Sunday, November 21, 2021

Perfect Law of Love; or, Lessons in Renouncing Satan

Instant #1: A flash of light and heat beyond comprehension. The skies unfurl in directions uncounted. The clock starts ticking. The universe is born. Now rewind the tape. Back behind Instant 1, before the beginning, peer behind the void and the silence, and behold only God. No space, no time, only God alone with God's own self. But God is Love, eternally surging forth in his own heart with a Loving Word of Wisdom, and back and forth between the two, again within God's own heart, there flashes a Spirit of Love flowing from God to Word and Word to God. In this X-ray of the eternal heart of God, an unchanging snapshot of infinite action and vitality, Love is all. Love is supreme. Love is complete. Because Love is Trinity. Now roll the tape again. It's love that surges, love that lights, love that heats, love that drives. Love unrolls and expands this invention called 'space,' love initiates the countdown called 'time,' love kisses the infant cosmos, yet a dot, and the kiss is matter and energy and physical law and all things. Love kisses realms unseen, and spirits are begotten, pure intellect and consciousness, none of like kind – the angels, the created sons of God, ready to shout for joy as stars coalesce and planets cohere and life begins to grow (cf. Job 38:7).

And all is well, for all is love. Until the day love first goes unrequited. Until the day, in the council God has with his heavenly sons, one flashes with envy and turns off the flowback of love to its Source. And from that one, the disease begins to spread, sweeping a third of every pure intellect into dysfunction and darkness. As a violent storm, see them fall like lightning from the highest heavens to the lower realms. Label that first one to disrupt the harmony for what he is: an obstacle, a poison, the corruption of the highest created good into the most hideous perversion of good. In that instantaneous and irreversible choice, all love drains away from it – or call it a 'him': Satan. Satan, in his rebellion against God's love, reveals the utmost antonym to God's name and nature. Satan is reduced to lovelessness, a bankrupted heart frozen at absolute zero. He seeks the good of no one, desires the good for no one, cherishes no one. In a steadfast and unbroken refusal of love, his sole aim is to annihilate love – including especially our capacity to love our Creator and his creation. And so Satan falls like lightning into a whirlwind of unloving behavior-patterns, and he wants to conform us to his example. He dominates us by deforming us. As one early Christian put it, “Unrighteousness is the disposition of an unjust and depraved work, which is detected first of all in the devil and then also in those who want to imitate him.”1

Above all else, Satan's pride and envy are directed against God with his Word and Spirit. Satan wishes he could tear God from his throne, rise and be his equal, replace and supplant him. “I will ascend to heaven!” the devil might vow. “Above the stars of God, I will set my throne on high.... I will ascend above the heights; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14). And so Satan yearns for us, God's created image-bearers, to turn our backs on God by worshipping Satan, knowingly or unknowingly, whether alongside God or in God's place: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours,” he whispers (Luke 4:7). Satan is willing to pay a considerable price to so distract us from God-love that we bend toward him as our petty fraud-god. When we withhold worship from the true God, as he does, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness, though, puts him in a frightfully insecure position. He is, after all, waging war against an Omnipotent Opponent. Satan is matching his fool wits against the All-Seeing and All-Knowing. And so Satan fearfully clutches at any useful shield, to console himself in his futile struggle to wound his Invulnerable Maker. And Satan yearns to stoke that same panic and insecurity in creation, in us, prodding us to clutch onto worldly powers we can represent and control – in other words, idols. And through these, Satan can manipulate us. It isn't for nothing that Roman idol-shrines were termed “altars of the devil.”2 When we bow to an idol, cling to an idol, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness, his hate for God, makes him want to drag God's reputation through the mud. He hates the very sound of God's good name. So he empowers the great “scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names” (Revelation 17:6), which “opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling” (Revelation 13:7). One of Satan's chief motives for putting on persecutions is the perverse pleasure Satan finds in pressing God's people to blaspheme the God of Love. Always, “Satan strove to have some word of blasphemy proceed from their lips.”3 And out of the same motive, Satan loves to toy with and manipulate God's word, twisting scripture out of context. When we drag God's name through the mud or God's word out of shape, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness leaves his heart without peace, so Satan despises to see people enjoy any peace or rest. So as he goes to and fro in the world, he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He's like the Pharaoh that held Israel in slavery: just so does Satan want to work us to the bone like slaves. Satan loathes our freedom and our rest, because he's seen the heaven it's for. He especially hates that freedom God calls holy. Satan doesn't know how to take a day off, is unable to sanctify time, so there's little he wants to rip away from us more than our Lord's Day and our feasts that fulfill the beauty of sabbath. When we work and work without sanctifying time with peace and rest and joy, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness does more than that, though. It cuts him off from relationship and orderliness. Satan's only experience of a father is the God he dishonors by rejecting, and his only experience of fatherhood is as father of sinners whom he abuses and wants to make as miserable as himself. Among Satan and his angels, no honor is shown – not one demon actually respects the devil. So the devil despises the authority God institutes within creation. The devil wants always to pervert it or subvert it. From parenthood to the polity to the pastorate, the devil wants all bonds of honor severed and all authority overthrown. For that reason, early Christians observed that a refusal to honor church leaders, for instance, was tantamount to Satan-worship.4 That's how Satan likes it. When we withhold honor from those to whom honor is due, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness extends to our very lives. Life, just by being life, is a participation in the Living God. And so the devil is angry about life, any life, all life. “The devil has come down to you in great wrath” (Revelation 12:12). He's furious that anything lives – much less that we live whose lives are stamped indelibly with God's living image. Satan is determined to break life, end life, cut us off from life – so he introduced death into the world: “Death entered the world through the devil's envy” (Wisdom 2:24). Now, Satan is “the one who has the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). And he's desperate to employ it as devastatingly as he can – for, as Christ tells us, Satan “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). When we take any step in murder's direction, whether a big step or the slightest flinch of unjust anger, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Short of ending life, Satan's lovelessness wants to see it emotionally and physically broken. He knows how the creation is destined to be wedded to its Creator – and the devil'd do anything to break up or defile that love story of the ages. So he seeks to inflame and seduce us into ruining everything that reminds us of that destiny (1 Corinthians 7:5). No wonder early Christians declared that “adultery is the money of the devil, for the image and superscription of the devil is on it,”5 or that Satan is “a most evil husband” to the soul.6 When we take a step toward adultery or other forms of misuse of God's good gifts of sex and sexuality, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan so hates the love story of Creator and creation that his lovelessness loathes the lavish generosity by which God “has given the earth to the children of man” (Psalm 115:16). Satan wants to hoard all things for himself: he doesn't know how to give without plotting to take back. He sees us enjoying anything, or – worst of all, in his eyes – giving away anything, and it unsettles him. He wants us to grab as he grabs, hoard as he hoards, for on that field he knows he has the home advantage: he's the “thief” who “comes only to steal” (John 10:10). So when we hoard or swindle or steal or destroy, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan knows, though, that he cannot ultimately end life, cannot prevent the marriage supper of the Lamb, cannot claim ownership of anything – and such knowledge sickens him. Satan's lovelessness, then, must rage against reality. All truth is fidelity to reality, reflective of the God who is Truth. Satan craves a fantasy world out of joint, where no one can tell which way is up. He yearns to plunge all things into a darkness of intellectual fog. So he'll tell any tale to get his way, admitting only so much of truth as will help to sell the delusion. Satan is the devil, which means 'the Slanderer.' He's “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Satan “doesn't stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him: when he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Especially does he want to snatch truth from our hearts and minds, like a bird pecking away scattered seed from the earth, “that they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). So he wants us spreading confusion and suppressing the truth. When we get careless with the truth or (worse still) contemptuous toward the truth, then, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

And Satan's lovelessness at last invites roaring passions. Disordered desires are all like his daughters.7 So he bends our desires out of shape, diverting them every which way to stop them from flowing clear and strong to the sea of glory that awaits us in God. And when we allow ourselves to be governed by the devil's daughters, by earthly craving and covetousness, just so are we taking a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

To live in these ways, any of these ways, is to submit to the devil's false ten commandments, and thus deformed toward his likeness – which is the very last thing anyone should want. “Be converted, you who walk in the commandments of the devil, commandments that are hard, bitter, cruel, and foul!”8 It's no wonder, then, that from the very roots of our faith, part of the ritual of baptism involved exorcisms, spiritual warfare, and a person being baptized into Christ had to shout out something like these words: “I renounce you, Satan, and all your works and all your pomp!”9 Too often, it's easy for us to settle into our cozy materiality, neglect that we live in the crossfire of a cosmic war, that the darkness is real and personal and bent on our seduction to destruction – but it's real. And to that end, for our help, God met Israel at Sinai and had angels hand to Moses a Law.

