Gnostic America

May 15, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of Jubilate: A Little While

Image result for the souls under the altar

A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.

Four times in this Gospel, Jesus brings up the phrase “a little while.” As we’ve been contemplating this week, there is some ambiguity as to exactly when this is and what this means. Is it referring to the three days while Christ was in the tomb? It is referring to the period between Christ’s ascension and Pentecost? Is it referring to the period between Christ’s ascension and His second coming?

I feel like Jesus never really answered the question.

And yet that question lingers on in the text layer upon layer, weirdly repeated four times, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” You hear it four times, or you stare at the text baffled by the redundancy (as I have been this week!). Look at the second two times the phrase is mentioned:

Then some of His disciples said among themselves, “What is this that He says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me’; and, ‘because I go to the Father’?” They said therefore, “What is this that He says, ‘A little while’? We do not know what He is saying.”

It’s the same verse repeated twice! Why?

The oddness of the four-times repeated phrase is coupled by the ambiguity of what the phrase itself means. A little while…a little while…a little while…sorrow…then we see Him, because He goes to the Father. And we rejoice after He goes to the Father. Huh?

So, the disciples see Him. Then there’s a “little while” when He’s dead. Then they see Him again and they rejoice. Then He ascends, and they no longer see Him. Is this a time of sorrow? Then, because He went to the Father – and all that this meant, as we’ve meditated on these past two days – they see Him again, at Pentecost, mystically, or sacramentally. They see their own restored persons in Him, sacramentally. But during this period when we don’t see Jesus, we also sorrow, and the world rejoices. And then, at His second coming, we’ll see Him again and rejoice.  Where does the “little while” fit in all that?

Here’s something we can say for certain in the text. The text never says Jesus is going to be absent, only that we won’t see Him. The focus isn’t on where Jesus is, but on our perception of Him.  I think that might be one of the keys to interpretation. Also, that time of not seeing Him is the time of sorrow.

So maybe the attempt to get chronological with the “little while” is the wrong approach. Maybe Jesus isn’t speaking chronologically but in a more theological or even mystical way: when we don’t see Jesus we sorrow. Or maybe even, the reverse is true: Sorrowing is a symptom of not seeing Jesus. But again, Jesus is never absent. The problem isn’t He’s not there; the problem is we just don’t see Him. So, sorrowing is what happens when we lose sight of Jesus. And the world rejoicing is our perception when we lose sight of Jesus.

Look at the following verses in John where Jesus talks about “seeing me.”

Jesus to Nathanel: You will see greater things than these.” And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus to Nicodemus: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus to the crowd in John 6: “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Jesus to the crowd in John 6: “What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before?”

Jesus to the Jews: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”

Jesus to Martha: “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

Jesus to the disciples: “And he who sees Me sees Him who sent Me.”

Jesus to the disciples: “A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also.”

Based on these passages, we should conclude that to “see” is to believe. However, it’s not just an imaginary friend faith, but a faith rooted in something palpably real, the sacramental life of the Lord’s Body, His Church. Another verse in John, one quoting the Old Testament, is helpful understanding what it means to see: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, Lest they should see with their eyes, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.”

Here, “to see” parallels “understanding with one’s heart, turning, and being healed by Jesus.” One’s heart – the seat of faith – is filled with a vision of Christ that is palpable real. We see Christ at the right hand of the Father; we see angels descending on Him bringing us messages; we see the glory of God; we see the Father; we see the Kingdom of God. (This is all liturgy again.)

Another text helps cap things off, at least bringing us to some possible conclusion. After our Gospel for this week, Jesus says to the disciples that He indeed does speak figuratively (really?) but the time is coming when He’d speak plainly, and whatever they ask in His name, He’ll give them. And then He says, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. Again, I leave the world and go to the Father.”

Hearing this, the disciples declare that now they understand, and believe. But then Jesus basically says, “No, not really.” He explains that the time is coming (in about an hour) when they’d all scatter. They would not embrace the tribulation. They would flee it. They would not see. Their “little while” would begin.

And then He concludes with these words: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

I think this substantiates our “mystical” interpretation of “a little while.” What is a “little while”? It’s the time when we don’t see Jesus, when our hearts become veiled, when we scatter, when we flee the tribulation, when because we don’t see Jesus we think the world has triumphed.

When is the “little while” resolved? When we “see Jesus.” When is this? When we’re born again; when we understand and have faith; when we see Jesus where He was before, with all authority in heaven and on earth; when we see the glory of the Lord; when we have good cheer in the midst of tribulation even as we see the one who overcame the world.

I like this interpretation because it fits the book of Revelation, which is all a “vision” (seeing Jesus) demonstrating how Jesus is ultimately in control of all things and all events, even though His disciples seem to be in the midst of suffering. Look at what is written about the suffering souls under the altar: “Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”

White robes while being killed; being of good cheer while in tribulation; rejoicing while the world is a place of sorrow. That seems to be the theme.

The “little while” isn’t a chronological statement. It’s a description of faith. Now here’s the punch line. John’s Gospel doesn’t use the phrase “a little while”! It just uses the word “little.” The translators add “while” in most of the uses of this phrase.

We might put it this way: “When you become little in your faith, your vision, you will see Me no longer. You will see the world rejoicing. You will have no joy. But when you see Me, understanding in your heart, turning to Me, and being healed by Me, you will rejoice in all things, even in the midst of tribulation, because I have overcome the world.”

May 14, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Tuesday of Jubilate: Seeing Jesus Once He Goes to the Father (Part 2)

Image result for jesus at right hand of god
A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father.

