Monday, October 29, 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 6:10-20 * John 4:46-50

“Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.”

Why is this story even written, inasmuch as it is nowhere near as spectacular as the really dramatic miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead? What was the Apostle John thinking? And, yes, we believe he was guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit; but, inasmuch as that inspiration was to his mind and reason, it is right to ask what John was thinking.
          Like the healing of the centurion’s servant, this is the kind of miracle all too easy for a skeptic to dismiss. So, we must learn why each of those stories is included in the Gospels. The centurion’s story is not very spectacular either; but what it teaches us about faith is. This story seems to be addressing more the subject of faith than anything else.
          What we read seems contradictory at first glance. “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” Is this a rebuke? Is the Lord displeased? If so, He doesn’t show displeasure. If needing to see a sign was a weakness, then the Lord gave the weak man what he needed most.
          Near the end of John’s Gospel we see the resurrected Christ saying to Thomas, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed (20:29).” Is this a rebuke? That seems unlikely, inasmuch as it was the will of God for the Apostles all to be eyewitnesses of His post resurrection appearances.
          As terrible as this may seem to the advocates of “tough love,” it seems very obvious that Christ was making allowance for human weakness, even a weakness in faith. To Him it is not great faith that is necessary, but only faith as small as a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 17:20, Luke 17:6). People who present themselves to others as possessing great faith generally are those of little faith, little in quantity and quality. Even a grain of mustard seed is much larger, and that is because it is real.
          One of the ways in which the popular American “faith & prosperity” message does damage is in convincing true believers that they don’t have enough faith to please God; otherwise, the logic runs, they would be in perfect health all the time, they would have no economic problems, and they would always be happy all the time. That kind of religion doesn’t produce faith, but rather it demands a show, an outward presentation of a jolly, successful and happy life; people who belong to such churches can show no sign of weakness (no wonder they have no confession of sin), and risk being on the outside if they do. So, in the place of faith, they learn hypocrisy and denial.
          Their error is a reflection of a very old one. Those who think they can earn salvation by the accumulation of merits never know if they have accumulated enough. Those whose faith must be great never know if their own is great enough. None of them can have any assurance that their sin is forgiven, and that they will inherit eternal life.
          But, in the Church as established by Christ, there is no need to impress each other; and the sacrament of Confession and Absolution is for everybody, even bishops and other clergy. Simply put, there is no room for pride, including the pride of being “spiritual” and “fervent in faith” to all outward appearance.
The passage we read from Ephesians warns of the danger we face if we forget we are in a spiritual battle. We are not told to go boldly about proclaiming our own “victory” in life as we enter into battle; but, instead to put on the whole armor of God in order to stand against the wiles of the Devil. Armor is made to protect us because of our weakness and mortality. 
Back in the 80s, as the people of one church I belonged to were awaiting a bus to Washington D.C.for the March for Life, we allowed some Pentecostals to meet at our church and use the same bus. They decided to pray with us, and one of them went through a very theatrical prayer in which she attacked the forces of Hell with alarming self-confidence. After she had her say to God, and to all the forces of Hell, I asked everyone to turn to the General Confession, and asked the rector (I was not yet a priest) to follow with the Absolution. For, I knew that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
When we were present in Washington at that event, several speakers were on a platform, and a rabbi was asked to lead prayers. His words included, “O God, our hands have not shed this blood…” But, looking at that vast crowd I could not accept his words. His prayer was empty as long as he boasted (and I know of a number of Christian clergy who would say, essentially the same thing he did). We must never pray thus to ourselves, “I thank Thee God that I am not as other men are (Luke 18:11).” Some of those people had indeed shed this blood; some had indeed paid for or received abortions. But, they had repented and gone to God for forgiveness. That was part of why they had come.
The point John was making was very simple. When Jesus said, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe,” indeed, He was not pleased with that. But, God is gracious. This brings us into deeper things that must be understood. I have said before: Beware of a religious teaching that says that life is a test. Life is not a test. Life is a shipwreck. If life is a test we all have failed already.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one…But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus (Romans 3:10-12, 21-26).”

So, you see, life is not a test. We did not need an examiner, and we do not need a grade. The grade we each and everyone receive is “F.” We don’t need proof that we were born as fallen creatures given to sin and death. Jesus did not come into the world to grade our report cards. He came to this shipwreck to rescue us from sin and death. It is called the grace of God; it is called mercy; it is the manifestation of the love of God meeting us at the point of our real need, even if we do not perceive our need at all. It is summarized in those words of Jesus that each of you should know:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16, 17).

It seems so simple, so basic; and so why do we lose sight of it? Because we are in a spiritual war, and the main weapon of our common enemy is deception. It is good and right to preach about sin, because we also have the message of mercy and forgiveness. The world today doesn’t want to hear about forgiveness. They want instead to have Divine approval stamped on every choice they have ever made or will make. Until they recognize that sin is still sin, but also that repentance and confession bring about forgiveness and healing, as a priest I can do nothing for them.
God met us in our weakness, at the point of our real and greatest need. That is why He poured out His life on the cross, letting His blood be shed as the one perfect offering, the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. It is why he did not cast off His human nature, but rose from the dead to remain one of us forever. It is why He met the need of a man who needed to see signs and wonders to believe, and healed his son. It is why he gives mercy to you. It is why he came into the world.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles

Article XXV

Of the Sacraments

Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God's good will towards us, by the which He doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in Him. There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five, commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, have they a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as S. Paul saith.

