Intimacy of the Incarnation

August 15th is a holiday commemorating the Virgin Mary  (or, more specifically in the Roman tradition, her assumption into heaven at the end of her life).  This year, August 15th was also my wife’s due date, but as it turned out out our baby was born a little over a week early on the feast of the Transfiguration instead.  I guess baby Harold really likes holidays.

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But now that Harold is already born, we’re getting a distinct experience of St. Mary’s Day that we don’t normally get.  Mary, as you know, is the Mother of Christ.  She’s also called Theotokos (the “God-bearer”) and Mother of God (recognizing that Christ is God) and several other honorifics.  Naturally, what is standing out to my wife and I today is Mary’s motherhood.

The intimacy between mother and child is incomparable.  And I say intimacy as slightly distinguished from love.  The love between husband and wife, biblically, is the strongest earthly bond there is to be: it’s a committment for life.  The love between parent and child is different in that it has a “sending out” quality; the children will eventually leave the parents.  But the intimacy between mother and child is special.  Husbands and wives see each other through thick and thin, good and ill.  They see each other clothed and unclothed.  I say this not to be crass, but to draw the contrast: husbands and wives bare themselves before each other for the purpose of love’s physical expressions.  But a mother bares herself before her baby for the purpose of sustaining his or her life.  A husband can survive without sex (despite our stereotypical cultural attitudes about it), but a baby cannot survive without a mother’s breasts.  (I’m speaking on natural terms, obviously there is baby formula these days.)

So when we consider the infancy of Christ and the motherhood of Mary, we have opportunity to realize this unfathomable intimacy between God and a human.  It’s something of a paradox to consider that Jesus, the Lord of Life, who said “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34) yet also depended upon the bosom of his mother throughout his infancy as does any other human child.  The sheer intimacy is beyond my understanding.  There was Mary, feeding baby God.  There was God, suckling in a human’s embrace.  What divine condescension!  What trust He placed in Mary, and love He expressed for mere humanity!

God was long known as a loving God beforehand.  Throughout the Old Testament the Prophets declared God’s love for His people.  He made promises to Adam and Eve to defeat the ancient serpent through one of their descendants (ultimately, Christ).  He made promises to Abraham to bless the world through his offspring (ultimately, Christ).  He made promises to Moses to raise up an even greater prophet than he to carry out an even greater exodus into an even greater promised land (ultimately, Christ).  He made promises to David that his family would always have a king on the throne (ultimately, Christ).  He made promises to prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel that he would make a new and better covenant, replacing stony human hearts with living hearts of flesh (ultimately, by Christ).  Throughout all this we constantly hear of God’s hesed, translated as God’s mercy, or love, or loving-kindness, or steadfast love.  Hesed is a covenant-keeping love: he makes promises and he keeps them no matter how much we screw up our end of the deal.

But in the incarnation, God shows us a deeper form of love that had been foretold (such as in the story of Abraham & Isaac on the mountain) but had never been seen to this degree.  God went far beyond the requirements of the covenants he had made.  He didn’t simply raise up a new prophet or priest or king, he invested himself, the Person of the Son, with human flesh, to be himself the ultimate prophet and priest and king.  And being human meant becoming poor (2 Cor. 8:9), humbling himself (Phil. 2:6-7), and being reliant upon earthly parents (Luke 2:51-52).

30 years or more before he gets to the Cross, we can see the unsurpassed love of God shining forth in the event of his incarnation, birth, and infancy in the care of the Virgin Mary.

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As my wife and I settle into a new phase of life with a second child, now about 8 days old, this idea of intimacy is fresh on our minds.  God gave himself to the world through Mary’s womb, and was raised by her through his childhood.  As we look at the helplessness and implicit trust of a newborn, we can remember that this was how Jesus once was in the world.  He could have fought or fled in the Garden of Gethsemane, but chose not to; he could have argued his case before Pilate and likely gotten his pardon, but he chose not to.  As an infant, baby Jesus could not have done anything.  In the natural course of his earthly life, he was entirely reliant upon Mary.

