Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thanksgiving Offering

“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God.

“And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.

(Deuteronomy 26:1-11 ESV)

The text above from Deut 26 is the Old Testament reading set aside to be read on Thanksgiving day. You may not be familiar with the origins of the observance in the United States. Although it originated long before is Massachusetts, it actually was not until 1863 that it was proclaimed a national holiday. Right in the midst of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln decried that the last Thursday of November be set aside to give thanks for “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

He also wrote, “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

I believe president Lincoln identified a universal human characteristic when he said that we are prone to forget the source of our blessings. Americans today, amidst so much abundance, are prone to take God’s bounty for granted as if our food simply materialized on supermarket shelves. Ancient near eastern people had a much different but equally destructive tendency. While our culture takes food for granted, their culture lived in constant anxiety about whether or not the harvest would come. The Canaanite people that inhabited the promise land that the Israelites were coming into lived in a land of relative plenty and they attributed this to their fertility deities Baal and Asherah.

The perennial temptation of the Israelites when they came into the land would be too look to these deities for the blessing of a good harvest.

I wonder what our modern, American equivalents to Baal and Asherah are?

In our text the Lord reminds his people again and again that he is their God and not only has he given them the land, but he has also called them to be a people, rescued them from Egypt, and sustained them in the wilderness.

After the people come into the land and begin to enjoy its rich blessings, they are told they must acknowledge that what they enjoy is an inheritance from the Lord. This acknowledgement comes in the form of a prescribed liturgy consisting of two statements, and a thanksgiving offering followed by a celebration.

The first statement they are commanded to make is this, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ They have no claim to the land apart from God. It is a sheer gift.

Ancient near eastern people considered the first fruits of the harvest sacred. For this reason, the Lord asks his people to bring them in a basket to his appointed priest at his appointed alter. It is an acknowledgment, a thanksgiving offering to the Lord, who is the source of all their blessings.

The second statement is a kind of creed that proclaims that they were homeless, sojourners in the land of Egypt and oppressed when the Lord lead them out of captivity, making them a people and giving them a rich and fertile land.

Having proclaimed the story of their salvation and election and presented a thanksgiving offering in worship to the Lord, it is time to party! The Levites and even the foreigners are to be included in the celebration. Why?

God has a soft spot for the poor and the homeless. In fact the passage following the one we have read, God commands that a tithe be paid not only to the Levites and the foreigners but also to widows and orphans. Whenever Israel tells their story they are to remember that they were sojourners—‘a wandering Aramean was my father.” When they were enslaved in the land of Egypt, God had pity on them and so they should have pity on the poor and homeless in their midst.

Likewise, we too have wandered far from our father’s house and fallen into the captivity of sin. The Lord had pity on us and sent his son Jesus Christ to rescue and redeem us. Should we not have pity on the lost and oppressed amongst us? Shouldn’t we remember God’s mercy and invite them to celebrate with us God’s sheer gift of grace?

The way we show our gratitude to God for what he has done for us is to do likewise for our neighbor. To use a popular expression of our day, “pay it forward.”

Abraham Lincoln understood this, which is why he concluded his Thanksgiving day proclamation in this way,

Set apart and observe the last Thursday of November, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to (the people of this nation) that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Greatest Amoung You

“Do as I say, not as I do!” You have probably heard that expression before, usually from a father to a son or daughter. When you think about it there is a certain arrogance to that expression. The person is basically saying, “Listen, I haven’t got a leg to stand on as an example but I insist on the right to tell you what is best. I can’t live up to these standards myself, but I expect them of you. I demand absolute respect, not based on my character, but on my position, my authority.

Jesus accuses the Scribes and Pharisees of the same kind of arrogance. Our text reads:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

The Scribes and the Pharisees have a position of honor and authority as stewards and teachers of the law. They are keepers of a great treasure. Jesus recognizes this and commends it to us. “Practice and observe whatever they tell you,” he says.

We too are stewards of a great treasure, the Gospel. What Jesus says about the scribes and Pharisees is very relevant for those who hold positions of leadership and authority in the church, and for those of us who feel called to such positions. With such amazing privilege also comes very serious responsibility. We are called not only to teach what is true but also to live truthfully. The Scribes and Pharisees receive Jesus’ ire because they do not practice what they preach. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus says.

The Scribes and Pharisees have taken what God intended as a means of liberation—God’s laws and statutes—and they have made them into instruments of oppression. They lay heavy burdens on others, but not themselves. They are exacting when it comes to the faults of others, but are blind to their own. This is an extension of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount about first removing the log in one’s own eye before pointing out the speck in one’s brother’s eye.

They have things completely turned around. Instead of hating their own sin and showing grace and mercy to others, they are lovers of themselves while condemning others.

They allow the honor of their authority and the privilege of their position to turn into presumption. They have become proud and lord their power over others.

They do their deeds in order to be seen.

One of the major spiritual pitfalls of ministry is praise and recognition. Others begin to praise the minister as wise, capable, and godly, and as a result the minister becomes puffed up. This is due to our sinful nature. Deep down, we all are aware of our yawning need for forgiveness and blessing. Without an understanding of the Gospel, without the blessed assurance of our reconciliation with God, we are deeply insecure. For this reason, the human heart has an insatiable desire for praise. We make the honor that comes from people a substitute for the honor that comes from God.

The Scribes and the Pharisees seek their own glory above God’s. They exalt themselves and take great pride in receiving titles and honor from people.

This is why Jesus says, “you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”

Jesus doesn’t say this because there is something inherently wrong with the titles themselves. Jesus was fond of hyperbole. In this way, he was very much a man of his time and culture. He doesn’t mean that we should refrain from calling the man who sired us Father, any more than he intends us to literally cut off our hand if it causes us to sin, or refrain from inviting our friends or relatives when we throw a party.

