Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rob Bell's 'Oprahfied' Theology

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, best-selling author Rob Bell shares his theological vision.  Compared to what BC at Catholicity and Covenant describes as "the mystery of Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection" and "the great drama of the Paschal Mystery," Bell offers a "spirituality" that is at best a sad, bland, and boring substitute.  And as Andrew Wilson writes on his blog, this interview "is probably a far better reductio ad absurdum of so-called 'progressive' Christianity than anything I could write myself."

Check it out:

Here are some of the "highlights":

Oprah: What is the soul?
Bell: It's the thing that keeps telling you there's more.

Oprah: Your definition of God?
Bell: Like a song you hear in another room, and you think, "Boy, that sounds beautiful but I can only hear a little bit.

Oprah: What does prayer mean to you?
Bell: Prayer to me is usually one word, which is, "Yes.  I'm open.  What's next?"  That's what it is.

Oprah: What's the lesson that's taken you longest to learn?
Bell: There's nothing to prove.  All that's left to do is enjoy.

Oprah: What do you know for sure?
Bell: That you can say "yes" to this moment, and you can experience a joy that can't be put into words.

Oprah: The world needs ...
Bell: ... all of us to wake up.

Oprah: I believe ...
Bell: ... that we're going to be fine.

Oprah: Heaven is ...
Bell: ... here and now and then and there and at hand and among us and upon us and available and real.

Oprah: My favorite thing to do on Sunday morning is ...
Bell: My thirteen-year-old son and I will often go surfing.

Monday, April 21, 2014

St. Ephrem the Syrian on Jesus Christ the Conquerer of Death

The following is an excerpt from an Easter homily by St. Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373).

Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.

Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.

Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong-room and scattered all its treasure.

At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in so doing released life itself and set free a multitude of men.

He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up his cross above death’s all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead.

Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of us all.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sermon for Easter Day 2014

Alleluia! Christ is risen! 
    The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! 

An acclamation like that goes all the way back to the earliest Christians. It's not hard to see why. For it captures the joy of this day, celebrates the heart and soul of our faith, and points to the culmination of mysteries we cannot explain, but which instead explain us by giving our lives their ultimate meaning and purpose. And it’s all grounded in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. 

God came among us in the flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus was anointed in Baptism as the Christ, the Messiah, the One through whom and in whom God’s plan to defeat the powers of sin, evil, and death was to be fulfilled. Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor and freedom for captives. He called people to repent of their sins and revealed God as a loving and merciful Father. He healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, made the deaf hear and the mute speak, spoke truth to power, confronted religious hypocrisy, told beautiful and sometimes puzzling stories about the Reign of God, taught with divine authority, raised the dead, befriended sinners and outcasts, and gave hope to the hopeless. 

People experienced the power and the presence of God in Jesus. And in everything he said and did, they saw God’s love in action and God’s passionate desire to set things right in a broken world. But the whole plan seemed to come crashing down when Jesus was crucified as a common criminal.  

What mere mortals at the time could not see was, in fact, at the heart of the Divine Plan. For Jesus died on the cross to do away with our sins. Jesus died on the cross to defeat the power of death. Jesus died that we might live. And on the third day, by the power of God, Jesus Christ was bodily raised from death, forever conquering the grave. 

And so the Psalmist is right: “On this day the LORD has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). 

The Easter message that God raised Jesus to bodily life again after bodily death turns the world upside down. It flies in the face of experience and common sense. It mocks the pretensions of human wisdom. It undermines our faith in the all-sufficiency of reason. It boldly announces that a Power has been unleashed into this world against which tyrants and bullies, sickness and disease, loss and grief, fear and shame, sin and evil, and death and decay are powerless. And it proves a staggering truth: that God loves this world in all of its dazzling diversity, and that God loves each and every one of us, so very much that He will go to any lengths to guarantee our salvation, including suffering the ravages of death and hell so that we don’t have to. 

But for many of us, the message that Christ is risen may sound too good to be true. It’s not hard to see why. After all, we live in a world in which evil still runs amok. We live in a world in which children go hungry. We live in a world in which dictators and fanatics use violence to bully and intimidate, and bombs go off in marketplaces. We live in a world in which greed and the lust for power hurt others and rob us of our dignity and our capacity for compassion. All too often, the unholy trinity of evil, death, and decay appear to have the upper hand against love, mercy, and kindness. 

But my brothers and sisters, the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is greater than the world. For as we see in the Christus Rex towering over our altar, this is a God who takes an instrument of torture and shameful death and transforms it into a throne of glory from which the risen Jesus calmly and confidently reigns as the world’s true Lord. And because God is so extravagantly good and loves us more than we can possibly imagine, something too good to be true has really happened. For in Jesus Christ, God’s mercy and favor have “shined upon us” (Psalm 118:27). And the power of God has trampled the death and hatred of this world into the dust. 

The immortal words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans captures the triumph and the hope that is ours by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection: “For I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). And this is all true only because Jesus Christ is risen from the grave. 

Our Easter celebration reminds us that the resurrection is not just ancient history. For we continue to encounter the risen Lord. Jesus is alive today. And we meet him in so many ways: in the Word of God read and proclaimed in our worship, in the consecrated Bread and Wine of the Mass, in friends and strangers, in the love and care of our fellowship here at St. Luke’s, among the poor and the marginalized, and in the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Christ is risen, and through the power of the Holy Spirit he guides, comforts, and transforms us into a people whose lives radiate faith, hope, and love. 

And so on this joyous day, we don’t merely look back to what happened to Jesus. We also look forward to what will happen for us and for all of creation. Because Jesus was raised from the dead in the past, we are promised a new kind of life in the future. It will be an eternal life filled with abundant joy in God’s kingdom. We express our hope and longing for this life every time we say in the words of the Nicene Creed that “[Jesus] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” For in God’s kingdom come on earth as it now is in heaven, we shall be freed from sorrow, sickness, suffering, and death. God’s peace and justice will prevail. And “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habbakuk 2:14). 

On this Easter Day, we can go forth from our worship living a freedom and a joy that only the One who has overcome the world can give. For what the angel and the risen Jesus said to the women at the empty tomb, Jesus says to us today: “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:5 & 10). 

Do not be afraid. 

Jesus is right: there is no longer anything to fear. For the tomb is empty. The Lord is risen. Death has lost its sting. God’s plan to heal and redeem all of creation is underway. And our lives are now “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). 

Because Christ is risen, we can now face the changes and chances of this life with the confidence that we and all those we love but see no longer are eternally secure. We can live our lives knowing that every contribution we make for the spread of God’s Kingdom with our time, talent, and money – no matter how small or insignificant it may seem – makes a difference and will last into the future God is building. We can live without fear, knowing that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. And we can be sure that God’s will for abundant life shall prevail over every enemy. 

For God has graciously given us the victory of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. And we belong to the risen Jesus forever.