Thursday, December 10, 2020

The church that had fallen asleep (Revelation 3:1-6)

 A church cannot live long off of its "reputation." The church in Sardis presented itself as a church that was "alive." Jesus, however, was not impressed. "You have a reputation of being alive," he says, "but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God." The Sardis church stands in contrast to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was a church thriving in spite of persecution; Sardis was a church dying because it thought it was safe from trouble.

The language of Jesus' admonition was one the believers in Sardis would have understood all too well if they knew their history. Twice, in 549 B.C. and 218 B.C., the city had been sacked. Both times, the citadel of the city had been taken by stealth. The people were caught unaware, thinking the natural fortifications of the city were sufficient to fend off any attack. Jesus warned the believers in Sardis that if they "will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you." Just as the city had fallen into enemy hands because of a lack of watchfulness, so the church in that city would come under judgment if it did not awaken from its sleep.

It would appear the church in Sardis had become too much like its surroundings. Its "reputation" was becoming linked with that of the city itself and its ignominious history of failing to stay awake in the face of impending catastrophe. Having likewise fallen asleep, the believers in Sardis were admonished to wake up and face reality. They were no longer "alive," but "dead." Their idleness and apathy were sins for which they must repent. All was not yet lost, indeed, there were "still a few names in Sardis" who were "worthy," but the urgency of Jesus' warning indicated the time was short. His judgment would come at a time when they least expected it; and it would be swift, sure, and decisive.

Watchfulness is the theme that runs throughout the Advent season. Unlike the church in Sardis, we do not want to be found sleeping at our Lord's coming. Jesus promises that "[the] one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels." That is a promise worth waiting for!

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the  Spirit says to the churches."

The church that loved too much (Revelation 2:18-28)

 Any similarity between the church in Thyatira and present-day churches that overlook blatant heresy in the name of "love" is hardly coincidental. The church in Thyatira is the opposite extreme of the church in Ephesus. Whereas Ephesus is commended for its commitment to truth and rebuked for its lack of love, Thyatira is commended for its "love and faith and service and patient endurance" but rebuked for tolerating "that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols."

Thyatira is the church that loved too much. Its leaders are apparently too weak to resist the manipulations of "Jezebel," a particularly despicable woman whose name is a reference back to the wicked queen who, along with her husband King Ahab, instituted Baal worship in Israel at the time of Elijah. Calling herself a "prophetess," she has been given free reign in Thyatira to lead people astray into what appears to have been an idolatrous cult that glorified sexual immorality. There is nothing remotely Christ-like in her teachings or in the Thyatiran church tolerating her under the guise of "love."

Just as truth divorced from love leads to legalism, love divorced from truth leads to licentiousness. Both will ultimately lead to death. For the church to thrive and be a faithful witness for Christ (and thus a threat to the fallen order called "Babylon" throughout Revelation), it must keep truth and love in proper balance. Only then will it create an environment of grace in which true and loving disciples can be consistently made and nurtured.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Faithful unto death (Revelation 2:8-17)

 While the church in Pergamum has a few problems which need to be addressed, not least of which being the presence of the Nicolaitans, an obscure but dangerous heretical sect, Jesus has nothing but commendation to offer the church in Smyrna. Bearing faithful witness to Christ, however, is a dangerous thing in Smyrna. Jesus warns the believers that a time of testing is coming upon them. Some will be thrown into prison; some may even lose their lives. "Be faithful unto death," Jesus encourages them, and I will give you the crown of life." 

The bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, was ordained by John himself. The account of his martyrdom is one of the most moving stories of faith in the history of the ancient church. Polycarp would not deny his Lord, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. He remains an example for all believers of patient endurance and faithfulness even unto death.

But as Polycarp entered into the stadium, a voice came to him from heaven; "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. And at length, when he was brought up, there was a great tumult, for they heard that Polycarp had been apprehended.

When then he was brought before him, the proconsul asked whether he were the man. And on his confessing that he was, he tried to persuade him to a denial saying, "Have respect to your age," and other things in accordance therewith, as it is their habit to say, "Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say, 'Away with the atheists.'" Then Polycarp with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, "Away with the atheists."

But when the magistrate pressed him hard and said, "Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ," Polycarp said, "Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

But on his persisting again and saying, "Swear by the genius of Caesar," he answered, "If you suppose vainly that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and feign that you are ignorant who I am, hear you plainly: I am a Christian. But if you would learn the doctrine of Christianity, assign a day and give me a hearing."

The proconsul said, "Prevail upon the people." But Polycarp said, "As for yourself, I should have held you worthy of discourse; for we have been taught to render, as is proper, to princes and authorities appointed by God such honor as does us no harm; but as for these, I do not hold them worthy, that I should defend myself before them."

Whereupon the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts here and I will throw you to them, except you repent." But he said, "Call for them, for the repentance from better to worse is a change not permitted to us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is improper to righteousness."

Then he said to him again, "If you despise the wild beasts, I will cause you to be consumed by fire, unless you repent." But Polycarp said: "You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will."

Saying these things and more besides, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his countenance was filled with grace, so that not only did it not drop in dismay at the things which were said to him, but on the contrary the proconsul was astounded and sent his own herald to proclaim three times in the midst of the stadium, "Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian."

