Friday, March 30, 2012

What's missing in the Presiding Bishop's Easter message?

Watch the following video of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's Easter message.

What's missing?

Did you catch it?

Not once does she mention Jesus!

St. John Chrysostom: "Do you want to honor the Body and Blood of Christ?"

Do you want to honor the body of Christ? Then do not despise his nakedness. You come to attend church services dressed in the finest silks which your wardrobe contains; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way, do you pass naked beggars in the streets? It is no good coming to the Lord’s table in fine silks, unless you also give clothes to the naked beggar – because the body of that beggar is also the body of Christ.

Do you want to honor the blood of Christ? Then do not ignore his thirst. You have donated beautiful gold chalices for the wine, which becomes a symbol of Christ’s blood; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way to services, you passed by beggars who pleaded for food and drink. It is no good putting gold chalices on the Lord’s table unless you give food and drink to the poor from your own tables.

The service which we celebrate in church is a sham unless we put its symbolic meaning into practice outside its walls. Better that we do not come at all than we become hypocrites – whose selfishness can only besmirch the Gospel in the eyes of others.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Barbara Brown Taylor Reconsiders the Biblical Narrative

Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor said some interesting things in an interview published in the Spring 2012 issue of From the Mountain (published by The School of Theology at the University of the South).

On the topic of knowing God's will, for instance, Taylor said:

I wrote a chapter in An Altar in the World on getting lost - on not going where you meant to, or leaving the beaten path. Even in the Gospels, there is a particular word for particular people. It is not often the same word to every person. To some, the word is "Get up and walk," and to some it is, "Go into your room and pray." The word to me on the fire escape [in the memoir An Altar in the World] was "Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me." That was the word just to me. There is alarming human freedom in that - alarming!

"Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me."

I really don't mean to be harsh about this, but Taylor's claim that God gave her permission to do anything that pleases her brings to mind a quote attributed to Susan B. Anthony: "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." What's fascinating about this particular claim to private revelation is that it makes no bones about it: God's will and what pleases Taylor are one and the same. Alarming freedom, indeed!

Later in the interview, Taylor offers reasons why she has reconsidered the biblical narrative of salvation history:

I am Christian enough to think there is still a narrative. My narrative is probably not creation, fall, and redemption. It is definitely a narrative of genesis, flood, new life, and resurrection. ... I have spent enough time in other protestant traditions to grow up thinking there was something essentially, originally wrong with me. I know that I am essentially liable to do the wrong thing, but I don't think that's because there is something originally wrong with me. I think I was made in the image of God. There has to be another way to theologize about why I do the things I do, and why people do the things we do. I no longer accept some of the early explanations for that. I do not read "fall" in Genesis history. I can't see it. The words are not there. The snake is a snake. It is not the devil. Sin isn't anywhere in the chapter, so that's a later reading of a primary text.

I read that narrative more like a Jew, who would read the story of Mount Sinai as more a story of collective, communal sin, when you have been given a living God and you choose an idol instead. Every best seller on the self-help and religion shelf is about knowing the difference between good and evil. If that is a sin, Christians sure are all over it.

It strikes me that Taylor's explicit rejection of the Fall "in Genesis history" may be connected with her claim to a private revelation of God's will ("Do anything that pleases you"). For downplaying the Fall makes it easier to find in personal experience a perception of
God's unambiguous approval of our wills and affections. To quote from N. T. Wright's Simply Christian: "We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire."

But perhaps such is the price of "progress" in Christianity.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Charles Henry Brent: “We must have unity, not at all costs, but at all risks”

Today on the Episcopal Church calendar we remember Charles Henry Brent (1862-1929), bishop of the Philippines and of Western New York. Here's an excerpt about Bishop Brent from Holy Women, Holy Men:
Brent was the outstanding figure of the Episcopal Church on the world scene for two decades. The central focus of his life and ministry was the cause of Christian unity. After attending the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, he led the Episcopal Church in the movement that culminated in the first World Conference on Faith and Order, which was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1927, and over which he presided.
Bishop Brent also wrote one of my favorite collects (included as one of the collects for mission in the rite for Morning Prayer in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer):
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us with your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
Below are some of Bishop Brent's thoughts on Church unity. They strike a timely chord for those who desire greater unity among Anglicans worldwide.

The unity of Christendom is not a luxury but a necessity. The world will go limping until Christ’s prayer that all may be one is answered. We must have unity, not at all costs, but at all risks. A unified Church is the only offering we dare present to the coming Christ, for in it alone will He find room to dwell.

