Friday, October 18, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1–8)

For the Son of God is high priest of our offerings and our Advocate with the Father. He prays for those who pray, and pleads along with those who plead. He will not, however, consent to pray, as for his intimates, on behalf of those who do not with some constancy pray through Him, nor will He be Advocate with the Father, as for men already His own, on behalf of those who do not obey His teaching to the effect that they ought at all times to pray and not lose heart.

For it says, “He spoke a parable to the end that they ought at all times to pray and not lose heart. ‘There was a certain judge in a certain city,’” and so on; and earlier he said unto them, “Who of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight and shall say to him: Friend, lend me three loaves since a friend of mine has come to me after a journey and I have naught to set before him”; and a little later, “I tell you, even though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, he will yet because of his being unabashed get up and give him as many as he wants."

And who that believes the guileless lips of Jesus can but be stirred to unhesitating prayer when He says, “Ask and it shall be given you for everyone that asks receives,” since the kind Father gives to those who have received the spirit of adoption from the Father, the living bread when we ask Him, not the stone which the adversary would have become food for Jesus and His disciples, and since The Father gives the good gift in rain from heaven to those that ask him.

Origen, On Prayer 6

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Made Clean and Whole

All of Jesus’ miracles are remarkable, but one that stands out to me involves ten lepers that He encountered on a journey to Jerusalem.
Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. (Luke 17:11–16)
Why does this particular miracle stand out so prominently? Because the healing was topsy-turvy and backwards. Jesus came into an unnamed village when this small band of men living near, but outside (see Lev 13:45–46), the city asked for mercy from their affliction—an expected reception from those with incurable infirmities who had heard of the Miracle Worker. Jesus’ response is another matter.

Go, Show Yourselves

Moses had received specific instructions on Mt. Sinai for the cleansing of one no longer afflicted with a leprous disease. In summary, the process from Leviticus 14:1–32 was:
  • Priest meets a formerly leprous person outside the camp for examination.
  • Kill one bird in an earthen vessel to capture its blood.
  • Dip the live bird, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop in the blood; sprinkle the person to be cleansed; release the bird.
  • Person shaves his head, washes clothes, and bathes.
  • Person lives outside his tent seven days, after which he shaves all hair, washes clothes, and bathes again.
  • On the eighth day, the priest makes the atoning sacrifice based on what the person can afford and anoints the person similarly to the priest.
Jesus told the ten men to take the first step of initial examination, and as they went, all were cleansed: the leprosy had been healed. We can imagine the joy the men felt when they discover what had suddenly occurred. Probably their pace quickened as they began their trek to Jerusalem; however, there was a complication for one.

He Was a Samaritan

Jesus told the Samaritan leper to go to the priest as a witness. While there were no specific Levitical laws which forbade an outsider from going through the cleansing ritual, there were some preventing foreigners from being part of the worshiping community. In view of this restriction, Jesus’ command to the men becomes more stark. While the Lord’s favor might have been expected toward the Jews, none was toward outsiders, especially the despised Samaritans. This man would become a witness to the priests that divine favor was not reserved for the Jews, but would be extended to all who believed in the Father and the One whom He sent. The Samaritan not only had a physical healing but a complete one through faith.
So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11–19)
Jesus told a different Samaritan that something new was in the offing. While journeying from Judea to Galilee, Jesus took His disciples through Samaria rather than going around the region as most Jewish travelers would do. His encounter with a Samaritan woman of ill repute (John 4:1–26) made clear that worship before God would no longer be dictated by location and ancestral lines but in spirit and truth through faith (John 4:21–24).

