Lest We Forget

As the famous poem by Lt. Col. John McCrae goes;

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The red poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for those who have fallen in war.

Of all our Patriotic American holidays, Memorial Day strikes me as the most sacred and Christian-like among them.  It has that balance between sober remembrance and joyful celebration.  It forces the stories of those who never returned home to come before our attention, even as we prepare for family cookouts at the beginning of summer.  This dynamic of solemnity and joy, fasting and feasting, is very much akin to how we celebrate our Christian holidays too: solemn or penitential preparation leading to joyful feasting and celebration.  Most recently, we moved through the quiet and prayerful Ascentiontide (the 10-day period following Christ’s ascension into heaven) and arrived at the great joyful feast of Pentecost.  This week (“Pentecosttide,” if you will) continues that celebration of the outpoured gift of the Holy Spirit, until we arrive at Trinity Sunday, which brings the Springtime sequence of special holidays and seasons to its close.

In the American Memorial Day we remember those who fought and died protecting this country, or protecting others across the world.  By doing so we don’t blindly assume that every war has been just; rather we remember the obedient devotion and service of these men and women who paid the greatest price one can pay, in the service of our country.  Regardless of how perfect our country might be at a given time (especially considering how corrupt the Roman Empire was when St. Paul wrote in Romans 13:6 that the Emperor was God’s minister for secular rule), our Christian mandate is to be good citizens and respect our leaders, and so it is a right and good and joyful thing to honor our fellow countrymen who laid down their lives for the sake our communities, local and national.

Very similarly, the Christian Church has had a tradition of remembering her own great servants and martyrs throughout history.  The mentality is much the same: heroes of our community (in this case, the Church) have given great service to Christ and His people, and we do well to remember them, their teaching, their examples, or whatever else they did, and to give thanks to God for them.  If you dig around through calendars old and new, you could find thousands of saints to fill the entire year, so there’s always some selection that has to be made to work out who is “more beneficial” to our spiritual growth for us to remember.  One such example, whose feast day is today, May 26th, is Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

This St. Augustine was born in Rome in the 500’s and sent to England in the year 597 to reconvert the British Isles to Christianity.  Although the Roman Empire had brought Christianity there only a few years after the Book of Acts leaves off, subsequent invasions had diminished the Christian population, and fresh evangelistic effort was needed.  St. Augustine was sent to lead a tiny mission; the local king granted him some land in the town of Canterbury to set up an abbey from which to base his work, and the rest is history.  He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his remembrance is one that links us not just to the post-reformation Anglican identity, but to the deep roots of Christian history.  Through the remembrance of individuals such as Augustine of Canterbury, we are drawn deeper into the realization that the Body of Christ is bigger than our local church, our diocese, our tradition, or even our world, but also the many centuries of Christ-followers preceding us.  We are all united in Christ.  Additionally, I am a member of a Fraternity of clergymen that has been formed in the Anglican Church in North America, named after St. Augustine of Canterbury, which is dedicated to fostering and teaching that historic (or catholic) root behind the Anglican tradition that enriches our life and worship with not just 500 years of Christianity (since the Reformation) but 1,500 years of Christianity and beyond.

So as American Memorial Day draws us closer to those service-men and -women, most of whom we never knew, reminding us that we are one family as Americans, so too do saints’ days like today remind us that we are one family as Christians.  And this reality is empowered by the Holy Spirit, whose gift we especially celebrate this Pentecost Week.

Posted in Devotional | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Holy Spirit and Baptism

This is my sermon for the Day of Pentecost, Sunday 24 May 2015, at Grace Anglican Church, preceding the Baptism of William Brench. “We believe in the Holy Spirit; the Lord, the Giver of Life.”

Who is the Holy Spirit?

We’ve made it to Pentecost, the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit! It is a day we’re prompted to revisit the question, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” The Nicene Creed gives us a precise answer. The Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. This means that the Holy Spirit is, first of all, God. Specifically, the Spirit is the power of God at work in creation, sent forth from God the Father, causing the Word of God to come to pass. When we worship God the Father and Jesus, we are also implicitly worshiping the Holy Spirit. And when we read the Bible, we are benefiting from the work of the Holy Spirit in ages past, who spoke through the many human authors of Scripture. The Creed is an important place to start; we get all these nice grandiose statements about the Holy Spirit that way. For, too often, we reduce the Holy Spirit just to his gifts & fruits, which are the results of his work in us. Or worse, sometimes people have reduced the ministry of the Holy Spirit to New-Agey inspirational garbage, as if the Spirit is some sort of mystical force that can be tapped into, channeled, and controlled. He is not about parlor tricks, he is God!

