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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Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are?

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer:  26 February 2021

(Exodus 5)

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

How you ask a question makes all the difference in the world:  tone of voice, intonation, stress, intent, even body language and facial expression.  In my previous vocation as math teacher, I had many students ask me this same question:  When are we ever going to use this?  Some asked it as a challenge to the importance of the mathematics curriculum, and even as a challenge to my judgment and authority as teacher:  When are we ever going to use this?!  Other students asked it as honest inquiry, trying to fit this new bit of knowledge into the whole scheme of mathematics:  When — with “how” implied — are we ever going to use this?  The words were the same, but the questions were different because the spirit and intent of the questioners were very different.  It was easy to tell the questions apart because of how they were asked.

 A few years ago my family enjoyed a television program called “Who do you think you are?”  It was similar to a current program, “Finding Your Roots” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a show that invites a celebrity to explore his or her ancestry with the help of professional genealogists.  The show centered on the issue of identity, of self-perception:  Who do you think you are?  In other words:  What do you know about yourself and your heritage?  In the course of the show, there were often surprises along the family tree, so that it almost always ended with the celebrity having a new and often vastly different understanding of his or her identity.  Had you ever imagined that you were descended from the Queen of Lower Slabovia and that if you lived there today you would be treated as royalty? Some of the surprises were darker:  Did you know that you descended from slave traders? or Did you know that your ancestors fought for the British in the American Revolution?

The question, posed rightly as on the television program, posed with the proper spirit and intent, is an invitation to self-exploration and self-knowledge:  Who do you think you are?  But, I’ve heard that same question used quite differently, used as a weapon.  Have you?  Who do you think you are?  Can you imagine the Lord of an English manor addressing a cheeky servant with that question in a BBC drama?  Who do you think you are?  Or perhaps an employer to an employee who challenges a management decision. Who do you think you are?  Or — God forbid! — a frustrated math teacher to a challenging student?  Who do you think you are?  

One way of asking the question is an invitation to recover a lost, true identity.  The other way of asking is an attempt to impose a false, and often subservient, identity.

The two forms of this question are on clear display in the opening chapters of Exodus, and I would argue throughout the whole of Scripture.  They form the backdrop, the context, to our morning reading from Exodus 5.  This selection says it all, really:

Exodus 5:1–9 (ESV): 5 Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’ ” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” 3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.” 5 And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!” 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, 7 “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.” 

Can’t you just hear that question behind everything else that Pharaoh says here:  “Who you think you are,” coming into my presence, making demands on me in the name of a god I don’t even know?  This is, at the heart of this story, the issue of identity — the identity of the Hebrews.  “Who do you think you are?” Pharaoh asks in word and deed.  And he answers his own question; remember, one of the purposes of this question is to impose, by intimidation and power, a false sense of identity on another.  “I’ll tell you who you are, Hebrews.  You are slaves.  You are workers.  You are mine.”  And the record shows that the Hebrews had begun to accept this false identity as their own.

But, Moses and Aaron come asking the question differently:  Who do you think you are?  What is your true identity?  And, in word and deed, Moses and Aaron take these Hebrews back through the twists and turns of their family tree, revealing and recapturing the true identity of a people.

You are not slaves; you are the free sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Abraham, our father, whom God called from Ur of the Chaldees.  Abraham, with whom God made covenant to grant him land and a multitude of people through whom all the world would be blessed.  And Isaac, the promised son through whom the covenant was continued.  Jacob, who wrestled with God and who would not let go until God blessed him — our father who strove with God and prevailed.  You are not slaves; you are the free sons and daughters of the Patriarchs, the chosen of God, a holy and blessed and precious people.

You are not workers; you are worshippers.  Your identity is not found in six days of labor — or seven days of toil here in Egypt — but in the Sabbath Day of rest and in worship.  Your identity is not found in Egypt, but at the end of a three day’s journey into the wilderness, in a sacrifice to the LORD your God, in a feast before the God of Israel.  You are not workers; you are worshippers.

You are not Pharaoh’s property, but God’s own possession.  Of all the nations on earth, God chose you, so that he rightly says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”  And though Pharaoh arrogantly says, “I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go,” know this:  Pharaoh will soon know the LORD, the LORD mighty in battle, the God of the angel armies.  Pharaoh will know, and in that knowledge he will be destroyed.  You are not Pharaoh’s property, but God’s own possession for whom God is jealous.

