Friday, September 30, 2011

The Foundation Event for the Entire Christian Religion

With the crucifixion the life of the man known as Jesus of Nazareth comes to an end. But the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation event for the entire Christian religion.

If Jesus were not raised from the dead, then all we would have is the memory of a very delightful, lovable, courageous, but misguided man. It would mean that while many might be drawn to him because of his compassion and honesty, yet this earth was altogether too ugly a place to contain such a beautiful spirit. The evil in men could not stand to be near something so threatening, threatening precisely because his spirit is so enviable and yet so unobtainable. Better not to have him around. And so, earthman had to kill him.

If Jesus were not raised from the dead, it would also mean that though men scream, shout and shake their fists at the heavens, there is no answer, no response. Look to the heavens. Plead. All you get is silence. Whatever gods there by, they seemingly have no stake in or even interest in Jesus. We may be among those who would remember the man we loved with deep affection and passionate hope. But now, alas, the cup is empty, the dregs bitter.

But if the resurrection is true, then earth may still be an ugly, hostile place, but the entire purpose of the universe and the power behind it can be understood in terms of that single life. Jesus becomes the key to it all. ...

If you want to know the secret to your life, then look to Jesus and learn of the present Lord, the risen Christ, who awaits to enter your life and bring you the power and the spirit to make you a child of God, a brother or sister of Jesus, who is the first-born of the new creation.

~ John Stone Jenkins, What Think Ye of Jesus? (1979)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Elephant in the Episcopal Church's Living Room

Rod Webster is the Vice President and General Manager of the Church Insurance Companies (which are all wholly owned subsidiaries of the Episcopal Church's pension fund). In the following video, Mr. Webster names the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room with the backing of empirical data. It's not a pretty picture:

Several things Mr. Webster says stand out for me, including:

  • "Closing churches outnumber new churches by 2.5 to 1."
  • "Just over 40 churches each year are closing based on the data we collect and the data we manage very carefully over the last 39 months. And of course each year that suggests that the number of churches closing is about the size of very small, admittedly, Episcopal diocese each year, offset, in very small part, by new openings."
  • " ... we anticipate, of course, a larger number of closings in the near future."

The "Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey," which was delivered to the deputies and bishops at the 2009 General Convention, lays out similarly grim data. As I recall, however, virtually nothing was said about any of this at General Convention.

This should be a wake-up call. But aside from the occasional rhetoric about "moving from maintenance to mission," it appears that many of us are okay with the status quo of allowing the elephant to stay in the living room. I hope I'm wrong about that!

Is there, in fact, a sustained discussion at the highest levels of the Episcopal Church that seeks to proactively address the very serious issues raised by Mr. Webster and the "Episcopal Congregations Overview" report? Is there a plan for dealing with our decline?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The New Testament Knows Nothing of Solitary Religion

"No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as 'what a man does with his solitude.' It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion. We are forbidden to neglect the assembling of ourselves together. Christianity is already institutional in the earliest of its documents. The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another."

~ C. S. Lewis, "Membership" (1945)
in The Weight of Glory

Monday, September 26, 2011

Defending the Historic Creeds: 2

In light of various attacks on the historic or catholic creeds as theologically "defective," "exclusionary," and/or "irrelevant" to the needs of contemporary worshipers, and given the reality that there are now both authorized as well as unauthorized "creeds" used in place of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds in worship (some of which are deeply flawed), I think it's helpful to review why we need the historic or catholic creeds, what things are necessary for an affirmation of faith to be genuinely Christian, and how persons can recite the creeds with integrity.

Bishop Frank E. Wilson addresses these matters in a most helpful way. In Faith and Practice, he writes:

Obviously there must be a recognized framework of Christian teaching if Christianity is to possess any substantial character at all. To become a Christian, or to be a follower of Christ, or to believe in the Gospel means nothing until something explicit is offered to show what such an act of allegiance covers. If I say that I believe in Napolean Bonaparte, what do I mean? Do I mean that I am convinced he was truly an historical person, or that I approve of his military policy, or that I sanction his rather questionable personal life? Such a statement means nothing until something is specified about it. To say that you believe in Christianity but not in creeds is like saying you believe in education but not in schools, or that you believe in justice but not in laws, or that you believe in mathematics but not in the multiplication tables. Christianity is a way of life and it must have a road to travel with directions, landmarks, and recognized points of progress.

