Archive for July, 2007

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

July 6, 2007

One of the great gifts of the Protestant Reformation was the re-discovery of something called “justification by faith.” It has to do with how we “get saved,” how we come into a saving relationship with God, how we receive the assurance of eternal life.

 It’s actually better named “justification by grace through faith” and it was certainly not new with Martin Luther or the Protestants, but hearkens back to the pages of the New Testament, specifically to St. Paul who was the great “apostle of grace.”

I would say it even goes back beyond Paul at least to Jesus who demonstrates how it works in Matthew 9:9-13. That really was Jesus’ way. He was not a systematic theologian like Paul could be at his best. Jesus was a story teller and an activist. He demonstrated in his life what God was like rather than writing books about it!

He does two things in this Gospel passage: First, he calls Matthew the tax collector to be his friend and follower: Matthew, the traitor…Matthew, the man who had sold out to the occupying power, gone to work for them, and collected exorbitant taxes on their behalf, no doubt lining his own pockets with part of the proceeds.

Secondly, Jesus sat at table with Matthew’s cronies, more tax collectors and other sinners whose transgressions are not identified. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the disciples were asked. Not waiting for them to answer that for him, Jesus interrupts: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…I desire mercy, not sacrifice…I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”  

Notice, that in neither case did Jesus ask his friends to clean up their act before associating with them. He didn’t tell Matthew, “Say you’re sorry for betraying your people. Give them back what you stole. And promise never to do it again!” Now, maybe it’s implicit in Matthew’s willingness to follow Jesus that he will forsake his former way of life, but that is not named as a pre-condition.

Same with the other tax collectors and sinners. Apparently Jesus didn’t say, “Reform your lives and then I’ll break bread with you.” He shared their table first and only then, we assume, invited them to change. That, it seems to me, is the difference between “works righteousness” and justification by grace.

Works righteousness is “being good in order to be saved”. Justification by grace is “being good in thanksgiving for the fact that you have already been saved!” What difference does it make?

Only this: you can never work hard enough or be good enough to earn salvation. You’ll always be striving and straining, but never get there. But when you realize that you have been given God’s love and salvation as a gift, you can quite literally breathe a sign of relief – and, in thanksgiving, begin a lifelong journey of living a life which will please the One who loves you! The One who desires mercy…not sacrifice!  

Democracy and the Church

July 3, 2007

As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, Independence Day, it is interesting to reflect on our “American expression” of Anglicanism. Much is made of the fact that some of the same framers of the U.S. Constitution had input into the framing of our polity as the Episcopal Church in this land. Hence, our own “constitutional” form of government, the two Houses of our General Convention (with the House of Bishops often compared to the Senate; the House of Deputies to the House of Representatives), and a “Presiding,” rather than “Arch-” Bishop as chief executive officer.

All this certainly has historical roots and is interesting at least for that reason. However, I would want to argue for much more ancient and theologically significant reasons for our “democratic polity.” And that is that the “mind of Christ is to be discerned within the Body of Christ” and that means the whole people of God — lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.

Jesus’ own life in community, St. Paul’s rich image of the Church as the Body of Christ (i.e. I Corinthians 12-14 and elsewhere), the clear tradition of the ancient Church that, for example, bishops were “elected” by the people they would serve, not “appointed” by monarchs or “distant and unaccountable prelates” (in that delicious phrase from the House of Bishops’ response to the Primates’ Communique!) — all these are testimonies to the centrality of the entire “laos” (the whole, holy people of God) being involved in decision-making and in the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s leading in the Church.

Does this mean that such things as General Convention never make mistakes? Of course not. But then, we do not have an “infallibility doctrine” to defend! We do not believe in an infallible Pope, an infallible Book, or infallible Councils. That is why Anglicanism has always recognized its provisional nature and sits rather lightly on dogmatic formulae.

We say our prayers, try to listen to God’s Word and to one another, seek as broad a consensus as possible, and then make our decisions, always trying to leave room for dissent, and not seeking to impose them artificially upon others. This is not only characteristic of the “American expression” but of Anglicanism at its very best down through the centuries.         