This is who you are:  not slaves, but sons and daughters; not workers, but worshippers, not Pharaoh’s disposable property, but God’s cherished possession.

Who do you think you are?  How that question is asked is important.  How we answer it is even more important.

I raise these issues because I think recapturing and retaining a true identity is one the most pressing challenges facing Christians today, as it has been from the beginning.  Paul grapples with this in his letter to the Romans:

Romans 12:1–2 (ESV): I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

This is the Exodus question — Who do you think you are? — brought forward a thousand years and even beyond that into our age.  And Paul proclaims once again — here and elsewhere — that we are not slaves, but sons and daughters; that we are not workers, but worshippers; that we are not the world’s commodity, but God’s own possession.  He exhorts us, he pleads with us:  Don’t be conformed to the world; don’t let the world dictate your identity.  Be transformed in your mind, in your thinking, in your self-understanding, to realize who you really are in Christ Jesus.

Beloved, the world is only too happy and too ready to tell you who you are.  We are not lacking in modern Pharaohs.  You are your bank account.  You are — for better or worse — your body.  You are your race.  You are your political party.  You are your sexual orientation.  You are your choice.  You are a producer of goods and services.  You are a consumer of goods and services.  You are nothing.  You are everything.

To all these lies Paul, like Moses before him, stands in opposition to Pharaoh and says to us:

Romans 8:12–17 (ESV): 12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 

Who do you think you are? the world asks us as it tries to answer for us, to conform us to its false identity.  And we need to be clear about the answer:  We are the sons and daughters of God and joint heirs with Christ Jesus; we are the temple of the Holy Spirit and partakers of the divine nature; we are worshippers of the one, true God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and we are his kingdom of priests to his glory and honor, now and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

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The Truth Is In Here

In the interest of full disclosure, I never watched the X-Files, the science fiction television series about an alien plot to destroy the human race.  But, the tag line of the show has entered the public sphere — The truth is out there — so I feel free to appropriate it.

As we saw in the previous essay [Believing Impossible Things], St. Paul would agree:  the truth of God — at least the partial truth of God — is out there and may be observed by all people, so that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20, ESV throughout unless otherwise noted).  This is an objective, rational knowledge of god that supplements our philosophical reasoning.

But, the truth is also in here, within each of us and all of us, a subjective rational knowledge that contributes further to our reasonable understanding of god.  In what follows, I draw heavily upon C. S. Lewis — with a nod toward John Henry Newman — and his masterwork of apologetics, Mere Christianity.  You would be better served by reading it rather than this, though this essay has the sole advantage of being shorter.

Human beings have certain appetites:  some physical, some emotional, and, I will argue, some spiritual.  We have an appetite for food, at a basic level (physical) merely to sustain us, and at a more refined level (physical and emotional) to please and satisfy us.  We have an appetite for companionship.  At a physical level this may manifest as sexual desire; at a more refined, emotional level as friendship.

It would be odd for creatures to evolve — or to be created, but that is still a good way off in our discussion — with appetites that could not be satisfied.  Why the craving for food if no food could be found?  Why, indeed, a stomach at all, if there were nothing to fill it?  Why the longing for sex or friendship if there were no others to share and satisfy these longings?

So, I suggest that these deeply fundamental human appetites/longings point toward the existence of that which is necessary to satisfy them.  Now, we must not push this too far.  There are certainly things which humans might desire —the ability to disappear, for example — for which there are no corresponding satisfactions.  But, these are whims, hardly inherent and fundamental appetites, and they do not impact our argument at all.

Here is the important point:  the universe exists in a form that satisfies these human appetites:  that satisfies them.  A meal, even an unpleasant one, can satisfy the body’s need for nutrition and can silence a rumbling belly.  We eat, we are filled, and we want no more for a time.  In the presence of a friend, our emotional need for companionship is satisfied.  Later, when our friend is absent from us, we may find ourselves lonely, but not in the friend’s presence.  What is available to us in food and friendship is enough to satisfy us.

