Friday, November 9, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41–44)

We have been entrusted with the administration and use of temporal wealth for the common good, not with the everlasting ownership of private property. If you accept the fact that ownership on earth is only for a time, you can earn eternal possessions in heaven. Call to mind the widow who forgot herself in her concern for the poor and, thinking only of the life to come, gave away all her means of subsistence, as the Judge Himself bears witness. Others, He says, have given of their superfluous wealth; but she, possessed of only two small coins and more needy perhaps than many of the poor—though in spiritual riches she surpassed all the wealthy—she thought only of the world to come, and had such a longing for heavenly treasure that she gave away, all at once, whatever she had that was derived from the earth and destined to return there. Let us then invest with the Lord what He has given us, for we have nothing that does not come from Him: we are dependent upon Him for our very existence.

Paulinus of Nola, Letters 34

Friday, November 2, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to All Saints' Sunday


Sing to the Lord a new song,
His praise in the assembly of His holy ones.
Let Israel be glad in Him who made him,
And let the children of Zion greatly rejoice in their King.
Let them praise His name with dance;
With tambourine and harp let them sing to Him;
For the Lord is pleased with His people,
And He shall exalt the gentle with salvation.

The holy ones shall boast in glory,
And they shall greatly rejoice on their beds;
The high praise of God shall be in their mouth
And a two-edged sword in their hand,
To deal retribution to the nations,
Reproving among the peoples,
To shackle their kings with chains
And their nobles with fetters of iron,
To fulfill among them the written judgment:
This glory have all His holy ones. (Psalm 149:1-9)

What greater strength is there than to bestow such great power on His saints that by His gift they gain victories over their enemies? But when he says: The saints shall rejoice in glory: they shall be joyful in their beds, they now attain the happy status which embraces the joys of the saints and the power of those who believe in Christ. But let us now observe how the saints’ rejoicing is described. Glory denotes repeated praise consisting of good deeds; the just rejoice in it in their beds, that is, in the depths of their hearts. As Paul puts it: For our glory is this: the testimony of our conscience; for they rejoice in the region accessible only to the knowledge of Him who deigned to bestow it. They rejoice particularly since they weigh the fact that they have a Lord whose goodness finds expression in bestowing pardon on the guilty, grace on sinners, enduring glory on the undeserving. By contrast the foolish person in this world departs from himself, rejoices in people’s gossip, and imagines that he deserves the praise with which lying words exalt him. So the saints have a doctrine of glorying, and put limits to their joy, ascribing to Him all the blessings which He bestows. If there is no limit put on happiness, there is no joy, but destruction.

We must observe how beautiful, how useful these differing expressions are. Earlier he said that the saints rejoice in their beds; now he says that the Lord’s rejoicings are set in their throats, the sense being that they never cease to praise whether in thought or in tongue Him from whom they obtain eternal gifts. He also moves on to explain the power that they wield, with the words: And two-edged swords in their hands. The two-edged sword is the word of the Lord Savior, of which Christ Himself says in the gospel: I have come not to send peace to the earth, but a sword. It is two-edged because it contains the two Testaments. First it separated Jews from Gentiles; subsequently it segregated and cut off only the Christians from the enticements of the whole world. There is one sword, but two ways of cutting which He grants to the chosen peoples at various selected moments of time. So the prophet says that these swords are in their hands, in other words, in the power of the saints; as Scripture has it: The word of the Lord came to the hand of Haggai the prophet. So the blessed ones will assume this power and pass judgment in company with the Lord; as Scripture says: You shall sit on twelve seats, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. For note what follows: To execute vengeance upon the nations, chastisements among the people. This truly takes place when they shall judge in company with the Lord.

Cassiodorus, Commentary on the Psalms 149.5–7

Friday, October 26, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Reformation Sunday

Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people—saying with a loud voice, “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.” (Re 14:6–7)

He refers to the messenger who runs throughout the church, which is spread far and wide and is to be extended even more. He uses the singular for the plural, or in the one [messenger] he is suggesting the unity of the single church; yet, at the same time, he is alluding to the preachers of eternal life. It rightly says that he preaches an eternal gospel, by which the preacher is taught to look forward to eternal salvation. And so the one who preaches is indicated by that which is preached. Therefore the psalm says, “He who makes the winds his messengers and burning fire his ministers.”

