Saturday, February 21, 2015

The widow at Nain

Only Luke's gospel contains this wonderful story of Jesus:

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

We may find a number of wonderful truths in this passage. I want to focus on three: first, that Jesus has compassion; second, that Jesus has compassion for women; and third, that Jesus has compassion for mothers.

In the first place, Jesus has compassion. We find here that Jesus acts out of compassion for a widow whose situation was dire indeed. This ought to motivate us to think of God as acting compassionately, feeling for the creation and for its suffering and pain. Some preachers and theologians talk about God as if what he were primarily concerned for in everything is his own glory. I don't need to name names; I am sure you can think of such persons. My conviction is that this way of thinking is poorly mistaken, from the perspective both of Scripture and from church tradition.

The scriptures depict God from the beginning as acting out of unconcerned, disinterested, selfless goodness towards the world he has created. In Genesis, we find that God creates everything in order, each in its proper place, and commands all the animals and the creation to flourish and to do well. He has no expectations of any of it; he has no needs to be satisfied by them. Moreover, when he sees that the man he created is alone, he notices that it is not good and sets out to create a proper helper for him. This is in stark contrast to Babylonian creation mythology, according to which humanity was created to solve a divine labor dispute. Because the lower class laborer gods got tired of their hard work, they started rioting and disrupting the sleep of the upper class divine bourgeoisie. In order to restore the peace, the gods created humanity to do the work of the gods. On this view of things, humanity is a means to some other divine end; but in Genesis, the world and humans within it are created for their own sake, to flourish and to enjoy life with God. More than that, humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, so as to display this same selfless abundant goodness and benevolence towards the creation under its dominion.

More than that, church tradition is rife with talk of God's φιλανθρωπία, God's love for humanity. Gregory of Nyssa says that the Logos took on human flesh and saved humanity out of his love for humanity. Likewise Eusebius says, The Savior of the whole world, who loves humanity [φιλάνθρωπος], having liberated the souls of the human beings from death . . . removed every tear from every face . . . impeding the perdition of so many souls because of his love for humanity (quoted in Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, p. 320). Indeed, when Athanasius describes basic Christian doctrine in his On the Incarnation, you never hear him reference divine wrath nor concern for divine glory as motivation for his salvific work, but only ever the love of God for humanity and his goodness. The ancient Christian theologians would say that God is a philanthropist! He loves humankind!

Finally, we see here in this passage that Jesus Christ has compassion for the widow whose son has died. The Greek word here is σπλαγχνίζομαι, which refers to a feeling in one's bowels. When he sees the pain and the tears of the woman crying over her son's dead body, it hits him right in the gut, like it would affect any one of us who have a heart and who stumbled upon such a scene. It hurts him as much as anyone else when he sees suffering of this sort. So he acts, much like we would in that situation, out of concern for the suffering person. When you feel compassion, you don't need any other reason to act; you simply do it because that is what you know is right. Jesus does exactly like this.

Now why is it important to know that God is compassionate? Because this means that we can pray to him knowing that he is as much bothered by the things which trouble us as we are. He feels our pain, too; and he loves those who suffer even more than we do. So we should approach our compassionate Father all the time in ceaseless prayer, begging his mercy and his action in a world of so much trouble and toil.

More than this, we can see that Jesus has compassion for women. In many societies, women occupy uniquely vulnerable social positions, and there is often little they can do to improve their lives. This widow's situation was doubly dire: in the first place, without a male protector left in her life, she has no economic security for the future; but secondly, even if her neighbors should help her in some way, the whole meaning of her life -- the family which she has come to love and serve -- has been taken away from her. She is now completely alone in the world.

Jesus was aware of her difficulty, and felt compassion for her. He told her, Do not weep. In the same way, he is aware of the struggles and pains of women all over the world. He knows what their problems are, and he knows that their pain is great. But we who are not women ought to learn from him to be sensitive to the needs of others. Jesus has left it to us who are men to listen to the women around us, to hear what they have to say about the way they are treated; more than that, he leaves it to us now, in following his example, to do what we can to help them. We are supposed to say, Do not weep, and do what we can to help the women around us who are suffering in various ways. This is what it would mean to follow Jesus.

But finally, Jesus has compassion for mothers. It may be that we can find ourselves in the various aspects of this story.

