Lord’s Day 28 (Q/A 75-77): THE MATTER OF THE TABLE AND WHY IT MATTERS

75   Q.    How does the holy supper
                remind and assure you
                that you share in
                Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross
                and in all his benefits?

A.    In this way:
Christ has commanded me and all believers|
to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup
in remembrance of him.
With this command come these promises:

First,
as surely as I see with my eyes
the bread of the Lord broken for me
and the cup shared with me,
so surely
his body was offered and broken for me
and his blood poured out for me
on the cross.

Second,
as surely as
I receive from the hand of the one who serves,
and taste with my mouth
the bread and cup of the Lord,
given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood,
so surely
he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life
with his crucified body and poured-out blood.

76   Q.    What does it mean
                to eat the crucified body of Christ
                and to drink his poured-out blood?

A.    It means
to accept with a believing heart
the entire suffering and death of Christ
and thereby
to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.^1

But it means more.
Through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us,
we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body.^2
And so, although he is in heaven^3 and we are on earth,
we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.^4
And we forever live on and are governed by one Spirit,
as the members of our body are by one soul.^5

^1 John 6:35, 40, 47-48, 50-54
^2 John 6:55-56
^3 Acts 1:9; 3:21; 1 Cor. 11:26
^4 Eph. 3:17; 5:29-32; 1 Cor. 6:15, 17-19; 1 John 3:24; 4:13; John 14:23
^5 John 6:56-58; 15:1-6; Eph. 4:15-16

77   Q.    Where does Christ promise
                to nourish and refresh believers
                with his body and blood
                as surely as
                they eat this broken bread
                and drink this cup?

A.    In the institution of the Lord’s Supper:^1
“The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed,
took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks,
he broke it and said,
‘This is my body that is [broken]* for you.’

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying,
‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood;^2
do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me.’^3

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death
until he comes.”

This promise is repeated by Paul in these words:

“The cup of blessing that we bless,
is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break,
is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body,
for we all partake of the one bread.”^4

^1 1 Cor. 11:23[-26]; Matt. 26:26[-29]; Mark 14:22[-25]; Luke 22:17[-20]
^2 Exod. 24:8; Heb. 9:20
^3 Exod. 13:9
^4 1 Cor. 10:16-17

*The word “broken” does not appear in the NRSV text, but it was present in the original German of the Heidelberg Catechism.


 

LORD’S DAY 28 (Q/A 75-77)
“The Matter of the Table and Why it Matters”

The congregation I serve in New Jersey for almost 11 years combined its two Sunday worship services six years ago and with that merged service came the discussion of whether and how to celebrate the Lord’s Table every Sunday. The earlier service celebrated weekly; the second service celebrated the first Sunday of the month. It became clear in discussions and reflection that we would go the way of weekly celebration. The matter now turned to what to call it.  There was a current in the congregation that naming it “Eucharist” sounded too “Catholic” for some.  More on that later.

This was a teaching opportunity. So I put in the worship bulletin the following:

“Lord’s Supper-Eucharist-Communion”

The dashes, I explained, captured in some way the multiplicity of meaning and significance of what is enacted at the Table.

The Table is the Lord’s Supper: it is the Lord’s, not ours. The Lord Jesus Christ has prepared it, invited us; He is the One who is promised by the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. He is the both the content of the action, and the One who is given to us “for the life of the world” as the late Orthodox liturgy scholar Alexander Schmemann described.   It’s a Supper because we are fed, we are nourished; it is a feast. What is provided is “bread from heaven,” Jesus Christ who is the manna from heaven, in whom everlasting life is provided, fullness of life, that truly in Him, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  Methodist liturgy scholar Don Saliers describes it as “foretaste of glory divine,” a description that bears the subtitle of one of his seminal works on liturgical theology.  It’s a foretaste because what is displayed and enacted at the Table is akin to the heavenly, marriage banquet described in Revelation 19:9 or the gathering of all nations to sit at Table described in Luke 13:29. We gather at the Table to live into the already accomplished vision, that there is more than meets the eye, a “fourth dimension” reality as the in-breaking of the kingdom reality and God-vision expresses itself among us and in us.

Then there’s the matter of Communion. As with baptism’s counter-cultural claim of us as individuals being joined by the triune God to be in a binding community with one another, the Table is Communion: communion with the triune God, communion with God’s people in all times and in all places. The Holy Spirit uses the ordinary elements of bread and cup for extraordinary means: joining us to the very life of God in Jesus Christ, a binding union into His risen and ascended life that we can say truly and really, that we are eating of His body and of His blood; in other words, we have truly and really become one with our Lord, a full-proof unity. Such unity, accomplished and made efficacious by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, appropriates the fullness of God’s love for us, but we are joined to Christ’s own agenda: to delight in the Father’s will and to do the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the world.  We are brought into the life of God, and are anchored in God’s own heart, and, thereupon, take up what Jesus Christ cares about, take up who Jesus Christ cares about.

The Table, and the prayers offered at the Table, goes by several other names:

-Canon of the Mass: canon, because it is lawful to do so; it is a rule of faith (think, measuring rule or rod).

-Mass: the English derivation of the Latin “Missa” – the final benediction a priest would proclaim “Ite missa est” (Go now or You are dismissed) – emphasizing the sending of the gathered assembly to go out into the world to testify of what you have seen, tasted, received the Good News of God in Jesus Christ

-Anaphora: in Eastern Christianity – the prayers of the Table, depicting offering up to God, the bread and cup, the body and blood of Christ, our lives

-The Liturgy – from the Greek leitourgia meaning public work; what the gathered assembly does at the Table is a public act of service – serving God, serving one another; God’s act in Jesus Christ was the grand Liturgy – Christ work of salvation was a public act.

What captures the fullness of what are displayed and enacted at the Table is Eucharist. Far from being too “Catholic” sounding for many Presbyterian/Reformed sensitivities, Eucharistia is the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” used at least 15 times in the New Testament.  Earl Palmer, senior pastor emeritus of the University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, unlocked for me the depth of that term in this way:

-Eucharistia is composed of two parts: the prefix eu- (epsilon/upsilon) and –charist

-Charist shares the etymological root of chara, which is the Greek word for “joy”

-Joy is a surprise

-The Greek word for grace is charis, sharing the root for joy. Grace is a surprising gift of joy.

-Charismata, from which we get the word “charisma” is the word for “spiritual gifts” as 1 Corinthians 12

-The prefix eu- means “good.”  For example “eu+logos” or eulogy, a good word.

-Eucharistia is a good, surprising gift of joy.

Eucharistia is “thanksgiving” for God’s good, surprising gift of joy, Jesus the Christ.

Q/A 75 speaks vividly of the promises of Christ’s body and blood given for us. Christ has given Himself to us; that is God’s promise.

Q/A 76 speaks powerfully of not only forgiveness of sins and being joined to Christ’s own suffering, “but it means more” – the communion aspect because of the Holy Spirit, being joined to Christ.

