Gnostic America

October 31, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Thursday of Trinity 19: Jesus Makes Forgiveness Easy to Say

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But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?

Lots going on in this little passage. We get evidence of Jesus’ divine omniscience when He knows their thoughts, proof of His divinity Matthew seems to be underscoring by repeating this detail three times. The “scribes said (1) within themselves, …Jesus, (2) knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you (3) think evil in your hearts?’ ” Of course, one of the big points of the Gospel is that Jesus cannot be blaspheming if He indeed is “God with us” speaking God’s Word.

Interesting, but notice also the biblical psychology going on. “Within themselves” parallels “thoughts” and “in your hearts.” Where in lieu of 19th Romanticism like to make a contrast between the head and heart – and the obnoxious legacy of that is in the contrast between “heart religion” and “head religion” – in fact the two are indistinguishable in the ancient mind.

Now, what is the evil the scribes were thinking in their hearts? The scribes, like most everyone, had not had the veil taken from their minds; they weren’t caught up with “fullness of time” yet. By the standards of the Old Testament revelation, it would have been blasphemy to go around declaring people’s sins forgiven. What was “evil” about that?

Perhaps we need to be a bit more philosophical about what evil is, and not see it according to the Manichaean, Disney-brushed caricatures we tend to think of it as, where evil is seen with demonic grins and cackling laughter. The scribes weren’t necessarily being malicious, but were actually trying to be faithful. What, then, was the evil?

As we’ve frequently been contemplating, evil came on the scene in divine history when God introduced it as everything His created world was not. Everything He created was good, and Adam was given to live in that goodness, to name it, to know it. But one small corner of that creation had one thing that was not good, something Adam was not to know, and that the additional “and evil” associated with the tree of the knowledge of good “and evil.”

So by that setup, evil is whatever is not of God’s creation. It’s not true. It’s a realm of nothingness. It’s an arena where human desire is allowed to take over and project phantasies which obscure and taint the material creation – the fruit of the tree suddenly looks “desirable.”

As we meditated on yesterday, Jesus’ atonement for the sins of the world is part of cosmic reality. It is as true as the sunrise: everyone’s sins are forgiven. That lame man’s forgiveness is a cosmic truth Jesus was relaying to him no different than, “The sun will rise up on you this morning.” Being part of the cosmic order, it is good, for all things God created are good. Evil would be to claim the cosmic truth about forgiveness to be not true, or not part of the created order. Or, it would be to claim as blasphemous one who testified to this cosmic truth, which is exactly what the scribes were doing with Jesus.

Satan is constantly trying to say what isn’t true is true, and what is true as not true. “It’s true that you can make the world a better place” he says on one hand, while also saying, “It’s not true that your sins are forgiven you.” Similarly he inspired Peter to keep Jesus from going to the cross – again, it’s clearly not that Peter was some malicious Disney-esque character, but that he was seeking to make “what is” to be “what is not,” that is, the atonement of Christ.

Now, on to the confusing part of the passage. Is it easier to say, “Your sins are forgive you,” or to say, “Arise and walk”? I think we over-think the text if we make the argument, “Forgiveness was something only God could do, therefore that was the harder thing to say.” No, saying “Your sins are forgiven you” are just words; anyone can say them. That’s why they were blasphemy. Those words can be said “in vain.” They can be throwaway, empty, meaningless words.

Furthermore, while the meaning of “easy” means “not requiring great effort or work” – and clearly Jesus had to do incredible effort and work to make forgiveness available – it’s not that work referred to as easy, but the speaking of the word testifying to the results of that work which is easy. Which is indeed true: Jesus has made the forgiveness of others easy to declare.

Jesus asks the question after asking why they thought evil in their hearts. He seems to be saying, “Why are you acting as if this man’s forgiveness is not part of the cosmic order to which I am testifying, a new cosmic order which makes forgiveness abundant, readily available, and yes, easy to declare?”

As to that last point, lets underscore it. Jesus has taught that we ought to forgive the sins of others, as we have been forgiven. He teaches we should forgive as often as we need to, seventy times seven times. Yes, that makes forgiveness easy. And it should be, if Christ has indeed died for the sins of the world, and has promised, “every sin will be forgiven man” (but the sin against the Holy Spirit).

“Arise and walk” by contrast, could immediately make the one who says them look like a fool, exposing him as a liar. So those words are not easy to say.

But that leaves something hanging in the air. While Jesus is testifying to a mystery hidden from the foundation of the world – that is, the mystery of Christ’s cosmic atonement for the sins of the world – this mystery was not yet revealed fully, especially to the scribes. Therefore in their minds, forgiveness remained extremely difficult to say; it could result in being stoned for blasphemy, after all! So, they (and us) need something more, some evidence that Jesus indeed has this cosmic perspective. And that’s exactly what He gives in the passage that follows, evidence that He is God.

From the scribes perspective, Jesus’ question is an interesting conundrum. Which is easier, to say something that could expose you as a fool, or to say something that could get you stoned? Likely they would have chosen being exposed as fools. Jesus, in fact, chose the latter, and did, in fact, get capital punishment for blasphemy. Meanwhile He humbled Himself in human flesh to make the former easy as well. Altogether it yields a beautiful truth: our salvation, both our forgiveness and our “rising from our beds” has been made easy with Christ.

