Who Am I?

Jesus Creed 23 – Forgiving in Jesus

Posted: October 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 6:12, 14-15; 18:21-35.

For me ‘forgiveness‘ is something of a scary thing. I know that may sound odd, but I can think of no better way to express it. In fact, I’m often unsure why others don’t seem to recognize that this ‘forgiveness‘ thing is pretty scary stuff.

There are multiple perspectives to consider.

Forgiveness, in the Old Testament, is a ‘God thing’ and a ‘repentance thing.

In other words, God (and pretty much only God) does it and it requires repentance first. Scot describes this as the standard view of Judaism.

Christianity stands that on its head.

A brief summary of each: First, Jesus innovates in his world when he urges his followers to have a disposition of forgiveness rather than of strict justice. Second, so important is forgiveness to Jesus that forgiving others is a litmus test of whether or not one is a follower of Jesus. Third, forgiving others knows no limit for Jesus’ followers. Fourth, forgiving others is effective in his society of followers. The ultimate observation we make is that Jesus is the example: On the cross Jesus looks to those who are crucifying him and forgives them.

What Jesus says about forgiveness is rooted in the Jesus Creed: God loves us, so we are to love others and to love God. Loving others means forgiving them. Put succinctly, the Jesus Creed manifests itself in gracious, preemptive strikes of forgiveness.

We should do that more often. If we follow the Jesus Creed, we will not only ask God to forgive us, but we will forgive others. Preemptively. That is, before they have repented or asked for forgiveness.

I remember the first time I ever heard about the Orthodox service of Forgiveness Vespers. It was in Molly Sabourin’s Close to Home podcast titled simply Forgiveness. (Take a moment to click the link and listen to the podcast. It’s well worth the time.) I must have listened to it at least three times in succession and I’ve listened to it multiple times since. I immediately recognized it’s beauty and uniquely Christian quality.

I have not attended one. Forgiveness is simultaneously threatening and incredibly attractive to me. Forgiveness Vespers captures, I think, the way I desire reality to be. I’m just not sure I trust that it actually does describe reality.

Lord have mercy.


Jesus Creed 22 – Restoring in Jesus

Posted: October 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Mark 4:35-41; 9:14-19; John 21:1-25.

When we fall, Jesus picks us up. He’s busy. A disciple is called to love God and to love others, and this means: trust completely, abide constantly, and surrender totally. This is difficult.

That’s an understatement, of course. This chapter reminds me of something I heard once. An Orthodox monk was asked about life in the monastery and his response went something like this, “We fall down and get back up; fall down and get back up.” In many ways, that’s the image of the journey of the Christian life. Although we fail uncountable times, we only truly fail if we are no longer willing to get back up and remain determinedly unwilling. Jesus is always there to forgive and restore us “70 times 7 times,” which is to say as many times as it takes. He did not come to condemn us, but to heal us and give us life.

Salvation is union with Christ.

I think it’s important to emphasize that point, because I think salvation is often confused as many other things. Sometimes it seems to me that some Christians confuse salvation with forgiveness. Thus, once they have been forgiven, they sometimes believe they are saved. Forgiveness is certainly a part of the whole journey of salvation, but it is not in and of itself salvation. Nor does our journey toward salvation begin when we recognize our need for forgiveness. I tried to express some of that from my personal perspective in my post, Walking in my Shoes.

At some point in the course of that journey you will recognize your own failure. You will know that you need forgiveness. You will know that you need restoration. And when you do, as long as you are willing to get back up, it’s there in endless supply. But those points will come at different places for every human being. And that recognition and decision to get back up, whether mild or intense, understated or dramatic, is not salvation. It’s a mile marker on the way of salvation.


Jesus Creed 17 – A Society of Joy

Posted: September 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: John 2:1-11.

This chapter opens with an exploration of the yearning that is a universal part of the human experience. While there are many good thoughts, quotes, and ideas in the opening, I’m going to skip straight to the following from the book.

Here’s the good news: Jesus claims that the yearned-for joy is already here, that he’s provided us with an abundant drink of it, and that his offer will satisfy our thirst forever and ever. To reveal that joy, Jesus performs miracles that draw down a little bit of heaven’s joy to earth, that suddenly make life in this world light up in glory, and that convert the humdrum routine of reality into the joy of life.