When this was proclaimed by the herald, the whole multitude both of Gentiles and of Jews who dwelt in Smyrna cried out with ungovernable wrath and with a loud shout, "This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the puller down of our gods, who teaches multitudes not to sacrifice nor worship." Saying these things, they shouted aloud and asked the Asiarch Philip to let a lion loose upon Polycarp. But he said that it was not lawful for him, since he had brought the sports to a close.

Then they thought fit to shout out with one accord that Polycarp should be burned alive. For it must needs be that the matter of the vision should be fulfilled, which was shown him concerning his pillow, when he saw it on fire while praying, and turning round he said prophetically to the faithful who were with him, "I must needs be burned alive."

These things then happened with so great speed, quicker than words could tell, the crowds immediately collected timber and sticks from the workshops and baths, and the Jews more especially assisted in this with zeal, as is their custom.

But when the pile was made ready, divesting himself of all his upper garments and loosing his belt, he endeavored also to take off his shoes, though not in the habit of doing this before, because all the faithful at all times vied eagerly who should soonest touch his flesh. For he had been treated with all honor for his holy life even before his gray hairs came.

Immediately then the instruments that were prepared for the pile were placed about him. As they were going likewise to nail him to the stake, he said: "Leave me as I am; for He that has granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pyre unmoved, even without the security which you seek from the nails."

So they did not nail him, but tied him. Then he, placing his hands behind him and being bound to the stake, like a noble ram out of a great flock for an offering, a burnt sacrifice made ready and acceptable to God, looking up to heaven said: "O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers and of all creation and of the whole race of the righteous, who live in Your presence;

I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You did prepare and reveal it beforehand, and have accomplished it, You that art the faithful and true God.

For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen."

When he had offered up the Amen and finished his prayer, the firemen lighted the fire. And, a mighty flame flashing forth, we to whom it was given to see, saw a marvel, yea and we were preserved that we might relate to the rest what happened.

The fire, making the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, made a wall round about the body of the martyr; and it was there in the midst, not like flesh burning, but like a loaf in the oven or like gold and silver refined in a furnace. For we perceived such a fragrant smell, as if it were the wafted odor of frankincense or some other precious spice.

So at length the lawless men, seeing that his body could not be consumed by the fire, ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he had done this, there came forth [a dove and] a quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and all the multitude marveled that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.

In the number of these latter was this man, the glorious martyr Polycarp, who was found an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, a bishop of the holy Church which is in Smyrna. For every word which he uttered from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.

The church that forgot to love (Revelation 2:1-7)

Several years earlier, Paul had written to his protege Timothy, urging him to "remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculation rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith" (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Apparently, Timothy succeeded in keeping the Ephesian church doctrinally pure. Addressing the church in Revelation, Jesus says, "I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary."

If doing everything "by the book" were the key to being a vibrant church, the believers in Ephesus would be a model congregation. Jesus, however, holds them to a higher standard. "But I have this against you," he says, "that you have lost the love you had at first."

Ephesus is the church that forgot to love. Jesus admonishes the believers to "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent."

Truth divorced from love is legalistic, judgmental, and cruel. Indeed, there is no church more spiritually dead than the church which does the right thing for the wrong reason. Chasing off false apostles is certainly not wrong in and of itself, but defensiveness cannot take the place of love as the defining characteristic of the church. Love compels the church not only to drive out the wolves, but also to seek out and bring home the lost sheep.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The mystery of faith (Revelation 1)

 John's magnificent vision on the island of Patmos was a revelation given him by God, with whom he enjoyed so intimate a relationship as to be granted the privilege of seeing the realm of eternity which transcends time and the realm of glory which transcends space.

"Behold, he is coming with the clouds" (Revelation 1:7) is not the pipe dream or escapist fantasy which many pop culture “Christian” authors have made it out to be. It is that part of "the mystery of faith" which makes our faith complete. It is a reminder that we have more to look forward to in the next world than we can possibly comprehend in this world. At the same time, it calls us to live in this world as we will live in the next, "in lives of holiness and godliness" (2 Peter 3:11), participating even now in the ongoing fulfillment of the eschatological kingdom toward which all of history, in Christ, is moving. The certainty that Christ is coming again keeps us accountable, ever aware of the fact that, at any moment, Christ our Judge will appear and we will stand before him to give an accounting for all the thoughts, motives and actions which have defined our lives in this world.

But this reality does not inspire fear in the heart of believers, whose lives are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image and likeness of God. Rather, Jesus' promise, "I am coming soon" (Revelation 22:7, 12) is the promise of vindication and eternal rest for those who, in the face of suffering and persecution, persevere to the end. It is a promise of comfort for the living and of resurrection for those who have "fallen asleep" in Christ.

"The promise of his coming" is the promise that brings the church together as a covenant community. The expectation of seeing our Lord face to face brings us together for worship every Lord's Day. It is a promise that is made real in the celebration of the Eucharist. For in every observance of this blessed sacrament, the true meaning of John's vision is broken and poured out before our very eyes. Christ is present in a real, yet mysterious, way. Heaven and earth become one. New Jerusalem shines in all its splendor as its citizens celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).

