Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 24

Posted: March 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 24

54.  One should not be startled or astonished because God the Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son (cf. John 5:22). The Son teaches us, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Matt. 7:1); ‘Do not condemn, so that you may not be condemned’ (Luke 6:37). St Paul likewise says, ‘Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes’ (1 Cor. 4:5); and ‘By judging another you condemn yourself’ (Rom. 2:1). But men have given up weeping for their own sins and have taken judgment away from the Son. They themselves judge and condemn one another as if they were sinless. ‘Heaven was amazed at this’  (Jer. 2:12. LXX) and earth shuddered, but men in their obduracy are not ashamed.

This was not merely a problem in St. Maximos’ time; it continues to be a deep and enduring problem for Christians, especially today. And we treat it as though our condemnation of each other were a minor thing, when in fact we not only condemn ourselves, but heaven stands amazed and the earth shudders. It seems our condemnation of each other, rather than love, has cosmic ramifications, note merely personal ones.

Of course, we do have to speak for the good and expose evil and the way of death. But we must start by weeping for our sins and we must never judge ourselves better than another. In some sense, I think we must almost speak against evil in a way that confesses our own shared culpability in it. If we loved fully and more constantly, evil would hold less sway than it does.

However it might look if we did this well (and frankly it stretches my imagination), I’m certain we do it poorly today.


Neither Do I Condemn You

Posted: August 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

From the day I first read the Gospel of John, I’ve been haunted by the Jesus in it. Even as young as I was, I had read the Bhagavad Gita. I had read the Tao Te Ching. I had read the Life of Prince Siddhartha. I had studied tarot, palmistry, numerology, and astrology. My childhood was deeply and thoroughly pluralistic. When I started reading John, it felt comfortable, but as I read it began to turn things upside down. John’s Gospel, as much as anything else, drew me to Christian churches, where I discovered something very odd. Most Christians are uncomfortable with John. It’s not something you notice immediately. After all, John 3:16 seems to be one of the most popular verses in the world. But pay attention. Many Christians shy away from John except for a few select verses or passages. John challenges. John turns the way we want to view the world on its head. John gives no easy answers or safe directions.

Neither do I condemn you.

Those are the words in what we call chapter 8. They captured me. My whole life, I’ve known what it means to be loved. And I’ve known what is to be condemned — even sometimes by those I thought loved me. That truth was driven home at a very young age when two of my three closest friends held me at school while the third punched me in the stomach. I was hurt, but even more I was bewildered. I remember to this day the high school girl who took the time to comfort me when she stumbled across me.

Neither do I condemn you.

People try to qualify or dismiss those words in John 8. Unfortunately, that’s the message Jesus repeats again and again in John. In the prologue, we read that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John introduces him as the one who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. Jesus sits and speaks with a Samaritan, a woman, and one who has had multiple husbands and he does not condemn — someone that everyone else condemned. He warns that those who dehumanize themselves by doing evil face condemnation — but it’s not an external condemnation. He feeds people and tells them that he is giving them his body to eat and his blood to drink. God is providing himself as their food. And then a woman caught in adultery is thrown at his feet. And in the context of all that has happened in John, he tells her the sweetest words ever spoken by God and ever heard by man.

Neither do I condemn you.

I grew older and became a teen parent in a story I’ve told elsewhere. I faced condemnation everywhere, from Christians and non-Christians alike. But the condemnation of Christians hurt the worst — for I had read John. I tried to walk away and dismiss Christianity. I honestly wanted nothing more to do with it. Ever. But —

Neither do I condemn you.

And then one day I met a Christian pastor who, to my astonishment, did not condemn me. Indeed, he did what he could to help my family. And I was undone. I had tried to block those words from my mind, but they came flooding back.

Neither do I condemn you.

Last night I read a post by Young Mom. My heart ached, but I couldn’t think of any words of comfort to write. I still can’t think of any words of my own. But I know the words that matter.

Neither do I condemn you.