Q/A 77 speaks communally to our being joined one to another, sharing in Christ’s body (His risen and ascended body) and His body, the Church, the fellowship of believers in every time and place.

As a Filipino American, Pacific Islander, born on the island of Guam, my family enjoys parties, dancing, singing, and food. We make a distinction between eating, dining, and feasting. Eating is the mere function of putting food in your mouth. Dining is eating, but with etiquette and protocols, white tablecloths and utensils properly placed. Feasting, which is what we do, is bringing your whole self to the party, eating with utensils but more often with your hands, bringing the messiness and beauty of your life, family, and faith to the community, allowing the gathered community, the party attendees to hear you, embrace you, laugh with you, cry with you and with one another.

The Table is the Eucharistic feast. We bring our whole selves, even as God as the Lord Jesus Christ has given Himself fully to us. God did not withhold anything of Himself to us. God’s love is poured out, given, offered, shared, at the risk of being rejected, ignored, taken for granted. Love is risky business.

This, and so much more, is why we give thanks to God for Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Eucharistia. Thanksgiving. For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup.

That’s why the Table matters.

 

Lord’s Day 27 (Q/A 72-74): THE MATTER OF BAPTISM AND WHY IT MATTERS

72   Q.    Does this outward washing with water
                itself wash away sins?

A.    No, ^1 only Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit|
cleanse us from all sins.^2

^1 Matt. 3:11; 1 Pet. 3:21; Eph. 5:26
^2 1 John 1:7; 1 Cor. 6:11

73   Q.    Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism
                the water of rebirth and
                the washing away of sins?

A.    God has good reason for these words.
To begin with, God wants to teach us that
the blood and Spirit of Christ take away our sins
just as water removes dirt from the body.^1

But more important,
God wants to assure us, by this divine pledge and sign,
that we are as truly washed of our sins spiritually
as our bodies are washed with water physically.^2

^1 Rev. 1:5; 7:14; 1 Cor. 6:11
^2 Mark 16:16; Gal. 3:[2]7

74   Q.    Should infants also be baptized?

A.    Yes.
Infants as well as adults
are included in God’s covenant and people,^1
and they, no less than adults, are promised
deliverance from sin through Christ’s blood^2
and the Holy Spirit who produces faith.^3

Therefore, by baptism, the sign of the covenant,
they too should be incorporated into the Christian church
and distinguished from the children
of unbelievers.^4
This was done in the Old Testament by circumcision,^5
which was replaced in the New Testament by baptism.^6

^1 Gen. 17:7
^2 Matt. 19:14
^3 Luke 1:15, [4]4; Ps. 22:[9-]11; Isa. 46:1-5; Acts 2:39
^4 Acts 10:47
^5 Gen. 17:[9-]14
^6 Col. 2:11-13


 

LORD’S DAY 27 (Q/A 72-74)
“The Matter of Baptism and Why it Matters”

 

The South African idea of Ubuntu (meaning “human-ness” or denoting our bond as human beings) is summarized with the principle, “I am because we are.”  A distinctly Christian way of expressing that is, “I am, because we are, because God is.”

Individualism, personal freedoms, and privacy are ingrained in our sense of being American, so much so that our nation’s charter documents – the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution – enshrine the principles; the former declares the “inalienable rights” we have to “live, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” while the latter’s first ten amendments are a “Bill of Rights.”

Certainly, governmental intrusion – whether a pure democracy (as with ancient Athens), a democratic republic (as is the United States), a monarchy, or whatever might be the case—upon individuals is to be limited, and, in its oppressive forms, is to be prevented.

Baptism matters because God as Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit desires that we belong to community: the community of God’s people in all times and in all places, and, more importantly, the community of the triunity of God.  The community of believers, whom the Apostles’ Creed in the third article on the Holy Spirit describes as “the communion of saints,” comes into fruition and is strengthened because of the community of the triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We in the Reformed tradition hold to the notion that baptism is not merely an ordinance – something to be done because Christ said so; although that is reason enough to do anything! (If the Lord says to do something, or not to do something, faithfulness requires obedience and allegiance to our Lord’s direction, no matter how uncomfortable, inconvenient, or incomprehensive such instruction may be).

We in the Reformed tradition do baptism first and foremost because Jesus Himself was baptized. He submitted Himself to the waters of the Jordan – being baptized into death, and baptized into the righteousness of new life, receiving the declaration from all eternity that He was and is God’s beloved Son; His baptism initiates all other subsequent baptisms – giving our baptisms their power, meaningfulness, and purposefulness because He is the very meaning and purpose of baptism.  Jesus Christ is baptized into the vocation, the holy calling of living out the triune God’s commitment that He be the anointed Savior, Jesus Christ is, in Karl Barth’s description, the elected One, in whom all His followers are elected in Him.

I have officiated many baptisms – mostly infants,  several young adults, and a few adults; I have also received several anonymous phone calls from adults who request: “Would you do my baby?” Upon further inquiry, this is code language for: we and our family will pay you to splash water on our baby, say the baptismal formula (“N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”), smile, give the baptismal certificate, and be done in 5 minutes, never to see us again.

In the words of worship scholar Lawrence Stookey in a book he authored by the same name, “Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church.”

That’s what baptism does. God uses the element that covers more than 80% of the earth, and constitutes most of our body. What for a chemist is merely two hydrogen atoms connected to one oxygen atom by a covalent bond, God uses water to impart His promise: the Good News that in Jesus Christ, we are daughters and sons of God – not by our will, nor by our might or plans or merit – but by God’s sheer and certain love.  You and I belong to each other, because, in the words of the ancient covenantal formula, “I am the Lord your God, and you will be My people.”

We need baptism. We need God. The Holy Spirit binds us and bonds us with Jesus Christ, with the triune God, and with all of God’s people. And when we are tied to God, united to God, God’s goodness, God’s righteousness covers us, sets us free, frees us to take on our Christ-given vocation: to be disciples of Jesus Christ and witnesses of God’s promise in Christ. We need baptism as it calls us into community – as both gift and as call.

For all of the pride we have to secure our individualism, baptism critiques that individualism and says, it’s not possible, nor faithful, nor tenable to live as an individual; baptism is the sacramental crowbar that loosens your grip on your precious individualism.

As 21st century Christians, the significance of water as binding and bonding us together becomes all the more important and urgent. Renewing and re-receiving our baptismal calling to God and to one another, on a planet of 7 billion people. Half of my congregation is from Cameroon, and we have shared many congregational prayers about their families back home who have suffered and died from a cholera epidemic. The still unresolved rupture of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan that has poisoned the soil and from which millions of gallons of radioactive water has spilled into the Pacific Ocean.

Water, which brought death to Pharaoh’s armies when the Red Sea was parted, also brought life in allowing the fleeing Israelites to flee Pharaoh.

Baptized people of God – you have died with Christ, as you now live with and in Christ.

