Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Whether you are a first-time visitor or an "old friend," I thank you for sharing your time and life with me through this blog.  As you almost certainly have noticed, I have not posted recently.  That is not because I have stopped writing or preaching, but because I have a new blog, Word and Worship, which records the lessons and discussions of a group of saints at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.  We have completed a study of the Gospel According to St. Mark (all lessons are posted) and are entering into a study of the Acts of the Apostles.  So, please join us for this journey; you are always welcome!

Peace of Christ,


Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Reign of Christ the King

Matthew's Kingdom Symphony:
A Sermon at Apostles' Anglican Church
20 November 2011

Let us pray.

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth:
Set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God:
Have mercy on us sinners.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God:
Renew us and all the world. Amen.
-- N. T. Wright, Trinity Prayer

If you listen carefully to an orchestral work – perhaps a symphony or a concerto – you will notice in it a recurring musical theme, a leitmotif. It may be only a few notes or a few measures, but it is the essence of the piece, the core around which the complex composition develops, the core which provides unity and coherence, and indeed beauty, to the piece.

The theme may be announced emphatically by the full orchestra right at the opening of the piece, or it may be introduced more subtly and gradually by a soloist. It never stays in one place; it is passed around from section to section, from instrument to instrument, changing form and timbre as it goes, but always recognizable to a trained and listening ear. The theme will be expressed in many forms throughout the composition: sometimes major, sometimes minor, sometimes lowered a fifth or raised an octave, sometimes inverted so that we hear not the theme itself, but, in a musical sense, the negation – the opposite – of the theme. Sometimes it disappears altogether for a while. Then just when the listener begins to worry that the piece has taken a wrong turn, that it has lost its way, there it is again, over in the flutes trilled and high, echoed darkly by the oboes and bassoons, picked up hauntingly by the strings – those few notes, those few measures – the musical theme. And the listener who truly has ears to hear will then recognize that the theme has been there all along in bits and pieces scattered throughout the orchestra, but is now summed up in one grand moment, in one grand movement. In the hands of a masterful composer and a skillful conductor, the listener need never fear; the theme will emerge and all listening ears will hear.

This church year – from the first Sunday of Advent 2010 until today – the church has listened together to Matthew’s great symphonic presentation of the Gospel. Today, that concert ends; the final chords resound through the great hall and fall silent as the score is changed. The Gospel according to Saint Mark is next on the triennial concert rotation offered to the church in the lectionary. But one more time, before we close Matthew’s music and file his score away, let’s listen for the great theme that runs from first to last throughout his gospel. Not coincidentally, it is also the liturgical theme of the great feast day the church celebrates on this last Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Open the score to the first measure: Matthew 1:1. These first few notes announce the theme with brassy boldness and clarity.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham (Mt 1:1, NKJV).

To Jewish ears Matthew’s announcement of the theme is nothing less than thunderous: this is the story of Yeshua ha Meschiach – Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, the one upon whom the kingdom of his father David rests, the one in whom the covenant of his father Abraham is fulfilled. And the entire orchestra picks up the theme – forty-two generations of players: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the captivity, and fourteen generations from the captivity to Jesus. Do you hear it? Fourteen generations from covenant to kingdom, fourteen generations from kingdom come to kingdom lost, and fourteen generations from kingdom lost to kingdom restored and covenant fulfilled in and through Jesus the Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. This is it; this is where the story of Israel was headed all along. This is the story of how God is restoring and redeeming Israel, and through Israel restoring and redeeming the cosmos. And it starts here, in the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. These few notes announce Matthew’s theme: the true and everlasting king of Israel has arrived and God’s kingdom has begun, on earth as in heaven. This is a kingdom symphony, from first note to last.

Some unfamiliar instruments with exotic, slightly mysterious tones, pick up this theme next. These instruments are played by magi from the East:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Mt 1:1-2, NKJV).

The King of Israel – the King of the world – is born. The heavens herald his birth. All men – from East to West, from North to South, Jew and gentile alike – are called to worship him. The magi come on holy pilgrimage bearing royal gifts, tribute from their kingdom to His. They bend their knees and fall on their faces in worship before the infant king.

But not Herod, for here the theme turns dark and minor and discordant.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men (Mt 2:16, NKJV).

