Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Letter L=LAST SERMON POST (Also CS Lewis)

This sermon blog is moving to the Colonial Church website. You will be able to find it here.

However, Daniel Harrell will continue to post here on occasion and at www.danielharrell.com

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter L: CS Lewis
Matthew 2:1-10
by Daniel Harrell

This morning concludes this year’s installment of my alphabetical Church Fathers sermon series, this summer starting with the Letter L. You’ll remember that to be a Church Father technically means you lived during the first five centuries of Christianity, but clearly I overstep that boundary. My rationale (and annual running joke) for doing so has been that, for American Protestants at least, our sense of church history only stretches back as far as CS Lewis anyway. How apropos, therefore, that arriving at Letter L we finally arrive at Lewis, on the heels of Pope Leo the Great and Martin Luther. Most contemporary Christians have enjoyed a CS Lewis encounter—he crosses all denominations. Perhaps it was a fascination with the Chronicles of Narnia as a child, an engagement with the apologetics of Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain during college, maybe the sci-fi fantasy of his Space Trilogy, the cleverness of The Screwtape Letters, or his insights into mythology and renaissance literature expressed in essays, letters or Lewis’ own favorite work, Til We Have Faces. Despite having enjoyed little critical acclaim—especially when compared to his good friend JRR Tolkien—the popularity of Lewis continues unabated.

Lewis is so popular in fact, that some regard his authority as almost on par with Scripture itself. For instance, many believers disturbed over author Rob Bell’s recent musings over heaven and hell were quickly assuaged once they discovered Bell got a lot of his ideas from CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. My personal favorite is A Grief Observed which Lewis wrote following the heartbreaking death of his wife, American Joy Gresham, to whom he had been married just a few years before cancer took her. The book has helped me through the tragedies of my own life. Asking after the presence of God, as people often do in the aftermath of catastrophic loss, Lewis wrote “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” Lewis initially published this book under a pseudonym. Caring friends, unaware of this, gave it to him to guide him through his own grief.

Born in Belfast in 1898, Clive Stapes Lewis was known throughout his life as Jack—a name he insisted he be called at age four in memory of his dog Jacksie. Lewis possessed a rich childhood imagination, which he carried into adulthood, insisting that without it, you can’t fully understand the world. For Lewis, meaning is conveyed most powerfully through story—through the great and not-so-great narratives of history retold over and over again. Our almost four-year-old daughter Violet is currently in a phase where everyday is a recreated, detailed story involving her, our cat Briscoe and her toy bunny. They live atop hedges, scale mountains, fly airplanes and eat magic ice cream that transforms them into the color of the flavor they choose, all of which helps Violet make sense of her world. (Either that or her parents are so boring she has to jazz things up a little.) Lewis wrote, “A child is always thinking about those details in a story which a grown-up regards as indifferent. If when you first told the tale your hero was warned by three little men appearing on the left of the road, and when you tell it again you introduce one little man on the right of the road, the child protests. And the child is right. You think it makes no difference because you are not living in the story at all. If you were, you would know better.”

Lewis won a college scholarship to Oxford, which took him to England in 1916. The culture shock he experienced there was significant. “The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons,” he said. Lewis fought and was wounded in World War I, and in the trenches made a pact with a fellow soldier to care for the other’s family should either be killed. Lewis alone survived and kept his promise. He’d given up on church at an early age—“very angry at God for not existing” he said—but once he returned to Oxford as a professor, he befriended the devoutly Catholic JRR Tolkien. Tolkien eventually coaxed Lewis back to belief, though not as far as to his own Roman Catholicism. Lewis stuck with the Church of England instead, despite his misgivings about the English. In time he became the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge, from whence he subsequently professed that there was no such thing as an English Renaissance.

Lewis had a lot to say about almost everything, his prolificacy was the fruit of his bounteous imagination and his many fascinations: from anthropomorphic animals to the stars in the sky. Lewis was a keen amateur astronomer who kept a telescope on the balcony of his bedroom. According to Michael Ward, a Cambridge University Chaplain and author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Lewis’ favorite object in the night sky was the planet Jupiter. According to medieval cosmology, Jupiter was the ‘best planet,’ Fortuna Major. Lewis used to tell his university lecture audiences, “Those born under Jupiter are apt to be loud-voiced and red-faced.” He would then pause before adding, “It is obvious under which planet I was born.”

