Archives For Augustine

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #3: Pelagianism

What Is It?

You tell me.

See if you can comb the cobwebs of your memory and regurgitate the little bit ‘bout Pelagius you probably learned in European History.

Seriously, no?

Well, did you not see the kick-@#$ Clive Owen King Arthur movie a few years back? Wherein Arthur gets re-imagined as a virtuous knight precisely because his adoptive guardian was Pelagius? No?

The movie also stars Keira Knightley, an actress who induces if not heretical thoughts then definitely sinful ones.

Okay, for those forgetful and unaesthetic among you, Pelagianism is the heresy which denies the existence of – and therefore power over us- original sin.

Consequently, Pelagianism asserts that people possess the capacity to choose the good through their own unaided, created natures.

Put in more Pauline terms, we can be saved- actually the passive there is incorrect in this case- we can achieve salvation through our efforts apart from God’s grace.

Pelagians can dismiss original sin one of two ways. Either by contradicting Augustinian readings of Paul and dismissing the notion that the sin of Adam is transmitted to us biologically. AKA: Through the S word. Or, by emphasizing certain passages of Paul and declaring that the power of Sin has been defeated on the Cross by Christ.

Already perhaps you can sense why Augustine saw Pelagianism as both an especially pernicious but also an exceptionally thoughtful heresy.

Who Screwed Up First

You don’t get a heresy named after you if you’re not the first or at least most articulate spokesmen for your anathema.

As Clive Owen reminds us, Pelagius was a British theologian who taught in Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Pelagius had the ill fortune to have lived the same time as St. Augustine of Hippo who was even more astute a thinker than he. Zosimus, the Bishop of Rome (which eventually become the Pope’s office) condemned Pelagius in 418.

Nevertheless, Pelagius’ legacy lives on in more than just celluloid, abiding throughout the centuries just as Pelagius insisted Sin did not.

Much like a vaccine, Pelagianism lurks latent throughout the Body of Christ and one could make a solid case that Mormonism is really just Pelagianism dressed up in a short-sleeve, white-button down.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that God does not care what religion a person practices so long as that person tries to live a good life, then your mind- or your squishy little heart- has got Pelagius’ fingerprints all over it.

If at a funeral, or in the planning of one, you summarize: ‘__________ wasn’t religious at all but he was a good person, then as compassionate as you no doubt are your logic is that of Pelagius and not the Gospel.

If you teach your kids that the meaning of Christmas is that they better be good- not naughty- or Santa won’t give them any gifts, then you’re not only setting them up to inherit some pretty effed up understandings of God you’ve also, like Pelagius himself, got the definition of grace exactly wrong.

If you presume that Christianity is essentially about ethics (about serving the poor, clothing the naked, waging peace) then you’re definitely showing symptoms of a bad case of Pelagianism.

Not to mention, you’ve confused the Gospel (Jesus’ overcoming Sin and Death and being Raised to the right hand of the Father) and the Gospel’s effects (being set free to live a life like Jesus).

If you issue altar calls, require Jesus prayers or accept only adult baptisms because to be a Christian a person must ‘make a decision for Christ’ then, like Pelagius before you, you’ve over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace and you’ve turned conversion into yet another ‘work.’

If you act as though all non-Christians or non-churchgoers are bad, decadent or morally corrupt and self-righteously think that your participation in church makes you a better person, then you’ve once again over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace in all our lives, believer and unbeliever.

And you’ve forgotten that God’s grace is active everywhere and in every life preveniently; that is, before any of us ever ‘choose’ God.

If you think that ‘real’ Christians or ‘bible-believing’ Christians or ‘faithful’ Christians must believe/vote/think/act this way on that issue, then you’ve been seduced by Pelagius’ reduction of the complexity of the world into right/wrong, black/white issues.

If you see the Eucharist as nothing more than a memorial to a soon-to-be prisoner’s last supper and, for that matter, if you see all of creation in a non-sacramental way then you’ve got some Pelagian germs in you.

After all, God’s grace has more than just a negative connotation. It isn’t only active in our overcoming of our individual sins.

Grace illumines and animates and charges everything last thing around us.

If you say ‘I do’ foolishly thinking you can have a fruitful marriage apart from God then you’re what practical theologians call ‘a Pelagian.’ Pelagius had to have been celibate. Seriously, marriage is hard enough with God.

If you’re not raising your children in a particular faith tradition because ‘you want them to make up their own minds when their older’ then not only are you instead raising them in the faith called ‘American Individualistic Consumerism’ you’re also assuming a Pelagian capacity in your children to grow up ‘good’ and ‘wise’ apart from grace.

If you insist your nation, its leaders or its founders (cherry tree, _____ was really kind to his slaves) always have good and pure motives then you are a Pelagian, refusing to see how the murky reality of Sin and Grace exist in every person, every tribe and every issue.

Likewise, if you ignore that the lifestyles of Western culture are made possible on the backs of the poor in the developing world then…Pelagian.

If your red politics depends on a Horatio Alger myth of every individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps then you’re politics have a bit of Pelagianism in them, ignoring that Sin is more than what individuals do but also what is done, systemically to others.

Of course, if your blue politics depends on depicting the poor and downtrodden as uniformly noble, well-intentioned and ‘good’ your politics are likewise infected with a heresy that is, if nothing else, simply unrealistic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Parents (especially of the helicopter, dragon, playdate variety)

Americans

United Methodists

The Nones

Celebrities

Mormons

Funeral Planners

Republicans

Democrats

Home Remedies

Watch Kiera Knightly in King Arthur and be reminded that, despite our good virtue, some sins (lust for example) abide.

To apply this same principle on a more systemic level, watch Django Unchained.

Spy on your kids when they don’t think you’re looking. And notice that Augustine was right, the little bastards have the devil in them.

Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and then remember that it took what’s-his-name several many years after he was ‘found’ to actually stop buying and selling people.

Affirm the caveat postscript that every Methodist ordinand must: ‘….with God’s help.’

Most Common Heresies: #6

Jason Micheli —  August 21, 2016 — 1 Comment

heresy_GMS

I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #6: Donatism

What Is It?

The rigorist belief that the Church must be a Church of ‘saints not sinners;’ therefore, Christian clerics must have a pure of character and an unwavering fidelity in order to effectively discharge their priestly duties.

Who Screwed Up First

Donatus, a Berber Bishop in the 4th century.

‘Donatism’ arose as a direct result of the persecutions Christians suffered under the Roman Emperor, Diocletian.

In a nutshell, there were a number of Christians, including clergy, who recanted their faith or who handed over ‘holy things’ to the empire rather than face a punishment that could prove fatal.

Once the persecution ended, the Church faced the tricky dilemma: What to do with those priests who hadn’t stood strong in the face of persecution?

Should not clergy be the outstanding example of which laity are the norm?

In particular, does their character (or lack thereof) now call into question how effective they are in presiding over the sacraments?

Is the Eucharist no longer a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ because one of these cowardly, wimpy priests said Mass?

Donatus labeled those priests who had caved under persecution ‘traditores’ and claimed that their infidelity render their priesthood, especially their administration of the sacraments, invalid.

Laying his rhetorical smack down and judging it a heresy, St Augustine, who was in his former life no stranger to matters of impure moral character, concluded that Donatism underestimated the extent to which sin afflicts every person (and so misunderstood grace) but also reduced the sacraments to objects of human administration rather than means of God’s grace at which the priest is merely a servant.

In sum, ministers need not be perfect for God to use ministers for grace’s sake.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you- subconsciously even- need your pastor to be a perfect Christian because you are lackadaisical about practicing your own faith then you might just be a modern day Donatist.

If you avoid the complexity in your own marriage or family by projecting on to your pastor the Platonic ideal of what it means to be a spouse or parent and needing him/her to be the perfect parent and the perfect husband or wife then you’re verging on heresy.

If you put your pastor on a pedestal and feel disappointed when your pastor turns out to be an actual, real, living-breathing human being then Augustine would lay the smack down on you too- though, chances are, you’d be disappointed in him too.

If ‘decorum’ is a more urgent standard by which you judge your pastor than ‘disciples made’ then you’re just a Donatist with a Flannery O’Connor twist.

If you expect your pastor to do Christianity for you and your congregation (visiting all the sick, praying at every meeting, leading every ministry, welcoming every newcomer…) then, like a certain Berber before you, you’ve got it all backwards.

If you really don’t trust in your heart the Gospel of grace and thus do not trust that the Church is a place for sinners and thus need your pastor to be a saint (your hagiographic version of) then the good news is you’re a heretic. The bad news is you might not have ever truly converted in the first place.

If you’re more upset by what your pastor wears or whether your pastor swears than you are by the number of people in your community who know not Christ then not only are you why the ‘Nones’ want to have nothing to do with the Church you’re why Augustine wanted the Donatists to have nothing do with the Church.

