Thursday, May 31, 2012

Feast of the Visitation

Crafting the lectionary requires highly refined skill. We need balance in the readings to cover most of the bible but still focus on well-known texts. Subtle links should be made between the OT, NT, and Gospel readings that highlight one another but that don’t repeat the exact same theme. The readings need to be of reasonable length so that we can make it all the way through them in worship. Usually, I’m more likely to complain about how the lectionary has been put together, but today I am impressed.

It’s the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin. This is the day when Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. The Gospel text is set. We must, of course, read the story of the visit itself. The NT reading is a wonderful little blurb from Romans, in which Paul exhorts the community to which he writes to “rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep,” which seems fitting for the meeting of two women who are sharing holy pregnancies. And then we get to the OT lesson, which surprises me.

Hannah’s song at first seems repetitive. It is the textual basis for Luke’s Magnificat, which becomes the song of Mary. Hannah also had conceived a child as a gift from God, and the reading from 1 Samuel is her celebratory poem. Like Mary’s song, it is a wonderful text about God’s triumph, and it shows how the birth of Samuel reminds her that God will always take care of his people: “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.”

When I read the lessons today, I was at first unimpressed. Why would they give us two lessons so very close together? We don’t need to read the same thing twice. But then, as I was reading Mary’s song, I noticed a change in tense. I’m not a student of Hebrew, and I’m told there aren’t as many verb tenses in that language as there are in Greek or English, so this may be an unfair comparison, but notice how the expectant language of Hannah’s song becomes fulfilled in Mary’s: “The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap” becomes “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That same pattern continues through both texts. Hannah’s general statements about God are answered in the particular in Mary’s conception. I think the lectionary shows us that all of the hopes and dreams of God’s people, which were expressed so beautifully in Hannah’s poem, are finally brought to reality in the gift of God’s son, which is the subject of Mary’s song.

How is it, then, that all of our hope and dreams become reality in the gift of Jesus Christ to the world?  In him, the lowly have indeed been exalted. In him, the rich have been brought down, and the poor have been raised up. In him, God has shown his remembrance of his servant Israel. In him, God has fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham and his offspring. Jesus is the answer—not just for Mary but for the whole world. Her song would be ridiculous in any other circumstance. Who could ever be bold enough to say, “from now on all generations shall call me blessed,” unless it was God who was blessing the whole world through her?

Mary’s visit with Elizabeth is a reminder of what the world receives when God visits it through the gift of his son Jesus Christ. It’s more than two women celebrating pregnancies. It’s a celebration of what God is doing and now has done for the world. God’s promise of salvation is no longer a “some-day” promise. It’s reality now. We no longer wait to see how God will answer the promises made to his people. They have been fulfilled. The world doesn’t need to look for reminders that God will take care of his people. He has declared that once and for all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Trinity Sunday, Year B

Although I am not a teacher of Israel, as Nicodemus was, I also don’t “understand these things,” which makes me nervous. This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and the gospel lesson (John 3:1-17) confuses me.

Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews, which might explain why he came to Jesus at night. He was curious but wanted to keep a low profile. His opening statement upon seeing Jesus tells us that he had been impressed by Jesus’ miracles: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” But Jesus takes his curiosity and takes it a dramatic step further: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” And that’s where I start to lose what’s going on.

There’s a back and forth about being born again. Nicodemus thinks Jesus means to climb back into one’s mother’s womb and start over, but Jesus tells him that it is a spiritual water-birth that he has in mind. (I’m thinking baptism, right?) But then Jesus gives a “flute-without-holes-is-not-a-flute” saying by telling Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” To that, Nicodemus rightly says, “What in the world are you talking about?” And then Jesus lays it all out there and says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

No, ok. I don’t. I thought I had it, but then you got all eastern-philosophy wind-blowing on me, and I got confused. What is he talking about?

The funny thing is that I think Jesus is trying to show Nicodemus that a strictly physical, earthly mindset won’t work. God is Spirit, and it takes being born of the Spirit to figure that out. So, in a sense, this isn’t supposed to be clear. It’s supposed to be confusing—just like God, I guess.