And “we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8). How do we use it lawfully? Paul says we have to understand that the Law functions to correct those who are straying after Satan's example – it's a road block for those imitating the devil. “The Law isn't laid down for the righteous but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, people who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to healthy teaching in accordance with the good news of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:9-11). Everything contrary to human flourishing as God defines it – those acts and attitudes are steps toward conformity with the devil, which is death. So God bellowed these commandments as fiery walls in our wayward tracks, lest we do Satan's works and march to hell among Satan's pomps. They're like guardrails and warning signs: “This way is Satan's likeness, these are Satan's works, do not approach, steer clear!” And to heed what we read, to keep the letter of the ten commandments and their corollaries, is a healthy thing.

But all these commandments – be they ten or a million – are, taken together in their spirit, a sketch of a portrait of practical love. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor – therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:10). It isn't merely a keeping of the Law – that's good – but the fulfillment of the Law, which is deeper and better by far. “The whole Law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14). “For the commandments 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not covet,' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Romans 13:9). “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law” (Romans 13:8). For “which is the great commandment in the Law? … 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind' – this is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

To read and heed the warning signs, back and front, and to breathe in their spirit, is to understand love. It's to train ourselves to love as God defines love, and that love inevitably spurns the devil's parade of woes. If you love God for who God is, then obviously you'll worship him, obviously you'll trust him and throw out your idols, obviously you'll speak well of him and honor his name, and obviously you'll give him what he asks of you, including your sanctified time of rest with him. Obviously, too, you'll honor the offices of authority he's placed in your life. And if you love your neighbors through God, then obviously you can't kill the neighbor you love, obviously you can't interfere with the marriage of the neighbor you love, or steal the property of the neighbor you love, or slander the neighbor you love, or even crave your beloved neighbor's life or family or goods. To love, to really love, is to rule all these out in advance, before even having to be told. That's why, as Paul said, “the Law is not laid down for the righteous,” not laid down to block the path to those whose love keeps them on the right way (1 Timothy 1:8).

So what must we do, to learn this love? “Let us walk properly as in the daytime” (Romans 13:13). “Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). What does it look like when we put on the armor of light, put on the Lord Jesus Christ? It looks like looking like him. It means embracing by grace a share in his identity, his character, being conformed to his love. Jesus is completely devoted to and worshipful of God his Father, rendering perfect worship – so those who put on Christ will thirst to know God as fully as they can and will worship him through Jesus' high-priesthood as lived out in the Church. Jesus is completely reflective of and surrendered to God his Father, as “the Image of the Invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), so those who put on Christ will surrender themselves from God and reject idol-efforts to keep the world under control. Jesus is completely committed to vindicating God's good Name (John 12:28; 17:6), rendering perfect praise – so those who put on Christ will live and speak in ways that glorify God's Name in Jesus Christ. Jesus invites us all to his heavenly sabbath and to his new-creation feast beyond it, so those who put on Christ will sanctify time with the Church in ardent hope of what Jesus promises.

Jesus showed honor to all in God's name, so those who put on Christ will likewise treat authority with respect, especially those held to parental, pastoral, and political responsibility. Jesus is “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25) and came to give us abundant life (John 10:10), so those who put on Christ will likewise become givers and protectors of life, honoring God's image and God's artistry. Jesus is the Faithful Bridegroom who came to seek his Bride, so those who put on Christ will become lovers of chastity and fidelity, imitating this Bridegroom and his unwavering commitment. Jesus is a gracious and merciful King, so those who put on Christ will become just stewards and generous givers of things tangible and intangible. Jesus is the Truth, so those who put on Christ will become zealous truth-tellers careful about how they speak. And Jesus is the Desire of the Nations, so those who put on Christ will yield up their desires to be transformed and elevated.

In all these areas, the imitation of Jesus' love for God and neighbor will overflow everything the Law's letter ever asked of us – or, more to the point, the Law was always meant to slowly spell out the love of Christ. And so these Ten Commandments we've been talking about for the past seven months – they are fulfilled completely as we conform to the life of Christ, who is Light of Light and Love of Love. The Ten Commandments are simply ways in which we renounce Satan with his works and pomps, and ways in which we open ourselves more freely to the uniting grace of Christ, in whom we rediscover our first love, the love that made us and for which we were made. So arm yourselves with this perfect law of love – for “the Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” from the ways of death and enlivening the heart for the adventure of true life (Psalm 19:7). “If you really fulfill the royal law” of love, “you are doing well” (James 2:8) – and the devil is doing poorly. Use this law lawfully and lovingly, to gain distance from the devil and to find yourself in Christ, crucified and risen and coming again. For in these his beautiful commandments, you will see and be trained in the love that leads to endless light. Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Law on the Inside

In the countryside beyond the city limits of Rome, Hermas had no idea what was about to happen to change the course of his life. It was the tail end of the first century, and Hermas was a young Christian. He might've been born a few years before the great persecution under Nero, in which the Apostles Peter and Paul both gave their lives to seal the destiny of the Roman church. Hermas might have been a foundling, abandoned by the side of the road but discovered and taken in by another family who raised him as a household slave. The one who raised him initially had then sold him, as a boy or even a teenager, to a young wealthy woman named Rhoda, whom Hermas had served faithfully for a few years. Later on, Rhoda too sold him, and another master had – in time – manumitted him to freedom. Somewhere along the way, whether as a slave or as a freedman, Hermas became a Christian. Probably he was baptized in the Tiber River. And in the congregation, he'd found Rhoda as a fellow member – she, too, was a Christian.

Well, Hermas happened to think he was pretty good at it. He was a kindly man. He did well in business, honest in his dealings, and gave faithfully to the collection. He listened to the discipline of the church. Each week, he aimed to put into practice what the preacher read and said. He didn't murder. He didn't steal. He didn't go back to the idols of Rome. He kept his hands clean. He married, and stayed faithful to his wife. He had kids. He was a merry man, well-liked in church and community. An all-around upstanding guy, that Hermas.

Which is why what happened in the countryside took him so by surprise. At least, if we're to believe what our friend Hermas wrote. On the road one afternoon, as he listened to the birds sing and looked at the hills and the fields, as he glorified God, he began to feel awfully sleepy. Before he knew it, he'd found himself somewhere he couldn't remember going, and didn't see how he could've gotten there: a little crevasse in the rock carved out by a stream. Hermas crossed the stream, found a patch of level ground, got to his knees, and started praying. That's when it happened, he says. That's when the heavens opened, and he heard a voice. And he saw a vision.

It was Rhoda! Rhoda in the sky! Oh, Hermas was so happy to see her. See, she'd died a few years back, and Hermas had missed her terribly. Though he'd once been her slave in his old life, in their new life she'd been like a dear sister to him – not that he hadn't thought about more. And now there she was, bidding him a heavenly hello. But Hermas was confused. What was this all about? Rhoda said she'd come to confront Hermas about his sin – his sin against her. God, she said, was angry with Hermas because of his sin against Rhoda.