Lewis lectured on medieval cosmology because he thought that familiarity with the pre-Copernican cosmos was essential to a proper understanding of medieval and renaissance literature: he repeatedly encouraged his students and readers to take a stroll under the sky at night. Looking up at the heavens for moderns, he argued, is a very different experience from what it was in the Middle Ages. These days we sense that we are looking out into a trackless emptiness, a pitch-black and dead-cold space—which is what we call it: space. In the Middle Ages, we would have felt as if we were looking into a vast, lighted concavity, a dome of wondrous luminosity and even love.

“We are inveterate poets,” Lewis wrote. “When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality—the Sublime… Men of sensibility look up to on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not. When the silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, it was Pascal’s own greatness that enabled them to do so; to be frightened by the bigness of the nebulae is, almost literally, to be frightened by our own shadow. For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. As a Christian, I do not say we are wrong to tremble at the shadow, for I believe it to be the shadow of an image of God. But if the vastness of Nature ever threatens to overthrow our spirits, we must remember that it is only Nature spiritualized by human imagination which does so.”

Our text for this morning is the familiar Christmas story about the star of Bethlehem. We read the passage every Christmas, but rarely go out in the winter night to look for traces of that star. Granted, the cold might have something to do with that, but not so for C.S. Lewis. To a friend he once confided how beautiful it was “on two or three successive nights about the Holy Time, to see Venus and Jupiter blazing at one another, once with the Moon right between them: Majesty and Love linked by Virginity—what could be more appropriate?”

Michael Ward goes on to note how Lewis’ delight in this old picture of the heavens (as opposed to space) was not confined to his professional life as a literary historian; he had a much more personal investment in it too. In The Turn of the Tide, a meditation upon the cosmic significance of Christ's Nativity, Lewis wrote how the entire universe waits in breathless expectancy about the coming event in Bethlehem—from the lowly cattle all the way up to Saturn in the outermost planetary sphere. When Christ is finally born:
Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost,
His beard, Niagara-like, unfroze;
Monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One,
The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes.
A shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth
went gliding. Her bonds were released…
So death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless'd
Nothing greater could be heard
Than a dry wind in the thorn, the cry of the One new-born,
And cattle in stall as they stirred.

Since the Copernican revolution, with earth no longer the center of things, the heavenly bodies had been steadily evacuated of spiritual significance until they were regarded as no more than large aggregations of rock or gas. Narnia readers may recall an exchange in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader during which Eustace is rebuked by Ramandu for claiming that “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu replies, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy largely to rehabilitate (imaginatively, not scientifically, that is) this traditional view. For what purpose? For the purpose of meaning. Lewis considered the cosmos to be more than merely material. For him the pre-Copernican model was, in a sense, more Christian than the Newtonian or Einsteinian versions which succeeded it because it provided a spiritual reading of materiality.

Historically, religious faith, particularly Christianity, was the loom onto which the discoveries of science were woven. It was within a Christian theological framework that scientific disclosure found its transcendent meaning. Ironically, Copernicus and Newton were devout believers and saw their work not as replacements for faith, but as extensions of it. Even Einstein gave credence to some sort of divine will at work. The idea was that the best of science and the best of theology concerted to give human beings deeper insight into the character of the universe and, subsequently, into the divine character himself. Scientific discovery was received with gratitude to the Almighty for the wonder of his creation. Scientists, alongside the psalmist, would proclaim, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

This former balance between faith and science (or reason) was struck in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas, who building on Augustine, established a delicate equilibrium between theology (reasoning down from faith) and philosophy, or science (reasoning up from sensory data). Aquinas, unlike the Reformers who followed, taught that human senses and rational faculties, created by God, were competent for understanding reality, albeit from a limited viewpoint. The limits were filled in by theology. Aquinas asserted that God acted through “secondary causes,” creating the world according to his laws and then giving nature room to unfold within.

