The Faithfulness of God

Sermon for Sunday, September 9, 2018 || Proper 18B || James 2:1-17

Our second lesson today came from the Letter of James. I’ve always been attracted to the Letter of James, especially its understanding of faith and works. This short, five chapter letter is the only writing we have from this particular source, identified as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” From the early days of Christianity, tradition held this James was the brother of Jesus, a leader of the church in Jerusalem. Early non-biblical witnesses report James’s martyrdom sometimes in the 60s A.D. which would place this letter around the same time as the writings of Paul.

Continue reading “The Faithfulness of God”

A woefully abridged timeline

We’re in the fifth week of a confirmation class at church, and I (unwisely) decided to teach a class on the first 1500 years of Christian history. I never thought I’d forget just how much happened in those 1500 years, but apparently, I did. So, I grabbed my church history books and a timeline I xeroxed once, and I ended up compiling this woefully abridged list of important stuff. What are the odds we can talk about all of this in an hour?

64 Rome burns down. The crazy Roman Emperor Nero begins a longstanding habit of blaming Christians for every bad thing that happens to the Roman Empire. Around this time, tradition holds that the Apostles Peter and Paul executed in Rome.

c. 155 Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, is martyred under the Emperor Trajan’s guidelines for dealing with “atheists.” Christians were considered “atheists” because they didn’t worship the Roman Gods. Persecutions were sporadic over the first few centuries of Christian history.

270 Antony decided to become a hermit and runs off to the desert so he won’t be disturbed in prayer. His example becomes quite trendy, leading to the development of monasticism.

313 The soon-to-be Emperor Constantine has a vision to put the first two letters of “Christ” on his shield before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He wins the battle, becomes Emperor, and promulgates the “Edict of Milan,” which ends the persecution of Christians.

325 The Council of Nicea convenes, the first “ecumenical” council of bishops from near and far. Among other things, the council rejects Arianism and affirms the Trinitarian doctrine that Christ is “begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

387 Augustine of Hippo (after many years of disappointing his mother, Monica) converts to Christianity. His writing becomes the basis for the Western presentation of theology.

405 Jerome finishes the “Vulgate,” the Latin translation of the Bible, which becomes the industry standard until those Protestants started reading in their own languages a thousand years later.

432 Patrick, once taken captive by Irish marauders, returns to Ireland as a missionary and leads many to the Christian faith, including several local kings. Nowadays, people get pinched if they don’t wear green on his feast day.

451 The Fourth Ecumenical Council convenes in Chalcedon and affirms the doctrine that Christ is both fully God and fully human. The Council is wisely silent on how the heck this works.

529 Benedict of Nursia founds his monastic order (the “Benedictines”) and writes the “Rule” that becomes the standard for Western monasticism. Unlike those pirates, his rule is more than just “guidelines.”

590 Gregory the Great becomes pope. He earns his nickname by advancing the power of the papacy. Tradition says that a little bird taught him some music called “Gregorian chant.”

732 Charles Martel leads the winning side of the Battle of Tours, which halted the Muslim invasion of Europe. The Muslims retreat to Spain and hang out there for a long time.

800 Charlemagne crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III, a sign of the power of the papacy, which rose and fell over the years. Charlemagne is the forerunner of the “Holy Roman Empire,” which existed in one form or another for about a 1000 years beginning in the mid-900s.

1054 The Great East-West Schism, centuries in the making, finally happens. The Catholic church develops in the Latin-speaking West, the Orthodox church in the Greek-speaking East.

1095 Pope Urban II proclaims the First Crusade to wrest the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims. Over several hundred years, the crusades caused a lot of senseless death and achieved no lasting objective.

c. 1150 The universities of Paris and Oxford are formed, leading to renewed scholarship, theological inquiry, and fledgling scientific enterprise.

1206 Francis of Assisi renounces his wealth and, to punctuate his point, removes all his fancy clothes in front of the bishop. His early followers embrace a simple life of poverty. Francis had a love for nature, which is why so many Christians have his statue in their gardens.

1215 The Fourth Lateran Council affirms the doctrine of “Transubstantiation,” that the bread and wine mysteriously become the actual Body and Blood of Christ during the Eucharist.

c. 1380 John Wycliffe is exiled from Oxford for such strange positions as (1) the Bible should be translated into the vernacular and (2) Christ is present in the Eucharist, but it’s still bread. Basically, Wycliffe showed up for the Reformation 150 years early.

1456 Johann Gutenberg’s printing press produces the first printed Bible. All the monks copying the Bible by hand in scriptoriums across Europe cheer. (Okay, I made that last sentence up.)