Do not be deceived; without unity the conversion of great nations is well-nigh hopeless. The success of missions is inextricably bound up with unity. It would seem that missionary progress in the future will depend mainly upon the Church’s unity, and that national conversions can be brought about by no other influence.

It may be that up to the present a divided Church has been used by God for the extension of His Kingdom among men, but we have no guarantee that He will continue to do so. Indeed there are indications that the divided Church has passed the zenith of such power as it has had, and is declining toward desolation. Divided Christendom has had a fair trial – it is a failure.

If it is a prophecy that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, it is also prophecy that the Church divided against herself will fall. Disorder in the Church is more terrible than feuds in the family or civil war in the State. If war is an evil in national life, it is a thousandfold greater evil in Church life.

If unity has slipped from our grasp, it is the common fault of the Christian world. If it is to be regained it must be by the concerted action of all Christians. Every section has shared in shattering unity. Every section must share in the effort to restore it.

Is the Church to lead in unity? If so, she must begin by unifying herself. It is laughable to think of a warring Church preaching about a world at peace. There is no lesson which the Churches are learning of greater importance than the impotence of our divided Christianity. It is absurd to aim at a united mankind, or even a united Christian civilization, and to be content with a divided Church. A confused Church will be a potent factor in maintaining a confused world.

~ Charles Henry Brent

Quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Communion Without Baptism ... Again

The issue of Communion Without Baptism (CWOB) has reared its ugly head again, this time in a resolution for General Convention from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon.

The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon is forwarding an Open Table resolution to General Convention that would change the rubrics and practice of The Book of Common Prayer to invite all to Holy Communion, "regardless of age, denomination or baptism.”

Adopted unanimously by delegates to the 2010 Diocesan Convention, the resolution recently was ratified by Diocesan Council for submission to General Convention. It would delete from the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church Canon 1.17.7, which says "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this church."

However, the explanation attached to the resolution says that “We know from our strivings within ecumenism and mission that the communion Christ intended for all is perilous and difficult, and that boldness in offering radical hospitality is our calling, rather than canonically driven caution.”

I have written previously about why Communion Without Baptism is a very bad idea ("Communing the Unbaptized: Some Preliminary Thoughts" and "More Unpersuasive Reasons for Communion Without Baptism"), so I won't rehash all of that here.

I do, however, want to note what some others in the Anglican blogosphere are saying.

Peter Carrell at Anglican Down Under highlights the way in which adopting CWOB would entail redefining Tradition and the definition of Anglicanism in ways which would affect relations with other churches (including other Anglican churches). He writes:

Now "communion without baptism" is practised thereabouts and hereabouts in the Anglican world, but, as far as I am aware, no formal Anglican canon anywhere endorses or legalises this practice. Were the GC [General Convention of the Episcopal Church]to agree to the resolution it would be a change or innovation to millennia old Christian practice, received and continued by the Reformed Church of England. It would also be a change which could reasonably be considered as affecting the definition of Anglicanism because it involves our understanding of sacramental ministry. One related concern would be whether it impinged on our ongoing ecumenical conversations.

In short: here is a change which looks like an internal matter for a member church but can reasonably be raised as an external matter for all member churches to consider. In terms of the Covenant and Section 4, it is a matter for consideration by the process set out there.

Now that the Anglican Covenant is dead in the water, those who seek to revise what it means to be the Church have no need to worry about the process set out in the fourth section of that document (assuming that they would have needed to worry if the Covenant was adopted anyway). Regardless, the drive for CWOB is a manifestation of commitment to an "autonomous ecclesiology" rather than "communion ecclesiology."

Tobias Haller at In a Godward Direction offers perhaps the most succinct reason for rejecting CWOB:

My observation in response to pitching this as "radical inclusivity" is simple: The church is radically inclusive and baptism is the means by which people are included. Communion is the celebration of that inclusion, not its means.

It is supremely ironic that a church that spends so much energy (rightly) celebrating the baptismal covenant could then turn its back on its significance in what seems a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of these two sacraments, and their interrelationship.

Tobias has consistently defended the traditional understanding of Baptism as the means by which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, and thus the precondition for receiving communion. It would be interesting to know how many others on the "progressive" side of things share his view. Perhaps, in the future, "progressives" will be pitted against each other on this matter.

C. Wingate at Tune: Kings Lynn offers an even more pointed response to the resolution from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon:

... abandoning baptism as the standard of membership represents a failure of our religious nerve so profound as to tip the balance against our institutional continuance. What's the point of a church that by implication admits that being a part of it is of no real consequence?