The Giver of Life

The aspect of the Holy Spirit that I’d like us to focus on today is his attribute as the “Giver of Life.” This is always the best starting point for understanding the Holy Spirit, in my estimation, because when we jump straight to the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.) or to the “gifts of Spirit” (be they supernatural or otherwise), we end up gravitating toward a self-centered understanding of the Holy Spirit. Rather than asking who he is, we are tempted to ask “who he is to me.” So let’s begin who he is as the Giver of Life. We see this image of God’s life-giving Spirit, or wind, or breath, all over the Bible. In Genesis 1 the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters, about to blow life into creation. After the great flood in Noah’s time, Genesis 8 tells us that God “made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided,” thus restoring life to the world. In Job 33:4 we hear “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Psalm 104 praises God because “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” Several times in Romans 8, just before where today’s Epistle reading picked up, we see Paul referring to the Spirit of Life who has set us free in Christ from sin and death, so that to set our mind on the Spirit is life, that the Spirit is life because of righteousness, and that the Spirit who gave resurrection life to Jesus also gives new life to us. These are just a few examples of the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. And as we’ve already begun to hear from Romans 8, the Holy Spirit is not just in the business of making the Old Creation, but also in making the New Creation.

The Work of the New Creation

Although the Holy Spirit is the chief worker in both cases, the Old Creation is different from the New. In the beginning, God created ex nihilo, he made the universe from nothing. First, nothing but God existed; then, something else existed. That was the work of the Old Creation. The New Creation, however, is worked out quite differently. Rather than starting from scratch, God is transforming the Old into the New. This is attested to throughout the Bible. Our epistle reading from Romans 8 describes this transformation from Old into New: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” There, not only are people being born again into Christ, but the entire universe is going through childbirth. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” When Christ died and rose again, he was not only bringing about the salvation of those who turn to him in faith, but the whole of creation with them! After all, God’s redeemed people will need a redeemed world in which to live! We see this in the book of Revelation as well: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”” This work of “making all things new” is precisely what the Holy Spirit is doing.

Discerning the New Creation

Now the question that probably comes to mind is “What does this look like?” If we say that the work of New Creation began with Christ’s victory on the cross, and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, how do we see this renewal of creation at work? We’re used to talking about believers being “born again” or “born from above,” but how does this apply to the rest of creation? Well, just as the New Creation of a person’s spiritual birth is only discernible spiritually, so is the New Creation of other things only discernible spiritually. It might sound like a cop-out, saying that the New Creation is basically invisible, but we’ve got to remember that spiritual realities are just as real as physical realities. After all, God himself is invisible, yet we don’t consider him any less real than ourselves! And in the few special times that God did make himself visible to people, it was always in the form of a physical reality so that they could relate to him somehow. Discerning the New Creation is exactly the same: we look through a physical reality to behold a spiritual reality. There are many different examples of how this looks, but I’ll just give three big examples for today. First, there’s the Bible. Take a look at it. It’s a book. It looks like a book, smells like a book. When I tap on it, it sounds like a book. When you open it up, it’s got ink on a page, just like any other book. The Bible is a book, plain and simple. But wait, you say; the Bible isn’t just a book, it’s the Word of God! How can you tell? There is no way of knowing, according to my human senses, that there is anything special about this book. Only when we engage with this book spiritually can we find it to be God’s Word. It’s an inward spiritual reality hidden behind its outward physical reality. A word that the Church has long used to describe this phenomenon is “sacramental.” Through an outward physical thing, we find an inward spiritual thing at work. Second example: Holy Communion. It’s bread and wine, plain and simple. You can smell it, feel it, taste it; it’s bread and wine. But at the same time, when Jesus spoke of it, he said, “This is my body.” And when St. Paul wrote of it, he said, “the bread that we break is the communion of the Body of Christ.” We see an outward physical sign that points us to an inward spiritual reality beyond it. When we approach the Altar, it isn’t ordinary physical bread we seek, but the Bread of Life which is Christ himself. Thus we partake of spiritual food to sustain our spiritual life. Third example, is the water of Baptism. As St. Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” As far as we can see, at a baptism, a person gets wet. But we look through that physical reality, through that water, to discern the spiritual reality: the power and presence of the Holy Spirit washing away a person’s sin. Just as ink on a page in the Bible communicates God’s Word, or as the bread and wine of Holy Communion communicate Christ’s Body and Blood, so too do the waters of baptism communicate the washing work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s expand on this topic of Baptism, since that is what we are preparing to do, in just a few minutes. In the Bible there are two distinct types of baptism described: one from St. John the Baptist, and one from his cousin, our Lord, Jesus.