Fallen

Posted: May 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

When I heard that Jennifer Knapp was releasing a new CD, I placed an order for it. As part of my order, I got a copy of her EP Evolving. I’ve been enjoying it for several days now. I’ve particularly enjoyed the song Fallen and, as music often does for me, it spurred the reflections that led to this post. I don’t tend to dwell too much on what a particular song or poem might have meant to the artist who wrote it. As a rule, unless they choose to explain it, I tend to assume that most of the guesses I might make are wrong. So when art evokes a reaction from me, I don’t project my response onto the artist. The song itself is hauntingly beautiful. Take a few moments to listen to it. I’ll continue with my thoughts following the song.

I was captivated immediately by the haunting opening (and repeated) chorus of the song.

Even though they say we have fallen
Doesn’t mean that I won’t do it twice
Given every second chance
I’d choose again to be with you tonight

The last line was the first to echo in my mind. I thought of my wife. Perhaps it’s because our 20th anniversary is fast approaching, but I thought of our early passionate intertwining — almost a physical force pushing and pulling us together, even if we seemed at the time to outside eyes the most unlikely of couples. And it has been a tumultuous twenty years with perhaps more challenges than some married couples face. But without hesitation, I would choose every bit of it again. I feel the enduring intensity of the line: I’d choose again to be with you tonight. There is no night where I would ever choose otherwise.

Moreover, that’s not a relative or a hierarchical choice. It’s an all-encompassing, absolute choice. If God demanded that I choose between my wife and him, my choice is clear; I would choose my wife.

However, it seems to me that people frame questions like that poorly. The problem is not fundamentally in how you answer the question even if it does seem to me that any other answer  would be morally questionable.  The deeper problem is that a God who would demand such a choice is simply not worth worshiping. I ask different questions than it seems a lot of modern Christians ask. For instance, here the obvious question to me is more direct; why would anyone choose to worship a God like that?

Sometimes people point to Abraham and Isaac, but if they are trying to prove the above, they miss the whole point of that story. Abraham knew God and knew that he wouldn’t take Isaac. He was so convinced that God was good and faithful that he even believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead if that’s where everything led. Abraham knew and trusted God more and better than I do. And in that trust, we see one of the great foreshadowings of the Resurrection.

We worship a God who loved all human beings to the uttermost, even to death on a cross. It’s other human beings who demand that we choose one love over another, never God. Love is non-hierarchical. I say that because I have heard Christians attempt to teach a hierarchy of love. Love God first. Love your wife second. Love your kids third. And then other loves in various lower hierarchies. Such systems may be many things, but they are not love. People even interpret Jesus’ modified Shema Yisrael as though it was his version of the First and Second Law of Robotics. (If you’re not an Asimov fan and miss the reference, I’m sorry. I’ll pray for you.) No, when Jesus amends the Shema, he is saying this is how you love God. You love your neighbor as yourself. That is what the Incarnation means.

I love my wife with all that I am. I totally love every one of my children — without limit. And I at least desire to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. (I’m less convinced that I actually do love God, because I know how poorly I love other human beings. But I long to love him.) Those statements are not contradictory. Love is at least transfinite if not absolutely infinite. Love doesn’t run out. It’s not a finite resource. In fact, according to 1 John 4:3, love is the essence of the uncreated who fills and sustains all creation. We will find the end of love when we find the end of God.

My take on the questions that seem to plague others thus becomes relatively simple. I am not willing to try to foist on others a God I would never worship myself. For me that’s really the end of the discussion. I will read and study perspectives and interpretations and context simply because I enjoy such intellectual pursuits.  But that’s all they are to me. I’m never confused about that.

But then the middle two lines began bubbling in that sea I call a mind as I started to reflect on the relational experiences and choices of my whole life.

Doesn’t mean that I won’t do it twice
Given every second chance

I have experienced much in my life and I have made many choices. I have experienced pain and trauma both at the hands of others and as a result of my own actions and decisions. I began to reflect on what “every second chance” might mean in the context and setting of my life.