Mary’s intimacy with God, then, must have been of a unique caliber that the rest of us will never fully know or understand.  To be so closely linked with the life of our Savior is a privilege beyond ordinary Christian experience!  And so we exalt her as the greatest among the Saints of God; she who served Christ not only as a disciple, let alone as an apostle or missionary (of which we have no record), but as a mother.  Let us also, therefore, honor and exalt the vocation of motherhood, for they give of their lives and bodies for the birth and sustenance and survival of another – another who will eventually grow up and leave.

Men, honor women accordingly; they have a marvelous gift as child-bearers, and through that can gain glimpses of the divine intimacy that we can never see for ourselves.

Women, do not scorn the gift of child-bearing as if it were a degradation or a burden.  While not all are called to parenthood, the gift itself is there, and worthy of the greatest honor.

Let us pray:

O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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Article 25: Sacraments

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 25 states:

XXV. Of the Sacraments

Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

This Article begins the next set of articles of faith on the subject of sacramentology with a brief summary of the definition of a Sacrament.  In three parts, Article 25 defines what a sacrament is, addresses the question of how many sacraments there are, and addresses the question of how the sacraments are to be used.  As with many of the Articles of Religion, there is a strong focus on the issues of the time (the late 1500’s), but their teaching value remains for us extremely valuable.

Part 1 – the definition of a sacrament

Readers today may be more familiar with the pithy saying, a Sacrament is “an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.”  Article 25 begins by spelling out more clearly what that means.  First, a negative rejection: Sacraments are “not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession.”  This was the teaching of the Radical Reformation, and their legacy holds sway over the majority of Evangelical Protestants today.  Many of them teach that things like Baptism and Communion are rites in which we confess and celebrate our faith in Christ.  But that is only a surface layer of meaning.  More than that, we confess that Sacraments are “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us”.  They’re not so much about our faith, are they are about God’s faithfulness to us.  Thus, the sacraments are not mere human rituals that we carry out, but are rites through which “he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.”  In other words, God is at work in the sacraments.

This much alone (even before going into the specifics in the next few Articles) sets Lutherans, Anglicans, and some conservative Presbyterians apart from virtually all other Protestant sects.  This also plays into the discussion of whether or not to participate in Communion from certain different church traditions (both in Article 23 and further back in my blog).

Part 2 – the number of sacraments

Next, Article 25 tackles the question of how many sacraments there are.  This was a hotly debated subject throughout the time of the Reformation, and the legacy of that discussion can still be felt today.  Western medieval Catholicism had more or less settled on seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Penance (or Confession or Absolution), Matrimony, Ordination, and Unction (Anointing of the Sick).  The Protestant Reformers were at odds over exactly how to work out the definition and number of sacraments.  Many Lutherans ended up sticking with three: Baptism, Communion, and Confession / Absolution.  Calvinists stuck with two: Baptism and Communion.  The Radical Reformers mostly denied the very concept of a sacrament, making this debate moot as far as they were concerned.

Anglicans, as one might guess, were less able to make a clear statement about the exact number of sacraments.  So rather than giving a hard-fast number, Article 25 sets out two categories of sacraments: “Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel” and those “commonly called Sacraments… not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel”.  The first category, Gospel Sacraments, consist of Baptism and Communion.  The second category consists of the remaining five traditional medieval sacraments.  As a result, traditionalists are permitted to continue teaching of seven sacraments, albeit with the distinction made between Baptism & Communion on the one hand, and the other five on the other.  Or, as many low church Anglicans prefer, one is also free to speak of only two Sacraments.  Either way, rites for all seven of these sacraments have always been provided for in the Book of Common Prayer.

