Sunday, February 25, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Discipline on Deck (Titus 2:15--3:2)

The crew of sailors howled and jeered, hooted and hollered, crooned and spat. The lot of them were drunk. John was used to it. He was one of them. He'd seen it on every ship he'd been on, and ever since he was a teenager, he'd been on plenty. He'd been a halfway-decent kid when he started out. But being around sailors like these, well, he thought about it as the 'ruin' of his principles, their 'ill example' set for him. Bearing their whip-scarred backs as a badge of pride, they drank, they caroused, they were vulgar and filthy, they ran hither and yon, they cultivated smut like it was their garden, they cursed like it was an Olympic sport and they were aiming for the gold, they dreamed of a pirate life and from time to time whispered of mutiny.

John was notorious for the same. He remembered his penchant for composing dirty songs mocking the captain and secretly teaching all the rest of the crew. He remembered the day he was slow to get out of bed, so another midshipman sliced the cords to his hammock and dropped him unceremoniously to the deck. He remembered how his youthful faith had been snuffed to ashes by the schemes of clever atheists aboard the vessel. He recalled that evening of drinking where he'd gotten so wasted, drinking rum concoctions from a seashell, that he'd “danced about the deck like a madman” and tried to hurl himself overboard. And he'd seen the rest of the crew do nothing less. They blasphemed, they mocked, they were drunk so very enthusiastically. Even in the wake of near destruction, they soon forgot all about it, took no thought to the implications of their mortality. John alone did, and he had “reveled in all the sottish debaucheries and in all the murderous brutalities in which the crews of such vessels engage.” John was the sole sailor who let his heart be moved, though he was “notorious amongst rough and godless sailors for his blasphemy and cruelty.”

So John was unsurprised as he watched the sailors howl and jeer, hoot and holler, croon and spit, as they mocked everything. They mocked God, they mocked Christ, they mocked John, they mocked each other's mothers and fathers, they mocked the captain and the midshipmen, they mocked the wind and the waves, they mocked kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers – they had a crude epithet for everything under the sun, not to mention the sun and every higher thing, too. They were quite as toxic, quite as grave a mess, as any bilge-scum that polluted the brig, as any rats that gnawed their rations or any scurvy-spotted bloody stain.

In time, John would learn the Scriptures – he had to, before he could sing of the sweet sound of God's amazing grace – and no doubt his memories of crews like that resonated with Paul's description of some people as “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating each other” (Titus 3:3). Paul was writing, of course, to Titus, the admiral he'd appointed over the fleet of churches they'd built together in Crete, a large island of the Mediterranean, south of the Grecian coast. And over the past five weeks – this will be our sixth – we've been considering Paul's letter to Titus as something like a naval manual, something like an injunction to Vice-Admiral Titus for each ship in the fleet to take to heart.

And as we sail over the choppy waters of our own twenty-first-century American culture, just as Titus tried to bolster his fleet for the choppy seas of first-century Cretan culture, well, there's plenty for him to teach us. We've learned the importance of maintaining a sure anchor in a God who never lies – God whose promises cut through all the untruth and half-truth and 'post-truth' nonsense swirling around us. We've learned the importance of the radiant light of Christ, who shines from the lighthouse with twin beams of grace accomplished at the cross and glory turning 'round our way. We've learned the value of looking up to the star-chart laid out in the Scriptures, the pattern of Christ written as a Heavenly Sign by which to navigate toward the harbor of God's embrace. And given how toxic and diseased the waters are, we've learned the imperative of swabbing the deck clean from any compromised half-gospel and of having good officers at the helm who can steer the ship right and administer healthy teaching to keep spiritual scurvy at bay.

And given that we – each of us, Paul says – had rather too much in common with the sailors of John Newton's acquaintance, these ships' officers are charged to announce the grace and truth of Jesus Christ authoritatively, definitively, life-savingly, life-changingly. And they are charged with the responsibility to wield that same hefty burden of authority to correct and direct, to challenge and guide, all the sailors on this new churchly ship. That's why Paul says to Titus, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15). He wants to underscore the authority that Titus rightly wields to discipline his fleet, and which those whom Titus appoints as officers on each ship in the fleet will rightly wield to discipline their crews as they share in Titus' commission. Because it's very important that there be discipline on deck. The church cannot afford to be staffed by the sort of sailors Newton knew, at least without them being brought to heel and changed inside and out.

So what does it look like for a church-ship to have discipline on deck, discipline from port to starboard, from bow to stern, and in the bunks and the mess as much as up on deck, for that matter? First, Paul says, the spirit of mutiny has to be put to death. And Titus knew that was going to be a hard sell to the churches of Crete. Crete was infamous as a haven of rebellion. Centuries earlier, one Greek writer named Polybius commented that the populace of Crete was famously “engaged in countless public and private rebellions, murders and civil wars.” Polybius said that, “with few exceptions, you could find no habits prevailing in private life more steeped in treachery than those in Crete, and no public policy more inequitable” (Histories 6.46-47). The spirit of mutiny thrived in ancient Crete – and, I dare say, in modern America no less, which routinely sees its share of “public and private rebellions, murders and civil wars,” if not always the literal bloody kind. And is the American church really, truly immune from the spirit of mutiny, as it ought to be? I don't think anybody could believe it is.

And so the Apostle Paul, writing with Luke, commands Titus, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient” (Titus 3:1). No doubt Paul is including the realm of civil society. The Christians of first-century Crete aren't to join in the rebellious frenzy of their neighbors. They're to set an example of orderly life, respecting and deferring to the governors sent there by the Roman Senate, even though the Cretan people had no hand in choosing them. They didn't ask for Lucius Turpilius Dexter, who ruled the island as proconsul when Paul wrote this letter to Titus; neither would they ask for Lucius' successor, Titus Atilius Rufus, or any of the rest before or after. How much more should we then have a healthy and respectful attitude toward the politicians of our days, advising and exhorting as need be but in a spirit of respect and not of mutiny?

And yet the American church is hardly known for being a mediating and peacemaking force in politics and civil life. But we should be. Paul says so right here, in black-and-white. We may well disagree vehemently with the policies and behavior of any civil ruler or any civil authority. We may well, as citizens of a republic, be the theoretical source of the authority any elected official wields. But does that negate the force of Paul's words? Does that release us from the obligation to bear witness by the attitude we bring into our engagement with civil rulers, civil authorities, and the law of the land?

But Paul probably has more than just civil rulers and civil authorities in view. He's writing this letter through Luke, and Luke used the same combination of words once: “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12). Luke probably talks here about synagogue rulers, religious authorities. And in this letter, it comes right on the heels of talking about Titus' authority, which he is commanded to enforce. Titus must remind the churches to be submissive and obedient to church authorities, like himself and the overseers he appoints (cf. Titus 1:5-9). Let's face it: church discipline is not a popular topic today. We withhold support, we rebel, if something doesn't suit us. We balk at the idea that anyone has any authority to correct and direct us, least of all by imposing discipline on us. We don't like obedience. But, well, there it is, isn't it? In our denomination, one of the questions that must be asked to candidates for membership is, “Will you submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you are found delinquent in doctrine or life, will you submit to its discipline?” To which, if you are a member of the church, you answered, “I will, the Lord being my helper.” That was right before you promised to “seek to be faithful by attendance, and participate in public worship, fellowship, study, and service opportunities of this congregation.” Are you loyal to those promises? We have a God above to answer to.

But Paul's directions for discipline on deck go beyond submission to rulers and authorities. He also insists that the church's crew “blaspheme no one” (Titus 3:2). John Newton saw many sailors crudely curse God, Christ, the captain, each other, slandering everything holy and reputable. Paul forbids us to be like that. Not only must we not blaspheme God, which I hope we understand, but we may not blaspheme anyone – we may not drag any name through the mud. We may not rant and rave our abusive complaints about anybody. And that's hard for us – we're fond of griping. Younger generations are fond these days of blaspheming the older ones; and, just as in every age, older generations routinely blaspheme the younger ones. Democrats blaspheme Republicans, and Republicans blaspheme Democrats. Urbanites blaspheme country folk, and country folk turn around and blaspheme city-slickers. Move aside, baseball: blasphemy may be our new national pastime. But the church's crew is meant to be totally free of it. Scripture reports that even the Archangel Michael, the heavenly prince charged with Israel's protection, didn't dare to blaspheme even Satan (Jude 9). How can we justify blaspheming any earthly thing and drag its name through the mud? Blaspheme no one; slander no one.