What Jesus is doing is pointing out the titanic arrogance of glorying in these terms of status—rabbi, father, master—without deference to their true source in God. These titles do not properly belong to the Pharisees and neither does the glory. They lack the rabbi’s concern for his disciples, the father’s heart for his children, and Christ’s authority over his people. The scribes and Pharisees stand under God’s authority, shoulder-to-shoulder with the sinners they condemn.

Jesus ends by saying, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus himself is the greatest among us. Indeed the only one truly great. He is the teacher of righteousness and the heart of the father’s love. It is he who is the Christ and he who holds all authority. We can trust in the truth of his teaching, but also the truthfulness of his life. If we aspire to greatness, we should be imitators of him. He humbled himself and therefore he was exalted.

Although he was in the very form of God, he did not cling insecurely to that position, but humbled himself, becoming a servant.

Therefore, as those who seek to be leaders in his church, let that mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. AMEN.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What is The New Church?

In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell the Poet William Blake asks, “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Like so many others with a mystical bent, Blake sought to experience a world beyond the visible world known to our senses. In June of 1784, a group of intellectuals and spiritual seekers, seeking those same ends, gathered at Bell’s Book Store on South Third Street in Philadelphia to hear a lecture on “The Science of Correspondences.” Among those present were Benjamin Franklin and two other signers of the Declaration of Independence. The lecture explored the teachings of a scientist, mystic, and visionary named Emmanuel Swedenborg

Swedenborg, at the age of fifty-three, believed that he had received a visitation from the Lord Jesus Christ who opened to him the spiritual world. Not only did Swedenborg discover that everything in the visible world corresponds to a spiritual reality, the doctrine of correspondence, but the interior, hidden sense of the scriptures was also revealed to him. According to Swedenborg the last judgement occurred in the spiritual world in 1757, not on May 21 2011 as believed by some today. The last judgement was followed by the long promised second coming of Christ. The second  coming of Christ was not a physical event, but the spiritual revelation of the interior meaning of God’s Word (discussed above.) Swedenborg, in his book True Christian Religionone of many volumes of spiritual writings—spoke of a series of ecclesial dispensations, the Adamic, the Noahtic, the Israelitish, and the Christian Church of the apostles. Swedenborg believed the revelation he received to mark the beginning of a new dispensation, the coming of a true Christian faith that would be the culmination of all of God’s work in the past. Swedenborg believed that Saint John’s vision of the New Jerusalem corresponded to this heavenly church, and so he spoke of it as The Church of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem Church would finally unite the true and good and establish true charity. His belief was that it would bring the sad divisions within the church to an end establishing a unity based on love of God and neighbor. Swedenborg never sought to institute any outward organization of the New Jerusalem Church himself.

An Anglican clergyman named John Clowes began to translate Swedenborg’s writings into English and distribute them in his native England. Clowes formed a society of fellow devotees of Swedenborg’s doctrine, but did not seek to break from the established church. Another believer in Swedenborg’s doctrine, Robert Hindmarsh, was the first to precipitate a break with the established church and form a separate body. It was James Glen, a convert to the New Church, who brought Swedenborg’s ideas to the United States. In fact Glen was the one who delivered the lecture at Bell’s Book Store in Philadelphia. 

Perhaps no one else was more influential in the spread of Swedenborg’s theology in the United States, however, than a missionary named John Chapman. Chapman planted several nurseries of apple trees all across the nation. He also sowed the seeds of Emmanuel Swedenborg’s heavenly doctrine through distributing his writing everywhere he went. Chapman is immortalized in American folklore as “Johnny Appleseed.” Helen Keller was another outspoken advocate for Swedenborg’s doctrine. Keller was influential in spreading Swedenborgian ideas in later years. It was the group that first met at Bell’s bookstore in Philadelphia, however, that would become the beginning of the New Church’s presence in America. On Christmas day in 1815 the group was formally organized as “The First New Jerusalem Society in Philadelphia.” A dispute arose over the authority of Swedenborg’s writings in 1889 which resulted in a schism. One group remained in Philadelphia while the other moved to their new headquarters in Bryn Athyn, founding the Academy of the New Church, and building the beautiful Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The Bryn Athyn group goes by the name, The General Church of the New Jerusalem or simply the New Church.

The New Church’s faith is based on the Bible as illuminated by the revelations of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The New Church, although sharing much in common, also differs from orthodox Christianity in several key areas. New Church theology rejects the orthodox idea of the trinity as three persons and instead speaks of God as one person, Jesus Christ. What are thought of as distinct persons within orthodox Christianity, are believed by the New Church to be three attributes of the same God, a kind of modalism. The Father is the invisible, divine soul, the Son the visible embodiment of that soul, and the Holy Spirit the truth that flows to all people from the divine soul. God is deeply personal and intricately involved in every area of our lives. The Bible, along with being a book of history, prophecies, etc also corresponds to Divine Truth, hidden in its symbolism. This Truth is consistent with reason and the external sense of the scriptures and can be used to help us live a life of usefulness to others. The Second Coming is the arrival of that spiritual vision within us. Angels are people who once lived lives like our own and chose a life of usefulness to others or charity, loving God and their neighbor. Every human being was created to be on a spiritual process preparing them for life in heaven. This process involves repentance from sin, prayer, avoiding evil, and living a new life. All people who strive to live a life of goodness, according to the truth within their own faith, will eventually reach Heaven.
 The New Church does not believe in a physical resurrection. They believe, that upon death, we will pass into the spiritual world where we will live a recognizably human life with the same gender, personality, and memories we had in this life. Swedenborg even taught that marriage will exist in heaven. Our conjugal relationships have the potential to last into eternity. Although Swedenborg rejected a the notion of a punitive God who damned souls, he did believe that we could resist God's love.  Hell is a place for those who have denied God and pursued lives of selfishness while heaven is a place where people joyfully serve one another in love.

