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October 27, 2013

The Trinitarian Unity of the Church: A Sermon on Ecumenism

Filed under: Ecumenism,Sermons — William Witt @ 6:31 pm

Ephesians 4:1-16
John 17:11-26

TrinityThe epistle reading from Ephesians and the reading from John’s gospel are perhaps the two single most frequently cited biblical passages about the unity of the church. Certainly unity is a central theme in both passages: Ephesians 4 rings the changes one the word “one”: There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6). John has what is sometimes called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, where he prays that his followers will be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:11,22). And, of course, unity is one of the four classic marks of the church: The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What is the nature of the church’s unity that is such a major theme in these passages? There have been numerous answers to this question given in the history of theology. The 39 Articles and the Lutheran confessions speak of that unity in terms of activities that the church performs: The church is where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church has historically placed that unity institutionally: The church consists of all those who are in communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome. Anglo-Catholics have focused on historical continuity. The church is rightly found in those churches who can trace their succession through a series of bishops to the apostles. In the last century or so, many of the Orthodox have focused on Sobornost, a notion of the church as a community or fellowship based in freedom and love. In the last several decades, Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have focused on the understanding of the church as a community of character, of Christian discipleship as a path of virtue whose primary focus is following the way of Jesus in the non-violent way of the cross.

What all of these descriptions have in common is that they are descriptions of the church from our point of view, from the ground up, as it were. Sometimes it helps to look at things from a different point of view. What is different about the way in which Ephesians and the Gospel of John look at the unity of the church is that they look at things from the opposite point of view, not from the ground up, but from the top down, from a God’s-eye point of view, as it were.

Both Ephesians and the Gospel of John point to the unity of the church first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. The church is one because God is one. But God is not simply one as a monad. God is a unity of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians, Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). John records Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us . . .” (John 17:21). We might read John’s approach as binitarian rather than trinitarian, except that in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in John, he had already talked at great length about the Comforter, the paraklete, whom Jesus says, he will “send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.” (John 15:26). So the church’s unity originates first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. Again, the church is one because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. (more…)

October 22, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Beginning with Genesis

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:58 pm

Adam and EveThe doctrine of creation is crucial to a number of related theological issues, and theologians have appealed to it when addressing numerous issues. Often theologians have engaged in a speculative exercise in which they distinguish between a created and a fallen world to address issues that initially might not seem directly related to the doctrine of creation. For example, theologians interested in the relation between Christian faith and politics have sometimes speculated about whether there would have been government if there had been no sin. Augustinians (and Lutherans) have tended to understand government as primarily concerned with justice, and, in particular, with restraining and punishing evildoers in a fallen world. So, they have argued, there would have been no need for government if there had been no fall. To the contrary, Thomists (and some Calvinists) have suggested rather that the purpose of government is to promote the common good and, even in an unfallen world, government would have existed. For example, even in an unfallen world, if people drove automobiles, there would need to be some way of deciding whether drivers should drive on the left or the right side of the street. How one answers this question will largely determine whether one sees the present function of government as a necessary evil, and, accordingly, limited largely to military and police functions, or, rather, whether one sees executing justice as only one of government’s functions, which would also include numerous public goods as well: highways, national parks, promoting the arts, public education, economic assistance to the poor, having a positive role in promoting a healthy economy, publicly-funded health care.

Similarly the distinction between “natural law,” “ceremonial law,” and “civil law” that one finds in theologians and theological traditions as diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, John Calvin, and the Lutheran Confessions, presupposes a distinction between the kinds of laws that are rooted in the nature of creation itself, and the laws that would exist only in a sinful world. (Thomas Aquinas argues, for example, that there would have been no private property and no need for laws against theft if there had been no sin.1) Contemporary discussions about sexuality, particularly the question of whether Christians should approve of same-sex sexual activity, ultimately must address this question of “natural law,” that is, what was God’s original intent in creating human beings as male and female, and what bearing does this have on sexual ethics?

In the area of soteriology, theologians have speculated about such things as whether the Word of God would have become incarnate even if human beings had never sinned – the Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas answered “no, while Duns Scotus answered “yes.”2 In the Reformed tradition, supralapsarians and infralapsarians disagreed about whether the doctrine of election presupposed a fallen or unfallen humanity.3

For similar reasons, the doctrine of creation is important for assessing concerns about women’s ordination. The interpretation of Genesis 1-3 has played a major role in the discussion of women’s place, not only in marriage, but in the church and culture as well. The crucial question has to do with the interpretation of Genesis 3:16b: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Is this verse a command, a curse, or a description? Is it a command that is a furthering of a subordination that was nonetheless part of God’s intention in creation, or rather a punishment or curse in response to sin, or neither part of God’s intention for creation or a curse, but simply a description of the way things are in a fallen world, and thus a departure from God’s intention in creation? To be specific, if human beings had never sinned, would women be subordinate to men? Moreover, even if subordination is only a consequence of the fall, is that subordination something willed by God or something to be overcome as much as possible?