"The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking," as Paul reminds us, "but of righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). Yet it is precisely through the outward act of eating and drinking that we experience the kingdom mysteriously present in our midst. In partaking of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we are participating in the reality beyond the symbols. Paradoxically, we consume outwardly the body and blood of Christ while, at the same time, we are being inwardly consumed into the reality that is Christ himself: the mystery of his death, resurrection and coming again. The whole of this mystery is laid forth visibly, yet mysteriously, in the bread and the cup. Through his broken body and shed blood, our mortality is being consumed into his immortality. His presence is made real in our midst as we gather in his name around his table and made real in the world around us as we outwardly manifest it through "lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God" (2 Peter 3:11b-12a).

To contemplate this mystery is to be consumed by it; to surrender our selfish desire to understand that which is too high even to enter our feeble human minds. In seeking to draw the mystery into ourselves, we will find ourselves being drawn into the mystery. Therein, we begin to embrace Jesus’ most comforting promise, “And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:3).

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

“Even so. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Bearing witness to the end of all things

John the Baptist came preaching an urgent message of repentance, but the religious elites ignored and even scoffed at him. Jesus rebuked them for their arrogance, saying tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of heaven before them. Writing some years later, the Apostle Peter (cf. 2 Peter 3:1-10) addressed another group of scoffers who were discouraging believers by mocking the idea that the present world was passing away. "They will say, 'Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.'"

The Apostle's use of the images of water and fire echo the words of John, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Matthew 3:11). The message is the same, but on a different level. As baptism with water washes away the outward effects of sin, so baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire purges the inward cause of sin. John addresses this on the personal, individual level in calling sinners to repentance. Peter carries it forward to its logical, cosmic conclusion. As God once acted through the waters of the flood to wash away the outward uncleanness of "the world that then existed," so he will act again through fire to purge "the heavens and earth that now exist" of all that causes them to be out of sync with his will and purpose.

Water calls to mind comfort and refreshment, but an outward cleansing is not sufficient for this corrupt and sinful world. Fire, especially as Peter describes it, is a most unpleasant image, but God must act in a powerful and decisive way to get to the root cause of the world's fallenness.

"The Church of Jesus Christ bears witness to the end of all things," writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the introduction to his lectures on Creation and Fall. Thus, the church's whole perspective, its whole identity, message, and mission are shaped by "the end." Undoubtedly, it was such a perspective which enabled Bonhoeffer to stand boldly against the Nazi regime, even thought it cost him his life. But his words still ring true today, more than seventy years later.

The church proclaims Christ, who is "the new" and "the end of the old." The old, fallen world does not want to be told that its end has come and a new order of things is coming into being. But that is precisely the message the church proclaims to the old world.

"'The old world cannot take pleasure in the Church," Bonhoeffer says, "because the Church speaks of its end as though it had already happened--as though the world had already been judged. The old world does not like being regarded as dead." The church has always had to contend with those "who come to it who think the thoughts of the old world." That is nothing unusual, for no one can claim to be completely free of such thoughts from time to time. But what sets the church "in tumult," Bonhoeffer says, is "when these children of the world that has passed away lay claim to the Church, to the new, for themselves. They want the new and only know the old. And thus they deny Christ the Lord."

If the church were to capitulate to the demands of "the children of the world that has passed away" it would deny Christ and thus cease to be the church. But following Christ means more than simply turning them away. The church "recognizes the old world only in light of the new," says Bonhoeffer, "because the Church is more certain of the new world than of anything else."

From the perspective of "the end," the church sees "the children of the world that has passed away" in a new light: as lost souls caught in the death throes of the "old world," desperately seeking to fill the void in their lives, but hopelessly enslaved by demonic forces which have shaded their eyes from the beauty of the "new world" that is breaking forth around them. Following Christ means giving hope to these hopeless creatures. Following Christ means leading them out of the darkness of the world that has passed away and into the light of God's glorious new world.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Apostasy, resurrection, and a little eschatological common sense

In preparing them for his ordeal of suffering and death, Jesus told his disciples they would "all fall away" in fulfillment of the prophecy, "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered" (Mark 14:27). There is an element of common sense here which is often overlooked. In Greek, the words for "apostasy" and "resurrection" are antonyms. There is the sense that one must "fall away" before one can "stand up again." In other words, the familiar teaching in Christian eschatology that there must first be a "falling away" before the consummation of all things, that is, before the resurrection, is rooted in this very basic premise.

Jesus cast the ordeal of his suffering, death, and resurrection against the grand backdrop of God's plan for the redemption of his creation. In the midst of his ordeal, his disciples would "fall away." The intensity of the conflict would be such that they would abandon the faith and look instead toward self-preservation. Peter would embody this "falling away" with his three denials "before the rooster crows twice" (Mark 14:30).

Things would be quite different following the resurrection, however. Jesus assured his disciples that "after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee" (Mark 14:28). Rising from the dead, Jesus would restore the faith of those who had fallen away. The meaning and purpose of the resurrection is intensified by the fact that it would be preceded by the apostasy. Had there been no apostasy, there would have been no need for the resurrection; but because there was an apostasy, the power of the resurrection to restore all things is all the more glorious.

In order to appreciate fully what Jesus accomplished in rising from the dead, it is first necessary to realize how far we human beings have fallen from our original state of righteousness. We are children of Adam and Eve and, therefore, heirs of the great apostasy by which we lost our standing in right relationship with God. Only the cross can atone for our sin. Only the resurrection can restore our standing with God.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

"I Am Doing a Great Work and I Cannot Come Down" (Nehemiah 6)

Nehemiah was a man of prayer. That is the one quality of his character that comes through quite clearly in the book bearing his name. Throughout his account of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, he interjects one prayer after another, not only for himself but also for Jerusalem, for his people, and even for his enemies.

