A Good Courage in our Eternal Heavenly House

Our sermon yesterday was on 2 Corinthians 5:1-10.

1 We know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

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Make Disciples… of what?

“Make disciples!”
“Preach the Gospel.”
“Teach the Bible.”

These are the clarion calls of evangelical Christianity – at least, evangelicalism in its classical and proper sense, not the socio-political sense of ‘evangelicalism’ that is often identified in the secular media. The word itself, evangelical, literally means ‘pertaining to the Gospel’, and so it naturally follows that one of the major hallmarks of being an evangelical (in that classical sense) is the emphasis on Bible-teaching, Gospel-preaching, and evangelizing or discipling people. This is a powerful force for good, and is always a part of every positive movement in Church History – not just modern revivalism but every movement of reformation and restoration throughout the past two thousand years.

But, like all good things, it has its shortcomings when its value is overextended. Teaching the Bible and preaching the Gospel to make disciples is a valuable tool or method, but it’s not an end in itself; it’s not a methodology; it’s not an identity. So when we speak of making disciples, we have to ask “disciples of whom” or “of what?” The answer is obvious and simple: disciples of Jesus, of course. The trouble is, though, that nobody is a disciple of Jesus on his or her own; discipleship is joining a family, a community, The Church. To be his disciple means to believe his teachings and obey his commands. To be his disciple, a member of the Church, is to assent to particular doctrines and follow particular disciplines. We cannot aim to make “generic Christian” disciples; that would be like telling your children that they need to eat food and pointing them to the refrigerator. They will see all sorts of foods in there and will probably eat something that’s good for them, but without further guidance regarding health, nutrition, and good eating habits, there’s nothing stopping them from glutting themselves on sweets to their own hurt.

In short, we can’t just tell people to follow Jesus, we have to teach them how to follow Jesus. One can’t just be a “mere Christian”, but must inevitably follow some particular tradition of teaching and some particular form of spirituality.

Many Christians today don’t care about particulars. “As long as you believe in Jesus, you’re safe.” It is good to be able to acknowledge that there multiple traditions or denominations within the Christian faith and religion, yes. But if we’re teaching people that the “only thing that matters” is that they follow Jesus and believe the Bible, we’re literally teaching them to open the fridge and feed themselves. Or, to change the metaphor to one more commonly-used, it is a buffet-style Christianity in which every person gets to choose his or her own doctrinal positions and spiritual disciplines with almost no guidance. To engage in “discipleship” that offers no catechesis or spiritual formation, therefore, is a massive risk. With a choose-your-own adventure approach to Christianity, what’s to stop someone from choosing doctrines and practices that are antithetical to the biblical gospel? It has already been observed by many that our popular approaches to evangelism and discipleship tend to be wide-ranging but incredibly shallow.

So let’s circle back to that phrase, “mere Christianity.” It’s a term coined by C. S. Lewis in a book of that title, and has become popular in recent times as a way of self-identification, a defense of non-denominational churches and multi-denominational ministries. Indeed, it is good when different traditions or denominations can work together in areas that they have in common, but one cannot fall into “ecclesiastical pluralism” wherein our differences are ignored or pretended to be unimportant. If the difference between a Calvinist and a Lutheran is truly unimportant, the division between these traditions would not have lasted, or even begun. Indeed, the very concept of “Mere Christianity” was never meant to be an identity at all. This is what Lewis wrote in his preface to that book:

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the room, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.
… You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. Above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and pannelling. In plain language, the question should never be “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”

In short, when we disciple people but leave them in the “mere” Christian hall, we are leaving them out to starve.

We cannot, ultimately, make denomination-neutral disciples. We cannot convert people simply to the idea of Christianity, but to its doctrines and practices. And that inevitably leads to the teachings of a particular Church. So if you are not intentional about teaching your Church’s doctrine and promulgating your Church’s practices, then the convert will be left to his or her own devices to sample the fridge or buffet of modern Christianity. And then we wonder why so many people eventually choose to walk away from the faith altogether after a few years. In more cases than not, they were given snacks and previews but never truly feasted on the riches that Christ has entrusted to us.

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Out of the Deep – Psalm 130

Today (6 June 2021) we looked at Psalm 130.

1 Out of the deep have I called unto you, O LORD; * Lord, hear my voice.

2 O let your ears consider well * the voice of my supplications.

3 If you, LORD, were to mark what is done amiss, * O Lord, who could abide it?

4 For there is mercy with you; * therefore you shall be feared.

5 I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; * in his word is my trust.

6 My soul waits for the Lord, * more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.

7 O Israel, trust in the LORD, for with the LORD there is mercy, * and with him is plenteous redemption;

8 And he shall redeem Israel * from all their sins.

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A House Redeemed – Joshua 2

In today’s daily lectionary reading from Joshua 2 we come across the familiar story of Rahab the harlot, who protected the Israelite spies from the King of Jericho. She lies on their behalf to keep them safe from harm, helps them escape, and upon their departure secures a plan of survival for herself in return, when the Israelites will come and conquer the city.

