Article 28: Holy Communion

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 28 states:

XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

The doctrine of Holy Communion is a complex subject with a great deal of development in the language describing it over the course of history, and, with the advent of the Reformation, a proliferation of teachings regarding what it is, what happens in it, and how it works. Today the popular conception is to reduce it to two views: the “Protestant” view which says that Communion is purely a symbolic act that we do to remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, and the “Catholic” view which says that the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ. (In an extra twist of irony, the usually-literal-only Protestants here accuse the Catholics of being too literal in their reading of Scripture!)

In actual fact, though, there is a variety of teachings among various Protestant churches that run the gamut from one extreme to the other. I generally group them into three categories, each with their own particulars and nuances: realism, spiritualism, and absenteeism.

A realist view takes Christ’s words at face value (“This is my body…”) and accounts this as a central argument for the sacramental nature of Holy Communion – that it is a means of grace from which we benefit. The mode of Christ’s presence, how his Body and Blood are there, is of some debate among realists: Roman Catholic dogma upholds transubstantiation (the bread and wine become the body and blood), Luther taught that the body and blood are comingled with the bread wine, the Eastern Orthodox Church generally doesn’t venture a coherent explanation, preferring the mystery. Most of the Early Church Fathers taught a form of realism.

A spiritualist view asserts Christ’s presence in a spiritual manner: Christ is present in the celebration of Holy Communion at the table, not necessarily in or with the bread and wine specifically. John Calvin is one of the foremost theologians in this tradition, whose views went on to dominate the Reformed churches and heavily influence the early Anglican reformers. Although attention is often drawn away from the instrumental use of the bread and wine, these views still insist that Holy Communion is a real sacrament. Versions of the spiritualist view can be discerned in the writings of the Early Church Fathers.

An absentee view argues the “real absence” of Christ: the bread and wine are only reminders of Christ’s sacrifice, and the act of Holy Communion is not a sacrament (means of grace) but an ordinance (command of God). Proponents of this view usually refer to it as memorialism, but they mean that term in a reductionist manner: it’s all about men remembering God, rather than the biblical richness of the word which usually refers to God’s remembering of man. One of the first major Protestant champions of this sort of view was Ulrich Zwingli, and absenteeism eventually became the predominant evangelical view in 20th century America. For most of Church history, this view was considered a false teaching at best, and heresy at worst.

Pinning down the Anglican teaching on Holy Communion is a challenge. The language of Article 28 here is heavily slanted in the spiritualist direction, because many of the English reformers were informed by Calvinist theology in Geneva. The language of the Prayer Book is heavily slanted in the realist direction, because (despite themselves) the English reformers tended to be liturgically conservative. Furthermore, because the Church of England was a state church, its leaders had to work very hard to formulate their Articles of Religion in a way that would satisfy a range of opinions – to a point. Thus Article 28 sounds very Calvinistic, but has a few turns of phrase that keep the door open for realists who were more informed by Lutheran teaching.

It begins with a negative statement: Holy Communion “is not only a sign of the love…” This rules out Zwingli’s memorialism or absenteeism, asserting instead that it “is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death”. It goes on to assert that those who receive the bread and wine with faith are partakers of Chris’s Body and Blood. This statement straddles both the realist and spiritualist views without stepping on anyone’s toes except those who reject the sacramental nature of Holy Communion. If we can be sure of anything about the Anglican doctrine of Holy Communion, it’s that it is a real act of God, giving grace to those who receive it.

The second statement is a rejection of the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. Specifically, Article 28 says that transubstantiation “overthrows the nature of a sacrament.” This is, in fact, the most direct way to criticize the Roman doctrine. A Sacrament is a means of grace – God’s use of an ordinary earthly thing to convey a special heavenly thing. The doctrine of transubstantiation, asserting that the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine except in mere appearance, breaks down the definition of a sacrament. If it’s only Christ’s body and blood, how is it any longer an earthly vehicle for Christ’s body and blood?

The third statement is where a Calvinist spiritualist view most directly takes charge, teaching that the Body [and Blood] of Christ is “given, taken, and eaten… only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.” This clearly takes the emphasis off the idea that Christ is truly present, body and soul, in the Sacrament, and directs our attention toward our own faithful participation in Christ through the Sacrament. The concession to the realist view, however, is found in the word “given” – the Body of Christ “is given” in the Sacrament. Anglican teaching clearly keeps us away from the Roman doctrine, and doesn’t put Lutheran teaching in the fore, in favor of Calvinist teaching, yet makes a little room for Lutheran teaching if the individual is so convinced from the Scriptures. We have room for a little disagreement in these details, thanks be to God.

The fourth and final statement of Article 28 is that Holy Communion was not instituted to be “reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped”. These refer to various customs of the time. The reservation of the Sacrament is the practice of setting aside some consecrated bread to bring to the sick or homebound after the liturgy was ended. The Sacrament was “carried about” on solemn holidays such as Corpus Christi, when a procession around the neighborhood would have some consecrated bread on display. The just-consecrated bread was “lifted up” during the Communion prayers so the faithful could see it and be blessed. The consecrated bread was “worshipped” or rather, adored in special liturgies and in private as an extra devotion to Christ in his sacramental presence. Many of these practices have worked their way back into Anglican tradition in the past century, safely removed from the medieval superstitions that had overtaken them by the 16th century when these Articles were written.

