The Anglican Spectrum Today

One of the biggest challenges for people looking at the Anglican tradition today is that there is such a wide variety of visual, liturgical, and theological expression under the “Anglican” banner, that it can be rather difficult for would-be members and observers alike to get a clear picture of what we’re all about. To some extent this has always been the case: the English Reformation was brought about by two or three generations of leaders and thinkers of both Church and State, with a mind toward national/social unity as well as Protestant unity. A little bit of leeway was always part of the design. But over time, and especially over the past century, different parties have arisen that have pushed at the boundaries.

In the previous century, one John Gunstone came up with an “Anglo-Catholic Rainbow” to paint a picture of the different layers or types of Anglo-Catholics that existed in his day. It got some interesting attention a year and a half ago after Fr. Wesley Walker drew up an article re-exploring this system of classification. Since then, it has somewhat irked me that the accounting of “Low Church” Anglicanism is woefully outdated, and the whole scale (being specifically about Anglo-Catholics) is largely unhelpful for the typical observer or explorer of Anglicanism in understanding the situation on the ground today.

So I’ve drafted up a new version of the Anglican Rainbow Spectrum for the early 21st century. Here it is in brief:

The Anglican Spectrum, by the Rev. Matthew Brench, April 2022

There are a couple different ways to look at this spectrum in the broad scale. One could say that Red through Yellow (1-3) is the “High Church” section and Green through Violet (4-6) is the “Low Church” section. Others might say Red & Orange are the High Church, Yellow & Green are the new “Low Church”, and Blue & Violet are so low they’re “Dropped Church”. Perhaps others might want to see 1-2 as Anglo-Catholic, 3-4 as Evangelical, and 5-6 as Charismatic. These are mere conceptual groupings, however, and not the primary purpose of this spectrum. Let’s look instead at the details of each row of this Anglican Rainbow.

RED

Some Anglicans prefer to call themselves Catholics, rejecting (as did the Reformers) the Roman exclusive claim over the word. The Anglicans I’m here calling “Red” believe that to be Anglican is to be Catholic, truly and properly. They tend to downplay the differences between Romanism and Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, and emphasize the Great Church Tradition that these three share. As such, Red Anglicans tend to make light use of things that are distinctly Anglican such as the Prayer Book, the surplice, and the 39 Articles of Religion. Visually and ceremonially, they are “higher” than the great majority of Roman Catholic churches you’ll ever see.

ORANGE

Orange Anglicans also emphasize our Catholic identity, but put a bit more equal emphasis on the Anglo in Anglo-Catholic. They’ll primarily use the Prayer Book (BCP) and sprinkle in some additions from one or other version of the Anglican Missal; they’ll use and reference the 39 Articles of Religion and use Lutheran or 19th-century Tractarian resources to interpret them. (Despite being Tractarians, however, Orange Anglicans are not typically fans of John Henry Newman.) Visually and ceremonially, they tend to be on the same page as the Red Anglicans, but perhaps less strict, insistent, or spikey about it. You might even occasionally find such a priest wearing a cassock & surplice with a stole while presiding at the Eucharist.

YELLOW

To be reformed (in the general Protestant sense) is to be a true Catholic, that’s what Yellow Anglicans would say. This is generally the Old High Church, or Laudian, or “Prayer Book Catholic”, strand of Anglicanism that is more rooted in the 17th century than the Red emphasis on the Early Church and the Orange reliance on 19th century divines. As such, these Anglicans are much more committed to using the BCP and the Articles of Religion than their Red & Orange counterparts, finding them to be perfectly in line with the historic catholic/orthodox Christian faith. Doctrinally, this means that Yellow Anglicans typically stand as a via media between the narrow claims of Lutheran and Calvinist Protestants, emphasizing a “broadly reformed” or “irenic Protestant” approach that can (or should) encompass both. Today, many of these priests will be wearing chasubles, since those vestments are nowhere near as despised as they were 150 years ago, but some can still be found in the classic cassock & surplice look. Furthermore, where the Red and Orange Anglicans are utterly opposed to the ordination of women, Yellow Anglicans will occasionally be accepting of the practice – or at least be willing to work alongside those who do.

GREEN

The Classical Low Church Party is perhaps the primary form of the Green Anglican. Often Calvinist in doctrine, these Anglicans happily use the Prayer Book and the Articles of Religion, though read them in light of a more specific Protestant tradition such as the Westminster Confession. They have little interest in ceremonial and little emphasis (and sometimes distrust) for sacred imagery and ornate vestments or architecture. With the preaching of the Word front and center, Green Anglican priests typically wear cassock & surplice (occasionally going up or down the scale a little) and keep the Holy Table more simple and bare. Women’s ordination is more often accepted here, although not necessarily among the stricter Calvinists.

BLUE

Where Yellow Anglicans identify with the broad range of classical Protestantism and Green Anglicans identify with a more specific brand of Protestantism, Blue Anglicans identify more with the broad range of contemporary Evangelicalism. Often using the “three streams” model, these Anglicans take an ecumenical approach to a great deal of what they do and teach. As a result, their worship is generally Prayer Book content, but has more the feel of a non-denominational worship service with an “Anglican Eucharist” added in. The Articles of Religion, similarly, are given less attention, used instead more as a set of guidelines for general Christianity rather than a specifically-Anglican expression of the faith. Vestments are a low priority to Blue Anglicans, and treated more as a “style” than as a “statement.” As a result, some priests will wear chasubles and some will simply drop a stole on over a clergy shirt, while the majority tend to don the modern cassock-alb and drape a stole over it. The ordination of women is fairly standard practice here.

VIOLET

“Three Streams Anglicans” are most often charismatic evangelicals with varying degrees of appreciation for “catholic” and “evangelical” emphases to supplement their Pentecostal influences. These are Purple or Violet Anglicans. They rarely use the BCP, preferring an approach to worship akin to the present Evangelical majority (which, technically speaking, is now third-wave charismatic). Violet Anglicans typically eschew all vestments (except perhaps the stole), make only selective and occasional use of historically-Anglican resources and documents, and fully embrace the ordination of women.

INCIDENTALS THAT VARY

There are a number of factors that used to denote churchmanship and partisanship, but often don’t anymore.

First there’s music (chanting, hymnody, prayer & praise, gospels & spirituals) – almost every genre has found its way across the entire spectrum. You can find Orange Anglicans singing In Christ Alone, you can find Violet Anglicans chanting the Agnus Dei in Latin. There are some combinations that still don’t quite happen (don’t expect Oceans to be sung in a Red church any time soon!) but on the whole musical style and preference is no longer a clear marker of church party.

