Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ignatius of Loyola

The last in this year's installment of the Church Fathers by Daniel Harrell (I'm on vacation for the month of August. See you in September!)

Well, the congregation has spoken. I asked you to vote which Church Father starting with the Letter I would be the topic of this Sunday’s sermon and you did. For those of you new tonight, eleven years ago I embarked on a month-of-July sermon series concerning the Church Fathers, those personalities who over the course of church history fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. As there have been numerous noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers) it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time. However, since many of the patristic heroes cluster around the letter A, I’m only this year getting to Letter I. So far this year we’ve looked at the early second century martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch and the influential third century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons. As I had morning duty last Sunday, I gave you a choice of I-Father for this week since I could only preach one: either Ignatius of Loyola, (the founder of the Jesuits), Innocent III (the founder of the imperial papacy), or Isidore of Pelusium, an early desert father. The winner, with a convincing 61% of the total, is Ignatius of Loyola.

Granted, only 42 of you managed to click an opinion, including the three of you that voted for the iPhone. It may be your were swayed by your penchant for the 1986 movie classic The Mission, or maybe you’re a student or alumni of Boston College. Either way, you know about the Jesuits, or officially, the Society of Jesus. A religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits number 23,000 brothers “ready to live in any part of the world where there is hope of God’s greater glory and the good of souls.” Jesuits work for social justice and promote education, having founded Boston College as well as a host of other schools such as Georgetown, Marquette, Holy Cross and all the colleges and universities with Loyola in their name. If your experience of the Jesuits hasn’t been through the movies or school, perhaps it’s been through an experience of spiritual direction. Ignatius’ popular handbook The Spiritual Exercises, is still widely used for spiritual direction and retreats 460 years after its first publication.

Spiritual discipline is not something unique to Catholic orders. Plenty of Protestants have found following Ignatian exercises an invaluable help to reinvigorating their own prayer lives and bringing them into deeper intimacy with God. Stretching all the way back to Leviticus, a strong spiritual life has always depended upon rules and ritual to keep the human heart tuned to God. Some of these ancient guidelines, refined by the rabbis of Jesus’ day, appear here in Matthew 6. Giving to the poor fostered generosity and kindness, pulling your focus away from yourself for the sake of serving others. Generosity reminds the heart of the generosity of God; we give because God so lavishly gives to us. Fasting fostered self-control through self-denial. By subjugating your bodily desires to spiritual ends, you rein in your selfishness and better resist worldly distractions and temptations. Prayer is holy communication. As God and His Spirit abide in His people, so prayer is the primary way God’s people participate in that presence; prayer is the natural, unselfconscious language of relationship.

Yet, Jesus, in addressing giving, fasting and prayer here in chapter 6, nevertheless warns that even these deeds designed to guard the heart may ironically be corrupted by the heart. “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” Jesus said, but “Be careful not to practice your righteousness publicly, in order to be seen by others. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Human sin can be uncanny. Which is why we need to pray rightly.

I want to think with you specifically about prayer tonight because prayer is so central to our relationship with Christ and thus so central to Ignatius’ own life—but also because I find prayer so hard to do. I find giving and fasting hard to do too, but at least they’re more tangible. You can see the results of giving and feel the results of fasting. But with prayer that’s not always the case. My mind wanders at times when I pray. I get impatient. I doubt. I don’t get the answers I want. People will tell me it’s because I don’t have enough faith. And that’s true, but at least with less faith you get less disappointment. I can’t tell you the number of pious folks I’ve had to coax back from the edge of apostasy due to unanswered prayer. Because our expectations of prayer can be so high, it’s easy to understand how easy it can get to try and get something else out of it when God’s giving you nothing. Faking it in public at least gets people thinking you’re a good Christian.

Of course if that’s what you’re after, Jesus says that’s all you’ll get. But if what you’re after is something more eternal, then Jesus says you’d best do your praying in secret, in a room with the door shut. Now understand that Jesus employs hyperbole here. Given that most ancient Palestinian homes only had two rooms, praying in a room without anyone knowing would have been as difficult as your left hand not knowing what your right hand is giving. Likewise, few Jews deliberately prayed in the streets any more than they announced their giving by blowing trumpets. Jesus’ point gets back to the heart.

