Lord’s Day 25 (Q/A 65-68): PROOFS, PLEDGES, PROMISE: DIVINE-HUMAN ENGAGEMENT

65   Q.    It is through faith alone
                that we share in Christ and all his benefits:
                where then does that faith come from?

A.    The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts^1
by the preaching of the holy gospel,
and confirms it
by the use of the holy sacraments.^2

^1 Eph. 2:8; John 3:5
^2 Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Pet. 1:22-23

66   Q.    What are sacraments?

A.    Sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals.
They were instituted by God so that
by our use of them
he might make us understand more clearly
the promise of the gospel,
and seal that promise.

And this is God’s gospel promise:
to grant us forgiveness of sins and eternal life
by grace
because of Christ’s one sacrifice
accomplished on the cross.^1

^1 Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11; Deut. 30:6; Lev. 6:25; Heb. 9:8-9, [11-]24; Ezek. 20:12; 1 Sam. 17:36[-37]; Isa. 6:6-7

67   Q.    Are both the word and the sacraments then
                intended to focus our faith
                on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross
                as the only ground of our salvation?

A.    Yes!
In the gospel the Holy Spirit teaches us
and by the holy sacraments confirms
that our entire salvation
rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross.^1

^1 Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27

68   Q.    How many sacraments
                did Christ institute in the New Testament?

        A.    Two: holy baptism and the holy supper.


 

LORD’S DAY 25 (Q/A 65-68)
“PROOFS, PLEDGES, PROMISE: DIVINE-HUMAN ENGAGEMENT” 

Freddy and Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” have this famed dialogue:

Freddy:
“Speak and the world is full of singing,
And I’m winging Higher than the birds.
Touch and my heart begins to crumble,
The heaven’s tumble, Darling, and I’m… “

Eliza:
“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars Burning above; If you’re in love,
Show me! Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire. If you’re on fire,
Show me! Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!
Anyone who’s ever been in love’ll tell you that
This is no time for a chat! Haven’t your lips
Longed for my touch? Don’t say how much,
Show me! Show me! Don’t talk of love lasting through time.
Make me no undying vow. Show me now!
Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme!
Don’t waste my time, Show me!
Don’t talk of June, Don’t talk of fall!
Don’t talk at all! Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard.
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream;
Say one more word and I’ll scream!
Haven’t your arms Hungered for mine?
Please don’t “expl’ine,” Show me! Show me!
Don’t wait until wrinkles and lines
Pop out all over my brow,
Show me now!”

You can view it on YouTube beginning at 0:34 at this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8zyF0ZOy3k

As 21st century people, we are a people of words, multiplication of words, no longer merely in written form, but in a TGIF world as Leonard Sweet describes it, i.e. a Twitter, Google, iPad, Facebook world. The exponential growth of words are beyond human comprehension.

With words come the ways we relate, engage one another, communication to purvey information, communication to make promises and pledges. Yet, we experience so many times, as with the number of words that make up those pledges, promises that are broken again and again. Countries that pledge aid relief in the midst of natural disasters, but are forgotten a few months or a year after the fact. Banks and investment firms that promised secure investment and sound mortgages, but then as millions found in 2008, billions in exposed mortgage securities, leaving many homeowners and investors out in the cold. On a micro- level, broken relationships, marriages that struggle. Or we grab hold of what sounds like a healing balm of comforting words from well-meaning family and friends who assure in the midst of trial, “Things will be okay.” We take it as promise. But then, the prayer concern turns awry, and rather than resulting in healing for the terminally-ill loved one, death comes knocking.

God knows our hearts, God knows our limitations, God knows what we desire; after all the triune God is the Creator of us all and knows us better than we know ourselves.

What distinguishes the one, living and true God, the God of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Ruth, and Esther, revealed fully and finally in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is that God is not mute, God speaks, God acts (see Isaiah 44:9-22).

God speaks words, God spoke the first word (Genesis 1:3), and God is the Word (John 1:1), the Speaker, the Word Spoken, and the Breath of God, to borrow a famed analogy used by Orthodox theologians.

Eliza Doolittle expresses what we need as human beings: proofs of the pledges of the promise. We are sentient beings, and, therefore, we need to engage all senses for words to be internalized. Our cognition is enhanced, for instance, when studying for a test, if you memorize facts by writing it down on flash cards, saying what you’re writing, looking at what you’re writing, hearing yourself say the words. If it be possible to eat each flashcard with a distinctive flavor as like the prophet Daniel eating the scrolls, and allow the facts to metabolize, that would enhance our test-taking abilities!

But you get the point. And that’s what God provides in the sacraments – gifts of God for the people of God.  The promise proclaimed in the Gospel – Jesus Christ came, lived, died, and rose again to redeem and reconcile humanity to God’s self in the power of the Holy Spirit—comes to us through words spoken, read, digitized, incensed, poured, splashed, baked, eaten, fermented, drank.

Several years ago, I lost a dear friend to a sudden heart attack. God worked faith in his life at an older age, and in the eight years that Roland Romero and I served together, he was passionate about teaching from the Scriptures, lucidly articulating the doctrines of the Christian faith in ways that made anyone go, “Thanks be to God.” In one Bible study as he was discussing God’s work of election in our lives, he explained:

Imagine that you are a hungry man. But you don’t realize that the refrigerator in the kitchen has food for you to eat and that food has been provided for you. Not only don’t you realize it but you don’t have the will to go to the refrigerator because of your ignorance of that source of nourishment, and because your will is turned towards other sources that don’t nourish at all. What the Holy Spirit does in this situation is to transform your understanding so that it is illuminated upon your mind and heart that the refrigerator has food and that food is for your benefit. But the clear understanding is only one critical element. You also need the will and the strength to walk to that refrigerator, having now recognized it as source for nourishment, and to open that refrigerator, obtain the food that has been given, eat the food, receive nourishment, delight in the food and the giver of the food, and, then tell others of what you have seen and heard and tasted.

That’s what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit renovates our lives again and again. Faith is not a quantifiable entity that the Holy Spirit gives. It’s not a soothing balm to anyone to say in the midst of suffering or to pray, “You need more faith”; that was the error of Job’s three friends in accusing him of not having enough faith or a weak faith.

Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit, the One who illuminates our understanding, who gives us wisdom to what is God-given and salutary for our lives, who unleashes our wills to follow the ways of God, who strengthens us when we are too weak, who directs our course to delight in the giver of every good and perfect gift. (James 1:17)

Q/A 65-68 describes God’s provision of the gifts that our human minds and hearts need. The promise given in the Gospel are embodied by tangible elements: water, bread, cup. While God is supremely and distinctly sovereign, our human responsibility is to be in the hearing, receiving, and tasting of the means by which the Gospel promise is communicated clearly to our lives: in preaching and in the sacraments.

