Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Walter Scott Was Not Michael Brown

Officer Slager Is 
Not Officer Wilson

The shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown, by white Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, created no little outrage among the civil rights activists and even, disappointingly, among some Reformed students and ministers. This event and its aftermath were responsible for the moving of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission's Leadership Summit on The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation to an earlier date. In my opinion those who chose the shooting of Mike Brown to highlight racial problems in America chose a bad case. The grand jury chose not to indict Officer Wilson and not even Eric Holder and the Justice Department found cause to indict the officer for violation of Brown's civil rights.

Now, however, we have what appears to almost all reasonable citizens to be a case of the unjustified shooting of a black man, Walter Scott, by white Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC. The video of Officer Slager's firing eight shots, four of which struck the fleeing Scott in the back, is available for anyone who wishes to see the evidence for him/herself. The shooting has been condemned by both the the Mayor and the Chief of Police, and the Officer is charged with murder and being held without bail. It remains to seen if race played any role in the shooting. 

However, there have been those who have made arguments that the killing may not qualify as murder but as a lesser crime. It is reasonable for those who look at the evidence and the law and reach such conclusions to make such arguments. There is an ongoing investigation; the charges will get scrutiny; and a trial will be held. We hope and expect that eventually justice will be done.

Of a different nature are the attempts of some to show that Scott was deserving of being killed and that Office Slager engaged in a "righteous shoot." The most egregious example of this I have come across is by "journalist" Charles Johnson and his GotNews site.

Chances are that I would not be aware of GotNews if I did not follow Mississippi politics. GotNews is linked on the website of Mississippi Conservative Daily which exists to promote state Senator Chris McDaniel, his run last year against Thad Cochran, his United Conservatives Fund, and the stirring of public support for what he supports or opposes. Last summer Charles Johnson got some attention by charging that the Cochran campaign engaged in race baiting and vote buying in the runoff primary. Since then Johnson has refused to appear before a grand jury that was investigating whether he paid a witness to claim that there was vote buying.

On Thursday Johnson began by posting BREAKING: #Walter Scott Called For Violence Against George Zimmerman . He included with the story a picture of a July 2013 Facebook posting by Scott saying justice in the Trayvon Martin case would be done if Martin's parents were each given a gun and could put them at George Zimmerman's head and pull the triggers simultaneously. Evil sentiments for sure. What Johnson did not do was to show how this was relevant to Scott's being shot in the back by Slager. Had Slager known about this post, would he be justified in shooting Scott because of it? Now that we know, should we justify the shooting?  He also pointed out Scott's failure to pay child support and his being charged with assault and battery 25 years ago. So Scott was not a choirboy, but this, too, is irrelevant to his being shot in the back. Johnson also alleged that the video showing Scott's killing had been "selectively edited." 

Friday Johnson followed up with an "anonymous" reporter's BREAKING: Yes, It Was Legal To Shoot A Fleeing #Walter Scott. As is often the case with tabloids, the sensational headline does not match the content of the story which says that maybe the Tennessee vs. Garner decision will apply. Tennessee vs. Garner held that, while deadly force is not justified to prevent most escapes, deadly force may be used against a fleeing person if he has threatened an officer with a deadly weapon or if he has committed is threatening to commit a crime involving the infliction of death or of serious injury. Thus it does not appear that this court decision will apply.

The case of Walter Scott raises a problem with police work that might by called "the parental syndrome." My wife and I raised 5 boys. My parental theory was that, once engaged in a conflict that involved your authority, you had to win. I still think that most of the time, once such conflicts are joined, the parent has to win. My wife and I find ourselves thinking like old people when we see parents in public trying to reason with a three year old, or watching helplessly as the child throws a tantrum, or giving in to the child's demands rather than risk a confrontation, or inflicting the child's bad behavior on us as we try to enjoy a meal in a restaurant. 

But, in my dotage I have realized some weaknesses in my approach to parenting. One is that some conflicts can be avoided or are not worth having. For instance, before you order a child to his room, you can ask yourself, "Do I need to do this?" Once you say that he must go to his room, then either you have to force him or risk his concluding you don't mean what you say. But do you really need to face him and yourself with this potential conflict? Or, if you offer the kid some cookies, and he says, "I don't want cookies; I want chocolate ice cream," and you have chocolate ice cream, why not give him the chocolate rather than say, "I offered cookies, and it's cookies or nothing"? There are also times that you have got yourself into a conflict, and you are now faced with winning or losing this confrontation. Is every confrontation worth winning at all costs? You told your daughter to clean her room. She didn't. Is this a case where you want to win by forbidding her to go to her prom because she did not clean her room? 

