Shepherds are accountable for their flocks

Recently, I’ve been writing and reflecting about the dignity of the Priesthood, some of the things that make it a great ministry, and some of the things that make it something that should be approached with caution.  Today’s subject is similar to that last note.  Another reason is that Priests, Pastors, etc. are accountable to God for the spiritual condition of their congregations.  Let’s return to our new friend, St. John Chrysostom.

Our condition here [as laymen], indeed, is such as you have heard. But our condition hereafter [in ordained ministry] how shall we endure, when we are compelled to give our account for each of those who have been entrusted to us? For our penalty is not limited to shame, but everlasting chastisement awaits us as well. As for the passage, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them, for they watch in behalf of your souls as they that shall give account” (Hebrews 13:17); though I have mentioned it once already, yet I will break silence about it now, for the fear of its warning is continually agitating my soul.

Especially to the Evangelical mindset, it may seem inappropriate that God would hold anyone accountable for the sins of another.  Aren’t we all to be judged by Christ alone according to our faith (or lack of faith) in him?  If our sins are ‘covered by the blood,’ why should a pastor suffer for the sins of his flock?  Yet, there are many teachings in the Bible that describe the importance of God’s servants to make good use of the “talents” God gives them to steward, and for Priests one of those “talents” is pastoral care of the flock.

St. John Chrysostom appeals to Hebrews 13:17 here, which was one of my personal memory verses about ministry when I was in seminary.  It’s still a mystery to me, exactly how I am (or will be) held accountable for my flock, but I do know that I must minister with that accountability in mind.  Rather than try to explain it myself, let’s let Chrysostom continue.

For if for him who causes one only, and that the least, to stumble, it is profitable that “a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6); and if they who wound the consciences of the brethren, sin against Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 8:12), what then will they one day suffer, what kind of penalty will they pay, who destroy not one only, or two, or three, but so many multitudes?

More Scriptures references are brought in to the discussion, wherein we are reminded that if anyone causes a child or someone weak in faith to sin and turn away from God, he will be in a lot of trouble before God!  So Priests & Pastors are not alone in this sense of accountability for the sins of others.  When our own sin (be it active or omission) causes others to sin, we are liable to be judged for that.  Does this mean that we can go to hell if we cause other people to sin too much?  Not necessarily; but Judgment Day will certainly be all the less pleasant as our sins are trumpeted before God’s throne for all the universe to hear.

For it is not possible for inexperience to be urged as an excuse, nor to take refuge in ignorance, nor for the plea of necessity or force to be put forward. Yea, if it were possible, one of those under their charge could more easily make use of this refuge for his own sins than bishops in the case of the sins of others. Do you ask why? Because he who has been appointed to rectify the ignorance of others, and to warn them beforehand of the conflict with the devil which is coming upon them, will not be able to put forward ignorance as his excuse, or to say, “I have never heard the trumpet sound, I did not foresee the conflict.”

As with all other sin, ignorance is not an excuse, especially for those in ordained ministry. Bishops, especially, as the Chief Pastors in the Church, are given the ministry of shepherding many priests and their flocks.  They’re called to “rectify the ignorance of others” by teaching them, warning them of the dangers of sin, and multiplying sin.  Bishop, Priests, Pastors (etc.) are supposed to prepare the people for Last Trumpet as the Day of Judgment approaches.

For he is set for that very purpose, says Ezekiel, that he may sound the trumpet for others, and warn them of the dangers at hand. And therefore his chastisement is inevitable, though he that perishes happen to be but one. “For if when the sword comes, the watchman does not sound the trumpet to the people, nor give them a sign, and the sword come and take any man away, he indeed is taken away on account of his iniquity, but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hands” (Ezekiel 33:6).

When I read through the book of Ezekiel for the first time, I was already thinking about applying to seminary.  And so chapter 33 stood out to me quite strongly.  There, Ezekiel is identified by God as a “watchman,” responsible for warning the Israelites that judgment is coming.  If they respond to Ezekiel’s warning, all is well; if they ignore his warning, guilt is on them.  But if Ezekiel were not to warn them of God’s judgment, then he would be considered guilty of their sin!  I was a little concerned when I first read this – are pastors in the Church still responsible for the flock to this degree?  Though it was not something my evangelical seminary emphasized, the answer still turned out to be yes.

