CT Book Review: Reading Esther in the Shadow of ISIS

Reviewer: Gerald McDermott. Some really good insights in this review. Looks like a fascinating book as well. See what you think.

51Nfg7bFvoL._SX140We know from the story that God’s plan to deliver the Jews from annihilation succeeded. But was it an act of God that overruled human freedom? Or was it an act of human courage and political genius that God observed from a distance?

Hazony argues that too often Jews (and, I would add, Christians) have treated this as an either-or question. They think that if God were in control, then humans would be mere pawns; or if humans make the right decisions, then God is merely the observer and not the cause. (Hazony maintains that this is a “God of the gaps” theory that thinks of God “intervening” occasionally to change things that otherwise go on without him.)

The biblical authors, he counters, would have none of this. Their principal metaphor for the human-divine relationship was brit, the Hebrew word for “covenant,” where God acts through human choices. Both are totally involved. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “God does all and man does all.” Edwards was paraphrasing the apostle Paul: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12-13).

Read it all.

Fr. Ric Bowser: Water and New Creation

Sermon delivered on Easter 5C, Sunday, April 24, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

There is no written text for today’s sermon (but it is nice to know that science is finally catching up to religion!). To listen to the audio podcast of it, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148.1-14; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35.

A Very Early Account of Why Christians Suffer Persecution

Below is a reading from a very early source—early 2nd century (the letter was written around 124AD). Not much has changed over the years, no?

Pay attention to several things. First, what would explain the Christians’ willingness to suffer? Mass delusion simply doesn’t cut it as an answer. Second, how would you explain Christians using their suffering as a badge of honor? Again, mass masochism doesn’t work. So what’s the power behind it all? Last, Notice how their faith gives them meaning and purpose of living, even under duress. Would that we tap into that kind of power today because it is still available to us!

The short answer to the above questions is of course Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven where he rules over the cosmos and who is actively involved with his people and available to them in the power of the Spirit. The critics scoff and mock. But their mocking and scoffing are symptoms of closed minds and hard hearts. They will surely not have the last laugh. Check it out and see what you think.

iuChristians are indistinguishable from others either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of human beings. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

Christians love all people, but all people persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the World, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the lofty and divinely appointed function of Christians, from which they are not permitted to excuse themselves.

Letter to Diognetus [c. 124]

Fr. Philip Sang: World Full of Love and Genuine Harmony for the Created Order

Sermon delivered on Easter 4C, Sunday, April 17, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH

There is no audio podcast of today’s sermon. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Lectionary texts: Acts 9.36-43; Psalm 23.1-6; Revelation 7.9-17; John 10.22-30.

From what we read from Revelation, it’s an image of the coming Kingdom – Heaven, the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem. Call it what you will, it is an image of the final dawning of the new age – the climaxing of human history, and, strangely, it seems quite appropriate to be talking about it today.

The end of the world is becoming an increasingly popular topic of discussion amongst people from around the world.

It wasn’t long ago that people who went around saying, “the end is nigh” were seen as eccentric, if not downright stupid. Nowadays it doesn’t seem so stupid to say that,
It’s interesting, that if you speak about the Kingdom of God in modern Israel, you’ll find that people there today, like the people of first century Israel, seem to think about it entirely in terms of victory over their enemies, where­as In our culture, conversely, when we speak of Heaven and of the spiritual world, we tend to think almost exclusively in terms of our hopes for our own personal immortality!

Some commentators have suggested that there is indeed an obsession with immortality amongst today’s generation. We believe in ourselves so much that we think ‘we are such a wonderful generation; it is not possible that persons such as us could die’

My interest is in whether this contemporary quest for immortality has anything to do with the depiction of the Kingdom of God, given in today’s Bible reading.

Listen again…

After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, stand­ing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels were stand­ing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever.

What do we see when we look at this image? Victory? Immortality? I see first and foremost community.

I see an enormous community, drawn together from every nation – a great multitude that is extraordinarily comprehensive both in terms of its size and its variety. Everybody is represented there – an incredible variety of tribes and peoples and languages. ‘Red and yellow, black and white – all are precious in His sight’, and they’re all there, and they’re all one, in true unity with each other, and in true fellowship with their creator. Indeed, they are in worship. They stand around the throne, singing, Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!”

