Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Through the Bible, Week 9

The Monarchy of Israel

Israel's evolution from a tribal confederacy into a monarchy is partly due to their need to maintain a central military authority capable of restraining Israel's surrounding enemies.  We see early in the book of Samuel the repeated defeat of Israel at the hands of various Canaanite tribes, including even the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines (1 Sam. 5-6).  It is in this context of constant military threat, and even annihilation, that Saul, then David, emerges as the king that Israel urges the prophet Samuel to anoint to lead them (1 Sam 8:7).

David became King by divine choice, not heredity.  Under the laws of heredity, Jonathan, the son of Saul, should be king.  Instead, Jonathan recognizes David's divine election and enters a pact with David to protect him against his own father, King Saul, as well as against his own self-interest (1 Samuel 18-20).  David was already the anointed leader of Israel but not yet enthroned when they entered this agreement.  (The delay between divine election and human recognition is an important narrative analogue in depicting the emerging reign of Jesus in the Gospels.  A minority of faithful, valient men surround Jesus just as they did David - confident the nation will eventually recognize what they do.)

David's capacity and excellence in leadership is evidenced in these years through his military  prowess and, in particular, his conquest of Israel's nemesis, the Philistines.  It is also  evidenced by his diplomatic skills.  He chooses Jerusalem as the new nation's capital (rather than his local Hebron) because of its neutral location, straddling the border between southern and northern Israel.  

It was in the context of having defeated most of Israel's surrounding enemies and unifying the confederacy under one national capital, that David meets his greatest battle. In the eight book of Israel's primary history (Samuel) David violates the eight command (you shall not commit adultery).  This episode is sandwiched into larger battle episode, a literary technique known as "intercalation."  IT is designed to help the reader see the inserted narrative in terms of the larger one (2 Sam 11:1; 12:26-31).  David is engaged in battle with the Ammonites.  He has just defeated the Arameans to the North, the Canaanites to the South, the Philistines to the West.  And now his gaze is directed Eastward.  He sees a woman taking a ritual bath, the wife of one of his commanders.  David is about to engage his greatest battle and suffer his - and the country's - most humilating and enduring defeat.

We will explore that battle, and what it reveals about King David and Israel's monarchy,  in subsequent posts.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Three Amigo's

One of the joys of serving Truro are the great people I get to work with.  Tim Mayfield and Coleman Tyler are really wonderful men who love God, their wives and our congregation.  This was a light moment at the beginning of our largest Alpha Course.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Sermon by Bishop Justin Welby (new edition)

A Pentecost Homily from the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury 

It was announced today that Bishop Welby has been appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury.  As I got to know this truly remarkable and holy man I confess to hoping he would not get the job - the ultimate "meat grinder" in the Church.  We Anglicans really don't deserve someone this good.  But God in his goodness and mercy seldom gives us what we deserve.

In a recent conversation he referenced this sermon.  In the sermon he describes his meeting with me and the Bishop of Virginia at HTB in May.  I looked it up and now I share it with you dear reader.  It is a window into the soul of a very fine  Christian leader.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Canon Theologian of Dodge City, Kansas

The inimitable Ashley Null is teaching Cranmer's Theology of Worship at Truro this week.

I met Ash the first time a decade or so ago at the vicarage of Holy Trinity Brompton.  Ash had been the tutor of The Rev Sandy Millar's son, Sam, while at Cambridge.  We hit it off immediately.  Once we learned we both hailed from Western Kansas, we have been thick as thieves.

After Cranmer, the poet of Anglicanism, we share enthusiasm for cowboy poetry, High Plains lore and the writings of interesting people like Jim Hoy.  Jim is a medievalist by training and cowboy poet by temperament and calling.

Our next big project is preparing a conference for the sesquicentennial of the Chisholm Trail and then riding it together in 2017.  A true "City Slickers" moment.  Hopefully, Truro will be in its new buildings by then. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Through the Bible, Week 8

When Everyone Did What Was Right In Their Own Eyes

Between the Exodus from Imperial Egypt and the reign of King David in a United Monarchy, lies a rugged terrain of partial conquest, enduring fratricide and an emerging but then full-blown anarchy in the land of Israel.  Despite their experience of a totalitarian state, Israel continues to hanker for a king like the nations around them.  After deliverance by Gideon, the men of Israel make a request; "Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you ahve saved us from the hand of Midian." And Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you.  But God will rule over you" (cf. Judges 8:22-26).  Why do the children of Israel ask for a king when God has delivered them without one?  We need not look very long in the book of Judges.  There is a cycle of eight episodes characterized by deliverance from a political enemy, moral decline, apostasy and oppression - thus undoing everything the conquest was supposed to achieve.  The people repent, call to God who delivers them through the agency of a "judge" (or charismatic leader) and the cycle begins afresh.  Why does this keep happening?  The narrator leaves nothing to the imagination.  It is because the Judges rule in a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes.  The people of Israel subsequently conclude that they prefer a king to anarchy.  It becomes apparent that the only alternative to anarchy is the establishment of a standing political and military power strong enough to maintain order internally and protect the people externally.  They need a political state or kingdom. Thus, they desire a king to rule over them. 

