Gnostic America

June 5, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of Exaudi: On Earth As It Is in Heaven

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“He will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.”

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. What is God’s will? Here are a few passages that help answer this question:

“I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me.”

“This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.”

“So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”

“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

“He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Simply put, God’s will is to save the world through and in Jesus Christ, through His death, resurrection, and ascension. But notice that last passage, in its final statement: “to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

That again is Jesus, the man in Whom earth and heaven are united, for He Himself has an earthly nature as well as a heavenly nature. But what does all this mean?

Here, today’s passage comes in. What Jesus means for us – what is witnessed and seen in Him – is testified both in heaven and on earth. What the Holy Spirit witnesses in heaven is united with what the apostles witness on earth. The Holy Spirit witnesses Jesus – the Second Adam – sitting at God’s right hand. He witnesses the restoration of humanity in Christ.

His witness animates the apostolic witness. When they on earth by their ministry work adoption to God through Christ, it is the Holy Spirit working His testimony on earth as it is in heaven. The Church sees only adopted, holy children of God gathered around the throne of God. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, to inspire our “Abba Father” and work our adoption in us.

This is the “finishing” of God’s work of creation, the lifting up of humanity to His right hand through His Son. What Christ has by nature, we have by grace worked by the Holy Spirit.

It is by the Holy Spirit that we “look on Christ” and “believe” in Him. We cannot look on Him without the witness of the Holy Spirit, for we are not in heaven. But the Holy Spirit works that vision, so that by faith we can confess ourselves to be in divine realms.

This all plays out liturgically, of course, for that is where we are brought into the presence of God and gather around His throne. This is why the claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious” is ridiculous. Here, “spiritual” is a stand-in for “subjective” or “idiosyncratic.” Meanwhile “religious” is a stand-in for “formal” or “externally dogmatic.”

But everything the Holy Spirit works is rooted in formal and external things, because He Himself bears witness of a formal and external Person, Jesus, sitting at the right hand of the Father. The manifestation of that witness on earth occurs through all the externalities of the Church: its preached word, its sacraments, its formal worship, and its people.

June 4, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Tuesday of Exaudi: What Does the Holy Spirit Cause Us to See?

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He will testify of Me.

Jesus said the Holy Spirit would testify of Him. That is, He’d bear witness of Him.

Sight is a remarkable sense. Is there a sense that more affirms the objective, external, material world we live in? Indeed, two eyes are given us so that we can see depth, see the world in three dimensions.

There’s a Gnostic archetype we’ve run into before, the blind sage, who is said to see with a “third eye” sight that transcends normal human seeing. The blind sage sees things we cannot, because we’re too caught up in the material, physical world. It’s a Gnostic archetype because it runs with the notion that the physical world is deficient for true sight. Those with gnosis are those with that third-eye sight.

Jesus can sometimes speak in these terms: “Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.’ Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.’”

But note the context. Jesus had just given sight to a blind man by using clay to rebuild his eyes, showing that He was restoring this man’s eyes, because He is the “I Am,” the Creator, the one who created man from clay in the beginning.

God gave us sight, because we are made in His image, and He Himself has sight. In fact, God’s sight comes up seven times in the creation account. After each day, we are told, God “saw” that what He had made was good.

That’s a double whammy on the Gnostics! One whammy for God using the faculty necessary for processing external, material, physical stuff – sight – something unnecessary in a non-physical realm. A second whammy for God declaring that material stuff He had just made to be good.

But lets delve into that a bit. What did God “see” that was good? Simply, His works. Even well after the Fall, the Psalmist was able to repeat this line four times in Psalm 107: “Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, And for His wonderful works to the children of men!”

Everything God created is good. Or as St. Paul said, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving.”

Note it says “is” good, not “was” good.

But didn’t evil enter the world? Didn’t Adam chose evil when He chose to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Yes, but yet, everything God created “is” good. That remains. Whatever God did not create is not good, and that is what Adam really chose; that is what’s evil, everything that is not what God created. Again, as we’ve meditated on before, if everything God created is good, then evil – and knowledge thereof – must be everything that is not created, everything that is not seen, which is more related to human will than any material properties.

Now let’s get into some profundity. If everything God created is good, how can Job say, “My eye will never again see good.” Let’s challenge Job a bit. What was actually evil to behold? Certainly His dead children, we’d say. But what is the eye taking in that is actually evil? The flesh and blood that made up his children were materials God had created, therefore good. They may return to the dust, but isn’t that dust good? And the spirit that animated them, as the Scripture says, “will return to God who gave it.” That’s good too.

Or consider a war. Blood, gore, flashing weapons, body parts all over. Truly that’s evil, no? On one hand, there is evil going on leading to that scene, the human will again. But still, everything God created is good. Also, what is going on in that scene that would not have been replicated in slow motion, over time, later on in the lives of those dying in that war? Death, falling apart, returning to dust.

So on those terms, maybe Job’s right, “My eye will never again see good.” And maybe, in truth, no ones eyes ever really sees any good at all! How can they? All of human life is one long, slow motion war scene. I mean, consider for a moment the rise and fall of generations in a ten second sequence: a baby grows up into a strong young man, and then suddenly some force pummels his body into decrepitude until you see it turn into a skeleton and finally dust. Wow! Is that not brutally an evil?

No. For God said everything He created is good. Those old bones and flesh wrapped around that elderly person are all good, through and through.

