Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent 1: Always be Ready

For those many of you who have been requesting that I post my sermons, here you go (audio version at bottom).
Today we begin the season of Advent. But we must remember that the Christian life is an ongoing advent experience. We are always looking head. We are called to wait preparedly for the dawn. The darkness of the world surrounds us, but our faces are lit by the approaching light of Christ. And one of our best resources in this preparation is the illumination of God’s truth in his written Word. So I commend scripture reading to you this Advent.

During this season, we hear a lot about Bible prophecy and the coming of Jesus Christ—both his first Advent and his glorious second Advent yet to come. Saint Peter the Apostle said it so well in his first Letter: “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory” (1 Pet 1:10-11). They did this because the purpose of Bible prophecy is to prepare God’s people to be a part of the unfolding of his plan of salvation.

Saint Paul says that our salvation (which he likens to the coming of Christ) is growing closer day by day. Our salvation is not some event in the past, but is the fulfillment of our destiny in the future. We must embrace it. So even while we live in darkness, we must cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light—to live as we would on the Day of Judgment.

Judgment Day must happen because God will triumph. He will judge the living and the dead in righteousness and truth, for he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. The reading from Isaiah 2:1-5 talked about the triumph of Peace at on the new earth. All the people in God’s kingdom will live in harmony and peace; they will beat their swords into plowshares, and war will be no more.

The reading from Romans 13:8-14 talked about the triumph of Light on the new earth. The people of God will be illumined by the true light of heaven. They shall know themselves and the Lord as he is, and live in the perfect fellowship of holiness with Christ. But these triumphs must come through judgment.

That is, society will not grow ever sophisticated until wars and conflict simply cease. Human beings will not naturally grow in wisdom until they evolve beyond their tendencies toward sin. No, God will reign over the earth by his power and might and he will judge the world by his righteousness and truth. His final victory will come by intervening in human history, setting the world straight and sweeping away all that is not holy.

But of course, sin does not want to be rooted out. The nature of sin is rebellion and conflict. The devil will fight against God’s plan till the end. But he is no match for the power of God. The Lord will triumph, and his people will be saved through this tribulation. Notice that God’s people will be saved through tribulation, not from tribulation. As a child of God, you are like a soldier caught in the cross-hairs of evil. The sinful antagonism of the world against God will be taken out on you, on the People of God.

Saint Paul warns that all who desire to live a godly life shall suffer persecution. And Jesus himself told us the world will hate those who bear his name. “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake.”

No one likes suffering and tribulation, so we should perhaps not be surprised that some Christians may fall into the trap of escapism. Perhaps, they think, the great tribulation is not so much the climactic rebellion of evil, as it is God’s own judgment upon the lost. This would mean that the righteous would need to be spared, and the only way for that to happen would be for God to remove them from this world-wide tribulation. The idea is called the rapture of the Church.
This doctrine and the theological view of history that goes with it called “dispensationalism” originated with the John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. His teaching caught on in the mid 1800s in fundamentalist circles through the Niagara Bible Prophecy Conferences and was later popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible.

That school of thought prospered again around the close of the 20th Century, especially in Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind novels and films. But the teaching is unknown in the Bible, the creeds, the Church Fathers, the Protestant reformers, and all Christian denominations for 18 centuries.

But, you may ask, doesn’t Paul say that we shall be "caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air"? Yes he does (1 Thess 4:17), but Jesus also said that the trumpet would sound and the angels would gather his people when all see the Son of Man in the clouds. So this is certainly not a secret event. And what is the point of meeting the Lord in the air? It is for him to take us up to heaven? Or for us to escort him to earth at his glorious return?

The point of gathering God’s people is not to take the Church out of the world. Jesus prayed at Gethsemane, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world.” The point is that the saints accompany Christ into the world; he does not return alone. He comes with an entourage.
At that time, when a dignitary would enter a town, the people would go out of the city to welcome him, and escort him into the city (like a parade). So it is with Christ’s return to earth in glory as judge of the living and dead.

That’s why in the old Prayer Book, the gospel passage describing Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week with the people going out to meet him, waiving palms, crying hosanna to the king, and his subsequent exercise of judgment in cleaning house at the Temple was read on the first Sunday of Advent. It was a vivid portrayal of the Second Coming.

In the Gospel reading today (Matthew 24:37-44), Jesus compared his return to the flood of Noah. Just as in Noah’s time, people will be eating and drinking and marrying. The point Jesus makes here is not that the world will be filled with evil as it was in the days of Noah (which is true); It will be completely unexpected and take them by surprise.

People will be going on about their daily lives, giving no attention to God, but then (when he is least expected) the Son of Man will appear in the clouds. A few verses before today’s reading, Jesus described the event as a flash of lightning—immediate, sudden, brilliant, and unmistakable.

Jesus says that the righteous and the wicked will be divided by that event. There will be two men in the field—one will be taken, and the other left. There will be two women at the mill—one taken, the other left. Now, those who believe in the rapture might say, “See! Here is the proof. We will be taken out of the world.”

But think carefully. Jesus is making a comparison here to the flood of Noah’s day, not to the ark. The wicked were swept away by the flood waters, while the righteous (like Noah and his family) remained—they were “left behind” in safety. You want to be left behind, not swept away. In the final judgement, the wicked will perish, and the righteous will be rewarded with eternal life.