Generations later the scene is repeated during the judgeship of Samuel, who warns the people of Israel who continue to ask for a King: "This will be the custom of the king who will reign over you.  He will take your son and post them for himself on his chariots, and to be his horsemen, to run before his chariot....He will take a tenth of your sheep, and you will become his servants [avadim].  And you will cry out on that day from before the king that you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not answer you on that day" (cf. 1 Sam 8:11-18). When Samuel tells the people that if they establish a king they will all become his "servant" [avadim], he necessarily uses the same word that the Bible uses to describe the slaves of Pharaoh. 

As much as the people initially hanker for radical autonomy (political anarchy), the verdict of biblical history is not for it.  The reason is simple: it does not work as one might hope.  This is another sign that people are no longer fit for Eden, even if Eden was provided to them.  There is something unruly about the human condition which requires us to be accountable to the other.  Indeed, it requires transformation.  The book of Judges (and to a lesser degree Samuel) is one long indictment against anarchy, making it the pivot on which the biblical narrative turns from Empire to Monarchy.  The people long for a king for they need a king, but not just any king.  In the story of Saul and Solomon (which Samuel foreshadows above) we find that more is required of monarchy than simply a king.  There must be king whose heart is turned toward God.  Otherwise a monarchy will quickly slide either back toward empire or catapult into anarchy.  A godly monarchy is a knife's edge, restraining anarchy on the one hand and resisting the pull towards empire on the other. 

The beginnings of the messianic hope, the mandate of Jesus, find its origins in this political development.  But the Bible reader will have to wait till the Gospels to witness its inauguration. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Through the Bible, Week 7: A Story about Truth-telling

Ten Commandments

The 9th commandment is: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

We see the violation of this ninth commandment memorably portrayed in the ninth book of Israel's primary history, Kings.  The book of Kings is full of irony. It recounts a nation founded on the truthful speech of the covenant, divided by calumny and false witness.  Many atrocities are committed in Kings but one stands out as emblematic of this ironic era.    At the heart of the narrative is a faithful farmer, tending his vineyard according to the precepts of the Lord. Naboth (a play on the word "nabi" meaning prophet) becomes the object of Jezebel's - the barren queen and her eunuch-like stooges -  dissimulation, distortion and deceptive speech.  There are two interrelated ironies in this story.

1st irony: The faithful (Naboth the farmer) is injured by the false witness of the faithless (Jezebel the barren queen, whose fruitlessness is manifest in her words, which ironically come true in her own death) (see 2 Kings 9:30-37).

2nd irony: The faithless uses the form of faithful speech - the word of a prophet - to persecute Naboth (1 Kings 21:1-14).

Let's consider these two ironies in reverse. In 1 Kings 21:1-14, we learn how the barren one seeks to undo the fruitful work of Naboth through faithless words communicated in faithful form.  By faithful form, we mean the command-compliance form that is normally used to convey the prophetic message.  The command-compliance form is used to convey the Lord's message to Elijah earlier (cf 1 Kings 18:41-4619:4-8; etc), but now it is used to convey the message of Jezebel to her "two worthless men" (21:10).  Her parody of faithful speech bears repeating: "proclaim a fast" (v9); so they proclaim a fast (v12). She writes, "Seat two worthless men opposite, and let them bring a charge against him" (v10); so "the worthless men brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people" (v13).  She even supplies the charge and punishment: "You have cursed God and the king.  Then take him out and stone him to death" (v10); "saying, Naboth cursed God and the king.  So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones" (v13).

Naboth is the victim of calumny, a form of false witness that harms the reputation of another and gives occasion for false judgements against him. However, Jezebel is rightly consumed by her own words, falling to her death on stone pavement and mutilated (a reverse stoning) (2 Kings 9:33-35).  People who falsify, dissimulate, distort and the like end up consumed by their own machinations.     

It was this command, and this form of diminishing the dignity of another human being, that Paul had in mind when he exhorted us to: "put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another (Ephesian 4:24-25).

Respect for the reputation and dignity of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.

We live in a divided Communion as well as a divided Nation, so we live in the conditions ripe for the "barren queen and her two worthless men."  But the conditions are even more ripe for the word of God and fruitful speech, the healing word that allows people to live with great difference without enmity.  Sisters and brothers, don't be content to sit firm in the company of distortion and deceit but speak the truth with your neighbor and watch all distortion, detraction and deception give way to the reconciling word of Christ. That is the promise of the "third use" of the ninth commandment.

Through the Bible, Week 7, Applied to Heresy

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commands function as fence, protecting us from erroneous behavior.  This is known as the "first use of the law".  They are also seen as a mirror showing us our sinfulness and need for grace.  This is sometimes referred to as "the second use of the law."  But the Ten Commandments also function as a lens, clarifying the nature of reality around us and directing us into a greater apprehension of the truth.  This is sometimes referred to as the "third use of the law."

