That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Hebrews (page 2 of 5)

Faith, Hope, and Charity – Sermon for Pentecost 22 (25 October 2015)

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A sermon offered on Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25B, Track 1, RCL), October 25, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Job 42:1-6,10-17, Psalm 34:1-8, Hebrews 7:23-28; and Mark 10:46-52. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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Faith-Hope-CharityLast week, I gave away the ending of Job. I told you that everything turned out all right in the end, and so it has. Job has repented, not of any sin that warranted his suffering, but of the pride and arrogance (and ignorance) he displayed during his suffering by demanding to confront God. God has forgiven him and to make up for all his loss, his fortunes have been restored many times over. Happy ending! Except not quite . . .

I’ll come back to Job in a minute, but first I want to look at a petition in today’s opening collect and then at the gospel story. The petition is this: “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.” The gospel story is the restoration of sight to blind Bartimaeus to whom Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

What is “faith,” the first of the theological virtues our prayer asks of God and the active agent in healing Bartimaeus? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) Faith is sometimes equated with belief, and in an ancient way that is true but in the modern sense of the word “belief,” that is a misleading equation.

In contemporary English, “belief” is understood to be an opinion or judgment of which the believer is fully persuaded, or alternatively it is considered intellectual assent to a factual assertion. By some it is derided as a false alternative to scientific certainty: one is said to believe that which cannot be proven, but to know that which is made evident by factual data. That’s a false dichotomy, but not one I want to debate this morning. For the moment, let’s accept the notion that belief is assent to an opinion, judgment, or assertion. This may be the first step of faith for, as Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Romans, “faith comes from what is heard,” (Rom 10:17a), through acceptance of assertions. However, faith must be more than that.

In the Epistle of James, we are reminded that such faith, faith which consists only of belief, “by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” (Jm 2:17) and Paul would seem to agree with that when, in his letter to the Galatians, he writes that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6b, emphasis added)

So, then, faith is not simply the same as belief (as belief is currently understood). Faith is belief plus action. This is in accord with the New Testament understanding of faith; remember that our New Testament was written in Greek and the word we translate as “faith” is pistis, a verb. From a New Testament perspective, faith is not a noun, an object or substance which one has; faith is a verb, an action which one does. But is it more? Is there another element of faith.

I suggest to you that there is and we find that element in the original meaning of the word “belief.” Our word “belief” derives from the same root as our word “beloved,” and in original meaning as more the sense of “confidence” or “trust” than of intellectual assent. It means to give one’s heart to the object of one’s belief.

Faith then is belief plus action plus confidence, and it was faith such as this which led blind Bartimaeus to throw off his cloak and cry out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Even when those around him would silence him, this faith made him yell even more loudly. This is the faith which our opening prayer asks God to increase in us: not our assurance of the rectitude of some factual assertion made (for example) in the Nicene Creed, but that belief given shape in action and that action undertaken with confidence, and confidence (the Letter to the Hebrews tells us) belongs to hope (Heb 3:6), which is the second theological virtue in our petition to God this morning.

Did you know that we have iconic depictions of the theological virtues in our stained glass windows? Look to the back of the church over the entrance doors. Below the circular rose window are the figures of three women. One holds a cross; one, an anchor; and one, loaves of bread. The figure with the cross is the depiction of Faith. Next to her is the figure holding the anchor of Hope. Which brings us back to Job.

We are, as I mentioned earlier, at the end of the story and everything has turned out all right. Job confesses that he has been arrogant and prideful in demanding a hearing before God; he is healed of his loathsome sores, reconciled to God, and rewarded with an abundance of wealth and family and comfort.

Once again, however, the lectionary leaves something out. Between verse 6, the end of his confession, and verse 10, which begins the description of his reward, God addresses Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. God says, “My wrath is kindled against you . . . ; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (v. 7)

What is the difference between Job and these other three? The answer is, “Hope.” Throughout his ordeal, despite his pride, despite his arrogant demand that God present himself, despite his denials of any sin, Job has steadfastly maintained his hope in the justice of God. His friends have counseled him to admit to wrongdoing that even they are not sure he has done; they have advised him to just give up. They have given up hope, but Job has not.