Although from the beginning of the Christian faith we have learned that the kingdom of heaven is said to be approaching, here, however, he proclaims that the hour of His judgment will come very soon and is virtually here already. And therefore he maintains that preaching of this kind must necessarily be made known to all people, as also the Lord said, “This gospel will be preached throughout the world, and then the end will come.” And to show that that moment of time takes place, when the adversity of the last persecution will draw near, he has rather added that the temporal power of the beast should best be regarded as insignificant and that the Lord rather be feared, whom every one of his creatures, whom he mentions, acknowledges to be eternal.

Primasius of Hadrumetum, Commentary on the Apocalypse 14.6–7

Friday, October 19, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” … Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.” So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mk 10:22, 28–31)

Therefore on hearing those words, the blessed Peter, the elect, the chosen one,the first of the disciples, for whom alone and Himself the Savior paid tribute, quickly seized and comprehended the saying. And what does he say? “See, we have left all and followed You.” Now if by all he means his own property, he boasts of leaving four oboli perhaps in all, and forgets to show the kingdom of heaven to be their recompense. But if, casting away what we were now speaking of, the old mental possessions and soul diseases, they follow in the Master’s footsteps, this now joins them to those who are to be enrolled in the heavens. For it is thus that one truly follows the Savior, by aiming at sinlessness and at His perfection, and adorning and composing the soul before it as a mirror, and arranging everything in all respects similarly.

But let neither this trouble you, nor the still harder saying delivered in another place in the words, “Whoever hates not father, and mother, and children, and his own life besides, cannot be My disciple.” For the God of peace, who also exhorts to love enemies, does not introduce hatred and dissolution from those that are dearest. But if we are to love our enemies, it is in accordance with right reason that, ascending from them, we should love also those nearest in kindred; or if we are to hate our blood-relations, deduction teaches us that much more are we to spurn from us our enemies: so that the reasonings would be shown to cancel one another. But they do not cancel each other, nor are they near doing so. For from the same feeling and disposition, and on the ground of the same rule, one loving his enemy may hate his father, inasmuch as he neither takes vengeance on an enemy, nor reverences a father more than Christ. For by the one word he destroys hatred and injury, and by the other excessive deference towards one’s relations, if it is detrimental to salvation. If then one’s father, or son, or brother, be godless, and become a hindrance to faith and an impediment to the higher life, let him not be friends or agree with him, but on account of the spiritual enmity, let him dissolve the fleshly relationship.

Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? 21–22

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Seven Marks of a True Church

Bryan Wolfmueller has edited and made available a work by Martin Luther entitled On the Councils and the Churches. One of the treasures in this book is Luther’s list of seven marks for a true church.
  1. This Christian, holy people is to be known by this, that it has God’s Word, though in quite unequal measure, as St. Paul says. Some have it altogether pure, others not entirely pure.… This is the main point. It is the high, chief, holy possession from which the Christian people take the name “holy,” for God’s Word is holy and sanctifies everything it touches; nay, it is the very holiness of God.
  2. God’s people, or the Christian holy people, is known by the holy Sacrament of Baptism, when it is rightly taught and believed and used according to Christ’s ordinance.
  3. God’s people, or a Christian, holy Church is known by the holy Sacrament of the Altar, when it is rightly administered according to Christ’s institution and is believed and received.
  4. The people of God, or holy Christians, are known by the keys, which they publicly use. Christ decrees, in Matthew 18:15 that if a Christian sins, he shall be rebuked, and if he does not amend his ways, he shall be bound and cast out; but if he amends, he shall be set free. This is the power of the keys.
  5. The Church is known outwardly by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices which they occupy. For we must have bishops, pastors, or preachers, to give, administer and use, publicly and privately, the four things, or precious possessions, that have been mentioned, for the sake of and in the name of the Church, or rather because of their institution by Christ…. The whole group cannot do these things, but must commit them, or allow them to be committed, to someone.
  6. The holy, Christian people is known by prayer and public thanksgiving and praise to God. Where you see and hear that the Lord’s Prayer is prayed and the use of it is taught; where Psalms, or spiritual songs, are sung, in accordance with the Word of God and the right faith; when the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Catechism are openly used; — there be sure that a holy Christian people is; for prayer, too, is one of the precious holy possessions, whereby everything is made holy, as St. Paul says.
  7. The holy, Christian Church is outwardly known by the holy possession of the Holy Cross. It must endure all hardship and persecution, all kinds of temptation and evil (as the Lord’s Prayer says) from devil, world, and flesh; it must be inwardly sad, timid, terrified; outwardly poor, despised, sick, weak; thus it becomes like its head, Christ.
Every church has some or many of these marks to one degree or another, but where one finds these in there entirety and used correctly should be the norm.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.” Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mk 10:17-22)