I have many flaws and broken places and I have been prone to making poor choices and decisions over the course of my life. Even so, it’s not hard to pinpoint the single “worst” (whatever that might mean) decision of my life. The particular dark synergy of everything between us in my relationship with my second wife nearly destroyed me. At least, it came closer than anything else I’ve ever experienced — and that’s saying quite a bit. I owe my father, a close friend, and my partner and love for the past twenty-two years all that I am today. I wasn’t easy on any of them, but they still loved me enough to put the shattered pieces back together again.

So, at first glance, that choice and that relationship seems to be one that, given every second chance, I wouldn’t in fact do twice.  But things are never that simple. Without my choice to enter that relationship, I would not have my older son, my other son (in all but blood) who is the same age, my daughter-in-law, or my granddaughter. But the thread runs deeper than that. It’s unlikely, absent that relationship, that I would have moved to Austin or ever started working for my current employer. And not only does that mean I would not have my present career, but more importantly I would not have met the woman who has been my wife, partner, and friend for more than two decades now. And thus I also would not have my younger son, my younger daughter, or the particular friends I have made here over the years.

And that is far too steep a price to pay simply in order to avoid pain, however intense or shattering the suffering might have been.

Our choices and experiences, good and bad, cannot be disentangled. We are not islands. We live in a complex web of relationships and lives. There is no point in our lives where we can separate our experience then from the person we are now. Change the experience and you inevitably change the person. Moreover, you change the entire network of relationships surrounding the person.

I can go farther back in time. My choices and actions that initially led to me becoming a young teen father and husband were certainly less than ideal. (I have to specify ‘young teen’ since I was still a teenager for my second child and marriage.) I certainly made my own later life more painful and more difficult with those choices. Yet, I can’t say I truly regret those choices and actions. If I had been ‘wiser’, not only would my oldest daughter not have been conceived, but I would have likely taken a scholarship to a college somewhere and missed every subsequent relationship in my life.

But I can go farther back into things I experienced growing up, but largely did not choose. I suppose I had an interesting childhood in the same sense as the ancient Chinese curse. But remove those experiences and I would not have become the teen who made the choices that I made. It’s an intricate, yet delicate web of growth, experience, and relationship. And there’s nothing that, even given every second chance, I can honestly say I would remove or change. I regret the places where I hurt people, and there are too many of those. But I don’t really want to go back and change anything. I just want to do better going forward.

I’ve never been a very good fit in the American evangelical culture not just because I’m twice divorced, but because I’ve simply refused to adopt the stereotypical, expected ‘repentant‘ attitude. I may recognize that I’ve made poor choices more than once (not that I needed Christianity to reveal that fact to me), but I’m not ‘sorry‘ about my kids or life and I never will be. I know that a lot of people don’t know how to deal with me because I don’t fit any of their easy boxes. They have various categories for people and I don’t even superficially conform to those categories. Some can drop their neat little divisions and simply accept me for who I am. Others keep their distance instead because I make them uncomfortable. My wife sometimes thinks I don’t see the various reactions. And it is true that I’m less socially aware than many people are. But I’m more aware than I tend to show.

When I read the places in the gospels where Jesus most directly addresses marriage, I always want to note that he is mostly speaking against the way the various Pharisaical camps had used divorce as a weapon to punish and hurt the weak or benefit the powerful. Even so, within that context I don’t disagree that Jesus strongly implies the existence of an ideal against which he is contrasting and judging their abuse. I don’t really argue with that point on which so many seem to focus an inordinate amount of attention. (I will point out that it’s actually a multiplicity of ideals. Jesus and Paul both say, after all, that it’s a higher calling of some to remain unmarried and childless in devotion and service to God. That statement was at least as shocking in their ancient context as it would be to conservative evangelicals today.)

But Jesus embodied a God who has never shied away from the reality of human relationships in favor of some ideal. Even in the foreshadowing of the Old Testament, we see a good God who loves mankind. We see a God who again and again shows up saying, “Well, that’s not what I had in mind for you, but since that’s where you’ve gotten yourself, here’s where we’ll go from here.” The human relationships we form are an inextricable part of our reality. And I don’t think God judges them as incidental, secondary, or occupying some lower rung on a hierarchical ladder of love. I think he honors them for what they are in the midst of all their messiness.

