Saturday, January 30, 2010

Let All Things Their Creator Bless

On a hill above my house -- between a church and a cemetery -- stands St. Francis. I like to think of him looking over us, encouraging us from our rebirth in the church to our entrance into a paradise whose gateway lies in the cemetery -- looking over us, encouraging us, praying with and for us, a three-dimensional icon. It snowed in my town last night, a rare event. This morning, while sledding with my daughter, I visited Francis and prayed with him. And I thought of this canticle, a part of The Song of the Three Young Men from the Book of Common Prayer.

A Song of Creation

Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, *
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, *
all winds and fire and heat.
Winter and summer, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, *
drops of dew and flakes of snow.
Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
Glorify the Lord, O nights and days, *
O shining light and enfolding dark.
Storm clouds and thunderbolts, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Let us glorify the Lord: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sermon: 2 Epiphany 2010 -- Banquet and Body

Sermon: 2 Epiphany (17 Jan 2010)
(Isaiah 62:1-5/Psalm 36:5-10/1 Corinthians 12:1-11/John 2:1-11)
Banquet and Body

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

The texts today are a stories of transformation and metaphors of the kingdom of God.

For people who live close to the land, who depend on it for their basic sustenance, food and water are pressing issues, just having enough of each on a daily basis or surviving long-term famine and drought when they come – and they will come. Jesus was of such stock – the am ha-aretz, the people of the earth – as undoubtedly were many of his ancestors throughout their generations. This ancient, persistent concern about daily bread underlies the Hebrew prophets’ imagery and Jesus’ own imagery of the coming messianic banquet. When Messiah comes, Israel will be vindicated before the nations and all will be put to rights – all creation restored. And, at the dawning of this messianic age, as a symbol of its unending blessing and bounty, Israel, and the righteous among the nations, will be invited to the great banquet of choicest fare and finest wine. Isaiah’s words are typical of this hope and imagery.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken (Is 25:6-8, NRSV).

We find the same image in Jewish folklore, in the Yiddish song A-Sudenyu, for example.

What will happen when the Messiah comes?
When the Messiah comes, we will have a feast.

What will we eat at the feast?
The Wild Ox and the Leviathan,
We will eat the Wild Ox and the Leviathan at the feast!

What will we drink at the feast?
The wine preserved [from Creation],
We will drink the preserved wine,
We will eat the Wild Ox and the Leviathan at the feast!

So, in the second-temple Judaism of Jesus’ day, every earthly banquet was seen as a foretaste of the great messianic banquet to come and assumed a symbolic importance far beyond sustenance. Every banquet brought forward into the present the hope of the future kingdom banquet. Every attendee was taking his present place in the messianic kingdom to come. This is why Jesus so inflamed the Scribes and Pharisees when he dined with tax collectors and sinners; he was welcoming these social and religious outcasts into the kingdom of God by feasting with them at a foretaste of the messianic banquet.

If every banquet assumes this symbolic importance, how much more a wedding banquet, especially given the prophetic imagery of God as a husband and Israel as a sometimes faithful, sometimes unfaithful, bride (cf Is 62:1-5). The wedding banquet is the ultimate earthly metaphor for the messianic banquet in the kingdom of God, hence its centrality in several of Jesus’ parables.

It is fitting then that the first of St. John’s signs – displays of Jesus’ power and authority that point to his divinity – the first of St. John’s signs takes place at a wedding banquet in Cana of Galilee.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come’ (John 2:1-4, NRSV).

The wine gave out: four simple words to describe a social disaster with profound spiritual implications. The groom, who was responsible for the wedding banquet, and his entire family would be dishonored in the community for failing to adequately provide. The marriage, itself, would start under the cloud of this shame. What should have been a time of greatest rejoicing threatened to become a tragedy. And this mirrors perfectly the Jewish – and indeed the human – condition. The wine gave out. On this day at Cana in Galilee, at this festive occasion, Israel is still in exile under Roman occupation. Messiah still is not here. This wedding banquet – and every banquet like it – which should be a reminder of the messianic hope reminds instead of the messianic absence: until this day at Cana in Galilee.

5His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him (John 2:5-11, NRSV).

