Repentance (Reflections from a Funeral)

I went to a funeral of the parent of an acquaintance this week. My acquaintance is that flavor of Baptist that is very knowledgeable about the Bible, can slip his faith or God’s blessing into every conversation almost without fail (ie, “witnessing”), and has a very specific and narrow meaning of being a Christian and what’s required to go to heaven. By his standards, his father did not make the cut, and so the funeral was a bitter-sweet event.

The funeral itself had a distinct emphasis on the need for repentance along with a large dose of “we don’t know the hour of our death.” There was urgency in the service (including a couple verses of the hymn, “Just As I Am”). Fortunately there were no direct aspersions cast on the deceased. Instead there was a focus on using our time wisely while still on earth. (That is, by implication, taking the time to accept Jesus as our Savior.)

I’ve been away from Fundamentalism for a long time, and as a result, it didn’t occur to me that all my talk about repentance in recent essays might be put into this conservative evangelical context by my readers. When it comes to how we understand repentance, context is everything.

Orthodoxy begins with a belief in a generous God. God is for us (the affirmation at the heart of Paul’s rhetorical question in Rom 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”). God is doing everything in his power to help us freely choose him. Orthodoxy moves from the foundation of a generous God to framework of joy. The eucharist is the joyful feast and every week we enter into the joy of God’s presence.

Repentance is also a very big deal. Our understanding of the human side of salvation is structured around repentance. But because Orthodoxy begins with a generous God and the framework is joy, repentance is often called “the joyful sorrow.” We are sorrowful for our own sin and willfulness; we are sorrowful for the corruption of the world, but it is a sorrow that set in the context of the endless joy of the kingdom. The sorrow comes because we know we’re missing out on the fullness of what might be because of our sin.

Fundamentalism begins, not with a generous God, but with a holy God. Furthermore, divine holiness is understood in a particular way. According to this tradition, holiness is such that it cannot abide the presence of that which is not holy. It is a holiness that seems fragile because it can be sullied  by the presence of sin. God can have fellowship with humans only because our sin is hidden by Jesus Christ. When God looks on us, he does not see our transgressions, but only Christ’s holiness. This is why God can bear to be around us.

There is a great deal of joy within fundamentalism, but there is also a great deal of fear. Because everything starts and ends with this particular view of holiness, one must worry a great deal about unrighteousness. Judgment can never be too far away from unrighteousness because can’t bear to be in the presence of that unrighteousness.

It is hard to state how different this is from Orthodoxy. Fr. Sophrony was once asked if he believed that unbelievers would ultimately go to hell. His startling answer was, “I don’t know, but what I do know is that if anyone is in hell, Jesus Christ is with them.

Orthodoxy also has a very strong emphasis on the holiness of God. I would argue that it has a far deeper sense of divine holiness than fundamentalism. But God’s holiness is not fragile as it is conceived in fundamentalism. It is a holiness that gladly veils itself so that it can be in the company of sinners such as prostitutes and tax collectors. Of course Jesus, who embodied this sort of holiness, got into a lot trouble with the religious establishment (who had a view of holiness not unlike my friend’s view).

In this traditional view, holiness is frequently compared to fire. Fire doesn’t mind being in the presence of wood, it is wood that has a problem with being in the presence of fire because the fire will consume the wood. Repentance is the process of getting rid of the wood so that only the precious metal remains. Judgment does not destroy me, it only destroys the wood. But if I am in love with wood of my life, if I confuse the wood for the precious metal, when I enter into God’s presence it feels like I am being destroyed. Judgment is strictly a purification.

And this brings me back to the funeral, and funerals in general. I did not know the deceased and so I have no sense of who he was as a person. I do believe in hell, but my conception of it has changed dramatically from my fundamentalist days. I do not believe God sends anyone to hell. Those who go there do it by their own choice; they prefer the wood over the precious metal. Being absorbed by self and antagonistic to God, they would prefer an eternity in misery, holding on to the eternally burning wood of their false being.

Quite frankly, I have little sense of any other person’s eternal destiny. Some of the most wonderful people I have known have turned out to be truly terrible people. “Holy fools” are famous for being obnoxious people who are actually holy underneath the scabs of their humanity. The funeral is not, or at least should not be, a celebration of a person’s eternal destiny. It is, rather a celebration of Jesus Christ who is the Life of the World, the One who trampled Death by death and led the captives from the grave, the eternal Flame of God who burns away the wood of our false being so that all that remains is the precious metal of what God created and intended in the first place.

