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.

Preliminary Thoughts on the First Lesson

The following are some opening thoughts on the first lesson for next Sunday, Sexagesima (by the old Church calendar), the seventh after Epiphany by the RCL.  The passage is Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18.

Being a parent of small children is an exciting stage of life. Adriana is becoming a very skilled reader and writer. It’s interesting to come across letter pages – you know the ones, where the example of the letter is given at the top of the page and the rest of the tablet is for the child to practise on. She’s not bad now, but her letters used to be okay near the example on the page, and then get progressively less like it as the page radiated out from that point. You know what that shows, right? Rather than copying the example on the page, she was copying her own copies of the example. It’s a problematic situation. It’s the same phenomenon that we see with that telephone game, which you may have played.

It can be a similar problem for Christians, if we’re watching each other too much, rather than Jesus Himself. We borrow each other’s habits; we try to make our obedience and devotion look like the obedience and devotion of someone else; we miss the mark. In part, this has to do with how we think about obedience.

Obedience to God requires that we act in accordance with God’s will, it’s true – but more than that, it invites us to seek, in our inmost self, to put on His mind. The whole passage is introduced to us in the terms of that divine call to be holy, as God is holy. Holiness is about being set apart: for the Israelites the motivation for obedience to God’s commands was found in a desire to be set apart the way He is set apart, which includes His righteousness, and which desire proceeded for them from personal gratitude for their deliverance from Egypt. This is part of the reason that the instruction is given to not profane God’s Name – profaning means to treat it as common – when you make God common in your imagination, you lose your vision, and set the bar low for what you aspire to. For us, as Christians, the motivation should be very similar: a desire that proceeds from personal gratitude for redemption in Christ, and that leads to Godliness.

And let’s be clear about what grade of set-apartness we’re talking about. It’s true that all of the concrete examples put forward in the passage are only illustrations of what this being-holy-as-God-is-holy means in those specific situations, and they are by no means intended to be comprehensive. But they are indicative of what being God’s people, the people who show what He is like, is about: justice; care for the poor, the widow, the orphan; not exploiting the weaknesses of others. These things weren’t unique to Israel in the ancient world – but that they would extend these benefits to aliens and foreigners among them, well, that’s something that nobody else did. You have to look forward to v. 34 for it, but there it is. And Jesus did it, when He said that your neighbour wasn’t just the other guy who’s just like you.

Loving your neighbour as yourself operates as the corrective to all of the self-centred tendencies of life. It is the fulfilment of morality, and God is certainly moral. It is a part of being set apart as He is, holy as He is, to be moral. It is not the totality of the enterprise, however. Again, the Christian’s motivation proceeds from gratitude: gratitude for redemption in Christ; gratitude that fuels desire and drive to be holy as God is holy. Love of God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength – total transformation of our passions – this is our goal.

So hear concrete examples of the passage, which are not addressed to a few ascetics – those few nuts who are fanatical about their faith – as opposed to those of us who know better, and take all things with moderation except for that maxim itself. Moses was to give these instructions to all of the Israelites, so the things they contain were not just for a select group, but all of God’s people. There are people who are unable to provide for themselves: let them be provided for from your excess; deal honestly in all things private, personal, and professional; take care of those with otherwise exploitable qualities, rather than exploiting them; don’t play favourites, but be just. All of these things proceed from a heart of love. Maybe the idea of duty and obedience doesn’t capture your imagination; then love people, but know that love is what God says it is, not what you’ve learned it to be through the distortions of the world’s passions.

The holiness that God calls us to is not some kind of religious piety that never touches our lives the rest of the week – God is concerned with the whole of our lives, not just religious ritual. Consider the injunction not to speak against the deaf. If we take it as a rule against the unfairness of speaking against someone who cannot defend themselves, since they cannot hear what’s being said, then we are faced with the reality of gossip, and backbiting, and rumour spreading (even when it’s masked as sharing prayer requests, if we haven’t been licensed to pass on the request then it’s rumour), and slandering names. All of these things are usually done when the person referred to isn’t around. When they’re deaf. When they can’t defend themselves.

Consider the injunction not to put a stumbling block before the blind. If we take it as a rule against causing others to fall because of dangerous circumstance that they cannot see, then we are faced with the reality of witness, of example, of liberty in Christ, of responsibility to His Church; even of removing stumbling blocks from peoples’ ways, as so many have been blinded to the dangers of the ways they’ve chosen to walk through familiarity, through distorted morality, through societal and familial dysfunction. How can we, as God’s people, work to draw people out of the lives they’ve made for themselves simply because of blindness.

As we heard Christ’s voice calling us to avoid even the branches in the path that lead to the dark way, not just to avoid murder, but to avoid name-calling and spite; not just to avoid adultery, but to avoid lustful thoughts; not just to avoid breaking oaths, but to avoid making oaths, and to simply be honest in all we say. As we heard Christ’s voice calling us to a deeper kind of holiness than we generally tend to (one common saying when I was in university was that what happens in the privacy of your mind is nobody’s business but your own – clearly not the way God sees things), now we see that God calls us to lives of love, love that plays itself out in all situations of our lives, not just when we’re feeling particularly ‘religious,’ or ‘spiritual,’ or ‘loving.’ May we heed His call, and respond with the gratitude that leads us to heartfelt desire for His holiness in our lives. Amen.

The Sermon I Didn’t Preach Today

It’s a risky business, to post what wasn’t said.  Why wasn’t it said?  Why were the things said, that were?  If those were the things that God wanted said this morning, where do these things come from – and where should they go?