However, if God operated mostly behind the scenes as the prime cause, then it wasn’t long before thinkers started wondering whether he was there at all. In time, reliance upon divine revelation gave way to human reason in its Enlightenment form, and soon after the supernatural was rendered superfluous. Nature, reduced down to its material properties, became disenchanted. Ward writes that “The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colors, smells, and tastes. Man with his new scientific powers became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold.” This process, slowly working, siphoned away the old imaginations, much to Lewis’ dismay.

To him, modern scientists were too naturalistic in their worldview, and thus liable to the error of removing their own minds and predilections from the big picture for the sake of a presumed objectivity. They failed to realize that imagination is required in order for the world be fully known. They needed was not only larger and better telescopes, but minds increasingly aware of their own creativity. Failure of imagination de-spiritualizes the universe, Lewis believed; a fallacy of first order because the rational mind is itself spiritual and dependent upon that animating energy that saturates the entire universe—an energy which, in turn, depends upon God himself. Lewis described a universe perceived within a solely naturalistic framework to be “all fact and no meaning.”

In recent years my own interest in the interplay between science and faith has allowed me the privilege to rub shoulders with some prominent scientists for whom faith has filled out their own comprehension of reality. Francis Collins, the imminent geneticist and now Director of the NIH, attributes CS Lewis with converting his own atheism into belief, convincing Collins that the microscopic world of organic life is not random and meaningless, but infused with significance and divine beauty. At the other end of the spectrum, astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman, Chief of the ExoPlanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA (and on tap to be our next Guelich Lecturer in 2013), argues for cosmological discovery as an instrument of worship. In the spirit of Lewis, she asserts that understanding the stars grants us a profoundly expanded view of Jesus Christ as Lord; that he is Lord of all space and time—over billions of galaxies and billions of years.

For CS Lewis, mere data could not be the determinant of the real world because the real world was a matter of data and imagination, a matter of matter and meaning—and analogically, matter and spirit. The spirit is the logos, the word who is Christ, in whom Scripture teaches “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

However, Lewis’ goal was not to lead an observer from the cosmos to Christ. His goal was first to get them from the cosmos back into their own heads. He wrote, “The discrepancy between a movement of atoms in an astronomer’s cortex and his understanding that there must be a still unobserved planet beyond Uranus, is already so immense that the Incarnation of God Himself is, in one sense, scarcely more startling.” For Lewis, the link between mind and matter forged by human reasoning reflects the link forged between God and Man in Jesus; a link brought to light under the Star of Bethlehem, a star which was a huge ball of flaming gas—but so much more besides.

Lewis died at age 64, having refused to give the devil enough time to do as his senior demon Screwtape (likely English) instructed his apprentice Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters. Advocating for long life, Screwtape said: “seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unraveling human souls from Heaven and building up firm attachment to earth.” Lewis died firmly unattached to earth—and so he remains. “It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God,” he said, “because only the pure in heart want to.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter L: Martin Luther

Galatians 2:16-21
by Daniel Harrell

This morning’s look at the momentous life of Martin Luther marks the second in my annual summer sermon series on the Church Fathers (and Mothers). For fourteen summers I’ve alphabetically surveyed personalities throughout Church history who have shaped the faith as we’ve come to believe it. Now to be a genuine Church Father technically means you had to have lived during the first five centuries of Christianity. Last week I offered a brief glimpse at the fifth century’s Leo the Great, one of the most significant Popes of Christendom, which is why he’s called the Great. Almost single-handedly, Leo settled the mystery of the two natures of Jesus—his full humanity alongside his full divinity—by emphasizing Jesus’ uniqueness in this regard. Unfortunately, Leo’s success amassed considerable ecclesial and political power for the papacy in the waning days of the Roman Empire, boding badly for the years to come. Medieval Christendom during what we know as the Dark Ages was rife with papal abuses of power. Granted, had the Dark Ages not been so dark, we wouldn’t be here today talking about Martin Luther. While not technically a Church Father, living as he did in the sixteenth century, no other person had a greater impact on modern Christianity—Protestant and Catholic—than this mercurial German monk.