I first visited Bryn Athyn on a glorious spring morning. I had Van Morrison’s Astrial Weeks on the radio. Morrison’s soulful, mystical music seemed the perfect soundtrack for a place with such a spiritual mystique about it. At the heart of Bryn Athyn is the astonishing Bryn Athyn Cathedral. I’ve never seen the great churches of Europe, but the Cathedral is among the most impressive houses of worship I’ve ever seen. The New Church presence in Bryn Athyn is ubiquitous, a kind of Salt Lake City for Swedenborgians (much smaller of coarse.) The concentration of New Church presence combined within a small town setting, gives one the impression of a very tight nit community. The people of the New Church are a very warm and friendly group. They are also very devout, committed to Jesus Christ, and dedicated to walking out their faith in a practical and loving way. I was there to meet Chuck Blair, the very earnest senior pastor of New Church Live, for lunch. Everywhere we went friendly members of Chuck’s Church greeted us. Chuck and I had been exchanging emails for quite awhile and he invited me out to talk face to face. He explained to me that his own take on New Church theology was that it was all about “eye level Christianity.” How are we living our faith here and now? Swedenborg taught about a God whose central attribute was love, a love so great that he came to live among us. He warned about the danger of separating faith from life. Swedenborg sought to reconnect the True (doctrine) and the Good (Charity.) In keeping with Swedenborg’s ideas, the vision of New Church Live is to be “a Monday morning church.” The focus is not just what happens on Sunday mornings but also on how the church’s members live out the gospel the rest of the week.

I also had the pleasure of worshiping at New Church Live on a Sunday. Chuck’s congregation is unique within the New Church. More traditional congregations, like the one who worships at the cathedral, have services very much reminiscent of a traditional Anglican service. There is a liturgy, a choir, hymns, and special vestments for the clergy. There are also readings from both the Old and New Testaments, the difference being that there is also a reading from the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Swedenborg reading is usually chosen to illuminate the other text. Also the New Testament readings do not include Acts or any of the epistles with the exception of Revelation. Although those books are held in esteem, they are not recognized as canonical or inspired in the same way. 
New Church Live is much different. Services are held in a performing arts center on the Campus of Bryn Athyn College. It is a casual and contemporary worship service similar to many evangelical churches. The staff, including greeters, AV techs, coffee servers etc all wear T-Shirts with the New Church Live logo emblazoned on the front. The church band sounds more like a bar band than your typical worship band. They tend to play secular, rock songs, but secular songs that have some kind of spiritual or religious content. On the Sunday that I visited, the band performed two reggae songs, one a Bob Marley tune and the other Jimmy Cliff’s wonderful interpretation of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon. They also played one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artist, Bruce Cockburn’s All the Diamonds in This World. The music seems to be an effective way of connecting to people where they are. It is very accessible to a secular audience. Chuck has a very welcoming, accessible, and relational preaching style. The service opened with a sneak preview of the upcoming sermon series titled “Love Wins.” The series will look at some of the ideas discussed in Rob Bell’s new book of the same title. The controversial trailer made by Bell to promote the book was projected on the screen and appeared to have a very favorable reception. Chuck told me that he is a big admirer of Bell and other teachers often associated with the emerging church. Bell’s book has stirred up a lot of interest in the New Church. Chuck sent me a link for a podcast on Oprah Winfrey’s website by popular television personality and physician Dr. Oz, who is a New Church member and frequent attendee at New Church Live. Dr. Oz praised Bell’s book as highly compatible with New Church theology. 
This particular Sunday’s service was not part of the “Love Wins” series, however, but the final sermon in a series called “212.” The series is based on an illustration about the temperature at which water boils. At 211, water begins to bubble, but at 212 it begins to boil. The difference is a matter of one degree. Chuck presented the question of what it would take in our lives to have that extra bit that takes us from 211 to 212. The series worked out of the Biblical story of David, specifically his anointing by Samuel. This Sunday was focused on David’s well-known battle with Goliath. The exegesis of the scripture, in keeping with New Church principles, was allegorical. David could not defeat Goliath (read the obstacles in our own lives) by pretending to be someone he was not. Saul’s armor was ill fitting and heavy for David. Only by discovering his unique gifts, “God’s fingerprints,” symbolized by the five smooth stones, could David have victory. Like David, we should also discover God’s finger- prints within us, those strengths that are uniquely ours, and use them for the love of God and in usefulness to others. New Church theology teaches us to be angels in training, and angels always think in terms of opportunity to love God and others. With an angelic mindset, we must be constantly vigilant to find opportunities for useful service. We must not simply be content to allow God’s love to flow to us, but we must allow it to flow through us to those in need. If we try to keep the blessings of God for ourselves we will loose them. If we allow them to pass through us to others we will find that we are more truly blessed, because real blessing comes through being a blessing to others. The more we allow ourselves to be useful in this way, the more we will find opportunities to be useful opening up to us. It takes more energy to go from 211 to 212 than in does to reach 211. That one degree extra requires the hardest push and we can easily get caught in the middle and never allow our lives to reach their boiling point. Chuck quoted from author Seth Godin, who writes in his book Linchpin about being an indispensably person, someone who really makes a difference. According to Godin, real change “…depends on motivated human beings selflessly contributing unasked for gifts.” Chuck left us with these thoughts, being a person that really makes a difference in the world requires that we make that extra push to be a 212 person. He said, “We are asked to use our own initiative on God’s behalf.” The service ended with prayer and invitation for people to come forward if they wanted prayer from Chuck or the assistant pastor.
After the service I was invited to join Pastor Chuck and some others at Betucci’s for lunch and fellowship. I had the opportunity to talk to other people about their faith and the New Church. One individual who joined us was Dave Fuller a medical doctor who was writing a book about Swedenborg and Osteopathic medicine. Dave believes in integrating spiritual practices and alternative medicine with modern medical practices, and works out of Holy Redeemer Medical Offices. He was a fascinating person and very helpful as he was extremely knowledgeable about New Church history and theology. I also met an older couple that were converts to New Christianity from Catholicism. They spoke about how they never felt the spiritual nourishment they needed in any other church, and what an impact being a part of the New Church community has had on their lives and their relationship with God. What particularly attracted them was the openness and tolerance that the New Church has for other faiths. They first came to the church after their daughter planned to have her wedding in the Cathedral. Since then they have been very involved in the church both on Sunday mornings and also in midweek “Strength Groups.” Although their daughter’s engagement actually fell threw, they believe very strongly that God used those events to lead them to the New Church. Everyone I met was very friendly and extremely hospitable. They all encouraged me to come back another time. 