Motivations matter when it comes to prayer, perhaps even more so than faith. In fact, if you’re like me, much of your prayer is prayer for faith. In verse 7, Jesus issues a warning against praying like pagans—idol-worshippers who babble on and on because they think they’ll be heard if they say enough words. Granted, you have to talk a lot if you’re trying to get an statue to do anything, but that pagans persisted indicates they had plenty of faith, it was just aimed in the wrong direction. By contrast, Jesus says, “your Father knows what you need before you ask;” the implication being that weak faith and inadequate words will do. Moreover, presuming that God knows your needs even better than you do, a further implication is that God sometimes gives despite what you ask. To receive such undesired gifts from God requires that we trust God knows what he’s doing, that like any loving Father, his concern is more for our ultimate well-being than for our immediate wishes.

Such faith goes to the matter of unanswered prayer. We all experience disappointment with God. Perhaps that’s intentional. God did not come to earth as an impoverished, scandal-ridden and finally executed carpenter to impress anybody. We become Christians only to suffer trouble and brokenness and end up dead on this earth. Talk about disappointment. But maybe God doesn’t always answer prayer like you’d like because God wants you to want what He wants—on earth as it is in heaven. He wants you seeking after his Kingdom and after his righteousness. He wants you disappointed enough with this worldly existence so as to eagerly hope for your life to come. This is the reward Jesus alludes to here in Matthew 6.

Regrettably, promises of incomparable glory don’t always make for sufficient motivation to follow Christ in the meantime. Which is why even the most heartfelt Christians mix their motives. We give to the poor because God gives to us, but also to assuage our guilt and because helping other people makes us feel good about ourselves and gets us a few props. We fast to hone our spiritual attention, but if that doesn’t work at least we lose some weight. However prayer doesn’t offer the same sort of side benefits. This isn’t to say that our motives can’t be mixed when it comes to prayer, particularly when it comes to what we pray for. There are those who compare prayer to yoga or meditation to make it seem more normal, but do it in out loud and in public and I guarantee most people will think you’ve lost your mind. I think this is part of prayer’s design. As holy language reserved for God, there is a sort of human foolishness about it.

Ignatius of Loyola was born in 1491 into Spanish nobility. Europe of the late 15th Century was a world of discovery and invention. Explorers sailed west to the Americas and south to Africa. Scholars uncovered the buried civilizations of Greece and Rome. The printing press fed a new hunger for knowledge among a growing middle class. It was the end of chivalry and the rise of a new humanism. It was a time of radical change, social upheaval, and war. The latter opened up career opportunities for Ignatius. The youngest of 13, all the other jobs had been taken. So Ignatius entered the military. In 1521, during a quixotic battle with the French, a cannonball shattered his leg. During the long weeks of his recuperation, he was extremely bored and asked for some romance novels to pass the time. However, the only books available were a Bible and books about the life of Jesus and church fathers such as Augustine, Basil, Bede and Francis of Assisi. These had an unexpected effect. Moved by their example and faith, Ignatius confessed his sins, donated his fine clothes to the poor, fasted and took vows of poverty and chastity.

Determined to devote his life to Jesus, he joined a monastery and tried his hand at severe asceticism, but it failed to get at what he sensed God wanted to do with him. So instead, he just got depressed. That happens sometimes. He tried making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to work as a missionary, but that didn’t work either, so sadly decided to do what so many do when life hits a dead end: go to graduate school. On the way, he stopped to spend the night in a cave but became so engrossed in prayer that he remained there ten months. It was camped out in that cave that ideas for his Spiritual Exercises began to take shape. It was also there that he had a vision which he regarded as the most significant moment in his life. Ignatius never revealed exactly what the vision was, but it was an experience that enabled Ignatius to see God’s presence in all things. This grace, finding God in all things, is one of the central characteristics of Jesuit spirituality. By finding God in all things, all times are times of prayer. Even graduate school. Ignatius made it to graduate school (the same one where John Calvin was studying), was ordained a priest and with others, founded the Society of Jesus in 1534. One of their early emblems was the same as the one at the center of our sanctuary cross. The three letters “IHS” are the Latinized version of the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek.

The Spiritual Exercises is a simple set of meditations, prayers, considerations, and contemplative practices. It proved an important tool in countering the Protestant Reformation by shoring up the Catholic rank and file. Anyone can do them. The Exercises recognize that not only the intellect, but also emotions and feelings help us come to a knowledge of the Spirit’s action in our lives. Based on four movements, the Exercises encourage a deeper conversion into life with God in Christ by allowing our personal stories to be interpreted by being subsumed in a Story of God. The first movement works on purifying the soul, the second movement on gaining a greater knowledge and love of Christ, the third on freeing the will to follow Christ, and the fourth on releasing the heart from worldly attachments. Ignatius wrote, “ask the grace of God our Lord that all our intentions, actions and operations may be directed purely to the service and praise of His Divine Majesty.”

