Sunday, April 30, 2023

Tools of the Trade (3)

No time to waste on this one, so let's dive in. We've been talking this year about our great human journey, a quest meant to lead each of us to our eternal fulfillment, which is seeing God as he is and so becoming as like him as it's possible for a creature to be. We've talked already about the spiritual activities that most directly relate to this quest, including reading Scripture. This morning, we're going to kick that up a notch and learn more about deeper ways to read Scripture, not just for information, but as a spiritual practice. In one of today's passages, the psalmist said, “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil” (Psalm 119:162) – that is, each part of God's word is like a treasure chest with layer after layer of riches, just waiting to be brought out into the open. And because they really believed that, because they cherished the Scriptures entrusted into their hands, the early Christians – most Christians throughout history, really – have seen that you need to approach and understand Scripture in more than just one way if you're going to profit from it the way God wants you to.

Where we begin when reading God's word is actually pretty common-sense. The early Christians called the first sense 'the letter' or 'the history.' This is what we mean by the word 'literal' – 'according to the letter.' The literal sense of Scripture is just whatever the author meant his words to mean. The words are about things, the words are signs pointing us to things – so what is that? We talked about this a couple months back, so we won't belabor it quite as much as we otherwise could. But before we go anywhere else with Scripture, we need to know what it means. If the author is writing a historical narrative, read it as a historical narrative. If he's giving a parable, read that part as a parable. If he's using a figure of speech, read that as a figure of speech. That's all the 'literal sense.'1 Read it according to when and where it's set. Read it according to where it fits in the picture.

When you open up your Bible, some understanding of the literal sense will probably be pretty obvious. If you turn to the story of the exodus, it's obvious that you're reading a narrative about a group of related tribes who are oppressed in a foreign land called Egypt, but whom God sets free through a deliverer named Moses, and leads into a desert place to meet him at a mountain. All you need to pick that up is to just follow along. To get deeper into it, it might help to read bigger chunks, including the end of Genesis to see how they got in this situation, or the psalms that look back on the exodus and celebrate it. And to get even more out of what you're reading, you might need to go to even less obvious places, like the links between each of the plagues and the powers of Egypt's false gods, or the geography of the route they take out of Egypt and why, or the significance of Moses organizing the tribes of Israel in the same lay-out as the pharaoh's war camp, or the stylistic parallels between the song they sing after escaping the Egyptians and poems celebrating the pharaoh's victories like at the Battle of Kadesh. As we learn these things, we can correct misunderstandings and wrong assumptions we might have had when we just read our English translations. We can also appreciate the Bible in newer and richer ways as we learn more about the things it's talking about and their context. None of it happened in a vacuum, and each human author God chose brought their own style and perspective to be the Holy Spirit's tools.

You could spend a whole lifetime just excavating treasures of meaning out of Scripture taken purely in its literal sense. There's just that much there. But Christians always agreed that the literal sense of Scripture isn't enough. If you just read only the literal sense, then you're getting an incomplete picture and, in some important ways, betraying the Bible. Because the Bible is meant to do so much more. Last week, we talked about how, because we're embodied creatures, God touches us through sacraments – sacred signs of sanctification. And, in a similar way, there's something sacramental about Scripture.2 Not only do the words in the Bible mean things, but in God's infinite wisdom, even those things themselves mean things!3 That's why the literal sense isn't enough. It's only the skin. That skin may be much, much thicker than an elephant's skin, but it's skin all the same. We don't just need the letter; we need the spirit. And so, from the beginning, Christians went beyond the literal to the spiritual sense, all that under-the-skin significance of what the Bible's talking about. They came, gradually, to divide this spiritual sense into three spiritual senses, for a total of a fourfold sense of Scripture.

None of this was meant to insult the literal sense, or to go astray from it. All three spiritual senses build on the letter and take it as their essential starting point. The better we understand the literal sense, the more we should be able to see when we break through to the spiritual ones.4 That's why Bible study is such a great springboard.

The first of the spiritual senses is what they called the typological or allegorical sense. And allegory is when the things behind Scripture's words are themselves signs of Jesus Christ and his activities on earth – his birth, his preaching, his teaching, his miracles, his cross, his resurrection.5 This was a big way the early Christians read the Old Testament – with the things it literally talked about being pictures, allegorically, of Jesus. They learned to think that way because Jesus told them to. Jesus himself referred to “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). He wasn't just referring to select passages that are literally messianic prophecies, though there is that. He meant all of it – all of Scripture is about Jesus. He said that the temple itself was a symbol of his own body (John 2:21). When he read about the bronze serpent Moses lifted up on a pole so that snake-bitten Israelites could look at it and be healed, Jesus said that was a sign of him being lifted up on the cross to heal those who look to him in faith (John 3:14-15).

The apostles read Scripture allegorically all the time. When they read in the Law about the lamb sacrificed by each house on Passover, they read that lamb as a sign of “Christ our Passover Lamb” sacrificed at the same time, so that his lifeblood could be our protection (1 Corinthians 5:7). When Paul read in Genesis about Abraham's messy family, with kids by two women, first Hagar and then Sarah, he read those women as signs of the old covenant and the new covenant: “Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. … Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants...” (Galatians 4:22-24). Paul outright says he's diving into the allegorical sense – he uses that exact word. In one of the passages we read this morning, we saw how Paul reads a verse in Deuteronomy about the proper treatment of oxen, and he reads it allegorically so that the oxen are preachers of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:9-11). And when Paul reads the exodus and wilderness narratives, he reads the passage through the sea as a sign of baptism, and the manna from heaven and water out of the rock as a sign of our 'spiritual food and drink' in the eucharist or communion (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). To read Scripture like Jesus or Paul means to open our eyes to the allegorical sense.

After allegory comes what Christians of old called the tropological or the moral sense of Scripture. If allegory is when the things the Bible talks about are signs of what Jesus did when he came, tropology is when they're signs of what Jesus does now in us. It's about how our souls work with Christ at the helm. It's about the virtues. It's about what we should do, how we should live. God means his word to be “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105), and tropology lets all of it guide our path in life.6 The apostles read Scripture tropologically. When Paul recounts the story of Israel in the desert, he says “these things were written down for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11), that “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). It's not enough for it to be history. God let it happen, and God had it recorded, so that we could take direction from it so as to transform our moral and spiritual lives. When the apostles read about sacrifices in the Old Testament, they read them as signs of Christ on the cross, sure – that's allegory – but they also read those sacrifices as signs of what should happen in your life – tropology: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). “Don't neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15). And when Paul reads about the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he takes as a sign to reject “the leaven of malice and evil” and to instead eat “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). Again, that's tropology, that's a moral reading that goes beyond what the Old Testament literally said – and we need it.

Other early Christians loved tropology. One got all excited about the food laws and how they communicate moral lessons based on the behavior of animals that were considered kosher – be like them! – or non-kosher – don't be like them!7 Another looked at Jesus' parable with five wise and five foolish bridesmaids, and said that the wise bridesmaids in your soul are named Faith, Love, Grace, Peace, and Hope.8 Later on, a Christian doing a tropological reading of the life of Moses said that the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn, is a sign that “it is necessary to destroy utterly the first birth of evil” in your soul, for “it's impossible to flee the Egyptian life in any other way.”9 And we could go on. To read Scripture like the apostles and their followers means to be prepared for tropology, for moral instruction and transformation in the places we aren't getting it literally.

After history, allegory, and tropology comes something called anagogy – 'leading upward,' it means.10 And the anagogical sense is where the things signified in the words of the Bible are taken as signs of heavenly or future or eternal realities in Christ – his return, his final victory, the last judgment, heaven and hell, and so on. So this gets right at our eternal destiny. The things shown in Scripture are meant to help us “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). “Whatever was written in former days was written... that through... the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope,” Paul says (Romans 15:4).

So Jesus explains the story of Noah with anagogy: “As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man, for as in those days before the flood... they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37-39). Jude reads Genesis with anagogy when he says the fire falling on Sodom and Gomorrah is a sign of “a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). John reads the Book of Joshua with anagogy when he takes the seven trumpets toppling the walls of Jericho as a sign of seven heavenly trumpets that will topple the walls of the world (Revelation 11:15). There's even anagogy in hymns like “On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand” or “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” Both take the Jordan River as a sign of death, and the promised land as a sign of heavenly life, so that when the Israelites cross over Jordan, that shows us our hope to “land... safe on Canaan's side” in heaven by crossing the threshold of death on earth.

