Monday, 28 July 2014

A Prayer to the Crucified

O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you hanging on the cross,
bearing the thorny crown on your head;
I ask you that your cross might free me from the avenging angel.

O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you wounded on the cross,
given gall and vinegar to drink;
I ask that your wounds might be the healing of my soul.

O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you placed in the tomb,
and with the spices at rest;

I ask that your death be the life of my soul.

An Italian prayer from the 13th century

The Church as a Corpus Mixtum in Calvin's Thought

John Calvin has much to say about the Church with a substantial part of The Institutes of the Christian Religion devoted to ecclesiology. Eduardus Van der Borght notes that Calvin’s ecclesiology was modified or refined over the years by pastoral experience, see “Calvin's Ecclesiology Revisited: Seven Trends in the Research of Calvin's Ecclesiology,” in John Calvin's Ecclesiology: Ecumenical Perspectives (T & T Clark International, 2011). But it seems clear that Calvin never held a “purist” view of the church. 

The following excerpt from The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536; 1559) is from an 18th century translation by Henry Beveridge accessed at
“Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they, through hatred of wickedness, withdraw from a genuine church, while they think they are shunning the company of the ungodly. They allege that the Church of God is holy. But that they may at the same time understand that it contains a mixture of good and bad, let them hear from the lips of our Saviour that parable in which he compares the Church to a net in which all kinds of fishes are taken, but not separated until they are brought ashore. Let them hear it compared to a field which, planted with good seed, is by the fraud of an enemy mingled with tares, and is not freed of them until the harvest is brought into the barn. Let them hear, in fine, that it is a thrashing-floor in which the collected wheat lies concealed under the chaff, until, cleansed by the fanners and the sieve, it is at length laid up in the granary. If the Lord declares that the Church will labour under the defect of being burdened with a multitude of wicked until the day of judgment, it is in vain to look for a church altogether free from blemish (Mt. 13).”
Here is what John Calvin had to say about the parable of the weeds in his Harmony of the Gospels (1555; cited from the 1972 translation by T. H. L. Parker):
"It seems quite inconsistent to many that the Church should nurse in her bosom the ungodly, or the irreligious, or the wicked. Add that, under a pretence of zeal, many are more awkward than they need be if everything is not settled according to their wishes (for nowhere is an absolute purity seen) and they go mad and leave the Church or upset and ruin everything with their harsh strictness. Hence, to my mind, the intention of the parable is simple. So long as the Church is on pilgrimage in this world, the good and the sincere will be mixed in with the bad and the hypocrites. So the children of God must arm themselves with patience and maintain an unbroken constancy of faith among all the offences which can trouble them." 
A common objection to identifying "his kingdom" in Matthew 13:41 with the church is that the wheat and the weeds are obviously gathered from the field and the field is explicitly said to be "the world" (v. 38). Calvin is unperturbed by this.
"And it is a most apt comparison when the Lord calls the Church His fieldfor believers are His seed. Although Christ afterwards adds that the field is the world, there can be no doubt that He really wants to apply this name to the Church, about which, after all, He was speaking. But because his plough would be driven through all the world and He would break in fields everywhere and sow the seed of life, He transfers by synecdoche to the world what is more apt of a part of it."
This reading follows Augustione for whom the parable provided an important framework in his writings against the Donatists. Augustine observed that the wheat must grow in the whole world. A community that only exists in Africa (the Donatists) therefore cannot claim to be the whole church because the wheat grows across the field (the world). So, e.g., in his Letter 76 (in WSA 2/1, 298).
"Why do you believe that the weeds have increased and filled the world, but the wheat has decreased and remains only in Africa? You say that you are Christians, and you contradict Christ. He said, Allow them both to grow until the harvest (Mt 13:30); he did not say, “Let the weeds increase, and let the grain decrease.” He said, The field is the world; he did not say, “The field is Africa.” He said, The harvest is the end of the world; he did not say, “The harvest is the time of Donatus.” He said, The harvesters are the angels; he did not say, “The harvesters are leaders of the Circumcellions.” And because you accuse the wheat in defense of the weeds, you have proved that you are weeds, and what is worse, you have separated yourselves from the wheat ahead of time."