What gives? Well, perhaps now we’re beginning to understand what Jesus means when He speaks of the blindness of those without faith. He gives sight, that is true, but also adds a faith to that sight, such that we are able to literally look at the world and see only good, just as that Psalm 107 said.

And what of evil? Isn’t evil the flip side of a fantasy of a false good? “Good is me, Job, with my many children and great wealth, enjoying the blessings of a good life.” And on those terms, evil would be what reminds Job that this is, in fact, a fantasy. Because, Job, everything you have is a slice – albeit a rather nice slice, for the moment – of that slow motion war scene.

Sure, anyone can “find the good in everything,” but isn’t that a fantasy, a delusion, given where every one of us is destined?

This is an interesting direction our meditation is going. Is what many people think is “good” simply the opposite of an evil they are forced to posit because of lack of faith? Without faith, evil is in fact real. Death is real. With Job we can’t see any good. All we see is death.

But let’s talk about faith and get back to the Gospel. Jesus said the blind are still in sin, and the Holy Spirit informs us that sin is lack of faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit will testify of Jesus. He will witness Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, ruling in righteousness. That is good. The Holy Spirit sees the goodness of the Lord, even as the angels also witnessed God’s goodness.

Significantly for us, the Holy Spirit testifies, speaks, declares what He’s witnessing, and, being the Holy Spirit, that witness, word, and declaration has the power to create in us that similar vision, by faith. What do we see? We see Jesus at God’s right hand, even in the midst of our persecution, when our family’s body parts lay on the arena floor, mauled by lions. We see a good creation, ruled by a good God. Nothing in that scene will not be put back together, and done so in a way that amplifies God’s goodness.

And that, THAT, is truly the key! God is not some experimenter making His world and seeing what happens. “Whoa, I didn’t expect that to happen! OK, plan B…Jesus, I need you for a mission…” Nope. God is almighty, the Creator, who worked the cross of Christ into the DNA of His creation, the moment He uttered the word “evil” and man began his quest to find out what existence is like outside the realm of God’s goodness. But somehow, in God’s wisdom, this was needed so that He could work His goodness and life into the matter He had made. God’s still creating us! He’s still leading us to that “It is finished” moment at the cross. And He’s still looking at everything He is making and declaring it good!  Why?  Because everything God created is good.

And for that we give thanks, in the Eucharist, eternally, for everything, even for what the eyes may see as evil, as persecution.

“Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, And for His wonderful works to the children of men!”

And of course, this: “Taste and see [see!] that the Lord is good.”

June 3, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Monday of Exaudi: Does the Holy Spirit Proceed from the Son?

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“But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father.”

Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Son? This issue hearkens back to the major breach in the Christian faith between the eastern and western Churches, Orthodoxy and Catholicism, in 1054 AD.

What’s the issue? It’s the “filioque” controversy. “Filioque” means “and the Son.” It’s the phrase all Nicene Christians in the western church speak when they confess their faith in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds “from the Father and the Son.” Why is this an issue? Because the original Nicene Creed did not have that phraseology. The eastern Church, staying true to the council of Nicea (and it’s followup council at Constantinople), only confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.

Much of this brings up other issues. The Orthodox Church relies heavily on the seven ecumenical councils as the standard of orthodoxy, while the Roman Catholic Church sees the pope and his magisterium as the final arbiter of dogma. Meanwhile, Protestants look to the Scriptures as the final authority, even if they are guided by a tradition of councils and canons (as the Lutherans were).

What is all this to say? That the addition of the “filioque” could be supported by the two western traditions – papacy and Scripture Alone – but not by the eastern one.

The phrase entered the creed by a Council of Toledo in the early Middle Ages, due to the pressures of Arianism in western Europe. Arianism believed Jesus was only the first created being of the Father, and not co-eternal with Him. To buttress this truth – maybe the Arians were claiming “If Jesus is equal with the Father, why doesn’t the Holy Spirit proceed from Him?” – they added the phrase. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

For a teaching not to be in the Nicene Creed is not to be unbiblical, of course. And you can’t help but wonder if other factors contributed to the eastern church bristling at the additional phrase. In other words, what never was really an issue suddenly became the ultimate issue when historical circumstances compelled the fissure between east and west: “And besides all that, you people added to the Nicene Creed without a council! Heretics!”

The western church took a different attitude toward creeds and councils, obviously. The Nicene Creed is supremely foundational, of course, but the nature of the later councils and creeds has always been to confess the faith in the face of particular heresies. The West needed to fill out who Jesus is and His relation to the Holy Spirit. So they added the phrase.

But is it biblical? Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Son?

Today’s passage is where the language of the unadulterated Nicene Creed comes from. “The Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father.” No Son there. Only the Father.

Is there an important theological point to be made in that the Holy Spirit proceeds, the Son is begotten, and the Father alone is the Source? The Orthodox clearly believe there is. But is it Biblically justifiable to say the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well, and if so, how?

There are two arguments that could be made.

First is simply the doctrine of the Trinity, “The Father and I are one.” If Jesus and the Father are one, then of course if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father He will also proceed from the Son.

Second is the use of the word “proceed.” Here are some instances of the word “proceed”:

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.”

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.”

“And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse.”

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.”

Insofar as, in all but the last verse, “proceed” is related to how words go forth from the mouth, we can’t help but think of Jesus after His resurrection. “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’”

Also, both Jesus and the Father are involved in sending the Holy Spirit. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.” “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 go, I will send him to you.”