The first law, which instructs us to worship and obey the LORD God exclusively, functions according to the third use of the law by illuminating heresy.  Christians sometimes disagree about what a heresy is or what beliefs count as heretical.  For example, Roman Catholics and Orthodox believe that Five Point Calvinism is a heresy.  (This was an assertion recently made by Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church of America.  Some were stunned to hear this, but it was not surprising to those who know and understand Christian tradition.  IT is common knowledge.)  However, most protestants do not consider Calvinist heretics.  I certainly do not believe that.  Some may be doctrinal deviants, but not heretics.  Most of the Calvinist I know are devout and orthodox.

So what is a heresy?  The first commandment is a helpful interpretative device in this regard.  The first command requires us to nourish and protect faith in God.  Heresy is one of many ways of sinning against faith.  On a continuum between voluntary doubt (where someone disregards the revelation of God and consensual teaching of the Church) to apostasy (the total repudiation of the faith) there stands heresy.  Heresy is an obstinate doubt, a severe doctrinal deviation but one that falls short of apostasy.  Heresy is dangerous because it usually involves schism (a breaking of the communion of the church and the unity for which Christ himself prays - John 17:21) and thus a distancing from the life of God which saves us.  John outlines this order of salvation in I John 1:3 - "that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." According to John, we come into fellowship with the Triune God through the fellowship of the community of faith.    Through proclamation and hospitality, we come to into the fellowship of the Church, which participates in the fellowship of the Trinity.  It is the actual reality of divine communion, our particiation in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the communion of the Church that saves us - not merely doctrines about it, as important as those doctrine are for the nourishing and strengthening of that fellowship.  Heretical teaching violates that unity which ensures our salvation.

Apostasy is full-on, overt repudiation and separation from that divine-human fellowship.  Various forms of voluntary doubt and obstinancy prevents growth in the faith as well as growth in spiritual virtue.  This is often evidenced by a vicious, sterile spiritual life that with proper instruction and formation, could have become a virtuous and fruitful one.  In this instance, one is most likely some kind of doctrinal and spiritual deviant but not necessarily a heretic. Doctrinal deviants are often recognized by their barrenness, the inverse of spiritual fruitfulness (see Matt 7:16-18, Jn 15:16-17, Rm 7:4-6, Gal 5:22-26, Phil 1:9-11, etc).  Heresy is moving from the later to the former - from vountary doubt, to deviation, and unless corrected, develops into full blown repudiation.  So heresy is doctrinal and spiritual deviance on the trajectory towards apostasy.  Thus one can be both a Christian AND a heretic.  Indeed, in the Roman Catholic Church protestants are usually considered both "heretics" and "brothers."  Unlike an apostate, a heretic is not yet lost to God. Which is why Augustine was tireless in challenging the deviance of Donatists and Pelagians and urging them to return to the Catholic fold.  The heretical trajectory can be turned.  Doctrinal deviance can be repudiated.  Augustine sought to help other Christians turn the heretical trajectory and repudiate the doctrinal deviance many found themselves in.  I will explore the relevance of Augustine in this matter in later posts.

The First Command, by upholding fidelity to the true God, also teaches us about sins against faith and thus functions as a lens on spiritual reality.  Each of the commands have such a "third use," which clarifies reality and thereby secures greater apprehension of the truth.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Through the Bible, Week 7, part 3

Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments may be read from many different perspectives.  Some see them as a form of natural law.  Why?  Because the laws are violated in some form before they are codified in Exodus 20.  For example, theft, adultery, murder, covetousness and the like are committed in Genesis. Even the sabbath is violated in Exodus 16:27-30 (four chapters before the law is formally given in the list of ten). These laws find their counterparts in the religions of the Ancient Near East (ANE).  No society that tolerates murder, theft, adultery and the like can be viable over the generations but will collapse under its own moral anarchy. 

Yet others view the Ten Commands as distinctive revelation, with no real counterpart in the ANE.  This is especially true of tablet one, commands 1-4, each of which contain a rationale for compliance.  The command to worship only the LORD God, to make no idols to worship in the place of this God, nor to blaspheme this God, nor to violate the sabbath of this God are distinctive in the religions of the ANE and based on the singular uniqueness of the LORD God which the rest of the Biblical narrative sets forth.

The uniqueness of the LORD God's character is the key to the rest of the commands' interpretation.  The reason we do not steal is because the LORD God is generous.  The reason we do not murder is because the LORD God is the author and sustainer of life.  The reason we do not commit adultery is because the LORD God is faithful to his covenant with us.  And so on.

The Ten Commands set forth the moral and relational implications of God's character and thus the nature of reality itself.  To step outside of them is to turn our backs on the truth of God, ourselves and God's world.     

Friday, October 19, 2012

Truro Hosts Alpha-USA Board

This past Thursday and Friday we had the privilege of hosting the board of directors of Alpha-USA.  I have served on this board for the past six years.  Before that I was a conference speaker for Alpha for 5 years.  It has been one of the greatest joys and honors of my life to be associated with this great movement of the Holy Spirit.   Tricia Neill, who is the director of Alpha International, flew in from London.  Jamie and Andie Haith, who served as Nicky Gumbel's assistant for nearly 20 years has just moved to DC to plant Holy Trinity in McLean, VA.  Elizabeth and I grateful to have them as friends and to have them so close to us.  God is good.  Enjoy the photos below:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Defender of the Bond: Building a Marriage Culture at Truro

 Defender of the Bond...

