A New Lifestyle–Aug. 31/14

What are we here for?  It can’t simply be for bragging rights – I am a part of a church community; I go to church every Sunday; and it isn’t because God grants us fire insurance if we show up.  God didn’t make the Church so that we could feel good about ourselves, having done our duty joining worship each week; He didn’t make the Church so that we could get together with a bunch of nice people and learn to be nicer.  The Church is here as the firstfruits of Christ’s Kingdom which is breaking upon the world since Jesus walked it; the Church is here as the place where the standard of faith and knowledge of God is taught and learned; the Church is here to teach us to be good – not “nice,” but holy (the kind of “good” that God is).  One of the Church Fathers noted that though we were once babies, children, youths, then adults, we may never yet have been good.  Holiness of living takes transformation, which takes time.

More recently, the puritan divine George Swinnock commented that: “The upright soul is constant in his profession, and does not change his behaviour according to his companions.  Oh that I might never, through shame or fear, disown Him who has already acknowledged me!”  Today we’ll explore the question of what our identity in Christ, in whom we are known – as we have been known by Him; the question of what our identity in Him does to our way of living.  The Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, Abraham Kruyper, put it like this: “Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatever it may be, constantly before the face of his God.  He is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.”

The starting point for Christian living is always in Jesus – always in God.  God’s side of the equation is the starting point, from which our side of the equation is inspired.  The constancy of God’s love and care for us is what our faithfulness toward Him is based in.  Richard Hooker, author of the captivating 5 volumes on church polity, offered this (on the mutuality of our faithfulness): “The earth may shake, the pillars of the world may tremble under us, the countenance of the heaven may be appalled, the sun may lose his light, the moon her beauty, the stars their glory; but concerning the man that trusts in God…what is there in the world that shall change his heart, overthrow his faith, alter his affection towards God, or the affection of God to him?”  We declared, in our psalm this morning, the words of the psalmist, whose own faithfulness to God was based in his conviction of God’s faithfulness to him.

The starting place for living in faith is always God’s faithfulness to us.  Where do we go from there, though?  What makes the difference between being a person who is loved by God and loves Him in return, and a person who does something about it?  What can be done about loving God?  You love your spouse so you treat to dinner, bring home flowers or chocolate; you love your children so you provide all they need; you love your parents so you honour them in life and in death; you love bbq, so you visit it often.  We know what to do about our love in all of these cases, but what do you do about loving God, and what makes the difference that actually makes that happen?  The difference comes from knowing Him.

Thomas a Kempis, the midiaeval mystic, suggested: “Plant in the garden of your memory, the tree of the holy Cross; it produces a very efficacious medicine against all the suggestions of the devil.  Of this most noble and fertile tree, the root is humility and poverty; the bark, labour and penitence; the branches, mercy and justice; the leaves, true honour and modesty; the scent, sobriety and abstinence; the beauty, chastity and obedience; the splendour, right faith and firm hope; the strength, magnanimity and patience; the length, long-suffering and perseverance; the breadth, benignity and concord; the height, charity and wisdom; the sweetness, love and joy; the fruit, salvation and life eternal.”  Knowing God is transformative.

Some people say that we should look for God in others, but I say that you can’t see someone you don’t know.  You can’t recognize them.  But when we know God, when He starts transforming us, our eyes are opened.  A preacher spoke about Heaven, and was approached by a wealthy member of his congregation: “Pastor, you preached a good sermon about Heaven.  You told me all about it, but you did not tell me where Heaven is.”  “Ah,” said the pastor, “I’m glad of the opportunity this morning.  I have just come from down the street.  In a particular house you’ll find a member of your church who is extremely poor; she is sick and in bed with fever.  If you will go, and bring her groceries, and say, ‘My sister, I have brought this in the Name of our Lord and Saviour,’ if you ask for a Bible and read the 23rd Psalm, and then get down on your knees and pray – if you don’t see Heaven, before you finish, I’ll reimburse you for the groceries.”  The next morning the man returned to his pastor and said, “I saw Heaven, and I spent fifteen minutes there, as certainly as you’re standing before me now.”