As many commentators have written, John’s gospel account focuses on signs. Jesus’ feats of wonder are all pointing to a bigger, deeper, more important truth—that Jesus is the Son of God. Those in John’s gospel account who see the miracle and make the connection are led to faith. Others are simply amazed by the miracles and fail to see to what they are pointing. And others are simply threatened by them and also walk away without faith. Nicodemus, it seems, is in that transitional place. He’s been amazed, and he’s beginning to make the connection, but he hasn’t allowed the signs to take him all the way home.

I think Nicodemus becomes the archetype of faith for John’s account. He’s one of the few non-disciples whom we get to see wrestling with the truth. He’s amazed. He becomes interested. He makes the connection. He becomes an advocate for Jesus. And, in the end, he becomes an open follower. And he shows us that one doesn’t get there all at once. Coming to faith takes time. Internalizing in mind and body and spirit the good news is a process. This lesson is an invitation into discipleship by degrees. Maybe there’s a message here for the church to embrace. Jesus invited Nicodemus into a deeper relationship by startling him with a hard-to-grasp message. Maybe we’ve lost the power of an invitation to that which is mystical and counterintuitive. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Go Away Jesus

In this morning’s gospel lesson (Mt. 8:24-34), Matthew abbreviates a story that Mark tells at length, and I like the way Matthew shortens it. It makes it tougher. And I like tough passages.

Jesus’ boat lands in the country of the Gadarenes, where he is immediately met by two demoniacs. With very little exchange, Jesus sends the demons into a herd of swine, as they requested, and the herd rushes down a steep bank and into the sea. End of demons, end of pigs.

We all know how a faithful Jew would have felt about pigs: they were unclean. And I also read that the sea—with all its unpredictable tempests and unavoidable dangers—represents the home for demons, which means Jesus is sending these two back where they belong. In some ways, that makes this a tidy sort of miracle, and all of that is also contained in Mark’s account. But Matthew omits much of the back and forth between Jesus and the possessed man (men in Matthew), and so my eyes fall to the last sentence even more strongly than they do when I read Mark’s version.

The whole town came out to meet Jesus, and, when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood. Thanks but no thanks. Keep on moving. You don’t have a place here. You’re not welcome. Hit the road, Jack. Given that this exorcism comes at the end of a string of short miracles, I think their rejection of Jesus isn’t rooted in their sadness over the loss of the herd, which is reasonable but misplaced. I think they reject the power that he represents—his unique, divine authority over the physical and spiritual realms. He was too much for them to handle.

Have you ever met someone who needed help but seemed to prefer staying right in that place of need? It is frustrating to try to help someone get his life back on track only to have that person reject your attempts. I have found that to be particularly true for addicts. Even though they might be willing to acknowledge to you that they need your help, they seem to enjoy making it impossible for you to help them, sabotaging your every effort. Sometimes we come up against a power that is so much greater than ourselves that we reject it even though it is there to help us.

The hard part is realizing when we’re the ones asking Jesus to keep moving. It’s us, too. Like the crowds who followed Jesus, we are attracted to a miracle-working Jesus as long as he’s doing feats of wonder over there—in the meadow down the street far enough away from my house. But, when he comes into my neighborhood and starts to address the pattern of life of that has everything around me stabilized, I feel threatened. What are you going to ask me to give up? It’s the implicit question in my heart when I encounter Jesus. I kind of know that being a part of something this powerful, this good, is going to cost me something. It will cost me familiarity. It will cost me the delusion that I’m in control. It will cost me the pain of admitting that I need help, that I can’t do it on my own.

Accepting Jesus is always easier when he stays at church. When he knocks on my door and all that stuff the preacher has been talking about escapes the tidy little box I’ve put it in, faith in Jesus isn’t so easy. That’s when it requires something personal.

UPDATE: I was preaching on this text at the 12:10 service today, and I got about half-way through the sermon when I realized that I didn't have an answer. In order for this to be an edifying sermon, there needs to be a "so what" angle. As my mouth kept going, my mind started if we're all naturally unwilling to accept a relationship with God, what are we supposed to do about it? Pray.