And now here’s Chrysostom bringing this back up as well: ordained ministers, as shepherds, do have the responsibility of warning the flock of dangers ahead.  If and when we keep silent, and the flock should suffer for lack of warning, it’s our fault!  But does this mean that clergy can ‘lose their salvation’ if they screw up their congregation too much? Noting St. Paul’s willingness to trade his salvation for the salvation of his fellow Jews in Romans 9:3, I don’t think God would go so far as to utterly destroy a pastor’s soul for doing a bad job.  That’s salvation (or damnation) exclusively by works, which the Apostles did not teach.  By expressing a willingness to lay down his spiritual life for his people, Paul implies that such a thing is impossible, and therefore its opposite is also probably impossible – a pastor isn’t going to be utterly destroyed for poor pastoral service.

By way of a side note, I’ve also heard this applied to all Christians sharing the Gospel with non-believers: if we don’t warn the world that King Jesus is coming back to conquer the world, and they perish in the Judgment, then shame on us!  While I don’t think this is the primary intent of Ezekiel’s watchman example, it is still a good secondary application, referring to the “priesthood of all believers” in which all Christians function as a priesthood to the world, just like how the ordained priesthood functions toward those in the Church.

Two important take-away lessons here are that first, as Hebrews 13 says, Christians should be attentive and submissive to their clergy, so that their clergy can more effectively serve them.  Second, clergy should remember that they are to be held accountable by God for the condition of their flocks, and should serve them accordingly!  This clergy-lay relationship is remarkably similar to St. Paul’s notes to the Ephesians about the husband-wife relationship, isn’t it?  Food for thought.

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Chrysostom on Preaching

St. John Chrysostom is remembered throughout history as being a great preacher.  “Chrysostom” indeed, actually means “golden-mouthed.”  I imagine it was very likely a nickname he earned, rather than a prophetically accurate surname.  It is therefore no surprise that he included some thoughts on preaching in his book On the Priesthood.  Considering how prominently preaching is featured in many churches today, especially in the Evangelical tradition, it’s fun to go back and listen to preaching advice from past centuries (or in this case a past millennium!).

Let the best artificer be himself the critic of his own designs, and let his performances be determined to be good or poor, according as the mind which designed them gives sentence upon them.  But let him not even consider the opinion, so erroneous and inartistic, of the outside world.  Let, therefore, the man who undertakes the strain of teaching never give heed to the good opinion of the outside world, nor be dejected in soul on account of such persons; but laboring at his sermons so that he may please God, (for let this alone be his rule and determination, in discharging this best kind of workmanship, not acclamation, nor good opinions) if, indeed, he be praised by men, let him not repudiate their applause, and when his hearers do not offer this, let him not seek it, let him not be grieved.  For a sufficient consolation of his labors, and one greater than all, is when he is able to be conscious of arranging and ordering his teaching with a view to pleasing God.

(First, I feel I should apologize for the clunky translation.  Most of the writings of the Early Church Fathers were translated into English in the 1800’s, when very long sentences was still very much in style.  Combine that with a slightly different use of vocabulary and their use of the King James Bible when quoting scripture, and these writings can oftentimes  be difficult for modern readers to sort through.)

What this quote is pointing out is that preachers should not depend upon feedback from ordinary people to determine if a sermon was good or bad.  Just as an artist prefers the opinions of equals in their art over someone uneducated in the field, so too should a preacher not rely too much upon sermon feedback from the pews.  (Not that they had pews back in Chrysostom’s day, but that’s another matter.)

This is advice which retains its relevancy and usefulness today.  All too often, we who preach leave church on Sundays feeling good or bad about ourselves based on how people responded (or didn’t respond) to our sermons.  If several people compliment my sermon after the worship service, I go home in a good mood.  If people look agitated, bored, or suspicious during my sermon, I can easily be effected by that, and go home afterwards feeling like I did something wrong.

Already, in my short time as a preacher and minister, I have experienced some strange instances of judgment from others.  Someone once had the opinion that our little mission church needed a loud charismatic preacher who’d blow the doors down and attract in a multitude of people to make the church grow fast and furious.  I am not that guy.  I’m soft-spoken, mildly funny, quirky, even nerdy, and (sometimes to a fault) intellectual in my preaching.  I don’t rile people up all that much, though I have developed a good rapport with my congregation.  But the person who thought “we needed” a more charismatic speaker left soon after I was chosen to be the clergyman for Grace Anglican Church.  And so I had to deal with that rejection.  Thankfully it wasn’t a huge controversy – it was just one person’s opinions on a different track with the rest.  Nevertheless, it was a lesson about the power of individual opinions and their effects on others.