The difference comes from knowing God – knowing whom we’re to recognize, whom we’re seeking after.  Moses had every excuse for not doing what God wanted, he was making them up on the fly (we didn’t hear all of them this morning), but he came face to face with God; he came to know God, and to know that God knew him; God told him His Name.  It changed history.

And for us, because we are known by God and accepted by Him, our lives, our living, our worlds, our world, can change.  When we’ve already received our full reward from God, in Christ, we are freed to live for others.  Teresa of Avila urged Christians to see themselves as the servants of all, which is what Jesus Himself told His disciples will make a person great in His Kingdom.  There’s a connection there that I want you to make, this morning: the Church is the firstfruits of God’s Kingdom springing forth in the world, and to be great here we must serve others – not ourselves.

And the idea of fruit ripening is an important one, when we speak of firstfruits.  If we liken Christian living to a plant growing, then good works – service to others – is not the root of the plant, but the fruit.  As I said, the root is in God’s faithfulness to us; knowing Him is like the stalk that grows from His faithfulness; service to others is the fruit that develops from that stalk.  If our service to others is spoiled fruit, then we need to look at the root and stalk – perhaps we’re already sick in one of these foundational areas.  Do we really trust in God’s faithfulness?  Do we really strive to know Him more, and better?

So the key to this is real transformation, authentic transformation.  The kind of transformed living that St. Francis meant when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  You can’t fake that kind of authenticity.  There was a Presbyterian minister named James Bryan who commonly came home overcoat-less, having given his to someone who had none.  One day he was driving a horse and buggy – just so you know the time this took place – and he saw a farmer standing in the field.  It was time for spring plowing, but his horse had died.  The pastor unhitched his horse, gave it to the man, and walked home.  When a biography was written about him, it was called Sermon in Shoes.  Whereas, I fear that sometimes we take St. Francis’ injunction, to only use words when necessary to preach the Gospel, as an excuse to neither preach the Gospel either by our living or our words.

There’s something about a story like that of James Bryan that has a ring of authenticity, isn’t there?  It’s not just a “going through the motions” kind of life.  Not just words, but putting money where the mouth is.  Sometimes Christians become so insular, focused on their own persons – but we have far greater work to do than merely securing our own salvation, which, by the way, Christ has already secured for us.  Richard Baxter, the English puritan, observed that “we are trusted with our Master’s talents for His service, in our places to do our best to share His truth, and grace, and Church…to honour His cause and edify His flock, and further the salvation of as many as we can.  All this is to be done on earth…”

But it’s easier to just go through the motions, isn’t it?  I think that’s because it doesn’t take real commitment or real investment.  You can’t be heartbroken when an effort you’ve been going-through-the-motions with doesn’t come to fruition.  Prophets in the Old Testament were not always quick to commit.  We saw part of Moses’ discourse this morning.  Jeremiah thought he was too young; Ezekiel wouldn’t be listened to; Isaiah lived among unclean people.  All of these had reasons why “they” couldn’t do it.  Which was God’s point – that He could do it; that success wasn’t what they’d always thought it was.  But it’s hard to commit to something that doesn’t depend on you for success, isn’t it?  You can’t control the outcome – and we like to be in control.

But, again, that’s the point.  We can’t control the outcome.  Which is why the whole enterprise of Christianity, and of Christian living (as a sub-heading under that) is based in and rests upon God’s faithfulness first and above all else.  Not our own.  He cleansed Isaiah; He raised Jeremiah up; He gave Ezekiel a hard head to butt against others’; He gave Moses His Name.  It starts with Him, and success is measured in doing what He asks, not on how others respond to it.

Jesus said to seek His Kingdom first – again, the Church is the firstfruits of His Kingdom as it breaks in on earth.  We, who are a part of it, should be doing this!  Seek His Kingdom first, and all those other things that He knows we need will be added to us.  It begins, not with our seeking, but with our trusting His faithfulness – which precedes our response to it.  C. S. Lewis said it two ways: if we put first things first then we’ll get second things thrown in; if we put second things first then we’ll get neither…; and, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”  No going through the motions!

