Saturday, January 19, 2019

Second Sunday after Epiphany 2019

Romans 12:6-16a * Mark 1:1-11

The season of Epiphany gives us pictures of Christ that are meant to help us understand the revelation of who He is. Look at an icon of this event, and you get a glimpse of the meaning of this Gospel passage. The Son stands in the water, the Spirit appears in form as of a dove and lights upon Him, and the Father’s voice comes from above. This clear revelation of God is why we should think of today as a companion Sunday to Trinity Sunday. It is why the Orthodox Church sees this scene from the Gospels as the most significant Theophany, for which they name this season.         
About thirty years ago I heard a man preach that when the Father spoke the words, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” that this was somehow necessary in order to meet the psychological need of Jesus, a word of approbation from the Father that, as the preacher’s words still ring in my memory, “His Son needed.” I do not know where people get these ideas, but they do not find them in the pages of scripture. The idea that we can understand Jesus Christ in psychological terms that are based upon the normal condition of fallen sinful people, who need healing or affirmation because of the brokenness of their lives, is simply wrong. We must not try to get into the mind of Jesus Christ as if He were subject to the problems that sinful people have. His understanding of His mission is not a subject for that kind of analysis.
Another idea that was popular for many years is that Jesus was suddenly aware of who He was, and of His unique relationship to the Father, because of the voice from heaven and this whole spiritual experience. This interpretation comes from the idea that He was drawn to hear the preaching of John the Baptist, and underwent some sort of personal epiphany akin to religious conversion. According to this interpretation, he emerged from the water a new man, suddenly filled with divine purpose. Again, this would require that we imagine a Jesus who came to John in order to be forgiven his own sins, because John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. But, the thought of Jesus having sins, or any need to change his heart is wrong. He is without sin.     
We need to think according to the actual revelation that is recorded in the scriptures, and free our minds from wrong ideas. For, the simple fact is, nothing that Jesus did in His public ministry had anything to do with meeting a supposed need of His own. Everything was for our sakes, like the hymn says- “for us baptized, for us He bore his holy fast and hungered sore.” That wonderful hymn begins each line with those two words, “for us.”     
For us He prayed, For us He taught, For us His daily works he wrought…For us to wicked men betrayed…For us he rose from death again.” What happened here at the River Jordan did not happen because the Son needed the Father’s affirmation, and it is was not some personal epiphany that changed His life. He knew already exactly who He was, and of His unique relationship to the Father, having expressed it to Joseph and Mary in the temple many years earlier when he was a child twelve years old. He asked them why they had looked for Him when they ought to have known that he would be in His Father’s house.
Jesus went to the River Jordan in order to begin His public ministry, to appear to the people of Israel, and to be proclaimed by John the Baptist as the Son of God. The baptism itself serves as a prelude to the crucifixion that He, for us, later would endure unto death. For here, standing with sinners in the waters of the Jordan, He is willingly taking on the sins of the whole world for the first time, letting Himself be identified with sinners and with their sins, remaining Himself guiltless, completely holy, and the only person among all of the human race about Whom the Father would say that He is well pleased. God loves the fallen sinful children of men; but He is not well pleased with any of us. Only His Son, free from sin, was pleasing to God; and here we see him entering the waters of the Jordan to begin his identification with our sins, a voluntary identification that would culminate on the cross.  In John’s Gospel it is after this epiphany, this epiphany to John the Baptist and the people gathered, that the Baptist proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.”
I remember another strange idea that was expressed in my hearing, only this time it was from a layman. According to this fellow, there was some point when Jesus complained in response to the demands of a crowd that he was only one man, and they were asking too much from him. I do not know what movie this man saw, or what silly story he once heard from a well-meaning relative while growing up, or what dream he dreamt. I pointed out to him that nothing of the sort ever happened; that the Gospels record no such thing. Jesus fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fishes, rose people from the dead, walked on water, healed everyone who came to Him, and never once complained about anything except for how little faith people have. He did not work within the confines of His human nature, but from within His eternal Godhead as the Son eternally begotten of the Father. He did not diminish His Divine nature, but rather he raised human nature. He did not reveal what is possible for a good man, but what is possible with God. The human nature that he took into His Divine Person as God the Son was a complete human nature; but the Person of Jesus the man was that of God the Son.     
The voice from Heaven, and the appearance like that of a dove, all centered upon Jesus in the River Jordan, did not come for His sake. It did not meet some need that He had. It was for the sake of those who stood upon the bank of the river, those who saw and heard. It was for the sake of all of us who have learned about this epiphany, this revelation of the Trinity, about that full and perfect name of God that later would be spoken by Christ after he rose from the dead: “The name of The Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Here is a revelation of God, and of the mysterious relationship that has existed from all eternity, about which we have no right to speculate, hidden and veiled except for glimpses of revelation meant to aid us in our salvation. At no point was the Son alone, for the Father was always with Him, and the Holy Spirit remained upon Him.     
The other people came to the Baptist confessing their sins. But, about this man the Father made a confession, that He was well pleased. The others came out of need. Jesus was there to meet our needs, especially the deepest need of all, to be reconciled to God; to know Him, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. Others came to lay down their sins; Jesus was there to take up the sins they laid down, and to carry them to Calvary where they would be nailed to the cross with Him. The others came to lay down their burdens; Jesus was there to take up their burdens. “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53: 4-6).” 
The Holy Spirit appears as a dove. Now, this is a different kind of manifestation than the physical presence of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit is appearing in a vision granted to everyone there; His appearing is in a symbolic way, that is to say, it is a Divine writing of iconography in the very heavens. The appearance of a dove is a symbol, and the message is that God’s wrath is over and done. This is the Christmas message of the angel who appeared and spoke to the shepherds of “peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” Not among men, but towards men. We are reminded of the story of Noah, who sent out the dove, which returned with an olive branch in its mouth to reveal that the waters of God’s wrath had abated from off the earth. Noah later offered a sacrifice after he left the ark, and God promised not to destroy man, and hung up His bow, His rainbow, as a pledge. The meaning is this: By appearing as a dove that descended upon Jesus, the Holy Spirit signified to us that Christ is the peace offering that reconciles us to God. This too, just like the very baptism itself, points to our redemption by Christ’s full and complete offering of Himself on the cross.
And, to the ear came the audible voice of the Father, telling us of His pleasure in the Son. This is more than simply His approval of Christ’s holy life. It is the eternal love within the Trinity, wherein God delights in being God, where each of the Persons delights in the perfection and worthiness of the other two Persons. We know this is true, but our speaking of it cannot do justice to the reality as we shall begin to know it when the risen Christ returns in glory. For now, we see the significance in the Father’s words, telling us not only of His Son’s worthiness and holiness, but telling us this in contrast to the pleasure He cannot take in the fallen state of every other human being who was there. Here too we understand why this voice was heard at the Lord’s baptism. As Jesus Christ identified Himself with sinful mankind, the other Persons of the Godhead told us Who He is, and why He is Himself without sin, but standing in for us to save us. The Father speaks of His Son Who always pleases Him, telling us not only that He remains holy and without spot or stain of sin, but even more; that He is the Son Who throughout eternity and before all worlds gives delight to the Father in that Divine love that is beyond our comprehension.