Perhaps you are a mother whose son or daughter has died -- not physically, but spiritually. He has abandoned God and the church, and doesn't want to hear anything about the Lord Jesus Christ. This breaks your heart. You remember when you first learned that you were pregnant, the joy that seized your heart in anticipation of the birth of your child. You remember when you gave birth -- it might have been a problematic birth; you nearly gave your life giving life to this child of yours. Think back to the first time you held him in your arms, how small and beautiful he was. He looked a bit like you; you had a little replica of yourself in your hands. You remember the nights spent sleeplessly caring for the child, whether he was crying or sick or whatever it may have been. You remember watching with joy as he grew up, first crawling, then walking, then speaking. You remember how much he loved you, how he would kiss you and give you hugs. You remember when you took him and his siblings to get portraits made, because you wanted reminders of the time when they were young and innocent, and you were the world to them. You remember noticing the beginnings of adolescence, when childish features gave way to more mature contours. You remember feeling unsure about the company he kept, and the friends and circles he frequented. He disregarded what you said, and told you to mind your own business; they're his friends. You remember as he seemed to be increasingly uninterested in knowing anything about the Lord; he doesn't want to go to church anymore. You remember when you first caught him high on drugs, or having committed a crime with his urchin friends, or whatever it may have been. Your heart was broken. You prayed to God and you cried endless rivers of tears for your son. At first it seemed like he felt bad for the pain he caused you, but over time he got increasingly hardened and unconcerned. Again and again you would beg him to change his ways, to turn his life around, but his cold face left no hope. Years pass and the pain in your heart is as heavy as it has ever been; it is never easy to see your child throw his life away in the prime of his youth.

To you, the Lord Jesus Christ says: Do not weep. The Lord loves your son even more than you do, if that were possible. He knows the pain in your heart; he has heard your countless prayers, offered late into the night when everyone else had long since fallen asleep. He knows the tremendous burden you carry in your soul over the salvation of your son. He tells you, Do not weep; cast this burden upon me, and I can carry it for you. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to answer your prayers, because he hears them.

Or perhaps you are not the mother, but the father in the story. You haven't died, but for a long time now you have checked out. The stress and pain and heartache of it all, knowing that your child is throwing away his life, is too great. So you withdraw into yourself, with the exception of the occasional angry remark and deep resentment over your wayward child.

The Lord Jesus Christ gives you an example. You must be a comfort to your aching wife; you have to do what you can to help her in her pain. Jesus felt for the widow in the same you way you feel for your wife -- that pain in your bowels. You must act upon it to comfort her, same as Jesus did.

Or perhaps you are the son, who has been dead for long time now in sin and godlessness. You do your own thing, though it causes such pain and suffering in the family. You don't want to hear about Christ, you don't want to hear about God, you don't want to hear about the church -- all those things are mere obstacles in the way of your enjoying yourself.

To you, the Lord Jesus Christ says: Young man, I say to you, rise! Get up out of the muck and the mire of your sinful way of life. Get up out of your vices and bad habits which have turned you into something less than human, a person so incredibly selfish and incapable of sacrifice for others. Get up out of the quicksand, out of the devil's grip, while you are still in life and while God, with every passing moment, is yet giving you breath. And when you rise, just like the young man in this story, you too will begin to speak. You will tell others about the good that the Lord has done for you, how he healed you and transformed you and changed your life. And the word will spread far and wide, as the salvation of God is made known.

Perhaps, however, you find yourself in none of these characters. Your children are well behaved, or at least too young to be destroying themselves in the ways I've described. You don't have the familial problems other persons do. You are just here at the funeral, watching as a mother carries her dead son out to be buried.

You too must feel for the suffering in their times of pain. You too ought to have that feeling in your gut. You too ought to go and be alongside them in their travail, to wail and moan and to cry to God for their children to return to their senses, to their families, and to God.

Above all else, what we have here in this story is compassion. Compassion is the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ: God, out of his compassion, stooped down to our level and died for our sins, so that we could enjoy life with him; in doing so, he leaves us with an example to follow, so that we can feel for others in their times of difficulty and ease their pain. In everything, we ought to act with compassion, feeling and embodying that same φιλανθρωπία of God which motivates the divine work of salvation. This is what it means to be God, and this is what it means to be truly human -- to be compassionate.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lord, have mercy on ISIS

Sometimes you hear atheists and others object to the language of the imprecatory psalms, claiming that the Bible is this violent, hateful text because of the things contained therein. But when I heard about members of ISIS setting people on fire, kidnapping and beheading Christians from Egypt, and committing all manner of other horrific acts of violence, I suddenly find myself agreeing with David at his darkest moments.

Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers! (Ps 10.15)

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
  and dash them against the rocks! (Ps 137.9)

Add guilt to their guilt,
  may they have no acquittal from you.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living. (Ps 69.27-8)

These are tame expressions of the sentiments that ISIS can provoke; a less pious person would express himself much more coarsely and violently.

So when I heard about the things that ISIS has been doing, I thought to myself: I get it now. ISIS is the modern equivalent of the enemies of David's day, and of the days of the two kingdoms. I can sympathize with Jonah's sentiment that it'd be better to die than to see the Assyrians repent and get off scot-free for their malevolence.

But then I read about Nazis in France who desecrated the tombstones of Jews, painting swastikas upon them. At that moment I realized: it is far easier to hate, and to find reason to live in our hatred, than to live in love. It is far more natural to let your heart be hardened with anger, and to go on throughout your days moved by that anger, than to love and to try to live in love. Loving your enemies, loving the enemies of humanity itself, is contrary to the impulse of every fiber of our being, contrary to our very nature which cries out for their death.

But doesn't the Bible teach us that our nature is corrupt, not as it should be, and that our hearts are wicked and deceitful above all else? Didn't Jesus teach us to pray for our enemies and to bless them? How can he expect such a thing of us? Can we really be obligated to do such a thing?

To my mind, the argument is irrefutable: it must be our obligation to do so, precisely because it is so unnatural and contrary to our every impulse. We hear Jesus' words about love and they sound good and fine, so long as we are talking about forgiving petty offenses. Yet we draw back when it comes time to apply them to the case of true offenders, persons who want our lives and our heads. And yet these are precisely the hateful, despicable, miserable sort of creatures who killed Christ, and for whom he died, and to whom he promised the Holy Spirit. That is what the first post I ever published on this blog was about: the promise of the Holy Spirit is for the deicidal.

St. Isaac the Syrian taught me to see in the Scriptures that God is happy for the repentance of even the most heinous of sinners. A lifetime of sin and filth is wiped away forever, forgotten, never to be remembered again, when the sinner turns from his ways and confesses that he has done wrong. God himself is happy to receive any and all, on the slightest and easiest and lightest of conditions. Can Christians be any more demanding than God? Can they cry injustice when God and his angels celebrate the repentance of a sinner?

Every fiber of my being and my moral sense tells me that ISIS is a force of evil which ought to be stopped as quickly as possible. They are evil, they are dirty bastards, and they deserve death for what they do. It seems to me a military expedition with the sole purpose of eradicating that satanic group is eminently justifiable. And yet, I am a Christian and I must pray, even for those bastards, "Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!"

I want them to see the error of their ways. I want them to leave their lives of violence and that godforsaken nonsense they believe, to accept just punishment for what they have done, and to call upon the mercy of Jesus Christ to forgive them, even them. I can't see that things will turn out that way -- I have no idea, in fact, how things will turn out -- but my lack of imagination is no obstacle for God to work.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A theology of preaching

I was asked to write a brief paper developing a theology of preaching for my homiletics course. Because I haven't posted anything in a while, I figured I would share it with whomever manages to stumble across my blog.

What can be said about the theology of preaching? In the same way as a theology of ecology draws from the words of Scripture to discern lessons from God about the proper care of the environment, so also a theology of preaching analyzes the nature of preaching from the point of view of the revelation of God. In fact the preacher is an apostle of God, a woman or man sent to bring the message of God’s salvation or judgment, a message which the apostles themselves brought to us, to some group of people graced to have the concern of God. This great calling comes with incredible responsibilities and duties, as well, and so the preacher must always keep watch over herself; she will never be worthy of the appointment she has received, but she must nevertheless strive to present herself a fitting and worthy servant of the Lord. These, then, are the elements of a theology of preaching: it is an apostolic, evangelical, and ethical.