Now, that put Hermas on the defensive. He was mighty confused and dismayed. What had he ever done to her? Obviously it couldn't be something from his days as her slave, before he was baptized, because any sins there had been washed away. But when they got reacquainted, Hermas had never hurt Rhoda, never laid a finger on Rhoda, never stole from Rhoda, never said even an unkind word to or about Rhoda. “Have I not always honored you as a sister? Why do you malign me, woman, with these evil and unclean charges?”

Hermas was cut to the quick by Rhoda's response, which reverberated through the heavens. She laughed at him, in his vision, and said, “The evil desire arose in your heart!” She reminded him of a time when, helping her out of a bath, he'd admired her beauty and her status and been filled with longing for a wife like her – a wife that good-looking, a wife whose social standing would elevate his, a wife who'd fulfill him. Though Rhoda was a married woman, Hermas had coveted her and coveted her estate. Hermas had never said a word, never betrayed even by a look what was on his mind. But now that she was in heaven, now that she was represented in a vision or a dream or whatever this was, Rhoda knew all about it – and was none too pleased. “Don't you think it's an evil thing,” she went on, “if an evil desire arises in the heart of a righteous man? It is a sin – a great one! The righteous man has righteous intentions. So long as his intentions are righteous, his honor stands in heaven..., but those who intend evil in their hearts draw down upon themselves death..., especially those who acquire the things this world has to offer and rejoice in their riches and don't take part in the goods of the world to come. … They've given up on themselves and their true life. But you, pray to God, who will heal your sins and those of your whole household and of all the holy ones.”1

The vision ended. Rhoda disappeared. The heavens closed up. And Hermas tells us it left him grieving and in total shock. He'd never dreamt God was concerned with that sort of thing. And Hermas thought, “If this sin is on record against me, how can I be saved?”2 Hermas got an answer in short order, so he says. He sure spilled a lot of ink over it. But the point I want to get across here is this: God's law didn't work the way Hermas thought it did. He thought it was a matter of the actions he committed – the way he talked, the way he walked, the things he did and didn't do. But Rhoda set him straight.

And what Hermas learned is something unique about the Ten Commandments. Up until the end, you could see it as a fine list of moral principles and actions, a law code like you might find elsewhere. But then you reach this last one, and it retroactively opens up everything that came before it. I've spent my share of time reading the law codes used in all the countries around ancient Israel. The laws of ancient Babylon? I've read 'em. The laws of the Assyrians, the laws of the Hittites? I've read them too. And they'll tell you not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to bear false witness – or, more to the point, they'll remind you what should happen to you if you do. But one thing you'll never find in their laws is anything approaching “Thou shalt not covet.” None of the nations had a law that could reach into your soul, scan your insides, pass judgment on the guts of your life that never see the light of day. Neither did the laws or the courts of Rome, as Hermas well knew. No, not a one of them had a law against anything that stayed within the private bounds of yourself.3

And that's because the laws of Babylon and Assyria and Hatti and Greece and Rome were merely man-made. Oh, they reflected something deeper, but they themselves knew the limits of their power. But the laws of Israel alone stretched further than what any earthly court could dream of prosecuting, because they knew that no mere man – not even Moses – had brewed it up from his own head. They heard the voice of heaven. As one medieval theologian (Thomas Aquinas) explained it: “There is this difference between the divine and the human law: that human law judges only deeds and words, whereas the divine law judges also thoughts. The reason is because human laws are made by men who see things only exteriorly, but the divine law is from God, who sees both external things and the very interior of men..., for with God, the intention is taken for the deed...”4

Of course, Rhoda and the medievals were only following what the Bible told them. Samuel heard about how “the LORD sees not as man sees: man sees to the eyes, but the LORD sees to the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). David later reminds Solomon that “the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). Psalmists and prophets give the same witness. One psalmist addresses God as “you who test the hearts and kidneys” (Psalm 7:9). And Jeremiah is all over that picture: “O LORD of Hosts who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the kidneys” (Jeremiah 11:20); “I the LORD search the heart and test the kidneys” (Jeremiah 17:10); “O LORD of Hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the kidneys” (Jeremiah 20:12). Paul agrees with Samuel and David, speaking of God as “he who searches hearts” (Romans 8:27) and as “God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). And when John finds himself face-to-face with the exalted Christ in his glory, Jesus makes it totally obvious that he's the Jehovah God of Jeremiah by roaring, “I am he who searches kidneys and hearts!” (Revelation 2:23).

What do they mean? Today, you're likely to think of your heart as the shape you make a Valentine's Day card in – or that thing people tell you to follow. And what are people saying? Follow your desires, do what you feel. But to David or Jeremiah, your heart was your inner control center. It's where you formed your decisions. It's the seat of your mind, your reason. It's where you pledged your allegiances from. In Israel, the heart wasn't for all that mushy, gushy stuff. An Old Testament person thought from the heart. Where'd they feel from? The kidneys – those tender organs they only saw when an animal's were exposed for sacrifice.5

Under normal circumstances, you can't see your neighbor's heart, though you might hear a heartbeat; and if you can detect their kidneys, something's gone very wrong. You can't even look at, detect, or feel your own, most of the time. Put together, heart and kidneys stand for the utmost insides of a person. To us, especially before the development of modern surgery and X-rays and all that, even physically those regions are dark and murky. Nor do we find it any easier to inspect our insides morally or spiritually. So we have a tendency, when we wonder what kind of a person we are, to look at our outer behavior. And when we do that, as Hermas did, we can easily use the Law like a defensive shield. Like the Pharisee at the temple, we brag, “I'm not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers... I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). Like the rich young man in the Gospels, we rattle off the commandments and preen ourselves and shout with joy, “All these I have kept from my youth!” (Mark 10:20; cf. Matthew 19:20).

But what both should've already understood from the Law itself, and what Jesus brought home with the force of a supernova, is that keeping the letter of the law in its externals, while good and (when it comes to its moral demands) absolutely necessary, isn't enough if it fails to turn our darkness into light. By adding this final word on covetousness, the Law “cuts deeper down into the moral life. … It reminds us, then, that God's Eye is on our heart; it carries us at once into regions where no human eye can pierce. … Man takes cognizance of the outward life, but Almighty God of the inward life,” it's been said.6 Our will, our desire, our attachment, our emotion, our subconscious thoughts and plans, our real moral and spiritual standing – those things are actually dark to us, even in ourselves, let alone in the others we might be tempted to judge. We know less about our inner life than we pretend to – and that inner life matters morally. That's why Paul had to say, “I'm not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted: it is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4). To God alone, “even the darkness is not dark” inside us: “The night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:12). For that reason, “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). So, as Moses said, “Take care, lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart!” (Deuteronomy 15:9).

But how can we take care if our own heart falls so far outside our field of vision? Here enters “the word of God [which] is living and active..., discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The word of God exposes to you a glimpse of what God sees as really inside you after all. And these Ten Commandments we've been hearing – they are that active word of God, they can be used to discern not just your outer behavior but your inner state of heart, too. In the first commandment, we're told to have no other gods before the LORD. In obeying that, it's one thing to pray a prayer. It's another thing to make a habit of coming to church on Sunday – both very good and necessary acts. But God's seeing, searching, scanning, testing your heart, your kidneys. Are your affections yet unmoved by his redeeming love? Have your guts forgotten the exodus from slavery into a boundless promise? Is your will detached from faith in the Creator who made you and who gave his only-begotten Son to share life eternal with the world? Where does your inner allegiance lie? Or, to take another commandment, we're told not to murder. In obeying that, it's one thing – an easy thing – to keep your hands clean of your neighbor's blood. It's another thing, more commendable still and also necessary, to avoid violence in what you do and what you say, coercing no one, detracting from no one's life or health. But God's searching and testing your heart and kidneys. Are your affections twisted up in anger at somebody? Do your guts burn with prejudice or contempt? Is your will a hateful one that separates anybody from the image of God they bear?