The issue, I suppose, is not so much about who’s sending the Holy Spirit, as it is the ontological relation between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But that last verse from above sounds almost exactly as the Nicene Creed – the western version! – sounds: “the river of the water of life…flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” What is that water of life? Jesus says, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” And St. John adds these words, “Now this he said about the Spirit.”

That image in Revelation of the water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and it flows from one throne, the throne of God the Father and God the Son, for the Father and the Son are one.

So, why does all this matter? Because it does. If we say something week after week as part of the very substance of our faith, we’d better know why we’re saying it. Wouldn’t it be awful if we learned we were lying every week in our very statement of faith?

And quite frankly, the western church is out on a limb a bit. We’ve gone ahead and added the filioque without any ecumenical legitimacy. So even more, we’d better have that belief grounded in Scripture.

Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father? If the Son is one with the Father, and He is, then the answer to that is yes. It might be noted that the Athanasian Creed also supports the Holy Spirit’s procession from the Son: “The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding.”

June 3, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Exaudi: Hide and Seek

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This week’s position in the Church Year is unique. It’s after Christ’s ascension yet before the Holy Spirit’s coming. The Godhead is hiding! Obviously not missing, but just hidden.

The introit even mentions both hiding and seeking, going something like this. God wants us to seek His face, and we agree to seek His face. But then we say, “Don’t hide Your face from me!”

It’s almost like a playful game of hide and seek! And that seems to be the tone for this week.

Our desire of the Lord – that which we seek – is to dwell with Christ in the house of the Lord. He has prepared a place for us there, and we long to join Him there and behold His beauty. This is why the Lord says, “Seek My face,” and we response, “Your face, Lord, I will seek.”

And significantly, we pray, “Don’t hide Your face from me!”

And that leads into the Gospel. The Gospel is all about what will happen to the disciples after Jesus returns to heaven. They would be persecuted. It might seem as if God has removed His face, that He’s hiding from them. Hence the “back and forth” regarding the seeking and hiding of God’s face.

But isn’t this how it goes? Don’t we cry out to the Lord with our voices, and bid Him to “hear” (exaudi)? Especially, don’t we cry out when it seems as if He’s hiding, and the evils of the world are triumphing over us?

The answer the Introit gives is, when the Lord shows His face, His “light and salvation,” we will need not fear. He is the strength of our lives.

Or to put it in the Gospel’s terms, it’s the Holy Spirit’s testimony, bearing testimony of Christ and reminding the disciples of what Jesus said. That is truly our light and salvation. The apostles take part in this testimony as well.

Once again we’re led to the divine service, the liturgy. Where do we find our “light and salvation” so that we need not fear? In the apostolic testimony, and in the Holy Spirit’s, the Comforter’s, testimony, which as we have been contemplating is His testimony of what’s going on in heaven, as Jesus sits at God’s right hand.

That is our strength in the midst of evil and persecution. The rest of the world may be plunging into evil, as it always has been, but the church abides forever, as the earthly testimony of heavenly things. And top among that list of heavenly things is Jesus’ righteous reign over all things. Yes, it’s hidden, which is why we pray “exaudi” (“hear!”) and “Do not hide your face from me” until the day of His return.

But prayer is simply faith in action, and faith is simply the “substance” of things we cannot see, the existential reality of it. It’s real. So real that, in the time of persecution, the one with faith can have joy.

June 1, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Saturday of Rogate: The Apostolic Witness of the Ascension

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After the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.

There’s a strong suggestion in this passage that the apostles witnessed Jesus sitting down at the right hand of the Father. This is the only ascension account that mentions Jesus sitting at God’s right hand. All the other accounts simply say He was taken away. Plenty of passages foretell His sitting at God’s right hand, both from the new and old testaments, but only this passage in Mark specifically says He fulfilled those prophecies.

And for this reason, arguably, the apostles must have witnessed it, lest it be mere speculation. If that’s the case, this introduces an interesting question. Were all the parts of the Apostles’ Creed items that were witnessed by the apostles? If that were the case, it would make sense given the role of the apostles to be witnesses of the events of Christ’s life.

It would also substantiate our faith in more than just speculations based on Old Testament prophecies. Such is what some claim, that Christianity is just a piecing together of a some messianic group’s reading of Old Testament prophecies, to prop up their guy Jesus. But if Jesus truly was witnessed to have sat down at God’s right hand, by these eleven men who went forth proclaiming what they witnessed, then we have that sure foundation which is the apostolic church.

So the apostles probably witnessed Jesus sitting at God’s right hand, and didn’t just conjecture, “Oh, Jesus disappeared behind that cloud, this must be when that prophecy about Him sitting at God’s right hand happens.” No, they knew what they saw.

So far, so good. But now we get some other interesting new questions. Did the apostles witness all the lines of the Apostles’ Creed? Sure, they witnessed the crucifixion, death, and burial, as well as the resurrection and ascension. But what about the virgin birth? The conception? What about His descent into hell? His status as God’s Son and Lord?

Well, as to that last one, His baptism and transfiguration would have verified that witness. That’s why Jesus took three disciples, after all, up the mountain. He was confirmed to be the Son of God there by God Himself, and the three disciples witnessed that.

But what about the others? Interesting, but Mary is very often part of the ascension iconography. There is no mention of her being there, but she’s often depicted there. Why mention her? Because is she to be reckoned among the apostles as an important witness of Jesus’ early years? Is there a beautiful point in considering that Mary was present with Jesus at all those critical lines of the Apostles’ Creed, and that’s why she’s included among them?