Not every part of the Bible necessarily has all four senses in it, but a lot does. So take, for example, the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. Read it literally, and you have an encounter three thousand years ago, in which – by the power of God – a boy stepping in on Israel's behalf overcame a giant foe and cut off his head with his own sword. Read it allegorically, though, and you find a sign of the Son of David – Jesus Christ – stepping in on humanity's behalf to overcome the devil and ruin him with his own weapon, the power of death exercised via the cross. Read it tropologically, and now it's about Christ in you as you fight, by his strength, the inner war of the spirit against the flesh: your temptations and trials may loom like Goliath, but offer Christ the pebbles of your obedient faith, and they'll all fall. Read it anagogically, and you see a sign of Christ's final victory over evil when he comes again, for “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).11

For another example, go anywhere in Scripture that talks about the people of Judah being taken captive by the forces of Babylon into exile, and then being set free after Babylon's fall. Read it literally, and you have that event in history: Nebuchadnezzar repeatedly deported several waves of Judahites in the early sixth century BC, but by the end of the sixth century BC, Babylon had fallen to the Persians, who gave permission for deported peoples to return to their homelands – a miracle accomplished by God. Read it allegorically, and Jesus was exiled from the land of the living through his death on the cross, and yet three days later, he returned through his resurrection. Read it tropologically, and each of us, formerly exiled from God's presence due to sin, is invited back into relationship with him through grace in Christ, in which our inner Babylon of disordered passions can be overthrown and set right.12 Read it anagogically, and the whole creation is presently captive under corruption and exiled from the perfection meant for it, but one day Babylon the Great will fall – the end of Christ-resisting culture and of the dominion of decay itself – and so creation will be set free to become the new creation.

Or, here's a simpler last example. Let's say you're reading Psalms, and you find a verse that says, “the LORD builds up Jerusalem” (Psalm 147:2). Read it literally, and that's about a Middle Eastern city with a latitude and longitude, and about the work that God did there in history. But read it allegorically, and Jerusalem is a symbol of the church on earth. Thus, the Lord builds up the Jerusalem that is his Church. Read it tropologically, and now Jerusalem is a symbol of the orderly soul, which the Lord seeks to build up inside you through establishing virtue in your heart and life. Now read it anagogically, and Jerusalem is “the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22), “Jerusalem above” (Galatians 4:26), “new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2). We're “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).13 You get the picture.

When we understand and consciously look to read Scripture according to more than just one of its senses, that's when things really open up. And we can put this to good use in a spiritual practice that in Latin was called lectio divina – 'divine reading,' 'spiritual reading.' It's just how Christians always used to read the Bible, almost as a default. It's got four steps, and the first of those steps is doing the actual reading. Find a quiet spot, if you can. Pause for a while to gather and calm yourself. And then open the word of God.14 The sort of conversation with God we're looking for here has to start with letting him speak, and the Bible is where we turn. So find a passage of Scripture, some good unit, and read it. Read it slowly, carefully, attentively, inquiringly.15 Don't just rush through it; really read it. Read it maybe four times over, pausing to let yourself feel it in between.16 Ask yourself questions about what it's saying. Break out your Bible study tools, maybe, or bring to bear what you already know. You don't have to disengage your brain for this. Be a thoughtful, attentive, curious reader.

The second step is meditation. Meditation is a pretty important part of how we're supposed to interact with the word of God. God said to Joshua, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). The very first psalm depicts somebody who “meditates” on God's word “day and night” as being healthy, fruitful, prosperous, blessed (Psalm 1:1-3). And the longest psalm has its psalmist pledge to “meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Psalm 119:15). We meditate with our mouth, first of all. After you've read the passage, pick a word or a phrase and recite it over and over again, letting it wash over you, letting it sink into your memory.17 It's also a useful anchor against distraction.18

With that anchor phrase on your lips, start mentally turning it over like a diamond, looking at it from every angle. Start digging beneath the letter of the passage to the spiritual senses. Where is Jesus in it? Maybe you're in the New Testament, and he's right on the surface. Or maybe you're in the Old Testament, and you need to meditate on the allegory that reveals new covenant truth to you. But as you meditate, make sure you seek and find Jesus Christ. He's the reason for the Bible in all its parts. Look for him until you've found him staring back at you from the page. And as you keep meditating, start moving ahead to tropology – where are you in this (or, more to the point, Christ in you)?19 Turn the phrase or the passage over and over until you catch a real reflection of yourself, an X-ray reflection that looks inside you, for “the word of God is living and active..., discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart, and 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 4:12-13).

By now it should be obvious, by the way, that this lectio divina thing, this divine reading, is no quick and easy process. This isn't a five-minute devotional – not if you're serious like Joshua and the Psalmist. But Scripture is a juicy, chewy steak, not a pudding cup. And a good steak deserves as long as it takes, even 'day and night.'20

So once you've grasped it literally, explored it allegorically, and probed it tropologically, now you're ready for the third step, which is prayer. By this point, you've sure got something to pray about! Because once you've hit tropology, if not before, God has spoken to you personally, you in your situation, and demanded a response. Maybe you've heard his wooing of your soul. Maybe you've come across a moral challenge. Maybe both.21 But with God in prayer, you're going to now wrestle to get to the bottom of the tropological truth God's written onto your soul. This can lift you up or cast you down, put profound sweetness or bitter medicine on your tongue, bind up bleeding wounds or nail you to a cross.22 It's not for nothing that “the word of God is... sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Hebrews 4:12). But as you wrestle with God in prayer over this passage, you're going to ask him to reveal to you where it's aimed. What ultimate reality is it tugging you up toward, and how? This prayer should climax in anagogy, God leading you up toward things above, toward the good things to come – a hopeful praise, a yearning petition.

And as anagogy comes into view, you can come to the fourth step, which is contemplation. Here, prayer gives way to silence. You've bitten, you've chewed, you've swallowed what you found in Scripture. You've tasted and seen that the Lord is good. Now it's time to restfully digest the word of God.23 And as you do, as you feel him silently abiding within, let him show you a glimpse of eternity. Because by this point, you're not just reading the words of Scripture; you're “reading the face of God in the eternal Word.”24 Now you've seen “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). And as you hope for its fulfillment and live toward it according to what God showed you in your prayer over this scripture, you'll have taken a step closer toward finally seeing him face to face. That's a powerful spiritual practice, combining prayer and scripture, meditation and contemplation, in ways that can truly be transformative. So I'd commend it to you as another tool in your kit of holiness. May it be of service to you as you strive to make the Bible more central to your pursuit of God in his fullness. Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Tools of the Trade (2)

It was a long but exciting night, even if, outside, all was darkness. Liberian and his wife Junia were tired and hungry – they'd been fasting for two days in preparation, making their final breaks with their old pagan lives.1 Over the past couple years, their Christian neighbors in the apartment next door had – somehow – gotten them interested in this odd new religion. Finally they were convinced, and so here they were, turning their backs on the city's gods and spending all night listening to scripture readings and teachings. Now it was time to go.2

Through the dark Roman streets they made their way. Sunday would soon dawn on them. By the time the first rooster crowed, with all still dark, Liberian and Junia stood at the banks of the Tiber.3 Bishop Soter was there, blessing casks of oil.4 The presbyter who led them was there, a deacon and a deaconess were there. Bishop Soter asked them each whether they renounced Satan and all his servants and works; Liberian and Junia both said yes.5 Then, one final time, Soter anointed them with oil and told any lingering demons to take the hint.6 Now, now they were ready. Removing their clothes,7 Liberian stepped down into the water with Soter and the deacon, and as Liberian shivered, Soter inquired into his faith – did he believe in God the Father, did he believe in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, did he believe in the Holy Spirit who indwelt the church and gives life to the dead?8 Each time, Liberian said he believed, and each time, Soter dunked him beneath the waters. He was born again, cleansed of everything. The deacon helped Liberian up out of the water; the deaconess helped Junia down in. Now it was her turn. When both were finished, Soter anointed them in thanksgiving and left.9

Once Liberian and Junia had dried off and dressed, the deacon and deaconess led them to the church.10 There, the bishop was waiting. Once again he anointed them, invoking the Holy Spirit to give them strength; and he laid hands on their heads, calling the Spirit to seal and fill them. They knew that Soter was linked by a chain of hands and heads all the way back almost a century and a half, to the hands that were nailed to the cross. Now, through that physical chain, Liberian and Junia found their personal Pentecost.11

Turning, they saw the church filled with their new brothers and sisters – their neighbors included. Now worship began. Called together, they confessed their failings,12 listened to readings from the holy writings,13 heard Bishop Soter teach.14 Liberian and Junia, no longer dismissed, were welcomed to join in the sacred prayers of the people15 – and they exchanged the kiss of peace with all around them, certifying that no divisions marked this great family.16 The deacons carried forward the loaves of bread Liberian and Junia brought yesterday, and wine and water to mix.17 Bishop Soter offered a prayer of thanks;18 Liberian, Junia, and everyone chanted an amen back.19 And when the sacrifice was consecrated and offered up,20 it was his hands that gave them their first food and drink to break the fast – spiritual food, spiritual drink.21 Saying prayers of thanksgiving afterwards, they were dismissed. The more well-to-do poured their coins into the deposit box as they went, an offering to the Lord; and Liberian and Junia, before they emerged into the Sunday sunlight, gave whatever they had.22 They were new, and as they emerged into the sunshine, they got to know some of their new brothers and sisters as they strolled Rome's streets.