But it’s not just Rahab, it’s her whole family as well: parents, siblings, the entire household.

Famously (at least among the evangelical circles I grew up in), it was the hanging of a scarlet cord from the window that was to be the sign to the Israelites that her house should be exempt from the destruction. Everyone inside was to be saved from the battle, and indeed would be join the people of Israel thereafter. The scarlet cord, so I was told, is a symbol, a foreshadowing of the blood of Christ, by which we are all redeemed. I do not doubt this as one excellent layer of meaning here, but there is much more to relate as well!

The men said to her, “We will be guiltless with respect to this oath of yours that you have made us swear. 18 Behold, when we come into the land, you shall tie this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and you shall gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household. 19 Then if anyone goes out of the doors of your house into the street, his blood shall be on his own head, and we shall be guiltless. But if a hand is laid on anyone who is with you in the house, his blood shall be on our head. 20 But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be guiltless with respect to your oath that you have made us swear.” 21 And she said, “According to your words, so be it.” Then she sent them away, and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.

Joshua 2:17-21

First of all, there is a very important call-back in the hanging of the scarlet cord and the sparing of the house. At the Passover, the final plague in Egypt, the Israelites were instructed to paint lamb blood on their door posts so the Lord God would pass (or hover) over their homes to keep the destroying angel from killing their firstborn sons, as was done to the rest of the Egyptians. This, too, is a sign, or type, of the blood of Christ which redeems us all from sin.

And the surrounding act of destruction, second of all, points even further back. Just as the Israelites would conquer Jericho and as God’s angel enacted the 10th plague in Egypt, so too had the world previously been judged by a flood. All life is swept away with only one house (or ark) rescued from death. Thus these three Old Testament moments serve not only as prototypes of Christ’s atoning blood, but also of Baptism. St. Peter explicitly uses the Flood as a type of Baptism, the water washing away evil and leaving the good appeal to God for a saved soul.

What then makes these scenarios especially interesting, in light of their heavy symbolic and teaching value regarding our salvation, is the fact that these are never individual promises. Rather, it is households who are redeemed. Noah gathered his wife, his sons, and their wives – eight persons. The Israelites gathered their families in their houses for the Passover. Rahab gathered her parents, siblings, and likely both children and servants in her house to escape the conquest by Israel. There was the warning, of course, not to leave the house during the battle, lest they die, meaning that anyone could opt-out of the covenant, so to speak, but redemption had been provided for the whole group of them.

This is instructive for our life as Christians who have been redeemed, and this is instructive for baptismal grace as well. “This promise is for you and your children,” Peter preached on the day of Pentecost. When parents believe, they bring their children with them. This applies not only to the initial conversion of the parents (and subsequent baptism of the whole household) but also to the children born of parents who have already believed and been baptized: the Church from the start has baptized her infants and young children. The Ark, the Passover, and Rahab’s house show us why: the Church is a safe haven from destruction – from the judgment of the world – and all God’s people are gathered in safely. It is not simply a preference or a symbol, but a concerted act by the parents to keep their children as safe as possible as long as possible. “We believe in one baptism for the remission of sins” the Creed summarizes, so we do not delay to bring our children into that covenant and new life. When and as the children grow up, they develop their own sense of agency, and can decide if they want to jump out of the ark or leave the house. But the expectation is that they will remain with their spiritual family, having been properly nourished, trained, and loved.

So in reflection on the story of Rahab today it is good to consider your own baptismal vows, commitments, and identity. Do you believe that the Church is the Ark of Salvation, the House of Safety, the one place where the blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness? Is this Gospel an anchor for your soul, and the commitment of your heart and mind? And not only for yourself, but for all God’s people – how do you help the family stay safe within the bounds of orthodoxy, within a faithful following of Christ our Lord?

As St. Peter, again, preached, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

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Anglican Esteem for the Sacrament of Holy Communion (1of10)

One of the least-known resources among the formularies of the Anglican tradition is the Book of Homilies. Strictly speaking there are two of them, but they have been bound together as a single volume for a few centuries. They were written in the 1500’s, so they are a bit difficult to read for the average reader today, and they were updated in typeface and spelling in the 19th century which makes it easier to read but still sadly remote to the way modern English has developed in the past century.

