Sacrifice at the Heart of Worship

This is my homily for the first Sunday of Lent, 2019.

Step One: the Proposition itself

The idea that sacrifice is at the heart of worship is demonstrated all the way back in Genesis 2, in the Garden of Eden.  The tree of knowledge is planted in the garden, but Adam and Eve are commanded not to eat the fruit of that tree.  They have dominion over the Earth, they are the caretakers of the garden, God has put them in charge; but that tree is set aside, it is their sacrifice, their token gesture that God is the true owner of the Garden.  This is sacrifice in one of its most basic forms: setting aside something you have in recognition that it’s not really yours, but God’s.  Even before sin enters the picture, sacrifice is at the heart of worshiping God.  It is a visible gesture that has an impact on your lifestyle which reminds you and others that you have a Lord over you.

As the books of the Torah describe in great detail thereafter, the Israelite religion was also centered on the concept of sacrifice.  Indeed, pretty much all religions zero in on the idea of sacrifice of one sort or another – the key difference is always what is sacrificed, why, and to whom.  In the Law of Moses, proper sacrifices were bread, wine, oil, certain animals, to be poured out or burned or consumed.  People could also offer themselves or their children to a special kind of service to God or his Temple.  Some of the animal sacrifices were for the atonement of their sins; other sacrifices were for acknowledging and thanking God for his blessings.

In Deuteronomy 26 we hear about the first-fruit offerings, which were a type of thanksgiving offering.  In the first eleven verses of that chapter we get a succinct explanation of why, what, and how this offering was to be made.  It is a once-and-future command: when the Israelites have settled into their land, and every harvest thereafter, they are to prepare this sacrifice for the Lord.  The language of inheritance was to remind them that God gave them this land of his own provision, so, like the Garden of Eden, the people are really just stewards of that little piece of God’s creation.  It’s a little bit like divine property taxes: these sacrifices are reminders that God is the true landowner, and the people thank him for providing them with that land and the fruit it bears.

Specifically they are commanded to gather their offering food in a basket, bring it to a priest at the Temple, and make a verbal confession of faith.  The first part, in verse 3, simply acknowledges God’s provision, but the longer part in verses 5-10 is essentially a Creed: it summarizes the history of God’s people from the wanderings of the Patriarchs to the crisis and crying out in Egypt and God’s deliverance of Israel with signs and wonders out of slavery and into the Promised Land.  That confession of faith, paired with the offering, is to be an occasion of joy which will not only express a personal faith, but that of an entire community: the offerer, his family, the Levites (or clergy), and the sojourners or foreigners among them.

Now the Church is not yoked to the Law of Moses, so this command concerning this offering is not a rule for Christian worship.  But its principles still do apply.  In Romans 10:4-13 Saint Paul points out that all Christians have an inheritance for which to give thanks.  Putting this together, we realize, as our liturgy puts it, that “it is right to give him thanks and praise.”

Step Two: Jesus’ Sacrifice & Ours

But before we look to ourselves too quickly, we should be first be sure to look to Jesus.  All the Scriptures, after all, point to him.  Today’s Gospel lesson is about the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness following his baptism, before his public ministry began.  Fighting the Devil, Jesus is abstaining from things that are his due in order to glorify God.  In other words, he had made a sacrifice by fasting 40 days, he had made a sacrifice by becoming man in the first place, and the Devil was trying to get Jesus to take those sacrifices back for himself, and thus repeat that first sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Further on in the Gospel books, we know that Jesus would go on to die on the Cross.  His self-offering there was the culmination and completion of all the Old Covenant animal sacrifices that were meant to atone for the sin of God’s people.  Jesus himself has become our sin-offering to God.  That is exactly and explicitly what Holy Communion is all about: turning to Christ on the Cross as our atonement, joining with Christ’s self-offering and making his death also our own offering to God the Father.

Step Three: Spiritual Discipline of Alms-giving

Although Jesus is our sin-offering, or propitiatory sacrifice, we can still offer other kinds of sacrifices in further acts of worship.  Part of the Ash Wednesday Gospel, Matthew 6:19-21, teaches us how to go about that. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  With that principle in mind, you can offer first-fruits (like the first paycheck at your new job), or regular tithes, or spontaneous gifts with the same attitude: I am investing my priorities in heaven by acknowledging God’s provision of all the things that I have in this simple act of giving.

As this is the season of Lent, the discipline of alms-giving is particularly brought to our attention.  We’re reminded that a spiritual discipline such as this can and should help us fight against the sin of coveting.  By setting aside and giving away some of the things we have, we paradoxically gain more control over ourselves and our relationship with our worldly wealth than if we focus on finding or maintaining financial stability.  Jesus had to remind people that, for much of his ministry life, he had “nowhere to lay his head.”  Paul wrote that he, too, had learned how to be content with whatever his situation – scarcity or abundance.  When we are able to sacrifice and give, we are exercising a responsible and godly stewardship of our earthly possessions that will help us mature in our relationship with the world around us and our relationship with God.

