Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sermon: 13 Pentecost (30 August 2009)

Sermon: 13 Pentecost (30 August 2009)
(Song of Solomon 2:8-13/Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9/Ephesians 5:21-6:9/Mark 7:1-23)
It All Boils Down To This

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

I have never found reductionism very helpful; much of life – seemingly all the important aspects of life – is irreducibly complex. So, when someone says to me, “Well, it all boils down to this one thing,” I know that it generally doesn’t and that the speaker has probably failed to grasp the true complexity of the situation. I once listened to a Christian speaker tell a congregation that the entire gospel boils down to loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself. Of course, Jesus never said that – not about the gospel anyway. And I wondered: Does the speaker really see vanishingly little importance in the incarnation, ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Can these really be boiled down and out of the gospel? Certainly, the framers of the Creed and the fathers of our faith didn’t think so. No, I have never found reductionism very help.

So, no reductionism for me – well, except maybe for this once: because progress in the Christian life really can be boiled down to one thing. Perhaps there is better way to say that: no significant spiritual growth will happen without one particular quality, a quality which serves as the foundation upon which Christian character is built. Since the Desert Fathers (abbas) – monks of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries who left their cities for solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria – knew and explored this quality so thoroughly, I’ll let their stories and sayings introduce this one essential quality.

Macarius was once returning to his cell from the marsh carrying palm leaves. The devil met him by the way, with a sickle, and wanted to run him through with it but he could not. The devil said, ‘Macarius, I suffer a lot of violence from you, for I can’t overcome you. For whatever you do, I do also. If you fast, I eat nothing; if you keep watch, I get no sleep. There is only one quality in which you surpass me.’ Macarius said to him, ‘What is that?’ The devil answered, ‘Your humility; that is why I cannot prevail against you.’[1]

And Theodore, deacon in Scetis said,

‘Humility and the fear of God surpass all the other virtues.’ ‘The gateway is humility: our predecessors suffered much and therefore entered heaven joyfully.’[2]

And there it is: if progress in the spiritual life must be reduced, boiled down, to just one thing, that thing would be humility.

Examples abound in Scripture, some from the mouth of our Lord, himself.

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14, NKJV).

And when his disciples asked Jesus who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus

called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:2b-4, NKJV).

Of course, Jesus didn’t simply talk about the importance of humility. Jesus was himself the greatest example of such humility, as Paul reminds his brothers and sisters in Philippi.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phil 2:5-8, NKJV).

Clearly then, even if you are not willing to boil down progress in the spiritual life solely to humility, you nonetheless have to admit that it is exceptionally important. We have it on Christ’s authority.

If humility is so important, how do we get it? How do we cultivate humility, even presuming we’d want to? Well, you’re not going to like the answer: I don’t; no one does. But here it is: Submit to one another in the fear of God (cf Eph 5:21). Paul says it here in Ephesians, and both James, the brother of our Lord, and Peter insist upon it also.

Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for

“God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you (1 Pe 5:5-7, NKJV).

I know what this looks like in a monastery where each monk takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; being submissive means obeying the abbot in all things and living under the order’s spiritual rule. I know what this looked like among the desert fathers and mothers; being submissive meant deferring to one another’s judgments, putting the others first, and considering oneself truly as the chief of sinners. But, we are not monks or desert abbas or ammas. How do we acquire humility through submission? What does that look like? Before I answer – before Paul answers; I’m not taking the heat for him on this one! – let me warn you that you’re really not going to like the answer. We learn humility not within the cloister or out in the desert, but within the familiar territory of human relationships: in the home, in the workplace, in the church. We learn humility by being submissive to members of our own family, to our employers, to our elder brothers and sisters in the faith. And that is hard, especially when our husband is a boor, our wife is a nag, our boss is a jerk, and the saints of God are hypocritical prigs. Do I really mean to tell you that you must be submissive to these kinds of people? Of course not, but Paul does – if you want to make progress in the spirit, if you want to have in you the mind of Christ.


wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything (Eph 5:22-24, NKJV).

The battle of the sexes – skirmishes and all out war for dominance and advantage – is a consequence of ancestral sin. In the beginning Adam loved Eve as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone and Eve was delighted to be his helper, comparable to him. The two were joined and became one flesh. But then came the deceiver, and the sin, and the separation, alienation, and accusation. In consequence the woman was subjected to her husband: “Your recourse will be to your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16b, OSB).

I can’t hear this text as a woman; I don’t know how most women react to it. But I do know that submission by anyone in any form is an affront to the fallen nature of man. The passions of pride and selfishness war against it. And that is precisely the point: the passions must be put to death and the only way to do so is willingly to embrace submission – as an act of obedience to the Lord – and to pray for humility. Christian wives practice submission and perfect humility in the most intimate and challenging relationship of all: marriage. This is not about who’s better or smarter or any other comparative you want to name; this is about spiritual growth and transformation. This is not about subjugation; this is about spiritual freedom. This is not about punishment; this is about the means to a glorious, spiritual end. This is about the mind of Christ in the person of a Christian wife.


Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish (Eph 5:25-27, NKJV).

I probably shouldn’t presume to speak for all men, but that won’t stop me. Men get married for a variety of reasons: love, lust, convenience, family, stability, economics – some reasons noble and some reasons base. But I don’t know that I’ve ever met a man who married solely, or even primarily, for the spiritual welfare of his wife: to sanctify her and cleanse her, to present her holy and without blemish to the Lord. No. Our motives typically are much more self-centered and self-serving than that. So Paul asks from Christian husbands – as he does from Christian wives – a most difficult measure of submission: to subordinate self-interest and personal satisfaction to the interest and satisfaction and welfare of another. Husbands are asked to view their wives through the lens of Christ, to see them first as spiritual sisters – for whom they are responsible to the Lord – and only second as physical mates. I don’t know whose task of submission is more difficult, wives or husbands. But that way lies humility – and only that way – and it is humility we must have.

Children do not escape Paul’s notice either.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (Eph 6:1-3, NKJV).

Is there anything more headstrong, more opinionated, more naturally resistant to obedience than a teenager? Oh sure, a teenage child most always will do what the parents require because they have little choice. But I’ve heard the under-the-breath muttering often enough, seen the roll of the eyes and the hands-on-the-hips slouch and experienced the whatever attitude often enough to know that obedience frequently is grudging at best, and certainly not rendered in a spirit of willing submission and respect. And I have a great teenager. I can only image what some parents experience.

But, frankly, parents – fathers – we often provoke and exasperate our children by speaking foolishness. “Do this,” we say, sometimes for no apparent reason. “Why?” they ask, sometimes reasonably, sometimes with attitude. And then we fathers play the trump card: “Because I’m your father and I said so.” As Christian fathers we can do better than that; we must do better than that. “Why?” a child asks. “Because whether I’m right or wrong, your obedience is right and pleasing in the Lord’s sight and will make you holy.” That is an answer full of Christian wisdom and humility.

And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4, NKJV).

The Christian family is among the best of all human relationships, and is fertile ground for the practice of submission and the development of humility. Some human relationships, though, are by their very nature coercive; yet, even these can be fires in which to refine humility.

Bondservants [slaves], be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is slave or free (Eph 6:5-8, NKJV).

I’ve seen and heard this passage cheapened in commentaries and study Bible notes and in Sunday School classes. This text is not about employee-employer relationships. This is about slaves and their masters, about humans owned by other humans, about men and women in the most vulnerable and powerless of situations.[3] It is about the restaveks in Haiti – children sold into chattel slavery because their parents can no longer feed them. It is about the millions of slaves in India and Pakistan and Sudan. It is about the forgotten ones who are not forgotten by God, about the powerless ones who nonetheless have the power to be holy. It is about redemption of a seemingly hopeless situation. For the slave – like the husband and wife and child – hope and power lie in submission, not submission in fear but in promise that submission produces humility and humility produces Godliness. Obey not because you must, but because by God’s grace you can and because by God’s grace your obedience furthers your salvation. In this way the slave becomes as powerful as any master.

And Paul certainly limits the power of the Christian master – actually exhorts the master to be submissive to the needs of the slave, a thing unheard of in Paul’s day.

And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him (Eph 6:9, NKJV).

This is a remarkable passage emphasizing the equality of master and slave before God, and yet for some people even this is not enough: they condemn Paul because he fails to condemn slavery. But surely this misses the point entirely. Paul’s concern is not whether the social institution of slavery should stand, but how Christians should stand within that, or any, social institution – stand in such a way that submission, humility, and salvation are possible within that institution. This theology nullifies the power of any institution to demean or coerce by giving individuals the power to choose holiness. Yes, there are still many coercive and abusive social institutions. But, thanks be to God, we do not have to wait until they are all abolished before we can practice submission, develop humility, and work out our salvation. In fact, those very institutions might even come to our aid by providing us the arena in which to battle our pride and lust for power.

So, it all boils down to this. Beloved, be submissive one to another. Wives, honor your husbands and do all things with respect. Husbands, love your wives and put their welfare – spiritual as well as physical – before your own. Children, obey your parents, not because you have to, but because it is right and pleases God. Mothers and fathers be good to your sons and daughters and raise them in the Lord. You powerless, remember that God empowers you through your willing submission. You powerful, remember to submit yourselves to the Lord who alone has true power.

Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for

“God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. Amen.
[1] Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. Penguin Books, p. 156.
[2] Ward, p. 154.
[3] While there were varieties of servitude in first-century Roman culture, the term Paul uses in this text – doulos, pl. douloi – is most typically used to indicate a slave as opposed to an indentured servant.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Reflection: What Does Salvation Look Like?

