Who is in charge?

Today we begin a foray into the book 1 Corinthians.  This is one of Saint Paul’s earlier letters, addressed to a church he had founded about three years previously.  The situation in Corinth was rocky – the church had grown nicely, thanks especially to some good teachers and an outpouring of various spiritual gifts, but now it was beginning to fracture as different wealthy parties in the church began arguing over how “spiritual” they were, and some of them were getting so arrogant as to think they’d surpassed their Apostle, Paul, in “true spirituality.”  After all, they abounded in spiritual gifts and were rich, while poor old Paul was still traveling out there, hardly a penny to his name, and not living a very “abundant” life.  Perhaps God just hadn’t blessed Paul as much as He’d blessed them.

Many of the issues that existed among the Corinthians are issues that have come up among Christians in America, too – an unhealthy obsession with having “spiritual gifts” without Christian character, a love of money so great that to be wealthy is to be “blessed by God” and to be poor is a scourge.  Many people today put forth a “gospel” in which God is a generous dude who wants us all to be healthy, wealthy, and wise.  To be visibly successful is to be “blessed.”  And if one is so blessed, what’s a little pagan idolatry on the side?  What’s a little extra-marital affair when you know God already loves you?  False teachers abound, back then and now, and we must be on our guard against their destructive lies.

One example who has been put into the national spotlight lately is Paula White.  On the surface her doctrinal claims look good on the basics, but as you listen to her teachings you find that those good claims are only lip service.  Money and wealth are inextricably wrapped up with her understanding of Christ’s atonement on the Cross, faith to her is a power that we wield (rather than a gift from God), and she does not distinguish between what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God versus us being children of God.  As she, and other preachers of the false “prosperity gospel” become more mainstream on TV in the coming years, I urge to keep your ears and eyes on the Bible.  False shepherds are always more obvious when you’re focused on the Good Shepherd.

Anyway, the Corinthians had similar problems then as we do now.  But in the greetings and opening prayer of Paul’s letter, none of those issues are obviously brought to the fore.  Rather than starting out with the hammer of justice, St. Paul decides to start with the positives.  Look at all the good things he has to say, and how all those good things came about:

  • v1  Paul wrote this, but is called by God…
  • v2 Church is in Corinth, but is “of God”
  • v2  Sanctified, but in Christ Jesus
  • v2 Called saints, but with Church Catholic to worship God
  • v3 Grace & peace from God
  • v4 Grace in you… from God in Christ Jesus
  • v5 Enriched with speech and knowledge… in Christ
  • v7 Not lacking any good gift… to help you wait for the revelation of Jesus Christ
  • v9 Called into fellowship… by God who is faithful

Notice zero credit goes to the Corinthians.  This is a very basic but important lesson; the Church belongs to God, the Church is run by God, the Church is prospered by God, the Church is grown by God.  It is not all up to me.  It is not all up to you.  Thanks be to God!

There are many commands from God that sit upon our shoulders; we are to be obedient to our Lord and King, after all.  Going through this letter, 1 Corinthians, you will find many commands, instructions, rebukes, corrections, and reminders about basic godly behavior and decent church order.  But from the outset, Paul wants to make sure that his readers understand that it is God who is in charge.  When a church abounds in spiritual gifts or explodes in growth, it is due to the faithfulness of God, not to the faithfulness of the people.  We are called to be faithful, but the success of the Church does not rely upon us.  Thanks be to God!

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

Article 2: Jesus Christ

This post is part of my commentary series on the 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 2 states:

Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man

The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.

For the most part, what this Article says is identical to the content of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.  The rest is derived from other important documents from the Early Church.

Jesus is first identified as the Son of God and the Word of God.  These are two of his most significant titles or descriptions in the four Gospel books.  The Word (in Greek: logos) is a borrowing from Greek philosophy – the logos is the divine mind, reasoning, or intelligence.  For Jesus to be called the Word of God (John 1:1-18) is to exalt him as divine, on equal footing with the invisible God.  Thus, in order to distinguish between the invisible God and the God-Man, Jesus, the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are employed to describe the relationship between them.

