Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reflection: Independence Day

I am a Christian in America – very gratefully in America, since this country affords me opportunities and liberties unavailable and even unimaginable in many other nations. And yet, I watch the approach of Independence Day with a certain ambivalence tinged with fear and trembling. On this day, like no other, there is a crossing of lines, a blurring of borders – a not so subtle insistence on serving two masters – as churches are decorated with patriotic bunting and cross and flag are adjoined in our sanctuaries, assuming the cross is still evidenced. A sign prominently displayed at one local megachurch tells the story:

Freedom in America
Freedom in Christ.

I struggle to understand what this sign is intended to communicate, and I struggle against what it might be intended to communicate. Does it proclaim that the freedom we have in America is the same freedom we have in Christ: that the freedom from sin and death won for us in and through the incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and preserved for us through the Holy Spirit is one in essence with the freedom from political oppression and tyranny won for us through the political insight, will, and revolution of our founding fathers and the ongoing heroic sacrifices of our military? But surely these freedoms are not consubstantial. The Christian narrative and the American narrative do not tell the same story, nor are they merely different chapters in the same book. The Christian narrative is based not upon certain unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but upon man’s rebellion against his Creator, upon repentance, upon the recognition that there is no life, liberty, or happiness apart from reconciliation with the Creator through his son, Jesus Christ. The Christian narrative has nothing to do with democratic rule and everything to do with the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom of God; its pledge is not of allegiance to a flag but to Jesus as Lord. Christian freedom is mediated through the proclamation of the Gospel, political freedom through the power of the sword. This distinction is particularly vital just now when America and other western nations are engaged in battle on multiple fronts with radical Islam. Christians must be clear and must clearly communicate that this war is not religious – our battles are not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities and the rulers of this dark age in the heavenly places – but political: a battle between democracy and shari’a. This battle is about the political right of a nation to defend itself from foreign threat. (Ironically, both sides agree on this.) It is about the self-interest of exporting democracy. But it is not about Christianity. To the extent this distinction is not made our faith suffers by appearing violent and imperialistic, exactly what our nation opposes in radical Islam. Freedom in America and Freedom in Christ are not the same.

Is the sign intended to communicate that America is – or was and may yet be again – a Christian nation? If so, this is simply, but importantly, a category mistake on the order of saying a dog can be a good cat if it only learns to meow and develops a certain disdain for humans. But no canine can ever legitimately be placed in the category feline, no matter its behavior. Likewise, no nation, however rightly it acts, can be placed in the category Christian. Christian denotes a human being created in the image of God, ravaged by sin, redeemed by the salvific acts of Christ, sealed and transformed by the Holy Spirit. The collection of all such Christians is the church – the Body of Christ – and not this nation or any nation. Nation denotes a social construct – a human invention – comprising a people, land, law, government. How would such a construct become Christian: by making and enforcing laws based upon biblical principles? But this very idea violates biblical principles. If we did not receive the Spirit through the works of the law or through some Pelagian-like heresy, how can an entire nation do so? While a nation can – and, Christians believe, should – strive for law based upon God’s sense of restorative justice – including a preferential option for the poor – that will not and cannot make that nation a Christian one, but simply a good secular one. Even these good laws must be imposed by the majority on the dissenting minority and enforced by the coercive power of real or threatened force: fine, imprisonment, and, in extreme cases, execution. But imposition and coercion never were and can never be the way of Christ. And, if threatened by enemies foreign or domestic – as it certainly will be – must not a nation protect itself by the power of the sword? “Put away your swords,” Jesus commanded his disciples precisely at the moment of greatest threat. Christians must do that, it seems; nations cannot. Christian nation is simply a category mistake that breeds confusion in our own minds and throughout the world. “If you are an American you must be a Christian,” is a damaging idea held by many around the world – an idea we have sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, promulgated.

