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.

United in Christ Jesus

This last Sunday I felt led to begin a six-week sermon series on the new identity that Christ gives to us, His people (as opposed to the identity that we make for ourselves).  Here is the first week’s instalment.

Someone said that if there’s something wrong with your church community, we might each begin by looking in the mirror.  Is our congregation unfriendly?  Let me look into my mirror: “Mirror?  Mirror on the wall!” am I unfriendly?  Is our congregation unconcerned about people who don’t know Jesus?  Am I?  Is our congregation behind on its budget?  What about me – am I behind in my giving?  Is there hostility in our fellowship, between members?  What is my attitude like? what is my behaviour communicating to others?

Now, for any number of us there may not be answers to those questions in the mirror.  Sometimes the problems really do lie with other members of the community – but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less a problem that each of us owns.  Because God has brought us together.  A manager of a business was interviewing a potential new employee who asked, “How many people work here?”  To which he replied, “Precious few!”  Such a statement should never be made of God’s Church.  Every one of us is here by His grace; every one of us is a representative of His transformative purpose in the world; every one of us owns the witness and ministry of this congregation – this portion of His Church.

Gaze up, if you will, and view this incredible stained glass window that we have at the front of our worship space.  The triune God is depicted on it, and St. Luke, and St. Stephen.  There are a lot of pieces that make that one window – many pieces of glass, different sizes and shapes and colours.  They’re all pieced together in just the right way that a beautiful mosaic appears.  A mosaic that draws our hearts and minds to God.  A mosaic that light shines through.  In some ways, it’s a picture of our congregation gathered today, isn’t it?  People from different walks of life – different ways of employing our time, different ages, different upbringing – God has put us all together to produce the beautiful mosaic that He has in mind, to draw others to Himself as He shines His light through us into a dark world.  And He does shine through us to other people, because Jesus is about all people – not just the ones who are already gathering in His Name.

Our gospel lesson today told the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus to beg for healing for her daughter.  Jesus told her that He’d been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  How easy it would have been to stick to that external, and to have ignored the internal – to say that she was born into the wrong family, and so stood outside of grace!  Yet Jesus never ignored the internal, and when she exhibited the kind of faith that He’d been searching for and inspiring in the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He didn’t ignore it.  So He stuck to His guns.  Your faith has brought healing.

But we get waylaid by the instruction rather than the principle behind it, and we divide by denomination.  There’s the story of the priest who’d been asked to officiate at the funeral for a Baptist man.  He inquired of his bishop as to how he should perceive.  The response he got was this: “By all means!  Bury as many Baptists as you can!”  John Wesley rightly asked: “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union; yet need it prevent our union in affection?  Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?  May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”  Indeed, if we Christians are always bickering with one another, aren’t we denying Christ, the Prince of Peace, who has called us into His one Church, and who prayed in the garden, the night before He was crucified, that we would all be one?

But we get distracted from faith in Christ by loyalty to faction, even within our local congregations; we forget loyalty to Jesus and being open to the work of the Spirit to move us to the holiness of God, and we settle for the way of the world: we preach sermons against gossip and then turn around singing “I Love to Tell the Story,” sharing everyone’s story but Jesus’.  We forget to welcome others into Christ’s fellowship because “someone” needs to do something about the shingles on the roof – there was one man who was approached by the ushers at his church because he hadn’t taken his hat off for worship that day.  His response was telling, “Praise the Lord!  I’ve been coming here for six months and you’re the first people to speak to me.  I figured that would do it!”

We forget to be hospitable, because we’re concerned with what so-and-so is, or is not, doing for us.  We hold grudges against people that Jesus died to redeem.  How easy would it have been for Joseph to disown his brothers?  They’d disowned him years earlier, selling him into slavery (which was, in their estimation, the least they could do for him – considering that he was their brother) which had led him to prison for a crime he hadn’t committed.  In our Old Testament lesson today, they stood before him and he had the power to do anything to them that he wanted.  He could have disowned them, as they had done to him.  He could have practised “eye for an eye” retributive justice on them.  He could have mocked their attempts to get rid of him, because he’d ended up rising beyond anything he’d even dreamed of.  Instead, he turned his mind to God’s purposes – they’d intended evil, but God had used it for good.  They would be saved from the famine on the land, and all their families.

