Pat Your Head, Rub Your Belly

 God is at once perfectly simple (‘the Lord is one’) and infinitely vast- we can and will continue to behold and learn of Him for eternity!  But when it comes to humans, at the heart of thinking theologically is the necessity of holding two thoughts in your head at once (hence the title!). We are made in God’s own image, and we are the inheritors of original sin. At once open to the transcendent, and flawed. For this reason we Christians must be the most pessimistic, as to ourselves, and the most optimistic, ultimately and as to God, of all human beings.

Sometimes holding a tight hold on the primacy of God’s grace, as well on our own primordial flaw, even at our seeming best, goes by the name of ‘Augustinian.’ The great saint of the fifth century in North Africa is called the ‘doctor of grace,’ but also had a deep sense of the mysterious recalcitrance of the human will. Think of the verse from Romans 7: ‘for the good that I would do I do not, and the evil that I would not do, this I do’ (v.19).  This self-suspicion is directed not only at others, but at ourselves. This lies at the heart of the introspection to which Lent, and Advent as well, call us to.  But this insight is important not only personally, but when we look at the world as well. For almost a century, political thinkers have at times repaired to the thought of an American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr, who worried over the American options of overly optimistic forays into world affairs, followed by an equally unrealistic retreat from those same exigencies. Niebuhr saw that engagement, along with self-critical, sometimes tragic, awareness, was required. 

Niebuhr is helpful as well look out upon the social, cultural, political scene of our time. Both left and right easily impugn their foes, while exempting themselves from the same flaws they see in others. Have we forgotten the old adage about power corrupting and absolute power doing so absolutely?  A breathtaking example of this may be found in contemporary imagining of what the supposed Shangri-La of AI will be like. Writers as diverse as Noah Harari and Altman in all sincerity tell us that all shall have pensions, while the technologically ‘best and brightest’ run things. Do you feel better?  It is at just a point such as this that Christian theology has something urgent to contribute.

I want to close my meditation, since we are nearing Thanksgiving, with the example of our relation to native people.  We recall that time of gratitude a little more than 400 years ago for survival, made possible, thanks be to God, by the help of native people who came to the Pilgrims’ aid. In the subsequent history there are many examples of cruelty and duplicity on the part of the dominant culture. But there are also many examples of good, not least from the Church, as well as harm, which seemed to be, at the time, aid.  We are called to thanksgiving for blessings yes, as well as to contrition, and most of all to dependence, all of us together, in our diversity, for the divine grace, extended to us sinners, though children made in His image, in our Lord Jesus Christ.





All Sermons Are Equal

(Delivered at Founders’ Chapel, Wycliffe College, Toronto, October 15, 2023)

     All sermons are equal, but some are more equal than others. The bishop visiting the seminary tries to take his or her homiletical game up a notch, by doing some homework. In my case this has involved reading a slim volume called Primitive Christian Catechism. The immediate reason was that the author was Philip Carrington, bishop of Quebec a century ago, and biographer of his predecessor, the great missionary bishop George Mountain, depicted shooting the rapids another century earlier, in his canoe, you can see him right there [in a stained glass window].

       But the second reason has to do with our assignment, to listen to the second chapter of the first epistle of Peter. For Carrington argued that I Peter is throughout a catechism, for the formation of pagan converts to be baptized in the very early Church.  The epistle begins in the first chapter where we also need to begin, with the gospel, with the resurrection of Jesus as the source of a ‘living hope’ and an ‘imperishable inheritance,’ foretold long ago, now revealed. The chapter that has preceded has already been interpreted by the Wycliffe New Testament A team. It suffices for me to note one thing:  the hearers have been gathered, ‘brought near’ as Paul says in Ephesians. But they are also exiles, the diaspora, in the unredeemed world which is for now still Babylon.  To these, gathered yet scattered, Peter now turns, in chapter two and onward, to his teaching about how they are to conduct themselves in the world.

    Let me complete my book report!  Carrington found that there was in the New Testament epistles a persistent pattern in preparation for baptism. First the believer is separated from the vices of the old life: ‘do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in your ignorance.’ You must be detached, in order to get attached to a new community and life. What follows may seem less obvious. The believer was exhorted to be subjected to the authorities under which he or she now lives. Third, they were to be vigilant as they await the Lord, and finally, they were to stand strong against evil, whether patiently in the long obedience, or in the acute moment of suffering for our faith.  The latter part of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, my assignment, fall into the second rubric, subjection to authorities, to which we must turn in more detail.

