Monday, 15 May 2017

On St Matthias Day

O the promise of God’s presence
spurned as greed led to contempt
and to the great revocation
and to death.

One made God his chosen portion,
to do God’s will his daily bread.
Full of delight in all God’s people
he will not be held by death.

O the horror of being hurled away,
whirled round and round, thrust down,
vocation taken away.
Despair cuts out a tomb –

or is cut off on the holy hill,
pegged to the uncorrupt one
who fastened to the cross
draws all people to himself.

“The promise is for you,
for your children, and for all who are far away.”
It is for the fullness of God’s people,
as Matthias testifies today.

With Jesus from the beginning,
twice he saw him taken away,
now a witness of the resurrection,
and of the great re-vocation.

Called to abide in God’s presence,
called to remain faithful to the end,
called to be friends of Jesus,
and called to bear fruit that will last.

1 Samuel 2.27-35; Acts 2.37-47; Psalm 16; Isaiah 22.15-25; Psalm 15; Acts 1.15-26; John 15.9-17

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Martin Luther on Evening Wolves

From his Lectures on Habakkuk, discussing the translation of Habakkuk 1:8.

The Latin Text (1525)
There is a difference of opinion among the linguists whether it ought to be translated “evening wolves” or “wolves of the desert.” Jerome translated “evening wolves,” influenced by this line of reasoning: Since evening wolves have suffered hunger throughout the day, they attack a flock more viciously than other wolves do, and they do not leave until they have filled themselves. Who does not see that such an interpretation is weak? Therefore I prefer to adopt the other interpretation, so I translate “wolves of the desert,” that is, wolves that are fierce and untamed.

The German Text (1526)
“The Hebrew letters admit either...I believe that these are evening wolves. I think that this means to say that wolves, which are rapacious, ravenous, murderous beasts by nature, are far more so in the evening because they have not roamed about during the day and their hunger looks to the evening. Therefore the term “evening wolves” is practically synonymous with “hungry wolves” who have not eaten for a long time.

Luther's Works, Volume 19: Lectures on the Minor Prophets II (Jonah, Habakkuk), translated by Charles D. Froehlich, edited by Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1974), 112-113, 170.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Homo Viaticus

Some kind of journey, is essential to what it means to be human. Redeemed humanity will have a history and memory which would not be there if we had been created straight for “heaven”. God wants the kind of beings we will be in the new heaven and earth more than the kind of beings we might have been without the possibility and history of suffering, death, and sin.

I cannot remember from where this thought came to me a few years ago. I do not remember having come across the blog before today but Lee M.'s post Was this trip really necessary? could have been the inspiration.
My reasoning is that, just as my personal history is an essential part of my identity, the history of the human species is an essential part of its identity. ... maybe the long evolutionary history of humanity is an essential part of us. Human-like creatures created in an immediate state of blessedness simply wouldn’t be human beings since they wouldn’t be the heirs of human biological history. If they were close enough replicas they might have the characteristics of humans, but those characteristics wouldn’t be the result of the same process that created us.
...Christian theology has usually held that the condition of the blessed redeemed is superior to the original condition of Adam and Eve in the garden. Redemption is not simply a restoration of Eden, but a transition to a higher state. So it seems that humanity was always destined for a journey from a less exalted state to a more exalted one; going through a historical process is essential to our destiny.
Another consideration: creation, in the opening chapters of Genesis, is said to be good, not perfect. This allows for a development or process toward better things, even if we recognize that at some point humanity went off the rails into sin and away from God’s intentions. (This is a more “Irenaean” picture of the fall than an Augustinian one.)
Finally: a robust minority tradition in Christian theology has held that, even if there had been no fall, God would still have become incarnate to unite human nature to the Divine, and to manifest the divine love to creation. This also seems to imply that humanity was not created in an original state of perfect blessedness, but with a potential for that state – being united in the closest possible relationship with God.
So, there are both theological and broadly philosophical reasons for thinking that some kind of process of development, some kind of journey, is essential to what it means to be human. This suggests that, if God wanted to create human beings and raise them to communion with the divine life, then it was necessary to create them as part of an unfolding, historical process rather than in an immediate state of static perfection. And that only after becoming the kinds of beings we are can we be raised to communion with the divine life. And it may further be that such a process inherently involves the possibility of suffering, death, and sin.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Our Part in Unifying Humanity

I was impressed by the way Charles H. Talbert integrated Ephesians 5:8-14 in the letter as a whole and much of the following as well as quotations marked CT are from his Ephesians and Colossians (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007). FT refers to Frank Thielman, Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010).

