Thursday, July 31, 2008


14. Solomon Among the Postmoderns by Leithart


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

July in Pictures: Happy Birthday Felicity


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Weightier Matters of the Law

I've mentioned this before, but the phenomenon of "converting" from and to various communions in the body of Christ seems to me to be largely a convenience of western civilization along the lines of having the convenience to choose between a myriad of restaurants, various styles of clothing, and having grocery stores that supply us with food from all over the world at very reasonable prices. Many of those choosing to join the Roman and Eastern communions of course do so because of their distress over the seeming rootlessness of protestantism. They are making the change because they object to this choose-your-own-flavor approach to Christian faith.

But it is still highly troubling that they often do this, either calling upon all their friends and family to forsake their wayward ways or else looking down their noses on all us poor, separated brethren. What we could use is a little old fashion persecution. I've been reading through Foxe's Book of Martyrs recently, and it has struck me repeatedly that these people understood what the Church was all about. People can't get too wound tight about apostolic succession when their children are being beheaded before their very eyes. They are not wondering whether the sacrament they received was legitimate when boiling tar is being poured over their heads. The woman whose nursing child was ripped from her arms, who was then hung in nets naked for a while before finally being gored by a bull, that woman was surely not fretting about proper church government, icons, or who had ordained her pastor.

The faithful, fearless saints are remembered for encouraging one another and even their persecutors with the words, "If I have Jesus, I have enough." "Jesus has been faithful to me, I will be faithful to him." And so on.

Not that questions of church government, succession, ordination, etc. are not important, but they really need to be put in perspective and prioritized. Jesus has some pretty harsh words for people who tithe mint and dill while neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness. There are weightier matters of the law that need to be treated as such. That means they are more important than questions of church polity and sacramental efficacy. I want to have these conversations, but I want to have them with people who are busy dying. I want to have these dialogues with people who are busy giving their lives away for orphans and widows, wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, children, neighbors, and enemies. And this is not meant to imply that any of the people I've been conversing with are anything less than this, but I want to state this upfront and encourage the folks in the peanut gallery to think this way.

From this angle, there's a lot of work to be done, and the questions need to start out much simpler, "Do you have Jesus? Do you love him?" And that actually begins to answer some of the more complicated questions. The sectarians of every communion who are busy excommunicating their brothers and sisters who part their hair on the wrong side are simple, straight up hypocrites. That kind of blindness met some of Christ's fiercest denunciations, and Jesus says that if they had lived back when slaughtering the saints and prophets was in vogue they would have joined in the fun (Mt. 23:29-33). Christians who bite and devour their brothers and sisters, demanding revolutionary change tomorrow, are no better than the Roman tyrants who beat, scourged, pierced, burned, and beheaded countless thousands of faithful saints in the early church.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Celebrating the Humility of Jesus

This meal is called communion, it is a sharing in the body and blood of the Lord. This meal is a celebration of the great humility of Jesus who gave up everything for us men and our salvation. This is why Paul get’s so bothered by the arrogance that some were displaying in the early church during this meal. This is a celebration of the humility of Jesus, a certain mindset that gave up all that was his due, trusting God for a good and glorious outcome. Each time we celebrate this high feast before God, we do it as a memorial. And that doesn’t just mean we think about it really hard for a few minutes. We celebrate this feast as a memorial like Passover, like the rainbow after the flood. This memorial proclaims the death of Christ until he comes, the apostle says. And this means that this meal proclaims the humility of Christ, it proclaims the humble submission of Christ to the will of the Father. And now we are invited to share in it. We are invited to share in the humility of Christ with one another. We are sharing in the humility of Christ in the face of the greatest act of injustice in the history of the world, a righteous man, the only righteous man, crucified with thieves and robbers. And Paul says, do you get it? You’re sharing in that. You’re sharing and communion in that kind of humility. And that doesn’t mean you’ve given up or decided you’re fine with injustice. Actually, it’s just the opposite. It means you trust God for the outcome. It means that you are so utterly confident in the goodness and power of God, that whatever the circumstances, he is willing and able to turn them to good. So whatever it is that haunts you this morning, whatever it is that plagues you, that disturbs you, that bothers you, that annoys you, that gives you grief and heartache this morning. Eat this meal, celebrate this feast, as a memorial, a prayer before the Father. And rejoice in faith, believing that the same God who raised Jesus will raise you up to glory.


Looking Through the Resurrection

We considered this morning the example of Christ who humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross as an act of identifying with his people. Paul exhorts us to pursue the same mind, and ultimately the mind of Christ which is willing to even die. Elsewhere, Paul says in Romans that baptism is baptism into the likeness of the death Christ. In baptism we are united to his death, and we are raised up to new creation life. This means living like that’s true. In the early church it’s sometimes almost humorous to read how quickly and almost haphazardly baptisms occurred. The Roman Centurian was baptized at night with his whole household, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized on the side of the road, and surely it was a wild baptismal service for the three thousand who were baptized at Pentecost. And that exuberance is either really foolish or really faithful, and since these are the apostles Jesus sent into the world to found his church, we have every reason to think that this is nothing but faith. Faith looks at everything in light of the resurrection. Faith is busy trying to see the renewal of the world in everything. See that tree blossoming? That means Jesus conquered death. See that comet? That means Jesus is King of the World. Cell phones? That means sin and death are on the run. Faith sees the world through the resurrection. Everything is evidence of the victory of God.