This is a Biblical image of the world to come, and it stands there alongside other great visions of the future drawn from the Scriptures:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together …They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Micah 4)

And here the same note is struck again in Revelation Chapter 7:

o They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their
shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of
life, and God will wipe away every tear from their
eyes.” (Revelation 7)

I believe that every society since the beginning of time has dreamt of a world that is full of love and where people live in genuine harmony with one another and with the rest of the created order. We dream of it, but the longer we live and the more we see, the less likely it appears that the world we live in is ever going to naturally evolve towards that end.

“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.””

This passage in Revelation came to light at a time when the church was dealing with a lot of pain and death through persecution, and when indeed every victory that they did win over evil only ever seemed to reveal another layer of evil behind it. And so God gave His people this image of the heavenly community, where those who were violated are now clean again – dressed in white, and joining together in joyful chorus, and they drink ‘from the springs of the water of life’ and ‘every tear is wiped away’

parallel Acts 9:36-43

Is there a hope of personal immortality in this image? Sure! We’re all built in to that great Heavenly scene. Here as elsewhere there is a recognition of the fact that God is more powerful than death, just as He is more powerful than all the forces of evil. As St Paul wrote,

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8)

Is there a sense of triumphing over one’s enemies in this image? Sure! So long as we recognise that the enemies of God are ultimately not to be identified with any one ethnic or cultural group, any more than the people of God can be so narrowly defined. The enemy that is defeated in this picture is that great beast who rages against the people of God in every age.

What do we see in this image? I guess we can see all sorts of things, but the most central elements in this image surely are community, worship and healing – where the old wounds are bound up and the tears are wiped away, where we don’t study war no more because the earth is as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Let me conclude by simply reading this passage to you once again:

And there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching
heat;for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will
be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs
of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear
from their eyes.”

A Very Early Account of Ancient Christian Worship

One of our earliest accounts of how the second and third generation of Christians worshiped. How does it compare with how your congregation worships?

iuNo one may share the eucharist with us unless they believe that what we teach is true, unless they are washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of sins, and unless they live in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.

We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a human being of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilate for their nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: “Do this in memory of me. This is my body.” In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: “This is my blood.” The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or in the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us urging everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.

On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks as well as possible, and the people give their assent by saying: “Amen.” The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.

The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, in prison, or away from home. In a word, the president takes care of all who are in need.

We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.

Justin, Martyr at Rome (ca. 167), First Apology, 66-67.

The Easter Effect

Sermon delivered on Easter 3C, Sunday, April 10, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 9.1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-15; John 21.1-19.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The past two weeks we have looked carefully at the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We have seen that when God raised Jesus from the dead it signaled the turning point in history. No longer is sin and death our inevitable fate, at least for those of us who are God’s people in Jesus. We have seen that God’s good but sin-corrupted creation and its creatures matter to God and that they had better matter to us as well. We know this because in Jesus’ resurrection we are given a glimpse of God’s promised new world, where life reigns, not death, a world devoid of all suffering and evil, thanks be to God. Then last week we saw that we as God’s people have work to do, work empowered by the Holy Spirit himself. The resurrection never was meant to be about a private religious experience, designed to make us feel all warm and fuzzy about ourselves and our relationship with God. It has always been about God the Father healing and transforming the world by breaking the power of evil in and through the death and resurrection of his Son. Today, we are given a third look at Jesus’ resurrection, this time with an invitation to see what desired effect it should have on us, and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

In one way or another, all our lessons today point to the fact that everything is different as a result of Easter. We begin with John the Elder’s vision of the heavenly throne room in our epistle lesson. It is important for us to understand that this isn’t some vision of the future, but of the current reality in heaven. And what can we learn from John’s vision? First, that there is a reason for the joyful worship we are witnessing. Jesus, the Lion of Judah, has overcome the dark powers and destroyed their dominion over God’s creation and us. Not yet fully to be sure. That will have to wait until Jesus’ return. But the message is clear: Countless multitudes worship Jesus and celebrate his victory over the forces of evil won on the cross. And of course, Jesus’ resurrection announced that death, the ultimate evil, has been destroyed. That is why they worship Jesus the Lamb. And here is where we are confronted with a startling paradox. Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the strength of Judah, accomplished his victory over evil by his obedience to God’s will in and through his suffering and death (cf. Philippians 2.5-11). Jesus’ victory over evil was accomplished ostensibly through weakness, not conventional power as we all expected God to act. Jesus is the Passover Lamb sacrificed for us. This is Exodus language, folks, reminding us that in Jesus’ death we are delivered from our slavery to sin and death, thanks be to God! That is why Jesus is worshiped as God. That is why there is celebration in heaven right now. The victory, while not yet consummated, is won by the blood of the Lamb shed for us (and this is why it is so important to know God’s story contained in the Bible, our story, so that we recognize and learn the lessons its symbolic language wants to teach us).

