Sunday, January 22, 2017

Who Rules?

Photo credit: Hugo Heikenwaelder

The world and all that is in it is mine, (Psalm 50.12).

________________________

This is my Father’s world:
Oh, let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world,
The battle is not done:
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

This Is My Father’s World,  Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901



Sunday, January 1, 2017

Everything is New

Happy New Years!

The ultimate New Years resolution (and the importance of keeping it, according to John Chrysostom).

"When anyone is in Christ, it is a whole new world. The old things are gone; suddenly, everything is new!"  (2 Corinthians 5.17, ERV )

_________________
Tell me, if we see new heavens and other portions of his creation, is there a profit in this which can match the benefit we gain from seeing a man converted from evil to virtue and changing from the side of error to that of truth? This is what the blessed Paul called a new creature, and so immediately he went on to say: “The former things have passed away; behold, they are all made new!” By this he briefly showed that those who, by their faith in Christ, had put off like an old cloak the burden of their sins, those who had been set free from their error and been illumined by the light of justification, had put on this new and shining cloak, this royal robe. This is why he said: “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the former things have passed away; behold, they are all made new.”  
I exhort you, therefore, both you who have previously been initiated and you who have just now enjoyed the Master’s generosity, let us all listen to the exhortation of the apostle, who tells us: “The former things have passed away; behold, they are all made new.” Let us forget the whole past and, like citizens in a new world, let us reform our lives, and let us consider in our every word and deed the dignity of him who dwells within us. 

John Chrysostom (AD c. 344–407)
Baptismal Instructions 4.12, 16 (Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1946-.:71-72)




Thursday, December 29, 2016

Peter & Paul: Conflicting Gospels?



Peter and Paul
(4th century carving)
(A Quora question I answered yesterday.)

Q: Did Peter and Paul preach conflicting gospels or messages?

A: Not really. Both Peter and Paul preached the same gospel of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached: That God’s universal kingdom had been inaugurated at the cross with Jesus as its king, that everyone was invited to give him their allegiance and join (at which point their sins would be wiped away).

The disagreement came about when some Jewish members asked, “But… don’t you have to become a Jew first?” The answer, hammered out at the Jerusalem Conference (c. AD 49), was, “No.”

It’s hard to understand just what an earthquake this was to the Jewish believers. They were the chosen people. The Messiah had come from them. Paul gives an entire list of “advantages” that the Jews had in the Letter to the Romans. That pagan gentiles could just waltz into the family of God on exactly the same terms as the Jewish people was extremely difficult for some to wrap their minds around. Some (often called “Judaizers” by scholars) never did, and roamed the Mediterranean world trying to convince members of the Christian movement that they needed to become Jews (via being circumcised, observing the Sabbath, and adopting other rituals) for their conversions to be valid.

Paul stood up to judaizing teachers wherever he encountered them because they were putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of followers of Jesus.

Peter

Peter, to his credit, got this. In fact, the Book of Acts portrays him as being among the first to get it. Paul attests to this himself in his Letter to the Galatians, where he describes how Peter was happy to eat with Gentiles in the city of Antioch, and even,“live[d] like a Gentile and not like a Jew.” “Table fellowship” was much more than just eating food in the ancient near east; it meant you accepted and respected the people you were with.

But, rather in line with his character as the Gospels describe him, Peter got spooked by men from “the circumcision party” who arrived from and withdrew his table fellowship with the gentile members. Paul roundly chewed him out for that.

But there is no evidence of any significant difference in the gospel Paul and Peter proclaimed, other that what is mentioned right before the Antioch incident in Galatians: “I (Paul) had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles).


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On the Other Side of Christmas

Stoning of St. Stephen, by Rembrandt
Even though it's not technically connected with Christmas, yesterday -- the first day after Christmas -- is the day many of Jesus' followers for centuries commemorated the execution of Stephen, the Christian Movement's first martyr. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Stephen is remembered here, but it serves as a none-too-subtle reminder that the Messiah wasn't born to bring us bright baubles and candy canes; this is serious business.

