms — they find inaccuracies and inconsistencies where there are none, where, in fact, there is great truth.

Let’s consider the Gospels, for example. If you assume that these are documentary style historical records in the modern sense — what a reporter with camera and microphone would have seen and heard had one been present — then you will find inaccuracies and inconsistencies. But, history of that kind is a modern literary form unknown to the four evangelists and their historical contemporaries. For them, for much for much of human history, written and oral history was an agenda-driven recounting of events. Don’t misunderstand: the events were not fictitious, were not made up of whole cloth. But, neither were they simply reported “objectively.” They were edited, arranged, interconnected to achieve a purpose. St. John says as much; he lays his cards on the table near the end of his Gospel:

John 20:30–31 (ESV): 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John, probably an old man when he writes this, has reflected on the events surrounding Jesus for an entire lifetime, has woven them into worship and prayer and faithful service, has based his life on them. And now he tells them in a unique, theologically reflective way that he prays will conduce to faith in his readers. In doing so, he pens a narrative that looks very different from the other three Gospels, the Synoptics (same view). Careful readers will notice the differences. One, in particular, stands out to me. John seems to place the death of Jesus a full day before the authors of the Synoptics. Why? To make the death of Jesus coincide with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs at the Temple, to show the blood of Jesus as that which averts death, to show the death of Jesus as the beginning of God’s new exodus and liberation of his people. John is not making a chronological statement but rather a theological one. This is not an inconsistency or inaccuracy because John never intended to give his readers a precise timeline of events; he is giving his readers something much more important — the deeply theological meaning/truth of the events. Bible critics will point to this as a problem; Christians accept it as a gift.

There are other differences even amongst the Synoptic Gospels. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew becomes the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. And, the text of the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer differ in the two Gospels. If you are of a mind to, you can explain away these differences: surely, Jesus had a basic “stump speech,” a standard “ready-to-hand” sermon and prayer that he taught throughout Galilee, adapting them as necessary for the people and the places. But really, why try to account for the differences at all, as if they actually are inconsistencies and inaccuracies? That is is give far too much credence to a baseless, generic charge against Scripture. They are simply different tellings of a common, received tradition adapted to the purpose of the author and the needs of his readers: nothing more or less, and certainly nothing compromising or nefarious. The different accounts of the events of Resurrection (Easter) morning fall in this same category. It is difficult to reconstruct a specific timeline and dramatis personae — who was there, when and where. That is not the point of the story. Something so unexpected, so radical, frankly so unbelievable has occurred that you cannot image a polished, connect-the-dots recounting of it. Only a somewhat breathless, slightly askew narrative can even begin to do justice to the wonder of this inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. This is theological literature — by God! — and not some humdrum “just the facts, ma’am.” If you still want to insist that these differences constitute inconsistencies and inaccuracies, I can only suggest that you learn the art of story telling and then get back with me. Also, read some real theology while you’re at it.

Without the plaintiff coming forward to identify specific inconsistencies and inaccuracies, this is perhaps the best I can do by way of defense and rebuttal. Actually, I can think of several other examples of supposed contradictions that are usually hauled out to debunk the Bible. I could mention them and address them, but why should I do the plaintiff’s work for him? No, if he has specific charges to make, he must trot them out himself.

Now, I am going to say something that might shock some of you. Here I express my own opinion and you are free to disagree. I would not be bothered by minor, real, factual errors in the Bible. Suppose, for example, that a chronicler made a mistake in the order of succession of two Israelite kings. Would such a thing invalidate Scripture? I think not. Remember that, as with most everything God does in relation to the world, there is dual agency at play: God and man as co-workers to achieve God’s will. For some reason that I don’t fully understand, this is the way that God chooses to work. He condescends to unite us — our gifts and our flaws — to himself and to grant us the dignity of working with and for him. And — no surprise — humans are not perfect; we make mistakes. The human co-authors of Scripture were not exceptions. Please don’t let this scandalize you; I offer it as a personal conviction and you are free to reject it. But, I would ask you to consider this. Read the Gospels. Read the Acts of the Apostles. Read Galatians, especially chapter two. Ask yourself this: were the apostles inerrant? Peter, Paul, James, John were terribly flawed individuals. And yet they were faithful. And yet, God did not hesitate to put the Church into their hands. There is an old saying that God draws straight with crooked lines. The whole of Scripture shows that to be true. The apostles made some real blunders and were not thereby invalidated or cast aside as useless. Can we possibly grant the same grace to the authors of Scripture?