I do not know what the sign is intended to communicate. Its ambiguity – and the blurring of distinctions between faith and patriotism evidenced in many Independence Day observances – is precisely the source of my ambivalence. So, I will opt for a hermeneutic of trust and attribute to the sign the most favorable interpretation. As a grateful citizen I will celebrate the political freedoms that are mine in America and honor those who have sacrificed to win and preserve those political freedoms. As a thankful Christian I will celebrate the spiritual freedom that is mine in Christ and worship the Lord of Life who sacrificed himself to win and preserve that spiritual freedom. I may possibly wave a flag, but I will certainly fall on my knees before the cross. And, I will be careful never to confuse the two.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Mutilated Mountain

Bishop N. T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, is a biblical exegete and historian of first rank. His academic and popular publications are for many -- and certainly for me -- great sources of knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration. Importantly, in all his academic endeavors, he has never lost his primary calling as pastor, as servant of the servants of God. He brings this pastoral calling and sensitivity to all he writes.

The following link is to a sermon Bishop Wright recently delivered which addresses the relationship between civil authorities and the kingdom of God. Though the context is British, it has universal application. Read and pray.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Quote: The Historic Understanding of the Incarnation

What lies at the heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that God is both Creator and Redeemer. He redeems what he creates. "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things...by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Col 1:19-20).

What God creates is good. The Fall is not an imprisonment in matter but a spiritual rebellion. Humanity chooses to direct life and unfold culture not according to the mandate of God but under the direction of the dark powers and principalities of this world. This, of course, affects life in the world. Instead of doing God's will in creation and making this world a theater of God's glory, humanity does the will of the evil one and turns life toward violence, hate, greed and the like. Humanity, which God created, then manifests evil in every structure of life -- political, economic, institutional, idealogical, family and personal relationships. So the world of God's creation, as Paul writes, is "subjected to frustration" and in "bondage to decay" (Rom 8:20, 21).

The biblical and historical understanding of the incarnation is that God becomes creation. He takes into himself all the effects of fallen humanity spread throughout his creation. He assumes all of creation in the womb of Mary in order to reverse the effects of sin and "bring it into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). The death and resurrection of God in Christ is then not a "release of the soul from its imprisonment to the material realm" (as Gnostics and the new spirituality assert) but a second act of creation, the redemption of the whole created order. Now, as Paul states, "the whole creation [is] groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (Rom 8:22). That is, the whole creation has been "born again" so to speak, and now waits for its final deliverance. The whole creation, from the perspective of the Christian narrative, is pregnant and awaiting redemption.

The ancient church fathers developed a saying to capture the cosmic nature of the incarnation and subsequent redemption. The saying made popular in the ancient church is, "only that which is assumed can be redeemed." In other words, God, in the incarnation, took up into himself the entire creation, so that the creation redeemed by God himself is now to be once again, as in the Garden, the theater of his glory.

The ancient church understood the impact of creation, incarnation, and re-creation on all of creation, and that is why Christians were the leaders in the arts, in learning and in the sciences. The christian faith narrates the world and gives shape to culture-making and to all of civilization.

from Who gets to Narrate the world? Robert E. Webber. IVP. 2008.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sermon: 3 Pentecost (21 June 2009)

Sermon: 3 Pentecost (21 June 2009)
(1 Sam 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49/Psalm 9:9-20/2 Cor 6:1-13/Mark 4:35-41)
That the Life of Jesus May Be Manifest

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Two weeks after Pentecost the Revised Common Lectionary plunged us – rather inexplicably – right into the middle of 2 Corinthians. The first week made little difference to us since we focused almost exclusively on the Gospel text. But this week it is the epistle that speaks most directly to the nature and mission of the church, and some background is required if we are to read the text aright. The Corinthian correspondence, and Paul’s relationship with that church, is complicated enough – in terms of chronology and personal dynamics – without starting midstream. The letter we call 2 Corinthians is almost certainly not the second letter Paul wrote to Corinth. In fact, 2 Corinthians may contain part of a letter Paul wrote before 1 Corinthians as well as a letter he wrote between 1 and 2 Corinthians. That probably makes 2 Corinthians 4 Corinthians. Confused yet? Let’s try to sort it out.