If you would disqualify entire groups of ‘others’ from ministry by implying that only the sinless qualify for ordination, then 1) shame on you and 2) heretic.

If you’re a pastor who encourages any of the above presumptions, then more so than any others you’re a Donatist in 21st century guise.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Joel Osteen

Church People

Adherents of Civil Religion

Denominational Leaders

The Religious Right (well, until they sold out to support The Donald)

Home Remedies

Take the log out of your own eye.

Read St Augustine’s Confessions and breath a sigh of relief that he’s not your pastor.

Get to know your pastor.

Repeat until memorized: ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the morally pure, well-spoken, ideal spouse, perfect parent, flawless leader, doubtless, ungodly.’

You Are What You Love

Jason Micheli —  July 29, 2016 — 1 Comment

political-conventionThese next two weeks I’m teaching a class for licensed pastors at Wesley Theological Seminary. While reading the participants’ papers in the evening, I’ve been listening to bits and pieces of both parties political conventions. Every now and then a social media notification from a Facebook Friend or Twitter Follower will flash across my laptop screen. When it’s not an invitation to play Candy Crush Saga, it’s most often yet another tweet or post perpetuating the culture war antagonisms in our country.

Convention season has me thinking not of The Donald or Hillary but Augustine.

St. Augustine of Hippo was the kind of dude whose pre-Christian biography The Donald and Bill Clinton could resonate. In other words, he was a narcissistic horn-dog. But that’s not why I’m thinking of Augustine.

I’m thinking of his long work of theology entitled The City of God, written in response to the fall of Rome.  In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city (God’s Kingdom).

What distinguishes citizens of the two cities, Augustine argues, is not beliefs but love.

The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God.

For Augustine, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs.  As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.

Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.

For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me; it’s what I love.

Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).

We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.

The ancient Christians had a way of stating what Augustine is after:  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

It means, literally the ‘rule of prayer, the rule of belief.’ This was their of remembering that our worship- the practice, disciplines, and habits of worship- do not flow out of our beliefs and faith feelings but determine them. They shape them.

What we do forms what we think, believe, and feel. The way to our heart, recalls lex orandi, lex credendi, is through our bodies not through our heads. Our worship precedes our beliefs. What we think and believe about God flows from, not to, our love God.

For Christians at least, the caveat embedded in lex orandi, lex credendi is that our hearts aren’t just shaped by Christian liturgies they’re shaped by every sort of liturgy. All of our embodied practices and habits shape our hearts. What we do daily, in everything we do, shapes our desire. In other words, if our habits do not calibrate our hearts for God they will draw hearts towards something else.

Our hearts will worship, desire, want, and love.

Our heart, Augustine says, needs a lover.

But it doesn’t have to be, and most often is not, God.

Our habits determine who/what we worship, desire, want, and love. Correlatively, our habits reveals who/what we ultimately worship, desire, want, and love.

So listening to the conventions the past two weeks, I can’t help but wonder if what Christians should be concerned about is not The Donald vs. Hillary winning in November nor which issue is the issue over which Christians must distinguish one another. I wonder if the danger is how the practices of our U.S. politics, the habits of our election seasons, the pageantry of our political conventions shape our hearts more. Because, of course, if so then, as James KA Smight says, we just might not love God as much as we think we do.

I preached the local high school’s baccalaureate service yesterday afternoon.

There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd, but that just makes it like a normal Sunday service for me. The text I preached was from Genesis 12 and 15, the call of Abram:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; And Abram journeyed on by stages and…the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless,  The Lord brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then God said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’

I don’t have the text of the sermon in a way that won’t elicit snarky comments about grammatical mistakes etc, so you’ll just have to listen to it below. If you subscribe by email, you may have to click on the link here.

lightstock_82592_small_user_2741517Today is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.

I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.

I mean people like David.

Here’s an All Saints’ sermon, based on Psalm 145, I wrote with David in mind.

Actually, it was David’s question:

‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.

David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.

He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.

He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me:

‘Will they be able to talk to me?

Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

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It’s a good question.

I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.

I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.

My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.

My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.

And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.

But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?

Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.

It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.

Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.

But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.

Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.

I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.

And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.

And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.

As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.

As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.

But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.

Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.

     Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

  And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.

Receive David into the arms of your mercy.

Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.

And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.

They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ 

So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.

But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’

I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.

I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

St Thomas AquinasFor a few weeks now, I’ve been running with this pericope from an essay by the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To many contemporary Christians, to assert that God does not change seems to fly in the face of their understanding of God, particularly the pathos-filled God of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed many modern theologians go even farther than insisting that God changes, making the claim that God feels. Even- God suffers.

What was formerly denounced as a heresy (patripassianism) is now, functionally at least, the new orthodoxy among Protestant theologians.

The argument typically proceeds thusly:

In contrast to patristic thought, biblical thought depicts a God who is intimately and passionately involved in the world. The ancient Christian notion of divine impassibility (that God does not suffer) is blamed on the pernicious influence of Greek philosophy upon nascent Christianity.

After all, the argument erroneously goes, it was the pagan gods who were static and feelingless towards the world, whereas the God of Israel is active, sympathetic, emotional, even to the point of suffering with his people.

Greek philosophy, in other words, led to the deterioration of an originally unadulterated system of biblical belief. Such a caricature however ignores the fact there is no uniform Greek view on the matter of God’s suffering nor is there a unified biblical view, for the same Hebrew Bible that depicts the cuckolded God suffering lady Israel’s infidelities also depicts God self-identifying as ‘he who is’ and asserting that that same God does not change (Malachi).

Herbert McCabe discusses “the involvement of God” in the world in his book God Matters. McCabe addresses this question of the impassibility of God, that is, is God involved in the world in such a way so as to experience suffering?

Many modern theologians dismiss Church Fathers like Thomas Aquinas for saying too much about God’s nature philosophically without deferring sufficiently to God’s self-revelation, Christ.

For example, McCabe cites the founding father of passibility, Jürgen Moltmann on Aquinas’ Five Ways:

The cosmological proof of God was supposed by Thomas to answer the question utrum Deus sit, but he did not really prove the existence of God; what he proved was the nature of the divine, . . . Aquinas answered the question “What is the nature of the divine?,” but not the question “Who is God?” (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, 12).

In fact, McCabe points out this is exactly what Aquinas avoided. Aquinas believed we cannot know what God is, that is his nature. We can only know what God is not in his nature. For Aquinas, even God’s self-revelation in Christ does not change the incomprehensibility of God.

As McCabe writes:

it is extremely difficult for readers of Aquinas to take his agnosticism about the nature of God seriously. If he says ‘Whatever God may be, he cannot be changing’ readers leap to the conclusion that he means that what God is is static. If he says that, whatever God may be, he could not suffer together with (sympathize with) his creatures, he is taken to mean that God must by nature be unsympathetic, apathetic, indifferent, even callous. It is almost as though if Aquinas had said that God could not be a supporter of Glasgow Celtic, we supposed he was claiming God as a Rangers fan. (McCabe, God Matters 41).

McCabe reminds us then that we should be careful not to jump to conclusions when we read that God “cannot be changing.”

He continues:

“As with the Celtic and Rangers, it does not follow that, if God is not affected by, say, human suffering, he is indifferent to it. In our case there are only two options open: we either feel with, sympathize with, have compassion for the sufferer, or else we cannot be present to the suffering, we must be callous, indifferent. We should notice, however, that even in our case it is not an actual ‘suffering with’ that is necessary for compassion, but only a capacity to suffer with. Sharing in actual pain is neither necessary nor sufficient for compassion, whose essential components are awareness, feelings of pity and concern” (McCabe God Matters 44). 

God, McCabe argues, cannot literally be understood to have “feelings” of compassion.

McCabe explains that when we have compassion for others, when we are present to another’s suffering we want nothing less than to fully take on that suffering, but we cannot do this because we are always outside the other person.

Compassion is all we have and there is always frustration involved in remaining outside of the other person, that is, not being able to fully be with the other.

By contrast, God, as Creator cannot be outside of his creature; “a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator” (44).

So, “if the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its centre holding it in being” (45).

McCabe holds that our compassion is a feeble attempt to be “what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend” (45).

Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, McCabe affirms that it’s in being transcendent that God is intimately involved with each creature much more than creatures could be with one another.

McCabe then goes on to argue that the popularity of a suffering God goes hand-in-hand with a misunderstanding of the incarnation.

McCabe looks back to the Council of Chalcedon, which affirmed the one person of the Jesus as truly human and truly divine.

The Chalcedonian formulation, McCabe points out, allows us to say “quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death” (46).

The traditional doctrine of the incarnation allows us to affirm that the Son of God assumed a human nature and therefore God suffered in his human nature.

