Archive for June, 2010

Coming home to faith

June 27, 2010

A Facebook friend asked me to participate in a blog discussion about salvation, especially as it concerns the death of Jesus. I decided to offer first, a personal account of my return to Christian faith as an adult. I followed up later with my opinions about the significance of Jesus’ death. Here is the first installment:

I came to Christian faith as an adult, after many years of drifting around spiritually. I had experienced deep peace, and the presence of God in church, as a kid in Catholic school. I was an altar boy and for a time had considered the priesthood, but that all fell away as I reached my teenage years.

Returning to church as an adult was unnerving, because I felt that there was so much going on in the worship service, even as I tended to approach the truth claims of Christianity with cynicism. I remember discussing with a Catholic friend my qualms about receiving communion, since I didn’t believe that the bread and wine changed into Jesus’ body and blood. She said, “Well, obviously something happens, doesn’t it?” And I had to admit this was true, and so I began receiving communion again as an adult – looking forward to it each week – and then twice a week, attending a Wednesday noon healing service also – which was an hour drive from my home.

After a few years I went to college and then to seminary. By this time I was in my forties and it was both very difficult and exhilarating to be immersed in intensive study of subjects that I had only dabbled in previously. Among other things in college, I studied the Bible, biblical languages, and philosophy. In seminary I pursued theology, especially systematics.

All the way up until about midway through seminary I remained divided between my experience of the mysteries of faith and my intellectual understanding. Mostly, as I look back, this was due to the fact that I received the gifts of the Spirit at the Eucharist without questioning them. But my intellectual understanding was limited by philosophical pre-conceptions – and because I thought of myself as a pretty open-minded guy – I was mostly oblivious to my errors in thinking.

In two specific ways I think I was limited. First, without consciously being aware of it at the time, I was firmly committed to A. J. Ayer’s verification principle, which posits that for a question or statement to have meaning it had to be capable of being proved to be true.

Second, I had a view of history that was shaped largely by Hegel. This perspective assumes that each successive movement (or era) in history resolves the contradictions and errors of the previous era.

As I worked my way through the actual history of the various Christian doctrines, I became more familiar with conversations that have been going on within the Church (and between other convictional communities) since the beginning. These discussions – categorized generally as epistemology, ontology, soteriology, sanctification, theodicy, and eschatology – require the student to challenge him/herself to painful exposure (the original purpose of the Socratic dialogues) to one’s own tendency for self-deception.

Finally, I was helped immensely by Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself an eccentric Christian, who completely changed his mind on his understanding of the nature of philosophical (and moral) problems. Eventually, he began to see these as errors in the use of language –  grammatical mistakes, rather than actual philosophical problems – in which the human mind persists in imagining a difficulty when the problem is simply a mistake in how one considers the evidence. He used a drawing, which I found very helpful. It is a rabbit/duck and it is either one depending on how you look at it.


1. Salvation: The Death of Jesus

June 27, 2010

re: the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus

It was suggested that Christians could be grouped into two camps:

1. Those who emphasize Jesus’ death, and
2. Those who emphasize his life.

Obviously, these are generalizations – some might say caricatures. But if I accept that Christians could be grouped this way, what are the distinctive features of each group? Who are these people?

I do not think I belong in either group, but maybe I can offer my opinion anyway, and then follow up with my point of view.

I. “Those who emphasize his death”

A. Those who gave us pre-modern Atonement theology: the ransom theory (Origen, c. 185-254), the satisfaction theory (Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), and the moral influence theory (St. Augustine, 354-430 and Peter Abelard 1079-1142).

B. Those who represent modern (over)-reactions to “those who emphasize Jesus’ life”:

1. Those early 20th century conservative Protestants and their heirs: “A belief in the authenticity of miracles was one of five tests established in 1910 by the Presbyterian Church to distinguish true believers from false professors of faith such as “educated, ‘liberal’ Christians.”

2. Some traditionalists: Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, is a pious reflection on the “Stations of the Cross,” but goes over the line into an extended meditation on sadism, as it attempts to show that Jesus suffered more than any other man.