Though by no means certain, one of the reasonable and fairly standard reconstruction of events goes like this. Paul, with assistance of traveling companion Silas and local residents Aquila and Priscilla, established the Corinthian church – probably a confederation of house churches – near the end of his second missionary journey, c. 50. He remained in ministry there for some eighteen months before returning to Antioch in Syria via Ephesus, where he left Aquila and Priscilla to begin an Ephesian ministry. On his third missionary journey, c. 53-57, Paul returned to Ephesus for an extended stay. While he was there, word reached Paul of serious problems in the Corinthian church: sectarianism, sexual immorality, lawsuits between believers, marital issues, struggles with paganism, abuse of spiritual gifts and of the Lord’s Supper. From Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter – 1 Corinthians – to correct the understanding and conduct of the Corinthian Christians. It was a demanding and disciplinary letter that required some corrective response from the church. Worried about that response, Paul made a quick trip from Ephesus to Corinth to “check up” on the church. The visit was disastrous. Not only had the church not resolved the issues, but in Paul’s extended absence new leaders had arisen from within or infiltrated from without – leaders who presented themselves as super-apostles: charismatic, eloquent, impressive. They were, on the outside, everything that Paul was not. These super-apostles led the Corinthian church in disparaging treatment of Paul, questioning his credentials as an apostle and his authority over the church. Paul returned to Ephesus in turmoil and temporary defeat, almost despondent over the state of the Corinthian church and the ongoing difficulties of the work in Ephesus.

In this state of mind Paul wrote yet another letter to Corinth. Very harsh in tone, it is called the severe letter; some or all of it may be contained in 2 Corinthians 10-13. In this letter Paul “took on” the super-apostles by defending his own apostolic credentials and authority against theirs. He also promised/warned/threatened the church that he would come to them again soon in full apostolic power and judgment if necessary.

Have you ever hit the SEND button on a hastily written, harsh email and then immediately regretted sending it? Evidently Paul felt the same way after sending his severe letter. He worried that the letter might have made matters even worse. In true turmoil, he sent Titus to check on the Corinthian church, to see what effect the letter had produced. He was delighted to learn that his letter had brought the church to its senses and to true repentance and amendment of life. Relieved, he penned the more conciliatory letter we call 2 Corinthians.

Though gentler in tone than the severe letter, 2 Corinthians nonetheless continues Paul’s defense of his apostolic calling and authority and his appeal to the Corinthian Christians to respond to him as openly and genuinely as he has served them. This is where the lectionary locates us this morning, asking questions about the nature of and the bases for ministerial leadership and authority.

Let’s play a game of What If. What if you were Paul trying to defend your apostolic calling, ministry, and authority to the Corinthian Christians? Where might you start? I believe I might start at noonday, on a road to Damascus.

I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me (Act 26:12b-18, NRSV).

If I were Paul, I think would emphasize that my calling, my mission, my authority – like the calling, mission, and authority of the Twelve – came directly from Jesus and that, through this vision, I, too, had become a witness of the resurrected Lord. I think I would have started with the power and glory of my call.

But I am not Paul, and he chose quite differently.

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger (2 Cor 6:3-5, NRSV).

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sister; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Cor 11:24-28, NRSV).

Paul starts not with the power and glory of his call but with the suffering and humiliation of the ministry that resulted from that call. I can just imagine Paul standing before the Corinthian Christians – though I am certain this never happened – saying, “You want to see my credentials?” as he stripped his robe to reveal a body covered with ancient scars and recent wounds, a body almost impossibly alive. “These are my credentials!”

From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body (Gal 6:17).

To the super-apostles he might have said, “Show me your scars.” Christ’s call to ministry, though it might come in power and glory, is a call to take up the cross and follow him to Calvary; it is a call to suffering for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel. Christian ministry is cruciform, or it is no ministry at all. The Corinthians were impressed with what they could see on the outside – the look, the charisma, the eloquence of the super-apostles. God is interested in what is not seen; God is interested in the scars beneath the robe.