Well, whatever you think about that, here is what we can say with certainty about the Scriptures: it is the book that God has given us, the book that God wants us to have, the book through which the Holy Spirit works for us and for our salvation. Paul says it best, and we really need to say nothing beyond this:

2 Timothy 3:14–17 (ESV): 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

And that is why my faith would not be shaken if an interlocutor could produce a real, factual error in Scripture, a minor slip of the author’s pen. The sacred writings — as we have them and not in some imagined pristine form — are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That is their purpose.

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Questions and Challenges: Part 2

“And why are there so many versions of it (the Bible)?”

(Please refer to the previous post, https://firstblessings.blog/2022/07/08/questions-and-challenges-part-1/, for the origin and context of this “project.”)

If you want to read the Koran, you must learn Arabic, the language in which that sacred text was/is written. An English translation of the Koran is just that, a translation and not the Koran itself. For Islam, truth is language specific and translation inevitably entails diminishment and distortion.

Not so in Christianity, not since the first public Gospel proclamation on Pentecost. The scene is dramatic. The disciples of the Lord were all gathered in one place on that day when the Holy Spirit rushed upon them with the sound of a violent wind and appeared upon them in divided tongues like fire. And they began to speak in other languages. Divided tongues and other languages is suggestive and symbolic of what happens next. St. Luke continues the story:

Acts 2:5–12 (ESV): 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Peter then explains what it means, and it means more than he explains. But one implication is clear: the Gospel is for all people in all languages. Unlike the Koran, the Gospel truth is not language specific. Translation is not only possible; it is God ordained. That conviction is a hallmark of the Reformation with its insistence that all people must have access to Holy Scripture in their own language and that public worship must be conducted in the common tongue.

And that brings us inevitably to the challenges of interpretation, the translation of a sacred text from the source language (the language in which it was written) into the target language (the language of the reader). I am no expert on this, but I can speak to it in general terms that should address the relevant challenge.

Those of you who are bilingual, or perhaps multilingual, will understand that each language has its own patterns and forms, that individual words have a fullness and richness in one tongue that are not perfectly conveyed in another. That doesn’t make accurate translation impossible; it makes it challenging. And it makes multiple good and accurate translations both possible and inevitable.

Perhaps a brief example will help. You may know that the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, not the Greek of the academy, but the common Greek of the marketplace. There are a few words of Aramaic in the New Testament, but the number is vanishingly small and need not concern us. Consider the first verse of the Gospel according to St. John:

En archē ēn ho logos, kai ho logos ēn pros ton theon, kai theos ēn ho logos.

Suppose we attempt a word-for-word translation from Greek into English. We run into difficulties almost immediately:

In beginning…

In beginning. But, wait; that doesn’t sound right in English. We would say in the beginning. The Greek lacks the definite article the. Should the translator insert it or not? Let’s continue.

In (the) beginning was the logos…

Logos is a richly textured and philosophically complex term. It can mean something as straightforward as word. But it also contains connotations of character, order, pattern, even goal/purpose. So, how is the translator to choose?

