Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Life as Tragedy

Farther Along

My Parents' Gravesite

He went to Paris looking for answers 
To questions that bothered him so...
Jimmy, some of it's tragic
and some of its magic
but I had a good life all the way.
He Went to Paris,  Jimmy Buffet

This is the way the world ends, 
not with a bang but a whimper. 
       The Hollow Man, T.S Elliot

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
with all their lives and cares,
are carried downwards by the flood,
and lost in following years.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.
O God Our Help in Ages Past, John Newton

I think about death - a lot. I come from an obituary reading family. When I was in my 30's and he near 60, my father told me that as one grows older, he comes to greater acceptance of death's reality and inevitability. I doubt it. Humans hate death. I have witnessed even the strongest of Christians, who so far as I knew lived transparent and holy lives and affirmed with Paul that death is gain because absence from the body is presence with Christ, fight approaching death and do everything they could to prolong life even in a compromised condition. We want to live.

Death is a harsh reality - oft denied, oftener still pushed down in our consciousness. Like the existentialist who knows life has no meaning yet must live heroically as though it did, a great many people know that death exists yet try to live blissfully as though it doesn't.

Death makes life in this world a tragedy. Carl Trueman* in his First Things article Tragic Worship (Read it here) makes this point profoundly and eloquently:
Yet human life is still truly tragic. Death remains a stubborn, omnipresent, and inevitable reality. For all of postmodern anti-essentialism, for all the repudiation of human nature, for all the rhetoric of self-creation, death eventually comes to all, frustrates all, levels all. It is not simply a linguistic construct or a social convention. Yet despite this, Western culture has slowly but surely pushed death, the one impressive inevitability of human life, to the very periphery of existence.
A Cousin I Never Knew
Death makes it hard to make sense of life. Recently I read columnist who said that "everybody has a story with God, with a beginning and a middle and an end." In one way that is true. Every life is related to God and every life, however short, has a beginning, middle, and end. But the statement also makes life sound like one of those "satisfying" plays or movies with plot development, climax, and denouement. But our lives' stories seldom make that kind of sense. We die without all the loose ends tied up. You are 35 and alive, and the next moment you are dead from a heart attack. You are 75, you get cancer, you fight it, and you die without speaking memorable words and without the sense that life has reached its meaningful end. You pass away without a bang. Just a last whimper. Trying to make sense of it yourself as you come to the end, or others trying to makes sense of it when you are gone, is an exercise in futility. You live your life in a fallen world, and with all creation you do a lot of groaning. Only, "father along we'll know all about it, farther along we'll understand why." (Listen to Johnny Cash)

And  the thing makes death so awful is the human sense that life has meaning, however tragic, and that there  is something after death. I have thought many times that, if there were no existence after death, death would not be such a big deal. The organism comes to its end. When you die, you die. There's nothing to worry about afterwards. Manage the unpleasant and painful aspects of the process with the best medical science can do. But you live, you die, and that's it. However, the vast majority of human beings can't pull that off.  There is the nagging sense that there is some kind of meaning and purpose to life and that there is something yet to come when biological life ends for humans. That "something" has to do with God, with judgment, with whether what comes after is to be good or bad. Try though humans may, it is all but impossible to escape the voice within that says "it is appointed to man once to die and after that judgment."

After pointing out that Pascal said in the 17th century that man's obsession with entertainment is an attempt to distract himself from the reality of death, Trueman* goes on to point out that the denial of death extends even to the church:
It is therefore an irony of the most perverse kind that churches have become places where Pascalian distraction and a notion of entertainment that eschews the tragic seem to dominate just as comprehensively as they do in the wider world. I am sure that the separation of church buildings from graveyards was not the intentional start of this process, but it certainly helped to lessen the presence of death. The present generation does not have the inconvenience of passing by the graves of loved ones as it gathers for worship. Nowadays, death has all but vanished from the inside of churches as well.
The refusal to face the reality of death extends even to the services that mark the end of this life. Several years ago, I attended the funeral service of a distinguished elder. The service took place in one of those historic, traditional Presbyterian churches. There was a large congregation. Dress for all situations and occasions has descended into chaos and degeneracy. Yet I was surprised to see an elder's wife walk past me on the way to her seat wearing white pants, a yellow blouse, and sandals. Her dress was not tacky - she had style. But it was inappropriate and, I think, disrespectful. She couldn't wear a black or navy blue dress or suit and change afterwards for whatever else she had to do that day? Death is serious. The death of a human any human being, but especially of a Christian, even though he/she "is with the Lord" is an occasion for somber reflectio and dignified conduct. A funeral is not a celebration.