Among Nehemiah’s enemies are the persistently annoying Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab. They are determined to undermine Nehemiah’s work, no matter what amount of deceit and dishonesty they have to employ to do so. Sanballat and Geshem resort to the age old tactic of feigning a peace conference, sending an “invitation” to Nehemiah to “Come and let us meet together in one of the villages in the plain of Ono” (Nehemiah 6:2). Their deception is quite transparent and Nehemiah sees right through it. They intend to distract him from his work, lure him into hostile territory, and dispose of him and put an end to his plans for the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah, however, will not be distracted and sends back his reply, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (v. 3). In other words, Nehemiah is telling his enemies, “If you want to talk to me, come up here. I won’t be distracted by coming down to you.” This happens four times, reports Nehemiah, and four times his response is the same.

Thus rebuffed, Nehemiah’s adversaries resort to threats and intimidation. Sanballat sends his servant with an open letter reading, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and you wish to become their king, according to this report. And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’ And now it will be reported to the king according to these words. So now come, let us take counsel together" (vv. 6-7).

Sometimes, ancient history sounds a lot like contemporary history. This is one such instance. Out of thin air, Nehemiah’s adversaries have created a crisis by misrepresenting his intentions and then insisting that only he can diffuse it by clarifying his position. But Nehemiah, once again, is undeterred. “No such things as you say have been done,” he replies, “for you are inventing them out of your own mind” (v. 8).

Nehemiah could not be distracted from his work because he was constantly cultivating an intimate relationship with God through prayer. No matter how intense the opposition, he knew he could always rely on God to strengthen his hand (v. 9). God had anointed him to do a great work, and there was nothing his enemies could do to bring him down because he never wavered from looking upward toward heaven and keeping his focus on the work God had called him to accomplish.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

“As through one man, so through one man.” (Romans 5:15b-19)

All summer, we are going to be living in Romans. It is the most well known of Paul’s letters. It is, perhaps, the greatest exposition of the Gospel—aside from the life of Christ himself—that has ever been written.

Paul leaves no stone unturned in describing how every human being, because of Adam, is (what you might call) a natural born sinner. He paints a grim picture of fallen humanity. He reminds both the Jew and the Gentile that they stand equally condemned before God.

But then he paints a glorious picture of the redemption of that fallen humanity through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. The distinctions are erased. Jew and Gentile alike, once enemies of God and enemies of one another, are made one new humanity, a redeemed humanity, in and through Jesus Christ.

It gets complicated at times, but the overarching message is really quite simple: We are dead in Adam, but we are made alive in Jesus Christ.

All are sinners, but all who put their faith in Christ will be saved—made righteous as a free gift of the grace of God.

In these complicated times, that simple message is the one we ought to be shouting from the mountaintop.

I could stop right there—but there is an actual text on which I have to preach.

Let me say, plowing through commentaries on this particular text was not the most edifying task. The whole passage was treated as something of a transition, a collection of summary thoughts that Paul was kind of throwing out haphazardly as he was getting ready to move on to his next point.

Commentators spent way too much time on technical matters—pointing out such things as subordinate clauses and trying to figure out the significance of this or that verb tense. Not much Good News in all of that. You might plan a grammar lesson around it, but not a sermon.

The lectionary doesn’t do this text justice, either. It is truncated, and in a very bad way. It picks up in the middle of the verse 15 and ends with verse 19.

Last week’s reading ended,literally, on a note of reconciliation—“More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:11)—so, if we want to understand the full context here, we need to pick up, where else, but verse 12?

"Therefore, just as death came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned--for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come." (Romans 5:12-14)

One man, Adam, sinned. Adam was the first man—he was the one God formed from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life—and when he sinned, he corrupted all who would come after him, and that means every single one of us.

Adam, our great ancestor, sinned—and there is nothing we can do about it.

It happened.

It corrupted God’s creation

It corrupted each and every one of us.

We are fallen.

We are corrupt.

We are sinners.

We are inclined only toward evil and disobedience.

The destiny of all who have sinned is death . . .

. . . and there is nothing we can do about it.

If we want out of this mess, we have to look somewhere—to look for someone—else.

So, what can be done? And who can do it?

How can we be saved . . . and who can save us?

"But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. for the judgment following one man's trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive  the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ."  (Romans 5:15-17)

So, to answer those questions—What can be done, and who can do it? How can we be saved, and who can save us?

Jesus Christ.

I hope we already know that.

But we are living in complicated and chaotic times—and the simple truth of the Gospel is being lost in what might appear on the surface to be an onslaught of lawlessness.

But that’s not where the Gospel is being lost.

When you speak the Gospel into a lawless situation, an amazing thing happens. Light begins to pierce the darkness. Hope overcomes despair.

Death is swallowed up in victory and the love and peace of God drives out all fear and indifference.

If that is not happening right now, it’s because we are not speaking the Gospel into the chaos and confusion of our day.

A lot of what I’m hearing from so-called Christian leaders right now is a new form of legalism—people vindicating themselves at the expense of others based on how much better they check off the right activities, signal the right virtues, and perform the right rituals.

The Pharisee has returned, praying thus about himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men!”

