Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sermons to wrap up the year

Having been sick of late I beg your indulgence with this double re-run. Click here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Of your charity

I bid your prayers for Fr. Charles Lindsay, who had to be taken from St. Benedict's to Duke Hospital today with shortness of breath. He was covering for me; I was diagnosed with the flu on Friday night, and could also use your prayers for a speedy recovery.

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity

Col. 1:3-12 * Matt. 9:18-26

Taken together, the Epistle and Gospel appointed for today speak to the reality of everything we do. St Paul writes to the Colossians about their knowledge of God, a thing essential to the life of every Christian, and the very definition of eternal life. Jesus had said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”1 This hearkens back to the thirty-first chapter of the book of the prophet Jeremiah, who foretold the New Covenant, that New Covenant that our Lord spoke of as established in his own blood on that night in which he was betrayed. To know God is at the heart of the New Covenant, which contains this promise: “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”2 Here, in the Epistle, St. Paul speaks openly and simply about the knowledge of God; he assumes that his readers do, in fact, know God. The idea that God might be a stranger to the home, and the heart, of any Christian was unfathomable to him. This speaks to the reality of the Christian life of faith; it is not simply a matter of form, and it is never a matter of anything we should call “blind faith.”

Our faith is not blind. Unbelief is blind. The darkness of willful unrepentant sin is the darkness of blindness. But, faith sees, and sees clearly. God remains above and beyond our comprehension, so that we cannot describe him, except by St. Paul’s chapter on charity. That is, we cannot explain God, or know how to define his power, his wisdom or his essence. Nonetheless, this unknowable God has made himself known, and he has revealed himself by the Word made flesh, the only mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus. 3 “He who has seen me has seen the Father,”4 said our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot comprehend God, we cannot describe God, we cannot understand God, and yet we can know God. He has made Himself known, He has revealed Himself in Hhis word, and above all the Word made flesh, His only begotten Son. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.” 5

And, we can know His will. He has not hidden it away for the wise and learned, but revealed it. Some of that revelation is so simple that we teach it to our children in their earliest years- or, that is, we should. We teach them the Ten Commandments, the Summary of the Law, to pray “Our Father. “ We begin to teach right from wrong at a very early age. This is part of knowing the will of God. As we mature, and need wisdom, we have the wonderful gift of Holy Scripture to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.”6

According to the Wisdom Literature of the Scriptures, such books Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach), Wisdom and Ecclesiastes, the essence of wisdom is moral rather than intellectual. The wise man is a godly and righteous man, and the fool is the one who lives in sin without the fear of God. So, the essence of wisdom is moral rather than intellectual. The wise man is a godly and righteous man, and the fool is the one who lives in sin without the fear of God. Someone who has his gaze fixed always and only on the things of this world, and lives as if he is naturally immortal, and will not face judgment, is a fool, no matter how high an IQ he may possess. The lack of reason, the laziness of thought, the simplicity and reduction of every theological and philosophical question, that is, the method of atheist apologetics in general, may appear clever to those caught up in them. Indeed, recent books have been produced with this very sort of argumentation by men who should know better, men whose experience when they were in college ought to tell them that simplistic arguments and undocumented material deserve no higher grade than an “f.” Cleverness is no substitute for diligence, and certainly no substitute for either knowledge or wisdom. It cannot deliver the soul from death, nor from standing before the judgment seat of Christ.

True wisdom knows the very thing that genuine science constantly rediscovers. No matter how much knowledge we learn, our ignorance outweighs it all. Every valid scientific discovery adds to our ignorance. How can that be? Simply put, the proportion of human ignorance against human knowledge grows by every major discovery, because every discovery opens more questions than we had before. The arrogance of late 19th century and early 20th century Rationalism should have been blown away forever by the major discoveries of Einstein, and by every advance in modern physics. And, despite this fact, that ought to have everyone in awe, and that ought to produce humility, we still see on some cars those silly “Darwin” stickers that mock the Christian Fish symbol. Don’t they know that they are at least 80 years behind? We still run into people who think there is a conflict between faith and science, and who are unaware of the great number of religious people, Christians and Jews, among the world’s prominent physicists. Of course, this is not just an absence of wisdom, but also of education. But, more to the point, the complexity of the physical universe tells us that the mind of God is beyond all human comprehension. The very complexity that makes up what we call matter, and what we call energy, is enough that we should see how far above our comprehension God is.