Trueman* points out that the church's funerals reflect the church's failure to face death:
Even funerals, the one religious context where one might have assumed the reality of death would be unavoidable, have become the context for that most ghastly and incoherent of acts: the celebration of a life now ended. The Twenty-Third Psalm and “Abide with Me” were funeral staples for many years but not so much today. References to the valley of the shadow of death and the ebbing out of life’s little day, reminders both of our mortality and of God’s faithfulness even in the darkest of times, have been replaced as funeral favorites by “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “My Way.” The trickledown economics of worship as entertainment has reached even the last rites for the departed.
Trueman* argues Christian worship is so trite is because it no longer has the resources to deal with the the tragedy that is life the grief and death. One of the abandoned resources is the Psalms that deal with the full range of human experience - triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, exultation and despair, life and death.
The psalms as the staple of Christian worship, with their elements of lament, confusion, and the intrusion of death into life, have been too often replaced not by songs that capture the same sensibilities”as the many great hymns of the past did so well”but by those that assert triumph over death while never really giving death its due. The tomb is certainly empty; but we are not sure why it would ever have been occupied in the first place.
There other ways than Christian faith and worship to live life and face death on the plane of the trivial and jolly. Christianity is not for those in denial about about life and sin, frustration and death, tragedy and grief. It is a realistic and substantial religion. By its realism and sustantiveness Christianity is the most help to us. In life we puzzle. At death we grieve. Till Christ comes. Only then will tragedy become triumph and death become life. In the meantime our faith enables us face the harsh realities of life and death without giving way to cynicism and despair but with trust and hope.

A number of years, as we were talking about his father's funeral, a man said, "Dad was a meat and potatoes guy." I asked what the meant. He replied, "He was an Psalms and Ecclesiastes sort of guy." Those are not empty calories for the Christian.

Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. 
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, 0 Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
 Yet, 0 Lord God most holy, 0 Lord most mighty, 0 holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, 0 God most mighty, 0 holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
The Burial of the Dead, The Book of Common Worship 

* Dr. Trueman, of course, bears no responsibility for the contents of     this blog, including the use I make of quotations from his article.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Let Us Not Mock God with Metaphor

John Updike on the Resurrection

John Updike

The third day he rose again from the dead.  Aposles Creed

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.  Articles of Relgion, IV

The Pulitzer Prize winning writer John Updike is not one who readily comes to mind as someone who held the historic Christian faith. But he did hold the orthodox Christian faith in that he confessed the Apostles’ Creed taking the words to mean what they say. He once said, “I call myself a Christian by defining ‘a Christian’ as ‘a person willing to profess the Apostles’ Creed.’”

I have read some Updike. From what I have read I get the the feeling that he “got it” when it came to understanding the human condition and predicament.

He was brought up as a Lutheran and died as an Episcopalian. Some will want to judge whether he was, as they would put it, a "true Christian." That is not for me or them to say. He confessed the Creed and was a member of the visible church which according to the Articles of Religion is "a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly-ministered according to the Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same" (Article XIX). 

His Poem "Seven Stanzas at Easter" demonstrates how literally he took the Creed by asserting that the resurrection is either a real, bodily resurrection, or there is no Christian faith or Christian Church.
Here is the poem:

Seven Stanzas at Easter 

                            By John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
      reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled 
      eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then 
      regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
      faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
      grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta*, vivid with hair,
      opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
      embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

[*Max Planck was the German scientist who is the father or quantum physics. As I understand it, which may be all wrong, quantum physics says that energy is not continuous, but consists of particles which can be measured.]