We’re going to spend a few more moments on this. After all, the phrase is repeated three times in the Gospel. Clearly St. John wanted to highlight these words.  So, there’s some review here, but hopefully our picture is clarifying and will do so even more in the next few days.

Christ “going to the Father” is the foundation for our “seeing” Him and “clinging” to Him. As He said to Mary, “Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet gone to my Father and your Father.” And as He said in this week’s Gospel, “You will see me, because I go to the Father.”

Interesting.

What happens by Jesus going to the Father that lays the foundation for our clinging to Him and seeing Him? What happens involves the whole Trinity.

The Father is the “greater one,” not in terms of being “better than” the Holy Spirit or Jesus, but in terms of being primary. Meaning, like the sun’s relation to the rays, He is the source.  In our case, He’s the source of life. He’s the foundation of it all. Where the Son comes from the Father, the Father comes from no one. Yes, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds, but the Father is foundational.

To understand not seeing and clinging to Christ until He goes back to the Father, we almost have to look at Jesus in His “Second Adam” status, as “Man Restored.” (There’s also this phrase, “Cosmic Christ” that comes naturally in my particular context, but sounds too New Agey.) On these terms, Jesus is “Me Restored. To cling to Him or see Him is a stand in for faith. And to see/cling to Jesus by faith outside of His having been restored to the Father is an insufficient Savior. It keeps us separate from the “greater one,” our source.  This is why Jesus said to Mary, “Don’t touch me.”  In other words, “I’m not any good to you quite yet.”

This is why the ministry of the apostles is greater than that of Jesus, and where the Holy Spirit comes in. Jesus sitting at God’s right hand restores everything. In that moment is the foundation for “Me Restored.”  That’s where Jesus becomes the true Second Adam, fulfilling the prophecy that He would be an “Everlasting Father” of a new line which will live forever.  Jesus wandering around Galilee raising the dead and healing lepers is a temporary foretaste of the feast to come, when His apostles do greater things than He did, which is communicate to sinners their restoration.

How? In Jesus’ name and by the Holy Spirit. Again, as Jesus said, it’s to our advantage that He returns to the Father, because once He sits down there, restoring our fellowship and position, He can send out the Holy Spirit who will take what is His and declare it to us.

As the apostles “do what Jesus commands” (teach what He taught) in His name, and forgive sins, they act out this ministry. They literally “speak into existence” the “Me Restored.” For instance, as they teach me the Our Father, they speak into existence my status as one who calls upon God as “Father.”

The liturgy is nothing less than the manifestation of this ministry. It’s entire premise is our restoration into the presence of God.

The invocation lays the foundation for Jesus’ promise, that whatever we ask in His name He will do. As Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”

I haven’t got that Cadillac I’ve been begging for in Jesus’ name yet, but if you look at this passage in the same context as Matthew 18, it makes sense: “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

Jesus is talking about the Church, its foundation in the Lord’s name, it’s authority to establish on earth in Christ’s name what is a reality in heaven.

Then there’s the introit, where the congregation enters into the Lord’s presence singing Psalms of thanksgiving and praise, and where gentiles glorify the name of the Lord – in the great gathering of nations – in fulfillment of the prophecy.

There are the readings, creed, and Gospel, which in the Gospel of John, are each related to what gives us eternal life. It’s the Holy Spirit, by declaration, speaking into existence the existential reality accomplished by Jesus’ “going to the Father.”

There is communion, in which we are, well, in communion with that existential reality, in communion with the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. The “Holy, Holy, Holy” of the Sanctus is like the soundtrack to this reality, for we are truly with the angels and saints, yes, we who sing the “hosanna” songs of earthly children, for heaven and earth are brought together.

All of this is communicated by declaration of the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t just create a fantasy, or generate phantasms in our minds in the way of Gnosticism and idolatry. It declares the Word of our restoration in a way no different than the Word which brought the first creation into existence. These things are hidden from us now, and blessed are those who believe without seeing.

But that doesn’t mean they are any less palpably real. Yes, palpably real, in such a way that they are things we can cling to, and see.  For Jesus to use these highly sensory words, “see” and “cling,” only underscores His intent that we know how real our restoration is.  It’s the same reason why we’re in the “-ate” phase of the church year.  It’s like a father telling a daughter who has just gone through an incredibly traumatic experience, who can’t open her eyes, but who is now held by her father, “It’s OK.  You’re safe now.  Rejoice!  See me here.  Hold on to me.  I’m here to protect you.  I’ll never let any harm befall you.”

It’s palpably real.

May 13, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Monday of Jubilate: You will see Me, because I go to the Father

Image result for jesus at god's right hand
A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father.

This is an odd little passage. In general it’s simple: the disciples will not see Jesus, and then they’ll see Him again. But filling in the blanks of this passage is a bit more tricky.

Is this talking to the disciples in particular, that they will not see Jesus after He dies, but they will see Him shortly again after He rises? Or is it talking to His disciples in general – you and me – and saying that He will ascend to heaven where we will not see Him, and then return again when we’ll see Him again.

Key to interpretation is where we place the phrase “because I go to the Father.”

If we go with the interpretation that Jesus is saying He’ll be away from His disciples for three days – “because he goes to the Father” – and then they will see Him again, this would suggest Jesus died and went to the Father. He does say, after all, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And he tells the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” So, the day Jesus died He somehow went to the Father. This would explain why Jesus says they will weep and mourn while He’s gone, because He has died.

