Right after the Bible…

The Bible is kind of a big deal, anyone with awareness of Western literature knows that. To the Christian, the Bible is the most important volume ever compiled. It is the ultimate sourcebook of our knowledge of God, and the Gospel of his salvation for us sinners. It clarifies things we should already know (such as sin) and it guides and teaches the reader about navigating this fragile life in light of eternity and perfection.

Something that can make the Bible difficult to read, however, is its sheer uniqueness. It is so very different from everything else we read today, utilizing literary styles and techniques that have been effectively dead for centuries, even millennia. Wouldn’t it be handy if we could read something else that’s similar to the Bible in style and content? Wouldn’t that give us a fresh sense of the “reality” of the Scriptures? It would demonstrate that the Bible is not simply an isolated document for a world that might as well be a fairy tale, but an actual chronicle of literature about actual events in the very same world that we live in!

Enter the Epistle of St. Clement of Rome. Just a decade or two after the death of the last of the Apostles, the third-ever bishop of Rome, Clement, wrote a letter to the church in Corinth. This was, maybe, fifty years after St. Paul’s letters to them, so a generation had passed, and you know what? The Corinthians were experiencing much the same problems that they’d been having before! Here’s an outline of the letter, with chapter numbers:

1-3           Introductory thanksgivings

3-4           Purpose: Corinthian sin of rivalry & schism

5-23                         Great Cloud of Witnesses

  • 5-12         Examples of godly living
  • 13-15       Imitate good people, not bad people
  • 16-18       Though even good people still sin
  • 19-20       All this is rooted in God’s patience and care
  • 21-23       So obey God and seek after Him

24-39                       Life in God’s grace

  • 24-27       The resurrection is the source of our hope
  • 28-32       We are God’s own people, live like it!
  • 33-38       Obey God according to your station in life
  • 39            But people who mock God are ignorant

40-61                       Reconciliation & Love

  • 40-44       God has always set an Order for his people
  • 45-47       The Corinthian rebels violated that Order
  • 48            We all must repent for this!
  • 49-53       Love intercedes for the guilty
  • 54-56       So be willing to intercede sacrificially!
  • 57-58       And if you’re guilty, humble yourself!
  • 59-61       Clement’s prayer of intercession

62-65       Summary and Conclusion

(I feel I should reassure you that in this book the “chapters” are extremely short, usually about one paragraph in length.)

It’s remarkable how many of St. Paul’s themes Clement restates, and it’s remarkable how much of the New Testament (not just Old) that Clement is able to quote, so early in Church History. Critics sometimes argue that the New Testament was virtually unknown to the Early Church until it was codified in the 4th century. But this epistle shows how well-circulated the New Testament texts already were by the end of the 1st century.

So if you’re a Christian who likes to think, or has particular interest in the historical reality, context, or setting of the Bible, reading the epistle 1 Clement is a highly-recommended exercise. It is delightfully Bible-like in its style and contents. In fact, a couple of the earliest compilations of New Testament writings included 1 Clement among them – a testament to both its popularity and its teaching value!

Let’s take a look at chapter 13 as an example of Clement’s writing.

(1) Let us then, brothers, be humble and be rid of pretentions and arrogance and silliness and anger. Let us act as the Scripture us. For the Holy Spirit says, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man in his might or the rich man of his wealth. But let him that boasts boast of the Lord; and so he will seek Him out, and act justly and uprightly.”  Especially let us recall the words of the Lord Jesus which he uttered to teach considerateness and patience. (2) For this is what he said: “Show mercy, that you may be shown mercy. Forgive, that you may be forgiven. As you behave to others, so they will behave to you. As you give, so will you get. As you judge, so you will be judged. As you show kindness, so will you receive kindness. The measure you give will be the measure you receive.” (3) Let us firmly hold onto this commandment and these injunctions so that in our conduct we may obey his holy words and be humble. (4) For holy Scriptures says, “On whom shall I look except on him who is humble and who trembles at my words?”

On the whole, this is a solidly normal piece of Christian ethical teaching. Specifically, he uses three quotes from the Scriptures. The first (in verse 1) is primarily from Jeremiah 9:23-24, with edits from St. Paul’s writings (1 Corinthians 1:31 and 2 Corinthians 10:17). The third quote is from Isaiah 66:2 almost verbatim. These show us Clement’s familiarity with the Old Testament and free ability to proclaim the Gospel through those texts. In that aspect he is just like the New Testament authors, taking up the ancient writings and pointing to Christ and his teachings. The second quote, however, is rather more complex. This is a collection of the sayings of Jesus, hinting at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7, 6:14-15, 7:1-2, 7:12) as well as some of its Lucan counterparts (Luke 6:31, 36-38). Some scholars take this jumble as evidence that there were “Sayings of Jesus” in circulations that predate or parallel the Gospel books themselves. After all, word-of-mouth and 1st-century-versions-of-pamphlets probably spread much more quickly and easily than entire scrolls or books. But it’s also possible that Clement simply already had in hand much of what we know as the New Testament and was already beginning the work of synthesizing their witness, as Christian preachers and teachers have done throughout history since.

Either way, St. Clement of Rome is a handy reference and read for us today, demonstrating the normality of some of the biblical writing styles, bringing us just a little bit closer to that faraway world of apostles and pharisees and centurions and so forth.

If you want to read the full epistle, 1 Clement, you can find it free online here, or bought in any number of books of the Apostolic Fathers or Early Christian Writings.

And if you want to read a little more about Clement himself, check out the bio I wrote up a couple years ago: https://leorningcniht.wordpress.com/2018/11/23/st-clement-of-rome/

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Christian Fellowship in its Fullness

In the wake of the enormous events of the Day of Pentecost comes this oft-quoted description of the Apostolic fellowship among the first Christians:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe/fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

Here we see what is, presumably, a healthy Christian community being established. Here we see what is, presumably, a set of ingredients that characterize authentic Christian relationships and lives. There are, of course, several things that are specific to that context which cannot and should not be replicated in subsequent times: we no longer meet (nor need to meet) in the Temple at Jerusalem, and the selling of possessions to provide for others was a temporary crisis need while there were thousands of faithful visiting Jerusalem that day who suddenly decided to prolong their stay. Yet the general descriptions here are (it is safe to say) normative for Christian living: generosity, hospitality, freely-offered assistance, gladness, and thankfulness, all to the continual growth of the Church both in faith and in numbers.

The most important verse here, however, is probably the first in this paragraph, verse 42: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” There is much here that is not always obvious, especially to the English-language reader of today.

the apostles’ teaching

What were the Apostles teaching? Well, we just had an example of apostolic preaching from St. Peter in verses 14-40 of Acts 2. There, he opened the Scriptures, preached the Word, called for repentance and baptism, spelled out the Gospel with historical context, and argued the divinity of Christ. That’s a lot – dogma, theology, exhortation, biblical studies, all packed into a few paragraphs! If this is any indication, the Apostles’ Teaching must have been quite wide-reaching and thorough indeed.

