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.