Christmas Eve 2013

From “The Birth of God,” by Olov Hartman (1906-1982)

Matthew 1:18-25

“Do not fear to take Mary your wife. . . .” How can a man have God in the house without being afraid? Just think of lying awake at night, hearing your wife breathe, and knowing that the world’s heart is beating in her womb! The angel was fearsome, but in the presence of him who lay under Mary’s heart the angels covered their eyes. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear.”

It is this nearness which we have made into a mere detail in our Christmas observance. For his nearness in the gospel is not a pretty picture; it is a nearness equally as earthy and manifest as in Bethlehem or Nazareth. A word on our lips, bread on our table, wine in our flasks. But the angels do not dare look upon him, the worlds quake at his name. Immanuel! What would happen if all those for whom he is a beautiful legend, a sentimental condiment at Christmas, discovered his true identity?

Our text contains a mystery which elicits both a smile and some fear: The Almighty desired Joseph’s protection. He lit the stars over Joseph’s house, but Joseph had to provide him with a refuge in that house. From this distant God came angels enough to cause Herod’s entire army to grow faint; yet they say that Joseph must flee to Egypt for safety, for the government is out to get the child who is David’s son.

We know little about Joseph’s thought; we know him best by what he did. . . . the Joseph of the Bible took Mary along first of all to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Israel. Could even a refugee family in our time make such a wilderness journey without an excess of strength and determination? So the texts for today refer not only to Mary, the mother, the church. They also speak of Joseph, the descendant of a king, a man of skillful hands, of firm will, of indomitable powers, a guide through unknown lands. The fact that God is with us is not, therefore, just a salubrious concept for those who think we are dealing here with a pretty idea or childish dream. It summons us to the defense of the gospel.

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Suggestions for Reading the Bible— July 1, 2014

By Father Keith

In this past Sunday’s sermon from Matthew 10:40-42, I demonstrated that when Christ sent out the twelve apostles, they were sent out with His authority. They also had the authority of the entire Old Testament behind them including all of The Law (first 5 books of the Old Testament), The Prophets (Joshua to Malachi) and The Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes Song of Solomon) of the Old Testament—Christ Himself was the fulfillment of all of these.

I next addressed how the present day Church and her congregants have received the authority of the whole Bible including The Gospels and the letters of The Apostles by saying:

“There is a battle raging in our culture today stronger than ever . . . and whether we like it or not, we as Christians are going to have to make some hard-faith-based-choices concerning the Bible. You can either stand under the Word of God; trusting that it is God’s authoritative, loving, self-expression and revelation of Himself to the world. Or you can go along with the skeptical culture and try to stand over the Word of God, picking and choosing, and trying to explain away the parts you don’t like, cannot reconcile, or that make you uncomfortable.”

I then made a point of application: How are we then to read and accept the authority of the Bible today and hear the voice of the Lord?

Bishop N.T. Wright in his work, “Scripture and the Authority of God” offers these 5 suggestions to get started [and I have taken the liberty of adding to these] to help us (1) be relevant to the culture and (2) faithful to the foundation of The Law, The Prophets, The Writings, The Gospels, and The epsitles and teachings of The Apostles:

1. Read the Bible in the Bible’s Context—DO NOT read our present context back into the Bible. We do this by reading and studying each word in each verse, each verse in each chapter, each chapter in each book, and each book in its original historical, and canonical setting, letting the Bible speak for itself as best we can.

2. Read Liturgically—Reading the Bible aloud during corporate worship and hearing the Word of God read aloud challenges the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil that we all struggle with, and the biases, prejudices, attitudes, and assumptions we tend to bring with us into the worship setting. Don’t omit the hard parts, i.e., the parts that are harsh, hard to understand, that you don’t like, or make you uncomfortable.

3. Private study—study for yourself, but NOT only by yourself. Compare what you are reading and learning with others. Doing that will keep us balanced and theologically orthodox.

4. Allow our readings of Scripture to be refreshed by appropriate scholarship—avoid the free-floating speculation. DO the hard work of discovering what the writers actually meant in their day and how what it meant in their day directly corresponds to our day.

