St. Aelfric

One of the challenges of studying history is the varied levels of documentation that survives today.  Major events are better-documented than minor events.  Leaders and famous men and women are better attested than ordinary folk in the annals of history.  The further back in time you look, the more pronounced this difficulty becomes.  For many key historical figures we only have one or two contemporary documents that tell us everything we know about them.  For the Greek and Roman Empires, and the Apostolic Fathers (the first century of Christianity) this is almost universally the case.

Sometimes these limited resources even make it difficult to reconstruct who was whom.  In the New Testament, for example, there are several people named Mary, James/Jacob, Simon/Simeon, and Jude/Judas.  Opinions vary on precisely who each of these key figures are.  We celebrate and remember them all… we just don’t always know for sure if we’ve split one person into two, or combined two into one.

This sort of challenge exists through other phases of Church History also.  An English Saint by the name of Aelfric (pronounced Alf-rich) is celebrated this week.  Traditionally he has been identified as the first abbot of a minster in the village of Eynsham, an abbot at Abingdon, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He lived in the 900’s and early 1000’s, during what is sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon Renaissance – a time of relative peace from Viking invasion, consolidation of the newly-united Anglaland (England), and significant flourishing of Old English writings, along with political and ecclesial reform, traceable to the efforts of King Alfred the Great nearly a century before.

In the 19th century, scholars divided this man into two: Aelfric of Abingdon, an abbot who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was involved in the improvement of clergy discipline and education across England, was a model of peaceful cooperation with the King (even serving as a judge for when some thegns, or nobles, had disputes), and staffed Canterbury Cathedral with monks instead of secular clergy.  Aelfric of Eynsham, meanwhile, was only the (first) abbot of Eynsham, and said to have lived slightly later than the other Aelfric.  This man was also known as the Grammarian because he wrote a Latin grammar book in Old English (the first of its kind in all of Europe!), or as the Homilist because he was a prolific writer of homilies and other religious works.

These writings in particular are what make Aelfric such an important figure in retrospect, if not especially famous in his own day.  A large body of Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature that survives today is credited to his hand.  Not only has he gifted us with remarkable insight into the grammar of form of the Old English language, but his works preserve an unusually wide snapshot of Anglo-Saxon religion and theology.  The English Reformers even appealed to his writings to attack the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation by showing that what Rome claimed as dogmatic was clearly refuted centuries beforehand without controversy.

Aelfric of Abingdon died on the 16th of November, 1005, which has served as his commemoration date ever since.  Aelfric of Eynsham’s death date is unknown, apart from the estimation of the year 1010.  Therefore, whether this is one man or two, we remember “Saint Aelfric” on November 16th.

* * *

On a personal note, Aelfric is a very special person to me.  I studied Anglo-Saxon English in both semesters of my last year of undergraduate studies.  Aelfric (the grammarian) was a major feature of that class, as we learned about 10th century English culture through his Colloquies (grammar book).  Our professor was also a Christian and well-versed in history though he was an English professor, so he brought all the more cultural, linguistic, and religious insights to our study.

I went on to draw from this introductory knowledge and study throughout my years in seminary, dedicating at least two final papers to the writings of the Anglo-Saxon church.  One of Aelfric’s Easter homilies featured heavily in my work, and I went on to re-translate, shorten, and preach it for Easter Day in 2015.

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Look, I even have a tile coaster declaring my undying love for this dude!

He has become, in a sense, my “patron saint” – a mentor from a thousand years ago whose work continues to intrigue and inspire me.  His love of learning and teaching, his use of the local language and respect for tradition, and study of the Scriptures, model many of my own passions for ministry.  He is also, fittingly, the namesake of my liturgical Customary project.

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Lest We Forget (Remembrance Day)

INTRODUCTION

Veterans Day, known in several other countries as Remembrance Day, previously named Armistice Day: as we have heard, this was originally a day set aside to celebrate the end of the War to End All Wars.  As further wars and atrocities have rocked the world since 1918, we’ve broadened this date to commemorate all our veterans.  It is a national holiday; part of the liturgy of the State, if you will.  The Church, therefore, is free to observe it to whatever extent she sees fit.  Normally it merits only the brief attentions of a special prayer and hymn in the Sunday Communion service – we have All Saints’ Day and various other saints days and commemorations to remember those who have gone before us.  But this year is exceptional.  Today is the centenary of the Armistice that ended the Great War, the 100th anniversary of the event that originated this national holiday.  So this time it is not just a special song and an extra prayer; we’re committing this whole worship service to giving due consideration to this day of remembrance.

Perhaps the first thing we should consider, when looking at how to address a given State or political entity, is the nature of the only perfect state: the Kingdom of God.  The Christian’s citizenship is in heaven, Saint Paul wrote, and that kingdom is already coming among us and within us, Jesus taught.  This Kingdom is a mystical unity, a Body, the Bride of Christ.  It demands our highest allegiance, even unto death.  It redefines all earthly relationships, and sets all moral standards, and is founded on the foundational document of the Bible.  Its heroes are those who have stood most prominently for the cause of the Gospel, no matter the danger, no matter the cost.  The Kingdom of God reminds us that God is Lord of the whole world, not just our “religious” life.  Although there is much in earthly kingdoms and states that is analogous to the Kingdom of God, earthly rulers and politics inevitably fail us both in times of prosperity and in trouble.  So we are reminded that we need God to be present as Judge, to save the world from its evils.  We are reminded that we need God to unite us as his nation, across all man-made divisions.  This we will pray and sing at the end of the liturgy this morning.

But for right now, let us back especially at what happened 100 years ago that brought this commemoration into being, and gives us such pause for thought and contemplation.  The Great War, World War 1, is a very strange and difficult war to understand.  It was, in a way, the last gentlemanly war of Europe, and the first modern war of ruthless destruction.  It was like a civil war, with soldiers on both sides being intimately familiar with one another’s homelands: thousands of Germans had left their jobs in England when hostilities began, and found themselves shooting at men and boys from their “home towns,” and a good many English nobles found themselves losing German titles.  But it was also a war of great prejudices, of demonizing the enemy in relentless propaganda.  It was less a war of ideals, like World War 2, and more a war of nationalism-gone-mad.  In many ways it feels like one of the more pointless wars in European history: there was no good reason to start it, and it accomplished nothing of enduring value in the end.  And from the Church’s perspective, it was especially thorny to deal with because both sides appealed to the name of Christ for their respective causes.  Clearly the love of God and the love of Country was not properly synchronized; nationalism had become an idolatry on both sides, and the world would pay dearly for such poor doctrine.

