The 0 – 1 Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, 

nor the heart of man imagined, 

  what God has prepared for those who love him”— 

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

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

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

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The Cross In No Man’s Land

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

Good Friday, 2 April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

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

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

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

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

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

  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, 

and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 

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

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

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

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

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A New Commandment

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

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

Maundy Thursday, 1 April 2021

A Reflection on John 13:12-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Love never ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holy Wednesday

Holy Wednesday

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

Collect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul himself carefully guarded his own faith:

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

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

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

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I Will Not Go Up Among You

ADOTS Morning Prayer

Fr. John A. Roop

Friday, 26 March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May I paraphrase again?

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

And then Moses answers his own question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray.

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

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

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A Christian Evaluation of Ideologies

I am loathe to enter the realm of politics and I will not until and unless required to by my ordination vows:

Bishop:  Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Body of Christ all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both public and private admonitions and exhortations, to the weak as well as the strong within your charge, as need shall require and occasion shall be given?

Answer:  I will, the Lord being my helper.

Many social and political movements and agendas are swirling about us now, clamoring for attention and more than clamoring:  demanding our allegiance, lest we be judged on the wrong side of history.  These come from both ends of the spectrum, and neither left nor right has a monopoly on these ideologies.  They require a Christian response, and my vows demand that I speak to those who might listen.

I do not intend to engage with any of these ideologies in particular.  Rather, I wish to propose a Christian means of evaluating all of them, a set of orienting questions — hardly exhaustive but a faithful beginning — as these voices call out to us. 

Are the foundational principles of the ideology consonant with the Gospel?  Are all human being understood as image bearers of God who suffer under the burden of original and personal sin?  Are all persons called to repentance?  Is the mercy of God in Christ central so that forgiveness is offered to all who sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him?

Is the fundamental ethic of the ideology the Great and Second Commandments:  the love of God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and the love of one’s neighbor as oneself?

Does the ideology flow from and lead to worship of God as God, or does it elevate that which is not ultimate — state, party, race, gender, autonomy, etc. — to the place of God?

Is the spirit — the ethos — of the ideology animated by and reflective of the Holy Spirit as evidenced by the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

Does the ideology promote peace among erstwhile enemies and draw all to unity in Christ?

These questions are definitively and unapologetically Christian, for it is to my Christian brothers and sisters that I offer them.  Specifically, to Anglicans I might add another.

Does this ideology conform to the Anglican formularies:  the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and, for the ACNA, the Jerusalem Declaration, the Fundamental Declarations of the Province, and To Be A Christian (the catechism)?

A proper Christian evaluation of the various ideologies bombarding us requires wisdom, and here James is helpful:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.  For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man,unstable in all his ways (James 1:5-8, ESV).

Nor is Jude far from mind:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.  For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (June 3-4, ESV).

A final note:  if you think I have written this for “them” you are both right and wrong.  I have written it for us, for all of us who proclaim Jesus as Lord.

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St. Joseph: Husband of the Virgin Mary and Guardian of Jesus

ADOTS Morning Prayer: Friday 19 March 2021

Collect

O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the husband of his virgin mother:  Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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

In the original Star Trek series, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy — Captain Kirk and Spock — were real-life friends, but they were also competitive actors, particularly Shatner.  I’ve read that Shatner would scrutinize each new script, comparing the number of lines he had to the number of lines Nimoy had, Kirk’s minutes on screen to Spock’s.  If his role were not clearly dominant, Shatner would demand a re-write; in fact, he “stole” some of Spock’s best lines and best scenes for his own.

I guess this sort of thing is important for an actor, a way to judge the value of a role or the actor’s value to Hollywood:  number of lines spoken, time on screen.  No actor wants a career as a stand-in, a walk-on, as maid number 3 who serves the lord of the manor tea in Act II and is never heard from or seen again.