I think praying--even for something we don't really want--softens our hearts and makes us susceptible to the Spirit, which we might otherwise reject. So pray--even if you don't want to. Ask for things you're not sure about and see whether God works in you to make them happen anyway.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, Year B

I haven’t been a rector for very long, but one of my favorite things that a rector gets to do is choose which of the optional readings will be read on a Sunday. Since we like to give our readers, musicians, and bulletin-creators enough time to get ready for those things, I made all those decisions for the whole liturgical year a few months ago. Now, I get to enjoy the fun of coming to a Sunday and inhabiting the consequences of my own choices, which were made long before I had to think about writing a sermon on these lessons.

This week, we’re reading the lesson from Ezekiel, which means our readings will be Ezekiel + Acts + John. I think the other option (Acts + Romans + John) is more traditional, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to read the story of bone being reunited with bone and flesh and sinews wrapping around them. We read that same lesson during the Easter Vigil, and I think it’s interesting to read it on Pentecost in a very different context.

This Ezekiel reading relates to Pentecost primarily in its last verse: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.” That Spirit—that breath—is the animating force for the nation of Israel, and it reminds God’s people that he will indeed redeem them. The gift of the Spirit is a sign for them that salvation has come. In one way, that fits in beautifully with the rest of the Pentecost readings. Peter’s speech in Acts points us to the last days when the promised redemption will come, and John’s gospel text gives us Jesus’ description of the Spirit’s work as that which will usher in a new age.

But in another, even startlingly different way, the Ezekiel reading is radically disconnected from Acts. The prophet’s message in Ezekiel is directed to the nation of Israel. God’s chosen people are to be saved, and evidence of the fulfillment of that promise will come through the gift of the Spirit. That same Spirit, it seems, is coming down at Pentecost to encourage the disciples to “shed abroad” the good news of salvation beyond the borders of Israel. The “I will bring you back to the land of Israel” of Ezekiel seems almost directly opposed to the “each of us in our own native language of Acts.”

As Steve Pankey posted this morning, the Pentecost moment in Acts is a surprising moment of exclusion rather than inclusion. Those people from all over the world were all identified as Jews or proselytes, so the far-reaches of the gospel at this point is still restricted to the house of Israel and its few invited guests. Maybe there’s a tension between the two. Maybe that’s another example of how the Spirit is working to spread the message of salvation across the globe but only in baby steps—first to the disciples, then to the Jews in dispersion, and then to the Gentiles.

So whom is the gift of the Spirit for? Is it for the disciples as John seems to suggest? Is it for the whole nation of Israel as Ezekiel claims? Is it for the faithful Jews and proselytes from across the globe as Acts 2 has in mind? Or is it really for everyone everywhere as the rest of Acts demonstrates? We know the end of the story—it is for all of us. But maybe we need to remember the beginning of the story—how that same good news was translated from particular to universal through the passage of many, many years.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Don't Ever Change

The other day, as I was walking from one part of the church office to another, I called out a series of mock-farewells to a member of staff I knew I’d be seeing again in two minutes: “Take care! See you later! See you next year! Have a great summer!” Since the school year is coming to a close and since we’ve already begun saying goodbye to our graduating seniors, my silly display took on the feeling of a year-book autograph session. My last call as I disappeared down the hallway was “Don’t ever change!”

That’s always been my favorite (and least favorite) signatory statement for year books. Don’t ever change. Stay true to who you are—right now—and don’t ever change. As a sixth-grader, that message was both encouraging (“you’re great just the way you are”) and devastating (“I hope you’ll always be a sweet, cute twelve-year-old”). Now, as a thirty-something-year-old with the appropriate advance of middle-agedness, that sounds more appealing.

In some ways, that’s precisely what God told Joshua to do in today’s reading from the OT (Joshua 1:1-9). Joshua was taking over for Moses, who had died, and God was promising to carry out the same plan under new leadership. For God, the change in administration didn’t make a difference in his ability to keep his promises to Israel and lead them into a new land. What caught my eye in today’s reading, however, is how God repeatedly encouraged Joshua to carry out that plan: “Be strong and courageous.”