The whole of John’s Prologue, John 1:1-18, is a clear allusion to the creation account in Genesis 1; John is providing a Christ-centered retelling of creation. How did God create? By speaking the word: let there be. Since the word was God’s “instrument” of creation and since John insists that all things were created through Christ the logos, translating logos as word makes the essential connection that John intended. So, a reasonable and faithful translation of John 1:1 begins:

In (the) beginning was the word…

We will stop our translation exercise here, but you see that it is a challenging process, that choices must be made, and that different choice are both possible and reasonable. Some translators adopt a philosophy known as formal equivalence, in which they attempt to retain as much of the structure of the source language as possible. These produce accurate and faithful translations, though they read a bit awkwardly and stilted in English. The New American Standard Bible is an example of this translation philosophy. Other translators opt for dynamic equivalence, a more thought-for-thought translation. In this method, the primary questions are (1) What did the author wish to communicate in the source language? and (2) How might that best be expressed in the target language? These also produce accurate and faithful translations with this “advantage”: they read well as an English text. The New Revised Standard Version is an example of this method, though some think it carries the philosophy a bit far. Again, though I am not an expert on this topic either, it seems to me that American Sign Language (ASL) provides a good example of dynamic equivalence. As I understand it, an ASL interpreter does not sign each word the speaker says, but rather communicates each thought in sign. And that means that two equally proficient sign language interpreters might well communicate oral speech differently, though each would communicate it well and accurately.

So, why are there (so many) different versions? The most basic answer is that Christians believe that Scripture must be translated into the languages of all the people. Since translation is a complex and challenging task requiring many choices, it is inevitable that slightly different versions result. It is worth noting that most translations — certainly those that are most widely used in the church and in the academy — are performed by committees of expert linguists and theologians who take the task most seriously. Frankly, most any of the modern translations so prepared are good and reliable. Better still, the serious reader will use multiple translations, ideally ones representing the best of each translation philosophy. And, if you can learn Hebrew and Greek, more’s the better.

There is another matter that contributes to the multiplicity of versions: study Bibles and “niche” Bibles. A study Bible contains explanatory notes, cross-references, maps, charts, etc., all designed to provide context and deeper understanding for the reader. There are Roman Catholic Study Bibles and Reformation Study Bibles. There are literary, theological, and chronological Study Bible. The list is almost endless. These versions do not change the Biblical text, but they do provide interpretations of it. And none of these interpretations is without theological bias. This presents a caveat emptor situation; let the buy beware. Simply be aware that the study notes are just that, notes and not inspired Scripture. Again, it is best to consult multiple Study Bibles and commentaries with different theological perspectives. “Niche” Bibles — and that is my term for them — are Bibles targeted for a particular demographic: women, men, police, military, nurses, teachers, etc. These Bible frequently have additional devotional reflections/materials geared toward the demographic. It is tempting to see this simply as a marketing strategy, but that is, perhaps, uncharitable. As long as the reader realizes that the devotional materials are not Scripture, there is little potential harm and perhaps significant possibility for good.

So, yes, there are several versions of the Bible available. Is this a challenge to the integrity of Scripture? I do not think so; rather, I think it is an indication of the seriousness with which translators take their vocation. It is, also, a benefit to the church in providing a richness and depth to the English biblical corpus that no single translation could provide.

Lastly, and very briefly, I should mention that the majority of English language translations are based on a mere handful of source language manuscripts which present an exceptional level of agreement among themselves. The most frequent variations in these manuscripts concern word order, e.g. Christ Jesus versus Jesus Christ, or alternate spellings of words on the order of colour versus color. Significant differences that impact theological interpretation are exceptionally rare. This means that we have a reliable source language texts from which to do the work of translation. Even though we have no original manuscripts, the copies evince a profound dedication of Christian scribes and scholars in preserving the accuracy of the original texts.

In summary, we should not be concerned about the availability of various translations; this is a strength and not a weakness.

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Questions and Challenges: Part 1

In nearly three decades of teaching mathematics I found that the very best and the very worst students tended to ask the same question: When are we ever going to use this? From the best students this was an honest inquiry, a seeking to make connections with prior learning, to anticipate extensions to future learning, and to seek applications of principles and techniques. It was a joy to answer their question. From the worst students this was less an honest question and more a challenge: Why are you wasting our time with this totally useless nonsense? There was no joy in answering their challenge, nor was it really possible to do. It wasn’t a question and they weren’t looking for an answer. My default response was, I’m afraid, as unsatisfactory as their challenge: you probably won’t, but you never can tell.