By this metric of lines and minutes, Joseph, Husband of the Virgin Mary and Guardian of Jesus, is a failed actor in the God’s drama of redemption.  He has no lines to say.  He is only in three scenes — briefly in each — and in one he is clearly upstaged by his wife, Mary, who has the speaking part.  In fact, he is identified primarily — almost solely — by his relationship to others who are seemingly more important than he:  Husband of the Virgin Mary, Guardian of Jesus.  If this had been a screen production, Willian Shatner would never have considered the part of Joseph:  Pilate, maybe, but Joseph certainly not.

So, what is Joseph’s value in the story?  What does he contribute, historically and theologically?

Not surprisingly, to answer this question we have to start with Mary.  It is in and through Mary that the Logos, the second Person of the Trinity, assumes flesh and blood and human nature.  For lack of better words, Mary is the human agent of incarnation.  Through her, God becomes man in the person of her son, Jesus of Nazareth; Mary is the source of his flesh and blood, of his humanity.  And while it is the humanity common to us all, it is expressed through particularity:  Jesus was neither Irish nor Italian, neither black nor white.  Jesus was particularly Jewish, and he was so through his mother Mary.  He was the son of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the fulfillment of God’s promise that through Abraham and his seed all the world would be blessed.  Jesus was a Jew.

Jewish lineage is matrilineal.  One born of a Jewish mother — regardless of the ethnicity of the father — is Jewish.  If Jesus were to be a Jew, his mother had to be a Jew.  So, Mary contributes flesh and blood, human nature, and Jewishness.  And what of Joseph?  What does he contribute?  Remember the promises and prophesies:  not only must the Messiah be Jewish, he must be of a particular tribe, Judah, and a particular house, David.  And these — tribe and house — are traced through the father, not the mother.  It was through Joseph that Jesus derived the legal lineage necessary to fulfill Jacob’s blessing of Judah and God’s promises to David.

To Judah, Jacob had said:

Genesis 49:10 (ESV): 10  The scepter shall not depart from Judah, 

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, 

  until tribute comes to him; 

and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 

To David, God had said, through the prophet Nathan:

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

When Scripture speaks of Jesus as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, that is attributable to Joseph.  When Scripture speaks of an Everlasting King from the house of David, that is attributable to Joseph.

As a father myself, I’ve long pondered the nature of that role.  I think I am a different father to my daughter than my father was to me.  That is neither good nor bad; as much as anything else it is simply a reflection of the times in which we live.  Parental roles are — for better or worse, and it’s unusually some of each — colored by social norms.  As with fatherhood today, the father’s role in a first century Jewish family was prescribed by culture:  in that time and place, to protect and defend the family as best he could, to provide economically for the family as best he could, and to provide discipline and vocational training — primarily for the sons — as best he could.  That Jesus survived the slaughter of the innocents and the wrath of Herod the Great is tribute to Joseph and his faithful response to God.  That — even though poor — Jesus had a place to live and food to eat is tribute to Joseph.  That Jesus had a trade — handyman carpenter — is tribute to Joseph.  These are no small things.

In the drama of salvation, Joseph’s role is not a speaking part — he says nothing to the audience — nor does he have much time on stage.  But, what he does in silence and behind the scenes is crucial to the “character development” of the lead actor and to the backstory of the drama.  He is no bit player, but a crucial, supporting actor.

What is it about Joseph that made him ideal for that part?  Here’s the first we hear about him:

Matthew 1:18–19 (ESV): 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 

Mary and Joseph were betrothed, which means that they were, in effect, married except for cohabitation and sexual relations.  A betrothal was ended only by consummation of the marriage or by divorce.  Mary’s pregnancy during the betrothal period was either a shameful flaunting of social norms if the baby were Joseph’s, or else adultery if the baby were not Joseph’s.  The text notes that Joseph was a just man, a righteous, man:  presumably a man who was known as upright, who did the right thing, and who followed the Law and the social norms.  He would have been justified in divorcing Mary publicly, on grounds of adultery.  Of course, since adultery was a capital offense, that could have meant Mary’s death.  But, the text also says that he was unwilling to shame — and likely endanger — Mary in this way.  So, Joseph was not just just in terms of conformity to Law and custom; he was also merciful.  Divorce, yes; that is the just thing to do as Joseph sees it — but privately, which is the merciful things to do.  There is a description of this wonderful duality in Psalm 85:

10 Mercy and truth have met together;*

righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

11 Truth shall flourish out of the earth,*

and righteousness shall look down from heaven (BCP 2019, p. 381).