Yet, even though His creation is beyond our finite minds, and Himself completely hidden, we know God. Furthermore, St. Paul tells us that we know God’s will, and that He opens the eyes of our understanding to know it as we need to. Listen again to his words:

“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might,6 according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”
Today’s Gospel shows the power of Jesus Christ to raise the dead at His will, and the power of true faith to apprehend His promise. The woman who had the flow of blood was able to get to the heart of true sacramental theology; not that she knew what she was doing in those terms. The grace of God was present in the Word made Flesh, in Jesus Christ who was walking among the large crowd of people, and she pressed through the crowd to touch a simple material thing. She reached out to touch the hem of his garment as He walked, a thing so simple and mundane, and so very material. Everything you need for the sacraments can be found in a proper Mediterranean kitchen. Wine, water, olive oil, flour- just a few simple things. The hem of Christ’s garment was a simple thing. It was a real material thing. The sacraments work this way. They all stem from the incarnate Christ. He is present in the world that He created, having added to His Eternal and Uncreated Person the created matter and nature of everything that is truly human. From the fact of His incarnation, His human nature that tabernacled among us, the physical matter of His human body that walked the earth complete with a human mind and soul, and from the garment in which He clothed it, grace flowed out and healed the woman.

Yes, you can go through the Form very properly; but, in addition to that, your real need is to reach out and touch the hem of Christ’s garment. You come to this sacrament today in very real need. You cannot even keep your own soul alive. No cleverness, no correctness of rubrical directions, and no proper performance will save you from sin and death. You must come “with hearty repentance and true faith” to "take this sacrament to your comfort." You are subject to sin and death, without hope of eternal life unless you lay hold on the grace of God as you pass through this life. You are not coming to this sacrament because you deserve to have it, but because you need it. You need to feed on the bread of life, to be saved from sin and death by consuming the food and drink of eternal life. 9 You need Jesus. You are coming in that need to reach out and touch the hem of His garment. Without this faith, without this knowledge of God, without this humility, without dependence and reliance on His grace and on His power, you would be lost and doomed. I like correct Form. But, you are coming for the deeper reality that gives it meaning. You need to receive the Matter with the Intention of feeding on the Living Christ. This sacramental life is the life of faith, and it is based on knowing God.

1. John 17:3
2. Jeremiah 31:31-34
3. I Timothy 2:5
4. John 14:9
5. John 1:18
6. Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent.
7. δύναμις
8. John 4:19-24  
9. John 6:26-59

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Of your charity...

...I bid your prayers for our own Fr. Wells. He has been diagnosed with pneumonia, anemia and exhaustion.  

Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity

Phil.3:17-21  *  Matt. 22:15-22

Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

            How should we approach these words of Jesus? Was this a mere witty response that silenced His enemies? Was it merely a clever way to get them to shut up? Or, do we recognize that he spoke no idle words, but meant what He said? How do we approach these words then? Should it be both in light of Who Jesus is and in the context of His entire body of teaching?      
            It is difficult to know how to apply them. What was Caesar after all? The same problems we find in answering this question are also inherent in living by the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Church in Rome, where the Apostle wrote that Christians ought to obey the authorities, be law abiding citizens and pay taxes.     
            You may ask, why do I say this is a problem? The answer is because Caesar was a conqueror and a tyrant. It was not long before Caesar persecuted the Church, and made it illegal even to be a Christian. His law was not God’s law, and man’s law never is.
            What, then do we render unto Caesar, especially if we have to render unto God the things that are God’s? So often, the state requires that we offer to the government the things that belong solely to God, even our very consciences. How, then must we see these words of Jesus?
            The answer is, of course, in the context of His entire body of teaching. That includes His Summary of the Law:

THOU shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets (Matt, 22:37-40, Lev. 19:18, Deut. 6:5).