It appears to me that police face similar dilemmas. They feel that, once they get into a confrontation and assert their authority, they have to win. It may be personal: "I'm the authority here, and I have asserted my authority, and I am going to win." Or it may be institutional: "I represent society and the law, and people have to obey or else we have chaos." How many confrontations of these sorts don't need to happen? In other words, think about choosing your battles carefully and wisely. You may not need to create that conflict of the wills in the first place.

Further, and this is relevant to the Scott shooting, how far are you willing to go, or do you need to go, to win the confrontation, whether joined wisely or unwisely, once it occurs? Scott was stopped because he had a broken taillight. He apparently thought he might end up in jail that night because of his child support issues. He bolted, and the officer pursued. There was some kind of scuffle, perhaps involving the officer's taser. At some point Scott decided just to run. The officer pursued, drew his weapon, fired eight shots, and killed Scott. This seems clearly to be the kind of situation where an officer should, no matter how frustrating it is and how angry it makes him, watch the person get away.

I also have a thought about tasers. I have heard that they provide an option of using non-lethal (usually) force so that lethal force is not required. I have a question. Is there a temptation to use them just because they are rarely lethal? Do officers sometimes use them as unreasonable force just because they are not lethal?

Most conservatives, and many others, are pro-police, pro-law-and-order. They see police as doing a dangerous job for which they are not adequately paid. They think of the police as the thin blue line that protects them from the dangerous elements of society. Except for what I observe of some traffic enforcement, that is my first response, too. But I wonder, however, if such conservatives have forgot the value of freedom - freedom to be left alone, to move about without interference by authorities, to possess and exercise one's rights without the permission of authorities. Sometimes, when a person expresses misgivings about, or criticism of the police, it is said, "Next time you're being mugged call the ACLU." No, when you're being mugged, you call the police. That does not mean you want to be driving on a highway and encounter a roadblock where one's "papers" are checked by the police when there is no presumption that you have committed or are committing a crime.

Moving on, it is disappointing that that some segments of the civil rights community in a knee jerk fashion assert "racist murder" when a black man is killed by a policeman. It is equally disappointing when some in the "law and order" community feel they must say "righteous shoot" every time an on duty policeman kills someone. A black man can be killed by police because he is a dangerous criminal. A policeman can kill a man because the officer makes a wrong decision in the heat of the moment. 

We should have compassion for the family of Mike Brown. The killing of any human being is tragic because it is the killing of one made in the image of God. We should have compassion for the family of Walter Scott, who did nothing worthy of death. We can also be thankful for the Christian statements made by some members of his family.

We should also have compassion for Officer Slager. Who of us has not made bad decisions - that cannot be called back and that have lifelong effects - in the heat of the moment? I, for one, hope he gets mercy when his trial is done. Surely we should have compassion for his mother, for his pregnant wife, and for their children.

God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Pentecost Preview

Sent by the Son

First after Easter

Gospel: John 20:19-23  (KJV)

19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.
21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.
22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:
23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

We don’t go to the movies much, but, when we do, we find it a little irritating that we have to sit through 20 minutes of previews before the movie starts. I wish I could fall asleep during them rather than the movie I am paying to see.

But those previews have a purpose - to give you an idea, which may or may not be accurate, of what coming movies will be about and to try to interest you enough to go see them. As you watch them, you find yourself saying, “No, maybe, yes.”

When Jesus met with 10 of his Apostles on Easter evening,  he gave them a clear preview of what would happen 50 days later on Pentecost.

1. The Meeting

When Jesus was arrested his disciples scattered, though they remained in Jerusalem. The disciples kept a low profile through the weekend. Then on Sunday evening 10 of them met together. Judas had taken his own life, and for some reason Thomas was not there.

  • Though they met, they were still cautious because they were fearful of what the Jewish authorities might do, if they found them. So they locked the door. Like people in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany they may have dreaded the knock at the door, being arrested, dragged out, and tried as Jesus had been.