God repeats that exact phrase three times in this short span of verses. Be strong and courageous. At first, it seemed like God was encouraging the new leader not to lose heart as he takes over the enormous task of guiding the nation of Israel into the Promised Land. Then I read it again: “Be strong and courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.” Be strong. Do not turn to the right or the left. Don’t ever change.

As Joshua led God’s people into a new territory with new residents and neighbors to contend with, he and his people faced new challenges. How would they stay true to their roots? How could they inhabit a new land impregnated with new cultures and religious practices without swerving even slightly? Don’t we learn to like new foods when we move to a new part of the world? Wouldn’t we expect to pick up a few new prayers or cultic practices along the way? But God says, “No!” Be strong and courageous.

Sometimes it’s hard to “stay true to who you are.” When someone tells us “don’t ever change,” they usually mean it without ever acknowledging how hard it is to “remember who you are and where you come from.” It’s hard to stay grounded in our relationship with God when the world around us changes. That’s not because the world is on a collision course with secularism. (I don’t buy that.) And it’s not because people will try their hardest to shake the foundations of our faith. (I think they don’t really care that much about what we believe.) But it is easy to get distracted. Like an energetic kitten, if you wave the equivalent of a shiny piece of foil in my field of vision, I’m likely to forget everything I was doing. It takes strength and courage to follow Jesus.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Second Chance for Chosen

When I work on a Sunday sermon, I spend the whole week reading the lessons. Usually, though, after one time through I pretty well know what I'm going to preach about that week. The rest of the time I find myself reading those lessons through with that one idea in mind. But then, a funny thing happens.

Not all of the time, but fairly often on Sunday morning, in the middle of the service, as I read the lesson, I read something that I missed all week. It's not that I didn't read that part of the lesson, of course. It's just that my initial idea so restricted my field of vision that I basically miss entire verses of the lessons. When I read them in church--seemingly for the first time--my mind wanders: "Where has that been all week? Why didn't I preach on that?"

This week was one of those weeks. Actually, it's kind of fun--to see if I can still say the words I'm supposed to be saying but also thinking my way through a hypothetical sermon in my head. Usually, though, the busyness of Sunday means I forget about that little kernel--maybe to pick it up three years later when the cycle comes back around or maybe to leave it behind forever. But then every so often...

I get another chance. Sometimes that same lesson shows up in the Daily Office for that week, and God gives me another chance to preach on it. Or, in cases like this one, one of the lessons I read during the week is close enough to the nugget I left behind that it brings me right back to that moment of wondering "what if" I had preached on it instead.

In the middle of Sunday's gospel lesson (John 15:9-17), Jesus said, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." Chosenness. What does it mean to be chosen by God? And then I read today's lesson from the NT (Ephesians  1:1-10) and I get the chance to revisit that whole concept.

Usually, I think of faith as choices I make. Will I believe in God? Will I accept his offer of salvation? Will I follow him as a disciple and serve him as my Lord? Will I answer his call? That's how the whole Baptismal Covenant is framed--around questions about choices. "Will you...respect the dignity of every human being?" Well, with God's help I will. Youbetcha.

But Paul and Jesus both give us an idea that is fundamentally different. We don't choose God. God chooses us. How totally and completely different is a faith that is built not on the choices of its adherents but on the choice of the supreme being? God chooses us. That's where it starts--not with our decision to follow him, but with his decision to choose us as his beloved.

Stop worrying about whether you make the right choices. Start believing that no matter what you decide, God has already decided to love you. Begin with your chosenness, and let your discipleship grow from that.

(It would have been a much better sermon, anyway.)

Monday, May 14, 2012

What's a Rogation Day?

I've been working on a Google calendar for the Episcopal Church lectionary lately. Funny enough, there wasn't one that went past 2013. And some of us like to plan at least that far in advance, so I decided to make one and share it with anyone who wants it: Yesterday morning, I was looking at the calendar and realized that I had forgotten to add something: Rogation Days. [Also, Ember Days, but that's another issue.]