     To be sure, subjection to the authorities is bitter to our contemporary taste. Should we try to find sympathy for servants’ obedience to their masters, or wives to their husbands, especially unbelievers? Resisting these verses in cases of ill-treatment is thoroughly understandable. But then we need to attend to the ‘why’ of subjection, and in particular two reasons, one explicit, one implicit, which the passage affords us. Our suffering is an identification with the suffering of Jesus, who has moved us from darkness into his glorious light. This same light transforms how we see suffering. New believers might otherwise have been overwhelmed, but He himself has borne our sins bodily on the cross. By his wounds we are healed. The logic moves from the greater reality to the lesser, from his suffering to ours, no matter how hard the latter may be. The bitter turns sweet in our stomach.

     And the implicit argument is this. The early Christians dwelt in the diaspora. Yes they honored the emperor, though he could also seem like the tyrant of Babylon to them.  They had to make their way, together, as a people, wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves. Think China today, or Myanmar, or Pakistan.  Of this making our way, like Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego, we know, so far in our history, little.  The Church must stay true to its confession, must pass on the faith, and it must survive as well- that lies behind the four pillars of catechesis which we find here in I Peter, as elsewhere. Avoiding unwanted attention may, for example, lie behind anti-jewelry and cosmetics diatribe. Chapter two is really about keeping your eye on the prize, in the service of the most profound and earth-shaking freedom of all- and that has to do with us too, though who do not dwell in that place of imminent risk.

              A little less than a century after Bishop Carrington, another bishop, originally Quebecois, Peter Mason, once walked into the Wycliffe office and said ‘ last night in my dream I had a vision of fire.’ “Renewal?’ I asked. “On the contrary’ he replied. ‘from the east  of Canada to west the fire burned off much of the Church we’re used to, though there were patches of new growth, of green, too.’  The image is poignant, given all that has happened with wildfires in the past year.  The day of Peter’s vision is now upon us; it is the Church into which the students in this chapel will go forth to minister.  We can go a step further. For most of my nearly fifty years of ministry in the Church, the most evocative descriptions of our situation, offered by a variety of theologians, have been either as the exile or as the Church of the first centuries.  These analogies have now come to our very door. Yet another way to say the same thing, popular in seminary circles, has been that we are ourselves now in a missionary circumstance.  Whichever option you prefer, the consequence is that Peter’s advice about what Carrington calls ‘primitive catechesis’ is all the more pressing for us. I Peter compels us ask the same question in a more focused way: what do separation, subjection, vigilance, and resistance look like in the coming Church amidst the coming culture, dark though our effort to see this may be? Our answers are less certain, more speculative, though what we do know is that you all, and a great theological college like this one, had better be thinking and praying hard about it.

   For the whole of the past generation, the orthodox, retrievalists, call them what you like, have been saying that we need to pay attention to the underlying challenge, the Church’s forgetfulness of the Word that must indwell us, the Church’s busyness that leaves the failure of catechesis unattended. The challenge of I Peter, fostering the distinctive form of life that separates, subjects, is vigilant, and stands up, for the greater cause of the hope that is in us, has remained in the back of the collective churchly refrigerator.   I am reminded of my daughter, later a Wycliffe MTSD, who in her early teens would ask me ‘why have you ruined our world?’ as if I had deliberately injected the atmosphere with CO2! No, its wasn’t a deliberate neglect, but yes, we elders wish we were handed over to you a Church in better catechetical shape.

     With the few minutes that remain the most I can do is gesture toward tentative answers. Each is of as unique to our post-modern situation as it is perennial as the situation of disciples waiting vigilantly in the dispersion for the return of the Lord. Detachment will have to do, one way or another, leaving aside the thrall of the machines, and of life in terms of sheer utility, which is after all machine thinking.  In its anxiety the Church quickly can prioritize its own survival in a utilitarian way. And our subjection? this will include loyalty to collapsing churches structures, which remain by grace the locus of Christ’s body. Within whose ruined walls, in various ecumenical ways, the baptized life together will be rediscovered. And vigilance? Well, we will all need to learn to be Mennonites, the Anglicans the slowest learners of all. With God’s help we will learn the virtues of I Peter, gentleness, hope, long-suffering, friendship, forbearance, hospitality, against the anger, impatience, and despair of our age. And what finally of resistance? Here I do not have so much an example as a feature of that resistance, whatever form it may take. It is a feature that might easily be overlooked in the busy panic of a struggling Church. Remember how I Peter 2, answering practical questions about being serpents and doves by resorting to the suffering of Jesus on the cross, and the irreversible freedom that happened there. Similarly we will need thick accounts, fully theological reasons, for our lives and our times, their weal and woe. Practical urgencies will require yet more explicitly theological answers. And in this task, amidst all the challenges, Wycliffe College, will, by and for God’s grace, have an outsized role to play. Amen.



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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.