05 December 2011

Changing Churches - A Recap

The announcement of the publication of Changing Churches has caused me to reflect, once more, on my move from Lutheranism into the Orthodox Church.

As I recapitulate this move, I realize that my answer to the differences between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy has crystallized over the years.

Early on, when I was a Lutheran minister trying to diagnose how to remain faithful to the Lutheran Confessions and yet remain in an heterodox church body, I wrote (with some help from Rev Dr Charles Robb Hogg and Rev William Weedon) and delivered an essay entitled, "What Options do the Confessions Give Lutherans." In that paper, I argued for what I called the "catholic principle" in the Lutheran Confessions which, in terms of ecclesiology, led the early Lutherans to see themselves not as a denomination but as the continuation of the Catholic Church in the West. I still maintain that, although I now think that the attempt by Luther and Chemnitz was doomed from the beginning due to the inheritance of systemic flaws in medieval theological constructs. (Louis Bouyer exposes one of these in his book "Eucharist.")

In a statement written for laymen, I pointed to some of these systemic flaws in the Statement of Resignation that Rev David Stecholz (President & Bishop of the English District) graciously permitted me to read to my beloved parishioners when I left Zion Ev. Lutheran Church in Detroit. What I wrote then I still maintain, although I would now sharpen, with more careful nuance, some of the phrases.

Over the years, I've also made other attempts at explaining the differences; most notably, a presentation on "Creeds and Confessions" at the "Faith of Our Fathers" colloquium for Lutherans. (I highly recommend all the presentations at this colloquium.)

In the final analysis, however, I would boil all the differences down to these main points:

  • The Church is not a Platonic Republic (i.e., intrinsically or primarily invisible); i.e., an assembly of believers. Rather, it is and must be a visible entity, traceable through an unbroken link to the time of the Apostles. (The Lutheran Confessions, in my view, speak with two minds about this doctrine.)
  • The end or purpose of salvation is not merely to be safe or make it to heaven, but to be in an undying union with God through Christ and the Spirit. That end or purpose is never fully achieved, just as a relationship is never exhausted. (This is a summary of theosis or, what "Lutheran Orthodoxy" called unio mystica.) This leads me to resonate with St Maximus the Confessor's speculation that sin and death did not necessitate the incarnation of the Son of God; rather, the original design, from eternity, was that the Son of God would become incarnate so that man could be in union with God.
  • Tradition is not a custom nor merely a lens through which the church reads the Scriptures; rather, Tradition is the ongoing life of the Church (the Spirit in and of the Church) which, of course, cannot contradict Scripture but which also amplifies Scripture. (The Lutheran Confessions state that some of Tradition - e.g., liturgy - is indifferent; and insist, for those who take a quia subscription, that it is a lens.)
  • Sin is certainly serious and is inherited; but it is not part of man's nature nor is it the primary problem. Rather, death is the primary problem, as seen by the fact that Christ purposefully took on passable flesh in order to suffer, die and rise. (The article on Free Will [FC SD II], when read understanding the philosophical underpinnings of the language, agrees that man is not by nature sinful.)
There are, of course, other differences. But these are the ones that I would identify; at least, these are the ones that were uppermost for me.

In the final analysis, however, with my understanding that liturgy is what drives the everyday experience of every Christian, what tipped the scale for me was this question: "What gave Luther (or whomever) the right to change the Mass, Office and Ritual which he had received ultimately from the Holy Spirit."

26 April 2011

Homily for Easter Sunday

“By being killed, Christ killed what was killing everyone.”

Let us linger a while on these words from our holy father, Saint Peter Chrysologus. And as we linger, let us ponder these questions: What is killing everyone? Is it cancer or heart disease; is it wanton murder or senseless accidents; is it unhealthy eating or lifestyle choices; is it lack of food or lack of medicine? Those are not things that kill, but things that may cause or contribute to our death. So what is killing everyone? Is it not death? Is it not death that kills all men?

If that is true—and you know it is—then today we celebrate the death of death, and the resurrection of Life. We celebrate that death has been killed, and that Life Himself has risen triumphantly. We celebrate that in that combat stupendous between death and life, the Prince of Life, who died, overcame death and the grave, and killed death, and so reigns immortal.

Let us hear more fully, then, what our holy father among the saints declares:

“Christ accepted death so that death would die. Christ, by being killed, killed what was killing everyone. Christ entered the tomb in order to open up hell. So, having abolished the authority of death, having destroyed the prison of hell, and having annihilated the very power of death, Christ now should not be anointed as a dead man, but should be adored as Victor.”