The Way Made Open

One does not need to dwell long on these accounts to understand their poignancy and application. Here were two individuals—separated from God by both blood and uncleanness—made clean and whole through Jesus’ word and promise. These serve as a precursor for our own entry into the family of faith. We who had no place as unclean outsiders are made presented clean and holy through faith by virtue of the great transaction on the cross at Golgotha. There a new and living way was made open, so that all who are baptized into Christ and believe on Him are now full beneficiaries of God’s abundant grace. What a blessing! May we also with a loud voice glorify God and worship Him who made us clean and whole.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11–19)

And why did He not rather say, “I will, be cleansed,” as he did in the case of another leper; but commanded them rather to shew themselves unto the priests? It was because the law gave directions to this effect to those who were delivered from leprosy: for it commanded them to show themselves to the priests, and to offer a sacrifice for their cleansing. He commanded them therefore to go, as being already healed, and, that they might, so to speak, bear witness to the priests, as the rulers of the Jews, and ever envious of His glory, that wonderfully, and beyond their hope, they had been delivered from their misfortune by Christ’s willing that they should be healed. He did not heal them first, but sent them to the priests, because the priests knew the marks of leprosy, and of its being healed. He sent them to the priests, and with them He sent also the healing.… The nine then, as being Jews, falling into a thankless forgetfulness, did not return to give glory to God: by which He shows that Israel was hard of heart, and utterly unthankful. But the stranger was of foreign race being a Samaritan, having been brought there from Assyria: for the phrase is not without meaning, “in the middle of Samaria and Galilee.” He returned with a loud voice to glorify God. It shows therefore that the Samaritans were grateful, but that the Jews, even when benefited, were ungrateful.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 113–116

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Catechetics: Fixing Confirmation by Lincoln Winter – Book Review

Winter, Lincoln. Catechetics: Fixing Confirmation. 2019. 452 pp.

At the outset, it is only fair to tell the reader that my name can be found on the acknowledgments page as one of three prepublication review editors.

Christians of all backgrounds have wrestled with the issue of instilling the faith into recent converts and subsequent generations. How do we teach so that doctrine is planted deeply into souls that remain faithful to the end? For centuries, the proscribed solution was catechesis: a system of questions and answers designed to give the learner the basics of the faith. In the modern western church, the most well-known of these are Catechism of the Catholic Church, Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechism, and Luther’s Small and Large Catechism. Lincoln Winter recognizes that though the historic catechetical instruction methods are of great benefit, their purpose has been co-opted through the adaptation of modern educational methods and goals, thus impairing authority and weakening effectiveness. Because he is an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), this book is written from his observations within that church body; however, I have read and interacted with pastors of other church bodies giving the resulting anecdotal consensus that the problem knows no denominational boundaries, and the solution is identical: return to classical instruction of Scripture and confessional documents.

The opening four chapters are devoted to the definition and history of catechesis. He demonstrates how it has roots solidly in the pages of Holy Writ and extends to the post-apostolic period in documents such as The Teaching of the Twelve (or Didache), Apostolic Traditions, and Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures. This is important as it helps the uninformed to understand that catechesis did not begin during the Reformation. As part of this, there is also a brief historical look at confirmation, which aids in understanding the author’s thesis. Winter then focuses on the Lutheran catechisms and educational developments in the LCMS to the present.

Chapters five and six look at the practical value of Luther’s Small Catechism (SC) as instructional material for doctrine and use as a prayer book, after which attention is turned toward the inherent interconnected nature of the Large Catechism (LC) as explanation for  the SC versus the synodical decision to write and subsequently update explanations to the SC. This useful study demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of both SC-LC and SC-Synodical correlation. This has implications for those outside Lutheranism, because even though the confessional and instructional documents may vary, caution must be given when attempting to improve on foundational methods, however well-intended.

Chapters seven and eight attempt to define the goal of catechesis and its relation to confirmation. Catechesis and confirmation have been linked for several centuries with the instruction initially being given prior to baptism but now is reserved for a particular age (in the case of a child) arbitrarily set by the denomination. This begs the question: is this model appropriate? While we are accustomed to such a model in our public school system, the author demonstrates that this is woefully inadequate in spiritual things and needs to be addressed.