Herod hears Matthew’s theme, and hears it all too clearly. God is on the move. God is raising up the true king of Israel. God is at last restoring the kingdom and fulfilling the covenant. But Herod has his own tune to play, a tune in which he is the featured soloist. He tries, in vain, to drown out all other music – in blood and the sound of weeping. So for a time, Matthew’s theme disappears, hummed quietly in far off Egypt and whistled every now and again in Nazareth. A whole movement goes by – thirty years – in which the theme seems to be absent. And just when we are wondering if Matthew’s composition has lost its way, a great instrumental voice appears out of nowhere and proclaims the theme in fortissimo:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:1-2, NKJV)!

Not only is the kingdom of heaven here – now – but the King is coming, one mightier than this herald, one who will baptize in Spirit and fire (cf Mt 3:11).

And from Galilee comes the King himself, the same Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham about whom we heard in the opening notes of this Kingdom symphony. And now the music is all regal-sounding brass, I think – French horns and trombones – because the King comes to be anointed.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:13, 16-17, NKJV).

There are so many sub-themes in this event – Exodus and end of exile are clear – but they cannot drown out the primary theme: the King has returned and has been anointed by God as His Messiah. Yes, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand in the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth: Son of David, Son of Abraham, Son of God. From this time forth, wherever He goes the Kingdom is present. Whatever He does, the Kingdom is made manifest.

Of course, as we might expect, there is conflict in the score – discord and noise – as rival kings are challenged, as enemies, spiritual and human, plot and attack. It starts immediately in the wilderness with Satan himself, the Prince of the power of the air (cf Eph 2.2). In dark, velvet tones – violas, perhaps – the tempter plays his tune of seduction. The last measure is the most telling.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “’All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him (Mt 4:4-11, ESV).

Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in one moment. Perhaps Satan and Jesus know something about this composition that Matthew has yet to reveal to the listeners: that Jesus’ road from anointing to rule will be long and hard and painful, that it may not look like anyone expects, and that there will be casualties on the way. But Jesus has his own way of ascending the throne and his own kingdom agenda, and it starts with a rejection of this particular temptation to power. Satan’s music is silenced – at least for the time being. It is time for the King to begin his performance.

His won’t be a solo – thought he is, of course, the principal performer – but rather an ensemble: Simon, Andrew, James, John and many others – a flash mob orchestra traveling from venue to venue making surprising music in unexpected places. And what music!

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him (Mt 4:23-25a, ESV).

These great Kingdom acts of Jesus – healings and exorcisms – demand great Kingdom words of explanation. What does it all mean? In response, Jesus describes life in the Kingdom; he answers the question, What does it look like when God’s anointed – when God himself – becomes King? This movement is played on a mountain, with Jesus surrounded by eager listeners.

In the Kingdom of God the poor are given a place, the crying are comforted, the meek get their rightful share, the hungry and thirsty have enough and more than enough, the merciful have mercy shown to them, the pure in heart see God, the peacemakers are adopted as God’s children, and all those persecuted in this world get joy and gladness instead. There is blessing enough to go around in the Kingdom of God. This is the kingdom in a major key, lively enough to make the most miserable tap his feet with hope and excitement. This is a movement of Jubilee.

The Kingdom of God is a place where the heart matters: no lust there, no anger there, no hypocrisy there, no revenge there, no greed there, no idolatry there. But love and forgiveness are there. Yes: these are the hallmarks, the foundations of the Kingdom, and must fill the human heart to overflowing. And prayer is there. Jesus wants everyone to play this prayer tune in unison – because it is the great Kingdom prayer – so, he teaches the orchestra himself. And though we will pray it later this day, can we also do so together right now?

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Thy kingdom come. Where? On earth as in heaven. There is Matthew’s theme again, crystal clear: The Kingdom of God is here and now and very much for this place and time – and all in the person of Jesus, Son of David, Son of Abraham, Son of God.

For at least one year and perhaps as long as three, Jesus plays the music of the kingdom: in signs and wonders and acts of power, in discourses and parables – many of which begin “The kingdom of heaven is like…” – in healings and resurrections, and sometimes, in fact increasingly, in conflict with those who do not like the new sound, who perceive it as disturbing and even dangerous noise. In the concert hall, on the stage, in the music itself, the tension builds between Jesus and his ensemble and his rivals – those who do not want the Kingdom of God if this is what it looks like, those who do not want the Kingdom of God if Jesus is its king. The music turns dark and heavy and sinister as everyone senses the climax of the piece approaching.

