19 June 2006

Part Two: The Church Must be Visibly Present

As miraculous, incredible and wonderful as it sounds, Our Lord Jesus Christ is not content to present Himself to us in only one way (mode). Rather, by the Holy Spirit, we know that He is present to us in at least three ways.

The first way is His physical presence. This occurred when the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary so that she conceived in her womb the Son of God. Our Lord’s second way is His sacramental presence. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ unites Himself (both His divine and human natures) with bread and wine. The third way Our Lord presents Himself to us is His ecclesiastical or churchly presence. This presence also occurs by the Holy Spirit. He unites the faithful together into one communion in Christ’s mystical Body. So two distinct things are combined: Our Lord Jesus and all believers. He is the Head and we are His body.

Just as with His physical and sacrament presence, so also in His ecclesiastical presence Our Lord’s Body is two natures in one Person. For the Church, these two natures are an historical, institutional nature which everyone can see and point to; and a mystical nature which we can see and confess only by the grace of the Holy Spirit. For we are members of His Body—and not of some spiritualized body which no one can see.

The point is that Our Lord presents Himself in outward, manifest ways which men—imbued by the Holy Spirit—can point to and say, “This is the Body of Christ.”

Furthermore, the Lord’s three presences are not separate but interdependent. One could say that they share a perichoretic relationship. His physical presence makes possible His sacramental presence. And His sacramental presence makes possible his churchly presence. For we see Our Lord’s churchly presence most clearly and distinctly at the altar—when the Body of Christ (churchly presence) gathers to feast of the Body of Christ (sacramental presence) which suffered, died and rose for our justification (physical presence).

Yet one parish's particular altar does not exhaust or complete the definition of Our Lord’s churchly presence. If it did, then Jesus would be confined to one place. Or, if He did appear in other churches, then He would be split into many bits all over the world; or He would be duplicated and reproduced. But because of Our Lord’s ascension, the entire Lord Jesus is present sacramentally at every altar. Based on this sacramental miracle, and for the same reason, Our Lord is present not only in one church but across many churches.

Therefore, we ought not simply point at one congregation and say, “This is the Body of Christ.” We also ought to point at a group of congregations—churches in communion fellowship with each other because of Christ’s sacramental presence—and say, “This group of churches, this communion fellowship, this institution is the Body of Christ.”

So Our Lord’s churchly presence is not unlike His physical or sacramental presence. Because Our Lord took flesh, we can and must point to Jesus and say, “This man is God.” Because of Our Lord’s Word and Spirit, we can and must point to the consecrated bread and say, “This bread is Christ’s Body.” In the same way, we can and must point to a communion fellowship that holds to the true faith and say, “This is the Body of Christ—God’s church on earth.”

Condensed and slightly revised from "Addendum III."

Part One: The Church Must be Visibly Present

St. Augustine was not primarily talking about the Eucharist when he said that Jesus "commended to us His Body." Instead, this venerable saint was referring to the holy catholic Church. For, as St. Paul says, the Church is the Body of Christ and Christ Himself is its head (see Romans 12 & 1 Corinthians 12).

Clearly for St. Paul and St. Augustine, "Body of Christ" is not metaphorical; and it is not a fancy way of talking about "church." Rather, this phrase describes yet one more aspect of Our Blessed Lord Jesus. To say it simply, the same Body which was born of the ever-Virgin Mary; the same Body which suffered death on the cross and was raised from the dead; the same Body which we consume at the altar during Holy Communion—that same Body is the Church. Into that Body we were incorporated through Holy Baptism, and apart from that Body we cannot live the Christian life. For Jesus says, "Apart from Me" (that is, apart from My Body) "you can do nothing" (John 15.5; see also Psalm 16.2).

Since the Church is the Body of Christ, it would be heretical to say that this Body is only invisible and has no visible form. For Our Lord Jesus, who became flesh for our sakes, is not invisible now. His ascension did not mean the removal of His human nature—His flesh and bones. Neither did it mean that He simply became invisible. For, unlike the angels, one of the chief characteristics of our bodies is that they can, and will always, be seen. In fact, that is a chief aspect to us being made "in the image of God." For Christ is the image of God; which means that He is the only visible, tangible Person of the Trinity that becomes creature; and we are made in His image, which means our visibility conforms to Him, and not Him to us.

So when Our Lord ascended, His body did not vanish or get taken off. Rather, it was gloriously transformed. And this was done for two reasons: first, so that we could be united in Him (baptism) and Him in us (Eucharist) by the Sacraments. And secondly, so that He—the virgin born—could be visibly present throughout the world in His Church.

