Archive for January, 2014

The Sacred Page: The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple: Thoughts on the Sunday Readings

January 31, 2014

Sunday is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Commonly Called The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin. In the traditional observance, this day has precedence over the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Since probably neither of the two Anglican churches in Little Rock will be celebrating this liturgical event, you might well wonder, why bother?

Of course, it’s not a heaven-or-hell kind of thing, but the church calendar has a particular richness that instructs the believer in the Christian faith. It is the old Anglican idea of lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief. This is one way liturgy teaches theology. It cannot go without saying that good liturgy teaches good theology, and poorly conceived liturgy teaches poorly conceived theology. My Roman Catholic neighbors do a better job of presenting liturgy.

John Bergsma over at the “Sacred Page” blog has a comprehensive commentary on the feast day. He is a Roman Catholic scholar, but his lengthy essay contains nothing offensive. The readings in the Roman Missal turn out to be the same as the traditional Anglican lectionary. Dr. Bergsma’s excellent piece does suffer from a small imperfection in the biblical citation of Luke 2:22. (A PhD theologian makes a typographical error! Thank you, Lord!) Read it all at the link below.

The Sacred Page: The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple: Thoughts on the Sunday Readings.


Conversion: bolt of lightning, or a slow wearing down?

January 24, 2014

Tomorrow (Jan. 25), we recall the Conversion of St. Paul. He is struck down on the Damascus road and blinded by a heavenly light. Jesus, the light of the world speaks to him out of that divine brightness. The story is in Acts 9. For Jesus, the systematic oppression of Christian believers is more than an attack on the righteous. It is personal. Paul is attacking the Anointed One that had been so earnestly anticipated.

He travels on to Damascus where a disciple named Ananias had a dream in which the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16) That is some fine recruiting technique. Forget about the fringe benefits and golden parachute. Come to work for me and suffer. Paul, or course, goes for the deal. What is he supposed to do? The man who will soon deliver the good news to the Gentile world is now convinced that Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah.

There is a little business here about God’s choice. As usual, the divine selection appears absurd. The Almighty gets a kick out of disproving human presumptions by picking out the most unlikely people. God chooses the smallest insignificant nation, the younger brothers, and the least powerful in order that he may draw attention to the unknowable wisdom that resides above the small-minded human perceptions of how things should be. Taking this into account, there is no more qualified spokesman for God’s wonderful plan to bring all mankind to himself than the preeminent tormenter of God’s people.

Laying hands on the blind man, Ananias.pronounces God’s healing. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. (9:17-19)

Ananias has two objectives; physical healing and imparting the Holy Spirit. If we follow what happened here, it may tell us something about the conversion experience. First of all, the would=be persecutor has accepted the core of the gospel message. Jesus is divine and he is the one who will save us from the fallen state that has separated human beings from God. Now, follow the verbs. Paul regained his lost sight. Paul, being justified by faith, is now restored to the proper condition for which humans were created.

Paul rose and was baptized. Perhaps this is a bit too ambitious of an interpretation, but the connection of baptism and rising is too obvious to be ignored. Baptism represents our death to sin and resurrection to eternal life. One sets aside the old man and becomes a new creature in Christ.The believer puts away the past failings and is directed to the heavenly city. Baptism is  typically associated with the Holy Spirit. He is the “seal” of our inheritance in that eternal kingdom. (Eph 1:11-14)

God provides the daily bread, the strength required for ministry. We have human bodies and reside in a material world. The creator knows the strain of living in the real world. In order to be “strengthened,” it is important to deal with the spiritual and material requirements. Readers of the Acts text are told that Paul spends time being instructed by the disciples in Damascus, and readers of 2 Cor 12 understand that, at some point, Paul receives a vision of heaven. We do not know if these events happened in the same time frame. Afterwards, Paul begins preaching to the local congregation. Yes, it would be unusual for such a new believer to take on such a big responsibility, but the special circumstances speak for themselves.

Paul’s conversion is dramatic and very much different from our experiences. It is, however, similar in the elements. We are called, believe, are justified, receive baptism and the Holy Spirit, and are equipped for the ministry of Christian living. For those who personally witnessed Christ’s earthly workings, conversion was surely a process. One of the apostles demands to see the risen Lord’s crucifixion marks up close. Peter and Paul are still squabbling after Pentecost. (Gal 2:11-14). Struggle is part of being human.

For Paul, the experience of being slammed against the roadway worked well. He has the correct background and education (Phil 3:4-8) to recognize his own misunderstanding of the scriptures. Despite his own bloodthirsty rage against followers of The Way, this man turns out to be the perfect candidate for an important mission.