Updike’s affirmation of the bodily resurrection of our Lord in the poem is so clear that the writer of the blog, The Questioning Christian, was very upset to hear part of it quoted at the Sunrise Service he attended:

At the otherwise-wonderful Great Vigil of Easter this morning (a.k.a. the sunrise service), our rector quoted from John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter in his sermon:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
         reknit, the amino acids rekindle
the Church will fall.  

I’ve tried and failed to read these lines, and the rest of the work, as merely a literary device.  They’re not.  Updike is clearly drawing a line in the sand about what he thinks actually happened on Easter Sunday. 

I can’t understand how Updike can be so certain.  We simply don’t know what happened on that Sunday so long ago ...

Church of the Resurrection
Ah, but Updike was certain – certain at least that without the bodily resurrection of Christ there is no Christian faith. As Paul said, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain…your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15: 14, 17).

“But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead…” (1 Corinthians 15: 20).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bad NewsThis Morning

There They Go Again

Lee in Repose

Lee Chapel
In the mornings, after I get Lucy, Josh, and Jackson breakfast ( the dog is invariably the most pleasant of the three), I usually sit down and read Calvin's newspaper. This morning there was bad news. Seven "mulit-racial" law school students are demanding that Washington and Lee University admit the "dishnorable past" of both Robert E. Lee and the school which he served as President after the War. They also require that the University remove any Confederate flags including those battle flags in the Lee Chapel where the general and his family members lie in repose. 

Offensive Plaque?
Angelica Hendricks, one of the seven members of The Committee (the group's self-designation), said, “During orientation we had to go inside Lee Chapel and sign an honor contract to uphold our honor according to the honor of Robert E. Lee. Signing that contract in the shadow of a slave owner, and beneath plaques honoring Confederate soldiers and battle flags bowing to a movement to keep black people enslaved is hurtful."

Inside Lee Chapel

The Law School students, who presumably will one day be officers of courts, whose duty is to uphold the law, have vowed that if their demands are not met by September 1, they will engage in civil disobedience. As one who was a college student in the 60's I say, "There they go again."

Where Lee Sat
Yes, Robert E. Lee was a man of his time and flawed.  He is not unique. All of us are men and women of our times and flawed. Lee knew something of his flaws. When he lost Arlington (his home) in the first year of the War (which a vengeful Georgian turned into a cemetery) he wrote to his daughter: "You see what a poor sinner I am, and how unworthy to possess what was given me; for that reason it has been taken away."

The particular flaws which offend the members of The Committee are his having owned slaves for awhile and his having fought for the Confederacy. These are sins unforgiveable against the spirit of the age. 

Washington and Lee was on hard times after the War when Lee accepted the presidency. Lee revived the school, revised the curriculum, and renewed the honor code. According to one of his biographers, Emory Thomas, when a new student asked him for a copy of the rules, Lee replied, "Young gentelman, we have no printed rules. We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman."  

From that one rule came the honor code:  "A gentleman does not lie, cheat, or steal; nor does a gentleman tolerate lying, cheating, or dishonesty in those persons claiming to be gentlemen." Of course, since students of Ms. Hendricks' gender are admitted, the rule extends as well to gentlewomen, or, what used to be called ladies. One result of the honor system is that exams are not proctored and that students may take individual exams at any time they wish during the exam period. The system works on the principle of "one strike and you're out." It is enforced by the all student Executive Committee (not to be confused with The Committee) which, if after an extensive hearing finds a student guilty, asks him or her to leave.

What did Lee think about slavery? His views were at least as enlightened as those of Abraham Lincoln:
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. (Before War)
So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained. (After War)
 What did he think about the Union and secession?
I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honour for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for 'perpetual Union,' so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession: anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and all the other patriots of the Revolution. ... Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense will draw my sword on none. (1861)
What was his attitude after the War?
The questions which for years were in dispute between the State and General Government, and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact. (1865)
The interests of the State (of VA) are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself. (1865)
Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.
Sir, if you ever presume again to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university. (To a W&L faculty member)
What was his definition of a gentleman?
The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.
The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.
The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
They won't, but it would be a good idea for Ms. Hendricks and The Committee to consider the repsonse of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to a letter he received questioning how he could include among the portraits of four great Americans in his office one of Robert E. Lee:

General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.
From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.
When Jimmy Carter in debate with Ronald Reagan raised the old bugaboo of Reagan and Medicare, Reagan turned the debate and probably the election when he replied, "There you go again." Would that we could similarly dismiss and disarm The Committee. Alas, it will not be. 