Minnesotans know this all too well. Lutherans comprise almost 35% of the state’s population, with Lutheran influence stretching way beyond that. An unavoidable authority on Lutheran life, Garrison Keillor, writes: “Here in the Midwest, we all have long memories of suffering and pain, because, for one thing, winter is so long, and when finally it gets warm and beautiful as it is now, we try to relieve these painful memories of cold, of neglect, of suspicion, darkness, anger, Bologna sandwiches, stupidity, and butterscotch pudding with mindless pleasure in the sun while wearing as few clothes as possible. But we were not brought up to experience pleasure. It doesn’t register on us. It’s like trying to write on glass with a pencil. We get into as few clothes as possible and the sight of ourselves depresses us. Sunlight makes us gloomy. We are not Mediterranean people. We are Lutheran people. Even the Catholics up here are Lutheran. And I don’t like to generalize about Lutherans, but one thing that’s true of every single last one of them without a single exception is that the low point of their year is their summer vacation.” (Wow, so glad we moved here!)

If this indeed is a portrait of Lutherans it’s a portrait of Luther too. Revered for his courageous confrontation of medieval church power, his standing up in the face of accusations of heresy, his establishing the authority of Scripture and then making it accessible by translating it into German, his writing some of the church’s best loved hymns—adaptations, perhaps, of the secular music in his day just like contemporary Christian music does in our own—his igniting a reformation that still burns brightly; Luther did all of this despite being a man tormented by depression, debilitating self-doubt and an almost paranoid fear of God.

It started early. Trained as a lawyer and excelling as a philosopher, Luther gave it all up at age 21. Making his way home one night through a tremendous thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near his path. He screamed, “Help me St. Anne I will become a monk!” And he did. Possessing what one biographer describes as “a high pressure fire hose” personality of shattering intensity, Luther plunged into monastic life—praying, fasting, going without sleep, enduring winter without blankets, flagellating himself and who knows, maybe eating mounds of butterscotch pudding: “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk,” he wrote, “It was I.”

And yet none of this diminished his paranoid fear of God’s judgment. He hated opening his Bible, and having to constantly read about God’s righteousness and realizing over and over again how he could never measure up. Ironically assigned to teach Bible at Wittenberg University, Luther gradually discovered a way through his dilemma. “At last, meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that the righteous [are justified] by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”

You’re likely familiar with the rest of the story—especially if you’ve seen the movie. Granted, Luther was no nearly so good looking (as the above photo shows), yet his legacy is enormous. Every Protestant stream, including our own Congregationalist one, flows from Luther’s reservoir.

Of course, Luther did not come up with justification by faith on his own. That’s always been in the Bible. It goes all the way back to Abraham. Yet just as the medieval church of Luther’s day controlled Biblical interpretation, so a group known as Judaizers tried to control things in New Testament Greece. In our text from Galatians this morning, these Judaizers—milking ancient Jewish prejudice against Gentiles—insisted that Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised as Jews first. Though the apostle Peter (a Jew) knew better, he apparently backed out of dinner with a group of Gentile Christians so not to offend Jews who still considered eating with Gentiles to be some sort of contagion. The apostle Paul (also a Jew) was livid. He considered Peter’s actions a direct assault on the integrity of the gospel. Paul gave it to Peter in front of everyone, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We Jews have put our faith in Christ Jesus just like the Gentiles that we too may be justified by faith in Christ and not by doing the works of the law, just like the Gentiles.”

“This is not to say that the Law is bad,” Luther explained. “Only that it is not able to justify us. … We must understand that we are merely beneficiaries and recipients of the treasures of Christ. Now, if I could perform any work acceptable to God and deserving of grace, … why should I stand in need of the grace of God and the suffering and death of Christ? Christ would be of no benefit to me. Christ’s mercy would be of no use to me. This shows how little insight the pope and the whole of his religious coterie have into spiritual matters, and how little they concern themselves with the spiritual health of their forlorn flocks. … God never yet gave to any person grace and everlasting life as a reward for merit. The opinions of the papists are the intellectual pipe-dreams of idle pates, that serve no other purpose but to draw men away from the true worship of God. The papacy is founded upon hallucinations.