Our preaching theme this season is “relationship counseling,” and I think by this point you can see how this lesson about sacrifice, giving, and worship contributes to our relationship with God.  To say that we live in a busy world is an understatement.  There are myriads of things vying for our attention daily, and the advent of the internet has only intensified the opportunities for distraction.  There are so many things that you could be doing with your life, there are so many ways you could be spending your money, investing your funds, managing your resources, cultivating your public image on social media, reading books and articles and watching movies and television programs and YouTube channels and Netflix…  Even if you stick with things that are good and up-building, or at least not-sinful, there is still an easy threat of drowning God out of your life.  It is when you sacrifice, abstain, set aside, reduce, or give up some of what you have that you truly “take charge” of that part of your life.  It is an act of self-control, it is saying “No!” to the covetous tendency to want more things, and it is a big opportunity to say “Thank you” to God for those things.

Being able to say “thank you” to God, being ready to acknowledge God’s provision to you and his continued ownership of you and yours and all of creation, is one of the foundations of a healthy relationship with God.  If Jesus is just your boss – telling you what to do and simply making demands of your time on the church clock, so to speak – then you’re on a path toward a very unhealthy relationship, not knowing the love of God.  If Jesus is just your friend – making no demands and encouraging you to be true to yourself no matter what – then you’re on a different path of unhealthy relationship, not knowing the Lordship of God.  So I encourage you to take some time this week to evaluate your relationship with your wealth, possessions, your usage of time, the desires you have for things you lack, and consider what sort of sacrifices you make, or need to make, in order to keep those things from interfering with your relationship with God.

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Unfinished Book Review: Waking the Dead

Back in November or so I decided it was time to try reading a popular Christian book of recent times.  I decided I’d start with something by John Eldredge as I’ve got two of his books on my shelf.  Wild at Heart is the book I picked up first but I’m not crazy about books that are written for a particular gender… the generalizations that all-too-easily set in aren’t my cup of tea.  So I swapped it out for his 2003 book Waking the Dead, and honestly still wasn’t terribly impressed.  When two months had passed and I was still only half-way through I decided it was probably time to call it quits.  So, although I cannot write a complete book review, I can write an “Unfinished” book review, describing what I read and why I’m not interested in continuing.

The premise of this book is encapsulated in its full title and subtitle: WAKING THE DEAD, the Glory of a Heart Fully Alive.  It also centers on a quote from Saint Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  It’s a great quote, though its translation could be more precise, and its context clarified.

[Christ] revealed God to men and made him visible in many ways to prevent man from being totally separated from God and so cease to be. Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation gives life to all who live upon the earth, much more does the manifestation of the Father through the Word give life to those who see God.

Thankfully, though Eldredge works from the imprecise translation, he searches the Scriptures to explain the quote, and thus doesn’t stray too far from what the quote is supposed to mean.

His central thesis in this book is arguing that the heart is good, against the traditional assertion that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9).  He argues that the new spirit and new heart given to us in the New Covenant is good, beautiful, and godly (Ezekiel 36:26, et al).  His wrestling with the Scriptures, both in explaining his point and in defending it against the expected rebuttals, seems reasonable enough, but it just never sat well with me.  The explanation the book offers seems to be that I’m just too steeped in the negative mentality common to classical Protestantism (to say nothing of catholic stereotypes!) and need to embrace the Scriptural truth that my heart is fundamentally good.

So then I dithered for another two months, unsure of how to explain why I couldn’t finish this book, knowing that something was amiss but at a loss for the necessary words.  Finally, while preaching through 1 Corinthians 15 in February, the biblical basis for my objection to Waking the Dead availed itself.  It’s all about language and terminology.

Throughout the Bible, different words are used in different ways: heart, soul, will, mind, spirit.  Popular use of these words often don’t match their biblical use.  And even within the Bible, especially across different translations, these terms aren’t always used the same way.  Eldredge pretty consistently sticks with the language of the heart being the seat of decision-making, essentially combining the modern/popular concepts of heart (emotion) and mind (rational thought).  This is consistent with the Hebrew term nephesh which is often referred to as the “soul” or “psyche” in Greek.  In 1 Corinthians the psyche is what rules natural (and sinful) man, just as any other animal creature, whereas the new life in Christ that leads to a resurrection of eternal life is the gift of an enlivened pneuma or spirit.  The “new heart” promised through Ezekiel and others is accompanied with (or perhaps clarified by) a “new spirit.”

In short, when man is spiritually dead, the nephesh/psyche/soul that governs him is helplessly disordered and unable to move one’s life in a God-ward direction.  Spiritual life comes with “regeneration” or “second birth from above” in which the Holy Spirit enlivens our dead pneuma/spirit which is then able to re-order the nephesh/psyche/soul according to holy desire and purpose.

At his best, that is what Eldredge is trying to describe: the new life in Christ thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. But his insistence upon using the term “heart” most of the time oversimplifies the biblical terminology and threatens to prevent the reader from a full and proper comprehension of the human condition.  He runs the risk of an error of over-optimism in the sanctification of the human person.