Chapters nine through twelve deal with the responsibility of catechizing: first by examining the spheres of influence and authority within each, then looking at both the catechist and catechumen. Winter does a good job establishing the father, and by extension the mother, as chief catechist in the home. Here is where the foundational training will occur. Within the church realm, the pastor or chief catechist will add to this instruction. Finally, school will undergird (and add to as needed) what has been taught and interconnect that with the world around. The issue at this point becomes what is age-appropriate catechesis? When do parents begin, and when does the pastor examine or complete it? The author acknowledges the typical timeline ending with confirmation in the mid-teens, but advocates that the instruction can and should be earlier in life and be fluid in relation to the readiness of the catechumen. Finally, there is a comparison of classical versus progressive catechetical models, demonstrating the superiority of the former.

Chapters thirteen through fifteen examine the multilayered nature of catechesis and how that interacts in and with church life through preaching, liturgy, and ceremony. Many understand the first of these three, however, the format of worship and actions performed within that framework teach more than is commonly acknowledged. If teaching is more caught than taught, as the old saying goes, the entirety of the worship meeting must be examined. Chapter sixteen, then, examines he life of the catechumen and how his or her spiritual disciplines add or subtract to catechesis. Finally, chapter seventeen offers obstacles to catechesis.

In all, I found this to be a solid work, rightly examining the issues and challenges of catechesis while offering solutions for going forward. While this book addresses the need in a specific Lutheran synod, someone from any denominational body could glean the benefits of the research found herein to formulate and develop better a instruction methodology based on solid, historic practice rather than current trends. Also, there is a helpful appendix giving a good, practical framework for catechesis.

My only disappointment in this book has to do with typography and English mechanics. While going through the manuscript, I addressed errors where they might be found, but upon reading the finished work, many more came to light. With more time, I could have proofread the material more closely. Alas, all involved were under a time crunch, so some things slipped through. Perhaps these can be updated for future printings.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eugène Burnand
And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” (Luke 17:5–10)

For if you do not say to a servant who has plowed or grazed the sheep, go on, put yourself at the table—where you hear that no one sits down if he does not pass first: Moses first began to move to see the great vision—so if you not only do not say to your servant: sit down to table, but you claim from him another service and do not thank it, so the Lord does not admit that you are giving Him a single work or work; for as long as we live, we must always work. Recognize, therefore, that you are a servant of many services. Do not worry about being called a child of God—you must recognize grace, but without forgetting nature—do not boast if you have served well: you had to do it. The sun does its work, the moon obeys, the angels do their service. The instrument chosen by the Lord for the Gentiles says, “I am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I have persecuted the church of God;” and in another place, after having shown that he is not aware of any fault, he adds: “But I am not justified for that reason.” So we, too, do not pretend to be praised for ourselves nor anticipate the judgment of God; and let us not prevent the judge’s judgment, but reserve it for his time, for his judge.

Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of St. Luke 8

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Excellent Article on Prayer

Photo by Ric Rodrigues at
The following article is written by Pastor David H. Petersen of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, IN and published in the current issue of Gottesdiendst: The Journal of Lutheran Liturgy (Volume 27, Number 3). I offer it for your edification. And as an aside, I highly recommend John Kleinig’s book referenced below.

Thoughts about Prayer

One of the explicit duties of Christian pastors is to pray. It is the very last vow in the LSB [Lutheran Service Book] Ordination rite: “Will you be constant in prayer for those under your care?” The vows also require that pastors faithfully instruct both young and old in the doctrine and practice of prayer, for it is among the chief articles of Christian doctrine. While not in the vows, it is also a duty of the ministry to lead the prayers of the Church. For all that, it is more difficult to find a comprehensive definition or description of prayer than might be expected, and yet how we think about prayer matters greatly. There is much popular literature on the topic, but it is mostly saccharine and cliché-ridden, often misleading the reader into the idea that Christian prayer is nothing more than thanks and praise with a few requests and that the efficacy of prayer is driven by the petitioner’s sincerity, strength of faith, or committed will. In search of a more dogmatic definition that would aid my own practice and teaching, I found two sources, in particular, most useful: John Kleinig’s book Grace Upon Grace (2008) and Peter Selby’s article on ‘prayer’ in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (1986).