But this is not the same thing as saying God suffered in his nature.

We can say “The Son of God died on the cross” and also “God died on the cross,” but while God signifies Jesus’ divine nature, McCabe reminds us, it refers to what has this nature, that is Jesus of Nazareth.

 

#notbugsplat

Jason Micheli —  April 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

jr_kpk_fullOnce the Roman Empire ‘became’ ‘Christian’ for all intents and purposes war became Christian too.

Whereas in the original centuries of the Church’s history conversion to discipleship required the renunciation of violence and participation in war, after Constantine established Christianity as the imperial religion theological justification reflection became required for the Church.

Credited to St. Augustine of Hippo, what developed over the centuries was a set of criteria for determining when it is appropriate for those in authority to go to war (just ad bellum) and what moral restraint should be shown in the waging of war (jus in bello)– what’s known today as the Just War Tradition.

While I would argue, along with many in the military, that the President’s program of drone warfare violates jus ad bellum, I think it’s a clearer case for how drone warfare exemplifies exactly the sort of violence  jus in bello is meant to avoid.

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The two traditional criteria for jus in bello are “discrimination” and “proportionality.”

War is moral, says the Christian tradition, only if civilians are never intentionally targeted.

Extreme care must be taken even to avoid “accidental” civilian deaths, what in contemporary parlance was once euphemistically called “collateral damage” but now in the age of drones called “bugsplat.”

Proportionality in this context points to the just war claim that even in a justified war fought discriminately, one should use only the level of force necessary only to achieve one’s legitimate objectives.  Restraint should be shown not just to civilians; even enemy soldiers are neighbors who must not be killed unnecessarily.

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Behind the jus in bello criteria then are two fundamental convictions rooted in the Christian faith:

1. Because war is a sin- even when it’s necessary and just- then it is better to die than to kill wrongly.

2. Because it’s better to suffer or die than to cause unjust suffering or death, any warfare that is executed invisibly or secretly is inherently immoral.

Citizens must know the sacrifice what we ask our fellow citizen soldiers to make in our name, and we must also know who is sacrificed in the name of justice, peace, security…you name it.

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Because we believe we’ve seen God in the face of Christ, Christians must always insist to see the faces of our enemies killed in war because, even there, God takes flesh.

Indeed any person who worships in the name of one who himself was an innocent victim of the State should feel solidarity with all innocent victims of violence.

I bring all this up because A) it’s almost Holy Week and B) I came across an art installation that is thoroughly Christian in sentiment if not conviction. It perfectly shows how prophetic art can be and Christians should be.

This is from the website:

In military slang, Predator drone operators often refer to kills as ‘bug splats’, since viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.

To challenge this insensitivity as well as raise awareness of civilian casualties, an artist collective installed a massive portrait facing up in the heavily bombed Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa region of Pakistan, where drone attacks regularly occur. Now, when viewed by a drone camera, what an operator sees on his screen is not an anonymous dot on the landscape, but an innocent child victim’s face. 

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The installation is also designed to be captured by satellites in order to make it a permanent part of the landscape on online mapping sites.

The project is a collaboration of artists who made use of the French artist JR’s ‘Inside Out’ movement. Reprieve/Foundation for Fundamental Rights helped launch the effort which has been released with the hashtag #NotABugSplat

The child featured in the poster is nameless, but according to FFR, lost both her parents and two young siblings in a drone attack. 

The group of artists traveled inside KPK province and, with the assistance of highly enthusiastic locals, unrolled the poster amongst mud huts and farms. It is their hope that this will create empathy and introspection amongst drone operators, and will create dialogue amongst policy makers, eventually leading to decisions that will save innocent lives.

jr_kpk_full

This Sunday we continued our Lenten series, 7 Deadlies, with #5: Greed. For the scripture text, I chose a parable (Luke 16.1-9) in which Jesus actually praises cheating, stealing and lying, which forced it to be an atypical sermon on the deadly sins.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app.

 

     “He’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

     When Diane said that to me, she was standing in her Florida-orange kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis or Diana or Frank Sinatra on them.

     I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen because that was the only place to sit.

     Diane’s new house was an unfinished, messy maze of boxes, sheet rock and plastic drop cloths.

Her yard outside wasn’t even unfinished. It was unbegun: no driveway, no grass- just a swampy stretch of mud from the road to the front porch (which was also unfinished).

Their mailbox hung over loosely in the mud like a pickup stick.

The mailbox had a blue and green mountain scape painted on it, along with their names: Tim and Diane.

Tim and Diane were members of the first church I pastored.

Diane was one of the ones who, after my first Sunday there, told me how much better she preferred the previous pastor’s preaching.

Nonetheless, they were good people and good church members, and, in the way of small towns and small churches, they were related to nearly one-third of the names in the church directory.

Many months before that afternoon in her kitchen, against all the laws of common sense and wisdom, Tim and Diane had contracted Pete to build their retirement home on a mountaintop overlook outside of town.

Pete who every Sunday sat with his family in the Amen corner pulpit left of that same church; Pete who was friends with Tim and Diane and whose family comprised yet another third of my tiny congregation; Pete whose wife, Jane, had also been one of the ones to tell me how much more she preferred my predecessor’s preaching.

Diane had missed church for several weeks of Sundays so on one afternoon I decided I’d drive out to their new, unfinished home.

In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation. Because her front yard was a sea of mud, I’d had to take off my shoes.

Sitting in Diane’s kitchen, I quickly discovered how hard it is to strike an authoritative posture when you’re wearing nothing but socks and when those socks have holes in them and when your exposed feet are dangling above the floor like a toddler’s.

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As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper: that Pete had taken their money for their home and used it to pay off other debts and business endeavors, and now Tim and Diane’s savings were drained, their retirement postponed, their nerves frayed and their home unfinished.

I said something foolish about needing to hear Pete’s side of the story, and Diane pointed out to her young pastor that she’d been conned, cheated and swindled. There was no “other” side to the story.

If it’s true that contractors have a vocabulary all their own, then it’s axiomatic that those who’ve been cheated by contractors have an even more vivid vocabulary at their disposal.

Diane said a lot of things about Pete, mostly along the lines of what he resembled and where he could go and what he could stick where before he got there.

By way of conclusion she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to her pastor: “All I know is, when he meets the Lord, he’ll get what he has coming to him.”

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I said a lot of things about Pete too, mostly boring, predictable preacher things: that Pete needed to make restitution, do penance, seek forgiveness.

I said a lot of things about Pete, but it never occurred to me…it would’ve violated everything I learned in Kindergarten, my Mom would’ve grounded me…

     Diane would’ve cold-cocked me if I’d said something like:

     ‘Sure Diane, I know Pete’s a 2-faced, crooked SOB but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.’

     I never would’ve said something that offensive.

     Of course, that’s just what Jesus does.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus gets accused of consorting with tax collectors, who were no better than extortionists. Jesus gets accused of hanging out with easy women, and drinking with sinners.

They accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps.

     And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it.

He tells all the good, rule-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep too stupid to stay with the shepherd than he cares about those who never wandered far from the flock.

And then Jesus watches his stock drop further when he actually praises lying and cheating and stealing.

With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story just for them:

      An executive at Goldman Sachs gets a memo from his HR Department that one of his managers has been cheating the company. 

     The boss calls him into his office, confronts him, tells him to clean out his desk by the end of the day. 

     As the manager is about to leave the office, the boss adds “And I’ll be coming soon to take a look at your books.”

     Riding back down the elevator, the manager thinks to himself: “I’m too old to start over again. I don’t have any other marketable skills and unemployment won’t cover the family budget.” 

     And before the elevator doors open, the manager has come up with his own severance package. 

     He’s still got the firm’s credit card so he invites some his best clients to a pricey dinner in the district, and over drinks and foie gras he tells them that he’s canceling the balance of what they owe his firm. 

     ‘Just write it off, and we’ll call it even’ he says. 

     He may not have a job but at least when the pink slip comes he’ll have a group of wealthy, grateful people to help him land on his feet instead of on food stamps. 

Jesus tells his huddled disciples this story and he doesn’t end it with a word of warning, a woe. He doesn’t tell them they are to give up their dishonest ways and follow him.

Instead Jesus says:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

     And all of God’s People say: ‘What the_______________?’

You know, I watched you all while the scripture was read this morning. You all sat there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense.

It troubles me that not one of you looked even a little bit tight-sphinctered with the idea of Jesus pointing to the crooked little liar in the police lineup and saying: ‘Way to go! Thumbs up!’

At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did.

Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Anthony Wiener seem reserved, drew the line at this parable. Augustine said he refused “to believe this story came from the lips of the Lord.”

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     Julian the Apostate, a 4th century Roman Emperor, used this parable of Christ’s to crusade against Christianity, which Julian argued taught its followers to be liars and thieves.

