Thursday, 3 October 2019

A Benediction by St. Irenaeus

Our family recently went on a retreat in which the speakers, a husband and wife who both minister in the Christian academic sphere, encouraged the attendees by reminding us all why the church and the world need Christians in every walk of life who can do biblical, thoughtful, wise, and applicable theology.  They spoke of temptations unique to academic pursuits, which, it turns out, are not unique to academic pursuits.  Things like impatience with God, feelings of inadequacy to do what God has called me to do, envy of the gifts and abilities or callings of others, temptations to soft-peddle the truth to be more palatable to in the culture, temptation to compare with how God is working in others and be disappointed with his work in me, desire for recognition rather than just being satisfied with faithfulness, wishing for God to work differently in my life than he is, etc.  Or else those were just the personal applications the Holy Spirit was making to my heart....  It was simultaneously a challenge and an encouragement.

At any rate, Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 202) was one of the sources the speakers drew upon.  One of our worship times included this beautiful and truth-packed benediction from St. Irenaeus:

It is not thou that shapest God;
     it is God that shapest thee.
If thou art the work of God,
     await the hand of the artist
     who does all things in due season.
Offer him thy heart,
     soft and tractable,
     and keep the form
          in which the artist has fashioned thee.
Let thy clay be moist,
     lest thou grow hard
     and lose the imprint of his fingers.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

What happens in gospel preaching?

The following is taken from pp. 242-43 of Darrell W. Johnson's book, The Glory of Preaching: Participating in God's Transformation of the World [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009]:

The good news is that the Spirit of God is involved in every aspect of the communication loop.  As Fred Rogers, famous as "Mr. Rogers," is reported to have said: "The space between my mouth and your ears is the land of the Holy Spirit."  And it is in that out-of-our-reach feedback loop that we stand when we stand before other human beings and speak the Word.  (See Acts 10:42; 14:3; Hebrews 2:3-4.)

And, as already hinted at, the Spirit is at work quite apart from anything we are doing.  This is the real wonder of the mystery in which we stand.  In John 15:26, Jesus says of the Paraclete, "He will bear witness about Me" (ESV).  I had for years taken this to mean that he will help us bear witness, that as we seek to speak of Jesus in the world, the Spirit will be present to help us.  And he does.  But that is not what Jesus is speaking about in the promise of John 15:26.  It was Lesslie Newbigin who, in his brilliant theological commentary on the Gospel of John, written while serving in India, helped me see what Jesus is saying; and it changed the way I understood the preaching moment (Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982]), p. 206).  We are not the primary actors in the event. 

"It is important to note what is not said," Newbigin begins (ibid).  "It is not said that the Spirit will help the disciples to bear witness.  That would make the action of the disciples primary and that of the Spirit auxiliary.  What is said is that the Spirit will bear witness and that--secondarily--the disciples are witnesses" (ibid).  Newbigin goes on to remind us that it is not the work of humans to bring other humans to acknowledge Jesus as he really is; it is always the work of God (Jn. 6:44--the Father 'draws' us to Jesus).  Then Newbigin writes this:
What is promised here is that the Spirit will perform His own miracle in the hearts and consciences of people so that they are brought to recognize Jesus as the one he is.  The words, the works and--above all--the suffering of the community will be the means by which the witness is borne, but the actual agent will be the Spirit who, because he is the Spirit of the Father, is the Spirit of truth.  When the Lord says to Israel, "You are my witnesses" (Isa. 43:10), there is no suggestion that this is a summons to proclamation.  Israel is the witness to the majesty and glory of the Lord, not on account of anything that Israel says or does, but on account of those mighty works of which the Lord is the subject and Israel is the object.  It is in this sense that the disciples will be witnesses.... Their life, their words, their deeds, their sufferings will thus be the occasion, the place, where the mighty Spirit bears his own witness in the hearts and consciences of men and women so that they are brought to look again at the hated, rejected, humiliated, crucified man and confess: "Jesus is Lord."  It is the Spirit who is sovereign.  The promise to the community of the disciples is not that they will have the Spirit at their disposal to help them in their work of proclamation.  That misunderstanding has profoundly distorted the missionary action of the Church and provided the occasion for a kind of missionary triumphalism of which we are right to be ashamed.  The Spirit is not the Church's auxiliary.  The promise made here is not to the Church which is powerful and "successful" in a worldly sense.  It is made to the Church which shares the tribulation and the humiliation of Jesus, the tribulation which arises from faithfulness to the truth in the world which is dominated by the lie.  The promise is that, exactly in this tribulation and humiliation, the mighty Spirit of God will bear his own witness to the crucified Jesus as Lord and Giver of life (ibid, 207-8). 
That is the mystery.  That is the space into which we enter when we stand up before other human beings (some eager, some weary, some afraid, some hostile) and, Bible in hand, try to faithfully say what God is saying in a text.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Scary BC Supreme Court Decision on Gender Self-Identity and Pronoun Use

