Holy Communion as a Spiritual Discipline

This is an abbreviated version of today’s sermon at Grace Anglican Church.

This Sunday’s lessons teach about our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice that he made as our High Priest. In Hebrews 9 we hear of how Jesus offered himself up, not just in dying on the Cross, but also in ascending into heaven to pour out his own blood of the covenant before the Father. That blood which presents to his Father he also then sprinkles down upon us to purify us from our sins. Where the Old Covenant called for the blood of animals (like we read in Exodus), the New Covenant instead calls for the blood of Christ.

The blood of Christ and his high priestly sacrifice are most prominently celebrated in Holy Communion, so that’s why I wanted to conclude our series on spiritual disciplines by talking about Communion this morning. Holy Communion is a spiritual discipline? Absolutely! Let’s look at this in three ways. First, simply going to the Communion service is a discipline in itself. Second, participating in the Communion liturgy is a spiritual discipline. And thirdly, receiving Holy Communion also is a discipline.

PART ONE: Going to the service of Holy Communion

First of all, simply going to church is a discipline of sorts. You get up on Sunday morning, when the rest of the world is sleeping in, and go to a distinct location where you meet up with a bunch of different people who you may not normally see during the week, and you worship God. Can’t you worship God anywhere you want? Can’t you worship God anytime you want? Why bother getting together with these people at such an odd time of the week? Add newborns and infants into the mix, and you quickly see how simply getting up and going can be a discipline.

Of course, what makes it all worthwhile is something quite profound. When we gather here together, we offer to God a time of worship that none of us could have done on our own. And we not only say some prayers and read some of the Bible, but we also hear God’s Word preached, and we celebrate Communion with God and his local family. And from an invisible spiritual perspective, we do this not only with the local congregation, but the entire Church, throughout the world and throughout history.

So while it doesn’t really matter where you go to have a church service, the fact that there is a location is important for creating a local picture of the big picture. Our little church family meets here in this room at 10:30am, and it’s supposed to remind us that the whole Church is gathered together around Christ, even though we cannot yet see it. Oh, but when Christ returns, boy will we see it then! We’ll be so excited we’ll actually be lifted up to greet him as he returns, we’ll be so enraptured with joy. Even the dead will rise, so all God’s people really will finally be all together with him, and the ultimate worship service will soon begin!

The normal spiritual discipline of going to Holy Communion these days is to go every Sunday. One example of a Lenten discipline that some people do is to go to church more often during Lent. Larger churches frequently have mid-week services, or even a daily mass, so people have the option of attending more frequently if they want to ramp up that part of their spiritual life. If any of you are interested in some mid-week services during Holy Week, let’s start that conversation after worship today. Every day during Holy Week has its own set of readings and themes, extending our meditation on the crucifixion of Jesus all the way from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Normally we at least celebrate either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday; we need to decide which one we’ll do next week, and if we’ll celebrate more or not.

PART TWO: Participating in the Communion liturgy

The second spiritual discipline surround Holy Communion is participating in the worship service. You know it’s one thing to show up, and another thing to participate. There was a saying I heard a lot as a kid: “going to a garage doesn’t make you a car, any more than going to church makes you a Christian.” Similarly, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Congratulations, you’ve all made it to church, but now what?

There are parts of the service that we like more than other parts. It happens. When I was a kid, I took out my colored pencils and drew during the sermon. It was so long, and boring, and I didn’t understand what was going on, so I tuned out. When I got older, I found that sermons were actually really interesting to listen, most of the time. But then I also started getting picky about what music I liked, or didn’t like. I’m sure many of you can relate to some of those like and dislikes, and could make my list a lot longer. Anyway, considering that we all have different preferences, it turns out that forcing ourselves to act together in worship is a spiritual discipline. You may prefer to read, rather than sing, but out of loving submission to your brothers and sisters in Christ, you try to sing along anyway. You may find it arbitrary to pray some of the exact same prayers every single week, but you take it on as a discipline that helps you break past your own likes and dislikes, and connects you with a larger shared life of worship with those around you.

A very important part of participation is comprehension. When we don’t understand what’s going on, it’s difficult to be an active participant. Strange prayers can make us bored, strange words can make us confused, and strange concepts can make us suspicious. If we’re not careful it can feel like the priest is just taking you for a ride through theological la-la land.  Take the time to read through the Communion prayers, examine and ponder what they mean, so that when the priest is reading them, you can follow along actively in your heart.

PART THREE: Receiving the Body & Blood of our Lord

Finally, the act of receiving Holy Communion is also a spiritual discipline. Let’s take this in three acts: preparing, partaking, and processing.

