Some Dangers of Heresy

St. Irenaeus is awesome.  He lived in one of the earliest generations of Christians,  his teachers know the Apostles personally, and he has such a way with words.  One of his surviving works that we have today is nifty little book called Against Heresies.  As you can imagine, the book is about why heresies are so bad.

Heresy is tricky word today.  Sometimes it’s thrown around willy-nilly, as if every false teaching is a heresy.  Sometimes it’s disregarded as an old-fashioned concept; “as long as you love Jesus,” it doesn’t matter what you believe.  But in reality, heresy is a very real and serious concept.  Unlike regular “false teachings” which Christians can survive even if they believe those mistakes, heresies are false teachings which prove someone is not a Christian at all.  So these aren’t just mistakes, they’re fatal mistakes.  An example of a false teaching is that Holy Communion is only a tool for us to remember Jesus’ death & resurrection – Christians can believe that and still be Christians.  An example of a heresy is that Jesus wasn’t really a human – if you believe that, you’ve got the Gospel wrong and your faith is not the Christian faith.

In his book, Irenaeus wrote some very handy explanations about what makes heresy so dangerous.

Some people abandon the teachings of the Church and fail to understand how a simple and devout person can have more worth than a philosopher who blasphemes without restraint.  Heretics are like that.

Here he’s pointing out that people who chase after heretical teachings are often putting knowledge and intellect above everything else.  In their quest for information, they neglect that Christianity calls us a life of religion – we are to be devout, we are to worship God.  As we might put it today, loving Jesus is just as important as knowing Jesus.

Heretics are always wanting to find something more true than truth.

This is insightful.  Jesus is the Truth; the Gospel is the truth; the Scriptures and the Church and the Holy Spirit bear witness to the truth.  But a heretic, again idolizing knowledge, isn’t satisfied with this truth, and looks for something more.  Unfortunately for them, that something doesn’t exist; you don’t get more Truth than Jesus!

The Church is like paradise on earth.  ‘You may eat freely of the fruit of every tree of the garden,’ says the Spirit of God.  In our case he means: Feed on the whole of Scripture, but do not do it with intellectual pride, and do not swallow the opinions of the heretics.  They pretend to possess the knowledge of good and evil, but they are impiously elevating their own intelligence above their Creator.

Now the condemnation of the heretics is spelled out.  They think they know something the rest of the Church doesn’t know, and have therefore fallen into spiritual pride.  We, in turn, are warned not to listen to their opinions, which Irenaeus continues to expound:

Beware!  By devouring the ideas of the heretics we banish ourselves from the paradise of life.

Heresy is likened to the “forbidden fruit” in the Garden of Eden.  It is food that kills us, like poison.  It’s one thing to live alongside heretics and listen to their views, but if we take those heresies to heart and believe them, then we’re separating ourselves from the Church, where the fruit of the Scriptures are available to feed and nourish us.  If we choose to eat poison, then of course we will sicken and die.

So, I suppose, we should take care to watch what we eat, spiritually speaking.  We should examine our young up-and-coming leaders to make sure they are devout, as well as intellectually capable.  Our teachers and preachers should be able to show how their teachings and sermons are founded upon the truth of God in Scripture, as understood by the Church, Christ’s body.  Intellectual pride is a dangerous vice, easily leading anyone into heresy, so we must always be humble, whether we’re teachers or learners, and take care to abide in Christ by abiding in His Church, where the garden of the Scriptures are open to us.

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A Semon on the Sacrifice on Easter Day

Today’s sermon is entitled SERMO DE SCARIFICIO IN DIE PASCÆ, or, A SERMON ON THE SACRIFICE ON EASTER-DAY. It was written by the Rev. Aelfric of Eynsham, who lived during the previous turn of the millennium, from 955 to 1010. Even though he passed away 1,005 years ago, over forty of his sermons survive to this day, and continue to witness to the Christian faith, which itself is timeless.

Introduction

Men þa leofostan, gelóme eow is gesæd ymbe ures Hælendes æriste, hú hé on ðisum andwerdan dæge, æfter his ðrowunge mihtiglice of deaðe arás…

(What, you don’t read Old English?  Let me start over.)