Little has changed in two millennia. The world is still impressed by appearance. Political candidates are not elected on substance, but on looks, charisma, eloquence. Products are marketed by young, thin, gorgeous actors who promise that, if you only use Product X, you will turn back the clock, shed 50 pounds, and have the look you’ve always dreamed of – with no effort, just by using the product. Super-apostles, many of whom may be seen on Sunday morning television, still look the part and still preach a gospel of health, wealth, and success. And God still looks for scars. The world may be manipulated – it certainly is manipulated – by those with looks and charisma and eloquence. But the world is redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ through his scarred and wounded servants, through those willing to embrace and share the pain and suffering of the world, through those who pour out their lives as a holy offering.

“When Jesus calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoffer began his classic work Discipleship, “when Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” So it always was, and so it always will be. The call to Christian life, which is always also a call to Christian ministry, is a call to martyrdom. In some places and times – even today – the martyrdom is visible and real: imprisonment, torture, death. Mostly for us, the martyrdom is hidden, though no less real – scars beneath the robe: hours spent in prayer, days of fasting, words of anger withheld and words of grace spoken, passions battled and put to death, pleasure foregone and service rendered, losing life to gain life. Visible or hidden, the Spirit-inflicted scars of martyrdom are still the credentials of ministry – for Paul, for me, for you, for the Body of Christ in the world.

Paul continues the defense of his apostolic call, ministry, and authority with these credentials: “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Cor 6:6-7a, NRSV). Imagine this. After spending several years in seminary preparing for the ministry, on the day before graduation a young man is called into his advisor’s office. “Thomas,” the advisor says, “you have an outstanding academic record here – top of your class, in fact. You are a fine looking young man, charismatic, eloquent. Still, I’m afraid we will not be awarding you a diploma tomorrow. You have no patience with yourself and with others. Your mentors here have noticed a “mean streak” in you, no genuine kindness; you impress people and manipulate them well, but you don’t truly seem to love them. Your speech is glib; you shy away from the difficult truth that should and must be spoken. Looking at you we see the excellence of Thomas but not the power of God. You are simply not ready for the ministry.” Perhaps this type of thing is done in seminaries; I don’t know. But I do know this: knowledge – the kind of knowledge that wins arguments and exercises superiority – “puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1b). Apostolic ministry and authority are based on love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; love that does not insist on its own way; love that is not irritable or resentful; love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth; love that bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor 13:4-7). Even in his severe letter, with the harshest of reprimand and discipline, Paul acted in love for the church. Hard truths must sometimes be spoken, but they may rightly be spoken only when motivated by love. Those we serve as ministers – and we are all called to ministries of service – may be impressed with how much we know, but they will be changed by how much and how well we love.

Paul ends this defense by noting his faithfulness “in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute.”

We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Cor 6:8-10, NRSV).

True ministry is often filled with paradox: strength in weakness, glory in humility, authority in service, victory in defeat, riches in poverty. A life in ministry is a life not always as it seems, not always as it looks, not always as it feels. A life in ministry is a life lived by faith and not by sight, a life lived by the power of the spirit and not by the power of the flesh.

5For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor 4:5-8, NIV).

“That the life of Jesus may be manifest,” Paul writes. That seems a fitting summary of Paul’s ministry and of all Christian ministry – yours and mine and ours included – and perhaps the only defense and credentials necessary: That the life of Jesus may be manifest – in the cruciform life that scars the back and breaks the heart and embraces the world, in love that builds up and redeems, in paradox that makes sense only by faith and not by sight.

