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Who are you on Golgotha?

On this Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, this is a Holy Friday sermon. Something very important is missing from all our icons and depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ….

There is no text version of this sermon, only the audio:

A rare example of an icon that includes the two criminals crucified with Christ


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Lights of God rise in the darkness

Over a hundred years ago (in 1915, to be precise) the great German theologian wrote the following, in an essay called “The Righteousness of God”:

What is the use of all the preaching, baptising, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, the counsels of ‘applied religion’….the efforts to enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God?… Are we not rather hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will?

Not exactly a feel-good passage for someone like me who is involved in “preaching…religious moods and modes, applied religion…monthly church papers” and other forms of “modern ecclesiasticism”! Am I and the people with me waiting for the “critical event that ought to happen” but “probably never will?” What is the “critical event”?

Elsewhere in this same essay, Barth wrote:

We make a veritable uproar with our morality and culture and religion. But we may presently be brought to silence, and with that will begin our true redemption.

In the reflection I posted early this morning about the Orthodox celebration of the Elevation of the Cross I ended by proposing a different form to the ritual of the elevation, a form that would shift the focus of the church from inward-looking to outward-looking. The Cross of Jesus Christ – of Jesus Christ, not something other that any of us might call “my cross”! – is the most perfect expression of God’s righteousness. And it is the Cross that we should present to the world, not the “uproar” of “our morality and culture and religion”! And the Cross does’t need an uproar or words and slogans. The Cross asks us to be silent, empty, in order for the Cross to reveal Christ to the world.

Barth wrote this essay over a hundred years ago, in the midst of the First World War. We today are not in the midst of a world war, but we are in a war nevertheless. Once again, I call upon Karl Barth from his European vantage point of 1915. Perhaps things are not much different. Only the guns of war have changed.

There seem to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion – to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the grey sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe – in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion and militarism – the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the ‘religious life’ go their uninterrupted way…A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception!

In the midst of the unrighteousness Barth names – and how contemporary they sound a hundred years later – the church takes comfort inside our walls, surrounded by our holy icons, repeating age-old rituals (while not even probing their spiritual meaning). As our pews empty, we take comfort that the ‘faithful’ still come. Meanwhile, hordes are leaving for other religious fixes. And then there are the ones in our midst who resent the changes going on in the church: they resent that the church today is not the church of their fathers and mothers! I hear that from men and women in their 40s and 50s.

How do we reach men and women in their 40s and 50s who want nothing else than the church to be the church they grew up in, when the church was little more than an ethnic club? I imagine that the words of Karl Barth are completely incomprehensible to people who live in an imaginary past, when America was GREAT, when the church was GREAT!

The Orthodox Church relies on its traditions and liturgical wealth to ensure its existence and durability. We baptise infants, we trust that the sacraments and sanctifying acts of the church will plant the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our people. And I fully believe that we are right in making these claims. I believe that God acts in the lives of people through the sacraments and the various sanctifying acts of the church. God acts through the sermons that are preached with the sacraments. God acts through the community bonds that Christian fellowship engenders. But only if we allow the righteousness of God to be revealed; only when we don’t see our own righteousness as the measure of faith; only when we allow ourselves to be silent so God can speak.

We will not fill our pews with smarter programs and entertaining music and feel-good sermons. Mega churches do those things and pack them in by the thousands every Sunday. Good for them. Though they claim to be ‘evangelical’, Karl Barth would probably have a hard time recognising them as Christian. Programs, ‘relevance’ and ingenious efforts at Christian entertainment were prevalent a century ago when he wrote his essay “The Righteousness of God”, and they have been brought to new levels of ingenuity in our technological age. But they are not the mission of the church. Relevance is NOT the mission of the church! Relevance to what? Facebook, short attention spans, social media, materialism, the politics of race and division, our therapeutic fixations?