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      And St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable because Luke tacks all these other sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable.

      Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money.

True, but beside the point when it comes this parable.

Luke also warns us how the person who is not faithful in a little will not be faithful in much.

Again, it’s true but it’s not faithful to the scandal in Jesus’ parable.

      It’s like Luke’s obfuscating to get Jesus off the hook for violating our moral sensibilities.

And maybe getting Jesus off the hook is what you’re expecting from me.

Maybe you expect me to tell you not to worry, in the original Greek the dishonest manager is more like Robin Hood, ripping off the wicked rich to give the money back to the righteous poor.’

Yeah, not so much.

If someone like St Augustine didn’t figure out a way to short sell this parable then there simply isn’t one.

      What the manager did was to lie, cheat, steal, and lie some more.

      And Jesus points to him and says: ‘Gold star.’

hey-mary-heard-you-like-clowns-gold-star-girl

     “All I know is when he meets the Lord he’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Pete and Jane and the church lay leader.

The Book of Common Prayer contains an ancient worship service in it called the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and if I’m honest with myself that’s what I envisioned would happen.

With my keen powers of spiritual persuasion, Pete would repent. As a group we would draft steps towards penance. I would urge Tim and Diane to begin the process of forgiveness. It would all end, I thought, without permanent animosity or legal fees. Instead Pete some Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and without a dry eye in the house we’d end the service singing ‘Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.’

And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtue, the sort of church you read about in the religion page of the Washington Post. And I would be the hero, easily elected as the Church’s youngest bishop ever.

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the Doogie Howser of the Episcopacy.

What went down, though, was more Kramer vs Kramer than Doogie Howser.

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     We gathered in the church parlor. Tim and Diane sat in front of a dusty chalk board with half-erased prayer requests written on it.

Pete sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally tacky painting of the Smiling Jesus hung in a frame right above his head.

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I opened with what probably sounded to everyone like a condescending prayer. No one said ‘Amen.’ Instead Tim and Diane exploded with unbridled anger and unleashed a torrent of expletives that could’ve peeled the varnish off the church parlor china cabinet.

And Pete, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate- even boring- church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate. There was suddenly an urgency to him.

With surprising creativity, Pete had an answer, a story, a reason for every possible charge.

I sat there in the church parlor watching the inspired and genius way Pete tried to save his own neck, and I couldn’t help but to turn to Tim and Diane and say: ‘I know Pete bled you dry and lied to your face and robbed you blind but there’s just something…wonderful…about the way he did it.’

No.

No instead, in the middle of Pete’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him:

‘It’s like from the get-go you just expected us to forgive you?!‘

Then they stormed out of the church parlor.

And they caused even more commotion when they left the church for good.

Meanwhile Pete just sat there with a blank, guilt-less expression on his face and that offensively tacky picture of Jesus smiling right above him.

Jesus laughing2

     After an uncomfortable silence, I said to Pete: ‘I guess you’re probably wondering if we’re going to make you leave the church?’

He squinted at me, like I’d just uttered a complete non sequitur: ‘No, why would I be wondering that?’

‘Well, obviously, because of everything you’ve done. Lying and cheating and robbing your neighbors. It’s immoral.

     We’re supposed to be light to the world not just like the world.

     We can’t have someone like you be of the part of the church.’

I said in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis.

And Pete nodded and then leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another shady business deal.

‘You’re seminary educated right?’ he asked. I nodded.

‘And of course you know you’re bible a lot better than me.’ And I feigned humility and nodded.

‘I could be wrong’ he said, ‘but wouldn’t you say that the people Jesus had the biggest problem with were the scribes and the Pharisees?’

‘Yeah’ I nodded, not liking where this was going.

‘And back then weren’t they the professional clergy?’ Pete asked. ‘You know…like you?’

‘Uh-huh’ I grumbled.

‘And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but:

Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on?

Someone like me for what I’ve done?

Or someone like you for saying I’m not good enough to belong with Jesus?’

‘You slippery son of a…’ I thought to myself.

I can’t prove it, but I swear Jesus’ smile had grown bigger in that offensively tacky picture on the wall.

Maybe his smile gotten bigger because Pete was smiling too. And I wasn’t.

Jesus laughing2

     Look-

Stealing is a sin. It’s the 7th Commandment.

Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment.

Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments and the 5th Deadliest Sin.

It’s all there in scripture: it’s wrong.

The bible says so. Sometimes Jesus even says so.

So I don’t why Jesus says ‘well done’ to the creep in this parable.

Did Jesus want to puncture our flattering self-images? Maybe.

Did Jesus want to point out out how the energy we expend for him is nothing compared to the lengths we’ll go to save our own skin? Possibly.

Did Jesus want us to notice in the story not the crook’s crookedness but the Master’s mercifulness?

Could be. I don’t know.

Truth is, I can’t answer the question: Why did Jesus tell this offensive story? And I’ve been preaching long enough now that I don’t trust anyone who tells you they can.

I can’t answer the question ‘Why did Jesus tell such an offensive story?’ but the fact that that is always the question we ask when it comes to this parable I think proves that there’s another, better question we should be asking:

‘When Jesus says he’s come to seek and save sinners, why is it that we always imagine Jesus is talking about someone other than us?’

Other than me.

I honestly can’t tell you why Jesus told a story like this.

But if there’s any silver lining to a story like this it’s that Jesus is willing to make someone like you the hero.

 

 

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

Or better still, it’s incomplete. As St Augustine argued:

“In the Incarnation of Christ, other things must be considered besides absolution from sin.”

De Trinitate, XIII. 17

#2 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because Emmanuel isn’t just the beginning.

Emmanuel, God-with-Us, is the End.

As in, telos.

Whereas Western Christianity- and by Western I don’t mean the flyover states but all of Protestant Christianity and the vast majority of Roman Catholic Christianity- has privileged the Atonement over the Incarnation, Eastern Christianity- what eventually became the Orthodox traditions- historically has treated the Incarnation not as simple prologue to the salvation plot but as constitutive of salvation itself.

The Eastern Fathers (like Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nazianzus, whom John Wesley sought to retrieve for Western Christianity) viewed the Incarnation as the eternally necessary outworking of God’s creative act, for God’s creative aim is not creation itself nor creation apart from God nor (contra Jean Calvin an eventual overcoming of creation’s Sin by the Son’s cross).

God’s creative aim is the joining together of divinity and humanity, Spirit and flesh, Creator and creature, heaven with Earth.

God’s eternal aim is Emmanuel: God with us.

In this sense, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, whom Paul calls the first first of the New Creation is presupposed in the first creation.

The with-ness of God’s creative aim or end (telos) thus requires Incarnation quite apart from the Fall. As Russian Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovosky, notes in The Motive of the Incarnation:

This was the main line of reasoning of St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his refutation of Apollinarianism:

“That is saved which is united with God.”

Typically Gregory’s quote gets cited in argument for the full humanity of Christ. Christ must be fully human, encompassing all of our human experiences (male and female etc) or else we- or those of us who aren’t Jewish men- do not have share in his sacrificial death for sin’s sake.

While of course our share in the atoning work of Christ is part of Gregory’s meaning it’s not the full or primary meaning Gregory intends. Gregory’s quote means to point out that the word ‘salvation’ names not only the overcoming of sin but more largely the joining together of God and man.

To paraphrase Athanasius without distorting his original intent:

God became man and was always going to do so;

so that, man could be with God.

Uniting is/was God’s larger, more general intent of which Atoning became a necessary work.

All of this is meant only as preface to this excerpt from Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov‘s ‘Du Verbe Incarne.’ Nesterov_Florensky_Bulgakov

Bulgakov’s book Lamb of God is a must read.

God wants to communicate to the world his divine life and himself to “dwell” in the world, to become human, in order to make of human kind a god too. That transcends the limits of human imagination and daring, it is the mystery of the love of God “hidden from the beginning in God” (Eph 3:9), unknown to the angels themselves (Eph 3:10; 1 Pet 1:12; 1Tim 3:16).

The love of God knows no limits and cannot reach its furthest limit in the fullness of the divine abnegation for the sake of the world: the Incarnation. And if the very nature of the world, raised from non-being to its created state, does not appear here as an obstacle, its fallenstate is not one either.

God comes even to a fallen world; the love of God is not repelled by the powerlessness of the creature, nor by his fallen image, nor even by the sin of the world: the Lamb of God, who voluntarily bears the sins of the world, is manifest in him. In this way, God gives all for the divinization of the world and its salvation, and nothing remains that he has not given.

Such is the love of God, such is Love.

Such it is in the interior life of the Trinity, in the reciprocal surrender of the three hypostases, and such it is in the relation of God to the world.

If it is in such a way that we are to understand the Incarnation–and Christ himself teaches us to understand it in such a way (Jn 3:16)–there is no longer any room to ask if the Incarnation would have taken place apart from the Fall.