So the exhortation to you as you raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is twofold: first look at them, teach them, talk about them in light of the resurrection. Look for every opportunity to see the work of Christ in them. Don’t do this because you are doting parents and you’re blind to their flaws and weaknesses. Do it because you believe the promises of God; believe that the promises of the covenant are for them. Believe that they are holy ones, saints, set apart as kings and queens of Christendom. When they’re loud remind each other that Christians are leaders in the world. When they’re wild and energetic remember that we have been given the world to subdue and evangelize, and that’s going to take a lot of energy. And so on. And this should not be understood as an encouragement to go soft on sin, but an encouragement to love them in faith, believing that these little ones will one day be scientists and pastors, governors and explorers, mothers and fathers, and all in service to King Jesus. And this leads to the second exhortation: as you teach them and train them, encourage them to see the world in light of the resurrection. This should mean that they grow in courage. What is there to be afraid of if Christ has conquered death? In Christ, we have been given back the world to rule it, to fill it, to glorify it, and to bless its inhabitants through the gospel. Train your children’s imaginations to dream big, to dig deep, to love the world that God made, and to expect wonderful magic in all the good gifts of our God.


Eleventh Sunday in Trinity: Toward a Theology of Other People 3: Philippians 2:1-14

Opening Prayer: Gracious Father, we ask you to give us courage this morning as we consider your word. We are afraid of really submitting to your word, and we are often even more fearful of submitting to other people. Teach us to rejoice in obedience, but even more, teach us to see the glory of unity.

We’ve now considered the fact that other people are gifts, and that these gifts have been piling up long before we got here. This tradition, this culture arrives at us in the fathers and mothers that surround us today. And the honor we bestow upon our fathers is ultimately based upon the fact that God is our heavenly father.

Pursuing the Same Mind
Paul exhorts the Philippians to be likeminded based on three realities: their consolation in Christ, comfort of love, and participation in the Spirit. Paul may have any number of things specifically in mind here, but it sounds highly reminiscent of the Trinitarian benediction at the end of another letter (2 Cor. 13:14). If any of that is real and true, Paul says that the completion of his joy would be found in being likeminded, being united in thought and affections (2:2). If you know the Trinity, be like the Trinity. He literally says the “same thinking, the same love, having united spirits, and one way of thinking.” This is another way of saying “conform.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of conformity to the image of the Son so that we might be like him, like brothers (Rom. 8:26-29). And at the same time, Paul says don’t be “conformed to this world” but be transformed (Rom. 12:2). Peter says the same thing when he says not to be conformed to their “former ignorance” but be holy just like God is (1 Pet. 1:14-16). So we are always called to reject one way of thinking, acting, living, and called to embrace another. The question is: whose mind are you pursuing?

Putting off Rivalry and Conceit
Paul says that one of the ways you can know the difference is by whether you are acting out of rivalry or conceit (Phil. 2:3). And this rivalry and conceit often shows up in two different ways: Option A is the straight up rivalry and conceit: I will be better than them, and I will get all the glory. Option B is the not so straight up but just as obvious rivalry and conceit: Since they are better, more ____ (fill in the blank), I will do my own thing and steal their glory. And people do this with all sorts of things: clothing/hair, sports, home culture, theological convictions, worship styles/traditions, etc. But Paul says we must consider others better than ourselves. This word only shows up five times in the NT, and in two of those places it means being subject to civil authorities. Consider others, Paul says, as having more importance, worthy of more honor than you and your opinions. This is another way of saying that people always submit. The only question is ‘who are you submitting to?’ And who has priority: mom, dad, roommate, blogs, books, pastors, teachers, parents’ friends, TV, magazines? Again, whose mind are you pursuing? And Paul says that when you make a decision do it in the interest of others over your own; not your will but their will be done (Phil. 2:4). And the summary of it all is: have the mind of Christ who gave up everything that was his due so that he could have more (Phil. 2:5-11).

Conclusions and Applications
The gospel of Disney, Hollywood, and all of the rest of the modern day prophets is the imperative of following your own heart, be different, go against the flow. But the question that needs to be asked is ‘different than what?’ ‘different than whom?’ ‘which flow?’ ‘what’s my heart saying?’

Two things need to be constantly kept in mind: first, apart from the grace of God, the heart of man is desperately wicked. And second, Christ rose from the dead to make all things new. This means that we need to hold together a certain skepticism regarding human nature and a certain optimism about the trajectory of history. And that means first and foremost a certain skepticism of our own wisdom and a certain optimism about the people God has surrounded us with.