Mercy and truth, righteousness and peace, justice and compassion:  the coming together, the embrace, of opposites which, as it turns out, are not opposites at all.  I am hesitant to go beyond Scripture and certainly hesitant and unqualified to psychologize Scripture, but I can’t help seeing this same dynamic at work in this story:

John 8:2–11 (ESV): 2 Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Thirty years earlier, this woman might have been Mary, had Joseph not shown both justice and mercy.  I wonder if Mary and Joseph had told Jesus their story — his story?

The text also tells us that Joseph was a thinker and a dreamer, a pattern in Joseph’s life.

Matthew 1:20–21 (ESV): 20 But as [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph considered, and Joseph dreamed.  This is a pattern of spiritual discernment that St. Ignatius would have endorsed.  In making an important spiritual decision, lay out all the options.  Think them through, analyze them in detail, submit them to God, and be attentive to movements of the Spirit, to consolations given by God.  Justice, mercy, spiritual discernment, openness to revelation:  these were hallmarks of Joseph’s character.

There is one more that the text mentions, again repeated in Joseph’s life:

Matthew 1:24–25 (ESV): 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. 

Joseph was obedient, faithful to what God had revealed.  Was he relieved by the dream?  Was he disappointed?  Was he apprehensive?  We don’t know.  Was he obedient and faithful regardless of consequences and personal desires?  Yes, that we know.  Three times this pattern repeats in Joseph’s life:  dilemma, discernment, dream, obedience.  The pattern always ended in obedience to the will of God.  It is not too great a stretch, I think, to see that same thing in Joseph’s son:

Matthew 26:39 (ESV): 39 And going a little farther [Jesus] fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Not as I will, but as you will:  obedience to God regardless of personal desire or consequences.

We often focus on the role of Mary in the incarnation, and rightly so.  She is the model of humility and faithfulness.  But, the Church wisely insists that we remember Joseph, as well, who models for us the embrace of justice and mercy; a discerning pattern of reason and revelation; and obedience to the will of God.  Surely, these were influences on Jesus as he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.  Amen.

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Bursting Into Flame

ADOTS MORNING PRAYER:  Friday, 12 March 2021

Fr. John A. Roop

Burst Into Flames

(Exodus 19)

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

Some years ago, a friend was ordained to the diaconate in a small Oriental Orthodox jurisdiction.  No one had mentioned it to him, but he had noticed that the local priest always paused to say a prayer just before coming to the altar.  Thinking he might need to do the same, he asked the priest what prayer he prayed, expecting to be pointed to a particular place in the liturgy.  The priest said, “Mostly, I just pray not to burst into flames.”

I’ve always liked that answer; it’s always felt right to me.  Those of us who serve at the altar know that it’s holy ground, know that we have no inherent right to be there, know that unless God has indeed called us there, we just might burst into flame.

There is some sense of this in our liturgy, when the priest prays on his own behalf and on behalf of the people:

And although we are unworthy, because of our many sins, to offer you any sacrifice, yet we ask you to accept this duty and service we owe, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And, there is the Prayer of Humble Access — as if any other kind of access were appropriate:

We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord,

trusting in our own righteousness…

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table….

There is a vast “no man’s land” between God’s righteousness and our sinfulness, between God’s glory and our shame, and we know it.  To step into that space unadvisedly, uninvited, is to step into a fiery furnace.

Fifty days after Passover — on the Old Testament Pentecost — Israel arrives at Sinai, the Mountain of God.  While the people make camp, Moses goes up to God, and God speaks:

Exodus 19:4–6 (ESV):  5 “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” 

A kingdom of priests and a holy nation:  but Israel is not yet that. They must be formed.  They must be purified.  They must learn covenant faithfulness.  There is still a vast “no man’s land” between God’s righteousness and their sinfulness, between God’s holiness and Israel’s faithlessness.  And though God has called them to the mountain, they dare not come too near, and this by God’s own warning:

Exodus 19:10–13 (ESV): “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments 11 and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” 

Israel may come to the mountain, but not up the mountain.  Sinai will be made holy ground by the presence of God, and Israel may not so much as touch it on pain of death.

