Friday, November 15, 2019

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

But when you hear of wars and commotions, do not be terrified; for these things must come to pass first, but the end will not come immediately.” Then He said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. By your patience possess your souls. (Luke 21:9–19)

Since all these disorders come, not from the injustice of the one who chastises, but from the fault of the world that suffers them, the Lord first describes the injustice of the depraved men in these terms: But before all this they will lay hands on you and persecute you; you will be dragged into the synagogues, you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. It is as if he were saying clearly: “It is first the hearts of men, then the elements that will be upset.” Thus one sees clearly what this confusion of the order of things comes to punish. For although it depends on the very nature of the world to have an end, the Lord, having in view all the perverse men, indicates which are those who deserve to be crushed under the ruins of the world: They will bring you before the kings and governors because of my name. All these things will come to your testimony. As a testimony against those who put you to death when they persecute you, or who do not imitate you when they see you. If, indeed, the death of the righteous is a help to the good ones, it bears witness against the wicked, so that even that which serves to bring the elect to good so that they live, removes all excuses from the wicked when they perish.

But the hearts of the still weak disciples could have been troubled to hear so many terrifying things; so the Lord adds a consolation, adding immediately: Put this in your mind: you do not have to prepare your answers, for it is I who will give you a language, and a wisdom to which none of your adversaries can resist or answer. It is as if he clearly said to his infirm members: “Do not be afraid; do not be afraid. It's you who go to fight, but I'm the one leading the fight. You say the words, but it's me who speaks.”

The text continues: You will be delivered even by your parents and your brothers, your relatives and your friends; they will condemn to death many of you. Evils cause less pain if they are brought to us by strangers. But they make us suffer more if we suffer them from those we trusted, because to the suffering of the body comes then to join that of having lost a friendship. This is why the Lord, through the mouth of the psalmist, says about Judas who betrayed him: If my enemy had cursed me, I would have endured it; and if he who hated me uttered proud words about me, I would have kept myself hidden from him. But you who were one with me, my guide and my friend, who shared with me the sweet food of my table, we walked in full agreement in the house of God (Ps 55:12-14). And elsewhere: Even the man who was my friend, who trusted me and ate my bread, raised his heel against me (Ps 41:9). It is as if he were saying clearly about the one who betrayed him: “I suffered all the more from his betrayal that I felt it coming from the one who seemed to be all mine.”

Thus, all the elect, because they are the members of the supreme head, also follow in suffering their leader: they must suffer in death the enmity of those whose life inspired them confidence, and they see the reward of their works increase all the more as the loss of a friendship makes more progress in virtue.

But as these predictions of persecution and death are very harsh, the Lord speaks immediately after the consolation and joy of the resurrection: Not a hair of your head shall perish. We know it, my brethren, the flesh suffers when cut, but not hair. The Lord therefore declares to his martyrs: Not a hair of your head will perish, which means in plain language: “Why fear to see the suffering of death when you cut it, since even that which in you does not suffer when you the cup can not perish?”

The text continues: It is by your patience that you will possess your souls. If the possession of the soul lies in the virtue of patience, it is because patience is the root and protector of all virtues. It is through patience that we possess our souls, for it is only by learning to dominate ourselves that we begin to possess ourselves. Patience consists in suffering serenely the evils coming from others and in being tormented with no resentment against the one who inflicts them.

Gregory the Great, Homilies on St. Luke 15.2-4

Friday, November 8, 2019

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

Johannes Brenz
Jesus answered and said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.” (Luke 20:34–38)

And thus much for our own argument in refutation of the infidelity of the Jews: but let us see also what Christ said unto them: “The children indeed of this world,” He says, those, that is, who lead worldly carnal lives, full of fleshly lust, for the procreation of children “marry and are married:” but those who have maintained an honorable and elect life, full of all excellence, and have therefore been accounted worthy of attaining to a glorious and marvelous resurrection, will be necessarily raised far above the life which men lead in this world; for they will live as becomes saints, who already have been brought near unto God. “For they are equal with the angels, and are the children of God.” As therefore all fleshly lust is taken away, and no place whatsoever is left in them for bodily pleasure, they resemble the holy angels, fulfilling a spiritual and not a material service, such as becomes holy spirits; and are at the same time counted worthy of a glory such as that which the angels enjoy.

But the Savior also demonstrated the great ignorance of the Sadducees, by bringing forward their own authority Moses, as well and clearly acquainted with the resurrection of the dead. For he has set before us God, He says, as saying in the bush, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” But of whom is He God, if, according to their argument, these have ceased to live? for He is the God of the living: and therefore certainly and altogether they will rise, when His almighty right hand brings them thereunto; and not them only, but also all who are upon the earth.