Communion Without Baptism is anathema; this is not negotiable.

Writing on Stand Firm, Greg Griffith summarizes the concerns of many who oppose CWOB:

In the Episcopal Church, as in all organizations overtaken by secular leftists, the trend in matters like these always moves from descriptive to prescriptive: What begins as “living into” some “facts on the ground,” sooner or later becomes That Which Must Be Done Or Else. Matt Kennedy explains how resolutions like this one make their way from germinated seed to full-fledged spawn, but it’s important to add that the way these folks work is that what today is described as something you may do, tomorrow becomes something you must do. So today it may be scandalous to know that the Episcopal Church may give its official approval to CWOB, but tomorrow the scandal becomes those who refuse to do so.

I'm not sure I can agree that the Episcopal Church has been "overtaken by secular leftists" (there's little doubt in my mind, however, that many who drive the train of General Convention and serve as clergy are theological leftists). But I am concerned by the way that CWOB keeps popping up, and also by the way that many see it as worthy of our embrace (check out some of the comments here).

I hope that Tobias Haller is right: " ... I wouldn't think it likely that the proposal for CWOB will be adopted at our General Convention. Support for it is thin but vocal."

Might thin and vocal support today become strong and vocal support tomorrow? Time will tell ...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thomas Cranmer: "In the scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul"

Wherefore, in few words to comprehend the largeness and utility of the scripture, how it containeth fruitful instruction and erudition for every man; if any things be necessary to be learned, of the holy scripture we may learn it. If falsehood shall be reproved, thereof we may gather wherewithal. If any thing be to be corrected and amended, if there need any exhortation or consolation, of the scripture we may well learn.

In the scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul; therein is no venomous meat, no unwholesome thing; they be the very dainty and pure feeding. He that is ignorant, shall find there what he should learn. He that is a perverse sinner, shall there find his damnation to make him to tremble for fear. He that laboureth to serve God, shall find there his glory, and the promissions of eternal life, exhorting him more diligently to labour. ...

Here may all manner of persons, men, women young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons, of what estate or condition soever they be, may in this book learn all things what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do, as well concerning Almighty God, as also concerning themselves and all other.

Briefly, to the reading of the scripture none can be enemy, but that either be so sick that they love not to hear of any medicine, or else that be so ignorant that they know not scripture to be the most healthful medicine.

Monday, March 19, 2012

St. Basil the Great: "Whom Do I Treat Unjustly?"

“But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theatre, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in the common – that is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For it we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be in need.

Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggle? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets of your greed, assume that you wrong no one; yet how many do you in fact dispossess?

Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.

~ St. Basil the Great, On Social Justice
(St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Thoughts on Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury

The internet is abuzz with the news that Rowan Williams plans to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2012. Surfing around the net, a couple of pieces have caught my eye.

The first piece by Rupert Shortt is entitled "The Archbishop of Canterbury's Balancing Act." Shortt writes:

History will judge Rowan Williams to have been a great archbishop of Canterbury in all sorts of ways, many yet unsung. As his biographer, I sometimes wonder whether more fractious members of his flock realise how lucky they have been to have him. Institutionally, though, his decade in office will probably end in honourable defeat.

The deepest issue facing [++Rowan] has not been over gay clergy or women bishops, as many assume, but a question he sees as even more pressing – how the church makes up its mind on disputed questions. ...

Williams's main motive is simple. He is a devoted ecumenist. It is his conviction that disunity within the body of Christ is the gravest wound of all in church life that led him, after much heartache, to row back on his earlier, more liberal instincts towards gay clergy. ...

Long before he announced his intention to bow out, many were asking whether a man of such evident godliness and erudition had the stomach for so political a job. It is true that Cambridge will probably provide a better fit for Williams's many gifts. But leading the second-most international church on earth, yet with scarcely any executive power, is exceptionally onerous. Could anyone else have done better? I doubt it.

In light of those who completely dismiss ++Rowan, as well as the fact that the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism more broadly continue to become increasingly polarized and politicized, Fr. Tony Clavier's reflections are spot on. In a posting entitled "ROWAN WILLIAMS," Fr. Tony writes:

Perhaps much of the confusion about the Archbishop of Canterbury is really about us. As we have become more politicized and more cynical, it is harder and harder for us to rest easily in the presence of brilliance and holiness, bound together with amazing humility. Leaders aren’t like that. They are not supposed to be like that. We don’t much mind if such persons are buried away in a monastic library or a university lecture hall. When such a person occupies a significant leadership role, we are befuddled. No politician could be like that. The only way we can manage is to press onto such a person our own world-weary pattern of leadership, despite the fact that the pattern doesn’t fit, couldn’t fit.