Friday, 25 July 2014

The Kingdom and the Church in Roman Catholic Thought

Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), a French Roman Catholic priest and theologian who was later excommunicated, observed that "Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church" ("Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c'est l'Église qui est venue"). He seems to have made the remark with a tinge of sadness.

The statement is not altogether wrong, but it is defective in bracketing out Christ. The kingdom of God is embodied in Christ who established the church as the community in which His rule is acknowledged, celebrated and lived. It would be reductionist to identify the kingdom of God directly and solely with the church, and especially so if one were to overlook that the church is more than a human institution here on earth, but it would also be reductionist to think of the arrival of the church as merely subsequent to the proclamation of the kingdom rather than a direct and intended consequence of it. 

There is a close and intimate relationship between the kingdom of God and the church but this does not mean that whenever we read "kingdom of God" in the Gospels, we must see a reference to the church. This has become a contentious point especially with regard to some of the parables Jesus told which were traditionally interpreted as making direct reference to the church.

It is noteworthy that commenting on the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13 Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. claims that "there is no reason to identify the kingdom of the Son of Man with the Church" (Sacra Pagina, 206). Similarly, Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri write in The Gospel of Matthew (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture): "the parable encourages patience with the presence of wickedness in the world (13:30a), it also provides assurance that the faithful children of the kingdom will be vindicated and the wicked will face severe judgment."

Patience is obviously  called for also within the church and it is certainly true that the church contains both the faithful who belong to the kingdom and the unfaithful who belong to the Evil one and will do so until the final judgement. But just like Reformed commentators today by and large no longer claim that the parable of the weeds or the parable of the net is about the inevitability of the church being a corpus mixtum, so these Roman Catholic commentators no longer make this claim. Are they out of line? It seems not.

This is what the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith says in Dominus Iesus
"The meaning of the expressions kingdom of heaven, kingdom of God, and kingdom of Christ in Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, as well as in the documents of the Magisterium, is not always exactly the same, nor is their relationship to the Church, which is a mystery that cannot be totally contained by a human concept. Therefore, there can be various theological explanations of these terms."
 And specifically
"To state the inseparable relationship between Christ and the kingdom is not to overlook the fact that the kingdom of God — even if considered in its historical phase — is not identified with the Church in her visible and social reality."
This seems to leave freedom for interpreters to explore the precise relationship between the kingdom and the church, as long as their inseparable relationship is acknowledged.

In his essay on “The Church and the Kingdom: A Study of their Relationship in Scripture, Tradition, and Evangelization,” Letter & Spirit 3 (2007): 23-38, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J offers the following reasons for not equating God's kingdom and the church:
"Some competent scholars continue to maintain that the Church in the New Testament is identical with the kingdom of God. This opinion is, in my judgment, too narrow. The kingdom, as I have said, is sometimes identified with the work of Christ in his public ministry, even prior to the founding of the Church. At other times, the kingdom is treated as a future eschatological reality. Even after the Church is established, Christians still have to pray for the coming of the kingdom, as they do in the “Our Father.” Then again, Jesus indicates that the kingdom will be taken away from the Jews (Matt. 21:43), but the Jews never possessed the Church. Furthermore, metaphors such as the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price (Matt. 7:44-46), which are depicted as standing for the kingdom, are difficult to apply to the Church. One may conclude then, that while many kingdom sayings in the New Testament can be applied to the Church, the kingdom and the Church do not fully coincide."
He observes that "Augustine is often considered the author of the idea that the Church and the kingdom of God are identical" but notes that "Augustine sometimes points to differences between the Church and the kingdom.”