Or is the phrase “because he goes to the Father” a misplaced modifier, which should go with the whole statement in general, as in “Because I’m going to the Father, you will no longer see me; but after a little while, you will see me again.” Here, Jesus is speaking of His ascension, and talking about all His disciples through time. This seems to make sense, as now we’re in a period where we don’t “see” Jesus, in this time when He’s “with the Father” at His right hand. Here, the sorrow would be because we’re in this veil of tears waiting for Jesus to return.

Or does that modifier go with the latter part of His statement and read just as it says, as in “I will die and be away from you, but then I will rise again and you will see me, because I go to the Father.” This is a bit more mystifying, because it in essence claims that after Jesus rises and goes to the Father (i.e. His ascension), we will see Him; indeed, His going to the Father is the cause of our seeing Him. That just seems strange.

Yet, that’s how the passage runs, and generally, as more friction produces more light, so does tackling a more difficult passage yield better fruits. We will see Jesus because He goes to the Father.

To get some understanding, we have to ask, what is it about Jesus “going to the Father” that is so critical to our salvation, so critical that when Mary tried to hug Jesus, He told her not to cling to Him, for He had not yet ascended to the Father?

Several passages in John answer this question. For instance, Jesus says His disciples will do “greater works” than He did, “because I go to the Father.” Jesus had previously declared that “the Father is greater than I,” and said this is why we should be glad He’s going back to the Father. In other words, it’s a good thing Jesus is going back to the Father, because, the Father being greater than Jesus, this will set up the foundation for the disciples doing greater things than Jesus did while He was on earth. What are these greater things? Let’s put that on the back burner.

In another place Jesus says it is to our advantage that He returns to the Father, because if He goes, He will send the Holy Spirit, who will “take what is mine and declare it to you.” What belongs to Jesus? Eternal life, restored fellowship of man with God, joy, the status of sonship, and so on. These things Jesus delivers to us – having sat down at God’s right hand – by the Holy Spirit.

This nicely fits with what Jesus says the Holy Spirit will “convict the world” of (or, “prove the world wrong” about). Sin is not believing in Jesus; righteousness is Jesus “going to the Father”; and judgment is when the devil is judged, our Accuser cast our of heaven.

So, by Jesus going to the Father, He restores man into fellowship with the “greater one,” the Father (the source of life). The devil, the one who accuses us of our sin, convicting us of our reason not to be in fellowship with the Father, is replaced by the One who goes to the Father and establishing a new basis for conviction: sin is not believing in Jesus; righteousness is Jesus at the right hand of the Father; and the devil is judged, not man.

Jesus breathed out the Holy Spirit, the eternal life, upon the disciples, and this was the forgiveness of sins. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” Forgiveness, along with faith, confessing faith in the Triune God, eating Jesus’ flesh and blood, hearing the words of the Gospel and Scriptures, coming to the light that our deeds might be exposed, and doing good (good being defined as everything above) are in the Gospel of John all the things that lead to eternal life.

And these are the “greater things than what Jesus did” that the disciples will do. Jesus had not yet restored man into fellowship with the Father, ended the curse, and cast out the devil. But now that He went to the Father, the stage is set for these “greater” things to happen, by the ministry of the apostles whom Jesus sent out to forgive sins.

So, what does all this have to do with “seeing Jesus” once He goes to the Father. I think this parallels Jesus’ words to Mary, that she should not cling to Him because He had not yet returned to the Father. Similarly, our true “seeing” of Jesus is not in His earthly form, but in a new form, by faith. In the same we we’ve been observing how in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, no one recognizes Him – they don’t “see” Him as He was. But when He calls their name, or breaks bread, or speaks to them, then they “see” Him in a new way. It’s the “seeing” through faith, which is the “seeing without seeing” that Jesus promised would be blessed by those, unlike Thomas, who believed without seeing.

And all this is “because” Jesus goes to the Father. Something happens by Jesus going to the Father and sitting at His right hand. In fact, a lot happens! But at this point, because He goes to the Father, we see Him again.

We see Him where life is given out, where He speaks His voice, where the bread breaks and we eat His flesh and blood, where we hear the Scriptures, where forgiveness is proclaimed by the sent ones.

There was sorrow when Jesus lay in the tomb, but now that He has gone to the Father, there is joy. We may not see it, but oh, we do! “You will see Me, because I go to the Father.” That’s why we should have joy. That’s why we’re commanded to have joy. You who weep, let your eyes be filled with your Lord, sitting at God’s right hand. He has overcome the world.

May 12, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Jubilate Sunday: The Beginning of the “-ate” Sundays

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Jubilate begins the first of three “-ate” Sundays. There’s Jubilate first, then Cantate, and finally Rogate. They translate as “rejoice,” “sing,” and “ask.” They are imperatives. In Latin, the imperative is made by taking the “-re” off the root infinitive verb (jubilare, cantare, rogare) and ating “-te” which is also the Latin word for “you,” which parallels English grammar, where in any imperative there is a “‘you’ unstood,” so that, for instance, if you say “jump!” what you’re really saying is “You jump!” It’s ultimately a second person verb.

The Gospel is a second person proclamation, from Jesus to you. Pastors sometimes struggle with this, because “you” can sound too finger-pointy, or appear to be assuming too much authority. But if indeed they stand “in the stead and by the command” of Jesus Christ (and key here, if they have no fear they’re not being faithful in this mission!) they should have no fear of standing in Christ’s place saying “you.” Because, after all, if they’re not standing in the place of Christ and by His authority, what are they doing there?

But let’s dive a bit deeper into these “-ate”s. They are imperatives, and imperatives mean “commands,” but the “commands” given here are not like legalistic “do this/do that” type commands, like a list of errands Jesus is giving. They have a different tone: sing, ask, rejoice. To flesh those out and amplify the point, they say: sing a new song, ask for anything in my name, have your sorrow turned to joy.