We see the Trinity in this report of the Lord’s baptism that day. The vision of the Holy Spirit was for our sake; the voice of the Father was for our sake. Here we see and hear the Trinity with eyes and ears, and we see also that only in Jesus Christ and His offering of Himself do we have salvation from sin and death. And, we can say, from all this, that the revelation of the Trinity tells us, in the words of Saint John the Apostle, “God is love.”

The revelation of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, the Trinity, is a necessary part of our salvation. It is not about abstract and difficult academic theology, but about how God, who is Love, saves us from sin and death and promises to raise us up in His Son. He has made Himself known in our world- not perfectly understood, but known. What was revealed that day at the River Jordan was a revelation to every human being except Jesus, who alone already knew.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The First Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 12:1-5 * Luke 2: 41-52
What brings all of these scriptures together for this day is the collect, asking for perception and knowledge of God’s will, and for the grace and power to be faithful to it. The collect reminds me very much of what St. Paul said was his prayer for the Church of the Colossian Christians:

“For this cause also, since the day we heard of 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 according to His glorious power...” (Col. 1: 9-11)

The passages we have heard this day all speak of the mystical charism, the gift, of wisdom by which we know the will of God, and of the grace God gives us to carry it out. The wisdom that we receive is, in a very mysterious way, coming to us from the Person of Christ our Lord, mediated to us by the Holy Ghost. It is the wisdom that the world does not know, for it does not know God. By this wisdom we know God, and we know His will for us.

Now, that sounds pretty heady and possibly not even very sober. Yet it is very practical.

Before talking about the practical side however, let us look very seriously at what we see in the twelve-year old Jesus, as Luke tells the story. To begin with, He knew Who He was, and He knew the Father. For some reason contemporary commentators have imagined, since some time about the middle of the 20th Century, that Jesus suddenly became aware of His identity when He was baptized (which we will read about next Sunday), and the heavens opened, the Spirit came upon Him, and the Father spoke. How they come up with this I cannot understand, for the manifestation of each Person of the Trinity was a revelation given to John the Baptist, and to all who stood by at the banks of the Jordan. But, nothing new was revealed that day to Jesus.