Ignatius taught that imagination could be employed as a powerful tool in prayer. One of his exercises invites you to imagine yourself as a character in a Biblical encounter with Jesus. The idea is that by empathizing with a character, you can be guided into your own real conversation with God. I thought it might be interesting to try this exercise, both to give you a taste of Ignatian spirituality, but also perhaps to help you pray.Make yourself as comfortable as you can. The idea is to hold yourself still so you can listen to God. I will read this account of Jesus walking on water, then we’ll listen in silence a few minutes, after which I will read it again to refocus. At the end, I will close by praying a prayer of Ignatius. As you listen, the idea is to place yourself in the story. What is the scene like: the water, the boat, the storm? What’s the temperature? What do you smell? How do your feet feel? What expressions are on other people’s faces? What sounds do you hear? What do you feel inside? And what does Jesus say to you as you imagine yourself there with him? Let’s try it. Get comfortable. Close your eyes. And listen.

“Lord Jesus, speak to us through your word.”

Jesus insisted that his disciples get into a boat and cross to the other side of the lake. He went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!” But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!” Then Peter called to him, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.” “Yes, come,” Jesus said. So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted. Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?” When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. Then the disciples worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

“Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.”

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Living Leviticus in Christianity Today

by Daniel Harrell

Follow the link to the right to read my article on the Leviticus experiment in Christianity today. There's also links to the Facebook site and to a popular blog by theologian Scot McKnight. (re)Join the conversation!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Like a Thief in the Night

Revelation 16

by Daniel Harrell

Since it’s in the bulletin, I should probably begin this morning by explaining how my 9-month-old daughter Violet broke her leg. For those of you not in church last Sunday Night or having yet to read the church blog, Violet recently learned to pull herself up to standing. Week before last she was doing just that using an ottoman that sits in our living room. She used the ottoman because on it sat our TV remote. Now no matter how many toys we surround her with, Violet invariably wants the TV remote, proving, perhaps, that children’s fascination with television is somehow genetic. Our TV remote is taboo because a) she chews it and b) we’d like to keep her away from TV as long as we can, you know, given all of the violence that fills the screen these days. Anyway, she pulled up on the ottoman to grab the remote, but in reaching for it she let go of her hand, lost her balance and fell back onto her leg and fractured it. She’s in a cast for another week or so but hardly notices it. In fact, she’s learned to use it as a way to communicate. The other morning Dawn and I bolt upright in bed as Violet whammed her cast against her crib to let us know she was awake. Still, I feel bad, mostly because I’m the one who left the TV remote on the ottoman. Clearly I’m not as concerned about protecting her from violence as I say. If I was concerned, I’d get the TV out of the house. Shoot, if I was really concerned, I’d get rid of the Bible too.

Did you hear what I just read from Revelation 16? Malignant boils covering the skin, oceans and rivers turned to blood, demonic frogs, hundred-pound hailstones pounding down on people’s heads, darkness and thunder and cosmic war? That’s nightmare material. Of course, if you’ve been following along with me these past two years through Revelation, nightmares are not new. We’ve seen plenty of blood, gruesomeness and violence already. As compared to the seven seals and seven trumpets, these seven bowls of judgment pour out God’s wrath with greater intensity—as if any more intensity were necessary. Perhaps you’re wondering when all the violence will stop. We did get a welcome breather last month as we were reminded how God’s final triumph over evil will top any Celtics’ championship victory parade. But this month it’s back to cataclysm. The good news is that the end is in sight. In verse 17, as a seventh angel spews ruin into the air, the voice of God booms from the heavenly temple and declares “it is done.” The bad news is that because Revelation is not sequential, three chapters of grisly details remain.

This third and last set of judgments was announced as “the third woe” back in chapter 11. The third woe commenced with the terrifying appearance of a dragon—Satan the ancient serpent himself—along with the fabled beast and false prophet: an unholy trinity of deception and destruction. Standing up to their menace was Jesus the Lamb, slain and risen, along with those saved by his sacrifice. An angel flew overhead with a message for any who remained on the fence: “fear God because the hour of his judgment has come.” The angel’s warning applied to every wicked system and government that abused its power, along with every individual who pledged allegiance to their insidious designs. In the foreboding angel’s wake rode a “son of man” seated on clouds and crowned with gold—Jesus again—only this time wielding a sharp sickle with which to separate the wheat from the chaff; that is, those who remain unashamed of the gospel from those who succumbed to the serpent. The number of the faithful totaled 144,000, though that number is not an exact figure. It is figurative of all who keep the faith.