That's what it would have been like, to become a Christian in second-century Rome, over eighteen centuries ago – tangible, raw, ritualized, and communal. At no point would a Liberian or a Junia have been left alone. How could they be? Christianity has never been meant to be lived out alone. And while, yes, there's a fine tradition of holy hermits that rose up later, for none of us is that our story. This year, we've been talking about our great human journey, and we've talked internally about what that looks like – the graces God infuses – but not so much externally. Liberian and Junia just hit lift-off on their great human journey to behold the face of God, and they were not alone when they began, nor were they alone as they took those unimaginable first steps.

When we read about the beginning of organized Christianity in Acts 2, we hear that the new Christians from the day of Pentecost “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Luke doesn't write 'prayers'; he writes 'the prayers.' Last Sunday, we talked about how Jews and Christians alike at that time had scheduled times of prayer in the day. Where possible, Christians gathered together to pray them. And certainly they gathered together early on Sunday mornings at the church.

They were a family at prayer. And they were a family in fellowship. That's what it says: “the fellowship.” To be a Christian meant sharing in something together, it meant a mutual encounter, face-to-face, in person. No Sunday went past in which Liberian and Junia – so long as they were physically able to get there – wouldn't have come to share the same physical space with other Christians, including either Bishop Soter or one of his presbyters. Anything less would not have been 'the fellowship.' Lately, in our denomination, we've been having a discussion on whether there can really be any such thing as a 'virtual church,' a purely online experience that's the equivalent of real physical gathering.23 And the answer is, obviously not. 'Cyberspace' is not space. Chatting online is not gathering. The church really must gather bodies and souls alike, or else it is not church.

Hebrews reminds us to be “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). But what do we meet together for? First and foremost, for worship! Christians are drawn together by the call of God, by the grace of God reaching out and inviting us in, to be joined together for worship. That is what it is all about. That is the summit of Christian living; everything else supports it. When we read portraits of eternity in the last book of the Bible, the servants of God gather around the throne, “and his servants will worship him,” and “they will see his face” (Revelation 22:3-4). Worship is the principal action that lasts for eternity; it's what most directly leads to the face of God. The fellowship is a fellowship, not just to be sociable, but to worship.

Often in the context of that worship, the fellowship is a fellowship of confessing our hope. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23). Over and over again, the psalmists spoke of giving thanks “in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1). “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!” (Psalm 149:1). We confess our hope when we recite the creed, when we sing our hymns, when we give thanks or say amen.

And the fellowship is a fellowship of encouragement, of discipleship. So “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works..., encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17) – just so is the physical, tangible gathering of Christians in local space and local time a prime venue for sharpening each other, for building each other up in the faith, for inciting each other to love and goodness.

These things – worship, confession, encouragement – are defining differences between real Christian gathering and just a friendly get-together. And the trouble is that, too often, we have been content to think of church and fellowship hall as a place for friendly get-togethers, more than we have as space for real Christian gathering. But these were built and dedicated for one paramount purpose: an irreplaceable physical gathering of the godly for worship, confessing our hope in the Son of God by his Holy Spirit, and stoking faith into the blaze of love that can't help but give off the smoke of blessing. That is real Christian gathering. That's why the church has always thought of church gatherings as so vitally important. Listen to how they talked about it – they said:

The people... should gather in church, and come together always, that none should be absent and so reduce the church through their withdrawal, so as to make the body of Christ defective in a limb. … Since you are members of Christ, you should not scatter yourself from the church by failing to gather with others. Since, as he promised, you have Christ as your head, present with you and communicating himself to you, do not neglect yourselves, nor distance the Savior from his own members..., nor lend precedence to worldly affairs over the word of God, but put them aside each Lord's Day and hurry to the church, for she is your glory. For what excuse shall they who do not assemble on that day to hear the saving word and to be nourished with divine and everlasting food give to God?24

The reason why all these things happen principally in person is because God made us physical beings. Bodies aren't just a secondary aspect of who we are, much less an obstacle to who we are. We are ensouled bodies – that is what we are. We are made to shape our inner lives and express our inner lives through our senses and actions. That's true in everyday things, and it's true in spiritual things. For just that reason, God chose to meet us in ways that have a very physical and public aspect. Chief among them are something we call 'sacraments.'

In our denomination, we don't talk very much about 'sacraments.' But it's actually a word that does show up a couple times in our articles of faith, however much we ignore it. Maybe this is a word that's a little bit obscure to you. It's an old Latin word, and before Christians started using it, it could refer to a deposit of money placed in trust, it could refer to the oath of allegiance that a new recruit took when joining the Roman army, and it could refer to certain religious rituals of initiation into what were called 'mystery cults' or 'mystery religions.'25

In developing those meanings, Christians from the second century onward (at latest) began to speak of some of their physical practices as involving sacraments – physical things and actions that included spiritual power. An early Christian explained a sacrament as when “there is an act that touches the flesh..., but a spiritual effect” that happens through it.26 Later, somebody defined sacraments like this: “Under the covering of corporeal things, the divine virtue very secretly brings about the saving power of those sacraments.”27 Down through the ages, God's people have argued over exactly what sacraments are and how many there are, but I like one definition where sacraments are “sacred signs instituted by Christ who uses them as his instruments to efficaciously realize the sanctification they represent.”28 So sacraments are symbolic actions which Jesus himself picked out. They have to be signs representing something that directly causes holiness. And not only do they have to symbolize it, they have to actually make it happen. How? Because Jesus is the one who does it. Every time a sacrament really takes place, Jesus has committed to be the one actually doing things.

This morning, we heard the story of two imagined Romans, Liberian and Junia, being baptized. Already in the early church, baptism was called a sacrament. And by that, they meant that it wasn't really Bishop Soter who was doing the work; it was Jesus, borrowing Soter's hands. “Those who received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41). Baptism is literally, physically a washing, but it symbolizes washing away sins, dying and rising, and being born all over again to a new life of faith and holiness. It's what Hebrews means when it invites us to “draw near... with our hearts sprinkled clean... and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). God “saved us... by the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), for “unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Therefore, in the sacrament, Jesus does wash away sins, does bury and raise, does give a new birth, whether you believe or not when it happens. That's why it horrified Christians if somebody tried to rebaptize someone who'd already been baptized – that was blasphemy against Jesus and his real work in the sacrament. I pray for some other pastors I know who gladly rebaptize people who just don't 'feel' like their first baptism was good enough. Validity doesn't hinge on our feelings; it hinges on Jesus! That's why early Christians would baptize even babies who couldn't speak, much less have personal 'faith feelings.'29

This morning, we also heard about Liberian and Junia going into the church and being anointed and having the bishop lay hands on them. While at first that was thought of as an extension of baptism, eventually it was seen as a sacrament all its own – call it 'chrismation' or 'unction' or 'confirmation.' Our denomination says nothing about it, but to most Christians in the world even today, it's obviously a sacred sign, instituted by Jesus Christ, which represents something sanctifying – being “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:3) – and so actually achieves it, so long as it's done validly.30 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Peter preached (Acts 2:38). This is just another way in which, through our bodies, God promises to meets us.

