Friday, July 22, 2016

A pilgrimage

 Last Saturday, my family and I began a journey. We set out on a drive to Delafield, Wisconsin with a lay-over in Kansas City to visit my sister and brother-in-law. It's a long drive (about 19 hours total), but rarely boring.

I’ve made the trip several times between South and North driving back and forth to and from seminary, and from the Mississippi River to the West coast (once along a Southern route through Arizona and up the California coast and twice along a Northern route across Montana). I’m always moved by the experience. This is such an amazing land that God has entrusted to us!

I love the rolling hills of the Iowa farm country with mile after mile of tall green corn fields planted in neat sections. I bet anything would grow there. I love the plains. I could see "mountains" off in the distance when driving through Oklahoma. Wisconsin is so delightful. It looks like a postcard. When we were driving into Madison at dusk, there were swarms of fireflies along the highway. It was like a journey through space.

Coming back to seminary is also like a journey through time, coming to a place where time is always marked and sanctified by prayer, and yet where time seems to stand still. It is a place where things are ever old and ever new. I'm grateful to be here.

On Saturday, I also received a call to pastor a new congregation. It was difficult to be away from my people at that time and let my wardens break the news. When I return, the pilgrimage will have to continue. There is much work to be done (but then, there always is). I don't like saying good-bye. And I don't like moving. But I'm also excited and challenged by the new work that lies ahead. My prayer is that God will be with me along the way, keep me focused, and bless others through me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

My own introduction


I'm throwing my hat over the fence. On Saturday, I'm leaving for my sabbatical in Wisconsin where I'll be doing research for a book I'm calling Holding the Bible Hostage: How our culture shapes and distorts our understanding of the Scriptures (or maybe The Bible Held Hostage, I'm not sure yet). I've written about half of the first chapter, so I thought I'd post my introduction. Your feedback is welcome. I thought I'd call it "My own introduction" because instead of introducing the subject to the reader directly, I'm telling the reader the story of how the subject was introduced to me, with hopes that my interest will be shared. 

I don’t know how I ever found it. Maybe it found me.

The thin, red spine was only one centimeter wide and there was nothing written on it. But somehow, I happened to pull it off the shelf just far enough to see the title written in gold across the old red cloth cover. I saw “The Nazi . . .” which was an intriguing beginning for a book in the religion section. So I took it all the way out. The title read, The Nazi Christ. How can you put back a book like that? What in the world was a “Nazi Christ”?


I was floored 

It was late on a Thursday night on the third floor of the Moody Memorial Library at Baylor University. I was there because I didn’t have any homework left to complete for Friday. Well before my Senior year, I had figured out that when I went to the library, I almost always ended up staying until closing time. I just couldn’t help it. And when I was there, it was usually on the third floor, browsing through the religion section.

I would wander down the aisles (typically BR through BX in the Library of Congress cataloging system), running my eyes along the spines of dusty old hardbacks and broken-spined paperbacks. When something would catch my attention, I’d thumb through the book. And when it had sufficiently engaged my curiosity, I’d sit right there on the floor and start reading.

It was there that I had essentially become an Episcopalian. I had been on an ecclesiastical pilgrimage of sorts since high school. As I was fulfilling my own personal pledge to actually read through every page of the Bible, I began to find that the words on the page didn’t always match up exactly with what I was had heard from the Baptist pulpit of my younger days (nor from the non-denominational pastors of the church I attended during high school). My church-shopping first led me to become a Lutheran shortly before I left for college, but I was still on a journey.

New questions about church order and apostolic succession parked myself in the ‘Church of England’ section of Moody Library many a night. I was particularly captivated by the collection of addresses given at the Anglo-Catholic Congresses of the 1920s and 30s. I was not your typical Baylor Bear. Although I am told that the first professor at the university back in the days of the old Republic was an Episcopalian himself.

When I came across this little tome on the theological proclivities of National Socialist Christians, I was again floored. It was only 53 pages long and except for the title page, looked like it was typed on a type-writer. It must have been a dissertation. I sat there on the cold linoleum, leaning next to books about Christians harassed by il Duce in pre-war Italy and books about the struggle of the church in Norway, turning page after intern-typed page. I am a slow reader and had only gotten about half-way through the book.

At 10:40, the lights began to dim and there was a call for final selections to be brought to the check-out desk. On November 14, 1996, I checked out The Nazi Christ and took it with me to my grandmother’s house in Shreveport, Louisiana over the Thanksgiving holiday break, where I read through it again. When I got back to Baylor, I checked it out again, finally surrendering it to the university in time for Christmas.


The Nazi Christ was written by Eugene S. Tanner, Ph.D. and published by Edwards Brothers in 1942. Dr. Tanner was an Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Tulsa, a small Presbyterian college in Oklahoma. He wrote two other small books after this. What I didn’t happen to notice at first is that Tanner was essentially reporting on this new Christian movement in Germany that was reinterpreting the biblical Jesus as a non-Jewish figure of Nordic myth—a German savior for the German people. It was not a sensational exposé (though the topic was no less sensational) but a very timely and scholarly contribution. All but one of the sources Tanner used had not been available in an English translation.

At the time (1942), The United States was just entering World War Two and Germany was at the height of it’s strength. The Axis powers had yet to stall and it looked like even if there were no thousand-year Reich, Nazism would at least dominate the life of Europe for generations to come. Tanner was documenting what looked like the wave of the future.

What had me floored was my introduction to the concept that faithful Christians in Nazi Germany would have their own version of Christ. I was fully aware that Germany was what one would rightly call a Christian nation both before and after the war (as were all the other nations of Europe). And I was also quite aware that both the major sects of German Christianity, Lutheran and Catholic, were characterized by an anti-Semitic strain that was both pervasive and commonplace.

But I had always blithely assumed that the truly rabid anti-Semites, the really serious Nazis, were Christian in name only. They would have been those who were irregular church-goers at best, those who were not converted in their hearts, those who were cultural Christians, those whose interest lay much more in politics and nationalism than in the worship of the Jewish God-man.

Well I was right about one thing. They were in fact cultural Christians, but not what I had in mind. Tanner was introducing me to the real-life example of sincere Christian believers whose beliefs were shaped, even distorted, by the culture around them.

These were not Christians who rarely went to church on a Sunday. These were Christians who were in church every Sunday, who took up the offerings, who ran the Sunday Schools, who served on governing boards, who were the pastors and theologians of the German Christian Movement.

It still seemed rather baffling. How could people be so blind? How could people who read their Bible and knew their Bible have such unbiblical views. With the extreme nature of Tanner’s subject, we need not kid ourselves. This was not a simple matter of interpretation. This was a matter of people being totally blind to words on a page printed in black and white.

After all, how could a body of believing Christians accept the biblical concept that God revealed himself to Abraham and his descendants, chose the Hebrew people as his own, gave them a land of promise, miraculously rescued them from slavery in Egypt, established them as a nation, dwelt in a Temple in Jerusalem, and then became incarnate as a Jewish man to be the Savior of the world . . . How could they believe all that and have anything to do with Nazi ideology or with Hitler, much less a final solution to the Jewish “problem”?

It boggles the mind. How could anyone grasp such an obvious contradiction? It was no wonder that Tanner’s first chapter was titled, “The Nazi Christ is Rescued from Judaism.” He went on to describe how the anti-establishment part of Jesus’ story was played up and his heritage was ignored. Some even speculated that he had a Nordic lineage to make the Savior seem more identifiable to German people.