We live in a fractured world and this is evident both in hostile events such as the Westminster attack last Wednesday which nevertheless also create unity at least for a moment in a solidarity with victims, and in peaceful celebrations of unity such as the marking of the 60th anniversary of the treaty of Rome and the march in London in support of the EU which are of course over against those who cponsider the EU a wrong sort of unity.

Many of us long for a unity that does not compromise our diversity, or at least does not threaten our liberty, but we are struggling to discover how this can work. Some push the unity, arguing that we must be less tolerant of those who threaten it. In this way we buy our unity at the expense of deeper divisions with others and may seek to strengthen unity by enforcing greater uniformity. Others stress that we must now be extra careful to remain inclusive rather than shutting out others. In this way, we risk the stability of unity, as we are unsure how to restrain the forces that push us apart without forcing uniformity.

The church wrestles with the same issues. The latest attempts within the CofE to safeguard our unity in diversity run under the banner of “good disagreement” and “radical inclusion” but what do these phrases mean? It’s hard to tell. Does it mean that it is quite all right for Christians to completely disagree on something as long as they are nice to each other?

Is “good disagreement,” as someone commented, “only a different way of saying we should tolerate and respect one another’s beliefs because there is no such thing as truth, only what we believe to be true.” And does the call for “radical inclusion” take the place of the traditional call to repentance? Does it mean that we must not challenge immoral behaviour but celebrate different lifestyles? If so, is this Christian unity? Most certainly not.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about “the plan of God to unify the cosmos through Christ.” Two “important pieces of the plan” are “reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in a new humanity and concord in the Christian household.” (CT) And Ephesians 5:8-14 belongs with this plan.

Dio Chrysostom, a famous Greek orator, writer, philosopher and historian of the Roman Empire in the 1st century, had this to say:
“Only by getting rid of the vices that excite and disturb men, the vices of envy, greed, contentiousness, the striving in each case to promote one’s own welfare at the expense of both one’s native land and the common weal—only so, I repeat, is it possible ever to breathe the breath of harmony in full strength and vigor and to unite upon a common policy.” (Or. 34.19)
I think the apostle agrees, except for adding that ultimately this is only possible in and through Christ.

Let me underline this because so often we believe that what we really need is to find and stress the common ground and that this is where we find unity. But to pursue such a line single-mindedly what we hold in common must be valued more highly than what divides us and this means that the question which values and ideas trump others becomes hugely important and necessarily contentious.

And problematic. Because what we hold in common, probably a longing for peace and justice, possibly values such as “individual liberty” and “the rule of law” need to be supported and defined by a greater vision, a world-view which brings us to the kind of stuff on which we disagree. In addition, some of the values apparently are in conflict with each other, e.g., “democracy” which encourages short-termism (and selfishness?) and “sustainability” which requires long-term thinking and planning (and sacrifice?). Again, we need a greater vision to arbitrate.

Against this mistaken belief that unity is basically a matter of finding and stressing our common ground, ancient wisdom inside and outside the Bible points us to the need to get rid of the vices that threaten our unity.

It is a question of light and darkness, again both outside and inside the Bible. But what the apostle reminds us of here is that we are unable to move from darkness to light (and of course unable to move others from darkness to light). In the Lord you are light. Live as children of light!” This is how we come into God’s project of unifying the cosmos through Christ. “The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” and the fruit is to be found in us.

The word for “good” here means benevolent – doing good to others in practical ways. Interestingly, these three words, “good and forthright and honest” are often found in ancient Jewish and Christian literature to describe the character of God (FT). The choice of these three virtues seems deliberate. After all, just a few sentences earlier the apostle has called us to be “imitators of God” (Galatians 5:1).

“Deciding what is benevolent, right, honest, and therefore pleasing to the Lord in any given situation is often complicated, and Paul recognizes this by” (FT) adding “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”

But note: the challenge is to be different for the sake of unityWe are to be “a contrast society” (Gerhard Lohfink), “a body of Christians whose common life and practice stand as a sharp yet appealing alternative to the surrounding world” (CT) and so exposes the deeds of the world.

Verse 11: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”

Exposing the unfruitful works of darkness not by harassing people but by living alternative lives that show up the deficiencies of a life without Christ, revealing how shallow, futile, sterile, and shameful the life choices of many are, and inconsistent with their own convictions. It means “stripping sexual immorality and greed of the attractive veneer placed over these activities by those who practice them and revealing their true colors” (FT).