Meanwhile, I must say that I find this hurtful.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Life as a Poet

The Perfect
New Perspective Song

Poet and Muse

Several years ago, I started composing poems that can be sung to the tune of Happy Birthday for my family - wife, sons, daughters-in-law, and granchildren - and posted them on Facebook. This has exposed me to snarky remarks, almost all coming from those whose special day I celebrate, especially the wife and sons. Such things as "Keep your day job" and "Not your best effort" and "Pretty lame" have been posted beneath my poems.

But this has not deterred me from continuing to produce my poems. The life of a poet is often a lonely life. We know that the unwashed masses will never appreciate our art and that whatever recognition we may receive will likely come long after we have passed from the scene.

We poets don't write for acclaim. We are the voice of our Muse. We do not have a choice about writing our poems. We write them because we cannot not. Yesterday I had such an experience. 

I was working on a daily project when suddenly there came into my head at the same time the New Perspective on Paul and the Wesley hymn "And Can It Be." Very quickly, unsought by me, a verse came. It was a gift of the Muse. Such a gift is meant to be shared, so I posted it on Facebook and sent it to some friends via email. This subjected me to more snarky responses about my keeping day job (why I don't know, as everbody knows I don't have a day job) from my Bishop and an old friend.

But poets are their own judges about their poetry. I confess that I indulged myself in the conceit that I had written the perfect New Perspective song. But then I had doubts. 

I remembered what David Allan Coe said when Steve Goodman sent him the lyrics to what Goodman claimed was the perfect country and western song. David Allan Coe wasn't buying it. He wrote his friend back and told him that the song did not achieve what he thought, because it didn't say anything about "mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk." Goodman wrote another verse and sent it to Coe. Coe was compelled to acknowledge that Goodman had achieved perfection and so included it on his next album. You Don't Have to Call Me Darlin', Darlin'

This morning I was nagged by the thought that I had not yet written the perfect New Perspective Song, so like Goodman I sat down and wrote another two verses. 

The NPP Song
Te Wrigtum
Sung to the same tune as And Can It Be?

And can it be that Paul did not agree
With Cranmer, Ridley, nor with Latimer
They thought I needed to stand 'fore God
With sins forgiven because Christ died,
And righteousness imputed to me
Because Christ lived obediently,
Received by faith, but they could not foresee
That Wright would find the long lost key.
Long our imprisoned spirits lay
Fastbound in Trent and Luther's thought;
Wright's pen a new perspective brought:
It's not your pers'nal guilt and sin;
It's all about cov'nant membership,
You need not have the bound'ry signs,
But you must stay in by faithfulness,
Or fin'lly not be justified.
No more philosophy shall have its way,
Corrupting all the church's theology;
Now exegesis shall hold the sway,
Along with redemptive history;
No more shall systems still impose;
They dealt with questions that are no more.
Now we are free to follow NT -
only Biblical theology.

Now I am compelled to say that I have written the perfect New Perspective song. If you don't agree, I consider it to your inability (perhaps not your fault, especially if you have an uncultivated appreciation for P&W lyrics) to appreciate good poetry. Like I said, we poets live lonely lives.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I'm Sorry

Are You Really?

"I'm sorry." I heard my kids say that a million times. "Are you really?" They heard me say that a million times. Those words are a transaction that takes place between husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend. Sometimes they even take place between a church member and church authority.

The problem with "I'm sorry," is that the words are both difficult and easy to say. They are difficult to those of us who, however wrong we know ourselves to be, hate to admit it. They are easy to those of us who find saying them is preferrable to trouble we're in or about to be in or we who say them in the hopes of moving on from the uncomfortable relational place in which we find ourselves.