The rest of us have questions. We suffer from a lack of knowledge, which leads to a faltering faith. Which one of us has not already sold out to modern life and the presumptions of material “success?” Does the American Christian really desire commitment to a “turn the other cheek,” and “give all you have to the poor” kind of religion? Remember that Paul, having been knocked to his knees, took the whole deal, including the suffering.  For the rest of us, this will require a little working through.

O GOD, who, through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world; Grant, we beseech thee, that we, haying his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same, by following the holy doctrine which he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

An assault on human dignity; the anger problem

January 13, 2014

In a few days, I will be speaking to a recovery group on the topic of anger. Just for the record, I am generally against it. This is a tricky discussion because sometimes Jesus became angry, and there was the unfortunate incident with the bankers in the temple. That’s not the only time Jesus got angry either, and the Father has a serious heavyweight reputation from the Old Testament. To cut this all down to the right size, and leave a little bit for my Wednesday night talk, there is a right kind of anger and there is also another kind, which is a sin and can lead to some serious undesirable outcomes.

The wrong kind of anger is uncontrolled negative responses to real and perceived slights. It is grudge-holding, simmering resentment. You might see it displayed in backstabbing and resentment. This kind of behavior is wrong even when the other guy has got it coming. It is found in vengeance. All of these are sinful and separate us from God.

A thoughtful Christian might wonder why anger is such a big deal, and getting to the bottom of it requires several steps. This little essay does not pretend to get us through all the steps, but let’s start with the most important thing. This is also one of the most neglected aspects of Christian teaching. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. The likeness exists in our ability to communicate with each other, and with the Supreme Being. We are creative and strive for beauty and ideals. Humans are, therefore, different. If one damages a special and important part of the creation, it is a great wrong and there is a consequence.

Anger defaces, defiles, desecrates the image of our Creator. Most people would not go along with this and probably label such thinking as hopelessly outdated. There is a tremendous irony here. Those who claim no special importance for the human species often say that those of us who do are being arrogant and that we ignore this entire rest of the universe. There is a serious disconnect for those who, on one hand, deny specific creation and the supremacy of humanity in the material order, but also claim themselves as sovereign individuals to be competent judges of all moral and ethical matters, without need to consult the outdated religious systems. Modern people just do not do such things.

In other words, human beings are ordinary pieces in a mechanistic process that have no special value of themselves. Now, here is where it starts to get dicey. Modern thinking people do seem to recognize the supremacy of certain humans who are exceptionally productive or unusually reliable consumers of all manner of non-essential stuff. There are particular standards for beauty, and those at the supposed top get extra goodies. The most physically strong and socially ambitious get ahead. As it turns out, modern man does create his own superior order of creation based on temporary and arbitrary standards.

The “standard” is really no standard at all. The society possesses a powerful religious presence. It is the worship of goods and the earthly salvation for those who are especially good at making goods and earning income to buy the goods. Sometimes this state religion steals the good name of Jesus Christ in order to keep things quiet down on the lower end of the productivity ladder. The real Jesus, the one who calls us to pray for enemies, help all our neighbors, and wash one another’s feet is nowhere to be found.

Does this sound like the blueprint for a living hell? It looks a bit like a biology experiment in which one grows anger like some sort of virus. The message of scripture, on the other hand, is to be reconciled and live in harmony. We are made in God’s image and are seeking union with Christ, who is the exact image of God. This means not being jealous of those who have a lot or contemptuous of those who have only a little. The holy writings tell those with the patience to listen, that God is bringing a people to himself and he is ultimately in charge of justice and restoration. It is a message of peace.

Epiphany 2014: Where will wise men find Christ today? #Epiphany #evangelical

January 7, 2014

We call them Magi, a term strongly suggestive of Magic. These were intellectuals and are presumed to have been interested in philosophy, astrology, astronomy, science and all the other things that occupied smart people of that era. They were from Persia (modern Iran) and that would make them pagans. The Magi of Matthew 2 are not holy men waiting for the Savior of Israel, but commonplace stargazers and secular experts. They did not chose God’s way, but the Eternal selected these individuals to make a long journey in search of the new King.

Commentators speculate that the trip from Iran took about six weeks and was made with a substantial number of servants and attendants. It was a big deal when these well-set foreigners showed up at Herod’s front door in Jerusalem looking for a King. The Romans appointed Herod to rule over Palestine, and this business about some newly arrived monarch was profoundly upsetting. This development had the potential to cause all sorts of unrest and was not the kind of information an ambitious and blood-thirsty tyrant would want to get back to the real bosses in Rome. That bunch does not play around with trouble-makers. Herod had good reason to take the arrival of Magi from the east with the greatest apprehension.

The wise men are said to have observed a star and connected that to the rise of a King. There are plenty of modern theories suggesting that the star of Bethlehem was some sort of natural occurrence, but that does not exactly seem to fit the New Testament account. The light described by biblical writers is said to have moved. Could it be that the star was a divine vision intended only for the Persian visitors? Either way, they came by faith in accordance with God’s leading.