Those “commands” are of a different tone than “Don’t kill, don’t steal, and don’t commit adultery.” These commands are needed because our nature is to fall into these sins, and so God has to threaten us with punishments and warnings lest we break His law.

But if the Law came through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. And now, you might say, there’s a new tone in town, new wine skins unfit for the old wine. Now, there is a new way of commandments. They are not signposts warning us on the way down to hell, but signposts giving direction on the way to heaven: “Rejoice, ask, and sing! You’re on the way to something wonderful!”

Now, a similar dynamic is going on with the other way of commands. Our human nature doesn’t want to rejoice, ask, and sing. Our nature falls into sorrow because of the world, the devil, our sins, and death. We don’t ask because we don’t feel ourselves worthy. And we don’t sing the new song because we’re still caught it he old ways. So Jesus needs to command us.

It’s a mandate to embrace what He has attained for us. Mandates are different than commands and nicely distinguish between the two “tones” we’ve been talking about commandments. Whereas commands say “do this or else,” mandates say “do this so that.” A commandment says, “Don’t go in the cookie jar or you will get a spanking.” A mandate says, “I have a treat for you. Go into the cupboard and look behind the Cheerios, and open the box of cookies and eat them.”

There has been a tendency among Gospel reductionists that you see frequently, and that is, the Gospel is all about no law whatsoever, no commandments, no obligations, no nothing. It’s just, “you’re saved from hell,” and end of story. Everything else is freedom.

This flirts with Gnostic antinomianism. Gnostic antinomianism claims we are free from all commandments and obligations of “this world.” No Ten Commandments, no rules, no political authority. Everyone is free to do as he pleases, and in that liberation is our salvation.

For some, this extends to mandates. So, when you say we need to have communion because Jesus said, “Do this,” or when you say a child must be baptized because Jesus said, “make disciples…by baptizing,” they’ll say, “We’re not saved by the Law.”

OK, but here’s a good place where that distinction between commandments (Law) and mandates (Gospel) comes in. “Do this” and “be baptized” are not of the Law; they are mandates. They are Jesus saying, “I have a treat for you! Go into the cupboard behind the Cheerios. Get the bread, wine, and water. Say these words as you apply these gifts, and you will get eternal salvation.”

To say we’re saved by baptism or that communion gives eternal life is not to claim we’re saved by the Law and not by Jesus. No, not anymore than it would have been “law” to tell a leper, “Go over that man over there. See Him over there? By the tree? Yeah, go over to Him and he’ll heal you.” Those are “commands,” but certainly not “the Law.” To say that salvation only exists where Jesus is located – and here’s how you get there – is not Law.

And to extend this to today is no different. Is Jesus still present in the Church? Yes. Is He still flesh and blood? Yes. Therefore does the dynamic with the leper also apply to us? Absolutely. Where is Jesus located today? In water, bread, wine, ministers, and in His body the Church. What does this mean? Well, this is where the mandates come in.

“Here is water! Now baptize in the name of the Triune God. Jesus took bread and the cup, and said ‘Take, eat’ and ‘Take, drink.’” Those are mandates, beautiful mandates.

So, when Jesus says “Rejoice!” or “Ask!” or “Sing!”, these are not “the Law.” They are Gospel mandates.

And how glorious they are! To rejoice, ask, or sing, or is not to take the tone – like so many evangelical prayers go with their “we just” prayers – of a humble suppliant lucky to be where he is: “Lord, we just have this small little favor to ask and then I’ll get out of your hair.”

No, it’s more a sense of, “Get in here and ask what is rightfully yours! Behave the way you should because this is your existential truth!

Faith is a confidence, as we see from the book of Hebrews. There’s the confidence of having the right to approach the throne of our Father. Sometimes we forget this and fall into our natural self-loathing, as far as our status with the Lord is concerned. The “-ate” Sundays remedy this.

May 11, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Saturday of Misericordia Domini: One Flock? One Shepherd? Really?

Image result for jesus and his flock
And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.

This verse is clearly talking about the inclusion of gentiles in the divine plan. Several words in this passage invite highlighting.

First, there’s the phrase “them I also must bring.” Notice not only the divine compulsion – namely, that the gentiles “ must” be brought in – but notice also the divine monergism, that the Lord is doing the “bringing.” Jesus doesn’t say, “And other sheep will hear my voice and follow me.” He says, “them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice.” His “bringing” precipitates the other sheep “hearing.”

Simply put, if gentiles (most of us today) are in the faith, it is the Lord’s work. It is because they “must” be brought in, and because the Lord “brings” them in. He does the work. Our “hearing” of His voice is a consequence of His bringing of us in. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

Second, notice the promise of “one flock and one shepherd.” We will come across this topic again soon, but let’s introduce it here.

Jesus doesn’t say, “There might be one flock and one shepherd.” He says, “There will be one flock and one shepherd.” Will, not might. That’s a promise. That’s a prophecy. One flock. One shepherd.

“But whoa,” says the skeptic, “Look at the Church! There are tons of churches, tons of flocks, and tons of shepherds. The Church is hardly one flock under one shepherd.”

OK, is the skeptic saying Jesus is a liar? Let’s look at His words again. “There will be one flock and one shepherd.” These words could be overlooked if (a) Jesus wasn’t God, or (b) He hadn’t risen from the dead confirming His claims to divinity. But He did rise from the dead. Therefore His claims to divinity are truth, therefore we must take His words at face value: there is one flock and one shepherd.

“But I don’t see it!”

