Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Vulnerable Love of God

On the 7th day of Christmas, something from William Placher on the vulnerable love of God incarnated in Jesus:
To read the biblical narratives is to encounter a God who is, first of all, love (1 John 4:8). Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering. God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to place his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross–condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53:3). Just this Jesus is the human face of God, not merely a messenger or a prophet but God’s own self come as self-revelation to humankind. If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something of how we might seek our own fullest humanity–not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and willingness to be vulnerable in love.
Narratives of a Vulnerable God, p. xiii

Friday, December 30, 2011

Jesus = the very face of God

We continue to commemorate the mystery of the Incarnation on the 6th day of Christmas:

Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance tells about how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation–and they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see Jesus is to see the very face of God."
William Placher, Jesus the Savior, p. 21 (quoting Torrance, Preaching Christ Today, p. 55)

There is a phrase associated with two of the greatest Anglican thinkers of the last generation, Michael Ramsey and John V. Taylor: ‘God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all'. What is seen in Jesus is what God is; what God is is the outpouring and returning of selfless love, which is the very essence of God’s definition, in so far as we can ever speak of a ‘definition’ of the mystery.
Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 70

It is because of Jesus that we grasp the idea of a God who is entirely out to promote our life and lasting Joy. . . Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God's life 'translated' into another medium. Here God is supremely and uniquely at work.
Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 57

Thursday, December 29, 2011

His secret beauty on our own scale

On the 5th day of Christmas:
One of the most convicting aspects of Christianity, if we try to see it in terms of our own day, is the contrast between its homely and inconspicuous beginnings and the holy powers it brought into the world. It keeps us in perpetual dread of despising small things, humble people, little groups. The Incarnation means that the Eternal God enters our common human life with all the energy of His creative love, to transform it, to exhibit to us its riches, its unguessed significance; speaking our language, and showing us His secret beauty on our own scale.
- Evelyn Underhill, The School of Charity

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

God Endured What He Decreed

The fourth day of Christmas, Holy Innocents, calls to mind these thoughts from Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams:

Dorothy Sayers:
What does the Church think of Christ? The Church’s answer is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God “by whom all things were made.” His body and brain were those of a common man; his personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms. He was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”—he was God.

Now, this is not just a pious commonplace: it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.
- The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, The Whimsical Christian

Charles Williams:
The original act of creation can be believed to be good and charitable; it is credible that Almighty God should deign to create beings to share His Joy. It is credible that he should deign to increase their Joy by creating them with the power of free will so that their joy should be voluntary. It is certain that if they have the power of choosing joy in Him they must have the power of choosing the opposite of joy in Him. . .

He could have willed us not to be after the Fall. He did not. Now the distress of creation is so vehement and prolonged, so tortuous and torturing, that even naturally it is revolting to our sense of justice, much more supernaturally. We are instructed that He contemplates, from His infinite felicities, the agonies of His creation, and deliberately maintains them in it. . . The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together. (Romans 8:22)

This is a creation then that ‘needs’ (let the word be permitted) justifying. The Cross justifies it to this extent at least–that just as He submitted us to His inexorable will, so He submitted Himself to our wills (and therefore to His). He made us; He maintained us in our pain. At least, however, on the Christian showing, He consented to be Himself subject to it. If, obscurely, He would not cease to preserve us in the full horror of existence, at least He shared it. This is the first approach to justice in the whole situation. Whatever He chose He chose fully, for Himself as for us. This is, I think, unique in the theistic religions of the world. I do not remember any other in which the Creator so accepted the terms of His own terms–at least in the limited sense of existence upon this earth. It is true that His life was short. His pain (humanly speaking) comparatively brief. But at least, alone among the gods, He deigned to endure the justice He decreed.
- The Cross (from Charles Williams: Selected Writings, chosen by Anne Ridler)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Stupendous Theme of Christianity

For the 3rd day of Christmas, here is some more from E. L. Mascall (1905-1993):

“The stupendous theme [of Christianity is] that God’s ultimate purpose for the human race and for the whole material universe is that they should be taken up into Christ and transformed into a condition of unimaginable glory, and that it is for this that God took our human nature, in which spirit and matter are so mysteriously and intricately interwoven.” The Christian Universe, p. 109