As the Son of God (Matthew 16:16), Jesus is “begotten from everlasting of the Father.”  The difference between begetting and making is that the thing begotten shares in the identity of its begetter, whereas the thing made does not have that same relationship.  So Jesus was begotten, not made – he and the Father are one (John 10:30).  Thus Article 2 goes on to say that Jesus is “the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father.”  In simple terms, this means that Jesus truly is God, always has been God, and is the same divine being as God the Father.

What follows is an explanation of how the humanity and divinity of Jesus are related.  To say Jesus “took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man” is to say that the Son of God started off as only a divine person, but added to himself a human existence through his conception and birth from the Virgin Mary.  So his human existence didn’t out of nowhere, but was received from his mother, just like everyone else.  In that setting, his divinity and humanity were perfectly and completely linked, never to be divided again.  Theologians use the Latin phrase communicatio idiomatum to describe this perfect combination of humanity and divinity – once united in the person of Jesus, anything that can be said about his humanity applies also to his divinity, and vice versa.  Thus, we are able to say that God died on the Cross, that Mary is the mother of God, that Christians worship a Jewish man, and that to see the face of Jesus was to see the face of God.

It is as this perfectly united God-Man that Jesus “truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.”  This we say of Jesus both as a human and as God; in fact, many theologians throughout history have argued (quite rightly) that Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross for the sins of the world is only possible and valid because he is both God and man.  In him the two parties estranged by sin (God the Father, and the human race) are perfectly united in one person, so he is the natural (and only!) source of reconciliation between the two.  In Christ alone our hope is found.

As for the distinction between “original guilt” and “actual sins,” a later Article will spell that out more clearly.  Suffice it to say now that every sin and every effect of sin is dealt with by Christ’s perfect sacrifice made upon the Cross.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Learning from the Liturgy: Epiphanytide

The “Christmas cycle” of the Church calendar begins with Advent, looking for the arrival of Christ, continues into Christmastide, celebrating the arrival of Christ (particularly in his Jewish context), and culminates in the season after Epiphany, also known as Epiphanytide.  Here in this season we are drawn to celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  Where Christmas is more geared toward recognizing Jesus as the long-awaited Savior foretold by the Prophets, Epiphanytide emphasizes the fact that Jesus is “the desire of nations” who is to be the King of all kings and Lord of all lords.

It began on January 6th, after the 12 days of Christmas, where the primary Bible text for the day is Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the wise men coming to worship the Christ child.  From the stars (and probably from the hard work of Prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel in Babylon nearly 500 years earlier), these gentiles were led to recognize that Jesus was to be a king not only for the Jews but for everybody.  From there on, there are several events in the life of Jesus that are celebrated as “epiphanies” – meaning, manifestations of his divine glory.  After the arrival of the wise men, the next greatest epiphany story is the baptism of Jesus, traditionally celebrated on the Sunday immediately following Epiphany Day.

Other epiphany stories identified in the liturgy (either the Daily Office readings or in the Sunday Eucharist lectionary) are Jesus’ first miracle of turning water to wine at Cana, some of his healing and exorcisms, his transfiguration on the mountaintop, and his promised return at the end of the age.

The hymn Songs of thankfulness and praise captures many of these stories into its four verses, each time ending with the refrain, “Anthems be to thee addressed, God in man made manifest.”  Indeed these various manifestations and revelations of Jesus to be truly God are causes for celebration that we should sing to God.  But they are also considered from a missional angle.  Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Jesus came into the world to draw all nations unto himself.  That work of calling people is something he began, but gave the Holy Spirit to continue through us!

So as we continue through the Epiphany season, keep an eye on the Collects and readings, and note their outward-pointing direction.  If you believe Jesus really is “God, in man, made manifest,” then how could you not tell others about him?

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

To Fulfill All Righteousness

This is my sermon for the 1st Sunday of Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord.

