Losing philadelphia

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Stevie Williams in Philadelphia’s Love Park

“Let mutual love continue.”

In the Greek it is only three words long, but it might be the most powerful homiletical imperative ever written.  Scholars squabble quite a bit about the origins of the Letter to the Hebrews.  While it was initially attributed to Paul, by the turn of the third century, Origen was already questioning if Paul had actually written it.  While it is often called a letter it really reads more like a sermon or even a series of sermons.  It is thought to be addressed to Jewish Christians living in the Diaspora, but even that can’t be known for sure.  Yet, despite all of the uncertainty over its authorship, style, and intended audience, it is still one of the most powerful texts in the New Testament Canon.

Unlike most of the other New Testament letters, the “Letter” to the “Hebrews” is written in a much more general style.  It speaks not so much to the particularities of a church in a time and place, but serves a theological backbone for the Church catholic that will continue to grow in the 1900 years since its writing. As the “Letter” comes to a close, the author begins to offer short reflections on the life of faith; exhorting his hearers to continue to live following The Way, despite the persecution that has been, is ongoing, and will continue to come, and it can all be summed up by this three word Greek sentence that opens our Epistle lesson this Sunday, “Let mutual love continue.”

That love that the author writes about is different from the love we hear about most often in the New Testament.  Instead of admonishing us to agape, self-sacrificial love, the author invites us to philadelphia, brotherly love.  We are to love our fellow disciples as if they are our sisters and brothers.  As Bryan Whitfield noted in a 2010 commentary on this text, “We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.”

In a world where there is a church designed to meet every possible whim and fancy of ecclesiastical taste on every street corner, this idea of treating our fellow disciples as brothers and sisters is fairly foreign.  Rather than seeing the church as a family with which we stick through thick and thin, more often than not these days, if something doesn’t tickle our fancy in our church anymore, we pick up and move.  Sometimes the reason for leaving is theological, but 99.9% of the time, it is adiaphora – things indifferent.  Whether you are no longer in love with the preaching style, the musical style, the choice of Tawny Port over Welch’s Grape, or the ongoing open question about the place of LGBT Christians in the church, our inability to “let mutual love continue” has created a culture in which there is no longer philadelphia in most churches.  Rather, we simply pick up our ball and go home.

The persecuted Church of the turn of the second century didn’t have that luxury, and, I would argue, neither should we.  Instead, let mutual love continue, learn to live in disagreement and find God in discomfort, and remember, that even when the music changes, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

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Acceptable Worship

Say the word “worship” these days and often you’ll unwittingly start another skirmish in an ongoing war between those who imagine worship to look like this

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and those how prefer it to look like this

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The battles can be quite fierce, but as one who can find God in both sorts of settings, what is so interesting to me is how wildly off the mark the whole “worship war” thing really is.  Ultimately, worship has absolutely nothing to do with the architecture of a space, the number of pipes in one’s organ or the number of instruments in a praise band.  Appropriate worship, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us is, quite simply, giving thanks thanks to God.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe…”

In my Episcopal tradition, this takes on life in our liturgy through the Eucharist, a transliteration of the Greek word for “grateful” or “thanksgiving.”  In the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we pause to give thanks to God for the most precious gift of the Body and Blood of his Son, broken and poured out for our redemption on the cross.  With or without pipe organ.  With or without lead guitar.  Even with our without music, the service of Holy Eucharist lives up to the requirements of acceptable worship because, at its very core, it is a gathering of the people of God to give thanks.

Of course, as you might expect from this low churchman, Holy Eucharist isn’t the only acceptable form of worship.  There are plenty of ways to offer thanks to God for God’s “immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.” (BCP, 101).  The Daily Office is full of opportunities to give thanks.  Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families, in setting aside time for prayers for ourselves and others gives us ample opportunity to give thanks, especially at the Close of Day.  Even for those who prefer not to pray from a book, the standard form of prayer taught in many evangelical circles weighs heavily on thanksgiving.  ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication encourages us to worship God through our prayers.

As you look around your world today, what opportunities are there to offer acceptable worship by giving thanks?

Only Together

SHW went to high school with a guy who has gone on to become an ultra-marathoner.  He’s one of those crazy people who thought that 26.2 miles of running just wasn’t enough, and so now he regularly participates in races of 50 or 100 miles.  We once followed his progress on a 100 mile race that took him well over a day to complete.  We woke up and he was already running.  Went to church – he was still running.  Ate lunch – still running.  Took a nap – running.  Went to dinner – running.  Watched a movie – running.  Went to bed – the man was STILL RUNNING!

The human body is not particularly designed to run for 24 hours non-stop. We were designed for the rhythm of day and night; sleep and awake; and so, these events usually include pacers who run only a portion of the race to keep people who are suffering from delirium and exhaustion from doing real damage to themselves.  P’s last event wasn’t a race but rather his task was to set the pace for the final 40ish miles.  He waited at an aid station until the leaders arrived and ran with them, through the night, as they became increasingly tired.  The two leaders ran together every step of the way.  When one needed to stop to adjust shoes or take nourishment, the other waited.  By the end of the 100 mile ordeal, it didn’t seem right for either on of them to be declared the winner, and so they “ran” across the finish line holding hands.  They had survived the journey together, and one succeeded only because of the other.