With that premise so muddled, it proved too difficult for me to move on to the second half of the book that dealt with various ways that God strengthens and enlivens the “heart”.  And the preview he gave of those topics – walking with God, receiving his intimate counsel, experiencing deep restoration, fighting in spiritual warfare – despite how earnestly and seriously he writes of them, look suspiciously stereotypical to me of the sort of Big Box Generic Brand Pop-Evangelicalism that doesn’t know about the grace of God in the sacraments and pursues instead an overly-individualistic relationship with God as the primary sacrament (means of grace) in the Christian life.

I mean, it’s good to rile people up into concerted action to take the Christian life more seriously.  But if you don’t equip them with the Sacraments and don’t connect them to the apostolic ministry of the Church, then no matter how many Bible verses you throw at them you’re going to do them a disservice and leave them hanging.

Perhaps now that I’ve figured out Eldredge’s terminology problem I can try reading this book again sometime with better understanding and patience.  But for now I’m going to let it rest and move on.

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Layers of Biblical Canon

The Bible is a large book.  To many people, that’s about as far as it’s understood: as a single, large, book.  Christians and other readers are aware, further, that the Bible has a number of books that make up its contents, and that there’s an Old Testament a New Testament.  In our modern and post-modern cultural bias, we see the word “Old” and assume it’s less important than the part labeled “New.”

But honestly, the nature of biblical canon (that is, the ‘rule’ of what is included in the Bible, and why it’s there) is far more complex.  The Bible isn’t just one coherent volume, nor is it just two “testaments” stuck together.  There are several sections, groupings of books and writings, that have been included under varying circumstances and for different reasons and purposes.  In other words, the canon of scripture has many layers, and it can be helpful to understand what some of these layers are, and how they were meant to function together.

1. The Hebrew Scriptures

The part of the Bible known as the Hebrew Scriptures is essentially the Jewish Bible.  It contains the same collection of books as the common Protestant Old Testament, but the standard Hebrew versions order those books differently: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.

The Torah is the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Torah means teaching, law, or instruction, and I’ve written more about it elsewhere.  These five books are really the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures; everything else is built upon them, even legitimized by adhering to the teachings found in this section.  In old Synagogue liturgy, the first Scripture reading would typically (or always?) be from the Torah.

It must be remembered that when the first generations of Christians spoke of and referred to the Scriptures, they had pretty much only the Old Testament in writing.  The Torah, therefore, was still the foundation of their holy texts, and we would do well to rediscover the centrality of those five books in our own use and reading of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  What these books teach us about God as our creator and redeemer, and teach us about our calling, our sinfulness, and how to approach God, is an invaluable background for reading the rest of the Bible.

Part two of the Hebrew Scriptures is the “prophets” which include Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets.  We’re used to separating “historical books” out of this, so it’s an interesting challenge to our typical perspective to think about how all of these books despite their different styles and genres, function as prophetic – that is, expounding the word of God as found in the Torah.  The second Scripture reading in Synagogue tradition was typically from these books.

The last section of the Hebrew Bible is called the writings, consisting of the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 & 2 Chronicles.  Again, a range of writings styles and genres can be found here.  The logic of holding these books together as a unit is partly in their age: most of these are newer books, being written or compiled well after the Babylonian Exile was over and the Second Temple was established.  They are also of lesser teaching value compared to the Torah, and lesser interpretive value compared to the Prophets, which is why the Synagogue tradition didn’t necessarily include all of these books in their lectionaries.

For the most part, the Hebrew Scriptures were used and preserved primarily by Jewish communities; the impact of these versions upon the Church was generally smaller than that of the Greek Old Testament.

2. The Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, or LXX)

Technically the word Septuagint, and the legend behind it of the seventy scholars who independently translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in exactly the same way, applies only to the books of the Torah.  But the term quickly came to be used to refer to the entire Greek Old Testament.  And, despite the legend, there are multiple versions of the Greek Old Testament just as there are different versions of the Hebrew text.  The Septuagint (or LXX for short) was apparently translated from a different version of the Hebrew text than what eventually became standard in the Synagogues, so there are a number of small and large differences between the two textual traditions – the books of Esther and Jeremiah in particular are quite different in length in either version.

Apart from the text, the ordering of the books is also different.  The Torah is the same: the heart of this Bible is still the five books of Moses.

But the next section are the historical books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 &2 Chronicles, Ezra/Nehemiah, and Esther (longer version).  It was, in part, a Hellenistic influence that caused the distinction of “historical” writings from “prophetic” books.  The loss, in this tradition, is of seeing the teaching link in these books back to the Torah.  The gain, however, is an easier (and perhaps more logical) reading order for the books of the Bible that’s more learner-friendly.

The prophets, then, are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel (longer version), and the Twelve Minor Prophets.  Note Daniel’s inclusion as a prophet in the LXX where the Hebrew Scriptures kept him in the third category of Writings.  There are also more books here than in the Hebrew, and we’ll address them in the next section.

The “Writings” in the Greek Old Testament, therefore, are not a tertiary list of later books, but a collection of poetry and wisdom writings: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus).

Ultimately, the Greek Old Testament is the primary foundation for how Christian Bibles arrange the books of the Old Testament.

