Monday, May 24, 2010

Sermon - 23 May 2010

Christ Church, Burlington — 8:00 & 10:00 a.m.

Acts 2:1-21 | Ps 104:25-35,37 | Romans 8:14-17 | John 14:8-17,25-27

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:26]

Notice what Jesus promises his followers: the Holy Spirit to teach them. He does not promise them the Bible.

Jesus did not have a Bible. The first hundred years or so of the Christian Church did not have a Bible. Oh, of course they had the Jewish Scriptures — plural — because the only form in which they knew them was a multiplicity of scrolls.

Jesus and the first Christian generations knew the Scriptures, but they were not yet a “Bible.” There was actually a pretty solid consensus about what writings were to be counted as “Scripture,” including the Torah, the history books, the Prophets, and the Psalms — there was still some dispute about some of the others — but “Bible” was not quite yet a single hammer with which to pound people on the head. (Although “it is written” got used for a certain amount of smacking around, to which Jesus often replied, “Yes, but I say to you…”) And although the various writings that we call the New Testament were in the process of composition, and some of them were becoming widely known, they were not universally recognized as “Holy Scripture” and in fact some were still not accepted for quite a long time.

In fact, apparently many early Christian congregations functioned reasonably well without a “Bible” at all. In the later second century, St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons in what is now France, tells about “barbarian” churches who had salvation without written scriptures because they had the Apostolic tradition of the rule of faith. Irenaeus seems to be referring to Gallican rural churches around Lyons whose people did not read or speak Greek, and there was no Imperial Bible Society to translate the scriptures into Gallic, their Celtic tongue.

Now, I am not in any way trying to disparage the importance or the authority of Holy Scripture. I steadfastly affirm the ordination pledge from the Prayer Book: “I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” But we need to understand — as I think many so-called “evangelicals,” within the Anglican tradition as well as beyond, do not understand — that the Bible did not create the Church, the Church created the Bible. That is not to deny that the Bible may stand in judgment on the Church, and indeed often does. The New Testament writings are the authoritative witness to the original Apostolic tradition, and through them God the Holy Spirit constantly moves to renew us and recall us to our genuinely evangelical roots. But the Church of Jesus Christ is founded not on the Bible but on Jesus Christ, who committed the mission of the proclamation and enactment of the good news of the Reign of God to a community of followers empowered by his Holy Spirit with the promise that the Spirit would continue to lead them into all truth.

But being led by the Holy Spirit into all truth can be Very Very Hard. For two reasons: one is moral and spiritual: the simple fact is that we really don’t want to be led by the Holy Spirit into all truth, what we want is ratification of the validity of our own prejudices and preferences. So one reason why being led by the Holy Spirit is hard is because it means we have to recognize and surrender our precious Pride.

The other reason is a little less spiritual and a little more cognitive: it is sometimes just hard to tell what is really true. The evidence and the indications are often confusing and contradictory — not least from Scripture itself. I have never really understood the Biblical-literalist mind. (I’m staying away here from the term “fundamentalist,” which I think is not really very helpful.) These folks who make such a big deal of the inerrancy of the Bible — have they never read the text? But I digress.

My point is that the Scriptures are full of contradictions and inconsistencies. Does that mean that these writings are worthless, deceitful, untrustworthy? No! Of course not! But it does mean their contradictions and inconsistencies are aspects of them that has to be incorporated into their interpretation. And even in some of the most appalling stories from the early history of God’s People Israel, the Holy Spirit may have a word for us.

And then on top of that there is Christian history. I referred earlier, along with St. Irenaeus, to the Apostolic tradition. But the Apostolic tradition is no nice and tidy piece of work either. Roman Catholics have an infallible Pope, and conservative evangelicals have an infallible Bible. Anglicans like to say we have an infallible Early Church, but it’s just not that simple!

And being led by the Holy Spirit into all truth has to do in part with sorting all this out. It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of humility. It takes a lot of tolerance for the possibility that I may be mistaken. (And it’s not so bad to be mistaken, as long as we stay open and keep listening, keep thinking, keep praying. The Holy Spirit will eventually bring us around, though perhaps not quite on our schedule.)

It also takes a lot of willingness to be thoughtful. I don’t mean that one has to run off and get an advanced degree in Biblical Studies. Formal academic study of the Bible is a good thing, on the whole, I think, and I encourage you to do it if you are led in that direction, but frankly the evidence suggests that the Holy Spirit is not more likely to be heard in the ivy-covered halls of a university or seminary than in an ordinary parish Bible study group. But just because one isn’t academically trained in biblical hermeneutics doesn’t mean one has to be simple-minded about the Scriptures. A lot of it is actually a matter of common sense. If you are halfway adept at interpreting human life and human experience, it will take you a long way in interpreting the Scriptural witness. And the Scriptures are a witness to the acts of God in the human world, not in some religious fantasyland. (“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” after all.)

It is often said that Christianity is a “religion of the Book,” along with Judaism and Islam. But I think it really isn’t, at least not in the first instance. Our faith is not based on a Book, but on a Person.