Sometimes it seems like we treat God’s joy, grace, and life as if it’s in short supply. We feel we have to be careful where we bestow it. We don’t want to ‘waste‘ it. And that’s so very foolish. If there’s anything that knows no limit, that overflows with abundance, in which we swim in riches unimagined, it’s the embarassing wealth of grace and life God pours out on us.

Obviously, from the gospel reading, Scot begins his exploration at the wedding at Cana. And he starts by pointing out one of those things that we don’t often consider. Why does John specifically mention that the vessels Jesus’ uses are for ceremonial washing? Here is where we’ve lost some of our points of reference to Jesus’ culture. These weren’t about hygiene. They contained sacred water. It is water used to purify people and things.

People and things are made pure to get them in the proper order before God, to render them fit to enter into God’s presence. Observant Jews wash their hands in this water so they can eat their food in a state of purity.

Think on that for a moment. We talk about those containers a lot but I can’t think of a time when I can say I truly paused to recognize their significance in the culture. I knew it, but never connected the dots. Scot draws a wonderful point from this.

Jesus transforms the water of purity into the wine of joy. … Purity comes, not from water, but from drinking in the wedding wine of Jesus. … Jesus not only transforms water into wine, he does so in abundance. … Abundant joy is a feature of the kingdom…

That’s a powerful thought. Scot closes the chapter with the following.

When Jesus transforms the waters of purification into the wine of celebration he is saying that the daily grind of yearning for joy through purity has come to an end. ‘You need search no longer,’ Jesus is saying, ‘the wedding wine is at the table, drink it, all of you. Drink of me, for I am the wedding wine of joy, for the forgiveness of sin. I am what you yearn for. I make all things pure.


The Jesus Creed 7 – John the Baptist: The Story of New Beginnings

Posted: August 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 7 – John the Baptist: The Story of New Beginnings

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Luke 3:1-20; John 1:6-9, 15, 19-34.

In the middle section of the book, McKnight explores the implications of the Jesus Creed through the stories of different people in the gospels. He starts with John the Baptist. There are several themes in play. The Jordan River marked the time the children of Israel crossed over into the promised land for a new beginning. Likewise, John was calling for a new beginning. We also need to compare priests and prophets. John’s father was a priest. John was a prophet.

A priest speaks for humans to God in the privacy of the temple. A prophet speaks for God to humans in the publicity of the town square. Priests wiped sins from the people; prophets wiped sins in their faces. Most importantly, priests summoned people to tell the truth so they could make restitution, but prophets summoned people to tell the truth so they could start all over again.

And prophets didn’t always use words. There are many examples of prophets being told to act out the drama they were prophesying. So it is with John. Not just with words, but location. He stages his drama on the far side of the Jordan River, the side from which they entered Israel.

John is saying that if Israel wants to enjoy the blessings of God, they need to go back to the Jordan and begin again. … This is the only way to make sense of John is his world: He wants his audience to see that life can begin all over again. At the Jordan, John gives us the opportunity to start over. How? John has a word for it.

Repent! It’s the first word out of his mouth. Repentance “with an edge“. Repentance means we “must confess our sins“, in other words, “we must tell God the truth.” And that’s hard. We have layers.

Our public persona.

Our family image.

And our inner self.

And telling the truth to God means we expose all of them. “The Jesus Creed begins with loving God. Love, for it to work at all, requires truthtelling.” Don’t we see some of that in the Psalms? If we are not first honest, good and bad, we can hardly claim to love at all.

Truthtelling awakens forgiveness. By telling the truth, we are able to receive forgiveness from our Abba. If we do not learn to tell the truth, we are closed off from that forgiveness. We hide. God thrills at each reconciliation. That is clear. Truthtelling gets real, though.

Spirituality. Many of those listening had their spirituality anchored in their Jewish heritage. So does John and he’s probably proud of his heritage. Nevertheless, our spirituality must be anchored in our Abba.

Our possessions. Oh, that’s a tough one for us today. But honestly it’s always been tough. “The Bible speaks often of money because it is with money that we exercise the freedoms of choice.” That’s a heady thought. John says, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none.” How important are our possessions to us? We need to tell the truth.

Our power. To one extent or another, we all have it. Many of those John faced abused it. “If we love God and love others, we will use our power for the good of others. We need to tell the truth about power: how do we use it?”  This is why the discipline of confession strikes me as so very important today. We are all lousy at telling the truth about ourselves. It’s often not pretty. But unless we do it, we will never grow in faith.


The Jesus Creed 2 – Praying the Jesus Creed

Posted: August 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13.

