Friday, 31 August 2012

14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

One thing I want to do with this blog in order to justify (!) its continuation is to use it to publish short notes on the lectionary readings (like most pastors in the LCA I follow the Revised Common Lectionary) as a way of sharing exegetical gleanings, possible sermon illustrations, theological reflections, etc. and by doing so hopefully assist other preachers in their preparations in some small way. I'm not pretending to be an authority in any of these areas and these notes do not pretend to be exhaustive; think of it as one beggar telling another beggar where bread can be found - heaven knows, we preachers get desperate for bread sometimes. Think of these posts as notes on the margins of the lectionary.

Anyway, here's a rather modest first attempt. I hope I can be disciplined enough to post something along these lines by the middle of every week and that God may use these notes to bless others.

14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

The theme of true and false religion and the dangers of hypocrisy connect the readings for this Sunday. The Greek noun ὑποκρίτης (Mark 7:6) comes from the ancient Greek drama, where actors wore large masks (lit. "answer from under a mask"). Thus the hypocrite pretends to be someone or something he is not.

Christians are especially likely to be charged as hypocrites by those who conceive of Christianity as principally a religion of good works and not of faith. Of course, the Christian aspires to do good works in the service of God and his neighbour, but he often falls short of the standards that his own conscience and the word of God require; however, this does not lay him open to the charge of hypocrisy. As Johnson notes, to aspire to an ethical standard one has not yet reached is not hypocrisy:  "Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself." (Samuel Johnson, English essayist and lexicographer here). Hypocrisy only arises with the pretense to have achieved standards one has not.

In the Gospels the word appears only on the lips of Jesus - fittingly, as only he who is holy can truly judge men's hearts (cf Romans 2:1). Hypocrisy is the "leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1), who have set aside the law of God and taken up human traditions by which they pretend to a holiness they do not have. Understandably, then, for the Lutheran confessors hypocrisy was a mark of monasticism which claimed to do even more works than God required of man: "All these things are full of pharisaic vanity. For it is the height of impiety to hold that they satisfy the Decalog in such a way that merits remain, while such precepts as these are accusing all the saints: Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thine heart, Deut. 6:5. Likewise: Thou shalt not covet, Rom. 7:7. [For as the First Commandment of God (Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind) is higher than a man upon earth can comprehend, as it is the highest theology, from which all the prophets and all the apostles have drawn as from a spring their best and highest doctrines; yea, as it is such an exalted commandment, according to which alone all divine service, all honor to God, every offering, all thanksgiving in heaven and upon earth, must be regulated and judged, so that all divine service, high and precious and holy though it appear, if it be not in accordance with this commandment, is nothing but husks and shells without a kernel, yea, nothing but filth and abomination before God; which exalted commandment no saint whatever has perfectly fulfilled, so that even Noah and Abraham, David, Peter and Paul acknowledged themselves imperfect and sinners: it is an unheard-of, pharisaic, yea, an actually diabolical pride for a sordid Barefooted monk or any similar godless hypocrite to say, yea, preach and teach, that he has observed and fulfilled the holy high commandment so perfectly, and according to the demands and will of God has done so many good works, that merit even superabounds to him. Yea, dear hypocrites, if the holy Ten Commandments and the exalted First Commandment of God were fulfilled as easily as the bread and remnants are put into the sack! They are shameless hypocrites with whom the world is plagued in this last time.]"

The preaching of the law without the Gospel produces "conceited hypocrites" (FC, Epit, V, 8). To the degree that the charge of hypocrisy may have a basis in fact, this error is the source of the perception that Christians are hypocrites; when preaching and religion loses the evangelical spirit and instead of pointing to Christ as the source of holiness directs the Christian to his own righteousness, hollow hypocrisy inevitably follows.

James urges Christians to be "doers of the law, and not hearers only"; the first "work" that God requires is that we believe in the Christ (John 6:29). Repentance and faith in Christ, not the law, are the source of true good works. Sanctification follows justification. In justification the work of the law is to accuse (lex semper accusat). In the course of sanctification the law serves the Christian not as a means but as a guide to what pleases God.

"Lord Jesus Christ it is Thy holy Gospel, it is Thy cause; look Thou upon the many troubled hearts and consciences, and maintain and strengthen in Thy truth Thy churches and little flocks, who suffer anxiety and distress from the devil. Confound all hypocrisy and lies, and grant peace and unity, so that Thy glory may advance, and Thy kingdom, strong against all the gates of hell, may continually grow and increase."
Melanchthon (1497-1560, Lutheran confessor),   Preface to the Defence of the Augsburg Confession

Apropos Poesy

Inscription at Thermopylae

Linger not, Stranger; shed no tear;
Go back to those who sent us here.
We're the young they drafted out
To wars their folly brought about.
Go tell those old men, safe in bed,
We took their orders and are dead.

Trans. by Australian poet A.D. Hope

Thursday, 9 August 2012

More things in heaven and earth...