John’s Baptism of Repentance

St. Luke (in chapter 3 of his Gospel book) gives us the most detail about John’s preaching and ministry. There, we find that John was sent by God to administer a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This meant that he would preach the Gospel – the impending arrival of Christ – and call people to repent from their sins. They were then to be baptized as a sign of their repentance, and thus also know that they’ve receive God’s forgiveness. It was, in short, a ministry of preparation, helping people to recognize Jesus when he arrived so that they’d listen to him and follow him as Christ and Lord. This is important to recognize as a ministry of preparation, because John himself attested that “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). In short, his baptism of repentance was not going to be enough; when Jesus arrives, he’ll give you what you really need.

Christ’s Baptism of the Holy Spirit

What is it that Jesus added to John’s baptism of repentance? The Holy Spirit! As the Church grew, the Apostles encountered people who’d been baptized by John, but had never heard of the Holy Spirit. You can find one of these stories in Acts 19. Their response was to teach them the Gospel of Christ “more accurately,” and then baptize them with Jesus’ baptism: in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament makes the link between Baptism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit clear in several places. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” In Titus 3, Paul reminds us that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Christian Baptism, therefore, is the work of the Holy Spirit to give us new life in Christ!

Abiding in the New Baptismal Life

This brings us to an important and final point: after baptism, it is up to us to “abide in Christ.” This is a fancy way of saying that we’ve got to stick with it. New birth into a new life is just the beginning. When you look at a newborn and say “he’s perfect!” you don’t mean that they ought to remain exactly as they are. They do still need to grow up and live the life they’ve been given. So whether the one being baptized is an infant, a child, a teen, or an adult, we do not claim that they have reached perfect faith, fully attained salvation, or are now exactly as they ought to be. It is always up to them to abide in Christ, feed on Him in their hearts by faith, and read His holy Word. Can anyone do these things on their own strength? Absolutely not! Paul explicitly denies this: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:3)  The point is, again, that Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit are only the beginning of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit then ministers to us as we grow and mature in Christ. Additionally, Paul is writing here in the plural, addressing a group of people. Not only do we need the Holy Spirit within us individually to help us grow, but we need the community of believers – the local Church – to be a place where the Spirit can do his work. Thus, when we perform a baptism, the whole congregation pledges to help their new brethren to grow. So as we go through this baptismal liturgy now, I want you to pray these prayers with me in your hearts. And when you speak, speak with conviction. We do not make promises before God flippantly; we stand witness to the Lord, the Giver of Life, at work!

Posted in Devotional, Theological | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Now What?

This will be my Ascension Sunday sermon at Grace Anglican Church.

 Introducing the Ascension

Thursday this last week was Ascension Day, when Jesus was taken up, body and soul, into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. As the book of Acts tells us, Jesus presented himself alive to his disciples after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. Those forty days after Easter finished on Thursday. What happened that day, Luke goes on to describe in Acts 1:

Jesus ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The disciples were looking forward to the re-founding of the Kingdom of Israel, but Jesus corrected them, saying that they will not be given political power to set up an earthly kingdom, but that they would be given spiritual power to set up a heavenly kingdom. Rather than being princes, they would be witnesses. Rather than training an army, they would be training more disciples. Rather than sending military campaigns throughout the world, they would be sending missionaries. Make no mistake, they were commissioned to build God’s Kingdom. What turned out differently than they expected was that the population of that Kingdom is no longer Jews only, but all who believe in Christ; the territory of the Kingdom is no longer limited to the ancient boundaries of Israel and Judea; the enemies of the Kingdom are no longer human beings, but spiritual beings.

This is still the case today. To be worshiper of God you don’t have to be Jewish or become Jewish; the Kingdom of God is bigger than what we commonly call “the Holy Land”; our enemies are not flesh and blood, but the spiritual rulers and authorities and powers behind the visible things of this world. This means even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, is not our enemy; he was a mere human, like us, who got caught up too deeply in the machinations of the Evil One. He is still responsible for actions, as are we all. We each have to choose our allegiance: do we pay fealty to the Kingdom of God and bow before the throne where Christ is seated, or do we obey the alluring powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil?

 Introducing Ascensiontide

Perhaps a different metaphor is in order here. We speak of Kingdoms a lot, in the Church, and while that is a biblical and accurate way to speak of Christ and his Gospel, sometimes it helps to bring it a little closer to our own experience. So I’d like to make an analogy for you. Think of the life and work of Jesus in terms of schooling. Even in the letter to the Hebrews, this analogy is hinted at: “Although Jesus was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” So think of Jesus’ death on the Cross as the final exam. It, above all other signs and teachings, was the ultimate test of if Jesus really was who he claimed to be. The resurrection, three days later, was like getting the exam results back: he passed with flying colors! He then had forty days to spend time with his disciples until graduation day, when he ascended into heaven. His earthly ministry was finished, and his heavenly ministry had begun.