Lord’s Day 26 (Q/A 69-71): HOLY MOVEMENT, WHOLLY MOVES

69   Q.    How does baptism
                remind and assure you
                that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross
                benefits you personally?

A.    In this way:
Christ instituted this outward washing
and with it promised that,
as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body,
so certainly his blood and his Spirit
wash away my soul’s impurity,
that is, all my sins.^1

^1 Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3

70   Q.    What does it mean
                to be washed with Christ’s blood and Spirit?

A.    To be washed with Christ’s blood means
that God, by grace, has forgiven our sins
because of Christ’s blood
poured out for us in his sacrifice on the cross.^1
To be washed with Christ’s Spirit means
that the Holy Spirit has renewed
and sanctified us to be members of Christ,
so that more and more
we become dead to sin
and live holy and blameless lives.^2

^1 Heb. 12:24; 1 Pet. 1:2; Rev. 1:5;22:14; Zech. 13:1; Ezek. 36:25
^ 2 John 1:33; 3:5; 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:13; Rom. 6.4; Col. 2:12

71   Q.    Where does Christ promise
                that we are washed with his blood and Spirit
                as surely as we are washed
                with the water of baptism?

A.    In the institution of baptism, where he says:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.”^1

“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved;
but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”^2

This promise is repeated when Scripture calls baptism
“the water of rebirth”^3 and
the washing away of sins.^4

^1 Matt. 28:19
^2 Mark 16:16
^3 Titus 3:5
^4 Acts 22:16


 

 LORD’S DAY 26 (Q/A 69-71)
“Holy Movement, Wholly Moves”

The late Lutheran scholar of liturgy, S. Anita Stauffer, specialized in the study of baptism, specifically baptismal fonts. In contrast to many of the baptismal fonts we have in our sanctuaries that look like ash-trays or bird-baths on a pedestal, many ancient fonts were pools, in-ground pools. They came in circular shapes (symbolizing the fullness of God’s love, the community), octagonal (symbolizing that Christ’s rising occurred on the eighth day, which is also the first day of the week, thereby meaning that that day was both creation and new creation), and cross-shaped.

The cross-shaped fonts had steps on the transepts. In one scenario of certain Christian communities, the ones being baptized would descend one set of steps to the bottom of the font where the bishop/priest/pastor would be to meet them. The water would be up to the waist, and they would be submerged or effused with copious amounts of water, being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, receiving the name and identity of a child of God redeemed in Jesus Christ. They, then, ascended the opposite steps where awaiting elders and deacons would cover them with aromatic oil, anointing them with the Holy Spirit, a new scent to marinate the baptized and the gathered community to the new reality that had been sealed, and then the baptized would be clothed with a white garment signifying being clothed in and with Christ.

What we see in such a ritual act is both mortification and vivification – dying and living; descending into the waters into Christ’s death, rising from the waters into Christ’s resurrection life.

The 16th century Reformers described that the Lord Jesus Christ’s work in his life, death, and resurrection (the Good News) resulted in the so-called duplex beneficium, the two or double benefits: namely justification and sanctification.  This means that by the triune God’s work in the agency of Jesus Christ’s unique, distinct, and radical life, in his decisive and final death, and in the power and revolutionary resurrection, we have been embraced by God and set on a path to live a life worthy of the calling we have been given – to live as ones redeemed by Christ through His Spirit.

Our family live in our first home. It was exciting to purchase our first home; it was even greater to move in and make it our own, decorating it the way we like, having parts renovated,  and learning the difficult craft of maintaining it. I can tell you of many trips to Home Depot, mowing the lawn, raking leaves, cleaning the pool, shoveling snow. The title deed of the house is in our name. We pay the mortgage, we pay the taxes. Yet, the bank holds the title until we fully pay off the mortgage. It’s both a done deal, and it’s not yet.

Baptism by water tells us it’s a done deal; the mortgage of life-death-new life is done. Christ did it. Finished. Nothing more you need to do. It’s all Him. It’s God. God moved. God moves. The Holy Spirit has been given as the guarantor, the seal, the One who convicts and convinces you your identity of being owned by God is done. Own it, move in, you are welcome, live into your new life.

At the same time, there’s some renovating to do, there’s a whole lot of fixing, of beautifying.  There’s living into, there’s movement.

Our new life – in Christ, for Christ, with Christ—moves because the Holy Spirit moves. What the Holy Spirit does is enables us to move by washing us, continually renewing us by renovating our lives. It’s the already and the not yet, fully owned and living into the ownership. Or to put it in the classical dictum of the Reformation in describing the reality of our lives: we are at the same time just/righteous and sinful (Latin: simul iustus et peccator).  And because of that, we live and move and have our being in the triune God.

Lord’s Day 25 (Q/A 65-68): PROOFS, PLEDGES, PROMISE: DIVINE-HUMAN ENGAGEMENT

65   Q.    It is through faith alone
                that we share in Christ and all his benefits:
                where then does that faith come from?

A.    The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts^1
by the preaching of the holy gospel,
and confirms it
by the use of the holy sacraments.^2

^1 Eph. 2:8; John 3:5
^2 Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Pet. 1:22-23

66   Q.    What are sacraments?

A.    Sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals.
They were instituted by God so that
by our use of them
he might make us understand more clearly
the promise of the gospel,
and seal that promise.

And this is God’s gospel promise:
to grant us forgiveness of sins and eternal life
by grace
because of Christ’s one sacrifice
accomplished on the cross.^1

^1 Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11; Deut. 30:6; Lev. 6:25; Heb. 9:8-9, [11-]24; Ezek. 20:12; 1 Sam. 17:36[-37]; Isa. 6:6-7

67   Q.    Are both the word and the sacraments then
                intended to focus our faith
                on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross
                as the only ground of our salvation?

A.    Yes!
In the gospel the Holy Spirit teaches us
and by the holy sacraments confirms
that our entire salvation
rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross.^1

^1 Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27

68   Q.    How many sacraments
                did Christ institute in the New Testament?

        A.    Two: holy baptism and the holy supper.


 

LORD’S DAY 25 (Q/A 65-68)
“PROOFS, PLEDGES, PROMISE: DIVINE-HUMAN ENGAGEMENT” 

Freddy and Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” have this famed dialogue:

Freddy:
“Speak and the world is full of singing,
And I’m winging Higher than the birds.
Touch and my heart begins to crumble,
The heaven’s tumble, Darling, and I’m… “

Eliza:
“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars Burning above; If you’re in love,
Show me! Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire. If you’re on fire,
Show me! Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!
Anyone who’s ever been in love’ll tell you that
This is no time for a chat! Haven’t your lips
Longed for my touch? Don’t say how much,
Show me! Show me! Don’t talk of love lasting through time.
Make me no undying vow. Show me now!
Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme!
Don’t waste my time, Show me!
Don’t talk of June, Don’t talk of fall!
Don’t talk at all! Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard.
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream;
Say one more word and I’ll scream!
Haven’t your arms Hungered for mine?
Please don’t “expl’ine,” Show me! Show me!
Don’t wait until wrinkles and lines
Pop out all over my brow,
Show me now!”