John Kleinig explains that his own theology of prayer is mainly “some rather obvious lessons from bitter experience” (153). His “bitter experience” is largely disappointment and frustration that arose from being misled by popular piety. His bitter experience is that Christianity, in contrast to popular piety, is not meant to help us “live in the best of all possible worlds where God’s rule is largely unchallenged” (184).

Kleinig’s experience has led him to see prayer as more than just thanks and praise or to place its hope on anything in the Christian’s will or faith. He understands prayer as a greater reality than simply talking to God and even listening to God, but of actually being in the presence of God. The purpose of this presence is conversation. God speaks and we respond and He speaks again and so forth. God speaks, of course, in His Word. Kleinig asserts that the way that Jesus teaches us to pray “overcomes our fears about our performance and acceptability” (170). He unpacks this as follows:
In Mark 11:22–25, we find the most frequently quoted passage on the power of faith in prayer. There Jesus has this to say:

“Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses.”

Here Jesus speaks about the connection between the proclamation of God’s performative judging and saving Word and prayer. Both depend on faith. In both the disciples of Jesus exercise their faith in God.

These words of Jesus are often misunderstood and misapplied in two different ways. First, people isolate verses 23–24 from verse 22 in order to stress the need for confidence in prayer. Therefore they misinterpret what is meant by faith. Faith is not some kind of presumptuous self-confidence that makes demands on God and expects to get what it demands, That would make the power of prayer dependent on our faith in our own abilities rather than on our faith in God. The issue is not whether we are confident enough in what we pray for and in how we pray, but whether we rely on God’s grace rather than on ourselves. When Jesus speaks about confident prayer, He directs our attention away from ourselves to the faithfulness of God. Both the certainty of faith and the consequent power of prayer derive from God and His goodness.

Second, people isolate verses 23–24 from verse 25 in order to urge people to be more confident in their prayers. Jesus admits that uncertain faith leads to hesitant praying. Such uncertainty impairs a person from praying with boldness and confidence. Jesus does not, however, urge the hesitant vacillator on to stronger faith as if faith depended on the willpower of the person. Rather, He gets to the root of the problem. Hesitant and uncertain prayer is the mark of a troubled conscience. It usually stems from resentment against those who have hurt us, and our reluctance to forgive them. Resentment and anger sabotage faith and prayer (see also 1 Timothy 2:8) and must therefore be rectified. So the power of prayer rests not only on our confidence in the grace of God but also on our graciousness to those who have hurt us. Prayer has nothing to do with any kind of presumptuous self-assurance and self-assertion. The faith that moves mountains does not come from our confidence in making our demands on God but on our self-effacing reliance on His grace in prayer. (195–196)
All of our prayers are prayers with Jesus, in His presence. He is our intercessor, loaning us His words and power so that we might approach the lather with boldness and confidence (160–162). Prayer isn’t simply formed in conformity with Scripture but is a response to the God who speaks in Scripture. This must therefore be rooted in the context of the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. The power and grace that God gives in response to our requests in prayer is not distinct from prayer, the way that, say, a piece of bread is distinct from a hungry child’s request that his mother feed him. Rather, what God gives through prayer comes, according to God’s promise, through the means of grace, through Word and Sacrament, and is part and parcel of prayer because prayer is prayer with Jesus and by Jesus.

Kleinig doesn’t actually give a definition of prayer, but it is clear that he understands prayer to be a sweeping and all-encompassing reality of the Christian who is a temple of the Holy Spirit and who is in the presence of Jesus. Prayer is a synonym for faith. Christians are at prayer—rejoicing always, praying always—even when they are not conscious of it.