What Chrysostom argues is that preachers should not put too much stock in congregational feedback on sermons, but instead, “for a sufficient consolation of his labors, and one greater than all, is when he is able to be conscious of arranging and ordering his teaching with a view to pleasing God.”  Twice in the New Testament, St. Paul says much the same thing.

Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).

Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts (1 Thessalonians 2:4).

And so the lesson is simple: preachers need to craft their sermons in such a way that it would please Jesus if he were in the congregation.

Of course, this is easier said than done, and it does not rule out the usefulness of peer review.  Teachers and preachers should seek the advice of other teachers and preachers, and compare their styles with others’ styles so they can continue to adapt and improve over time.

And the whims of the congregation are still useful in some ways.  If the people are largely confused, discouraged, upset, or otherwise negative in their response to the preacher, then perhaps, even if the content is accurate and true, there is something in the presentation or style that could be improved.  Or on the other end if people are constantly praising their preacher(s), the preachers should take care to make sure they’re not simply telling the people what itching ears want to hear.

Not that I’m an expert, but these are some of the lessons I’ve become aware of over the years that is helpful for a preacher or teacher to keep in mind:

  • Identify someone in the congregation who is visually emotive and representative of the flock as a whole – watch their reactions for confusion or surprise so you know when you need to back up and explain more carefully.
  • Identify someone in the congregation who is wise in the Lord and sufficiently experienced in teaching and preaching that they can provide you periodic feedback.  (They also need to be there on a regular basis so they hear the full scope of your speaking week by week.)
  • Know the limits of your congregation: How long can you speak before you lose them?
    How much can you teach in one go before they start losing track of you?
    How much encouragement or rebuke does it take to speak to their hearts?
    How much illustration do you need to provide for them to internalize biblical truths?
  • Strike a balance between teaching (their minds), exciting (their hearts), and motivating (their lifestyles).  This doesn’t have to mean every individual sermon needs all three, but over the course of each month or liturgical season, make sure you give all three their proper attention.

And if you’re not a teacher or preacher, or just do so occasionally, it’s worth learning a little about it, so you can gain some insight into what your pastors and teachers go through and are trying to do for you week by week.  An attentive congregation is a huge blessing both to their preacher and to themselves!

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Ambition or Arrogance?

The other day, I wrote about the priesthood and how in the writings of St. John Chrysostom (and in my own experience) there is a danger to approaching the priesthood unprepared.  One of the thoughts along the way was the danger of pursuing the ministry with an attitude of entitlement.  What’s the difference between a good desire and a bad desire, though?  Chrysostom’s book, On the Priesthood, has some thoughts on this question too.

The divine law indeed has excluded women from the [ordained] ministry, but they endeavor to thrust themselves into it; and since they can effect nothing of themselves, they do all through agency of others.

We could, at this juncture, get hung up on today’s thorny debates surrounding the ordination of women.  Clearly St. John Chrysostom was of the opinion that women were not to be ordained.  Whether you agree with him or not, there is a valuable warning here: apparently in his day there were women who were manipulating people to give them authority.  They could “effect nothing of themselves,” meaning they weren’t bishops or priests, so they had to advance their agenda “through the agency of others.”  Women’s Ordination aside, the situation described here is a dangerous one: when manipulation is the chief tool you have to get your way, chances are you’re doing something wrong.  When people strong-arm their way to power today (in governments, clubs, churches, or anywhere else), it always creates issues.  And this is especially shameful when Christians do this to one another.

A little later, Chrysostom continues:

But no one will always endure the strain; for fearful, truly fearful is the eager desire after this honor.  And in saying this I am not in opposition to the blessed Paul, but in complete harmony with his words.  For what says he? “If any man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work (1 Timothy 3:1). Now I have not said that it is a terrible thing to desire the work, but only the authority and power.  And this desire I think one ought to expel from the soul with all possible earnestness, not permitting it at the outset to be possessed by such a feeling, so that one may be able to do everything with the freedom which becomes Christian men: whereas they who fear and tremble lest they should be deposed undergo a bitter servitude, filled with all kinds of evils, and are often compelled to offend against both God and man.

