Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Church Fathers Letter M: Michelangelo

Psalm 96
by Daniel Harrell

Psalm 96 is a song about a new song; a new song about God doing a new thing. “He is coming to judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with truth,” we sang, but God’s judgment, rather than associated with punishment, is all about setting everything right. God’s kingdom comes and his will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven. Up to this point, the peoples of earth had languished in a marred existence of their own making, submitting to the folly of idols and to the whims of injustice. But here the Lord exerts his honor and majesty, his strength and beauty, thereby crumbling idols and upending injustice. The entire creation responds with praise. And so do we. Whenever we worship we join in that praise, not as observers, but as participants in a new creation already blooming. To worship is to get a taste of all that our faith hopes for.

Based on last Sunday’s sermon about Maximus the Confessor, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer this morning with words that likely reflect what Jesus actually taught his disciples. “Debtors and debts” underscore our obligation to forgive as we’ve been forgiven by God. “Deliverance from trial” and “rescue from the evil one” plead that we not end up like Judas, succumbing to the designs of Satan when our faith is tested.

There’s another word that Jesus prayed in the Lord’s Prayer that is also different from what is customarily prayed, and it is particularly apropos this morning. “Give us this day our daily bread” is often thought of as a petition for daily sustenance, for just enough to get by. But in fact the word is what’s known as a hapax legomenon, (Greek for “saying something one time”). The unusual word Jesus uses for daily in the Lord’s Prayer shows up nowhere else in the New Testament, causing scholars to conclude that he must have meant something more than just bread for the day. And indeed he did. As the note in your pew Bible indicates, daily bread can also be translated bread for tomorrow. Jesus is not suggesting we get greedy here, praying that we get what we need tomorrow now. But using bread as a metaphor for life, Jesus encourages us to ask for a future that is already ours, for a taste of the new creation promised by God. “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness for they will be satisfied,” Jesus said. “Seek first the kingdom of God and it’s righteousness, and you will get everything else.” A prayer for “tomorrow’s bread” is like the rest of the Lord’s Prayer: it’s a prayer for a preview of heaven on earth.

Worship is that preview of heaven, that glimpse of eternity, that moment when our cares and worries suspend, our hopes reignite and our faith reassures. Worship employs song and sermon to do this, as well as a gathered community (which is why worship doesn’t so work online). Historically, worship has also employed art--sculpture, painting, stained glass and architecture--to reflect what the Psalmist sings as “beauty in his sanctuary,” sacred space filled with the glory of God. Ultimately God’s sanctuary is creation itself, but in Old Testament times God’s sanctuary was also the tabernacle and Temple, a visible presence of God that accompanied Israel through the desert and then settled with them once they reached their promised land. Regrettably, God’s people took advantage of his presence, treating his Temple as a cover for their sinful behavior (the same way Christians have been known to justify bad behavior by just turning up at church on Sunday).

Refusing to put up with such presumptuousness, the Lord eventually abandoned the Temple and let it be destroyed. A lesser replacement was built later on, but God never really returned; not until Jesus himself showed up in John’s gospel, and only then to announce the Temple’s final doom. Buildings would no longer house the presence of the Lord. He would make his home inside his people’s hearts--hearts born again, “renaissanced” if you will, by the Holy Spirit of the resurrected Jesus.

However the church, adopted heirs of God’s promises and possessed by the Spirit, has never been able to resist the urge to build buildings anyway. For the medieval church, the urge to build wasn’t for just any church building, but for a replica of the Temple itself, complete with its own Holy of Holies audaciously reserved solely as the Pope’s private hang out with God. This inner sanctum was called the Sistine Chapel, arrogantly named for Pope Sixtus IV who built it. It’s a long story, and one intimately tied to this morning’s last Church Father starting with the Letter M: Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the greatest artists in human history.

Michelangelo was born in 1475, the same year that ground broke for the Sistine Chapel’s construction. His parents had hoped he’d get a real job, but eventually relented when it was clear their son just wanted to be an artist. They shipped him to Florence, a small little city, yet one that would prove a magnet for a creativity and brilliance that kindled a new birth of human flourishing, a renaissance of art, science and philosophy. The influential Florentine Medici family, recognizing Michelangelo’s talent, served as his patron. Inevitably, Michelangelo’s unrivaled work attracted the Pope’s attention, who then tried to assassinate the head of the Medici family in the Sistine Chapel in a power grab like a scene out of The Godfather. But that’s another story too. It would be a later Pope, Julius II, known as Il Papa Terrible (The Terrible Pope) who would commission (some would say coerce) Michelangelo to paint the Chapel ceilings.