Having harvested the wheat, it’s now time to deal with the chaff—the ones who wear the mark of the beast. You may remember from our look at the beast a few months back that there is support for understanding 666 (the numeric mark of the beast) as a generic symbol of imperfect and incomplete humanity (777 being a number representing perfection). People marked with the mark of the beast are people devoid of endurance and devoid of faith: both faith in Christ and faith like Christ. They include those who abandoned Jesus in the face of persecution as well as those who refused to believe in the first place. Both chose instead to follow the worldly wiles and wants of the antichrist.

Chapter 15 blew open with more portents of their doom; leaving chapter 16 to provide the initial particulars: seven more angels with seven bowls brimming with divine heat. These seven bowls do finally exhaust God’s anger, but in doing so they exhaust the entirety of creation too. Sin has environmental consequences. A dead sea of cold blood destroys aquatic life. Coagulated rivers poison the drinking water. The sun’s intensified heat cooks the earth to a char. Desiccated and well done, people look to the beast for deliverance, but they cannot find him. The Lord has plunged his throne into darkness. All these burnt wretches can do is writhe in agony and gnaw on their tongues in misery. Another bowl and the way is paved for an invasion from the East. Babylon, the capital of devilry is done for. As a last gasp, the dragon, the beast and the false prophet each yak up frogs, demonic spirits capable of mobilizing armies for world war. Lightning and thunder crash, as God himself readies for the final confrontation. It is Armageddon, Vengeance is on the agenda—these vile perpetrators of brutality will be met with brutality. The Jesus who stood at the door and knocked in chapter 3 now prepares to blast the door off its hinges.

And yet, surprisingly, God’s vengeance shows unusual restraint. These vicious murderers who shed the blood of saints do not lose their own blood. The faithful who refused to worship the beast were killed in chapter 13, but these villains who refuse to worship God here only get afflicted with severe skin infections. It’s as if God who punishes their villainy still wants them back. Like the apostle Peter declared: “the Lord does not want that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The door Jesus blows open remains open to a change of heart on their part. The tragedy, however, is that there is only hardness of heart. Despite blistering sores and blistering heat, despite unquenchable thirst and impenetrable darkness, despite blood and devastation and natural disaster, these who rejected God reject him still. Not only do they stubbornly refuse to repent, but they lash out, cursing God in a malicious display of defiance. But is this a shock? It’s like playing “say uncle” as kids. The neighborhood bully would twist your arm until you relented, but that only made you hate him all the more. It may seem that God shows restraint by not killing the villains, but some argue that having to live through these bowlfuls of terror was worse.

Can repentance be coerced? Does faith count if it’s forced? Why would a loving God who desires repentance ever resort to such extreme violence to get it? Looking at chapter 14 a couple month’s back, we explored how it is that a loving God can get so angry. It’s a question that comes up a lot in Revelation. However it’s also a question that answers itself. If you have ever loved someone, then you know love’s power. You know the delight that happens when you give yourself gladly and unreservedly to someone else. To love is a wonderful thing. But if you have ever loved, you also know how horrible it can become. How horrible it is when you discover the betrayal, when you get floored by the rejection. You try to make sense but you can’t and start to think you’ve gone mad, and then you get mad. Furious. Vengeful. If you have ever loved and then had that love rejected, you understand how a loving God can be a wrathful God too. And yet anger does have a way of eliciting sorrow. To have someone who loves you justly angry at you can awaken in you a desire to make things right.

God’s anger can do that. His is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a voluntary, purposeful and explosive force occasioned by the misconduct of his people, fueled by his concern for right and wrong and provoked by his pity for the abused and mistreated. It’s severity is proportionate to his intense hatred of sin and injustice. Yet among its purposes, in line with His love, is to rouse you toward repentance and scare you (if that’s what it takes) back into loyal relationship with Him, back into compassionate relationship toward your neighbor, and back into grateful worship. And because God “does not want that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” he holds out even for the hold out, even to the point of ferociously twisting their arms that they might see the absurdity of the swine slop they’re eating, come to their senses and come home. Is coerced repentance truly repentance? It can be. Attitudes shape actions, but actions can also shape attitudes. Force enemies to shake hands and that simple gesture of reconciliation can sometimes result in real the thing.