Then we grumble that the person who combines honesty and intellect and holiness, humility and a sense of humor doesn’t match up to our expectations. For ten years now we have sought to frame +Rowan in our own images, wrap him in our own standards, press him into our own causes and as a result have been disappointed and aggrieved. ...

Now we speculate on a successor. The great danger is that we will recoil from holiness and settle for managerial and political savvy. I don’t think either talent will fix things and of course that’s what we want, whether we are progressive or traditional. We want our own way and we want a Communion and a church which conforms to our own day dreams of what the church should be like. For while we have been pressing our own pattern on +Rowan, we’ve been doing the same on the Communion and the Province in which we live. We may say that we believe in “Holy” Church, but we much prefer scrappy political church or tidy narrow church.

I respect ++Rowan for taking a stand for catholicity and communion at a time when the rival ecclesiology of autonomy and gnosis increasingly drives the decisions of provinces like the Episcopal Church. That stand has been the primary motive for ++Rowan's unflagging support for the Anglican Covenant. But as the Covenant now enters hospice care, it's becoming increasingly clear that communion ecclesiology has been all but displaced by an autonomy ecclesiology that all-too-often mirrors the worst of secular culture and politics. "We may say that we believe in 'Holy' Church," Fr. Tony notes, "but we much prefer scrappy political church or tidy narrow church." And so, to cite the article by Shortt, ++Rowan's balancing act is ending in "honourable defeat."

Acknowledging that the Covenant process is now largely over, BC at Catholicity and Covenant sums things up in a way that, to my mind, captures the spirit of Rowan Williams at his best: "The most powerful witness to communion ecclesiology will not, in the end, be documents or reports or synod votes, but laos, deacons, priests, and bishops who prayerfully and joyfully live out the call to communion and unity." Even during times of incredible stress and hostile criticism, ++Rowan has consistently offered an example of prayerfully and joyfully living into that call. And for that I am grateful.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rowan Williams to Step Down as Archbishop of Canterbury

Rowan Williams has announced his decision to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury to become head of Magdalene College at the end of this year. Commenting on this decision he said:

It has been an immense privilege to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury over the past decade, and moving on has not been an easy decision. During the time remaining there is much to do, and I ask your prayers and support in this period and beyond. I am abidingly grateful to all those friends and colleagues who have so generously supported Jane and myself in these years, and all the many diverse parishes and communities in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion that have brought vision, hope and excitement to my own ministry. I look forward, with that same support and inspiration, to continuing to serve the Church’s mission and witness as best I can in the years ahead.

Read the whole article.

++Rowan discusses some of the reasons for the decision in this video:

A transcript of the complete interview is available here.

++Rowan has had the unenviable (and perhaps impossible) job of working to hold the Communion together while taking constant and oftentimes brutally vicious hits from across the theological spectrum. Much to the chagrin of the Anglican Right, he's refused to take a hardline, disciplinary approach to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. Much to the chagrin of the Anglican Left, he's subordinated his own personal opinions on LGBT inclusion to what he believes is the greater good of the Communion, investing all of his authority (what little he actually has) in the Anglican Covenant. And now it's all but certain that the Covenant will fail. So even without taking into account the other reasons he cites in the video, it's not surprising that he's stepping down.

Some reactions to ++Rowan's decision can be read here and here.

BC at Catholicity and Covenant offers a thanksgiving for ++Rowan's ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury:

The news that ++Rowan will step down as Archbishop of Canterbury in December will lead to many of us across the Communion giving thanks for his oversight and the body of teaching which he leaves - a body of teaching which has deeply enriched Anglicanism's response to the call to live as part of the church catholic. ...

On behalf of those laity, deacons, priests and bishops in the Communion whose discipleship and vocation has been strengthened and enriched by ++Rowan's ministry and teaching, Deo Gratias.