My experience with the New Church has been extremely positive. Although I take strong exception to much of their doctrine, I continue to be impressed by their sincerity of devotion. It is humbling to see a friendliness, generosity, piety, and zeal for service that is often lacking in the more orthodox among a group that we would label heretical. I feel that I have made real friendships, especially with Pastor Chuck Blair, and I look forward to continuing my dialogue with the New Church.

The Following in an interesting documentary film about Swedenborg:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


The following is a sermon I preached on Transfiguration Sunday, March 6, 2011, at The Church of the Holy Comforter in Drexel Hill, Pa. An audio recording is available here.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”

Today brings us to the final Sunday of the season of Epiphany and in a sense its climax. As you may have heard sometime during the season, the name epiphany comes from a Greek word, which means “sudden appearance” or “manifestation.” Merriam Webster defines it as “an appearance or manifestation usually of a divine being” or “a sudden perception of the essential meaning of something.”

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, “Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” Heaven isn’t someplace distant from earth, on the far reaches of outer space. Heaven lies just behind our everyday experience. We can’t normally see this reality and we don’t always perceive it, but the bible tells us that we are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses. An epiphany is a pulling back of the veil to reveal the heavenly reality that is hidden from sight. There are times when the glory of God shines through the thin veneer between heaven and earth in ways sometimes subtle but also sometimes dramatic.

In today’s gospel, Jesus leads three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—up a high mountain presumably so they could be alone and pray. While on the mountain we are told that Jesus was transfigured before their eyes. The Greek work translated transfigured is where we get the term metamorphosis. It basically means to be changed or transformed. Can you picture this? Jesus becomes illuminated with a dazzling light, his face like the sun. Even his clothing becomes as white as the light. Have you ever gone outside just after a snow storm and the light reflected from the snow is so glaringly bright that you have to shade your eyes? I imagine this to be the appearance of Jesus’ garments. I imagine the light coming from Jesus was so intense that his friends could not look on him directly. Suddenly out of the effulgence the three could make out two other men standing with Jesus. The text tells us that they were Moses and Elijah. We are not told how they were recognized as such. We are told that they were speaking with Jesus however.

What are we to make of all of this? This is a strange story. It must be a very important story however. All three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all include very similar accounts of the same event. The second epistle of Peter, which was read today, also refers to it. The gospel of John, interestingly enough since John was among those present, does not refer to it though. I would like to suggest that the three disciples who went up with Jesus, received an Epiphany. An appearance of divinity.

On the mount of transfiguration we are shown Jesus’ true identity. Right in front of his friends, Jesus is revealed as the incarnate Son of God. We catch a glimpse of our own human nature transfigured by the glory of God. Human nature as it was meant to be, the pristine image of God. God created humankind to be his image bearers but that image became disfigured through sin. In Christ we not only see that image restored but humanity made a partaker of the divine nature.

St John of the Cross, a poet and mystic from the middle ages, uses the image of a window. If a window is dirty and smudged its ability to let the sunlight in is diminished. A window wiped clean and clear though lets the sun’s rays pour through it. When sunlight hits it directly it is so illuminated that it appears to be pure light even though it doesn’t cease to be glass. This is how Jesus’ humanity showed forth his divinity in the transfiguration.

Before the foundation of the world God planned to redeem the world through the life, death, and resurrection of his son. Jesus is the purpose of the whole biblical story. The old covenant finds its fulfillment is Jesus. This is why Jesus was shown speaking with both Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets, the two major sections of the Old Testament. In their time, both men longed to see the day when Jesus would be revealed. Everything they did and said pointed to him.

I’ve often met people who say, “I’ve tried to read the Bible but I just don’t get it.” You may be one of those people. Getting a good study bible and consulting commentaries and scholars will help you tremendously by giving you an idea of the historical context and bigger picture of the biblical story. I definitely recommend you seek them out. More importantly though, you should pray and ask God to show you the meaning of the scriptures. The religious scholars of Jesus’ time knew the bible well, but St. Paul tells us that they read them with a veil over their hearts. God through the Holy Spirit lifts the veil and helps us to see that all of the scriptures point us to Christ. It is through him that they should be interpreted.

Jesus tried to communicate this to his disciples many times. In fact in the previous chapter of Matthew Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Jesus understood this to be the culmination of God’s plan for salvation as prophesized by the scriptures. Peter was rebuked then for not understanding, and he shows now that he still doesn’t get it when he says, “Lord it is good for to be here, if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter is still blathering on not knowing what he is saying when the whole company is enveloped in a bright cloud. A voice thunders from the cloud “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!” This really shuts him up. The disciples are so overcome with fear that they lie face down on the ground unable to move. Jesus touches them saying, “Get up don’t be afraid.” When next they look all they see is their teacher restored to how he was before.