Finally, given what we have already established about the people God has given us and the gifts of our fathers and mothers, we need to train our instincts to act and think with the flow of God’s blessing. Go with that flow. And this applies across the board in your families, with your children, with your teachers, with your classmates, with your neighbors, and of course in the church. Work at having the same mind and loving the same things. Of course you are different; that’s the point.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!

Closing Prayer: Almighty God, we confess that so often we sin against the Holy Spirit by not trusting Him to bring us back from the dead. We don’t mind going under here and there, but we are afraid to lose ourselves, to lose our gifts, to lose our concerns, our opinions, our desires, our dreams, but Father we know that Jesus gave up everything and he had far more to lose and yet you gave it all back and even more. Therefore we rejoice in your calling us to die because we know that you have prepared great things for us. And therefore we cry out to in faith praying the words that Christ taught us, singing…


Submitting in Faith

The gospel, the good news, is that we have a king who has come and delivered us from all our enemies through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. But if you believe this gospel, and if you believe it is good news for all of life, for the entire world, then your mission is to see this reality impressed upon everything you do and touch. And this is the pattern of death and resurrection. And this means we need to continually go back and study and remember how Christ died. And notice two things: first, when Christ went to the cross, when he willingly suffered the scourging and the beating, the false accusations and the mockery, he did not suddenly begin to agree with his accusers. Dying did not mean that Christ actually decided he wasn’t the Messiah, the King of Israel, and the Savior of the World. In fact it was because he fundamentally disagreed with the proceedings that he endured the shame and excruciating pain of the cross. Second, Hebrews says that Jesus endured the shame of the cross for the joy that was set before him. In other words, Jesus believed unswervingly that God would raise him from the dead. And here is the point, all of you are called to submit in various ways and at various times. You may need to submit to your parents, to your husband, to elders or pastors, or civil authorities. And just so get the picture, Paul says that all Christians must submit to one another. Submission means letting go of whatever it is that you wanted and obeying. It means dying to self, valuing the other person more highly, and following. Now sometimes you will submit and midway through you’ll realize that the other person was right and you were wrong and thank God for that. But it’s very possible that you may be asked to submit to unreasonable demands, what you consider unjust punishment, or just unkind directions. The requirement to submit does not mean that you change your mind, it doesn’t mean that you must suddenly agree with your accuser, Jesus didn’t change his mind. We submit to authorities because we ultimately submit to God the judge of all men. He sees us, he hears our prayers, and we believe that he is the God who vindicates his people. And so the call to submit is the call to trust God, trust the God who sees all and raises the dead. This is the gospel, the good news, that our king has remade this world such that you cannot be finally defeated by any enemy.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Authority, Tradition, and Heroes

So Matt and Brad have asked the question that is lurking behind a good bit of this discussion, and that has to do with the nature of authority.

When must Christians submit to authority? At what point is a Christian justified in fleeing that authority, rejecting authority, etc?

I just want to start the conversation by answering two points from the comments of the Who Do You Trust? post.

First, as to Matt's last assertion that Calvin always had the option of submitting, this is just not the case. The historical circumstances were incredibly topsy-turvy not to mention the fact that he was a wanted man from time to time. When they're killing all your friends and chasing you with swords, that's not exactly an invitation to dialogue. Perhaps you've heard of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre? Christ establishes families and says what God has joined together let no man put asunder, and yet when a husband begins beating his wife and children, the wife has a biblical obligation to run. Authority is not absolute, automatic, or irrevocable, sacrament or no sacrament. And when the family has a long tradition of beating wives and children, the wife has an even greater obligation to break that tradition.

I put up a post a while ago here which covered some of the exact same points focusing on the idea of unity, but the same point holds for the concept of authority as well. It is simply not true that the foundation of ecclesiastical authority is found in people. God certainly bestows authority on particular people as he wishes and normally it should be orderly and predictable, but the foundation of ecclesiastical authority is Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible Triune God. This is why when Paul is speaking about unity and humility he grounds it in the person of the "One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph. 4:6).