What this takes is that we would take God seriously.  He doesn’t want a bunch of people who are basically good people, in comparison to other people, and usually just meaning that they’re “nice” – which is not, by the way, a moral evaluation of a person, but simply a statement that a person is more committed to not offending anyone than they are to having any view of something worth standing for.  Taking God seriously, and thus committing one’s living to Him.  He isn’t looking for a bunch of people who were baptized, and He isn’t looking for a bunch of people who came back again to ‘get’ confirmed.  He’s looking for people who will commit the way they live their lives to Him.  St. Basil of Caesarea said of Christians, and perhaps you’ll find the imagery reminiscent of runners in a race, “It is not he who begins well who is perfect.  It is he who ends well who is approved in God’s sight.”

What does that kind of commitment look like?  I think we’ve heard some examples this morning.  I think we’ve got some examples among us and around us.  The Duke of Wellington held that “British soldiers are not braver than French soldiers, they are only brave for five minutes longer.”  That’s the kind of stick-to-it commitment that God desires of us.  He doesn’t mean for us to be so much more incredibly committed to him than to all of the other things that we commit ourselves to, but He means for us to hold to our commitment to Him, unlike so many of the passing fads that we commit to from time-to-time.

Some of you know that I started my university studies in a music programme, playing piano.  Expectations for practising were at least two hours a day, every day (even the lesson day!).  If I missed a day, I knew it.  But if I had hit six out of seven, then maybe the teacher didn’t notice.  If I missed two days, though, she did.  And if I missed three days a week, well, everyone did.  We cannot live as Christians if we do not commit ourselves to the daily practise of Christ’s presence in our lives, and to living in faith to Him that is grounded in His faith to us.  If we do, it will transform our lives, as we know Him more and more, and better and better.  It will transform our church; our city; our country; our world.  We are called to be agents of transformation, transformation that begins in each of us and plays itself out in our way of living.  Amen.

Taking Baptism Seriously 1.0

There are four orders of ministers in the Church.  There are bishops, priests, deacons, and lay.  The Church spends a good bit of its resources on ensuring that the first three are up-to-snuff (whatever that might mean in the given context).  It is generally up to those three, the ordained clergy, to disciple the fourth, the laity, and ensure their up-to-snuff-ness.  Some Christians may not like that idea – they’re not “professional” Christians (ie. not clergy).  Why should they have to be involved in the Church’s ministry?  They were never ordained in the Church – what right do they have to tackle this task?

The old joke was that clergy-people were paid to be good, but that laypeople were good for nothing.  I would dispel this idea to some extent, because I’m not paid to be good.  I am not paid for services rendered.  Rather, I am afforded an allowance, a stipend, by the local church (through the diocese), to allow me to live within this geographical parish.  All of the “services rendered” are a function of the person I am, because of who and what God is continually making me.

In the same way, all Christians are called to ministry because ministry is the fulfillment of who and what God is making them.  Lay people in the Church may not generally consider themselves to have been ordained, and perhaps they weren’t ordained to the particular ministry of the priesthood in the Church, to thus maintain the order of the Church, but something like it did happen to them.  They were baptized.  You were baptized.

There are so many things to be said about baptism, but I will here only point in the directions that we’re going to go in future blog posts.  We can talk about baptism’s roots – where did this practise come from? was it an anomaly that sprung up in a void?  We can talk about the symbolism of baptism – what is signified by the water? what is the meaning inherent in the rite?  We can talk about the elements of baptism – why water? how was it instituted this way?  We can talk about the vows taken in baptism – what are they? what significance do they hold? how are they practically applied to daily living?  We can talk about covenantal relationship with God – what does it mean to be God’s people?  We can talk about taking our own baptisms seriously.

All these and more, to come.

Plato’s Cave?

This week I’m on retreat.  I’m not running away from a battle, but I’m taking some “me” time.  The church recommends these periodically, and provides outlets.  This week the clergy of my diocese (Qu’Appelle) and of the Diocese of Saskatoon are at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre in Lumsden, SK.  Our guest speaker is Bishop Mark MacDonald, and it will prove to be a great retreat.