Is the title of clergy and religious in the Roman Catholic Church who are devoted to the well being of marriages in a given diocese or region.

At Truro all the clergy are in the process of becoming "defenders of the bond."  We all share in the various marriage ministries and courses we offer here.  All are also committed to having healthy marriages and many of my colleagues take part in the counseling of engaged couples as well as couples facing marital stress and/or crisis.  We share in the creation and maintenance of a marriage culture.  We all participate in the ministry of encouragement and instruction.

Instructing the faithful takes many forms and engages many subjects.  In the past four years we have spent a good bit of time instructing the faithful on marriage, its theological foundation and best practices.  Sometimes proclamation takes the form of explanation and exposition, like Elizabeth and my teaching on the Theology of the Body.  Here is an example from last spring:

Sometimes instruction takes the form of moral exhortation and exposition.  Last January I preached on the nuptial theology of John:

And sometimes our instruction comes in the form of wisdom and spiritual counsel, like we do several times a year in our Marriage and Pre-Marriage Courses:

Paul put it this way:  "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Through the Bible, Week 7, part 2

Ten Commandments

What kind of rules are the Ten Commandments?  Different rules are designed to guard and elicit the proper responses to the values and norms of the parties involved.  1) Legislative rules carry the force of law.  This is what Congress passes and becomes the basis of civil and criminal liability.  2) Procedural rules govern the work of legislative agents and their application of the law.  All three branches of government - Legislative, Judicial, Executive - are governed by these kinds of rules. 3) Interpretive rules which are the rubrics for applying the law in given circumstances. 

Torah is the Hebrew word translated "Law" and we normally think of the Ten Commandments usually in legislative terms.  In truth, it is all of these types of rules and even more than these.  Torah is more inclusive than our word "Law," even in its most expansive sense.

Torah derives from an archery word "yarah," and means to shoot an arrow.  Torah is the nominative form of this verb.  Torah is a "targeted" word.  It is a personal word from a personal God which invites the hearer into a personal relationship.  Exodus 15:26 is representative of this kind of personal directive: If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer." 

 To "listen to the voice" and "give ear" is a personal response to a personal word.  This word comes in the form of invitation into a relationship known as "covenant."  There are different kinds of covenants in the Bible.  There is the "treaty" between unequal, and usually warring, parties.  In this kind of covenant, the lesser swears loyalty to the greater and the greater promises protection to the lesser partner.  There is a "pact" between once competitive parties who now have each others' backs.  Such is the covenant between Jonathan and David.  Finally, there is a "promise" between parties who share not a common objective, such that once the objective is completed the agreement is ended.  Rather, it is an agreement that puts the relationship and its flourishing at the heart of the covenant.

The Ten Commandments is the form of God's agreement, His promise, with his "segullah" - his special, treasured possession (Exodus 19:6).  In comes in two kinds: laws that govern our relationship with God and laws that govern and protect our relationship with others.  These laws originally appeared on two tablets, one tablet for each kind.  Part three of this post will look more closely at the specific commands contained on these two tablets. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shed to Study Project, Week 7

We are in the final stages of insulation (both fiberglass and foam) and now putting up dry wall.  Kudos to John and Tony for doing almost all of it.  When complete this study will keep heat and cold like a thermos.   This study will be GREEN baby!

Through the Bible, Week 7, part one

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments occur in the context of two other "Tens."  They are preceded by the "Ten Plagues" of Egypt, through which the LORD God delivers Israel from Egyptian bondage.  They are followed by the "Ten Rebellions" of the Children of Israel during their wilderness wanderings.  On the tenth and last rebellion of the wilderness experience, the people appear to have reached their limit:

According to your word, I have pardoned them.  Nevertheless, as I live, the whole earth will be filled with the glory of the LORD...for all the people who have seen my glory and my signs that I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tested me these ten times and have not listened to my voice, will not see the land that I swore to their fathers; all those who have despised me will not see it (Numbers 14:20-23).

Just as Pharoah was given ten opportunities to change his heart so this generation of Israelites is given ten opportunities to change their collective hearts and comply with the LORD's will.  Both fail to comply and are judged by God.  Given this pattern of "ten strikes and your out" it should not be surprising that the Ten Commandments are the basis by which Israel herself is judged as a nation:

And it will be that if you attentively listen to the voice of the LORD your God, to guard and to do all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth, and all these blessings will come upon you and overtake you because you listened to the voice of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 28:1-2). 

Moses then lists the "blessings" and "curses" that will befall the people depending on their adherence to the covenant enshrined in the Ten Commandments.   Just as Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden for disobedience and just as Cain was exiled for his disobedience, the people of Israel will be exiled from the Promised Land for disobeying these commands.   The Ten Commandments are at the heart of their covenant with God, foundational to their social contract with one another.