            This is part of what you should have learned for Confirmation. Of the Ten Commandments we say there are two tables. The first table contains four commandments to love God. The second table contains six commandments to love your neighbor. It is a principle of studying that part of the Law, or those commandments, called the Moral Law, that every moral commandment is really a way of obeying the true and deeper meaning of the Ten; that the Summary of the Law summarizes them in their truest meaning. The ultimate Rabbi for expounding on the full meaning of the Moral Law is our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what the Sermon on the Mount is.
            According to this method we draw fuller meaning from the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Our catechism develops this theme as follows (we teach this to everyone for Confirmation, so I trust the words are familiar to you):

“Question. What dost thou chiefly learn by these Commandments?
    Answer. I learn two things; my duty towards God, and my duty towards my Neighbour.
    Question. What is thy duty towards God?
    Answer. My duty towards God is To believe in him, to fear him, And to love him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength: To worship him, to give him thanks: To put my whole trust in him, to call upon him: To honour his holy Name and his Word: And to serve him truly all the days of my life.
    Question. What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?
    Answer. My duty towards my Neighbour is To love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey the civil authority: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt nobody by word or deed: To be true and just in all my dealings: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil speaking, lying, and slandering: To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men's goods; But to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, And to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.”

            Obedience to the authorities, to the law of the land, is a duty that comes from the obligation to love your neighbor. Disorder, chaos and crime are against not only your God, but your neighbor.
            But, this is why it seems strange to apply these thoughts to a thuggish regime like that of the Roman Empire. The obvious problem is, sometimes we must choose between God and Caesar. I don’t mean choose between a dubious, sectarian or cultish teaching and the government; I mean between God and human authority.
            The case for civil disobedience was made by St. Peter:
 “Then came one and told them, saying, Behold, the men whom ye put in prison are standing in the temple, and teaching the people. Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:25-29).”
          For a Christian, notice the choice. When human authorities make it impossible for you to avoid the choice, you render unto God the things that are God’s, and accept the consequences for the sake of Christ Himself. This is why Christians have often endured persecution from the authorities in various times and places.
          This is not a being a rebel without a cause. It is not walking on the grass because the sign said to “keep off the grass.” In fact, it is not being a rebel at all. When you make the choice to obey God rather than men, you are loving God and loving your neighbor the only way left open to you. “render unto God the things that are God’s.”
          You are also following Christ and taking up the cross.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity

Click this link for a sermon.


by Fr. Laurence Wells

Not many years ago the ineffable Bishop Bennison of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania caused great consternation by telling a conservative congregation, when someone quoted a Biblical text to him, “Well, the Church made up the Bible and therefore the Church can change the Bible.”  His blunt statement was widely quoted, and rightly so, as a prize exhibit of where revisionist theology inevitable leads.  If his premise is granted, his conclusion is hard to resist. 

But honestly requires us to face up to the fact that Bishop Bennison’s assumption (“the Church made up the Bible”) is widely shared by many who would be surprised to learn that their view of Sacred Scripture is not very different from that of a radically modernist bishop.  For example, we find Bp. Kallistos Ware writing (The Orthodox Church, New Edition, page 199), “It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority.”  Whereas Bishop Bennison was blunt, Bishop Ware was genteel.  But their assumptions are identical and their conclusions are not so far apart.

In the more nuanced form, the Bennison-Ware logic is not infrequently encountered even within the Continuing Church.  I recall being told by one of our most learned and astute clergymen that the Protestant concept of Scriptura Sola collapses because “we must always remember that the Church proclaimed the Canon.”  (He did not seem to know the difference between Scriptura sola and Scriptura nuda, but that is another discussion.)

This is written to counter some facile conclusions from faulty data, namely, that (1) the documents which make up our Bible circulated for a time in some pre-Canonical status, which therefore (2) had no inherent authority until the Church bestowed that authority, and (3) the Church still retains a high degree of control in what Scriptural teaching it obeys, what it disregards, and what it adds.

There are many who suppose that this great act of proclamation occurred (like the Constitution which emerged from the 1787 Philadelphia Convention) at one of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  But as far as the records show, this was not the case.  When Arian and Athanasian parties faced each other at Nicaea in AD 325, they were bitterly divided over the Person of Jesus Christ.  Yet both sides appealed to the same Holy Scripture and even if there were a few fuzzy areas in the Canon (along with some very solid areas), neither side tried to score points by arguing about the Canon of either Testament or the Bible of the opposite party.  In contrast to all the theological controversies which wracked the Christian community in those early centuries, disagreements over the Biblical Canon were few, local and minor.  Of course it is tempting to project later 16th century disputes into Patristic times.  But the records do not bear this out.  The differences, such as they were, related exclusively to the third and last part of the New Testament, in which a number of writings, the so-called Antilegomena, were not so much controverted as simply neglected.