Despite the circumstances, Michelangelo possessed both extraordinary visual memory, which today we would call photographic, along with extraordinary emotional tenacity that fueled his passion as an artist and his long-suffering as a romantic. His singular talent not only manifest his passions, but have inspired the passions of countless others throughout centuries. I remember my own visit to the Vatican as a teenager. Michelangelo’s masterpieces, carved in stone and frescoed on that ceiling absolutely blew me away. For me it was like a foretaste of heaven. To learn about Michelangelo is to see his art.

Lynn Teschendorf, an art aficionado in her own right, offers the following in regard to some of Michelangelo’s most famous work.
The Pietà is considered to be Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture. He started it when he was 22. Note there is no suffering or sadness; Mary is withdrawn, preoccupied. Jesus lies limply on his shroud. So vulnerable and still.

This is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo hated doing this work. 1508- 12.  It is organized with 9 large rectangles: Creation, Fall, Flood (destruction of man) in these main scenes which show life before the Law and before the redemption of Christ. They provide background to lives of Moses and Christ shown on lower frescos by other artists (on opposite walls). Surrounding is a frieze of alternating squares and triangles, with larger triangles/pendentives anchoring the corners. And below that frieze is a series of half-moons or lunettes. Many attempts at interpreting the meaning behind the images.
Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment in 1535 – 41. Since he painted the ceiling, Luther’s 95 theses of 1517 had shaken Christianity, Rome had been sacked by the Holy Roman Empire, and Michelangelo was now in his 60s. His world had changed as had his artistic style (for detailed commentary, please listen to the sermon on

Michelangelo lived almost 90 years, far beyond the normal life expectancy of his day. He was creative until he died, sculpting a pieta for his own tomb that he never completed. And yet despite the breathtaking beauty of his work, and that of many of his contemporaries, we Congregationalists have long been suspicious of visual artistic expression in service of the church, due both to ancient Biblical prohibitions against graven images and to the self-serving exploitation of art by medieval Catholicism. In the wake of the Reformation, which ironically fueled the Renaissance, Protestants decried Catholic abuses of power and the visible excesses of wealth depicted in the church’s lavishly adorned buildings and palaces. For Michelangelo and others to depict the Lord of hosts in paint, sculpture or stained glass was to diminish his glory. This is why Congregational Meetinghouses remain unadorned, drawing attention to the word instead of the walls. Meetinghouses are never called sanctuaries because buildings can’t be sacred. God resides in his people. Glass windows are never stained either because human hands can never improve upon God’s own handiwork seen through glass instead of on it.

Nevertheless, there has been a recent renaissance among Christian artists--Protestants no less--who seek to use art powerfully and beautifully in the service of worship. Their work in architecture, paint, and these days in light and digital media, elicits afresh the honor, majesty, strength and beauty about which the Psalmist sings as due the Lord. And yet while art can inspire, it never competes. Even Michelangelo in all his extraordinary brilliance never matches the ordinary ways God evokes our wonder daily. Dawn and Violet and I had the joy of visiting Camp Pyro last Thursday--it was a splendid day and the work our staff and counselors did to make it happen for the kids was fantastic. We concluded our day with an energetic and moving worship time, which coincided with the descending of dusk over the lake. Afterwards, Mark Stover asked my five-year-old daughter how she enjoyed the worship time, the songs and prayers and words we had shared. She told him she thought they were good, but actually she’d been watching the sunset.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Church Fathers M: Maximus Confessor

Matthew 6:7-15
by Daniel Harrell

If you’ve been a Christian for a long time then you’ve been saying the Lord’s Prayer for a long time. I use the verb “say” rather than “pray” since for most of us long-timers, our over-familiarity with the Lord’s prayer lets all sorts of other thoughts waft through our minds as we rotely intone these words each Sunday. Usually the only time we pay attention is when we visit other churches; wondering whether they are “trespassers” or “debtors.” Here we remove the ambiguity by going with “sinners,” making some visitors squirm a bit. But we might as well say it like it is. Except that the words Jesus uses here are not the customary words for sins and sinners. Our pew Bible goes with “debts and debtors” because the words used are ones that imply obligation and gratitude more than simply sin. They underscore the assertion within the prayer that somehow our being gladly forgiven by God is contingent on our forgiveness of all those who have hurt and offended us (a point Jesus makes clear when he instructs right after the prayer, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Of course this is unrealistic and thus a good reason to recite rather than actually pray the Lord’s prayer.