What does salvation look like?

(The following reflection stems from a spirited – and I think, Spirited – discussion of good, evil, the heart of man, and the nature of salvation among the members of the Spiritual Formation Group to which I belong. Since several of the members of the group are also members of Trinity Church, and since we will not all meet together for another two weeks, I thought a post here might clear up some issues and spur further thought and prayer. Feel free to “listen in” on our discussion. Perhaps you’ll care to share your thoughts with us.)

Let the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

“What does salvation look like?” That is the question lingering from our last meeting. I’m afraid my answer then was far from satisfactory and I’d like to explain my poor response and then try to do a bit better.

“What does Mount LeConte look like?” you might well have asked instead. The truth is I’ve never been there. I have hiked half the trail by accident when I missed the fork leading to Charlie’s Bunion and unknowingly headed off toward LeConte. But the trail got steep, it was late, and I was tired. So, I turned around and discovered my error on the way back to the trailhead. “What does Mount LeConte look like?” Well, I can’t say from first-hand experience, but I can tell you about part of the trail headed in that direction. And, having read various hiking guidebooks and looked at photographs I can give you a decent description of the destination. Even better, I can point you toward some people who have completed the hike and let you ask them directly.

“What does salvation look like?” The truth is I haven’t reached it, if we understand salvation as the healing of the soul, the divinization of man (theosis). I have begun to walk the path and I can share my experience thus far. And, having read the Scriptures and having received the teaching of the Church I think I can give you a decent description. In the lives of the saints you can meet some people who are much farther along the way and some who have reached theosis, though I suspect there is always farther to go and greater union with God to experience.

So, I will hazard an answer because you asked and because the Church has provided us all with an answer. I trust in the grace of God and the presence of the Spirit to aid me in my weakness.

As we’ve discussed there are two distinct understandings of salvation, one emphasized in the Western Church – forensic salvation, a courtroom model – and one in the Eastern Church – therapeutic salvation, a hospital model. Both are present in Scripture along with several others and both should be taken seriously as part of God’s revelation of our great salvation.

In forensic salvation the human problem is seen primarily as guilt. We have inherited sin and guilt from our first parents; original sin is the theological term. Thus, from our birth we stand guilty before God, the Judge. Of course, we add to that original sin our own personal sin, so we stand doubly guilty. God has declared the death penalty upon all such sinners: “In the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall surely die,” God said to Adam. And Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death. So we are condemned – under the death sentence – by our very humanity and by our own disobedience.

And yet…and yet God truly loves his creation and desires its restoration. Therefore he takes upon himself the death penalty for our sin through the sacrifice of his only begotten son, Jesus – God from God – who for us and for our salvation became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. With the penalty paid and the guilt erased, man can once again enter a relationship with God. In the forensic – courtroom – model, the substitutionary death of Jesus and our acceptance of it through faith and baptism, allows God to declare us not guilty. It is by grace we are saved, through faith – an act of God on our behalf, not of works that we do. And this is certainly true, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it is usually presented in a truncated form that leaves the sinner declared not guilty but also leaves the sinner not truly changed. And that brings us to the therapeutic model.

In the therapeutic model the human problem is seen primarily as spiritual illness and death. We have inherited not our first parents’ guilt, but the cosmic and personal consequences of their sin: a broken world (cf Rom 8), forgetfulness of God, a proclivity to sin, and spiritual illness leading to death. Ancestral sin is the theological term. What is necessary for us and for our salvation is not, in the first instance, a declaration of not guilty, but a healing of the soul, a real transformation toward holiness that makes union with God possible. And so Jesus becomes incarnate – again from love – by uniting his divinity with our humanity. This is the great exchange. He receives our humanity and we receive his divinity. He receives our sin and we receive his purity (cf Is 53). He receives our death and we receive his life. He receives union with man and we receive union with God. As I’ve mention before, the classic, patristic summary of all this comes from St. Athanasius: He became man that we might become god. Not that we become God by nature or are absorbed into the Divine, but that we are transformed into his likeness by grace.

And now we come to a central feature of the therapeutic model. This transformation is not instantaneous; it is a process. It begins when we put on Christ in our baptism and receive the empowering, indwelling seal of the Holy Spirit. Now, here is the part of this model that makes most Western Protestants wary: the transformation process continues only with our participation – our work. We are not saved – in the therapeutic sense of being spiritual healed – by our work, but neither are we saved apart from it. All this is grace – God’s presence with us, empowering us for the work of salvation (Phil 2:12-13). The ability to work out our salvation with fear and trembling is a gift of God’s grace. There is no room for boasting in the therapeutic model just as no one receiving life-giving treatment at a hospital boasts of driving himself to the emergency room. And yet the driving was certainly necessary.

“What does salvation look like?” It depends on which model you explore, though I suggest that the two are not as incompatible as many Christians – both Western and Eastern – seem to suggest. Salvation is a mosaic and we sometimes dwell on an individual tile as if it were the whole image. But, to answer your question, I think we need to focus primarily on the therapeutic model.