For those who wish to delve into the minutiae of how an official list of authoritative writings emerged in the Christian community, I would recommend F. F. Bruce’s The Canon of Scripture (IVP, 1988) and also Lee Martin McDonald’s The Biblical Canon (Hendrickson, 2007), a much bigger book which acknowledges its
debt to Bruce but does not always agree with him on details.  The history is too complicated to be summed up in the simplisms of Bennison and Ware.

Very briefly, we can say that in AD 367 St Athanasius, in his capacity as Bishop of Alexandria, issued his usual Easter Letter announcing the date of the Paschal feast.  (The Council of Nicaea had tasked him with this annual chore.)  In that year, he found it necessary to lay down lists of the books of both Testaments.  His list of the New Testament writings is the earliest document we possess which gives the New Testament exactly as we have it in our Bibles (and notably, this is one of very few things on which all of Christendom agrees).  These lists of both Testaments were almost identical to the lists prepared by a local Council held at Laodicea around AD 363.  The records of that Council, however, are less than clear:  it may have overlooked the Book of Revelation, but that is not certain.

Two points must be made concerning these “proclamations” of the Canon.  First of all, neither Athanasius nor the bishops convened at Laodicea were putting books into the Bible.  The purpose of the lists, as Athanasius made very clear, was not to include anything but to exclude false writings.  His first concern was liturgical reading.   He found it necessary to counteract a tendency to read from documents not considered inspired or authoritative.  (The Congregation on Divine Worship had to deal with a similar fad in the Roman Catholic Church in the heady days immediately after Vatican II.)  Athanasius wrote, after listing the 27 books of the New Testament:

“These are the ‘springs of salvation,’ [Isaiah 12. 3] so that one who is thirsty may be satisfied with the oracles which are in them.  In these alone [!] is the teaching of true religion proclaimed as good news.  Let no one add to these or take anything from them.”  The allusion here to Rev.22. 18 surely seems to indicate a closed Canon, already in place when Athanasius wrote.  Had he undertaken to compile something new, his adversaries would not have allowed that to pass.  If the Arian party could raise an objection to homoousion as a new word, they would surely not have tolerated a new Canon to the New Testament.

Secondly, we find a wealth of evidence that an official list of writings was pretty much in place from a much earlier time.  The so-called Muratorian Fragment (named for its 18th century discoverer, Lodovico Antonio Muratori) probably goes back to the end of the second century.  It listed 21 of our 27 books, omitting Hebrews, James, I and II Peter, and II and III John.  Oddly, it listed also the Wisdom of Solomon as a New Testament book.  Not too much can be concluded from these anomalies, since the document is fragmentary and exists only in a late copy.  But what is important to us here is that the Shepherd of Hermas was specifically excluded on the grounds that it was recently written.  Certain Gnostic writers were also excluded as well. 

In both the Easter Letter and the Muratorian fragment, the Canon was not something proclaimed but rather something defined, delimited, and safeguarded.

The concept of Canonicity must be carefully distinguished from the concept of Authority.  The New Testament writings did not gain authority because they were canonized; instead, they were set apart and protected as “Canon” because they had inherent authority.  Asking how this exclusive list had emerged by the time of Athanasius is somewhat like asking how the original ministry of “the Twelve” had quickly blossomed into the monarchical episcopate and threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon.  The details are murky, but we can be sure that in neither case, ministry or canon, was this suddenly “proclaimed” by the Church.

St Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyon, in Gaul, in AD 177, is one of our last traceable links to the Apostolic  Church.  He was a pupil of St Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69—155), who wrote of his personal contacts with St John, the Beloved Disciple, “and with others who had seen the Lord.”  It was the burden of Irenaeus to combat the serious threat of Gnosticism.  As is well known, he emphasized The Apostolic foundation of the Church.  But he also emphasized the importance of Christian Scripture in safeguarding the Faith.  F. F. Bruce writes, in Canon of Scripture, p. 175,

“In all of Irenaeus’s argument, moreover, scripture plays a dominant part.  It is the abiding  witness to the one living and true God, ‘whom the law announces, whom the prophets proclaim, whom Christ reveals, whom the apostles teach, whom the Church believes.’  Irenaeus is well able to distinguish ‘the writings of truth’ from ‘the multitude of apocryphal and spurious writings.’   …. Irenaeus nowhere in his extant writings sets down a list of New Testament books, but it is evident that he had a clear notion of their identity.” 