Jesus repudiating the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees became the first person speaking anti-Semitic truth to power. Jesus over-turning the money-changers in the Temple became the first anti-Semite chasing those dirty, greedy Jews out of God’s sacred place. Once the spotlights start to hit their marks and the misdirection and skipped passages take root, you can see how the transformation took place. People followed the misdirection because they were already pointed in that direction to begin with. They were directed by culture before they were misdirected by fraudulent teachers. People will find what they expect to find. More than that, people will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.

Jesus was a problem to the authorities in his own day, as he has been in every age. They thought they had done away with him by crucifixion. Tanner concluded his book with the thought, “The crucifixion was only the first in a long series of devices by which the Western world has attempted to be rid of Jesus . . . the most subtle of these devices has been reinterpretation.”


It’s not just other people

Our Wednesday Bible study in Comanche was an intimate little group of half a dozen regular attendees. We had been discussing for some time what we would study next. No ideas seemed to stand out. I said I’d think about it over the summer break.

Every January, the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth have a silent retreat at the Montserrat Jesuit Retreat Center north of Dallas. At the 2009 retreat, led by the later Father Ralph Walker, I had picked up Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth from the on-site bookshop. It was the first of three volumes. This one covered the story of Jesus in the gospels from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry at his baptism up to his transfiguration on Mount Tabor. I started reading while I was on the retreat, but I didn’t pick it up again until the summer.

It seemed like a perfect book to use as a guide for our little Bible study. It was essentially a guided tour of the gospels. I suggested it to the others and we took it up that Fall.

I’m not sure how far into the book I’d gotten during the retreat, but it was surely past page 15. And it was not until the second time through it that I found myself “floored” once again. When we looked at the book as a group, the passage on the baptism of Jesus leaped off the page because I noticed something that I had seen many times before, but never really noticed. Even though the Holy Father brought attention to it, that detail went right past me the first time around.

Speaking of John the Baptist, the Pope explained that Mark “reports that ‘there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins’ (Mk 1:5). John’s baptism includes the confession of sins. The Judaism of the day was familiar both with more generally formulaic confession of sin and with a highly personalized confessional practice in which an enumeration of individual sinful deeds was expected.”

“. . . confessing their sins.” My cognitive process was interrupted by a hiccup that jarred my gray matter. Prior to that moment, I had read or heard something different than what was on the page. When Mark 1:5 came to my ears or eyes, what went through my brain was not “confessing their sins,” but rather “confessing that they were sinners,” or perhaps “confessing their sinfulness.”

How could I have missed this detail for so many years? I checked different translations. I checked the Greek text. The problem was not on the paper; the problem was in my head. I saw and heard what I expected to see and hear. Because my culture was that I had grown up as a Baptist. And sermon after sermon in that theological tradition had concluded with an altar call and the sinners prayer. I knew by heart that what precedes baptism was the conviction and confession, “Yes Lord, I am a sinner.” This was step one of conversion.

Even after several years in a new theological tradition where private, sacramental auricular confession before a priest was not just an accepted norm but something I practiced myself, it had not sunk in to the point where my cultural formation could recognize the plain words of Scripture. It never would have even occurred to me that the penitent and remorseful Jews wading into the Jordan River to be baptized by John would not merely have confessed their sinfulness and acknowledged their need for God’s forgiveness and mercy, but actually confessed the misdeeds they had done, transgressing the revealed will of God as written in the Law of Moses.

It was right there in black and white and it had been there all along. People will find what they expect to find. More than that, people will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. It was not just other people. I had done the same thing.

The parallel text of Mark 1:5 is Matthew 3:6. They both say the same thing, that the people were baptized by John, “confessing their sins.” Matthew 3:6 is read on the Second Sunday of Advent in “Year A” and Mark 1:5 is read on the Second Sunday of Advent in “Year B.” Which means that I had heard this passage in church at least ten times during Sunday worship (not to mention all the times I read or heard it outside of Sunday morning) and had even preached on the texts at least twice, possible three or four times. I had earned a four-year Bachelor of Arts in Religion and a three-year Master of Divinity degree. I had been ordained a priest and taught the faith to newcomers and those who had grown up in the church. And I didn’t notice what the Bible actually said for the first seventeen years after being a Baptist—the summer of 2009.


The discovery of the way that culture had shaped and distorted believers of the German Christian Movement gave me an awareness of how this is possible, but the personal experience of my own culture blinding me to a quite straightforward biblical passage got me thinking about how common this phenomenon really could be. Was this the paradigm that addressed the divergences in faith an practices among different Christians, not even just between churches but within the same church? It seemed to fit all the hot-button, controversial issues that have confronted Christians and their churches.

How was it that Bible-believing Christians could be slave-owners? Or supporters of segregation? Or not see a moral problem with abortion? Or support the ordination of women? Or think that faith was an energy field once could harness to create wealth and power? Or not object to the redefinition of marriage? Or accept the idea that one could be “born into the wrong sex”?

This book is my exploration of that very question—of how our culture shapes and even distorts our understanding of the Bible.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sermon reflections on St. Mike's

Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” From the Gospel according to St Luke, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

So far in Luke’s account of the gospel, Jesus has been inviting others to follow him. In today’s gospel (Luke 9:51-62), he reminds us all that for those who would follow, discipleship is a total commitment; there must be no turning back.

This is consistent with Jesus’ own sense of purpose, as hinted at by Luke. The evangelist tells us that Jesus “set his face” toward Jerusalem. That is to say, he was concentrated upon and dedicated to that mission to which his Father had called him.

This week, I served on the faculty of the St. Michael’s Youth Conference, Southwest. This is the first year in several that I’ve been able to attend, and I consider it one of the most important parts of my ministry. So I hope you’ll indulge me and allow me to reflect on my experience in light of the gospel message.

Of course, discipleship is what St. Mike’s is all about. At the Midwest conference, they call it “Anglo-Catholic boot-camp.” It an intensive formation experience, like an immersion language class. Every day begins with Matins and Solemn high mass, then three classes (this year, I taught Christian History, Survey of the Old Testament Apocrypha, and Unveiling Islam). Then comes fun time, Evensong and lecture, discussion groups, Compline and (on Wednesday) benediction.

Throughout the conference there is a focus on piety and spiritual growth, and holiness of life, which includes making your confession. About 83% of the attendees made their confession at the conference (which is typical . . . at least at St. Mike’s). That included myself, by the way.

In particular, three things stood out for me from that week: First were the liturgical osculations (a fancy Latin word for “kisses”).

Jesus once said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). This year, we tried to bring out a few more old liturgical customs like this.

It used to be that every time the deacon handed something to the priest (like the biretta, the incense, the paten, or the chalice) the deacon would first kiss the object itself, and then kiss the priest’s hand as he gave it to him. On Monday, I was the deacon. This was the first time I had ever done this. I probably missed at least half of these osculations, but I'm sure I'd do better the second and third time around.

The deacon is not just there to assist the priest at the altar, the deacon is there as his servant, ministering to him as he would to Christ. To kiss the priest’s hands is to kiss the hands of Jesus (in type/figure). It was awkward and uncomfortable at first, but became a very moving experience for me.

It is a gesture of love and reverence and piety and humility. It is a vivid reminder that we are to love Jesus above all. That means putting him first in all things—serving him, doting on him, loving him, adoring him. Which is to say, following him wherever he leads.