All the outward actions of hand or voice, everything the Ten Commandments condemn on the surface – they flow “from within, out of the heart of man,” as Jesus said – and first and foremost are “evil thoughts” (Mark 7:21). “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person,” even when they don't leak out to where your neighbor can see them (Mark 7:23). And that's intimidating! Hermas himself had misgivings – he wondered if it was really possible for a human heart to obey the law: “I don't know if these commandments can be kept by someone,” he said. “They're very difficult!”7 That's why, even in the Law itself, Moses practically begged Israel in his last words: “Circumcise therefore... your heart, and be no longer stubborn!” (Deuteronomy 10:16). It wasn't enough to just outwardly receive the sign of the covenant, symbolically pruning the flesh and its power. No, the inner reality signified by the sign had to follow. Israel needed to prune from the heart, from the center of will and desire, everything incompatible with their calling toward holiness, everything imperfectly compliant to God's invitation, everything that sandbagged his tidal wave of love for them.

Realizing this, one early Christian summed up the “divine law” of the Ten Commandments in one sentence: that “only the real God who made the universe is to be worshipped, with holiness of heart and a sincere mind.”8 And to that, Hermas adds what he learned: that “where holiness dwells, there – in the heart of a righteous man – lawlessness should not enter.”9 What we need is for the Law to somehow reach our hearts and our kidneys, to get inside us, to prune and cut and burn. And that's exactly what God promised. Through Jeremiah, the God of Israel explained that a new covenant was on the horizon, a new deal between him and humanity: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the House of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my Law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). This distant law, this law that seemed only able to help the outside of us, was finally going to be put inside a person, to make a difference at the core that goes beyond what you or I can see. But it would take something bigger and better than Sinai to get it there.

And, to make a long story short, that's exactly what God did in Christ. Jesus' blazing heart of love, radiant and gushing life, was opened for us on the cross, at the point of a Roman spear. That heart flawlessly kept the Law, embodied the Law, fulfilled the Law. And as the spear thrust all our lawlessness into his heart, lawlessness drowned in the flood. From that heart's torrent flows the water of our new birth. From that heart bleeds the blood of our communion. From that heart shines the grace of our enlightenment. And our hearts are kindled with flame from his holy heart when we receive his Holy Spirit. For after dying for our sins and rising for our vindication and ascending into heaven, then on the anniversary of Sinai – a day called Pentecost – his heart poured forth his Spirit to burn his Law of the New Covenant onto the hearts of all who will receive him.

So, on the other side of that, the apostles tell us that we're like living letters dictated by Jesus through their pens, “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God.” And what's the medium? Paper? Parchment? An e-mail? Rock? No, “not on tablets of stone,” like Moses carried down the mountain. Now it's “on tablets of human hearts,” at long last (2 Corinthians 3:3). With his Spirit of burning love, the Spirit from his heart, Jesus writes his story on our hearts, chiseling and charring the Law of Christ there, making sure these foundational commandments are written in our deepest depths beyond where we can see. He simply calls us to surrender and cooperate – to not flinch away from his Spirit's fiery work, to lean into it, to turn your heart where he's writing. You may not see it. You may not read it. But it's being written there, and can be kept there, and must be.

Because God deserves and demands your inside, not only your outside. If we study the Ten Commandments and only learn behavior modification, we'll have done some good – but not yet enough. God wants your guts, God wants your kidneys, God wants your heart, God wants your whole soul to be conformed to his law, his life, his love. God will not be satisfied until his Law is on your inside, so that from within, out of a human heart, can flow not evil thoughts but good thoughts, not foolishness but wisdom, not pride but humility, not wickedness but righteousness – things that purify instead of defiling.

God has aims for us so much higher than we aim for ourselves. And he may well be accomplishing them even beyond what you can see or tell. Only let God's word be a lamp unto your guts and a light unto your heart (cf. Psalm 119:105). Examine yourself, where you can – not to prematurely acquit yourself, but to cooperate better with the Spirit. Attend to what's within you. Don't neglect it. Where you find unholiness inside you, repent and pray. Pray for the fire of Jesus' love to fall from heaven on the altar of your soul, and there offer God your inner life as a living sacrifice, harvesting for the Lord holy kidneys and a holy heart and a holy mind. Embrace your true life. Seek honor in the heaven to which your whole soul is transparent. May God heal our innermost sins and forgive us and lead us to the greatest glory of everlasting life. Amen.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Soul-Training

It's February 351 – you've stepped back 1,670 years and nine months. It's a fine, temperate day in Egypt. And you're walking through the desert. You're searching for one man: a holy hermit named Anthony. You're told his hundredth birthday was last month. He was one of the first to press out into the deep desert, taking the fight of holiness to the desolate waste, shining his light in the den of devils and their mirages. Some go to him and have demons expelled in Jesus' name. Some go with a need, and he prays through the night, and miracles happen. Some go just to watch him a few hours, to better understand holiness. Some go to hear words that reset broken souls. Some bring their burning questions, for it's said that in his silence, Anthony hears the voice of God.

The trip is difficult. The pebbly ground is rough beneath your sandals. Rounding the mountain, you find the pebbles once more give way to sand. You think you're getting close. You face a sheer rock wall and see a few dark crevasses and clefts. Could one of these be his? You shout, “Abba Anthony! Abba Anthony!” And you wait in hope. Half an hour goes by, and you see motion through a three-foot-wide crack in the rock. Emerging from his tiny cave comes a frail old man with a long white beard, his dusty olive-brown form covered in a sheepskin. In silence he unrolls a mat of woven palm-fronds onto the sand, tosses a second mat to you, and sits.

You unfurl your mat at a distance – you can see bathing has no place in his rule of life. He wears rough and scratchy clothing. He usually sleeps on the hard ground, which helps him keep vigil most of the night to pray. He eats once a day after sundown, chiefly bread and salt, with minimal other vegetables to supply the necessary other vitamins. And his sole drink is the water he needs to survive in the desert. His philosophy is that “the soul's intensity is strong when the pleasures of the body are weakened.”1

Now, you ask him your question: “What means the scripture that says, 'Thou shalt not covet'?” For you have a feeling that your heart is beset by temptations to covetousness on every side. In reply, Anthony looks you in the eye and assures you that every temptation is an opportunity to glorify God as you flee it or fight it. “Without temptations,” he says, “no one can be saved.”2 He explains to you that “the written law works with us in a good service until we are able to restrain all passions and to fulfill the good ministry of virtue.”3 If you want to be truly pure, God gives believers “control over their souls and bodies, in order that both may be sanctified,” and this control is worked out “through many fasts and vigils.”4 Your mind needs to be “taught by the Spirit” to lead body and soul back to their original condition, “free from everything alien that belongs to the spirit of the enemy.”5 If you “hate all earthly possessions” and “stretch out the hands of your heart to heaven,” then “God will... grant you the invisible fire which burns up all impurity from you and purifies your mind. Then the Holy Spirit will dwell in you, and Jesus will stay in you, and thus you will be able to worship God as is proper.”6 Heed the Spirit, he says, and you'll be purified; give in too easily to desire, and you risk demons.7 But these demons are “afraid of... fasting, vigils, prayers..., humility..., and most of all..., devotion to Christ.”8 So the Spirit assigns this rule of purification: moderation after the power of the body, devoid of any greed or desire.”9

Hearing his words, in tears you tell Abba Anthony about all the times in life you've stumbled, all the desires at whose feet you've fallen. He gets up from his mat. He comes closer, kneels in the sand, and wipes the tear from your cheek. And he says, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”10 He sits with you in silence from then on out. Darkness falls, and he keeps vigil to pray for you until the first rays of dawn. You wake to see him smiling over you. He sends you on your way.

As you begin your walk through the sands of time back to 2021, maybe you think to yourself, “Now there was a man who doesn't covet.” You might also think to yourself that you've never met anyone like him, and aren't sure you ever will. Walk anywhere in modern America, and you won't find people chasing his particular path to holiness. Not even close. His are not ways natural to American Christianity, in part because we've been so effectively discipled not by the church but by convenience and comfort. Consequently, we meditate very little on what it might actually mean to “crucify the flesh with its passions and its desires” (Galatians 5:24).