You can view it on YouTube beginning at 0:34 at this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8zyF0ZOy3k

As 21st century people, we are a people of words, multiplication of words, no longer merely in written form, but in a TGIF world as Leonard Sweet describes it, i.e. a Twitter, Google, iPad, Facebook world. The exponential growth of words are beyond human comprehension.

With words come the ways we relate, engage one another, communication to purvey information, communication to make promises and pledges. Yet, we experience so many times, as with the number of words that make up those pledges, promises that are broken again and again. Countries that pledge aid relief in the midst of natural disasters, but are forgotten a few months or a year after the fact. Banks and investment firms that promised secure investment and sound mortgages, but then as millions found in 2008, billions in exposed mortgage securities, leaving many homeowners and investors out in the cold. On a micro- level, broken relationships, marriages that struggle. Or we grab hold of what sounds like a healing balm of comforting words from well-meaning family and friends who assure in the midst of trial, “Things will be okay.” We take it as promise. But then, the prayer concern turns awry, and rather than resulting in healing for the terminally-ill loved one, death comes knocking.

God knows our hearts, God knows our limitations, God knows what we desire; after all the triune God is the Creator of us all and knows us better than we know ourselves.

What distinguishes the one, living and true God, the God of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Ruth, and Esther, revealed fully and finally in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is that God is not mute, God speaks, God acts (see Isaiah 44:9-22).

God speaks words, God spoke the first word (Genesis 1:3), and God is the Word (John 1:1), the Speaker, the Word Spoken, and the Breath of God, to borrow a famed analogy used by Orthodox theologians.

Eliza Doolittle expresses what we need as human beings: proofs of the pledges of the promise. We are sentient beings, and, therefore, we need to engage all senses for words to be internalized. Our cognition is enhanced, for instance, when studying for a test, if you memorize facts by writing it down on flash cards, saying what you’re writing, looking at what you’re writing, hearing yourself say the words. If it be possible to eat each flashcard with a distinctive flavor as like the prophet Daniel eating the scrolls, and allow the facts to metabolize, that would enhance our test-taking abilities!

But you get the point. And that’s what God provides in the sacraments – gifts of God for the people of God.  The promise proclaimed in the Gospel – Jesus Christ came, lived, died, and rose again to redeem and reconcile humanity to God’s self in the power of the Holy Spirit—comes to us through words spoken, read, digitized, incensed, poured, splashed, baked, eaten, fermented, drank.

Several years ago, I lost a dear friend to a sudden heart attack. God worked faith in his life at an older age, and in the eight years that Roland Romero and I served together, he was passionate about teaching from the Scriptures, lucidly articulating the doctrines of the Christian faith in ways that made anyone go, “Thanks be to God.” In one Bible study as he was discussing God’s work of election in our lives, he explained:

Imagine that you are a hungry man. But you don’t realize that the refrigerator in the kitchen has food for you to eat and that food has been provided for you. Not only don’t you realize it but you don’t have the will to go to the refrigerator because of your ignorance of that source of nourishment, and because your will is turned towards other sources that don’t nourish at all. What the Holy Spirit does in this situation is to transform your understanding so that it is illuminated upon your mind and heart that the refrigerator has food and that food is for your benefit. But the clear understanding is only one critical element. You also need the will and the strength to walk to that refrigerator, having now recognized it as source for nourishment, and to open that refrigerator, obtain the food that has been given, eat the food, receive nourishment, delight in the food and the giver of the food, and, then tell others of what you have seen and heard and tasted.

That’s what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit renovates our lives again and again. Faith is not a quantifiable entity that the Holy Spirit gives. It’s not a soothing balm to anyone to say in the midst of suffering or to pray, “You need more faith”; that was the error of Job’s three friends in accusing him of not having enough faith or a weak faith.

Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit, the One who illuminates our understanding, who gives us wisdom to what is God-given and salutary for our lives, who unleashes our wills to follow the ways of God, who strengthens us when we are too weak, who directs our course to delight in the giver of every good and perfect gift. (James 1:17)

Q/A 65-68 describes God’s provision of the gifts that our human minds and hearts need. The promise given in the Gospel are embodied by tangible elements: water, bread, cup. While God is supremely and distinctly sovereign, our human responsibility is to be in the hearing, receiving, and tasting of the means by which the Gospel promise is communicated clearly to our lives: in preaching and in the sacraments.

The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum, which the third century theologian Tertullian translated from the Greek word mysterion (from which we get the word “mystery”).  Sacramentum was a pledge or oath that a soldier gave to a Roman  army commander, and more so, to the Roman emperor, who was regarded as a deity. Tertullian appropriated that term as the pledge that assembled Christians make in placing allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even as we pledge our allegiance to the Lord Christ, the triune God is pledging a unilateral promise to us in the sacraments: to be with us, to be for us, to be in us. The proof? As the Gospel attests and to which the Scriptures testify, and of which water, bread and cup seal for us: God’s’ self-giving of Himself in Jesus Christ is the proof-positive of that promise.

So, whenever you come in the hearing and receiving of the Scriptures, of preaching and teaching, and whenever and wherever you see one being baptized, or when you touch or splash holy water, and the next time you receive bread (or a wafer or a cracker) at the Table, and the next time you drink from the communion cup, or intinct the bread in the cup, receive the promise of God.  Receive God’s promise – Jesus the Christ. The mystery has been revealed , the mystery has been given.

Lord’s Day 24 (Q/A 62-64): THE ANTIDOTE FOR EGO, VITAMIN FOR THE HEART

62   Q.    Why can’t our good works
                be our righteousness before God,
                or at least a part of our righteousness?

A.    Because the righteousness
which can pass God’s judgment
must be entirely perfect
and must in every way measure up to the divine law.^1
But even our best works in this life
are imperfect
and stained with sin.^2

^1 Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26
^2 Isa. 64:6

63   Q.    How can our good works
                be said to merit nothing
                when God promises to reward them
                in this life and the next?

A.    This reward is not earned;
it is a gift of grace.^1

^1 Luke 17:10

64   Q.    But doesn’t this teaching
                make people indifferent and wicked?

A.    No.
It is impossible
for those grafted into Christ through true faith
not to produce fruits of gratitude.^1

^1 Matt. [7]:18


 

LORD’S DAY 24 (Q/A 62-64)
“THE ANTIDOTE FOR EGO, VITAMIN FOR THE HEART”

A friend of ours received unwelcome news from her doctor that her cholesterol and sugar levels were at an elevated state, even after a regular diet of oatmeal in the morning, plenty of vegetables, and tofu at night.  Our family, too, eats pretty healthy – not much fried foods, we read the labels for trans fats and sodium, no soda, moderate portions – but it seems like every week, there’s new news from the “Eat This Not That” twitter feed or Dr. Oz’s show about the blessings or curse of egg yolks, red wine, dark chocolate, blueberries, pomegranate, red meat, different kinds of fish, and on and on it goes. There are those days when my wife and I would like to pull out the butter and cream, slather it onto our brioche bread; we reason that if it worked for the late chef pioneer Julia Childs, who lived to be 81, let’s just enjoy the food we have…moderate portions, of course!