As you heard this morning’s Scripture read, you likely caught another couple of deviations from the well-worn King James version, both in verse 13 (thanks to Park Street Church's Gordon Hugenberger for some of his insights on this). Rather than “deliver us not into temptation,” we heard “do not bring us to the time of trial.” And then, instead of “deliver us from evil” we heard “rescue us from the evil one.” While the word for temptation can mean that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would God ever lead anybody into temptation? OK, so he did lead Jesus into temptation, but Jesus was a much better Christian than any of us are. He could take it. In fact, Christian theology insists Jesus had to take it. As the book of Hebrews declares, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Unfortunately for us, praying for God to not lead us into temptation is a waste of time. It never works. Every day we’re tempted to do something we shouldn’t do, and unlike Jesus, we usually give in. And God lets it happen. Maybe we need to be praying for something else.

Evil is similar to temptation. We encounter it everyday too. Evil’s existence remains the foremost argument against the existence of God. If God is good, how can evil happen? But as with temptation, for some reason, God allows not only a snake in the grass but satanic access to his people all through the pages of Scripture. Not only does the Lord let the serpent infest the garden of Eden and mess up that paradise, but he lets Satan broker a deal to ruin the Job’s life. Christians may write these accounts off as wisdom teachings to ease the dissonance, but you can’t do that with the gospels. In Luke, for instance, just before Peter thrice denied Jesus’ existence, Jesus says that Satan asked for permission to “sift you like wheat.” “Wheat” is an oft-employed allusion to having your faith put on trial, and the “you” is actually plural, meaning that Satan has asked permission to sift everybody, not just Peter. More disturbing is the fact that Jesus, like God, grants Satan the permission, with the only caveat being that he’ll say a prayer for Peter so that once Peter turned back, he’d strengthen his fellow disciples. Repentance means to “turn back” and it is always followed by grace. And if you’ve ever really experienced grace, you’re always stronger for it. In this way, God exploits Satan for his own purposes.

Satan gets access to Judas too, but with less favorable results. Judas betrays Jesus and never turns back, showing himself to be worthless chaff rather than wheat (though God ultimately exploited Satan’s intentions here too). Enlightened congregations don’t like hearing about Satan, what with the whole pitchfork, horns and pointy tail imagery. And Satan probably likes it that way. But not Jesus. Knowing our hearts, that given the chance most of us would end up more like Judas than Peter, Jesus has us pray that we not even go there: “lead us not into a time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” Of course there are times when trials come anyway, even when we sincerely pray otherwise. But like with Peter, those times may be necessary. As Maximus the Confessor wrote in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, “When you suffer intensely from [failure and] disgrace, realize that this can be of great benefit to you, for disgrace is God’s way of driving pride away.”

Maximus Confessor believed that by praying  the Lord’s Prayer we step into the very inner life of God. We get access to the Trinitarian communication between Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. The words may feel rote most Sundays, but we’ll take them to our deathbeds. In the end, because Jesus prayed them, these words are our assurance of kingdom come, God’s will as done, sins forgiven and the Evil One forever defeated. They preview our own deification, to use Maximus’ words; that is, our own redemption into the likeness of Jesus. In the end, God makes us actual partakers of the divine nature” according to Peter; “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” according to Jesus.

Maximus Confessor is this morning’s Church Father starting with the Letter M, the second of three personalities whose lives and work significantly shaped the faith we confess today. Last Sunday we took an ironic look at Marcion of Sinope, ironic because it was in opposition to Marcion that the church settled on what we now know as our Bible. Next Sunday we’ll literally look at the art of Michelangelo, the inspired creator of some of the world’s most enduring beauty.