First of all, there is preparation for receiving Holy Communion. Two weeks ago, we were looking at the discipline of acknowledging and confession our sins to God. One of the examples we heard that week was the practice of examining our sins before coming to the Communion Table. Besides examining our hearts and judging ourselves before Holy Communion, there are other practices that many have done over the years to prepare themselves for receiving Communion. Some people fast on Sunday morning, so that the first thing they eat that day is the consecrated bread and wine. Some people make a point of praying quietly on their own before the worship service starts. The more profound you find the gift of Holy Communion to be, the more radical a preparation you may be inspired to make.

Secondly, as for partaking, even the physical act of handing out the bread has significance. Those of you who were raised in this tradition may remember being taught to present your hands flat, one on top of the other. Part of that is practical – it can be confusing for the priest to know where to give you the bread if you present both hands next to each other. And when your hands are next to each other, they tend to form a cup, and bread doesn’t go in a cup, it’s supposed to go on a plate. So we stack our hands, one on top of the other, so they’re flat like a plate, or the paten, up front. But there’s another symbolic image at work there. Your outstretched hands are also like an altar. The sacrifice that Christ performed on the Cross, and here is presented to us afresh in Holy Communion, is laid out first on the Church’s Altar up front, and then on the altar of each and every one of his people! We all share in Christ’s priesthood when we approach the Altar of the Church, and share in the sacrificial meal of bread and wine. Presenting your hands like an altar is a picture of sharing in the ministry that I’ve cherished since I first started attending Anglican worship services.

Lastly, once we’ve partaken of Holy Communion, we then undergo the discipline of processing it. While your digestive system is busy carrying out its function with the tiny bit of bread and little sip of wine, make sure your spiritual system is also busy, letting the Body of Christ cleanse you and the Blood of Christ wash you. This means that we don’t leave church and promptly forget about Jesus for the next 6 days. Instead, we try to do what that Post-Communion Prayer says – to see ourselves as being sent out to live a life of good works. After all, if Jesus is within us, don’t we carry him everywhere we go? And if we carry him everywhere we go, shouldn’t we make a point of acting like it? Jesus described himself as the light of the world, and then later said to his people, you are the light of the world. That’s because he dwells in us, and we in him.

So let this beautiful act of Communion not just be an act for which you prepare and in which you participate, but one that you also process, and make into a lifestyle. Whether you attend daily mass, or just on Sundays, may the life of Christ be lived out in each of your lives every day to the full! May his faithfulness be your faithfulness; may his hope be your hope; may his love be your love; now and forever.

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What is Pop-Evangelicalism?

Every church has its tradition.  Most of the time, that tradition is shared with a larger group of churches.  Some are ancient, robust, and obvious as with Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some are more modern and flexible.  But every church has tradition. This is not a bad thing – tradition is simply the how expressing faith’s what.  Faith is about what we believe; tradition is what we do about it.

Of course, not all traditions are created equal; some have more problems than others.  One tradition that I’m particularly concerned about is the popular face of evangelicalism in America today.  I call it pop-evangelicalism for short.   What is this pop-evangelicalism and why do I dislike it?  I’ve compiled a list of some of its hallmark features to explain.

1.  Pop-Evangelical leadership favors great speakers, not great teachers.  Whether it’s a famous mega-church or a small congregation in the middle of nowhere, pop-evangelicalism loves a pastor who gets people “engaged.”  They love a preacher who is “convicted” of his message, and “is convicting” to his hearers.  Unfortunately this often is sought at the expense of theological training and depth.  Similarly…

2. Pop-Evangelicalism isn’t usually anti-intellectual, but it it is intellectually lazy.  The problem of scorning academic study and theological education is usually more an issue among Pentecostal and Fundamentalist traditions.  Pop-evangelicals, rather, still respect seminary degrees, though they downplay its importance.  When new people come to faith, they will typically go through a “new members class” for a few weeks, which is hardly enough time to give people proper discipleship and catechesis.  Sorry, most pop-evangelicals don’t even know what catechesis is anymore.  All those boring old-fashioned impersonal doctrines just don’t catch peoples’ interest; why bog down a perfectly hearty faith with all those brainy details?  The ordinary church-goer in this tradition is only vaguely aware of the doctrine of the Trinity, uncertain why it’s absolutely essential that Jesus was fully human, and clueless as to why those wacky Catholics actually baptize babies.  And speaking of sacraments…

3.  A “Worship Leader” is the leader of the band.  To be fair, most pop-evangelicals know deep down inside that worship is more than just music.  They know that the whole worship service is worship, even the sermon and the prayers, and the Scripture readings if there are any.  But at the end of the day, the association of “worship=music” remains the primary paradigm.  When they say “worship was great at church yesterday,” they mean the band was really rockin’.  In a manner matching the theological shallowness described in the previous points, pop-evangelicalism also has a shallow understanding of worship.  The priesthood of Christ, the role of the sacraments, the very concept of liturgy, are almost entirely lost to the pop-evangelical mind.