3. The Ecclesiastical Books (Deuterocanon or Apocrypha)

The Greek Old Testament, as we began to note in the above section, typically ended up with more books than the Hebrew Scriptures had.  Virtually all of these additional writings were originally in Hebrew; they’re usually just best-preserved in their Greek versions.  These books came to be labeled as “apocrypha” because their origin and in the canon was “hidden” or the purpose for their inclusion unclear.  They were all pious and godly writings, of course, else they would not have been included, but debates cropped up at different times in the Jewish communities and in the Christian churches as to the appropriate extent of the use and inclusion of these books.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of the uncertainty surrounding these books is the differing lists of which ones to include in the lectionaries of different traditions.  The Synagogues eventually ruled all them out, preferring the Hebrew text tradition over against the Greek versions.  The Roman canon included the longer versions of Esther and Daniel, and the additional books of Baruch (with the Epistle of Jeremiah), Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, and Sirach.  The Anglican canon acknowledged those books, adding 1 & 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh, yet stipulating that all these books were to be included in the lectionaries for their godly content and not for doctrinal foundation.  The Eastern Orthodox canon typically adds 3 Maccabees and Psalm 151.  Also floating around out there is 4 Maccabees and a handful of other books usually termed Pseudepigrapha because they are given the names of authors who didn’t write them (such as the Odes of Solomon, or the book of Enoch).

During the Reformation, the Roman Church adopted the term deuterocanon, which means second or secondary canon, acknowledging both the canonicity of these books and the reality that they were later additions to the textual tradition.  Protestants typically stuck with the term apocrypha, which often came to take a more negative connotation.  Some Anglicans with a more balanced perspective between those two views came up with the name ecclesiastical books, which I find to be much more appropriate and helpful.

4. The New Testament Homologoumena

In the Early Church, and on rare occasions throughout the Medieval period, there was occasional disagreement about how to identify the New Testament.  The term homologoumena refers to the books that are the same in everyone’s accounting of the New Testament.  These books are Matthew through Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Jude.  Very little disagreement was raised concerning the canonicity of these books, and they were therefore considered the basis of the Church’s teachings on Jesus and the Apostolic tradition.

5. New Testament Antilegomena

Other New Testament books were considered antilegomena, or disputed.  These include Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, and Revelation.  It took longer for these books to be accepted by the church as a whole.  Even at the end of the Medieval period, it was still possible for someone like Martin Luther to question the position of James in the New Testament.  To this day, the East Orthodox Church doesn’t use the book of Revelation in its lectionaries, preferring instead to use its hymnic portions in song, much like how some Protestants only use the Apocrypha in liturgical bits but not as straight-up Scripture readings.

The primary distinction between homologoumena and antilegomena for us today is the clarity of doctrine.  Especially the books of James, Hebrews, and Revelation can very easily be used (well, abused) to teach doctrines that do not accord with the rest of the New Testament such as justification by works, repentance as a one-shot-deal, and the rapture.  It is general good practice, to this day, for interpreters to deal with these books with the clearer books of the New Testament setting the doctrinal baseline.

6. Post-Apostolic Writings

Some of the early lists of New Testament books included writings that were eventually not admitted into the canon.  The major candidates for inclusion that didn’t make it were two epistles (1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas), the Didache (teaching of the twelve), and a series of visions of The Shepherd by Hermas of Rome.  Clement was ruled to be too late – a member of the second generation of Christians rather than the first, even though he knew (and was probably taught and ordained by) some of the Apostles.  Barnabas and Hermas, too, were of the second generation of Christians, and their writings were more visionary and subjective than what was ultimately considered appropriate for the canon.  The Didache, though attributed to the twelve apostles and theoretically old enough for that story to be true, was only of great influence in Palestine, and reflected Palestinian Christian tradition more specifically, rather than holding catholic or global significance.

There was also an epistle to the Laodiceans floating around, purported to be that of St. Paul, referred to at the end of Colossians.  This epistle, however, is generally considered to be a hoax, a mashup of Pauline writings into a largely unoriginal composite – so even if it’s authentic it neither contributes anything new to the Bible nor enjoys catholic (global) acceptance as canonical.  It did pop up in Bibles and canonical lists here and there throughout the Medieval period, nevertheless.

Working with these layers

It may still be a mistake to conclude, after all this, that some parts of the Bible are “more canonical” than others.  But what should be acknowledged is that the different parts of the Christian Bible enjoy different layers of purpose and levels of usefulness.  The Torah’s foundational position in the Old Testament establish them of a ‘higher’ rank or status than other books therein.  The difficulties of James, Hebrews, and Revelation often give them a ‘lower’ position compared to other New Testament writings.  The Anglican reading of the Ecclesiastical Books give them a place of secondary importance where their teaching authority is limited to life and morals and not theological doctrine as such.

Understanding these layers of interplay between the different parts of the Bible can be immensely helpful for us as we read and study this sacred book.  Sometimes the black and white “in or out” approach to biblical canon is helpful, but it can do us and our interpretation thereof a disservice.  Not all parts of the Bible have the same purpose and function, and if we ignore how some parts relate or rely on other parts then we’re going to misinterpret things and create confusion.