The metaphor by which the biblical tradition has chosen to describe God’s creative and providential activity is that of speech. “In the beginning was the Word,” the words of God which spoke into darkness, chaos, and disorder, bringing light, order, and life. The author of the opening chapter of Genesis invites us to imagine the creation in this way: the LORD spoke out the imperative, “Fiat lux!”, and there was light (Gen 1.3). Likewise we learn from the psalmist that God “sends out his word” and thus he melts the snow, frost, and hail (Ps 147.16-8). Now this power of effective speech is given to human beings as well, which are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-7). Of course, human beings have long known other animals have methods of communication unique to them—cats meow, cows moo, dogs bark, birds sing. Yet human communication is uniquely powerful, and most closely resembles the creative power of God’s word. With only a word or two, “a great forest is set ablaze by a small fire” (Jas 3.5), or alternatively the weary may be sustained and strengthened (Isa 50.4). The preacher, as one who speaks, is a participant in the divine nature by virtue of his exercise of his communicative faculties. He speaks the word of the Lord, and in this way he may do great good or great harm; he may build up or he may destroy. In all these ways, then, the preacher is a like a little god in the congregation of God’s people: he speaks and the people are formed, either into the image of Christ or else into some other image. Alternatively phrased in a more Eastern vernacular, preaching is a means of theosis, a method used by God for turning mere humans into little gods.

Now it is common to more or less all persons to speak and to communicate. The preacher, on the other hand, is specially chosen by God for the purpose of speaking to his congregation. In this way, preaching is an apostolic exercise, in the sense that the preacher is sent by God to speak out. As Paul writes about Christ, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Eph 4.11-12). All of us have shared painful experiences of discernment, when it became clear to us that someone simply was not called to be a preacher. But not only is the position of the preacher received; he also receives his word from God who sends him: “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer 1.9). Thus the preacher does not speak any old word which comes to him, but those which come from God. The divine origin of a word, moreover, is discerned by its function and its goal: if Paul writes that the gifts were given “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4.12-3), then no word can be from God which aims to accomplish the opposite. The message must be a message about Christ, and so it cannot be anything else but a message from his holy apostles, who have shared him with us. They were witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem (Acts 10.39). If we are to know anything at all about Christ, we must learn it from them, and thus from the Scriptures. But what is the word about Christ which they gave us? This leads us into the second, evangelical element of a theology of preaching.

Now if the preacher is a participant in the divine nature through his speaking God’s word, what kind of word is it that God through his apostles has for the world and for the church? Does the preacher always give a message of hope, or does he have occasional messages of destruction and doom? To my mind, what is important is that a concern for salvation always be present, regardless of the external form of the sermon. At this point our conceptions of the divine nature may differ one from the other. My conviction is this: “[H]is compassion is over all that he has made…. The LORD is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds…. The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (Ps 145.9, 13, 17). It is noted throughout scripture that God’s concern above all is that the world be saved and turn to him. Ezekiel learns that, even if God should say to a person “You shall surely die,” yet these certain and unambiguous words will go unfulfilled if only the person repent and keep from evil (Ezek 33.14-6). Likewise Peter condemns his listeners on the day of Pentecost for the murder of the Son of God himself, and yet answers their subsequent questioning with encouraging words about forgiveness and baptism. Addressing “you that are Israelites” who “crucified and killed [Christ] by the hands of those outside the law,” he says: “the promise [of the Holy Spirit] is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2.22, 23, 39). God’s promise of the Holy Spirit is for the very persons who killed the Son of God. T.F. Torrance wrote that, in light of God’s willingness to give his Son for us, we infer that “God loves us more than he loves himself” (A Passion for Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry, p. 14).  Consequently, even when delivering the fieriest message of judgment, the preacher must always remember that her goal is that of God, “who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2.4). There is a time and place for an unfriendly and unpalatable message of judgment, but God’s goal is always that we be saved, because he does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18.23, 32). He has shown us this through the death of his Son.

The evangelical nature of preaching—namely, that it is concerned for salvation, just as God is himself working to bring all things together in Christ (Eph 1.9-10)—leads naturally into its ethical aspects. Jesus’ repeated condemnations of the hypocritical Pharisees who “do not practice what they preach” (Mt 23.3) should be a warning to all who obey God’s call to share his word with the congregation. It is obvious that our moral exhortations to better living will carry no force if we don’t present ourselves as examples from which others may learn. When the Pharisees object to Jesus’ disciples eating with unwashed hands, he does not even entertain their arguments; rather he engages in scathing polemics, accusing them of abandoning the Law of God through their worthless traditions (Mark 7.1-13). In the same way, no one has any obligation to hear the preacher’s words, if she does not take them seriously herself. But more than that, it seems to me the preacher must engage in his task out of a genuine concern and desire for the salvation of his listeners. Thus he follows the example of the apostles, who said: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1.4). They were not satisfied enjoying the true fellowship of the Father and the Son (v. 3) if there were any excluded from this fellowship; it was not enough for them to have the Holy Trinity, if others should go without. So they wrote and communicated this gospel message with as many as would listen, praying all the while “for the peace of the whole world . . . and for the union of all men,” as sung in the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the same way, the preacher must approach her task and her congregation from a posture of compassion and sincere concern. Her fervent desire ought to be that her listeners be saved. With these qualities, she can “never stumble” (2 Pet 1.10).