According to many patristic sources, the healing of the soul occurs in three phases: purification, illumination, and divinization (theosis). Purification is the elimination of the passions that wage war against us and lead us away from God; it is attainment of the dispassionate life. We all struggle with the passions: anger, hatred, selfishness, pride, lust, greed, and so on. I could add to my personal list and you could to yours, as well! As an antidote, the Church offers askesis – the disciplines of self-denial: prayer, fasting, vigils, alms-giving, silence, study, service, and so on. These, of course, are empowered by the sacraments, particularly Holy Eucharist and Confession. And, it should go without saying, that askesis is performed within a worshipping community, the local church. The ascetical life brings the passions under control of the spirit/Spirit. “What does salvation look like?” In the first stage it looks like purification, like liberation from those habits, vices, and reactions that keep us from loving God wholly and our neighbors as ourselves. A dispassionate person has been freed from anger and selfishness, vanity and pride, lust and greed and all the rest. Worry is replaced with trust in God, fear with love, and sadness with joy. The Sermon on the Mount gives a good picture of a purified soul, as does the life of Jesus in the Gospels or the lives of the saints in many biographies. In the Sermon Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And that purification brings us to the next stage – illumination, knowing God.

According to the Fathers, ancestral sin darkened man’s nous, the spiritual mind by which man can directly perceive and know God – know God not abstractly as a concept or idea, but intimately as a Person. Man literally became ignorant of God as a Person. Purification enlightens the nous, providing spiritual illumination and direct knowledge of God. Prayer becomes ceaseless – not babbling constantly, but continual spiritual converse with and awareness of God. It is no longer necessary to say I believe in God; one can truly say, I know God. The illuminated person has passed beyond concept to experience. Do you remember in the Gospels that even Jesus’ detractors admitted that he taught as one with authority and not as the Scribes and Pharisees? Jesus spoke from experience, they from concepts. “What does salvation look like?” In the second stage it looks like illumination: mindfulness/awareness of God, ceaseless prayer, relational knowledge of God. (As you’ve certainly guessed, by now I’m quoting you the guidebooks.)

This brings us, at last, to divinization (theosis) about which I can say very little. Theosis is divine union, becoming truly a partaker of the divine nature. It is seeing God and the spiritual realm as present reality in which the communion of saints becomes living, experienced reality, and heaven becomes as real as earth – not constantly, perhaps, but frequently. Stories are the best I can do here, so I recommend Isaiah 6, Matthew 17, 2 Corinthians 12:1-6. I recommend the lives of the saints and elders, particularly those of the Athonite tradition, like Elder Paisios (found in books like The Mountain of Silence and The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios). Think of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, face glowing with divine light. Think of Abba Joseph standing with hands spread in prayer, fingers aflame with divine fire ( Think of Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor, suffused with divine light and accompanied by the Hebrew saints Moses and Elijah. These are stories that point the way toward theosis and tell us what salvation looks like.

“What does salvation look like?” It looks like the Church walking the way of Jesus, all of us at different points on the path of purification, illumination, and divinization. It looks like our brothers and sisters in the faith, the saints. Ultimately, it looks like Jesus who shows us the perfect union of God and man. Better than this I cannot do.

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

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stomen kalos! Da Lifneh Mi Atah Omed!

We stand for the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, heads bare, hearts covered. Our assembled elders may well correct us if we do not. Being older myself and in many ways old-fashioned, I was taught to stand in the presence of a lady – and all women were assumed to be such – and in the presence of my elders, and to remain standing until they were seated. I’m not certain my generation has effectively passed on this sign of respect to its children. How you stand and before whom you stand says a lot about a person and about a culture.

In the Syriac Divine Liturgy of Saint James the deacon repeatedly exhorts the church, “Stomen kalos:” stand well, stand aright. Likewise, in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, the deacon proclaims: “Let us stand well. Let us stand in awe. Let us be attentive, that we may present the holy offering in peace.” Standing is important, how we stand perhaps more so.

In many Orthodox Jewish synagogues, carved above the ark in which rests the Torah scroll are the words Da Lifne Mi Atah Omed: Know before whom you stand. Standing is important, how we stand perhaps more so, knowing before whom we stand most important of all.

When the church gathers we stand before the

one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We stand before the Holy One who spoke worlds into being, who created man from the dust of one of these worlds, and who breathed into man His own life-giving Spirit. We stand before the Compassionate One who turned not his back, neither destroyed us, when we rebelled and fell into sin, but who rather called to us again and again in the Law and through the Prophets – called us to return and be healed.

We stand before the

one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of Being with the Father.