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Humanity of Christ

For the 2nd day of Christmas, here is something from E. L. Mascall (1905-1993) on the humanity of Christ:

“It was human nature, not a human person, that God the Son united to himself when he became man. Thus, both the state of fallenness and the state of redemption appertain in the first place to the human race as such, and then to individual men and women as members of it; and this does not mean that God is not interested in us as individuals, but that he is interested in us as the kind of individuals we are, namely members of one another.” The Christian Universe, p. 104-105

Sunday, December 25, 2011

God contrived to make himself born

"In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son." Hebrews 1:1-2

"God, being unable to make himself known, contrived to make himself born."
- Paul Claudel (1868-1955), La Rose et le Rosaire, cited in I Believe in God, p. 69

"God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and it remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations.; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel's message to the shepherds: 'Peace upon earth, good will to men . . . and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.'

A Son is better han an explanation. The explanation of our deaths leaves us no less dead than we were, but a Son gives us a life in which to live."
- Austin Farrer, Christmas sermon, A Faith of Our Own, p. 34

". . . but we see Jesus . . ." Hebrews 2:9

It is because of Jesus that we grasp the idea of a God who is entirely out to promote our life and lasting Joy. . . Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God's life 'translated' into another medium. Here God is supremely and uniquely at work. - Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 57

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God."
- Gospel of John 1:1-12

"The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding." - Martin Luther, Table Talk

"If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the world." - C. S. Lewis, Miracles, chapter 14, par. 2

Friday, December 23, 2011

The promise of our quickening

A poem by Scott Cairns:

Christmas Green
Just now the earth recalls His stunning visitation. Now
the earth and scattered habitants attend to what is possible:
that He of a morning entered this, our meagered circumstance,
and so relit the fuse igniting life in them,
igniting life in all the dim surround.
And look, the earth adopts a kindly affect. Look,
we almost see our long estrangement from it overcome.
The air is scented with the prayer of pines, the earth is softened
for our brief embrace, the fuse continues bearing to all elements
a curative despite the grave, and here within our winter this,
the rising pulse, bears still the promise of our quickening.

Scott Cairns. Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2006 pp.136.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

At the back of our own heart

Some thoughts on Christmas from G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical, or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. . . . It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being. . . .It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into goodness.
- The Everlasting Man

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Greetings, favored one!

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"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." Can you imagine what it would be like to have a messenger of God show up in your room and speak these words to you? (Luke 1:26-38)

I love this painting of the Annunciation by 20th century African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner. I especially like the way the angel Gabriel is represented. Rather than a man with wings, here we have a beam of light. It has about it something of the eerie mystery that I expect comes with such an encounter with the Holy. It reminds me of the way C. S. Lewis represents angelic beings in Out of the Silent Planet (writing after Tanner painted, but as far as I know unaware of this painting). Except that in Lewis’ telling, the “eldila” appear slightly off-center - but this is because it is our world that is askew being bent by sin.

I also appreciate that Mary looks more like a young Mediterranean peasant girl than in most renditions. There is a gritty realism to it. She looks like maybe Gabriel woke her up to greet her in God’s name. Her bed is unmade. And she really looks like she is perplexed and pondering what sort of greeting this might be.

And what a greeting it is: "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." What an affirmation of God’s care and delight. Insignificant though she might have been considered in her society, God notices and cares. However unimportant she might have thought herself to be, God delights in her. God favors her. It is the word we all long to hear.

But there is more to God’s favor than affirmation. When the God Mary knew through the stories of her people favors someone, it involves a call. God favored Abraham. God favored Moses. God favored David. God favored the people of Israel. The affirmation in every case was accompanied by a call to participate in God's mission. And so it is with Mary. No wonder she pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

And the part she was being called to play in God’s mission of redemption was daunting indeed. Which is why the other part of the initial greeting is just as important as the affirmation and call of God’s favor: “The Lord is with you." Much is being given to Mary and much is being asked of her. But the one who has favored her is also with her to give her strength to see it through. And nothing will be impossible with God. The angel continues, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Still, the angel – along with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven – awaits her reply. Will she dare to receive this word in her heart? Will she dare to conceive this Word in her womb? With Mary’s response, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" human willingness is freely united with the will of God. Perhaps Tanner is right to have Gabriel beaming perpendicular. Perhaps in this one moment, in this room, with the response of this young woman, hope and history rhyme, heaven and earth are in sync, and the world is unbent. And the Baby she will bear will be the Unbent One, perfectly embodying the peace and joy of God’s favor.