No indeed, for here we see Him quite aware of Who He is at the tender age of twelve. His wisdom is greater than that of all of the Doctors of the Law, and all they can do is marvel at Him. I have heard preachers get this all wrong too, and say that He was getting ahead of Himself, and needed to be “put in His place” by Mary and Joseph. Again, not so. This is a revelation given to us in scripture of the simple fact that this human child, this boy, was at the same time God, One with the Father. He had taken human nature, alien as every created nature is to His Divine Uncreated Person, so that He could become Man, while yet, as St Athanasius tells us, filling the heavens as the Eternal Son of the Father. He did not “empty Himself” of Divine Nature, as some bad theologians have twisted the marvelous Christological passage from Philippians chapter two to mean; but rather, as it says in Psalm 113:5:

“Who is like unto the LORD our God, that hath His dwelling so high, and yet humbleth Himself to behold the things that are in heaven and earth!”

Yes, He would go back to Nazareth and be obedient to Mary and to Joseph, for He came in the form of a servant, and was obedient, obedient even to the death of the cross. He came in humility, laying aside His glory. The self-emptying spoken of by St. Paul meant just this very thing, that while always equal to the Father, He humbled Himself and did the Father’s will.

To do the Father’s will required knowledge of that will, and it required wisdom that cannot come from human origin, especially not from fallen and sinful men. The phrase “about My Father’s business” is also translated “in My Father’s house.” In other words, “why were you looking anywhere but here? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” Both being in the temple, and then going back with them to be obedient, were all part of His journey to the cross, as He came to do the Father’s will, not His own.

I want to be very careful at this point not to teach that if He could do it so can we; the old “pull yourself up by your bootstrap.” True religion does not teach that life is a test. It teaches that life is a shipwreck. We need a Saviour, and no one less than God will do, while also our Saviour must be a Man like us to pull us out of the curse of sin and death. No. That Jesus did it perfectly does not mean that we can do the same. It means, in fact, that we cannot. For though fully Man from the nature of His Virgin Mother, He never ceased to be God, eternally begotten of the Father. This is the Gospel: That God himself came to save us.

So then, am I saying to give up and live in sin? Admit defeat and then “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die?” As St. Paul answered this question, God forbid. The answer is in the formula of St. Athanasius: “God became man that man might become Divine.” The Second Epistle of Peter says, by God’s promises “...that ye might be partakers of the Divine Nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (II Pet. 1: 4).” The doctrine of Deification, which is the Catholic doctrine common to the Church Universal, is not that people can be gods in a any literal sense; but, rather, that because God has become human, He gives grace for us to be adopted as children of God. The destiny of those who know God is to be transformed, and to be glorified, to be given true life and immortality. As C. S. Lewis put it, to be changed into a creature so glorious, that if you were to behold such a one now, you would be tempted to fall down and worship.

But, all of this is grace, that is, a gift. It is given because we are in Christ, and He is the True Son of the Father. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is (I John 3: 2).” Because He has come into the world, and taken our nature, and taken our death which He did not deserve, and has passed through death into life, we can live. And the life we are given is not of this world, but is the life of Christ Who is One with the Father and the Holy Ghost. This is the change we are given, and our partaking of the Divine Nature.

Now are we the sons of God. So then, how shall we live? We have not the power to live like sons of God within ourselves, or by our own effort. What we have is the Holy Ghost Who is given to us, Who abides in us. Now, what is the practical side which I have promised to speak about? Indeed, I seem to have gotten as far away from practicality as possible- or have I? Is it not practical to learn to depend upon God, upon His Spirit Who abides with us? How? By what steps?

By the steps given to us in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans just as we have heard it this day. In light of God’s mercies, we must know that we no longer belong to ourselves, but to the One Who paid for us by His very life-blood, the pouring out of His soul upon the cross of death. In light of that unspeakable mercy, we give ourselves as living sacrifices to God. No, we will not be perfect. Anyone who has had a heady conversion experience, no matter how mystical and indeed real, soon learns that he is still a sinner. No, we cannot be perfect, but we can humble ourselves and practice obedience. That is what a living sacrifice does: He carries his own cross daily and follows the Son of Man. Jesus did not carry the cross only on that one Friday, but every day; for He lived always to do the will of the Father Who sent Him. Unlike Him, we will not be perfect, we will not be a sinless sacrifice. All we can do is practice obedience, however imperfectly we practice it. But, the sins of a living sacrifice are those which he discovers within himself; that is, they are not done willfully and deliberately. If we choose to do wrong, we are not living sacrifices- something to consider before saying “amen” to the Eucharistic prayer in which “we offer our selves, our souls and bodies...”

This offering of ourselves to God is our “reasonable service.” In the original Greek it is our logika latre’ia (λογικv λατρε
α). Literally, our “logical worship.” That is, a liturgy, a service, and one that is logical, reasonable, quite in keeping with wisdom. The Liturgy we offer to God this day must be in the proper sense a very real collect of our lives; for the whole life of each one of us should be itself a liturgy, with every part having its place as an offering of worship to God. Is all that we do done to the glory of God? In the last chapter of Zechariah, we see that even the washing bowls will be inscribed with the words “Holiness unto the LORD.”