Exodus 19:16–20 (ESV): 16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 

Thunder, lightning, cloud, trumpet blast, smoke, fire:  the presence of God.  The people did not want to go up the mountain; they knew better.  They trembled and stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (cf Ex 20:18-21).

This “no man’s land” between God and Israel manifests throughout Scripture:  instantiated in architecture, in the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in Tabernacle and Temple where the people might not come; in relationships, in the need for judges and priests and prophets to mediate between God and Israel; and not least in the exile itself, God’s faithless people cast out of God’s holy land.  In some real sense, the entire Old Testament narrative is a people’s lived experience of the Prayer of Humble Access:  we do not presume to come; we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.  But, Israel’s story — which is the story of all of us — does not end there, does not end with separation.  Because neither Israel nor we could enter into God’s presence without bursting into flame, God came to us:  not in thunder and lightning and smoke and fire, but in the Word made flesh, in emptiness, in the form of a servant (cf Phil 2:5ff), in Jesus Christ, in the one who perfectly unites divinity and humanity in his person, who draws up human nature into the divine presence without the destruction of that human nature.  Jesus steps boldly into the “no man’s land” and there plants the standard of God — the cross — and he invites all men to come to it.  Come now to God.  Yes, you will burst into flame, but come anyway.  It will be the transforming, purifying flame of the burning bush where you will burn with the fire of God but not be consumed, where you will be refined but not be destroyed.  Come into the presence of God.  Come into the fire.

In reflecting on this invitation we now have to come into the presence of God in and through Christ Jesus, the writer of Hebrews looks back to Israel gathered at Sinai and writes:

Hebrews 12:18–24 (ESV): 18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 

Stop a moment to ponder this mystery.  As we gather here and now in the name of Jesus, gather even remotely and virtually, and most especially as we gather for the Eucharist on the Lord’s day, we come to Mount Zion, not just to the city of the living God, but to the living God himself, to Jesus who makes this gathering possible through the sprinkling of his blood.  We are surrounded by innumerable angels dressed for the great feast — the Marriage Supper of the Lamb — and to the assembly of the Church on earth and in heaven.  The presence of God that terrified Israel now beckons the Church, beckons us:

to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:19b-22, ESV).

We come into the presence of God humbly and fearfully in ourselves, yes, but boldly in and through our Lord Jesus Christ, having our bodies washed with the pure waters of baptism and having our hearts sprinkled clean by his blood.  We come into the presence of God as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, what God promised Israel and fulfilled in the Church.  The “no man’s land” of separation is no more, and the thunder from the mountain is the voice of God’s invitation:  Come.  Amen.

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Christian Anthropology — Christian Hope

Christian Anthropology:  Hope in the Midst of Decline

Introduction

Any one who has lived any time has bumped up hard against the consequences of the fall, among which is the tendency toward chaos, the winding down and wearing out of all things.  Paul tells us it was not always so (Rom 8:19-21), and John promises it will not always be so (Rev 21:1-4).  But, my experience, and I dare say yours as well, says it is so now.

As an Anglican priest, I provide such pastoral care as I can to those who labor under this burden.  Often this means supporting parishioners who are caring for aging family members.  Sometimes it means walking beside those who are experiencing their own physical or mental decline.  The practical difficulties are many:  providing or finding proper in-home care, locating a reputable and affordable facility when that time comes, managing troublesome symptoms and behaviors.  I am no expert on these practical matters; others are often better able to assist.  

But, in addition to these struggles, there is frequently the emotional and spiritual battle against hopelessness as the condition deteriorates day by day:  the loss of autonomy,  the sense of futility, the long goodbye.  There is the issue of meaning:  what significance does a life in decline — my own or that of a loved one — have?  Is it worth living any longer?  Where is God in the midst of this?  These are theological questions, and the wisdom of the Church speaks to them, offering hope in decline.