In other words, this is not so much a matter of condemning others for sleeping around or cheating on insurance claims or pursuing a favourable deal regardless of the costs to others but of demonstrating through our lives
  • that true, faithful love is so much more attractive than cheap sex;
  • that honesty in all our dealings is so much more rewarding than single-minded pursuit for gain;
  • that concern for others is so much more truly human than a life of greed.
The challenge to the church is to stand as an appealing alternative to the world.” BUT this appeal does “not lie primarily in the moral superiority of Christians” (CT) to other people. Rather, it lies in the contrast between the unfruitful, unprofitable works of darkness and the “purposeful, goal-oriented existence that characterizes the believing community because of its union with Christ” (FT) and “in the manner in which believers confront their sins, seek and offer forgiveness, and live reconciled and reconciling lives.” (CT)

Verse 13: “everything exposed by the light becomes visible”.

In John 16:8 Jesus promised his disciples that the coming Advocate will “prove wrong” or “expose [same word as here in Ephesians 5] the world with regard to sin, righteousness, and judgement.” The Christian community appears to be the place where the Holy Spirit does this and “the vehicle through which the Spirit plays that role.” (CT)

And by the grace of God in Christ such exposure is the way to transformation, “for everything that becomes visible is light” (verse 14) and the apostle seems to quote an early Jewish-Christian liturgy to make the point: Where “unbelievers awake to the truth of the gospel and rise from their former lives of sin,” (FT), where in other words someone rises from death to life, you know that Christ shines “his powerful light on them” (FT).

How do we know this can happen? Hopefully because we have experienced it ourselves. The light of Christ has shone upon us; it has enabled us to be open and honest about our own sin and awakened us to a life in imitation of God’s goodness, justice and integrity.

This is the way God makes us one in Christ, children of our heavenly Father. And this is how we play a part in God’s plan of unifying the cosmos, as the light of Christ chases away the evil works of darkness that cause our divisions.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Hilasterion: Propitiation or Expiation?

"C. K. Barrett is a balanced and judicious interpreter who thinks that the idea of propitiation plays an important role because of its link to the wrath of God, even if (as he recommends) the word "expiation" is used in translations.In an oft-quoted passage from his commentary on Romans, Barrett says, "WE can hardly doubt that expiation rather than propitiation is in his [Paul's] mind," because there is no trace of a suggestion that God is the object rather than the subject. However, Barrett continues, "it would be wrong to neglect the fact that expiation has, as it were, the effect of propitiation: the sin that might have excited God's wrath is expiated (at God's will) and therefore no longer does so." Cousar summarizes Barrett's argument: "The propitiation is a secondary result rather than a primary cause of the atonement." That, in one sentence, tells us what we need to know at the conclusion of the debate.

God is not divided against himself. When we see Jesus, we see the Father (John 14:7). The Father did not look at Jesus on the cross and suddenly have a change of heart. The purpose of the atonement was not to bring about a change in God's attitude towards his rebellious creatures. God's attitude towards us has always and ever been the same. Judgment against sin is preceded, accompanied, and followed by God's mercy. There was never a time when God was against us. Even in his wrath he is for us. Yet at the same time he is not for us without wrath, because his will is to destroy all that is hostile to perfecting his world. The paradox of the cross demonstrates the victorious love of God for us at the same time that it shows forth his judgment upon sin."

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 281-282.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Evening Service with Fauré Requiem

An Evening Service
with music from the Requiem Mass by Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré wrote the Requiem, the best-known of his large-scale choral works, between 1887 and 1890, adding further instrumental parts in 1900. The text is based on the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead but it departs significantly from the standard liturgical text.
John Bawden explains: “Fauré included two new sections, the lyrical Pie Jesu and the transcendent In Paradisum, with its soaring vocal line and murmuring harp accompaniment. He also omitted the Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum - for most composers an opportunity to exploit to the full the dramatic possibilities of all the available choral and orchestral forces. Consequently the prevailing mood is one of peacefulness and serenity, and the work has often been described, quite justly, as a Requiem without the Last Judgement.”

Hymn 14 Eternal Light, shine in my heart

O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Lead your people to freedom, O God,
and banish all darkness from our hearts and minds.
The Rector introduces the service.