Sometimes prayer is like
     dry lima beans
          in a dry mouth
              on a dry day.

That’s how McKnight opens this chapter. I really like the imagery.

Why? Prayer is hard, it gnaws into our schedule, and it can be as much a source of frustration as satisfaction. Brother Lawrence, who has probably encouraged more people in prayer than anyone in the history of the Church, found routines in prayer dry and dull. He was bluntly honest about his own perplexity with prayer. Such honesty about prayer by a champion of prayer encourages us all in our own struggle to pray.

Of course, nobody who knows me would be surprised that the reference to Brother Lawrence struck a chord with me. Still the statement is true. McKnight continues:

At the bottom, prayer is simple. It is loving communication with God. All we need for prayer is an open heart.

All? How easy for any of us is a truly open heart?

The good news for us is that it was struggle with prayer that gave rise to the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples were struggling with their own prayer lives. After observing Jesus pray, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” To help them with prayer, he gave them a prayer…

McKnight then provides the ancient Jewish prayer Jesus amended through the lens of his modified Shema. This is that prayer (which we know was present and widely used at the time of Jesus) call the Kaddish (Sanctification).

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future. And say Amen.

This prayer bears striking similarities to the Lord’s Prayer and McKnight proposes that Jesus makes it his own. And this connection, while not as obvious or clearcut as the amendment of the Shema, makes a lot of sense within its context. Jesus amends the central creed and then he amends a sacred prayer, reshaping them both in dramatic ways. McKnight examines the parallels between the two in several tables. When you lay them out side by side, the correlations are pretty obvious.

There are three basic changes: First, the Lord’s Prayer begins with ‘Father’ (Abba). [I also want to note that in an appendix, McKnight the linguist, bible scholar, and theologian notes that ‘Daddy’ is an inappropriate interpretation of ‘Abba.’ It’s a form adults used and so ‘Father’ (or I would also suggest ‘Dad’) is appropriate. I’ve typically used ‘Dad’ myself, but have heard others promote the ‘Daddy’ version. Minor note, really, but I wanted to mention it.] Second, Jesus adds three lines. Third, the additional lines shift from ‘your’ to ‘us.’ As a result of these changes, the Lord’s Prayer has two parts (you petitions and we/us petitions). The ‘You’ petitions are ‘Love God’ petitions and the ‘We/Us’ petitions are ‘Love Others’ petitions. (Notice that none of them are me/I requests.)

Next, I will note that Judaism is deeply symbolic, creedal, and essentially what we call ‘liturgical.’ Further, it is the only system of worship that, in its original form, was directly established by God. At least, it’s the only one recorded. And God established a highly liturgical form of worship. In our ‘low worship’ style, it’s important that we remember and acknowledge that reality because McKnight’s next point is one I’ve noticed many Baptists (and others) struggle with. McKnight even confesses his own struggle. This is an important note for his next section, titled “The Lord’s Prayer as a Gift for Liturgy.”

When the disciples asked Jesus for a prayer, he said, ‘When you pray, say.” Literally, ‘say’ means ‘repeat.’ I already knew that, but I’ve watched people go to great lengths to make it mean something else. Further, contextually it makes no sense for Jesus to do anything else. The disciples ask for a prayer. Given their liturgical setting, they would expect a prayer they could repeat. Like the Kaddish. Like others. Surely that’s what Jesus would have given them?

Of course, liturgical prayers *can* become mindless rote. But frankly, non-liturgical prayers easily become just as mindless, shallow, and empty. The problem lies not with the prayer or the form, but with us. If prayer, any prayer, is actually loving communication with God, it’s real prayer whatever form it takes. If it’s not, it’s nothing but empty words.

The advantage of liturgical or structured prayers is twofold (in my mind). By their content, even if we start in a place of mindless repitition, they always have the ability to capture our attention and shape our thoughts toward God. And if we start with God in mind, they contain many ‘hooks’ that can lead us into conversational prayers. Neither liturgical churches nor Jesus suggest that *all* prayer should be structured. But structured prayers give us a routine and a place to begin when we don’t otherwise ‘feel’ like praying, when the ‘dry lima beans in a dry mouth on a dry day’ experience descends upon us.

The Lord’s Prayer focuses us on the priorities (loving God and loving others) and does not allow us to easily descend into what McKnight calls ‘self-saturated prayers.’ He quotes Lauren Winner (a convert from liturgical Judaism to liturgical Christianity), “Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims.” Maybe it’s the ‘postmodern’ (or whatever) within me, but that statement resonates deeply.