But, there are other human longings that are at a different pitch altogether, perhaps more abstract, but no less real — goodness, truth, and beauty, for example.  Are these as fundamental as food, sex, and friendship?  I suggest that their centrality to human culture and their necessity for human flourishing answer yes, these appetites are as inherent and fundamental as any others.  But, there is an important difference.  These appetites are not — and cannot be — completely satisfied by anything present to us in this world.  At some point in a meal we may say, “I couldn’t eat another bite,” meaning, of course, that we are completely satisfied.  But, in the presence of beauty, we never say, “No more; I am full of beauty and can take no more.”  Instead, the beauty we see or hear fills us with a longing for more; these appetites are mere appetizers.  They do not satisfy, but rather stir up longings that cannot be satisfied by the things of this world.  These are the spiritual appetites.

I would still argue — and I do — that the presence of these universal, fundamental, and inherent human longings implies the existence of that which will satisfy those longings.  If the satisfaction is not imminent, present here with us — and it is not — then it must be transcendent, something beyond this physical world.  Satisfaction lies where god is:  not in or with beings in the world, but in the source and ground of being.  While we may not, in our argument, be ready to jump directly to St. Augustine, we can at least sense that he was on to something when he wrote in The Confessions:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Transcendent spiritual longings imply transcendent spiritual satisfactions.

But, there is more.  We not only long for goodness, truth, and beauty; we also long to be treated fairly.  Justice is another transcendent longing.  This is important.  If the longing for justice is one of the inherent fundamental human appetites — and its prevalence across cultures and times suggest it is — then the moral sense that underlies it, must also be fundamental.  We know when we have been wronged.  Think of a time yourself.  Would you have accepted this justification from the one who wronged you?

“Well, you think I wronged you, but I disagree.  You have the right to your opinion and I have a right to mine.  If you feel that my taking what belonged to you is wrong, that is just your subjective judgment, but it is not in any way binding on me.”

Of course not.  Because we believe — or at least we act very much like we believe — that fairness — right and wrong, if you will — transcend individual opinion and even cultural convention.  If we can even imagine a culture that had normalized rape, murder, and torture by cultural consensus, we would still judge those things to be wrong and that culture to be immoral, all their appeals to moral relativity notwithstanding.  

We do believe in fairness, which means that we also must believe in an objective moral standard that seems not to have originated with us, though all humans recognize and agree with its general outlines.  To bolster this claim, now think of a time when you did wrong to another or did wrong in relationship to another.  Perhaps you lied or promised something that you failed to deliver.  It need not be grievous, only wrong.  Here’s the problem.  No amount of self-justification let’s you off the hook — really.  You may tell yourself it was a minor transgression or that everyone does it, that even the truly good man next door would have done in your situation.  But, no good.  You know.  You stand convicted.  But convicted before what judge?  Not before yourself, or you would certainly let yourself off.  Not before your neighbors since you suspect they might have acted similarly.  No, there seems to be — and is — a transcendent judge before whom we stand, a judge whose representative we find within.  If a name is needed, we might as well use the conventional one:  the conscience.

Thus far, we have been speaking entirely about justice.  But even deeper within us there is the longing for righteousness.  Let me explain the difference.  Justice recognizes a wrong done and may even punish the perpetrator.  That is often within human power, though tragically it seems so often just out of reach.  A driver under the influence crosses the median into oncoming traffic and kills another driver.  Justice requires recognition of the wrong and a proportionate penalty.  But, what penalty is proportionate?  What we long for is the wrong be “undone,” put to rights again.  And that is precisely what typically cannot happen.  Once again we find ourselves with a transcendent longing, a longing whose satisfaction lies beyond us.

Why is this important?  It seems like the universe is not only physical, but spiritual (goodness, truth, beauty, etc.) and moral, as well.  And, if the universe reflects the source and ground of being which actualizes it, then it is reasonable to conclude that god is the source of the spiritual and moral.  Again, we have not concluded that this god — the ground and source of being — is the God that Christians worship.  But we have shown that postulating such a god is philosophically rational and corresponds to our experience of the world.  Further, we can show that the characteristics of god correspond, thus far, to the characteristics of the God revealed on the pages of Scripture:  goodness, truth, beauty, justice, righteousness.

Have we gone as far as we can using reason alone?  No, but perhaps we have gone far enough.  My purpose was never to prove absolutely the existence of God — I can’t — or that the Christian concept of God is correct, but only that the existence of god is a rational explanation for the existence of the universe, that we can reason from that universe — without and within — some of the characteristics of god, and that those characteristics correspond to God as revealed in Scripture.  We have not yet “won the argument,” but I think we have won the right to be taken seriously in any rational discussion of the nature of being.