The reason for the distinction into these two categories is that the other five “have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God”.  In other words, although their example, command, and theology may be found in the Bible, the exact form or matter was not clearly specified.  The background for this reasoning is the theological assertion that a sacrament has primarily two components: form and matter.  The form consists of words (such as “this is my body…” and “I baptize you in the name of…”), and the matter consists of people and objects (the right sort of minister, the water for baptism, bread & wine for communion, man & woman for matrimony, oil for unction, etc.).  What Article 25 observes is that only Baptism and Communion have both form and matter clearly prescribed in the Bible, while the other five only have one or the other.  (A table describing these can be found at the end of this article.)

Part 3 – the use of sacraments

Lastly, Article 25 steps into the realm of right use of the sacraments.  Medieval theology and piety had reached a point where people commonly paid such great reverence to the Sacraments (especially of Holy Communion) that they were getting distracted from their real purpose.  Holy Communion was instituted to be eaten by God’s people, not simply “to be gazed upon” during the Mass or in Eucharistic Adoration, nor “to be carried about” as was highly popular on the festival of Corpus Christi.  Some have argued that this Article does not utterly abolish the practice of visible adoration of the consecrated host, but it definitely puts such practices in a place of subservience under the proper use of Communion: eating and drinking.

But finally, to make sure that people didn’t swing from one extreme to another, Article 25 concludes with the biblical warning about due reverence towards and preparation for receiving the sacraments.  The statement that those who “receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation” is a warning straight from 1 Corinthians 11:27-30.  The sacraments are not magical things to be manipulated, but they are holy things to be reverenced and received.

The form & matter of the sacraments:

  Form (Words) Matter (Substance)
Baptism “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) Water (Acts 8:36)
Communion “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25) Bread & Wine (1 Corinthians 11:23,25)
Confirmation “Defend, O Lord, this your servant N. with your heavenly grace, that he may continue yours for ever…” – ACNA liturgy Bishop laying on hands (Acts 8:14-17)

Anointing with oil traditionally added

Confession “… I absolve you from all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” – traditional liturgy, inspired by John 20:23 Bishop or authorized minister (John 20:21-23)
Matrimony “… I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the name of…” – traditional liturgy Male and female (Genesis 1:27-28)
Ordination N. Receive the Holy Spirit for the work of…” – traditional liturgy Bishop laying on hands (1 Timothy 5:22 & 2 Timothy 1:6)
Unction “I anoint you with oil in the name of…” – ACNA liturgy Presbyters (priests) anointing with oil (James 5:14-15)
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Living in Two Worlds

This is my homily for Transfiguration Day (Sunday 6 August 2017).

I don’t often fly this flag in church, but I’m a huge science-fiction geek. My generation, growing up, had access to a veritable renaissance of science-fiction television shows… 4 iterations of Star Trek, the groundbreaking Babylon 5, the imaginative Farscape and similar shows, culminating with the revival of Doctor Who in 2005 over in Britain.
For a long time, science-fiction had a bad reputation, it was treated as a lesser form of fiction.  It was considered childish, a silly escapism with useless speculations about aliens and futuristic technology.  It’s also a genre that doesn’t age well when it makes optimistic predictions about the near future: like in Back to the Future – we were supposed to have flying cars like two years ago!

But really, science-fiction and fantasy are two sides of the same coin; one speculates about the future, and the other speculates about the past.  Both can have their childish sides, but both can be powerful works of fiction.  They often attract slightly different crowds of people, but they tend to bring them together, too.  Other forms of fiction, too, be it speculative fiction, murder mysteries, or something else, are things that capture the imagination of nearly everyone.

The ability to create fiction is a distinctly human capability, one of the things that sets us apart from the Animal Kingdom. We are able, at least within our minds, to create!  Elves and Orcs definitely do not exist, but in our minds they do.  There is almost certainly no such thing as a Time Lord traveling throughout time and space in a TARDIS, but there is in our minds.

Some Christians respond poorly to fiction. They say that it is a frivolous waste of our time, or worse, a sinful endeavor that points us to sorcery and magic which is condemned in the Bible, and to science which is also anti-religious according to some.  This is where you find the crowds who would ban the Harry Potter books and so forth. But I would point out, rather, that the use of the imagination can be very healthy and helpful for the Christian.  For, the Christian lives between two worlds. We live in the mundane world of work and food and taxes and sleep and politics and relationships but we also live in the kingdom of God, a world of gospel and Holy Spirit and miracles and bible stories and sacraments and ministers with strange vestments on.