With the Kingdom of God in mind, let us consider the Great War as a marvelous case study in the dynamic between good nationalism and bad nationalism, biblical patriotism and idolatry.

GOOD NATIONALISM

Let’s start with the good.  Biblical patriotism is modeled in the Old Testament and taught in the New.  King David, even after he was informed he was to be the next King of Israel, and was anointed by Samuel the Prophet, refused to kill King Saul.  Saul was still the anointed King, and even though David knew and believed God’s promise to him, he refused to take matters into his own hands.  And so he endured several years of bitter struggle as Saul alternately tolerated him and sought to kill him.  In the New Testament, St. Paul wrote that earthly authority – even governors and kings – are to be respected.  Much like how the Prophet Jeremiah instructed the Hebrew exiles to live patiently in Babylon and pray for the welfare of that city and the king who conquered them and destroyed Jerusalem, Paul also taught that the government does not “wield the sword in vain.”  Even when the state is corrupt and immoral and hostile to God’s people, the Christian is to respect these earthly authorities as if from the Lord.  Throughout history, God has worked through wicked rulers to work punishment and chastisement; if we find evil among our leadership today, our first question should not be why the world is so evil, but how we, the Church, have fallen short of our calling in Christ.

Of course, there is the question of extremes.  We do not obey man such that we disobey God.  When a ruler instructs us to sin, we refrain and prepare to receive the consequences, as Daniel the Prophet and his three friends demonstrated, as did countless martyrs of the Early Church.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer too, in the Second World War, concluded that Christian silence under their Fuhrer’s sinful administration was tantamount to complicity, and it was time to take drastic action to end the Nazi menace for the sake of all the innocent sufferers at their hands.  When a Christian opposes a government, it is out of love and obedience for Christ, and with full conviction and due respect.

One example of how this played out, in an unofficial manner, was the Christmas Day Armistice of 1914.  It is a heart-warning tale, easily surrounded with rumor and legend, but nonetheless fascinating and wonderful.  Several months into a slow and bloody war that everyone thought would be a very brief affair and easy victory, soldiers were getting tired of the trench warfare that the Western Front had stalemated into.  The Germans, especially, were keen to celebrate Christmas.  Setting aside the call of Kaiser, they set up their little tannenbaums on the fences over their trenches, hazarding even to light them in the dark of Christmas Eve.  They started singing Christmas carols, and calling to the English soldiers across No Man’s Land in broken English “we no shoot, you no shoot!”  Even the French and Belgian soldiers generally accepted this temporary truce.  It wasn’t perfectly peaceful everywhere, but much of the Western Front enjoyed the exchange of singing, momentos, and foodstuffs.  A spirit of Christian charity prevailed over the politics of the day.  They allowed, even helped each other, to bury their dead – there were bodies in No Man’s Land that had lain there for as long as two months!  The virtuous desire to honor the dead with burial, to respect their brothers in Christ, and to celebrate the birth of our Lord took hold.  It’s kind of a magical tale, shining in what is probably the bleakest war of Western memory.

That respect for the dead also found its way into the artistic and religious psyche of the Western world.  This is when simple prayers like “may they rest in peace” and “may God’s light perpetually shine on them” started to return to Protestant worship.  Famous poems, also, commemorated the fallen, for example:

For the Fallen, by Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. *
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

* These beautiful lines use imagery parallel with the description of the departed in Revelation 7.

And so today, we aim to honor both the departed and the survivors – the veterans – of war.  And we seek to pay that honor both in word and deed.  The Collect both for Memorial Day and Veterans Day remembers “with grateful hearts the men and women of our armed forces, who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy” and prays “that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.”  So it is not single-minded vision of the past that we conjure up today, but also a square look at ourselves in the present day.  They fought for the future, they fought for us… so what are we doing today?  How do we vindicate their efforts, so to speak?  How do we make and maintain a society that is worth fighting for?  This prayer, in particular, reminds us to consider the benefits of freedom, and if and how such is afforded to all.  Biblical patriotism is no mere passive obedience to the state, but also an honest effort to make our world a better place.

BAD NATIONALISM

The Great War also showed us some very terrible things.  Its survivors formed what was termed “the Lost Generation.”  The arts and philosophy were severely impacted by that long and bitter conflict.  A culture that was very forward-looking, confident in the progress of man and the triumph of civilized society had its illusions shattered.  The idea that the world is on an upward course of divinely-inspired triumph gave way to an image of futility.  Theology, too, was affected by this: where many people had believed in an End Times view of increasing glory and virtue until Jesus returned to crown things off, popular vision swung around to a view of increasing wickedness and tribulation until Jesus returns to destroy the wicked and build his new and perfect kingdom.

For the idol of nationalism had taken hold of the Western world, and skewed their worldview accordingly.  The myth of racial superiority, the arrogance of cultural superiority, the blind love of country that led to the hatred of all others had built a house that could not stand, and God, in his providence, used the Great War to begin to demolish that false belief.  In the later years of the war, when the horrors of trench warfare and gas warfare had set in upon the psyche of millions of soldiers, poems like this emerged:

Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin quote at the end is from the Roman poet Horace: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori translates to “how sweet and fitting it is for one’s country to die.”  The glorification of war “for king and country” was finally being dismantled.  The truth of General Sherman’s words half a century earlier was made all the more clear in the 1910’s: “War is hell.”

WHERE IS GOD IN THE MIDST OF ALL THIS?

A very fair question at this juncture is “Where is God in the midst of all this?”  Indeed, atheism skyrocketed after the Great War, as many churches, crippled in part by poor theology, were unable to cope with the reality of what had happened to “the civilized world.”  Philosophies like Nietzsche’s “death of God” from the previous generation found new ground, and more and more people gave up on religion entirely.  The Lost Generation was “lost” in more ways than one.