“The true way of salvation is this. First, a person must realize that he is a sinner, the kind of a sinner who is congenitally unable to do any good thing. “Whatsoever is not of faith, is sin.” Those who seek to earn the grace of God by their own efforts are trying to please God with sins. They mock God, and provoke His anger. They must repent. The second part is this. God sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we may live through His merit. He was crucified and killed for us. By sacrificing His Son for us God revealed Himself to us as a merciful Father who donates remission of sins, righteousness, and life everlasting for Christ’s sake. God hands out His gifts freely unto all men. That is the praise and glory of His mercy.”

For all his fervency regarding God’s grace, Luther remained burdened by his own unworthiness of it. Despite all the assurance about which he wrote and preached, he struggled to ever feel any assurance himself. How could he? He firmly believed that grace justified the sinner, but he also believed it did nothing to change one’s sinful nature. Back and forth it went. As biographer Martin Marty writes, Luther’s life makes sense chiefly as one who wrestled obsessively with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed. Luther was often paralyzed by what he called Anfechtungen, an untranslatable word often defined as those spiritual assaults that keep people from finding certainty in a loving God—attacks of doubt and near-despair sent not from the devil but, quite possibly, from God himself.

I didn’t read much about Luther until I got to seminary—Congregationalists tend toward Calvin and Zwingli as our reformers of choice (though Luther had choice words for Calvin and Zwingli too). Once in seminary, given Luther’s stature, I figured I needed to read more about him. Besides, it was a class assignment. But being something of a non-conformist (which everyone considers themselves to be in seminary—don’t ask me why), I picked up a biography of Luther by a contemporary historian that was not on the recommended reading list. It was a fascinating retelling of Luther’s life, and inspiring as well as the author wrote in soaring prose of the power and brilliance of Luther’s theology. Everything was there: justification by grace through faith; the “joyful exchange” of identities with Christ; the forgiveness of sins; the authority of the Word; and the human as “sinner and at the same time justified.” But then, at the end, came a chapter on Luther’s later years and his vicious anti-Semitism. Granted, Luther was an equal-opportunity denouncer of Jews, papists, Turks, Calvinists, Anabaptists and even other Lutherans. Moreover, his anti-Semitism was not racial as much as it was religious; he welcomed Jewish converts to Christianity. But Luther believed with the world ending soon and with so many denying Christ, Jews were basically doomed.

“I write against the Jews,” Luther said, “for a Jew or a Jewish heart is a wooden, stone devil heart that can be moved by nothing.” That was Luther being kind. Most of the language he used is unspeakable in polite company. In fact, the last sermon Luther preached, three days before he died in February 1546, was an attack against Jews. He never seemed to contemplate how contradictory it might seem to see the sufferings of Christians as a sign of God’s blessing toward those God loved, while the suffering of Jews was a testimony of God’s wrath toward those he hated. Luther’s virulent railing against the Jews reflected his times to be sure; but they were still bad enough to leave a legacy of hateful consequences in Germany for centuries.

As for the contemporary biographer recording these things, Luther’s viciousness cancelled out for him all the good Luther accomplished. In the final chapter of his polemical biography, the author summarily rejected the Christian gospel and God’s grace all because of Martin Luther. As a young seminarian, I was dumbstruck by how anybody could so clearly and beautifully articulate the gospel of Jesus to which I had staked my own soul, only to then entirely dismiss it due to the words and acts of one person—and a sixteenth century person at that. If Martin Luther could cause somebody to reject the gospel and lose their faith, how many people were going to lose their faith because of me? I descended into my own bout of Anfechtungen which led me to schedule a weeklong personal retreat (at a Catholic monastery no less) where I dutifully read the biography of Luther that was on the approved reading list.

So many years since, I’ve thankfully come to realize the real question is how anyone could have expected Luther to be other than the sinful man he was. This goes for all of us. And it goes for Jesus too; inasmuch as he bore our sins on the cross. Luther argued that to truly know Christ is not to know him in the sublime, dreamed-up idealized ways we so often conceive of Him, (and wrongly imagine ourselves as able to emulate); but rather in the lowly, weak and dying ways Jesus reveals himself on the cross, where he takes on humanity in all of its sin and shame. In this Christ we see ourselves.

