Friday, July 27, 2012

Michael Ramsey: "To be a Christian"

To be a Christian is to be very closely united to Christ as living Lord, not alone, but in the fellowship of the Church.  It means an existence in which our self-centredness is constantly challenged and defeated.  The more Christ becomes your true centre, the less can your own selfish pride be the centre.  The more you are drawn into the fellowship of those who belong to Christ, the less are you entangled by your selfish pride.

That is why again and again the Christian life has been called a "death to self"; it is the growth in us of Christ's own self-giving unto death.  The sacraments depict this: Baptism was from the beginning the means whereby the convert died to the old life whose centre was the self, having been buried symbolically beneath the water, he stepped out into a new life whose centre was Christ in the midst of the Church's fellowship.  Holy Communion deepens our unity with Christ who, through the media of bread and wine, feeds us with himself.  But it is always his self as given to death.  It is his broken body, his blood poured and offered.

These are the great realities upon which Christian people have laid hold.  Some have grasped them once, and forgotten them.  Some have grasped them only in a conventional and unreal way.  Some have grasped them, and courageously try to be true to them among much conflict with the reassertions of self and pride.  Some have grasped them, and have shown it in lives in which, notwithstanding some humiliating failures, Christ really has been apparent.

It all happens through Calvary judging us, Calvary bringing forgiveness to us, and Calvary defeating the pride which rules us.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Future of Anglicanism in North America

The other day I read the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner's latest essay entitled "After the Fall" posted at the Anglican Communion Institute website. Here's the opening paragraph of that essay:

Who are the predominantly younger theologians and priests clustering around The Living Church’s Covenant blog? Or “A Tribe Called Anglican”? Or those who read more individual blogs like “Creedal Christian” or “The Conciliar Anglican”? Or those who have contributed to the recent book Pro Communione? Or who attend seminaries like Wycliffe College or Duke Divinity School? They are the future of Anglicanism in North America, that is who; and they are the reason why I am not so much worried about The Episcopal Church as eager simply to see the inevitable fruit of faithfulness whose seed is well-sown. The “times they are a-changin’”. “The first one now, will later be last.” 

To say that I was surprised to find my blog mentioned here would be an understatement.  I'm flattered that someone of Dr. Radner's stature would even know anything about my blog, much less commend it publicly.  I'm also humbled for my blog to be included in the company of others whom Dr. Radner views as "the future of Anglicanism in North America."  As if being a priest in Christ's holy catholic Church weren't a sufficiently daunting calling!

See also the reflections on Radner's essay posted at Catholicity and Covenant entitled "Here: On the vocation of catholic and evangelical Anglicans."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Timothy Fountain: "Because of Him"

Fr. Timothy Fountain offers a wonderful reflection on the Gospel reading assigned for the Daily Office yesterday:

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Matthew 26:31-32 ESV, Daily Office for Saturday, Proper 10  
Because of him, the apostles fell away. He made it too costly to identify with him that night. “Because of him” any who followed would risk Roman flogging and cross or at the least Priestly religious rejection, meaning loss of family and communal bonds in the bargain. He spoke of good things to come but he withheld spiritual assurance and left them to their fears and flaws. Because of him, they fell away.  
But because of him, because in all things he would “go before them,” they would be saved. He had to go alone to the cross. Had the apostles slogged up the hill with him, there would be just one more gaggle of executed rebels on the Roman books, not a band of witnesses to preach and write the Good News of the crucified and risen savior of the world. They fell away “because of him,” not only because of their fears and flaws but because he used those weaknesses to accomplish his work, suffering and dying alone for the sins of the world, an act that nobody else could pretend to accomplish. Because of him, they fell away, and there could be no mistake about who did what for whom.

Read it all.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thoughts on Chastity

The Most Unpopular Virtue

Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues.  There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, 'Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.'  Now this is so difficult and contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong.  One or the other.  Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.