You are called to ministry – different than Paul’s but not less than Paul’s. You may not think yourself – you may, in fact, not be – charismatic, eloquent, impressive. But you can embrace the pain and suffering of a broken world – one person at a time – and bear its scars. You can love with the love of God because you have received the love of God in Christ Jesus. You can live the paradox of God’s strength working in and through your own weakness. You can make the life of Jesus manifest in your life. These are the only credentials and defense you need. All that remains now is for you to go forth in the power of the Spirit; go for into your ministry bearing these credentials that the life of Jesus may be manifest.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Quote: Being In Christ

In Jesus Christ, God became flesh to restore being into our nonbeing by reconciling us to the one “in whom we live, and breath, and have our being.” When the Word that was with God, the Word that was God, became flesh and dwelt among us, being was restored into the nothingness we made of our lives and the world (John 1:1-18). As the Holy Spirit binds us to this Word, allowing us to live “in Christ,” we recover the life we were created to enjoy (Eph 1:3-14). So, to be clear, we don’t make a living. We receive it through our participation in the Christ, who has brought us home to communion with the Creator.

The truth is that if God is not creating our lives, then those around us are. The mother now takes fulfillment in her work only if her children grow up as well as she dreams they will. Office workers and teachers expect the affirmation of good reviews from their supervisors and the rewards of promotions and increased remuneration. Lawyers and doctors need their practices to expand. Entrepreneurs consider themselves a success only if the deals go through. Politicians are completely dependent on the affirmation of the public. There is no such thing as a self-constructed life. There is only being in Christ, or there is the nothingness that others create for us.

Reflection: What Is The Gospel But This

And what is the Gospel but this: that in the incarnation God united his divinity with our humanity that he might unite our humanity with his divinity, making us partakers of the divine nature, and adopting us as true sons and daughters of God; that in the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, God revealed his fullness in bodily form so that, having seen the Son, we have seen the Father, full of grace and truth; that in the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God took away the sin of the world, abolishing the charges against us and reconciling man to God; that in his burial and descent to hell Christ our Champion harrowed hell and set free from Satan’s bondage the righteous of ages past and the righteous of ages yet to come; that in his glorious resurrection Christ our Victor led captivity captive and defeated death, opening the gates of paradise and life everlasting; that in his ascension Christ took his rightful place of glory at the right hand of the Father and began his reign as King of kings and Lord of lords over all creation; that in his coming again all men will stand before his judgment seat to receive what is due for the things done while in the body: eternal life for those who seek for glory, honor, and immortality, but indignation and wrath for those who do not obey the truth but obey unrighteousness.

What is the gospel but this: the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes; the redemption in Christ Jesus – in whose name alone all men must be saved – whom God set forth as an offering for sin so that God might be just and be the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Quote: Symeon the New Theologian

If, when all visible reality has passed away, nothing shall exist but God, who is and ever shall be, then those who share in the riches of his grace within this world are already enjoying their riches of the age to come, even though they are still on earth. They groan in the shadows under the weight of their burden (Symeon the New Theologian: The Practical and Theological Chapters and the Three Theological Discourses. Cistercian Publications. 1982.).

Friday, June 12, 2009

In Memoriam

For several years our Spiritual Formation Group has worked with a local nursing home. Tonight we learned that one of residents -- a most delightful sister in Christ who ministered to us far more than we ministered to her -- fell asleep in the Lord. Though we sorrow, we do not mourn as those without hope. Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Mildred. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

May her soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Sermon: 2 Pentecost 2009 (14 June 2009)

Sermon: 2 Pentecost (14 June 2009)
(1 Samuel 15:34-16:13/Psalm 20/2 Corinthians 5:6-17/Mark 4:26-34)
Christ the King

(I must gratefully acknowledge N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, for his thought and writing on the Kingdom of God – much of which finds its way into this sermon. References are provided in the footnotes.)

Blessed be God and blessed be his kingdom now and forever. Amen.

Before we engage the Scripture this morning – and really as an introduction to the Scripture – let’s pause briefly to get our liturgical bearings, to see exactly where we are and where we are headed in the great cycle of feasts and fasts that tells our story and draws us into it anew each year.

The Easter cycle, with the climactic events of the story, is behind us: the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and, most recently, his ascension and the ensuing descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The season after Pentecost, which we enter now, is often called Ordinary Time in the Western church due to its lack of major, extraordinary, feasts.[1] Of course, there is nothing truly ordinary about it; this season focuses on the nature and ministry of the church, that most extraordinary mystical body of Christ for which he died and rose victorious.