Paul goes on. He says that the church's crew must “avoid quarreling,” or as the King James has it, “to be no brawlers” (Titus 3:2). I like that rendering. It's the opposite of what John Newton saw among sailors in his day – fistfights breaking out, fighting words blasting forth from gnarled lips, recreational violence as a cure for the boredom of oceanic monotony. No doubt some in the Cretan churches, before their conversion, were literally brawlers – belligerent people, ready to pick fights. For the most part, rural and small-town Lancaster County has a different culture. But perhaps there are some among us who, if not physically violent, nevertheless always seem to pick a squabble with somebody. Paul tells us to be no brawlers, and that includes verbally, emotionally, relationally. He tells us not to pick fights – and if our personal lives are perpetually full of them, maybe it's us.

And then Paul tells us “to be gentle” (Titus 3:2). That's an attitude. It's a civil attitude, a reasonable attitude, an attitude of moderation – exactly the sort of thing John Newton didn't see often on deck. It's an attitude and an approach of relaxing the letter of the law to fit the spirit of the law. It's an attitude that's fair, that's mild, that's suitable for the occasion. It's, well, gentle. 'Gentle' may not be a word you'd use for those who sail the seven seas, much of the time, but it's the word Paul wants used for those who sail aboard the HMS Church! Are we gentle? Are we fair and even-handed? Do we take into account the challenges that others might be facing, and treat them accordingly? Are we ready to lift up the fallen and cheer the faint-hearted?

Paul then tells us to “prove meekness to all people” (Titus 3:2). Some translations render it as 'show perfect courtesy.' Others try 'gentle' here. Still others go with 'humility.' But the idea is one of restraint. Our conduct is to be a proof that, whatever strength and energy we have, we have it under control. We restrain our strength, we restrain our energy, we restrain ourselves, out of consideration for others. When we have a tendency to go too fast, we slow down. When we have a tendency to get ahead of ourselves, we hold up. When we have a propensity to steamroll, we take a step back. When our first instinct is to push hard, we restrain ourselves. And that is a demonstration, a display of visible strength visibly under control, visibly tamed by the gospel. Have you been tamed by the gospel?

It's important that we are, because the one other direction Paul gives us is “to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1). God has a lot of work that needs doing on this earth, and for those of you who farm, have you ever tried to catch a wild horse and hook him straight up to the plow? Good luck with that! They need to be tamed, broke, domesticated, before they have a share in the labor. So must we. But once we're visibly tamed by the gospel, there's work to be done. All sorts of work, as a matter of fact. All sorts of good work out there. Sharing the gospel – there's a good work. Offering shelter to the homeless – there's a good work. Nursing the sick back to health; encouraging the downcast; feeding the hungry; setting free the captive; forgiving the hurtful; showing mercy to the offensive; sharing the good things of creation with those who lack – those are all good works. And there are many more, countless forms of the works of mercy and works of piety.

Paul tells us here that we do not each have a certain limited subset of good works we should be on the lookout for. I don't get to drive down the street, see someone hurt and bleeding by the side of the road, and think to myself, “Well, my good work is forgiving people, not dealing with that.” Nor do I get to hear someone express spiritual anguish and think to myself, “But my good work is feeding the hungry and offering hospitality, not talking about Jesus.” Paul talks about “every good work” here, for all of us. We don't know what opportunities for good work God will put in each of our paths. It could be this one, it could be that one. It may suit our specialty, or it may not. But whichever one it is, Paul tells us we need to be “ready.” Vigilant. Prepared. Fit for the circumstance, whatever the circumstance will be. That's a hard thing! That's a whole-life thing, to really be ready for every good work. And without the resources of the Spirit in us, we can't do it. But when the Spirit fills our sails, we – each of us, and the church together – can be ready for every good work.

Submissive to rulers and authorities. Obedient. Ready for every good work. Blaspheming no one. Avoiding all quarreling. Gentle. Demonstrating full meekness toward all people, knowing what a difference it made that we were saved from our former slavery and foolishness by “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” (Titus 3:4). These are all things Titus has to insist on, “so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” that are “excellent and beneficial for people” (Titus 3:8).

John Newton knew full well, and we can readily imagine, what a ship looked like when the sailors were vulgar and uncouth and brawling and blasphemous and rough and filthy and undisciplined. And such a ship is a brutal mess. That is not the sort of fleet Paul wants to see. Nor is it the sort of fleet Jesus wants to see. Christ longs to see a fleet full of ships that have discipline on deck. Only with discipline on deck can the ship itself be ready for whatever maneuvers the Lord commands; only with discipline on deck can the ship offer a true alternative to the storms of chaos that roil the air and sea outside; only with discipline on deck can the ship sail safely and securely for the good of crew and cargo and for the attainment of her mission. May we be just such a ship, with just such discipline on our deck; may you be the kind of crew Paul prays for the ships of this fleet to have. Take heed, O church, to these words – and sail on. Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Lighthouse Ahead! (Titus 2:11-15)

I'm sure you've heard this story before, or something like it. I know I have. It was a dark and stormy night. Well, not so much stormy as foggy. The choppy seas sloshed beneath a sopping wet blanket of fog, thick and heavy. There was a great big ship, trying to make it through the fog. They had their own lights, trying to slice a way through the black shroud. But they could scarcely see a yard in front of their own faces, even with their lights at their brightest. With the fog so heavy, they couldn't see heaven. With the fog so heavy, they couldn't see ocean. With the fog so heavy, they couldn't see earth, with all its threat, nor any other ships on the water.

Suddenly, in the distance, they saw a light that looked so much like theirs. It was directly out in front of them – in their path! The captain grabbed his radio and signaled ahead. “Warning: We are headed in your direction. Please change course to get out of our way.” The captain watched the sole spot of light in the fog. It had no flicker, no deviation. The radio crackled. “Negative. Change your course.” The captain was not used to this. He was a decorated veteran. This was a military ship, and a big one, too. It was hard work to turn it, and beside all that, the captain was proud. He fired back, “Negative. You change your course. We will not be changing ours.” He glared at the light, daring it to stand still. Which it did. The radio crackled again. “Negative. Again, change your course.” Now the captain was irate. He snatched up his handset and yelled into the radio, “This is Captain Reginald T. Waterstreet of the H.M.S. Leviathan, the second-largest ship in Her Majesty's Royal Navy. On the authority of the Crown, I order you to change course this instant!” The captain fumed. Sweat rolled from his brow. Silence; all was still. Then the radio crackled. “Greetings, Captain Waterstreet of the H.M.S. Leviathan. Message received and acknowledged. This is a lighthouse – you change your course!”

Well, don't that just beat all? That's the thing about being on course to a lighthouse. You have to react. It won't be moving for you, no matter how hard you bluff and bluster, no matter how you flail and fume. No matter how much sweat, blood, tears you add to the equation, it makes no difference. The lighthouse is a constant. And yet how awful it would be for the lighthouse to not be there! For us to be abandoned in the darkness of the night, beneath the oppressive load of that isolating fog, with no glimpse of reality anywhere we turn! Many a captain, thinking clearly and setting aside his pride, has been mighty glad for the life-saving service rendered by many a lighthouse. Because the lighthouse shineth into the darkness, and the darkness and the storm and the fog and the waves and the wind – well, the lighthouse shineth in, and all this darkness has not overcome it.

So it is on many a shore. And so it is in matters of the spirit, matters of the soul, matters of the world. Friends, the waves of our culture are choppy. The waters can be plenty toxic. That's the truth about this life. The world is awash in brackish water, churned into a frenzy. So little out there makes for smooth sailing. In and of itself, it is dark out there. It is foggy. It is just plain impossible for us to see a yard before us, beside us, behind us, whichsoever way we bend our benighted gaze.

How often have you sensed the darkness and the fog descending in your life? I know I've run up against it my fair share in mine. A loved one dies, interrupting or abbreviating a relationship you thought would last a lot longer. Thus thickens the fog. A plan fails, a hope shatters. The fog thickens. Precious cargo plops overboard, lost to the waves. Fog thickens. Sickness infects the body, turmoil afflicts the mind. Fog, thicker fog. Chaos seems to reign. Everyone, everything seems so confused. It's all incoherent,, all jumbled and put together wrong. Elementary truths are forgotten out there. Fog, thickest fog, all so dense, all so heavy. And this very moment, so many around us – maybe we ourselves – are scratching at each other's throats, at our own throats, running around and flailing, because we're feeling claustrophobic with so much fog 'n smog clogging the air.