Inasmuch as Scripture speaks of “running the race” as an analogy for faithfulness   (and this being the last day of the London Olympics), we might describe Maximus Confessor as the Usain Bolt of his day. Historians regard him as the “most significant theologian of the seventh century,” with one historian going so far as to single him out as “the century’s only productive thinker.” Nobody else even makes it onto the platform. However given all that Maximus had to endure, we might better compare him to Manteo Mitchell. For one, you probably don’t know who Manteo Mitchell is. But if you do, then you know that while Bolt was setting world records, Mitchell broke his leg while running to qualify in the preliminary round of the 4X400-meter relay--and kept on running. If he had stopped, the United States would have been ineligible for Friday’s final and the silver medal it eventually won. “I didn’t want to let my team down, so I just ran on it,” Mitchell said. Confronted with crippling opposition his whole life, Maximus kept on running too. 

 Maximus is one of the few personalities embraced by both Eastern and Western branches of Christendom--by Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants alike. He was born to well-to-do parents in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), went to all the best schools, and as a young man secured a prominent position in the court of the Byzantine Emperor. However, after just three years on the job, he resigned to become a monk, much to the consternation of his family and the Emperor. Though it’s not as if folks thought Maximus threw his life away, giving up on his talents to pray and make jam and jelly all day. To be monk in the seventh century was to step into the furiously contentious fray of theology. In those days, the fights were not over the economy, the role of government or Chick-fil-a sandwiches. Instead, people ferociously fought over the true identity of Jesus.

As Christians so many centuries since, we easily affirm Jesus as one person with two natures, human and divine. And this doesn’t bother us, maybe because like saying the Lord’s prayer, we don’t really think about the implications. How is it possible for a human being to be fully God? On the one hand, Jesus was clearly a flesh and blood person, 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 tried all sorts of options for making this work, from Jesus having a split personality to his being a human body with a divine soul or even one where Jesus’ presence on earth was more like a mirage. Predictably, the debate devolved into the various sides labeling the other as heretics. It wasn’t until the Council of Chalcedon convened in the fifth century that the matter was technically resolved. Led by Pope Leo the Great (one of last summer’s Letter L’s), the Council concluded the importance of Jesus’ uniqueness as the one and only person ever with two natures. Strange to be sure,  but no stranger than the Doctrine of Trinity affirming God as three persons with one nature.

Yet just because the Church decided it didn’t mean that everybody suddenly went along with it. The conflict raged on for the next three centuries so that by the seventh century, weary of the conflict, many felt the time had come for compromise. Fine, they said, Jesus had two natures, divine and human, but only one will, the will of God. Jesus had a human nature alright (making the Chalcedonians happy), just not one that could do what it wanted (to the satisfaction of everyone else). Except for Maximus. How do you compromise on reality? It’d be like saying the earth is flat, or in our day, that this summer wasn’t really that hot. A fully human nature has to have a fully human will or it’s not fully human. And if Jesus was not fully human then he could not be genuinely tempted. And if he could not be genuinely tempted then he could not be genuinely obedient. If he could not be genuinely obedient then the cross is a joke and we’re still stuck in our sins and humanity remains unredeemed. 

But Jesus was tempted: by the Evil One in the desert, by the Evil One who through Peter’s mouth enticed him to stay away from the cross, and by the Evil One in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus submits his human will to God’s will and obediently takes the cruciform way of injustice for the sake of grace. God’s will was done in every case. To pray “thy will be done” is not always a prayer for harps and heavenly bliss. It is also a frightening prayer for the hard road of righteousness. To pray for God’s will is to pray for the courage and faith to yield to it, whatever it might be. Maximus wrote that such submission to God is possible only through loving God, a love that mysteriously blends affection with fear. “Fear devoid of affection ends up as hatred,” he wrote. But “affection without prudent fear ends up as presumption. .... The mystery of salvation belongs to those who desire it, not to those who are forced to submit to it.”