On this day at Cana in Galilee, when Jesus transforms water into wine he proclaims that the true messianic banquet has begun, not on that great and terrible day of the Lord in the future, but right here in the middle of history. On this day at Cana in Galilee, when Jesus transforms water into wine he proclaims that he is the Messiah, and that wherever he is, there too is the messianic banquet: there will spiritual food abound and heavenly wine overflow. This transformation of water into wine is a sign of kingdom come, of the presence of the kingdom of God right here in the middle of history. And his disciples understood, at least some of this “11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11, NRSV).

This is the first of the transformations in our lessons today; there is a second, and it, too, stands as a sign of kingdom come, of the presence of the kingdom of God right here in the middle of history. In Jesus’ messianic banquet parables (e.g. Mt 22:1-14 and Lk 14:15-24) a diverse and ragtag group sits at table together; you can imagine Jew and gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female. And yet, in and through Jesus the Messiah, in and through their invitation to the messianic banquet, these polar opposites are transformed into one holy people, the people of God. This inclusive transformation, this acceptance of one another because each has been accepted by Jesus, is also a sign of kingdom come. St. Paul describes the transformation to the Christians in Galatia.

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28, NKJV).

Unity is the key; through Christ and in Christ, divisions cease, enmity is ended, and all are made one. This transformation is a clear sign of kingdom come.

And what symbols does Paul chose for this transformation? Not water to wine, not a wedding banquet, but the formation of a new body made of individual members bound together by the Spirit and working together in harmony.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor 12:12-13, NRSV).

And what are the implications of this new body-life we share? First this: we are bound together so inextricably by the Spirit that we cannot do without one another, and we have no right to try. Each part, each member – no matter how humble or unimportant that member may appear – is essential to the welfare and function of the body. God alone knows the true value of each member and God himself orders and structures the body as he wills and knows. St. Paul writes:

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it (1 Cor 12, 124-26, NRSV).

There is beautiful and fearful symmetry in this passage. The humble member cannot say to the honorable, “Because I am not as great as you, I am not truly part of the body.” Nor can the honorable member of the body say to the humble, “Because I am greater than you, you are not truly part of the body.” God alone knows the true value of each member and God himself orders and structures the body as he wills and knows, such that we suffer or rejoice, prosper or decline together: one with all, all with one. I know a saint from my childhood and young adult years, not with us any longer: may her memory be eternal! Her’s was the widow’s mite; widowed early with three children to raise, she had little to give to the church monetarily. For a time she cleaned the building until she was physically no longer able. Her’s were humble circumstances and she was, apparently, a humble member of the body. Yet, I learned in the last few years I knew her, that she prayed for me – for all of us in that congregation – daily. How many times her prayers saved me I may never know. But this I do know: the prayers of this humble saint were – and are, I think – of inestimable value, worth far more than all the words I spoke, or money I gave, or work I did on behalf of the body in that place. God placed her in the body at just the right time, in just the right place to be a sign to me and to all of us of kingdom come.

There is a second implication of this new body-life we share: none of us has the spiritual resource – Paul calls them spiritual gifts – to grow and serve apart from the rest of the body. Instead, God quips individuals for the common good. A blended metaphor of banquet and body comes to mind here – the classic, Church potluck meal. Oh, how I remember those of my childhood and how much I would like to eat just one more with those saints who have gone before: chicken and dumplings, green beans, turnip greens, mashed potatoes, corn bread – I’m from the south, after all – deviled eggs, homemade stack cake and pies with real meringue. No one brought enough to feed all of us, but all of us together brought enough to feed everyone. At this banquet the body feasted because each individual member shared the gifts God had given, no matter how grand or humble they might appear. And sometimes, just that simple chocolate cookie that a dear sister brought was the perfect finishing touch to the feast.

So it is in the apparently more spiritual realm of the church, as well.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Cor 12:4-11, NRSV).

To our assembly, to our body, I may bring a bit of knowledge – which God has given me, of course – and you bring your wisdom. Another brother brings his faith – which I need when mine is sorely lacking – and a sister brings her healing touch and words and prayer. Words are spoken and then explained and interpreted. Miracles happen in such a fellowship as together we discern the presence, power, and direction of the Spirit. A church living this way is a spiritual potluck: all are invited and all feast on the choicest fare and drink the finest wine, because each shares as God has provided. Such a fellowship of believers – transformed into one body in Christ – is a clear sign of kingdom come, not somewhere in the distant future, but right here and right now in the middle of history. And when the church begins to live out this unity and abundance not just among ourselves but in our world, then that world will see clearly that the kingdom has come among us and that the messianic banquet has begun.