Referring back to the circumcision

Last week we celebrated the circumcision and naming of Jesus.  There we saw an important moment in his infancy – only eight days old – which was common to all Jewish lads.  That day he received the name Jesus, as instructed by the angel who visited Mary and Joseph, and he received the rite of circumcision, as instructed by the Law of Moses.  That day we looked at how Jesus was subjected the requirements of the covenant – the lawgiver placed himself under the law – and this was the necessary first step for Jesus to go on to “fulfill the law” for the rest of us who could not.

That holiday, being part of the Christmas season, especially brought before us the humanity of Jesus: what he has in common with the rest of us.  But now we are in the season of Epiphany, which tends to turn our eyes more to the divinity of Jesus.  Here, beginning with the baptism of Jesus, we look not at how Jesus is the same as us, but at how he’s different from us.  You might think, at first, that the baptism of Jesus is another event like his circumcision that puts him on the same page as the rest of us.  And to limited extent that’s true; but as we plumb the depths of this moment in Jesus’ life, I think you’ll find that the differences between Him and us are far more significant than the commonalities.

The baptism offered by John was not quite the same as Christian baptism.  It was not a replacement for circumcision, there was no sense of entering into a covenant with God associated with John’s baptism.  It was strictly a “baptism of repentance.”  It was a voluntary ritual that people underwent if they were convicted by John’s preaching to repent of their sins and prepare for the arrival of the Christ.  When Jesus came forward for this baptism of repentance, he was choosing to do so of his own free will; there was no requirement of the law that forced him on this course.

John, you probably noticed, was well aware of the voluntary nature of the baptism he administered.  He had refused baptism to people before – some Pharisees had come to him and he’d rebuked them for their hypocrisy, coming forward without actually having repented for their sins.  And now John wanted to refuse baptism to Jesus also, not because Jesus wasn’t penitent, but because Jesus didn’t’ have anything to repent for.  Where the Pharisees were too wicked for this baptism, Jesus was too perfect!

John took his refusal to another level: “I have need to be baptized by you” he said to Jesus.  John knew that he was a sinner and that Jesus was to become his Savior.  John’s words here are to be our words too – we need the baptism that’s administered by Jesus; we are all sinners in need of cleansing.  But Jesus gives a peculiar answer: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  In that particular “now,” that moment, it was fitting, proper, it was meet and right so to do, that Jesus should be baptized by John.  And the only explanation that Jesus gives is that in so doing they will “fulfill all righteousness.

Once again, I need to point out that Jesus is choosing to associate and identify with sinners.  He doesn’t have to do this.  In fact, as John observes, he shouldn’t do this; he deserves better.  And, as I also said before, it was in his circumcision that Jesus fulfilled the law.  Now, in his baptism, he is to fulfill righteousness.  What does this mean?  John obviously understood, considering he immediately consented and baptized Jesus, but it’s a phrase that can prove rather elusive to the casual reader today.  So let’s dig in to this story.

The Righteousness of the Baptism of Jesus

The best clues we have to understanding what it means for them to “fulfill all righteousness” can be found in the way that Jesus is identified after his baptism.  There are two statements and one action that really help us at this point.

First, in a different Gospel book, we find John the Baptist referring to Jesus as “the lamb of God” (John 1:29).  At that point, John had already baptized him, and had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon him.  What does John mean by calling Jesus the lamb of God?  Does it mean that he understands Jesus to be a gentle, kind, and loving man, like an innocent little sheep?  That is how people today often think about it, but that is a dreadfully watered-down and sentimentalist vision.  No, John calls Jesus the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  The “lamb of God” is the spotless ram-lamb chosen for the ritual sacrifice.  John is identifying Jesus as the one who will die, who will be sacrificed for our sins!  This is not cutesy image of a gentle man, this a serious statement about Jesus being the Savior of the world.