Christian prayer is not a conversation meant simply to obtain information or obtain favors but is a familial, intimate conversation, where all involved rejoice in one another and enjoy deep fellowship and comfort with one another. This is a conversation like that of parents and children, of husband and wife, and of friends in every kind of situation. Prayer must be conversation with God and not simply toward Him. So also, it cannot be merely passive listening. When God speaks, He demands a response. Thus, again, prayer must not simply be informed by Scripture but should include Scripture and meditation, listening, contemplating, questioning, searching, praising, complaining, listening again, and so forth.

While not as extensive as Kleinig’s chapter, Peter Selby’s article on prayer in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship may be the most comprehensive and useful definition of prayer in English. He writes: “Prayer is the generic term for all aspects of humanity’s conscious relationship to God” (140). Selby also lays out a five-fold division of prayer: adoration, confession, petition, praise, and thanksgiving. Before going into the details of each, he writes that these acts are all relevant “whether they involve specific acts of prayer or not because they describe essential components of man's relationship to God” (441). Despite my glowing praise, it must be noted that Selby does not seem to tie prayer to the Word of God or meditation on the Word, nor does he name lament as a type of prayer.

Kleinig’s chapter on meditation in Grace Upon Grace deals with prayer as well. Here he advocates not for turning inward for meditation but, rather, for focusing on the Word of God. He writes: “When we meditate on Christ and His Word, the power of His Word and our attitude to it determine what happens to us as we meditate” (100). He uses an excerpt from Luther’s 1521 pamphlet “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” as an example. In this way, without using the word ‘pray,’ he outlines out how to use a text for prayer. First, he says, the reader uses all five senses to imagine the scenario of the event. The reader pays attention to the details. He concentrates on the Word of God, what is described, or what the Word states. Next, he ponders the story or statement as he identifies himself with the characters, seeing how it applies to him and his situation, how he is like the humans in the story or the humans who made the statement—both in his sins and unworthiness, and also in his faith. Finally, he considers how he might respond in obedience to Christ (102–103).

Kleinig does not spell out what obedient responses might be, but it is easy to recognize that they will often be a confession of sins, a request for help, and thanksgiving to God for His mercy. This is to say that an obedient response will always, in some fashion, include petitions, but whether they do or not, they might be termed simply “prayer.”

Later Kleinig is explicit regarding the relationship of prayer and meditation and the particular usefulness of the Psalms. He writes:
The Psalms … link our meditations with prayer to God. Thus many of them either begin or end with prayer, They remind us that Christian meditation is always done in God’s presence, even when He seems far from us. As we attend to the Psalms, they place us before God and open us up to His gracious scrutiny. The words by which we meditate on God and His deeds are even regarded as a verbal offering to God that is pleasing to Him (Psalm 19:14; 104:34). So, the speakers in the Psalms move readily from speaking to God to speaking about God and from speaking to their enemies to speaking to themselves about all subjects. And vice versa! And this is how it is and how it should be when we meditate. Mediation begins and ends with prayer. Ultimately, it cannot be separated from prayer. In both we respond to God’s Word and exercise our faith in His word. (140)
A full prayer life is a life that is engaged in an ongoing conversation with God. It is possible only because the Christian has been made a child of God by the sacrifice of the Son for the life of the world and enjoys the familial privilege of real conversations, conversations that encompass the spectrum of human emotion and experience. Our prayers include petitions, intercessions for loved ones and others, thanksgiving, praise, and even complaining or lamenting. When God speaks, the Christian must respond. Prayer is necessary. Prayer is best understood as an activity or state of being that is closely connected to, and never apart from, the Word of God that God Himself initiates and encourages, not simply as an act of faith but as faith itself. It is conducted in God’s presence, with God, and not merely to or toward Him. It includes hearing, proclaiming, contemplating, and meditating on the Word of God, as well as asking and talking and even ruminating. For prayer to be full, it must be to the God who speaks and desires our prayers. For all this to be possible, Christians, like the disciples before them, must be open to being taught to pray. It does not come naturally to men on this side of glory, even after conversion. We must abandon the vanity that expects prayer to be easy, obvious, or natural to the Christian. We must learn to listen and learn to be honest. We must learn to wait in trustful obedience based solidly upon God’s promises.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to St. Michael and All Angels

Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” And He said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17–20)

The authority, however, which they bore to reprove evil spirits, and the power of crushing Satan, was not given them that they might themselves so much be regarded with admiration, as that Christ might be glorified by their means, and be believed on by those whom they taught, as by nature God, and the Son of God; and invested with so great glory and supremacy and might, as to be even able to bestow upon others the power of trampling Satan under their feet.

But they, it says, in that they were counted worthy of so great grace, “returned rejoicing, and saying, Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” For they confess the authority of Him Who honored them, and wonder at the supremacy and greatness of His power. But they seem to have rejoiced, not so much because they were ministers of His message, and had been counted worthy of apostolic honors, as because they had worked miracles. But it would have been better for them to have reflected, that He gave them the power to work miracles, not that they might be regarded by men with admiration on this account, but rather that what they preached might be believed, the Holy Spirit bearing them witness by divine signs. It would have been better, therefore, had they manifestly rejoiced on account of those rather who had been won by their means, and had made this a cause of exultation. Just as also the very wise Paul gloried in those who had been called by his means, saying, “My joy and my crown.” But they said nothing at all of this kind, but rejoiced only in that they had been able to crush Satan.

And what is Christ’s reply? “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” That is, “I am not unaware of this: for inasmuch as you set out upon this journey, so to speak, by My will, you have vanquished Satan. ‘I saw him fall like lightning from heaven.’” And this means that he was cast down from on high to earth: from overweening pride to humiliation: from glory to contempt: from great power to utter weakness. And the saying is true: for before the coming of the Savior, he possessed the world. All was subject to him, and there was no man able to escape the meshes of his overwhelming might. He was worshiped by every one. Everywhere he had temples and altars for sacrifice, and an innumerable multitude of worshipers. But because the Only-begotten Word of God has come down from heaven, he has fallen like lightning: for he who of old was bold and arrogant, and who contended with the glory of Deity; he who had as his worshipers all that were in error, is put under the feet of those that worshiped him.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 64

Friday, September 20, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eugene Burnand, “Parable of the Dishonest Steward”
He also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’

So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own? “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:1–13)

Anyone may readily learn the meaning and view of the Savior’s words from what follows. For He said, “If you have not been faithful in what is another’s, who will give you what is your own?” And again, we say what is another’s is the wealth we possess. For we were not born with riches, but, on the contrary, naked; and we can truly affirm in the words of Scripture, “that we neither brought anything into the world, nor can we carry anything out.” For the patient Job also has said something of this kind: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked shall I return.” It is therefore no man’s own by right of nature that he is rich and lives in abundant wealth, but it is a thing added on from the outside, and is a chance matter. And if it cease and perish, it in no respect whatsoever harms the definitions of human nature. For it is not by virtue of our being rich that we are reasonable beings, and skillful in every good work, but it is the property of our nature to be capable of these things. That therefore, as I said, is another’s which is not contained in the definitions of our nature, but, on the contrary, is manifestly added to us from the outside. But it is our own, and the property of human nature to be fitted for every good work, for as the blessed Paul writes, “We have been created for good works, which God has prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

When therefore any are unfaithful in what is another’s, in those things namely, which are added to them from the outside, how shall they receive that which is their own? How shall they be made partakers of the good things which God gives, which adorn the soul of man, and imprint upon it a divine beauty, spiritually formed in it by righteousness and holiness, and those upright deeds which are done in the fear of God.