The second thing that stood out for me was the “dance battle.” And all the positive peer pressure that went along with it.

During free time, the students gathered in Iker Hall for a “battle dance.” They put on some music and formed a tight circle. One by one, individuals would jump in the center and bust a few moves. It was really a competition, but they cheered almost anything.

Of course, when I walked int, someone shouted, “Father Matkin’s turn!” I was tempted to back right out. But there was a roar of the crowd, filled with cheers of anticipation. When I got in the middle, they were shouting and urging me on. I deliberately went with the cheesiest move I could think of (rolling the dice). When that landed me some jeers, I quickly hit the gas on my planned move, spinning around and landing with a crowd-pleasing flair. The group when wild—shouting, and screaming, giving me “high fives.” A Franciscan tertiary followed me into the circle. As I made my way outside, I could hear the crowd continue to erupt inside the building.

On reflection, I noticed how they specialized in pressuring those who were reluctant to jump into the circle, motivating them with applause, encouragement, and praise. And I must say it was a bit intoxicating being in the circle. At that point, you would do almost anything to please the crowd.

When we talk about peer pressure, it’s usually in the bad sense. But we must remember that there is positive peer pressure too—when friends and strangers are encouraging us, cheering us on, and praising us for doing the right things. That’s what the Church ought to be—our circle of support and encouragement.

The third thing that stood out for me was the Friday night boy’s march. The first head boys counselor was a marine and he applied his skills to the conference. The tradition has become that on the last night, the boys at St. Mike’s march around the camp, to a military chant.

It reminded me that life is a pilgrimage to paradise. We’re marching to Zion, as the old hymn says. To do that, we need planning and strategy. We need order and direction to march like that. That’s the same thing we get through the church for our spiritual lives--planning and strategy, order and direction.

In “setting his face toward Jerusalem,” Jesus set his eyes upon the cross, and he refused to allow anything to distract or deter him from that path.

I left them that night by saying, “Gentlemen, it’s been a long week, a tough week, a good week. And you have earned my respect. But never forget this: You’ve earned nothing from the Lord. Everything you have from him is a precious gift—his grace, his mercy, his love. Let us put these gifts to good use with a thankful heart. Goodnight.” And I blessed them.

As we come before the Lord today, praising him for his grace, his mercy, and his love, with Jesus, let us set our faces toward Jerusalem and follow where he doth lead.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Two Views of Jesus: Borg vs Wright

 One of the best books, and very accessible to the typical layman in the pew, is The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, written together by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. They are both critical scholars, but take opposing views on various doctrines about Jesus. Borg represents the skeptical view and Wright the traditional view. Their dialogue of perspectives serve as a good primer on the field of critical study of Jesus and Christianity. I heartily recommend it.

Both are friends, both are believers, and both are sincere. Yet one cannot help but wonder how they can both be said to share the same faith and say such contrasting things about Jesus. Wright's faith seems so solid; Borg's faith seems so hollow. I should note that both men are Anglicans; Borg was a layman in Oregon and Wright was the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Wright now is a professor at the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland; Borg passed away in 2015.

I wanted to set forth their key comments from each chapter side-by-side to show the stark contrast between two visions of Jesus. For Borg, the doctrines about Jesus are true because they are emotionally meaningful. For Wright, they are meaningful because they are true (i.e., factual).

1. How do we know about Jesus?
BORG: "Both the historical Jesus and the canonical gospels matter to me as a Christian. . . . Independently of their historical factuality, the stories of the canonical Jesus can function in our lives as powerfully true metaphorical narratives, shaping Christian vision and identity. It is not an either-or choice; both the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus matter" (pg 14).

WRIGHT: "The Jesus I know in prayer, in the sacraments, in the faces of those in need, is the Jesus I meet in the historical evidence" (pg 26).

2. What did Jesus do and teach?
WRIGHT: "When we put together Jesus' temple action and Last Supper, we discover that at the heart of Jesus' prophetic persona lay, not just the simple announcement of God's kingdom, but the claim, implicitly, to be the king that was to come" (pg 47).

BORG: "Jesus as Jewish mystic and Christian messiah. . . . My central claim is that Jesus is both, an affirmation I make as both a historian and a Christian" (pg 53). "I do not see Jesus as seeing himself in messianic terms, and I do not think he saw his death as central to a messianic vocation or as in some sense the purpose of his life" (pg 54).

3. The Death of Jesus
BORG: "About the events reported between arrest and execution, including the trials before Jewish and Roman authorities, I have little historical confidence" (pg 87). "If the scene of the Jewish trial does not provide the historical reason for Jesus' execution, why then was he killed? For me, the most persuasive answer is his role as a social prophet who challenged the domination system in the name of God" (pg 91).

WRIGHT: [After providing an illustration of the modern day trial and martyrdom of Ugandan archbishop Janani Luwum, Wright notes:] "The stories of Jesus' death, and the events that led up to it, are either extremely clever fictions or probably substantially close to the events" (pg 95). "In fact, we can only claim that the exchange between Jesus and Caiaphas consists of a retrojection of later Christian theology if we first invent, out of nothing, a later Christian theology that combines these elements and then claim that it has been turned into a fictitious narrative" (pg 101). "[Jesus'] messianic vocation climaxed in the call to suffer Israel's death, Israel's supreme moment of exile, on Israel's behalf" (pg 97).

4. "God Raised Jesus from the Dead"
WRIGHT: "What then did the earliest Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? They cannot have meant that, though his body remained in the tomb, his spirit or soul was now safe in the hands of God, perhaps even given a place of honor. . . . What the early church insisted about Jesus was that he had been well and truly physically dead and was now well and truly physically alive. . . . In addition, had Jesus' resurrection been simply a matter of people being aware of his presence, there would not have been a sense, as there clearly is in all our evidence, of a sequence of 'resurrection appearances' that then stopped" (pg 116).

BORG: "Easter means that Jesus was experienced after his death, and that he is both Lord and Christ" (pg 130). "For me, the historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death. In the early Christian community, these experiences included visions or apparitions of Jesus" (pg 135).

5. Was Jesus God?
BORG: "Aware of all the above, I can say the creed without misgivings. I do not see it as a set of literally true doctrinal statements to which I am supposed to give my intellectual assent, but as a culturally relative product of the ancient church" (pg 155). "To affirm that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God does not require affirming that he is the only, or only adequate, revelation of God. . . . "[Creedal statements] need not be understood to mean that Jesus (or Christianity) is the only way of salvation. Instead, we might understand them (and similar Christian statements about Jesus being 'the only way') as reflecting the joy of having found one's salvation through Jesus, and the intensity of Christian devotion to Jesus. They should be understood as exclamations, not doctrines, and as 'the poetry of devotion and the hyperbole of the heart'" (pg 156).

WRIGHT: "[Jesus] believed himself called to do and be what, in the scriptures, only Israel's God did and was. . . . I do not think Jesus 'knew he was God' in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. . . . Rather 'as part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, be believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be'" (pg 166).

6. The Birth of Jesus
WRIGHT: "The problem is that miracle, as used in these controversies, is not a biblical category. The God of the Bible is not normally absent God who sometimes intervenes. This God is always present and active, often surprisingly so" (pg 171). "Those who cannot imagine anything good about abstinence insist that Mary must have been sexually active" (pg 172). No one can prove, historically, that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. No one can prove, historically, that she wasn't" (pg 177). "I hold open my historical judgment and say: if that's what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object?" (pg 178).