For Maximus, the ultimate expression of love is worship. To worship is to submit gladly. In worship, as the instruments swell, as songs are sung and prayers are prayed, all in the presence of a community and surrounded by beauty, we can get caught up, literally and powerfully, to places of heavenly rapture where submission and love are indistinguishable. According to Maximus, to worship God does his will on earth as it is in heaven. It makes us like the angels whose constant worship of God infuses everything else. Even to the point of solving our fiercest conflicts. “Who knows,” Maximus asked, “how God is made flesh and yet remains God?” And then answering his own question, he wrote, “Only faith understands, adoring the Lord in silence.” By silence, Maximus meant that inexpressible wonder that worship evokes; that place where words no longer work. Not even the words of orthodox theology, for which Maximus contended and suffered his whole life, could adequately encompass the mystery of faith. He wrote, “The perfect mind is the one that through genuine faith supremely knows in supreme ignorance the supremely unknowable.” Faith is like love--to overanalyze it only ruins it. Some realities can only be known on our knees. 

In regard to the Lord’s Prayer, Maximus wrote, “The aim of the prayer should direct us to the mystery of deification so that we might know from what things Jesus’ own submission through the flesh kept us away and from whence and where he brought up the strength of his gracious hand for those of us who had reached lowest point of the universe where the weight of sin had confined us. Let us love more intensely the one who wisely prepared for us such a salvation. By what we do let us show that the Lord’s prayer is fulfilled, and manifest and proclaim that by grace God is truly Our Father who art in heaven and whose will is done. Let us show clearly that we do not at all have as a father of our life the Evil One who, by the dishonorable passions, always tries to impose tyrannically his dominion over nature. Let us not unwittingly exchange life for death.”

Maximus’ refusal to budge on the two natures of Jesus by going along with the “one will” solution led to his eventual exile, arrest, trial and conviction. His tongue, by which he had gone on confessing two wills in Christ, and his right hand, with which he refused to sign the compromise doctrine, were cut off. His title “Confessor” testifies to his steadfastness in confessing what has endured as the faith of the whole church regarding Jesus: fully human like us and fully God for us, on earth as it is in heaven.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter M: Marcion of Sinope

Matthew 7:15-20
by Daniel Harrell

Last Sunday I was preaching in Boston at my former church, Park Street Church, where I received a warm welcome by the few people still there who remember me. Turnover being what it is in that downtown church, I had to chuckle when I walked in and was greeted by an usher as if I was a visitor: “Can I help you find a place to sit?” he asked. “Got one reserved toward the front,” I said, liking what I imagined would be a bit of a shock when he saw me get up to preach. I did get to reconnect with some old-timer friends: they were easy to find since they all sat in the same pews they were sitting in two years ago. You know how that is. We tacked on a few extra days to hang out in Boston: breathing in the sea air, taking in the urban vibe, eating a lot of seafood. Mostly we ate it “in the rough;” that is, fresh out of the ocean to pot to mouth. But being a bit of a foodie, we enjoyed some finer dining establishments too. I had a delicious piece of wild caught striped bass delicately wood-grilled with a fava bean ragout and wilted arugula, pretentiously plated as they do almost everything in Boston.

I mentioned to the Park Street congregation how Minneapolis tends to be more of a meat and potatoes kind of place, but that’s not so true anymore. Flying back I saw Food and Wine Magazine cited Minneapolis as an up-and-coming avant-garde food scene, albeit without any of the pretentiousness. But this isn’t so true either. Just recently for Dawn’s birthday we went out to one of the restaurants mentioned in the article where the menu included slow cooked veal heart with canned Italian tuna, lardo and capers; Spanish octopus with heirloom tomatoes, squid ink tortellini, black olives and dill. See the picture I took of the dish I ate. I defy you identify what food this is. If that’s not pretentiousness on a plate I’m not sure what is.

Granted, pretense is part of what it means to go to a fine restaurant these days. It can be an intimidating experience. The waiter welcomes you and asks whether you have “dined with us before,” only to then inform you how things are “done differently” here. He then proceeds to ask a lot of questions intended to heighten your insecurity, which we put up with since this is why we go out to eat. Afterwards, he narrates the specials with words the chef probably made up that afternoon. A recent New Yorker piece offered this: “the shankton of wildrange fizzle served with a side of foraged burrbark.” And of course we reply how delicious that sounds since we don’t want to look any dumber than we already feel.