I also give thanks for ++Rowan's ministry and teaching (I'm particularly grateful for his clear endorsement of the reliability and truthfulness of the creeds). And I wish him every blessing as he enters a new phase of his life and ministry.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Personal Nature of Temptation

I'm continuing the discipline of reading the Gospels with Bishop Gray this Lent. We are currently more than halfway through the Gospel according to Matthew. With a handful of exceptions, I don't know who all has taken this on as a Lenten discipline (I'm told that over 900 people have registered to receive Bishop Gray's reflections on what we're reading via e-mail). Even so, I quickly discovered that this has given me a sense of connection with my bishop and with others around the diocese (and beyond). I think this is a wonderfully fitting thing for a bishop to do!

I was recently struck by Bishop Gray's reflections on Jesus' temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4:1-11. He wrote:

Matthew gives us the specifics of Jesus' temptation and trials in the wilderness. The depiction of Satan as a companion with Jesus in the wilderness is troubling to many. And yet, the gift of the tradition in portraying the tempter as a person is a reminder that the temptations in our lives to turn away from God are all very personal. There are very few generic temptations in my life. What is held before me as an alternative to God always speaks to the particulars of my life. Evil always seems to be very personal with a knowledge of my very particular weaknesses. The personal figure of Satan seems to fit that reality quite well.

"There are very few generic temptations in my life. ... Evil always seems to be very personal with a knowledge of my very particular weaknesses."

This strikes me as a truthful corrective to those who balk at the very idea of Satan. It is also a helpful entryway into the work of self-examination.

What are the particular weaknesses in our lives that create opportunities for sin? And what needs to change so that, following Jesus' example in the wilderness, we can resist those very personal temptations?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

St. John Chrysostom on Fasting

Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works.

If you see a poor man, take pity on him.

If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.

Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.

Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.

Let the eye fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.

Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.

Let the mouth fast from foul words and criticism.

For what good is it if we abstain from fowl and fishes, but bite and devour one another?

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Creed is Not Your Faith

"When we stand up in church and recite the Creed, we often say 'that is my faith.' Whereupon someone draws the conclusion that the Christian faith consists in the proper recitation of an ancient formula. The Creed is not your faith – it is an expression of your faith. Your faith is in God, not in any combination of words, however venerable they may be. In a derivative sense you may speak of ‘the faith once delivered to the saints,’ meaning thereby that body of doctrine which expresses the foundation upon which your faith rests. But your faith is always in a Person."

~ Frank E. Wilson, Faith and Practice (1967)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent 2012

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A while back I came across a publication entitled Church Songs. It includes a number of well-known hymns, but the titles and lyrics have been revised to purportedly make them more palatable to some segments of the population. Let me share just a few of the revised hymn titles with you:

“A Comfy Mattress is Our God”

“Joyful, Joyful, We Kinda Like Thee”

“Be Thou My Hobby”

“O God, Our Enabler in Ages Past”

“What an Acquaintance We Have in Jesus”

“Where He Leads Me, I Will Consider Following”

“Lift Every Voice and Intellectualize”

Here’s a good one for Lent:

“I Lay My Inappropriate Behaviors on Jesus”

And perhaps my favorite:

“There is an Alibi in Gilead”

Obviously, this is satire. It’s poking fun at tendencies in our culture to reduce Christianity and spirituality to the therapeutic values of comfort, self-esteem, and warm, fuzzy feelings. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with those things. They have a rightful place in our lives. But if they become the sole values that guide our choices and determine how we understand the Christian faith, then we run the risk of failing to hear and respond to the message at the core of the Gospel. And that message is grounded in the way of the cross.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark hammers that message home. The action takes place immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter gets it right: Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the One through whom God will deliver people from bondage to sin and the fate of eternal death.

In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus explains to the disciples what it means for him to be the Christ. He tells them that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious establishment, be killed, and after three days rise again. And Peter, who has just made the good confession, immediately lays into Jesus, saying: “No, Lord! This must never happen to you!” And in response to that outburst, Jesus publicly rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan” and ordering him to stand down.

It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of how it’s possible to say all the right words about Jesus and yet still miss what it means to be his follower. And just to clarify what discipleship entails, Jesus says: “If you want to be my disciple, then you’ve got to deny yourself and take up your cross. Then and only then are you ready to follow me.”

“Deny yourself and take up your cross.”

That doesn’t sound like fun, does it? It sounds difficult. It sounds painful.

It would be so much easier if I could have my own personal Jesus! My personal Jesus would not only love me unconditionally; He would also insure that I’m happy, prosperous, and well-liked. My personal Jesus would always conform to my expectations and never ask me to do anything difficult. He would affirm that sin isn’t really a problem in my life so there’s no need to repent and, with God’s help, live a life of holiness and righteousness. I’m fine just as I am!