Barth’s magnum opus was his multi-volume Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics)

No, the church represents – or should represent – the presence of God’s righteousness, which is why I proposed that the Cross could be more appropriately elevated outward on Sept. 14th, so it could face outward from the church. The Cross of Jesus Christ is our emblem and we should live as the Cross teaches us. Then and only then can the church escape the dead ends of relevance and power. Let us face the world with the Cross of Christ – not as a trinket around our necks, but as the force that shows us how to live as the righteousness of God in the world. Is the Elevation of the Cross merely a ritual? Or does it bring us closer to the “critical event”?

I conclude with more words by Karl Barth:

In the midst of the old world of war and money and death…Lights of God rise in the darkness, and powers of God become real in weakness. Real love, real sincerity, real progress become possible; morality and culture, state and nation, even religion and the church now become possible – now for the first time! One is taken with the vision of an immortality or even of a future life here on earth in which the righteous will of God breaks forth, prevails, and is done as it is in heaven.

There is the “critical event” so far as I can make out without reading the entire essay. There is the “critical event” that has not happened yet and probably never will in Barth’s own words: When God’s righteousness prevails “and is done as it is in heaven”! But can we at least aim to be lights of God in the darkness? Can we rise from our lethargy and allow the Cross and the Holy Spirit to guide our walk through life, this life?

I don’t own a copy of Barth’s essay “The Righteousness of God”. All the above passages are as quoted in the book “Church as Moral Community – Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922” by Michael D. O’Neil, published in 2013 by the Paternoster Press in England.


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A Simple Change in Symbolism

On September 14th the Orthodox Church celebrates the Elevation (or Exaltation) of the Holy Cross. In Byzantium this was more than a holy day. In some respects it was the national holiday of the Byzantine Empire! Consider the primary hymn of the day:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the kings over the barbarians, and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (politeuma).

Many Orthodox churches today have de-politicised this hymn with translations like the following:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the faithful over adversities (or, obstacles), and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (or, your people).

But once you move past the imperial context of this great feast, you are confronted by some strong theology. Consider the following hymn from the Vespers of the feast. It is sung/chanted, yet reads like a theological treatise.

Come, all you nations, let us worship the blessed tree, through which has come the eternal vindication. For he who deceived our forefather Adam by means of a tree is himself ensnared by the Cross. And he falls headlong tumbling down, who formerly held the royal master-work in tyranny. By the blood of God, the venom of the serpent is washed away, and the curse of the just sentence is lifted by the unjust sentence on the Righteous One who was condemned. For it was necessary to remedy the tree by a tree, and to put an end to the passions suffered by the condemned at the free by the Passion of the Lord. Glory to you O Christ King; glory to the awesome plan for our salvation, by which you saved everyone, as you are good and the lover of humankind. 

Note the references to the Cross as “tree”. This is classic terminology and serves to contrast the tree of the Cross to the tree in Eden which was the instrument for the fall of the first human beings. It is this contrast that the hymn articulates and celebrates.

The high-point of the feast observance occurs at the end of Matins. The Great Doxology is sung and at the concluding portion a slow procession of the Cross takes place. The Cross is decorated with basil in the Greek tradition. (Flowers are also used: in combination with basil, or alone in parts of the world where fresh basil is not common.) Basil is basilikos in Greek, “of the king”, so in one sense it reconnects us with the imperial history of the feast. But the true King is, of course, Jesus Christ – so Jesus is the true reference of the basil. The Cross of King Jesus is embedded in basil and carried in a solemn procession to the centre of the church where a unique ritual takes place.

The procession ends at a small table that has been set up in the centre of the church in front of the gathered congregation. The priest stands in front of this table, intones a short prayer and then slowly lowers the cross toward the floor while holding it above his head and then raises it back up again above his head – all this while the choir or the chanters repeat the words “Kyrie Eleison.” Then the priest moves to stand facing the right side of the table, and the lowering and elevation of the Cross is repeated. Then the priest stands facing the rear side of the table, then the left side, and finally back to the front. So a total five times the ritual of lowering and elevating the Cross takes place.

The symbolism is clear. The table represents the world, the inhabited earth (oecumene). The Cross is raised on each of the four points of the compass to bless and protect the entire world. The tree of the Cross recreates the entire world; it reverses the fall which happened at the tree of Eden. The entire world becomes a restored Eden. Of course the vision is eschatological, but in the Byzantine Empire the message was also one of hegemonic power.