Ever since the swords swished at Eden's gates with us on the wrong side and no key, thick fog has been the natural environment of humankind. It didn't take long for us to forget where we were. Sometimes we thought we were so far away when we were so close. Often, we thought we were so close when we were so far away. You can see it in our sordid lot of religious endeavors; you can behold it in our cultural enterprises. We think we can build a tower all the way up to the very top, and we've misjudged the distance so badly, because we're working blind. The radio is not silent. It crackles, it hisses, it speaks. But most of our story is the history of willfully tuning it out. We drift in the fog, lost and feeling alone; when the fog thickens harder, we feel isolated from even our own shipmates, if we have them, let alone everyone else; and yet we sense the prospect of threats out there in the great unknown.

We build the tower – it collapses into fog. We maintain empires – they collapse into fog. We prostrate our soul and mind before lifeless things – the dark'ning fog blinds us to what they really are in the light of day. From our pyramids to our great walls, from our fast-paced hippodromes to our huts and houses and holy shrines, there's just so much fog. We knew not whence we came from; we knew not whither we were headed; we dreamed up eight billion dreams, but lost in the fog we were, and at our better moments we knew it. It was a dark and foggy night, so bitter cold. Long had the radio crackled. But few had ears to listen.

And then, from far away, photons leapt faster than any fog-bound thing! A blessed ray pierced through the cold night. It slashed the fog to ribbons where'er it went. When there was no other way of finding our bearing, no stable point of reference, the light shined in the darkness, the light shined in the fog, and all the fog and all the darkness could not overcome it (John 1:5)! The light fell upon our faces, shining bright, coming from straight ahead, puncturing our path and letting us not only see it, but finally catch a glimpse of each other.

You see, amidst all the pervasive fog, there stands a lighthouse. And a lighthouse has bulbs stronger than your ship. A lighthouse has one purpose: to save your ship from destruction; to guide your ship to safety; to give you the gift of sight, the gift of getting your bearings about you. And friends, however lost you have ever been, however astray you have ever drifted, however dark has been the night where you found yourself, however thick has been the fog settling on your heart and mind and soul, however dense has been your confusion, know this: there is a lighthouse ahead!

For “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people” (Titus 2:11). That is just what I mean! As with the radiance cast forth from a lighthouse into the foggy night, the grace of God has appeared, slicing through our soupy skies, clearing a path in the darkness, which, however much it may resist, cannot but give way to such a powerful beam. All once was doom and gloom; but now there is a light shining. All once was wrapped in fog; but now there is a light shining. This light brings rescue and security to all who will but open their eyes and see things in its light, all who will see where it illuminates and be responsive to it. This light is called the grace of God. It is God's favor, God's gift.

As I said last week, when the grace of God appears, it is the opposite of God looking on you with contempt or dismissal or hate or indifference. If God shows you his favor, it means he is not opposed to your best interests, nor does he act without regard to you. You are very much in his consideration, as a positive factor. God acts for you, not against you, not apart from you. It's grace. It's his favorable disposition to bless you, not to curse you; to rescue you, not to abandon you; to welcome you, not to shut you out; to gift you, not to rub you; to build you up, not tear you down.

The grace of God has appeared,” slicing through all our fog, all the fog of this world. Though we sail on wild seas – and go ahead and look at twenty-first-century America and tell me the seas aren't heaving and churning, tell me the fog hasn't gotten in people's heads, go on, tell me that – yet still the light shines and is not overcome, still the grace of God leaps forth into our darkly foggy world and our darkly foggy lives and our darkly foggy hearts and leavens our thickness with its lightness and brightness. But whence comes this grace of God? How does it appear?

We hear the call over the radio, not with so much static as before: “Jesus Christ … gave himself for us” (Titus 2:14a). That's the beam we see. There was a great trade. That was the gift. The gift given in God's grace is Jesus himself. He gave himself in our place, unto shame and pain and death and wrath and all the due penalty, all the due isolation, all the due wreckage and drowning – he gave himself for us. That was how the grace of God truly appeared: when, as a sign and seal of God's favor, and to secure it for us forever, he gave himself for us, so that he could forever give himself to us. What did all that accomplish?

He “gave himself for us, to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14b). In the world Paul was writing to, it was known that there was one good way a slave might get set free from a harsh master. There were temples that had a standing offer. They would pay the ransom price. They would buy a slave from his master. They said they were merchants negotiating the sale on behalf of the god they served, the god to whom they as a temple were dedicated. And so they would buy the slave. Legally, the slave would be sold out of human bondage to become a servant of the god – which was freedom from all those former chains. And that was how many slaves were redeemed: by legally becoming slaves of a god, and of no man.

We were slaves to many things, before the grace of God appeared. We were slaves to our bitter Mammon, and its greedy clutches. We were slaves to our desires and our lusts. We were slaves to political forces, religious forces, economic forces, that kept us on a short leash. Paul sums all this up by suggesting we were slaves to lawlessness – slaves to the culture's haphazard ways of ordering human life, slaves to all the waves that tossed us to and fro, slaves to our idols and our images, slaves to every rough thing, slaves to the criminal impulse that lurks in each of us and holds sway all around us, lawlessness masquerading as law, lawlessness that no mere law can uproot. And we were slaves.

But Jesus Christ, the high priest of God, yea, even the temple of God, made a standing offer. He wanted to get you away from this harsh master called Lawlessness. And that was the trade. He paid the price. Lawlessness unleashed all its chaos against him, in a storm of fury and mockery and agony and blood. The redemption price was paid. “You were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 7:23). So with a price, you were indeed bought. You were sold out of bondage to those former things, to become a servant of Jesus' God – which is freedom from all the former chains that bound you, the chains of shame and human esteem, the chains of greed and lust and pride, the chains of all prevailing ideologies, all dominant principalities and powers, earthly or otherwise. The chains you yourself forged – even those, he bought you away from. To “redeem you from all lawlessness.”

What's more, Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14c). Many teachers have come and given you a pitch of what else you must add in order to be really pure, to be really acceptable to God. Many teachers have offered you this law or that law, this twist or that twist, this rule or that rule. But Jesus gave himself to purify you, and to purify you entirely; in merely hearing his word of grace and receiving it into yourself, he pronounces you already clean, already pure (John 15:3). You have need of nothing else than more of this word. Any time you have ever felt dirty, any time you have ever felt unclean, any time you have ever felt unworthy, know this: he gave himself to purify you; it's accomplished. Simply live out in your life the purity already granted to us by his decree.

But the text does not merely say that he gave himself for us to purify for himself a person here, and a person there. We read that he aimed to “purify for himself a people for his own possession.” Paul remembers here the promise to Israel long ago: how, if they were faithful to the covenant, they would be a people, a corporate body, exalted above all nations as a collective royal priesthood, a holy presence in the world (Exodus 19:5-6). Jesus did not come to purify for himself an aggregate – a mix-'n-match batch of individual Christians, all leading their separate lives.

We are so fond of saying that you don't need to be part of the church to be saved. I don't know where anybody ever got that. Perhaps a delayed overreaction to fights picked in the sixteenth century. But Jesus did not come to purify for himself individual souls and individual lives disconnected from all the rest. We read here that he came to purify a people – a whole people, drawn from many scattered tribes and different tongues, from myriad walks of life, but forged into a new organic unity – once called 'no people,' now called 'my people.' Jesus came to purify for himself a people, whose organized expression we call 'church,' the body politic of the kingdom of God. Don't let the fog of do-it-yourselfism get in your brain; don't let the fog of stay-homeism or even of pew-sitterism get the better of you. We are purified together, to live together now, as one organism, one entity, one coordinated active expression of the body of Christ in our community.

Wait, look! The lighthouse has not just one beam, but two; it rotates 'round, we see something new! Where one beam emanates from the past, from the redemptive work of Jesus accomplished outside Jerusalem in the first century, the other beam is cast from the future, perhaps the near future. For we read here that not only do we live in the light of what Jesus has done, but also in the light of what he will do. We are “waiting for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

This, too, illuminates our darkly foggy worlds, lives, souls. The grace of God has appeared, but his glory will appear. Jesus Christ is “our great God and Savior” – yes, you heard that right. Let there be no doubt: Jesus is the real deal. He is God and fit to be worshipped. He is the God who is mighty to save. And so he is our Savior. Many emperors, many kings, touted themselves – or have been touted – as 'god and savior.' Hellenistic rulers bore that title. It was applied to Julius Caesar in his memory. But they are a pale parody of what in Jesus is brightness and majesty. What so many kings, so many priests, so many politicians and economists and scientists and journalists and philosophers and theologians and celebrities and athletes and activists have cast themselves as, in olden times and in our day, they fall short, because they merely parody the real deal. Jesus is our great God and Savior. He will appear with glory. We are waiting expectantly for that, for its potentiality at every minute, every moment. And this will be our “blessed hope,” tethering us to our sure anchor in the God who does not lie, the God whose every word is truth and who shouts and sings grace, grace, wonderful grace.

