Saturday, July 15, 2017

With Pure Affection

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for Proper 9, 1979 Book of Common Prayer)

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. (Matthew 11:25-26, NRSV)

This Sunday’s collect emphasized the importance of the Summary of the Law by reminding us that we fulfill all of God’s commandments by loving Him and our neighbor. In order that we might do this, the prayer then goes on (in good Reformation order) to pray God’s Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to God “with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.” It is this last clause I have been thinking about this week.

The concept of purity is not getting much press these days. Whether in the political realm, public discourse, or (alas) in the language of theological conversation, our nation has developed a profound allergy to “freedom from adulteration or contamination; freedom from immorality” as one dictionary defines purity. In our rush to be hip, relevant, and “authentic,” we have chosen to swim in a septic tank of imagery, language, and acceptance of behaviors having nothing to do with the Beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Perhaps this is why sightings of God (and godliness) are a rarity these days.

Clergy are a bad group by which to judge Christians; there is a good reason Medieval paintings of the Last Judgment populate Hell with so many clerics. Yet, even amongst this notoriously worldly and nervous-making lot there has been an extraordinary decrease in even the attempt to show the value and meaning of purity of late. The focus on grittiness, “street-cred,” and relevance has meant a full-scale renunciation of the topic of purity, along with meekness and innocence. These characteristics of Christian faith, as they have often been treated in the past, are seen as weak or hypocritical in our power- and success-obsessed era.

Purity, for the Christian, is not an exterior matter…the mere absence of certain behaviors or traits (such a view is, indeed, a hypocritical form of purity). Rather, it is a freedom from contamination by a rival loyalty, an alternate identity beyond our foundational communion with God the Holy Trinity. Anything…be it currently fashionable or traditionally “accommodated” that supersedes our baptismal promise to make Jesus our Lord and to put our full faith and trust in him is an idol, a contaminant, and must be confronted—sooner or later—in the Christian’s life as completely incompatible with the Kingdom of God.

Such a view of purity is hardly the stuff of milquetoast “spirituality.” A real life of purity is so deeply desirous of seeing God that anything—anything—getting in the way of holiness must be confronted and overcome…by God’s grace and in God’s strength. If we find it hard to imagine casting aside an identity, an opinion, a priority as the elders cast down their crowns before the glassy sea and the Throne of the God (Revelation 4), then we know we have work to do, for nothing but such purity of intention and heart may live in that Kingdom.

Such a view of purity is necessarily a challenge to any era’s easy settlement with sin. As one studies history, it is painful (but essential) to see how every culture, time, and group of people has tried to twist the Gospel to accommodate its own sinful desires…and how this never, ever works. To be “pure in heart” is a way of life always putting one on the margins, in conflict with the powers and systems ruling the day.

It also means knowing how impure and in need of de-contamination we all are. This is one of the great difficulties facing the Church in our country today. With all of the emphasis on various forms of self-salvation through identity and ideology, the general trend has been to reject the teaching found in this week’s Collect that only with God’s grace—and purity—may we truly see clearly both our own need and God’s supplying that need in us. Instead, the focus has gone to building up all sorts of complex language about “internalized” this-and-that, psycho-babble, pseudo- and ersatz-Christian categories ultimately derived not from the Gospel or the catholic faith but from the preoccupations and obsessions of human fancy.

One of the ways to tell the difference between the true and false forms of Christianity has to do with purity…true practice of the Gospel has a deep desire for an abiding (and loving) purity of communion with God. Another way is see where the above passage of the Gospel read this Sunday is operating.

When Jesus thanks the Father for revealing the truth to “infants,” he is pointing to something very important—and easily forgotten—in faith: if it takes an enormous amount of complex language to live and share the Gospel, then it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but some other “gospel” that is being shared. The genuine article has a deep simplicity and a gracious purity about it—a simplicity that invites others in, but does not make compromises on matters of fundamental loyalty or identity. It is gracious, but never permissive; forgiving but not conformed to this world’s standards—always at odds with the prevailing “norms.” It seems to me that much of current Episcopal chatter about the major issues of the day fails these tests. But, much the same could be said about American Christianity in general. We shouldn't be satisfied or complacent about these things, though.

Taken as a whole, this week’s Gospel and Collect suggest to me that we need to get back to the Beatitudes in their fullness—and not focus only on those we like or (mistakenly) find easier or convenient. It is time to question all of this worldly-wise accommodation of the sordid and the vicious in our society found in the Church today. It is time to get back to living out the “pure affection” so central to the Collect’s vision for the Christian life.

The Gospel shoe will pinch us all, of course—challenging all of our individual as well as collective accommodations of sin. Yet, it will also result in a more merciful kind of Christian practice (as opposed to the intensely merciless culture of blame-and-shame found in secular thinking). We will all be reminded of our common need for mercy and forgiveness, and our common call to share Christ’s love rather than human condemnation.

Once I hear more about our need for purity in the Love of Christ, and less about the latest iteration of “what the wise and intelligent among us demand we say and think this year,” I’ll know we are at long last being more faithful to the mind of Christ and less concerned with the spirit of the age.

In the meantime…we pray on.