“You will know a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said, as much a comment about food as it is about character. One taste will tell you whether the chef is legit. The same applied to prophets in Jesus’ day, who were sort of the ancient equivalent of celebrity chefs. Each had a fervent following keen for a take on the latest religious craze. Just like restaurant crazes that come and go—Asian fusion, rustic American, Italian small plates or nouveau Scandinavian—fads showed up in religion too, be they emergent, ancient-future liturgical, seeker-sensitive, market-driven, unchurched relevant or merely old-time hymns put to pop rock rhythms (not that we would know anything about this). An opportunistic prophet could turn a profit if he wanted to, exploiting eager audiences solely for personal benefit. Thus Jesus said to watch out for the fakers: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

Among the earliest documents in the church was the Didache, based on the teaching of the twelve apostles. It offered simple tests for determining whether a prophet was legit. For instance, if someone claiming a word from the Lord stuck around more than two days or asked for money, then he you knew that he was a one bad apple. Either that or a Congregational minister.

These days, true prophets and preachers are still rightly judged by their fruit. It’s not enough to be an engaging speaker or have a winsome personality, you have to practice what your preach. Content and conduct still matter. The standard for judging what’s right remains holy Scripture, words which Christians affirm to be the word of the Lord. Yet as God’s word, it wasn’t dictated or delivered directly from on high. As crazy as it sounds, Christians believe that somehow the Holy Spirit inspired these words through the mouths and pens of fallible human authors in the context of capricious communities. As these communities faithfully tried to follow the teachings these writings taught—and then grew and deepened as a result—these writings gained stature as Scripture. You know a good tree by its fruit.

But why these words and not others? Why the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and not those of Peter, Thomas or Matthias, which were also circulating back then? And how did something as wacky as Revelation get in? Back in the day, there was a bit of a scramble as the Bible took its shape and the church sought its true identity. Even though a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, it sometimes takes a bite of a bad apple to fully understand what a good one tastes like. Some bad produce was required to produce the Bible as we know it—which finally brings us to Marcion of Sinope, this morning’s church father starting with the Letter M.

Fifteen years ago 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 proven popular enough that it will come out as an ebook this fall published by Patheos Press. I decided to tackle these personalities a letter at a time, which if you do the math, may make you wonder why in year 15 I’m only at letter M. The problem was all the patristic heroes clustered around the letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. It took me a while to get out to B. 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 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 shoulders of past believers.

Last year was my second foray into the Fathers here at Colonial—of great interest to some, a good reason to go to the cabin for others. So far we’ve covered letters K and L (Kierkegaard, and a Kempis, Leo, Luther and CS Lewis). This year we’ll look at Maximus the Confessor and the magnificent Michelangelo, as well as this week’s personality, Marcion, who was more of a church anti-father, a bad fruit faker who nevertheless played a pivotal role in shaping the Christianity we practice today.

Marcion lived in the second century and was one of the church’s earliest bishops. Christianity was not yet legal in the Roman Empire, but it was gaining ground, expanding beyond a lowly band of Jewish fringe followers to include Gentiles and a growing cache of elite intellectuals. Marcion was educated, highly respected and rich—his gave an enormous financial gift to the early church. However he was not a happy bishop. He read the writings the church was treating as Scripture, but didn’t like what he found. He thought that the Old Testament God came off as too angry and vengeful, nothing like the loving and gracious Lord of the New Testament. And he didn’t like that the Old and New Testaments were so hard to reconcile either. Why did Moses advocate “eye for an eye” but Jesus say “turn the other cheek”? Elisha had children eaten by bears, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me for to them belongs the kingdom of God.” Joshua stopped the sun in its path to continue the slaughter of his enemies; but Jesus said “love your enemies” and “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” The Old Testament permitted divorce and polygamy, but the New Testament prohibited both. Moses enforced the Jewish Sabbath and purity laws; but Jesus rendered both obsolete.

Then there was the Old Testament by itself. God commanded no work on the Sabbath, but then commanded the Israelites to carry the ark around Jericho seven times on a Sabbath. The second commandment forbid graven images, but then Moses fashioned a bronze serpent, of all things, for Israel to gaze upon to be healed. The maker of all things was supposedly omniscient, but in Genesis God wanders around the Garden wondering where Adam and Eve had gotten off to. For Marcion, as for many since, the Old Testament was a big problem.
Not that the New Testament didn’t have its own issues. Marcion even took issue with Jesus. Jesus may be the Son of God, but no way was he born of a human mother. Gods cannot be born. Rewriting Luke’s gospel, Marcion had Jesus simply showing up one day fully grown, though only in appearance. Gods cannot be human. True, God mercifully saved the world through the humanity of Jesus, so his life and death were necessary, but it didn’t hurt Jesus to do it. Gods don’t suffer and die.