Ordinary Time can be quite long when Easter comes early as it did this year – some six months long. It seems long, too, with no great celebrations to punctuate it. Sometimes, at best, we just faithfully slog through it. Even that is a fitting symbol of the long church age – some two millennia and counting now – during which the church has, with greater and lesser faithfulness, pursued its mission, slogging through, waiting for Jesus. This waiting for Jesus intensifies as the weeks of Ordinary Time pass. It finally propels us into the season of Advent, that dual-natured time that recalls the past hope of Christ’s incarnation in humility and anticipates the hope of his return in glory.

Recently – within the last forty years or so, which is the blink of an eye to the church – several expressions of the Western church, led by Rome, have inserted a new feast – and, in some cases, a new season – into the liturgical calendar between Ordinary Time and Advent. The last four weeks of Ordinary Time have become the Kingdom Season and the last Sunday before Advent has become the Feast of Christ the King or the Feast of the Reign of Christ. On the surface this seems at least harmless and perhaps a good and welcomed innovation; it enlivens Ordinary Time and it celebrates the Lordship of Jesus Christ, always a good and joyous thing. On further reflection, though, we realize that the placement of the Kingdom Season and the Feast of Christ the King at the end of Ordinary Time – the period which focuses on the nature and mission of the church – changes the story entirely. The new season tells the wrong story and leads to a seriously distorted understanding of Christ (Christology) and the church (ecclesiology).[2]

How so? Well, let’s pick up the church’s “revised” story at Ascension. On that day our Lord returns to his former glory in heaven at God’s right hand. Ten days later, in fulfillment of his promise, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit (John 16:7) to indwell and empower his disciples and to inaugurate the church age – Ordinary Time, in the liturgical cycle: two thousand years of it so far in which the church has more or less faithfully executed its mission. And what is that mission? Look ahead in the story. In the “revised” version the story ends with Kingdom Season and the Feast of Christ the King. The implications are clear. The church age ends when the church has completed its mission of building the Kingdom of God. Then, and only then, does Christ assume his rightful place as King; then and only then does the Reign of Christ begin. In this new version of the story, the Kingdom of God and the Reign of Christ both result from the mission of the church. This is precisely where the new story gets it wrong; the placement of the Kingdom Season and the Feast of Christ the King reverses cause-and-effect.

What of the traditional telling of the story – the telling in the Gospels, in Acts, in the Epistles and the Revelation, and the telling in the church in ages past? It is perfectly clear in Matthew: before the Ascension, before Pentecost, before Ordinary Time.

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up 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 the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:16-20, NASB).

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore,” Jesus says to the twelve, to the nucleus of the church. This is the gospel order: the reign of Christ does not come as the result of the church accomplishing its mission; the church has a mission to accomplish because Christ has already begun his reign, because the Kingdom of God has already come, because Jesus is already Lord of all creation. The established fact of the Reign of Christ is precisely what gives the church its mission and what defines the mission of the Church: to live, in the present, under the Lordship of Christ and to announce to a rebellious world that Jesus is Lord and Christ – King and Savior. This is exactly what Peter proclaims in his Pentecost sermon:

“Therefore, let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36, NASB).

This is exactly the reason Peter and John get all uppity when confronted by the deposed powers of their day:

“Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be know to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Act 4:8b-12, NASB).

This is exactly why St. John’s vision of heaven in the opening chapters of the Revelation – heaven as it was in his day and is now – is that of God enthroned and the Lamb – our Lord Jesus – receiving the praise of all creation:

“Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

“You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign on earth”(Rev 5:9b-10, NASB).

While our reign is yet to come, Jesus’ reign is a present reality.

This is exactly why St. Paul continually invokes the earliest and most fundamental creed of the church – Jesus is Lord – to remind the church and the powers-that-think-they-be that the Kingdom of God has come, that Jesus has begun his reign, and that all nations and people had best heed the warning of the Psalmist.