Yet, there is still darkness instead of light; despair instead of hope; death instead of life; enmity and strife instead of peace.

“The law,” Paul says (v. 20) came in to increase the trespass.”

The law will not save you. The law can only make you ever more aware that you are very much like other men. You are a sinner—and there is nothing you can do about it.

"Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)

“As through one man, so through one man.”

By the way, it is impossible to dismiss Adam as a non-historical or merely symbolic figure when you think of sin and redemption this way.

Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, paid a heavy price to make salvation a free gift of the grace of God.

But because he did pay that price—shedding his blood on the cross—the gift is free. We miserable sinners can be justified—made righteous—by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

One man’s sin brought death.

One man’s obedience brings justification.

It really is that simple.

And in these complicated and chaotic times in which we live, it is the only truth that matters.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

First Sunday after Trinity

1st Sunday after Trinity: First Sunday after Trinity, Church of the Holy Trinity, Grahamville. Speaker: James Gibson. Series: Romans Part: 1.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Memorial Day Classic: Patton on prayer

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie Patton (a film chock full of memorable scenes) has the famous World War II general, frustrated over the negative effects of inclement weather on the movement of his troops, ordering his chaplain to compose a "weather prayer." The chaplain responds rather incredulously, telling General Patton that it would take "an awfully heavy rug . . . praying for good weather so we can kill our fellow man." Nevertheless, he dutifully composes a prayer. The weather subsides, the army advances, and Patton has the chaplain decorated for meritorious service.

Twenty years before that 1970 Hollywood embellishment, Monsignor James H. O'Neill, Chief Chaplain of the Third Army under Patton, had set the record straight in an official government document written in response to the mythology which was already growing up around "General George S. Patton and the Third Army Prayer." It was not until 1971 that the paper received widespread distribution through its publication in the October 6 issue of Review of the News (probably not a publication I would quote from except under special circumstances, such as this one).

The incident of the now famous Patton Prayer commenced with a telephone call to the Third Army Chaplain on the morning of December 8, 1944, when the Third Army Headquarters were located in the Caserne Molifor in Nancy, France: "This is General Patton; do you have a good prayer for weather? We must do something about those rains if we are to win the war." My reply was that I know where to look for such a prayer, that I would locate, and report within the hour.

As I hung up the telephone receiver, about eleven in the morning, I looked out on the steadily falling rain, "immoderate" I would call it--the same rain that had plagued Patton's Army throughout the Moselle and Saar Campaigns from September until now, December 8. The few prayer books at hand contained no formal prayer on weather that might prove acceptable to the Army Commander.

Keeping his immediate objective in mind, I typed an original and an improved copy on a 5" x 3" filing card:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.

I pondered the question, What use would General Patton make of the prayer? Surely not for private devotion. If he intended it for circulation to chaplains or others, with Christmas not far removed, it might he proper to type the Army Commander's Christmas Greetings on the reverse side. This would please the recipient, and anything that pleased the men I knew would please him:

To each officer and soldier in the Third United States Army, I Wish a Merry Christmas. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We march in our might to complete victory. May God's blessings rest upon each of you on this Christmas Day. G.S. Patton, Jr, Lieutenant General, Commanding, Third United States Army.

This done, I donned my heavy trench coat, crossed the quadrangle of the old French military barracks, and reported to General Patton. He read the prayer copy, returned it to me with a very casual directive, "Have 250,000 copies printed and see to it that every man in the Third Army gets one." The size of the order amazed me; this was certainly doing something about the weather in a big way. But I said nothing but the usual, "Very well, Sir!"

Recovering, I invited his attention to the reverse side containing the Christmas Greeting, with his name and rank typed. "Very good," he said, with a smile of approval. "If the General would sign the card, it would add a personal touch that I am sure the men would like." He took his place at his desk, signed the card, returned it to me and then Said: "Chaplain, sit down for a moment; I want to talk to you about this business of prayer."

He rubbed his face in his hands, was silent for a moment, then rose and walked over to the high window, and stood there with his back toward me as he looked out on the falling rain. As usual, he was dressed stunningly, and his six-foot-two powerfully built physique made an unforgettable silhouette against the great window.

The General Patton I saw there was the Army Commander to whom the welfare of the men under him was a matter of Personal responsibility. Even in the heat of combat he could take time out to direct new methods to prevent trench feet, to see to it that dry socks went forward daily with the rations to troops on the line, to kneel in the mud administering morphine and caring for a wounded soldier until the ambulance Came. What was coming now?

"Chaplain, how much praying is being done in the Third Army?" was his question. I parried: "Does the General mean by chaplains, or by the men?" "By everybody," he replied. To this I countered: "I am afraid to admit it, but I do not believe that much praying is going on. When there Is fighting, everyone prays, but now with this constant rain -- when things are quiet, dangerously quiet, men just sit and wait for things to happen. Prayer out here is difficult. Both chaplains and men are removed from a special building with a steeple. Prayer to most of them is a formal, ritualized affair, involving special posture and a liturgical setting. I do not believe that much praying is being done." The General left the window, and again seated himself at his desk, leaned back in his swivel chair, toying with a long lead pencil between his index fingers.