Between two worlds is the major theme of the Transfiguration that I would like to observe with you this morning.  This odd little event in the life of Jesus is a special and rare example of “two worlds” coming together in one moment of shining clarity.

Spiritual Realities

It begins with Jesus and three of his disciples going up a mountain to pray.  This is not unusual for them; Jesus had a pattern of spending time in intense ministry with large crowds and then retreating to solitude and rest with a small number of close disciples.  But this time of refreshment would prove to be considerably more supernatural than one might have expected.  Jesus’ face and clothes shone dazzling white, the heavenly bodies of Moses and Elijah appeared next to him, and they spoke together, and the voice of God thundered from heaven declaring that Jesus was indeed his beloved Son.  This kind of thing had only happened once before: when Jesus was baptized.  That manifestation of God, or theophany if you want the technical word, was delivered to kick-start Jesus’ ministry at his baptism, and is repeated again now as he prepares to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die for the life of the world.

It’s the kind of visionary experience that many people wish for.  It wasn’t a dream – the apostles were wide awake.  It wasn’t in a strange location – it was a large hilltop where they often went to pray.  It wasn’t an ecstatic experience brought about by an emotional frenzy or drug-induced vision – it was a legitimate voice of God booming from the heavens while their teacher, Jesus, literally shone with the glory of God.  It couldn’t have been any clearer: in that moment Peter and James and John could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, priest, and king, not only the “messiah” or “Christ” or “anointed one,” but actually God-in-the-flesh.

All that theological stuff, where Jesus kept saying mysterious things like “I and the Father are one” finally made sense in that moment of perfect clarity.  The world of spiritual things – angels, life after death, divine manifestations – all that invaded the ordinary world in a moment.  Imagine the shock and excitement of seeing your favorite fictional character turn up at your workplace during your lunch break.  You’d be amazed, dumbfounded, and yet also vindicated that your enthusiasm for that movie or book actually paid off!  Take that to a whole different order of magnitude with the mount of transfiguration: the disciples had staked their lives on the truthfulness of their teacher, Jesus, who was claiming to be God.  In that moment, the three disciples with him saw for sure He Was Who He Was.

Getting the story straight

But let’s make sure we get the point of this story straight.  It’s all well and good talk about other peoples’ mountaintop experiences.  What about mine?  When will God appear to me during the course of my ordinary life and supernaturally announce to me that this whole pursuit of Christ is actually worth it?  Why don’t I get to see a miraculous sign to prove to me that my faith has not been in vain?  What is “my” transfiguration event?

Perhaps a popular line of thought from this juncture would be to say that we  are to pray for manifestations of the Spirit – signs and wonders – in our worship services and our lives.  Don’t expect miraculous things to happen unless you actually have faith in them, right?

Wrong.

Saint Peter, one of the three disciples who witnessed the transfiguration, did us all a huge favor: he wrote about his experience in a letter, and explained what the rest of us, who missed it, can do about it.  He wrote “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,”  we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).  What does he say next?  Does he talk about how much that shored up his faith in Christ?  Does he express his hope that we will also get to see that glory and hear that voice anew ourselves?

No.  Instead he writes, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21). There is more here than I can comment upon right now, but I can say this: personal experiences, be they revelations or visions or direct-download words from God, are purely matters of personal interpretation.  Signs and wonders can be faked.  The demons are more than capable of performing signs and wonders if it will mean taking glory away from God.  Rather, Peter sets his own mountain-top experience aside, and tells us that the “prophetic word,” the Scriptures, are “more fully confirmed.”  If you want to see God’s glory and hear God’s voice, read the Bible.