This is profound, and not easy to understand. However, it is important to our understanding of "church." For we might tempted to believe that the church is defined strictly in human terms—an assembly of believers. But St. Paul and St. Augustine urge us never to forget that the primary definition and understanding of "church" is rooted in Christ. It is His Body, not our association. And it is His Body, not merely a group of people who believe and practice the same thing.

Because this is hard for us to understand and remember, the danger is that we flay Jesus' skin from His Body, and think and talk only in terms of an "invisible church" or "a unity that cannot be seen." But if Our Lord Jesus is still in His flesh, and if the Church is His Body, then His Church must be visibly present—visible even to the eyes of the unbelievers. (For remember, even the unbelievers saw Jesus with their eyes, although they did not see or confess Him as the Christ.)

The question, now, is "where is Christ's Body the Church visibly present"? Or, to use St. Augustine's words, where does the Body He commended to us continue to lie?

We Lutherans are in the habit of saying that Our Lord's Body continues to lie where the Word is purely preached and the Sacraments are rightly given. But, historically, a more "meaty" and "fleshly" answer is this: the church is the communion fellowship between those pastors (bishops and priests) who hold steadfastly to the Jesus who is both God and Man, sacrificed on the cross and now given from the altar.

If that communion fellowship between the pastors is broken by false doctrine or false worship, is that any longer the holy and glorified Body of Christ?

And is one member or portion of that Body in danger if it remains in a communion fellowship with pastors who deny the Faith once delivered?

From the latter part of "Addendum IV."

All of Us are Beggars

A friend of mine, who is a Serbian Orthodox priest in Montana, once gave me The Prologue of Ohrid. It is a handsomely bound, two-volume work intended for personal devotion for Eastern Orthodox laity and clergy. It is arranged according to the Byzantine rite liturgical year, and for each day of the year contains hagiagraphies of the saints for that day, a "Hymn of Praise" composed often by saints, a reflection, an aid to contemplating particular Scriptures, and a brief homily.

I really don't look at it that often. As I wrote, it follows the Byzantine calendar and so the feasts of major saints are on different days than what is customary in the West; the many minor saints are unknown to me; and the hymns are not metrical (as I'm used to), but poetic meditations.

However, today I happened to pick it up just to see what was listed for June 19. On the opposite side was the homily for June 18 which, coincidentally, touches on the themes from yesterday's Gospel. Here is that homily.

The poor man who begs and the rich man who gives--both make the Lord their debtor, but only under the condition that the poor man begs in the name of the Lord and with humility and that the rich man gives in the name of the Lord and with compassion. Everyone who receives should know that he receives that which belongs to God, and everyone who gives should know that he gives that which belongs to God. Such giving has a price and such receiving has a price. All of us enter this world naked, and naked we shall leave this world.

All of us are beggars before the Lord, for we possess nothing that we have not received from the Lord. Therefore, give to the poor man as God has given to you. You take what is another's and you give to your own when you give alms. The poor man is closer to you than all of your goods, just as to God, the Creator of all men, every man is incomparably more precious than all of his goods.

If you have been given riches, they have been given to you for temptation: that your heart be tempted! That God and all the heavenly hosts might see whether you have understood whence are all your riches and why they were given to you. Blessed are you if you know that your goods are from God and belong to God! Blessed are you if you consider the poor as your companions, as members of your family, and share with them that which God has entrusted to you!

Oh, how immeasurable is God's love for mankind! Behold, all that you have belongs to God, and yet God considers Himself your debtor if you take from Him and give to the poor, and He will repay you for your good. What kind of mercy can be compared to this?

O man-loving Lord, open our minds to understand the mystery of Thy mercy, and soften our hearts like wax, that as wax they may burn and shine with the reflection of Thine inexpressible mercy!

To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen. (Source)

NOTE: The Prologue of Ohrid is online.

18 June 2006

The Mass is All I Have

The Mass is all I have, because it is all I need in order to live.

That’s what the Christian says, because that’s what the Christian believes.

Now, I’ll grant that it sounds radical—like a gross overstatement. It certainly sounds pious, but it also sounds like it steps beyond all notions of reality—like an escape from the real world into some super-religious world of zealots and fanatics. But before you dismiss that little sentence, consider what it says.