Secondly, both here in Matthew 3 as well as in other Gospel books, God the Father speaks from heaven about Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  It’s a simple statement, but rich with meaning.  Jesus is clearly identified as God’s son.  On its own, the idea of being a child of God was not new; a number of Old Testament references describes God’s people as being God’s children.  But it goes further: “my beloved.”  Jesus, this son of God, is an object of God’s agape love, the highest form of self-sacrificial love available in the Greek language.  Normally we’d expect God’s covenant love with his people, but here he’s identifying his highest love in the singular person of Jesus.  And thirdly are added the words “with whom I am well pleased.”  At risk of getting nit-picky, the Greek New Testament might be better translated “in whom I am well pleased.”  God is not just pleased with Jesus, like he’s been such a good boy; God is even pleased in Jesus.  The very being of Jesus is loved by God.  We are sinners to the core, and so until we be fully sanctified there will always be something in us worthy of God’s wrath.  Not so with Jesus.  The full statement from God the Father in heaven thus shows us that Jesus is God the Son incarnate whose very being and purpose is pleasing to God.  In short, Jesus is the elect one of God to bring about the salvation of the world.

What John calls the “lamb of God,” God the Father calls his own Son.

In addition to these two verbal witnesses of Jesus is a visual one: the Holy Spirit descends like a dove.  Like the dove that Noah sent from the Ark to find dry land, this is a symbol of peace and grace.  The Holy Spirit is God, too, after all, and comes to dwell with Jesus in his humanity after his baptism.  It’s an interesting contrast to the day of Pentecost when the Spirit descends like fire – the disciples, even called to such great an office as apostleship, still needed the cleansing fire of the Spirit.  But again, Jesus needed no cleansing, neither from the waters of baptism, nor from the fires of the Spirit.  On the other hand, in similarity with the disciples on Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit upon Jesus here is a formal anointing for ministry.  We hear this explained in Acts 10:37-38, “you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.

And the gift of the Holy Spirit was yet even more than an anointing for ministry; it was a sign of new life.  Look carefully at the stories throughout the Bible involving water and the Spirit: creation, the flood, crossing the red sea, the valley of dry bones, and others… whenever the two are present, life appears.  Here in Matthew 3, Jesus is baptized with water, and then the Holy Spirit descends upon him after he climbs up onto the riverbank.  He received a baptism of repentance that he didn’t need because he had never been dead in his sins; he received the Holy Spirit in his human body even though he already had full access to the Spirit in his divinity.  Clearly the new life isn’t for Jesus, it’s for Jesus to share.  The life-giver has been identified!  Jesus is the one who will raise us from the death of sin in this life, and raise us from the death of the body in the life to come!

This is the fulfillment of righteousness that Jesus was speaking of.  In his baptism, he and John “fulfill all righteousness” by enacting the kick-off event starting the Ministry of the Gospel!  From then on, the Kingdom of God was near, eternal life was within man’s grasp, and Jesus was the Christ.

Preparing the way for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows

So when you read about the baptism of Christ, keep in mind that you’re basically reading his commissioning service.  Both the human and the divine witness speak of his identity to be God, the Savior of the world, and the Holy Spirit anoints and empowers him to fulfill that divine ministry and mission even though he’s a man like us.

Another layer of beauty to the event of his baptism, though, is how Jesus paves the way for Christian baptism.  I don’t have time to get into the differences between John’s baptism and Christian baptism right now; that’s quite a study in itself.  Suffice it to say, now, that John’s baptism of repentance is only part of the deal; Christian baptism goes further than that to include the giving of the Holy Spirit, entrance into the New Covenant community, as well as the remission of sins.

When John baptized people, they did not receive the Holy Spirit; Jesus was a unique case there.  But it’s significant that that’s what happened to Jesus, and that Christian baptism thereafter would include the giving of the Holy Spirit.  As Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote: “Jesus enters the filthy, sinful waters of the world and when he comes out, brings up and purifies the entire world with him.”  If you’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s like when the character Ford Prefect wiped clean a bottle of alcohol with his towel, but it was actually the alcohol that ended up cleaning the towel!  So with Jesus, one could say that instead of the water sanctifying Jesus, Jesus sanctified the water!  Saint Remigius wrote that Jesus was baptized not “to the remission of sins, but to leave the water sanctified for those after to be baptized.”  Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote, “The Savior willed to be baptized not that He might Himself be cleansed, but to cleanse the water for us.”  As you can see, for centuries, the baptism of Jesus has been understood to be a moment where Jesus receives an earthly rite and transforms it into a heavenly rite.  There is nothing special about water on its own, that it should cleanse us from our sin or bring us to new life in Christ.  But in the hands of its Maker and our Redeemer, and indwelt with the power of the Holy Spirit, water can be used to our greatest spiritual benefit!