Drawing on the historic creeds, Bishop Wilson continues by noting the essential marks of a genuinely Christian affirmation of faith:

Creation Of All Thing by God.
The Incarnation.
The Crucifixion.
The Resurrection.
The Ascension.
The Final Judgment.
The Holy Ghost.
The Church.
Holy Baptism.
Eternal Life.

"Expunge any one of these from the Christian faith," Bishop Wilson writes, "and you have a mutilated Gospel which is not Christianity."

I note that the Apostles' Creed offers no explicit reference to Holy Baptism. However, I think one can argue that affirming belief in the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins presupposes Baptism. For it is through the waters of Baptism that we receive the forgiveness of sins, are set apart as holy, and thus enter the fellowship of the saints.

In response to the question, "Do we really need the historic creeds?," Wilson writes:

The historic Creeds are a protection to the integrity of the Gospel. They are a unifying bond extending throughout the Christian world. They preserve the continuity of the Christian religion. They maintain a standard by which all developments of Christian doctrine may be tested. They are a compass for Christian travelers and an anchor against spiritual drifting. They serve as a constitution for the Church and a check upon changing by-laws and disciplinary regulations. They make for stability of purpose in the Church as a whole, and the recitation of them is a powerful aid in fortifying the faith of every individual Christian.

But what if I'm not really sure I believe all of this stuff? How can I then recite the Nicene Creed with integrity? Wilson addresses those concerns as well:

How can one stand in a congregation and go on record as believing these articles of faith when some of them are beyond one's ability to understand and about which one's belief is certainly dubious? How can I say, 'I believe' when I am not sure whether I do or not? The difficulty here lies in a misconception of the purpose of the Creed. It is not a contract especially drawn up for each individual worshiper. It is a statement of the Church's faith in which the individual shares as a member of the Body of Christ. To hesitate over it is like a man questioning his family relationship because he cannot understand some of his father's peculiarities. No one can say he completely understands every item mentioned in the Creed, but that need not prevent him from reciting it in unison with his fellow-worshipers. There are plenty of things about the human body which the physician does not understand. Yet he does not wait until he is sure about everything before treating his patient. He must treat his patient as a whole person even though some parts of him he may not understand. Those unanswered questions he holds in suspension while he goes about his healing business. So the individual Christian may have questions in his mind which he cannot resolve, but he holds them in suspension while he says the Creed with the rest of the Church. He is not announcing to the wide world that he knows all about it. He is pledging his allegiance to Christ and stating his adherence to the Church which teaches that faith.

Reciting either the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed challenges the individualism that we in the West take for granted. Writing about a completely different topic, Lauren Winner makes an observation in this regard that is directly relevant to the importance of the historic creeds for the Christian faith:

... in the Christian universe, the individual is not the vital unit of ethical meaning. For Christians, the most basic images, metaphors, and signs are corporate, and the basic unit of ethical meaning is the Body, the community. Israel experiences covenantal fidelity as a people, and the People of God is a collective - not merely an aggregate of individual persons, each doing [or believing] his or her own thing, but a body. In the Bible, God elects the People of Israel as a body. He sustains them as a body. And, finally, he redeems them as a body.

And Bishop Wilson adds this clarification:

If we think of ourselves as isolated persons dealing with God separately, we shall always be in intellectual trouble. When we learn to consider ourselves as parts of a corporate society, we shall see how the Creed serves the Body of which we are members. The members come and go, but the Body lives on in order to produce and nourish new members.