Second, as to Brad's question in the comments regarding the reformers' willingness to reform within, I would again appeal to the analogy of the brow-beaten wife. Of course a wife is biblically required to submit to her husband in the Lord. But when that husband abuses her and her children and for many years, she is not under the obligation to stay and suck it up. And it won't do to tisk-tisk that same wife when she objects to moving home after only a year or two of slightly better behavior. And it is simply not true that this refusal to trust an abusive husband somehow throws Paul's injunctions to Christian wives out the window. It is not a threat to authority to tell an abused wife to run. Neither is it a threat to the church authority to flee the bishop who wants your head on a pike. And when he chuckles and invites you to talk things over a few weeks later, I wouldn't blame anyone for staying far away (in fact I would advise it). Several centuries of high-handed abuse doesn't qualify the abuser for leniency when he calls for a Church Council. At the same time, surely you are aware that there were continuing talks between Geneva and RCC bishops. At least one conference resulted in a united statement on justification. But the Magisterium required those bishops to repudiate their attempted peace. Likewise, there were Protestants at the Council of Trent and a number Protestant-minded Catholics as well. Bucer, for one, is famous (or infamous) for his attempts at reconciliation throughout his life. But for all the progress that the RCC has made, modern day Catholics that do not recognize the gross failings of the established church leading up to the Protestant Reformation are simply blind. This does not mean it was not the church of Jesus Christ, but God is not bound by human tradition. As lovely as an unbroken chain of bishops might be, God was pleased to go beyond that, and it has still pleased him to do so. I'm sure there were a number of Israelites none too pleased with the Reformation of Samson in the era of the Judges either, but it was still the work of the Holy Spirit delivering the people of God from her enemies. The work of Calvin, Luther, Wycliff, Huss, Bucer, and Zwingli was no less heroic.

Lurking beneath questions of ecclesiastical authority is the question of what Jesus actually commanded his apostles and therefore what we are required to follow, and this gets at Brad's assertion that Presbyterianism was/is an historically novel notion. But again, that's simply not the case. The early church was a gloriously messy place, and it is simply not true that all the orders of bishops, presbyters, and deacons had shiny little job descriptions. The way Christian authority works and has always worked is through the way of service. If you want to be great in the Kingdom of God you must become like a little child and a slave of all. Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Tertullian, Origen, and even Cyprian in the middle of the third century are not working with fully developed Episcopal forms of church government. It does not prove anything to quote them saying they have bishops. We do too even if we don't call our pastors by that name. Ambrose of Milan (376) and even Augustine later on refer to the fact that their customs of church government where not the law of the church by divine fiat but rather rested on the wisdom of the church to build unity and order. And this does not mean that I don't think we have anything to learn from the fact that through most of the church's history it has been organized in an Episcopalian fashion. Nor am I defending every last thing the reformers did or said. I am saying they are/were heroes of the faith, judges like Samson and Gideon who delivered God's people from hirelings that had broken into the sheepfold. And it doesn't matter if hands were laid on their head, they spoke in tongues at their ordination, or they were dressed exactly like shepherds. You can always tell a tree by its fruit, and you can always tell a hireling by his way with the sheep.



Thursday, July 24, 2008

Deep Smit: Learning to Kiss Real Icons

Josh Gibbs has a new post up covering our most recent conversation. I have deep respect for a man who takes the counsel of his friends and elders seriously, and since I had responded to some of his recent posts here, I wanted to thank him for that here as well.

But a few other thoughts on the general theme: First, it is very striking that these "conversions" often happen quickly after a number of months of quiet festering. What I mean is that all of the times I have seen something like this, it has been the sort of thing where a guy is first converted in spirit fairly isolated from friends and family, makes the announcement public and proceeds to be confirmed in the new church of his choice. But it's this very process that I object to so strenuously. It utterly ignores the friends, family, and church that God has given previously. Of course there are situations where it's happened differently, of course there have been reformed pastors and elders that should have been more faithful and loving and more willing to talk and discuss issues. But it has occurred to me that there is a very similar sort of scenario that occurs from time to time with fathers and daughters.

Imagine: A girl comes home to her dad one day and says, "I met the man of my dreams, and we would like your blessing to get married next week." This is the first time he's heard about it, and maybe to make matters more complicated, the dad has some significant concerns about the guy. Let's say maybe the daughter even came to her dad at one point previously and asked about the guy, and the dad said, "Yeah maybe there are a few redeeming qualities about this guy, but I've got some serious concerns about this, that, and the other." And the daughter said, "Well if you think it's a bad idea, I trust you. I won't pursue it." But, as it turns out, the daughter has been seeing this guy on the sly, they're madly in love, and now they're planning to get married. It's the dad's duty in one sense to tell the daughter "no," and give his reasons. But the more fundamental question has everything to do with trust and loyalty and love. Why haven't we been together on this? Why didn't you come back and ask more questions? Why have we not been discussing these issues for the last number of months? And so on. It will not do for the daughter to insist that by marrying this man she will actually be getting closer to her dad.

Which is again why I would appeal to questions of loyalty, trust, and honor. Who do you trust? Who has God given you as your fathers in the faith? Of course they are not perfect, of course they have failed in various ways, but they are your family, your people, give them the love and honor God calls you to give them.

And this is not at all a refusal to tackle the difficult questions. Of course not everyone has the time, inclination, or ability to do tons of study, but it would be far more helpful for people pondering these issues to go to their pastor, father, elders, and friends and say, "I've been wondering about icons, what do you think?" I for one would want to say, "Hey, that's a long, complicated story. But let's start meeting together, reading some books, and discussing the issues." But it's a little more difficult to have that conversation when someone has already made up their mind after having read little to nothing on the subject.