Honestly, I never think about Rogation Days. I don't really even know what they are. I looked them up on Wikipedia (, but I still don't really know what they are. They appear to be related to crops. They appear to be a time for fasting and preparation. For some reason, Anglican clergy once refused to solemnize marriages during the rogation period. The Catholic encyclopedia New Advent says that they are to "appease God's anger at man's transgressions" ( Nowadays, in some places, churches still observe Rogation Days with a procession around the parish that involves praying for all who live in the geographic region around the church. But I still don't know why we observe them.

I'm not opposed to another reason for prayer, fasting, or preparation. I agree that Ascension is one of those feasts that, because it falls on a Thursday, gets overlooked. Maybe three days of preparation would help draw our attention to one of our church's major feasts. But I still don't know why we have these three days--the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day--set aside on our calendar.

I like a good procession. I enjoy an excuse to frown and kneel and bemoan my transgressions. I think it would be fun to prance about the City of Decatur in a cassock and pray for the people here. Maybe Rogation Days are more fun than we give them credit for. Maybe the bother became so great that the days lost their meaning simply because people stopped showing up. Maybe this is one of those religious observances that we should dispense now that we've forgotten what it Sunday, or Easter, or Lent.

Now that that's decided, what should we get rid of next?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why? Because God is God. Period.

Why? Because I am the Lord. And by “the Lord,” God means Yahweh. (That’s usually indicated in the “small caps” typeface. It’s a shorthand way of indicating that the biblical manuscripts are referring to the divine name without actually writing the unwritable name of the creator. Anyway, in today’s reading from Leviticus (19:26-37), we get a host of seemingly unconnected commandments, but they are all strung together with the refrain, “I am the Lord.” That tells me a lot about God and his law.

Why shouldn’t we eat meat with blood in it? Why shouldn’t we round off the hair on our temples or trim the edges of our beards? Why should we respect our elders and shelter the foreigner within our towns? Why should we be honest in our trade? Why should we bother keeping all of these commandments? Because God is God and that’s all you need to know. There’s a danger in reading this in the voice of a parent speaking to an obstinate child: “Why? Because I said so and because I am your mother/father!” That’s not what I hear in this. Instead, I hear a call to faith.

Keeping all these statutes isn’t about making God happy. It’s about making sure we remember that God is God and that he’s our God. In particular, I think the repeated use of God’s proper name emphasizes that point. In a time when lots of gods were thought to dwell in different parts of the world, Israel is taking steps to remember that they have one God. When they wear their hair in funny ways, they are proclaiming to themselves that they belong to Yahweh—their God. Each of these acts is an act of possession—a declaration that the adherents belong to God as his own possession, giving them the right to name him as their own.

But what does that mean for us? I got a haircut yesterday. I trimmed my beard on Monday. I might treat my parents with respect, and I might use fair practices in trade, but I don’t do those things because Leviticus 19 tells me to. I think we have to start with the core purpose of these commandments—to remind God’s people to whom they belong. When we evaluate what biblical laws we are supposed to keep (and which ones we are allowed to dismiss), that should be our starting point. Does ignoring what the bible tells us to do undermine our ability to have a right relationship with God?

If it helps me to remember that I belong to God, then I should eat kosher. And if I need to grow out a bushy beard to declare to the world that I am a child of God, then I should let it grow. But I suspect that for most of us (and this is a collective thing, not just a personal decision) we can figure out what is helpful and what is not. The scary thing, of course, is when those societal norms change. Patriarchal systems are declining, but we’ve learned for the most part that such changes don’t signify that our relationship with God is diminished. But Sabbath rest has long gone away, and I might argue that has lessened our collective sense of our createdness. What about same-gender relationships? What about dietary laws? What about immigration issues? When is the bible applicable, and when do we leave it aside? Well, it depends on whether the practice reminds us that God is God and that we are his people or whether in fact the ancient commandments might actually undermine that truth.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Gregory of Nazianzus

A recent seminary graduate is the last person you should ask for doctrinal advice. At that point, the newly ordained is more like a college sophomore than a well-seasoned priest. He thinks he knows everything, but really he just remembers a lot of stuff from seminary that he hasn’t figured out how to apply yet. In time, he’ll realize the answers don’t come that easily.