The greater contains the lesser, the conclusion presupposes the antecedent, and the concrete includes the general.

The love of God for fallen humankind, which finds it in no way repugnant to take the failed nature of Adam, already contains the love of stainless humankind.

And that is expressed in the wisdom of the brief words of the Nicene Creed: “for our sake and for our salvation.”

This and, in all the diversity and all the generality of its meaning, contains the theology of the Incarnation. In particular, this and can be taken in the sense of identification (as that is to say).

So it is understood by those who consider that salvation is the reason for the Incarnation; in fact, concretely, that is indeed what it signifies for fallen humanity.

But this can equally be understood in a distinctive sense (that is to say, “and in particular,” or similar expressions), separating the general from the particular, in other words, without limiting the power of the Incarnation nor exhausting it solely in redemption.

The Word became flesh: one must understand this in all the plenitude of of its meaning, from the theological point of view and the cosmic, the anthropological, the Christological and the soteriological.

The last, the most concrete, includes and does not exclude the other meanings; so too, the theology of the Incarnation cannot be limited to the bounds of soteriology; that would be, moreover, impossible, as the history of dogma bears witness.

The Incarnation is the interior basis of creation, its final cause.

God did not create the world to hold it at a distance from him, at that insurmountable metaphysical distance that separates the Creator from the creation.

God intended to surmount that distance and unite himself completely with the world; not only from the outside, as Creator, nor even as providence, but from within: “the Word became flesh”.

That is why the Incarnation is already predetermined in the very first human kind.

 

 

 

 

Jesus-Christ-With-Shopping-Bags-by-BanksyFor our fall commitment campaign this year, we’re doing a sermon series around Adam Hamilton’s book Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity.

In his warmth, winsomeness and measured inoffensiveness, Rev. Hamilton is like the alternate universe version of yours truly.

We all serve a purpose, right? I suppose if I was a pastor in Kansas where Christians are inclined to conceal and carry in the sanctuary, then I’d tone it down too.

In most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God.

Or not.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

if you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re sleeping with or how much they make and give to their church…almost everyone will opt for Door #1.

Because I’m a contrarian by both nature and desire, I’m supplementing Hamilton’s book by rereading a little book by the postliberal theologian, William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

Cavanaugh is an Augustinian, which lends a corrective to something I think gets obscured in Enough. Adam Hamilton leverages the anxieties provoked by the Great Recession- and now the sequestration and shut down here in DC- to encourage his readers to desire greater simplicity in their lives.

That’s all well and good obviously, but as St Augustine would point out desire is the root problem.

Ask any sinner- one should be easy to find- and they will tell you that very often our desires are given to us.

They’re not freely chosen.

We do not form our wants and desires like my son composes his Christmas list for Santa. Our wants and desires are formed for us by external forces and powers.

Actually my son’s Christmas list is a good example, containing as it does several things he’s never before expressed a desire for (and I know as his father he won’t enjoy) until he recently saw them in a commercial.

Our economic system is premised on the belief that each should be ‘free’ to choose his or her own ends. I’m free, in other words, to choose simplicity and generosity or I’m free to choose a McMansion.

As Friedrich Hayek says, “the individual is ultimately the judge of his ends. There is no unitary order to our desires.” 

Free market economics, then, assume that choose particular actions and objects based on the wants and desires of which we’re in control.

Freedom so conceived is freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion. Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.

Freedom, in such a context, is not directed to any End, or rather it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.

For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.

Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something. Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom of God.

In other words, as telos-driven (Kingdom/God-driven) creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will.

Freedom then, as Paul describes it, isn’t independence itself but dependence on God.

When we try to live our lives without acknowledging our dependence on God, our loves become disordered, directed towards some other end but God. As Paul saw it in his own pre-Jesus life, what we think of as freedom is actually slavery.

Augustine saw his pre-faith life in much the same way. In his Confessions, the memoir of his conversion, he says famously that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee (God).’

Question:

Why is it that the pursuit of, say, material happiness so often leads to sensations of emptiness and meaninglessness? Even nothingness?

Here’s why, according to Augustine.

Because creation is given as a gracious gift, the goodness of creation is only ‘good’ insofar as it participates and points back to God’s greater goodness. Wine is good, for example, because its a sign of the graciousness of what God has made.

However, when you’re no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning- like a paintbrush without ever having a canvas.

They are, in the same sense in which we talked about evil, no thing. Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism.

As William Cavanaugh says:

“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen.

A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom).

And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search.

With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”

We tend to think of sin simply as an act we do to break one of God’s rules. We think of sin as a free act that violates God’s honor.

Sin is anything but a free act. Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. It’s nothingness that intrudes onto the life God would have for us. In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real.

Sin is not a free act or decision at all.

It’s slavery.

That’s why, ironically, ‘desiring’ simplicity and generosity not only isn’t enough but will ultimately prove futile.

Augustine would point out  that our desires themselves are what need rehabilitation. Or rather, the way to simplicity and generosity is by cultivating the right desires.

Simplicity is made possible not by purging away our stuff or simply desiring a simpler life. Simplicity is only made possible by throwing ourselves so deeply into the way of Jesus that we’re given all new desires.

 

ted_cruz2During the last- and apparently ongoing- campaign Mitt Romney infamously returned a heckler’s’ provocation in a ham-fisted way for which Romney became notorious:

“Corporations are people too, my friend.”

Liberals took to criticizing that gaffe in the predictable way you would expect while conservatives reliably defended the truth and humanism of Romney’s statement.

Corporations are not cold, impersonal Leviathans; corporations are comprised of and depend upon people. Ordinary, everyday people who are pursuing their vocational dreams, contributing to something bigger than themselves, or simply putting in their time to support their families.

As any honest, non-ideologue knows already corporations are people. Romney’s clumsy rhetoric was evidence not of any sinister truth about corporations but of his propensity for clumsy rhetoric.

Setting aside their motives, conservatives were correct to defend the substance of Romney’s retort. What’s curious, though, is why conservatives (and by conservative I have in mind the most radical of the Tea Party contingent) would not apply the very same principle to the largest corporation of all: the federal government.

Governments are people too, my friend.

I realize that sounds anathema to most conservatives, but, as is the case with much ideology, just because it strikes one as undesirable does not mean it’s untrue.

The government is people.

Need proof?

How about every third person in my congregation.

From scientists who work at the FDA to Secret Service agents to analysts at the CIA to musicians in the military bands to folks who work on the Hill, to government lawyers to to all the many others who work indirectly for the government.

Not only do I know they’re actual, living, breathing, human-style people, I also know that 3/4 of them are were conservative.

I also happen to know they’re Sunday School teachers and communion servers, trustees and prayer group members. They cook for the homeless in and around DC and they serve the poor overseas.

And now, for no other reason but arbitrary political theater, they’re ‘furloughed.’

Which is innocuous-sounding HR speak for wondering how they’re going to pay their bills and feed their kids while the show continues.

Oh yeah, most of these people make/made good but modest salaries whilst living in one of the most expensive communities in the nation. So there’s that injury to insult.

Given that ours is a time when activists on both sides are inclined to reference pedigreed thinkers, and politicians are inclined to be nauseatingly self-referential, I thought a helpful corrective might be to reference not an economist or political philosopher nor even Jesus but a theologian:

St Augustine. Saint_Augustine_Portrait

Living through the unthinkable collapse of Rome, Augustine responded by writing his opus, The City of God, a theological text which is thoroughly political in character.

Augustine saw firsthand how outsized national aspirations and political hubris could quickly unravel the the civitas into chaos; consequently, Augustine writes in the City of God that the danger in politics is that it tempts us into thinking of ourselves primarily along political and national lines. So, in our day, we’re Republicans or Democrats or Tea Partiers or Progressives or Americans. First.

But this is theological problem for Christians, Augustine points out, for we confess that in Christ- because of Christ- ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek…’ No labels or categories or parties or patriotisms transcend our ‘in-Christness.’

Politics, Augustine says, because it asks us to think of ourselves and others in terms of political categories, goes against the grain of what is accomplished in Christ’s redemption (the ‘in-ness’ of each other) and recapitulates in our lives the very divisions Christ came to overcome.

This isn’t to say that politics is evil or even useless for Augustine. To be a citizen, Augustine writes, is primarily to be ‘under judgment.’ That is, our civic life is a consequence of the fall. Our politics is necessarily partial and imperfect because humanity is sinful.

The Christian recognition that we’re imperfect (sinners) should impart to our politics the one thing so absent today: humility.

Humility.

Because we’re all sinners.

Therefore none of us is entirely right.

Or righteous.