Let us see, then, how the questioner styled Him, besides calling Him good. He said, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do?” adding to the title of good that of master. If Christ then did not chide because He was called good, it must have been because He was called good Master. Further the manner of His reproof shows that it was the disbelief of the questioner, rather than the name of master, or of good, which He resented. A youth, who provides himself upon the observance of the law, but did not know the end of the law, which is Christ, who thought himself justified by works, without perceiving that Christ came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to those who believe that the law cannot save through the faith of justification, questioned the Lord of the law, the Only-begotten God, as though He were a teacher of the common precepts and the writings of the law. But the Lord, abhorring this declaration of irreverent unbelief, which addresses Him as a teacher of the law, answered, “Why do you call Me good?” and to show how we may know, and call Him good, He added, “None is good, save one, God,” not repudiating the name of good, if it be given to Him as God.

Then, as a proof that He resents the name good master, on the ground of the unbelief, which addresses Him as a man, He replies to the vain-glorious youth, and his boast that he had fulfilled the law, “One thing you lack; go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” There is no shrinking from the title of good in the promise of heavenly treasures, no reluctance to be regarded as master in the offer to lead the way to perfect blessedness. But there is reproof of the unbelief which draws a worldly opinion of Him from the teaching, that goodness belongs to God alone. To signify that He is both good and God, He exercises the functions of goodness, opening the heavenly treasures, and offering Himself as guide to them. All the homage offered to Him as man He repudiates, but He does not disown that which He paid to God; for at the moment when He confesses that the one God is good, His words and actions are those of the power and the goodness and the nature of the one God.

Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 9.16–17

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Whatever Works

Recently, I became aware of a piece written by Anthony Esolen in July on the decay of the Roman Catholic mass as it succumbs to pragmatism. Note his melancholy derived from questionable expressions of worship.
Here I am three and four times cursed.

I have read and taught poetry all my adult life. This is one curse. I know English grammar. That is a second curse. My family and I are versed in the long tradition of Christian hymnody; we collect hymnals from all traditions, and we have sung one or two thousand of them, sometimes in languages other than English. This is a third and most terrible curse. And we know our Scripture. Cursed a fourth time, cursed and damned to writhe in eternal pain. Well, not eternal. The pain is transient but real—pain mingled with frustration and disappointment, that well-meaning people should give their talents and energies to stuff that is so worthless, and sometimes worse than worthless. For sometimes it is flat-out heresy.
While I am not Roman Catholic, I do feel his pain. Reverence is too often exchanged for pragmatism, depth for delicacies. Better to be taking the sage advice of Pastor Larry Peters:
We need to pay attention to Scripture. Saying back to God what He has said to us is the most sure and certain thing we can say and do in worship. I think I read that somewhere. We need to pay attention to history. Every age and generation is not given a blank slate to create worship but they are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. We need to pay attention to creed and confession. What we do on Sunday morning must be more than consistent with what we say we believe—it must be an accurate reflection of what we say we believe—prayed dogma! We need to pay attention to what is new not as determinative but as a contribution to a catholic past and a catholic future. Not everything new is evil but we must carefully discern what is good, right, true, beautiful, faithful, and worthy from our own age and generation. We need to pay attention to language. Words flow in and out of our vocabularies and they change in meaning but this must be held in tension with the vocabulary of Scripture and tradition and words that mean what God says they mean. We need to pay attention to excellence.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Remembering Who Serves Whom

What happens on Sunday morning in a church gathering? What do we expect? Certainly, we come to hear a message from the preacher, but what else goes on? We call this meeting time a service, but who is being served and why? Among other things we give financial gifts, offer up Godward worship for His person and praise for His deeds, plus hear a well-crafted delivery from the pastor. As a result, we have arrived at the conclusion that the service is where we serve or give to God, but Scripture seems to reverse this: God serves or gives to us.