Beloved brethren, you often hear about our Savior’s resurrection, how on this day, after his passion, he mightily arose from death. I would now like to share with you, by God’s grace, concerning the Holy Communion which we celebrate, and hone your understanding of that mystery, according to the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments.

The Almighty God commanded Moses that he should command the people of Israel to take for every household a lamb on that first Passover night, before they left Egypt for the Promised Land. They were to offer that lamb to God, slaughter it, use its blood to make the sign of the cross on their door-posts (the top and bottom, and both sides), and then to eat the lamb’s flesh roasted, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Remember what God had said to Moses in Exodus 12, which was read to us earlier. He gave instructions on keeping the Passover, and then later that night was slain in every house throughout the realm of Pharaoh the first-born child. And Israel, the people of God, was delivered from that sudden death through the offering of the lamb, and the marking of its blood. Then God said to Moses, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:14-15a). After this deed, God led the people of Israel over the Red Sea on dry ground, but drowned there Pharaoh and all his army who had persecuted them, and then God fed the people of Israel for forty years with heavenly food, and gave them water from the hard stony rock, until they came to the Promised Land. Some of this story gets explored at other times; today we’ll focus on how this relates to Holy Communion.

Christ is in the Passover

Christians are not bound to the Law of Moses, but is fitting that we know what that Law teaches us spiritually. The innocent lamb, which the Old Israel then slaughtered, was a spiritual token or sign of Christ’s passion: he was innocent, he shed his blood for our redemption. This is referenced in the Communion service when we sing the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, who takes the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” The Israelites were delivered from sudden death, and from slavery to Pharaoh through the offering of the lamb, which was a token or sign of Christ’s passion, through which we are redeemed from eternal death and slavery to the devil, if we rightly believe in the true Redeemer of the world, Jesus Christ. The Israelites marked their doors, with the blood of the lamb. the letter tau, which resembles the Cross, and so were shielded from the angel who slew the firstborn children of the Egyptians. And we also should mark our foreheads and bodies with the sign of Christ’s cross, that we may be saved from destruction, when we are marked both on the forehead and in the heart with the blood of our Lord’s passion.

The people of Israel ate the flesh of the lamb at their Eastertide, when they were delivered, and we now partake spiritually of Christ’s body, and drink his blood, when with true belief we partake of the Holy Communion. The time they held as their Eastertide, the seven days, in which they were delivered from Pharaoh, and departed from Egypt is paralleled for us as we hold Christ’s resurrection as our Eastertide, during these seven days, because, through his passion and resurrection, we are redeemed, and we shall be purified by partaking of the Holy Communion, as Christ himself said in his gospel, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:48-51). Jesus hallowed the bread before his passion and distributed it to his disciples saying “Eat this, it is my body, do this for my remembrance.” Afterward he blessed wine in a cup, and said “All of you, drink this, this is my blood, which shall be shed for many in forgiveness of sins.” The Apostles did as Christ commanded, by afterwards hallowing bread and wine for Communion for his remembrance. In the same way, those who followed them, and all priests to this day, at Christ’s command, hallow bread and wine for Communion, in his name, with the Apostolic blessing.

Christ is in the Holy Communion

Now some people have wondered how the bread, which is prepared from wheat and baked, can be changed to Christ’s body; or the wine, which is pressed from many grapes, can by any blessing be changed to the Lord’s blood? The answer, we say, is that some things are said of Christ as tokens and signs, and other things are known as they are. So for example, it is a true and certain thing that Christ was born of a virgin, and of his own will suffered death, and was buried and on this day arose from death. But he is called bread as a token or sign, and also a lamb, and a lion, and whatever else. He is called bread as a type of his life-giving nature. He is called a lamb for his innocence. He is called a lion for the strength by which he overcame the strong devil. But yet, according to his true nature, Christ is neither bread nor a lamb nor a lion. Why then is the Holy Communion called Christ’s body or his blood, if it is not truly that which it is called? Well, the bread and wine which are hallowed in the Mass appear one thing to human understanding without, and declare themselves another thing to believing minds within! On the outside they appear bread and wine, both in appearance and in taste; but they are truly, after the hallowing, Christ’s body and his blood through a spiritual mystery.