We say or hear, "But are you really?" because we question in the case of them, or they question in the case of us, the sincerity of the apology. Is the apology made with genuine sorrow? With sufficient remorse? Is the apology made just to avoid or get out of trouble and/or to move along from the awkward spot in the relationship? And what is the connection between "sorry" and "not doing it again"? Is "not doing it again" a necessary component of a sincere apology? What if the offender (whether ourselves or someone else) is a repeat offender? Does that render the apology null and void? What parent (or other offended person) has not said, "If you're really sorry, you won't do it again."

The problem with repeat offenders who say, "I'm sorry," and the repeatedly offended who say, "Are you really?" is that this exchange can eventually make matters worse. The offended person begins to take the apology with a grain of salt. At some point the sinned against person would rather not hear the words, and says, "How many times have you said you're sorry, and here we are again." The offender can come to the place that he or she thinks, "What's the use? He/she doesn't think I'm sincere, and I'm not sure I am either." So, instead of apologizing the offender says nothing. And things spiral downward with no attempt at apology, no attempt at forgiveness, and no approximation of reconciliation.

For all of us this "being sorry" has something to do with ourselves as sinners and our relationship with God. Before God we are all habitual offenders both because of sin in general (we keep sinning) and because of besetting sins in particular (the sins we tend to repeat). So how does God respond to our, "I'm sorry"? Does he respond with, "Are you really? I'm doubting you are"? Do we reach the point that it's useless to ask for forgiveness and that God is tired of hearing us ask?

I got to thinking about this last Sunday when I was assisting in Morning Prayer and led the Confession and pronounced the Absolution.

Everytime we say Morning Prayer we pray:
Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have            done;
and we have done those thingswhich we ought not to have          done;
and there is no health in us.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our            own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.

Request for Forgiveness
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable               offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent;
according to thy promises declared unto mankind
in Christ Jesu our Lord.

Request for Grace And grant, O most merciful Father,
for his sake,that we may hereafter live a godly,               righteous, and sober life,
to the glory of thy holy name.
Every day we use the same words. We make the same confession of our sins, and we ask the same two things - forgiveness and grace to live a better life.

The minister then pronounces the absolution:
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who desireth not the death of a sinner,
but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live;
and hath given power, and commandment, to his ministers
to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent,
the absolution and remission of their sins:
he pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and                unfeignedly believe his holy gospel.
Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance,                and his Holy Spirit
that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy;
so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Every day after the Confession of Sin, God promises forgiveness to those who are penitent and believe the gospel and entreats all to pray for repentance and the help of the Holy Spirit to the ends that the present worship may be pleasing to God and that the rest of our lives may be pure and holy.

What is surprising about this is that we do it every day. We confess and ask for forgiveness. God, in the words of the minister, grants us forgiveness. We ask that we may "hereafter lead a godly, righteous and sober life," and the minster exhorts us to ask God to "grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit" so that "the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy." Then we come back and do the the same thing the next morning. Every day we confess, get forgiveness, and start out anew. Every day we mess up, so that the next day the whole thing is repeated.

This part of Morning Prayer does not allow us to change the list of sins or to redefine them. God alone says what sin is. Nor is it intended to make us indifferent to or lax about sin. God's isn't.  But this daily dynamic of confession and absolution does encourage us to believe that the fact that we sinned yesterday does not mean we can't ask forgiveness today, that the fact that we asked for grace to lead a whole new and different life yesterday but failed does not mean we cannot ask the same today. You fall down, you admit it, you ask for pardon. By God's grace you get forgiveness and then get up and start a new life again - every day. God does not say, "You said the same thing  yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. I have been gracious. But now I am doubting you are sincere about being sorry and wanting forgiveness and wanting my help to live a better life. I am getting tired of this. Don't come back until you can show you mean it." God rather invites us to keep repeating the process every day. Guilt and shame and the doubts of others may keep us from going back and saying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight." But the Father is still looking for us and is ready to bring out the robe and ring and shoes and kill the fatted calf. 

God is not the pathetic "He" who "though it makes him sad to see the way we live, he'll always say, 'I forgive.'" No.  God is not morally weak. He is morally rigorous, but gracious.
God will send people to hell. The only way he cannot send us all there is that on the first Good Friday he sent his Son there for us on the cross. That's the most scadalous thing about God's grace. He does not spare his own Son but delivers him up for us all.