There were a handful of Lutheran pastors who’d decided to “check out” the competition, going to Saturday night mass at the local Roman Catholic church.  They arrived a little late, and found that all of the pews were filled – so they stood at the back.  The priest noticed them and recognized them, and whispered to one of the altar boys, “Go and get three chairs for our Lutheran friends.”  The boy didn’t hear, so the priest spoke a bit louder, motioning to the rear of the congregation, “Three chairs for the Lutherans.”  Dutifully, the altar boy rose and proclaimed to the congregation, who responded as prompted, “Three cheers for the Lutherans!”

Now, something tells me that three “Hip hip hurray!”s (or “Huzzah!”s) would make newcomers feel very out-of-place at our churches, and wouldn’t be a great way to welcome them in.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good way to welcome people in.  But welcoming people begins with having something to welcome them into.  And having that “something” begins with the unity of the Church.

A piano tuner doesn’t tune each piano to the one that he tuned before it.  He tunes each one, individually, to his tuning fork.  So it is with the Church.  We are not called to factions, or to interest groups, or to follow in one another’s footsteps.  We are called to Jesus, and to have our lives tuned to His.  Believe it or not, when our lives are all attuned to His – instead of trying to attune them with one another’s – we will have greater unity in the Body.  We will actually be in tune with one another.

Seek Christ, who reveals Himself to you, that you may be fit into the wonderful mosaic of His Church which He is building – fashioning us into a great stained glass window, through which His light shines in this dark world.  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.

Christ: the Gate; the Shepherd

So we had this great Gospel reading on Sunday, which ended just short of Jesus making one of His great “I am” sayings (in the Gospel according to John).  He alluded to it, almost saying He is the Good Shepherd, but the lectionary stopped us short of where He actually said it.  The “I am” that we did get was… less well-known?  Jesus said, “I am the gate.”

Now, if you read through John 10:1-10, you’re going to see Jesus putting forward two images of Himself.  One is just this: He is the gate.  The other is that of shepherd.  It strikes me, in wrestling with this passage, that as Christians we tend to go one way or the other, but that we need to take Him as both.

If we emphasize that Jesus is the gate, then He becomes the way “in.”  The point of Jesus (His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit) is to get us “in.”  Like some kind of fake ID that a high school kid takes with them when they head to the bar on the weekend.

On the other side of the equation, if we emphasize that Jesus is the shepherd, then He becomes a great moral teacher.  We don’t need to commit ourselves to Him, just to the way that He promotes.  The point of Jesus is to show us the right way to be.  So long as we ignore a bunch of what He says about His identity, He’s a great teacher – a shepherd who leads us in the everlasting way.

But if Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate; if Jesus is both the author and finisher of my faith, the One who saves me and the One whose way I walk in; if Jesus is my Saviour and my Lord: then I must commit to Him and His way; my ID cannot remain fake because my life will, more and more, look like His; I cannot ignore what He says about His identity, because it is in His very identity that my own is revealed.

Preliminary Thoughts on the Second

The following are some thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 and 16-23. It’s the RCL epistle lesson for this coming Sunday. I hesitate to say that these thoughts are fully formed in me just yet, but there’s some serious fuel, here. The basic idea is that Paul is writing about the doctrine of Christ, or Christology, of the Church. On Him alone can the Church be built. Paul is concerned that the content of his preaching remain intact, for it is the truth that the Church is about – indeed, without it the Church cannot claim to be the Church. The teaching of proper doctrine, or theological reflection, leads people to encounter the risen Christ, who is the foundation stone for the Church. By accepting the true teaching, people are put in position to meet Him. The foundational doctrine, preached accurately, illustrates the true Foundation (Christ) so that people can find Him (and then know that He has found them). You may read this and, if you’ve read the passage also, say that I’m reading extra things into it, for the sake of my own theological understandings. Nothing new.

I found my mind drawn to Hermas, Vision III. You can read my summary, below, or the text itself, here (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.ii.ii.iii.html). Or both. I’m not your boss.

