Friday, August 30, 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury Addresses the Syrian Crisis

The Most Rev. Justin Welby spoke to the House of Lord's  yesterday, in opposition to a military strike on Syria.  His argument is based pretty soundly on the Just War Tradition as far as I can tell, and it is worth noting that he echoes the statements from the Christian leaders in Syria.  Come to think of it, are there any Christian leaders who do support military intervention in this case?  I haven't seen any, and I hope there are none.  Pray for peace.  

But there is a further point, talking to a very senior Christian leader in the region yesterday, he said,  “intervention from abroad will declare open season on the Christian communities.” They have already been devastated, two million Christians in Iraq 12 years ago, less than half a million today. These are churches that don’t just go back to St Paul but, in the case of Damascus and Antioch, predate him. They will surely suffer terribly (as they already are) if action goes ahead. And that consequence has to be weighed against the consequences of inaction.  - See more at:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Some Tools of Chaste Living, from Joshua Gonnerman

Joshua Gonnerman is a bit of a rising star in the world of moral theology, and writes occasionally for First Things on various topics.  His most noted articles have been on the issue of how to respond to LGBT folks in the Church, from the perspective of traditional Church teaching.  I am also blessed to call Mr. Gonnerman a friend, and probably the single most important influence on my views on gender, sexuality and the gospel.

So, I was really excited when I saw that he would be doing a series of posts at the blog Spiritual Friendship on the practical aspects of chastity in the celibate state.  Okay,  that terminology may sound a bit medieval and unexciting, but stick with me.  As Mr. Gonnerman says
Before people are married in the Church, they receive marriage counseling...Similarly, when someone joins a religious order, they have to undergo intensive formation before becoming a full member... But it seems safe to say that, as a rule (though particular circumstances may make it untrue in concrete situations), the person who lives celibacy in the world has, in her or his life, the least and frailest support structures of all; yet he or she is expected to live chastity with the most general guidance and the fewest concrete examples. 

Spiritual Friendship focuses especially on the needs of LGBT Christians, but this post has a wide importance for all sorts of Christians, gay, straight or other.

Many of us hope to get married one day, but for whatever reasons find we are celibate for the time being. In evangelical circles the readily available advice is usually nothing more than "Get married as soon as you can." A nice thought, I guess, but not always as practical as might be hoped.  It also tends to produce a feeling of waiting (e.g. True Love Waits), that I think is unhelpful. I find myself in just this position. If I spent all my time "Waiting" for true love I would be miserable, feeling like my life has not yet begun.  We are called where we are, not where we would like to be or where we may yet be. That means that at the moment I am called to celibacy, and called to find ways of loving God and my neighbors in that state. So, rather than feeling like I am in the antechamber of life, I would rather have some tools for thinking about celibacy in a positive way.

I'm not sharing this to get all confessional, but simply because I think that my experience is fairly common among young single Christians, and to make the point that Mr. Gonnerman's reflections are relevant to all sorts of people, both to the permanently celibate, and to those who are only called to celibacy for a time. They may also be quite useful resources for those who are responsible for pastoral care.

So get thee over to Spiritual Friendship, and have a look at Mr. Gonnerman's posts.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

There'll Be No Butter in Hell!

A sermon on Luke 12:49-56
NB.  I think this sermon has some serious theological holes - I think I am unclear about the different sorts of suffering which can affect a Christian, conflating them a bit too much, and the kind of judgment that we undergo.  I would also want to emphasize, if I were expanding this sermon, that much of the suffering we undergo in the Christian life is purgative, but much is also suffering that we experience in solidarity with the world - because we are still in the world, its sufferings affect us too, just as Moses died with the wilderness generation outside the promised land, as Jeremiah went into exile, even though he was righteous, and finally as Christ died for us. Sometimes these two types of suffering overlap.  That said, I think the basic point I make is correct, and fits with the prophetic warnings against those who are too eager for the day of the Lord, which is "Darkness and not light" (Amos 5:18), and at the same time maintains the good news of God's judgment.  
Ye're all damned!

Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

This is one of Jesus' so called 'hard sayings;' sayings that are difficult or unpleasant to hear. This saying almost seems out of Character for Jesus. This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but a frightening Jesus mean and wild.These are not the sayings we expect from the prince of peace, and they are a thousand miles away from the comforting religion that we all enjoy and like to turn to in a crisis, all pastel colors and dewy eyed saints.

Or maybe I shouldn't presume – there are in fact some of us who enjoy these sayings, and preachers who get a perhaps not totally wholesome thrill from preaching on these hard sayings; preachers who love getting a rise from their congregations by preaching hell fire and damnation, and congregations who love hearing it. The comic film Cold Comfort Farm, based on a novel by the same name, presents a delightful and stinging parody of this kind of gleeful anger in preaching.