Embodied Apostasy

Sex is, in Paul's image, a joining of your body to someone else's.  In baptism, you have become Christ's Body, and it is Christ's Body that must give you permission to join His Body to another body.  In the Christian grammar, we have no right to sex.  The place where the church confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings grant us license to have sex with one person.  Chastity, in other words, is a fact of gospel life.  In the New Testament, sex beyond the boundaries of marriage - the boundaries of communally granted sanction of sex - is simply off limits.  To have sex outside those bounds is to commit an offense against the Body.  Abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage; any other kind of sex is embodied apostasy.

Defending Ourselves Against Chastity

 ... the gospel of redemption will be an offense, no matter how carefully modulated, no matter how cleverly dressed up in the finery of modern ideals of freedom and rational responsibility.  Therefore evangelism has no reason to hide the hard demands of the gospel. ...

Only by taking the severe and dangerous risks of obedience to something beyond our comprehension can we have the freedom to participate in divine glory.  For this reason Christian freedom requires a spiritual ambition that is very much at odds with the postmodern age.  Such ambition does not throw up protective walls to block the demands of the gospel. Instead spiritual ambition forsakes prerogatives, renounces the rights and privileges of intellect and will.  All defenses against the transforming power of grace are removed ...

The moral challenge of evangelism is, then, to nurture an ambition that has the courage of obedience, the courage to draw as near as possible to redemptive power by tearing down the walls of defense.  Without doubt, this can be done in any number of ways, but I wish to end with a final word.  It is hard truth that pastors know but do not wish to hear: Unless you preach chastity, and the easy chastity of sex governed by commitment and love but the hard chastity taught by St. Paul, you will fail to meet the moral challenge of evangelism in this postmodern age.  This is not because sex is the most important dimension of the Christian life; it is because sexual freedom is the most cherished, most morally sanctified, and most Petronian moral commitment of the postmodern age.

Sexual freedom is crucial because it has two aspects.  It encourages the agitation of our passions, always distracting us from ourselves, and at the same time this postmodern sexual freedom insists that we should do absolutely nothing to alter the immediate demands of our lust.  In this way our age runs from chastity for the same reason that St. Augustine, in his Confessions, reports that he always ended his prayer for chastity with the plea, "But not yet!"  As Augustine knew, if we can change this altogether fundamental part of our lives, a part woven into the fabric of instinct, then the defenses against redemptive change are down.  If the perfectly normal and natural needs of the body can be directed toward God, then surely the higher faculties of will and intellect can as well.  If something so "impossible" is indeed possible, then who knows what might happen next? ...

We adopt critical cliches and habits of distance because we do not want to risk being ravished by a transforming truth.  We do not want to submit the raw material of our lives to God so that we might be melted down and reformed into something very different.  Thus, we defend ourselves against chastity not because we are prideful and self-confident hedonists, not because we find great joy in the confusing labyrinths of sexual desire and satisfaction, but because we are fearful that once the invasion of grace begins it will not relent until the capitol falls.

~ R. R. Reno,"Postmodern Irony and Petronian Humanism"
in In the Ruins of the Church (2002)

[An earlier version of this chapter appears in First Things as "American Satyricon."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Collapse of the Episcopal Church's Moral Authority

Keeping up with Internet articles and blog postings on the recent meeting of the Episcopal Church's General Convention could easily be a full-time job. As expected, the perspectives range from the positive to the profoundly negative. Among the less than positive assessments, articles from the Wall Street Journal ("What Ails the Episcopalians") and Beliefnet ("Why is the Episcopal Church Near Collapse?"), and Ross Douthat's New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?", have generated much discussion and debate.  (For two interesting responses to Douthat from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, see "Why Should Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" Part 1 and Part 2 at The Life of Meaning.)

One article in particular caught my eye: "The Light that Failed" by Walter Russell Mead.  Mead writes:

New numbers reveal that the collapse of the Episcopal Church dramatically accelerated in the last ten years. The denomination is literally falling apart, with attendance down 25% between 2000 and 2010. ...