Another is calling a priest “Father” – this was introduced by the highest of High Church Anglicans maybe 100 years ago, and was a hallmark of Anglo-Catholicism for most of the 20th century, but in the past few decades has spread across the spectrum. There are still classical low church priests who refuse to be called Father, but there are charismatic Anglicans who do now refer to their priests as Father and Mother, so it’s no longer a marker of high or low.

Vestments and Altar ornamentations are also less reliable markers of churchmanship today.

Traditional-language liturgy is still preferred among the more historically-inclined forms of Anglicanism, but that does not translate neatly into our present spectrum of churchmanship. The only clearest pattern is that Blue and Violet Anglicans typically disdain traditional-language liturgy while the others range from “traditional-only” to “indifferent” on the subject.

IDENTITY,TOLERANCE, and RECOGNITION

Doubtless, by this point, you’ve started thinking about what kind of Anglican you are (or what kind of Anglicanism you’ve witnessed), and it may be that no one color perfectly suits your convictions. First of all it must be emphasized that this is a spectrum, or a sliding scale, not a discreet set of boxes. But there’s another factor besides mere identification or preference that I think needs more attention, and it’s that of tolerance and recognition. Consider these varying possibilities:

  • It may be that one person is a Green Anglican – very typically Protestant in outlook and emphasis, and finds all forms of Anglo-Catholicism (say, Red and Orange) utterly unacceptable, and even a bit wary of Yellow Anglicans, adjacent on the scale.
  • Another Green Anglican may be an all-out Westminster Confession kind of guy, really into that specific form of Reformed orthodoxy; this person will not only distrust the authenticity of Red and Orange Anglicans but also of the loosey-goosey Blue and (especially) Violet Anglicans.
  • You might meet a Violet Anglican who revels in the diversity of our tradition and is happy to call Anglicans across the entire spectrum brothers in Anglicanism.
  • But then you may meet a Red Anglican who thinks that Violet dude is a complete heretic!

There’s also a fine line between tolerance and recognition. It may be that you can admit certain colors on the spectrum to be Anglican (thus, “recognize”) while still be unwilling to work directly in their parishes or dioceses (thus, “tolerate”). You might recognize one or the other extreme as being in the Anglican family yet not tolerate their excesses in your own ministry.

This helps explain the often-baffling dividing lines between dioceses, provinces, and jurisdictions across the Anglican world today. How much heresy can the bishops in TEC get away with before one must break away from them? How much charismatic influence can be permitted in C4SO before we declare “impaired communion?” How much Romish influence can be permitted in a parish before the Bishop should intervene? Is the ordination of women a position that is to be embraced, can be tolerated, merely recognized, or utterly rejected?

Thus the spectrum is not simply a matter of “where you fall on the scale” but also a matter of “how much of the scale” you’ll count as “real Anglicanism.”

I’ll save my personal comments, identity, and preferences and evaluations for another blog post at another time. Here I simply wanted to propose an updated tool, a new color-coded scale, by which we might look at ourselves and one another, and thereby give more attentive and nuanced language for the various strata of our present condition. It does nobody any favors to paint with overly-broad brush strokes and pigeon-hole and misrepresent our ecclesiological sparring partners (or opponents); we need to be able to face up to one another with integrity and honesty about our respective positions and priorities if we are going to figure out how to minister together in peace or go our separate ways.

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Deep Liturgical Roots in Exodus 24

Exodus 24 is perhaps something of a “quiet” chapter in the course of the book. The first fifteen chapters tell the story of Moses, Pharaoh, the Passover, and the Exodus itself. A few quiet chapters follow, but then it ramps back up for the ascent of the holy mountain and giving of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20. Things then settle back down into some more less-famous chapters until the golden calf incident in chapter 32. But in 24, just before the lengthy treatment of the tabernacle, priestly vestments, and all the trappings of ancient Old-Covenant-era worship, we get the oft-understated moment in which the covenant is ratified with the people.

 Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

As Hebrews 9 would go on to summarize, “even the first covenant was not ratified without blood,” and “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” This is part of the necessary background for understanding Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “this is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In both rituals, we have the application of blood at the brokering of a covenant, and both for cleansing and forgiveness of sins. I know the “this is my blood” metaphysical debate is a weighty matter, but let’s set that aside for the moment and look at the other part – this is the blood of the covenant! A new relationship with God is being created here; the forgiveness of sins is being offered here; Jesus is explicitly taking up priestly language, combining it with the Passover celebration, and providing the Mosaic Covenant with such an upgrade that it’s literally a new covenant. Doing this “in memory” of him, as we continue the sacramental meal of Holy Communion to this day, we return to the Upper Room, the Cross, and the high priestly ministry of Jesus for the ongoing cleansing and forgiveness that we need as sinners-being-saved.

Now let’s back up for a moment. This takes place after Moses descends from the holy mountain where he received the Law, that is, the Ten Commandments (ch. 20) and several subsequent sets of laws about personal and societal holiness. Consider the “liturgy” of what’s going on there at Sinai. The people, and Moses in particular, are called to purify themselves in preparation. Then Moses enters the presence of God, hears the Word of God, then delivers it to the people, who assent to it (“All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do“) twice, and then Moses ratifies the covenant with blood. This is precisely the pattern of worship that continues even today!

  1. We prepare ourselves for worship (“cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy Name”)
  2. We enter into the presence of God (I wrote a short article about a year and a half ago)
  3. We hear the Word of God both read and preached
  4. We assent to the Word in the Creed
  5. We receive the Blood of Christ in Holy Communion

And, as I like to point out, where the Old Covenant blood was merely externally applied by sprinkling, for ceremonial holiness only, the New Covenant blood is taken internally by drinking, for the cleansing of the whole person, body and soul, unto everlasting life. And all this done in the Real Presence of God, just like Moses and the others:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abi′hu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

Now, lastly, let’s follow where this liturgical moment in Exodus 24 leads.

The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

One could note how the six days following match the pattern of worship that is common to then and now, and that they then again saw the glory of the Lord on the following seventh day, demonstrating the pattern of weekly worship that God commands. But there is a different, though still related, liturgical echo that resounds here. It’s in the next forty-day sojourn of Moses on the mountaintop. Something glorious has occurred, a mountaintop experience of divine glory has been experienced; this is one of the precursors to the Transfiguration of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. He, too, shone with divine glory. And although no particular (known) 40-day period followed, the position of the story in the Gospels invariably denotes a turning point where Jesus’ face is set upon Jerusalem. From that point on, he is descending toward his ignominious death, despite the lofty and memorable teachings that he is recorded to have delivered during that time. A striking similarity can be found in the liturgical calendar: the holiday commemorating the Transfiguration is on August 6th, and forty days later is the holiday Holy Cross Day, which is a sort of repeat of Good Friday which focuses more on the glory of Christ’s death and the instrument of his sacrifice (rather than on the horror of his death to our great and utter shame).