But from the perspective of his disciples, still on earth, that leaves this strange period of time between Ascension Day and Pentecost Day. Jesus had told them to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So there they were in Jerusalem, waiting, praying, and wondering what exactly would happen. They had been promised the power of the Holy Spirit, and probably had a sense of what that might be like, having participated in the Spirit-filled ministry of Christ for the past three years or so. But it was still an unknown future before them. It’s like that time between graduation and starting the new job, or getting married, or whatever comes next.

In the Church today, we re-live that ten-day period between the Ascension and Pentecost with a time of special prayer. We began our worship service this morning with the Great Litany for that very reason; it’s a special time of more focused and intentional prayer. For the most part, though, we’re looking ahead to Pentecost and praying for the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon us. Yes, we look back to the Church’s first Pentecost described in Acts 2, and yes we celebrate the fact that the Holy Spirit has been given to all who have believed and been baptized, yet we continue to pray for growth and strengthening of the Spirit’s work within us and among us. The Kingdom of God is still being built, and we are his laborers. Celebrating the Day of Pentecost is kind of like renewing our employment contract: we pledge our loyalty to God, and God pledges his gifts of grace to us. And, as with every holiday like this, echoes of these pledges are made in every corporate worship service, be it weekly or daily.

 Preparing for Pentecost

So we have one more week until Pentecost. On that day we will celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit not only in the past, but the present as well. We’ll be baptizing William here next week, bringing another precious soul into God’s Kingdom. We will pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence in his life, and as we commit him to Christ, we recommit ourselves to Christ as well. In the meantime, as we prepare for that day, we ought to be praying earnestly for the work of God’s Spirit in our lives and in our community. To help us with that, I want to point out some Scripture readings that the past few weeks have brought to our attention.

Half-way through the Easter season, the Gospel readings at our Sunday Communion services have been from the “upper room discourse” in the Gospel of John. There, in chapters 15 & 16, Jesus tells us about the ministry of the Holy Spirit whom he was promising to his people.

On April 19th we heard about how the Holy Spirit would transform our sorrow into joy. This was true not only in the fact that the disciples got to see Jesus resurrected from the dead, but also as a feature of the ministry of the Spirit: revealing Christ to us as a source of joy, even when our lives might otherwise be grievously upsetting.

On April 26th we heard Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to be a Helper, or an Advocate. In those capacities, the Spirit convicts the world about Christ, leads us into all truth (that is, the way of Christ), and reveals the true nature of divinity: that the Father is God, Christ the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Thus the Holy Spirit both provides and enables the entirety of our faith and religion.

Last week we heard Jesus’ statement that he will be with the Father, meaning we can pray to the Father in the name of Jesus and be assured that he will hear us. This doesn’t mean Jesus is our magical good luck charm, but that when we enter into true and authentic prayer, Jesus is right there with us. He told us that so that we might have peace, knowing that he has overcome the world. So now the only thing that can ever come between you and God is your own back.

And finally today we heard from the Gospel of John that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit to be a witness of Christ, to make us witness for Christ, and to keep us with Christ through times of trial. Rather than falling away, turning our backs on God when times get tough, the Holy Spirit is with us to encourage us with the truth of Christ and strengthen us with the Gospel.

 a Prayer Assignment

So as you prepare for the Day of Pentecost, next week, consider these themes in prayer. Does God intend to refresh your joy in the midst of sorrows? Does God intend to awaken deeper faith within you, or increase your religious devotions in word and deed? Is God calling you to turn around, and look at him, and finally listen to him rather than to the lies of this world? Is there encouragement and spiritual strength that you lack, which the Holy Spirit can give or replenish? Take these questions up with God this week. Read John chapters 14 through 17 on your own to revisit all these rich teachings and promises about the Holy Spirit, straight from the Lord Himself. And as you are drawn deeper into the identity and ministry that God has for you, remember the words of St. Peter: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Posted in Devotional, Theological | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Which Lives Matter?

For all the complaints I’ve heard lately about how badly our public schools are overrun with the “liberal agenda,” there is something I think it really did right in my experience: presenting a healthy view of racial equality.  For the vast majority of my childhood, whenever I heard of this thing called “racism” it was always in the past tense.  Not until High School did I begin to become aware that race relations were still very poor in some places.  And that’s when I began to lose my innocence.  I was raised relatively color blind, so to speak, but as I became aware that others had issues, I began to question whether or not a given situation or location would bring it up.

I’m not saying that I developed a fear of black of people as a result of growing up.  I’m saying, rather, that as a kid it didn’t occur to me that the various ‘races’ in this country didn’t all get along.  And once I started traveling outside of New England (especially solo a couple times early in college), that’s when my self-assumed openness was put to the test.  The most noticeable experience of racial tensions in my life was in Philadelphia.  Blacks and whites were in equal numbers on the public trains.  They weren’t segregated into sections, but there was little interaction between them, and I just felt this air of nervousness.  Were there people there who hated or distrusted each other?  Might I somehow offend someone in my naivete?