A regular diet which we all do on a daily basis is work. We labor, we put our skills/gifts and education to work. And when we work, we want recognition/acknowledgment for our work. In the area of service towards others, we want recognition for that, some sort of acknowledgement that what we have offered is gratefully received; that’s the human heart.  It’s not possible for our hearts and minds to be completely free of desiring recognition, even on our best days to be truly, fully, consistently altruistic.  The book of Deuteronomy wisely cautioned:

17 Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. (8:17-18, NRSV)

In 11 chapters, the book of Ecclesiastes speaks of work and wisdom, and concluded:

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (11:13-14, NRSV)

Tim Keller, in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, sounds the note to our contemporary ears, in describing how our human hearts regard work or service as fruitless, as pointless, as for selfish gain, or transform it as idols.

Keller prescribes what the Scriptures and Q/A 62-64 remind again and again —  we live in and with the grace and mercies of God.  Our ballasting in the heart and life of God through the gift of faith enables us to see our work and all forms of service within the perspective of God’s own work in the world and God’s purposes in the world.

Faith anchors us to the heart and  life of God so that when we regard our work and service in ways that are “not right” (unrighteous) and descend into the miry pit of self-pity, or ego, or frustration, or selfishness, or disappointment, or idolatrous (turning work into our own god), faith calls us to a different way, the more excellent way, God’s way.

Here, categories of “righteous” and “unrighteous” are descriptions of not levels or degrees of acceptance, but ways in which we live or not live into the right perspective of what God intends for us when we serve, when we work.  The Catechism is adamant in its assertion that because God has determined to be for us, to be with us, to be in us . . . God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is our sure and certain comfort. Period. No additions, no subtractions.  What is called forth from us is to receive God’s gift with gratitude, and to offer gratitude.

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

We get caught up in ourselves when we fall prey to ourselves, or to worldly values that transforms work and service in motives and aims that are different than gratitude. And guess what? We all fall prey to that. Our work and our service are not always about gratitude to God, gratitude for God.

That is why we continually live, and move and have our being in the grace and mercies of God because we don’t know why people do certain things, or what the final results will be, or how salutary or destructive the outcomes may be. And even for ourselves, God knows us better than we know ourselves.

But like eating, whether healthily or unhealthily, we need to eat. And in living, we continue to live, and work and serve — healthily or unhealthily.

The nature of gratitude, which we’ll cover in the next section on the sacraments, is all about grace, and, therefore, about gift.

The gifts that we offer to others in forms of work and service, the gifts that we offer to God, while tainted with impure motives and aims in some form or measure, come with it the power and grace of God that are seen, but mostly, unseen. In that mix, we receive God’s continual gifts – the gifting of God’s own self – who continually anchors us to the heart of His Son, who as our eternal intercessor and High Priest in the Holy Spirit – presents us and our works and service – as pleasing in God’s sight because we are grafted to Christ, joined to Christ, and that which we do, as imperfect and as inconsistently as we do them, are nevertheless our attempts at gratitude, and because offered  with Christ’s Spirit, are received as gifts to our delighting heavenly Father.

This became so vivid for me as our eldest, our 10 year-old son, tried again and again in the last two weeks to make us breakfast: pancakes (regular and fruit-topped), scrambled and fried eggs, and French-pressed coffee.  Breakfast is the most important meal for our family so breakfast preparation is a major enterprise for us. (No continental breakfast for us, hold the Danish and croissants, show us the protein!).  Our son was so meticulous with the measuring cups and spoons, generous with applying the nonstick cooking spray, to the point that he burned his left forearm on the skillet. With his efforts, he savors the praise from the whole family…not mere words of gratitude will suffice, he wants to hear, “Daniel, these eggs and pancakes are awesome!”

As his father, I don’t criticize him for his mixed motives and aims, but offer him encouragement, words of gratitude, savor the breakfast he has made. He enjoys it, and so do we.  Tried and tried he does, with the encouragement we offer and the delight that he has as we delight in him, and now three weeks into this, I can say, Daniel’s pancakes are one of the best I’ve tasted, and he has prepared great fried eggs and made the coffee just how I like them.

That’s how God works in, with, and through our works. While we are not fully consistent with what and how we work and serve, God delights in us, as Christ delights in us and with us, and on that basis, the mutual delighting that the Father has with Christ in the Spirit, and through Christ with us, our works and service are acts of gratitude, gifts of joy for God’s own , Jesus Christ, the gift of joy of the Father for us all.

Lord’s Day 23 (Q/A 59-61): TRUE FREEDOM

59   Q.    What good does it do you, however,
                to believe all this?

A.    In Christ I am righteous before God
and heir to life everlasting.^1

^1 Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; John 3:36

60   Q.    How are you righteous before God?

A.    Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.^1
Even though my conscience accuses me
of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them,^2
and of still being inclined toward all evil,^3
nevertheless,
without any merit of my own,^4
out of sheer grace,^5
God grants and credits to me^6
the perfect satisfaction,^7 righteousness, and holiness of Christ,^8
as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,
and as if I had been as perfectly obedient
as Christ was obedient for me.^9
All I need to do
is accept this gift with a believing heart.^10

^1 Rom. 3:21-28, 5:1; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9
^2 Rom. 3:9[-18]
^3 Rom. 7:23
^4 2 Tim. 3:5
^5 Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8
^6 Rom. 4:4; 2 Cor. 5:19
^7 1 John 2:2
^8 1 John 2:1
^9 2 Cor. 5:21
^10 Rom. 3:22; John 3:18

61   Q.    Why do you say that
                through faith alone
                you are righteous?

A.    Not because I please God
by the worthiness of my faith.
It is because only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness
make me righteous before God,^1
and because I can accept this righteousness and make it mine
in no other way
than through faith.^2

^1 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:2
^2 1 John 5:10


 “TRUE FREEDOM”
Lord’s Day 23 (Q/A 59-61)

A source of anxiety for any person is being accepted, knowing that I belong to a community, that I am wanted and missed.  It’s been said that the 11 words someone dying wants to hear on their deathbed are:

“I forgive you, I love you, and I will miss you.”

Alain du Boton in Status Anxiety speaks of that anxiety that we all feel in living up to expectations, in trying to put our best feet/face forward, in having as many “likes” on Facebook statuses, or Retweets on Twitter. We can even use the Twitter hashtag (#) to couch our modesty and relegate it to #firstworldissue.

The ancient church theologian, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, observed that the “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”  Being fully alive is to be truly free. To be truly free is to have our lives anchored and continually delighting in the One who is the most free, the One who is truly free: the triune God.  The Reformed theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar spoke of the glory of God and the beauty of God as so interrelated to the love of God that to speak of one is to speak of the other..it’s to speak of theological aesthetics.