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Spiritual Gifts: The Basics

an exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Re-Introduction to the epistle of 1 Corinthians

It’s the Epiphany season, and that means we’re back to Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.  For the past two years we’ve followed this monumental letter through the Epiphany season, and this year we’re outlining it mostly to its end.  I know preaching through the majority of a book broken up over three years isn’t the ideal way to go about things, so let’s have a quick review of where we’ve been with this book already.

Corinth was a problem congregation.  It was a church largely made up of former Gentile Pagans, hardly any Jewish presence can be gleaned from Paul’s writings to them.  This makes this epistle kind of the counterpart to Galatians – there the congregation was turning back to Judaism, here the congregation was turning back to Paganism.  Corinthian culture in general was very cosmopolitan: many philosophical and religious ideas were in vogue, morality was looser in that enlightened trade port, and a sort of smugness had crept into the church regarding their intellectual superiority.  This makes the Corinthian situation very similar to our own today: we live in an affluent society where all sorts of ideas are constantly in exchange, and various parties – political, religious, or otherwise – very easily fall into a smug self-assuredness about how enlightened we are.

In the Corinthian church, specifically, there were issues with members vying for power over one another and lording their “spiritual gifts” and their “wisdom” over one another, entering into lawsuits with one another, oddly legalistic marriage rules yet permissive sexual morals, and an insidious sort of dualism that pitted the physical body as evil against the immaterial spirit as good.  They were beginning to think that they’d outgrown that “basic gospel” and had moved on to more sophisticated stuff.  And so Paul had to bring them back to the basics of several issues: divine wisdom versus earthly wisdom, the ministry and authority of the apostles, the centrality of the bodily resurrection, the practice of marriage, the celebration of holy communion, and other topics.

Needless to say, Paul had a history with them.  He was there around the year 52 as one of the church’s founders, wrote them a letter a little while later when he heard about some issues, and then wrote this letter around the 55.  So, most of these members are only 3-year-old Christians and they’re already thinking they’ve outgrown the basic Gospel of repentance and faith in Christ that Paul preached to them!

Quick Summary of the epistle so far

Chapters 1-4 deal with the divisions in the Corinthian church.  Paul addresses the idol of human “wisdom” and so-called “spirituality” and the party factious spirit it was beginning to engender in their midst.  He brought them back to the basics of the Gospel, pointing out that what seems folly to man (a crucified Savior, the preaching of the Word) is actually the wisdom of God.  From there he moved onto the related subject of ministry: Christian leaders are ministers of the Word who embrace the wisdom of God and reject the wisdom of men, proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed by being servant-leaders, not taking advantage of the flock and pushing other people around.

Chapters 5-6 present two specific issues in Corinth that resulted from their divisive issues: a man “living with” his mother, and a case of legal litigation between members of the church.  Paul follows a consistent pattern here and elsewhere of first identifying the problem generally, second presenting a theological principle or doctrine that addresses the issue, and third applies these principles to the situation at hand.

In Chapters 7-11, Paul switches tact from addressing problems he heard about them, to answering questions that they’d specifically written to him about.  Chapter 7 focuses on marriage, remarriage, and virginity; chapters 8-10 focus on dealing with food that was sacrificed to idols (how to deal with the pagan world around them) including a note on his apostolic authority to teach all this, and chapter 11 addresses issues in their worship services such as gender separation and disorderly conduct at holy communion that was rendering the sacrament invalid!  These topics are heavy-hitters indeed.

Chapter 12 begins a new subject, introducing the basics of Spiritual Gifts

Here in chapter 12 we’re still dealing with issues in the worship at Corinth, but a new specific subject: that of spiritual gifts.  This is another 3-chapter section following Paul’s usual argument style: chapter 12 addresses the subject of spiritual gifts at a general level, chapter 13 sets out a theological premise for the subject, and chapter 14 applies his teaching to their specific situation.  Today we’re starting in on the introduction to all this: the basics of spiritual gifts.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.
You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led.

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says
“Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

Saint Paul wants the Corinthians to know about spiritual gifts.  He begins by appealing to the past experience of the congregation: paganism.  Their idols were mute, not providing any living word of truth to their worshipers.  This is in contrast to the Holy Spirit who alone inspires and enables true worship of God.  This true worship of God is paired with true knowledge of God: the phrase “Jesus is Lord” could be translated more literally as “The LORD is Jesus,” using the Old Testament name for God (Yahweh) respectfully put in Greek as kyrie (lord).  After all, it’s one thing to say Jesus is God, but it carries a greater theological weight to start with the Old Testament biblical identity of God – the Lord – and identify him as Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the work and testimony of the Holy Spirit.  Paul starts here because the fundamental gift is the Spirit himself, who enables us to call upon Jesus as Lord.  This, even with no other “gifts” beside, is blessedness and riches enough.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord;
and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.