Starting today I’ll be sharing a paragraph at a time from one of them – “AN HOMILY OF THE worthy receiving and reverend esteeming of the Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ“. Some of these paragraphs are pretty long, so I will break some of them up to make it easier on the modern eye. I’ll touch up the spelling and punctuation and provide notes for any tricky phrases that come up, and offer some comments at the end.

The great love of our Saviour Christ towards mankind, good Christian people, does not only appear in that dear-bought benefit of our redemption and salvation by his death and passion, but also in that he so kindly provided that the same most merciful work might be had in continual remembrance – to take some place in us, and not be frustrate [or prevented] of his end and purpose. For as tender parents are not content to procure for their children costly possessions and livelihood, but take order [make sure] that the same may be conserved and come to their use: So our Lord and Saviour thought it not sufficient to purchase for us his Father’s favour again (which is that deep fountain of all goodness and eternal life) but also invented the ways most wisely, whereby they might redound [reflect or continue] to our commodity and profit.

Amongst which means is the public celebration of the memory of his precious death, at the Lord’s Table; which although it seem of small virtue to some, yet being rightly done by the faithful it not only helps their weakness (who be by their poisoned nature readier to remember injuries than benefits) but [rather] strengthens & comforts their inward man [Eph. 3:16] with peace and gladness, and makes them thankful to their Redeemer, with diligent care and godly conversation.

And, as of old time GOD decreed his wonderous benefits of the deliverance of his people to be kept in memory by the eating of the Passover, with his Rites and Ceremonies (Exodus 12.14): So our loving Saviour has ordained and established the remembrance of his great mercy expressed in his passion, in the institution of his heavenly Supper (Matthew 26.26-28), where every one of us must be guests (and not gazers), eaters (and not lookers), feeding ourselves (and not hiring others to feed for us), that we may live by our own meat [eating], and not perish for hunger, while others devour all (1 Corinthians 11.21). To this, his commandment forces us, saying, “Do ye this, drink ye all of this” (Luke 22.17). To this, his promise entices, “This is my body which is given for you” (1 Corinthians 11.24-25), “this is my blood which is shed for you” (Matthew 26.28). So then of necessity we must ourselves be partakers of this Table, and not beholders of other[s who eat in our place].

So we must address ourselves to frequent the same in a reverent and comely manner, lest as Physic [medicine] provided for the body, being misused, more hurts than profits: so this comfortable medicine of the soul undecently [unworthily] received, tends to our greater harm and sorrow. And Saint Paul says: “He that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks [to] his own damnation” (1 Corinthians 11.29). Wherefore, that it be not said to us, as it was to the guest of that great Supper, “Friend, how did you come in, not having the marriage garment?” (Matthew 22.12); but that we may fruitfully use Saint Paul’s counsel, “Let a man prove [judge] himself, and so eat of that bread, and drink of that cup” (1 Corinthians 11.28).

We must certainly know, that three things be requisite in him which would seemly [rightly], as becomes such high mysteries, resort to the Lord’s Table. That is: First, a right and worthy estimation and understanding of this mystery. Secondly, to come in a sure faith. And thirdly, to have newness or pureness of life to succeed [or follow from] the receiving of the same.

This is the introduction to the two-part homily. Yes, all (but one) of those Scripture references are included in the published text of the homily – what a useful feature even then! To one experienced with Anglican liturgy, this contains some pretty standard language and emphases. The assurance that the Sacrament is medicine for the soul but also dangerous for the unrepentant is one of the major forces of The Exhortation traditionally shortly before the Confession of sin preceding the Communion Prayers. And that, of course, is also just taken from 1 Corinthians 11. The link between the Old Testament Passover Supper and the New Testament Supper of our Lord is also explicitly drawn, which should be obvious to the regular Bible-reader but yet somehow still doesn’t prevent a lot of Christians from dabbling in reconstructed Jewish Seders on Maundy Thursday.

That the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, actually does confer spiritual benefits to worthy recipients is standard historic Christian doctrine; Eastern, Roman, Protestant – all agreed that the Supper is efficacious. How and why this is true is where we find the innumerable arguments and differences between traditions and denominations, and this homily will likely come to something on that point eventually. Sadly, many Christians today, particularly in evangelical and pentecostal churches, no longer retain the belief that the Lord’s Supper is anything but an act of personal faith wherein we memorialize the Lord’s death but receive no actual benefits from his hand. This introductory paragraph staves off that misunderstanding and false teaching from the start, and promises further arguments to lift up our estimation of the blessed Sacrament.