The clearest instructions of corporate worship in Scripture are those delivered to Moses. While the people of Israel were camped at Mount Sinai, God gave multiple instructions concerning the construction of the sanctuary and furnishings, followed by the high priestly garments and consecration rite. After giving these instructions, the Lord described what would be their most common communal task—the daily sacrifice.
Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two unblemished lambs of the first year, day by day continually. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening. With the one lamb shall be one-tenth of a measure of fine flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of pressed oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine as a drink offering. The other lamb you shall offer in the evening, as at the morning offering, and according to the drink offering of the morning lamb. You shall offer it as a sacrifice of sweet aroma to the Lord. This shall be a continual sacrifice throughout your generations at the doors of the tabernacle of testimony before the Lord, where I will be known to you to speak to you. There I shall give directions to the children of Israel, and I shall be sanctified in My glory. So I will sanctify the tabernacle of testimony and the altar. I will also consecrate both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me as priests. I will be called upon among the children of Israel and will be their God. So they shall know I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt to be called upon among them and to be their God. (Ex 29:38–46)
At first glance, we notice a good deal of preparation and completion of the twice-daily burnt and drink offerings. One may come away with the idea that the purpose was for the people to perform some ritual in order to garner God’s favor and presence. On closer examination, we see that only the priest was in active service. All others present were beneficiaries of the provided atoning sacrifice. Through the continual act of one, God met with His people at the altar, sanctified the entire company, and dwelt in their midst. The application for the church should be obvious: Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, is the final burnt offering. He is the continuous sacrifice through which we now receive His divine presence, communion, and sanctification. How does this truth affect our corporate gatherings as believers? When gathering for worship, we are to remember that we have nothing to do to provoke or entice the Lord to deign us with His presence. He makes Himself present, He dwells with us, He makes us holy to stand before Him. All this is gained by virtue of what Christ has completed on the cross: it is ours by faith. Do we give to God? Of course, but it is not to initiate communion with Him. Rather we express our trust and dependence in the outpouring of adoration for His loving, faithful work and promise to the children of men.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them. (Mk 10:13-16)

But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted—and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace—how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.

And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to be hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreat.

Cyprian, Letter to Fidus 58.5–6

Monday, October 1, 2018

Dirtier Than Dirt

I am currently reading Liturgical Worship by Jordan Cooper, and after finishing only four chapters, my opinion of this work is quite favorable. Consider an observation in the chapter “Confession and Absolution” drawn from Uzzah attempting to steady the ark of the Testimony (2 Samuel 6:6–8).
While the ark began to fall off the cart, Uzzah had two options: either he could let the ark fall onto the dirt, or he could stretch out his hand and catch it. As most of us probably would, Uzzah assumed that his hand was cleaner than the dirt. This assumption was wrong. The dirt, in and of itself, is not unholy. The ground, though affected by sin, is not itself sinful. The earth has not acted against God’s holy will in rebellion against him. The same cannot be said of humanity. Unlike the land, Uzzah was a rebellious creature; he was infected with sin and uncleanness. Spiritually, apart from Christ, we are all, like Uzzah, unclean.
Dirtier than dirt? That hurts, but the assessment is entirely correct. When you and I came into this world, we were born in sin. David made this plain when he said:
For behold, I was conceived in transgressions,
And in sins my mother bore me. (Ps 51:7)
David was not bringing condemnation on his mother but acknowledging that from before birth to now, sin had been his constant companion. The man after God’s own heart came into this world a sinner; Uzzah was no different; neither are we. We cannot assume to lay hold of holy things without consequence. One must be made holy in order to come before a holy God and handle holy things.

Here, we might reply, “But Uzzah did this innocently. Doesn't that mean something?” No, it does not. The ark was only to be moved by those set apart for this work of ministry in a prescribed manner (Nu 4:4–6). Only they were allowed this privilege. David had inappropriately placed the ark on a cart, putting everyone at risk. When we presume to alter or improve on what the Lord has revealed through His Word, even with the best of intentions, we turn the holy and precious into the common and cheap.

We believers are all too prone to cheapen devotion and worship, thinking that our cultural surroundings, modern understanding, or personal preferences should hold more sway. Let’s not fool ourselves. Only He can cause us to stand holy before Him through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). May we conduct ourselves accordingly in pure worship and devotion, handling holy things in a holy manner as we assemble before Him.