  • Then Jesus came and stood among them. John probably implies some kind of miracle with this appearance though he does not tell us the nature of it or dwell on it. The important thing is that Jesus is there, and that he speaks to them, “Peace be with you.”
    • That was the usual Jewish greeting. It was originally wishing for another the blessing of God’s peace. But it had come to be used without thought of what it meant - like we use goodbye - which means “ God be with you” - without the meaning. But Jesus intends the full meaning when he says, “Peace be with you.”
    • These were men needed peace. They had experienced extreme emotions. Jesus had been arrested, tried, condemned, crucified, and buried on Friday. Saturday must have been a very low day as they grieved the loss of Jesus and the loss of the hopes they had put in him. Now on Sunday some women and Peter and John said the tomb was empty and that Jesus had risen. But had he really?
    • And, if he was alive, then how would he treat them? Their faith had failed miserably. They had deserted the Lord in his greatest trial. What would that do to their relationship with him?

  • So Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”
    • When we think of peace, it is primarily negative - the absence of war between nations, of conflict within families.
    • But in the Bible the word is positive. The Old Testament word for peace - “shalom” - means wholeness or total well being because of God’s favor on you. The New Testament shows us that peace is first and foremost being reconciled with God by the forgiveness of sins. Jesus had accomplished that by his death. It means that you have no need to fear God’s condemnation, that all is  right between you and God, that, not only will he not condemn you, but that he loves you, favors you, and takes you into his fellowship.  
    • This peace in relationship with God is the basis for personal peace - freedom from guilt, anxiety, and fear. If we have peace with God, then peace within is possible. Peace with God is also the basis of good relationships with others. If we have peace with God, peace with others is possible.
    • Jesus wanted his disciples to know that God was at peace with them, that he was at peace with them, and that they could live in that two-fold confidence.

  • Jesus gave them evidence that they were not hallucinating, that he was not a ghost, but that he was the same Jesus who had died and who had been raised with a physical body. He showed them the nail scars in his hands and the place in his side where the spear had been thrust. There was continuity between the body of the man who had been crucified and the man who stood before them now. His body was glorified - beyond the touch of death and possessing the fullness of eternal life  - but it was the same body that had been laid the grave.  

  • Now the disciples were glad - they experienced joy. Gone was the sadness and anxiety. In its place came the joy that Jesus was alive, that he had conquered death, that he had opened the door of eternal life for all believers. This was a fulfilment of what Jesus has promised the night he was betrayed: “ have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).

There is a pattern here that may be repeated in our lives:

  • We can be afraid because of what other people may do to us, because of the uncertainties of the future, because of losses we might suffer, because of how we have failed the Lord. We can be afraid about many things.

  • Fear is countered by the reality of the resurrection of Christ attested to us by witnesses. Paul tells us that Jesus “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared to me…” (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). The resurrection is the turning point of history and the foundation of our faith.

  • Because of the resurrection we have peace. We have assurance our sins are forgiven, that we are reconciled with God, that God is in control matter what is happening in life, and that death is our transition into the presence of Christ where we will await the day when he will raise our lowly bodies and make them like his glorious body.

  • On the basis of the resurrection we can have joy from knowing the Christ is victorious over death and the the devil. Christ reigns and will continue to reign till he has placed all his enemies beneath his feet - the last enemy being death itself. We are not immune from life’s tragedies, griefs, and sorrows,  but because of the resurrection we can have joy consistent with tears, joy that will one day overwhelm all sorrow.

2. The Mission

Jesus is risen and is among them but now what? Immediately Jesus addresses that question.