There is a “Where’s Waldo” sensibility to a proper funeral. Funerals are at the same time terrible and joyous. They are terrible because a dead person is laying there in our midst. They are terrible because funerals are inevitably a reminder of just how disastrous the corruption of the world truly is. But in the midst of this is the joy of Christ. Those who have eyes to see can find the life-giving Christ in any situation, even death. Funerals are an exercise in finding and focusing on the giver of Life and Light in the midst of death and despair. Whether the dead guy is a holy monk or a backslidden Methodist, the funeral is the same. It doesn’t revolve around the dead person; it revolves around Jesus Christ.

If I were in my friend’s shoes, how would I think about this guy in the coffin who apparently never repented. That’s not my problem. Every moment I am focused on someone else’s repentance is a moment I am ignoring my own repentance. This doesn’t mean that we should not spur each other toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). But after death, it is actually a holy discipline to focus on the reality that God is a generous God. All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28). Tallying up the sins and lack of repentance of the dead guy in the casket is in truth a subtle way of avoiding the state of our own soul, or comparing my seeming goodness to the other person’s seeming badness (instead of God’s goodness) and thus coming out looking good.

God is generous and good. The kingdom is preeminently a place of joy. Don’t let anyone, even your loved ones, steal that reality from you. Even in the darkest moment, the good God, living, loving fire of Christ’s presence can be found for those with the eyes to see it. Amen.

A Lectionary Reflection: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Judgement

I haven’t pondered the lectionary readings for a spell. The texts for July 9 are striking because (1) they are about judgment very broadly understood, and (2) the topic of judgment has been stripped out of the readings. Judgment is a subject we are very uncomfortable with.

I propose we are uncomfortable with it because people judge in a facile and thoughtless manner; we have trivialized judgment and thus made it obscene. Matthew 11:16-19 illustrates: John the Baptist, an ascetic, came along and people said, he’s too strict, “he has a demon.” Jesus followed. While not a libertine, he was far more lax about dietary rules than the religious leaders, and people said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The bottom line is that the average person rejected both their messages, because both involved a fundamental change of life. But rather than simply rejecting or ignoring the message, they used a form of judgment that condemned John and Jesus. In this manner they were able, not only to ignore the message of repentance, but justify their doing so.

This should sound familiar, because this is the most common form of moral outrage we hear today. Rather than engage the other person’s ideas, we tend to respond with an emotional burst that we manage to justify by adding a moral component.

The result is that we cover our failures and wounds of corruption with a salve of moral outrage, expressed as judgment, and rarely get around to doing the hard work of changing the things that need to be changed in our own lives (in contrast to demanding change in others’ lives). The former is true repentance; the latter is obscene judgment.

The lectionary leaves out Mat. 11:20-24 and jumps to v. 25. It is the condemnation of the cities that didn’t accept Jesus’ message, Chorazin and Bethsaida. The actual point of this text (a point which has been completely gutted by the lectionary) is that authentic judgment will happen one way or the other. We can judge ourselves (that is, repent of our own corruption instead of judging others), or we can put that off (as the people did to John and Jesus) and be judged by a far more terrible judgment when that corruption that exists within us finally eats us up completely and destroys us.

Jesus ends the text with the familiar, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat 11:28-30).

The action here is not only getting rid of our burden, but replacing it with Christ’s yoke, the burden that was originally designed for us. This latter burden, Christ’s yoke, is “light” because it is designed as something that, while heavy and hard, is life-giving. The other burden of our own making is life-destroying. Using different language, a different metaphor of burdens and harnesses, Jesus is saying the same thing as when he spoke about judgment.

That process of judgment which does not examine the self but demands change in others is actually a terrible burden. We know deep down that we are truly wretched creatures (see the Epistle reading, Rom. 7:15-25, Paul’s mournful cry of powerlessness to change). Psychologically speaking, this secret knowledge of self that we try to deny by pointing at others will destroy us by manifesting itself as anger, despair, addictions, psychosis, heart problems, and ultimately, death. Jesus simply calls it a burden.

So the choice is ours. We can keep busy judging others for their failures, or we can enter into the very difficult work of judging ourselves (of removing of our burden) and changing our way of life and thinking pattern (putting on Christ’s yoke, or harness). One way will inevitably lead to the fruition of all the corruption that is within us – unbearable judgment, or if we do the hard task of judging ourselves, the other way will lead to life and fruitfulness.