Of course, once Liberian and Junia were in the church, the bishop lifted up the bread and the cup, gave thanks, broke the bread in sacrifice, and had it distributed to the people. Today, we tend to call it just by the experience at the end: 'Communion.' Some have called the whole experience “the Lord's Supper.” Early Christians put their focus on the thankful prayer, and used the Greek word for thanksgiving: 'Eucharist.' Here we have a physical thing – bread and wine – given as a sign of sanctification instituted by Christ, in which he actually gives us what he promises. So Christians believed very strongly that, when Jesus gave the bread as his body and the cup as his blood, he meant it – he became present in them, changing them. One Christian, writing well before Soter was bishop, said that “this food is called among us 'eucharist,' of which it is lawful for no one to partake except one believing the things that have been taught by us are true, and who has been washed in the washing which is for the forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives in just the way that Christ handed down. For we do not receive these things as common bread and common drink, but... we have been taught that the food which has been eucharistized by a word of prayer which comes from him is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”31 Remember: How does Hebrews say we enter the holy places? “Through [Jesus'] flesh.” And how do we have confidence to do it? “By the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19-20). The flesh and blood of Jesus are indispensable for our flesh and blood and soul to approach God's holiness. And so, the early Christians said, Christians can be given “the sacrament of the eucharist” at least every Sunday morning.32

Some Christian groups today admit just two sacraments – baptism and the eucharist. Others count a perfect seven – baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, plus rites of reconciliation, anointing of the sick, ordination, and marriage. That's a whole lot to get into this morning, so sadly, we can't. But the point is, sacraments are tangible realities where, building on the nature God gave us as embodied people who traffic in signs and symbols, God works to draw us objectively closer to him, provided we receive his grace the right way. And that is what the great human journey is about: getting closer to God, until at last we see his face and become like him. The point of a sacrament isn't to show off our faith to those around us, though that can be a byproduct. The point is to receive more of God's life poured into us in these ways we can see and hear together. Another early Christian pictured us as houses whose furniture consists of “the sacraments of the faithful which they who have been initiated know.”33 He added that the sacraments are what 'marry' us tighter and tighter to Jesus.34 A non-sacramental Christianity isn't just a contradiction in terms; it's a handicap on the great human journey.

Luke, in Acts, brings these things all together. After being baptized, the new Christians joined “the fellowship” where they “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and... to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Liberian and Junia would've learned one Sunday morning what that verse meant, because it's exactly what they found in the church: Bishop Soter continued on the apostles' teaching, and broke the bread for the sacrament of the eucharist, and led the prayers for the fellowship. And everything happened in an embodied and well-ordered way. We know from that time that no local church just made everything up as they went along – we have the texts of prayers they prayed, ritual call-and-responses, and descriptions of symbol-heavy actions.

The word Christians came to use for worship gatherings that were well-ordered and embodied in that way was 'liturgy.' It was an old word for a public work provided to the people by a benefactor, or for the ministry of a priest in the temple. And the author of Hebrews, in calling Jesus our heavenly high priest, describes him literally as “a liturgist in the holy places” (Hebrews 8:2). We can call our well-ordered worship 'liturgy' only because, through the ministries he organized on earth, his own liturgy in heaven is extended down into our midst, into our worship – so that when we gather for worship and do things the way we're supposed to, with community and word and sacrament mediating his presence to us, Jesus is the high priest working in, among, and through us to glorify his Father and sanctify us.35 And in the liturgy of well-ordered worship, Jesus shapes us, gives us his vision of the good life, trains our hope for heaven and new creation, and touches us himself.36

Last Sunday, we discussed some optional tools for enhancing our prayer lives. But all we've discussed this time is no option. The fellowship, the sacraments, the liturgy that brings word and sacrament together in a gathering – these are essentials for all of us, if we want to advance on our great human journey toward the face of God, to be made like him and live before his face forever. And that's what it's all about. The Lord be with you. Amen.

Almighty and ever-living God, our Father, you have created us as flesh and blood, and breathed into us the breath of life to make our souls alive.  And when we had fallen so drastically into sin and become stained with death from birth, you sent forth your Son from heaven, that, by the mystery of his passion and resurrection, he might make a holy offering to you.  Being tangibly baptized into this mystery, we rise again in newness of life by your grace applying Christ's infinite worth to us.  You call us confidently forward, touching us all the way as only you can, to hear your word and eat from your table, there to feast from your grace hidden within.  And we don't have this as lone atoms adrift in the void, but together, as the whole body of Christ.  Through his flesh and his blood, we your people dare to enter the holy place where Christ our High Priest, our Heavenly Liturgist, leads us, as we are sanctified, in glorifying you; and in your glory, we are being made holy, more and more ready to behold your face.  And so to you we give thanks for all these things, but most of all, for yourself, for you give your very self to us in all the ways we are able in this life to receive you.  Now lead us onward and upward, we pray, that we might be discipled through fellowship and sacrament and liturgy into the very image of your Son, changed from glory into glory, and so in heaven take our place in him.  Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Tools of the Trade (1)

The news hadn't been terribly pleasing for Daniel. His enemies had tricked King Darius into issuing a foolish decree, restricting the petitions of the people to him alone for the next thirty days (Daniel 6:1-9). Their impiety could stomach such a law; Daniel's piety, on the other hand, was another matter. Daniel could, of course, have made accommodations, to make it more difficult to incriminate him for praying to God. But it would be wrong to flinch in such an important thing. So, as per usual, he opened his westward window, knelt down, gazed in the direction of Jerusalem's ruins (Daniel 6:10), and began to recite: “Shema' Yisrael...

Daniel has plenty to teach us. This year, we've been taking a look at what life is all about. We're made to be on a great human journey, the voyage of each person to ultimately behold the face of God, and thereby to be made like God in every way a creature can be. Of course, not every person is going to succeed on the great human journey. Many don't even get started, because it takes supernatural power to begin and supernatural power to take each step. We've talked, too, about how the great human journey is a relational journey, where we become increasingly united to God by the love that animates our faith. So some of the most important things we can do on this journey are what we've called 'spiritual activities' – the things that most directly involve themselves in our relationship with God, like prayer, reading Scripture, going to church, and so on.

All that is stuff you've already heard. We've even talked through some of the biggest obstacles that we face in persisting in the spiritual activities we try, or know we ought to try. And now that it's Easter, we're going to spend today and the next couple Sundays seeing if we can get a little bit deeper still. Because there are some tips, tricks, and techniques that have the potential to give assistance to our spiritual activities. So today, let's look at some of these “tools of the trade” that we can bring out in our lives of prayer.

Sometimes, you know, prayer is hard. We want to pray, or at least know we ought to pray, but we just don't have any new words to say. Well, here's a tool: pray some old words! Pray those wonderful words of life all over again, even if they aren't your own words. Even if you're reading them off a page, you can pray with them. Now, I know that as Evangelicals, at least some of us have an inborn instinct that balks at this idea. The last thing we ever want is to be 'formal' in how we worship. We like spontaneity, we think everything has to be fresh and new and personally tailored, because to us that's what a 'personal relationship' with God means. Besides, we tell ourselves, didn't Jesus warn us not to use “vain repetitions” when we pray (Matthew 6:7)?

Well, what Jesus was saying there is that we shouldn't have a faithless approach to prayer that stammers the same prayers over and over again because we're like the pagans Elijah made fun of, who thought repetition was the way to get their god's attention and wrestle him into submission (1 Kings 18:26-29). Those pagans had no confidence their god would hear them unless they repeated themselves, whereas persistent effort could guarantee results even if their god was unwilling. That attitude that, Jesus says, must never shape our prayer.

Why? Three good reasons. First is the one Jesus says: “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). When we pray, God has already pre-heard our needs; indeed, we wouldn't be praying if he hadn't prompted it. Second, God cannot be impressed more deeply with our prayers if we just add more filler to them. Jesus doesn't outright say this, but I bet he agreed with the rabbis who observed that, in Leviticus, the sacrifices of a big bull, a little bird, and just some grain are all described as pleasing God the same way; so they concluded that the size of the offering didn't matter, because it was all about the heart's direction.1 A longer prayer doesn't impress God more than a short one; it's about the heart's direction. And third, God can't be browbeaten or cornered into becoming a sure thing. The ancient rabbis saw good and bad reasons to stretch out your prayer. If it was because you've got more things to ask, then it's good! But if it's because you think that you can wrestle a guarantee from God that way, then it's the sin of presumption.2

Those are the things Jesus warns us against when he talks about 'heaping up empty phrases' or 'vain repetitions.' But what if you've got different reasons? Maybe you offer the same old words to God because they seem no less worthy of him, or no less amazing to you, the twentieth time than the first. Maybe you borrow the prayer because it's teaching you. Maybe you can't think of anything better or newer to say. Then quote away, repeat away! Our spiritual lives are poorer if we never pray in our own words, that's true; but they're also poorer if we only pray in our own words, if we never allow the good old words to enrich and train and fill out our voice.3

Alright, enough theory; let's think of some examples. Say you want to deepen your spiritual life. What helpful prayers could you find to borrow? There are lots of them, and one place to start would be with the Psalms. The Book of Psalms isn't just a song book; it's a prayer book. These are real model prayers, and there's nothing at all wrong – in fact, a lot right – with taking a psalm and making it our own. God inspired these words for exactly that kind of purpose. Jesus prayed the Psalms. In Acts, we find the apostles using the Psalms in their own personal prayers (e.g., Acts 4:25-26). Eventually, some prayer specialists made the commitment to pray all 150 psalms every single week, in a rotating cycle. Stumped in prayer? Try out a psalm or two. The greats all did.