Humanity, being created in the image of God and that image being replenished in the face of God’s own Son Jesus Christ, is truly and fully alive when our hearts and lives are in the God-man, Jesus the Christ.

Q/A 59-61 is about theological aesthetics, the beauty of God, both in the subjective genitive sense (God’s own beauty) and the objective genitive sense (God’s reflection of beauty given). In the subjective genitive sense – Jesus Christ is the very beauty of God, the fullness of God, God’s face, God’s beauty mediated to us human beings. Jesus the Christ, the human enfleshment of that shekinah glory which Moses was prevented from beholding but was only given the opportunity to see the nape of God, is the glory of God.  In the objective genitive sense, God’s beauty, God’s glory given to us finite, limited, prideful, anxiety-producing, status-driven human beings.

Q/A 59-61 describes the antidote to our tired souls, worn-out ways, and over-strategized egos. In its force, Q/A 59-61 says calm down, let go, you are accepted, you are embraced, you have been made right with God (justification).

When in our Western culture we have been acclimated to the notion that the amount you invest (in money, time, etc.) will result in equal to or greater than the input, Q/A 60 essentially says – you can try your best, you can be at your worst, you can fulfill all the commandments (which you never will) or you can break the commandments (which we do all the time) – but God in Christ names you as one of God’s own because of Christ alone.

The anxiety is not on us. In fact for us human beings, from our vantage point, it’s a covenant of grace. We are to believe, to receive the gift. But note, that this section is within the section on the Holy Spirit. And as we saw in the prior sections, the Holy Spirit works faith in us. So even then, we cannot credit to ourselves that we have a lot of faith or weak faith, or any notion that seeks to quantify what we think we have; all that we have is a gift from God, even the gift of faith. So, from where we stand/sit, our saved-ness, the free gift of love from God to which we are called to believe is, indeed, a covenant of grace. It is God’s sure and certain promise that God is for us, that we live in freedom to live for God, to love God and love one another.

So, the anxiety is not on us. The anxiety, the covenant of works, was on the God-man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who took upon Himself alone the desire of the triune God to seek and to save that which was lost, to reconcile and redeem humanity that is more prone to do things our own ways, to be shackled to our own vices and contrivances, than to be fully alive in God.

Recall the  deep anguish of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, petitioning our heavenly Father to “let this cup pass from me, if it be possible” because of the anxiety of fulfilling to the fullest what the covenant of grace required, which for him was a covenant of works.

In His willingness to succumb to his executioners and to death itself, Jesus Christ shows us what it means to be truly free, as His death and then His resurrection to a new life, is the proof-positive of God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s love, and God’s freedom all on display.

Thus, what God in Christ through the Holy Spirit does is to call us to true and everlasting freedom. That is, by the anchoring into God’s own life and heart, we are free to love and live, and fully live according to God’s will and God’s ways.

Lord’s Day 17 (Q/A 45): DIVINE INTERVENTION

45   Q.   How does Christ’s resurrection
benefit us?

A.    First, by his resurrection he has overcome death,
so that he might make us share in the righteousness
he obtained for us by his death.^1

Second, by his power we too
are already raised to a new life.^2

Third, Christ’s resurrection
is a sure pledge to us of our blessed resurrection.^3

^1 1 Cor. 15:17, 54-55; Rom. 4:25; 1 Pet. 1:3, 21
^2Rom. 6:4; Col. 3:1-5; Eph. 2:5
^3 1 Cor. 15:12; Rom. 8:11


LORD’S DAY 17 (Q/A 45)
“Divine Intervention

Episcopalian priest, Fleming Rutledge, described Christ’s resurrection that first Easter morning as:

Jesus’ rising was the undoing of death.  Jesus ruined death’s plans, and interrupted it with the freshness of life, a loud interruption that pronounced the end to sin’s long hold upon God’s people.  He, in effect, looked at sin and death in between the eyes, grabbed held of its fangs of fatality, and squashed them to pieces and said, “No more.”

German theologian Jürgen Moltmann observed that:

[t]he Easter faith recognizes that the raising of the crucified Christ from the dead provides the great alternative to this world of death. This faith sees the raising of Christ as God’s protest against death, and against all the people who for death.” Therefore “Easter is a feast, and it is as the feat of freedom that it is celebrated. For with Easter begins the laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated and the creative play of fantasy. …Easter is at one and the same time God’s protest against  death, and the feast of freedom from death…Resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist.

These days in our country, news headlines have been about the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling deadline. At a recent gathering of the Cincinnati Presbytery, we prayed for reconciliation in the midst of intractableness and intransigence in Washington D.C. The power, possibilities, and promise unleashed with the stone being rolled away on that first Easter morning enables what seems impossible to become possible and become reality – even hardened hearts and stubborn wills.

Sharing in Christ’s righteousness. Raised to new life. Our blessed resurrection.

These are the benefits, the outcomes, the results.

By Christ’s death. By Christ’s resurrection. By his power.

These are the works of Jesus Christ – what He alone has done and what He alone is able to do.

For us, the recipients/beneficiaries, it’s a covenant of grace. It’s all gift for us.

For Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, Son of God – it’s a covenant of works. For Him, it’s work, it’s carrying out the desire of the triune God for the world to be reconciled, to be redeemed, to be loved when we won’t love one another, love God, or love ourselves.

The third paragraph of Q/A 45 described Christ’s resurrection as a “sure pledge.”  If we needed any more guarantee or promise of God being with us and for us…Christ’s rising from the grave is that pledge.

Wherever and whenever we experience despair, hopelessness, injustice, war and rumors of war, grief, anger, division, brokenness, the pervasive and pernicious effects of sin, violence, lies, apathy, indifference, temptation, and all the shadows of death – and even death itself – the risen Christ stands as the steadfast companion.

Many baptismal fonts around the world, and many church sanctuaries are built in the shape of an octagon. This ancient form expressed the belief that the first Easter morning was both the first day and the eighth day of the week; that just as creation was the first day of the week, Christ’s rising was the eighth day, ushering a new creation.  In descending into the baptismal waters, the Spirit of Christ joins us to His death; in ascending from the baptismal waters, the Spirit of Christ joins us to His rising. The baptismal waters are both tomb and womb.

As baptized ones, as the baptized community, we testify of the new creation emerging, giving evidence of it when we prostrate in prayer, when we sing praise to God, when we gather for worship, when we light a candle and open the Scriptures, when we teach a child the ways of Jesus, when we pick up the placard and join others in protesting racism, when we cry and weep with mourners, when we engage in the heavy-lifting of peacemaking and reconciliation, when we confess and repent.

And we do so, and are enabled to do so, because the power of God raised Jesus the Christ from the dead.