In the meantime, while we wait, we live amidst the present age. That's the world around us. The world as we see it – or, rather, as we see the swirls and structures of fog in the dark. We live amidst the fog, we sail through the fog and over the choppy seas, but we sail in light of the grace that has appeared and in light of the glory that is turning 'round our way. We live between the salvation that's been brought and the salvation that's up ahead – they're of one piece, they shine from the same lighthouse, the same source, in twin beams that come our way. This is our hope – the hope that is the answer to all the plight of all our fog. All the confusion, all the chaos, all the questions implicit or explicit in our loss, our grief, our trial, our stress, our languishing darkness – all of it has, as an answer, “We wait for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” And in the meantime, the grace of God has already appeared, already smiled on us with favor, already lit up our rescue and beckoned us to safety.

As we wait, we catch word that light is tantamount to learning. The grace of God appeared, “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and pious lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Not only has grace appeared, but we are to be educated by grace. It's an education for all people, we read; you don't have to pass a prerequisite course to enroll in grace. But the light of grace will teach you – teach you to renounce, to forsake all those former masters, and to serve God alone in the way he bids, as the example of Jesus models for you, for us. He did, after all, come “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14d). By no means are we saved by good works, but his end goal was to get a version of us who burn hotly to do 'em. Not just any kind of works, but the good kind, the kind that belong in the light for good.

On our voyage, we have to admit, much remains foggy. We don't have all the details of the answers; but we do have the Answer, our great God and Savior. Grace has already appeared to poke a hole in our fog, and the beam of glory is turning 'round. No matter how dark or how obscure things get, no matter how confused you may be, no matter how distressed or weary, no matter how sick, no matter how dead, rest in the light; it shineth for thee. The light fell on you when our great God and Savior gave himself for us all, to redeem us away from our harsh old master Lawlessness and into the freedom of his temple. The light fell on you when Jesus blasted away all impurity from this whole people, as a people. Real purity isn't following a rule. Real purity isn't submitting to a ritual. Real purity is being part of Jesus' people, the people purified as his own possession. And as we wait for that glory beam to turn 'round on us, we respond to this grace, this redemption, this purification by learning what the light came to teach us and by being zealous for good works – just like Jesus wants. We cannot keep to our old course. That's why the lighthouse shines for us. No matter how big or bad we think our ship is, we have to move – as the light shows us the way for spiritual sailing. The light is shining. No darkness, no fog, can ever overcome it. That's the grace we have and the glory we wait for. Sail on, church. Sail on. Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

When Calendars Collide: A Homily for Ash Wednesday 2018

It makes for a strange year when two calendars collide. On the one hand, you have the secular calendar – all the civic holidays, all the patriotic and cultural occasions, all the rhythms of our day-to-day lives. On the other hand, you have the church calendar – all the great fasts and feasts, all the days that bear explicit witness to deeper truths. Most of us have different levels of loyalty to both. And let me tell you, navigating that can be a big headache for a pastor! Balancing a congregation's thirst for the secular calendar's patriotism against the church calendar's witness to another kingdom – that's a doozy. Wrestling with how to integrate Mother's Day and Father's Day into or around a sermon series – that can trip up the momentum. And the Feast of Christ the King always seems to sit uncomfortably close to Thanksgiving – what a show!

And then there are years like this year. Oh, I'm sure you've already had a laugh when you realized that Easter Sunday will fall on April Fool's Day this year. There's a direct collision, and it may well lead to some quirky preaching! But before that big crash, there's this little one, which may not have occurred to you until today. From the church calendar, Ash Wednesday – the inauguration of the season of Lent, a time of fasting, of penitence to purify our hearts and lives as Easter approaches. But from the secular calendar, though originally cribbed from the church calendar, is the feast of St. Valentine – which in the modern secular calendar is a day, not for doom and gloom, not for sackcloth and ashes, but for cheer and sentimentality, for sugar and rejoicing and lightness.

Doesn't that make for an odd collision? What have chocolate and candy hearts to do with fasting? Or bouquets of roses with the grave threat of their wilting? What have pink balloons and teddy bears to do with prostration and lament? What have candlelight dinners to do with smears of gray ash? What have cooed words and the warmth of clasped hands to do with the chirping stillness and bitter chill of the graveyards in winter? What has “I love you, darling” to do with “To dust thou shalt return”? Crash. Crash. Crash. What do we do with that?

But perhaps the two are less unalike than we're prone to think. Perhaps this coinciding overlap of the ecclesiastical and the secular calendars is less pain and more providence. After all, what is Valentine's Day? Look beyond the outward shows, beyond the commercialistic mumbo-jumbo, beyond the twirl of inane advertisements and the mythologies of modern romance. What is Valentine's Day?

On days like this, you might hear the more cynical sort complain about the notion of a day set aside to celebrate love – as if we have so little love to give that we can limit it to a day! As if we need showy displays to communicate it! As if we need a reminder to reveal love to those whom we truly do love! I have been one of those cynics, in some years. But what if that's not what Valentine's Day is for at all? What if Valentine's Day is meant, not to compartmentalize love, but to renew it – to repent of its lack, its insufficiency, in the interest of a love that slackens not? What if Valentine's Day is the hope of new creation?

What do a man and a woman, romantically involved, do on Valentine's Day? They openly confess their love for one another. They give one another cards with sappy sayings and praiseful poetry – finding the best words to express what they ought to feel, ought to think, ought to do, every day of the year, but often fall short – sometimes a little short, sometimes far. They exchange gifts as tokens, symbols that represent their time, their energy, their resources, their very selves, for the sake of the other's use and enjoyment. They enjoy one another's company, and strive for deeper and more meaningful forms of intimacy; they cherish the opportunity to find delight precisely in their togetherness, in the experience of one another as man or as woman. They remind themselves of earlier times. Though time's advance leads the forms of feeling and the peaks and plateaus of passion to shift and change, on Valentine's Day, lovers refresh themselves and each other by drawing fresh water from that well – marking an occasion when they must return, must devote themselves anew, must wipe away former faults and begin again. And so all the gestures and symbols of Valentine's Day are efforts to rekindle the flame, recapture the spark; they seek to recommit the couple's lives to one another, to give and receive grace that not only forgives but refuels and renews. In short, Valentine's Day is a day in relationships when we return to the love we had at first – one might dare say, a day of repentance.

Spiritually, we have just as much need – no, more – of a renewal of love. Our tendency to let love go cold, to become sidetracked and apathetic, is every bit as damaging, but with vaster consequences, in our cosmic love story as in our earthbound ones. The prophets of old, and apostles of more recent but still ancient vintage, saw the relationship of Yahweh and Israel, and its further denouement in the relationship of Jesus Christ and his Church, as a betrothal – as a cosmic love story. We heard about that in the writings of Jeremiah and Paul, twin souls separated by centuries. The prophets looked back on Mount Sinai as a wedding ceremony, when the elders of Israel went up on the mountain to eat and drink in Yahweh's presence. Jeremiah recalled it as when Israel walked with Yahweh as a bride with her husband, when she followed him through the wilderness. That, he said, was the devotion of Israel's youth, her love as a bride.

But the love story was not an untroubled one. In ever-more graphic language, the prophets condemn Israel's unfaithfulness – her adulteries, her harlotries, her dalliances with idols and with political alliances with pagan protectors, as betrayals of Yahweh's love. All the gifts he gave her, she throws away on her many lovers. Hosea lived it out as a parable in his marriage to the harlot Gomer. Jeremiah spoke of Israel's relentless lust for anyone but the God who'd wed her, and her forgetfulness of her rightful husband. Ezekiel portrayed her adulteries as worsening time and again, becoming more and more flagrant in her betrayal of Yahweh. We might be tempted to think that, under the New Testament, the Church can never be unfaithful. But we know better. We might be tempted to think that, under the New Testament, we can never be as lacking in love for God as rebellious Israel was then. But we know better. Jesus himself reproached the Ephesian church for having “abandoned your first love,” and needing to repent and return to it.