I will finish with a popular internet meme featuring psychologist and professor Jordan B. Peterson. He rails against those who are busy trying to fix the world. Even though he approaches it from a clinical psychological perspective rather than a biblical perspective, his reasoning should now sound familiar. Such people are avoiding the hard work of fixing themselves by changing the subject and fixing others. “But how do we then improve the world?” ask the world-improvers accusingly. Peterson’s now famous answer is, “Clean your room!” (Remember, he’s a professor and his primary audience is college kids.)

Changing the world must necessarily start with changing yourself.  Any other way will ultimately lead to judgment, or chaos, or societal breakdown, or however you want to describe it. So here’s the challenge. We can follow the august example of the people who brought us the Revised Common Lectionary, and pretend that this ultimate judgment (that will ultimately come back and bite us if we don’t judge and fix ourselves) does not exist, or at least is so unimportant that we can skip over it and ignore it, or we can “clean our rooms” and our lives. As daunting as the latter option sounds, it’s actually a light burden compared to the former option. Jesus promised us this was so. Amen.

Big Salvation Words: Judgment

In one of his more surprising insights, Karl Barth claims that the Fall of Adam and Eve, the root of their sin, was an act of judgment on their part. Adam and Eve “become sinners in trying to be as God: a judge” (CD IV/1 231). Barth says that to be human in the world as we know it (that is, hostile to God) is to be the “pseudo-sovereign creature” who believes its “most sacred duty [is] to have knowledge of good and evil.” Furthermore, we use that “knowledge” to “be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty.”

Unfortunately we are terrible judges. Our standard of righteousness, rather than matching reality, is a sliding scale that puts us into the best possible light. Judgment becomes an instrument of value, making us more valuable in our own eyes while making others less valuable, on (again) a sliding scale that allows me to dehumanize you and others that I especially want to dismiss.

Real judgment is something altogether different. Real judgment establishes our true and indelible humanity (and thus our worthiness as creatures of God) and distinguishes our true self from our failures, allowing God to transform us into what we might becomes. As Barth says, “In [God’s] hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy” (p. 232)

Because of our confusion about judgment as it is exercised in human hands, it is also necessary to say that judgment does not grow out of anger or divine honor, or a need for cosmic justice. It is rather a relational act. “This is undoubtedly the mystery of the divine mercy. God acted in this way because He grieved over His people, because He did not will to abandon the world in its unreconciled state and therefore on the way which leads to destruction, because He willed to show to it an unmerited faithfulness as the Creator, because in His own inconceivable way He loved it” (p 237). We don’t typically think of judgment as an outgrowth of grief and loss, but true judgment is just that.

Finally, we need to understand that divine judgment is merciful because it is final. Much of our life is spent with a shadow of guilt darkening it. Our experience of being judged is that if I am judged unworthy today, the same will happen tomorrow. Human judgment is too often not an act, but an ongoing attitude or devaluing of the other person. Divine judgment is nothing like this belittling action which we often confuse with judgment. The divine sort is “a judgment beside and after and beyond which there need be no further fear of judgment; a judgment which concludes once and for all with redemption and salvation …” (p. 222).

This is not to say that judgment is pleasant, something to look forward to with longing, or any other such nonsense. But it is equally nonsensical to dread it because we tend to equate judgment with condemnation. Judgment, in the mystery of the divine economy, is the evaluation (or, the revelation of who we truly are in our inmost secret self) that makes grace possible. It is the first step in our rescue from despair. It is indeed the “solemn and powerful redemptive instrument” that God uses to bring us sinful humans to himself.

Barth on Judgment and Humiliation

One theme in the book Compassion (see this post for a review of the book) was the centrality of obedience and humility and even the necessity of humiliation. That chapter (entitled “Obedience”) was largely based on the first subsection of §59 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics entitled, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country” (IV/1, pp157-210). It is in this subsection that Barth explores, among many other things, the humiliation of Jesus Christ.

In the book group where we are considering the book that word “humiliation” was a significant stumbling block for some. Humble? That’s a good word. Humility? That too is a good word. But “humiliation” was a step too far. It was thought that it implies a stripping away of the basic dignity that is owed all humans. Humility is an excellent virtue. Humiliation, on the other hand, chips away at our very humanity.

If all we have to go on is the one chapter from the book Compassion, I would have some sympathy for this objection. But ever since reading that book, I’ve been once again plugging away at §59 of the Dogmatics. I feel like I’m back in seminary!) I just got started on the second subsection, which is about judgment (entitled, “The Judge Judged in our Place”), and it becomes quite clear why Barth chose that uncomfortable word “humiliation.” The remainder of this essay will be extensive quotes from the second subsection.