 So Jesus says, “Watch for it.” Because you do not know when that day is coming. He doesn’t tell us to try to figure out when he’ll return so we can be ready at that moment. Instead, he wisely tells us, “ALWAYS BE READY.”

How do you get ready? Read the Word of God. Examine your conscience. Go to confession. How do you get ready? Amend your ways. Live in love and charity with all people. How do you get ready? Cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Always be ready for the return of the Lord. Our salvation is closer now than when we first believed.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A pilgrimage

 Last Saturday, my family and I began a journey. We set out on a drive to Delafield, Wisconsin with a lay-over in Kansas City to visit my sister and brother-in-law. It's a long drive (about 19 hours total), but rarely boring.

I’ve made the trip several times between South and North driving back and forth to and from seminary, and from the Mississippi River to the West coast (once along a Southern route through Arizona and up the California coast and twice along a Northern route across Montana). I’m always moved by the experience. This is such an amazing land that God has entrusted to us!

I love the rolling hills of the Iowa farm country with mile after mile of tall green corn fields planted in neat sections. I bet anything would grow there. I love the plains. I could see "mountains" off in the distance when driving through Oklahoma. Wisconsin is so delightful. It looks like a postcard. When we were driving into Madison at dusk, there were swarms of fireflies along the highway. It was like a journey through space.

Coming back to seminary is also like a journey through time, coming to a place where time is always marked and sanctified by prayer, and yet where time seems to stand still. It is a place where things are ever old and ever new. I'm grateful to be here.

On Saturday, I also received a call to pastor a new congregation. It was difficult to be away from my people at that time and let my wardens break the news. When I return, the pilgrimage will have to continue. There is much work to be done (but then, there always is). I don't like saying good-bye. And I don't like moving. But I'm also excited and challenged by the new work that lies ahead. My prayer is that God will be with me along the way, keep me focused, and bless others through me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

My own introduction

I'm throwing my hat over the fence. On Saturday, I'm leaving for my sabbatical in Wisconsin where I'll be doing research for a book I'm calling Holding the Bible Hostage: How our culture shapes and distorts our understanding of the Scriptures (or maybe The Bible Held Hostage, I'm not sure yet). I've written about half of the first chapter, so I thought I'd post my introduction. Your feedback is welcome. I thought I'd call it "My own introduction" because instead of introducing the subject to the reader directly, I'm telling the reader the story of how the subject was introduced to me, with hopes that my interest will be shared. 

I don’t know how I ever found it. Maybe it found me.

The thin, red spine was only one centimeter wide and there was nothing written on it. But somehow, I happened to pull it off the shelf just far enough to see the title written in gold across the old red cloth cover. I saw “The Nazi . . .” which was an intriguing beginning for a book in the religion section. So I took it all the way out. The title read, The Nazi Christ. How can you put back a book like that? What in the world was a “Nazi Christ”?

I was floored 

It was late on a Thursday night on the third floor of the Moody Memorial Library at Baylor University. I was there because I didn’t have any homework left to complete for Friday. Well before my Senior year, I had figured out that when I went to the library, I almost always ended up staying until closing time. I just couldn’t help it. And when I was there, it was usually on the third floor, browsing through the religion section.

I would wander down the aisles (typically BR through BX in the Library of Congress cataloging system), running my eyes along the spines of dusty old hardbacks and broken-spined paperbacks. When something would catch my attention, I’d thumb through the book. And when it had sufficiently engaged my curiosity, I’d sit right there on the floor and start reading.

It was there that I had essentially become an Episcopalian. I had been on an ecclesiastical pilgrimage of sorts since high school. As I was fulfilling my own personal pledge to actually read through every page of the Bible, I began to find that the words on the page didn’t always match up exactly with what I was had heard from the Baptist pulpit of my younger days (nor from the non-denominational pastors of the church I attended during high school). My church-shopping first led me to become a Lutheran shortly before I left for college, but I was still on a journey.

New questions about church order and apostolic succession parked myself in the ‘Church of England’ section of Moody Library many a night. I was particularly captivated by the collection of addresses given at the Anglo-Catholic Congresses of the 1920s and 30s. I was not your typical Baylor Bear. Although I am told that the first professor at the university back in the days of the old Republic was an Episcopalian himself.

When I came across this little tome on the theological proclivities of National Socialist Christians, I was again floored. It was only 53 pages long and except for the title page, looked like it was typed on a type-writer. It must have been a dissertation. I sat there on the cold linoleum, leaning next to books about Christians harassed by il Duce in pre-war Italy and books about the struggle of the church in Norway, turning page after intern-typed page. I am a slow reader and had only gotten about half-way through the book.

At 10:40, the lights began to dim and there was a call for final selections to be brought to the check-out desk. On November 14, 1996, I checked out The Nazi Christ and took it with me to my grandmother’s house in Shreveport, Louisiana over the Thanksgiving holiday break, where I read through it again. When I got back to Baylor, I checked it out again, finally surrendering it to the university in time for Christmas.