Another useful prayer – and I hope this one doesn't surprise you – is the Lord's Prayer. According to Luke, we get this prayer because, after listening in on Jesus' own prayer life, a disciple asked him: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). The disciple was looking for a prayer to memorize and use as both a tool and a template. What they got was what's come down to us as the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11:2-4; cf. Matthew 6:9-13; Didache 8.2). The very fact that we use the Lord's Prayer together reminds us that making this prayer our own is a good thing – in fact, it's a thing Jesus commanded. Use it at home, too, and out-and-about. You can't go wrong – you're way less likely to go wrong – if you just pray the Lord's Prayer, whether it's all you can do or whether it's a starting point to build on. The Lord's Prayer covers your bases the right way. Trust it.

Besides whole psalms and the Lord's Prayer, there are a lot of other passages in the Bible that give prayers that are short, easy to memorize, and good for using as often as it seems helpful, even back-to-back. One that was very popular from early on was the first verse of Psalm 70: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!” (Psalm 70:1). Whether in this translation or a different one, it's a good one to repeat over and over again: it calls out to God, and asks for his help to come fast. That's an all-purpose prayer right there! And another one is like it: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is often called the Jesus Prayer, and it's built on a few passages from the Gospel of Luke. The ten lepers said to Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13). The tax collector in Jesus' parable a chapter later prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). And right after that, a blind beggar called out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). So the Jesus Prayer is a deeply biblical prayer. It's also short and sweet. It's easy to memorize. It won't steer you wrong, no matter how many times in a row you say it, because it never gets less true or good to turn to Jesus, confess him as Lord, admit you're a sinner, and plead for his mercy. Again, talk about an all-purpose prayer! And for many centuries, there have been some Christians who commit themselves to praying this prayer so often – thousands of times every day, not just out loud but silently within – that it becomes the rhythm of all their thoughts, breaths, heartbeats, an unceasing prayer with a life of its own.4

You know what else makes a good prayer, especially when you run out of things to say? The words of your favorite hymn. Many of the hymns we sing are just prayers set to music. When we sing those hymns, we're already admitting that we can pray fruitfully with words we didn't put together ourselves. And if the hymn's got a chorus, we're admitting the benefits of some repetition here and there. If a hymn's one of your favorites, then hopefully that's because it's well said, because it captures an impulse of prayer that's meaningful to you. So when you get stumped in prayer, just break out a hymn you know – whether you sing it or just say the words.

So we've got the Psalms, we've got the Lord's Prayer, we've got other easy-to-memorize verses, we've got the Jesus Prayer, we've got our hymns, and there are plenty of other pre-composed prayers that have been said by somebody somewhere down through the history of the church. Some are newer, some are older; some are shorter, some are longer. There are treasures of prayer out there. It'd be a shame to not learn them, use them, when – if we're honest with ourselves – we need all the help we can get. Collect these tools. Keep 'em handy.5

So that's one tool set for prayer: these words we can break out, which can change the way we pray. But there's another tool set, and that's actions of prayer. This, again, might feel a bit strange for us Evangelicals, who are used to doing everything very casually, because informality is the name of the game. But if you listen to the early Christians, they knew that the actions of the body can help or hinder the soul. There are things you can do to act out what's going on inside, and to help remind you of what you're doing and keep you focused. We read that Daniel, when he wanted to pray, “had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem” (Daniel 6:10)? Why? Because, centuries earlier, King Solomon had dedicated the temple by asking God to “listen to the plea of your servant, and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place” (1 Kings 8:30). So even after the temple was destroyed, God's people were accustomed to pray in the direction of Jerusalem, because that was where God had made his earthly presence known. When Jesus came, he told the Samaritan woman that Jerusalem as such would soon be irrelevant for prayer (John 4:21), but the early Christians famously faced the east to pray.6 Why? Not only is it sunrise, but Jesus compared his return to lightning that flashes from east to west (Matthew 24:27). So by praying toward the east, they prayed in a way that gave them a physical reminder and demonstration of their confident hope in Jesus' coming again. Historically, many churches were therefore built so that people would face east when praying. Ours got built opposite, but even in churches that couldn't be built facing the right way, the altar was considered 'liturgical east' anyway.

If the body matters enough for the early Christians to care about direction, maybe posture can make a difference in how we pray, too. Jesus gave his disciples instructions about “whenever you stand praying” (Mark 11:25) – the assumption was that most prayer would be done while standing at attention before God. One early Christian actually wrote that “of the numerous dispositions of the body, standing with hands extended and eyes upraised is much to be preferred,” because that's the posture mirrors the soul posed upright, looking up to God, reaching out to heaven in hope.7 Of course, sometimes that posture doesn't quite fit the tone. The tax collector in Jesus' parable was standing, but because he was praying for mercy, he “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven,” as would have been normal, “but beat his breast” (Luke 18:13). Daniel, in his prayers, “got down on his knees... and prayed and gave thanks to God” (Daniel 6:10). In the garden, Jesus even “fell on his face and prayed” (Matthew 26:39). But all these postures helped to express and shape their prayer.

And there's one more thing early Christians did to physically enhance their prayer life, and that's a gesture they used before or after they prayed. They came to call it 'the sign of the cross.' This, too, might be a bit unfamiliar to us as Evangelicals. But every time I pronounce the benediction, you see me make the sign of the cross over you to bless you. And if you watch during the doxology, I cross myself when we praise the Trinity. Well, this gesture goes back at least to the second-century Christians, one of whom said: “We make the sign of the cross on our foreheads at every turn: at our coming in or going out of the house, while dressing, while putting on our shoes, when we're taking a bath, before and after meals, when we light the lamps, when we go to bed or sit down, and in all the ordinary actions of daily life.”8 So it's no surprise that if they prayed that way, too.

This was no superstition. It was a real way to celebrate that Christ crucified is the champion. If we make this sign, then we are physically joining Paul when he says, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). That's what this gesture means. And since early Christians professed to see demons cast out and miracles happen when they made this sign with faith, it's a bit silly to lay it aside, isn't it?9 For my part, I recommend using it.

So we've got one set of tools: prayers already written out, in the Bible and beyond, that we can use and repeat. We've got another set of tools: bodily actions that express and assist our prayers, like a direction to face, posture to take, and gesture to use. One last tool, real quick, is a rhythm of prayer. In the Old Testament Law, both the meat sacrifices (with grain and drink) and the incense offerings were made at specific times in the morning and in the evening (Exodus 29:38-39; 30:7-8). Alongside this, there came a practice of prayer at each end of the day, plus in its middle. So the psalmist says he prays “evening and morning and at noon” (Psalm 55:17), and we already read about how Daniel prayed “three times a day... as he had done previously” (Daniel 6:10). This became a regular pattern – the rabbis talk about morning prayer, afternoon prayer, and evening prayer.10

In the first-century church, from the time of the apostles, we hear an instruction given to pray the Lord's Prayer “three times per day” (Didache 8.3) – that is, the same time their Jewish neighbors were praying their prayers. After all, Luke shows the apostles making use of Jewish times of prayer like the third hour, sixth hour, and ninth hour – which are 9am, noon, and 3pm (Acts 3:10; 10:9). And as time goes on, we begin to see some expansion. One third-century Christian writes that, as we learn from the story of Daniel, “prayer... should not be performed less than three times a day.”11 Christians in those times talk about not just the third hour, sixth hour, and ninth hour, but also sunrise, sunset, and even getting up at midnight to pray.12 Just as one psalmist said, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules” (Psalm 119:164), some Christian communities gravitated toward seven fixed times of prayer each day, plus their midnight prayers.13 It's an intense regimen.

And, building on the fact that, in the Temple, the Levite singers sang specific psalms each day to accompany the sacrifices, it quickly became a normal practice that at each scheduled 'hour of prayer,' early Christians would not just pray the Lord's Prayer, but also have certain psalm passages to pray, plus some alleluias.14 Over time, these turned into a rhythm of prayer that the church carefully crafted for maximum benefit. In some communities today, it's called the Daily Office or Divine Office; in others, it's called the Liturgy of the Hours.15 But whatever it's called, the idea is that very wise Christians have recommended certain prayers for each time of day, on each day of the year. Some parts might be the same each time of day; some parts might be the same from day to day; some parts might vary completely. But let me tell you from experience: it is so, so helpful. It's like the skeleton of a whole prayer life, around which everything else can be built. The very simple version I do offers about a 20-minute prayer sequence each morning and each evening. I'll be honest, I don't always manage even that – but when I do it, I sure don't regret it. It is a major blessing. I can't recommend something like it enough.