Biblical scholar David Noel Freedman makes the further argument that the primary history of Israel (Genesis-Kings) is built around these Ten Commandments (minus the "do not covet" which cannot be depicted), so that when the final command is broken in Kings, the covenant is exhausted and the people are punished with exile.  (See The Nine Commandments)

In part two of this post, we will explore the Commandments in terms of what they tell us about Israel's relationship with God, but before we do let us briefly consider the significance of the number 10.  Why does God deal with his people in terms of tens?  Some suggest it is a memory device based on an anatomical reality - each of us has ten fingers.  The rationale is that once you have counted all of your fingers you have exhausted your chances. Another possibility is that it would be a short national existence if there were not ten chances.  There is yet another, which speaks more directly to the character of God.  Ten displays patience.  God is patient so that even his jealousy is exercised in merciful terms - "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandeth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Deut 5:9-10).  In other words, God is not a balanced personality.  He has a bias toward mercy.  He has a bias toward patience.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Through the Bible, Week 6, Part 2

At Sinai (which is a pun on "seneh" - the Hebrew word for "bush" where Moses received his call) a national poem is signaled by the perfect, poetic, progressive parallelism of this introductory line:

Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel.   

The movement from the "house of Jacob," the most primary designation of the nation in its embryonic and tribal form (Exodus 1:1) to "people of Israel" captures the historical process by which Jacob's household becomes a nation. Now this story is told in a very compressed poem:

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, 
and how I bore you on eagles wings 
and brought you to myself
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice
and keep my covenant, 
you shall be my treasured possession
among all peoples
for all the earth is mine:
And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests
and a holy nation. 

The dominate image of the poem is "eagles wings."  As Robert Alter points out, "the soaring eagle's supremacy among birds is meant to suggest the majestic divine power that miraculously swept up the Hebrews and bore them off from the house of bondage." The metaphor also implies that Israel is a helpless fledgling that must be taught to fly (cp. Deut. 32:11-12).

Then three titles appear, which are new and signal a refinement to the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. Israel is to be "treasured possession" ('am segullah), a "kingdom of priests" (mamlekhet cohanim) and a "holy nation" (goy kadosh).  We will focus our comments on the first phrase.

"Treasured possession" occurs eight times in the Old Testament, and most are used by the LORD to speak of Israel.  Segullah is the Hebrew word that signifies a personal, prized possession and has nuptial overtones.  In covenant contexts this is implied (see Deut. 7:6, 14:2, 26:18, I Chron 29:3, Ps 135: 4, Eccl. 2:8 and Mal 3:17).  This is made more explicit when later writings compare covenant infidelity to adultery or harlotry, i.e. the covenant is a marriage  (see Deut 31:16, 32:16, 21; Judges 8: 27, 33; Hosea 1:2 and 2:7, 5:4; Jer. 3:6-10 and 7:34 and many more).

This is the background to the first two commandments (no other gods and no idols), for the theological rationale for exclusive worship is that the LORD is a "jealous God" (20:5).   This rationale and the nature of the prophetic denunciations of Israel in the face of unfaithfulness, suggest strongly that the covenant on Mount Sinai is nuptial in nature.  God has betrothed himself to his people.  The relationship is close, intimate, generative and exclusive - like that of Eden.

Monday, October 8, 2012

More Background on Bishop Welby

I found this article from the WSJ helpful.  It features Bishop Welby's business background, which is an important feature in coming to a fuller picture of this truly fine Christian man.

I am bit more optimistic of the free market system producing capital as long as it stays accountable to a strong rule of law that inhibits fraud.  But I find his "rational choice" theory about markets very Christian.  Rationality is always relative to a bigger story of what is real, good and true.  People are more motivated by self-interest (not rationality), which would be okay if we were all saints.  And, of course, we are not.  Thus, the need for a strong rule of law to curb greed, fraud, etc. 

Through the Bible, Week 6, part one

"A Special Possession": The Nature of Israel's Covenant with God

Exodus represents Israel's origins as a national entity.  Through slavery (deconstruction) and deliverance-covenant-worship (reconstruction), we behold the formation of a corporate identity.  Healthy identity accounts for major influences and in Exodus we see the influence of the "founding fathers" as well as Egypt.  Egypt cannot be entirely expunged or sublimated.  It must be converted and redeemed.  As ML King once told his congregation "it took the Lord forty days to get Israel out of Egypt but it took the Lord forty years to get Egypt out of them."

There are many ways to approach the Exodus, the foundational act of deliverance in the Old Testament.  It is common (and accurate) to view it as Israel's understanding of empire and the genesis of its own unique political science.  Israel does not ascribe ultimate loyalty to the state and its king, something required in all ancient empires.  The word of the king is not absolute in Israel; only the word of the LORD God.  In Israel, even the king stands under the covenant and its stipulations - thus Nathan does not lose his life when he rebukes David for his adultery with Bathsheba.  The exodus, the liberty it achieves, the covenant stipulations which preserve that freedom and the sacrificial system as a mechanism for covenant repair when its violated, together constitute a fundamental break with the ancient understanding of the state.  In the ancient world the state was all inclusive of one's loyalty and all demanding of one's life.  In Israel, the LORD God alone has the role of sovereign.