“Chaplain, I am a strong believer in Prayer. There are three ways that men get what they want; by planning, by working, and by Praying. Any great military operation takes careful planning, or thinking. Then you must have well-trained troops to carry it out: that's working. But between the plan and the operation there is always an unknown. That unknown spells defeat or victory, success or failure. It is the reaction of the actors to the ordeal when it actually comes. Some people call that getting the breaks; I call it God. God has His part, or margin in everything, That's where prayer comes in.

“Up to now, in the Third Army, God has been very good to us. We have never retreated; we have suffered no defeats, no famine, no epidemics. This is because a lot of people back home are praying for us. We were lucky in Africa, in Sicily, and in Italy. Simply because people prayed. But we have to pray for ourselves, too. A good soldier is not made merely by making him think and work. There is something in every soldier that goes deeper than thinking or working--it's his ‘guts.’ It is something that he has built in there: it is a world of truth and power that is higher than himself. Great living is not all output of thought and work. A man has to have intake as well. I don't know what you call it, but I call it Religion, Prayer, or God.”

He talked about Gideon in the Bible, said that men should pray no matter where they were, in church or out of it, that if they did not pray, sooner or later they would "crack up." To all this I commented agreement, that one of the major training objectives of my office was to help soldiers recover and make their lives effective in this third realm, prayer. It would do no harm to re-impress this training on chaplains. We had about 486 chaplains in the Third Army at that time, representing 32 denominations. Once the Third Army had become operational, my mode of contact with the chaplains had been chiefly through Training Letters issued from time to time to the Chaplains in the four corps and the 22 to 26 divisions comprising the Third Army. Each treated of a variety of subjects of corrective or training value to a chaplain working with troops in the field.

[Patton continued:]

“I wish you would put out a Training Letter on this subject of Prayer to all the chaplains; write about nothing else, just the importance of prayer. Let me see it before you send it. We've got to get not only the chaplains but every man in the Third Army to pray. We must ask God to stop these rains. These rains are that margin that hold defeat or victory. If we all pray, it will be like what Dr. Carrel said [the allusion was to a press quote some days previously when Dr. Alexis Carrel, one of the foremost scientists, described prayer "as one of the most powerful forms of energy man can generate"], it will be like plugging in on a current whose source is in Heaven. I believe that prayer completes that circuit. It is power.”

With that the General arose from his chair, a sign that the interview was ended. I returned to my field desk, typed Training Letter No. 5 while the "copy" was "hot," touching on some or all of the General's reverie on Prayer, and after staff processing, presented it to General Patton on the next day. The General read it and without change directed that it be circulated not only to the 486 chaplains, but to every organization commander down to and including the regimental level.

Three thousand two hundred copies were distributed to every unit in the Third Army over my signature as Third Army Chaplain. Strictly speaking, it was the Army Commander's letter, not mine. Due to the fact that the order came directly from General Patton, distribution was completed on December 11 and 12 in advance of its date line, December 14, 1944. Titled "Training Letter No. 5," with the salutary "Chaplains of the Third Army," the letter continued: "At this stage of the operations I would call upon the chaplains and the men of the Third United States Army to focus their attention on the importance of prayer.

"Our glorious march from the Normandy Beach across France to where we stand, before and beyond the Siegfried Line, with the wreckage of the German Army behind us should convince the most skeptical soldier that God has ridden with our banner. Pestilence and famine have not touched us. We have continued in unity of purpose. We have had no quitters; and our leadership has been masterful. The Third Army has no roster of Retreats. None of Defeats. We have no memory of a lost battle to hand on to our children from this great campaign. "But we are not stopping at the Siegfried Line. Tough days may be ahead of us before we eat our rations in the Chancellery of the Deutsches Reich.

"As chaplains it is our business to pray. We preach its importance. We urge its practice. But the time is now to intensify our faith in prayer, not alone with ourselves, but with every believing man, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, or Christian in the ranks of the Third United States Army.

"Those who pray do more for the world than those who fight; and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers. 'Hands lifted up,' said Bosuet, 'smash more battalions than hands that strike.' Gideon of Bible fame was least in his father's house. He came from Israel's smallest tribe. But he was a mighty man of valor. His strength lay not in his military might, but in his recognition of God's proper claims upon his life. He reduced his Army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred men lest the people of Israel would think that their valor had saved them. We have no intention to reduce our vast striking force. But we must urge, instruct, and indoctrinate every fighting man to pray as well as fight. In Gideon's day, and in our own, spiritually alert minorities carry the burdens and bring the victories.

“Urge all of your men to pray, not alone in church, but everywhere. Pray when driving. Pray when fighting. Pray alone. Pray with others. Pray by night and pray by day. Pray for the cessation of immoderate rains, for good weather for Battle. Pray for the defeat of our wicked enemy whose banner is injustice and whose good is oppression. Pray for victory. Pray for our Army, and Pray for Peace.

“We must march together, all out for God. The soldier who 'cracks up' does not need sympathy or comfort as much as he needs strength. We are not trying to make the best of these days. It is our job to make the most of them. Now is not the time to follow God from 'afar off.' This Army needs the assurance and the faith that God is with us. With prayer, we cannot fail.

"Be assured that this message on prayer has the approval, the encouragement, and the enthusiastic support of the Third United States Army Commander. With every good wish to each of you for a very Happy Christmas, and my persona congratulations for your splendid and courageous work since landing on the beach, I am," etc., etc., signed The Third Army Commander.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The three promises of Acts 1

The book of Acts, Luke's second volume, begins with three promises, two given by Jesus himself and a third given on his behalf by two heavenly messengers. All three deserve a detailed consideration.