How does this connect to Exodus 24? Well, let me tell you how this connects to Exodus 24, because it’s pretty awesome, I’m not gonna lie! During these 40 days, Moses receives some pretty glorious instructions from God, much like how Jesus delivers some of his most famous parables and discourses after his Transfiguration, leading up to his arrest and execution. Moses records instructions for the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, the altars, priestly vestments and ordination, and all that wonderful stuff that would continue the visual glory of God’s presence among his people. But at the end of that period of time, what happens? It happens in chapter 32: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”” The infamous golden calf is crafted and worshiped, Moses descends from the mountain and he destroys the Word of God. Well, technically, he breaks the tablets of the law, but it’s really the same thing. The covenant is violated, the people betray God and Moses, and the written/carved Word is crushed for their iniquities. God’s glory revealed leads to man’s ignominy revealed; Transfiguration Day leads to Holy Cross Day.

Or, put in more practical-spiritual terms, spiritual highs are no guarantee of subsequent holiness. Getting that “mountaintop” spiritual experience in worship, at a retreat or conference, or in private adoration of the divine, is not a sustainable model or method for Christian living. If you want to maintain and grow a Christian life in yourself and others, you cannot rely on experiential highs – that’s addict spirituality. Rather, the Christian life is sustained on participation in Word and Sacrament: hearing the Word of God read and preached, receiving the cleansing blood of Christ, and doing all this with faith and repentance. It may sound less glamorous then seeking 40-day experiences with God in the spiritual cloud, but it’s that basic biblical liturgical pattern that leads to perfect fellowship where, like Moses and company, “they beheld God, and ate and drank.

We’re a couple weeks into the season of Lent now; I’m nearing my third week of pastoral sabbatical. I am relieved to say that I’ve been praying on my own more than before and keeping up the reading of Scripture more regularly. Not preparing sermons has allowed me to read the Scriptures more “for myself” and take a little more time to let them preach to me. My hunger for God’s Word written has already grown. Only two Sundays have gone by so far, so that’s only two sermons not-my-own I’ve sat through right now. It is such a luxury being able simply to show up and hear the Word preached, I must say! Being a solo priest for over eight years has given me very little opportunity to sit under the preaching ministry of another, so this side of things is a good break and refresher for me.

Anyway, what I meant to get at was the observation that this season of Lent is shaping up to be an insightful time for me. As I aim to feast on the Word of God “for myself” at this time, I’m beginning to dig at some of the issues, challenges, patterns, and sins that have followed me around in various ways over the years. I’m not going to write about them right now, but perhaps as I address them I will share more. I half-awoke at 4am yesterday, my mind wandering on the subject of anger, for example, and virtually preached to myself in that semi-conscious state off and on through the ensuing hour or two. So this forty-day period leading up to Christ’s death & burial, repose, and resurrection is appropriately one of critical self-reflection and seeking to rekindle that first of loves God calls us into. Like Moses receiving the Law on the mountaintop before and after chapter 24 of Exodus, I’m trying to sit still and listen, learn what I can, and thereby be ready for the next round of ministry when I return to the people to whom I’ve been sent. I look forward to feasting together in the presence of God once again.

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Book Reflection: “Quo Vadis, Evangelicalism?”

I don’t read as many books as I feel I ought to be reading. But I’m trying to build better reading habits, and my “February book” (which I finished on March 9th) was entitled Quo Vadis, Evangelicalism?. I selected it ahead of time to follow from Why We’re Not Emergent as a more theologically-dense book dealing with ecclesiology. It turns out that my estimation was a little off; although the title of the book asks the question of where evangelicalism is going, it’s not so much a book about the evangelical church as it is about the direction of scholarly evangelical theology.

Specifically, this book is a collection of nine presidential addresses from the first 50 years of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). The ETS is a group of evangelical scholars from various Protestant denominations committed to working together to preserve and advance the work and exchange of ideas within the big tent of evangelicalism (that is, the form of Protestantism that exists generally in between the liberal and fundamentalist extremes), united in their beliefs in the Trinity and the inerrancy of Scripture. The nine essays are put in three groups of three, tracing the development of the ETS from 1957 to 2005, and it is an intimate view of the development of the scholarly end of the Evangelical movement – which is valuable especially today since evangelicalism is not sadly not commonly known for its scholarliness any more.

If you are an evangelical pastor, minister, theological, or thinker in general, and committed to the inerrancy of Scripture as a key touchstone for unity among serious Christians, then I would strongly recommend this book to you. It chronicles both the life of the ETS and (in a strange way) the life of the Doctrine of Inerrancy itself over the past few decades of North American religious life and milieu. Definitions of inerrancy, boundaries of evangelical orthodoxy, matters of hermeneutics and text-critical methods… these sorts of speed bumps on the road of the evangelical movement’s life are important to wrestle with.

For me… I wrestled with the “point” of this book almost from the first page. As soon as I started reading, I realized that it was from and for an organization I’m not familiar with, and centered on a doctrine I vaguely affirm but have not investigated as minutely as a ‘proper evangelical’ would. As an Anglican, I’m beholden to certain confessional standards that include the authority of Scripture, and the inerrancy of Scripture is not a term that was used in the 16th and 17th centuries, so I hesitate to commit to it now simply on the demand of a big-tent movement that would barely recognize me as a member anyway. Nevertheless, I did appreciate some of the clarity provided within these essays regarding the present form of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Perhaps most helpful was the view that it’s a logical extension of the more basic theological assertion that God does not lie. If the Bible is the Word of God in written form (which I absolutely unreservedly believe, in line with the Anglican formularies) then it ought to follow that the Bible should be as free from error as God is. The caveats come in, of course, when we ask questions of genre and writing style, of divine condescension to human comprehension and linguistic convention, and so on and so forth. Here, it seems, even conservative evangelical scholars still have room for disagreement on detail, and I think I’m glad to hear that.

So even though in some ways this book felt like it might have been a waste of my time and effort, it has prompted me to consider the doctrine of Scripture afresh. If I am slow to understand their definition of biblical inerrancy, how would I define it? I would look to Articles of Religion numbers 6, 8, 20, and 21 for the Anglican ground rules, and tie them to some of the Prayer Book’s expressions of the place and role of Sacred Scripture such as the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent or the way the lectionaries work. Perhaps this is something I should explore sometime.