De Sacramentis

Sacramenta a Christo instituta non tantum sunt notae professionis Christianorum, sed certa quaedam potius testimonia et efficacia signa gratiae atque bonae in nos voluntatis Dei, per quae invisibiliter ipse in nobis operatur, nostramque fidem in se, non solum excitat verum etiam confirmat.
Duo a Christo Domino nostro in Evangelio instituta sunt Sacramenta, scilicet, Baptismus et Coena Domini.
Quinque illa vulgo nominata Sacramenta, scilicet, Confirmatio, Poenitentia, Ordo, Matrimonium, et Extrema Unctio, pro Sacramentis Evangelicis habenda non sunt, ut quae partim a prava Apostolorum imitatione profluxerunt, partim vitae status sunt in Scripturis quidem probati, sed Sacramentorum eandem cum Baptismo et Coena Domini rationem non habentes, ut quae signum aliquod visibile seu ceremoniam a Deo institutam non habeant.
Sacramenta non in hoc instituta sunt a Christo ut spectarentur aut circumferrentur sed ut rite illis uteremur. Et in his duntaxat qui digne percipiunt, salutarem habent effectum: qui vero indigne perci piunt, damnationem, ut inquit Paulus, sibi ipsis acquirunt.

Fr. Robert Hart

The subject of Article XXV is not the number of sacraments. Let us be clear that the very use of the word “sacraments” is not because the word, with a definition, is even in the Bible. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the word is never used, because they do not confuse Latin with genuine biblical languages. Their use of the word “mystery” (μυστήριον) is biblical. But, even so, there is no list in the Bible of seven mysteries or sacraments that are spelled out in association with either word. The closest we might get is to marriage as “the μυστήριον of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:32),” somehow by grace lived out as an outward sign among believers who have entered into the state of life we call matrimony.
            How did we come to have the word “sacrament” in our theological vocabulary then? Like the word “Trinity” it is of ecclesiastical origin, not Divine origin; that is, neither word came to us directly by revelation. But, just as the word “Trinity” points to a doctrine that has been revealed by Jesus Christ and given to the Church through His Apostles, and that is set forth quite definitely in the Bible, the word “sacrament" is based on study and very sound exegesis, drawn out of what is revealed and taught in the Bible.
            From study of the Bible we can see that God has promised to respond directly when people carry out a form of prayer and other sacred actions, provided there is an intention that is consistent with God’s revelation.  For an example of God promising to act through human action and intention, we may look at something as natural as marriage: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9).” That should make it clear that human actions and intentions may be all that is visible, but often not all that is real and important. Here we learn from Christ Himself that God acts and makes real specific things that people speak and intend.
            Over the centuries, study of the Bible resulted in the identification of seven things that share common properties. Those properties are human action in the material world of space and time, coupled with an intention to act consistently with God’s revelation, resulting in a Divine action that has been promised in the holy Scriptures. In each of these, the Divine promise is a guarantee; it is inescapable. The two have been made One Flesh by God Himself, and the person Baptized really is now “in Christ,” baptized by One Spirit into the Body of Christ (I Cor 12:1 Rom. 6:1f). The person Confirmed has received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of the Apostle’s hands, or those of their successors (Acts 8:18). God does work in each of them, for so He promised.
            To these seven mysteries or sacraments the Church gave recognition. The Church did not create them or establish them. The Church received them as gifts, and the understanding of them as revelation from God. All sacramental theology is drawn out of the Bible. It is not merely human tradition.
            Because God has promised to act, the Article says of sacraments, “They be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God's good will towards us, by the which He doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in Him.” We, in the Church, are responsible to carry out the “sign,” the outward and human action and words that signify; God does the real work of grace “effectually” and supernaturally, and if invisible to the human eye, very real nonetheless.
            In some ways the sacraments have become “a corrupt following of the Apostles” just as a manuscript may be “ a corrupt manuscript” due to human errors, whether deletions or additions. One example is how the sacrament of anointing with oil and prayer by the Presbyters (πρεσβύτερος, translated as “elders’ in the KJV), for healing, became “extreme unction” simply to prepare for death. The origin is Biblical (James 5:14-16), but the following of it has been corrupted. But, to have a corrupt manuscript we must have a genuine manuscript that came before. We have the genuine manuscript; all of the sacraments have been identified by study of the Bible itself. The designation “sacrament” is of human origin; but each sacramental promise has been revealed by God.