In truth, if we believe Jesus, then love and worship of God cannot be separated from love of other human beings. That is, after all, what Jesus taught when he had the audacity to amend the Shema Yisrael. When I think of God, I always see Jesus sitting at the well with the Samaritan woman telling her, without judgment or condemnation, “You’ve told the truth. You have no husband. You’ve had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.” It’s as if he’s telling her, I see where you are, I’m willing to join you where you are, and we’ll go from there.

Perhaps that story is so poignant to me because it illustrates the point at which I began to truly see the reality of Jesus instead of a caricature. That time came when my wife and I were planning our wedding. For a wide variety of reasons — none having to do with faith — we decided to see if we could get married in a beautiful, nearby Lutheran church. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect and I’m not sure my wife did either. Neither of us had any connection to any Lutheran church nor were we practicing Christians of any sort. My wife was more or less a lapsed Roman Catholic and I was more anti-Christian than not. (There are a lot of reasons for both and neither are particularly relevant here.)

While I’m not sure what either of us expected, what we encountered was love. I don’t think for a moment that the Lutheran pastor had any illusions about our degree of Christian faith, though he never pressed us on it. And especially given that I had my older five year old son, we were in the middle of a custody case, and my son had already bonded to my then fiance as the mother he had deserved to have, I don’t believe the pastor had any illusions about the platonic nature of our relationship either.

We began to get to know him in pre-marital counseling and though I did not yet know that particular gospel story, I found myself in the place of the Samaritan woman. The pastor didn’t use those words, but it’s as if he said to me, “Yes, you’ve had two wives and the woman you’re with now is not your wife. That’s where you are. Let’s move on from there.” And he didn’t stop with proforma marriage counseling and a wedding. He remained genuinely interested in our lives and struggles. He gave my wife a part-time job at one point that was also flexible enough to meet the demands the custody case placed on us. He needed a secretary and she was available and skilled, but that practical act always meant a lot to me. There had to have been at least some people more devoted to his church to whom he could have given the job.

We were never exactly regular attendees at that church, but we did go more often than we had originally intended. (That’s not saying much since I’m not sure we really intended to attend at all once the wedding was over.) And when our son was born, we had him baptized by that pastor. That Lutheran pastor never really did anything dramatic or showy. But he did live the sort of love we see in the gospels. He chose acceptance over rejection. He chose love over any particular set of rules. And by doing that, he led me to question whether or not I might have been wrong in my judgment of Christians and Christianity. I doubt he had or has any idea of the impact his actions had on me. But the truth is that I’m not sure I see how I would have moved from where I was to anything like Christian faith without his small, but consistent acts of love.

The theological point I take from all of this is that it’s not my job to somehow ‘fix‘ the web of human relationships surrounding and supporting another person. My wife and I have and may again in the future find ourselves in a place where we need to do what we can to help someone who is being abused. So I’m not at all saying that we should stay aloof or apart from others. That’s not love. However, it’s up to God, not us, to ultimately sort things out. Our role is to acknowledge where people are and not turn away from it. Lies flow from darkness, not from the light. We should never pretend that things are other than what they are. But having done so, we are to love. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

I’m not sure that you can err by loving too much or too freely. But if you can, I would rather err on that side than by not loving enough. I don’t think I’m very good at love, at least not the sort of love that Jesus commands. But if there’s one thing I want to do better, that’s probably it.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 11

Posted: April 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 11

39.  Do not say that you are the temple of the Lord, writes Jeremiah (cf. Jer. 7:4); nor should you say that faith alone in our Lord Jesus Christ can save you, for this is impossible unless you also acquire love for Him through your works. As for faith by itself, ‘the devils also believe, and tremble’(Jas. 2:19).

The other day I referred to the faith of demons in James, so I wanted to include this text. Here in the United States, at least, many of those who are not Christian do have some familiarity with Jesus. And very often, the accusations they raise against us boil down to the accusation that we are not like Jesus. As long as our accusers speak the truth, we have no defense. When we are unlike Jesus, whom we name Lord, and when we do not obey his commands, which are to love, then we have earned their condemnation.