The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum, which the third century theologian Tertullian translated from the Greek word mysterion (from which we get the word “mystery”).  Sacramentum was a pledge or oath that a soldier gave to a Roman  army commander, and more so, to the Roman emperor, who was regarded as a deity. Tertullian appropriated that term as the pledge that assembled Christians make in placing allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even as we pledge our allegiance to the Lord Christ, the triune God is pledging a unilateral promise to us in the sacraments: to be with us, to be for us, to be in us. The proof? As the Gospel attests and to which the Scriptures testify, and of which water, bread and cup seal for us: God’s’ self-giving of Himself in Jesus Christ is the proof-positive of that promise.

So, whenever you come in the hearing and receiving of the Scriptures, of preaching and teaching, and whenever and wherever you see one being baptized, or when you touch or splash holy water, and the next time you receive bread (or a wafer or a cracker) at the Table, and the next time you drink from the communion cup, or intinct the bread in the cup, receive the promise of God.  Receive God’s promise – Jesus the Christ. The mystery has been revealed , the mystery has been given.

Lord’s Day 24 (Q/A 62-64): THE ANTIDOTE FOR EGO, VITAMIN FOR THE HEART

62   Q.    Why can’t our good works
                be our righteousness before God,
                or at least a part of our righteousness?

A.    Because the righteousness
which can pass God’s judgment
must be entirely perfect
and must in every way measure up to the divine law.^1
But even our best works in this life
are imperfect
and stained with sin.^2

^1 Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26
^2 Isa. 64:6

63   Q.    How can our good works
                be said to merit nothing
                when God promises to reward them
                in this life and the next?

A.    This reward is not earned;
it is a gift of grace.^1

^1 Luke 17:10

64   Q.    But doesn’t this teaching
                make people indifferent and wicked?

A.    No.
It is impossible
for those grafted into Christ through true faith
not to produce fruits of gratitude.^1

^1 Matt. [7]:18


 

LORD’S DAY 24 (Q/A 62-64)
“THE ANTIDOTE FOR EGO, VITAMIN FOR THE HEART”

A friend of ours received unwelcome news from her doctor that her cholesterol and sugar levels were at an elevated state, even after a regular diet of oatmeal in the morning, plenty of vegetables, and tofu at night.  Our family, too, eats pretty healthy – not much fried foods, we read the labels for trans fats and sodium, no soda, moderate portions – but it seems like every week, there’s new news from the “Eat This Not That” twitter feed or Dr. Oz’s show about the blessings or curse of egg yolks, red wine, dark chocolate, blueberries, pomegranate, red meat, different kinds of fish, and on and on it goes. There are those days when my wife and I would like to pull out the butter and cream, slather it onto our brioche bread; we reason that if it worked for the late chef pioneer Julia Childs, who lived to be 81, let’s just enjoy the food we have…moderate portions, of course!

A regular diet which we all do on a daily basis is work. We labor, we put our skills/gifts and education to work. And when we work, we want recognition/acknowledgment for our work. In the area of service towards others, we want recognition for that, some sort of acknowledgement that what we have offered is gratefully received; that’s the human heart.  It’s not possible for our hearts and minds to be completely free of desiring recognition, even on our best days to be truly, fully, consistently altruistic.  The book of Deuteronomy wisely cautioned:

17 Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. (8:17-18, NRSV)

In 11 chapters, the book of Ecclesiastes speaks of work and wisdom, and concluded:

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (11:13-14, NRSV)

Tim Keller, in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, sounds the note to our contemporary ears, in describing how our human hearts regard work or service as fruitless, as pointless, as for selfish gain, or transform it as idols.

Keller prescribes what the Scriptures and Q/A 62-64 remind again and again —  we live in and with the grace and mercies of God.  Our ballasting in the heart and life of God through the gift of faith enables us to see our work and all forms of service within the perspective of God’s own work in the world and God’s purposes in the world.

Faith anchors us to the heart and  life of God so that when we regard our work and service in ways that are “not right” (unrighteous) and descend into the miry pit of self-pity, or ego, or frustration, or selfishness, or disappointment, or idolatrous (turning work into our own god), faith calls us to a different way, the more excellent way, God’s way.

Here, categories of “righteous” and “unrighteous” are descriptions of not levels or degrees of acceptance, but ways in which we live or not live into the right perspective of what God intends for us when we serve, when we work.  The Catechism is adamant in its assertion that because God has determined to be for us, to be with us, to be in us . . . God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is our sure and certain comfort. Period. No additions, no subtractions.  What is called forth from us is to receive God’s gift with gratitude, and to offer gratitude.

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

We get caught up in ourselves when we fall prey to ourselves, or to worldly values that transforms work and service in motives and aims that are different than gratitude. And guess what? We all fall prey to that. Our work and our service are not always about gratitude to God, gratitude for God.

That is why we continually live, and move and have our being in the grace and mercies of God because we don’t know why people do certain things, or what the final results will be, or how salutary or destructive the outcomes may be. And even for ourselves, God knows us better than we know ourselves.

But like eating, whether healthily or unhealthily, we need to eat. And in living, we continue to live, and work and serve — healthily or unhealthily.

The nature of gratitude, which we’ll cover in the next section on the sacraments, is all about grace, and, therefore, about gift.

The gifts that we offer to others in forms of work and service, the gifts that we offer to God, while tainted with impure motives and aims in some form or measure, come with it the power and grace of God that are seen, but mostly, unseen. In that mix, we receive God’s continual gifts – the gifting of God’s own self – who continually anchors us to the heart of His Son, who as our eternal intercessor and High Priest in the Holy Spirit – presents us and our works and service – as pleasing in God’s sight because we are grafted to Christ, joined to Christ, and that which we do, as imperfect and as inconsistently as we do them, are nevertheless our attempts at gratitude, and because offered  with Christ’s Spirit, are received as gifts to our delighting heavenly Father.

This became so vivid for me as our eldest, our 10 year-old son, tried again and again in the last two weeks to make us breakfast: pancakes (regular and fruit-topped), scrambled and fried eggs, and French-pressed coffee.  Breakfast is the most important meal for our family so breakfast preparation is a major enterprise for us. (No continental breakfast for us, hold the Danish and croissants, show us the protein!).  Our son was so meticulous with the measuring cups and spoons, generous with applying the nonstick cooking spray, to the point that he burned his left forearm on the skillet. With his efforts, he savors the praise from the whole family…not mere words of gratitude will suffice, he wants to hear, “Daniel, these eggs and pancakes are awesome!”

As his father, I don’t criticize him for his mixed motives and aims, but offer him encouragement, words of gratitude, savor the breakfast he has made. He enjoys it, and so do we.  Tried and tried he does, with the encouragement we offer and the delight that he has as we delight in him, and now three weeks into this, I can say, Daniel’s pancakes are one of the best I’ve tasted, and he has prepared great fried eggs and made the coffee just how I like them.

That’s how God works in, with, and through our works. While we are not fully consistent with what and how we work and serve, God delights in us, as Christ delights in us and with us, and on that basis, the mutual delighting that the Father has with Christ in the Spirit, and through Christ with us, our works and service are acts of gratitude, gifts of joy for God’s own , Jesus Christ, the gift of joy of the Father for us all.