Along with the corporate character of the Christian faith, Bishop Wilson reminds us that the faith of the Church is bigger than any one of us. And for that reason the Church's faith transcends our capacity to fully comprehend. So even as the creeds protect the orthodox faith of the Church, they also preserve the mystery of that faith. Jettisoning, revising, or replacing the historic, catholic creeds of the Church risks changing the Christian faith into some other faith, and reducing the mystery of the Christian faith to something more "manageable," politically correct, and sectarian.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Evangelism in an Age of Extreme Moral Individualism

In an op-ed piece entitled "If It Feels Right," David Brooks writes about interviews with young adults around the United States conducted by a team of sociologists under the direction of Christian Smith. The research team write about their work and its results in Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Here's part of what Brooks writes in response:

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

Add to the problem of "extreme moral individualism" the reality that more Americans are tailoring religion to fit their needs, and the Church faces daunting challenges when it comes to the work of evangelism. For even when done in ways that avoid fire-and-brimstone guilt trips, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ at least implicitly suggests that our moral individualism is not enough. We need authentic community. We need shared practices that move us beyond ourselves to serve a world in need. We need Someone beyond ourselves to whom we are called to be in accountable relationship. We need transformation.

I think many people sense how deeply they need this. How can the Church help them articulate that need? And how can we invite them into a place where God's grace can touch them in those places that need forgiveness, healing, direction, and purpose? Those aren't easy questions to answer when the culture makes it seem obvious that evading the call to embrace life-changing moral demands in favor of private judgment is the pathway to true fulfillment.

In his book In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in An Age of Diminished Christianity, R. R. Reno speaks to this problem by offering a descriptive and pejorative critique of the cultural landscape dominated by moral individualism and the spiritual-but-not-religious mindset. He writes:

We live in an age in which the narrow way of discipleship is a scandal. We decry dogmatic conformity and claim to celebrate diversity. We covet novelty and make a cult of creativity. We have readily at hand any number of evasions of the narrow way. We imagine that we must distance ourselves from the apostolic tradition in order to be "open to the Holy Spirit." We beat away the claim of psalm and canticle by pretending that these inherited forms of prayer are not God's praise given to us but are expressions of the religious imaginations of pious ancients. We raise a smokescreen of ambiguity by claiming that a properly "incarnational theology" is open to God in all things and therefore we should not limit ourselves to things that are labeled "Christian." These slogans and many more are as easy as they are ubiquitous.

We articulate the same evasions in our moral lives. ... And in an age of "sensitive moral judgment" we mix and match Christian teachings with our moral intuitions. We want to pirouette across the stage of world history, retaining our worldly roles while genuflecting to the altar. We hide behind shibboleths about the "Anglican way" of Scripture, tradition, and reason as if those who preceded us in the faith were engaged in a great balancing act.

The challenge of moral individualism's evasion of shared practices, beliefs, and commitments is hardly found outside the Church alone. The flight from authority and truth that make claims on our lives and loyalties is very much inside the Church as well. To one degree or another, we all participate. And so we who are ecclesial insiders do well to resist temptations to look down our noses at the unchurched and the partly churched as though we are immune to making moral choices and taking theological positions largely on the basis of individual preference. Even when we rightly grasp the problems and challenges, we are not nearly as counter-cultural as we may like to believe. And so our efforts to faithfully proclaim the Gospel in word and example should be chastened by the humble awareness that we, too, need the forgiveness, grace, and guidance that only Jesus Christ can give.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bringing Each Day Captive to Christ Through the Daily Office

Open the Book of Common Prayer to its first rites. There you will find a demand and promise of remarkable ambition: the unending cycle of daily prayer. The features of this daily prayer epitomize the spiritual drama of the Christian life, both in goal and in focus, for the ambition to mark each day grows out of a faith in Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega. We are to dwell in him, and to do so each day must brought captive to Christ.

We should not imagine that this ambition is optional or peripheral to the Christian life. Daily communal prayer, or what the Anglican tradition (following the lead of the larger Western tradition) calls the Daily Office, serves as the engine of intimacy. ...