So is Israel simply switching poisons - substituting a totalitarian state for a totalitarian god?   Good question.  The answer all hangs on the nature of the LORD God and the kind of relationship He enters with Israel.  My short answer is no, though it will take much of the Old Testament to fully support this answer.  Part of our difficulty is our penchant to import pagan (or sub-biblical) definitions of sovereignty into the biblical account instead of letting the Bible teach us to see sovereignty in a new light - in light of God's character and deepest intentions for the world.

A good way to enter into this conversation is to understand Exodus 19, which functions as the theological rationale for the covenant stipulations commonly known as the Ten Commandments.  The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) will be the subject of next week's post, so it is important to frame them as biblically as possible.  Exodus 1-19 is important context for understanding Exodus 20.  Exodus 19 parallels Exodus 3; both are calling stories.  As Moses was called through the epiphany of the burning bush, Israel is called through the epiphany of the burning mountain.  I refer to these calling stories as "epiphanies of recruitment."  In them we find God reaching out to the human race in an ecstatic act of self-revelation.  In part two, we will look more closely at the vehicles of that revelation: a poem, key words, and a pun. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why Wesley Still Matters (part 2)

John had a brother, Charles, who was a poet.  His poetry was overtly theological and lyrically rich.  Indeed, he was a lyrical theologian of a high order. If John was the prophet of the movement, Charles was its psalmist.  His hymns made the theology of the revival memorable by rendering it melodious.  And so the Wesleyan revival became a lyrical movement.  God was putting a new song into the hearts of the poor.

A helpful way into Wesley's oeuvre is to read one of the canonical hymns closely, sensitive to how he used poetic technique to evoke profound theological meaning.  He often would renarrate the Methodist (as they were derisively called) into a new world.  Those who had lost their place and extended families would find their place in the land of salvation and in the family of the Trinity.

Let us begin by introducing a grand hymn which captures the heart of the Christian faith: Love Divine All Love's Excelling.  Then we will expound each verse/stanza of the poem.  The cumulative effect will hopefully provide an orientation to classical Christian orthodoxy in a missionary context: 18th century urban, industrialized England.

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Charles Wesley, 1747
Love divine, all loves excelling, 
joy of heaven, to earth come down; 
fix in us thy humble dwelling; 
all thy faithful mercies crown! 
Jesus thou art all compassion, 
pure, unbounded love thou art; 
visit us with thy salvation; 
enter every trembling heart. 

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit 
into every troubled breast! 
Let us all in thee inherit; 
let us find that second rest. 
Take away our bent to sinning; 
Alpha and Omega be; 
end of faith, as its beginning, 
set our hearts at liberty. 

Come, Almighty to deliver, 
let us all thy life receive; 
suddenly return and never, 
nevermore thy temples leave. 
Thee we would be always blessing, 
serve thee as thy hosts above, 
pray and praise thee without ceasing, 
glory in thy perfect love. 

Finish, then, thy new creation; 
pure and spotless let us be. 
Let us see thy great salvation 
perfectly restored in thee; 
changed from glory into glory, 
till in heaven we take our place, 
till we cast our crowns before thee, 
lost in wonder, love, and praise. 