What is “hope”? Well, that’s a good question. St. Paul wrote a lot about hope in his various letters, but he never really defines it. He comes closest to doing so in the Letter to Romans in which he writes: “[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Rm 5:3-5) And then later in the same letter he says, “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rm 8:24-25)

Theologically, hope is the “virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (C.C.C., 2nd Ed., 1997, Para. 1817)

Hope is not optimism. Optimism claims everything will be good despite all evidence of reality to the contrary; pessimism denies even the possibility of good because of present evidence. The nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.”

Optimism can be defeated by reality. Pessimism revels in reality but defeats itself. Hope, like optimism, expects the good. Hope, like pessimism, accepts reality. Hope does not deny the poverty of spirit that underlies fear, the sinfulness that underlies all tragedy, and the evil that causes systemic inertia. Hope, however, has a trump card – the capacity of the human heart. When reality grinds optimism down and reduces pessimism to a self-defeating smugness, hope will go toe-to-toe with reality because the heart’s capacity to love refuses to quit. This is why the letter to the Hebrews describes hope as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19) and why the iconic figure of Hope holds an anchor.

This is the steadfastness that our opening prayer seeks from God.

The last of the theological virtues for which we have prayed is Charity, who is depicted in our window as a woman distributing bread to hungry children. Theologically, Charity is the “virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (C.C.C., Para. 1822) Interestingly, though, we almost never read of charity in our English language bibles. In the New Revised Standard Version, the word “charity” appears only five times and four of those are in the Apocrypha; in the canonical scriptures, the word appears only in the book of Acts. In the Authorized or “King James” version it appears 24 times, more than a third of those in one book, St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians from which you will (I’m sure) recognize these words:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth . . . . (1 Cor 13:108a)

In our modern translation we have changed the word “charity” to “love” and that bit of First Corinthians has become very popular at weddings, but it’s not about romantic love at all. It is about something much different. You know (you’ve heard it here before!) that the word in the original Greek is agape, which refers to selfless love. This is the love that one extends to all people, whether family members or distant strangers; it is the according of human dignity to everyone, simply because they are human. Agape was translated by St Jerome into the Latin word caritas, which is the origin of our word “charity.” C.S. Lewis referred to it as “gift love” and described it as the highest form of Christian love. But it is not solely a Christian concept; it appears in other religious traditions, such as the idea of metta or “universal loving kindness” in Buddhism.

Charity, agape, is not simply love generated by an impulse emotion. Instead, charity, agape, is an exercise of the will, a deliberate choice. This is why Jesus can command us to love one another as he loves us, to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves. God is not commanding us to have a good feeling for these others, but to act in charity, in “gift love,” in self-giving agape toward them. Charity, agape, is matter of commitment and obedience, not of feeling or emotion. When Paul admonishes Christians in the Letter to the Ephesians to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,” offering himself (as our reading from Hebrews says) “once for all,” it is precisely this kind of self-sacrificing love, Charity, agape, to which we are called.

When the Resurrected Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, the first two times the word is agape. “Peter,” Jesus is asking, “are you willing to do things for my sake that you do not want to do?” This is the sort of love, of Charity, that is depicted in our third iconic window, the woman giving bread to poor and hungry children, love which leads us to give sacrificially.

The contemporary hymn writer John Bell, a Scotsman affiliated with the Iona Community, has written a beautiful song entitled The Summons which I wish I had the voice to sing to you. I don’t, so you don’t want me to sing it, but please listen as I read the lyrics. I believe these words perfectly describe the sort of Charity our opening prayer asks God to increase in us:

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer pray’r
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the pris’ners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

We have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of faith – faith like Bartimaeus’s, belief given shape by action undertaken in confidence which is sustained by hope. We have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of hope – hope like Job’s, the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul not crushed by the suffering of the present sustained by the heart’s capacity to love and the assurance that in end all will make sense. And we have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of charity – the agape love commanded and demonstrated by Christ who gave himself once for all which leads us to give sacrificially.