An opening sentence for Morning Prayer expresses the need for daily prayer: "Watch, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep" (Mark 13:35-36). We are warned, rightly, against our tendency to sleep-walk through the life of faith. Prayer morning and evening responds to the exhortations found in the book of Isaiah: "Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments" (52:1). The Daily Office stands as the primary means by which the church might make us wakeful and watchful. It is in this sense an order of vigilance. The demand of the Daily Office echoes the word of Jesus who is speaking not only to Peter but also directly to us when he asks, "Are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?" (Mark 14:37)

Yet this order is more than a spur or goad; it is also a consummating celebration, for the master of the house has come. "Who can fail to do you homage, Lord, and sing the praises of your name?" asks a canticle for Morning Prayer, itself drawn from the book of Revelation (15:4). ... The sweet honey of the Psalms nourishes, and the diadems of prayer, taken from Scripture and sanctified by centuries of use, glorify God. To awaken in prayer is to put on strength. For this reason the Daily Office is not only watchful and vigilant but receptive and doxological. The purposes of the Daily Office are pentecostal and adventine, as consummating as expectant. Awakened in prayer, we receive that which we hear. Eyes open, we do not just see; we get up and go with Jesus (cf. Mark 14:42). Our minds and hearts walk down pathways of ancient prayers, many of which defined the boundaries of Jesus' own religious practice in the first century. Thus do we live in Christ, and he in us.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Creeds Preserve Mystery

In a blog posting entitled "Creed and Mystery," Fr. Matt Gunter addresses the difficulty some people may have with the Creeds feeling "too definite" and thus dismissive of "a sense of mystery." Fr. Gunter rightly notes that "the Creeds actually 'preserve' the mystery from domestication while focusing our attention on the mystery within the context of revelation." He goes on to write:
The Creeds focus us on mystery within the context of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. There is plenty of mystery and much escapes our understanding. But, we are not left with nothing but guessing about God. The Creeds began as baptismal formulae and through baptism we are invited into the mystery of a God who is One, yet Threefold. We are invited into the mystery of a God who does not remain aloof, but became one with humanity and the dusty world through the Incarnation - for us and for our salvation. We are invited into the mystery of Jesus Christ who is, in a mystery beyond our comprehending, both human and divine. We are invited into the mystery of the forgiveness of sin. And so on.
Rather than constraining mystery, the Creeds, particularly the Nicene Creed, were conceived as means to preserve that mystery from the tendency to domesticate Christian faith in one way or another to make it less paradoxical or more intellectually comfortable. That is one way to understand the various heresies rejected by the Church. It was the heretics who in fact presumed to know more about the mystery of God than is prudent, not those who defended what came to be known as the “catholic” faith summarized in the Creeds. It was the heretics, not the orthodox, who insisted on resolving paradoxes like the Incarnation and the Triune character of the Godhead. The Creed is the Christian way into the the mystery of God.
Read it all.

I have increasingly come to understand the Nicene Creed less and less as a straight jacket that stifles critical thinking and kills the spirit and more and more as an opening into a whole world of meaning and purpose, and an invitation into the life of God. As coldly analytic and rational as it may sound, the Creed is actually a mystical opening into transforming relationship with the triune God.

The articles of the Creed touch on the mysteries at the heart of Christian faith. Putting mystery into words is, of course, awkward at best. The mysteries of God cannot be contained by rational explanations. But like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed points us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost as to what is truly essential for reaching the goal of the Christian journey without it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Perfect Freedom Through Serving God

Few things evoke more fear and trembling among Episcopal seminarians than the General Ordination Examination.  In seven three-hour essay questions administered over five days (shortly after the New Year of the seminarian's senior year), the GOEs cover the seven canonical areas of Holy Scripture, Church History, Christian Theology, Christian Ethics and Moral Theology, Studies in Contemporary Society, Liturgics and Church Music, and Theory and Practice Ministry.  It's an exhausting week of writing.