5. Allow yourself to be taught by the Church’s accredited tradition and leaders. Be discerning about who is teaching you The Bible. Would you go to a Dr. who hasn’t been to medical school?—probably not. Likewise it’s not wise to entrust the eternity of your soul to just anyone. Be willing to sit under bishops, priests, pastors, deacons, and qualified lay persons who have been tested by the Church and can teach the Scriptures faithfully.

All of us come to the Bible with presuppositions, assumptions about the way the world is and should be, and a whole host of mixed motives operating under the surface that we are seldom aware of when it comes to accepting the authority of the Word of God.

May we as the Church receive with open hearts the authority of the apostles contained in the Word of God, for the Word of God reveals Jesus Christ, it reveals your salvation, and it reveals the foundation of the Church.

Fr. Keith+

Jesus Taste Test: Holding Firm to the Faith

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.  I Corinthians 16:13

This morning, I found myself discouraged as I browsed my Facebook feed – overwhelmed with how drastically my worldview and faith differ from the people and culture around me. Yes, part of this reaction has to do with the recent Grammy Awards show. I didn’t watch it, but saw lots of comments praising the show’s stand against those who would “play God” by opposing marriage equality. “Love is Love,” after all, and God loves everyone. It’s hard to argue with that, right? Because the fact of the matter is, God does love everyone. And the debate over homosexuality is certainly NOT the only place my faith comes into question. In fact, I find myself discouraged and confused more and more often…watching the news…talking with friends…reading endless debates on Facebook. I increasingly wonder: “How will I ever teach my children to hold firm to the Christian Faith when the world around them vehemently disapproves? How can I protect them from a society (and even from other professing Christians) who label them as hateful bigots, judgmental, and ignorant?”  Pondering these thoughts over my beloved cup of morning coffee, I was suddenly struck with a feeling of foolishness. Of course the world will oppose my faith. Of course our culture will revile and insult me. More specifically, the powers of darkness and the devil who rules this world, will do everything possible to sway the security and confidence of my faith. It has always been so. (For examples, see THE BIBLE). I cannot protect my children from such worldly opposition, nor should I want to.

I am incredibly sheltered from the kind of horrible persecution that countless believers face across the globe. Because of this, it’s easy to forget that I’m SUPPOSED to be divergent…no matter the cost. Here in America, we (Christians included) are enamored with accepting and being ACCEPTED by everyone. We never want to offend anyone for fear that they might stop liking us (yours truly is definitely guilty of this). “Political Correctness” and “Tolerance” have become our idols…little gods before whom we readily bow and obey. In an effort to appease these powerful “gods,” we have decided to make Jesus more “palatable.”  Like airbrushing a photo, we like to smooth Him out around the edges…make His message easier to swallow. Jesus has become his own Baskin Robins shop, with “31 flavors” of fun to try. Depending on whom we are around, we choose our Jesus carefully. For the sake of “love” we shut our mouths; we avoid conflict over areas of disagreement; we pretend we all believe the same. But we don’t. We just don’t. The Church and the World are oil and water. (For examples, see THE BIBLE).

Yes, Yes, I hear you protesting loud and clear, “But how do we know which ‘flavor’ is the right one?” Who am I to arrogantly decide that a certain version of Jesus is correct? Simply put, I am not the one to decide. That, my friend, is another blog post all together (or perhaps a book or two or ten). An adequate discussion would necessarily include the sacred Scripture, the Creeds, the Church Councils, and the teaching of the Holy Fathers…at the very least. BUT one thing I do know is what Jesus DOESN’T taste like…He doesn’t taste PLEASING or DESIRABLE to the world (to those who are non-believers). Jesus said that the world would hate His followers…they would hate us because they HATED Him.

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you:‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. (John 5:18-21)

It stands to reason, then, that we should be at least a little bit suspicious, if the “Jesus” being preached is readily accepted and embraced by the world (i.e. the media). It is tempting, oh so tempting, to go for the sweet, delicious “chocolate chunk Jesus”…the Jesus that agrees with everyone and doesn’t demand any discomfort or sacrifice on our part. The problem is, “chocolate chunk Jesus” is poisonous…his message goes down well enough, but kills us in the end. It is a false Jesus…an “anti-Christ,” if you will. Paul warned us not to be swayed by easy and appetizing beliefs:

3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded,endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:3-5)

I pray the Lord would make me brave enough to disagree with the world around me…to teach my kids to disagree, boldly and LOVINGLY. I pray that God would empower me to care less about people liking me and more about submitting to His reign and authority. I want my children to see that the real Jesus doesn’t conform Himself to the most fashionable beliefs of the moment (and neither should we; see Romans 12:1-2). The real Jesus isn’t “chocolate chunk” or “strawberry swirl” or whatever else we want Him to be. The real Jesus was and is offensive and challenging enough to the sentiments of society that people wanted to kill him…not hold his hand and sing “Kum ba yah.” That’s the Jesus I want to follow…even if when it’s really hard.