Do you see Christ’s kingdom come? Do you see yourself as a saint? Do not see the body and blood of Jesus in communion? Do you see the Holy Spirit descending in baptisms? Do you see Jesus in the pastor preaching a sermon? Do you see God present in the praises of the people?

Do you see the point?

The unity of the Church is not something we see. It is an article of faith we confess. Also, the unity of the Church is not something we cause or create. It is something Jesus has promised. For us to act as if we need to make the church unified is the ultimate presumption of what Jesus Himself has promised.

Why do we confess that the Church is one, and then speak and act as if the church is divided? Every time we speak of the church as divided we make Jesus a liar. Again, He said, “There will be one flock and one shepherd.”

What then do we do with the clear example of divided confessions and churches? Not really our problem, is it. Our task is to “hear the shepherd’s voice and follow.” For that is where the one flock is, where the shepherd’s voice is heard. Not where people “hear into” the shepherd’s voice what they want to hear, or their political agenda. Not where people add to the shepherd’s voice additional words that make them culturally friendly. Not where people drown out the shepherd’s voice with voices from other parts of the Bible, or from their favorite philosopher or thinker. But where the shepherd’s voice is heard.

There are a lot of principles of unity in the church today, as people attempt to construct by human means an edifice for declaring that the Church can be one. “The Church will be one if we all just put our dogmas aside and work together under a common Christian ethics.” “The Church will be one if we just find what unites us at a least common denominator level.” “The Church will be one if we just all submit to a symbol of Christian unity, like the pope, or Christian ethics.”

Nope. The Church is one. We confess it. Faith holds onto things it cannot see. We cannot see the unity of the Church. But yet it is there. How? Wherever Christ’s flock hears the voice of the Shepherd. Are there Baptists, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Pentecostalists, and Lutherans who hear the voice of the Shepherd? Probably, but ultimately it is not ours to decide that, for Christ has already declared His Church, from those who hear His voice, as one. Certainly there are confessions of faith that try to block Christ’s voice, but somehow the sheep will hear the voice despite that. (Like the Presbyterian couple who, when I asked them if they believed Jesus’ body and blood were present in communion, said, “Of course it is. That’s what Jesus says of the bread and wine.” I failed to share with them what their church body really taught.)

The Church is one. And it’s not ours to make it one, for Christ has declared it one from the beginning. Ours is to be faithful in the hearing of His voice. As we are faithful in hearing His voice, the Lord will work the unity.

May 10, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Friday of Misericordia Domini: The Wolf

Image result for the wolf eats the sheep

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.”

The wolf is the one in the Gospel for this week that takes the life of the sheep. He is the reason why the Good Shepherd has to die, because he offers his life in place of the sheep, because he cares for them, and because he owns them. If the wolf is eating the shepherd, he cannot eat the sheep.

That’s the imagery going on at the most literal level, which is always the best place to start. But we probed how with John’s Gospel, there’s always more as you get deeper into the text. The Good Shepherd, for instance, feeds the sheep as Moses fed Israel with manna, but His manna is His flesh, which He died to give. So, whereas in the literal reading, the shepherd offers himself up to the wolf to allow the sheep to escape, the deeper reading recognizes the shepherd is offering himself to the wolf to eat…so that the lambs might partake in him as well.

So, there are two ways the shepherd “gives his life” for the sheep. First, in the negative sense, by offering himself up to the wolf. Second, in the positive sense, by offering himself to the sheep.

That being said, we return to the literal reading. The shepherd offers himself to the wolf, who then feasts on him. We could broadly say this is talking about “sin, death, and the devil.” Jesus bore all sins, gave himself over to death, and yielded to the devil’s jaws of hell, all so that He could conquer them for His flock. But I think if we were to single one concept out it would have to be death. What do wolves do to sheep after all? They kill them. The wolf brings death.

So let’s run with that. Death comes to devour the sheep, but Jesus offers Himself in the sheep’s place. So far, so good. But we have some other images feeding the text. How does the hireling – whom we’re saying is the faithless leader of God’s people – see death and run away? How does death “scatter” God’s people?

Now, we might have to get a little metaphorical, but not too much. All we have to do is contemplate how “deathly” are the principles of this world, how faithless pastors cower in the face of them, and how when not properly dealt with by faithful pastors, they indeed do scatter the flock, causing them to run in all directions.

The sexual revolution was a death movement. From the anti-life advent of the pill to abortion, from venereal disease to broken homes, from depression over broken relationships to poverty induced by single-parent homes, all it brings is death in its wake. Yet, how this movement causes the hireling to tremble, to fear speaking out against it lest he appear “judgmental.” And how this movement has caused the sheep to scatter into all sorts of directions.

What could we also say of the other “isms”? Feminism, materialism and consumerism, totalitarianism (communism, fascism, socialism, and progressivism), on and on we could go. Death awaits at the end of each path, sometimes, an awful lot of death! Yet, how the hirelings cower when addressing the issues proposed by each of these movements. And how the sheep scatter in confusion, looking for anyone or anything that will provide protection.

There is only one “ism” in all history that is not deathly, and that is Jesusism. Jesus is the only one to defy the powers of death. Yes, He offered Himself to death, but as St. Peter said Pentecost morning, “it was not possible that He should be held by [death].” Why? Because Jesus is God, and God is eternal life, and eternal life cannot die.

So now, the one who offered Himself to death – defeating it and establishing Himself as eternally life-giving – can offer Himself to the sheep as life.

The Didache, the first extant Christian writing outside of the New Testament, talks about the way of life and the way of death. Jesus and all He teaches is the way of life. All other ways are the way of death.