Sacraments of the Gospel

The first words of Article XXV define its meaning: “Sacraments ordained of Christ.” Quite rightly, and in keeping with all Reason and with the Catholic Tradition, of the sacraments only two were ordained by Christ, that is by Jesus Himself as He walked the earth in His human nature. These are also called the Dominical Sacraments because Jesus the Lord ordained them, as well as “Sacraments of the Gospel” later in this very Article, because Jesus Christ both ordained them and established a sign or ceremony, and it is all recorded in the Four Gospel books. Anglican theologians refer to the greater and lesser sacraments, or the major and minor sacraments, to give the greater emphasis to the two sacraments ordained of Christ: “Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord (Anglican Catechism).”
            Neither Article XXV nor the Catechism teach that there are only two sacraments. What they teach, most consistently, clearly and obviously, is that only two have been ordained of Christ Himself in the Gospel. Only two are generally necessary to salvation, that is, only two are absolutely meant for all Christians everywhere. The word “generally” means two things: First, that God wills it, and has so revealed, for the whole church, “you and your children and all who are afar off.” Also, it means that God Himself is not limited to our reach. We have been given the Great Commission to “teach all nations, baptizing them…” That God is not bound to the limits of how far our hands may reach, means that He can give grace, when necessary, to save people who have no means to be baptized, and who may never have received the food and drink of eternal life, such as the thief who died beside Christ on a cross (Luke 23:43). But, because the revealed will of God, and His promise, are general, we administer Baptism and the Supper of the Lord to everyone, along with genuine preaching of the Gospel.

Commonly called

Anyone who knows the titles found in traditional Bibles and Books of Common Prayer of the Church of England, will have no problem recognizing the phrase “commonly called” as an affirmation. In 1549 the Book of Common Prayer used a new name for the Mass that was drawn from the Bible, “Holy Communion,” and so titled the service. It was called “THE SUPPER OF THE LORDE AND THE HOLY COMMUNION, COMMONLY CALLED THE MASSE.” Books of the Bible saw this phrase as well: “The first Book of the Kings, commonly called The First Book of Samuel,” ETC. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer has titles such as “The Nativity of our Lord, or the Birth-day of Christ, commonly called Christmas-Day.” Indeed, the very name “The Book of Common Prayer” should clue us in to how significant the phrase is.
The word “common” comes from “community.” This word is also related to the word “Communion,” the word chosen by the English translators concerning the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood (in I Corinthians 10:16), the word used for what became the new title of the service “commonly called the Mass.” What was the Greek word in the New Testament that the translators were covering, then, when they gave us the English word “communion” for the sacrament? It was the same word used for “fellowship” (e.g. I John 1: 3), pronounced koinonia (κοινωνία).
So, though it may sound unimpressive to modern ears to read the words, “Those five, commonly called Sacraments,” it was not some way of trivializing them. “Commonly called” is an affirmation of what the Church has chosen to call “those five.” In Book III of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Hooker called ordination a sacrament. After all, the usage of the word is not based on revelation in scripture. The purpose of mentioning “Those five, commonly called Sacraments” was not to denigrate them, and not to say that the word should not be used for them. Indeed, it should be used for them because we belong to the community, or fellowship, of the Church; we all receive Communion in that Church, and we offer Common Prayer as the body of Christ.
The point was to distinguish the sacraments of the Gospel, to set them apart as the expressed and revealed general will of God for all believers everywhere. “Those Five… have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.” How true. Jesus gave us the sign and ceremony for Baptism after His resurrection from the dead: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matt. 28:19,20 RSV)." And, although we have traditions that dress it up with many elaborations and rubrics, the basic requirements of how to celebrate the Supper of the Lord were established on “the night in which He was betrayed” by Christ Himself. We must at least “Do this” that He established “in remembrance” of Him. We must bless the bread and the cup, we must say His words of institution, and we must take and eat, and we must drink. He most assuredly ordained “the sign and ceremony” of Baptism and of His Supper.
Of the other five, those sacraments that are not "generally necessary to salvation," and some of which are not meant for everybody (e.g., marriage and orders), the New Covenant has empowered them with deeper and richer meaning; but everyone of those five are in the Old Testament, beginning with marriage during the time of Man's innocency.1 Moses gave the Hebrews laws for the ordination of the Levitical priests, and did himself ordain Joshua prefiguring Apostolic Succession.2 When Samuel anointed David, the shepherd boy and future king was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to be a prophet, prefiguring Confirmation.3 Absolution belonged to the Levitical priests who heard confession and made atonement.4 It was prefigured also by the Prophet Nathan.5 Healing is a constant theme in the Old Testament, with Levitical priests who cleansed the lepers by washing, sacrifice and anointing (leaving after Baptism nothing for the Church to follow except the anointing and prayer)6, as well as the miracles of Elijah and Elisha.
To acknowledge, therefore, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord as “sacraments ordained of Christ” and “sacraments of the Gospel” is simply to acknowledge that it is by Christ’s own command that we administer them to all of our people.