Here is an article about a recent BC Supreme Court decision to force parents to use their child's chosen gender pronoun in all (first and third person) communications or face arrest.  Read the article at First Things by Canadian Theologian Douglas Farrow here.

This is what what Jordan Peterson was fighting in Bill C-16's proposed inclusion of gender identity language a while ago.  Some said that this bill was not about criminalizing gender pronoun use, such as this article argues, and then goes on to conclude that Peterson was therefore wrong in his opposition.  But this court decision makes it clear that this is indeed the point on the radar of at least some courts who will interpret laws this way.  Peterson noted in his arguments that sexual orientation was already included in Human Rights Code and Criminal Code.  If so, why was gender pronoun use being included?  And, one might ask, why not other personally-chosen self identifying titles?  I know of a few people who act as though they would like the world to refer to them as 'your highness', or 'master', or simply as 'god'.  You see, this is not about discrimination against a class of people (remember sexual orientation/expression was already included), but about legislating language use.  Thus, it impacts a fundamental right of all free nations: free speech.  By logical conclusion then, it also impacts freedom of belief and freedom of religion.  This recent court decision certainly justifies Peterson's concerns.

As with so many wrong policy and legal changes, which so often mess with the natural created order of things (what C.S. Lewis referred to as the 'Tao' - see The Abolition of Man), what the legislative branch of government can't pass yet (because they are voted in), the judicial branch of government simply 'interprets', then pronounces and enforces, all with no legal recourse for the individual or the voting populace who may not have approved of such measures had it come to a vote.  Now this father finds himself crushed under the weight of the heavy handed court, assisted so often by the those in the media and academia who are 'religiously' committed to absolute human autonomy even in the teeth of the way things just are by nature. 

Beyond the immediate court decision, I hope that this judge will personally bear the cost of this girl's counseling and any remedial medical operations or reverse hormone treatments that may ensue in the coming years should she go ahead with full-on gender transitioning, something which is frequently recommended to youth in the same head-space as this poor girl.  It is beyond irresponsible for the courts or for SOGI evangelists to expect a 14 year-old, in the midst of all the mental, physical and emotional changes they are going through, and the conflicts that the transition from childhood to adulthood frequently brings in parent-child relationships, to know clearly who they are and what they want in an absolute sense such that they might choose to alter themselves potentially irreversibly and have to live that way for the rest of their lives.  This is likely what this father is afraid of.  The judge gets to be an immediate hero to the girl as well as a darling to the press and to many academics and social progressives.  The father, of course, will be this girl's father for the rest of his life and is no doubt thinking about what that will mean. 

Like Farrow, I have no doubt the relationship between this girl and her father is strained and unhealthy - they are in court against each other, after all - but the father obviously considers as legitimate the natural physical reality of gender and sexuality as humanity has received and accepted it for recorded history up until now and as most of humanity still does globally.  The judge has no such biases; the girl is free to flout such outmoded, millennia-old constructs as gender, sexuality, bodily organs, chemicals and hormones.  I don't know the particular relationship dynamics between this father and his daughter, but I do know that many times, when teens are not receiving the attention and acceptance that they crave and need from their own parents, they will seek out that attention and acceptance elsewhere.  Many times, this relational deficit can be falsely and temporarily compensated for through the attention and support garnered when a child announces their intention to change their gender or self-identify differently.  All manner of minor celebrity ensues, and many within the educational system, the media, social-media friends, and the broader culture will rally round.  This effect is similar to that of a teen indicating their intent to commit suicide, a choice which is often brought on by the same set of factors.  But it is not healthy either.  I can't help wonder if someday school counselors, radical progressives, and some academics will extend the already legal grounds for euthanasia for mental suffering to teens who are going through an emotionally and hormonally dark and dizzying time.  The basis would be the same: absolute personal autonomy.  I wonder if some day the courts will order a father to support rather than argue with a child who has announced their intention to kill themselves. 