We have seen that in its root and origin sin is the arrogance in which man [sic] wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge. According to Gen. 3:5 the temptation which involves man’s disobedience to God’s commandment is the evil desire to know what is good and evil. He ought to leave this knowledge to God, to see his freedom in his ability to adhere to God’s decisions in his own decisions. He becomes a sinner in trying to be as God: himself a judge. To be a man – in the world which is hostile to God and unreconciled with Him – is to be the pseudo-sovereign creature which finds its dignity and pride in regarding it as its highest good and most sacred duty to have knowledge of good and evil and to inform itself about it (in relation to itself and others). To be a man means to practice to want to be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty. [p 231] …

The event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position, not only attacks this safe stronghold of man. It is not merely a moral accusation against the pride of man. It is not merely an intellectual exposure of the error which has led him into it. It is the fact by which the position of man [as judge] is taken away, by which it is made impossible and untenable, by which the safe stronghold is breached. Jesus Christ … has penetrated to that place where every man is in his inner being supremely by and for himself. This sanctuary [now] belongs to [Christ] and not to man. [p. 232] …

It is by this action that we are now removed from the judge’s seat, by the fact that Jesus Christ did for us what we wanted to do for ourselves.  … In His hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument [ie, being Judge]. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy. [p. 232] …

Abasement by an abstract “god” [ie, our conceptions of God, and even our conception of the pre-incarnate God that we might get from the Old Testament] is a safe enough matter which we can turn to our own glory. But abasement by God in the flesh, in the person of this fellow-man is a dangerous matter. It is a real and concrete abasement. If this man is my divine Judge, I myself cannot be judge any longer. I have forfeited the claim to be it and the enjoyment of being it. … Where does our own judgment always lead? To the place where we pronounce ourselves innocent, and where, on account of their venial or mortal sins, and with more or less indulgence and understanding or severity and inflexibility, we pronounce others guilty. That is how we live. And that is how we can no longer live in the humiliating power of what took place in Jesus Christ. We are threatened by it because there is a complete turning of the tables. [p. 233]

The other [side of the coin] is that the fact that Jesus Christ judges in our place means an immeasurable liberation and hope. The loss which we always bewail and which we seem to suffer means in reality that a heavy and indeed oppressive burden is lifted from us when Jesus Christ becomes our Judge. It is a nuisance, and at the bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence.  It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent , we are in the right. It is similarly an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can [234] make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. It is a terrible thing to know good and evil if only in this ostensible and ineffective way, and to have to live with this doubtful knowledge. It agrees quite simply with what is written in Gen. 2:17, that if we eat of this tree we must die. We are all in process of dying from this office of judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is, therefore, a liberation that it has come to pass in Jesus Christ that we are deposed and dismissed from this office because He has come to exercise it in our place. [pp 233f]

The Trinity as Life instead of Doctrine

There’s currently quite a little tempest going on among Evangelicals about Trinitarianism. Certain high profile Evangelical professor types have gone astray of Trinitarian orthodoxy (specifically in relation to the doctrine of subordinationism) and are seemingly unrepentant. Of course, Evangelicals have no disciplinary structures to speak of, so all that remains for the remaining orthodox Evangelical sorts is to huff and puff with little consequence … oh and offer that little 33 question “Are You A Trinitarian?” test that Tim Challies put together.

A relative of mine posted it on Facebook. I took the quiz because I figured I might flunk it, since I confess and believe the Nicene Creed as it was written and approved by the ancient councils, and not with the “and the Son” phrase that the Western Church has added in order to defend the double procession doctrine. Turns out this little test didn’t touch on the subject of the procession of the Holy Spirit, so I am safely Trinitarian according to this little quiz. (Whew! You can’t believe how relieved I am!! Winking smile)

Beyond the “Are you a Trinitarian?” question is the follow-up question of “So what?” Here is Challies “So what?” answer (from Q31):

Redemption is illogical and impossible without Trinitarian distinctions. For example, in order for the Father to pour out his wrath on his Son and for the Father to accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the persons must be distinct. That the Son is infinite God also explain how his death can be infinitely valuable and thus able to pay the just penalty of eternity in hell for all those he redeems.

