Archive for December, 2020


December 26, 2020

Keep politics out of the pulpit…we have separation of church and state in this country! Why don’t you spend your time preaching the gospel and growing the church, not talking about current events! My guess is that, if you are a member of the clergy…or even a member of the church, you have heard things like this said more than once.

And I would not dismiss such statements out of hand. There are preachers out there who abuse the “power of the pulpit” to advance partisan concerns either on the right or on the left. And people don’t come to church to hear their minister opine about his or her particular views on the latest news headlines. But such abuses must not cause those of us entrusted with the responsibility of proclaiming God’s word from week to week from applying that word to real the concerns of real people in the real world.

After all, most Christians would agree that the central affirmation of Christmas is that “the Word became flesh.” The most important thing about that first Christmas was not the cuteness of a baby in a manger or the appearance of the Christmas star or shepherds hearing angelic voices singing God’s glory.

These things point to what is the most important thing — that, on “this day,” in the city of David, the wisdom of God, the principle of rationality and order at the core of the entire universe, the self-expression, the “word” of God, what theologians later came to name the “second person of the Trinity,” was made known, came to dwell/tabernacle in a new-born infant who was to be called Jesus.

Christians believe this. We also believe that this in-carnation, this enfleshment, of God, was “simply” the prime example of a principle as old as the creation itself. Namely, that the creator of the world, indeed the mind behind creation itself, makes itself known to us in the very “stuff” of that creation. It is the incarnational principle. The popular Franciscan writer, Richard Rohr, puts it this way:

“… the spirit nature of reality (the spiritual, the immaterial, the formless) and the material nature of reality (the physical, that which we can see and touch) are one. They always have been one, ever since the Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago. The incarnation did not just happen when Jesus was born, although that is when we became aware of the human incarnation of God in Jesus. It seemingly took until 2,000 years ago for humanity to be ready for what Martin Buber (1878-1965) called an I/Thou relationship with God. But matter and spirit have been one since “the beginning,” ever since God decided to manifest himself/herself in creation.”

And this incarnational principle itself, in time, is also seen in the sacramental principle. That is, that behind and beneath very earthy signs such as water, bread, wine, oil, and human touch the very power and love of God can be conveyed and received. The two primary Christian sacraments — baptism and the eucharist — show this most clearly. But other sacramental realities such as confirmation, marriage, ordination, healing and reconciliation also celebrate that truth.

Most Christians believe this. So why is it so difficult to accept the fact that God is also involved in the very stuff of life — the everyday events, large and small, which effect to one degree or another our common life? And, since the simplest definition I know of “politics” is “the way people living in groups make decisions,” Christians cannot avoid politics any more than they can avoid religion. The two, in many cases, are one.

I know that, in today’s parlance the word politics most often refers to the way that countries are governed and to the ways that governments makes rules and laws. And, particularly in the last decades, politics most often means partisan politics. It is this latter that Christian preachers must avoid! I used to say that I was often “political” from the pulpit, but never (I hope!) “partisan.” I never encouraged people on how to vote, only that they must vote!

It takes a certain fierce honesty, coupled with hours of prayer and meditation “with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal!) in the other to craft a sermon which faithfully applies the “word of God” as discerned in Scripture to the needs, hopes and concerns of the world, and which challenges the assembly to make an equally faithful response in the way they live their lives in the everyday, workaday, world.

But it is in that very process, in that very encounter, that “the Word becomes flesh” (yet again) and “dwells among us.”

Merry Christmas!

A brief, but appreciative review of “Jesus and the Church” by Paul Avis (T & T Clark: London, 2020)

December 22, 2020

The full title of this fine book is Jesus and the Church: The Foundation of the Church in the New Testament and Modern Theology which fairly summarizes the author’s interest and intent — to investigate the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the church which he founded. Or did he? That is the question. Did Jesus intend to “found” a church. If so, how? If not, is the church anything more than a human creation?