Jesus Christ aims to present the Church to himself as a bride “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,” but we seem so very eager to besmirch, smear, fold, crumple, tear ourselves in our fleeting, lackluster, and prone-to-wander love. Our love, even at its best, never equals his; and how often is our love even near our best? How often are we attentive, appreciative, affectionate, faithful, and true to Christ? Left to our own devices, we can become so oblivious of how far we miss the mark of loving him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength, and to love proportionately all neighbors who bear his image, out of delight in his precious and beautiful image. We have a word for missing the mark of love: 'sin.' And left to our own devices, we not only sin more flagrantly, but become oblivious of it.

So to stop our natural obliviousness from running away with us and letting our love get too lukewarm, we build special wake-up calls into the calendar. Like today. Ash Wednesday calls us back – calls us sharply, calls us darkly, but calls us back all the same – to our 'first love.' It's the day where we confess our lovelessness – all the times we've taken even a foot down the adulterous and unloving path Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel saw Israel treading. It's the day where we repent of it, recommitting to our relationship with Christ. It begins a season of heart-cleaning through prayer and fasting; it shocks us back to the hearth from which we've wandered; it urges us to rekindle the flame, to recapture the spark, to re-surrender to the Spirit.

We love because he first loved us,” we read. And because he first loved us, we must love. Because he wined us and dined us, because he opened his love to us, because he dared to be our protector, because he showered us with gifts and dotes on us daily and whispers his love in our ears every minute, but most of all because he is who he is: the Lover who sees in us his Beloved, even at our most spiteful, even at our most ungrateful, even at our most unfaithful. His love is life, is better than life; estrangement from him only sickens and kills us, and so, out of love, he woos us daily back to him. Ash Wednesday hits us hard, I admit, but it hits us hard only to knock the stuffing from our ears and the scales from our eyes and the crust from our hearts. It reminds us that we are dust – “such an earthquake as the image of God in dust,” certainly (as Chesterton quipped), but dust all the same – precisely to humble and reprove us for our offense, our coldness, our adulteries and harlotries and vain imaginings.

Today is that day. And the collision is just the jolt we need, and a fitting one: Done right, Ash Wednesday is always our heavenly Valentine's Day. Done right, Ash Wednesday is always our day of repentance back to our first love, to the devotion of the Church's youth. And on this Ash Wednesday Valentine's Day, we enjoy this promise. From dust we are; to dust we shall return; but the story does not end there, for “love is as strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6), and stronger still. The Lord of Love proved it; 'Dust' will nevermore be his name, for death no longer has any hold on him!

Tonight, this Jesus of love and mercy has invited us out on a date: back once more to his table where he'll wine us and dine us and let us fall in love with him all over again. On the way there, he offers us his sign, the cross, as we might offer one another rings and roses. Though we receive his sign in ash as our sign of repentance, let us receive it as a gift, as the seal of a pledge and a promise, from the One who loved us first and loved us to the last – and to whom all our love is due. For us he died. For us he rose. For us he's coming again. Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Charting the Way (Titus 2:1-10)

The wine-like sea wordlessly sloshed and sightlessly foamed. The artful forms of rock and cliff, harbingers of land, were, but for gentle caress of silver moonlight, wrapped in midnight's arcane embrace. To the eye, all was absent. But it was a familiar circumstance for Minoan sailors. Hailing from Crete, nearly two thousand years before any 'Paul' or any 'Titus' would touch toe to their land of labyrinths, they'd taken to this sea as to a home, a playground, a birthright. They were masters of these waves. But how to master what's lost to sight? How to tame what shrouds its shrewdness? How to find your way in midnight when all is nothing and nothing is all?

The secret, they'd learned, is not to look down or ahead. For overhead, above the open water of the wine sea, there were black seas staring down at them. And the black seas were luminous. A swarm of light, floating on the upward abyss. But no seething randomness winged its way there. No, the Minoans in their ship lifted up their eyes to signs and shapes, patterns and pointers, “for on every hand signs in multitude do the gods reveal to man,” they muttered. It was midnight. All around was obscure. But above were all the charts they needed, and in their hearts and on their tongues the poems that reminded them how to read their celestial cartography. Their 'map' was no parchment woven and written by human hands. Their 'map' was the stars.

Such was sailing in the heyday of the Minoans. Such, too, was sailing in the days Paul pressed precariously around Crete's southmost coast. Sailing was yet the same a few years later when Titus commanded, if not a fleet of ships on the Cretan waters, then a fleet of churches on the Cretan culture. And that was no easy sailing. Cretan culture, as we've heard in recent weeks, had plenty of corruption. It was a 'post-truth' culture, splintered and fractured like ours; naught could be known, naught could be trusted, naught was sacred, naught was serious. The institution of slavery had sabotaged the moral compass of countless lives. The noxious stew of frivolous arranged marriages and normalized sexual harassment and domestic violence had stunk up the place, making family life scarcely tolerable and too often loveless. Throughout all Greece, drinking was a problem, especially among the elderly – many a playwright toyed with the caricature of the old drunk – but Crete took it to an art form: people there could get so proud of their drinking habits that they'd literally boast and brag about it on their tombstones!

And to all that, Paul tells Titus, give 'em the words what'll make 'em well – you know, the healthy teaching, just what the Great Physician ordered: “As for you,” Paul writes him, “speak the things that are fitting to healthy teaching” (Titus 2:1). In this letter, which Paul wrote to Titus there and then but God preserved for us here and now, Paul is obsessed with healthy teaching – the kind of instruction that nourishes the soul on what's good and beautiful and, most strange to Cretan ears, emphatically true. It's the kind of instruction that never goes stale, never gets moldy and crusty. And it's the kind of instruction that puffs up the rich dough of the gospel to its full size and brings out all the flavors.

But why is it so important to hear healthy teaching? Because healthy teaching, healthy instruction, promotes healthy ways of spiritual living; and healthy ways of living, seen by the world around you, illustrate what's so healthy and delicious about this healthy teaching. But, to put it another way, Paul is laying out the map, the star-chart, by which we're to sail this church; and the definition of a good journey, a healthy journey, is one that ventures through dark times by navigating according to these stars, this chart.

What healthy teaching have we received? We'll discuss these words in greater depth next week, but listen to the sweet sounds of next week's passage. “The grace of God has appeared” – in other words, God is not wrathful, God is not sore, God is not angry with you! God is not dismissive of you! God is not contemptuous of you, nor does he ignore you! All those are the opposite of this word, 'grace.' In Jesus Christ, God looks on you with favor! So it's in Jesus Christ, in whom God's grace swirls like a hurricane of blessing, that you must be. For “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). No one is outside its reach; no one is too heavy with sin to get swept up in the grace-hurricane, no one is too light with insignificance to be hurled to a higher plane in it. And only the grace of God can save us, rescue us. No ritual, no social network, no accreditation or accomplishment could bring salvation down or raise salvation up; salvation is brought by God's grace alone. So we must just trust that God's favor has appeared, that salvation has been brought, in this Jesus. God's favor saves, and saves entirely; any 'Jesus-plus' program will inevitably be weighed down by tying grace to less lofty things.

This grace arrived, “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions” – it's because we are rescued by this grace through faith, that therefore we must abandon the things from which he rescued us. We dare not seek to tread those pathways, cling to those lifestyles, imitate those idols, ruminate in our ruin, any longer. The grace of God not only trains us in renouncing these, but also trains us “to live self-controlled, upright, and pious lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12), and promises a “blessed hope” on the horizon (Titus 2:13). We have been saved from one way of living, for another way. We have been saved from our soul-sickness for abundant spiritual health. We have been saved from lostness for clear navigation. To exhibit good character, spiritual health, is not a 'Jesus-plus' program. It is not a prerequisite to be saved; it is what we are saved for, the terraforming in the hurricane's wake, the effervescence bubbling up from our faith's embrace with grace. Spiritual health and life transformation are what we are saved for, because it's just what the life of Jesus in us does.

So as we hear the words of today's passage, take notice that Paul is spelling out what kind of life this healthy teaching should lead to for each demographic under Titus' care. It's the kind of life that the lively life of Jesus lives in us, works in us; it's the kind of life that answers the deepest needs and quiets the darkest suspicions of the age we live in, just as it did for them then.

He first turns his attention to the older men. And healthy living for older men, unlike everything Cretan culture tells them, means being 'sober.' The word Paul uses cuts them off from the favored pastime of Cretan elders; but in other writers, the word also got applied to an empty vessel set aside for sacred use, like our offering plate or our communion tray, all polished and clean and ready for service. That's what the older men of the church need to be: unstained with addictions, emptied of inward clutter, and polished up for a holy purpose (Titus 2:2).