Imagine a group of Christian devoted to learning the Bible, theology, ethics and other applications of the Gospel. Not just a casual “Bible Study” toying with a pet theme from the Scriptures, but solid meaty exposition of the Law, Prophets, and other Writings, both Old Covenant and New – what if most Christians were so committed? What if it was normal to learn the basics of theology so that every adult could not only recite the Creed but also explain it? Consider how mature the Church would be if it was normal for a church-goer to have memorized the Ten Commandments and the various prohibitions and positive teachings that derive from them? How amazing would that be.

the fellowship

The fellowship, or participation or communion among the members of the Church, is another thing the people were devoted to. Yes, many Christians enjoy “coffee hour” after the worship service, but how many are devotees of it? Imagine the friendships, the bonds of trust and love, that would emerge if most church-goers were committed to spending time together? It is common in “small groups” to share prayer requests with one another – but what if the social life among local Christians was close enough that most of those prayer requests would already be known? Imagine the love and support that could be offered before someone even asks!

For many Christians, I think the “norm” is to fraternize with friends and colleagues in social circles that aren’t the Church. We have coworkers or college friends or family members who do not know Christ, and they comprise the majority of our social lives. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there are nonchristians around us all of course, and we do need to be able to “lights in the world”, but imagine how much stronger church-goers would be if they were bolstered by one another’s company more often throughout the week? You don’t have to cloister yourself away to be immersed in a culture of faith.

the breaking of the bread

This can be a little tricky. A couple verses later the description of Apostolic Christian life reports “breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts“, which clearly refers to sharing meals with one another. But in verse 42 it says “THE breaking of the bread”. That definite article denotes something particular; this is not any bread-breaking going on, but something special. Many biblical interpreters have understood this to be the rite of Holy Communion, wherein Christ has commanded us to remember him, memorialize his sacrifice on the Cross, and feed on his body and blood to our endless comfort and spiritual nourishment. The people were devoted to attending divine worship, and the service of Holy Communion.

For most Christians today this not so difficult to relate to. However strong or weak our commitment to church attendance may be, all church-goers do share some level of devotion to attending church. And, especially those of us in the liturgically-minded traditions, participating in Holy Communion is a regular part of that commitment. But… what if more of us were committed not only to attending the breaking of the bread but to the breaking of the bread itself? The resolution to “be at church” is one thing, but to “participate with hearty faith” in another thing entirely. The visible participation can be just lip service, but heartily feeding on Christ by faith with thanksgiving can be another thing entirely. Imagine being devoted to the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice for us sinners; imagine the depth of faith that would be engendered if more of us were concerned not only for showing up, but investing ourselves in the sacrament of the altar? That we not just “do the red and say the black” but invest our attention and pious desires in the spiritual acts that underlay the physical presence and participation?

and the prayers

Some translations just read “and to prayer.” But, again, there is a definite article here. The Apostolic community was not devoted to prayer in general, but to the prayers, indicating some defined set of prayers or liturgy or order that was going on. This probably included time-based prayers from the synagogue tradition (like morning, noon, evening, and other “hours”) as well as specific content (like the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms and other prayers that were appropriate to the time or occasion).

Indeed, all Christians are encouraged to pray, and all church-goers are at least exposed to prayer in the corporate worship of the Church. But something that lacks in many churches is direction and encouragement toward the prayers. It’s one thing to tell people they ought to pray, but another matter entirely to offer guidance, advice, and direction in how to pray. All too easily, the modern Christian might say, “the pastor prays for me, so that’s fine”, or “the intercessory prayer team has got this covered”, or “the monks or clergy are doing the daily office on our behalf already”. But imagine if “the prayers” were de-professionalized, and it was normal for most Christians to be praying the Morning and Evening hours. That was the vision of Archbishop Cranmer when he took the monastic offices and distilled them into two simple services of Morning Prayer (Mattins) and Evening Prayer (Vespers). Anyone who could read would be able to pick up the Prayer Book and a Bible and pray these offices with ease from day to day. Can you imagine the stability of spiritual life that Christians would have if most of us prayed so thoroughly and were immersed in the Scriptures so completely every day – if we were devoted to the prayers?


This little verse, Acts 2:42, is profound. It describes with such brief words a rich spiritual life in the newly-formed Christian community. There are times and places where churches meet this challenge and emulate this standard, but all too often we fall short of this beauty and comprehensiveness. Pastors and clergymen can only do so much – what if you endeavored to pursue the apostles’ teaching and sought out regular teaching and study in the Christian faith? What if you committed yourself to the fellowship with your fellow church-goers beyond simply showing up for worship once a week? What if you devoted yourself to celebration of Holy Communion and to the daily prayers of the Church? How would your life look different, and what benefits might you and your fellow church members reap from such richness?

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Preparing for the End

The following is offered for (and from) Grace Anglican Church on 8 November 2020,
as we cannot worship together in person this day.

The Collect for Purity

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Decalogue

God spoke these words and said: I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods but me.  You shall not make for yourself any idol.  You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.  Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Honor your father and your mother.  You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery.  You shall not steal.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  You shall not covet.

Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these, your laws, in our hearts, we beseech you.

The Collect of the Day (Proper 27)

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The First Lesson (Amos 5:18-24)

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The Gospel (Matthew 25:1-13)

The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.  But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.  And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’  And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.  Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’  Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.  We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Announcements

  • A Fitchburg church is connected to over 100 cases, and Lunenburg schools have a few also.
  • My family’s health in quarantine is fine so far.
  • Outlook: we will be able to worship together on Sunday the 15th.
  • Continue to pray for humility and grace for all Americans as we continue through the aftermath of the election, and all that that entails.

For trustfulness in Times of Worry and Anxiety (Occasional Prayer #80)

Most loving Father, you will us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on the One who cares for us.  Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested unto us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sermon: Preparing for the End

  • “The kingdom of heaven shall be compared to…” = one of many such parables
  • Bridegroom = Jesus, when he returns in power and glory at the end of the age
  • Ten virgins = the entire visible church purified by the blood of Christ, washed clean in holy baptism, and looking forward to heaven’s consummation (often figured as a wedding)
  • Five wise, five foolish = prepared or unprepared for endurance in the Christian life.
    That’s a lot of nominal Christians!  The lesson from Amos 5 is directed toward such.
  • Extra oil = the “faith and works”, the participation in the means of grace, that sustains the Christian life
  • Wise can’t share = I can’t give you my merit or live your life for you.
    The foolish are, essentially, asking for an indulgence – a shortcut to holiness.
  • Go to the dealers = turn to the ministry of the Church to prepare you for Christ’s return
  • The door was shut = when Bridegroom Christ returns, this age will end; it will be too late to change.  It’s like the door of the Ark closing to the Flood.
  • “I do not know you” = Jesus confirms that the foolish have not followed him, despite their claims.
  • “Watch, therefore” = Christ’s return/judgment/kingship/wedding day needs to be a constant focus in your heart and mind.
    You cannot save Jesus for later or put off the work of endurance and participation in Christ.
  • “you know neither the day nor the hour” = of his return nor of your death.
    Be prepared for both!
    On account of this preparatory tone, this text has long been used in conjunction with the season of Advent (either during or approaching Advent, as in our modern lectionary).