BORG: "I do not see these stories as historical reports, but as literary creations. As the latter, they are not history remembered, but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus' significance" (pg 179). "[In Meister Eckart's theology] the story of the virgin birth is the story of Christ being born within us through the union of the Spirit of God with our flesh. Ultimately, the story of Jesus' birth is not just about the past but about the internal birth in us in the present" (pg 186).

7. "He Will Come Again in Glory"
BORG: "To explain, I can imagine the end of the world. I can imagine a final judgment. But I cannot imagine a return of Christ. If we try to imagine that, we have to imagine him returning to some place. To be very elementary, we who know the earth to be round cannot imagine Jesus returning to the whole earth at once. And the notion of a localized second coming boggles the imagination. I do not think it will happen" (pg 195). "Christ comes again and again and again, and in many ways. In a symbolic and spiritual sense, the second coming of Christ is about the coming of the Christ who is already here" (pg 196).

WRIGHT: "If we spoke of Jesus' royal presence within God's new creation, rather than thinking of his 'coming' as an invasion from outside, our talk about the future might make more sense. It would also be a lot more biblical" (pg 202). "When the heavenly dimension is finally unveiled, so that the royal presence of Jesus is visibly and tangibly with us at last, the dead will be raised and the living transformed, to share his new humanity withing a transformed world. This will be the fulfillment of the new world, which began in Jesus' resurrection" (pg 203).

8. Jesus and the Christian Life
WRIGHT: "The scandal at the heart of Christian faith is that Christians are committed to worshiping a first-century Jew, believing that in him the living God, the God of Israel, the creator of the world, was and is personally present, bringing the temple theme in Judaism to a new and surprising conclusion. The true temple, the true dwelling of Israel's God, was to consist not of bricks and mortar but of a human being. 'In him,' wrote Paul, 'all the fullness of deity dwells bodily'" (pg 210). "The gospels are what they are precisely because their authors thought the events they were recording--all of them, not just some--actually happened" (pg 215).

BORG: " A single religious tradition can easily be doubted as a human creation and projection, but when one sees that the great religious traditions share much in common, especially at the level of experience and practice, one begins to wonder if there might be something to religion. That has been my experience" (pp 231-232). "I do not think being a Christian is primarily about believing. It is not about believing in the lens, but about entering a deepening relationship to that which we see through the lens. It is not about believing in the Bible or the gospels or Christian teachings about Jesus, but about a relationship to the One whom we see through the lens of the Christian tradition as a whole. . . . Beliefs have little ability to change our lives" (pp 239-240).

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Justification by faith (alone?)

In the epistle for today's Daily Office readings, one verse that stood out was Galatians 5:6 "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love." The key word is ἐνεργέω (energeō, Strong #G1754). It means to put into action, be effective, be operative. Most translations render it as "faith working through love." The NIV says, "faith expressing itself through love." The Amplified Bible translates it as, "faith activated and expressed and working through love."

It caught my attention because of the Reformation cry of "sola fide"--that salvation comes by "faith alone." In his commentary on Galatians, Luther insisted, "This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness." Luther's idea of forensic (or legal) justification is that God's verdict of acquittal is pronounced on the believing sinner due to his appeal through faith for God's mercy and saving grace. This does not come through any contribution of good behavior on our part, but solely through faith.

The origin of the doctrine is Luther's interpretation and German translation of Romans 3:28. He added the word allein ("alone") in his translation to help explain the passage. "We consider that a person is justified by faith [alone] apart from works of the law." Interestingly, only one of the four other German translations (Hoffnung fur Alle) found this word necessary to convey the meaning of the passage.

The addition also clashes with James 2:24 which says, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." James' famous counter-point to Paul is not that faith is not needed in receiving God's grace, but rather that it has to be a certain kind of faith--a living, active faith animated by love rather than a hollow faith in name only. Or as James puts it, "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:26).

Galatians 5:6 reminds us that there is really no conflict between Ss Paul and James. For Paul makes the same point here--that real, genuine, saving faith is that which is brought to life by love. It is faith that is lived out and not just thought.
At the heart of the matter, I've always thought that the issue was much ado about nothing. I realize that may seem to disrespect those whose blood was spilled in defense of their beliefs on either side. And I mean no disrespect. I realize that there are very different theologies about justification and other related questions of soteriology. But we also have to recognize that both sides believe that the faith has to be a "living faith" as James would say, or a "faith working by love" as Paul would say. And we have to recognize that both sides insist that salvation does not come by our own merits, but as a free gift of God's grace.

The very first canon on justification at the Council of Trent says, "If anyone says that man can be justified by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema." And we should also keep in mind that when Paul talks about works and salvation, nine times out of ten, he's talking about "works of the Law" (i.e., keeping the Torah), and not simply about good behavior. It is significant that Paul's mention of faith being animated by love comes in Galatians, which is Paul's strongest condemnation of the Judaizing argument that Christians must also keep all the regulations of the Torah.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Who really wrote the books in the Bible?

It’s almost a joke that among Bible scholars, whatever name is on a book of the Bible is not the person they think actually wrote it. They rightly remind us that many ancient documents were put out (even knowingly) under a more famous name by that person’s students or admirers. However, there is a tendency in academia that feeds a need to make novel claims to get published and make one’s mark. I rarely find such arguments persuasive, more often defaulting to the traditional view about things like authorship.

One thing that came up in this week’s Bible Study was the early church’s view of authorship. When it came to the question of admirers publishing letters under the name of an apostle, the church fathers did not look as kindly as scholars. In fact, many documents were rejected from inclusion in the canon not so much because they contained strange or false teaching, but simply because everyone knew that it was not really written by an apostle.

In 2 Thessalonians (2:2; 3:17), the Apostle Paul warned them not to be fooled by forgeries in circulation claiming to be written by him. We know that there were letters supposedly from Paul to the Laodiceans and to the Alexandrines. How did the church fathers react to these? A document of the early church called the Muratorian Fragment rejected these two letters as “forgeries,” insisting that such epistles “cannot be received into the catholic church, since it is not fitting that poison be mixed with honey.”


The prime indicator of authentic revelation was apostolic authority. The source of the writing was the most important factor in determining a book’s inclusion in the canon of the Bible. Of course, we must remember that by including a book in the canon of the Bible and calling it “Holy Scripture,” the church was saying that the ultimate author is God, who inspired the human author through the inner light and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

On The Lord's Descent Into the Underworld

From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday: 

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

What disturbs me about Donald Trump

I’ve wrestled for months about whether to write this. Now I’m breaking my own rule to not publicly take sides about candidates in political races (although I’m happy to talk about moral and cultural issues in the political sphere on which the church has something to say; maybe we can file this under culture).

Last summer, I was listening to an interview with Mark Steyn who was talking about a speech Donald Trump gave that afternoon. He noted that Trump is a savvy businessman who has looked at the Republican Party and figured out that it is ripe for a hostile takeover.

They were playing clips of his speech and Steyn was summarizing Trump's shtick as, ‘It’s gonna be great, folks. It’s gonna be fantastic. It’s gonna be huge. Don’t worry about the details. Just vote for me and the trains will run on time again.’ And then Steyn observed, “It’s basically all that strong man, banana republic sort of stuff.”