Note: Part of my reason for writing this reflection has to do with the value of taking time with the Sunday propers (collect and scripture readings for that Sunday). The classical pattern in Anglicanism is to use the collect of the Sunday through the week at daily prayer (excepting Major Feasts, which have their own propers), continuing to reflect on the teaching and practice of the faith found therein. In recent years there has been a tendency for clergy and parishes to study the coming week's lessons in some sort of setting (occasionally as a way for the preacher to get or "float" ideas...hmmm), and then to move on to the following week's propers immediately thereafter. While new ideas can be good, old patterns often exist for a reason. By "premiering" the propers on Sunday, we experience a communal sharing of the experience of hearing the scriptures and praying the collect of the day together. The sermon, ideally, uses the scripture lesson as interpreted by the collect and the other key elements of the faith as an opportunity for exposition, study, and application. Once the entire community has experienced these propers together in the Eucharistic assembly, it is a profitable practice for various groupings and individuals in the parish to study and reflect on what has been shared first as a body.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Independence Day: Knowing Whose We Are

Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
— Philippians 3:20 (NRSV)

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties
in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
— Collect for Independence Day, BCP

On July 4th the United States celebrates the anniversary of its declaration of independence from Great Britain in 1776, and the Episcopal Church honors the occasion with a Holy Day in the calendar, complete with special prayers and readings from sacred scripture. Given the season of the year—and the season in our nation—it seems a good time to reflect on the question of our identity as Christians versus that of our citizenship on earth.

The New Testament has a number of perspectives on the role and meaning of civil governance, but the overall attitude might best be summed up in the quote above from Philippians. While not anti-state (see Romans 10), the Church has taken from Jesus’ teaching and practice a keen awareness that Christians are not defined by political identities. While we pray for the State, work for good governance, vote, and pay our taxes, we have a higher loyalty and identity than merely being Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or what have you. Our Lord’s words “My kingdom is not of this world” remain central to the Christian attitude to the political arena.

This is important to remember in the face of the increasing polarization and party identification sweeping our nation. A recent survey showed that, whereas only 4% of the population once would have been seriously disturbed if a child married someone from the other major political party, some 40% of respondents today said they would. Another study showed that the major reason—by far—people are involved in politics today is the utter loathing of the “other party,” rather than feeling positive about their own political party or political service in general. These are signs of an increasingly hostile, unforgiving replacing the old divisions based on religion. How are we to respond to this?

When Episcopalians think about identity, we immediately re- member our baptism. Baptism is our birth into the radically new kind of community mentioned in 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Our allegiance to this holy nation rises above all other identities and markers in this or any other era.

Many people today are inclined to focus on the five baptismal promises (BCP pp. 304-5), especially the final promise that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Important as these promises are, they are predicated on what happens a little earlier in the Baptismal service: the renunciations and affirmations (BCP pp. 302-3).

In these words we make clear that our fundamental loyalty and identity is in Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior. We reject the worldly powers and identities that corrupt and destroy us, distorting our vision from that of Christ into the twisted, bitter, and hateful rhetoric of our day. This includes all “-isms” of every era.
This portion of the baptismal liturgy originates in Roman law: the transfer of ownership of slaves from one master to another. What we confess here is that until we are a part of Christ’s household, we are “owned” by the World and its corrupting, distorting “logic,” a logic enforced by evil structures and patterns in civil society, among other things.

When we have renounced our old “owner” and chosen (freely) Jesus as the Lord- who-frees, we may then go on to affirm our faith (in the words of the Apostles’ Creed) and pledge how we will live out that faith (the five baptismal promises).
To attempt to live as Christians while still maintaining loyalty to something else above Christ would be a dangerous hypocrisy.

It is just this hypocrisy we need to think about in our day, I believe. How can we bring the Gospel, and not a merely human agenda, to bear on the issues of our day? How can Christians provide a true alternative to the
“tit-for-tat,” “gotcha,” and zero-sum culture of American politics today? Surely no one political party has all the
righteousness or the answers. May Christians associate
with one political party, ideology, or identity so as to treat
it as virtually identical to the Gospel? I think not. Our Lord was never the member of a “party,” and the Gospel will never let us rest easy on this matter.

It is hypocritical to bemoan the condition of our divided and embittered nation and then add to it by blending the baptismal life found in the Scriptures with today’s partisanship and hostility. As Jesus points out, we cannot serve two masters:
one must be the true loyalty and the other lived in its light. Which will it be? That answer depends on whose we are.

The collect for Independence Day prays that “we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.” We must be active and serious in our pursuit of a nation where freedom and justice are available to all, and also one where righteousness—in all its forms—flourishes; and, we must do all this in peace. Not the peace of being on the winning side of
a vote or an issue, or the peace of trouncing our opponents. The peace this prayer speaks of is the Peace of God, a peace that “surpasses understanding” because it is not an ideology to be enforced but the fruit of a relationship that has been given and accepted. It is the peace of heaven, known in each Eucharist and all true Christian love.

This July Fourth I commend to you the full spiritual observance of Independence Day. See it as a time to reaffirm your most elemental loyalty to Christ and his Gospel, and through that loyalty to recommit to a loving, hopeful, and merciful engagement with politics. Be willing to walk the balance beam of Christian political life...a balance which my be maintained only by an ongoing communion with God the Holy Trinity. Work for justice, work for righteousness...but above all remember your baptism and do all things, pray all things, as a member of Christ’s Body and for the love of Christ. Only then will our celebration of this day be pleasing to Our Lord, and only then will our efforts and prayers meet with God’s blessing.