The numerical decline, bad as it is, matters less than the collapse in the moral authority of the church. The Episcopal Church has made many controversial pronouncements on social issues; at the latest General Convention the church declared that transgendered persons cannot automatically be barred from the priesthood. One can agree or disagree with some of these individual decisions, but what is striking over time is the decline in the moral weight of the church.

It used to matter what the Episcopal Church thought of this or that social issue. Other mainline Protestant churches and many social and political leaders followed its theological and political debates. Now, basically, no one outside the dwindling flock in the pews really cares what The Episcopal Church says about anything at all. General Convention can pass a million resolutions, and nothing anywhere will change. No one is even really angry anymore at anything the Episcopal hierarchy does; at most, there is a sigh and a quiet rolling of the eyes. Soon, there will not even be that.

It’s an extraordinary decline in an institution that a generation ago was still one of the pillars of American life. At this point the disaster appears irretrievable; those running the church are determined to run it into the ground and it is hard to see how that can change.

For Anglicans, the theological and demographic collapse of their church is a bitter blow. The traditions of this church exert a powerful hold on those who were raised in it; those declining attendance figures bespeak a lot of sadness and despair. But The Episcopal Church has moved on, headed down what looks increasingly like the theological path of least resistance as it makes the transition from a church that once spoke to a nation to a sect in communion only with itself.

Let us wish The Episcopal Church well on its journey towards whatever hope its bureaucrats and functionaries see glimmering ahead of them in the deepening twilight. God moves in mysterious ways, and the failure of a church is not the failure of a faith. Christianity is all about hope in the face of death; America’s Anglicans are learning a lot about what that means. For this, perhaps, we need to learn to be thankful.

Read it all.

Commenting on Mead's piece over at Stand Firm, the Rev. Timothy Fountain wrote:

Mead is a progressive, not someone in lockstep opposition to what TEC declares.  For him to post this sober analysis is devastating to TEC spin.

Reading Mead's piece I'm struck again by the question: are we missing the mark by trying to be "relevant"? 

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Let us try to recover our commitment to genuine inclusivity"

The Very Rev. Ian Markham, Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, has written an interesting piece on why General Convention needs genuine inclusivity and diversity. Here's what he has to say:
The theme of inclusivity has dominated many of the recent General Conventions.  Grounded in a sensitive reading of Scripture, the Episcopal Church has advocated the inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians at every level of our shared life.  The vision has been a church for all people.  It has been a powerful vision.  We are the Church that refuses to exclude.   
Yet the powerful vision is disappearing. There are those who are using the language of inclusion to justify exclusion. There are voices that insist that anyone who has the temerity to believe in traditional marriage, confined to man and woman, should not be allowed in the Episcopal Church; there are voices that want to advocate an unthinking vision of Eucharistic hospitality, which would result in the madness of inviting a Muslim who does not even believe that Jesus died on the cross to a table that remembers our Lord’s death; there are voices that want to cut ties to the Anglican Communion family because it had a problem with our progressive stance; there are plenty of voices who want to exclude in the name of inclusion. 
Living with disagreement is tricky. The desire to make the Church pure is so strong. We are so sure we are right that we don’t welcome conservatives. We are so sure that our progressive stance will be vindicated that we insist that those who want to “move less quickly” are ignorant appeasers. 
Let us try to recover our commitment to genuine inclusivity. Let us continue to welcome our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as an intrinsic part of the Church; but let us also extend a warm and affirming welcome to our conservative brothers and sisters. Let us try something new: Let us try to resist the tendency for purity and separation and instead live in a place that is more ragged and interesting. 
Conservatives are important for two reasons. The first is that we need their voices. Conservatives keep asking the very basic question: Are we sure this is of God? A church is neither the “United Way at Prayer,” nor a social pressure group. Instead the Church is the Body of Christ and therefore the vehicle of God’s will in the world. 
Everything we do should be tested by Scripture. We need to have our biblical reasons for the positions we take. If we lose this perspective, then we are just another dying cult that invites individuals to create whatever faith suits them. 
The second reason is that there are many hurting conservatives who are feeling that this Church is not welcoming. Numerically the majority of the Episcopal Church is in the South. Many of the larger churches are evangelical. We need these conservative congregations and conservative dioceses. South Carolina is the only diocese that is growing: we need South Carolina to stay in. 
I know it is easier to be small and pure; but it is much more exciting to be large and genuinely diverse. Let us hope we opt for the exciting route rather than the exclusive route.