Neither then, nor since, have I personally witnessed direct racial conflict.  Even now, I live in a relatively poor neighborhood, and the demographics are mixed: white, black, hispanic.  On one hand, the saying “birds of a feather flock together,” and that’s fine.  Yet, I have seen white kids playing basketball at the predominantly black-kid-used playground nearby.  I’ve seen hispanics and whites walking down the street together after school.  So it seems that racial relations are healthier here than in cities further South.

Either way, the Church has to think about these issues.  One of the major themes of the Gospel is reconciliation.  Liberal Christianity takes the reconciliation theme and jumps straight to our world’s situations of class and race where recent events have proven powerful divisions are still at play in our society at large.  This is a noble and important task of social justice that needs to be undertaken, no doubt.  But Christians are supposed first to seek to understand the Bible according to its own framework, before applying its teachings to our own day.  Reconciliation appears 13 times in the New Testament (in the ESV translation), used accordingly:

  • Reconciliation between believers (Matt. 5:24, Acts 7:26)
  • Reconciliation with God (Romans 5:10-11(3x), 11:15, 2 Cor. 5:18-20(5x), Eph. 2:16, Col. 1:20, 1:22)
  • Reconciliation between estranged spouses (1 Cor. 7:11)

A few of these also include strong elements of Gentile-Jewish reconciliation in Christ.  But that’s just the catch that the more liberal churches all-too-often miss: the ministry of reconciliation that we bear, as Christians, is based in unity in Christ.

This is critically important for us to realize.  For how can two completely different people with two completely different backgrounds ever be reconciled?  What they need is common ground, a bridge if you will.  All nationalities and races are welcome (and indeed called) to be reconciled in Christ, that is, in the Church.  As we turn to Jesus and worship the Triune God, we grow in unity.  When we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we receive new identities as Christians which override our racial and national identities.  We don’t become “color blind,” as I imaged as a young child, but we ought to come to place where race doesn’t matter in our judgments and evaluations of others.  For it is not their race that makes people poor or rich, happy or discontent, it is their economic and social situation.

And, try as we might, we will probably never be able to fix all these problems.  Jesus himself observed “the poor you will always have with you.”  He didn’t say that to discourage us from caring for the poor though, but to point out that the work of compassion will always continue.  So rather than focusing solely on “making the world a better place” and “making racism history” and so forth, we also minister the Gospel to people, pointing the way to the ultimate reconciliation – reconciliation with God.  When we know that perfect love from our creator, we become able to share that with others.  In short, reconciliation with God precedes true reconciliation between people.

Now, I might be tempted to conclude this blog post with the revised slogan “all lives matter.”  That has been my reaction a number of times over the past few months to the various “black lives matter” campaigns, hashtags, and so forth.  But I recently read someone pointing out that nobody runs into a Cancer Center and tells the staff “There are other diseases out there too!”  Of course there are other diseases that need to be cured; their focus happens to be cancer.  Similarly, yes, all lives matter, but by pointing out specifically that black lives matter, we focus on the particular racial issues that our society is experiencing.  Along those lines, there are two other challenging issues that we should probably consider: “poor lives matter” and “pre-natal lives matter.”

At the end of the day, though, slogans are just slogans.  They can be used to inspire good and godly work, and they can be used to justify wickedness.  Recent events, especially in Baltimore, suggest that the (relatively) small group of rioters have hijacked the “black lives matter” slogan from the (substantially) larger group of peaceful protestors in that city.  This is both disappointing and unsurprising; our media almost always highlights bad news at the expense of good news.  (I daresay it’s far more entertaining to watch rioters on TV than to watch peaceful protestors holding up signs.)  So again, a Christian response ought to be sober and vigilant, attentive to truth and compassionate to others’ needs.  All lives matter.  But until we break that down into specific real-life examples, we’re being just as naive as I was when I was a child.

Posted in Devotional | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Marx was wrong about Christianity

The 19th-century German philosopher, Karl Marx, had a famous quote about religion: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”  (Wikipedia offers some context for this quote.)

But, as I’ve been reading a book by Gary Thomas called Sacred Marriage, he counters Marx’s assertion head-on.

Marx called religion “an opiate” for the people.  Yet Marx had it exactly backwards, at least as far as his words pertain to Christianity.  Opium deadens the senses; Christianity makes them come alive.