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Believing Impossible Things

“There is no use trying,” said Alice;”one can’t believe impossible things.”  “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day.  Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I think the Queen is right; I have seen people believe impossible —and impossibly contradictory — things as if it were nothing at all.  Nonetheless, it is with Alice that I want to take my stand.  I don’t want to believe impossible things.

In an earlier essay [Apple Pies] — following an argument by St. Thomas Aquinas — I suggested that a transcendent, non-contingent source and ground of being is not only rationally plausible, but philosophically necessary for the existence of a contingent universe:  not a being in the universe, but the very essence of being itself that actualizes the contingent universe and all beings in it.  I then tipped my hand by showing that Scripture — both Old and New Testaments — speaks of God in these same terms:  the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis, the Prologue of John’s Gospel, Paul’s speech to the Athenian philosophers.  That does not “prove” that the transcendent, non-contingent source and ground of being is identical with the Christian God, but it does show that, so far, the two are not incompatible.

I don’t want to establish false expectations which I cannot satisfy:  much better it is to underpromise and overachieve.  I cannot “prove,” as if by syllogism, that the Christian God is this source of being.  What I hope to do is much more modest.  I can show that Christians, rightly or wrongly, understand God to be this source of being, and that the characteristics we might expect this “un-caused cause” to have are precisely those characteristics Christians attribute to God.  Here, I will be following a path St. Paul blazed in his Epistle to the Romans:

Romans 1:18–20 (ESV): 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 

We’ll set aside wrath for a bit to focus on St. Paul’s larger claim:  that certain characteristics of god may be known by all men simply by observation and reason.  I have chosen to use god — lower case — at this point because we have not yet shown sufficient correspondence between this ground of being and the Christian God to justify use of God, upper case.

To St. Paul’s point:  through their perception (observation and reason) of the universe, man can infer god’s eternal power and divine nature.  If scientists are correct — and I have no reason to doubt them on this — the universe is some 13.8 billion years old.  This means that the universe itself is not eternal.  It is not the essence of the universe to be; it is contingent.  To the contrary, being non-contingent, god must necessarily be eternal, if by that we mean something like necessary, sufficient, and transcendent — outside of and not constrained or defined by time.  By observation we can know that god is old (at least 13.8 billion years).  By reason we can know that god is eternal.

Nor can we reasonably doubt that god is powerful.  In our argument from contingency, it is a mistake to consider the universe as a grand array of dominoes and of god as the “tipper” of the first in the series, who then “sits back” uninvolved, watching what will happen.  Rather, god actualizes the universe in each moment, in each particular.  As I write this, all the contingencies necessary for me to do so are being actualized by God, which means all the contingencies necessary for the universe.  As you read this, the same is true for you.  In god — and St. Paul will say, “In God” — we live, and move, and have our being.  The universe exists in each instant solely because all necessary contingencies are being — not “were,” but “are being” — actualized by god.  “Power” seems as good a word as any to describe the ability to actualize a universe.

St. Paul does not define here for the Romans what he means by “divine nature,” and we do not want to get out in front of him too far.  For now, it seems enough to realize that St. Paul is contrasting God’s nature with anything found in nature.  St. Paul’s god is not man writ large as were the Greek and Roman gods.  Nor is god a personification of various aspects of nature as were/are the pagan gods.  god is something different, of a different order entirely:  as we have said before, god is not one being among others in the universe, but is the transcendent “to be” itself.

So St. Paul insists — and our reason confirms — that god, the source and ground of being — is eternal, powerful, and other (transcendent).  Again, this does not prove that god is God, but it does show a significant correspondence between what must be true of god and what Christians claim is true for God.  But there is more, and for that we turn to science and to St. John.

The prerequisite for science — the necessary condition for doing science at all — is the regularity and rationality of the universe.  Carl Sagan called the universe “the Cosmos,” and he was right to do so.  Cosmos implies order, pattern, and structure and is contrasted with chaos.  If the universe were chaotic, unpredictably irregular rather than ordered, then science would be impossible.  Science — and reason itself — is predicated upon order and pattern.  No theory of gravitation would be possible if, for example, dropped objects sometimes fell and sometimes rose unpredictably.  No mathematics would be possible if when a = b and b = c, a is not always equal to c.  Order is a necessary condition not just for science, but for the existence of the universe itself.  Natural law is simply an expression of that inherent order.