And actually this has everything to do with icons. The question is not whether but which. There will always be icons, but the question is which icons are most suitable for representing God to his people. God is not anti-icons. It is clear from the very beginning that he has always intended to have images of himself and lots of them. But he objects to being portrayed in ways that significantly distort the kind of God he is. Chiefly, he wants to picture himself, and he wants his pictures to be alive. He wants his images to have hands and feet, mouths and ears that work. He wants his images to speak words of comfort to the downcast; he wants his images to rebuke the foolish. He wants his images to have hands that can be used to heal and touch and embrace. He wants his images to have eyes that see the needs of others and have ears to hear their cries and respond. In short he wants images and icons that are truly like Him, full of mercy and compassion. There is absolutely no problem with venerating images of Christ in worship so long as they are alive, so long as they are the images that God has authorized, the descendants of Adam and Eve that have been remade and renewed according to the image of God found in Christ. And this is precisely what we do when we say, "The Lord be with you/And with your spirit." This is what we do when we Pass the Peace and greet one another with a Holy Kiss. Kissing icons? You bet, so long as they are living, breathing icons of our Lord Jesus.

Let's have generations of this kind of icon veneration; let's have a rich tradition of honoring fathers and mothers and wives and husbands and children and grandchildren according to God's word, a legacy of caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and along the way we can talk about the proper use of Christian art in worship (which I am not opposed to at all). But a refusal to honor and listen to the living icons all around you is iconoclasm at its worst.



Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who Do You Trust?

A good friend of mine, Josh Gibbs, has posted a couple of recent entries on his blog that I wanted to respond to.

First, in his Joe Versus the Volcano post from July 17th, he suggests that perhaps one of the ways of looking at the cross-migration of folks to and from various traditions of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy is in the way that God determines to grow particular individuals up. He cites friends of ours in particular who have "blossomed" in their new surroundings and recognizes that there are just as many folks coming the other way into Protestantism from one of those two branches of the church that have grown in ways never conceivable in their old cathedral digs. Now, I certainly appreciate Josh's sensibility to recognize that this is going both ways, (although I would suggest it is FAR more common that cradle catholics and orthodox are blossoming when they "get saved" in college through some hip and trendy evangelical ministry than the other way around – but that's not really what I want to talk about). My first objection to Josh's logic is how myopic this description appears to be. It seems fairly near-sighted to evaluate one's transition based on six months or two years of experience. Yes, I know that we can all name certain (in)famous characters who have done the transition to Rome or Constantinople and lo, there they are 20 or 50 years later and appear to still love Jesus with all the fervor of a spirit-filled charismatic. And thank God for that. But what about their children and their grandchildren? Jesus warns about certain people who get their houses exorcised, all swept and clean and organized so that after a while seven more demons can take up residence. Which is all to say that judging "ugly" in one tradition and "lovely" in another seems far too superficial. I know that Josh means things like simple, sacrificial obedience and love for neighbors and family, but again, how can we judge the trajectory of that kind of transition after a few years? Which is to say that this kind of evaluation is always secondary to the question, 'who do you trust?' This is the most important question, I believe. Do you trust the pastors and teachers who have faithfully taught you, prayed for you, counseled you, and given themselves up for you over the last number of years, or do you trust the guy who you met a few months ago who chants prayers to icons? And this is not a question about whether you may like or respect people in other traditions. The question is, who do you trust more? Who will you submit to?

People who leave traditions do so because they no longer trust their pastors and elders to lead and pastor them. And sometimes that's understandable, but Josh's apparent ambivalence doesn't seem to recognize the personal nature of the church community. You can't just say, sorry I found a new church; it's nothing personal. It's always personal. It's always a question of loyalty and trust and gratitude. And yes, it has everything to do with the "frustratingly personal God" found in Jesus Christ and him alone. But where are we to see this personal God found in Christ? St. John says, "If you do not love your brother who you have seen, you cannot love God whom you have not seen" (1 Jn. 4:20). Similarly, the whole point of the parable of the sheep and the goats is the calling of Jesus to see Him in the people right in front of you. And so my question is, how many migrating goats will be told on that great and terrible day, "when I was hungry you went on a pilgrimage to Rome." "When I was naked, you were praying to your icons. When I was sick and lonely, you preferred to spend time with your well-vested priest. Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt. 25:31-45). It is all about Christ, and so I want to know why it would ever be OK to treat the body of Christ like an amusement park where different people can get their thrills on different rides and that's really all that matters at the end of the day. Now I know that Josh isn't saying that, but surely he would recognize that his point is not too far removed. If Christ is found in the people right in front you, why would you ignore them, walk away from them to find new friends in some other tradition, and how could it be done in the name of finding Christ? Christ is goodness, and his goodness is the family he reared you in, the fathers and mothers he gave you when you were young, and the friends and brothers who still love you today.