For those who may not be familiar, a banana republic refers to a stereo-typical politically unstable corrupt socialist country in Latin America, drowning in debt, with a large oppressed working class, dominated by an elite class, and run by a strong-man dictator. That description is becoming eerily familiar. Trump’s solution to this problem is to become the strong man and kick out the Latins. It’s a good solution for Trump, but not so much for the rest of us.

There is plenty not to like about Donald Trump. I don't think he's a racist or a xenophobe or some of the other sensational things he's accused of being. Yet I’ve never seen such an immature personality in American politics. Frankly, he’s disgusting. But that's not the bad part.

The idea that America (much less conservatives) would want a thrice married, repeatedly philandering, perpetually bankrupt casino man who threatens trade wars, vengeance against the press, and massive governmental projects and who seems to believe that belittling and insulting other Americans (particularly women) will make America great again and who can’t even be consistent on his own policies and beliefs from one paragraph to the next in his own speeches as our head of state is perplexing and demoralizing to say the least.

In another era he would have been (and was as recently as five years ago) dismissed as a boob by the voters. What has changed? Trump hasn’t changed so much as we have. We have become frustrated, angry, and desperate. Some of our problems have increased exponentially, particularly our national debt, economic stagnation, and our diminished standing in the world. Like a declining empire, we yearn for the glory days of old to be restored and the normal ways of accomplishing that goal don’t seem to be working.

We want an authoritarian, a strong man. That’s the only solution to the prospect of national ruin. And he's drawing support from across the board. I was shocked to see a libertarian fan of Ron Paul say on FaceBook the other day that it may be time for a strong man as president. And we are willing to overlook his faults if he will deliver on the promised restoration of glory. But it's not his potential presidency that disturbs so much as his candidacy and popularity and how that reflects on us (much like the unnerving messianic campaign of Barack Obama or the child-like hokum heard at the rallies of Bernie Sanders).

I’m not saying that he couldn’t get elected or that he couldn’t even have a good run as president. Ironically, if he is ultimately successful as an outsider taking over the system, it will be because like a good boss, he hires insiders to get the job done. But I fear we will have perhaps been fatally compromised in the process. A leader whose words we cannot trust (because he’s just negotiating) and whose competence we cannot rely upon (because he’ll hire all the smartest people to do the job) and whose behavior is indecent (because that stuff doesn’t matter; he's not the pastor-in-chief) will be the kind of leader we henceforth expect and deserve.

Cecil Rhodes famously said to fellow citizens of an empire on the verge of decline, "Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life." I used to think the same thing about being born an American. Now I’m not sure if it matters anymore. What disturbs me about Donald Trump is not so much Donald Trump. He is only a mirror. What disturbs me is the reflection.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What does marriage mean?

Given at Hamilton, Dublin, and Comanche Texas on 20 January 2013 

If you had conducted a survey of American clergy 100 years ago and asked if they were in favor of gay marriage, I’m sure you would have gotten a nearly 100% affirmative response. (What pastor wouldn’t be in favor of happy marriages in his flock?)

But if you had surveyed American clergy 40 years ago, you would have gotten just about an exactly opposite response. Not too many clergy would have been in favor of “gay marriage” in 1972. The difference, of course, is that words mean things and that meaning can change over time. And it’s not just the words themselves, but even the meaning of the things those words describe.

Four years ago, the new president was a candidate who had gone on record saying he believed marriage should be between 1 man and 1 woman, and the pastor giving the benediction at the inauguration was Rick Warren, a California pastor vocal in his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Tomorrow, the same man will be inaugurated for a new term as president, but he has changed his position on same-sex marriage to now support it. And the pastor he had chosen to give the inaugural benediction, Louie Giglio, backed out of the event because a sermon he preached about 15 years ago titled “A Christian Response to Homosexuality” surfaced in the media, creating a public outcry.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee issued a statement in response, saying, “We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural. As we now work to select someone to deliver the benediction, we will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.” It is a vivid portrait of how things can change in just a short time. (By the way, an Episcopal priest will give the benediction instead.)

When California’s Proposition 8 (marriage is defined as one man and one woman in the state constitution) was struck down by the US District Court in 2010, I commented on my blog: “I’d like to remind everyone that the Church has always supported the right of gays and lesbians to marry. And as long as there are no impediments, we also support the rights of Christian gays and lesbians to have their marriages solemnized in the church.” 

People were taken aback. One person commented, “Is this April 1st?” And that’s the point. It was to illustrate how far the meaning of marriage had already been altered in the public mind by the political discourse. People no longer thought of marriage as being only one man and one woman.

In today’s gospel (John 2:1-11), we find a message of transforming grace in the epiphany that came through the slight alteration of water into wine. St John tells us this was the first of his “signs”—selected miracles which manifested Jesus’ divine nature—and it happened at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

I’m inclined to believe it happened for a reason. The question is, Why? When the wine runs low, Mary says to her son, “They have no wine.” She knows he can work miracles. And he knows that she knows. Jesus understood what she was getting at and basically responds, “Why are you asking me for a miracle now?”

As a good Queen Mother, she tells the King’s subjects, “Just do whatever he tells you.” The working of his first sign has always been considered a special endorsement of the dignity of marriage in the Christian tradition, showing the sacramental character of marriage by utilizing the creative and transforming power of God at that special moment.

St. Paul explained that Christ is betrothed to his Bride, which is the Church. This is the heavenly reality which gives meaning to the earthly symbol, marriage. Earthly marriage is true marriage to the extent it signifies the heavenly reality. The scriptures tells us that the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation in Eden—that Adam and Eve were the first newlyweds.

What about the word “marriage”—where does it come from? If you consult your etymological dictionary, you will find that it is descended from the Latin matrimonium, which has come down in this form via Old French. And what does “matrimonium” mean?

I teach a class on Moral Theology for our diocesan school of Theology. A few months ago, I was reviewing some material to revise the syllabus. And I came across a statement in a theology text I had forgotten. It pointed out that contraceptive sex does not consummate marriage. Why? Because we are talking about matrimony.

Perhaps some of you will recognize there the root Latin word mater (“Mother”). The marriage contract is ratified by turning a woman into a mother. “Holy Matrimony” literally means the “sacred condition of motherhood.” We have forgotten this, and we need to remember again.

Would two men ever go to the courthouse and ask that their bond of “sacred motherhood” be recognized by the state? Once upon a time it would have been unthinkable, because that’s how we once thought about marriage.

We need a new epiphany of that life-giving union of marriage—not just for our secular culture, but also for Christian people who may have forgotten or never fully understood what the meaning of marriage really is.

May God reveal to us again the meaning of that beautiful institution which signifies the mystical union between Christ and his bride, the Church.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why college football is better than pro

1. It just feels more real. 
I’ve been to a decent number of NFL games, and each one I attended felt like I was at the taping of a TV show. Because I was. Don’t get me wrong, it was usually a lot of fun. But there is simply a different atmosphere at college football games, whether they are on television or not. There is simply more energy, more enthusiasm, and more excitement than at an NFL game.

2. The rivalries. 
The NFL simply does not have rivalries that can match the age-old rivalries of college teams. Think of the Iron Bowl, the Texas Shootout, the Apple Cup, the Battle of the Brazos, games at State Fairs. Most every state has an annual game between the University of X and X State University. They almost take on a life of their own. Many of these competitions even have trophies awarded at the end.