It all comes to a head about a week before Passover. All music stops for just a moment. Jesus steps into the spotlight alone and – what’s that he’s doing? He’s riding into Jerusalem – the kingdom city – on a donkey. It is perhaps his most provocative kingdom act and its meaning is clear from the prophets:

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your King is coming to you,
Lowly, and sitting on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey’”(Mt 21:5, NKJV).

And all the musicians and even the audience members get the theme at last and all erupt in joyous song:

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’
Hosanna in the highest” (Mt 21:9b).

Later in the same week, as hostile forces close in, as a trusted friend betrays him, Jesus calls together his chamber group – those who have been with him closest and longest – for a small and intimate interlude. The music is classical – Passover songs and psalms – and the tone is…well, it’s hard to say. It varies from celebratory to puzzled to subdued and even to bittersweet. Jesus feeds his followers; he gives them – and us – the Kingdom meal, a taste in the present moment of the heavenly wedding banquet: bread, wine, words – and something about body and blood. It is clearly a Kingdom meal, but of a confounding sort. “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom,” Jesus says, and leaves everyone a bit baffled.

The group plays the final note of this Seder meal, a psalm, and then walks a short way to a garden for prayer and maybe a bit of rest. And it is here that we lose the theme of Matthew’s symphony; rather it is here that the theme is inverted and played retrograde: upside down and backwards – distorted and jumbled and unrecognizable. For here the kingdom of hell – Remember the prince of the powers of the air? – and the kingdoms of the earth – Remember Herod and his sons? – conspire against God and against his anointed, conspire against the Kingdom of God.

Why are the nations in an uproar?
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,
And the prices plot together,
Against the LORD and against his Anointed (Ps 2:1-2, BCP 1979)?

And Jesus – Son of David, Son of Abraham, Son of God – is arrested and tried and beaten and crucified, on the day the theme was lost, on the day the music died. All is silent. But look at the cross. Look at the sign above Jesus’ bowed head, a sign in three languages so that all the world might know:


The theme played silently and inverted and retrograde: this is what the world and hell think of God and His Anointed King.

But three day later, early in the morning on the first day of the week, as a group of women goes to the tomb where Jesus is laid, there is a terrible and wondrous commotion: all cymbals and tympani and percussion, like an earthquake – exactly like an earthquake:

And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said” (Mt 28:2-6a).

And the entire cosmic orchestra resurrects the Kingdom theme of Matthew’s symphony: Alleluia! Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Forty days later Jesus gathers his closest disciples on a mountain in Galilee.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20, NKJV).

And here it is, in the final chords of Matthew’s great symphony: the Kingdom of God has come, all authority – in heaven and on earth – lies with Jesus, and we who have up until now been content to listen to the music, are given instruments and our own parts to play in the continuing composition of the Kingdom of God.

Our King has not gone far away and abandoned us to our own resources as some say. Rather he has ascended to the right hand of the Father – to His rightful position of power and glory – and has begun his reign, a reign ministered in part through you and me and all of us together, a reign empowered by the Holy Spirit through whom Jesus is eternally present with us. And, he has left us His Kingdom prayer to guide us and His Kingdom meal to sustain us.

Learn my Kingdom song, Jesus says, for soon I will reconvene the entire orchestra for the concert of the ages. You can’t just listen anymore. There are no seats in the audience. You must learn the song or leave the hall. And the Kingdom song is not composed of melody and rhythm, but of love and forgiveness and mercy. Those who have learned it will be invited to play in the orchestra of the communion of the saints:

Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’ (Mt 25:34-40, NKJV).

This is what the Kingdom looks like. This is what the music of the Kingdom sounds like. It is being played even now in every act of truth and beauty and compassion and forgiveness done in the name of the King and under his banner of love. Can you hear it? Will you play it?