Here's the point. When it comes to upgrading our prayer lives, or bolstering them where we're likely to falter, God's wisdom hasn't left us alone. God shows us, in Scripture and in the lives of early Christians, some things we can take up to bridge those gaps, to build stable disciplines, to keep ourselves focused, to learn how better to pray, and to take off some of the pressure so that we can just be with God. That's what all this is about. And I can tell you, if you take up some of these tools and use them, you might just find your prayer life reaching some fascinating new places you didn't expect. What tools? Repeating prayers you didn't have to come up with, for one, like the Psalms, the Lord's Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, Bible verses, and more. Trying a good posture for prayer, facing the right direction, making the sign of the cross. And even putting it all together in some bigger pattern of prescribed times of prayer. These are some of a Christian's “tools of the trade” for prayer. Whatever of them you try out, may they increase the flavor and fruitfulness you find as you deepen your relationship with God, and assist you ever onward in your great human journey, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Come and Have Breakfast: An Easter Homily on John 21:1-14

For Peter and his six buddies, it's been a long, rough night on the lake. Freshly returned from Jerusalem to the shores of Galilee, reunited with what old family and friends they hadn't alienated, they weren't sure what to do with themselves. They'd seen the Lord, but Mary Magdalene said he aimed to meet them in Galilee (Mark 16:7; Matthew 28:10). Now here they were in Galilee – so where was Jesus? As they sat around, brawny, headstrong Simon Peter suggested they get some work in. They were fishermen with boat and net, they were low on cash, so if they fished through the night, they could catch themselves enough to feed their families and sell the rest at market, getting by while they waited, waited, waited. And so began a long, rough, lonely night on the lake (John 21:1-3).

Just like the night before the cross, Peter and company pulled an all-nighter. By torchlight, they cast their net again and again, but all to no avail. The fish were nowhere to be found. In the meantime, for hours on the still, dark lake, they had nothing to do but wait in silence or talk. Maybe Nathanael reminisced, saying he thought he could still taste the incomparable flavor of the wine Jesus made in his home village Cana (John 2:1-11). Maybe Thomas talked of Jesus appearing just to convince him, and how he'd gazed up that spear-track between the Lord's ribs, an open channel leading directly into the holy heart that is Infinite Love (John 20:27-28). But Peter... Peter was lost in thought.

Jesus was alive – Peter didn't understand, but he'd seen it – yet what did it mean? He felt a failure in his calling and his career, unfit for either. After a long night with nothing gained, Peter wondered whether the others regretted joining him at all. They were tired, shivering, stomachs growling loud enough to wake the dead, and now the distant crowing of a rooster heralded the rising sun. At the sound, tears welled up in Peter's eyes (cf. John 18:27).

Then, a man's voice came to their ears through the darkness. He must have been yelling; they were nearly the length of a football field away from shore. Peter turned to look, and he couldn't help but think that this patch of shoreline looked a bit like the place where, on a Friday before another year's Passover, the yet-uncrucified Lord had broken two loaves in his hands and filled thousands of bellies and twelve baskets beyond (John 6:1-13). But now there in such a spot stood a hazy figure, yelling from beside the telltale glow of hot coals. The coals took Peter back – it was while warming himself over a charcoal fire in the high priest's courtyard that he'd been questioned and identified as a follower of Jesus, and had denied Christ thrice as the rooster crowed (John 18:15-27). Peter felt little different from the late Judas. For hadn't Peter as good as sold Jesus out, if not by turning him over, then by letting him sweat and pray and bleed and die alone? Forgiven he might be, but he'd never forget.

Now, what was this old man yelling from that distant flame? Peter strained his ears to hear. “Children, haven't you any fish?” Their first prospective customer, and they had to let him down, had to disappoint him, had to make him join them in their hunger. “No,” Peter and the others mournfully called back, faces burning in shame. The customer wasn't satisfied; he had to go telling the professional fishermen how to do their jobs. Typical. He shouted to them to try again one last time before giving up. They humored him – and suddenly their nets caught on something heavy. A lot of somethings. By torchlight and the dawn's rays, peering over the side of the boat, they saw life suddenly teeming as thick as the prophecies of Ezekiel. “Everything will live wherever the river goes. … Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.” Fishermen would spread their nets wide for the catch, and on the shoreline would grow the tree of life, fresh from Eden – so the prophet had said (Ezekiel 47:9-12). And there, standing on that shoreline, their customer was laughing in delight. John nudged Peter. Young John saw what no one else saw yet: “It's the Lord! Peter, it's the Lord, it's Jesus!” (John 21:4-7).

With a catch beyond their wildest dreams bearing witness, and John's perceptive heart recognizing a sighting of Jesus 'in the wild,' Peter's pulse quickened, snapping him from his fog. Suddenly aware of his relative state of undress before the Lord, he'd not let shame do to him what it did to Adam and Eve. Tossing on his outer cloak, he leapt from the side of the boat, too impatient to waste a second waiting for the boat to reach shore, and did his best to set a world record at the 100-meter freestyle. The rest, rowing their hearts out against the weight of the nets (and maybe wishing Peter'd lent his muscle to the collective endeavor), followed behind (John 21:7-8).

Peter had been beaten to the threshold of the empty tomb, but he wasn't about to let anybody beat him this time, not if he could help it. Only, when he got there, the glowing coals already had fish and bread laid out on them, carefully tended by the Lord Jesus. Their growling stomachs wouldn't need to wait; no sooner would they reach shore than food would be ready after the long night. Nonetheless, when Jesus asked for a few of the large fish he'd blessed them with, Peter hurried to grab the full net hanging off the boat and, loving the Lord with all his strength, dragged it the rest of the way ashore – although, given the weight of even typical Galilean tilapia (let alone large ones like these), the 153 fish must have weighed well over a quarter ton (John 21:9-11). Yet if the risen Lord asked them even as a tithe, how could Peter's love refuse any labor of reparation for his base denials?

Shortly, after the breakfast Jesus had cooked, Peter's threefold denials over a charcoal flame would be remedied by a threefold recommissioning over a charcoal flame – a commission to feed them just as Jesus was feeding him (John 21:15-19). But before a fresh commission could be given, there was bread and fish to eat. Christ the Chef had everything ready before the disciples came ashore. “Come and have breakfast” (John 21:12), he said to them, and – as with the thousands from the other year – “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish” (John 21:13; cf. 6:11). From his own hands, bearing the bloodless marks of Roman nails, they took now their breakfast. And in his company, it couldn't be anything but miraculously delicious.

The angels had relayed through the women to the apostles that Jesus' ultimate intent wasn't to meet the disciples in Jerusalem – though he did that, too – but to meet them in Galilee. And here he did just that. This breakfast he served them – flatbreads where we might have pancakes, grilled fish where we might have sausages – was what he had in mind all along for their Galilean reunion with the Victor over Death. This breakfast of life was his invitation to them, tired from their sore night of sorrow, frustrated from their long labors, to come to him and be refreshed. His reunion with them would break their hard fast. He had prepared food for them.

And as for you, maybe you, like Peter, have been plagued with doubts in your career or in your calling. Maybe in the toilsome night of tears and troubles, you've been soothed by dreams or scared by nightmares. Maybe memories haunt you, winds chill you, waves rock you. And for all of it, maybe you haven't caught anything that could sustain you. Or maybe you've just been fasting in suspense, waiting for something new to come into your life, waiting to be fed with something fresh and joyous. But now here by the fire stands Jesus, risen from the dead; he's cooking you a breakfast you didn't catch, didn't bake, didn't buy. There he stands, and he sees your hunger. And as loud as your stomach growls for nourishment, as loud as your soul growls for satisfaction, as loud as your heart growls for something newer than new, his hungers to fill your hunger with himself – with his body, his blood, his grace, his love. For he is risen from the dead, has given triumph to life, has brought a new day! And as he watches the waters teem with fish, stands as the tree of life the prophet promised, he feeds you the fruit of forgiveness. The Last Supper, the First Breakfast! Take, eat – let salvation hit your tongue, new creation take shape in your stomach!