II. “Those who emphasize Jesus’ life”

A. Those who are the heirs of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason: The Enlightenment brought advances in scientific knowledge, and more adequate explanations for natural events and processes.

B. Those who embraced modern Biblical interpretation: In the 19th century some Christians increasingly became uncomfortable with what they saw as cultic traditions and “pagan” belief systems having infected the biblical accounts.

2. Salvation: The Death of Jesus

June 27, 2010

III. “My position”

A. So what’s wrong with “those who emphasize his death”?

1. Actually, the death of Jesus does not feature prominently in the early Church. For many years the death of the founder of the Church by crucifixion was an obstacle to recruitment – a serious public relations problem.

2. The various atonement theories, especially the satisfaction theory, reflect a pre-modern feudal society and hence, the prevailing ideas concerning justice. If there ever was a preoccupation with Jesus’ death, it certainly comes after the 11th century – long after crucifixion lost its strong association with shame and scandal. There weren’t any “naked, suffering” type crucifixes before the 12th century, and with the outbreaks of bubonic plague that may have killed as many as 25 million people in the 14th century, it is understandable that death increasingly became an important theme of the middle Ages.

3. The Christians who emphasize Jesus’ death today often seem to be reacting against a perceived moral decline in and after modernity, which they blame on Liberal Christianity’s tendency to stress the humanist teachings of Jesus.

B. So what’s wrong with “those who emphasize Jesus’ life”?

The Liberal Christian tradition (not to be confused with a progressive political agenda) is an outgrowth of modern biblical interpretation. It developed in a Christian context and generally, as Western society has become more secular, tends to be characterized by reservations about the Bible. It is also reticent about traditional teaching on the Resurrection of Jesus, The Virgin Mary, miracles, hell, original sin, etc.

The text probably most associated with Liberal Theology is “The Essence of Christianity” by Adolph Von Harnack (published in 1900). Harnack sought to strip Christianity of purported pagan influences in order to present Jesus as an exemplary teacher of ethical values. He thought the essence of the Christian faith consisted of

1. The Fatherhood Of God.
2. The Brotherhood Of Man.
3. The Infinite Value Of The Human Soul.

Later, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) criticized Harnack for domesticating Jesus – basically turning him into a figure palatable for modern tastes, and leaving out the real context for understanding Jesus: Jewish apocalyptic expectations for a messiah. Unfortunately, Schweitzer ended up concluding that Jesus died in a failed attempt to bring an end to the present age.

Schweitzer saw that Liberal Christianity, while attempting to address the concerns of modernity, completely failed to honor the concerns of the authors of the New Testament.

3. Salvation: The Death of Jesus

June 27, 2010

C. What do I think is important about the death of Jesus?

Last Wednesday, in our regular parish Bible study, we read the ninth chapter of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was cup-bearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxes I, during the 5th century BCE. The king allowed Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem, serve as governor, and rebuild the wall of the city. After the work was done, Nehemiah assembled the people who had returned from exile. They stood in sackcloth and ashes, and made a renewal of their covenant with God. But before they made the covenant, Ezra the priest recites the history of their relationship with God. He says:

7 Thou art the LORD, the God who didst choose Abram and bring him forth out of Ur of the Chaldeans and give him the name Abraham; 8 and thou didst find his heart faithful before thee, and didst make with him the covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite; and thou hast fulfilled thy promise, for thou art righteous. 9 “And thou didst see the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and hear their cry at the Red Sea, etc. Nehemiah 9:7-9, RSV

This type of narrative-in-worship is a distinctive feature of Hebrew/Jewish writing, and it is an essential part of their collective identity. The people remember who they are – finding their identity – by recounting their history as the people of God. He is their God, who has been faithful, always providing for them, even when they were unfaithful.

We can see the same type of “holy remembering” much earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“5 “And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. 7 Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; 8 and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:5-9, RSV.

There are other examples, but let me simply say that narrative (and communal identity) are essential for understanding the Bible and the story of the people of Israel.

When we come to the New Testament we are reading a continuation of the same story of God and his people. By this time the Romans have occupied Israel, and a tremendous longing has built up in the hearts of the descendants of Abraham. They yearn for a savior who would restore them to their previous status as a free and sovereign nation (either in this world or in an Age-To-Come). Many people flocked to Jesus believing him to be the long-awaited messiah. When the Roman authorities crucified Jesus, it brought great shame and disappointment to his disciples.