Second, I wanted to respond to Josh's post on closed communion in the Reformed tradition (also from July 17th). On that note, it is true to point out that Reformed churches of various stripes do indeed practice various forms of closed communion. In some Reformed churches only the members of that particular church are allowed to partake. In others, there is only a small number of fraternal denominations that are recognized as being able to participate with them. And so comparing those with Rome or Constantinople, there really isn't much difference on that point. But Josh's point has more to do with taking communion to the sick, the disabled, and the outcast who are for various reasons unable to be in regular Sunday service. But here there are several important distinctions that Josh isn't careful to make. He does say that he is willing to be taught, and that's great, but these are the kind of distinctions that a couple of introductory books on reformation theology would clear up. And all I mean is that the answer to Josh's question is fairly simple. The Reformers were fed up with the Eucharistic idolatry going on in the late middle ages. Saving the elements in order to pray to them later, holding them up in the air and walking through town for the crowds to cower at various clergymen's feet, and using them as tools of manipulation against God's people were all abuses that the Reformers (and probably most modern RCCs) loathed. The Westminster Confession's point is merely to disallow the idolatry and the practice of private masses, where one individual could be elevated above the rest to have communion by himself, or commonly where political rulers could get their grace without actually being part of the worshipping body of saints. To be clear: the reserving and venerating of the host had grown into a kind of manipulative maneuver that pushed the majority of the people of God into the margins. These idolatrous practices were being used to abuse the very lambs that Christ called his apostles to feed. Ironically, the very thing that Josh thinks he sees in Westminster is the very thing the Reformers were seeking to correct. The Eucharist is for the people of God; it's for the commoners, the outcasts, the sick, the lonely, the dying.

And while I think we could always do a far better job of acting this out in practice, I know of plenty of occasions where it has been done in Reformed churches, where pastors have celebrated the sacrament with the faithful in hospital rooms and nursing homes, and as at least one commenter pointed out in the original post, there were prominent examples of this in the early Reformation churches themselves.

All that to say, these are great questions to raise and worthy of discussion. But I would plead with whatever audience I have to be patient and use caution in rushing to conclusions. People have actually discussed these very things before. These questions have been raised and answered by our fathers in the faith. Don't think that this is a new discussion. It's been going on for 500 years. Honor that tradition enough to listen for a little while.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Living Icons

Throughout the history of the Church there have been numerous controversies surrounding pictures and images of Christ and the saints, but most Christians, including the Reformers, have insisted that this meal is an authorized image of Christ. But it is not bread and wine by themselves which consists of this picture, and that is why they rightly objected to the veneration of the elements as we would as well. The body of Christ is not found in the existence of bread in a sanctuary or wine in a chalice. The apostle says that we are to discern Christ in the communion, in the thankful sharing of the bread and wine. As we celebrate with thanksgiving together and hand one another the bread and the wine and tell one another the gospel of forgiveness, that is the body of Christ. That is the image of Christ we are supposed to see and discern. This is a much different sort of icon than the ones commonly honored in other traditions, and we do this because God told is in the very beginning how he wanted to be pictured. He pictured himself in humanity when he created them. He composed his own icons in Adam and Eve, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God created humans to be his images in the world. He re-created us in his grace to be conformed to the image of Christ, the perfect picture of the invisible God. This image and picture is one that is not static. It is not lifeless like stone, paper, or precious metals. It is alive. It moves, it breathes, it acts, and it creates just like God. This is what the Triune God looks like. As nice as pictures of dead saints may be, they are lifeless; they have hands but they cannot hand you the bread of life. As beautiful as an ancient icon may be, it is lifeless; it has a mouth, but it cannot tell you that your sins are forgiven through the blood of Christ. Do not imagine some Jesus picture in your head. You don’t need to do that. God reveals himself to us here and now, week after week. He says, do you want to know what I am like? Do you want to see what the Trinity is like? Then open your eyes, open your mouths, and rejoice together. You are surrounded by true images of God, images with hands and feet and mouths and ears. Our God is alive and well and acts and breathes and speaks and hears, and we are the living icon of that God; we are the image of the invisible God as we make up the body of Christ, animated as we are by His Spirit. So as we celebrate this feast together honor the images of Christ around you: honor your mothers, honor your fathers, honor your brothers and sisters and roommates and neighbors and honor your children.


Tenth Sunday of Trinity Season: Toward a Theology of Other People 2: Ex. 20, Pr. 27:9-10

Opening Prayer: Gracious Father, you are our Father, and you have given us life by our Mother, the Christian Church. We ask that you would teach us to honor our fathers and mothers. Give us grace that we might see where we have failed in this, and even greater grace to make it right. Through Christ our elder brother, Amen!

Last week we established the biblical norm that other people are God’s gift to us. And the particular people that God has given us and given us to is significant. Space and time contribute to prioritizing the neighbors that we love. Another name for this prioritizing is loyalty. This is a fairly radical sentiment in the modern, transient world.