I used to be Presbyterian, so I get that a Presbyterian is going to put emphasis on a juridical framework for salvation, but I was left wondering, “Is that actually all you’ve got?” This is certainly not why Trinitarian doctrine is vital to salvation. I will explain:

We are spiritually dead and Trinitarian doctrine, with all it’s arcane details about oneness, threeness, Jesus’ full humanity and full deity, procession, etc., explains how it is possible for Creator God to enter into creation and offer spiritually dead humans the Source of True Life for now and eternity.

Our physical life is not unlike a cut flower which is beautiful and seemingly alive for days and even weeks. But since it has been snipped from its source of life, it will eventually wilt and die. We too are cut off from our only possible source of life, which is the life-giving Trinity.

Trinitarian teachings show us that it is possible for us to be united, or “made one” with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and thus to be made one with the life-giving Trinity because Christ is actually and truly God. Christ, fully God and fully human, participates in our life even to the extent of dying a humiliating cross death. This participation by God with us and as us in turn allows us to participate in God’s life. All of this talk of judgment is certainly biblical, but it is a side-bar to the content of the Gospel: the mysterious life-giving power of the life-giving Trinity who, in Christ, is fully united with humanity, thus giving humans the gracious opportunity to drink deeply and forever of the actual source of life.

To reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to a riff on divine wrath, divine judgment, and Christ’s sacrifice as a solution to judgment rather than as the more fundamental issue of how we actually access the life that is offered to us through Christ’s participation, is a pyrrhic Trinitarian victory. It is the essence of what we find in 2 Timothy 3:5. “… holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” It is the conceit of knowledge (v. 4) without proper application of that knowledge to the actual problem: we’re dead … still pretty as we stand tall in the vase but decaying and wilting fast. If we don’t want to get thrown out and replaced by tomorrow’s bouquet (ie, judgment), we need to “put off [the] old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts and to be renewed in the spirit of your [nous] (not “minds” as intellectual endeavors, but our true inner being). Eph. 4:22f.

Good doctrine either improperly applied or only partially applied is not a lot different than bad doctrine. Even the demons believe, as James reminds us (2:19). Being a Trinitarian Christian is not a matter of good doctrine, it is rather a matter of understanding how to properly apply it and the will to do so (ie, the putting off) and the humility to allow it to be done to us (ie, the being renewed in the spirit of our nous).

The Desolation of Smug

The juxtaposition of Sunday’s daily lectionary Old Testament and New Testament readings is striking. In the Old Testament Job is getting his lecture from God in Job 38. God is telling him that Job does not know God’s ways and neither could he accomplish God’s tasks if he did.

  • Do you know the dwelling place of light and dark?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of snow and hail?
  • Oh yeah, and thunderstorms, do you understand them?
  • Etc.

I had just paged through the trending podcasts on my pod catcher prior to reading these texts and one that I had never heard of was high the list. Its list of guests includes Brian Cox, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott (I know, she’s dead, but that’s what it said), Bill Nye, etc. That’s a who’s who of atheist intellectuals who are so utterly self-absorbed in their own grasp of the truth it’s mind boggling. At least Brian Cox has the grace to be amusing about it. But my immediate thought was, “Wow, that must be one of the most smug podcasts going today.”

As I read the Job text I couldn’t help but think that this group would have had the arrogance to answer God on each of these points, because, after all, this group actually understands all this stuff.

In contrast to this text is the reading from Revelation 18:1-8. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Babylon is the symbol par excellence of the hubris and excess of the world system.

There’s a long history of empires fading from the scene. In the case of Babylon, it practically happened overnight. Rome, on the other hand, and the Ottoman empire faded over a very long period of time. As is discussed in many places, not the least being Isaac Asimov’s brilliant and fifty year old Foundation series, the American Empire is showing alarming signs of wear and there is no clear indication what may replace it. We may be looking at yet another “regime change” in the not-so-distant future.

In contrast to this, I was on the phone this week with a now retired representative of the Antiochian Archdiocese (sort of like my denomination). The occasion was the aftermath of the centennial of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, which was celebrated last weekend. The subject of some recent trouble in the Archdiocese came up, but the person I was talking to dismissed it out of hand. “We’ve weathered this stuff for 2,000 years and we’ll weather this too,” was the comment. There is some real meat in the comment. Antioch, after all has been an important Christian center for all of Christian history. The first Bishop of Antioch was Peter. The second was Evodius, who is less well known, but the third Bishop, who served that office from 70 to 107 was the well known Ignatius, who was martyred by the Romans. There is an unbroken line of bishops (some of them outstanding, some of them traitors, some of them heretics, but an unbroken line – with schisms and plenty of weirdness mixed in) from Peter to John, who has served since 2012.