Marcion’s views were shaped somewhat by the Gnostics, though he was not Gnostic himself. Gnosticism was an early pseudo-Christian sect and theological fad that stressed the superiority of spiritual knowledge (gnosis) over physical matter and existence. The Gnostics put forth a whole host of unorthodox ideas, which the church roundly rejected, but which Marcion nevertheless tried to incorporate. Marcion relegated the Old Testament God to the status of demigod, and thus, like the Gnostics, denigrated physical creation since it was just the product of a that demigod. The Heavenly Father of the New Testament had no part in making the world. Marcion viewed material existence as basely evil; the body as unworthy flesh to be disparaged. The resurrection of the body? Ridiculous. Salvation only happened to the soul.

Marcion also reflected the church’s growing Gentile composition and growing Jewish repudiation. He wanted a Christianity untrammeled and undefiled by association with its Jewish roots. He saw Christianity as the New Covenant, pure and simple. Therefore Marcion rejected the gospel of Matthew (too Jewish), and with it our Scripture passage this morning. He nixed Mark and John for the same reason. In his opinion, the twelve apostles misunderstood the teachings of Christ. They held Jesus to be the Messiah of the Jews and falsified his words from that standpoint. Only Paul got Christianity right. Accordingly, only Luke (Paul’s disciple) and Paul’s genuine epistles made it into Marcion’s Bible. All the pastoral epistles (dubiously Pauline), James, Jude and Hebrews (obviously) and Revelation (thankfully) were out. He dumped the whole Old Testament too.

A confident (and by some accounts, pretentious) Marcion announced his conclusions to his fellow bishops at a denominational meeting. Shocked by his views, the bishops excommunicated him on the spot and refunded all the money he had given to the church (which again, was substantial). Predictably, Marcion stormed off to start his own church, not so shockingly called the Marcionites. They built their church buildings catty-cornered from established Catholic churches, just like you’ll often find Baptists and Presbyterians set up on opposite corners these days. These Marcionite churches thrived for a while; but eventually, bad fruit being what it is, Marcionism rotted away. And yet there are still those who perceive the God of the Old Testament to be wrathful and judicious when compared to the loving God of the New; still those who are suspicious of the resurrection of the body, insisting that God saves our souls not our whole selves; and still those for whom Revelation remains a book too wacky to ever read on purpose.

Marcion himself wrote a single work, entitled Antitheses, that only survives by way of deduction. Its content is inferred from the writings of his detractors, most notably Tertullian (Letter T) whose formidable (and creatively titled) work, Against Marcion, established Christian orthodoxy for the next 1500 years. Failing as a prophet, Marcion nevertheless succeeded in accelerating the church to finalize its canon, the last word on what would be the word. The Church affirmed the Hebrew Bible, since it was the Scripture Jesus used. And it affirmed those writings authored by bona fide apostles or their secretaries as the New Testament, most of which cite or allude to the Hebrew Bible too. (The reason that Protestants never accepted the Apocrypha as canon is because they never are quoted in the New Testament.) Opposition to Marcion also led to the formulation of the Apostle’s Creed which avows God as Maker of heaven and earth, Christ as his only begotten son born of a virgin woman and bodily risen from the dead, and a life everlasting not solely for the soul.

Among the passing fads Marcionite churches practiced was serving water rather than wine for communion. (Most American Protestant churches, including Colonial, tracing back to Prohibition, use grape juice instead of wine, but that’s a sermon for another Sunday). The Marcionites served water because, unlike wine, they believed water to be uncontaminated by the impurities of the world. But we worship a Lord who took on contamination, specifically our contamination, by his own flesh and blood. The bread and the wine are the body and blood of Jesus given to us for the sake of new life. Unlike other fancy food trends, this has proven to be no passing fad. This tree bears good fruit that lasts for an eternity.