Sometimes it is helpful to be reminded of the big story, or if you are visual, the “big picture. ”  Elizabeth and I were recently in Venice with two other couples from the parish. I did not sufficiently prepare for the trip. When we disembarked from the train I was engulfed with a dizzying array of sights, sounds and feelings from this enchanted city. I stayed in that state of over-stimulation for twenty four hours. On the second day a seasoned guide walked us through the city, combining history, architecture and religion to her overview of Venice. In time, the various parts began to make sense within the whole picture she gave us.
We often need the peripheral in order to make sense of the particular. The parts of life, like the parts of a great novel or poem or city, often make sense only in terms of the whole. One of the most memorable “big picture” portrayals of the Christian message is Charles Wesley’s, Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling. Along with two other hymns, it was the most listened to hymn in the history of Christendom. William and Kate had it sung at their wedding in April 2011. A billion people heard the whole Christian story in song. Were you aware of what you were singing or hearing?
The hymn has four verses. The first three verses tell about the work of each person of the Trinity, and does so in terms of love – the very nature of God. Additionally, the last line of every verse is an enjambment: the meaning cascades over the line break into the next line of the next verse. This is good poetics and good theology. Each person of the Trinity is distinct:  The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. But each person shares the same nature: love. Wesley underscores this by making the meaning of the last line of each verse carry over into the next line of the next verse. The last verse is the consummation of salvation in us as we follow the path of salvation in the three prior verse/stanzas. Let’s look briefly at each of the verses of the hymn. They are as beautiful and poignant a summary of Christianity as you are likely to ever read or hear:
Love Divine, all loves excelling. Joy of heaven to earth come down.
The first verse tells us the subject of the hymn. It is about divine love, not human love. This is one way love, not two way love. This love has its origins in heaven, not earth. God is the sole author of this love. And its character is joy. This is a radical and other-oriented love.
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling; All Thy Faithful mercies crown
This love has a goal. God intends to dwell in us. This is not merely a declaration of love but an impartation of love. This will ensure, as St. Teresa of Avila often said, that we experience a bit heaven before we get to heaven. Of all God’s gifts, the love of God is the “crowning” gift.
Jesus, Thou art all compassion, Pure, unbounded love Thou art
Now we are told that this love has a face. Love is neither a mere force nor an abstraction of doctrine. Divine love is neither an emotion nor a commitment; Love is a personal presence. His name is Jesus. Wesley starts his hymn with the second person of the Trinity because this is a song of salvation and this is where salvation begins for every person: in coming to terms with the person of Jesus Christ, who is pure, unbounded love. This, by the way, is why the first talk on the Alpha course, is “Who is Jesus?”  We want people to know God and we tell them right up front, the God of Christianity, the God of the universe is Christ-like. See Jesus and you have seen the Father (John 14:9).
Visit us with Thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.
Salvation comes to us from the outside. If we could save ourselves, Christ need not identify with and suffer for us. Salvation comes from without, but it must come within. Salvation originates outside of us in God. However it is not salvation for us until it enters our “trembling hearts. ” But our trembling hearts can sometimes be nearly impenetrable. So we continue with the second verse.
Breathe O Breathe Thy loving Spirit into Every troubled breast
This second verse states the work of the Third person of the Trinity. Notice the object of that work (it carries over from the last verse of the previous verse/stanza): from “trembling heart” to “troubled breast. ”  These are similar but not identical phenomena. The “trembling heart” signifies the fear of intimacy because God is coming close to us in Jesus. This experience often causes us to break out in songs of praise. The experience of faith in Jesus is that of joy in a new found love. But “troubled breast” suggest not the fear of intimacy with God but despair over our continued sin. Indeed, after joy new Christians often experience despair. After coming to faith we realize for the first time what sinners actually are. Keeping company with Jesus does that to you. Our imagined goodness does not measure up to his real goodness. But walking with Jesus will lead to a deeper repentance which issues forth in genuine goodness. The kindness of God, as St. Paul argued, leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Let us all in Thee inherit, Let us find that second rest
The word “inherit” suggests this is of divine origin. An inheritance is not self-generated. We inherit what someone else has given. The Spirit wants us to experience a deeper rest from sin. This is the promise of sanctification – being increasingly freed from that power of sin, not just its penalty. Our final inheritance is deliverance is from the very presence of sin. Now in light of this, we should not be surprised to hear this longing for liberation:
Take away our bent to sinning, Alpha and Omega be/End of faith as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.
This is a cry for the pure love of God as the center of our being and experience. It is the pure love of God of which Augustine spoke so powerfully when he said that “seeing God’s face” should be our greatest desire. Salvation is not an object, it is a subject. IT is the very presence of God, it is union with God in unbroken friendship. And this presence is a holy-love that cleanses all that it touches. And what it touches it frees. As Paul said, perfect love cast out fear. The goal of salvation is embedded in its very beginning. We are moving more and more from glory to glory until we are ready to see His face. Salvation is becoming fitted for an eternal friendship with God in a new creation.
Come Almighty to deliver, Let us all Thy Life receive.
Wesley devotes the third verse of his hymn of praise to the First person of the Trinity. Though the Father comes first in the order of the persons, he usually comes last in our experience. The Spirit draws us to the Son and the Son, who is in bosom of the Father, makes the Father known to us (John 1:18). This is the pathway of grace and mercy. Wesley is spelling out the itinerary of salvation.
The request of the Father is to “deliver us. ”  The petition is placed in the positive – “all Thy life receive. ”  To receive God’s life is to receive all the benefits of his life – forgiveness and cleansing from sin. The life of God brings the gifts of deliverance: past deliverance from the penalty of sin, present deliverance from the power of sin, and future deliverance from the presence of sin. Deliverance is aimed at all that which divides and separates us from God and one another. And the agent of that deliverance is nothing less the very life of the Father. We are not just saved from something, but saved for something - in fact, saved for someone!
Suddenly return and never, never more Thy temples leave;
A subtheme of this hymn is that God has chosen to abide – not in the Temple of Jerusalem, or even in the heavens alone, but in the human heart. We are God’s temple (I Corinthians 3:16), the very habitation of God. Additionally, unlike the dwelling place in the Garden, or Tabernacle, or Temple – the human heart is to be a permanent dwelling place. These former habitations are the shadows; the heart is the substance. The prayer is more specific still:  we ask not only that God abides in us but that He will never leave us. This raises the issue of apostasy. Is it possible to experience salvation and lose it?  The hymn, just like scriptures suggests that it is possible (Hebrews 6:1-8). I would add: fall outside the message of this hymn, which is the message of the Bible, and you fall outside of salvation. This is a salvation song. Let us instead hide it in our hearts and abide in the fair beauty of the Lord.
Thee we would be always blessing, Serve Thee as Thy hosts above
Now we sing the consequence of salvation. It issues in a life of blessing and serving God, taking our place with the angels in heaven. Heaven is God’s space. It is that inter-locking, intersecting, usually hidden space running parallel to the visible creation. The Nicene Creed names both – heaven and earth – as God’s creation. Worship can be one of those times and places where heaven and earth intersect. Our worship should be a little heaven on earth. I rejoice that at Truro, it is.
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing, Glory in Thy perfect love.
Worship leads to contemplation – a life of unceasing prayer and praise, abiding in the perfect love of God. This is the goal of worship and worship is the goal of life. Contemplation is therefore our natural habitat and fulfilling purpose. This is another way into the “original experiences” that John Paul II explores in his Theology of the Body. Contemplation is not a state of prayer as much as it is a state of living in this life from the perspective of the future – a healed and redeemed world. It is having the windows of our souls purified so that we really “see” life as God sees it. Contemplation teaches us to see others as God really sees them. It is the awareness that Jesus truly is the author and finisher of our faith, he is the creator and redeemer of the world (Ephesians 1:3-10).
Finish then Thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be;
All three members of the Trinity participate in creation and salvation. This final verse describes the work of salvation as a “new creation. ”  In the first creation, God starts with heaven and earth and ends with humanity. But in the new creation, he begins to recreate the world by starting with humanity (in the incarnation) and culminating with heaven and earth. Why does God go in reverse this time around?  Is it because He does not want us to mess up the world again?  If He gets the stewards of creation right first, then He knows we can be entrusted with a new Creation. So Wesley adds, “pure and spotless let us be. ”  This will be on each of our resumes, part of what qualifies us to steward a new heaven and new earth: we will be pure and spotless. Sin is gone. And what has been transformed cannot be transmitted.
Let us see Thy great salvation, Perfectly restored in Thee
Now we sing a remarkable truth about this salvation:  it is perfectly restored in God first. Creation participates in God’s life because there is no life apart from God. God is not one being among many but the ground of all reality, all beings. Creation is restored, healed and saved when all alienation from God has been rectified – thus the restoration of Creation occurs because it has been reconciled and restored into perfect communion with its source – the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The only way to restore anything is to restore it in God.
Changed from glory into glory, Till heaven we take our place
This song is full of scriptural echoes and allusions. This comes from 2 Corinthians 3:18: And we all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 
Salvation is about transformation. And transformation results from personal, face to face relation with God. What Moses asked for and was denied, is ours through grace (see Exodus 33:20). Heaven is a place of unbroken, unfiltered, unfettered fellowship and communion in love.
Till we cast our crowns before Thee. Lost in wonder, love and praise.
We conclude our song in complete adoration. Like the woman who poured her costly perfume on Jesus’ feet, our achievements and treasures also pale in comparison to our Lord’s work of redeeming us. What crowns, what achievement, what rewards will you give the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? St Teresa is correct. We don’t have to wait for heaven to experience heaven. We can praise Him now. This is the way, simultaneously, of both relevance and faithfulness. We can and should lose ourselves in wonder, love and praise. Moreover, if we know the big story we find ourselves in, we will. 2
1 The inspiration of this exposition came in a pastoral visit to my friend and mentor, Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, while he was recovering from a serious illness. We discussed the meaning of this song during my visit. Upon my return, I expanded the notes and added the Trinitarian emphasis to his emphasis of God’s “one way” love for us. This sermon is, in part, an elaboration of that conversation and the centrality of God’s love to the story we find ourselves in.
2 This hymn suggests an answer to the query Robert Jenson placed before us in his landmark article “How the World Lost Its Story” (First Things: Oct. 1993). He writes, reminiscent of Wesley’s hymn: It is the whole vision of an Eschaton that is now missing outside the church. The assembly of believers must therefore itself be the event in which we may behold what is to come. Nor is this necessity new in the life of the church. For what purpose, after all, do we think John the Seer recorded his visions?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why Wesley Still Matters (one of many parts)