Article 29 will cover more of this subject, so stay tuned…

Advertisements
Posted in Theological | Tagged | Leave a comment

Extraordinary Forgiveness

This is a version of my sermon from 17 September 2017.

What we have in this Gospel passage is a classic teaching strategy that our Lord uses often: he gives a straight-forward didactic statement and follows it up with a parable to illustrate what he means.  The teaching is simple: Christians are called to extraordinary forgiveness.

As we seek to understand this, it should first be emphasized that this passage directly continues from last week’s passage about church discipline.  There we heard about the three step process of reconciling impenitent sinners with Christ and the Church: go to that person yourself, then bring other witnesses, and finally bring it before the Church authorities gathered in council.  The goal there was to bring the sinner to a place of recognition of sin so that he or she could repent and be restored.  The predictable question that Peter now brings up is how many times we should let someone get away with this.  If we’ve got a repeat offender, how many strikes until they’re out?  Jesus teaches us that the quest to regain one’s brother or sister in Christ must be laden with forgiveness!

Digging In

It should be pointed out that the call to forgive one’s brother 70×7 times is an amplification of what is found in Genesis 4:10-15, where God swears to take vengeance on anyone who harms Cain seven times.

And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.  And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”  Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.  Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.”  Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.

Grace, mercy, and forgiveness existed in the Old Testament, but is expanded all the more in the New Testament!  Never fall into that awful trap of thinking the Old Testament is all doom and gloom versus the sunshiney New Testament of love and forgiveness.  There is no such division.

Let’s also not forget the Lord’s Prayer and its context (Matthew 6:12-15): “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses
.”  Particularly note the fact that we must forgive others if we are indeed to be forgiven ourselves.

Am I an Unforgiving Servant?

The reading from Sirach 27 and 28 gives an excellent insight into the mind of the unforgiving servant himself, and should be used for one’s own self examination.  For those whose eyebrows rise at the mention of books like Sirach, I would like to quote from the Articles of Religion, one of our Anglican formularies that we’ve been exploring this year.  “And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”.  This is precisely how we’re using Sirach right now, learning about godly living.  With that in mind, let’s revisit that passage (27:30-28:7), because it describes the unforgiving servant brilliantly!  It’s almost as if Jesus had this sort of wisdom teaching in mind when he made up this parable.  As we look at this, I want you take heed from Jesus’ warning at the end – that the unforgiving servant is thrown into debtors prison after all.  We must be forgiving people in order to truly understand and receive the forgiveness of God.  With that in mind, let’s look at what an unforgiving person is like.

Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, and the sinful man will possess them.

We begin with the reminder that anger and wrath are native to the sinful heart.

He that takes vengeance will suffer vengeance from the Lord, and he will firmly establish his sins.

Furthermore, when we act in unrighteous anger, we “firmly establish” that sin, making it worse.

Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.

Instead we must forgive those who wrong us, that we may also be able to receive God’s forgiveness.

Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet seek for healing from the Lord?

Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself, and yet pray for his own sins?

The lines about harboring anger but then praying to God for ones own forgiveness is especially poignant: this is spiritual hypocrisy, and even we may fool others and even ourselves, there is no fooling God, who looks upon the heart.

If he himself, being flesh, maintains wrath, who will make expiation for his sins?

Maintaining wrath – clinging to your rights to your own anger – is itself sinful.

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

Instead we should look ahead to the end of our lives; remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return; consider the reality of the final judgment, and be true to the commandments – the teachings of Christ.

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

The summary verse emphasizes knowledge: it is good to know the commandments and the covenant, and ignorance ought to be overlooked, or leniently forgiven.  If one sins because of ignorance, they need instruction much more than they need punishment.  Again, this conforms excellently to the context of Christ’s teachings: the goal of all discipline is reconciliation.

The Easiest way to forgive is to remember you’re forgiven.

As we close with an eye to what positive teaching we can learn today, it is that the easiest way to forgive others is to remember that you yourself have been forgiven.  There are a number of things that we can take home today to helps us remember this basic lesson.

One is the Collect of the Day.  “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.”  If we understand that forgiveness is an important part of God’s stance towards his people. If he is indeed to direct and Rule our hearts, then we must definitely learn how to forgive others.

Another resource is the Lord’s Prayer.  I hope you pray this at least every day, not just when you’re in a corporate worship setting.  On your own you can pray at your own pace, emphasize different lines more personally, pause and give more thought to the words you are saying.  Consider especially this week the half-line “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  When you pray that, you’re making a promise, in line with our Lord’s own teaching.  See that you follow through on that promise.

And last of all I’ll leave you with our Lord’s final words in this discourse.  “`You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till 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.”  He could not make it any clearer.  Forgive those who wrong you.  He who would be judge presumes to take the throne of Christ for himself.  Forgive your brother from your heart.

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

Article 27: Baptism

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 27 states:

XXVII. Of Baptism

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

Unlike some of the 39 Articles of Religion, Article 27 is worded in a way that is extremely pertinent to our 21st century theological situation.  The doctrine of Baptism among our fellow Protestants has drastically changed over the centuries, so it is easy for us to lose track of what our historic tradition has received from the Early Church and held on to ever since.