The caricatures that we gain from Vision III, in Hermas, are interesting. If they can be summarized appropriately, or shortly, they may do much to open people’s eyes. The vision is of six men building a tower, shown to the Shepherd by an old woman. There are various others who bring stones to the six who are building the tower. The explanation is given as follows:

The tower is the Church;
the Church is built on water because we are saved through water;
the Church is founded upon God’s word;
the Church is built by angels;
the stones in the building are square and white and fit with each other exactly – they are in agreement with one another and are at peace together and listen to one another;
the stones dragged from the depths and fitted with the others are those who suffered for the Lord’s sake;
the stones carried in from the land are those whom God has approved because they walked in His straight ways and kept His commandments;
those stones in the act of being brought and placed in the building are those who are young in faith and are faithful, in whom no iniquity has been found;
those stones that were rejected and cast away are those who have sinned and wish to repent, who have not been cast far from the tower for they will be useful in the building if they repent;
those stones cut down and thrown far from the tower are the sons of iniquity who believed in hypocrisy and from whom wickedness did not depart – they are not saved and cannot be used in building, and are therefore cut off and cast far away;
rough stones, in great numbers, not used in the tower are those who know the truth but have not remained in it – they are unfit for use;
those stones that have rents, in great numbers, are at discord in their hearts one with another, and are not at peace amongst themselves – they keep the appearance of peace, but under the facade they hold their wicked thoughts;
those stones which are shortened are those who have believed and are mostly righteous, yet still have a considerable share of iniquity, and so are not whole;
those stones which are white and round and do not fit into the building of the tower are those who have faith, but also the riches of the world – who deny the Lord on account of their riches and business – when their seductive riches have been circumscribed they will be of use to the Lord, for round stones cannot become square until portions are cut off and cast away;
the stones which were cast from the tower and rolled into the field are those who believed but abandoned the true road through doubts, and sought out a new road, entering on pathless places (for there is no other road);
those which fell into the fire and were burned are those who have departed forever from the living God: they do not consider repentance, they are devoted to their lusts and crimes;
those stones which fell near the waters but could not be rolled into them are those who are drawn to the Lord but draw back to their own wicked desires when confronted with the chastity that will be demanded of them in baptism.

Now, there’s a little more involved which I have conveniently not included in the above summary. It includes the possibility for all of the stones to repent, however unlikely that might be for them. It’s not that I have a problem with grace, that I haven’t included that part in my summary. Rather, it’s that I’m only interested in the content of the actual vision itself – not in what might happen to those elements of the vision that left sight. The vision is about the kind of stones that God’s Church is built with. Perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). You may not like the idea, but for people in the middle ages Hermas was like Pilgrim’s Progress. It inspired them to devotion to God by challenging them with false alternatives. Esteem it as you will.

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.

The Church’s Sure Foundation

There is one foundation stone.  He’s the One that the builders rejected; the One who has become the chief cornerstone.  Upon Him is built the testimony of the prophets; upon Him is built the witness of the apostles.  To Him the saints cry aloud: Holy, Holy, Holy!  To Him the angels sing: Lord God almighty!  To this One the martyrs join in praise: Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!  To Him do we ascribe all riches, power, glory, honour, wisdom, might, and praise.

There is a place for liturgical practice, and music, and churchmanship, and tradition, and Scripture.  All of these must be a part of our worship – whether by positive degree or negative.  But worship of the One is our cause in the Church.  Holding Him forth is our mission in the Church.  We cannot be too rigid in our liturgy that the Spirit is stifled among us.  We cannot be too lax in our liturgy that the Spirit is not welcomed among us.  We have a higher calling than this.  We cannot be so enamoured with musical fad that we abandon the depth of the soul’s language, nor can we be so married to the tried and tested that we don’t allow our spirits to sing new words and expressions to the Lord.  Our music is to enable and empower our worship, but it is not our worship.  So it is with all elements of worship.  The part must not be mistaken for the whole.

There are a number of things that the Church becomes a part of – things like advocacy, education, justice, marketing… but all of these are just things.  Nothing more.  And not only that, but they’re things that other groups in society do, and usually do better.  The Church can, and even should, in some cases, get involved in these enterprises, but let there be no mistake.  That’s not what the Church is about.  The Church is about so much more.  There is no project that can rightly and justly be taken on in the Church if it is not in the context of serving Jesus Himself, because this is His Church.  If we lose our context, then we lose our all.  There is one thing that the Church is about that no other institution in society is about; one thing that the Church does better than anyone else; one opportunity for offering hope to the world that only Church has.  His Name is Jesus.