The story doesn’t end there of course. Mary’s role in the story will get complicated. There will be confusion and heartache. But, the Lord will be with her along with God’s favor.

And so it is with us. Mary is considered the prototypical disciple – the elder sister of all believers. If she is, then we should be able to hear the word she heard as being spoken to us as well. What if we knew ourselves to be addressed every morning with,
"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you" and "Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God.”? If what Christians believe about Mary’s son is true, then that is precisely what God is saying to you and to me each day. Whatever else the voices around us or within us are saying or not saying, God has declared his favor toward us in being made flesh. In spite of the bentness, in spite of sin and brokenness, God is with us and has addressed all that is bent in the world and in us.

As with Mary, God’s favor toward us is also a call to mission – to love God and to love and care for one another, to be bearers of forgiveness and healing. And, as with Mary, all the angels in heaven rejoice when we respond, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Indiana Beats Kentucky, the Magnificat &Turning the Corner

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, 12/11/11
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Canticle 15 (the Magnificat),
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

Today we are wearing rose colored vestments because it is “Gaudate” Sunday, the traditional name for the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudate is Latin for “rejoice!” [put on Indiana University cap] And there was much rejoicing in the Gunter household last night as the unranked and unheralded Indiana University basketball team upset the # 1 ranked University of Kentucky. There was much cheering and shouting and dancing in front of our television.

You need to know a little bit of the context to understand why this is such a big deal and how I think it can help us understand what is going on in the Magnificat we hear readd moments ago. First of all you need to know that in the state of Indiana basketball is the closest thing to religion outside of church. And even that distinction gets blurred.

More particularly, you need to know that my Alma mater, Indiana University which has a proud basketball heritage has fallen on hard times. A few years ago we had a coach who broke some recruiting rules and was fired. The result was the disintegration of the program. The program seemed lost and hopeless. A new coach was hired, but the last three years have been hard. We have won a total of 28 games in those three years when you might hope to win about that many in one year. You also need to know that Kentucky is one of our archest of arch rivals. And we have only won two of the last fourteen games against them and haven’t won at all for eight years. You also need to know that Leslie’s brother-in-law attended Kentucky – so every year for a long time I have had to endure the inevitable post-game phone call in which he rubbed it in again and again.

So, when Indiana got the ball back with five seconds to go and trailing by two points, it looked like things might continue as usual. Instead, an Indiana player dribbled the ball down the court, drove toward the basket, stopped and tossed the ball back to another player. Then, as time was about to expire, that player shot the ball from beyond the three-point line. The buzzer sounded. And the ball swished through the basket for the win! Incredible! There was indeed much rejoicing throughout Hoosierland.

This one victory doesn’t mean my team will win the championship this year. There are losses and disappointments ahead. But there is new hope that a championship is in our future. Defeating Kentucky was a sign that we have turned the corner.

And I think that gets at something like the exuberant joy in Mary’s song. Mary lived in a time when it seemed Israel was lost and hopeless. Ruled by a corrupt and ruthless king who in turn was a servant and toady of the Roman Empire, Israel was on a long losing streak. And there was a sense that the people were not only oppressed politically and economically but confounded spiritually as well. But, now, Mary knows that the baby she carries in her womb is the evidence that God has remembered his promise of mercy. Israel will be delivered. Things will not continue as usual. The corner has been turned. And she rejoices. My joy at Indiana's improbable three-pointer-at-the-buzzer victory is but a slight hint at the overwhelming joy that evoked Mary's song.

Mary's song, the Magnificat, is overflowing with gratitude and expectation. It is also steeped in the spirit of the Old Testament. In the Magnificat we see that before she was the grace-full Mother of God, Mary was a faithful daughter of Israel. She sings in harmony with other prophetic women of Israel – Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Judith.

And it's the same tune as the other Hebrew prophets and sages. It is in continuity with the passage from Isaiah 61 which we read this morning in which the prophet promises good news to the oppressed, the binding up of the brokenhearted, liberty and release, the proclamation of the year of the LORD's favor, and comfort to all who mourn.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

“He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,”

God has remembered his promise of mercy. Repudiated are the proud, the mighty, and the rich who have hoarded power and wealth at the expense of others’ access to the goods of life. Exalted are the lowly and the hungry, the poor, and the powerless.