Through the cross, Luther wrote, God “calls humans by their real names and not by images of their attractive appearance. He does not name them as they would wish, but as they are accepted by the boundless suffering love of God. This has far-reaching consequences: religious desire for praise and might and self-affirmation are blind to suffering—their own and that of others—because they are in love with achievement and success. Their love is love for the beautiful, which is to make the one who loves beautiful himself. But in the cross and passion of Christ, faith experiences a quite different love of God, a love which loves what is quite different. God loves what is sinful, bad, foolish, weak and hateful, in order to make it beautiful and good and wise and righteous. Sinners are beautiful because they are loved by God; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”

Though too often sinful, bad, foolish, weak and hateful ourselves; God still loves us relentlessly. He makes us beautiful and good and wise and righteous by the hard edge of grace. It is all Jesus’ doing. As the apostle Paul put it here in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live.” Whatever is beautiful or good or wise or right about me is not me, “but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And you and Martin Luther too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter L: Leo the Great

Matthew 5:1-12
by Daniel Harrell

If you happen to know anything about the fifth century’s Pope Leo the Great (this morning’s Church Father Starting with the Letter L) then you may know about he single-handedly faced down the notorious barbarian Attila the Hun and saved the city of Rome from destruction (at least until a few years later). Labeled “the scourge of God” by the Romans, Attila and his savage army ransacked the rest of Italy and had their sights set on the eternal city. But Leo roared onto the battlefield and repelled the Huns—reportedly with the help of a few angels though I’m guessing some gold was probably involved too. The renaissance painter Raphael had this take on it. It hangs in the Vatican and was commissioned by Pope Julius II who chose to sit as the model for Leo.

Leo’s bravery in the face of danger was in part what earned him the designation as “great,” only one of three Popes in church history to enjoy such acclamation. Thinking of Leo for this morning, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar act of bravery I witnessed during our recent family vacation. We traveled out to Yellowstone and while in Montana (courtesy of Jim and Sue Eaton’s lovely cabin there) my wife Dawn, daughter Violet and I decided to go for a short hike on Dawn’s birthday: A hike because Dawn loves to hike, and short because Violet is three. I dropped by the Visitors Center for trail suggestions, of which there were plenty, including a relatively easy one just off the highway.

Having made our choice, we were curious about the bold-typed warning printed at the bottom of the trail map: THIS IS BEAR COUNTRY. TAKE YOUR SPRAY. Take your spray? They make bear spray? Turns out they do. I asked the Visitor’s Center staff whether this was truly necessary for such a short hike so near to the highway, and they recounted how just last week a teenager was mauled by a local grizzly, albeit in the backcountry of Yellowstone. Nevertheless, they said, best to carry spray in case. And by the way, they had some on sale. Only fifty bucks a can.  it turned out, they sold Bear Spray. It cost fifty bucks a can. (Luckily, I hadn’t bought Dawn a birthday present yet. And it did come with a cool holster to carry it in.) So off we went, locked and loaded, and we made it just up to the first ridge line when hark, we heard an unfamiliar snarl. Just down in the vale we spied our own barbearian. Obviously our first impulse was to take a picture. But once the barbaric beast sensed our presence and turned toward us, action was required. Being a mama bear in her own right, my brave wife stepped up with her spray and the threat was no more. I now refer to my wife as Dawn the Great.

Fourteen years ago in Boston I began an annual sermon series during the summer on the Church Fathers, those personalities from church history who fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. It’s managed to garner a bit of acclaim. Go to the popular religious website patheos.com, and you’ll find my weekly column “Church Father ABCs.” The ABC part is because I chose to tackle these noteworthy fathers (and mothers) a letter at a time. Of course if you know your ABCs, you’re probably wondering why 14 years only has me at the letter L. The problem was that with so many patristic heroes clustered around letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas for instance—it took me a while to get out of there. My rationale for taking an annual peek at these people comes from my own conviction that our faith derives in no small part from the faithful personalities who’ve lived it and wrestled with it through crucial moments in church history. While we Protestants may not venerate these important people as saints, we cannot separate their contributions from our own doctrines and practice. We may hold to the Bible alone as our sola source of authority, but interpreting and obeying the Bible necessarily stands on the interpretive and obedient shoulders of past believers.