It begins with a negative: Baptism is not just “a sign of profession, and mark of difference” by which a Christian is distinguished from a non-Christian.  Practically speaking, this is almost the entirety of what many contemporary evangelicals believe.  To be a Christian, they say, you simply need to have faith in Jesus Christ.  Baptism is simply a sign or symbol of that new life, and so when we become believers we get baptized in order to declare our faith publicly.  Article 27 says no, there’s much more to it than that.

Baptism is also “a sign of Regeneration or new Birth” and an “instrument” to bring about certain effects.  While most evangelical protestants can affirm the first phrase, that Baptism is a sign or symbol of regeneration (our new life in Christ), we lose them at the second concept, an “instrument.”  Historic biblical Christian teaching tells us that Baptism actually does something; it’s an instrument in the hands of God and the Church to bring about certain effects.  And Article 27 lists four things that Baptism does:

  1. Baptism grafts people (who “receive it rightly” into the Church). This statement can be understood according to slightly different nuances.  At the basic level, this affirms that despite its benefits, Baptism does not guarantee its recipient’s salvation.  The gift of Holy Baptism must in some way and at some point “received rightly” by the individual; that is, faith in Jesus Christ must complete its good work. Some Anglicans get even more specific in their understanding of this phrase, arguing that even the benefits of Holy Baptism described in this Article are not automatically conferred by the act of Baptism unless the sacrament is received rightly.  However one parses this out, the basic fact remains that all who are Baptized have become members of the Body of Christ, and are to be called Christian unless or until they specifically forsake the name of Christ.
  2. Baptism visibly signs and seals “the promises of forgiveness of sin, and our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost”. At face value, this means that the recipient of Holy Baptism is justified and adopted in the biblical sense.  On its own, this phrase is a harsh contradiction with popular evangelicalism today, which attributes such benefits to individual “saving faith” which precedes Baptism.  Even Calvinist theology would scorn such an assertion, hence the nuance they tend to make in the previous point.  But the next effect of Baptism helps shed more light on this.
  3. In Baptism, “Faith is confirmed”. This may seem like a statement in accord with modern popular evangelicalism in a context where only adult believers are baptized, but considering Anglicans also baptize infants, this is an interesting statement.  Since the Enlightenment, the concept of faith has been strongly associated with the mind and the will, as if only the mature thinker can truly be said to “have faith” in anything.  But this does not accord either with the Scriptures or with reason.  Take, for example, the preaching of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).  Consider also the severely mentally handicapped, who grow up never being able to understand Christianity with their intellect – are they incapable of having faith?  Rather, we understand faith is a gift from God which manifests in the intellect if and when the intellect is sufficiently developed, but may be resident in the person’s heart regardless.  In this light, Holy Baptism “confirms” the faith even of an infant.  He or she is being raised in the knowledge and love of the Lord by the parents, their faith is said to be child’s, and so Baptism confirms that faith-by-association.
  4. In Baptism, “Grace [is] increased by virtue of prayer unto God”. The basic definition of a sacrament is a “means of grace,” and this statement clearly sets forth Baptism as a sacrament.  “Prayer unto God” is given here as the means by which the sacrament works, thus reminding us that the baptismal water is not intrinsically magical, or are the formulaic words “I baptize you in the name of…” a magical incantation.  Rather, the sacrament is effective by virtue of its prayerful nature.  It is God who gives grace, as He has promised to answer such prayers.

Thus in this short Article we have a robust staring point in understanding the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  Though to understand Anglican teachings more fully, one must also look at the Baptismal liturgy – what is said and prayed in that service – to get a more complete picture of what is going on in the act of Baptism, and what the status of the baptized person is.

Article 27 ends with a seemingly curt and abrupt sentence, that the baptism of infants is agreeable to the teachings of Christ.  In some ways this can be frustrating to modern readers.  Infant baptism is extensively derided by evangelical protestants today, written off as unbiblical, and considered pointless or meaningless or invalid.  Many people who were baptized as infants and join an evangelical church later in life find themselves getting “rebaptized.”  And yet, this Article provides no explanation or defense of infant baptism whatsoever.  It would have been handy to have such a resource more readily at our disposal.  But the power of this brief statement is this: the idea of adult-only baptism was such a fringe opinion in the 1500’s when this was written that it was even considered worth arguing over.  All the English Reformers felt the need to say was that infant baptism was good and valid.  What confidence we can find in such a brief declaration!  We may feel outnumbered among Protestants on this issue today, but the testimony of history is mightily stacked in favor of infant baptism such that we need not feel threatened by popular fads to the contrary.

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

On the Ordination of Women in 2017

Perhaps the most noteworthy bugbear of the Anglican Church in North America is the fact that we have (fiercely) divided opinions on the subject of the ordination of women.  The status quo set forth in the Constitution & Canons since the ACNA was founded has been two fold: 1) only men are to be ordained bishops, 2) each diocese chooses whether or not to ordain women as deacons and/or priests.  Thus we have members who are vehemently opposed to women in collars, so to speak, and others who are absolutely committed to it.

Knowing that this is a precarious compromise, at best, the Bishops initiated a 5-year study on the subject via the Theological Task Force for Holy Orders.  They drew up a plan to study Anglican methods of hermeneutics (that is, how to interpret the Scriptures), what different parties within the Anglican tradition believe about the Church and the ministry, the various passages of Scripture that relate to ordained ministry, and finally compile a full report with a recommendation to the College of Bishops to consider.  People have scarcely contained their patience as this process worked its way through.  Earlier this year, the Task Force released their full report.  It is introduced on this page, and you can download the report at the bottom of the article.  The final recommendation at the end of the report was essentially that the “dual integrities” which the ACNA has held for the past few years (the coexistence of contradictory views) is an untenable impediment to the unity of the Church.