I watched Braveheart the other night – a fact I did mention in my sermon this morning.  But where I stopped at William Wallace’s transformation from focusing on dying well to focusing on living well (my paraphrases), the part of the movie that hits me harder involves Robert the Bruce.  The Judas (as they turn-of-phrase might put it).  William Wallace had something, and Robert took it from him.  Was it innocence?  Was it an implicit trust in his countrymen?  More specifically, was it an eye to Robert as the next monarch of the Scots?

I’m not looking for people to actually reflect too deeply upon Braveheart.  People just start weighing in on what they think the movie is trying to express.  The authoritative voice on that can only come across when the screenwriter speaks, and that’s beside the point.  Then there are those who would approach the question from a historical perspective, and discuss how accurate Braveheart’s depiction of that episode in history was.  Again, beside the point.

My point is, and the reason this part of the movie hits me hard, is because too often I feel like that.  Too often I feel like I’m the guy who pledged his loyalty to the One bringing freedom, who then stands with the enemy on the battlefield – and gets found out.  Too often I feel like I’m the guy who rages at his father for sending him to fight for the wrong side – though it’s me raging against myself, not my father (who, incidentally, never pointed me in the wrong direction).

I hate this; I hate it when it occurs; I hate that it occurs.  On the one hand, I hate that the circumstance arises.  On the other hand, I hate that I feel this guilt for it – because it seems as though this is wrong-minded in itself, too!  On the third hand (or paw, if that image strikes you less out-of-the-ordinary) I hate that I’m still in need of such refinement that the potential for either of these still exists.

But maybe that’s just it.  Maybe the picture of the process of salvation that we hold in our minds is just inadequate.  It’s convenient.  We like to have Jesus save us from the consequences of sin.  But we don’t like to admit that we’re sinners; we don’t want the discomfort of His work in us to actually remove sin from us; we certainly don’t want to put in any of the devotional human work that enables and complements His work in us.  So we ask Him to save us from sin, and we only mean “save us from the consequences of sin.”  Because the full picture of salvation is too involved.  The only thing we fully devote ourselves to is the idea that we should take everything in moderation (particularly faith – who wants to be called a fanatic?).

But I want to be a part of an alternative.  An alternative to half-hearted devotion to the One who pours our His whole heart for us; to the minimalist commitment that tries to mask itself behind “faith” that He can use even the smallest faith (no need to have more, or devote more – He may ask it, but He’s willing to work with much less); to the “good-enough” mentality of our society which is never good enough, and dulls us to the call for holiness.  Let me say, emphanatically (you read right), “No!” to these things.

If this precious metal is going to be refined, then the dross must be burned off.  If this precious metal is going to survive the refining process, then there’s got to be more to it than “all” dross.  Cultivate holiness; find that He initiates before our efforts reciprocate.  His path is the narrow one that few find, and it leads to a narrow gateway.  And there is only one way onto His path – Jesus.  Thank God that He meets us in many places as that Way.  Do not settle for less than the fullness of His call.

Epiphany 2014 2.0

So it occasionally happens that the rector of Swift Current spends the first Tuesday and Wednesday of the month celebrating and enjoying Holy Communion with the residents of eight of the seniors’ living and care homes in the city.  This happens roughly every three months, rotating with the pastors of the two Lutheran congregations in the city.  I have just finished, for this month.  Having brought the Epiphany message that I posted here, that God laid on my heart this year, to eight other venues since I posted it, the Holy Spirit has worked in my mind to streamline things a little.

There are three things to note about the wise men, things that might be considered strikes against them.  First, they are not descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: that is, they are not Israelites; they are not of the Jewish nation, God’s chosen people.  If God is going to speak to someone, and reveal Himself to someone, it’ll be a Jew rather than a Gentile.  Second, they are not seeking God: some Greeks and other Gentiles were God-fearers; some would do all they could to glean the blessings of God’s chosen people, to hear His Word preserved in the Scriptures, to follow Him faithfully.  If God is going to speak to a Gentile, and reveal Himself to someone not of His chosen people, it’ll be a God-fearer.  Third, they are astrologers: they don’t just “not” seek God, but they put their faith and trust in something other than Him.  The stars should move them to adore the Creator, but instead the wise men seek guidance for life from, and put their trust in, the stars.

Yet, for all this the wise men are called by God.  He looks upon them, and He loves them.  He did draw Jews to worship Jesus, and let them in on what He was doing, they were shepherds.  He also drew Gentiles.  He drew them from where they were and did it by using a language they’d understand.  They were looking for guidance in the stars, and so God gave it to them.  They came to Jesus because they worshiped stars, but they left worshipers of Him.  He didn’t wait for them to be perfect, or to have everything in order, or to have it all figured out.  He came to them where they were.

In the Church we can sometimes get this wrong.  We become more exclusive than God, as though our “club” had higher standards than His – which only reveals how base our motivations and prerequisites can be.  We want people to believe in Jesus, and to be a part of His Church, but we want them to be like us and to be a part of our church.  Yet the point is that “our” churches are just expressions of His Church – there is, after all, only one.

We sometimes put on the blinders, and get this tunnel vision where we start to act as though we had a monopoly on God, and when we do this, we lose sight of what we should be about – God having the monopoly on people’s hearts.  I’ve worshiped with Pentecostals, and I’ve worshiped with the Greek Orthodox, and I’ve prayed the breviary with my Roman Catholic counterpart.  The response to any of these experiences could easily be, “Wow!  These guys do it different than we do… boy do they get it wrong.”  But the faithful response is to thank God that His Church expresses itself in such diverse ways, for through this kind of faithful diversity, we are enabled and empowered to reach the vast diversity of people, as we share in God’s mission with Him.

The message of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is the message of God’s love for all people – drawing them to Himself in whatever ways necessary and possible.  The challenge to the Church is to partner her Lord and Head in the world.