The right thinking people did not have a clue. Angels did not appear and there were no heavenly vision for the religious leaders that counted out how many steps were permissible on the Sabbath, got everybody to tithe, and cleansed the land from idolatry. The religious authorities were probably good enough people who cared a little too much about the little details. Today, we might call them ritualists. They had a certain way of looking down the nose at certain classes of people. They hated the Romans, forgetting the need to love these obnoxious Gentiles so much and live out such grace in the worship of the true living God, that the occupying army would have been stricken in conscience and left the worship of useless idols.

The Magi came by faith. They came to see the rising King. Today, when the stranger from far away, the enemy, the atheist, the seeker, or the downtrodden social outsider comes looking for Jesus, what will they think of the church that claims to follow in his way? The church is the body of Christ. It is his physical presence among the people of all races and the critical observer of all social and political trends.

This raises a critical Epiphany season question. When the intellectuals and spiritual seekers of the world come looking for Jesus in his church, will they be guided by a bright shining light, or smoke.Will the church be healing the sick, reaching the poor, and declaring the good news? The good news of Jesus is the forgiveness of sins. That makes it possible for man to enter into a right relationship with the Triune God. When Christians present themselves to God as dead to sin and alive as instruments of righteousness (Rm 6:13), things begin to change.

The Old Testament foreshadows a time when the world will seek out the Divine. The visit of the Persian wise men marks the first stumbling step toward altering the rebellious course of humanity. In the church, we continue to invite lost humanity to the community of shared love, cross carrying and burden sharing. The lost are drawn to the church in the same way the Magi were summoned to Bethlehem. They followed the mysterious heavenly light. Modern people are equally led by a mystic star.

Jesus reminds Christians that, ““You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, ESV).

Epiphany, in the tradition of the ancient church

January 6, 2014

Back in the day, it was one of the primary jobs of the Patriarch of Alexandria to announce the date of Easter. The entire liturgical year hangs on knowing the date of Easter and it was announced to the world from Alexandria, along with other important dates.

You may think the Mayan calendar was scary, but the 1928 Book of Common Prayer listing of dates for Easter ended in 2013. Those of us who follow the old Daily Office lectionary are often perplexed, so here is the straight dope for 2014.

There are five Sundays after Epiphany.

Septuagesima Sunday is February 23, 2014.

Ash Wednesday is March 5.

Easter is April 20.

There are 23 Sundays after Trinity.

The First Sunday of Advent is November 30, 2014.

I hope I don’t end up being arrested for impersonating the Patriarch of Alexandria.

Collect for the Epiphany

January 6, 2014

O GOD, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant that we, who know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through* Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (1928 BCP, 107)

A few random thoughts on New Year resolutions #evangelical

January 2, 2014

If, perhaps, you have already fallen victim to peer pressure and made a New Year’s resolution, you have fallen into the clutches of Satan and are headed straight for the eternal torments of hell. Sorry for the bad news, but everlasting incineration is the fate of all those who make such commitments.

Now that I have your attention, please disregard all of the above. Fire and brimstone does have a certain kind of commercial appeal, but it is usually not necessary or appropriate to pull out the big guns. Let’s talk about this practice without the threat of retribution.

A good many of the New Year promises have to do with losing weight. That’s just how things are and one must admit that most of could stand to drop a few pounds. I am most guilty of this failing and have no intention of making any statements for which I might be held accountable. If one is more respectful of the body with which we will be resurrected, no harm done.

In the twilight of the Christmas season and saturated with sentimentality, many folks decide to take on their relationships, finances, jobs, housing, education, and lots of other things. Sometimes people decide to read the Bible every day, attend church every week, improve their attitude toward some distasteful person, or any number of laudable moral improvements. How can I possibly come out against that?

Our annual resolutions, even the ones made with the finest intentions, point to a fundamental weakness of human nature that could make any of them useless. The problem with us is that we think we are in charge. It is a part of our character to think of ourselves as self-sufficient. This is especially true of Americans, who tend to live in a fairy land of individualism. There is also the problem of being very short-sighted. God is not thinking in terms of year-to-year self-improvement. The Almighty has an eternal purpose in which you are a part. Think about the kind of person you want to be in eternity.

The first humans got in really big trouble when they made the same mistake. Until that little problem with the apple, God had been entirely in charge of moral judgment. He was intimately involved in the daily loves of our first parents and understood that humans tended toward the naive and foolish. God was right at man’s side, helping him along, until the fateful decision was made for human moral independence. The consequence is every kind of outrage that plagues the human journey.

It is the intention of the powerful materialistic forces that rule society to make you believe that you can best chose the love of your life, the education that will guarantee the best job, the automobile that will define your importance, the washer-dryer combination that will always deliver colorful and perfectly cleaned clothes. All of this is yours to decide as a matter of birthright. You are the consummate consumer and producer. Welcome to the real hell!