Today the church celebrates the feast of the Reign of Christ the King. There is no better way to celebrate than to take up your instrument and join in the great Kingdom symphony, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sacramental Sightings

I commend to your reading a new blog, Sacramental Sightings, by Fr. Jack King, Assistant Vicar of Apostles' Anglican Church (AMiA) in Knoxville, TN. The quality of his life and thought make his a welcome and compelling voice.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Affront of Baptism

A dear Christian brother – a young priest with a pastor’s heart and a theologian’s mind – plans to baptize his infant daughter within weeks. Frankly, I find the concept and practice of infant baptism an affront. It assaults and insults me with the claim that this precious new life is but dust and will one day to dust return, that death is the common lot of all men because all men bear the consequence – if not the guilt – of Adam’s sin, and that true life depends on new life in Christ. “You must be born again – of water and the Spirit,” Jesus said and says still, and the church insists this applies to all – “innocent” children and hardened adults as well. Infant baptism weighs in the balance and finds wanting all our cherished convictions about human nature: that each child is a tabula rosa on which we may write only the good and pure, or that men are inherently good and pure from birth. Instead, every baptismal font proclaims that every infant presented there is a cracked and tarnished icon of God: an image bearer, yes, but one with the perfect image of a holy God distorted by every selfish and errant choice made by every ancestor far and near, throughout the genealogy of all the world – begotten in sin, born in sin, and living in a sin-conditioned world. Every helpless, speechless child carried to the water by others, spoken for by others, speaks volumes to us all: you are broken and you are helpless and you are utterly dependent on the gift and grace of Another. Baptism is never more fully sacramental than when an infant is presented, for there the work is clearly and solely God’s: no false pride of adult choice or will or wisdom – just helpless acquiescence to the weak ministrations of men and the mighty acts of God. Such a baptism shames us in our weakness and glorifies God in his strength, a strength shown chiefly in the stooping down of love.

If you do not find infant baptism an affront, you are not paying attention. It is a slap in the face of our culture – of any culture. And precisely in that lies the truth and the power and the beauty of this sacrament; it shows the depth of our vanity and the breadth of God’s love. We cannot walk – as the Prodigal – to him, yet he runs – as the Father – to us. We cannot repent – as the good thief – and yet he promises us paradise this day and every day. We cannot say the words of the vows, yet we hear God speak – a thunderous whisper – This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased. If you do not find infant baptism an affront – and a joyous and marvelous gift of our gracious God – you are not paying attention. Thanks be to God for this sacrament.

My brother had planned the baptism for Pentecost – the great holy day of Spirit and church – but logistics conspired to make that impossible. Though disappointed, he knows there will be other holy days. He knows that any day on which the church baptizes is made holy by the very act of baptism: On this day the Lord has acted. We will rejoice and be glad in it. What is a holy day if not a day on which God has acted and on which we stop to rejoice? Certainly, then, baptism must render a day holy.

Perhaps, then, instead of seeking out established holy days for baptism, we should look for ordinary days, or even days of infamy, to redeem through baptism. Redeem the time, we are told, for the days are evil (Eph 5:12). Let us baptize on the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, striving to add one new life for every life taken. Let us baptize on the anniversary of 9-11, building for the kingdom of heaven even as the kingdoms of the earth were shaken to the core. Or let us simply seek through baptism to make holy every day that the world – and too often the church – considers ordinary, as if any day on which God says, “Let there be light,” could be anything less than extraordinary.

Any day my brother chooses for the baptism will become a holy day – St. Madeleine’s day – and saints in heaven and saints on earth will rejoice, and the calendar of eternity will mark the feast.

Monday, May 30, 2011

No Bad Things

Some questions contain hidden assumptions or fallacies that render them nonsense, impossible to answer meaningfully. What color is yesterday? makes a category mistake; so too When is a square? What meaning would any answer offer?

My region of the country – the south and southeast – recently has experienced devastating storms, costly in property and, most tragically, in lives as well. In this we are not alone; the Midwest has suffered and is suffering still. More than once in the aftermath of these storms I have heard the age-old question, Why do bad things happen to good people? More lament than query, likely no answer is required, just prayer and compassion and assistance. That is just as well. The question as posed allows for no meaningful answer. Hidden assumptions and fallacies lie in wait for the unwary.

First, there is the notion of “good people.” This is a Romantic idea and perhaps an Enlightenment one. But, it is not a biblical notion. When hailed as “Good Teacher” by an apparently honest seeker, Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18, NRSV). Following this line of assessment, Paul writes:

‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one;

there is no one who has understanding,

there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;

there is no one who shows kindness,

there is not even one.’

‘Their throats are opened graves;

they use their tongues to deceive.’

‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’

‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’

‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;

ruin and misery are in their paths,

and the way of peace they have not known.’

There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (Rom 3:10-18, NRSV).