I’m not sure we have anything to say to those around us until we are able to hear what they are saying to us.


Original Sin 4 – Karma

Posted: February 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 4 – Karma

Although not directly related to the topic of original sin, I think it’s important to briefly touch upon the framework of karma as I explore the ways I interacted with the idea of inherited guilt in my personal journey. Before my turn toward Christianity, the primary lens through which I interpreted and made sense of reality was largely karmic in nature.

Karma is often caricatured in Christian discussion as a lens which is fatalistic, deterministic, or pessimistic. But that’s not really the case. While it is nuanced differently in different settings and traditions, the karmic tapestry is rich and multivalenced. There are different ways to categorize karma according to time, priority of effect, or function. While karma plays a part in determining your present position, it is not the only force at work and beings are not bound or limited by their karma.

Within a karmic perception of reality, every birth is conditioned (though rarely solely) by the karma of the past life. However, this is different from the idea of inherited guilt in several important ways. First, it is not “guilt” or “innocence” in a juridical sense. Instead, your karma consists of the accumulated weight and causal effect of your past attitudes, decisions, and actions. There is no external judge rendering a verdict in the system. Moreover, though the karma of your parents can physically condition circumstances of  your birth (a healthy mother, for instance, is more likely to give birth to a healthy baby than an unhealthy mother), your karma is your own, is specifically separate from that of your parents, and is not bound by their karma.

When compared to that system, a framework that posits inherited guilt before an external deity with determined condemnation on that basis alone looks … shallow and capricious. I was not particularly willing to exchange a framework with which I was comfortable for an inferior one, yet I was undeniably attracted to this Jesus of Nazareth.

While the percentage of people who formally adhere to an Eastern religion remains low in the United States, I think many people underestimate the extent to which that mindset has influenced our present culture. That influence will only deepen over time. While a proper Christian perspective of reality, of a good God who loves mankind, of a Lord who joins his nature with ours in order to rescue us from death provides, I think, a superior view of reality to the far Eastern one, much of what is espoused as Christian today does not. And this is one of the places where it does not at all. I’m sure that was a factor in my initial reaction against the Western doctrine of original sin.


Original Sin 2 – Inherited Guilt

Posted: February 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 2 – Inherited Guilt

Before we can begin any discussion of Original Sin, of course, I think it’s important to provide some context and definition for the idea we will be discussing. (Or on which I’ll be having a monologue if nobody else has anything to say.) When I use the term, I have in mind the idea, first articulated as such by St. Augustine, that when Adam sinned, we all — as his descendants — participated in his sin and are thus born already judged guilty by God of Adam’s sin and, as a result of Adam’s actions, condemned to death and eternal punishment in hell. In other words, the entire concept hinges on the idea of inherited guilt. As the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we are held accountable for their actions and crimes against God’s law. We are born juridically condemned for their acts. We are judged guilty at birth even though we have not yet decided or done anything ourselves.

Now, let’s consider this idea of inherited guilt apart from anything to do with Christianity, faith, or spirituality for a minute. A pretty simple story, a thought experiment if you will, should help put this idea into context.

Let’s say there was a notorious Nazi guard at Auschwitz during WWII. This guard actively participated in the torture and mass execution of many, many people. He was known and feared by many in the concentration camp and remembered by the survivors. Yet, in the confusion at the end of the war, he managed to escape, change his name, and build a new life for himself. Over time, he married, had three children, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, the youngest of whom is just two weeks old. Finally, as an old man, his true identity is discovered and he is prosecuted for the crimes against humanity he committed as an Auschwitz prison guard. In due course, the international court finds him guilty of those crimes and sentences him to life in prison.

However, the court does not stop there. It also finds that as his direct descendants, his three children, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren (even the youngest who is now six months old in the narrative of our thought experiment) are also guilty of crimes against humanity. As the Nazi guard’s descendants, they are equally guilty for the acts of their ancestor, even though they had no knowledge of those actions and the acts themselves occurred long before they were even born. They share the same judicial condemnation and sentence as their ancestor. They are all sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole from the oldest to the youngest.