One of the quick and easy answers I’ve already mentioned is that God was present in judgment.  A sort of decadence and false belief about equating human progress with divine initiative, and nationalism with divine will, and imperialism with divine imperative, had sickened many Western churches.  Just as the Israelites demolished Canaanite altars, and early missionaries chopped down the pagans’ sacred trees in northern Europe, God was pulling the rug out from Europe’s self-perceived superior civilization.  He was very present in the Great War, especially as Judge.

That isn’t very comforting, of course, and the process of repentance is seldom comfortable.  But there is more than can be said about God’s presence in the midst of that, and indeed any, war.  Jesus is also a “man of sorrows.”  He is present with the suffering and the downtrodden, he identifies with the weak and lowly, he is served in our service of the ill and injured.  And, as some of our Scripture readings today add, Jesus is present also with the dying and the departed.

Wisdom 3 assures us that God holds all souls in life, even though they die.  The righteous, in God’s hands, are free from further torment and suffering; they have received great good; when it is time for the dead to rise at Christ’s return, they will be like the sparks lighting a great fire – welcoming the Light of Christ which will illuminate the world forever.  Further, Revelation 7 describes the martyrs as alive and worshiping in heaven.  In their many languages and nationalities, the dead in Christ are spiritually alive, at peace, and in joy.  “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat… and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  These are, at last, words comfort.

But it is the Gospel reading, from John 11, that really tackles the question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering and loss: “Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.  This is the real kicker – where was Jesus in the trenches of the Great War?  Where was Jesus in the holocaust under the Third Reich 25 years later?  Where was Jesus in the jungles of Vietnam or the deserts of Iraq?  Martha of Bethany sees her hope of her brother’s resurrection at the end of the age, but Jesus brings it into sharper reality: “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  He brings into most certain assured truth what Wisdom 3 only hoped for: that the souls of the righteous are eternally with the Lord, even in the midst of death.  The challenge, then, as Jesus puts it, is “Do you believe this?”  May we, with Martha of Bethany, have the faith to say “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.

FINAL WORD

To wrap up, Let’s begin where we started.  Let us “with grateful hearts [remember] the men and women of our armed forces, who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.”  As we mourn the wickedness, the evils, and the suffering endured by soldier and civilian alike, we also look with hope to Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, in whose hands God’s people will always remain.  We look also to Jesus as our Great Physician, who alone can heal all wounds, if not in this life, but for the life to come.

And finally we look whence Christ and his Kingdom points us: to a unified people under the banner of the love of Jesus.  A Kingdom where no sword will be drawn, but the sword of righteousness; where no tears are shed, but the tears of joy; where male and female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, Western or Eastern, one color or another, is no longer a dividing distinction; where all are one in Christ.  The Roman Empire, even Christianized, could not achieve that.  The Holy Roman Empire could not achieve that, neither could the British Empire, nor will the United State of America or any other kingdom or state.  Let us, in honor of our earthly forebears, pray and work for the betterment of our earthly homes; yet keep our sights set on our heavenly home, where with all the saints we are invited to live and reign with Christ, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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The Bible is Perspective

This is part 15 of 16 in the series, “the Bible Is…

One of the greatest blessings about the Bible’s contents is that it provides us with multiple accounts and perspectives on a large portion of the major events, stories, and people within.  There are four Gospel books, each telling the story of Jesus in a different way.  Echoes of several events recorded in the book of Acts can be found throughout the New Testament Epistles.  And in the Old Testament there are a number of books that overlap with one another in their historical coverage.  Sometimes this can be seen as a problem, for there are a number of instances that don’t seem to match.  The exact sequence of events at the last supper, at Paul’s life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and the lifespans and reigns of several Israelite kings are difficult to reconstruct with the conflicting information found in different accounts throughout the Bible.  Many, if not most, of these issues can be harmonized with more careful study of the text, and an attentive eye to the writing style and emphasis of the particular authors.  But even as some of these challenges remain, it is a source of blessing for us.  It keeps us honest about the human element in the authorship of the Sacred Scriptures; it reminds us that the Bible exists to communicate Christ, and not to quibble over minor and inconsequential details like how long a particular Old Testament king lived in Jerusalem.

Many of the books that offer alternative perspectives to each other have already been addressed.  At this point we shall examine some of the latest Old Testament writings: the books of Chronicles, the books of Ezra, of Esther, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, and the Maccabees.

The books 1 & 2 Chronicles are really one single book divided in half, and primarily overlap with 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings.  The main difference is that Chronicles was clearly written after the Jewish exile in Babylon, and keeps a periodic eye on that eventual state of affairs.  It was traditionally assumed to have been written by Ezra, though we have little evidence one way or the other.  Unlike the books of Samuel and Kings, Chronicles does not dwell very long on the failings of the kings of Israel and Judah.  Chronicles is more single-minded in its focus, omitting most of the stories of the prophets, and emphasizing the good done by various kings, especially concerning the ordering of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Some might say this book is like a work of propaganda: highlighting the good and ignoring the bad.  But its purpose was to teach those who had returned from exile the importance of remaining faithful to God’s covenant, of rebuilding the Temple, and to emulate the faith and good deeds of their forebears.

The books of Ezra are complicated to count and identify.  In the Hebrew Old Testament there are two, entitled in English by their main characters: Ezra and Nehemiah.  In the Greek Old Testament there are up to four books bearing Ezra’s name; in addition to the Hebrew two, there is a prologue book stuck in before Ezra, and an epilogue book taking place after Nehemiah.  The former book is accounted as part of the biblical canon only in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  In the Latin Bible, both the additional Ezra books are placed as an appendix to the Old Testament just like how Anglican Bibles place the ecclesiastical books (the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon) as an appendix to the Old Testament.  In the English system, the extra Ezra books are called 1 & 2 Esdras (Ezra’s name in Latin).