To seek answers to those questions, Paul Avis embarks upon a two part project: in the first part he surveys the New Testament evidence as modern critical scholarship has presented it. The conclusion here, as Avis himself states, is that he has “established beyond any serious doubt, on the basis of modern biblical study, that Jesus of Nazareth neither founded by any explicit act, nor intended as part of his purpose, the church that soon emerged in history bearing his name and claiming his authority.” (page 199)

The first of the twin pillars holding up this contention is the fact that Jesus’ self described mission was to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He came to restore Israel, not to found a church. And the second pillar is the overwhelming New Testament evidence that Jesus and his original hearers and followers expected the parousia and God’s establishment of the kingdom to happen immanently. There was no need, no time to establish a church. With these findings I am in total agreement.

That does not, however, preclude the possibility that Jesus intended to leave behind a remnant, a community awaiting the rapidly approaching eschaton out of which the church, as the unfolding of the New Testament reveals, developed. Just how this occurred is the burden of the second half of Avis’ book in which he traces various approaches by representatives of modern theology in the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions.

Neither Paul Avis nor I are fans of Karl Barth, preferring Tillich or even Pannenberg as pinnacles of the Protestant approaches. But, while Avis leans toward Karl Rahner or even Walter Kasper on the Roman Catholic side, I would be hard pressed to abandon my life-long theological ‘”mentor” Hans Kung in this regard. I would have been helped by a little more on this prophetic giant.

We would perhaps both need to acknowledge certain historical and theological realities which might keep us from embracing Michael Ramsey’s conclusions completely, but his The Gospel and the Catholic Church is still hard to beat in articulating an Anglican approach to the questions at hand.

In the final chapter, Avis seeks to draw the threads together, concluding that Jesus Christ is not the founder, but the “one foundation” of the church which arose with him in his Resurrection and was filled with his Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Hallmarks of this reality include the restoration of Israel and the Temple, the harvest of the nations (gentiles), good news for the oppressed and, above all, the Paschal Mystery.

I will need more time to meditate on this final section, finding it somehow less satisfying than the preceding chapters on first reading. Happily, there are more volumes to come from this prolific author in the series “Theological Foundations of the Christian Church.” I look forward with great anticipation to this series. For, whether or not I have found Paul Avis’ conclusions entirely satisfying, I have no doubt that for this book (as Avis says himself for Karl Rahner) “it is the theological journey, not the arrival that is most rewarding.” (page 165)

The Church…after the pandemic

December 19, 2020

I’ve always loved the various encounters between King David and the prophet Nathan recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And I’m especially fond of the one we had as our First Lesson on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. David is feeling guilty that, as king, he is living in a fine house made of beautiful, fragrant cedar while he still hasn’t gotten around to building a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant to be housed in, but rather has left it outside in a simple tent.

He confesses this state of affairs to Nathan who assures him that the Lord is perfectly capable of making his will known on this matter and then, Nathan himself, becomes the conduit of that will when he hears God say, “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: ‘Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel…saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ (Second Samuel 7:5-7)

The LORD then goes on to instruct Nathan to remind David that he had been called from “following the sheep” to be a prince over the people and to become a great military leader. It soon becomes clear that God is more concerned about the people of Israel than he is about some kind of earthly edifice. And makes his point vivid by basically saying, “You’re not going to make ME a house. I am going to make YOU a house,” meaning a heritage, a lineage which would secure the blessings of peace and security on Israel for ever.

That lineage and heritage became a mixed blessing for Israel down through the centuries, but they never gave up hoping for “one like David” who would arise one day to restore their former glory and in fact to secure those same blessings of peace and security. We Christians, of course, believe that the ultimate descendant of David’s “house” was one Jesus of Nazareth whose conception in Mary’s womb we read about in the Gospel and whose birth we prepare to celebrate next week.