And for men not to believe that this will happen, is worthy perhaps of the ignorance of the Sadducees; but altogether unworthy of those who love Christ. For we believe in Him who says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” For He will raise the dead, “suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. For it shall resound, and the dead in Christ shall rise incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” For Christ, our common Savior, shall transfer us unto incorruption, and to glory, and to a life incorruptible.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 136

Friday, November 1, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to All Saints’ Sunday

Jean Duvet, “The Apocalpse: An Innumerable Multitude
which stand before the Throne”

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom,
Thanksgiving and honor and power and might,
Be to our God forever and ever.
Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?” And I said to him, “Sir, you know.” So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:9–17)

The innumerable myriads of the nations who received the faith of Christ and who had gained their share in blessedness were allotted the honored place of standing before the Lord and his Father’s throne, as was said earlier. Being clothed in white robes is a description of their purity during their life. The palm branches, which are a symbol of victory, indicate that they are promised the victory of Christ over their spiritual and earthly enemies. And they cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” confessing that salvation is with them, because they had preserved the servants of God who had been sealed from the total destruction of the world. At the end of this act of thanksgiving, the ranks of worshipers in heaven, together with the elders, answered Amen, giving their approval to what was said. Then the divine angels, too, offer their own praise to God, honoring him seven times with their worship, which, as has been mentioned earlier, symbolizes the ceaseless nature of the adoration of the angels; for seven is a perfect number.

When one of the elders asked the evangelist who these were from the nations who were clothed in white robes, he did not ask out of ignorance but as a challenge to find out about them. So he goes on to say, These are they who are coming out of the great tribulation. For it was not a slight contest but a truly great one which the righteous had in overcoming the Antichrist. He says, And they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Yet it should follow that robes dipped in blood would turn out to be scarlet rather than white. So how did they become white? Because baptism enacted into the death of the Lord, as Paul in his great wisdom said, purges all filth resulting from sin and renders those who are baptized in it white and pure. But participation in the life-giving blood of Christ also bestows this favor. For the Lord says concerning his own blood that it is being poured out “for many” and “on behalf of many, for the forgiveness of sins.” Thus these serve God for ever, and God dwells among them. Indeed, the dwelling-place of God, said one of God’s saints, is where the souls of his saints continually remember him; therefore God naturally dwells with those who serve him day and night.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more: formerly those from the nations went through every trial; but now they will be sated with innumerable good things. He says, Nor shall the sun strike them: in some places of the divine Scripture the sun metaphorically stands for temptation, as when the prophet says, “The sun shall not burn you by day, neither the moon by night,” or as when the evangelist writes that the sun shone and scorched the seeds which had sprung up on stony ground, interpreting the sun as temptation. Therefore he now says that temptation would in future never harm them, for they had been found worthy to be shepherded by Christ and nourished at the waters of life. And God, he says, will wipe away every tear from their eyes. So those who have lived and struggled with unprofitable cares have no need of a tear, nor of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” but deserve everything good and wonderful.

Oecumenius, Commentary on the Apocalypse 5.3

Friday, October 25, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Reformation Sunday

God is our refuge and power;
A help in afflictions that severely befall us.
Therefore we will not fear when the earth is troubled,
And when the mountains are removed into the hearts of the seas.
Their waters roared and were troubled;
The mountains were troubled by His might. (Ps 45:2–4 LXX [Ps 46:1–3])

Because of the weakness present in him from nature, every man has need of much assistance, if many troubles and labors befall him, Seeking a refuge, therefore, from all precarious situations, like one fleeing to a place of sanctuary or having recourse to some sharp summit surrounded by a strong wall because of the attack of the enemy, so he flees to God, believing that a dwelling in Him is his only rest. Therefore, because flight to God was agreed upon by all, the enemy produced great illusion and confusion concerning the choice of the Savior. Plotting as an enemy, again he deceives the victims of his plots into thinking that they should flee to him as to a protector. Consequently, a twofold evil surrounds them, since they are either seized by force or destroyed by deceit. Therefore, the unbelievers flee to demons and idols, having the knowledge of the true God snatched away by the confusion which is produced in them by the devil.…

God is the true aid for the righteous man. Just as a certain general, equipped with a noble heavy-armed force, is always ready to give help to an oppressed district, so God is our Helper and an Ally to everyone who is waging war against the wiliness of the devil, and He sends out ministering spirits for the safety of those who are in need. Moreover, affliction will find every just man because of the established way of life. He who avoids the wide and broad way and travels the narrow and close one will be found by tribulations. The prophet formed the statement vividly when he said; “In troubles which have found us exceedingly.” For, they overtake us like living creatures, “working out endurance, and through endurance tried virtue, and through tried virtue hope.” Whence also, the Apostle said: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” And “Many are the afflictions of the just.” But, he who generously and calmly endures the trial of affliction will say: “In all these things we overcome because of him who has loved us.” And he is so far from refusing and shrinking from the afflictions that he makes the excessive evils an occasion of glory, saying: “And not only this, but we exult in tribulations also.”