Lord’s Day 23 (Q/A 59-61): TRUE FREEDOM

59   Q.    What good does it do you, however,
                to believe all this?

A.    In Christ I am righteous before God
and heir to life everlasting.^1

^1 Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; John 3:36

60   Q.    How are you righteous before God?

A.    Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.^1
Even though my conscience accuses me
of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them,^2
and of still being inclined toward all evil,^3
nevertheless,
without any merit of my own,^4
out of sheer grace,^5
God grants and credits to me^6
the perfect satisfaction,^7 righteousness, and holiness of Christ,^8
as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,
and as if I had been as perfectly obedient
as Christ was obedient for me.^9
All I need to do
is accept this gift with a believing heart.^10

^1 Rom. 3:21-28, 5:1; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9
^2 Rom. 3:9[-18]
^3 Rom. 7:23
^4 2 Tim. 3:5
^5 Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8
^6 Rom. 4:4; 2 Cor. 5:19
^7 1 John 2:2
^8 1 John 2:1
^9 2 Cor. 5:21
^10 Rom. 3:22; John 3:18

61   Q.    Why do you say that
                through faith alone
                you are righteous?

A.    Not because I please God
by the worthiness of my faith.
It is because only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness
make me righteous before God,^1
and because I can accept this righteousness and make it mine
in no other way
than through faith.^2

^1 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:2
^2 1 John 5:10


 “TRUE FREEDOM”
Lord’s Day 23 (Q/A 59-61)

A source of anxiety for any person is being accepted, knowing that I belong to a community, that I am wanted and missed.  It’s been said that the 11 words someone dying wants to hear on their deathbed are:

“I forgive you, I love you, and I will miss you.”

Alain du Boton in Status Anxiety speaks of that anxiety that we all feel in living up to expectations, in trying to put our best feet/face forward, in having as many “likes” on Facebook statuses, or Retweets on Twitter. We can even use the Twitter hashtag (#) to couch our modesty and relegate it to #firstworldissue.

The ancient church theologian, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, observed that the “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”  Being fully alive is to be truly free. To be truly free is to have our lives anchored and continually delighting in the One who is the most free, the One who is truly free: the triune God.  The Reformed theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar spoke of the glory of God and the beauty of God as so interrelated to the love of God that to speak of one is to speak of the other..it’s to speak of theological aesthetics.

Humanity, being created in the image of God and that image being replenished in the face of God’s own Son Jesus Christ, is truly and fully alive when our hearts and lives are in the God-man, Jesus the Christ.

Q/A 59-61 is about theological aesthetics, the beauty of God, both in the subjective genitive sense (God’s own beauty) and the objective genitive sense (God’s reflection of beauty given). In the subjective genitive sense – Jesus Christ is the very beauty of God, the fullness of God, God’s face, God’s beauty mediated to us human beings. Jesus the Christ, the human enfleshment of that shekinah glory which Moses was prevented from beholding but was only given the opportunity to see the nape of God, is the glory of God.  In the objective genitive sense, God’s beauty, God’s glory given to us finite, limited, prideful, anxiety-producing, status-driven human beings.

Q/A 59-61 describes the antidote to our tired souls, worn-out ways, and over-strategized egos. In its force, Q/A 59-61 says calm down, let go, you are accepted, you are embraced, you have been made right with God (justification).

When in our Western culture we have been acclimated to the notion that the amount you invest (in money, time, etc.) will result in equal to or greater than the input, Q/A 60 essentially says – you can try your best, you can be at your worst, you can fulfill all the commandments (which you never will) or you can break the commandments (which we do all the time) – but God in Christ names you as one of God’s own because of Christ alone.

The anxiety is not on us. In fact for us human beings, from our vantage point, it’s a covenant of grace. We are to believe, to receive the gift. But note, that this section is within the section on the Holy Spirit. And as we saw in the prior sections, the Holy Spirit works faith in us. So even then, we cannot credit to ourselves that we have a lot of faith or weak faith, or any notion that seeks to quantify what we think we have; all that we have is a gift from God, even the gift of faith. So, from where we stand/sit, our saved-ness, the free gift of love from God to which we are called to believe is, indeed, a covenant of grace. It is God’s sure and certain promise that God is for us, that we live in freedom to live for God, to love God and love one another.

So, the anxiety is not on us. The anxiety, the covenant of works, was on the God-man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who took upon Himself alone the desire of the triune God to seek and to save that which was lost, to reconcile and redeem humanity that is more prone to do things our own ways, to be shackled to our own vices and contrivances, than to be fully alive in God.

Recall the  deep anguish of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, petitioning our heavenly Father to “let this cup pass from me, if it be possible” because of the anxiety of fulfilling to the fullest what the covenant of grace required, which for him was a covenant of works.

In His willingness to succumb to his executioners and to death itself, Jesus Christ shows us what it means to be truly free, as His death and then His resurrection to a new life, is the proof-positive of God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s love, and God’s freedom all on display.

Thus, what God in Christ through the Holy Spirit does is to call us to true and everlasting freedom. That is, by the anchoring into God’s own life and heart, we are free to love and live, and fully live according to God’s will and God’s ways.

Lord’s Day 22 (Q/A 57 & 58): IN THE NOW AND WHAT WILL BE

57   Q.   How does “the resurrection of the body
               comfort you?

A.    Not only will my soul
be taken immediately after this life
to Christ its head,^1
but also my very flesh will be
raised by the power of Christ,
reunited with my soul,
and made like Christ’s glorious body.^2

^1Luke 23:43; Phil. 1:23
^2 1 Cor. 15:53-54; Job 19:25-26; 1 John 3:2; Phil. 3:21

58   Q.   How does the article
                concerning “life everlasting”
                comfort you?

A.    Even as I already now
experience in my heart
the beginning of eternal joy,^1
so after this life I will have
perfect blessedness such as
no eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no human heart has ever imagined:^2
a blessedness in which to praise God forever.^3

^1 2 Cor. 5:2-3
^2 1 Cor. 2:9
^3 John 17


LORD’S DAY 22 (Q/A 57 & 58)
“In the Now and What Will Be”

In the aftermath of super typhoon Haiyan which brought devastation to my parent land of the Philippines, the following song/poem was written by our PC(USA) mission co-worker Rebecca Lawson, who serves with our ecumenical partner, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP):

A Song of Lament and Unending Hope 

“People dying, children crying—where have all the flowers gone?

Somehow we must carry on, while our souls have stopped to mourn.

We must rise up, lift our eyes up—we must not stay here too long.

Our resolve will keep us strong, our struggle is reborn.

Poor ones in a world of pain, rich ones set on selfish gain– how can our HOPE remain UNSHAKEN BY THE STORM?

Give us courage, grant us wisdom… use our hands to help and heal.

Through our acts Your LOVE revealed to people bruised and torn.