The Nazi Christ was written by Eugene S. Tanner, Ph.D. and published by Edwards Brothers in 1942. Dr. Tanner was an Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Tulsa, a small Presbyterian college in Oklahoma. He wrote two other small books after this. What I didn’t happen to notice at first is that Tanner was essentially reporting on this new Christian movement in Germany that was reinterpreting the biblical Jesus as a non-Jewish figure of Nordic myth—a German savior for the German people. It was not a sensational exposé (though the topic was no less sensational) but a very timely and scholarly contribution. All but one of the sources Tanner used had not been available in an English translation.

At the time (1942), The United States was just entering World War Two and Germany was at the height of it’s strength. The Axis powers had yet to stall and it looked like even if there were no thousand-year Reich, Nazism would at least dominate the life of Europe for generations to come. Tanner was documenting what looked like the wave of the future.

What had me floored was my introduction to the concept that faithful Christians in Nazi Germany would have their own version of Christ. I was fully aware that Germany was what one would rightly call a Christian nation both before and after the war (as were all the other nations of Europe). And I was also quite aware that both the major sects of German Christianity, Lutheran and Catholic, were characterized by an anti-Semitic strain that was both pervasive and commonplace.

But I had always blithely assumed that the truly rabid anti-Semites, the really serious Nazis, were Christian in name only. They would have been those who were irregular church-goers at best, those who were not converted in their hearts, those who were cultural Christians, those whose interest lay much more in politics and nationalism than in the worship of the Jewish God-man.

Well I was right about one thing. They were in fact cultural Christians, but not what I had in mind. Tanner was introducing me to the real-life example of sincere Christian believers whose beliefs were shaped, even distorted, by the culture around them.

These were not Christians who rarely went to church on a Sunday. These were Christians who were in church every Sunday, who took up the offerings, who ran the Sunday Schools, who served on governing boards, who were the pastors and theologians of the German Christian Movement.

It still seemed rather baffling. How could people be so blind? How could people who read their Bible and knew their Bible have such unbiblical views. With the extreme nature of Tanner’s subject, we need not kid ourselves. This was not a simple matter of interpretation. This was a matter of people being totally blind to words on a page printed in black and white.

After all, how could a body of believing Christians accept the biblical concept that God revealed himself to Abraham and his descendants, chose the Hebrew people as his own, gave them a land of promise, miraculously rescued them from slavery in Egypt, established them as a nation, dwelt in a Temple in Jerusalem, and then became incarnate as a Jewish man to be the Savior of the world . . . How could they believe all that and have anything to do with Nazi ideology or with Hitler, much less a final solution to the Jewish “problem”?

It boggles the mind. How could anyone grasp such an obvious contradiction? It was no wonder that Tanner’s first chapter was titled, “The Nazi Christ is Rescued from Judaism.” He went on to describe how the anti-establishment part of Jesus’ story was played up and his heritage was ignored. Some even speculated that he had a Nordic lineage to make the Savior seem more identifiable to German people.

Jesus repudiating the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees became the first person speaking anti-Semitic truth to power. Jesus over-turning the money-changers in the Temple became the first anti-Semite chasing those dirty, greedy Jews out of God’s sacred place. Once the spotlights start to hit their marks and the misdirection and skipped passages take root, you can see how the transformation took place. People followed the misdirection because they were already pointed in that direction to begin with. They were directed by culture before they were misdirected by fraudulent teachers. People will find what they expect to find. More than that, people will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.

Jesus was a problem to the authorities in his own day, as he has been in every age. They thought they had done away with him by crucifixion. Tanner concluded his book with the thought, “The crucifixion was only the first in a long series of devices by which the Western world has attempted to be rid of Jesus . . . the most subtle of these devices has been reinterpretation.”

It’s not just other people

Our Wednesday Bible study in Comanche was an intimate little group of half a dozen regular attendees. We had been discussing for some time what we would study next. No ideas seemed to stand out. I said I’d think about it over the summer break.

Every January, the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth have a silent retreat at the Montserrat Jesuit Retreat Center north of Dallas. At the 2009 retreat, led by the later Father Ralph Walker, I had picked up Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth from the on-site bookshop. It was the first of three volumes. This one covered the story of Jesus in the gospels from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry at his baptism up to his transfiguration on Mount Tabor. I started reading while I was on the retreat, but I didn’t pick it up again until the summer.

It seemed like a perfect book to use as a guide for our little Bible study. It was essentially a guided tour of the gospels. I suggested it to the others and we took it up that Fall.

I’m not sure how far into the book I’d gotten during the retreat, but it was surely past page 15. And it was not until the second time through it that I found myself “floored” once again. When we looked at the book as a group, the passage on the baptism of Jesus leaped off the page because I noticed something that I had seen many times before, but never really noticed. Even though the Holy Father brought attention to it, that detail went right past me the first time around.

Speaking of John the Baptist, the Pope explained that Mark “reports that ‘there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins’ (Mk 1:5). John’s baptism includes the confession of sins. The Judaism of the day was familiar both with more generally formulaic confession of sin and with a highly personalized confessional practice in which an enumeration of individual sinful deeds was expected.”

“. . . confessing their sins.” My cognitive process was interrupted by a hiccup that jarred my gray matter. Prior to that moment, I had read or heard something different than what was on the page. When Mark 1:5 came to my ears or eyes, what went through my brain was not “confessing their sins,” but rather “confessing that they were sinners,” or perhaps “confessing their sinfulness.”