I Introit – Kyrie
Rest eternal give them, Lord,
and let light always shine on them.
It is right to hymn you, God, in Sion
and to you will be made a vow in Jerusalem.
Hear my prayer, to you all flesh will come.
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

II Offertorium
O Lord, Jesus Christ, king of glory,
free the souls of the dead from the punishment of hell and the deep pit.
O Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory,
deliver the dead souls from the mouth of the lion,
so they are not swallowed by hell and do not fall into darkness.
Sacrifices and prayers to you, Lord, with praise we offer
receive them for those souls whom today we remember.
Make them, Lord, from death cross over to life
as once to Abraham you promised and to his seed.

The Word of God
Old Testament reading: Joshua 1:1-9
Each Scripture reading concludes with
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

III Sanctus
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts,
full are the heavens and earth with the glory of you.
Hosanna in the highest.

New Testament reading: Ephesians 6:10-20

IV Pie Jesu
Merciful Jesus, Lord, give them rest,
give them rest, eternal rest.
A sermon is preached.
Hymn 602 Blest are the pure in heart
Confession and Forgiveness
Christ the light of the world has come to dispel
the darkness of our hearts.
In his light let us examine ourselves and confess our sins.
Silence may be kept.
Let us admit to God the sin which always confronts us.
Lord God,
we have sinned against you;
we have done evil in your sight.
We are sorry and repent.
Have mercy on us according to your love.
Wash away our wrongdoing and cleanse us from our sin.
Renew a right spirit within us
and restore us to the joy of your salvation,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rector declares God’s forgiveness.

V Agnus Dei
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
give them rest.
Let light eternal shine on them, Lord,
with your saints for eternity,
for you are merciful.
give them eternal rest, Lord,
and let light always shine on them.

That the rest of this day may be holy,
peaceful and full of your presence;
in faith we pray.
We pray to you our God.
That the work we have done and the people we have met today
may bring us closer to you;
in faith we pray.
We pray to you our God.
That we may hear and respond to your call to peace and justice;
in faith we pray.
We pray to you our God.
That you will sustain the faith and hope of those who are lonely,
oppressed and anxious;
in faith we pray.
We pray to you our God.
That you will strengthen us in your service,
and fill our hearts with longing for your kingdom;
in faith we pray.
We pray to you our God.
God of mercy,
you know us and love us and hear our prayer:
keep us in the eternal fellowship of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

The Collect of the Day and the Lord’s Prayer

VI Libera me
Free me, Lord, from death eternal
on that day of dread,
when the heavens will be shaken and the earth,
while you come to judge the world with fire.
I am made to shake, and am afraid,
awaiting the trial and the coming anger.
That day, day of anger, of calamity and misery,
that day, the day of great and exceeding bitterness.

Sending Out
The Rector pronounces God’s blessing on his people

VII In Paradisum
Into paradise may angels draw them,
on your arrival, may the martyrs receive you
and lead you into the holy city Jerusalem.
May the chorus of angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, once a beggar,
may you have eternal rest.