Lastly, this means that our minds must be renewed, so that we are not conformed to this world. “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.” Remember this definition of how the expression “the world” is often used in the New Testament. It does not know Christ, and so to it we must not conform. Christians are supposed to be non-conformists. The renewing of our minds transforms us so that we are able to do His will. This is practical. If we are too lazy to employ our minds, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures in light of the teaching of the Church, we will not be thinking of doing God’s will.

And, I would suggest that God’s will, for most of us, is not a mystery veiled in thick darkness. Rather, faced with the realities of life, if we are thinking about what it means to live a life that is offered to God, and are thus renewing our minds by His word, the way to do His will should be clear to us. Sometimes it will require effort to recognize that each moment of life has its own calling and purpose; other times a path opens before us that we must choose, not because it is easy, or because it is a way to find what we imagine to be happiness. No. It will be because it is the way that we know, in light of our Christian minds and our consciences, to be the way that is right.

It is not for us to choose the times in which we live, but, as Gandalf said to Frodo: “All we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.” It may be quite hard for us to see the time and place in which we find ourselves as the place of God’s call upon us; and yet, often it is that when life is most ordinary and even mundane, we are faced with those choices, opportunities and even inconveniences that are, in fact, the time and place to know and do the will of the Father. And His will is always the way of love, the Summary of the Law in the two greatest commandments as our Lord Jesus Christ taught us.

What we can do is possible not because of our cleverness in knowing His will, but because we are in Christ, and given His wisdom: The same wisdom of the twelve-year old Boy Who knew Who He was, where He belonged, and the will of His Father.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

It's next year already so soon?

In recent years I have not been writing much in the way of apologetics. I suppose that is because I consider the main battle to have been won years ago, that is, the battle against aggressive Roman Catholic missionaries who were posing as Anglicans to draw people away from the Continuing Church. Of course, their efforts were somewhat hindered by the fact that they were members of Continuing churches, and not Roman Catholics at all. To some degree they presented an interesting psychological study in the complexity of identity confusion. Nonetheless, after that time of strife I grew weary of apologetics and controversy. I prefer to write for the purpose of edification. In essence, I am a parish priest, a rector who lives to carry out pastoral care. So, I would rather write as what I really am: a Preacher.

The situation in which this blog was created, by Albion Land in 2005, was one of unhappy and even bitter division, mostly among bishops and clergy who paid more attention to jurisdictional distinctions than did most of the laity. The people of the Church have wanted something remarkably simple. They have wanted orthodox Anglican churches in which they can worship God, receive valid sacraments, hear sound preaching, and raise their children in the Faith. It did not help that some of the clergy failed where St. Paul had wisely succeeded: “Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices (II Cor. 2:11).” Those early years of the Continuing churches remind me not only of the forty years in which Israel wandered in the wilderness, but also of the Book of Judges. Sometimes I find myself calling them the Wild West days of the Continuing Church. But they are over, and really have been over for more than seven years.

Yes, the “G-4” unity became official in 2017; but it was all really very much a reality beginning in 2011, right after the above mentioned non-Roman Catholic “Roman Catholic” Missionaries got out of the way, and took with them the confusion with which they had bullied and troubled the minds and consciences of faithful people. Once they were out of the way, a newer generation of Continuing Anglican bishops began to repair the breaches in unity, led by Archbishops who had themselves never created the division. They had inherited a divided church, and knew that their pastoral responsibility was to heal and correct that condition. This they have done. It is now a fact by the grace of God.

I imagine that some of the other jurisdictions, outside of the unity of the “G-4” bishops, will remain divided from this new unity. But, I pray that, in the long run, they will join with us as one united Continuing Church. In the case of the shrinking and dwindling Anglican Province of Christ the King, that will require new leadership. I would not want anyone to think that I fail to respect their archbishop’s office: But, when they have a new archbishop someday, I hope their exclusive “One True Churchattitude will vanish. Indeed, it is a matter of attitude, not doctrine. There are some good parishes, good priests and good people in that jurisdiction, and it is certainly orthodox in doctrine. But sheep without a shepherd cannot be led into unity. So, we wait and pray.

I appreciate the wisdom with which this unity is being restored. It is happening at a pace that does not cause confusion; that does not tear up existing dioceses and the relationship of bishops to parishes and clergy. But it is moving forward nonetheless. This may bring us to a time when some rearranging will take place, when dioceses in one united Continuing Church will exist over smaller geographical territory. In some ways that is a change I do not look forward to. I am comfortable and happy as things are in this diocese. But, I know that we are moving into the future, only in one direction as time travelers all. Because of the restored unity we move into that future as a church, not as lone individuals who have lost their way. Thanks be to God.