The Lord has inspired me in a couple of ways since leaving Swift Current today.  I’m not sure if it’s the music I was listening to (my friend Keith Kitchen is my travel companion), or the events of the last few days, or just God’s initiative (which it ultimately relies on, whatever other factors may have paved the way for Him to inspire…), but I’m sharing one thing now.  The other isn’t ready just yet.  Only He knows what else might come, in time.

I was always struck by Plato’s Cave.  If you’re unfamiliar, it’s in The Republic.  Basically, humanity is tied in a cave, and all that people can see is shadows on a wall, being generated by people carrying things past a fire that’s burning at some location behind them.  The philosopher is the human who has broken free from the cave and found a tunnel to the surface.  Upon seeing what things really are, in daylight, he returns to the cave and tries to share with the people there what he has come to learn.  They are resistant to his “new” knowledge, and generally prefer the darkness and the names and items they have imagined from the shadows.  That’s a pretty rough paraphrase, but it will have to function for us just now.  There was always something about that story that seemed to resonate with me, but there was always something missing, something “off” about it, from the reality that I’ve come to know through the Christian faith.

Humanity is trapped in an Imax theatre.  The giant screen in front of them makes them think that they’re travelling, makes them think that they’re interacting with the truth, makes them think that they’re living life.  But they’re deceived.  The truth is that they’re prisoners, and their life is a mirage.  There is a way out of the theatre, and one man, Jesus, who has come in via that way can lead them out.  If they’ll follow Him.  He’ll take them out, if they’ll give up their theatre seats.  Real life, all of the things flashed in front of them on the screen, exists outside of the theatre.  Jesus came into the theatre so that they might have real life, not the mockery of it that the theatre seduces them into.  Many don’t listen to Him: the things He’s describing seem so much like the things they already see before their eyes – isn’t He just imagining something more?  Many don’t listen to Him: the theatre seat they’re in is so comfortable, what if they get up and someone else takes it – or, worse yet, it gets cold (nobody likes sitting in a cold chair!)?

The question before each of us is this: will we go with Him, or will we stay in the theatre?  There is no other way.

This One Thing (11.0)

I was reminded this past Sunday of something that always irks me a little bit.  The Gospel lesson was from Luke 3, and John the Baptist’s ministry was described.  On the previous Sunday we’d received the introduction to his work, and we were told that he fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the one crying out in the wilderness.  This week we heard how he went about fulfilling that prophecy.

So the scene opens, and John says to the people who come to be baptized, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’: for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…”  The passage went on, and I actually preached regarding the next part of the passage on Sunday – but this is the part that always catches my attention.

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’: for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…”  That always catches my attention.  It’s like there was some kind of measure in people’s minds, and they were good-to-go, in their own opinions, because they were descended from Abraham.  The thing that catches my attention about it is because I still hear people making the same claim – or, the same kind of claim.

The other week I ran into a great guy, and we had a great visit, and he happened to mention that he had grown up in a different Christian tradition, but had come to the Anglican Church later on in life.  He mentioned that a factor in his decision about that was Apostolic Succession.  If you’re not familiar with this term, Apostolic Succession is (generally) the recognition that the faith we hold today is the faith that the apostles handed down to us; the Christian Church that we are a part of is the same Church that the apostles themselves handed down to future generations; the teaching of the apostles is preserved in the Church to this day.  In some instances (Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox), Apostolic Succession also refers to the line of bishops – which is thought to be a direct line of appointment from the apostles themselves.  This succession gives validity, in some way, to the tradition’s expression.

Everybody wants to claim it in some way.  Don’t get the wrong impression – this isn’t relegated to just those traditions with ancient roots and episcopal structure.  Every Christian manifestation claims that it is in keeping with the tradition given by the apostles.  Nobody claims anything but accord with the original teaching of Jesus, the earliest Church, etc.  But where many claim to have “recaptured” the essence of the faith, the older denominations mentioned above claim to be the hereditary descendants of the apostles, and Jesus Himself through them and the line of bishops.