Let those of us then who possess earthly wealth open our hearts to those who are in need. Let us show ourselves faithful and obedient to the laws of God and followers of our Lord’s will in those things which are from the outside, and not our own, that we may receive that which is our own, even that holy and admirable beauty which God forms in the souls of men, fashioning them like unto Himself, according to what we originally were.

Cyril of Alexandria, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Luke 109

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Repentance and Reconciliation

Yesterday, I gave an example from 2 Maccabees of Jason the high priest introducing foreign practices into Jewish life with disastrous results. After the debacle, Jason was ousted as high priest in favor of Melenaus. While Jason made a successful attack on Jerusalem to regain the position, he overstepped, killing innocent people, so that the Greeks turned against him, forcing him to flee and die in exile. Antiochus, for his part, “dared to enter the most holy temple in all the earth.… With defiled hands he took the holy vessels, and with profane hands he pulled down the things dedicated by other kings to increase the glory and honor of the place” (2 Macc 5:15–16). With booty in tow, he left Jerusalem and sent Apollonius, commander of the Mysians, with an army of 22,000 men, with orders to slaughter all the grown men and to sell the women and young boys as slaves, resulting in the killing of a great number of people (2 Macc 5:24–26).

Amidst the apostatizing priests and later carnage and mayhem from invading forces, we have a sublime message concerning a marvelous truth, wisely acknowledging the ties and priorities between God’s people and His dwelling place.
But the Lord did not choose the nation because of the place, but the place because of the nation. Therefore the place also itself shared in the misfortunes that befell the nation, and later had a share in its benefits; and what was forsaken in the wrath of the Almighty was restored again in all its glory by the reconciliation of the great Lord. (2 Macc 5:19–20)
Evidently, at this time Jerusalem and the temple were held as the linchpin or identity of Judaism—that God had chosen Israel because He placed His name in Jerusalem. The writer reminds his readers that they had things backwards: God had first chosen the nation (Deut 7:6), then afterward had chosen a place to put His name as a dwelling place whereat He might be called (Deut 12:5). While the desecration and looting of the temple was a great tragedy, the greater tragedy was the malaise of the nation concerning the holy things coupled with the loss of human life. Later teaching from Jesus describes the continued downward trajectory of the leaders’ spiritual condition, becoming stagnant and twisted to the extent that the gold of the temple was held in higher esteem than the temple itself (Matt 23:16–17); however, at this time, there seemed to be an understanding that the Lord would and did restore the former glory of the city, temple, and nation upon becoming reconciled with His people.

While we continue on this earth, our sins and trespasses separates us from Him. Isaiah describes the condition this way: But your sins stand between you and your God, and He turned His face from you because of your sins, so as to have no mercy (Isa 59:2). Yet in spite of this great wall, the promise of restoration continues as a theme throughout Scripture. Beginning with Adam’s fall, the Lord had promised action (Gen 3:15); and by virtue of the One promised, a means of atonement and reconciliation was available. Presented with the facts, sinners have opportunity to repent (Isa 59:12–14). We see this continuing even in the churches of Revelation mentioned in yesterday’s post as the Lord warns:
  • Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else… (Rev 2:2)
  • Repent, or else… (Rev 2:16)
  • I will cast her into a sickbed,… unless they repent of their deeds. (Rev 2:22)
  • Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. (Rev 3:3)
  • As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. (Rev 3:19)
This seems like a who lot of Law being dropped on the people them, and our sinful flesh fights against it; but we need to understand that He has already accomplished the victory for us. By grace through faith, we are reconciled to God (Rom 5:10–11); and when His people repent, He fights for them:
He put on righteousness as a breastplate and placed the helmet of salvation on His head. He clothed Himself with the garment and covering of vengeance, as a recompense of recompenses, even a rebuke to His adversaries. Those from the west shall fear the name of the Lord, and those from the east, His glorious name; for the wrath of the Lord shall come like a violent river; it shall come with anger. (Isa 59:17–19)
For Judas Maccabeus and the faithful of Israel, their day eventually came as hostilities ceased with the Greeks through a truce. To be sure, it was a temporary peace, but the Lord was true to His promise. We know what would happen later when the God Himself came, offering the kingdom of heaven: they rejected Him and His gift outright. But God was still faithful to His word: to those who received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believed on His name. Those are they who received ultimate reconciliation and peace.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Enhancing the Worship Experience