Let's rehearse what happened here. The powers-brokers back then were not terribly happy with Jesus' early followers. Stephen was one of the major exponents of what we stood for and, as the story goes, when his opponents couldn't out-debate him they simply accused him of "speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God." In short order Stephen was "seized and brought... before the Council," (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6 verses 11 - 12).

In his defense Stephen delivered a long and rather blunt speech showing point by point that his people had an abysmal record of obeying God and now had capped it off by crucifying their own Messiah. His listeners did not take it well:
When those in the council meeting heard this, they became very angry. They were so mad they were grinding their teeth at him. But Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. He looked up into heaven and saw the glory of God. And he saw Jesus standing at God’s right side. Stephen said, “Look! I see heaven open. And I see the Son of Man standing at God’s right side.” 
Everyone there started shouting loudly, covering their ears with their hands. Together they all ran at Stephen. They took him out of the city and began throwing stones at him. The men who told lies against Stephen gave their coats to a young man named Saul. As they were throwing the stones at him, Stephen was praying. He said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He fell on his knees and shouted, “Lord, don’t blame them for this sin!” 
These were his last words before he died.
(Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7 verses 54 - 60, ERV)

One may fault Stephen for tactlessness but not for lack of courage. Jesus offered his people a revolutionary way to be rescued from Rome, rescued from sin, rescued from failing repeatedly to fulfill the mission God had created them for. Even at this late date, when they had utterly failed to recognize their Messiah and turned him over to the Romans for a hideous execution, Jesus' offer still stood. Israel could still fall in behind their King. Stephen saw his duty clear and decided his best shot at shaking up the august leaders of his people was to rub their noses in the truth of what they'd done.

It got him killed, with many more to come.

On this day we are reminded that the line of martyrs with Stephen at its head has by no means come to an end, as dozens of Jesus' people are blown up in Egypt for celebrating his birth. Meanwhile in China Christians are routinely kidnapped and tortured.

In the comfortable, hermetically sealed western world we inhabit it's easy to assume the days of Christians being martyred for their faith is long past, that it may have happened back in "barbaric" Roman times, but not today. It's particularly easy when we are warm and full from the traditional holiday buying binge.

The Feast of Stephen helps us remember right after Christmas that that's not quite the case.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas From the Rebellion

What an invasion looks like

And so the child has been born, the King has arrived, and the invasion has begun. From that day in Bethlehem to our own, this revolution has continued. Following the example of our Master's own subversive activities, we deploy the full power of self-sacrificial love against war, hunger, poverty, suffering, pride, hate, cruelty, oppression, greed and the spiritual forces of evil behind them

And, like our earliest ancestors in the Christian movement, we spread that simple, innately powerful message, the joyful Great Announcement that "the Lord has come, let Earth receive her King!"

We have not always fared terribly well as we carried out our mission. Many, many of our brothers and sisters in the struggle all throughout the world are not doing well right now. But we've been warned of this from the beginning, and we are not afraid.

"I have told you these things," Jesus of Nazareth told us long ago, "so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage—I have conquered the world!" (Gospel of John chapter 16 verse 33).

But we press on. Because Christmas is not only a day of gifts, conviviality, and good cheer.  Christmas is a rebellion. 

A very happy Christmas (all 12 days) to everyone out there reading this!


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Advent - The King on Your Doorstep

The True King arrives

The special child will be born.
    God will give us a son
who will be responsible for leading the people.
His name will be “Wonderful Counselor,
     Powerful God,
     Father Who Lives Forever,
     Prince of Peace.”
His power will continue to grow,
     and there will be peace without end.
This will establish him as the king
     sitting on David’s throne
     ruling his kingdom.
He will rule with goodness and justice
     forever and ever.
The strong love that the Lord All-Powerful has for his people
will make this happen!

Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 9 verses 6-7, (ERV)

Advent, as we observed when we began these reflections four weeks ago, originally meant the arrival of a king. And just as the subjects of Rome long ago would have gone to great lengths to get everything ready for Caesar Augustus, Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of our King, Jesus of Nazareth.