When Jesus returns, the lamb and the wolf will lie down together. The wolf will be defanged. Or put in the words of Revelation, “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, there is victory for all those who, knowing and confessing themselves to be helpless sheep, simply stick with Jesus, the source of their life.  And now, when the wolf (death) comes, only joy awaits, for the Christian shall neither see nor taste death.

May 9, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Thursday of Misericordia Domini: The Hireling

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But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.

Who is the hireling? This background from Jeremiah is helpful: “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD.’”

And also this, to convey the “shepherd for hire” idea: “But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all.” Clearly, the hireling only cares about himself.

In the Old Testament, the shepherds were the leaders of Israel, including both the king and the priests. Their abandonment of God’s Word led to Israel being scattered among the nations. They were more concerned about their own financial well-being, or power. They were hirelings, looking every bit like a shepherd, but not loving the flock as the one who “owns” them does.

This is why the Lord says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”

Unlike the hireling, he “owns” the sheep, just as the Gospel of John says, “He came to His own,” and while these did not receive Him (the Jews), there was a remnant, a new twelve, who did. As is reported before the last supper, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

This comports with the prophecy above, that the Lord would draw a remnant to Himself, and they would be one flock, with one shepherd. When did this happen? When did the Lord draw the remnant back from their exile among the nations? Pentecost. Pentecost is when the nations flocked to Israel, and when Peter preached the one faith in their own language, and when the Church was born, the new and restored flock of Israel.

So the hirelings are clearly the leaders of God’s people who by abandoning the Word cause His people to be scattered among the nations.

Goodness, is this not happening today?

I recently wrote an article on Jordan Peterson arguing Christians should be a bit cautious when flocking to this faithless man who accepts the conclusions of Darwinism, Carl Jung, and Frederick Nietzsche, but who teaches biblical principles (at least the legalistic ones) in a fresh, psychological way. I was shocked by the multitude of comments from people who insist Jordan Peterson has helped them understand their own faith, that he has gotten them to go back to church, and that, how dare I take a negative tone toward him.

This is what happens when the leaders of God’s people don’t preach the Word, when they reduce it to therapy and entertainment, or to a self help program, or especially, when they water it down to appeal to the culture. The flock runs and looks for anyone who looks like they’ll protect them.

This is exactly what happened in Old Testament Israel. To secure their standing, the leaders compromised God’s Word with neighboring cultures. When that happens, the people scatter. Their own leaders don’t stand up for them when the wolf comes, so they look for others to help and protect them, like Jordan Peterson, who himself might just be a wolf!

But hirelings don’t care for the sheep the way Jesus and the shepherds he sets up do. Jesus and the undershepherds he sets up (the apostles and faithful ministers) do not fear the bloody, ravenous fangs of culture. They confront them. Jesus and all His apostles, and many faithful missionaries and pastors, have since died for the truth, because they cared about the flock, or perhaps died for the flock because they cared about the truth. Either way, they do the opposite of what the hireling does.

The hireling is not so much the head of a personality cult off which he makes all sorts of money – that is more likely the wolf – as he is the leader who “goes along to get along,” who is worried about what taking a stand for the truth will do to his position, who sees the bloody fangs of politically correct culture and wilts away, lest those fangs come for him.

The Good Shepherd offers Himself to the fangs. Why? Because He “owns” the flock, and “cares” for them.

May 8, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of Misericordia Domini: The Sheep

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But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees.

What’s wonderful about the “Good Shepherd” passage is the cast of characters introduced. Of course there’s the Good Shepherd. We’ve spent a lot of time on Him. He demonstrates to us that God is good; His goodness is revealed in Christ; Christ shows this goodness by dying for us and giving us His flesh and blood to eat and drink; we thank God for this always.

But there’s also the sheep, the hireling, and the wolf. Each one deserves a little case study. First, the sheep.

Some like to use the derisive term “sheeple,” to describe the sort of people who blindly follow whatever they hear on the news, or whatever some politician tells them, or who follow the crowd. This smacks of elitism.

Elitism clings to human nature even as Gnosticism is the theology of a fallen human nature (the human attempt to figure out meaning in a fallen world on their own) which naturally believes it’s “in the know” about the truth, while meanwhile everyone else is just following the crowd.

Or else the philosophy of Frederick Nietzsche might fuel their elitism. Nietzsche divided the world into masters and slaves, supermen and the herd. Most people, of course, are the herd, but those such as he – and those who think like him – are the supermen who triumph over herd-like thinking. They don’t follow; they create new values and new truths.

Nietzschean thinking actually intersects with Gnosticism on this point. Both begin with a “death of God” premise. Gnostics reject the “God of this world,” and Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead.” Gnostics saw salvation in a transcendent, trans-cosmic God who had nothing to do with this world. Nietzsche’s salvation was more subtle, but like the Gnostics he posited a meaning that transcended anything reason or revelation could provide, a salvation centered on the Self’s creation of values, which loops back to Gnosticism which also centered salvation on the self.

Non-sheep religiosity is Self Theology. Non-sheep religiosity sees the Self as a lion, or fox, or ox, or spider monkey, or an owl, something powerful, sly, strong, agile, or wise. Non-sheep religiosity believes you can go from being a sheep to being something better than a sheep.

Here’s a truth: Until anyone can come back from the grave and tell us the ultimate truth about things, everyone’s a sheep. Everyone’s wandering around in the dark trying to figure things out. I have to laugh at the scientist confidently telling us what’s what in the universe. Are they aware not too long ago the thinkers of the day told us the world was flat? Why? Because that’s what was observed – the world sure looks flat to me! Of course, someone would say, “Yeah, but they didn’t have the full picture from which to make their observations. They didn’t have all the tools.”