McKnight then relates the personal impression the Lord made on his heart about this prayer as he studied and reflected on it. Now he concludes each of his Jesus classes with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (and begins it with a recitation of the Jesus Creed).

McKnight explores four things which we can learn when we permit the Lord’s Prayer to mentor our Prayer to mentor our prayer life.

We learn to approach God as Abba….This is the signature term of Jesus and it marks the center of his teaching about God.

We learn what God really wants… God’s love plan is for his glorious Name to be honored and his will to become concrete reality on earth. Earth is Abba’s frontier; heaven is already his. In pondering God’s Name, kingdom, and will, we are prompted (daily) to yearn for what God yearns for. Love always prompts yearning.

We learn to think of others… As Jesus didn’t leave the Shema to be a God-only thing, so he didn’t leave the Kaddish to be a God-only thing. And he doesn’t want it to be an I-only thing either.

We learn what everyone needs. Hanging our prayers on the framework of the Lord’s Prayer will lead us to yearn that all will have provision, be granted forgiveness, and be spared temptation. … We need to think our way back into Jesus’ world by recalling that we have just petitioned the Abba about his Name, Kingdom, and will. Our concern is with God’s breaking into history to make this world right for all of us. And that means praying for others so that they will have adequate provisions, spiritual purity, and moral stability. I don’t know about you, but I tend to begin my prayers for others with what I know about them and what they need. Jesus offers another path: We can begin with what he wants for them. By using the Lord’s Prayer, we join his loving prayer for them.

Do you get those things from the Lord’s Prayer? I’m starting to. Prayer is a big issue. As I’ve related in other posts, in my search for how to pray and especially what it meant to pray without ceasing, and my dissatisfaction with the things most evangelicals seem to write and say, I turned to Brother Lawrence. And through, at least in part I believe, his intercession, the Jesus Prayer came to me. I’ve never confused set prayers with “vain repetition” probably because I have a sense of history and first-hand experience with other religions. In the ancient context, people would use many words and take other actions in an effort to get their god’s attention. We see that recorded in our Scripture as well. One excellent example is the encounter between Elijah and the priests of Baal. I’ve also meditated with mantras whose purpose is to clear your mind of thought and activity. That’s neither the goal nor the result of praying Christian set prayers.

McKnight concludes with the note that the Lord’s Prayer is a “gift for action.” It’s “a commitment of the pray-er to the values of the Lord’s Prayer.” He then includes a quote from Frank Laubach. (I don’t know who that is, but I really like the little excerpt here.)

It [the Lord’s Prayer] is the prayer most used and least understood. People think they are asking God for something. They are not — they are offering God something.

… the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer to God to do something we want done. It is more nearly God’s prayer to us, to help Him do what he wants done… He wanted that entire prayer answered before we prayed it…. The Lord’s Prayer is not intercession. It is enlistment.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 14

Posted: July 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 14

39.  The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a man, having achieved some things and eager to achieve others through this divine power, never belittles anyone. For he knows that just as God has helped him and freed him from many passions and difficulties, so, when God wishes, He is able to help all men, especially those pursuing the spiritual way for His sake. And if in His providence He does not deliver all men together from their passions, yet like a good and loving physician He heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress.

God’s ongoing purpose is not forgiveness. He has never had a problem forgiving anyone and in Jesus there is the fullness of “the forgiveness of sins.” No, God’s purpose has always been to heal us so we are able to live in communion with him and with each other. And that is a much greater and much richer purpose. We are all damaged creatures. We all need to be healed. But as with the doctors with whom we have forgiveness, if we do not take the medicine or if we do not do the exercises, we will not experience healing. The eucharist has been called the medicine of immortality. I believe there is much truth in that imagery. Similarly, the ascetic disciplines are exercises prescribed to strengthen us. It’s not enough to be forgiven. We need to become truly human.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 6 – Resurrection