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Cor 13:13) May Christ’s charity move and live and grow in us and we in him. Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Blood sacrifice? Oh, how I wish not . . . . – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Epistle lesson for Saturday in the week of Easter 7
Hebrews 9
11 When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation),
12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified,
14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Oh, how I wish that the author of Hebrews and his fellow New Testament writers had steered away from the language of blood sacrifice! I know that they were trying to make sense of the death of Jesus and to make sense, somehow, of the earthly death of the one they believed to be the Messiah within the framework of the foundational Jewish faith. If they had to portray Jesus’ execution as a religious sacrifice, could they not have rested their argument on the observation of the Psalmist rather than the practice of the Temple priesthood? Could they not have remembered, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:17) And again, “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. This will please the Lord more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs. Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive. For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.” (Ps 69:30-33) Couldn’t they have looked to Isaiah’s prophecy recalling the psalms, “Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Is 57:15) They could have, but they didn’t. The language of blood sacrifice made sense to them in their time and place, and they left it up to us to make sense of it in our time and place. We must read it together with the Psalms and Isaiah’s prophecy, and understand it and Christ’s death in ways that illuminate our lives today. We can read it as metaphor; we can read it as the language of a former age; we can interpret it how we may; but we cannot reject it, as uncomfortable as we may be with it. But, oh, how I wish they had steered away from it!

What Is Lent All About? – Sermon for Lent 1, 2015

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A sermon offered on the First Sunday in Lent, February 22, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; and Mark 1:9-15. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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God the Father and Holy SpiritWhat is Lent all about?

Some say it’s a time when we are supposed to find the presence of God in everyday life. Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, suggested as much in his 2015 Ash Wednesday meditation when he said, “Lent is a time to get to know God better.” Similarly, an interdenominational Lenten devotional refers to Lent as a “journey [on which] you seek – and find – God.”

That’s one way to think about Lent. But that way isn’t working for me this year, especially as I contemplate Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and its aftermath. If in our Lenten discipline we are to be, in some way, doing what a Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says — “keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast” — then we should pay particular attention to what really was going on there and seek to do during Lent what seems to be going on with Jesus in the wilderness.

Let’s look at Mark’s spare and barebones description of it all again. It’s a short Gospel text, so let’s read it in full one more time:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

OK. It doesn’t seem to me that Jesus needed to look for God! God is always there (which is the promise of the story of the rainbow in today’s Genesis reading) and the presence of God is very apparent in these first few lines of this Gospel story. The Holy Spirit (the Third Person of the Trinity) doesn’t just make a polite visit here; she’s not just gliding in here or fluttering by. No! The heavens, Mark says, were “torn apart” and the Spirit (in the form of a dove) came diving done like some eagle homing in on its prey! And there’s a bit of a mistranslation here, as well; the English translation we read says the Spirit descended “on” Jesus but the Greek makes more sense if we read it as saying that the Spirit came down into Jesus.

This really is an active, even violent description, that Mark has laid out for us. Jesus doesn’t just emerge from the water like someone stepping carefully out of a swimming pool; the Greek is “euthus anabainon” – Jesus “immediately ascended” out of the water; like a whale breaching the surface of the sea. And the Spirit, having torn the heaven’s apart, “katabainon eis auton“, dives down into Jesus. Rapid movement up is met with rapid movement down, a collision of the Son and the Spirit. This dove dove deep into Jesus; Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit.

And, of course, God the Father (First Person of the Trinity) is right there as well, fairly shouting, “You’re my son! I love you! I’m please as punch with you!” Jesus doesn’t need to go on any journey to find this God; he doesn’t need any time to get to know this God any better!

So what happens next?

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

Mark continues his energetic, and here overtly violent, description of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit. There’s a sense here that Jesus is not a willing volunteer; the Spirit is making no polite suggestion that Jesus go spend a few days in the desert so that he can know “the presence of God in everyday life.” No! Jesus is prodded, herded, pushed, forced, driven out into the rough country to cozy up to the wild beasts.

Why? What was he to do out there?

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Peiradzomenos hupo tou satana” reads the Greek: literally, “he was tested by the tempter.” Our English translation eliminates the definite article that is clearly there in the Greek, “the satan,” the tempter, and then capitalizes “satan” thus personalizing this tempter and, in fact, makes us think of the Devil of later Christian poetic mythology. But who else might the tempter have been?