The texts today are stories of transformation and metaphors of the kingdom of God. Jesus transforms water into wine and proclaims that the true messianic banquet has begun. The Spirit transforms dichotomous individuals into a gifted and unified body and proclaims kingdom come.

There is one final transformation to mention – not a metaphor but a sign, not a symbol but the thing itself. It lies at the intersection of banquet and body; it is, of course, the Eucharist. Around the Table of the Lord the body of Christ – this diverse group of men and women throughout all places in all times baptized into one Spirit – gathers for the messianic wedding banquet and feasts on the body and blood of Christ. And in so doing, week by week, bite by bite, sip by sip this body is transformed into the likeness of Christ, from glory to glory. Amen.

Prayer for Haiti

When confronted by such evil as the recent earthquake in Haiti, it seems fitting that we, as the people of God, remember our place and calling.
We are not called to justify the ways of God to men. We are called to proclaim the justification of men before the righteous God through the redemptive work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are not called to understand or explain the presence of evil. We are called to affirm what we do understand and know to be true: The Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.
We are not called to solve the problems of the world -- though God has given us a role to play in that. We are called to show forth, not only with our lips but in our lives, that God is even now putting the world to rights until his kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
We are not called to doubt, but to faith. We are not called to despair, but to hope. We are not called to blame, but to love. And we are called to pray.
A Litany for Haiti
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father:
save and have mercy on your children in Haiti.
For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting;
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

O God, from whom comes every good and perfect gift:
give food, water, and shelter to the hungry, thirsty and homeless in Haiti.
For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting;
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

Merciful God, great physician of our souls and bodies:
give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering,
and pity the afflicted in Haiti.
For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting;
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

Compassionate God, lover of mankind:
lead your people, by the power of your Holy Spirit,
to pray, work, and give for love of you and love of your children in Haiti.
For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting;
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

Almighty God, our rock and fortress, our shield and deliverer:
strengthen and protect those who strive to rescue, recover, rebuild,
and restore in Haiti.
For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting;
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

Victorious God, Power above all powers, King of kings and Lord of lords:
bring to an end the corruption of all earthly powers,
their neglect and abuse of the innocents,
and the dark power of the evil one in Haiti.
For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting;
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

Lord, answer us in the day of trouble and send help from your holy place, that we may shout for joy at your victory, and triumph in the name of our God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Family Matters: Sermon on the Baptism of our Lord

Baptism of the Lord: 10 January 2010
(Isaiah 43:1-7/Psalm 29/Acts 8:14-17/Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)
Family Matters

The Lord has shown forth his glory:
Come let us adore him.

Sunday last I attended evening Divine Liturgy at a local Oriental Orthodox parish – one of a handful of places in this world I know myself truly loved in Christ. This congregation conducts a vibrant and challenging outreach ministry to the Knoxville inner-city homeless population; several dozen men and women receive physical and spiritual nourishment from the church each week.

Sunday was cold – brutally so – and several “children of the streets” sought the warmth of the church during service. One sat behind me, a chronically homeless man who has made some considerable progress in the years I’ve known him; he is now more often clean and sober than in the past. Pray God to have mercy on him. He commented – good-naturedly – on the late arrival of a homeless friend, “God, they’ll let anyone in here.” I looked around and thought, “God, he’s right. They will.” Quite a spectrum of people crowded the small church that night: politically, from far left to far right; economically, from middle class to homeless; intellectually, from sophisticated to simple and even damaged; spiritually – well, who am I to judge that? I know there were saints there, and I know there was at least one sinner, so the spectrum was represented. My friend was right: God – in God’s name – they’ll let anyone in here.

And no distinctions were made among them; there were no acts of favoritism as condemned by James:

1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts (James 2:1-4, NKJV)?

No, there was none of this, no distinctions made on a worldly basis: no distinctions at all, until time came for the Eucharist. When a stranger walked forward to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, the priest paused to ask, “You are baptized, aren’t you?” And there it is, the one distinction made: they’ll let anyone in here, but they will not let just anyone share the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. For that you must be baptized. Why? In large part because the Kingdom Banquet of the Eucharist is the family meal of Christ, and baptism is the sacrament that constitutes us as family.