4.  Pop-Evangelicalism has confused its theological priorities.  Despite the above critiques, pop-evangelicalism does still care about theology to some degree.  But its priorities are mixed up.  The most important topic in this tradition is soteriology: the doctrine of salvation.  We are justified by grace alone through faith alone, they insist, faithfully maintaining that classic Protestant Evangelical stance.  They have a strong hold on the Gospel of God.  But, as others have pointed out, they often have a weak grasp of the God of the Gospel.  As a result, pop-evangelicalism is rampant with heresies condemned by the early Christians about the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ.

5.  Pop-Evangelicals have a love-hate relationship with labels.  They love taking on individual labels such as “I have the gift of generosity,” “he is a pastor,” “her spiritual disposition is care-giver,” and so on.  And they often love personality quizzes and spiritual gift inventories.  But on the other hand they are deathly afraid of corporate labels such as “Protestant” or “Baptist.”  Individual labels are great because they can be used to proclaim our individual uniqueness.  Corporate labels, however, puts personal faith into a box, as if that somehow ruins it.  “I’m just a follower of Christ; I don’t believe in any of those -isms.”

6.  Small groups that read a book together are called “Bible Studies.”  I think this is a pet peeve of mine, regardless of who does it.  I think small groups are great, whether they are studying part of the Bible, a topic in the Bible, or working through a book by a Christian author.  All are useful.  As great as folks Francis Chan, Beth Moore, Sarah Young, and Randy Alcorn can be, reading their books is not “bible study.”  It seems that pop-evangelicals spend more time soaking in the writings of currently-popular authors than they spend soaking in the writings of Sacred Scripture.

7.  Pop-Evangelicalism runs on an “addict” model of spirituality.  Nobody disagrees that it’s a good to love Jesus.  The challenge is what “love” really means.  Pop-Evangelicals take a little too much from the world’s definition of love: a head-over-heels emotional falling for the beloved.  They preach a passionate love for Jesus, which is good, but the devotional books and the “worship songs” of this tradition portray that love almost exclusively as an emotional high.  Although emotions are part of love, there is much more to love than just that!  But when love is primarily an emotion, you have to keep doing more and more churchy things to keep that spiritual high alive.  I’ve written more extensively on this problem before.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love evangelicalism.  I still consider myself an evangelical, if relegated to an uncool corner of that camp.  But no form of Christianity should ever be enslaved to the pursuit of popularity, no matter what culture surrounds it.  Pop-Evangelicalism has made that mistake, trying to be attractive to young people and “seekers” and anyone else disillusioned by “traditional church.”  But in the end, the lack of depth of pop-evangelicalism will be its undoing.  People either need to take ownership of their classical protestant heritage, or they’ll move on to richer pastures in the Anglican, Roman, or Orthodox churches.  Or, sadly, they won’t look for richer pastures at all, and simply walk away from Christ and his Church into a life of agnosticism.

So please, fellow evangelicals, take note!  Do not make Christianity superficial, lest you starve future disciples to death.

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the Ordering of Spiritual Gifts

One of the subsets of recognizing God as the Creator of all things, is recognizing that God is a God of order.  He acts according to a purpose and plan.  The beautiful orchestration of the human body or the ecosystems of the world, or the arrangement of the galaxies and stars, all attest to a wonderfully detail-oriented artistic God who loves to throw paint around, but never carelessly nor aimlessly.

Applying this truth of God to our own lives, however, is a step that we sometimes forget to take.  When it comes to talking about ourselves, it can be very easy to switch from being God-centered to Self-centered.  But if we remember that God created us as parts of his ordered creation, and made us who we are not just for our own sakes but for the sake of the world in which we were created to live, then even the personal questions like “what are your spiritual gifts?” can and should be considered in light of God’s orderliness and intentionality.

I came across some quotes from a couple Early Church Fathers about spiritual gifts which struck me as very helpful for re-discovering this often Pentecostal-dominated topic in a biblical and traditional framework that has been available to the Church all along.