3. The changing players. 
Every year is new, much more so than in the NFL. This is because players graduate and must be replaced with new recruits who have yet to be proven. A college team can go from great to terrible and back to great very quickly. There’s no salary cap. It’s all about strong traditions, attractiveness, good recruitment, good coaching, and a fair amount of luck.

4. College traditions and school spirit. 
Unlike the NFL, college football is a family matter. Your Loving Mother (Alma Mater) is her honor on the field of battle. And it does feel like a big family. It’s likely your parents and grandparents and siblings might have attended there. You probably made life-long friends there. And perhaps even met your spouse there. All that makes you feel more invested in the game.

5. It's a small town vs big town game. 
By its nature, NFL teams (with the exception of Green Bay) play in huge metropolitan areas. In contrast, many large universities are in relatively small towns or mid-sized cities. Hence the term “college town.” Think of Manhattan (Kansas), Oxford (Mississippi), Stillwater, College Station, Ann Arbor, and Tuscaloosa. That makes a difference. I think it helps you feel more attached. You feel lost in a big city sometimes, but with a small town it just feels less anonymous and more connected.

6. More arguments. 
Without a real playoff (the current playoff is just a “plus one” arrangement), there is a lot of room for argument about who is the best. Until just recently, this was determined by an AP poll. Imagine if the contestants in the Super Bowl were determined the same way. And that’s part of the fun. The field is only partly the determiner of who is the best. The other half occurs in the car, the park, the water cooler, the back yard patio, the online chat room, and the board room.

7. It's not so perfect. 
Part of the fun is that anything can happen on any given field of play. Think of some of those amazing plays we get from time to time. There’s the famous “Immaculate Reception” of the NFL. Those kinds of plays come one a decade. But in college, they come once a year, maybe once a week. Part of the anticipation and excitement of the college game is that things are not so refined. Tackles are missed, interceptions become touchdowns, finals scores turn on missed extra points and two point conversions, and trick plays are common. Any team can get an amazing play at any moment.

8. There’s a band. 
 No NFL team has a band that gives you a half-time show and that continuously adds a soundtrack throughout the game. It’s that simple.

9. Live mascots at the game. 
When this is possible, a college team will have a live mascot (a bear, a longhorn, an eagle, a bulldog, etc.). In the NFL, the Denver Broncos are the only team I know of that have a live mascot on the field.

10. High stakes, but plenty of Bowl games. 
No NFL fan hangs their head in shame after one loss at the end of a long winning season, saying, “There’s always next year.” But in college, it’s like that. You have to go undefeated or have only one loss to be considered a national or even conference champion. With two losses, you can’t even make it into the top 10. In the NFL, the teams in the Super Bowl normally have several losses throughout the year. Only one NFL team (the 1972 Miami Dolphins) have played an undefeated season. So in college, the games are much more high stakes when any single loss can ruin your chances. And yet, there’s also plenty of bowl games. So even mediocre teams can make it into one. Each one is different, and each one is a post-season celebration.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Was Jesus a refugee?

The question has come up lately in light of Syrian refugees and the problems of security risks coupled with receiving such refugees (especially knowing that one of the culprits of the Paris bombing was disguised as a Syrian refugee). Responding to such concerns, some have said, "Don't let them in the country; it would endanger our citizens." On the other hand, some have argued, "We need to let them in, despite the risk. It's the Christian thing to do. After all, Jesus was once a refugee." Both are a response to Christian values, in this case, the love of neighbor.

I'm still not sure what I'd do if the decision were up to me. I guess I lean more toward the risk of mercy, but I certainly understand those who want to guard against that risk. After all, we are at war (or at least, ISIS is at war with us). I like Bishop Olson's (RCC-Fort Worth) comment: "As Catholics and Christians, we cannot succumb to fear by closing our doors and hearts to all refugees because of the evil of a few." At the least, maybe we could round up some cruise liners to do the job and park them in the Mediterranean.

But back to the question, was Jesus a refugee? Well . . . yes and no . . . sort of. He was a refugee in that his family once sought refuge in Egypt. But no, he was not a refugee in the sense that his situation does not fit the modern definition of the Geneva Convention on Refugees. According to which, a refugee is "a person who is outside their country of citizenship because they have well-founded grounds for fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and is unable to obtain sanctuary from their home country or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country."

The one that comes closest is "political opinion." And that would just be the baby Jesus (who presumably did not have many political opinions at the time), not his parents. But of course, we are typically talking about a class of people, not just one person who is threatened with murder. Perhaps "living in exile" is a better fit in this case. Jesus fled to Egypt because King Herod sought to kill him. And Herod wanted to kill him because it was foretold that a new King of the Jews had been born.

Jesus was not alone in being endangered by Herod's jealousy. The massacre of all the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem was, shall we say, overkill. (Perhaps that's where the term originated.) Scarcely a day passed where there was not an execution under Herod’s regime. Herod killed two of his brothers-in-law, his wife Mariamne, and two of his own sons to ward off possible threats to his throne.

We find the story in Matthew 2:13-15. "Now when [the Magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.' And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, 'Out of Egypt have I called my son'." When Herod died and the danger was passed, they went back home to Nazareth.

What prompted this post was all of the exaggerations you see about this issue. Such as that the Holy Family were undocumented immigrants. There is no evidence to support this, and in fact it would be totally out of character since two of the three are believed to be sinless. We also see claims that they were homeless in Bethlehem. Or that they were refugees in Bethlehem. In his column at the Huffington Post, Ryan Gear claimed, "The nativity scene, after all, depicts a Middle Eastern family who were looking for a place to stay, only to be told there was no room for them." I guess he missed the verse that explains they were "fleeing" Nazareth so they could go register for the census and pay taxes. Or if that's not enough, Jesus was (according to Nancy Pelosi) a Palestinian refugee, fighting for the liberation of Palestine just like they do today.
The bottom line is this: let's stopping using Jesus as cannon fodder in our public policy arguments. The implication that either side is anti-Jesus simply does not belong here. I understand the temptation. But it comes across as irreverent and undignified, unchristian behavior.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pope Francis called Christ a failure?

Pope Francis' homily at Vespers in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York during his visit to the United States included one paragraph that prompted screaming headlines like "Pope Said Christ Failed On the Cross." What did he really say? and What does it mean?

Here's the actual passage: "Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus… and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, the failure of the cross."

At first glance it seems like nuts like Alex Jones have caught the pope red handed. But look closely and note the qualifiers. Francis said, "at times our efforts and works SEEM to fail and produce no fruit", and Jesus' "life, HUMANLY SPEAKING, ended in failure". And in fact the passage above begins with the statement, "The cross shows us a different way of measuring success."

Despite the screaming headlines, there are no theological problems here. The Holy Father's overall message was that the world does not often appreciate the value of sacrifice and looks upon it as a waste, but in God's eyes it does have value. He opened his talk with the theme of sacrifice--of those who built St. Patrick's and connecting that with the generations who sacrificed to build up the church in this country.

"Once we realize how much God has given us, we learn that a life of sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way, a privileged way of responding to his great love," he said. That is not always appreciated at the time or by those outside the church, but God reveals its true value. In a similar way, St. Paul pointed out how the crucifixion of Jesus was "a stumbling block for Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, . . . [it reveals Christ as] the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

Interesting in that regard is that the pope apparently deviated from the opening of his prepared remarks and began instead with a charitable greeting to Muslims. He said, "I would like to express two sentiments for my Muslim brothers and sisters: Firstly, my greetings as they celebrate the feast of sacrifice. I would have wished my greeting to be warmer. My sentiments of closeness, my sentiments of closeness in the face of tragedy. The tragedy that they suffered in Mecca."

