Saturday, November 21, 2015

Apocalyptic Spirituality

There are three Hebrew words which the first century church used often in their worship, and we have retained only two of them.  These Hebrew/ Aramaic words were so important that they were carried bodily and untranslated into the worship of the non-Hebrew Gentile churches, where they functioned not as Hebrew words but as international Christian ones.  All Christians today use two of them every time they worship.  They are:  “amen” and “alleluia”.  Strictly speaking, the first means “so be it” (coming as a congregational response to a prayer uttered by the celebrant), and the second means “praise Yah” (“Yah” being short for “Yahweh”, the Name of the God of Israel).  The first still functions as the congregational response to a prayer uttered by the celebrant (or to the last clause of the prayer, if the prayer is said silently).  The second now functions as an acclamation, a cry of praise and adoration to God.  But the third Hebrew word, habitually used in the first century church, we do not use at all.  It is the word “maranatha”, Aramaic for “our Lord, come”.  St. Paul, writing in Greek to the Corinthians, uses it at the conclusion of his letter (1 Corinthians 16:22), evidently assuming that they would recognize the word and know what he was talking about.  They might have been Gentiles, but they still knew such good Hebrew words as “amen”, “alleluia”—and “maranatha”.
            This reveals that the first century church, both Jewish and Gentile, lived in the light of the Second Coming, and that they lived as a people waiting for their Lord to return and for the world to end.  This expectation was not (as is sometimes said by some) a matter of calendar, as if the apostles taught that Jesus’ Second Coming was about to occur in a couple of decades or so.  St. Paul explicitly said that the Second Coming could not occur while the Roman Empire was still intact (see 2 Thessalonians), and the Roman Empire was looking pretty intact throughout the first century.  Rather, the imminence of the Lord’s Return was not a matter of human calendar, but of divine agenda.   
God had a number of things on His salvific agenda, His “to do” list:  the call of Abraham and the patriarchs, then the creation of His people Israel, then their liberation from Egypt, then their conquest of the Promised Land, then (after the Babylonian Captivity) their restoration to that Land.  Then the birth of the Messiah, and then His death, resurrection, and ascension, and then the outpouring of the Spirit and the Gentile mission.  And then, as the very last item on the list, the Second Coming and the consummation of all things.  Everything had been accomplished but that last item, and that could come more or less any time.  That was why St. Paul wrote that the ends of the ages had come upon them (1 Corinthians 10:11), and that the Lord was at hand (Philippians 4:4).  That was why St. James said that the Judge was even then standing at the very doors (James 5:9), and why St. John said that it was the last hour (1 John 2:18).  They were not mistaken about timing, like children on a long journey constantly asking, “Are we there yet?”  Rather, they were ready for it, whenever it came.
            What does it mean to live in readiness for the Second Coming?  It does not mean that we live in a state of high anticipation, waking up each day excited and expectant (and going to bed each night correspondingly disappointed that today was not the day).  Rather it means that we sit lightly on the things of the world, with a spirituality and an approach to life appropriate to people who are ready to leave this age behind at any moment.      
Our Lord counselled such an apocalyptic spirituality when He warned His disciples that Jerusalem would be destroyed within a generation.  Most Jews in His day believed that God would never allow the Holy City to be destroyed, and they were determined to wait out any siege of the city and hunker down for the long haul.  That, Christ said, would be a fatal mistake.  They must sit lightly on the world they knew, for the Romans were about to sweep it all away into the dustbin of history.  He then told a parable about the spirituality they would need, about how a man must be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, with all the urgency of Lot fleeing Sodom.  “Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak” (Matthew 24:17-18, Luke 17:31).  No time to stop and load up the world’s goods, no time to “just grab a few things”.  One must sit so lightly on this world that one can leave it all behind at a moment’s notice.  That was necessary counsel for those awaiting for Jerusalem to end in the first century, and it is necessary counsel for all Christians now.