It was at that point—right after I was ordained—that I received an e-mail from my best friend from childhood. We hadn’t communicated much in the past five years—only bumping into each other when both of us were home for the holidays—so I was glad to get his e-mail. But my joy turned to full-tilt rapture when I read what he was asking me. “Since you’ve been to seminary, I need to ask you something,” he wrote. “I’m in a Sunday school class, and the teacher said that Jesus is God, but that’s not right, is it? He’s God’s son, but he’s not God. There is only one God, right? Isn’t that what we learned in Sunday school?”

It was the perfect setup. I was being asked to defend orthodoxy against the perilous though well-intentioned inquiries of heresy. This was what I had been trained for. This was my chance to show off all that I knew and, more importantly, to save Christianity from the slow creep of heterodoxy that comes from a lack of substantial Christian formation at all levels. (Why aren’t we teaching our four-year-olds about the doctrine of the three hypostases?)

Since then, I’ve discovered that it isn’t easy being a Trinitarian. How do you explain to someone that God is one yet in three persons? How to you talk about the coeternal Son and Spirit even though they remain hidden in the Old Testament? If Jesus said that he was going to send the Spirit to earth to comfort his followers after he was gone, what can we say about the work of the Spirit before the Ascension? Where in the bible does it say that there is a Trinity?

Those questions are exactly the sort of issues that St. Gregoryof Nazianzus, whose feast day is today, dealt with in the fourth century. The premier Trinitarian theologian in the Church’s history, Nazianzen did as much to help us believe in God as three-in-one as anyone else. He has lots of ways of describing it, even inventing a whole new theological concept for the Spirit’s relationship with the Father—“spirated.” When it would have been easier to say that the three persons were of like substance, he insisted they were of same substance. When it would have been more popular to say that the Spirit came after the Father and Son, Gregory of Nazianzus insisted they were coeternal. When it would have been simpler to say that Christians are saved because their sins are paid for by the bloody cross, he claimed that we are saved because God assumed our nature and thus invites us into assimilation with the Holy Trinity.

The point of Nazianzen’s witness, though, isn’t simply the content of his teachings, which were remarkable. It was what he didn’t say about God that makes him a saint. He proclaimed that we cannot know God. There is no explanation or logic that can circumscribe the infinite God. In today’s post-Enlightenment world, in which we seek to explain and understand everything before we can believe in it, Nazianzen’s doctrine of the unknowable Trinity is refreshingly other. I find it odd to invite people to believe in something they cannot understand, but that’s the beauty of our faith.

The journey of faith starts at that place: we are not God. If God were something we could comprehend, then he would be something we could master. And that wouldn’t be God. As human beings, buffeted by hardship and disaster, we cling to a belief in something bigger and stronger than we are. Without that, God is nothing more than a pat on the back. In order for salvation to be real, we must have faith in that which we can never understand. And that’s hard for today’s Christian—to accept that we are giving our whole heart and soul over to something that we cannot explain. But isn’t that what faith is? If we understood it all, why would we call it faith?

Monday, May 7, 2012

6 Easter B - Internal Conversion

In his blog post last week, Steve Pankey pointed out that gospel lesson for 5 Easter and 6 Easter are two chances to preach on the same theme—abiding. Well, I picked last Sunday to talk about that, and now I’m fishing for something else. Before I even read this week’s lessons in depth, I was already leaning toward something other than the gospel, and I give thanks for thelesson from Acts.