But there is more about grace that is scandalous. "God forgives and keeps forgiving? God lets us start over and keep starting over? Nah, that just isn't right. I wouldn't do that." So, while Jesus is eating and drinking with publicans and sinners, and going to Zacchaeus' house, we join his critics, the scribes and Pharisees. While the Father is throwing a party for the prodigal, we find ourselves outside with the sullen older brother though the Father wants us to join the party. 

The comedian Dennis Swanberg tells the (presumably) fictitious story of sitting as a little boy in church with his parents. The preacher asked, "What are we going to do about sin?" And again, "What are we going to do about sin?" And for effect once again, "What are we going to do about sin?" The boy felt somebody had to answer, so he stood up and said, "Preacher, we don't know!"

We don't. But God does. If Jesus told Peter to forgive his oft sinning brother 490 times, as oft as he repents, shall not the God of all grace forgive us?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

Third Anglican Sermon

Who Do You Think You Are?

John 8:46-59
46 Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?
47 He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.
48 Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?
49 Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.
50 And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.
51 Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.
52 Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.
53 Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?
54 Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God:
55 Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying.
56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.
57 Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?
58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.
59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

With your 10 items or less you’re ready to checkout out at Walmart in the express line when a person with a basketful of stuff rushes a ahead of you to the express checkout register. You’re moving along in traffic at the speed limit in the right hand lane when someone comes speeding up behind you, veers onto the right side shoulder, and whips his car in front of you with no room to spare. You’re liable to think, if not say, “Just who do you think you are? Maybe even, “Who died and appointed you God?”

The issue of who Jesus thinks he is is an issue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the Gospel of John. Jesus says and does things that make them think he is totally out of line.

Today’s Gospel presents four exchanges between Jesus and unbelieving Jews. Jesus speaks, and the Jews respond.

1. First Exchange: Focus on Faith

46 Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?
47 He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God
48 Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?

The first exchange occurs in verses 46-48. Jesus asks two questions.

  • First Question
Jesus asks them a strange question: Which of you convicts me of sin? Who of us would ask such a question? No one who has known me for any length of time would need to think much before charging me with sins and bringing out the proof. 
St. Paul could ask, “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?” not because
the elect are not guilty of sin, but because Jesus died for their sins and God declares them not guilty. We are sinners, but because of what Jesus did for us God does not condemn us. 
But Jesus knows that he is not guilty of any sin. They think he is a sinner, but he challenges them make a charge and prove it. What evidence can they bring forward that would convict him before God? None. He is confident, because he knows he is not guilty of doing anything God would condemn. Take him before the heavenly Judge, and there will be no conviction.

  • Second Question

So Jesus asks them a second question: “If I speak the truth, why don’t you believe me?” If they cannot convict him of any sin, then he must not be liar or they would have caught him in a lie. He must be telling the truth about God the Father, about himself, and about why he has come into the world. So why do they not believe him? What is the problem? What is the hindrance them keeps them from believing?
  • Answer

Jesus tells us how to understand this. Those who are of God - those who belong to God - listen to God’s words. That’s true of everyone. If you really know God, you will listen to God when he speaks. Jesus knows that He is God’s Son, that God the Father has sent him into the world to speak God’s word so that people can know God and receive his salvation. The reason these Jewish people do not listen to Jesus and believe him, the reason they are blind to who he is and deaf to what he says is because they do not really belong to God or know him. They think they are God’s people and that they know him but, they do not. The proof is their response to Jesus.

  • Charge

Sometimes when people ar confronted with the truth the only thing they know to do is to respond with insults. Now the Jewish people respond by charging Jesus with being a Samaritan and demon possessed. The Jews despised the Samaritans. The Samaritans people came from mixed marriages between Gentile settlers and Jews who did separate from pagans. They had a mixed, impure religion, accepting only part of the Old Testament and refusing to worship in Jerusalem at God’s temple. Jesus himself said the Samaritan religion was based on ignorance and did not lead to salvation. These unbelieving Jews rejected Jesus’ claims, insulting him by calling him a Samaritan and raising the old charge that it was not God at work in Jesus but a demon.

2. Second Exchange: Focus on Eternal Life

49 Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.
50 And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.
51 Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.
52 Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.
53 Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?