Along these lines, I’d like to quote from the hymn Not always on the mount.  The first verse went:

Not always on the mount may we Rapt in the heavenly vision be:
The shores of thought and feeling know The Spirit’s tidal ebb and flow.

If you want to rely on supernatural experiences to strengthen and confirm your faith in God, then you will live the life of a spiritual addict.  You will be rushing from one place to another, desperately seeking your next spiritual fix, trying to regain that high.  I’ve seen signs of this among both traditionalists and contemporary worshipers.  For the traditionalists, I’ve known people who refuse to go to mass unless there is chanting, incense, an East-facing altar.  The experience has to be just so, the rubrics must be followed to the letter, otherwise it’s a waste of time.  Among the contemporary crowd, which is a much larger group these days, I’ve known people who constantly crave their next retreat or conference where they can get their emotional high on the Holy Spirit renewed, because the ordinary run-of-the-mill church service just doesn’t “do it” for them.  These are tales of spiritual addicts, people who want to live on the Mount of Transfiguration all their days.  They have not heeded the words of Saint Peter, “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention.”  Where the Word of God is read and preached, and the sacraments celebrated and offered, there you will find the voice and glory of God.

Psalm 27, also, captures the dialogue of our hearts with God quite well: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple…  You have said, “Seek my face.”  My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.”  Hide not your face from me” (verses 4, 7, 8).  The Christian’s heart’s desire is to behold the face of God – indeed that is one of the very definitions of heaven!  So we must understand where and how to see the face of God so we don’t burn ourselves out in the search.  That same hymn ends thus:

The mount for vision: but below The paths of daily duty go,
And nobler life therein shall own The pattern on the mountain shown.

We see and hear God in the Scriptures, especially in its context in the liturgy (with preaching and sacraments); those are our glimpses of the heavenly glory, our “mount for vision.”  We then take that word of God with us into “the paths of daily duty.”  In that way our lives are made nobler as we own, or conform ourselves to, the pattern of life taught in the Scriptures.

But wait, there’s more!

There is so much more that could be said about the Transfiguration.  If you have a keen memory you may recall what I said about it on the last Sunday before Lent – how such manifestation of God’s glory also serves as a preparation for dealing with suffering in this life.

I would also direct you an old blog post of mine that explains an Early Church 40-day fast that begins today and ends on the feast of the Holy Cross, September 14th.  There you’ll see how it contrasts with the other two big fasts of the year, in Advent and Lent, and that each of the three bring out different aspects of the purpose and role of fasting in the Christian life.  The Transfigurationtide fast, in particular, is a fast of orientation, a discipline of fixing our eyes more closely upon the face of God.  You can read about that at your leisure.

Conclusion

For now, as we conclude, I want you to remember that you’re living in (or between) two different worlds at once.  Just as your favorite fiction stories, whatever they might be, help keep your imagination active, healthy, and strong, so use that mind power as a stepping-stone and reminder that there are indeed spiritual realities beyond what eyes can see and ears can hear.  And just as we can find ourselves emotionally invested in a work of fiction, we can there remind ourselves that if a fiction book can be so engaging, how much more powerful can the greatest Book of all be in our lives.

So I invite you, through these next forty days, to follow the steps of Christ from the Mountaintop to the Cross.  Fiction stories are great, but let’s make sure they’re just a stepping-stone for us as we continually ponder and live in the light of The Greatest Story Ever Told – the story of God saving the world from sin and death.  You don’t have to start calling Jesus your “superhero,” but you do need to remember that he saved you, and all of us, out of darkness and death into eternal life and light.

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What is the Church? – summarizing Articles 19-24

The 19th through 24th Articles, for the most part, set out the basics of the Anglican doctrine of the Church: what it is, what its authorities are, and how it worships and functions.  In many (especially Protestant) churches today, there has been great upheaval and confusion over these questions.  Entire congregations have been embroiled in “worship wars” between so-called “contemporary” and “traditional” mindsets.  Many evangelicals have embraced such minimalist approaches to theology and doctrine, especially where defining the Church is concerned, that even trained pastors often find themselves at a loss regarding how to answer questions about the what’s, how’s and why’s of worship.  These Articles of Religion are gifts from our theological tradition, giving us a solid and biblical place to start as the American church culture’s waves of confusion crash upon our own shores.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; the answers (or at least the beginning of our answers) are already available.