If we look at Holy Communion in a bodily sense, then we see that it is corruptible and changeable bread and wine. But if we distinguish its spiritual might, then we understand that there is life in it, and that it gives immortality to those who partake of it with belief. Great is the difference between the invisible might of Holy Communion and the visible appearance of its own nature. By nature it is corruptible bread and corruptible wine, yet is by the power of the divine Word truly Christ’s body and his blood; not however, bodily but spiritually. Great is the difference between the body in which Christ suffered, and the body which is hallowed for Holy Communion. The body in which Christ truly suffered was born of Mary, with blood and with bones, with skin and sinews, with human limbs, with a rational soul. His spiritual body, which we call the host in Holy Communion, is gathered from many grains of wheat, without blood and bone, limbless and soulless, and there is therefore nothing to be understood there bodily, but is to be entirely understood spiritually. Whatever there is in Holy Communion which gives us the substance of life comes from its spiritual power and invisible effect. Therefore Holy Communion is called a mystery, because there we see one thing, yet understand something else. What we see has its own physical appearance, and what we understand there has spiritual might. Truly Christ’s body which suffered death, and from death arose, will never die again; it’s eternal and indestructible. The Communion, on the other hand, is temporary, not eternal; corruptible and is distributed in pieces; it’s chewed between teeth and digested; but every piece of it, nevertheless, by spiritual strength, is the body of Christ. Multiple people receive a piece of the bread, and every piece of it is his body, by a spiritual miracle. And even if one person has a smaller piece than someone else, there is no more power in the large piece than the smaller; because Christ is entirely present in each piece, by the Spirit’s working.

The bottom line is, this mystery is a pledge and a symbol; Christ’s body is truth. We hold this pledge mystically until we see him face to face, and then will this pledge be ended. But it is, as I before said, Christ’s body and his blood, not bodily but spiritually. We are not to inquire how it is done, but to hold in our belief that it is so done.

We are in the Holy Communion

Paul the Apostle said of the old people of Israel in his one of his epistles: “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). The rock from which the water flowed was not Christ bodily, but it was a token or sign of Christ, who himself cried out, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38). This he said of the Holy Spirit, received by all who believed in him. The Apostle Paul said that the people of Israel ate the same spiritual meat and drank the same spiritual drink, because the heavenly meat which fed them forty years, and the water which flowed from the stone, were a type or sign of Christ’s body and his blood, which are now offered daily in God’s Church! But they are the same not bodily, but spiritually.

Thus we find a timeless aspect of the mystery of Christ’s spiritual body and blood. Consider this: before his passion, for Holy Communion, Jesus said, “This is my body and my blood.” He had not yet suffered, but nevertheless, he changed the bread to his own body and the wine to his blood by spiritual power. He had done just the same thing before in the wilderness for the Israelites, before he was even born as a man – when he had changed the manna to his flesh and the water flowing from the rock to his own blood. Moses and Aaron and many others who pleased God ate that heavenly bread, and as a result they didn’t die the eternal death, even though their physical bodies died. For although they saw that the heavenly food was visible and corruptible, they understood spiritually concerning the visible thing, and partook of it spiritually. Jesus said “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall have everlasting life” (John 6:54). He did not command his physical body to be eaten, nor the blood to be drunk which he shed for us; but he meant that Holy Communion, which is spiritually his body and blood; and whoever tastes that with believing heart shall have everlasting life!

Christ suffered once through himself, but yet his passion is renewed daily through the mystery of Holy Communion; therefore Communion is a celebration both of the living and the departed. For, we also have to consider that the Holy Communion is both the body of Christ and of all believing people. This is a spiritual mystery. As St. Augustine said of it, “If you will understand concerning the body of Christ, hear the apostle Paul, thus saying, ‘You are truly Christ’s body and members’ (Romans 12:27). Now your mystery is laid out on God’s table, and you receive your mystery, which you yourselves are. Be that which you see on the altar, and receive that which you yourselves are.” Again the apostle Paul said of this, “We who are many are one bread and one body” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Understand now and rejoice; many people are united as one bread and one body in Christ! He is our head, and we are his members. The bread is not made from one grain of wheat, but of many; nor the wine of one grape, but of many. So we should also have unity in our Lord, as it is written of the Church in the book of Acts, that they were in so great unity that they were said to be of one soul and one heart.