That we should duly use them
The final paragraph in Article XXV has everything to do with why Archbishop Cranmer saw the need to add, to title of the service, the words “Holy Communion.” In the historical context of the sixteenth century the people often merely “heard Mass.” The language had been Latin, not a tongue they understood. The actions were seen as belonging to the clergy. It was rare for the common people to receive the sacrament when they attended a Mass. They would, however, at the ringing of the bell “gaze” at the sacrament when it was elevated.
“The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” In modern times, these words offend people who like Eucharistic devotions, Benedictions and Corpus Christi processions. Frankly, there is nothing wrong with such devotions; but, none of them is what the sacrament was ordained for by Christ. The Article never says that these devotions are “Repugnant to the word of God.” Obviously, that is not because the reformers who wrote the Articles were too polite to tell us when they thought such words applied to a practice or doctrine. These words do not forbid such devotions. They do something more important; they tell us that we are, as Jesus commanded, to eat and drink.
Only as worthily receive the same
The final words of the Article agree with St. Paul’s warning to the Church in Corinth: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself (I Cor. 11: 27-29 RSV).” They agree also with the words of Jesus that tie eating His Body and drinking His Blood to believing (cp. John 6:47 and 54). Why? Because unrepentant sin and unbelief hinder the working of God’s grace. To eat and drink in a state of unbelief and willful unrepentant sin, adds sin to sin. We should eat and drink “with hearty repentance and true faith,” so that He will work invisibly in us, and not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in Him.

1.      Gen. 2:21-25.
2.      Deut. 34:9, John 20:21-23, I Tim. 5:22, II Tim. 1:6; 2:2, Titus 1:5
3. I Sam. 16:13, Acts 8:14f
4. Lev. 1:4, and all of chapter 4.
5. II Sam. 12:13
6. Lev. 14:17-19 in context.

Fr. Laurence Wells

Gerald Bray is a theologian for whom I have immense respect and gratitude.  He has written a number of books from which I have learned much.  His defense of the Filioque is for me the last word on the matter, and I cannot wait to plough through his 800 page survey of Systematic theology entitled God is Love, which I have now on order.  I would surely recommend his brief commentary on the Articles entitled “The Faith We Confess.”  But he greatly disappoints me when he writes, “What exactly is a sacrament?  The concept is not present in the Bible.”  He does go on to state that the sacraments are not only “sure and certain witnesses,” but moreover “effectual means of God’s grace.”  I would be less disconcerted if he had written “the term sacrament is not present in the Bible.”  But Dr Bray is a precise writer and we must take his denial seriously.      
While the term sacrament, like the term Trinity and a long list of important words, is truly missing from any Biblical concordance, I would respectfully submit to Dr Bray that the concept of sacrament is profoundly Biblical and moreover much of the Bible in both Testaments is simply meaningless apart from this idea.  We will begin with the definition of the term found in the Church Catechism, which was added in bits and pieces to the English Prayer Book from Herry VIII’s time to 1604.  There we read,

"Question.  What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
Answer.  I mean and outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same [grace], and a pledge to assure us thereof."

It is an intriguing fact that this definition is almost undistinguishable  from those given in two very different documents, the Baltimore Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church and the Westminister Shorter Catechism (WSC) of the Puritan churches.  The Baltimore Catechism tells us:  “A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”  The Westminster Shorter Catechism, with less brevity, allows, “A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.”  The most obvious difference here is that the Sons of Calvin insisted on a point which Baltimore did not deny, “Nullum sacramentum sine fide.”  The word “believers” was there in the WSC for a reason, to make it clear that the sacraments are not magical or mechanical.