For All Sorts & Conditions of Men (Occasional Prayer #40, in lieu of the Prayers of the People)

           O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations.

           More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal, that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of Spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.

           Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions.

           And this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake.  Amen.

Hymn: Wachet auf (“Wake, awake, for night is flying”) #2 in Common Praise 2017

Wake, awake, for night is flying;
The watchmen on the heights are crying,
Awake, Jerusalem, arise!

Midnight’s solemn hour is tolling;
His chariot wheels are nearer rolling;
He comes; prepare, ye virgins wise.

Rise up with willing feet;
Go forth, the Bridegroom meet.
Alleluia!
Bear with the night
Your well-trimmed light,
Speed forth to join the marriage rite.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

The Blessing

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always.  Amen.

Liturgical Note: the shortening and changes to the content and order of the Service of Holy Communion have been made according to the rubrics (rules) on pages 140 through 142.

Additional meditations to reflect upon on your own:

The Offertory Sentence (Hebrews 13:16)

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 

For Submission to God’s Will (Occasional Prayer #91, by Joseph Mercier)

O Holy Spirit, beloved of my soul, I adore you.  Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me.  Tell me what I should do; give me your orders.  I promise to submit myself to all that you desire of me and to accept all that you permit to happen to me.  Let me only know your will.  Amen.

Communion Sentence (1 Corinthians 6:20)

You were bought with a price.  So glorify God in your body. 

For Joy at the End of Life (Occasional Prayer #110, by Miles Coverdale)

Lord Jesus, be mindful of your promise.  Think of us, your servants, and when we shall depart, speak to our spirits these loving words: “Today you shall be with me in joy.”  O Lord Jesus Christ, remember us, your servants who trust in you, when our tongues cannot speak, when the sight of our eyes fails, and when our ears are stopped.  Let our spirits always rejoice in you and be joyful about our salvation, which you, through your death, have purchased for us.  Amen.

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On some Elements of All Saints’ Day’s liturgy

THE ACCLAMATION 146

Priest Worthy is the Lord our God,
People To receive glory and honor and power.

For a good half of the year the opening words with which “acclaim” or worship God is an adoration of the Trinity: “Blessed be God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit / And blessed be his Kingdom…” But on All Saints’ Day and most other major saints days the Prayer Book offers us this one instead. It is found on page 146 at the end of the “Seasonal Greetings” list, and quotes from Revelation 4:11. This biblical citation is significant because Revelation 4 (and many other portions of that book) contains a song of worship that St. John sees the saints in heaven crying out. This, along with the famous Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) are examples in our liturgy where we literally join with the words of worship that take place in the heavenly places. The church “militant” joins the church “triumphant”, but more on that later.

THE COLLECT OF THE DAY 107

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of your Son: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

This prayer (called a collect because it collects the themes of the day into a single prayer) picks up on the unity of the church militant and triumphant in the mystical Body of Christ and makes a request on that basis: “give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.” This may be unusual for those with an evangelical background: don’t Christians follow Jesus, not the saints? But the address in this prayer provides the context needed to understand this petition: if God has knit together all his people into one fellowship, one Body, in heaven and on earth, then when the individual Christian follows Jesus he or she does so as part of a massive group! If we on earth are walking the Way of Christ, then we literally following the saints who have gone before us and are now at rest. Jesus said it is a “narrow way” to heaven, but did not say the road was empty. We have many excellent examples of virtue and godly living in the saints before us from which we can learn, and imitate.

THE FIRST LESSON: Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and were men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and proclaiming prophecies; leaders of the people in their deliberations and in understanding of learning for the people, wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, and set forth verses in writing; rich men furnished with resources, living peaceably in their habitations— all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There are some of them who have left a name, so that men declare their praise. And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them. But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their prosperity will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance to their children’s children. Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. Their posterity will continue for ever, and their glory will not be blotted out. Their bodies were buried in peace, and their name lives to all generations. Peoples will declare their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise.

I have heard it said that honoring the saints is a uniquely Christian idea, of no Jewish precedent. I have also heard it said that honoring the saints is a pagan practice, “ancestor worship”, which corrupted Christianity during the middle ages. Texts like this one offer a different story: in the “intertestamental history” (between the Old & New Testaments) lived a man named Jesus, son of Sirach, who wrote a long book of Jewish wisdom, and his grandson translated this work into Greek. This became the book of “Sirach” or “Ecclesiasticus”, from which this reading comes. Chapter 44 famously begins a long survey of the great Old Testament saints. The verses here provide an excellent “purpose statement” for why those before us should be remembered among the living, even those “who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived”. After this paragraph, the author celebrates the lives of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, the Prophets, Ezra, and even some of the men we read about in the history of the Maccabees who delivered Judah from Greek oppression.

THE PSALM: 149

1 Praise the Lord. O sing unto the Lord a new song; * let the congregation of the faithful praisehim.
2 Let Israel rejoice in the one who made him, * and let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
3 Let them praise his Name in the dance; * let them sing praises unto him with timbrel and harp.
4 For the Lord has pleasure in his people * and gives victory to those who are oppressed.
5 Let the faithful be joyful with glory; * let them rejoice upon their beds.
6 Let the praises of God be in their mouth * and a two-edged sword in their hands,
7 To inflict vengeance on the nations, * and to rebuke the peoples,
8 To bind their kings in chains, * and their nobles with links of iron,
9 That they may execute judgment upon them, as it is written; * this is the honor of all his servants. Praise the Lord.

This is a classic appointed psalm for All Saints’ Day. It’s what I was going to preach on, had I not fallen ill this week. The language of this psalm is intriguing: verses 1-3 are fairly standard expressions of praise to God like many other psalms, but then things get interesting. Verse 4 celebrates God’s works, which is a normal next step in biblical worship: in this case God has pleasure in his people and gives victory to the oppressed – a standard appeal to his justice. Verses 5-9, then, take an unusual turn to focus on “his people” and what they (we!) will do. Let us be joyful in the glory of God shared with us; let us worship God even from our beds when we’re waking or going to sleep. And in verse 6 we get swords. Yes, let us “inflict vengeance on the nations”, “rebuke the peoples”, “bind their kings… and their nobles” in order to “execute judgment upon them” all to “honor of all his servants.” Wait, all this warfare language is for our honor!? If the idea of us following the saints was jarring to the evangelical mind back in the Acclamation, how much weirder must this be, that we should be honored in the deliverance of vengeance to the world around us. The answer is found in the biblical imagery of spiritual warfare. Most famously expounded in Ephesians 6:10-20, the idea is that we are armed and armored to fight against spiritual powers, authorities, forces, not flesh and blood. There also it is said that we wield a sword – the sword of the Spirit – by prayer. Alternatively (or perhaps just another take from a different angle) the “two-edged sword” is the Word of God written, according to Hebrews 4:12. The double edge is a warning to us: what can be used to cut others can also cut us. The Word of God divides lies, breaks down arguments, and demolishes spiritual strongholds anywhere it is wielded. This is the judgment that we, the saints, have to execute on the nations as well as upon ourselves: the Gospel of Jesus Christ has come into the world and we must spread that news everywhere, bringing light and justice and hope and peace and truth to every dark and corrupt corner of the earth. This is the honor of all his servants. Praise the Lord.