The judge says that the father may continue to think what he wants to regarding the gender of his daughter.  He simply must not communicate those thoughts to his daughter or anyone else.  It is not too difficult to see this, in the not too distant future, being applied to medical professionals who refuse to conduct gender-transitioning operations and treatments: they may be personally against it, but they must conduct the operations/treatments anyways and keep their thoughts or doubts to themselves.  The absolutely personally autonomous individual customer is always right.  Except that there is good empirical evidence for why many doctors are hesitant to prescribe such 'treatments', the most basic being that no one knows what the long term effects are of fighting against the actual physiological sexual constitution of one's healthy body is.  It is not too difficult to see the courts also forcing such rules upon the rest of society in general, and religious groups as well: you may believe what you want about sexuality and gender but you may not communicate it.  Keep your private thoughts inside your head.  What you say out loud, no matter what your beliefs are, must be to celebrate the conclusions of a minuscule minority of people (whether considered historically or globally). 

As is so often the case, the clear reasoning and prophetic wisdom of C.S. Lewis sheds light on this:
     This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value.  It is the sole source of all value judgements.  If it is rejected, all value is rejected.  If any value is retained, it is retained.  The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.  There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgement system of value in the history of the world.  What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) 'ideologies', all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.  If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity.  If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race.  If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity.  The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.  The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value system then of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in....
     Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing either the Tao or anything else.
                                                      - The Abolition of Man, ch.2

Of course, Lewis is right to note above that what people claim to be new systems of morality are actually simply constructed by taking one aspect of the Tao (or we might say, revealed morality) and blowing it out of all proportion and forcing it to bear the entire weight of a society's life and moral order.  This is the case with those who preach absolute personal autonomy to the point of approving of and celebrating gender transitioning.  This is based on a good aspect of the Tao: that of personal freedom of choice.  Humans are free moral beings and as such, we must be free to make choices.  This is one of the aspects of humanity that gives the race its dignity.  But to foster such extreme individual personal autonomy as to declare physical reality and "the givenness of things" (Wendell Berry's term) as irrelevant compared to my preferences and present personal feelings is to take that one aspect of the Tao and to allow it to swell until it is warped beyond all recognition and displaces equally important aspects which must also be retained for actual reality, proper balance, proportionality, sanity, and true good to flourish.  Lewis again:
     Does a permanent moral standard preclude progress?  On the contrary, except on the supposition of a changeless standard, progress is impossible.  If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it, but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it?  Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better of the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can approximate or from which they can recede.  We can go on getting a sum more and more nearly right only if the one perfectly right answer is 'stagnant'....
     If 'good' means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves?  The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike....
     Unless we return to the crude and nurserey-like belief in objective values, we perish.
                                                      - 'The Poison of Subjectivism', Christian Reflections         

Happiness, the good, human flourishing, cannot truly be realized when we push in the opposite direction to created physical and moral reality but only when we go "with the grain of the universe" (to borrow a phrase from Stanley Hauerwas) as God has formed it.  God created human beings in his image, male and female.  Both sexes reveal and reflect something of the image of God.  Humans do have real free choice, but there are bounds.  I cannot self-identify as whatever I want and demand that the world make it so (a billionaire, perhaps, demanding free money I have not earned from those who have earned it, which would be a moral wrong; or a humming bird, and demand modern biology do everything in their power to transform me, which would be an ontological wrong).  I cannot self-identify as god and expect everyone else to ratify this identity and bow down to my whims.  But that is the extreme to which absolute personal autonomy will inevitably push.  In fact, that is the real seed of any personal freedom that strives not merely to alter or improve the changeable factors and temporal conditions in life, but metastasizes into absolute personal autonomy and demands a reweaving of the integral moral and physical fabric of created reality itself.  This is the impulse that first took shape in the words, "did God really say...?"