Preaching alongside the Fauré Requiem

The Fauré Requiem was designed for a Roman Catholic mass for the dead which creates challenges for a devotional performance in a Church of England service. [Outline of service]
The Church of England is separate from the Roman Catholic church not least because from the sixteenth century onwards such masses were considered an aberration. The Eucharist is a memorial of Christ’s atoning death; it cannot function as a sacrifice the living bring for the dead.
John Bawden writes about the prevailing mood of the Fauré Requiem being one of peacefulness and serenity. This probably reflects the way many in our society think about death: an entry into peace and serenity. We like to think that those who have died are now at rest. But is this what we truly believe? And if so, on what grounds?
Is this a little like people saying to someone who goes through a hellish illness, “I am sure you’ll be all right in the end; life will get easier!” Do we know that? Just this week I read a contribution from a woman suffering from chronic pain, saying how unhelpful such reassurances which have no basis in fact are.
The rest for which we pray so hopefully is of course not the cessation of all activity which is simply death. The “eternal rest” is meant to be a peaceful life where instead of striving and fighting there is calm and refreshment; it is not the eerie silence of a place where nothing ever happens any more.
The Requiem, from beginning to end, petitions God many times that he would give eternal rest. Now it seems to me that it is one thing to commend someone who has died to God at a funeral service, praying that God would give rest to the deceased. It is a different thing to continue to petition God several times on later occasions. Why continue the petition? Is this for our sake or for the sake of the departed?
Is there maybe a niggling doubt? Does God need to be urged to give eternal rest because we are not actually convinced that he has done so?
This seems to lie behind the words of the Offertorium. The music may sound like “a Requiem without the Last Judgement” but the words of the Offertorium very much assume that there is “the punishment of hell and the deep pit” and that there is a real risk that the “souls whom today we remember” might be “swallowed by hell” and so the prayer asks for a passing from death to life.
This reflects a very controversial doctrine, namely that purgatory is a part of hell. Hell is therefore seen as a place of punishment for two types of people – those, on the one hand, for whom all hope is lost, namely any who died unrepentant, and those, on the other hand, who have to endure sufferings before they are fit to enter the presence of God.
This does not sit well with the overall testimony of the New Testament.
Appeal is usually made to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 where Paul writes,
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
But it is quite a leap from the picture of a builder escaping “as through fire” with nothing to show for his efforts to the idea that many will need to spend some time in hell before they can enter heaven.
We read in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed for people to die once, and after that comes judgement” and wherever the NT speaks of post-mortem judgement a clear division is implied between those who enjoy God’s presence and those who do not. In the story about the rich man and Lazarus, we hear in Luke 16:26 “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.”
Many Christians have read these statements as incompatible with the belief that the dead might move from the pain of hell to eternal bliss, let alone that they may do so through the prayers of the living.
If there is a purgatory, it seems better to locate it in or with heaven than in hell in so far as hell indicates ultimate separation from God. As Geoffrey Rowell, a retired bishop in the CofE states, “Purgatory is a place of preparation for heaven, not a lesser hell.”
Indeed, if there is a purgatory, its purpose is surely to purify us from every sinful thought and attitude and make us holy in desire, character, and habit. In this case the process will take as long as it takes and it seems to make little sense to believe that it can or should be shortened by our prayers, even if we wanted to accompany the process with our prayers.
But it may be wrong in any case to think of purgatory as a temporal process to which we can contribute with our prayers.
But maybe the prayers are not really about the departed, maybe they are about us. Maybe they are our way of saying that we have not forgotten someone.
In this case would it not be better to mention our loved ones by name in our own private prayers and to do so with gratitude for what we have received rather than with anxiety about what is or might be?
The CofE has prayed since 1552 “for the whole state of Christ’s church militant here on earth.” Militant here means the opposite of “at rest” and so ensures that the prayer is for the living only. Indeed, the 1552 Prayerbook (The Second Prayer Book of Edward VI) finally removed all prayer for the departed and even the Elizabeth Prayerbook of 1559 did not re-introduce them.
The 1662 Prayerbook added a thanksgiving for departed Christians, coupled with prayer that we may share the glory with them hereafter.
“And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good example, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.”
This has a very different ring from the prayers in a Roman-Catholic Requiem.
Except that the penultimate movement of the Fauré Requiem, Libera me, also is a reminder that thoughts about death and the afterlife should lead us to pray for ourselves. Our main concern must be with the living.
We hear the Fauré Requiem tonight alongside the second service readings appointed for this Sunday. The first reading [Joshua 1:1-9] is very matter of fact about the death of Moses and encourages a forward-looking perspective. It urges meditation on what has been received through Moses rather than reflection on the fate of Moses who famoulsy disappeared without his body being found.
Similarly, our second reading [Ephesiasn 6:10-20] can remind us that we are “the church militant” – we are the ones in the midst of the battle of good against evil. Those who have gone before us are no longer in the battle. Our departed brothers and sisters in Christ are at rest, awaiting the resurrection. And those who do not belong to Christ are no longer in the battle between good and evil either.
Those who are beyond this battle in Christ, the faithful departed, do not need our prayers; the departed who are not in Christ cannot benefit from our prayers. We need to pray for one another, the living. It is us who are called to take up the whole armour of God and to stand firm against evil.
So tonight, for me, is not an opportunity to pray for souls in purgatory. But this is not because I dismiss all talk about purgatory as fanciful myth. Much of the imagery which we link with hell and purgatory comes from the middle ages when, so it seems, the pictures were often understood quite literally, more often than either in antiquity or in modern times.
It is easy to dismiss these pictures of purgatory and hell by insisting on taking them literally but many Christians throughout history spoke of the fires of hell without thinking of literal flames and instead pondered what it is that is being symbolised here.
In his encyclical SpeSalvi (Saved In Hope), Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
“Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.
All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire” [1 Cor. 3:15].
But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.
In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defile­ment does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, to­wards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Pas­sion.
At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world.” (par. 47)
And it is also clear, to me anyway, that this process is meant to happen, or at least begin to happen now. As we encounter Christ in one another, in the poor and marginalized, in his word, and in the Eucharist we are to be cleansed of our falsehood.
Purgatory is here – and now, as we meet Christ, whether or not it is also there and then in a post-mortem encounter with Christ.