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On War & St. Matthias Day

As I’m sure most of you have heard, the armed conflict in Ukraine has actually begun, after months of posturing.  I’m no political analyst, so I cannot comment on how NATO is (or should be) responding to this latest round of Russian aggression.  What I can comment upon, however, is our call as the People of God to pray.

One of the underlying issues in this (and any) conflict is an overinflated sense of “us” and “them” – people are divided more sharply than they ought to be.  In light of that we might pray:

O God, you made us in your own image, and you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

We also understand war to be a bad thing – most of the time an evil.  Occasionally there is such a thing as a ‘just’ war, but (just like anger) the moral demands often prove too tough for most to meet.  And so we pray for peace, which is the natural God-given state of nature and humanity, twisted and broken only by the invasive presence of sin.  Here are two from our Prayer Book’s collection of occasional prayers:

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn by the sword of righteousness, no strength known by the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever  Amen.

Almighty God, from whom all thoughts of truth and peace proceed: Kindle, we pray, in the hearts of all people the true love of peace, and guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth; that in tranquility your kingdom may go forward, till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

In light of the moral, psychological, and physical dangers of war, we also pray for those in the armed forces.

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of [our] armed forces at home and abroad.  Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

There are also a number of prayers straight from the sacred scriptures which may guide our prayers at this time.  Psalm 91, for example, is an expression of serious trust in God’s protection amidst “terror by night” and ‘the arrow that flies by day,” “the pestilence that walks in darkness,” and “the sickness that destroys at noonday.”  Psalm 2, chillingly, captures the reality of war and sin in its opening lines:

Why do the nations so furiously rage together?
And why do the peoples devise a vain thing?
The kings of the earth stand up, and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed:
“Let us break their bonds asunder
and cast away their cords from us.”

Indeed, there is much to bring before the Lord today.

By some strange twist of irony that I can’t quite put my finger on, today is also a feast day in the Western Church: we commemorate Saint Matthias, the replacement 12th Apostle who took the place of Judas Iscariot after his death.    On this day we pray:

Almighty God, who in the place of Judas chose your faithful servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve: Grant that your Church, being delivered from false apostles, may always be guided and governed by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Where most of the Saints Days primarily show us men and women in the New Testament who followed Christ and give their lives (often unto death) for his service in ways that illustrate their teaching in the Scriptures, Matthias’ commemoration is more of a comfort-yet-warning about how God deals with false pastors among his flock.  We celebrate his lifting-up of Matthias to take Judas’ place, but we are unavoidably reminded of the judgment that befell Judas the unrepentant traitor.  Not unlike how we see God judging whole nations and kingdoms and empires throughout the Old Testament, we see God judging his Church (and especially those who would be prominent members) in the New.

Perhaps this juxtaposition of conflict and holy day is not-so-subtle reminder for all who would listen that we must not betray our Lord Jesus Christ for any other idol, reward, or cause.  Both Russia and Ukraine boast hundreds of years of rich Christian history; Kiev in particular was a major center of Eastern Christianity for well over a thousand years.  It would be well for us to pray for their bishops and pastors and other church leaders at this time, that they might rightly divide between the cause of the Gospel and the cause of nationalism, between Holy Spirit and party spirit.  And, of course, whenever we see sins and failings in others, we do well to examine ourselves, lest we find ourselves trying to fix the speck in the eyes of others while remaining blind to the logs in our own.

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A Holy People

This is my sermon recording from 13 February 2021, the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany.

sermon outline

What do I imagine or think of as a “holy man”?

  • caricature of a hermit?
  • or a minister?
  • a wise ruler?
  • a prosperous family man or matriarch?

Like a tree (Jer. 17 & Ps. 1)

  • prosperous, or at least unfazed & steadfast
  • benefiting others (leaves, shade…)
  • bearing fruit

Unexpected beatitudes (Lk. 6)

  • YES: poor, hungry weeping, hated
  • NO: rich, full, laughing, popular

Back to Jesus – blessed is “The Man

  • beatitudes & Psalm 1 describe Jesus, we imitate and learn
  • Jesus provides the benefits of a Tree to us
  • Jesus gives the consolations of the beatitudes to us

You are… a holy nation

  • How do we use our poverty to invest in the Kingdom?
  • How do we use our hunger to seek satisfaction in Christ?
  • How do we use our weeping to prepare for the greatest Joy?
  • How do we use our unpopularity to point us to eternal rewards?

On account of the Son of Man

  • No other cause of reviling is a blessing!
  • Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” – 1 Cor. 10:31
  • And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus… work heartily as for the Lord and not for men.” – Col. 3:17,23
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Thoughts on “Why We’re Not Emergent”

Continuing what must indeed be a life-long process and pipe dream, I took up yet another one of those books I got (or should have got) in seminary but never really read until now. The books is Why We’re Not Emergent (by two guys who should be) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, and I don’t even know what seminary class appointed it. Maybe systematic theology III? Anyway.

This book was published in 2008, which meant it was pretty new when I first bought it, but it already feels ancient. Apart from the fact that a leaf of its contents is mysteriously detaching itself already, the subject, nay very title, of this book feels outdated. I haven’t heard a peep on the Emergent Church for most of ten years. And I suppose the Wikipedia entry for it kinda sums it up:

Proponents believe the movement transcends the “modernist” labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” calling the movement a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of standpoints, and its commitment to dialogue. Participants seek to live their faith in what they believe to be a “postmodern” society. What those involved in the conversation mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community. The movement has evolved into progressive Christianity.

Wikipedia’s second introductory paragraph, as of February 2022

That last sentence, though. Honestly, that alone justifies this whole book, Why We’re Not Emergent, as all the concerns raised with the Emergent phenomenon played out exactly as the authors feared.

Emergents in the 2000’s

But perhaps you, O reader, are not familiar with the Emergent Church. It was a movement, but it wasn’t a movement; it was an idea, but it wasn’t one idea; it was a phenomenon of Christian idea-mongering that didn’t have leaders, divines, saints, or founders, but rather “conversation partners” and “dialogues.” It was a way of “doing church” (a phrase I utterly abhor) that challenged the perceived status quo of modernism, rejecting the 20th century conservative/liberal divide, and put forth a vision of Christianity that was much more about a uniting praxis rather than divisive doctrine. Spend less time building fancy buildings, arguing over theological minutiae like the atonement, or trying to create that weird and corny Christian subculture and instead engage with the culture around you, be “missional,” live like Jesus would have lived if he were here today, and drink more fair-trade coffee or Guinness. The Emergent non-movement brought a fair number of reasonable critiques to the table, and was particularly adept at calling out the failings of a large swathe of conservative evangelicals in this country to live and love like Jesus did/does.