And yet the women, in their pious devotion, bring ointment and spices to care for the body of one who has died. They keep vigil, they stay awake all night, they make costly and time-consuming preparations, and they perform the godly duties of mourning—yet not for death, but for Christ Jesus. And so they hasten to the grave in the early morning, not in faith in order to celebrate the death of death, but in sorrow in order to honor another one of death’s victims.

Yet the victim they intend to honor is no victim. And the shrine they intend to erect refuses to be enshrined. For a shrine honors the dead. But when the women entered into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed with a white robe: and they were astonished. He saith to them: Be not affrighted; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he is risen, he is not here, behold the place where they laid him.

And in beholding, did they believe? When they saw the empty tomb, did faith arise in their hearts? When they heard the joyous words from the young man, were those words too incredible and unbelievable?

Initially, Our Lord’s resurrection was hard to believe. And despite our annual celebration, Our Lord’s conquering of death is still hard to believe. For the stone was very great; the stone of fear, the stone of unbelief, the stone of death and the grave.

And that stone is still very great. For who could ever think that death had died—especially when we still see death taking its toll? And who would now believe that the victory still remains with Life—especially when we hear how sickness and disease, how murder and recklessness, still destroys so many lives. Has the reign of death truly ended?

When we believe that death still has the upper hand, that death still reigns, then in fear we run ourselves to death and toward death. And so we feed death with our life-destroying sins of pride and despair and lust and greed. We feed death, hoping to get the most out of life. We feed death, believing deep down that he will have the final say. We feed death, and so we gorge our passions and indulge our appetites and let anger and hopelessness and misery get the upper hand.

Notice, however, how the angels gently call us to faith; how they urge us to believe against what we feel, what we experience, what we see, what we hear. Notice how the angels plead with us to look beyond the evidence; how they exhort us to overrule our fears. But most of all, notice how those angels proclaim that we should no longer run from death, that we should no longer cower at the grave. Yet listen not first to what they say. Instead, observe what they have done.

The women wondered aloud, “Who shall roll us back the stone from the door of the sepulchre? For the stone was very great. Which stone? The stone of the tomb, or the stone of the heart? The stone that announced that death had claimed another? Yet now the stone announces that death has been defeated; that the grave had not swallowed a dead man, but death itself; and that the house of death had become a life-giving home. For looking, they saw the stone rolled back. By whom? By the angels.

Now when a stone is rolled forward, it declares that the grave is sealed, that death has done its worst. But this stone is rolled back. And so it announces that death has died, that Life lives, and that Life Himself can both call the dead out of the graves, and restore to us the hope of life, even as we live surrounded by death.

Yet the stone, and the angels, declare even more astounding things. They preach that the death we see, the death we fear, the death we feel deep down in our bones—this death is not only dead, but also converted; that death itself has become the highway for Life, and the road we get to trod so that may reach our heavenly home. “Blessed, then, is the stone which could both conceal Christ and reveal Him! Blessed is the stone which opens hearts no less than graves! Blessed is the stone which produces faith in the Resurrection, and a resurrection of faith!” (St Peter Chrysologus) And blessed is the stone which no longer entices us to give in, but now draws us to revel in the Lord’s death-defying mercy!

Christ indeed from death is risen. And in rising, He has both killed our enemy, and at the same time raised us in Baptism from death to life. Let us not, then, prefer defeated death, by returning to our old ways and indulging our sinful passions. So let no death, through sin, reign in your mortal body, so as to obey its passions. Neither yield your members as instruments of iniquity unto sin; but present yourselves to God, as those that are alive from the dead. For Christ Our Lord has overcome death. By being killed, Christ has killed what is killing you.

To this Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only-begotten Son of the Father, together with His all-holy and life-giving Spirit, belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.

11 April 2011

The Hidden Jesus - A Homily

NB The following homily was preached last evening at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (OCA) at the Vespers sponsored by the Council of Orthodox Christian Churches of Metropolitan Detroit.

After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jews began plotting in earnest to put Jesus to death. The high priest Caiaphas announced that “it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.”

The holy evangelist St John tells us that when the Jewish leaders plotted to kill Him, “Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews.” What does this mean? First, it means that he actually hid Himself; for John tells us that Jesus left Jerusalem and “went into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim, and there remained with His disciples” until he entered triumphantly on Palm Sunday.