We stand before the very Word of God who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and by the power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man. We stand before the Lamb of God who for our sake – to take away the sin of the world – was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried. We stand before the firstborn of all creation who on the third day rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures, trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life. We stand before the Triumphant One who ascended into heaven, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We stand together with all the faithful of all time before and in the presence of Him who promised that, whenever even two or three are gathered in his name, he is present with them unto the ages of ages.

We stand before the

Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father

who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified. We stand before the one who seals us as a guarantor of the future glory to come and who indwells us to make us present partakers of the divine nature, changing us from glory to glory. We stand before the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present filling all things, Treasury of good things and giver of life.

Stomen kalos! Stand aright. Stand in awe. Da Lifne Mi Atah Omed! Know before Whom you stand.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit before whom we stand now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sermon: 11 Pentecost (16 August 2009)

Sermon: 11 Pentecost (16 August 2009)
(1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14/Psalm 111/Ephesians 5:15-20 or 5:1-20/John 6:51-58)

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Decades ago I learned to play the banjo from Earl Scruggs, though I met him only once, when I was a young boy. It was in the alley behind Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Old Opry. I waited there with my dad near the performers’ entrance hoping to see Scruggs as he left the stage and the building that night – really hoping for an autograph. It was a good night; I got the autograph – I still have it filed away somewhere in all my books and in my memory – and, best of all, I shared the moment with my dad. If we had little else in common, we did have the music.

Decades ago I learned to play the banjo from Earl Scruggs, though I met him only once, when I was a young boy. But everyday after school I would go into my dad’s room where he had the stereo system and put a scratchy 45 rpm record on the turntable. I would slow it down to 33 1/3, to where you could just begin to hear the individual notes of those lightening fast rolls that Scruggs played – the rolls Scruggs invented – and I would try to copy him note-for-note. I might just get two or three of the notes before I would have to lift the needle and start all over again. But little-by-little a song emerged that sounded a bit like a slowed down version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Hot Corn, Cold Corn or Cripple Creek or anything I could find on 45 rpm. I learned to play the banjo from Earl Scruggs like most everyone did at that time – by imitation.

Imitation is the most natural – and I think most effective – way to learn. We don’t learn to speak our native language through formal lessons and grammar books. We learn a language even as infants when our parents talk to us and connect the sounds to things and to actions. We begin to mimic them long before we understand the meaning of the sounds, and this mimicry, this imitation, becomes language. Before the Enlightenment educational model, before No Child Left Behind, we had the apprenticeship system – superior in many ways – in which a student lived with and served and learned from a master craftsman – learned not only to handle the tools of the trade, but to think and feel and intuit like a craftsman. There is a certain style that can’t be learned from books, but only through direct contact and admiring imitation.

Jewish rabbis in the first century accepted disciples into a spiritual apprenticeship which

points to an importance difference between our Western idea of instruction and the kind of instruction given by Jewish rabbis to their disciples. To follow a rabbi meant something other than sitting in a classroom and absorbing his lectures. Rather, it involved a literal kind of following, in which disciples often traveled with, lived with, and imitated their rabbis, learning not only from what they said but from what they did – from their reactions to everyday life as well as from the manner in which they lived. The task of the disciple was to become as much like the rabbi as possible.[1]

And so in keeping with this style of learning, with the style of learning the apostle knew best, having himself learned at the feet of the rabbi Gamaliel, Paul writes to the churches in western Asia Minor: “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children” (Eph 5:1, NRSV). Now it’s one thing to imitate Earl Scruggs or a master carpenter or even a learned and devout rabbi: but God? What does it mean to imitate God?

Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’” (Lev 19:1-2, OSB).[2]

To imitate God means surely this – for us no less than Israel – to be holy, for God is holy. Kadash is the Hebrew root: sacred, set apart. God is Kadash Israel – the Holy One of Israel – and we are to be the kedoshim, the holy ones of God. What God is by nature, we are to become by grace through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit within us. To be holy is to reverence that which is worthy of honor: “Every one of you shall reverence his father and mother and keep My Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:3, OSB). To be holy is to worship only the One who is worthy of worship: “Do not follow idols, nor make for yourselves molten gods: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:4, OSB). To be holy is to open hands and hearts to brothers and sisters and neighbors and strangers: “When you reap the harvest of you land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Also you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the resident alien: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:9-10, OSB). To be holy is to obey the word of the Lord your God: “Therefore, you shall keep all My law and all My ordinances, and perform them: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:37, OSB). “Therefore,” Paul writes, “be imitators of God as dear children.”

But for us as Christians it is not enough to say God unless we also say Christ Jesus. And so Paul immediately follows his instruction to imitate God with this: “And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph 5:2, OSB). Imitate God. Walk as Christ. To walk as Christ means to walk in love, to walk in light, to walk in wisdom, to walk in joy.

Paul doesn’t tell the churches what the walk of love is directly – at least not here. Instead, he gives counterexamples; here is what the walk in love is not.

But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them (Eph 5:3-7, OSB).