The character Amos, played by Sir Ian McKellen, is a farmer in the English country side in the 1930s who also serves as the minister of a tiny church, known as the “Church of the Quivering Brethren.” When asked by his well meaning cousin Flora what he will be preaching about on Sunday, he explains in his thick north English accent that he never prepares his sermons beforehand, but “I allus' know it will be summat about burnin'... or the eternal torment... or sinners comin' to judgment.” Amos then adds, just for good measure: “and ye'll burn with the lot of them.” I highly recommend going on youtube to see Ian Mckellen's rendition of this sermon to get the full effect. When Amos preaches he takes no end of pleasure describing each item in a catalog of hell's torments – perhaps the strangest, and in context the most comic, of which is his loud declaration that “There'll be no butter in hell!”. His congregation listens and cheers him on, taking no end of delight in hearing him declare with total assurance “Ye'll all burn!”

Well, I am not particularly that kind of preacher. I don't think you're particularly that kind of congregation. I would far rather talk about God's grace and mercy, met in Christ and about reconcilliation, new life and peace, than about fire from heaven and division. But both are in the gospel, both are revealed by God and an honest preacher is bound to preach both. So while I am not going to describe any of the pains of hell in detail, I am going to suggest that perhaps you will all burn, and perhaps it is good news that you will.

How can fire, and division be good news? What does Jesus even mean by “bringing fire on the earth?” That's not as easy a question to answer as it might seem, but I think that it is safe to say that this is first of all an image of God's judgment. This saying comes at the end of a long passage rebuking hypocrites and self confident sinners. It draws on a long history of biblical images of judgment, from Sodom and Gommorah destroyed by fire from heaven, to the prophets who said “who can endure the day of [the Lord's] coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap” (Mal 3. 1-2), or John the Baptist declaring that the Messiah will “burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The prophets and the psalms expected this judgment and they even looked forward to it. They understood that the judgment itself was good news, because God's judgment puts all things right. We often do not like to think of God as judgmental, but that is a bit short sighted. There are many things in this world that need to be judged. When the innocent are hurt, when children are abused by those they trust, when someone is punished for the color of their skin, when our leaders lie to us, or when we discover that a friend is dying of cancer... these things cry out for judgment.

When a wildfire sweeps through, it clears away everything dead, the brush and debris that have piled up. In areas that are prone to fire, there will sometimes be intentional controlled fires, litt to clear away debris. God's judgment is a fire like that, dividing what is dead from what is alive. That kind of judgment is good news. Of course, it looks like much better news when you think that its someone else who will be judged; when you feel like you and your loved ones are the ones who will be acquitted.

But the better we come to know God and come to know ourselves, the more we come to realize that we are not totally safe. There are weeds, dead things, selfish motives, cruelties and lusts in our hearts. When we realize that the fire is at our own door, it becomes much more frightening. Remember that in the context where Jesus is speaking, he is preaching to a lot of people – perhaps even some among his disciples – who feel very confident in their own righteousness, people who assume that God's judgment will not come near them. These are the people Jesus calls hypocrites.

Now, if this were a typical hell fire sermon, I would tell you about now, how you are all liable to judgment, but how you can escape it by getting your act together. I'm not going to do that though, because I don't think that would be quite true to the words of the gospel. Jesus does not promise to his disciples that they will escape the fire that he has come to cast on the earth. On the contrary, they will experience suffering, and  “five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.”

Jesus is not interested here in making it easy to follow him, and this passage sounds like altogether bad news if we get right down to it. And it would be, except for one fact, the fact that there is something worse than experiencing the fire of God's judgment. That, of course, is not experiencing God's judgment. I suppose God could have decided not to bring judgement on the world. But where would that leave us? It would leave us with all the same dead things in the world and in our own hearts, the greed, the selfishness  the anger, the violence and the cruelty. It would leave us dead ourselves.

Most serious diseases hurt when they are being healed. Undergoing treatment for cancer is a horrifying prospect, and no one would ever choose that, if it were not that the alternative is death. The cure for sin hurts too, but it is the way that God has provided for us to find life. We may have to be divided from many things that we love, from having our own way, from possessions  from our images of ourselves. It may mean that we are divided and cut off from our communities, even from family and friends when our relationships with them have become deadly to us and to them. This is painful, and it burns, but it is the way that God has provided to lead us into life.

It is a way that Jesus Christ has walked before us. He has shown and carried the full weight of our judgment on the cross. He has also shown that this judgment leads to resurrection. But the only way is through fire, through division, through the cross. Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps we don't need to go through fire – perhaps if we really want it, God will simply let us stay as we are. He will simply say, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” and give us a little space to go away and let our weeds grow uninterrupted by fire, till they choke us. I hope not though. I hope instead, that even if I understand the words a little differently than he did the fictional preacher I mentioned earlier was right, and that we'll all burn.
In the name...