Even though I did not attend the three years of seminary at Sewanee because of my work at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University, I was still required during my year of Anglican Studies at Sewanee to take the GOEs.  Given the focus of my work in Vanderbilt's Graduate Department of Religion in the "Religions, Ethics, & Society" program, I recall some concern about how I would do in the canonical area of Holy Scripture.  I was pleased to see that one of my highest scores was in this canonical area.  I came across that GOE response while going through some old papers recently, and I thought I'd post it here for the heck of it.

Canonical area of Holy Scripture.

Limited Resources: Bible, Concordance, and Book of Common Prayer.

The Collect for Peace in the Prayer Book addresses God with the words "whose service is perfect freedom" (page 57) and "to serve you is prefect freedom" (page 99).  The Prayer Book's understanding of freedom is deeply rooted in Scripture.  This question asks you to analyze two biblical passages relating to these words of the Collect, and to reflect on their significance for Christian life today.

A. Address the following with reference to Exodus 19-20:
  1.  The context of these chapters within the book of Exodus.
  2. The significance of the context for understanding these two chapters.
  3. The themes of service and freedom as they are linked in these two chapters.

B. Address the following with reference to Matthew 5:17-48:
  1. The context of this passage within the Gospel according to Matthew.
  2. The significance of Exodus 19-20 for interpreting this passage.
  3. How does the distinctive character of discipleship in Matthew 5:17-48 reflect the themes of service and freedom?

C. Using your exegetical work, show how service to God is prefect freedom for the contemporary Christian.

Part A
1.  Chapters 19-20 of the book of Exodus narrate the Sinai theophany, the giving of the Decalogue to Moses on Mount Sinai, and Moses' giving of the law to the people of Israel.  Positioned in the middle of the book, these two chapters form the heart and the turning point of the exodus story.  In the crucible of the wilderness, Exodus 19-20 narrates the formation of a disparate group of former slaves into a people set apart by and for the will of God.  Viewed in light of a general overview of the entire book of Exodus, as well as the particular events before and after chapters 19-20, one can discern an overall narrative structure.  This structure moves from slavery to freedom through through the wilderness.  The movement is accompanied by God's giving and the people receiving laws for the sake of serving God.

In broad strokes, chapters 1-18 of Exodus narrate the birth and the call of Moses as the leader of the enslaved Israelites, Moses' confrontation with the Pharaoh, the plagues sent by God on Pharaoh's house, the release of the Israelites and their escape from the Egyptian army through the Red Sea, and the beginnings of their long sojourn in the wilderness.  Chapters 21-40 outline additional laws for the Israelites, instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle, the calling of Aaron and his sons as priests in service to the Lord, the Israelites' apostasy in worshiping a golden calf, and the renewal of the covenant relationship with God.

2.  The context of Exodus 19-20 is important for understanding the significance of these chapters.  The overall context affirms the intrinsic connection between law and loyalty, service and freedom.  A closer examination of the immediate context before and after chapters 19-20 underscores a central point of the book of Exodus: the intrinsic relationship between the Israelites' freedom, God's loving-kindness, and the requirements of God's law.

After the initial euphoria of escaping from the Egyptian army through the parted waters of the Red Sea, the Israelites face a number of crises.  In particular, they face food and water deprivation (chapters 15-17), and they must contend with the hostile Amalekites (chapter 17).  These incidents underscore a truth that many of the Israelites find difficult to accept: their new-found freedom entails hardship and suffering, the challenges of social cooperation, and the need for ongoing trust in and obedience to God.  For example, when God shows Moses how to give the Israelites water in the wilderness of Shur, the text ties this gracious act of care to teh service God requires of the Israelites: "There the Lord made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he proved them [i.e., tested their faith]" (Exodus 15:25 RSV).

The chapters immediately following Exodus 19-20 recount additional laws for governing the Israelite community.  In addition, detailed instructions for the liturgical and priestly service to God are provided.  These chapters may seem odd in the context of a people living on the move in the wilderness.  Perhaps they reflect the experience of the community at a later time when they have settled in the Promised Land.  However, these chapters successfully underscore the centrality of obedience to law and service to God as the cornerstone of Israelite freedom.  God liberated the Israelites, not for the sake of securing their autonomy, but for the sake of forming a people whose very identity lies in serving and worshiping God.