“Sometimes we are devils to ourselves, when we will tempt the frailty of our powers, presuming on their changeful potency,” wrote William Shakespeare in the play Troilus and Cressida (Troilus speaking to Cressida and Aeneas, Act IV, scene 4). “The devil tempts us not — ’tis we tempt him….” wrote George Eliot in her 19th Century novel Felix Holt, the Radical.

Could it be that the temptations Jesus faced were those he put before himself? We certainly put enough temptations in front of ourselves; we are, more often than not, our own tempters. Could it be that Jesus’ tempter was his own human self? Scripture reminds us (and the Lenten preface of our Eucharistic prayer repeats) that in Jesus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) Could it be that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to confront himself, to learn about himself?

If Lent is not a journey to find God, could it be journey to find ourselves? It could indeed! Lent, it has been said, is a period of self-discovery in which we encounter the parts of ourselves we don’t want to discover. If Jesus was made to spend time in the desert to learn about himself, then such self-discovery during this season surely would be, as Gregory’s great Lenten hymn proclaims, a reminder that “though frail we be, in [God’s] own image were we made.” Lent is a time to find ourselves, a time to reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. This is surely what those forty days in the desert were for Jesus, as Mark demonstrates when he concludes this brief story with these words:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

At the end of his 40 days with the wild beasts, Jesus knew who he was and what he was about. What can we do, then, to experience a similar self-revelation? How can we reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are to get there?

What we can do is to engage in a Lenten discipline, a rule-of-life for these 40 days. I plan to adopt a program set out several years ago by a famous bishop of Rome. It is known as “the daily decalogue of Pope John XXIII.” I plan to use it as a Lenten spiritual exercise to be renewed and lived out each day. As its name implies, it has ten parts:

  1. Only for today, I will seek to live the live-long day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
  2. Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
  3. Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
  4. Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
  5. Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
  6. Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
  7. Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
  8. Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
  9. Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
  10. Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.

I hope that through this daily wilderness exercise of prayer, fasting, and discipline I will find myself, even those parts of me that I don’t want to discover.

May your Lent, too, be a wilderness time of self-discovery. Remember, you don’t need to look for God; God is always there. This Lent, look for yourself. Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Playing to an Empty Theater – From the Daily Office – May 28, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
subjecting all things under their feet.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 2:5-8a – May 29, 2014 – Ascension Day)

Empty TheaterI cannot read these verses of Hebrews (nor the verses of Psalm 8 which the author quotes) without thinking of Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither . . . . (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II. Scene II)

Hamlet may not have delighted in humankind, but the story of Jesus and the witness of Scripture (Old and New) assure us that God does. With all our flaws and foibles, God loves the human race. (There are days when I wonder what that says about God, but the Feast of the Ascension is not one of them.) On this feast, we are assured that God loves us so much that God “crowns us with glory and honor.” We read not only this assurance in the Letter to the Hebrews, but also in the vision recorded in the Book of Daniel:

As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
(Dan 7:13-14)

As I read today’s lessons I am saddened that this Feast is so ignored by the Church. It passes by and our members never even think about it, if they even know of it. In the Sunday rota it is noted only as the day after which the Seventh Sunday of Easter comes: that’s how next Sunday’s collect is titled in The Book of Common Prayer, “Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day.” Kind of sad, because the Ascension really is the last event, the last scene of the last act of the great drama which is “the Christ event.” Fortunately, this year (Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary) we will hear the story of the Ascension from the Book of Acts on Sunday morning; this is not the case in the other two years of the rotation.

If the Incarnation (meaning the whole of Jesus’ earthly being) were viewed as a stage play, the drama of salvation would be seen in this way: Act One — In the Nativity, God becomes a human being offering great promise to humankind. Act Two — In the life of Jesus, God fully enters human existence in all its aspects making clearer the meaning of the promise. Act Three — In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God defeats death and opens the way of eternal life to all human beings setting the scene for fulfillment of the promise. Act Four — In the Ascension, a human being becomes God bringing the promise of the Nativity revealed Act One to fruition. (Pentecost and all that follows it are the epilogue, just as the story of Israel and the words and works of the Prophets are the prologue.)