Later, Jesus appears to the disciples and they believe he has risen from the dead. This account of the resurrection of Jesus becomes the main focus of the writers of the New Testament. After the disciples experienced the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus, their lives were radically changed. Jesus had come to them and forgiven them (remember, they had abandoned him when he was arrested) and then he “breathed on them” – giving them the Holy Spirit. Some seven weeks later the gathered disciples have another powerful experience of the gifts of the Spirit, which emboldens them to share the witness of the new life they have received in knowing the Crucified One.

The encounter with the Risen Lord, then and now, does not primarily turn people into individuals who have good ethics (though this does happen). Rather, it builds up the Church, as a community of faith, through the life-giving power of the Spirit. From the beginning Christians did not have “ethics,” as commonly understood. Christian faith is not mainly a philosophy of life carried out by autonomous individuals. Rather, being a Christian is itself an ethic, or a way of life, carried out within a community of faith.

St. Paul, whose writings actually predate the Gospels, himself had personal relationships with the closest disciples of Jesus. It is Paul who supplies the corrective to Schweitzer’s analysis, in his “doctrines of the church and of the mission of the church to the world.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, p. ix, 1998)

Dr. Schweitzer thought that the early Christian sect was a separatist group that just happened to have developed a universal moral code while they waited for the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. To me this doesn’t make sense. If this were the whole story wouldn’t the teachings, practices, and worship of the group only apply to the insiders? In fact, Paul says in Romans 10:11-15 that the Gospel is available to everybody, not just to the “in” group.

It is Paul’s teaching about the Spirit carrying on the work of Christ through the Church that makes sense (to me) out of the worship practices, the mission, and especially the new life that comes in Baptism and Christian fellowship – and makes sense (to me) out of the death of Jesus.

In the 11th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth we can listen in on the “identity narrative” of the early Church being passed down from the first disciples. First, Paul offers a rebuke to the Corinthians for how they are presently celebrating the Lord’s Supper. And then, starting at the 23rd verse, he reminds them that he has passed on a (holy remembering) tradition to them that he has received from Jesus (through the apostles):

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, RSV.

There is a very lengthy eucharistic prayer (“D”) in the Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal Church, 1979), which was adapted from the ancient Liturgy of Saint Basil. Versions of this prayer are used in the Greek and Slavic Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church, and others. It is the eucharistic prayer that is authorized by more churches in the world than any other type. Unfortunately, because of its length it is not used often in many churches. It is certainly very comprehensive, and (to me) quite beautiful. And I think this prayer is a fitting description of the new life we receive in Jesus Christ, and in his life, death and resurrection.

Here is the portion of the prayer that serves as the introduction to St. Paul’s institution narrative (quoted above) of the Lord’s Supper:

Father, you loved the world so much that in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our Savior. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, he lived as one of us, yet without sin. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; to the sorrowful, joy. To fulfill your purpose he gave himself up to death; and, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new.

And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.

Then, after the text from 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, the prayer continues with the following declaration of praise and blessing:

Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption. Recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to your right hand, awaiting his coming in glory; and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you. (BCP, 374)

In summary, the significance of Jesus’ death is how his own experience of immense suffering (by evil intent), and utter abandonment (by his friends and by God), was transformed by the power and grace of God. All the disciples of Jesus (including those now living) work and pray together in the Church asking, in his name, that the Holy Spirit will transform their lives and give them the same new life that Jesus’ first disciples received.

World Cup Soccer: GHANA 2 – U.S. 1

June 26, 2010

Suddenly I love soccer and, and I’m not crazy about American football anymore. The head injuries! Have you seen those retired guys in their forties? The speed and size of the NFL players has definitely left the safety technology behind the times. Brutal.

Seems I’m not the only one who is lovin’ soccer now.

I love everything about soccer except the vuvuzelas. I’ve read that you can get a dose of 140+ decibels at the stadium. And, the buzz buzz buzz is really annoying while watching on TV.