On the other hand there was certainly a sense of smugness in the 2,000 year comment, but there is also a sense of history that says, “God will remain faithful to the church, even when the church is not faithful to God,” when you look at the history of Antioch, the place where followers of the way of Christ were first called “Christians.”

Babylon: a symbol of the ephemeral that looks permanent. Antioch: a symbol of obscurity which has actually endured.

I confess that I am generally a huge fan of the current crop of radical atheists, although many of my favorites are now dead. Richard Feynman is hands down my favorite physicist and world traveler. I am also an unabashed fan of Douglas Adams, who regularly used his fame associated with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to bash Christianity and other religions. I find Richard Dawkins to be an utter bore – an unforgivable sin if you are going to be an outspoken critic of the cultural norm. On the other hand, I’m an avid listener to The Infinite Monkey Cage, Brian Cox’s podcast and bully pulpit to tear down Christianity when he doesn’t have his handful of clerics on as guests.

I like these guys because in all their smugness they seem to recognize that they are also court jesters (with the obvious exception of Dawkins and certainly the once utterly earnest Eugenie Scott) pointing out in amusing ways that the emperor has no clothes.

But in reading the Daily Lectionary today it occurred to me that it is a dangerous game to actually laugh at the jester because they play a dangerous game. I will continue to listen to Monkey Cage and grin with the rest of the audience, but ultimately these people really don’t know what they’re talking about because they are only dealing with a small slice of reality, and one day, this whole world system that has given us smart phones to listen to podcasts, the unimaginable wealth to afford these shiny toys, and the leisure to even bother with it, is going to come crashing down. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

“And then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18: 4f).

Someday there will be a Desolation of Smug. Both the church and our culture will one day reap the consequences of our sins. It’s an excellent reason to take the earbuds out, turn off the podcast, and get down to the business of the life of repentance that we’re called to.

The Story of King Midas and The Gospel of Mark

After studying Tuomo Mannermaa and Galatians and Romans for the last couple of months I needed to get away from that particular narrow slice of Christian theology and focus on something else. I decided to turn my attention to the Gospel according to Mark (the oldest of the four gospels).

I was immediately struck by the fact that Jesus (you know, “fully human and fully God”) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery.

There is a theory promoted by numerous systematic theologies over the centuries (but most closely associated with Anselm, if you want a good historical reference point) that God’s holiness is of such a character that it cannot stand to be around sin and debauchery. If you only read the Old Testament an excellent case can be made for this theory.

Growing out of this theory of holiness is the idea that Jesus had to become human and die a brutal and horrible death in order to assuage the anger (or wrath) of God toward sin and evil. In short, God was really angry, he took it all out on Jesus, the result is that now Holy God can invite us into his presence as long as we accept what Jesus did on our behalf.

Reading through Mark’s Gospel, the idea kept coming to my mind that this picture of God is completely wrong because Jesus (who is fully God) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery. While not said explicitly, the implication is clear: The problem in this relationship is not on the divine side, it’s on the human side.

In both ancient Christian theology and contemporary Eastern Christian theology it is commonplace to say that love and judgment (or righteousness and wrath, to use Paul’s terminology) are essentially the same thing. Divine love is a consuming fire, and if we are not pure and were to attempt to approach God’s essence, that burning divine love would consume all that is not pure, which is pretty much all of our being. Thus, we experience divine love as wrath and judgment in much the same way a straw bale experiences a warm and merry hearth fire as a holocaust.

Imagine the “fully human” part of Jesus Christ functions as a very special permeable material that allows what we might call the “love” portion of holiness through while turning back what we might call the “consuming fire” portion of holiness. Thus in Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, the sinners of all sorts (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors) could approach and touch Fully-God-Jesus without getting consumed and destroyed by the fire of holiness.

In the ancient Greek myth, King Midas was given the gift/curse of being able to turn stuff to gold. Everything he touched (loved ones, food, etc.) turned to solid gold. But what if Midas had a special glove that did not turn to gold when he put it on that allowed him to touch that which he truly loved and desired without immediately and destructively purifying those loved ones into gold?

That’s the incarnation! Jesus’ humanity is that glove that allows God to come and rub shoulders and be with those he truly loves (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors). But because the burning brightness of holiness is veiled (i.e., gloved, but not absent), we are not immediately destroyed in the loving divine embrace.