Last year was my first foray into the Fathers here at Colonial—of great interest to some, a good reason to go to the cabin for others. Having come to Letter K, we looked at the mystic Thomas a’ Kempis and existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Now patristic scholars in the house rightly note that to include a Kempis and Kierkegaard exceedingly stretches the definition of “church father.” Technically, to be a Church Father, you had to live in the first five centuries AD. But we’re American Protestants, we get to make our own rules. I do begin this year’s installment with a bona fide Father, but something of an abomination to most Protestants inasmuch as Leo the Great set the stage for centuries of abusive power exerted by medieval pontiffs. Granted, this abuse did pave the way for the Great Protestant Church Father if there ever was one: Martin Luther himself, the patron saint of all things Minnesotan. We’ll wrap up this year’s series with the patron saint of everything Narnian, CS Lewis.

As for Leo the Great, facing down Attila the Hun earned him some serious street cred. Born of aristocratic Tuscan stock, Leo ascended to the papacy in 440 AD. Now a hero and savior to the empire as well as the church, he easily expanded his pontifical influence. His greatest theological contribution was what we know as The Tome of Leo. It’s significance was its role in helping the hotly contested theological debate of that day; namely, the dual natures of Jesus Christ.

How was it possible for a human being to be fully God? On the one hand, Jesus was clearly a flesh and blood person, just like you and me. A historical figure, he was born and walked and talked and ate and did most everything else we humans do. On the other hand, Jesus was God incarnate, and thus he did things no human ever did—talked to demons, walked on water, fed multitudes, changed the weather and raised the dead. If a man is God, is he really a man? God’s not a man. And God doesn’t sin. But what man doesn’t sin? God doesn’t die. But Jesus died. How can Jesus be God?
Early Christians offered all sorts of options for making this work, from Jesus having a split personality to his being a human body with a divine soul and even one where Jesus’ presence on earth was more like a mirage. Predictably, the debate mostly involved the various sides labeling the other heretics. The Emperor convened a congressional committee to attempt a solution—you know, with representatives from the humanity side and representatives from the divinity side—to see if they couldn’t cobble together a compromise. But the committee only perpetuated the divide. It took the Emperor falling off his horse and dying—some would say providentially—before a new committee could be formed, one which history remembers as The Council of Chalcedon. Leo asserted his judgment at this Council through his Tome which stressed the importance of Jesus’ uniqueness as the one and only person ever with two natures. It may sound strange, but no stranger than the Doctrine of Trinity that understands God as three persons with one nature. Chalcedon affirmed Leo’s Tome, and Christians have tried to believe ever since; that “our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, complete in Godhead and humanity, truly God and truly man… without confusion, without change, without separation or division.”

Leo wrote, “Lowliness is assured by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that is incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing we needed, one and the same mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other. He who was true God was therefore born in the complete and perfect nature of a true human being, whole in his own nature, whole in ours. By our nature we mean what the Creator had fashioned in us from the beginning, and took to himself in order to restore it. For in the savior there was no trace of what the deceiver introduced, and we, being misled, allowed to enter. Jesus took our nature without the stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity…. One and the same person—this must be said over and over again—is truly the son of God and truly the son of man. He is God in virtue of the fact that ‘in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.’ He is human in virtue of the fact that the ‘the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’”

Leo’s triumph at Chalcedon further entrenched his papal authority—an authority he claimed descended from St Peter himself. At the conclusion of the Council of Chalcedon, the bishops attending agreed. They cried out in unison: “This is the faith of the fathers … Peter has spoken thus through Leo ...” Leo’s consolidation of authority led to the migration of Christianity’s center from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to Italy, away from its heavy Greek influence to the influence of Latin logic. As the Roman Empire waned, a power vacuum opened up for this mighty migration to fill, such that the Christian church assumed an imperial power itself that endured for the next thousand years—an era ironically known as the Dark Ages.