The walk of love is not sexual immorality. It is not indecency. It is not crudeness. These things are not even to be named among us as if fitting for us. Rather, the walk of love treats people as the precious, holy ones of God: not as tools to satisfy our lusts, or objects of our derision, or commodities to be bought and sold and traded. To walk in love means to walk in purity, as ones intent on keeping the baptismal robe unstained, as ones longing to be presented before Christ as a holy, blameless, and spotless bride on the great day of his appearing, at the wedding supper of the Lamb. To walk in love means to take up the basin and the towel and to follow Christ in his great self-emptying, in his embrace of slavery on behalf of all. To walk in love means to take up the cross and follow Christ in his great self-sacrifice, in his embrace of death on behalf of all. To walk in love means to cry out to our God and Father with our crucified Lord, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” in certain hope of the resurrection. Therefore, my beloved, “walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”

And walk in light, “for you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord” (Eph 5:8-9, OSB). Not Paul only, but John also, the great theologian of light, exhorts us to walk in the light.

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But, if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7, OSB).

To walk in the light is to walk the path of repentance, always turning and returning to Jesus, the light of the world, the Sun of Righteousness who rises with healing in his wings. To walk in the light is to see with eyes wide open, to see the truth and beauty and hope and promise of the church’s great prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. To walk in the light is to follow Jesus even to the dark night of Gethsemane, even to the sunless noon of Calvary, even to the cold blackness of a borrowed tomb, certain of the bright dawn of new creation on the third day when the stone is rolled away and Christ the Morning Star rises, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Walk in the light as he is in the light.

Shakespeare – master of language and astute observer of human nature – gets it beautiful, but Shakespeare gets it wrong in The Tempest (Act 4, scene 1).

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

We are insubstantial spirit, baseless vision, the stuff of dreams and our lives end in the dark sleep of death, this great poet writes. Not so, Paul replies – not for those who walk in the light. And we have Paul’s own poetic response as he sings a great and ancient hymn of the church:

“Awake, you who sleep,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light” (Eph 5:14, OSB).

Walk in the light as Christ is in the light.

Walk also in wisdom.

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph 5:15-17, OSB).

Paul has seen the wisdom of the world. He has debated the philosophers in Athens, and frankly he is not impressed.

For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”

Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world (1 Cor 1:19-20, OSB)?

When Paul exhorts us to walk in wisdom, it is a different type of wisdom altogether from the wisdom of the world – not different in degree only, but different also in kind. Christian wisdom is the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom of Christ crucified,

to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:23-25, OSB).

To walk in wisdom is to be fools for Christ. To walk in wisdom is to reject the judgments of the world that say power and position and wealth matter and to embrace instead weakness and lowliness and poverty. Ours is not the wisdom of the academy, not the wisdom of the cultured halls of the philosophers. Ours is the wisdom of the Spirit, a wisdom born of trials.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:2-5, OSB).

Ours is the wisdom of God acquired in answer to prayer

“Now, O Lord my God, You have made Your servant king instead of my father David, but I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And Your servant is in the midst of Your people whom You have chosen, a great people, too numerous to be numbered or counted. Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:7-9, NKJV).

And this prayer pleased the Lord. Walk in wisdom.

Finally, beloved, walk in joy, inebriated by the all good, all holy, life-giving Spirit of God.

And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 5:18-20, OSB).

Your life is not a slow, trudging march toward the grave but a joyful, triumphal procession – a victory march – with Christ at the head and clouds of witnesses cheering you on and with brothers and sisters alongside shouting Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Even at the grave we make our joyful song, Alleluia! Walk in joy.

As a parent I want so much for my daughter. As your brother in Christ I want so much for you – just as Paul wanted so much for his spiritual children and brothers and sisters.

I want you to be holy as God is holy, not for want of reward or fear of judgment, but simply because it is your nature and your highest calling; made in the image of God you are called to grow into his likeness and that likeness is holiness. I want you to imitate God in holiness.

I want you to love the Lord your God with all you heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and I want you to love your neighbor as yourself. I want you to walk in love as Christ walked in love and gave himself for us, a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.

I want you to walk in the light – to become light – as Christ is in the light and is himself the light of the world. I want God to dispel all that is dark within you so that you may shine like stars in the universe, shine with the uncreated light of transfiguration through the grace of the Holy Spirit. I want you to become all flame.

I want you to be wise. I want God to answer for you a prayer of St. Francis:

Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart.
And give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity,
wisdom and perception, that I may always do what is truly your most holy will.

I want you to walk in the light of Christ and in the wisdom of God.

I want you to live in the joy of the Holy Spirit – an Alleluia! Life – not in the absence of trials, but in the midst of trials, knowing that God strengthens you through these trials, supports you through these trials, and delivers you from these trials so that you can give thanks for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.