THE EPISTLE LESSON: Revelation 7:9-17 108

I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

This is the historic Epistle lesson in all the Prayer Book tradition before ours. It is another picture of heavenly worship in the book of St. John’s Revelation. But it is not only a picture of worship, but of the worshipers themselves: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They are a numberless multitude from all over the world, worshiping together in perfect unison. The three sentences at the end depicted in verse are quotes from the Prophet Isaiah, showing this heavenly reality of God’s people finally washed from their sins. One day you and I will join them!

THE GOSPEL: Matthew 5:1-12 108

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This is the historic Gospel for All Saints’ Day, where Jesus makes his “beatitudes”, or proclaims his blessings upon the virtuous. I have heard some people nickname this text the “be-attitudes”, on the basis that these are ways that we are called to live. We’re supposed to practice these virtues, and let these actions pervade our attitudes – our hearts and minds. But they’re not just “be-attitudes”, they are promises. These are pictures of how God intends to grow us. You don’t pick and choose these as if they’re a list of possible ways into heaven. No, they are all one reality: if you would own the kingdom of heaven as your home, be comforted by God, inherit the earth, etc. then you must become poor in spirit, a mourner, meek, etc. The Christian life is not a matter of if/then, but of because/therefore. If you don’t fancy yourself as meek, or a peacemaker, or merciful, or anything else on this list, don’t fret. Continue your life of submitting to God and turning to Christ, and by his Spirit you will be transformed, inch by inch, and made ready for that last great Day. The Spirit is like a servant helping you put on your wedding garment for the heavenly banquet.

THE COMMUNION SENTENCE

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. MATTHEW 5:8-10

A new feature of the liturgy that I’ve adopted a few weeks is the “Communion Sentence”, which is read after the distribution of Holy Communion and before the Post-Communion Prayer. There’s a little rubric on pages 120 & 136 authorizing this practice. It’s a call-back to older liturgical tradition where every Mass has its own unique Sentence. The purpose of the sentence is to provide a tiny devotion from the Scriptures to help keep the moment holy and speak some Eucharistic truth to the people. Only the first Prayer Book (in 1549) provided this practice; it had been in remission for most of the past 500 years. I compared the list of Communion Sentences pre- and post-Reformation, and the difference is subtle but powerful: the old Prayer Book’s list is very much focused on salvation through faith than the previous Roman Rite’s list. Yes, the Sacrament is a blessing and a means of grace, but we only profitably receive it through faith. The sentence I chose for All Saints’ Day is actually from the Roman list, as it repeats a piece of the Gospel reading. As we digest the Body and Blood of Christ we would hear the words spoken again over us: “Blessed are the pure in heart…” because that is precisely what God is transforming us into by his grace, bit by bit.

Go forth, O saints of God!

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Exalting the Old Testament, to speak of Christ

my homily for 25 October 2020, “Sunday Proper 25 in Year A”, on Matthew 22:34-46

As you probably know by now, I really love the Old Testament.  I was inspired by one of my last seminary classes to take a special interest in studying and preaching the Old Testament, partly because it’s a weak point for many preachers and I like taking interest in unusual things, and partly because there’s just so much to explore in the Old Testament.  There are stories, poems, parables, prophecies, legends, history, and even genealogies and census records.  And through all of these different writing styles and origins, we can proclaim Christ crucified as the Apostles did at the beginning.

There are two major challenges that I see that confront us when we try to deal with the Old Testament.

One is the subject.  So much of Christian devotional literature today is about you.  Who are you in Christ?  What are your spiritual gifts?  Have you committed your life to Jesus, your sins to the Cross, and your purse to charity?  How can the Bible make your life more fulfilling and wholesome?  There are, of course, proper places for most of these sorts of questions, but very rarely should we consider them the Bible’s first priority.  The Scriptures tell us of God, of creation, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s not about you, at least not immediately.  So when we deal with the Old Testament we are tempted to put ourselves into the stories, and usually that means we make ourselves the hero.  How can I have David’s heart for God?  How can I have the patience of Job?  How can I have the faithfulness of Jeremiah and the hope of Ezekiel?  These are fine questions to ask, but these are not the first steps of understanding the Bible.

The other challenge with the Old Testament is the history.  There’s a lot of history which, if you don’t know it, can make the Old Testament difficult to understand.  And then, as you do get the hang of biblical history, there is the danger of becoming enslaved to that historical perspective.  If the Old Testament is all about history, then you have almost the opposite problem from the first: it’s not about you, it’s not about any of us, it’s about various generations of Israelites thousands of years ago.  It becomes an academic exercise with little spiritual fruit to harvest.  Or, as I’ve also observed, an overly-history-minded perspective can make the Christian treat the Old Testament as if he were Jewish.

The answer to both of these problems is JESUS.  Our reading and study of the Old Testament needs to be centered around God and the Gospel.  If you’re looking for Jesus in the Old Testament then you won’t waste so much time trying to project yourself in there, and the hero of the faith will not be an impossibly idealized version of yourself but the actually-ideal Son of God.  If you’re looking for Jesus in the Old Testament then the concern for historical context won’t become a burden for understanding or a shackle for limiting its meaning.  The Old Testament teaches us about Jesus, same as the New Testament; the only difference is in how they go about this task.

Our Gospel lesson (Matthew 22:34-46) this morning gives us two examples of how to deal with the Old Testament as followers of Jesus.

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.

Here we have two questions, one from the Pharisees and one from Jesus.  The Pharisees have a reasonable question: “which is the great commandment in the Law?”  They wanted to know how Jesus would summarize the Pentateuch, or Torah, the Law of Moses, and his answer was two-fold: love God and love neighbor.  In St. Mark’s version of this encounter, the person who asked the question replies that Jesus is correct, which may seem a bit silly to us – of course God is correct! – but it demonstrates that Jesus was not arbitrarily treating the Law like a buffet, picking and choosing which laws he thought were best.  Rather, this Summary of the Law was already current among the rabbis and pharisees and other teachers of the time.

That illustrates for us what one might call a hermeneutic of continuity.  What the Old Testament taught and how the Jewish community understood it and received it over time is taken up in Christianity.  Although there are some game-changing events in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, for sure, the underlying faith in the Creator God Who Saves was the same.  Right faith in the Law of Moses leads to faith in Jesus.  He didn’t have to change the Old Testament to bring people to him, rather, he fulfilled it.  That means he affirmed every jot and tiddle of its contents and brought it to its fullest fruition.  People outside the Church tend to believe that Judaism is the natural heir of the religion of Abraham, Moses, and ancient Israel, but if Jesus is to believed then it is actually Christianity that continues to bear that ancient torch.  We changed nothing; we continued in the same faith, now simply more clearly revealed by God-made-flesh.