October 30, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of Trinity 19: Lots is Blasphemy, but One Important Thing Isn’t

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And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!”

Blasphemy is a sin of speaking. Blasphemy is to speak of God or on behalf of God things which are not true, that is, which are not authorized or ordained by Him. To curse someone is to stand in God’s place and declare something you have no right to declare. To swear in order to muster God in support of some claim you are making ties His good name to your nonsense.

To speak “in God’s name” or “in Jesus’ name” binds us to words He has authorized. Jesus only spoke in the Father’s name, and He sent out His apostles to speak in His name. No one speaking in the Lord’s name would make something up and attach His name to it. That’s blasphemy.

Preachers especially out to be careful here. How many preachers, implicitly preaching in the Lord’s name (because they’re in a pulpit), will talk about how God is weighing some nonsense on their hearts they feel compelled to speak? Blasphemy. How many preachers in the Lord’s name give their opinions on things the Scriptures do not speak. Blasphemy. How many lie or deceive in His name, saying things found nowhere in Scripture, or found out of context in Scripture?

Jesus teaches only “yes” and “no” when it comes to speaking. That is, speak truth. If it’s true, it is to be spoken or proclaimed. If it is not true, it is not to be spoken or proclaimed. That, indeed, is bearing false witness.

How often do people speak truths they are not authorized to claim? How often are cosmic truths proclaimed with no basis in anything? They speak things about ethics, the origins of the world, or about the structure of invisible things which can only be opinions, but they declare them as if they are God. They stand in God’s place speaking things only He is authorized to speak.

On those terms we are a world of blasphemers. Everyone claims cosmic certainty about things they have no business speaking about. A humble approach defers to God, which means to defer to His Word.

And when it comes to the created order, we confine ourselves to the world as it is readily witnessed, observed, and physically presented to us. Language arises from this world, and communication based on the named items of this world has served humanity quite well. This language we are permitted to speak.

But again, how easily we slip into God’s role and pontificate from His throne about cosmic realities we are not authorized to speak about? “A loving God wouldn’t do such and so,” we declare. Or, “I feel like the end is near,” we prophecy. Or, “This is the way of the world,” we philosophize.

Theology by assertions arising from one’s rectum is blasphemy. We truly know nothing beyond the observable universe, and what we have as far as God is concerned is from the Holy Scriptures. Anything beyond this is, as Jesus says, from the evil one, who lurks and thrives in the grey areas of probing, desire-based phantasy projection – because that’s all the grey areas really give us, a canvass on which we can assert our own desires.

When Jesus declared the man’s sins forgiven, He was not speaking a lie, because He had insider information about cosmic realities. He, after all, fills the cosmos, and the cosmos was created in and through Him. He’s the Word and fulfillment of the prophetic word.

He declared the man’s sins forgiven in lieu of His fulfillment of the Old Testament atoning sacrifices and the ministry of the priests. As Hebrews says, “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.”

Jesus knew this, being eternal and omniscient (as we see when He knows what the scribes are saying in their hearts), so He declared the truth to the man. Later we hear the people glorifying God that He had given such authority to “men,” meaning the cosmic truth of man’s forgiveness is something granted not just to Jesus, but to anyone. It’s one cosmic truth we can pontificate about. It’s one divine teaching we have every right to declare to anyone and everyone: “Your sins are forgiven you.”

Of whom could this not be said? Of whom is Jesus’ statement that “Every sin will be forgiven man” not true? No one. Therefore it is not blasphemy to say it.

See what mysteries of the incarnation are at work here! By His divinity, Jesus knows the cosmic truth that He would die for sins. By His humanity, Jesus testifies to that truth as the first man and on behalf of “men”: “Your sins are forgiven you.”

Jesus hasn’t really done an absolution yet. Or better put, the language in the text so far, while suggesting an absolution, hasn’t been clear whether it’s an absolution properly speaking…yet. An absolution would be to say, “I forgive you your sins.” “Your sins are forgive you” is more testimonial, that is, a cosmic truth claim regarding another’s forgiveness rather than an exertion of personal authority to forgive. Jesus will lift the narrative to a discussion of absolution proper in the verses to come, and that discussion will await a later day.

October 29, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Tuesday of Trinity 19: Is the Faith a Personal, or Communal, Affair?

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Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”

Communal faith. That’s the suggestion of the language of this passage. Jesus looks at the faith of those who “brought to Him a paralytic” and says to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” On the basis of the faith of others, Jesus forgave another.

It seems to be a strong theme of Protestantism that each individual is responsible for his own faith. This goes hand in hand with an understanding that one’s moment of salvation is when he, personally, is confronted with the Lord in a powerful experience, and he must decide what course he will take. This is a very individual moment, one he must do on his own, that happens in the depths of his own soul. Afterwards, he may (and should) join others who have similarly had that personal encounter with a “personal Savior,” but in the end, the faith is a personal, almost private, affair.

Certain passages can be mustered to support this understanding, like from Ezekiel 18: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

But goodness, if this passage is taken to its logical conclusion, how can Jesus “bear the guilt” of others? Do we not share Jesus righteousness? Or is each person responsible for himself, for both his guilt and his righteousness? Doesn’t that negate Christ?