Would we call that justice? And yet it is precisely the scenario put forth by those who teach that juridical guilt can be and is inherited. At a later juncture, I will probably explore some of the historical framework and context for the development of this idea. But this post should help put into context the idea of “original sin” that I will be exploring in this series.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 9 – Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans Redux

Posted: July 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I decided to open and close the posts in this series reflecting on St. Ignatius with different chapters in his letter to the Smyrnaeans. In my first look at this letter, I focused on chapter 8. In this post I’m going to consider chapter 6.

Let no man be deceived. Even the heavenly things, and the glory of the angels, and the principalities, both visible and invisible, if they believe not on the blood of Christ, for them also is there condemnation. Let him who receiveth it, receive it in reality. Let not high place puff up any man. For the whole matter is faith and love, to which there is nothing preferable. Consider those who hold heretical opinions with regard to the grace of Jesus Christ which hath come unto us, how opposite they are to the mind of God. They have no care for love, nor concerning the widow, nor concerning the orphan, nor concerning the afflicted, nor concerning him who is bound or loosed, nor concerning him who is hungry or thirsty. They refrain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up.

One of the things about any ancient faith grounded in a predominantly oral culture that is difficult for many in a modern literate culture to truly “get inside” is the fact that they don’t tend to “document” normal practice and belief. For instance, you won’t really grasp Hinduism simply by reading the Vedic literature. You won’t penetrate very far in understanding Buddhism simply by reading the life of Siddhartha Gautama or any of the scriptures or traditional texts. In order to advance in understanding either path, you must find a guru or teacher or school that will then communicate to you the practice of this way of life. (In the West today, a number of these paths actually have been reduced to writing, so you can follow a guru to some extent without actually working with them in person. But that is not the preferred means of communicating their way.)

When we read the New Testament canon and ancient Christian writings, we encounter a similar dynamic. Nowhere does anyone actually write down in a formal structured manner all that Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples to see and understand following the Resurrection. We are told in several places that he did so, but frustratingly are not told what he taught. Similarly, we are never actually given details of the practice of worship in the Church in any organized manner. Instead, we get snippets here and there as the NT authors write letters to be delivered by trusted coworkers in the faith who would convey them accurately in order to resolve problem situations that the author could not, for whatever reason, resolve in person. Sometimes we’re told what the problem is. Sometimes we aren’t.

However, rather than expecting people to learn from individual gurus or within schools that preserved a particular piece of the teaching, new Christians were expected to learn the traditions of the faith from the bishops installed and taught first by the apostles and then by the later bishops in turn. The knowledge of the practice of the faith was thus conveyed from generation to generation in the predominantly oral cultures of the era. I think some of our English translations have something of an agenda behind them in this regard. For instance, the nine occurrences or so of a negative usage of the Greek paradosis (or variants) are typically translated tradition, as in the tradition of the Pharisees.  (Cue somber, warning music.) However, in the three or so instances where paradosis is used positively in the NT, it is translated teaching instead in some translations. Personally, I think that somewhat distorts what Paul is saying when he, for example, tells the Thessalonian church to hold onto the traditions they were taught, whether orally or in writing (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

I’ve prefaced my thoughts on today’s letter excerpt with these reflections because once again we are not seeing a formal written Confession, Statement of Faith, or written rule of worship. Those will be as uncommon in the ancient writings as they are in the New Testament itself. In the first century, the Didache comes as close as we get to such a written statement and even it is more the confession of the tradition intended to be recited by catechumens at their Baptism than something broader or more comprehensive. As in the NT, the ancient Christian writers were typically writing to address a specific problem or counter a specific heresy the author could not deal with in person.

And we see that here with Ignatius. From the description, he was clearly writing to address some variation of gnostic belief and practice that was apparently gaining some traction in Smyrna. Gnostics generally believed in special knowledge rather than the practices of love common to Christians. And they believed the physical was evil and the spiritual good. So they often did not believe Jesus ever actually had a body or was really a human being at all. (We also call that heresy docetism.) Gnostics loved lots of levels and ranks of powers. In the first sentence, Ignatius dismisses all such structures, however powerful they might appear to be, by asserting that all reality rests on the blood of Jesus. And he stresses that he who receives that blood needs to receive it in reality.