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now that I’ve discussed death and the abode of the death, it seems appropriate to interject the Christian belief in resurrection, certainly one of the most central tenets of our faith. (If you missed my post on Rob Bell’s Resurrection video, now’s a good time to pause and check it out.) Resurrection means and has always meant a physical, earthly life with a body that is in some sense continuous with our present body. There seems to be a lot of confusion on that point today. As far as I can tell, prior to Christ’s resurrection, the idea of any sort of resurrection was unique to the Jewish people. And their belief was far from universal even among themselves and markedly different in a number of key ways from what became the Christian confession in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’ve practiced a number of non-Christian religions and explored many more than I’ve actually practiced. I’ve also studied a bit of ancient history. I’m not aware of any religion outside Judaism and Christianity whose beliefs include resurrection. Resurrection is certainly a central part of the view of reality that drew me deeper into Christian faith and which keeps me in it. There are a few facets of the Christian confession which I know with certainty if I ceased to believe they were true, I would abandon this faith and move on to something else instead. Resurrection is one of those key facets. I’m frankly shocked that Resurrection seems more like an afterthought or something peripheral to many Christians today. It’s not. It’s right at the very center of our faith. Without resurrection nothing about Christianity is appealing or even makes sense.

In Christ’s Resurrection, which is the first fruit of our own future resurrection, death was destroyed. Humanity was in bondage to death and God had to rescue us from the vice of its relentless grip. Moreover, death was the ultimate tool that Satan and the Powers used to enslave us. And in and through that dark power, sin swirled around and within us. One of the many images used by the Christian Fathers was the image of a baited trap. Death thought it had swallowed a man in Jesus of  Nazareth and discovered too late that it had swallowed God. Sheol/Hades was burst open from the inside and death was destroyed. The icon of the harrowing of Hades speaks louder than words. The abode of the dead now stands empty with its gates burst asunder.

It was only a part of the story and purpose of the Incarnation, but in his death and resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, healed the wound of death in the nature of mankind. It is no longer our nature to die! We see that in the language of the Church. In the NT, those who have died are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord. God has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish in order to rescue us. Jesus has joined our nature with God’s and flowing from him are rivers of healing water. We are no longer subject to death and we live within the reality of the forgiveness of sins.

But God will not force himself on us. Jesus has truly done it all and offers us the power of grace, which is to say himself, in and through the Spirit for our healing. It’s in and through the mystery of the Incarnation that God can join himself with each of us. But in order to be healed, we must cooperate and participate with the Great Physician. We have to want God. Or at the least, we have to want to want God. (Sometimes that’s the best we are able to do. Not to worry, God came to us in the Incarnation and he will keep coming to us wherever we stand.) And thus we live in this interim period where the fullness of the work of Christ remains veiled.

Christianity has relatively little to say about what happens to us when we die or our “life after death.” Off-hand, I can think of only three places where it’s mentioned in the NT with virtually no detail offered. Our faith, however, has a great deal to say about resurrection, new creation, and re-creation. I like Bishop N.T. Wright’s phrase “life after life after death.” The Christian story is that we do not die. God sustains us somehow until that time when all humanity is resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

In light of that reality, perhaps it’s clear why I chose to place the post on Resurrection at this spot in the series. Sheol/Hades are no more. So where “hell” in Scripture is used to translate either of those words, it must in some sense be understood as referring to an aspect of reality that ended with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The enormity of just that one piece of Christ’s work is overwhelming to me.

Truly we can now shout, “Death, where is thy sting?


Original Sin 9 – The Adventures of Dumb and Dumber

Posted: March 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Let’s return to Genesis 4 and begin to consider the arc of the whole narrative. I think that’s important because often today, especially in modern evangelicalism, that arc is either abbreviated or almost entirely omitted.

If you listen carefully to the problem, the solution, and the narrative connecting the two in much of evangelicalism today, you will hear something like this. The problem, disobeying God’s inviolate and sacred Law, is established in Genesis 3. The story then jumps to Romans in the New Testament where, using a couple of sentences, the guilt for the sin of Adam is said to be inherited by all human beings and that guilt cannot (for reasons that are never really explained) be forgiven by God. Instead, someone has to pay the debt we owe, but since we are human and finite, we cannot pay an infinite debt. (Of course, the explanations for the manner in which either Adam’s single act or our finite acts become an infinite and unredeemable debt are a bit tenuous themselves.) And since we owe a debt we cannot pay, we are all condemned by God.

Therefore Jesus becomes human in order to die on the cross. As a human being, he can die. And as God he is able to pay the infinite debt we had no ability to pay. The resurrection demonstrates that God accepts Jesus’ payment. And finally, to the extent it’s considered at all, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost marks the seal on that payment. It cannot be revoked.