There is no replacement.  There is no other foundation.  There is no other.  Jesus.

The “One Thing” Revisited, 1.2

Liturgy.  How we do what we do.  It’s the guide to our worship, the instructional rubrics to our practices, the form we put ourselves in when we approach God.  It can dictate our posture, our use of language, our use of Scripture.  It gets under our skin, flows in our blood, touches our souls.

A friend has told me that he thinks that all people should spend some years in traditions that are commonly defined “liturgical,” and he isn’t, strictly speaking, from one himself.  Children do not ride bikes without first riding with training wheels; surgeons do not perform procedures without first going to medical school.  Why do Christians, my friend asked, engage in the deep mysteries of the faith – in what are often haphazard ways – without first taking in what they can from those who do it well?

Eucharistic liturgy, for instance, did not precede Eucharistic practice.  The early Christians did not wait, after hearing Jesus’ instruction to ‘do this in remembrance of Me,’ until they had compiled theologically sound, well-balanced, Eucharistic prayers/prayers of consecration.  These came later, when they realized that not all ministers of the church were as adept at praying such prayers from their own minds/memories.  The Eucharistic Prayer was composed to ensure that those things which were to be included in such a prayer were.  And not only to include the proper elements, but also to include them in the language of the Scriptures – using the same formulations of those elements as God’s Word uses.

Notice, from this small example, that the liturgy was made to suit the worship.  Not the worship to suit the liturgy.  What is most important when Christians gather together to worship God?  Is it not just that – that they’ve gathered (which is, in itself, good) to worship?  If the Christians who gather only do so to engage in liturgy, to make sure that the right words are said, to do what they’ve always done on such days (they won’t feel like they’ve “gone to church” if they don’t!), then are they gathering for the right reasons?  For that matter, if they gather with the agenda in mind that they will not engage in anything they would term liturgical, then are they gathering for the right reasons?

Why, then, do we get together?  Why do Christians bother to meet with one another?  Is it to worship in a certain way, or is it to worship?  It would seem to me that the important thing is the worship, not the way it’s undertaken.  Sure, different worship styles (i.e. liturgical/so-called non-liturgical) impact different people on different levels.  But liturgy is only a tool.  It is only an instrument.  It is only intended to draw people into worship of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – by whom alone can people come to the Father – that is, Jesus.  It’s all about Jesus.

The “One Thing” Revisited, 1.1

The subject of Church unity comes up from time to time.  Now, there can be ways in which people put unity in Jesus’ place in the Church, but I’m not terribly concerned with that today (though I’ll get around to addressing that tendency in the future).  Instead, I would like to re-visit the place of the liturgy in the Church; specifically, its place in the local church, regardless of denomination; in particular, its contribution to the unity of the Church.

So consider, if you will, that even non-liturgical churches are “liturgical” in their own way.  To some this is an uneventful thing to read; for others, this is very problematic.  Some Christians almost seem to pride themselves on being part of a “non-liturgical” tradition, which is a differentiation that they make because it separates them from “those” guys (usually liberal protestant mainline churches, or as we like to say around here, us).  The problem is that in the vast majority of “non-liturgical” traditions, worship is still undertaken in a fairly liturgical way.  Sure, not with prayer books, and maybe not even with hymnbooks either – but liturgical nonetheless.  There is a set order to the service, whatever that may be.

On the other side of that equation, there are those in the more traditionally-termed “liturgical” traditions who almost feel the same way – proud that they aren’t a part of one of those non-liturgical traditions (or, more commonly, “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” – neither of which is generally meant in a positive light).  Where the attitude being avoided here is a perceived “mindless sentimentalism” (which I know is not an appropriately valid concern), the view from the other side is aversion towards a perceivedly “dry” (read: “dead”, “cold”, or even just “reserved”) faith.