            St. Paul, of course, said the same thing:  “The time has been shortened; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who weep, as though they did not weep, and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice, and those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use of the world, as though they did not make full use of it.  For the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).  The upshot?  Sit lightly on this world, and don’t give it your heart.  Keep your heart in the Kingdom, where it belongs.  Everything down here is passing away, and if you get entangled in the affairs of the world, you will pass away with it as well.
            Such a spirituality and approach to life is especially needed today, when terrible events on the international stage might make one conclude that the world is spinning out of control.  In fact the world is not out of the control, but Jesus still reigns over it from the right hand of God, and the world will end when and how He wills.  The final word does not belong to Al-Qaeda, or to Russia, or the United States, or to any of the children of men.  The final word belongs to God alone.  World events are important, but not ultimate, and we must not allow them to consume our attention, nor to let the fear which they can inspire fill our hearts.  We sit lightly on the form of this world, looking not so much at the events of the world as through them, focussing upon the coming Kingdom.  The rulers and generals, the terrorists and the politicians, all think that they know how history should unfold, and they are doing everything in the power to fulfill their plans to make that happen.  We know how it will really unfold—with the last trumpet, and the voice of the archangel, and the resurrection of the dead, and the final triumph of Jesus, and the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God like a bride adorned for her husband.  We know what others don’t.  We know the word “maranatha”. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

That Was Then; This Is Now

I was born and raised in the greater Toronto area (known to the natives there as “the GTA”), and came to faith in the early 70’s.  For the students of ancient history among us, that was the time of the so-called “Jesus Movement”, when tens of thousands of young people came to Christ, many of them former hippies and drug-addicts.  It was a brief blip on the cultural radar, and was over in less than a decade.  But while it lasted, if often made the front pages, including the cover of “Time Magazine”.  The young new converts, usually called “Jesus People” or (by the unenthused) “Jesus Freaks” were often seen openly proclaiming their faith in the public square, perhaps playing the guitar and then preaching to a crowd at the beach; holding music festivals where they sang songs about Jesus; and generally being exuberant about their faith.  It was an oddity then, for Christians were not generally known to be exuberant, play guitars, or have long hair.  But after the initial shock, most people found them somewhat refreshing, if perhaps a little unnerving, since these long-haired Jesus People were urging their contemporaries to give up drugs and take up prayer.  Toronto, being a major Canadian city, had its share of Jesus People, who strove to make the Gospel as widely-known as they could.
            That was then.  Fast forward to now.  In that same Toronto, we find a group of people wanting to publicly sing about their faith.  They are too young to remember the Jesus People, but any aging Jesus Freak would instantly recognize them as cut from the same spiritual cloth.  The group is called “Voices of the Nations” (pictured above), and since 2006 they have been using city property at the central Yonge-Dundas Square for their annual “multi-denominational” event, celebrating Christianity through live music and dance.  Jesus People indeed.  But like I said, this is now (or to borrow a phrase from our new Prime Minister, “it’s 2015”), and public celebration of Christianity is not allowed if it could possibly give anyone the idea that they should embrace Christian ideology.  Note please that Christian ideology alone is singled out for such treatment, for Toronto, ever keen to celebrate “diversity”, has no problem with parades and celebrations held by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or the LGBQT community—all of which (and especially the latter community) hold such celebrations in public precisely to promote their ideologies.  Christians alone come under the cultural ban, and when the Voices of the Nations co-ordinator applied to the city for the usual permit to hold their annual festival they were told that the permit would not be issued, but they must find another venue for their gathering.  The reason given?  Proselytizing is not allowed.  Said the city official:  “If you’re praising Jesus, [saying] ‘praise the Lord’, and that type of thing, that’s proselytizing.” It was admitted that the performers were not calling on the audience to embrace the Christian faith, but simply singing their songs, and one wonders how Christians could sing songs or hymns about Christ and omit any reference to Jesus.  No matter; such public exuberance on the part of Christians is now disallowed.  After all, it’s 2015.
