Who do you say that you are? Saints, sinners and the Ascension

I have been reading through Ed Shaw’s thought-provoking book, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction. Apart from the central subject matter of the book (Christians and same-sex attraction), one particular section stopped me in my tracks:

Sinners or saints?
But where’s the theological misstep that the evangelical church has made here? Have you missed it? Here it is: it’s the danger that some evangelicals often fall into of more generally defining ourselves as sinners rather than saints; as those in constant rebellion against God rather than his permanently adopted children (p. 40).

It stopped me in my tracks because what he writes of (British conservative) evangelicals is undoubtedly true of (at least English-speaking) Lutherans, too. We speak of Christians as “saints and sinners”, simul iustus et peccator, but much of our rhetoric puts the emphasis firmly on the sinner in us. I have a pretty firm hunch that Lutheran preachers and writers are more likely to refer to their congregations or readers as sinners than as saints. I know I have in the past.

But, as Shaw points out, the term “sinner” is applied to a Christian only once in the entire New Testament, in 1 Tim. 1:15. And even there, St. Paul applies it to himself, not to his reader: “sinners … of whom I am the foremost”. Moreover, the context suggests that this is more of reference to Paul’s past as a persecutor than to his present status as a Christian. Continue reading Who do you say that you are? Saints, sinners and the Ascension

The Journey Of The Magi

One of my favourite Epiphany poems, by T.S. Eliot. I learned last night from John Drury that its famous opening lines are lifted virtually verbatim from this sermon by the great Lancelot Andrewes.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Source: http://allpoetry.com/The-Journey-Of-The-Magi

God Is Gone Up!

Happy Ascension Day!

God is gone up with a triumphant shout!
The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphicwise!
Lift up your Heads, ye lasting Doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.

Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly,
In flakes of Glory down him to attend,
And hear Heart-cramping notes of Melody
Surround his Chariot as it did ascend;
Mixing their Music, making ev’ry string
More to enravish as they this tune sing.

Text: Edward Taylor (1646–1729)
Music: Gerald Finzi (1901–56)

Advent Conspiracy!

YES! HT Esgetology

Fear and trembling

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Easter morning, 24 April 2011.
Text: Mark 16:1–8
To listen to the sermon, click here.

We know very little about the evangelist Mark. But of one thing we can be fairly certain: he never did go on a creative writing course. What an awful way to end a book:

“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Said nothing? ! Nothing? !

Were afraid? !

What started as the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God—Mark’s famous opening line—ends up with this crushing anti-climax. Jesus is risen, but no one hears about it, because the women said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

In fact, it’s such an awful way to end the Gospel, that some time after Mark had finished writing his, some people came along and tried to make amends for his seeming incompetence by writing better conclusions. If you look up Mark 16 in your Bibles, you will find at least two different endings after verse 8, which break the women’s silence and end the story as it should end. And in more recent times, since it has become obvious that those longer endings aren’t original, well-meaning scholars have suggested all sorts of theories as to why Mark didn’t actually get to finish the gospel, or how his real ending got lost somewhere.

But is it really so bad? Do we need to be embarrassed or even puzzled? Closer examination of the gospel suggests that the opposite may be the case.

One of the really distinctive things about Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and teaching is that he deliberately portrays all the people in the Gospel, from Jesus down, in their full humanity. There are no caricatures, not polished or stylised characters. When the disciples are being thick and slow on the uptake, Mark doesn’t hide that. When they stick their feet firmly in their mouths, Mark makes sure that we know about it. And when Jesus is in agony, suffering first in Gethsemane and then on the cross, Mark gives to us a portrait of a man genuinely suffering: in the Garden, prostrate on the ground, begging for the cup of suffering to be taken away; and on the cross, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! ”

There is a great comfort in this. When we struggle with the weakness of our faith, or when our own agenda takes over God’s will, Mark kindly reminds us that we are not alone. The great apostles were just the same, and yet Jesus chose them to be His ambassadors to the world, bringing about His kingdom by proclaiming His word. He bears with our weaknesses as He bore with theirs, and it is by His calling that we are made into God’s children, just as they were called not because of their excellence but simply because He chose them. And as He equipped the apostles for their ministry, so will He also equip us for our place in His kingdom, whatever that place may be. As the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: His power is made perfect in our weakness, because His grace is sufficient.

More than that, when He took on human flesh, it wasn’t just a bit of play acting, only pretending to be one of us. No, He suffered fear and anguish and temptation as we do. Therefore, He is able to sympathise with our weakness—not only in principle, or because He is all-knowing, but because He has experienced weakness, yet without sin.