The Mass is not simply some ritual, some spiritual exercise that you go through because that’s how you were raised. When you boil it down, the Mass is two things—the deliverance of Jesus Himself in word and in deed. In the preaching, the Spirit delivers the actual words of Christ into your heart and mind. And in the Blessed Sacrament, the same Spirit delivers the true Body and Blood of Christ into your flesh and bones.

Both those things—the Lord's Word and the Lord's Supper—go inseparably together. If you hear but don’t receive, or if you receive but never hear, you’re getting half of what Our God and Lord gives in the Mass. Now some may honestly believe that half is good enough. But it’s only half—half of Our Lord, because it is half of the way He delivers Himself into you.

The Mass is all I have means that the Mass is all the Lord gives in answer to your prayer. You pray “Give us this day our daily bread, forgive our sins, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil—protect, strengthen, guide and comfort us.” A fine prayer, indeed! And where does Our Lord answer it? At the Holy Mass. And to what extent does He answer it there? Fully, completely, without short-changing you one bit.

The Mass is where the Lord daily loads you with benefits. For what is better than the Lord’s forgiveness and compassion? And what is better than being so intimately united to God that He comes and makes His home in you? He dwells in you, and you dwell in Him. That doesn’t happen in the signs you look for, or the feeling of God’s presence that you get. That happens nowhere but at the Mass. For there, and only there, is where He ties Himself to you.

When you push it further and say The Mass is all I need in order to live—now you’ve said that nothing else in life matters. Not only because everything else pales in comparison, or because life is not worth living without God’s love in Christ. But primarily because your life—and all life of whatever kind—depends solely and entirely on that love of God delivered into your very being. Without the Lord’s mercy delivered in the Gospel preaching and Gospel Sacraments, there is no life—for you, for the world. Without the Mass, nothing exists!

Isn’t that what Jesus says when He calls Himself the living Bread of Heaven and then says, “The bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world”? And, just so you understand, He pushes it one step further when He adds, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”

The Mass is all you need to live. That’s what Our Lord is saying. And He says it not as a theory or a spiritual truth. He says it to you, as the only truth worth believing. In fact, He says it so plainly and bluntly that, if you turn your back on it, you revert to hellish living and, ultimately, hellish death.

And so what else can you say in response to what Our Lord says? The Christian has only one thing left to say:

The Mass is all I have, because it is all I need in order to live.

First published in the Zion Trumpet, the official newsletter of Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit.

Two Statues

In 1975 & 1976, the following two statues were installed at Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit. They were custom made in Italy and donated by parishioners in memory of loved ones. They grace two alcoves in the Nave designed in 1933 with, I'm sure, no thought that statues would one day appear. Since their installation, both stations have been used as places of prayer.

These statues are known as either the Madonna or Theotokos statue, and the Christus or Christos statue. As one might imagine, the former induces quite a number of comments from those who question the propriety of its appearance in a Lutheran Church. However, it has caused no consternation among the parishioners of Zion, who have been carefully catechized concerning the veneration of the pure, holy, ever-Virgin Mother of God.

NOTE: Here are more photos of the interior of Zion Church.

17 June 2006

Optional Orandi begets Proscribed Credendi

With reasoned voice, a friend of mine has offered a perceptive diagnosis:

Lutheranism has a lex credendi (rule of faith) but no lex orandi (rule of prayer). Anglicanism has a lex orandi (Book of Common Prayer), but no lex credendi (anything goes, doctrinally speaking). Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have both a lex credendi (Tradition) and a lex orandi (the Liturgy). Lutheranism has a great lex credendi (Book of Concord) but no actual lex orandi (all in the name of "liberty," of course).

He then concludes:

The liturgical and practical instability of Lutheranism flows out its reticence to define dogmatically its rule of worship in the way of a received "holy tradition." This is why Lutheran practice frequently comes unbuckled from Lutheran doctrine. It relies on paper subscription to a book without practical adherance [sic] to any liturgical or practical norms.

One evidence of this is in the liturgically-schizophrenic LCMS where the Commission on Worship, as it finishes an extensive nine-year service book project, has now begun "a process leading toward the development of diverse worship resources." With astounding and lamentable words, a member of the Commission proves my friend's point:

[We] will not talk much about traditional worship, but a diversity of worship approaches and styles. We want to help the church define what worship is in general, to help people discover what is Lutheran about worship. And, to that end, we want to identify material that will lead us to that.

Yet this raises what, no doubt, is the obvious question. In the Lutheran Church, is there such a thing as a lex credendi regarding not just what the orandi means (i.e., "theology of worship"), but also how liturgy is to be done? In other words, doesn't "liturgical theology" involve the way one prays (as well as what is left unsaid or said vapidly) and not just the doctrinal soundness of the words used?