Let me be clear at this point: there’s nothing wrong with such descent.  There is nothing intrinsically evil about it.  There’s nothing sinister about a desire to be able to rightfully claim an apostolic rooted-ness for a particular tradition.  But if we start to use such realities as an excuse for what we do, rather than as a reason or even just a fact underlying our existence; if we start to judge other Christian traditions by their lack of episcopal lineage, rather than recognizing our affinity to them due to their holding to the one faith of the Church; if succession stops being our reason-for-being (from the past) and begins to be our reason-for-being (for the future), then we’ve missed the point.

The point is Jesus.  The point is the faith that succession is supposed to safeguard.  Not apostolically-successively-sanctioned idolatry.  Indeed, God could raise up from the very stones in the ground below the foundation of your church building, successors for the apostles.  As John said many years ago, so Jonathan saith now: bear fruit in keeping with the life of righteousness that grows from the one faith of the one Church.  This is about Jesus, not lineage.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

How do we talk about what we believe?  I ask this question in a response to a recent letter-to-the-editor in our national church newspaper.  I was surprised at the letter for a couple of reasons, but pertinent to this blog article was its request (?) that we (I suppose the Anglican Church of Canada) would refrain from adopting a liturgical change(?) which the RC Church had made.  The author shared an experience of attending RC mass at Christmas where the Apostles’ Creed was declared.  The point of contention was that it had been edited to say that Jesus descended to hell.  There was another letter placed with it, in which a bishop suggested that there were no changes in store for the Apostles’ Creed.

Now, I can’t say for sure what the deal is.  The Roman Catholic liturgical reform, of late, has changed their liturgy to use language very similar to the old Anglican Prayerbook language (ie. “And with thy spirit,” rather than, “And also with you” as a response).  I’m not clear on all of the changes, but my suspicion is that the “new” Apostles’ Creed used is the same as the old Anglican BCP one, which says that Christ descended to hell after his crucifixion and burial.  If this is the case, then the bishop’s letter which states that no changes are in the works for the Anglican liturgy can be true – but somewhat misleading.  What it might seem to say is that our version of the creed would never say what the “new” RC one does; however, the truth of the matter is that our version of the creed already does.

Regardless of how many parishes and clergy choose to ignore it, the Prayerbook of 1962 is still the standard for Anglican worship in Canada – not the Book of Alternative Services (BAS).  Here, however, is where I think the problem lies – that is, the “between” that we find ourselves in, with the rock on one side and the hard place on the other.

I suspect that some of the disgust expressed by the first writer to the idea that Christ descended to “hell” has to do with popular depictions and sentiments regarding hell.  To someone who imposes the popular image of hell onto the Bible’s use of that word (and also, then, of the Prayerbook’s use of that term), the idea could indeed be ugly.  The preference would certainly fall to the BAS language of “descended to the dead.”  So the word “hell” is a rock that we come up against, because of its popular usage and the imagery associated with that.

But if we think about what “descended to the dead” means, in popular usage, I don’t know that we find any more of a Scriptural view (or “prayerbook-ian,” for that matter) than “hell” conjures up.  Descending to the dead seems to only mean that a person isn’t physically alive – with no particulars beyond that.  I think that Scripture does suggest some particulars, and it is my suspicion that the people who were versed in Scripture to the extent that the compilers of the prayerbook were, knew of this.  At any rate, it would seem that “the dead” can be as much of a “hard place” as hell, and so I think that we get stuck between the two.  One, popularly, defines the intent incorrectly; the other, popularly, under-defines it.

The truth lies somewhere in-between, and is hinted at in Scripture.  Where did Jesus go between His crucifixion and His resurrection?  Did He go nowhere, and simply cease to be?  Was He simply beginning to rot in the tomb, with no existence beyond it?  The Bible, the canon of which has been received and accepted in the Christian Church as authoritative and sufficient, suggests otherwise.  He preached to those “in prison since the days of Noah.” (1 Peter 3:20).  The Odes of Solomon mention this same phenomenon.

The picture painted for the Church is a picture of Jesus “tasting” the fullness of death.  What would be the point of Him sacrificing Himself for us if He failed to do so?  His vicarious atonement/sacrifice, for it to be vicarious, required Him to bear the punishment of our sin, so that there is no punishment for our sin left to fall to us.  He saves us from that punishment because He took it all already.  What