One last and important note: as I’ve said, the real Jesus was/is offensive, but He does not advocate or command violence. He promised that the world would persecute His followers – NOT the other way around. Having strong convictions does not mean forcing my beliefs on others, acting violently, or persecuting those who disagree. It is a sad, sad thing when people confuse the two.

Living Faithfully in a Post-Christian Culture: Part 1

abandoned_churchAt Christ Church we have been laying the groundwork for our summer teaching series on living faithfully in a post Christian culture.  A post Christian culture is one in which the defining narratives of the Christian faith no longer provide the framework for a culture’s prevailing worldview or its common life together.

This doesn’t mean that most people will not self-identify as Christian – because most people in North America still identify as Christian.  Rather the way they view reality and live their lives are for the most part totally disconnected from classic biblical Christianity.  Here’s what I mean about how people self-identifying as Christian and people actually having Jesus Christ as the driving reality of their lives are different:

Based on how the question is asked 53% of people asked responded to a Reuter’s poll[1] that Christian business owners should be compelled to go against their conscience and the teaching of the church to provide abortion-inducing forms of contraception for their employees.

The logical corallary to this is that if Christians think its wrong to provide abortifacients to their employees, then they shouldn’t be in business.  In other words their Christian convictions exclude them from full participation in the public square.

Please don’t get distracted by your feelings pro or con on the Hobby Lobby decision – although I will tell you that the owner of your kosher deli is probably glad he still has legal precedence to bring his religious beliefs into his business.

My point in bringing this up is that there would not be 53% of respondants who think that it is a good idea to compel traditional Christians to violate their core beliefs by force of law in a country that is not rapidly becoming post-Christian. So given this and other instances I would maintain that it is demonstrable as far as how people really live their lives that our culture is definitely trending post-Christian.

The consequence of this is that more and more people begin to see classic expressions of faith in Jesus Christ on a spectrum from indifference, to suspicion, to outright hostility.

Case in point: Peter Boghossian, a faculty member at Portland State University just published a new book that has gained a measure of notoriety.  The title is A Manual for Creating Atheists.  In chapter 9 he writes:

“. . . I want to add my voice to the growing number of people who argue that we must reconceptualize faith as a virus of the mind, and treat faith like other epidemiological crises: contain and eradicate. . . .

Just as society has established mechanisms to deal with contagions, pathogens, and infectious diseases that affect our water, air, and food supply (with objectives like ensuring that the commons are free of toxins and preventing the spread of diseases), there’s also an urgent need for large-scale interventions in educational systems, houses of worship, and other institutions that promote failed epistemologies.

A key containment protocol is to financially cripple any institution that propagates a faulty epistemology, starting with the most egregious perpetrators: religious institutions.”

Moreover, based on Barna research while only 35% of Baby Boomers (my generation) meet their criteria for “post-Christian”, 48% of 18-28 year olds are post-Christian. In each successive generation Christianity is moving more from a place of privilege in our society to a place on the margins of our society.  And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

And that brings us to the means by which we’ll be addressing how we navigate a post-Christian culture in this series of blog posts.  My conviction is that the little letter of 1 Peter provides the insight we need to live faithfully for Jesus Christ in our secularizing era.

The reason for this is that 1 Peter is the Apostle Peter’s instruction to new Gentile Christians on how to live faithfully in a culture that viewed their faith in Jesus Christ on a spectrum from indifference to suspicion to hostility.  So in order to find guidance in how to live in a post-Christian culture, we can look to how the Church handled living in a pre-Christian culture.  While our world is vastly different from the Greco-Roman context of the first century I think that if we are observant and careful we can find transferable points that directly address our current situation.

And that will be the direction we take in upcoming blog posts.