Comfort send us, caring mend us—raise Your children from despair Bound as people called to share, our struggle is reborn!”

Bishop Reuel Marigza, UCCP General Secretary, commented:

I feel that this tragedy must not deter us from our calling as Christians, whose commitment to serve is inspired by the giver of life himself, Jesus Christ. These are trying days and challenging times as well. Let us not falter nor shirk from that calling to serve, for this means also serving God, the greatest giver of all.”

In the midst of and in the aftermath of what is being designated as the strongest storm in recorded history (3.5 times stronger than Hurricane Katrina), our sisters and brothers in the Philippines face tragedy with hope, a resilience powered by faith.

Q/A 57 and 58 are far from being escapist or indifferent towards the physical world, nor an apathy towards the deep and real struggles of humanity. Because the Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal God-man, because He has risen and is ascended, the salvation which He alone has effected is complete and comprehensive. Truly, in the words of Romans 8:38-39, there is no one and nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Thus, Q/A 57 and 58 see in the benefits of the “resurrection of the body” and “life everlasting” as present realities, not distant, far-flung dreams. This is not an invitation to sit and day-dream about what paradise is or will be. Rather, the benefits of the resurrection and the life everlasting are present here and now because Jesus Christ, the Resurrected One, the One who is from everlasting to everlasting, is present with us by our union with Him through and in the Holy Spirit.

This brings comfort, and, with that, confidence, to live fully with joy in the sight of God.

My dear friend, the late Tom Gillespie, who served faithfully as the fifth president of Princeton Theological Seminary from 1983-2004, shared the following story at the commencement exercises of the Class of 2000:

Former British prime minister, William Gladstone, encountered the young son of one of his friends. The young man wanted the Prime Minister’s advice on his future career plans.

“First,” he explained, “I plan to complete my studies at Oxford.”

“Splendid,” replied the Prime Minister, “and what then?”

“Well, sir, I then plan to study the law and become a prominent barrister/lawyer.”

“Excellent,” responded Gladstone, “and what then?”

“Then I plan to stand for election and become a member of Parliament.”

“Wonderful,” said Gladstone, “and what then?”

“Then, sir, I plan to rise to prominence in the party and be appointed to a cabinet post.”

“A worthy ambition,” replied the senior statesman, “and what then?”

“O, Mr. Gladstone,” the boy blurted out a bit self-consciously, “I plan one day to become Prime Minister and serve my Queen with the same distinction as you.”

“A noble desire, young man, and what then?”

“Well, sir, I expect that in time I will be forced to retire from public life.”

“You will indeed,” replied the Prime Minister, “and what then?”

Puzzled by the question, the young man said hesitantly, “I expect then that one day I will die.”

“Yes you will, and what then?”

“I don’t know, sir, I have not thought any further than that.”

“Young man,” said Gladstone, “you are a fool. Go home and think of your life through from its end.”

Q/A 57 and 58 are invitations to live our lives through from its end. Resurrection and everlasting are in the now and what will be.  That’s what enables us to both struggle with tragedy and to struggle with hope’s promise, power and possibilities.

Lord’s Day 21 (Q/A 54-56): A DIVIDED COMMUNITY, A UNITED COMMUNITY

54   Q.   What do you believe
               concerning “the holy catholic church”?

A.    I believe that the Son of God^1
through his Spirit and Word,^2
out of the entire human race,^3
from the beginning of the world to its end,^4
gathers, protects, and preserves for himself,^5
a community chosen for eternal life^6
and united in true faith.^7
And of this community I am^8 and always will be^9
a living member.

^1 John 10:11
^2 Isa. 59:21; Rom. 1:16; 10:14, 17; Eph. 5:26
^3 Gen. 26:4
^4 Ps. 71:18; 1 Cor. 11:26
^5 Matt. 16:18; John 10:28-30; 1 Cor. 1:8
^6 Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:10-13
^7 Acts 2:46;Eph. 4:3-5
^8 1 John 3:21; 2 Cor. 13:5
^9 1 John 2:19

55   Q.   What do you understand by
               “the communion of saints”?

 A.    First, that believers one and all,
as members of this community,
share in Christ
and in all his treasures and gifts.^1

Second, that each member
should consider it a duty
to use these gifts
readily and joyfully
for the service and enrichment
of the other members.^2

^1 1 John 1:3; 1 Cor. 1:9; Rom. 8:32
^2 1 Cor.6:17;12:12-21; 13:5; Phil. 2:4-6

56   Q.   What do you believe
               concerning “the forgiveness of sins”?

A.    I believe that God,
because of Christ’s satisfaction, ^1
will no longer remember
any of my sins
or my sinful nature
which I need to struggle against all my life.^2

Rather, by grace
God grants me the righteousness of Christ
to free me forever from judgment.^3

^1 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21
^2 Jer. 31:34; Ps. 103:3, 10-12; Rom. 7:24-25; 8:1-3
^3 John 3:18


LORD’S DAY 21 (Q/A 54-56)
“A Divided Community, A United Community”

Last week, we saw in Q/A 53 that even as Reformation Day necessarily recalls the theological and ecclesiastical divisions that resulted from the 16th century continental Reformation, the common unity effected by the Holy Spirit is comprehensive, continuous, and serves as our confidence and comfort in the triune God’s work through Christ to redeem a broken world.

Q/A 54 through 56 speaks of our common calling in being the Church, the called out community that is holy because God is holy, and which is catholic because of the broadness of God’s work and the diversity of the members of the Church.  Because we have been assured of forgiveness and redemption, we are called to offer our whole selves to the witness of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit’s work, as the work of the triune God, is not just for a person, for a me, even as the Spirit’s work is deeply personal to each of us; when God touches each of our lives, it’s always in view of bringing us into a wider community – the community of God (who is perfect community – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and the community which belongs to God (i.e. the Church).

As I write this reflection, delegates from the PC(USA) have joined several thousand Christians, communion of saints, for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea. The WCC, a fellowship of about 350 churches from six continents, offers common witness with/for about 500 million Christians from mainline Protestant, Eastern, and Orthodox traditions, as well as continuing relationship with the 1 billion member Roman Catholic Church (which holds full membership in the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission). Still yet, the WCC engages with Pentecostal traditions, other ecumenical bodies, and non-governmental organizations.  Even as I keep track of proceedings in Busan via the Web, Twitter, and Facebook from my home in New Jersey and upcoming travels to California and Kentucky, technology connects, as more decisively our common faith, common baptisms, and the common Table give powerful witness.  Added to this number, millions of others not part of the Council, but still part of the fellowship. Added to this, the communion of saints who have completed their baptismal journeys and who belong to the eternal company of the great cloud of witnesses.