But that's precisely what might be the inner heart of the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” Oh, to be sure, it wears its main meaning on its sleeve. We aren't to set our sights on what belongs to another – no lusting after his or her spouse, no envious hankering after house or land or family or stuff. But we already covered lust under the commandment against adultery. And we already covered envy under the commandment against theft. So if all this does is tell us what we already know, we might as well close our Bibles and skip home, right?

Or... we can go back and see what we've missed. Some of the earliest meditations on this commandment see it most deeply as an exhortation to discipline our desires. For “excess, even of good, is never a boon to mortals, and a great luxuriousness draws one to immoderate desires.”11 Desires, they said, need to be “brought into obedience to the governance of reason, and then all things will be permeated through-and-through with peace and good order.”12 And they saw the Law of Moses as “thoroughly teaching moderation so that we restrain all pleasures and desires.”13 Some even suggested this was the point of all those dietary laws – don't eat this, do eat that – because God took away the tastiest foods to teach them discipline.14 “The passions of the cravings are endured patiently, being restrained by the self-controlled mind, and all the stirrings of the body are silenced by reason.”15 “When the Law has told us not to desire..., reason is able to restrain the desires.”16

Even in the New Testament, James explains how “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire; then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). In other words, if our desires aren't disciplined, they seduce us, and sooner or later, one will get pregnant, its baby will be sin, and sin grows up to be a killer. Paul, for his part, sees this one as an especially significant commandment. It's the one Adam and Eve had in the Garden.17 And when it was broken, when the commandment was exploited by sin to stoke a desire for the fruit it ruled off-limits, then that sin gave rise to all the other kinds of covetousness and desire in our lives (Romans 7:7-8). But God gives us grace that can “train us to renounce... worldly desires, and to live temperately and righteously and piously in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Temperance is the virtue that pulls us back from desires and pleasures wherever desires and pleasures get immoderate, disordered, out of line with reason and human dignity.18 Paul was willing to go to considerable lengths to work out his temperance: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.... I pummel my body and make it my slave, lest... I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:25-27).

Our denomination's Book of Discipline reminds us that not only are we to “refuse to yield to the baser desires of the flesh and mind,” but we're even to “guard against excessive indulgence in things not evil in themselves, such as food, clothing, recreation, and personal possessions.”19 “At times, self-control may require abstinence from or renunciation of certain activities or things even though they are not evil in themselves,” especially activities or things that “particularly tempt [you] to overindulgence.”20 That's what we teach – on paper, at least.

So how might that look in real life? First, “Thou shalt not covet” then rules out greed and calls us to contentment. We know St. Anthony praised “renunciation of the world and human things.”21 Does our society need to hear about that today? We're bombarded daily with advertisements, messages meant to stoke our desires and tempt us to crave. So eager is every business to elicit your craving that they'll literally pay money to television networks, radio stations, and billboard owners just for the opportunity to tempt you! Advertisements are seldom merely reasoned cases. They're canny appeals to your flesh, preying on insecurities or awakening appetites. And it must work! They stir your desires for what they're selling, and you and I buy, buy, buy.

But what does Scripture say? Jesus tells us, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life doesn't consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). “The greedy” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). “Those who desire to be rich fall into... many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction, for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10). “But godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). The ideal, Jesus reminds us, is to “sell your possessions and give to the needy,” thus exchanging them for “a treasure in the heavens that does not fail” (Luke 12:33). That was the verse that changed Anthony's life as a young man.22 One early Christian said we should “regard the things of this world as foreign to us, and not desire them, for when we desire to obtain these things, we fall away from the right path.”23 So what can we do? Discipline our desires. Remind ourselves that those things fall apart, that we're pilgrim strangers and should travel lightly anyway. But what we do get, we should “use with contentment of mind, preserve them readily, and share them readily.”24

Second, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out ambition and calls us to humility. Someone once defined ambition as an “inordinate desire of honor,”25 and if that's the case, we can see how it's out of line. Does our society need to hear about this? Again, yes! Already in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville saw America as a country swept with a “universal outpouring of ambition.”26 Are we less ambitious, less grasping and climbing today? No, bigger is better, we say. We want to earn more, influence more, be more. We want to impress and outdo, so we crave after certain jobs, certain spaces, certain status symbols. We angle for opportunity and advantage.

But what does Scripture say? “Do nothing from selfish ambition” (Philippians 2:3), “for where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 19:30). “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Psalm 84:10). Sometimes, what's healthiest for our souls is to take a step back and down – stay in small places, learn to love the low rung on the ladder, stand outside the camp with Christ.

Third, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out gluttony and calls for restraint. Anthony explained that “excessive eating stirs up the body, which is now moved by gluttony.”27 Does our society today need to hear this? Yes! Consider that, as of 2013, the average American was consuming 24% more calories each day than the average American in 1961 did. After fifty of those new calories were added by alcohol (more on that in a bit), another eighty-five were added by more sugar and artificial sweeteners, another hundred came from extra meat, another hundred and seventy came from more grains, and four hundred of the new daily calories come from all the vegetable oil we now use.28 And as for eating out, some restaurant meals are said to be three or four times bigger now than in 1950.29 This is one factor – far from the only factor, but one – influencing what's commonly titled today's 'obesity epidemic.'30 And again, our Book of Discipline declares that “moderation is also required in the amounts and types of food one consumes.”31 So this concept shouldn't be foreign to us.

But what does Scripture say? “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty” (Proverbs 23:20-21). “Such persons do not serve our Lord Christ but their own belly” (Romans 16:18). “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Other early Christians also warned that “if the diet oversteps the limits of self-sufficiency, it harms man … We must shun gluttony and partake of only a few things that are necessary. … We don't need to abstain from rich foods completely, but we shouldn't be anxious for them. … Overeating begets in the soul only pain and lethargy and shallow-mindedness.”32

But gluttony can take forms beyond knowingly eating too much. It can mean eating recklessly and mindlessly. It can mean obsessing over gourmet meals or spending too much on food. It can even mean being an overly picky eater who insists on only certain things and isn't thankful for anything else.33 All these are different ways of forgetting the fundamental purpose of eating, which has been defined as “nourishing the body in a manner that fosters loving and serving God and neighbor in thanksgiving for God's gifts.”34 So the early church didn't keep all the Old Testament dietary laws after Christ “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), but they adopted rhythms of fasting every Wednesday and Friday,35 and were careful the rest of the time too. One fourth-century preacher called fasting “likeness to the angels.”36 We could do with more fasting in our Christian life today.

Fourth, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out drunkenness and calls us to sobriety. One of St. Anthony's students, St. Pachomius, wrote: “It is written indeed, 'You shall not covet,' and again, 'You shall not get drunk': Covetousness is not one thing, and drunkenness is not one thing.”37 Do we have a society that needs to hear this? Yes! In 2019, about one in four American adults reported binge drinking in the prior month. Every year, 95,000 people in America die from alcohol-related causes, to say nothing of its other social ills.38 It's for such reasons that our Book of Discipline “encourages abstinence from the use of and traffic in beverage alcohol.”39

So what does Scripture say? “Awake, you drunkards, and weep! And wail, all you drinkers of wine!” (Joel 1:5). “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning” (1 Corinthians 15:34). “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). “Drunkards” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Do “not even associate with anyone who bears the name of 'brother' if he is... a drunkard” (1 Corinthians 5:11). “Be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). One early Christian called drunkenness “the demon of our own choosing.”40

And that message goes beyond alcoholic beverages. It calls for caution and moderation when it comes to other potentially addictive substances. Neither alcohol nor all those other things are bad in themselves! But they can lead to chemical dependencies. We all know the plight of opioid abuse by those who get addicted to painkillers. Many illicit drugs are also highly addictive. But there are also common and socially acceptable addictive substances that call for caution and moderation. Nicotine is addictive. Smoking causes more annual deaths than alcohol and illicit drugs put together.41 Does that make it a sin to smoke one cigarette? Not necessarily – but if it harms your body or impedes your life, that's hardly temperate. When we willingly court the risk of addiction, can we really be sure that our attitude toward that next smoke can't be labeled covetous?