Cardinal Dulles further observes: “In the documents of the Catholic magisterium, the kingdom is frequently depicted as in some respects transcending the Church.” Dulles makes reference to two encyclicals by Pope Pius XI, Ubi Arcano (1922) and Quas Primas (1925). 
“In both these encyclicals he pointed out that Christ’s empire is all-encompassing; it includes the secular as well as the religious, the temporal as well as the spiritual, the natural as well as the supernatural. The Church, on the other hand, has a limited sphere of authority…According to Pius XI, therefore, the reign of Christ is not restricted to the Church.”
More recent popes have stressed the link between the kingdom of God and the church, arguing against secularist interpretations that have gained ground in modern times. Dulles sums up John Paul II as saying (in Redemptoris Missio): 
“The kingdom cannot be detached from the Church any more than it can be detached from Christ, for Christ has endowed the Church, his body, with the fullness of the blessings and means of salvation. The Church has a specific and necessary role in the process of salvation, for it is commissioned to announce and to inaugurate the kingdom among all peoples."
But even so "The same pope is willing to say, as did Paul VI, that the Church is at the service of the kingdom.”

In some sense, God's kingdom must be said to be bigger than the church because Christ has been given authority not only over the church but over heaven and earth. In another sense, the kingdom is present wherever Christ is present and this is especially so where two or three are gathered in his name and where Christians eat and drink the meal Jesus gives them.

In one sense, God's kingdom relates to the whole world because he rules over all.  In another sense, God's kingdom relates to the domain in which his will is accepted and this relates to the church, albeit imperfectly. In still another sense, God's kingdom has only truly come into its own where God's will is unswervingly done and in this sense we pray "your kingdom come!"

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (London: Bloomsbury, 2007):
"When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is quite simply proclaiming God, and proclaiming him to be the living God, who is able to act concretely in the world and in history and is even now so acting." (page 55) 
The new and totally specific thing about his message is that he is telling us: God is acting now -- this is the hour when God is showing himself in history as its Lord, as the living God, in a way that goes anything seen before. "Kingdom of God" is therefore an inadequate translation. It would be better to speak of God's being-Lord, of his lordship." (page 56)
"The new proximity of the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks - the distinguishing feature of his message- is to be found in Jesus himself." (page 60)

[[ Another quote I wanted to have in my scrapbook.]] The German Franciscan Hilarin Felder wrote: “The dominion of God over the world, or the kingdom of God in the world, was in general the sum total of all hopes for the future. The whole Old Testament is filled with the idea, which Jesus summarized in the words: ‘Thy kingdom come.’” (Christ and the Critic, 2 vols., trans. John L. Stoddard; London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1924, 153; cited from Brant Pitre, “The Lord’s Prayer and the New Exodus,” Letter & Spirit 2 (2006): 69-96, p. 82)

Monday, 21 July 2014

Leavers’ Service Prayers

with Surprised Steven, Angry Alex, Sad Sarah, Happy Hannah, and Worried William

God of peace,
the end of primary school is a big moment for both children and their parents.
You know the worries in our hearts about what the new school year will bring.
Lead us, as we get to know new people and buildings.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

God of blessings,
we thank you for the many happy memories we will take with us,
for what we have learned in the last few years, for the friends we made.
Help us always to find things that make us happy and give us a smile.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

God of comfort,
we are sad that some things we have loved come to an end now,
the comfort of being in a school where everybody knows everyone,
the teachers we leave behind, the friends we will see less often.
Embrace us with your love and care for us.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

God of forgiveness,
on some occasions we have been angry;
some people have hurt us and we have hurt others,
some things were not fair, sometimes we were not fair.
Make right anything that is still wrong,
give us courage to ask for forgiveness and readiness to forgive others.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

God of surprises,
there is so much more to learn and explore about this beautiful world,
so much to get to know about other people and learn about ourselves,
and still much to discover about you.
Grow the love within us without which there is no true understanding.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sacred Architecture

Notes from Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006):

"Sacred architecture is one of the Bible's chief idioms for revealing the character of the church...Few if any of Israel's sanctuaries could be constructed architecturally from the biblical record. But that is not the point. These biblical sanctuaries are all verbal sanctuaries, and these texts are given to the church not to enable it to rebuild a temple but to edify -[to] construct- the body of Christ." (54)

"In many respects, the temple and tabernacle all share the same multiple dimensions of meaning and symbolism, but the temple is no restoration of the tabernacle. It is a permanent building rather than a tent...far larger than the tabernacle...a significant upgrade...The tabernacle was glorious, but Solomon builds a more glorious house. With the building of the temple, Israel moves from glory to greater glory. In this way, Solomon's temple reaches towards the resurrection." (55)

Yahweh's house is not finished (7:51) until the palace and other public buildings are completed because it extends to these as well, "as later, after the exile, Yahweh's house expands to encompass the entire city of Jerusalem (Jer. 3:16-17; Ezek. 40-48)." (55)

What does the temple mean?