This is where the questions of pursuing ordained ministry really come down to a fine line. Desiring the “work” of the ministry is different from desiring the “authority and power.” Indeed, this issue is one of the oldest problems in Church.  In the book of Acts we read the story of Simon the Sorcerer, who converted to Christianity when he saw the great works done by Deacon Philip.  But when he saw the spiritual authority of Peter and John, he asked to buy that from them so he could also have the same power.  Peter revealed this motive was spiritually deadly in his response “May your silver perish with you” (Acts 8:20)!

Chrysostom also describes the desire for power as a “bitter servitude” which leads people to sin “against both God and man.”  This is a warning not only for those considering a call to priesthood, but also for those of us already in it.  We must guard ourselves against developing such desires.  It is one thing to hold, and even wield, spiritual authority.  But it is another thing entirely selfishly to enjoy holding that authority.  I do enjoy the authority of priesthood in the sense that I find it fulfilling and rewarding in itself, and while that is safe, I must be attentive that I never allow that to spill over into a self-centered paradigm as if I might use it to my own advantage and gain.  That would be to copy the sin of Simon, and usurp the primacy of Christ over his Church.  Chrysostom mused on this selfish form of desire also:

Now I possessed this desire in a high degree (and do not suppose that I would ever tell you what was untrue in self-disparagement): and this, combined with other reasons, alarmed me not a little, and induced me to take flight [from ordination].  For just as lovers of the human person, as long as they are permitted to be near the objects of their affection, suffer more severe torment from their passion, but when they remove as far as possible from these objects of desire, they drive away the frenzy: even so when those who desire this dignity are near it, the evil becomes intolerable: but when they cease to hope for it, the desire is extinguished together with the expectation.

This final observation is useful advice for all sorts of situations: when you find yourself tempted by something, stay away from it!  If a boy and girl really like each other, they should not spend time together alone.  If someone really wants spiritual authority, they should not be allowed to enter the discernment process.  If temptation has led to evil desire, then we have to raise the standards of purity in order to restore our desires to where they ought to be.  Similarly, if someone who is a priest becomes consumed by a love of their authority, the cure should be to remove from the priestly ministry altogether until they recover.  To rehabilitate a wayward priest still exercising his office would be like trying to rehabilitate a drunk while sitting in a bar.  Distance from temptation is a necessary safeguard to facilitate the healing process.

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Priesthood is Dangerous for the Unprepared

Here are some more quotes comments concerning On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom.

If anyone in charge of a full-sized merchant ship, full of rowers, and laden with a costly freight, were to station me at the helm and bid me cross the Aegean or the Tyrrhene sea, I should recoil from the proposal at once: and if anyone asked me why I should say, “Lest I should sink the ship.”  Well, where the loss concerns material wealth, and the danger extends only to bodily death, no one will blame those who exercise great prudence; but where the shipwrecked are destined to fall, not into the ocean, but into the abyss of fire, and the death which awaits them is not that which severs the soul from the body, but one which together with this dismisses it to eternal punishment, shall I incur your wrath and hate because I did not plunge headlong into so great an evil?

Time for a little backstory.  This little book opens with a brief story of young John Chrysostom and a friend who have both been chosen to be ordained to the priesthood. John evades his ‘capture,’ leaving his friend to be ordained without him.  The rest of the book, then, is John Chrysostom’s explanation of how great the priesthood is and how unready he was, personally, to receive it.

In this quote, Chrysostom makes an analogy between a priest and a ship’s steersman. Nobody would put an inexperienced person at the wheel to pilot a ship through rocky waters, so why should anyone put an inexperienced person into ordained ministry?  The unprepared pilot could, at worse, sink the ship and kill everyone on board.  The unprepared priest, however, could sink the spiritual lives of his flock, leading to a spiritual death far worse than physical death.  He acknowledges his unworthiness for such an office, as he continues:

Do not thus, I pray and beseech you.  I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy billows vex the soul of the priest than the gales which disturb the sea.

This is such a sobering reminder to me.  When I was in the (thankfully lengthy) discernment process towards ordained ministry, there were times when I was driven by a sense of entitlement.  I’d gone to seminary, I was being educated for this role, I wanted to serve in this way, and most of the people whom I most admired were priests.  There were times that I approached priesthood with a sense of arrogance.  Even some of my friends, who underestimated the gravity of the office, told me that I deserved to be ordained. Praise God I didn’t listen to them too closely!  The sins of pride and arrogance could have done a great deal of damage had they been allowed to run amok more than they did.

Chrysostom seemed to have a similar struggle.