The first is "the promise of the Father, which [Jesus] said, 'you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.'" 

Jesus tells his disciples to stay in the city a while longer. They are not yet equipped for the mission ahead. In a few short days, however, they will receive "the promise of the Father," the Holy Spirit poured out upon them, empowering them to proclaim the Gospel with accompanying signs and wonders. They will also be joined, in a few short days, by people from every nation under heaven. The feast of Pentecost will bring pilgrims from all over the world to Jerusalem. The disciples' first task will be to bear witness to the Risen Christ right there in Jerusalem, plating the seed in the hearts of people from all over the world.

The second promise involves the sending forth of the disciples to be "witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." The Holy Spirit will not only empower the disciples for work in Jerusalem but, indeed for a mission that will carry them to the uttermost parts of the earth. God's true kingdom will not be limited geographically to Israel (as the disciples, at this point, still suppose), but will extend "to the end of the earth." As witnesses to the resurrection, the disciples will be the heralds of this coming kingdom that knows no national boundaries and has no end.

These first two promises Jesus makes to his disciples just before he is "lifted up and a cloud [takes] him out of their sight." The third and final promise will inspire the disciples with hope.

"And while they were gazing into heaven as he went," Luke writes, "behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'"

This promise has a very practical significance that is often lost because of a lack of proper context. In what way did the disciples see Jesus "go into heaven?" It will not do simply to say they saw him go in a cloud and, therefore, he will come in a cloud. The ascension is only the final movement of  drama that began when Jesus "set his fact to go to Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51). The events that take place from that time "until the day he was taken up" are described in detail by Luke, a careful historian, because he understands the whole drama of the journey to Jerusalem, the ordeal of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection, to be that of Jesus being "taken up," glorified in the presence of the Father, vindicated through his suffering, and raised to glory on high at the right hand of the Father. It is in this way that the disciples saw "this Jesus" taken up from them into heaven. It is, likewise, in this way that these "men of Galilee" and all who believe because of their witness will see the promise of the Lord's coming fulfilled every time they remember, recount, and re-live "all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day he was taken up."

The proper posture for a people waiting for the Lord's coming is not that of gazing off into the clouds or standing around "looking into heaven." The disciples were rebuked for doing that very thing. Rather, the proper posture for a people waiting for the coming of the Lord is the posture of perpetual worship, keeping ever before them the living memory of his passion, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. The promise of his coming, anticipated in worship, will be fulfilled in its completeness at the Last Day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Holy Land and the symbolism of color

Beige. Every wall of the sanctuary was beige; a deafening vagueness from ceiling to floor. 

 Though I didn't grow up in an Evangelical mega church like many other millennials, the sanctuary of my small Episcopal Church had the same characterless essence - that of a nondescript multipurpose room, enveloped in the color of nothingness.

Yet, I did not fully realize the deprivation of aesthetic sanctity which myself and other millennials experienced growing up in many American churches until I visited the Holy Land in October of 2019.

The Language of Color

 God communicates with us through the symbolism of colors. For example, God’s chosen people (Israel) have been signified by the color blue since the time of David. After the flood, God used a rainbow to symbolize his covenant with the world (Genesis 9). The new covenant is symbolized by Christ’s crimson blood (Matthew 26:28). God uses green to symbolize eternal life each spring (Psalm 1:3). Our sins are likened to scarlet, but through Christ our sins become “as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). 

"And God said, 'This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.'" (Genesis 9:12-15)

The great painters of the Renaissance period recognized the power of color in symbolic, nonverbal communication. In fact, if you take a moment to imagine the Virgin Mary, chances are that you will imagine her cloaked in blue. For this vivid, lasting imagery of Mary adorned in blue, we can thank Agnolo Gaddi (1350-1396), Masaccio (1401-1428), and Giovanni Bellini (1425-1516). These and other Renaissance painters achieved the classic, ultramarine pigmentation of Mary’s veil using a metamorphic rock called lapis lazuli.

Madonna and Child with Angels 
(from the Pisa Altarpiece)
By Masaccio 

Madona Casini
By Masaccio

Madonna Enthroned with Saints and Angels
By Agnolo Gaddi

San Zaccaria Altarpiece
By Giovanni Bellini

Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter and Orthodox Christian, wrote, “The power of profound meaning is found in blue… Blue is the typical heavenly colour.” In art and in scripture, blue is the color of holiness, purity, divinity, serenity, revelation, authority, kingship, and faithfulness; it is often used to symbolize Israel, the Holy Spirit, the priesthood, and the heavens, as well as the healing power of Christ. It is the Virgin Mary’s purity, faithfulness, and holiness which have earned her a cloak of brilliant blue.

 Far and away, it was the bold, evocative presence of the color blue that most intimately touched my soul and invigorated my spirit as I toured the Holy Land. Two churches in Jerusalem, in particular, especially encapsulate the symbolic, unspoken communication within the ancient tradition of the Christian faith.