How could I have missed this detail for so many years? I checked different translations. I checked the Greek text. The problem was not on the paper; the problem was in my head. I saw and heard what I expected to see and hear. Because my culture was that I had grown up as a Baptist. And sermon after sermon in that theological tradition had concluded with an altar call and the sinners prayer. I knew by heart that what precedes baptism was the conviction and confession, “Yes Lord, I am a sinner.” This was step one of conversion.

Even after several years in a new theological tradition where private, sacramental auricular confession before a priest was not just an accepted norm but something I practiced myself, it had not sunk in to the point where my cultural formation could recognize the plain words of Scripture. It never would have even occurred to me that the penitent and remorseful Jews wading into the Jordan River to be baptized by John would not merely have confessed their sinfulness and acknowledged their need for God’s forgiveness and mercy, but actually confessed the misdeeds they had done, transgressing the revealed will of God as written in the Law of Moses.

It was right there in black and white and it had been there all along. People will find what they expect to find. More than that, people will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. It was not just other people. I had done the same thing.

The parallel text of Mark 1:5 is Matthew 3:6. They both say the same thing, that the people were baptized by John, “confessing their sins.” Matthew 3:6 is read on the Second Sunday of Advent in “Year A” and Mark 1:5 is read on the Second Sunday of Advent in “Year B.” Which means that I had heard this passage in church at least ten times during Sunday worship (not to mention all the times I read or heard it outside of Sunday morning) and had even preached on the texts at least twice, possible three or four times. I had earned a four-year Bachelor of Arts in Religion and a three-year Master of Divinity degree. I had been ordained a priest and taught the faith to newcomers and those who had grown up in the church. And I didn’t notice what the Bible actually said for the first seventeen years after being a Baptist—the summer of 2009.

The discovery of the way that culture had shaped and distorted believers of the German Christian Movement gave me an awareness of how this is possible, but the personal experience of my own culture blinding me to a quite straightforward biblical passage got me thinking about how common this phenomenon really could be. Was this the paradigm that addressed the divergences in faith an practices among different Christians, not even just between churches but within the same church? It seemed to fit all the hot-button, controversial issues that have confronted Christians and their churches.

How was it that Bible-believing Christians could be slave-owners? Or supporters of segregation? Or not see a moral problem with abortion? Or support the ordination of women? Or think that faith was an energy field once could harness to create wealth and power? Or not object to the redefinition of marriage? Or accept the idea that one could be “born into the wrong sex”?

This book is my exploration of that very question—of how our culture shapes and even distorts our understanding of the Bible.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sermon reflections on St. Mike's

Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” From the Gospel according to St Luke, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

So far in Luke’s account of the gospel, Jesus has been inviting others to follow him. In today’s gospel (Luke 9:51-62), he reminds us all that for those who would follow, discipleship is a total commitment; there must be no turning back.

This is consistent with Jesus’ own sense of purpose, as hinted at by Luke. The evangelist tells us that Jesus “set his face” toward Jerusalem. That is to say, he was concentrated upon and dedicated to that mission to which his Father had called him.

This week, I served on the faculty of the St. Michael’s Youth Conference, Southwest. This is the first year in several that I’ve been able to attend, and I consider it one of the most important parts of my ministry. So I hope you’ll indulge me and allow me to reflect on my experience in light of the gospel message.

Of course, discipleship is what St. Mike’s is all about. At the Midwest conference, they call it “Anglo-Catholic boot-camp.” It an intensive formation experience, like an immersion language class. Every day begins with Matins and Solemn high mass, then three classes (this year, I taught Christian History, Survey of the Old Testament Apocrypha, and Unveiling Islam). Then comes fun time, Evensong and lecture, discussion groups, Compline and (on Wednesday) benediction.

Throughout the conference there is a focus on piety and spiritual growth, and holiness of life, which includes making your confession. About 83% of the attendees made their confession at the conference (which is typical . . . at least at St. Mike’s). That included myself, by the way.

In particular, three things stood out for me from that week: First were the liturgical osculations (a fancy Latin word for “kisses”).

Jesus once said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). This year, we tried to bring out a few more old liturgical customs like this.

It used to be that every time the deacon handed something to the priest (like the biretta, the incense, the paten, or the chalice) the deacon would first kiss the object itself, and then kiss the priest’s hand as he gave it to him. On Monday, I was the deacon. This was the first time I had ever done this. I probably missed at least half of these osculations, but I'm sure I'd do better the second and third time around.

The deacon is not just there to assist the priest at the altar, the deacon is there as his servant, ministering to him as he would to Christ. To kiss the priest’s hands is to kiss the hands of Jesus (in type/figure). It was awkward and uncomfortable at first, but became a very moving experience for me.

It is a gesture of love and reverence and piety and humility. It is a vivid reminder that we are to love Jesus above all. That means putting him first in all things—serving him, doting on him, loving him, adoring him. Which is to say, following him wherever he leads.

The second thing that stood out for me was the “dance battle.” And all the positive peer pressure that went along with it.

During free time, the students gathered in Iker Hall for a “battle dance.” They put on some music and formed a tight circle. One by one, individuals would jump in the center and bust a few moves. It was really a competition, but they cheered almost anything.