Christ hallowed on his table the mystery of our peace and our unity. Those who receive the mystery of unity, but don’t hold the bond of peace, do not receive the mystery for themselves, but as a witness against themselves. Great good it is to us that we frequently go to Holy Communion if we bear innocence in our hearts to the altar, if we aren’t possessed with sins. But for the wicked it turns to no good, but to condemnation if he unworthily receives Holy Communion.

Also, tradition mandates that water be mixed with the wine to be blessed for Communion because water is symbolic of the people, as the wine is symbolic of Christ. Neither should be offered without the other in the Mass, representing that Christ may be with us and we with him; the head with its members and the members with their head.

How we are to receive Holy Communion

I would like to talk about the Old Covenant Passover Lamb: we’ll look at how it relates to us in Holy Communion, and how the original Passover instructions have spiritual application for us as Christians.

The lamb was offered at their Eastertide, and the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians that Christ is our Passover, who was sacrificed for us, and on this day arose from death. Israel ate the flesh of the lamb, as God commanded, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Regarding, first, the unleavened bread, we should partake of the Holy Communion, Christ’s body and blood, without the leaven of malice and evil. As leaven changes wheat into bread, so also sins change us from innocence to corruption. The Apostle Paul taught that we should not feast on the “leaven of malice and evil, but on the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). As for the bitter herbs, which the Israelites were to eat with the unleavened bread is bitter to the taste; likewise we should purify our minds with the bitterness of true repentance, if we desire to partake of Christ’s body.

As for the lamb itself, God commanded them not to eat it raw, nor boiled in water, but roasted in fire. To partake of Christ’s body “raw” would be to come forward ignorantly with no preparation at all, thinking Christ was merely human like us, and not God. To partake of the lamb “boiled in water” would be like trying to understand Christ from a human perspective, which is better than no preparation at all, but still insufficient. Rather, we are to know the mystery of Christ’s incarnation through the power of the Holy Spirit, which came in the form of fire to the Apostles. Thus we eat the lamb “roasted in fire.”

Additionally, Israel was to eat the lamb’s head, and the feet, and its innards, and have no leftovers overnight. If anything remained, it was to be burnt in the fire. Also, they were not supposed to break the lamb’s bones. In a spiritual sense, we eat the lamb’s head when we believe the divinity of Christ, and when we believe Christ’s humanity, we are eating the feet of the lamb; for Christ is the head and the feet, beginning and end, God before all worlds and man at the ending of the world. And then, what are the innards but Christ’s commands? We eat those innards when we eagerly receive the Word of Life. Also, nothing of the lamb must remain until morning because the words of God are to be considered with great attention while we live in the darkness of the present age, before the morning of Christ’s return. But if we cannot fully understand the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, then we should at least commit ourselves humbly to the power and instruction of the Holy Spirit, who will lead us into all truth as we are able to receive it.

The Israelites also were to be dressed and equipped in a certain way while eating the lamb: with their belt fastened [or in earlier translations, “their loins girded”], with their shoes on, and with their staff in hand.   As for the belt being fastened: under the belt are the loins, symbolizing the lust of the body. When we come to receive Holy Communion we are to bind up lust, and receive the sacrament in purity. The Israelites were to eat the Passover with their shoes on. For us this symbolizes that we are to be walking in the paths of God’s Saints of old, imitating their lives and obedience to God’s commandments. The staff in hand, finally, symbolizes leadership and care. Those who are elders in the faith should take care of newer believers, and support them with their aid. This is especially true with parents teaching their children the faith of Christ, but points us to care for one another also in our church family.

The Israelites were also instructed to eat the Passover quickly. One of the things that this shows us is that God hates idleness in his servants, whereas He loves those who seek the joy of everlasting life without delay! Finally, they were instructed not to break the lamb’s bones. This prefigured how the soldiers who hanged Christ would not break his legs, as they did to the thieves who hung on either side of him.