Yet there is also a spiritual meaning. That “Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews” means that He also hid deeply His divinity. No more feeding of multitudes, no more healing the sick, no more resurrections—in fact, no more miracles did He do, except healing the ear of Malchus on the night of His betrayal. It is not that He could not do miracles. Rather, Jesus hid His divinity—hid His power, His glory, His majesty—until it would be revealed in a most profound way, until His coronation on the cross. Then He would be crowned with thorns; then He would ascend His throne; for then He would be glorified by the Father.

As you may know, I serve a parish that follows not the Greek or Russian tradition, but the Western tradition. In the Western tradition, today begins that part of Lent that we call “Passiontide.” Last evening, as Passiontide began, we hid all our crosses and icons and other images with opaque violet veils. For us, the fast of the mouth now also becomes a fast of the eyes.

Like all liturgical traditions, Eastern and Western, the veiling of the crosses is not done for no reason. It is directly linked to the final weeks of Our Lord’s life, and particularly to this time when Our Blessed Lord no longer walks openly, when He hides His divinity.

This simple custom urges us to look beyond what Our Lord looks like on the cross, to look beyond His gentleness and vulnerability, and even to look beyond our notions of strength and power. For the Jesus we see in these last few weeks will not conform to our standard of maniless and strength.

These days, we are impressed with a show of force. We are impressed when men and women stand up for their rights; when they vigorously defend themselves against false accusations; when they defiantly argue that they have been maligned. And we are impressed with hitting someone strong and hard; with striking back with overwhelming power.

Yet that is not the picture we will see with our Jesus. That is not how He will resist the devil, or overcome the chief priests, or defeat all powers of darkness. His power will be veiled in defenselessness. His strength will be hidden in weakness. He will not defend Himself, or speak up for Himself. Instead, He will let them do what they wish to Him.

Yet it will be on His terms; in the way the prophets have predicted; at the hour He chooses. And that is true power. Our holy father among the saints Peter Chrysologus says it with these words:

“Jesus willed to suffer since of His own accord He went up to the place where He would suffer. Death has sway over the unwilling, but is the servant of those who are willing. Therefore, since He is willing to die, it is not a mishap but an act of power. He Himself says, ‘I have power to lay down my life, and I have power to take it up. No one take [my life] from Me.’ Where there is the power to lay down life and to take it up again, dying in this case is not something inevitable, but something that is willed.

“So death was not able to take His life away, nor was the underworld able to hold onto Him, since it trembled at His bidding, and lost even those souls it was holding in captivity. For St Matthew says [that when Jesus died], ‘The tombs were split open and many of the bodies of the saints rose up.’”

Now that is true power—the power to raise the dead even as He dies; the power to command heaven and earth to do His bidding as He passes away; and the power to kill death by being swallowed up by death.

Jesus tells us that when this happens—when He is lifted up on the cross, when His true power and glory are revealed—then He will draw all men to Himself.

Be impressed, then, with the Lord Jesus who does not walk openly. Be impressed with the One who wills to be weak and to suffer for your salvation. And, most of all, be impressed with Him who will hide His divinity so deeply during the last days of His life that He will trick the devil into believing that death has defeated life—when, in fact, Life Himself, by dying, will destroy death.

Let this power—this power that is looks so weak—let it draw you close to Him. For this is the power of the martyrs. By urging the lions to crush his bones like wheat, St Ignatius overpowered his captors. It is also this power that the non-martyred saints tapped into. For by putting to death her desires, by weakening her body with fasting, St Mary of Egypt became strong and power—not only in her day, but also now as our advocate and intercessor before God the Father.

By the prayers St Mary of Egypt and of the saints, may we be attracted, then, not by a show of force, not by those who stand up for themselves, but by Him who willingly, humbly and gladly takes up His cross, and suffers our weakness to death, so that He might overcome. Let the Jesus who is hidden in these next few weeks draw us closer to Him so that when His glory is fully revealed on Pascha, we may rejoice with exceeding joy!

To this Lord Jesus, whose strength is in weakness, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.

15 January 2011

Metropolitan Jonah's visit to a Lutheran congregation

As a former Lutheran minister in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I find intriguing and heartening the visit of His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah to Grace Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

This event raises many thoughts and questions in my mind; but for now, I simply wish to share this video contain His Beatitude's address to the Lutheran congregation.