  • Sending.
    • Jesus begins by again assuring them of peace. Then he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” One of the great themes of the St. John’s Gospel is that the Father sent his Son Jesus into the world as the first Apostle - the One the Father sent to represent the Father, speak for the Father, do the Father’s will, carry out the mission given to him by the Father. The reason the Father sent his only begotten Son into the world was to save the world. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Jesus has accomplished that salvation by his life, death, and resurrection.
    • Now, as the Father sent the Son, the Son sends his Apostles. Where does he send them? He sends them into the world. He had prayed to his Father on the previous Thursday evening, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). He sends them as his authorized representatives to bear witness to him as the Savior of the world. He gives them their mission, and he gives them their message. As he was sent to save the world, so by bearing witness to him and his saving work, they will seek the salvation of the world, and “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
    • This was the mission of the Apostles, and it is the ongoing mission of the church. This is the apostolic succession that matters most - taking up the mission of the Apostles and proclaiming the message of the Apostles - seeking the salvation of the world by bearing witness to Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). We as Covenant Church are sent by Jesus and set down here in Roanoke to make disciples by going, baptizing, and teaching. And you and I as Christians are sent into the world to represent him and by our lives and words to bear witness to him and his Gospel of salvation.

  • Spirit.
    • Now Jesus does something that seems strange to us. He breathes on the ten and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” As God breathed into Adam the breath of life, so Jesus breathes into his disciples the Holy Spirit who will use them to give life to the world. What on Easter evening is the breathing of the Spirit into the disciples will on Pentecost become the rushing of the mighty wind of the Spirit into the whole church.
    • The disciples had to be thinking, “The Father sent his Son into this world, but the world was hostile to him, rejected him, and killed him. How can we frail men go into a hostile world as his witnesses?” On the night of his betrayal Jesus had been telling them that, when he left, he would send his Spirit to them to empower and equip them as he sent them into the world.
    • This was a preview of Pentecost, when they - but not only they but the whole church - would be filled by the Holy Spirit. Then they proclaimed the good news of Jesus the Messiah to Jews who had come to Jerusalem and who spoke the many languages of the parts of the world where they lived. It was by the same Spirit that Peter proclaimed Jesus as the crucified Savior and risen Lord, and 3000 repented and were baptized for the forgiveness of sins. It was the same Spirit who set apart Paul to take that same Gospel to the Gentiles. The Spirit Jesus on Pentecost is with us, filling us, equipping us, empowering us so that we can be his witnesses here.

  • Authority.
    • Jesus, having given them the Spirit, says, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” What is Jesus saying? Is he saying that the Apostles then or the church now through its ministers may choose willy nilly to say grant forgiveness or to withhold it?
    • No. This authority is connected to his sending the church into the world and empowering the church with the Holy Spirit. Proclaiming Jesus as Savior from sin and risen Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit the church faces with the world with  a decision that cannot be avoided. The Gospel creates a crisis for everyone who hears it. Will you be condemned or saved? You can’t be neutral. If you reject Jesus you stand unforgiven and condemned. If you receive him you are forgiven and made an adopted child of God.
We have been given an awesome responsibility and privilege. We are sent by Jesus, and empowered with the Holy Spirit to bear witness to him so that the world through him may be saved.

Margaret Clarkson was a Canadian who born into a loveless marriage that would end in divorce. As child she suffered from migraine headaches and juvenile arthritis as well as a spinal deformity. She took great comfort in hymns and came to appreciate some of the great Christian hymn writers. She became a school teacher,never married, and her life was seldom free of pain, but God blessed her with a gift for writing hymns. She - and, forgive me, she was a Presbyterian -  wrote the greatest missionary hymn of the 20th century.

*So send I you - by grace made strong
to triumph
o’er hosts of hell, o’er darkness, death,
and sin,
my name to bear, and in that name to
conquer -
so send I you my victory to win.

As the Father hath sent me, so send I you.

So send I you - to take to souls in bondage
the word of truth that sets the captive 
to break the bonds of sin, to loose death’s
fetters -
so send I you,  to bring the lost to me.

As the Father hath sent me, so send I you.

So send I you - my strength to know in
my joy in grief, my perfect peace in pain,
to prove my pow’r, my grace, my promised
presence -
so send I you, eternal fruit to gain.

As the Father hath sent me, so send I you.

*Some may remember this hymn beginning, “So send I you to labor unrewarded…”. Miss Clarkson
herself revised to hymn to reflect a more Biblical understanding.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Gospel Coalition's Non-Christian Allies

Is The Gospel Coaltion Losing the Gospel?