3.  A closer examination of Exodus 19-20 not only confirms the intimate relationship between service and freedom established by the book as a whole; it also provides the theological legitimacy for this linkage.  With respect to this linkage of service and freedom, God's words to Moses in 19:4-6 makes four important points clear.  First, God's powerful act of liberation provides the foundation for the covenant relationship that Gods wants to solidify with Israel (v. 4).  God is the initiating agent of freedom and relationship, not Moses or the Israelites.  Secondly, the conditional structure of the covenant relationship outlined in verse 5 ("if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, [then] you shall be ...") demonstrates God's willingness to honor the newly granted freedom of the Israelites.  Unlike slavery under Pharaoh, covenant with God entails a rejection of coercion in favor of the people's voluntary consent.  Thirdly, God's liberation of Israel and His desire to live in covenant relationship with them demonstrates the extravagant and unmerited grace of God.  Even though the whole earth belongs to God, He nevertheless chooses the Israelites from "among all peoples" as "my own possession" (v. 5).  And finally, God explicitly links the Israelites' freedom to obedience and service.  God has chosen and liberated the Israelites to serve as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (v. 6).

God demonstrates that these words are not just empty rhetoric by allowing Moses to present the covenant offer to the elders of the people.  The text makes clear that God does not coerce a relationship that links freedom to service.  Rather, God honors the freedom of the Israelites to either accept or reject the covenant relationship.  In response, the people voluntarily agree to do all that God speaks to them (cf. Exodus 19:8).

The Ten Commandments revealed to Israel in Exodus 20 further clarify the linkage of service and freedom constitutive of the covenant relationship.  According to The Book of Common Prayer, the Ten Commandments teach two overriding duties: "our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbor" (p. 847).  The Ten Commandments, in other words, form the cornerstone of moral meaning and moral order for Israel.  As such, the commandments explicitly link the freedom given to the Israelites with the service God expects of them.

Service to God includes loving and obeying God, putting nothing in the place of God, showing respect for God in thought, word, and deed, and intentionally worshiping, praying, and studying God's ways on a regular basis (BCP, p. 847).  Service to neighbor includes loving and honoring parents and other authority figures; respecting life by working for peace, cleansing our hearts of hatred and malice, and extending kindness to all of God's creatures; rightly acting on our bodily desires; acting towards others with honesty and fairness; truth-telling; and active resistance to the temptations of envy, greed, and jealousy (BCP, p. 848).

In short, the Ten Commandments underscore the teleological character of freedom.  God gives the Israelites freedom so that they may rightly pursue the ends of serving God and their neighbors for God's sake.  God's laws stipulate the goods and ends to which authentic freedom is to be ordered, and the wrongs freedom must shun.  This means that Exodus does not view the obligations and service dictated by the law as alien to freedom.  On the contrary, God's giving of laws to form the boundaries of covenant relationship is internal to the very meaning of freedom.  The service of God, in other words, forms the very foundation for freedom.

Part B
1.  The most immediate context for Matthew 5:17-48 is the section of this gospel traditionally referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:27).  The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount comprise the charter "document" for life in the kingdom of heaven.  As will be discussed below, the codification of Jesus' teachings in this section of Matthew's gospel provides a way to demonstrate the continuities between the Christian gospel and the formation of Israel as God's covenant people in the Old Testament.  Instead of replacing the Jewish law, Jesus' teachings and deeds fulfill the law (5:17).