These two photos of Wesley are of the statue that stands outside St Paul's Cathedral.  It is iconic.  It is life sized, all 4' 6" of him AND it is outside the cathedral.

Wesley was an inside-outsider his entire ministry.  When the institutional church was slow to respond to massive population shifts due to industrialization, resulting in masses of urban poor Wesley took the gospel to them anyway.  He did not seek to replace the institutional church but rather augment it through preaching chapels and religious societies designed to shepherd the trajectory of conversion.  It is best to think of Wesley as a Protestant friar, committed to holiness, the poor and the preaching life - a sort of Anglican Dominican.  

Wesley's life long obsession was not evangelism as commonly thought. It was holiness!  He longed to "spread scriptural holiness across the land."  Evangelism was a means to that larger end.  And this is the key to understanding Wesley: he wanted holiness for himself and others and he devised means that would effect that desire.  Before people were sanctified they necessarily needed to be justified.  Thus, he started with evangelism.  The class meeting structure was the means for accomplising the goal of justification.  Sanctification was more challenging, so his system was more complex involving select societies, bands and the like.  They were a combination of the confessional and a twelves steps support group.  An audacious aspiration motivated this pastoral care system: he sought to democratize sainthood.  Holiness was not just for the clergy and cloistered. It was also for the butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

The secret of Wesley's fruitfulness (which is not  the same as success), was captured by the historian Herbert Butterfield, who said Wesley "saw all of his duck as swans."  Wesley's vision of what England's displaced poor could become in Christ, started a revival and changed a nation.

The sight of his statue today evoked this memory and brief thanksgiving for the life and witness of Mr. Wesley.