And first of all it is that most terrible rock of vainglory, more dangerous than that of the Sirens, of which the fable-mongers tell such marvellous tales: for many were able to sail past that and escape unscathed; but this is to me so dangerous that even now, when no necessity of any kind impels me into that abyss, I am unable to keep clear of the snare: but if anyone were to commit this charge to me, it would be the same as if he tied my hands behind my back, and delivered me to the beasts dwelling on that rock to rend me to pieces day by day.  Do you ask what those wild beasts are?  They are wrath, despondency, envy, strife, slander, accusations, falsehood, hypocrisy, intrigues, anger against those who have done no harm, pleasure at the indecorous acts of fellow ministers, sorrow at their prosperity, love of praise, desire of honor (which indeed most of all drives the human soul headlong to perdition), doctrine devised to please, servile flatteries, ignoble honors, favors attended with danger both to those who offer and those who accept them, sordid fear suited only to the basest of slaves, the abolition of plain speaking, a great affectation of humility, but banishment of truth, the suppression of convictions and reproofs, or rather the excessive use of them against the poor, while against those who are invested with power no one dare open his lips.

Yikes!  Some things never change, huh?  This long list of dangers that priests face could have been written yesterday by a Protestant Pastor!  In fact, if you poke through the news long enough, I bet you could find examples of pastors and priests whose ministry collapsed because of each of these issues.  Jeepers, just think about all the priests and pastors you’ve ever met… think about the thing about them that bugged you the most, and it’s probably on this list here.

Ordained ministry indeed puts a man “on the spot,” open to all sorts of temptations and criticisms, and the front line of the Enemy’s spiritual attacks in order to get to the rest of the flock.  Unless one is thoroughly prepared for such fierce combat, there will be collateral damage.  There are times when I am aware of this in my own life, and times when I need to be reminded.  It helps, both for people pursuing ordained ministry and for people not pursuing ordained ministry, to be aware of these challenges and difficulties and dangers. As it says in Hebrews, “ Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (13:17).  Indeed, we could do with all the help we can get, from every side, in every way.

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Welcome to Lent!

This was my sermon for Grace Anglican Church upon Ash Wednesday, 18 February 2015.

How shall we explain Lent?

The traditional Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:12-17, puts it best. It’s as if it’s speaking straight to us today.

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

It starts out with a call to repentance, which is basically par for the course as far as Christian worship is concerned. Every day we are to take up our cross and follow Christ, which means every day we must die to self, repent of our sins, do whatever we can to refocus ourselves upon Jesus.

Some Christians ask, however, “do we need to fast anymore? I know God commanded the Israelites to fast at certain times, but now that we have the Gospel of Christ, do we still need it?” Our Gospel reading (from Matthew 6) this evening helps us answer that question. Our Lord taught us how to fast. He didn’t give much information or context, he simply said, “when you fast…” It is up to us, as his body, the Church, to figure out when we ought to fast together. Joel continues:

Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?

As we move further through the writings of Joel we find that he anticipates the Gospel itself: God does indeed show grace and mercy, he did indeed turn and relent from punishing his people by sending his Son to perform the sacrifice required for our sins. As a result, we are able indeed to turn and relent, to receive God’s blessing and return to him offerings of our own: even the holy and living sacrifices of ourselves, once we’ve been made clean in Christ. But there it is – once we’ve been made clean in Christ we are able to offer ourselves to him as a holy sacrifice. Our continual repentance and cleansing from sin is key to how God prepares us and makes us new creations, worthy and acceptable in his sight. And so Joel continues:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

Although repentance is a part of ordinary every-day Christian life, there is great benefit to us when we act as one body, for indeed we are one body – the Body of Christ! And so as we seek the grace of God’s Holy Spirit to cleanse us from our sins, we most appropriately and effectively do so together as the Church. This is why corporate worship, liturgy, and the sacramental life is so valuable – it binds us together, forging a multitude of voices into one. So together, on this first day of Lent, we do indeed consecrate a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the congregation together, consecrating ourselves, elders, adults, young adults, children, unborn infant – everybody – so we can weep together over the depth and reality of our sins and cry out to God together as one, “Spare your people, O Lord!”

As we proceed with our worship this evening, the usual prayers of the people are replaced with two particular acts of repentance; the first is an outward act, and the second is an inward act.

 

 How do we start with outward repentance?