Other People as Tradition
Other people is really another way of saying culture or tradition. When we refer to the other people that God has surrounded us with, we are referring to our people, our tradition, our culture, our fathers and mothers (Ex. 20:12), our friends (Pr. 27:9), and the friends of our fathers (Pr. 27:10). And of course our tradition and culture is made up of neighbors going back centuries, but our immediate reception and taste of that culture and tradition is incarnated in the lives of our immediate neighbors. While biblically, we are required to always use wisdom in discerning good and evil in the past, present , and future, the fifth commandment generally leans us in a direction of expecting God to have blessed us already. Grace comes up to meet us in salvation (Rom. 5:8); while we were still planning treason, God conspired to bless us. And when that grace overtakes us, it immediately causes us to look back at everything that led up to that point, all the grace that has followed us through life. The fifth commandment means expecting God to have already blessed us, and seeing that blessing in the people that have come before us. As Christians, we lean into the world with a faithful optimism concerning the past.

Who is My Father?
In Scripture, fathers and mothers are not just biological fathers and mothers. They include all lawful authorities in our lives: These authorities are fathers and mothers which God requires his people to honor. While family fathers and ruler-fathers are often the same people in the early history of Israel, the whole logic of the Covenant is that Abraham is our father by virtue of covenant loyalty (i.e. faith) (Rom. 4:16-18). Abraham and all of the “fathers” of Israel were not merely fathers by blood (though that was often the case). They were fathers of Israel by faith, meaning that they were God-appointed rulers and teachers of Israel and were to be honored as such. This begins to emerge more explicitly in the era of the kings: Elijah is the father of Elisha (2 Kgs. 2:12). Servants call their master/commander “father” (2 Kgs. 5:13). Isaiah calls kings “foster fathers” and queens “nursing mothers” (Is. 49:23). Elisha is considered the father of the king of Israel (2 Kgs. 13:14). The prophets being called father suggests that the office of prophet/teacher in Israel was considered a “fatherly” office. Thus, much later, Paul describes his relationship with Timothy similarly to Elijah and Elisha (cf. Phil. 2:22, 1 Tim. 1:2, 2 Tim. 1:2). Paul says that he and Timothy came and ministered to the Thessalonians as nursing mothers and exhorting fathers (1 Thess. 2:7-11ff). Paul says that the Corinthians have many instructors but few fathers in the faith (1 Cor. 4:15). Paul extends this in other directions as well when he encourages Timothy (and other young ministers) to exhort older men as fathers in the faith (1 Tim. 5:1). Fathers and mothers include biological parents but also teachers, pastors, elders, political rulers, and older neighbors of all sorts.

Conclusions & Applications
So who are the fathers and mothers of your people? Your fathers and mothers include people like Peter and Noel Leithart, Douglas and Nancy Wilson, Jim and Bessie Wilson, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Cornelius Van Til and J. Gresham Machen, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, George Washington and Patrick Henry, Thomas Cranmer, Martin Bucer, Alfred the Great, John Calvin, Gregory the Great, Charlemagne, Augustine, Constantine, Athanasius, the Apostle Paul, Phoebe, Mary, Elijah, Moses, Miriam, Abraham, Sarah, Noah, and Adam and Eve (and of course many, many more).

So first off, this is your family, your people, your tradition, your culture. Second, as this story unfolds in time and arrives at you, it comes packaged in the persons of your immediate parents, siblings, pastors, elders, deacons, senators, governors, neighbors, and church family. This matrix of people forms the incarnation of that tradition, that story, that legacy. It represents the gospel in some ways better and in some ways worse than other traditions, but it is the family that God has bestowed upon you. And this is glorious, but there are always the temptations to apathy, despair, or revolution. Avoid them all. Love your neighbors, honor your parents, trust and obey God.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!

Closing Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you that you are remaking this world, and we thank you that you have been about this mission for the last two thousand years. We thank you that in your infinite wisdom you have told our stories, which began with our ancestors long ago. Teach us to rejoice in our past even where it was rough, even where it hurts, trusting your goodness and faithfulness and teach us to see how you have been blessing us already, even before we were aware of it. And therefore give us loyalty to that story, loyalty to your goodness. Through Christ our Lord who taught us to pray singing…


Love Covers Sins

Scripture says that “love covers a multitude of sins”. It does not say that it might or that it could. It says that it does. This means that if we are not regularly covering sins, then whatever we have, it certainly is not love. Our love for our brothers and sisters must be so great that we will do everything in our power to forgive, forget and cover over the blemishes of others. This begins with our attitudes: A firm commitment to this means that we must think the best of everyone. Paul says that love “hopes all things”. And one of the things this means is that it is a Christian duty to tell the story, remember the event, recall what he/she said, shedding the best possible light on all people involved. Your mission as a Christian is to make everyone else’s reputation as good as possible. And this is our mission even when we think someone has snubbed us, ignored us, and perhaps shown some level of disregard for us. You mission as a follower of Jesus is to bless that person and think and speak about them in the best possible light. This is at least one meaning of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember the words of Christ: But if you do not forgive, neither will your father in heaven forgive your trespasses. You will be judged by the standard with which you judge. And if you are picky and critical, then God will be picky and critical of you. And God knows that on even on one of our very best days, he’d have more than enough to condemn us all. But God in His great love has covered our sins. Therefore go and do likewise.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Grace to One Another