Is The Gospel Coalition losing the Gospel? How could it? After all it is a coalition formed around the Gospel. In the interests of coalescing around the Gospel a number of important matters are considered secondary. Among them are baptism, ecclesiology, and worship. One may be a paedo, credo, or take your pick which baptist; a congregationalist, presbyterian, or episcopalian; a practitioner of the regulative principle, a praise band enthusiast, a follower of a prayer book, or gospel hymns revivalist. But the Gospel (detached from baptism, church order, or worship) is non-negotiable and the bond of unity. (If you are wondering, yes, the Coalition has a few token Anglicans.)

But then you have to wonder about the Coalition and the Gospel when you read Bethany Jenkins' "Why are Non-Christians TGC15 Panelists?" The Gospel Coalition Conference will meet in Orlando next week (April 13-15). The theme is eschatology. The special event, which Ms. Jenkins will chair and which will involve the non-Christian panelists, is "Seeking Justice and Mercy from Ferguson to New York." 

Ms. Jenkins' defense of this inclusion of non-believers as panelists is based on a Schaefferian distinction between allies and co-belligerents. According to Francis Schaeffer, an ally is "a born-again Christian with whom I can go a long way down the road" while a  co-belligerent “is a person who may not have any sufficient basis for taking the right position, but takes the right position on a single issue. And I can join with him without any danger as long as I realize that he is not an ally and all we’re talking about is a single issue.”

With sincere respect for Dr. Schaeffer, it seems to me that, even if one can accept his definitions of "ally" and "co-belligerent",  the distinction between "ally" and "co-belligerent" does not hold up. What is a non-believing opponent of abortion on demand or of redefining marriage except an ally on the particular issue? What is a non-believing proponent of a religious liberty restoration act or of a bill to prevent human trafficking but an ally?

Ms. Jenkins then argues: 
As individual Christians, we act as co-belligerents all the time, especially in our work outside the church and home. Most of us have colleagues with whom we work toward a common organizational goal, but with whom we disagree about issues of faith. (See, for example, Joseph in Gen. 41 and Daniel in Dan. 2.)
"Co-belligerents" continues to be a strange way of speaking about those "colleagues with whom we work toward a common organizational goal." The person next to you on the widget making assembly line is a co-belligerent or a fellow line worker? The person on the team to sell those widgets is a co-belligerent or a sales team member with you? Joseph was a co-belligerent for the prevention of famine and Daniel a co-belligerent for the interpretation of dreams? (This is to say nothing about the unique providential arrangements God made for each in the outworking of redemptive history and the preservation of the redeemed people through whom he would work out his plan of redemption.)

Ms. Jenkins then makes this stupendous claim:
The church, too, can work with co-belligerents who are committed—knowingly or not—to certain kingdom purposes. (Emphasis added by me.)
The church? What does she mean? Does she mean the church as the institution for which Christ died and over which he is King? Or does she have in mind para-church organizations such as The Gospel Coalition? These are important questions, especially because there is so much confusion within the evangelical world about what "church" means, but for now we can set them aside. Whether she means either or both, she is arguing that the church redeemed and ruled by Christ and/or the Coalition formed around the Gospel can become co-belligerents or allies with unbelievers "who are committed - knowingly or not - to certain kingdom purposes" - such as, we presume, the kingdom purpose of seeking justice and mercy from Ferguson to New York. 

Let's assume you think that Mike Brown was an innocent and unarmed teenager who was gunned down by Officer Wilson in Ferguson. When Al Sharpton comes to town to call for justice and to protest the killing and demand changes in the police department, government, and judicial system of Ferguson, then, since he is seeking a kingdom purpose, I, as minister, and my church, as a church, will lock arms with him outside city hall. 

Let's assume on the other hand that you think Mike Brown was a bully and thug, who strong-arm robbed a store and attacked Officer Wilson, who shot him in self-defense and who then, though he was not charged, lost his job. When Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County comes to Ferguson to rally support for the police, law and order, and justice, and to raise money for Wilson's family, then because he is serving a kingdom purpose, I as a priest, and my parish, as a church, will attend the rally in front of police headquarters.

Which is the kingdom cause I and my church/parish must support? With which leader do I as a minister become a co-belligerent? Whose ally am I?

And, if I can put baptism, church order, and worship aside, and unite with others around the Gospel, can I put Ferguson and racial justice issues aside and unite around the Gospel? Or does the Gospel not of necessity entail baptism but does of necessity entail racial justice? 