Only humans are homeless

July 1, 2007

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58). This line from our Gospel reading today features the mysterious phrase, “Son of Man.” Most scholars tell us that “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite way to refer to himself and that is probably true, given the number of times the phrase appears in the Gospels.

 But there has been a lot of research and consideration, over the years, on exactly what Jesus meant by “Son of Man.” When I was in seminary, my New Testament professor – Fred Borsch (later Bishop of Los Angeles) – had published his doctoral dissertation under the title “The Son of Man in Myth and History,” tracing the use of the term in ancient literature.

 Later he published a book entitled “Christian and Gnostic Son of Man.” We suggested his next book might be called “The Son of Man goes to Camp” but he never took us up on it!Often, people think Son of Man refers to Jesus’ humanity while Son of God refers to his divinity, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.   

 There are at least three ways to understand the phrase. One would be the way it is used in the Book of Daniel: “As I looked on, in a night vision, I saw one like a son of Adam coming with heaven’s clouds.  He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented to him.  Dominion and glory and rule were given to him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his rule is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

 In that passage, in a dream, Daniel has a vision of a heavenly figure who will come in the  form of a human being. This son of Adam (or “son of man”) will be appointed by the Most High God, the Ancient of Days, as a kind of ruler and judge. Jesus may have understood the phrase in that way – he certainly knew the Book of Daniel!

 Or, it could be interpreted as Mark quotes Jesus’ instructions to his disciples concerning his own death: “The son of man is being turned over to his enemies, and they will end up killing him. And three days after he is killed he will rise.” (Mark 9:31) In this context, Son of Man seems to be Jesus’ unique way of referring to himself. Son of Man here is the equivalent of saying “I”. I will be turned over to my enemies…they will end up crucifying me…and three days later I will rise. Again…possible.

 There is a third possibility which intrigues me and it is the way Roman Catholic biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan, translates our Gospel passage for today: He takes the phrase and renders it the way we usually do in translating Psalm 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?  You have made him but little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor”.

 In other words, here the phrase simply means “human being”.  So Crossan translates our passage today:  “Every fox has a den.  Every bird has a nest. Only humans are homeless.” Isn’t that great? Nature takes care of its own, providing dens for foxes and nests for birds. Only human beings cause one another to be homeless!

 Well, I’m not sure we need to choose between those three options. An ideal translation (according to the late New Testament scholar, Robert Funk) would be one in which all three possibilities are held in tension.  Each of them has something to teach us.

 The heavenly figure “Son of Adam” reminds us of the cosmic Christ. Within years, and certainly decades, after Jesus’ death and resurrection his followers were assigning to him a heavenly role, associating him with the very nature of God, and giving him a role in the final judgment and the ultimate salvation of the world! One like a son of Adam coming with heaven’s clouds…his dominion an everlasting dominion that will not pass away.

 The second rendering – assuming that Son of Man was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself – reminds us that he was an itinerant sage. He literally had no place to lay his head and was dependent, throughout his ministry, on the kindness of friends and foes alike for basic food and drink and certainly for lodging.

 But the third reading has its place as well. Not least because it gives us something to do, some way to respond to today’s Gospel. Every fox has a den. Every bird has a nest. Only humans are homeless! June 20 was World Refugee Day.  Every year on that date the world recognizes and honors the courage and strength of refugees.  According to the Episcopal Church’s Public Policy Network:

 Iraq is now home to one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons.  The United Nations reports that every day 2,000 Iraqis are displaced.  There are over 2 million Iraqi refugees and many are in imminent danger, particularly because they are a targeted religious minority or are associated with the US involvement in Iraq…

 We are faced with a crisis for Iraqi refugees that must be addressed by our Congress. Just this week Senators Edward Kennedy and Gordon Smith introduced the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, calling on our government to offer resettlement to at-risk persons in Iraq and the surrounding region. If you don’t already belong to the Episcopal Church’s Public Policy Network, now would be an excellent time to join!

 Just Google Episcopal Public Policy Network, sign up, and you’ll receive regular updates and easy ways to write your Congress people. Specifically now, to urge them to support the Kennedy-Smith bill that recognizes that the US has an obligation to bring relief to Iraqis seeking refuge. Why?

 Because: Every fox has a den.  Every bird has a nest. Only humans are homeless!