While we confess our common unity that is decisive because of the triune God, we also experience deep division in the body of Christ. We in the Reformed tradition are still prohibited from sharing the Lord’s Table with our Roman Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers. But we can rejoice that after over 500 years of division, there is mutual recognition of our baptism between Reformed churches in the United States and the Roman Catholic Church. We in the PC(USA) have our own family divisions as congregations have been dismissed, or are in the process of being dismissed to other ecclesial contexts, even as we can confess quite confidently that the experience and visibility of division, while real and serious, do not, in any way, vitiate or diminish the unity which  the triune God has effected in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

This simultaneous confession of a body divided, a body united is not  a contradiction, but a tension which the Holy Spirit gives us faith, hope and live to live with, to pray with, and to trust in God’s work.

This is similar to Q/A 56 assuring us that forgiveness of sins has been effected by God through Christ and which the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives testifies to the complete and efficacious work of Christ, while at the same time we are continually called to confess our sins, to forgive those who trespass against us, even as we have been forgiven.  No contradiction, just a tension, in which the Holy Spirit is active, especially when the hard work of forgiving one another and forgiving ourselves need to happen.

We confess that we believe and belong in the one holy catholic church., even as we are divided, so that in our divisions we work and pray for the unity which we confess.

We confess that we believe in the communion of living saints, even as we are joined to the communion of saints who are absent from the body but present with the Lord, so that we may finish the race following the way of the Lord.

We confess that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, even as we need forgiveness ourselves and even as we need to forgive others, so that we may have a deeper and continual awareness of God’s own forgiving love.

In the tensions and ambiguities of our lives and faith, there, in the midst, at the periphery, and in the winds of the rhythms and vicissitudes of it all, the Holy Spirit is and always will be.

Lord’s Day 20 (Q/A 53): HING, PIVOT, FULCRUM – ON THE HOLY SPIRIT

53   Q.   What do you believe
               concerning “the Holy Spirit”?

A.    First, that the Spirit, with the Father and the Son,
is eternal God.^1

Second, that the Spirit is given also to me,^2
so that, through true faith,
he makes me share in Christ and all his benefits,^3
comforts me,^4
and will remain with me forever.^5

^1 Gen. 1:2; Isa. 48:16; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Acts 5:3-4
^2 Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 1:21-22
^3 Gal. 3:14; 1 Pet. 1:2; 1 Cor. 6:17
^4 Acts 9:31
^5 John 14:16; 1 Pet. 4:14


LORD’S DAY 20 (Q/A 53)
“Hinge, Pivot, Fulcrum – On the Holy Spirit”

 
October 31 is Halloween, but, more importantly, it’s Reformation Day. Even as that day recalls the divisions that resulted within the medieval Church, it also points to division among the various Protestant factions as they, too, splintered into Lutheran, Reformed, Zwinglian strands, and even within those segments, there were further divisions along particular theological foci.  Reformation Day helps us to recall the formal cause of the continental Reformation was the doctrine of justification (salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s righteousness alone); the material cause was the doctrine of Scripture, resulting in an articulation that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the unique and distinctive authoritative Word of God written.  I’ll reflect upon these doctrines in future sections of the Heidelberg Catechism and their applicability to the contemporary witness of the Gospel.

Martin Luther supposedly remarked that the doctrine of justification is “the article upon which the Church stands or falls.”  Anglican evangelical theologian James I. Packer described justification as the “hinge upon which everything turns.”

I think John Calvin and Karl Barth would describe the person and work of the Holy Spirit as the hinge, pivot, and fulcrum upon which all else balances. Calvin and Barth gave great emphasis to the person and work of the Holy Spirit as the person of the Godhead who unites believers to the ascended Lord and the heavenly Father, and to all of God’s people in all times and in all places. For instance, in Calvin’s own reformation of the medieval liturgy, he saw that in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving of the Lord’s Supper, the portion called the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”)  in the dialogue:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts
We lift them up to the Lord
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

This is the portion where the Holy Spirit lifts the heart/life/faith of the gathered assembly, thereby connecting the Church, the body of Christ, to the ascended and glorified Christ.

The Reformed prayers at the Lord’s Table depends upon the Holy Spirit to bless the gathered assembly and to make the bread and cup be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

The Holy Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension to believers. The Holy Spirit enables, empowers, comforts, and teaches what Jesus taught. The Holy Spirit breathed life into Christ in the deathly tomb.  St. Augustine, in attempting to describe the metaphorically the internal life of the triune God, called the Holy Spirit the love which the lover (the Father) and the beloved (the Son) share.

Recall the Heidelberg Catechism is concerned about giving comfort and confidence in our life and in our death, in body and in soul, and the basis of such comfort and confidence.  Q/A 53 is concerned with how the benefits of the redemption effected by Jesus Christ is received, lived out, sealed in our lives.

The first section of the answer to Q. 53 drives home the point that the Holy Spirit’s unity is with the heavenly Father and with Jesus Christ.  The work and witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the world are integrally related to that of the Father and the Son; theirs is a complete unity, uniformity, and unanimity…a perfect love.

The second section of the answer to Q. 53 emphasizes the gift of the Holy Spirit. The triune God gives the Holy Spirit, who is God.   And as gift, the Holy Spirit works in our lives for our benefit, comforting us, and abiding with us forever.  As gift, the Holy Spirit, as with the entirety of the Godhead, cannot be managed, cannot be controlled…only received. But even here, nothing of our will can negate or vitiate the determined work of the graciousness of God. The Spirit will come whether we want the Spirit to come or not; the Spirit will prompt us, will prod us. It’s in the interaction of the  Holy Spirit with us that the dynamic and authentic relationship that God desires with us and for us happens…in the messiness and beauty of life.

Spirit of the living God
Fall afresh on us.
Melt us, mold us, fill us.
Spirit of the living God
Fall afresh on us.

Lord’s Day 19 (Q/A 50-52): SUPERLATIVE OF SUPERLATIVES

50   Q.   Why the next words:
               “and is seated at the right hand of God”?

A.    Because Christ ascended to heaven
to show there that he is head of his church,^1
the one through whom the Father rules all things.^2

^1 Eph. 1:20-23;5:23; Col. 1:18
^2 Matt. 28:18; John 5:22

51   Q.   How does this glory of Christ our head
benefit us?

A.   First, through his Holy Spirit
he pours out gifts from heaven
upon us his members.^1

Second, by his power
he defends us and keeps us safe
from all enemies.^2

^1 Eph. 4:10
^2 Ps. 2:9;110:1-2; John 10:28; Eph. 4:8

52   Q.   How does Christ’s return
               “to judge the living and the dead”
                comfort you?

A.    In all distress and persecution,
with uplifted head,
I confidently await the very judge
who has already offered himself to the judgment of God
in my place and removed the whole curse from me.^1
Christ will cast all his enemies and mine
into everlasting condemnation, ^2
but will take me and all his chosen ones
to himself
into the joy and glory of heaven.^3

^1 Luke 21:28; Rom. 8:23, 33; Phil. 3:20; Titus 2:13
^2 2 Thess. 1:6-7; 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 25:41
^3 Matt. 25:34


LORD’S DAY 19 (Q/A 50-52)
“Superlative of Superlatives”

My late maternal grandmother, Purificacion Dionida, who diligently attended and taught Sunday School classes for older adults used to describe God as “the One to whom all good superlatives belong.”  If she were alive today, she would spurn the use of email or Facebook; from her little desk, she churned letters from her manual typewriter, or her preferred method: the good ol’ hand-written letter.  I recall several birthday and Christmas card/letters where she reminded me to always pray and thank God with every good superlative.