Christian Anthropology

Modern Dualism

To understand the Christian hope that is ours even in the midst of physical or mental decline, we must consider human nature itself.  For centuries, Western thought has been influenced almost exclusively by — and some might say it is captive to — the Enlightenment project and one of its chief philosophical architects Rene Descartes.  It was Descartes who gave us the famous dictum cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, setting the stage for the reinterpretation of man as the thinking being.  The essence of humanity became reasoned thought — the mind.

In the post modern (post Enlightenment) era that we are currently muddling through, the emphasis has shifted somewhat from the mind to the body.  In this confused worldview, the body is alternately elevated and debased; either way it takes center stage.  Physical beauty is glorified and preserved at all costs, while what passes for beauty appears, in many cases, less natural than before, and more disfiguring.  The body is pampered and indulged:  a playground, not a temple.  All the while, ironically, abortion destroys bodies to protect women’s rights to their own bodies, and euthanasia kills bodies under the guise of quality of life.   No longer satisfied with the biology of bodies, our culture attempts to redefine, remake, and transcend gender norms and physical gender itself.  Gender is no longer binary, but ranges across a spectrum.  The body is conformed to and often deformed by self-image using whatever means necessary and available.  The body defines the essence of humanity.

Both of these approaches are akin to the ancient gnostic heresy because they are dualistic (mind versus body) and not holistic (body and mind together).  Neither recognizes man as person nor honors God in whose likeness the person is created.  The faith of the Church offers a better way.  

Biblical Personhood

God identified himself to Moses as I Am (Ex 3:13 ff), the very essence of being and personhood.  We, too, use the pronoun I to refer to our personhood.  It is worth asking, though, in the human case:  To what does this I actually refer?

The meaning of I depends very much on what follows it in any sentence.  For example, “I need a shower,” means that my body is dirty and needs attention.  “I am hungry,” means my belly is empty and needs filling.  “I like running on the beach,” means that my body enjoys the act and the results of physical exercise, and that my bodily senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell — are pleasantly stimulated by the environment of the beach.  In all these cases, and in many more that we could list, I refers primarily to the person as body, to the physical faculties of personhood.  We might call this aspect of personhood body.

Body is that aspect of personhood that pertains to the physical nature.

But, I has other referents.  “I think…” refers to the mind, to the rational part of the person.  “I am very happy,” pertains to emotions.  “I feel so guilty,” is an acknowledgment of the conscience.  “I refuse,” is an act of the will.  None of these uses of I pertains primarily to the body.  Instead, we might call this aspect of personhood soul.

Soul is that aspect of personhood that pertains to reason, emotions, conscience, and will.

Though it is helpful to distinguish between body and soul, they are unified in the person.  That is, the person is not a body with a soul, nor is the soul the “life force” imprisoned in a body.  This is where dualism gets it wrong.  The person is a unified body-soul.  To treat a person as just a body — as does pornography, for example — is to debase the person.  Likewise, to treat a person as just a soul is to ignore the essential incarnation of the person.  We can easily see the unity of the person in such statements as “I love my wife (or husband).”  A survey of the rite of Holy Matrimony — or a reflection on lived experienced — clearly shows that the body, the mind, the emotions, the conscience, and the will are all included in that statement.  The love between spouses is a whole person to whole person relationship.  When any aspect of personhood is missing in a marriage, there is a deficit in the relationship, sometimes such a serious deficit that divorce ensues.

So, have we now fully defined I — the person — as the unity of body and soul?  No, not yet fully, not in the Christian understanding of personhood.  Consider the statement “I know God.”  To what does I refer here?  Do we know God in and through the body?  Certainly we do, for the body participates in worship.  Do we know God in and through the mind?  Yes; reason, emotions, conscience, and will are all fully engaged in the knowledge of God.  But, there is more.  There is one more faculty that is essential for the knowledge of God, a faculty without which no such knowledge is possible:  the spirit.  An extended passage from 1 Corinthians makes this clear:

9 But, as it is written, 

  “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, 

nor the heart of man imagined, 

  what God has prepared for those who love him”— 

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

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:9-16, ESV throughout). 

