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)

Jesus the end, and the beginning, of the story

"The vocation of the Church," says Wycliffe Hall professor Martin Davie, "is to be a community where as far as possible disagreement does not exist because truth is known, accepted and celebrated."

The church was never intended to be a debating society. Its vocation is, and always has been, to proclaim salvation and forgiveness of sins in and through the name of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior, the only name under heaven given among men by which anyone can be saved.

Period. End of story.

No, actually, it is only the beginning of the story.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

Salvation in Jesus Christ is the end of the old life of sin and condemnation under the law—and the beginning of a new life of fellowship with the Father, fellowship with Christ, and fellowship with one another through which is, indeed, made manifest that community where truth—life-giving, life-transforming truth—is known, accepted, and celebrated.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10)

John’s message is really quite simple: God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

There is a world that is passing away and, along with it, all the temporal pleasures and desires that make it something less than the world God intended. The love of the Father for the world he created endures forever, and that love will abide throughout the world to come. It is the love that already abides in anyone who "walk[s] in the light, as he is in the light." To walk in the light is to have fellowship with God, and to have fellowship with God is to "have fellowship with one another," that is, everyone else who walks in the light and experiences the joy of knowing that "the blood of Jesus, [the Son of God], cleanses [them] from all sin."

By coming into the world, Jesus has shown the way of truth and, by his example of self-giving and self-sacrifice, he has demonstrated that truth cannot exist apart from love. There is no truth and there is no love abiding in anyone who claims to have no sin. In such a person, there is only falsehood and self-deception. Worse yet, to say you are not a sinner is to make God a liar. You cannot enter into the light unless you first acknowledge that you are lost in the darkness—and there is nothing you can do, of your own accord, to make yourself free.

The lame man at the temple gate (Acts 4:5-14) thought he was condemned to a lifetime of begging, until that day when Peter and John looked him in the eye and said, "In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk!"

This was not a "faith healing." For all we know, this man had never even heard of Jesus. But the mere mention of his name brought the man to his feet—and brought many that day to faith in him whose name is the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

To abide in Christ is "to walk in the light, as he is in the light." It is not always an easy walk. It is fraught with difficulty.  It is a walk of selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love. 

"If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth," John warns us. "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."

The light in which we abide is Christ himself.

Truth and love cannot abide apart from one another. Only in Christ are the two made one; and only in Christ may we find salvation and forgiveness of ours sins and walk in the glorious light of his truth and his love.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Easter 6, Year A: Abiding in Christ (John 15:1-11)

In Christ, we can do all things to the glory of the Father. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing and, in fact, are nothing. At the end of the day, there is no middle ground. We are either in Christ or apart from Christ. We cannot pretend to live partially in Christ and partially in the world. To abide in the world is to be apart from Christ; a fruitless branch to be taken away by the vindedresser and tossed into the fire. To abide in Christ is to shun the world and its enticements and bear fruit for the kingdom of God.

To abide in Christ, to have his life in us, is to participate in the very life of God. "Abide in me, and I in you," Jesus says. This is union with Christ which makes us one, also, with the Father through the Holy Spirit. The one who so abides in Christ cannot help but bear fruit to the glory of the Father because the same Spirit which is in Christ is also in everyone who abides in Christ. It is for this reason that we were created in the image and likeness of God, that God might be glorified through us. But the fall has cut us off from a perfect relationship with God. The only way to restoration is through Christ.

To seek a relationship with God apart from Christ is sheer foolishness. In fact, it is impossible. The only "god" we can seek apart from Christ is one we make in our own image to satisfy our own carnal desires. Whenever we think we can make the first move toward God, we inevitably end up with a god of our own making.

Here is the difference between the Christian faith and all others. In Christ, God is making the first move toward us. We are not seeking him; he is seeking us. We do not choose him; he chooses us. We are not called to strive under our own strength to find a god of our own imagination. We are called, instead, simply to abide in him whom God the Father has sent to draw us back to him. The God who seeks us is the God who created us to bear fruit for his kingdom and glorify his name. Our sins have cut us off from him, but he desires to restore us and make us whole again.

All he asks of us is that we abide in the life-giving, sacrificial love of his Son and keep his commandments. To do this is truly to live the life that pleases God and glorifies his name. To live such a life is true, full, and complete joy.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Easter 5, Year A: The way, the truth, and the life (John 14:1-14)

Jesus is not one teacher among many through whom we might find the way. His Gospel is not one message among many through which we might find the truth. His life is not one life among many through which we might find the life.
Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” You will not come to the Father, except through him.
Now, if that sounds offensive and scandalous, it’s because it’s supposed to sound that way.
The Gospel will always be an offense and a scandal to a world content in its own fallenness.
It is all too easy to cite this verse as we rage against the dying of the light in a world that has arrogantly shoved Jesus aside and ridiculed all those narrow-minded bigots who keep insisting that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
But if you’re a careful reader of the Scriptures, you can’t but notice a rather harsh reality: those most offended and scandalized by this message when it first began to be proclaimed were not the godless and the lawless, but the most devoutly religious.
Consider what happened to Paul and his companions when they came to Thessalonica and began proclaiming the Gospel.
A group of “jealous” Jews—not Romans, not Greeks, not pagans—“formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason” (Acts 17:5).
Paul and his companions are referred to as “These men who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). The Greek term Luke employs for “turned the world upside down” is a form of the word, anastasis, literally “resurrection.” Earlier on, when the original disciples were still in Jerusalem prior to the stoning of Stephen, Luke records that the leaders of the temple establishment were “greatly annoyed” with Peter and John “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). By the time Paul and his company reach Thessalonica, the message that had at first “greatly annoyed” the Jerusalem establishment is now said to “have turned the world  upside down,” and, much to the annoyance of the Jews in Thessalonica, devoutly religious people, the men who have been proclaiming it throughout the region “have come here also.”