What my friend doesn't say--perhaps because it is too painfully true--and what is categorically denied by the Commission member, is that lex credendi and lex orandi are of a piece. And if one must rank them, it is the lex orandi that inevitably shapes the lex credendi. Most people, of whatever religion or liturgical stripe, instinctively know this. Otherwise they would not be so upset over changes in their way of worship (or customs and traditions).

To say it another way, the pithy condensation of Prosper's famous dictum is not intended to suggest hopeful ingredients for sustainable, stable church practice. (And I don't think my friend suggested that.) Rather, it indicates that dogma that is not reverently prayed is paper-faith; and whatever is prayed becomes the true dogma or, if you will, the interpretive norm for the paper-confessions.

The genius of my friend's comment, then, is that he has exposed not a point of instability in Lutheranism which needs, somehow, to be shored-up and strengthened. Whether he knows it or not, my friend has exposed the fatal flaw which exists in Lutheranism as much as it exists in Episcopalianism; namely, the rending of lex credendi from lex orandi. This flaw has existed from the beginning of the Reformation. One might say it was then no more than a simple virus; but now, thanks in large part to a combination of ignorance, undiscipline, pride, and weak-kneedness, it has left its patients' stubborn adherents frenetically minding monitors that announce impending death, all the while hysterically lashing out at doctors, nurses, aids, friends, or anyone else who happens by the death bed.

Which is all a lengthy way of amending yet another lex coined by a former vicar of Zion: "Where historic liturgy is optional, historic faith will sooner or later be proscribed."

16 June 2006

The Tree of Life

Because of the Lord’s great and abundant mercy, Adam and Eve did not die immediately and instantaneously. Communion in God had been broken, but the Lord graciously and mightily held back the power of death. Death now entered into the world, but not at this moment—for in this moment the Lord snatched his infantile creatures from the jaws of death and from the gates of the grave. And then Our Father devised a plan and made a way of escape. He fashioned death into His instrument for restoring life, and called on His Son, by the Spirit, to blaze the new path from the garden through the wilderness and back into paradise. This way of escape requires tasting death and meeting the grave. Yet when that path is entered upon in true faith, communion in God is fully restored.

But what about the Tree of Life? The Lord God drove man out of the garden—“lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” Does this mean that the Tree is gone, that its fruit is withered, and that the life it once offered is no longer available? By no means!

The Tree of Life still bears fruit—and that fruit is the food for our journey from this life to the life of the world to come. And now here is the great mystery. The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden is Our Lord Jesus Christ—the same Lord Jesus who speaks plainly to us in today’s Gospel. Today He says that He is the Bread of Heaven which a man must partake of in order to have true life. For He says, "My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him."

And so you see—the Tree and its fruit is not gone. Rather, for our sakes it has been wondrously, mercifully transformed. The fruit it offers is the flesh and blood of Christ—which is now given for us to eat and drink in the Blessed Sacrament. So the life that the Tree promises is offered anew—but in another form.

An excerpt from the Corpus Christi sermon preached at Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit.

"Without Christ, No One Possessed Salvation"

In preparing for Mass this coming Sunday, I searched (as I always do) for sermons from the fathers. This site has great resources. But alas, one of my favorite patristric is missing. So I reached for the proper volume in my library and discovered, much to my joy, that he has not one but three sermons on the appointed Gospel. And near the end of the third, I happened upon this jewel that must be displayed.

This is why the Lord himself came on the scene, he who had banished the first man, that is, the insubordinate servant; the Lord himself, who had bolted paradise, who had locked up the netherworld, descended in the fullness of his power to the earth and below the earth, in order to extinguish the flames and to destroy in an instant what had been kept secure. This is why he carries his cross as a battering ram as he is about to enter the netherworld, in order to crush and shatter the very gates of Tartarus which were fortified with bronze and iron. From his side he poured water out in order to mark the way to paradise, to extinguish the fire of the underworld on the saints’ side, to wash away and completely dissolve the ancient bond of debt, and to remit by suffering what he had imposed by his command.

Recognize this, brothers: be glad, brothers, that after the triumph of Christ the prison of the saints has been broken open, and the netherworld no longer exercises any jurisdiction over the saints, since Christ penetrated all the way to the netherworld in order to free the just, not the unjust. Let us realize how great a benefit Christ has provided, or rather, how without Christ no one possessed salvation, since, besides the wretched dissolution of their bodies, the souls, too, of the saints were being held in confinement in the underworld. Therefore, Lazarus was blessed who owed everything to God, in order not to owe anything to sin! He was blessed who here received so many evils, in order to possess there every good thing! (St Peter Chrysologus, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, Vol 110)

Lutheran Corpus Christi?