Of course it does. Christ is a communal affair, even as the Church is the body of Christ where we are in fellowship with Him. Well, this foundational reality puts faith in a new light. If in the hyper-Protestant understanding of faith, faith is something managed by any specific individual as he reacts to an “encounter” with Christ, in this communal understanding of faith, faith is more passively received, not managed by us, but by Christ through His Church. Or put simply, in the hyper-Protestant view, I do the faith; in the communal understanding of faith, the faith does me.

The danger of me managing faith is the temptation toward idolatry, which is the projection of human desire wed to things other than the Lord Jesus. How often is “faith” nothing more than that? It becomes a projection of my goals and values onto this image or phantasm of “Christ” in such a way that I can through tricks of the mind fancy I’m doing something pious? This in fact is the dynamic of the antichristian spirit.

When faith is communal, a different dynamic is going on. Keep in mind, a proper understanding of faith must include among its premises the faith of infants. That alone brings a new dynamic, and just to keep us on track, the baby stands a greater chance according to the dynamic given in the text – Jesus looks at their faith and forgives the sins of another – than according to the hyper-Protestant, “personal faith” view of faith.

What is that dynamic? A good analogy might be that of the ark. The ark saved. What does that mean? It means that there is a certain architecture conforming to the realities of the Lord’s judgment in the waters. As the eight souls stood on one side of that architecture, they – bodily even! – had to conform to that architecture. Were Japheth to say, “I think I’ll take a stroll a few feet on the other side of this ark’s walls,” he would die. He has to conform himself to the exact contours of the ark in order to secure its benefits.

So also faith, or the ark of faith. Faith saves. What does that mean? It means there is a certain architecture conforming to the realities of the Lord’s judgment of the world. As redeemed souls stand on one side of that architecture, they – bodily even! – have to conform to that architecture. Were a Christian to say, “I think I’ll baptize without water, commune without bread and wine, confess a Christ other than what Scriptures gives,” he will die. He has to conform himself to the exact contours of the faith in order to secure its benefits.

And that faith, like the ark, is not a function of my inner psychological dynamics. It’s outside of us. And as such, it’s a communal thing. Eight souls each participated fully in the ark without regard to their mental state, their sleeping, their animosity toward one another, or their doubts – it was part of the architecture of their reality. And if a baby was born among them, it would have enjoyed those benefits just as much as they did.

The analogy of the Church is slightly different because in fact there is the involvement of the Church. The Lord is enthroned in the praises of Israel. The lame man is enthroned and healed in the pallet of his friends. Jesus is the architecture made flesh, and His Church is the mysterious manifestation of Christ in time.

The human involvement, in other words, is due to the incarnation – so the Lord manages the faith in flesh. But this doesn’t set a foundation for each individual Christian to manage his own faith on his terms.

What, then, does it mean? It means, well, the liturgy. The liturgy is the faith doing us, and not us doing the faith. The liturgy is the faith of Christ spelled out in specific elements, from beginning to end. It works out in its specific elements the calling on His name, the praying for mercy, the glorifying of His name, the confession of His name, the hearing of His Word, the dining with Him, the heavenly presence surrounded by angels who behold His face (and the Father’s). All these elements are given life by Christ, and worked in us through the liturgy.

In other words, the liturgy is the bed we lie on, brought to us by “those who have faith” who come to Jesus. We join in the communal faith. We pray “Our Father,” not “My Father.” We pray, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Our personal involvement in that liturgy will be great, small, sleeping, skeptical, doubting, and sometimes even non-existent. But as long as we’re on the right side of the walls of that ark, we’re saved from the wrath on the outside.

Or put another way, when Jesus sees the communal faith, He says to us, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”

 

October 29, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Monday of Trinity 19: Baptism – Jesus Buries Demons and Comes to His Own City

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So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.

There’s something baptismal about these opening words of the Gospel. Jesus was crossing over the sea into which He had just cast a legion of demons. The waters buried them; Jesus comes through. Jesus had originally descended into the demonic realm of the Gergesenes. It was unwelcome territory for Jesus and remained so even after He left. It’s sort of “earth in a nutshell.”

Or, it’s the crucifixion side of Jesus’ “baptism,” of which the other side is His resurrection. In this realm is one word of authority, “Go.” It demonstrates His authority over demons, but not much more. No, Jesus needed to come “into His own city,” or, Zion in a nutshell.

Jesus floated over the waters, because the One who hovers over the waters, the Holy Spirit, had alighted on Him in fulfillment of Isaiah 42: “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him.” And later in this chapter we hear what the blessings of this anointing will include: To be “As a light to the Gentiles, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, Those who sit in darkness from the prison house.”

Such are the baptismal promises, witnessed in type in the burying of the demons in the waters, an action prophecy of what would happen in baptism, when the demons would be cast in the abyss. In any event, this sets up what would happen when Jesus arrived in His Zion, His home city, in our Gospel for this week.

(Interesting, but in the Isaiah 42 we get another little passage that sheds some light into the context: “And the coastlands shall wait for His law.” The scene of our Gospel is around the coastlands of Galileee. Matthew 9-10 is all about those in bondage to sin, death, and the devil all waiting for “His law,” which is to open eyes and free prisoners from the dark prison house.)