Or again, we could take this discussion into a different direction. Was Mary’s virginity proved by doctors like St. Luke, and this is why several denominations (including Lutherans) accept the idea that Mary was “ever virgin”?

Finally, what do we do with Jesus’ descent into hell, or Hades? Who witnessed that? Perhaps the saints who arose in Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’ death? Did they come forth and give testimony of what Sheol was like, and how Jesus came down, broke the bronze gates, crushed the head of the serpent, and led out the captives?

Then again, we could go beyond the second article and consider how the lines about the Father and the Holy Spirit were witnessed by the apostles.

That there’s a maker of heaven and earth everyone but a fool knows. But that this maker is “God the Father” is something only the apostles would have learned by witnessing, again, the Father at Jesus’ baptism and at the transfiguration.

The apostles witnessed the Holy Spirit and the birth of the holy Christian church on Pentecost. They were witnesses of the first “communion” of holy ones (saints) around holy things (the sacrament). They saw the resurrection of the dead when Jesus raised Lazarus, the widow’s son, and the little girl.

What does the forgiveness of sins look like? When did the apostles witness that? Was it when Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” Perhaps.

The apostles witnessed it all, but so do we, based on their testimony. There isn’t a piece of the creed that doesn’t have evidence to support it. This is so important to remember as we discuss our faith with others. Ours is not a blind faith, or a mental image, a projection of our hopes. It’s absolutely real, absolutely witnessed, absolutely certain. It takes an act of will not to believe it. And as the apostles went forth and proclaimed this good news, that was exactly its power. Here were these guys compelled to proclaim an amazing truth that they had seen. They knew it; they’re hearers knew it; and today, we still know it.

June 1, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Friday of Rogate: Ascension Meditations from Mark 16

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Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

The Gospel for Ascension Day comes from Mark 16. We have two days to cover this text which brings up so much, so let’s get started.

First, we see Jesus rebuking the disciples for their lack of faith. I’ve defended the disciples before, particularly Thomas, when people interpret Jesus to be scolding them, but here it’s pretty clear. Jesus is rebuking them. But let’s probe what this means. It’s not lack of belief in the way of Hollywood, where “Just believe and great things can happen” is so often the theme. It’s not some mystical understanding of faith (as John perhaps might describe it). Rather, it’s simply to claim something you cannot or did not see, based on the testimony of another.

Mary, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, witnessed the resurrected Christ. They saw what they saw. It was true. To reject objective truth in favor of preconceived biases rooted in a seemingly science-based cynicism – dead means dead and no one rises from the dead – is definitely something to rebuke, especially to those who had witnessed Jesus defy science so often before.

Also, we shouldn’t read too much into Mary’s testimony, as many do. “She was a woman! She had a low status and her witness would be suspect! Despite that, Jesus chose her to be her first witness.” I’m suspect of that interpretation, so often heard, because it seems like modernistic virtue-signaling in the face of feminism: “See how sensitive I am to women! I’m willing to emphasize how Jesus used women as witnesses.”

I’m not entirely sure it matters whether a woman’s witness was accepted or not. Jesus’ point about the disciples’ belief is not about who conveyed their witness to them, or what sex they were. His point is that His resurrection was an objectively witnessed phenomenon that was bigger than the status of those who witnessed it. I suppose if we were in a highly patriarchal phase in cultural history, we could make the point that Jesus chose a woman to testify to amplify the validity of His resurrection, in the sense of, “Look how true this event must have been, even a woman could testify to it!”

But that is the way of reading ideology into the text, and not letting the text stand on its own.

A witness is confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses. Mary, and the two on the road to Emmaus, saw Jesus. The disciples should have believed, but didn’t because of their science-based cynicism. And how often is this the case today as well. To this day, the resurrection remains a logically difficult event to disprove. 500 witnessed the resurrected Jesus. There clearly was something that caused a religion to rise up and change the course of history. Christ’s ethical teachings aren’t really all that earth-shattering and were taught in the Old Testament, as well as in other religions and philosophies. His messianic claims were no different than many, many others.

But what lifted Christianity to the next level was that one event, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So certain was this for so many, that they were willing to endure excruciating torture rather than give up this faith. Yet, despite all this evidence, these facts, today’s scientific cynics maintain their cynicism. They too should be rebuked. There’s a certain foolishness in their way of thinking, choosing to let their presumptions cloud their rational, evidence-gathering faculties.

The next little detail in this Mark account is the passage, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” That’s an interesting way to phrase it. Preach to every creature?

Wow, where do we begin? First off, how on earth were the apostles to fulfill Jesus’ command to preach to every creature? Second, why on earth were the apostles to preach to every creature, as in, every created thing. Does that include plants and animals? Should we preach to the trees and mosquitoes? They certainly need it! And if that’s the case, what does this imply about the Gospel’s relationship with animals and plants?

Well, we know the answer to that question, because Christ has come not just to restore mankind, but all creation. He fills all things in heaven and on earth and under the earth. Adam’s sin is why “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now,” but yet, the whole “creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God,” knowing that on that day, “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

We might say, as bread and wine are renewed in Christ, they signal the renewal of all the earth. In that bread and wine we see Christ filling all things. By filling all things He has authority over all things, and by having authority over all things He’s working all things for good, so that we truly can give thanks for the gifts in that bread and wine. In the Eucharist we see the whole world: it transforms our vision.