Much less harmful, much more socially acceptable, but still addictive is another drug called caffeine. It has its uses – even at our church coffee hour! But taken in excess, you might know the jitters it can cause. And once you build up a dependency, you feel awful without it. Withdrawal symptoms come on you. Are we immoderate and intemperate with our use of coffee, tea, or other sources of caffeine? That question deserves to be asked.

Fifth and finally, “Thou shalt not covet” calls us to patience. Does today's society need to hear that message? Yes. Americans want everything fast, convenient, and delivered. We want our food fast, our shopping fast, our answers fast. Increasingly, we don't read, because TV and the Internet are faster and more fun. It's all about maximizing speed, utility, convenience. And convenience isn't bad! But what are the trade-offs? What does building habits of impatience do to us? Five years ago, a team of scientists found evidence they said suggests that impatient behavior may actually speed up the aging process of our DNA, potentially causing our cells to age and our life span to shorten; and they found that the effect may be especially severe for impatient women.42

And what does Scripture say? During their desert journey, bad things happened to Israel when they “became impatient on the way,” for that's when “the people spoke against God and against Moses” (Numbers 21:4-5). But “good soil” will “bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). “If we hope for what we don't see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). Patience is, in fact, one of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), and we're called to “walk... with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1-2). “Patience in well-doing” is, according to the Apostle Paul, something God rewards with “eternal life” (Romans 2:7), so especially “be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7). Sometimes, then, this commandment invites us to take things slow – read a book, write a letter, share a home-cooked meal, visit a physical market, invest time with someone. Don't hang up on hold. Don't get bent out of shape. Let things take the time they take.

Many of these are hard areas in which to discipline our desires – I certainly find some of them so! It might be among the more challenging things we're invited to do. But to have our desires properly disciplined will really make them stronger and better-aimed. C. S. Lewis said it best: “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”43

And that's exactly it! We are far too easily pleased. And the disciplining of our desires is meant to help us fix that. When we embrace contentment here, it's to build an even greater desire for the great gain set in store for us when at last we hold our heavenly treasure. When we humbly forsake undue ambitions here, it's to climb to the heights of God's holy hill and share the glory of Christ. When we fast and accept simple food with thanks, or when we soberly keep watch for the Lord, it's because we're heightening our craving for the banquet of his kingdom. And when we train ourselves in patient waiting, it's to enjoy the final harvest when this long season ends. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), in a spirit of “power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Just “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), because God alone is the One who “satisfies the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16). To desire God more than anything else, and to desire other things reasonably for his sake and only in ways that aid us toward him – that is perfect purity of heart and soul. That is disciplined desire. May our desires be disciplined to build their strength and right order in Christ Jesus, and may we deny ourselves now and take up his cross and follow him to a more desirable glory! Amen.

 Prayer

Almighty God and Father, the world is passing away along with its desires, but the one who does your will abides forever, in accordance with your promise.  Yet our desires too often are the desires of the world, the desires of our flesh, disordered by sin and thrown out of moderation.  We confess this isn't what any of us should want.  Discipline our desires, Lord, and train us in temperance by your grace.  Help us hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Help us chase relentlessly for your kingdom.  Help us aspire to a share by grace in your glory.  Help us wait on you in the patience of hope.  Grant us to desire a godly life in Christ.  Grant us to desire our better and heavenly country.  Grant us to desire all that you desire.  Make your name the desire of our soul.  But most of all, let us desire you yourself.  If we delight ourselves in you, you promise the desires of our purified hearts will be ours, in due and healthy measure.  Satisfy our pure desire even in scorched places, and make us oases in the desert of life.  Give us a measure of the grace you showed to your holy one Anthony of old, and help us here and now to have a heavenly mindset more like his.  Strengthen our resolve to make no provision to gratify the disordered desires of the flesh, but rather to crucify the flesh with its desires, to clothe ourselves in Christ, and to live in his light.  In his name we cry out to you, God, that we are willing to take up his cross and follow after him, wherever he goes.  Amen.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

The True Witness

Eleven apostles could scarcely believe their eyes. They'd walked all the way back to Galilee to keep a strange appointment with Jesus, who'd been crucified the other week. And here he was again. No matter how many times they saw him, they still couldn't shake the “Pinch me, I must be dreaming” of it all. But now here he was, strolling down a mountain to where they were bowed to the earth. Laughing, he raised them up. He told them that he'd been given complete authority in heaven above, and complete authority in earth below. And out of that authority, he had a charge to give them. “Going, therefore, disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20). A very great commission indeed.

We've heard these words many times. Out of all the passages in the Gospels, they're maybe one of the pieces we stand the best chance of reciting by heart. But let's slow down. Let's rob ourselves of that familiarity, lest it breed contempt or presumption. To whom is Jesus speaking? And what, exactly, is he telling them?

First, Jesus presumes that the apostles are going to be 'going.' And how could he not? They're his apostles! He used that word for a reason. 'Apostle' is somebody you send out, somebody you propel into motion, somebody you dispatch on a mission from one place to another. 'Going' is baked into the concept. Jesus doesn't expect them to stay cooped up in Jerusalem or in Galilee forever. Theirs is, fundamentally, an itinerant ministry, a get-out-and-spread-out ministry. These eleven men, and the one soon to be added to their number, have plenty of mileage to rack up. Not everybody who comes after, who succeeds to them by the laying on of their hands, is going to be 'going' quite that far. When the apostles go out, they'll pass on authority to people usually stationed in different areas. But even those people will be 'going,' even if just from street to street in their city.

Second, the apostles are 'going' with a purpose – and that's to “disciple all the nations.” Now, we've managed to build up a lot of mystique about these words. So let's take stock of their sense. What is a 'disciple,' in Greek? It comes from the same root that gives us 'math.' To be a disciple is to be a student, ready with a listening ear for instruction. It's to be an apprentice, carefully watching the master at work. It's not Christianese. It's a word with a common meaning and common use. But the verb is rarer. And you'd fairly paraphrase it as 'enroll somebody in school.' It means to treat somebody as a student, as an apprentice. That's why, when early Christians translated this verse, they usually quoted it as “Go and teach.” No special fancy word – just 'teach.'

So who are the apostles going to teach, going to enroll and enlist in this Jesus school? “All the nations.” Note: it's not “make disciples from all nations,” as if the job's done when you get five Italians, six Canadians, and so on. The nations themselves – whole organized communities – are the ultimate objects. It might have to begin person by person, or proceed person by person, but the goal is for communities to be collectively taught, to be transformed as a group, as a society, as a culture. The apostles are to “spread [Christ's] peace throughout the nations with holy instruction and rid the world of its ills,” as one paraphrase of this verse read.1

So how's it to happen? Discipleship starts, Jesus says, with baptism. The apostles are to go to the various tribes and nations of their world and start baptizing people, giving them the new birth into the church. Of course, for somebody to get baptized, under ordinary circumstances, they need to know it's an entrance into life with God. And they need to have that God accurately announced to them: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There's got to be a basic acceptance that this God is worth trusting, worth being marked by, worth siding with.2 So the commission to baptize presupposes evangelism. The apostles are going to stand up and cast this new vision of God revealed in the Jesus who was nailed to a cross and executed and buried and came alive and went to God's realm and is pouring down his Spirit and is appointed to some day return and judge the world that once tried to condemn him. Read Acts, and that's the gist of what the apostles go around saying. That's the gospel they're preaching.