(Islam probably really is a religion of the Book, the Qur’an. Judaism became something of a religion of the Book, the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh, and secondarily the Talmud, but originally it was a religion of History: God’s choice and redemption of the people Israel.)

We know this Person on whom our faith is based — Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, the Incarnate Word — primarily through our foundational and authoritative written witness, through the memory and experience of the Christian community through the years, but also more directly, through the Holy Spirit whom Christ sends from the Father to be with us and in us, to breathe the divine life into us and draw us into God’s eternal love. It is this gift that we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sermon - 16 May 2010

7TH OF EASTER — 16 May 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Ac 16:16-34 | Ps 97 | Rev 22:12-14,16-17,20-21 | John 17:20-26

“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

The preacher was warming to his task: “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stop frequenting the saloons!” “Amen, brother, preach the word!” “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stay out of the casinos!” “Amen, brother, preach the word!” “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stop charging your customers too much and paying your employees too little!” “Hey, wait a minute, brother, that’s not preaching the word, that’s meddling in bus'ness!”

One of the things that has from the very beginning been a source of some contention within the Christian Church, and among those outside the Church looking in, has been the role the Church ought to play in regard to the carrying on of the world’s ordinary business. When the Church speaks to the world about the way the world does its business, it is exercising a prophetic ministry on behalf of God’s justice — or, depending on your point of view, it’s “meddling.”

And well before Christianity, the prophets of the Old Testament were constantly getting on the case of the powers-that-were in Israelite society about their greed and corruption and oppression of the poor. Often enough the prophets got themselves cast out, jailed, or even killed for their trouble.

In the first three centuries of the life of the Christian Church, there wasn’t a lot of outward, direct effect the Church could have on the Roman Empire; nor, for that matter, could very many other groups; the Roman Empire was not an open or democratic society. And the Christian Church, particularly, had to lay fairly low much of the time; Christianity was illegal, and although out-and-out persecution was only sporadic, you never knew when some gung-ho local magistrate might go on a tear, and so you had to keep your head down. The Church did have its effect, however, as leaven in the lump, and after the conversion (~) of the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, and the subsequent establishment of Christianity as the official imperial religion, the Church started wielding a lot more clout in secular society. The history of the later Empire and of the European middle ages is full of struggles between the Church’s concern for justice (at our best) and secular kings’ concern for their own power. (The assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, by some of King Henry II’s national security staff is but one of the better-known of such episodes.)

Anyway, nowadays when the Church speaks to an issue like the environment, or foreign policy, or economic development, or international debt, or human rights, it’s not too uncommon for a lot a people (including some who claim to be members of the Church) to start having conniptions about “religion” “meddling” in the world’s business. (Some folks are gonna be real surprised when they discover that there’s only one place where the Gospel doesn’t mix with politics or economics—or anything else. And it’s very warm in that place!) The Gospel isn’t really about “religion,” you know. It’s about life. All of life.

Today in the first Scripture reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we catch up with St Paul again. Continuing last week’s episode in our annual Eastertide continuing drama of The Missionary Journeys of St. Paul, Paul and Silas, and maybe Timothy (and maybe not — it isn’t clear whether he accompanied them from Lystra to Troas), but apparently now with young Luke tagging along, have ended up across the Aegean Sea on the European side in the Roman province of Macedonia (though today it’s not in the country of Macedonia but on the northeastern coast of Greece), in a city called PhilĂ­ppi, which the Romans had taken over as a place to settle retired army veterans.

Here they encounter a slave girl. She is possessed by “a spirit of divination,” Luke tells us. I’m not sure how that would be described in modern medical or psychiatric terminology, and I’m not sure it matters much; the point is, she’s weird. She’s fey. She’s possibly schizophrenic. But she tells fortunes. And she’s real good at it, and her owners are making a lot of money off her.

The girl may be crazy, but she’s not stupid, and in her psychotic-visionary way she is able to discern who Paul and Silas and their companions are, and what they’re up to. And she runs around telling everybody, “Hey, listen to these Jewish guys, they have a message of salvation from God.”

After a while this gets on Paul’s nerves. He’s not mad at the slave girl — it’s not her fault, after all — still, it’s not a good advertisement for your new church if your biggest supporter is the town madwoman. And clearly the girl is (we would say) seriously mentally ill. So Paul heals her. He drives her demon out of her in the name of Jesus Christ.

And now she’s well. She’s happy; she’s calm; she’s at peace. And she can’t tell a fortune from a meatloaf recipe. Her owners are very upset. The Philippi Chamber of Commerce is very upset. The whole town is very upset. Here’s a bunch of religious do-gooders meddling around with the free-enterprise economy! They haul Paul and Silas off to court. “They’re disturbing our city!” (Maybe have to plead guilty to that!) “They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe!” (Like, they’re infringing on our right to make a buck any way we want. Like, they want us to give up sorcery, and exploiting our slaves, and ripping off the rubes! Like, they actually want us to change the way we live our lives! Can you imagine the gall of these people? Who do they think they are, to come busting into our nice little community and meddling?!)

