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Charles Cousar on Galatians 3:28

In preparation for my sermon I came across a quote in Charles Cousar’s commentary from the Interpretation series.  He expresses a sentiment that I first learned from my teacher, Douglas Campbell, but puts it in a succint fashion that is worth sharing:

Galatians 3:28 has enormous implications which Paul himself could hardly grasp, much less implement, and which remain for the church to carry out. (Cousar, 87)

How true.  Campbell taught me to see that what Paul did to the division between Jews and Greeks is a far more radical shift than he often gets credited for.  Yes, Paul could in places be friendlier to women, and more programmatic in his (potential) opposition to slavery.  But if Gal. 3:28 is understood in its context, the place of women and other minorities in our churches becomes a no-brainer.  Alas, we still have a ways to go.

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Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

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Luke 13:31-35: “The Fox and the Hen” (Lent 2)

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Has anyone ever given you suspicious advice? Maybe someone who you know doesn’t like you, or who just doesn’t know you well at all, tries to give you advice like you are the best of friends. Should you take their advice, or not? With some people, you never know their real motivations. With others, experience teaches us not to take them at their word.
Our passage from Luke today opens with some advice from a strange source. Some Pharisees come up to Jesus and seem concerned. The approach Jesus and tell him, “You should get out of here, Herod wants to kill you.” No surprise here. This was the Herod we heard about around Christmas, the King that had slaughtered thousands of babies trying to prevent the birth of the Messiah. From all the Gospel accounts, we know that Herod, this coward, this puppet ruler who oppresses his own people on behalf of Rome, is no friend of Jesus. It couldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that Herod was plotting against him. But why would the Pharisees warn Jesus?
This is really suspicious advice. The Pharisees, the Jewish teachers of law, community leaders, actively opposed the ministry of Jesus. They were scared of his miracles. Perplexed at his teachings. Most of all, they were angry – angry and shocked – that so many people were drawn to this carpenter turned Rabbi. So it should strike us as odd that in our passage today we see Pharisees of all people trying to warn Jesus of danger.
But if you look at the context of this passage I think we get an idea about where this odd warning comes from. Just before this in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus was teaching about salvation. He tells the people to enter through what he calls “the narrow door,” that not all who wish to enter will be able to. He concludes this teaching by saying, “Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.” In other words, not everyone you expect will receive God’s mercy. It’s a scary passage for anyone. It had to be frightening for the Pharisees, the professional religious folks. No good Jew would have doubted their status in God’s kingdom, and surely none of the Pharisees questioned their own place in God’s eyes.
From the gospels, we can be sure that the Pharisees kept a close eye on Jesus as he taught. He frequently interacts with them throughout his ministry. They weren’t disciples, but they were certainly interested. You’ve heard that old advice that says, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer?“ Well, the Pharisees followed that. They saw Jesus as their enemy, and though they didn’t like him, they didn’t ignore him. And so they were close by when Jesus said, “Some of those who are first will be last.”
It can’t be an accident that their warning comes right after this. How convenient! “You Pharisees and other leaders – some of you will be last one day!” And now, all of a sudden, the Pharisees discover some concern for Jesus’ safety?! No…no, that is just a little too convenient. I’m sure Jesus saw through it – we can almost hear him thinking, “Yeah, right!”
Jesus isn’t impressed with the false concern of Pharisees, and he isn’t frightened by Herod’s anger either. He even challenges the Pharisees to take a message back to Herod. He tells them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Jesus wants Herod to know that his threats will not deter his mission. Jesus is on a journey towards Jerusalem, a journey to the cross, but it is not his time yet. His Father in Heaven will decide that and the Holy Spirit will guide him, but he will not be frightened into submission by a petty king. Eugene Peterson translates his response this way: “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now…I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick.”
“Go and tell that Fox!” This isn’t a gentle, meek and mild Jesus. This isn’t a Jesus who floats on the clouds and does nothing but whisper nice things to us. Luke shows us that Jesus had an edge to him, maybe he was even a little bit of a rebel. I suppose he’d have to be to openly mock a powerful figure who was trying to have him killed. “Go and tell that fox,” he says. Why does Jesus call Herod a fox? Did Herod have red fur and a bushy tail? No. A fox had a reputation for cunning, for sneakiness, and trickery. Today, we might say, “a weasel.” Throughout most of human history foxes have been regarded as clever creatures – animals that the wise farmer would not turn their back on for an instant.
We see this reflected in many stories that have been handed down to us over the centuries, especially in some of Aesop’s fables. The fox was actually one of his favorite characters. Here is an example:
A fox one day fell into a deep well and could not find a way to escape. A goat, who happened to be extremely thirsty, came to the same well and, seeing the Fox, asked if the water was good. Concealing his sad plight under a happy facade, the Fox heaped praise upon the water, saying it was excellent beyond measure, and encouraging the goat to descend and try it for himself. The Goat, thinking only of his thirst, thoughtlessly jumped down. As he began to drink, the Fox informed him of the difficulty they were both in and suggested a scheme for their common escape. “If,” said he, “you will place your front feet on the wall and bend your head, I will run up your back and escape, and will help you out afterwards.” The Goat readily agreed and the Fox leaped upon his back. Steadying himself with the Goat’s horns, he safely reached the mouth of the well and made off as fast as he could. As he was running away, the Goat yelled him for breaking his promise; the fox turned around and cried out, “You foolish old fellow! If you had as many brains in your head as you have hairs in your beard, you would never have gone down before you had inspected the way up, nor have exposed yourself to dangers from which you had no means of escape.” The moral of the story: look before you leap.
“Look before you leap.” Know what you are getting yourself into and know who you are dealing with. Don’t trust a fox. They are tricky, dishonest and dangerous. Jesus knows who Herod is, and he lets everyone know that this deceiver will not stand in the way of the work the Father has given him. He will continue his work of healing and preaching, proclaiming the Kingdom, until the third day, and then he will be on his way to Jerusalem. As we continue on our own Lenten journey towards Easter, we see this as a foreshadowing of the three days Jesus would spend in the tomb.
After Jesus sends this message, he begins a lament for Jerusalem, a prayer of mourning and sadness. Here Jerusalem stands for all of Israel, for God’s people whom He desires. Jesus sounds a word of both hope and warning. He calls Jerusalem, “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Here Jesus is looking back to prophets like Uriah and Zechariah, sent by God but killed in God’s holy city. This is a word of judgment that changes to a message of Jesus’ longing for his people. He continues, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Many of us probably aren’t used to female images for God. Those of us who have been reading The Shack together have gotten used to it, that’s part of what is interesting about the book: many of us have found out that most of our images and ideas about God are very, very male-oriented. But we forget that the Bible does show feminine images for God also. Here Jesus compares himself to a mother hen gathering her children under her wings. Earlier he called Herod a fox; a conniving, selfish, untrustworthy beast. Now he likens himself to a nurturing mother hen.
Hens are known to be protective. I heard a story from a friend who comes from a family of farmers. He tells a story about the day that the hen house burned down on his grandpa’s place just down the road. His dad arrived just in time to help put out the last of the fire. As he and the grandfather sorted through the wreckage, they came upon one hen lying dead near what had been the door of the hen house. Her top feathers were singed brown by the fire’s heat, her neck limp. The grandfather bent down to pick up the dead hen. But as he did so, he felt movement. The hen’s four chicks came scurrying out from beneath her burnt body. The chicks survived because they were insulated by the shelter of the hens wings, protected and saved even as she died to protect and save them.
That is the story of Jesus. Jesus is that mother hen who would rather die than see its children suffer in agony. Jesus longs to gather his beloved under his wings to protect them; but here he says that Jerusalem is not willing. This city that kills prophets, these people are still beloved, but they are unwilling.
The story is not over yet though. Jesus says, “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This is almost exactly the chant that the people will give, waving palm branches as he enters Jerusalem in the coming days. Jesus has called Jerusalem the city that kills prophets, and he is going there anyway. He knows that Herod and Pilate and many other foxes await; many want him dead, but they will not get their wish until the appointed time. And even as the foxes plot his death, Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem. He goes to Jerusalem unafraid, as the hen who protected her children in the fire – pure, selfless, love, enduring pain and suffering, for those he loves. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He wants to be our Lord and our Savior. As the mother hen enveloped her young under her wings, Jesus will hang with arms outstretched, saving all who are willing to receive his mercy. For now, let us follow. Let us take up our crosses and walk with him until the appointed time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

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Insulted at a nuptial Mass…or, ‘Aggressive Ecumenism’

What follows is a response I wrote to a Catholic priest who presided at a wedding mass I recently attended.  The names have been deleted to protect all parties.  While the mass was a traditional Latin Rite mass, that was not the issue.  The issue was the homily, in which he openly insulted Protestant Eucharistic practices and implied that all weddings outside the Catholic church were, in some sense, illegitimate.  I admit this is more for my own catharsis than anything – I had a great deal of rage initially, for which I have asked forgiveness – but I thought some of you might find it interesting.  My hope is that this embodies ecumenism at its best – dialogue that can bear fruit because it engages with another’s tradition out of deep respect and extensive study.   Enjoy:

Rev. _____,

        A short while ago, I attended the _______ nuptial Mass which you presided over.  I should tell you I am not close to either family; I came with my girlfriend who was a high school friend of the groom.  I am writing you because I must take issue with some things you said in your homily. I apologize for the delay, but I needed some time to get my thoughts in order and ensure I was writing with the correct intentions.  Your comments regarding the non-Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, as well as your more general comments about wedding rituals, both hurt and offended me.