Looking at the broader context of the passage, the salvific deeds and proclamations of Jesus surround Matthew 5:17-48.  Immediately prior to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims his central message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17).  The call to "repent" is a call to return to the right way, suggesting that the people of Jesus' day had wandered from the right relationship required by God's covenant. Jesus then calls the first four disciples (4:18-22), preaches the gospel, and heals the infirmities of the people in Galilee (4:23-25).  Jesus' words and deeds form "great crowds" of people, suggesting that God acts through him to reform, heal, and renew a covenant people (Matthew 4:25 RSV).  As soon as the Sermon on the Mount concludes, Jesus immediately resumes his healing ministry by cleansing a leper (8:1-4), healing a centurion's servant (8:5-13), and healing Peter's mother-in-law (8:14-17). The overall context suggests God's work of calling people into relationship and restoring people to wholeness through the words and deeds of Jesus.  Matthew's Jesus, in other words, incarnates the spirit of the divine law by freely responding to God and neighbor in words and deeds of love, trust, and truthfulness.

2.  Exodus 19-20 provides an appropriate hermeneutic lens for interpreting Matthew 5:17-48.  This is particularly due to the concern in Matthew for demonstrating the continuities between the gospel revealed in Jesus Christ and the ancient faith and practices of the Old Testament.  The author and audience of Matthew's gospel were most likely Jewish Christians concerned about the place of Jewish law in their new faith.  What was the significance and role of the law, and what had happened to the covenant, now that God's kingdom has come near in Jesus Christ?  Were Christians liberated from the service requirements of the Jewish law?

Matthew's Jesus provides a clear and decisive answer to questions about the status of law in the Christian life: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17 RSV). Jesus continues by noting that anyone who "relaxes one of the least of these commandments" and teaches others to do the same "shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven;" by contrast, persons who obey the commandments and teach others to do likewise will be greatest in the kingdom (Matthew 5:19 RSV).  When Jesus exhorts his hearers to a righteousness beyond that of the scribes and the Pharisees, he makes it clear that treating the law as a collection of external rules heteronomously imposed from without represents a complete misunderstanding of the law.  Such a view of the commandments severs the individual's freedom from the service that fulfills the law.  Jesus wants to restore the wholeness and unity of service and freedom by teaching the commandments, not as authoritarian imperatives engraved on tablets of stone, but as the source of life-giving freedom and service engrafted on tablets of flesh (cf. Deuteronomy 11:18 & Proverbs 3:3).

Matthew's emphasis on the requisite interior dispositions for living in a covenant relationship of service to God and neighbor echoes themes that surface in Exodus 19-20.  In particular, Matthew adopts the Exodus narrative's insistence that God's law is the foundation of life-giving freedom in community rather than an external burden.  In addition, the Exodus narrative's teleological conception of freedom finds a place in Matthew's gospel.  Jesus Christ has come in the flesh to fulfill the law for the same reason God liberated the Israelites: to empower persons to pursue the related ends of serving God and neighbor.

Just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the law from God, so, too, Jesus ascends the Mount of Olives to impart a right understanding of the law.  Rhetorically, Matthew 5:21-48 is structured as follows: "You have heard it said ... but I say to you."  Instead of abrogating what "was said to the men of old," this rhetorical device allows Matthew to show how Jesus reveals the inner spirit of obedience to God's commandments (Matthew 5:21 RSV).  Within this rhetorical structure, Jesus cites specific commandments revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20 (as well as other parts of Jewish law).  In the process, Matthew's Jesus reveals how true obedience to the commandments revealed to Moses in Exodus 20 requires an even more radical form of service to God and neighbor than even the best contemporary interpreters of the law could imagine.

Two examples of Jesus' invocation of the Ten Commandments will suffice.  Exodus 20:13 reads, "You shall not murder."  Jesus teaches that it is insufficient obedience to simply refrain from murder.  Fulfilling this commandment requires persons to expunge the roots anger from their hearts (Matthew 5:21-22).  In Exodus 20:14 one reads: "You shall not commit adultery."  Jesus teaches a more stringent obedience to this commandment than simply refraining from the act of adultery.  He says "every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27 RSV).

3.  In his words and deeds, Jesus fulfills God's law in Matthew's gospel.  In his teachings on the law in Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus exhorts his followers to do likewise in this concluding exhortation: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).  Implied within this statement is a vision of Christian discipleship consistent with Exodus 19-20 in its insistence on the unity of service and freedom.