Ms. Jenkins then argues that the theological foundation for co-belligerency is common grace:
 Unlike particular grace, which relates to God’s sovereignty in salvation for believers, common grace relates to God’s care for his creation. It’s “common” because it’s universal and “grace” because it’s an unmerited gift of God. (See Matt. 5:45.) 
Common grace gives Christians the platform on which to engage culture. When we know that the fall didn’t completely annihilate God’s created order, we can work with people of different faith commitments toward good purposes. (Note: Since she is giving an apology of the inclusion of unbelievers in the panel, it would be more consistent to say "different or no faith commitments.")
Notice the very limited realm assigned to particular grace. It "relates to God's sovereignty in the salvation of believers." Common grace, however, "relates to God's care for creation" and is "universal." Neither definition without much qualification and expansion is adequate, but again, for purposes of argument, let's take them as they are. To which realm of grace does the church belong? Is the church, defined either in terms of historic ecclesilogy or as an organisation like TGC, an institution of particular (better redemptive) grace or common grace or both? Does the church belong to the realm of redemption or creation or both? Is the church concerned with salvation or care of creation or both?

This brings us around to the question of the title. Is an organization committed to unity around the Gospel in danger of losing the Gospel? There are reasons to ask the question: 

(1) The social gospel movement of the late 19th and 20th centuries did not begin with a jettisoning of the Gospel but with a concern to apply the Gospel to the social problems of life - liquor, industrialization, tenements, education, war as an instrument of national (Civil War) and international (World War I) justice ("our God is marching on!"). What ended up being lost was not the church's interest in the social issues but the church's commitment to the Gospel. 

(2) I still wait for someone to demonstrate that Jesus and his Apostles showed a concern to apply the Gospel to the issues of their day. Rather, if engagement with social issues is as important as we are told, they seem to have been singularly neglectful. There were great political and social injustices and evils within the empire. Where in the New Testament is the concern for and involvement in the social issues of the day? I know that most evangelicals take it as self-evident, settled, and beyond question that  New Testament teaches us to apply the Gospel social issues. I am not convinced. 

(3) What is the Gospel according to The Gospel Coalition? Just as when you subtract from the Gospel what Apostolically required, so when you add the to the Gospel what is not Apostolically authorized, the Gospel is threatened and over time may be lost. The Bayly brothers undermine the Gospel when they make patriarchy an element of the Gospel. Theonomists undermine the Gospel when they make a Gospel project of using the case laws of the Old Testament as the guide to godly justice in the modern state. Does TGC face similar dangers with its particular concerns to apply the Gospel to what it sees as systemic oppression of racial minorities, of macro and micro aggressions, and the necessity of pursuing racial justice as a Gospel issue?


Sunday, April 5, 2015

If He rose at all it was as His body

John Updike on the Resurrection

John Updike

I have published a version of this blog on Easter for several years now. Since last Easter I have read In the Beauty of the Lilies and the four Rabbit novels. I have learned also a little more about the life of John Updike. Updike was not the man I wish he were, but then I am not the man I wish I were. His novels seem almost obsessed with sex. Whether that reflects his reading of American civilization or his own experience or both, I am not qualified to say. His novels appear also, though to a lesser degree, to be obsessed by religion as something that the characters cannot escape however sordid their lives. I remain convinced of Updike's talents as a writer and of his gift of insight into the human predicament and 20th century American civilization. It is enough here to conclude that, whatever the state of Updike's soul in this world and the next, this poem is right in its insistence on a real or no resurrection.

The third day he rose again from the dead.  
Apostles' 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 Religion, 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 ...

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 2, 2015

Remember Me

Remember Me

A Maundy Thursday Homily

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (KJV)

23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.

Memory is a strange thing. We can be forgetful. People tell me things they remember I said in sermons, and I don’t remember the sermon much less the saying they remember. Memory can also be unreliable. We can have vivid memories of events - the who, when, what - but in reality there is a big gap between what happened and what we remember.

The Bible calls on God’s people to remember the great things he has done for their salvation.

When Joshua at last led the children of Israel across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, the Lord stopped the river from flowing, and all the people crossed over on dry land. The LORD told Joshua to have one man from each tribe of Israel to go back to the middle of the riverbed and each to pick up a large stone and to take them to the place of encampment for the night. The stones were stacked together to make something like a monument. Joshua instructed the people what they were to do in future years:

When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’  then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever (Joshua 4:6b-7 ESV).