We begin in Article 19 with the basic definition of the local church: a community of faith in which biblical preaching is heard and right administration of the sacraments is carried out.  At its most basic level, this is a definition common across Protestant traditions.  As it is explored in further depth, however, one finds this to be potentially quite demanding: what constitutes biblical preaching?  What things “of necessity are requisite” to the right administration of the sacraments?  How these questions are answered quickly reveals the sharp boundary lines between Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbysterians, and especially the traditions of the radical reformation (who reject the very term “sacrament”).

Articles 20, 21, and 23 address some of the basic questions of authority within the Church as a whole.  The Bible is put forth as the first and foremost voice of authority to which all else must pay heed.  This is often described as the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, though it is sometimes also called prima scripture (Scripture first) in recognition of the fact that the Church herself is “a witness and a keeper of holy Writ” and “hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies,” and may exercise “authority in Controversies of Faith.”  These are faithful applications of what Saint Paul wrote of the Church – “a pillar and buttress of the truth.”  Along with this, the Church is thus also described to have as ministers only those who have been “lawfully called, and sent,” particularly only “by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.”  As Anglicans we retain the historic and biblical practice of identifying Bishops (literally, overseers) as the men authorized to ordain and deploy other ministers in the churches.

Articles 22 and 24, then, deal with some of the worship-related controversies of the time.  The treatment of Saints, their relics, the ministry of reconciliation through private confession to a priest, and adoration of the Sacrament, were areas in which medieval piety had gotten out of hand.  Furthermore, the official liturgy itself was now required to be in the local language of the people, English, rather than clinging to the Latin language which was no longer readily understood by all.  Once again, the appeal to the teaching authority of the Scriptures guides our decision-making regarding worship and liturgy.  This is a helpful and sober voice in tumultuous times as ours, in which people are often all too quick to appeal either to “the spirit of the age” or to “revered tradition” for their worship-planning decisions.

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Christians and/or Hypocrites?

These are extracts from my sermon today on the Parable of the Wheat & the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 34-43).

Introduction

I’m sure you’ve all heard this before: “I don’t like church because of all the hypocrites there.”

Story: A woman tells her Pastor she is going to leave his church because of all the hypocrites.  He tells her first to walk around the church three times holding a full glass of water, and if she doesn’t spill it, then she can leave.  She does so and reports back.  He asks if she noticed any of those people while she was carrying the water, she answered no.  He pointed out that she was concentrating on the water; similarly in worship she should be concentrating on the Lord, not the shortcomings of others.

This is an illustration of prioritizing our attention in church.  Yes there may be ‘problem people’ in the pews, but that’s no reason to leave, or even necessarily to kick them out.

Today’s parable shows us that hypocrites will always be found in the church.

 

Corporate Application

One of the difficult dynamics in church life is what you do with people who aren’t “getting with the program,” so to speak.  Sometimes you see people sitting in the pews and you can’t help but wonder if they even care about the Gospel, if they really love Jesus, if they really believe what the Bible says.  Sometimes you see people sitting in the pews whom you know they aren’t believers.  They’re there for the fellowship, or the worship experience (be it contemporary or traditional), or perhaps even a sense of duty drives them to church attendance.  What should we do about people like that, kick them out if they don’t believe?

According to our Articles of Religion, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (Article 19).  Some take this to mean that only the faithful belong in church, and the rest should be ostracized until they repent – there have been some Protestant traditions in which that happened.  But notice the Articles doesn’t say the visible church is exclusively faithful people; there is room for recognition of people who attend and participate but are not actually believing Christians.  Some of them will repent and believe later, some of them will not.  What the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds teaches us is that we should not kick those people out.  It can be discouraging, even frustrating, to have people sitting in the pews next to you who don’t believe the Gospel they’re hearing preached to them week after week.  But we must not chase them away.