But, as this book sought to point out, the Emergent label was proceeding on its quest for reconstructing and reframing the faith in a very problematic manner. Many of its leading voices were soft and wobbly on doctrine (at best), often denying the existence of Hell or eternal perdition, emphasizing corporate or societal sin over personal sin, stepping away from a view of the atonement that centers solidly on the death and resurrection of Christ, playing word games with the role and authority of Scripture, or dancing with panentheism* or universalism. Not all Emergents were on the same pages as one another, of course, but most of its leading lights have since embraced heretical viewpoints that now place them solidly outside Christianity altogether.

* Panentheism is the idea that divinity is within all of creation, and vice versa. This is distinct from classical divine omnipresence which posits that the Creator-God is mystically present in all places in some way, and also distinct from Pantheism which posits that the universe is God.

There are some aspects of the Emergent movement that still exist within Christianity now, such as the House Church and the Missional Church movements. And some people formerly associated with the Emergent label are still active voices in some corners of the church today such as Alan Hirsch and Shane Claiborne. So the Emergent phenomenon was not all bad. Few things are. But its name seems to have run its course and its decade of fame has passed.

So what was the point of me reading a book telling me not to join a movement that’s been dead for almost as long as it was alive?

Partly, I was honestly just curious to see what all the fuss was about. I missed it because I was moving in kind of an opposite direction at the time, exploring the catholic tradition and the Anglican church. But also, I surmised that whatever was going on the Emergent business back then would still have some relevance for whatever is going on in the church right now. There is nothing really new under the sun, old ideas and problems like to reinvent themselves. So who, I asked myself, might the Emergent controversialists out there be today?

Emergents in the 2020’s

There are three distinct movements (or non-movements) that show strong strands of commonality with the Emergents: the Missional movement, the Exvangelical movement, and the Woke Church movement. Each of these latch on to something positive, make it their main thing, and thereby suffer as a result of displacing (or rejecting) other things that ought to come first in the Church.

The Missional Church movement is, predictably all about mission – the work of proclaiming Christ to a world that desperately needs him. Who could find fault with this? Isn’t this the Great Commission put upon us by the Lord Jesus himself? Isn’t it worth putting aside our petty differences to unite for the great cause of the Gospel? Well… needless to say the zeal for outreach and the zeal for the lost in this movement is phenomenal, and great fruit is born from this branch of the Christian tree when those new coverts are lovingly taken in, catechized in the Scriptures, and formed with robust and healthy spiritual disciplines. Many “missional” types out there can be pretty shallow with the work of proper discipleship beyond conversion, jumping straight from the Altar Call to the Missionary Call, but thankfully there does seem to be a growing interest and emphasis in spiritual formation and training. The Missional Church movement has, to some degree, matured over the past few decades to a point where they really do have excellent things to offer more “traditional” churches.

The shortcomings here can be very problematic, but they’re not insurmountable. There is, inevitably, an erosion of doctrinal clarity that takes place whenever denominational lines are crossed or ignored. Granted, some cross-pollenization can be good and healthy, but when you get to a point where ministers, pastors, clergymen are actually defying their own church’s confessions or formularies, you have a problem. Not only doctrine, but worship can also suffer greatly at the hands of the missional formula. If worship is taken over for the purpose of evangelistic work, or discipleship training, the heart of worship is truly lost: giving glory and praise to the Triune God with a common voice and heart. Especially among we liturgical sorts, “missional worship” is very detrimental to our theology of worship; it becomes a mere tool in the hands of the minister or community. Similarly, the emphasis on lay ministry (along with the relaxed attention to doctrine and utilitarian or overly-contextualized approach to worship) quickly erodes the definition and purpose of the ordained clergy. Priests actually are set aside especially for preaching the Word and celebrating the Sacraments, and that’s a perfectly good thing! That doesn’t need yo be fixed.

The House Church movement is very similar on this front. This tends to be more specific, usually rejecting the ordained clergy entirely in a manner not unlike the Brethren. This is usually accompanied by a very pedestrian approach to worship (let’s sit around a living room and talk about the Bible or some spiritual topic, maybe sing a little, and pray for each other), and minimal doctrinal clarity and definition according to any recognizably historical confession or standard.

One of the key weaknesses that led the way to this movement, as well as the Missional Church movement, which was also one of the major problems among the Emergents, was a gross lack of understanding of Church History. A little knowledge, out of context, can go very far astray. Many of the Emergents fell afoul of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”, imagining that contemporary man is far more wise and insightful than his primitive ancestors back in the 1700’s, not to mention those dreadfully ignorant medieval types. The House Church movement may not be quite so snobbish about their historical errors, but it tends to bear the same level of ignorance, all-too-quickly drawing lines of connection between what they read in the New Testament and what they imagine that would look like today, not realizing the host of second-generation literature that sheds light on what New Testament ecclesiology really was up to. The Missional Church types seem to have more educated ministers in their midst these days, but Church History is still a weakness; pastors, priests, and bishops reading 20th century ideas into Reformation-era or Medieval-era texts and not understanding the true meaning of our forebears’ writings, nor their contexts, well enough to draw accurate and helpful conclusions for the church today.

Exvangelicals are, as the word suggests, people who are now ex-evangelicals. Like many who joined the Emergent movement, these are often people who were hurt, or at least thought they were hurt, by the evangelical church of their youth and have now loudly proclaimed their departure. Again, it is good to identify abuse, it is good to call out the wolves among the sheep. There have been so many scandals and coverups over the years – Romans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans – and the Church does need to be serious about disciplining her wayward children, especially shepherds who abuse their sheep. Due process must be maintained, of course, a witch hunt serves no good, the right balance between listening to victims/survivors and assessing the evidence must be struck.

But a large portion of the exvangelical movement seems to be less about actual abuse and more about rejecting theological systems that don’t permit their higher commitments, often to the LGBTQ+ cause. In this case there is little that the church can do about this; it has never been right for God’s people to rewrite God’s Word for the sake of winning over or winning back those who prefer an edited moral code. What we can do, however, is reassess how we have handled the sensitive subjects of our day. Some Christians have been pretty rude and hateful, quick to name-call and condemn, and inept (or incompetent?) at teaching the why behind the what of Christian ethics, sexual or otherwise. If all we’ve presented is moralism, then it’s no wonder that a lot of people are giving up on it. There is a great deal of truth, goodness, and beauty that spreads out from the Gospel core of the Christian faith and leads seamlessly to all our ethical and moral stances, and we would do well to see that we do our homework on that front, lest we kill people with the Law and fail to apply the Gospel.