From time to time, I am directly questioned concerning the propriety of certain ceremonies, usages, or other practices done at Zion. These range from the use of the parish's custom of honoring their pastors with the appellation "Father" to the celebration of daily mass to the use of Luther's Baptismal Order.

Often these questions are asked with curious courtesy, but occasionally condemnatory accusation frames the "mood" of the question. In either case, I am grateful for those who address me directly and for the questions they ask since I am always eager to give an answer explaining the history or theology behind such practices. (The questions also give me an opportunity to brag about Zion--the parish I'll always love with neverending love.)

However, I am non-plussed and increasingly irritated with those (some of whom I have considered friends) who assume certain information and criticize from afar. Often, they have never been to Zion; neither have they had the gentlemanliness to address a question before insinuasting an accusation.

No doubt I'm being sensitive, but it appears that this might be happening yet again concerning Zion's long-standing tradition of celebrating the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ (commonly known as Corpus Christi). This feast was celebrated (as Western tradition would have it) on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday; i.e., yesterday. And what occurred this year is what occurs every year: Hymns were sung, a sermon was preached, the Sacrament was distributed, and the Mass was celebrated in the usual fashion. The one exception was that the congregation sang the Sequence (written by St Thomas Aquinas) according to the translation and melody given in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (#321).

NOTE: A copy (in pdf format) of the propers and the day's ordo is available upon request (stjohnofkronstadt@gmail.com)

13 June 2006

The Culture that Promotes What is Right

A Lutheran pastor does not have the luxury of doing what is right. This is not because he may lack the guts to do the right thing, but because even when he does what is right he does not have a “culture” that supports the right thing—that is, a “culture” which cannot imagine anything but doing what is right.

Several years ago I wrote a piece on fasting that hinted at this phenomenon. Relating the “right thing” to fasting, I said, “The Lenten fast was [once] practiced by all without any compulsion because it was part of the annual rhythm.” I suggested that it was part of that rhythm because it was part of the Christian culture; that is, fasting had woven itself into the fabric of ethnic identify and the rhythm of life so that the nominal as well as the devout partook of the Lenten and Friday fasts.

The Lutheran culture, however, has shifted so dramatically that we—those who truly want to live the catholic religion—still consider and practice as optional many things (like fasting) that simply are not optional. This notion of what is optional fosters an individualism which, in turn, does not give a Lutheran pastor the luxury of doing what is right—at least, as “right” pertains to the communal congregational context.

NOTE: The example of fasting is only one instance of doing the "right thing." Also included under this rubric would be closed communion, the use of truly Lutheran hymnody, conducting marriages only when both persons are baptized, granting Christian burial only to Christians, celebrating Mass every Sunday, the distribution of the Sacrament only by the ordained, and any other number of doctrines and practices which otherwise confessional Lutheran pastors feel constrained to compromise upon or consign to the heap called "adiaphora."

08 June 2006

Resuming the Weekly Fast

During Pentecost week, one should really avail oneself of the opportunity to read the three Pentecost sermons of St Leo the Great. Yesterday, at Holy Mass at Zion, for the homily I read St Leo's sermon "On the Whitsuntide Fast." Among traditional Western Catholics, that fast is kept on Pentecost Wednesday, Pentecost Friday and Pentecost Saturday; i.e., the three Ember Days during Pentecost week. Some would suggest that this fast is also the resumption, after Easter, of the annual every-Friday fast that Christians have kept since the earliest days.

In enjoining his hearers to maintain the disciple of regular fasting, St. Leo begins his sermon with these remarkable sentences.

