Friday, September 26, 2014

The Right Person to Set Others Free

In on one his commentaries on the Psalms, St. Ambrose of Milan writes the following words about Christ, his being without sin, and our need for redemption. He also reminds us that we have nothing to “prove” as Christians. God has “proved” everything for us in Christ. So, instead of carrying the heavy burden of self-justification and self-sacrifice to overcome a sense of unworthiness or brokenness in life, we really must turn to Christ in adoration and acceptance that he has done “the heavy lifting” of salvation, bourn the weight we cannot. And this sets us free to respond to the unique mission with the unique gifts given each of us so that we may join him in his work of redemption in the way we can—and must.

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In reconciling the world to God, Christ stood in no need of reconciliation for himself. What sin of his was there to atone for, sinless as he was? When he was asked for the temple-tax, a sin-offering imposed by the law, he said to Peter: Simon, from whom do the kings of the earth receive tribute or tax? From their own sons or from strangers? Peter replied: From strangers. The Lord said to him: Then the sons are free. But so as not to give scandal to them, cast a hood and take the first fish that comes; open its mouth, and you will find a shekel. Take it and give it to them for me and for you.

Christ shows that he does not need to atone for sin on his own behalf: he is no slave of sin but, as Son of God, is free from all sin. The Son sets free, a slave remains in his sin. Christ is therefore free of all sin, and does not pay the price of his own redemption. His blood could pay the ransom for all the sins of the whole world. The one who has no debt to pay for himself is the right person to set others free.

It is not only that Christ has no ransom to pay or atonement to make for his own sins; if we apply his words to every individual man they can be taken to mean that individuals do not need to make atonement for themselves, for Christ is the atonement for all, the redemption for all.

Is any man's blood fit to redeem him, seeing that it was Christ who shed his blood for the redemption of all? Is anyone's blood comparable to Christ's? Is anyone great enough to make atonement for himself over and above the atonement which "Christ has offered in himself, Christ who alone has reconciled the world to God by his blood? What greater victim, what more excellent sacrifice, what better advocate can there be than he who because the propitiation for the sins of all, and gave his life for us as our redemption?

We do not need, then, to look for an atonement or redemption made by each individual, because the price paid for all is the blood of Christ, that blood by which the Lord Jesus has redeemed us, he who alone has reconciled us to the Father. He has labored even to the end, shouldering our burdens himself. Come to me, he says, all you that labor, and I will refresh you. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

St. Matthew's Day reflections...

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." Matthew 9:9-13, NRSV

Today we recall the life and witness of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist. His story is one that many of us can identify with, and apt in our current cultural climate.

Matthew was involved with the business of collecting tax for the Roman Empire. This was handled in something akin to a franchise system, with local tax collectors taking a cut over-and-above the assessment required by Rome. The system was brutal and morally degrading. What Matthew must of heard (and likely seen) would curl one’s toenails.

But, Matthew apparently had a number of gifts. He was very likely literate and could deal not only with figures but organizational matters. He also appears to have been a person who understood networks of people. These were useful skills in his trade.

When Jesus called him to leave the “tax booth,” Matthew seems to have been more than ready. It meant a massive change in his life, probably both risky and deeply-desired at the same time. The very next sentence in the above description has Matthew holding a party for all of his fellow tax-collectors and other “non-persons” in order to introduce them to Jesus…the Jesus who crosses boundaries not simply for the heck of it, but in order to bring those who are lost back into the fold of God’s love and holiness. It is a scene of transcendent mercy and invitation…just the sort of inclusiveness we like to think Christianity is all about.

Or, is it?

Jesus is remarkably clear about what is going on in the lives of these people. Yes: sin. This is degradation—the kind that binds guilty and ashamed people together as much or more than any amount of patriotism or civic-mindedness. Jesus has crossed the borders of sin and righteousness not to blur them, but to invite, redeem, heal, forgive, and restore. He wants us to share in his life of freedom, victory, and peaceful communion with the Father. This is not a banquet of the status quo. It is a banquet of radical new possibilities. 

Following Jesus means making a choice for or against the invitation he offers. The text is silent about who or how many made that choice. Ultimately, that is God’s business, not ours. But the choice remains, and any authentic Christianity will always present the choice between continuing in a life of sin and self-destruction or getting out of that world by following Christ in the Gospel Way.

Indeed, entire types of occupations and life-styles were deemed unfit for Christians from the start. We often try to pretend there is a way to live with one foot in both worlds, but ultimately there is no such compromise (this is what the season of Lent is largely about). Jesus tells us elsewhere that we must be in but not of the world. Matthew and his friends got to find out exactly what that meant, and so must every generation of disciples.

This passage also points out something very important for the Church’s ordained leadership. Matthew must get up and leave one world in order to embrace the other. This means he must sacrifice his old life so he can embrace the new one. The party he had for Jesus was something like a cross between a birthday and a wake.