Beyond its overly simplistic nature — reality, not to mention God, isn’t that simple — the fundamental problem with that particular narrative is that it omits most of the actual narrative of Scripture. It distorts the shape of that narrative significantly in an attempt to make it somehow fit within the confines of the above framework. Even the climax of Romans, the text in which much of this modern evangelical narrative tries to root itself, loses its context and thus most of its meaning. What should be the climax of the text of Romans becomes a parenthetical discussion. The Gospels themselves tend to be reduced to narratives that exist almost solely to establish the historical setting for the Passion of Christ.

However, the creation narratives are  in reality followed by the narrative of Genesis 4-11. There are varying ways to read these texts. I’ve found some intriguing insights at Just Genesis and if you are interested in such things commend that site to you. I’ve heard Scot McKnight describe Genesis 4-11 as “the adventures of dumb and dumber” and in some ways that seems like an apt summary description to me. But this narrative ends at Babel. That should not be overlooked. Instead of one people with one God, humanity consists of many peoples and nations with many gods. And this is the ancient state of man.

And though it’s a bit of an aside, that brings us to an important point regarding most of human history. Those of us in the modern West are highly conditioned today to regard faith or religion as an individual, private choice that each person must make for themselves over the course of their lives. But that image does not describe most of humanity. In the ancient world (and still to some extent in many parts of the world today) gods were largely tied to place and/or people groups and nations. If you were born in a particular place to certain parents, then your god or gods were largely determined by your birth. That was never an absolute, of course. From time to time, people did shift from one religion to another. And, of course, new religions did arise (though they too quickly became tied to some people or place).

Household gods (like we see in some of the early scriptures) were tied to the household and moved with the household. But if the gods were taken or if you left the household, then those gods were now removed from you and you needed other gods. It’s a very different lens for interpreting reality and if you try to read our Holy Scriptures through the modern, highly individualized spiritual lens, you will misread them.

If you have not read and understood one aspect of Pentecost as the healing of Babel, then I would suggest that you have missed an important part of the arc of the story of God and man. In fact, you may be too focused on the question of guilt and forgiveness and not enough on the themes of healing and restoration. I would suggest that the latter are actually more central to the narrative of the Holy Scriptures than the question of guilt. We’ll continue to explore the narrative arc of scripture tomorrow.


For the Life of the World 24

Posted: January 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The series now moves to section 3 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter five.

We now can return to the sacrament of matrimony. We can now understand that its true meaning is not that it merely gives a religious “sanction” to marriage and family life, reinforces with supernatural grace the natural family virtues. Its meaning is that by taking the “natural” marriage into “the great mystery of Christ and the Church,” the sacrament of matrimony gives marriage a new meaning; it transforms, in fact, not only marriage as such but all human love.

Dn. Hyatt draws some observations about recent weddings he’s attended in this podcast and in the prior one. They are good illustrations. At their best, the symbolism in most of our modern marriages make marriage into something that is essentially between the individual man and woman before God. Basically, we are doing exactly what Fr. Schmemann points out above. We are adding a religious blessing to a natural marriage so God is somehow included. But there is no sense that we are speaking about Christ and the Church. The Church is not really even involved or engaged in any way. In some ways, I think that omission helps feed the rampant idolization of “family” in the circles in which I have moved these past fifteen years.

Fr. Schmemann also comments that as a separate rite or ceremony developed for marriage and as the Church gained the civil authority to perform legal marriages, marriage was gradually divorced from the Eucharist — the very thing which had formerly marked and transformed a marriage into a mystery of Christ and the Church. I find it significant that as forgiveness flows from baptism, and thus confession is linked to baptism, so marriage — or love — flows from the Eucharist. Fr. Schmemann weaves connections I had never considered before, but which seem obvious once he points them out.

From that history, the Orthodox rite of matrimony developed into two distinct services. The first service, the betrothal, is not performed inside the Church, but in the vestibule instead. This is where rings are blessed and exchanged. It’s the Christian version of the “natural” or “civil” marriage.

For the Christian, natural does not mean either self-sufficient — a “nice little family” — or merely insufficient, and to be, therefore, strengthened and completed by the addition of the “supernatural.” The natural man thirsts and hungers for fulfillment and redemption. This thirst and hunger is the vestibule of the Kingdom: both beginning and exile.

The “natural” marriage unites the couple, but they are not united in the Kingdom. They stand outside it, in the vestibule. The imagery is powerful if you stop and try to inhabit it.