Peter was mistaken to think that they all could remain on the mountain top. They were given a sneak preview of the glory that was to come, but that glory could only come through the cross. Without Jesus’ death, there could be no victory. Jesus would become victor only by means of his crucifixion. The power of sin and death would be vanquished but only at the cost of God’s own son. We cannot have Easter and the triumphant news of the Resurrection with out Lent and Holy Week.

There are some who want a crossless Christianity. They want all of glory, but none of the sacrifice. For them, God exist to shower them with blessing and prosperity. If we want the new and transformed life that comes through sharing in Jesus’ Resurrection, we need to share also in his death. We should take this to heart as we enter the season of Lent, a time of repentance and self-denial. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Peter Abelard: Moral Influence

Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

Abelard was a logician, scholastic philosopher, and theologian from France. He is perhaps best known for his tragic love affair with his student Heloise. Abelard and Heloise carried on a passionate romance, until her uncle discovered them. They were separated but still managed to conceive a child together and secretly marry. Heloise’s uncle was outraged and sent a gang of thugs to Abelard’s home. They beat him severely and even castrated him! Abelard and Heloise spent the rest of their lives devoted to the monastic life. They continued a correspondence through letters that have become very well known.

Abelard, a contemporary of Anselm, rejected the idea that Jesus had to die to satisfy the father’s offended honor.

“How cruel and wicked is seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain—still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the world!”

Abelard is representative of the Moral Influence or Exemplary model of the Atonement. He appeals to the effect Jesus’ death has in awakening our compassion and provoking our grief. Through the remorse that we feel in contemplating the cross, we share in the sufferings of Christ. In one of his many letters to Heloise, Abelard writes:

“Have compassion on him who suffered willingly for your redemption, and look with remorse on him who was crucified for you…He himself is the way whereby the faithful pass from exile to their own country. He too has set up the Cross, from which he summons us as a ladder for us to use. On this, for you, the only begotten Son of God was killed; he was made an offering because he wished it. Grieve with compassion over him alone and share his suffering in grief.”

Because of the spectacular and unmerited act of love that Christ has shown to sinners their hearts rightfully belong to him. He has given us himself and in return he deserves our whole selves. The Lord of all the universe desires us! This should melt our hearts and inspire us to amendment of life.

He bought you not with his wealth, but with himself. He bought and redeemed you with his own blood. See what right he has over you, and know how precious you are…You are greater than heaven, greater than the world, for the Creator of the world himself became the price for you. What has he seen in you, I ask you, when he lacks nothing, to make him seek even the agonies of a fearful and inglorious death in order to purchase you?

Abelard believes that the revelation of God’s love in Christ has the power to transform our hearts. The power of God’s love is so great that it dethrones any contrary affection within us. When we understand how much God loves us, we stop clinging to sin and instead cling to Christ. In loving us God has made us his children.

“Redemption is that greatest love kindled in us by Christ’s passion, a love which not only delivers us from the bondage of sin, but also acquires for us the true freedom of children, where love instead of fear becomes the ruling affection.”

Christ justified us by taking our human nature. The passion of Christ transforms our character. Our heart, changed by the love of God, has a new willingness to serve him and endure suffering. It creates boldness in us that we didn’t have before.

“It seems to us that we are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this, that through the singular grace manifested to us in that his son took our nature and that teaching us by both word and example he persevered even unto death, Jesus bound us closer to himself by love, so that, fired by so great a benefit of divine grace, true charity would no longer be afraid to endure anything for his sake.”

Abelard emphasizes the subjective element of the atonement. For Abelard, our crucial need is not that we satisfy God’s wrath against us, but that we come to be repentance and that our hearts be changed. For Abelard, the only thing God ask is that we admit of failure, accept his love, and love him in return.

1. Do you think Abelard’s reaction to Anselm’s satisfaction theory is fair?
2. What effect does the willingness of Jesus to die for you have on you?
3. Some have argued that Abelard’s theory is too subjective. It has been argued that the theory leaves us to strive for salvation by the force of our own convictions and in our own strength. Do you think this is accurate?
4. Some, while agreeing with the subjective effects of Jesus’ death, have claimed that Abelard’s theory gives us no reason for Jesus’ death. They reason that Jesus’ death can only be a moral influence if it is a substitution. Do you think this is a fair criticism of Abelard?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Anselm of Canterbury: Satisfaction theory

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Anselm was the abbot of a Benedictine monastery called the Abbey of Bec. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury under William II of England but had conflict with the king over differences of opinion on the authority of the church in relation to the state. Anselm spent much of his life in exile where he did most of his writing. Anselm is considered by some to be the father of Scholasticism. He wrote a very influential book on the incarnation and the atonement called “Cur Deus Homo?” or “Why did God become man?” It was in this book that he articulated his famous Satisfaction view of the Atonement.

Anselm, drawing from his own historical context, spoke of God as being like a feudal Lord. By sinning we have not only disobeyed God, but we also failed to ascribe him the honor due his name. A Lord must demand not only repayment of what was taken from him but his offended honor must also be satisfied.

“A person who does not render God this honor due Him, takes from God what is His and dishonors God, and this is to commit sin. Now, as long as he does not repay what he has plundered, he remains at fault. Neither is it enough merely to return what was taken away, but on account of the insult committed, he must give back more than he took away. For example, one who harms the health of another does not do enough if he restores his health, unless he makes some compensation for the injury of pain he has inflicted. Similarly, for one who violates the honor of some person, it does not suffice to render honor, if he does not make restitution of something pleasing to the person dishonored, in proportion to the injury of dishonor that has been inflicted…Thus, therefore, everyone who sins must pay to God the honor he has taken away, and this is satisfaction, which every sinner must make to God.”