The concept of a sacrament is grounded, first of all, in the uniquely Biblical doctrine of creation.  In the first chapter of Genesis we are told seven times (!) in the six day literary framework that “God saw that it was good,” and in the last occurrence of this formula the word is heightened to “very good,” that is, emphatically good.  The OT reasserts this in many places, notably in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is.”  I recall a sermon preached many years ago by Dr George Buttrick of Harvard on this text out of which he developed the idea of a “sacramental universe” in which the glory of God is manifested in material things.           
But it is in the rebellious and fallen creation that material things emerge as sensible signs of God’s grace.  Before Adam and Eve are driven out into “this tough world” as exiles from God’s presence, He graciously replaces their wretched garments of fig leaves (the symbol of man’s silly ineffectual effort to shield himself from Divine judgment) with animal skins, the symbol of Divine protection through sacrifice.  Noah perceived in the rainbow God’s covenantal undertaking never again to destroy the world by a flood.  “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations; I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant…(Genesis 9:12—13).”  Here already is the vocabulary of our sacramental theology  (sign, covenant, remember), the words which our Lord uttered in the upper room on the night in which He was betrayed.      
As the covenant of grace is progressively unfolded in the Old Testament, the sacramental category becomes ever more explicit.  When God made a covenant with Abraham (or rather gave Abraham the privilege of covenant status and covenant blessings), God specifically ordained the rite of circumcision as the indispensable covenant sign.  “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you (Genesis 17:10).” The “sign” is no empty ceremony, but is the sacramental means by which the covenant becomes effectual. In the language of later theology, it is signum efficax.  To lack the sign of circumcision is to be excluded from the covenant.  And of course the immutable mark of circumcision points us to the indelible character of the Christian sacrament it foreshadowed.        
The Passover meal or Seder supper, which in the fullness of time became the matrix of the Christian Eucharist, was endowed from the outset with a thoroughly sacramental character, “outward and visible sign, inward and spiritual grace, instituted by God.”  We read, “the blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are.  And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you (Exodus 12:13).”  This unique event is perpetuated in a sacred meal consisting of the lamb without blemish and unleavened bread, the bread of hasty flight, bread eaten “with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand (Exodus 11).”  When our Lord and His disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover, He did not create a sacrament, as they were celebrating an ancient sacrament which His disciples understood very well.  After all, it was the disciples who asked, “Where will you have us prepare for you to the Passover?”  Rather, He transformed a sacrament of the Old Testament by investing it with a fuller and deeper meaning.  “This [bread, the sign of your forefathers’ affliction] is [from now on] my Body...Do this [that is, offer this] for my Memorial [no longer as the memorial of the Exodus events].”            Christian sacramental faith was implicit and more than implicit in the Old Testament concept of the “sign.”  This word became central and critical in St. John’s Gospel, but John was mining a rich lode of ideas never far from the surface of the Old Testament.  The three major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel frequently engaged in actions which to a modern reader seem like petty sermon illustrations.  These were, however, a more serious affair, actions of “prophetic symbolism,” not sacraments of grace but effective signs of Divine judgment.  We might think of Isaiah’s strange name for his son, Shear-Jashub, “A remnant shall return (Isaiah 7).” By bestowing such a name, the prophet invoked the impending catastrophe.  The People of God will be reduced to a remnant.  This was a name designed to strike fear in the heart of a godless king Ahaz.  Before that chapter was complete, we read of another miraculous and sacramental name, the name Immanuel, the son of a Virgin, a son whose paternity was not revealed by Isaiah.  Both names, however, are examples of things which point far beyond themselves to greater realities and which mysteriously bring those realities into the worldly situation.       
Or we might think of Jeremiah’s dramatic action of smashing a potter’s earthenware bottle in a public place with a devastating message addressed to the people of Jerusalem.  If this were only a clever audio-visual aid for a sermon, it might have gone unnoticed.  But it aroused the wrath of the priest Pashhur ben Immer and got Jeremiah thrown into the stocks.  His action was a negative sacrament, a sacrament in reverse, an action which did not represent, seal and convey grace, but which released and gave effect to wrath.  Biblical sacraments can work both ways.    
But there, throughout the Bible,  is the concept, grounded in Creation, developed in the progress of God’s saving purpose, revealed even negatively in the preaching and symbolic actions of the prophets. When our Lord commanded His apostles to “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” they did not reproach Him with the complaint, “But Lord, we thought you were giving us a purely spiritual religion; is it not enough that we should simply be preachers of the Gospel?”  When He commanded “Do this in memory of me,” they did not object to some vulgar materialistic rite, with potential for superstition and idolatry.  As Gregory Dix wrote, “Has any command been so obeyed!” Both He and they lived in an Old Testament worldview in which it was perfectly logical for outward and visible things, like water, bread, wine, oil, and such actions as “the laying on of hands” to become the spectacular events in which the Creator God continues to bless His elect people.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 5:15-21* Matthew 22:1-14
"For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed." Malachi 3:6

The Gospel today leads me once again to mention Divine Impassibility: It means that God does not change. In fact, as our own Anglican Article I teaches, He is "without passions." Some modern theologians object to this, and insist that the scriptures present to us an emotional God who makes up his mind by reacting to events. They see metaphorical language as literal, forgetting that God has revealed His word to our minds by use of our own language. Emotion includes motion, that is movement and change. But, God does not change.

The reaction to the king's kind invitation, bidding people to attend the wedding of his son, reminds me of the fifth seal in the Book of Revelation:

“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.”- Rev. 6:9-11

When the guests who were invited snub him, and refuse his invitation, and then persecute the messengers of his gracious invitation to the death, the king becomes "wroth." His judgment falls on those murderers, and he sends his army to slay them. In many passages of scripture we read about the wrath of God. What is the wrath of God?

To answer that, we look at the image of God in this parable. The king represents God, and the invitation represents the proclamation of His mercy offered in the Gospel. The invitation is to attend "the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev.19:9), the marriage feast of the King's Son. The image in the parable includes the obvious implications of forgiveness of sin (purchased by that Son on the sacrificial altar of the cross, and his resurrection that destroys death), showing that the heart of the king is generous, benevolent and gracious. "God is good."

When the invited people refuse this kindness, and persecute his messengers, they incur his wrath. The king has not changed, the people have. His principles are solid and unmoving. His wrath comes from the same heart as his generosity. Of course, the wrath of God is not exactly like the wrath of this king, for the king is a man who changes due to emotion. The king in today's Gospel appears to be moved, sometimes by anger and sometimes by his own generosity. Unlike God, this king can be surprised, because he does not know all things before they happen. But, he is in the story only to represent God as an imperfect human illustration, a character who is metaphorical in nature. The expression, “The wrath of God” is itself metaphorical. What it means is that you stand on one side of the line or the other, either accepting his kind and gracious offer in the Gospel of his Son, or you refuse that offer and side with the world, the flesh and the Devil. Because God never changes, you stand either on the side of "wrath" or on the side of mercy.