O.K., so I’m sure the vuvuzelas wouldn’t be buggin’ me nearly so much if the U.S. team had advanced today. Yeah, I’m bummin’ a bit.


Oscar is a champ (officially)!

June 26, 2010

Our Field Spaniel, Windfarthing’s Heartsong (call name, Oscar), took best-of-opposite sex, and the points needed for his championship, at a show in New Paltz, NY.

Good Boy!!!

The Rector’s June 2010 Newsletter Article

June 21, 2010

From the Rector’s Desk

Dear Members and Friends of St. Paul’s:

This month I offer a few different items for your consideration.

Spring is sprung

The grass is riz

I wonder where the pledge cards is?

A. I hope you will have already received my stewardship letter. If you have not, please ask one of the wardens, Florence Strang and David Graham, or the financial secretary, Wendy Harris, for a copy. The theme of this year’s financial drive is God’s active presence in the world, even in the midst of suffering and failure. It is important for the local church – your church – to be a strong witness to the Grace of God. To do this we need your full support. Please make a financial commitment to St. Paul’s Church.

B. The new phone system has been operating since November of 2009, and it seems that most folks are quite happy with how well it is working. If you know the extension number of the person you are calling, you can reach that person by pushing the extension number as soon as the outgoing message starts. The clergy and staff are available to talk on the phone most of the time, and can be reached on their private phones simply by pressing the correct extension number. The phone system is designed to allow you to speak directly with a person – not just leave a message with a receptionist, or deal with voice-mail. During the last few years we have been inundated with nuisance calls from companies that use automated systems to make recorded solicitations. The new phone system allows our financial secretary, for example, to do her work without unnecessary interruptions. Of course, if a person calls and would like to speak with Wendy Harris, she is available at her extension. Here is the list of extensions: Fr. Gorchov (ext. 1); Dcn. Todaro (ext.2); Brian Hoffman, Music Director (ext. 3); Marjory Roddy, Flower Memorials (ext. 4); Wendy Harris, Financial Secretary (ext. 6); Upcoming Events (announcement only – ext.7); Weather Related Information and Cancellations (announcement only – ext.9). You do not need to wait – just press the extension number and you will be connected to your party. Of course, if you would just like to leave a message, you can wait for the tone at the conclusion of the outgoing message, and then leave your message.

C. A Liturgical FAQ (frequently asked questions) – re: Manual Acts

Q. Why do you cross yourself at the words “resurrection of the dead” during the Nicene Creed?

A. For me it’s a public confession of faith in the General Resurrection. It is a sign of hope.

Q. Why don’t you cross yourself at the Benedictus Qui Venit? Isn’t that a traditional thing to do?

A. Yes, it is very common to see Episcopalians make the sign of the cross at the words “Blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord.” I think it is a good thing to make the sign of the cross, but even a good thing can be overused. In medieval times it was common for the people to cross themselves any time they heard the word “blessing” during the service, which is probably the beginning of the practice at the “Benedictus.” Also, in some experimental liturgies there is an attempt to make the “Benedictus” gender neutral (“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Lord”). The original text is from the New Testament though, and the words specifically refer to Jesus Christ, not to just anyone. I have seen people at these alternative liturgies “bless” themselves as “the one who come in the name of the Lord.” In this case the symbolic action has become confusing, and it isn’t really clear at all what is meant by the gesture. I have decided not to cross myself during the “Benedictus.” However, if this is your practice, and you are more comfortable in crossing yourself at the Benedictus, please continue to do what is familiar for you.

Q. During the Prayer of Consecration you make a lot of symbolic gestures. What are these supposed to do?

A. Throughout the ages the Church has employed all manner of ways to communicate the Gospel (stained glass, music, incense, vestments, candles, etc.) I think the “manual acts” of the priest are just one more way to tell the story of Jesus – and to pray – at the same time. At some time in the future, we will schedule an “instructed Eucharist,” during which a narrator explains the many symbolic acts that are performed.

My rowing shell languishes in our driveway awaiting her first launch of the new summer season. Hopefully next week I will be ‘on the water’ and officially welcome summer. May your summer days be filled, by God’s grace, with much fun and sun!

Blessings, Michael+