God is just and so must always defend justice. Humanity has committed a great injustice by failing to ascribe to God the honor he deserves. God cannot simply forgive humanity without also satisfying the requirements of justice.

“Likewise, if there is nothing greater or better than God, there is nothing more just than for the supreme justice which is the same as God Himself, to preserve His honor in the order of the universe…God preserves nothing with greater justice than the honor of His dignity…Then it is necessary either that the honor taken away be restored, or that punishment follow. Otherwise, either God will not be just to Himself or He will be unable to attain either. And it would be monstrous even to entertain that thought.”

According to Anselm, no human being is able to offer to God the satisfaction he deserves. Because humanity was not able, God became human and offered satisfaction in our place.

“Man the sinner owes to God, on account of sin, what he cannot repay, and unless he repays it he cannot be saved…there is no-one…who can make this satisfaction except God himself…But no-one ought to make it except man; otherwise man does not make it.”

Jesus through his righteous life and perfect sacrifice not only pays our debt but offers God satisfaction through the greatness of what was offered. Anselm celebrates this as both merciful and just. Because we have received such mercy we should in turn be merciful.

“His death outweighs the number and greatness of all sin…God's mercy… is so great and so harmonious with His justice that it cannot be conceived to be greater or more just. Indeed, what can be thought to be more merciful than for God the Father to say to a sinner, condemned to eternal torments and having no way to redeem himself: "Receive my only begotten son and render him in place of yourself," and for the Son to say "Take me and redeem yourself"? For the Father and the Son do make these respective statements, as it were, when they call and draw us to the Christian faith. And what is more just than that He to whom is given a reward greater than every debt should forgive every debt if it is presented to Him with due affection?"

Anselm stresses the severity of sin and God’s righteous wrath at our disobedience. For Anselm, if we are to be reconciled to God, restitution needs to be made for the way in which we dishonored him. God finds away to love us while still preserving his honor.

1. What do you think of the idea that sin is failure to ascribe God the honor due his name?
2. Do you agree with Anselm’s contention that it would be a violation of justice for God to simply forgive sin?
3. How do you feel about the idea that Jesus had to suffer on the cross to satisfy God’s offended honor? Is it just for a righteous person to suffer in the place of the wicked?
4. Some people have argued that this theory of atonement changes the mind of God in relation to us, but leaves us unchanged. Do you think Anselm’s theory is incomplete?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gregory of Nyssa: Ransom

Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)

Gregory of Nyssa was a simple and quiet man who entered monastic life after the death of his wife. He would have been content to live out his life as a monk, but his brother Basil the Great insisted that he become bishop. Despite his reluctance to accept the position, Gregory became a great defender of orthodox Christianity, and played a large part in the victory of Nicene doctrine at the council of Constantinople. Gregory is most well known for his deep mystical writings. The material presented here is from his Great Catechism.

Gregory is representative of the ransom theory of the atonement. He believed that human beings were created for beauty and holiness and endowed with free will after the divine image. Satan deceived us into pursuing a beauty apart from God. Falling for Satan’s lie and choosing to serve him rather than God, the human race became enslaved to sin and death. We freely chose to come into Satan’s dominion and so the devil has rights over us. God could not violate justice by taking what rightfully belongs to Satan, so it was necessary that he buy us back out of slavery.

“We must remember that man was necessarily created subject to change (to better or to worse). Moral beauty was to be the direction in which his free will was to move; but then he was deceived, to his ruin, by an illusion of that beauty. After we had thus freely sold ourselves to the deceiver, He who of His goodness sought to restore us to liberty could not, because He was just too, for this end have recourse to measures of arbitrary violence. It was necessary therefore that a ransom should be paid, which should exceed in value that which was to be ransomed; and hence it was necessary that the Son of God should surrender Himself to the power of death. God's justice then impelled Him to choose a method of exchange, as His wisdom was seen in executing it.”

Because Satan deceived humankind, God in turn deceived the devil by hiding his Son in human form. Gregory believed that God’s deception of the devil was justified not only for our sake, but also for the sake of Satan himself who would benefit from the incarnation as well.

“A certain deception was indeed practiced upon the Evil one, by concealing the Divine nature within the human; but for the latter, as himself a deceiver, it was only a just recompense that he should be deceived himself: the great adversary must himself at last find that what has been done is just and salutary, when he also shall experience the benefit of the Incarnation. He, as well as humanity, will be purged.”

Satan fell for God’s trick, and saw in Jesus a worthy Ransom for all of humanity.

“The Enemy, therefore, beholding in Him such power, saw also in Him an opportunity for an advance, in the exchange, upon the value of what he held. For this reason he chooses Him as a ransom for those who were shut up in the prison of death. But it was out of his power to look on the unclouded aspect of God; he must see in Him some portion of that fleshly nature which through sin he had so long held in bondage. Therefore it was that the Deity was invested with the flesh, in order, that is, to secure that he, by looking upon something congenial and kindred to himself, might have no fears in approaching that supreme power; and might yet by perceiving that power, showing as it did, yet only gradually, more and more splendor in the miracles, deem what was seen an object of desire rather than of fear. Thus, you see how goodness was conjoined with justice, and how wisdom was not divorced from them.”

The devil fell for the bait, but the Son of God hidden within proved to power for his might to contain or conquer. The power of evil was thus destroyed. Christ’s righteousness served as a kind of antidote to evil. The life that was in him overturned the power of death.