1 Esdras is a short book which repeats the end of 2 Chronicles and parts of Ezra and Nehemiah, and adds one story about a group of Jewish exiles in Persia before they return to Jerusalem.  The majority of the book is nearly word-for-word copies from other books; only about two chapters contain original material, and is a fascinating philosophical exploration of what is “the strongest” thing in the world.  The winner of the debate is Zerubbabel (a major character in the book of Ezra) who successfully argued that truth is the greatest force in the world.

The book of Ezra covers a couple decades of Jewish history, telling of two waves of Jewish immigrants returning home to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  Ezra himself is in the second generation that returns, and he is instrumental in finishing what the first re-settlers started.  A number of setbacks and threats have to be overcome, and the leaders have their work cut out for them.  The central importance of faithfulness to God’s covenant (both his faithfulness and ours) and of worship is the heart of this book.  Nehemiah continues the story, following the character of Nehemiah who is sent from Persia with another round of money and resources primarily to rebuild Jerusalem’s city walls.  He, too, with Ezra and others, faces a great deal of threat and opposition, and much can be gleaned about the importance of steadfast faith and obedience to God in the face of the fear of man.

The book of 2 Esdras is vastly different.  It details some very lengthy visions attributed to Ezra, later in his life.  Much of it is apocalyptic, even referencing some of the prophecies of Daniel and noting their advancement in the past few decades.  Many scholars today assert that parts of this book are so new that they were actually written by Christians.  Whatever the case, the weaving together of Old Testament apocalyptic prophetic writing with some very Christ-centered imagery makes it a unique offering among the Ecclesiastical Books.  Both this book and 1 Esdras, however, suffer from a number of hiccups in their historical accuracy and chronology, betraying the immense likelihood that neither were written by same Ezra, but more likely just in his name.  The additional perspectives they offer are fascinating and insightful, but not of the same surety as the Hebrew Old Testament books.

The book of Esther is a story of romping good fun.  Told in comedic hyperbole, with exaggerated numbers and gratuitous melodrama, it is clear that this book is not a straight-laced historical document.  It exists to teach and celebrate and entertain.  It is the story of a Jewish woman named Esther who wins a beauty contest to be married to the Persian King.  Her uncle, Mordechai, becomes a friend of the King but an enemy of a royal advisor who seeks to exterminate the Jewish throughout the world.  The cunning plots to prevent this disaster play out through the course of the book.  The unique perspective of this book is looking at exiles who did not return to Jerusalem, and telling their story in an unusually fancy way.  There is also the challenge that the Hebrew and Greek versions of this book are notably different, and ancient manuscript study has not clearly confirmed which version is the more original.

The book of Baruch, with appended Epistle of Jeremiah, is an offering of further perspective to the ministry and book of Jeremiah.  The prophet Baruch is mentioned throughout the book of Jeremiah as his scribe and assistant.  For the most part this book serves as an answer to some of Jeremiah’s instructions to those who were going to Babylon in exile.  Chapters 1 and 2 in particular match up with Jeremiah 29, suggesting that some of the exiles were indeed beginning to live in faith and penitence, respecting their new masters in their temporary exile home.  The Epistle of Jeremiah, sometimes treated as chapter 6 of Baruch, is a further treatise against idolatry.

The story of Tobias and Tobit is of a family of faithful Israelite exiles trying live according to the Old Covenant Law and struggling to get by.  It is a morality tale, through and through, extolling the virtues of faithfulness, burying the dead, and honoring life and marriage.  Tobit introduces us to another angel who helps heal a blind man and drive away a demon, something that later Jewish literature would go on to do much more extensively.  Some accuse this book of promoting “witchcraft,” but the strange methods taught by the angel to heal and to exorcise are no stranger than any of the other odd things done by the Prophets and by Jesus himself in the course of their ministries.

The book of Judith centers around the titular heroine who saves her city, and thereby Jerusalem itself, from invaders.  Her character and story can be seen as a combination of Hagar’s cunning, Deborah’s wisdom, Esther’s right-woman-in-the-right-place, Proverbs 31’s “wife of noble character”, and Jael (who killed an enemy general with a tent peg).  Judith is the very paragon of Jewish virtue and uses her beauty, cunning, wisdom, and faithfulness to deliver Israel from disaster.  Historically, this story is impossible to justify: it is riddled with anachronistic references to the Temple, the return from exile, and the Babylonian Empire; it is as if the latter half of Old Testament history has been jumbled together to set the scene and all the Old Testament heroines have been jumbled together to create the character of Judith.  Despite this, or even because of this, it is a valuable book.  It faithfully and creatively absorbs many lessons and features of the Hebrew Old Testament and presents a whole new story with which teach morality and faithfulness, not unlike the parables of Jesus himself.

Then there are the books of the Maccabees.  In the Roman Old Testament and English Ecclesiastical Books there are two of these books.  The Eastern Orthodox have a third in their canon, and there is also a fourth offered as an appendix to the Greek Old Testament.  1 & 2 Maccabees tell the story of the people of Judea in the 2nd century B.C. under Greek rule.  Although the Jews today do not account these books as canonical, these are the writings from which they derive the holidays of Hanukkah.  1 Maccabees has a longer historical coverage, taking the reader through the Maccabean family and the succession of brothers who led the Jews in successful revolt against the Greeks and made treaties with other Mediterranean powers such as the Roman Republic.  2 Maccabees is more narrow in its coverage, spending more time with Judas Maccabeus, the theological implications of their revolt, and the sufferings of various Jewish martyrs at the hands of Greeks and Hellenized Jews.  These books set the scene, more than any other, for the situation in Judea and Palestine in the Gospel books.  And again, the historical focus of the first book lined up with the theological focus of the second book make them analogous to Kings and Chronicles.

Lastly, it should be clarified that the books of 1 & 2 Esdras, Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah, Tobit, Judith, and the Maccabees, and the Greek version of Esther are not found in modern Protestant Bibles.  They are among the Ecclesiastical Books (or Apocrypha or Deuterocanon), originally printed in Protestant Bibles between the Old and New Testaments, but omitted starting in the 1700’s to save money on mass printing.  These books are accorded a secondary canonical status, used to teach “example of life and instruction of manners” and not “to establish any doctrine.”  That is why most of them are included in this penultimate section, offering additional perspectives within the Bible’s many writings.