The god who actualizes the universe is the god who actualizes its order.  That is, it is reasonable to infer that god is the source and ground of the order in the universe, which brings us to St. John:

John 1:1–3 (ESV): 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

When St. John writes, “in the beginning,” he does not mean “from the beginning of the universe.”  Rather, he is emphasizing the eternal, transcendent nature of “the Word” which brought into being all things, i.e., god.  The English “Word” translates the Greek λόγος (logos), a philosophical term implying order, pattern, structure.  What St. John claims is that order is an inherent characteristic of god which is then reflected in the universe god actualizes/creates.  Once again, there is a correspondence between the god of our observation and reason, and the God of Scripture.

We still have quite a way to go, but we have made some significant headway.  We have not — and cannot — prove that the god of our reason is the God of Scripture, but we can — and have begun to — show a strong correspondence between the two.  There are characteristics of god that we can know through reason, and these coinhere with the characteristic of the Christian God.

Thus far we have looked without for knowledge of god; in the next essay it is time to turn our gaze within.

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Apple Pies

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

— Carl Sagan

I am old enough to to remember the first incarnation of Cosmos, written and hosted by astrophysicist Carl Sagan:  a visual tour of the physical universe conducted by a rather theatrical and charismatic popularizer of science.  The PBS series, and the book from which it came, opened — as I recall — with this:

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.  Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height.  We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

It is clear from this bit of beautiful writing, that Sagan had passed beyond science as a discipline for exploring the physical universe to scientism as neo-religion.  That the “Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be,” is a statement not amenable to scientific verification.  It is an unproven axiom, a tenet of scientistic faith.  Whether it is right or wrong, science cannot even in principle tell us.

Just now, however, I find myself wanting an apple pie made from scratch.  And here, Sagan is right, or nearly so.  To make an apple pie you need the universe.  But why?  Why do I need anything more than a grocery store that stocks flour, sugar, apples and the other items in the recipe?  Sagan’s point — and a very good one — is that each of these ingredients is contingent, that its existence depends on something else, on a whole host of other factors.  Take the apples for example; Granny Smith would probably be my choice for the pie.  The apples are contingent upon proper growing conditions:  good soil, adequate rainfall, proper temperature, sunlight.  So, to make an apple pie, I need the earth, its climate, and the sun.  

But we cannot stop there, because each of these factors is also contingent.  Take the earth, for example.  It consists, in part, of heavy elements like iron, copper, and, well, every naturally occurring element “heavier” than helium on the periodic table.  But these elements were forged in the fires of ancient stellar explosions.  So, to make an apple pie we need a vast host of stars massive enough to produce supernovae.

But, we cannot stop there, because these stars are also contingent.  And back we go to the necessity of the universe itself.  So, it seems Sagan was right:  If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.  That is true not just for apples, of course, but for flour and water and you, the baker, and for any physical being in the universe.  If you want to explain the existence of any of these beings, you must first invent the universe, because every physical being is contingent.  Nothing in this universe is self-explanatory or self-caused.

Sagan pushed us back to all the way from apple pies to the universe itself, contingency upon contingency.  The entire universe is but a matrix of contingencies held in tension through the laws of nature, the physical properties which govern the interactions of physical beings:  chemistry, physics, biology.  But, Sagan stopped too soon, when things were just beginning to get interesting.  He cut the exploration short with his dogma:

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

But wait.  The Cosmos is simply the name for the sum total of all physical beings and the relationships that exist among them.  If all parts of the universe are contingent, then certainly the whole of them must be contingent.  That is, the Cosmos itself must be contingent.  It is neither self-explanatory nor self-caused; it is contingent.  We are left with the fundamental question:  Why is there something instead of nothing?  And, we are left with the realization that nothing that is itself contingent — not even the Cosmos — can be the answer to that question.  Science may bring us near the finish line of understanding, but it cannot help us cross it.  The answer — the fully rational answer — is supra-scientific; it transcends the epistemology of science.

If the contingent universe exists, and if nothing contingent can explain its existence, then the only rational explanation is that the universe exists because of a transcendent, non-contingent cause, a cause whose very essence is “to be.”  This cause is not a contingent being within the universe, but is itself the ground and source of all being.  It is this cause that we call “god.”