This is the song Mary sang to her cousin Elizabeth. And I expect she sang and taught variations of this song to her children. Is it any wonder that her son (stepson?), James, urged that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”? (James 1:27)

And Jesus, while the Son of God, was also the son of Mary. And his preaching and teaching echoes with the same themes that inspired his mother. His inaugural sermon in Nazareth is on Isaiah 61. Jesus read the passage, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:18-21).

Jesus says it is the poor in spirit and the meek – the lowly – who will be blessed. Another time he says that it is the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn who are blessed. And he warns the proud and powerful of woe coming their way. Our most fundamental problem is spiritual. And Jesus came to address that. But our spiritual problem gets played out in political, social, and economic realities. Jesus, like Mary, addresses those as well.

Jesus challenges us to receive him in our hearts as Mary received him in her womb. Jesus challenges us to choose whether or not we will become, like Mary, lowly in spirit. Jesus challenges us to decide whether or not we will side with those who are lowly and with those who hunger.

The baby Mary bears will fulfill God’s promise of mercy and scatter all that is contrary to that mercy. And so she rejoices and sings. It will get more complicated. She will experience confusion, disappointment, and heartache as her son grows up and is eventually tortured and killed by the mighty. But she knows that with his coming the corner has been turned for Israel and salvation has begun. Since his coming the world has experienced much confusion, disappointment, and heartache. But we know that with his coming the corner has been turned for the world and salvation has begun. And, personally, each of us will, from time to time, experience confusion, disappointment, and heartache. But we know that with his coming the corner has been turned for us and salvation has begun. We know that God's program for us and for the world is not lost or hopless. It is pregnant with promise. And so, with Mary, we can sing,
"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Time Keeps on Slippin' into the Future

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, 12/4/11
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

[Singing (but probably not very well)] “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.”

I’ve been thinking about this pop song by the Steve Miller Band from my college days in the 1970’s. It’s a pretty decent Advent song. In Advent we remember that we are in between times – between the coming of Jesus which we will celebrate during Christmas and his return in the future. As Advent people we are shaped by what God has done in the past and oriented toward what God has promised to do in the future.

Time is slipping into the future and it is a future full of promise. It is God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. That is the promise of the prophets, especially Isaiah:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. . . . They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. - Isaiah 11:6&9

And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. - Isaiah 25:7-9

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. . . . The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD. - Isaiah 65:17-25

And it is the promise at the end of the Book of Revelation:

Revelation 21:1-5
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." And he who sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new.

Revelation 22:2-3
through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed,

The promise God has given us, the promise we celebrate in Advent, is not pie in the sky by and by when we die. It is not that we will some day escape earth and go to some other place where bodies and creation are no more. Christianity is not about escaping this material world – a world God created and declared good – Christianity is about God making all things new, it is about transfiguration and transformation. It is about this creation renewed into a new heaven and a new earth.

The resurrection of Jesus is the promise that, whatever our fate after we die between now and then, in the end we will likewise be resurrected on the last day to live forever in a new earth in which heaven and earth have become one and the glory of the Lord covers the earth like the waters cover the sea. When Jesus taught us to pray,
“Thy Kingdom Come,
Thy will be done,
on earth
as it is in heaven”
That is what he meant. In that prayer we claim and anticipate the promise that time is slipping into the promised future of God when heaven and earth are made one.

Which brings us to this morning’s lesson from 2 Peter (2 Peter 3:8-15a).

The early followers of Jesus understood that with his resurrection the kingdom of God had been inaugurated. But, they had expected that meant that the fullness of the kingdom result soon after. But it didn’t. The letter of Peter counters that concern by zooming back and reminding us of the big picture, “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” God’s promise is sure and Jesus is the first fruits of that promise, but God measures time differently than we do. By God’s reckoning, 2011 is just early dawn of the third day.

The author goes on to point out that, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you.” Our God is a patient God. The season of Advent encourages us to practice a corresponding godly passionate patience.

God is patient, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Repent of what? Of all that contradicts the promise of all that is out of place in the new heaven and new earth – all violence, greed, dishonesty and deceit;
all idolatry, unfaithfulness, envy, and enmity;
all disharmony and all that contradicts the gospel that is peace and life,
all that is not love.