Let’s start with a quick reminder of the traditional “seven gifts of the spirit,” also called virtues, that formed the overall paradigm for the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people.  Where these seven virtues or gifts come from is a discussion too long to repeat here, so I’ll skip to listing what they are:

  1. wisdom
  2. understanding
  3. counsel
  4. might/fortitude
  5. knowledge
  6. piety
  7. fear (of the Lord)

St. Gregory the Great, in one of his sermons, wrote about how these virtues work together in an orderly fashion, starting with the acknowledgement that none of them can stand on their own.

Each particular virtue is to the last degree destitute, unless one virtue lends its support to another.  For wisdom is less worth if it lacks understanding, and understanding is wholly useless if it be not based upon wisdom, in that while it penetrates the higher mysteries without the counterpoise of wisdom, its own lightness is only lifting it up to meet with the heavier fall.

The pairing of wisdom & understanding is perhaps the trickiest to understand.  What St Gregory argues here is that if you have understanding about how things work, but don’t have the wisdom to apply that understanding, then the virtue of understanding gets lifted up into an idol, doomed to fall.  Wisdom, meanwhile, doesn’t have much to do if it doesn’t have anything understood to work with.

Counsel is worthless when the strength of fortitude is lacking thereto, since what it finds out by turning the thing over, from want of strength it never carries on so far as to the perfecting in deed; and fortitude is very much broken down if it be not supported by counsel, since the greater the power which it perceives itself to have, so much the more miserably does this virtue rush headlong into ruin, without the governance of reason.

Counsel and fortitude are easier to understand.  The virtue of counsel is pretty close to what we might today call “common sense.”  It’s all well and good to have common sense, but if you don’t have the fortitude (or strength) to act accordingly, then that good counsel is useless.  Similarly, if someone is strong in fortitude but lacking in counsel, then they’re doomed to be constantly blundering into situations without thinking things through first.

Knowledge is nought if it hath not its use for piety, for whereas it neglects to put in practice the good that it knows, it binds itself the more closely to the judgment; and piety is very useless if it lacks the discernment of knowledge, in that while there is no knowledge to enlighten it, it knows not the way to show mercy.

The pairing of knowledge and piety strikes me as a classic literary device.  Knowledge separated from piety (a worshipful attention to God) becomes an idolatrous pursuit that gets us in trouble.  You end up like a mad scientist.  Piety without knowledge, however, is just as bad, where you end up with an outwardly “religious” person who has little grounding for his religious practices – in short, this is superstition.

And assuredly  unless it has these virtues with it, fear itself rises up to the doing of no good action, forasmuch as while it is agitated about everything, its own alarms render it inactive and void of all good works.

The seventh virtue is the fear of the Lord, and St. Gregory here points out that fear on its own is a paralyzing force, “agitated about everything” and rendered “inactive and void of all good works” when separated from the other virtues.  And let us not forget the frequent anthem of the Proverbs, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Thus, the first six virtues also need to be built upon this seventh virtue of fear.

So the point here is that when we look for the spiritual gifts that God gives us, we shouldn’t get too fixated on ourselves, and what abilities God gives us individually, but how God is making us well-balanced Christians in the image of his Son Jesus Christ.

St. Maximus the Confessor brings up another point about spiritual gifts: love is absolutely essential.

If you have received from God the gift of knowledge, however limited, beware of neglecting love and temperance.  They are virtues which radically purify the soul from passions, and so open the way of knowledge continually.
… ‘Knowledge puffs up, whereas love builds up [1 Cor. 1:8].’ Therefore unite knowledge with love and by being cleansed from pride you will become a true spiritual builder.  You will build up yourself and all those who are your neighbors.  Love takes its power to build up from the fact that it never envious nor unkind.  It is natural for knowledge to bring with it (at the beginning anyway) some measure of presumption and envy.  But love overcomes these defects: presumption because ‘it is not puffed up’ and envy because ‘it is patient and kind’ [1 Cor. 13:4].

Drawing from the New Testament writings of St. Paul, we’re pointed back to the root of all spiritual gifts: love.  It’s also worth remembering that 1 Corinthians 13, a whole chapter devoted to love, falls between chapters 12 and 14 – devoted to other spiritual gifts.  Love is in the center of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Any gift we receive without increasing in love is no gift at all.

So next time you hear a conversation or sermon or small group study about spiritual gifts, try to keep this in mind.  God gives as he pleases for a reason, and that reason, though mysterious, includes the purpose of building us up as a Church so that we can be the spotless bride whom his Son loves so much.  Thus the gift of love must be at the heart of this blessed work of the Holy Spirit.