So now we break our fast at last, for the same Host invites us to kiss the burning coals of holiness, the coals that – as Isaiah learned – burn away every impurity from our lips. This Host calls us to a sacred meal from his altar, to be savored with trembling and thanksgiving before a God of salvation. This Host calls us ashore to the beach breakfast of a new morning of life. This is the Day that the Lord has made by rising from the dead! Let us rejoice and be glad in it, glad in feasting, glad in the richness of eternity. For Christ the Chef has cooked us something more magnificent than all taste and all sense – a wine finer than the wine at Cana's wedding, a bread more plentiful than what satisfied five thousand. Here, Christ has fished himself for us – up from the grave, down from heaven – and wants to reveal himself to us, here and now, as astoundingly as to Peter and the others who came before us. Life in person has drawn near, promising us, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). The breakfast of a new creation is served! So come, let us have his breakfast, just as the Risen One said! Amen.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Exorcise, Exalt, Entice: Sermon for Palm Sunday 2023

As they walked behind their Master on the donkey on the road down to Jerusalem, listening to the praises of the crowds for Israel's true king, I wonder if any of them – his disciples, I mean – reflected on where they'd been before they met him. For the most part, they'd only known him three years. But some of them had known each other longer than that. At least three of the twelve, and maybe five of them, were from the same little village, a place of maybe two hundred people – certainly, when Jesus called them all, it made an impact there! They were from Bethsaida, a fishing town on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee.

Unlike the villages on the west side, Bethsaida was a bit conflicted. Sometimes it was considered part of Galilee, but not always; other times it was assigned to Gaulanitis, and they probably did a fair bit of business with the less Jewish regions to the north and east of them, including the thoroughly Greek Decapolis cities. Other than those cities, Bethsaida and the further villages were under the rule of a man named Philip, son of the quite infamous Herod and half-brother to Galilee's ruler Herod Antipas. Maybe it was after this Philip that Bethsaida's own Philip – eventually one of Jesus' twelve – was named. For Jesus' Philip, as the Gospel tells us tirelessly, was from Bethsaida, where he grew up alongside a pair of brothers, Andrew and Simon (the latter now being called Peter). And given that Zebedee and his sons James and John were partners in the same fishing business that Andrew and Simon worked for, it's safe to say they were local to Bethsaida or a nearby village.

So I can picture the scene, maybe four or five years before this fateful Passover of Passovers. It's a sabbath day under the new moon. There's no work today, no fishing to be done. The boats are empty, but the synagogue in Bethsaida is full. There sit Andrew and Simon. A few rows behind them, there sits Philip. Maybe James, John, and Zebedee are somewhere in there, too. They don't know Jesus yet. But they will. Up front, the reader has unfurled the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah to the end. It's time to hear from the close of the prophecy. “The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD... to my holy mountain Jerusalem … For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD (Isaiah 66:18-23).

Flash-forward four or five years, in some of the villages or towns or cities north and east of Bethsaida. There, more than a few sons of Javan, Greeks, live. Some of them stand apart from their Jewish neighbors, disdaining them or even hating them, and worship their own native gods in the sophisticated pagan temples built there in their towns. Others, less caught up in hostility, are more opportunistic with their gods – they'll worship their own ancestral gods, they'll worship the Jews' God, they just want to be polite to the divine of every kind. And a few, having perhaps met a persuasive Jewish missionary, have been captivated by this message of the one supreme God who made all things, rules all things, redeems all things. Being drawn toward the local synagogue, maybe they heard the scripture read there, not only in its original Hebrew, but in a Greek line-by-line translation – attuned just to their ears. Bit by bit, they surrendered attachment to the gods of their mothers and fathers, and fell in love with the God proclaimed in the synagogue. And though going all the way to become Jewish seemed a bit physically costly, they knew there was no going back. They began to attend the synagogue, worship the God of Israel, and live in obedience to the Laws of Noah, which the synagogue ruler told them would allow them, even as Gentiles not party to the covenant through Moses, to have hope of finding life in the kingdom of God when it came.

One day, maybe these God-fearers heard a perplexing story by a very excited man who passed through town from one of the Decapolis cities. He shared how he'd been overtaken once by thousands of wicked spirits, who held him in the tombs and made him a menace to himself and others, until one day they'd been stirred up by a new presence arriving on the shore. Screaming at this Jewish man named Jesus, they hissed in terror at him as the Son of the God of Israel, the Living God Most High – and with but a look of compassion and a word of command, this man had been freed of the spirits, restored to wellness in a way no other gods could've achieved, and commissioned to spread the message of his mercy to all in the Decapolis and the villages around it. So who, the God-fearing Greeks must have wondered, was this Jesus?

Later, as all the Jews set out for Jerusalem for a great pilgrimage feast, the Passover, some of those God-fearing Greeks – and maybe some of their polite-to-all-gods friends and family members – decided to go. For the polite ones, it was sure to be an interesting vacation, with plenty of fascinating rituals to watch or maybe even find a way to take part in. For the devoted ones, it was a chance to celebrate the mighty actions of God, who long ago had delivered not only the Jews but also a mixed multitude of non-Jews out of Egyptian slavery. Off these went – these Greeks, I mean – to the already bursting-at-the-seams capital of Judaea. The Passover was near, and the Greeks – whatever their motives – came, as Isaiah had foretold, “to worship at the feast” (John 12:20).

As they stand in the outermost courts of the temple, the bustling bazaar called the Court of the Gentiles, filled with vendors and currency exchange booths. It was... distracting, to say the least, for these Greeks who came to worship in the direction of God's temple, albeit from a distance – for no closer than this were they permitted to approach the holy place, on pain of violent death. The feast had not yet begun, and yet in the thick of all the crowd, suddenly they heard some unusual chanting. “Hoshea 'ana! Hoshea 'ana!” “Save us now, save us now! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” The crowds around were too dense to see much of the procession, save for a figure seated a little bit higher, on a small donkey (John 12:12-15).

The Greeks, I imagine, must have been curious. Asking someone in the crowd what was going on, it was told them that a great prophet, and perhaps the awaited king from David's line, had ridden into the city. He was a teacher rumored to open the eyes of the blind. He confused people by welcoming not only the most upstanding of Jews but even lowly Samaritans and unclean Gentiles – “no offense,” perhaps their informant told the Greeks – and traveled from place to place announcing the arrival of that kingdom of God in which the God-fearers prayed to somehow find life. Now, everyone was saying that that man – yes, that one right there, in the crowd, from a village not far from here – had been dead not that long ago, but had come to life again when this king gave the order. Life and death were in the man's hand, so how could he not be the king? How could a kingdom established by heaven not be here? That's why, said the informant to the Greeks, these Jews are so vivaciously waving palm branches of victory around this man they're acclaiming the rightful king of Israel. “His name! His name! What is his name, man?” asks one of the Greeks. “What, you haven't heard? Jesus,” comes the reply.

Jesus! Jesus, who braves the tombs! Jesus, who conquers demon legions by his voice! Jesus, who makes right what otherwise can't be cured! Jesus, who overturns death after the fact! Jesus... who welcomes even Gentiles? They've got to see Jesus! think these Greeks. Some of them, the just-polite ones, mumble about the heroes of ancient myth. But the others, the God-fearers of the synagogue, feel their heartbeats quicken. They've been living for this day, the revelation of the glory of the Lord to the nations. But they've got to hurry before Jesus passes the barrier into an inner court where Greeks may not go. Pressing around through the crowd, they see an almost familiar face: Philip of Bethsaida. Maybe he sold them fish once. But he's been pointed out as a student of this teacher, and with a Greek name like 'Philip,' he feels like a safe bridge. “Sir,” they tell him with all honor and respect, “we want to see Jesus!” (John 12:21). “Wait here,” Philip tells them. “I'll see about that.”

Off Philip goes, approaching a more senior apostle – his friend Andrew, the only other member of the Twelve with no Hebrew name, only a Greek one, though both of course were Jewish. And together, they come to Jesus. To the frustration of the Pharisees, who are already despairing that the whole world seems to be falling in love with Jesus (John 12:19), they tell him that some Greeks are asking to see him. These Greeks, out of place at the Passover, lost in a sea of Jews and scarcely able to worship in their far-off courtyard on account of the moneychangers and animal-sellers, say they want to get close to Jesus, hear from Jesus, lay eyes on this Jesus.

Philip and Andrew might be skeptical, wondering if the Greeks are mere religious tourists, all of the just-polite brand, doing their common pagan duty of paying token honors to every temple and every god, and seeing Jesus as one more chance to play all sides, curry every favor. But, on the other hand, the Pharisees speak more truth than they realize. The whole world is going after Jesus. The approach of these Greeks is a sign that the hour is ripe. That's clear as Philip and Andrew tell him what's happened (John 12:22). And Jesus has some thoughts.