The second exchange occurs in verses 49-53. Jesus makes two claims about himself.
  • First Claim
     Jesus defends himself by making a            claim about his relationship to the            Father. 
He honors his Father who sent him. A good son wants to honor his father. That is a son’s duty, but, if he loves his father, it is also his delight. It grieves him when his father is dishonored. Jesus honors the heavenly Father, because he speaks the words the Father gives him to say and does the works the Father sent him to do. His whole mission is to please the Father and do the Father’s will. 
Jesus honored his Father, but the Pharisees and unbelieving Jews dishonored the Jesus, the Father’s Son by accusing him of being a Samaritan and having demon. If you had asked them if they wanted God to be honored, they would have said, “Of course!” But they dishonor God’s Son whom the Father sent to  make the Father known. To dishonor the Son who does the Father’s will is to dishonor the Father.

Jesus honored Father, and did not not concern himself with his own glory. Humans are concerned for their own glory. We may not seek the spotlight, but do usually want to have our worth recognized. At the very least we do not want anyone to disrespect us. But Jesus did not worry about what others thought about him. He cared only what the Father thought, and so he trusted himself to the Father whose judgment is the only one that matters. He was confident that theFather’s judgment would be right and that at the right time the Father would vindicate and honor the Son.
  •  Second Claim 
  • Jesus now makes an astonishing claim: “Verily,verily, I say unto you, ‘If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.’”
 Jesus’ focus is on the mission the Father gave him:“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3: 16,17
Those who receive Jesus words, who believe in him possess everlasting or eternal life. They have it right now. That means they live now a life that is not under judgment and condemnation. They enjoy new quality of life in fellowship with God. They need not fear future condemnation. For them judgment has passed. So for believers physical death leads to life in the presence and joy of the Lord. In that blessedness they wait for their final salvation, the resurrection from the dead.
Jesus had already spoken of this back in the 5th chapter:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live...for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” John 5: 24-29
  •  The Objection
This is too much for the Jews. For them, if Jesus says that those who believe in him will not experience death, that is proof he has a demon.The greatest figure of history to the Jews was Abraham who was their father - the father of the Jewish people. After Abraham came the prophets beginning with Moses, the greatest of them, and then all the other prophets of the Old Testament.

Abraham and all the prophets had died long ago. Yet here is Jesus promising that those who believe in him will not die. What can he possibly mean? Who is he making himself out to be? What is he claiming when he says that those who trust in him will not die? It’s just too much.

3. Third Exchange: Focus on Knowing God

54 Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God:
55 Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying.
56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and
was glad.
57 Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?

The third exchange occurs in verses 54-57. Jesus makes two more claims about himself.
  • First Claim
Jesus speaks again about honor. What he says is or should be obvious. “If I honor myself my honor is nothing.” A lot of people that don’t believe that. Athletes, politicians, entertainers puff out their chests, point to themselves and say, “Hey look at me. See all my accomplishments.” But, as the Proverb says, “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). For Jesus the only praise that matters is the praise of the Father, and he knows that he is the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased. 
The Father who praises him is the One whom these Jews claim is their God. If the Father is their God, why don’t they do what the Father does - honor the Son? The only explanation is that they do not really know God. But Jesus knows him, and, if Jesus were to do what the Jews want - to deny he intimately knows the Father - he would be a liar as they are liars when they claim to know God.

  • Second Claim

Jesus' second claim shocks the Jews. He returns to Abraham, the man the Jews most honor. “You asked me if I am greater than Abraham? Well the fact ist hat Abraham rejoiced to see my day.” 

What does Jesus mean? God made big promises to Abraham that he would be Abraham’s God, that Abraham’s descendants would be like the stars ofthe sky and the sands of the seashore, that kings would come from Abraham’s line, that God would richly would bless Abraham and through Abraham to bless the whole world. Abraham believed these promises, and Abraham was counted righteous - not by works but by faith.