Marx was convinced that religion gave people “false hope” which enabled them stoically to endure suffering in this life in order to enjoy a better afterlife made up by the ruling class to keep them in line.  While the political aspect of this is not addressed by Gary Thomas, the emotional opiate is strongly rejected.  Thomas continues:

Our faith can infuse a deadened or crippled marriage with meaning, purpose, and (in what we so graciously receive from God) fulfillment.  Christianity doesn’t leave us in an apathetic supor – it raises us and our relationships from the dead!  It pours zest and strength and purpose into an otherwise wasted life.

Marx made a mistake that many people continue to make about Christianity to this day.  They unfortunately perceive Christianity to be a religion that squashes emotion and pleasure, downplaying happiness and exalting in suffering.  As with most misunderstandings, there are truths amidst these confusions.  The Gospel does indeed exalt suffering, and proclaim the way of salvation to be found through suffering.  But we do not proclaim masochism, despite the fact that some Saints did actively pursue suffering to draw near to God.  Rather, we proclaim a religion of ultimate bliss!  An entire book in the Bible is dedicated to the celebration of love, with unashamed marital imagery.  It simultaneously celebrates the love of husband and wife, and displays the unbridled passion that God has for us, his creation.

What’s more, the bliss of Christianity is not entirely relegated to a spiritual afterlife.  First of all, the afterlife we commonly call heaven is not purely spiritual, but physical.  We preach a physical bodily resurrection into a New Heaven and a New Earth.  The physical pleasures of eating, drinking, hugging, and whatever else, will continue into eternity.  Because of this, we can also find eternal meaning in all things good and beautiful in this life.  Knowing that God created things for our enjoyment, and knowing that the perfect unending love of God is the greatest joy of all, we are able to enjoy earthly pleasures as foretastes of the eternal pleasures in the life to come.

Suffering comes into the picture quite easily, according to this framework.  There are times in this life, inevitably, when we experience crappy situations.  Illness, death, persecution, mockery, relationship troubles, stumblings into sin – the list could go on.  But because we have our eyes fixed on the eternal bliss of the life to come, we can endure present sufferings with that hope in mind, even if present pleasures are denied us.

At the end of the day, Christianity is about marriage.  This picture here is a depiction of the End of the World, when God marries his creation – when Christ marries the Church.  A successful and healthy marriage takes a lot of preparation and work.  Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it isn’t.  That’s why Christians aren’t (supposed to be) too upset one way or another when life brings pleasure or suffering.  As St. Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:11b-12).

So, as Gary Thomas pointed out, Karl Marx got it wrong.  Christianity is not meant to be like opium to get us through a painful life.  Rather, ours is a religion that invigorates us, or, more literally, fills us with new life which not only prepares for eternity through suffering, but anticipates eternity through joy.

Posted in Devotional, Theological | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Some Slightly-Less-Famous Apostles

Today, May 1st, is the Major Feast Day in honor of Saints Philip and James, two of Jesus’ Apostles.  There were several guys named James in the New Testament; this James is not the son of Zebedee, brother of the Apostle John, nor [probably] is he James of Jerusalem brother of Jesus, author of the epistle James.  Today the Church commemorates a third, lesser-known James, along with Philip who only speaks a couple lines in the Bible (in John 1 and John 14).  How do we celebrate the lives and ministries of people we barely know?  Let’s look at some traditional Scriptures & prayers for this holiday.

At today’s the service of Holy Communion, the Gospel reading for this holiday is John 14:1-14.  There we find Philip asking Jesus, “show us the Father,” opening the door for Jesus to give us the profound teaching, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  This is one of the great statements from Jesus that declares his unity with God the Father, and thus his own full divinity, despite being a human being.  This also allows us to make more sense of the words Jesus had spoken just moments earlier: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Thus we have the Collect (the theme-prayer) for this day:

O Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life; that, following the steps of your holy Apostles, Saint Philip and Saint James, we may steadfastly walk in the way that leads to eternal life; through the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The theme of knowing God through Jesus Christ, as taught in John 14, is neatly collected up in this Collect.  Following Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” is echoed in Proverbs 4:10-18 and Psalm 25:1-9 and James 1:1-12, which are other readings traditionally associated with the celebration of this holiday.

Even in the Daily Office of Morning & Evening Prayer, though, a few other Scripture readings pop up that give us further insights into how the lives of Philip & James continue to speak to us today.  Isaiah 61, which contains prophetic words that Jesus applied to himself, describes the joyful ministry of proclaiming the Gospel, in which all followers of Christ share.  Zechariah 4 is a vision of rebuilding the Temple, proclaiming the grace of God to all who believe in him, and celebrating the anointing of those who serve him.  While Philip and James are certainly not the only two who served Christ and were anointed to be his Apostles, they certainly were among them.  Finally, John 1:43-51 is also traditionally read on this day, showing us the ministry of Philip in action, drawing others to follow Jesus.

May we, too, truly come to see and know that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, because he is God himself.  And may we, like Philip and James, become faithful witnesses, steadfastly walking in the way that leads to eternal life.