Wrath with an view toward reconciliation is what might be called a kind of restorative justice. As the offended party, God metes out punishment but with a desire to welcome back instead of pay back. God’s justice comes tempered with mercy. Restorative justice contrasts with retributive justice, the familiar “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” kind. Both are in the Bible, with the latter reserved for those who want nothing to do with mercy, for those who refuse to believe they need forgiveness. “God will repay each person according to what he has done,” Paul wrote to the Romans, “And if you persist in your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you store up wrath against yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” To repeat a quote from Yale theologian Miroslav Volf: “God’s wrath falls on those who deserve it—not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves. Underlying the theology of judgment is the assumption that nothing is strong enough to change those who insist on remaining beasts and false prophets. We must not shrink back from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there are those human beings created in God’s image who through their immersion in evil have immunized themselves from God’s grace.”

Still, the question remains: If God’s wrath is bent toward reconciliation, even toward those who resist reconciliation, why must his wrath be so violent? I mean, hundred pound hailstones? Unimaginable earthquakes? World war? Oceans of blood? Isn’t that a bit extreme? It’s definitely disturbing to read. Sensing perhaps a need for reassurance, verse 5 interrupts with an angel who shouts, “You are just, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments; for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” An amen shouts back from the congregation, “Yes Lord, right and true are your judgments.” True, those against whom God lowers the boom are drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs. True, they have made war against the Lamb and bedecked themselves in pretentious piety. True, they follow beasts who spread terror and false prophets who spread lies. God’s justice demands that terror be vanquished and deceit expunged. Goodness and light must prevail over evil and darkness or God’s justice is no justice at all. But doesn’t the relentless blood and fire and misery amount to cruel and unusual punishment?

It is violent. But remember that in Revelation, the violence is figurative. Revelation’s language belongs to that Biblical genre known as apocalyptic where fantastical images and events are employed sort of like special effects at the movies. You know that Batman can’t really fall seven stories, crash through the hood of a car, land standing up and then take out an army of the Joker’s henchmen with one swing, but dog if it doesn’t get your attention. Likewise with the graphic descriptions here. They drive home literal truth using literary devices. Armageddon, for instance, translates verbatim into “the mount of Megiddo,” except that there’s no mount at Megiddo. Megiddo is a flat plain some two days walk north of Jerusalem. Megiddo is a place where Biblical battles occurred, but Armageddon in Hebrew could just as well mean any place where armies gather or a “marauding mountain;” scholars are all over the map. End Times enthusiasts waste inordinate amounts of energy trying to locate it on the map. It’s not on the map because Armageddon is a symbolic battlefield, that symbol of injustice and evil combating the Lord on the “great day of God Almighty.” It won’t be much of a fight. That it’s called the “great day of God Almighty” is just another way of saying God has won. Some scholars wonder if Revelation’s use of an imaginary place meant that the battle is imaginary too. Christ has already won the war over evil and sin through his cross and resurrection—if anything, Armageddon is a mop up operation.

Of course just because Revelation’s language is figurative does not mean it’s untrue. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was figurative, yet its narrative has demonstrated its truth countless times over in the lives of those who’ve sees the absurdity of the swine slop, come to the senses and come home. Parables and apocalypse function in similar ways. Literary devices to teach literal truth. The great day of God Almighty will come and evil will meet its doom, whatever that day ends up looking like in reality. The important thing is to be ready for it, to be found faithful to Jesus in deed and in creed, because when the end does come, be it the end of the world or just the end of your world, it may come unexpectedly, “as a thief in the night.” Speaking in verse 15, Jesus himself reiterates what we read in apocalyptic passages elsewhere. “Keep watch,” he said in Matthew, “because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming (figuratively speaking), he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Jesus’ intent is not to catch you doing wrong but to keep you doing right. If you never know then you’re always ready. By using the language of thievery, the Bible is not condoning crime any more that Revelation is condoning war. They’re simply trying to get your attention; to get you to take your grace and take it seriously.

Why use violence to get our attention? Because it works. No matter how much we decry its ferocity and cruelty, we still line up to see movies like “The Dark Night” and “Hellboy 2,” not to mention “Prince Caspian” or any of the “Left Behind” flicks. The special effects especially affect us. Violence gets to us. Why? No one really knows why— maybe it has something to do with the adrenaline rush vicarious participation in danger provides. Millions of people will take in violent movies this summer, and millions more will watch all sorts of violence on TV, and even millions more than that will play violent video games. Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest chapter in the excessively cruel and massively popular video game series raked in over $300 million in sales in its first 24 hours—a far better one-day take than any movie in history. I don’t play Grand Theft Auto, I’m not much of a gamer. Though I have dabbled in one called Civilization. It’s a rather tame game that pits your computer-generated culture against others vying for world domination. You work your way through history, beginning at 5000 BC, stashing resources and forging industry, building cities and roads, keeping citizens content, doing trade and managing a military, all of which scores you points. It’s pretty addictive—ask Chris Sherwood or Walter Kim.