There is a good bit of hand-wringing out there these days about the decline in membership, shared to a greater or lesser degree, by all Christian communions in our day. That anxiety has been heightened by the novel coronavirus we are facing around the nation and world and the restrictions on our ability to gather in any kind of large groups in order to keep everyone as safe as possible from infection.

Many wonder whether this long absence will indeed “make the heart grow fonder” and attendance will rebound after we get this pandemic somewhat under control. Or, whether having gotten out of the habit of attending public worship, folks will just continue to stay home on Sunday mornings, reading the paper, or perhaps contenting themselves with some kind of “online” experience, rather than rolling out and actually getting to “church” on those Sundays.

It’s probably too soon to know, although I think it will more likely be the former rather than the latter at least for committed Christians. The question is, will we have learned anything during this bleak year of 2020 which can help us move into the future in perhaps an even stronger way than we have in the past. I, for one, hope we will have learned something from our spiritual ancestors and even from our First Reading today. I hope we will have learned, for example, that God is not contained in “temples made by hands” but is always on the move and always finding new ways to come to us.

When the first and second Jerusalem Temples were destroyed, the Jews had to learn to worship and live out their faith in new ways. With the sacrificial system no longer possible, smaller gatherings in synagogues and even an emphasis on worship as families, in homes, became paramount and served to preserve this “house of David,” this “chosen people” through centuries of persecution and exile. Jesus and his disciples attended synagogue and even the Temple when they were in Jerusalem, but we hear comparatively little about that in the Gospels. Like their God, Jesus and his friends were “on the move,” teaching and preaching and healing and loving up and down the Galilee and down into Judea itself. They met people where they were…not where they might wish them to be.

So, what do you hope we will have learned during our period of “exile” from public worship these many months? Here are some of my hopes and dreams to get you started:

  1. That God is more interested in creating a “people for himself” than he is in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA).
  2. That the online expertise we have learned about can be part of our ongoing communication and life into the future. When we resume in-person worship, that we can find a way to “live stream” as a matter of course, reaching those who cannot — or will not — be in “church” on a given Sunday to be “part of the church” anyway.
  3. That we will be freed to spend as much time worrying about how to be the church in the world as we have worrying about how to receive Communion “virtually” or bend the rules so that we can get back to in-person worship no matter how much danger we may be putting others in.

In other words…after the pandemic…will we just return to God’s house? Or will we become God’s house?

The Word Becoming Flesh

December 12, 2020

In this Advent season, Christians are preparing to celebrate God’s word becoming flesh (human) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But, as Richard Rohr and others have reminded us, this “incarnational principle” of the mind, heart, and Essence of the universe being made known in the “stuff” of everyday life is an eternal reality, not only a one-time event. It happens in every moment and every second of every day.

One of the things I miss most in retirement is the preparation and delivery of a weekly sermon. It had been part of my “preaching life” for over forty years before retirement. And I say “preparation and delivery” of a sermon because I have always enjoyed wrestling with the text and applying the truths there discerned to real life situations in the real world almost as much as I have enjoyed proclaiming that reality in the assembly.

My homiletics professor in seminary suggested this brief approach to preparing sermons — Need, Truth, and Response. That is, the preacher should try and identify a specific need or challenge facing the community. Then, apply the truths discerned from week’s lessons from scripture much as a physician might apply a balm or salve to a wound. And then, call for a specific response from the gathered community to this situation. It is this last step which, I find, is so often missing from sermons.

So, this year, I hope to resume this homiletic discipline in these pages, praying with and reflecting upon the scriptural lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary each week and seeking to apply them to particular needs in our community, nation, and world. Then I shall attempt to discern a response called for in this encounter between God’s word and the life situations we face. These reflections may often be only an exercise in my own spiritual discipline. If, from time to time, I consider them worth sharing, I shall do so by means of social media.

I must say, I am looking forward to this “new” adventure. And, as always, I invite you to use this Advent season to anticipate the many ways God’s word continues to become flesh. And the one we Christians hold most dear — Jesus the Christ.