Then, having blessed the natural marriage, the priest takes the bridal pair in a solemn procession into the church. This is the true form of the sacrament, for it does not merely symbolize, but indeed is the entrance of marriage into the Church, which is the entrance of the world into the “world to come,” the procession of the people of God — in Christ — into the Kingdom. The rite of crowning is but a later — although a beautiful and beautifully meaningful — expression of the reality of this entrance.

I’ve heard of the Orthodox rite of crowning before. The couple do not exchange vows in this wedding. They make no promises to each other or to God. Instead they stand together and are blessed and crowned as king and queen of creation. For that is what were created to be and we cannot escape our reality. We can abuse it. We can turn the world we touch into a little hell. But we were created to reflect God into creation.

Each family is indeed a kingdom, a little church, and therefore a sacrament of and a way to the Kingdom. Somewhere, even if it is only in a single room, every man at some point in his life has his own small kingdom. It may be hell, and a place of betrayal, or it may not. … This is what the marriage crowns express: that here is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom. The chance will be lost, perhaps even in one night; but at this moment it is still an open possibility. Yet even when it has been lost, and lost again a thousand times, still if two people stay together, they are in a real sense king and queen to each other.

As we’ll explore shortly, marriage is not easy. If it were easy, it would not change us, and we desperately need to be changed. But I like the image above. However often you lose it, together you can keep fighting back toward the reality of Christ and the Church.

Fr. Schmemann then points out that in our culture the “icon” of marriage is typically a young couple. But then he tells a story to illustrate the fallacy of that perspective.

But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind — yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present — and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty.

This year will mark our twentieth wedding anniversary. It is my hope and goal to one day reach a place not unlike the one Fr. Schmemann describes above.

Then secondly, the glory and honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the Kingdom is the martyria — bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. This is expressed in the sentiment that one would “do anything” for his family, even steal. The family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it. In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not “happiness!”] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

Wow. Read that a time or three. I confess that I could conceive of “doing anything” for my family. Lie (even in formal settings)? Steal? Kill? Curse Christ and offer incense to the emperor cult? I have no confidence that, if truly pressed, there’s a point beyond which I would not step. I may not be a particularly good husband or father, but I can’t recall any other serious or deeply held ambition I’ve ever had for my life. It’s not exactly the sort of Christian idolization that Fr. Schmemann describes and which I’ve certainly encountered, for it’s been my deepest desire even when I was as “anti-Christian” as they come. If the above does not trouble you, at least a bit, then you’re a better person than I’m ever likely to be.

The third meaning of the crowns in the Orthodox rite is that they are crowns of the Kingdom. Interestingly, as the priest removes the crowns from their heads, he says, “Receive their crowns in Thy Kingdom.” God alone is the end and fullness of perfected love.

The common cup given to the couple after the crowning is explained today as a symbol of “common life,” and nothing shows better the “desacramentalization” of marriage, its reduction to a “natural happiness.” In the past this was communion, the partaking of the Eucharist, the ultimate seal of the fulfillment of marriage in Christ. Christ is to be the very essence of life together. He is the wine of the new life of the children of God, and communion in it will proclaim how, by getting older and older in this world, we are growing younger and younger in the life which has no evening.

Even the Orthodox rite, apparently has been divorced from the context of the couple taking the Eucharist in communion with the gathered people of God. I know in the Roman Catholic Church, it remains an option (though often not taken) for the marriage to take place within the context of a full mass, including the Eucharist. I wonder if it remains an Orthodox option or not.

Marriage is one of the things that Scripture expressly and literally calls a mysterion or sacramentum. It seems like that would give the more “literal-minded,” “bible-believing,” anti-sacramental sorts of Christian pause. For some reason, though, it doesn’t. I’ve never quite understood why that is so.


For the Life of the World 21

Posted: January 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 21

This post continues with section 6 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World, the last section of the chapter. Here is the link again to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter four.

This section shifts to look at the sacrament of penance or confession, which at first glance seemed odd to me in the chapter on baptism. However, I saw the connections Fr. Schmemann was drawing and they make a lot of sense.

It is only in the light of baptism that we can understand the sacramental character attached by the Orthodox Church to penance. In its juridical deviation, sacramental theology explained this sacrament in terms of sheer “juridical” power to absolve sins, a power “delegated” by Christ to the priest.