God makes himself known to us spiritually:  his Holy Spirit giving life and revelation and understanding to the human spirit.  Our cognitive understanding of God is the mind’s effort to construct a mental summary of spiritual revelation and experience.  Our bodily impressions of God is the body’s response to spiritual revelation and experience.

The spirit is that faculty of the person which can know, experience, and contemplate God directly, unmediated by the body and mind.

The Christian understanding of I — of personhood — must include the holistic union of body, soul, and spirit.

While the whole person participates in the experience and knowledge of God, only the spirit does so independently of the other faculties.  In fact, it is the spirit that rightly mediates the experience and knowledge of God to the mind and the body.  If the human spirit has not been made regenerate (born again) by the Holy Spirit, then the mind cannot rightly understand God nor can the body rightly experience and worship God (cf John 14:15-17; 16:12-15).

An Example from Scripture

We can see the holistic nature of personhood — body, soul, and spirit — in Luke’s account of the Visitation.

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:39-45). 

The baby in Elizabeth’s womb is John, who will be known as the Baptist, and who, even from before birth, heralds the Lord.  Notice that even in the womb — before cognitive thought has developed, before language, before a full range of emotions — John recognizes Jesus and responds with a leap (body) and with joy (emotions/soul).  How is this possible?  It is the action of the Holy Spirit revealing truth to both John’s and Elizabeth’s spirits.  Especially in John’s case, this is an example of spiritual knowledge (revelation) unmediated by body or soul — given directly from the Holy Spirit to the human spirit.  And this provides a sound theological basis for Christian hope in decline.

Anthropology and Christian Hope

We may think of the body and soul as that part of the person which allows one to communicate with, express oneself to, and engage with the outside world.  It is typically what we know and see of another person and what we reveal of ourselves.  It is an integral part of personhood.  But, so is the spirit.  The spirit is that part of the person which allows one to communicate directly with, express oneself to, and engage with God through the Holy Spirit.  It is unseen and unknown to others except indirectly as it guides the body and soul in the way of righteousness.  God often relates to the spirit in hidden ways, ways that transcend the body and soul and are not dependent upon them.

What does this mean for one in decline, or for those who care for loved ones in decline?  It means that we have every reason to hope and to believe that even in the midst of increasing bodily frailty and cognitive loss, God is still present and at work with the person’s spirit.  We may — rightly — mourn the decline of body and soul, but we need not and should not doubt that the spirit is being nourished by God and transformed into the likeness of Christ.  What we see with our eyes is only the outer part of the person, the part which may be in decline.  But the inner part of the person, the spirit, may be moving from one degree of glory to another.  Reflecting on his own physical suffering and mental anguish for the Church, Paul writes:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).

This is our Christian hope in the midst of bodily and mental decline:  precisely that the inner self, the spirit, is being renewed day by day though the transient body and mind are fading away for the moment.  At the resurrection there will be a new body and soul, imperishable and immortal, enlivened by the spirit transformed by God’s grace into the likeness of Christ.

Personal Note:  Preparing for the Harvest

(This was written some time ago.  The dear saint I mention is now with the Lord.  May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace and rise in glory.)

As a priest, I visit memory care facilities to provide pastoral care to parishioners experiencing the advancing symptoms of dementia.  I recently took Holy Communion to such a dear saint.  Before the Eucharist we simply visited for awhile talking about anything and nothing at all.  Sometimes my sister was lucid, and sometimes she was not.  During our talk she was in many different places and times.  As much as I enjoyed our visit, I mourned that the part of her that I could know and relate to — body and soul — is declining.  But I rejoiced that God is at work in her spirit, that she communes directly with her Creator and Redeemer, unhindered by failing body and mind, that her life still has eternal meaning and purpose even in the midst of outward decline.

When I prepared the hospital tray table as altar and began to celebrate Holy Eucharist, my dear sister became fully present in body, soul, and spirit.  She boldly said the Lord’s Prayer.  She held out her hands to receive the Body of Christ and eagerly drank from the small chalice containing his Blood of the new covenant.  She made the sign of the cross.  She could do these things because she had done them for years, for the whole of her long life.