And how is that any different than what’s going on now? Do you think scientists have all the tools, and all the data, and the correct theories, to really understand what’s going on out there? Goodness, they know very little about dark matter and dark energy, which make up the majority of the universe! They know nothing. They’re sheep wandering around.

We could go on and on with all sorts of topics. We are all sheep wandering around going “baaa.” Even Nietzsche. Especially Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a writer using the written word to prove there’s no such thing as writing – every word he writes binds him up in a paradox. He did the same with philosophy. “All philosophers are just projecting their neuroses.” OK, keep on doing your philosophy you philosopher Nietzsche. No wonder the poor fellow died insane.

Sheep. All sheep. “Baaaa.”

And there’s no escaping being sheep. The Shepherd doesn’t turn the sheep into eagles. Yet how often to people turn Christianity into a self-empowerment spirituality, or Christ into some sort of self help guru. As if Christ came to turn the sheep into something they’re not. No, there’s no suggestion of that in this week’s Gospel.

There’s only the Shepherd, and following Him. Which in a way suggests we should embrace our identity as sheep. Why not? Do you have a better explanation for why you keep on committing the sin you do? Do you have a better explanation for why every generation thinks they’ll make the world a better place, but the world keeps on going as it always has?

Sheep. All sheep. “Baaaa.”

There’s only the Shepherd, and following Him. To embrace ourselves as sheep is to embrace our Lord as our Good Shepherd. It’s to be tunnel visioned as far as the world goes. Lots of voices out there, from hirelings and wolves. These are they who take advantage of the sheep. But the sheep hears only the Good Shepherd.

Why? Because He is the one person in all of history who went to the grave and back and told us the ultimate truth about things. So we care about what He has to say. Everything else is “baaaa.”

May 7, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Tuesday of Misericordia Domini: The Good Shepherd Gives His Life

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I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.

There’s a lot going on in this little sentence. Perhaps we could stop at face value and embrace the meaning every child would understand: Jesus died for me. But this is the glory of St. John’s Gospel. You can start with the simple – and John’s Gospel is so very simple – dive into the depths of its mysteries, and end up where you started, blessed every step of the way.

So let’s dive into the depths for a bit.

Of course, in John, any statement of “I am” is more than meets the eye, referencing as it does God’s divine name: “I am that I am.” So when we see “I am,” we should hear “God,” and not just any God, but the God of Israel, the God that appeared to Israel, the God that revealed Himself repeatedly in the Old Testament as Israel’s shepherd.

The fact that Jesus applies the “I am” to Himself substantiates the entire claim of the Gospel, that Jesus is the “Word made flesh and dwelling among us.”

So right off the bat, Jesus is saying something about God, as revealed in Himself. God is good, a good shepherd. Let’s look at how God was a shepherd for Israel in the Old Testament. What freight is loaded onto this term from the Scriptures? A good summary of the many verses is this one from Ezekiel: “I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them – My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd.”

The image of God shepherding Israel is founded in Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, where the Lord guided them, protected them, and most importantly, fed them with their daily bread and manna. (Again we see here – given the “daily bread” petition of the Lord’s Prayer – how essential the image of Jesus as our shepherd is, why it preceded even the cross historically.)

Jesus too feeds us with manna, as He showed in the feeding of the 5,000 in the beginning of John 6. But as He strenuously pointed out for the remainder of John 6, the true bread He gives us to eat is His flesh and blood, which gives us eternal life. Jesus thus feeds us with the flesh and blood in which He (drum roll)…gives His life for the sheep.  (Recall the pastoral context of the feeding of the 5,000.)

So let’s do some “find and replace.” I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. “God is the one who feeds us with the flesh and blood He gave in His death, which gives us life.”

Ah, but what of the “good”? Now we get back to our problem of evil, and the introit for this past Sunday, that the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.

How about this: “In Christ, the I Am, God is good, and this goodness is demonstrated in how He shepherds us, by giving His body and blood for us to eat and drink, in which we have eternal life.”

Now let’s put it simply: “In Holy Communion, we see how the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.” Yes! Of course, this is why Holy Communion is also a “thanksgiving,” a Eucharist. Because through it we receive all the creation as good and something to give thanks for, first in the liturgy, then throughout our days. “Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.” When do we pray this prayer? After communion. And this founds St. Paul’s comment that we should give thanks at all times for everything in the name of Christ.

Yet, we’re still a bit in theoretical territory. Tell someone who just lost his child that all will make sense if he just goes to communion, that properly understood, they can give thanks for what happened. How can this even be?

Here’s another way to look at it. What’s the alternative? If not faith in the good God who gave eternal life in His body and blood (and in which our hearts are lifted to the place where the child lives and where eternal joys are to be found), then what?

I recently read an article talking about how the loss of active faith (meaning, going to church) has corresponded to the rise in suicide and depression. The article mentioned that compared to the general population, Roman Catholic women who attended mass once a week committed suicide at half the rate of the general population. And of the 7,000 women surveyed over years who attended mass more than weekly? Not a one of them committed suicide.

Is it possible to have your very vision of the cosmos re-ordered in such a way, that you see God’s goodness even where others see death, hopelessness, and darkness? Is it possible that Holy Communion can have this effect, to reboot the soul in such a manner?

Is it possible to walk in the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, because God is present there, preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies?

Again, without faith in a positive answer, what’s the alternative? Thankfully, our faith is grounded in this season of resurrection. Jesus is risen. Many witnesses saw it. He is the I Am. He is the Good Shepherd. And He most certainly prepares that table.