Of course, when I walked int, someone shouted, “Father Matkin’s turn!” I was tempted to back right out. But there was a roar of the crowd, filled with cheers of anticipation. When I got in the middle, they were shouting and urging me on. I deliberately went with the cheesiest move I could think of (rolling the dice). When that landed me some jeers, I quickly hit the gas on my planned move, spinning around and landing with a crowd-pleasing flair. The group when wild—shouting, and screaming, giving me “high fives.” A Franciscan tertiary followed me into the circle. As I made my way outside, I could hear the crowd continue to erupt inside the building.

On reflection, I noticed how they specialized in pressuring those who were reluctant to jump into the circle, motivating them with applause, encouragement, and praise. And I must say it was a bit intoxicating being in the circle. At that point, you would do almost anything to please the crowd.

When we talk about peer pressure, it’s usually in the bad sense. But we must remember that there is positive peer pressure too—when friends and strangers are encouraging us, cheering us on, and praising us for doing the right things. That’s what the Church ought to be—our circle of support and encouragement.

The third thing that stood out for me was the Friday night boy’s march. The first head boys counselor was a marine and he applied his skills to the conference. The tradition has become that on the last night, the boys at St. Mike’s march around the camp, to a military chant.

It reminded me that life is a pilgrimage to paradise. We’re marching to Zion, as the old hymn says. To do that, we need planning and strategy. We need order and direction to march like that. That’s the same thing we get through the church for our spiritual lives--planning and strategy, order and direction.

In “setting his face toward Jerusalem,” Jesus set his eyes upon the cross, and he refused to allow anything to distract or deter him from that path.

I left them that night by saying, “Gentlemen, it’s been a long week, a tough week, a good week. And you have earned my respect. But never forget this: You’ve earned nothing from the Lord. Everything you have from him is a precious gift—his grace, his mercy, his love. Let us put these gifts to good use with a thankful heart. Goodnight.” And I blessed them.

As we come before the Lord today, praising him for his grace, his mercy, and his love, with Jesus, let us set our faces toward Jerusalem and follow where he doth lead.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Two Views of Jesus: Borg vs Wright

 One of the best books, and very accessible to the typical layman in the pew, is The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, written together by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. They are both critical scholars, but take opposing views on various doctrines about Jesus. Borg represents the skeptical view and Wright the traditional view. Their dialogue of perspectives serve as a good primer on the field of critical study of Jesus and Christianity. I heartily recommend it.

Both are friends, both are believers, and both are sincere. Yet one cannot help but wonder how they can both be said to share the same faith and say such contrasting things about Jesus. Wright's faith seems so solid; Borg's faith seems so hollow. I should note that both men are Anglicans; Borg was a layman in Oregon and Wright was the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Wright now is a professor at the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland; Borg passed away in 2015.

I wanted to set forth their key comments from each chapter side-by-side to show the stark contrast between two visions of Jesus. For Borg, the doctrines about Jesus are true because they are emotionally meaningful. For Wright, they are meaningful because they are true (i.e., factual).

1. How do we know about Jesus?
BORG: "Both the historical Jesus and the canonical gospels matter to me as a Christian. . . . Independently of their historical factuality, the stories of the canonical Jesus can function in our lives as powerfully true metaphorical narratives, shaping Christian vision and identity. It is not an either-or choice; both the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus matter" (pg 14).

WRIGHT: "The Jesus I know in prayer, in the sacraments, in the faces of those in need, is the Jesus I meet in the historical evidence" (pg 26).

2. What did Jesus do and teach?
WRIGHT: "When we put together Jesus' temple action and Last Supper, we discover that at the heart of Jesus' prophetic persona lay, not just the simple announcement of God's kingdom, but the claim, implicitly, to be the king that was to come" (pg 47).

BORG: "Jesus as Jewish mystic and Christian messiah. . . . My central claim is that Jesus is both, an affirmation I make as both a historian and a Christian" (pg 53). "I do not see Jesus as seeing himself in messianic terms, and I do not think he saw his death as central to a messianic vocation or as in some sense the purpose of his life" (pg 54).

3. The Death of Jesus
BORG: "About the events reported between arrest and execution, including the trials before Jewish and Roman authorities, I have little historical confidence" (pg 87). "If the scene of the Jewish trial does not provide the historical reason for Jesus' execution, why then was he killed? For me, the most persuasive answer is his role as a social prophet who challenged the domination system in the name of God" (pg 91).

WRIGHT: [After providing an illustration of the modern day trial and martyrdom of Ugandan archbishop Janani Luwum, Wright notes:] "The stories of Jesus' death, and the events that led up to it, are either extremely clever fictions or probably substantially close to the events" (pg 95). "In fact, we can only claim that the exchange between Jesus and Caiaphas consists of a retrojection of later Christian theology if we first invent, out of nothing, a later Christian theology that combines these elements and then claim that it has been turned into a fictitious narrative" (pg 101). "[Jesus'] messianic vocation climaxed in the call to suffer Israel's death, Israel's supreme moment of exile, on Israel's behalf" (pg 97).

4. "God Raised Jesus from the Dead"
WRIGHT: "What then did the earliest Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? They cannot have meant that, though his body remained in the tomb, his spirit or soul was now safe in the hands of God, perhaps even given a place of honor. . . . What the early church insisted about Jesus was that he had been well and truly physically dead and was now well and truly physically alive. . . . In addition, had Jesus' resurrection been simply a matter of people being aware of his presence, there would not have been a sense, as there clearly is in all our evidence, of a sequence of 'resurrection appearances' that then stopped" (pg 116).