It wasn’t until I began seminary that I learned of an ancient Near East way of expressing preeminence was to compare one unit to a larger unit: king of kings, lord of lords, song of songs. That is to say, of all the kings, this king is the real deal and surpasses all others. This lord surpasses all others. King Solomon’s song is the par excellence of all songs.  Thus, superlative of superlatives.

In the last three weeks, no matter your political persuasion, there was annoyance and downright frustration at and directed towards Washington D.C. as open conflict erupted between Democrats and Republicans, factions within the Republican Party itself, between the House and Senate, and between the Congress and the White House, resulting in a government shutdown and a debt ceiling crisis that would have resulted in the U.S. government defaulting on its debts, with dire consequences for the global economy.

In the midst of the partisan gridlock, whose consequence was the furloughing of 800,000 federal employees (including a cousin of mine who worked for the Department of Energy who was told that he would be receiving an IOU), the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Barry Black, would daily invoke the wisdom from on high. This caught the attention of The New  York Times, which on October 6 wrote a piece titled “Give Us This Day, Our Daily Scolding: Senate Chaplain Shows His Disapproval During Morning Prayer.”

Here’s what he prayed on October 3 in the Senate chamber:

Have mercy upon us, O God, and save us from the madness. We
acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our
selfishness, and our pride. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew
a right spirit within us. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting
to sound reasonable while being unreasonable. Remove the burdens of
those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown,
transforming negatives into positives as You work for the good of those
who love You.

         (Congressional Record, 113th Congress, 1st Session, vol. 159, no. 135, p. S7143)

Or this on October 4:

Today, give our lawmakers the vision and the willingness to see and
do Your will. Remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines
itself to be above and beyond criticism. Forgive them for the blunders
they have committed, infusing them with the courage to admit and
correct mistakes. Amen.

         (Congressional Record, 113th Congress, 1st Session, vol. 159, no. 136, p. S7171)

What Chaplain Black expresses and invokes upon our policymakers is what only the God of gods, the Lord of lords can do and accomplish: the humbling of hearts, minds and wills that have gone wayward, that arrogates to itself authority, ultimate authority, to determine the fate of not only the 800,000 federal workers, but 300 million Americans, and, beyond that, the economy and livelihood of nearly 7 billion. Deep down, when given the right circumstances, capacity and power to effect  one’s intentions and will, human nature likes to lord over others.  Altruistic, noble aims may be articulated, but the heart is deceitful and can quickly transform to the miry muck where, by the time we know it, we think our position, or those who have joined us, are now the superlative of superlatives…the bottom line and the top line.

Q/A 50-52 are remarkable in asserting both the ultimate and decisive lordship of Jesus Christ and the benefits that emanate from that reality. This goes against human effort – individual, collective – to control others, to lord over others.

Q/A 50 reminds us Christ is head of the Church, and through Him, God rules all things. All. Not some, not part. All.

Q/A 51 reminds us that through the Holy Spirit, Christ provides and Christ defends and protects. Not in the past tense, but continually in the present and ongoing.

Q/A 52 reminds us that Christ is the judge….judge of the heart, judge of our lives, judge of all.

Christ’s ascension, and through Him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, expresses the totality and comprehensiveness of His rule and ways.

When the nonsense of human exercise of authority results in injustice, suffering, violence, or the neglect of the poor, needy, and sick, we find our true and certain hope in the Lord Christ, who is the superlative of superlatives of all that is good and righteous.

This is far from a complacency, apathy, or indifference towards the world and the world around us. Far from it.  The Protestant Reformers were not escapists. Remember that the Heidelberg theologians were commissioned by the political leader of the Palatinate region, so the Reformed faith that was being expounded was a thorough-going public theology.

Q/A 50-52 is a stark reminder for both those who govern and those who are the governed that all works, all service – indeed every facet of our lives and our relationships – are to be done with and in the view that the triune God, through Christ, in the Spirit is the head, is the defender and protector, is the judge. And whenever our human natures inch towards or are comfortable in feeling like the superlative of superlatives, there, at the door of our hearts, and at the doorstep of every power and principality, is the ascended One, knocking, and setting us and the world properly in its place, in this life and in the life to come.

Lord’s Day 18 (Q/A 46-49): OUR LIFELINE

46   Q.   What do you mean by saying,
               “He ascended to heaven”?

A.    That Christ,
while his disciples watched,
was taken up from the earth into heaven^1
and remains there on our behalf^2
until he comes again
to judge the living and the dead.^3

^1 Acts 1:9; Matt. 26[:64]; Mark 16[:19]; Luke 24[:51]
^2 Heb. 4:14; 7:15[-25]; 9:11; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 4:10; Col. 3:1
^3 Acts 1:11; Matt. 24:30

47   Q.   But isn’t Christ with us
               until the end of the world
               as he promised us?^1

A.    Christ is true human and true God.
In his human nature Christ is not now on earth;^2
but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit
he is never absent from us.^3

^1 Matt. 28:20
^2 Matt. 26:11; John 16:28; 17:11; Acts 3:21
^3 John 14:17[-19]; 16:13; Matt. 28:20; Eph. 4:8, 12;
also cited: Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 50

48   Q.   If his humanity is not present
                wherever his divinity is,
                then aren’t the two natures of Christ
                separated from each other?

A.    Certainly not.
Since divinity
is not limited
and is present everywhere,^1
it is evident that
Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of
the humanity that has been taken on,
but at the same time his divinity is in
and remains personally united to
his humanity.^2

^1 Acts 7:49; 17:28; Jer. 23:24
^2 Col. 2:9; John 3:13; 11:15; Matt. 28:6

49   Q.   How does Christ’s ascension to heaven
                benefit us?

A.    First, he is our advocate
in heaven
in the presence of his Father.^1

Second, we have our own flesh in heaven
as a sure pledge that Christ our head
will also take us, his members,
up to himself.^2

Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth
as a corresponding pledge.^3
By the Spirit’s power
we seek not earthly things
but the things above, where Christ is,
sitting at God’s right hand.^4

^1 1 John 2:1-2; Rom. 8:34
^2 John 14:2; 20:17; Eph. 2:6
^3 John 14:16;16:7; Acts 2; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5
^4 Col. 3:1; Phil. 3:14


LORD’S DAY 18 (Q/A 46-49)
“Our Lifeline” 

My family and I just returned from an exhilarating moderatorial trip to visit our sisters and brothers of the Yukon Presbytery, 22 congregations faithfully serving the state nicknamed “The Last Frontier.”  The largest state in terms of square miles, there are many parts that are not populated, left for many to behold the pristine surroundings, majestic snow-capped mountains, roaming caribou and brown bear. In Anchorage, we were at the Presbytery meeting where I witnessed and experienced something remarkable that I often don’t see in meetings: presbyters sharing the joys and struggles of their congregations, praying over each others congregations by name, praying for each other, laying hands on each other. In the time I was with the presbytery, there was a small portion for a nominating committee report, but so much of the time was spent in worship, in fervent prayer, in feasting over  the traditional maktuk (whale meat, skin, blubber), and sharing one another’s lives.  During one open mic time, an elder prayed, “Lord, thank you that we are not alone.”