Look at the word that the king uses when he must have his "bouncers" kick out an impolite guest: "Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment?" This word, "friend," seems rather odd in this context. In fact, it means that this impolite guest, the one who refused the wedding garment (that is, refused the vestment handed out by the king's servants at the door) in a gesture of disrespect, was in some way beloved of the king. That is what it means that he was called "friend" (ἑταῖρος, hetairos). The same word is used later in this same Gospel (St. Matthew) when Jesus addresses the traitor Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.

And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him. And Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him.”-Matt. 26:50

The Impassibility of God is always consistent with the revelation that God is love (I John 4:8, 16). He does not change. Jesus loved Judas, even knowing that the man was a devil, the traitor, for whom it would have been good had he never been born  - and so calls him “friend.” Jesus was not changed toward Judas, though Judas had renounced him, and had abandoned his apostolic office to betray him to the death. "Friend, wherefore art thou come?"

The king casts the impolite and contemptuous guest out of his palace because that man had placed himself beyond the reach of the king's generous and gracious intention, the intention that had been obvious in the invitation itself. The man did not need to buy some expensive garment, because it was the host of such a feast who provided the garments, outer garments or vestments, at the door. And, in polite society it was expected that a guest would put the garment on over his own clothes.

The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” -Rom. 13:12-14

We are told to "put on Christ." But, first we are instructed to cast off the works of the flesh. Everything is provided for us. We put on Christ by hearing the word of God, remembering that in Hebrew the word for "hear" is the same word as "obey." We put on Christ by staying within his Church. We put on Christ by hearty repentance and true faith. We put on Christ by the sacraments that are generally necessary to salvation. We put on Christ by cooperating with the Holy Spirit who forms within us the virtues, above all charity.

These are gifts of God, provided like the wedding garment given to each guest. We are invited and granted mercy and grace, to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light, to be partakers of the divine nature having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (II Pet. 1:4). We are given everything we need so that we become behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. As you are called in Christ, to become saints in Christ, so live in Christ, having been baptized into his death unto sin, and in whom you live unto righteousness.

If you refuse the invitation, or if you come to the feast but refuse the gracious provision of the king, it is your choice to come under wrath, never understanding the heart of one who calls you "friend." Above all, from the cross He has called you "friend." Do not turn from His love.

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 4:17-32 * Matthew 9:1-8

But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house.

It may appear strange that Jesus addressed the need of a sick man, in fact a completely paralyzed man, by speaking an ever so bold absolution: “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” The Pharisees thought he was blaspheming, because their religious system allowed no man to speak so boldly. They figured that we may hope for forgiveness of sins, but they were offended by the bold declaration that any particular individual’s sins actually have been forgiven. That much faith was more than they could swallow. Today people may find the words of Jesus to be an affront to their sensitivities, wondering how He could address a suffering person about sin. They might assume it is fine to feel empathy, to address the obvious visible needs of a man paralyzed.        

But, Jesus addressed the man’s spiritual and moral need first and foremost, because that is most important. The highest priority of all is to have a fully restored and meaningful communion with God, to be reconciled to God and to be free from any hindrance in that fellowship that is the highest priority, that knowledge of God before which even the fear of death yields and retreats. Compared to that greatest need of all, mere paralysis is trivial. So is blindness, deafness, and even premature death, all of them among the many conditions that Jesus healed as “with power” He “went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil (Acts 10:38).”

Right now, just like the offended Pharisees, many people would like very much to have a religion in which the subject of forgiveness never comes up, because the seriousness of sin is treated as either non-existent, or as trivial. They want a more “spiritual” religion, and they even use the word “spiritual” or “spirituality” because it is non-threatening. It has, in modern times, no moral significance whatsoever.

If that is the kind of religion you want, the kind that allows you to flatter yourself and convince yourself that you are righteous, wise and “spiritual” - whatever you imagine that the word is supposed to mean- then you are in the wrong church. The Book of Common Prayer has a General Confession of Sin in every major service, followed by Absolution that a priest declares (if one is present), and that is because we must approach God based on the truth, not based on our own feeling or our self-appraisal. Furthermore, if you want a religion that flatters you and makes you feel affirmed and tells you how wonderful you are, you should avoid the Book of Common Prayer, yes, but even more so never, ever, under any circumstances, read your Bible.

The wisdom of the Book of Common Prayer, all of which comes from the Bible (as anyone can see, anyone who actually knows the Bible), is that it approaches God always based on His revelation of himself, and of His Gospel, that He has given for all people for all times. If you must ask the origin of any portion of the Book of Common Prayer, or wonder where it came from, then you should “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Bible more often and more thoroughly. Otherwise, you would see the words in the Prayer Book, and know where they came from; they have all come right out of the Bible, ultimately, as the actual source (and that includes the content of the Creeds). And, among them you would recall the words of Jesus, quoted in Morning Prayer as we begin:

“The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him (St. John iv. 23).”