BORG: "Easter means that Jesus was experienced after his death, and that he is both Lord and Christ" (pg 130). "For me, the historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death. In the early Christian community, these experiences included visions or apparitions of Jesus" (pg 135).

5. Was Jesus God?
BORG: "Aware of all the above, I can say the creed without misgivings. I do not see it as a set of literally true doctrinal statements to which I am supposed to give my intellectual assent, but as a culturally relative product of the ancient church" (pg 155). "To affirm that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God does not require affirming that he is the only, or only adequate, revelation of God. . . . "[Creedal statements] need not be understood to mean that Jesus (or Christianity) is the only way of salvation. Instead, we might understand them (and similar Christian statements about Jesus being 'the only way') as reflecting the joy of having found one's salvation through Jesus, and the intensity of Christian devotion to Jesus. They should be understood as exclamations, not doctrines, and as 'the poetry of devotion and the hyperbole of the heart'" (pg 156).

WRIGHT: "[Jesus] believed himself called to do and be what, in the scriptures, only Israel's God did and was. . . . I do not think Jesus 'knew he was God' in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. . . . Rather 'as part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, be believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be'" (pg 166).

6. The Birth of Jesus
WRIGHT: "The problem is that miracle, as used in these controversies, is not a biblical category. The God of the Bible is not normally absent God who sometimes intervenes. This God is always present and active, often surprisingly so" (pg 171). "Those who cannot imagine anything good about abstinence insist that Mary must have been sexually active" (pg 172). No one can prove, historically, that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. No one can prove, historically, that she wasn't" (pg 177). "I hold open my historical judgment and say: if that's what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object?" (pg 178).

BORG: "I do not see these stories as historical reports, but as literary creations. As the latter, they are not history remembered, but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus' significance" (pg 179). "[In Meister Eckart's theology] the story of the virgin birth is the story of Christ being born within us through the union of the Spirit of God with our flesh. Ultimately, the story of Jesus' birth is not just about the past but about the internal birth in us in the present" (pg 186).

7. "He Will Come Again in Glory"
BORG: "To explain, I can imagine the end of the world. I can imagine a final judgment. But I cannot imagine a return of Christ. If we try to imagine that, we have to imagine him returning to some place. To be very elementary, we who know the earth to be round cannot imagine Jesus returning to the whole earth at once. And the notion of a localized second coming boggles the imagination. I do not think it will happen" (pg 195). "Christ comes again and again and again, and in many ways. In a symbolic and spiritual sense, the second coming of Christ is about the coming of the Christ who is already here" (pg 196).

WRIGHT: "If we spoke of Jesus' royal presence within God's new creation, rather than thinking of his 'coming' as an invasion from outside, our talk about the future might make more sense. It would also be a lot more biblical" (pg 202). "When the heavenly dimension is finally unveiled, so that the royal presence of Jesus is visibly and tangibly with us at last, the dead will be raised and the living transformed, to share his new humanity withing a transformed world. This will be the fulfillment of the new world, which began in Jesus' resurrection" (pg 203).

8. Jesus and the Christian Life
WRIGHT: "The scandal at the heart of Christian faith is that Christians are committed to worshiping a first-century Jew, believing that in him the living God, the God of Israel, the creator of the world, was and is personally present, bringing the temple theme in Judaism to a new and surprising conclusion. The true temple, the true dwelling of Israel's God, was to consist not of bricks and mortar but of a human being. 'In him,' wrote Paul, 'all the fullness of deity dwells bodily'" (pg 210). "The gospels are what they are precisely because their authors thought the events they were recording--all of them, not just some--actually happened" (pg 215).

BORG: " A single religious tradition can easily be doubted as a human creation and projection, but when one sees that the great religious traditions share much in common, especially at the level of experience and practice, one begins to wonder if there might be something to religion. That has been my experience" (pp 231-232). "I do not think being a Christian is primarily about believing. It is not about believing in the lens, but about entering a deepening relationship to that which we see through the lens. It is not about believing in the Bible or the gospels or Christian teachings about Jesus, but about a relationship to the One whom we see through the lens of the Christian tradition as a whole. . . . Beliefs have little ability to change our lives" (pp 239-240).

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Justification by faith (alone?)

In the epistle for today's Daily Office readings, one verse that stood out was Galatians 5:6 "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love." The key word is ἐνεργέω (energeō, Strong #G1754). It means to put into action, be effective, be operative. Most translations render it as "faith working through love." The NIV says, "faith expressing itself through love." The Amplified Bible translates it as, "faith activated and expressed and working through love."

It caught my attention because of the Reformation cry of "sola fide"--that salvation comes by "faith alone." In his commentary on Galatians, Luther insisted, "This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness." Luther's idea of forensic (or legal) justification is that God's verdict of acquittal is pronounced on the believing sinner due to his appeal through faith for God's mercy and saving grace. This does not come through any contribution of good behavior on our part, but solely through faith.

The origin of the doctrine is Luther's interpretation and German translation of Romans 3:28. He added the word allein ("alone") in his translation to help explain the passage. "We consider that a person is justified by faith [alone] apart from works of the law." Interestingly, only one of the four other German translations (Hoffnung fur Alle) found this word necessary to convey the meaning of the passage.