Two quick examples… what happens to the person who moves from one place to another and has to find a new ACNA church to attend?  If he/she doesn’t believe that women may be validly ordained as priests, then this person has to filter out the search for a new church – the fact that a congregation is in the ACNA isn’t enough to clarify this critical issue.  On the other side of the coin, think of those women who currently wear the collar.  How do you think they feel knowing that close to half* of the ACNA would not accept their ministry?  They and their advocates are made to feel they’re walking a tightrope both in person and online.  People on both sides of the issue can be very unkind to one another, if not careful.  Or, at the very least, even where civility is maintained, the mere knowledge of the deep mutual disagreement can be very painful for folks on either side.

But now the Bishops have met and discussed the task force’s document in a multi-day meeting.  These bishops, some with vehemently disagreeing views on this subject, finally had a chance to sit down with the study and talk with each other heart to heart, mind to mind.  They also took times to pray together, silently and aloud.  They really want the ACNA to stay together, not breaking into factions over this issue.  And they know how difficult it is to do so, with so many people rocking both sides of the boat.  They released a statement about their meeting.  Let’s take a look at it.

PREAMBLE

In an act of mutual submission at the foundation of the Anglican Church in North America, it was agreed that each Diocese and Jurisdiction has the freedom, responsibility, and authority to study Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition of the Church, and to seek the mind of Christ in determining its own convictions and practices concerning the ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood. It was also unanimously agreed that women will not be consecrated as bishops in the Anglican Church in North America. These positions are established within our Constitution and Canons and, because we are a conciliar Church, would require the action of both Provincial Council and Provincial Assembly to be changed.

This Preamble is, for the most part, the history I’ve already described above.  Where things get meaty is the next section:

STATEMENT

Having gratefully received and thoroughly considered the five-year study by the Theological Task Force on Holy Orders, we acknowledge that there are differing principles of ecclesiology and hermeneutics that are acceptable within Anglicanism that may lead to divergent conclusions regarding women’s ordination to the priesthood. However, we also acknowledge that this practice is a recent innovation to Apostolic Tradition and Catholic Order. We agree that there is insufficient scriptural warrant to accept women’s ordination to the priesthood as standard practice throughout the Province. However, we continue to acknowledge that individual dioceses have constitutional authority to ordain women to the priesthood.

First, they’re recognizing that we have different methods of the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition that result in our different conclusions about the ordination of women.

Second, they acknowledge that the ordination of women is a “recent innovation.”  This sets aside some rumored arguments that I’ve heard that there supposedly were women priests in the Early Church, and that the practice was banned and covered up.  I guess that idea has turned out to be historically inaccurate.  (It certainly seemed like paranoid revisionism to me; as one with a BA in history I’m pretty cautious about populist radical rewrites of standard history.)

Third, they acknowledge that the interpretation of Scripture that supports the ordination of women is not strong enough to make it mandatory throughout the ACNA.  Either the anti-women’s-ordination folks were not to be convinced, or the pro-women’s-ordination folks simply didn’t have a good enough Scriptural foundation.  Or both.

It seems to me, at least, that they’ve agreed that the ordination of women is in defiance of Tradition, and only possibly in defiance of Scripture.

Fourth, they acknowledge the present arrangement is still in place: each diocese chooses whether or not to ordain women or accept ordained women in their local ministries.  In other words, they have not determined to chance the status quo at this time.

Then comes their conclusion:

COMMITMENTS

As a College of Bishops, we confess that our Province has failed to affirm adequately the ministry of all Christians as the basic agents of the work of the Gospel. We have not effectively discipled and equipped all Christians, male and especially female, lay and ordained, to fulfill their callings and ministries in the work of God’s kingdom. We repent of this and commit to work earnestly toward a far greater release of the whole Church to her God-given mission.

Having met in Conclave to pray, worship, study, talk, and listen well to one another, we commit to move forward in unity to carry on the good witness and work that God has given us to do in North America (Ephesians 4:1-6; John 17). We invite and urge all members of the Province to engage with us in this endeavor to grow in understanding the mission and ministry of all God’s people.


Adopted Unanimously by the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America
The Church of Our Lord, Victoria, BC, Canada

Interestingly, their call to action is to invest in the development of all forms of ministry, especially among the laity.  All Christians are ministers of the Gospel in some basic sense, and the lack of discipleship is a serious setback to the Christian Church (not just in the ACNA).  This, I daresay, is a wise starting point.  If we learn to raise up the laity to greater ministry, the “need” to get more people ordained (women or otherwise) is lessened.  Like in Acts 6, if we can raise up more people to do more ministry tasks “on the ground” so to speak, the relatively few ordained leaders can devote more time to the ministry of the Word and Sacraments.

Some might interpret this as dodging the issue.  “We can’t settle this controversy so we’re going to focus on a slightly different topic.”  That is possible.  But, in general, I trust our college of bishops to be at the very least trying desperately to be biblical followers of Christ and shepherds of the flock.  I don’t believe them the sort to say “look, a distraction!” and then run the other way, like embarrassed children who’ve been caught stealing candy.