We must not chase them away for two reasons.  First of all, we do not know if or when they will repent, turn to Christ, and be transformed from weeds into wheat.  If people instigate a purge and try to “purify” the congregation, potential new disciples could be lost forever.  If people want to come to a place where they will hear the Gospel, by no means should we stop them.  The other reason we shouldn’t root out the weed-members of a church is explained in the Parable itself: the good wheat could be uprooted and destroyed by accident.  Those unbelieving churchgoers might be friends or family members of others who do believe; if we kick them out, we risk kicking out the whole family or group of friends!  Even worse, such an act could be misinterpreted as a witch hunt, and the faith of other church members could be damaged simply by witnessing it.  No, as Jesus said, we must leave the weeds among the wheat, and let God’s angels sort out who’s who at the End of Time.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean the Church is powerless to deal with troublemakers.  Other passages of Scripture, such as in Matthew 18, explicitly deal with the godly process of helping impenitent sinners to reconcile with Christ and His Church.  There is, as a last resort of church discipline, an act called excommunication – a removal from Communion.  This is reserved for people who openly, publicly, and explicitly defy the Gospel of Christ, either by word or deed, and refuse all correction and godly counsel.  Only after due process is someone removed from the communion of the Church, meaning they cannot receive Holy Communion or any other sacramental rite or ministry except Pardon & Absolution once they repent.  Even at this extreme, though, the Church’s hope and goal is restoration: the apostate (person cast out) is only removed for the protection of those in the Church, and with the intention that they’ll see their removal from Christ and be moved to return to Him.

So when we look at the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, and note that the Weeds are supposed to remain, we find that speaks mainly to the “nominal” believers – people who blend in with Christians and cause little to no offense in the Church.  A helpful illustration for this clarification is found in some of the older translations of the Bible, in which the weeds are called “tares.”  Tares are a sort of weed that closely resembles wheat, especially when they’re small.  Only when they’re grown large is it clear that the tares are weeds, not wheat, and by then it’s too late to pull them out of the ground without uprooting the wheat.  Thus this Parable does not forbid all manner of Church discipline, but it does forbid witch hunts, persecutions, and, I might dare to say, other things like the Spanish Inquisition.

Individual Application

As for us, individually, what do we take home from this Parable?  Like the Parable of the Four Types of Soil that we heard last week, we can examine ourselves to evaluate if we’re living more wheat-like or weed-like.  Just as God can remove the rocky sinful heart and replace it with a heart of flesh (one that is truly alive), so too can God transform a weed into a wheat.  Instead of scrutinizing the hypocrisy and spiritual wastefulness of others, therefore, this Parable should move us to consider our own growth in God’s field.

The weeds, or tares if you like, resemble wheat, especially when they’re new.  We can’t just look on outward appearances; we have to look at the heart and mind inside.  Traditional catechesis, that is discipleship and training for believers, strives to pass the faith from three different angles: the faith believed, the faith expressed, and the faith enacted.  We ought to scrutinize ourselves in all three areas.

The faith believed: Do you affirm the teachings of the Church?  Do you check with the Bible to confirm the ideas about God that you think up, and the ideas about God that you hear from others?  Ponder the Creeds, read them and pray them often; let your knowledge of God be shaped by His Church rather than by the world that opposes Him.

The faith expressed: What does your worship life look like?  Do you pray both with the Church and on your own?  And how do those types of prayer inform each other?  Ponder the Lord’s Prayer, use it often; let your love for God mirror who he has revealed himself to be rather than simply what you want Him to be.

The faith enacted: Do you act like a Christian?  Do you strive to keep your words and your activities blameless before the Judge of All?  Ponder the Ten Commandments, examine yourself according to their summary of the Law; let your lifestyle be one fitting of a student and child of the King, rather than the sinful riffraff that He rescued you from.