Living Faithfully in a Post-Christian Culture: Part 2

Christ_the_TeacherAs we seek guidance from 1 Peter for faithful Christian living in a post-Christian context I am convinced that the first guidepost is the letter’s implicit emphasis on catechesis.

Catechesis is the systematic and intentional training of believers in the core doctrines of the faith and how to apply those doctrines in daily living.  And that’s the point of the whole letter of 1 Peter.  In other words, this letter is a catechism for how to live as a believer in hostile culture.  Richard Jensen writes:

A description of the audience for this letter of I Peter would include the fact that they were relative newcomers to Christianity. They were an immature group of believers who were encountering a hostile environment… They needed guidance on their way. One interpreter of this letter sees, therefore, a two-fold purpose for its writing: 1] It is a call to young Christians to hold fast their faith. “Become who you are,” might summarize Peter’s message on this point.  2] It is a description for how young believers can be Christians in a hostile cultural environment.

Over the last 150 years or so much of the church in the west has lost its emphasis on intentionally and systematically training new believers in core Christian doctrine and practice.  The result is the kind of revisionist Christianity that is endemic among the mainline denominations. Their precipitous membership loss is evidence that they have severed the limb of orthodoxy and are bleeding out.

Yet one of the strange benefits of moving into a post-Christian culture is that biblically faithful churches re-discover the need to intentionally catechize their members.  Whenever the church is at ease it loses its intentionality about forming disciples, falsely trusting that the natural flow of the culture will be sufficient to make one a Christian.  But when the church faces an antagonistic culture as in the first four centuries of the Christian era, or when new missionary outreach is advancing, or during times of reformation, God reminds us of the absolute necessity for intentionally instructing Christians for a lifetime of discipleship.

The reformer Martin Luther reflects this urgency in the introduction to his Small Catechism.  Addressing those who resist being catechized, Luther employs his typical rhetorical flair when he says:

“But those who are unwilling to learn it should be told that they deny Christ and are no Christians, neither should they be admitted to the Sacrament, accepted as sponsors at baptism, nor exercise any part of Christian liberty…”.

From the beginning at Christ Church we have insisted on emphasizing life-long catechesis.  We stress biblical instruction in core Christian doctrine and faithful Christian living.  That’s why every person who joins Christ Church goes through the 13 week “Foundations Course”.

That’s why we are instituting the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for all our children this fall.  (In this culture if we do not take the time to systematically and intentionally catechize our children we are ultimately making the decision that they will not be followers of Jesus Christ.)  

That’s why we stress weekly involvement in a Life Group where we learn to apply biblical teaching.

So the first step in avoiding what I have called “incremental apostasy” in the face of a secularizing society is that we have to follow Peter’s lead and commit ourselves once again to the classical Christian practice of making disciples via systematic catechism.  One great new resource that you might want to explore for your family is the new catechism produced by the Anglican Church in North America: To Be a Christian.

In my next blog post we’ll take a look at a defining metaphor for the Christian in a post-Christian culture: sojourner.

Living Faithfully in a Post-Christian Culture: Part 3

Peter provides a critical self-definition for the Christian living against the tide of a dominant non-Christian worldview: exile or sojourner.  We see it in the very first verse of this letter.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,  (1 Peter 1:1 ESV)

That word “exiles” in Greek is parepidemos and it means sojourner, pilgrim, stranger – someone who is passing through or one who lives in a place temporarily.  Recent scholarship reveals that “sojourner” was not just a metaphor for some of those to whom Peter wrote.  Many of Peter’s readers were literally resident aliens in Pontus, Galatia, etc. and as such lacked the full benefits of citizenship in those places. They were socially marginalized.  However, Peter takes their literal social setting of being “green card workers” and applies it as a metaphor for what it means to be a Christian in their culture.  The reason I can state this with confidence is twofold.

First, Peter intentionally speaks to these gentile converts as if they were a part of Israel, because by being born again in Christ they have in fact been made the people of God.  These aren’t just exiles — they are elect exiles.  And in that word “elect” Peter connects them to the Diaspora: i.e., Jews who were scattered as exiles throughout the ancient Mediterranean world and Middle East.   By virtue of being made a part of God’s elect Israel those who have been born again to a living hope are in fact an exile people.  He makes that point explicit in 1 Peter 2:9 –

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9 ESV)

Each of those phrases (chosen race, royal priesthood, etc.) is a direct reference to an Old Testament description of God’s elect people of Israel.