"For since, as has been said before, it was not in the nature of the opposing power to come in contact with the undiluted presence of God, and to undergo His unclouded manifestation, therefore, in order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active."

All of humanity shares in the victory Christ achieved because he is joined with us through the incarnation.

“He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate man, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole man. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this member, as though the whole of mankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature.”

Gregory sees the atonement as a great defeat of Satan. He emphasizes the devil’s role in humanities fall. Humanity is rescued from bondage to the devil. Gregory also sees the atonement as being universal in scope. All of humanity shares in the salvation that Jesus brings and even the devil is restored through Jesus’ work of redemption.

1. Some have argued that deception is an unworthy tactic of God. Do you think it is inconsistent with God’s character to deceive the devil?
2. What do you think about the idea that sin places us under the devil’s dominion?
3. Does Satan have any rights that God should be beholden too?
4. How do you feel about Gregory’s claim that all humanity and even Satan himself shares in the benefit of Jesus’ redeeming work?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Athanasius: Christus Victor

Athanasius (293-373)

Athanasius was an early Christian theologian and Bishop. He is best remembered for his critique of Arianism and defense of orthodox Christianity. Athanasius was present at the first council of Nicaea with his teacher Alexander Bishop of Alexandria when Alexander refuted the doctrine of Arius. Arius believed that Jesus, the son was a created being, and not equally God with the father.Shortly after Bishop Alexander died and Athanasius was made bishop of Alexandria. Despite the fact that Arianism was refuted at Nicaea, the doctrine continued to plague the church and Athanasius spent much of his life in exile for his rejection of Arius’ heresy. Athanasius, contrary to Arius, believed that Christ was fully God and fully man. Athanasius believed that God had become human in order to rescue humanity from sin and death. He is representative of the Christus victor, or recapitulation, theory of the atonement. The following quotes are from Athanasius' On the Incarnation.

According to Athanasius, God created man in his image. His intention was always that they should be made a partaker of the divine nature. Human beings sinned and brought corruption and death into the world. Because of this they became subject to death and began to loose the likeness of the divine image and the knowledge of God.

“because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting."

Athanasius believed that God became human in order to restore in us the divine image that had become wrecked by the fall. Jesus becomes a new Adam and in him humanity is recreated.

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind made after himself, and seek out his lost sheep.

Jesus became incarnate in our own human nature and became subject to death and decay. He takes upon himself the curse of the death that was ours due to the fall. Just as the old Adam as the representative of humanity brought us all into ruin, Jesus as the new Adam dies in our place and cancels the curse of death.

“Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered his body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby abolished because, when he had fulfilled in his body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This he did that he might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of his body and by the grace of his resurrection."

Through his death on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus defeats death. Jesus takes the sting out of death and gives us life and victory through his resurrection. We come to share this victory by faith.

“If, then, it is by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ that death is trampled underfoot, it is clear that it is Christ himself and none other who is the Arch-victor over death and has robbed it of its power. Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of his body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally.”

Athanasius emphasized Jesus’ victory over death and his recreation of the lost image of God in man. For Athanasius, humanity’s greatest need is to be rescued from the curse of death brought about by sin. Jesus came to give us immortality and knowledge of God.

Discussion and Reflection

1. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? How might that have been damaged by the fall?
2. What do you think about the idea that Jesus’ incarnation was a recreation or recapitulation of humanity?
3. Athanasius focuses a lot on death as the penalty for human sin, and Jesus’ crucifixion as a conquering of death. This appears to present problems for those who understand the creation accounts in Genesis as non-literal. Is Athanasius’ theory reconcilable with modern science that teaches us that death existed long before the appearance of human beings?
4. Athanasius says that Christ makes us alive through “the appropriation of his body.” What do you think he means by this?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Invasion of Life into a Dying World

I recently took a course at Biblical Theological Seminary called "Reading the Old Testament Missionally." As an assignment, our professor, David Lamb, asked us to write a sermon based on an OT Scripture and directed to a group that is marginalized. I took this assignment as an opportunity to work through some things going on in my life. The following is the sermon that I wrote.

Ecclesiastes 8:14-9:4

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out

9:1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

The Invasion of Life into a Dying World

Ecclesiastes is an odd, confusing, and very troubling book. Upon reading it, one is tempted to ask, “Why on Earth is this in the Bible?!” Its tone is very pessimistic, with its litany of “vanities.” It reads more like the writing of a modern existentialist philosopher than a religious text. I would like to suggest that it is precisely its quality of robust investigation of human experience and thoughtful questioning that makes Ecclesiastes such a vital contribution to God’s Word. The author of Ecclesiastes subverts conventional wisdom and challenges us to face the vanity of life and its pursuits. The word translated as “vanity” evokes the image of breath, something fleeting, and ephemeral or even futile or absurd. Despite his insistence on the vanity of this life, the author of Ecclesiastes also repeatedly enjoins us to enjoy the good things of life while we can.

This summer I was reminded—rather dramatically—of both the goodness and joy of life and also its fragility. In July I experienced the joy of being joined in marriage to my wife April and the blessings of beginning a life together. Pronouncing my vow to love and cherish April until we are parted by death was particularly sobering to me that day, because as joyful and exuberant as our wedding was, the shadow of death also loomed ominously in my heart. My oldest brother Tom, who was to be one of my groomsmen, could not attend because he was lying in a hospital bed ravished by AIDS. It was only a little more than a month before the wedding that our family learned Tom had AIDS, and it was only about a month after the wedding that we stood around his bedside holding his hand, praying, and reading him scripture as the flickering flame of his life was finally extinguished. Although my brother was much older than me, we were very close, and I loved him dearly. I had experienced death before, but never face to face, never someone so close to me and so young. The result was not only grief, but a powerful reminder of mortality and the urgency of knowing God and his son Jesus Christ.