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Overwhelmed on All Saints’ Sunday

Sermon on Ephesians 1 on All Saints’ Sunday

Overwhelming.

Is that a negative word to you, “overwhelming”?  Do you associate that with the feeling you get when facing a large project or task, or a very full schedule?  We can feel overwhelmed by work, by the demands of friends and family, by our own inner turmoil or indecision.  I suspect most of us primarily think of the concept of “being overwhelmed” in a negative connotation.

But there is positive sense of being overwhelmed too.  Perhaps you’ve been overwhelmed with a feeling of love or joy or thankfulness.  Perhaps you’ve been overwhelmed with gifts at the birth of a child, or overwhelmed with kind sympathy at the death of a loved one.  Or perhaps you’ve gone somewhere beautiful and have felt overwhelmed with a sense of awe.  A massive cathedral, a rich landscape, an exquisite work of art – these things can overwhelm us in the most wonderful of ways.

There is much in Christianity that can be, is, or even should be, overwhelming.  The very concept of an infinite God, perfectly good and eternally existent, is overwhelming.  The love of Christ demonstrated on the Cross and offered to us in the Gospel is overwhelming.  The first time you tried to read the Nicene Creed was probably overwhelming.  If you’re not accustomed to a high church liturgy, it could be overwhelming with the sensory overload – the beautiful architecture, the stained-glass windows, the incense, the artful vestments, the soaring choir and organ music, the King James English… it’s hard to find your feet when experiencing all that at once for the very first time.

Even today, in our humble setup you may find the hymnody overwhelming – all eight verses of For all the saints as merely the beginning of the worship service, with so much more music following, knowing that even now we still have two more to sing!  (And the closing hymn is gonna have to be awesome if it’s going to compete with the opening song.)  And then, of course, are the Scripture readings.  The Bible, too, is frequently overwhelming, even for the seasoned reader.  And that can be both good and bad.  It’s fine to be in awe of God’s Word, and wonder at the depth of its riches and wisdom.  But if it just leaves us confused and bewildered, then that’s where the preaching of the Word needs to step in and do its job.

The writings of St. Paul can be notoriously complicated to translate and understand clearly.  The first chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians is a prime example of this.  In that chapter, all 23 verses, there are only three sentences.  It’s overwhelming for you, sitting and listening to it read to you; it’s overwhelming standing and reading it to you; it’s overwhelming trying to translate it into English reasonably; and it was probably a little overwhelming in the original Greek for the original recipients of the letter.  As I’ve been describing, sometimes it is good to feel overwhelmed, but if that just results in confusion, then it has not done its work.  So let us move it from a place of confusion to a place of appreciation.

Sentence #1: Verses 1-2

The greeting in verses 1 & 2 is a pretty standard greeting.  St. Paul introduces himself as an Apostle of Jesus Christ – that is an emissary, ambassador, or messenger – called so by the will of God.  This is divine authority he’s claiming; if you accept that, then you’d better believe this letter is Scripture!  He write to “the saints in Ephesus”, referring to the congregation of that church, and offers them a blessing – grace and peace – his usual go-to when writing his letters.  His address of the Ephesians as “saints” (holy ones) is a reminder of the common meaning of the word: all God’s people are already made holy.

Sentence #2: The Great Doxology

This doxology is trinitarian, roughly focusing on God the Father in verses 3-6, God the Son in verses 7-12, and God the Holy Spirit in verses 13-14.  Let’s consider another translation of it (by Lutheran commentator, Lenski), and explore a few samples along the way.

BLESSED

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
he who blessed us with every spiritual blessing
in the heavenly places
in Christ,
Even as he elected us in him before the world’s foundation
to be holy and blemish-less before him in love,
having predestinated us to adoption through Jesus Christ for himself
according to the good pleasure of his will
For the Glory-Praise of his Grace
which he graciously granted us
in the Beloved One

In whom we have
The ransoming through his blood,
The remission of the trespasses,
according to the riches of his grace
which he made abound for us in all wisdom and intelligence,
having made known to us the mystery of his will
which he purpose in him for administration
during the fulness of the time-seasons,
to summarize all things in the Christ,
those in the heavens and those on the earth;
in him in whom also we were given a lot
as having been predestinated
according to his purpose who works all the things
according to the counsel of his will,
that we may be for his Glory-Praise
as those who have hoped in advance in the Christ

In whom also you,
having heard the Word of the Truth,
the gospel of your salvation –
in whom also having believed
you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of the promise,
who is pledge of our inheritance
for ransoming the possession
For his Glory-Praise.

The phrase “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” is packed, soteriologically and confessionally.

  • God of Jesus = highlights the humanity of Christ
  • Father of Jesus = highlights the relationship between the divine persons of Father and Son
  • Lord = kyrios, master, respectful stand-in for God’s name, highlighting the divinity of Christ
  • Christ = christos, or messiah, the anointed one come to save God’s people

Both times that predestination is mentioned here, it is “through Christ” or “in Christ”.  Specifically, God the Father elects us through/in Christ, meaning that his pre-creation will of choosing his people is inextricably linked with his perfect foreknowledge of who is (or will be) in Christ.  Election therefore cannot be spoken of as an arbitrary act of God’s sovereign will, but one inherently connected with his foreknowledge.  To assert that God’s act of election comes “before” his seeing the future of those who are in Christ is to put words in the Apostle’s mouth.  God knows who has (or will have) faith in Christ, and it is them whom he elects.  As the Lutherans put it, election is “in view of the all-sufficient merits of Christ perseveringly apprehended by divinely wrought faith.”  That is to say, God elects us to receive salvation, and this is synchronized with those who have faith in Christ, so we cannot veer off into the one error of preaching an arbitrary God who saves some and discards the rest, or the other error of preaching a reactionary God who elects people only because they mustered up enough faith on their own.  Rather than worry about the particulars of election (as, for example, the Calvinists and Arminians do), this text should prompt us to consider what we’re elected to or for… to be holy, without blemish, adopted, to live for God’s glory & praise, to hope in Christ.  We have been elected to be Saints.