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
Hamlet. Act 1, Scene 5

As someone who was educated in a materialist worldview, one of the first challenges to that worldview that I experienced came in the form of the British-Australian physicist Paul Davies' book God and the New Physics (1984), the reading of which I found to be a breathtaking experience. Not that Davies claims that modern science proves the existence of God, but he certainly led me to conclude that modern physics has demonstrated that materialism - the belief that all the phenomena of reality have material causes only - is an untenable philosophical position because it simply cannot account for all the data of which science is now aware. Now, I have always been oriented towards the humanities rather than the sciences, so Davies' book and the personal revolution in thought it set in motion resulted in a journey of discovery through the reading of philosophy and eventually theology, which finally led me to orthodox Christian belief. That's a journey on which I might comment in future posts. In the meantime, here's a recent article on the challenges quantum mechanics presents to materialism as an explanation for the phenomena of human consciousness :
"Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities --- if any there be. Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”  
 Quantum mechanics, however, throws a monkey wrench into this simple mechanical view of things.  No less a figure than Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claimed that materialism --- at least with regard to the human mind --- is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.” And on the basis of quantum mechanics, Sir Rudolf Peierls, another great 20th-century physicist, said, “the premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being ... including [his] knowledge, and [his] consciousness, is untenable. There is still something missing.” "
What is missing in the materialist explanation of human consciousness, I contend, is the soul.

Read it all here.
HT Gene Veith

Friday, 3 August 2012

A Letter To One Enquiring About Swimming the Bosphorus

While the Olympics are on seems an appropriate time to post the following (btw, does anyone else think the gloss has well and truly come off the Olympic Games since professionalism was allowed?). I wrote the following (re-written for posting here) in response to a question on a Lutheran forum I'm on as to whether anyone had ever considered converting to Eastern Orthodoxy:

"Dear _____
When reading about American Protestants "swimming the Bosphorus" (for blog readers: converting to Eastern Orthodoxy - the Bosphorus being the narrow strait that separates Europe and Turkey/Istanbul/Constantinople -see the pic, which actually shows people swimming the Bosphorus!) you have to factor in that the majority of American Protestants are Arminian (not Armenian!) in their theology. That is, they concede a lot to free will in conversion and the sanctification process. This synergism fits quite well with Eastern Orthodoxy, which derives its soteriology from the early Greek Fathers who were also basically synergistic. Thus, for a Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Holiness or even Pentecostal minister to "swim the Bosphorus" is not as great a feat as one might imagine. There is a basic commonality there already between two forms of theology and piety that attribute much to human ability in spiritual matters. 
What these Protestants seek and find on the far side of the Bosphorus is the authority and structure and connection to history that was largely missing in their original denominations, but their synergism remains intact and unchallenged. The remark about so many Protestant ministers taking retreats in monasteries is revealing because monasticism is synergism par excellence. If we remember our church history (and this is a thumb nail sketch) we will recall that it was the monastics formed in the Greek tradition who resided in the south of France who were among Augustine's most vociferous opponents in the debate concerning Pelagianism. While Augustinianism won that battle at the 2nd Council of Orange, it lost the war as monasticism with its synergistic piety became the foundation of the Western church into medieval times. Which brings us to Luther and the Reformation...
For a confessional Lutheran to "swim the Bosphorus" requires much more strenuous effort than that exerted by the typical Arminian Protestant because one will come up against the strong tide of the Reformation position on the bondage of the will, which is thoroughly scriptural. For this reason it is not surprising that more discontented Lutherans end up opting to "swim the Tiber" - Rome, at least in theory, allows one to remain more or less Augustinian in one's theology, the soteriology of Trent being a compromise between Augustinianism and synergism - the shortcomings of that compromise are not our immediate concern here. True, there are some Lutherans who have swum the Bosphorus, but the attraction seems to be liturgical rather than strictly theological - of course, on the swim they end up swallowing the Eastern theology with the liturgy: lex orandi lex credendi
Those Lutherans who have swum the Bosphorus seeking refuge from the storm over women's ordination could be in for a rude shock - women's ordination is considered an open question in Orthodoxy because a church council has never ruled on it. This position - which raises vital questions about the apostolicity of Orthodoxy (and you'll note I haven't even touched on the authority of scripture in Orthodoxy) - has been argued by prominent theologians such as Bishop Kallistos Ware and Elizabeth Behr-Sigel and seems to have won the day as far as Orthodox theologians are concerned (for e.g., it is rumoured that most of the faculty at the highly influential St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York are in favour of women's ordination - this pattern of progression of the argument for w.o. will sound familiar to Lutherans who have been through it). 
Also it is not generally known among Westerners, who tend to view Orthodoxy as massively traditional and patriarchal and resistant to modernity, that in contemporary times Orthodoxy has moved to ordain women as deacons and actually permits women to preach in the Divine Service (this also happens in the Roman church, but I digress). Whether the matter of women's ordination will be on the agenda at the forthcoming "Ecumenical Council", currently being planned, remains to be seen, but it has certainly been publicly remarked by Bishop Kallistos Ware, author of the books The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way, which most Bosphorus swimmers have read on their journey, that Orthodoxy cannot avoid a debate on the question, particularly as it becomes more present in the West.  That debate raises the real prospect of a schism in world Orthodoxy; indeed, Orthodoxy already mirrors the Western church in being divided into "liberal" and "fundamentalist" camps. Thus swimming the Bosphorus will not provide the refuge from ecclesiastical storms and tempests that one might expect while gazing longingly across the strait towards Constantinople, which seems so placid and resistant to change from a distance.     
I trust this explains at least some of the reasons why swimming the Bosphorus remains an unattractive  proposition to me.
Kind regards"