The second reason that we can be sure that Peter is using “exile” as a metaphor for what it means to be a Christian is that the church as early as the first half of the second century saw Peter’s use of the word exile or sojourner to be a reference to what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of God living in this present world.

So for Peter’s readers to be an exile was a literal description of their social reality that also served as a metaphor that illuminated what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in their pre-Christian culture.  And I would say for us “exile” is a metaphor for following Jesus that will help us deal with the social reality of becoming literally marginalized in a post-Christian culture.

What do I mean by this?  In a culture where over half of the population is coming to the conclusion that if we want to follow Jesus in every area of our lives we may not be allowed to fully participate in the marketplace, or in the academy, or in the political system we may find that the spiritual truth that we are exiles in this world will help us not just cope, but live joyful and victorious lives as a socially marginalized group of people.

And as we live radically, intentionally, faithfully, joyfully and victoriously for Jesus Christ in the face of marginalization then God will use us as a force of redemption and transformation in the very culture that may come to relegate us to resident alien status. This was in fact one of the main points of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s book Resident Aliens:

From a Christian point of view, the world needs the church, not to help the world run more smoothly or to make the world a better and safer place for Christians to live.  Rather, the world needs the church because, without the church, the world does not know who it is.  The only way for the world to know that it is being redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people.  The way for the world to know that it needs redeeming, that it is broken and fallen, is for the church to enable the world to strike hard against something which is an alternative to what the world offers.” (Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 94.)

This book, published twenty five years ago this year, helped prepare the church to think in ways that would enable us to be faithful in a post-Christian culture.  For instance, seeing the church as colony of God’s kingdom in an alien culture helps us to be deliberate in maintaining the culture of heaven while passing through this world:

A colony is a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another, a place where the values of home are reiterated and passed on to the young, a place where the distinctive language and life-style of the resident aliens are lovingly nurtured and reinforced.

We believe that the designations of the church as a “colony” and Christians as “resident aliens” are not too strong for the modern American church – indeed, we believe it is the nature of the church, at any time and in any situation, to be a colony.  Perhaps it sounds a bit overly dramatic to describe the actual church you know as colonies in the middle of an alien culture.  But we believe that things have changed for the church residing in America and that faithfulness to Christ demands that we either change or else go the way of all compromised forms of the Christian faith.

The church is a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another. In baptism our citizenship is transferred from one dominion to another, and we become, in whatever culture we find ourselves, resident aliens…” (Preface to Resident Aliens)

We have some dear friends who have lived in Europe for the last 8 years and have just moved back to Florida.  For their younger children, Europe in general and Belgium in particular have been the only home they have ever known.  But they do not identify themselves as Europeans.  While they appreciated and enjoyed and been shaped by much of European culture and history they are still Americans.  Their children who have never lived in America are still Americans.

They listen to country music, they watch American football, they pulled for America in the world cup, they like American food and they have longed for their homeland.

The memory and love for a land in which they have never lived has been kept alive for their younger children through the stories of places, and family, and friends who live in their ultimate homeland. They were sojourners.

When you are a sojourner you never feel settled.  You never feel totally at home.  You always feel homesick and torn even when you love the people around your in your host country.  You never truly fit in the host culture and occasionally the people who are citizens of that country remind you that you don’t fit in!

And what’s more, you know that if you ever did truly fit in, it would be an act of disloyalty to the country where your true citizenship lies.

With that in mind, think about these questions:  In your daily life, do you sing the songs of your homeland?  Do you tell the stories of your true homeland over and over again?  Do you love those stories so much that they make you ache with homesickness for a country you’ve where you’ve never lived?

Around the world the Church does this every time it gathers for worship on the Lord’s Day.

We sing the songs of our homeland every Sunday.

We tell the stories of our homeland every Sunday.

We eat the food of our homeland every Sunday.

And through all of this we ask God to make us homesick for our homeland every Sunday.

May God grant us the grace to never feel like we truly fit in here in this world.  May we always feel homesick and torn in this world.  May our alien status be so clear to those whose home is this world that they look at us and say: you’re not really one of us, you don’t belong here.

And may our love for our true homeland be so evident and life-giving that those around us may be drawn to desire to change citizenship status and become resident aliens with us.