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The life of faith is kind of like an ultra-marathon.  It is a long and arduous journey, and if we are blessed to walk it for a while, we too might grow increasingly delirious and exhausted.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds his readers and us that for thousands of years, faithful people have walked the same path, but even those who have died have not yet crossed the finish line.  Instead, we will all be gifted with the chance to cross over together when as one, we join with Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the dead, comes again to bring about a new heaven and a new earth.

We cannot go about this journey alone.  Instead, we are called to take our place alongside those with whom we worship, live, and work as well as those who walk the journey in other places and even other times in running the race that is set before us – a race filled with struggles and hardship as well as joy and laughter.  Whether you are Moses, Rahab, Saint Peter or Mother Theresa, this race can only be completed together by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds like really good news.

The Purse Seine of Sin

Let’s get this out of the way early on.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy. It’ll take a good preacher a lot of time to deal with the harsh words of Jesus in this eschatological passage.  It’s Monday, it’s cloudy, and I’m just not up for it yet.  I promise I’ll get there, but at least for today (and maybe tomorrow too), the Hebrew’s lesson seems much more appealing.

For the first time in a while, I found myself drawn to a word as I read the long passage on faith from Hebrews 11-12.  Skipping past the stories of Old Testament heroes of faith who trusted in God, even when God wasn’t their God, I find myself focusing on those famous words about the Great Cloud of Witnesses.  I’m especially keen on what that Great Cloud motivates us to do.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”

Those saints who have gone before show us what a life of faith looks like.  Whether they’ve done it heroically like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or been symbols of God’s ongoing forgiveness like King David, the Great Cloud invites us to follow their example of constantly laying down those things that would hold us back from pursuing the life of the kingdom.  Metaphorically, Paul calls those things weight that should be set aside, but more realistically, it is sin that the NRSV says “clings so closely;” a turn of phrase I found myself drawn to this morning.  The Greek for “clings so closely” is probably better rendered by the NIV as “so easily entangles.”  Sin is kind of like a Purse Seine fishing net.  It surrounds us on all sides, such that we might not even notice its presence, until all of a sudden, we are tangled up in a mess, fighting for our lives.  Unlike the fishing net, the entanglement of sin is often of our own doing, and Paul rightly invites us to lay it aside for our own protection.

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As I read that line, I can’t help but think of Dory and Nemo, caught in a Purse Seine of their own at the tail end of Finding Nemo.  Dory’s longstanding advice to “just keep swimming” proves salvific for Dory, Nemo, and the school of whatever fish that are equally tangled up in the fisher’s net.  Paul suggests a plan better suited for us bipeds, “run with endurance the race that his been set before you.”  Either way, the message is the same.  Just keep moving forward in faith and the sin that so easily entangles you will have a hard time keeping you ensnared.  So, the next time you feel like your sin is all around you, listen or the voice of God, who maybe sounds a lot like Ellen DeGeneres and just keep swimming.

propitiation, reconciliation, expiation, atonement

In the grand scheme of things, it is probably without too much hyperbole to say that theology would be just as well off as an academic discipline if nothing had ever been written after Paul mailed his Letter to the Hebrews.  It is his magnum opus, the best work of one of the brightest minds and profoundest practitioners of the life of faith in the first generation after Jesus.  Just reading the five verses from chapter two appointed for The Feast of the Presentation would be enough to keep a seminary class embroiled in debate for half a semester.  Heck, you could spend weeks dealing with one word:

atonementWhich is defined by Barclay-Newman as a verb meaning “to bring about forgiveness for, take away, deal mercifully with; pass. be merciful, have mercy” and translated variously as:

  • Propitiation (Young’s Literal Translation) – to make (someone) pleased or less angry by giving or saying something desired
  • Reconciliation (King James Version) – the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement
  • Expiation (Revised Standard Version) – to do something as a way to show that you are sorry about doing something bad
  • Atonement (New Revised Standard Version & New International Version) -1. obsolete :  reconciliation, 2. the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, 3. reparation for an offense or injury (all four definitions are thanks to http://www.m-w.com)

There is perhaps no other topic in the history of theology about which more ink and blood have been spilled than the questions surrounding how it is that Jesus Christ reconciles us to God.  There is a time and a place for deep conversation on the salvific work of Christ, but it isn’t this blog and it certainly isn’t the pulpit on Sunday morning.  What I will say, however, is that this passage from Hebrews invites us to think about how the language we use effects our theological understandings.  Nobody uses the words “propitiation” or “expiation” any more, but they shape the current conversation and we should know them.  Atonement, when read in the NIV probably carries a slightly different meaning than when read in the NRSV because Evangelicals tend to use the NIV and focus on Anselm’s theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement while [former] Mainliners using the NRSV are more likely to be looking for new metaphors for God’s saving work (for more on this topic, see Tony Jones’ mini-e-book A Better Atonement).

The wise preacher who chooses to preach from Hebrews will think carefully about how her words impact the hearer and the baggage associated with the various theories of atonement, reconciliation, expiation, and propitiation.  For the record, I’m all for the obsolete understanding of Atonement, which is to say, I’m big on God’s reconciling work through Christ over and above Jesus’ death appeasing a wrathful God.