It's especially interesting because Muslims do not believe Jesus died on the cross for this very reason--it would have been a shame and a failure and God's prophets cannot fail. The resurrection makes it look even worse since it testifies to Jesus' divinity. So they just deny the whole thing ever happened. Pope Francis could have extended this special greeting at any time, but chose to do it on this occasion when he was about to talk about the hidden value of sacrifice. It was an invitation to take a closer look at the man they already revere, but do not yet recognize as the incarnate power of God and the wisdom of God.

Monday, September 28, 2015

An Anglican Pope?

In the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent invitation for a gathering of Anglican primates, he noted, “We have no Anglican pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed . . .” (Actually, there was one “Anglican pope,” i.e., an Englishman named Pope Adrian VI from 1154 to 1159.) But a serious point is commonly made that unlike the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury has no real jurisdiction in other provinces. That makes it more difficult to solve global church problems. But let us not be led to think there’s no pope for Anglicans.

The Church of England was in full communion with the pope in Rome for well over a millennium. That sadly came to an end at the time of the English Reformation, though we should note that we never repudiated communion with Rome. The “reformation parliament” ended appeals to Rome and papal jurisdiction in England, but it wasn’t until Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I that the breech became finalized. Both sides have said they are committed to healing the breech.

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) released a joint statement in 1999 called The Gift of Authority. It reiterated, “There is no turning back in our journey towards full ecclesial communion” (58). It described the papacy (which succeeds Peter’s apostolic ministry) as rooted in scripture and tradition and as a gift to be shared and received among the churches. Peter’s ministry was to articulate God’s revelation and to strengthen the brethren. ARCIC called on Anglicans and Roman Catholics to find ways in which the future restoration of our communion can start to be lived out even today.

There is no Anglican pope, but there is a pope for Anglicans. He lives in Rome and his name is Francis.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Sermon for a Votive of the Holy Cross

(Delivered to a chapter of priests of the Society of the Holy Cross.)

“They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it.” (Mk 15:23)

Today, as we celebrate this votive of the Holy Cross of our Savior, I want to talk about something that has been on my heart and on my mind lately—the issue of suffering.

First, let’s consider the Myrrh in that verse. Myrrh is an analgesic, a painkiller. And the main way to ingest it in ancient times was mixed with wine, which tasted very bitter, but was very effective in lowering pain. This was one of the very few mercies shown to the Savior at Calvary. But, as we heard, Jesus refused.

Expositors commenting on this verse tend to emphasize that Jesus refused this potion not so much because it would dull his senses, but dull his mental faculties. That is, Jesus would need all his wits about him at this crucial moment with the world hanging on his every word; he could not afford to be inebriated. But is that really the case? I’m not so sure.

Myrrh (which is still used today in a powder for toothaches) is a mild opiod that was replaced when powerful drugs like morphine came along. Some use the essential oil of myrrh to induce “relaxation.” So there might have been a small chance of intoxication.

One commentator argued that Jesus refused it because it wasn’t kosher. But then, Jesus does drink later on, so that argument doesn't make much sense. It seems to me that the most straightforward explanation is perhaps the most likely—Jesus didn’t want any painkiller on the cross. Which is striking when one considers how deeply Jesus suffered (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) that day.

There was also a verse from the epistle back on Trinity Sunday (Romans 8) That resonated with this idea and stuck with me in my mind. Paul explained to the Romans that when we are adopted into the family of God, we are made his children and receive the spirit of sonship. He said, we become “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17)

Of course, the Apostle Paul knew great sufferings in his ministry. He was imprisoned and flogged multiple times in his journeys and finally beheaded for the sake of Christ in Rome. So he talked about suffering. But not just about his sufferings (he was not complaining), but our sufferings, human suffering.

For one of the basic things about the human experience, however blessed, lucky, favored, pampered, and fortunate life may be, at some point, we will all know sufferings. We experience the pain of loss—of loved ones, of friendships, of jobs, ways of life, of physical abilities, and so on. Not all of us will hurt the same way, but at some point all of us will hurt.

I'm told Blaise Pascal claimed that, ultimately, truth and love are the only things that hurt. Which is odd, because truth and love—those are good things. So I want us to consider that suffering might not always be bad. Or, that even bad suffering can become something of a blessing.

This Spring, I was sharing a few words on that topic with a parishioner who had seen and known suffering up close, taking care of his dying father. I’ll never forget what he said about suffering—“I highly recommend it.”

I’m not sure I can explain it, but when he when he said that, I knew what he meant. As strange as it sounds, that makes sense to me. I guess I had been there with my wife going to the brink of death and then slowly regaining some health. It sounds strange because I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to hurt.

And yet I think about those who have suffered together—war buddies, families who have gone through hardships, disaster, losses—and I’m amazed by the closeness, even the “blessings” of their experience. In the First Letter of St Peter, the Apostle says that if you suffer for the sake of righteousness, you will be blessed (1 P 3:14).

Does God want us to suffer? Paul says we are heirs with Christ if we suffer with him. In the Eucharist, we find a man on the cross who has also suffered as we celebrate the memorial of Christ’s saving passion and death. A eucharistic prayer in Rite Two says, . . . “on the night he was handed over to suffering and death . . .” Another one adds, “a death he freely accepted.”

In his letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes a very mysterious statement: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24) Now it is clear from his other writings that the Apostle firmly believes that the atonement of Christ is complete—there’s nothing deficient about it. So that can’t be what he means. What does he mean, then?

St Augustine of Hippo explains that in God’s providence, the mystical Body of Christ (the Church) is to share in Christ’s sufferings. In ministering to them and serving the Lord, Paul is taking up his cross. Paul realized that the sufferings of this life are a means of drawing closer to Christ. Suffering can sometimes drive people apart, or it can bring them together. It’s not so much that God wants his people to suffer. It’s that he wants us to use the sufferings in life (which we often unleash upon ourselves) in a redemptive way, to draw closer in union with Christ.

How does one do this? By offering your sufferings in union with Christ’s sacrifice. At this and every offering of the great Sacrifice of the Altar, let us gather up the fragments of our lives—our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and our fears, our moments of revelry and of pain—and make them a gift of our very selves to God.

For when they are offered through, in, and with the sacrifice of Christ, they become an acceptable and pleasing sacrifice to God the Father. We become pleasing and acceptable to God the Father. Then we will find that “these momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17).

But there is more to it than this—than finding a redemptive value in suffering. We are called to be living icons of the Good Shepherd. We stand at the altar in persona Christi, like him, as both priest and victim. Do we not just offer, but lay ourselves upon the altar with Christ? Do we like St Paul rejoice in our sufferings for the sake of our people? As he talked about (Colossians 1:24), we are in a mysterious way making up what is lacking in the sufferings of his Body.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, (Orat. ii, Apolog.) Archbishop of Constantinople, wrote: “No one can approach the infinite God, our high priest and victim, if he himself is not a living and holy victim, if he does not offer himself in spiritual sacrifice, seeing that this is the sacrifice demanded by him who gave himself up entirely on our behalf. Without it, I would not dare to bear the name or vestment of a priest.”