Well. You get the point. We don’t have any problem granting the Gospel’s claim on us to be honest and kind and decent, at least as honest and kind and decent as we can afford to be while we go about our own business trying to make a living. It gets a little dicier if it begins to look like Jesus Christ wants us to make some radical changes in our own agenda for our lives—if he wants us to start going about his business. There is absolutely no area of human life that stands outside Jesus’ summons—or outside his redemption. Deep in our deepest soul, in our innermost heart, the thing that we care about the most, where we will hang on though all else be lost, that which we will not surrender—be it money, power, position, security, honor, pride, loyalty—precisely there it is that Jesus Christ comes and claims us for his own.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sermon - 13 May 2010

ASCENSION DAY — 13 May 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 12:15 p.m.

Acts 1:1-11 | Psalm 93 | Eph 1:15-23 | Luke 24:44-53

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

When I first volunteered (or was volunteered; I don’t remember for sure!) to preach at our celebration of Ascension Day, I told Raisin that I promised not to drag out the “Toes” picture yet again. But she said, “Oh, drag it out! I’ve never seen it!” Those of you who have been around here for a while may recall seeing this before; if you’ve been around for a long time you may even recall having seen it a couple of times! (Is this only the third time I’ve dragged this silly thing out? If God is merciful and just, there won’t be a fourth.) Anyway, here it is. “L’Ascenzione di Christo,” attributed to Fra Gulielmo il Insensato.

What I didn’t realize — and I really didn’t realize! — and what I just discovered a couple of weeks ago — is that on the ceiling in the Ascension Chapel at the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk in England there is this:

I’ve been to Walsingham, and I don’t remember this at all. But that was almost fifty years ago, and so maybe it wasn’t there yet when I was there back in the day. But hey, I was only nineteen years old — I can’t imagine that if I had seen it I would ever have forgotten it! Nineteen-year-old boys love stuff like this!

(I think these are supposed to be beams of light, not super-long toenails. I think.)

Well, more than enough silliness for this important celebration. This is not what the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is about.

Okay, then, what is it about?

The Ascension into Heaven is a standard part of our faith about Jesus, and has been right from the beginning. Paul (or an immediate successor, as the case may be) says in the Epistle today, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” [Eph 1:20]. And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” [Hebr 4:14].

The Gospels themselves say less about the Ascension of Jesus as an event (as opposed to a theological reality as a dimension and consequence of the Resurrection) than we might think. Mark doesn’t mention it at all as an event; the authentic text, at least as we have it, ends with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. (Subsequently, probably in the second century, there was added a “longer ending” which is clearly dependent upon knowledge, though apparently not actual copies of the texts, of Matthew, Luke, and probably John.)

In John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus in his appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them… [John 20:17]. However, nothing further is said explicitly about any subsequent event.

In Matthew’s Gospel, quite to the contrary, Jesus at his appearance to his disciples in Galilee, gives them the Great Commission to go and “make disciples of all nations,” and then simply concludes, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” [Matt 28:19-20]. (I am inclined to think that the final verses of Matthew’s Gospel would be a better reading for Ascension Day than the conclusion of Luke’s. But, oh well.) It is only in Luke that we actually get the narrative picture of what I so reverently refer to as “Toes.” But possibly you have noticed, in the readings today first from the Book of Acts and then from Luke’s Gospel, that although Luke tells this story twice, the actual event of the Ascension takes place on different days. In Acts it is forty days after the resurrection (hence our festival today), but in the Gospel it is on the Sunday afternoon of Easter Day itself.

(Excursus 1: Two or three hundred years down the line this inconsistency between Luke and Acts upset some people, and so they tinkered with the conclusion of the Gospel text so that it read just “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them.…And they returned to Jerusalem…” [Luke 24:51-52] So Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Bezae, if you’re taking notes; but most of the early manuscripts include the full text of these verses.)

(Excursus 2: All of this suggests to me that St. Luke himself was not deeply concerned about the issue of exact chronology. He was typical of ancient historiographers, in that he was much more concerned about what events meant than with precise accuracy about all the details of timing and sequence. We know, for example, that that’s how Luke handles his account of the evangelization of the Gentiles by the infant Church.)

“Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That’s the real heart of what we celebrate on Ascension Day. If the Risen Christ had just continued to hang around in Jerusalem, none of his followers would ever have been willing to leave and get on with making disciples of all nations. Jesus’ Ascension is not about his going away from us, least of all his going “up there” (whatever that might mean for our generation in which we have actually been “up there” and can telescopically see thirteen billion light years into “up there”). “Heaven” — that is, the presence of God and the reign of Christ — is not “up there,” it is right here if we will accept it and live into it. Because Jesus is ascended into Heaven, he is no longer stuck back in Galilee and Judea in the first century but can be and is present to all people in all times in all places. Jesus is Lord, not just long ago and far away but here, now, forever. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”