A proper awareness of our sinfulness, Augustine argues, points out how our politics can never be what politicians so often want us to think it can be: a means to building the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Of course, politicians (most at least) don’t talk that way anymore but Kingdom language of antiquity isn’t very different than the speech politicians use today for ‘American Exceptionalism.’

Because our politics can never build the City of God on Earth, Augustine argues that our politics are much more a practice of necessity and realism and limited aims:

Establishing peace for the civic order

Serving the common good

Providing relative justice

Presciently, whenever Augustine writes of politics he hits upon the dangers brought by those who would tempt us into thinking (their) politics are a means to the Kingdom: idolatry, pride, putting power over the polis.

To this realistic view of politics, Augustine also sees civic participation as a kind of training for our life in the City of God, by which he means that Christians should bring to our civitas the virtues of our Ultimate City: humility, moral responsibility (both for our actions and towards our brothers and sisters) and a constant posture of confession.

And by confession Augustine means: the practice of turning towards another to admit harm and a willing expectation to be transformed by them.

In other words:

Augustine would say that ideology is the very opposite of faith.

Because we’re sinners, there is no such thing as a pure political ideology (or one that’s purely right). There is no perfect strategy to an idealized future that can only be realized in the Kingdom. Every strategy or platform or agenda is at best partial.

And for that reason, there is absolutely no justification to act in such a way that ignores the image of God in another person. Especially across the aisle.

Charles Matthews writes that Augustine saw how politics often functions as a parody of the Golden Rule where life becomes about:

‘…nothing but getting and spending- or worse, seeking to obstruct another’s getting and spending…[then] anything becomes legitimate to get one’s way.’

Anything.

Say even political theater, no matter who ends up the victim.

Collapsing all our meaning into politics, Augustine warns, risks collapsing our sense of moral order and duty to the common good.

Put differently, ideology is but another word for idolatry.

And so, while our duly-elected dolts continue to genuflect to the golden calf of their particular constituency, party or ideology, I just want to offer this simply Augustinian maxim:

Governments are people too.

UnknownTo my surprise, this series of half-serious, half-crotchedy reflections on ancient heresies has generated an enormous amount of hits and new readers.

A couple of you discovered and pointed out that I didn’t tag the first in this series, making it hard  to find on the blog.

Because of the series’ popularity, I thought I’d go ahead and repost it.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy: Gnosticism

What Is It?

From the Greek word, ‘gnosis,’ meaning ‘knowledge.

Gnosticism believes that the material world in which we live was created not by God but by a demiurge. The material world then, ‘the world of the flesh,’ is inherently imperfect and was never an occasion for God to declare ‘it is very good.’ This led Gnostics to disavow the human nature of Jesus.

The material world is to be shunned and overcome in favor of the ‘spiritual world’ where God resides, ie, ‘heaven.’

One achieves salvation, escape from the world of the body to the world of the soul, by means of wisdom available only to a few.

Who Screwed Up First

Though not the first, the prophet Mani (216-274 AD) was a gnostic whose teachings exerted the most influence on ancient Christianity.

Mani’s gnostic dualism between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness led him to distinguish between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New and to a rigid dichotomy between good and evil people.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you think Christianity is about ‘spiritual’ things- or timeless ‘truths,’ then you’re probably a Gnostic.

If you think Christians believe that our souls goes off to heaven when we die, then you’re most likely a Gnostic. And if you think the goal of Christianity is to go to heaven when we die, then you definitely are a Gnostic.

If you’ve forgotten that Christianity teaches the redemption of all creation (New Creation) and not evacuation from creation (‘the rapture’) then you’ve slipped into Gnosticism.

If you think God does not care about the Earth or that the physical, material things in your life are not good gifts from God (thus means of grace) then you’re a Gnostic whom St Augustine would declare ‘anathema.‘

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

The authors and many readers of the Left Behind novels

Funeral Directors

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Fundamentalist Evangelicals

Mormons

Baby-Boomers who excuse their lack of discipleship by describing themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’

Remedies

Read Genesis 1 and take God at his Word.

Prepare and eat good food.

Pour and drink a glass of good wine.

Have sex.

Or just hold a baby.

Unknown-1With military action against Syria increasingly looking like a foregone conclusion, I’ve heard lots of chatter on NPR and elsewhere about the separation of powers and what authority the constitution does and does not afford the President when it comes to war- concerns that must have been in hibernation during the previous administration.

When it comes to Syria, I’ve heard liberals making liberal political arguments and I’ve heard conservatives making conservative political arguments. What I haven’t heard much of is Christians making Christian arguments.

While I’ve have substantive problems with the Christian Just War tradition and have been open about being a closet Mennonite; nonetheless, Just War theory remains arguably the most dominant Christian tradition with respect to war.  For that reason, perhaps it’s helpful to outline its parameters and then you can discern how intervention against Syria fits the bill.

Below is a synopsis I wrote with Dr Barry Penn Hollar:

Just War theory was “borrowed” from the Roman Stoic tradition by Christian theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas, who gave it a distinctly Christian orientation. The development of this tradition reflects the changing context of Christian faith and witness.

By the fourth century, the Christian expectation of Jesus’ imminent return had waned. The church was no longer a persecuted minority in a hostile Roman empire. Indeed, soon after the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, Christianity became the official religion of the empire and, at least nominally, Christian religion enjoyed majority status.

In such a context, it may have been inevitable that Christians came to recognize military participation as a legitimate expression of discipleship.

Now that the instruments of earthly authority were in their hands (rather than dripping with their blood!), they inevitably asked about the appropriate use of those instruments in the service of order and justice.

Not surprisingly, they came to feel a sense of responsibility that was not theirs before and to question whether prayer was an adequate Christian contribution to the welfare of the empire as they had believed earlier.

What developed over the centuries was a set of criteria for determining when it is appropriate for those in authority to go to war (just ad bellum) and what moral restraint should be shown in the waging of war (jus in bello).

The starting point for thinking about when it is appropriate to go to war was the idea of legitimate authority.

Only those with authority (from God?) for public order could wage war. Private violence, or violence in the service of individual interests continued to be condemned, but war as instrument of those charged with responsibility for public order and justice was recognized as morally appropriate.

Prior to the democratic revolutions and the development of democratic ideas about legitimacy, there was a strong presupposition of individual obedience to the authorities.

The authorities decided when war was just; individual citizens obeyed.  Matters are complicated somewhat by modern ideas about governmental authority arising from the consent of the governed.

In a democratic society, broad public support for war is not just a practical matter; since the legitimacy of the government depends on the consent of the governed, some would argue that war without broad public support is not waged with legitimate authority.

The just war tradition insisted that war could only be waged for a “just cause” and not simply to protect and promote the interests of some party or even of the nation as a whole.

Surely, war cannot be waged for the purpose of building or expanding an empire.  In the words of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations.”

As well, the tradition insists that a nation can only wage war with a “right intention,” that is, motivated by the just cause and with the goal of achieving a just peace.

War fought out of hatred for the enemy and when expressed justifying causes are merely a mask for ulterior interests and motives is ruled out.

A legitimate authority with a just cause and right intentions must engage in further moral reflection before going to war.

It must be certain that war is a “last resort.”

Put differently, if there are other means (diplomatic pressure, boycotts, embargos, etc.) for defending the just cause and achieving a just and stable peace that could reasonably be expected to work, they should be tried before going to war.

We must also ask whether there is a “reasonable chance of success.”

It is not right to go to war—that is, to pursue a policy that inevitably involves death and destruction—if one has little or no chance of winning the war and, more important, achieving the just peace one seeks.

Finally, one must ask the question of “proportionality.”

Even if we win, will we have done more harm than good.

These final three critieria all involve great wisdom and prudence. They are not matters about which one can have mathematical certainty; they are matters of moral wisdom about which well-meaning people will disagree. This is especially true of proportionality.

Imagine one has a just cause (saving the citizens of Dafur, for example) and the military might necessary to defeat the forces promoting the evil injustices that appropriately cause moral outrage.  “Proportionality” suggests that it might still be wrong to go to war because the harm one would have to inflict to achieve the cause outweighs the good one could do.

The just war tradition also places moral limits on war.

Its two traditional criteria are “discrimination” and “proportionality” (with a slightly different meaning than before).

War is moral, says the Christian just warrior, only if civilians are never intentionally targeted.

Extreme care must be taken even to avoid “accidental” civilian deaths, what in contemporary parlance is euphemistically called “collateral damage.”  (Remember, hidden behind that phrase are the dead bodies of children, women, and old men killed “accidently,” but dead nonetheless!)

Proportionality in this context points to the just war claim that even in a justified war fought discriminately, one should use only the level of force necessary to achieve one’s legitimate objectives.

Even enemy soldiers are neighbors who must not be killed unnecessarily.

 

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064     This week we’re continuing our Justified sermon series through the Book of Romans.