There’s also point of irony here: exvangelicals are often very much like the evangelicals they claim to have left behind, highlighting their conversion (or deconversion) experience, proselytizing their good news to others, and trying to win people over to their side. They often use the same tools they learned in evangelical churches simply for a different cause. The Emergent Church also frequently did this: criticizing small-town traditional churches or big-box megachurches, yet copying many of their methods with simply changing the label on the package.

The Woke Church is also really big right now. These are the “left-leaning” among the evangelicals who care about the poor, racial inequality, systematic economic and political injustices, and the like. For the most part, their concerns are straight out of the Sermon the Mount, and, again, nobody can or should fault them for this. A church that cares not for the weak and oppressed is a church that has lost its way. The Emergent Church was also big on social justice, or the social gospel, or whatever other label you want to throw on it. Living and loving like Jesus is a big deal, and these folks tend to get it.

The challenge, right off the bat, is falling into moralism. Just like what scared away many of the exvangelicals from the church, the Woke Church movement is in danger of setting up another moralistic trap, just with a slightly adjusted set of criteria. Sometimes Woke Church folks are wishy-washy on sexual ethics, like many of the Emergent folks were. Sometimes the handling of Scripture by these movements is rushed, or shallow, and could stand to benefit from a deeper engagement with the context of the whole Bible and its overall Gospel message.

Activistic Christianity, I’ve noticed, can be a fickle thing. I’ve seen youth raised in a Bible-preaching church get very riled up for certain causes (sexual purity, ending abortion, fighting evolution) and after a few years totally flipping around to championing very different causes (abortion as health care, pro-LGBTQ+ sexuality, and fighting religious “intolerance”). The problem wasn’t bad theology or preaching, but emphasis. The focus on being an activist took first place, it was more important to champion a cause than it was to worship the Lord or study his Word. And so a bigger, flashier, and more successful activistic movement swept them up, and they have ended up beyond Woke and practically Exvangelical, if even still Christian at all. This is the danger of moralism. If morality and ethics are not strongly grounded on a theological (or philosophical) foundation, the whole edifice can topple and be replaced with alarming speed. This is a concern I have with both the Woke Church Movement as well as the conservative moralists that Exvangelicals say they’re leaving behind.

Redemption & Wholeness: a final word

Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) is a book that has served its purpose. It “won.”

But in so doing, it proves the accuracy of many of the concerns it raised about the Emergent movement, and provides us with a solid list of Red Flags that we can see today in other places. That doesn’t mean we need to move quickly and decisively to stamp out the “Missional” and “Woke” movements within our churches. Remember, all these movements and ideologies have something important and true at their roots that we need to preserve and cultivate. What we do need to do, though, is pay careful attention to how we interact with them, make sure that we and they are learning the right lessons from one another so that the Church can truly be prospered, the Kingdom advanced, and the people of God built up and grown.

The Church will always have its “holy misfits” on the fringes, poking the sacred cows and keeping the natural tendency toward self-importance in check. It would be to everyone’s peril if we took them seriously on everything they say and accommodate the Church entirely to their whims, but it would also be to the Church’s peril to ignore their warnings and reminders entirely. Prophets are often without honor in their home towns, and the messengers of God are frequently underappreciated (to put it gently) by the authorities. But it would be similarly poor judgment to make a prophet a high priest or a king. Let us appreciate these ‘Emergent’ voices for what they are, heeding the good and correcting the bad. Christ’s Body is always healthier when it’s whole.

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Marriage Vows For Eternity

Introduction

Two weeks ago we heard primarily from Ephesians 1 about how God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and we explored how that long 11-verse sentence spells out different aspects of that great blessing already available to us: holiness, righteousness, union with Christ, an inheritance for eternal life.  Part of the joy of Christmas, I reminded us, is Emmanuel, God-With-Us.  He is with us now.  He is among you, within you, right now.  When you hear the Word read and rightly preached, you hear his voice speaking to you.  When you eat his bread and drink his cup you have fellowship with him, and are nourished by him.  When you pray your voice is heard in heaven no matter how alone, ineloquent, or unworthy you may feel.  These are blessings God has already lavished upon us.  While there is unmatchable joy to look forward to – when sin and death shall cease and all tears shall be wiped away – there is, nevertheless, immense joy and strength to be found in Christ today.  So the big question I dropped at the end was this: “How might God make you more like him this year?”

Today we will return to that question.  With the Christmastide emphasis on Christ sharing our human nature completed, and the Epiphany emphasis on Christ’s divinity shining forth, we will be looking at some of the basic matters of being a Christian.

The Scripture readings today points us in the direction of the subject of marriage.  Jesus’ first miracle, or first “sign” that he performs to reveal his divinity, is the transmutation of water into wine.  This little Gospel story can lead us in so many directions: the honoring of Holy Matrimony, an “epiphany” or manifestation of Christ’s divinity through his ministry, the right relationship between Marian piety and the worship of Jesus, and even imagery of purification in Christ with eucharistic and baptismal reference points.  I want to dwell on that baptismal cleansing theme for a moment with you.

Jesus orders that jars for purification be filled with water.  That much is normal – water jars are supposed to be filled with water.  But purification water is for ritual washing, not for drinking.  When Jesus orders the servants to serve the water as a drink, he could be taking a huge risk: not only is that water inappropriate for drinking, but it could be a real insult to the hosts!  But this is a Gospel-proclaiming moment in our Lord’s classic subtle glory: the water which can only wash us on the outside is transformed by God into wine, which we drink.  His washing-water, his purification, cleanses us on the inside.  That’s the New Covenant’s superiority to the Old in a nutshell!  The waters of Baptism and the wine of Communion are given for the forgiveness of our sins!

And that this takes place at a wedding, too, is immensely significant.  There are too many trains of thought for me to list or outline right now.  So here’s just one: whether you have been married for  a year and a half, for twelve years, for decades, several times, or never, this concept of marriage is a critical part of your life.  For, as we heard in Isaiah 62, the whole land of Israel, the whole people of God, will be called Married.  You are a part of the Bride of Christ.  Your whole life as a Christian is one of trying on the wedding dress, being clothed in his righteousness, and practicing the vows that pave the way to eternity.  Marriage, and marriage preparation, are pictures of the Christian life.  Imagine if you thought of your life more in those terms – like you’re getting ready for a wedding with God.  Imagine if you thought of the Church’s mission in those terms, like we’re inviting people to come to a wedding, to join a party, to meet The One who will love and guard their heart more perfectly than they could ever ask or imagine!