Christopher Wright in his book The Mission of God, describes AIDS as a paradigm of evil. He writes, “death awaits every human being since the Fall, but HIV/AIDS brings the sentence forward into the midst of life and destroys life’s blessing, abundance and fulfillment—the very things that God created us for”(Wright, 435.) Encountering AIDS close up, was like looking into the face of sin and its horrible curse. In saying that, however, I want to make a qualification. We can not, and should not, make a direct correlation between a person’s sinful behavior and the misfortune that befalls them. Our text directly challenges that notion. It says, “There are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous” (Ecclesiastes 8:14b.) People who carry HIV/AIDS are often stigmatized as degenerate, unclean, or cursed. This is sadly the case even among Christians. The truth is that many people contract the virus through no fault of their own. It is true that the Bible teaches us that a sinful life has dire consequences, but I believe these texts are cautionary rather than prescribing our attitudes toward those who are afflicted. They teach us the folly of sin but they do not teach us to blame or condemn, nor do they guarantee that godly people’s lives will always be free from suffering. The question of why the godly suffer is one for the ages and not within the scope of this lesson, but we should take note of our text’s admonition, human beings cannot completely fathom the works of God. When faced with suffering like the kind caused by AIDS, our task is not to blame or simply to ponder why, but to be present to those who suffer with compassion.

In The Great Litany found in The Book of Common Prayer, among the many supplications is the plea, “from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” If you ask most people how they would like to die, my guess is that most people will tell you that they want to go peacefully in their sleep. The prospect of facing our death and coming to terms with it terrifies us. We would much rather avoid the hard work by dying suddenly in our sleep, but it is precisely this kind of avoidance that our tradition teaches us to pray to be delivered from. I don’t know how my brother contracted HIV, and even he was unaware of his infection until it was too late. I feel pretty certain that, had he known earlier that he was carrying a deadly virus, he would have lived his life much differently. Our text reminds us that the same event happens to everyone who comes into the world, whether we are righteous or wicked, Christian or non-Christian – all of us die. All our accomplishments, all our possessions, all our enjoyment of life’s blessings, come to an end with death. Death is a great leveler. Anything we seek to stand on in this life will be taken away. We should keep this before our mind always. What am I ultimately living for? Am I investing myself in things eternal or in things that are passing away? AIDS, the invasion of death into the midst of life, forces us to ask these big questions. There are those that the text says have hearts full of evil and madness and waste their life (9:3b), let that not be you.

I spoke at my brother’s funeral about how the love we share as a family points us beyond itself to God. The love we share here and now is a foretaste of the greater love that we will know in the consummation of God’s kingdom. Now we know in part what later we will know in fullness (1 Corinthians 13:12b.) All of us who live in the shadow of death, especially those who carry deadly viruses like HIV, should take joy in those moments of delight in which we catch a glimpse of eternity. Our text says that those moments will go with us through the toil and the vanity of this life (8:15b.)

There is an interesting tension in our text and indeed in the whole book of Ecclesiastes. Life is described as vanity, full of confusion, injustice, and toil, yet it is an evil when it is taken away. There is a longing in the heart of the author for life in all its goodness, yet no matter how hard he grasps it continually slips through his fingers. Life is experienced as a desirable, but elusive thing, while death is as real and unmovable as a great stone. What the author longs to know is greater and more enduring life, a life that isn’t futile and failing. Life, even if it is merely a shadow, is preferable to death. The Author writes, “He who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4.) Going back to our earlier description, AIDS is the invasion of death into life, making even life like death, and finally taking life itself away. A person who is dying from AIDS is made to be completely emaciated; they are rendered immobile, and often cannot even speak. The ties that join them to all the living are severed one by one. We must not sentimentalize death. Death is a horrible thing. Despite much pious rhetoric that proclaims death to be a friend and a mere transition, the Bible insists to the contrary. Death is the enemy, a negation of life and all that God created us for. I do not say that as a counsel of despair. I believe we have hope in the face of death that I wish to share with you.

Jesus Christ came to conquer death and to bring a more abundant life. Christ is the antidote for vanity. If AIDS is the invasion of death into life, than Christ is the invasion of life into a dying world. In his book The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard gives a wonderful paraphrase of John 3:16, “God’s care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God Himself” (Willard, 1.) If you are suffering from disease, even AIDS, Jesus can give you life even in the midst of your affliction. He is near to you in a way that no one else could ever be. When Tom was dying I was able to hold his hand, I was able to encourage him and tell him that I loved him, and I was able to pray with him, but it was Christ who suffered with him. It was Christ who bore his sins and even his sickness on the hard wood of the cross. It was Christ who with him was considered cursed and afflicted by God. It was Christ who shared in his sorrows and it was Christ who was able to give him hope and a life that is stronger than dying. Christ defeated death. Those of us in Christ share in his death, which is in fact the death of death. All who are in Christ also share in the power of his resurrection beginning now but being consummated in the last day when our corruption is swallowed up in incorruption.

The last day will see an end to life’s vanity, and of sickness and death. The Bible has a word for the restoration, wholeness, peace and well being that we will know in that day. The word is shalom. People who are afflicted with the AIDS virus know the vanity of this present age. They know what it means to experience the unraveling of God’s good creation and the waxing of life, because they carry it in their own bodies. In fact, we all do, but victims of AIDS and other diseases make that dissolution particularly present to us. May they also carry the restoration—God’s shalom-- within them. May they receive the eternal life that Christ offers us in the midst of this futile and failing existence, and may we see the hope of the gospel played out in them. Dying well is a missional action. It was a great consolation for me to know that Tom faced death knowing Christ and his victory. His life was not lived in vain.