You can win the game in various ways. You can score a culture victory, or be the first to build a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, or corner world economic markets, or simply amass the most land. Of course the most direct way to win is through war. War comes at a cost. You have to put up with disorder and instability on the home front, not to mention going into enormous debt to finance it, and all the death; but ironically war is much more of a thrill ride. In his book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, author Chris Hedges writes how war is in fact a drug, a powerful addiction. It “is peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. …Even with its destruction and carnage, war can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning and a reason for living and dying.”

Hedges witnessed this himself during the Bosnian war. I just got a taste of it at my computer. I managed to stockpile an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons. I had my civilization beautifully set up with military superiority. I simply had to play out the game peaceably and all the other nations would bow before me. But there’s something about having access to a nuclear arsenal. Such power at your fingertips. All I had to do was hit F6. This game had already sapped 30 hours of my life. I wanted to win and be done. But I’d gotten further than I had ever gotten before through patience and good judgment, did I really want to risk blowing it all by blowing up the world? Nuclear war never turns out well. But still, the power was intoxicating. It got obsessive, even though it was only figurative war. One night, after lying awake and thinking about nothing else, I got up, logged in and launched. I ignited my own little Armageddon and watched as the entire computer screen detonated into oblivion. The civilization I’d worked all those hours to win was wasted. I lost. Everything was leveled. And I know this sounds silly, but I was so into that game that it felt real. And my giddy eagerness to harm and destroy scared me. What kind of person was I? I couldn’t help but wonder whether the programmers designed it that way on purpose—to use violence as an antidote to violence. And sometimes I wonder that about Revelation too.

Either way, I don’t play that game anymore.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Irenaeus of Lyons

Revelation 4

The next in this year's installment on the Church Fathers by Daniel Harrell

A professor in Bible Belt Georgia teaches a course called Introduction to World Religions and writes that while it helps her predominantly Christian students better understand the world (for instance, the difference between Sunni and Shi’a), the course always backfires when it comes to Christianity itself. Students may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but rarely do they have any idea how these books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know what makes them Protestants or that the Christian tree has two other major branches more ancient than their own. Very few have heard of the Nicene Creed. Most are surprised to learn that baptism is supposed to be a one-time thing. They never imagined that the first Christians didn’t have pocket New Testaments. And they’ve never considered what occurred during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own professions of faith. They way they figure it, they’ve simply picked up where the disciples left off.

Martin Luther is to blame for part of this (if you know who Martin Luther is). The 16th century reformer (and technically the first Protestant) is famous for his insistence on sola scriptura, a cornerstone tenet of the Reformation. Sola scriptura affirms the Bible alone as sufficient for faith and plainly intelligible to anyone who wants to read it. But, as author Jayson Byassee asks, if Scripture is so plainly clear, why did the Reformer John Calvin have to write his voluminous Institutes of the Christian Religion along with a library of commentaries to tell us what the Bible means? And why have subsequent generations of Protestants, each insisting they were following the Bible, shattered like so many pieces of smashed glass into a bewildering variety of denominations and interpretations? As that religion professor showed, being able to read the Bible is no guarantee you understand it. Severing Scripture from its community of interpretive history may have rightly straightened lines of authority, but did it do so at the cost of fully comprehending what that authority teaches?

A growing number of serious Christian readers of the Bible have become persuaded that we can’t hope to fully comprehend what Jesus or Paul meant by what they said without seeing how they were read and understood by the likes of Basil, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth or even CS Lewis. This is because all Christian readers of Scripture necessarily stand on the interpretive shoulders of past believers and thinkers. Tradition is the memory of the church. And as Augustine argued, we are who we are only through our memories. Did you know that church tradition is actually older than the Bible you hold in your hand? The writings of the first fathers, such as Irenaeus of Lyons, precede the coalescing of the 66 books of the Bible into a single authorized canon. This is not to say that Irenaeus predates the Biblical authors, but his teaching contributed to the church’s affirming the books it did, while rejecting those books, a la The Da Vinci Code, deemed heretical. We have the Bible we have in part due to the inspired discernment of the early church fathers.