With that in mind, let us now reflect upon those vows for eternity, and take a closer look at what we renounce as Christians, and what we affirm.

Renunciations

Our renunciations are three-fold, reflecting the three-fold enemy of the Christian: the devil, the world, and the flesh.

Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

First of all, we recognize that evil is real.  It’s not just an abstract, an idea, a pattern of negative behavior, or even just human imperfection on a massive scale; when we pray “but deliver us from evil” we mean “deliver us from The Evil One.”

The Devil & Demons = forces of wickedness that rebel against God

Do you renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

This wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.  Anything this world has to offer on its own merits is either an empty promise or a deadly deceit.  Think a better king or wiser legislation will make the land a better place?  At best that’s an empty promise; at worst a deadly deceit.  Think you can be happy if you give your life over to the pursuit of sex, leisure, a fulfilling career, or the beauties of nature?  At best that’s an empty promise; at worst a deadly deceit.

Anything that attempts to stand in the place of God is an idol.  Anything that attempts to take on the role of the Gospel is a blasphemy.  As Christians we renounce earthly allegiances, labels, and philosophies.  Being a member of the right political party will not bring you closer to God.  Pursuing the most just economic theory will not make things on earth as it is in heaven.  Other religions will not gain you the blessings that Christ has to offer.

Do you renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw you from the love of God?

The third enemy of the Christian is yourself.  Within your flesh, your humanity, remains an ancient corruption inherited since the days of Adam and Eve.  You sin, and you have a tendency to sin (called concupiscence), and this has the wicked effect of drawing you from the love of God to pursue other, lesser, loves.  Even if the devil is held at bay, and the world’s lies are silenced, your own heart is still foolishly misguided on its own.

Affirmations

Our affirmations are also three-fold, replacing those evils we’ve renounced with something good and true.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and confess him as your Lord and Savior?

In opposition to the Devil and his hosts, we turn to Jesus and the heavenly hosts.  And note that we turn to him.  In our sinfulness we naturally turn away from God, and the Christian life is therefore one of turning, or returning, or repenting, to face up to God and confess him as Lord and Savior.

Briefly explicate ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’.

Do you joyfully receive the Christian Faith, as revealed in the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments?

In opposition to the world and its empty promises and deadly deceits, we joyfully receive the truth that sets us free, and indeed, sets the entire world free.  This truth is of course the Christian Faith, the Gospel, the Truth of Jesus as revealed in the Bible.  The Tanak, the Quran, the Analects of Confucius, the unwritten lore of countless pagan sages and priests, may contain hints and echoes of the truth, but none of those faiths bring you joyfully to the Truth.  The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, the Constitution of the United States (or any other nation) may contain hints and echoes of righteous society, but none of those documents bring you joyfully to the Truth.

Take up the Bible and eagerly, joyfully, devour its pages!  Take up any book or resource that helps you discern and understand the Bible’s message and joyfully pursue the Truth, who loves you and sets you free from sin and death.  If the Christian life is a life of continual repentance and returning to God, it is also one of devotion to the Word of God.

Will you obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in them all the days of your life?

Last of all, the sinful desires of the flesh, our concupiscence, is countered by the positive affirmation and commitment to obedience.  Rather than allowing our wild passions to rule our wills, Christians are people whose wills are to rule those wild passions.  It is easy to be provoked to anger by the wrongs and inconveniences around us; it is easy to be provoked to jealousy and covetousness by the possessions and powers of others; it is easy to be provoked to greed and lust and gluttony by the beautiful and attractive things (and people) around us.  But you, Christian, are called to obedience to God’s holy will and commandments.  You are called to walk in his ways all the days of your life.  Christianity ain’t a Sunday-only deal.  As I said at the end of an arduously distracted worship a couple weeks ago, worship is merely the practice run for the rest of the week.  For a brief moment on Sunday mornings we gather together and focus on Jesus, not to tick off a box and fulfill a mere duty, but as a practice run, a fresher course, a moment of concerted focus on who we truly are because of Christ, so that we can order the rest of our lives accordingly!

What do we do in worship here?  We pray for God to cleanse our hearts by the Holy Spirit so that we can truly love him and worship him.  We read or listen to the Scriptures, and reflect upon their message and truth.  We confess our faith, confess our sins, pray for the world, and give thanks.  We affirm that our lives, and the life of the world, is ordered around the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.  That is what you, O Christian, ought to be doing every day of your life!  Not merely in a liturgical fashion, re-creating elements of the Communion service every morning (though a discipline of daily prayer is definitely a critical part of that), but in the ordinary course of events.  Your work, your communication with other people, the thoughts of your hearts in the moments between – all of these are spaces in which you might acknowledge your Creator, proclaim your Redeemer, confess your sins and repent, or even help others to do the same.

Conclusion

That is what our baptismal vows direct us to do.  It’s a big deal.  You can’t even do this on your own; you need to draw upon the help of the Holy Spirit that God freely offers.  You need encouragement and inspiration and guidance from other Christians.  That is why we baptize our new members publicly, and why we say these Renewals of Baptismal Vows periodically – because we need to remind one another of who we are: what we’ve renounced and what we’ve committed to.  If a church becomes a political meetup, it is nothing.  If a church becomes an activist group for a just cause, it is nothing.  If a church becomes a social club, it is nothing.  We are people who renounce the devil and his rebellion against God, the world and its empty promises and deadly deceits, and the sinful desires of our own flesh that draw us from the love of God.  We are people who turn to Jesus and confess him, receive the faith as set forth in the Bible, and obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments day by day.

Give each of these vows due consideration.  Do you really renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil?  Do you really confess Christ, his Gospel, and his commandments?  Or are you at least willing to try?  If you have any questions, hesitations, scruples or doubts, I implore you to bring those issues to me as soon as you can.  Helping people to understand, make, and maintain these vows is literally why I (and indeed the whole visible Church on earth) am here.

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The Gift of Jesus for this Life

It feels odd, at first, to celebrate and remember a martyr on just the second day of Christmas.  It’s a sobering reminder, amidst joyous celebrations, that the life Christ calls us into still involves persecution and suffering and even death.  In our Gospel lesson, Jesus observes that such righteous suffering has happened before and will continue to happen. The Old Testament reading gives an ancient example of one of God’s messengers, the Prophet Jeremiah, being abused to the brink of death for his faithful preaching.  Our lesson from Acts, of course, gives us the story of today’s commemoration himself: Saint Stephen the Deacon.  The Collect of the Day, furthermore, brings some of Stephen’s final visions and words to us as a prayer that we can all share: may we all “look steadfastly to Jesus Christ our Lord” and learn to “love and forgive our enemies.”