So of course we preach to all creatures! All creation glorifies God. All creation will be renewed. The Word from God caused the creation to come into existence. The preached Word will bring about the new creation.

Now, what about the first question, how on earth were the apostles to fulfill Jesus’ command to preach to every creature? Some in the early church actually believed the disciples continued their ministry in Sheol, or Hades, upon their deaths, preaching to those who couldn’t hear on earth. So maybe the answer to the “how on earth” question is, “It’s not on earth!”

St. Paul was able to write about the Gospel that it had been preached to “every creature under heaven.” And that’s “was preached” not “will be preached.” So evidently Jesus’ command was fulfilled! Every creature heard already by the time of Paul!

And finally, Paul also writes, “But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: ‘Their sound has gone out to all the earth, And their words to the ends of the world.” So, everyone has heard! All creatures!

So much for Gospel urgency, right? If all creatures have heard, why do mission executives act like the eternal lives of vast hordes of heathen are at risk due to my negligence, laziness, or lack of giving. It does make one think, doesn’t it?

In some profound, mysterious, eschatological way we probably cannot fully understand, Jesus has seen to the universal proclamation of the Gospel to every creature, and this by the time of St. Paul. It’s almost as if His sitting at God’s right hand released the Holy Spirit, Who went forth immediately and began renewing the face of the earth, delivering by declaration what Christ had retained, not just the restoration of humanity, but the restoration of all creation. As the Psalm says, “You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the earth.”

But where does the particularized proclamation of particular preaches fit in that? At the time of Paul, certainly the Gospel had not gone to the ends of the earth, nor was it heard by every creature. But remember, St. Paul is dealing in heavenly realities. Clearly something is fully realized in heaven – something that those whose minds are glued there (like St. Paul) are fully witnessing – that has a bit of a lag here on earth. So, the preaching on earth of the Gospel is working its way toward what in fact, in heaven, has been already fulfilled, the extension of the Gospel to every creature under heaven.

We’re dealing with mysteries here, but lets leave it at that for the moment.

Now, to the final point, that those who believe and are baptized will be saved, and that those who don’t believe will be condemned. I really dislike the simplistic point that, while it says you must believe and be baptized to be saved, it only says the damned will be those who don’t believe. It’s a point always brought up to lessen a bit the importance of baptism.

The fact is, as the passage is typically interpreted, it’s a paradox. Two things are required for salvation: faith and baptism. Meanwhile, only one thing is required to be damned, lack of faith.

That turns Christ into a speaker of nonsensical things. What sort of practice do you build from that? “Be baptized, it’s really important, and believe; but if you weren’t baptized, don’t worry, because only if you don’t believe will you go to hell.” Huh?

Let’s tighten things up a bit.

First off, the word for “do not believe” is not simply a passive lack of faith, but an active refusal to believe. It’s an active rejection. Here is what one lexicon says, “[I]n Mk 16:16 it may be possible to translate ‘whoever refuses to believe the good news shall be condemned.’”

There’s an active refusal going on.

Second, baptism and faith have always been the doorway into the church based on these words. Baptism is not some incidental rite with casual symbology that we can take or leave. No, it’s critical for salvation. Let’s put it in this irrefutable way: if one is not baptized, they are missing one of the two things Jesus said must happen for one to be saved.

Or let’s put it this way. Jesus first describes the saved: those who believe and are baptized. Then Jesus describes the damned: those who actively refuse the Gospel.

Are there other categories of people? Of course there are. Those who believe but aren’t baptized. Those who haven’t actively refused the Gospel but don’t believe due to never having heard the word.

Well, the early church, again, came up with several solutions to fill in the details. Here, for instance, is where Limbo came into the picture (not Purgatory). Or, here is where the idea that the disciples continued baptizing after death began, or that there are also “baptisms of blood” for those who were martyred prior to baptism.

I actually prefer these solutions than to the modern dismissal of baptism as not really essential for salvation. That’s heresy, while Limbo is a concept rooted in speculation necessitated by Christ’s words.

I guess in the end we can go back to what we meditated on earlier, that the Gospel and its baptism will go forth to every creature. How will this happen? This is probably above our pay grade this side of heaven. We are not given the “how’s” here, but only the “what.” What? “Every creature.” How? Who knows.

June 1, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Ascension Day: Four Beautiful Truths of Ascension

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A strong argument could be made that Ascension Day is the most important event in the life of Christ we celebrate. What a pity the day is so overlooked. I recently surveyed by and large young people about what special day it was in the church year, even hinting it was several weeks after Easter, and not a single person knew what day it was. This speaks not to their lack of faith but to the lack of importance we give to those liturgical elements which bind us to the life of Christ. Why would anyone do this? Why would someone replace the rhythm of Christ’s life and give in to the tyranny of the relevant? One of the great joys of the liturgy is that for a a few brief moments every week, you can leave earthly concerns behind…which actually forecasts one of the four beautiful truths of Ascension!

So on to the four beautiful truths of Ascension, the reason why this day is arguably the most important day of the church year.

First, the day celebrates that Jesus Christ is at God’s right hand. The right hand position is a position of power and authority. As Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me.” He rules over the entire universe.

This is incredible news and a very beautiful truth, because it means that, when we think about God, the ruler of the universe, the Author of creation, we no longer need think of Him as some transcendent, distant, beyond-knowing deity whose ways we can’t know but we just have to submit to them. That’s the Islamic god, Allah. It’s also the god most people worship. It’s the god people bargain with and complain about, or rebel against, or blame for all their problems, or praise profusely when Lady Luck deals them a good hand.