Finally, in the last sentence, St. Ignatius notes that the heretics refuse to receive the eucharist because they will not confess it is the flesh of Jesus. By contrast then, those who do receive the eucharist must confess that it is the flesh of Jesus. Naturally a gnostic, with the deeply engrained belief that all physical bodies are evil would be particularly repelled by the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood. (It was generally understood as a strange belief among Christians by those completely outside the faith as well.) Yet even by the close of the first century Christians not just believed that in the eucharist they were consuming Christ, but actually confessed it was his flesh before receiving it. That image stands in sharp juxtaposition with the modern Baptist belief and even with the 1689 London Confession.

This is why the Baptist perspective has a fundamental historical problem. As we proceed, we will see the Christian liturgy better described and the understanding of the Eucharist more deeply explored. But the basic idea that the bread is the flesh of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ and that we consume Jesus in order to receive life is not something dreamed up in the 4th century, or in the 8th century, or in the 13th century, or even in the mid to late 2nd century. The thread of this belief can effectively be traced all the way back to the start of the Church. It’s impossible to find a point where this belief ever changed from one thing to something different in the ancient church. In order to say that Baptists (or Zwingli or Calvin) have the correct perspective on the Eucharist, you virtually have to say that the Apostles got it wrong — or at least that they weren’t able to teach anyone following them the “correct” understanding.

Now, don’t misunderstand me on this point. Nothing we’ve looked at means you have to or even should accept the 13th century theory of transubstantiaton, which is one attempt to explain the mystery. You don’t need to know Aristotle or believe that Aristotle correctly describes the nature of reality. In fact, the list of things you don’t have to believe is pretty long. The two beliefs that are not supported historically, though, are the belief that it is “just” a symbol (whatever that may mean) and the alternative belief that while more than a mere symbol it remains a “purely” spiritual feeding.

Gnostics had no problem with symbols or with the spiritual. In fact, they had something of an overabundance of both.


The Didache 33 – Coda

Posted: July 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

This post, You Cannot Be Too Gentle, captures much of the heart of what I was trying to say about even the difficult ground of reproof. The quote is short so I’ll reproduce it here.

You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgement. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

-St. Seraphim of Sarov

If you condemn you have not brought peace, you have not brought shalom. As the Teaching indicates, there are times we must reprove because we love a person and they are destroying themselves or another. But we must always remember and actually know that we are the chief of sinners even as we reprove. I have very, very rarely been in a relationship where it fell to me to reprove. It’s a situation we should approach with prayer and trembling. I’m sure one who is ordained might be faced with the necessity more than I have been. It does seem to me that much of what I see posed as Christian reproof in many circles today is actually condemnation. And I believe that harms both the one condemning and the one condemned.


The Didache 26 – Open Communion?

Posted: July 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

I tend toward the idea that we should feed the body and blood of our Lord to all who come to the table. I don’t necessarily remember much of my interactions with Christianity growing up, but there are moments I still recall with utter clarity. One of those is kneeling at the rail of some Episcopal somewhere in Houston receiving the bread and drinking from the common cup. I knew instantly what Sara Miles was trying to capture in words about that moment when she took the bread, hardly knowing what she was doing, and consumed and was consumed by the Lord. There is a wild mystery to the Christian ritual of bread and wine, in our God who takes on our flesh and then gives himself back to us so that as we eat his body and drink his blood, we receive life. I may not be able to explain our God, but I can say: Come! Eat!

But statements like this remind me that while it is powerful, the bread and wine can be to our condemnation rather than life. It is not something controlled or managed. 1 Corinthians drives that point home. Some are sick and have even died because they ate and drank unworthily. There is a tension here.

The Teaching evokes memories of Jesus’ interaction with the gentile woman. Yet she was bold enough to ask for crumbs and so her child was healed. Traditionally the Church has been cautious with the incredible gift entrusted to its care. I do believe the caution is warranted. But perhaps sometimes we need to be less cautious as well and trust in the power of our Lord to seek and to save.