I think that Dean Markham is absolutely right that "there are plenty of voices who want to exclude in the name of inclusion."  And I find what he says about why we need conservatives in the Episcopal Church to be generous.  But can there really be a "genuine inclusivity" that doesn't by necessity exclude some people's beliefs and agendas?  I doubt it.

For the sake of being "inclusive" and "relevant" in a post-Christian culture, I note that we Episcopalians are increasingly willing to jettison traditional understandings of Christian faith and practice.  By definition, that excludes conservatives (and even many moderates).  It's really hard to see how the current trajectory of the Episcopal Church as charted by General Convention can possibly recover a commitment to "genuine inclusivity" that actually includes persons who adhere to a traditional, orthodox approach to Christianity.

In response to Dean Markham's piece, one of my conservative colleagues said: "Too little, too late."  And in another response on Facebook someone wrote: "I agree that [this piece is] excellent.  But let's not kid ourselves.  I don't care who says it, it's not being heard."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost 2012

“There’s no place like home.”  
Most of us are familiar with that saying.  And I’ll bet there have been many times when we’ve been blessed to experience its truth, especially if we’ve been away from home for an extended period of time.  There really is nothing quite like sleeping in your own bed again after being away, is there?  At the same time, if there’s no place like home, it’s also true that sometimes homecomings can be difficult.  How many movies, for instance, have been made about adult children coming back home to celebrate a dysfunctional family holiday?  
One of my most vivid memories of a homecoming was Thanksgiving break back in 1983.  It was my freshman year in boarding school, and I had been away from home for almost 3 months.  After such an extended immersion experience of communal living and academic work, I found myself feeling both excited and anxious about returning to family and old friends.  Would things be the way I had remembered them or would they be different?  It turns out it was a mixture of both.  And that was especially true of friends I had left behind.  Some of them were glad to see me and we picked up right where we left off.  But in other cases, things had changed.  There was aloofness where, just a few months prior, there was a close connection.  And I even learned that my decision to leave home to go off to school had alienated some people in town from my family.  It turned out that coming back home was a bittersweet affair.  
Today’s Gospel lesson is about a homecoming that starts out good but then goes sour.  After touring around Galilee, Jesus goes back to his hometown of Nazareth.  The folks back home are amazed at the things Jesus says.  And the things he’s been doing are nothing short of mind-blowing.  Jesus has exorcised demons, healed lepers, dared to claim the authority to forgive sins, run afoul of the religious leaders for violating Sabbath laws, calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and even raised a little girl from the dead.  This goes way beyond what even the most famous of Israel’s prophets said and did.  It all suggests that the power of God is working in and through Jesus, offering a foretaste of the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.  Indeed, it all suggests that Jesus himself is the incarnation of that kingdom, the one in whom and through whom we most clearly see the love and justice of God.  
In his words and deeds, Jesus reveals that the long hoped-for kingdom of God is breaking into the world.  And yet, his family and the folks in Nazareth who knew Jesus since he was a baby turn their backs on him.  Why would they do that?
Part of the reason could be good old-fashioned prejudice.  You see, back in Jesus’ day, wherever you were born into the social hierarchy is where you stayed.  There was no such thing as social mobility, at least not as we know it.  Jesus was born into the artisan class, the son of a carpenter.  Under his father’s tutelage, Jesus learned the family trade.  And he was expected to carry on the family business, passing it down to his own children.
But at some point in his life – maybe in his mid to late-twenties – Jesus experienced a growing awareness of God’s call leading him away from social and family expectations.  It was a call driving him to assume the authority and the risks of being not merely a prophet, but the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of God sent to deliver God’s people from bondage to sin and evil.  Being fully human, Jesus had the freedom to say “no” to this calling.  But as the Son of God who freely chooses to align his will with the Father’s, Jesus chose to say “yes” to his identity as the Christ.  So it’s little wonder that earlier in Mark, we’re told that Jesus’ family thought he was crazy and that they tried to put an end to his messianic pretensions.  