            What does this mean?  It means that our culture continues along its escalating trajectory of militant anti-Christian sentiment.  I would define it as “secularism”, except that public displays by other religions such as Islam are allowed and even encouraged.  Back in the old days, western rhetoric denounced Russia as “the evil empire”.  That was then; this is now, and we are on the fast track to becoming the new evil empire.  Nonetheless, life in such an unwelcoming environment, though difficult, will be good for us, for persecution has always had a purifying effect upon the Church.  It helps us remember that “here we have no continuing city” (even the GTA), and that we live as “exiles and sojourners” in this age (Hebrews 13:14, 1 Peter 2:11).  And if ever we need pointers on how to live in such an unwelcoming environment, perhaps the older citizens of the former evil empire can help us, for some of the older Russians remember what it was like.
            The Jesus People and their public celebration of God’s love are long gone, and the city which once welcomed them has turned cold.  Yet even now, if one listens hard, one can still hear some of their songs lingering on the wind.   Those songs proclaimed, “Maranatha!  Jesus is coming!”  The Jesus People expected a final show-down between Christ and Antichrist in their time.  Perhaps they were not far wrong. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Apologize and Then Keep Quiet Forever"

Recently the news has been full of the story of a Roman Catholic monsignor, Krzysztof Charamsa of Poland, the Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church (shown in the photo with his boyfriend).  The Reverend Charamsa was a former Vatican official, and he was stripped of his post recently after he publicly acknowledged that he was gay and also in a gay relationship with another man.  He has written the Pope a long and heart-felt letter (some might describe it more as “histrionic” than “heart-felt”), denouncing the Roman Catholic Church as “violent”, “fanatical”, “incapable of dialogue with humanity”, “inhuman, insensitive, unjust and violent”, “Pharisaical and hypocritical, locked into its cold and inhuman doctrine without mercy or charity, a homophobic Church that knows only how to hate”.  He also declared that the Church was also a “particularly hateful Church, which is presently led by pastors without hearts or brains”.  In his letter he also denounced the Church’s official pronouncements on the issue of homosexuality as “violent and offensive”, “obscene”, and its clergy as “violently homophobic”.  There is more, but you get the idea.  His favourite word is “violent”, used eight times.  (The full text can be read here.)  In the penultimate paragraph (before he ends by saying of course that he will pray for the Pope and will do everything he can “to help homosexual people wake the Catholic Church from its inhuman sleep, which by now has reached bestial limits of intolerability”), he says that the Church must “apologize and then keep quiet forever”.  Presumably such imposed silence also means that the Church must forget about its previously noble “dialogue with humanity”. 
            Apart from the fury, hatred, and the violence of the language, it is an extraordinary letter.  Some have suggested that the fury and violence is evidence that the man is in pain.  He is certainly upset about being stripped of his job at the Vatican because he has a gay boyfriend.  But it is not so much a personal letter as a long and angry slamming of the office door on the way out after being given the papal pink slip.   Despite his characterization of the Roman Catholic Church as “incapable of dialogue”, it seems clear that he himself is not in the mood for much dialogue.  He asks from his church not dialogue, but simple capitulation to his own gay agenda and ideology—that is why his final demand is that the Church apologize and then shut up forever.  I understand the nature of such demands.  When it occurs in the school-yard, it is called “bullying”—though in this case the muscle is provided by not by violent shoving or hitting the other party with your lunch-box, but by violent language and self-righteous rhetoric.   And, like I did in the school-yard when faced with such demands as a child, I decline to get into it with him.  I would rather just walk away and eat my lunch safely and quietly somewhere else.
            However, if I did choose to reply, I might say the following, for after all, Monsignor Charamsa has not simply written a personal letter, but issued a kind of public manifesto, and it is to the public manifesto that one can reply.  Manifestos invite reply; that is the point of a manifesto.