[1] Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, Sitting At The Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009) 51.
[2] Scripture references marked OSB are from The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008). The Old Testament is a new translation of the LXX by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. The New Testament translation is the New King James Version, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sermon: 10 Pentecost (9 August 2009)

Sermon: 10 Pentecost (9 August 2009)
(2 Sam 18:5-9, 15, 31-33/Psalm 130/Eph 4:25-5:2/John 6:35, 41-51)
Theology, Transformation, Praxis

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

At the risk of dredging up unpleasant memories – recent for some and long suppressed for others – let’s speak of high school mathematics, particularly of high school mathematics books. As you can imagine, in the past twenty years I have read, reviewed, and used many of these – some good, some not so good. Almost universally these books present the content in a common format. A section begins with the development of a mathematical concept – a rather formal and abstract presentation. The writing is densely packaged, filled with strange symbols and unfamiliar terms whose meanings must be coaxed out with not a little effort. We might call this subsection Theory. Following that come the example problems, which show how to put the abstract theory into use. This subsection we might call Application. It answers the question, So what is this stuff good for?

You can tell a lot about students just by watching them read a math book. The true math geeks – and true math geeks don’t mind being called that – plunge right into the Theory. They delight in its inescapable logic and pristine beauty. The strange symbols are for them hieroglyphic mysteries begging to be solved, the unfamiliar terms a new language opening new modes of thought. They explore connections to previously encountered themes and extend those connections forward into uncharted mathematical territory. Often these math geeks care nothing about application; the theory is for them the true mathematics and they are the true mathematicians.

Then there are the math consumers, the ones who know that math is just a tool to solve problems – sometimes a hammer, sometimes a scalpel, but always just a tool. These students skip the theory entirely or just skim over it as quickly as possible and then head directly to the example problems. These are the future engineers, scientists, accountants, movers and shakers of industry. Often these consumers care nothing about theory; the answers are for them the true goal of mathematics and they are the true mathematicians.

Of course, all this is caricature and generalization, but it’s not without some validity. I’ve seen math geeks who are expert at theory but who can’t calculate their way through the simplest problem, and I’ve seen math consumers who frequently get right answers but who have no idea why, no concept of how the mathematics works.

What is needed is a bridge linking the two approaches to mathematics. Those who find and walk such a bridge – and I’ve seen several in two decades – are true mathemagicians. They both create and consume mathematics and embody, in themselves, mathematics as art and industry.

Paul’s letters are much like mathematics books. The first several chapters of a typical Pauline text develop the major theological emphases of the letter, e.g., Christology, ecclesiolgy, soteriology. This writing is densely packaged, filled with Old Testament allusions – references and cross-references – with Greek verbs that must carefully be parsed, with multiple metaphors and layers of imagery. This must be read and studied in conversation with the church, with the consensus fidelium – the consensus of the faithful – over two millennia. Frankly, it is hard going. We might call this writing Theology. But Paul generally moves on from there in the latter chapters to provide practical instruction, to put the theology to use. Husbands, love your wives. Masters, treat your slaves with dignity and respect. Thieves, stop stealing and go to work. All of you, control your lust and greed and anger. This writing, which we might call Praxis, answers the question, So what’s all this theology good for?

You can tell a lot about people by watching them read Paul. There are the academic theologians who delight in forming syntheses of Pauline texts and themes. They study literary criticism, master ancient languages, delve into Old and New Testament cultures. They tease out meanings from the lines and from between the lines – some meanings that are there and some that never were. Theology is their playground and they delight in the mental exercise of it all. God is an object to be studied, but perhaps not a Person to be engaged. The faith is a construct to be analyzed, but perhaps not a way to be lived.

Then, there are those who skip all the theology and head straight for the practical advice, straight for the Praxis. Some are looking for yet another self-help manual to bring them health, wealth, and prosperity. Some are looking for a rule book with which to satisfy God, merit heaven, and avoid hell. Some are seeking honestly to follow Jesus and are looking for how to do so.

Of course, all this is caricature and generalization, but it’s not without some validity. I’ve seen academic theologians who are experts at Pauline literature but who somewhere along the way lost Pauline faith, who no longer believe in the God whom Paul worshipped. And I’ve seen good Christian folk who live as scrupulously as the Pharisees, careful to obey every rule and commandment but who have no idea why. I’ve seen them bludgeon their brothers and sisters and neighbors with the Bible-As-Rule-Book, betraying their own insecurity and constant fear of sin and damnation.