And so it is most appropriate that Mark’s Gospel should end the way it does. The women fled the tomb and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Jesus was alive, but they had not encountered the risen Jesus, and so the news of His resurrection was not a comfort but a source of trembling and astonishment. It made no sense, they couldn’t believe really believe it, so they said nothing.

How typical—not only of them, but of every disciple in Mark’s Gospel: seeing yet not believing, missing what should be obvious. I mean, what more did they need? An empty tomb, and an angel explaining exactly what it all meant. The meaning should have been obvious. They should have rejoiced and told everyone, not trembled and told no one.

But, again Mark is doing us a great favour in drawing attention to the women’s unbelief. Because it shows that we are not alone with our doubts and struggles, our fears and our fearfulness. The facts are evident, and we are reminded of them week after week, year after year, as we hear the Scriptures read and proclaimed. There may be no angel from heaven, but angels of God, His messengers, have faithfully pointed to the empty tomb again and again, proclaiming that Jesus is alive and has gone ahead of us.

But where joy and courage should follow, there is trembling and astonishment. Where we should be quick of feet to tell everyone that the Lord has risen, we say nothing to anyone, because we are afraid.

And yet, we know how the story ends. Mark had no need to give the Gospel a neat ending, because everyone knew what happened next. Within a few short hours, the astonishment and fear had been replaced by rejoicing, and the silence had turned into breathless proclamation: He is risen! By the time Mark put pen to papyrus, the news of Christ’s resurrection had travelled thousands of miles all around the Roman empire and beyond, and it is still spreading.

Because it is His Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Death could not hold Him down, and the weakness of the women at the tomb could not hold back the life-giving news of His rising. When they encountered the risen Christ, His voice and His touch melted away their fear and turned their silence into joyful words.

Easter morning will not have been the last experience of fear and doubt for these first witnesses of the resurrection. Even though the encounter with the risen Lord dispelled their anxiety and replaced it with joy, after His ascension there will have been many anxious moments. Anxieties about daily bread, about health, anxieties in the face of persecution, anxiety in the face of approaching and impending death. Anxiety in the face of sin and doubt. The feelings of joy will have been a memory than a reality.

How would they recover the joy and the confidence? How do we gain, and regain the same joy and confidence that was theirs then?

True Christian joy comes from the encounter with the risen Jesus. That was true on Easter morning, and it is true now. The very joy of heaven will be the joy of the presence of the risen Jesus. When fear and anxiety threaten to take over our lives, we need to seek the presence of the risen Jesus. Even as we suffer, we can share Job’s confident hope: I know that my Redeemer lives: my life is no longer defined by my present circumstances but by the future hope made present now.

There is nothing airy-fairy or abstract about this encounter. Jesus is not your imaginary friend. No, the risen Lord is present here and now. He it is that is speaking to you, as He spoke to the startled disciples on the first Easter Sunday. His crucified and risen body is about to enter this room, as it entered through locked doors on the evening of the first Easter. You can touch His body as Thomas touched it and was transformed from doubting Thomas to believing Thomas. And as you encounter Him in the Divine Service, and through faith recognise that it is indeed He and that He is indeed living and present here for you, your doubts, fears and anxieties will go the same way that the doubts, fears and anxieties of the three women at the tomb.

Jesus is risen, and you too shall rise. Whatever havoc death is playing with your life now, Christ has overcome death—and so you, too, who are in Christ, will be victorious over death. It can only inflict temporary wounds, cast temporary shadows, provoke temporary fears. In Christ, you can stare all the failures and successes of this present life full in the face and declare with faithful Job:

I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

Alleluia, He is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

God is gone up!

Anthem for the Ascension of our Lord.

Music by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). The words are by Edward Taylor (1642-1729), drawing on Ps. 47. Performed by the finest of all English boys’ choirs, the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge.

The Finzi anthem is the second on this clip and it starts at 3:20.

God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphicwise!
Lift up your Heads, ye lasting Doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.

Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly,
In flakes of Glory down him to attend,
And hear Heart-cramping notes of Melody
Surround his Chariot as it did ascend;
Mixing their Music, making ev’ry string
More to enravish as they this tune sing.

I Thirst — Homily for Good Friday

"I Thirst"
James Tissot (1836-1902): I Thirst. Vinegar Given to Jesus

Good Friday
John 19

Our Saviour Lutheran Church
2 April 2010

The text for our meditation on this Good Friday comes from the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth verses of the Gospel reading we have just heard:

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.

________________

“Water, water everywhere
And all the boards did shrink,
Water, water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink.”