The addition also clashes with James 2:24 which says, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." James' famous counter-point to Paul is not that faith is not needed in receiving God's grace, but rather that it has to be a certain kind of faith--a living, active faith animated by love rather than a hollow faith in name only. Or as James puts it, "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:26).

Galatians 5:6 reminds us that there is really no conflict between Ss Paul and James. For Paul makes the same point here--that real, genuine, saving faith is that which is brought to life by love. It is faith that is lived out and not just thought.
At the heart of the matter, I've always thought that the issue was much ado about nothing. I realize that may seem to disrespect those whose blood was spilled in defense of their beliefs on either side. And I mean no disrespect. I realize that there are very different theologies about justification and other related questions of soteriology. But we also have to recognize that both sides believe that the faith has to be a "living faith" as James would say, or a "faith working by love" as Paul would say. And we have to recognize that both sides insist that salvation does not come by our own merits, but as a free gift of God's grace.

The very first canon on justification at the Council of Trent says, "If anyone says that man can be justified by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema." And we should also keep in mind that when Paul talks about works and salvation, nine times out of ten, he's talking about "works of the Law" (i.e., keeping the Torah), and not simply about good behavior. It is significant that Paul's mention of faith being animated by love comes in Galatians, which is Paul's strongest condemnation of the Judaizing argument that Christians must also keep all the regulations of the Torah.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Who really wrote the books in the Bible?

It’s almost a joke that among Bible scholars, whatever name is on a book of the Bible is not the person they think actually wrote it. They rightly remind us that many ancient documents were put out (even knowingly) under a more famous name by that person’s students or admirers. However, there is a tendency in academia that feeds a need to make novel claims to get published and make one’s mark. I rarely find such arguments persuasive, more often defaulting to the traditional view about things like authorship.

One thing that came up in this week’s Bible Study was the early church’s view of authorship. When it came to the question of admirers publishing letters under the name of an apostle, the church fathers did not look as kindly as scholars. In fact, many documents were rejected from inclusion in the canon not so much because they contained strange or false teaching, but simply because everyone knew that it was not really written by an apostle.

In 2 Thessalonians (2:2; 3:17), the Apostle Paul warned them not to be fooled by forgeries in circulation claiming to be written by him. We know that there were letters supposedly from Paul to the Laodiceans and to the Alexandrines. How did the church fathers react to these? A document of the early church called the Muratorian Fragment rejected these two letters as “forgeries,” insisting that such epistles “cannot be received into the catholic church, since it is not fitting that poison be mixed with honey.”

The prime indicator of authentic revelation was apostolic authority. The source of the writing was the most important factor in determining a book’s inclusion in the canon of the Bible. Of course, we must remember that by including a book in the canon of the Bible and calling it “Holy Scripture,” the church was saying that the ultimate author is God, who inspired the human author through the inner light and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

On The Lord's Descent Into the Underworld

From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday: 

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

What disturbs me about Donald Trump

I’ve wrestled for months about whether to write this. Now I’m breaking my own rule to not publicly take sides about candidates in political races (although I’m happy to talk about moral and cultural issues in the political sphere on which the church has something to say; maybe we can file this under culture).

Last summer, I was listening to an interview with Mark Steyn who was talking about a speech Donald Trump gave that afternoon. He noted that Trump is a savvy businessman who has looked at the Republican Party and figured out that it is ripe for a hostile takeover.

They were playing clips of his speech and Steyn was summarizing Trump's shtick as, ‘It’s gonna be great, folks. It’s gonna be fantastic. It’s gonna be huge. Don’t worry about the details. Just vote for me and the trains will run on time again.’ And then Steyn observed, “It’s basically all that strong man, banana republic sort of stuff.”

For those who may not be familiar, a banana republic refers to a stereo-typical politically unstable corrupt socialist country in Latin America, drowning in debt, with a large oppressed working class, dominated by an elite class, and run by a strong-man dictator. That description is becoming eerily familiar. Trump’s solution to this problem is to become the strong man and kick out the Latins. It’s a good solution for Trump, but not so much for the rest of us.

There is plenty not to like about Donald Trump. I don't think he's a racist or a xenophobe or some of the other sensational things he's accused of being. Yet I’ve never seen such an immature personality in American politics. Frankly, he’s disgusting. But that's not the bad part.

The idea that America (much less conservatives) would want a thrice married, repeatedly philandering, perpetually bankrupt casino man who threatens trade wars, vengeance against the press, and massive governmental projects and who seems to believe that belittling and insulting other Americans (particularly women) will make America great again and who can’t even be consistent on his own policies and beliefs from one paragraph to the next in his own speeches as our head of state is perplexing and demoralizing to say the least.

In another era he would have been (and was as recently as five years ago) dismissed as a boob by the voters. What has changed? Trump hasn’t changed so much as we have. We have become frustrated, angry, and desperate. Some of our problems have increased exponentially, particularly our national debt, economic stagnation, and our diminished standing in the world. Like a declining empire, we yearn for the glory days of old to be restored and the normal ways of accomplishing that goal don’t seem to be working.