1 Why are the nations in an uproar? *
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?

2 Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,
and the princes plot together, *
against the Lord and against his Anointed?

3 “Let us break their yoke,” they say; *
“let us cast off their bonds from us.”

4 He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
the Lord has them in derision.

5 Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
and his rage fills them with terror.

6 “I myself have set my king *
upon my holy hill of Zion.”

7 Let me announce the decree of the Lord: *
he said to me, “You are my Son;
this day have I begotten you.

8 Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for
your inheritance *
and the ends of the earth for your possession.

9 You shall crush them with an iron rod *
and shatter them like a piece of pottery.”

10 And now, you kings, be wise; *
be warned, you rulers of the earth.

11 Submit to the Lord with fear, *
and with trembling bow before him;

12 Lest he be angry and you perish; *
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

13 Happy are they all *
who take refuge in him!

The biblical witness is clear and emphatic, and the testimony of the church in ages past is unwavering: the Kingdom of God has come already through the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ who already has begun his reign as Lord of heaven and earth. The mission of the church is not to build the kingdom so that Christ may begin his reign, but to announce to the world that God has already established the Kingdom of his Christ, that Christ is even now reigning over all creation, and that the world had better recognize the facts, repent of its rebellion, and bow before its true King.

So, we do not need another feast to celebrate Christ the King or the Reign of Christ, and particularly not one that comes at precisely the wrong time in the liturgical cycle. N. T. Wright says it this way.

First, we already have a ‘Feast of Christ the King’. It is called Ascension Day, and occurs forty days after Easter. It celebrates the time when the disciples recognized that the risen Lord Jesus was now the true King of the world… [He] has brought to birth a new sort of kingdom, a kingdom not from this world but emphatically for this world. Easter and Ascension, taken together, constitute Jesus as Messiah and King, as Lord of the world.

The mission of the church presupposes this. Going into the world to declare that Jesus is Lord only makes sense if he is already reigning, not if the church is merely suggesting that he might perhaps reign at some point in the distant future, at the end of the long years of church history (represented, in the church’s year by the Trinity Season [Ordinary Time]).

The church is privy to a great mystery – not a secret, but a mystery once hidden and now revealed: despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus Christ is already King of all creation – of heaven and earth – and the Kingdom of God has already come. Ordinary Time – the church age – is actually Kingdomtide, a celebration of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This great truth propels the Spirit-empowered church into mission: to proclaim Kingdom-come to those who have yet to hear that good news and to those would-be powers who rebel against that good news, and to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God – not intimidated by the would-be powers and not conformed to their would-be rule.

What is this already present Kingdom of God like? It’s like…well, it’s like

“a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade” (Mk 4:31-32, NKJV).

Isn’t this just like our God to take something apparently small, insignificant – weak even – and use it to conquer all the powers and principalities, rulers and authorities arrayed against him? He did so with the cross; he does do now with a mustard seed kingdom and a crucified king before whom one day every knee will bow – in heaven, on earth, and under the earth – and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (cf Phil 2:10-11).

What is it like with this already present Kingdom of God? It’s as if…well, it’s as if

“a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mk 4:26b-29).

In this already present but ever growing Kingdom of God our role is to sleep by night and rise by day; to plant, water, weed, and prune; and then to sleep and rise again – day after day, year after year, millennia after millennia. It is God’s role to provide the growth – and we might very well not know how he does it or even recognize that he is doing it. In speaking of Apollos and himself – of their work in Corinth – Paul writes:

Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers (1 Cor 3:5-9a, NKJV).

God takes our faithfulness – our apparently insignificant mustard-seed prayers and works and sacrifices – and builds them together into his kingdom for his glory. God builds the kingdom, but not independent of us; we are God’s fellow workers: not that he needs our efforts, but that he has dignified and honored man by making us agents of the Kingdom.