So Jesus comes “to His own city.” It’s a type of His ascension – it’s what happens after Jesus’ descent into the realm of the demonic. Among the “mysteries of godliness” sung about by St. Paul is that Jesus, along with being manifest in the flesh, would be “justified in the Spirit.” That is, His ascension to God’s right hand would demonstrate God’s righteousness, the restoration of man through faith in Christ to God’s fellowship; and this would be a Spirit saturated event, even as the Holy Spirit would take this reality and bestow it to us by declaration of the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit’s mission is to deliver the forgiveness of sins through the ministry of the apostolic ministers. And this brings us back to the revolutionary character of the action prophecy Jesus establishes with the miracle of this week’s Gospel.

If indeed Jesus “coming to His own city” is a type of His ascension, it stands to reason granting forgiveness by the Holy Spirit – the water-hoverer – would be part and parcel of that event. And so that’s exactly what He did. He forgave the sins of the lame man. This is the flip side of what almost appears as unfulfilled on the other side of the sea, the two men freed of demons, but whose community didn’t want anything to do with Jesus after that.

On those terms we have an interesting contrast. Or again, perhaps not so much a contrast but a dual installation of the baptismal mystery, in type. The “crucified to Christ” side of the sea means the drowning of the old demonic realm, but it remains an unfulfilled mystery. Even the confession going on in the moment was perverse: “What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God?” True, that’s a baptismal confession, and it’s a baptismal confession acknowledging the lordship of Christ, but it’s a confession that doesn’t want Jesus anywhere near.

The fulfilled confession only happens with Jesus’ arrival in His own city, in His ascension, in the full restoration of our fellowship with God, in the forgiveness of sins, and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. Here, we can truly “glorify God” in a pure confession, because the Lord is present among us not in fear and terror – as the demons received Him – but with forgiveness and mercy, as the lame man received Him.

 

October 28, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: Jesus Forgives the Paralytic

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Matthew 9: 1-8
So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.  Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  And he arose and departed to his house.  Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

Matthew 9 comes in the heart and center of a two chapter tour de force in the Gospel of Matthew. Given the nature of Hebrew chiasm – where the climactic high point of the text isn’t toward the end, as it is in modern literature and drama, but in the middle – then there may be something pivotal about this text.

What’s the background?

Jesus had just gotten done preaching the sermon on the mount. The sermon on the mount was Jesus debut teaching not only in Matthew’s Gospel but in the whole New Testament. It begins on a mountain, invoking Moses, but also invoking the thunder, lightning, and fear of Moses’ time up on Sinai. Jesus was like a Moses insofar as He taught from the mountain; would there be fear and trembling in His path as well?

When Jesus completed the sermon, the text remarks how “the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Yes, Jesus certainly had authority. He taught things beyond what Moses taught. He taught unlike anyone before He taught in an active way that made His sermon a dynamic event. That is, at the same time He preaches the blessedness of poverty of spirit, meekness, mourning, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness, He causes us by that same preaching to realize our spiritual poverty, to be meek, to mourn, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Brilliant!

Just as subtle is how He interwove “your father” in the whole sermon, twelve times, as if He’s re-adopting the tribes of Israel, sharing His own sonship with them.

The people recognized something special going on. They recognized authority. This was something divine.

And now Jesus was coming down the hill. How would He use that authority? Would He be willing to heal the cursed? Well, that’s at least what the leper asked Him, and Jesus said, “Yes.” And so began two chapters of incredible grace and mercy. Not thunder and lightning in His wake, but conquering. He conquered over sin, death, and the power of the devil, and that we see throughout the two chapters. He cast out demons. He stilled the waves. He healed the blind. He raised the dead. Sin, death, and the devil.

But at the heart and center of these two chapters is our Gospel for this week. Here and here alone do we see Jesus show His authority over sin. And if it’s a chiasm, it would be because sin drives everything else, the curse, the death, the blindness and disease, the devils. Forgiving that sin, then, would be the pivotal event.

Some people (“they”) brought to Jesus the paralytic. Everything to this point suggests Jesus would heal the paralytic of his lameness. Instead, the text tells us, “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.’ ”

Two things jar us from this passage, one intentional and one unintentional. The intentional thing is that Jesus doesn’t heal the man, but forgives his sins. Matthew is introducing the real problem we have, which is sin. Matthew is the one who introduced Jesus’ name with the words, “for He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew also, after this Gospel, inserts his own story in the text, informing us that Jesus came not for the righteous, but for sinners

The unintentional thing that jars us is how Jesus forgave the man’s sins on the basis of “their” faith. This jars a modernized Christianity which sees the faith as an individual thing, and the church as a community of believers rather than a community of faith. There is a difference. In the “community of believers” understanding, the people manage their faith; in the “community of faith” understanding, the faith manages the people.

The Gospel here presents us a community of faith. The man is forgiven based on the faith of others. Can the faith of parents cause a baby to be forgiven in baptism? This passage suggests, “Yes.”

To prove Jesus has authority to forgive sins, He also heals the man. Yes, He has the authority. He has the divinity. He can forgive because clearly He has creative powers, as only God can have.

In response to the evidence before them, that God had given such power to men, the people glorify God. The language here is important. They glorified God not that He had given power to a man, Jesus, but to “men” in general. Something had happened. Something had revolutionized their understanding. What previously was blasphemy was now the possession of one man, and through Him other men. The power to forgive sins became the possession of man.

Of course, Matthew builds on this theme in upcoming passages, when in Matthew 10 Jesus calls the twelve men with Him to do what He had done, and in Matthew 16 and 18 when He introduces the power of the Keys, the authority to forgive sins where men are present on earth.