By way of a brief side note, it’s worth pointing out that neither here nor anywhere else in Scripture is there an explanation of the mode of baptism.  The Greek word baptizein means “to bathe;” and back then (just like now) bath tubs were frequently too shallow to fully immerse a person.  Early Church architecture, both in house churches as well as basilicas, also confirm that baptism was never required to be by full immersion only.  So when certain groups of Christians today make baptism by full immersion in the water an absolute rule, they are overstepping the bounds of what God in Scripture has commanded.  Being fully immersed in the water is an excellent symbol of being buried with Christ in his death, and then rising with him in new life, but it is not a requirement.  The word “baptize” itself means to bathe, and that can done over a small basin just as legitimately as in a large dunk tank.

As we conclude, I’d like to direct our attention to our own baptisms, be they recent events or too distant to remember.  Our baptism, like Jesus’, was an act that brings us into solidarity with all Israel – the Body of Christ.  It is helpful to remind ourselves, from time to time, who and what we are as members of the Body of Christ.  Therefore we have this tradition of the “renewal of baptismal vows.”  Technically, every time we say the Creed or confess our sins or receive Holy Communion, we are renewing our vows and participating in the New Covenant.  But every now and then it’s helpful to spell things out more simply and bluntly.  We return to the basic renunciations and affirmations of the faith – what we reject as Christians, and what we believe as Christians.

Therefore let us stand with our faces toward God, symbolized by the Altar and all that is on it (the Cross, the Bible, the vessels for Holy Communion), and with our backs to the world of sin, the flesh, and the devil, as we prepare to renew our baptismal vows.

The liturgy for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows provided by the Liturgical Taskforce of the Anglican Church in North America may be found online here.

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

Article 1: The Trinity

This post is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of ReligionArticle 1 states:

1. Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, ever-lasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

As with any document to summarize the Christian faith, the Articles begin with a statement on who God is.  After the disciples recognized Jesus as true God, and after they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there was a great deal of wrestling over how to explain all this in the face of the ancient doctrine of monotheism – that there is only one God.  It was well established in the Torah that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), and Jesus repeated it in his own summary of the Law (Mark 12:29).  And yet, there now seemed to be three gods: the Father in heaven, the Son who’d become man, and the Holy Spirit.  They knew that these three were not just different “modes” in which the one God might exist at a given point in time, because they saw all three in action together at the great epiphany moment of Jesus’ baptism: the Father speaking, the Son in the water, and the Spirit descending like a dove.

And thus the doctrine of the Trinity was born.  The one true God, already known as everlasting, omnipotent, and the Creator of all, has three or “persons,” each possessing the fullness of deity, yet maintaining a distinct “hypostasis” or “subsistence” of their own.  Behind these technical terms is the intent to describe the reality that the Father and Son and Spirit each exist distinctly and can be interacted with as a person, even though they share one power, one will, one character of holiness, one existence or being.

A term in this Article that may strike the reader as odd is that God is without “parts.”  Meaning more than just “body parts,” this refers to what theologians call the doctrine of “divine simplicity.”  God is a “simple” being in that he cannot be broken down into component parts.  God is not love + holiness + justice + mercy.  One cannot consider God’s omnipotence as if it were a distinct “piece” of him, nor separate his wisdom as some sort of component in the great divine construct.  No; as the Scriptures say, “God is one.”  He cannot be divided into “parts” for individual analysis.  If that were to be so, then even his divinity and his existence could be separated out, and philosophers could have a field day with the impossible paradox that there could be such thing as “pure divinity” apart from the personal characteristics of God.  No; God is one, and his various attributes are inseparable from one another.