How would this happen? Well it could not go on even another generation unless there was a son, and Abraham and Sarah were childless, and Sarah was now into menopause. Then God sent angelic messengers to Abraham who told him that the next year at the same time, God would give him son. Abraham laughed with joy. “This is too good to be true, but it is. This miraculous son will be the first step in God’s fulfilling his promises to me.” When the son was born Abraham named him “Laughter” or “Isaac.” Abraham rejoiced as the looked forward to Jesus in whom God would fulfill all the promises.
Later, God tested Abraham by calling on him to sacrifice his son. As they approached the place of sacrifice, Abraham’s precious boy said, “Father, we’ve got everything we need here except the most important thing - the lamb. Where is it?” All Abraham could say was, “The Lord will provide.”
 On they walked, and when the altar was built, and the wood placed on it, Abraham then put his only son on the altar. Then God intervened, pointed to a ram that had become caught in the bushes, and told Abraham to take his son off the altar and sacrifice the ram. What joy Abraham experienced as he thought in his heart, “God has provided a substitute, a ram to take the place of my son. 
God’s promises were so big that no human could bring them to pass. It would take God’s intervention to do it. And Jesus, God’s Son who has become also man, is God’s intervention to save and bless his people.
In these ways Abraham by faith looked out into history and rejoiced at what God is now doing in Jesus.
  •  Objection
The Jews “push back” against Jesus claim that Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Jesus coming. They say, “You are not yet 50 years old, and you say you saw Abraham? You and Abraham knew each other? That’s preposterous. Abraham died about 2000 years ago, and you haven’t lived even a half century.”

4. Fourth Exchange: Focus on Jesus’ Greatest Claim

58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.
59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

The Fourth Exchange occurs in verses 58-59. It is the briefest of the exchanges, but in it Jesus also makes his greatest claim.
  • Claim
In response to the Jews’ saying that it was impossible that Abraham and Jesus knew each other Jesus makes his greatest claim: “Before Abraham was I am.” 
Before Abraham came into existence, before Abraham ever was born, I am. Not was, not will be, but simply I am. This is the eternal I am, and eternality belongs to God alone. When Moses and Aaron were about to go to Egypt to deliver the enslaved Israelites, they asked.”Whom shall we say sent us?” God spoke to them, “You say that I AM sent you.” This became the basis for the personal name by which the Jews knew God - Yahweh the Great I AM. This name was so sacred to the Jews that they were extremely careful about using it - fearful that they would misuse the holy Name of God.
Jesus is clearly claiming to be God - God’s Son come to work God’s salvation. He is one in substance - in all that makes God God - with the Father. 
  • Response 
The Jews understood what Jesus was saying and they picked up stones to stone him. The penalty for blasphemy was stoning. No trial had been held, but Jesus was so obviously guilty ,and they were so enraged, that they were ready to carry out the penalty. So they picked up stones to carry out the penalty. But Jesus' time had not come to carry out the final part of his mission to save us by dying for us so he was able to escape them and continue his ministry until the appointed time came.

What does all of this have to do with us?

1. Do we know God as he is revealed to us in Jesus? Jesus is the full and final revelation of God. We cannot know God apart from Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one can know God or come to God except through him. Listen to him, observe him, most of all see him dying on the cross and rising, if you want to know God. And believe in him

2. Do we honor God by honoring Jesus? Honoring Jesus means trusting him and seeking his glory, not our own. It means seeing in him the revelation of the Father and honoring him as God’s final word and God’s final and complete salvation for us.

3. Do we trust him for eternal life? Do we have eternal life by believing in him? Can we look through death to life with God? Can we look beyond the grave to the resurrection to eternal life? All those who believe in him have passed through condemnation to eternal life. All those who refuse to believe in him remain under condemnation.

4. Do we believe in Jesus as the Great I AM? As God come to us in the flesh? In the beginning the Word already was, and the Word was face to face with God, and the Word was God...And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." 

Ye servants of God, your master proclaim,
And publish abroad His wonderful name;
The name all victorious of Jesus extol,
His kingdom is glorious and rules over all.

“Salvation to God, who sits on the throne”
Let all cry aloud and honor the Son;
The praises of Jesus the angels proclaim,
Fall down on their faces and worship the                  Lamb.

Then let us adore and give Him His right,
All glory and power, all wisdom and might;
All honor and blessing with angels above,
And thanks never ceasing and infinite love.