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The Centrality of Liturgy

Most Christian traditions share the same belief that the worship and enjoyment of God is the purpose of our existence.  The famous Westminster Catechism, for example, states this in Question 1 as the very “chief end of man.”  The way in which this truth is expressed varies greatly, however.  Most Evangelicals today, for example, see worship and liturgy as secondary or even tertiary issues when it comes to Christian teaching and formation.  The more traditional, historic, or Catholic view, however, is that liturgy is much more central to the life of the Church, and our Christian identity.

I want to commend to you this article over on the blog First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/03/liturgy-and-interchangeable-sexes
It is a brilliant re-introduction to the concepts of liturgy, ministry, and worship which most Evangelicals never get to hear.  Peter Leithart takes us back to the beginning of the story of the human race, in the Garden of Eden.  He describes it thus:

Nearly every feature indicates that the garden is a temple. Like other biblical sanctuaries, it’s oriented to the east. It’s a well-watered spot, a place of life-giving food, a sacred place where Yahweh is present to his creatures. After the fall, cherubim are stationed at the gate, anticipating the cherubic guardians of the tabernacle and temple. Later sanctuaries are reconstituted gardens; the garden is a proto-sanctuary.

Viewing the Garden as a Temple also calls for viewing mankind as priests in the Temple.

Adam is created first and commanded to “cultivate and keep” the garden—or, better, to “serve and guard” it. Both terms describe priestly ministry. Priests are guardians of holy places and household servants of the Great King of Israel, and Adam is the first of the line.

Yahweh’s “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a helper suitable for him” should be understood in this context. What Adam needs is not a friend, but a liturgical partner—a hearer and speaker to converse about the word of Yahweh, a singer to harmonize his praise, a respondent to his versicles, a table companion to break bread with him in the presence of God. Once Yahweh forms Eve, Adam is to guard and serve her too. He speaks Yahweh’s word to her and shares fruit from the tree of life. Paul says elsewhere that the woman is the glory of the man, and, in guarding Eve, Adam guards a bright radiance of glory.

These images of worship are timeless.  There are Old Testament and New Testament links in the speaking of God’s Word, in singing God’s praise, in antiphonal (call-and-response) worship, in breaking bread, and feasting together.  It’s because there’s an underlying pattern: no matter the century, no matter the covenant in force at the time, all worship on earth is patterned on the worship of God in heaven.  I’ve written about that in more detail a couple years ago.

Let’s go back to the Garden image for a moment.  Oftentimes, when we look at the Garden of Eden, or Paradise, we think that’s the home of mankind; that’s where man and woman are (or at least were) supposed to live.  That was our home, and we got kicked out of it because of our sin.  Along with that is the idea that the Temple in Jerusalem, which was built with lots of garden imagery, was supposed to point us back to the garden, and bring us back to that original paradise in some way.

But the reality is the reverse.  The garden was not our home, it was God’s home.  It was the original Temple!  The Temple in Jerusalem was built to point back to that garden, not because the garden was our home where we belonged; but because it was God’s home where God belonged.  We got kicked out because we did not obey the liturgy of the garden.  We did not fulfill the correct role as God’s priests in God’s house.  So the Temple is a replacement for the Garden of Eden, and eventually thus also the Church is the new Temple – the dwelling place of God where we are re-gathered to worship Him according to the new liturgy, which is headed and perfected by Christ, our Great High Priest.

The purpose of human existence is to enjoy and glorify God – to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  From the beginning, this worship has taken on liturgical patterns: we gather in God’s temple, we’re led by priests, and we share a common pattern of words and songs and feasting both to celebrate God and to celebrate with God.  Simply put, if the purpose of life is to worship God, then liturgy is central to the Christian life.  Leithart takes this fact for granted at the end of his article:

If the sexes are interchangeable at the center of life, in the liturgy, why aren’t they interchangeable everywhere?

His article is focusing on gender issues in the Church, which are the besides the point I’m reflecting on right now.  I just want to point out here that he can and does describe liturgy as the “center of life.”  To most Protestants today, that doesn’t make much sense, because the use of the images of Temple, Priesthood, and Liturgy have somehow been disconnected in popular teaching over the past few centuries.  Even many people in the Catholic traditions have lost this connection, and are simply carried on by “tradition,” not realizing how deeply biblical it is to have a house of worship, a priesthood, and a liturgy.

I feel it is one of the focuses of my life’s ministry to help people reclaim both a knowledge and a love for this paradigm of Temple/Priesthood/Liturgy, so that their Christian lives can be enriched and nourished more deeply from the riches of the Church, given by the Holy Spirit.  Or, to be more hip about it by using alliteration: place/people/practice.