It’s a short little story that gives remarkably understated insight into the growth and development of the early church. Do you remember that amazing story from the early part of Acts 10 when Peter falls into a trance and sees a sheet come down from heaven full of unclean animals, which he is directed three times to kill and eat? Well, that’s the bells-and-whistles part of Acts 10. What we have for this Sunday’s reading is the even more powerful conclusion: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Sometimes contemporary analogies for biblical illustrations are easily found. When Jesus touches the leper and makes him clean, we know that he’s not specifically reaching out to individuals with Hansen’s Disease. Instead, we can tell that same story as if Jesus were reaching out to people with HIV/AIDS or to pedophiles or to some other excluded members of society. But the church’s debate over whether to include gentiles into the faith is harder to translate into our modern experience. Who are the ones we couldn’t ever imagine showing forth the gifts of the Spirit? What sorts of people are the last ones we would welcome into our fellowship?

Honestly, I don’t know. The first issue that comes to mind is one of class. It’s true that we do have a hard time welcoming people who are poor or homeless or “unpresentable.” But I don’t know if that’s the right angle to take with this. At issue in the early church are religious divisions. Perhaps a better analogy is to talk about sharing worship with Muslims. But I don’t know many examples where that relationship is bearing fruit as it did in Acts. Is the Holy Spirit really leading us to unite our faith with Muslims? Probably not—at least not in the same way that the Jewish and Gentile Christians came together.

My favorite part about the reading from Acts is Peter’s question? “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing?” The Spirit has already done its work. These people are already showing forth evidence of conversion. All that’s needed is the formal adoption process by which the Church accepts them. In a real way, it’s the Church that undergoes conversion in this story. The work in the gentiles is already done. It’s Peter and his Jewish counterparts who need converting.

From whom is the church withholding its blessing of inclusion? Who would we say are Spirit-filled followers of Jesus whom the church won’t recognize? Where is the gospel’s work being carried out in places the Church so far refuses to go? What conversion do I need to undergo in order to recognize more fully the Spirit’s work?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

St. Athanasius - No Compromise

Sometimes compromise is best, but other times it simply won’t work. The story of Athanasius is one of a theologian’s refusal to give even an inch for the sake of collegiality, because of which Christianity survived as we know it today. I don’t have many theological heroes, but Athanasius is definitely among them.

He became the symbol of orthodoxy in the early fourth century, when Christianity was quickly spreading through the Roman Empire. The quibble was, on its surface, a disagreement about timing. The rival party (Arians) claimed that God the Father had begotten the Son at some point in time, but the orthodox party insisted that God the Son was eternal—just like the Father—and that his identity as begotten was an eternal aspect merely of the Father’s relationship to the Son and not some moment in time. But where does it say that in the bible?

It doesn’t. Apparently, the Arians were quite happy to use scripture as their basis for defining who God the Son really was. In fact, they quite openly asked the others to figure out which passages of scripture would be used to craft a statement of faith that all could sign. The Arians were excellent biblical theologians, and they had already figured out how each and every passage of scripture could be interpreted to suit their needs. (As the Daily Office website points out, the Watchtower Society—a.k.a. Jehovah’s Witnesses—as inheritors of the Arian heresy are very good at doing the same thing: But that wouldn’t do for Athanasius.

He wasn’t prepared to yield on these important points. He wasn’t willing to let scripture speak for itself. He needed a way to clarify the issue at hand, put a stop to the Arian heresy, and ensure that orthodox Christianity would triumph. So Athanasius led the way for the Church to develop a statement of faith that wasn’t purely scriptural. Instead, it was in many ways a new thing. And that’s the real leap that Athanasius deserves credit for.

From time to time, it’s easy to find a lowest common spiritual denominator and let that be the final word. It would be easy to say to someone, “As long as we’re reading the same bible, I’m sure we’ll find a way to agree.” But that isn’t how it works. Good faithful people are reading the bible in radically different ways. Some say one thing is God’s will, and others say the exact same thing is anathema. Real agreement and spiritual growth only comes when we’re willing to trust the Holy Spirit to lead us off the page.

As the gospel lesson for Athanasius’ day (Matt. 10:22-32) states, “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Actually, the Spirit does work if we let it. Conflict can lead to truth if we trust that God will guide our work. We might be wrong—Arius was well-intentioned. But eventually we will discover truth if we’ll stand for something. Athanasius didn’t want watered-down Christianity, and it’s a good thing he didn’t.