Paul also wants Titus to tell them to be 'dignified' or 'serious' – to be respectable, venerable. It's the word you might use for an experienced general leading the troops: he isn't hasty to make his move, but he's firm and decisive when he sees the right time. That's what the older men of the church need to be: thoughtful, dignified, not readily swayed by passing fads, not impulsive, but decisive in the deciding hour (Titus 2:2).

And Paul adds that they need to be 'self-controlled' – we'll hear that word a lot here, but it more literally means 'safe-minded,' well-regulated, kept within safe bounds where life can flourish. It's when the mind doesn't get all wacky and bent out of shape; no, it stays in all the parameters for how a God-graced mind is supposed to work, and keeps itself running as well as can be, safely, where there's space for the kind of thinking God likes to eavesdrop on, the kind of thinking that's a sign of life (Titus 2:2).

Paul tosses in the familiar trio of theological virtues, the ones that last when all things fall apart. You remember them, I'm sure, from 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love, though of course “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The older men of the church, Paul says, need to be “healthy in faith” – they need to have a deep trust in God, a profound reliance on Jesus Christ, an active relationship unburdened by sickly ideas or pointless doubts; they need to know they're at home in the hurricane of grace. But they need also to be “healthy in love” – deeply attached to God and to God's people formed in and around Jesus, attentive to the Father and the Son, but also to the Spirit and the Bride. Paul calls them to a deep attachment to God's people, not their own private projects. And finally, in the place of hope, Paul elaborates and urges them to be “healthy in endurance” – like a veteran sailor, experienced in weathering life's storms and pressing onward toward the final port. If you have health in those three theological virtues, you've got all the parts of a whole soul put together well; you're a full and flourishing Christian. And that's what Paul tells Titus to have the older men be (Titus 2:2).

Today, we might say that rules out going wild on a midlife crisis. It rules out getting too goofy and doddering around. It cuts the strings on addictions, whether to alcohol or opiates, and unhoards hoarded life-junk. Instead it models a strong faith, the wisdom of life experience, a fervent love for God's people, and a well-regulated life. And that matches the map. It matches the map because Jesus was all those things. And God's grace in Jesus cuts away all those hindrances, freeing our older men – and the rest of us – to faith, hope, love, and life.

Paul turns his attention to the older women next, and he goes right out and says that what he's saying to them amounts to basically the same thing. They aren't to be 'slanderers' with sharp tongues – literally, they aren't to be devils! That was a temptation for older women in Crete, I suppose, to gossip and tongue-wag and criticize and tear down others. But that's like getting inspired when Satan shows up on career day. Instead, the older women should find ways to build each other up. And just as Paul told the older men to be sober, so he urges the older women not to be “slaves to much wine” – something that's sadly becoming fashionable today again, just as in those days. No, they should be sober and free (Titus 2:3).

What's more, Paul asks them to be “reverent in behavior,” your translation might read, or “reverent in the way they live,” or – even closer still – “in behavior as becometh holiness.” Paul's talking about a demeanor, a deportment, settled habits that create an overall bearing for life; but it's one that isn't out of place when the place is holy. If the older men are to be like sacred vessels – the plates and tools of temple service, polished for God's purposes – the older women are directed to be just like priestesses: conducting their overall life according to the purity and dignity of the temple. As such, Paul calls them to be “teachers of the good,” able to illuminate and illustrate what's really worthwhile in life, and not the frivolities of fashion or the gripes of gossip or the harshness of harping, but the good, the beautiful, the true. Paul's call to the older women is: Live your whole life as priestesses in the rooms of a gilded temple. That's no place for gossip, bitterness, cattiness, destructive criticism and competition; such a temple is a hospital for healing others and, in fact, for passing along this teaching, this lifestyle, this ordination to a higher hope (Titus 2:3).

Paul's attention veers later to the younger fellows – the 'new men.' He calls on Titus to especially be an example for them, being just a few years out of that category himself. And, first things first, the younger men need to be “self-controlled,” safe-minded and well-regulated, just like the older men – even if it might be quite a challenge for those whose blood still runs so hot! But they have to keep that under control, release steam in safe ways in the bounds God has drawn for our good (Titus 2:6). Like Titus, they need to be devoted to good works – they can use the benefits of their youth to the advantage of others, being industrious with what energy they have before time takes its toll. Like Titus, they need to follow a pattern of “incorruptibility and dignity” – to imitate the character of Jesus, to learn from the older men how to handle themselves under pressure, to not goof around but instead to be thoughtful and steady. And like Titus, they need to turn away from shattered chatter and spoilt speech, from meaningless mouthings and muddy murmurings, and instead get practice with “sound speech that cannot be condemned,” with healthy words that are good and beautiful and true (Titus 2:7-8). Not much of that fits with dominant youth culture today – but let's not pretend the seeds weren't sprouting forty, fifty, sixty years ago, either. But with healthy words of goodness and beauty and truth, and a thoughtful and steadfast mind, and reining in the passions of youth, and diligently offering good works with their youthful energy, Paul has another style of youthfulness on the offer.

In between, he talks to the younger ladies – the 'new women.' In Cretan culture, it couldn't be assumed that, just because a girl was married to a man, that therefore she was drawn to him, affectionate toward him, satisfied with him, even at first, much less as the years tallied up. It couldn't be assumed that her husband and children took pride of place, which was the Greek and Roman ideal. In practice, though, moralists usually said that women should tolerate and respect their husbands, and all men in general; but Paul goes further and wants to see them actually be lovers of husbands, lovers of children – to be committed to their families and to cultivate the warmth of God in their homes (Titus 2:4).

So, too, he wants them to be 'homemakers' – not bound to the home, though in the first century it might seem like it, but governing the house well and productively. Paul asks them to be 'pure,' free from stain, just like the sacred vessels and sacred priestesses, and to be 'good,' or kind, in the most full and basic sense. He doesn't tell them to allow themselves to be beaten into submission under their husbands; but as a strategic move, he counsels them to voluntarily submit to their own husbands' direction, precisely so that God's good news of a grace-hurricane wouldn't be thought to capsize the family dinghy. Their very own husbands, and the husbands of unchurched friends, were to be astounded and impressed by how this subversive new teaching was building a better home. But, in everything, the younger women were to be “self-controlled,” safe-minded. Paul has no patience for ancient misogynists who thought women couldn't possibly be reasonable, women couldn't possibly be sane, women needed to be controlled by men because they couldn't control themselves. No! The younger women are called to be every bit as 'safe-minded,' as 'well-regulated,' as the older and younger men (Titus 2:5).

Now, Paul was writing to Titus who was ministering to first-century churches in Crete, filled with older Cretan men and older Cretan women, younger Cretan men and younger Cretan women. That just looked different than today, and in many cases it's good that things look different now. If Paul wrote to a right-hand man dealing with twenty-first-century American churches, I'd guess the instructions for younger men and younger women would read a bit more similar, because for generations it's been the norm now for women to work in the public world just as men do. But Paul still teaches plenty. Even in today's world, the younger women can be tenders of, and contributors to, the home being what St. John Chrysostom called “a little church.” And the character that makes a house into a home, and a home into a little church, is the same that overflows into any other arenas a young woman may feel called to conquer.

What Paul is describing to Titus here is a healthy Christian community birthed from the healthy teaching of the gospel. This is a community flush with faith, aflame with love, steeped in grace. This is a community working well, humming along, interacting productively toward the greater ends of the organic whole. And each piece is regulated well by a higher wisdom, is kept thinking the thoughts that thinking is for. Each piece is pure in its own way – polished like an empty vessel for the offering, elevated to the honor of priesthood, pure, pure, pure, incorrupt in word and deed. Each piece contributes what's distinctively, what's characteristically, its own; and each piece avoids the pitfalls that dent and scratch analogues that serve only worldly uses.