Monday, 25 March 2019

Two Visions of Holiness - a sermon on Matthew 15:1-20

In Matthew 15, the Pharisees confront Jesus about the table manners of his disciples.

By this point in Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisee’s have taken an openly hostile stance toward Jesus.  In our passage today (v. 1) the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus from Jerusalem.  One commentator says it’s as if they are on “religious patrol.”[1]  

(v. 2) They ask Jesus why his disciples “break the tradition of the elders,” and eat without washing their hands.  This hand washing rule doesn’t come from God’s law.  It is a rule built around God’s law, like a fence which doesn’t let people get close enough to God’s law to break it. 
In the law of Moses, if a person touched certain things – a dead body, certain foods, a diseased person, etc….. it made you ceremonially unclean, and you couldn’t enter the temple for worship until you went through the proper cleansing process.  This hand washing rule was likely originally created out of a desire to honour God whole heartedly and to ensure holiness.  Traditions are not bad per se - they are actually necessary for people to live together in community and to function as a church or family.  Kept in their proper place, they can serve ends greater than themselves.  But the tradition, the extra rules created around God’s law, became more authoritative than God’s law for the Pharisees.  It effectively replaced God’s law for them.  

Jesus will have none of it.  

(v. 3-6) He pushes back and asks the Pharisees why they break God’s commandments (stronger than in Mark: “law of Moses”) in order to keep their man-made traditions.  God commanded to “honour your father and mother” and that “whoever reviles his parents must be put to death.”  But the Pharisees have invented a tradition that allows them to neglect their parents.  

If they make a vow to God, they can dedicate to him (korban) what they ought to have used to care for their parents.  The scribes and Pharisees have circumvented God’s Word with their own traditions.  

Jesus calls them on this.  “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” 
(v. 7) He calls them “hypocrites” – religious phonies.  The scribes and Pharisees are supposed to be the interpreters of Scripture and the teachers of Israel.  But by their human traditions they break God’s commandments and teach others to break them.  Ironically, this they do all in the name of holiness.  

(v. 8-9) Jesus applies Isaiah 29:13 to the Pharisees.  They honour God with their lips – – but their hearts are far from God.  Their worship of God is vain; they teach man-made commandments as if they were God’s Word.  

Further along, in Isaiah 29:16 it speaks of those who “turn things upside down.”  The Pharisees break God’s law and substitute their own rules in its place.  

Isaiah 29:18-19 speaks of the Messiah, who will heal the deaf and blind.  This is exactly what Jesus has been doing.  Isaiah speaks of the meek and poor being blessed by YHWH and by the Holy One of Israel.  Recall the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus pronounces, “blessed are the meek….blessed are the poor in heart.”  The Holy One of Israel is Jesus. In Jesus, YHWH is healing and blessing.  But the Pharisees have set themselves against Jesus, and therefore they oppose YHWH.

Isaiah 29:21 speaks of those who “by a word make a man out to be an offender, and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate, and with an empty plea turn aside him who is in the right.”  That is exactly what the Pharisees are doing to Jesus.  They are trying to lay a snare for him, even as he is reproving them and calling all people to repentance - calling Israel to trust in him.  

Jesus sees through the Pharisees.  He points out their hypocrisy.  The scrupulous “holiness” of their traditions is really a way of disobeying and dishonouring God…. 
Its really a way of rejecting Jesus, God’s Messiah.
**And this is what our passage today is all about.  It’s about two contrasting visions of holiness: that of the Pharisees and that of Jesus.

The Pharisees and scribes have a negative application of holiness.  The Pharisees think holiness is all about what to avoid.  They believe that by washing their hands before eating, they will avoid becoming unclean.  They’re not talking about dirt or germs, but about ceremonial uncleanness, religious defilement, about coming in contact with something, or someone, that will prevent them from being able to enter the temple.  