These memorial stones would call to mind for the present and future generations that the LORD had stopped the Jordan River so that his people, whom 40 years earlier he had redeemed from slavery in Egypt, could cross over and take possession of the land the Lord had promised Abraham over 400 years earlier to give his descendants. The stones were supposed to lead Israel to fear - that is, to love, trust, and serve - the Lord who had worked for them such a great salvation.

During the days of the judge Samuel the Philistines attacked the people of Israel. Samuel offered sacrifices and prayers to the LORD, the LORD thundered against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and the Israelites defeated the Philistines. Samuel wanted people to remember how the Lord had helped and saved them:

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Till now the Lord has helped us’ (1 Samuel 7:12 ESV).

The name Ebenezer given to this memorial stone means “Stone of Help” and was meant to remind the people whenever they saw it how the Lord had intervened on their behalf and helped them win a great victory over their enemies. It was a monument to another act of God’s salvation of his people. We still sing about that stone today:

Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I'm come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
By far the greatest and most important memorial of the Old Testament was not a monument but a ceremonial observance. This was the annual celebration of Passover. On the day God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt he had the people kill a lamb, take some of the blood and sprinkle it on their doorposts and lintels, roast the lamb, and eat it in haste along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That night the Death Angel passed in judgment over Egypt taking the lives of firstborn Egyptian sons but sparing Israelite homes. The Lord instructed the Passover should be observed perpetually:

This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast....You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever.  And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service.  And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses’ (Exodus 14:14, 24-27 ESV).

For all generations Israel must remember the mighty salvation accomplished by God in Egypt. Children down through future generations must understand what the Passover commemorates and what it means.

Jesus and his disciples were celebrating Passover together in the Upper Room when he transformed the Passover into the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord gives thanks, breaks the bread, and as he gives it to his disciples says, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He takes the cup, and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.”

Twice Jesus says, "Do this in remembrance of me." When we hear the word "remember" we may think it means no more than to call to mind something that happened in the past - that Jesus died for our sins. So we would not forget his death he put in place Holy Communion.

But for both the Passover and the Lord’s Supper remembering is more than mental recollection of facts. When the Jewish people observed the Passover, they did more than call to remembrance the facts of what God did to deliver them from Egypt and the origin of the Passover observance. They put themselves back into the situation in which Passover was instituted. They put themselves in the places of their forefathers and the sense of ominous anticipation the original participants felt on the evening of the first Passover as they waited to see what God would do. They remembered the mighty miracles God had done in Egypt, especially the slaying of the firstborn by the death angel while the same angel passed over their homes and spared their sons, not just as the events which led to freedom for their forefathers. They entered into it all as something that, though they were not there, they were involved in and could now participate in. When God acted in Egypt, he not only redeemed and saved their forefathers; he redeemed and saved them. They go back and relive, participate in, and claim as their own God’s mighty saving acts in Egypt. They celebrate the Passover, not just as something that happened in the past, but as their own participation in God’s work of salvation.

When we come to the Lord's Table we put ourselves in the Upper Room with Jesus and his disciples. We enter into the nervous excitement akin to dread of the disciples who sensed that something momentous was about to happen. We go to the cross engulfed in darkness and we hear our Lord’s cry of abandonment as he bears the sins of the world: “My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?”  We see and understand what is happening - that there God is God acting in Christ to save us from the devil and sin, from death and hell.

And we come to this, his holy Table, where he meets us as both Host who invites us and the Feast that nourishes us. He gives us the bread and says, “This is my body for you,” and gives us the cup and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. By this bread and wine, received in faith, you commune with me - with my body given and my blood shed for you.”

According to Thy gracious word,
in meek humility,
this will I do, my dying Lord,
I will remember Thee.

Thy body, broken for my sake,
my bread from heaven shall be;
the testamental cup I take,
and thus remember Thee.

Gethsemane can I forget?
or there thy conflict see,
thine agony and bloody sweat,
and not remember thee?

When to the cross I turn mine eyes,
and rest on Calvary,
O Lamb of God, my sacrifice,
I must remember Thee;