This is the God the multitudes are worshiping in heaven. Is this the God you worship? Do you share the unequivocal belief of the multitudes that Jesus has conquered the dark powers and reigns over God’s vast creation? If you do, it must change you, and for the better. You realize that even in your own weakness, in your own insignificance, at least as the world defines both, Jesus is using you to help advance his kingdom on earth as in heaven. It means, for example, the next time you pray for that person you despise or pray for a seemingly hopeless situation, you can have confidence that Jesus is using your faithfulness in ways you can’t possibly see or understand to advance his kingdom. When you really believe that, I mean really believe that, you will discover a great power unleashed in your life, the power of God made known in suffering love. But it is a power made possible only in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And if you do not believe this, you can count on limping along through life, trying to use the conventional means of power to get what you want. Good luck with that; you’re gonna need it. This is the first Easter Effect we see in our lessons. We discover we have an indefatigable hope and joy as we follow the ways of Jesus to bring healing to his broken and sad world.

We turn next to the powerful story in our gospel lesson to see another dimension of the Easter Effect—prerequisite forgiveness. As we listen to John’s story we are somewhat perplexed by the setting because we remember that last week Jesus imparted the Spirit to his disciples and commissioned them for new work. So why are they back in Galilee and out fishing? Were they discouraged and lost? Were they waiting for further marching orders? We aren’t told. John simply tells us that Jesus appeared to his disciples again. As with Mary at the tomb, the disciples do not initially recognize their risen Lord. This  reminds us again that the resurrection will change us, this time physically. To be sure, there was continuity. The disciples knew it was Jesus, but no one dared ask him for sure. In telling us this, John reminds us again (and did you catch that this happens yet again at the dawn of a new day?) that there are things about the resurrection body we simply don’t understand. So don’t let their inability to initially recognize their risen Lord confuse or discourage you. Instead, rejoice that God’s got something in store for us in the New Creation that will simply blow our minds because it is so fantastic!

After feeding the apostles (how did Jesus get this food?), John turns our attention to some unfinished business between Peter and his Lord. Peter had brashly shot off his mouth, proclaiming his undying loyalty to his Lord, only to end up denying Jesus three times by a charcoal fire and weeping bitterly afterwards over doing so (John 13.36-38, 18.15-18, 25-27; Matthew 26.75). Each of us understands this background better than we’d like to admit because we have all been there and done that, each in our own way. But now here is the risen Jesus, again by a charcoal fire. Perfect. He asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. Three, the number for completeness, and the exact number of times Peter had denied his Lord.

Do you recognize the beauty in this story? Jesus is doing the hard but necessary work to restore Peter so that Peter can get on with the work Jesus calls him to do. Notice carefully that Jesus does not say to Peter, “There, there. It’s all right. Let’s sing Kumbaya together.” No, Jesus tells him to get to work! Here is a love and forgiveness that is bound to choke up even the hardest person if we grasp what Jesus is doing. He is healing a memory of Peter that absolutely had to be healed. Imagine the guilt and failure Peter felt. He’d run his mouth and then stuck his foot squarely in it by his failure of character. He had denied the man he loved, the most wonderful man he had ever known, and there was no chance to reboot. But now unbelievably there was! Jesus doesn’t browbeat his chastened disciple. He gently restores him. Once again, there’s no glitz or excitement or outright show of power. Instead, Jesus cuts right to the chase and in doing so, equips Peter to be his shepherd on his behalf. Imagine that. Imagine the release Peter must have felt. His Lord, the man he had denied, was now entrusting him for some critically important work on his behalf and for the sake of his fledgling church. On one level Peter was eminently unqualified to do the work. But Peter had found the power of forgiveness and a healed memory that transcended whatever was in him that would disqualify him to do the work.

