Saturday, April 28, 2007

Repelled by Community

I was talking with a good friend of mine yesterday about the church and community. We served together in Kansas City and, in fact, he was my pastor there. We were talking about a church he served where folks may not have been particularly interested in what it meant to be a community of faith. I reminded him that this is true in all churches throughout all time.

It is remarkable in the Christian church that we have such a unique (in all the world religions) model of unity in Jesus of Nazareth and ideal of the unity of the Holy Trinity and yet we have more trouble than anyone in living out that unity. My friend said, "It's strange how we are both drawn to and repelled by community."

It is true. Community and unity of believers are called to be a-part of one another's lives. Apart may be the best word to use here. It is a word that in the second sentence of this paragraph means together, and yet it is a word that means divided, as in apart from. Of course, I believe in the radicalization of community, just as Jesus prays for us in John 17:21-23: that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (NRSV). Though this sort of community is what we desire, we are also repelled by it so much that when we see even the possibility of it, we will create dissension and dismemberment in order to undermine it. It is the sort of soured milk we insist that others smell, knowing in our hearts that the milk was never meant to be soured.

The icon pictured above is of Saints Peter and Paul embracing. It is a compelling, charming icon of the saints. When I see it I feel like I should turn away in offense, but I know I want to truly know what this window into heaven shows me, unity. Gregory Boyd wrote in Myth of a Christian Nation, "By God's design, people are not to be won over to his kingdom primarily by our clever arguments, scary religious tracts, impressive programs, or our sheer insistence that they are going to hell unless they share our theological opinions. No, they are to be won over by the way in which we replicate Calvary to them. They are to see and experience the reality of the coming Kingdom in us." The reality of the Kingdom of God is not merely an ideal, it is as real as the body and blood of Christ. It is time for the community of faith to call on the Holy Spirit to ignite us, melding us together as an alloy: One body under One God by One Baptism.

Let us pray, together, Fr. Sergius Bulkakov's prayer for unity:

O Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour
thou didst promise to abide with us always.
Thou dost call all Christians
to draw near and partake
of Thy Body and Blood,
But our sin has divided us
and we have no power to partake
of Thy Holy Eucharist together.
We confess this our sin and we pray Thee,
forgive us and help us to serve the ways
of reconciliation, according to Thy Will.
Kindle our hearts with the fire
of the Holy Spirit,
give us the spirit of Wisdom and faith,
of daring and of patience,
of humility and firmness,
of love and of repentance,
through the prayers of the
most blessed Mother of God
and of all the saints.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

St. Seraphim of Sarov

If you've not heard the story of St. Seraphim of Sarov you should. So, I will tell it to you now. He was a sickly child and was healed when his mother held him up to a local "miracle-working" icon, The Mother of God. He entered the monastary as a novice in Sarov when he was 18. He was a devout and excellent prayer and lived simply especially in his eating. When he did eat, it wasn't much. He grew ill after one prayer retreat in the woods and was healed again in the presence of The Mother of God.

He took the monastic vows at 27 and given the name Seraphim which means "fiery" or "burning." This reflected his prayer life most appropriately. Once on retreat deep in the wilderness he was attacked by robbers demanding everything he had. He simply placed his axe on the ground and crossed his arms over his chest. The robbers beat him with his axt handle until he bled from his mouth and ears. They trampled him and drug him along the ground. The robbers only quit when they thought he was dead. After he recovered and the robbers were caught, Seraphim spoke out on their behalf. Seraphim walked hunched over for the rest of his life.

One day he was teaching his student, Motovilov about the Christian life and what it took to be a real follower of Christ. Seraphim said, "It is necessary that the Holy Spirit enter our heart. Everything good that we do, that we do for Christ, is given to us by the Holy Spirit, but prayer most of all, which is always available to us."

Motovilov asked how he could see the grace of the Holy Spirit and how did he know whether He was with him or not. Seraphim told the stories and examples of the saints and the apostles, but Motovilov was still confused. Seraphim took him by the arm and said, "My friend, we both are in the Holy Spirit right now!" It was as if scales fell from Motovilov's eyes and he saw the face of Seraphim shining brighter than the sun. Motovilov felt a peace in his heart and a gentle warming of his entire body. Seraphim said, "Do not fear, dear fellow. You would not even be able to see me if you yourself were not in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Thank the Lord for His mercy toward us." This is how Motovilov came to understand the presence of the Holy Spirit and transfiguration.

St. Seraphim of Sarov is someone for us all to look at and admire and learn from. He is a true part of our Canonical Heritage of persons, materials, and practices.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

To Hell and Back: a devotional

The Apostle’s Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.


First of all you should know that the Creed as we know it today was not settled until around the sixth century. However, it has as its form and structure the very teachings of Jesus Christ to his apostles as he was taken up to “sit at the right hand of God, the Father, almighty.” It is no accident that it is called the Apostle’s Creed. It has, in fact, at its very nucleus the core teachings of those who had seen the resurrected Lord. Its form is the very name of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

With that, I want to focus on two lines. First, “He descended into hell.” Where did it come from and what does it mean? It came from scripture as well as the ante-scripture beliefs of first century Christians. As H. Ray Dunning points out, it could be that this literally meant that because of Christ’s becoming sin for us he was to also suffer the consequence of eternal separation from God as well. 2 Corinthians 5:21 states the case, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Of course, we are Wesleyan so we need to at least see what Wesley says about it. His interpretation is that “He became a ‘sin offering’ for us.”

However, the word hell here is also about the “place of the dead” or “Hades.” In the Creed it is a way of emphasizing the passion of the Christ, as Dunning says, “experiencing the reality of his suffering and death, which he tasted for every person.” Hebrews 2:9 (NRSV) says, “but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Luther said, “No one ever feared death so much as this Man.” This death and descent into hell is not so much about the division between us (in sin) and God, but about the division between God when Jesus screams out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

None of this is very devotional and I was trying to read this Creed devotionally, so I will try to do that now. Hans Urs Von Balthasar says (with William Placher as his mouth piece), “Yes, the descent into hell did come after Christ’s death, but it was not a victory march but a movement into radical loneliness and darkness in solidarity with those who have rejected God.” Thus the words of the Psalmist are proved, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

The second line I want to look at is particularly because we are in the Easter season. We are celebrating the part of the Creed that is the victory of us all. We cannot merely stop at the descent and not see it through. There is no darkness God will not enter, no hell he is afraid of, there is not lengths he will not go to in order to reconcile his children. He is truly the Hound of Heaven. He is the Christ who will go to hell and back to save his people. This is the radical, life-giving atonement of God that is entirely about his love for us and desire for communion with us: first incarnation, then death, then resurrection, and he will come again. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. This is truly something to devote our lives to.