But the NT Canon of St Irenaeus is not a complete mystery.  We know that he quoted from Acts and the Pauline letters.  More importantly, we know that he employed the concept of a “Fourfold Gospel,” listing Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, comparing them to the four quarters of the world, and condemning any who would add to this number.  (Remember, the Canon was exclusive, not inclusive.)

We seem to have a tantalizing clue to the formation of the New Testament Canon in the very arrangement of Paul’s Epistles.  It should be observed, by the way, that the Apostle to the Gentiles assumes in every extant letter that his writing will be received and read as authoritative Scripture.  There is no diffident tone of  “perhaps the Church will add this to her official list sometime in the future.”  In the arrangement of Paul’s Epistles, the first, Romans, is the longest, and the last, the brief letter to Philemon, is the shortest.  In between they come in order of descending length.  This may well tell us that they were gathered not in some random fashion but by a careful editor who arranged them according to a literary convention of the ancient world, into a unified Corpus Paulinum.  Why?  Because this editor recognized the inherent authority of Apostolic writing.  Bruce indulges himself in a delightful speculation that this careful editor was none other than Onesimus, the slave mentioned in Philemon, who could be the Onesimus who was recorded by Bishop of Ephesus by St Ignatius of Antioch.

Frequently we encounter an argument that the Church is “older” than the Bible and therefore has some greater authority.  This argument does not have all the facts on its side, as we find St Peter on the Day of Pentecost (commonly called the “Birthday of the Church”) citing the Book of Joel.  Similarly, when Our Lord began His public preaching in the Nazareth Synagogue, we find Him taking a text from Isaiah.  From its earliest inception, the Church had not only the concept of an authoritative Scripture, but a solid foundation in “the Law, the Prophets and the Writings” which we call the Old Testament (Luke 24:44).   It is striking to find the Second Epistle of Peter, perhaps the latest document of the New Testament, referring to the Pauline writings:

“And account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unsteadfast wrest, as they do also  the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (II Peter 3:15-16).”

Three things are notable here.  II Peter was not written to any particular Church, but is a “Catholic Epistle” addressed to the Christian community at large.  So the writer (I take him to be St Peter himself, but will not insist on it right now) applies Paul’s Epistles to the universal Church, not merely the seven local churches to which Paul wrote.  Second, II Peter surely seems to think of the Pauline Epistles as a definite collection, not just a bunch of old letters floating around.  But third, and unarguably so, he places them on a level with the “other scriptures,” that is to say, the sacred writings of Israel.  The New Testament Canon was asserting itself before the New Testament was even complete!

Another example of this phenomenon is found in II Timothy 5:18-19,  “For the scripture saith, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn”,  And, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”  The first of these two citations (which Paul also introduced in 1 Cor. 9:9) comes from Deuteronomy 25:4.  The second, however, is found in no Old Testament passage whatever, but comes from Matt. 10:10 (from a long discourse relating to the mission of the Twelve).  This could be a bit of evidence for the writing of Matthew somewhat earlier than is commonly supposed.  But even if Paul is quoting an earlier form of Matthew no longer available to us, we cannot escape the fact that Paul quoted Matthew as authoritative Scripture. 

Modern writers have many good things to say on the “criteria of canonicity,” listing apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, liturgical usefulness, inspiration.  But it is striking that the ancient writers have so little to say on the topic.  When they spoke of this or that New Testament book under the rubric gegraptai (“it is written’), the Canon is simply assumed as a Datum.  The Canon emerged, it surely seems,  naturally, spontaneously and fairly quickly, as something the entire Christian community, orthodox and heretical alike, quietly accepted with no great fuss or ado.  So the claim that “the Church proclaimed the canon” turns out to be a historical mirage and a triumphalist myth.

Just as the episcopate and priesthood emerged without any particular difficulty, and probably somewhat earlier, so the Canon appeared.  In both these early developments we may see the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, leading the people of God into all truth.  In the compiled New Testament, fenced in and set apart from all other writings, we have no human authority’s “proclamation.” But instead we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling to His sheep, and see the sheep following Him for they know His voice.