Basil of Caesarea, Homily on Psalm 45(46)

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.”

Friday, September 13, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:1–10)

Let us rejoice, therefore, that this sheep, which was lost in Adam, is raised up in Christ. The shoulders of Christ are the arms of the Cross: it is there that I deposited my sins, it is on the noble neck of this gallows that I rested. This ewe is unique in gender, not specifically; for “all of us are one body,” but many members, and that is why it is written, “You are the body of Christ, and members of his members." For “the Son of man came to save what had perished,” that is to say, all, since “as all die in Adam, so in Christ all receive the life.” He is therefore a rich shepherd, since all of us are one hundredth of His share.

He possesses the innumerable herds of angels, the archangels, the dominions, the powers, the thrones, and others, which He has left on the heights. And since they are reasonable, it is not without motive that they rejoice at the redemption of men. Moreover, it is still a stimulant to be good, to know that your conversion is pleasant to the troops of angels, each of whom must seek patronage or fear disgrace. Be you also joy for the angels; they are looking forward to your return.

Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7.209

Friday, September 6, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Luke 14:25–35)

The Father did not send the only-begotten Son, the living God, to judge the world but to save the world. True to Himself and faithful to the will of the good God His Father, He points to a doctrine whereby we may be made worthy of becoming His disciples with his severe decree. He says, “If any man comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, and his wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” This hatred teaches the virtue of piety by withdrawing us from distractions and does not lead us to devise hurtful schemes against one another. “Whoever,” says the Lord, “does not carry his cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple.” Receiving the baptism of water, we make this same agreement when we promise to be crucified and to die and to be buried with Him.

Basil the Great, Concerning Baptism 1.1

We are therefore given most clearly to understand, that when God calls us unto Him, to make us partakers of His bounty, we must disregard the lusts that are of the flesh, and minister to the flesh, and set no value whatsoever upon the things of this world, but exerting all our force must advance unto those things which will never have to be abandoned, and which fill us with all blessedness, as God bestows with bounteous hand upon us His gifts, and like one welcoming us to a costly banquet, admits us to the right of rejoicing with the rest of the saints in the hope of future blessings. For the things of earth, are but of little value and last only for a time, and belong to the flesh solely, which is the victim of corruption. But those things which are divine and spiritual constantly and without ceasing accompany those who have once been counted worthy of receiving them, and reach onward to unending worlds.... To work in us therefore a mind incapable of being broken, and make us careless of every worldly matter for our love of Him, He commands us to hate even our relatives according to the flesh, and our own self also, if, as I have just said, the season call us thereto.

Cyril of Alexandria, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Luke 105

Friday, August 30, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

So He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them: “When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’ Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Then He also said to him who invited Him, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:7–14)

For when, He says, a more honorable man than you comes, he that invited you and him will say, “Give this man a place.” O! what great ignominy is there in having to do so! It is like a theft, so to speak, and the restitution of the stolen goods. He must restore what he has seized; for he had no right to take it. But the modest and praiseworthy man, who might without fear of blame have claimed the dignity of sitting among the foremost, does not seek it, but yields to others what might be called his own, that he may not even seem to be overcome by empty pride; and such a one shall receive honor as his due: for he shall hear, He says, him who invited him say, “Come up here.” …

If then anyone wishes to be set above others, let him win it by the decree of heaven and be crowned by those honors which God bestows. Let him surpass the many by having the testimony of glorious virtues; but the rule of virtue is a lowly mind that does not love boasting. Indeed, it is humility. And this the blessed Paul also counted worthy of all esteem for he writes to such as are eagerly desirous of saintly pursuits, “Love humility.” And the disciple of Christ praises it, thus writing; “Let the poor brother glory in his exaltation: and the rich in his humiliation, because as the flower of the grass he passes away.” For the sober and temperate mind is exalted with God: for “God,” it says, “will not despise the contrite and abased heart.”