Everything we’ve laid down adds up to a significant and beautiful truth. The pivotal event in the Gospel of Matthew – in the midst of Jesus’ demonstrating His authority over sin, death, and the devil – we see that His power is the possession not just of Him, but certain men He may potentially authorize (which He does), and that power is the power of absolution.

When Jesus comes down from the mountain, will it be with thunder and lightning? Or will it be with mercy and forgiveness? Now we know. And more than that, we know the pivotal way this mercy and forgiveness carries on today. It’s when men use the power He gave them to forgive sins, to do so. For that we glorify God as well.

October 28, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Saturday of Trinity 18: The Paradoxes of the Gospel’s Mysteries

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If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his Son?” And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore.

How is the Messiah, the one whom the Lord calls to sit down at His right hand, also David’s son? The only answer that makes sense is, “He’s both. He’s David’s son and David’s Lord.” But that’s a paradox. Or rather, it’s a mystery. There’s a reason the Pharisees were unable to answer Jesus with a word. They have not been given to know the mystery. Why? Because as the New Testament tells us in several areas, the mystery of Jesus Christ has been “kept secret since the world began,” but is only being revealed with the coming of Christ and the ministry of the apostles.

There are several mysteries the New Testament talks about. These include the mystery of the Gentiles inclusion in God’s fellowship, the mystery of the resurrection, and the mystery of the incarnation and Trinity. As to this latter mystery, St. Paul refers to the “mystery” of godliness, among which is that God is manifest in flesh. He also talks of the “mystery of God, both of the Father and of the Christ.” The Trinity and Incarnation are mysteries revealed in the fullness of time.

Those two latter mysteries explain why the Pharisees did not answer Jesus a word. When Jesus taught the mystery of “God manifest in the flesh” of the Messiah, that is, the mystery of the Christ, the Pharisees were dealing with something beyond their purview.

The fact that Jesus, His Person and work, are founded from the foundation of the world and then revealed in the fullness of time, proves a point we have been making, that Jesus is not Plan B. All creation, and all salvation history, is acted out according to mysteries established at the beginning of time. It’s much like a seed, which despite its insignificance hides within its bowels the manifestation of mighty plants or animals. Jesus is a seed planted int the DNA of creation and made manifest in the fullness of time.

Yes, that suggests that when the Lord added the possibility of falling into evil – knowing full well man would do so – this was part of His greater plan. Jesus, again, wasn’t His backup plan. His coming into the flesh to save mankind; His dying on the cross for sins, rising again over death, and ascending into heaven was all part of the foundational plan.

We see that very clearly in such passages as this:

“But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

The crucifixion was planned before the ages, just as Revelation describes “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”

But why? What in God’s wisdom needed to be kept so secret until the “fullness of time” when man would be ready to receive the mysteries of (a) the Trinity, (b) the incarnation, and (c) the fellowship of Jew and Gentile in God?

Who knows. That’s why it’s a mystery. Many things await knowledge for a later day. However, what this does do is cause our way of thinking to adjust to God’s time frame and God’s plan. We tend to be systematic about God – what are Gods’ attributes and what accords with His nature? The “mystery – revelation” mode of God’s relating to us undermines this approach.

This is related to the mystery of faith, that is, the mystery that there is something essential about man’s full development calling for the rise of faith in salvation history. As we’ve meditated several months ago, why faith? Why has the Lord in His wisdom introduced this dispensation of faith, rather than visual proofs of His work?

Again, who knows, but the more conform our understanding to the essential need for faith, for mysteries, and for hidden things revealed, the more we conform to Christ’s mind, which isn’t always systematic the way we might like it. So yes, we receive Holy Communion as a testament, emblem, and manifestation of His flesh and blood. Why? Who knows! And yes, we understand baptism as the doorway into faith. Why? Why water? Why always water? Who knows!

Yet, that is how the mystery panned out, and faith receives those gifts. Faith embraces paradoxes. Faith confesses mysteries, like the Trinity, and like the Incarnation.

The Pharisees couldn’t answer a word. The mystery Jesus was revealing to them was beyond them. But we of faith can most certainly answer. We say “Amen,” even as we confess the creeds which articulate the mysteries.

Are there paradoxes yet today we hold which will not be fully clear until Christ’s Second Coming? I think there may be. Why do we see the goodness of the Lord among many evils? Why do we embrace the Lord’s presence in much suffering? How can we be sinner and saint at the same time, and why has this been writ into our DNA from the foundation of time?

If we had Jesus’ exegetical prowess, how many people could we silence by our insightful use of God’s Word, displaying the paradoxes? How many passages would silence us? The paradoxical passages are there, and instead of trying to untie Gordian knots through our systematic theologizing, perhaps there are times it’s best to await the full revelation of the truth.

October 25, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Friday of Trinity 18: The Most Quoted Verse in the Bible

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He said to them, “How then does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool” ’

To build the case He’s making against the Pharisees, Jesus quotes Psalm 110. Psalm 110 is the most quoted passage in Scripture, of course all of this quoting coming from the New Testament. This is interesting. It’s not Isaiah 53, not Psalm 22, not Genesis 3: 15, but Psalm 110, the Psalm about Jesus’ ascension. This goes to show how much Ascension Day is underrated in peoples’ minds.