Then, when somebody begins to latch onto that good news, the apostles baptize, or they appoint somebody to baptize. Baptism's essential – it's the beginning of Christian life, it's what Jesus called being 'born again,' it's how sin gets washed away and identity gets reforged. It's rebirth into the church, into union with Christ. Of course, the early church knew there were exceptional cases. Some people still learning the faith got caught in persecutions and killed before their scheduled baptism day – so the church decided they were baptized by their blood. Others still learning the faith got sick or had an accident before their scheduled baptism day – so the church expressed hope that, under the right conditions, those people were as if baptized by their expressed desire for it. But those only highlight how foundational baptism is for discipleship. It all grows out of that baptismal faith in Father and Son and Spirit.

So what then? Then, discipleship continues with the apostles “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded you.” Baptism was birth; now it's time to grow, and grow by being informed of the better way to think and see and live, and then be disciplined to understand it and keep it. As one early Christian summed up the Great Commission: “Our mortal birth is changed by the rebirth of baptism, and the teaching of godliness shuts out the teaching of godlessness.”3 What the apostles are hearing is that they've got to take people deeper than the basics. They have to rule on how life in the kingdom looks, and then train their students to flesh it out in their lives. That's a job for the apostles and those they appoint: it calls for Christ's delegated authority over minds and hearts. They won't just pass on the teachings of Jesus but interpret and apply the teachings of Jesus. They'll strengthen their students in faith and hope and love. They'll rule what's in bounds or out of bounds, helpful or unhelpful. They'll teach doctrine, direct in commandments, nurture Christian life, encourage, correct. It's like the Apostle Paul told Bishop Timothy: “Preach the word..., reprove, rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). That's what Jesus authorizes the apostles here to do.4

You can read in the New Testament how they lived this out. Acts focuses on the first half of Peter's career, then switches to Paul's, as the pair of them ultimately converge on Rome, capital of the empire. Along the way, they preach, they baptize, they found churches, they teach people to observe the whole counsel of God. Some of those they teach, they appoint to offices in the church. A bishop, filling an apostle's shoes in a place, must “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5), be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Others whom the apostles teach, they don't appoint, but do encourage to live the gospel fully and to collaborate in the work.

The apostles pressed on to the death. Peter and Paul died at Rome. John ended up in Turkey. Tradition adds that Thomas went to southern India, Andrew went to the Scythians beneath Russia, Matthew might have gone to Persia. Wherever they went, all but one are thought to have been killed for their gospel. So, for that matter, did many who believed them. On and off for centuries, early Christians faced waves of persecution – sometimes one place, sometimes all over. When that happened, some Christians bowed to pressure, but others embraced an opportunity. As one early Christian said while being led to execution: “Now I am beginning to be a disciple!”5 Believers like him boldly confessed their faith in public, declaring Christ as a Savior worth running to and King worth dying for. Their tenacious deaths became a testimony to the worthiness of Christ. Their deaths preached the gospel. So they became known as 'witnesses' – in Greek, 'martyrs.' And the church defied their persecutors, saying: “Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us … They are an enticement to our school. We become more numerous every time we're harvested by you! The blood of Christians is seed. For who isn't stirred, by contemplating it, to inquire what's really beneath the surface? And who, when he's inquired, doesn't approach us?”6 Through the witness of martyrs, the church multiplied, the gospel spread, even emperors slowly listened.

A few years after the persecutions ended, a pair of Phoenician Christian boys named Frumentius and Edesius joined their uncle on a long boat trip. But when they stopped at a Red Sea harbor, locals killed all grown-ups aboard and took the boys as slaves to the Ethiopian king. He found them impressive, trusted them, and when he died, he set them free. But he left behind boys of his own, and the queen asked these two young Christians to stick around as royal tutors. Once Prince Ezana was old enough to take the throne, the brothers left. Edesius went home to Tyre. But Frumentius went to Alexandria, begging for a bishop and priests to be sent to Ethiopia. The patriarch decided Frumentius was just the man to lead the mission. He ordained him bishop and sent him. So Frumentius returned to King Ezana, whom he'd helped raised, and baptized him.7 Ezana testifies in his own words how God “made me the guide of all my kingdom because of faith in Christ..., and I believe in him, and he has become my Guide.”8 Frumentius, for his part, spent the rest of his days spreading the gospel in Ethiopia, where we're told that “a countless number of barbarians were converted to the faith.”9

Meanwhile, Christianity worked its way through the Roman world, even to Roman-occupied Britain. Just a couple years after Frumentius died, a Christian family in western Britain welcomed a newborn son: Patrick. In his teen years, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave, who was bought and put to work as a shepherd.10 The trauma awakened his dormant faith, he pledged his life to Christ, and six years later, he escaped. He went home to Britain, then to France to study. Ordained a priest, he eventually achieved his dream of being appointed missionary bishop to the Irish.11 “I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel... to the very ends of the earth,” he said.12 Returning to the land of his former captivity, Bishop Patrick fearlessly preached the word of God. He “baptized so many thousands of people,”13 “innocent Christians whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.”14 He gathered sons of chieftains as disciples, organized churches and monasteries. “I live for my God to teach these peoples,” he'd say.15 “I cannot be silent... about such great blessings. … This is how we can repay such blessings: … to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.”16 “Therefore, it is very right that we should cast our nets so that a great multitude and crowd will be taken for God; also, that there should be clerics to baptize and encourage a people in need and want.”17 Patrick believed it. Patrick lived it.

Meanwhile, the collapse of Roman presence in Britain led to the land filling up with pagan tribes. A century after Patrick's death, Pope Gregory decided things needed to change. He enlisted a missions team, and at the head of the team he put a well-trained Italian monk named Augustine. Gregory sent Augustine and forty other monks to France to enlist priests as translators.18 In 597, they landed in Kent, a kingdom in southeast England whose pagan king was respectful of his French Christian wife. And they began preaching in the Kentish capital Canterbury.19 In the first year, they baptized the king. It didn't take long for their gospel to start sweeping the kingdom. “Every day,” we read, “more and more began to flock to hear the word, to forsake their heathen worship, and – through faith – to join the unity of Christ's holy church.”20 Once these new believers numbered in the thousands, Augustine wrote back to Gregory for advice on how best to instruct and discipline and guide the new believers – how to teach them to observe all that Christ wanted of them. And Augustine got answers.21

He got even more than that. The same year he died, another team of missionaries arrived from Rome to fortify the work. One was a monk named Paulinus. After two decades of ministering in Kent, the Kentish king's sister married the pagan king of Northumbria, so Paulinus was ordained a bishop and sent to the Northumbrians, to York.22 He preached evangelistically, but had little success. But the next year, after surviving an assassination attempt, the Northumbrian king started listening “to learn the faith systematically” from Paulinus.23 Even the pope wrote to the king, urging him to “accept the teaching of the preachers and the gospel of God which they proclaim to you,” and be “born again by water and the Holy Spirit.”24 Within two years, after plenty prayerful and patient witness by Paulinus, King Edwin was convinced. He “renounced idolatry and confessed his faith in Christ.” He was baptized. Suddenly, many others followed Edwin's example.25 Paulinus traveled the kingdom, announcing the gospel, baptizing crowds, building churches. Edwin even helped other kings come to faith.26 Alas, not all their hard work stuck for the long haul. Later, Irish missionaries would come revive the mission.