Eleven years ago I embarked on an annual sermon series during July concerning the Church Fathers, those personalities who over the early centuries of church history fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. As there have been numerous noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers) it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time. However, since many of the patristic heroes cluster around the letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas for instance—I’m only this year getting to Letter I (I should be on K). Last Sunday we took a look at the early second century martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch. In two weeks (I have morning duty next Sunday) I will introduce you either to Ignatius of Loyola, (the founder of the Jesuits), Innocent III (the founder of the imperial papacy), or Isidore of Pelusium, an early desert father whom I mentioned was requested by longtime member Chris Lee. Only Chris told me this week that he meant Isidore of Seville, the seventh century scholar and patron saint of the internet, which I hard to believe given that bandwidth was so narrow back then. At any rate, I need your help in deciding which father to cover on the last Sunday of July. If you have a preference, please vote at right. I’ll preach the winner.

This Sunday’s “I” Father is Irenaeus of Lyons, an indubitable defender of early Christian faith. As the early church was sorting out its theology and practice post-New Testament, it had to confront the dual pressures of reverting back to Judaism and accommodating to Hellenism. In addition, there were also a host of heretical temptations such as Gnosticism, which viewed the created world as an evil from which people need rescue through secret knowledge. The church had to thrash out its responses to these threats with no precedent to guide its thinking. Into this fray emerged Irenaeus whose monumental writing contested false doctrine and steered the church toward its right practice. Irenaeus did this not by coming up with creative theological innovations, but rather by grounding theology in an understanding of that Scriptural teaching which tradition had heretofore preserved. His highest aim was to state clearly what the church believed and taught, and to guard that teaching from corruption. In his various statements of faith appear all the essentials of the later Nicene Creed.

We know little of Irenaeus’ life. He was born in Asia Minor around 130 AD and later migrated to southern France to help with missionary work. A ferocious persecution broke out in Lyons, killing the bishop of the fledging church there. Undeterred, the infant community called Irenaeus to be its new leader. Persecution only made the church stronger. Like his Lord, Irenaeus viewed affliction as the path toward sure resurrection. He asked, “What, did the Lord wish that his apostles should undergo buffeting and that they should endure affliction? That’s what the word says. Why? Because strength is made perfect in weakness, rendering one a better person who by means of infirmity becomes acquainted with the power of God. For how can a person learn that he is an infirm being, and mortal by nature, and that God is immortal and powerful, unless he learns it by experiencing it? There is nothing evil in learning one’s weaknesses by suffering; rather, it has the beneficial effect of preventing a person from forming an undue opinion of his own nature.”

Irenaeus’ view on earthly faith was always with an eye toward heaven. It is from Scripture’s promise of a certain future that faith finds its hope and strength to endure the present. In the book of Revelation, from which I am preaching during my turns in the morning, chapter 4 grants a glimpse of the celestial command center, the heavenly headquarters occupied by Almighty God. The blinding light of God’s glory reflects off precious gemstones, as well as off the emerald rainbow which encircles the throne. Flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, reminiscent of Mt. Sinai, foreshadow ferocious wrath to be unleashed against evil. However the rainbow, reminiscent of of God’s promise to Noah, also foreshadows ferocious grace. God’s justice is always tempered by mercy. Nevertheless, those enemies who in the end persist in scorning God’s mercy will not be spared. The calm sea of glass, spread before the throne testifies to evil’s imminent demise. Throughout Scripture, a churning sea symbolizes the reservoir of satanic chaos. But here in chapter 4, the sea is calmed and evil defeated. Redeemed from its curses, creation is freed to fulfill its purpose.

What is its purpose? John paints a picture of worship. Four living creatures representing all animate life on earth surround God’s throne and sing, Holy, Holy, Holy. With their wings they evoke the seraphim of Isaiah who sang the same song. Their coverings of eyes shows that God forever watches over them. Rightly joining in their chorus are twenty-four elders who embody the redeemed people of God. Their robes and crowns are their rewards for persevering faithfulness, the thrones are their own seats saved in heaven. However these elders readily bow and relinquish their crowns “whenever the creatures give glory, honor and thanks to the one who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever.” Casting down their crowns they acknowledge the worthiness of God. Why? Because, verse 11, “You created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

It is interesting that in a book focused on the final outcomes of God’s redeeming work in Christ, God’s creatures give praise not for their salvation, but for their creation. This is interesting because we tend to think of creation as prior to redemption, subject to the fall—marred and messed up by people. Redemption is God’s response to human sin. Yet that chronology begs the question as to how God’s creation, made as good, could ever go so bad. It’s as if God’s work was not quite up to snuff. How did a couple crafted in God’s image at creation get tempted so easily? It’s the same question we can ask of those whom by faith are “new creations” in Christ. How is it that we who possess the very Spirit of God nevertheless choose to behave in ways so contrary to that Spirit? We answer that God is not done with us yet. That we’ve yet to become who we will be in Christ.