            I doubt there were many people who caught your off-hand remarks about the Eucharist.  With the exception of my girlfriend, I do not believe any of the other Protestants in the audience understood what you were saying.  I, however, did, and found them profoundly inappropriate.  I recognize that Catholics and Protestants have different sacramental theologies (and of course, there is a great divergence within Protestant communities), but I think this is something to lament rather than make light of.  As I recall, you asserted, with a smirk, that Holy Eucharist was not just a “symbol” or a “metaphor,” and I believe you also used the phrase “real presence.”  I actually agree with all of that.  I have no problem with transubstantiation.  I have spent a great deal of time, in my young pastorate, trying to teach my congregation to have more reverence for the sacrament.  This is part of a wider movement within my denomination to work towards a more frequent celebration of Communion, a change for which I am greatly hopeful.

            But, to get back to my point, what purpose does it serve to mock other traditions?  Do you really believe there were Catholics there who thought the presence of Christ in the elements was only symbolic?  To put it succinctly, it struck me as a cheap shot.  I also took it personally, because I hold a great deal of respect for the Catholic tradition, particularly in worship and theology.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist-dominated area of North Carolina, where all kinds of horrific stereotypes about Catholic persist.  I am very grateful that I had teachers and friends that helped me to appreciate the beauty of the Catholic faith, and this is a lesson I try to instill in my parishioners.

            Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to mock Protestant practices when Catholic teaching has at least a modicum of respect for them.  Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism states,

“Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion.  In ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and, one must say, are capable of giving access to that communion which is salvation.” (503, “Decree on Ecumenism,” in Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents.  Northport: Costello Publishing Company 2007.)

I take this to mean that, despite our substantial differences, Roman Catholics believe the sacramental rites of other Christian communities can and may, through the Spirit, convey some measure of grace.  If this is the case, I believe it is not too much to hope that our practices be respected. 

            Thus, I did not anticipate the traditions of my own church to be publicly mocked at a Catholic mass.  It strikes me as particularly egregious to do this at an occasion where there are likely to be non-Catholics.  In a few months I will be marrying two dear friends of mine, one of whom is Catholic and the other of which is Baptist.  I do not believe it will be appropriate to the occasion or to the glory of God to make light of either tradition.  I expect the same courtesy from clergy colleagues, especially in public.

            I was also taken aback by your general comments about marriage.  I confess, I was nodding my head as you went on about people getting married “skydiving, scuba diving,” and the like.  I too believe that a marriage is a holy occasion which is a most appropriate for a church.  For anyone professing the Christian faith, if their marriage is indeed to be a means of grace, a union which is worthy to be compared to Christ and his Church, it should take place in a church proper.  Fine.  Excellent.  But why go on to say that everyone else – the skydivers, scuba divers, beachgoers, and dare I say Protestants?! – are only “pretending” to be married?       

            Again, this serves no purpose.  It comes across as cynical mockery, whatever truth there may be to the statement.  I was particularly grieved for some other young people who were there, several of whom were born into Christian families (two of them were baptized Catholics who had fallen away) but no longer identified themselves as such.  This was the statement that most perked their ears and turned them off in a service where they already felt alienated.  Christianity has, as I’m sure you know, in almost all quarters gained a reputation for being judgmental, narrow-minded, and arrogant.  Such comments only reinforce these unfortunate biases.  What Vatican II said about ecumenical dialogue should ring true for both clergy and laity on all occasions when we gather for worship:

“…catholic theologians, standing fast by the teaching of the church yet searching together with separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries, should do so with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” (511, “Decree On Ecumenism”)

            The above quote applies equally to the aforementioned comments about Eucharist.  Rev. _____, what deeply hurts me about all of this is that I went to that service excited and interested to experience a Latin Rite mass.  My last year in seminary, I gained a profound appreciation for and interest in the Catholic Church when I took a course on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.  The professor, Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, is a Methodist pastor and theologian who has been involved in many of the dialogues between our churches (such as the discussions leading up to the joint Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).  He became acquainted with the Holy Father when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Dr. Wainwright has a deep respect for His Holiness, both as a theologian and as a successor to Peter, a respect that he ingrained in all of us who took the course.