The second scene in our Gospel lesson provides an example of how our claim is true.  There, Jesus asks a question about the Christ, the Messiah.  The pharisees default to an explanation that was only half-true: he would be the Son of David.  They emphasized a human savior, who would join (and complete) the ranks of the prophets before them.  But Jesus shows them, from Psalm 110, that the Christ would also be the Son of God.  In that Psalm, David wrote “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’”, and Jesus explains that there are two persons here referred to as David’s “Lord”.  This is basically a picture of God the Father preparing the throne for God the Son.  King David knew!  He knew that God had promised his throne would last forever, he knew that a descendant of his would be a Savior for all God’s people, he knew that he was just one man in a long line of God’s gracious work on behalf of His creation.  He didn’t know all the details of how and when this would work out, but he was aware that something was brewing.  Jesus, now, takes up these words of David and proclaims the superiority of the Christ even to King David, the epitome of a faithful Israelite king.  Jesus is not just the Son of David; he is the Son of God.

This is consistent with that hermeneutic continuity I mentioned before, but also shows us directly and proactively how we might “find” Jesus in the Old Testament. Promises about him abound throughout the Law and the Prophets and the Writings.  The histories anticipate him, the preachers pointed ahead to him, the wisdom and poetry speculate about him; he is everywhere!  When you read a text from the Bible, the first question to ask should never be “how does this apply to my life?”  No, the first question to ask should just about always be “what does this tell me about God?”  Then look for Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, and look for some aspect of the Gospel or the sacraments, or the nature of Church, God’s people.  Eventually it’ll get to you and me, but we have to start with the basics of biblical interpretation before we get to “personal” application.

To wrap this up, there isn’t much more I need to say.  The Scriptures proclaim Jesus, through and through, Old and New.  Even the in-between stuff proclaims Jesus, for just as the rabbinic tradition came up with the Summary of the Law which Jesus affirmed, so too do the books called Apocrypha contain much that points to Jesus just like the Hebrew books of the Old Testament.  If Jesus really is “Lord” then we should expect to see him just about everywhere.

He has spoken about history and through history to teach us about the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbor.  He is proclaimed throughout history as the Lord of all. Never, never, never allow your vision of Jesus to become domesticated into a mere New Testament character, or a genealogical highlight, or a religious concept.  Jesus is the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of All.

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Dealing with Arguments from Scripture’s Silence

This is the first of what I hope will be many short write-ups reflecting on the massively important work of the English Reformation, The Law of Ecclesiastical Polity by Richard Hooker. This multi-volume work was written in the late 1500’s, largely to answer a number of Radical Puritan criticisms of the English Church as it stood at the time. Hooker was also often appointed to debate with Papists, so when he set out to write this great work he ended up paving the grounds for what would become known as the Anglican tradition, neither Papist nor Puritan, more conservatively and carefully in line with the continental Protestant churches.

Book II deals with the authority of Scripture – how it is authoritative, how it informs us alongside other forms of knowledge, and so forth. This post is going to look at the argument in chapter 6, where he deals with a Puritan claim about making arguments “from silence”.

He begins with a quote from his debate opponent, Thomas Cartwright, who brings up several biblical examples of God chastening his people for doing things not commanded of him. The Prophets (Isa. 30:2, Jer. 7:31, 19:5) and the Law (Lev. 18:21, 20:3, Deut. 17:16) contain many examples that suggest that God’s people may only do that which is commanded by God, and therefore from Scripture’s silence we can condemn all non-authorized activities.

Hooker grants the point that Scripture contains both positive (“the Lord has commanded…”) and negative (“the Lord has not commanded…) commands. He agrees that God’s words are perfect, and are “unconditionally and completely effectual to achieve their purpose.” He even adds Hebrews 1 to Cartwright’s list of examples of implicit commands – in that instance, the praise of Christ above the holy angels, even though the Bible previously only ever praised the excellent of the angels.

Then he adds more examples: the laws of Old Testament sacrifices were set, and when the Israelites offered different sacrifices they broke the Law and effectively made a new Law for themselves, and that is what the Prophets charged against them as sin. For when the Lord Himself has precisely set down for us a way of offering worship to him, it is worse to do something which He has not commanded than to leave undone what He has commandedIn such matters, arguments from silence are strong indeed. Hooker even repeats and agrees with another of Cartwright’s examples – about King David desiring to build a Temple and God saying he never commanded such a thing.

The big “However” finally comes, though. A few examples don’t prove a universal law, or rule. We are asking whether it is always sinful to act without direction from Scripture, not whether the Israelites ever sinned by following their own minds without taking the counsel of God. He then points out the Urim and Thummim (Numbers 27:21) wherein the ancient Israelites were able to seek God’s will beyond the confines of the written Law. He points out that the Jews were encouraged to seek the wisdom of the Prophets for determining their course of action.

Even David’s desire to build a Temple, although God rebuffed it, is held up as a counterexample. There is no indication that David’s desire was sinful. Hooker argues that the purpose of his heart was pious and godly and the act so worthy of honor and renown that Nathan could not help but admire his virtuous intent, exhort him to go forward, and beseech God to prosper his plan. Hooker doesn’t mention this, but I would add that God’s subsequent instruction of the Temple-building project under Solomon shows that there can indeed be positive actions desired or taken by man which are not expressly authorized in God’s Word. God ruled that David was not to build the Temple, but accepted the plan under different conditions.

As Dr. Littlejohn and his editorial team summarize Hooker’s arguments as the chapter wraps up, “there are certainly contexts where an argument from silence is relevant and indeed persuasive, but forbidding teachings or practices not mentioned in Scripture can hardly be adopted as a universal rule.” Thus Hooker rejects a strict form of the “Regulative Principle of Worship”, which stipulates that worship services must include only that which the Bible commands or permits, leaving the door open for what’s called the “Normative Principle of Worship,” in which the Bible sets out what is required for worship but the church is free to establish rites and ceremonies so long as they don’t violate any of the Scriptures’ laws.

The application for this is of widespread importance. Sometimes an argument from the Bible’s silence is relevant and important, but that is not a hard fast rule for biblical interpretation. As Hooker argues elsewhere, there are many ways that people may know truth, basic morality, and so forth even without the Scriptures. They are perfect for their purpose and in what they cover, but there is much of life that may be conducted without constant consultation of biblical injunctions.

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Healing, both heavenly and earthly

Today, St. Luke’s Day, we’re talking about healing.

Ecclesiasticus 38 deals with the wise balance between prayer & trust in God on one hand and seeking the expertise of the physician and pharmacist on the other hand.  Sometimes you come across well-meaning believers who have an overblown sense of spirituality here: just trust God to heal you, don’t bother with those doctors and their science, just have faith.  From this we get the anti-vaccination movement, that weird “Christian Science” religion, and an awful lot of pain and suffering that could have been avoided.  And in the other direction you have people who completely forget God when sickness strikes.  Turn to the experts, get the medicine, trust the doctors, fight the disease.  The Scriptures send us in neither extreme.  Seek the doctors and seek prayer.