The parallelism in this statement is remarkable and reveals much about Paul’s belief about God and his works within us.  There are “varieties” or “distributions” of gifts (charismata), gracious gifts – denoting their source; ministrations or service (like services rendered for others’ benefit) – denoting their purpose; and energies or activities (a sort of active force working within one) – denoting their power.  These, in turn, are linked to three names of God: Spirit, Lord, and God.  Although Paul is probably not going out of his way to make this point, this reveals his underlying understanding of God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We also see here that the three Persons work in unison; they aren’t each doing their own projects – the Holy Spirit is not a divine maverick running around giving special gifts to special people.  Rather, God in his triune fullness works with and within each of his people in unique and particular ways.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Verse 7 transitions our attention from God, the giver of spiritual gifts, to the gifts themselves.  The emphasis is two-fold: each believer has his gift, and every gift is for the common good.  Gifts are here called a “manifestation of the Spirit” to denote that it is the sovereign work of God that is revealed in spiritual gifts.  The Corinthians, remember, had ego problems.  They were vying for influence and power with one another, showing off their earthly wisdom and glorying in their gifts.  This might be a bit extreme, but if you combine the tragically bad leadership in the Roman Church in recent times with the most wacky examples of Pentecostal worship you can see where the Corinthians were headed.  They needed to re-learn the wise sovereign power of God and his purpose to build up the Body as one.

For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom,
and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,
to another faith by the same Spirit,
to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles,
to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits,
to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

Verses 8-10 give us the first list of spiritual gifts in the epistle.  Others are listed later in this chapter and in other books of the New Testament, so we should consider this list merely a sampling.  Considering it starts with “wisdom”, which Paul has dealt with in the opening chapters, and “tongues” which he’ll go on to address in chapter 14, it is likely that this list was devised to outline the interests, strengths, and weaknesses of the Corinthian congregation.  As such, we shouldn’t read too much into the ordering of the gifts listed here.  Some people assert that they form a prioritization of important to unimportant, similar to what Paul does later in this epistle.  Many have suggested logical groupings in this list.  The most reliable approach here is note the several pairings of gifts.

Utterances of Wisdom (sophia) and Knowledge (gnosis) are the first pair of gifts.  They’re both gifts of the intellect, denoting the ability to speak according to the divine wisdom and knowledge.  The difference between wisdom and knowledge in this context is quite slim; perhaps the former is about understanding and communicating the deep truths of God, and the latter is about the factual and doctrinal details of the gospel.  Because “wisdom” is something the Corinthians both valued and misunderstood, it is probably a kindly pastoral move on Paul’s part to list it first here both to appeal to their interest while also reinforcing the correction they desperately need.

Next is the gift of faith.  As a particular spiritual gift, this must be understood as being beyond “saving faith” common to all Christians.  Rather, this faith is the sort of “faith, so as to remove mountains,” as Paul will later mention in 13:2.  This also serves as a set-up for the next pair of spiritual gifts, Healings and Miracles, which are essentially specific gifts of Faith in action.  Something important to note but easy to miss about the gifts of Healings and Miracles is that they’re both in the plural: the gift is the individual enactment of divine healing or miraculous work that God manifests through someone.  This is sometimes misconstrued to be that someone has the gift of an ability to enact healings and miracles, but that is not what Paul wrote.  You need only look at the likes of Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn to see how this false interpretation can so easily go awry.

Prophecy and the Distinguishing between spirits are the next pair of spiritual gifts.  These are gifts of faith in speech.  Prophecy has two levels of definition.  Its basic meaning is speak forth the word of God – most of the Old Testament prophets were mostly taking the pre-existing word of God, primarily the Law of Moses, and preaching and explicating and applying its relevant sections to the situation before them.  In this sense, all true preaching is prophecy: proclaiming the Word of God.  But there is a second, even more miraculous sort of prophecy – the direct reception of divine inspiration to speak in God’s name and authority.  The entire Bible was written by such sorts of prophets, as we understand it to be God-breathed in its entirety.  The gift of distinguishing between spirits, then, is the special gift of discernment to recognize a true prophet from false.  All Christians are called to distinguish between spirits (1 Corinthians 14:29), so as a spiritual gift this is a more particular gift of divine insight.  Like Healings and Miracles, this is something that can be misunderstood and abused pretty easily.  As Paul will go on to explain in chapter 14, prophesying is something that can and should be carried out in an orderly fashion.  It is not in fits of ecstasy, or moments of a high emotional rush that prophecy is carried out; rather, a true prophet is in command of his or her words throughout, led by the Holy Spirit yet still in command of one’s faculties.  If it looks like a show or a pagan frenzy, it probably is.

The last two spiritual gifts are another obvious pair: speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues.  This, too, has seen quite a bit of controversy over its meaning.  The biblical evidence, especially in the story of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, teaches us that a tongue is a human language that someone in the world can understand.  The gift of interpreting tongues matches this: such miraculous utterances are not to leave us in the dark.  Paul will clarify this further also: if nobody present understands the tongue in which somebody utters, they should stop.  As with prophecy, this is not an irresistible spiritual urge that overtakes you, but a purposeful gift to build up the Body for the common good.

Considering the list in its entirety, some of these gifts may be natural talents that are then heightened by the Holy Spirit, while others are entirely supernatural gifts suddenly and totally from the Holy Spirit.