We traveled to the northern slope, about a 2 hour flight from Anchorage to Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, as it sits on the Arctic Ocean. I had the privilege of worshipping with the Inupiat and Tongan community of the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church, founded on Easter Sunday in 1899 by famous Presbyterian missionary, Sheldon Jackson. Barrow is a whole different world than Anchorage and with the rest of the United States.  Barrow is literally a desert: dry cold, compacted snow and ice, no vegetation. We were there for 32 degree Fahrenheit temperatures but temperatures during the winter dips to a deadly  -45 degrees, with wind chills bringing that to nearly -70 degrees. Fruits and vegetables are flown in, making garlic at the local market cost $6.19/lb. Most people have, at most, a high school education, if that. Many people earn money through the oil and gas industry. Imagine the opening snowstorm scene of Star Wars, Episode 5: Empire Strikes Back…that’s Barrow.  Natives subsist on whale, seal, caribou, bison, duck, and geese.  Alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse are commonplace. During the months of November and December, people in Barrow live 24/7 without daylight. From mid-May to mid-July, they live 24/7 with only daylight.  It’s a whole world away from Middlesex, NJ or from so many parts of the lower 48 states.

In the midst of these contexts, faithful Christians serve. The Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church is the oldest and biggest community in Barrow. Of the 4500 residents of this village, most have been one time or another been baptized at the Church, and almost all can expect to be buried at a funeral officiated by whomever is serving as the pastor at any given time.  I am deeply grateful to the Utqiagvik community, who are faithfully and humbly served by Pastor Duke Morrow (who is also moderator of the Yukon Presbytery) and his wife, Li (short for Lisa). They’ve been there for 2 years. Duke is from Detroit. When he passed out in the sanctuary one time, he had to be airlifted to Anchorage. While there is a local hospital, any major medical procedures need to be done at Anchorage. He and Li continue to serve faithfully; it is a true calling.

Throughout this particular trip, I couldn’t help but think of our visit two months prior to the Synod of Boriquen in Puerto Rico. That context, too, is a different world from what many in the PC(USA) are accustomed. These two contexts, on diagonal opposites geographically, are different and distinctive, yet united. We are united, we are not alone.

I thought of the four sections of this week’s Heidelberg Catechism.

Q/A 46 through 49 discusses the meaning and purpose of our Lord’s ascension. In my travels, I’ve spoken extensively about the importance of the ascension, as connected to the resurrection, as connected to the crucifixion, as connected to Christ’s ministry, as connected to Christ’s incarnation.  In the ascension, we confess Christ’s full presence by virtue of the giving of the Holy Spirit (who is also referred to in several of the apostle Paul’s letters as the Spirit of Christ), and we confess at the same time, without contradiction, Christ’s full absence.  Jesus Christ is fully present and fully absent.  Christ did, indeed, ascend bodily into heaven as testified by holy Scripture.  Through him, our heavenly Father gifted to us the Holy Spirit. By the giving of the Holy Spirit, we live with the trifecta gifts: faith, hope, and love. It is with and through these gifts of God for the people of God that we live, and move and have our being in the life and heart of the triune God…because of the Holy Spirit.  What this means is that we live, at the same time, with a degree of certainty, and a degree of mystery. Binding these two together is the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the Lord Jesus Christ, to our heavenly Father, to the communion of saints, both the living and the dead, in all times and in all places.

This is a remarkable reality and confession. This is a benefit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have in heaven our eternal high priest, the Lord Christ, who forever prays for us, intercedes for us, saves us.  How do we know and trust this? Because of the convicting power and presence of the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus taught his disciples, teaches and comforts us in the ways of Jesus Christ.

Whenever we human beings try to tilt the balance towards so much certainty – we become prideful and frustrated towards others whom we judge not to be as enlightened or wise as we are. When we tilt the balance towards so much mystery – we become cynical, where an unhealthy sense of doubt can creep into our faith, and, at its worst, we can become like what Jesus described, a reed blown here and there by every wind of doctrine, not anchored to the certain redemption of Christ’s salvation and God’s revelation in Christ. So many conflicts erupt when we want more certainty and thereby become overly dogmatic, or when we want more mystery and thereby want more freedom from strict rules or laws.

What the Holy Spirit does because Christ is ascended is anchor us to the heart and life of God, anchor us to the Good News of Jesus Christ, uniting us to the wider family of God, as a sure guarantee that we are never alone.  The Holy Spirit empowers us, enabling us to live lives that testify of Jesus Christ, and the goodness and grace in Him.  So, whether we are in a winter desert, in a sandy desert, on a tropical island, in the corn fields of Nebraska, the beaches of Malibu, or whatever might be the case, we are never alone. Our lifeline is the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the triune God and to all of God’s people, pledging to us that God is for us, God is with us, God is in us; in other words, that God is God, and we belong to God.

Lord’s Day 17 (Q/A 45): DIVINE INTERVENTION

45   Q.   How does Christ’s resurrection
benefit us?

A.    First, by his resurrection he has overcome death,
so that he might make us share in the righteousness
he obtained for us by his death.^1

Second, by his power we too
are already raised to a new life.^2

Third, Christ’s resurrection
is a sure pledge to us of our blessed resurrection.^3

^1 1 Cor. 15:17, 54-55; Rom. 4:25; 1 Pet. 1:3, 21
^2Rom. 6:4; Col. 3:1-5; Eph. 2:5
^3 1 Cor. 15:12; Rom. 8:11


LORD’S DAY 17 (Q/A 45)
“Divine Intervention

Episcopalian priest, Fleming Rutledge, described Christ’s resurrection that first Easter morning as:

Jesus’ rising was the undoing of death.  Jesus ruined death’s plans, and interrupted it with the freshness of life, a loud interruption that pronounced the end to sin’s long hold upon God’s people.  He, in effect, looked at sin and death in between the eyes, grabbed held of its fangs of fatality, and squashed them to pieces and said, “No more.”

German theologian Jürgen Moltmann observed that:

[t]he Easter faith recognizes that the raising of the crucified Christ from the dead provides the great alternative to this world of death. This faith sees the raising of Christ as God’s protest against death, and against all the people who for death.” Therefore “Easter is a feast, and it is as the feat of freedom that it is celebrated. For with Easter begins the laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated and the creative play of fantasy. …Easter is at one and the same time God’s protest against  death, and the feast of freedom from death…Resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist.