Recently, on an Anglican Facebook page, a commenter posted this meme:

QUESTIONS FOR BIBLE BELIEVERS
If an omniscient, omnipotent, perfect being is the mastermind behind the Bible, then why does the book reflect only the culture, science, history, literature, technology, morals, and values of the era in which it was written? And why are there so many versions of it? And why does it have so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies? And why is it open to so many different interpretations? And why does it include stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, homophobia, bigotry, and chauvinism? And why would anyone have to ask so many questions about the Bible if it’s supposed to be the go-to source for truth and the ultimate instruction book for morality? Anyone?

These are not questions; they are challenges. They are not intended to promote discussion or to seek reasonable answers; they are intended to mock and disrupt. I know this because I rather foolishly attempted to engage in discussion with the person who posted the meme. It was to no avail. I suspected it probably wouldn’t be, but you never can tell.

Still, behind some of those challenges lurk real and legitimate questions — questions that many honest searchers have and, if they will admit it, questions that trouble many faithful Christians. I would like to try to formulate some answers — not final ones, but steps pointing in the right direction which others may fruitfully explore further.

But, there is a preliminary matter to address. Every teacher has experienced this: a good student asks a genuine question, but one which is so confused as to be unanswerable. “Given that this square has a circular radius of 4, what color will next Tuesday be?” The presuppositions behind the question are so confused and the question is so poorly formulated that no answer is possible. Good teachers help students clarify their questions: “What you really mean to ask is…”. So, before attempting to answer some of the challenges in the meme, I will need to re-formulate them as clear, legitimate questions. Shall we begin?

CHALLENGE 1: If an omniscient, omnipotent, perfect being is the mastermind behind the Bible, then why does the book reflect only the culture, science, history, literature, technology, morals, and values of the era in which it was written?

I propose that the heart of this challenge lies in the following question. In other words, What you really mean to ask…

QUESTION 1: Why is the Bible so particular to a people and its culture?

All human writers and all human readers are inescapably situated within a particular culture. There is no tale without a teller and no context for the tale without a culture. This is true even when science fiction authors create new worlds and new cultures. There must be sufficient intersection between our culture and the alien culture for us to identify, in at least some limited sense, with it. Otherwise the story lacks coherence and meaning. All communication is inescapably culturally conditioned; that cultural embeddedness is, indeed, essential to communication. There simply is no possible context-free, culturally unmoored way to communicate.

You may object that the Author of Scripture, not being human, is not so culturally bound. True enough, but we the readers are. So, for the sake of meaningful communication, the Author has condescended to communicate with us in a culturally specific manner that we can understand. So, it is perfectly reasonable that the Bible would reflect the culture of its human authors and its human readers; it simply could not be otherwise. Interestingly, NASA scientists confronted this same issue when they launched Voyager 1 and 2 satellites into interstellar space. The satellites carried golden records intended to communicate essentials of our world and species to whomever might encounter the probes in the future. The contents of those records are culturally particular, and the scientists are depending on there existing sufficient cultural overlap for “alien” cultures to make sense of the contents (see https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/). There simply is no escaping the cultural nature of communication.