Posted in Devotional | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Intro to Infant Baptism

One of the most divisive theological debates among Protestants is Infant Baptism. Some traditions take this practice for granted, some are easygoing about it and don’t make a big deal one way or the other, while others are vehemently opposed to baptizing infants. The purposes of this article are to set out seven summary points to help explain to someone unfamiliar with Infant Baptism the purpose behind the practice, attempt to clear up some common misunderstandings, and build some bridges across these “waters that divide.”

Historical Theology

Most church traditions today who insist on Credo-Baptism (requiring mature belief before baptism) typically do not have much emphasis on Church History. This can be either passive (lacking an emphasis on the value of history in Christian education), or active (denying the value of history in Christian education). Either way, the result is the same: there is a disconnect between practitioners of Credo-Baptism and the bulk of the history of Christianity.

The first Credo-Baptists were part of a movement called Anabaptists, a term meaning “people who get baptized again.” They rejected the validity of infant baptism, and therefore would “re-baptize” such persons as adults, once confessing faith in Christ. Over time, the term “Anabaptist” became a term for particular movement, more often known for being pacifists, and a new family of churches called Baptists emerged. Baptists practiced Credo-Baptism, but were otherwise more like mainstream Protestants, and still a very small minority. In the mid-1800’s Revivalism became a powerful movement in the USA, and from this tradition Baptists and their non-denominational counterparts eventually birthed the Fundamentalist movement and today’s Evangelical movement.  Through those forces of history, Credo-Baptism rapidly gained popularity, to the point where it is a view numerically comparable with Pedobaptism (baptizing young children).

Despite its current popularity in the United States, however, Credo-Baptists still have to contend with the fact that their view simply did not exist before the 1500’s. Those who study Christian history usually find they have to soften their stance against Pedobaptism, or deal with history with a high degree of suspicion, asserting that the true faith must have been persecuted by the Church for many centuries. A position which, I would argue, does not meet up to Jesus’ promise that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18).

Covenantal Theology

Many proponents of Credo-Baptism often think of Infant Baptism as something that Roman Catholics do, and are baffled at how fellow Protestants could do such a thing. One of the main paradigms for Reformed Christians for understanding Baptism is the context of the New Covenant. Put briefly, the Bible describes two main covenants: one given through Moses to Israel and one given through Jesus to the Church. The Old Covenant finds its fulfillment in the New, so it and its observances no longer apply to us, though there does remain a valuable set of parallels between the Old and New Covenants. After all, both were given by the same God to form a people of his own!

In the Old Covenant, individuals were initiated into the people of God by being born into it. The outward physical sign of this inward spiritual reality was circumcision (for boys only). In the New Covenant, circumcision has been replaced by Baptism. One of the best places in the New Testament for explaining this is Colossians 2:8-14.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.  For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

What we find here is that Paul describes baptism as the “circumcision made without hands.”  What the Old Covenant circumcision portrayed, New Covenant Baptism also portrays and communicates.  So, just as an 8-day-old boy would be circumcised to become a child of God under the Old Covenant, now a newborn boy (or girl!) is baptized to become a child of God under the New Covenant. It’s a matter of belonging to God’s family, or more technically, God’s “Covenant Community.” This, of course, assumes and requires that the parents themselves are faithful members of the Church already.

Sacramental Theology

What a few Protestant traditions (along with the Catholic tradition) add to the covenantal layer is also a sacramental layer.  Children are not only brought into God’s family through baptism, they’re also brought into the life of Christ. The earlier quote from Colossians 2 hints at this, but note also what Romans 6:3-6 says:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

As an Anglican, I would also quote Article 27 of the 39 Articles of Religion, one of our foundational theological documents:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.

What Romans 6 describes and Article 27 argues for is a powerful picture of Baptism being an “instrument” that God uses to crucify and bury us with Christ and to raise us from spiritual death to new life. It is an act where God’s “promises of the forgiveness of sin” is made visible, and to which we can look for assurance that “we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” at the End of the Age.

Suffer Not the Little Ones

The Anglican Article 27 also adds, “The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” Its lack of condescension to defend this position is a witness of how off-the-grid Credo-Baptism was back in 1571 when this was written. The Covenantal likeness of Baptism and Circumcision may be a sufficient explanation for some, but further Scriptures may be examined to understand the incorporation of young children and infants into the practice of Baptism.

In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” On its own this verse (and its context) speaks nothing of baptism directly. But what it does do is put forth a theology of infants belonging to God’s kingdom, which does impact how we view child “membership” in the Church.