Another term in this Article that may confuse people today is the statement that God is without “passions.”  Surely, if God is love, he has great passion?  The term passion in this context refers to emotions.  God is the perfect being, and perfection requires no changes.  Emotions, by nature, are constantly changing, thus it is impossible to attribute them to God.  Where the Bible describes God has having emotions (anger at sin, compassion toward his people, etc.), these theologians have called ‘anthropomorphisms’ – treating God like a human for the sake of our better making sense of him.  God doesn’t feel angry or loving on an emotional level like we humans do.  Rather, God is angry or loving.  God is love by his very nature, not by mere emotional whim.  Similarly, God’s wrath against sin is not a matter of his losing his patience, but rather is the unleashing of his perfect justice.

Posted in Theological | Tagged | Leave a comment

Celebrating the Circumcision of Christ

#1 What’s up with this holiday?

You may have noticed multiple names for today’s holiday.  Its official name in modern Anglican calendars is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  You may have seen it labeled as “the octave day of Christmas” (meaning the 8th day of Christmas), and you may also have heard of it as the Feast of the Circumcision.  Indeed, this holiday is all three of those things, and picking which of those names should be the primary name is (to some degree) a matter of preference.

Whatever name you want to go with, though, this is a very important holiday.  It is very rare for liturgy to mimic history in real time.  On Palm Sunday through Holy Week into Easter Day the liturgy walks through Jesus’ week in Jerusalem, crucifixion, death, and resurrection in real time.  The feasts of Ascension and Pentecost take place 40 and 50 days after Easter, also matching the timing of those events in real time.  The Annunciation to Mary, when Jesus was conceived, is celebrated 9 months before Christmas.  And this holiday, the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, takes place on the 8th day of Jesus’ infancy.  Whatever this naming and circumcision is all about, it must be very important!

You can trace some changes of emphasis even within our own Anglican tradition if you compare the two Collects (theme-prayers) for this holiday.  The traditional one focuses on the circumcision of Christ and applies it theologically to the human condition and the Gospel.  The modern one emphasizes more that we bear God’s name and are to worship and proclaim him.  A number of the hymns that we’re singing this morning are meditations on the name of Jesus – the power and authority and majesty contained therein.  But the Scripture readings deal more with the subject of his circumcision, and so that is what I would like to focus on now.

#2 What is circumcision?

Circumcision is the removal of the male’s foreskin.  It has been argued that there may be some medical benefits to this practice, particularly for desert living, but some doctors today seem to be in disagreement over this.  It came to be practiced by many other people-groups in the Middle East, so it wasn’t entirely unique to the Jews, and it’s a practice that also exists in entirely non-religious contexts to this day.

Something interesting worth pointing out about the physical practice of circumcision is that it is the removal of an essentially extraneous bit of skin.  This makes it a useful analogy for the removal of sin from the human heart, which becomes a prominent theme for some of the Old Testament Prophets speaking of an “inward circumcision” of the heart.

#3 Where did the practice of circumcision come from?

It begins in our first reading in the Morning Prayer service, Genesis 17:1-13, when the great Covenant with Abraham is made.  There, both aspects of today’s holiday show up: God bestows a name, and orders the practice of circumcision.  Abram is renamed to Abraham; the former meaning “exalted father,” looking back to his noble ancestors, and the new name meaning “father of a multitude,” looking ahead to God’s covenant promises.  Circumcision is given as a sign of that covenant.  Like the rainbow after the flood, circumcision was a visible reminder of the promise that God made; and even more than that, it was a pledge for the circumcised man and his family that God’s promises would be extended to them.  And so all Abraham’s descendants through Isaac were to be circumcised as well, as recipients of God’s promises.  And, as we heard in Romans 2, circumcision continued to be a major feature of the covenant given through Moses.

#4 What does it mean to be circumcised?

Staying with Romans 2 for a moment, we find that circumcision, as a sign and pledge of the covenant from God, came with a set of expectations as well.  Covenants come with blessings from God as well as lawful demands from God, and so to be circumcised was to become obligated to keep the Law.  Thus circumcision was not a guarantee of salvation; the Law had to be obeyed, and when it was broken, sacrifices had to be offered.  Thus, the Prophets began to speak of the concept of “true circumcision” which is “of the heart.”