Irenaeus asked, “Could God not have made humanity perfect from the beginning? One must know that all things are possible for God, who is always the same and uncreated. But created beings, who have their beginning of being in the course of time, are necessarily inferior to the one who created them. Things which have recently come into being cannot be eternal; and not being eternal, they fall short of perfection for that very reason. And being newly created they are therefore childish and immature, and not yet fully prepared for an adult way of life. And so, just as the mother is able to offer food to an infant, but the infant is not yet able to receive food unsuited to its age, in the same way God, for his part, could have offered perfection to humanity at the beginning, but humanity, being created, was not capable of receiving it.”

Because human beings exist as creatures created, we exist as children, Irenaeus argued, which explains why the first humans were so easily deceived. The image of God was their destiny more than their starting point. Irenaeus taught that God provided his word and spirit as tutors toward this destiny, along with angels too. But if you’re depending on angels to teach you well, what happens when one of your teachers envies the lofty heights for which you’re destined and decides to sabotage the lesson? Irenaeus said you get a snake in the garden—an angel gone bad who deceived Adam and Eve and sidetracked their development.

It’s sort of like what’s happened to our 9-month-old Violet this week. You read in the prayer list that she broke her leg. It was mostly an accident—but not entirely. No matter how many toys and pieces of Tupperware we surround her with, Violet inevitably wants what she can’t have, demonstrating quite vividly her own human nature. One of her taboos is the TV remote which sat atop an ottoman on Monday. She uses the ottoman to pull up, but seeing the remote, she overreached to obtain the object of her desire. Letting loose of a hand, she lost her balance and fell back onto her leg and fractured it. Now, as a result of the fall, she’s in a cast for three weeks, her development sidetracked by having to haul around a pound of plaster. Granted, leaving the remote where it would tempt her was my doing, making me Satan in this analogy. But she did make a reach for it. She is partly to blame. But c’mon, she’s a baby, she couldn’t help it. Cut her some slack, you’re her dad! Which was precisely Irenaeus’ point. As childlike, Adam and Eve, while at fault, receive ample amounts of grace from their heavenly Father. God explicitly cursed Satan for duping Adam and Eve, but Adam and Eve he only punished leaving room for their ultimate healing redemption.

Of course, God knew this was going to happen. Which is why Revelation 13:8 describes Jesus as the “Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” Redemption has always been in the works. In Christ, humanity gets a do-over. Irenaeus writes, Christ’s “obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary undid the evil lie that seduced Eve. As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in turn was given the good news by the word of an angel and bore God in obedience to his word. … Christ gathered all things into one, by gathering them into himself. He declared war against our enemy, crushed and trampled on the head of the one who at the beginning had taken us captive in Adam.”

Jesus saves not only by his atoning death, but by his obedient life too. He paves the way for our created destiny. “The Son of God has always existed with the Father,” Irenaeus wrote, “but when he was incarnate and became a human being, he recapitulated (did over) in himself the long history of the human race, obtaining salvation for us, so that we might regain in Jesus Christ what we had lost in Adam; that is, being in the image and likeness of God… Our bodies, which have been nourished by the Eucharist will be buried in the earth and will decay, but they will rise again at the appointed time, for the word of God will raise them up to the glory of God the Father. Then the Father will clothe our mortal nature in immortality and freely endow our corruptible nature with incorruptibility, for God’s power is shown most perfectly in weakness.”

True for the creature, true for creation. In the end the world which came from God will return to him again. We get redeemed and so does the earth. The dust of creation to which all living things return when they die is the same dust out of which resurrection and new creation emerges. In Romans, Paul writes how “the creation waits in eager expectation;” our new birth signals its new birth. “The creation itself,” Paul writes, “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” “God is rich in all things and all things are his,” Irenaeus wrote, “it is right, therefore, for this created order to be restored to its pristine state, and to serve the just without restraint.” Instead of the eventual decimation of a universe spun out of control; instead of an earth fried up or freeze-dried a billion years hence; Scripture envisions its glorious restoration by God’s creative and redemptive hand. As for us, the ineffable light of God’s glory breaks back into our present beckoning on toward becoming the people in Christ we already are. And in that day when we are who we are; we will join with the ancient-future chorus of Revelation that finally fulfills its purpose in the unending praise of God.