In closing, this holiday is called Pascha in Hebrew and Greek, Transitus in Latin, and Passover in English; because on this day God’s people passed from the land of Egypt over the Red Sea, from slavery to the Promised Land. Our Lord also passed at this time: from this world to his heavenly father. We should follow our head, and pass from the devil to Christ, from this unsteady world to his steadfast kingdom. But we should first, in our present life, pass from sins to holy virtues, from vices to good morals, if we desire, after this transitory life, to pass to the life everlasting and to Jesus Christ, after our resurrection. May he lead us to his Living Father, who gave him to death for our sins. To him be glory and praise for that great grace, to all eternity. Amen.

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On Sacrifices

This is my Palm Sunday Sermon on the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

There are, arguably, two giant holidays of the Christian faith. One is Christmas, and the other is Easter. Between them they proclaim and celebrate the two most important facts of the Gospel: in Christmas, God became man; in Easter, Jesus conquered death through bodily resurrection. Other great holidays center around these two big events: the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary (which we celebrated this past Wednesday) is the great precursor to Christmas, much like how Holy Week (which begins today) is the great precursor to Easter. Other great holidays are extensions of these celebrations, such as the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the celebration of the Epiphany, and the communion of all God’s Saints.

When we put all these great Gospel moments together, we have a full summary of the Gospel – the Good News for this world of God in Jesus Christ. But rarely do we have the time and attention span to attend to all them at once. The Creeds give us that quick summary, but they’re hardly features of conversation when we’re trying to explain what we believe to people who aren’t Christian. The best we can do is to share them different parts of the Gospel story bit by bit. And some parts of the Gospel are easier to share than others. Today, Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, a series of days focusing on the suffering and death of Jesus. This is one of the trickiest things to explain to people. When I say “Jesus died for your sins,” you, who believe in him, rejoice. You hear words of pain and sadness, but you know in your heart that there is real power and meaning behind that message. But when someone who does not know Christ hears those words, their response is something like “so what?”

“Jesus died for your sins. So what?” It’s a difficult question, sometimes even for us to answer clearly. What does this horrific death on the Cross have to do with our sins? If he died because of our sins, wouldn’t it just add to our list of sins if we’re somehow guilty of crucifying him too? The answer to this question is rooted in the ancient concept of a sacrifice.

What is a sacrifice?

It is the act of making something holy, either by setting it aside to be used exclusively for God’s glory in a particular way, or by totally destroying it so it can’t be used by anyone on earth anymore. The very first sacrifice recorded in the Bible is in the Garden of Eden, even before sin entered the picture. God provided Adam and Eve with a garden. They were given free reign to cultivate it, and given only one rule: you may not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That one tree, out of goodness knows how many trees and plants in that garden, was to be their sacrifice to God. They could eat from anything except that one. By not eating from it, they were setting it aside for God as something special. Part of the original sin was violating that sacrifice and eating from it, taking away from God what was rightfully His.

After that original sin, the concept of sacrifice took on a new meaning. As Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, God gave them animal skins to wear as clothing. That meant that He had killed some animals to preserve the life of Adam and Eve. That became a new layer of meaning for sacrifices ever since: the death of one object or creature saves someone else from death.

Sometimes this is more symbolic than anything else. The Patriarchs like Abel and Noah and Abraham all offered sacrifices to God of various types simply as acts of worship. They were thanking God for providing them food and making promises to them, and gave back to God the best portion of what was given them. By doing this they were doing two things: they were acknowledging that their life was dependent upon God’s provision for them, and they were (in a way) restoring the Tree of Knowledge by setting aside a portion of their possessions or food.

Later on, when God instituted the Priesthood of Aaron and his descendants, a more vivid type of sacrifice was established. In addition to these sacrifices of thanksgiving and acknowledgment of God’s lordship, there were now also sacrifices for sin. Like the animals that God killed in order to clothe Adam and Eve, the Israelites were now taught to sacrifice certain spotless and clean animals to pay for their sins against God. In order to preserve life, something else must die. It sounds harsh, but if you look at the world around you, you’ll see it everywhere. Simply eating food is an example. Countless plants and animals have died so that we might eat them. The relationship of death and life is profound.