The first reading from the Communion service, Exodus 34:1-9, brings us back to the giving of the Covenant through Moses more specifically.  There we are explicitly told that God is just and demands holiness, that all people are sinful, in need of forgiveness, and that yet, God takes us for an inheritance.  This is a hint of the blessed doctrine of adoption, and sets us up with a great measure of hope, because even though we fail to keep the requirements of God, he has made promises to make us his own despite our worst efforts.

#5 What’s the significance of Jesus getting circumcised?

This is where Law really begins to give way to Gospel!  First of all, when Jesus was circumcised, the lawgiver became subject to his law.  How many other “gods” can say the same?  A god is an untouchable, unquestionable, totally mysterious, above all that we can know or fathom.  A god’s ways are secret, incomprehensible… how could a god dare humble himself to become obedient to an earthly law?  What scandal!  What humility!  Oh, but what love for his creation that God would do such a thing!

Circumcision brought Jesus into the covenant and under the Law.  As St. Paul wrote in Galatians 4, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5).  You see, Jesus uniquely obeyed the Law of Moses.  Everyone else sins and falls short, but Jesus kept it perfectly.  Not only does this prove his own sinlessness, but also allows him to redeem others condemned by the law.  Because Jesus kept the law, the law has no power to convict him on judgment day.  Therefore, when he stepped forward to offer himself on the Cross to die on behalf of others, his sacrifice was actually meaningful.  If I were to offer myself to die for your sins, it wouldn’t count, because I have my own sins that send me to the death penalty.  But Jesus, having kept the Law, and also being God of infinite goodness, holiness, and worth, is able to offer himself on the Cross for the sins of the whole world.  Thus Jesus fulfills, brings, and dispenses all the covenant promises made to Abraham, to Moses, and to David.

#6 What does this say about us?

Circumcision was a sign and seal of the Old Covenants, both reminding people of God’s promises and marking them as God’s own.  But what about now?  Let’s hear from St. Paul again, this time from Colossians 2:11-14.

In Christ you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.  And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

What we find here is that we have received circumcision, not “made with hands,” as in the Old Testament, but by being buried with Christ in baptism, and being “raised with him through faith.”  Christian Baptism is the New Covenant replacement for Old Covenant circumcision.  If you think about the baptismal rite, you’ll find it very similar to what Jesus underwent in Luke 2:21 – the candidate for baptism is named, watered, and “signed” or “sealed” by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own.

As circumcision is for all who’ll live in Israel, Baptism is for all who call the church home.  Both are the entry rite to join the covenant community.  Every Jewish male was commanded to be circumcised, and every foreigner who agreed to live in Israel was to be circumcised.  Similarly, as it says in Galatians 3:27, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  It’s our sign and pledge of the New Covenant, of union with Christ now, instead of with Moses.

As for the old act of physical circumcision, we have no command to continue practicing it.  In fact, Paul expected it to stop altogether because its meaning is obsolete.  Since circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant, receiving circumcision meant being bound to the Old Covenant.  But since salvation is in Christ alone, practicing circumcision as a religious rite would be taking a step backwards.  Non-religious circumcision is fine, the New Covenant doesn’t make picky demands along those lines.  But there is no Christian reason to have anyone circumcised.

It’s also worth noting that, even though Baptism is the new covenant’s circumcision, it’s still not a magical guarantee of salvation.  Baptism is not our go-to-heaven-free card.  The “obedience of faith” mentioned in Romans 1 and the “mortification of the flesh” mentioned in the traditional Collect are still necessary for the Christian life.  But a major part of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus’ circumcision and obedience to the Law, and his resulting spotless record and character before the divine judgement, is given to all the faithful.  We need not fear the condemnation of the law, for when we enter into his New Covenant and faithfully acknowledge his all-sufficient sacrifice on the Cross in our place, his perfect righteousness is imputed unto us.  What we cannot grasp or earn, Christ offers to us.  If we are too proud to receive it, then we perish in our sins.  But if we enter into the obedience of faith and kneel before our Lord who was bound to the Law despite the glorious Name he’d already received in eternity, then no sin is too great that God cannot forgive.