So, we now enter Ordinary Time, though it is anything but ordinary. It is Kingdomtide, a celebration of the Kingdom of God and the Reign of Christ the King, a reminder to the church that the Kingdom of God has come, that Christ has begun his reign, and that the church has a mission: to proclaim Jesus as Lord, to live under his Lordship, and to offer God our prayers and worship and work as building blocks for the Kingdom.


[1] It is also called Trinity Season, beginning, as it does, with the Feast of the Trinity and celebrating the church’s empowerment for ministry by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.
[2]N. T. Wright has analyzed this most clearly in his books For All The Saints?, Morehouse (2004), and Surprised By Hope, Harper One (2008).
[3] N. T. Wright. For All The Saints? p. 66.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Feast of the Holy Trinity

Feast of the Holy Trinity: 7 June 2009
(Isaiah 6:1-8/Psalm 29/Romans 8:12-17/John 3:1-17)
We believe in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Following is an abstract of the sermon for The Feast of the Holy Trinity. More complete notes are available upon request by email.)

O blessed Trinity,
in whom we know the Creator of all things seen and unseen,
the Savior of all both near and far,
the Seal and Guarantor of our inheritance:
By your Spirit enable us to worship your divine majesty,
that with all the company of heaven
we may magnify your glorious name, saying:
Holy, holy holy is the Lord of hosts,
the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Glory to you, O Lord most high.

So begins our liturgy on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Trinity from which our church receives its name. It is a glorious day, but also a day which presents a great challenge to all ministers: how to speak of homoousios and homoiousios, hypostases and personhood, creeds and councils, Athanasius and Arius without glazing over the eyes of every congregant within earshot; how to verbalize that which is beyond language; how to explain that which is beyond human comprehension. And yet we try, for the Trinity – God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the essential center of our faith, as the Athanasian Creed (ca 5th -6th centuries) professes.

WHOSOEVER WILL BE SAVED, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.

So, on alternate years it seems – and sometimes within the same sermon – we treat the Trinity as either an abstract theological puzzle to be solved with precise definitions, logical arguments, and clever analogies or else as a transrational doctrine that cannot be understood and that must be embraced by faith alone -- “I do not understand, yet I believe.” Having tried both approaches – on alternate years and within the same sermon – I now see the inadequacy of each. Quite simply, the Trinity is neither an intellectual problem nor a transrational doctrine. Rather, the Trinity is a description of ultimate Reality as revealed to and experienced by the apostles and the church. Further, the Trinity is a Life to be lived by all God’s people, an abiding presence of God that makes us partakers of the divine nature (2 Pe 1:1-4) and that, through God’s presence, draws us into the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit evermore (cf 2 Cor 13:14). The Trinity is not an ancient, abstract dogma; the Trinity is the ongoing life of the church.

The Trinity reveals the God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), the God who is the very ground and source of being, as our Father – a Father who through his providence provides all things necessary for our life and for our salvation, a Father who is best described as love and who loves prodigally.

The Trinity reveals the God who is, in his essence, always other than his creation, as the Son incarnate, as the Son who unites his divinity with our humanity that we might be healed (cf Is 53), as the divine Son who became man that men may, by grace, become divine sons (Rom 8:14-17).

The Trinity reveals the God who is, by nature, transcendent as the immanent and indwelling Holy Spirit, as the seal of our redemption who incorporates us into the divine life (cf John 14:15-21), who equips us for ministry (Eph 4:7-16), who prays in and through and for us (Rom 8:26).

The Trinity is neither an intellectual problem to be solved nor a transrational doctrine blindly to be embraced. The Trinity is nothing less than the very life of the church: created and sustained by God the Father, redeemed and healed by God the Son, sealed and incorporated into the divine life by God the Holy Spirit.

The Feast of the Holy Trinity reminds us that, as Christians, we have not said God until we have said Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to whom belongs all glory, honor, might, greatness and magnificence, now and for ever.

And so, our liturgy on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, ends with the benediction:

Praise be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
the Three in One, the One in Three,
of whom all nature has creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the Lord of our salvation:
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with you all evermore.