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 102

Monday, August 26, 2019

Knowing Our Place

Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at the footstool of His feet; for He is holy. (Psalm 99:5 LXX)

We believe that this verse pertains to you, oh people, inasmuch as you can grasp the divine mysteries which lead you to a reverent knowledge of God insofar as your minds can comprehend them. Extol God’s glory, knowing that when you have elevated your mind and have transcended every noble idea with regard to knowledge of Him, what we discover and worship is not the greatness of Him we seek, but the footstool of His feet. For us this signifies the submission and poverty of our minds in comparison to Him who is incomprehensible.

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Inscriptions of the Psalms 9

Friday, August 23, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Fall of the Damned”
And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22–30)

We must however next inquire who we are to understand by those who say unto Christ, ‘We have eaten and drunk in Your presence, and You have taught in our streets?’ Such an assertion then would suit the Israelites, to whom also Christ said, “you shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves cast out.” But how then were they eating and drinking before God? I answer, by performing the service enacted in the law: for when offering unto God sacrifices by the shedding of blood, they ate and made merry. And they heard also in their synagogues the writings of Moses, interpreting God’s messages: for constantly he prefaced his words with, ‘Thus says the Lord.’ These then are they who say, “We have eaten and drunk in Your presence, and You have taught in our streets.” But the worship by the shedding of blood is not sufficient for justification, nor indeed does a man wash away his stains by having become a hearer of the divine laws, if he does nothing of what has been commanded. And in another way, as long as they refused to accept the faith, which justifies the wicked, nor would follow the evangelic commands, by means of which it is possible to practice the excellent and elect life, how could they enter the kingdom of God? The type therefore profits not: for it justifies no man, and it is a thing impossible for the blood of bulls and of goats to take away sins.

With the above named, you may number certain others also as able to say to the Judge of all, “we have eaten and drunk in Your presence, and You have taught in our streets.” And who again are these? Many have believed in Christ, and celebrate the holy festivals in His honor; and frequenting the churches they also hear the doctrines of the Gospel: but they lay up in their mind of the truths of Scripture absolutely nothing. And it is with difficulty that the practice of virtue is brought with them even to this extent, while of spiritual fruitfulness their heart is quite bare. These too shall weep bitterly, and gnash their teeth; for the Lord shall deny them also. For He has said, that “not every one that says unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that does the will of My Father Who is in heaven.”

But that the Jews were about to fall utterly from their rank of being in a spiritual sense His household, and that the multitude of the Gentiles should enter in their stead, He shewed by saying, that “there shall come from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, many who received the call, and shall rest with the saints; but they shall be driven away: and whereas they once had the first rank, they shall now take the second, by reason of others being preferred before them.” Which also happened; for the Gentiles have been honored far above the Jews. For the latter were guilty both of disobedience and of the murder of the Lord: but the former honored the faith that is in Christ; by Whom and with Whom to God the Father be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 99

Friday, August 16, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49–53)

We affirm therefore that the fire which is sent forth by Christ is for men’s salvation and profit: God grant that all our hearts may be full thereof. For the fire here is, I say, the saving message of the Gospel, and the power of its commandments, by which all of us upon earth, who were so to speak cold and dead because of sin, and in ignorance of Him Who by nature and truly is God, are kindled unto a life of piety, and made “fervent in spirit,” according to the expression of the blessed Paul. And besides this we are also made partakers of the Holy Spirit, Who is as fire within us. For we have been baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit. And we have learned the way thereto, by what Christ says to us: for listen to His words; “Truly I say to you, that except a man is born of water and spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” … Would you see the effects of this divine and rational fire? Hear then again His words: “Or do you think that I am come to give peace upon earth? I tell you, no, but division.” And yet Christ is our peace, according to the Scriptures. “He has broken down the middle wall: He has united the two people in one new man, so making peace: and has reconciled both in one body unto the Father.” He has united the things below to them that are above: how therefore did He not come to give peace upon earth? What then do we say to these things?