Romans is ground zero for the historic Christian doctrines of the fall, original sin and atonement.

Owing in large measure to St Augustine and John Milton (Paradise Lost), it’s become so commonplace to read Genesis as describing a Fall it often surprises Christians to learn that others, namely the Jews, read it any other way.

Not to mention, the traditional categories of Creation and Fall, which focus on Genesis 1-3 to the exclusion of the other 47 chapters in Genesis, ignores the central plot of Genesis: the promise of God to renew the world through the people of Abraham.

Reducing Genesis to Creation and Fall, to chapters 1, 2 and 3, misses that the calling of Abraham is intended by God to be creation redux.

New Creation, which climaxes in Revelation 21-22, begins in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abram.

     Distilling the narrative down to Genesis 1,2, and 3 to a story of Creation and Fall lops off entirely the story of Abraham and what God was trying to do in and through Abraham.

     It creates a problem (original sin) to which Jesus is the solution completely independent of Abraham or Israel.

     It pushes the Jews out of their own story.

Just ask yourself: how many Christmas songs can you name that reference in any way the promise to Abraham? I can’t name any. They’re all about Jesus coming to heal the ‘curse’ of original sin.

So how did we end up with a reading of Genesis according to the Creation/Fall theme?

     It’s all a matter of hindsight.

While Jews read Genesis 1 as an allegory of our disobedience and an attempt to describe the less than perfect state of the world, St Augustine, reading Paul, saw in Genesis an allegory for the total and complete alienation of creation from God. The Fall in Eden describes how Sin corrupts the goodness of creation, every creature best intentions and renders us incapable of venturing to God on our own. Look again at Paul’s words in Romans. Because of what happens in the Garden, all of creation is effected, ‘groaning’ for redemption.

     The Fall necessitates grace.

But if Christians did not inherit this way of reading Genesis from the Jews, then how did it arise?

Why does Paul see creation this way, as enslaved and suffering under the power of Sin? Why was Augustine’s notion of the Fall able to take root and survive in the Christian memory?

It’s a matter of hindsight.

      Jews and Christians read Genesis differently because of Jesus.

It’s not that Paul or Augustine read Genesis in isolation and discovered an insight never before uncovered. It’s that after Easter and Ascension, having turned out to be the sort of Messiah no one expected, Jesus provoked the first community into asking all sorts of questions that then begged still more questions.

Questions like:

Why did Jesus need to come if not to liberate Israel from Rome?

Why did Jesus meet with such a violent end?

What does Easter accomplish?

How we are different/similar to Christ?

It was by reflecting on and discovering who Jesus was and is that the first Christians discovered anew who it is we are. The Fall and its attendant understanding of our own sinful nature are beliefs only possible in light of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection.

Let me break it down.

Take this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, one of the earliest documents in the New Testament:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

     This text is actually a Christian hymn, earlier than Paul’s letter. The hymn gives a window into how the very earliest community of believers understood and worshipped Jesus.

And what does the hymn sing about?

It praises Jesus as the image of God.

Back to the imago dei.

What is it?

According to the early Church, it’s Jesus. Christ is the image of God.

For the earliest believers, it wasn’t just that Jesus is God. It’s that Christ is the created image of God. In other words, he isn’t just true God as the creed says he’s also true man- the true human.

Look at it another way. If God is Trinity then the life of the Son belongs eternally to God; therefore, when God declares in Genesis 1 ‘let us make humankind after our likeness’ God’s talking first and foremost about the life of Jesus.

     In his desire not for his own furthering but for the Kingdom

In his relationships that paid no regard to prejudice, convention or fear

In his obedience to the way of God no matter the cost to himself

In valuing the Reign of God over the finite kingdoms and power of the world

In his truthfulness

And in his absolute trust in God, that God would vindicate him

The early Church found in Christ a content-filled definition, an embodiment, of what it means to reflect the image of God.

     Rather than a priori doctrines, Fall and sin and Sin are discovered by hindsight.

We read Genesis realizing something we couldn’t have realized before Christmas:

we are not who Jesus is or was in his earthly life.

Our world isn’t the sort of place that welcomes or tolerates a person like Jesus.

The world may be replete with goodness and it may show forth abundant beauty but it still crucified Christ.

Think of the crowds on Palm Sunday who hail and welcome Jesus only to cry for his death later in the week- we may be good people but we still crucify Jesus.

As Paul says, even our best intentions net results that fall far short of Jesus’ life.

 

2004 banksy_christOkay, the title is just to get you to click over.

Yesterday I posted about Pope Francis’ recent comments critiquing the West’s idolatrous ‘worship’ of the free market.

You can read the post here and the Pope’s own words here.

No sooner did the post post than I got email after email lambasting me NOT (as expected) for praising the Catholic Church and its office of a Teacher among Teachers.

No, the emails all but tarred and feathered me for endorsing the ‘extreme,’ ‘fringe,’ and ‘anti-freedom’ views of ‘Marxist, Socialist liberalism’ seeking to ‘destroy the Tea Party.’ 

I won’t even take the time to note the discontinuity between those last three adjectives: Marxism, Socialism and Liberalism.

Pope Francis- I think we can all agree by virtue of being elected Pope- is definitely NOT liberal.

In fact, theological training has it uses. I can say with some authority that Francis was only speaking from the historic (Augustinian) Christian tradition.

Quickly then:

According to Augustine, both the Protestant and Catholic Church’s most important thinker, we are creatures made to desire an end (telos).

As creatures, God and God’s Kingdom is the End to which we’re properly oriented. Because we’re end-driven creatures, human freedom is different than how we typically define it in modern America.

Culturally, civically and especially economically we tend to think of freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion.

Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.

“Freedom,” in such a context, is not directed to any End.

Or rather, it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.

 

For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.

Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something.

Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom.

In other words, as telos-driven creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will, and only when our systems of life together- our politics and our economics- contribute towards that End.

When people and their systems are no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning- like a paintbrush without ever having a canvas.

Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism and the praise of the ‘free market’ as an end in and of itself.

BELIEFS-popupAs modern Augustinian, William Cavanaugh says:

“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen.

A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom). And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search.

With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”

We tend to think of sin simply as a private act we do to break one of God’s rules. We think of sin as an individual free act that violates God’s honor.

Sin is anything but a free act and it’s not always or even primarily about individuals.

Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. And sin is corporate and systemic. 

In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real. 

And a free market system for its own sake, one that either exploits the global poor or turns a blind eye to them, one not directed towards the End for which we’re all created, will only succeed in reducing all of us to unreality.

A feeling, let’s be honest, we all feel a hint of every time we go shopping.

Only a market that is free not from controls but for the common good can point toward and participate in God’s Kingdom.

And I salute Francis (his chosen name should’ve been fair warning) for pointing that out.

 

BELIEFS-popupI recently posted a reflection vis a vis Karl Barth on ‘Why I’m Not a Catholic.’ 

I took some crap from my Catholic brethren for being unfair to the Holy, Mother Church.

To do penance for that post I thought I’d mention a recent story that is indicative to me of what I take to be the greatest gift the Catholic Church presently offers the world.

In case you missed it, Pope Francis recently spoke about the need for global financial reform “along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. Money has to serve, not to rule” Francis said.

The new Pope went to excoriate Western society for its relationship to money and its worship of the free market, saying the worship of the golden calf of old, has now a new image, “in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” 

You can read the rest of the story here.

To get back to my reason for writing, Pope Francis’ strong words against unfettered capitalism remind the world that though the Catholic Church advocates against abortion and homosexuality it (the Catholic Church) does not fit into the  ‘conservative’ category, at least as its given to us in American culture. The very same seamless garment of life that prompts the Church to protect the unborn provokes it defend the prisoner and the poor.

The Pope before him took a dim view of America’s unprovoked war in Iraq and the current Pope just reminded everyone that the Church’s understanding of economics is both older than Milton Friedman and at odds with him.

And, to my mind, that’s the best thing going about the Catholic Church right now.

While all Christian bodies self-present as a global church, seldom do they meet that assertion.

My own Methodist tradition IS a global stream of Christianity yet that stream is comprised of myriad rivulets and eddies, with each taking the character, perspective and loyalty of their nation and culture. So in the United States we have United Methodism and in Korea we have the Korean Methodist Church and so on.

People called Methodists are not a singular global body with a unified witness.

We’re more like managers and employees of a franchise lacking a CEO.

What United Methodists, for example, say about a particular issue- conservative or liberal- inevitably sounds like what any one else from the United States would say, Christian or not.

jefferts-schoriNo where is this more true and obvious than with the situation in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican “Communion.” In case you missed it, (story here) the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA) used the holy day of Pentecost to cast the Apostle Paul (you know, author of most of the New Testament whether we like it or not) aside as a ‘bigot’ using the Book of Acts of all things to make her case.