The message of Jesus and the resurrection is bound to cause an uproar and those who proclaim it can expect fierce opposition. Paul certainly understood this, and not just because of his experience in Thessalonica. But Thessalonica does provide a very clear illustration of the power of the Gospel. Read Paul’s correspondence with the believers in Thessalonica and you will learn how they endured, despite all the affliction. They received the message “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” and “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7). In spite of the fierce opposition, which included being dragged before the city authorities and charged with sedition (Acts 17:6-7), the believers in Thessalonica persevered became a model congregation, not only hearing the word, but putting it into practice.
Paul is one of those people who would, by our post-modern standards, be considered a “polarizing figure.” His preaching divided synagogues and entire cities. But he always managed to find believers in every town, both Jew and Greek, men and women. But trouble would arise when his opponents from one town follow him into the next. The “noble” Jews in Berea “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). But the Jews from Thessalonica, upon hearing this news, roll into town to stir up trouble just as they had in their own city (Act 17:5-9).

The word of God is, indeed, a double-edged sword. With one edge, it cuts down the division between Jew and Greek, making one new man out of the two, bringing peace. With the other edge, it divides believer from non-believer, exposing the jealousy and selfish motivations of those—devoutly religious and zealous for what they believe to be the truth—but who would keep the message of salvation as their own private possession.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” says our Lord Jesus Christ. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Yes, this is offensive. Yes, this is scandalous. But, yes, this is the Word of the Lord.
And because it is the Word of the Lord, we are called not to keep it as our own private possession, not to use it to cast aspersions on an unbelieving and godless world but, as a people set apart as God’s own possession, we are called to proclaim it to those who have not heard it and, especially, to those who don’t want to hear it, that this unbelieving and godless world might be turned outside down by the message of Jesus and the resurrection.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Truth and love cannot abide apart from one another

There is a world that is passing away and, along with it, all the temporal pleasures and desires which make it something less than the world God intended. The love of the Father for the world he created endures forever, and that love will abide throughout the world to come. It is the love that already abides in “whoever does the will of God” (1 John 2:17), thus making real in this world that is passing away that world which will never pass away. John writes to those in whom the Father’s love abides in varying degrees (“little children,” “young men,” “fathers”) to encourage them to continue in that love, that they might indeed “abide forever.”
This is what Jesus was praying for when he prayed not only for John and the other apostles, “but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).
The prayer of Jesus, still fresh in John’s mind when he wrote his epistle, surpasses any mere desire on our part, noble as it may seem, for some kind of organizational unity among believers across denominational or sectarian lines. The unity for which Jesus prays, the unity which manifests God’s glory to the world, is nothing less than incorporation into the divine community itself. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them,” Jesus prays to the Father, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).
This is a unity that goes beyond any human-concocted scheme. It is the union established by the Father before the world began; a bond of eternal love between the Father and the Son, into which are incorporated all to whom the Son has made the Father’s name known, that is, all to whom the Son has imparted the divine nature through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Those to whom such a gift is given are the true chosen people of God in whom abides the same Spirit which revealed to Daniel the mystery of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:1-30).
By contrast, the one who walks apart from Christ is like the pitiful “wise men” of Babylon, groping about in the darkness, “not know[ing] where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11). As those “wise men” were under the sentence of death before the intervention of the truly wise and righteous Daniel, so are we all under the sentence of death before the intervention of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. By his coming into the world, he has shown us the way of truth and, by his example of self-giving and self-sacrifice, demonstrated that truth cannot exist apart from love. To his apostles, he imparted the very word which is truth, that is, the same Word of God which he himself made incarnate. He “kept them in [the Father’s] name” and “guarded them” so that “not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12).
Pilate will later cynically ask, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Jesus has the answer. “Your word,” that is, the Word of God the Father, “is truth” (John 17:17). It is the Word that Jesus himself has made incarnate. Thus, he not only gives the answer, he is the answer. Jesus himself, the very Word made flesh, is the embodiment of the truth, the full revelation of the will and purpose of God from the foundation of the world. To be “sanctified in the truth” is to be sanctified in Christ, made holy as the Father is holy through the truth abiding in us through the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), whom God has sent to lead us in the way of righteousness.
To abide in Christ, the Word made flesh, the truth incarnate, is “to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). It is an often difficult road of selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love. “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in the darkness,” John writes. “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling” (1 John 2:9-10) because the light in which he abides is Christ himself.
Truth and love cannot abide apart from one another. Only in Christ are the two made one; and only in Christ may we be sanctified in the truth to shine forth the glorious light of his love.