That peace is an honorable and truly excellent thing when given by God. For the prophets also say; “Lord, grant us peace: for You have given us all things.” But not every peace necessarily is free from blame. There is sometimes, so to speak, an unsafe peace, and which separates from the love of God those who, without discretion or examination, set too high a value upon it. As for instance: the determination to avoid evil men, and refuse to be at peace with them;—by which I mean not submitting to entertain the same sentiments as they do;—is a thing profitable and useful to us. And in like manner the opposite course is injurious to those who have believed in Christ, and attained to the knowledge of His mystery. To such it is unprofitable to be willing to follow the same sentiments as those who wander away from the right path, and have fallen into the net of heathen error, or been caught in the snares of wicked heresies. With these it is honorable to contend, and to set the battle constantly in array against them, and to glory in holding opposite sentiments; so that even though it be a father that believes not, the son is free from blame who contradicts him, and resists his opinions. And in like manner also the father, if he be a believer, and true unto God, but his son disobedient and evilly disposed, and that opposes the glory of Christ, is also free from blame, if he disregard natural affection, and disowns him as his child. And the same reasoning holds with respect to mother and daughter: and daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. For it is right that those who are in error should follow those who are sound in mind: and not, on the contrary, that those should give way whose choice is to entertain correct sentiments, and who have a sound knowledge of the glory of God.

And this Christ has also declared to us in another manner; “He that loves father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me: and he that loves son or daughter more than Me, is not worthy of Me.” When therefore you deny an earthly father for your piety’s sake towards Christ, then shall you gain as Father Him Who is in heaven. And if you give up a brother because he dishonors God, by refusing to serve Him, Christ will accept you as His brother: for with His other bounties He has given us this also, saying; “I will declare Your Name to My brethren.” Leave your mother after the flesh, and take her who is above, the heavenly Jerusalem, “which is our mother:” so will you find a glorious and mighty lineage in the family of the saints. With them you will be heir of God’s gifts, which neither the mind can comprehend, nor language tell. Of which may we too be counted worthy by the grace and loving-kindness of Christ, the Savior of us all; by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion, with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever, Amen.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 94

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

If Indeed...

Our pastor challenged the congregation to read five passages (one passage per day) and answer three questions from the daily passage.
  • What does it say God is like?
  • What does it say God has done?
  • Why would He do that for me?
This was a good exercise: first, it forces us to review who God is and what He has done; and second, it causes us to examine Scripture with fresh eyes with hopes that we might see or understand something previously missed: likely from preconceptions from prior teaching. On one hand, this is good We should be so indoctrinated, catechized, or instructed (whichever term you prefer) that false teaching can quickly be identified and dismissed; on the other hand, if the body of learned doctrine is incorrect, there needs to be a re-evaluation and subsequent shift, however slight.

The final text was Colossians 1:13–23, which gives a grand portrait of Christ being very God and very man in every way, redeeming us, and being our head as we are His body the church. As wonderful as all this certainly is, St. Paul tells us something yet more wonderful/
For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Col 1:19–23)
The fullness of what both God and man are dwells in Jesus in order that within Him all mankind might be reconciled to God. Consider the enormity of this! We who were at odds and cut off from our Creator are now in good stead through Jesus’ death. Where there was once conflict and hostility, peace now holds sway: we are holy, blameless, and above reproach. What a wonderful and comforting relationship has been won! As wonderful as all this certainly is, I was particularly struck by the last portion: if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. St. Paul posits for the recipients at Colossae that for some hearers of this letter—and others who would come in the future—there is a real possibility of falling away from or abandoning the faith, therefore, no reconciliation in the end: a disturbing thought and rightfully so.

How are we to move forward vis a vis this warning? One way might be to rely on self-motivation to continual remain vigilant in the Christian walk and determine to press forward whatever the circumstance. Many believers take this path; however, this routinely leads to failure. Why? When faced with a rule or law, we automatically want to do the opposite of what was stipulated. Do you want me to eat a handful of freshly baked cookies? Tell me I can’t have one, then walk away. St. Paul stated this in a different way:
For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. (Rom 7:7–11)
Laws inflame our sinful desires, so any attempt to rely on personal will or strength to stay in the kingdom until the last day will always fail. The focus must be reversed leading to the second, and proper, course of action: rest in our Lord Jesus Christ. What do I mean?

Christians can be so shortsighted and forgetful. We tend to believe that once God brings us into His kingdom that His work is done, and now we take up our end of the bargain in everyday life. Some become negligent, losing sight of what we have been called to. Others become surprised by their weakness of resolve, tending to make more rules and disciplines to bolster resolve, but that is a self-defeating activity. Eventually, someone recognizes the absurdity of chasing rules. When that happens, some give up on the faith (the highly publicized examples of Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson are not uncommon). Better is to cling to the sweet promise: being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6). God is the One who strengthens and supplies.

Sadly, there are preachers offering the gospel of Jesus Christ as a self-help plan or a stoic regimen. It is neither. Instead, it is news that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again for you. Baptism is for you. The Lord’s Supper is for you. Confession and absolution are for you. All that we have been given in Christ is intended to keep us in Him. Let us hold fast our confession.
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:19–25)