[W]hen the Apostles had been filled with the promised power, and the Spirit of Truth had entered their hearts, we doubt not that among the other mysteries of heavenly doctrine this discipline of spiritual self-restraint was first thought of at the prompting of the Paraclete in order that minds sanctified by fasting might be fitter for the chrism to be bestowed on them. The disciples of Christ had the protection of the Almighty aid, and the chiefs of the infant Church were guarded by the whole Godhead of the Father and the Son through the presence of the Holy Ghost. But against the threatened attacks of persecutors, against the terrifying shouts of the ungodly, they could not fight with bodily strength or pampered flesh, since that which delights the outer does most harm to the inner man, and the more one's fleshly substance is kept in subjection, the more purified is the reasoning soul. And so those teachers, who have instructed all the Church's sons by their examples and their traditions, began the rudiments of the Christian warfare with holy fasts, that, having to fight against spiritual wickednesses, they might take the armour of abstinence, wherewith to slay the incentives to vice.
And then, just before his concluding paragraph, St. Leo offers this exhortation to his hearers:

Therefore, after the days of holy gladness, which we have devoted to the honour of the Lord rising from the dead and then ascending into heaven, and after receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, a fast is ordained as a wholesome and needful practice, so that, if perchance through neglect or disorder even amid the joys of the festival any undue licence has broken out, it may be corrected by the remedy of strict abstinence, which must be the more scrupulously carried out in order that what was on this day Divinely bestowed on the Church may abide in us. For being made the Temple of the Holy Ghost, and watered with a greater supply than ever of the Divine Stream, we ought not to be conquered by any lusts nor held in possession by any vices in order that the habitation of Divine power may be stained with no pollution.

06 June 2006

Dealing with Temptation

The following is from The Ascetic Life (ACW 21.115-116) by St Maximos the Confessor. The first sentences are posted in several places on the internet, but I thought I'd give a fuller context.

Many of the things that befall us, befall us for our training, either to do away with past sins or to correct present neglect or to check future sinful deeds.

He then, who reckons that temptation has come upon him for one of these reasons, is not vexed at its attack, especially as he is conscious of his sin. Nor does he censure him through whom the temptation came; for whether through him or through another, he surely has to drain the chalice of the divine judgments. Rather, he looks to God and gives thanks to Him that pardons; he censures himself and heartily accepts the chastisement, as did David with Semei, and as Job with his wife.

The foolish man often asks God to be merciful; when the mercy comes, he does not accept it, as it did not come, in fact, as he willed, but as the Physician of souls thought fitting. And so he gives no heed and is thrown into confusion.

05 June 2006

Pentecost Monday homily

Among Western Catholics (except those following the Orthodox calendar), today is Monday within the Octave of Pentecost--known also by its older English title as "Whitsun Monday." The Gospel reading for the Mass is St. John 3.16-21. Below are the words from St. John Chrysostom's homily on 3.17 that I read after the Gospel reading during the Mass at Zion.

Many of the more careless sort of persons, using the lovingkindness of God to increase the magnitude of their sins and the excess of their disregard, speak in this way, "There is no hell, there is no future punishment, God forgives us all sins." To stop whose mouths a wise man says, "Say not, His mercy is great, He will be pacified for the multitude of my sins; for mercy and wrath come from Him, and His indignation resteth upon sinners" (Ecclus. v. 6): and again, "As His mercy is great, so is His correction also." (Ecclus. xvi. 12.) "Where then," saith one, "is His lovingkindness, if we shall receive for our sins according to our deserts?" That we shall indeed receive "according to our deserts," hear both the Prophet and Paul declare; one says, "Thou shalt render to every man according to his work" (Ps. lxii. 12, Ps. lxii. 12 LXX.); the other, "Who will render to every man according to his work." (Rom. ii. 6.) And yet we may see that even so the lovingkindness of God is great; in dividing our existence into two periods, the present life and that which is to come, and making the first to be an appointment of trial, the second a place of crowning, even in this He hath shown great lovingkindness.

"How and in what way?" Because when we had committed many and grievous sins, and had not ceased from youth to extreme old age to defile our souls with ten thousand evil deeds, for none of these sins did He demand from us a reckoning, but granted us remission of them by the washing of Regeneration, and freely gave us Righteousness and Sanctification. "What then," says one, "if a man who from his earliest age has been deemed worthy of the mysteries, after this commits ten thousand sins?" Such an one deserves a severer punishment. For we do not pay the same penalties for the same sins, if we do wrong after Initiation. And this Paul declares, saying, "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses; of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the Covenant an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?" (Heb. x. 28, Heb. x. 29.) Such an one then is worthy of severer punishment. Yet even for him God hath opened doors of repentance, and hath granted him many means for the washing away his transgressions, if he will. Think then what proofs of lovingkindness these are; by Grace to remit sins, and not to punish him who after grace has sinned and deserves punishment, but to give him a season and appointed space for his clearing. For all these reasons Christ said to Nicodemus, "God sent not His Son to condemn the world, but to save the world."