One of the things that must occur in the New Creation is that our memories must be healed of all their hurt and rancor and whatever else that weighs us down. Otherwise, there would still be evil in the New Creation, and we are promised there will be none of that at all. Here we see another preview of coming attractions in the healing of our memories and the forgiveness of our sins, again made possible because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us and because Jesus is now Lord. This is another reason why everything is different as a result of Easter!

Have you found the healing love and forgiveness that our Lord offers to each of us? It is offered freely to everyone! If not, there is no way you can possibly do the work Jesus calls you to do, whatever that is, because your guilt will cripple you and prevent you from offering and embodying Jesus’ healing love and forgiveness to others. You will not be able to forgive your enemies as Jesus has forgiven you if you have not embraced his tender love and mercy for you and let him heal your memories. Again this is all made possible because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us and because Jesus is alive and reigns over all God’s creation, making his healing love and forgiveness available to you right now and on a continuous basis. And he calls each of us to do something about it in response, to embody and share that love and forgiveness to others. As we have seen, every time we do so, we have confidence that Jesus is using our efforts, messy and broken as they (and we) can be at times, to advance his kingdom on earth as in heaven. But we cannot possibly forgive and retain sins without first repenting and accepting the love and forgiveness of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is the essential story of Paul in our NT lesson. Here is Paul, who breathed threats and murder against God’s people, forgiven and healed by our Lord Jesus in his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. At first it doesn’t look that way, but that is what’s  going on. It was such a landmark event that Luke reports it three separate times in Acts! And in Paul we see the Easter Effect in spades. He is forgiven and healed so that he can suffer much for Jesus’ people, the Church. We are not called to do the scope of Paul’s work, but we are called to imitate Paul in our own work on behalf of God’s people and the world.

So where are you in these stories? Wherever you are, remember why we are being told these stories. Jesus is Lord and because of his death and resurrection we are a people with a future and a hope, a people who are empowered to do the work our Lord calls us to do. We won’t always see results that we hope for or desire. But it’s not our job to bring in the kingdom. That’s Jesus’ job. Our job, thanks be to God, is to continue Jesus’ work, despite being the messy and broken creatures we are. So let’s get busy, my beloved, and continue the work Jesus calls us to do. Let’s also find time to celebrate the fact that Jesus is risen and we are his new creations, despite who we can sometimes be. Remember, all work and no play makes Jesus’ people dull because we forget why we do what we do when we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. So let us always remember and celebrate the fact that we have Good News, now and for all eternity, precisely because we worship and adore our crucified and risen Lord. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker: The Pope’s Exhortation—A Parish Priest’s Perspective

I don’t agree with a lot of this man’s thinking and consider him a bit bombastic about the Catholic Church at times. But he is spot on about this, especially in the scenarios he presents. See what you think.

In the wake of yesterday’s publication of Amoris Laetitia allow me to weigh in with a parish priest’s perspective. In the midst of a busy day in the parish I didn’t actually have time to read the exhortation. Neither did I have time last night or this morning. However, I have read some of the online commentary, and I have read the paragraphs deemed controversial and I will read the whole thing over the weekend.

Am I allowed, therefore, to be just a teeny bit annoyed at all the armchair experts, Facebook moral theologians and Monday morning priests who have felt it their moral duty and obligation to go online just as soon as possible to point out the Holy Father’s errors and correct the successor of Peter?

What strikes me about this document is that it is first and foremost a pastoral exhortation. While it fully affirms the traditional teaching of the church regarding marriage it also makes a valiant attempt to deal with the messiness of real life. With respect to all the dear laypeople, the armchair experts, the theoreticians, amateur theologians and experts in church law–it is we priests who actually deal with the real life situations of ordinary people. We’re the ones who have to help them match up their lives with the teachings of the church.

It was Jesus who knelt in the dust with the woman taken in adultery. It was the scribes and Pharisees who stood at a distance accusing her of breaking the law. His response to them and his response to her, it seems to me, is exactly what Amoris Laetitia is all about. I just wonder why the Holy Father didn’t simply refer all of us to that text and say. “There it is. Read it and weep.” Instead he took the trouble as a loving Father in God to lay out for the clergy and faithful some principles in helping to navigate the perfect storm that is modern marriage.

Read it all.