That is the Good News of Mark in a nutshell (or in this case, a glove)! Thanks be to God.

Failures, Bad Habits, and Addictions: From Shameful Baggage to Holy Gifts

“Devoted to the Lord for destruction.” Now that’s an interesting phrase! and it’s in Joshua:

For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers we sent. As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. (Jos 6:16b-18)

“Devoted to destruction” is how the NRSV translates haram or cherem (alt. transliterations of the Hebrew root hrm). It is the word used in the Old Testament when God commands the utter destruction of something, most commonly, Israel’s enemies as they were conquering the Promised Land. In the conservative Protestant tradition, which celebrates the wrath of God, and interprets it in a very modern, post-Freudian way to mean anger, or fury, or just generally being pissed, this Hebrew idea was proof positive that (as the 1970s bumper sticker read, managing to be simultaneously offensive and amusing) “Jesus is coming again … and this time he’s really mad!”

So,if that’s not the point, what do we do with the haram of Jericho? God told Joshua that “the city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” The NRSV insets that word “devoted” because haram has both a negative and positive usage. Positively, it refers to something that is set aside to the Lord. In order to make the parallel clear, the NRSV translates the positive use as “devoted to the Lord” or something similar.

The idea of the Hebrew term haram is that of a gift. But the receiver is not physically there to receive it, so the giver sets it aside to use it exclusively on behalf of the receiver. In the modern context things like the chalice and paten would be haram. It would be unthinkable to use them for coke and pizza at a Saturday night dance. They are “set aside” for a specific liturgical use. Thus the word “holy” (qadosh), while not etymologically related to haram, is quite similar in usage. The chalice and paten are qadosh (holy: what they represent metaphysically) and therefore they are haram (set apart: what we do with them physically).

But haram also has a negative sense. And to help us understand the negative sense we should consider the Hebrew sacrificial system. Certain things brought to the altar were haram and were given to God completely as true sacrifices. This “giving to God completely” was done by burning the whole sacrifice on the altar. Other gifts were “offerings” rather than “sacrifices.” A symbolic portion of the offerings were burned on the altar, but most of it was reserved for the priests’ and Levites’ use (analogous to clergy salary and building upkeep today).

God told Joshua that Jericho would be haram, and therefore destroyed completely. It was not an offering, it was a sacrifice given to God. This is the negative sense of haram.  Furthermore, those who tried to rebuild it – to bring it back “from the ashes” to use the imagery of the altar – would be cursed because Jericho was haram.

Let’s acknowledge that the story is deeply disturbing to modern sensibilities. If we treat it as a war story and apply contemporary rules of war, it’s a shocking scene where noncombatants are slaughtered and where there is no sense of proportionality. Put into the larger context of the conquest and haram of Palestine, we’re also dealing with intended genocide. But the story is thousands of years old and  moral superiority and the resulting condemnation based on a few thousand years of hindsight puts us into a sort of “mote and beam” quagmire from which we’ll never extricate ourselves, due our self-congratulatory modern moral superiority, so the Church has wisely bracketed the historical events as beyond full comprehension and focused on a christological/allegorical reading.

The Orthodox don’t worry so much about the literal/historical arc of the Old Testament. It’s not that it’s unimportant (for it is the necessary strong foundation for an Orthodox reading of scripture) or dismissed as faintly ridiculous (as in a liberal Protestant reading); it’s rather that the best way to mine the spiritual depths of the Old Testament is to read it christologically (Athanasius, et. al.) and thus allegorically, as Paul teaches us to read the Old Testament in his epistles. The literal historical reading may develop one’s intellect but does little for one’s spiritual development. The Christological/allegorical method, on the other hand, is all about Christian transformation.

So, how does this text apply to us today allegorically? One of the great difficulties in spiritual growth is what to do about the bad stuff. We want to give God our very best, but we are beset by failures, bad habits, and on occasion, even addictions. These can be shameful things and we tend to hide them from God. We may also worry that God will be angry or even judge us because we can’t get our act together.

So we need to change the model. We need to take seriously God’s charge to the Israelites: The Promised Land is haram. The gold, silver, and bronze are to be devoted to the Lord (positive haram). The rest is to be devoted to the Lord for destruction (negative haram). And thus our failures, habits, and even our addictions can be “gifts” from us that are devoted to God. If we understand that these sins are not primarily something to be ashamed of, but rather human corruption that are to be devoted to the Lord for destruction, then they can even become, in a sense, “holy” gifts. They are not holy in and of themselves, but the attitude with which we offer them to God, through confession, is indeed holy.