For there are two Advents of Christ, that which has been, and that which is to be; and the two are not for the same purpose; the first came to pass not that He might search into our actions, but that He might remit; the object of the second will be not to remit, but to enquire. Therefore of the first He saith, "I came not to condemn the world, but to save the world" (c. iii. 17); but of the second, "When the Son shall have come in the glory of His Father, He shall set the sheep on His right hand, and the goats on His left." (Matt. xxv. 31 and Matt. xxv. 46.) And they shall go, these into life; and these into eternal punishment. Yet His former coming was for judgment, according to the rule of justice. Why? Because before His coming there was a law of nature, and the prophets, and moreover a written Law, and doctrine, and ten thousand promises, and manifestations of signs, and chastisements, and vengeances, and many other things which might have set men right, and it followed that for all these things He would demand account; but, because He is merciful, He for a while pardons instead of making enquiry. For had He done so, all would at once have been hurried to perdition. For "all," it saith, "have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." (Rom. iii 23.) Seest thou the unspeakable excess of His lovingkindness?

03 June 2006

The Heresy Called Pietism

A year ago I published the following in the Zion Trumpet, the parish newsletter of Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit. It relies heavily on chapter 8 in The Freedom of Morality by Christos Yannaras.

We give the name “pietism” to a phenomenon in church life which stresses “personal piety” as distinct from doctrine or the teachings of the church.

With its stress on personal piety, pietism undermines (if not also denies) unity among the body of believers and so also communion in God. For it focuses attention on the individual who is able to “appropriate” (apply to himself) his own salvation. As such, it transfers the place of man’s salvation away from the Church and into the realm of the individual and his moral endeavors.

For pietism, salvation is not primarily the fact of the church—the way Christians live in communion with God and each other. Neither is salvation man’s dynamic, personal participation in the body of the Church’s communion. So man is not saved despite his individual unworthiness. Rather, pietism sees salvation as individual attainment—the way an individual accepts Christ, believes in His saving work, and lives up to moral commitments.

In pietism, then, the Church becomes a place which assures not growth in God. Neither is it a community where one person helps save another. Rather, the Church is the gathering of justified individuals. She is nothing more than the assembly of “regenerated individuals”—a gathering of those individuals who understand themselves to be justified.

With pietism, liturgy is incidental. It exists only to uplift those individuals who find the ceremonies, hymns, and texts “meaningful” and “edifying.” The Eucharist, also, no longer embodies the fact of salvation, but is distorted into an individual event—a means of assimilating Jesus spiritually.

Pietism is a heresy—especially a false teaching about the church. It denies the very truth of the Church. It transfers the event of salvation away from the body of Christ gathered in liturgy to an individual. It divorces piety from the Trinity—that is, from living in community. And by emphasizing individual salvation, it denies that our salvation is to live life in Christ together—in constant communion with all others.

Pietism doesn’t deny the existence or helpfulness of the Church. It simply disconnects the church from salvation, and says that man’s life and salvation can (and sometimes “must”) be lived apart from the church. And so it fuels the false and unchristian notion that a person can take “time off” or “time away from” the church and her liturgy.

The truth, however, is that no salvation comes apart from the church; and no salvation is given elsewhere but in the church; and no salvation can be sustained except in the church. And the truth is that we are saved not as individuals, but to lose our individuality and to live as persons—men and women in loving communion with our God and (because of this) with each other.

"The Spirit is Manifold in His Mighty Works"

Today the Western Church will celebrate the Vigil of Pentecost, and tomorrow the Feast of Holy Pentecost. In his work On the Holy Spirit, St Basil the Great gives the classic patristic understanding (and defense) of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The following is an excerpt that I find most helpful.

Simple in himself, the Spirit is manifold in his mighty works. The whole of his being is present to each individual; the whole of his being is present everywhere. Though shared in by many, he remains unchanged; his self giving is no loss to himself. Like the sunshine, which permeates all the atmosphere, spreading over land and sea, and yet is enjoyed by each person as though it were for him alone, so the Spirit pours forth his grace in full measure, sufficient for all, and yet is present as though exclusively to everyone who can receive him. To all creatures that share in him he gives a delight limited only by their own nature, not by his ability to give.

The Spirit raises our hearts to heaven, guides the steps of the weak, and brings to perfection those who are making progress. He enlightens those who have been cleansed from every stain of sin and makes them spiritual by communion with himself.

As clear, transparent substances become very bright when sunlight falls on them and shine with a new radiance, so also souls in whom the Spirit, become spiritual themselves and a source of grace for others.