St. Thomas Aquinas gave us this rational argument for the existence of god, the argument from contingency.  It is not yet a Christian argument; it doesn’t end with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But it is a serious, rational challenge to scientism, to the notion that only that which can be known and proven through the scientific method is valid and true.  It is philosophy, and, in that it ends with god, it is theology.  Can we get from this starting point to the Christian god?  Could this abstract, non-contingent source and ground of all being perhaps be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God revealed in and through Jesus Christ?  That is still a long journey, but there are some signposts along the way, some hints that Jews and Christians understand god in precisely this way.

John 1:1–3 (ESV): 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Clearly, John, echoing Genesis, considered God as the source of all contingent beings, existing before creation, and thus existing outside of — transcending — the cosmos.  When Moses asked God’s name, God replied enigmatically:  “I Am.”  This is less a name than a philosophical axiom:  God is not another being in the universe that can be named and exhaustively known, but rather is the essence of being itself:  I Am — self-explanatory, non-contingent.  And then, there is Paul’s unparalleled address to the philosophers in the Areopagus, which is well worth reading in full:

Acts 17:22–31 (ESV): 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. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for 

  “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; 

as even some of your own poets have said, 

  “ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 

At the heart of this address is Paul’s assertion that “in him [the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ] we live and move and have our being.”  God is not a being as we are, but rather is the source and ground of being, the actualization of all contingencies.

This is not yet proof of the Christian concept of God, but rather a demonstration that it agrees with the rational answer to the question: Why is there something instead of nothing?  And, it postulates a god far different than the ancient or neo-pagan gods that are beings within the world or personified expressions of powers within the world (lightening, wind, rain, etc.).  It is far different than Sagan’s deification of the Cosmos.  And that is an important first step in our understanding of God, and an important first step in our apology for our faith.

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The Blessing of Judah

ADOTS Morning Prayer:  Friday, 19 February 2021

Fr. John A. Roop

The Blessing of Judah:  A Meditation on Genesis 49

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

Not so very long ago we read the account of Isaac blessing Jacob (ref Gen 27), which was really the account of Jacob and Rebekah conspiring to steal — from an old, blind man — the blessing of the firstborn that Isaac intended for Esau.  Esau’s response on learning of Jacob’s trickery and his own loss, is one of the most heart-rending passages in Scripture:

Genesis 27:34–38 (ESV): 34 As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. 

Earlier, Esau had been pretty cavalier about selling his birthright, but here there is genuine anguish in his heart and voice over losing the blessing.  Why?  Because the people of Abraham understood that blessings are not mere words; they are speech acts, words that have the power to accomplish what they communicate.  Think of God speaking creation into being — “Let there be light,” and there was light.” — and you get the idea; speech-acts creates reality.  Of course, only God’s words are intrinsically speech-acts, for God alone has the power to speak reality.  But, God calls others to participate with him in this creative act.  When a priest pronounces an absolution, for example, the penitent is forgiven, not by some inherent power of the priest, but simply because God has promised to act in and through the words of the priest to create a new reality.  When a priest speaks the Words of Institution over bread and wine, they become, for the people of God, the gifts of God, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus:  not by magic nor by the power of the priest, but by God’s promise to honor the words of the priest and create a new reality.

Do you begin to see why Esau was so anguished?  His father’s words mattered and the blessing was now lost to him.  There was no possible take-back.  There was no do-over.  When those words of blessing were spoken, reality was created.  The word of the patriarch was the word of God:  God speaking through the patriarch to reveal his plan, to create reality.  Words matter, especially words of blessing.

With this background, we come to our appointed reading, Genesis 49.  This text is a bit ironic.  Jacob, who stole the patriarchal blessing, is now the patriarch bestowing the blessing on his sons.  He clearly understands what he is about to do as speech-act; listen:

Genesis 49:1–2 (ESV): Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come. 

 2  “Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father. 

These aren’t just words; they are either prophesy or creative act or both.  Either way, to adapt a phrase from Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments:  So let it be spoken, so let it be done.

Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, might expect the preeminent blessing; it was fitting in that culture.  But, no:  Reuben was as unstable as water.  He had disgraced his father by sleeping with one of Jacob’s wives, in what was a disordered love, an overwhelming lust, or a family power-grab.  No matter which, he had forfeited the preeminent blessing.

Next in line are the brothers Simeon and Levi.  In a cold, vengeful rage they had conspired to murder an entire city full of men for the sin of one of them.  You don’t turn your back on this angry and violent pair; you don’t join their company.  Best to separate them, to keep them far away from one another.  So, in his blessing, Jacob scatters them.  When land is finally apportioned, Simeon is isolated in the far south of the land and Levi receives no territory of his own at all; he is scattered throughout the land.

And that brings Jacob, and us, to Judah.  We might not expect much here either; like his brothers, Judah was far from squeaky-clean.  The whole, sordid Judah-Tamar affair — and I use the word “affair” intentionally — is found in Genesis 38.  Judah deals disgracefully with his daughter-in-law Tamar, hires her as a prostitute, and threatens to burn her to death when her pregnancy — with his own child — is revealed.  To his credit, he does finally acknowledge his sin against her and her comparative righteousness in the matter.

So, Jacob’s blessing of Judah comes as a bit of a surprise.  Here are some excerpts:

Genesis 49:8 (ESV): 8  Judah, your brothers shall praise you; 

your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; 

your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 

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. 

Genesis 49:11 (ESV): 11  Binding his foal to the vine 

and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, 

  he has washed his garments in wine 

and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 

Let’s look at three particulars.  First, Judah will be preeminent among his brother, his tribe over theirs.  Second, Judah will rule, not just in Israel, but over the peoples.  And, third, all this is connected in some unspecified way with garments stained, at least symbolically, with blood.  You see where this is going.  From the Gospel according to St. Matthew:

Matthew 1:1–3 (ESV): 1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac [and Ishmael, for that matter — but that doesn’t matter for our story], and Isaac the father of Jacob [and Esau, for that matter — but that doesn’t matter for our story], and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers [but they don’t matter for our story], 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron….

And so it goes, all the way to Obed and Jesse and David, all of the tribe of Judah:  to David, the great king, who makes Judah preeminent among his brothers, who elevates his tribe over theirs.  To David who receives from God the promise of an everlasting kingdom over which his son and Lord will reign for ever, and to whom all the nations of the world will bring tribute.

And the genealogy of Judah continues from David to Solomon to Rehoboam.  Generations later it continues with Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, and finally “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt 1:16b).

This is where it’s been heading all along, from an old man giving his sons their blessings to God giving the world his blessing.  This is the reality that Jacob spoke into being — through the foreknowledge and power of God — all those years ago.  This is what God saw in Judah — what God saw clearly, what Jacob glimpsed in shadow, and what we could not see at all.

And there is more to come; Jacob’s blessing of Judah has not played out fully even yet.  But we see it afar, in a vision, at the end of all things, when the final chapter of history, written on God’s scroll and sealed with seven seals, is unveiled.  John writes:

Revelation 5:2–5 (ESV):  3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” 

There he is, at the end of all things:  Judah and his offspring — the Lion of the tribe of Judah, preeminent among his brothers, a lion that looks different than what we expect.

Revelation 5:6 (ESV): 6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain….

The Lion of the tribe of Judah is the Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the world, a lamb whose garments are washed not in the blood of grapes as Jacob saw in shadow, but in his own saving blood.

And at the revealing of the Lamb a great song breaks out in heaven, sung by living creature and elders and angels and myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of voices — every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea:

Revelation 5:9–10 (ESV): “Worthy are you to take the scroll 

and to open its seals, 

  for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God 

from every tribe and language and people and nation, 

 10  and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, 

and they shall reign on the earth.” 

Revelation 5:12 (ESV): “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, 

  to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might 

  and honor and glory and blessing!” 

Revelation 5:13 (ESV): “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb 

  be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 

What started in Jacob’s blessing of Judah has led us here at last:  to the Lion of the tribe of Judah, to the Lamb who was slain and who has redeemed a people with his blood, to an everlasting kingdom of priests from every tribe and language and people and nation, to Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing now and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

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A Reckoning for Blood

ADOTS Morning Prayer:  Friday, 12 February 2021

Fr. John A. Roop

Now Comes a Reckoning:  A Meditation on Genesis 42:22

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

Genesis 42 is the very human and poignant story of the reunion of disaffected brothers:  once arrogant Joseph, sold into slavery, now become viceregent of Egypt, with his ten, once jealous brothers, now reduced to near starvation by famine.  They were responsible for his misery; he will now take responsibility for their salvation.  It’s a good story, whether you’re reading it for the first time or for the hundredth time.