The Christian faith is not unduly pessimistic, just unflinchingly realistic about human nature. G. K. Chesterton once remarked – tongue-in-cheek but quite accurately nonetheless – that original sin is the only truly demonstrable Christian doctrine. Christians – at least those who look honestly into Scripture and into their own hearts – understand “good people” as a category mistake not unlike a blue yesterday or a 5 o’clock square. There simply is no category of people – even the best of the lot – that may be called good and thus may be granted immunity from the difficulties and tragedies of life. Those Christians well grounded in the ancient faith are much more likely to ask why good things happen to bad people rather than the other way round.

Second, there is the notion of “bad things.” It takes a bit more work to see this also as a category mistake, but I think it is worth the effort.

Things – by which we generally mean actions or events – certainly may be evil. Christians consider anything that opposes the will of God to be evil. Nor does one need be a Christian to recognize evil, though the lack of absolute referent may be problematic. Christian or not, humans consider such atrocities as the Holocaust evil; to refuse to apply the word “evil” to such things is to bring one’s own humanity into question. There is, then, clearly a category of things labeled evil, a category usually reserved for the actions of men. And it is legitimate to question why evil things happen – not to good people but to any people at all. The Christian story offers an answer, though one I am afraid is much out of favor presently: sin. Evil is the product of human choice – free choice, yes, but free choice which has been conditioned by all the errant choices of humanity that have shaped a world in which evil is most often the easiest of choices to make. An addict is free to refuse the next drink or pill, but his freedom is conditioned by all the previous choices to feed his addiction and by the culture of addiction in which he almost certainly lives. This is not to reduce personal responsibility, but to place it within a context of corporate responsibility, as well. We are individuals, but also corporate members of humanity and our choices matter not only to ourselves, but to all men.

In a separate category, things may be tragic. These are impersonal events which violate a sense of proper order, a sense of how things “ought” to be: the untimely death of a child or young adult; the devastation wrought by tsunami, tornados, floods – “natural” disasters; the hardships wrought by drought and famine, and the like. Unlike evil things, there apparently is no one to blame for tragic events – unless one seriously considers them “acts of God.” Such events are nondiscriminatory and random – they just happen – making no distinction between saint and sinner or prince and pauper. Yet again, the Christian story offers the same explanation for tragic events as for evil ones: sin. Human sin has disrupted the order of creation and has introduced entropy and corruption where once there was order and incorruption (cf Rom 8). Clearly human behavior impacts nature: oil spills, greenhouse emissions, deforestation, etc. The Christian story sees these specific examples as signs of a disease that infects man at a much more fundamental level. The world is out of sorts because man has failed to fulfill his vocation as steward of God’s creation. Creation suffers at our hands, and we, in turn, suffer at creation’s hands.

We could add other categories. Painful things come to mind – loss and hurt common to all men – like the dissolution of a marriage, the death of an aged parent, the financial collapse of a family business: things not unusual or unexpected, but hurtful nonetheless. But no matter how many categories we add, one will be missing: bad things. For by “bad things” I mean irredeemable events that separate one from the love and will of God; and these simply do not exist.

As one case in point Scripture offers the story of Joseph: sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused of attempted rape, wrongly imprisoned, and forgotten. And yet, when time came that Joseph could exact revenge on the very brothers who instigated these evil events he said instead:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen 50:19-20, NRSV).

This text does not deny that Joseph’s brothers intended evil. Nor does the entire story deny that evil resulted from their actions; slavery and false imprisonment are clearly evil acts. But the story will not allow any of these things to be called bad precisely because God redeemed them and used them not only for Joseph’s salvation, but for the salvation of many – and ultimately for the salvation of all through the preservation of Israel.

The story of Joseph is but one of many examples offered in Scripture. Paul draws all the specific examples together in a grand theological picture of the good things in the providence of God:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28, NRSV).

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35, 37-39, NRSV).

Evil things? Yes. Tragic things? Certainly. But bad things – things which are irredeemable by God, things which cannot be incorporated into his will for the salvation of man and the restoration of the cosmos? No. So, the Christian has no answer for the question of why bad things happen to good people because he knows it to be a meaningless question. Instead, the Christian would prefer to tell the story of a God who is even now through Christ putting all things to rights, who is even now drawing good from evil and tragic events alike. The Christian prefers to tell the final chapter of the story in which heaven and earth are joined, God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, and God is all in all – the final chapter:

God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away
(Rev 21:3b-4, NRSV).