May 6, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Monday of Misericordia Domini: The Goodness of the Lord

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I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.

The goodness of the Lord seems to be an important theme this week. On “Good Shepherd” Sunday we tend to focus on the wonderful, pastoral metaphor of Jesus as a Shepherd. But the qualifier that He’s the “good” Shepherd can sometimes be overlooked. Or, it gets glossed over quickly as, “Jesus is the good shepherd because He dies for the sheep,” the implication being, unlike other shepherds who raise the sheep to slaughter them

All too true. But there’s another context of the “good” shepherd, and there’s also a reason the Church chose to focus on the “goodness of the Lord” as it settled on an introit for this week’s Gospel. What’s that other context? It’s “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.”

The sheep know God not simply as shepherd, but as good. Hence the appropriateness of the introit corresponding to this Gospel: “The earth is full of the goodness of the LORD.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath | of His mouth.”

Incidentally, this is the exact theme brought up in the Venite (Psalm 95) sung at each Matins. Look at select words: “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD! …For the LORD is the great God, …In His hand are the deep places of the earth; …Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker. For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture, And the sheep of His hand.”

The fact that the Venite is chanted daily in a service that goes far back in history, coupled with the fact that the earliest depiction of Christ in Christian art is as the good Shepherd, tells us something important about this theology: a central component of our faith is “knowing” God as a good God, the Good Shepherd, who holds all things in His hands. And keep this in mind in the context of the early church’s martyrdoms – they were the sheep led to the slaughter!

Indeed, that may not simply be a central component of faith, but the very structure of it! Let us consider the so-called “problem of evil” again. The problem only exists if evil exists. This is the problem for those who claim they gave up on God because they couldn’t fathom a world created by God with all the evils in it. The paradox they end up in is, now that they’ve gotten rid of God, they have no basis for saying anything is good or evil at all! If it’s all just survival of the fittest – T Rex chomping on some poor, hapless baby dinosaur – then evil might be relative to the baby dinosaur and its family, but in the big picture the action can be indifferent or even good (for T Rex).

The gnostic approach would be to single out evil as a “thing” with its own independent force – Satan, Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge – working against God and His aims. And then, the more practical gnostics will discern a good that is separate from the evil, and believe it their ordained mission to institute “good” in the world, usually through mass action, or politics. Or, as some of the evolutionary biologists put it, in their desperate attempt to re-establish Christian ethics in the moral vacuum they created, we have to transcend what our survival-of-the-fittest DNA has fated us to be, and so bring about good.

Because, good is what? Evolution establishes what used to be called sin and death. The strong survive over others until they don’t; that’s the rule. There is no “good” in that, because evolution prescribes nothing; it runs by an almost mathematical law. Is 2+2 good? The question is ridiculous.

So, what of the problem of evil? It’s not a problem of evil, it’s a problem of “I don’t have what I want. And what I want is not to be in pain from this alligator chomping on me because I accidentally wandered in a pond in Florida.” But the alligator is quite happy, as happy as we are eating our Big Macs!

And what of the Hitlers and sadists of the world who inflict unspeakable evils on the innocent? How much of that is a matter of sentiment and style as opposed to real evil, and by real I mean what ends up happening in reality. A young girl starves to death at Krakow after being beaten and forced to work in labor camps. King Herod kills the innocent with the sword. Heart-breaking. But in terms of real evil (and I’m still working things out according to the evolutionary world view), these are simply flourishes to the cold calculations of evolution’s march, flourishes unique to the human species – hey, T Rex has his flourishes and we have ours.

Ugly things happen every day. Right now an elderly woman lies starving in bed, dying, because her children are busy with their lives. The sentiment level is different, but the coldness of evolution’s calculations remains the same. The children are adding more net value to the improvement of the species by what they’re doing than by giving comfort to some random “animal” going off in the corner to die.

How many old squirrels are in the same situation as the woman, off in some lonely hole dying? How many young rabbits are in the same situation as the girl at Krakow, starving and at the mercy of some predator? Maybe the predator isn’t a jerk about it – again, humans add their own little flourishes unique to our species – but certainly ripping off the flesh from a live animal is kind of…jerky.

So, the only way we can lift these sad situations up to the level of evil is to have such a notion as evil in the first place. And the only way this can happen is to get out of the materialist cosmic order, which is to say, to introduce God into the equation.

The Gnostics introduce God as completely outside this material realm (which is, incidentally, one of the reasons why Gnosticism is so popular today, because science has declared the entire material realm off limits to God, so people are forced to hunt for him in transcendent realms, which is exactly as the Gnostics believed). Good, according to this, is in this transcendent realm; evil is what our material world has resulted in. Hence the problem of evil.

Christianity, and this week’s Gospel, introduces something completely, actually mind-blowingly different. Christianity looks at this world with all its evils and says, “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.” The sheep “know” the Lord as good. How can this be, accept by faith. Which is why, again, this is so structural for faith. It’s why St. Paul says we should give thanks at all times for everything in the name of Christ. By faith the Christian’s soul is full of God’s goodness in everything that happens, and he can’t help but be thankful at all times for everything…in the name of Christ.

This faith looks above and ahead, to where Christ is sitting and to when Christ will return, and knows He will rule in righteousness, our Good Shepherd making everything right. He’ll remove everything that causes sin and take tears away.

Again, with this faith the problem of evil melts away. What’s evil that God isn’t turning into good, something He demonstrated when the Shepherd became the slaughtered sheep, out of which eternal life flows?

It’s either that, or we look at the evils of the world and howl into the silence about it. Or does anyone know another way?