And what's important to see here is that each piece in this temple, each organ in this body, stands in a mentoring relationship; that's woven into the fabric of what this healthy community is. That's part of what makes it so healthy. The older women are told explicitly, for example, to 'train' the younger ones – it's part of that same word 'self-controlled': they're to bring the younger ones into regulation. As we grow in grace, we're to 'regulate' one another: help one another keep our minds in the safe bounds of Jesus' wisdom where real life grows (Titus 2:4). The Gospels have a different word for that: it's called discipleship. But even here, expressed in other words, the basic idea is the warp and woof of healthy community: it's where healthy teaching gets passed on; where the inward and outward signs of spiritual health get tested and encouraged, and where guidance and regulation don't restrict our Christian freedom but channel it into power. That's a healthy Christian community, the sort we need to be. Because all of what Paul is saying could be rephrased as how Jesus Christ would walk if he occupied your station in life – your age, your sex, your employment. He is himself our Heavenly Sign, the starry map up to which we gaze and in him behold the Way. Look on up to him, and see just what Paul means.

When we do this, it has results. One, Paul says, is that “an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (Titus 2:8). When we're all well-regulated and fit for God's temple, when we all reflect back the Heavenly Sign above us, then the health of our community, the soundness of our ship, the purposefulness of our course, will all be unimpeachable. And not only that, but all of this – from old and young, from man and woman, and from the richest of rich (like people able to afford massive stores of wine, though they shouldn't) down to the humblest manual laborer in poverty and subjection (Titus 2:9) – all of this is so that our teaching about the grace of God would be decorated – made appealing and inviting to each other and to our neighbors and our neighborhoods – in everything each one of us does, in all the ways we live and move and have our being together in God our Savior (Titus 2:10). No matter what age bracket you fall in, no matter whether you are a man or a woman, no matter where you stand on society's ladder of success and esteem, “in everything you may decorate the teaching about God our Savior” as displaying all the signs of the real health it really has. These are the stars by which we steer. And so we sail onward for another week, “setting our minds on things above,” the luminous Sign of Christ. Charting our way by him, we set sail. Sail on, church. Sail on. Amen.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: A Deck Awash (Titus 1:10-16)

They were warned to clean up the bay. It was bad enough it was the destination for the majority of the city's sewage. But the floating debris – garbage, really – was unsightly. So they fished out what they could. They made it look prettier. But there was still pollution lurking underneath. It wasn't clean. It wasn't pure. Those waters in the Guanabara Bay, at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, were contaminated; signs on the beach warned people not to swim in them, not to let the water touch their skin. But when it came time for the sailing competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics, it was where they sailed. So it surprised no one when one Belgian competitor in the Laser Radial women's sailing event woke up with a severe infection the morning after the race. Oh, the officials insisted the water was safe enough. But the evidence said otherwise. Sailing over polluted waters is a challenging thing. You can't afford to let it spray and splash you.

Two thousand years ago, when Paul was advising Titus how to direct the fleet of Cretan churches over the very choppy cultural seas in which they found themselves, well, there was a problem. The waters of Cretan culture were not so clean, not so pure. Contaminated by many things, they carried spiritual viruses. How to sail the ship without getting drenched in the culture's churning corruption?

Sure enough, some teachers had come along and said that, in fact, they had an answer. The problem, they said, was that the churches hadn't done enough. Individual Christians could maybe be saved, but they weren't really part of God's people yet. See, they said, to really be included, you need something more. You need to get on the 'Jesus-plus' program. You need Jesus plus the antidote, Jesus plus the disinfectant, of the Old Testament Law that severs your flesh and fences you in and makes you pure. Paul refers to them as “the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10) – it's probably the same kind of folks he tangled with in Galatia and elsewhere – and they said that, since the real church is Israel, the church needs to be submitted to Israel's historic law. The solution to all these issues was to double down on adopting these guidelines, without which no one could be a real Christian. This was the structure they said the Cretan churches were missing.

And from the sounds of things, they found a ready hearing in some households. But Paul has a problem with that. See, a 'Jesus-plus' program is really a 'minus-Jesus' program, when the math's all worked out. And while the poor believers struggling with the lingering sickness of a 'post-truth' culture are vulnerable to this kind of teaching – while whole families are getting overthrown by it (Titus 1:11) – it's no solution at all. It may seem like a solution, but it's actually just a restatement of the problem, another version of polluted waters splashing onto the deck of the churchly ship! These Judaizing teachers offer only “Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14) – in effect, they're as 'post-truth' as anybody in Crete, and just as subject to that saying, “Cretans are always liars” (Titus 1:12). As it turns out, their insistence on their Law-based 'Jesus-plus' prescription, which is really a 'minus-Jesus' one, has made their hearts impure. And they see impurity in God-given things because their eyes are infected by their own impurity – that's what Paul means when he says, “To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15)!

And that turns out to be the problem with many sorts of false teaching. A few are of the form that a Christian is free to give up genuinely God-mandated things. You think of the 'churchless Christianity' trend – the idea that 'going to church' – actually being part of the community God is saving – is expendable and unimportant. And what that amounts to is diving overboard in the thick of the storm – inevitably, a so-called 'churchless Christian' is in peril of drowning. But there have been other forms of false teaching that do the same things as these that Paul faces here, the Judaizers, the circumcision party. There are plenty of sectarian movements that, at bottom, always go like this: “Okay, but if you want to be a real Christian, if y'all want to be a real church, you absolutely must add this-and-that,” where 'this' and 'that' have nothing to do with the biblical path of faith. Some of them, at some times, can even be good things. But when wisdom is turned into law, it kills faith. And Paul is adamant here: it's not by all the rules and rituals we keep, but by union with Christ through faith, through which God's love is poured into our hearts and souls and through which our minds are reshaped by his wisdom, that we can be pure in his sight – and then, cleaving to Christ, “to the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15).

When Paul wrote to Titus, false teachers abounded. The waters of Cretan culture – and that included the 'myths' imported by those who thought themselves teachers but rejected the truth, who thought themselves doctors but had phony medical degrees – were contaminated, contagious. And it was as if the “choppy waters” of culture on which the churchly ships were sailing were flooding up onto the deck. And the result is a major disturbance of God's peace; it sends the sailors into a frenzy and makes them ill (cf. Titus 1:11). Those who splash water aboard are “insubordinate, empty talkers, and deceivers,” and Paul warns there are plenty of them (Titus 1:10). And while “they profess to know God,” claiming a special connection with him, claiming to be the exemplary image of God's plan, the doctrine and practice springing from their impure hearts undermine that claim – “they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:16).

It was the “circumcision party” then, as well as the cultural accommodationists, no doubt. But through history, plenty of heresies have arisen – false teachings that wash up on deck and risk not only sickening the sailors but sweeping them overboard. When Martin Luther read this letter in the 1500s, two comparisons stood out. One were “the fanatics,” probably people like the Zwickau Prophets who claimed revelation that superseded the Bible – if you want to be a real Christian, they'd say, you'd step out from under Scripture's authority into their new light. The other was the medieval Roman Church. Over two centuries earlier, in 1302, a pope had issued a declaration, Unam Sanctam, that ended, “It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff,” meaning the pope. It's that familiar form again: “If you want to be a real Christian, if y'all want to be a real church, then you must add obedience to the Pope and to the Magisterium.” Just like the folks Titus was tangling with, it's a 'Jesus-plus' program. And Luther retorted, in his Lectures on Titus, that many things the church authorities were teaching might well be fine wisdom, to which he would voluntarily submit out of love; but the instant you say it's a matter of being saved or damned, the instant you claim it's necessary to be included in God's real people, he has to tear it up. Because no wisdom can be safely turned into law, when God offers us through faith a righteousness apart from the law (Romans 3:21).

That may well seem like history. But the pattern crops up again and again. Some morning, some evening, you may well get a knock at your door. If you open that door, you might find a pair of young Mormon men in white shirts and ties, or well-dressed college-age girls. The Mormons I've known are wonderful people, and there are plenty of things to admire about them. But their message has an unsettlingly familiar shape: “If you want to be a real Christian, you must add these things” – their Mormon priesthoods that claim to offer the only valid baptism, and obedience to their modern-day prophets and apostles, and belief in their three extra collections of scripture besides the Bible, and participation in the rituals of their temples, and eternal temple marriage as the road to exaltation in their God's celestial kingdom. “If you want to be a real full participant in the gospel, if you want to belong to the only real 'true and living church on the face of the earth,' you have to add these things to Jesus,” is what it boils down to. Splish. Splash. Splish. Splash.

Or, when you open the door, you might find one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Again, the ones I've known are very nice people with admirable zeal. But their message has the same shape: “If you want to be a real Christian, you must add these things” – a theology that denies the Trinity, a withdrawal from so-called 'Christendom,' an abstinence from holidays and birthdays and civic life, and an obedience to every command of their Governing Body, which they claim as the faithful steward distributing spiritual food to God's household in the parable Jesus told. It's the same pattern. Paul would say that they see so many things as impure because “their minds and their consciences are defiled” by this teaching (Titus 1:15).