11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit,
who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

Our text, and Paul’s introduction to spiritual gifts, ends with a clear summary of the same main points he started with: the “one and the same Spirit” empowers or energizes all of these gifts or works to “each one individually.”  The addition of the last phrase “as he wills” is an emphatic closing to the section: God is in charge of his spiritual gifts!  He has continued control or mediation in the exercise of these gifts.  That rules out the abuse of considering them as magical powers.  That rules out the abuse of considering such gifted people as superior to other Christians.  God is in control, God is looking after us, we may not and can not usurp God’s glory.

Preparing for what’s ahead

These opening verses of chapter 12 give us a nice basic introduction to spiritual gifts.  Next, Paul will elaborate on the principle of the unity of the church using the analogy of the Body of Christ.  The various gifts and roles we have will be tied together into the critical context of a functional unity.  Faith, hope, and love will prove to be the key underlying gifts – the theological virtues, if you will – that give meaning and significance to all others.  This basic introduction to spiritual gifts will then spill out into more detailed considerations of some of the issues that come up in practice, or malpractice.  Saint Paul’s call to orderly worship in the midst of all this at the end of chapter 14 will wrap up this section of the book.  That is where we’ll be going over the next couple weeks.

For now, suffice it to say that God works in many different ways in each of his many different people.  We must not think so highly of ourselves that we fall into the trap of believing that we can act with divine authority without actually being obedient to God.  And we must not think so lowly of ourselves that we fall into the trap of believing that we are worthless to God and the Church.  The Spirit manifests himself in us and through in many different ways, and Paul here has only begun to scratch the surface!

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:
Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments,
may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory,
that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit
lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.


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St. John of Damascus

One of the significant challenges that Christianity faced in the later centuries of the Early Church was the rise of Islam.  Following Muhammad’s death in 632, his successors built an empire from Medina and Mecca that overshadowed the Middle East and Northern Africa, and the Muslim religion followed on its heels.  Many regions that were predominantly Christian were, by the 8th century, ruled by Muslims, and the new religion was spreading.

The theological and cultural clashes were inevitable, and had an enormous impact on the beliefs and cultures of those around them.  One example of this can be found in Islamic iconoclasm.  Iconoclasm is a word that refers to the rejection (and destruction) of pictures and images.  In the religious context, specifically, Muslims rejected all depictions of people – taking a strict interpretation of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) wherein it reads “you shall not make any idol or graven image.”  In general, Christians had taken a significantly more lenient interpretation, allowing images of anything that God has visually revealed, including humans, and our Lord Jesus himself.  But there were strains of iconoclasm in Christian thought, and the Muslim influence brought that to the fore.

Through much of the 8th century, the Church underwent an “Iconoclast Controversy”.  The Byzantine Emperor, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Patriarch (Pope) of Rome each played major roles in the course of the debate, and eventually settled in 787 with the Seventh Ecumenical Council, ruling in favor of the use of icons in worship.  Not everyone was convinced, naturally, and many of the same arguments replayed in the following century, ultimately coming to the same conclusion.  East and West came out with different beliefs and customs and rules regarding icons and images, however, and latent iconoclasm would reappear from time to time throughout history, most noteably among many of the Protestant Reformers.  For example, to this day, Calvinism is an iconoclast version of the Christian faith, rejecting the use of all images of Jesus, even for educational purposes.  The Anglican tradition was greatly affected by this early in the English Reformation, but iconoclasm did not endure in Anglican thought and practice.

One of the strongest voices on this subject in the 8th century was that of Saint John of Damascus.  Living in Syria and near Jerusalem for most of his life, he was well-versed in Muslim thought and culture, even able to read Arabic in addition to Greek and Latin.  But as a Christian monk and priest, he was also well-educated in the Christian faith.  He wrote treatises against Islam, which are insightful to this day, and he was a major supporter of the use of icons in Christian worship and piety.  His voice was among the ascendant party at the seventh ecumenical council.

Far from being a one-trick pony, however, John also wrote about theology, christology,  wrote some hymns that still survive in the Byzantine liturgy, and penned what is essentially the first systematic theology text in the Eastern Christian tradition.  Thus, when he addressed specific issues like that of icons and iconoclasm, he approached it not only from an exposition of the Decalogue, but also with a mind on the two natures of Christ (divine and human) and the singularity of his person (one Christ).  All this has earned him a place of high memory and importance in the Orthodox Church, and the rare title “Doctor of the Church” in Western Catholicism.

Some consider him the “last of the Church Fathers,” as the divergence between the Eastern and Western traditions grew wider over the following centuries.  The Seventh Ecumenical Council, indeed, would prove to be the last fully agreed upon by both Constantinople (East) and Rome (West), so Saint John’s work and generation truly were the end of an era.  He is commemorated on December 4th.