The concluding exhortation of Matthew 5:17-48 echoes the Old Testament command of the Lord: "Be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44 RSV).  In addition to the mysterium tremendum of God's presence (revealed in clouds and thunder on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19), God's holiness entails loving-kindness and justice.  By giving the Ten Commandments as the foundation for the covenant relationship, God teaches the Israelites that, in their words and deeds, they are to grow in the image and likeness of the One who liberated them.  God's character must become Israel's character.  God freely chooses to live in covenant relationship with the Israelites, serving them with his mighty acts of grace and power.  So, too, the Israelites are to freely serve God and one another.  Likewise, as Jesus teaches in Matthew's gospel, Christians are to observe not merely the externals of the law but its spirit as well.  In doing so they will grow into the image and likeness of the God who calls them into covenant.  This a God "who makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45 RSV).  As followers of Jesus Christ - the One who perfectly incarnates the law of God's love for all creation - Christians must do no less.

Going beyond the merely negative connotation of not doing something wrong, Jesus insists that obedience to the commandments must convey positive, life-affirming connotations.  Instead of an attempt to avoid unpleasant consequences by keeping things squared with God, a right understanding of living by God's commandments points to the cultivation of those virtues of character that rightly dispose persons to freely give themselves to service of God and neighbor.  Jesus wants persons to transcend rote obedience by joyfully and freely giving themselves in service to God and the world.

Part C
Exegesis of Exodus 19-20 and Matthew 5:17-48 provides biblical support for the theological claim that serving God entails perfect freedom.  In addition, it provides ways for seeing how this can be true for Christians today.

The Israelites discovered that liberation from external coercion was only the beginning of their new life of freedom.  Lacking shared goods and ends, the Israelites' new-found freedom would have dissipated into the aimless wandering of a mere collection of individuals who would likely have ended up under the dominion of another imperial power and/or losing their divine calling by assimilation into an alien society.  The gift of the law gave the Israelites a set of moral standards for exercising their new freedom in service to the common good of "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" set apart for the service of God (Exodus 19:6 RSV).  Likewise, Jesus' call to return to the wholeness of the law by cultivating the necessary dispositions and virtues for rightly serving God and neighbor underscores the internal connection between human freedom and service.

In both Exodus and Matthew, Holy Scripture affirms a teleological conception of freedom directed towards the end of serving God and neighbor.  Somewhat paradoxically, scripture teaches that those who find true freedom are also the ones willing to give up their autonomy by freely accepting the reciprocal rights and responsibilities of life in community.  In both the Old and New Testaments, scripture unapologetically affirms loyalty to the realization of God's will in a covenant community as perfect freedom.  At the dawn of the twenty-first century, this is a counter-cultural proposition.  It flies in the face of an individualistic, consumer culture that idolizes freedom as liberation from all external restraints and relations for the sake of self-actualization and self-fulfillment.

It is precisely in its counter-cultural implications that the biblical connection between service of God and perfect freedom finds its relevance for contemporary Christians.  From a biblical perspective, the Western obsession with autonomous freedom comes dangerously close to equating liberty with license.  Lacking an adequate sense of shared purpose and acknowledgment of ends for which we live together, human life degenerates into a series of trivial pursuits.  In an age characterized by unprecedented powers of technical control, the sovereign self has remarkable freedom to exercise its autonomy while lacking much of a self through which to be autonomous.

The biblical message provides an alternative vision of freedom.  The message turns the sovereign self on its head by exalting the covenant community as the locus of the good life.  The biblical message paradoxically insists that human beings find self-fulfillment only by abandoning the search for self-fulfillment through selfless service to God and neighbor.  By demonstrating in word and deed the truth that service and freedom are interconnected, contemporary Christians who serve God by serving their churches and their needy neighbors provide powerful testimony to the relevance of the gospel for a world enthralled by the idol of the sovereign individual.