I suppose this is precisely one of the points of confession in the Orthodox tradition. Confession is not about admitting shameful secrets and groveling for absolution, it is rather coming to understand the human condition and devoting it to the Lord so that our very beings can be transformed from the ashes. And this is why we can enter boldly into God’s presence (Heb 19:10). We are not bound for destruction. We have things that need to be utterly destroyed or banished, but they are not weights dragging us down to the pit, they are haram that we can give to God, “devote to God for destruction.” Even our worst can be transformed into the best for God. Thanks be to him. Amen.

Salvation as Descent

As Holy Week approaches and we solemnly observe the downward (upward) spiral of events that inevitably is leading to Jesus’ crucifixion (leading to Jesus’ victory), I am reminded of the juxtaposition of the movements of ascent and descent in the Christian gospel. Jesus’ victory is not the resurrection (which is the announcement of his victory) but the cross and his descent into Hades. In that movement he finally fully identified with humanity and was therefore, having embraced the full human experience, able to lead the human race from death to life and from alienation to communion with the God who longs for us to join him.

Similarly for us, true winning is losing, ascending to heaven is descending to the depths, the greatest among us are the least, and the poor are the richest of all. Reflecting on the 4th Sundy of Lent (what is popularly called the Sunday of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, based on the book by John Climacus, who is the saint of the day), Stephen Freeman observed that we in contemporary Western culture get the image of our ascending to the Divine completely backwards. “We simply are not saved by getting better; it is a false image and a false goal.”

John Climacus himself, describing how we ascend to God, said, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” His point was that we have to embrace our sins (and our shame). This doesn’t mean that we “sin more so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1), but rather that we don’t pretend we’re not what we are. Self-improvement (the modern concept of works) simply pushes our sin and shame to the side. Thus, when God enters into us and transforms us, the sin is not actually dealt with because it still lurks around the edges. But when we embrace our sin and shame (which is a side-effect of our spiritual death), then we can descend with Christ into the place of death (Hades) and, from that proper starting point, be raised with Christ to new life.

In the prior essay I described the effort required to truly allow the Spirit to fully enter our heart so that we could enter into the unity with Christ we are promised. Here’s one more reason this holy effort is the opposite of the Covenant of Works. We are not working to improve ourselves so that we are acceptable to God; the work involved is rather opposite, embracing all in us that is unacceptable. Or, in John’s words, “embracing our shame.”

“My failure is both the gate of Hades and the Gate of Paradise,” says Fr Stephen. “My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is the very heart of our salvation.”

This is not only counter-intuitive, it is offensive to our sensibilities. But this is the drama of Holy Week, and the very reason that sanctification is so hard. And as we enter into the Holy Week Fast, it is the path we must take if we are to share Christ’s joy and victory, when we cry out, “Christ is risen!” on the far side of Hades.

Jesus Doesn’t Judge; Words Judge

In yesterday’s Daily Common Lectionary reading (Jn 12:44-50), Jesus says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” If Jesus (who is God, after all) doesn’t judge and judgment is real (the Bible is full of that affirmation!), then who does the judging?

I smell a contradiction!!!

Turns out there is no contradiction. In the next verse Jesus continues, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” It took some time for the import of these two sentences to sink in.

There was a gospel song that folks in the church in which I grew up loved to sing. It began, “Sing them over again to me, Wonderful words of Life. Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful words of Life.” But what if you reject those words? Then the words cease to be wonderful and become judgment. Jesus’ statement in Jn 12:47-48 parallels one of my favorite two verse in scripture: Rom 1:17-18. “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In this remarkable bit of parallelism, Paul seems to equate divine righteousness and divine wrath.

And on this Paul and John agree. Life giving words are the same thing as words of judgment (John). Righteousness is the same thing as wrath (Paul). The Eastern Orthodox commonly teach that heaven and hell are the same place. What believers experience as the warm light of love (because by faith they love God and have been purged of all chaff) the non-believers experience as the hot fire of judgment.

God doesn’t send anyone to hell (in this common Orthodox teaching), rather those who reject God experience the heavenly light of love as a burning hell. Righteousness is wrath. The wonderful words of life will judge us. So indeed Christ does not judge; he’s here to offer salvation! Judgment is all in how we respond to Jesus’ good words.