The phrase “Were given a lot” or “have been destined and appointed” in verse 11/12 is more about being God’s heritage than about our receiving an inheritance.  We belong in God’s kingdom!  You could say our Sainthood is a matter of where we truly live, not what we have or do.

Sealed with the Holy Spirit” is a baptismal reference, akin to “receiving” or being “given” the Holy Spirit in other New Testament passages.  Once again, the holiness of God’s people is a promise and gift from God, not an achievement of our own.  As we celebrate the Saints who’ve come before us, we celebrate not the mighty works they did, but the mighty works that God did in and through them.

 Sentence #3: The Great Prayer for Knowledge:

Because of this I, too, having heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and of your love for all the saints, cease not in giving thanks for you, making mention (of you) in my prayers,

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of the glory, give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in connection with knowledge of himself, the eyes of your heart enlightened,

so that you know what is the hope of his calling, what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the case of the saints, and what the exceeding greatness of his power for us believing ones in accord with the working of the strength of his might,

which he wrought in the person of the Christ by having raised him up from the dead and having seated him at his right in the heavenly place far above all rule and authority and power and lordship and every name named not only in this eon by also in the one to come;

and he ranged everything under his feet and him he gave as head over everything to the church since she is his body, the fullness of him who fills all the things in all ways for himself.

The opening words “because of this” refers to the whole of the doxology.  Because of who God is and what he has done, we pray this.  Two brief comments…

Christ filling “all things” applies to different things in different modes.  He is in rocks and he is in your heart, but those modes of presence are very different indeed.  He is in a rock, or in this computer by virtue of the fact that he is the one who created it and sustains its existence.  He is in the Bible in the same way, plus a further mode of spiritual presence by virtue of the fact that it’s his Word contained within its pages.  He is in the sacraments even more so, such that he communicates himself, his grace to their recipients.  To you who have been baptized, he is in your heart also, spiritually living within you such that you are permanently near to God whether you’re seeking him or not.

The “fullness” or pleroma of Christ is one of the subtle themes of the entire Epistle to the Ephesians.  To be filled with Christ, and for Christ to be filled with us, is the heart of this chapter, and indeed also one of the major images in the historic Anglican Communion prayers – “that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”  He dwells in you and desires to be Lord of all your life.  As the Scriptures say, “all things have been put in subjection under his feet,” and on that basis he seeks not just your Sunday morning attentions, but your every word and breath.  The Christian is called to be filled with the fullness of Christ; to confine your religion to Sunday morning and a handful of other special occasions is to resist and quench the Spirit, to reject the gift of God’s presence with you and within you.  As all God’s people comprise Christ’s mystical body, let Christ also mystically fill yours; a lifestyle of prayer and attentiveness to the Word of God moves in the direction of transforming every part of you and your life.  It is the great journey from convert, to disciple, to Saint.

 Overall Picture

To explore this chapter in the detail it deserves is a task that I cannot fit into one reasonably-timed sermon.  There is much to unpack, many details to explore, many sidesteps to account for.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to allow Ephesians 1 to continue to overwhelm us.  But what I hope we have done today is transform some of that overwhelming impression from bare confusion to a better position of appreciation.  God is very big, very amazing, and has done so much for us in ways that we can only begin to understand.  As a result, we pray for knowledge and wisdom.  St. Paul gave thanks for the church he planted and for the spiritual growth they had in the years after he moved on.  He prayed for them, as we all should pray for all Christians, that there would be continual growth in that knowledge of God.  You could summarize this whole chapter by saying that worship of God ought to lead to further knowledge of God.  We can, and indeed should, be overwhelmed by the splendor and majesty of God!  But that should then prompt us and inspire us to draw ever nearer, to dig deeper, to explore further, and broaden our apprehension of who he is and what he has done for us.

Particularly today, as we celebrate the Saints of God, those whom he has made holy, we can rejoice in the splendor of the perfect holiness of Christ given to his people; we can give thanks, with St. Paul, for God’s calling of Saints into a marvelous fellowship.  And we can pray for our own growth into that same calling, to be holy, without blemish, as spotless and perfect as Jesus himself; we can be overwhelmed with the impossibly high calling to which we have been called, and yet rejoice at the prospect that finally, eventually, God will complete that good work within us.

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Richard Hooker

The Reformed tradition has John Calvin, the Lutherans have Martin Luther, the Methodists have John Wesley… but who do Anglicans look to as our “quintessential theologian”?  Depending upon one’s disposition it may either be endlessly frustrating or a liberating relief that we have no single Great Theologian who sets the standard for our specific confession.  This is largely due to the circumstances of the English Reformation.  Martin Luther, and many others, found themselves in situation where they ended up opposed to the “established” church, and so entire schools of theology ended up revolving around their monumental works.  In England, however, the Reformation was top-down: the Bishops, backed by the King, were able to work together to reform the Church in England.  They drafted Articles of Religion together, compiled a Book of Homilies together, and assembled a Prayer Book together.  The first Archbishop during the Reformation was Thomas Cranmer, so his influence was arguably the most significant in their generation.  But as the Anglican tradition continued into the next century, permanently removed from communion with Rome and not entirely in line with the specifics of Lutheran or Calvinist teachings, the development of a unique identity and definition was somewhat inevitable.  Still, no single theologian dominated the scene.  Like the Early Church of the first millennium, the “classical Anglican” period (the 16th and 17th centuries) produced many “divines” – theologians, poets, and spiritual writers who together shaped and defined our tradition.  Still, we got no “quintessential theologian” to set an abiding standard of clearly-defined stances on every topic of doctrine.

However, in the midst of all that, there was one man who perhaps most clearly, effectively, and famously encapsulated this collegial approach to theology: Richard Hooker.  One of several great theologians in the 16th century, he is best known for the multi-volume work The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.  It is a dull title for admittedly dull reading, by modern standards, but what he wrote about therein turned out to be just what the Anglican tradition needed.  It is not a confessional document as such, systematically working through various doctrinal positions.  Rather, it is a treatise on the nature of law.  It explores the laws of nature, the law of God, the law of state.  In each of these cases, “law” refers less to rules as such and primarily to “how things work.”  How did God order creation?  How does God order an earthly State?  And finally, how does God order his Church?