The circumcision of our Lord, an event that brings everyone else into condemnation of sin, instead began a life of perfect righteousness that he died and rose again in order to share with us.  Let us press through this life’s mortification of our sins and reach for that prize that he won for us on the Cross.  Let us truly keep the “Christ” in Christian.

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

Behind the Child’s Face

Where does the story of Jesus begin?  Christmas normally points us to the birth of Christ.  Picky people might point out that the story of Jesus began 9 months ago, at the Annunciation – that’s really when God became flesh.  Saint John, however, has another idea of where to start the story of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  John manages to go on, writing about that Word, Jesus, for 13 whole verses before he finally gets to the Conception and Birth of Christ – “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The nativity stories in the books of Matthew and Luke are, perhaps, the more common fare for Christmas celebrations, but with John we’re getting the real deal!

A quick note about the liturgy might help further this point.  On major holidays like today, there are many Scripture readings appointed: two for Morning Prayer, two for Evening Prayer, in a few cases like Christmas two more readings for Evening Prayer on the night before (Christmas Eve), plus the readings for the Communion service.  Because the Service of Holy Communion is the apex of the worship life of the Church, the readings for that service are usually the most directly pertinent to the holiday, while the readings in Morning and Evening Prayer offer additional perspectives or theological ramifications.  So it is noteworthy that the usual nativity stories are relegated to Morning Prayer and the Christmas Eve or Sunrise Communion services, while the primary Communion service for Christmas Day calls for John 1 as the Gospel.  This beautiful, majestic, and mysterious introduction to Jesus as the God the eternal Word which took on human flesh for our salvation has been the primary Christmas text for over 1,500 years!

Today you see reminders of Jesus as a baby everywhere: television shows and movies, Christmas songs both in church and even some of the secular ones, statues and pictures and even live nativity scenes… it’s in escapable.  People can complain about the so-called “war on Christmas” all they like, but despite all that hullabaloo the baby Jesus is still very present almost everywhere we go.  Throughout history, nativity scenes, plays, and reenactments have been popular sources of entertainment and devotion for Christians all over the world; meditation upon the face of a tiny newborn child as somehow also being the face of God is a devotional opportunity that is readily available almost everywhere we go at this time of year.

That is why, I think, it is all the more important for us to sit down with passages like John 1.  There we are drawn deep into the mystery of the person of Christ – behind that cooing infant face is God the Word, God the King, God the Savior.  These images even show up in the Prayer Book’s three traditional Psalms for Morning Prayer on Christmas Day.  Psalm 19 gives us a picture of Christ the Word, meditating on God’s laws, statues, ordinances, ways, and words.  Psalm 45 gives us a picture of Christ the King, painting a poetic picture of his royal weapons and scepter and robes.  Psalm 85 gives us a picture of Christ the Savior, noting his gift of peace, mercy, righteousness, and truth, as our offenses are forgiven and our sins swept away.  All this majesty, all this power, this God, came forth from the womb of Mary, was wrapped in a swaddling cloth, was placed in a manger to sleep.

If you have a time of family devotion on or around Christmas, consider adding John 1, Psalms 19, 45, or 85 to your repertoire of readings.  Or pick up the Prayer Book and look at the other Psalms and Readings appointed from Christmas Eve through the end of Christmas Day; this is a holiday rich with meaning, splendor, and mystery!

To that end, I want to conclude with the lyrics of an ancient Greek song from the year 275 or earlier.  It was known originally as the Cherubic Hymn, because it speaks of the heavenly beings who forever worship our Lord around his throne.  It has been adapted into English, and I think many of you hymn-singers will recognize it.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending Comes our homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary, As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture, In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth From the realms of endless day,
Comes the powers of hell to vanquish As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph, Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence, As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Lord Most High!

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