You cannot worship God in spirit by flattering yourself that you are “spiritual,” because the spirit that pleases God is one of humility. And, you cannot worship God in truth without acknowledging the truth He has revealed as He has revealed it. Once upon a time I was concerned about the spiritual malady called “self-righteousness” as merely a problem of hypocrisy. I have become aware of a deeper kind of self-righteousness, and that is the kind that is delusional. Some individuals, despite the clear words of Scripture in which God speaks to us even now, really believe in their own righteousness. That delusion is a sickness worse than paralysis, and one that will create a wall of division separating a person from communion with God, and from communion or fellowship within His Church among His people.

We see this delusion expressed as a doctrine among some Fundamentalists who openly say. “I was a sinner, but now I am a saint.” But, Saint Paul said, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” (I Tim. 1:15) He was a saint, but he did not say, “Of whom I was chief,” past tense: He said, “Of whom I am chief,” Present tense. The Doctrinal formula for this is Simul Iustus Et Peccator. That is, "simultaneously just (righteous) and a sinner." At best, that is the condition we are in as we walk through this life.

Taking St. Paul’s words from I Corinthians 15:20-22, we see this in terms of our ultimate hope, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection on the Last Day:

“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Ultimately, if we are in Christ and live in Him, we will live by Him, drawing our whole life from His immortal resurrected life, risen from the dead, and glorified with Him as “partakers of the Divine nature (II Peter 1:4).” But, we are not there yet. Right now we are in two fathers. In Adam we die, and in Christ we live. That is, we live in the reality of Simul Iustus Et Peccator. There is, in this life in this world, no escaping the mortal condition we have in Adam, nor is there any escaping the need to pray as our Prayer Book guides us, confessing our sins as we approach the Holy God on His throne. But, because the other fact is also completely true for all who believe, we really do approach His throne with boldness because we are “in Christ.”

“Now where remission of [sins] is, there is no more offering for sin. Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; for he is faithful that promised (Heb. 10:18-22).”

This is what Martin Luther meant when he said to sin boldly. He did not mean to be bold in how you sin, nor did he mean that you should presume to live in willful unrepentant sin (for, that is the way to eternal death); rather he meant that you should be bold about entering God’s presence with faith, because in Christ you are truly justified. You may enter just as the writer to the Hebrews says, with boldness, and that is not boldness for just any old reason. You do not enter with boldness into God’s presence because you see yourself as righteous, wise and spiritual. You enter in “with full assurance of faith,” only because you have been granted entrance into the most Holy Place before the throne of God “by the blood of Jesus.” That alone is how you have been granted entrance, and that alone is why you are accepted – in Him.

Our Confession of Sin is not morbid. It is not gloomy. It is not the Confession of people living in terror of the grave, unsure if they have enough merits for eternal life (which, you may be sure, no one has; not even the people with word “Saint” placed before their names). Our Confession of sin is based on our certain faith in God’s love and forgiveness, not because we feel that he is forgiving, but because, in fact, Jesus Christ died for our sins and reconciled us to the Father. And, in fact, He rose from the dead so that we may live in Him, now and forever, eventually, on that glorious Day, shedding what it means to be “in Adam” and taking on only what it means to be “in Christ.”

We worship God in spirit and in truth, if we grasp the meaning of today’s Collect:
O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; Mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That comes directly from the words of Jesus:

“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5).”

So, just as Jesus began by speaking words of Absolution, and healing the soul of the paralyzed man before meeting his physical need, I will continue to address, in my preaching, the true diagnosis of what ails us all. Along with that, I will continue to proclaim God’s revealed prognosis for everyone who takes the medicine He prescribes:

As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

ArticleVII. Of the Old Testament.

THE Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore they are not to be heard which feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet, notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”

In less than two months it will be Advent. When that season arrives, we shall be singing that great hymn of, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. One of the verses of that hymn says:

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai's height 
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

It is only fitting for Jesus Christ to comment on the Law- the Torah- and to give us the Summary of the Law in the two greatest commandments. After all, it is He who is the true author of the Law. We need to understand that, because far too many people think that Jesus Christ and his New Covenant contradict the Old Covenant; that God was formerly rather vengeful and mean, until Jesus came and straightened Him out.

But, here is what He said:

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-2o)."

The Law of Moses was separated into three kinds of law. These are the ceremonial, the civil and the moral. One of the best known sayings of the Jewish people has a double meaning: “The law of the land is the Law.” It means that in whatever land the Jewish people live, they must be law-abiding people. But, it also means that in the Holy Land, the land they call H’eretz Israel, the Law of the Land is the Torah, the Law given through Moses – that is, it was the Law of their country in antiquity. 

The people of Israel, throughout the Old Testament period, and into the days of the Macabees, had only one national constitution, the Law of God. Therefore, it contains the civil code of the nation, complete with laws of criminal justice, public safety and so on (some of the practical wisdom of which we ignore to our peril. For example, in our Country a person may be convicted on the testimony of but one witness rather than two or three. Our way can lead to injustice. The Torah requires the testimony of at least two witnesses in order to convict the accused. One of the safety laws of the Torah required that every roof have a railing, desert roofs being flat, so that people could not fall off of buildings). Also, the Law of Moses had in it everything we would call a rubric. The commandments tell the people everything that they are to do regarding the worship of God, sacrifice, feasts, fasts, and the details about the Levitical priesthood. This we call the ceremonial portion of the Law.  