We want an authoritarian, a strong man. That’s the only solution to the prospect of national ruin. And he's drawing support from across the board. I was shocked to see a libertarian fan of Ron Paul say on FaceBook the other day that it may be time for a strong man as president. And we are willing to overlook his faults if he will deliver on the promised restoration of glory. But it's not his potential presidency that disturbs so much as his candidacy and popularity and how that reflects on us (much like the unnerving messianic campaign of Barack Obama or the child-like hokum heard at the rallies of Bernie Sanders).

I’m not saying that he couldn’t get elected or that he couldn’t even have a good run as president. Ironically, if he is ultimately successful as an outsider taking over the system, it will be because like a good boss, he hires insiders to get the job done. But I fear we will have perhaps been fatally compromised in the process. A leader whose words we cannot trust (because he’s just negotiating) and whose competence we cannot rely upon (because he’ll hire all the smartest people to do the job) and whose behavior is indecent (because that stuff doesn’t matter; he's not the pastor-in-chief) will be the kind of leader we henceforth expect and deserve.

Cecil Rhodes famously said to fellow citizens of an empire on the verge of decline, "Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life." I used to think the same thing about being born an American. Now I’m not sure if it matters anymore. What disturbs me about Donald Trump is not so much Donald Trump. He is only a mirror. What disturbs me is the reflection.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What does marriage mean?

Given at Hamilton, Dublin, and Comanche Texas on 20 January 2013 

If you had conducted a survey of American clergy 100 years ago and asked if they were in favor of gay marriage, I’m sure you would have gotten a nearly 100% affirmative response. (What pastor wouldn’t be in favor of happy marriages in his flock?)

But if you had surveyed American clergy 40 years ago, you would have gotten just about an exactly opposite response. Not too many clergy would have been in favor of “gay marriage” in 1972. The difference, of course, is that words mean things and that meaning can change over time. And it’s not just the words themselves, but even the meaning of the things those words describe.

Four years ago, the new president was a candidate who had gone on record saying he believed marriage should be between 1 man and 1 woman, and the pastor giving the benediction at the inauguration was Rick Warren, a California pastor vocal in his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Tomorrow, the same man will be inaugurated for a new term as president, but he has changed his position on same-sex marriage to now support it. And the pastor he had chosen to give the inaugural benediction, Louie Giglio, backed out of the event because a sermon he preached about 15 years ago titled “A Christian Response to Homosexuality” surfaced in the media, creating a public outcry.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee issued a statement in response, saying, “We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural. As we now work to select someone to deliver the benediction, we will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.” It is a vivid portrait of how things can change in just a short time. (By the way, an Episcopal priest will give the benediction instead.)

When California’s Proposition 8 (marriage is defined as one man and one woman in the state constitution) was struck down by the US District Court in 2010, I commented on my blog: “I’d like to remind everyone that the Church has always supported the right of gays and lesbians to marry. And as long as there are no impediments, we also support the rights of Christian gays and lesbians to have their marriages solemnized in the church.” 

People were taken aback. One person commented, “Is this April 1st?” And that’s the point. It was to illustrate how far the meaning of marriage had already been altered in the public mind by the political discourse. People no longer thought of marriage as being only one man and one woman.

In today’s gospel (John 2:1-11), we find a message of transforming grace in the epiphany that came through the slight alteration of water into wine. St John tells us this was the first of his “signs”—selected miracles which manifested Jesus’ divine nature—and it happened at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

I’m inclined to believe it happened for a reason. The question is, Why? When the wine runs low, Mary says to her son, “They have no wine.” She knows he can work miracles. And he knows that she knows. Jesus understood what she was getting at and basically responds, “Why are you asking me for a miracle now?”

As a good Queen Mother, she tells the King’s subjects, “Just do whatever he tells you.” The working of his first sign has always been considered a special endorsement of the dignity of marriage in the Christian tradition, showing the sacramental character of marriage by utilizing the creative and transforming power of God at that special moment.

St. Paul explained that Christ is betrothed to his Bride, which is the Church. This is the heavenly reality which gives meaning to the earthly symbol, marriage. Earthly marriage is true marriage to the extent it signifies the heavenly reality. The scriptures tells us that the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation in Eden—that Adam and Eve were the first newlyweds.

What about the word “marriage”—where does it come from? If you consult your etymological dictionary, you will find that it is descended from the Latin matrimonium, which has come down in this form via Old French. And what does “matrimonium” mean?

I teach a class on Moral Theology for our diocesan school of Theology. A few months ago, I was reviewing some material to revise the syllabus. And I came across a statement in a theology text I had forgotten. It pointed out that contraceptive sex does not consummate marriage. Why? Because we are talking about matrimony.

Perhaps some of you will recognize there the root Latin word mater (“Mother”). The marriage contract is ratified by turning a woman into a mother. “Holy Matrimony” literally means the “sacred condition of motherhood.” We have forgotten this, and we need to remember again.

Would two men ever go to the courthouse and ask that their bond of “sacred motherhood” be recognized by the state? Once upon a time it would have been unthinkable, because that’s how we once thought about marriage.

We need a new epiphany of that life-giving union of marriage—not just for our secular culture, but also for Christian people who may have forgotten or never fully understood what the meaning of marriage really is.

May God reveal to us again the meaning of that beautiful institution which signifies the mystical union between Christ and his bride, the Church.