1478 The Spanish Inquisition begins under Ferdinand and Isabella. The Inquisition uses brutal tactics to root out heretics and force the conversion of people of other religions. 500 years later, Monty Python spoofs the Inquisition. (“Our chief weapon is fear! Fear and surprise!”)

1517 Martin Luther nails his 95 theses (points of contention with church practice) to the church door in Wittenberg, inadvertently sparking the Protestant Reformation.

So, my questions are these: what do you think I left out that I shouldn’t have and what did I put in that I shouldn’t have?

Unmuddying the waters (Bible study #9)

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the hardest thing to do when studying the Bible is to read the words on the page without the baggage of tradition lending a hand. For the purposes of this Bible study, “tradition” has a lowercase “t.” (While it rhymes wimusicmanth “p,” it does not stand for “pool.”) This tradition is everything from the writings of the church fathers to the texts of songs in our hymnals. Now, I’m not saying that reading with a knowledge of tradition is a bad thing — far from it. Sometimes, however, tradition serves to muddy the scriptural waters to the point that we can no longer see our soggy selves floating around.

The opening of the second chapter of Matthew, one of the choices for this Sunday’s Gospel text, illustrates just how murky the waters can get. This is the bit where the wise men from the East come to see King Herod, and he sends them on a reconnaissance mission to find the newborn “king of the Jews.” Until a dream notifies them, the wise men are unaware of Herod’s malicious plans. They bring the infant Jesus some gifts he has no practical use for (does myrrh clear up diaper rash?) and then go home by another road.

Okay, now let’s bring in tradition. For years and years we have smooshed the beginnings of Matthew and Luke together so much that we have trouble separating them, even when reading them independently of each other. But this independent reading is so important for seeing how each evangelist is setting up his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you let the “no place in the inn” bit of the story (from Luke) fall away, you’ll notice that it certainly looks like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live in Bethlehem — they relocate to Nazareth after their jaunt in Egypt. Indeed, the wise men come to Mary’s house, not a stable. So, while Luke uses the census to get the holy family to Bethlehem and back, Matthew uses Herod’s slaughter of the infants to get the holy family out of Bethlehem and eventually to Nazareth. But that’s not how we usually tell the story.

Now, bring in that hymn about the kings and everything gets even murkier. First, the wise men are “magi,” not “kings” — yes, these are entirely different words in Greek. Second, we have no way of knowing how many there were: we surmise three, but that’s because of the gifts. Maybe a couple went halfsies on the frankincense.

I acknowledge that using “We three kings of Orient are…” is a bit of a cheap shot, but it sure gets my point across. While these are small things that end up being mere distractions from what the text says, there are pieces of our tradition that amount to much more. Here’s one: Martin Luther’s “law/grace” dichotomy has colored readings of Paul’s letters for five hundred years. Luther’s viewpoint is so thoroughly embedded in biblical scholarship that it has taken on its own scriptural aura. But his is not the only reading.

Here’s another: one segment of Christian tradition — let’s call it the “rapture dispensationalist” segment (please read the footnote if those words are unfamiliar)* — sees the book of Revelation** as a script for what is going to happen during the “end times” (cue ominous music). This has led people (who would most likely — and ironically — call themselves “biblical literalists”) to speculate that the dragons and locusts symbolize things like atomic weapons and AK-47s. This reading of Revelation as a blueprint for the future has leaked into Christian tradition over the last two hundred years — so much so that the waters of Revelation (already murky by the difficult imagery of the text) are muddied even more by futile searches for modern analogs to biblical images. A more productive reading sees Revelation as an early Christian warning against complacency and the errors of  “the world,” a warning that transcends the time in which it was written.

Tradition helps us float in our biblical waters. But when we study the Bible, we should always take one swim unsupported by inner tubes or those floaties you wear on your upper arms. Perhaps, when we peer into that clear water, we will encounter God in new and fresh ways. Then we can add our encounters to that long story that is our Christian tradition.


* These are people who believe that the world will end in seven years of really gruesome carnage and destruction. Depending on which flavor of rapture dispensationalism you subscribe to, you will be brought bodily to heaven either before, in the middle of, or after these seven years.*** Again, depending on your flavor, Jesus comes back at some point in this time frame as well. As you can probably tell from this explanation, I am not a rapture dispensationalist.

** Please, please, please don’t say “Revelations” when you talk about this biblical text. There is just no “s” anywhere in that word.

*** A footnote inside a footnote! One term for the “middle of” way of thinking is this: “Mid-tribulation rapture dispensationalism.” See how smart you can sound with silly church words!