It struck me last night as I celebrated the feast in our church that we need a different symbolism to complement the traditional understanding. Instead of the Cross being raised while facing the table, why not face outward from the table at the four points of the compass? Instead of representing the world being blessed/protected by the Cross, the table represents the Church! And the Church faces outward, proclaiming the Cross of Jesus Christ to the world!

The subtleties of Orthodox and Byzantine symbolism are lost on most Orthodox Christians today, and it is incumbent on clergy and lay teachers to open the treasure chest that we have inherited. Why boast of the “Treasures of Orthodoxy” if they remain meaningless rituals that don’t inspire and motivate the Church to spread the gospel of the Cross of Jesus Christ? And isn’t the visual message of looking outward instead of inward a needed corrective to the Orthodox tendency to look inward and live in the past?

(Unfortunately, no photos were taken of our vigil service, so the photos included here are from the Internet.)


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A Sermon not on John 3:16

 

What remains to be said about John 3:16 that hasn’t been said a million times by millions of priests and preachers? These days, watch any football game on TV and you’ll probably see someone hold up a banner that says John 3:16. That’s what this great Bible verse has become: a slogan, a banner at football games. So I wasn’t going to say anything about John 3:16 today. I planned to say something about Marcus Aurelius instead. He was emperor of the Roman Empire (161-180) but is best known for the Meditations, Τα εις εαυτόν, which he wrote in Greek as a journal for himself, for his own self-improvement. But as I reflected on Marcus I ended back in John 3:16 after all.

So he tells himself in his journal (7.56): “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” Strong stuff to say to oneself. Another day he writes (2.1): “When you wake up in the morning tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions (αντιπρακτικόν).” Such wisdom is found throughout the Meditations.

As I read more of Marcus, I came upon this phrase (7.67): ὅτι ἐν ὀλιγίστοις κεῖται τὸ εὐδαιμόνως βιῶσαι – “Remember this, that the happy life depends on very little”, or, more simply, you don’t need much to live a happy life. The word εὐδαιμόνως brought to mind ευδαιμονία, the word in Ancient Greek for happiness, well-being, a flourishing life. A happy person is ευδαίμων. I curious so I did a little research and was surprised to discover that the word does not occur in the New Testament. Of course the NT has many words for joy, but the closest that the NT comes to a word meaning happy is μακάριος (makarios) – but almost always in connection with a state of blessedness and always in a theological context, as in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). The only people who are just happy with life are presented in negative light – for example the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) who is content with all he has and tells his soul to eat, drink and be merry. An Ancient Greek would not have thought anything bad about such a man, but Jesus passed harsh judgment on him; for good reason, admittedly. 

Is it wrong to just be happy? Must everything pass under some sort of divine judgment, standard? Does God look at every moment of our lives, and are we not allowed to just be happy for a bit? Must we always love our neighbor, even when we wish he’d move to another neighborhood? Is it wrong to enjoy something that gives us pleasure? Do we mess up some great universal balance if we just enjoy life once in a while? Can’t we once in a blue moon forget about the neighbor we’re supposed to love? Can’t we be ευδαίμονες in addition to μακάριοι once in a while?

The word for a happy man is a combination of the prefix ευ that means good and the noun δαίμων. What is a δαίμων? In the NT and Christian tradition it’s a demon, an evil spirit. But in Ancient Greek it usually referred to the divine spirit in each human being. The ancients would speak of someone’s δαίμων = the spirit that animated his or her life, or the spirit that represented the person’s life and purpose. So, the happy man is ευ-δαίμων = possessing a good spirit that creates happiness in that person.