Here is the Psalm in full:

“The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ The LORD shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies! Your people shall be volunteer In the day of Your power; In the beauties of holiness, from the womb of the morning, You have the dew of Your youth. The LORD has sworn And will not relent, “You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at Your right hand; He shall execute kings in the day of His wrath. He shall judge among the nations, He shall fill the places with dead bodies, He shall execute the heads of many countries. He shall drink of the brook by the wayside; Therefore He shall lift up the head.”

The “Sit at My right hand” part of the passage is directly quoted five times in the New Testament, three of which are repeated in the synoptic Gospels. The Melchizedek portion is quoted in Hebrews four times. The idea of Jesus’ enemies being under His feet comes up several times, albeit not direct quotes. Clearly the idea of the Messiah judging among the nations figures in numerous passages.

It’s not only the passage itself, but the powerful Trinitarian and incarnational theology undergirding the whole passage. There’s a reason Jesus Himself brought it up to teach the mystery of His Person.

Who is the LORD and who is the Lord? Typically when LORD is in all capital letters, it’s a translation of the word Yahweh (YHWH), or Jehovah, the divine name of God revealed to Moses. Lord not in all capital letters is a translation of Adonai, which also refers to God, but can also refer to “lord” as in “lord of the manor,” or “sir.” Things get somewhat confusing because in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Kyrios is used for both, and Kyrios can also mean LORD, or “lord” and “sir.” So, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), it is essentially, “The Kyrios said to my Kyrios.”

Now, Jehovah’s Witnesses like to emphasize that this proves Jesus is Lord, but not LORD. Only the Father, Jehovah, is YHWH, or LORD. The “Lord” is just the Son of God, not God Himself.

But frankly, no one thought this way. Adonai was most frequently used as a reference to God, which is why the Greek translators had no problem using Kyrios for both Adonai and Yahweh. Yahweh is more a name, while Adonai is more a title, but both are used for God.

In any event, Philippians 2: 9 says God gave Jesus “the name which is above every name.” Ask any Jehovah’s Witness what the “name which is above every name” is and they’ll correctly say, “Jehovah.” Well, Jesus was given that name, for which reason St. Paul concludes in Philippians 2: 10-11, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, [and] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

That’s Kyrios. So, clearly, St. Paul understands that if Jesus is given the name Yahweh – the name above every name – the conclusion is that we confess Jesus is Kyrios. Kyrios is Yahweh, and Jesus is Kyrios; therefore, Jesus is Yahweh.

The idea that Jesus is “given” this name shouldn’t suggest He didn’t have it from eternity, but that in the economy of salvation, that is, the unfolding administration of certain mysteries, for us, the man Jesus became the instrumentality of everything that Yahweh is for us, and that happened at His ascension.

At Jesus’ ascension a man reestablished fellowship with God. He sat down at the right hand of the Father, the place of fellowship and authority. He attained to that authority, an authority executed in the baptizing and teaching of all nations. In other words, having established man at God’s right hand, we have the full meaning and revelation of what God’s divine name Yahweh means. Yahweh means “He Is” even as Jesus is “I Am” – God is life and life-giving. This life-giving in His name happens through baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Even as Jesus has eternal life given Him, His flesh and blood manhood, so now is He the source of eternal life for all who are baptized in Him. To be baptized into the name is to be baptized into the fellowship of that name – the three in perfect unity. One of those three is a man, who sat down in fellowship with the Father. That’s us, in Him!

We can see here why Psalm 110 is so critical. Jesus sitting at God’s right hand triggers it all. It manifests the fullness of the Holy Trinity. It bestows on the man Jesus the full divine name, granting the possibility of all mankind to have fellowship in the divine nature, through that same baptismal name.

It also triggers the sending of the Holy Spirit, about whom Jesus said, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. …He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.”

And faith in this name – and the teaching that goes with it – overcomes the world. It causes kings to fall under our feet. As St. John says, which could easily have the theology of Psalm 110 lurking behind it, “whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.”

Yes, to be born of God is to be baptized in His name. To be baptized in His name is to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This name is revealed in such a way: the man Jesus has been given this name in His exaltation at God’s right hand, and this moment triggered the sending of the Holy Spirit, who gives to us by declaration everything Jesus has attained, including the name “He Is,” that is, eternal life.

No wonder people volunteer in the day of His power.

 

October 24, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Thursday of Trinity 18: The Christ

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While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” They said to Him, “The Son of David.”

This passage introduces a simple topic that always bears review. Who is the Christ? What is this title and role emerging from the Old Testament? Jesus’ question to the Pharisees demonstrates that “the Christ” was most certainly a “thing,” that is, the idea of a “Jesus Christ” wasn’t some new thing that would have surprised the Jewish people. God had been preparing the way for Christ since, well, since already in Genesis.

But let’s refine this thought a bit. When exactly did the Lord first begin preparing the way for Christ? Well, there’s the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, and the Christ, and each of those have different preparations in Genesis. You could say that the first specific prophecy about Jesus, as a Savior sent to rescue us from sin and death, is in Genesis 3: 15. The first reference to the Second Person of the Trinity is the first word of the Bible (in Hebrew), which is In-the-beginning. In Revelation says, “I am the…beginning.” And then we see Him again right away in the phrase, “And God said, ‘Let there be…’” Jesus is that Word.

The entire cosmic story is a Jesus show. Again, Jesus isn’t the backup plan for Plan A in God’s work. Everything centers on Him, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given, and who fills all things in heaven and on earth.