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:16-17)

We’ve considered this morning the fact that God has saved us and is saving us through other people, chiefly Jesus Christ, our neighbor, our Good Samaritan who came to our rescue when we were left for dead on the side of the road. But this salvation is lived out here and during the week as communion, community, koinonia. This means that you need one another. One of the ways that we picture that mutual dependence is in the way that we partake of the bread and the wine. We give thanks here together, and then the bread and the wine go out from here, down the rows, and out to the back of the congregation. We picture in this what the gospel is doing in the world. It is a river that flows out of the temple and floods the earth. It is yeast that leavens the entire loaf until it is fully risen. The Church is the body of Christ, and therefore his blood flows through us. We have just exchanged Peace with one another, and now we are enacting that peace. But notice how we are doing it. We are doing it with the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. This is the only way to have peace. This is the only way relationships work. This is the only way you can deal with other people, through the blood of Christ. But by the grace of God this meal makes you all grace to one another. You are images of God, instruments of blessing to one another. So come eat, drink, and rejoice in the kindness of God.


Ninth Sunday of Trinity Season: Toward a Theology of Other People 1: Eccl. 4:9-12 and Lk. 10:25-37

Opening Prayer: Gracious Father, we ask that you would empower your word now. Cut us up that we might be living sacrifices holy and blameless. Separate the thoughts and intents of our hearts that we might be reconciled to our parents, to our children, to our siblings, and to all of our neighbors. Through Christ our Lord, Amen!

We begin a new chapter in the story of Trinity Reformed Church this morning. It is fitting for us to consider who we are and what we are called to as a body of believers. The great summary statement of our calling is the two great commandments which summarize all the law and the prophets: Love God and love your neighbor (Lk. 10:27). Pastor Leithart and I will be sharing the preaching duties over the next number of months, and while he continues to work through Matthew, I will be doing a topical series on a hodgepodge of issues related to family, community, and culture: toward a theology of other people.

Isolation is not Good
When God created Adam, he said that it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Even though this is in the context of marriage, the principle is that two are better than one (Eccl. 4:9-12). All things being equal, it is better to be with people than not. And this is presupposed by the greatest commandments. There must be God and neighbor in order for us to carry out those commands. But these other people are not merely decorations; they are helpers (Gen. 2:18). The wise man says that there is a better reward when two work together on a project; woe to the one who is alone when he falls (Eccl. 4:10). Other people even keep us warm. They are comfort, courage, and strength against enemies (Eccl. 4:12). The common assumption that doing something “by yourself” is somehow more valuable is not true. It is more glorious to weather a storm with other people. Two are better than one; a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Who is my Neighbor?
A significant part of the story of the Good Samaritan is the answer to the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ The answer comes in the form of a story that reveals that your neighbor is the person right in front of you. Jesus says, ‘go and do likewise.’ Don’t make excuses; just do it. This means that proximity and opportunity are important aspects to answering this question. You do not have more responsibility for the needs you know nothing about. Nor do you have more responsibility for the needs you can do nothing about. This means that our neighbors must necessarily be prioritized (Pr. 27:10). Neighbors that are nearer in space and time are the neighbors that God wants us to love, honor, and cherish the most. This means that what your mother thinks is more important than something you read on a blog somewhere. The joyful obedience of your children is more important for you than following the latest diet fad.

Flee all forms of isolationism: it is not good for you to be alone. You need to love and be loved by these particular people: God has given you your spouse, your children, your parents, your elders, your co-workers, your neighbors. These other people are God’s good gifts to you (Eph. 4:4-12). They are your people, and your response needs to be gratitude because God promises to use them for your good. Do not act, speak, or think as though it would be better to be alone, to be free of these other people, free of their opinions, free of their challenges, free of their . Do not grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). They are the neighbors that God has given you. And this is not because it is the easiest way; it is because it is the better way. It is not good for you to be alone because that is how God’s image is being revealed and perfected in you. Therefore, the first lesson toward a theology of other people is that you are not your own (1 Cor. 6:19, 12:13ff). And that is grace. So love them. Cherish their opinions, honor their methods, value their contributions. These are your people. This is your tradition. Embrace the grace that God is bestowing upon you.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!

Closing Prayer: Almighty God, you sent your Spirit at Pentecost that we might be your renewed humanity, that our lives might be bound up together, hidden with you in Christ. Teach us to love other people; teach us to love the other people right in front of us, the ones that live with us, the ones that we talk to every day. And grant us these things as we pray as your Son taught us singing…