John 3:16 – a great verse. “ For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But why is the focus always on eternal life? Why can’t I also be happy in this life? The closest that Jesus ever came to saying something like that is when he said “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” Now that’s a statement that an ancient Greek or Roman could relate to. And why in the Beatitudes I can only be μακάριος if I’m poor in spirit, pure in heart, meek, peacemaker, weeping, persecuted? Why can’t I also be μακάριος because I love Mozart? Or because I’m a doctor, or a scientist? Why can’t I be ευδαίμων in addition to μακάριος? Marcus also uses the verb ευζωήσεις in one of his meditations (3.12) – another wonderful verb that means live a good life; ευζωέω = to live well. It was always understood by Marcus and all the other Greek and Roman philosophers that to live well also meant to live virtuously. The happy life was also the good, virtuous life. But it was a happy life nevertheless. And I just wish the NT had once or twice incorporated one or more of the words for happiness. We all need some happiness in our lives.


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Why I love the Bible

Today’s Gospel reading is the last in a series of Gospel readings from Matthew that dazzle me with their judgmentalism and violence. 

Three weeks ago we heard the parable of the unforgiving servant and how the master in the parable threw him and his wife and children into prison for the rest of their lives – an act clearly meant to symbolize eternal damnation. Last week we heard the parable of the wicked tenants with its violent content. Today is the latest in this series of brutal Gospel readings. Brutal because of its violence and because it goes beyond what is needed to tell us about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Luke also has this parable, but without the conclusion where one of the men is thrown out into “the outer darkness” – a symbol of eternal hell. And here is something that needs pointing out. We read Luke’s version every year on the second Sunday before Christmas. Did you hear the last sentence of our reading today: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew has that; Luke does not. But the church added Matthew’s last sentence to Luke’s version that we read in December! (Compare Luke 14:16-24 to Gospel reading of the 11th Sunday of Luke, two Sundays before Christmas, which this year will fall on December 16th.)

Do people like violence and exclusion? Why did the Church add Matthew’s punchline to Luke’s version, where Luke wrote no such thing? Which version is right, Matthew’s version, where a man is thrown out to eternal hell, or Luke’s version, which ends with the gathering of as many people as possible to enter the dinner? Which do you prefer? Would you draw pleasure to see some people thrown out of the Kingdom into eternal damnation? It’s an honest question, and I know many Christians who want to see people in hell! They get eternal life for themselves; and too bad for those others who end up in hell – whatever hell might be.

I’m not trying to re-write the Bible. I don’t need to re-write the Bible, because I take the Bible as it is. It contains words that are inspired by human beings listening to God. But it also contains words inspired by our having to live with people like us – people who often have hateful, violent thoughts right next to thoughts of love and spirit. Have you ever read Psalm 139? It’s beautiful; a long series of life-celebrating affirmations. But something happens along the way. See if you can catch it.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Did you catch that, what happened between verses 18 and 19? But that’s human nature, that’s the human heart. We can speak beautifully to God one moment and then turn with hatred and violence toward our fellow human beings. The Bible is not just God’s words to us; it’s also our words to God! And sometimes our words and our thoughts are not so beautiful. Did Matthew embellish the parable with that epilogue? Why doesn’t Luke have it? I asked similar questions about our other recent Gospel readings. And why did the church take Matthew’s “many are called, few are chosen,” and stick it to the end of Luke’s version, when Luke did not write that sentence?

Now if you are a fundamentalist and you believe that every word in the Bible came straight from the mouth of God, you will recoil that I’m even asking such questions. How dare I?

But here’s a little secret. This is one of the reasons I love the Bible. There are passages I don’t like, but then there are days and things in my life that I don’t like. Life is sometimes ugly, and painful, and life many times brings out the worst in us. So when I turn to Psalm 139 and I come to those words near the end, I take comfort that David wasn’t all that different from me. He also had his days, and the Bible says that God loved him. So perhaps God can love me, even in my worst days. I can be miserable, I can be negative, and still God can love me. Because God’s love is infinitely greater than my offenses.

In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the Feast of the Cross. And then we go back to the beginning, but this time with Luke’s Gospel – a Gospel that seems to be more focused on showing us the ways of compassion and forgiveness. We can only turn to Luke after the Cross; and the Church showed great wisdom in going to readings from Luke after the Elevation of the Cross. The cross of Jesus Christ is where forgiveness came into the world; where the compassion of God was most starkly revealed; where God’s love transcends all the hatred in the world. God is amazing, and the Bible is his amazing book – and our amazing, honest book!