In today’s lesson, when Jesus comes back home to Nazareth and teaches in his hometown synagogue, folks are initially impressed.  “Wow, Jesus!  We never knew you were so smart!  We didn’t know you had it in you to teach like this!”  But then the mood suddenly changes from surprise to hostility.  “Yeah, but this is Jesus, the carpenter’s boy.  Seems like he’s gone off from home and started thinking he’s somebody important, getting all high and mighty on us!  Where’s he getting off telling us all of this kingdom of God stuff and how we need to repent?  Who made him into a preacher?  He’s stepping way out of line.  Has he forgotten who he is?”  
Mark sums it up by saying: “And they took offence at him” (6:3).  And he tells us that Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them” (6:5).  
By assuming the mantle of the Messiah, Jesus was saying “no” to the deeply taken-for-granted belief that “geographical and hereditary origins determine who a person is and what his capacities will always be” (Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, p. 192).  A lowly carpenter’s son claiming such an exalted status is a big reason why the people in Nazareth take offence at Jesus.  
But there’s more to it than that.  There’s something else, a deeper reason why in this Gospel, elsewhere in the New Testament, and down through the centuries to our own day, Jesus causes offence and people either walk away or they try to turn him into someone more manageable and less demanding.
I’m reminded of a clergy colleague who once told me about an interesting interaction with a non-Christian.  Upon learning that my friend was an Episcopal priest, this person said: “You’re offering a cure to a disease I don’t have.”
Could it be that the deeper stumbling block to receiving Jesus as the Christ is that we have to admit that we have a disease called sin?  Is it offensive to be told that we have a problem that no amount of education, therapy, or will power can eradicate: a predisposition to seek our own wills rather than the will of God?  Does it challenge our faith in the powers of science, technology, and politics to be told that we live in a world so broken by sin and captive to evil that even our best intentions and initiatives can’t set things right?  Could it be that the biggest reason for taking offence at Jesus is that he reveals to us the truth that we need a Savior?
“[Jesus] could do no deed of power [in Nazareth]” and “he was amazed at their unbelief” (Mk 6:5, 6).  It’s a striking contrast to Nazareth that elsewhere in Mark, it’s precisely the persons who acknowledge their desperate need for help who receive Jesus and the salvation he brings.  We saw that last week, for instance, when a leader of the synagogue named Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to heal his daughter who is at the point of death (Mk 5:21-24, 35-43).  We see it when the Gentile woman who suffered from hemorrhaging for 12 years approaches Jesus in a crowd to touch his garment and she’s made whole (Mk 5:25-34).  We see it when, blocked by the crowd, four guys trying to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus climb up on a house top and cut a hole in the roof to lower their friend down into Jesus’ presence (Mk 2:1-12).  And it happens again when blind Bartimaeus, upon learning that Jesus is passing by, insistently shouts out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” until he gets Jesus’ attention and receives his sight (Mk 10:46-52).
Over and over again, those who see themselves as self-sufficient, those who trust in their own wisdom and might, and those who deny their need for repentance are offended by Jesus and his message.  Over and over again, they choose to go it alone.  But those who know they need healing in body, mind, or spirit; those who admit that they’re stuck in destructive patterns of behavior that they just can’t break out of, no matter how hard they try; those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness and amendment of life; and those who confess that they can’t make any of this happen by themselves – these are the ones who are receptive to Jesus.  And these are the ones who are open to receiving the gifts of healing, hope, and new life.
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope,” Jesus says, for “with less of you there is more of God and his rule” (Mt 5:3, The Message).  Sometimes it is in the pain of our brokenness that we discover not only our need of a Savior, but also the first inkling of hope that there is, in fact, One with the love and the power to touch the depths of our being, restoring us to wholeness and newness of life.  
We have come to know and believe that that One is Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, the Kingdom Bearer, our Good Shepherd and Great Physician.  He comes among us proclaiming the Good News that the kingdom of God is breaking into this sinful, broken world, and that God’s justice will prevail.  He comes among us calling us to repent – to turn around and change course – so that we can know the abundant life of that kingdom.  He comes among us to save and to make all things new. 
Like the folks in Nazareth who knew him so well, we are free to say “no” to Jesus.  But if we say “yes,” we will discover a meaning, purpose, and joy to life that nothing and no one can ever take away.  We will discover that our true home lies in the heart of God.
Jesus is the Savior.  May we always put our whole trust in his grace and love.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Eugene Peterson: "Jesus is the way God comes to us" and "Jesus is the way we come to God"