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The Difference between Fellowship and Communion

Something that took me a while to sort out is the difference between the words “fellowship” and “communion.”  A lot of Christians today seem to use them almost interchangeably, and they both seem to be quite popular at the moment in mission statements, vision statements, slogans, and the like.  But what do they actually mean?

Fellowship is more basic of a concept.  It refers to the relationship between a group of people who have something in common, like a community or fraternity or religion or friendship.  Fellowship in the Church is about Christians spending time together.  One of those absolutely terrible catch-phrases out there right now is “do life together.”  That’s basically fellowship.  Christians spend time with other Christians doing a mix of ordinary life things like bowling and watching movies as well as Christian-y things like going to bible studies or small groups together.  Fellowship is very important in the life of the church (locally and regionally), though it’s not really an end goal in itself.

Communion is more complex.  Much deeper than fellowship, communion is about being in union together (hence com-union).  As far as English words are concerned, communion does sound like it could probably mean the same thing as fellowship.  But unlike fellowship, communion is a word from the Bible, and thus we find its meaning there, rather than in a dictionary.  (The Greek word is κοινωνία.)  One of the places we find this word is in 1 Corinthians 10:16 where the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper are described as a “communion” in the body and blood of Christ.  This word gets translated differently according to which Bible you pick up.  Some say communion, others participation, and others sharing.  I find “participation” to be the most helpful description of what communion is.

Perhaps it would help to draw some lines of contrast between fellowship and communion.  Fellowship is:

  • time and activity spent together doing similar things;
  • life is shared alongside one another.

Communion, however, is:

  • time and activity spent together doing the same things;
  • life is shared and exchanged with one another.

For example, a group of guys get together for discipleship, Bible study, and accountability.  They form a strong bond over time and some really great ministry takes place there.  This is an example of excellent fellowship, and the fruit of it is evident in each of their lives.  At the end of the day, though, their lives are distinctly different from one another.

A good example of communion would be marriage.  The Bible describes the union of husband and wife as two “becoming one flesh.”  Their lives aren’t just similar or parallel, they’re shared and exchanged.  And the fruit of a marriage is more than just spiritual growth in the husband and wife – their communion is so profound that it actually produces tangible fruit: children!  Bone of their bones, flesh of their flesh, children are products of the co-mingling of man and woman.

What’s really amazing about the Christian Gospel is that God invites us to share communion with him!  Sometimes people settle for fellowship with God like he’s some sort of life coach or bff to hang out with.  God wants more than that.  He doesn’t want to “do life” with us, he wants to give life to us!  This is one of the things about the Sacrament of Holy Communion that I most love – God is sharing his infinite life with us so that we can live forever with him into eternity.

As I said earlier, though, part of the definition of communion is “participation.”  We participate in the life of God when we receive him as sacramental food.  And we participate in God in other ways too.  When a man and woman come together and share communion with one another, the product of children (assuming all is well) comes forth.  This marital union creates life.  Wait, isn’t God the Creator?  Which is it – does God create new life when man and woman come together, or does the combining of man’s sperm and the woman’s egg create new life?  Why, it’s both!  The marital union is a communion (or participation) in the creative life-giving power of God!

So when the young children ask that awkward question for the first time, “what is sex?” we should try to remember the beauty of the biblical answer:  When a man and a woman fall in love with one another, they get married, and through sex they join in with God’s work of Creation to make new life.  Sex, by God’s miraculous design, is our act of pro-creation, communion and participation in God’s life-giving power!

MBandW-small

A couple has become a family!

Tuesday, March 3rd, my dear and brave wife bore our first child: William Edward Brench.  I couldn’t be more proud as husband or a father, and this past (nearly) week I have been in absolute awe of this participation in God’s creative power that he has given to us as human beings.  I pray that I will always treasure this communion with God through the marital union, and that we as Christians might re-discover our voice to proclaim this so that the awesome beauty and dignity of sex might be restored in this all-too broken and twisted world.

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The Priest is a Warrior

There’s one more image from St. John’s Chrysostom’s book On the Priesthood that I want to share and comment upon, because like the previous one, it’s one that resonates with me in a quiet but profound way: the priest as a warrior (or more specifically, a commander).