But if you think you can avoid false teaching by keeping the door shut, you've got another thing coming. This pattern abounds in today's church! There are others – for lack of a better word, we'll call them 'new puritans' – who say: “If you want to be a real Christian, you must follow this law: 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch'” (Colossians 2:21). You've heard the sort. No playing games, because that's frivolous. No dancing. No modern music, because that's the devil's tunes. No sip of wine over dinner. No tattoos, no different hairstyles, no this, no that. No Bibles other than the King James Version, because hey, if it was good enough for Peter and Paul, it's good enough for me, right? You can find these people in the church today, with one or more of those ideas about what a good Christian must look like. But as soon as you turn it from wisdom to a law that marks a boundary between 'real' Christians and the half-hearted pretenders, we're risking a venture to 'Jesus-plus' waters.

And then there are some in the charismatic movement. There are some Pentecostal or Charismatic groups that take this familiar form: “If you want to be a real Christian, you must add the gift of speaking in tongues to your Christian life. If you don't have that, then you must not be baptized in the Spirit.” Never mind that Paul said not every believer prophesies, not every believer works miracles, not every believer can heal, not every believer will speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:29-30). Never mind that Paul made love the standard by which to measure the relative value of each spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13:1—14:1), which put speaking in tongues lower on that list (1 Corinthians 14:19); and never mind that Paul stressed the fruit of the Spirit more than the gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Still, some will tell you, if you don't have this or that gift, you aren't a full Christian; some will tell you, if your local church doesn't see this or that gift operative, it's not a real church. Pay them no heed. Accept no 'Jesus-plus' program.

But then there are other false teachers, those one scholar dubbed the 'Happiologists.' Theirs is a message of prosperity; theirs is often a message of health and wealth. But they take milder forms, too, and may do so even in churches that think themselves pure of it. The basic idea takes that familiar form: “If you want to be a real Christian, you must add an upbeat attitude. You must use the power of positive thinking. You must claim God's blessings on your life by speaking them over yourself. You must deny ever being afflicted, perplexed, or struck down (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:8). You must 'name it and claim it.' You must be happy, happy, happy all the day.” I've heard well-meaning Christians – folks who don't listen to the Word of Faith preachers, folks who've never read a Joel Osteen book or picked up a volume by Norman Vincent Peale – say things like that, in regular churches. But notice what's happening: such teachers are pointing at all the normal but darker parts of human experience, like sadness and grief and tribulation, and saying, 'Unclean, unclean.' And Paul would say they see them as unclean because they see through unclean eyes. It's another case of 'Jesus-plus' – in this case, their 'gospel' is 'Jesus plus positivity.' And that meets Paul's definition of false teaching.

Oh, and then there are the politicized heresies. And here we get really uncomfortable. On the one hand, there's what we'll call 'activist Christianity.' In my generation, I have to tell you, this one is pretty common. But it has that familiar form: “If you want to be a real Christian, then you must add my idea of what 'social justice' looks like. If you want to be a real Christian, you must add acceptance of all lifestyle options, or at least whichever ones are acclaimed in the popular culture. If you want to be a real Christian, then you must affirm the choices of others with slogans like 'Love is love!' and 'Equality!' If you want to be a real Christian, then you must crusade against backwards politics, because this is the year 2018, after all. If you don't follow these laws, then you're something less than a real Christian – a loveless Pharisee, maybe, or a hypocritical moralist, or a bigot.” If you haven't heard that one, listen to most Americans my age, and you will soon enough. But it follows that same pattern, doesn't it?

On the other hand – get ready for the discomfort – there's what we'll call 'patriotic Christianity.' And this is the political flip of the one before it. It isn't as common in my generation, but what about yours? It goes like this: “If you want to be a real Christian, if you want to be really included in this church, then you must be American – or, at least, think American is the best kind of nationality to be. You must 'support the troops.' You must say the Pledge of Allegiance with us. You must adore the flag, and spout the right talking points. If you want to be a real Christian, then you must fit my idea of being an American patriot.” And that one, I think, hits home. In one church I've been to, a worship leader once replaced the invocation – a prayer to God – with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. God took second place that day. If, during that event, a visitor had knelt in protest as some NFL players have done in recent months, let's be honest: Would we really make them feel comfortable? Would we really accept them? Or would some part of us be tempted to think that they're not fully part of us, not fully Christian, not at home in this church, because of it?

One time, a pastor did an experiment. On a Fourth of July Sunday, they had communion, and the pastor wanted to see where their priorities were. So, as an 'accident,' he spilled some of the communion cup onto the American flag. Later, he had a church member storm into his office. Was the church member angry that the pastor had desecrated the holy communion element that to us is the blood of Christ, God in the flesh, by which we are saved? No: he was angry that the pastor had sullied the holy flag... with the blood of Christ. And so the wisdom of seeking the peace and well-being of our land becomes a law added to faith in Jesus – and you know what Paul says about that. I fear that in any generation, we're prone to let the water of the culture – whether it's the permissive and affirming culture of the Sexual Revolution and left-wing politics, or the 'God-and-country' culture and right-wing politics – drench the deck of the church. And it's not clean. Either side of the aisle, even both, may have some wisdom; but turn it into a law, make it de facto 'Jesus-plus,' and it will corrupt.

And then there's maybe the greatest danger. See, several sociologists in the past couple decades have figured out what the most popular religion in America is. It isn't Christianity. It isn't secularism. It isn't Buddhism or Hinduism or Judaism or Islam. It doesn't stand on its own two feet; it grabs onto others, like a parasite. And, in the younger generations especially but even among older ones, it has effectively colonized our churches. The sociologists had to invent a name for it. They called it “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” That's a mouthful. But it goes like this: There is a God who made the world and watches over it; this God wants people to be nice to each other, which is the main point of all religions; the main goal in life is to be happy and feel good about yourself; God doesn't need to be much involved in your life except when you have a problem on the way to that goal; and good people will go to heaven when they die. And this, their studies found, is the dominant religion in the United States. Someone summed it up as “Be good, feel good, live your life.” It turns God into a butler crossed with a therapist. And in its Christianized version, it might sound something like, “If you want to be a real Christian, then you must be authentic to how you feel; you must follow your heart.” That's in our churches in this country, and it explains a lot. The deck is awash.

See, just like Crete, our 'post-truth' culture is vulnerable. We're allergic to the gospel but starved for meaning. Even within the church, we can be jaded, confused, unfocused. We're easily preyed upon by door-knocking false teachers. We're easily troubled by the 'new puritans' and the 'hyper-charismatics.' We're tempted with 'churchless Christianity' or 'Happiology.' We're polarized by 'activist Christianity' and 'patriotic Christianity.' We're colonized by 'Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.' And that's not even to mention the spate of popular books, even best-selling books: The Secret, The Shack, all the heaven tourism books, and more. The problem is that the false teachers, in today as in Paul's day, don't often come wearing badges. The water may not stink to our seared nostrils nor burn to our numbed skin. But we have to be attentive and alert against any suspicion of a 'Jesus-plus,' anything that isn't unpacking the real gospel his apostles really offered.

How does Paul want us to respond? He urges that false teachings “must be silenced” – or, you could probably render it, 'need to be muzzled' (Titus 1:11). They can't be allowed to gain currency in the church. They aren't a matter of indifference. Paul directs Titus to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). The false teachings need to be corrected. Even those who have bought into them, even those who purvey them, have a chance of being won back to the truth. The end goal is for them to be 'sound' – the word actually means 'healthy,' 'hygienic' – in the faith. It's something we all play a part in, though it's especially true of church leaders, who (according to Paul) must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught” so as to “give instruction in healthy teaching and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

But the bottom line is this. The seas are choppy. They are in turmoil with the rage of an age that does not honor Christ as Lord. They are filled with junky debris and polluted by sickly teachings. It's one thing for the waters outside the church to be polluted. But it's another thing when they threaten to spray and splash their way up on deck. Because as Olympic competitors found the other year in Brazil, that's a good way to lose your own health – and many sailors have known the risk of getting washed overboard by the crashing waves. We cannot afford to have a deck awash with false teaching, which inevitably compromises our spiritual health if accepted. Do not give in to the 'Jesus-plus' waves. Hold fast to “the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth” (Titus 1:1), correct false teaching where you find it, and help us swab this deck clean, in Jesus' name. Amen.