Lord’s Day 14 (Q/A 35-36): NOT FAD, NOT COOL, BUT TRUE

35   Q.   What does it mean that he
“was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary”?

A.    That the eternal Son of God,
who is^1and remains
true and eternal God,^2
took to himself,
through the working of the Holy Spirit,^3
from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary,
a truly human nature^4
so that he might also become David’s true descendant,^5
like his brothers and sisters in every way^6
except for sin.^7

^1 John 1:1;17:5; Rom. 1:4
^2 Rom. 9:5; Gal. 4[:4]
^3 Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:27,35; Eph. 1
^4 John 1:14;Gal. 4:4
^5 Ps. 132:11;Rom. 1:3
^6 Phil. 2:7
^7Heb. 4:15; 7:26

36   Q.   How does the holy conception and birth of Christ
               benefit you?

A.    He is our mediator^1
and, in God’s sight,
he covers with his innocence and perfect holiness
my sinfulness in which I was conceived.^2

^1 Heb. 2:16-17
^2 Ps. 32:1;1 Cor. 1:30


 LORD’S DAY 14 (Q/A 35-36)
“Not Fad, Not Cool, But True”

I’m frequently asked in my travels how can the Church connect with young people. Broader still, how does the Church connect to people. Period.

I intentionally stay away from  the vocabulary of relevance. Instead, I draw from homiletician Jennifer Lord’s reference to insights from neurological science,w hich understands our “emotional brain” acting as a valve that latches onto certain things while letting go others. This is called “salience,” or that which “jumps out” at you.

Salience, not relevance.  Salience has the quality of surprise, of mystery.

Too often, discussions of relevance become about marketing, branding, and messaging without the more essential and difficult work of change to the essence, to the heart and soul, of the Church community.  Relevance often gets lumped with “contemporary,” morphing into conversations about strategies of how to make a worship service more “hip”; that somehow putting a drum set or a Powerpoint projector in the sanctuary and having a pastor remove the Geneva gown, preach without manuscript/notes in order to preach “from  heart” — that somehow these cosmetic changes will make a community “cool” and therefore “relevant.”

God’s revelation, God’s incarnation, God becoming flesh and blood as Jesus Christ – has nothing to do with the latest fad, or the cool factor. God taking on the human nature was not, and has never been about relevance. It’s about salience – the surprise, the mystery that almighty God through the Holy Spirit would take on the flesh and blood of Mary to be in solidarity with humanity. It was so shocking, so unexpected that the Scriptures attest that he was not accepted by his own home/people (John 1:11).

God as Jesus Christ by the power and work of the Holy Spirit becomes for us what we cannot be apart from Him – fully human who live as image-bearers of God.

We do one of two things, or both: we seek to be in solidarity with each other but fail to fully grasp what it means to be in solidarity; or we do the opposite and separate ourselves from one another through violence, hatred, unforgiving hearts.

To the former – our attempts to fully be in solidarity with one another eventually falls short because of our limitations as human beings. Every attempt I make to pray for and understand the plight of our Syrian and Lebanese sisters and brothers, even with a personal visit there last May, I cannot fully grasp their experience and situation. We see this play out in church and in the culture in our attempts to be more racially-diverse, to combat racism and to undo racism. Even on the best days when folks seek to understand the past-present wounds and scars of those who have been on the receiving end of racism, the attempt to be in full solidarity falls short.

To the latter – human alienation, separation, division, and brokenness – we do that too, and we seem to do it well as innate to our natures .

Q/A 35-36 shows us that God does not seek to be cool, or to take up the 1st century fad; God seeks to be true – true to Himself – the loving and gracious God who seeks to reconcile the world to Himself and sets Himself on the path to do just that.  God’s words, God’s will, God’s intention, and God’s actions are one and the same. God is true to Himself.

And God is true to us. God knows us more than we know ourselves. Even with our sin that prevents us from fully being in solidarity with God, with each other, and ourselves, God commits Himself to reconcile us, to make us whole.

The freedom that we have in God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is that even as we are to truly love one another and be in solidarity with the human condition on the micro- and macro- levels, to pray, to listen, to empathize with the joys and struggles of our neighbors – we can live in the freedom that even with our best efforts, we cannot fully know. We are to be true to who we are.

Even as we are to be true to who God is to us.  To be true to who God is to us is to be true to God’s true self to us – as our Almighty Creator, as our Savior and Lord.  In other words, to be true to who God is to us is to worship….to give God the worth due God’s name because of what God has revealed and given to the world in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

A lifelong commitment to live as image-bearers of God can only come when the Holy Spirit births in us the life of Jesus Christ. No strategy can do that; that’s the Holy Spirit’s work and power. And with the Holy Spirit in charge, we cannot manage when or how birth, rebirth, and the daily re-birthing occurs. In not knowing the when or how, in not being able to control or manage the work of God, then our life, our new life (and even death) is about receiving gift, receiving that which God births, and receiving the One whom God births.

And that’s precisely the point…the salient point.

Lord’s Day 11 (Q/A 29-30): THE AXIS MUNDI

29   Q.    Why is the Son of God called “Jesus,”
                meaning “savior”?

A.    Because he saves us from our sins,^1
and because salvation should not be sought
and cannot be found in anyone else.^2

^1 Matt. 1:21; Heb. 7:25
^2 Acts 4:12

 

30   Q.    Do those who look for
                their salvation in saints,
                in themselves, or elsewhere
                really believe in the only savior Jesus?

A.    No.
Although they boast of being his,
by their actions they deny
the only savior, Jesus.^1

Either Jesus is not a perfect savior,
or those who in true faith accept this savior
have in him all they need for their salvation.^2

^1 1 Cor. 1:13, 31;Gal. 3[:1-4]Gal. 5:4
^2 Heb. 12:2; Isa. 9:6; Col. 1:19-20; 2:10; John 1:16

 _________________________________________________________________

Lord’s Day 11 (Q/A 29-30)
The Axis Mundi

After traveling in unfamiliar places and as a way to become re-acquainted to home and to our time zone, our family (or even just me when I return home) goes for comfort food, which for us is soup, and then we get into our pajamas and veg in our living room.  These experiences and sources center us back.

In the 155,000 miles I have traveled thus far as General Assembly Moderator, I carry in my travel bag homemade art and photos from my sons as a continual means to center me back to home.

Then in the adjacent compartment pouch in my luggage is a pocket Bible and a Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer.  These are the sources that center me upon the One who is our Center.

The 20th century historian of religion, the late Mircea Eliade, said that every religious culture has a symbol, a narrative, a myth that is the “axis mundi” or the cosmic axis, believed to be from which the center of universe emanates, the fulcrum or hinge.  From that “axis mundi” meaning and significance flows, explanatory power of existence flow.

Q/A 29-30 asserts for us what we confess as followers of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, the Son of God, the only Savior, is the “axis mundi.” In fact, He’s not only the Center; He is the Circumference, the Perimeter, and everything in-between. In other words, in Him we live, and move, and have our being.  From Him, our life flows. In Him, our life is nourished. Through Him, our life is anchored to the heart and life of God. By Him, our life is directed towards the broken and hurting world which He gave His life to save, reconcile, and heal.