This five-volume book turned out to be the perfect “apology” (or defense) of the Church of England in its time.  It rooted what we now call the Anglican tradition in the context of the full history of Christianity in England, highlighting the continuity from the Early Church through the medieval era into the Reformation of their day.  He argued for a lawful Reformed Catholic Church in England without utterly denigrating the Papists of Rome on the one hand, or the Protestants of Germany and Geneva on the other.  With the Reformers, he taught and believed in justification by faith alone, but he argued that perfect understanding of justification was not required for true faith in Christ, and therefore members of the Roman could still be justified even though teaching and believing a different version of that doctrine.

Hooker’s methodology also became widely known and popular in recent times: Scripture is the sole foundation of Christian teaching, it is interpreted by tradition, tempered by reason.  This is often represented today as a “three-legged stool” implying equality between Scripture, tradition, and reason, but this is a misappropriation of Hooker’s meaning.  His point was that Scripture is first, tradition helps us understand it, and reason helps keep tradition and biblical interpretation honest.

In all, Richard Hooker reinforced a strong intellectual foundation upon which the Anglican tradition was built.  Ultimately, our lack of “quintessential theologian” is not for lack of great thinkers, but for an abundance of them.  Hooker is simply remembered as a quintessential Anglican thinker, and our first great apologist as the dust of the Reformation settled.  He died in the year 1600, and is commemorated on November 3rd.

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The Bible Is Wisdom

This is part fourteen of a sixteen part series, “The Bible Is“.

One of the old stereotypes concerning the Bible is that it is full of useful sayings and good advice.  Although it is true that all Scripture “is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”, not all of the biblical writings are equally useful in the same way.  So, while pithy sayings and utterances of wisdom can be found throughout the volume, there are four Old Testament books in particular that are specifically called Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

The book of Job is a story about a patient and righteous man named Job.  It’s a morality tale of sorts, depicting a bargain between God and the Devil concerning the steadfast faith of Job, who, God contends, will not blaspheme God even under the worst pressure and disaster.  The Devil is granted two opportunities to afflict Job – first by destroying his wealth and family, and second by destroying his health.  In the end, although he complains, Job never curses God, and so he is vindicated and his wealth and family restored.  There are those who argue over whether this is an historical story or a parable, but such debate misses the point.  In either case, it is a wisdom story, focusing not on the events (historic or fictitious) of Job’s suffering but rather on the discourses shared between Job and his friends as they ponder his fate.  Of the book’s 42 chapters, only the first two and last one relate the story itself; the vast bulk is a highly structured and stylized round of arguments and counter-arguments as Job’s three friends (and later another young man) argue with him over the theological nature of human suffering.  To this day, the book of Job speaks with fresh clarity to the age-old question of “why bad things happen to good people”.

The book of Proverbs is perhaps the epitome of the stereotype of biblical pithy sayings.  Its first several chapters are brief discourses on the nature of wisdom, its divine origin and orientation, but more than half of the book is simply a collection of wise sayings attributed to various authors and collectors.  When read in the original Hebrew, handy mneumonic links from one proverb to the next can be found everywhere, intended to help the young student in memorizing them.  Translated into English, or any other language, however, such repeated words and themes are not always obvious, rendering much of this book a tangled wall of horrifically disorganized single-sentence sayings.  The book of Proverbs, nevertheless, is a gold mine of instruction and insight into godly living, when one takes the time to sift through its contents.  Compared to Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Proverbs is a book of prudential wisdom, that is, discreet sayings and pieces of advice that stand on their own.  The books of Sirach and Wisdom, to be discussed later in this series, are in the same category.  The others are called speculative wisdom, as they address and explore the big questions of life.

The book of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth (“the Preacher”), is a curious book that explores the “vanity” or “meaninglessness” of earthly life.  Narrated by “the Preacher” in the persona of King Solomon, its key word is hevel, which means “a breath” but is usually translated as “vanity” or “meaningless”.  All things in life – joy, wealth, suffering, loss – are hevel to the Preacher as he reflects upon his life and “everything that happens under the sun.”  The famous text (and resultant song) “for everything a season…” is found in this book, and, perhaps contrary to how it is popularly considered, is an illustration of the inherent meaninglessness of all these things.  There’s a time for war and a time for peace, therefore neither war nor peace is substantial; neither endure!  For many Christians, this book can be rather puzzling in its negative attitude towards virtually everything.  But its realistic approach to the shortcomings of life and its “final word” at the very end observing that the ultimate good purpose of life is to “fear God” puts all of this in perspective: living life for the sake of life itself is ultimately vain and pointless; only in light of eternity – God himself – is true meaning and life-beyond-a-mere-breath to be found.

The Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, or the Canticle of Canticles, is another book that can catch the Bible-reader off guard.  For a Bible and a religion that is stereotypically considered “prudish”, this book is an alarmingly vivid collection of love poetry.  There are many theories about its authorship, the identity of the lovers it depicts, its value as an allegory for God’s love of his people, whether it’s a sort of dramatic play or just a collection of mostly-unrelated love songs.  And so many preachers and readers alike tend to shy away from spending too much time on this book.  But, if read and studied, this book offers a very positive vision of spousal love, marriage, a healthy expression of human yearning, and even a few lessons pointing in the direction of preserving sexual activity for the safe confines of marriage.  As a book of speculative wisdom, it explores the questions of love and sex with vivid and beautiful imagery.  Its cultural references may make the modern reader laugh from time to time (comparing a woman’s legs to a column!?) yet also can provoke us to consider the comparative expressions of beauty that we make in our own cultural context.

Given their place in the Old Testament, their antiquity, and their drastically different writing styles compared to the rest of the Bible, these four books can be an unexpected challenge to read profitably.  But when understood for what they are, and approached with the intended big questions in mind, they have much to offer us.  In a world where “my opinion, your opinion” can be an endless circular back-and-forth, the biblical wisdom literature brings a larger perspective, enlarging our theories of sociology with much-needed injections of theology.