In 1 Corinthians 7:13-14, Paul hinted at the same idea. “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” Children of even only one Christian parent are considered clean and holy. What does this mean? Because we believe in the doctrine of original sin, Paul can’t be saying that young children are sinless. Rather, he must be speaking of their status at some level. And where else can one gain a status of cleanness or holiness but from Christ?

So if young children can be considered clean, holy, and belonging to God’s Kingdom, then we have no reason to exclude them from membership in the Church. Now, most practitioners of Credo-Baptism have established the modern tradition of Infant Dedication as a means of recognizing the godly desire and intent to raise the child in the faith. But is a dedication really the same thing as the belonging and holiness that Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 describe?

Common Misunderstandings

As always happens when groups of Christians don’t talk to one another enough, misunderstandings have arisen between Credo-Baptists and Pedobaptists. One of the worst mistakes that Credo-Baptists make about Pedobaptists is to assume that Infant Baptism is believed to guarantee the child’s salvation. This simply is not true! Baptizing an infant no more guarantees salvation than baptizing an adult – either can be done before a person falls away and rejects Christ.

One of the more helpful passages of Scripture to describe the admittedly-confusing link between Baptism and salvation is 1 Peter 3:18-22.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

What Peter is doing here first is drawing an analogy between the Flood and Baptism. Noah and his family “were brought safely through the water” of the Flood to avoid the judgment of the wicked people around them.  According to Peter’s analogy, Baptism does the same thing: it saves us through the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not so much about “removal of dirt from the body,” as it is about “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” In Baptism, the work of God (not of man) is sought.

Fallacies of Choice

One final set of issues with how Credo-Baptism is often argued can be found in the logic and thought process involved in the position. “I want my child to choose Christ for himself or herself,” one often hears.  This is indeed a good and godly desire that all Christians should have for the next generations, as parents or otherwise!  The challenge enters, however, at this point: to what extent do we help our children make that choice?  After all, children don’t get to pick their vaccinations, or if they have to go to school.  Christian parents also usually bring their kids to church on Sundays – it’s not as though the kids get left at home until they choose to come too!

Certainly there is a desire for every child to “own” the faith on their own.  But at the same time, if a parent is convinced that something is true and important and life-giving, they will include their children in the celebration of that truth as long as they can.  And so the idea of the child having a choice ends up getting misrepresented.  There is a difference between our children choosing to become a Christian and choosing to continue being a Christian. Baptizing an infant is affirming that the child is being raised to be a Christian.  Disallowing infant baptism is tantamount to saying that the child is not a Christian until they’ve grown old enough to join the Church on their own volition.  But how many Credo-Baptists actually treat their children as non-christians until they confess faith for themselves?  Are non-baptized children disallowed from singing “Father Abraham had many sons… I am one of them, and so are you”?  Are they taught to pray the Sinner’s Prayer before learning the Lord’s Prayer?  I can’t think of any Credo-Baptist who treats their children as little heathens until they choose baptism – rather, they treat them like little Christians whom the Church hopes will grow up and choose to remain as Christians all the days of their lives!

Common Ground

Already, points of similarity have arisen between Credo-Baptists and Pedobaptists concerning how to treat, view, and raise their children.  Both sides desire for their children, as Peter said, to “grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).  Both sides value mature personal confessions of faith, as this statement from the Anglican Church in North America describes: “Anglicanism requires a public and personal profession of the Faith from every adult believer in Jesus Christ.  Confirmation by a bishop is its liturgical expression. Confirmation is evident in Scripture: the Apostles prayed for, and laid their hands on those who had already been baptized (Acts 8:14-17; 19:6).”  A form of Confirmation is practiced by most Pedobaptist traditions as a means of giving a place for grown-up children to make their own adult profession of faith, matching how Credo-Baptists treat baptism.

One criticism of the practice of Confirmation is that it is sometimes treated as a sort of mill: send the children to Sunday School or CCD, make them memorize the things they’re supposed to memorize, and at the age of (fill-in-the-blank), they all get confirmed, and it’s as if they’ve “graduated” from church. Such an institutionalized and formulaic approach is admittedly problematic. However, it should be noted that some Credo-Baptist churches fall into the same type of pattern with preparing people for Baptism: send them to membership classes, make sure they learn the right memory verses, have them write and deliver their “testimony,” and that’s that. Whether it’s Confirmation or Baptism, both traditions face the same challenge of helping their growing-up children to make their own authentic declaration of faith for themselves.

Finally, at the end of the day, both Credo-Baptists and Pedobaptists seek to proclaim the same Gospel of salvation through Christ alone.  We share the same faith in God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  We read the same Bible, declare the same Creeds, pray the same prayers, sing the same songs; we are both among God’s people.  While our commitment to the truth of God should be a strong and hearty pursuit, we cannot also lose sight of the fact that not all disagreements need separate us from our brethren in Christ.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , | 1 Comment