Whether these Greeks got their wish to see Jesus, John technically doesn't tell us – though I'd have a hard time believing that they didn't. Within 24 hours before or after their request, Jesus would weave a whip to terrify the moneychangers and animal-sellers for their preventing the temple from living up to its purpose of being a house of prayer for all nations – these Greeks by no means excluded (Mark 11:15-17). But now, in this same temple, Jesus calls out to his Father, and the Father thunders from heaven – though not all understand the sound (John 12:28-30). And to the crowds, Jesus explains his hour of glory.

Now is the judgment of the world! Now will the ruler of the world be cast out!” (John 12:31). The world, in its fallen state, has long lay under the sway of the devil's deception. Since the primeval garden, Satan has been the deceiver of the world. Is it any wonder Pontius Pilate harbors such contempt for the chosen people, and yet is given power? Is it any wonder the Sanhedrin will show merely the outward form of a trial in order to get rid of a perceived threat? Is it any wonder the nations bow to false gods foisted upon them in their temples? Satan has deceived them, and through his deceptions, through his influence, through his webs of entrapping sin, he holds the world as a whole in his sway. To the extent he's able, the devil has stamped the world with his very own malformed character. And in this indirect way, it's him most of the world worships: “The god of this world has blinded the eyes of the unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4). And so he exalts himself as “ruler of the world.”

But if the world is going after Jesus, if even Greeks are asking to see him, then the time has come for the world to be both judged and saved – judged insofar as it serves its ruler willingly, saved insofar as it has served him unwillingly. For the time has arrived for the ruler of the world to be cast out, chased away, forced into retreat. This world-ruling devil is about to make a grave tactical error in motivating Judas to betray Jesus, setting in motion the course of events that lead to the cross. For in condemning Innocence-made-Flesh, the powers will be signing their own death warrant. Satan's hatred of Jesus will be his own undoing, dethroning him as de facto ruler of the world, excommunicating him from the cosmic community, exorcising him so powerfully that even his apparent advances in the future will always be really retreats.

For “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), to overthrow the devil's rule, to break apart the devil's rickety strongholds, to untie the devil's knots and let loose these binding ropes that strangle God's good creation. Everything the devil's done to infiltrate Israel? The Son of God appeared to destroy those works. Everything the devil's done to hoodwink Greeks and other Gentiles? The Son of God appeared to destroy those works as well. And how can the Son of God destroy those works? “He partook of flesh and blood, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death – that is, the devil – and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). As St. Augustine explains it, “Through his blood which was poured out for the remission of sins, thousands of believers were freed from the domination of the devil, were joined to Christ's body... This he called judgment – this distinction, this expulsion of the devil from his own redeemed ones. … However huge the siege machines [Satan] erects against us, since he does not hold the place in the heart where faith dwells, he has been cast out.”1

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth...”, Jesus says (John 12:32). Even the God-fearing Greeks might've understood what he was getting at. Earlier in Isaiah, there's a song that declares how God's true servant “shall understand, and he shall be exalted and glorified exceedingly” (Isaiah 52:13 LXX). No wonder Jesus declares that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). In other words, it's time for him to live out the words of that song. But the song goes on to say, “This one bears our sins and suffers pain for us” (Isaiah 53:4 LXX); “he was led to death on account of the acts of lawlessness of my people” (Isaiah 53:8 LXX). Jesus spoke of being lifted up from the earth – but lifted up on the cross, lifted up in blood and gore against the rough wood and sleek nails. “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:34).

From the moment he declares the arrival of his hour of glorification, he highlights the cross. Crucifixion is Gentile Rome's great tool of shame, their way to inflict death on those they deem least worthy of life – slaves and thieves and ungrateful rebels. Jesus is going to be seated on a cross, pinned to it by cruel nails. It's going to so horrify creation that the sun hides its face in darkness and the earth trembles in anxious outrage. And yet it will lift Jesus up between earth and heaven. And there, what the crowds prayed with palm leaves a-wavin' will come to pass. Blessed is the one who came in the name of the Lord all the way to grim Calvary. Save us now! Save us now! Now he is saving – saving by bleeding his sin-dissolving blood down on your darkness, saving by breathing out blessing in the face of your hate, saving by offering his body for your life-giving food and his soul as a perfect human life of worship into his Father's hands. And his words, which of themselves save when welcomed and judge when shunned, he speaks from the cross with royal authority. Because here is crucified Jesus of Nazareth, King of not only the Jews, not only Israel, but King of the Universe. The cross is his throne. Here, to die, he is lifted up. Here, at the cross, he is exalted. Here, at the cross of mortal shame, he is glorified.

And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (John 12:32). Being glorified on the cross, of all places, is disconcerting even to Jesus: “Now is my soul troubled,” he openly says (John 12:27). Yet it's the reason why he came. It's how he destroys the works of the devil. It's how he undoes the power of death that binds the world in needless fear. It's how he glorifies God his Father – and how his Father glorifies him (John 12:28). It's so much like it is with a grain of wheat. If a grain of wheat stays above ground and keeps its life and identity intact as a grain, then it remains alone. But if the grain of wheat is buried, if the grain of wheat will surrender its identity and life as a grain, then in what looks to us like its death, there – precisely there – it grows. There it becomes fruitful, life-giving to so many, as the wheat appears to feed the world (John 12:24).

Because Jesus deserves no death, his execution will be the world's self-condemnation. Because Jesus is lifted high on the cross, the erstwhile 'ruler of the world' will be chased away by the cross-reigning King's edict of expulsion, echoing down through millennia until the destruction of the devil's works is complete. Because Jesus surrenders his life as a seed for life, he plants fruitfulness for all who will receive. And in that, his cross really is the hour when he is glorified as the true Son, the true Servant of the Lord. And in being thus glorified in this incomprehensible way, in answering the begging hosannas with his dying groans within days, he draws all people and all things together into a new unity, a unity in himself, in whom the creation itself has its being.

The approach of the Greeks is a sign of it, a sign of what this week of the passion will mean. They want to see, they want to hear, they want to believe in the King and his kingdom. They have these desires because the cross is already drawing them along, out of Satan's clutches in which the Jewish, Greek, Roman, and others' worlds have so long been ensnared. Early Christians will be in wonder how the cross causes sin's retreat and Satan's condemnation, how every power of death is sent fleeing from the cross, how the cross of Christ drives out demons and reclaims souls. The glory of the crucified king is vindicated over and over again, down through the ages, as his passion compels the darkness to retreat, as his regal mercy wins over hearts from every tribe, as his loving richness answers the deepest cries of every culture and offers it a Savior King to trust and follow. For “if anyone serves me, he must follow me,” and “if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26). And so from every nation, drawn into the one new humanity in Christ, people have followed Jesus in laying down their lives in his service, seeking an honor from the Father that the one who once ruled this world has no power of comprehending – for the darkness does not grasp the light of truth that expels it.

To this day, the advance of the gospel – the message of a King judging the world by being judged, saving the world by dying, enthroned on a rugged cross, glorified most fully in the moment he dies, and soon to show it by ripping death apart from the inside-out – is step-by-step driving out the darkness, whipping the devil and his minions like moneychangers who don't belong. This gospel of the King exalted on the cross not only exorcises the darkness to pave way for a dawning light, but it entices all creation – including people both like and unlike us – to wish, as those Greeks at the Passover did, to come and see Jesus. So the words of Isaiah are true. All flesh will come to worship the Lord, not merely at the Jerusalem on earth, but at the Jerusalem of a new heaven and new earth. Declaring our King's glory among the nations, fishing like Philip and Andrew for all people, we can hope – through their eyes – to rediscover what a majestic thing it is to see Jesus. Exorcise, exalt, entice – cast out darkness, lift up Jesus, draw all to his salvation. That's what the palms wave for. Save us now! Amen.

Almighty God and Father of our King Jesus, your Christ, you sent your Son to destroy the works of the devil and to rescue us out of the domain of darkness and deceit and into your kingdom of inexpressible light and truth.  You intend to gather all nations, all peoples, all tongues, all things in creation, into a great unity in Christ, one new creation whom you draw out into life with the fishhook of the glorious cross.  Death and devil, baited into biting, are being destroyed; we, baited into biting, are being liberated and renewed.  Though once we had not seen your glory, Lord God, now we see you crucified, Lord Jesus, Son of God.  The powers that once ruled us are cast out from our hearts by faith in you.  Ride in, O Savior King, to set up your cross-throne there, to rule over faithful hearts with your love.  Save now! Save now!  Be exalted within us, exalted in our eyes, exalted in our words, for you are the Blessed King who saves the world.  Make us a holy offering with you to your Father, and gather us into the New Jerusalem to forever worship you at an everlasting feast.  Until then, make us a New Bethsaida, a house of fishermen enticing all by exalting you.  In your regal name, we bow before your cross in worship, entranced by your crucified glory.  Amen.