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The Bible is Self-Reflective

this is part sixteen of the series “The Bible Is

One of the greatest features of the Bible is that it is the literary equivalent of being self-aware.  Taking things a step beyond the reality that the Bible was written with multiple perspectives contributing, it is also important and helpful to observe that the Bible’s various writings interact with one another.  The Prophets quote the Law, the Gospels quote the Old Testament, the Epistles make reference to the Gospels and Acts, and so on.  Sometimes these self-reflective moments in the Bible are simple matter of  cut-and-paste quotations, simply reinforcing the message of the earlier writings.  Sometimes new context and information is added, expanding the reader’s understanding of both texts.  Sometimes a whole new line of interpretation is offered, such as Jesus’ revelation when, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).  The last two books to be considered, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, are excellent examples of the self-reflective nature of the Bible.

The book known as The Wisdom of Solomon, or Wisdom for short, is a late work of Jewish Wisdom written in the name of King Solomon, to whom parts of the book of Proverbs is attributed.  Its opening chapters contain memorable discourses on the virtue of righteousness from God and its apparent foolishness to the wicked, whose twisted way of thinking is vividly depicted and easily applied to the mindset of those who crucified Jesus.  The fruit of righteousness and virtue, and the triumph of God’s people on the day of judgment, is also expounded, leading up to some discourses on the nature of wisdom, much like what is found in the opening chapters of the book of Proverbs.  Also, again, Wisdom is personified as a woman, and most of the second half of this book is an exploration of the events and characters described in the books of Genesis and Exodus from the perspective of God’s Wisdom leading his people.  Noting that the Old Testament Wisdom figure has been interpreted by the Church to be Jesus, this book proves quite an interesting resource for the Christian seeking to see Jesus, particularly in the story of the exodus.

The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, or Sirach for short, is also known as Ecclesiasticus, referring to its status as specifically a “church book” as it was not adopted into the formal Jewish canon.  It is similar in style to Wisdom in its favoring of longer discourses over individual sayings, and to Proverbs in its lack of a clearly-defined thematic structure.  This book focuses more on the practical things of living a godly life – the need for God’s Wisdom, how one should act toward parents, authority, the needy, and so forth.  Starting in chapter 38, some noteworthy discourses about health, work, and labor can be found, offering extremely rare insight into a godly approach toward “secular professions”.  Perhaps most famously, chapters 44-50 contain another tour of Old Testament history.  Unlike Wisdom 10-19, however, these chapters focus on how the Wisdom of God led and inspired various people throughout Old Testament history, from Enoch (in Genesis) to Simon (in the books of the Maccabees).  These chapters focus on the positive examples of these heroes, akin to the famous “hall of faith” in the 11th chapter of HebrewsEcclesiasticus ends with the author’s prayer for wisdom.

Together, these books give us not only an extension of the wisdom literature championed by the book of Proverbs, but also reveal the development of Jewish thought and biblical interpretation as the 1st century approached.  We see how the community of faith reflected back upon the Hebrew Scriptures, and (to a large extent) anticipated the sort of interpretation that would be taken up by the Church under the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus.  While there are some ideas here that would prove to be theological dead ends, overwritten by the New Testament’s teaching, the bulk of these books are extremely insightful, and fruitful for the Christian reader today, both in understanding the Old Testament better, and learning how to live a godly life.

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Musical Notes: Harvest Home

One of the great Thanksgiving hymns is Come, ye thankful people, come, or alternatively known by a phrase it uses several times, Harvest Home.  The genius of this hymn’s lyrics is the multiple layers of meaning that are all appropriate for this time of year.

Come, ye thankful people, come,
raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in,
ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide
for our wants to be supplied;
come to God’s own temple, come,
raise the song of harvest home.

The first stanza is almost exclusively focused on the “Thanksgiving Day” layer by calling us to give thanks for God’s providence in the crops that have been harvested by the end of the season.  It is a good and godly reminder that all things come from Him, and that we ought to offer him hearty thanks for all the blessings of this life.  The second stanza adds the second layer of meaning:

All the world is God’s own field,
fruit as praise to God we yield;
wheat and tares together sown
are to joy or sorrow grown;
first the blade and then the ear,
then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we
wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take the harvest home;
from the field shall in that day
all offenses purge away,
giving angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast;
but the fruitful ears to store
in the garner evermore.

Several of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God make use of field imagery, likening the Gospel to seed and his people to crops, especially wheat (or “corn” in the generic sense of the word).  The second and third stanzas weave together the ideas of several of those parables and point us to the spiritual harvest at the end of the age when Jesus returns with his angels to gather his people together and cast out the wicked.  This connects well with the Gospel readings of late Trinitytide season and beginning of Advent, which also deal with the Kingdom of God, the last judgment, and the end of the age.

The hymn ends with a prayer:

Even so, Lord, quickly come,
bring thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin,
there, forever purified,
in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest home.

With the final harvest and judgment in mind, we pray that Jesus would complete his work in us and in the world.  We pray for complete sanctification: freedom from sorrow and sin, and to be God’s “glorious harvest”.  We pray for rest in our eternal heavenly home.

Where Thanksgiving Day is usually a backwards-looks day (giving thanks for blessings we have already received), this hymn unusually gives it a forward-looking dimension.  Amen; come, Lord Jesus!

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