I have seen this in other circumstances, when a group from our parish holds a service in a local residential care facility, for example.  Residents in advanced stages of dementia and largely non-verbal nevertheless sing the old hymns with us and say the familiar Scriptures with us (e.g. John 3:16, Psalm 23) or at least recognize them and acknowledge them with a smile or a nod.

These saints are reaping in their old age what they sowed in their youth.  They are harvesting in the midst of decline what they planted in their strength.

The Preacher, the son of David, instructs us (Eccles 12:1-8):

1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” (Eccles 12:1).

Some degree of diminishment of body and mind will come to us all, if we live long enough.  How may we prepare for it, so that we receive it, too, as God’s grace?  By spending a life remembering our Creator:  engaging with such spiritual disciplines as worship, prayer, study and reflection upon Scripture will yield an abundant inner harvest even in the midst of outer decline.

8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Gal 6:8).

This is Christian faith and practice.  It is our hope in the midst of decline.

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Let My People Go: A Homily on Exodus 12

ADOTS Morning Prayer: Friday, 5 March 2021

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

A battle is raging across the pages of Exodus.  Confrontation by confrontation, plague by plague, it builds in intensity toward its climax in chapter 12:  the Passover and the death of the firstborn of Egypt.  It may seem like a battle of wills between Moses and Pharaoh, a clash between the interests of Hebrews and Egyptians.  But, that is only what we see with our eyes.  There are hints, and more than hints in Scripture — see Deuteronomy 32 and Daniel 10, for example — that conflict involving Israel is fundamentally spiritual in nature, a battle in the unseen realm playing out on earth:  as in heaven, so on earth.

It would be easy to read Exodus as political xenophobia:  Pharaoh responding to potential threat from the non-indigenous, Hebrew population.  It is tempting to read Exodus as social commentary:  a judgment upon the institution of slavery and even a call for reparations.  One could even perceive Exodus as the narrative of a Marxist-like, economic class struggle.  But this would be to misread the book, to miss or to twist its fundamental nature.  Exodus is the story of redemption, the world’s redemption played out first in the liberation of the Hebrews.  It is God’s response to all those spiritual powers and their earthly minion counterparts who stand athwart God’s purpose for the redemption of the world.

From the beginning, God’s call was unequivocal:

Exodus 4:22–23 (ESV): 22 “Then you [Moses] shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’ ” 

This command becomes the insistent drumbeat echoing throughout Exodus, louder and louder:  “Let my people go, that they may serve me.”  Instead, Pharaoh puts himself in the place of God and demands that the Hebrews serve him:  Pharaoh, the earthly representative of Egypt’s gods.  So God comes in judgment upon these gods, idolatrous representations of fallen spiritual powers, pagan deifications of nature:  the Nile, frogs, flies, the sun, and the like.  And with each plague we hear, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.”  One by one, God judges the idols of Egypt, coming closer to Pharaoh himself with each plague, until finally the unrelenting Pharaoh must himself be broken:  Exodus 12, the Passover and the death of the firstborn.

So, the real issue in Exodus — the real conflict — is not social, political, or economic, though each of these stem from it.  The real issue is the destructive nature of sin, exemplified in the idolatry of Egypt and in the pride of Pharaoh.

Egypt creates gods whom they can manipulate, whom they think they can manipulate for the people’s welfare.  Offer the right sacrifices to the Nile and the floods will come at the proper time to make the delta fertile.  Worship the sun, and its light and heat will grace the fields and bless the people with abundant crops.  But, the plagues reveal the truth:  all these false gods ultimately turn on their worshippers and bring them to destruction.  You cannot finally domesticate nature or control the fallen spiritual powers.  Nature will fail you, and the gods will destroy you.

Need I belabor this point, brothers and sisters?  Do we not see it clearly all around?  We have manipulated nature, treating it as commodity and cesspool.  And we are watching it turn on us:  fire, flood, storm, pandemic.  We have created gods of our own to manipulate for our welfare:  pleasure, power, wealth, honor, freedom, politics.  And we are now watching them fail us.  And all the time God is calling, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.”