While Q/A 29 confesses the unique, exclusive, and distinct person and identity of Jesus as the Savior and the Son of God, and, therefore, the only “axis mundi” from which all of life, meaning – in heaven and on earth – originate and find their meaning; Q/A 30 alerts us against attempts, strategies, ways and means in which we as human beings create other “axes mundi,” whether in the form of wood or metal, or in our own image – all the many ways that we (un)intentionally seek to live our lives away from the One who is the “axis mundi.”  To do so would be like placing our automobiles on another axes, spinning in other directions, rather than a life directed by Jesus – the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

No amount of technological savviness, political connections, material or physical resources, personal charisma, education, family…not even our best and sincere intentions can save and redeem our hearts, souls, and lives. In the final, no one and nothing can save and redeem.  Otherwise, in the words of A.30, “Either Jesus is not a perfect savior, or those who in true faith accept this savior have in him all they need for their salvation.”

As I pen this reflection, I’m coming off of a long week of a funeral, a wedding, and a baptism. With each of these momentous events, I have carried with me in prayer for

-the death of an uncle in the Philippines
-my buddy’s niece who is a preemie needing surgery
-a deacon in my congregation desperately needing a liver transplant
-the gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai, India
-a chemical weapon attack in Syria and over 1 million children who are now refugees from Syria
-the senseless murder of a World War II veteran in Spokane, WA in the hands of two teenagers
-the violence and kidnappings that have terrorized the Presbyterian Church of Colombia
-burning of churches, shops, and terrorizing of Egyptian Christians by radical Islamists
-the seepage of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan

And so much more. . .much, much more.

To which I can only bow my head, and clasp my hands:

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Jesus, Son of God, Savior – is the “axis mundi” of all of us, and of this world.

Rooted and Grounded in Love: A Reflection on Lebanon and Syria

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,. . .

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15   and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

-Psalm 104:1, 14-16 (NRSV)

Jlala Refugee Camp in Al Marj, Lebanon – Photo courtesy of Erin Dunigan

I came here to Lebanon almost 3 days ago at the invitation of our partner church, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, following the bombings of churches in Aleppo, Syria.  The Evangelical Synod has about 45 churches in Syria and Lebanon, 25 of those churches in Syria.  I leave from this land with the stories of lives of sisters and brothers, young and old, who are living out faith and their humanity with the devastation of a war that has raged for two years, and left nearly a million people displaced from their homes, living in refugee camps, and so many thousands killed in the conflagration.

I leave this land with a prayerful commitment to never forget the harrowing accounts of Syrian pastors who traveled dangerous roads to meet us, to share their passion of the truth, where we in the West have been treated to daily doses from media as if this conflict were simply about a dictatorial regime and a movement for democracy.  Far from it. We learned the truth, from stories and from the eyes and faces of young children in a refugee camp. Imagine this, nearly 1 million people who have emigrated from Syria to Lebanon over the last two years. That would be equivalent to taking most of the city of Philadelphia and moving them in makeshift tents to New York City. On so many levels, the human cry is breathtaking: whole generations of children who are living the effects of a war of religious factions; humanitarian need to provide food, shelter and water; petitions and prayers for healing, peace, and cessation of violence in a land racked by a civil war decades ago.

The geo-political complexity and conflict runs so deep were it not for the personal intervention at the airport of the president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon, His Excellent the Rev. Dr. Salim Sahiouny (himself a Presbyterian Lebanese), I would be sitting in a jail cell, detained, and ordered to leave the country because my passport bears a stamp from my 2008 visit to Israel/Palestine; both countries will not receive visitors bearing the passport stamp of the other out of a conflict rooted and grounded in the war between their two countries.

My soul and heart were pierced with the stories of whole families uprooted from their homes and land to find refuge in Lebanon. Children without a ball to play, or no schooling for those below grade 6 because the infrastructure is not able to care for them. What about the story of 19 year-old Abed, a Palestinian, whose had to move four times.  Or the horrific story of a Christian woman in Syria who was brutally gang-raped by 80 Islamist radical rebels, and then left for dead with a cross shoved in her mouth?  It is gut-wrenching, it brought tears to my eyes…more than that, it brought a conviction in my soul to pray and act, look to that vision of the prophet Isaiah, “the wolf will live with the lamb” (Isa. 11:6), or the hope-filled prayers where bullets and wars will be no more, no more bloodshed, no more tears.

 

Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut – Photo courtesy of Erin Dunigan

My soul is moved by the generous hospitality and persevering faithfulness of sisters and brothers of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon who have more almost two centuries serve with the means they have. While we argue with our theological realities, their living theology and lived theology is one focused on working alongside the Muslim communities, in such places as the village of Kab Elias (dome of Elijah), where the former Synod school for boys and girls is being renovated to be a refugee home for 20-25 families, changing plans for what was to be an orphanage. In a few weeks, because of this joint effort of Christians and Muslims at Kab Elias, 20-25 families will have a place for a second chance. Today, that school for boys and girls is at a new facility, K-9, and will be K-12 shortly. Even as 100% of the teachers are Christian, 80% of the student body is Muslim, and 20% Christian, where families are driving as much as 45 minutes. Imagine that… the level of trust built over the years to have Muslim families send their children to a Christian-sponsored school, to pay the tuition, and to study alongside other Christian boys and girls!

Or take the Synod’s nursing home, that was a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, established by Presbyterian missionaries. The nursing home is a place of joy, life-giving…comparing it to many nursing home facilities I’ve visited in the U.S., this nursing home was paradise, because of the hard work and vision of the Synod. Today, Hamlin Hospital is a thriving place, where older adults find community, where daily worship service is offered, where love is shared.

The director of Hamlin Hospital, Ms. Sanaa Koreh, has arranged for me to serve as a “godfather” of a cedar tree in the mountain next to the Hamlin Hospital. The tree will be an official PC(USA) tree, with an inscription testifying to that fact. Her word was: “This will indicate that you and the PC(USA) have deep roots in our land.”

I leave from this place, rooted and grounded in love…love for the people of Syria and Lebanon, love for the witness that has been going on and is going on in the midst of the darkest and difficult time confronting faith communities and both countries, love for the PC(USA) and our historic relationship with the Synod over these nearly two centuries and how that durable and enduring relationship and commitment will and must continue and be strengthened, and a deep love for the Lord, who roots us and grounds us in God’s love, in God’s heart, that we may be transformed and moved to love that which and whom God’s own heart pulses.  God’s heart pulses for peace and healing for Lebanon and Syria.

Lord, move us to action, move us to prayer, rooted and grounded in your generous and radical love. Abide with the people of Syria and Lebanon, for the facing of this hour. Bring healing to these lands. Use your people here and around the world to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless and displaced. Receive our prayers, incline your eyes upon the tears of so many. Intervene in a way that only you can to bring the bloodshed to an end. Strengthen your people here with courage, with confidence, as you accompany them, in your strong love.  Amen.

Onward to Egypt. . .