That being said, certain titles of Jesus emerge through various revelations in the Old Testament, and among those is the title, “the Christ.” And yes, this goes back to Genesis.

Specifically Genesis 49: “Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s children shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; And as a lion, who shall rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people. Binding his donkey to the vine, And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, He washed his garments in wine, And his clothes in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, And his teeth whiter than milk.”

This is the prophecy of a king to arise from the tribe of Judah. We get hints of Jesus riding His donkey into Jerusalem, hints of communion in the “blood of grapes,” and this figure “Shiloh” who is a messenger and was seen as a messianic name. In any event when Samuel anointed David, this prophecy began to be fulfilled. “Anointed one” in Hebrew is “messiah,” and in Greek, “christ.”

The critical prophecy serving as the basis for “the Christ” is from I Samuel: “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.”

Here we learn that the Christ will build a temple, and His throne would last forever. He would be chastised, but the Lord’s mercy would remain with Him.

When the Davidic dynasty fell, the promise remained. So people awaited an “anointed one” who would fulfill this promise to David. Truly, as Jesus demonstrated in this week’s passage, the Christ is a “Son of David.”

Very often, when suppliants (blind men, the Canaanite woman) cried out the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy,” they began “Son of David.” Of course they would! As the above prophecy said, the Lord’s mercy would not depart from the Christ. We also see a more refined understanding, among these suppliants of “great faith,” what the messianic reign looks like. It’s not about golden crowns and rule over land. It’s about reigning over sin, death, and the devil.

The “Hosanna to the Son of David” of Palm Sunday is the prayer beautifully working with both the names “Jesus” and “Christ.” The word itself means “Please save us” and builds off the same root word that roots the word “Jesus,” that is, “to save.” “Hosanna” turns Jesus’ name into a prayer, something like, “Please be Jesus, our Savior, for us!”

But it’s not just “Hosanna,” but “Hosanna to the Son of David” on Palm Sunday. They knew what the Messiah meant for them. It meant being saved. Those on Psalm Sunday were likely unclear about what they were being saved from – the Roman Empire? taxes? – but the blind men and the Canaanite woman knew what they were being saved from. And Matthew’s Gospel also reminds us, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

The Sanctus nicely ties everything together in a high-protein canticle. Beginning in heaven with the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we’re with angels and archangels. We end in the mouths of children and child-like suppliants begging that the Lord of heaven would descend to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, and be that Person for us, be Jesus (Savior) for us, and be Christ (the anointed king and champion against our enemies, sin, death, and the devil) for us.

And that’s exactly what He does for us, in what follows the Sanctus, Holy Communion.

 

October 24, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of Trinity 18: Does Love Transcend or Summarize the Law?

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Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love is a summary of the Law, but there are two ways to understand this, one right and one wrong.

The first way sees love as transcending the Law, almost as if love is a higher level of relating to God and neighbor than that outlined in the Law. This way of love trumps what the commandments teach. It’s almost antithetical to the commandments. That is, love is seen as antithetical to the “legalism” of the moral code. This way of understanding love is observed in those who understand “Pharisaism” as legalism, as a rigid adherence to rules, even moral rules. By contrast, they suggest, love is about tolerance, forgiveness, and a general easy going attitude toward the supposed “rules” of the Ten Commandments.

This in fact is antinomianism, and a false understanding of both the Law and love. It’s rooted in Gnosticism, in which the “age of the Law” is seen as the Old Testament world and its God, whereas the New Testament is a cosmic revolution in the way of being, in which “rules and regulations” come to an end and “love rules the world.”

The second way of understanding that love is a summary of the Law is that love animates each commandment and indeed explains why the commandment was given. It’s a “wax on wax off” approach to ethics (see, Karate Kid). That is, God uses the training wheels of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament to train His people in what right looks like. The Law is a “pedagogue,” as St. Paul said, a child’s teacher training God’s people at the “child” time of His history, like a mother teaching her children how to say “please” and “thank you,” though they don’t know why.

But when Jesus comes, we see how love fulfills and animates each commandment. That doesn’t take away the specific meaning and importance of each commandment. Training wheels guide a bike to go smooth, straight, and upright; when they come off, nothing about what they trained goes away. So also the Ten Commandments.

So we see, each commandment shows us what love looks like. Love of God looks like (a) worshiping a particular God with a name and day above all others – Jesus is the revelation of God’s name and day, so that means worshiping Jesus; (b) love of neighbor looks like honoring earthly authorities, protecting one’s body, marriage, property, and reputation.

Notice, the alternative (Gnostic) understanding of love takes the opposite view of what love looks like according to the Ten Commandments. Love supposedly doesn’t “exclude” other Gods and religions. Love says God transcends names. Love is about rebelling against earthly authorities. Love transcends marriage. Love means forced sharing of property. Love operates by narratives transcending reality, in which particular individuals are seen as two-dimensional characters of the governing narrative psycho-drama – their reputation be damned. (See, Brett Kavanaugh.) Love means divinizing desire (covetousness). In other words, love is everything the Ten Commandments are not.

This is not what Jesus teaches. “Love makes the world go around” means something, and looks like something, and what it looks like is the Ten Commandments. Love is not articulated through a vote, through pressing buttons at social media sites, through declarations of fuzzy abstractions, or through an embrace of some overarching ideology.