Christ upon the Cross is the irreplaceable model for priesthood and is at the center of the proclamation of the Gospel. Consider for a moment the example of St Paul in Athens. Athens was a “PBS” kind of town. The Athenians ate up lectures and philosophical speculation with a spoon, the way the rest of us digest pizza and football. They enjoyed listening to visiting lecturers and philosophers in their public forum, the Areopagus.

In Acts 17, we find people saying that Paul is promoting some foreign deities—a god named Jesus and a goddess named Anastasis ("resurrection"). They loved hearing new things, and wanted to know more. Paul agrees and addresses the public at the forum. Noticing a great plethora of religious and devotional artifacts—a statue of a goddess here, an outdoor shrine there, a carved idol below, a temple in the distance.

“Men of Athens,” Paul says, “I’m usually a very perceptive person and it occurs to me that you are a religious people. I notice that you have an altar over there dedicated to 'an Unknown God.' I’m going to tell you about that God whom you worship, but do not know.” And Paul proceeded to describe the existence of a Creator as evidenced in their piety and philosophy and poetry.

Some of the people scoffed at a few of his points, others wanted Paul to come back and speak again. But when it was over, Paul left and did not return to speak. Luke says, “Paul went out from among them.” (17:33) One verse later, Luke tells us, “…he left Athens and went to Corinth.” (18:1) A few people in Athens became believers and joined Paul on his mission. But that was it. There were no massive conversions like the ones that followed Peter’s sermon at the beginning of Acts. It seems that no church was founded there at that time. Paul wrote no letter to the Athenians.

What happened? Paul was elegant and polished. He did it like they taught us in seminary. His argument was fully inculturated in the Stoic philosophy of the Athenians. He spoke with their words and on their level. Yet by all accounts, this sermon stood out as a failure in his missions. Perhaps also telling is the fact that Athens is the only place where Paul’s preaching did not provoke some persecution.

Without realizing it, Paul put himself at a distinct disadvantage among them because he addressed them as another peddler of philosophical ideas. They had the intellectual curiosity of a good audience, but it was the kind of curiosity that is content to remain in the abstract, and is unwilling to venture out into a world where ideas change lives. Perhaps there is a parallel to our own day and place.

Paul was not sharing his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior; he did not proclaim the cross of Christ. He was trying to say that Christianity is not that bizarre after all. “You see, it’s really not that different from what you do here. We just have a name for it—it’s a matter of faith. It’s another interpretation.” And that’s exactly how it was received.

It may have looked like Paul was not just in the world, but of the world. Frankly, I fear that’s how a lot of us look. (I’m pointing no fingers here, and I’m preaching to myself as well.) We need to get weird again. We need to stand out from the crowd. We need to be outcasts again. We need to be hated for his Name’s sake (we will never be loved for his Name’s sake). We don’t just need to change minds, but to change hearts. We need the life-changing message of the cross, and its power over sin in people’s real lives.

Paul sensed that he failed at Athens when he went to the next town of Corinth. Looking back, he wrote back to the Corinthian church, “When I came to you, brethren, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Persecution did not break this man—Athens did.

Again, he wrote, “I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the spirit and power so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Our epistle today was the fruit of his experience in Athens.

How often do our words in the pulpit seem hollow and unmoving? How often do our actions and inactions undermine the message we preach? (And remember, pointing no fingers, preaching to myself.) Do you meditate upon the passion and sufferings of our Lord, looking for ways to take up your cross and follow him?

 In the Imitation of Christ (Bk. iv, c. 10) Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Blessed is he who offers himself up as a [burnt offering] to the Lord, as often as he celebrates or communicates.” How often do you do penance on behalf of your people? How do you share in the sufferings of the poor, the sick, and the outcast? What do you do to identify with the sufferings of your people? We have seen how Christ (the model of priesthood) did just that.

As Jesus said in the Gospel today, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.” (Jn 12:25-6)

Let us be on the lookout for such opportunities. Ask God for them. I’m not saying that means you can’t take an aspirin for a headache. But we know that a part of God’s plan is for us to identify with/share with Christ in his sufferings and priests should be at the crossroads of that.

“They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it.” (Mk 15:23)

The first thing we meditated upon in this verse is the painkiller—the myrrh. The second part I want us to consider is the wine. And we'll find out why Jesus refused to drink.

If you remember, there are four cups of wine during the seder meal. Each time the cup is filled, it has a different name. The first cup is called the Kiddush, it is the “Cup of Sanctification.” This is to remember that God called “called us out of Egypt.”

The second cup is called the “Cup of Deliverance,” to remember God’s deliverance through the plagues upon Egypt. And the third cup is called the “Cup of Redemption” or “of Blessing” in which God promises to redeem us with his mighty power.

It was the third cup which Christ gave to his disciples at the Mystical Supper saying, “Take and drink; this is my Blood of the new covenant poured out for you.” St. Paul noted, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16)

And what of that fourth cup of wine in the Passover meal? At that point, the pattern was interrupted when Jesus said, “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on, until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Mt 26:29). The fourth cup was known as the “Cup of Consummation”—the cup in which God takes us as his people.

After sharing the cup of his blood, Jesus left the liturgy unfinished. Or perhaps we should say, the liturgy continued . . . in the Garden, at the cross, and at the tomb. Jesus left the fourth cup on the table because there was another new element in the Seder liturgy; there was a new cup from which to drink; for Jesus, it would be the “Cup of Suffering.”

Isaiah and Jeremiah both foretold that the Messiah would drink from the cup of God’s wrath. The grapes of wrath would be churned in the wine press and the cup of divine wrath would be poured out against sin. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Isaiah prophesied, “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him.” (Is 53:10)

Before they crucified Jesus, they offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it. “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom.” He hung there on the tree for about three hours. If you recall, one of the last things that happened before Jesus died was that he looked down and said, “I thirst.”

John’s gospel says there was a bowl of sour wine nearby. So they put a sponge on the end of a hyssop branch, (the same thing used to put the lamb’s blood on the door-posts) dipped it in the wine and raised it up to his lips. And when he tasted the wine, Jesus said, “It is finished.” And bowed his head and gave up his spirit (Jn 19:30).

It is consummated. The Mass has ended. The liturgy is over. He drank the cup of consummation and took his people into the kingdom of God, for the gate of heaven’s kingdom stands at the cross on Calvary.

So the question I’m putting to you today is . . . Are you willing to drink the cup that is your share in Christ’s sufferings? We cannot be priests (offerers of sacrifice) without being men of sacrifice. We have no right to share in the priesthood of Christ while being unwilling to share in his victimhood.

In his Dialogues (bk. iv, c. 59) Pope St. Gregory wrote: “We who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s Passion should imitate what we are doing. If we look for benefit from the victim which we offer, we must offer ourselves to God as a victim.”

Jesus accepted the cup of suffering and refused the cup of myrrh. Do you sometimes refuse the cup of suffering when it is offered? Do you at times, as it were, accept the cup of myrrh? And does that bring you closer to Christ? Or does it push Christ away?

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials . . .” (James 1:2) As we remember today the life-giving power of the Holy Cross, let us be mindful of the sufferings of the man who was nailed to it—Jesus Christ our great High Priest, and our sacrificial Victim.

“Sweetest wood and sweetest iron, sweetest weight is hung on thee. Thou alone wast counted worthy to bear the King of heaven and the Lord” (Votive Mass of the Holy Cross).