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October 5, 2013

The Just Shall Live by Faith: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:40 am

Habakkuk 1:1-13: 2:1-4
Psalm 37
1 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

agnus deiWhen I was a young man, the philosophy of existentialism was the main competition to Christian faith among secularists. The names of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were considered to offer the biggest challenge for Christians to address. Existentialism was even a theme in popular culture. When he first started out his career, Woody Allen’s movies were an outlet for existentialist themes. Existentialism seems to have fizzled out sometime in the early 1980’s, and in recent years it has been replaced by the New Atheism. Existentialists and the New Atheists have a lot in common, but also some considerable differences. Existentialists tended to be atheists, but they could also be agnostics. They tended to be neurotic. They wondered if life had meaning if there was no God. They tended to be nicer than the New Atheists. The New Atheists have no doubts. They don’t worry about whether life has meaning. They know that there is no God, and they’re angry at him for creating the world.

The single theme that unites the old existentialists and the New Atheists is the conviction that the evil and suffering that exists in the world makes it impossible to believe in a good and omnipotent God. At the end of Woody Allen’s movie Love and Death, his character says, “You know, if it turns out that there IS a God, I don’t think that He’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that, basically, He’s an underachiever.” The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a book entitled God is Not Great, but perhaps it really should have been titled God is not Good. Among other things, he writes in that book: “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.”

Woody Allen certainly thought that he was being humorous in his quip about God being an underachiever, and I have no doubt that Christopher Hitchens thought his comments about the Bible and the kinds of people who wrote it was rather clever. If however, they thought that they were being original, that no one had ever expressed concerns about the goodness of God before, they were just a bit naïve, as we can find when we read the passage from this morning’s Old Testament lectionary passage from Habbukuk. Habbukuk looks at the world around him, and, in the light of what he sees expresses just as much concern about the goodness of God as does any twentieth century existentialist or twenty-first century New Atheist.

There is a common theme in Habbukuk and Psalm 37, which is why both are likely included in the readings this morning: Where is God when the unrighteous prosper, and the righteous are oppressed? The Psalm directly answers the question: “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” (v. 1) What we find in the Psalm is a typical example of a pattern we often find in prophetic literature. The righteous can be assured because God’s justice will eventually punish the unrighteous and the righteous will be rewarded. The Psalmist says: “Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.” (v. 9)

Habbukuk is different, however. In Habakkuk, we find the prophet questioning the traditional prophetic pattern. Habakkuk questions God in a way that is paralleled perhaps only by the Book of Job in the Old Testament. In chapter 1, Habakkuk complains to God about the prospering of the wicked: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see inquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? . . . For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.” (v. 2) This is standard prophetic fare.

And the standard prophetic answer comes in the following verses. God is not going to allow the wicked to prosper forever. They will be destroyed. The LORD promises in verse 5: “Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded/ For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” God then tells the prophet about how he will punish injustice: “For behold I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.” This is the traditional prophetic answer, and it sounds much like what we have read in Psalm 37.

But here things turn interesting. Habakkuk has received the standard prophetic answer, but he does not accept it. Habakkuk is actually bold enough to suggest that God does not know what he is doing! The Chaldeans were a notoriously merciless bunch of conquerors. If the leaders of Israel were unjust, the Chaldeans were wicked without qualification. Is not using the Chaldeans to punish the unrighteous in Israel only making a bad situation worse? If the problem is the rule of the unrighteous, the Chaldeans will only bring in a new bunch, even more unrighteous. Habakkuk challenges God: “Are you not from everlasting. O Lord my God, my holy One? We shall not die.” (v. 12) He appeals to God’s own righteousness. “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil, and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (v. 13) Then in a passage that the lectionary leaves out, Habbukuk compares the Chaldeans to a fisherman who casually harvests the innocent in a net: “You make mankind like the fish of the sea . . . He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net. . . . Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (v. 14-17)

When we read this kind of language in the Bible it suggests that the complaints of modern secularists are rather “small potatoes” by comparison. Habakkuk goes a lot further than Woody Allen’s observation in Love and Death that God is an underachiever. He actually has the gall to take God to task and to say “This just won’t do!” And then goes even further. Habakkuk goes on a sit down strike. The prophet says to God: “I’m going to wait here until you give me an acceptable answer!” In chapter 2:1, we read: “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”

The point here is not that Habakkuk questions God’s justice. From the beginning to end, the prophet assumes that God is just. This is what makes Habakkuk more interesting than Woody Allen or Christopher Hitchens. Anybody can look at the world and realize it’s a mess. Anybody can look at the mess and then conclude that no one must be in charge. Habakkuk knows that God is in charge, and he knows that God is righteous. So if there is a mess, he knows that ultimately there has to be an explanation that makes some kind of sense, since he knows that God is in charge, and God is righteous.

And the really interesting thing is that God responds to Habakkuks’ challenge. “And the LORD answered me; Write the vision make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” (Habakkuk 2:2-3) The next line is obscure “Behold the soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,” – Is this referring to the Chaldeans? – but the conclusion contains one of the those greatest hits of Scripture quotations: “the righteous shall live by his faith.” (vs. 4) (more…)

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