The problem is compounded when considered from the “common enemy” standpoint.  In my preamble post to this (1.x) series, I put forward the concept of liturgy shaping and forming the operational theology of a people.  How you worship informs how you live; what you pray informs what you think; what these say about your relationship to the universe informs your orientation within it from day to day.  That’s one of the strengths and powers of our faith.  But when we meet people who see things differently than we do on one point (and that could be on any point, though it will pretty much always be on a point that has really resonated with us), it doesn’t matter how many other points we agree with them on – we will gather our entourage of like-thinkers (on this particular point, regardless of how many other points we may disagree with them on), and we will battle-it-out.  From time-to-time former enemies find themselves friends, and former friends find themselves enemies (in these skirmishes), and all wonder how that person fell from grace – or thank God that He finally got through their thick skulls and brought them to true (read: our) faith.

But what this only serves to highlight is the subjectivity of these things.  Liturgical or non-liturgical?  What about within one tradition – in my tradition there is a prayer book with a single, standard form for celebrating the Holy Communion; there is also an alternative prayer book with six more “modern” options and two “traditional” options; there are various other forms that have been approved in different places for use at different times.  So then the question becomes, “What kind of liturgical?”  Well, I can tell you one thing for sure – we do it right at OUR church!

But what if liturgy (or so-called non-liturgy) isn’t “it” for the Church?  What if being a Christian can’t simply be reduced to the intricacies of “how” you worship, or even “how often” you worship?  What if, instead, Jesus – who is the “author and finisher” of our faith, the context and the content of our faith, the subject and object of our faith – what if Jesus is who this is all about?  Not me.  Not you.  Not liturgical preferences.  Just.  Jesus.

Maybe, then, the question is this: “Which Jesus?”

Selling Out

Have you ever been a sell-out?  Not something that you’d generally expect to find people admitting to, is it.  From the “dirty cops” we see portrayed in the media (hopefully we don’t encounter such people in real life as often as in this venue) to those who think otherwise from us on whatever issues we’re faced with (they’d agree with us if they weren’t sell-outs, wouldn’t they?), we’re familiar with the concept of “the sell-out,” and it’s a negative one.  Perhaps you’ve been sold-out by a friend – or at least felt that you had been.  Not a good feeling to have.  Perhaps you’ve been the one who’s done the selling-out – not a great feeling, either, for the reflective and introspective.  Is there any way that being a sell-out can be a positive thing?

Well, I believe that there is.

There’s this story in the Bible, in Samuel, where David is a sell-out.  They’re bringing the Ark of God’s covenant to Jerusalem and David is dancing around it in celebration of this momentous occasion.  The Scripture tells us that his wife (his first wife, Michal, Saul’s daughter) sees him and considers him a sell-out – in the negative sense.  When she confronts him about this, he rebukes her understanding, and claims a positive selling-out.  He is sold out for the Lord.  He will shame himself even more than this, before the Lord.  Because he’s a sell-out.

Maybe you don’t like the idea of selling out.  There are too many negatives associated with it, in your head.  If you sell-out you’ve betrayed something or somebody: maybe you’ve sold someone short, maybe you’ve given up on other options, maybe it carries connotations of giving up control – and we like our freedom too much for that!  But that said, I think that Christian people are generally happy to talk about trusting their futures to God, their present circumstances to God, their lives to God.  But here’s where the rubber meets the road.

Is it all just “in theory” for us?  Are we incredibly trusting, incredibly faithful, in theory – when we just need to talk about it – or does it carry forward into our regular lives, out of theory?  What does it mean to say, “My personal value comes from Jesus,” if we’re ultimately basing our personal value on our own accomplishments? or, “My identity is found in Jesus, as I am a child of God,” if we only conceive of our identity in terms of what we’ve accomplished, who we know, experiences we’ve had, and what others have said about us? or, “My help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and earth,” if we consider everything that comes along to be fully dependent on our own sources, resources, and efforts?

So what if it wasn’t all just talk?  What if it was real?  What if all of the commitments we’ve ever made in the Name of Jesus – what if we came through on them?  What if we took His promises to us as though they had real currency?  What might that look like?  What if there is more to this life than we’ve been putting into it and reaping from it?  I am convinced that this is the way, because I am convinced that He is the way.  Not just in word, or in theory, but in practice.