Time keeps on slipping into the future and “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” This imagery calls to mind (mine anyway) the process of refining silver. Silver ore is full of things that are not silver. In the process of refinement, the ore is put in a crucible and dissolved with fire. Then all dross and impurity is removed. The silver is the same, but it is made new. And so it will be with the new heaven and the new earth.

It is good to be pure silver. But I suspect the ore does not appreciate the heat. Nor does it readily part with the dross it considers its own. But, as Paul warns us, “each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)

Everything that is done will be disclosed and all that contradicts the purpose of God’s new creation will be dissolved. “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Only God can bring about the new heaven and new earth. We can only live in faithful anticipation of the “Day of the Lord.” As we await the new heaven and new earth what sort of people should we be? People of holiness and godliness – which means people living like Jesus. We live waiting with eager anticipation and hastening the coming of the day of God. We allow the Holy Spirit to shape our lives and our life together such that the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home here and now.

When mercy and truth meet
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When righteousness and peace kiss
the righteousness of the new creation is at home.

When there is forgiveness and reconciliation
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When there is healing, repair, or restoration
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When justice, freedom, and peace are advanced
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When the goods of this creation are made more available to more people
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When this creation is tended with care
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of nurturing and mentoring
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of creativity
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of generosity
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of kindness
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of love
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

Such anticipations of the new heaven and new earth will last forever. All else will be dissolved.

German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann wrote,
Heaven and earth are waiting to become God's house, for everything created has been made for love. God's Spirit is in them all and throws them open for God's future. God finds no rest until everything he has created has returned home to him, like the prodigal son in the parable

This means that God is still restless in history until the world becomes his sanctuary and he can enter into all things and find a home there. (Jesus Christ for Today's World, p. 133)

Time keeps on slipping into the future.

“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

Previous: Second Coming, Parousia, and Rapture

Friday, December 2, 2011

Second Coming, Parousia, and Rapture

In an ealier post of a passage from the Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem was this phrase, "we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." The phrase caught my eye because I had just read something about this in N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope.

In the religious circles I grew up in there was lots of emphasis on “End Times” and a particular understanding of what it meant to believe in the Second Coming of Christ. I remember seeing wall charts that had the chronology of the Last Days with descriptions of the events leading up to and immediately following Jesus’ return. It was assumed that his “return” meant that those who belonged to him and were ready would be caught up into the air, rescued from this world which would be destroyed, and removed to heaven. And it was clear that you were in trouble if you weren’t ready. We sang songs like “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and worried about being left behind when true Christians were caught up in the rapture. It is a way of understanding things that has a potent hold on the imaginations of many Christians in America. I am convinced it is a mistaken understanding.

In an essay that can be found online, Wright takes on the popular notion of "rapture" as an escape of the redeemed from this world:
The American obsession with the second coming of Jesus — especially with distorted interpretations of it — continues unabated. Seen from my side of the Atlantic, the phenomenal success of the Left Behind books appears puzzling, even bizarre[1]. Few in the U.K. hold the belief on which the popular series of novels is based: that there will be a literal “rapture” in which believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving empty cars crashing on freeways and kids coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been “left behind.” This pseudo-theological version of Home Alone has reportedly frightened many children into some kind of (distorted) faith.

This dramatic end-time scenario is based (wrongly, as we shall see) on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, where he writes: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). (Farewell to the Rapture)

In Surprised by Hope, Wright fleshes out why he thinks Rapture theology is mistaken:
Scholars and simple folk alike can be lead astray by the use of a single word to refer to something when the word in its original setting means both more and less than the use to which it is subsequently put. In this case the word in question is the Greek word parousia. This is usually translated "coming," but literally means "presence"- that is, presence as oppose to absence.

Wright points out that at the time the New Testament was written, parousia had two meanings in non-Christian discourse. One was "the mysterious presence of a god or divinity, particularly when the power of this god was revealed in healing." (Surprised by Hope, p. 128)

The other meaning
emerges when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province. The word for such a visit is royal presence: in Greek, parousia.

. . . .

Suppose [Paul and other early Christians] wanted to say that the Jesus who had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand was the rightful Lord of the world, the Emperor before whom all other emperors would shake in their shoes and bow their knees in fear and wonder. And suppose they wanted to say that, just as Caesar might one day visit a colony like Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth (the normally absent but ruling emperor appearing and ruling in person), so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world, with all the consequences that would result. The natural words to use for this would be parousia. (p. 129)

Wright continues
When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord 'in the air,'” the point is precisely not – as in the popular rapture theology – that the saved believers would stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. (p. 133)

And that seems much more likely to have been Cyril's meaning. In fact, aside from being biblically suspect, it is extremely rare to find anything like the rapture theology that has so shaped the imaginations of many American Christians expressed in the early or medieval church. It does not become widespread until after 1800 and even then, as Wright indicates, only in certain segments of Americam Christianity. It hardly represents classic Christian teaching. And it tends to obsure, if not outright deny another basic aspect of classic Christianity that Cyril also alludes to: the hope that "the created world will be made new."

Next: Heaven and earth made new
Previous: Cyril & Wright on Judgment

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cyril & Wright on Judgment

I've been thinking about the last post on Cyril on the Twofold Coming of Christ. Three things intrigue me about the passage given that I am just about finished with N. T. Wright's, Surprised by Hope.

1. Cyril's affirmation that "he (the returning Lord) will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

2. Cyril's phrase, "we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" which has implications for how he understood the second coming.

3. Cyril's expectation that "the created world will be made new."

I'm going to post something about each of these over the next few days with reference to the writing of N. T. Wright whose approach strikes some as novel but which is actually not just biblical, but consistent with theologians of the early church like Cyril.

Judgment: The idea of judgment is unpopular with contemporary Americans. It is unpopular in general, but particularly when it comes to the idea that God might judge us. It must be admitted that that is partly do to some bad teaching and preaching in churches in which God has been portrayed as angry and vindictive, prepared to destroy the world and send many people to hell imagined as a sort of eternal torture chamber. I do think that is bad teaching and preaching. Still, that God (or Jesus, the Son) judges is a basic article of Christian belief. We do affirm in the Creed that he will come to judge the living and the dead. Note though, that in the Bible, God's pending judgment is usually longed for as good news. And if we think about it, some sort of judgment is necessary. As Wright writes,

Judgment is necessary – unless we are to conclude, absurdly that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much.
. . . .

God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and belief in his goodness, on the other. And that setting right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God’s good and lovely creation and in particular all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. . . . There will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependent upon barbed wire will have no place there either.

For “barbed wire,” of course, read whichever catalog of awfulnesses you prefer: genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commidification of souls, the idolization of race. (Surprised by Hope, p. 179)

In the Bible,
all the future judgment is highlighted as good news, not bad. Why so? It is good news, first, because the one through whom God’s justice will finally sweep the world is not a hard-hearted, arrogant, or vengeful tyrant but rather the Man of Sorrows, who is acquainted with grief; the Jesus who loved sinners and died for them; the Messiah who took the world’s judgment upon himself on the cross. Of course, this also means that he is uniquely place to judge the systems and rulers that have carved up the world between them, and the New Testament points this out here and there. Surprised by Hope, p. 141)

How do we put all that together? With fear and trembling and great caution. We should beware the "cheerful double dogmatism . . . both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn't 'going to hell' and of the universalist who is absolutely certain that there is no such place." (p. 177). It is also possible to acknowledge God's judgment without getting lost in naively literalistic images of the eternal, pain-filled fires of hell.

I find this intriguing from Cyril, "Look, the Lord almighty will come, and who will endure the day of his entry, or who will stand in his sight? Because he comes like a refiner’s fire, a fuller’s herb, and he will sit refining and cleansing." Might that be a way of understanding the judgment Christ brings - refining and cleansing? Each person? Creation? History? If so, we might note that however unpleasant to the ore, the process of refining is neither permanent nor the point. The point is purification.

I've attempted to make sense of this elsewhere with the idea of "hopeful universalism". Though I should note that N. T. Wright explicitly rejects that idea, I still think it has merit - if we avoid false confidence and complacency.

In any event, it is a good thing in Advent to take stock of the barbed wire in our lives and ask ourselves if our lives - body, mind, heart, and soul - are hospitable to the Prince of Peace whose advent we anticipate.

Next: Second Coming, Parousia, and Rapture