It may seem strange at first – Joel’s proclamation begins by telling us to rend our hearts, and not our garments. He emphasizes that our sorry for sin needs to be inward and sincere, yet here we are preparing to put ashes on our heads. Is this hypocritical? Are we violating Jesus’ instructions to fast in private where nobody can see us? Well, if you’re looking forward to wearing these ashes as a badge of how pious you are, then yes, you are committing a sin of pride. These ashes, however, are meant to help us remember something quite different.

First of all, the ashes are a sign of humility. Throughout the Bible, we find people throwing dust on their heads when they hear bad news or are confronted with their own sinfulness. These ashes are in the same tradition as that: we make ourselves outwardly dirty to show ourselves and others that we are inwardly dirty, and need to be cleaned up!

Secondly, the ashes are a sign of mortality. God made Adam from the dust, and when we die, we return to the dust. By dusting ourselves in ashes, we remind ourselves of our earthly creation and our earthly death. And death is a terrible tragedy – it is an unnatural intrusion into God’s good creation, and when Christ returns, he will finally put an end to death forever!

Finally, the ashes are a sign of mourning and failure. Who knows what the ashes are made from? Palm branches from Palm Sunday! Most of a year ago, we carried palm branches singing Hosannas to our King. I also used them throughout the year thereafter to sprinkle you and this room with holy water on special occasions. But then yesterday I took those branches, chopped them up and burned them. Symbols of praise and thanksgiving to our God were transformed into symbols of sin and death. I tell you this not to show off how purist I am in keeping these traditions, but to illustrate a basic Christian truth: joy and sadness go hand in hand. As the very same palms of praise transform to the ashes of anguish, so too does Christ transform our mortal lives of sin into eternal life of heavenly bliss! God is a master of reconciliation and transformation. In about six weeks we’ll have new palm branches, and then on Easter we’ll be sprinkled with holy water again, symbolically washing the ashes off our heads that we put on today.

(Though please, wash your faces before you go to bed, or this stuff will get all over your pillows.  I mean, go ahead and be hardcore if you want, but unless doing lots of laundry is part of your Lenten vow, I wouldn’t go that far!)

 

How do we proceed with inward repentance?

After we receive ashes on our heads, remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we then move into an intense liturgy of repentance called the Commination. As I put on the cover of the bulletins, a Commination is first a threat of punishment or vengeance, second a denunciation, or third a penitential office read on Ash Wednesday in which God’s anger and judgments are proclaimed against sinners. It has two parts to it: attrition and contrition. These may be words you’ve heard before but never quite figured out. They both refer to the idea of being sorry for something, but at different angles. Attrition is when you’re being worn down and forced to surrender. Contrition is when you genuinely give up yourself. In the Bible, God wants us to come to him with contrite hearts – he wants us to own up to our sins, recognize that we really are sinners in need of his grace. It is a contrite heart that is truly ready to receive him.

But this Commination liturgy uses both. First it uses attrition. I will read to you some curses upon sinners from the Bible, followed by a lengthy stream of Scripture verses that beat us down like a hammer until we have absolutely no pride left. Then, when that hammering of attrition is done, we let that pain resonate within ourselves and direct it back to God as contrition. After a moment of stunned silence, we will answer back to God, beginning with Psalm 51, moving through other prayers of repentance, and then finally come to the relief of God’s blessing. From there we can move on to offering ourselves to him as renewed creatures, and ascend to the celebration of Holy Communion with our God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whose Name may be blessed evermore.  Amen.

 

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Priesthood is like Fatherhood

Among English-speaking Christians today, priests are very often called “Father” by their fellow congregants.  This is a relatively new tradition for Anglicans, and even among Roman Catholics the title ‘Father’ used to be used more specifically than it is today. Nevertheless, there is a strong analogy between fatherhood and priesthood which has its echoes throughout Church History.  Returning to the book On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom, I want to share some more quotes on the subject.

These [priests] verily are they who are entrusted with the pangs of spiritual travail and the birth which comes through baptism: by their means we put on Christ, and are buried with the Son of God, and become members of that blessed Head.  Wherefore they might not only be more justly feared by us than rulers and kings, but also be more honored than parents; since these begot us of blood and the will of flesh, but the others are the authors of of our birth from God, even that blessed regeneration which is the true freedom and the sonship according to grace.

Although it has been understood through most of history that any Christian may baptize someone in the case of an emergency, the normal practice of baptism is that a priest conducts the rite.  This highlights a spiritual parental relationship between the priest and the new-baptized, which fits with other parental images in common use, such as the Church being our spiritual mother, and the baptismal font being the womb of the Church from which we are born again.