Our Prayer book, in fact, collects the biblical teachings on healing in this statement on page 222.

Notice that it opens the subject of healing ministry with the reminder that healing was one of the major components of Jesus’ own work.  We saw this in the way St. Luke introduces the ministry of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson.

So the question I want to focus on today is how is this fulfilled today?  How does God work healing in your life and mine? Let’s look to Psalm 147 for some answers.

1 Praise the Lord, for it is a good thing to sing praises unto our God; * indeed, a joyful and pleasant thing it is to be thankful.

2 The Lord builds up Jerusalem, * and gathers together the outcasts of Israel.

3 He heals those who are broken in heart, * and binds up their wounds.

4 He counts the number of the stars, * and calls them all by their names.

5 Great is our Lord, and great is his power; * indeed, his wisdom is infinite.

6 The Lord lifts up the meek, * and brings the ungodly down to the ground.

This opening stanza highlights the redeeming power of God for all his creation.  There is a close relationship between these verses and Isaiah 40, as they both explore the power of God on behalf of his people in distress.  You can think especially of the time of exile, when God’s people were removed from Israel, from Judah, from Jerusalem itself.  In that destitution they hear the words of promise – “The Lord builds up Jerusalem, and gathers together the outcasts of Israel.”  The brokenhearted will be healed, their wounds will be bound up.  And all this from the God who knows the name and number of the very stars!

So here we celebrate God as the Healer of those who are in a bad place.  This is healing as redemption – buying back his people from misery and restoring them to a place of wholeness, peace, and life.  Oftentimes when the biblical text uses ordinary terms and concepts, it contains a spiritual level of meaning, and this is one example of that.  God is a healer, and the opening verses of Psalm 147 point us to a very spiritual reality.

But sometimes things are not so lofty.  The next stanza of Psalm 147 describes God’s compassion as a healer, not exploring the spiritual realities of redemption but highlighting his actual care for the ordinary needs of ordinary creatures.

7 O sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving; * sing praises with the harp unto our God,

8 Who covers the heavens with clouds, and prepares rain for the earth, * and makes the grass to grow upon the mountains, and plants for the use of men;

9 Who gives food to the cattle * and feeds the young ravens that call upon him.

10 He has no pleasure in the strength of a horse; * neither does he delight in any man’s strength.

11  But the Lord’s delight is in those who fear him * and put their trust in his mercy.

Here the Psalm takes the tack of biblical wisdom literature and considers the expanse of God’s activities.  We got a hint of that in the first section when it mentions his knowledge of the stars each individually, but now that extends to the clouds and the rain to care for the grass and the plants, to feed the cattle and the ravens (that’s both a clean and an unclean animal listed!).  The entire ecosystem is crafted and cared for by the Creator of the universe.  We should not be surprised, then, that his pleasure and delight is not is strength and power – he is infinitely more powerful than anything in creation.  Rather, God is interested in faithful respect: “those who fear him and put their trust in his mercy.”

So we are taught that God is not a healer only in abstract spiritual terms, cleansing the penitent from sin and bringing new life to the believer, but is also very much concerned for the well-being of all aspects of his creation.  When the Psalm says “The Lord lifts up the meek, and brings the ungodly down to the ground” it means that he cares about both the spiritually meek (those dying in sin and searching for his mercy) and the physically meek (those who are poor or oppressed).  Thus when we pray, every Sunday, for those who are “in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity” we lift up those who are poor and sick and troubled both in an earthly sense as well as in a spiritual sense.

This informs our faith in many ways.  Here it is under two headings: appreciating God as the Great Physician, and learning to become agents of healing, ourselves.

We learn to trust, even love, God, because of his compassion as a healer.  Knowing that he cares about the grass, the cattle and the ravens, the stars, even the water cycle, we realize just how much he pays attention.  Christianity is not just about the transformation of the soul, or worse, some complicated self-improvement scheme, no, the faith of our fathers is one of incredible scope.  Everything is significant, everything has meaning.  God cares about your struggles against back pain and against sin.  God “lifts up the meek, and brings the ungodly down to the ground,” or, as the Virgin Mary would later say, God has “brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the humble and meek.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”  God doesn’t care if you’re rich, “neither does he delight in any man’s strength.”  He cares about you, your needs, and he desires your trust in his mercy.

This points us, then, to what we learn about what it means to be agents of healing, ourselves.  There has been an unfortunate state of affairs, off and on through the past hundred years, in which Christians have been divided between a “social gospel” and a “spiritual gospel” rather like the two parts of Psalm 147 we’ve just seen.  This division happened in the early 20th century when the modernists narrowed in on the “social gospel” – ministering to the poor and needy and raising the cause of justice – and the fundamentalists dropped much of that so-called agenda and focused on just preaching the gospel of the forgiveness of sins.  Sadly, when those two concerns are separated, both become hypocrites.  How can you call yourself a Christian when you attend to the earthly needs of others but never actually tell them about Jesus and their need for repentance?  How can you call yourself a Christian when you tell people about Jesus and their need for repentance but never actually help them in their time of need?  So there have been times of re-integration; the evangelical movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was a wholesome restoration of this balanced ministry.  But now, some decades later, evangelicalism is pulling apart again in similar ways that the Church experienced a hundred years ago.  This time they’re called liberals and conservatives, again focusing on earthly and spiritual things to the neglect of the other.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed both.  We are to be liberal and generous, and we are to conserve the proclamation of the truth.

So as we look to a sick world full of sick people, we need to recognize the pandemics for what they are.  There is a pandemic of COVID-19; there is a pandemic of prejudice and racial hatred; there is a pandemic of politics-worshipers who ardently believe that America will only survive if the administration is kicked out, or upheld; there is a pandemic of unbelief as more and more people decide they don’t need religion, or the Bible, or Jesus; each of these need to be handled in the right way.  You don’t need to be rich or strong to be a healer; God is already the richest and strongest of all, commanding the cattle on a thousand hills and holding together all things by the power of his Word.  All you and I need to be is faithful.  Trust the Great Physician, carry out what works of mercy you can, speak words of truth to whom you can.  You may have money to spare to aid those with less; you may have medical training to advice and help those who need it; you may have a way with words to re-introduce people to a Jesus they thought they gave up on years ago; you may have a comfortable shoulder for someone to cry upon while you listen to their pain and get them started on the road toward healing and wholeness.

In each and any of these ways, let us recognize Great is our Lord, and great is his power; indeed, his wisdom is infinite.

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Work Out Your Own Salvation?

an exposition of Philippians 2:12-13 by the Rev. Matthew Brench
for Grace Anglican Church upon 27 September 2020

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Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now,Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed,And so, my beloved, even as you always obeyed,
not only as in my presence but much more in my absence,not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence,not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.with fear and trembling keep on working out the salvation of yourselves;
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.for God is the one working in you both the willing and the working in behalf of his good pleasure.