Rather, what I’m seeing here is a strategic choice.  If we can improve our concepts and practices of lay ministry, the pressure on the ordained ministry will be lessened.  One of the perspectives about the ordination of women is that because the clergy are so “important,” they “need” women in their ranks to provide a “balanced” perspective and ministry.  If the “best” way to minister is to be a deacon or priest, then women are being limited, even oppressed, by being denied ordination.  So if we learn to raise up non-ordained men and women alike to greater forms of ministry, perhaps the pressure to ordain women will lessen over time.

This is certainly a long-term idea, and angry people hate long-term solutions.  They want women’s ordination ended right now, or they want it fully accepted across the board right now.

Of course, there is a great deal of concern cropping up in response to this release from the Bishops – are they considering the matter closed?  Will they meet and discuss this more?  Are they really going to keep this awkward “dual integrities” status quo going another seven years or more?  Will the opposing sides be able to “walk together” for that much longer?

But right now there are a lot of immediate crises that occupy the attention of many, including our bishops.  Recovery from hurricane Harvey is going to continue for a long time, and hurricane Irma is charging through the Caribbean heading for the southeastern US.  Wildfires are devastating regions on the west coast, too.  But eventually when the smoke and waters settle, hopefully our Bishops will take another chance to clarify the ongoing status of this debate: what else they have in mind to do, and if they’re going to continue meeting together to discuss this.  Time will tell; continue to watch and pray.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , | 2 Comments

How to Deal with Sin

This is my sermon for 10 September 2017, on Matthew 18:15-20.

Your Own Sins

The Ten Commandments, traditionally used at the beginning of the Anglican liturgy, remind us in methodical detail that we are sinners.  The Summary of the Law – to love God and love neighbor – is enough to convict us that we are sinners, failing to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts, and so forth; but the Ten Commandments really help spell it out for us.  We are reminded that we “shall not murder”, and if your memory of Christ’s teachings is sharp, you’ll realize that even hatred toward another person counts as murder.  We are reminded that we must “honor [our] father and mother”, realizing the biblical teaching that the authority figures of father and mother extend beyond the nuclear family to include both civil and religious authorities as well.  With each commandment we respond in prayer “Lord, have mercy” because we have broken it, and “give us grace to keep this law” because we seek to follow Christ in the most excellent way.  Concerning all of them, we ask the Holy Spirit to “write them upon our hearts”, for it is our very hearts that turn against God, not just our external sinful actions and failures.

This is a picture of contrition – the “contrite heart” we hear about in Psalm 51 and other places in the Bible – a heart that recognizes its sinfulness and desires God’s help in both correction and restoration.

But contrition is just the first step of four.

Once we learn to be truly sorry for our sins, we then take them to the Lord God in prayer.  “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and in what we have left undone.”  This confession we make in many ways: in our own private prayer times at one end, in the common liturgy of the Church at the other end, and in private confession with a priest (as a combination of the first two methods).  Each of these methods of making our confession of sin is good and valid and useful, though they have different impacts on our spiritual lives and highlight different aspects of the Gospel.  I’ll get back to those in a minute.

The third step of dealing with sin, after contrition and confession, is satisfaction.  Every sin is an injury of our relationship with God and rejection of His Word, so what is needed next is the satisfaction of God’s justice.  This Christ has done on the Cross on behalf of every sin committed by every sinner.  There is no viable alternative, there is no other sacrifice that can be added to it.  Thus when you make your confession to God with a contrite heart, you must also place your faith in Christ on the Cross.  See your sin removed from you and nailed to His cross.  Our sins are “more than we can bear,” but Jesus bore them all for us on the Cross.  A true confession must go on to give up the sins committed; if we cling to them they will continue to drag us down.

Finally, there is the fourth step: penance.  This is where we step out of the prayer closet, or leave the confessional booth, or exchange the Peace in the Communion liturgy: we finish the prayer and get up and heed the preaching of Saint John the Baptist: “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matthew 3:8).  This is when we go and reconcile with our neighbors, when we return what we have stolen, when we fix what we have broken, when we apologize to those we’ve hurt.  Sometimes this stage of penance seems incomplete – some sins make wounds that can never heal in this life; sometimes reconciliation takes a very long time.  So we must remember that penance is only part of the overall picture of dealing with sin; divine justice is satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, not by our acts of penance.

Now, the scriptures teach us that all Christians share in the royal priesthood of Christ.  This means that you can work through all four steps – contrition, confession, satisfaction, and penance – all on your own.  But, as I’m sure you all know, it can be pretty easily to distract ourselves away from this process.  As sheep in God’s flock, we are constantly hounded by wolves, servants of the Devil, who would dearly love to see us remain in our sins such that we might fall away, or at least stifle the light of Christ.  We might be inclined to downplay the importance of our sins, and thus fail to make contrition.  We might get lazy about prayer saying “God knows my sins anyway”, and thus fail to make confession.  We might wallow in our sinfulness and thus fail to accept Christ’s satisfaction.  We might wimp out at the end and fail to pursue any form of penance.  So taking this process into the liturgy of the Church is an extremely wise thing to do.