Early tomorrow, while the sky is still dark (if tradition is any guide), the King will finally arrive. Not with a vast entourage of hangers on, not with all the opulent glory of an imperial ruler, but in obscurity and poverty and dirt. It still seems odd to us today, doesn't it? 2000 years have come and gone since Jesus' birth and we are quite familiar with this story. But we still instinctively associate luxury and showiness with importance and true power. When a world leader makes a gesture toward humility we do find it charming, but it would seem strange to us if they lived in a small apartment and ate cup-a-soup (although since I posted an earlier version of this essay one doing just that has turned up).


But the High King of the universe did live humbly from beginning to end, and he did it by choice.


I've come back to this dichotomy repeatedly throughout these little essays because it confronts me with a question: If God is like that when he comes to Earth, then what should I be like? If out of all the possible options he could have chosen he chose this one -- melding with and living among the poor and downtrodden -- then, out of all possible options available today, how should I live?


Tonight, for somewhere around the 2000th time, the High King comes again as a baby in that insect-infested manger, while his poverty-stricken parents and shell-shocked shepherds look on.


What does he want of us this time? Will we respond this year? Will we join his revolution?



*          *          *

Prayer: Our King, let us bow down at your makeshift crib with your poor, intrepid parents and worship you. And then help us to rise up and follow you wheresoever you may lead us. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, we pray. Amen.



Book of Isaiah, chapter 9 verses 6 - 7Common English Bible



Advent, as we observed when we began these reflections four weeks ago, originally meant the arrival of a king. And just as the subjects of Rome long ago would have gone to great lengths to get everything ready for Caesar Augustus, Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of our King, Jesus of Nazareth.

Early tomorrow, while the sky is still dark (if tradition is any guide), the King will finally arrive. Not with a vast entourage of hangers on, not with all the opulent glory of an imperial ruler, but in obscurity and poverty and dirt. It still seems odd to us today, doesn't it? 2000 years have come and gone since Jesus' birth and we are quite familiar with this story. But we still instinctively associate luxury and showiness with importance and true power. When a world leader makes a gesture toward humility we do find it charming, but it would seem strange to us if they lived in a small apartment and ate cup-a-soup (although since I posted an earlier version of this essay one doing just that has turned up).


But the High King of the universe did live humbly from beginning to end, and he did it by choice.


I've come back to this dichotomy repeatedly throughout these little essays because it confronts me with a question: If God is like that when he comes to Earth, then what should I be like? If out of all the possible options he could have chosen he chose this one -- melding with and living among the poor and downtrodden -- then, out of all possible options available today, how should I live?


Tonight, for somewhere around the 2000th time, the High King comes again as a baby in that insect-infested manger, while his poverty-stricken parents and shell-shocked shepherds look on.


What does he want of us this time? Will we respond this year? Will we join his revolution?



*          *          *

Prayer: Our King, let us bow down at your makeshift crib with your poor, intrepid parents and worship you. And then help us to rise up and follow you wheresoever you may lead us. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, we pray. Amen.


Friday, December 23, 2016

The Most Natural Thing



Some people say we humans are hard-wired to believe in God, that that is the natural state of mankind.

Forty-eight years ago this Christmas Eve human beings circled another celestial body for the very first time. Stretched out beneath them the crew of Apollo 8 could see the dry, gray, cratered wasteland of the Moon. And there, floating serenely in the ebony blackness, precious and lovely, was a tiny blue and white sphere that held every person, every form of life, every idea and deed they knew.

All at once, in a single photograph, mankind saw its seeming insignificance against the vast sweep of the universe, and the pure, vulnerable, crystalline beauty of the Earth, our home.

I have always thought it was interesting that in that moment the thing that seemed most natural was to speak God's primordial words of creation back to him:





"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good,' (Book of Genesis, chapter 1 verses 1 - 10, King James Version)."

"...and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth!"



[This is a reprint of an earlier post because Christmas!]