Part One: On having always obeyed

These verses come at the conclusion of a summary of ethical teachings exhorting us to Christ-like humility.  We were reminded, in detail, of the lengths to which Jesus went to procure our salvation, to die on the Cross.  We were reminded, with uncompromising concern, that we are to “have the same mind” as Christ in that humility, taking on ourselves the call to serve others selflessly and portray God’s love in our own lives.  This is largely for the sake of the Christian community, the Church: in so doing we build one other up and thus literally build the Church.  Jesus himself said that the world would know we are his followers by our love for one another (John 13:35), and St. Paul is simply repeating that maxim here.

Part Two: On Paul’s absence

And why, much more in my absence? St. John Chrysostom observed that the Philippians seemed perhaps at one time to be doing everything out of respect to Paul, and from a principle of shame, as if they didn’t want to disappoint him, but that would no longer be so!  If instead the Philippians make it evident that they now strive more earnestly, it is also made evident that their obedience was not out of consideration to Paul, but for God’s sake.  Obedience in the Christian context, after all, is not meant to be a work of fear lest we fail our master, but a motivation of love and earnest faith.  That’s why Paul is much more happy to note the obedience of the Philippians when he was absent – they were trying to live in caring humility toward one another even when “the boss” wasn’t watching.

With this positive look at their history, he now moves on to the big imperative, the instruction:

Part Three: On working out your own salvation

This can be a contentious phrase; people can get very defensive about their favorite doctrines when salvation is written of here as being something we must “work” on.  But we should be careful both in how we translate this and in how we frame it.  Saint Paul didn’t write “work on” or “work towards” your salvation, but to “work out” your salvation.  Or, to be super technical, to “work out the salvation of yourselves.”  So he’s not teaching salvation as something that we work to achieve, but something that we participate in.

We have to remember that salvation is not just a past-tense accomplishment of God; the Bible gives us past, present, and future definitions of salvation.  What Paul is drawing upon in this instance is the idea that Christians are “those in the process of being saved” (Luke 13:23, Acts 2:47, 2 Cor. 2:15), and this stands in contrast with “those in process of perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18).  As one commentator put it, “The saving effected by God at the time of our conversion does not place us into the salvation of heaven at one stroke; it makes us ‘those who have been saved’ (Eph. 2:5).  But until we attain the safety of heaven we must be kept safe in this dangerous world; the great salvation that is now ours must be kept ours, our heart’s hold upon it must be made ever stronger.  Paul speaks of that here.” – Lenski, Philippians, 798.

Welcome to the sometimes-contentious topics of sanctification and perseverance, where different Christian traditions might argue about all sorts of fine points of doctrine.  Let’s dig into this verse a bit more.  We are saved by grace alone, by baptism and conversion, and the new life is born in us and is nourished by God to develop ever greater spiritual strength, and this divinely-imparted strength must constantly constantly ‘work out the salvation of ourselves.’  Some theologians call this “synergy”, the idea that the new or Redeemed man is a co-worker with God in our spiritual growth (or sanctification) and perseverance.  In the past tense, we are saved by the “monergism” of God’s grace – that is, God alone gives us new life and justification and forgiveness from our sins.  But the danger for the Christian is that we waste God’s grace, grow presumptuous, and thus through our own fault lose the salvation bestowed on us by God.  Hence all those admonitions in Scripture to stir up the believer.  The grammar of the verb here in verse 12 is particular about this: “keep on working throughly” so as actually to persevere in God’s salvation.

So it is important to understand that We do not work out the salvation of ourselves by any kind of work-righteousness.  If you read on in this chapter, St. Paul refers us to the constant, faithful use of Word and Sacrament, the “Word of Life” in verse 16.  These means of grace renew and increase our hold on salvation, for it is the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16).  Our use of the means of grace in the Church is the vital part of the “working out” that we do.  Living people must eat to remain alive and strong; Word and Sacrament are our spiritual food and strength.  Only as the effect of our participation in these means of grace do we have what are called “good works,” the fight against sin, temptation, and error, and the efforts to do all that we do, even down to our eating and drinking to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).  Our only fear should be that we be remiss in using and in obeying the Word.

Part Three and a half: On fear & trembling

But let’s look at that line about fear and trembling, too.

In a sermon fifteen hundred years ago, Saint John Chrysostom observed, “Such fear had Paul: and therefore he said, I fear lest having preached to others, I myself should be rejected (1 Corinthians 9:27).  For if, without the aid of fear, temporal things can never be achieved, how much less spiritual matters?  For I desire to know, who ever learned to read and write without fear? Who has become proficient in any art, without fear? But if, when the devil does not lie in the way, where slothfulness is the only obstacle, some fear is necessary merely in order that we may master that natural slothfulness.  Where there is so fierce a war, so great hindrances, how can we by any possibility be saved without fear?”

So “fear” is not so much a matter of being frightened, much less being scared of God, but more the idea of motivation and determination.  We work to persevere in the salvation God has given us, fearing only that we should return to the kingdom of darkness.  God provides us with the strength we need to survive and remain in him; his promises are sure and eternal; we have no need to fear his wrath in our striving to follow him.

Part four: On God working in you

And that brings us to the last phrase in these verses today: God is working in us to enable both our wills and our works.

Some look at this and see a paradox.  If God is in our works and in our very wills, then how can Saint Paul say we must work out the salvation of ourselves?  The apparent paradox is non-existent.  If God is the one who works in us both the willing and the working, then we Christians must ever go to God whose continuous grace will move us to will and also to translate that will into deeds, that is, into work.  How else shall we be able to heed Paul’s admonition that we must keep on working out the salvation of ourselves?  Paul’s word is an assurance, the one assurance we Christians need for hanging onto the salvation we have obtained by a gift of God (Eph. 2:8).

Paul is assuring Christians that, in our complete dependence on God for our salvation, God will never, never disappoint us by working in us.  Rather, by working in us, through the Word and Sacraments, God will constantly bring us to persevere in our willing and to persevere in our working.  There is no uncertainty, no fear and trembling before God, but only gospel assurance that he is the very One to supply all that we need to keep willing as well as working.

In short, how do we keep willing and working on behalf of God’s good pleasure?  How do we persevere in this Christian life, holding securely to the gift of life Christ has given us from the Cross?  By seeking his strength in Word and Sacrament, yielding our will and effort to its blessed contents and purpose.

O God, because without you we are not able to please you,
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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How to Praise God (with Psalm 145)

This was the sermon for this past Sunday.

Here’s the recording from 20 September 2020; below are some notes you can follow.

This may feel like a silly question, but it’s an important question to get past: do you have trouble with praising God? I grew up in the church and I still had this problem – why should we praise God? Can’t we take it for granted that he is good and perfect and holy and just, and move on to more edifying preaching and teaching? Thankfully I was not alone in this odd little problem; the famous writer C. S. Lewis also struggled with the subject when he returned to the Church as an adult.

Reflections on the Psalms, paragraph 2 from page 90 to 91 – This is the challenge of praise; paragraph from page 93 to 95 – This is the heart of why we praise.