The Ascension is the denouement of the entire story but, unfortunately, most of the audience, thinking the play concluded, left after Act Three; some may even have left in the middle of that act. The climax of the drama plays out to a largely empty theater.

One of the Episcopal Church’s collects for today says: “We believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend.” (BCP 1979, page 226) I think this prayer gets it slightly wrong. Our ascension with Jesus, I believe, is not a future thing that we “may” later attain. Rather, in Jesus’ Ascension we all have already ascended. God has already seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus; our ascension is not so much an experience to be attained, but a reality to be experienced. As St. Athanasius famously put it, “God became man that man might become God.” In the Ascension of Jesus, this theosis (deification) has already happened.

What a piece of work is humankind! Crowned with glory and honor. Given dominion and glory and kingship that shall not pass away. It’s sad that on the feast day that acknowledges this the theater is largely empty; the climax of the drama of redemption passes by largely unnoticed.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Psalms Are Not Science – From the Daily Office – May 17, 2014

From Book of Psalms:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
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.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 139:13-16 (NRSV) – May 17, 2014)

Human FetusLet me make one thing clear: I do not want to get into the abortion debate! I never want to get into the abortion debate!

Whether and when to end a pregnancy is a personal and painful decision, one which I believe is ultimately to be made by one person, the pregnant one. Others may offer her advice and counsel, but when it comes right down to it no one other than her has any business making the decision. Abortion should not be a debate; it should be a private, medical decision by one person.

But I find myself rather frequently pummeled by those who do want to get into the abortion debate, beaten over the head by one side or the other with their particular arguments — most often, I must admit, by the so-called “Pro-Life” side. As a Christian pastor, I get mail, emails, and phone calls from (mostly) the anti-abortionists encouraging me to support their current efforts to restrict access to medically supervised termination of pregnancy.

And nearly every piece of literature they provide includes somewhere the assertion that “human life begins at conception.” And very often that statement is coupled with a citation to this part of Psalm 138.

So let’s make another thing clear: the psalms are not science. The Psalter is poetry and metaphor; the purpose of the psalms is primarily to praise God and secondarily to teach God’s people that the Almighty is to be praised because of the intimacy with which God loves us. These verses simply do not mean that God creates the inmost parts or the unformed substance of every fetus in every womb; nor do they address the issue of when human life begins! Even taken literally, all that this psalm is saying is that God made plans for David; it has nothing to do with when David’s, or any, life began or begins.

That is, basically, what the entire abortion controversy boils down to: when does human life begin? When does a fertilized ovum become a human person? That is a question with so many dimensions — theological, legal, moral, scientific, medical, spiritual, and more — that I’m not sure I can count them!

What I notice about these verses today is that all they name are the physical parts of the body: inmost parts, frame, substance. The spiritual aspect of human life is not mentioned; there is no thought given here to the soul, the spirit, the breath.

In Jewish and Christian theology a human person is only a human person when there is unity of the physical body with the spirit. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew noun nephesh is often translated as “soul,” but it is most often found in combination with adjective hayyah, meaning “living” or “alive.” In combination, the two are rendered “living being” or “soul alive,” but perhaps the best translation is “person.” There is human personhood only when there is both physical body and living spirit.

So when do they come together? The technical theological term is ensoulment. To ask “When does human life begin?” is to ask when ensoulment occurs.

In Jewish tradition, a baby is not considered to be a human person until its head emerges from the birth canal. According to the Talmud, “the fetus is the thigh of its mother,” which means that it is not considered an independent person until after birth. Indeed, some medieval Jewish sages held a child was not a bar kayyama or “lasting being,” i.e., a viable human being, until a month after being born. Obviously, traditional Jewish law and medieval Jewish wisdom did not give Psalm 138 the meaning our contemporary “Pro-Lifers” give it.

Christian tradition has been all over the board on the question.

Some sects (Mormons, for example — and another debate I don’t want to get into is whether members of the Latter-Day Saints are Christians) believe that the soul pre-exists the body, that God has parented or created numerous “spirit children” who await physical bodies in this world.