In the standard Communion liturgy we are assisted in working through each of these steps.  As I already described, we are given provocation to contrition in the reading of the Ten Commandments and have opportunity to express contrition in the congregational response to them.  We are given opportunity to make our confession in the actual Prayer of Confession, if only we read it with our hearts and minds, and not just our lips.  We are presented with the satisfaction of Christ in the Absolution and the Words of Comfort, as well as in the Communion Prayers, where the very word “satisfaction” is expressly used.  Even the promise to make amends, or penance, is mentioned in the Confession Prayer, and an echo of that shows up in the Post-Communion Prayer as we ask God’s help in sending us out to do the work He has given us to do.  If we invest ourselves in the liturgy of the Church, we find a training ground for repentance.

Private Confession is also an option for us.  This brief sacramental rite assumes that you have reached contrition on your own already, and seek the aid of the Church through the rest of the process.  The prayer of confession there is much more open-ended, allowing you to express your sorrow, admit your wrongdoings, and get it all out in the open.  The Absolution, like in the Communion service, declares Christ’s satisfaction, and the priest’s giving of penance helps you pursue healing and reconciliation in an appropriate way.

The Sins of Others

So now another big question: what do we do about people who we know have sinned, but aren’t doing anything about it?  This is where today’s Gospel lesson comes into the picture.  In American culture, we tend to highlight the autonomy of self very strongly.  Self-reliance is an American virtue, not a biblical one, and it can be very difficult for us to come to grips with the biblical call actually to be our brother’s keeper.

Yes, amidst all the modern talk of “judge not”, there actually is a biblical mandate to help one another.  Here in Matthew 18, Jesus says “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”  Similarly, in 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Saint Paul wrote, “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil”.  No man is an island; we exist in communities, and we need to look out for one another.

In the Old Testament lesson we heard Ezekiel called to be a watchman (33:1-11); and this, too, is a model for all sorts of ministers, not just Old Testament Prophets.  Ministers are given the task of warning people of danger – the Gospel must be proclaimed and sins must be identified so they can be overcome.  If the minister fails to help people see their sins so they can amend, then the minister will be judged as if he shared in the other person’s guilt.  There is no direct warning there which applies to every Christian indiscriminately, but the general lesson that we must not hide the full Gospel message – both that sin exists and must be overcome, and that grace exists and must be accepted through Jesus Christ – is a lesson that every Christian ought to take to heart.

So now, if we look closely Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18, we find an excellent outline for exercising church discipline.  It is essentially a three-step process.

Step one is, very simply, that first verse (18:15) which I just quoted: if someone’s sin affects you and he or she isn’t yet repenting or seeking amendment of life, go to that person and let them know that they have sinned.  Obviously we want to do this with tact and in a spirit of love rather than of anger; the whole point of this is to gain our brother back, so to speak.

Step two, if that doesn’t work, is to bring witnesses along with you, so that both you and the sinner know that it isn’t just you being whiney and easily offended.  This multiple-witness approach is also in line with Old Testament law: no serious crime could be prosecuted without at least two witnesses.  This is also an appropriate step for addressing someone who has sinned in an especially public way, or who holds an especially public office.  As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, “Never admit any charge against an elder [that is, a presbyter or priest] except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19).  In each case, the idea is that having multiple witnesses makes the accusation all the more serious and substantial, so that the guilty party can see the error of his ways and repent.  Repentance and reconciliation are always the goal here.

Step three, if even that doesn’t work, is to bring the case before the church.  Different Christian traditions today will realize this in different ways, but historically the seat of authority within the local church is the overseer, or bishop.  In that one office we find the representative leadership of the whole diocese, though we do have a tradition of having an ecclesiastical court of both clergymen and laymen to hold a trial should the need arise.  And yet again, the goal is that those who are guilty of sins will recognize their sins and repent.  So it is the sinner’s refusal to repent that leads to his or her treatment as an outsider, a non-christian, a condition traditionally called excommunication.

When verse 18 talks about binding and loosing in heaven and on earth, this is a reference to a charge Jesus gave to Peter two chapters earlier, and which Jesus would say to all the apostles in John chapter 20, after his resurrection.  This has to do with the forgiveness and retention of sins, and the disciplinary process we’ve just seen here in Matthew 18 is very helpful in showing us that the power of binding or retaining is not carried out blithely or arbitrarily.  For the most part, in order to be excommunicated, the guilty party essentially convicts himself by refusing to listen to his fellow Christians, no matter how small or great they may be.

The final verse here, about “where two or three are gathered” is a verse that you often hear used in different contexts.  It’s often used to describe a worship service: where two or three are gathered, there is Jesus in their midst.  Sometimes it’s abused to argue against the presence of Christ in His Sacraments or in His Word: if Jesus is present in the simple gathering of Christians, why bother discerning His presence anywhere else?  Such an abuse fails to take the disciplinary context of this verse into account: Christ is present in this “two or three” in judgment, whereas the Sacraments are about Christ’s presence in grace.  Yet another abuse of this verse is to say “where two or three are gathered, there is the church.”  Again, this fails to realize the context properly: the “two or three” refer to the authority of the Church, not the essence of the Church.

In Conclusion

All in all, this is a very practical passage of Christ’s teachings.  Sometimes people try to make it more profound or more far-reaching than it’s meant to be.  But really, it’s just a simple straightforward intelligent disciplinary process.  When we’re effected by the sins of others and we see them continuing in their sin, we have a responsibility to help them.  If they don’t listen to you, then get help, and so on.