With the revelation of the Gospel, however, the picture we get of God is completely clarified. As Jesus said to Philip, the one who sees Him sees the Father, for they are one. And because Christ is seated at the position of power, we know exactly what the “hidden meaning” of the cosmos is. What is it? It’s God’s love for humanity and desire to be merciful to them, to save them. It’s that God is a good God, who has turned humanity’s greatest evil into humanity’s greatest good. Surely this revolutionizes the vision of every believer, to see the world and see only God’s good and gracious will. How else could we see it? Is Jesus – the loving, good Shepherd, who gave His life for the world – not in charge of all things? And if so, how does that not change our vision of the divine forces at work in this world?

Second, the day celebrates the full restoration of humanity to the position he had lost with Adam’s sin. Adam had been created in full fellowship with the Lord, at peace, enjoying his status as a son of God, living in Paradise, engaging in divine communication. With Adam’s sin this was all lost. Adam was cast out of Paradise, and Satan stood in his place, an appropriate stand-in whose sole purpose is to justify why Adam has no right to be there.

Christ cast Satan from this place. His birth began the restoration – and note how heaven opened up to the shepherds and the angels testified to this new reality – and His whole life worked the various pieces. His death satisfied Adam’s curse. His resurrection demonstrated the victory over the curse of new life. But His ascension was the actual moment when that restoration took effect. This is why Jesus said He could not send the Holy Spirit until He sat down at God’s right hand, because the Holy Spirit wasn’t fully equipped with everything He needed until Jesus has completed His mission. Now, with Christ having restored humanity to its original glory, the Holy Spirit can be sent to embrace humanity into that restoration, giving them by way of declaration what Jesus has done for them.

Of course, the signature testimony of this work of the Holy Spirit is the Our Father. As we pray this prayer, we testify that the Holy Spirit is in us, crying “Abba Father,” and working our new status in Christ, our status as children of the Second Adam.

This leads to the third beautiful truth. In Christ, we have boldness before the throne of God. It’s not as if we are sneaking in under Christ’s righteousness, or as if God doesn’t really see us. No, as Jesus says, “The Father loves you.” (Emphasis on “you.”) And for that reason He hears our prayer.

Finally, the fourth beautiful truth is that expressed by St. Paul when he writes, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

We set out mind on things above. Because that is where our life is. Our existential reality is of being in heaven. Or as St. John puts it in his epistle, “As He is, so are we in this world.” Wow! John uses this truth to teach that we ought to love one another. Of course! What need is there to backbite and claw for one’s own way in this little blip we call earthly life, when our existential reality is we have eternal joys and eternal life, that this is as we are “in this world”? We have it all now!

Of course, sin and the flesh weigh us down and keep our minds focused on earthly things. But again, what a joy to contemplate that there is a way of faith in which one can look at Jesus at God’s right hand, in all His glory, in peace, in joy, in fellowship, and realize “so are we in this world.” Wow!

Well, St, Paul would not need to encourage us in this if this came naturally. But the Holy Spirit’s work is ever to build us into this truth. Liturgical worship is a fruit reflecting this, as is the proper preface invitation, “Lift up your hearts: We lift them up unto the Lord.” Yes we do. In communion we join the angels and archangels and testify to where in fact we actually are. For “as He is, so are we in this world.” Again, wow!

May 28, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of Rogate: What Joys Are Available for Them with Faith

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His disciples said to Him, “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech! Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God.” Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone.”

This is an interesting little statement of Christ that clarifies something. “Do you now believe?” He asks. Do you really believe, or are you just saying that. It reminds us of St. John’s words when he writes, “let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”

Let’s back up a bit. Jesus says “In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.”

The Father will answer the disciples’ prayer because He loves them. Why? Because they love and believe in Jesus. (And notice, Jesus doesn’t deny they believe in Him or love Him. But His question at the end of the Gospel, “Do you believe?” suggests their faith was not fully formed yet. Faith grows, and there is seedling faith and full-grown-fruit faith. Jesus teaches the seedling faith is still enough to found the statement, “for the Father Himself loves you.”)

In any event, based on the faith and love of the disciples for Jesus, the Father will answer their prayer. What prayer? And for what answer? Jesus simply puts it this way: Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

Given this response, we have a hunch that what we pray for is the Holy Spirit, who delivers what Jesus has attained by sitting at God’s right hand. Yes, there is fullness of joy there, and that is communicated to the disciples, filling their faith. But the key point is, the joy is full! There is nothing lacking in it. There is no sadness, no sorrow, no lack of victorious joy.

The one who believes in and loves Jesus has this joy. If that is the case, why would the one who believes in Jesus run away from Him in time of tribulation or persecution? Didn’t Jesus say, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Don’t we have “cheer” (joy) in the midst of tribulation because Jesus, our Good Shepherd, has overcome the evils of the world and caused them to be only good for us? So what is there to fear? Christ’s perfect love casts out this fear, no?

So no, the disciples didn’t have the full-fruit-bearing faith yet. As Jesus pointed out, “you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone.” They would live by fear of the world. They loved Jesus in word, but not deed yet.