So the next question, once we understand that it is just and right to praise God, is how to praise him.  As Lewis implied, and as I’m sure many of you have also experienced, there are a number of examples of praise out there which are uncouth, trite, embarrassing, hard to read or sing seriously.  Sometimes the praise of God, especially the language of loving Jesus, gets overrun by the bad examples such that it can be difficult to reclaim the goodness and rightness of praising God with an honest and sincere heart.  If closing your eyes and raising your arms in a show of ecstasy isn’t your style, as the megachurches and the charismatic movement have encouraged, how instead can you praise God and express love to him without pretending to be someone you’re not?

Thankfully, God’s Word provides.  Many of the Psalms model for us words and expressions of praise, showing us positive examples of where our hearts should be directed, and how to describe our affections verbally.  Our Psalm today, Psalm 145, is one such example.

It’s an acrostic in Hebrew (Arumimcha I will magnify, B’chal-yom every day, Gadol great, Dor, etc.).  Most of the Hebrew manuscripts are missing the line for ‘N’, so some English translations (including the Coverdale translation from the psalms) skip it, or add it in with a footnote.  It also forms a loose chiastic structure:

A   v1-3           TIME        constant, daily, endless worship

B   v4-5           PEOPLE   worship tradition (passing it down), and “my” place in that tradition

C   v6-7           His Acts    God’s acts speak for themselves, praise is intrinsic

D   v8-9           Attributes  God’s attributes are celebrated

C’  v10-12       His Acts    God’s acts speak for themselves, evangelistically

B’  v15-16       PEOPLE   praise awaits God’s future blessings too

A’  v19-20       TIME        worship anticipates the eschaton (final end)

This illustrates the centrality of praising God for who he is, which is then illustrated by the great things he has done.  That, in turn, is couched and highlighted by the worship that God’s people offer him throughout time.

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Overlooking Anger in Forgiveness

This is a sermon outline for Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 27:30-28:7.

Introduce the book of Ecclesiasticus:

  • It was written by a man named Jesus, son of Sirach (Sirachedes) probably in the 2nd century BC
  • Translated into Greek by his grandson, possibly in Egypt, for the same reason the LXX (Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament) was made
  • Never fully adopted into the Bible by the Jews, Christians inherited it instead
  • The name “Ecclesiasticus” is due in part to the fact that this book (with the rest of the Apocrypha) is a Jewish text that was adopted by the ecclesia, the Church, instead of the synagogue

Richard Arnald, in his Critical Commentary on the Bible offers this summary:

The ancients styled this book by the Greek name panáretos, signifying that it treats of and comprises all sorts of virtues.  And indeed it is a system of mortality so full and comprehensive, as that there is scarce any virtue which this excellent piece does not recommend, and lay down rules for obtaining it; nor a piece of indecorum which it does not expose and discourage; it forms the manners of persons of all ages, sexes, and conditions, by an infinity almost of useful maxims and instructions.  One learns from it all the duties of religion and civil life, both what piety commands, and politeness and good manners expect.  Every one may here discover, so full and obvious is it, what he owes to God, to his country, his neighborhood, his family, and to himself; how to behave in the different relations of life, either to superiors or inferiors, friends or enemies; and so it may be thought as indeed some have represented it, to comprise all the duties of both tables: for the precepts which it delivers, and the principal matters which it treats of, may be divided into four sorts: 1. Theological. 2. Political. 3. Economical. 4. Ethical; or rules respecting all sorts of men indifferently, however placed or circumstantiated.  These four heads take in most, if not all, the maxims of this book, so that what lies dispersed in the great volumes of philosophers and moralists, is collected into a short compass, and to be found here as it were in miniature: in short, the author has given us at once a whole treasury of wisdom, and with great profusion has intermixed reflections, counsels, exhortations, reproofs, examples, prayers, praises, etc. so that truth appears in different attitudes and forms, but beautiful and engaging under each, and shines with so complicated a lustre, as cannot but draw attention, and command respect and admiration.

Critical Commentary on the Bible, Vol. 3, page 929

Our text today deals with the twin subjects of vengeance and forgiveness. Let’s look at it in four parts.

30 Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, and a sinful man will holds them fast.

  • Sinners are possessed of (hold fast to) these two passions, are tormented by them, and thus feel the anger & wrath of God too.
  • This sets us up to talk about vengeance, an enactment of anger and wrath.

1The one who seeks vengeance will be paid vengeance from the Lord, for he who keeps a record will have his own sins recorded.  2 Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.  3 Does one person harbor anger against another and yet seek for healing from the Lord?  4 Does he have no mercy toward someone like himself, and yet pray according to his own sins?  5 If he himself, being flesh, maintains wrath, who will make atonement for his sins? 

  • Sins/debts are pardoned in those who pardon, and condemns those who do not pardon. Cf. the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12
  • There’s a vast discrepancy between our sins against God and our sins against one another. Cf. the Gospel lesson from Matthew 18:24,26
  • Vengeance could be carried out in line with the Law of Moses (Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20), but was discouraged (Lev. 19:17-18, Dt. 32:35, Ps. 7:4, Heb. 10:30).

6 Remember the end of your life and cease from enmity, remember destruction and death and be true to the commandments. 

  • As a mortal, your hatred cannot be immortal.
  • See James 5:9 “grieve/grudge not your brother.”  As a man, you sin too, so be merciful to others.
  • “Remember corruption/destruction and death” à universally useful advice!

7 Remember the commandments and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High and overlook error.

  • “do not be angry with your neighbor” à hatred is murder, after all.
  • “overlook error” = transgressions of all sorts, forgive them their ignorance and sin

Like what we read from Romans 12 last week, this is some hefty moral teaching.  And, also like those instructions for Christian living, these too are firmly rooted in the Gospel.  We are to abstain from wrath and indignation, to withhold vengeance as much as we can, not simply because God’s the boss and we should leave it to him, but primarily because we too are sinners, but know the forgiveness of God!  In Christ our sins are forgiven and are being washed away for ever!  That is the beginning of eternal life!  And as Christians we are called to share that life with others, to invite the whole world to the Holy Table and feed upon the bread of life.  They have to come to Jesus, to have to feed on him in their own hearts by faith, and with thanksgiving, but we can offer them appetizers along the way.  We can forgive those who trespass against us; we can overlook the sins people commit against us; we can show mercy to those who owe us far less than we ever owed God.

And, indeed, we must be merciful and forgiving.  To withhold mercy and forgiveness, when we have been showed such incredible mercy and forgiveness from the Lord, is unconscionably hypocritical!  If you don’t believe it from the son of Sirach, take it from the Lord’s Prayer – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  If you don’t take the Lord’s Prayer to heart, heed the teachings of Christ in the parable: the unforgiving servant was thrown into prison until he should pay all his debt.  “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”  Unforgiveness is an anger, a wrath, that burns and tortures the one who holds it fast. Let go of it; don’t live an angry life; be free of it; walk in love, as Christ loved you.

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