History is replete with examples of clerical leaders attempting to “enhance the worship experience” by applying elements of the surrounding culture. The usual impetus for such a change stems from some combination of maintaining a base by appeasing dissatisfied attendees and building up numbers by attracting indifferent onlookers. Practices and patterns from leading or trending entities are often borrowed under the assumption that pragmatic or appealing elements of the populace will sufficiently engage, energize, and build the local church. Is this strategy wise? What are the effects of such changes?

The first example is an account from Israel’s history during the reign of Antiochus I Epiphanes (175–164 ʙᴄ). The account begins in 2 Maccabees 4:10–12.
When the king assented and Jason seized the high priesthood, he at once changed his countrymen over to the Greek way of life. He set aside the royal benefits to the Jews brought about through John, the father of Eupolemus, the ambassador who established friendship and alliance with the Romans. He also renounced and destroyed conformity to the laws, and created a new civic life contrary to the customs. For he eagerly founded a gymnasium under the citadel itself, and persuaded the most noble of the young men to wear the Greek cap.
Jason, brother of Onias the high priest, usurped the position and instituted sweeping changes to Hellenize the Jews in an effort to make the nation more amenable to their Greek overlords. Continuing the account in verse 13, what was the result?
So there was the fullest expression of Hellenization and the adoption of foreign customs because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and not a true high priest. Therefore the priests were no longer eager to serve at the altar, but they despised the temple and neglected the sacrifices. Instead, they hastened to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling-school after the invitation to the discus. They counted the honors of their fathers as nothing, but regarded Greek honors as the best. For this reason, difficult circumstances overtook them, and those whose way of life they admired and wished altogether to assimilate became their enemies and punished them.
Jason was wildly successful in his attempt to turn the culture, but instead of making life better for the Jews, the enterprise imploded as the priests abandoned godly worship for worldly adulation; and the Greek, seeing how they were being emulated, disdained the effort even becoming hostile. So much for good intentions.

Would Christians fare any better? We might believe so because of the presence of the Holy Spirit and all that, but 250 years after the above, St. Paul starts a church whose members decided that they could do what they please (just like the culture) necessitating a letter with scathing remarks like:
  • For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you.
  • you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?
  • It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife!
  • Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?… I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!
  • For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.
Maybe we can give the church in Corinth a pass, since they had not yet matured and received the benefit of all the apostolic writings, but fast forward 30+ years:
  • But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
  • [Y]ou allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.
  • Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
Jesus Himself identifies what these churches from Revelation 2–3 have allowed from the culture, condemns it all, and calls for repentance. Sadly, we believers are just as prone to tweak things in a worldly way.

When a church tries to assimilate processes, programs, or principles from the world, nothing good happens. We should be asking, “What has God told us that He wants?” He gave Moses a pattern for His habitation and its furnishings (Exod 25:9, 40). He gave clear instructions of what was acceptable worship in His holy place (Lev 1–7). He provided acceptable prayers and songs to be used or emulated when coming before Him. Perhaps these should be learned and revered before seeking fresh approaches.

What we are and have is not of this world. Attempts to add the world to the mix makes it useless for everyone. Why do we insist on chasing after the new and shiny? Because it’s new and shiny—and because we think we know better than God how things should work in our community. The fact is that we are more likely to tear down with our own hands what God has wrought while turning away the world because we are not offering anything but what the world already has. In other words, to borrow from a Hank Hill meme, “You’re not making Christianity any better. You’re just making culture worse.”