Most of us don’t have that full-fruit-bearing faith either. But how exciting to learn there is a sort of faith that is so filled with joy and “good cheer” that even the moments of tribulation are overcome by it. Nothing can take away that joy, or as Jesus says, “Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.” Or as Jesus says in today’s passage, in Him we can have peace

Yes, they have sorrow during this time of seedling faith, but after the resurrection (or maybe Pentecost), when the heart rejoices, no one will take away that joy. May this sort of faith come to full fruition in us. Again, what other way is there to live? To embrace the sorrow like Frederick Nietzsche would propose, laying the foundation for all the drama, angst, and emo behavior of our modern, narcissistic world?

Do people really like living that way? I think they do. But they don’t have to. There is a fullness of joy available, that Jesus provides, when faith comes to full fruition.

May 28, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Tuesday of Rogate: Jesus Contra “We Just” Prayers

We Just Prayers
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.

Jesus makes a rather subtle point in this passage. While we can sometimes slip into understanding Jesus’ intercession for us as if He “covers for us” – because we’re sinners who have no right to be in the presence of God, but through Christ – this is not what Jesus teaches. He specifically says, and I paraphrase, “I’m not saying I’ll pray to the Father for you, for the Father loves YOU, because you love me and believe in Me.”

Our love for Christ, for our Savior, and our belief in Him – we recall from last week’s Gospel that with Christ’s ascension, sin has been redefined as lack of faith in Him – is the reason the Father loves us and hears us as ourselves. Yes, we pray in Christ’s name. Yes, the foundation of our righteousness is not in us but in Christ’s sitting at God’s right hand – that too we learned from last week’s Gospel. But all this adds up to the truth that the Father sees us as His dear children in and of ourselves. It’s not as if He’s wrathful at us if ever He sees us without our “Jesus cloak” on. No, we have become new creations in Christ. We ourselves are newly formed people in Christ. And on those terms the Father sees us, in ourselves.

We ought to have confidence and boldness in this. As the St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “in [Christ] we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.”

As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” And again, “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

And finally as St. John put it, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.”

John also adds this little warning, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God.”

So, it should be clear: we can have boldness and confidence to enter into the throne room of our Father and pray, well, “Our Father…” He is after all, our Father!

Now boldness and confidence doesn’t mean casualness and lack of respect or godly fear. If “Honor thy father and mother” remains true for earthly fathers, how much more for our heavenly Father.

On the other hand, boldness and confidence should eradicate all traces of the “we just” prayer. What is the “we just” prayer? Or as it’s sometimes referred to, the “Lord Wejus” or “Father God Wejus.” It’s the pattern you will hear in 90-100% of evangelical or non-denominational prayers. “Lord, we just lift your name on high, and Father God we just ask you to do X, Y, and Z, and we just pray this in the holy name of Jesus, Amen.”

No, we don’t just pray to the Father. “Just” implies we are assuming a posture of fear and inconvenience for the Father. “Hey, Father God, I just have one little request for you and then I’ll get our of your hair. Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to ask these teensy little favor.”

“Just” is a word we use when we take a posture like that. That is not the posture Jesus teaches, and the incredible overuse of the word in prayer – to such a point it’s become a verbal tic – is a huge argument for going back to written out, formal prayers. If Christians cannot pray well without falling back into verbal tics and cliched verbiage, there’s no shame in putting the thought into the prayer prior to the actual prayer so they can speak something that has some power, beauty, and meaning.

What’s wrong with writing out formal prayers prior to the time of prayer? Is it less “heartfelt” because someone spent a half hour meditating on the right words to say to the Lord rather than whipping something out in fifteen seconds under the pretense that, somehow it’s better to approach God with the same old “prayer boilerplate” we hear in every other prayer?

When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He didn’t say, “Just pray what you feel and talk to God like you’re talking to an old buddy.” No, He taught the Our Father. Confidence, yes. Boldness, yes. And also honor and respect. And it’s never boilerplate because Jesus taught it. Each praying of the Lord’s prayer is alike a re-immersion in our baptism.

The “We just” prayers have got to go. They entered into the Christian DNA at the same time many the other bad habits entered into Christianity, with the rise and dominance of evangelical Christianity in the 70s and 80s. This was when beauty began to drain out of the church, when reverence for God declined, when the Church lost any sense of sacramentality, when Christians lost interest in some of the most profound poetry known to man in its hymns, when Bach got replaced by a rock band for crying out loud. The 60s rebels asked the question, “Why does the devil get all the good music?”, never contemplating the devil chooses things based on what he is, which last we checked is pure, unbridled evil. What an incredibly stupid question.

As this obnoxious Christian movement began to dominate the Christian DNA, we got “corporate Christianity,” and with that, the sort of boilerplate that goes along with corporate America, that “way of talking” and acting, ever quick to talk about ones “testimony” rather than Christ, reducing Christianity to a few trite phrases that sound wise but mean nothing: “It’s all about a relationship and building relationships because relationships.” “Lord Father God, we just this and we just that.”

The “We just” prayers have got to go. And this for a simple reason from Jesus’ words for today’s meditation: we don’t “just” get to do anything with our Father, because He loves us and loves to hear our prayers and petitions. There’s no “just” in that.

May 27, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Monday of Rogate: Whatever We Ask, the Father Will Give Us: What Do We Ask For?

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Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

There’s a whole background of “ask” teaching in the Gospel of John leading up to this climactic teaching for “Rogate” (Ask!) Sunday. Before meditating on those teachings, let’s clear up something in this little passage. Jesus says that the disciples have not asked anything in His name. It almost sounds as if He’s scolding. “So far you guys haven’t asked anything in my name. Why not? Just ask!”