            In my reply, I would first of all say that the traditional Christian Church, be it Roman Catholic or Orthodox, should not heed impassioned demands that it shut up and say nothing when its central teachings are trampled, denied, and distorted.  The Church has a divine duty to proclaim the truth to whoever wants to listen, and especially to its own members.  St. Paul did not “keep quiet forever” about the false Christology proclaimed by the early Gnostics, or about the supposed necessity of circumcision demanded by the early Judaizers.  It is true that both the Gnostics and the Judaizers would have been happier if he did, but such silence would have been spiritually criminal and a betrayal of Christ.  Of course the World will not like it when opposed by the Church.  No one likes being opposed and contradicted.  It can be very irritating and infuriating.  But being an adult involves being committed to non-violent dialogue when such disagreements occur, not screaming at the other party because they dare to contradict.  It is easy to have a tantrum and to scream “shut up!”.  It is harder to be an adult and go on debating calmly.  No doubt the child having the tantrum is “in pain”.  But such pain is no excuse for the tantrum.
            Secondly, merely pronouncing that something is sinful is not of itself an act of violence, hatred, marginalization, stigmatization, or any of the other things of which the Reverend Charamsa accuses us.  Saying that abortion is morally sinful, though irritating to abortionists and those using their services, does not “marginalize” those who abort.  Rather it is simply declaring what forms of behaviour are compatible with a profession of the Christian Faith and which are not, and acting accordingly.  If one chooses to abort one’s child, one cannot then claim that the Church somehow marginalizes you and tramples on you because it says you should not have done it and calls you to repentance.  The Monsignor assumes with proving that homosexual activity is okay, and then becomes furious when the Church says that it is not.  But he is the one who chose to engage in activities which placed him outside the bounds of the Church.  If the teaching of Christ and His apostles about marriage and sexuality is true, what else can the Church do?
            Finally we note the inherent absurdity of Monsignor’s position.  The Church which he voluntarily joined, accepted ordination and promotion and money from, and remained in for all his forty-three years is one which has always declared that 1. homosexual acts are sinful, and 2. its clergy must remain celibate.  This cannot have been a surprise to Charamsa.  It is not as if the Catholic Church up until yesterday said that homosexual acts were just fine and that its clergy could be sexually active if they wanted to.  Why the indignation now?  That is like joining a group of committed vegetarians and then fulminating against them because they expel you from the group because you keep eating steak and saying that vegetarianism is too narrow.  One may eat all the steak one likes, but then one cannot expect the group promoting vegetarianism to welcome you in the group as one of its leaders.  It is difficult not to conclude that the real offense in the Monsignor’s eyes was not so much the position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality as the fact that their fired him for having a boyfriend.  One may continue to debate the issue of homosexuality and the teaching of the Church if one likes, but let us at least be consistent.  The issue here about Charamsa is not just that of his homosexuality, but of his basic integrity. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Poor Man Named Lazarus

 Our Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man is unique among the parables, for in this parable alone one of the characters has a name.  The parable begins, “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus”.   Compare how the parable of the Prodigal Son begins:  “There was a man who had two sons”.  One might ask, “What were their names?  What was the father’s name?  Where did they live?”  It doesn’t matter; all that mattered were their actions.  In all the Lord’s parables the characters are nameless—the prodigal son and his father, the sower who went out to sow, the man who sowed good seed in his field, but whose enemy came by night and sowed tares in it—none of these characters have names.  We ask therefore:  why is the poor man in our parable given a name?  The name “Lazarus” of course is from the Hebrew “Eleazar”, meaning “God helps”, but this doesn’t explain why he alone is named in all the parables—especially, one might say, since God clearly did not help him during his life, but left him to die by the gate of the rich man. 