Of course, baptism has individual and personal implications: cleansing from sin, reconciliation with God, and more. We often focus on these, as we should. But I’m not convinced that we often enough consider the corporate implications of baptism – baptism as the sacrament of adoption into God’s new family, the church. Don’t we often marvel at the solidarity of the “Pentecostal” church family in Acts 2?

41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. 42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:41-47, NKJV).

The real wonder is not that our fathers and mothers in the faith lived this way, but that we, their spiritual offspring, so often do not. Really, what could be more natural? They received the word and were baptized, and in so doing were made brothers and sisters in a new family – in a new family whose loyalties supercede all others. As families do – at least, as families did in the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern world of that day – they shared their lives in common: they worshiped together; they ate together; they prayed together; they wounded and forgave together; they fought and reconciled together. And, when any member of this new family of God had need, those spiritual brothers and sisters with means met that need. How could family do otherwise? Again, James comes to mind.

15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:15-17, NKJV).

Notice James’ familial terms “brother” and “sister;” clearly he considers the church as God’s new family in Christ and cannot conceive of a family that would let any of its members go naked or hungry. There is no faith in such a family. It is – at best – a dysfunctional family and a dysfunctional church.

That Paul also considers the church as the believers’ new family – to which is due the highest of loyalties – is clearly evident in 1 Corinthians. There Paul condemns specific behaviors because they are harmful to one’s brothers.

1 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 6 But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!7 Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? 8 No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! 9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:1, 7-11, NKJV).

What Paul doesn’t add but clearly had in mind is this: You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified, your were made family in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. And what could “washed” mean but baptism? Baptism is the sacrament that constitutes us as God’s new family in Christ, a family whose loyalties supercede all others.

And in a similar passage on the matter of eating meat offered to idols, Paul’s language is – if possible – even stronger.

12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (I Cor 8:12-13, NKJV).

A sin against a member of the family is a sin against the head of the family, Christ himself. What is more unthinkable than this?

So, as we consider the baptism of our Lord – and our own baptism – we cannot neglect the corporate aspects of the sacrament. Christ was baptized, in part, to create a new family of God with himself as head. We are baptized as a sacrament of adoption into that family. Thus, every baptized believer is our brother or sister and has claim to our loyalty, a claim which supercedes every earthly loyalty. It may be that we need to recapture the biblical language and the biblical worldview inherent in our baptism.

We speak of ourselves and consider ourselves as “members of the church” and think of this as not different in kind than being members of the PTSO or the Rotary Club. But the differences are vast. Clubs and civic organizations are formed by people sharing common interests and common goals. But the church, as the family of God, is formed by Christ and is entered through baptism; it is made of all those people who share in the Spirit. Membership in clubs and civic organizations is optional; if interests or attitudes change, membership can be dropped. Cut up the membership card, stop attending meetings, forego paying dues. But membership in the church is essential; there is no provision for solo, churchless Christianity. To be in Christ is to be in the church. To separate oneself from the church is to separate oneself from Christ. The loyalties in clubs and civic organizations are toward the common goal. But the loyalties in the church – in the family of God – are toward one’s brothers and sisters. It’s probably time to stop thinking of the church as an organization and time to recapture the biblical vision of church as the family of God. It’s probably time to stop viewing ourselves as members of an organization and time to recapture the biblical vision of ourselves as members of one another, as brothers and sisters in the family of God. This is really demanded by a right understanding of the baptism of our Lord and of our baptism.

If we take these corporate implications of baptism seriously -- baptism as the sacrament that constitutes us as God’s new family in Christ, a family whose loyalties supercede all others – how might that affect our relationship with and in the church?

We certainly will find our priorities and loyalties challenged. During his ministry Jesus was uncompromising in demanding from would-be followers top priority and chief allegiance to himself and to the family of God he was forming.

21 Then another of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead (Mt 8:21-22, NKJV).”

This saying is hard and scandalous – then and now. Your old family – those who will not follow me – is dead to you. You have a new family – my followers – who now claim your loyalty. And what Jesus said about the natural family he could have said about every other group that lays claim to our loyalties: political party, profession, nation, ethnic group, and any other group that names you and claims you. When the demands of these groups conflict with loyalty to the family of God in Christ Jesus – the church – the church must be given priority.