One final emphasis which is pretty significant as this homily opens (which we might overlook today) is that the Holy Communion is meant to be eaten, not observed. For a couple centuries, people had been used to receiving the Sacrament (and even then usually only the bread) as rarely as once a year, and usually simply watched their priest(s) celebrate Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. It was a point among the Reformers that the people should receive, not view, the Sacrament. This malpractice has finally been, for the most part, cleaned up in the Roman church, but the pandemic has caused many, Protestants included, to put too much stock in Holy Communion livestreams wherein people are again reduced to “gazers” and not “eaters”. The Sacrament is a matter of “take and eat”, not “come and see”.

The introduction ends with a three-part thesis, basically. As the homily unfolds we should expect to learn about how we are to esteem and value the Sacrament, learn what it means to have a true faith for worthy reception of the Sacrament, and learn what kind of lives we should be living in light of being partakers of these divine mysteries.

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What Jesus passed to the Apostles

Yesterday’s lessons & sermon, for the Sunday after the Ascension, have been recorded.

Grace Anglican Church, 16 May 2021

The order in the recording is:

  • Collect for Ascension Sunday
  • Acts 1:15-26

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”

(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

“For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and ‘Let another take his office.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”

And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

  • Psalm 47
  • 1 John 5:6-15
  • Hymn: “See the Conqueror mounts in triumph”
  • John 17:11b-19
  • Sermon: the Ascension of Jesus: succession, what was passed on?

An Ordination took place:

  • he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” – diakonias
  • Let another take his office.” – episcopen
  • show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship” – diakonias, apostoles

Why couldn’t this wait until the promised Holy Spirit descended?

  • But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (v8).
  • The Kingdom is supposed to be establish in all its fulness, and that means all twelve tribes on board, symbolized by twelve apostles.
  • Besides, they’ll need all hands on deck on the Day of Pentecost.

What exactly did Jesus pass on, here?

  • These men obviously aren’t there to do what only God can do, that’s the Spirit’s role, wait for next week!
  • The Apostles were to continue the work of Christ in his humanity: preaching, witnessing, serving, teaching, guiding…

What have we received?

  • Being members of God’s kingdom unites us in a structure.
    • Apostles
    • Bishops
    • Elders/Presbyters/Priests
    • Deacons
  • We must be very careful about the concept of a “hierarchy” in the Church, however:
    • exercising oversight, not under compulsion but willingly… not for shameful gain but eagerly; not domineering… but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
    • You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-44).

Thus we respect our church leaders for their roles within the church while remaining a family of equal heirs in Christ.

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The Rogation Days show us a more just society

Originally, the Church’s Rogation Days (typically sometime in May, on the three days leading up to Ascension Day) were about agriculture. The planting season was finished and “summer” was beginning, when everyone was really just waiting for the crops to come to fruition. Modern folks often imagine winter to be the harshest and most famine-ridden time of year for pre-modern civilization, but it was actually spring or summertime, because that is when the harvest has not quite arrived and the previous year’s stores are running low or spoiling. So although the weather is more pleasant and the agricultural work is more promising, this time of year could be one of particular anxiety for the subsistence-farming society of previous ages.

So in that context it was absolutely sensible that the Church called for days of special prayer and entreaty before God, that the coming harvest would not fail, and that his people would enjoy a prosperous year.

With the refrigeration and transportation technologies of the 20th century and beyond, most Westerners no longer live tied to the natural cycles of the land. There may be some foods that are less expensive “in season”, and local farms offer crop shares such that we can purchase the foods that are actually ready at particular times through the year, but on the whole people can walk into a supermarket and buy most any fruit or vegetable they want at any time of the year. The anxiety inspiring the old Rogation Days no longer applies to the majority of the population. Even the homeless and the hungry are often not impacted by the crop seasons – farms don’t allow strangers to glean from their fields anymore, and those who practice charity toward the needy are not constricted by seasonal availability.

So the Rogation Days have gradually developed additional layers, praying for a wider scope of industry and work. One such prayer that we have today is this:

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give us all a right satisfaction in what we do, and a just return for our labor; 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.

This Collect is a sound expression of a biblical theology of work.  We recognize

  1. Jesus’ sharing in our labor (implying his years as a carpenter with his guardian St. Joseph),
  2. the need to be responsive to God’s will in the workplace (that is, being a faithful worker, judging by several parables of Jesus),
  3. healthy satisfaction in our labor (understanding we were made for work), and
  4. just return (the biblical injunctions concerning paying workers properly). 

On their own, any of these four elements of the prayer could be twisted – the first to insubstantial piety, the second to undirected zeal, the third to idolatry, and the fourth to un-tethered social justice championship.  But collected together they form a healthier balance of biblical teaching concerning work and labor and employment: work is good for the human person; everyone is called to participate in society somehow.