            While searching for your address on the internet, I stumbled across a piece you wrote on the Latin Rite.  Near the end, you recommended reading one of the Holy Father’s earlier works, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  This was one of the monographs we were assigned for the course. Chapter four contains this beautiful reflection on the Eucharist:

“The Lord has definitively drawn this piece of matter to himself.  It does not contain just a matter-of-fact kind of gift.  No, the Lord himself is present, the Indivisible One, the risen Lord, with Flesh and Blood, with Body and Soul, with Divinity and Humanity.  The whole Christ is there.” (88, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000)

Rev. _____, I do not presume to lecture you on Catholic faith or practice.  Whatever knowledge I have of your tradition is limited at best.  I do, however, feel confident to share that I believe that in a mass, where the Lord is truly and wholly present, the comments I have mentioned above were inappropriate.  That being said, I’m sure that I have made more offensive comments while presiding at a service.  And, from what I saw, you seem like a skilled leader of worship, celebrant, and preacher.  I only make the above points because your comments were incongruous with what I took to be Catholic positions regarding “separated brothers” such as myself, and because I took exception to them as a pastor.

            Please forgive me if my comments here lack humility or charity; I have asked the Lord for forgiveness already, for my pride, inattention, and malicious thoughts both during the mass and after.  I am not proud of my initial reaction to your comments.  I hope that the issues I am bringing to your attention only amount to a slip of the tongue or momentary forgetfulness.  I further hope that this letter will be received in the spirit that is intended: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  As a Christian and a fellow shepherd in the Lord’s fields, I felt duty-bound to make my feelings known to you.  I thank you for your service in the Church, for your faithful following of Christ’s call, and for the time and attention given to my grievances.  May God bless you and your ministry at St. _______.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Mack
Pastor
West ____ United Methodist Church

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Authority for Preaching

I’ve been struck recently by the close relationship between pastoral care and preaching authority.  My previous church responsibilities involved only very limited pastoral functions.  This is the first time I’ve been a “one man show,” so to speak.  And I’m convinced that it matters.  It matters than the pastor who visits you in the hospital also teaches your Bible study, also spends time with your children, also visits your mother at the nursing home, and also attempts to preach the Word each Sunday.  I believe it matters greatly.

I think this is what makes small church ministry simpler in a number of ways than role-related ministries in larger churches.  If your people only see you preach and lead the occassional meeting or funeral, it’s unlikely they will have little personal investment in hearing what Word the Lord has that Sunday.  Let’s face it: it is the rare Christian (relatively speaking) who comes Church with ears to hear.  I believe that is why preaching is in such poor shape: we feel forced to bend our sermons (please don’t dumb them down more and refer to them as “messages”) to hardly creative, culture-oriented and chimerically “practical” advice or storytelling with very little chance of revealing anything of the Divine.

I believe that this pastoral authority also lends itself to preaching authority.  When your people know that you care about them – that you have sat with them in their homes, in the hospital, married and buried their loved ones – then real homiletic freedom is possible.  We are not bound by the need to impress or dazzle because our hearers are already convinced that we are genuinely concerned for them as fellow Christians.  We also do not fear to step on toes and push our people if that is what the text demands, because we are confident that our people trust us enough to speak the truth in love.

There is a strain of Protestant Christianity right now that is, I believe, self-conciously and dangerously “radical.”  It follows, to some extent from a Barthian perspective (I believe Tom Long calls it the “herald” model of preacher) that would prefer to damn the torpedoes and fire away with the percieved “truth” of the Gospel without any thought to how it is heard or the lives of the flesh-and-blood people sitting in the pews.  This has recieved a boost, I believe, from Stanley Hauerwas and others in the ‘radical’ orthodoxy and/or postliberal strain.  Conciously taking up a place that is neither theologically conservative  nor liberal, such preachers are susceptible to believing their word is the Word.

I have heard horror stories of many such pastors who, in their zeal for being radical, forgot to be pastors.  Case in point: the uproar among everyday Americans over the Jeremiah Wright scandal.  Maybe he said what needed to be said, but certainly his manner and his context can be legitimately called into question.

On beginning in the ministry, someone told me the oft-repeated phrase “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  It is trite, to be sure, but there is wisdom in that phrase.  It is especially important wisdom for people like myself just out of seminary and eager to prove that we do indeed know something worth hearing.  Our authority for preaching in a local church, especially a small congregation, will largely rise and fall with our relationships with the people in the pews.  This can be a great terror, or a great tool.  The choice is ours.

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