Jesus’ application of Isaiah to the Pharisees brings their idea of holiness up short.  It is a man-made holiness; it turns true holiness upside-down.  The Pharisee’s idea of holiness is idolatrous and false. 
Calvin called the sinful human heart an idol factory.  We know this to be true, don’t we?  We prefer our own ideas and standards of holiness to those of God’s Word.  

God’s Word is a mirror, and we look into it and see the reflection of our sinful hearts, and we don’t like what we see.  So, we make up our own standards of holiness.  Those standards usually look an awful lot like what we already do, and who we already are.  Its only others that don’t measure up to the standards we make!

We replace the mirror of God’s Word with a self-portrait of our own making, and we are pleased with how well we measure up.  But it’s a false standard; it’s a false vision of holiness, one which we’ve created in our own image.  

Our false standards of holiness are nothing more than idols.

But Jesus vision of holiness comes from God’s Word.  He calls the people to him (v. 10) and tells them, “its not what goes into your mouth that defiles a person”, but what comes out of your mouth.  

This offends the Pharisees (v. 12) – but Jesus doesn’t care.  (v. 13) He says the Pharisees are like plants that are not planted by the heavenly Father.  This echoes Matt. 13, the parable of the wheat and the tares.  The Pharisees are weeds sown in the wheat field of the kingdom.  They will be rooted up eventually, separated, and cast out.  Jesus says, don’t have anything to do with the Pharisees and their version of holiness (v. 14).  They are blind and whoever follows them will be blind too, and will come to disaster.  

Peter asks Jesus to explain the parable (v.15-20) and Jesus replies, “are you still so thick?” 
Clean and unclean, holiness and defilement – these are not about what you put into your mouth.  Holiness is not about avoiding particular things that we decide are unclean.  Holiness is not about keeping a set of rules or traditions we ourselves have created.  Holiness and defilement is based on God’s Word.  

Jesus is the measure of holiness. This is a positive view of holiness.

The Pharisees’ tradition of washing their hands before eating so they won’t be defiled is a farce.  You can put a gold ring in a filthy pig’s snout, but it won’t make it beautiful.  You can paint a tomb white, but it still has rotting bodies inside.  Jesus knows the Pharisees’ hearts are far from God.

And that’s what holiness is all about: nearness to God.  Holiness is about what is inside you. 
Defilement comes from what is inside us; its in the sinful human heart.  What you put into your mouth doesn’t much matter, Jesus says (Mark’s gospel notes that in this teaching Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’).  Its what comes out of our mouths that defiles us; that proves we are unholy. 
That’s because “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.”  It is what is in our hearts that determines whether we are clean or unclean; whether we are holy or defiled.

Back in Matt. 12, Jesus had a confrontation with the Pharisees.  They accused him of casting out demons by the prince of demons.  In response Jesus called them a “brood of vipers.” He said (12:34) that a tree is known by its fruit: a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit, “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

That is what Jesus is teaching here as well.  We produce fruit in keeping with what is in our hearts.  Jesus says that out of the heart comes “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander,” just as we read in Ephesians 5:1-6 this morning.  

These are things that God’s Word calls sin. 
And in case you or I feel good about ourselves -- -- Jesus reminds us, as he did in the Sermon on the Mount, that evil thoughts also defile us.  Evil thoughts are the seeds of all those other sins.  

It is out of the abundance of the heart that we speak and act. 

Let’s think about the Pharisees actions.  Jesus says they refused to care for their parents under the pretense of dedication to God.  In this they were breaking God’s Word.  The Pharisees were claiming to love God by failing to love their parents.  
1 John tells us that this cannot be.  We can’t claim to love God and hate our neighbour.  If we truly love God, we will love others.  

And this is the kind of holiness Jesus shows us all through the gospel of Matthew – the holiness of love.
(Matt 9:20-22) A woman with a flow of blood – something that would have made her ceremonially unclean – touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and it doesn’t defile Jesus, it makes her well.

Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors and it doesn’t defile him.  Instead, they repent and believe in him.

(Matt. 8:5ff; 15:21ff) Gentiles come to Jesus for healing – a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman, and Jesus heals his servant and casts a demon out of her daughter.  