Pharaoh, in his pride, grasped for the prerogatives of God.  To God he said, “Your people will not serve you, but me.”  Need I belabor this point, brothers and sisters?  Do we not see it clearly all around?  Political figures of both parties who grasp our loyalty and demand we serve them and their agendas; ideologies to which we are bidden bow down, ideologies incompatible with the Gospel; causes we are commanded to embrace lest we be cancelled.  And now, we are watching these things destroy us.  And all the time God is calling, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.”

These battles that we are fighting are not different in kind than the conflict we see raging across the pages of Exodus.  It is a spiritual battle for the redemption of the world and the salvation of our souls:  as in Egypt then, so here and now.  Idols are being revealed and judged.  Pride is being expose and will be cast down.  God is calling us out into the wilderness to serve him, and he is commanding all those who stand athwart his redemptive purpose for the world and his use of his people in that redemptive purpose:  “Let my people go, that they may serve me.”  How many plagues must come?

In Exodus, the decisive conflict in the battle was the Passover and the death of the firstborn.  It is tempting to view the Passover meal as merely a symbol of that battle, and, in later years, as a memorial of it.  That may be, but only in part.  It was, I think, much more than that.  The Passover rite, and the meal in particular, were God’s ongoing invitation for his people to participate in his victory, to fight the good fight as fellow soldiers with God, and to enjoy the spoils of the battle.  In the Passover, God enlisted his people in the battle not just against Pharaoh, but against all the spiritual powers arrayed against God, spiritual powers opposed to his redemptive plan for the world through Israel.  And the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, its blood applied to the door posts and lintels of the Hebrew homes, the feasting on the lamb and unleavened bread:  all these were weapons in the battle, weapons through which God broke the bonds of slavery and trampled the gods of Egypt underfoot.  This is not just symbol or memorial.  All this was a participation in the battle for liberation and a foretaste of the ultimate victory of God’s redemption.

It is not then incidental that when Jesus was preparing for the ultimate battle against the spiritual forces that held all creation in bondage, he situated his actions in the Passover.  It is no coincidence, no quirk of timing, that Jesus gave his followers a meal:  not as a symbol of the battle to come, and not, in later years, as a mere memorial of it.  No.  The Eucharist is God’s ongoing invitation for his people to participate in his victory, to fight the good fight as fellow soldiers with him, and to enjoy the spoils of the battle.  It is all right there in the Eucharistic Liturgy:

In obedience to your will, he stretched out his arms upon the Cross and offered himself once for all, that by his suffering and death we might be saved.  By his resurrection he broke the bonds of death, trampling Hell and Satan under his feet (BCP 2019, p. 133).

Jesus is the Paschal Lamb whose sacrifice saves us.  His victory — his resurrection — is our liberation from bondage to sin and death.  It is his victory over all the spiritual powers who thought to stand athwart God’s redemptive purpose — a victory that tramples these powers, Hell and Satan, under the pierced feet of Christ.

By eating the bread and drinking the wine — by feasting on the body and blood of the Paschal Lamb — we enter the battle along with him as we are incorporated into him, as “we are made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him” (BCP 2019, p. 134).  And we share with him the spoils of victory:  access to the very presence of God and life eternal in his presence, adoption as his own sons and daughters.

Every time we come to the Eucharist we are strengthened for the ongoing battle.  Every time we come to the Eucharist we engage in the battle against enemies within and without.  Every time we come to the Eucharist we proclaim Christ’s victory until he comes again.  Every time we come to the Eucharist we share in the spoils of Christ’s victory.  This battle commenced in earnest is Egypt with God’s declaration, “Let my people go, that they may serve me,” and with the Passover and the death of the firstborn.  It reached its climax on Calvary with the sacrifice of God’s firstborn, the Pachal Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  And it is now our battle in and through the Eucharist and in and through our Eucharistic living.

“Let my people go, that they may serve me,” God said.  We have been let go to serve him.

Amen.

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