These haunting lines, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, form one the most famous descriptions of the agony of thirst. Of all our bodily needs, the need for adequate drink is the most urgent, the most pressing. Left without food, a healthy adult may survive for up to two months. Deprived of drink, we will be fortunate to last four days.

Thirst can come upon us in different ways. Perhaps we fail to take in adequate water. Or perhaps salt or other toxins will enter our body and upset the balance of fluids. Whichever the cause of thirst, left unsatisfied it is not only agonising, it is lethal.

In the Old Testament, early on in the Exodus, the people of Israel found themselves camped in the wilderness without drinking water. Little surprise, then, that they were feeling more than a little anxious as they contemplated what seemed like an uncertain future. It is not at all unnatural if our sympathies lie with the Israelites as they worried and, eventually grumbled and complained.

In the desert, without water, Israel had run into one of the great temptations that the people of God has to face time again: the conflict between promise and reality, between faith and sight. God himself had promised to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land; yet here they were, in the middle of the arid wilderness, facing death through thirst. Where was God’s promise now?

Predictably, the people lost faith, despaired, and turned against God and His servant Moses. But instead of pouring out His righteous wrath, God performed one of the great reversals in human history. The agonised complaint of the faithless Israelites became an occasion for an overflow of God’s grace. His anger expressed itself in mercy. In the middle of the wilderness, God gave his people drink out of a dry rock.

The people of Israel had failed to recognise the power of God’s promise. They had mistaken their want for their need. They thought their real problem was their thirst for water, whereas, in fact, their real thirst was for faith in God and His word. It was the thirst of sin.

And this is where the story of Israel meets our story. In their original created state, our forebears had not known the thirst of sin. But when sin entered the world, humanity was beset by a permanent thirst. The life-giving Spirit of God was drained from the veins of our souls. Instead, they are filled with a sin-saturated brine, which leaves us gagging for refreshment. Yet when we seek for water to flush out our sin, all we find is the false drink of idolatry, of the worship of created things rather than the God who created us for fellowship with Him. Like the waters surrounding the Mariner’s stricken ship, such water may look promising but it will only make our suffering greater. Left to our own devices, we too are lost in a wilderness with no water to drink. — And so we thirst.

How different it was for Jesus. Here was the Son of God, the Agent of creation Himself. Free from sin, he had no need of drink. Here was the one who had offered the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar living water. Here was the one who had promised, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again.” Here was the one who declared at the Feast of Booths, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ’Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’’’ And, as St. Paul tells us, here was the one who was the spiritual Rock out of which the people of Israel drank in the wilderness. Here was no arid wilderness, no thirst of sin, but the very oasis itself.

How ironic, then, that the spring of life-giving, living water is now bleeding, dying and thirsting. As in the wilderness, we behold on the cross a great reversal. But now that which was a mere figure of what was to come is fulfilled. At Rephidim, the dry rock issued water. At Golgotha, the water flows out of the side of Christ, the Living Rock—while He Himself is left waterless, lifeless. The bottomless spring of water is turned into a waterless wilderness. Both places were places of immeasurable grace.

For Jesus’ thirst was the thirst of sin—your sin. It was the salt of your transgressions that poisoned His sinless soul. And so He was cut off from the Father, placed under the curse of sin. Separated from God, He was cut off from the source of life-giving drink. He who issued water out of a rock for His people, he who had turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, had nothing to drink but that which sinful men had to offer Him: sour wine.

But this bitter, desolate scene is the sweetest Gospel for each one of us, for you and for me. Jesus thirsted, but he thirsted so that we might drink the water of life. When He was poisoned by the salt of sin, it was your sin that was killing Him. And in return, He offers you His pure, untainted blood in a miraculous transfusion. After Jesus died and His side was pierced by a soldier’s spear, it was water and blood that flowed out of His side. And the water and the blood still flow in great rivers of mercy to repentant sinners. In the waters of baptism, we are washed clean of the poison of sin. According to Jesus’ promise, the Spirit of God dwells in His children, like a spring of living water, flowing from the heart. The life of faith is one continuous drinking of the water of eternal life. Moreover, not content to give us mere water, in the cup of wine at the Lord’s Supper He gives us His own blood to drink, to nourish us and to gladden us. And so in the place of our sin-infested blood our veins are filled—quite literally—with His holy, unblemished, life-giving blood.

And so, with the salt of sin washed away and the thirsting soul having been brought back to the spring of living water, we are brought back into Eden, into fellowship with God.