Jesus touches lepers – but he doesn’t become unclean; the leper is healed – made clean.  

(Matt 8:28-34)  In a Gentile region, in a grave yard, among a herd of swine, Jesus casts “unclean spirits” out of two men.  This scene can’t get any more defiled for a Pharisee: unclean 4 times over.  And what happens?  Jesus doesn’t become defiled >> the demon-possessed men are made clean, restored.

Again and again Jesus reaches out in love, restores broken people.  Over and over Jesus forgives people’s sins.  He is not defiled by sinful or broken people.  Instead, those who come to him in faith are made clean, restored, healed, forgiven.  

This is true holiness.  It comes from Jesus.  It can only dwell in us when Jesus dwells in us.  Jesus’ love and grace and forgiveness makes people holy.  He must graciously replace our sinful heart with a new heart full of his own love, full of his own Spirit.  Holiness comes when Jesus makes his home in us /// when he writes his own law on our hearts.

Jesus is the one who takes the defilement from our hearts upon himself, and takes the penalty for our unholiness, for our sin.  He takes that on himself on the cross.  And in exchange, he gives us his own righteousness; he gives us himself.

We come to him like the crippled, or the lepers, or the tax collectors, and in faith we ask Jesus to forgive us, to make us well….

….And he enters in.  When Jesus dwells in us, then our hearts are filled with him, with his Holy Spirit.  

He takes away our sin and defilement and he gives us a heart after his own heart.  Only then, in the new life he gives, out of our mouths, and through our actions, proceeds his love and his holiness through us.  

Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, dwelling in us >>> that is the only true holiness. 

[1] David E. Garland, 159.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

C.S. Lewis and Hans Urs von Balthasar on Jesus as lunatic, liar or Lord

One of the most frequently quoted paragraphs from all of C.S. Lewis's frequently quoted writings is surely his reflection from Mere Christianity on the nonsense assertion that Jesus was just a good moral teacher.  Here it is:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God."  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic--on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.  (Mere Christianity, ch. 3: "The Shocking Alternative", p. 40-41 [in my version])
This statement concludes a section in which Lewis has been dealing with the record of revelation of the two Testaments.  The Old Testament has revealed to the Jews what God is like, who he is, what he demands of his creatures.  Then the New Testament opens up with Jesus, "a man who goes around talking as if He was God" (40).

I was reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's Explorations in Theology: I: The Word Made Flesh, the other day, when I came across a very similar statement to Lewis's above.  Like Lewis, Balthasar is talking about the revelation of God in the Old Testament and how Christ manifests his unique status as God incarnate in the New Testament, displayed in his words and deeds.  Then, Balthasar concludes this section with this:
The argument from Christ as manifested in scripture has, all through history, both ecclesiastical and secular, refuted with a truly divine irony all the insidious suggestions of his enemies.  It is so cogent because the recorded facts rule out the alternative: either Son of God or else purely man of the highest religious perceptions.  It compels this other alternative (as philology and psychology might propose): either Son of God or else the hallucinatory invention of enthusiastic followers, God's Son or psychopath.  Anyone who thinks "religious genius" is a sufficient explanation has certainly not read the New Testament objectively.  All attempts to bring the unique figure of Christ within general laws miscarry; they fall back for an explanation on deception or mental disorder, as the Jews did once and have always done (Mt. 28:15; Jn. 8:48).   (p. 56)
They have their own unique voice of course and likely different audiences in mind.  Lewis first communicated what later became Mere Christianity as BBC radio talks to England during WWII (perhaps 1943 or so).  Balthasar's was first published in German in 1960, translated to English in 1964.  Had Balthasar read Lewis?  I've seen him refer to Lewis in other works.  There is no note here.