“And they saw the God of Israel. Under His feet was a work like a pavement made of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself.” (Exodus 24:10)

The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu

Roosted upon a steep slope of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion is the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu; its name comes from the Latin word Gallicantu, meaning "cock's crow," in commemoration of Peter's triple rejection of Jesus (Mark 14:30). The site is also thought to be the location of Caiaphas’ palace. Beneath the church is a dungeon cavern, believed to be “the cell where Jesus was detained for the night following his arrest.” Visiting the site was both a somber and a deeply moving experience.

The importance and symbolism of the color blue became evident from the moment I arrived at the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. At the entrance to the church at two large, bronze doors adorned by biblical bas-relief; a scene depicting the moment at the Cenacle, following the Last Supper, when Christ predicted Peter’s triple denial. The halo-adorned Christ is clothed in blue, signifying His divinity and kingship.

Inside, the walls of the sanctuary are embellished with mosaics. The choir area of the sanctuary hosts a mosaic depicting the Sanhedrin “sentencing Jesus to death for proclaiming that

He is the Son of God. Caiaphas (on the right) tears up his clothes while saying, ‘He blasphemed,’“ (Matthew 26, 65-66). “In the sky, God hides his face to no longer face those who are condemning his Son,” and. four angels can be seen presenting to the cross to Christ. Loyal to the Father, Christ accepts His cross, symbolizing that “God had such love for the world that he gave his only Son," (John 3:16).

Situated at the peak of the church’s dome, nestled into a starry sky, is a mammoth, stained-glass cross. The cross directs visitors’ attention to the heavens: “From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew, 26:64)

Located near the ancient cavern believed to be the cell where Jesus was imprisoned, stands a statue of Christ, the suffering servant. Upon His knees, the captive Christ - clothed in blue - is depicted looking upwards to heaven, praying for the sins of the world. Two nearby inscriptions demonstrate the significance of the statue.

 “Because he surrendered himself to death and was counted among the wicked, while bearing the sins of many and interceding for transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12)

 “God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every other name.” (Phil 2:9)

The Basilica of the Agony

Not far from the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is the Garden of Gethsemane, which sits nestled along the towering walls of the Basilica of the Agony. Located at the foot of the Mount of Olives and nick-named the “Church of All Nations,” construction of the basilica was funded by twelve different countries. Enshrined within the church is a section of stone in the Garden of Gethsemane which is believed to be where Jesus prayed on the night of his arrest (Matthew 26:36).

Among the churches which I visited while touring the Holy Land, the colorful, Byzantine-styled, neoclassical exterior of the “Church of Nations” was the most exquisite. Above the columned entrance is a breathtaking, many-colored mosaic depicting Christ as the link between God and humanity. 

 Upon entering the basilica, I felt as though I had passed from day into night. Partitioning the interior into three sections, lumber-like columns mimic the towering trees of a forest; the towering pillars stretch upwards into twelve cupolas fashioned in the likeness of the midnight sky. The deep blue ceiling, symbolizing the heavens and the nighttime sky, is punctuated by stars of inlaid gold. Reflecting the tone of Christ’s solitude that fateful night in the Garden of Gethsemane, the tinted alabaster windows of the basilica dim the bright light of the outside sun, creating a somber, subdued atmosphere.

As I knelt down to touch the large stone believed to be the place at which Christ prayed alone in the garden, my mind wandered. What must He have been thinking? What must he have felt? Was He frightened? Ashamed of my own unworthiness, I fell to my knees and confessed my sins.

"Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them." 

(Exodus 26:1)

Meaning, the antidote to meaninglessness

What distinguishes the above mentioned churches, as well as many others unmentioned herein, from the little Episcopal Church in which I was raised and the large Evangelical megachurches across the United States is that the Jerusalem churches were physically and aesthetically pregnant with meaning. The Jerusalem churches dripped with reverence, unmistakably houses of God. 

 Neither the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu nor the Basilica of the Agony could double as a multipurpose room or a concert hall for the latest stars of contemporary Christian music. Neither the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu nor the Basilica of the Agony was equipped to entertain the masses with fancy and flashy, multicolored lighting. Neither the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu nor the Basilica of the Agony housed coffee bars and espresso machines. 

 There were no commercially created signs and advertisements for the latest and greatest Bible studies or in house events with trendy seasonal themes. Neither the website for the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu nor the website for the Basilica of the Agony features names of super star pastors. 

The prayers and singing heard inside the Jerusalem churches was a world apart from the charged geopolitical environment outside the churches’ walls. Within, there were no culture wars or political crusades, but instead there was prayer, confession, and songs of praise.

 Far and away from what has become of much of American Christianity, the churches in Jerusalem were wholly counter-cultural, reverent houses of the Lord.

Today, many Americans my age and younger are rejecting aesthetically deprived, commercialized Christianity in search of a counter-cultural, deeply-rooted, genuine and reverent tradition of faith. As a sacramental, liturgical tradition, Anglicanism's holistic, tangible, ordered worship and thoroughly non-commercialized spirituality offer a welcome return to early Christianity for which so many yearn.

Therefore, as new parishes are planted across the country, we mustn't allow ourselves to neglect the non-sacramental means - such as the symbolism of colors - through which God communicates, inspires, and uplifts his flock. Let us move forward by fully embracing our aesthetic past. Let us establish abidingly, unquestionably reverent houses for our Lord; that no longer will sanctuaries stand empty, lifeless, and vacuously beige.

Let us pray:

O heavenly Father, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son Jesus Christ, you have filled the world with beauty: Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(adapted from the Book of Common Prayer)