  • God's palace, i.e. God dwelling among his people
  • architectural recapitulation of the Garden of Eden, the "trysting place" for Yahweh and his bride, source of living water for the nations
  • architectural "holy mountain" (NB: pyramid shape, 1 Kings 6:5-6)
  • architectural "body" (face, 6:3; ribs, 6:5; shoulders, 7:39), bridal
  • a "house with many utensils" (2 Tim. 2:20) of bronze and gold
"A temple ecclesiology is simultaneously an Eden ecclesiology, a holy mountain ecclesiology, a body and bride ecclesiology. The church is Eden because in Christ it is the place well watered with the Spirit poured from heaven at Pentecost, the source for living waters that flow to the corners of the earth (John 7:37). The church is the true holy mountain, where the Spirit is present in cloud and fire, where the living word of the Lord is heard in thunder, where we can draw near to stand face to face with the glory of the Lord and be transformed into an image of that glory, where we ascend to joy with the joyful assembly of saints and martyrs around the throne of God (Heb. 12:22-24). The church is the house/bride of Christ, in whom he dwells by his Spirit, and the church is the house/body of Jesus, who is the true temple of God, the diversely unified communion of saints." (58-59).

Friday, 11 July 2014

Jars of Clay and Plastic Bags

The Evangelical Ministry Assembly met in the Barbican during the last few days and it seems to have been Mike Cain who offered this:
"We're not Louis Vitton handbags, we're plastic bags, so that the only explanation is that God is at work."
 The jars of clay in which the gospel treasure dwells are the ancient equivalent of plastic bags. Weak, ordinary and torn. (My source are a few tweets from people attending the conference.)

This is a useful contemporanization which I why I want to make a note of it here. But I’m glad the apostle Paul did not talk about plastic bags. Plastic bags are weak and ordinary and easily torn, but they are also an environmental hazard and the mass product of a consumerist throw-away society.

Ancient jars of clay were for all their ordinariness a product of the earth and hand-made for a purpose whether special or ordinary (Rom. 9:21; 2 Tim 2:20).

Going about God's Business

Reflections on this morning's lectionary readings:
Judges 11.29-end Luke 17.1-10

In some ways Morning Prayer is like tuning instruments prior to performing. It is important that the different instruments are in tune with each other, if they are to play together. Our vocation is to go about our business "playing" with the Creator or, indeed, to go about God's business (seeking his kingdom) in our daily work.

We want to perform the piece of music written by our Creator and conducted by his Son and we want to play it in tune with his Spirit. It turns out that it can make a big difference whether we ask God to be in tune with us or submit our tuning to his lead.

Did God want to deliver Israel from the Ammonites? It certainly looks like it. Would his Spirit have come upon Jephthah if it were otherwise? Jephthah could have prayed, "Lord, if you want to deliver Israel from the Ammonites, I am ready to be your instrument." Instead he prayed, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me..." Big mistake. Jephthah's agenda and God's were to all intents and purposes the same but Jephthah looked at it as God's agenda matching his rather than the other way round.

Once you have tuned the instruments, this is how you have to play. Jephthah's daughter acquiesces which means that in our society we could dress up her death as "assisted suicide" thinking of it as a "good death". (We don't have a category for her other reaction, bewailing her "virginity", because she clearly did not mourn the lack of sexual experience as such, which could have been remedied during two months in the mountains, but the fact that her life would come to an end in her father's house before she would be set up in a new house.)

The disciples are a little like Jephthah in that they assume that if they are given more (faith), they can achieve more - or so it seems to me. Jesus lampoons this idea with the ridiculous image of a mustard-seed-sized faith re-planting a mulberry tree in the sea. The question is not whether you can achieve marvellous things for God but whether you're about God's business which usually takes the form of quietly doing what needs to be done, "We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done."

If that had been Jephthah's attitude, it would have been a different story, wouldn't it?