These days in our country, news headlines have been about the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling deadline. At a recent gathering of the Cincinnati Presbytery, we prayed for reconciliation in the midst of intractableness and intransigence in Washington D.C. The power, possibilities, and promise unleashed with the stone being rolled away on that first Easter morning enables what seems impossible to become possible and become reality – even hardened hearts and stubborn wills.

Sharing in Christ’s righteousness. Raised to new life. Our blessed resurrection.

These are the benefits, the outcomes, the results.

By Christ’s death. By Christ’s resurrection. By his power.

These are the works of Jesus Christ – what He alone has done and what He alone is able to do.

For us, the recipients/beneficiaries, it’s a covenant of grace. It’s all gift for us.

For Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, Son of God – it’s a covenant of works. For Him, it’s work, it’s carrying out the desire of the triune God for the world to be reconciled, to be redeemed, to be loved when we won’t love one another, love God, or love ourselves.

The third paragraph of Q/A 45 described Christ’s resurrection as a “sure pledge.”  If we needed any more guarantee or promise of God being with us and for us…Christ’s rising from the grave is that pledge.

Wherever and whenever we experience despair, hopelessness, injustice, war and rumors of war, grief, anger, division, brokenness, the pervasive and pernicious effects of sin, violence, lies, apathy, indifference, temptation, and all the shadows of death – and even death itself – the risen Christ stands as the steadfast companion.

Many baptismal fonts around the world, and many church sanctuaries are built in the shape of an octagon. This ancient form expressed the belief that the first Easter morning was both the first day and the eighth day of the week; that just as creation was the first day of the week, Christ’s rising was the eighth day, ushering a new creation.  In descending into the baptismal waters, the Spirit of Christ joins us to His death; in ascending from the baptismal waters, the Spirit of Christ joins us to His rising. The baptismal waters are both tomb and womb.

As baptized ones, as the baptized community, we testify of the new creation emerging, giving evidence of it when we prostrate in prayer, when we sing praise to God, when we gather for worship, when we light a candle and open the Scriptures, when we teach a child the ways of Jesus, when we pick up the placard and join others in protesting racism, when we cry and weep with mourners, when we engage in the heavy-lifting of peacemaking and reconciliation, when we confess and repent.

And we do so, and are enabled to do so, because the power of God raised Jesus the Christ from the dead.

Lord’s Day 16 (Q/A 40-44): TO HELL, IN HELL AND BACK

40   Q.   Why did Christ have to suffer death?

A.    Because God’s justice and truth require it: ^1
nothing else could pay for our sins
except the death of the Son of God.^2

^1 Gen. 2:17
^2 Heb. 2:9,15; Phil. 2:8

41   Q.   Why was he “buried”?

A.    His burial testifies
that he really died.^1

^1 Acts 13:29; Matt. 27:60;Luke 23:50[-53]; John 19:38[-42]

42   Q.   Since Christ has died for us,
               why do we still have to die?

A.    Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.
Rather, it puts an end to our sinning
and is our entrance into eternal life.^1

^1 John 5:24; Phil. 1:23; Rom. 7:24 [21-25]

43   Q.   What further benefit do we receive
                from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?

A.    By Christ’s power
our old selves are crucified, put to death, and buried with him,^1
so that the evil desires of the flesh
may no longer rule us,^2
but that instead we may offer ourselves
as a sacrifice of gratitude to him.^3

^1 Rom. 6:6-8, 11-12;Col. 2[:11-12]
^2 Rom. 6:12
^3 Rom. 12:1

 

44   Q.   Why does the creed add,
                “He descended to hell”?

A.    To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation
that Christ my Lord,
by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,
on the cross but also earlier,
has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.^1

^1 Isa.53:10; Matt. 27:46

 


 

LORD’S DAY 16 (Q/A 40-44)
To Hell, In Hell, and Back”

The cartoon robot character, Buzz Lightyear, in the movie, The Toy Story, pretends to fly “to infinity and beyond.”

There’s no pretending when we are confronted with real pain and struggle – of the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, congregational, organizational, communal, national – sometimes those  pains and struggles seem like “to infinity and beyond.”  The deep and pervasive effects of sin, violence, war, illness…even death itself, or even sojourning through the valleys of the shadows of death, have a quality to it that obscures light, life and joy.

Christian Wiman, in his recent pastoral-poetic-prophetic memoir and reflection, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, as he invites us to walk with him in and through the struggle of a living hell – a cancer that leaves him to prepare for a needed bone marrow transplant, which chemotherapy has rendered his body enervated, emaciated. His is a serious, thoughtful, no-holds barred wrestling with God, the bright abyss, where he and we are brought to the very precipice of faith, looking down and ahead and seeing nothing, wondering if there is anyone or anything ahead and below.

Wiman says this about Christianity:

I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not
because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think
God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not
simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a
high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when
Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my
God, why hast thou forsaken me?.  .  . I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering
shatters the iron walls around human suffering, that Christ’s compassion
makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible.
Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human
love. (p.155, emphasis not mine)

His confession is similar to that of Simone Weil or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or even the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk (my favorite prophet, who I characterize as Job minus the three meddling friends), who find comfort and consolation in the God who knows us, who desires and who, in fact, to be in our life, to be in our places, to be in our hellish moments.

Q/A 40 through 44 are powerful assertions of what God does with our Good Fridays. God as Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit doesn’t run away from our sin, doesn’t discard us, doesn’t flee from us, but comes toward us and becomes as one of us. Jesus Christ comes as one of us, and to have his existence with us as full and authentic, Jesus experiences our hell, becomes one with us in the hell of this world, feeling it, carrying it in his heart and soul, receiving the effects of it…and the ultimate consequence of it: death itself. The Son of God going to the depth and darkness of death itself, the Creed and the ancient ecumenical Church saw this as so critical to assert that Christ really, truly, fully died. “He descended into hell” re-iterates His death. He experienced death, the pain that accompanied it, and the anguish that embraced His heart and His soul.

Recall that this Catechism began in Q/A 1 to reassure us as followers of Jesus Christ that our comfort in life and in death, in body and in soul, is that we belong to our faithful Savior and Lord.  Q/A 40 through 44 drives home that point. In every single moment, in our waking and in our sleeping, in our living days and in our mini-deaths, and even when death knocks on the doorsteps of our homes, we are not alone.  In the deepest and darkest despair of the hellish moments and torments of our individual and corporate lives, the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is not an abstraction; He is not a theory, an idea, a philosophy, or a stand-offish Sovereign.  Here we have hanging on Calvary’s cross is the Son of God – God in flesh and blood – who takes on hell, who lives in our hell, who knows it inside and out – but who in the end is not consumed by it, not vanquished by it, but who, as Fleming Rutledge says, looked at the “fangs of death” and rendered it powerless.  And because of Him, we are not left alone, and we are finally rescued from it all.