However, I think anyone might come to the same conclusions these authors did merely by reading the gospel accounts of Jesus' life and words in light of the Old Testament.  The Old Testament teaches that forgiveness of sin requires confession and restitution with the individual wronged, as well as sacrifice and repentance before God.  And yet here Jesus goes around forgiving people's sins, none of which were directed toward him personally, as a man in Palestine, but toward others and primarily toward God.  So on what authority is Jesus forgiving sins? - the very question the Pharisees and scribes asked him.  A good moral teacher doesn't presume to forgive the sins one person commits against a third party, nor would they presume to speak for God.  A good moral teacher does not presume to know the mind of the wronged party, not present and involved in the conversation, nor would they presume to know God's mind on the matter, for only God can read the thoughts and attitudes of hearts.  Only God can forgive sin, as the Pharisees recognize.  No wonder they tore their clothes and picked up stones to stone him.  Jesus' enemies in his day recognized full well that he was claiming to be far more than a good moral teacher or an enlightened religious guru.  He was claiming to be God and they knew it because they paid attention to what he was saying, which is something that anyone who chalks Jesus up as merely a good man is not doing.  Jesus could only forgive sins because he was God and because he himself was going to atone for them for all who put their faith in him. 

Monday, 14 January 2019

Prayers from this past Advent, and for the next one...

Our family prayed and read our way through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this season (just past) with booklets provided by our church and based on the Book of Common Prayer.  It was a wonderful way of "practicing Advent" (which was the title of the booklet).  Along with the various corporate worship services throughout the season, as a family (and with whatever guests we had into our home) we worked through both morning and evening prayers, weekly collects, daily Scripture readings, and Advent and Christmas carols.  At the back of the booklet was included this beautiful prayer for Advent by St. Ambrose.  It both looks back in faith and gratitude to Christ's first Advent, and forward in hope and supplication for his second Advent.
O God, who looked on us when we had fallen down into death, and resolved to redeem us by the Advent of your only begotten Son; we beg you, that those who confess his glorious Incarnation may also be admitted to the fellowship of their Redeemer, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
                                                           -  St. Ambrose (339-397), Bishop of Milan

This prayer fits so well with some more familiar sentiments from songs we are used to singing for Advent and Christmas.
Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.
                                                           -  Charles Wesley, 1744

          O holy Child of Bethlehem
          Descend to us, we pray 
          Cast out our sin and enter in
          Be born to us today
          We hear the Christmas angels
          The great glad tidings tell
          O come to us, abide with us
          Our Lord Emmanuel.

                                               -  Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

At first glance these prayers - for that is also what the song lyrics are - appear to be asking for something that, if you are a Christian, has already happened.  And yet surely salvation is not something we pray for once, as believers, and then simply thank God for from that point on, assuming it to be finished.  Salvation certainly is something we repeatedly thank God for, in faith, as we continually look backward in history to Christ's incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension for us.  There is a definite sense in which our salvation is accomplished and finished.  Yet it is also something we continually look to God for now, today, as Christ reigns and brings all things into submission to God.  And we pray and ask God for future salvation as well, a future final consummation of all things, a completion of the reconciling work of Christ, the final redemption and restoration of all things that have been marred by sin, death and the curse.  Salvation has yet to work out into every corner of the world.  Indeed, salvation has yet to work itself out into every corner of our hearts and lives. 

Salvation is in God's plan as it has unfolded in history past; in his working now, in the present, in us and in through the church in the world; and in the future completion of Christ's saving work with the consummation of the new heavens and new earth, for which we hope and pray.  Salvation is past, present and future.

As the church fathers sometimes said, there are three advents of Christ.  His first advent was his birth by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary to announce the gospel and atone for sin.  His future coming again to judge the living and the dead and to bring his kingdom in fullness is the second advent we look forward to in faith and pray for in hope.  But between those two advents, there is a third advent for every believer, by which Christ comes to dwell in those who look to him and who, in faith, trust him for salvation.  This happens on a personal level when the gospel is heard and Christ is received in loving faith.

It is possible to reject this advent, however.  Often when the gospel announcement of Christ comes to people whose lives are too full of other things, too full of stuff, too full of self, he gets rejected and the doors of people's hearts are closed to him.  Like the inn at Bethlehem, it still happens that many turn Christ away and give the excuse that there is just no room for him.  When the opportunity of this personal advent is rejected, neither Christ's first or second advent will be of any lasting or saving benefit for the one who turns him away at the door.

It was good for our family to ponder these things in our hearts this past Advent and Christmas season.