Following Christ as a deacon, priest, or bishop must necessarily involve costly sacrifice. If it does not, then it is unclear that a new life has been embraced and an old one discarded. Much of the authenticity and validity of Christian witness and ordained ministry is caught up with this issue. This is the “salt” Jesus speaks of that gives “savor” to the Church’s life. When we avoid this by trying to make ordained ministry convenient, or treat it as just another career to be “fit into” the rest of life, it not only won’t work, but does severe injury to the communities we serve as well as the clergy we ordain. This is something to think about not only at the beginning of ordained ministry, but all along. It is, of course, also true for lay people as well as the clergy.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” formula to sacrificial living; each of us will be called to a different form of it. However, St. Matthew’s day reminds us that such a claim is always made on the life and heart of the disciple, and that only by taking up that claim may we actually enter into the Mind of Christ. By doing so we are able to witness to a life, love, and power far beyond ourselves. That message shines through the pages of the Gospel according to Matthew, as we would expect from the memories of one who experienced a personal death-and-rebirth at the hands of the loving Lord Jesus.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Revive Your Church!

September 12  is the annual commemoration of Bishop John Henry Hobart (1775-1830), one of the most important figures in Episcopal Church history, as well as a significant name in the story of Anglicanism, generally.

As one biographical sketch of Hobart puts it, the period after the American Revolution was one of “suspended animation” for the Episcopal Church. Suspicion dogged it, financial and demographic decline plagued it, and a general anti-religious sentiment pervaded the culture around it. Sound familiar?

In many of the parishes and institutions of the Episcopal Church, as well, a general malaise had set in. Preaching was often dry and remote. Worship was either coldly rubrical or idiosyncratic and aimless. Many Episcopalians seemed to define themselves more “against” other Christian groups they found distasteful than “for” a positive vision of the Gospel in action. A persistent sense of inaction and immobility pervades the Episcopal Church of this period. Again, does this sound familiar?

Like some figure from the Book of Judges, Hobart seemingly came from no-where to challenge this limited understanding of both the Episcopal Church and its mission of sharing the Gospel.

Formed by the best education this country could offer at that time (including the Universities of Pennsylvania and Princeton), and mentored by none other than Bishop William White, Hobart was a thorough-going product of the American Church experience. Perhaps because of this, he looked at the Episcopal not as an institution but as a mission. Where others only saw challenges or limits, he saw opportunities and possibilities. In each of his positions as a priest and later as bishop, his deep formation in the Gospel as a dynamic reality caused him to listen thoughtfully, raise expectations, try new things, and deepen the connection between the contemporary Episcopal Church and its ancient, Apostolic roots.

It was this appeal to Apostolic Christianity that particularly fascinated Hobart. In a time when various denominations demanded "brand loyalty" with all sorts of oaths, "thou-shalt-nots," and documents to be signed before membership, Hobart knew the secret of every effective Anglican revival, and he put it this way: “Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order.” It was simple, clear, and honest. He did not think it possible to choose between these two things. They were both essential. Knowing well the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the central writings of the Anglican Reformation, he understood the faith holistically—something that had long been lacking in run-of-the-mill Episcopalianism. Anglicanism, to be Anglicanism, requires both a sincere evangelicalism and an authentic practice of the basic Apostolic Faith.

It was this synthesis of the zeal for the Gospel found in Evangelical Christianity along with a deep commitment to the teaching and worship of the Apostolic tradition found in The Book of Common Prayer that marked Hobart’s Christianity. He strove to show the unique way Anglican Christianity is the middle way between extremes—not as a mere compromise, but as positive vision for a mature, whole, balanced, and gracious way to minister and share the message of Christ.

The result was an incredible amount of energy, creativity, and commitment. Hobart travelled widely, found ways to forge new opportunities for mission and evangelism, and preached with an ardor (he had to memorize his sermons due to very poor eyesight, which allowed him to take his eyes off the page) that engaged and challenged others. His personal life of prayer was evident, his standards high; he was willing to “walk the talk,” as they say. He wasn’t without flaws, but he was deeply concerned with living a holy and effective life for Christ and His Church.

Currently, the Episcopal Church is engaged in yet another effort to “jump start” itself in mission and effectiveness. We are spending years analyzing our institutional infrastructure, looking for ways to trim it for greater vitality. This is mostly motivated—sadly—by economic realities. We have become something like a scene in a Faulkner novel, trying to carry on imaginary tea-parties while the house falls down around us. Committees and reports come and go, but the results never vary. After any number of such attempts, one would hope we could see the futility of such efforts. This is not how periods of “suspended animation” are overcome.

Rather, revival always comes from some form of what Bishop Hobart practiced: “Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order.” Vitality does not come from techniques or (especially) programs—though these things can help—but from a living experience of the Risen Christ in one’s life, and deep desire to share that New Life in Christ with others. We don’t revive our Church; we open ourselves to God so that He may revive His Church.

When God decides to call His prophets, they arise. When the field is right for the planting, then the harvest can come. In this time of malaise and diminished expectations for the Episcopal Church and our own lives as disciples, the focus should probably go less to top-down attempts at revival and more to cultivating a people who are open to “Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order” in our own day, awaiting God’s action to bring forth the vitality and renewal we do not ourselves possess.

That is what it means to be God’s servants, rather than trying to show God the right way to go about leading His Church. And that day will come, in God’s good time; of that we can be assured. Blessed John Henry Hobart, pray for us!

The Collect for the Commemoration of John Henry Hobart, Bishop

Revive your Church, Lord God of hosts, whenever it falls into complacency and sloth, by raising up devoted leaders like your servant John Henry Hobart whom we remember today; and grant that their faith and vigor of mind may awaken your people to your message and their mission; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.