One would think she could used a text actually authored by Paul for the one formerly known as Saul gives ample ammunition the cause. While I may have sympathies with the issue behind her sermon even someone who agrees with her on the issue of sexuality must admit the ethnocentrism inherent in her perspective, for to liken one’s position to a fresh outpouring of the Spirit is to put those other sincere Christians who disagree in what sort of light?

While I acknowledge all the flaws and imperfections in the following, I nonetheless believe:

Only the Catholic Church with its bishop among bishops, who is beholden to no other government, politics, military or culture, offers a voice free to be, firstly and thoroughly, Christian.

This is why, I think, on issue after issue, from war to sexuality to torture to economics, the office of the Pope is so routinely ‘all over the place,’ refusing  easy secular categorization.

Pope Francis’ words on economics would get pilloried (actually probably yawned at) as ‘Occupy Wallstreet’ language if a United Methodist had said them.

Fact is, he’s just speaking Christian. 

That Francis’ words on economics sound ‘political’ to us (or even ‘partisan’ when on another’s lips) is but an indication of how we’re more captured by our politics than we are by our Great High Priest.

counterfeit-gods-timothy-kellerWe’re beginning our Lenten sermon series this weekend on Counterfeit Gods. It’s a series on idolatry and, by extension, justification. Two topics that have me thinking about this article I read about Peter Rose getting erased Marty McFly-like from Topps Baseball Cards.

There are some things people will never agree on: Stones vs Beatles, Cool Bed Pillow vs Warm Bed Pillow and whether spending a month with Jar-Jar Binks would be worse than a month suffering with the Clap.

Add to this list of imponderables the question of whether or not Pete Rose (and I suppose all the rest from the Steroid Era) should be in the Hall of Fame. Being from Ohio originally, I know full well this question has its impassioned advocates on both sides. The arguments, both pro and con, however almost always revolve exclusively around baseball. The integrity of the game. In the case of steroids, there’s the point about the ‘purity’ (a revealing word) of a sport to which statistics are everything. And then there’s the very real concern that the cheaters’ records minimized the accomplishments that were won the hard way- as far as we know.

I don’t really care one way or the other about Pete Rose et al.

What interests me is how differently the Hall of Fame treats former players

when compared to how the Church treats its saints.

St Augustine was wantonly promiscuous and all but abandoned his loved ones- save his mommy- when he converted to Christianity and became a priest.

John Wesley was a terrible husband.

Jean Calvin had a man burnt at the stake.

Paul stood by and watched a man get stoned. And said nothing.

Mother Theresa had long periods of doubt and despair in her lifetime. Pope Benedict was a Hitler Youth.

And, of course, let’s not forget the 12 Disciples, one of whom betrayed Jesus for money and 11 of whom betrayed him just to save their own skin.

What’s remarkable when compared alongside the Hall of Fame is how the Church has never shied away from the sullied, silly or shadow sides of its saints.

Even the most honored saints are still sinners, and they can be because it’s not their saintliness that justifies their inclusion in God’s Church. It’s God. Only an institution that participates in the Gospel story and thus knows our justification comes not from our own accomplishments but from Christ’s gracious love can openly acknowledge both the warts and the wisdom of its people.

The Hall of Fame, on the other hand, participates in a much different story. The American story. Whereas the Church doesn’t need to blush that Peter denied Christ or that Augustine couldn’t keep it in his cloak, baseball (and America) often feel the need to pretend our heroes are without flaw. Because, after all, in America one’s accomplishments really are what we think justifies us.

Back to Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and the rest. I get the baseball arguments for their exclusion. But on Gospel grounds, I say let them in, rap sheet and all. Celebrate the positive. Don’t hide from the dark side of their stories.

A Hall of Fame that pretends the greatest hitter of all time (Pete Rose) and the greatest player of all time (Barry Bonds) never existed is a little like a Church that pretends Peter and Judas and Augustine (and, let’s be honest, you and me) never existed.

 

Here’s a great Christmas reflection from St Augustine and is well worth a read. augustine
Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened ‘to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.

Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of the Virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.
Truth has arisen from the earth: because the Word was made flesh. And justice looked down from heaven: because every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.

Truth has arisen from the earth: flesh from Mary. And justice looked down from heaven: for man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.
Justified by faith, let us be at peace with God: for justice and peace have embraced one another. Through our Lord Jesus Christ: for Truth has arisen from the earth. Through whom we have access to that grace in which we stand, and our boast is in our hope of God’s glory. He does not say: “of our glory,” but of God’s glory: for justice has not come out of us but has looked down from heaven. Therefore he who glories, let him glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.

For this reason, when our Lord was born of the Virgin, the message of the angelic voices was: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men of good will.

For how could there be peace on earth unless Truth has arisen from the earth, that is, unless Christ were born of our flesh? And he is our peace who made the two into one: that we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.

Let us then rejoice in this grace, so that our glorying may bear witness to our good conscience by which we glory, not in ourselves, but in the Lord. That is why Scripture says: He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?

Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace. 

Ex Nihilo

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

As we’ve explored a bit already, Christians and Jews read the Genesis story and see in it a God who creates out of nothing. This impacts both how we understand creation and ourselves as creatures and how we understand God.

 

That God creates from nothing points to the giftedness of creation. Whether God created literally according to lyrical layout of Genesis 1 or whether God created through something like the Big Bang doesn’t really change the substance of what Christians confess in the Creed. Everything is a gift. Everything depends on the graciousness of God.

 

That God creates from nothing also points to the radical, absolute Otherness, Transcendence and Lordship of God. The Genesis story, and the Abrahamic faiths that grew from it, see an ontological difference between Creator and creation. Ontological is an impressive theological term meaning ‘being.’

 

Simply (re)stated, though God creates God is not a part of the world nor is the world a part of God. Because God creates from nothing, God is radically other than creation. This distinguishes Christianity from a number Ancient Near Eastern, Eastern and New Age religions that either understand the created world as something co-inhering in the divine life or simply identify the divine with the natural world.

 

Creation is charged with sacredness because God made it and thus it points to God in an almost sacramental sense. But creation is not God.

 

The Risk of Love

Jason Micheli —  September 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

I posted earlier about the Christian conviction that sin/evil is nothing, literally ‘no-thing.’ If you’re like me when I first heard this metaphysical perspective, then you’re head is hurting.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see how logic dictates the nothingness or unreality of evil. On the other hand, putting the matter into these philosophical categories doesn’t necessarily answer our felt questions about why bad things happen to good people (aside: if we’re sinners, then the adjective ‘good’ is an assumption isn’t it?) or why wholesale tragedies like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan occur.

A less philosophical, easier to understand, but only slightly more satisfying way to think about this comes from Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. Its an answer rooted in God’s risk of love towards us.

For Augustine, the drama of the human story and the beauty of the Christ story is that God creates so that we can share life and love with God.

God didn’t create a mechanized universe in which we have no choice but to worship dutifully. God wasn’t creating automatons or servile followers. God was creating friends and lovers. Because God is in the Trinity loving relationship, God wants to share loving relationship with us.

Consider my wife.

What makes our relationship authentic, loving and beautiful is that both of us love one another freely. It’s a free exchange of love. It’s reciprocal. Nothing is forced. If it was, you’d call it abuse not love. You’d think it tragic.

As any friend or lover knows, loving relationship can’t be coerced. If it is then it’s only a pale imitation of the actual thing.

In creation, then, God risks that we might not reciprocate God’s love. God hardwires us for love. God calls us back to relationship through Abraham, Israel, the prophets and Christ but God never forces our hand.

The risk inherent in God’s love is our freedom.

And as we are free to love God we are free to love other ends.

What we call sin is disordered love: love of money, love of pleasure, love of an ideology etc.

And what we call evil is often the wreckage of our disordered loves. The fact remains evil is mysterious and, as the Book of Job (38) amply demonstrates, any theory or explanation of it ultimately proves unsatisfying. As vague and metaphysical as it can sound, I can’t help thinking our calling evil ‘a shadow, nothing, not God’ is as faithful a way of speaking as we can legitimately muster. In the face of suffering, what Christians should speak are not answers or theories but confessions and professions. We should affirm not God’s providence (‘there’s a plan for everything…’) but the scope of God’s love (‘Jesus wept…’).

After all, what is critical for Christians to remember in such discussions- and this is what Augustine was keen to secure- is that the Cross is the full measure of God’s love and character and that all of creation shimmers with that same perfect charity and love.

Explanations may prove elusive but this way of speaking of God forbids faithful Christians from ever consigning another’s suffering to God’s will, and in the face of natural evil Christians should only mourn, help redeem disaster and to keep looking for creation’s goodness that lies below tragedy’s surface.

Because if God is Trinity peace is always a more determinative, if at times hard to see, reality.