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Jesus and Apostolic Authority

Part One: Division

I was having a little dialogue with someone on Facebook last week about the intersection of politics and religion.  It was once of those situations where the other person and I actually were in general agreement concerning the subject at hand, but he seemed intent on convincing me to become more vocal about our concerns.  Pastors should preach these socio-political and religious issues from the pulpit every week, if our country is to be saved!  I pointed out that the preacher’s first concern is preaching the Gospel, and as the texts of Scripture speak to one contemporary issue or another then we address those issues.  However, in doing so, I quoted from the New Testament Epistles, to which the other fellow replied “Are you saying Jesus did not kick over the money changers’ tables? Do you risk putting so-called Saint Paul before Jesus?

As if talking politics and religion on the internet was silly enough, that statement right there brought any hope of fruitful discussion to an abrupt end.  This juxtaposition of the teaching and example of Jesus on one hand, and the writings of St. Paul and the other Apostles on the other, is a death sentence for meaningful Christian teaching.  Once you drive a wedge between the words of Christ and the words of the Apostles, the New Testament ceases to be God’s Word, but becomes a battle ground.  This is an extreme example of why Bibles with the words of Jesus in red letters can be a bad idea – it can be wrongly used by some readers as a false hierarchy within Scriptures, imagining that the words of Jesus in red are more important than the rest of the Bible, in black.  What Jesus said and did is the Word of God, and, they imply, the rest of the Bible is the word of men.  Once you accept this premise, the authority of Scripture is broken.  It’s reduced to a painstaking discipline of study and speculation, working out “what Jesus really said” and what the apostles, especially the radical Saint Paul, put into his mouth after the fact.

Part Two: Unity

Historic Christianity does not allow for such a division.  As we’ve been proclaiming in the Nicene Creed for over 1,500 years, we believe that Jesus “rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures,” and we believe in the Holy Spirit, “who has spoken through the Prophets.”  Twice there we point to the Bible without positing any separation between Jesus and his Apostles.  In fact, there is no appeal to the words and actions of Jesus as forming the basis of the Scriptures, but instead the voice of the Holy Spirit in and through the Prophets and the witness of the apostles who saw their Lord’s resurrection.  We profess that every writer of Sacred Scripture, therefore, is a Prophet of sorts, speaking God’s Word in their writing, and that the Church has the prophetic role of keeping those words alive by binding them together in a volume we call “The Bible” and reading and preaching it to us day in and day out until Christ returns.

As Saint Paul wrote to the Ephesians, the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”  There is a distinction between Christ and the Apostles & Prophets, but no separation.  They are all, together, the foundation.  On the simplest level, Jesus wrote nothing; we only know about his words and deeds because others wrote of him.  If they are to be trusted in their reporting of him, then they must also be trusted in what else they wrote.  One might point out that the Gospel writers didn’t write the bulk of the New Testament Epistles, and so the issue is between the early disciples and Saint Paul, but that’s just inventing a narrative that simply cannot be found in the New Testament documents.

In no way does this appeal to Ephesians, or the other epistles, “put Saint Paul before Jesus” or even risk going near it.  Jesus himself spoke of the authority of his disciples, soon to become Apostles.  In John 15, Jesus said to his disciples:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.

This is as clear as day.  If people Jesus’ word, they will also keep the words of Jesus’ apostles.  So there is no Christian option of believing Jesus and rejecting his apostles.  The Gospel and Epistles cannot be divorced; they speak with one voice.  The guarantee of this is, as I already mentioned from the Creeds, the work of the Holy Spirit.  As Jesus said to his disciples at the end of chapter 15, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

In short, the Apostles speak (and write) with the same authority with which Jesus spoke.

Part Three: Zeal

Now, it should be noted that most of the Apostles didn’t contribute anything to the New Testament canon.  Only three to five of the twelve, (depending upon who wrote the Epistles of James and Jude) wrote anything that made it into the Bible.  Saints Mark, Luke, and Paul were not of the original band of disciples, though Mark and Luke may have been among the larger group of seventy.  What did the rest of those disciples do?  I mean, we know there were twelve of them because the Gospel books keep reminding us of that number, but do we actually remember all their names?  They are Andrew and Simon Peter sons of Jonah, James and John sons of Zebedee, Philip of Galilee, Simon the Zealot and his brother Jude, Nathaniel-Bartholomew, Thomas the Twin, Matthew (or Levi) and James sons of Alphaeus, and Judas Iscariot who was replaced by Matthias.  Most of them have brief appearances in the Gospel books and that’s it.  Today we celebrate the brothers Simon and Jude, or Simon and Thaddeus, as the latter is known by two names.  Jude/Thaddeus may be the author of the Epistle of Jude, or that may be someone else with the same name.  Getting the family trees and identities worked out has never been universally solved and agreed-upon.

All we can say for sure, about most of the apostles, is that they went on to preach Christ after his death and resurrection, ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  A few of them wrote, but all of them preached.  Ironically, the challenge of knowing most of the Apostles is the same as knowing Jesus – we have to rely upon the writings of others to illuminate their history.  So with most of the twelve, all we know is that they proclaimed Christ throughout the known world both within and without the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

Simon may have traveled to Persia, or Spain, or stayed in the region of Palestine and served as the second Bishop of Jerusalem.  Jude probably traveled to Persia and Armenia, where he is believed to have been martyred.  That Christianity flourished in the regions these apostles traveled is a testimony to the work of God in and through them.

In short, although we do not hold any words from Simon or Jude (unless this Jude authored the epistle of Jude), we do know of their zeal for the Lord.  This is a great witness to us of the worthiness of Christ and the crucial importance of the Gospel – these were causes worth living for, and dying for.  Yes, writing of Christ is a good and worthwhile thing, and someone had to do it, but the apostolic call is primarily one of bringing the Word of God to people face-to-face.  There is no dividing the “words of Christ” from the “words of the Apostles”, and not only can we see that in the unity of the Sacred Scriptures, but equally in the lives and deaths of those Apostles.

Let us pray: O God, we thank you for the glorious company of the apostles, and especially on this day for Simon and Jude; and we pray that, as they were faithful and zealous in their mission, so we may with ardent devotion make known the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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