Culture provides a necessary context for communication, but that cultural context is not necessarily the content of the communication. Do we find “primitive” science and technology in the Bible? Yes. But that should concern us only if the Author’s purpose in the Bible were to teach science and technology. And that is simply not the case. These cultural matters form the context for the communication, but not the content of it. We understand this and accept it without question or concern in other great literature. Shakespeare presumes a certain scientific and technological worldview that differs from ours. And yet the meaning of his plays is not found there nor is it hampered by the presence of the cultural elements. Shakespeare is culturally particular in form, but his meaning transcends cultural boundaries to speak to the deepest part of the human spirit. All great literature does this; in fact, that is the definition of great literature. The Bible does this, as well. In speaking of the bronze sea, a large round basin in the temple where priests cleansed themselves for the sacrificial rituals, the Bible provides dimensions that approximate pi as 3. Well, we know today that pi is an irrational transcendental number and not an integer. “Ah, error in the Bible!” the skeptics cry. Well, not so unless God was trying to teach mathematics in the text. Yes, the first temple Jews thought pi was around 3. How does that impact the true meaning of the text — the necessity for symbolic spiritual cleansing before approaching a holy God? God was not giving us a mathematics lesson in the text. Good readers distinguish between context and content.

Let’s push this even a bit farther than did the original challenge. What about the creation story in Genesis? Isn’t it just a retelling of other ancient near eastern (ANE) creation myths. Hasn’t it been thoroughly debunked by Science? I capitalized Science because those who use it as a bludgeon against the Bible most often deify and worship it. So, as a matter or respect….

Yes, the Biblical creation story shares much in common with other ANE creation myths. Why would we think that strange or disqualifying? If I wish to communicate the meaning of creation to a people familiar with other creation stories, it seems to make sense to use a cultural form which they will immediately recognize. What is important is not the similarities of Genesis with other ANE creation myths but the differences. YHWH speaks creation into existence; it does not emerge spontaneously as the result of a cosmic battle. Biblical creation is ex nihilo; it comes from nothing but the will and word of God and not from the blood and carcass of a defeated god. God creates man from love and to love, not from a need for creatures to serve and feed him. So, yes, the Author of Scripture used and subverted a mythical form familiar to the readers to communicate these, and other, great and new truths.

What I say next will be controversial to many, but I do not shy from it, and, in fact, I insist on it. The creation account in Genesis makes no scientific claims. A scientific claim is one that can be repeatedly tested and verified/refuted using the scientific method, a method which developed only some four hundred years ago. To impose science on Genesis is destructively anachronistic. The purpose of Genesis is not to present or explicate a scientific understanding of God’s process of creation, but rather God’s purpose in creation. The Bible is a theological story, not a science text. There is a particular structure to the Biblical creation accounts that presents creation as the construction of a cosmic temple in which God would dwell with his people, a people who would be priests in the temple as well as prophets to and kings over creation. That is not science. That is a meaning and purpose which science cannot supply and cannot refute.

The original challenge found fault that the Bible presented only the morals and values of the culture from which it came. I can only surmise my interlocutor has never read the Bible or compared it with other ANE cultures. The Bible continually challenges the morals and values of the surrounding cultures by providing God’s people a blueprint for holiness, for being set apart by their worship and laws. Anyone who doesn’t recognize the superiority of the Mosaic Law over other ANE moral/ethical systems has failed to read ANE cultural history.

Lastly, the Bible is so culturally particular because it is the record of a particular people called and created by God to be his instrument through whom he would make himself known to the nations and ultimately redeem the world. The Bible is more than but not less than the story of a particular people and their experience with the God who called them into being and revealed Himself to them in a covenant relationship. God was not absent from other peoples and cultures, but he made himself particularly present to and known by the Jews. So, of course, the Bible would be specific to that culture while ultimately transcending it with a message for all peoples.

The fact that the Bible perdures, that its truth and influence have transcended its original culture to permeate many cultures, makes me think its Author chose wisely to present it in its particular cultural context.

This is not a complete answer to the challenge by any means. But, I hope it will show that one may indeed meet the challenge; there is no need to shrink from it. And I hope it will encourage you to take this farther than I have, to think it through more clearly than I have. I will address other challenges in future posts.

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The Whys and Hows of Confession

Following is the transcript of a video presentation on the “basics” of the Anglican Rite of Reconciliation prepared for Apostles Anglican Church.