With this prayer can be appointed the following Scriptures:

  1. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 38:27-32 explores a few basic manual trades, observing “All these rely upon their hands, and each is skilful in his own work. Without them a city cannot be established, and men can neither sojourn nor live there.” This captures an aspect of biblical teaching regarding community: everyone contributes to society in some way. Pair this also with the Old Testament schema where every family was supposed to own their own land and preserve one another’s inheritance, and you get an ethic that may be somewhat foreign to American individualism – that all work is worthy of dignity and none should be devalued either in esteem or in pay.
  2. Psalm 107:1-9 is a psalm which explores several scenarios of need and distress, from which God invariably rescues those who cry to him for help. The insight this text brings to the Rogation Days is the reminder to come together to pray in times of need.
  3. 1 Corinthians 3:10-14 is a text where St. Paul is describing his own labor in the Gospel. He uses the construction worker as a metaphor for the work of the clergyman, showing by example the necessity of building upon the foundation that God has laid out, and using the tools God has provided. In the context of our work and labor, this both reminds us that there are legitimate forms of employment that aren’t primarily manual in nature, as well as instructs us that all fruitful labor is done as to/for the Lord.
  4. Matthew 6:19-24 warns us against idolatry. What you do must not define what you are. As important as labor is, it is not the end-all-be-all of human life. No matter what we do on Earth, we must also labor spiritually, investing ourselves in the eternal life promised to those who love God. If work is all about the money, then you are serving a master other than the Lord God. Managers (or similar high-up roles) are thus answerable for how they pay their servants and employees, or how they treat their slaves. If labor is not primarily about money, but about vocation (calling), then it behooves the powerful to see that the powerless are amply rewarded for their labors.

In a way this comes full circle back to the old Rogation emphasis on food and provision. The in-the-world concern was that everyone would have enough food to survive each year; the in-the-world concern now is that everyone would have enough income to survive each year. Thus the same Rogation themes of entreaty before God, of the hallowing & honoring of earthly labor, and of avoiding the idolatries of mammon and money, continue to inform us even in an economic world that is radically different from pre-modern society. We still need the Rogation Days to move us to pray for help and provision and teach & remind us to take care of one another better.

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Gregory of Nazianzius pointing us to the Truth

INTRODUCTION #1: ROGATION SUNDAY

Rogation Sunday is today’s nickname due to the Rogation Days that follow: tomorrow through Wednesday.  These are days in the Church calendar for especial prayer for the agricultural year now underway, prayer against the many calamities that can befall a man, a parish, or an entire country.  We prayed the Great Litany this morning, which is customary to be prayed on every such day of fasting and entreaty like the Rogation Days ahead.

My intention had been to preach a sermon concerning the lessons of generosity and attendance to one’s community that the Rogation Days teach, and model for us, but another matter caught my attention instead, and we did have a call to generosity, at least, just two weeks ago.  So instead it will be Wednesday’s devotional that will explore the Rogation Day themes.  Stay tuned for that.

Or, for further reading:

INTRODUCTION #2: THE TRUTH

Instead, the subject matter that invaded my heart in mind this past week is the question of truth.  At the trial of our Lord, Pontius Pilate famously asked, or perhaps scoffed, “What is truth?”  The previous evening, Jesus had already told his disciples that he is the Truth.  This is something that did explore somewhat last week, but now I would like to narrow in on the subject more pointedly: what is the truth?

We are a people who are called to be committed to truth, committed to the truth – what is more worthy of the name of Truth than God himself?

  • There are so many issues of “truth” that get thrown around in the world today: Do vaccines work? Is socialism evil? Is capitalism evil? Does mass media misrepresent the news? Who can we trust to tell us the truth?
  • There are so many issues of “truth” that gets thrown around today in the church: Is evolution real? Is the Old Testament historically accurate? Do the New Testament Epistles accurately depict the teachings of Jesus?
  • But at the foundation of all things, is the ultimate question of Truth himself: who is God?  Knowing the truth is knowing God.  The book that is perhaps J. I. Packer’s masterpiece is on this very concept: Knowing God.
  • The greatest saints of the early church, too, were concerned with the right knowledge of God, and the Church has stood on their theological work ever since.

INTRODUCTION #3: SAINT GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS

One such Saint is Gregory of Nazianzus; one-time Archbishop of Constantinople but his epithet honors his final See in the diocese of Nazianzus.  He was one of the greatest theologians in Christian history.  He’s on the short list of both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Saints when it comes to the significance of his teaching, and he is revered in every Christian denomination that keeps a calendar of commemorations.  He lived through the 300’s AD and his great works were on the doctrine of the Trinity.