As you undergo self-examination, scrutinizing your heart, heart, and hands, you will always find room for growth.  We will never see perfection in ourselves this side of Judgement Day.  But as long as we are growing closer to Christ, we know we aren’t growing away from Christ.  Focus on receiving Christ daily in every corner of your life, and eventually the fruit of the Spirit will begin to emerge.  Don’t be fooled by outward appearances; be honest and real with yourself before God, and let Jesus the Good Farmer (and his assistants) minister to you.

Let Psalm 86:11 be your prayer today: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear thy name.”

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What has God done for us? – summarizing Articles 15-18

In a culture that insists on highlighting the freedom and capability of humanity (be it the individual, the race as a whole, or a bit of both), an emphasis on the doctrine of salvation through Christ alone becomes all the more important bring to the fore.  This is what we find in Articles 15 through 18.  With the human condition clearly established as a hopeless position of death in all things spiritual in the previous set of Articles, it is also now pertinent to set forth what God has to resolve that situation.

Article 15 begins with the basic Christian dogma that Jesus, being God the Son, lived an entirely sinless life.  Of the Devil, Jesus was able to say “he has no claim on me” (John 14:30).  This one of the absolutely necessary cornerstones of Christian teaching on salvation, as it is Jesus’ perfect righteousness (intrinsic, not just earned) that is shared out to (and “covers”) those who are united with him.

The other major touchstone is described in Article 17: God’s peremptory, decisive, and intentional action to save sinners.  Again, if the human condition through sin is one of spiritual death, then it must be God who steps in to give new spiritual life before a person can be considered righteous, worthy in any way of God’s grace.  In a culture that loves to reward good effort and condemn inactivity, this doctrine of human helplessness and divine initiative is hard to swallow.

Articles 16 and 18 wrap up the package of God’s work of salvation briefly and succinctly, continuing the human reliance upon God all the way through the Christian life: there is never a point at which we gain mastery over sin ourselves.  We cannot look to ourselves for strength, we cannot “claim” victory through our own strength of faith.  Even corporately, the Church has not become the power source of salvation; only in the name of Jesus Christ are we saved.

The centrality of God, from beginning to end, is a key feature of the biblical faith.  Although there are many details and difficult questions that come up along the way wherein Christians honestly disagree and debate, we are united in the singular confession that Christ alone is the source of our salvation; we can turn ultimately to none other.

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What is the human condition? – summarizing Articles 9-14

These six Articles of faith set out the basic groundwork for a biblical theology of salvation.  Before getting to the question of what Christ has done for us, it first must be established what need there is for salvation, and why.  Article 9 gets the subject started by introducing the doctrine of original sin: we sin because we have naturally inherited a sinful nature.  This is played out further in Articles 10, 11, 12, and 13 as the fallenness of the human estate is such that neither our good works nor even our free will are capable of laying hold of Christ without him “preventing us” – that is, taking the first step of freeing us from sin’s hold over us.  Thus these Articles together teach of human sinfulness as a sort of spiritual death, in line with New Testament teachings such as in Romans 8:10 and Ephesians 2:1.

Article 14 takes this a step further, noting that we remain sinners even as redeemed Christians, and thus even then can never claim that our good works outweigh our sinfulness.  God’s grace is what gets us started in the life of faith, and God’s grace is what sees us through, every step of the way.

Overall, these teachings reflect the Protestant understanding of Scripture and the Early Church Fathers, in contrast to the rather more “optimistic” view held by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.  Both tend to teach a level of freedom of the human will even from sin such that the yet-unsaved soul can cry out to God for salvation.  Eastern Orthodoxy, further, holds to what we might consider a ‘softer’ version of the doctrine of original sin, seeing it more as an inheritance of Adam’s tendency to sin, rather than inheriting Adam’s spiritual death all-out.

Articles 9-14 may seem rather bleak subjects to study and discuss, but without these doctrines in place, the human need for the salvation offered by Christ is almost entirely negligible.  The “bad news” must be understood before the “good news” can be appreciated.

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