Nevertheless, the later abuses of ecclesial power were not Leo’s fault. He used his great personal influence for much good. He died in 461, leaving 96 sermons and numerous letters revealing his passion for Jesus and the gospel. His 95th sermon is based on this morning’s text from the Sermon on the Mount-twelve verses we call The Beatitudes. Jesus as the word made flesh came to earth after centuries of heavenly silence—there had been no word from the Lord in 400 years. Predictably, much of the preaching in the interim ended up emphasizing human wisdom rather than God’s action. When the Word finally returned in Christ, Leo wrote that “there were no thick clouds surrounding Him as of old, nor were the people frightened off from approaching the mountain by frightful sounds and lightning, but quietly and freely His discourse reached the ears of those who stood by: that the harshness of the law might give way before the gentleness of grace, and the spirit of adoption might dispel the terrors of bondage.”

However, having grown accustomed to relying on human wisdom, Jesus’ beatitudes generally have gotten interpreted as more of the same. The pure in heart get to see God? OK, be pure. The meek inherit the earth? Be humble then. Easy enough—to say that is, but not so easy to do—even when we want to do it. By contrast, Colonial’s own Robert Guelich, in his Sermon on the Mount commentary, argued that the Beatitudes should not be viewed as wisdom teachings stressing human responsibility, but rather prophetic teaching stressing divine deliverance. You’re not blessed because you mourn. You’re blessed because God comforts you. You’re not blessed because you’re hungry for righteousness and justice. You’re blessed because God fills you up. You’re not blessed because you’re persecuted. You’re blessed because God bestows his riches on persecuted people.

Leo preached that “The blessedness of seeing God is justly promised to the pure in heart. For the eye that is unclean would not be able to see the brightness of the true light, and what would be happiness to clear minds would be a torment to those that are defiled. Therefore, let the mists of worldly vanities be dispelled [by the Lord], and the inner eye be cleansed of all filth of wickedness, so that the soul’s gaze may feast serenely upon the great vision of God.” Leo employs the passive voice here to emphasize how the purity of heart is God’s doing. It is God who enables us to see Him.

And yet that God does this does not render us passive. On the contrary, God’s grace empowers us to live Christ-shaped lives. God’s Spirit in us shapes us and leads us to follow Jesus; to be devoted to the kingdom of God and to his righteousness.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled,” Jesus said. Leo preached, “This hunger is not for any bodily food, this thirst is not for any earthly drink: it is a longing to be blessed with righteousness, and, by penetrating the secret of all mysteries, to be filled with the Lord himself. Happy is the soul that longs for the food of righteousness and thirsts for this kind of drink; it would not seek such things if it had not already savored their delight. When the soul hears the voice of the Spirit saying it to the prophet: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good,’ it has already received a portion of God’s goodness, and is on fire with love, the love that gives joy of the utmost purity. It counts as nothing all that belongs to time, it is entirely consumed with desire to eat and drink the food of righteousness. The soul lays hold of the true meaning of the first and great commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind and your whole strength,’ for to love God is nothing else than to love righteousness.”

Righteousness is a word that gets twisted up a bit in our individualistic culture. The tendency is to confuse righteousness with something I possess for myselfsomething that the Scriptures actually condemn as self-righteousness. Godly righteousness, as Leo intimates, is God’s possession. To be filled with righteousness is to belong to God—and not so much individually as collectively—as the people of God, the body of Christ, the holy catholic (little c) church. Righteousness is not a state of being, but a way of living modeled after Jesus. To do right by each other, to give and love and serve, is to demonstrate our own citizenship in God’s kingdom, and that indeed his Spirit does dwell in our midst.

Therefore, Leo preached, “Let believers examine their own state of mind and carefully scrutinize the sentiments of their heart. If they find some fruit of charity in their conscious self, let them have no doubt that God is in them. And that they may become more and more able to welcome so great a guest, let them persevere and grow in mercy which expresses itself in acts of love. If God is love, charity ought not to know any limits, for nothing that is limited can contain the fullness of the Spirit, who is God Himself.”