Today’s Gospel reading confronts me with the fact that I tend to want a Christianity without sacrifice, discipleship without cost, and a faith that not only affirms all of my yearnings and desires, but that also reflects my values without ever challenging me to change. But the real Jesus we encounter in the pages of the New Testament will have none of it! He continues to say to me and to everyone attracted to him: “If you want to be my disciple, then you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”

So where is the Good News in that?

There’s a prayer in The Book of Common Prayer appointed for Fridays in which we ask God to “mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP, p. 99). That’s an important prayer, because our knee-jerk response to Jesus’ words about self-denial and carrying our cross may be to run for cover. We may fail to see the Good News that the way of the cross is not about punishment, shame, and guilt. The way of the cross is Divine Medicine.

If, as Christianity claims, the right diagnosis of the human condition is that we are infected by the predisposition to seek our own wills rather than God’s will, then the way of the cross is the antidote. Taking concrete form in practices such as self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, giving to the poor and needy, and meditating on Holy Scripture, the way of the cross is the path of healing that leads to new life beyond our wildest dreams. But receiving that new life requires completely surrendering ourselves to the care of Jesus the Physician of our souls.

In his classic book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis puts it like this:

Christ says, 'Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked - the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.'

The goal of the Christian life is to so receive the healing of God’s grace that, dying daily to self-will, we become more and more like God. God’s desire is that we become little Christs. And that only happens as, one day at a time, we walk the way of the cross. Yes, God loves us as we are. But God also loves us too much to let stay the way we are. God has far bigger and better things in mind for each of us.

Once again in the words of Lewis, God wants to transform each of us “into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly … His own boundless power and delight and goodness.” That is the true self God created each of us to be.

The way of the cross is the central paradox of the Christian life. It says that we find our true selves by denying our selves, that we save our lives by losing them, and that we enter eternal life by dying. The way of the cross is so deeply counter-intuitive, and runs so hard against the grain of our natural instincts for self-preservation, that many balk at it. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” writes the Apostle Paul. “But to us who are being saved” – for us who have found the way, the truth, and the life in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus – “[the cross] is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

As we continue our journey through these 40 days of Lent, may each of us discover the healing power of God’s grace by walking the way of the cross in the footsteps of our Lord. And by God’s mercy, may we find it to be none other than the way of life and peace.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Communion is Fundamental to the Church's Vocation and Mission

"Doctrinal incoherence and an ecclesiology shaped by the ethic of autonomy produces a Church which merely echoes modernity and its discontents. Communion, given expression through conciliarity, is fundamental to the Church's vocation and mission amidst the fragmentation of modernity."

Friday, March 2, 2012

John Henry Newman: "No One Will Find Happiness in Heaven Who Is Not Holy"

"If holiness be not merely the doing a certain number of good actions, but is an inward character which follows, under God's grace, from doing them, how far distant from that holiness are the multitude of men! They are not yet even obedient in outward deeds, which is the first step towards possessing it. They have even to learn to practice good works, as the means of changing their hearts, which is the end. It follows at once, even though Scripture did not plainly tell us so, that no one is able to prepare himself for heaven, that is, make himself holy, in a short time; - at least we do not see how it is possible; and this, viewed merely as a deduction of the reason, is a serious thought. Yet, alas! as there are persons who think to be saved by a few scanty performances, so there are others who suppose they may be saved all at once by a sudden and easily acquired faith. Most men who are living in neglect of God, silence their consciences, when troublesome, with the promise of repenting some future day. How often are they thus led on till death surprises them! But we will suppose they do begin to repent when that future day comes. Nay, we will even suppose that Almighty God were to forgive them, and to admit them into His holy heaven. Well, but is nothing more requisite? are they in a fit state to do Him service in heaven? is not this the very point I have been so insisting on, that they are not in a fit state? has it not been shown that, even if admitted there without a change of heart, they would find no pleasure in heaven? and is a change of heart wrought in a day? Which of our tastes or likings can we change at our will in a moment? Not the most superficial. Can we then at a word change the whole frame and character of our minds? Is not holiness the result of many patient, repeated efforts after obedience, gradually working on us, and first modifying and then changing our hearts? We dare not, of course set bounds to God's mercy and power in cases of repentance late in life; yet, surely, it is our duty ever to keep steadily before us, and act upon, those general truths which His Holy Word has declared. His Holy Word in various ways warns us, that, as no one will find happiness in heaven, who is not holy, so no one can lean to be so, in a short time, and when he will."