He emphasized that Jesus did not cease to be God when he became a man, nor did Jesus lose any of his divine attributes when he took on human nature.  Becoming human did make Jesus less than he was before.  Furthermore, Gregory asserted that Christ was also indeed fully human, including a human soul. Thirdly, he also proclaimed the eternality of the Holy Spirit, saying that the Holy Spirit’s actions were somewhat hidden in the Old Testament but much clearer since the ascension of Jesus into Heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost.

He went on to be a major voice at the second ecumenical council (Constantinople, 381) which revised the Nicene Creed to the form we have and use today, and eased into retirement thereafter.

THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY

In the generation before him, the Church had champions like Saint Athanasius, standing against what seemed like the entire Christian world falling to the heresy of Arianism, which twisted the Scriptures to proclaim that God the Son is inferior to the Father, for there was a time in eternity past when the Son did not exist, but only the Father.  Jesus, therefore, was not fully God, and it took decades of Athanasius’ resilient teaching to hold even the smallest line against the devil’s lies.  Saint Gregory grew up in this battleground, and he became one of a trio of famous teachers – the Cappadocian Fathers – named after the region in which they all lived and ministered.  Together they brought clarity to the Church’s language about the divinity of Christ and went on to proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity afresh.  Regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit, for example, here is a loose quote from St. Gregory in English, “Look at these facts: Christ is born, the Holy Spirit is His Forerunner. Christ is baptized, the Spirit bears witness to this … Christ works miracles, the Spirit accompanies them. Christ ascends, the Spirit takes His place. What great things are there in the idea of God which are not in His power?

He, with others in his generation, put forth the Trinitarian formula that has remained a pillar of trinitarian orthodoxy to this day: “one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostaseis)”. These terms and concepts came from existing philosophical language: any three human beings are each individual persons, yet all share a common universal: their humanity. The formulation explicitly acknowledged a distinction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but at the same time insisting on their essential unity.

This was not the Church’s last word on the matter, though, as more heresies about the Trinity and the person and natures of Christ continued to pop up for another two centuries, necessitating more ecumenical councils to address them.

But the primary language we have employed to describe God – the Trinity in Unity – came from teachers like St. Gregory.  For so great and significant a doctrine as this, no true Christian theologian has dared to replace these terms: one being or substance, and three persons or subsistences.

THE CENTRAL TRUTH OF ALL

Is this hair-splitting?  No!

The highest truth is not politics, nor economics nor sociology, nor even ordinary matters of Christian doctrine.  No, the highest truth is God himself.  The greatest pursuit of knowledge and truth centers on discovering precisely what and who God is.

  • Get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, and your understanding of the incarnation will be skewed.
  • Get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, and your understanding of the Cross will be skewed.
  • Get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, and your understanding of our salvation will be skewed.
  • Get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, and your knowledge of all God’s creation will be skewed.

If you would be a contender for truth, immerse yourself in the doctrine of God himself.  There are many good and honorable causes out there, but the highest of truths is the One who is himself the Truth: the Lord God Almighty.

If you would call yourself a Christian, get to know who and what Christ is – not just the son of Mary from two thousand years ago, but the eternal Son of the Father, begotten before all worlds, of one substance, will, and being with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Pay heed to what the Scriptures say, for they are God’s self-revelation to us precisely so that we might know him and love him and honor him.  At its best, our liturgy highlights and summarizes what the Scriptures have taught us these past few thousand years, helping us to see in brief what the Bible details at length.  These are not just fancy words for people in fancy vestments; these are words of truth to bring the fullness of the Truth – God himself – into the hearts and minds of everyone who hears them.

Is someone that you know deceived?  Is he or she deceived about human sexuality, or human politics, or human economics?  Is he or she deceived in philosophy or doctrine?  The greatest deception of all is idolatry, believing a vision of God other than the one he has provided for us in his written Word.  If you weep for the one who has chosen the wrong political party or chases after a life of sin, but give no thought to their ignorance of God, then it is you who must first repent.  One God in three Persons; the perfect and eternal unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the fullness of divinity expressed in three coexistent subsistences – this is the root of all truth where all sacred knowledge begins.  People don’t go to hell because they’re republicans or democrats, fornicators or misers, Pentecostals or papists; people go to hell because they don’t believe in God the Father Almighty, His only Son Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.

CONCLUSION

All too often it is we who distract ourselves with matters that are important but secondary.  What is your commitment to the Truth that is God? What is your commitment to knowing God?  Remember how the Ten Commandments start: “I AM the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt” – it begins with theology, not ethics.  We cannot stand with integrity on the teachings of God if we do not first hold fast the truth of God himself.

This is what makes Saints like Gregory of Nazianzus so great – not because he was smart, or clever with words, or very skilled with fine-tooth combs, but because he was passionate about The Truth.  If there is only one thing I ever teach here, let it be this: believe in God.