This is a system in which there is no God, except the omniscient self. Since there is no God, there is no divine image of which man is created. Man exists as the image of his own desires, which is a terrifying prospect. The wishes of the human heart are one thing on Monday and a whole set of different things by the weekend.

The worst part of residing in the modern hell is that the rent is too darned high. It is an endless cycle of producing and consuming. In this world society, we are judged based on how well we produce, and the amount and quality of our production. When the modern American is not worshiping himself, he is bowed low before his stuff.

Evangelicals have bought into this by way of a blind acceptance of the hyper-competative economic system. There seems to be a widely held belief that, if one says a certain kind and variety of prayers and stops by church once or twice a month, the work of spiritual formation is complete. What more could God possibly expect?

Here’s the deal, and you can take it from a fallen human being. God owns everything and he expects us acknowledge his role and connection to everything we possess. I have so much trouble with this, but God expects to be right at the side of every believer and to direct every step we take. He expects to be consulted prayerfully about everything. Mistakes are made, but God allows for “do-overs.” It is called repentance.

The fact of failure is actually a good thing because it keeps the faithful Christian always seeking God’s assistance. This is why we come to the throne of grace boldly talking about our needs and the areas where there is a need for improvement. The Kingdom of God has begun and part of that new thing is the restoration of good relations between the Most High being and humanity who cares about our lives and concerns. There is a divine being, a great High Priest named Jesus, who demands your attention.

Commemorating the Circumcision of Christ

January 1, 2014

Ouch! It is such an unpopular topic that the Circumcision has just about disappeared from the various liturgical calendars. Roman Catholics started getting nervous about it back in the 60s. Until 1960, the General Roman calendar gave 1 January as the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord and the Octave of the Nativity. Since 1969, the General Roman Calendar marks January 1 as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, referring to it also as the Octave of the Nativity. Pope Paul VI designated the day as a World Day of Peace in 1974.

Nobody wants to think about pain and shedding blood, but that is the purpose for which our Savior became fully human. Another equally unpopular idea is that of law, under which Jesus was placed by the cutting of his flesh. This important date, properly recalled, reminds us that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. In other words, we have a Savior who can save. He can enter the Holiest place with his own innocent blood.

But that is a fairly gruesome thought and hardly in keeping with all of this peace on earth stuff. The traditional church calendar observed by Anglicans for centuries gives one a number of hard knocks. We remember Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, on December 26. Now, that is a pretty hard kick in the teeth. Two days later, the genocidal ravings of Herod the Great are brought to mind in the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Top it all off with the pain and bloodshed of circumcision, and this is not exactly the most perfect holiday season ever!

The reality into which the church seeks to lead Christian believers is that God has come to a fallen world. This is a place of rejection, wrongful death, abuse of authority, death to those least deserving, and the ceremonial pain associated with inclusion into the covenant of God’s law. This is the world of Jesus’ birth. Into such a flawed land of inequity, a loving God took upon himself the work of restoring mankind to a previous harmonious relationship with Himself.

The sign of circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of the covenant relationship established through Abraham’s faith. That is how we approach Jesus. There is the matter of belief and that is backed up with the change of our hearts and behavior.

When Jesus arrived, things begin to change. Pagan star gazers are moved by who-knows-what (might it be the Holy Spirit?) to leave home (Persia?) and look for a newly born monarch – a game changer. To all the right thinking religious people, that bunch of superstitious astrologers and intellectual star gazers would have been the absolute last people God would have chosen to inform of his pending miraculous arrival, but there we have it. Christ is not only king to the supposed right kind of people, but to all people who will follow his way.

Shepherds would not have made it into the temple, because their profession made them ritually impure.This class of ne’re-do-wells is not permitted to testify in court and the gook folks, for the most part, keep shepherds at arm’s length. God on High, however, has different plans and sends angels to tell the news of a Savior to such men and women out in the fields of Bethlehem. No angel stopped off at Herod’s opulent palace, or even to the homes of religious leaders. The Lord Almighty specializes in making the weak strong.

Jesus overcame a world where Satan pushes back by killing a faithful servant such as Stephen. Jesus lived among real grief and the humiliation of an occupying army. He joined the real world of weeping parents and placed himself under the law which he had inspired. Our salvation was not achieved by a magic act or somebody who excluded himself from suffering.

Now that Jesus has come, pagans are invited to meet the King, no-counts  are no longer automatically rejected, and God’s people are beginning to occupy the earth. This does not mean that believers run the show, or that they are intended to be in charge just now. We trust in God’s faithfulness and look for a better world where Jesus will rule with just the right measure of justice and mercy. He is truly worthy.

Collect for the Circumcision of Christ

January 1, 2014

ALMIGHTY God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 1928, 105)