We could go on and examine in great detail the various types of sacrifices that the Law of Moses proscribed, but I think that’s enough background to apply this to the sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross.

The Sacrifice of Jesus

All of these layers of meaning of a sacrifice apply to what Jesus did on the Cross: the original setting aside of our best for God, the acknowledgement of God’s lordship over us, and the payment for our sins.

First, we know from the Scriptures and from personal experience that we all sin. Sin holds us back from God; it creates a separation that needs to be bridged. In order to do that, we needed to restore a perfect act of worship and sacrifice to God, at least as good as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.   Jesus is that sacrifice. In all of creation, there is no more worthy person or thing ever to have existed. By setting him aside and giving him back to God, all of creation gave of its best in a sacrificial offering. There is no greater act of worship than to proclaim the perfection of Christ above everyone and everything that has ever existed, or ever will exist.

Second, the sacrifice of Christ acknowledges God’s lordship over us. This seems a little strange to us until we consider what God’s plan was all along. In Revelation 13, St. John describes Jesus as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” He reveals there that since the beginning of creation, God was planning on redeeming us through his Son. And you all know Jesus’ famous words, “nobody comes to the Father but through me.” Thus we find that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is just part of God’s plan that we simply need to trust in. Whether or not we fully understand it, we look to Christ on the Cross for our redemption and our hope.

Third, Christ’s sacrifice is also a payment for sins. The Old Testament sacrifice of animals was a symbol of this. Killing and eating animals only gives us life for a short time. The insufficiency of those old sacrifices was actually demonstrated in how they were carried out. For the animals’ blood was always to be poured out on the ground and on the altar – given to God. The Israelites were forbidden to drink the blood because the blood symbolized the life essence of the animal, and they could not receive eternal life from animals. But with the sacrifice of Jesus, we know that his death can bring about eternal life for us because of what he himself said: “this cup is my blood of the New Covenant; drink it!” So the basic rule of sacrifice – one death brings about life for another – is magnified in Christ to be something greater: one death brings about life for all!

The sacrifice of Christ, thus, fulfills every Old Testament expectation and puts into place everything we know about God, about mankind, and the sin that divides us. The response to his sacrifice, now, is what we need to pay attention to.

What comes next?

One thing we need to do in response is to follow his example. After all, if we really do believe that God deserves the best of everything, and that it is a right and good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give him thanks, then we should live accordingly. When we receive earthly blessings we pass on our tithes and offerings to God. When we enjoy all that is good and beautiful in this world, we enjoy them with an eye on Christ, the perfectly good and beautiful one of creation. Our very system of values is reshaped by this reality. If Christ is so worthy a sacrifice, and God is so worthy a God, then we need to tell the world. Everybody’s looking for something, everybody has a hungry heart, everybody needs somebody, everyone wants someone to love. If we’re so sure we’ve found it, we’ve got to tell people! This is what Jesus did both in life and death, after all. He preached of the coming Kingdom, and how to join it.

Beyond this proclamation of the Gospel, we’re also called to participate in the Gospel. As we order our outward lives according to the witness of Christ, so should we order our inward lives. We continue to meet together to worship God week by week. We gather together at other times, too, to encourage and instruct one another. This is what participation in the Body of Christ looks like. And the end result that we’re anticipating is to participate in Christ’s resurrection.

So, as we dwell on these dark moments of the Gospel story, surrounding the horrific death of Christ, I want you neither to shy away from the gory details nor to despair in your guilt. Yes, Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the Cross was horrible, painful, and a bleak moment in the history of creation. But to the eyes of faith, the glory and love and plan of God shines forth. Weep and mourn your sins, but rejoice in his grace and power even more heartily! For Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast. Amen.

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Holy Communion as a Spiritual Discipline

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

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

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

PART ONE: Going to the service of Holy Communion

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

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

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

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

PART TWO: Participating in the Communion liturgy

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

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

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

PART THREE: Receiving the Body & Blood of our Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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What is Pop-Evangelicalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the Ordering of Spiritual Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Centrality of Liturgy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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