Around the time the Northumbrian mission was collapsing, a boy named Wilfrid was born there. As a teenager, he ran away from home and was sent for education by an Irish missionary. Years later, Wilfrid took Paulinus' chair as bishop of York.27 But one day, he was stripped of his position. He set sail for Rome to get it settled. His ship landed in pagan territory: Frisia, the Netherlands. There, Wilfrid “preached the word of God daily to the people, telling them of the true God, the Almighty Father, and Jesus Christ his only Son, and the Holy Spirit co-eternal with them, and of one baptism for the remission of sins; he also taught them clearly about life everlasting after death in the resurrection.” During his time in Frisia, thousands “accepted his teaching” and “were baptized by him in the name of the Lord.”28 Once Wilfrid finished his trip to Rome and returned to England, he spent five years in pagan Sussex. For months he preached, seemingly fruitlessly, until at last the scales fell from their eyes, “and a great door of faith was opened to him, and many thousands of pagans of both sexes were baptized in one day … They deserted idolatry and made confession of faith in Almighty God.”29

Meanwhile, Wilfrid had been a mentor to a Northumbrian boy named Willibrord, who then went to Ireland to be discipled by a holy man named Ecgberht.30 Ever since his twenties, Ecgberht had a passionate vision for evangelism, with his eyes set on the Frisians. In time, Ecgberht formed a team of twelve, including Willibrord, and sent them. But Frisia wasn't ripe yet. Willibrord retreated to France, where he “carried out the task of evangelization, and... the seed of life, watered by the dews of heavenly grace, had, through his preaching, borne abundant fruit in many hearts.”31 Willibrord went to Rome to get commissioned. In 695, Pope Sergius ordained him and assigned him jurisdiction as bishop of the Frisians.32 He went to Frisia, visited the Danes, confronted villagers and kings, declaring to them, “There is no God but one, who created heaven and earth...; and those who worship him in true faith will possess eternal life. As his servant, I call upon you this day to renounce empty and inveterate errors... and to believe in the one Almighty God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Be baptized in the fountain of life and wash away all your sins, so that, forsaking all wickedness and unrighteousness, you may henceforth live as a new man in temperance, justice, and holiness.”33 As Willibrord later retraced his steps, he “exhorted the people in cities, villages, and forts where he'd previously preached the gospel to remain loyal to the faith and to their good resolutions, and... the number of the faithful increased day by day.”34

Two decades later, an English monk named Wynfryth took it on himself to go to Frisia to join Willibrord. He came at a bad time: a changing political landscape let Frisia's pagan king persecute the church. Both Willibrord and Wynfryth fled.35 Wynfryth made his way to Rome, where the pope renamed him 'Boniface' and assigned him to preach to the German tribes.36 He spread the gospel in Bavaria and Thuringia, and even rejoined Willibrord in Frisia for a couple years. Parting ways with Willibrord, Boniface began evangelizing in Hessia – preaching, baptizing, building churches – and nudging his way toward the Saxon frontier. In 722, he went to Rome to be ordained bishop, and was sent back “for the enlightenment of the people of Germany sitting in the shadow of death.”37 But when he got back to Hessia, he found many of his converts had fallen away amidst a harsh winter war. So he gathered his supporters, went straight to an oak tree sacred to Thor, chopped it to the ground, and built a church from its wood. And we read then how, “little by little, the number of believers increased, the preachers grew more numerous, church buildings were restored, and the word of God was published far and wide.”38 To Boniface, it was as important to confirm and teach as it was to baptize; baptism wasn't the end but the beginning of a life of becoming a Christian in practice.39

Boniface built up monasteries, places where intentional communities could take in and disciple local children to be native evangelists carrying on the work. Others now came from England to work under Boniface, and, we're told, “working in widely scattered groups among the people of Hessia and Thuringia, they preached the word of God in the country districts and villages” so that “many thousands of them were baptized.”40 Boniface finally began breaking into pagan Saxony. In October 739, the pope wrote Boniface a letter of congratulations on hearing of Boniface's hundred-thousandth German convert.41 Meanwhile, Boniface wrote back to England, asking people to double-down on their prayers for the conversion of the Saxons.42

In his late seventies, Boniface realized he didn't have much time left. So he gathered some helpers and set out one last time to Frisia. He managed to evangelize and baptize thousands of Frisians before finally his enemies surrounded him and cut him down as a martyr.43 With his blood, he sealed the Christian future of Frisia – one of his German disciples Gregory took charge of the work there. Later, Boniface's Bavarian disciple Sturm and Gregory's Frisian disciple Ludger kept up the evangelization of Saxony.

Had I limitless time, I'd go on. I'd tell you of the Frankish monk Ansgar, who heard in prayer the word to “declare the word of God to the nations,” and so gladly accepted when he was sent to Denmark and Sweden to preach and baptize and nurture the church.44 I'd tell you of Cyril and Methodius, brothers from Thessalonica who were called to the already evangelized Moravians to instruct more thoroughly, and how they invented an alphabet and translated the Bible,45 and laid the groundwork not just for the gospel to reach all the Slavic peoples but for doors to soon open in Bulgaria, and one day even in Russia. I'd tell you of Adalbert, a Bohemian who evangelized Hungarians and Poles and Prussians and died a martyr. And I could go on, and on...

It was from the work of people like them that your ancestors and my ancestors first heard the gospel. Trace your family tree far enough back, and maybe the first Christian you find there was discipled by Ansgar or Boniface or Wilfrid or Augustine. Our having heard the good news, our being baptized into Christ, our having been shaped to live as Christ commanded, depends on the work they did. Which brings us to today. Today is a day you know: Halloween. And Halloween, for all its medieval pageantry and modern secularization, is a Christian holiday. 'Halloween' is short for 'All Hallows Evening,' 'All Saints Eve' – the vigil night before All Saints Day tomorrow. And on All Saints Day, we celebrate all the great saints who over the years have given examples of heroic holiness – such as the missionary bishops and their co-workers – as we try to learn from them how to live into fuller saintliness here and now ourselves.

From examples like those, you could believe evangelism was just for the apostles and bishops. But that was never true. The missionaries and martyrs made the headlines, but we know some more intimate stories – like the case in the second century of a Roman noblewoman becoming Christian, being taught to change her life around, and trying to “persuade her husband” to likewise heed “the teachings of Christ.”46 Stories like that must have filled in all the gaps between the large missionary triumphs: a believer trying to get through to a loved one, or one believer trying to call back another from an ignorant path. In the early church, these words were said, not to bishops or priests, but to everyday believers: “You laypeople should be like wise doves, at peace with one another, striving to fill the church, converting and taming those who are wild, bringing them into her midst.”47

We celebrate by name the great missionary saints of ages past, for their witness was true, and they held it openly in heroic ways, in the face of great opposition, and thereby proved their holiness in Christ. But the best way we can honor them, the best way we can celebrate them, is to join them. It's to treat their work as work that's still worth doing, and their word as a word that's still worth saying, not just by the 'professionals,' but by all of us. The Great Commission is for the church together – not to all the same way, but to all in some way. For we, too, can convert and tame wild people, can bring them into the church's midst, can strive to fill the church.

And this true witness – sharing the gospel, telling people the good news that Jesus is Lord and Savior and Head of the Church – is the antidote to false witness. So often, we're led into false witness when we get off-track, to things we can't be sure of. But we can be sure of Jesus. We can be sure he's the Way, the Truth, the Life. We can be sure he's good and lovely. His name is the gospel-truth witness into which nations can be discipled, heart by heart. And each and every one of us can and must help. The mission isn't across the ocean. The mission is next door. Maybe even the next pew. You may not be able to hop a plane to the other side of the world, but you can go as far as your telephone or your neighbor's porch. You may not preach in the streets, but you can tell a stressed friend that there's hope thanks to Jesus. You may not know much to say, but you can listen long and speak a good gospel sentence from the heart. You may not have a well-crafted presentation, but you can recite the creed and answer questions. You may not go forth baptizing, but you can bring people here to be baptized. You may not meet many old-school pagans, but you can invite back a child or grandchild who's fallen away from the life of the church. You may not bind and loose with the authority of an apostle, but you can exhort any and all to holier living in Christ. You may not be able to do it all, but we can work together as the church to see the gospel bear fruit, each of us, according to our station and gifts, taking our share of the work.

Here where we are, let us publish glad tidings, let us tell our neighbors, let us bear the truest witness, for Jesus Christ is Truth, to the glory of God the Father and the salvation of a waiting world! Amen.