I can’t stress this enough – our goal isn’t revenge, or getting even, or even justice.  Our goal is to gain back a brother or a sister.  We want to see all people living the new life in Christ healthily, dealing with their sins in all contrition, confession, satisfaction, and penance.  We must pursue this ourselves, first and foremost, lest we become critical of others’ specks of dust in their eyes to the neglect of our logs of guilt, but that does not excuse our silence and standing by if we see or brethren being devoured by the devil!

I’ll close with a paraphrase of the end of the 51st Psalm (15-19).

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Do good to Christ’s Bride in your good pleasure;
    build up the walls of the Church;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
    in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

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

The Babylonian Captivity of Leviticus

In 586 BC the Babylonian Empire conquered the remnant kingdom of Judah, sacked the city of Jerusalem, razed the Temple of Solomon, and took most of the surviving populace into captivity elsewhere in their empire.  It was a political move: by forcing migration of conquered peoples, local cultural and religious identity (it was thought) would be destroyed after a generation or two, and the empire would continue as its central conquering culture and religion dominates all others.  To the Babylonians, the Jews were like most other neighboring peoples: a potential slave force, an economic tool, a political asset.

Over the course of history, many people and things of God have been described to be in a sort of “Babylonian Captivity” – a position of enslavement to the political machinations of an agenda foreign to the Gospel of God.  One such hostage I have observed in recent years is the third book of the Bible: Leviticus.

This oft-misunderstood book falls prey to many masters these days – liberal progressives, conservative reactionaries, and even atheist skeptics.  The flagrant misuse of the book of Leviticus by these parties is so rampant that even many well-meaning folks caught in the middle end up not knowing what to do about this odd book, themselves.

Slave Master #1: Cherry Picking

This is a basic and common issue that every part of the Bible falls plague to.  It’s just all the more rampant with Leviticus because (I think I can safely bet) very few people actually bother to read it all the way through.  It’s also especially easy to do this with Leviticus because it’s a book (like Proverbs) where individual verses often form a complete thought that do essentially stand alone.  Basically:

75125bee284b9bd1ae33f5777861d936ab7bfbf48d49911ad4be6850e9e940e8[1]

Slave Master #2: Political Posturing (Left or Right)

This is where most of the internet memes I see come into play.  On the “left” side of the political spectrum you find people highlighting a sort of social justice agenda in Leviticus.  At the time of writing this article, one of the most popular quotes from Leviticus on Facebook is 19:33-34 and similar passages, declaring the ancient Israelite civil law concerning foreigners.

7e1e5cf3944b888657a7277c3cb0f72c--conservative-ideology-the-bible[1]

This verse, on its own, is used correctly.  However, there’s no sense of context.  What else does the Bible teach about foreigners?  What about the ban on Israelite intermarriage with other nations?  What about participation versus exclusion in the Israelite feasts and fasts of the year?  The primary intention behind sharing this verse is to prop up a political agenda, not to further the biblical message.

The “right wing” is no better.  Leviticus has some famous laws declaring homosexual activity an “abomination” in the classic translations.

0d4b0906c189d22323dfff2c2076411f--bible-scriptures-blog-entry[1]

This again, is political posturing.  These are not traditionalist Christians trying to communicate the message of the Bible, these are socio-political conservatives trying to bolster their socio-political agenda.  As with the previous example, the basic message of this individual verse is used correctly, but (again as with the previous example) there is a lot more to be said which is omitted.

If you want to talk about biblical teachings on the treatment of foreigners and Christian sexual ethics, Leviticus is only one piece of the puzzle.  It is not anyone’s lap dog for quick and easy proof texts.

Slave Master #3a: Discrediting by Absurdity

Once the hypocrisy of the cherry-pickers and the political posturers becomes painfully obvious, the skeptics rush in with yet another angle of attack on this book: by pointing out the wacky stuff in Leviticus that everyone else is ignoring.  And yes, there is a lot.

2a577a133945d7052cfd30d145bcd677[1]

The idea is once they get you to realize that you’re ignoring certain laws and have zero chance of conforming your life to follow them, it’s entirely your own bigoted fault for clinging to other laws in Leviticus of your own choosing (be it the rejection of homosexuality or the welcoming of foreigners, or whichever cherry-picked verse you’d gone for).  And for many Christians this is a confusing thing, because so few actually bother reading through Leviticus, let alone understand it.

But this is an argument to discredit the book of Leviticus from outside the Church.  There is also another way people attack Leviticus (intentionally or not) from within the Church…

Slave Master #3b: Discrediting by Antinomianism

The term “anti-nomianism” means “anti-Law”.  It’s a rejection of the Old Testament Law by an argument that it no longer has any place in Christianity whatsoever.  Christians are under grace, not under law, and therefore books like Leviticus are completely obsolete.  Thus you get memes like this:

05199d1c76b8ae655726910632f449ec5ed5a5-wm[1]

Antinomianism is a false teaching, however.  In fact it’s closely related to an outright heresy called Marcionism, which is (mostly) the rejection of the Old Testament for portraying an angry God in contrast to the loving God of the New Testament.  Antinomianism isn’t quite that drastic, but it still puts forth a horrifically deficient view of the Old Testament and only serves to confuse the Christian’s understanding of the Bible.  Christianity doesn’t throw out the Law; rather, it receives it in a different way, through the filter of Jesus Christ.