The emotional and theological climax of the chapter lies in the brothers’ confession of their sin against Joseph and of their acceptance of culpability:

Genesis 42:20–24 (ESV):  21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. 

It’s this phrase that does the heavy theological lifting in the story:  “now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”  This takes us back to near the beginning of the human story, to the first recorded example of ancestral sin.

Genesis 4:8–13 (ESV): 8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.

This is the first reckoning for blood:  not blood for blood or life for life, but futility in labor and exile from home and from the presence of the LORD (cf Gen 4:16).

Within eight human generations of this first reckoning the human “experiment” seems to have failed utterly.

Genesis 6:5–8 (ESV): 5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. 

There’s no need to rehearse the rest of this story in any detail; you know the general outline well enough.  It is the aftermath of the flood story that’s pertinent, what happens when Noah and family exit the ark.

Genesis 9:1–6 (ESV): And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. 

There it is again, a reckoning for blood.  This time, having seen the depravity of man, God declares the shedding of human blood — the taking of human life — to be a capital offense.  This is the reckoning for blood:  “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:6).  There is a strict proportionality between offense and reckoning.  Is this what Joseph’s brothers expected and feared?  They had confined Joseph in a pit; now they are in prison.  They had sold Joseph into slavery; now they may become slaves in Egypt.  Perhaps Joseph had been killed through their enmity.  Perhaps they will now be killed as spies.  Proportionality, reciprocity:  “So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”

We move forward in the story some four centuries and we see new facets of this reckoning, a significant change.  Moses has met God on Sinai, and God has given newly liberated Israel a Law for corporate life and worship.  And in this Law there is a most significant reorientation from reckoning for blood to reckoning by blood.  That is the heart of the sacrificial system:  reckoning by blood — the reckoning for the sin of man by the blood of bulls and goats.  Of course, there were still capital offenses in the law, but the theological essence of the Law was animal blood reckoning for human sin.  It was foreshadowed in the Passover lamb whose blood — smeared on doorposts and lintels — spared the Hebrews plague and destruction in the land of Egypt.  It moved out of the shadows in the regulations for sin offerings; read Leviticus 4.  And it came to the fore in the blood sprinkled by the high priest in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.

And so it goes throughout the years.  But, beginning perhaps with the Psalms, we get a hint that all is not well with this reckoning for the sin of man by the blood of animals, that it is somehow inadequate, that something more, something different, something better is on the horizon.

Psalm 50:12–15 (ESV): 12  “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. 13  Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? 14  Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, 15  and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” 

This gestures toward a qualitatively different sacrifice:  not blood, but obedience and thanksgiving.  The trouble is that people are not able to be obedient; hence the necessity of sacrifice in the first place.  Then there is this:

Psalm 40:6–8 (ESV): 6  In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.  

7  Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: 

 8  I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” 

Apparently, there is someone — Who is speaking here in the Psalm? —  apparently there is someone who actually delights in obedience, for whom the Law is not a set of external commandments, but a living presence written in the heart.  And the implication of this Psalm is that this someone might spell the end of burnt offerings and sin offerings, that there just might be a different kind of reckoning for human sin than the blood of bulls and goats.

Who is this someone, and how will he put an end to reckoning for blood by blood?

Hebrews 9:11–14 (ESV): 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. 

Like the high priest of old, Christ enters the Holy of Holies to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat, but not the blood of bulls and goats, and not repeatedly year after year.  He enters the Holy of Holies — the very presence of God — to pour out his own blood, once for all.  This is not a reckoning for blood.  It is not quite even a reckoning by blood, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4).  It is the final reckoning through the blood of the Lamb of God, by which we have been sanctified once for all (cf Heb 10:10).  For by this “single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14).

And that has changed the story:  no, not changed, but fulfilled.  We are no longer Joseph’s brothers fearing the reckoning for blood.  We are no longer children supervised by the Law, bound under the Law to a reckoning for sin by the blood of bulls and goats.  No; we are the sons and daughters of God now reckoned righteous before him through the blood of Jesus.  And that has consequences.

Hebrews 10:19–25 (ESV): 19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 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. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. 

This is our hope.  This is our assurance.  This is our salvation.  This is our vocation. This is the Sacraments.  This is the Church.  This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

What can we say to all this?  Words fail, but for doxology and blessing:

Hebrews 13:20–21 (ESV): 20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. 

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