I think it’s my familiarity with that perspective (shared by both Roman Catholics and Protestants), which Fr. Schmemann calls the “juridical deviation,” that led to my original confusion. For whether you are confessing to a priest or directly to God, within the juridical perspective you are primarily seeking absolution. And that’s not quite the same as forgiveness. Curiously, though played for its comedic value and somewhat caricatured, a recent episode of Desperate Housewives captures this idea and its effects pretty well. Bree is convinced to do penance for her affair by taking care of Orson and through that penance, she seeks to find absolution and a removal of guilt.

But this explanation has nothing to do with the original meaning of penance in the Church, and with its sacramental nature. The sacrament of forgiveness is baptism, not because it operates a juridical removal of guilt, but because it is baptism into Jesus Christ, who is the Forgiveness. The sin of all sins — the truly “original sin” — is not a transgression of rules, but, first of all, the deviation of man’s love and his alienation from God. That man prefers something — the world, himself — to God, this is the only real sin, and in it all sins become natural, inevitable. This sin destroys the true life of man. It deviates life’s course from its only meaning and direction. And in Christ this sin is forgiven, not in the sense that God now has “forgotten” it and pays no attention to it, but because in Christ man has returned to God, and has returned to God because he has loved Him and found in Him the only true object of love and life. And God has accepted man and — in Christ — reconciled him with Himself. Repentance is thus the return of our love, of our life, to God, and this return is possible in Christ because He reveals to us the true Life and makes us aware of our exile and condemnation. To believe in Christ is to repent — to change radically the very “mind” of our life, to see it as sin and death. And to believe in Him is to accept the joyful revelation that in Him forgiveness and reconciliation have been given. In baptism both repentance and forgiveness find their fulfillment. In baptism man wants to die as a sinful man and he is given that death, and in baptism man wants the newness of life as forgiveness, and he is given it.

The above is pretty dense, but read it several times. Baptism is joining Christ in his death because we want to die as the man we were and then also joining him in his Resurrection, receiving life and forgiveness from the one who is The Life and The Forgiveness.

Baptism is forgiveness of sins, not their removal. … It is indeed after baptism and because of it, that the reality of sin can be recognized in all its sadness, and true repentance becomes possible.  … The feast is impossible without the fast, and the fast is precisely repentance and return, the saving experience of sadness and exile.

That is, of course, one of the key flaws in the more juridical perspectives of the West, especially the overarching framework of justification theory. It requires that anyone be able to recognize their sin as sin against a particular God (and thus also discern that God) simply from the nature of the creation and recognize that they are helpless in the face of it. And that’s simply not true. I’ve only begun to be able to grasp the ways in which I am a sinner since I’ve begun to understand reality through the lens that Jesus provides. It is not self-evident that the path of enlightenment of Buddhism or the Wiccan Rede or the animism of Shinto or the various perspectives of the karmic cycle within Hinduism do not accurately describe the natural order of reality.

This also has profound implications for what passes for evangelism in so much of the West. Under the juridical perspective, you basically have to find a way to make someone feel bad about themselves so that you can then pitch the absolution you’re selling. Love and healing are much better things to offer. Repentance, the sort of repentance that arises from a deepening recognition of yourself as sinner, comes as the light of Christ shines in every corner of your soul. Not before.

The sacrament of penance is not, therefore, a sacred and juridical “power” given by God to men. It is the power of baptism as it lives in the Church. From baptism it receives its sacramental character. In Christ all sins are forgiven once and for all, for He is Himself the forgiveness of sins, and there is no need for any “new” absolution. But there is indeed the need for us who constantly leave Christ and excommunicate ourselves from His life, to return to Him, to receive again and again the gift which in Him has been given once and for all. And the absolution is the sign that this return has taken place and has been fulfilled. Just as each Eucharist is not a “repetition” of Christ’s supper but our ascension, our acceptance into the same and eternal banquet, so also the sacrament of penance is not a repetition of baptism, but our return to the “newness of life” which God gave to us once and for all.

It’s not about absolving us of the guilt of our sins. Christ reconciled all creation to God in his Incarnation, descent into death, and Resurrection. God entered into all the brokenness and even took on himself the utterly forsaken death on the Cross. Even at our most broken. Even when we are most forsaken and most turned from God, he is there in that place with us.

Repentance is about healing us. It’s about making us truly alive. In confession, we enter again and again the forgiveness of our baptism. Time, especially redeemed and recreated time, does not always operate in the way we normally expect. Thus we participate again and again in the one Eucharist of Christ. And we enter, time and again, the forgiveness of our one baptism. And that’s true no matter how many times we turn from that forgiveness.