Do not … suppose that because we are … unable to see anything of the invisible world, that what has been said is overstated. For you would see a far greater and more formidable conflict than this, couldest thou ever behold, with these eyes of yours, the devil’s most gloomy battle array, and his frantic onset. For there is no brass or iron there. No horses, or chariots or wheels, no fire and darts. These are visible things. But there are other much more fearful engines than these. One does not need against these enemies breastplate or shield, sword and spear, yet the sight only of this accursed array is enough to paralyze the soul, unless it happen to be very noble, and to enjoy in a high degree as a protection to its own courage the providential care of God. And if it were possible by putting off this body, or still keeping it, to see clearly and fearlessly with the naked eye the whole of his battle array, and his warfare against us, you would see no torrents of blood, nor dead bodies, but so many fallen souls, and such disastrous wounds that the whole of that description of warfare which I just now detailed to you you would think to be mere child’s sport and pastime rather than war: so many are there smitten every day, and the wounds in the two cases do not bring about the same death, but as great as is the difference between the soul from the body, so great is the difference between that death and this.

We start out with a descriptive reminder of the concept of spiritual warfare.  St. Paul gave a useful introduction to it, too, in Ephesians 6 when he describes the “whole armor of God.”  Here, though, Chrysostom is focusing us on the horrible reality of Satan’s armies. He started us off with a picture of earthly war where people’s physical lives are destroyed, and uses it to remind us that in spiritual warfare, spiritual lives are destroyed – and that is a far worse thing than physical death!

But if any one choose out the fiercest and most savage of beasts, and is minded to set their fury against his, he will find that they were meek and quiet in comparison, such rage does he breathe forth when he attacks our souls; and the period of the warfare indeed in the former case is brief, and in this brief space there are respites; for the approach of the night and the fatigue of slaughter, meal-times also, and many other things, afford a respite to the soldier, so that he can doff his armor and breathe a little, and refresh himself with food and drink, and in many other ways recover his former strength. But in the case of the evil one it is not possible ever to lay aside one’s armor, it is not possible even to take sleep, for one who would remain always unscathed. For one of two things must be: either to fall and perish unarmed, or to stand equipped and ever watchful. For he ever stands with his own battle array, watching for our indolence, and laboring more zealously for our destruction, than we for our salvation.

Chrysostom notes here that earthly battles stop from time to time – even if the war is still on, soldiers aren’t fighting 24/7.  They can take breaks, be withdrawn from the front, and so forth.  In spiritual warfare, however, there is no real break; there is always temptation to sin, there is always evil around us seeking to drag us down.  And, as evidenced by the fact that we all sin, Satan is “laboring more zealously for our destruction, than we for our salvation.”

And that he is not seen by us, and suddenly assails us, which things are a source of countless evils to those who are not always on the watch, proves this kind of war to be harder than the other. Couldest thou wish us, then, in such a case to command the soldiers of Christ? Yea, this were to command them for the devil’s service, for whenever he who ought to marshal and order others is the most inexperienced and feeble of all men, by betraying through this inexperience those who have been entrusted to his charge, he commands them in the devil’s interests rather than in Christ’s.

These comments need some back-story reminders: Chrysostom is explaining why he avoided being ordained, at first.  He didn’t think he was mature enough and ready for the great ministry.  What he’s saying in this last quote here is that, as a priest, he would make a bad commander of the soldiers of Christ.  His inexperience would cause him to fight “in the devil’s interests rather than in Christ’s.”

Sin is catchy.  Demons have convincing arguments.  It’s very easy to take their side even though we profess to stand with Christ.  All Christians are called to make that stand and must fight these spiritual battles.  Priests and pastors are supposed to be organizers, leaders, mobilizers of their respective congregations.  Each local church is like a company or platoon of soldiers, led by their ministers ordained for the job.  This is why personal holiness and good character are so strongly emphasized when the Bible describes qualifications for ministry.  A holy life is evidence of a good Christian soldier, after all, and it’s vitally important to have a commander who knows how to fight!

I want to close with an example of how a priest wields the authority of a commander in God’s army.  The ministry of pronouncing to God’s people, being penitent, the pardon and absolution of sins fits really well into this paradigm.  The Priest forgiving sins is a subject that this series has already touched upon twice, so I won’t repeat what has been said there. When a soldier goes AWOL or disobeys orders, he’s in a lot of trouble.  He could be reprimanded, punished, court-martialed, or even executed, depending on the severity of his crime.  In the Church, there is a powerful discipline known as excommunication, wherein an unrepentant sinning Christian is excluded from the life of the Church until he or she does repent.  But that is very rare, and a priest can only recommend this sentence to a Bishop to enact.  Instead, the normal ministry of a Priest is to pardon (or absolve) sins in the name of Christ.  This is an act of forgiveness, of assurance, and of reinstatement into Christ’s army.  The Priest effectually says “Yes, you have sinned and betrayed Christ and your brethren, but you are forgiven, and we welcome you back and want to strengthen you to continue this fight and be victorious.”

