Getting Particular About Our Faith

On Christmas Eve I heard a sermon- let the where and who be left aside. The priest emphasized the particularity of those names in Luke 3- Herod, Pilate, Quirinius.  He rewrote the chapter as he inserted the political names from his own day and place. His point was that, as the Spirit was at work then, so it is now. True enough. This interest goes under the name of 'context' and undergirds much mission thinking.
   However if you consider that passage again, you realize that Luke point is not that God is doing something in every particular time and place, but God did something then and there utterly unique.  The point is not that Jesus is an example, but rather that in Him, uniquely, things heavenly and earthly met, as our collect said, so as to change the world. The point is not particularity in general, but this particular which is not 'in general' at all. The latter only is what writers like Lesslie Newbigin called the 'scandal of particularity.'
   Hair splitting? Hardly. This is the one point most key to understanding what happened to Christianity in the modern age. There are various ways to make the point. The great Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard said Jesus is either a great teacher of truths which, once you know them, you don't need him, or else He is the redeemer whose benefit cannot be so readily pealed away.  (Of course those who think the latter also think he was a great teacher, but that isn't all).  Many thinkers in modern times tried to make the gospel relevant or attractive by saying the gospels are old-fashioned stories for things like trust, faith, hope (which are doubtless good things ).  You can see how life's particularity in general is one more example of this.  (Similarly people now use 'incarnate' to mean 'worldly' as opposed to the miracle of Emanuel.
   Why such a fuss? Can't we call just gather together in faith? We can and do. But what we believe matters. The truths-in-general approach leads to a kind of pluralism - different peoples have their different languages for these ineffable things. And then the Christmas baby is indeed gone with the bath water. And this way of thinking is hardly rare in our time or our denomination.
  Soon after that sermon we said the Creed. It is the great bulwark against fuzzy in-general thinking it is scandalous particularity gone metaphysical. That baby is God-of-God. Because it sets our teeth on edge we need it. We are reminded the what hear in church is, to quote Narnia, is not safe but it is good (for us).
    We suppose the great battle line is over social issues, and, yes, those issues matter but lurking deeper is the greater watershed which cuts across all modern Christian talk.
   And of course there is more to say - if God was in Christ, then there are all kinds of implications for our unique here and now. But in this incarnationtide let us first be clear to make first things first.
Peace +GRS


Le Anglicane Gentilhomme

A short, incisive, eminently helpful book for the preacher is Raymond Brown’s An Adult Christ for Christmas.   In it he hones in on points in the familiar stories we might well have otherwise missed. For example, Brown focuses on the fact that the magi, traditional healers or holy men, manage by their traditional divining to get themselves in the vicinity of the Holy One, but can’t find the spot that requires knowledge of the law and the prophets of Israel. In other words, there is a kind of natural theology-in-miniature at work here: the kind of knowledge planted in the human heart, albeit distorted, is not nothing, but it cannot reach the saving place either. And of course we must also reckon on the violent madness of the king’s heart as well. Of both we who are Gentiles, are capable, prior to saving grace.

Epiphany is the time to think about the Gentiles, who we ourselves, for the most part, are.   We receive from our culture the affirmation of cultural diversity, which is itself a thread in Scripture - in our case mediated by the romantic tradition in modern thought. The nations of the earth, after all, exist prior to Babel, though that disaster adds the blight of misapprehension one to another, which only begins to be healed at Pentecost. Finally, at the close of Revelation, we read that the nations and their kings process into the new Jerusalem in splendor. But prior to this, the nations rage (Psalm 2) and demand of the imprisoned people of God an alien’s song (Psalm 137). As Gentiles in Christ we need think about this status as a significant factor in our mission and spiritual life.

It is at this point let me wade-in for the New Year where angels fear to tread. The global nature of our Anglican faith is in many respects the product of accidental factors: colonialism and globalism of an earlier age, the courage of missionary orders, the interaction of Gospel and local cultures and the resilience of the Prayer Book. At the same time these accidents cannot help but appear providential to us. What a gift to us, that we find ourselves part of a fragile, tensive, yet enduring communion of our fellow Anglicans throughout the world, in the Arctic, Melanesia, the new Churches of southeast Asia, the vast numbers in Nigeria, post-apartheid South Africa, the bravery of fellow believers in Pakistan, and on and on. Of course all this has come to be embroiled in the cultural debates of our time. But deeper than all of that is the significance of the nations to the catholicity of the Church, the very intimation of the nations entering in splendor. And there is no way to skirt the importance in our understanding of Church to real accountability one to another, to the hard but essential calling to sit in council together.

As you know, soon the primates of our communion (including our own Presiding Bishop we pray) will be called together by the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose see is the symbol of our ancient roots and our unity. It is my prayer that this occasion will mark the restoration of a more robust ‘walking together,’ as the Windsor report and the resulting covenant process spoke of. We are not, Epiphany reminds us, islands to ourselves, and this pertains not only when there is an easy peace, but when there is hard disagreement. Gathering in such time, as family beholden in a costly way to one another, prefigures the coming gathering of us Gentiles around the throne of the wounded Lamb. Please pray for that gathering, and give thanks that we of the nations, once far off, are now brought near in Christ (Ephesians 2:12).

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.