Some of the earliest theologians, e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Gregory of Nyssa, taught that the egg and the sperm each carried a soul derived from the souls of the mother and the father, and that at conception these two proto-souls merged to form a new and distinct soul. This theory, called traducianism, is a direct and necessary development of the doctrine of Original Sin, which teaches that our sinful nature is passed from parent to child via concupiscence (sexual desire) and its (sinful?) satisfaction.

Interestingly, Augustine, who was responsible for much of the formulation of Original Sin, rejected traducianism; he favored what came to be known as Creationism, which is not the creationism which today does battle with evolutionary science.

Traducianism was rejected by the theologians of the Middle Ages — Thomas Aquinas, especially — and in favor of creationism. This view, based in part on Genesis 2:7 (“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”) and Hebrews 12:9 (which distinguishes between our “human parents” and God who is the “Father of spirits”), holds that while the body is formed gradually the soul is directly created by God and enters the body when it is ready to receive it (a determination made by God).

Creationism was the accepted teaching of the church from the Fifth Century on . . . until recent times. In fact, from the late Middle Ages until the end of the 19th Century, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (and the generally accepted position of most of Christianity) was that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of “quickening,” when the mother first feels movement.

So when does the soul enter the physical body? When does a fertilized ovum become a human person?

I don’t know.

Years ago I sat on a panel discussing abortion law and religion with an older colleague from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He made this statement which I will never forget: “I would rather counsel a woman about legal abortion than bury a woman who’s resorted to an illegal one. And I’ve done both.” I have had to do the former, both before and after the procedure; that’s why I know so much (and so little) about this theology. Fortunately, unlike my colleague, I’ve not had to do the latter and I hope I never will.

I don’t know when “human life” begins, but I do know this: I do not want to get into the abortion debate, ever, even though I am often forced to. And I know this: abortion is a private, personal, and painful decision which is ultimately to be made by only one person, the pregnant one. And I know this: the psalms are not science.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Jesus’ Cellphone – From the Daily Office – March 27, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 6:45-46 (NRSV) – March 27, 2014.)

Jesus with CellphoneJesus sure spends a lot of time on mountains! And I can understand why. They are generally inaccessible to all but the most determined making them the perfect place for someone who needs a little “down” time, a little bit of “I’m exhausted by all of this and need to recharge” time, a little “leave me be for a while” time.

It may be cynical of me, but my first thought reading these two verses was, “I hope he remembered to turn off his cellphone.” I have learned that lesson well, even though I sometimes fail to follow my own advice and answer the phone on my day away from church business and usually regret it when I do.

Why is it that we take little note of, and often ignore, these last two verses of the story of the feeding of the 5,000? When Matthew’s version of the tale is used in the Sunday readings (as Proper 13 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary), his similar statement is cut off from it:

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. (Matt 14:22-23)

Luke does not mention Jesus’ behavior after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but neither Luke’s nor Mark’s versions are read in the Sunday rotation. John’s version ascribes a motive other than prayer to Jesus’ climbing the mountain: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15, RCL Year B, Proper 12)

I don’t give John’s political twist much credence. It may be that people wanted to “make him king,” after all the Jews were anticipating that sort of Messiah, but I suspect that exhaustion and the need for privacy were much bigger motives for Jesus at the moment.

When in public worship we end the story with the report that “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matt. 14:21, cf. Mk. 6:44), we get an incomplete picture of Jesus. And John’s “I don’t want to be king” motivation for his departure just makes it worse! He becomes a superman who does incredible miraculous things with little or no effort and with no cost to himself, and then (like some super-spy) thwarts the political designs of the ignorant and ill-informed; as a model for life or ministry, he is an impossible paradigm. Being Christ-like becomes an impossible task beyond the ken of mortal human beings.

But what if we include these two verses, this post-script about depleted reserves, this acknowledgement of Jesus’ weariness and need to replenish? What a richer, more nuanced vision we are given! Jesus becomes a much more accessible savior! He truly is seen to be (as the writer of the Letter to Hebrews insisted) someone who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses . . . in every respect . . . as we are.” (Heb. 4:15) He is seen as a model of healthy ministry, of self-care following service to others. We see him as someone who really would turn off his cellphone!