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A Priest’s Love for the Church

One of the most significant factors that kept me firmly on the road to the Priesthood (both in my own resolve, and in my public discernment process) was a deep-seated love for the Church.  I didn’t know how to express it in words for a while – probably not even until after I became a Deacon.  I’d have to check my journal.

Towards the end of St. John Chrysostom’s short book, On the Priesthood, he gives a couple analogies to describe the ordained priesthood and the Church.  As I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, Chrysostom is explaining why he initially avoided ordination.  He wrote these final analogies to show how great the Church and the ministry are, compared to his great unworthiness.  Granted, he eventually went on to become not just a priest but also a bishop and one of the greatest Christian teachers of all time.  But early in his life, he took the cautious steps of humility to make sure he didn’t jump into ordained ministry too quickly.  This particular analogy resonated with me quite deeply.

Let us suppose that the daughter of the King of all the earth under the sun is the betrothed of a certain man, and that this damsel has matchless beauty, transcending that of human nature, and that in this respect she outstrips by a long distance the whole race of women; also that she has virtues of the soul, so great as to distance by a long way the whole generation of men that have been, or that shall be; and that the grace of her manners transcends all standards of art, and that the loveliness of her person is eclipsed by the beauty of her countenance; and that her betrothed, not only for the sake of these things, is enamored of the maiden, but apart from these things has an affection for her, and by his ardor throws into the shade the most passionate of lovers that ever were. Then let us suppose, while he is burning with love, he hears from some quarter that some mean, abject man, low born, and crippled in body, in fact a thoroughly bad fellow, was about to wed this wondrous, well-beloved maiden. Have we then presented to you some small portion of our grief? And is it enough to stay my illustration at this point? So far as my despondency is concerned, I think it is enough; for this was the only purpose for which I introduced the comparison, but that I may show you the measure of my fear, and my terror, let me proceed to another description.

In this analogy (or parable, really), the woman is the Church, her betrothed is someone preparing for ministry, and the “mean, abject man” who’s about to marry her instead is someone unworthily preparing for ministry.  Chrysostom was terrified that he would prove to be the second man, rather than the first.  He saw the Church as a beautiful bride to be cherished, and he saw the priesthood as a sort of marriage to that bride: a priest therefore ought to be someone unusually virtuous, worthy of that spotless bride.

An objection to this image might be that Jesus is the husband and the Church is his bride. How can anyone,  priest or otherwise, be the husband when we’re all supposed to be the bride?  The answer to that objection is that, first of all, we Christians are baptized into Christ.  The Church is, in the Bible, called the Body of Christ.  In other words, the Bride is the Body of Christ.  How can that be possible?  Basic marriage theology gives us the answer: the two become on flesh.  The distinction between Christ and Church, therefore, is not necessarily as simple as we might sometimes assume.

For example, how do we distinguish between the ministry of Christ and the ministry of the Church?  Ministry is a co-mingling of the activity of God and mankind; it’s impossible to say “I did it,” and it’s not quite appropriate to say “only God did it.”  Even when we talk about the ministry of evangelism, and ‘leading people to Christ,’ a mature Christian will recognize that “God did it,” but at the same recognize that “God worked through me” for some part of that process.  All of ministry takes place in this dynamic of divine power and human cooperation (or instrumentality, if you like).

The priesthood, and pastoral ministry in general, is an area of ministry whose specific target is Christians.  When someone acts as a pastor (shepherd), they are ministering to part of the Church; there’s a Christ-like role being taken on, in imitation of the Good Shepherd himself.  Or, to switch from pastoral imagery to spousal imagery, a priest is a minister to the Bride as if he were her husband.  Yes, priests are part of the Bride, but the ministry of ordained priesthood functions like a husband to the bride, just as how shepherds are part of the flock, yet the ministry of shepherding functions like a shepherd to the flock.

Like Chrysostom, I tend to see the Church as a beautiful bride.  Therefore, as a priest, and a sort of mini-husband for the Church, I am called to strive towards the ministry of Jesus, the true and perfect Husband, who “gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).  Part of the ordained ministry is to participate in that work of Christ, facilitating sanctification and cleansing, presenting Christians to God through water and the word so that they’ll turn out holy and blameless at the end.  It’s a very beautiful ministry, when you keep your eyes on the final product. And as a priest grows deeper into Christ’s love, that burning love for the Church will only grow with time.

I sometimes like to say that if you’re going to a priest, or pastor, you have to love the Church.  Not just people, not just Christians, but the Church – the flock, Christ’s bride of “matchless beauty.”

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