From the Spirit comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of the mysteries of faith, insight into the hidden meaning of Scripture, and other special gifts. Through the Spirit we become citizens of heaven, we enter into eternal happiness, and abide in God. Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed, we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations - we become God.

01 June 2006

The Proof of Faith is in the Lives of the Saints

As the Octave of the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord winds to a close with II Vespers this evening, it seems fitting to be reminded of these words first preached by St Leo the Great. They are my recasting of this translation of St Leo's Sermon LXXIV, "On the Lord's Ascension."

On the fortieth day after the Resurrection in the presence of the disciples, was raised into heaven. On that day He terminated His presence with us in the body to abide on the Father's right hand. There He sits until He comes to judge the living and the dead in the same flesh in which He ascended. Yet He has not forsaken us. Instead, in His Ascension, our Redeemer’s body—which was visible and touchable during His stay on earth—was changed into a sacramental presence. Sight, then, gives way to taking to heart and obeying Our Lord’s teachings with the result that faith is made more excellent and stronger.

This Faith, increased by the Lord's Ascension and established by the gift of the Holy Ghost, is not terrified by bonds, imprisonments, banishments, hunger, fire, attacks by wild beasts, refined torments of cruel persecutors. Rather, in every age and in many places, not only men but also women, not only boys but also young girls, have fought, and continue to fight for this Faith, to the shedding of their blood. More so, this Faith casts out spirits, drives off sicknesses, and raises the dead.

The proof of this is in the lives of the saints—most especially the Holy Apostles. You will recall that, even though they had seen so many miracles performed by Our Lord and heard all of His teaching and had even acknowledge His authority, even still they were panic-stricken by the horrors of the Lord's Passion and had not accepted the truth of His resurrection without hesitation. Yet after Our Lord’s departure—after His Ascension and the descent of His Spirit—they progressed to the point that everything which had previously filled them with fear was turned into joy. In fact, they were not longer hindered by His absence. Instead, lifted the whole contemplation of their mind to the Godhead of Him who is seated at the Father's right hand. And so they confessed that the Son of God who had never left His Father’s side when He came down from heaven, is truly the Son of Man who did not forsake them when He ascended into heaven.

Also, the Holy Ghost, the Comforter

You should not be afraid or undone when you suffer in body or mind for the sake of the Faith. For all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. And Our Lord tells us why this is so: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you.” Therefore, you must be serious and watchful in your prayers. For in whatever way you are afflicted, and whenever you endure heartache for the sake of righteousness, then rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. And do not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. For you do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. These you must resist, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world.

Yet in today's Gospel Our Lord tells us not just about suffering and misery. Today He promises that at every turn, and against every trial or temptation or heartache or turmoil, whether small or great, whether in mind or body—there is the Holy Spirit sent by the Father and the Son, to help and comfort you.

But above all, today Our Lord urges us that when we suffer, when we feel heartache, when we have misery, when we are downcast, when we are falling into despondency and despair—when these days comes, He says, “remember that I told you of them.” Listen to Him who says, “I told you of them.” It is as if He saying this:

I am going to die for the sake of your life and salvation; I am going to redeem you with My blood; I am going to aid you always in your tribulations; I am going to give you eternal rewards after your tribulations—and now, I hold out to you great solace, and a great gift of consolation. To those engaged in strife for My sake, I promise the gift of My Holy Spirit who will comfort and console you, and strengthen you—and lead you safely in the path that I have already trod for your sake. (St Bede, paraphrased)

We are prone to forget both the Holy Spirit and the consolation He is, and the soothing relief He gives. We pray earnestly to the Father, and we cry out to Our Lord Jesus. We say, “Help us, deliver us, rescue us; lead me, guide me, strengthen me; embolden me, enliven me, and warm my heart.” And today our dear Lord Jesus answers that prayer by saying, “I have both done this, and will do it again. For I send you the Holy Spirit every time I give you My Word, every time I forgive your sins, every time I minister to you through My pastors, every time I feed you with My own Body and Blood, and every time I speak to your spirit with My holy Gospel at the Holy Mass. For there is the Spirit of Truth. And He is the Spirit who not only speaks the Truth, but also gives you the Truth that I am. And in that way He comforts you—for He plants Me home within you heart and mind, and within your flesh and blood.”

Such comfort the Lord Jesus gives us from the Father in the Spirit that He sends. And it is this comfort—and this Comforter—who makes good on Our Lord’s promise that He will not leave us as orphans.

An excerpt from the Exaudi (Sunday after the Ascension) sermon preached 5.28.06 at Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit.