Sunday, August 28, 2016

Footsteps of the Poor

You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
He humbles those who dwell on high,
    he lays the lofty city low;
he levels it to the ground
    and casts it down to the dust.
Feet trample it down—
    the feet of the oppressed,
    the footsteps of the poor.

--The Prophet Isaiah 26.3-16, New International Version

Monday, July 4, 2016

On Loving Your Country

U.S. Navy photo
If you live in the United States, like the bulk of this blog's readers do, you'll probably spend today celebrating Independence Day. This is where we band together and enjoy the fact that, despite it's many, many problems, flaws, disagreements, and odd way of choosing Presidents, we have a pretty good country here. Personally, I'm a big fan of the US and proud to be a citizen of this country.

Of course, most people probably felt the same way about their homelands down through the ages. Mongols were proud to be mongols, serfs were proud of their lords, and Romans thought it was an illustrious thing to be a Roman. Even St. Paul would pull out his Roman citizenship on occasion:
But Paul said to the police officers, “They had us beaten in public without a proper trial—even though we are Roman citizens—and they threw us in prison. And now they want to send us away secretly? Absolutely not! They themselves must come and escort us out!”
(Book of Acts 16.37)

Where Paul claimed his rights as a Roman

Real Country

Interestingly enough, a few years later Paul wrote a letter to the group of Jesus' followers in Philippi, the city where this happened. In it he makes a point that we 21st century US citizens would do well to keep in mind as we celebrate our country.

To the very people who had witnessed the Apostle forcefully insist on his citizenship in the only superpower of his time, Paul reminds them what country they really belong to.
But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.
(Philippians 3.20-21)

No matter what nation we live in or how much we may love it, members of the Christian movement have given their allegiance to another country and another ruler.

Paul had just finished writing this:

For this reason God raised him to the highest place above
     and gave him the name that is greater than any other name.
And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below
     will fall on their knees,
and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father. 

(Philippians 2.9-11, GNB)

I'm particularly fond of N.T. Wright's little quote, "If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not." Jesus of Nazareth is our true King now, and eventually everyone will "fall on their knees" to him.  Our knees -- the knees of the Christian movement -- have already had the privilege of bowing to him. We have independence from every 'Caesar' that rules anywhere.

Today amidst our fireworks and barbecue and current geopolitical dominance, remember who you really are and where you really live.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"What we proclaim"

Doubting Saint ThomasBéla Iványi-Grünwald
It took years to fully sink in, but eventually the absolutely gobsmacking realization hit them: When his students touched this peasant craftsman and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, as they probably did thousands of time, they were touching a being who had lived forever. 

They were touching eternity.

If you listen closely, you can almost hear the awestruck wonder of it in the first words of the Apostle John's first letter...

This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life— and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us).

1st Letter of John 2.1-2


Severus of Antioch, monk, theologian, and Bishop of Antioch contemplates this...

"Given that this same John also said, “No one has ever seen God,” how can he assure us that the living Word of life has been seen and touched? It is clear that it was in his incarnate and human form that he was visible and touchable. What was not true of him by nature became true of him in that way, for he is one and the same indivisible Word, both visible and invisible, and without diminishing in either respect he became touchable in both his divine-human nature. For he worked his miracles in his divinity and suffered for us in his humanity."

Severus of Antioch (fl. 488–538).
Note: Yes, Severus held some odd views on how God and man came together in Christ, but his comments on John's letter are totally orthodox.

Catena in Epistolas Catholicas, 106
Oxford: Clarendon, 1840, J. A. Cramer, ed.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Why Jesus Put Up With the Devil

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness
by Tissot
Now we are about half way through the period of lent. Last Sunday we looked at the Gospel of Mark's very brief, terse account of Jesus' 40 days in the desert.  This time we'll look at Matthew's account, where he tells of the epic battle between the Son of God and the Father of lies.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus put up with the Devil in the wilderness at all? Being God he could, after all, have simply blown him away. That's what we humans would expect. I've asked the theologian known as Gregory the Great to give his viewpoint on this question.


Then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. After spending forty days and nights without food, Jesus was hungry. Then the Devil came to him and said, “If you are God's Son, order these stones to turn into bread.”

 But Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks.’”

Then the Devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, the Holy City, set him on the highest point of the Temple, and said to him, “If you are God's Son, throw yourself down, for the scripture says,

‘God will give orders to his angels about you;
they will hold you up with their hands,
so that not even your feet
will be hurt on the stones.’” 

Jesus answered, “But the scripture also says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Then the Devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in all their greatness. “All this I will give you,” the Devil said, “if you kneel down and worship me.”

Then Jesus answered, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!’”

(Matthew 4.1 - 10, GNB)

But there is something else we have to consider in this temptation of the Lord, dearly beloved. When the Lord was tempted by the devil, he answered him with the commands of sacred Scripture. 
By the Word that he was, he could have easily plunged his tempter into the abyss.
But he did not reveal the power of his might, but he only brought forth the precepts of Scripture. This was to give us an example of his patience, so that as often as we suffer something from vicious persons we should be aroused to teach rather than to exact revenge.  
Consider how great God’s patience is, how great our impatience. When we are provoked by some injury or threatened harm, or moved to rage, we seek revenge as far as possible. When we are unable to obtain it, we make our threats. 
But the Lord endured the devil’s opposition, and he answered him with nothing except words of meekness. He put up with one he could have punished, so that this might all the more redound to his praise. He overcame his enemy not by destroying him but by suffering him for a while.

Gregory the Great (c. AD 540–604)
Forty Gospel Homilies 16.2–3.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Greatest Trial?

Temptation in the Wilderness
What I like to do here on Sundays is present a small portion of the Bible and then let some especially wise members of the Christian Movement talk to us about it. 

Since it is Lent and Jesus-followers around the world are reliving the 40 days he fasted in the desert, why not turn our minds to Mark's brief, enigmatic description of that event. Matthew and Luke describe Jesus' titanic struggle with the Devil during that time (John doesn't mention it all). 

But this is all Mark says...

At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him.

Gospel of Mark 1.12 - 13, GNB


When you think about it, maybe hunger wasn't his most agonizing trial there in the wilderness. Maybe there was something worse...

You see how the Spirit led him, not into a city or public arena, but into a wilderness. In this desolate place, the Spirit extended the devil an occasion to test him, not only by hunger, but also by loneliness, for it is there most especially that the devil assails us, when he sees us left alone and by ourselves. In this same way did he also confront Eve in the beginning, having caught her alone and apart from her husband.

John Chrysostom (AD 349 – 407)
The Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily 13.1

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Bible This Year

Jerome Studies Scripture
Art by Lowgan
At the start of each year for the last few of them my wife and I begin using new Bible translations for our daily studies. We do this in hopes that the unfamiliar words will perhaps shake us loose from an unexamined assumption now and then. I also use the translation here as much as possible for the same reason.

Last year we both tried The Voice, a very interesting Bible that uses out-of-the-ordinary wording and page design to force you to think about what you're reading. If you want a translation that's as far from the King James Version as possible, that's the one for you.

The year before that I used the little-known Easy to Read Version (ERV), which became one of my all time favorites.  It can be tricky to extract the meaning from the Bible's foreign languages (hebrew and greek) and put it accurately into english, especially simple, commonplace english. But the ERV translators have a knack for doing just that and are so good at it that I kept finding myself smiling at how well they rendered this or that verse.

For 2016 I wanted to use the New Jerusalem Bible, a translation near and dear to my heart. In fact I actually am using it for my personal studies, but unfortunately it's one of the few Bibles BibleGateway -- to which I link all this blog's scriptures -- doesn't have. In fact nobody online does, with the sole exception of, but theirs is homely, drowning in ads, and very awkward to use.

So this year I finally chose the venerable Good News Bible to be the 2nd translation on Authentic Light. I've used the GNB off and on for years and owned several copies (that fell apart), but I've never really been enthused about it. However it has this one irritating habit: whenever I read a scripture and think, "You know, a better way to translate that verse would be..."  the Good News Bible frequently has already translated it that way. You may have noticed that I quoted it a couple of times on my Wednesday post.

Translating "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil," (Matthew 5.17) as "I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true" is just exactly right.

Plus it's the script of my all-time favorite Jesus film, The Gospel of John. You can really see what an effective version it is in that movie, with people acting it out.

So for this year, the Good News Bible it is.  Always backed up, as usual, by my primary version, the NET Bible.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why Do Christians Do Lent?

So here we are in the middle of the 40 days of self-denial members of the Christian Movement call "Lent." During this time we re-enact in a small way the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness at the start of his mission. But why did Jesus fast 40 days? Why are imitating him? Here's one reason.

Only three people in the entire Bible are recorded as fasting for 40 days: Moses (Book of Exodus, chapter 34 verse 28Good News Bible), Elijah (First Book of Kings, chapter 19 verse 8, GNB), and Jesus. These three men marked the most important epochs in the history of the people of God. Even Abraham was never called upon to fast 40 days, important as he was.

The Lineage

The traditional mountain in Palestine where
Jesus fasted 40 days
Moses instituted the "Old Covenant" between God and his nation and gave the Law to the children of Israel. This was the pattern of life God wanted them to follow and, we find out later, a pointer to virtually every aspect of Jesus' later work. Moses' fast occurred right at this crucial point in the story.

Elijah was seen as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. The main job of Israel's prophets, incidentally, was to call the people back to the Law God had given them through Moses. His fast came at Israel's lowest point up to that time, when it appeared (to him) that he was the last believer in Yahweh the God of Israel -- and he was about to be killed too! At Sinai, when his fast was done, God renewed and recommissioned Elijah.

As Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth was the culmination of God's plan and superseded everything Moses and Elijah had done. He pointed this out as bluntly and plainly as possible: "The Law of Moses and the writings of the prophets were in effect up to the time of John the Baptist; since then the Good News about the Kingdom of God is being told, and everyone forces their way in," (Gospel of Luke, chapter 16 verse 16).

Moses and the Law
Jesus fasted the same length of time as Moses and Elijah to show he stood in their spiritual lineage, which he was destined to transcend. Not destroy it; there is a continuity in God's ways. But to "fulfill" it, to make it all come true (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 verse 17, GNB). From here on out the Kingdom of God was present in the person of its King and all the things Moses and Elijah -- "The Law and the Prophets" -- stood for were subsumed and fulfilled in the Messiah: " And Jesus explained to them what was said about himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets," (Gospel of Luke, chapter 24 verse 27, GNB).

We see this pictured in a single image during Jesus' transfiguration: Moses, giver of the Law, and Elijah, the master prophet of Israel, stand in glory with their Messiah and speak of his upcoming supreme victory over evil on the cross in Jerusalem. One of them, Moses perhaps, calls it Jesus' "exodus," fulfilling the one Moses had led:
"Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus' departure (in Greek, "exodon"), which he would achieve in Jerusalem," (Gospel of Luke, chapter 9 verses 30-31).

What About Us?

But what about us? Why do we ordinary, everyday Christians fast (in a much less agonizing way) for 40 days like Moses, Elijah, and Jesus did? Lots of reasons, but one of the most important is this: Because we are not ordinary and everyday. The Messiah has inducted us into his Movement and we have sworn allegiance to him, which means we are now part of that same spiritual lineage as he (and they) are. He is our head and we are his body (Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1 verses 22-23, GNB). We are the Kingdom here and now, just as he was.

We don't merely act on Christ's behalf, we act as Christ -- as his personal way to permeate, transform, and eventually conquer the world. We are him to this world. Over the millennia Christ's Movement has found one of the most useful ways to become more like Jesus is to live our way through the events of his life each year, as we discussed in this post from 2011.

By imitating Jesus' 40 day fast we stand in the same line as Jesus, Elijah, and Moses did. We fast 40 days because Jesus fasted 40 days and we are his body. Doing this year by year melds the body ever closer to the head. Or, to reverse the image, keeping lent each year enables the world to see the head more clearly through the body.

Frankly, if we take it seriously, the 40 days fast prods us to stand up and openly state that, "Why yes, as a matter of fact I am part of Christ's body in this world!" With Jesus there was never any doubt what he was up to. We, on the other hand, can fit in a little too well and all unawares sink into a gentle anonymity. But when we come into work with a big smudgy ash cross on your forehead, or have to fumble for an explanation at lunch as to why we're not eating meat right now or must let all our friends know we won't be on Facebook for over a month, that can prompt awkward questions.

But that's ok because, after all, we're just the latest generation of that famous spiritual lineage.