And yet, how often we seem to find ourselves back in the wilderness, thirsting for God, thirsting for life. How often it is that we, like the faithless Israelites, find ourselves suspended between promise and reality, between faith and sight, want and need. It is all too easy to identify with the Psalmists’ cries of despair:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.

Where is God when we enter those dark nights of the soul? Where is He, when our loved ones die; when our relationships fail; when our life seems to lose its direction? Where is He when our needs are not being satisfied?

Where is God when we find ourselves empty and dry, wilting in a wilderness of temptation and sin, when the oasis of life with God seems but a mirage. Where is that water He promised, the drink that would never leave us thirsty?

And where is God when congregations wither and are brought to the very brink of existence, when churches close and it seems that the very voice of the Gospel is being silenced forever?

It is into such wildernesses that the Passion Gospel speaks. Christ has already thirsted your thirst, has Himself taken the poison that would have killed you. When He gave you the water of baptism, He did not offer you just a one-off washing. Instead, He has given us a pool of cleansing for daily, constant refreshment in repentance and faith. With His word as your compass, you will be led through the wilderness of this life safe into Promised Land. With His body and blood as food, you will not faint on the way.

Likewise with the Church. Like a doomed vessel, she is tossed on the stormy waves of the sea, or else languished in the doldrums, seemingly destined never to reach land again. And yet, her all-conquering Captain has promised: “I will be with you always. Go, make disciples—baptise, teach. I will build my church on the solid rock of the Gospel. And the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against Her.” And where His word and sacraments remain, the Church will prevail onto Her heaven-haven.

Yet, while we are on the way, the poison of sin still clings to us. We are tempted, we are tried, and we will often go the way of the wandering Israelites, failing to recognise the power of God’s promise, mistaking our wants for our needs. As soon as we contemplate our life apart from the God’s promises in Christ, consider our situation apart from His grace, we too will despair. God allows us to run into these dead-ends in order to remind us that His grace is sufficient. In the darkest depths of despair, He assures us,

The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

The promise is the reality. Faith takes hold of what the eyes do not yet see. On the cross, the Rock was struck. The waters are flowing, and they flow for you. Yes, He leads us away from the fleshpots of Egypt, along the narrow way. But it is the way to the Promised Land, to the land flowing with milk and honey, led by our Lord, who has promised, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Epiphany Eliot

Here’s a treat for the Epiphany season: a recording of T.S. Eliot reading his Journey of the Magi. There is something wonderful about the grimness of the seemingly tangential reality of the journey, the pointed pun, and the focus on … oh, hear and read it yourself. It helps to understand that focus to know that this poem was written not long after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity.

Click here to go to the Poetry Archive.

Resurrection Faith

I know a lot of bloggers have drawn attention to it already, but just in case it’s slipped anyone’s net, I thought I’d add my own link:

A.N. Wilson, the famous biographer and notorious religious sceptic, who wrote biographies of Jesus and Paul with the express intention of demonstrating that Christianity is on an untenable foundation, has become a Christian. He wrote about his re-discovery of the Christian faith in a column in the Daily Mail. Here are a couple of excerpts:

My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.

The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people’s lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings.

Historians of Roman and Jewish law have argued at length about the details of Jesus’s trial – and just how historical the Gospel accounts are.

Anyone who believes in the truth must heed the fine points that such scholars unearth. But at this distance of time, there is never going to be historical evidence one way or the other that could dissolve or sustain faith.

Of course, only hard evidence will satisfy the secularists, but over time and after repeated readings of the story, I’ve been convinced without it.

This tells you something about the power of the Gospel: the birth of faith through the “repeated readings of the story”. It also tells you about the potentially wonderful evidentiary power of people living their lives as Christians, “riends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die”.

Not that apologetics and dealing with the challenges of the sceptics is a waste of time or futile. Only it must remain in its proper place: as a kind of winsome bulldozer, clearing away the outer defences that prevent people from even hearing the Gospel in the first place. But the message of the resurrection is in itself sufficient.

On the evening of the first Easter, Jesus appeared to His disciples after they had heard the report of the women from the tomb, after Peter had witnessed the empty tomb, and immediately after Cleopas and the other disciple had returned from Emmaus to tell of their encounter with the Risen Lord. Yet, when He appeared, they doubted and were filled with fear. How did Jesus deal with their doubt and fear? By simply pointing to the reality of the resurrection: showing His hands and feet pierced for the world, and eating some fish to demonstrate that He was indeed alive. And they believed, and fear was replaced by joy.

And those two signs are still being offered to us: Christ who died for us, Christ who was raised for us. In those two facts, the fate of all humanity – and of every human being – is decided. And those two facts alone can overcome doubt and fear with faith.