  • Believe in God the Father.
  • Believe in God the Son.
  • Believe in God the Holy Spirit.
  • Believe in the Trinity, three Persons and one God.
  • Believe in him with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

If anything else surpasses your faith in God, you have gone astray.  In an act of repentance, therefore, let us stand and recite the great summary of the truth which St. Gregory of Nazianzus helped revise: the Nicene Creed.

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Answering some challenges with Judith

Among the Ecclesiastical Books, or “books called Apocrypha”, stands a lovely story book called Judith. The main character is, unsurprisingly, Judith, a woman of great faith and devotion to the Lord.

– the setting –

From the outset, this book is riddled with challenges: the antagonist is a General named Holofernes, who serves King Nebuchadnezzar – the Babylonian king who ultimately conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem in 586BC. The book refers to him and his people as “Assyrians”, however, which is not strictly accurate; the Assyrian Empire had been overrun by the Babylonians some time earlier. The Assyrians, on the other hand, were the ones responsible for conquering the northern kingdom – Israel – and both the Assyrians and the Babylonians invaded from the same direction (from the North, following the arc of the Fertile Crescent), so there is an appropriate sense in which a theologically-minded author might intentionally conflate the Assyrians and Babylonians; both are bearers of divine judgment upon God’s faithless people.

But then things really get broken up in Judith 4:1-3 when explicit reference to the Exile and the Return is made, and the Temple recently rebuilt. Now this story apparently has elements of chronology at least 70 years later than the initial historical setting. So what we have is a mish-mash of scenarios all mixed together: the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Babylonian conquest of Judah, and the constant threats suffered within the Persian Empire after the exile. What does this mean for the historicity of the Book of Judith? Many scholars today assume it’s an historical fiction – a morality tale told to showcase positive Jewish virtues in the character of Judith. Nevertheless, there are early Fathers of the Church who did believe it was historically accurate. To uphold this view, one would have to concede that the author intentionally used anachronistic elements to embellish the account and heighten the drama, much like what we see in the book of Esther. So that’s a distinct possibility.

– Judith’s actions –

As a heroine, Judith is rather like an amalgamation of Rahab and Jael. From Rahab she gets the cunning use of lies to trick the antagonist, and from Jael she gets the distinction of killing an enemy general.

One of the troubles with strong female characters, in the course of biblical interpretation, is that people sometimes get hung up with sexuality. There is endless speculation about Mary Magdalene – “was she a former harlot?” asked the medieval scholars, “did she secretly marry Jesus and bear his children?” ask the modern agnostic scholars. People sometimes misunderstand Ruth’s actions towards Boaz, mistakenly thinking she was making a sexual advance like a modern “free” woman! Rahab admittedly was, straight up, a professional prostitute. And so with Judith the question is did she “put out” toward Holofernes and violate herself, her modesty, and chastity?

Her plan was to deceive Holofernes, and her deception was her beauty. This is repeated throughout the story – she puts off her widow’s garments of mourning and puts on her finest clothes and jewels. She is making a show of herself. The people of her town are wow’d at her appearance, and the enemy soldiers are utterly ravished at the sight. In the spirit of a morality tale (regardless of historical accuracy) this illustrates the response of the righteous compared to the response of the wicked: the righteous sees beauty and appreciates it, the wicked sees beauty and desires to possess it. Holofernes, in particular, wants to take her to bed. And Judith knows this, and uses this knowledge to engineer his downfall by getting him drunk so she can chop off his head and flee. Some would translate her deception as “seducing” him, which is accurate to a point – she took advantage of her beauty and his sinfulness to deceive him – but there is no indication in the story that she committed fornication, that is, sex outside of wedlock. Judith narrates this quite clearly in 13:16 – he committed no act of sin with her to defile and shame her. It was her “face” that tricked him, not her moves in the bedroom.

We live in a highly sexualized culture these days, and some Christians have responded with a heightened “purity culture” movement that overreacts to honest beauty. Modest, God-fearing women ought to “cover up” and not cause the eyes of the men to go astray. While modesty is a virtue, the biblical witness also insists that beauty is a blessing. Yes, beauty (like any blessing) can become a snare for the unvirtuous, and that is what Judith was counting on regarding the fall of Holofernes. But just because he was filled with lust at the sight of her wearing her costly fineries, that does not mean that Judith sinned.

But what about the deception? She was, both in word and deed, lying to Holofernes. Is that a sin? Different folks might come down on this question in different ways, but on the whole the situation is very similar to that of Rahab. She is mentioned in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25, both times in a positive light: her protection of the Hebrew spies was a faithful work. The implication is that her deception was not necessarily sinful, as it was intended to be an act of mercy to protect and serve God’s people. Judith is in the same situation – her words and acts of deception were entirely and explicitly in the service of saving Bethulia and all Judah from being ravaged by the enemy army.