Confession. What images, what thoughts, what concerns, what questions arise when you think about the Rite of Confession? Do you picture a dimly lit church with a confessional booth in which an old man in a black robe leans in and listens intently through a lattice screen separating him from the penitent? Do you think of arbitrary penances: say thirty Hail Marys or ten Our Fathers? Are you concerned that confession is a “Catholic thing” that heirs of the Reformation have no business fooling around with? Do you question the need for confession to a priest: can’t you just confess directly to God and be forgiven?

In the next few minutes I hope to deal with these matters and more by giving you the Anglican understanding and perspective on the nature and use of sacramental confession. By sacramental confession I mean the same as the older term auricular confession: personal confession spoken out loud in private to a priest or bishop. The Rite of Confession in the Prayer Book is the liturgy that provides structure and words to the penitent and to the priest.

Let’s begin with the two most fundamental questions. Why do I need to confess to a priest? Can’t I just confess directly to God and be forgiven? Let me answer simply and directly; then I want to backtrack and nuance those answers a bit. First, no one must confess to a priest, ever. Second, everyone may confess directly to God and be forgiven, provided the confession is made with sincere repentance and true faith.

Now, let me backtrack and nuance those answers with a Gospel story, the raising of Lazarus. I’ll pick up the story midway through, with Jesus, the sisters, and several friends and townsfolk standing at the sealed tomb.

John 11:38–44 (ESV): 38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Likely from the beginning of Jesus’ prayer, but certainly from the moment Jesus called Lazarus out of the grave, death was defeated and Lazarus was alive. But notice how death and the grave still clung to Lazarus as he stumbled out of the cave: his hands and feet were still bound with the grave clothes and his face was still wrapped with a cloth — alive but still bearing the remnants of death, still hobbled by that which the Lord had already defeated. Have you ever noticed and thought about what happens next in the story? Jesus commanded those standing around — perhaps his sisters or friends — to unbind Lazarus and let him go. Jesus gave Lazarus life, but other human agents unbound him from the remnants of death.

This story is not just a declaration of Jesus’ power over death, particularly as he approaches his own death. It is also a potent image of sin and forgiveness. From the moment a penitent truly repents of sin and asks God for forgiveness, he/she is freed from sin. And yet, sometimes — often, my experience tells me — the remnants of sin cling to the person like grave clothes: doubts regarding the reality of forgiveness, shame, ongoing temptation. In such a case, Jesus calls other humans — priests — alongside the penitent to release him/her of these remnants of sin. It is about this that The Exhortation before Holy Communion speaks:

If you have come here today with a troubled conscience, and you need help and counsel, come to me, or to some other Priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive godly counsel, direction, and absolution. To do so will both satisfy your conscience and remove any scruples or doubt (BCP 2019, p. 148).

That priests are authorized by Christ to absolve a penitent is clear from Scripture (ref. Mt 16:17ff and John 20:21-23), from the Great Tradition of the Church, and from the Anglican Ordinal in which the Bishop prayers over the priest ordinand:

Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the imposition of our hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld (BCP 2019, p. 493).

So, to summarize, no one must confess to a priest to be forgiven, but many find the practice helpful. I suspect most would do, if they availed themselves of the rite.

But, let’s move beyond absolution, as important as it is. Confession is an opportunity for one to receive pastoral “counsel, direction, and comfort” (BCP 2019, p. 223). Suppose one is struggling regularly with a particular temptation. The wisdom of the Church tells us that temptation and sin breed in secrecy and in darkness, but wither in the open and in the light. It is helpful to confess temptation before it progresses to sin. This not only weakens the power of the temptation, but allows the priest to provide pastoral counsel and direction in overcoming the temptation going forward. That alone provides powerful justification for a regular practice of confession.

As to whether confession is a “catholic thing,” rest assured that it most certainly is! Catholic simply means “universal,” something that belongs to the whole Church throughout space and time. The most ancient and traditional expressions of the Church — Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican — all practice sacramental confession. Confession has been part of the Anglican Church from the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It is a catholic thing in the true sense of the word.