It is in the Ten Commandments that the Moral Law first appears with absolute clarity. If you were taught properly for Confirmation, no matter how long ago it may have been, you should recall that the Ten Commandments are split into two parts. The first four teach us how to love God. 1) That we worship no other god, 2) that we make no idols to distract from worship of the true God, 3) that we do not abuse, that is take in vain, His Name, 4) that we keep holy the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, as holy to the Lord. Then, the second part gives us six commandments about how to love our neighbor. 5) To honor our parents, 6) not to murder, 7) not to commit adultery, 8) not to steal, 9) not to bear false witness (that is, slander or libel), 10) and finally, not even to covet what belongs to our neighbor.

Part of the great wisdom of our Prayer Book is the Catechism that teaches us how the two great commandments summarize these ten. Furthermore, if we read the New Testament carefully, we see that these commandments are much deeper than they might appear. The commandment to honor one’s parents extends to the teaching that we are to have a respectful attitude to all proper authority (Romans 13:1f). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us that anger and hatred, and a lack of forgiveness, are all a violation of the commandment against murder; and that all sins against chastity, even if nothing more than the willful indulgence of "the lust of the eyes" (the kind our entertainment industry tries to cultivate), violate the true meaning of the commandment against adultery, whether by married or by single persons. When we get to the tenth commandment, against coveting, we learn that the entire concept of applying the meaning of the Law to the hidden attitudes of the heart was not a new idea to the Lord when He preached the Sermon on the Mount.  He had centuries earlier revealed from Mount Sinai the same principle: The Law must be engraved on the heart.

The Law requires something that it cannot give, that it has no power to impart. It requires a heart that loves God and our neighbor. Furthermore, not simply that we love our neighbors in the plural. That way we could love only some of them, and say that we are fulfilling the commandment. But, the commandment is stated in the singular. “Love thy neighbor” teaches the same thing as those words of the Lord Jesus: “as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren," and conversely, “As ye have done it not unto one of the least of these my brethren” (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matt. 25:31-46). Charity, that is the highest kind of love, is not about how we treated mankind. It is about how we have treated, forgiven and come to the aid of the one, especially, perhaps, that one we simply do not like.

And, we learn something else, namely from Saint Paul writing to the Galatians:

“But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:22-24)."

When we really think about the Summary of the Law, we can be filled with either despair or hope. I know that I have never lived one day in which I have managed to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul and all my mind. I know that never has the day gone by in which I have loved my neighbor as myself, at least not each one of my neighbors. I would like to be so holy, so filled with virtue. But, I am not.

Saint Paul called himself the chief of sinners. In fact, a genuine mark of a true saint is that he is very much aware of his sins, and of how far he falls short of God’s requirements. Even though he lives better than most people, even though he wants to please God and serve Him truly, even though he abstains from willful sin and repents sincerely of every sin into which he might have fallen, he never imagines that he has succeeded or become perfect. If the saints know themselves to be sinners, what about those of us who know that we are called to become saints, and yet know that we have not even gotten close? (For, make no mistake, a saint is exactly what each one of us is called to become.)

The commandments, even the list of negative commandments, that is, those that tell us what not to do, are summed up in the positive commandments, that is, what we are commanded to do. We are to love God, and we are to love our neighbor. That is the whole duty of man, as long as we understand that love means agape, or charity. It never rejoices in iniquity, but only in the truth, says St. Paul in the famous chapter of First Corinthians (chapter 13).

But, how do we come to hope, rather than despair, from these impossible requirements? The answer is what Saint Paul says, that we are brought to faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing can give me greater confidence in God’s mercy than the impossibility of fulfilling, by my own strength, these two Great Commandments we call the Summary of the Law. He knows our weakness, and does not turn away from us if we come to Him with repentance and faith. That is because He sees us in the Person of His Son, as in that wonderful phrase that is repeated constantly in Paul’s Epistles: “in Christ.” That is where we are, by baptism, by faith, by living in the Church with all of its sacraments that are real and powerful through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We can grow into the love of God by heeding these words of Saint John, in that simple phrase: “We love him, because he first loved us (I John 4:19).” How did he first love us? As Saint Paul says, “God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).”

I cannot manufacture love for God, or for my neighbor, as such an endeavor is artificial. But, I can look at the cross of Jesus Christ. I can look at Him in His pain and agonies pouring out His soul unto death for me. As can you; for if you want to obtain this love for God and for your neighbor, you must look up at Jesus Christ on the cross pouring out His soul unto death for you. That is how the seed of charity is planted within your heart. And, it is by returning to the foot of that cross every day that the seed of charity grows and bears fruit unto eternal life. Realizing that He has died for you is the door of hope by which you can rejoice in His resurrection.

The very nature of what is required in these two great and impossible commandments can give either hope or despair. Because I see the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, I can understand the words in today’s Epistle reading:

“I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ: that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”