The Correctives

As the majority of the problems in dealing with Leviticus involve taking verses and biblical ideas out of context, the solution begins with restoring the proper context to our reading of this book.  Unfortunately this is not a simple matter of reading whole paragraphs at a time, whole chapters, or even the whole book.  Leviticus is a very specific type of book set firmly in the collection of the writings of Moses known as “The Law.”  The function of the book of Leviticus, and thereafter its contents, only make sense if you’ve first properly read and understood Genesis and Exodus, and go on to read and understand Numbers, and the summary concluding book to round them off, Deuteronomy.  Even then, you’ve still just got a Jewish understanding of Leviticus, so if you want the Christian understanding you’ve got to study the words of Christ in the Gospel books and the various New Testament writings that deal with Old Testament Law (such as the epistles to the Galatians and to the Hebrews).  In short, Leviticus is one of the more obscure books for us to understand, simply because of the way it is.

There’s probably more than one way to tackle this, but what I have found to be the most useful tool for interpreting Old Testament Law, especially Leviticus, is the classic three categories of the Law: religious law, civil law, and moral law.  As I’ve explained in another post, these distinctions allow us to see more clearly how to receive the laws of books like Leviticus.  Laws that deal with the rites and ceremonies of worship in the Old Covenant have expired, as Jesus has fulfilled those laws, bringing their activity to an end.  We can learn about New Covenant worship and the saving role of Christ from these laws, but it would be blasphemous for us to bring back those old sin offerings in actual practice.  The civil law is similar: it was given for the kingdom of Israel, which was a temporary expression of the Kingdom of God on Earth.  Now that the Kingdom of God made manifest as the Church instead, the civil laws no longer bind us, though they could be used as inspiration for civil laws in other countries if circumstances seem appropriate.  The moral law, finally, is timeless.  Murder and adultery will always be sins no matter the circumstances.  Distinctions can be made between manslaughter and murder, or rape and adultery, but the specifically moral teachings of the book of Leviticus remain to us Christians as immutable standards of holiness.

The challenge that some of this book’s abusers bring to the table is the confusion of the three categories of law.  Some say that the prohibitions against homosexual acts is religious, not moral law.  Some say that the welcoming of foreigners is a moral, not civil law.  Only with these categories in place (or some similar method of understanding Old Testament Law), can actual debate begin.

All this makes me feel rather inspired to engage in a long-term detailed study of the book of Leviticus.  But I know I don’t have time to do this right now, nor will I for the next couple years.

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

Article 26: Sinful Ministers

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 26 states:

XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

The historical origin of this point of doctrine stretches back to the early 400’s in North Africa.  Saint Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo and he was dealing with a sect of professed Christians (called Donatists) who had separated themselves from the Catholic Church and instated their own ‘purer’ church on account of the Catholics’ apparent leniency toward sin and apostasy.  The specific issue the Donatists brought up was that if a clergyman caved under the pressure of government persecution and denied Christ or worshipped the emperor to save his own life, that man lost his status as a minister, and would have to be re-ordained if he repented of his wickedness and returned to the Church.  Universal (Catholic) practice did not re-ordain penitent ministers, the Donatists did.  In the end, after much debate, Donatism was ruled a heresy; ordination (like Baptism and Confirmation) was not a repeatable rite, and true confession and penitence was enough to restore a wayward Christian, whether ordained or not.

This point of doctrine and practice became a standard help in times and places where false teaching ran rampant, and in the milieu of the Reformation the anti-Donatist stance came in handy.  For now in the 16th century there was a collection of clergymen of multiple perspectives: some were traditionalists, preferring the ways of medieval Catholicism; others were reformers, preferring the ways of the Lutherans in Germany and the Calvinists in Geneva.  Others, still, were corrupt with worldly interests, seeking only the social privileges of the clergy.

Thus it became good and proper to rehearse this point of doctrine here in Article 26 – the minister’s ordination status is not lost on account of his sinfulness.  And therefore the ministry he carries out in Christ’s name, however imperfect, is still valid for the people in the pews to receive.  Just as a puritanical purge of the whole congregation is forbidden in our Lord’s Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-32), so too is a puritanical purge of the clergy a bad idea.  After all, everyone is a sinner, and if every sin is a violation of our relationship with Christ, then (one would reasonably surmise) it would be impossible for anyone to remain an ordained minister for even a day if it were possible to lose one’s ordination over sin.

Of course, however, clergy discipline ought to be provided for, taken seriously, and enforced.  The doctrine of the gift of ordination being irrevocable (at least by one’s own sinfulness) is a doctrine of grace and mercy for the sinful clergyman, and assurance for the congregation in his charge.  Like any other instance of God’s grace and mercy, this is not meant to be a license to sin (Romans 6:1-2).

And so Article 26 finishes with an affirmation of clergy discipline, going as far as deposition from office.  It may be worth clarifying a point of practice here: deposed clergymen have the privileges of ordination removed from them, not the fact of ordination.  As we can say “once baptized, always baptized”, so we can also say “once ordained, always ordained.”  But, as with either case, the privileges of those gifts can be removed in extreme cases of abandonment of the faith: the clergy may be deposed, the baptized may be excommunicated.  And again in both cases, restoration is always possible via confession and repentance.  And when that should happen, there is great celebration and a liturgical rite of welcoming, but never is re-baptism or re-ordination necessary.

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