What Chrysostom points out here is that because our new birth of baptism into Christ is far more important than our first natural birth into the world, we should esteem our spiritual fathers even more than our natural fathers.  In conducting the rites of Baptism, the priest becomes the “author of our birth from God.”  As I’ve written before, this is not because the priest is magical, or the Baptism liturgy is magical, but because Baptism and the priest are instruments through which God has told us He’ll work.  As Chrysostom himself points out here, Baptism works only “according to grace.”

But now here’s another example of how spiritual fathers are greater than natural fathers.

For not only at the time of regeneration, but afterwards also, they have authority to forgive sins.  “Is any sick among you?” it is said, “let him call for the elders of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up: and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15).  Again: our natural parents, should their children come into conflict with any men of high rank and great power in the world, are unable to profit them: but priests have reconciled not rulers and kings, but God Himself when His wrath has often been provoked against them.

Similar to how priests have the role of being authors of new birth in Baptism, Chrysostom points out here that priests are given authority to forgive sins.  This has already been touched on in a previous post, focusing on the dignity of the priestly vocation.  Here, the same point of authority is cited, this time invoking yet another quote from the New Testament, to emphasize how much more profound it is to be a spiritual father than a natural one.

Fathers cannot save their children if they get into trouble with early authorities.  They can try to help, or even intercede on their behalf, but ultimately the solution is between the child and the authority.  Priests, on the other hand, are given a ministry that enables them to effectively mediate between their spiritual children and the highest spiritual authority: God.  Once again, this raises objections from many Protestants today – is not Jesus our only Mediator and Redeemer?  And once again the answer is the same – the power and authority of Jesus is exercised through his priesthood.  The priests themselves do not have authority and power; they are invested (or entrusted) with the authority of Jesus, and through them, the power of the Holy Spirit carries out the work of God.

So while the relationship between a priest and a parishioner is like that of a father and a son, the effectiveness and profundity of that relationship goes far beyond what a natural father can do for his children!

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Valentine’s Day 2015

Happy St. Valentine’s Day!

Our Hallmark Greeting Card culture may not be aware of this, but there actually was a Christian priest in the 200’s named Valentine who was remembered as a saint. Like many Christians in the Early Church, he was seized by the Roman authorities and ordered to renounce Christ or die. Not wanting to forsake his Lord & God, St. Valentine ended up clubbed to death on February 14th, 269AD.

A great many other stories surround his life and ministry, and due to the scarcity of manuscripts from that time, it’s hard to sort out fact from fiction. Even how his commemoration day ended up becoming a celebration of love and romance is lost to the murky waters of history, but here we have it – a day our culture popularly sets aside to celebrate love.

I visited Athol this morning to hear Bishop Thad Barnum speak at a men’s breakfast group – he talked about being real with ourselves, with one another, and before God. We tend to put up strong public images of ourselves which, when we take them too seriously, even we ourselves can end up believing. Valentine’s Day can be like that too – very easily we, with our culture, celebrate “love” with chocolate and wine and roses and greeting cards, but fail to make the full connection to what love actually is.

Tomorrow is the last Sunday before Lent, and by an interesting coincidence, its Epistle reading is 1 Corinthians 13 – the famous chapter about love. There, we are taught that love is really quite profound. As we go through the list (patient, kind, non-jealous, non-boastful, non-arrogant, bears all things, endless, and so on) we find that love seems impossible. How can I ever act in such a perfect way? What does all this even look like?

Mercifully, God has shown us what love looks like.

Crucifixion

As Jesus himself explained, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture, and the main reason that I have come to appreciate the image of the crucifix. It is in Christ’s death that we most vividly see God’s love for us. The perfect, complete, and ultimate self-offering that he made there is beyond any other show of love that we or He could ever make!

Sure, Jesus’ death isn’t very “romantic” so to speak, but it is worth keeping in mind this Valentine’s Day as we seek to honor the love God has given us for one another, and especially between husbands and wives. And it is also worth keeping in mind this season of Lent, which begins in just a few days, because as we pursue heightened spiritual disciplines, we must remember that we do this not in a spirit of self-betterment or in an attitude of wallowing in misery, but in an ardent and heartfelt pursuit of the Amazing Love that God showed to us on the Cross, once for all and for eternity.

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