Images of a dimply lit church and a confessional booth? Perhaps in some parishes, but certainly not here. If you come for confession it will likely be in the nave or in one of our prayer rooms, private but certainly not intimidating. You may sit or kneel and the priest will sit near you: no lattice screen, just two sinners sitting together in the presence of God to seek his mercy, one authorized to speaks words of absolution, but two sinners nonetheless. The rite itself is simple and straightforward. You can find it in the Book of Common Prayer 2019, pages 223-224, and it would be helpful to read through it before a first confession. If it is a first confession, the priest will likely talk you through the process before you begin so there are no surprises and no worries about “doing it right.” But, just so you will know, there are a few things actually required to “do it right,” to make a good confession:

• A spiritual inventory of sins based perhaps on the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Summary of the Law, or a list of the Cardinal Sins. If you are unsure about how to conduct such a spiritual inventory, a priest can provide you some helpful resources before your first confession.

• Confession, i.e., a recognition and acknowledgment of sin without excuse or blame of others.

• Contrition/Repentance, i.e., true Godly sorrow.

• Restitution, as possible, i.e., making the injured party as whole as possible.

• Amendment of life, i.e, a plan and commitment to resist the sin going forward.

May I give an example? Suppose a penitent comes to me and confesses theft of some petty cash from his place of employment. Clearly, he is contrite. But, before pronouncing absolution, I would need to know if he has made restitution, if he has returned all the money he had stolen. If not, I could not pronounce absolution just yet; he must first make restitution and then return for absolution. And, I would want to know if this theft had been a one time lapse or a pattern of behavior. If a pattern, we would need to discuss steps to address amendment of life, i.e., means for conquering such temptation in the future. What that looks like differs from situation to situation, but amendment of life is an essential element of a good confession and of good pastoral care. Throughout all of this, it is important to bear in mind that the priest is never an accuser of the penitent, but always an advocate for the penitent before God. As for penance, my experience is that nothing arbitrary is imposed; rather, any suggested or required actions are directed toward liberating the penitent from further sin. For example, penance for someone addicted to pornography might well be joining a twelve-step or similar program to combat the addiction. The Rite of Confession is considered a Rite of Healing in the Anglican Church — not punitive, but liberating.

It is also important to know that the contents of a confession are confidential. Priests talk about the “seal of the confessional;” what is said in the confessional stays in the confessional. According to the Book of Common Prayer 2019, “The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken” (BCP 2019, p. 222). A priest may not reveal the contents of a confession, period, no exceptions.

My own experience as both a penitent and a confessor agrees with what Frederica Mathews-Green writes about confession. Everyone going to confession — especially for the first time — says, “I hate confession.” Everyone coming out says, “I love confession.” Confession offers a tangible — incarnational — way of knowing beyond doubt that you have been forgiven and a way of receiving the wise counsel of the Church to grow in Christlikeness.

Anglicans are known to say about confession: “All may, none must, some should.” That is a cute, typically via media saying. But nearer the truth is this: many should. If you still have questions about confession, please see me or one of our other priests. Or, simply make an appointment for confession. You will be blessed by the experience.

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St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Britain’s isle was holy Alban born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Water — the normative sacramental means

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Theology and Guns

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

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

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

Idols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rights

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

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

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

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

Thought World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Do I understand it?

2. Can I believe it?

3. What must I do if I believe it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Sacramental Confession: An Apologia

THE PRACTICE OF SACRAMENTAL CONFESSION
in the

ANGLICAN DIOCESE OF THE SOUTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

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

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

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

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) Canon 21 states:

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

Closer to home, The Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in North America (BCP 2019) contains this instruction regarding the seal of the confessional:

The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken (BCP 2019, p. 222).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCE LIST

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

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

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

ESV Bible (2016). Crossways.

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

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The Strange Ending of Mark’s Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is not a bad ending. Amen.

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Rise Up

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

Collect for Wednesday of Easter Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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