We also will be required to adopt a global perspective, to take a much broader view of the church. The church exists not just on a local level – this congregation – or even a national level – the church in the United States. The church exists globally, and those who have been baptized into Christ in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan; in Syria, Gaza, and Israel; in China, North Korea, and Viet Nam; in Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana; in Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Russia are family – as much as those who sit beside us in this place. And, as family, they lay rightful claim on us: on our love, on our prayers, on our resources. We cannot ignore the legitimate needs of our brothers and sisters around the world. And we must understand how difficult this is; it is not simply a matter of praying for the global church once in awhile or even of writing checks. It’s also a matter of re-evaluating the way we relate to those institutions closest to us. Can we support government policies or actions which will disadvantage or harm our Christian brothers and sisters in the third world even in the name of free trade or national security? Can we support businesses whose labor practices abuse our brothers and sisters even when such support is profitable for us? I could go on, but it’s clear that a global perspective on the church raises very difficult questions in economic, governmental, and social arenas. The family of God doesn’t really acknowledge separation of church and state.

And, on a more local level, we will be required to care for one another better than we have in the recent past. No Christian’s medical welfare should hinge upon health insurance legislation, for example – not as long are there are Christian physicians in the church or money in the coffers. No Christian who can live with other people – and there are those who cannot or will not – should find himself homeless due to the financial crisis. No Christian child in the church should do without basic necessities while any Christian child in the church has luxuries. I could go on, but this is challenging enough.

Taking the baptism of our Lord seriously forces us to take our own baptism seriously, and that confronts us with both the challenges and the blessings of the family of God created by baptism. Peter understood the challenges and Jesus promised him the blessings.

28 Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.” 29 So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, 30 who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life (Mk 10:28-30, NKJV).

Whatever old loyalties were strained to the breaking point by baptism will be renewed in the family of God formed by baptism; whatever was lost will be restored in the family of God formed by baptism; whatever died will be born again in the family of God formed by baptism.

The baptism of the Lord is a theophany – a shining forth, a revelation of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Son enters the water. God the Father speaks. God the Holy Spirit descends. And in this moment a new family is created.

21 When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. 22 And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22, NKJV).

The words of God here at the baptism of the Lord are family words: “You are my Beloved Son.” And these are the same words He speaks to all of us at our baptisms – to all His beloved sons and daughters – as he makes us part of the family. As we embrace the reality of church as the family of God – as we commit ourselves to the material, emotional, and spiritual welfare of our Christian brother and sister above all other earthly loyalties – we will become a theophany, a revelation to the world of the glory of God.


(For a excellent treatment of the church as the family of God -- and the implications of family in a strong-group society -- I recommend When the Church Was a Family, by Joseph H. Hellerman, copyright 2009, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Massacre of the Innocents

As we approach Epiphany and celebrate the revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, we must also confront the response of the world to that revelation: the massacre of Bethlehem’s innocent sons is the shadow side of the bright glory of the Epiphany.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more” (Mt 2:16-18, NKJV).

These children were but the first of those who would die in the name of Christ. Nearer our time, within the memory of many and the lifetime of many more, countless innocents – and many who were not so innocent – were sacrificed to Stalin’s regime in Russia, imprisoned in “special camps” under inhuman conditions until hope and life were extinguished.

But not all succumbed. Father Arseny (1893-1973) survived and brought an Epiphany of Christ into the darkness of the death camps. Surrounded by death, he nonetheless lived and shone forth the light and life of Christ. Once, near the end of his internment, he visited the camp graveyard, prompting this reflection and prayer. It is a fitting meditation on the massacre of the Innocents and on all the evil of this present dark age.

What is all this for, O my Lord? What did all these people suffer and die for? All of them: believers, non-believers, righteous ones, criminals whose crimes are impossible to weigh in human understanding? Why? And the answer came to me:

This is one of Thy mysteries, Lord, which we people – the slaves of sin – cannot understand. This mystery is Thine. Thy ways are inscrutable. Thou alone knowest the path of each human life; our duty is to simply do good in Thy name, to walk in the statutes of the Gospel, and to pray to Thee. Then the forces of evil will be overcome. For where two or three are gathered in Thy name, there also shalt Thou be. Have mercy on me, O Lord, according to Thy abundant mercy, and forgive me for my despair, my weakness of spirit and my wavering.

Turning in all four directions, I blessed with the sign of the cross all those who were resting here, and bowing low I took my leave of them. Grant rest, O Lord, to the souls of Thy servants who have fallen asleep.


[1] Vera Bouteneff, trans. Father Arseny (1893-1973) Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Copyright 1998. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NJ.