– blessed be –

After she delivers her people from danger, Judith is praised by the elders: “You are blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who… has guided you to strike the dead of the leader of our enemies” (13:18). This is much like the language of Ecclesiastes (Sirach) 44, “Let us now praise faithful men…” and the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11; when people do great things in the Lord’s service, they are praised for their deeds and their faith. God is glorified too, of course, as the ultimate author of all good things, but the “instrumental cause”, as theologians call it, is still worthy of honor. It’s like the Apostle’s rule: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).

Because Judith is a woman, though, a more specific comparison comes up in the language of her praise and blessing. “You are blessed… above all women on earth.” This is reminiscent, for the Christian, of our Blessed Lady, the Virgin Mary. St. Elizabeth spoke to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42). And Mary accepted this and repeated it of herself, “All generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Just as there are types (or foreshadowings) of Christ in the Old Testament, so too are there types of Mary. Judith, as a faithful woman who plays a role in the deliverance of her people, is one of the major figures in Israelite history who provides a Marian typology.

There are many deeds done in faith by many believers that are worthy of remembrance and praise. We thank God for all the Saints, through the liturgical calendar, and especially upon All Saints Day since there are too many to commemorate in the year. And at the head of this great cloud of witnesses the Church has always understood Mary to be the greatest among them. Her act of faithfulness is unmatched, receiving Christ not only in her heart, but in her very womb, to her own temporal hurt yet for the redemption of the world. Within the Old Testament timeline, Judith is on the shortlist of mighty warriors who won a major victory in the defense of Israel (assuming her story is historical at its root), so she makes for a fine prefiguring picture of either Mary or Jesus.

– the unsung hero –

Honorable mention should also be afforded to Achior. He is a character in the story who was part of Holofernes’ army, but was thrown out to the mercy of the Israelites after warning Holofernes not to attack them because the Lord God would protect them. He provides an accurate account of Old Testament history up to that point, noting (quite rightly) the interpretation that, when the people serve God rightly, he will protect them from invasion.

Achior is taken in by the people of the town of Bethulia and ultimately is the one who tips them off to the impending danger, leading to Judith’s heroic action. Achior, thus, is like the critical Messenger-Servant character that one sees in several stories (especially in the Old Testament, such as the servant seeking a wife for Isaac). Typologically, messengers can point us to angels, or even the Holy Spirit – God himself on the move to speak to his people and warn them of danger or guide them along the right way.

Achior also gives us a picture of another important aspect of the Gospel: its universality. God is not out only to save his people, Israel, but to draw all nations into the Israel of God. Achior, a Gentile, can repent and put his faith in God and join the people of God as one of them. So too we proclaim the Gospel to all nations without regard for ethnicity or tribalism.

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Catechizing the Ethiopian Eunuch: the Way, the Truth, and the Life

Sermon Text: Acts 8:26-40

Collect of the Day: Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

from my church’s worship service on 2 May 2021

The Ethiopian man was pondering some Hebrew Scripture and Deacon Philip revealed its answer in Christ.  He then shared “the good news of Jesus” which resulted in the man’s desire to be baptized.  Clearly, “the good news” was not simply a short Gospel summary presentation, it was something more substantial.  Philip could have spend minutes, hours, even days teaching this Ethiopian; we don’t know.  All we do know is that he taught the man substantially and sufficiently that he went from mere curiosity to a desire for Holy Baptism – something he likely knew nothing about beforehand.  Whatever the specifics, St. Philip gave him solid catechesis, which is grounded not just in information, but a whole-person experience and reality.  It was not just Truth, but also a Way and a Life.

The Way: Behavior, ethics, wisdom, and other matters of mortification of the flesh and putting away of sin.

  • The Decalogue is the classical heart of Christian moral instruction.
  • Do you adhere to the teachings of the Bible, loving God and neighbor as yourself?

The Truth: Doctrine, theology, biblical literacy or story familiarity, apologetics, and other matters of the mind.

  • The Apostles’ Creed is the classical heart of Christian doctrinal instruction.
  • Do you believe the Creed, engage humbly with the Bible, and adhere to the Articles of Religion?

The Life: Assembling for prayer and worship, spiritual disciplines, receiving the Word, and other devotions.

  • The Lord’s Prayer is the classical heart of Christian instruction in spirituality.
  • Do you sanctify your time and activities, pray without ceasing, and engage with the Church?

Conclude with the Collect for Easter V.

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