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Carrying Our Mat – From the Daily Office – March 14, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

Some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 2:3-5 (NRSV) – March 13, 2014.)

Paralytic Lowered Through the RoofIt’s a familiar story. A paralyzed man on a pallet comes to Jesus carried by his friends. They can’t get by the crowd, so they cut a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus is staying. (The first verse of the chapter says “he was at home” in Capernaum. That’s an interesting thing to say of someone who “has nowhere to lay his head,” [Matt. 8:20] but I don’t want to be distracted by that this morning.) The man on his mat is lowered through the hole and Jesus heals him. A pretty straightforward story of a miracle healing.

Except for one thing. In every other story that I can think of it is the faith of the sick person that Jesus witnesses or credits with accomplishing (or at least setting up) their healing. In this story, it is “their faith,” the faith of the paralytic’s friends (perhaps his, as well, but the Greek taken in context is clearly plural).

We live in a world in which the besetting sin is individualism. Our (Episcopal Church) Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, has commented that she believes the notion of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is “the great Western heresy—that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.” In her opening statement to the General Convention of 2009, she went on to say, “It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being.” Jesus attention to the faith of the paralytic’s community, not simply his personal faith underscores the communal nature of the Christian creed.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews touched on this in the Daily Office epistle lesson for Ash Wednesday when he noted that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” and suggested by way of admonition that this allows us to “run with perserverance the race that is set before us.” (Heb. 12:1) Any of us alone cannot be in right relationship with God; we are surrounded and supported by the community of faith. The writer of Hebrews also emphasized the community in the next verse when he said of Jesus that he is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (12:2)

This is why the Nicene Creed was originally written as a “We believe . . . .” statement. Made personal as an “I believe . . . .” creed in Latin and then in English, it is now properly translated in the current Episcopal Church prayer book. It is a statement of the faith of the community, not that of any one individual. (The Apostle’s Creed, on the other hand, is a personal statement of faith made by the individual especially in connection with his or her baptism.)

When we recite the Nicene Creed together in worship, we are all standing on the roof of the house lowering the paralytic to the floor beneath where Jesus can heal him or her. We are also the paralytic on the pallet. Our voices united are the ropes and the Creed, “the sufficient statement of the Christian faith” as Anglicans call it, is our mat. Jesus bids us to stand up and carry our mat for all to see: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Tedious Temptations – From the Daily Office – March 10, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 1:12-13 (NRSV) – March 10, 2014.)

Procrastination Cartoon by Dave WalkerJesus’ time of temptation in the desert is related by each of the Synoptic Gospels. Luke and Matthew give us a detailed account, noting that Satan tries to get Jesus to (a) turn stones into bread, (b) throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple so as to demonstrate his power over the angels, and (c) worship Satan who promises him world domination. (We heard Matthew’s version on Sunday morning.)

Mark is typically terse giving none of those details: Jesus “was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.” I prefer Mark’s version. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says of Jesus that he “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15) It’s Mark’s Jesus that the writer is talking about.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Jesus faced temptations I will never face: I know darned good and well that I can’t eat rocks nor make them into anything edible no matter how hard I try; I’m much too afraid of heights to even get to the top of a church steeple let alone be tempted to some daredevil base-jumping stunt; and no one is ever going to suggest that I become a world dictator. My temptations are of a much more pedestrian sort.

I often face the temptation to sit on my butt and do nothing; faced with an onerous task, or a boring one, or just a mildly unpleasant one, I will be tempted to turn away from it for something more enjoyable. Mark’s Jesus might have thought about (I think probably did consider) that possibility out there “with the wild beasts.” Then there’s procrastination, the simply putting off of something until it just has to be done; maybe that’s why Mark’s Jesus was out there for forty days, just putting off doing what he knew he had to do. And there are so many more . . . the prosaic and unexciting tests of everyday existence.

By not getting into too much detail Mark lets us believe, Mark encourages us to believe, that Jesus is with us in those. That’s my Jesus, Mark’s Jesus, the one who in every respect was tested as I am, who faced the tedious temptations and didn’t give in.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Temporary Reminder – From the Daily Office – March 5, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . . .

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 12:1 (NRSV) – March 5, 2014.)

Ashes on a ForeheadMany years ago, when I was a child growing up in Las Vegas, Nevada, my dad and I went fishing on Lake Mead. I was five years old, but already a pretty good swimmer. After we’d caught a few bass, we decided to go swimming.

I think we must have been somewhere near one of the marinas, because some time during that swim I encountered a slick of oil or motor fuel and found myself coated with a smell film of petroleum distillate of some sort. I tried several times to rinse it off, but once it got on my skin, it wasn’t coming off. My dad and I ruined a couple of my mother’s towels wiping it off, but it didn’t really wipe off.

On the drive home (the seat in my dad’s Thunderbird protected by another of my mom’s towels), the stuff dried, my skin got sticky and kind of stiff feeling. At home, my mother scrubbed me until my skin burned, but that petroleum odor still seemed to stick around for days – other people couldn’t smell it, but I sure could.

When I read this verse of the letter to the Hebrews, I think of that oily stuff — “the sin that clings so closely” — no matter how much rinsing, how much wiping, how much scrubbing, it’s still there. Others may not see it, but we can feel it. Others may not see it, but we can smell it. We know it’s there! The author of the letter encourages us to “lay it aside,” but that is easier said than done. On our own, we can’t lay it aside; we can’t rinse, wipe, or scrub it off. It is permanent! . . . Or is it?

Today is the Day of Ashes, that Wednesday forty days before Easter when we symbolize that sin and our own mortality with a smudge of oily ash on our foreheads — in the same place where the priest at our baptism or the bishop at our confirmation places a cross of oil marking us a Christ’s own, we are marked again with a reminder that we are nonetheless soiled by sin and liable unto death . . . Or are we?

The chrism, the holy oil marking us as an adopted child of God, is there first. Like a shield or a protective skin, it guards us from being permanently stained. Because of that protective buffer (what St. Paul might have called “the armor of light” — Romans 13:12 — or even “the whole armor of God” — Ephesians 6:11) the sin which clings so closely is not permanent; we are not permanently soiled and liable to death! Through the power of Christ, that sin can be set aside.

The smudge is merely a temporary reminder, not a permanent stain.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Dancing Shoes – From the Daily Office – February 10, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 13:2 (NRSV) – February 10, 2014.)

Dancing AngelThe writer of the Letter to Hebrews, of course, is making a tangential reference to Abraham’s experience at the oaks of Mamre when he entertained three “men” who turned out to be “angels of the Lord.” (Gen. 18)

The ministry of hospitality in the church is a subject of constant discussion. How do we make the stranger among us, the visitor, the newcomer, the seeker, welcome? How do we encourage them to make a connection with our church? How do we incorporate them into our fellowship?

These are important questions and there is never a final answer. The task of being a gracious host and, more importantly, the work of welcoming others as Christ would have welcomed them is never done and we can always get better at it.

However, I don’t believe the writer of this letter is addressing the issue of church growth. I’m not even all that sure he is talking about how we, collectively, as the church practice Sunday morning hospitality. I think he or she is simply giving advice about every day living, about how we interact with . . . well . . . everyone!

A few years ago I read a humorous article about hospitality in a Christian publication. The author had asked Sunday School children how they would obey this verse, how they would prepare to entertain angels. One youngster said that he would be sure that his house was clean and that there was a pot of potatoes in the oven. I think he may have been Irish. Another said that she would be sure to have on her dancing shoes. She may have been Irish, too.

I love that response! It’s great advice: prepare to dance! Some years ago I used to like to line dance at a particular country western saloon. I’m not a big fan of a lot of country western music, but the pieces you can line dance to, I kinda like. Back then one of the popular tunes for line dancing was a song by John Michael Montgomery entitled Life’s a Dance. The chorus went

Life’s a dance you learn as you go.
Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.
Don’t worry about what you don’t know.
Life’s a dance you learn as you go.

Prepare to dance! Prepare for life! Prepare to entertain angels . . . . G.K. Chesterton is supposed to have said that the reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly. When they come into your life, they’ll sweep you off your feet and you’ll be dancing amongst the clouds. Be sure to have on your dancing shoes.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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