The way we come to God is the same way that God comes to us.  God comes to us in Jesus; we come to God in Jesus.  It is the same way, the Jesus way.  God comes to us in Jesus speaking words of salvation, healing our infirmities, promising the Holy Spirit, teaching us how to live in the kingdom of God.  It is in and through this same Jesus that we pray to and believe, hear and obey, love and praise God.  Jesus is the way God comes to us.  Jesus is the way we come to God. ...

Jesus is the way of salvation.  We follow his way.  Jesus is the way of eternal life.  We follow his way.  The way Jesus does it is the way we do it.  Jesus is the way we come to God.  Period.  End of discussion.

And Jesus is the way God comes to us.  On earth, Jesus is the way of faith and obedience and prayer - to God.  From heaven, Jesus is the way of God's revelation, God's salvation, God's blessing - to us.

Everything we need to know of God comes by way of Jesus: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory (John 1:14 RSV).  St. John's Gospel, carefully and in a most leisurely way - "unresting, unhasting, and silent as light" - tells us the story, all the operations of the Holy Trinity revealed to us in Jesus, the Christ.

Several decades ago Charles Sheldon wrote a book that was widely read, What Would Jesus Do?  Good question.  But if another question is not given equal billing alongside it, it yields answers that are only a half-truth.  We must also ask, What is God doing?  Jesus tells us what to do; at the same time he tells us what God is doing.  Jesus is God in action.  Jesus is God speaking.  Jesus is God touching lepers.  Jesus is God forgiving a condemned and dying criminal and an adulterous woman hounded by men holding rocks and poised to kill her.  Jesus is God blessing children.  Jesus is God giving sight to Bartimaeus, life to Lazarus.  Jesus is God calling down judgment on religious posturing.  Jesus is God weeping over Jerusalem.

Jesus.  Jesus.  Jesus.  Jesus is the way we come to God.  Jesus is the way God comes to us.  And not first one and then the other but both at the same time.  Not God's way to us on Sundays and our way to God on weekdays.  It is a two-lane road.  Much mischief has been perpetrated in the Christian community by not keeping both lanes open. ...

Psalm 84 speaks of men and women "in whose hearts are the highways to Zion."  We know something about highways and we know what happens when an accident blocks the lane we are in.  We sit there stuck, while the cars on either side of the road are free to drive home, or to work, or to the mountains to ski, or to the ocean to surf and swim.  It is not enough to have a single lane.  We require a highway with the traffic going both ways - Jesus.  Our way to God.  God's way to us.

~ Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way (2007)