That’s not the tone. Put the emphasis on the “in My name” and it makes more sense. In other words, until that point, the disciples hadn’t asked the Father in Christ’s name. Instead, up until then they had always gone to Jesus to ask for things. A big point of Jesus’ teaching in this final discourse in John is that the day is coming when they won’t ask Jesus anymore, but the Father directly, in Jesus’ name. And they’ll be able to do this because Jesus has broken down the barrier separating us from the Father. The Father loves them, because they love Jesus.

Now let’s get to the “ask” language serving as a background to today’s passage. Here are four passages in the Gospel of John that all deal with “asking”:

“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.”

“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.”

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.”

“And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you.”

These passages could be summarized according to (1) conditions, (2) actions, and (3) consequences. The general teaching is, ask in Christ’s name and the Father will do it.

What are the conditions of such asking? Who can ask? What goes hand in hand with such asking? These passages give five conditions: believing in Christ, asking in His name, abiding in Him and His word abiding in us, that asking is based in what we desire, and Christ’s choosing of us to bear a fruit that endures.

This is the basis for the Christian teaching that prayer outside of Christ is no prayer. Non-Christian prayer is not heard. How could it? God does not hear the prayers of sinners or the unrighteous. Only those who “love Christ” does the Father hear directly. That is clear, albeit harsh to modern ears, from this week’s Gospel and the other passages noted above.

There’s also this theme that asking the Father through Christ is related to the bearing of fruit, an enduring fruit. This corresponds to St. James comment that, when people pray “amiss,” they don’t get what they want, because they’re just using God to enable their idolatry. Earthly things are fruits that don’t last.

So what are fruits that last?

Here, we can segue into the next idea introduced in those passages, that we pray for what we desire. Clearly there are wrong things to desire and pray for. So what are the right things to desire? What are the fruits that endure? Several passages using the word “desire” or “want” in John might give some direction. At one point, Jesus asks the invalid, “Do you want to be healed?” Or again, it’s commented in the feeding of the 5,000 that they had “as much as they wanted.” Then there’s the gentiles who came to Philip and said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”  Given Jesus’ reaction to this “desire,” it’s a pretty important moment in the Gospel.

Perhaps the best guidance of “desire” is how Jesus Himself used the term when He prayed to the Father: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

That’s a pretty good summary of the proper things to desire. At a base human level we want to be healed and fed; but recognizing only one who can provide these things, we desire Jesus and to see His place in the Holy Trinity, and even as Jesus teaches the higher meaning of being healed and fed, what we desire is the resurrection of the dead and the flesh and blood of Jesus for eternal life.

Now let’s talk about actions. What exactly will happen as we go to the Father with our desires for eternal healing, the bread of life, the glory of Christ, and the Triune God? First off, simply, “we will receive.” This is the promise. No doubts. We will receive these things we desire.

Jesus describes these things as greater works than what He did. Well of course. He healed people who later died, and fed people who later went hungry. The “greater things” set in motion once He sat down next to the “greater than He” Father, are the things worked by the Church by the Holy Spirit, each of which fulfills the things we desire: eternal healing of baptism, the bread of life in communion, the glory of Christ confessed in canticles, and the Triune God confessed in creed. All arising from our “abiding in Christ’s word.”  These are the fruits that don’t rot, but endure.

Finally, we can talk about consequences. What consequences happen when the Lord gives us what we ask for?

To review quick. We pray for what we desire, which is resurrection, the bread of life, the glory of Christ, and a vision of the Triune God. The Lord will provide this. And here, again we’re reminded of the work of the Holy Spirit, which is to give to us by declaration what Christ possesses at God’s right hand. So now we possess these things by faith. With this as the background, what is the consequence?

Jesus mentions the fruit. The Lord will provide what we desire, and this will bear fruit. What fruit is that? Clearly given the background, that fruit of faith is confession, thanksgiving, and fellowship. The fruit is the Church.  Again, it’s the fruit that endures.

The Church is where the Father is glorified in the Son, the one place on earth where Jesus is confessed to be in the glory of the Triune God (at least in liturgical churches founded on Triune worship; at non-liturgical services, who knows what God you’ll be worshiping), where we are baptized into our resurrection, and where we feed on the bread of life.

The Church is where people give thanks to a good God for all His goodness, praising God for “all men” because the Lord wants all men to be saved, recognizing in an evil world a good God who is overcoming. Church is where this “thanksgiving” (eucharist) ever happens.

The Church is where the fellowship happens, and this brings up a passage from a non-Johanine text that has a lot of parallels to what we’re meditating on. From Matthew: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

“Anything they ask” will be done for them in heaven as it is done on earth. Sound familiar? Well, here we get some additional teaching that also reminds us of Jesus’ foundational teaching in His final discourse in John’s Gospel. The Church is a fellowship of two or more people. There is no washing of feet alone, even as Jesus washed His disciples’ feet to begin His final discourse in John.

So the Church is the fruit of what the Father provides in answer to our prayer. What do we ask for? What we desire. What do we desire? Healing, feeding, Jesus, the Trinity. Is this answered? Absolutely, that’s the whole point of this Gospel. What are the fruits of this? The Church, where believers and lovers of Christ, who abide in His word, gather to serve one another and pray together, invoking the Lord’s presence and gifts, His healing, His eternal food, the glory of Christ and the Triune God. And these things are all existentially present, because the Holy Spirit makes it so, now by faith, but one day by sight. But whether faith or sight, our joy is full, and there’s something incredible to contemplate in that, that the joy of heaven is available to us now.