Love looks like specific actions related to God and neighbor. How do we worship the true God as opposed to the other gods? How do we love neighbor? There are answers to these questions, and the Ten Commandments show what those answers are.

Jesus teaching that love fulfills the Law is not about Him ending the Ten Commandments, but about Him teaching how each commandment is fulfilled in Him. He is the God above all other gods. His name is the revelation of the Lord’s name. (See John 12: 27-28.) He is the Sabbath Rest, to whom the weak and heavy-laden come. He honored His father and mother, and even the authorities nailing Him to a tree. He could have rightfully killed His enemies, but turned the other cheek, and was never angry at His brother, but forgave them. He taught marriage more strictly than just about anyone. He taught giving of one’s property, not the taking of it under the assumption that property ownership is a social construct. He only and ever expressed the truth about others, and taught due process of Law, requiring the witness of two or three to verify a claim. And He clearly taught against covetousness, teaching rather contentment.

In each case we could explore how He sublimely taught the Ten Commandments and took things to a higher level. We see this explicitly with the fifth and sixth commandments and murder and adultery. If He does not keep the sixth command regarding faithfulness to wives, what guarantee do we have He will be faithful to His bride, the Church? If He doesn’t turn the other cheek to His enemies’ abuse, what does this to do us when we are His enemies because of our sins? If Jesus isn’t content with His cross, my goodness, what does this to do us? If He doesn’t honor His Father’s desire for our salvation, but rebels, what does that do to us? If He bears false witness about our sins – testifying they aren’t forgiven as He intercedes for us – where then do we stand? If He denies us our rightful and blessed claim to “inherit the earth” as our possession, and steals that claim, how is He not a liar?

The Ten Commandments show us what love looks like. Jesus fulfills each of these commandments. But He’s not a rebel showing us some fuzzy abstraction about “love.” No, He shows us how He fulfills and amplifies each commandment.

October 22, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Tuesday of Trinity 18: The Criterion by which We Rank

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Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”

Since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees had been trying to play “gotcha” with Jesus, and here once again, they hoped they would get Him. They tried to corner Jesus by making Him settle on an oft-disputed question: What is the greatest commandment in the Law?

But that’s a bit like asking, “What’s the most important doctrine in the Christian faith?” In fact, many play with this very question all the time as they consider our relations with other Christians. They’ll say, “What is the most important thing? Isn’t it that we all believe that Jesus is Lord?”

Typically, Christians will say that belief in Jesus as Lord is the most important teaching. Differences over the Lord’s Supper, Holy Baptism, the office of the ministry, even the doctrine of the Holy Trinity…these are all but trifles. The most important thing you must believe is that Jesus is Lord.

This falls into the Pharisee’s trap. It’s the lawyerly way of thinking.

Jesus shatters the very premise that any of the teachings of the Law have rankings, or by implication, that Christian teaching should have rankings. Notice, where the Pharisees asked for one law which topped all others, Jesus doesn’t fall for their trap. He teaches the whole Law in two simple teachings: Love God and love your neighbor. That’s the whole Law and Prophets.

It all boils down to love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Love sums up the Law. As both St. Paul and St. James say, “Love is the fulfillment of the Law.”

With this teaching, Jesus disarms the Pharisees’ ranking system, and He also disarms all any attempt to rank what is most important in Christian doctrine. If one truly loves God, after all, how can this allow one to rate His teachings on a scale of least important to most important? Which exactly are God’s “least important” teachings?

The Pharisee’s ranking game speaks to a certain idolatry going on, the projection of some criterion onto the Lord’s Word which serves as the basis for determining “least important” teachings. Where do those criterion arise but from the human mind? And what do those criterion reflect but some sort of desire on the part of man?

If, say, one had a mind which was boastful, he might cherish a criterion that propped up the laws which could be used to look down upon the leper or the Gentile. If one took pride in the office of the ministry, he might prop up the laws about priests. A moralist or one who takes pride in his own righteousness would of course prop up the moral teachings of the law.

Jesus doesn’t play this game. Every jot and tittle of the Law, as He said, is important and should be taught. It should be taught as fulfilled in Him, but that doesn’t take away from the supreme importance of every single teaching of the Law. So also with Christian doctrine. We don’t skip over the inconvenient parts of Scripture on our way to the cross, or to forgiveness, or to the resurrection, because these are the “most important” teachings of Jesus.

And we don’t apply a criterion onto the Gospel in order to determine “what really matters.” Now, this isn’t to say that Jesus Himself doesn’t apply teachings which is the center of gravity exerting a gravitational pull on other teachings. Certainly He does that here with love – love summarizes the commandments.

Likewise, when it comes to the teachings of the Gospel, clearly love continues to have that gravitational pull, a love manifest in the Father’s love for us in Christ, in His cross, and in His last supper. But to have a gravitational pull is not the same thing as to declare which teachings are “important” and which ones are not, as so often happens, particularly in the ecumenical movement but also in the hearts and minds of the faithful, as they determine which doctrines they can tolerate from a heterodox church in order to justify attendance there for some reason.

Ironically many will cite “love” as their reason for doing so. Doesn’t love trump doctrinal strictness? No, says Jesus. Love summarizes all teaching of the Law, and of the Gospel. And true love of the Lord would never dismiss what He says as irrelevant. That’s more like…well, not love.