Preaching therefore has these different facets. In the first place, it is an apostolic enterprise, insofar as the preacher is chosen and sent by God to preach the message about Christ, received from his holy apostles themselves. Second, it is an evangelical enterprise, because God’s goal in all things (including through the work of the preacher) is to bring all people to salvation. Third, it is an ethical enterprise, because it makes clear ethical demands on the preacher. Of course, there is nothing uniquely preacherly about all these things. All Christians receive the apostolic message and are sent by God to serve Christ in some way or other; all of them are being used by God in some way or other to accomplish God’s goal that all things be brought together in Christ (Eph 1.9-10); all Christians have ethical demands imposed upon them by the Lord. Rather it seems to me that the preacher is a kind of public Christian who is given an opportunity to speak, and others sit and listen to learn from her. The preacher is a Christian who speaks a very special word, and so exercises his God-given ability to shape the world through words in a unique way.

Monday, February 2, 2015

When God's team loses the Super Bowl

The Seattle Seahawks lost the Super Bowl, and for all true fans it was quite the disappointment. There was controversy about the play calling -- for what it's worth, I'm not sure it was a poorly chosen play, so much as simply excellently defended -- and some persons seem to have been quite deeply affected by it all. To my mind, the Seattle Seahawks have the best chances of any team of making another appearance in the big game, since all the major pieces of their offense and defense are still under contract for at least another season. Playing for redemption and revenge will certainly help, too. I don't take this loss too seriously, then; certainly I am not as deeply upset and crushed as I was during the 2006 loss to the Steelers.

I want to consider a theological question in light of the team's loss. What does it mean when God's team loses the Super Bowl?

I made a joke --  okay, a half joke -- on Facebook after the NFC Championship Game that the Seattle Seahawks were clearly God's favorite football team. For this reason they are destined to victory in the Super Bowl, or at least so I thought. It turns out, however, that God's team lost. Does the loss invalidate their election by God, or might it be possible that God wants us to lose at times?

I am not joking about the fact that the Seattle Seahawks are God's team, at least in this sense of the phrase: there are a good number of players on the Hawks, Russell Wilson and others among their ranks, who are (as far as I can tell) believers in God. They thank him for the talents that they have and the opportunities he has given them to make use of them for their own enjoyment, to earn a living, and to bring joy to others. They are convinced that God is an active participant in their games in some way, and they thank God for favorable turns of the game. I know that God loves these players and wishes to conform them to Christ's image even through their experiences as football players.

But it would be naive to think that God's team must always win. A short and cursory read through the Bible would quickly disabuse us of this notion. Very often God's chosen people suffer and face hardships. The prophets find their message rejected by the people, who then go on to kill them. The people of Israel are taken out of slavery in Egypt but suffer hunger and thirst in the desert. Sometimes the evils which befall them are deserved because of sins, and other times there is no such suggestion. Sometimes -- say, in the case of Hannah, the mother of Samuel -- it would seem that God intentionally permits them to undergo hardships and trials because it is a part of his greater plan.

So it is perfectly possible for God's team to lose the Super Bowl. There are lessons to be learned in losses, just as much (if not more!) than in wins. In a loss such as this one, which ended with a brawl after a frustrating interception and an ejection of at least one player, God may have wanted to teach our Seattle Seahawks a bit about character and accepting defeat; he shows them who they are, so they know what they ought to work on. It may be that God wants them to learn to suffer and to hurt, too, and not only to be victorious and conquer, so that they can empathize with others. In light of the imminent birth of Richard Sherman's first son, it may be that God wants him to see things in a different light, on the field and off.

I don't know exactly why God wanted the Seahawks to lose. It may be a different reason for each player. In any case, the point is this: God makes use of losses as much as wins, both in the lives of athletes and in the lives of ordinary Joes such as ourselves, to teach us and to transform us. We ought to look at our losses and failures as opportunities for growth, for learning more about ourselves and where we need to change. Our losses do not mean we do not belong to God; as St. Anthony says, everything happens to us by God's providence, just as it should and for our own sake. We need simply to open our eyes and learn even from losses, though we cannot enjoy them.