            I suggest that the poor name is given a name to reveal the magnitude of the rich’s man’s sin.  For consider it:  the rich man left a man suffering outside his very gate whom he knew by name.  The poor man was not just another anonymous and nameless beggar in the street, someone whom the rich man quickly passed by and who then vanished from his consciousness.  The rich man was on a first-name basis with the poor man.  And yet despite this, he still did little or nothing to help him.  Every day the rich man feasted sumptuously, and then wiped his mouth and hands with bread (the ancient equivalent of a napkin), throwing aside the scraps.  (These were the kind of crumbs falling from the table which the Canaanite woman mentioned in Matthew 15:27.)  The poor man was so hungry that he would’ve been grateful even for these, but there is no hint in the parable that he ever was given them.  Rather, the rich man finished his sumptuous meal, adjusted his purple and fine linen, walked past Lazarus lying at his gate and went on with his sumptuous life.  He may or may not have greeted Lazarus as he passed by; but it is clear that he never gave him alms or brought him past his gate to enjoy food from his table.  Instead he let him die at the edge of his property.
            A look at the rich man after he himself died reveals that he was something of a slow learner, and that death produced no real change in his heart.  To his perplexity, after what was doubtless a great and splendid funeral where his friends declared how wonderful he was, the formerly rich man finds himself engulfed in flame in the next world, and more perplexing still, sees Lazarus far away, feasting at the head table lying in the bosom of no less a celebrity than Abraham himself (the ancient Jews reclined at such feasts, so that one literally reclined on the bosom of the diner feasting next to one; compare John lying on Jesus’ bosom in John 13:23).  But does the rich man repent?  Does he apologize to Lazarus for his appalling neglect and ask his forgiveness?  Does he congratulate Lazarus on his current blessedness?  No, none of this.  In fact, he doesn’t speak to Lazarus at all—instead, he speaks to Abraham.  And, showing how hard and unrepentant his heart still is, asks Abraham to send Lazarus far from the festal table to minister to him.  The request is stunning—the rich man requests that Lazarus cease feasting, traverse the long way across the chasm, brave the fire, all to do a service for the man who let him starve and die at his gate, and in all this he still doesn’t even speak to Lazarus!  The rich man apparently assumes that Abraham will send Lazarus to do the job as if Lazarus were just a lackey or a slave.  Not surprisingly, Abraham demurs.  And even then the rich man asks that Abraham send Lazarus from the table to visit his brothers and to do a service for them—still saying nothing to Lazarus.  The rich man is a slow learner indeed.
            What is the lesson for us?  Our Lord tells the parable not to give us an inside peak behind the scenes at the next life, but to give us an urgently needed lesson for this one.  The rich man’s sins and punishment show what happens when we store up our treasure and use it all for ourselves, ignoring the plight of the poor at our gate.  Placing the parable in the wider context of Luke’s Gospel allows us to see the central point:  You cannot serve God and Mammon (Luke 16:13), however much the Pharisees who were lovers of money (v. 14) or the American Dream say otherwise.
            We need to remember this parable the next time we visit the mall and encounter someone asking for the morsels that fall from our festal table (or “spare change”, as it is called in our culture).  It is true that they may possibly use those morsels in ways that are less than helpful to them, but of course we also use our resources in ways less than helpful to us.  We remember here the words of C.S. Lewis when he was rebuked by a friend for giving spare change to a beggar.  “He’ll just use it for ale”, said his friend.  Lewis paused and responded, “But if I kept it, that’s what I would use it for.”  We give our morsels to the poor not just to help them, but to help ourselves transcend our insular selfishness and remember our essential solidarity with the poor.  It is as Solomon said:  “The rich and poor have this in common:  the Lord made them all” (Proverbs 22:2).  We too easily rush past the poor man, not realizing he is our own flesh and blood, one of our own family.  The question, “Could you spare some change?” should remind us of another question:  “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, and yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)  We may think that we know nothing about the man or woman accosting us in the parking lots of our nation and asking for our help.  But we do know something about him—we know his name.  His name is Lazarus.