This may not feel like a Christmas message, but it really is.  If, after all, Jesus has arrived to be our King and Savior, our Lord and Redeemer, then we must submit to his ways.  And Jesus is, among his many names in Scripture, the Prince of Peace.  He taught in words and showed in his actions how we are to treat our enemies: by offering them forgiveness out of love for them.  Retaliation and vengeance are in the hand of God alone; it may be that our grace to them will be a catalyst for their eventual repentance and salvation!  Saint Stephen, and the many martyrs who would follow him, is a holy and inspiring imitator of Christ on this point, keeping his eyes fixed on heaven and praying for his persecutors.

Another Christmastide theme that plays into this is the fact that Christ took on our human nature – he became like us.  Today’s lessons remind us that it’s a mutual exchange: we too, like Christ, are called to a life of potential suffering and death, with the glory of eternal life beyond it.  This gives us a theological, or specifically an eschatological reason for the moral lesson we just explored.  We can be patient and forgiving toward our enemies precisely because they cannot truly hurt us in the end; we are in the hands of the Lord.  Patient suffering, forgiveness of enemies, and even martyrdom itself, are not “good works” whereby we gain spiritual merit or special favor with God, but are embodiments of faith by which we might follow the path where Jesus has already trodden.  He hasn’t told us the way to holiness and said “good luck,” he’s shown us the way of holiness and said “take up your cross and follow me.”  As surely as he was born, raised, died, and raised again, so surely do we have access to the divine nature of God and his Holy Spirit, imputed to us for our life and our salvation.  The great gift of Christmas – Jesus’ gift of himself to us – is a gift that actually empowers us to persevere and endure all things throughout this earthly pilgrimage until we, too, behold the heavenly vision and take our rest in him.

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The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Over the past four weeks this has been something of a theme verse for the children’s ministry, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, where my kids have been attending.  Overhearing this each week, I’ve been particularly attentive to the theme of darkness and light throughout the Advent season, and have observed it popping up on several occasions in various parts of the Bible.  The dawning of the sun, the lighting of lamps or candles, these have been images of the receiving of knowledge or wisdom for ages.  The very words enlightenment and illumination make this connection in several different languages.

And now that it’s Christmas Eve, our Advent expectations come to their fulfillment: Christ is here.  As surely as he was born on that first Christmas morn, so surely is present with us through his Word and Sacrament, and so surely will he return to us on the Last Great Day.  The Light that came into the world, all those years ago, continues to shine in our hearts even now, and will someday be fully manifest for all the world to see.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  We who seek to follow Jesus recognize that Light, but there are others who glace its brightness and look away.  This is natural – when you’re in a place of deep darkness and a bright light suddenly shines forth, the instinct is to look away!  But what you do after that is critical: do you open your eyes slowly and come to terms with your new surroundings, or do you keep your eyes shut and continue to grope your way through that familiar darkness?

The birth of Jesus one such bright flash of light.  God entered into his creation in the flesh, fully visible to all, no longer hidden behind curtain and veil and symbol.  He would go on to grow and live and teach in a way that showed the world what it looks like to Walk in the Light.  This is a theme we traditionally see unfold in the season of Epiphany.  But in this Christmas moment we consider that first Light, that brilliant flash of incarnation, the face of God paradoxically synonymous with face of the child.

 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:2-7

To follow the words the Prophet Isaiah used to describe it, on that day God “multiplied the nation” and “increased its joy.”  Babies are being born all the time – it’s not the numerical multiplication that’s important here – but this is an increase in holiness and joy.  Mary and Joseph treasured the mystery of Jesus in their hearts, and angels arrived to instruct shepherds to rejoice and worship the newborn.  In the birth Jesus the yoke of Israel’s burden, the staff of Israel’s long journey, and the rod of Israel’s oppressors were broken at last.  With the advent of this new Light, these sources of darkness were finally removed.  The works of darkness could finally be cast away like the boots and uniforms of a defeated army.  A new Armor of Light could take its place, to defend God’s people from sin and death.

For unto us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government shall be on his shoulders – he will be the king of God’s people.  As if in anticipation of the revelation of the Holy Spirit he can be called the Wonderful Counselor.  In acknowledgement of his divinity he can be called Mighty God.  He was the long-awaited king who would be an Everlasting Father beyond that of David’s reign, and a Prince of Peace more so than Solomon’s reign.  The light of Christ alone knows justice and peace in full and proper measure, and God zealously, eagerly, begins his personal earthly reign on Earth there with the manger as his throne.

Christmas reminds us that this Light is among us and within us.  Christ shines in you and through you.  You have the honor and privilege of displaying his majesty and rule in your life for others to see.  There are times that those still walking in darkness will have to squint at the great light you carry.  When you see such resistance, in them or even in yourself, remember what wonders we have seen in the face of Jesus: joy, holiness, clarity, fulfillment, freedom, a new way of life and a better way of life, not only for this life but also for the life to come.  Let us give thanks.

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The Four Last Things: Hell

The Last of the tradition “Four Last Things” is the doctrine of eternal perdition, often known as Hell.

sermon recording from 19 Dec. 2021

Sermon Outline

The Magnificat implies the doctrine of eternal perdition in its contrasts:

He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.

John Bunyan’s poem, lines 1-7, introduce the doctrine of hell.

  • Almost from the outset the point of this doctrine is to warn us and grab our attention
  • It is as unspeakably bad as heaven is unspeakably good
  • It is a state of exclusion from God’s “face”, Life, Light, and peace.

Jesus: Wailing & gnashing of teeth   +            Isaiah: worm does not die and fire does not quench

  • Both indicate internal (worm, wail) and external (fire, gnashing) torment

Eternal resistance to Jesus

  • Think of a time you messed up, reaped what you sowed, but stubbornly refused to admit you were wrong and just bear through the punishment or consequences of your actions…
  • Life without him could be just like this life but without the Gospel
  • This world is closest to heaven for the wicked, and closest to hell for the godly

Objections:

  1. Emotional reaction “but what about holocaust victims?” – Anonymous Christians
  2. Appeal to God’s mercy – Annihilationism
  3. Love Wins – Hypothetical Universalism

Conclude by outlining the four-part doctrine of repentance a la The Homily of Repentance:

  1. From what we must turn: sin and concupiscence
  2. To whom we must turn: God alone
  3. By whom we may be able to covert: Christ alone
  4. The manner how to turn to God: inward contrition
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