What is needed is a bridge linking theology and praxis: theology as engagement with God – Creator, Redeemer, and Advocate – and praxis as the fruit of a transformed life, obedience born of overwhelming love and gratitude, empowered by the Spirit. Those who find and walk such a bridge – and I’ve seen a few in my years among the faithful – are the pneumatikoi, the spiritually mature. These know Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

For several weeks we have explored Pauline theology in Ephesians, Paul’s understanding of the church as the one true people of God – Jews and Gentiles alike united into one Body in and through Jesus Christ the Head: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6, NRSV). This theology was hard going in Paul’s day; many simply did not want to hear it and Paul suffered much for proclaiming it. This theology is hard going in our day – difficult to understand, difficult, sometimes, to see as relevant. So, we might breathe a sigh of relief as we transition to Pauline praxis today, to the practical application of all this theology. There is always a danger, though, that we will divorce the behavioral instructions from the underlying theology and turn Paul into a self-help guru or else a burdensome taskmaster. What we need is a bridge linking his theology of Gentile inclusion – his theology of the unity of the Body of Christ – to the praxis of life in the Church and in the world. And this is precisely where the Revised Common Lectionary lets us down with a Bump! today. The bridging text, Ephesians 4:17-24 – certainly one of the most pivotal sections of the letter – is ignored in the rush to praxis. But we cannot ignore it; it lies at the heart of Paul’s theology.

Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-24, NRSV).

Paul is the Christ-ordained apostle to the Gentiles. He has spent the major portion of his ministry among them proclaiming the good news of their inclusion in Christ and defending them from every effort by the sect of the Circumcision to impose elements of the Jewish Law on them. Fully half his letter to the Ephesians he devotes to this revelation: “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6, NRSV). And now, having told the Gentiles that God accepts them as Gentiles just as God accepts Jews as Jews, Paul writes to his beloved Gentiles, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds” (Eph 4:17a, NRSV).

Is this a contradiction? Is Paul weakening the theology of Gentile inclusion? Not at all. Paul is not for a moment reneging on his proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles, nor is he asking them to begin living like Jews. Having fully developed the theology of Gentile Inclusion, Paul now develops the theology of Gentile Transformation. This is the essential bridge between theology and praxis: inclusion in the body of Christ must be a transforming experience that plays out on the stage of human behavior. Simply stated: Christ welcomes you as you are but has no intent of leaving you that way. Gentiles, you must no longer live as the Gentiles live; you must be transformed into the likeness of Christ, “dying to self and sin and…rising to new life with Christ, specifically characterized by a holiness and renewed humanity in which certain habits and styles of life are left behind.”[1]

Paul merely uses the Gentiles as exemplars of the fallen human condition; what Paul says of them is true of all people struggling under the burden of ancestral sin – the sin, the illness, inherited from our first parents. The Gentile mind is futile, completely ineffective for its intended purpose, having been darkened by sin: the mind, not the rational, reasoning capability of man, but the capacity to know and to relate to God directly, unmediated by thought or emotion. In Greek, this mind is the spiritual mind, the nous. It is the highest capacity of man, the eye of the soul through which we apprehend God. When functioning properly it knows, it experiences God directly and then rightly orders human reason, imagination, will, and desire. But sin – ancestral and personal – has blinded that eye of the soul. For this reason Paul says the Gentiles “are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18, NRSV). With a futile mind, with a darkened nous, it is no longer possible to know God. And so the Gentiles – exemplars of all humanity – turned away from God and toward the satisfaction of human desire. With reason, imagination, will, and desire no longer governed and ordered by the spiritual mind (nous) set on God, the passions enslaved the Gentiles so they “lost all sensitivity and…abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph 4:19, NRSV).

So Paul writes to the Gentile Christians, “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.” Why? Because,

That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:20-24, NRSV).

The Gentile Christians cannot learn Christ, cannot be renewed in the spiritual mind (nous), cannot be recreated in the likeness of God – in true righteousness and holiness – while living in their former sin; nor can anyone. Jesus said as much in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8, NRSV).

So Paul transitions from the theology of inclusion to the theology of transformation: all are welcome, all must change. The praxis Paul insists upon is not a salvation by works, but a salvation by renewal. This praxis is both medicine for the healing of the soul – a therapy for subduing the passions – and evidence that the healing has begun. And, in keeping with Paul’s ecclesiology – one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all – it is a communal praxis, focused on the transformation, welfare, and unity of the whole Body of Christ (cf Eph 4:25-32).

All of us must speak the truth, for we are members of one another.

Thieves must give up stealing and labor honestly so as to have something to share with the needy.

Everyone must guard the tongue and speak no evil, but only gracious words to build up the body.

All must be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgives us.

All God’s beloved children must imitate God and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.

If we do these things, we will not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with which we were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. If we do these things, if we are renewed in the spiritual mind, then the eyes of our hearts will “be enlightened to know the hope to which God has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:18-19, NRSV). This theology of transformation is the bridge between the theology of inclusion and the praxis of faith. This the church affirms and insists upon in the Lord: that we put away the former way of life with its futility and alienation, with its ignorance and hardness of heart, with its greed and impurity; that we clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness; that we practice a theology of transformation to the glory of God the Father, through Christ the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] N. T. Wright. Rowan’s Reflections: Unpacking the Archbishop’s Statement., accessed through on 8/5/2009.