This is more than semantics and sophistry; it is the Christian faith and hope that praise God as sovereign over his creation, that recognizes that our God is good and never stands helpless before his creation. It is the faith and hope that allow us to enter into the pain of the world in redemptive prayer and work, knowing that our God draws straight with crooked lines. He is, after all, the one who brought life for all from the death of his son – the greatest good from the worst evil. In light of the cross, there are no bad things – only things which God can and will use for good, for the life of the world.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Kingdom Response

The recent death of Osama bin Laden and the general reaction in the media and across our nation have again emphasized the inherent tension between citizenship in the nations of the world and citizenship in the Kingdom of God. It has verified for me that, indeed, “Christian Nation” is an oxymoron – even more, a category mistake. Individuals may be Christian, but nations are not in the category of things that can be Christian.

It seems to me entirely reasonable for the Commander-In-Chief of the United States to order the elimination of an enemy sworn to the destruction of our nation; I find no fault in a President acting in this manner. It is also not unexpected that citizens of the United States – as citizens of the United States – should feel a great sense of relief, and perhaps jubilation, that the enemy leader is no more. I can even – and perhaps especially – empathize with the families of the victims of 9/11 – victims themselves – in mixed feelings of justice and vengeance. The problem is that none of the actions or reactions is Christian. Our Lord, Commander-In-Chief of the Hosts of Heaven, commanded his followers to forego vengeance and retaliation, to pray for enemies, to show mercy toward them. He commanded us to forgive – seventy times seven. He commanded us to lay down the sword and to lay down our lives. I do not think a nation can do these things and survive. But Christians? We cannot ignore these things and survive. And therein lies the tension. We are simultaneously citizens of the United States and of the Kingdom of God, with conflicting values and demands imposed upon us. I am no better at reconciling these conflicts than anyone else. How do we start?

First, we must refuse to rejoice over the death of our enemy; we must, instead, mourn for the victory of Satan who so perverted an image-bearer of God that he could become our – or anyone’s – enemy. God desires not the death of a sinner; can we? And – Dare I say this? – we must pray for God’s mercy upon Osama bin Laden, that if possible, even now his heart may be turned to embrace our Lord and become our brother instead of our enemy.

Second, we must pray for our enemies who remain, that peace may rule their hearts and ours and that together we might worship our Lord.

Third, we must pray for ourselves – for the strength to follow our Lord and for forgiveness of the myriad of ways we are complicit in making enemies and adding to the burden of sin in the world.

Forth, we must continually re-evaluate our priorities and our loyalties. We are a kingdom and priests to serve the God and Father of our Lord Jesus. We cannot serve with bloody hands, unless that blood be our own, unless that blood be Christ’s.

I write these things, brothers and sisters, not to remove the speck from anyone’s eye, but rather humbly to acknowledge the log in my own. Of your mercy, please pray for this sinner.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Resurrection and Homelessness: St. Demetrios Antiochian Catholic Church

I do not solicit donations on this site. However, on rare occasions I call attention to need and commend certain ministries to your prayers. This is such a time.

St. Demetrios Antiochian Catholic Church is a small Orthodox parish that intentionally located in the heart of one of the poverty pockets of inner city Knoxville some seven years ago to serve the homeless and working poor. These good men and women have been faithful in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances, providing food, fellowship, and the Gospel to the many of the poor, alcoholic, drug addicted, and frequently incarcerated members of the community.

Among the other challenges facing such a minstry is the almost constant lack of adequate funding. The few, stable, working parishoners simply cannot bear the full financial burden and those served by the church are in no financial condition to contribute. St. Demetrios has always depended on the generosity of those in other churches or in no church at all who feel their work is important in showing Christ to a broken world. The worsening economy has taken a heavy toll on this good work, however. Contributions are fewer than in past years and are not adequate to allow St. Demtrios to fulfill its financial obligations of rent, utilities, and ministry expenses. The clergy have exhausted themselves physically and financially and the need is now severe. In a few days, the church will find itself homeless, unless significant contributions arrive.

I would like to commend this ministry to your prayers. And, if you feel led by God to make a financial contribution you may contact the bishop, Victor Mar Michael, at the following address:

St. Demetrios Antiochian Catholic Church

2001 Middlebrook Pike

Knoxville, TN 37921

The work is good, the people Godly, and the need urgent. What is needed is a moment of resurrection. As we have proclaimed many times this day:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!